St. John the Much-Suffering

Make icon Full size

St. John the Much-Suffering is a saint who fought industrial-strength sexual temptation for decades and WON in every sense of the term.

His life reads:

Venerable John the Long-Suffering of the Kiev Near Caves

Commemorated on July 18

St John the Much-Suffering pursued asceticism at the Kiev Caves Lavra, accepting many sorrows for the sake of virginity.

The ascetic recalled that from the time of his youth he had suffered much, tormented by fleshly lust, and nothing could deliver him from it, neither hunger nor thirst nor heavy chains. He then went into the cave where the relics of St Anthony rested, and he fervently prayed to the holy Abba. After a day and a night the much-suffering John heard a voice: “John! It is necessary for you to become a recluse, in order to weaken the vexation by silence and seclusion, and the Lord shall help you by the prayers of His monastic saints.” The saint settled into the cave from that time, and only after thirty years did he conquer the fleshly passions.

Tense and fierce was the struggle upon the thorny way on which the monk went to victory. Sometimes the desire took hold of him to forsake his seclusion, but then he resolved on still greater effort. The holy warrior of Christ dug out a pit and with the onset of Great Lent he climbed into it, and he covered himself up to the shoulders with ground. He spent the whole of Lent in such a position, but the burning of his former passions did not leave him. The enemy of salvation brought terror upon the ascetic, wishing to expel him from the cave: a fearsome serpent, breathing fire and sparks, tried to swallow the saint. For several days these evil doings continued.

On the night of the Resurrection of Christ the serpent seized the head of the monk in its jaws. Then St John cried out from the depths of his heart: “O Lord my God and my Savior! Why have You forsaken me? Have mercy upon me, only Lover of Mankind; deliver me from my foul iniquity, so that I an not trapped in the snares of the Evil one. Deliver me from the mouth of my enemy: send down a flash of lightning and drive it away.” Suddenly a bolt of lightning flashed, and the serpent vanished. A Divine light shone upon the ascetic, and a Voice was heard: “John! Here is help for you. Be attentive from now on, that nothing worse happen to you, and that you do not suffer in the age to come.”

The saint prostrated himself and said: “Lord! Why did You leave me for so long in torment?” “I tried you according to the power of your endurance,” was the answer. “I brought upon you temptation, so that you might be purified like gold. It is to the strong and powerful servants that a master assigns the heavy work, and the easy tasks to the infirm and to the weak. Therefore pray to the one buried here (Moses the Hungarian), he can help you in this struggle, for he did greater deeds than Joseph the Fair” (March 31). The monk died in the year 1160, having acquired grace against profligate passions. His holy relics rest in the Caves of St Anthony.

We pray to St John for deliverance from sexual impurity.

I have had a great devotion to St. John, enough that I commissioned the icon pictured, not only so that I would have the icon pictured (and after it touched the relics of the singularly triumphant St. Mary of Egypt (life story) and St. John’s own relics.

But I asked and received permission to show St. John the Much-Suffering from my website, and so this page has a copy of the icon, which you can see by scrolling up. There are two buttons, “BIGGER” and “smaller”, and you can use them to adjust the size, then print the icon out and attach it to a board.

I apologize for the crudity of this method, but St. John is a treasure, I think an icon of him has been needed since long before I placed my order, and he is particularly relevant now.

St. John the Much-Suffering is a powerful intercessor for praying for your own struggles.

St. John the Much-Suffering is also a powerful intercessor for praying for others who are tempted along with praying, in the spirit of “I am the chief of sinners,” for mercy and one’s own purity.

Triumph over powerful temptation is possible!

“Inclusive” Language and Other Debates: An Orthodox Alumnus Responds to His Advisor

Cover for Knights and Ladies, Women and Men

How I scared off all the other advisors

Before I became Orthodox, I entered a diploma in theology program and wanted to do a thesis on programming-style “design patterns” and recurring patterns in Biblical Egalitarian argument where problems in the arguments, it seemed to me, raised a red flag about the conclusions. I managed to scare off most prospective advisors by the idea of using concepts used in computer science, and almost scared off even the Biblical scholar who handles the computer stuff at a place connected with the university before (somewhat by accident) he looked at the concept I wanted to carry over from computer science and concluded that it wasn’t so scary after all, and in fact while he said, “I have never heard of an approach like this before,” the concept itself was nowhere so scary to a scholar in theology as the impression I gave by how I introduced my intended thesis. I wrote a thesis under his direction, and at the end of the year, mostly in gesture of thanks, I gave him a classic text in object-oriented programming’s “design patterns.”

The scholar is a major scholar in Biblical Egalitarian circles, as in a plenary speaker at CBE conferences. He gave me kind and appropriate direction in a thesis that critique common styles of argument associated with convictions that are important to him, and we’ve remained in contact every now and then. There may be important distinctions within Biblical Egalitarians, but when he directed me he was working to help me produce a good thesis and did so without trying to lead me to his position, and I do not know what exactstripe of Biblical Egalitarian he is.

Defining terms

I use the terms Biblical Egalitarian and complementarian heavily here. The two terms represent the liberal and conservative camps on issues of men, women, and gender. The flagship organization for Biblical Egalitarians (or, more simply, egalitarians) is Christians for Biblical Equality; the flagship organization for complementarians is The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Biblical Egalitarians try to combine Christianity with feminist concerns of various stripes. For one example, they adamantly believe the Bible’s “In Christ there is no… male nor female” and, more specifically, consistently try to neutralize “Wives, submit to your husbands as if to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her…” to make room for “no male nor female”. To the Egalitarian, if you really believe “In Christ there is no male nor female”, you believe it on terms informed by feminism. In my experience Biblical Egalitarianism is always argued with sophistry; what got me off sitting on the fence was a forceful presentation of Biblical Egalitarianism clothed in rhetoric that profoundly disturbed me. There is more to Biblical egalitarianism than inclusive language advocacy, but one part of their concern is that using “man” or “brother” when your intent is generic is perpetuating an injustice towards women. Overall there are several feminist-influenced concerns in Biblical egalitarianism; inclusive language is one of them. The basic goal of Bible scholarship pursued by Biblical Egalitarians is to arrive at an understanding of key passages that is more informed by feminist concerns.

Complementarians, in a name as carefully chosen as “egalitarians”, argue that we are missing something until we understand men and women as complementary. They tend to believe that “In Christ there is no… male nor female” and “Wives, submit to your husbands as if to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her…” both belong to the same whole and in fact seem to both be cut from the same cloth. Complementarians are people who say, “No, that’s not good,” in response to feminism trying to uproot elements of traditional society. However, groups like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are making a proactive effort to take a positive position. They are not simply making a negative reaction to change; they are trying to offer a carefully considered positive position about why specific changes are not good and what a real, serious alternative to those changes would be. The basic goal of Bible scholarship pursued by complementarians is to arrive at an understanding that is more Biblical—not for us to adjust the Bible, but for the Bible to adjust us.

“Inclusive” language is not the only issue for either, but it is not a trivial issue, and I focus on it here. I would briefly suggest that what is at issue is not whether women are included, but the terms of inclusion: belabored “inclusive” language pushes to a Biblical egalitarian version of inclusion, while traditional language includes women on more complementarian terms.

Where I stand

Where do I stand? “It’s complicated” may be the best short answer, but that’s misleading. First of all, though I am closer to complementarianism than egalitarianism, it does not mean “I’m a complementarian but I’d rather not say so plainly,” and second of all, it does not mean, “I’m trying to forge my own new path between the two extremes.” Then what on earth does it mean? Um, it’s complicated.

The Catholic Church teaches that Catholics and Orthodox believe the same things, and ultimately the only barrier to reunification is that the Orthodox fail to lovingly recognize that we should restore full communion. I responded to that in An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism. Some Orthodox have found it a bit forceful, but more have found it astute in its observations. But Catholics have only given one response: “FOUL! There’s no way you can understand us if you are saying what you are saying about Thomas Aquinas and such.” And as Orthodox, I find the question “Are you a complementarian or egalitarian?” something like “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” as a false dilemma.

Before becoming Orthodox, I wrote an essay called “Knights and Ladies” that tried to pin down as qualities manhood and womanhood, and suggested a made-up term “qualitarian” as an alternative to “complementarian.” It’s a piece that I consulted several men and women in writing, that complementarians seem to like and egalitarians seem to critique, but I now regard it as flawed. It’s not exactly that I want to mix in more egalitarianism, but the basic project I took on was a thick description of qualities as a line of response, and a thick description of qualities is part of postmodern Zeitgeist and not a real part of Orthodox theology, and as such it is (arguably) a fairly successful attempt to bark up the wrong tree in offering a rebuttal.

There is a forum where I posted certain arguments and received counter-arguments from Orthodox scholars that were subtly reminiscent of the kinds of arguments I had studied in Biblical Egalitarian texts in that thesis. For one example, I made an argument from experience and basic observations about society, and it was dismissed by an Orthodox scholar who had just published a paper with his own thesis. The stated ground? I wasn’t arguing from the Fathers. I’d almost like to say that I let that dismissal slide; a close reading of Church Fathers is not what powers the Church Fathers, but writing of spiritual realities out of experience. But I dropped that line of argument, and in response to his dismissal of both my argument and other attempts to define the qualities of male and female, I pulled from the beloved theologian St. Maximus Confessor and said that, like the Cappadocians and some other figures, St. Maximus Confessor did very much root for transcending the differences between male and female, but this was in connection with a theology that sought to transcend the differences between the spiritual and the material, paradise and the inhabited world, Heaven and earth, and ultimately the uncreated and the created. In every one of the other four cases, the desire to transcend a difference assumes there’s a difference in place to begin with. When I gave this answer to a request to argue from the Church Fathers, he dismissed St. Maximus on this point altogether, saying that his widely loved theology was just flawed.

This example may invite a gentle response of, “Your interlocutor was a scholar who had just published a paper that you were hacking away at; it would be naive to expect him to welcome your argument.” And perhaps it would be, but this is an example of a common thread; though Orthodox heirarchs have not necessarily treated feminism as something to put their foot down on, and there are Biblical Egalitarians and feminists in the Orthodox Church, every single argument I’ve seen from an Orthodox trying to help me be more open and receptive to those perspectives has arguments that smell really funny—a strong whiff of eau de red flag.

I haven’t spent too much more time revising my beliefs after becoming Orthodox, not really because I think I’ve arrived at the full truth, but because as people grow in Orthodoxy, sooner or later they figure out that there is more important work than straightening out their worldviews, and they let go of reasoning about truth because they are working to drink Truth Himself. Nonetheless, I wanted to give this email conversation between him and myself, and pay attention to how appropriate or inappropriate the rhetoric is in particular.

Should we really be that concerned about rhetoric?

I pay very close attention to rhetoric, rhetorical examples, and argument in these pages. There is a reason why which arises from my experience.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ calls for a very close care to the fruits people bear:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

The most obvious “fruits” might be how people are treated, especially the less powerful, sexual behavior, and so on, but as time has passed rhetoric has time and again been faithful to its tree: commendable positions are advanced with commendable rhetoric and false positions are advanced with slippery rhetoric. It is a rare case, rare indeed, where truths we would best heed are heralded by rhetorical treachery.

I do not fault the presence of rhetoric; an observer would say that my writing is just as rhetorical, and just as much contains some kinds of argument and not others, as any piece whose rhetoric and argument I treat as cause for concern. But certain kinds of rhetoric aren’t just a rotten wrapping paper around healthgiving fruit. They betray that much more is tainted in the offering than merely a slight logical fallacy here, a misleading example there.

I would not limit the “fruit” in the Sermon on the Mount to be rhetoric alone; I don’t really believe it is one of the main fruits Christ intended to evoke, compared to how one treats the poor (for instance). But it is an important fruit in one respect: it is available to us as long as we have the message.

In this day of the Internet, false prophets may rarely meet us face to face and we may have little clue of a teacher’s sexual fidelity, or lack thereof, or whether the person arguing with us feels entitled to socially acceptable theft, whether to take office supplies or to listen to music without paying the artist or those who worked to make the music available. It might take a Big Brother to tell us whether an activist bears good or bad fruit there. But there is one way we can attend to the prophets’ fruits without Big Brother invasions of privacy: true and false prophet alike offer us their rhetoric, and it is well worth attending to this one fruit that is impossible to hide.

Rhetoric that keeps on recurring—giving an answer when it appears in email

Let us turn to the conversation, which began after put up a search engine and sent him a link; he followed a link and read, on my site, The Commentary, and then Inclusive Language Greek Manuscript Discovered. He responded to both:

My advisor wrote:

BTW I read your “Commentary” piece a couple of times. I wasn’t sure what you were getting at.
At first glance it looked like you are rejecting all interpretations which take cultural context into account.
At second reading it looks like you may merely be warning readers that humanity itself hasn’t changed, so we shouldn’t re-interpret the Bible as if people weren’t so clever then.
But I wasn’t sure.

But it left me wondering:
* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for greater ignorance in the past?
We are no more intelligent now, but we do have better understanding about medicine, geology, astronomy etc. This affects the way we interpret things like “the moon turned to blood” – which we would now regard as an atmospheric phenomenon and nothing to do with the nature of the moon.

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

Perhaps I didn’t read it carefully enough.

Then I went on to read your piece on the gender-neutral MS.
Do you really think that there are people who want to accurately reflect the gender of everything in the Bible? The NLT and others have followed the TNIV lead, and even the ESV has a policy of translating anthropos as ‘people’ or something similarly neutral. I don’t know ANY version which uses the pronoun “it” for the Holy Spirit when the Greek does – eg in Jn.14:17. How would you decide when to follow the Greek and when to follow English convention?

I guess that your aim for these pieces of writing is to provoke the reader to think about the issues, rather than give an answer.
You have certainly succeeded in my case!

My advisor wrote:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

Perhaps I didn’t read it carefully enough.

I wrote:

Perhaps one way we should put it is that we should attend to the beam in our own eye.

Then I went on to read your piece on the gender-neutral MS.
Do you really think that there are people who want to accurately reflect the gender of everything in the Bible? The NLT and others have followed the TNIV lead, and even the ESV has a policy of translating anthropos as ‘people’ or something similarly neutral. I don’t know ANY version which uses the pronoun “it” for the Holy Spirit when the Greek does – eg in Jn.14:17. How would you decide when to follow the Greek and when to follow English convention?

The point is not exactly that the English grammar of translations should follow Greek grammar as regards grammatical gender, but that what is going on in inclusive language isn’t going on in the Bible.

This response is brief and enigmatic: not the most helpful. But in the following emails I address the concerns and touch on the same things from different angles.

Despite the communication weaknesses in my writing, I thought some of the points were worth sharing.

My advisor wrote:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

I wrote:

I wanted to comment on this point more specifically.

To an American, references to slavery first evoke field-slaves in our country. The movie Malcolm X has Malcolm on a TV show debate opposite a black opponent who was very educated, culturally almost white, and played to what a white audience then would like to hear for their comfort. The host asked Malcolm what he called his opponent, and he shouted a racial slur and then distinguished between house- and field-slaves: the field-slave’s lot was extremely rough; the house slave was much less difficult and could verge on effectively being a well and politely-treated servant. Compared to the field slave who faced rough realities, the house slave almost represented a leisure class and the house-slave’s outlook and experience were white.

In the U.S., we no longer have people clothed in a few garments, meant to last, with cotton garments woven from the work of field slaves. We have instead many garments meant to wear out, and the culture of a fashion industry that socially enforces purchases above replacement of low-quality garments, made in sweatshops which wear people out faster than U.S. field slavery wore people out. And there are other areas where we are pushing forward not only on abortion, but on scientific use of human embryos meant to be destroyed. And I do not exclude the U.K. from this critique.

I would really not consider a picture to be complete that includes the abolition of slavery and remains, unlike St. John Chrysostom on slavery, silent on other areas where we do worse.

My initial response to his mention of slavery mentioned “a beam in our eye”; this was intended to specify one such beam that makes me skeptical of celebrations of how much we have progressed as a society.

My advisor wrote:

Could I press you a little more on what you mean by inclusive language? How would you translate the following:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

If we had read these in a modern English book, we’d assume the author was implying that
* women can’t be blessed,
* sisters don’t sin against you
* women aren’t made in the image of God.

Some Bibles are translated to help people understand what the words were in the Greek and Hebrew, while others are translated to help people understand what God’s message is, in their own language. It is fairly easy to translate those verses literally, but how would you translate them into modern English so that a reader wouldn’t get the wrong impression about what the message is?

I’m trying to gauge opinions on this from a wide range of people, and I’d be interested in your response.
But don’t feel pressured into answering – I won’t think badly of you if you don’t have time to answer.

My advisor wrote:

Could I press you a little more on what you mean by inclusive language?
How would you translate the following:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

If we had read these in a modern English book, we’d assume the author was implying that
* women can’t be blessed,
* sisters don’t sin against you
* women aren’t made in the image of God.

I wrote:

Your last paragraph almost begs the question; it’s reminiscent of saying “humankind” even though never, outside of the shadow of inclusive language efforts, has “mankind” been understood to encompass anything less than all of us.

“Exclusive” language is what “inclusive” language wants standard English to be. Inclusive language efforts, and specifically the efforts to recast the alternative as exclusive, redefining “man”, “brother” (and even “mankind”) to be male only, are not a more inclusive alternative to an unchanged option. They are an effort to replace a naturally inclusive language with a more belabored language, and redefine away the inclusive character of what is being attacked.

My point here is that “exclusive language” and “inclusive language” are no mere neutral and descriptive terms: they are loaded language that misrepresent what change is actually being advanced. An alternative, if pointed, terminology for “exclusive” language and “inclusive” language might be naturally inclusive language and belabored inclusive language.

“Exclusive” language is arguably not what inclusive language advocates say it is, language that includes women where the alternative is exclusive to them, except where inclusive language advocates have succeeded in redefining naturally inclusive language as exclusive language.

Furthermore, there are several things to untangle, and I give more than one answer to the question about how I would translate “If a brother…” and other passages because there is more than one thing to say. I write quite a few emails because there’s really quite a lot tangled up in the remarks I am responding to.

I wanted to add a couple of notes from a class that dealt in hardcore feminist theology. I am noting this specifically as something that I would not directly lump Biblical Egalitarians in with unless Biblical Egalitarians ask to be lumped in with them.

The first point was that several of them dealt with the question of an inclusive term for one person of unspecified gender, and in general did not opt to use “they” for one person. Several alternatives were tried, including “s/he” (pronounced “she”), and one author tried hard to make the point that “she” and “her” could be entirely appropriate as a rightly inclusive term for males as well as females.

The second point is that so far as I remember, none of the feminist authors were of limited concern for adult women only; some might speak at one point and refer only to adults (in reference to aging, for instance), but all of the authors were concerned for girls, and from whenever life began in their eyes, a girl was a full-fledged member of the class of women to be cared for…

…but none of them raised concerns of “inclusive language” that “woman” is a term only referring to adults, and so is wrongly applied to a 14 year old or a 14 month old.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems when feminists want to use language that will include all females, their term of choice works like the “exclusive” language of “man”, “mankind”, and such. The list of people who choose the language style of naturally inclusive language, when they want to include all members of a group, includes feminists who never flinch at using “women” when they mean to include all females—girls every bit as much as adult women.

And returning to the topic of my advisor and his Biblical Egalitarianism, while he clearly uses and advocates gender-inclusive language, he never once uses what might be called age-inclusive language. He may ask if a rendering of “Blessed is the man…” demands “Women can’t be blessed”, but he seems entirely unconcerned to clarify whether minors can be blessed. He never uses words like “child”, “boy”, “girl”, “infant”, etc: he applies sophistry to ask us to make it clear that women can be blessed, but the same effort is not made for children, even if they are girls!

It would appear that at least as far as age is concerned, my advisor assumes that what is called “exclusive language” in gender is not exclusive at all, but naturally inclusive.

My advisor wrote:

Could I press you a little more on what you mean by inclusive language?
How would you translate the following:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

I wrote:

I might also comment, before giving a brief interlude that the first example on Orthodox rather than Protestant kinds of exegesis refers to Christ primarily and us derivatively, which is an aside to the context as it has been:

The last example differs from the first two examples, where conservative and liberal readings of the underlying text alike take terms as generic.

In terms of Orthodox Church Fathers who can attract feminists, the Cappadocians are one group of usual suspects; St. Ephrem, who had women as well as men chanting liturgical teaching in liturgy, is another, and Kathleen McVey’s Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns shows some of those concerns. At one point, “Branch” is the metaphorical name applied to the Cross and then Christ, and the translator explains that the term ‘branch’ is grammatically feminine and, at that point, renders repeated pronoun references to the Branch, which refer to Christ with varying ambiguity, as “She”.

The footnote I take as an example of the French proverb “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse” (in politically correct English: “To excuse yourself is [by that very fact] to accuse yourself”) and it is the same light that I read the NRSV’s excusing and accusing themselves for their translation for what you left out in the ellipsis, rendering “them” for “him” in “in the image of God he created him”; I’ve read the whole NRSV and that footnote is the most convoluted footnote justifying a translation that the NRSV offers; the NRSV does not usuallys’excuse/s’accuse concerning its renderings.

Now that is over the ellipsis. As regards referring to God as “him”, we have left the question of horizontal inclusive language where a grammatically male reference to a person of unspecified sex in the original text is argued to require explicitly gender-neutral language in English today. Or to put it differently, the original text worked more like the English now called “exclusive language”, but its spirit today is best reflected by the “inclusive language” that is used in redefining the alternative as “exclusive language”. But this question is not the issue in calling God “him”; at most it is a gateway drug.

The first two comments are simply about passages where all sensible scholarship agrees that “man”, “brother”, etc. as they appear in the original text are intended to include women. The last example is one where there is real controversy over whether the text should be rendered to be more politically correct. I was trying to say, “Look, I see two problems—cans of worms—in translating the last text that aren’t in the first two.”

My advisor wrote:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

I wrote:

There’s something I might like to comment.

There are some points where any number of examples might be chosen. In the Bible, Sodom is an emblem of sin and is used to say that a particular community’s sins are grievous, but the list of sins connected to Sodom is rather open-ended: without going with queer scholarship and saying that the sin had nothing to do with “sodomy”, there is room to say that the men of Sodom showing vile and obscene inhospitality to angelic visitors was the anvil that broke the camel’s back; part of the build-up is a dialogue in which Abraham tries to negotiate with a God who cannot find ten righteous in the city. The city is an image of vice later in the Bible, but the sins that are compared to Sodom are open-ended: they include hollow religious observances while preying on one’s neighbor and the poor (opening of Isaiah), adultery and defiled living (Jeremiah 23:14), pride and excessive eating without care for the poor (Ezekiel 16), not receiving Christ’s apostles appropriately (Matthew 10), general ungodliness (II Peter 2:6), and unnatural lust (Jude 7, perhaps the biggest fly in the ointment to queer exegetes who assert that Sodom’s story is no more about homosexual relations as such than the story in Judges 19 is about heterosexual relations as such). But the list is open-ended and I have not included connections of pagan nations; my main point is that the list of sins is open-ended; prophets name Sodom in connection to the sins they indict. And other things are open-ended in church and in scholarship…

But it really strikes me how much this one simple example of slavery and the Bible comes up in certain contexts. When I read queer scholarship arguing that the story of Sodom can be read without the hypothesis that homosexual relationships are condemned as such, a discussion of slavery in the Bible paves the way. When Craig Keener argues in the example of bad scholarship I chose for my thesis that we can do better than the Ephesians haustafel, a discussion of slavery in the Bible paves the way. When I discussed this regularity with one teacher, and asked “If it is necessary that we will get our bearings somewhere about what orients our understanding of Scripture, why this specific paradigm example?” It would seem that when people want to enhance what the Bible has, or draw out what it intends more clearly, or improve on it as demoted (if in fact I name more than one intent), the paradigm example that should orient our view of Scripture invariably finds itself in a Bible that did not offer our progressive abolitionism.

(I might comment in reference to my earlier example, though, of clothing and sweatshops: Before the abolition of slavery, Northern as well as Southern U.S. citizens who wore cotton were clothed at the expense of preventable human misery from field-slavery. And today, black and white Americans alike are clothed at the expense of preventable human misery from sweatshops. But there is a difference of scale. Americans own, use, and replace quite a few more garments, and if one may speak of a “carbon footprint”, one may perhaps also speak of a “footprint in preventable human misery”, and say that U.S. field slavery was an abomination, but the “footprint in preventable human misery” of an American today in clothing is not comparable to the footprint of an American before the civil war; it is comparable to the footprint of a small city. And as long as we have excess of clothing and other unneeded luxuries at the expense of preventable human misery, we should perhaps moderate our celebration of ourselves for having progressed beyond such evils as slavery.)

When I made the comment about this one example that keeps paving the way to orient us, the professor made a comment about canons within a canon, and I would like to comment on the concept and then her specific comment. The idea of a canon within a canon is not a particularly Orthodox one, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read an Orthodox theologian speak in such terms. The first time the concept was explained to me was something like this: “All great and even minor theologians draw disproportionately from some areas of the Bible more than others, and they do not all do so in exactly the same way. We call the areas of focus ‘the canon within the canon.'” And in that sense, I’m not sure there’s Orthodox room to object, even if there may be more important things to say. But what I would say is that while that is one way of understanding the canon, it is profoundly misleading to suggest that this is the only basic meaning current in academia. On those terms, which I’m not sure I’d particularly object to, “the canon within the canon” for a particular theologian is a simplification, a generalization, and the kind of thing you observe after the fact. One may claim to identify a particular theologian’s “canon within the canon” in something of the same spirit where C.S. Lewis spoke of defining periods in history: he didn’t see how you could do serious history without them, but they are a map that does necessary violence to its terrain, and unnecessary violence if it is imposed as an absolute.

In my time at another school, I heard the phase “canon within the canon” consistently. One example was when people were setting out to engage in a particular theology, and identified as the very first task to identify the canon within the canon. Taken in context, this was clarified to mean not “What few areas of the Bible will we give special focus?” but “What few areas of the Bible will we not truncate away?” Not all examples were the same as this, but I do not remember a usage of “the canon within the canon” that retained the boundaries and modesty of the definition I first met. And, returning to when I raised a question in a paper about getting our bearings from the passages of the Bible that treat slavery prescriptively and do not directly abolish it, my professor responded that there needed to be some canon within the canon. And that response surprised me. I have seen the example of slavery repeatedly, but apart from that one remark I have never heard it called “the canon within the canon.” But it does in a certain way make sense.

If you are going to orient and situate people so they will naturally seek to appreciate the Bible’s strengths while gently working to refine its weaknesses, then there is no “canon within the canon” in the Bible that can properly compete with prescriptive moral teaching in the Bible that sets bounds for slavery but fails to command its abolition.

The best nutshell summary I’ve heard of Polanyi’s theory of personal and tacit knowledge is, “Behaviorists do not teach, ‘There is no soul,’ but rather induct students into investigation in such a way that the possibility of a soul is never even considered.” And there is something telling along these lines in the slavery example that keeps being chosen when the audience is drawn to work and refine the Bible’s weaknesses.

I find the example significant.

On another note, I realized I had misread your intent because of where I cut a quotation. Let me quote the part that I muffed, and then respond to that.

God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

If we had read these in a modern English book, we’d assume the author was implying that

* women aren’t made in the image of God.

On that point may I comment about Mary the Mother and Birth-giver of our God?

There are some pretty medieval Catholic things that the Reformers kept even as they rebelled against Rome, and I’m not referring in this case to assuming that doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation should remain after reform.

There is precedent as old as Origen, and as Orthodox as a number of canonized saints, for having as one layer of piety an identification of the believer as the Lord’s bride. In Orthodoxy this is not as focal as the image of the Church as the bride of Christ, and in piety it is not nearly as important as the Biblical image of sons of God (I am intentionally using the masculine here; the Bible includes “children of God” but never “daughters of God”). But was really on steroids in the medieval Catholic West and the bedrock of sanctification through the metaphor of bridal mysticism remains the bedrock of sanctification in Evangelicalism today, and is part of a rather asinine question I asked in moving towards Orthodoxy: Is the reason so many Evangelical men are converting to Orthodoxy that Orthodoxy understands sanctification as deification and Evangelicalism understands sanctification as a close personal relationship with another man?

Another example has to do with what The Sin is, the one sin we ought most to look out for. In the pop caricature of Victorianism, The Sin was lust. Among many Evangelicals today, there is a wariness much like what made a Catholic Dorothy Sayers write, “The Other Six Deadly Sins”, and The Sin is pride. In late medieval Catholicism, The Sin was idolatry, and people were looking for it everywhere. If the Reformers found that the adoration of the saints to be idolatry, they were developing a medieval Catholic perspective.

Whether medieval Catholic and contemporary Orthodox veneration of Mary the Mother of God should be seen as the same or different is something I am not interested in exploring here, but the following element of Orthodox piety I am sure would have been classified as idolatry by the Reformers:

It is very proper and right to call thee blessed,
Who didst bring forth God,
Ever blessed and most pure,
And the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the cherubim,
And more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,
Who without spot bearedst God the Word,
True Mother of God, we magnify thee.

I would like to make a point, and it is not exactly about agreeing to disagree. A basic Reformation outlook or worldview had no place to classify this other than as worship. First of all, it addresses Mary in the second person. In the culture of at least of Evangelicalism as I know it, in a secular context you address other people in the second person, but in a church context you address God alone in the second person. Second, it extols her above the highest ranks of angels and really gives her a place that the Reformers did not see as a place to be given rightly to a created and sinful human. And third, it calls her Mother of God, which would at least give the impression of placing her above God. The Christological controversy that led Nestorius’s attempt at a reasonable way to please everybody with “Christotokos” is known, at least on the books, but that “Mother of God” is both confessional Christology and not intended to place Mary as supra-divine (Orthodox liturgy refers to Joachim and Anna as “ancestors of God” and icons call James “the brother of God”), and a relational statement: “Mother of God” is not confused with being above God any more than the readings of “sons of God” in the Bible mean that we are taken to be fully divine by nature in the same sense as Christ.

My point in these clarifications is not exactly to say that the Reformation view is wrong; my point is to say that what is going on in those words is something that the Reformation universe has no place for, except in the category of worship that should be given to God alone.

And my reason for bringing this up is not to say “Because we praise Mary as the Mother of God, we don’t view women as inferior.” It is to say that, to paraphrase what I’m responding to, “Gen 1:27 says, ‘…in his image he created him, male and female he made them.’ Does this mean that women aren’t made in the image of God?”

There’s a fairly clear statement on that point in the Bible, in one of the passages that your camp sees as (residual?) misogynism in Paul and something that we need to progress beyond, because that’s the only place for it, much as an early Reformer could only see the liturgical quote above as idolatry, of rendering to a creature what is only proper to give to the Creator:

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.

I will leave it mostly as an exercise to the reader what I believe of this text; what I will say is that I will understand if your conceptual framework has no place for statements like this except as one of the areas of the Bible that is not so much a strength to appreciate as something to gently refine.

The two points buried under all these words are first, that bringing up slavery as the place to get our bearings in understanding the Bible is highly significant, and second, that there’s something going on in the text that egalitarianism has no place for and is apt to misfile because it has no place to receive it.

My advisor wrote:

But it left me wondering:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for greater ignorance in the past? We are no more intelligent now, but we do have better understanding about medicine, geology, astronomy etc. This affects the way we interpret things like “the moon turned to blood” – which we would now regard as an atmospheric phenomenon and nothing to do with the nature of the moon.

I wrote:

The assumptions that frame this question are part of what I was trying to answer in “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. That treats the religion-science question at interesting and arguably provocative length; beyond the link, I’d like to respond briefly.

I don’t make allowances for greater ignorance in the past. Allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable. And I would quote General Omar Bradley: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

To put things differently, my advisor could be paraphrased, “Look, we’ve progressed! We have a more scientific understanding of some things!”

My response rejects the modern doctrine of progress: I don’t believe we’ve progressed, and in particular the fact that we are more scientific is not the same as moral progress. In fact, the case may be that when we have moved to a more scientific outlook it has led us to lose sight of things that are foundational to Christian faith: “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution explains how exactly being more scientific may not be good for theology.

I wrote:

There was one other point I would like to venture, in terms of how things fit together:

Jerry Root wrote a monograph from his dissertation, C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil, arguing that C.S. Lewis made an objectivist critique of subjectivism and that this is a major thread through multiple works across decades and arguably could be called the common theme. All of Lewis’s fiction, or at least the samples quoted from before he was a Christian (“Dymer”) onwards, have villains who are ascribed subjectivist rhetoric.

Root is himself an egalitarian, which I need to say in fairness, although his egalitarian argument smells faintly subjectivistic, along with a silence that speaks rather loudly: he never intimates that the message of the Un-man in Perelandra might in fact be almost unadulterated subjectivism and a gospel of feminism and that these are arguably not two separate things, at least in the narrative.

I have a friend who is a silver-haired, balding counselor, and tried really hard to help me prepare for my Ph.D. program (which blew up anyway, but I can’t fault his help or any defect in his help). He spoke appreciatively of his training in gay theology (he is a conservative Orthodox and was not trying to convert me to queer agendas), and the biggest single point he tried to make, as something I would have trouble understanding, was subjectivism in relation to feminism.

One of the things he told me that I wouldn’t understand was the kind of thing that was illustrated in this: there is a hardcore academic feminist camp that insists that all male celibacy is a tool of patriarchal oppression, and there is a hardcore academic feminist camp that insists that all heterosexual intercourse is rape, and these camps coexist without particular conflict. The objectivist says, “Wait a minute, unless at least one of these is at least partly wrong, or there is an imperative for all men to be homosexually active (or doing something more creative), there is no course open that would let a male live without being a sex offender,” is in a very real sense intruding with something foreign onto the scene: objectivism that says there is a reality we should seek to conform to, however imperfectly we may do so.

Biblical egalitarianism is often not so pronounced; I doubt many, or even any, of the egalitarians at Wheaton College make any claim of comparable feminist extremity. But the subjectivism is there, and my thesis could be described as an analysis of how subjectivists argue when straight argument won’t get them where they want to go—and every single treatment of the passage from a Biblical Egalitarian/feminist that we looked at for a comparison study had the same shady argument; I have yet to see a Biblical Egalitarianism treatment of the passage on husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 that argues in objectivist fashion; every one of the dozens of cases I’ve seen argues with sophistry out of a subjectivism that is unwilling to conform to the reality studied.

I wrote about the connection more explicitly in point 24 of From Russia, with Love; that explains concretely and more descriptively what it would mean for feminism and egalitarianism to be intertwined with subjectivism.

I know Jerry Root and probably should have called him Jerry instead of Root the second time. I sat in on one of his classes once, to observe before teaching (he is considered a legendary professor in the community), and as a C.S. Lewis scholar quoted Lewis as he said, “Satan is without doubt nothing else than a hammer in the hand of a benevolent and severe God. For all, either willingly or unwilly, do the will of God: Judas and Satan as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.” He then said, communicating with great warmth, “and I would add, ‘or daughters'” and said that women were included in the great company of those who do God’s will as children of God and not as mere tools.

In my role as a visitor, as a fly on the wall, I held my tongue on saying, “You’re not adding to the text, you’re taking away from it.” By saying that he was adding that the text could apply to women, he was retroactively redefining the text, when no sane reader, even a sane reader who prefers to use explicitly gender-neutral terms when the intent does not include specifying gender, would read Lewis’s text as saying that males like Peter and John could do God’s will the good way but by definition Mary the Mother of God and Mary Magdalene the Apostle to the Apostles could not.

Do I really believe Jerry believed that, or intended that in anyone he addressed?

The rhetoric is too subjectivist for that.

My advisor wrote:

Your emails are interesting though, as you say, they have gone down paths which you were particularly interested in.

The main question I had was:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

How would you translate them into modern English so that a reader wouldn’t get the wrong impression about what the message is?

My guess, from what you’ve said, is that you don’t think English has changed, and you don’t think that anyone would get the wrong message except hard-line feminists who would intentionally misread the text.

On Ps.1 you point out the Christological interpretation, which I recognise, though I wouldn’t say it is the primary meaning of the text. One of the wonderful things about Jesus was that he DID associate with sinners, though without becoming one of them.

I fear that English has changed, whether we like it or not, and modern readers need some help, or else they will think the Bible is exclusivist.

I wrote:

I believe English has changed, but you assert forcefully that when the text says “man” it cannot refer to women, fullstop, in the modern reader’s mind. I would take that as a rhetorical overstatement, but even if it is a rhetorical overstatement, it suggests that you have been getting your bearings from egalitarians for whom “inclusive” language is an active priority, whether this is a conscious or unconscious effort. Compared to other Christians, especially outside academic circles, I would expect you have a disproportionately high number of friends and contacts who are members of CBE or share significant sympathies.

(You can fairly say that at least in academic circles I have a disproportionately low number of such friends, and a disproportionately higher number of friends who would critique CBE, and I would say I am not middle of the road for the friends I know.)

English, especially among the learned, has changed, and “man” is less likely to be read as simply referring to people in general. But it is a strong position to say that “if a brother sins against you”, in a passage whose plain sense gives “brother” a much more expansive sense than the biological, will be read only as referring to males. And strictly speaking, at least two of your points contain the same logical fallacy as saying that “All taxicabs are vehicles” demands, if taken literally, that “Because a truck is not a taxicab it cannot be a vehicle”. “If a brother sins against you” if taken to exclude women cannot logically imply “sisters can’t sin.” “In the image of God he created him” if taken not to refer to Eve cannot logically imply “Women are not created in the image of God.” You take an extreme interpretation and position, perhaps partly to rhetorically underscore a point, but with what I think are appropriate allowances for rhetorical overstatement, I believe you take a change that has occurred partially to be full and absolute.

The story of the TNIV does not commend the reading that the change is simply bringing the language of the translation in sync with the language on the street. The argument that this needs to be further imported to Bible translations has something of a whiff of the offensive, “The bureaucracy is expanding… to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy!”

N.B. The reference to the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) is essentially as follows: The NIV (New International Version), like many other translations, has been updated and revised over time. The people in charge of the NIV, as one update, were going to change to inclusive language. There was an enormous outcry that ended in the people in charge of the NIV signing an agreement not to convert the NIV to use inclusive language. And after making that commitment in writing, they still left the NIV available but made an inclusive language version of the NIV and renamed it “Today’s New International Version.”

For the claim, “English has changed”, the argument is that perhaps in the past readers may have read “man” and “brother” as fully inclusive of women, but we need to use (belabored) inclusive language now because things have changed.

The position taken is that we need to move from the older style of naturally inclusive language, to explicit (and belabored) inclusive language, to adjust to the fact that we are in the process of moving from naturally inclusive language to a belabored inclusive language. We should stop using “man” in an inclusive sense because we are stopping using “man” in an inclusive sense. The bureaucracy is expanding… to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy! We must work harder at political correctness to meet the needs of an expanding political correctness.

My advisor wrote:

It sounds like I have trodden on your toes – I’m very sorry.

In the English of most newspapers and blogs, a “man” is male, a “woman” is female and a “person” can be either.

In my original question, I recognised the value of literal translations for those who know the Bible well.
But I was wondering how you would translate such example passages for friends who aren’t Christian, or for people who pick up a Bible in their hotel room – ie those who haven’t ever heard of CBE or other such groups, and who don’t know that “man” can mean both male and female in the Bible.

I wrote:

Well, that depends somewhat on audience. If I am aiming for the chattering classes as my audience, I would probably follow the rule, “Unless it is your specific extent to exclude half of humanity from any possible consideration, use strictly and explicitly gender-neutral language.”

But when I step outside the bubble of those classes, and overhear working-class people talking, “If you see someone, tell them…” melts away and leaves “If you see someone, tell him…” The experience of “he” and “him” as essentially “exclusive” language is common with the bubble we live in but far from absolute, and that matter far from common, in this U.S., where I believe your concerns have made more headway than in the U.K. If we are talking “people who pick up a Bible in their hotel room”, we have left the realm of educated people who read the Bible as literature, and we are talking truckers and the unwashed masses–you know, the kind of people who furnished some of the twelve disciples. And there the answer is simple: say “he” when your intent is generic; saying “they” for one person sounds weird and part of a foreign world intruding on normal English.

And this may be drifting slightly, but if the question is, “How do we render ‘If a brother sins against you’ so that the full sense of the Church as a family and rebukes within that community comes across,” I don’t know, and I am wary of the question and approach. Certainly part of it may be more explicit in rendering “If a brother or a sister sins against you”–or, if you don’t mind making things even harder for truckers opening a Bible in a hotel room, “If a sibling sins against you”–but more broadly the choice of ‘brother’ in Greek bears a wealth of layers that are hard to translate so that all of them are apparent on first blush in English, a game which is very hard to win.

This is meant more as a confession of stupidity on my part than a boast, but at one point I tried to make my own Bible translation, called the Uncensored Bible, and aiming for clarity. There were a few highlights to it, and it rendered the Song of Songs clearly, or was intended to, like the original NIV before the higher-ups vetoed translating the Song of Songs the same way they translated other books. And, though this is not intended as an inclusive language issue, the wordplay in Matthew 6:27 was rendered neither “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” nor “Which of you by worrying can add a single cubit to his height?” but “Do you think you can add a single hour to your life by worrying? You might as well try to worry yourself into being a foot taller!”

But the work as a whole has pearls amidst sand, and it taught me chiefly that translating the Bible is a lot harder than I had given credit for, even knowing several languages and having done translation before. And while I partly succeeded, part of what I learned through that failure was that my idea of “Just make what is in the verse plainly simple” is a lot harder, and part of my naivete in the project was in trying to do that. Certainly it’s possible to be a little clearer where major translations deliberately obscure things from the unwashed masses, but the biggest thing I got out of it was recognizing I was doing something dumb, and coming to respect what the major translations accomplish a whole lot more.

But if that is the goal, “If a brother sins against you” is much harder to get across than changing “If a brother” to “If a brother or sister”, “If a sister or brother”, “If a sibling”, etc. because “brother” speaks of the Church as a family and frames the situation not as discussing appropriate rebuke of someone who you are not particularly connected to, but appropriate rebuke within one tightly connected fatherhood or family. And the expansiveness of “brother” is perhaps 10% clarified, and 90% not clarified, by including the word “sister” or going for the gelding option of “sibling”.

So I would partly say, “I don’t know”, and you can call it a dodge if you want, but if your goal is to make what is going on in the text clear to most readers, especially outside academia and the chattering classes, you might or might not get 10% of the way there by explicitly making language more gender-inclusive, but if you do so, don’t say, “Mission accomplished,” because the large part of making “If a brother sins against you” accessible in translation is not accomplished once the translation is clear in applying both to men and women.

The rhetorical posture is taken, “The person I’m really concerned about is the person on the street, the average blue-collar Joe or Jane. What about ordinary people who don’t have all this academic knowledge?”

I answer quite simply, “Don’t worry; that large demographic is probably the one least affected by political correctness and least likely to hear ‘Women are excluded’ if they read a Bible that says ‘man’ or ‘brother’.”

My advisor wrote:

It looks like we both want to educate people to understand the Bible and then translate it literally, because it is so hard to translate it to be understood without that education.

Your decision to use the second person instead of third person is often done in gender-neutral translations, and it works sometimes (such as the example you gave), but not always. I wish we had a neutral pronoun.

Ah well, we have to live with imperfection.

My advisor wrote:

It looks like we both want to educate people to understand the Bible and then translate it literally, because it is so hard to translate it to be understood without that education.

I wrote:

Something like that; it is a difficult matter.

Your decision to use the second person instead of third person is often done in gender-neutral translations, and it works sometimes (such as the example you gave), but not always. I wish we had a neutral pronoun.

Ah well, we have to live with imperfection.

In many ways. My attempt at translation taught me that even more than it taught me I was dumber than I thought.

Of vinyl records, black and white photography, and using naturally inclusive language

Belabored “inclusive” language is here to stay, the rhetoric for it is here to stay, and English usage has changed. I can hardly contest any of these claims, but I would make a point.

When I was a child, it appeared that black and white film had been permanently superseded by color film for all mainstream personal use, and I watched vinyl records be superseded by CD’s, pure and simple. Black and white photography outside of Official Art Photography by Real Fine Art Photographers was obsolete now that we had advanced to color film, and a big record player was a waste of space.

But something funny has happened since then—the “improvements” are not so final as one might think. It is not just Official Art Photographers who make those obsolete monochrome photographs; there is an increasing appreciation for black and white photography, to the point that color digital cameras take pictures and extra work is done to make monochrome photographs, either black and white or sepia. And while digital audio isn’t going away anytime soon, the more an audiophile really, really cares about music and really, really cares about the sound that is rendered, the more likely he is to explicitly prefer the live sound from good vinyl records and a good record player with a good needle to the tinny and more mediocre sound of even the best digital audio.

I said above, partly to avoid pressing a point, “educated people who read the Bible as literature,” giving the impression that the Bible as literature crowd will obviously use inclusive language translations. But there’s something really funny going on here. Educated liberals who read the Bible as literature normally use inclusive language. Educated liberals who read the Bible as literature normally believe in inclusive language. And, in my contacts, educated liberals who read the Bible as literature pass over every inclusive language Bible translation for the majesty of the King James Version. With its naturally inclusive language.

“Man” has taken something of the tint of a sepia image, and hearing language like “humankind” sounds like the tinny mediocrity of a CD to an audiophile who prefers vinyl: the point gets across, but not the way vinyl allows.

Inclusive language efforts have given the traditional language of “man”, “brother”, and “mankind” a share of the beauty and poetic force of sepia and vinyl.

What’s wrong with the emails above

I’ve written these emails with a growing sense that there is something wrong with them: a sense that there was something inescapably misleading even when the observations were accurate. After a while I put a finger on what bothered me. These observations may be accurate observations of truths (or maybe just politically incorrect). But they are not a drinking of Truth. They fall short of the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Do you think that by worrying you can add a single hour to your span of life? You might as well try to worry you way into being a foot taller? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

The observations above are the equivalent of careful, meticulous observations about how to run after food and clothing when there is a Kingdom of God to seek after. Food and clothing have their place, and the observations I made could have a place in the ascetical life, but they are not what there is to seek first, and true Biblical manhood and womanhood come not from trying to be complementarian but from seeking wholeheartedly for the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and letting all else fall into its place.

Let us seek the greater good.

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

A Strange Archæological Find

Cover for Knights and Ladies, Women and Men

To my most excellent friend and pupil:

Yes, you are correct about the letter’s origins, and you are right to be somewhat confused. This one’s going to take a more than a few words.

Literature from almost any place can be timeless. This people had an epic poem that appeared to be about cat and mouse, but was really about much more: the struggle between good and evil, and the vindication of the oppressed. We do not have a complete manuscript, but we know their children would listen to these poems for hours. I know the criticisms of that literature, and they are all true—but the literature is universal and timeless. I read some of it to my youngest, and he was laughing.

However, not everything they made is that universal. You asked if the document you’d found showed unusual local color. I’d rather call it a slagheap of discarded local paints and pigments. Making sense is going to take some explaining, but keep your cheer. By the time you’re done, you may find some other things less difficult to think about.

Remember the lecture illustration of the potato. At one end is the entirety of man, or what is universally human; at the other end, the full specificity of one man. Understanding man, or understanding one man, means in part moving in an infinitely differentiated space full of nuance. I don’t need to remind you that the actual lesson has other dimensions as well, in part because we aren’t getting that far with this letter.

Now think about those things that are corporate to a people. Take a thin slice of the potato, and throw the rest away—yes, I know, that’s most of the potato. Now there’s… I’ll explain what the other slice is in a bit, but imagine another, even thinner slice of the slice, so what’s left is a line—a line that looks like a point if you view it the wrong way.

What is that second slice? Step into a friend’s field, and leave a rock to remember your place. Now walk to his house, counting the steps. Then walk back, and walk to some other landmark—a tree, perhaps, and count your steps. Now forget the earth beneath your feet, the grass you see, the children smiling, and the birds overhead—not quite ‘forget’, that’s too strong, but push them back as secondary. What counts, what makes that place uniquely itself, is the number of steps you counted in going to the house and the tree. Of course the steps can be used to find that place, but imagine further that the number of steps make that place what it is—and it would be quite different if the house had been built ten paces further.

They do this with the number of winters that have passed. That is the second slice, and it is viewed end-on, so as to only be a point—but the strange thing is they do not think this is part of the picture, but that it is the picture. In a strange way, that line, viewed end-on, is much bigger than the potato we think of; it’s not just a teacher’s illustration, even one that is repeated very often, but an idea so basic and foundational that most of them aren’t aware they believe it. They might perhaps be shocked, and think the other person is irrational, if someone were to deny the significance of one of the mantras that encapsulates this view, but… I’m trying to think of an example… I’ll have to get back to you on that.

That is one major piece of background. Another that I’ll mention—and this is not universal to the people, but something that tends to infect the more intelligent… ok, a bit of background.

We have, and use, one basic kind of candle. Once I was able to visit an archaist who had been able to revive one of the candles they were using. He invited several of us in, pulled a lever…

The candle was encased in a goblet, and it had a dazzling brilliance—as if there was a bonfire burning, and yet its flame was no larger than a small candle’s, and it did not flicker at all, nor did it make smoke. The light was not red nor orange, not even yellow, but purest white like the sun—and when I broke my gaze and looked away, the other things in the room looked as if there were a little sun in the room. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

As I was saying, they had several kinds of candle, but one thing they had in common was not only that they produced light, but that when they ran out, the wick turned black. One of their jokers, in an inspired moment, produced a theory that what were called ‘light sources’ were instead things that sucked dark: darkness was heavy, which is why if you swim down in a lake you will find more and more dark. It was absolutely brilliant humor, all the moreso if you know what sort of thing it parodied.

There are multiple theories like that, and there was… well, this will require a bit of background as well. Any magical system of merit doesn’t just try to get things done; it has a theory about why the magic works, and underneath there is a story. One of their magical theories essentially said there was a nonexistant spirit which, despite its nonexistance, hovered over the earth and made more of organisms that were excellent and fewer of organisms that were poor. This theory was woven into a narrative about great mounds of rock and fire, then earth, then lightning striking a lake and bringing something to life, then the spirit working that one living thing into a symphony of diversity, organisms coming and going, until at last mortal gods walked the earth… and then, in the truly greatest speaking, all returns to elemental chaos. It is a truly great myth, and I am saddened that our storytellers do not recount anything like it.

There is an idea of a ‘meme’, which is an idea, story, or joke, construed as a living thing that this sort of spirit is operating on. I was interested when I encountered the idea, and read with even more interest when the Principia Cybernetica described memes in explicitly more anthromorphic terms than people. Here, I was certain, was a masterpiece of comedic genius…

…and then one of my colleagues explained that it wasn’t. It was deadly serious. I thought it parodied dirty sleight-of-hand in anti-Christian polemics… but it didn’t. It couched terms in heavily prejucial language, like their example question of, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” but somehow even very bright Christians accepted what far less intelligent ones intuited to be unfair and insulting.

Now I remember one of the catch-phrases, in terms of how important the number of passed winters was for them. I’d have to look at their literature for more, but one of them was, “We’re entering the third millenium.” As spoken, it was not simply the answer to a trivial question, but a statement of great metaphysical import. From what little I can tell, if someone contradicted this association, it was to them as if he had contradicted that the sun was white.

I think I’ve given enough of a preface to look at the letter—rather than writing a full letter of preliminaries. Here’s the opening:

Several things relate here. Trying to ‘see’ what happened in history, particularly where we are looking at the origins of Christianity, is to me somewhat akin to being in a river trying to look back through all the moving water and intuiting what the source looked like when the water you are in now started to flow. ‘Tis murky indeed… Those historians and theologians, who might have us believe they are not looking back through the murky river as we are but rather hovering over the source in a helicopter somehow transported back through time, are slipping in a priestly function in so doing.

I’d like to say a few things. As regards your main questions on this passage, you got one right and one wrong. The Helicopter was a giant mechanical bird capable of carrying men—oh, about that question, these things were produced by magic, but it was not occult practice to use them; this is not an occult reference, and I don’t want to delve into why not. You were right about that.

What you were wrong about is your reading that the people being criticized are looking downstream while the letter’s author is in the priveleged Helicopter able to look down on the ancient Christians and the people he was criticizing. That isn’t what he was saying at all… wait, I know why you would think that. You might be right in that that is what he was really saying. Kind of like the koan I’ll adapt:

An ancient Christian looked troubled.

One later Christian said, “He is troubled.”

Another Christian said, “How do you know whether or not he’s troubled? You’re not him!”

The other replied, “How do you know whether or not I know whether or not he’s troubled? You’re not me!”

The tone and spirit of the letter indeed suggests that the ancient Christians, and the author’s conservative contemporaries, are trapped in a river, while the author is hovering about freely in the Helicopter. However, that is not the intent. The intent was to accuse the conservatives of doing something that would appear strange given the assumptions of a metaphor that runs counter to their thought, as for that matter it did for ancient Christian thought.

Further complicating our task is our respective cultural memes and our personal ongoing process of regeneration. The former contains all the turbidity thrown up by all previous good thinking and confused thinking. The latter usually contains some unrecognized proclivities.

The reference to ‘cultural memes’ carries quite a lot more freight than the already substantial freight they associate with cultures. I’m trying to think of something to use as a metaphor to convey what is meant here, and I am failing. It’s a bit like saying “two people are uniquely themselves and cannot converse otherwise”, except that what it plays out as is not a celebration of God’s gift of humanity, where God made each man unique and catholic, but being uniquely themselves is construed as an impediment to catholicity: Gregory’s skill in choosing nautical metaphors is an impediment to talking with Jane, because most people don’t work that way. It’s not exactly the doctrine of the Fall, either, saying that there are dark marks on each person and society, and that that hinders communication. It’s more… the central dogma of their magic is that there is no magic, and there is an essentially amoral and even material conception of human culture: culture is a spiritually inert weight which slows and weighs people down, except that’s not right either. My head is spinning now, and you probably understand less about them than you did at the beginning of this paragraph.

The last sentence seems to stem from individualism, in that corporate personality, the spirit of a society, is a source of turgidity, but God does work with people, and he sometimes gives them special abilities despite his difficulties in blessing communal knowledge.

Hence my insistance that we know what we are thinking with as well as what we are thinking about.

No, this sentence is not corrupt. I checked.

Perhaps the best way to put it stems from a friend’s comment that if he takes a strong and immediate dislike to someone, it is quite often because the other person exemplifies one of his vices. There’s some resonance with Confucius’s words, “When I see a virtuous man, I try to be like him. When I see an evil man, I reflect on my own behavior.”

I understand your suggestion that the reading be emended, “Hence my insistence that conservatives know what we think they are thinking with, as well as what we are thinking about,” but you have to understand that the statement as read, literally, can be made in perfectly good faith. Some people talked about the importance of knowing what they were thinking with; the people they criticized often did so.

Regarding what is called feminism, our very use of the term indicates the influence of our cultural meme and our submission to someone else’s cultural agenda.

You were right on this time. He’s not an etymologist. However, there are reasons besides individual carelessness that this would be presented as serious analysis.

You know that the New Testament writers tended to read any ambiguity for all it was worth, in their favor. The considered people tended to be much more tightly rigorous in treating Biblical texts, but relaxed rigor and made “Just-So” stories about words in their own time: “family man” was taken by their feminist dictionary to be a mark of sexism (because that quality is assumed in a woman so much that we don’t have a specific term for a family woman), but you can rest assured that, had the language had a term “family woman” but not “family man”, the dictionary entry would have talked about how sexist it was to have a word used to talk about a woman as a “family woman”, but not even have a word to refer to a “family man”.

If you ask a historian or an etymologist, their very use of the term feminism indicates something very prosaic: a movement started, calling itself feminism, and the name has stayed the same across time. This is a run-of-the-mill linguistic occurence, closely related to the growth of dead metaphor, and has the same political significance as the fact that the gesture they use to greet a friend originated as a gesture of mistrust used to keep a stranger from drawing a weapon: none.

However, this sort of folk analysis is innately valuable for historians. You need to keep your eyes open for passages like this; some sentences can tell more than a page of straightforward explanation.

In the context of biblical discussion, much progress has been made on ‘gender passages’ such as 1 Timothy 2.

In their conception, that one thin slice of potato is magnified in part by a conception of progress, a conception that ideas, like machines, grow rust and need to be replaced for no other reason than being old. As such, their use of the term ‘progress’ means something different from our understanding of a student acquiring the expertise of his master. It means that people are becoming better, wiser, and nobler than the people who came before.

Given that I am writing to you and not speaking publicly, I’m not going to traipse through and analyze the texts referred to. I can say, without bothering to look them up, that they are using their immense scholarly resources to make themselves stupider than they actually are, dredging up some pretext to reverse a conclusion that is obvious to a child of twelve. You and I do this for humor; they were quite serious.

The starting point for learning this is via Christians for Biblical Equality. See the link to their website on the links page of I am convinced they are right.

Yes, there is a reason for the use of the term ‘Biblical equality’. Specifically, the name functions as whitewash when even backwoods farmers have caught on that there are problems with feminism. As far as accuracy goes, one in two isn’t bad for these things; it isn’t Biblical (note that the Bible doesn’t qualify as a suggested starting point for Biblical equality), but the choice of term makes up, if one may follow their linguistics: they seek e-qualia, the absence of qualitative or distinctive traits such as God created every person to exhibit. Their way of leveling the ground also levels the people who are standing on that ground. A cue to this is found in their use of the term ‘gender’ where previous thinkers had referred to ‘sexuality’.

The older term, ‘sexuality’, evokes a man and a woman on a couch, but that moment is the visible shoot atop a network of roots. The deep root stated, in essence, that different physical characteristics are not the end of different personhood, but the very beginning: that masculinity and femininity are attributes of the spirit, and that differences of spirit run deeper than differences of body. The feminist movement’s search for equality discarded this, believing there are only physical differences, and if there’s any differences in people’s minds, they must be arbitrary social constructions, namely ‘gender’.

The surface issue most commonly discussed—the only issue, to many listeners—is the issue of whether women should be ordained. In this regard, the people who were for women’s ordination couldn’t see why it shouldn’t be that way, and the people against couldn’t explain. If there’s no essential difference, if as the feminists said we are one type of soul that happens to be encased in two types of body, then it is an unambiguous consequence that women should be ordained.

I trust you will see that something important has slipped into that nice-looking statement. If not—think closely about “one type of soul that happens to be encased in two types of body.” What is being said? This doesn’t just impact sexuality. The teaching that we are soul encased in body is ancient, and it lies at the root of that great Hydra, Gnosticism. Gnosticism starts out very rigidly ascetic, trying to be spiritual by shunning anything bodily—because we’re spirits and not bodies. Then it shifts, and ascetics are shocked when their spiritual children engage in every form of bodily vice—because we’re spirits and not bodies, so it doesn’t matter what we do with our bodies. I’ve studied it, and it happens every time.

I would recall to you an early lecture, where I distinguished a philosophical conclusion from a practical conclusion: there’s a deeper resemblance than philosophy being practical, but I wish to talk about them as distinct ideas. A philosophical conclusion is what a philosopher will develop from an idea with an hour’s thought, and it does not much concern me here. A practical conclusion is what will happen over time if you start a community believing an idea and come back to it later. Gnostic libertinism is the practical conclusion of Gnostic asceticism.

Does the Biblical egalitarian perspective have a practical conclusion? It does, and it is something even that Biblical egalitarian could have seen—could have seen without engaging in the execrated practice of opening a history book. The perspective did not originate with him; it happened before, and the late forms were around for him to see.

The claim bandied about is that women should be ordained. Well… it appears that women had been ordained before and after the Biblical egalitarians, and so far as I read, God’s blessing was on it. However, that’s really just a glint on the surface. What lies deeper, and the reason people were so bent on having half the priests be priestesses, is the idea that there is no fundamental difference between men and women beyond what impacts the mechanics of reproduction—because if there isn’t, then of course it’s ridiculous to only ordain men. That assumption was not given critical examination.

What happened after that is what had happened every other time, and what he could have verified by opening his eyes. If the teachings about masculinity and femininity are erased from Christian doctrine, a few proof texts about women’s roles won’t last long… very few years pass before people explain them away, as appears “progress” in misinterpreting the Timothy passage above. The Bible is an interlocking whole, a great sculpture in perfect balance—and if you pull away one part you don’t like, others will not stay in place. So we celebrate the ordination of women, or—in more honest terms—celebrate the annihilation of belief that sexuality could inform how people contribute to the body of Christ.

After that, why be so unenlightened as to maintain sex roles anywhere else? Why not gay marriage? By that time, it was difficult to have anything besides a gay marriage, even with a man and a woman both involved: it was some legal contract involving sex, but disconnected with any expectation of loyalty or openness to children, so why not a marriage between two men? Sure, the Bible has a couple of proof texts about that, but they’re not really any harder to “explain” and “investigate” than those that suggest human sexuality contributes to the Church… It wasn’t an accident, by the way, that feminism specifically celebrated lesbianism. There were of course other factors, but part of it was the dismantling of an older teaching that celebrated sex as the interaction between two very opposite poles.

By this time, a sculpture that had been hanging precariously slid further down. Somewhere along the line any revelation of God as masculine and not feminine was dismantled—because “we need to keep an open mind and not confine God to traditional canons of gender”, meaning in practice “we need to confine God to our anti-traditional abhorrence of sexuality.” You’ll remember the Re-Imagining conference which there was that big hubbub about—celebrating the goddess and more fundamentally believing that all the Biblical images their movement didn’t like were arbitrary imaginations put in by unenlightened men. I frankly don’t see why anyone, conservative or liberal, made such a stink about that. It wasn’t any worse than what was happening elsewhere; it just dropped the usual mask.

A little leaven leavens the whole lump. Where people raised the axe and chopped away one troublesome root of the Ancient Tree, what invariably happened was that that wasn’t the one troublesome root; now that it was gone, their vision cleared to see that there was another one of equal trouble… and another… and another… and by the time the Tree fell, people were glad for the death of an ancient menace. The phenomenon is a bit like a fire—the more it has, the more it wants.

I am leery of the unrecognized use of logical systems which were developed outside scripture.

I understand your point, but I really don’t think he’s trying to be ironic. “A meme is not a social construct like a syllogism; it reflects the terrain of which the syllogism is a very imperfect map.” Agreed, this is a bad way of putting it, but… the best I can explain it is that he is brilliant, knows many of the facets of knowing how to think, but doesn’t understand how to think. Reminds me of when I had a student trained in memory but not our thought, who answered perfectly my questions until I stumbled on the fact that he didn’t understand what was being talked about—he memorized words, and did so far better than I ever will, but didn’t grasp the ideas the words were meant to hold. This is different; the author knows large chunks of the truth, but… Irenaeus wrote how false teachings were as if someone had taken a jewel statue of the king, and reassembled it to an imperfectly executed statue of a fox, and said the fox were the king. There are real jewels there, but the statue isn’t right.

As we now know through complexity studies, the old Aristotelian view that A and non-A were mutually exclusive is suspect.

In response to your question, I’m more hesitant to say that he’s gone from believing in infallible logic to believing infallible complexity study has debunked fallible logic. It comes closer to say that logic is old and favored by many traditional theologians, and therefore in double jeopardy—complexity studies provide a good platform to attack it. If Aristotle had developed complexity studies and more recent endeavors had found logic, I believe this statement would show how logical inquiry reveals inherent problems in complexity studies.

At any rate, after tasting old wine, he has tasted the new, and said, “The new is better.”

There is one reason to be particularly cautious in your use of logic.

He’s not saying what you think he’s saying. He’s not describing logic as being like an array of tools, where you should use a file rather than a hammer to smooth a piece of wood. The direction he’s going is more, after having seen that different tools perform different tasks, to say that you need to be careful in using a saw to cut wood, because there are so many things a saw isn’t good at. It might be like an oral person with a well-trained memory discovering the power of writing, and doubting the justification of memorizing the stories he tells.

That is the instinctive, post-fall, unregenerative, inclination of males to engineer.

In another context, you would be right; the long string of words would convey something wonderful and poetic that one word will not tell. Here, it is there to achieve a quite different effect that one word wouldn’t:

I know that instincts are good: the instincts to preserve oneself, or seek company, or procreate are part of the goodness of man. You have to keep in mind who is using the word, though. Remember what the feminist position implies for a theology of body: it is a husk, an exterior, and therefore to say someone is acting on instinct, is to say he is living by something base and exterior, and is less than a man. He is not building up to a panegyric on the glory of intelligent creation; he’s using what is meant to be a very pejorative term.
I’ve seen this usage before, and I don’t know what to make of it. What I can tell you is that it serves as a kind of loaded language to dismiss a feminist’s opponent; the opponent is “locked into a post-fall mode of thinking”, quite often without a proper explanation of why he is wrong. It’s a sort of irrefutable trump.

The propositional content of this epithet is debatable; it states that the Fall created an urge which has just been declared part of our created instinct. It’s rather confusing if you try to reason it out, and much better if you don’t reason it out, and just let the words flow over you and show that whatever’s being discussed is bad.

This word may be read as saying that something is not itself part of the regeneration process; unless of the whole of a Christian’s life (barring sin) is part of the regenerative process, this could just be part of a holy life that is not concerned with the facet called regeneration. However, in poetic context, this is part of the buildup saying that whatever follows is bad.
Here we do not even see ‘men’, which in use by a feminist refers to less than one-half of men, but ‘males’… the term reminds me of a related language, where it is considered to use the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ of a human: they are used in biology, but of humans it is quite vulgar.

One other nuance, present if not obvious, is not simply as you or I would make a such a statement: you or I would refer to women half of the time when we were saying something sexually specific. They wouldn’t. This statement says something very insulting about ‘males’, not because this sample happens to refer to us, but because no male feminist would dare to make such statements about women. A female feminist may say more abrasive things about traditional women, but a male feminist will nearly never do so. This provides a very interesting glimpse into their view of equality.

Literally speaking, the term refers to part of how man participates in culture and the glory of God: that marvelous candle I described earlier was engineered. However, it is used in a metaphorical sense here, and is highly pejorative. The implication is that the accused is engineering something that was never meant to be engineered.

The interesting thing, especially with the last one, is… traditional theology is something organic that has been passed down from generation to generation, tended with the utmost of care by thinkers far too humble to try to engineer it, and is now being rejected in favor of something that has been engineered. That’s why the spiritual climate produced the ill-starred Re-Imagining conference, something that wouldn’t occur to the traditional theologians who’re accused of engineering. This irony plays out in the next line:

Disguised in much theological discussion is the ‘what should Christianity be like if I designed it?’ agenda.

It is painfully obvious to you and me that making “much progress” on Pauline passages is seeing what Christianity would be like if they designed it, but the irony is apparently not evident there.

The list of indictments brought against traditional theology can be interesting. Looking closely may reveal things the accusers perceive because it is part and parcel of their world.

I don’t think Christianity, or any generic god-conscious theology, was designed or engineered by the living God in an anthropomorphically satisfying way.

An astute observation; there is probably fertile ground for your research into why a person making this claim would do so in the context of criticizing traditional theology for not being anthropomorphically satisfying to people sharing his agenda.

It matters not whether the logic we use comes from Aristotle, Plato or Alfred E Newman, let’s spell it out when we use it and justify why we use it.

Regarding your question, about why he neither spells out his logic nor justifies it: I honestly don’t know. Perhaps he was rushed (an unusually common emotion for them), and he decided this was a poorer use of a small perceived available time than points of greater perceived substance, such as the subsequent list of opponents using personal attacks.

One of the tip-offs of the male dominator Christian theologians

Thinking about your intuition, I decided to check the archives.

An earlier note among the group had understood and responded in depth: specifically, that domination is what a feminist would expect of tradition because of his stereotype, and it is something read in, but is present neither in the Bible, nor in the theologians being represented. The ‘misogynist’ Paul is among few ancient writers who didn’t tell husbands to keep women in line; he addresses women as moral agents, placing submission in their hearts, and then tells the men to love the women, naming as their example the most costly love of all—much more costly than submission. The group member responding had said, in so many words, that the sigil of male headship and authority is not a crown of gold but a crown of thorns.

Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on. The feminist position needs the traditional position to be abrasive to women—and if the Bible or traditionalists clarify, never mind; the abuse will be made up in the feminist’s mind so he can still vilify the benighted.

Is their use of personal attack on egalitarian theologians.

I’ve done some reading of them. Once I was priveleged to visit an arcane library that had nearly half the issues to First Things and Touchstone, and I don’t remember an article where one of them personally attacked an opposing theologian. There was quite a lot of polemic, and one devastating satire in The Other Face of Gaia, but… they show a remarkable amount of restraint, and I’m getting sidetracked.

What I was going to say is that these people viewed being nice and love as the same thing, so that talking about being loving but not nice is equivalent to Plato talking about being eudaimonic and being evil—a perceived contradiction in terms. In this case…

I can see how some Biblical passages would lose some of their force. They had a concept of being ‘unsanitary’, kind of an amoral sense that you could get sick from something, and they knew disgust, but they didn’t have a sense of being polluted and defiled… so few nonscholars would read Jesus’ comparison of pillars of community to whitewashed tombs as being not merely an insult but a metaphor of their being so unholy that a person whose shadow fell on them would be defiled for a whole week. Likewise… they usually thought cannibalism was wrong, and knew the plot of Oedipus Rex, but they would still read ‘brood of vipers’ as simply comparing people to snakes and not with the full realization that Jesus compared them to creatures thought to kill their mothers and eat their way out—cannibalism and matricide being two of the most revolting things an ancient listener could think of. I can see how they might miss much of the abrasiveness, but there are so many other passages: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the last times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.” You’ve read the Bible more than once; you could supply your own examples.

Somehow they were able to read these passages and not question the belief that the limits of niceness are the limits of love. I don’t know how to explain why; that’s just how it is. And so apparently the theologians mentioned are dismissed because they fail to meet a standard the Bible itself rejects.

Wayne Grudem, for example, has vilified Cathie Kroeger. He did this in print some time ago and it still hurts Cathie. I saw her, her husband Dick along with Elaine Storkey at Cathie’s home a few weeks ago and it is obvious the personal attacks have done damage.

I talked with a colleague, and I believe Arius also sustained emotional damage from what happened at Nicaea.

J I Packer has written some nasty things, using vocabulary stemming from secular conflict.

In reference to ‘vocabulary stemming from secular conflict’… I understand your asking where the article author gets his vocabulary from, but I’d prefer to abstain from judgment. I don’t know that we have the background to evaluate this.

James Dobson, who is a psychologist of non-biblical foundations, has led the fight against the publication of more gender equal translations.

I’ve done some research, and I think he’s referring to the obvious James Dobson… I wanted to do further research, because it’s not at all obvious to me why he’s categorized as a theologian… a sharp popularizer, to be granted, and a shade of demagogue; his psychological expertise is held in light esteem by psychologians now and was apparently held in light esteem then… perhaps the author was using the term ‘theologian’ as a convenient designation for “anyone prominent who disagrees with him.” I don’t mean that as a joke; if I had to choose between asking a brilliant theologian or a demagogue like Dobson to lead a fight, I’d pick the demagogue hands-down. (Perhaps the author wasn’t familiar with very many real theologians’ defense of sexuality.)

The idea of gender equal translations is interesting. Assuming a more modest objective of correcting gender bias without reading asexuality into God, the argument is made that the original languages used terms that were effectively asexual, so faithfully rendering them were asexual… and the terms in the original language were grammatically masculine which were understood to include the feminine. What’s interesting here is that the terms in English were grammatically masculine and understood to include the feminine, universally and without question until feminists decided them to have gender bias.

It’s kind of like someone going into a room where you enjoy seeing by candlelight, and then someone comes and brings in a blinding torch—and you get irritated and ask why, so he explains that you need the extra light because your eyes are dazzled.

Dobson’s wife writes that the foundation of Christian marriage is the submission of the wife to the husband.

I don’t share her perspective, but it is not clear to me why this statement is particularly significant. A more rigorous, if also more vivid, statement is found in Martin Luther’s statement that if your theology is perfect except for what the world, the flesh, and the Devil are at that moment attacking, then you are preaching nothing.

Many people pick one or more specializations or areas of emphasis; it’s an understandable temptation to think that your specialization is the center of the universe. If you’re smiling at this, you might take a moment to remember the many times you have viewed history as the foundation to all scholarly inquiry. It’s not; it has a place among the Disciplines, and I am glad to study it, but history is not the foundation to Discipline.

It doesn’t surprise me that a woman allied with Dobson would think submission was the foundation of Christian marriage; it has the dual qualities of being important and under attack. What I fail to see is why her statement should be that significant.

I favour and encourage the popularization and democratization of bible study and take the view that if a theologian can understanding then so can I. And if I can understand it then it can be produced in a popularly understandable form.

Part of this passage is very confusing; before and after, he is frustrated by popularized and democratized Bible study which leads people to contradict his conclusion. I’m not going to sort through that, but I wish to summarize one element:

There’s a kind of proverb, very common, where someone meeting a specialist would say, “In a sentence, explain what it is that you know.” What is interesting is that this was not perceived as a riddle of heroic proportions, or even a ridiculous question; they believed instead that the burden of effort was on the specialist, and if he could not convey what knowledge he had obtained by years of excellent study, then he didn’t know what he was talking about. The attitude in this challenge is apparently present in what is proposed.

On one level, there is confusion; given that the Bible is beyond any one person’s understanding, the Bible was available, not merely in one or two translations, but so many translations we don’t have a count. Many of these were simplified. What appears to be said is not a Wycliffe call to make the Bible available to the common man, but a call for propaganda that will obscure what is presently obvious to the lay reader.

Instead we get more structure from these men who design and engineer. As I say, structure can speak louder than words. Structure can speak louder than the word of God. And for some, structure can become the word of God.

You have seen an article demonstrating how structure can speak louder than the word of God, an article that seeks and begs that the structure become the word of God. Read it closely. The allegation is made that structure and engineering are the realm of the tradition with no consideration made for how they might belong to the re-imaginers. Go to the First Things archive and read The Skimpole Syndrome: never mind if you dislike it, but is that the writing of an engineer? Then read materials from Re-Imagining 2000 and ask if you see a reverent and trusting preservation of a transcendent and divine gift.

I don’t know what, if anything, will come of it, but I took the opportunity to suggest once again to Cathie, Dick and Elaine that they begin producing their own translations of the gender passages along with an outline of the reasons for their differing translation and links for further study.

Why are they making a translation? Well, stop and think. I’ve made translations for the following reasons:

  • To take a text not available in a given language, and make an understandable rendering.
  • To take a text available only available in an arcane dialect of a given language, and make it understandable.
  • To produce something that is close on a word-to-word level.
  • To produce a text that renders thought-for-thought.
  • Some careful balance of the previous two goals.
  • To document linguistic ambiguity.

What is interesting here is that they aren’t making a translation for any of those reasons. There’s one reason you or I might not normally think of: to obscure a text’s meaning.

You know that translations then tended to gut the Song of Songs, but there’s really more going on here. The one I think was called the Now Indispensible Version was one where the scholars wanted to render the cruder passages accurately, but their elders said that part of God’s word wasn’t fit for public consumption. Translation bugaboos we will always have with us, but for some translations it is the raison d’être. The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures opens the Great Beginning with, “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” The original for that verse says, literally, “And God was the Word;” Greek did not give John a more emphatic way to say, “And the Word was God.” So why this translation? It is a translation made by heretics for the express purpose of being able to say, “Flip, flip, flip. The Bible doesn’t really say that. See! My translation doesn’t say so right here!”

That is exactly the kind of translation that is being requested here.

Clearly, from the discussion within our own intelligent group, the egalitarian information is not getting out.

I examined the archives: we know that egalitarian information was getting out in the group, and we know that because some very wise people rejected it, and stated that they had done so. The remark here is reminiscent of people who believe that, if you don’t share their perspective, it can only be because you don’t understand what they’re saying. The mentioned article was actually a response sparked by someone who had weighed egalitarianism in the balance, and found it wanting.


One last note, because I know what you chose not to write.

He was not dead in mind.

He was absolutely brilliant—brighter than you. Graham Clinton was a leader of the International Christian Mensa. Mensa is a society that allows people who have a certain quantified wisdom such as is found with one man among fifty, and their leaders are often even sharper. Graham Clinton was someone who worked through struggle, held a great deal of compassion for his neighbor, and did many good works—and I have intentionally shown you his writing so that you may see someone brilliant and a leader among Christians. He also spent some time at a very good seminary. He did not hold ecclesiastical title, but he was concerned (and talented) for a Christian life of the mind.

Satan will attack us wherever he can, and may be far more powerful on our strengths than our weakness. The letter I cite, and the movement from which it came, was not a movement of half-wits; it held many sharp people. It takes quite a lot of wits to make yourself that stupid. Compassion doesn’t hurt; Graham could never have fallen for this poison did he not hold a great deal of compassion.

You do well enough in gawking at foreigners. That’s commendable; it’s good amusement. I might suggest there is more you could learn from your gawking—in particular, that their foibles are all too often our foibles dressed up in other clothes. All of the darkness in that letter is darkness I find in my own heart.

Would you come over here for a season? I miss you, and the discussions seemed to be livelier when they had your questions.
Cordially yours,
The year of our Lord 2504.

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

An Orthodox Bookshelf

Buy Orthodox Theology: Odds and Ends, Curiosities and Creative Works on Amazon.

The Greatest Treasures

These are some of the greatest treasures around to read, and there’s a lifetime worth of reading in them. I may be critical in some of my reviews, but I only list books I think are worth reading, and the pieces I criticize are probably worthy of a more charitable spirit.

The Orthodox* Study Bible (Kindle)
In this Orthodox bookshelf, a decisive pride of place goes to The Orthodox* Study Bible. I have felt more comfort in reading it than any other Bible, and it gives a real sense of reading the Bible, not privately, but in community with the saints across the ages. The footnotes are decisively better than the Bible de Jérusalem / New Jerusalem Bible, and those responsible for The Orthodox* Study Bible decisively understand that the proper use of footnotes in a text is not to speculate about how a text came together across the ages, but to illumine the Bible as the ultimate work of practical, spiritual, and mystical theology, with footnotes oriented towards practical, spiritual, and mystical theology.

Then why have I put an asterisk in The Orthodox* Study Bible?

The Orthodox* Study Bible shows signs of a group of converts who have described as trying to do too much, too fast. Their selection of saints for commentary is limited to the first millenium (have no nineteenth century saints already stood the test of time?), and the introduction harps on the ancient Church.

If harping on the antiquity of the Church doesn’t seem strange, think about how we are all the continuation of the royal, ancient bloodline of His Majesty King ADAM and Her Majesty Queen EVE. Poetry and meaning are alike profound when, to quote a Protestant author, C.S. Lewis has Aslan proclaim “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.” Such a thing may be poetic to note, and quaint, but it would be a strange thing to harp on and say that you respect other people primarily as carriers of an ancient bloodline. Most of the respect we have, or should have, for other people is not for the antiquity of our bloodline, but because they are fully human, however we may understand being human, because they are made in the image of God and can be transformed into the likeness of Christ. It may be a useful thing to remember that a beggar or a person we can’t stand is ultimately family to us, but very little of the language of respect for the human person, whether Orthodox, other religious, or secular, states that we are the fullness of the ancient bloodline of our first parents. And, notwithstanding that eagerness to re-create the ancient Church was foundational to the Reformation and can still be found in Protestant influences, the basis of respect for Orthodoxy is not that it is Ancient Orthodoxy, but that it is Holy Orthodoxy.

Though The Orthodox* Study Bible introduces its material by talking about the authentic continuity of the Orthodox Church (without so much as a brief passing mention of our antiquity as the authentic continuity of the bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve), I have never heard such harping on the ancient Church among cradle Orthodox. Admittedly the Orthodox Church is the same living organism as the ancient Church, but in the altar at my parish, most of the books are ancient in character (service books, Gospel books, a Greek New Testament), not one of them is labelled as ancient: no service book touts “the ancient Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.” ‘Ancient’ is not the point.

And there are other things like that are written to “smooth things over” at the expense of truth in The Orthodox* Study Bible. For one instance, the note on Creation on page 2 says like a politico, “Regarding scientific questions about the scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of creation, and about various viewpoints concerning evolution, the Orthodox Church has not dogmatized any particular view.” This is misleading disinformation; origins questions may well be among the many areas “not dogmatized”, but there is a near-universal consensus among the Church Fathers, including the Church Fathers of the first millenium that The Orthodox* Study Bible returns to, that the earth was created in six days about six thousand years ago. This may be inconvenient to point out, and it might be easier to help people get along if we say that several views are legitimate, but this is twisting facts for the sake of convenience. (And for the recdord, I believe in a billions of years old earth and legitimate disagreement over how God created the world), although the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.)

With all that stated, The Orthodox* Study Bible has a number of helpful and edifying notes in an overall tenor that provides guidance in reading the Bible, and nothing better has come to fill its place.

Perhaps another work will come along that is not trying to do “too much, too fast,” but The Orthodox* Study Bible has left behind a pretty big pair of boots to fill, and there is much profit in it whether you know the Bible well or are just beginning to dive into it.

The Philokalia (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4), (Kindle)

The Philokalia is a library of practical theology, and there is nothing else like it. It is a collection about the science of spiritual struggle, and though entries can vary substantially from each other, they are very edifying and can orient us to what is truly important in life.

The Philokalia is best viewed, not as a book, but as a library of classics, and the intent is that people would read specific works as selected by a clergy member. I can attest that simply reading it cover to cover is a second-best solution.

Many Orthodox give The Philokalia first place outside of the Bible.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a work addressed to monastics, and is read each Lent in monasteries. However this is far from being a treasure only useful to monastics. It is a jewel of the Orthodox Church as a whole, and all kinds of people have read The Ladder of Divine Ascent to great spiritual profit.

The Prologue of Ochrid (Volume 1, Volume 2 (Daily selections online; Old Calendar)
The Orthodox Church has a great tradition of biography as theology: one grasps holiness by reading the lives of the saints. A rich sampling of these lives is found in the daily readings of the Prologue, which tells of all the saints commemorated on a particular day.

The Jordanville Prayer Book
Praying the prayers of the Church is a great help along the way, and The Jordanville Prayer Book (or any other good prayer book) is like the script to a play: it is not primarily meant to be read silently while sitting in a chair, but spoken aloud, brought to life, preferably from a standing position.

Prayers, with fasting, are an area to work out with one’s priest or spiritual father. They come alive when they are practiced as part of the life of the Church.

Akathists (links to many good Akathists; note that the website, Orthodox Wiki, should be taken with a little grain of salt).
St. Romanos the Melodist is said to have miraculously received the prayer of the Akathist to the Mother of God. Since then there is a tradition of Akathist prayers; the term “akathist” means “not seated,” i.e. standing to deliver the prayer. The first Akathist, and many of the ones that follow, are beautiful and powerful prayers.

The Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Series 1, Series 2) collections (Read online)

The Ante-Nicene and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers provide the standard reference translations to a great many Church Fathers. This collection receives its own asterisk because while the texts are Orthodox they were translated by Anglicans grinding a massive axe against Rome. Hence a condemnation of contraception, abortion, and infanticide by St. John Chrysostom is turned into a condemnation of abortion and infanticide alone; Augustine may be allowed to condemn Natural Family Planning, but there is an axe that is ground in the texts and is even more explicit in the accompanying notes and introductions.

Still, this does not stop a great deal of glory from the Fathers; read, for instance, St. John Chrysostom’s Treatise to Prove that No One Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself. The collection, for all its deficiencies, is still a great treasure.

St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Kindle), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, etc.
I have picked these two examples of works that it is work to read. I read them, not because I have grown enough that they seem easy and natural to read, but because they stretch me and challenge me to enter into a larger space. Fr. John Behr said, “The only thing worse than not reading the Fathers and reading them systematically;” in a similar fashion, the Fathers are of the most value to us, not when we find an endorsement of what we have always believed, but when we are challenged and invited to grow. I am challenged by these works, and I pick out these two as representative examples of innumerable works that challenge me to grow bigger and unpleasantly challenge me to enter a larger world.

Lesser Classics

This is a collection of lesser greats, limited in number by the limitations of what I am familiar with. Note that this does not include a lot of popular authors, such as Fr. Seraphim (Rose), or Met. John (Zizioulas); in the latter case, I answered the question, “Is John Zizioulas an existentialist in disguise?” by asking, “Where’s the disguise?” However, there is some good work produced recently, and I’ve even read a little of it.

The Orthodox Way
The standard print introduction to Orthodoxy is His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos’s The Orthodox Church, but what captivated my attention was not that more systematic work but the less systematic and more mystical The Orthodox Way. It is an excellent introduction to Holy Orthodoxy.

The Way of the Pilgrim (Kindle)
The Way of the Pilgrim is a glimpse of one pilgrim for whom the Philokalia unlocked the treasures of the Gospel. The author, whose name is lost, would today be considered a vagrant; that was the form taken by his pilgrimage. Along the way the Jesus Prayerunfolds in his heart. The book is a lesser classic, but it is a classic.

External Influences

One queer postmodern theologian speaking in class spoke of how the Fathers used “the best philosophical resources of their day,” the implication being that we should use the postmodern resources fashionable today. To that I might reply: the best philosophical resources available to the Fathers were neo-Platonism, and the best philosophical resources available today are neo-Platonism. That may sound harsh, but the Church that said “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” used philosophical resources without limiting themselves to them as captives. Neo-Platonism was at once the air the Fathers breathed and the opponent they struggled against; in today’s terms, slightly clumsy to apply to them, they strove for a critical reception of neo-Platonism, or developed (or rather preserved) a counterculture.

These books are not exhaustive; but they serve to point to an area that is worth reading. But perhaps this section of this Orthodox bookshelf is less important than one might think.

Note here that there is one category I have deliberately excluded: Gnostic and other heretical writings. Gnostic writing is spiritual pornography and I regret I have ever set eyes on it. I thought it would provide perspective to help me understand Orthodoxy. It did not, and I would rather have read any Orthodox resource than that form of spiritual poison.

Plotinus: The Enneads (Kindle)
A central work of neo-Platonism, and possibly the best single resource in philosophy from outside the Church into what the Fathers drew from when they drew from pagan philosophy, in the image of one Church Father, “like a bee that goes straight to the sweetest nectar and ignores all else.”

Plato: The Republic (Kindle)
A seminal work that was the first domino that would build to neo-Platonism. There are parts of the work that seem strange today; Derrida called it “the world’s oldest, longest, and least funny political joke”. I would amend that to “the world’s oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke.” The treatment of sexuality reads like something plagiarized from Monty Python today, but viewed in relation to historical context (in books I shouldn’t have read), it does not seem nearly so provocative a stance against currents of its own day as in currents of our own day. It sets forth one of the oldest radical political ideologies, but for all that it is a seed of many important things, many good things, and I lightly adapted its most famous passage in Plato: The Allegory of the…Flickering Screen?.

Almost last, and certainly least,

I would at least like to mention my own offerings, not because there is any conclusion that they are classics, but because I cherish them and they are what I have to offer. They are in:

The theology section at Jonathan’s Corner.

I invite you to visit my collection of theology Kindle eBooks!

The “Big Room”

Programmer slang uses “the Big Room” for outside, the “room” one is in when one is not hunched over a computer indoors. And there is something profound to looking beyond books and learning from life.

Monasticism has a maxim, “Your cell will teach you everything you need to know.” And the precept holds whether or not one is a monk; staying in one’s place and learning things is powerful. Most monks have been illiterate and not owned books; the maxim is not simply “Your bookshelf will teach you everything you need to know,” but “Your cell will teach you everything you need to know.” The here and now that God has put you in, that you are tempted to escape by real or virtual means, will teach you everything you need to know.

Read more of Odds and Ends, Curiosities and Creative Works on Amazon!

The Best Things in Life are Free

Buy Where Is God in Suffering and Hard Times? on Amazon.

  1. The Best Things in Life are Free.
  2. The Best Things in Life are Free. But what does this mean?
  3. The Best Things in Life are Free. But we do not understand the truth of these words if we think they are filled out by hugs and friendship, or even love: If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
  4. A better lens comes from the condemnation of the Pharisees: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
  5. It appears in Orthodoxy that the outside of the chalice is all feasts and beautiful liturgies, even during Lent: but on the inside is all repentance, deprivation and hardship, and being blindsided by rebukes. All of this falls under “The Best Things in Life are Free,” the one as much as the other.
  6. Well enough it may be said that sin is the forerunner of sorrow: The wages of sin is death, and that death’s sorrow begins here and now. Sin ultimately kills pleasure: It takes humility to enjoy even pride. It takes sobriety to enjoy even drunkenness. It takes chastity to enjoy even lust.
  7. But this is not all. The outside of the cup is beautiful and its beauty is true and real. But the real treasure is inside. Repentance is a spiritual awakening; it terrifies because it seems that when we repent we will lose a shining part of ourselves forever, but when we repent we suddenly realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” and are free to flee the stench. What feast compares to the grandeur of real repentance?
  8. The Great High Priest said, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. The Best Things in Life are Free, and this pruning is a very big free gift.
  9. It is when we are cleansed inside the cup that the outside is clean. Let Christ cleanse us inside the cup, and then inside and outside will both bear proper fruit.
  10. The things in life that are free are persecutions, and we have on the highest authority: Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
  11. St. Paul goes so far to say, But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
  12. We may approach the outside of the chalice first, but it is a loss to stop there. We need the joyful sorrow of compunction and all that is within the chalice, and then what is on the outside of the chalice will be clean, and what is more, will reach its proper stature.
  13. Every day take a little less, and pare down a little more. The Fathers do warn, “Do not engage in warfare beyond your strength,” and the praxis is to crawl before we try to walk. But The Way of the Ascetic pares down, little by little, in humor, in luxury, in eating for a purpose other than nourishment, and aims to have none of it left.
  14. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. And by faith we wean ourselves even from a life centered on innocent pleasures, knowing that they do not hold a candle to the spiritual pleasure that is inside the chalice.
  15. The cutting of of one’s own will is free. And it is the experience of monasticism that this is one of the best things in life: a monk’s will is cut off, not for the primary benefit of his brother monks, but for his own benefit. And the voluntary and involuntary cutting off of one’s will extends far outside the monastery. It is one of the best things in life, whether we accept it as a blessing or resent it because we do not wish to grow up in the spiritual life.
  16. Do you wish that this chalice be taken from you? Christ prayed the same, but he also prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” For some prayers are impossible.
  17. There are two answers to prayer: “Yes,” and “No, please ask for something better.” St. James writes, You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. Passions are sinful habits that warp us, and when we ask for something to satisfy our passions, God only ever says “No” because he wants better for us.
  18. Those things that are obviously good are nothing compared to the terrible goods: the gilded artwork outside the chalice is beautiful enough, but it is nothing next to what is inside the chalice.
  19. The Maximum Christ wishes the maximum for our lives, and that comes through repentance and the royal road of affliction.
  20. Rejoice and dance for joy when men slander you and revile you and curse you for Christ’s sake. This is a sign you are on the royal road; this is now the world heralds prophets and sons of God. This earthly dishonor is the seal of Heavenly honor.
  21. No one can harm the man who does not injure himself. Nor can any circumstance. So therefore let us not be governed by circumstances, or think the less of our God when he allows us rougher circumstances.
  22. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but there is another shoe to drop. We live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that is a greater good.
  23. Perhaps we are entering a time of struggle. (Entering?) Perhaps we are seeing the end of exceptionally prosperous and easy days we have no right reason to expect. The same truths apply. The same God who reigns in easy times, reigns in hard times.
  24. Give us this day our daily bread:” it is normal not to know where your next meal is from.
  25. The arm of the Lord is more visible, not less, in hard times. God’s providence is stronger when you know you need it.
  26. The chalice offered us indeed looks easy on the outside but is full of pain within. But the sufferings are part of the treasure. And the best things in life reach deeper than the golden ornaments that belong on the outside, but extend to the joyful sadnesses within. Those who shed at least some entertainment and seek repentance and compunction for their sins find repentance an awakening and compunction to be joyful and cleansing. And that is not all. Everything inside the cup runs deep. And everything inside the cup is free.
  27. The divine sovereignty is never purchased at the expense of human freedom. Human freedom is limited, but this is not where divine sovereignty comes from. The divine sovereignty has the last word after every creaturely choice has been made, and the divine sovereignty shapes joy after every draught of the inexhaustible cup.
  28. The joy of the best things in life is not purchased at the expense of the chalice of suffering. Suffering is limited, but this is not something the divine sovereignty is purchased from. The divine sovereignty has the last word after every creaturely suffering has been entered, and the divine sovereignty leaves people in a better place than had they not met their sufferings.
  29. The divine life is now. The divine energies are now. Not later, once some difficulties are resolved, but now.
  30. In ancient times the holiday of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection were celebrated together; even now there is not a separation between them, and we speak of a three-day Pascha. There is no real separation between bearing a cross and being crowned with a crown, even if it takes time to gain the eyes of faith to see such things.
  31. Orthodox are iconodules, but God is both iconodule and iconoclast: he takes things in our life and makes them icons of himself, and he also keeps on destroying and removing things to make us more free to breathe. Heaven and Hell are both inside us, and God seeks to inhabit Heaven inside of us and uproot Hell.
  32. God the Father is the maker of all things visible and invisible. God is spirit, and even among created things the first excellence belongs to the invisible. Who can buy or sell invisible things? This is one reason the best things in life are free.
  33. In the Incarnation, Heaven kissed earth and the visible now has a share in the excellence of the invisible. But still if a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned: the sale of relics is forbidden.
  34. Do you believe the best things in life are free? Excellent, but the demons believe—and shudder. Do you live as if the best things in life are free?
  35. It is more blessed to give than receive. What do you have to give?
  36. If you covet something and you gain it, it will bring misery once the pleasure melts away, and the greater the covetousness, the greater the misery. Covetousness is the inverse of what is inside the cup.
  37. We want to have things our way. But the Lord has other plans. And what we will find if we yield is that he has other plans for us that are not what we would have chosen, but are far better. This is at once an easy and a hard thing to do.
  38. In the Bible a chalice is both a cup of suffering to drink and a cup which fills with excellent joy. The suffering is as bad as we fear—no, worse— but if we drink of it we will be drinking of the very best things in life. The divine life in the chalice immeasurably eclipses the gilt ornament outside of it. Rememberance of death, compunction, and repentance dig deeper than the music of liturgy.
  39. The best things in life are not just an ornament for when our material needs are well taken care of. It is true ten times more that they are lifeblood in hard times and harder times. And the chalice is inexhaustible.
  40. The Best Things in Life are Free.

Read more of Where Is God in Suffering and Hard Times? on Amazon!

The Damned Backswing

Buy The Best of Jonathan's Corner on Amazon.

Kaine: What do you mean and what is the “damned backswing”?

Vetus: Where to start? Are you familiar with category theory?

Kaine: I have heard the term; explain.

Vetus: Category theory is the name of a branch of mathematics, but on a meta level, so to speak. Algebraists study the things of algebra, and number theorists study the things of number theory—an arrangement that holds almost completely. But category theory studies common patterns in other branches of mathematics, and it is the atypical, rare branch of mathematics that studies all branches of mathematics. And, though this is not to my point exactly, it is abstract and difficult: one list of insults to give to pet languages is that you must understand category theory to write even the simplest of all programs.

The achievements of category theory should ideally be juxtaposed with Bourbaki, the pseudonym of a mathematician or group of mathematicians who tried to systamatize all of mathematics. What came out of their efforts is that trying to systematize mathematics is like trying to step on a water balloon and pin it down; mathematicians consider their discipline perhaps the most systematic of disciplines in academia, but the discipline itself cannot be systematized.

But the fact that Bourbaki’s work engendered a realization that you cannot completely systematize even the most systematic of disciplines does not mean that there are patterns and trends that one can observe, and the basic insight in category theory is that patterns recur and these patterns are not limited to any one branch of mathematics. Even if it does not represent a total success of doing what Bourbaki tried and failed to do, it is far from a total loss: category theory legitimately observes patterns and trends that transcend the confines of individual subdisciplines in mathematics.

Kaine: So the “damned backswing” is like something from category theory, cutting across disciplines?

Vetus: Yes.

Kaine: And why did you choose the term of a damned backswing?

Vetus: Let me comment on something first. C.S. Lewis, in a footnote in Mere Christianity, says that some people complained about his light swearing in referring to certain ideas as “damned nonsense.” And he explained that he did not intend to lightly swear at all; he meant that the ideas were incoherent and nonsense, and they and anyone who believed in them were damned or accursed. And I do not intend to swear lightly either; I intend to use the term “damned” in its proper sense. Instead there is a recurring trend, where some seemingly good things have quite the nasty backswing.

Kaine: And what would an example be?

Vetus: In the U.S., starting in the 1950’s there was an incredibly high standard of living; everything seemed to be getting better all the time. And now we are being cut by the backswing: the former great economic prosperity, and the present great and increasing economic meltdown, are cut from the same cloth; they are connected. There was a time of bait, and we sprung for it and are now experiencing the damned backswing.

Kaine: So the damned backswing begins with bait of sorts, and ends in misery? In the loss of much more than the former gain? Do you also mean like addiction to alcohol or street drugs?

Vetus: Yes, indeed; for a while drinking all the time seems an effective way to solve problems. But that is not the last word. The same goes from rationalism to any number of things.

Kaine: Do you see postmodern trends as the backswing of modern rationalism?

Vetus: All that and less.

Kaine: What do you mean by “and less”?

Vetus: The damned backswing did not start with Derrida. The understanding of “reason” that was held before the Enlightenment was a multifaceted thing that meant much more than logic; even as Reason was enthroned (or an actress/prostitute), Reason was pared down to a hollowed-out husk of what reason encompassed in the West before then. It would be like celebrating “cars”, but making it clear that when the rubber hits the road, the truly essential part of “a set of wheels” is the wheel—and enthroning the wheel while quietly, deftly stripping away the rest of the car, including not just the frame but engine, and seats. The Damned Backswing of rationalism was already at work in the Enlightenment stripping and enthroning reason. And the damned backswing was already at work in economic boom times in the West, saying that yes, indeed, man can live by bread alone.

And perhaps the strongest and most visible facet of the damned backswing occurs in technology. There are other areas: a country erected on freedoms moves towards despotism, just as Plato said in his list of governments, moving from the best to the worst. But in technology, we seem to be able to be so much more, but the matrix of technology we live in is, among other things, a surveillance system, and something we are dependent on, so that we are vulnerable if someone decides to shut things off. Man does not live by bread alone, but it is better for a man to try to live by bread alone than live by SecondWife alone, or any or all the array of techologies and gadgetry. The new reality man has created does not compare to the God-given reality we have spurned to embrace the new, and some have said that the end will come when we no longer make paths to our neighbors because we are entirely engrossed in technology and gadgetry.

Kaine: And are there other areas?

Vetus: There are other areas; but I would rather not belabor the point. Does this make sense?

Kaine: Yes, but may I say something strange?

Vetus: Yes.

Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, and in full.

Vetus: You’re not telling me something.

Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, but I do not believe that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

Vetus: What? Do you mean that you partly believe in the damned backswing, and partly not? Do you believe in the damned backswing “is true, from a certain point of view”?

Kaine: I understand your concern but I reject the practice of agreeing with everyone to make them feel better. If I believed in the damned backswing up to a point, I would call it such.

Vetus: How do you believe it, if you reject that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge?

Kaine: Let me ask: do Calvinists believe in the Sovereignty of God?

Vetus: Is the Pope Catholic? (I mean besides John XXIII.)

Kaine: Let me suggest that the Reformed view of Divine Sovereignty could go further than it actually does.

Vetus: How? They are the most adamant advocates of Divine Sovereignty, and write books like No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism.

Kaine: There’s an awfully strong clue in the title.

Vetus: That the author believes so strongly in the Divine Sovereignty that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom?

Kaine: Not quite.

Vetus: Then what is the clue? I don’t want to guess.

Kaine: The clue is that the author believes in the Divine Sovereignty so weakly that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom, and that if there is one iota of creaturely freedom, there is not one iota of Divine Sovereignty.

His is a fragile Divine Sovereignty, when in actual fact God’s Sovereignty is absolute, with the last word after every exercise of creaturely freedom. There is no exercise of freedom you can make that will impede the exercise of the Divine Sovereignty.

Vetus: I could sin. In fact, I do sin, and I keep on sinning.

Kaine: Yes, but God is still Sovereign and can have the last world where there is sin. To get back to Lewis for a second, “All of us, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Satan and Judas as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.” The Divine Sovereignty is the Alpha and the Omega, the Founder of the beginning, and works in and through all: “even Gollum may have something yet to do.”

Vetus: But what?

Kaine: “But what?”, you ask?

For starters, there is Christmas. Good slips in unnoticed. God slips in unnoticed. True, it will become one of the most celebrated holidays in the Western world, and true, the Western world will undertake the nonsensical task of keeping a warm, fuzzy Christmas without Christ or Christmas mentioned once. But us lay aside both Christian bloggers speaking in defense of a secularized Christmas, and bloggers telling retailers, “You need Christmas, but Christmas doesn’t need you.” You speak of the damned backswing coming from an unexpected place; this is nothing next to God slipping in unnoticed.

There will be a time when God will be noticed by all. At the first Christmas, angel hosts announced good news to a few shepherds. When Christ returns, he will be seen by all, riding on the clouds with rank upon rank of angels. At the first Christmas, a lone star heralded it to the Magi. When he returns, the sky will recede as a vanishing scroll. At the first Christmas, a few knees bowed. When he returns, every knee will bow. And the seed for this victory is planted in Christmas.

And the same seeds of glory are quietly planted in our lives. You are not wrong to see the damned backswing and see that it is real: but one would be wrong to see it and think it is most real. Open one eye, and you may see the damned backswing at work. Open both eyes wide, and you may see God at work, changing the game.

And God will work a new thing in you. Not, perhaps, by taking you out of your sufferings or other things that you may pray for; that is at his good pleasure. But you have heard the saying, “We want God to change our circumstances. God wants to use our circumstances to change us.” Whole worlds open up with forgiveness, or repentance, or any virtue. If you are moulded as clay in the potter’s hands, unsought goods come along the way. The Best Things in Life are Free, and what is hard to understand is that this is not just a friend’s smile, but suffering persecution for the sake of Christ. It was spiritual eyes wide open that left the apostles rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame [and violence] for Christ’s name. And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” This newness begins here and now, and it comes when in circumstances we would not choose God works to give us a larger share in the real world. We enter a larger world, or rather we become larger ourselves and more able to take in God’s reality. And all of this is like the first Christmas, a new thing and unexpected. We are summoned and do not dare disobey: Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord all the earth. And it is this whole world with angels, butterflies, the Church, dandylions, energetic work, friends, family, and forgiveness, the Gospel, holiness, the I that God has made, jewels, kairos, love, mothers, newborn babes, ostriches, preaching, repentance from sins, singing, technology, unquestioning obedience, variety, wit and wisdom, xylophones, youth and age, and zebras.

The damned backswing is only a weak parody of the power of God the Gamechanger.

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

The Law of Attraction: A Dialogue with an Eastern Orthodox Christian Mystic

Paidion: I found some really interesting stuff about the Law of Attraction.

Aneer: What is it that you have found?

Paidion: This wonderful secret, the Law of Attraction, is a secret where if you understand how you attract what you think about… then you have the key to happiness!

Aneer: Have you seen what else the Law of Attraction could be?

Paidion: You mean the Law of Attraction could be more?

Aneer: Let me think about how to explain this…

Paidion: Did the Church Fathers say anything about the Law of Attraction? Or did the Bible?

Aneer: Where to start, where to start—the Law of Attraction says our thoughts are important, and that is true. Not just a little bit true, but deeper than a whale can dive. The Apostle writes:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Paidion: And there is something about “ask, seek, knock?”

Aneer: Yes, indeed:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

It is part of the Sermon on the Mount. But there is something that you may be missing about what is in the Sermon on the Mount, and something you may be missing about the Law of Attraction.

Paidion: Why? Is there anything relevant besides the Sermon on the Mount?

Aneer: Yes indeed, from the first pages of Genesis:

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, “Yea, hath God said, “Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'”

And the woman said unto the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”

And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat,

The Law of Attraction is here. The very heart of the Law of Attraction is here. Have you read The Magician’s Nephew?

Paidion: It is one of my favorite books.

Aneer: Do you remember what Jadis stole?

Paidion: How could Jadis steal anything? She was a queen!

Aneer: Then you have forgotten the verse when Jadis met a garden enclosed:

“Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”

The story gives a glimpse of the Queen Jadis finding her heart’s desire: undying years, and undying strength. She found everything the Law of Attraction promises. If the Law of Attraction does anything, you can see it unfold in Eve choosing to be attracted to the fruit, or Jadis.

But undying strength was not the only thing in the picture. When Jadis ate that apple, she might never age or die, but neither could she ever live again. She cheated death, perhaps, but at the expense of Life. Which is to say that she didn’t really cheat Death at all. And she damned herself to a “living” death that was hollow compared to her previous life she so eagerly threw away.

Paidion: So you think Eve was like Jadis? Halfway to being a vampire?

Aneer: Paidion, you’re big on imagining. I want you to imagine the Garden of Eden for just a moment. Adam and Eve have been created immortal, glorious, lord and lady of all nature, and Eve tastes an exhilirating rush that has something very vampiric about it: a moment passed, and the woman who had never known pain found the seed of death deep inside her. And in a flash of insight, she realized something.

Paidion: What is it she realized?

Aneer: She had the seed of death eating away at her. Nothing could stop her from dying. And her deathless husband would watch her die.

Paidion: A sad end to the story.

Aneer: What do you mean?

Paidion: But it’s a tragedy!

Aneer: It may be tragic, but how is it an end to Adam’s story?

Adam was still deathless. He would live on; did you assume he would be celibate, or that Eve envisioned God to never provide him a wife to share in blessed happiness?

Paidion: Look, this is all very impressive, but is any of this really part of the ancient story?

Aneer: I cut off the story before its usual end. The end goes surprisingly fast:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

Paidion: Why? Is this just Eve’s… solution… to… the… problem… of… Adam’s… [shudder]

Aneer: Do you think your generation is the first to invent jealousy?

Paidion: But can’t the Law of Attraction be used for good?

Aneer: When people speak of the Law of Attraction, it always sounds like the unearthing of the key to happiness.

Paidion: But what else could it be once we are attracting the right thoughts?

Aneer: What, exactly, are the right thoughts might be something interesting to discuss someday. But for now let me suggest that the Law of Attraction might be something very different, at its core, from the key to happiness: it could be the bait to a trap.

The Sermon on the Mount truly does say,

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

but only after saying something that is cut from the same cloth:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

The Sermon on the Mount finds it unworthy of the children of a loving and providing God to chase after food and clothing—or cars and iPods or whatever—as if they have to do so because their Heavenly Father has forgotten their needs. God knows our needs before we begin to ask, and it’s a distraction for us to be so terribly concerned about the things that will be added to us if we put first things first and last things last.

Paidion: But what is wrong with wanting abundance?

Aneer: Have you read Plato’s Republic?

Paidion: No.

Aneer: Did you know that royalty do not touch money?

Paidion: Why not? It would seem that a king should have the most right to touch money.

Aneer: Well, let us leave discussion of rights for another day. But there’s something in the Republic where Plato knows something about gold, and it is the reason why royalty do not touch money.

Paidion: And that is?

Aneer: Plato is describing the guardians, the highest rulers of an ideal city. And what he says about them is that they have true gold in their character: they have a truer gold than gold itself, and they are set apart for something high enough that they would only be distracted by handling the kind of gold that is dug up from the earth like something dead.

Paidion: But kings have palaces and jewels and such!

Aneer: Not in Plato’s Republic they don’t. The life of a ruler, of a king, in Plato is something like the life of a monk. It’s not about having palaces of gold any more than being President is all about being able to watch cartoons all day!

Paidion: Ok, but for the rest of us who may not be royalty, can’t we at least want abundance as a consolation prize?

Aneer: “The rest of us who may not be royalty?”

What can you possibly mean?

Paidion: Um…

Aneer: All of us bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve. All of us are created in the divine image, made to grow into the likeness of Christ and—

Paidion: So we are all made to rule as kings?

Aneer: Read the Fathers and you will find that the real rule of royalty is when we rule over God’s creation as royal emblems, as the image of God. For people to rule other people is not just not the only kind of royal rule: it’s almost like a necessary evil. Do you know of the ritual anointing of kings? In the Bible, a man is made king when he is anointed with oil. Such anointing still takes place in England, for instance. And when a person receives the responsibility for sacred work in the Orthodox Church, he is anointed—chrismated—and in this anointing, the Orthodox Church has always seen the sacred anointing of prophet, priest, and king.

Paidion: But this is just for priests, right?

Aneer: Paidion, every one of us is created for spiritual priesthood. Perhaps I wasn’t clear: the anointing of prophet, priest, and king is for every faithful member of the Church, not just a few spiritual Marines. Chrismation, or royal anointing, is administered alongside baptism to all the faithful.

Paidion: And it’s part of this royal dignity not to touch money?

Aneer: There is a very real sense in which Christians may not touch money. Not literally, perhaps; many Christians touch coins or other items, and so on and so forth. But there is a real sense in which Christians never have what you search for in abundance, because they have something better.

Paidion: Are you saying half a loaf is better than an abundance of loaves?

Aneer: I know a number of people who have found that an abundance of loaves is not the solution to all of life’s problems. Easy access to an abundance of loaves can lead to weight issues, or worse.

May I suggest what it is that you fear losing? It isn’t exactly abundance, even if you think it is.

Paidion: So am I mistaken when I think I want shrimp and lobster as often as I wish?

Aneer: Maybe you are right that you want shrimp and lobster, but you don’t only want shrimp and lobster. You want to be able to choose.

Remember in Star Wars, how Luke and Ben Kenobi are travelling in the Millenium Falcoln, and Kenobi puts a helmet on Luke’s head that has a large shield completely blocking his eyesight? And Luke protests and says, “With the blast shield down, I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight?” And then something happens, and Luke starts to learn that he can fight even without seeing what was in front of him, and Kenobi says, “You have taken your first step into a larger world.”?

What you want is to have your ducks in a row and be able to see that you can have shrimp and lobster as often as you want.

What the Sermon on the Mount says is better than a way to do a better job of having your next meal right where you can see it. It says to put the blast shield down…

And take your first step into a larger world.

Paidion: I’m sure for a man of faith like you—

Aneer: Why call me a man of faith? I may not have all my ducks lined up in a row, but I have always known where my next meal is coming from.

Paidion: Well sure, but that’s

Aneer: Maybe everybody you know has that privilege, but a great many people in the world do not.

Paidion: That may be, but I still want abundance.

Aneer: May I suggest that you are reaching for abundance on a higher plane?

Paidion: Like what? What is this larger world?

Aneer: When you have the blast shield down over your eyes, what you receive is part of a life of communion with God. When you don’t see where your next meal is coming from, and God still feeds you, you get a gift covered with God’s fingerprints. You’re living part of a dance and you are beckoned to reach for much deeper treasures. If you are asked to let go of treasures on earth, it is so your hands can open all the wider to grasp treasures in Heaven.

Paidion: Maybe for super-spiritual people like you, but when I’ve tried anything like that, I’ve only met disappointments.

Aneer: I’ve had a lot of disappointments. Like marriage, for instance.

Paidion: You? You’ve always seemed—

Aneer: My wife and I are very happily married. We’ve been married for years, and as the years turn into decades we are more happily married—more in love. But our marriage has been a disappointment on any number of counts.

G.K. Chesterton said, “The marriage succeeds because the honeymoon fails.” Part of our marriage is that it’s not just a honeymoon; my wife is not some bit of putty I can inflate to the contours of my fantasies about the perfect wife; she is a real person with real desires and real needs and real virtues and real flaws and a real story. She is infinitely more than some figment of my imagination. She has disappointed me time and time again—thank God!—and God has given me something much better in her than if she was some piece of putty that somehow fit my imagination perfectly. By giving me a real woman—what a woman!—God is challenging me to dig deeper into being a real man.

Paidion: So all disappointments make for a happy marriage? Because…

Aneer: I’m not completely sure how to answer that. We miss something about life if we think we can only have a happy marriage when we don’t get any disappointments. Read the Gospel and it seems that Christ himself dealt with disappointments; his life on earth built to the disappointment of the Cross which he could not escape no matter how hard he prayed. But the Apostle Paul wrote about this disappointment:

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.

It is part of his glory.

If you have a disappointment, you have one problem. If you have a disappointment and you think that with such a disappointment you can’t really be where you should be, you have two problems. Disappointments sting like ninety, but they can be drawn into something deeper and a richer life.

Paidion: So you’d rather be disappointed in life than get your way.

Aneer: Yes.

When I haven’t gotten my way, that has been a stepping stone for a refinement on more than one level, a refinement in what I sought and what I wanted. I’ve gotten better things than if I always had a magic key that gave me what I thought I wanted. St. Paul said, “When I became a man, I put childish things behind me.”

Paidion: Am I being childish if I wish the Law of Attraction could get me what I want? If I dream?

Aneer: What the Law of Attraction is a way to satisfy the kind of things childish people set their hearts on. Always getting your way is not an unattainable dream. Always getting your way is not a dream at all. Always getting your way is a nightmare. It is the nightmare of succeeding at being a spoiled brat where others have grown up in all the disappointments you hope to dodge.

Paidion: Is virtue its own reward?

Or is it just the consolation prize when you do the right thing even if you don’t get a real reward?

Aneer: Let us return to Plato again.

Elsewhere in the Republic, some people say some questionable things about goodness. Someone says, for instance, that what is good is whatever the stronger group wants, or something like that. And so someone asks if there’s anything a good man has that the evil man does not.

Actually, the question is put much more strongly than that. We are asked to suppose that an evil man has every worldly benefit—a good name, wealth, good children, everything in life going his way. And let us suppose that the good man gets quite the opposite: he is slandered and betrayed, loses everything, is tortured, and is finally crucified. Can we still say that the good man has anything the evil one does not?

Paidion: If that is the case, it’s hard to see that the good man has anything valuable that the evil man does not.

Aneer: He has goodness.

Paidion: Well, yes, but besides

Aneer: Paidion, how would you like to have all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it?

Paidion: No thanks!

Aneer: Meaning that on those terms, no man in his right mind would choose any amount of wealth!

Paidion: Sure, if you have to spend all the money on doctor bills…

Aneer: All right.

Let’s suppose you don’t have to spend any of it on doctor bills. Suppose you’re a billionaire with all kinds of free medical care, and with your billions of dollars comes the worst of health and the most atrocious suffering for the rest of your mercifully short life. Billions of dollars must be worth that, right?

Paidion: Does this relate to Plato?

Aneer: Yes—

Paidion: Are you saying that the evil man had bad health? You didn’t mention that at first.

Aneer: Well, that depends on what you mean by health. Externally, he had the best of health, I suppose, and the good man had terrible diseases. But the condition of being evil is the spiritual condition of being diseased, twisted, and shrunken. Even our English words like “twisted” and “sick” are signs of ancient recognition of evil as a spiritual disease. The evil man with worldly glory is the man who has all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it—and the good man is the man who has nothing but his health. He has the one thing the evil man does not: his health!

Paidion: Is this about Heaven and Hell? Because however impressive they may be, we aren’t there yet.

Aneer: Wrong. Heaven and Hell begin in this life. The eternal tree that forever stands in Heaven or Hell is planted and nourished in this life. The connection between this life and the next is a closer connection than you can imagine.

Paidion: All this sounds very wonderful, and I could wish it were true. For people like you who have faith, at least. I don’t…

Aneer: Paidion, there was something that happened in The Magician’s Nephew, before Queen Jadis attracted to her the deathless strength that she desired. Something happened before then. Do you remember what?

Paidion: I’m not sure what.

Aneer: It’s quite memorable, and it has quite a lot to do with the Law of Attraction.

Paidion: I am afraid to ask.

Aneer: Let me quote the Queen, then.

…That was the secret of secrets. It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. I did not use it until she forced me to it. I fought to overcome her by every other means. I poured out the blood of my armies like water…

The last great battle raged for three days here in Charn itself. For three days I looked down upon it from this very spot. I did not use my power till the last of my soldiers had fallen, and the accursed woman, my sister, at the head of her rebels was halfway up those great stairs that led up from the city to the terrace. Then I waited till we were so close that we could not see one another’s faces. She flashed her horrible, wicked eyes upon me and said, “Victory.” “Yes,” said I, “Victory, but not yours.” Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun.

Paidion: Are you saying that the Law of Attraction is like the Deplorable Word?

Aneer: The Law of Attraction is described in glowing terms but what is described so glowingly is that there’s you, your thoughts, and a giant mirror called the universe… and that’s it. Everything else is killed. Not literally, perhaps, but in a still very real sense. The reason you have not succeeded at getting what you want couldn’t be because a powerful man, with his own thoughts and motives, is refusing something you want, much less that God loves you and knows that what you want isn’t really in your best interests. The powerful man is just part of the great mirror, as is God, if there is anything to God besides you. The only possible reason for you to not have something, the only thing that is not killed, is your thoughts.

And how I wish you could enter a vast, vast world which is not a mirror focused on you, where even the people who meet and know you have many other concerns besides thinking about you, who have their own thoughts and wishes and which is ruled by an infinitely transcendent God who is infinitely more than you even if you were made for the entire purpose of becoming divine, and perhaps even more divine than if you are the only thing you do not lump into the great mirror reflecting your thoughts.

Paidion: But how shall I then live? It seemed, for a moment, like things got better when I paid attention to my thoughts, and things in my life—

Aneer: If you think it seems like your thoughts matter, perhaps that’s because your thoughts really are important, possibly more important than you can even dream of. Perhaps there are other things going on in the world, but it is your thoughts that stand at the root of everything you contribute to the tree that will stand eternally in Heaven or as Hell. I don’t know how to tell you how important it is to attend to your thoughts, nor how to tell you that what you think of as morality is something which all the wise go upstream and deal with at the source, in the unseen warfare of vigilant attention to one’s thoughts. Little thoughts build to big thoughts and big thoughts build to actions, and spiritual discipline or “ascesis” moves from the hard battle of actions to the harder battle of thoughts. And thoughts aren’t just about concepts; when I’ve had trouble getting a thought of doing something I shouldn’t out of my head, sometimes I’ve reminded myself that what is not truly desired doesn’t really last long. The Philokalia there, my point is that it is a lifetime’s endeavor to learn how to pay proper attention to one’s thoughts.

Paidion: Um… uh… did you say I was made to be divine? Did you mean it?

Aneer: Paidion, if being divine just means that there isn’t anything that much bigger than us, then that’s a rather pathetic idea of the divine, and I wouldn’t give twopence for it. But if we really and truly understand how utterly God dwarfs us, if we understand what it means that God is the Creator and we are his creatures, and the infinite chasm between Creator and creature is then transcended so that we his creatures can become by grace what God is by nature—then that is really something and I would give my life for that way of being divine!

There is a hymn, of ancient age, that says, “Adam, wanting to be divine, failed to be divine. Christ became man that he might make Adam divine.” Christ’s life is an example of what it means to be divine: as a child he was a refugee, then grew up as a blue-collar worker, then lived as a homeless man, and died a slave’s death so vile its name was a curse word. This is a tremendous clue-by-four about what true glory is. This is a divine clue-by-four about what Adam missed when he decided that reigning as immortal king and lord of paradise and following only one simple rule wasn’t good enough for him.

And it is in this messy life we live, with so many situations beyond our control and so many things we would not choose, that God can transform us so that we become by grace what he is by nature.

Paidion: Aneer, can I ever enter the vast world you live in? It seems I have, well…

Aneer: Well?

Paidion: Chosen to live in an awfully small world, thinking I was doing something big.

Aneer: All of us have. It’s called sin. Not a popular word today, but realizing you are in sin is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Before you repent, you are afraid to let go of something that seems, like the Ring to Gollum, “my precious.” Afterwards you find that what you dropped was torment and Hell, and you are awakening to a larger world.

Paidion: But when can I do something this deep? My schedule this week is pretty full, and little of it meshes well with—

Aneer: The only time you can ever repent is now.

Athanasius: On Creative Fidelity

Buy The Steel Orb on Amazon.

Translator’s Introduction

In an era of political correctness, it is always refreshing to discover a new manuscript from Athanasius, a saint a bit like gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who told the community’s most respected members that they crossed land and sea to gain one single convert only to make this convert twice as much a child of Hell as they were themselves (Matt 23:15). In an era of political correctness, Athanasius can be a breath of fresh air.

In this hitherto undiscovered and unknown work, Athanasius addresses a certain (somewhat strange and difficult to understand) era’s idiosyncracy in its adulation of what is termed “creative fidelity.” His own era seems to be saying something to ours.

Athanasius: On creative fidelity

What is this madness I hear about “creative fidelity“? For it is actually reported to me that whenever one of you talks about being faithful to tradition, his first act is to parrot mad words about how “Being Orthodox has never been a matter of mindless parrot-like repetition of the past, but always a matter of creative fidelity.”? What madness is this?

Is creative fidelity the fundamental truth about how to be an Orthodox Christian? Then why do we only hear about this at a time when people love innovation, when the madness of too many innovators to mention poisons the air as effectively as the heretic, the Antichrist, Arius? How is it that the Fathers, who are also alledged to participate in this diabolical “creative fidelity”, did not understand what they were doing, but instead insisted in one and the same faith shared by the Church since its beginning? Is this because you understand the Fathers better than the Fathers themselves?

Is the report of blasphemy also true, that to conform to people’s itching ears (II Tim 4:3) you shy back from the divine oracle, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (I Cor 11:3)? There is something the Apostle so much wants you to understand, and perhaps if you understood it better you would not go so far astray as to seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5) in your quest for creative fidelity.

How is it that you seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5)? Christ is the head of the Church (Eph 5:23), of every man (I Cor 11:3), of every authority (Col 2:10), of all things (Eph 1:22,) and God is the head of Christ (I Cor 11:3). Christ is the one head, and because of him there are many heads. The sanctuary is the head of the nave: the place where sacred priests minister meets its glory and manifest interpretation (for as the divine Disciple tells us, the Son has interpreted the Father (John 1:18) to the world) in the nave where the brethren worship. The archetype is the head of the image, the saint the head of his icon, and indeed Heaven is the head of earth. And it is the head whose glory is manifest in the body.

If both incorruptible and unchangeable Heaven is the head of corruptible and changeable earth and yet earth manifests Heaven, what does this say about this strange thing you laud called “creative fidelity”? Does it not say something most disturbing? Does the one and the same faith, alive from the days of the apostles, belong to the corruptible or the incorruptible? Is it not unchangeable?

What then of those adaptations you make—even if some are good and some are even necessary? Do they not belong to the realm of the changeable and the realm of the corruptible?

Which then is to be head? Is the corruptible and changeable to be the head of the incorruptible that suffers no change? Or rather is not the heavenly incorruptible faith to be made manifest and interpreted in the world of change? Such creative fidelity as there may be cannot be the head, and when it usurps the place of the head, you make Heaven conform to earth. Such a people as yours is very good at making Heaven conform to earth!

Listen to me. When you prepare for the sacred Pascha, how many fasts are there? One of you fasts most strictly; another is too weak to fast; another has an observance somewhere between these poles, so that there are several ways of observing the fast.

Are there therefore many fasts? Are there many Lords (I Cor 8:5) honored when you fast? Or is it not one and the same fast which one observes according to the strictest letter, another with more accommodation, and each to the glory of God? Now which is the head, the variation in fasting, or the fast itself? Are the differences in observance the spiritual truth about the fast, or the one fast to the glory of the One Lord? Or do you think that because the fast may be relaxed in its observance, the most important truth is how many ways it may legitimately be observed?

So then, as the Church’s fast is the head of the brethren’s fast, be it strict or not strict, and it is one fast in the whole Church, so also there is one faith from the days of the Apostles. This I say not because I cannot notice the differences between the Fathers, but because these differences are not the head. The one fast is the head of various observances and the one faith perfectly delivered is the head even of creative fidelity, which has always appeared when people pursue the one faith and which has no need of our exhortations. Have the Fathers shown creative fidelity when they sought to preserve the one faith? If you say so, what does that say about your exhortation to creative fidelity? Is it needed? Do you also exhort people to wrong others so that the flower of forgiveness may show forth? Or is there not enough opportunity for the flower of forgiveness without seeking it out? Show creative fidelity when you must, but must you seek it out? Must you make it the head? Must you make the Fathers wrong when they lay a foundation, not of each day’s idiosyncracies in being faithful, but in the one faith that like Heaven cannot suffer change and like Heaven is what should be made manifest in earth?

Why do you seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5)? Our confession has a great High Priest (Heb 3:1) who has passed through the Heavens (Heb 4:14) to that Temple and Tradition, that Sanctuary, of which every changeable earthen tradition is merely a shadow and a copy (Heb 8:5) and which the saints of the ages are ever more fully drawn to participate! Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses and the Great Witness himself, let us also lay aside every weight, and change, and sin which so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Heb 12:1), changing that we may leave change behind!

Remember that you are not walking, as you say, the Orthodox System of Concepts, but the Orthodox Way. Remember that feeding the hungry (Matthew 25:35); is greater than raising the dead. Never let the lamp of your prayers go out (I Thess 5:17. Like the Father, be a father to the fatherless (Ps 68:5; Isa 1:17). All the brethren salute you (Rom 16:16; II Cor 13:13). Greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom 16:16; I Cor 16:20; II Cor 13:2; I Thess 5:26; I Pet 5:11).

Read more of The Steel Orb on Amazon!

Apps and Mobile Websites for the Orthodox Christian Smartphone and Tablet: Best iPhone, iPad, Droid, Samsung, Android, Kindle, and Blackberry Mobile Websites and Apps

Apps that are directly useful for ascesis

There are not many apps formally labeled as Orthodox Christian, but there are some apps and mobile websites that can be used in the pursuit of the spiritual discipline of ascesis. Among these apps are:

Ancient Faith Radio
The value of this app goes more or less without saying, but there is one caveat.

I visited a monastery whose rules included not playing recorded music, and I saw outside the nave an old man, with headphones on, listening to Byzantine chant, moving to its beat and off in his own world.

It struck me, if anything, as an act beneath the dignity of an old man. Being off in your own world is not good for anyone, but there are some things tolerated in youth that are just sad in a mature adult. And as best I can surmise the rule was not a rule against certain types of prohibited music (though acid rock would be a worse violation), but using technology to be off in your own world in the first place. And it is because of this that I rarely listen to recorded liturgical music: it is easily available, but there is something about it that is simply wrong. (And this is not just a matter of how digital music sounds to someone with perfect pitch.)

I know of nothing better in terms of Orthodox Internet radio than Ancient Faith Radio, and really have very little if anything to say how Ancient Faith Radio could better do the job of a radio station (or, as the case may be, two stations providing access to lectures, sacred liturgical chant, and access to past broadcasts). But I have some reservations about why Orthodox need to be doing the job of a radio station—as, for that matter, I have a cautious view of my own website. The ironically titled The Luddite’s Guide to Technology lays out the attitude where a radio station with crisply rendered sacred song available on one’s iPhone or Android should be used that much. (bookmark for iPhone, iPad, Droid, Samsung, Android, Kindle, and Blackberry; tablet users may prefer
The Psalter is the greatest prayerbook of the Orthodox Church. This page selects a Psalm at random, until you click a link and it provides another Psalm at random. They seem to be helpful, chiefly because the Psalter is helpful. (bookmark for iPhone, iPad, Droid, Samsung, Android, Kindle, and Blackberry; tablet users may prefer
I hate to hawk my own wares, but I’ve put quite a lot into the two sites linked above, and perhaps reading them may be of some use.

Your smartphone’s built-in note-taking application, or Momento for iPhone or iPad (with many diary applications for Droid, Samsung, and Android, and perhaps other offerings for other devices.
Some monks in the ancient world kept a notebook, and something to write with, by their belts. They would stop at intervals to write down their thoughts: not brilliant ideas to think about, but take moral stock of where they were and how they were doing.

Such a practice was not mandatory in the ancient world and to my knowledge no one requires it now. However, since I started doing it, I have besides some very stupid struggles come to a higher level of awareness, of nipsis, of how much goes on in my head and heart that is simply silly.

If you do this, it would be better to have an application that stores your information locally in your smartphone instead of uploading it to the cloud where others may more easily find it. That is why I don’t recommend Evernote for this purpose; it is a very attractive app in many ways, but not as strong on privacy as your smartphone’s built-in note taker or a diary app.

The Kindle app for iPhone, iPod Touch, Droid, Samsung, Android, and Blackberry (not to mention PC’s)
I wouldn’t want to denigrate paperback books, but you can buy some of the greatest classics on Kindle: the Orthodox Study Bible (an edition I discussed in my Orthodox bookshelf), the Philokalia, and My Orthodox Prayer Book. Plenty of lesser works are available too: see my own Kindle offerings at

Wants and Needs
Having this app is a want and not a need, but there are legitimate wants.

This is a simple but very well-executed app to help appreciate what are our wants, what are our needs, and what we have to be grateful for.

Apps that are generally useful

G.K. Chesterton said, “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.” And there is more Orthodoxy in just using an iPhone as a tool for being human than going to the app store and looking for apps endorsed as religious.

Do a Google search for best iPhone apps, for instance, and you will find a wealth of app recommendations. And many of these can work as a support for an Orthodox life of ascesis: Orthodoxy did not invent the pot, the belt, or the hammer, and yet all of these can have a place. Not, perhaps, the same place as a book of prayers, but a legitimate place. Secular tools and activities are holy when they are used by a life out of ascesis. And there are some excellent apps; among them I would name PocketMoney, a personal finance tool;mSecure, a password manager; Things, a to-do list; GPS MotionX Drive, a navigation tool; Flashlight, which lets you use the LED as a flashlight; and the main Google app, a search app optimized for the web by the company that defined search. All of these have their place.

But there are many apps on those lists that are unhelpful. Games and entertainment apps are meant to kill time, which is to say that they are meant to provide a convenient alternative to the spiritual discipline that tolds monks, “Your cell [room] will teach you everything you need to know.” And I suggest asking, in considering an app, “Does this support ascesis?” A to-do list helps with nuts and bolts of a disciplined life. An app to show a stream of new and different restaurants feeds gluttony. It is fine for Orthodox Christians to use apps that are not branded as Orthodox or ascetical, but the question “Does this support ascetical living?” (which is in no way a smartphone-centric question, but a basic question of Orthodox life, to be settled with one’s priest or spiritual father perhaps), applies here.

A closing note: When do you call 9-1-1 (or 9-9-9)?

There is a good case to be made that the most important number for you to be able to call on any phone is 9-1-1. However, this does not mean that your first stop in dealing with boredom is to call 9-1-1 to just chat with someone. It may be the most important number for you to be able to call—and the only number that may save your life—but using 9-1-1 rightly means using it rarely.

I would not speak with quite equal force about smartphones, but I would say that if you really want to know how to use your smartphone in a way that supports Orthodox spiritual discipline, the biggest answer is not to use one more app or one more mobile website. It is to use your phone less, to visit people face to face instead of talking and texting, and to use apps a little more like you use 9-1-1: to get a specific task accomplished.

And this is without looking at the problem of an intravenous drip of noise. The iPhone and Android’s marketing proposition is to deliver noise as an anaesthetic to boredom. And Orthodox use of the iPhone is not to deliver noise: all of us, with or without iPhones or Android devices, are to cultivate the ascesis of silence, and not make ourselves dependent on noise. And it is all too easy with these smartphones; they are designed so that it is too easy.

The Fathers did not say “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity,” but on this point they could have. Killing time is the opposite of the ascesis of being present, of being attentive of the here and now that God has given us, and not the here and now that we wish to be in or the here and now we hope to get to. Contentment and gratitude are for here now, not what we imagine as better conditions. We are well advised to live astemeniously, and that is where the best use of iPhone and Android smartphones and tablets comes from.

Smartphones have many legitimate uses, but don’t look to them for, in modern terms, a mood management tool.