Tell me what kind of patriarchy you object to. As Orthodox, we probably object to that kind of patriarchy as well.
There was one chaplain at a university who, whenever a student would come in and say, “I don’t believe in God,” would answer, “Tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that kind of God either.” And he really had something in common with them. He didn’t believe in a God who was a vindictive judge, or a God who was responsible for all the evil in this world, or a God who was arbitrary and damned people for never hearing of him. And the chaplain wasn’t just making a rhetorical exercise; he didn’t believe in many kinds of “God” any more than the students who were kind enough to come and tell him they didn’t believe in God. He really had something in common with them.
There was one book I was reading which was trying to recover women’s wisdom from patriarchy. I was amazed when I was reading it, as it talked about the holistic, united character of women’s knowing, and how women’s knowledge is relational, how women know by participating. What amazed me was how much it had in common with Orthodox description of knowledge, because the Orthodox understanding of knowledge is based off an essential unity and knows by relating, participating, drinking, rather than by analyzing and taking apart and knowing things by keeping track of a systematic map.
What Orthodoxy in the West would seek to recover from the West looks a lot like what feminism would like to recover from patriarchy. Part of what may confuse the issue is that feminism lumps together two very different forces as “patriarchy.” One of these forces is classical tradition, and the other is something funny that’s been going on for several hundred years in which certain men have defaced society by despising it and trying to make it manly.
The reason that women’s holistic, connected knowledge is countercultural is something we’ll miss if we only use the category of “patriarchy”. The educational system, for instance, makes very little use of this knowledge, not because patriarchy has always devalued women’s ways of knowing, but something very different. The reason that there’s something countercultural to women’s holistic, connected knowledge is that that is a basic human way of knowing, and men can be separated from it more easily than women, but it’s a distortion of manhood to marginalize that way of knowing. And there has been a massive effort, macho in the worst way, that despised how society used to work, assumed that something is traditional it must be the women’s despicable way of doing things, and taken one feature of masculine knowledge and used it to uproot the the places for other ways of knowing that are important to both men and women. There are two quite different forces lumped together in the category of “patriarchy.” One is the tradition proper, and the other is “masculism” (or at least I call it that), and what feminism sees as patriarchy is what’s left over of the tradition after masculism has defaced it by trying to make it “masculine,” on the assumption that if something was in the tradition, that was all you needed to know, in order to attack it as being unfit for men. “Masculism” is what happens when you cross immature masculinity with the effort to destroy whatever you need to make room for your version of Utopia. What is left of the tradition today, and what feminism knows as “patriarchy,” is a bit like what’s left of a house after it’s been burned down.
With apologies to G.K. Chesterton, the Orthodox and feminists only ask to get their heads into the Heavens. It is the masculists who try to fit the Heavens into their heads, and it is their heads that split. This basic difference between knowing as exaltation and expansion, participating in something and allowing one’s head to be raised in the Heavens, and domination and mastery that compresses the Heavens so they will fit in one’s head, is the difference between what “knowing” means to both feminists and Orthodox, and what it means to masculists.
The difference between Orthodoxy and feminism is this. Orthodoxy has to a very large measure preserved the tradition. When it objects to masculism, it is objecting to an intrusion that affects something it is keeping. It is a guard trying to protect a treasure. Where Orthodoxy is a guard trying to protect a treasure, feminism is a treasure hunter trying to find something that world has lost. It is a scout rather than a guard. (And yes, I’m pulling images from my masculine mind.) Feminism is shaped by masculism, and I’d like to clarify what I mean by this. I don’t mean in any sense that feminism wants to serve as a rubber stamp committee for masculism. The feminist struggle is largely a struggle to address the problems created by masculism. that’s pretty foundational. But people that rebel against something tend to keep a lot of that something’s assumptions, and feminism is a lot like masculism because in a culture as deeply affected by masculism as much of the West, masculism is the air people breathe. (People can’t stop breathing their air, whatever culture they’re in.) For one example of this, masculism assumed that anything in the tradition was womanish and therefore unfit for men, and feminism inherited a basic approach from masculism when it assumed that anything in tradition was patriarchal and therefore unfit for women. It’s a masculist rather than traditional way of approaching society. Orthodoxy has been affected by masculism to some degree, but it’s trying to preserve the Orthodox faith, where feminism has been shaped by masculism to a much greater degree and is trying to rebel against the air its members breathe. Feminism is a progressive series of attempts to reform masculism for women; if you look at its first form, it said, “Women should be treated better. They should be treated like men.” Later forms of feminism have seen that there are problems with that approach, but they have been reacting to a composite of masculism and earlier versions of feminism. Feminism has been a scout, rather than a guard.
I say that feminism has been a scout rather than a guard, not to criticize, but to suggest that Orthodoxy has been given something that feminism reaches for, but does not have in full. It is a bit like the difference between maintaining a car and trying to go through a junkyard with the wrecks of many magnificent things and reconstruct a working vehicle. In a junkyard, one sees the imprint of many things; one sees the twisted remains of quite a few items that would be good to have. And one can probably assemble things, get some measure of functionality, perhaps hobble together a working bicycle. And if one does not have a working car, there is something very impressive about doing one’s best to assemble something workable from the wreckage. It is perhaps not the best manners to criticize someone who has combined parts to make a genuinely working bicycle and say, “But you were not given a working car!”
But in Orthodoxy, there is a very different use of time. Orthodox do not simply spend time filling the gas tank (there are many necessities in faith like filling a gas tank) and maintaining the car (which we periodically break), necessary as those may be. Having a car is primarily about living life as it is lived when you can drive. It is about being able to travel and visit people. It is about having more jobs open to you. If a car isn’t working, dealing with the car means trying to do whatever you can to get it working. It means thinking about how to fix it. And feminism is trying to correct masculism. If a car is working, dealing with the car is about what it can let you do. It’s like how when you’re sick, your mind is on getting well and on your health. If you’re healthy, you don’t think about your health unless you choose to. You’re free to enjoy your health by focusing on non-health-related pursuits.
What does Orthodoxy have to contribute to feminism? To begin with, it’s not simply a project by men. Feminist tends to assume that whatever is in patriarchy is there because all-powerful men have imposed it on women, or to put things in unflattering terms women have contributed little of substance to patriarchal society. That may have truth as regards masculism, but Orthodoxy is the property of both men and women (and boys and girls), and it is a gross mischaracterization to only look at the people who hold positions of power.
Feminists have made bitter criticism of Prozac being used to mask the depression caused by many housewives’ loneliness and isolation. Housewives who do not work outside the home have much more than housework to deal with; they have loneliness and isolation from adult company. And perhaps, feminists may icily say, if a woman under those conditions is depressed, this does not necessarily mean Prozac is appropriate. Maybe, just maybe, the icy voice tells us, the solution is to change those conditions instead of misusing antidepressants to mask the quite natural depression those conditions create. Feminists are offended that women are confined to a place outside of society’s real life and doing housework in solitary confinement. One of the most offensive things you can say, if there is no irony or humor in your voice, is, “A woman’s place is in the house!” (and not add, “and in the Senate!”)
But Orthodoxy looks at it differently, or at least Orthodox culture tends to work out differently. And, like many alien cultures, things have a very different meaning. The home has a different meaning. When people say “family” today, we think of a nuclear family. Then it was extended family, and thinking of an extended family without a nuclear family would have been as odd to people then as it would be odd today to take your favorite food and then be completely unable to eat anything else. Traditional society, real traditional society, did not ask women to work in isolation. Both men and women worked in adult company. And the home itself… In traditional society, the home was the primary place where economic activity occurred. In traditional society, the home was the primary place where charitable work occurred. In traditional society, the home took care of what we would now call insurance. In traditional society, the home was the primary place where education occured. Masculism has stripped away layer after layer of what the home was. In Orthodox culture, in truly Orthodox culture that has treasures that have been dismantled in the West, a woman’s place really is in the home, but it means something totally different from what a feminist cringes at in the words, “A woman’s place is in the house!”
America has largely failed to distinguish between what feminism says and women’s interests, so people think that if you are for women, you must agree with feminism. Saying “I oppose feminism because I am for women’s interests” seems not only false but a contradiction in terms, like saying “I’m expanding the text of this webpage so it will be more concise.” It’s not like more thoughtful Catholics today, who say, “I have thought, and I understand why many people distinguish or even oppose the teachings of the Catholic Church with God’s truth. But my considered judgment is that God reveals his truth through the living magisterium of the Catholic Church.” It’s more like what the Reformers faced, where people could not see what on earth you meant if you said that God’s truth and the Catholic Church’s teaching were not automatically the same thing.
In this culture, someone who is trying to be pro-woman will ordinarily reach for feminism as the proper vehicle, just as someone who wants to understand the natural world will reach for science as the proper vehicle for that desire; “understanding the human body” is invariably read as “learning scientific theories about the body’s work,” and not “take a massage/dance/martial arts class”, or “learn what religions and cultures have seen in the meaning of the human body.” A great many societies pursued a deep understanding of the human body without expressing that desire the way Western science pursues it. They taught people to come to a better knowledge of their bodies—and I mean “of,” not just “about”—the kind of relational, drinking knowledge that feminists and Orthodox value, and not just a list of abstract propositions from dissecting a cadaver (a practice which some cultures regard as “impious and disgusting”—C.S. Lewis). They taught people to develop, nurture, and discipline their bodies so that there was a right relationship between body and spirit. They taught people to see the body as belonging a world of meaning, symbol, and spiritual depth—cultures where “How does it work?” takes a back seat to a deeper question: “Why? What does it mean?” Orthodoxy at its best still does teach these things. But Western culture has absorbed the scientific spirit that most people genuinely cannot see what “understanding the body” could mean besides “learning scientific theories about the body.” And, in this context, it seems like a deceitful sleight of hand when someone says, “I want to help you understand the body” and then offers help in ways of moving one’s body.
But I want to talk about some things that are missed within this set of assumptions. Feminism can speak for women’s interests. It normally claims to. And women are ill-served by an arrangement when people assume that criticism of feminism is at the expense of women’s interests. We need to open a door that American culture does not open. We need to open the possibility of being willing to challenge feminism in order to further women’s interests. Not on all points, but if we never open that door, disturbing things can happen.
If you ask someone outside of feminism who “the enemy” is to feminists, the common misunderstanding is, “Nonfeminist men.” And that’s certainly part of the problem and not part of the solution, but the real vitriol feeds into jokes like “How many men does it take to open a beer?—She should have it open when she brings it to him.” The real vitriol is reserved for the contented housewife who wants to be married, have children, and make a home, and not have a professional career because of what she values in homemaking itself.
Feminism is against “patriarchy.” That means that much that is positive in the tradition is attacked along with masculism. That means that whatever the tradition provided for women is interpreted as harmful to women, even if it benefits women. Wendy Shalit makes an interesting argument in A Return to Modesty that sexual modesty is not something men have imposed on women against their nature for men’s benefit; it is first and foremost a womanly virtue that protects women. We now have a defaced version of traditional society, but to start by assuming that almost everything in the culture is a patriarchal imposition that benefits only men, sets the stage for throwing out a great many things that are important for women. It sets the stage, in fact, for completing the attack that masculism began. (The effect of throwing out things that strike you as patriarchal on a culture has much the same effect as killing off species in an ecosystem because you find them unpleasant. It is an interconnected, interdependent, and organic whole that all its members need. That’s not quite the right way of saying it, but this image has a grain of truth.) Masculism scorned the traditional place for men, and was masculine only in that it rebelled against perceivedly feminine virtue. Feminism does not include a large number of women’s voices in America and an even larger number worldwide—because feminism lumps them all together in “The Enemy.” At times feminism can look anti-woman.
So everything will be OK if we resist feminism? No. First, if the tradition is right—let us say, in the controversial point that associates women with the home—that doesn’t make much sense of today’s options that don’t really let women be women and don’t let men be men. What is the closest equivalent to women reigning in one of society’s most important institions? Is it to be a housewife with a lunchtime discussion group, which seems to work wonders for depression caused by loneliness? Is it for women to keep house and work part time? Is it to work full time, and find an appropriate division of labor with their husbands? I have trouble telling which of these is best, and it doesn’t help matters to choose an option just because it bothers feminists. I think that women (and, for that matter, men) have an impoverished set of options today. Unfortunately, some of the most practical questions are also the ones that are hardest to answer.
Second and more importantly, reacting against feminism, or much of anything else, is intrinsically dangerous. If feminism has problems, we would be well advised to remember that heresies often start when people react against other heresies and say that the truth is so important they should resist that heresy as much as they can. Reactions against heresy are often heresy.
Let me explain how not to respond to feminism’s picture of what men should be. You could say that feminism wants women to be more like men and men to be more like women, and that has a significant amount of truth. But if you dig in and say that men should be rugged and independent and say, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!”, and women should be weak, passive creatures that are always in a swoon, there are several major problems.
The phrase “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!” is something that nobody but God should say. Someone greater than us is the master of our fate, and someone greater than us is the master of our soul, and that is our glory. To be a man is to be under authority. Perhaps it irks feminists that the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands as well as telling husbands to love their wives with the greatest and most costly love. (I’ve heard some first class citizens pointing out that the Bible requires something much heftier of husbands than mere submission—loving and loving their wives on the model of Christ going so far as to give up his life for the Church.) But the tradition absolutely does not say “Women are to be second-class citizens because they are under men’s authority and men are to be first-class citizens because they have the really good position of being free from authority.” To be a man is to be under authority, to be a woman is to be under authority, and to be human is to be under authority. To masculism this looks demeaning because immature masculinity resists being under authority or being in community or any other thing that men embrace when they grow up. But Orthodoxy is a call to grow up, and it is a call to men to be contributing members of a community and to be under authority. To tell men, “Be independent!” is to tell them, “Refuse to grow up!”
What about women? Shouldn’t they be passive and dependent? Let’s look at one of the Bible’s most complete treatments of what a woman should be like. I’ll give my own slightly free translation from the Greek version of Proverbs (31:10-31):
Who can find a valorous wife?
She is more precious than precious stones.
Her husband wholeheartedly trusts her, and will have no lack of treasures.
Her whole life works good for her husband.
She gathers wool and linen and weaves with her hands.
She has become like a trading ship from afar, and she gathers her living.
She rises at night, and gives food to her house, and assigns work to her maids.
She examines and buys a farm, and plants a vineyard with the fruit of her hands.
She girds her loins with strength and strengthens her arms for work.
She tastes how good it is to work, and her candle stays lit the whole night long.
She reaches her hands to collective work, and applies her hands to the spindle.
She opens her hands to the needy, and extends fruit to the poor.
Her husband does not worry about the men at home when he spends time abroad;
All her household has clothing.
She makes double weight clothing for her husband,
And linen and scarlet for herself.
Her husband is respected when he engages in important business at the City Hall.
When he is seated in council with the elders of the land.
She makes fine linens and sells belts to the Canaanites.
She opens her mouth with heedfulness and order, and is in control of her tongue.
She clothes herself in strength and honor, and rejoices in the future.
The ways of her household are secure, and she does not eat the bread of idleness.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, according to the deep law.
Her mercy for her children prepares them, and they grow rich, and her husband praises her.
Many daughters have obtained wealth, and many have worked vilantly, but you have surpassed them all.
Charm is false, and a woman’s [physical] beauty is shallow:
For a wise woman is blessed, and let her praise the fear of the Lord.
Give her the fruit of her labors, and let her husband be praised at the City Hall.
I have several things to say about this text. To open with, I’ll understand if you say this is an intimidating standard to be held up against, but if you say this affirms the ideal of women as passive and delicate, I’m going to have to ask what on earth you mean. Second, if you read the text closely, you can see hints of how important homes were to business and charity. Most business and charity were based in the home. Third, most translations use not quite the right word when they say, “Who can find a good wife?” The word used is not just “good”. It’s a word one could use of a powerful soldier. Fourth, at the risk of sounding snide, the words about not measuring womanhood by physical beauty beat body image feminism to the punch by about three thousand years. Fifth and finally, the text talks about this woman as a lot of things—as strong, as doing business, as farming, as manufacturing. But there’s one thing it does not say. It does not interpret “woman” in terms of “victim.”
There is something somewhat strange going on. If we ask what is the wealthiest nation on earth, it’s the U.S.A. If we ask what nation wields the most political clout on earth, it’s the U.S.A. And if we ask some slightly different questions, and ask what nation feminism has had the most success reforming the culture, the U.S. might not be at the very top, but it’s at least near the top. The same is true if we ask what nation women hold the most political clout in: the U.S. is either at the top or near the top. If we ask what nations women hold the most civil rights, and have most successfully entered traditionally male occupations, the U.S. is probably near the top. Now let us turn to still another kind of question: what are the women in the most powerful, and one of the most feminist-reformed, nations in the world, doing? If we’re talking about uneducated and lower-class women, the answer is simply living life as women. But if we look at educated, middle-class women, the answer tends to be simple but quite different: they are Fighting in the fray for the lowest rung on the ladder of victimization.
To be fair to feminists, I must hastily add that it’s a fray because it has a lot of participants besides feminists. The handicapped, gay, and racial minorities are also fighting, and it seems that everybody wants in. For that matter, a good many able-bodied, straight, white men also want in on the action; many middle-aged white applicants complain that affirmative action has biased the hiring process against them. To many of those who do not belong to an easily recognized victim’s group, the cry is, “When can I be a victim so I can get some rights?” It seems that fighting for the lowest rung on the ladder of victimization has become the American national sport.
It seems like I’m mentioning a lot of paradoxes about feminism. Let me mention something else that concerns me. The term “consciousness raising” sounds like something everybody should support—after all, what could be wrong with enhancing someone’s consciousness? But what does this term mean? To be somewhat blunt, “consciousness raising” means taking women who are often happy and well-adjusted members of society and making them hurt and miserable, not to mention alienated. Among feminists today, the more a woman identifies with the feminist movement, the more hurt and angry she is, the more she seems to be able to see past appearances and uncover a world that is unspeakable hostile to women. For that matter, historically the more feminism has developed and the more success feminism has had reforming society, the more women, or at least feminists, are sure the world is grinding an invisible, or if you prefer, highly visible, axe against women. Are there alternatives to this? What about feminists who say that going back isn’t an option? I’m not going to try to unravel whether there is an escape; I’m focusing on a different question, whether “consciousness raising” contributes to living in joy. If an animal’s leg is caught in a steel trap, the only game in town may be to gnaw off its own leg. The question of, “Is it necessary?” is one question, but I’m focusing on the question of, “Is it basically good?” For the animal, chewing off its own leg is not good, even if it’s the only game in town, and taking women who are happy and making them miserable is not good. You can argue that it is the only game in town, but if it’s a necessary evil, it is still an evil, and naming this process “consciousness raising” is a bit like taking a piece of unconstitutional legislation that rescinds our civil liberties and naming it the “USA Patriot Act.” It’s a really cool name hiding something that’s not so cool. The issue of whether there is anything better is one issue (I believe Orthodoxy is a better alternative), but there are two different issue going on here, and it is not clear that “consciousness raising” benefits women.
I’ve raised some unsettling points about feminism. And at this point I would like to suggest that Orthodoxy is what feminism is reaching for. What do I mean? There are a lot of points of contact between feminism’s indictment of what is wrong with patriarchy and Orthodoxy’s indictment of what is wrong in the West. (Both are also kook magnets, but we won’t go into that.) I mentioned one thing that feminism and Orthodoxy have in common; there are a great many more, and some of them are deep. But there are also differences. Orthodoxy doesn’t deliver women who are hurt and angry; Orthodoxy has a place for women to be women, and for women to enjoy life. Feminism tries to be pro-woman, but ends up giving its most vitriolic treatment to women who disagree with it: we do not have the sisterhood of all women, as feminism should be, but a limited sisterhood that only includes feminists. Orthodoxy has its own vitriol, but there is also a great tradition of not judging; even in our worship people are doing different things and nobody cares about what the next person is doing. We don’t believe salvation ends at our church doors, and in general we don’t tell God who can and cannot be saved. Feminism is a deep question, and Orthodoxy is a deep answer.
That is at least a simplistic picture; it’s complex, but I cannot help feeling I’ve done violence to my subject matter. It seems my treatment has combined the power and strength of a nimble housecat with the agility and grace of a mighty elephant. I would like to close with something related to what I said in the beginning, about knowing.
Christiane Northrup’s Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom talks about how women do not always feel the need to rush and get to the point, not because they are doing a bad job of getting that task out of the way (as necessary but unpleasant), but because to women things are interconnected, and the things a woman says before “the point” are things she sees as connected that add something to the point. This article has some of the qualities Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom finds in women, and I see things as interconnected. Beyond analysis, there is synthesis. If this article discusses many things that are connected to the point, that is not because I am trying to write like a woman would. It’s not something extra that I’ve decided to add; in fact it would be difficult for me to uproot this from how I communicate. And it’s not because I am trying to balance out my masculinity by being more feminine, or be androgynous, or because I’m trying to be woman-like out of a guilt factor. There are other reasons why, but I would suggest that it’s an example of Orthodox manhood at work. Not the only example, and certainly not the best, but my point is that there is an important sense in which Orthodoxy is what feminism is reaching for. But to immediately get to the point would give an impression that is strange and deceptive, and almost completely fail to convey what is meant by the claim. That is why I’ve been spending my time exploring a web of interconnections that help show what that claim means.
Orthodoxy is about helping us to be fully human, and that includes divinely inspired support for both men and women. It is other things as well, but part of why I became Orthodox was that I realized there were problems with being a man in Western Christianity. Orthodoxy is the most gender balanced Christian confession in terms of numbers, and I came to ask the rather abrasive question, “Does Orthodoxy draw more men than Evangelicalism because Orthodoxy understands sanctification as deification and Evangelicalism understands sanctification as a close personal relationship with another man?” I never got much of an answer to that question (besides “Yes”). And even though I’m looking for more in Orthodoxy than help being a man, one of the reasons I became Orthodox was that it is the best environment for being a man that I found. And I’m coming to realize that men are only half the picture in Orthodoxy.
Because everything is connected, if you hurt men, women get hurt, and if you hurt women, men get hurt… and if you think about what this means, it means that you cannot make an environment that is healthy for men but is destructive to women. Nor can you make an environment that is healthy for women but destructive to men. Orthodoxy’s being good for men is not something that is stolen from women. It is good for men because God instituted it as a gift to the whole human race, not only for men.
There are things that are deeply wrong with Western culture. Would you rather be working on an analysis of the problem, or learn to grow into its solution?
Humor Delivers Pain. That may sound like a strange thing to say but listen to me for a little bit. If you look at a joke, and really see why it’s funny, the humor comes from delivering pain. Mark Twain said, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.”
Let me give one example of humor that is funny because it delivers pain.
There was a man who decided he was going to become an icefisher, so he brought a bunch of equipment, got on the ice, and started to drill down a few inches. A deep, booming voice said, “There are no fish there!”
Startled, the man moved over fifty feet and started to drill again. The voice said, “There are no fish there, either!”
The man moved his equipment a hundred feet further, looked around, and the voice said, “Nor are there any fish there!”
The icefisher asked, “Who are you, God?”
The voice said, “No! I’m the arena manager!”
What’s so funny about this? The answer is that we have been slipped a bit of pain, slipped a very large bit of pain in fact: someone who genuinely and dearly wanted to be an icefisher was stupid enough to try to go icefishing in a hockey arena. Let me give another example.
For background to what is a bit of an inside joke, field service engineers enjoy a terrible reputation among a certain type of IT guru who, by the time they call for help, have done enough due diligence to understand the system better than the field service engineers do. And often field service engineers who don’t know how to solve a problem try swapping out parts with known assumed good parts to identify which part is the problem. This is called by the extremely pejorative metaphor, “Easter egging.”
Q: How can you tell if a field service engineer has a flat tire?
A: The car’s jacked up and he’s swapping one of the tires with a spare to see which one’s flat.
Q: How can you tell if a field service engineer is out of gas?
A: The car’s jacked up and he’s swapping one of the tires with a spare to see which one’s flat.
This reminds me of one time I heard a local guru on a call with technical support; he was trying to talk with Dell because they shipped him a computer with visible chunks of dust under the screen. I didn’t hear the other side of his conversation, but I did hear his words: “There’s dust under the screen… And why are we messing with the BIOS [software settings]? … Dude, there’s dust under the screen!” He had to finally speak with the helpdesk employee’s manager to recognize that the computer had been shipped with noticeable chunks of dust under the screen, that this was a problem, and the problem was not going to be solved by fiddling with software or anything else besides removing the dust from under the screen.
His side of the conversation was not intended as humor; it came out that way because it was painful enough that we laugh when we hear it. And the two field service engineer jokes, if they are really two jokes, deliver pain. The first joke delivers pain that a field service engineer will go Easter egging when casual observation would make it clear which tire was flat. The second joke, which uses the first joke as part of its buildup, says, metaphorically speaking, that a field service engineer has no strategies beyond swapping tires, and no concept that there are problems that are not solvable by swapping tires. If the first joke delivers pain, the second joke delivers unbelievable pain. And it’s the same sort of scream as, “And why are we messing with the BIOS [software settings]?”
Let me step back from these minutia to quote the great humorist Mark Twain again: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.” I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this, but on stage at least professional comedians are bitterly miserable. I don’t know about their private life; it could possibly be just an act. But on stage, at least, comedians draw from a well of sorrow, and there is something in the same vein of “Send in the Clowns,” which is not an ode to joy, but a dire bid to anaesthetize misery.
In my own life I have moved from telling jokes a lot, and making jokes for that matter (The Joy of Windows, and a joke I hope the reader doesn’t get), to starting to move away from humor as delivering pain. In my last speech on iPhones and spirituality, I described two Far Side cartoons about television. But the point, the entire point, of their inclusion was not to make my lecture more pleasant. It was to deliver pain. And what I have found in trying to unplug humor as something that slips bits of pain is that my total pain is less, and there is more joy. It was terrifying to contemplate letting go of at least some humor, but what I have found is more freedom and more joy. Which sometimes happens when you let go of something you are afraid to let go.
There is no humor in Heaven, and letting go of humor may be more joyful than we think.
Do children and adults understand each other? To some degree, and if many adults have lost touch with childhood, there are some who understand childhood very well. But when I was a child, I wanted to write a book about things adults don’t understand about children. (I have since forgotten with what I wanted to write.) There is a gulf. A father can read a Calvin and Hobbes strip, and his little girl can ask what’s funny, and the father is in a pickle. It’s not that he doesn’t want to explain it, and he may be able to explain the humor to another adult, but all of those explanations fail with his daughter. Children often believe that there’s a big secret the adult conspiracy is refusing to tell them. And the adult who is trying to get a child to “be serious” by setting aside “make believe” and dealing with what is “real” is like someone who wears a raincoat to the shower. The things that go without saying as part of being serious are in many cases not part of childhood’s landscape.
In this sense, children understand each other. This understanding is compatible with friendship, liking, hating, being aloof, and several other things, but there are certain things that go without saying, and the things that go without saying are shared. Two young children will have a world where the difference between “real” and “imaginary” is not very important, where they have no power and adults laugh at things the children don’t understand, and where the world is full of wonder. And in that sense two children can understand each other even if they don’t know each other’s heroes, favorite ways to play, and so on and so forth. And adults likewise understand things that can normally be taken for granted among adults.
Before suggesting that Western Christianity (in other words, Catholic and Protestant Christianity) is best understood in continuity with the West, I would like to explain what I mean. There are a good many Catholics and Protestants who try to be critical towards Western culture, and who do not accept uncritically what is in vogue. I know several Western Christians who tried to live counterculturally and not accept sour things in Western culture; I was such a Western Christian myself. So is it fair to talk about the continuity between Western Christianity and the West?
There is a common Western tendency to criticize common Western tendencies. I’ve seen Christians eager to criticize Western tendencies. I’ve also seen liberals who were not Christian eagerly criticize common Western tendencies. For that matter, I don’t remember ever hearing someone use the term “common Western tendency” in a flattering way, even though the West is home to many great cultural triumphs (as well as problems). Criticizing “Western tendencies” is a Western thing to do. Taking a dim view of the culture that raised you is a Western thing to do. Working to create a counterculture is a Western thing to do. The focus of this article is not to rebut the West but to explain the East and describe things Western Christians may not know to look for. The Orthodox classics do not try to be Christian by making unflattering remarks about “common Western tendencies.” For reasons that I will elaborate, I know that there are countercultural Western Christians who strive to construct or reconstruct a Christian culture that is very different from the Western mainstream (I was such a countercultural Western Christian), and I still consider their continuities with the West to be significant. More on that later.
This article explores the suggestion that Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity is best understood in continuity with the East, and Western (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity is best understood in continuity with the West. There are of course continuities between Eastern and Western Christianity. But they usually aren’t the point where Western Christians do not understand Orthodox. There are important ways that a Western Christian understands an Eastern Christian and members of (other) Eastern religions don’t. There are also important ways that members of (mostly) Eastern religions understand each other. The purpose of this article is to explain things that the East naturally understands about Orthodoxy, not to explain everything important about Orthodoxy. The understanding between Orthodox, Hindus, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists, and many less well known religions is of this kind. And so is understanding within the West, but East and West are different as children and adults are different—not because one is more mature than the other (each can see the other as childish), but because there is a gulf. The understanding isn’t a matter of how many details you know, or agreement on important matters. For that matter, it’s not even a matter of civil disagreement. Understanding another religion is perfectly consistent with fighting religious wars. But there is a gulf that is rarely bridged, and I am trying to bring a spark of understanding of the gulf. I am trying to explain what is shared that Westerns, even Western Christians, need to have explained. And I will be looking at both East and West, at both worlds.
This article is partly Eastern and partly Western, and doesn’t completely belong to either world. It’s meant to give explanations a Westerner would recognize, while addressing important things that a Westerner might not think to ask about. I was raised an evangelical, and I am a relatively recent convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. This means that for better or worse I have a foot in both worlds. I hope to use this position to build a bridge.
The Most Important Thing Is
“Article on understanding Orthodoxy” is a dread oxymoron, a red flag like the phrase “committee to revitalize,” or for that matter a thick commentary on Ecclesiastes 6:11: “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (NIV)
Orthodoxy is something you understand by doing. If you want to learn to swim, you get in the water with someone who can show you how to swim. So the first thing an article on understanding Orthodoxy can say is that you can’t understand Orthodoxy by reading an article on understanding Orthodoxy. You can understand it by visiting a parish and seeing how we worship, and maybe participating. A book can be a useful tour guide that can help you keep your eyes open for what to see at a historic site, but it cannot substitute for visiting the site yourself. The first thing to do is, if you know someone Orthodox, ask, “May I join you at church?” Orthodoxy is a live community, and the way to understand it is to interact with the community. If you don’t have that live connection, you can search online for a nearby parish. Some parishes (churches) are warmer than others. There are some parishes that unfortunately aren’t welcoming. If a church doesn’t have a sign out in front, that may be a warning. But there are many churches that are welcoming. And don’t worry if everybody seems to be doing things that you don’t understand. There is a great deal of freedom in Orthodoxy, and apart from receiving communion you should be welcome to do (or not do) anything people are doing. Sometimes you will see different members of the faithful doing different things, walking around, entering, leaving. This is because of the freedom in Orthodox worship and a grand tradition of not sticking your nose in what other people are doing. When I first visited my present parish, well before I became Orthodox, I was self-conscious about following what other people were doing and sticking out. In the time that I’ve been Orthodox, I realized that there was no need to be self-conscious, and in fact no one cared that I wasn’t acting like everyone else.
So make a note in your planner, or call a friend who’s Orthodox. Decide exactly when you will make that contact, and do what you need to do to get that in your planner. Actually visiting the site is infinitely more valuable than reading a guidebook about it.
Symbol and Nominalism
Before explaining what symbol is in the East, I would like to talk about what has happened in the West. Symbol in the West used to be close to what it was in the East—like two trees standing tall. Then something called nominalism came along, and cut down the Western tree, leaving a stump of a once great tree. Nominalism is a good part of what has defined the West.
Nominalism was one side in a Western medieval debate, and it was called the “modern way.” The debate was whether categories of things were something real that existed before things and before our minds, or whether categories are things we construct after the fact. What people used to believe, and what the nominalists’ opponents believed, was that a lot more things were real than the nominalists acknowledged. Their opponents looked at the structures we perceive and said, “It’s out there,” and the nominalists said “No, it only exists in your head.” Nominalism was an axe for cutting down most of what people sensed about the world around us. In its extreme form nominalism says that brute fact is all that exists; if it’s not a brute fact, it can only exist in people’s heads. Some scholars will recognize that as a postmodern distinction; nominalism was something that flowered in modernism and bore fruit in postmodernism. At one stage, nominalism defined modernism and the Enlightenment, while at a later stage, people were more consistent and became postmodern.
Another thing that nominalism did was to cut apart the thing that represents and the thing that is represented in a symbol. Nominalism is the disenchantment of the entire universe. Nominalism is a disenchanting force that says, “If you can’t touch it, it can only be in your head,” and the place of symbol was changed from what it once was. Symbol wasn’t the only casualty, but it was one of the casualties.
Imagine two very different surfaces, like the surface of the ground. The first surface, Orthodoxy, is rich in connections, layers, and colors. Imagine that the first surface is textured, like the surface of the earth, while there are not only buildings but great arcs connecting one part to another so that what is present in one place is present in another. A symbol is an arc of this kind, and symbol is not something externally added to reality; it is something basic to what reality is, so that the surface is in fact richer than just a surface and is as connected as a web. If there is something in you that responds to beauty in the surface, or to ways it has become ugly, that is because something inside you is resonating with something out there.
Now imagine another picture, of a surface that is flat and grey, where there is no real order, and any structures and connections you see are only ways of lumping things together inside your head. You can read things on to it; you can imagine structures in its randomness and pretend any two parts are linked; because it has no order, you can project any kind of structure or connection you want, even if this freedom means it is only your particular fantasy. If you find it to be drab and empty, that is a private emotional reaction that says nothing interesting about the drab and empty world, in particular not that it is failing to be in some way colorful like it “should” be. “Should” has no meaning beyond something about our private psychology.
If you imagine these two surfaces—one of them structured, many-layered, colorful, and possessing a veritable web of connecting arcs (symbols), and the other one having only a single grey layer and no connections—you have the difference between what Orthodoxy believes and where nominalism leads. Few people believe nominalism in a pure form; I don’t even know if it is possible to believe nominalism in a few form. Nominalism is more a way of decaying than a fixed system of ideas. Part of what has shaped Western Christianity is the influence of nominalism as the disenchantment of the entire universe. Nominalism disenchants the treasure of a world of spiritual resonance, where symbol and memory have a rich meaning, where a great many things are not private psychological phenomena but something that is attuned to the world as a whole, as much as a radio picks up music because someone is broadcasting the music it picks up.
What was before nominalism in the West, and what is the place of symbol in Orthodoxy now? Christ is a symbol of God, and he is a symbol in the fullest possible sense. How? Christ is not a miniature separate copy of God, which is what a symbol often is in the West. Christ is fully united with God: “I and the Father are One.” God is fundamentally beyond our world; “No man can see God and live.” But “in Christ the fullness of God lives in a body.” And if you have seen Christ, you have seen the Father. Christ visibly expresses the Father’s hidden reality.
The image of God, in which we were all created, does not mean that we are detached miniature copies of God. What it means is that we, in our inmost being, are fundamentally connected to God. It means that we were created to participate in God’s reality, and that something of God lives in us. It means that every breath we breathe is the breath of God. It means that we are to reign as God’s delegates, the moving wonders who manifest God in ruling his visible world.
As an aside, symbol is one important kind of connection that makes things really present, but it’s not the only one. Memory is not understood as a psychological phenomenon inside the confines of a person’s head; to remember something is to make something really present. “This do in rememberance of me” is not primarily about us having thoughts in our heads about Christ, just as saying “Please assemble this cabinet” is not primarily about us seeing and touching tools and cabinet pieces. Saying “Please assemble this cabinet” may include seeing and touching what needs to be assembled, but the focus is to bring about a fully assembled cabinet which not just something in our minds. When Christ said “This do in rememberance of me”, he wasn’t just talking about a psychological phenomenon, however much that may be necessary for remembering; he was telling us to make him really present and be open to his presence, and he isn’t present “just” in our thinking any more than a working cabinet is “just” a set of sensations we had in the course of assembling it. And the idea of “This do in rememberance of me” goes hand in hand with Holy Communion being a symbol in the fullest possible sense: the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine embodies the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. All of these are tied together.
Amomg these symbols, a reader may be surprised about one kind of symbol I haven’t mentioned: the icon. Icons are something I tried to overlook to get to the good parts of Orthodoxy; it took a while for me to recognize how much icons are one of the good parts of Orthodoxy. Icons are in fact key to understanding Orthodoxy.
When one bishop is giving a speech, sometimes he will hold up a picture, of a traffic intersection (or something else obviously secular), and then say, “In Greece, this is an icon. It’s not a holy icon, but it’s an icon.”
Part of what icons are in the East is easier to understand in light of what happened to icons in the West, not only religious artwork but painting as a whole. What happens if you ask an art historian to tell the story of Western art after the Middle Ages, roughly from the Renaissance to the Neo-classicists?
The story that is usually told is a story of Western art growing from crude and inaccurate depictions to paintings that were almost like photographs. It is a story of progress and advancement.
Orthodoxy can see something else in the story. Western art became photorealistic, not because they progressed from something inferior, but because their understanding of symbol had disintegrated.
If a picture is real to you as a symbol, then you don’t have to strive too hard to “accomplish” the picture, in the same sense that someone who has never gotten in trouble with alcohol doesn’t have to make an unprovoked lecture on why he doesn’t have a drinking problem. People who use alcohol responsibly rarely feel the need to prove that they don’t have a drinking problem; it’s someone who has a drinking problem who feels the need to make sure you know that his drinking is under control. People who don’t have a problem don’t feel the need to defend themselves, and artists and publics who haven’t lost symbols don’t feel a need to cram in photorealism. When Renaissance artists inaccurately portrayed the place of Christ’s birth as having a grid of rectangular tiles, they were cramming in photorealism. It wasn’t even that they thought they needed photorealism to make a legitimate picture. They went beyond that need to make the picture an opportunity to demonstrate photorealism, whether or not the photorealism really belonged there. From an Orthodox perspective the problem is not the historical inaccuracy of saying that Christ was born in a room with a tiled floor instead of a cave. The anachronism isn’t that big of a deal. From an Orthodox perspective the problem is that, instead of making a symbol the way people do when they really believe in symbol, people were making pictures the way people do when the pictures are unreal to them as symbols. The artists went for broke and pushed the envelope on photorealism because the West had lost something much more important than photorealism.
Good Orthodox icons don’t even pretend to be photorealistic, but this is not simply because Orthodox iconography has failed to learn from Western perspective. As it turns out, Orthodox icons use a reverse perspective that is designed to include the viewer in the picture. Someone who has become a part of the tradition is drawn into the picture, and in that sense an icon is like a door, even if it’s more common to call icons “windows of Heaven.” But it’s not helpful to simply say “Icons don’t use Renaissance perspective, but reverse perspective that includes the viewer,” because even if the reverse perspective is there, reverse perspective is simply not the point. There are some iconographers who are excellent artists, and artistry does matter, but the point of an icon is to have something more than artistry, as much as the point of visiting a friend is more than seeing the scenery along the way, even if the scenery is quite beautiful and adds to the pleasure of a visit. Cramming in photorealism is a way of making more involved excursions and dredging up more exotic or historic or whatever destinations that go well beyond a scenic route, after you have lost the ability to visit a friend. The Western claim is “Look at how much more extravagant and novel my trip are than driving along the same roads to see a friend!”—and the Orthodox response shows a different set of priorities: “Look how lonely you are now that you no longer visit friends!”
The point is that an icon, being a symbol, is connected to the person represented. It is probably not an accident that in the Reformation, the most iconoclastic people were those in whom the concept of symbol as spiritual connection had completely disintegrated. When I was a Protestant, the plainest sanctuaries I saw were the sanctuaries belonging to people who disbelieved in symbols as spiritual connections. If a symbol is not spiritually connected, then reverence to an icon is inappropriate reverence to a piece of wood; Orthodox believe that reverence to an icon passes through to the saint depicted in part because of the connection that is real to them.
There are other things to discuss about icons. Here I want to talk about them as symbols, and symbols in an Orthodox picture—the mental image I drew above that has a web of interconnections, has both spiritual and material layers, and is very different from the (almost empty) nominalist picture. A lot of people who try to understand icons are trying to fit the Orthodox icon into the nominalist picture, or at least a picture where part of the Orthodox framework is replaced with something more nominalist. I want to return to icons later, after some comparisons.
Compare and Contrast
How is Orthodoxy different from Western Christianity? I would like to answer, focusing on evangelical Christianity in my treatment of Western Christianity but referring to Catholicism. I don’t believe evangelical Christianity is the only real version of Western Christianity, but it is the middle of the (Western) road. From an Orthodox perspective, “Catholic,” “evangelical,” and “mainline” (or, if you prefer an alternative to “mainline,” you can say “oldline,” or “sideline,” or “flatline”) represent three degrees of being Western, much as “rare,” “medium,” and “well done” denote three degrees of a steak being cooked. There are important differences, but there is also something that’s the same. Catholicism is like a rare steak, is almost raw in some parts and almost well done in others. A Catholic may be almost Orthodox (certainly a Catholic is not discouraged from trying to be almost Orthodox), and there are a lot of Catholics who believe that Vatican II says that the Reformers were right about everything (or something pretty close to that).
Catholics tend to be sensitive to the differences to Catholic and Protestant (even if they choose not to pay enough attention to those differences). Yet it is common for Catholics to believe that Catholics and Orthodox only differ in the addition of “and the Son” to a creed. Saying that’s the only difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is like saying that the difference between the Bible and the Quran is only that “Bible” was a French word for “book” and “Quran” is, with remarkable similarity, an Arabic word that can mean “book.” Catholic priests will tell you that Catholics and Orthodox believe almost exactly the same thing, and this is because Catholics know how they are different from Protestants but don’t know where their differences with Orthodox lie. The Reformation took a lot of trends in Catholicism and pushed them much further, but the problem isn’t just that the Reformers pushed them further. The problem is that the trends became a part of Catholicism in the first place. To Catholic readers who have been told that Catholicism is almost the same as Orthodoxy and the two should be joined together—I understand why you believe that and it is what one would expect the Catholic tradition to say. But to the Orthodox that is like saying that the Quran is of a piece with the Bible. You’re looking in the wrong place for the differences between the Bible and the Quran when you try to reconcile them by pointing out that “Bible” and “Quran” both mean book in influental languages. Not only do the differences lie elsewhere, they are far, far deeper.
Sin is understood as essentially crime, and the remedy to sin provided by Christ is understood as being cleared for the guilt of a crime. Hence in Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, there are elaborations designed to convince you that your crimes (sins) are great, and that you cannot ever clear yourself of these crimes (sins), but Bunyan does not seem to even see the question of whether sin and the consequence of sin are like anything besides crime and criminal guilt.
Sin is understood as spiritual disease, and the remedy to sin provided by Christ is understood as healing. The Eucharist is “for the healing of soul and body,” and as the Great Physician Christ is concerned for both spiritual disease and physical disease, and drawing people into the divine life that he gives.
The reformation created mass literacy so that everyone could read the Bible. As a culture, it is heavily oriented towards written text. Someone said after visiting an Orthodox Church that it was the only church he’d been to that didn’t offer him printed material. At least for Protestant churches, a visitor is offered some kind of paper documents; there is a bulletin that is passed out; one of my friends had been a member of church where people said “No creed but Christ!” (which he was quick to point out, is a creed), and then asked him to sign a sixty page doctrinal statement.
If evangelicalism is essentially a written culture, then in keeping with the observation that the opposite of a “literate” culture is not “illiterate” but “oral,” Orthodoxy has the attributes of an oral tradition. Many of its members can read and write, but writing has different implications. It’s the difference between a natural environment that includes some things people have created (a campsite) and a basically artificial environment (a laboratory). At the parish where I was accepted into the Orthodox Church, there was no literature rack and no stack of booklets for you to follow along the service. Even where those booklets are offered, incidentally, I prefer to participate without reading what is being said—I think it’s not just economic reasons that the main historic way for Orthodox to follow along a service doesn’t depend on reading.
Part of an oral tradition means things that are alive, things that are passed on that have a different basic character to what can be preserved in a text. This is present in Western Christianity, but it is more pronounced in Orthodoxy.
The written character of the culture is focused on Scripture. It is expected, especially among Evangelicals, that if your faith is strong, you will read Scripture privately.
Catholics and some Protestants do not believe Scripture has sole authority; Catholics assert the authority of Tradition alongside Scripture (“Scripture and Tradition”), and different Protestant groups have different solutions to the problem of how to balance the authority of Scripture and tradition.
Scripture is the crowning jewel of Tradition. Scripture is not something understood apart from Tradition; Scripture is something alive, something dynamically maintained by Tradition and something inspired not only in that the Spirit inspired ancient words but in that he speaks today to people who can listen to him. And Scripture is at its fullest, not read privately, but when proclaimed in Church.
One Orthodox priest tells people, “Reading Scripture privately is the second most spiritually dangerous thing you can do. All sorts of temptations will flare up, you’ll be assailed by doubts, and the Devil will whisper into your ear all these heretical ‘insights’ about the text. It is an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do.”
Some people are intimidated, wonder if they should really be reading the Bible privately, and ask timidly, “Well, I should reconsider reading the Bible privately. But one question. What’s the most dangerous thing you can do spiritually?”
“Not reading the Bible privately.”
There is a set of important questions, “What part of the person do we know with?” “What is knowledge?” “How can knowledge be built in another person?” Let me start with some secular answers:
What part of the person do we know with? We know with the mind, which is what is studied by the secular discipline of cognitive psychology. One big example is the part of us that reasons.
What is knowledge? Knowledge is having true mental representations that correspond to the world. It is the sort of thing we acquire from books.
How can knowledge be built in another person? Knowledge is built, to speak crudely, by opening the head and dumping something in. Now of course we need words/numbers/pictures to do this, but you teach by a classroom or a book.
Now this is a purification of something that is mixed in any Western Christian. It doesn’t even represent postmoderns well; in fact, it describes something postmoderns are trying to get away from. But admitting all these things, there is an element of the above answers in how Western Christians understand knowledge. Many Western Christians do not purely believe these answers, but they do believe something mixed with them.
I’d like to answer the same basic questions as I outlined to the left:
What part of the person do we know with? At least in matters of faith, we know with something that could be called “spirit” or “mind,” a part of us that is practical (the knowing we have when something becomes real to us). This part of the person thinks precisely because it is the center of where we meet God. It is the part of us we use to pray and worship. It is part of us that is connected with God and can only be understood with reference to God.
What is knowledge? Knowledge is when you participate in something, when you drink it in, when you relate to it. Someone’s talked about the difference between knowing facts about your wife, and knowing your wife. The West uses the first kind of knowledge as the heart of its picture of knowledge. Orthodoxy uses the second.
It is normally vain for a person to say, “To know me is to love me.” But there is another reason why someone might say that. To know anything is to love it. To know any person is to love that person because knowledge is connected to love.
How can knowledge be built in another person? Knowledge works from the outside in. The reason the first chapter after the introduction asked you to visit Orthodox worship is that that is how one comes to understand Orthodoxy. We don’t believe in trying to open the head and dump in knowledge. You can’t gain knowledge of Orthodoxy that way. You might be able to learn some of the garments surrounding Orthodoxy, but not the spirit itself. The point of asking you to visit Orthodox worship is that that’s not something important that needs to be added to learning about Orthodoxy. It is learning about Orthodoxy.
By the way, the same kind of thing is true of evangelicalism, even if people are less aware of it. Evangelicalism can never be understood as a system of ideas. An evangelical might only be aware of the ideas to be known, but that can only happen if the participation-based knowledge of the evangelical walk, in other words the Orthodox kind of knowledge, is in place.
I’d like to look at one more specific kind of knowledge, theology. In the West, theology is an academic discipline, and used to be called the queen of the sciences. Theology is a system of ideas, much like philosophy, and every other kind of theology is a branch of systematic theology.
It took me a long time to make head or tail of my deacon’s insistence, “Theology is not philosophy whose subject-matter is God,” or of the ancient saying, “A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” But that was because I was trying to fit them into my Western understanding of theology tightly tied to a philosophy.
Theology is not the queen of sciences because it is not a science, and only with reservations can it be called an academic discipline. Calling theology an academic discipline is like calling karate an academic discipline (because you can take classes in both at college). Academic theology has a place, and in fact I intend to study academic theology, but the real heart of theology is not in the academy, but in the Church at prayer.
Theology is knowledge. More specifically, it is mystical or spiritual knowledge. It is knowing with the part of you that prays, and that is why Orthodox still say, “A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” Theology is knowledge that participates in God, that eats and drinks Christ in Communion, Communion, that seeks a connection with God. And because Orthodox theology is Orthodox knowing, as described above, books can have value but can never contain theology.
In the West, some Christians regard Christianity as a system of ideas. Hence one Catholic author writes, “It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.” If this is not universal among Western Christians, it nonetheless represents one of the threads that keeps popping up.
Eastern Orthodox would agree that Christianity is not primarily a mode of feeling; indeed, Orthodox do not believe that feelings are the measure of worship. But we part company with the Catholic author quoted, in trying to fix this by placing a system of ideas where some place emotion.
Orthodoxy is a way, just as many Eastern religions are a way. It is a path one walks. A worldview is something you believe and through which you see things; those elements are present in a way, but a way is something you do. It is like a habit, or even better a skill, which you start at clumsily and with time you not only become better at, but it becomes more natural. But it is more than a skill. It is even more encompassing than a worldview; it is how you approach life. Part of the West says we must each forge our own way; Orthodoxy invites people into the way forged by Christ, but it very much sees the importance of walking in a way.
The West tends to treat society as to a raw material, a despicable raw material, which will begin to have goodness if one puts goodness into it, transforming it according to one’s enlightened vision.
This undergirds not only liberalism but most criticism of “common Western tendencies”, and in particular most Christian attempts at counterculture. This attitude behind counterculture is not only that the Fall has impacted one’s culture, but that there is nothing really good or authoritative about culture unless one puts it in.
Counterculture tends to be seen as essentially good.
In the East, as in the medieval and ancient West, the assumed relationship between a man and his culture is like the relationship between a man and his mother. It is a relationship which respects authority, femininity, and kinship.
This is not to say that one’s culture cannot be wrong. What it is to say is that there is a world of difference between saying, “Mother, you are wrong,” and “You are not my mother! You are nothing but a despicable raw material which it is my position to put something good in by transforming it according to my ideas.” There can in fact be counterculture, but it is not counterculture according to the example of the Renaissance magus, the Enlightenment (or contemporary liberal) social engineer, or the postmodern deconstructionist. It is rather like the wild offshoot into Christ’s body the Church, who regards his mother the Church, and patristic culture, as more authoritative than the culture he was born in.
Counterculture can be seen as a necessary evil.
What the Incarnation Means
In the West, doctrines have worked like elements in a philosophical system, while in the East, the focus is on what doctrines mean for us. There is a difference of focus, more than ideas contained, in the doctrine of the Trinity. The Western emphasis has been on philosophical clarity in describing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Eastern emphasis has been on what the persons of the Trinity mean for us and how we relate to them.
The Church didn’t even spell out a philosophical analysis of the Trinity until almost three centuries had passed and a heresy contradicted what they had always known. The Church had always known that the Son and the Holy Spirit were just as divine as the Father, and it taught people to appropriately relate to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before it spelled out why people should relate that way.
The Incarnation, God becoming human, is recognized by all Christians who have their heads screwed on straight (and quite a few who don’t). But in the East, believing in the Incarnation isn’t just an idea that we agree with (although that is important). It is something that in practice determines the shape of a great many things in our spiritual walk. It is something that has great practical relevance. I would like to explain some of what the Incarnation means in the East, and that means explaining how the Incarnation gives shape to our spiritual walk.
There has been a saying rumbling down through the ages. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God (Protestant). The divine became man so that man might become divine (Catholic). God and the Son of God became man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the sons of God. This teaching has mostly fallen away in Protestantism, even if Luther and Calvin believed it, and it is one puzzle piece among others in Catholicism. To the Orthodox it is foundational. The whole purpose of Christ becoming man, and our becoming Christian, is to become like Christ. Furthermore, becoming like Christ does not simply mean becoming like Jesus the morally good and religious man without reference to Christ’s divinity. We don’t split Christ like that. If God wants to make us like Christ, he wants to make us like Christ who is fully God and fully human, and that means that we “share in the divine nature” (as spelled out in II Pet 1:4). It means that if we read Paul talking about the Son of God as meaning divinity, then when Paul talks about us as sons of God he is saying something in the same vein. There are caveats the Orthodox believe that help balance the picture—in particular, we can be made divine by grace, but only God can be divine by nature, ever. We cannot make others divine. God has his essence which is beyond knowing and his energies which reach out to us, but we can never reach beyond his manifest energies to see his essence. Catholics believe in a “beatific vision” that in Heaven we will see God as he truly is. Orthodox call that heresy. God can reach out to us and we can meet him when he reaches out, but it is radically, utterly, and absolutely impossible for us to ever know God as he truly is. Neither our being divine by grace nor our glorification in Heaven can ever overcome God’s absolute transcendence. The Orthodox liturgy and prayers not only take account of sin; they spend more time bringing sin we need to repent of before God, than our being made like Christ. With all these caveats, the basic picture means that the Incarnation is not a one-time unnatural exception, something which runs against the grain of how God operates, or something totally unlike what can happen with us. The Incarnation is a peerless model that established the pattern of what it means to be Christian. Christ as the example of who a Christian should be is the only human who was fully divine, and even the only one to be fully human, but the Christian walk was meant to be, and is, a symbol that both represents and embodies what happened in the Incarnation. Christ is really incarnate in every member of the Church, and the Incarnation is not an anti-natural exception, but the pattern for being Christian. The purpose of being Christian is what Orthodox call “theosis,” or “divinization,” or “deification.”
Part of understanding that Christ became human, and in fact became flesh, requires an understanding of how spirit and matter relate. DesCartes is one of the more Western philosophers. Part of his contribution was a lot of thinking about the famous problem of the “ghost in the machine.” The problem of the “ghost in the machine” is the problem of how our minds can interact with our bodies, once you put mind and body in watertight compartments and assume that they shouldn’t be able to interact. It’s possible to be Western and disagree with DesCartes—but the main Western starting point is that mind and body are things one would expect to be separate.
In the East we don’t have trouble with the “ghost in the machine” problem because we don’t treat matter and spirit as things that are cut off from each other. We believe that matter and spirit are tightly bound together. It doesn’t seem strange to us that our minds can move our bodies—it’s a wonder, as all of God’s works are wonders, but it’s not something illogical.
This understanding means that the Incarnation doesn’t just mean that Christ had a body; it means that Christ was connected to his body on the most intimate level. What the Incarnation means for us isn’t just that Christ’s body, and our bodies, are somehow part of the picture. It means that our bodies are an inescapable part of the picture, and they are very relevant to our spirits.
If you visit Orthodox worship, you may wonder why people stand, cross themselves, bow, kiss icons, and so on and so forth—in short, why their bodies are so active. The answer is that since our spirits and bodies are tied together in the whole person, worship includes the whole person. We don’t just park our bodies while our spirits get on with worship. We might do that if we thought that our minds and bodies were separate, but we don’t. We believe that Christ’s incarnation is a matter of the Son of God, and the man’s spirit, mind, soul, and body making one being, Christ, who was as united as possible. And that means that worship at Church and the broader spiritual walk both involve the whole person.
This integrated view of spirit and matter, and of the Incarnation, helps create the space for icons. I found icons strange at first, largely because as a Western Christian I had no place for icons that was appropriate. Believing that physical matter can have spiritual properties, that an icon can embody a real presence, all seems strange to someone shaped by nominalism and a rigid separation of spirit and matter. But I am learning to appreciate that to an Orthodox, to say that Christ had a body and to say that matter and spirit are tied together paves the way to recognizing that icons are a gift from God. They mean that matter is not cut off from spirit when it comes to our bodies, and they mean that matter is not cut off from spirit in places where we worship. Icons are another part of the incarnate faith of the Orthodox Church, and if you disagree with them, please understand that they are part of the understanding of how the Incarnation tells us practically how the Father wants us to worship him.
When I was a Protestant, the songs I heard in Church were about spiritual themes, and more specifically they are about themes in the Bible that seem spiritual and theological given a watertight idea of spirit. As contrasted to the Psalms, there was almost none of the imagery of the natural world. Orthodox liturgy, which contains a lot of teaching, sweeps across the both material and spiritual creation. One hymn praises Mary, the mother of our Lord, as “the volume [book] on which the Word [Christ] was inscribed,” and “the ewe that bore the Lamb of God.” The frequent physical and nature imagery that seamlessly praises God and rejoices in his whole creation is what being spiritual looks like when spirit is recognized as so deeply connected with the material dimension to our Lord’s creation.
Like other Eastern religions, Orthodoxy has a supportive framework of formal and informal prayer, fasting from foods, ritual worship, hesychasm (stillness) and other aspects of spiritual discipline (which some Orthodox call “ascesis”). These are not “rules,” but they do provide a concrete structure to help people. Partly because Orthodoxy assumes the relevance of matter to being spiritual, Orthodoxy doesn’t just say “Go, be spiritual,” without giving further direction as it doesn’t just say “Park your bodies so your spirits can worship.” The structure provided for spiritual discipline is shaped by the Incarnation, and not only because it addresses the whole person. The spiritual discipline is not very different from other Eastern religions, but the meaning of that spiritual discipline is very different. In Hinduism and Buddhism, asceticism is something you do for yourself, and other people often aren’t part of the picture. When the Buddha decided to turn back and share his discovery with others, he was choosing a second best—according to Buddhism, the best thing would have been to enter complete release (salvation) instead of compromising his own benefit to share his discovery with others. Being good to other people, in Buddhism and in Hinduism tends to be like a boat you use to cross a river: once you have crossed the river, you don’t need the boat any more.
What about Orthodoxy? One Orthodox saying is, “We are saved in community. We are condemned all by ourselves.” Another Orthodox saying puts it even more strongly: “We can’t be saved. The Church is saved, and we can be in it.” Orthodox spiritual discipline is not something that makes ethics unnecessary. The whole point of spiritual discipline is ethical. If I pursue asceticism, the goal isn’t for me to be saved all by myself; it is impossible for me to be saved all by myself, just like it’s impossible for me to have a good friendship all by myself. The goal of asceticism is for the Orthodox to love God and his neighbor, and if someone fails to recognize this, this is a problem. Spiritual discipline is Incarnational because, as much as the Incarnation was an act of love for others, spiritual discipline is oriented to loving with Christ’s own love.
In the West, people see salvation as accomplished through Christ’s cross; in Orthodoxy, we believe that Christ’s whole time on earth, including the cross, saves us. “Incarnation” means not only the moment when the Son of God became a man, but his baptism, ministry, cross, tomb, and resurrection. And thus the Incarnation I have discussed above is not simply the moment when the Son of God became a man, but Christ’s whole coming that saves us.
The movie Ella Enchanted has beautiful fantasy-themed computer graphics. Ella, the daughter of a nobleman, lives in a lovely Gothic-looking house in the middle of a suburban yard, goes down a lovely rustic-looking wooden escalator complete with a rustic-looking peasant turning a manual cogwheel, and is surrounded by stained glass windows and other medieval-looking trappings when she goes to her coed community college and gets into a debate about government policy and racial exploitation. One of the characters is an elf who wants to break out of the stereotype and be a lawyer instead of an entertainer (which is prohibited by law), and one of the nice things that happens at the happy ending is that the elf and a giantess fall in love with each other.
This movie is not just historically inaccurate; it is historically irrelevant, and it wears its historical irrelevancy with flamboyance. Everything you see has a medieval theme. The lovely Gothic-looking architecture, the richly colored medieval-looking clothing, and the swords and armor all tried to communicate the medieval. And it would be horribly unfair to treat the film as a botched version of historical accuracy, because it simply wasn’t playing that game. However much things had been made to look “medieval,” to someone who didn’t understand the Middle Ages, it wasn’t even pretending to faithfully represent that era. It was using the medieval as a projection screen as a whimsical place to address today’s concerns. That was its real job.
That basic phenomenon affects a lot of how the West tries to understand the East, even when it is trying to faithfully represent it. In Ella Enchanted it is intentional, and the effect must be seen to be believed. (But then, that may be too high of a price to pay—as has been said about another movie.) I was appalled when I visited Victor Hugo’s house, heard about Victor Hugo’s fashionable interest in the Orient, and saw an Oriental-themed wooden painting of Chinese acrobats using their bodies to make a V and an H for “Victor Hugo.” China has produced acrobats, and Chinese acrobats are presumably capable of making those shapes with their bodies. But is this China, even allowing for cultural translation errors?
One major thread in most cultures outside the West is a tendency to exalt the whole of society and de-emphasize the individual person; indeed, people are seen without the Western concept of an “individual.” Individualism is historically anomalous, and having acrobats shape their bodies to the greater glory of Victor Hugo would be about as out of place in Chinese culture as a large pro-censorship demonstration would be at an American university. Here and in other places, the “East” is not really the East, even an imperfectly understood East, but a projection screen for use by the West. Ella Enchanted was tongue-in-cheek and knew what was going on, where this was serious (and didn’t know what was going on), but they were both using exotic places as a projection screen rather than something understood in itself.
New Age quotes the East, as well as “anything but the modern West,” and it has its various attempts to create an alternative to traditional society. The East is over-represented in terms of spiritual practices and ideas, but I suggest that the same thing is going on here asElla Enchanted or the supposedly Chinese acrobats celebrating the greater glory of Victor Hugo. In other words, we have a projection screen (in this case, non-Western) being used to project a thoroughly Western approach to life. The forces displayed are much an exaggeration of things that are accepted in Protestant Christianity.
What is the Western element that is found in New Age?
In the West, heresy is understood as condemned ideas. But the word “heresy” comes from a Greek word meaning “choice,” and in the East heresy is making a private choice apart from the Orthodox Church. This can mean rejecting Church teaching, or splitting off from the Church, but the core of heresy is not the destructively false idea but the private choice. (This already has implications for the American definition of religion as a private choice.)
New Age is Gnostic, but there is something interesting in how it departs from ancient Gnosticism. Ancient Gnosticism was not a single, unified movement, but a broad collection of related but quite different movements with conflicting ideas. In this sense it was like New Age, and for that matter there is a certain deja vu between New Age and ancient Gnosticism. What’s interesting is how New Age is unlike Gnosticism.
Gnostics had a lot of different ideas that conflicted not only with Orthodox Christianity but with each other. And they argued. Gnostics argued with other Gnostics and with Christians. Agreeing to disagree was as foreign to the Gnostics as it was to the Orthodox Christians. Saying “That’s true for you, but this is true for me” or “That’s your choice but this is my choice” would be as strange in classical Gnosticism as an escalator would have been in the Middle Ages.
New Age is a choice, and it is even more of a choice than in Gnosticism in its classical forms. Yes, the ideas are often Gnostic. Yes, New Age gives many of its members permission to indulge in magical, sexual, pride-related, and other sins, almost the same list as what ancient Gnosticism gave its members license for. But the essence of New Age is about a choice, the kind of choice that undergirds heresy. You choose (within certain broad parameters) what you will believe, what your spiritual practices will be, and so on and so forth, and the religion you practice is the sum of the private choices you make.
Where does this idea of religion as defined by private choice come from? One gets the impression from the New Age that it is the wisdom of the East to recognize that all religions say the same thing, and that a sort of Western style inquisition wouldn’t happen. And that is true. Kind of.
In English, poetic license is a legitimate aspect of the language. And there isn’t any central authority to approve instances of poetic license, nor can a poet be expelled from the English Speaker’s Guild for abusing the language. But if one simply tears up the English language, it loses its coherence as English. And so there is poetic license in English, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. And in Hinduism, for instance, there is no centralized authority and no systematic purge of heretics, but that doesn’t mean that a Hindu (or Buddhist, etc.) approves of religion being approached as a salad bar. Leaders in many Eastern religions may say that all religions are equivalent, and Japanese are often both Buddist and Shinto, but most Eastern religious leaders would rather have you be coherently Christian, or Taoist, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or Jain, than simultaneously try to mix being Christian, and Taoist, and Buddhist, and Jain. That kind of incoherence is not very Eastern in spirit, nor is the idea of creating your own religion particularly Eastern.
What does Orthodoxy say? It matters whether or not you are Christian, and it matters whether or not you are Orthodox. But there is a saying that we can tell where the Church is, but not where it isn’t. There is real truth in all religions, and if the Orthodox Church claims to be the fullness of Christ’s Church, she would never claim that Christ’s Church is limited to her walls. And her rules mean something different from in the West; instead of meaning “You must or must not do _______,” they are resources that your spiritual father can use in addressing the specifics of your situation. In Orthodoxy your spiritual father helps decide what you are going to observe instead of you making the decision on your own, but the rules are more guidelines that your spiritual father can use in meeting the specifics of your situation, than rules in the Western sense. “Oikonomia” is an official recognition that your priest can work with you to figure out how Orthodoxy plays out in your situation.
Which brings me to the Reformation. Martin Luther did something original, but it was not the substance of his criticisms. Almost everything he had said was said earlier by someone else; there were things a lot like the Reformation floating around. Nor would Luther claim to have originated his criticisms much more than a baseball coach telling a boy to “Keep your eye on the ball” would claim to be the first one to give that advice. Luther didn’t get his historic position solely by copying other people, but if you seek new criticisms from him, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
Did Martin Luther contribute anything new? His criticisms had generally been circulating in the Catholic Church. An Orthodox might say that the Catholic Church had drifted from its Orthodox roots even further since 1054, when the Catholic Church broke off from the Orthodox Church. An Orthodox might interpret the general malaise in the Catholic Church as a malaise precisely because it had drifted from its Orthodox roots, and that the Orthodox Church agrees with the vast majority of Luther’s criticisms (as for that matter the Catholic Church has—it acted on many of Luther’s criticisms). Then what was new about Luther? Is Luther famous for an obscure reason?
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.
After Luther said this, he split the Church. This is a rousing statement, and it is a rousing statement that contains the heart of heresy. A heretic is not so much someone who has a wrong idea, but someone who has a wrong idea and is willing to split the Church over it. Luther’s distinctive and historic contribution was not levelling particular criticisms against the Catholic Church, but choosing to split the Church rather than go against his conscience, and his understanding of Scripture and plain reason. This choice is at the very heart of heresy.
Luther was a monumental figure, a great hero and a great villain rolled into one. His courage was monumental; so was his anti-semitism. And Luther was a prime example of a heretic. He was a heretic not so much by the points which he had wrong, which are relatively unimportant, but because he defined the Reformation with his precedent of splitting the Church.
So Luther worked to establish the re-established ancient Christian Church, and I am not particularly concerned here with the ways the re-established ancient Christian Church served as a projection screen for ideas that were in vogue at the time. (Somehow, when people re-establish ancient glory, their work ends up with a large dose of ideas that are in vogue with their creators. It happens again and again, and I think it has to do with how the ancient glory serves as a projection screen, much like New Age.) That tendency aside, Luther and the Catholic Church treated each other as heretics for a very good reason. It wasn’t that they weren’t ecumenical enough, or that they needed to be more tolerant, or that they needed to be told they were all Christians and Christianity is Christianity. The reason was something else. I can lament the blood that was shed, but there was a very healthy reason why people went that far against their opponents.
The Catholic Church, along with Luther, and for that matter along with the Orthodox, recognized that there is one Church, bound together in a full communion that cannot exist without agreement in doctrinal matters. Luther’s reconstituted Church and the Catholic Church differed in doctrine and could not have this common basis. If you have two different groups which differ in doctrine, at least one of them is not the true Church. This is for the same reason that if one person says that an airplane is in Canada and another person says the same airplane is in Mexico, at least one of them has to be wrong. They could both be wrong; nothing rules that out. Luther and the Catholic Church might neither be the true Church. But if there are two conflicting organizations competing to be called the true Church, at least one of them has to be wrong, just as an airplane cannot simultaneously be in Canada and in Mexico. Luther and the Catholic Church both recognized this.
What one might have expected, if Luther were simply re-establishing what the Christian Church was in ancient times, was that there would be one and only reformer’s Church. When Luther couldn’t agree with other reformers, they split off from each other, each saying, “We’re the true Church!” “No, we’re the true Church!” It wasn’t long until there were seventy or so different groups, and the claim, “We’re the true Church” could no longer be taken seriously. In retrospect, Luther’s saying “I do not accept the authority of Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other,” and then moving to Protestant churches was a move out of the frying pan and into the fire. Perhaps Luther could not have foreseen this unintended consequence, but the disagreements and divisions in Luther’s wake made the disagreements of Popes and councils pale in comparison.
At that point, the reformers reconsidered what was going on, but they chose to consider the Church structure generated by the Reformation as valid. There was an unwritten rule: “Whatever you say about churches, it has to approve of what’s happened with the Reformation splintering into many groups that could not be in communion with each other, no matter what Christians have believed about Church since the days of the Apostles themselves.”
The solution they invented included the concept of a “denomination”. The idea was that these different groups were not competitors for the title of “true Church;” instead, they were simply names for parts of the true Church. The true Church was not a unified organism complete with authority as it had been understood from the days of the apostles; it was something invisible and quite independent of formal structures. It’s kind of like there had been a supercomputer club whose charter said that they would have one supercomputer, but they couldn’t agree on which computer was the most appropriate supercomputer, so they violated the club charter by each buying his own computer, and to be able to say they had one computer like the charter said, hooked the computers up and said that the real club supercomputer was something invisible, a sort of virtual computer, that was emulated over the club network—and then said that this is what the original charter really called for. This is not because the reformers read the Bible and this was the best picture they could come up with of what the Church should be. It was much closer to an answer to the question of “How can we re-imagine Church so it won’t look like the Bible condemns the church structures which the Reformation can’t escape?”
Today we have:
All denominations point to the same Christian truth.
It doesn’t matter which denomination you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one denomination’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one denomination at all.
We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different denominations.
But let me change barely more than one term:
All religions point to the same truth.
It doesn’t matter which religion you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one religion’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one religion at all.
We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different religions.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s New Age. It’s the foundation to the New Age movement that all the exotic Asian decor rests on, and it is more Western than most of the West. Or at least there’s an uncanny resemblance between Protestantism and something most Protestants wouldn’t want to be associated with. (Or at least evangelicals wouldn’t want to be associated with New Age. With mainline, er, oldline, er, sideline, er, flatline Protestantism, the line between “Protestant” and “New Age” is often crystal clear, but at other times can be maddeningly difficult to tell the difference.) Beyond all New Age’s Eastern trappings, the heart of the New Age is a non-Christian twist on a very Western way of thinking about religious community. That way of thinking is the Protestant understanding of Church.
Why am I making such a disturbing and perhaps offensive connection? Do I believe Protestantism is as bad as New Age? Absolutely not; I think there’s a world of difference. The answer has to do with something else, something about Orthodoxy that seems strange to many Protestants. What is this something else?
Jesus, in the great prayer recorded before his execution, prayed fervently that all his disciples may be one, and Paul made incendiary remarks whenever he discussed people having different denominations. So it is important for all Christians to be united, and that goes for Orthodox. So why do Orthodox refuse to attend non-Orthodox worship and especially to take non-Orthodox communion? Why do we exclude non-Orthodox from our own communion cups? So why don’t Orthodox recognize that we are just one more denomination, even if we are a very old denomination? Why are there so few Orthodox at ecumenical gatherings?
Something has to give, and Protestants often try to figure out whether the observations about Orthodoxy are what gives, or whether Orthodox really being Christians gives. Which one gives? Neither. Neither the practices that seem so strange to Protestant ecumenism, nor the imperative to Christian unity, give. What give are the Protestant assumptions about what makes Church, that determines what Protestants see as real ecumenism.
I’ve written a long and subtle discussion about Ella Enchanted, New Age, and other things because I wanted to get to this point. New Age may do all sorts of things to get an impression of being Eastern, and it may be chock full of exotic decor. But underneath that decor is something very Western. It is a modified form of Protestant teachings about Church. The similarity between:
All denominations point to the same Christian truth.
It doesn’t matter which denomination you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one denomination’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one denomination at all.
We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different denominations.
All religions point to the same truth.
It doesn’t matter which religion you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one religion’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one religion at all.
We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different religions.
is a disturbing similarity. And most evangelicals wouldn’t touch the second list of statements with a ten foot pole. Yet it is connected to the first statement. The first set of statements isn’t what the Bible says. It isn’t what Christians have believed from ancient times. Its job was to give a rubber stamp to the sort of churches the Reformation created, and serve as a substitute for what the Orthodox believe about Church. And, with modifications, that way of thinking about Church has been perfectly happy to abandon Christianity and help give us the New Age movement.
My purpose isn’t to get you to reject Protestant assumptions about church. But it is my purpose to help you see that they are assumptions, and that Orthodox have worshipped God for two millenia with a quite different set of assumptions. If you can see your own objection to New Age treating all religions as interchangeable, you may be able to see the Orthodox objection to treating all denominations as interchangeable, even if it’s on a smaller scale. And to show why Orthodox do not simply see the Protestant style of ecumenism as necessary to a full and robust obedience to the commandment to Christian unity.
In Chinese translations of the Bible, the main rendering of Logos (Word in the prologue to John) is Tao, a concept in both Taoism and Confucianism which is important to Chinese thought and includes the Eastern concept of a Way. In Chinese translations, the prologue opens, “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God.” Is this appropriate?
“Tao” translates “Logos” better than any word that is common in English, and the real question is not whether it is appropriate for the Chinese to render “Logos” with their “Tao,” but whether it is appropriate for us to render “Logos” with our much less potent “Word,” which is kind of like undertranslating “breathtaking” as “not bad.”
Is it OK to mix Christianity and Taoism? There are important incompatibilities but my reading the classic Taoist Tao Te Ching put me in a much better position to understand Christ the Logos and the Christian Way than I would have otherwise had. God has not left himself without a witness, and Taoism resonates with Orthodoxy.
In fact, there are quite a lot of things that resonate with Orthodoxy; it would be difficult to think of two religions, or philosophies, or movements, that have absolutely no contact. It may be easy to forget this in the West; one of the Western mind’s special strength is to analyze things by looking into their differences. This is a powerful ability. But it is not the only basic insight. Essentially any two grapplings with human and spiritual realities (religions/philosophies/movements) will have points of contact. It isn’t just Taoism that resonates with Orthodoxy. Hinduism is deep and has a deep resonance with Orthodoxy. The fact that I have not said more about Hinduism is only because I don’t know it very well, but I know that it is deep. Catholicism resonates with Orthodoxy even more than Western Christianity as a whole. Platonism resonates with Orthodoxy, and the Church Fathers learned from their day’s Platonism, however much they tried to avoid uncritically accepting Platonism. For that matter, Gnosticism resonates with Orthodoxy. But isn’t Gnosticism a heresy? Yes, and it couldn’t have a heresy’s sting unless it resonated with Orthodoxy. Part of a heresy’s job description is to be confusingly similar to Orthodoxy. Postmodernism resonates with Orthodoxy. I wouldn’t be surprised if some scholar has said, “Orthodoxy is postmodernism done right.”
It should not come as a surprise that feminism resonates with Orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and the Bible. Jesus broke social rules in every recorded encounter with women in the Gospels. And “In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” is profound, and cannot be separated from the rest of the Gospel message. Looking at a historical context and a cultural context where feminism is floating around, where some form of feminism is the air people breathe—in other words, not the Early Church’s context, butour own historical and cultural context (yes, we have one too!), it should come as no surprise that people see the Gospel as moving towards what we now call feminism, a moderate feminism of course, and so people work to develop a Biblical egalitarianism that will coax out the woman-friendly vision the Gospel is reaching towards, and correct certain abuses and misunderstandings of the Bible in its cultural context.
This should not come as a surprise. What I had originally thought to write is as follows: It is entirely understandable to try to adjust Christianity with a moderate feminism and try to help Christianity move in the direction it seems to have been moving towards, from the very beginning, but even if it is understandable it is not entirely correct. It is not entirely incorrect but it is not entirely correct either.
Christ’s robe is a seamless robe that may not be torn. So is the Gospel. The same God inspired “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” and equally inspired, “Wives, submit to your husbands… Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” The same God who inspired one inspired the other, and if your interpretation doesn’t have room for both, it is your interpretation that needs to be adjusted, not God’s revelation.
But what about cultural context? That question comes up a lot. And let me share some of what I found in my studies. I set out to do a thesis on how to tell when a book which treats a Bible passage’s cultural context is misusing the context to neutralize a pesky passage that says something the scholar doesn’t like. The first time I heard that someone had made an in-depth study of a pesky passage’s cultural context and it turned out that the pesky passage meant something very different from what it appeared to mean, I believed it. I fell hook, line, and sinker. But after a while, I began to grow suspicious. It seemed that “taking the cultural context into consideration” turned out to mean “the pesky passage isn’t a problem” again and again. And I began to study. That seemed to happen with every egalitarian treatment of one particular important passage—not only that I could find, but that my thesis advisor could find, and my advisor was a respected egalitarian scholar who spoke at a Christians for Biblical Equality conference! There were a lot of things I found about using cultural context, and my advisor liked my thesis. But in the end, there is a simple answer to, “How can you tell, if a book studies a pesky passage’s cultural context in depth and concludes that the passage doesn’t mean anything for us that would interfere with what the scholar believes, if the book is misusing cultural context to neutralize the passage?” The answer is, “There will be ink on its pages.”
“In Christ there is no male nor female” is true, and it is for very good reason that that resonates with feminists. What a Biblical Egalitarian or feminist may not realize is that there is also a truth which feminism does not especially sensitize people to. “God created man in his image” is tightly connected with “Male and female he created them.” There is unity in Christ, and we are called to transcend ourselves, including being male and female. But when God invites us to transcend our creaturely state, that doesn’t annihilate our creaturely state; it fulfills us—just as God’s promise that our bodies which are sown in decay and weakness will be raised in power and glory. Christ’s promise of a transformed resurrection body does not take away our bodies; it means that our bodies will be glorified with a depth we cannot imagine. Christ’s establishment of a Church that transcends male and female does not mean that being male and female is now unimportant, but that God uses them in his Kingdom that is being built here on earth. Men and women are meant to be different, in a way that you’re going to miss if you’re trying to see who is greater than who else. Paul writes, “There are Heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the glory of the Heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and and another glory of the stars, and star differs from star in glory” (I Cor 15:40-41). If star differs from star in glory, so do women differ from men in glory. Men and women are different as colors are different, or as a blazing fire is different from a deep and shimmering pool. This is truth, and if you take the feminist truth alone and not the other side of the truth, you flatten out something that is best not to flatten out—and it makes a bigger difference than many people realize.
That’s what I would have written earlier. What I would have focused on now is different. It seems that when people return to past glory, or try to return to past glory, the past resonates with what’s in vogue, and we don’t pick up on things people knew then that we aren’t sensitive to now, or even worse we pick up on them but neutralize them. (“Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”) We unwittingly make the past a projection screen for what is sensible to us—which often means what’s in vogue. The Renaissance called for a return to past glory and ended up being an unprecedented break from the past. The same thing happened with the neo-classicist Enlightenment. And something like this happened with the Reformation. When you sever yourself from tradition to get to the past, you’re cutting open a goose to get all the golden eggs.
Part of being Protestant, whether it is evangelical, or the more liberal Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Christ (note the effort to reach further back than even the Greek New Testament), or deconstruction to get to what a text really meant (so that the text agrees with deconstructionist revisions to morality)—part of all of this is the idea that you dig past the tradition’s obstacles and barnacles to unearth the Bible’s meaning, perhaps a meaning that is hidden from the common multitude who blindly accept tradition. The idea that tradition is a connection to the past seems to be obscured, and sometimes the result seems to be digging a hole with no bottom. There’s no limit to how much tradition you can dig past in an attempt to reach the unvarnished text. And this phenomenon is foundational to Protestantism. There are things that distinguish evangelicals from liberal Protestants, but not the effort to liberate the text’s original meaning. In that sense Biblical egalitarianism is a member in good standing of Protestant positions—not the only one, but one member in good standing. And if past glory has functioned as an ambiguous projection screen, this may mean that Biblical egalitarianism has problems. But it doesn’t doesn’t mean that Biblical egalitarianism is a different sort of thing from Protestantism. It may be an example of how a Protestant movement can misunderstand the Gospel.
Attempts to recover past glory can be for the better. One group of evangelicals, originally in a parachurch organization, came to realize that “parachurch” wasn’t part of how Early Christians operated. There was no parachurch, only Church. So, assuming that the ancient Church disappeared, they agreed to research the ancient Church and each century’s developments and follow them if they were appropriate, and founded the Evangelical Orthodox Church. They went some distance into this process before they ran into a Russian Orthodox priest, and they (the real Church) were examining the outsider, or so they thought… and they found that Orthodoxy preserved the ancient teaching about the Lord’s body and blood, and about Church structure, and… things were suddenly upside-down. The ancient Christian Church had not dried up. It was alive and well; they had simply overlooked it when they tried to re-create the ancient Church. It was they who were the outsiders. And they realized they needed to be received into the Orthodox Church.
My parish was Evangelical Orthodox before it became part of the Orthodox communion, which I think is special. So Evangelical Orthodoxy turned out all right. Why then would Biblical egalitarianism have gone wrong? That’s not the puzzle. The puzzle is Evangelical Orthodoxy. Evangelical Orthodoxy is a surprise much like getting an envelope that says “Extremely important—open immediately!” and finding that it has something extremely important that needs to be opened immediately. Usually “Extremely important—open immediately” is a red flag which suggests that the contents of the envelope are something other than what you’re being led to believe.
But my focus is not to say who’s wrong and who’s right in the Protestant theme of recovering the glory of the Early Church. It’s not even to suggest that tradition is a mediator that connects us with past glory, a living link, instead of an obstacle which chiefly gets in our way. My focus is to talk about something that looms this large in Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is not understood best as the content of a private choice, any more than learning physics is privately choosing ideas about how the world works. In one sense it’s hard to out-argue someone who says that, but that isn’t a very Orthodox way of thinking. It could be called using Orthodoxy as if it were a private heresy. (Once I wanted to be Orthodox out of that kind of desire, and God said, “No.”) It’s also deceptive to say that a convert Orthodox should select Orthodoxy as a sort of winner in the contest of “Will the real ancient Church please stand up?” which he’s judging. It’s truer to say that that happens for many former evangelicals (including Your Truly) than I would like to admit, but Orthodoxy points to something deeper.
Repentance (which some Orthodox call “metanoia”) looms almost as large in Eastern Orthodoxy as recovering the past glory of the ancient Church looms large in Western Protestantism. For that matter, it might loom larger. And I’d like to comment on what repentance is. This may or may not be very different from Western understandings of repentance—I learned much about repentance as an evangelical—but it would be worth clarifying.
Repentance is not just a matter of admitting that you’re wrong and deciding you’ll try to do better the next time. That’s what repentance would be if God’s grace were irrelevant. But God’s grace is key to repentance. Grace isn’t just something that God gives you after you repent. Repentance itself is a work of grace.
If repentance isn’t simply admitting your error and deciding you want to do better, then what else is repentance? In this case, Orthodoxy becomes clearer if it is compared and contrasted with other Middle Eastern or Eastern religions.
“Islam” means “submission,” and “Muslim” means “one who submits to God.” Submission is not one feature of Islam among others; it is foundational to the landscape, and one of the deepest criticisms of Islam is that the Islamic way of understanding submission, and the Islamic picture of God, effectively deny the reality of man. How does Islam deny the reality of man? God alone contributes to the world’s story. The only real place for us is virtual puppets—not people who help decide what goes into the story. But Islam’s central emphasis on submission is itself something that’s not too far from Orthodoxy.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, one of the defining goals is to transcend the self and become selfless, and both Hinduism and Buddhism believe this requires the annihilation of the self. In some of Hinduism, salvation means that the self dissolves in God like a drop of water returning to the ocean. In therevada Buddhism, to be saved is to be annihilated altogether.
Orthodoxy, by contrast, is deeply connected with the Gospel words, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will find it.” (Mark 8:35) One of Orthodoxy’s founding goals is to become selfless and transcending oneself—offering oneself totally and wholly to God, saying, “Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up, whatever you will to do.” This is how Orthodoxy believes in transcending one’s being male and female: something that is totally offered up to God and which God, instead of annihilating, breathes his spirit into. This is the difference between Orthodoxy on the one hand, and on the other hand Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and even moderate feminism. Unlike Islam’s picture, whoever totally submits to God, or strives for submission, hears God’s voice boom forth, “Come! I want you to contribute to the story of my Creation! I want you to work alongside me!” The goal of Orthodoxy, or one of its defining goals, is to help each person to be fully who God created him or her to be.
What does this have to do with repentance?
Repentance means losing yourself. It means unconditional surrender. Losing yourself for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the Gospel is transformed to mean finding yourself. Repentance is unconditional surrender, and it is one of the most terrifying things a person can experience. It’s much more than letting go of a sin and saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s letting go of yourself. It’s obeying God when he says, “I want you to write me a blank check.” Perhaps afterwards you may be surprised how little money God actually wrote the check for—I am astonished at times—but God insists on us writing a blank check. God tells us to place our treasures, our sins, our very selves at his feet, for him to do whatever he wants, and that is absolutely terrifying. Repentance isn’t letting go of sin. It is unconditional surrender to God. And it’s the only way to transcend the self and become a selfless and transformed “me.”
One pastor used the image (he held up his keys when he said this) that we’ve given God absolutely all of our keys—all but one, that is. And God is saying, “Give me that one,” and we’re giving God anything but that. God demands unconditional surrender, and he calls for unconditional surrender so that we can be free, truly free. In my own life I’ve offered God all sorts of consolation prizes, all sorts of substitutes for what he was asking me, and when I did let go, I realized that I was holding onto a piece of Hell. Before it is terrifying to let go, and then after I let go of my sin, I am horrified to realize that I was holding on to a smouldering piece of Hell itself. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that rejecting tightly held denial is something that an alcoholic will do absolutely anything to avoid—and that rejecting to denial is the only way to be freed from bondage to alcohol. That is very much what Orthodoxy announces about repenting from our sin.
Hell is not something external that will be added to sin starting in the afterlife. Every sin is itself the beginning of Hell. Orthodox theology says that the gates of Hell are bolted, barred, and sealed from the inside. It’s not so much that God casts people into Hell as that Hell is a place people refuse to leave: Hell’s motto may be, “It is better to reign in Hell than serve into Heaven.” Hell is where God leaves people when they refuse to unbolt its gates and open themselves to the Father’s love. I’ve experienced the beginning of Hell, and the beginning of Heaven, and you’ve experienced them both. Every sin is a seed that will grow into Hell unless we let God uproot it, and that means letting him dig however deep he wills.
Repentance needs to be not only admitting to a sin, but an unconditional surrender that leans on God’s grace because apart from God it is beyond us. Repentance needs to be unconditional surrender because only when we give God our last key will we be released from holding on to that one piece of Hell we are trying to avoid giving to God. Repentance is a work of grace, both in God taking the piece of Hell we were clinging to, and in God’s power helping us give us the strength to let go of that one piece of Hell.
That much is true, but this article is incomplete even as a tour guide. I’m not even sure it’s an accurate picture of Orthodoxy. There’s a joyful dance, a dance of grace and ever-expanding freedom, and this article is a still, flat picture of that dance. Everything I describe is meant as Orthodox, but I have flattened out its living energy (which is why this is so philosophical), without doing it justice. The solution is not a better and more complete picture of the dance that will still be flat and still. The solution is for you to see the dance live, whether or not these observations are what God wants you to see. God may want to show you things I’ve never hinted at, or use something I’ve written to help you connect with Orthodox worship, or for that matter use this article as a key to open the treasurehouses of Orthodoxy. But that is God’s choice. And he can also connect you with the here and now as many Orthodox emphasize, or make everyday life more and more a home for contemplation, or pick out other treasures that you need. We don’t know our true needs—God does, and he cares for them.
For Further Reading…
If you’ve read this far and want to know how you can read more, I have not succeeded very well at communicating. I’m not saying there aren’t any good books out there. There are scores and scores, and I’ve even read some of them. I love to read. But please don’t try to read five more books on Orthodoxy so you’ll understand it better. Please don’t.
Go visit a parish. Participate, and come to experience firsthand, for real, what this book is at best a tour guide to. Even if this tour guide helps you see things you might not pick up on your own, it’s only the tour guide. The reality is the life that Orthodox live, and if you come to a service wanting to take something in, I will be surprised if nothing happens. Joining Orthodox worship (even just sitting or standing) and trying to take everything in, is like falling into a lifegiving river, being surrounded by its mighty currents, and coming to contact with a little bit of it. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything that’s going on. I serve at the altar as an adult acolyte, and I certainly don’t understand all that’s going on. But I don’t need to. There’s a saying that a mouse can only drink its fill from a river, and it’s simply beside the point that we can’t drink all the water in the river. We don’t need to. What we can do is take away what we are ready for and drink our fill.
And if you still feel a bit intimidated, like most of this is too subtle to understand—don’t worry. You don’t need to understand it the Western way, by figuring out all the concepts in an article. The Eastern way is to go to an Orthodox Church, and let God teach you over time. If you do that, it doesn’t matter how much or how little this article seemed easy to think about.
This and two other works were written when I was half-drunk with Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.
There is much that is true and Orthodox in that title, and there is something to its core point, but it is the most occultic book, with strange and awesome powers given to half-conscious thoughts, that I’ve seen yet. This post is retained for archival purposes but it is not particularly recommended as the author does not particularly recommend the book that furnished its inspiration.
A look at India in relation to my own roots and formation
My live story up until now would be immeasurably impoverished if the various ways in which India had entered my life would simply be subtracted. I appreciate Indian food, even if I eat it in a non-Indian (Paleo) fashion. And that is not trivial, but there are deeper ways I’ve been enriched by that great nation. One of these relates to pacifism, where one of India’s giants, one certain Gandhi, is perhaps the best-known person in history as I know it for the strength of pacifism. Gandhi might have said with perfect sincerity, “Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills,” but there is a certain motherlode as old as the hills that Gandhi may have mined that motherlode better than anyone else in history.
My own earliest roots, the brand of Christianity I received as mother’s milk, were in the Anabaptist tradition, and more specifically the Mennonite Church. I have never been a member of the Amish tradition, but I would contrast Amish as they are known today from Anabaptists in the time of the Reformation. Today Amish are seen as quiet, peaceful, and daft in being picky about which technologies they accept in their community.
But Amish and other Anabaptists were originally the anarchist wing of the Reformation, the Radical Reformers who were radical even in the eyes of fellow Protestants, the Reformation’s Left Coast. That they would have been parodied in the future as “quaint”ly conservative and “please don’t point and stare” would have perhaps astonished Zwingli and his radical wing of the Reformation, and all their opponents, alike.
Before and during college, I went on a bit of a journey and a quest to bolster and advocate for pacifism. I studied the Sermon in the Mount; I read Gandhi write things that I thought only a Christian would write. Gandhi did not only say that his three heroes were Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates; he said that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, a perfect act. And it was only years later that I learned why Gandhi did not become a Christian, something not given a single stinging word in a single quote I ever saw attributed to Mr. Gandhi.
I was filled with shame when I learned that Gandhi wanted to become a Christian, attended a Christian evangelist’s meeting, and was turned away from being accepted into the Christian faith, because of the color of his skin. And he gave advice to Christians on how to present Christianity to Hindus, including displaying the hard parts very clearly, but he was not willing, after that, to consider becoming a Christian.
I would not have felt shame if I heard that Gandhi simply didn’t ever consider becoming a Christian, or that he found the Hindu mystical tradition deep enough that he would content himself with Hindu roots, or that he would not have considered adopting the religion of the colonial occupiers of India, or other reasons like Hinduism as perhaps the most cosmopolitan of all world religions, or if we may permit an anachronism, Hinduism as the deep tradition that would years later establish India as a software superpower. These are all bearable. But not becoming Christian because a Christian evangelist turned him away—that is not bearable, but shameful.
In my own journey and life practices, the very oldest of the major works on my website, Blessed are the peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength, was from my own search for pacifism. I don’t deny that the nonviolent power that Gandhi described in terms of “satyagraha” or hold onto Truth (from the Sanskrit), nor that satyagraha became incarnate with Indian flesh. “I am a man, so nothing that is human is alien to me,” as an ancient Roman said. The Church Fathers who quickly saw a path that meets its fruition in Christianity in philosophy or Plato is able to read of the practice of satyagraha and nonviolence, and the Indian cardinal virtue of ahimsa that recognizes you are tied to the other person and cannot harm the other without harming yourself, can be coherently interpreted without recognizing what Gandhi took, without compromise, from Christianity and the Sermon on the Mount. If Plato or Platonism can be purified, and someone Taoism can be purified, then perhaps something can be purified from Gandhi and the one nation on earth that established itself as sovereign and independent without shedding a drop of enemy blood.
I would like to briefly stop at C.S. Lewis and what is apparently an attack on satyagraha. The architect of “mere Christianity” as it is established in the West makes the only external addition to what is called “mere Christianity” that is in fact not part of Christianity as it was known then. He describes and condemns a guilt manipulation that one holds oneself hostage to make pity a weapon. And he is the only Protestant writer I have read who, in papers like “Why I am not a Pacifist,” says not only that Christians may wage war but in fact that conscientious exemption is not acceptable in any sense, and pacifists as much as anyone else should be compelled to try their best to kill men in military service. And on that point I really give Lewis an F. Ruling out even alternative service for people who believe it is always wrong to kill is FAIL, at least for someone pushing a comprehensive plan of “mere Christianity.”
A second look at my roots
I mentioned Anabaptism or Mennonites earlier as my earliest roots, and I have revisited them, not as a matter of regression but pushing a divide further. And there are some points of contact. The Anabaptist movement has three self-identified points of distinction:
A “believer’s baptism”, meaning baptism only on adult profession of faith,
A refusal to take oaths under any circumstance.
On the first point there is a disagreement between Orthodoxy and the Anabaptist tradition; what Anabaptists sought to dismantle in saying “Infant baptism is of the Devil,” is one of many continuities with Orthodoxy that some in the West has opted out of.
On the second point, there is strong agreement. Now in pastoral terms there is an issue of people’s comfort with a teaching, and it is not pastorally helpful to take a teaching someone is not ready to recognize, and ram it down that person’s throat rather than allowing that person to grow to accept the teaching. But as far as oaths go, there was one Athonite monk who refused to take a required oath before testifying in a court of law, and endured without complaint the four months of prison that he was punished with before refusing to take an oath. St. John Chrysostom, called “the moral theologian among the Fathers par excellence,” throughout every work that I have read, keeps on returning to certain moral topics regardless of perception. He keeps on hitting on the necessity of sharing with the poor, and of the theatre “in which the common nature of women is affronted” (think Internet porn, as it existed in the fourth century; to be an actress included being a member of a much older profession), and he more than once drops the hammer on the practice of taking oaths at all.
But as regards the question of pacifism, I regard my own Blessed are the peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength as an interesting early step, particularly as there weren’t too many other pieces playing in the same space that I was able to find. I asked a number of other people for feedback, and I regret my own sophomoric side of dealings with mature Christians who believe in a just war and who in every sense embodied what I advocate for here. (Wheaton College president Dr. J. Richard Chase asked for a copy for his personal files; part of this was undoubtedly kindness, but the kind gesture was against a backdrop where he probably had not seen too many works like it at all, even if he searched for them.) I’ve come back to review it, and there are things I wouldn’t say now in this the very oldest and earliest of my works. But my coming back to it after all these years is not so much a matter of recognizing I was young and idealistic and thinking I am practical and realistic now, but looking again and saying that I did not go nearly far enough.
(Coming back years later deepened in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, or at least slightly less immature, my further knowledge has unlocked things in my earlier position that I could not understand in my early career as a convinced pacifist.)
But let us not demand perfection from everyone, and give one concession, at least, for lawful gun ownership.
A cue from the military that might matter to gun owners
One Orthodox faithful explained gun ownership and challenged people who regarded gun ownership as simply nothing but a passion of anger. And he explained how, as a loving and careful father, he hopes to never fire his gun “live”, but as a loving and responsible husband and father, he knows what he would do if someone broke into his house with intent to do harm. He would bring such killing to confession, but he had his priorities straight.
(Note that this is reasoning about what would happen in an imagined scenario, not what was happening, a distinction which is important in Orthodox mystical theology.)
I have heard gun control advocates talk about how tragic it was when someone heavily armed opened fire on children; I haven’t yet heard a rebuttal after a card-carrying NRA member answered, “Yes, it was tragic not only that that started, but that there was no one lawfully possessing firearms available to stop the crime. Did you hear about one of those many incidents that never appears on television, where for instance a man armed to kill a bear entered a church sanctuary with intent to do ill, and an off-duty security guard who was carrying a firearm legally and with explicit permission of her church shot and stopped a crime?”
And this may be just my observation, but the primary approach to persuasion taken by gun control advocates is to show hard-hitting images of traumatized people after an active shooter met no speed bump even, and the primary approach to persuasion taken by the gun lobby is to mount a logical argument appealing to research and statistics. Now as a mathematician I understand Mark Twain’s point that there are three types of lies (lies, ______ lies, and statistics), and I don’t put my weight onto statistics I haven’t seen investigated, but the question between gun control and gun lobby isn’t a matter of deciding which side has cooked their books. Perhaps the gun lobby has cooked their books: but it is a little sad when only one side of a discussion argues from research, evidence, and statistics.
I may be hypocritical or a freeloading parasite when I say this, but I do not personally own a gun; I never have and probably never will. I have some skill with firearms, but that is beside the point. But I feel safer now that my state has legalized carrying concealed firearms, with a few asterisks about how to opt out on your property. I would rather be in a situation where there are two guns in a room, owned by a criminal and meant for a crime, and one by a law-abiding citizen intending to stop crime in the most drastic circumstances, than only the gun carried by a criminal. I feel safer knowing that gun-using criminals do not know where there is a lawfully carried firearm, and criminals simply do not know if I am carrying a .45 with hollow-nosed rounds.
But if you’re keepinkeeping a firearm by your bed for self-defense, may I ask if you are also, for instance, investing in good night vision? Have you taken the time to install a respectable home security system? This may be slightly less “sexy” than having a powerful gun at hand, but have you established the powerful and immediate deterrent of flooding your home with light (a thief’s worst enemy) if someone approaches?
And have you considered that it may be easier, after training, to hit someone while shooting out a solid stream of pepper spray—especially in poor lighting, where at least without night vision you can’t really aim—than the few rounds in a gun’s magazine? And that the effects on your house are much easier to clean up from a vile liquid than a few bullet holes after a powerful gun has shot through an intruder’s body and hit the wall behind. Killing someone, however justified it may be, is a traumatic experience; even for trained law enforcement professionals, for instance, killing in the line of duty is trauma and good police chiefs can mandate that an officer who has killed in the line of duty get a year’s counseling. Training as a law enforcement professional or soldier does not change the fact that it is traumatic to kill another person. If I had a choice between stopping a dozen innocent men with pepper spray and stopping one guilty man with a shot through the heart, I know which one I would rather remember when I look in the mirror each day.
For a first cue from the military, snipers, who know well enough how to fire a rifle at a paper target, are given one round and only one round to keep with them, carry, hold, and move around, and then after a couple of days are given one shot to take a “hostage situation” (balloon full of oatmeal or whatever) shot. Most fail the first time. With a bit more training and preparation, it gets to one shot, one kill. But it takes some training to get there. I wouldn’t myself trust that with one shot, cold and in a panic, to hit home.
But with all that preface stated, may I ask people who look for safety via firearms to at least take a cue from the military?
Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War c. 500 BC, adapted for the business world in sometimes flaky ways, is arguably the greatest classic in military strategy and usually considered to be less dated than the best of the best from 100 years ago.
If one were to condense the multi-faceted classic into a single sentence, it should probably be one gem taken from the text, “All warfare amounts to deception.” To put it starkly, war is not achieved by killing people, with psychological considerations in any sense being a side issue. War is about deceiving people; killing people has more of a supporting role than anything else. The terms “strategy” and “strategem” are forms of the same basic word; they amount to how to trick the opponent. You don’t win well by killing each other’s soldiers and seeing who has some left over at the end; military forces at any rate fall apart at a third (maybe less) casualties, and rank and file U.S. troops have guns and ammunition intended to seriously wound in the average case, but not kill. (Part of this is love for enemies; part of it is a tactical consideration that if you instantly kill an enemy soldier, you take one man out of action; if you seriously wound a soldier with a wound that may be treatable, you take three men out of action.)
One ancient account talks about how a military leader stripped a force of thousand down to a few hundred, and gave them torches and the shofars that one would use at the head of a host. Then they crept around the host, surrounded it, and blasted the horn. The entire enemy warhost, “like the sand at a seashore for multitude”, fell into deep panic and was routed, falling to each other’s swords (original text).
World War II might have been won under even more dire circumstances, but at least it was not the armies of second-born sons whose blood was poured out like water who won D-Day without strategem. Also contributing to that scenario was an enormous effort to build up rubber balloon versions of tanks at the like, massing to look from the air like the Allies were intending to invade from the point where the English Channel was narrowest, but sent a double agent to keep Hitler believing the D-Day invasion was just a diversion and keeping his main forces to where the channel was nearest and therefore out of the way when the breach was made on Normandy breach.
What does this have to do with home security? Everything. You’re not firing on all pistons if you stop with a gun, and I do not mean that you need more firepower, or really even more gadgets.
“They said I was the best, the one the police called the ‘Superthief.’ Before I went straight I picked every lock, turned off every alarm, found every hiding place. I know how burglars get inside—and gets them out. If you’re smart, you’ll pay attention to what I have to say…”
Possibly the most valuable observation in the text is that home security should be 60% psychological and 40% physical, and it is seriously confused to think that you can win a physical arms race with a thief who wants to get in and isn’t afraid of you. If you change your doors for heavier doors and less glass then a determined intruder will just change an already big crowbar for an even bigger crowbar. Then what other options are there? the book has some options; drawn from it:
Situation: There is an intruder accidentally making sounds in your house, or at least you think it is an intruder.
You say, crossly, with irritation and as much frosty, icy condescension as you can muster, “Yes, Sweetie, I know what the machine gun will do to the walls. I don’t care. I’m going to give 60 more seconds for the SWAT team to get here, and then I’m taking care of it MY way.”
Situation: A thief is casing your back door for possible entrance.
Have a clearly scribbled note on your back door, fresh-looking note that says, “Honey, will you please talk to Billy? He’s let that stupid pet rattlesnake escape his cage again, and right now, I can’t even find that idiotic scorpion! Can you explain to him that this is UNACCEPTABLE?”
(Women have sometimes taken to putting a pair of size 17 men’s boots outside the door each evening.)
Does it work? Perhaps you may not sound entirely believable, but nerves roughened by intruding in unknown situations where you don’t know how people are armed and you could legally be killed tell a different story. (The “Superthief” tells of not being able to count how many terrifying times he heard a barking dog answered by “Shaddap, Max!”
The most implausible note he described, more humorous than believable, was a notice when he wanted people to leave him alone, was a note saying that he had a severe case of crabs, and the crabs were strong enough to break people’s fingers with their claws.
However, it was enough to motivate other convicted felons in prison to simply leave him alone.
There’s a lot that can be accomplished by violence in certain very unhappy circumstances, and Gandhi respected those who use force nobly. Seriously, he did:
The people of a village near Bettiah told me that they had run away whilst the police were looting their houses and molesting their womenfolk. When they said that they had run away because I had told them to be nonviolent, I hung my head in shame. I assured them that such was not the meaning of my nonviolence. I expected them to intercept the mightiest power that might be in the act of harming those who were under their protection, and draw without retaliation all harm upon their own heads even to the point of death, but never to run away from the storm centre. It was manly enough to defend one’s property, honour or religion at the point of the sword. It was manlier and nobler to defend them without seeking to injure the wrongdoer. But it was unmanly, unnatural and dishonourable to forsake the post of duty and, in order to save one’s skin, to leave property, honour or religion to the mercy of the wrongdoer. I could see my way of delivering the message of ahimsa to those who knew how to die, not to those who were afraid of death.
– Gandhiji in Indian Villages by Mahadev Desai
But there is more…
…and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
“Our social program is the Trinity”
Of all the brief sayings that most mystifies people, “Our social program is the Trinity” may be the most confusing. A social program includes a blueprint for some more or less vaguely Utopian social order, and how by civil war politics it is possible to influence, manipulate, coerce, intimidate, bamboozle a plan to concretely build things on earth. And given such a bulleted list of key features to a social program, it seems an extremely strained reading of the doctrine of the Trinity.
But may I ask: What about devout Christian family communities saying, “Our juvenile correctional system is parents who love each other, stay married to each other, and love and discipline their children?” That’s wordier, but the key point lies in a similar vein. If you go to a staunch Evangelical community, you may not see terribly many prisons, courthouses, correctional officers, and so on and so forth, but the purpose of a staunch Evangelical community is not that it has abundant “department of corrections” responses to a 10-year-old arrested for pushing hard drugs or a 12-year-old arrested for rape; however much there may be support for repentance, an ounce of prevention is worth a much more than a ton of cure, and an ounce of bored children in a less-than-ideal Bible study is worth years of expensive state programs to care for children who have been incarcerated.
And in that sense, prayerful life, or the entire struggle in spiritual discipline, is the Orthodox martial art. Certain threads more than others, but the discipined Orthodox life offers more than a martial art as wholesome homes offers something better than a state Department of Corrections or a doctrine of the Trinity that effectively answers social planners: “There are more things in Heaven and earth, visible and spiritual, than are even dreamed of in your ideologies.”
Orthodox have various statements of how monasticism and the laity are compared, if they should be; I am of the opinion that it is beneficial to monastics to regard laity as fully equal, and laity to regard monastics as immeasurably above them. But some things in monasticism are falsely criticized as “just because it’s monasticism:” taking passages of the Bible at face value is not, or at least should not, be a particularly distinctive feature of monasticism. And some people have said that Lent is just how Orthodoxy should be year round, and it makes sense to say that the bulk of monasticism is just how all Orthodox Christians should be.
Monasticism is privilege.
Monasticism is privilege, easily on par with a full ride scholarship at a top-notch university. But doesn’t it entail poverty, obedience, and chastity? Well, of course. Aren’t they difficult? Yes. But the vow of poverty, of never providing for your future self, is a vow of accepting the Providence who knows and loves you (past, present, and future) more than you could possibly ask. It is one of three medications that carves out a niche for abundant health. Perhaps most laity should observe chastity through faithfulness, but it is the same virtue that powers one practice and the other.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by taking thought? You might as well try by taking thought to work your way into being a foot taller! And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or, ‘What shall we drink?’ or, ‘Wherewithal shall we be clothed’? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
There is something very powerful here, a something that is missed in business as usual in the U.S. Business as usual means heaping up treasures on earth, saying “God helps those who help themselves” (a quotation from Benjamin Franklin not found anywhere in the Bible), to be your own Providence. The idea that we are to do God’s job as our Providence is at times treated harshly by Christ (Luke 12:15:
And [Jesus] said unto them, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”
And he spake a parable unto them, saying, “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?’ And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’ But God said unto him, ‘Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?’ So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
I wrote about the husband who owned a gun as a means of being responsible towards his family: but my inward wincing was less that firing a gun is not turning the other cheek, than that he responded out of a spiritual illusion. This side of the Fall, we cannot ever arrange things right, and we do not do well to oust God so that we can get back to steering the helm of our lives ourselves.
It may or may not be appropriate for Orthodox laity to arm themselves, but whatever other reasons there may be for arming yourself, shutting off risk is not one of them. It is non-negotiable that no matter what hedge we surround ourselves with, the sand we grasp will slip through our fingers, and this is actually good news: we have another option, living the Sermon on the Mount, not harmed because we do not have control, and free because we know we do not need to have control, open to a larger world than the constricted world we keep on making for ourselves.
There was a Linux fortune that said, on eloquent terms that I cannot fully reproduce, that there were a bunch of starfish clinging to rocks on the bottom of a rapidly flowing river, holding the rocks tightly and terrified they would lose their grip. Then one of them suddenly let go, was battered against a few rocks, and then finding a place in the flow. And, perhaps in a dig at Christianity, the other starfish who didn’t get it called the one starfish a Messiah and worshiped him while continuing to cling, and remaining terrified of losing their grip on the rock.
(But we are called to do both worship the Man, and imitate him.)
The Sermon on the Mount would almost speak more strongly about violence being unworthy of Christians if it didn’t address violence. The direct mention shadows the overarching theme, where silence speaks more powerfully than words.
But there are in fact words:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’ But I say unto you, ‘Ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;’ Ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
How does the Orthodox Christian martial art really work?
Returning the theme of monasticism as privilege, one aspect of the depth of monasticism is that monks are not to defend themselves by force. When they are accused, they are not to defend themselves in words, as Christ Himself remained silent before Pilate (Note:…and terrorized Pilate more than any threat could have done). And this is not exactly a mainstream approach in the West. It’s a bit of an oblong concept: something that is a common assumption between the various permutations of pacifism and just war is that, once you’ve decided what are the appropriate means for self-defense, you can and should use the most effective appropriate means to end the danger with minimal harm to yourself and others. It just goes without saying that whatever limits may be, obviously defending yourself with speech is appropriate. But the monastic interpretation of “Ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” is quite simply that we are not to defend ourselves. We are not to defend ourself by means of lethal force; we are not to defend ourselves by means of less lethal force; we are not to defend ourselves even by words; we are not to defend ourselves even in thoughts. Not a single angry thought is permitted to us, and there are two kinds of power that we wield after renouncing power.
In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10-year old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him. “How much is an ice cream sundae?” “Fifty cents,” replied the waitress. The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it. “How much is a dish of plain ice cream?” he inquired. Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was a bit impatient. “Thirty-five cents,” she said brusquely. The little boy again counted the coins. “I’ll have the plain ice cream,” he said.
The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table, and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and departed. When the waitress came back, she began wiping down the table and then swallowed hard at what she saw. There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies – her tip.
C.S. Lewis’s article, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” which would be more accurately be titled, for what it says, “Why I Believe No Christian Should Be a Pacifist Nor Have Either Their Church Teachings or Their Conscience Respected As a Conscientious Objector,” dismissed what appeared to be Gandhi’s toolchest as a dog lying in a manger (as in “Aesop’s Fables:” which not only does not eat but also prevents other animals from eating). And it is not clear to me that all of the tools Gandhi used are appropriate: I’m not sure there is ever reason to seek out suffering, and after the Church’s decision to both canonize St. Ignatius (who brought martyrdom down on himself), and forbid future Orthodox Christians from trying to provoke martyrdom, apart from strained readings of the Sermon on the Mount, I can’t remember seeing any subsequent interpretations of hunger strike as appropriate. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount may give us tools, including a Do not resist evil that is never separate from the more foundational Truth in Do not worry, does not justify other tactics such as civil disobedience without direct provocation, or hunger strikes.
There’s plenty of reason for fasting, of course, but fasting is not a tool for straightening out God and his Providence: fasting is a tool to let God straighten you out. And in fact the Sermon on the Mount tells us that fasting, like prayer, should be as secret as manageable. Then it can reach its full power. However, Lewis himself may have furnished the most touching portrayal of Gandhi’s toolbox in Christian literature of all that I have read, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“Hail, Aslan!” came his shrill voice. I have the honor—” But then he suddenly stopped.
The fact was that he still had no tail—whether that Lucy had forgotten it or that her cordial, though it could heal wounds, could not make things grow again. Reepicheep became aware of his loss as he made his bow; perhaps it altered something in his balance. He looked over his right shoulder. Failing to see his tail, he strained his neck further till he had to turn his shoulders and his whole body followeed. But by that time his hind-quarters had turned too and were out of sight. Then he strained his neck looking his shoulder again, with the same result. Only after he had turned completely round three times did he realize the dreadful truth.
“I am confounded,” said Reepicheep to Aslan. “I am completely out of countenance. I must crave your indulgence for appearing in this unseemly fashion.”
“It becomes you very well, Small One,” said Aslan.
“All the same,” replied Reepicheep, “if anything could be done . . . Perhaps her Majesty?” and here he bowed to Lucy.
“But what do you want with a tail?” asked Aslan.
“Sir,” said the Mouse, “I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one. But a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse.”
I have sometimes wondered, friend,” said Aslan, “whether you do not think too much about your honor.”
“Highest of all High Kings,” said Reepicheep, “permit me to remind you that a very small size has been bestowed on us Mice, and if we did not guard our dignity, some (who weigh worth by inches) would allow themselves very unsuitable pleasantries at our expense. That is why I have been at some pains to make it known that no one who does not wish to feel this sword as near his heart as I can reach shall talk in my presence about Traps or Toasted Cheese or Candles: no, Sir—not the tallest fool in Narnia!” Here he glared very fiercely up at Wimbleweather, but the Giant, who was always at a stage behind everyone else, had not yet discovered what was being talked about down at his feet, and so missed the point.
“Why have your followers all drawn their swords, may I ask?” said Aslan.
“May it please your High Majesty,” said the second Mouse, whose name was Peepiceek, “we are all waiting to cut off our own tails if our Chief must go without his. We will not bear the shame of wearing an honor which is denied to the High Mouse.”
“Ah!” roared Aslan. “You have conquered me. You have great hearts. Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the sake of the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again.”
On an immediate level, this is what nonviolent resistance may seem to have. But the “big picture” realization was one that I realized in discussion with one friend about “What will you do in situation X [which had not, and has not, happened]?” and I told a joke:
A young man who was a prospective captain of a ship was being quizzed about how he would handle difficulties.
The person quizzing him said, “What would you do if a storm came?”
“I’d drop an anchor.”
“OK; suppose that the anchor gets stuck and won’t come up, and later on another storm came up again. What would you do?”
“I’d drop another anchor.”
“Ok, and if that gets stuck and won’t come up, and later on you see another storm, what would you do?”
“Where on earth are you getting all these anchors from?”
“From the same place you’re getting all these storms from!”
One of these kinds of false treasure exists in terms of our perceived need to map everything we do out in advance. One teacher talked about how some scholar claimed to map out what St. Irenaeos would have said in various circumstances that hadn’t happened: “What would St. Irenaeos have said if Adam and Eve, with their immediate children, had not sinned, but their grandchild did?” And regardless of the content of such scholarship, it is imposing on St. Irenaeos something utterly foreign to his mindset. As I have seen the academic community today, it is natural both to ask, “What is …?” and “What would …?” when trying to understand something. In patristic writers, only one of the two basic kinds of questions is valid for understanding something: “What is …?” And no real saint that I am aware of announces that we must have a plan that anticipates every possibility before we act. Part of the point in the Sermon on the Mount is that there is no need for planning. It is as if this dialogue plays out:
God: Will you trust me on this?
Us: I don’t know. I’m trying to trust you, but I really don’t understand what you are trying to do with me here.
God: I know you don’t know. That’s my point. As your Spiritual Father, I am not asking you to do my thinking for for me. I am asking you to trust me. Do you trust me?
Us: I’m trying to fit things together, really I am, and maybe can work together if I am able to work out a plan. Could you work with me on this?
God: I am very interested in working with you. Do you trust me?
It is not my point—and probably not my position—to try to tell fellow Orthodox what saints’ footsteps they may follow. There are warrior-saints, and then there is St. Acacius, mentioned in St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent, who obediently served an abusive elder for nine years until he died, and when asked at his grave, “Brother Acacius, are you dead?” called out from beyond the grave, “No, Father, how is it possible for an obedient man to die?” And there are many others of various stripes, a kaleidoscope to the glory of God.
It is not my point—and probably not my position—to tell other Orthodox Christians whether they should join the military, or under what (if any) conditions firearm ownership is appropriate, or other questions regarding violence. I have a hunch that a good set of bright lights that turn on instantly whever someone approaches your house may, at least by itself, provide a more effective deterrent than a gun for when an intruder is already in your house. And it may be a mistake to assume that the real “I’m taking it seriously” way to address threats is something that starts with weapons. However, at least for the sake of argument, I do not wish to give a prescription for how others may relate to violence. But it is my direct wish to challenge the main assumption that keeps popping up when Christians regard violence as the real practical power.
One point regarding the Sermon on the Mount is that this side of Heaven, control that you plan out is simply impossible. The task is not to God’s thinking for him; it is to accept his Providence as intended to bless you entirely, and trust him with the complete trust that the Sermon on the Mount cries out. This may mean being with the birds of the field and the lilies of the field, and being so with (in some cases) or without openness to using violence. And, though this is a lesser point, I’m a little wary of a second assumption that lurks under the covers: “Pacifism is idealistic and appropriate for an ideal world, while sometimes using force is what works in the non-ideal world that we have.” But there is confusion for people stressed and worried to give that line to “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” I’ve had times with more stress in my life, and times with less, and it may more be true that in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need “Each day has enough trouble of its own, but in the rough circumstances in which we live, we need to take things one day at a time, and we need it much more than we would if we were in Paradise.
One ex-military person I spoke with talked about how top brass would keep on waking everyone up at very late night / early morning, sound the alarm, say the USSR was invading NOW, and everybody had to get up and go out to the tanks. And so soldiers would grudgingly walk out, dragging their rifles by the muzzle, and get into the tanks, and the live question in everyone’s eyes was whether the officers would call off the exercise before they got the tanks out and into mud. The live concern here is whether the soldiers would have to clean the mud off the tanks for moving into the field the next morning. And he talked about idealistically believing that if only he and his colleagues trained hard enough, no one would attack anyone else.
I remember hearing a missionary’s kid who grew up somewhere on the African continent saying, “You can’t defeat people who have nothing to lose!” and thinking that that sounded awfully idealistic, something I really wanted to believe but couldn’t, but that was over a decade ago, and since then the U.S. has been involved in multiple wars against third world nations and perhaps won none of them. World War I proudly paraded a mechanized army down to California for a sort of extended field training exercise where the entire mechanized army failed to apprehend the one single Mexican bandit that they were searching for. In Vietnam, the U.S. strategy was, “Our cool gadgets will win this war for us,” the Viet Cong’s strategy was to maximize the war’s unpopularity back home (“ballbuster”: a non-lethal anti-personell mine used by the Viet Cong, just powerful enough to crush testicles), and the present strategy in the present conflict of shooting at ISIL from the air and arming jihadists to fight ISIL jihadists is really less of a military strategy, properly speaking, than an all-American marketing strategy.
Having control this side of Heaven is not possible, and believing that firearms can be a way to opt-out of the conditions Sermon on the Mount addresses in its prescriptions. In that sense gun ownership is dangerous, because even if you accept 100% of what NRA advocates say, you have effectively closed your eyes to some of the bedrock of what the Sermon on the Mount says. In another matter, that of finances, the Fathers are quite clear: “That robe, hanging in your closet, belongs to the poor;” “Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead.” If your firearm costs you the ability to live the Sermon on the Mount, drop it off at the police department; it is better for you to enter eternal life as killed where a firearm would have let you stop a crime, than to have your whole body (and your gun with it) cast into Hell.
I might briefly comment that I have brief experience with martial arts, and I have consistently noticed that they had become the driest portions of my spiritual life. Firearms and martial arts, if they are to be useful, depend on constant practice and preparation. As the banner for every school but one of Kuk Sool Won, “We need more practice!” At the grandmaster’s school, the banner says, “You need more practice!” The common concensus is that with martial arts, you fight noticeably better within months, but real mastery takesyears, and years, and years. And even then you don’t have a money-back guarantee; any martial arts instructor worth anything will make it clear before you reach black belt level (arguably before you reach anything above white belt) that martial arts instructors will make it abundantly clear that martial arts are no silver bullet; you may be safer in a conflict but not safe against every threat; someone testing for black belt can, if arrogant enough, wind up with a hole in the head. There have been attempts to make something simply easier to learn and remember—Goshin Jitsu is meant to be simple and effective—but keeping up on a martial art just because it might be useful in a fight is a bit like spending a few hours a week practicing a spare profession so that if you happen to lose your job you have a spare profession ready and waiting for you. It’s a lot of work, and it’s no more of a guarantee at that.
And there is a spiritual toll for practicing violence over and over and over. You sink in a lot of time that might be better spent sharpening your skills in your own profession. Aiki Ninjutsu talks about becoming a compassionate protector of others, and talks about building great compassion to offset the incredible destructiveness of the techniques. With all due respect, I need to give all the compassion to others that I can give, without preventably siphoning it off to offset other considerations. Perhaps you can numb or ignore what it feels like to practice violence on others and have others practice violence on itself; and martial arts have an occult ambiance; the concept of ki / qi / chi is a Buddhist practice, not really Christian, and there is a good case to be made that it’s magical, even without taking a common sense look at the philosophies Eastern martial arts draw on, which are almost invariably laden with an occult dimension.
The English word “practice” has two senses. One is, as a musician says, “I’m practicing,” meaning, “I am taking time to make dry runs at this skill and sharpen it as much as possible.” Or one speaks of a doctor “practicing medicine,” meaning “I am exercising and doing the proper live activity in my profession.” I will use the terms musician-style-practice and doctor-style-practice to distinguish the two meanings
With both firearms and martial arts, you need to practice to keep an edge, practice in the sense of the musician-style-practice. Competence requires an ongoing time sink. But live doctor-style-practice, comes very, very rarely.
One communication textbook talked about what your odds were for being assaulted on your way home: 1 in 10, 1 in 100, 1 in 1000, or 1 in 10,000. The point was that the more TV you watch, the more you overestimate the chances of suffering a violent response. The heaviest TV viewers expected a 1 in 10 chance of assault. The actual figure was the 1 in 10,000 per night figure. Notwithstanding shows glamorizing a highly romanticized view of law enforcement—when did a police show ever depict an officer filling out an hour of paperwork, or spending a day doing a daily grind of dull responsibilities—police officers draw their weapons (excluding training) perhaps once every few years.
In the musician-style-practice, you only practice very, very rarely, even including officers. No matter how much preparation it takes to keep a sharp edge, live doctor-style-practice is, and should be, very rare.
The discipline of nepsis or spiritual watchfulness over thoughts, has more than one relevance, but a nepsis that watches for and cuts off warring thoughts at the first is invaluable. Though this is a different meaning than when I last saw it, “They say that if you must resort to violence, you have already lost.” Read my article Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: then read Elder Thaddeus’s original Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and learn to appreciate your warring thoughts in deeper ways.
It may seem almost “sexist” that the blame, or at least attention and corrections, should be placed entirely on one side, yours; but this dark cloud hides an astonishing silver lining. If the correction is only put on one side, so is the power to change and make the situation better. Perhaps most (not all) conflicts include a feedback loop of escalating anger (and one that most or all truly good martial artists know how to shut down, by for instance meekly saying, “You’re the tough guy”—and this was a third-degree black belt who meekly and submissively opted out of having to be the tough guy). There is a classic enlightenment exercise where a group of sailors stand in a ring, with instructions to touch the shoulder of the soldier exactly as yours was pressed. And someone touches one of the sailors lightly, with one light finger press. The “equal to what happened to me” results in a heavy finger press, and before too long at all the light touch has become a meaty, and nasty, punch. It is very hard at times, but love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you: but you have the power, many times, to shut down the escalating unmerry merry-go-round that others will not step off of. Not that this is only for pacifists; I have seen soldiers beautifully live out of this power, and people who weren’t specifically soldiers but believed in a just war (a western concept that never really took in Orthodoxy even though Orthodoxy never really places an expectation of becoming a pacifist). If Elder Thaddeus’s sage advice could be summed up in a single maxim, it might be Proverbs 15:1: “Anger slays even wise men; yet a submissive answer turns away wrath: but a grievous word stirs up anger.”
Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind.” each day and practicing our nonviolent thoughts (doctor-style-practice) a watchfulness in thoughts that is alert to snuff out smoulders when it is small rather than heroically deluging a burning house, is harder up front, but far easier down the road.
It sounds small, but the results down the road are anything but small.
Holy and blinding arrogance
Elsewhere in The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes:
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
It has been said, “You can choose your options, but you cannot choose the consequences of your actions.” You can choose whether to look at Light or darkness: in so doing you may choose, by gazing on the Light, to be filled with peace, or to gaze deeply into darkness (and have darkness gaze into you) by training your eyes on the whirlpool of circumstances all of us face. The option is not presented to try to do God’s thinking for him, and analyze and work out how we will handle the future, and instead of darkness have all of the joys of peace that beholds the Light of God.
O that we could reach far enough into overreaching arrogance that we could, like saints old and new, look upon good and bad people and only see the beauty of the image of God in each!
A lot has been covered here; the past few paragraphs narrate what, in a very specific sense, can be done as the Orthodox martial art. Broadly and in a deeper sense, holiness matters.
We live in turbulent times, and probably more turbulent and rougher as time goes on. But there is an alternative to being whipped out in the vortex of our times and surroundings. (Elder Thaddeus had many sufferings and was repeatedly taken prisoner by Nazis.) We have a choice about whether we will be sucked into it. It might not seem like it, but we do. Psychologists advising addicts say that you have more power than you think. If we are attentive and refuse to consent to thoughts, perhaps praying to God to save us from this temptation, and if we are in anger, praying for God’s every blessing. This is not a quick overall process: it may be something that is a minute to start, and a lifetime to master. But though it may take years and years and years to master, but improvement may start much faster than months.
In Treasures in Heaven: The Inner Meaning of “Do Not Store Up Treasures on Earth”, I try to unpack a small mystical slice of Blessed are the poor in spirit. There is bodily poverty, and monastics are blessed when they let go of physical possessions. But we have many false treasures in terms of ideas in our heads, and the letting-go of these false interior treasures is in step with why my previous parish priest said, “When we are praying, we should not have very good thoughts; we should have no thoughts.” And this has a poverty that is hard to come by. But once you have tasted it, earthly treasures taste suddenly flat. You’ve drunk something purer.
Beyond the Deep Magic of violence
When aggression and violence are met only with meekness and love, what results can be truly powerful. Evil is not always stopped from harming and killing no matter where you fall: witness Satan’s defeat in the martyrs, who are not in any sense killed because they are not good enough as Christians. Martyrdom is implemented by the Devil’s work, but the victor in martyrdom is always and ever in the Lord and in the triumphant martyr entering Heaven in glory as a son of God. What happens in martyrdom, but quite a few other places as well, happens when the Deep Magic of violence runs its course, but when it has run its course, the Devil’s work is transfigured into something immeasurably far beyond anything that the practical nature of violence can hope for. And its primary application is not reserved to the most extraordinary moments in a well-lived life, but the warp and woof of the daily living of those who practice it, be it on ever so small a scale!
Fr. Cherubim has left a considerable wake; the tip of the iceberg is in his contribution to a wave of committed Evangelicals deciding that being Orthodox is an indispensible aid to pursuing their cottage industry of reconstructing the ancient Church. The sycophant excitedly commented, “Yes; there was an article on this phenomenon in The Onion Dome. It was a bit like that article in The Onion, um, what was it… there was a woman, a strong woman, who overcame years of childhood abuse to become a successful porn star…”
When I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school , one of the cardinal rules surrounded alignments: “Lawful Good”, “Neutral Good”, “Chaotic Good”, “Lawful Neutral”, “True Neutral”, “Chaotic Neutral”, “Lawful Evil”, “Neutral Evil”, and “Chaotic Evil”. Each of these alignments was quite different from each other, but there was a common undergirding: no matter what alignment you play, you pick a course of action and you stick with it. You may be a hero or a villain; you may be believe in organized cooperation or the power of the individual, but whatever your choice may be, you are shirking due diligence as a role playing gamer unless you pick a course of action and stick with it.
Except for one exception. “Chaotic Neutral” isn’t exactly a matter of picking a course of action and sticking it with it. “Chaotic Neutral” role play can be described as “You can do anything you want, as long as you don’t do it twice,” and it is the closest alignment to acting like a hero one day and a villain the next. It has a bad reputation among gamers, perhaps because it disproportionately draws gamers who want to dodge proper handling of one cardinal aspect of game play, and quite possibly may dodge due diligence in other areas as well. And the Western Rite seems in large measure to be the “Chaotic Neutral” of Orthodoxy.
Q: Why do some Protestants keep trying to reconstruct the ancient Church?
A: The “Great Apostasy”
If you are trying to understand Protestant Christianity, one of the key features you should understand is the “Great Apostasy”, even if the term is unfamiliar to many Protestants today. Today the Internet is in working order, and regardless of what may happen in the future, it would be a strange thing to seek out venture capitalists now to help fund the great endeavor of reconstructing the Internet. It doesn’t make sense to “reconstruct the Internet” unless the Internet is dead, which it isn’t. And it also doesn’t make sense to try to “reconstruct the authentic ancient Church” unless the ancient Church died and left no surviving continuation into our day.
The Reformers asserted that there were serious problems in the Catholic Church they knew, and on that score many loyal Romans agreed with them. (For that matter, there are problems in Orthodoxy today—real problems.) What the Reformers asserted was something stronger: some time between the days of the Apostles and their days, the genuine Church had vanished altogether, on some accounts very soon after the Apostles passed away, and this belief impelled them to a great project of scholarly research and antiquarian reconstruction to reconstruct the (genuine) ancient Church. And so we have the Evangelical cottage industry of trying to reconstruct the ancient Church, which only makes sense if the Church had vanished and, in Orthodox terms, there was no living Tradition whose milk we should turn to nurse from. It is not an accident that the Reformers abandoned Church vestments in favor of scholar’s robes; understanding the Bible was no longer through reading the words of holy saints, but through secular antiquarian research. (This attitude still holds in the secular discipline of Bible scholarship today.)
Q: And why does the Western Rite keep trying to reconstruct Western Orthodoxy?
A: Their own version of the “Great Apostasy.”
The Western Rite’s project does make some sense here: the Western Church did in fact go through a Great Apostasy, and while I have never heard someone from the Western Rite find a Great Apostasy and say that the Orthodox Church has died out in Antiochian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Georgian, etc. living Tradition, none the less it is not a provocative thing to say that the West was once canonically Orthodox and has ceased to be that.
But in my conversations with Western Orthodox and what I have read, the plumbline of Orthodoxy is always a Protestant-style reconstruction of Western Orthodoxy from the time the West was Orthodox. Hence one asserts, for instance, that the vestments used follow the pattern of the time when East and West wore the same liturgical vestments, before the East changed. And this is not an isolated example; things keep coming up where the offered reason for a decision is that this is closest to what historical lessons tell us things were like in the ancient Church. It is a Protestant tune that is foreign to non-Western Rite Orthodox, and it keeps coming up.
Converts from the same tradition
One thing that concerns me is that Western Rite Orthodox are by and large not former Roman Catholics, but former Anglicans: one who understood Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism would be much more wary of former Anglicans practicing the Western Rite than former Romans. But let us waive that aside.
One point of spiritual danger for converts to the Orthodox Church is to overly associate with other converts from the same place, an arrangement that seems to invite subtle regressions to how the former confession places things. I have heard friends commenting how an Orthodox group of former Catholics was getting a bit unhealthy, and I have seen it in a mailing list of former Evangelicals. The Western Rite is largely a group of former Anglicans, and subtle (and maybe not-so-subtle) bits and pieces of Anglicanism seem to keep cropping up.
The Western Rite was unknown until St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco started to create it on his own authority; it is not a continuous, living tradition preserving Orthodoxy, and here nature abhors a vacuum. Converts practicing Western Orthodoxy, not in a position to nurse from the bosom of a living rite of Eastern Orthodoxy, willingly or unwillingly regress to the milk of an Anglicanism whose Archbishop of Canterbury is a Druid. (Some have said that the Anglican way is not via media as proclaimed, but “cut, copy, and paste.” But let us leave that aside.)
Must I adopt a foreign culture?
Christ did not invent baptism, nor did John the Baptist. Baptism was practiced in Judaism for the reception of non-Jewish pagans into Judaism: it was bringing in someone who was unambiguously portrayed as an outsider. What Christ did that was distinctive was to say that baptism is for everyone, Jew as much as Greek pagan. We all start outside.
The introduction to Bishop NIKOLAI’s Prayers by the Lake speaks of “the Christ-fighting Slavic soul”: Russians and Serbs need to swim upstream. And I remember a discussion with one Serb on Facebook who was a devout Orthodox and corrected my assumption that he had grown up in Orthodoxy: he grew up an atheist and learned that the giants of Serbian history were all Orthodox, and then discovered something much bigger than nationalism when he discovered Holy Orthodoxy.
One of the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is that in Catholicism, philosophy and culture can be swapped in and out; Thomism is is a usual standby but Patriarch JOHN PAUL was a phenomenologist. In Orthodoxy, however, philosophy and culture are not something you change like a garment, and the Orthodox Church in its way keeps alive philosophies and cultures long after the West apostasized. Today’s Western culture boasts a millenium of apostasy and is scarcely closer to tenth century England than it is to present-day India. If you’re going to aim for what Western culture was when it was still Orthodox, you have at least as far to go as if you join an Orthodox Church and start to absorb its culture along the way.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but former Catholics and Protestants can only enter the Church as reconciled heretics; we may wish it were some other way, but former Anglicans (among others) are reconciled heretics who particularly need to submit to the Church as one shaped outside of her ways.
Is there any alternative?
Let’s leave aside generalities for just one moment and talk in the specific. My priest is a protopresbyter or archpriest within ROCOR, and a former Anglican deacon. He is glad that he was not immediately ordained when he entered the Orthodox Church, but spent some time as a layman growing Orthodox roots. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I have never heard him argue, in Western Rite style, “This book says that this is how something was done in the ancient Church, so we should implement a program of change to restore this part of ancient Christianity.”
Not that he has any particular desire to throw out the old; he’s rather conservative. But one particular decision he has made is interesting. As well as being a priest he is a physician, a doctor who treats patients at the extremes of pain and suffering, and he has brought together an icon shrine devoted to one of the “holy unmercenary physicians”, saints who healed without charge. And he has placed, very near together, an icon of the ancient Roman St. Panteleimon next to a hand-painted icon of the twentieth century Blessed St. Luke. Another icon shows all of the holy unmercenaries across all the centuries, and as it so happens, the specific saint the corner is named after is St. Panteleimon. From the same fount as this icon corner comes a priest who will accept wisdom from a saint of any century, and again, I have never heard him argue, “This is what my book research says about how things were way back several centuries ago, or nineteenth century Russia or whatever, so we should change what we are doing to reconstruct the past.”
Looking at all the reconstruction of Western Orthodoxy that looms so large in the Western Rite, and seeing such an incredibly Anglican demeanor among Anglican converts who do not seem to really see themselves as reconciled heretics, wild olive branches grafted onto the Vine, leads me to want to say, “Oops… Could the Western Rite please try again?”
I wanted to give a meditation on the mystical theology of kings and monarchs.
As a starting point, I would point out that bishops rightly wear the regalia of the Byzantine Emperor, and the government of the Orthodox Church is monarchical: her bishops are monarchs. And I would like to make a few observations about my own bishop, for whom I am grateful: His Grace Bishop Peter of Cleveland and Ohio (ROCOR). He offers a point of departure for understanding monarchy.
His Grace Bishop Peter’s public bearing is quite regal, and he receives honor publicly. But privately he acts differently, and in quite the opposite way as a Hollywood celebrity who is sympathetic and modest in front of the camera and haughty in private. Quite the opposite, His Grace Bishop Peter is a monk, and like a good monk he tried to run away when he found out he was going to be made bishop. He sleeps in a chair, in a modest apartment. One gets the impression, not so much that he is a bishop, but that he is a monk fulfilling the obedience of serving as a bishop when he would rather live as a more ordinary monk—the kind of monk who may be the best kind of bishop!
All this is in accord with the Philokalia, which prescribes that monks who are in authority publicly act as their office requires, but privately not see themselves as any greater than anyone else. Perhaps some may covet the office of bishop because they see in it a chance to see themselves as greater. But that is something that cannot exist. In a certain sense Bishop Peter’s fine robes are meant for others to see and not him: I may admire how great he is, and be edified, but he may not do so, and it is spiritual poison if he does. There really is something great about being clergy, or bishop, or king, but that greatness should be invisible to the person in the office. It is a trustworthy saying, and worthy of all acceptation: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Being a bishop or king is no exemption to this rule; if anything, it is a greater demand. Being in office does not make it legitimate to see yourself as better; it just makes this spiritual poison harder to avoid and a greater threat. I may admire how fine His Grace Peter looks in his vestments, and be spiritually nourished by it, but to him it would be poison: there exists no legitimate spiritual license for self-admiration, not even if you are a bishop or a king!
I have coveted the status of being a knight; when Google AdWords advertised “English titles of nobility”, I wish my eyes had not lingered. But this is folly. Wishing a title without responsibilities is like hoping to be married without a spouse. And I think that confusion is a sign of our times: perhaps people have always coveted honor, but if men covet honor when they are taught to be humble, what will they do when schools teach “self-esteem” and pastors encourage “Godly self-respect”? Now to enter a role of service, as servant leader, is another matter: ordination is not at its core about acquiring the honor of a title as entering a role of service (the whole “servant leadership”), and the title that is conferred is for the benefit of others; the honors conferred are a gift to those the candidate is to serve. To be clergy or monarch is privilege, but the privilege is for others, not for oneself. The question, “Is the king for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king?” is rhetorical: the king is for the kingdom. The reason the Orthodox practice is to have bishops selected from among monks is not an indictment of marriage; St. Peter the Apostle, the Rock upon whom Christ built his Church, had a mother-in-law, and every bishop today is less than him. That monks are to be chaste is one part of a deeper reality: a monk is to be a whole burnt offering without remainder, and the reality in the Orthodox Church is that married men may be among the clergy, but its highest rank in particular is chosen from the monks who are peculiarly called to die to the world and be a whole burnt offering without remainder.
The Akathist to the Theotokos tells of the Magi, “The sons of the Chaldees saw in the hands of the Virgin Him Who with His Hand made man. And knowing him to be the Master, even though He had taken the form of a servant, they hastened to serve Him with gifts, and to cry to Her Who is blessed… Rejoice, Thou Who didst enlighten the initiates of the Trinity!” There is a a link here. The sons of the Chaldees came bearing gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each of these gifts is an emblem: gold of royalty, frankincense of divinity, and myrrh of suffering or sacrifice. And in this trinity of gifts, you cannot rightly pick up one without picking up the others. Every Christian must bear his cross, and if you read the lives of the saints, those who are fragrant with Heaven’s incense are fragrant after a life with deep suffering: they are fragrant with myrrh as sacrifices. And if the question is, “What is a king?” one answer would be, “One whose spirit is gold, but gold that is of one substance with frankincense and myrrh.” It is confusion to want to be a king, but have gold without myrrh. Better to recognize that kingship, divinity, and suffering are of the same substance as they appear in the great hymn to humility:
Let this mind be in you,
Which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God,
Thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation,
And took upon him the form of a servant,
And was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man,
He humbled himself,
And became obedient unto death,
Even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him,
And given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
Of things in heaven,
And things in earth,
And things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.
Here is humility. Here are gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Mystical theology to live out
There is something we are missing if we understand monarchy only as a system of government. The Orthodox Church has words about how oil is used to anoint kings and priests, but these words are from when all the faithful are summoned to be anointed in Holy Week. The image we are made in is not only divine: it is royal. Myrrh is the emblem of sacrifice, of human approach to the divine; oil is the emblem of the divine approach to humans, and it is no mistake that anointing chrism is for all Christians: from ancient times Christ, which is to say the Anointed One, was understood to be anointed with the sacred oil that made prophet, priest, and king. And from ancient times the Church sees that anointing as given to Christians too. It is fashionable to claim a Facebook profile religious affiliation that over-modestly says, “Follower of Jesus”; I have wished it would be appropriate to answer with a stated affiliation of, “Alter christus: ‘follower of Jesus’ means ‘another Christ’!” But that could be over-forceful.
If we are kings, what are we kings of? One chief answer is that we are kings over our work. Whether we be working professionally, or homemaking, or learning how to grow up, or job hunting, or retired and volunteering, all of us are called to work and to work is to reign in the activity of the royal image. Secondly, we are called to rule over ourselves in ascesis. The “Sol Invictus” claim of “I am the master of my fate, I am the master of my soul” is an obscene parody; in quite a different way, in the ascesis of our lives, God summons us to serve as bishop and monarch over ourselves and our passions, conquering them and ultimately being God’s co-worker as they are transfigured. He who says “stewardship” says “royal reign”: if we are to be careful stewards of our time, treasure, and talent, we are to reign faithfully in these, and in other areas of life, in our relationships and in our solitude, we are to reign. And this is real reign.
When I was a graduate student in theology, I winced when people tried to pay me a compliment by saying that by my obscure sources and scholarly rigor I had a real, serious understanding of the Bible, and they merely had a lightweight, devotional understanding of the Bible. I respected the humble appreciation, but this was an entirely backwards understanding. The Bible in its real and dynamic form is used liturgically and devotionally; my difficult scholarly commentaries had a place but were something dead compared to the living devotional use of the Bible. “In humility consider others better than yourself” is spiritually sound, but I winced that people could say that my academic exercises were serious Bible study and their devotional reading was second-rate and fluffy. And in like fashion, monarchy is misunderstood if it means only that one person out of many exercises a political reign. It is a basic spiritual reality, and God summons all of us to be prophet, priest, and monarch.
Seekest thou a mighty deed,
Our broken world to straighten out?
Seek it not! Knowest thou not,
That the accursed axe ever wielded in the West,
To transform society, with a program to improve,
Is a wicked axe, ever damned,
And hath a subtle backswing, and most grievous?
Wittest thou not that to heal in such manner,
Is like to bearing the sword,
To smite a dead man to life therewith?
Know rather the time-honeyed words,
True and healthgiving when first spoken,
Beyond lifesaving in our own time:
And ten thousand around thee shall be saved.
In our time and place, this warning is one well worth heeding. One poster I saw showed a picture of Hitler and said, “Politicians. The best argument for monarchy yet.” I find it awfully hard to say that we live under an optimal government. But it’s an impulse shared with a Western half-converter to organize a manifesto to restore monarchy. A manifesto is an axe to depose kings; it is a fundamental error to try to approach monarchy through political activism as promulgated by the West for when you really care and want to make a difference. The fundamental error is almost:
Category Mistake, n. An assumption embodied in an inappropriate question, inquiring about an undefined attribute, such as, “Is yellow square or round?”, “Is the doctrine of the Trinity calm or excited?”, or “What was the point of that speech?”
To those who are convinced that kingship is ordained by God, I would recall Christ’s sharp question: “Which is greater, the gold of the temple, or the temple which makes that gold sacred?” The gold of earthly kingdoms may be sacred as liberal inventions are not. But the temple of the Kingdom of Heaven is greater, and that is a Kingdom that is established in us. Perhaps it is best to have both the gold and the temple that makes the gold sacred, but that does not mean we should leave the temple so we can bring some gold to be made sacred in it. The Sermon on the Mount bids us, impels us, commands us, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” If there is to be a God-ordained restoration of monarchy, it will be one of “all these things” that “shall be added unto you.” It is a matter of “Save thyself, and ten thousand around thee will be saved.” If you leave this to be practical, you are picking up an axe that cannot but lay waste when its backswing hits.
There may be said to be two archetypes, the saint and the activist. The saint lives to contemplate God; even if this means a life of Ascesis (as one monk described monastic life, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up,”), and never reach contemplation in its pure sense, laity in the world live for contemplation. By contrast, the activist lives to change the world, and the activist impulse is like a hydra: cut it off once, and it resurfaces in two other places. But it is not lawful to Orthodox. Many Orthodox saints have changed the world, but this was only because their goal was the goal of contemplation. Orthodoxy has no saying, with the activist, of “Try to make a plan a reality, and you may save ten thousand people.” She only says, and can say, “Save yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved:” Orthodoxy is not served by the activist, only by the saint.
I was sitting at a table with my classmates, and there was one part of the conversation in particular that stuck in my mind. One of my classmates was a vegan, and my professor, who was Orthodox but usually was not as strict as some people are observing Orthodox fasts, said that he was challenged by that position. He talked about Orthodox monasticism, which usually avoids meat, and its implication that meat is not necessary. I wanted to contribute to that discussion, but my sense was that that wasn’t quite the time to speak. When I explored it after that meal, it seemed more and more to be something that was part of a deep web, connected to other things.
What is Theophany? And what does it have to do with meat?
When I became Orthodox, one of the biggest pieces of advice the priest who received me (my spiritual father) gave me was to take five or ten years to connect with the liturgical rhythm. Now in the Orthodox Church advice from spiritual fathers is like a doctor’s prescription in that what is given to one person may not be good at all for another: like a prescription given by a doctor, it is given to one person for that specific person’s needs, and should not normally be seen as universal advice that should be good for everyone. However, that doesn’t mean that advice is perversely designed to be useless to everyone else. I believe this was good pastoral advice not because of something ultimately idiosyncratic about me—something true of me but no one else—but because of something I share with a lot of other people, especially other Westerners.
In the Orthodox Church, there are days, weeks, and years as in the West, but what they mean is different. In some respects the similarity is deceptive. The biggest difference is less a matter of linear vs. cyclical time, as that in the West time is like money: people will say, “Time is money,” and if it is a metaphor, it is none the less a metaphor that captures people’s outlook very well. Time is like a scarce commodity; it’s something you use to get things done, and you can not have enough, and run out of time. Language of “saving time” like one would save resources is because the way people treat time is very close to how one would treat a commercial resource that you use to get things done. This may be deeply rooted in some Orthodox, especially Western members of the Orthodox, but instead of time being like a limited supply of money, time is like a kaleidoscope turning. There are different colors—different basic qualities held in place by worship, prayer at home, fasting from certain foods, feasting, commemorating different saints and Biblical events, and being mindful of different liturgical seasons—and they combine in cycles of day, week, and year, given different shades as people grow. Again, this is much less like “Time is money.” than “Time is the flow of colors in a kaleidoscope.”
One of those seasons is called “Theophany,” and it is defined by the third most important feast in the year. I am writing in that season, and it seems an appropriate enough season to write this piece. It fits Theophany.
“Theophany” means “the manifestation of God.” That word does not refer to icons or animals. But the way that God was manifest in Theophany has every relevance to icons and animals.
Theophany is the celebration of the Lord Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, and at one point this was not celebrated from what we now celebrate in Christmas. At that baptism, the Father spoke from Heaven and said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” the Son was baptized, and the Spirit appeared in the form of a dove. The Trinity was made manifest, but more to the point, the Trinity of God was made manifest to and through material Creation.
The Fathers have never drawn a very sharp line between Christ the Savior of men and Christ the Savior of the whole creation. This isn’t something the Fathers added to the Bible: the Son of God has entered into his creation so completely that the Bible itself says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”
When Christ was baptized in water, he blessed the whole creation. Yes, he set a precedent for his followers. I wouldn’t want to diminish that. But if you draw the line and say the story is relevant to our being baptized but nothing more, you have cut off its fundamental relevance to the whole Creation. The Orthodox liturgy never forgets the rest of the created order, and the liturgy for Theophany crystallizes this in the service for the blessing of the water:
Great art thou, O Lord, and wonderful are thy works, and no word doeth justice to the praise of thy wonders; for by thy will thou didst bring out all things from nonexistence into existence; and by thy might thou dost control creation, and by thy providence thou dost govern the world. Thou it is who didst organize creation from the four elements, and crowned the cycle of the year with four seasons. Before thee tremble supersensual powers; thee the sun praiseth, the moon worshippeth, the stars submit to thee, the light obeyeth, the tempests tremble, the springs worship thee. Thou didst spread out the heaven like a tent; thou didst establish the earth on the waters. Thou didst surround the sea with sand. Thou didst pour out the air for breathing. Thee do the angelic hosts serve; thee the ranks of the archangels do worship, the many-eyed cherubim, the six-winged seraphim, as they stand in thy presence and fly about thee, hiding with fear from thine unapproachable glory…
And shortly the water is blessed, opening a season of blessing in which people’s houses are blessed, icons are blessed, people are blessed, and so on. To be human is to be created for worship, but it is not only humans; every material creature and every spiritual creature (the “supersensual powers”, the “many-eyed cherubim”, and other figures in the liturgy quoted above) are not only created to worship but have a place in what could be called a united organism.
People today are seeking a harmony between man and nature, and some people may wonder if Orthodoxy has a basis for such a harmony. The answer is a yes and no. Let me explain.
If we ask a different question, “What would harmony between humans and technology be? What would a society look like?” then there might be an image of people caring for machines, adapting themselves to them, and so on and so forth. And that image, or that projection, would lead to a deceptive image among societies today. If we are talking about the kind of technology in the first world today, then the first world today not only is better attuned with technology than the second or third world, but has done something with technology that is simply without parallel in the first 99.999% (literally) of the time humans have been around. Although some other nations like Japan may have a slight edge over my native USA, I’m going to focus on the USA for the simple reason that I know it better.
In the USA, which has something about technology that exceeds what has been done in the same vein in the first 99.999% of the time humans have been around, there are people who develop technology and are carefully attuned to it. And the culture is optimized to support technology in a way that I didn’t appreciate until I lived in the second world. You may be able to count on your fingers the number of societies that have ever managed, in the entire history and prehistory of the human race, to be more attuned to technology. And yet the society is not what one would imagine if one tried to imagine a society in harmony with technology.
This is a society with a minority current making Luddite arguments about why computers are bad (and to me the arguments have more weight than some might suspect). There are also people who have no academic axe to grind about the sociological effects of video games, but hate learning new programs. The predominant computer operating system is the most insecure operating system, the one that most exposes its users to viruses and worms—better operating systems are available, at very least from a security and privacy perspective, for free in some cases, but the industry standard is the one that leaves its users most vulnerable to malicious software. Furthermore, people do not hold technology as objects of reverence, or at least most people don’t. Not only is it not a big deal to dispose of no-longer-wanted technology, but “planned obsolescence” means that technology is made to be thrown away. When technology is broken, it will probably be replaced instead of being repaired. You can be very educated and know very little about technology. And the list goes on.
Now I ask: Is this attunement with technology? And the answer is “Yes,” but it is the kind of attunement seen in real society (perhaps more perfectly in Japan and other places), not what one would imagine as “harmony with technology.” The difference between the two is like the difference between romantic relationships—the kind you have with another flesh-and-blood human who has things that your imagination didn’t put there—and romantic fantasies. In fact people don’t think in terms of “harmony with technology;” to ask if American culture lives in harmony with technology is a question few Americans would ask.
Does Orthodoxy have a key to harmony with nature? Let me give one clue. No single technology—not SUVs, not environmentally incorrect inks, not styrofoam—dictates a heavy environmental footprint. Even if there were no soy inks, the printer in itself need not dictate environmental damage. What dictates environmental damage is waste. And Orthodoxy never tells a society what technologies it may and may not use—when someone ran an anti-SUV advertisement asking, “What would Jesus drive?” Orthodoxy may well agree with the archaeologist who in essence said, “Speaking as someone who’s done excavations in the Holy Land’s rugged terrain, you basically need an SUV, and Jesus with his twelve disciples would have driven a Hummer.” (This does not mean that we all need Hummers. I get rides from people but don’t own a car myself.) Even if Orthodoxy does not give a list of what technologies its people can’t use, Orthodoxy does join voices with many other Christians in saying that part of the walk of virtue is living simply, meaning using what you need but being willing to ask “Do we need what we can afford?” instead of just “Can we afford what we need?” This simplicity is not lived consistently in the first world, but the classical virtue of living simply, formulated at a time when people simply were not thinking in environmentalist terms, has implications for appropriate stewardship of the earth. Living simply has usually been conceived as something that deals with rich and poor—almost all people in the first world who have a home would be considered rich—but it is part of a right ordering that will rightly orient people and society to the material world.
But there is another side to the issue. In the Western way of looking at it, there is a fundamental opposition between harmony (shaded by equality) and domination (shaded by inequality). Harmony, by definition, does not include domination. But the way the Eastern Church approaches it fits neither into the Western boundaries of harmony nor the Western boundaries of domination. The link between man and nature needs harmony, but it is incomplete if it cannot include domination and even destruction. The PETA position, admittedly extreme for people who have animal rights sympathies, is that a duck is a rat is a goat is a boy. To them, meat is murder, not just as a way of exaggerating something deep, but in a literal sense. And I cannot agree with that. If I could kill a goat and save a girl, I would do so. And beyond that, I eat meat, more than most people (at least before low-carb diets came in vogue, and perhaps after).
When I was a boy, my art teacher told the class to get smocks, and my father gave me an unwanted shirt—but he would have given me his best shirt if I needed it. I used it and it kept me from getting clay and paint on my other clothing. (In other words, I destroyed it.) That wasn’t the only thing of my parents’ that I destroyed. I destroyed the meals my mother cooked for me (usually by eating them and throwing away as little as possible—you wouldn’t want them when I was done). I destroyed things that weren’t working by taking them apart to see what was inside. I destroyed clothing that my mother brought for me, usually by wearing it out. If my parents had back every penny they spent on something that I destroyed, they would have a good deal more money.
However, my parents did not raise me to be a destructive man. The smock is an example of justified destruction. The fact that my father gave me one of his shirts to destroy as a smock does not mean that it didn’t matter if I destroyed his shirts. He would have been quite bothered if I had rubbed red clay onto all of his shirts. Quite a lot of the destruction I did was appropriate. It was justified destruction within a context, and I believe it illustrates what it means to say both that destruction can be permissible, and that destruction matters. To speak of justified destruction is both to say that destruction can be justified and that justification needs to be justified: it is acceptable to destroy a dress shirt when a smock is needed, but destroying a dress shirt needs to be justified, and is not appropriate when it is not justified.
The concept of “raw materials” applied to the natural world isn’t a very Orthodox concept, for much the same reason that it would seem strange to interpret our house as merely a bunch of raw materials for me to destroy at will. The examples above notwithstanding, my parents did not want me to be destructive, and the fact that I was permitted to destroy things was not the central truth of the matter. It would be much closer to the truth to say that I was in that home to grow into a Christian and a man, and be a member of that family. There was also a footnote that said I could destroy some things in some circumstances. But even the things which I was permitted to destroy were not “raw material”. A shirt has value in itself, as a shirt, even if it is used as a smock.
The problem with considering the items in my parents’ house is raw material is that they have both status and value independently of what I might get out of destroying them. It might matter that I would benefit from destroying the shirt by using it as a smock, but the heart of the matter is that “potential for making a smock” is neither the only status nor the only value of a dress shirt.
An icon, a picture painted to help make spiritual realities manifest, has value as the emblem of a view of the Creation where science and materialism do not tell the whole story, where matter has spiritual qualities above the legitimate observation of scientists, and where saying “Nature is simply what science describes” is as fundamentally erroneous as saying “Your value as a human being is simply what you get when you subtract your financial liabilities from your assets.” If an icon is spiritual, if it is part of God manifesting himself through matter and restoring matter to his circle of blessing, then there is something inadequate if the only meaning to “matter” is “what science describes.” Matter is a part of the treasurehouse of God, and the icon is spiritual not as an exception to inert matter and raw material, but as the crystallization of something at the heart of Creation. Seeing the natural world as raw material is almost as strange from an Orthodox perspective as seeing people in terms of their financial net worth. It’s the same kind of error.
Of the possessions in my parents’ house, not are equal, and it makes a difference whether I am destroying a plastic cup or a landscape painted by my mother. In God’s own house with his treasures, not all are of equal value. There are some of these treasures that exist, in their way reflecting a God who is existence itself: rocks, for instance. There are some possessions which exist in a deeper sense, having an existence that is alive, a reflection of a God who is not only Being itself but Life itself. Then, beyond these oaks and roses, there are treasures which exist and even live in a way that moves: gazelles and badgers. As the pinnacle of material creation and the microcosm that brings together the material and the spiritual, are creatures that exist, live, and move in out of rationality—on a richer and more interesting understanding of “rationality” than most people would associate with the word today. That would be the realm of men. Lastly, there are bodiless rational spirits. rank on rank of angels.
We can destroy treasures that exist, live, and even move, and some people think that in dire circumstances we may destroy the highest of material treasures, the ones that are rational. But that does not mean that it’s all the same to destroy rocks, plants, and animals. Destroying a plant—to make a vegan’s meal, for instance—is more serious than smashing a pebble. (Unfortunately, you can’t live off of a diet of rocks.) Destroying an animal is far more serious, and there are sources which suggest it is more a concession than what we would think of today as a right. You can find people arguing that meat is more of a condition to weakness and medical concerns than something healthy people should need to resort to.
In Judaism, “kosher” is not only a matter of whether the meat comes from a clean animal like a cow or a sheep or an unclean animal like a pig. It also is a matter of how the animal was slaughtered.
The butcher says a blessing over the animal and then makes a single motion with a knife that has to be sharp, and is specified so that the animal dies as swiftly and painlessly as possible. Its lifeblood is also to be poured out as thoroughly as possible—because the animal’s life belongs to God, not to us, and even if we may kill it, Judaism at least frames acceptable slaughter in a way that shows respect for the animal killed.
If we look at a Jewish shepherd with his flock of sheep, under second temple Judaism, and a contemporary (to him) pagan Greek swineherd with his flock of pigs, they (or at least the Jew) would have seen themselves as complete opposites, at least after taking into account that they both raise a group of animals. There may have been a difference in whether all the animals were being raised for meat, but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument. The Greek swineherd might have found the comparison rather insulting: to Greeks, Jews were these antisocial people who wouldn’t mingle in polite company and for some reason treated one of the most delicious meats (pork) as if it were something revolting and putrid. In other words, Greeks perceived Jews as rather a bit weird, a beer or two short of a six-pack. The Jew, however, would have certainly found the comparison insulting to the extreme: not only was this figure a goy, a heathen dog, but he was raising pigs. Saying that he was like a swineherd is offensive in much the same way it would be offensive to tell a UPS delivery driver who is proud of helping the business world and contributing a little to help the economy run smoothly, that that she is like a gang’s drug runner because they both deliver packages, whether the packages are productive business documents or street drugs. The Jew would have been more offended by the comparison, but for people who raise flocks of animals, the Jew and Greek would have seen themselves as very different.
But let’s compare them to how pigs are raised today, in today’s factory farming. Pigs spend almost their entire lives in tiny cells, with an hour of artificial light a day—the rest of the day being surrounded by darkness—constricted in cells too small for them to turn around, deprived of a herd animal’s normal contact with other animals from its herd, traumatized not only by sounds but by the unending stench of rotting feces. The workers who treat them come down with atrocious respiratory diseases—and they are exposed to the vile air for a few hours a day instead of 24/7 as the pigs are. I don’t believe that feeding animals antibiotics is innately wrong, but with pigs it serves as an inappropriate band-aid for the damage caused by a dungeon—if that is a strong enough word—which is such a toxic environment that feeding the animals constant antibiotics actually makes a marked difference in the number of pigs killed by the life in their dungeon.
If we compare the Jew and the Greek herd-keepers, suddenly they look the same, and some things take on a new significance. Both allowed their herds to graze at least some of the time. Both allowed their animals to have natural contact with other like animals as part of a herd. Both raised their animals in daylight. Both raise their animals in places that gave them not just room to turn around, but room to move about normally. And now I’d like to ask what the Jewish shepherd (at least) would have thought of the factory farming way of raising (in the example above) pigs. Or, if you prefer, a rabbi.
Do you know how when you step on a tack or stub your toe, you feel tremendous pain, immediately, but if you get in a car accident and really need to go to the emergency room, it takes a while for the pain to register? My suspicion is that kosher slaughter techniques leave an animal unconscious and possibly dead before the pain has had time to register. Even if it is not painless slaughter, the specific rules are motivated by a principle that reduces suffering in a timespan of only a few minutes. And non-kosher slaughter, unless people go out of their way to cause suffering, cannot come anywhere near the suffering which factory farming inflicts on pigs. For that matter, it’s not clear how one would go about creating a torment-filled slaughter technique that would come anywhere near the lifelong suffering animals experience in factory farming. My suspicion is that people who are criminally convicted of cruelty to animals (at least in the U.S.) cause nowhere near the suffering before the animal is dead that factory farms do. To the best of my knowledge, Orthodox Judaism has not made rules about how an animal must be treated for its entire life to provide kosher meat, but if the rules were being articulated today, I suspect that the rules would recognize that lifelong torment is more of a problem than failing to kill an animal quickly and with a minimum of pain (as well as pouring its blood out as a reverent recognition that the life of an animal belongs to the Lord).
Before further discussion about factory farming’s evil side, I would like to explain what it has allowed. Raising animals the traditional way is expensive, requiring a lot of land and a lot of manpower. Factory farming—stacking animal cells in warehouse-like fashion and in general treating animals like mere machines—is a way to automate and mechanize the production of both meat and animal products like eggs and cheese. It is a tremendous way to cut corners, and the result is that things that come from animals are drastically reduced in price, drastically cheaper.
It is difficult, at least in the first world, for people to understand that for most of history people have not been vegetarians but neither did they eat meat every day. There have been a few hunter tribes that had a meat-based diet. For most people whose food came from farms, bread or rice has been the staple food. Meat was for special occasions or a seasoning; eating meat every day would seem strange to most people, like ordering lobster every time you feel like a snack, or drinking Champagne with every meal. Meat, being an expensive thing to produce, was something people didn’t have as the basis for normal meals. If you are an American adult—and you have not made a conscious choice early in your life to drastically reduce or eliminate meat from your diet—then you have almost certainly eaten much more meat than Jesus did. This does not automatically mean that we shouldn’t eat meat ever, or that we should eat meat rarely, but it does suggest that eating meat every day is not really the traditional way of doing things, even if most people were not vegetarians. A lot of people today love lobster and Champagne, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal in my society to have them every day. It might be telling that the “Our Father” Jesus gave doesn’t say, “Give us today our daily meat,” but “Give us today our daily bread.” That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat meat, but it seems not to assume, as people sometimes do, that meat is the main food.
Three American rules
I’d like to point out something more about American culture. Where I was growing up, I heard that a restaurant, Dragon West, had been closed down for improper use of domestic animals. For those of you who don’t have X-ray goggles, “improper use of domestic animals” is an opaque bureaucratic euphemism for the fact that they were serving dogs as food. The reason the restaurant was shut down has to do with the fact that eating dogs is culturally offensive to much of American culture, and there is a reason for that.
There’s a rule in America that if you keep a particular type of animal as a pet, you don’t eat that kind of animal’s meat. The rule is not absolute, and part of it is that most kinds of pets (carnivorous cats, for instance) would make poor livestock, and most kinds of livestock (behemothic bovines, for instance) would be hard to keep in a suburban home. And the rule isn’t absolute. Aside from rabbits, people swallow goldfish, although they seem to do that precisely because it crosses a line. But once you acknowledge a jagged border, it’s not just true that we happen not to eat the most common pets; many Americans would find the idea of eating a dog or cat to be nauseating. And it’s deeply seated enough to close down a restaurant.
You can, at some restaurants I’ve been to, order fish head curry. That doesn’t get a place shut down, but it breaks another rule. More specifically, it breaks the rule that meat shouldn’t give obvious clues that it came from an animal. Fish, which look the least like people, can be sold with their heads on. But unless you go out of your way, chickens are sold without head and feathers, and red meat and pork (which are from non-human mammals) is sold with even fewer clues that it’s some of the flesh of a slaughtered animal. Not that a detective couldn’t figure it out, but meat is sold in a form that hides where it came from, and people buying or eating beef would probably be grossed out by having a cow’s severed head nearby. Surely some of this is for economic reasons, but Americans who eat meat tend not to want to be reminded where it came from.
Lastly, people can be disturbed by the idea of eating certain kinds of “gross” things, things that creep and crawl—eating a tarantula or scorpion would be disturbing. (Interestingly, this rule seems to have a clause that says, “except if it came from the sea,” so the tarantula’s watery cousin the crab is fair game, as is the scorpion’s cousin the lobster.) That observation aside, the animals used to evoke horror in movies are generally not used as food.
My point in this is not to say that we all have rules, or think that only Orthodox Jews and Muslims have dietary rules. Even if the last rule has a strange exception, these rules are not random.
A devout Muslim will not eat pork and a devout Hindu will not eat beef, but the reasons are opposite: to the Muslim, a pig is an abomination, while to the Hindu, the god Shiva’s steed is a cow, and it would be an affront to Shiva to kill his steed for food. So we have abstinence out of disrespect and our of respect.
In the last rule I gave, “Thou shalt not eat anything creepy,” is an abstinence out of disrespect: spiders and lizards are dirty things that aren’t clean enough to eat. But neither of the first two rules is like this. The rules against eating animals that could be used as pets, and meat that looks too much like it came from an animal, are not rules of disrespect but rules of “Don’t remind me that an animal was killed for this.” The average suburbanite would rather be fed by meat from a kind of animal he has never interacted with closely—i.e. a cow—than think, “This came from a dog like the one I had growing up.”
This adds some complexity to the picture of “America is a place where people eat lots of meat and that’s that.” It suggests that, even if we eat lots of meat, there is something residual, a reticence that tries not to know that meat comes from slaughtered animals. (That is even without adding any knowledge of what it means for livestock to be raised under factory farming, which in my mind far outweighs the slaughter itself.)
Two things animal rights activists won’t tell you
Not all meat is created equal.
I had a bear of a time learning what specific conditions animals are raised under. Animal rights activists tend to want to treat animals as people, and only tell about what is inhumane, never what is humane, and so they will never tell you that beef cattle are raised under much nicer conditions than pigs. The people involved in factory farming seem not to advertise what they are doing. This makes not the easiest conditions to find out how much cruelty is associated with different things. (Or maybe I was just looking in the wrong places.)
What I was able to find—or the impression I was able to get—makes for a sort of ascending scale of cruelty, moving from least cruel (no more cruel than traditional animal husbandry) to most cruel. This scale isn’t perfect, but it’s the one I use.
Before we get on the scale, there is soy milk (which I’ve found to be available at grocery stores, and the chocolate is easiest to get used to), soy cream cheese, and so on. I still haven’t gotten the hang of liking tofu. I’ve found some other soy substitutes not to taste equivalent, but to taste good enough, and soy is claimed to have a complete protein signature.
At the base of the scale, the purest and most humane end, include ocean caught fish and seafood, and organic and free range anything. Organic food (which goes a little further than free range food—free range means that livestock can move about, free range, instead of being confined to coffinlike cells) can be found if you look for it at some supermarkets, and can be found at yuppie, granola music listening places like Whole Foods, which stacks exclusively organic produce, is pure as the driven snow, and has prompted a nickname of Whole Paycheck.
Next up the list are beef and mutton. Beef cattle do end up in fattening lots where they have little space, but they spend most of their lives growing up on open grazing land, able to move about, see sunlight, and be part of a herd.
Next up are eggs and dairy products. Because of the moral tenor of factory farming, animals can be treated cruelly even if they’re not exactly being raised for their meat, and if you order a cheeseburger, there’s more cruelty in the cheese than in the burger. Dairy cattle live much like pigs, although less of their lives (and therefore less cruelty) goes into producing a gallon of milk than a comparable amount of pork.
Last on the list are chicken, pork, turkey, and (the worst) veal. Many people know veal is cruel; pork and chicken are not much better. Chickens have a space roughly equal to a letter-sized paper folded in half, and farmers melt much of their beaks off (this is called “debeaking” by the farmers and the literature) because the living conditions cause so much fighting that the chickens would kill each other if they had their beaks and could peck like normal chickens would.
That is one of two things the animal rights crowd won’t tell you. There’s one other major thing I found that they don’t advertise.
In the Orthodox tradition, part of the story is fasting, which doesn’t mean abstaining from all foods and drinking only water, but usually means abstaining from some foods. The requirement on paper is to essentially go to a vegan diet (shellfish are allowed; oil and alcohol aren’t) and avoid most meat and animal products. This is more of a measuring stick than a requirement on paper, and some Orthodox bishops are concerned that new converts do not fast strictly. But, among people that observe fasting, most people go at least a notch or two closer than usual to a vegan diet. A little less than half the year has some fast or other, and the fast can be relaxed to some degree while still being observed. There are seasons of fasting, as well as days of the week.
What I realized in relation to fasting is that I hadn’t expected what fasting would really do. Giving up some of my favorite tastes was obvious, and I experienced that. But craving meat and not giving into that craving came up, and I don’t know that I consciously expected that, but it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was consciousness, or more properly the effect it had on my consciousness.
Fasting quiets sinful habits and makes it easier to fight them. But at the same time, it drains energy and puts your mind in a fog. I have reason to believe that’s not the final effect, that your body responds differently over time, but fasting affects different people somewhat differently, and the effect on me is quite strong.
What I realized, that animal rights activists will not tell you, was that the main difference in giving up meat (temporarily or permanently) is not the taste; it’s not even really the craving, even if you fight a strong craving. It’s consciousness, and when one friend said he was going to cut meat mostly out of his diet as he married his mostly vegetarian fiancée, I strongly urged him to monitor his state of consciousness.
Why I’m glad I can’t eat Splenda
When I eat more than a little Splenda, it makes me sick—nothing life-threatening or anything like that; I don’t need a medical alert bracelet. But Splenda doesn’t agree with me. If I eat a little, nothing happens. If I eat a bit more than that, I feel mildly sick. If I eat a lot, not only will I feel sick but nature will call with a louder-than-usual voice.
It’s a shame, really. Every other artificial sweetener I’ve tried doesn’t taste right; it tastes like something that’s meant to taste like sugar, but fails. Splenda tastes like sugar’s cousin come in for substitute duty, instead of complete strangers dressed up to vaguely resemble sugar. And I’m not the only person who likes the taste.
Actually, I don’t think it’s a shame at all. Perhaps it has its downsides: I suddenly can’t eat most desserts, because at least where I buy desserts it’s hard to find a dessert sweetened with real, honest sugar. If you can’t eat Splenda, you can’t eat most desserts. And perhaps I will have to turn down more than a tiny serving of some hand-cooked desert made by the friend I am visiting. But there’s something to real, honest sugar, and it betrays something about Splenda.
A couple of friends in Kenya sent a newsletter trying to explain to the Western mind that people value a ring of oil as evidence of a stew’s richness, that bread lists its calories as how much energy it provides for hard work, and they underscored that the calorie is a unit of energy. This is a totally different attitude from in the U.S., when calories count as strikes against food.
It is also a healthier attitude, which underscores that food is eaten to nourish the body. Now God, in his generosity, has made it a pleasure as well, but we don’t need the pleasure, and we do need the nutrition (i.e. nourishment).
Splenda represents an effort to sever the link between eating and nourishment. It may be physically healthier to eat one ice cream bar sweetened with Splenda than with sugar, but it is not spiritually healthier, and there may be hidden consequences to the message, “I can eat and eat and not get fat.” Not only is that bad for the spirit, in that it causes you to fall short of the full stature of being human. If you think about it, it may end up being bad for the waistline.
Splenda is, in short, a very attractive invitation to become a moral eunuch.
In contrast to this, I remember a plaque with a picture of a pig, which said, “Eat to live. Don’t live to eat.” It is the same mindset as Richard Foster saying (I think quoting someone), “Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.” Maybe he was talking about clothes, but it applies to foods too.
A private response
I try to eat animal products and meat, as much as are necessary for me be able to function. Unfortunately, I’ve found that I need a lot to function, partly for medical reasons. When I am receiving hospitality, I eat freely from what is offered to me; when I buy food, I buy a lot of beef, tuna, and chocolate soy milk. I try to get the minimum I need to function, and to take as much as I can from the lowest end of the cruelty scale. (I try. Sometimes I eat more than I need.) I also try to avoid wasting food and really try to avoid wasting meat—if it bothers me to see a pig raised in cruelty so I can eat a pork chop, it would be even worse for that pork chop to be thrown into the trash.
But there’s something wrong with that. I don’t mean that I chose the wrong private response to this dilemma. I think that as far as private responses go, it’s at least tolerable. Perhaps other people have chosen different responses, and maybe it could be better, but the problem is that it is a private response in the first place.
PETA, officially “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” and labelled by some as “People Eating Tasty Animals,” tend to be the sort of people Rush Limbaugh would have lampooned when he wanted to give the impression that all liberals were crackpots. They made a gruesome TV commercial telling children to run from their fisherman fathers, apparently for much the same reason you’d run from a serial killer. They’ve probably done quite a lot that will prevent moderates and conservatives from taking animal welfare concerns seriously. But there is one area in which they are perfectly rational.
If, as they believe, meat is literally murder, and if, as they believe, imprisoning animals under lifelong conditions of misery is morally equivalent to imprisoning humans under lifelong conditions of misery, then it is entirely inappropriate to say “I’ll privately choose to be a vegan and you can privately eat your meat, and we can disagree without being disagreeable.” Whatever else they may have wrong, what they have right is that society’s default placement for the matter, of private decisions where people exercise their own private judgment on what if any dietary restrictions it may be. If they are completely wrong, and there is nothing wrong with veal, then maybe they have a private right to eat as if their erroneous beliefs are true, but if substantial parts of their claims are true, even the claims I have made, then there are real problems with the way American culture frames it.
I think I’m going to have to leave this approach “depracated without replacement”; I don’t see anything better that could believably replace it.
An animal lover
I’ve been told I’m good with animals. I certainly love pets, other peoples’ as well as my own: when I visit certain friends, I usually have a pet on my lap.
There was one point when a friend was moving into the area, and (for reasons I don’t understand) asked me to stay with her dog, who was afraid of men. (Even though there were women in the group of friends who had come to help her.) At the beginning, it was very clear that the dog was nervous about being at the other end of a leash from me. But after half an hour, the dog’s head was in my lap as I petted him, and when the group came, he was jumping up and down and wanted to meet the men as well as the women in the group. Part of what happened was because I knew how to approach slowly and let an animal get used to me, but part of it was probably something else.
That is probably the most exotic, or at least most impressive, story I can muster about my being good with animals. If I visit friends with pets, I usually ask to see the pets. And I believe my family’s warm atmosphere is part of why our cat is nineteen years old and still catches mice. This is not to say that we love our cat more than one friend, whose dog was hit by a car, or another friend, whose dog died of cancer. But it is to say that she might not have lived nearly so long if we merely gave her food and water, and that when she was attacked and was found curled up and not moving, she desparately needed a vet’s attention, but I’m not sure she would have pulled through if she didn’t have the love and prayers she received. (As it is, we are delighted that she pulled through and is back to being her old sweet self.)
When I left to study, I moved to an apartment where pets were not allowed—not dogs, not goldfish. (And even if they were allowed, I wouldn’t want to buy a pet that I wasn’t reasonably confident I could care for properly with vacations, moves, etc. I wouldn’t want to put a pet to sleep because it was no longer convenient to me.) So, I thought, I knew the perfect creative solution. I would buy a Furby—a furry stuffed animal that talks and moves, due to the technology inside. (In other words, a pet that wouldn’t make messes or upset the powers that be.)
So I tried to convince myself that I could enjoy it as a pet, and for a while I thought I was successful: the Furby spoke its own language, and I learned a few words, being fond of languages. It would respond to my commands at least some of the time. The perfect pet for my situation… and it took a while before I acknowledged that there was something creepy about it. It wasn’t creepy when it just stood there, looking like a stuffed animal and adding color to my room. But when it opened and closed its eyes, the technology seemed different from what I was expected. It almost seemed like the unnatural un-life of a vampire. I knew, of course, that it would run according to technology, and having done a master’s thesis about artificial intelligence running into a brick wall, I knew that it wouldn’t be truly intelligent. Yet I didn’t count on the creep effect. Now the Furby stands as a decoration in my room, one I like looking at. But it isn’t really to conserve battery power that I don’t activate it very often. I recognize it as an impressive technical achievement, but not as a pet.
There’s a spark of something that is there in a real animal that isn’t there in a robot dressed in a stuffed animal costume, and it was driven home to me when I tried to pretend that it didn’t make a difference. There is something special about existing, and there is something more special about living as a plant does, and something about the moving force that is an animal. Something that I can enjoy when I am with pets.
What is the point of this? Am I saying that being an animal lover is an obligation? No. I do not believe that the minimum acceptable requirement is being an animal lover. I don’t think there is any moral imperative to learn how to deal with animals or have the faintest desire for a pet. But I would say that it is part of the spectrum of things that are acceptable. Not everyone needs to be a big animal lover, but it is an appropriate exercise of freedom. Not everyone needs to be a wine afficionado, but it makes sense to savor subtle differences in flavor and aroma for good wines that doesn’t make sense with Mountain Dew. Slowly savoring a tiny taste of different years of Mouton Cadet rouge is not incongruous; slowly savoring a tiny taste of different years of Mountain Dew is absurd. It might me good for making a delightful lampoon of wine snobs, but Mountain Dew does not merit a treatment ordinarily reserved for wine. For the same reason, there is something that fits about luxuriating on a waterbed that does not fit about trying to luxuriate and savor a sleeping bag on a hard floor. There is no moral obligation to seek out a waterbed or even a bed, but there’s a difference between a waterbed and a floor. Similar things could be said about painting with oil paints versus trying to paint with SAE 10W-40 motor oil. There’s something there to animals that means that they make much better pets than shampoo bottles, so that being an animal lover is a fitting response whether or not it is a moral obligation. And that “something there” is present whether or not you are an animal lover.
There’s something there. The “something there” of animals undergirds the possibility of people enjoying pets as some of us do, a “something there” that is not human and is less than humanity, but is something more than almost anything else in nature. There is also “something more” than machinery, and while there are not ethical problems about cruelty in how we treat machinery, there is a dimension to a farm animal that isn’t there for economic assets in general. That means that there are ethical concerns surrounding meat and animal products even after some of us acknowledge that God has given us authority to slaughter his creatures.
Animal rights activists tend to think animal rights means treating animal rights as human. When people have treated me as human, they have given me a bedroom and made other rooms available. They have spent time with me, and made good food available—not raw unless there was good reason to serve it raw. They have given me Christmas presents and a million other signs of respect that animals do not merit. If I looked at things in terms of rights (I don’t), I would draw a much narrower and much more modest list of rights for animals: being part of a herd, moving about out doors, seeing sunlight during the day, and so on. Nothing about beds and cooked foods, but treated like an animal, which is much less than being treated as human, but it’s also different from being treated like a mere piece of machinery.
This leaves loose ends untied. I haven’t explained why the breeding that went into the breed of 96% of turkeys sold in America (which causes an ungodly amount of meat to grow on a skeleton and beast that really aren’t built to carry anywhere near that much weight—imagine the frame of a compact car supporting the bulk and weight of a full-fledged SUV) is cruel, and the breeding of housecats (which also introduces profound changes that some animal rights activists call out-and-out cruel) is appropriate stewardship with regard to God’s creation. And this article is dense enough without exploring all of those. Environmentally conscious readers may not be pleased to note that my ranking of cruelty encourages people to buy foods that have some of the worst environmental footprint—a pound of beef is said to require 4000 gallons of our scarce water. You can make meat with less impact on the environment if you are willing to cut corners, not only economically but morally. But I would argue that cruelty concerns are heavier than even environmental. And those are presumably not the only loose ends I’ve left. But there are a couple of points I would like to underscore.
First, thinking in terms of “raw material” is inappropriate. Destruction may be justified, but if so it is justified destruction of items that have something to them besides what economic use we might be able to find. The whole system of factory farming treats animals as mere economic assets who cannot suffer or whose suffering is not as important as making the most money. That causes terrible, usually lifelong suffering. Cruelty to animals matters.
Second, cause as much cruelty as you need to, but not more. Try to have the lightest footprint that doesn’t cause trouble to you—trouble meaning something more than “A cheese and bacon omelet would really hit the spot.” (In my case trouble meant difficulty concentrating on my studies, and since then I’ve learned what my body can handle.) Eat to live. Don’t live to eat. Remember that not all foods are created equal. Aside from soy, organic animal products and meat, and sea-caught fish and seafood are by far the least cruel; beef is more cruel than these, but less cruel than animal products like milk, cheese, and eggs; dairy and other animal products are less cruel than most meats, including turkey, pork, chicken, and especially veal. If you are eating meat because it tastes good and not because your body needs its nutrition and energy, that is unnecessary.
Third, caring about the living conditions of farm animals has been framed as a liberal thing. That may be because there’s a problem which arose, and liberals have been better at waking up to something conservatives should have been noticing. If you are dubious of my credentials as a conservative, I invite you to read Our Food from God, published in a Christian journal that argues long and hard against even the more moderate forms of feminism. It’s not just liberals who have a strong moral ground to criticize factory farming. It’s just that liberals have been quicker to wake up and say, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Seeing animals only as financial assets whose suffering is not important, instead of God’s treasures which may be judiciously destroyed but have value independent of their economic usefulness, is the same basic error as seeing a person in terms of financial worth. The error is more grievous in seeing a person in terms of money, but that same basic error—as opposed to keeping a light footprint and trying to keep to justified destruction—has caused terrible animal suffering. Consider ways in which you might limit suffering you cause, and consider emailing a friend a link to CJSH.name/meat/. And maybe visit the store locator for Whole Paycheck, er, Whole Foods.
There was an article which discussed the Orthodox Church and yoga in Georgia. It made no mention of martial arts, but it left me thinking about how its substance would meet martial arts.
Probably the most striking part of the discussion of the Orthodox Church in Georgia giving a cautious, skeptical eye to yoga, and one of yoga’s advocates said, “With time, as practitioners realized that “[b]y chanting one ‘Om,’ they’re not going to change their religion,” the objections vanished.” This answer reminds me of how Charles Babbage was asked by members of the Parliament if his analytical engine could arrive at the correct answer even if it were given incorrect data to work with. He said, “I cannot rightly apprehend what confusion of ideas would lead to such a question.” And I cannot rightly apprehend what confusion of ideas would lead an Orthodox to accept that reply.
The term ‘yoga’ is from the Sanskrit and means a spiritual path, and in that sense with unadorned simplicity an Orthodox Christian may claim to be a devotee of the Christian yoga, much as for that matter an Orthodox Christian speaking with a follower of the Budo (Warrior’s Way) may with unadorned simplicity claim to be following Christian Do. Something close to this insight is at the heart of Christ the Eternal Tao. The question of whether chanting one ‘Om,’ or rather, ‘Aum,’ as the “Sacred Syllable” is more properly called, will change your religion is neither here nor there. Saying the Jesus Prayer once not make one Orthodox, but this exact point is neither here nor there. Meditation in yoga does not stop with one ‘Om’ any more than Orthodox hesychasm stops with saying the Jesus Prayer once. On this point I would bring in that the Jesus Prayer is so important in Orthodoxy that in nineteenth century Russia there was genuine, heartfelt resistance to teaching the Jesus Prayer to laity on the concern that access to something so great without the protecting buttress of monastic living would lead them into pride to the point of spiritual illusion. At the risk of claiming insider status in Hinduism or treating Hinduism as a copy of Orthodoxy, I might suggest that the place of the “Sacred Syllable” in Hinduism is something like the place of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodoxy, alike foundational to the depths of their spiritual trasures, alike the metronome of silence to its practitioners. The concern that the yoga that is drawn from Hinduism constitutes a spiritual path inconsistent with Orthodoxy is anything but kneejerk conservatism, especially if chanting ‘Aum’ once is the Hindu equivalent of taking the Eucharist once (a point on which I am very unsure). But it represents some fundamental confusion of ideas to speak of “the neutral syllable ‘Om,'” as one workbook endorsed a popularization of yoga in the interest of treating depression and bipolar disorder.
Thus far I have focused on the analogies and similarities of hesychasm to the meditation that is found in Hinduism and Buddhism and is part of internal martial arts. It may be described as “divorced from” its religious roots (the founding grandmaster of Kuk Sool Won), but it is a common practice in internal martial arts (I never reached a high enough rank in Aiki Ninjutsu to be expected to join them in meditation), and it may not so easily be separated from its roots as it is presented. Part of the article I read on Georgia and yoga talked about meditation as affecting mind and body and in certain contexts produces a state of extreme suggestibility, quite far from the pattern in the saint’s lives where the Lord, the Theotokos, or a saint tells someone something, and ends up doing so at least two or three times because the devout Orthodox is simply more afraid of being deceived than of failing to jump at a command they consider themselves unworthy of. The state of extreme suggestibility produced by meditation opens the door to demonic “insights”, and one of the questions raised was, “Do you want to train in a discipline where the leaders are likely under demonic influence, in postures intended to be part of a spiritual path where you, too, will be invited to the place of suggestibility where you will be open to demonic influence?” The entire discipline points to the demonic; why think we can handle it safely? St. Paul writes, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” It might be begging the question to assume immediately that yoga is one of the cups referred to in this passage, but it is also precariously close to begging the question to assume that the passage is simply irrelevant to whether it is wise for Orthodox Christians to practice.
Have I been able to smoke without inhaling?
Before talking about martial arts, which I will get to after laying some preliminaries, I would like to talk about an area where I did my best to “smoke without inhaling.” I had come to believe that how Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy literature portray magic is not acceptable: perhaps it would be appropriate to portray a character’s occult engagement as a serious sin that opens a door to the demons who hate us, but as it was argued to me, it’s merely a depiction of a world with alternate physical laws, and when I took that up seriously and asked, “Do you know to what tolerances the constants of the physical world are tuned? If I were to have aim that good, I could hit something much smaller than a proton at the furthest reaches of the universe. Having alternate physical laws that would support ordinary life as we know it and in addition pack in magic is a very tall order. Would you also read fantasy of a world where adultery was harmless due to alternate laws?”
This last polemic may be beside the point here, but what is more to the point is that a friend, not to say very experienced author, responded to a mailing list post suggesting that marketing-wise the first three books an author publishes establish the author’s “brand”, and suggested that my brand might be non-magical fantasy. And while I would not wish for that brand now, this was a carefully considered suggestion from someone who had read my work at length, and it makes sense. The list of works that could be called nonmagical fantasy, some written after he made the suggestion, include the short stories The Spectacles, Within the Steel Orb, and the novellas, The Steel Orb, Firestorm 2034, and The Sign of the Grail. And there is a reason I have not displayed any of the novellas on my Amazon author page; The Sign of the Grail in particular was a work where I realized that my greatest successes (and in a work where I made some bad decisions that jeopardized the work) let me realize that what I was attempting was impossible. I would describe it as, “I succeeded, and in succeeding realized that what I was attempting was impossible.”
Some time later, a priest or monk was speaking me and warned about the perennial temptation to escape the here and now. This temptation is hard to pin down; it can take place physically, or mentally by imagination, or by street drugs, or… When this was pointed out, after initially resisting it, I realized that a great many things I did lacked the joy of gratefully accepting the here and now: they provide escape, and one good friend praised Within the Steel Orb precisely as a way to escape that he couldn’t put down.
Proverbs asks, Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned? This is God speaking, and the whole topic of fantasy, especially non-magical, represents an area where I tried to “smoke, but do not inhale,” and it is evident to me that I did inhale a good deal more than was good for me, and a great deal more than I realized. I had, and probably do still have, feet partly of iron and partly of clay.
Martial arts without inhaling?
When I touched base with my spiritual father years back about martial arts, he permitted it up to a point; I know that spiritual prescriptions are not to be copied from one patient to another, but he allowed me to study martial arts that were really just techniques, but not martial arts that were more of a philosophy. I had previously had about a year’s combined study between Kuk Sool Won and Karate; I thought that I would study another martial art without inhaling, and simply try to dodge certain aspects in studying Aiki Ninjutsu. (I tried to follow the spirit and intent of my spiritual father’s words, but perhaps I should have tried to ask him once I became aware of the neuro-linguistic programming and success plans.) What I really wanted was the stealth training, but God closed the door to the weekend training that would cover stealth.
After having gotten a certain point in, I emailed the instructor saying that I was coming to appreciate that Aiki Ninjutsu represents a complete spiritual tradition and does not mesh well with Christianity. I mentioned as an example the student’s Creed, which begins, not with the magnificence of “I believe in one God…”, but “I believe in myself. I am confident. I can accomplish my goals.” I said that believing in oneself represented a fundamental spiritual failing in Christianity. Had he asked questions or tried to understand me in dialogue beyond my first words, I would have referred to him to Chesterton in Orthodoxy, Chapter 2:
THOROUGHLY worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written [the asylum] “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.
I said that if he were to want to know more, I would have referred him to this passage. (The Fathers do not rebut the phrase “believing in yourself”, because it was coined and popularized after your time. When it was called “pride” or similar names, it was ripped to shreds.) Perhaps some of the more recent writing from Mount Athos may address “believing in yourself,” but I am limited in my grasp of what is current on Mount Athos.)
He responded with an authoritative statement that his art was appropriate for people of all religions or no religion, including Christian, and gave a recipe for success that began with believing in oneself. It was an Activist recipe, not a Saint’s, as I lay out two ultimate orientations in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist, not a saint’s; I did not expect him to take the role of the saint, but he seemed to only see the Activist approach as a live option. Now the Saint and the Activist do not represent mutually exhaustive options; I would expect Japan’s history to hold at least one other model besides them; and the martial art was presented as drawing on centuries or millenia of Japanese history, but it seemed to incorporate neuro-linguistic programming.
And on this point I will notice a difference between the martial art I was taught and prior martial arts: Kuk Sool Won and Karate both spoke, relatively frequently, of emphasizing “harmony between opponents.” In Aiki Ninjutsu, the code of ethics includes dealing with others in a “harmonious” way, but I never heard advocacy of humble harmony between opponents: by contrast, one of the more advanced lessons covered with beginners is “become the center:” you dictate what is going on. The art may have been combined with Aikido, which is perhaps the most harmonious-with-opponents of martial arts, but as it was combined and presented, I never heard on the mat someone speaking of harmony with one’s opponents, and I heard and saw practice at becoming the center. The teacher seemed to be trying to “win through becoming the center” rather than “win through harmony with one’s opponent.”
For my next point, I need to say a couple of words about the ki that is central to internal martial arts. “Ki”, translated “spirit” and “energy” in the Aikido poster hanging in the dojo, is a foundational concept in so-called “internal” martial arts and appears to me to be a large part of the inspiration for the Force as dramatized in Star Wars. The two are not interchangeable (for instance, I have never heard a martial artist discuss a light side and a dark side to ki or try to levitate something), but I’m not sure of any other concept readily accessible to the Western mind that translates “ki” (the Greek “pneuma” has been suggested by a Tae Kwon Do leader, but it is an approximation while “ki”, “chi”, and “qi” in Asian languges do translate each other or rather refer the user to the same concept). Interacting with ki is at the heart of internal martial arts.
Perhaps the most basic interaction with ki that I have seen in martial arts was to “ki out”, as it was called in Kuk Sool Won and maybe Karate, or “kiai” in Aiki Ninjutsu, sometimes translated “spirit yell.” Aiki Ninjutsu, unlike the other two arts as I was exposed to them, also has a system of four vowels, wrapped with consonants into English words in most English-speaking areas, which are used in different contexts; I am not sure about this but I believe they are connected to the elements of earth, air, fire, and water as they play out. And I emailed the instructor asking if it would make sense to train given that I was not comfortable with this spiritual practice. He gave me another “become the center” answer that spoke of my confusion of terminology, and I wrongly assumed that because it was called a “spirit yell”, it was a spiritual practice. But in my earlier practices totalling to about a year, I kied out and was never comfortable with it; it felt wrong. This time through, I watched a video where his beautiful wife, also a black belt and instructor, kiaied while cutting with the sword. What I saw in this was spiritual ugliness, as watching something unclean.
Besides telling me I was confused about terminology of the “spirit yell” and called it a spiritual practice out of confusion, he said that I was spending too much time trying to see how my religion would “fit into things,” gave a sharp quote about narrow-mindedness, and said it would make sense to “discontinue training.”
The other two times I was involved in martial arts, I did not try to avoid inhaling, and these were some of the driest times spiritually that I knew. This time, I signed a contract saying, in essence, “It is your choice what things you will participate in on an entirely voluntary basis; if you choose not to do certain things, it is our choice whether or not to withhold [advances in] rank.” Now I had expected to make progress slowly; martial arts’ first training is training me on my weakest point and while I believe I might advance quickly at higher levels where I would be in a better position to use my strengths, I expected slow progress. If I wanted to be trained differently, I could at my option pay for private lessons, but I was trying to just get through the basics without asking for exceptions to how the training usually works. I had not expected that the Sensei would like my asking about practicing without the spirit yell as a spiritual practice, but I was not expecting him to say that that was reason to discontinue practice.
Now if you will ask if I was angry with him, I would say “no”, and I don’t want to hear about him being hypocritical in his words about my narrow-mindedness. It seemed, if anything, like God acting through him to say “You have had enough” and take away a bottle of wine.
There were other times I quietly opted out and got away with it: on entering or leaving a class session, we were supposed to clap twice to get rid of bad energy and then clap once to acquire good energy. But I had been told repeatedly that I needed to yell a vowel on striking a target, and my opting out was noticed and given corrections during the last session.
Before I began practice
I had practiced two other martial arts, Kuk Sool Won and Karate as mentioned, and did not attempt to “smoke without inhaling.” Both of those I did with an unclean conscience, and there was an incredible growing dryness in my spiritual life. This time I tried to avoid inhaling, and in large measure the question on my conscious was, “You deal in two forms of power that do not basically edify. Do you wish to deal in one more?” I have, for now at least, a regular paycheck coming in, and the Gospel is remarkably cool to the usefulness of money, especially when it is not used for alms for the poor. I work with computers, and I am rather skeptical about whether they are as good for the whole person as they might seem. (See the collection: The Luddite’s Guide to Techonology, $24.99 paperback, $2.99 Kindle for more details.) The moral of these things is not that the forms of power are utterly unlawful, but that they are less valuable than they seem, they require us to take command of them if we are to use them rightly, and most of the time they could use debunking. And in fact I did try to debunk them in the discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist. I spoke of being “naked as Adam”, and at the risk of belaboring a metaphor underscored that what is forbidden here is not literal clothing but metaphorical armor. Now martial practice can be consistent with being “without metaphorical armor;” one martial artist made a parody ad for martial arts touting such things as, “Get beat up by people twice your age and half your size!” The further people get into martial arts, the more aware they are of their vulnerability, and it’s pure snake oil when someone advertises some super elite program that will make you the world’s greatest martial artist in two months. So I would be cautious of saying that no one in any martial art can be living the Sermon on the Mount, but I believe the teacher did me a kindness by virtually expelling me from the art, and I am in no rush to find another. Instead of trying more efforts to acquire dubiously helpful forms of power, I could turn my attention to areas where I could better use what computers I have. The Philokalia tells of people who were mired in clay and calling out to others not to become mired, found their salvation. Perhaps that describes The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, because while I may have some of the detachment that is argued, I am a great deal more enmeshed with technology than with some other things. I would not say that I am strong enough to successfully “smoke without inhaling” when dealing with technology.
When I first visited the dojo, I saw a ?red? belt student wearing a black T-shirt with tattered letters, saying on one side,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
I wasn’t able to look up what the other side said, but I remember it was a quote from the same book. And I said mentally, “I know what kind of people I’m dealing with.” Maybe I should have been afraid, confronted him, or something else; I have never seen such socially acceptable hate speech. But part of my reaction was, “Ok; I’ve been warned; this will be like my time studying theology at Fordham.
The instructor spoke of my terminological confusion in referencing the term “spirit yell”, and in fairness that was not the primary term and was not elaborated at length. The primary term, however, was “kiai”, and the philologist in me believes that the root of “kiai” (Aiki Ninjutsu) was ki. Certainly the term “ki out” (Kuk Sool Won) refers to ki. In the groundwork book that is given to newcomers, my instructor is identified as a third dan in Toshindo and also having rank in Aiki Ninjutsu. “Toshindo” is an alternate way of reading the characters to “ninpo”, which is ninjutsu considered in its spiritual aspect. In my opinion, he shouldn’t have been surprised when I said that Aiki Ninjutsu looked like a complete spiritual system to me. But however much he may have contradicted my identification of kiai as spiritually significant, either it was a sine qua non of my continued participation, or my not asking this kind of question about how it fit with my faith was such, or both. And though this was passing, the book identified which of the four elements one was most closely connected to, by astrological sign. In retrospect, I marched past too many red flags; the onus for my remaining under such conditions is primarily on me.
As a child I read of ninja who had stealth, and their stealth technique was called ninjutsu. Something of that captivated my (among many) people’s imagination; etymologically, ‘ninjutsu’ meant the technique of becoming invisible, an invisibility I assumed was metaphorical for physically skilled stealth, sixteenth century ninja suits, and the like. On my conscience’s prompting, I did not do what I very much wanted to do in going to the training weekend in a wooded area where stealth is best taught. Instead I went through a crunch at work where it would have been political suicide to be unavailable at work, although I did not expect this when I did not sign up for the training. And my imagination was enough captivated that I decided not to heed some strong red flags. The guilt for this is my own, not any of theirs.
My endeavor would have been perhaps using people had I consciously embarked on it as a philosophical experiment. Martial arts are often considered to be deeply occult (I doubt the clapping of hands was the only action with an occult intent), and while I would have to limit what I say to exclude Western arts such as fencing or boxing, and arguably some Eastern arts as well such as Brazilian Jiu-jutsu, which one Christian practitioner told me had none of the philosophical element. Certain things still appeal to me more; I would much rather pin an opponent by skill than pummel another person to the point of not being able to get up for ten seconds. To me the combat training was a secondary goal to training in stealth. But even then the lesson I would draw from this is less about martial arts, than trying to smoke without inhaling. While I ignored red flags and the sharp warnings of my conscience, I kept my conscience clean once I was in training, and peer pressure took a back seat to trying to keep my conscience clean. And perhaps I was succeeding enough at smoking without inhaling that the teacher ended my training. But the overall lesson I draw from this is that it is foolish to think, “I can smoke without inhaling.” Perhaps at Fordham the position was one where I had to try to smoke without inhaling—and did so at the Lord’s bidding. Never mind situations like that; they do happen. But it was a severe breach of wisdom for me to take on a situation where I would have to smoke without inhaling. Practicing the techniques put violence before my imagination and stained the purity of my soul. That was consistent. I do not wish to dictate to soldiers who bear the cross of St. George what they must do—but I was not a soldier following orders either.
Since the Bridegroom was taken from the disciples, it has been a part of the Orthodox Church’s practice to fast. What is expected in the ideal has undergone changes, and one’s own practice is done in submission to one’s priest. The priest may work on how to best relax rules in many cases so that your fasting is a load you can shoulder. There is something of a saying, “As always, ask your priest,” and that goes for fasting from technology too. Meaning, specifically, that if you read this article and want to start fasting from technologies, and your priest says that it won’t be helpful, leave this article alone and follow your priest’s guidance.
From ancient times there has been a sense that we need to transcend ourselves. When we fast, we choose to set limits and master our belly, at least partly. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food—maybe, but God will destroy them both.” So the Apostle answered the hedonists of his day. The teaching of fasting is that you are more than the sum of your appetites, and we can grow by giving something up in days and seasons. And really fasting from foods is not saying, “I choose to be greater than this particular luxury,” but “I choose to be greater than this necessity.” Over ninety-nine percent of all humans who have ever lived never saw a piece of modern technology: Christ and his disciples reached far and wide without the benefit of even the most obsolete of eletronic communication technologies. And monks have often turned back on what luxuries were available to them: hence in works like the Philokalia or the Ladder extol the virtue of sleeping on the floor. If we fast from technologies, we do not abstain from basic nourishment, but what Emperors and kings never heard of. At one monastery where monks lived in cells without running water or electricity, a monk commented that peasants and for that matter kings lived their whole lives without tasting these, or finding them a necessity. (Even Solomon in all his splendor did not have a Facebook page.)
In Orthodoxy, if a person is not able to handle the quasi-vegan diet in fasting periods, a priest may relax the fast, not giving carte blanche to eat anything the parishioner wants, but suggesting that the parishioner relax the fast to some degree, eating some fish or an egg. This basic principle of fasting is applicable to technology: rather than immediately go cold turkey on certain technologies, use “some fish or an egg” in terms of older technologies. Instead of texting for a conversation, drive over to a nearby friend.
(Have you ever noticed that during Lent many Orthodox Christians cut down or eliminate their use of Facebook?)
As mentioned in Technonomicon, what we call space-conquering technologies might slightly more appropriately be called body-conquering technologies, because they neutralize some of the limitations of our embodied state. The old wave of space-conquering technologies moves people faster or father than they could move themselves, and older science fiction and space opera often portrays bigger and better versions of this kind of space conquering technologies: personal jet packs, cars that levitate (think Luke Skywalker’s land speeder), or airplanes that function as spacecraft (his X-Wing). What is interesting to me here is that they serve as bigger and better versions of the older paradigm of space-conquering technologies, even if Luke remains in radio contact with the Rebel base. That is the older paradigm. The newer paradigm is technologies that make one’s physical location irrelevant, or almost irrelevant: cell phones, texting, Facebook, and remote work, are all not bigger and better ways to move your body, but bigger and better ways to do things in a mind-based context where the location of your body may be collected as in Google Plus, but your actual, physical location is really neither here nor there.
My own technology choices
I purchased a MacBook Pro laptop, and its specs are really impressive. Eight cores, eight gigabytes of RAM, a 1920×1200 17″ display, and gracefully runs Ubuntu Linux, Windows XP, Windows 7, and Windows 8 as guest OS’es. And it is really obsolete in one respect: it doesn’t have the hot new Retina display that has been migrated to newer MacBook Pros. I want to keep it for a long time; but my point in mentioning it here is that I did not purchase it as the hot, coolest new thing, but as a last hurrah of an old guard. The top two applications I use are Google Chrome and the Mac’s Unix terminal, and the old-fashioned laptop lets me take advantage of the full power of the Unix command line, and lets me exercise root privilege without voiding the warranty. For a Unix wizard, that’s a lot of power. And the one major thing which I did not “upgrade” was replacing the old-fashioned spindle drives with newer, faster solid state drives. The reason? Old-fashioned spindle drives can potentially work indefinitely, while spindle drives wear out after a certain number of times saving data: saving data slowly uses the drive up. And I realized this might be my only opportunity in a while to purchase a tool I want to use for a long while.
Laptops might continue to be around for a while, and desktops for that matter, but their place is a bit like landline phones. If you have a desk job, you will probably have a desktop computer and a landline, but the wave of the future is smartphones and tablets; the hot, coolest new thing is not a bulky, heavy MacBook, but whatever the current generation of iPad or Android-based tablet is. One youngster said, “Email is for old people,” and perhaps the same is to be said of laptops.
I also have an iPhone, which I upgraded from one of the original iPhones to an iPhone 4, not because I needed to have the latest new thing, but because my iPhone was necessarily on an AT&T contract, and however much they may advertise that the EDGE network my iPhone was on was “twice the speed of dialup,” I found when jobhunting that a simple, short “thank you” letter after an interview took amazingly many minutes for my phone to send, at well below the speed of obsolete dial-up speeds I had growing up: AT&T throttled the bandwidth to an incredibly slow rate and I got a newer iPhone with Verizon which I want to hold on to, even though there is a newer and hotter model available. But I am making conscious adult decisions about using the iPhone: I have sent perhaps a dozen texts, and have not used the iPod functionality. I use it, but I draw lines. My point is not exactly that you should adopt the exact same conscious adult decisions as I do about how to use a smartphone, but that you make a conscious adult decision in the first place.
And lastly, I have another piece of older technology: a SwissChamp XLT, the smallest Swiss Army Knife that includes all the functionality of a SwissChamp while also having the functionality of a Cybertool. It has, in order, a large blade, small blade, metal saw, nail file, metal file, custom metal-cutting blade, wood saw, fish scaler, ruler in centimeters and inches, hook remover, scissors, hooked blade, straight blade with concave curved mini-blade, pharmacist’s spatula, cybertool (Phillips screwdrivers in three sizes, Torx screwdrivers in three sizes, hexagonal bit, and a slotted screwdriver), pliers, magnifying glass, larger Phillips screwdriver, large slotted screwdriver, can opener, wire stripper, small slotted screwdriver, can opener, corkscrew, jeweller’s screwdriver, pin, wood chisel, hook, smaller slotted screwdriver, and reamer. It’s somewhat smaller than two iPhones stacked on top of each other, and while it’s wider than I like, it is also something of a last hurrah. It is a useful piece of older technology.
I mention these technologies not to sanction what may or may not be owned—I tried to get as good a computer as I could partly because I am an IT professional, and I am quite grateful that my employer let me use it for the present contract. I also drive a white 2001 Saturn, whose front now looks a bit ugly after cosmetic damage. I could get it fixed fairly easily, but it hasn’t yet been a priority. (But this car has also transported the Kursk Root icon.) But with this as with other technologies, I haven’t laid the reins on the horse’s neck. I only use a well-chosen fragment of my iPhone’s capabilities, and I try not to use it too much: I like to be able to use the web without speed being much of an issue, but I’m not on the web all the time. And I have never thought “My wheels are my freedom;” I try to drive insofar as it advances some particular goal.
And there are some things when I’m not aware of the brands too much. I don’t really know what brands my clothing are, with one exception, Hanes, which I am aware of predominantly because the brand name is sewed in large, hard-to-miss letters at the top.
And I observe that technologies are becoming increasingly “capture-proof”. Put simply, all technologies can be taken away from us physically, but technologies are increasingly becoming something that FEMA can shut off from far away in a heartbeat. All network functionality on smartphones and tablets are at the mercy of network providers and whoever has control over them; more broadly, “The network is the computer,” as Sun announced slightly prematurely in its introduction of Java; my own Unix-centric use of my Mac on train rides, without having or wanting it to have internet access during the train ride, may not be much more than a historical curiosity.
But the principle of fasting from technology is fine, and if we can abstain from foods on certain days, we can also abstain from or limit technologies on certain days. Furthermore, there is real merit in knowing how to use older technologies. GPS devices can fail to pick up a signal. A trucker’s atlas works fine even if there’s no GPS signal available.
Some years ago I wanted to write The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, and stopped because I realized I wasn’t writing anything good or worthy of the title. But the attitude of the Church Fathers given the technology of the day: monasticism renounces all property, and the faithful are called to renounce property in their hearts even if they have possessions. Monastic literature warns the monk of seeking out old company, where “old company” does not mean enticement to sexual sin exactly, but one’s very own kin. The solitary and coenobetic alike cut ties to an outside world, even ties one would think were sacrosanct (and the Bible has much to say about caring for one’s elders). If a monk’s desire to see his father or brother is considered a temptation to sin that will dissipate monastic energy, what do we have to make of social media? The friendships that are formed are of a different character from face-to-face relationships. If monks are forbidden to return to their own kin as shining example, in what light do we see texting, email, IM’s, and discussion forums? If monks are forbidden to look at women’s faces for fear of sexual temptation, what do we make of an internet where the greatest assault on manhood, porn, comes out to seek you even if you avoid it? It’s a bit like a store that sells food, household supplies, and cocaine: and did I mention that the people driving you to sample a little bit of cocaine are much pushier than those offering a biscuit and dip sample?
The modern Athonite tradition at least has Luddite leanings; Athos warns against national identification numbers and possibly computers, and one saint wrote apocalyptically about people eating eight times as much as people used to eat (has anyone read “The Supersizing of America”?) and of “wisdom” being found that would allow people to swim like fish deep into the sea (we have two technologies that can do that: SCUBA gear and submarines), and let one person speak and be heard on the other side of the world (how many technologies do we have to do that? Quite a lot).
All of this is to say that Orthodoxy has room to handle technologies carefully, and I would suggest that not all technologies are created equal.
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology
For the different technologies presented my goal is not exactly to point to a course of action as to suggest a conscious adult decision to make, perhaps after consulting with one’s priest or spiritual father. And as is usual in Orthodoxy, the temptation at least for converts is to try to do way too much, too fast, at first, and then backslide when that doesn’t work.
It is better to keep on stretching yourself a little.
Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, using technology in an ascetical way will be countercultural and constitute outlier usage.
Advertising is kin to manipulation, propaganda, and pornography.
Advertising answers the question, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth?” by decisively saying, “Man was made for economic wealth.” It leads people to buy things that are not in their best interest. If you see someone using a technology as part of a form of life that is unhelpful, the kind of thing that makes you glad to be a Luddite, you have advertising to thank for that.
Advertising stirs discontent, which is already a problem, and leads people to ever higher desires, much like the trap of pornography. The sin is covetousness and lust, but the core structure is the same. Advertising and pornography are closely related kin.
Advertising doesn’t really sell product functionality; it sells a mystique. And we may have legitimate reason to buy the product, but not the mystique. And maybe back off on a useful purchase until we are really buying the product and not the mystique.
Alcohol is not exactly a new technology, although people have found ways of making stronger and stronger drinks as time goes on. However, there is a lesson to learn with alcohol that applies to technology.
One article read outlined a few positions on Christian use of alcohol, ending with a position that said, in essence, “Using alcohol appropriately is a spiritual challenge and there is more productive spiritual work in drinking responsibly than just not drinking.” I don’t think the authors would have imposed this position on people who know they have particular dangers in using alcohol, but they took a sympathetic look at positions of Christians who don’t drink, and then said “The best course of all is not from trying to cut off the danger by not drinking, but rising to the spiritual lesson.”
Yet an assumption behind all of the positions presented is that alcohol is something where you cannot safely lay the reins on the horse’s neck. You need to be in command, or to put it differently ceaselessly domineer alcohol if you use it. This domineering is easy for some people and harder for others, and some people may be wisest to avoid the challenge.
Something of the same need exists in our use of technology. We may use certain technologies or may not, but it is still a disaster to let the technology go wherever it wills. Sometimes and with some technologies, we may abstain. Other technologies we may domineer, even if we may find if we are faithful that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light:” establishing dominion and holding the reins may be easier when it becomes a habit. But the question with a technology we use is not, “May we use it as much as we want, or not at all?”, any more than the question about wine would be, “May we use it as much as we want, or not at all?” Proper use is disciplined. Proper use is domineering. And we do not always have it spelled out what is like having one or two drinks a day, and what is like having five or ten. Nor do we have other rules of thumb spelled out, like, “Think carefully about drinking when you have a bad mood, and don’t drink in order to fix a bad mood.”
The descriptions of various “technologies and other things” are meant to provide some sense of what the contours of technologies are, and what is like drinking one or two drinks, and what is like drinking five or ten drinks a day.
The Christian teaching is that life begins at conception and ends at natural death, and no that life begins at 18 and ends at 30.
The saddest moment in The Chronicles of Narnia comes when we hear that Her Majesty Queen Susan the Gentle is “no longer a friend of Narnia;” she is rushing as quickly as possible to the silliest age of her life, and will spend the rest of her life trying to remain at that age, which besides being absolutely impossible, is absolutely undesirable.
Quite a lot of us are afflicted by the Queen Susan syndrome, but there is a shift in anti-aging medicine and hormone replacement therapy. Part of the shift in assistive technologies discussed below is that assistive technologies are not just intended to do what a non-disabled person can do, so for instance a reader can read a page of a book, giving visually impaired people equivalent access to a what a sighted person could have, to pushing as far what they think is an improvement, so that scanning a barcode may not just pull up identification of the product bearing the barcode, but have augmented reality features of pulling a webpage that says much more than what a sighted person could see on the tab. One of the big tools of anti-aging medicine is hormone replacement therapy, with ads showing a grey-haired man doing pushups with a caption of, “My only regret about hormone replacement therapy is that I didn’t start it sooner,” where the goal is not to restore functionality but improve it as much as possible. And the definition of improvement may be infantile; here it appears to mean that a man who might be a member of the AARP has the same hormone levels as he did when he was 17.
There was one professor I had who was covering French philosophy, discussed Utopian dreams like turning the seas to lemonade, and called these ideas “a Utopia of spoiled children.” Anti-aging medicine is not about having people better fulfill the God-ordained role of an elder, but be a virtual youth. Now I have used nutriceuticals to bring more energy and be able to create things where before I was not, and perhaps that is like anti-aging medicine that has me holding on to youthful creativity when God summons me to goFurther up and further in! But everything I know about anti-aging is that it is not about helping people function gracefully in the role of an elder, but about making any things about aging optional.
In my self-absorbed Seven-Sided Gem, I talked about one cover to the AARP’s magazine, then called My Generation, which I originally mistook for something GenX. In the AARP’s official magazine as I have seen it, the marketing proposition is the good news, not that it is not that bad to be old, but it is not that old to be old. The women portrayed look maybe GenX in age, and on the cover I pulled out, the person portrayed, in haircut, clothing, and posture, looked like a teenager. “Fifty and better people” may see political and other advice telling them what they can do to fight high prescription prices, but nothing I have seen gives the impression that they can give to their community, as elders, out of a life’s wealth of experience.
Not that there are not proper elders out there. I visited a family as they celebrated their son’s graduation, and had long conversations with my friend’s mother, and with an elderly gentleman (I’ve forgotten how he was related). She wanted to hear all about what I had to say about subjects that were of mutual interest, and he talked about the wealth of stories he had as a sailor and veterinarian. In both cases I had the subtle sense of a younger person being handled masterfully by an elder, and the conversation was unequal—unequal but entirely fitting, and part of the “entirely fitting” was that neither of them was trying to say, “We are equal—I might as well be as young as you.”
Anti-aging medicine is not about aging well, but trying to be a virtual young person when one should be doing the serious, weight, and profoundly important function as elders.
This, at least, will seem politically incorrect: unless they have an inordinate monetary or moral cost, assistive technologies allow disabled people to function at a much higher level than otherwise. And I am not going to exactly say that people with disabilities who have access to assistive technologies should turn them down, but I am going to say that there is something I am wary of in the case of assistive technologies.
There is the same question as with other technologies: “Is this really necessary? Does this help?” A blind friend said,
I was recently interviewed for a student’s project about assistive technology and shopping, and I told her that I wouldn’t use it in many circumstances. First of all, I think some of what is available has more ‘new toy’ appeal and is linked to advertising. Secondly, I think some things, though they may be convenient, are dehumanising. Why use a barcode scanner thingummy to tell what’s in a tin when I can ask someone and relate to someone?
Now to be clear, this friend does use assistive technologies and is at a high level of functioning: “to whom much is given, much is required.” I get the impression that the assistive technologies she has concerns about, bleed into augmented reality. And though she is absolutely willing to use assistive technologies, particularly when they help her serve others, she is more than willing to ask as I am asking of many technologies, “What’s the use? Does this help? Really help?”
But there is another, more disturbing question about assistive technologies. The question is not whether individual assistive technologies are helpful when used in individual ways, but whether a society that is always inventing higher standards for accessibility and assistive technology has its deepest priorities straight. And since I cannot answer that out of what my friend has said, let me explain and talk about the Saint and the Activist and then talk about how similar things have played out in my own life.
I write this without regrets about my own efforts and money spent in creating assistive technologies, and with the knowledge that in societies without assistive technologies many disabled people have no secular success. There are notable examples of disabled people functioning at a high level of secular success, such as the noted French Cabalist Isaac the Blind, but the much more common case was for blind people to be beggars. The blind people met by Christ in the Gospel were without exception beggars. And there are blind beggars in first world countries today.
So what objection would I have to assistive technologies which, if they may not be able to create sight, none the less make the hurdles much smaller and less significant. So, perhaps, medicine cannot allow some patients to read a paper book. Assistive technologies make a way for them to access the book about as well as if they could see the book with their eyes. What is there to object in making disabled people more able to function in society as equal contributors?
The answer boils down to the distinction between the Saint and the Activist as I have discussed them in An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism and The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. The society that is patterned after the Saint is ordered towards such things as faith and contemplation. The society patterned after the Activist is the one that seeks to ensure the maximum secular success of its members. And if the Activist says, “Isn’t it wonderful how much progress we have made? Many disabled people are functioning at a high level!”, the Saint says, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your Activism. We have bigger fish to fry.” And they do.
Now to be clear, I am not saying that you should not use assistive technologies to help give back to society. Nor do I regret any of the time I’ve spent on assistive technologies. The first idea I wanted to patent was an assistive technology. But we have bigger fish to fry.
There is a way in which I am a little like the blind beggar in many societies that took the Saint for their pattern. It’s on a much lesser scale, but I tried my hardest to earn a Ph.D. in theology. At Cambridge University in England the faculty made me switch thesis topic completely, from a topic I had set at the beginning of the year, when two thirds of the year had passed and I had spent most of my time on my thesis. My grades were two points out of a hundred less than the cutoff for Ph.D. continuation, and Cambridge very clearly refused for me to continue beyond my master’s. So then I applied to other programs, and Fordham offered an assistantship, and I honestly found cancer easier than some of the things that went wrong there. I showed a writeup to one friend and he wrote, “I already knew all the things you had written up, and I was still shocked when I read it.” All of which to say is that the goal I had of earning a doctorate, and using that degree to teach at a seminary, seemed shattered. With all that happened, the door to earning a Ph.D. was decisively closed.
Now I know that it is possible to teach at a seminary on a master’s; it may be a handicap, but it certainly does not make such a goal impossible. But more broadly God’s hand was at work. For starters, I survived. I believe that a doctor would look at what happened and say, “There were a couple of places where what happened could have killed you. Be glad you’re alive.” And beyond that, there is something of God’s stern mercy: academic writing takes a lot more work than being easy to read, and only a few people can easily read it. I still have lessons to learn about work that is easy to read, and this piece may be the least readable thing I’ve written in a while. But all the same, there is a severe mercy in what God has given. I have a successful website largely due to chance, or rather God’s providence; I was in the right place at the right time and for all my skill in web work happened to have successes I had no right to expect.
And God works through assistive technologies and medicine. When I was in middle school, I had an ankle that got sorer and sorer until my parents went to ask a doctor if hospitalization was justified. The doctor’s response, after taking a sample of the infection, said, “Don’t swing by home; go straight to the hospital and I’ll take care of the paperwork on this end for his admission.” And I was hospitized for a week or so—the bed rest day and night being the first time ever that I managed to get bored teaching myself from my father’s calculus textbook—and after I was discharged I still needed antibiotic injections every four hours. That involved medical treatment is just as activist as assistive technology, and without it I would not have written any the pieces on this website besides the Apple ][ BASIC four dimensional maze.
I am rather glad to be alive now.
So I am in a sense both a Ph.D. person who was lost on Activist terms, but met with something fitting on a Saint’s terms, and a person who was found on Activist terms. God works both ways. But still, there are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in Activism.
When I was working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, one part of the introduction I received to the CAVE and Infinity Wall virtual reality was to say that virtual reality “is a superset of reality,” where you could put a screen in front of a wall and see, X-ray-style, wires and other things inside the wall.
Virtual reality does exist, and is popularized by Second Life among many others, but that may not be the main niche carved out. The initial thought was virtual reality, and when the dust has started to settle, the niche carved out is more a matter of augmented reality. Augmented reality includes, on a more humble level, GPS devices and iPhone apps that let you scan a barcode or QR code and pull up web information on the product you have scanned. But these are not the full extent of augmented reality; it’s just an early installment. It is an opportunity to have more and more of our experience rewritten by computers and technology. Augmented technology is probably best taken at a lower dose and domineered.
Big Brother is a collection of technologies, but not a collection of technologies you choose because they will deliver a Big Brother who is watching you. Everything we do electronically is being monitored; for the moment the U.S. government is only using it for squeaky-clean apparent uses, and has been hiding its use. Even the Amish now are being monitored; they have decided not to hook up to a grid, such as electricity or landline phones, but cell phones can be used if they find them expedient to their series of conscious decisions about whether to adopt technologies. Amish use the horse and buggy but not the car, not because the horse is older, but because the horse and buggy provide some limited mobility without tearing apart the local community. The car is rejected not because it is newer, but because it frees people from the tightly bound community they have. And because they carry cell phones, the NSA tracks where they go. They might not do anything about it, but almost everything about us is in control of Big Brother. And though I know at least one person who has decided carrying a cell phone and having an iPass transponder is not worth being tracked, you have to be more Luddite than the Luddites, and know enough of what you are doing that you are already on file, if you are to escape observation.
Big Brother has been introduced step by step, bit by bit. First there were rumors that the NSA was recording all Internet traffic. Then it came out in the open that the NSA was indeed recording all Internet traffic and other electronic communications, and perhaps (as portrayed on one TV program) we should feel sorry for the poor NSA which has to deal with all this data. That’s not the end. Now Big Brother is officially mainly about national security, but this is not an outer limit either. Big Brother will probably appear a godsend in dealing with local crime before an open hand manipulating the common citizen appears. But Big Brother is here already, and Big Brother is growing.
Books and ebooks
I was speaking with one friend who said in reference to Harry Potter that the Harry Potter series got people to read, and anything that gets people to read is good. My response (a tacit response, not a spoken one) is that reading is not in and of itself good. If computers are to be used in an ascetically discriminating fashion, so is the library; if you will recall my earlier writing about slightly inappropriate things at Cambridge and worse at Fordham, every single person I had trouble with was someone who read a lot, and presumably read much more than someone caught up in Harry Potter mania.
Orthodoxy is at heart an oral, or oral-like culture, and while it uses books, it was extremely pejorative when one friend said of a Protestant priest in Orthodox clothes, “I know what book he got that [pastoral practice] from.” The first degree of priesthood is called a ‘Reader’, and when one is tonsured a Reader, the bishop urges the Reader to read the Scriptures. The assumption is not that the laity should be reading but need not read the Scriptures, but that the laity can be doing the job of laity without being literate. Or something like that. Even where there is reading, the transmission of the most imporant things is oral in character, and the shaping of the laity (and presumably clergy) is through the transmission of oral tradition through oral means. In that sense, I as an author stand of something exceptional among Orthodox, and “exceptional” does not mean “exceptionally good.” Most of the Orthodox authors now came to Orthodoxy from the West, and their output may well be appropriate and a fitting offering from what they have. However, the natural, consistent result of formation in Orthodoxy does not usually make a non-author into an author.
As far as books versus ebooks, books (meaning codices) are a technology, albeit a technology that has been around for a long time and will not likely disappear. Ebooks in particular have a long tail effect. The barriers to put an ebook out are much more than to put a traditional book out. It has been said that ebooks are killing Mom and Pop bookstores, and perhaps it is worth taking opportunities to patronize local businesses. But there is another consideration in regards to books versus cheaper Kindle editions. The Kindle may be tiny in comparison to what it holds, and far more convenient than traditional books.
In military history, the term “capture proof” refers to a weapon that is delicate and exacting in its maintenance needs, so that if it is captured by the enemy, it will rather quickly become useless in enemy soldier’s hands.
The principle can be transposed to technology, except that possessing this kind of “capture proof” technology does not mean that it is an advantage that “we” can use against “them.” It comes much closer to say that FEMA can shut down its usefulness at the flick of a switch. As time has passed, hot technologies become increasingly delicate and capture proof: a laptop is clunkier than a cool tablet, but the list of things one can do with a tablet without network access is much shorter than the list of things can do with a laptop without network access. Or, to take the example of financial instruments, the movement has been towards more and more abstract derivatives, and these are fragile compared to an investment in an indexed mutual fund, which is in turn fragile compared to old-fashioned money.
“Cool,” “fragile,” and “capture proof” are intricately woven into each other.
Einstein said, “I do not know what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” We might not have to wait until World War IV. Much of World War III may be fought with sticks and stones.
Perhaps the most striking Luddite horror of cars that I have seen is in C.S. Lewis. He talked about how they were called “space-conquering devices,” while they should have been called “space-annihilating devices,” because he experienced future shock that cars could make long distances very close. (And someone has said, “The problem with the English is that they think a hundred miles is a long distance, and the problem with the U.S. is that they think a hundred years is a long time.”) The “compromise solution” he offered was that it was OK to use cars to go further as a special solution on weekend, but go with other modes of transport for the bread-and-butter of weekdays. (And this is more or less how Europeans lean.)
Cars are one of many technologies that, when introduced, caused future shock. It’s taken as normal by subsequent generations, but there is a real sense of “This new technology is depriving us of something basically human,” and that pattern repeats. And perhaps, in a sense, this shock is the pain we experience as we are being lessened by degrees and slowly turning from man to machine-dominated.
CFLs and incandescent bulbs
There is something striking about CFL’s. American society has a long history of technology migrations, and a thorough enough “out with the old, in with the new” that working 16mm film projectors, for instance, now fetch a price because we have so thoroughly gotten rid of them in favor of video. And people who use them now aren’t using them as the normal way to see video; they may want to see old film canisters and maybe even digitize them (so they can be seen without the use of a film projector).
Compare with other countries such as Lebanon which have no real concept of being obsolete; they have a mix of old and new technologies and they get rid of an old piece of technology, not because it is old, but because it is worn out.
The fact that we are transitioning to CFL’s for most purposes is not striking; transitions happen all the time. One could trace “If you have a phone, it’s a landline,” to “You can have a two pound car phone, but it’s expensive,” to “You can have a cell phone that fits in your hand, but it’s expensive,” to “You can have a cell phone, which is much cheaper now,” to “You can have a cell phone that does really painful Internet access,” to “You can have a cell phone with graceful Internet access.” And there have been many successions like this, all because the adopters thought the new technology was an improvement on the old.
CFL’s are striking and disturbing because, while there may be a few people who think that slightly reduced electricity usage (much smaller than a major household appliance) justifies the public handling fragile mercury containers, by and large the adoption is not of a snazzier successor to incandescent bulbs. Not only must they be handled like live grenades, but the light is inferior. The human race grew up on full-spectrum light, such as the sun provides. Edison may not have been aiming for a full-spectrum light, but his light bulb does provide light across the spectrum; that is an effect of an incandescent light that produces light that looks at all near. This is a strange technology migration, and a rather ominous omen.
Given that most bulbs available now are CFL’s, there are better and worse choices. Some bulbs have been made with a filter outside the glass so they give off light that looks yellow rather than blue. I wouldn’t look for that in and of itself. But some give a full spectrum, even if it is a bluish full spectrum, and that is better. There are also lights sold that are slightly more shatter resistant, which is commendable, and there are some bulbs that are both full spectrum and shatter resistant. I’d buy the last kind if possible, or else a full spectrum CFL, at a hardware store if possible and online if not.
But I would momentarily like to turn attention from the extinction of regular use of incandescent bulbs to their introduction. Candles have been used since time immemorial, but they’re not a dimmer version of a light bulb. Even if you have candlesticks and candles lit, the candle is something of a snooze button or a minor concession: societies that used candles still had people active more or less during daylight hours. (Daylight Saving Time was an attempt to enable people to use productive daylight hours which they were effectively losing.) People who used candles were still effectively tied to the cycle of day and night. Light bulbs caused a shock because they let you operate as early or as late as you wanted. Candles allowed you to wrap up a few loose ends when night had really fallen. Light bulbs made nighttime optional. And it caused people future shock.
I have mentioned a couple of different responses to CFL’s: the first is to buy full spectrum and preferably shatter resistant (and even then handle the mercury containers like a live grenade), the second is turning to the rhythm of day and light and getting sunlight where you can. Note that inside most buildings, even with windows, sunlight is not nearly as strong as what the human person optimally needs. Let me mention one other possibility.
There is a medical diagnosis called ‘SAD’ for ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, whose patients have lower mood during the winter months when we see very little light. The diagnosis seems to me a bit like the fad diagnosis of YTD, or Youthful Tendency Disorder, discussed in The Onion. If you read about it and are half-asleep it sounds like a description of a frightening syndrome. If you are awake you will recognize a description of perfectly normal human tendencies. And the SAD diagnosis of some degree of depression when one is consistently deprived of bright light sounds rather normal to me. And for that reason I think that some of the best lighting you can get is with something from the same manufacturer of the Sunbox DL SAD Light Box Light Therapy Desk Lamp. That manufacturer is one I trust; I am a little wary of some of their cheaper competitors. There is one cheaper alternative that provides LED light. Which brings me to a problem with LED’s. Basically, LEDs emit light of a single color. While you can choose what that color may be, white represents a difficult balancing act. If you’ve purchased one of those LED flashlights, it has what is called “lunar white”, which is basically a way of cheating at white light. (If you’ve ever gone to a dark closet and tried to pick out clothing by a lunar white flashlight, this may be why you had trouble telling what color your clothing was.) Expensive as they may be, a Sunbox light box may fit in to your best shot at taking in a healthy level of light.
Charles Baudelaire, in his “la Morale du Joujou” (“the moral of the toy”) talks about toys and the fact that the best toys leave something to the imagination. Children at play will imagine that a bar of soap is a car; girls playing with dolls will play the same imagined drama with rag dolls as they will with dolls worth hundreds of dollars. There has been a shift, where Lego sets have shifted from providing raw material to being a specific model, made of specilized pieces, that the child is not supposed to imagine, only to assemble. Lego sets are perhaps the preferred childhood toy of professional engineers everywhere; some of them may have patronized Lego’s competitors, but the interesting thing about Legos that are not “you assemble it” models is that you have to supply something to what you’re building. Lego the company might make pieces of different sizes and shapes and made them able to stick together without an adhesive; I wouldn’t downplay that achievement on the part of the manufacturer, but the child playing with Legos supplies half of the end result. But this is not just in assembly; with older models, the Legos didn’t look exactly like what they were supposed to be. There was one time when I saw commercials for a miniature track where some kind of car or truck would transport a payload (a ball bearing, perhaps), until it came to a certain point and the payload fell through the car/track through a chute to a car below. And when I asked my parents to buy it for me and they refused, I built it out of Legos. Of course it did not look anything like what I was emulating, but I had several tracks on several levels and a boxy square of a vehicle would carry a marble along the track until it dropped its payload onto a car in the level below. With a bit of imagination it was a consolation for my parents not getting the (probably expensive) toy I had asked for, and with a bit of imagination a short broom is a horse you can ride, a taut cord with a sheet hung over it is an outdoor tent, and a shaky box assembled from sofa cushions is a fort. Not, perhaps, that children should be given no toys, or a square peg should be pounded into a round hole by giving everyone old-style Lego kits, but half of a children’s toy normally resides in the imagination, and the present fashion in toys is to do all the imagining for the child.
And there is a second issue in what is imagined for children. I have not looked at toys recently, but from what I understand dragons and monsters are offered to them. I have looked rather deeply into what is offered to children for reading. The more innocuous part is bookstores clearing the classics section of the children’s area for Disney Princess books. The more serious matter is with Dealing with Dragons and other Unman’s Tales.
Cloud computing is powerful, and it originated as a power tool in supercomputing, and has now come down to personal use in software like Evernote, a note-taking software system that synchronizes across all computers and devices which have it installed.
Essentially, besides being powerful, cloud computing, besides being very powerful, is one more step in abstraction in the world of computing. It means that you use computers you have never even seen. Not that this is new; it is a rare use case for someone using the Web to own any of the servers for the sites he is visiting. But none the less the older pattern is for people to have their own computers, with programs they have downloaded and/or purchased, and their own documents. The present trend to offload more and more of our work to the cloud is a step in the direction of vulnerability to the damned backswing. The more stuff you have in the cloud, the more of your computer investment can be taken away at the flick of a switch, or collapse because some intervening piece of the puzzle has failed. Not that computers are self-sufficient, but the move to the cloud is a way of being less self-sufficient.
My website is hosted on a cloud virtual private server, with one or two “hot spares” that I have direct physical access to. There are some reasons the physical machine, which has been flaky for far longer than a computer should be allowed to be flaky (and which keeps not getting fixed), is one I keep as a hot spare.
Contraception and Splenda
There was one mostly Catholic where I was getting annoyed at the degree of attention given to one particular topic: I wrote,
Number of posts in this past month about faith: 6
Number of posts in this past month about the Bible: 8
Number of posts in this past month about the Eucharist: 9
Number of posts in this past month extolling the many wonders of Natural Family Planning: 13
The Catholic Church’s teaching on Natural Family Planning is not, “Natural Family Planning, done correctly, is a 97% effective way to simulate contraception.” The Catholic Church’s teaching on children is that they are the crown and glory of sexual love, and way down on page 509 there is a footnote saying that Natural Family Planning can be permissible under certain circumstances.
Is it not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul should be entangled in flesh? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage, and makes the woman not a wife, but a mistress, who for some gifts presented to her is joined to the man to gratify his passion. Where there is a wife there must be marriage. But there is no marriage where motherhood is not in view; therefore neither is there a wife. In this way you forbid marriage. Nor can you defend yourselves successfully from this charge, long ago brought against you prophetically by the Holy Spirit (source; the Blessed Augustine is referring to I Tim 4:1-3).
Thus spoke the Catholic Church’s favorite ancient theologian on contraception; and to this it may be added that the term ‘Natural Family Planning’ is deceptive and perhaps treacherous in how it frames things. There is nothing particularly natural about artificially abstaining from sexual intercourse precisely when a woman is capable of the greatest desire, pleasure, and response.
The chief good of the marriage act is that it brings in to being new images of God; “a baby is God’s vote that the world should go on.” The chief good of eating is that it nourishes the body. Now there are also pleasures, but it is an act of confusion to see them as pleasure delivery systems and an act of greater confusions to frustrate the greater purpose of sex or eating so that one may, as much as possible, use them just as pleasure delivery systems.
There are other strange effects of this approach: for starters, Splenda use correlates to increased weight gain. Perhaps this is not strange: if you teach someone, “You can eat as much candy and drink as many soft drinks as you like,” the lesson is “You can consume more without worrying about your waistline,” and you will consume more: not only more foods containing Splenda, but more foods not containing Splenda.
There is an interesting history, as far as “Natural” Family Planning goes, about how in ancient times Church Fathers were skeptical at best of the appropriateness of sex during the infertile period, then people came to allow sex during the infertile period despite the fact that it was shooting blanks, and then the West came to a point where priests hearing confessions were to insinuate “Natural” Family Planning to couples who were using more perverse methods to have sex without children, and finally the adulation that can say that Natural Family Planning is the gateway to the culture of life.
Contraception and Splenda are twins, and with Splenda I include not only other artificial sweeteners, but so-called “natural” sweeteners like Agave and Stevia which happen not to be manufactured in a chemical factory, but whose entire use is to do Splenda’s job of adding sweetness without calories. What exists in the case of contraception and Splenda alike is neutralizing a greater good in order to have as much of the pleasure associated with that good as possible. It says that the primary purpose of food and sex, important enough to justify neutralizing other effects as a detriment to focusing on the pleasure, is to be a pleasure delivery system.
About pleasure delivery systems, I would refer you to:
The dialectic between pleasure and pain is a recurrent theme among the Fathers and it is something of a philosophical error to pursue pleasure and hope that no pain will come. If you want to see real discontent with one’s sexual experiences, look for those who are using Viagra and its kin to try to find the ultimate sexual thrill. What they will find is that sex becomes a disappointment: first sex without drugged enhancement becomes underwhelming, and then Viagra or Cialis fail to deliver the evanescent ultimate sexual thrill.
The Damned Backswing
There is a phenomenon where something appears to offer great improvements, but it has a damned backswing. For one example in economics, in the 1950’s the U.S. had an unprecedentedly high standard of living (meaning more appliances in houses—not really the best measure of living), and for decades it just seemed like, It’s Getting Better All the Time. But now the U.S. economy is being destroyed, and even with another regime, we would still have all the debts we incurred making things better all the time.
Another instance of the damned backswing is how medieval belief in the rationality of God gave rise to the heroic labors of science under the belief that a rational God would create a rational and ordered world, which gave way to modernism and positivism which might as well have put science on steroids, which in turn is giving way to a postmodernism and subjectivism that, even as some of it arose from the philosophy of science, is fundamentally toxic to objectivist science.
“Email is for old people,” one youngster said, and email is largely the wave of the past. Like landlines and desktop computers, it will probably not disappear completely; it will probably remain the communication channel of corporate notifications and organizational official remarks. But social communication via email is the wave of the past: an article in A List Apart said that the website had originated as a mailing list, and added, “Kids, go ask your parents.”
When texting first caught on it was neither on the iPhone nor the Droid. If you wanted to say, “hello”, you would probably have to key in, “4433555555666”. But even then texting was a sticky technology, and so far it is the only common technology I know of that is illegal to ue when driving. It draws attention in a dangerous way and is treated like alcohol in terms of something that can impair driving. It is a strong technological drug.
The marketing proposition of texting is an intravenous drip of noise. IM’s are similar, if not always as mobile as cell phones, and email is a weaker form of the drug that youth are abandoning for a stronger version. Now, it should also be said that they are useful, and the proper ascetical use is to take advantage of them because they are useful (or not; I have a phone plan without texting and I text rarely enough that the default $.20 per text makes sense and is probably cheaper than the basic plan.
The healing of this comes in partly by eating, in the Holy Mysteries where we eat from the Tree of Life. But this is no imitation of Eve’s sin, or Adam’s. They lived in the garden of paradise, and there is no record of them fasting before taking from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Before we take communion, we answer the question “Where are you?”, the question in which God invited Adam and Eve to come clean and expose their wound to the Healer, and we prepare for confession and answer the question Adam and Eve dodged: “Where are you?” We do not live in a garden of delights, but our own surroundings, and we turn away from sensual pleasures. Adam and Eve hid from God; we pray to him and do not stop praying because of our own sordid unworthiness. And, having prepared, we eat from the Tree of Life.
You shall not surely die. and Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, are some of the oldest marketing propositions, but they are remarkably alive in the realm of technology. Witness the triumph of hope over experience in the artificial intelligence project. Witness a society like the meticulously groomed technology of a Buddha who saw an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, and wondered whatever on earth they can mean. Mortality may be as total in our generation as any other, but we’ve done a good job of hiding it. Perhaps doctors might feel inadequate in the face of real suffering, but modern medicine can do a lot. In many areas of the third world, it might be painful, but it is not surprising to play with a child who was doing well two weeks ago and be told that he is dead. Death is not something one expects in homes; it is out of sight and half out of mind in hospitals and hospices. All of this is to say that those of us in the first world have a death-denying society, and if we have not ultimately falsified “You will surely die,” we’ve done a pretty good job of being in denial about it. And “You shall be as gods” is the marketing proposition of luxury cars, computers, smartphones, and ten thousand other propositions. My aunt on discovering Facebook said, “It feels like I am walking on water,” and Facebook offers at least a tacit marketing proposition of, “You shall be as gods.” Information technology in general, and particularly the more “sexy” forms of information technology, offer the marketing proposition of, Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods.
There was one time as an undergraduate when I tried to see what it would be like to live as blind for a day, and so I was blindfolded and had a fascinating day which I wrote up for my psychology class. Now I would be careful in saying based on one day’s experience would let me understand the life experience of being blind, any more than a few days spent in Ontario entitle me to say that I understand Canadian culture. However, the experience was an interesting challenge, and it had something to do with fasting, even if it was more adventuresome than fasting normally is.
Fasting is first and foremost fasting from food, but there are other things one can fast from. Some Orthodox bid Facebook a temporary farewell for fasting seasons. On fasting days, we are bidden to cut back on sensory pleasures, which can mean cutting back on luxury technologies that give us pleasure.
I’m not sure how much fastiing from technologies should form a part of one’s rule; it is commonplace to discuss with one’s priest or spiritual father how one will keep one’s fast, and with what oikonomia if such is needed. But one of the rules of fasting is that one attempts a greater and greater challenge. Far from beiing a spiritual backwater, Lent is the central season of the Christian year. And so I will present twenty-three things you might do to fast from technology. (Or might not.)
Sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor. (Monks mention sleeping on the floor as a discipline; the attenuated fast of sleeping on a sleepiing bag on the floor may help.)
Leave your smartphone at home for a day.
Leave all consumer electronics at home for a day.
Only check for email, Facebook, etc. once every hour, instead of all the time.
Don’t check your email; just write letters with a pen or lead pencil.
Camp out in your back yard.
Read a book outside, using sunscreen if appropriate.
Organize some outdoor activity with your friennds or family.
Don’t use your computer or smartphone while you are preparing for the Eucharist.
Basic: If you have games and entertainment apps or application, don’t play them when you are fasting.
Harder: If you have games and entertainment applications, delete them.
Basic: Spend an hour outside with a book or an ebook Kindle, doing nothing but read and observe the trees, the wind. and the grass growing. (You are welcome to use my ebooks.)
Harder: Spend an hour outide, but not with a book, just observing the trees, the wind, and the grass growing.
Don’t use your car for a week. It’s OK to get rides, and it may be a pleasure speaking with your friends, but experience being, in part, dependent, and you may be surprised how some of your driving suddenly seems superflous.
Shut off power for an hour. If you keep your fridge and freezer doors shut, you shouldn’t lose food, and sometimes power loss has meant adventure.
Turn off your computer’s network access but still see what you can do with it for a day. (The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written largely on a computer that doesn’t have internet access forr the majority of the time it is being used to write this.)
Especially if you have a beautiful screensaver, set your computer to just display a blank screen, and have a single color or otherwise dull wallpaper for a time, perhaps for a fasting season.
Switch your computer’s resolution to 800×600 or the tiniest it can go. That will take away much of its status as a luxury.
Make a list of interesting things to do that do not involve a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Do some of the vibrant things on the list that do not involve a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Use computers or whatever other technologies, not for what you can get from them, but what you can give through them.
Bear a little more pain. If pain is bearable, don’t take pain medication. If you can deal with a slightly warmer room in the summer, turn down the air conditioning. If you can deal with a slightly cooler room in the winter, turn down the heat.
Visit a monastery.A monastery is not thought of in terms of being Luddite, but monasteries tend to be lower in level than technology, and a good monastery shows the vibrancy of life not centered about technology. And this suggestion is different.All the other suggestions say, “I would suggest.” The suggestion about the monastery says, “God has given.”
There is some ambiguity, or better yet a double meaning, when the New Testament uses the term “breaking bread.” On one level, breaking bread means a shared meal around the table. On another, it means celebrating the Eucharist.
You can say that there is one sacrament, or that there are seven, or that there are a million sacraments. A great many things in life have a sacramental dimension, even if the man on the street would not consider these to be religious matters. There is something sacramental about friendship. And there is something sacramental about a meal around a table. Even if the sacramental character of a meal is vanishing.
However, there are ways that the sacramental character of meals is falling away. Many foods are not intended to be eaten around a table with family or friends: think of microwave dinners and the 100 calorie snack pack. Read Nourishing Traditions, which tells how far our industrial diet has diverged from meals that taste delicious precisely because they are nutritionally solid.
But besides the plastic-like foods of the industrial diet, there is another concern with munching or inhaling. The Holy Eucharist can legitimately be served, in an extreme case, with plastic-like foods. For that matter it is normal for it to be made with white flour, and white flour is high on the list of foods that should be limited. And it would be a mistake to insist on whole wheat flour because it is overall healthier. But with extreme exceptions such as grave illness, the Holy Mysteries are not to be consumed by oneself off in a corner. They are part of the unhurried unfolding of the Divine Liturgy, which ideally unfolds rather naturally into the unhurried unfolding of a common meal.
Both eating snacks continually to always have the pleasure of the palate, and the solo meal that is inhaled so it can be crammed into an over-busy schedule, fall short of the (broadly) sacramental quality of a common meal around a table.
In Alaska there are many people but not so many priests, and therefore many parishes rarely celebrate the Divine Liturgy. And a bishop, giving advice, gave two pastoral directions to the faithful: first that they should pray together, and second that they should eat together.
Let us try harder to eat with others.
“Forms of life” (Wittgenstein)
I’m not Wittgenstein’s biggest fan, and I wince when people speak of “after Wittgenstein.” But his concept of “forms of life” is relevant here. A form of life is something that is structural to how people live, and normally tacit; a professor was searching for an example of “forms of life” to give to the class, and after a couple of minutes of silence I said, “You are trying to a difficult thing. You are trying to find something that is basically tacit and not consciously realized, but that people will recognize once it is pointed out. I guess that you have thought of a few possibilities and rejected them because they fall around on one of those criteria.” And he searched a bit more, and gave the example of, “It used to be that procreation was seen as necessary for human flourishing. Now people think that limiting procreation is seen as necessary for human flourishing.”
Arguably a Luddite’s Guide to Forms of Life would be more useful than The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, but in the discussion of different technologies there is always a concern for what Wittgenstein would call forms of life. It is possible to turn on the television for 10 minutes a day for weather information, and that retains the same form of life as not using television at all. Watching television for hours a day is, and shapes, a distinct form of life. And in some sense the basic question addressed in this work is not, “What technologies are you using?” but “What forms of life do you have given your technology usage?“
Some people have said that Americans are in a constant state of “future shock,” “future shock” being understood by analogy to “culture shock”, which is a profoundly challenging state when you are in a culture that tramples assumptions you didn’t know you had. Not all of future shock is in relation to technology, but much of it is.
We think of a “rising standard of living,” meaning more unfamiliar possessions in many cases, and even if the economy itself is not a rising standard of living now, we have accepted the train of new technology adoption as progress, but there has been something in us that says, “This is choking something human.” And in a sense this has always been right, the older technologies as the new, for movies as much as augmented reality.
One author said, “The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”
GPS is in general an example of something that has a double effect. Traditionally advertising in an overall effect helps people to covet what a company has to offer, and the behavior stimulated by the advertising is to advance the company’s interest, even though the company never says “We are making this so that we will acquire more money or market share.” As in How to Win Friends and Influence People, the prime actor is attempting to pursue his or her own interests, while it is presented entirely as being to the advantage of the other party on the other party’s terms.
Apple didn’t just change the game by making the first smartphone done right, in which regard the iPhone is commonly considered more significant than the Macintosh. The company that invented and still sells the Macintosh has established something more important than owning a Macintosh: owning an iPhone or iPad, which unlike the Macintosh generate a steady subscription income stream. The price for my MacBook was 100% up front: now that I’ve made the one-time purchase, I do not have any further financial obligations that will filter to Apple. My iPhone, on the other hand, has a subscription and contract; part of my hefty baseline phone bill goes to Apple. And if I were to purchase an iPad, I would have two subscriptions. (The main reason I have not seriously moved towards buying an iPad is not what I would pay up front; it is adding another subscription.)
The GPS also has a double effect. It is what science fiction writers called a “tracking device.” Now it is a terrifically useful traffic advice; part of the marketing proposition offered for Sila on the iPhone 4 S is that it makes terrifically resourceful use of a GPS. (“I feel like a latte.”—and it is the GPS that Sila uses to find nearby locations where one might find a latte.) On a more pedestrian level GPS for driving(or biking, or walking) has become so entrenched that people don’t know what they’d do without it to reach unfamiliar locations. I have never heard someone question the utility of a GPS for this or other purposes, and I’ve heard of interesting-sounding hobbies like geocaching where you navigate to specified coordinates and then search out and find some hidden attraction in the area indicated by the GPS.
But for all of these things, GPSes, as well as cell phones in general, provide one more means for Big Brother (and possibly more than one Big Brother) to know exactly where you go, when you go there, what the patterns are, and other things where Big Brotherwill keep closer tabs on your whereabouts and activities than your spouse or parent. IBM published a book on “Why IBM for Big Data?” and made it very clear that Big Brother analysis of data isn’t just for No Such Agency. It’s also for the corporate world. One author told the seemingly attractive story of having made repeated negative posts on his FaceBook wall, slamming an airline after repeated problems, and the airline reached out to him and gave him a service upgrade. This was presented in the most positive light, but it was very clear that business were being invited to use IBM’s expertise to do Big Data Big Brother analysis on social networks.
Guns and modern weapons (for fantasy swords, see Teleporters)
Let me give a perhaps controversial preamble before directly talking about weapons.
I have spoken both with NRA types and anti-gun advocates, and there is a telling difference. The anti-gun advocates point to hard-hitting, emotional news stories where a walking arsenal opens fire in a school and kills many people. The NRA types may briefly talk about selective truth-telling and mention an incident where someone walked into a church armed to kill a bear, and an off-duty security guard who was carrying a gun legally and with the explicit permission of church leadership, “stopped the crime.” But that is something of a tit-for-tat sideline to the main NRA argument, which is to appeal to statistical studies that show that legal gun ownership does not increase crime.
I have a strong math background and I am usually wary of statistics. However, I find it very striking that anti-gun advocates have never in my experience appealed to statistics to show that legal gun ownership increases crome, but only give hard-hitting emotional images, while the bread-and-butter of NRA argument is an appeal to research and statistics. I’ve never personally investigated those statistics, but there is something suspicious and fishy when only one side of a debate seriously appeals to research and statistics.
With that preamble mentioned, learning to really use a gun is a form of discipline and stillness, and I tried to capture it in the telescope scene in Within the Steel Orb. Hunting can be a way to be close to your food, and I approve of hunting for meat but not hunting for taxidermy. However, sacramental shopping for weapons is as bad as any other sacramental shopping. I would tentatively say that if you want skill with a weapon, and will train to the point that it becomes something of a spiritual discipline, then buying a weapon makes sense. If you want to buy a gun because all the cool guys in action-adventure movies have one, or you are not thinking of the work it takes to handle a gun safely and use it accurately, I would question the appropriateness of buying a gun.
(Owning a gun because that is part of your culture is one thing; buying a gun because they are glamorized in movies is another thing entirely.)
And that is without investigating the question of whether it is appropriate to use violence in the first place. St. George the soldier and the passion-bearers Ss. Boris and Gleb are both honored by the Church; yet the better path is the one set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.
Heating and air conditioning
A college roommate commented that middle class Americans had basically as much creature comforts were available. Not that they can buy everything one would want; but there is a certain point beyond which money cannot purchase necessities, only luxuries, and then a certain point after that where money cannot purchase luxuries, only status symbols, and a point beyond that where money cannot purchase any more meaningful status symbols, only power. And middle class Americans may well not be able to purchase every status symbol they want, but really there is not much more creature comfort that would come with ten times one’s salary.
Heating and air conditioning are one such area, and monastics wear pretty much the same clothing in summer and winter. One Athonite monk talked about a story about how several Russian sailors made a fire and stood close, and still did not feel warm, while islanders who were barely clad stood some distance off and were wincing because of the heat. We lose some degree of spiritual strength if we insist on having cool buildings in the summer and warm buildings in the winter. Even just cutting back a bit, so that buildings are warm but not hot in the summer and cool but not cold in the winter would constitute a spiritual victory. Usually this sort of thing is argued for environmental reasons; I am not making the argument that the lowered utility usage is good for the environment but that the lowered utility usage is constructive and, in the old phrase, “builds character.” Indoor tracks exist, but in the summer I see bicyclists and runners exercising hard in the summer. These people are not super-heroes, and exercising in the heat really does not seem to be much of a deterrent to getting one’s artificially added exercise. The human body and spirit together are capable of a great deal more sturdiness, when instead of always seeking comfort we learn that we can function perfectly well after adjusting to discomfort. (And this is not just with heating and air conditioning; it is true with a lot of things.)
There is an ancient code of hospitality that recently has been influenced by consumer culture. What commercial marketing does, or at least did, to make a gesture of friendship and welcome was by offering a selection of choices carefully fitted to the demographics being targeted. Starbucks not only established that you could market an experience that would command a much higher price than a bottomless cup of coffee at a regular diner; they sold not one coffee but many coffees. You had a broad selection of consumer choices. Starbucks was doubtlessly more successful than some frozen yoghurt places I visited in grad school, which offered something like fifty or more flavors and varieties of yoghurts and had staff who were mystified when customers said, “But I just want some frozen yoghurt!” As a nuance, Starbucks offers guidance and suggestions for the undecided—and a large number of choices for the decided.
And in light of the hospitality industry, hosts offer guests choices and sometimes mystify them by the offering: a guest, according to the older (unwritten) code, did not have the responsibility of choosing what would be offered. Now perhaps I need to clarify, or maybe don’t need to clarify, that if you have a severe peanut allergy and your host offers you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you are not duty bound to accept it. But even then, social graces come to play. I remembered one time, at a feast although not strictly a host/guest relationship, when I offered a friend a glass of port and he kindly reminded me that he was a recovering alcoholic. I apologized profusely, and he stopped me and said, “I appreciate the offer, I just can’t drink it.” So then I offered him something he could consume, and he took it and thanked me for it. Social graces apply.
But this is something of a footnote. There is a story of a staretz or monastic spiritual father who was going with one of a monk’s disciples, and they visited a monastery that was feasting with bread, and the elder and disciple both shared in that informal communion, and then the two of them resumed their journey. The disciple asked the master if he could drink water, and to his astonishment was told no. The master, in answering his question, said, “That was love’s bread. But let us keep the fast.” The Fathers are very clear: as one priest said, “Hospitality trumps fasting.” And the assumption there is that fasting is important enough. This piece originated with the title, “Fasting from technologies.” But hospitality is even more important.
The ancient rule of hospitality, although this is never thought of in these terms with today’s understanding of authority, is that the host has a profound authority over the guest which the guest will obey, even to the point of trumping fasting. But this is not what we may think of as despotism: the entire purpose and focus of the host’s role in hospitality is to extend the warmest welcome to the guest. I remember one time when a friend visited from Nigeria, and although I set some choices before them, when I said, “We can do A, B, and C; I would recommend B,” in keeping with hospitality they seemed to always treat my pick as tacit authority and went along with me. It was a wonderful visit; my friend made a comment about being treated like royalty, but my thought was not about how well I was treating them. My thought was that this would probably be the last time I saw my friend and her immediate family face to face, and I’d better make it count.
And all of this seems dead to us as we have grown dead to it. The role of hospitality, including authority, is infinitely less important than marriage, yet we see a husband’s authority as external and domineering, when it is less external than the host’s authority. And I am drawn to memories of visiting one very traditional couple where both of them exuded freedom and comfort and dealing with them felt like a foot sliding into a well-fitting shoe. But if we see a husband having authority over a wife as a foreign imposition and nothing like the implicit authority we do not even recognize between host and guest (where the host’s authority consists in making every decision to show as much kindness as possible to the guest), this is not a defect in marriage but in our deafened ears.
An intravenous drip of noise
“Silence is the language of the age to come,” as others have said. Hesychasm is a discipline of stillness, of silence, of Be still and know that I am God. Whether spiritual silence is greater than other virtues, I do not wish to treat here; suffice it to say that all virtues are great health, and all vices are serious spiritual diseases, and all are worth attention.
There are a number of technologies whose marketing proposition is as a noise delivery system. The humble radio offers itself as a source of noise. True, there are other uses, such as listening to a news radio station for weather and traffic, but just having a radio on in the background is noise. Other sources of noise include television, iPods, smartphones, the web, and top sites like FaceBook, Google Plus, and the like. Right use of these tends to be going in and out for a task, even if the task lasts five hours, versus having noise as a drone in the background.
In terms of social appropriateness, there is such a thing as politely handling something that is basically rude. For one example, I was visiting a friend’s house and wanted to fix his printer, and apologetically said I was going to call my brother and called him to ask his opinion as a computer troubleshooter. I handled the call as something that was basically rude even though the express purpose was to help with something he had asked about and it was a short call. And it was handled politely because I handled it as something that is basically rude. And other people I know with good manners do sometimes make or receive a cell phone call when you otherwise have their attention, but they do so apologetically, which suggests that just ignoring the other person and making a phone call is rude. In other words, they politely handle the interruption by treating it as something that is basically rude, even if (as in the case I mentioned) the entire intention of the call was to help me help the friend I was visiting.
Something like this applies to our use of technology. There are things that are entirely appropriate if we handle them as something that is basically “rude.” Or, perhaps, “noisy.” The equivalent of making a long phone call when you are with someone, without offering any apology or otherwise treating it as basically rude, is laying the reins on the horse’s neck and allowing technologies to function as a noise delivery system. And what we need is to unplug our intravenous drip of noise.
Silence can be uncomfortable if you are used to the ersatz companionship of noise. If you have been in a building and step outside into the sunlight at noon, you may be dazzled. Most spiritual discicplines stretch us into something that is uncomfortable at first: the point is to be stretched more each time. The Philokalia talks about how people hold on to sin because they think it adorns them: to this may be added that after you repent and fear a shining part of you may be lost forever, you realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell.” Silence is like this; we want a noise delivery system as a drone, and once we begin to get used to its absence, there is a deeper joy. It may take time; it takes something like a year for a recovering alcoholic’s brain chemistry to reset. But once we have got rid of the drug, once we have repented and sought to bear fruit worthy of repentance, we may find ourselves (to adapt the title of a book) blindsided by joy.
“You cannot kill time,” the saying goes, “without injuring eternity.”
At least one breakdown of mobile users has said that they fall into three groups: “Urgent now,” people who have some degree of emergency and need directions, advice, contingency plans, and the like, “Repeat now,” people who are monitoring information like whether or how their stocks are doing, and “Bored now,” people who are caught and have some time to kill, and look for a diversion.
“Bored now” use of cell phones is simply not constructive spiritually; it offers a virtual escape for the here and now God has given us, and it is the exact opposite of the saying, “Your cell [as a monk] will teach you everything you need to know.”
The lead pencil
The lead pencil is a symbol of an alternative to an overly technologized world; one organization of people who have made a conscious decision to avoid the encroachment of technology chose the lead pencil as their emblem and formed the Lead Pencil Club.
Sitting down and writing letters is a valuable discipline, but the norm that has been lived by 99% of the human race is oral culture; anthropologists have increasingly realized that the opposite of “written” culture is not “illiterate” culture but “oral” culture. And the weapon that slides through the chink in oral culture’s armor is the writing implement, such as the lead pencil. It is not the computer, but the lead pencil and its kin, that serve as a disease vector to destroy age-old orality of culture.
This is not to say that you can’t try to use computer keyboards less and pens and pencils more. But understand that you’re not turning the clock all the way back by writing handwritten letters, however commendable the love in handwritten letters may be. The lead pencil is a technology and to those societies that embrace it, it is the death knell to an old way.
The long tail
The long tail can be your best friend, or an insidious enemy.
Let me briefly outline the long tail. A retail bookstore needs to sell one copy of a book in a year’s time, or else it is losing them money: shelf space is an expensive commodity. And all of this leads to a form of implicit censorship, not because bookstores want to stamp out certain books, but because if it’s not a quick seller or a safe bet it’s a liability.
By contrast, Amazon has large volumes of shelf space; their warehouses might comfortably store a city. And it costs them some money to acquire books, but the price of keeping books available is insignificant compared to a brick-and-mortar bookstore. And what that means, and not just on Amazon, that the economic censorship is lifted. People used to wonder who would be able to fill hundreds or more cable channels; now Youtube would be hard pressed to reduce itself down to a thousand channels. And so a much larger portion of Amazon’s profits comes from having an enormous inventory of items that occasionally make a sale.
There is specialization implicit in the long tail; if you want to know how to make something, chances are pretty good that some blog explains how. And the proper ascetical use of technology, or Luddite if you prefer, uses things differently than the mainstream. Nobody in a phone store is going to tell you that an intravenous drip of noise in terms of text messages that go on even when you are trying to sleep does not make you happier than if you use texting when there is a special need. Some of the best resources you will find for ascetical use of technology are to be found in the long tail.
But there is something else that comes with it. The temptation is to be off in our own customized worlds, with everything around our interests. And that is a form of spiritual poverty. Part of an age-old ascesis has been learning how to deal with the people who are around you, localist style, instead of pursuing your own nooks and crannies. The monoculture of retail stores in America was first a problem, not because it had no long tail effects, but because it supplanted at least an implicit localism. Local cultures gave way to plastic commercial culture.
And we can use the long tail to our profit, if we don’t lay the reins on the horse’s neck. Shopping on the Internet for things that won’t be local stores is one thing; shopping on the Internet so you don’t have to get out of your pyjamas is another.
There was one CIA official who said, being interviewed by a journalist, that he would never knowingly hire someone who was attracted by the romance of cloak and dagger work. Now this was quite obviously someone who did want to hire people who would be a good fit, but someone who wants to join a cloak and dagger agency as a gateway to have life feel like a James Bond movie is off on the wrong foot.
I doubt if any major intelligence agency has promoted James Bond movies because they think it’s a good way to draw the right recruits, but James Bond movies function as highly effective advertisements. They may not lead people to be able to stick out the daily grind and level of bureaucracy in a three-letter government agency, but they give a strong sense that spying is cool, and cool in a way that probably has only the most accidental resemblance to life in one of those bureaucratic organizations.
Cop shows likewise show police officers pulling their guns out much more than in real life; it is a frequent occurrence on the cop shows I’ve seen, while the last figure I heard was that real, live, flesh and blood police officers draw a gun on the job (apart from training) once every few years if even that.
Advertisement is produced as a service to the companies whose goods and services are being advertised, but the real message they sell is if anything further from the truth than the “accidental advertisement” of James Bond movies advertising a romantic version of bureaucratic intelligence agencies and cop shows making a dramaticization that effectively ignores the day-to-day work of police officers because it just doesn’t make good drama. (What would happen to the ratings of a cop show if they accurately portrayed the proportion of time that police officers spend filling out paperwork?)
Advertising sells claims that are further out. Two examples discussed in a class showed a family that moved, and what was juxtaposed as cementing this bonding time was a vacuum cleaner. In another commercial, racial harmony was achieved by eating a hamburger. The commercials that stuck with me from childhood were in one case kids jumping around with rotating camera angles because they were wearing a particular brand of shoes: When I asked my parents for those shoes, they explained to me that the commercial was made to make me want them, and I took a marker and colored the patterns on the bottom of the shoes on the add on to my shoes. Another one showed a game of Laser Tag that was end to end acrobatics. Now I have never played Laser Tag, and I get the impression people like it, but I doubt that its gear confers the ability to do theatrically delivered acrobatics.
Marketing is usually more subtle and seductive than I have portrayed it here. The vacuum cleaner did not offer any words connecting the appliance with family connectedness; it’s just that this family was going through a major experience and the vacuum cleaner appeared with perfect timing just at the center of that memory. The marketing message that is portrayed is seductive and false, and it is never the right basis to judge the product on. The product may be the right thing to buy and it may well be worth buying, but only after one has rejected the mystique so masterfully built up in the marketing proposition. If it is right for me to study ninjutsu, it will only be right after I have rejected the ninja mystique, something which the nearest dojo does in fact do: they refer to the martial art they teach as “toshindo”, nor “ninjutsu”, even though they refer to essentially the same thing in Japanese.
I have said earlier, or rather repeated, the words, “Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.” They bear repeating, but is there anything else to add? I would add three things:
Reject the mystique advertising has sold you this product on.
Wait until your heart becomes clear about what is the best choice, and then make the best choice.
The best choice, in the third world, may be to buy a Mercedes-Benz instead of a Ford because you cannot afford to replace a Ford in six years.
But take care of the spiritual housecleaning first.
There have been two times in my life that I have studied martial arts, and both of them have been times of exceptional spiritual dryness. I have not felt any particular dryness when learning how to use a bow and arrow—or a .22—but there is something different about at least internal Asian martial arts. Practicing them, like Orthodoxy, is walking along a way. And it would seem somewhat confused to try to pursue one of these ways along with the Orthodox way.
I am careful of declaring this in the absolute; the literature is ambivalent but there are soldiers who bear the cross of St. George, and many of them have training in Asian martial arts. That looks to me grey, as outlined in the timeless way of relating.
I am tempted to train in ninjutsu: partly for technique, partly because the whole of the training includes stealth, and partly for practical self-defense. But I am treating that desire as a temptation, on the understanding that God can impress things on my conscience if he wants me to enter training.
MMO’s (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, like World of Warcraft)
There are common threads between many of the things there, and an MMO is a cross between the MUDs I played in high school, and SecondLife. The MUDs were handled from pure text, leaving imagery in the player’s imagination; MMO’s provide their own imagery. Another form of escape.
Money and financial instruments
The Fathers commenting on St. Job also illustrate another principle of such wealth as existed then. St. Job is reported as having thousands of herd animals and thousands of beasts of burden, the wealthiest of the men of the East. But there are somewhat pointed remarks that wealthy Job is not reported to possess gold or silver. His wealth was productive wealth, living wealth, not a vault of dead metal coins. In modern terms he did not live off an endowment of stocks and bonds, but owned and ran a productive business.
Those of us in the world usually possess some amount of money, but there is something that makes me uncomfortable about the stock market overall, even moreso for the more abstract financial instruments. What one attempts to do is gain the most money from one’s existing money as much as possible, given the amount of risk you want and possibly including such outliers as ethical index funds which only index stocks deemed to meet an ethical standard. The question I have is, “What are we producing for what we get out of the stock market?” Working in a job delivers tangible value, or at least can. Investing in the stock market may be connected with helping businesses to function, but more and more abstract forms of wealth have the foul smell that heralds the coming of the damned backswing.
I would suggest as a right use of wealth acquiring tools that help you work, and being generous even or especially if money is tight. And explicitly depending on God.
When movies had arrived on the scene and were starting to have a societal effect, at least one Luddite portrayed a character moving from one movie to another in escapism. The premise may seem quaint now, but a little bit of that keeps on happening with new technologies.
One fellow parishioner talked about how in Japan, anime shows aired with a certain animation technique, and all of the sudden emergency rooms were asking why they were being inundated with people having epileptic seizures. And when they saw the connection, Japan stopped cold in its use of that animation technique. He said that that underscored to him the power of television and movies.
I don’t quite agree with him, any more than I would agree with using findings that extremely high levels of artificial light—fluorescent or incandescent‐cause problems, and we should therefore be very wary of lighting. For most sedentary people, even with artificial light (fluorescent or incandescent), the level of exposure to light is materially lower than natural exposure to the sun, and people who spend their time indoors tend to see less light (significantly less light) than people living outdoors. I didn’t accept his conclusion, but he followed with another insight that I can less easily contest.
He asked if I saw movies infrequently (we had not discussed the topic, but he knew me well enough to guess where I might stand), and I told him that I usually don’t watch movies. He asked me if I had ever observed that an hour after seeing a movie, I felt depressed. I had not made any connection of that sort, even if now it seems predictable from the pleasure-pain syndrome. And now I very rarely see movies, precisely because the special effects and other such tweaks are stronger than I am accustomed to seeing; they go like a stiff drink to the head of the teetotaler. And on this score I would rather not be the person who has a stiff drink every so often, and whose body tolerates alcohol better, but the person whose system hasn’t had to make such an adjustment, an adjustment that includes losses. The little pleasures of life are lost on someone used to a rising standard of special effects, and the little pleasures of life are more wholesome than special effects.
As I discussed in Religion And Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design Vs. Evolution, one of the forms of name-dropping in academic theology is to misuse “a term from science”: the claim to represent “a term from science” is endemic in academic theology, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve read “a term from science” that was used correctly.
One book said it was going to introduce “a term from computer science,” toggling, which meant switching rapidly between several applications. The moral of this story was that we should switch rapidly between multiple activities in our daily lives.
What I would have said earlier is, “While that moral might be true, what it is not is a lesson from computer science.” What I would say now is, “Never mind if that is a lesson from computer science. The moral is fundamentally flawed.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:22, Christ says, “If your eye be,” and then a word that doesn’t come across in translation very well. It is rendered “healthy” (NIV), “clear” (NASB), “sound” (RSV), and “good” (NKJV, NLT), Only the King James Version properly renders the primary sense of haplous as “single.” This may be a less user-friendly transltion but it captures something the other translations miss. The context of the discussion of the eye as the lamp of the body is about choosing whether to have a single focus in serving God, or try to multitask between serving God and money. Haplous does have “healthy”, “clear”, “sound”, and “good” as secondary meanings, but the primary meaning is the less accessible one that I have only found in the Greek and in the King James. If the eye is the lamp of the body, and it is important that the eye be single, then by extension the whole person is to be single, and as one aspect of this single eye, give a whole and single attention to one thing at a time. Now this is not necessarily a central, foreground focus in the Sermon on the Mount, but as its logic unfurls, even as spiritual silence unfurls, a single eye gives its whole and undivided attention to one thing at a time. (And study after study has shown that increased productivity through multitasking is an illusion; divided attention is divided attention and hurts all manner of actions.)
The term “nutriceuticals is itself an ambiguous and ambivalent term.
On the one hand, ‘nutriceuticals’ can refer to the diet advanced by the Nourishing Traditions school, and while nutrition should not be considered on its own without reference to the big picture of exercise, work, light, almsgiving, fasting, prayer, and the Holy Mysteries, there is something to the recipes and type of diet advocated in Nourishing Traditions.
However, it seems that everybody selling certain things wants to be selling “nutriceuticals”, and there are people selling “synthetic testosterone” as a “nutriceutical.” Friends, I really hope that the offer of “synthetic testosterone” is false advertising, because if it is false advertising they are probably delivering a better product than if it’s truth in advertising. Testosterone is a steroid, the chief of the anabolic steroids used to get muscles so big they gross girls out. Now testosterone does have legitimate medical uses, but using steroids to build disgustingly huge muscles can use up to a hundred times what legitimate medical use prescribes, and it does really nasty things to body, mind, and soul.
I get the impression that most things sold as nutriceuticals are shady; to authorities, illegal nutriceuticals are probably like a water balloon, where you step on it one place and it just slides over a bit to the side. It used to be that there were perhaps a dozen major street drugs on the scene; now there is a vast bazaaar where some “nutriceuticals” are squeaky-clean, and some “neutriceuticals” are similar in effect to illegal narcotics but not technically illegal, and some of them are selling testosterone without medical supervision or worse.
So buyer beware. There’s some good stuff out there (I haven’t talked about goji berries), but if you want a healthy diet to go with healthy living, read and cook from Nourishing Traditions, and if you want another kind of good nutriceutical supplement without being pushed to drink Kool-Aid, contact me and you might be my first customer. (No, I don’t have dreams of striking it rich through, um, “my business.” I am satisfied enough with my job.)
There is a Foxtrot cartoon where the mother is standing outside with Jason and saying something like, “This is how you throw a frisbee.”—”This is how you play catch.”—”This is how you play tennis.” And Jason answers, “Enough with the historical re-enactments. I want to play some games!” (And there is another time when he and Marcus had been thrown out of the house and were looking at a frisbee and saying, “This is a scratch on the Linux RAID drive.”)
Old technologies are usually things that caused changes and moved people away from what might be called more natural forms of life. However, they represent a lower drug dose than newer technologies. The humble lead pencil may be historically be the kind of technology that converted cultures away from being oral; however, a handwritten letter to an old friend is profoundly different from a stream of texts. And in my technological soliloquoy above, two out of the three technologies I mentioned represent an old tradition. Being familiar with some of the best of older technologies may be helpful, and in general they do not have the layers on layers of fragile character that have been baked into new technologies. A Swiss Army Knife is still a portable toolchest if something messes up with the Internet. Bicycles are not a replacement for cars—you can’t go as fast or as far, or stock up on groceries—but many people prefer bicycles when they are a live option, and a good bicycle has far fewer points of failure than a new car.
I noted when I was growing up that a power failure meant, “Office work stops.” Now more recently an internet or network failure means, “Office work stops,” and there is someone who said, “Systems integration is when your computer doesn’t work because of a problem on a computer you never knew existed.” Older technologies are in general not so fragile, and have more of a buffer zone before you get in to the damned backswing.
Online forums are something of a mixed blessing. They can allow discussion of obscure topics, and have many of the benefits of the the long tail. I happily referred someone who was learning Linux to unix.stackexchange.com. But the blessing is mixed, and when I talked with my priest about rough stuff on an Orthodox forum, he said, “People love to talk about Orthodoxy. The real challenge is to do it.”
Online forums may be more wisely used to consult for information and knowhow, but maybe not the best place to find friends, or perhaps a good place to find friends, but not a good place to use for friendship.
Planned obsolescence, fashion, and being built NOT to last
When I made one visit to the Dominican Republic, one thing that surprised me was that a substantial number of the vehicles I saw were Mercedes-Benz or other luxury brands by U.S. standards, while there were no or almost no U.S. cars. The reason I was given to this by my youth pastor is that you can keep a German engineered car up and running for 30 years if you take care of it; with a U.S. car you are doing well to have a car still running after 10 years. German cars, among others, are engineered and built to last; U.S. cars are engineered and built NOT to last. And in the Dominican Republic economy, buying a car that may well run for 30 years is something people can afford; buying a car that may only last 5-7 years is a luxury people cannot afford. An old but well-cared-for Mercedes Benz, Saab, Volvo, or BMW will probably last longer than a new car which is “imported from Detroit.”
One of the features of an industrual economy is that the economy needs to have machines in production and people buying things. If we ask the question, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth,” the decisive answer of industrial economy is, “Man was made for economic wealth.” There are artificial measures taken to manipulate culture so as to maximize production and consumption of economic wealth, three of which are planned obsolescence, fashion, and being built NOT to last.
Planned obsolescence socially enforces repeat purchases by making goods that will have a better version available soon; in computers relatively little exploration is done to make a computer that will last a long time, because computers usually only need to last until they’re obsolete, and that level of quality is “good enough for government work.” I have an iPhone 4 and am glad not to be using my needlessly snail-like AT&T-serviced iPhone 1, but I am bombarded by advertisements telling me that I need an iPhone 4S, implying that my iPhone 4 just doesn’t cut it any more. As a matter of fact, my iPhone 4 works quite nicely, and I ignored a link advertising a free port of the iPhone 4’s distinctive feature Sila. I’m sure that if I forked out and bought an iPhone 4S, it would not be long before I saw advertisements breeding discontent about my spiffy iPhone 4S, and giving me a next hot feature to covet.
In the Middle Ages, fashion changed in clothing about once per generation. In our culture, we have shifting fashions that create a manufactured social need to purchase new clothing frequently, more like once per year. People do not buy clothing nearly so often because it is worn out and too threadbare to keep using, but because fashion shifted and such-and-such is in. Now people may be spending less on fashion-driven purchases than before, but it is still not a mainstream practice to throw a garment out because further attempts to mend il will not really help.
And lastly, there is the factor of things being made to break down. There are exceptions; it is possible for things to be built to last. I kept one Swiss Army Knife for twenty years, with few repairs beyond WD-40 and the like—and at the end of those twenty years, I gave it as a fully functional hand-me-down to someone who appreciated it. There is a wide stripe of products where engineers tried to engineer something to last and last, and not just German engineers. However, this is an exception and not the rule in the U.S. economy. I was incredulous when a teacher told me that the engineering positions some of us would occupy would have an assignment to make something that would last for a while and then break down. But it’s true. Clothing, for instance, can be built to last. However, if you buy expensive new clothing, it will probably wear out. Goodwill and other second-hand stores sometimes have things that are old enough to be built to last, but I haven’t found things to be that much sturdier: your mileage may vary. And culturally speaking, at least before present economic difficulties, when an appliance breaks you do not really take it in for repairs. You replace it with a newer model.
All of these things keep purchases coming so the gears of factories will continue. Dorothy Sayers’ “The Other Six Deadly Sins” talks about how a craftsman will want to make as good an article as possible, while mechanized industry will want to make whatever will keep the machines’ gears turning. And that means goods that are made to break down, even when it is technologically entirely feasible for factories to turn out things that are built to last.
All of these answer the question, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth?” with a resounding, “Man was made for economic wealth.”
Porn and things connected to porn
There is a story about a philosopher who was standing in a river when someone came to him. The philosopher asked the visitor, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under the water for a little while, and asked him the second time, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under water for what seemed an interminable time, and let him up and asked, “What do you want?” The visitor gasped and said, “Air!” The philosopher said, “When you want Truth the way you want air, you will find it.”
The same thing goes for freedom from the ever-darker chain called pornography, along with masturbation and the use of “ED” drugs to heighten thrills (which can cause nasty street drug-like effects even in marriage). To quote the Sermon on the Mount (RSV):
“You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
The Church Fathers are clear enough that this must not be taken literally; canon law forbids self-castration. But if you want to be free from addiction to pornography, if you want such freedom the way you want air, then you will do whatever it takes to remove the addiction.
What are your options? I’m not going to imitate the Dilbert strip’s mentioning, “How to lose weight by eating less food,” but there are some real and concrete steps you can take. If you shut off your internet service, and only check email and conduct internet business in public places with libraries, that might be the price for purity. If you are married, you might use one of many internet filters, set up with a password that is only known to your wife. You could join a men’s sexual addiction support group: that may be the price of freedom from porn, and it is entirely worth it. The general rule of thumb in confession is not to go into too much detail in confessing sexual sins, but going to confession (perhaps frequently, if your priest or spiritual father allows it) can have a powerful “I don’t want to confess this sin” effect. Another way to use the Internet is only go to use it when you have a defined purpose, and avoid free association browsing which often goes downhill. You could ask prayers of the saints, especially St. Mary of Egypt and St. John the Long-Suffering of the Kiev Near Caves. You could read and pray “The Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ” in the Jordanville prayer book and St. Nectarios Press’s Prayers for Purity, if your priest so blesses.
Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first it drains wonder and beauty out of everything else, and then it drains wonder and beauty out of itself: the only goal of lust is more lust. It works like a street drug. St. Basil the Great compared lust to a dog licking a saw: the dog keeps licking it because it likes the taste it produces, but it does not know that it is tasting its own woundedness, and the longer it keeps up at this, the deeper the wounds become.
Furthermore, an account of fighting sexual sin is incomplete if we do not discuss gluttony. What is above the belt is very close to what is below the belt, and the Fathers saw a tight connection between gluttony and lust. Gluttony is the gateway drug to lust. “Sear your loins with fasting,” the Fathers in the Philokalia tells us; the demon of lust goes out with prayer and fasting.
I remember when I had one great struggle before surrendering, letting go of buying a computer for my studies, and then an instant later feeling compelled to buy it. The only difference was that one was sacramental shopping to get something I really needed, and the other was just getting what I needed with the “sacramental shopping” taken out.
“Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need,” is a rejection of brand economy as a spiritual discipline. Buy things on their merits and not because of the prestige of the brand. And learn to ignore the mystique that fuels a culture of discontent. Buy new clothes because your older clothing is wearing out, not because it is out of fashion. (It makes sense to buy classic rather than trendy.)
Most of the other technologies mentioned here are technologies I have dealt with myself, most often at some length. SecondLife by contrast is the one and only of the technologies on this list I haven’t even installed due to overwhelming bad intuitions when I tried to convince myself it was something I should be doing.
It may be, some time later, that SecondLife is no longer called SecondWife, and it is a routine communication technology, used as an audio/visual successor to (purely audio) phone conversations. The web was once escape, one better than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and now it can be explored but it is quite often used for common nuts and bolts. No technology is permanently exotic: perhaps sometime the world of SecondLife will seem ordinary. But for now at least, it is an escape into building an alternative reality, and almost might as well be occult, as the foundations of modern science, for the degree of creating a new alternate reality it involves.
Smartphones, tablets, netbooks, laptops, and desktop computers
Jakob Nielsen made a distinction between computers that are movable, meaning laptops and netbooks which can be moved with far less difficulty and hassle than a desktop system, and mobile, meaning that they are the sort of thing a person can easily carry. Netbooks cross an important line compared to full-sized laptops; a regular laptop weighs enough on the shoulder that you are most likely to take a laptop in its carrying case for a reason, not just carry it like one more thing in a pocket. Netbooks, which weigh in at something like two pounds, are much lighter on the shoulder and they lend themselves more readily to keeping in a backpack, large purse, or bag of holding, without stopping to consider, “Do I really want t carry this extra weight?” Not that this is unique to netbooks; tablets are also light enough to just carry with you. Smartphones cross another important line: they are small enough to keep tucked in your pocket (or on your belt.
I was first astonished when I read that one iPhone user had completely displaced her use of the desktop computer. It surprised me for at least three reasons. First, the iPhone’s screen is tiny compared to even a small desktop screen; one thing programmers tend to learn is the more screen space they have, the better, and if they have any say in the matter, or if they have savvy management, programmers have two screens or one huge screen. Second, especially when I had an iPhone 1 that came with painfully slow and artificially limited bandwidth, the niche for it that I saw was as an emergency surrogate for a real computer that you use when, say, you’re driving to meet someone and something goes wrong. A bandwidth-throttled iPhone 1 may be painfully slow, but it is much better than nothing. And lastly, for someone used to high-speed touch typing on a regular keyboard, the iPhone, as the original Droid commercials stomped on the sore spot, “iDon’t have a real keyboard.” You don’t get better over time at touch typing an iPhone keyboard because the keyboard is one you have to look at; you cannot by touch move over two keys to the left to type your next letter. What I did not appreciate then was that you give the iPhone keyboard more focus and attention than touch typing a regular keyboard calls from; the “virtual keyboard” is amazing and it works well when you are looking at it and typing with both thumbs. And once that conceptual jolt is past, it works well.
But what I didn’t appreciate when that woman said she had stopped using her computer was that the desktop computer is wherever you have to go to use the desktop computer, while the iPhone is in one’s pocket or purse. And there is an incumbency advantage to the iPhone that is in one’s pocket or purse. It’s not just that you can only use your home computer when you are at home; if you are in one room and the computer is in another, it is less effort to jot a brief email from the phone than go to the other room and use the computer.
Laziness is a factor here; I have used my iPhone over my computer due to laziness. But more broadly a desktop or even laptop computer is in something of a sanctuary, with fewer distractions; the smartphone is wherever you are, and that may be a place with very few distractions, and it may be a place with many distractions.
Smartphones, tablets, netbooks, laptops, and desktops are all computers. The difference between them is how anchored or how portable they work out to be in practice. And the more mobile a computer is, the more effectively it will be as a noise delivery system. The ascetical challenge they represent, and the need to see that we and not the technologies hold the reins, is sharper for the newer and more mobile models.
I personally tend not to get sucked in to Facebook; I will go to a social networking site for a very particular reason, and tend not to linger even if I want something to do. There is a reason for this; I had an inoculation. While in high school I served as a student system administrator, on a system whose primary function in actual use was a social network, with messages, chatting, forums, and so on and so forth. I drank my fill of that, so to speak, and while it was nowhere near so user-friendly as Facebook, it was a drug from the same family.
Having been through that, I would say that this is not what friendship is meant to be. It may be that friends who become physically separated will maintain correspondence, and in that case a thoughtful email is not much different from a handwritten letter. As I wrote in Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis:
“Social networking” is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking’s promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu “virtual chicken” in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what “social” has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken’s meat.
There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one’s immediate presence.
“Social networking” is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
We need traditional social “meat.” The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.
I use the term “teleporters” because I do not know of a standard name, besides perhaps the name of one of the eight capital vices, for a class of technologies and other things that are in ways very different from each other but all have the same marketing proposition: escape. Not that one needs technologies to do this; metaphysics in the occult sense is another means to the same end. But all of them deliver escape.
A collection of swords is not usually amassed for defense: the owner may be delighted at the chance to learn how to handle a medieval sword, but even if the swords are “battle ready” the point is not self-defense. It’s a little bit of something that transports us to another place. Same thing for movies and video games. Same thing for historical re-enactments. Same thing, for that matter, for romances that teach women to covet a relationship with a man that could never happen, and spurn men and possibilities where a genuinely happy marriage can happen. And, for that matter, ten thousand things.
There are many things whose marketing proposition is escape, and they all peter out and leave us coveting more. They are spiritual poison if they are used for escape. There may be other uses and legitimate reasons—iPhones are, besides being “avoid spiritual work” systems, incredibly useful—but the right use of these things is not found in the marketing proposition they offer you.
Television has partly been ousted with Facebook; TV is stickier than ever, but it still can’t compete with the web’s stickiest sites.
However, a couple of Far Side cartoons on television are worth pondering; if they were written today, they might mention more than TV.
In one cartoon, the caption reads, “In the days before television,” and a whole family is staring blankly at a blank spot on a wall, curled around it as if it were a television. The irony, of course, is that this is not what things were like before television began sucking the life out of everything. The days before television were that much more dynamic and vibrant; Gary Larson’s caption, with a cartoon that simply subtracts television from the eighties, is dripping with ironic clarity about precisely what the days before television were not.
In the other cartoon, an aboriginal tribesman stands at the edge of a chasm, a vine bridge having just been cut and fallen into the chasm and making the chasm impassible. On the other side were a group of angry middle-class suburbanites, and the tribesman was holding a television. The caption read, “And so Mbogo stood, the angry suburbanites standing on the other side of the chasm. Their idol was now his, as well as its curse.”
Some years back, an advertising executive wrote, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (one friend reacted, “The author could only think of four?”), and though the book is decades old it speaks today. All of the other technologies that have been stealing television’s audiences do what television did, only more effectively and with more power.
I said at one point that the television is the most expensive appliance you can own. The reasoning was simple. For a toaster or a vacuum cleaner, if it doesn’t break, it costs you the up front purchase price, along with electricity, gas, or any other utilities it uses. And beyond those two, there is no further cost as long as it works. But with television, there was the most powerful propaganda engine yet running, advertising that will leave you keeping up with the Joneses (or, as some have argued after comparing 1950’s kitchen appliances with 1990’s kitchen appliances, keeping up with the Trumps). In this ongoing stream, the programming is the packaging and the advertising is the real content. And the packaging is designed not to steal the show from the content. Today television rules less vast of a realm, but megasites deliver the same principle: the reason you go to the website is a bit of wrapping, and the product being sold is you.
Our economy is in a rough state, but welcome to keeping up with the Trumps version 2.0. The subscription fees for smartphones and tablets are just the beginning.
The timeless way of relating
Christopher Alexander saw that computers were going to be the next building, and he was the champion who introduced computer-aided design to the field of architecture. Then he came to a second realization, that computer-aided design may make some things easier and faster, but it does not automatically make a building better: computer aided design makes it easier to architect good and bad buildings alike, and if you ask computers to make better buildings, you’re barking up the wrong fire hydrant.
But this time his work, A Timeless Way of Building, fell on deaf ears in the architectural community… only to be picked up by software developers and be considered an important part of object-oriented software design. The overused term MVC (“model-view-controller”), which appears in job descriptions when people need a candidate who solves problems well whether or not that meant using MVC, is part of the outflow of object-oriented programming seeing something deep in patterns, and some programmers have taken a profound lesson from A Timeless Way of Building even if good programmers in an interview have to conceal an allergic reaction when MVC is presented as a core competency for almost any kind of project.
There really is A Timeless Way of Building, and Alexander finds it in some of ancient and recent architecture alike. And in the same vein there is a timeless way of relating. In part we may see it as one more piece of it is dismantled by one more technology migration. But there is a real and live timeless relating, and not just through rejecting technologies.
C.S. Lewis, in a passage in That Hideous Strength which has great romantic appeal if nothing else, talks about how everything is coming to a clearer and sharper point. Abraham was not wrong for his polygamy as we would be for polygamy, but there is some sense that he didn’t profit from it. Merlin was not something from the sixth century, but the last survival in the sixth century of something much older when the dividing line between matter and spirit was not so sharp as it is today. Things that have been gray, perhaps not beneficial even if they are not forbidden, are more starkly turning to black or white.
This is one of the least convincing passages for Lewis’s effort to speak of “mere Christianity.” I am inclined to think that something of the exact opposite is true, that things that have been black and white in ages past have more leniency, more grey. Not necessarily that leniency equals confusion; Orthodoxy has two seemingly antitethetical but both necessary principles of akgravia (striving for strict excellence) and oikonomia (the principle of mercifully relaxing the letter of the law). We seem to live in a time of oikonomia from the custom which has the weight of canon law, where (for instance) the ancient upper class did far less physical exertion than the ancient lower class and slaves, but middle class fitness nuts today exercise less than the ancient upper class. Three hours of aerobic exercise is a lot. While we pride ourselves on abolishing legal slavery, we wear not only clothing from sweatshops made at the expense of preventable human misery, but large wardrobes and appliances and other consumer goods that bear a price tag in human misery. Many Orthodox have rejected the position of the Fathers on contraception from time immemorial, and the Church has been secularized enough for many to get their bearings from one article.
But two things are worth mentioning here. The first is that this is a time that invites prophets. Read the Old Testament prophets: prophets, named “the called ones” in the Old Testament never come when things are going well to say “Keep it up. Carry on your good work!” They come in darker days.
Second, while we live in a time where mere gloom is called light and we rely on much more oikonomia than others, oikonomia is real Orthodoxy in proper working order, and in ways Orthodoxy with oikonomia is much greater than rigidly rejecting oikonomia. The people who call themselves “True Orthodox”, or now that “True Orthodox” sounds fishy, rename the term “Genuine Orthodox” to avoid the troubles they have created for the name of “True Orthodox.” And despite observing the letter of canons more scrupulously than even the most straight-laced of normal Orthodox, these people are people who don’t get Orthodoxy, and would do well to receive the penance of eating a thick steak on a strict fast day.
And despite having so many slices taken out, the timeless way of relating is alive and well. It is present at a meal around table with friends. It is present when a man and wife remain together “til death do us part.” It is present when Catholics adore the Eucharist, or Evangelicals don’t miss a Sunday’s church for years and keep up with their quiet times and Bible studies. “Conversation is like texting for adults,” said our deacon, and the timeless way of relating is there when people use texting to arrange a face-to-face visit. The timeless way of relating is always close at hand.
Those many hours I played in that fantasy land were my version of time lost in television. There are things I could have done that I didn’t: create something, explore time outside, write letters. And as primitive and humble as rogue is, it stems from the same root as World of Warcraft. It is one of several technologies I have tasted in an egg: rogue, UltraRogue, The Minstrel’s Song, and different MUDs; or a command-line computer doing the work of a social network. And on that score, see Children’s toys on Baudelaire’s “la Morale du Joujou”. The newer games and social network may connect more dots and do some of your imagining for you. The core remains: you sit in front of a computer, transported to a fantasy land, and not exploring the here and now that you have been placed in in all its richness.
When I was a boy and when I was a youth, it was a sheer delight to go to Honey Rock Camp. I don’t want to elaborate on all of my fond memories but I would like to point to one memory in particular: the web.
Resourceful people had taken a World War II surplus piece of netting, attached it to the edges of a simple building, and pulled the center up by a rope. The result was everything a child wants from a waterbed, and I remember, for instance, kids gathering on the far side of the web, my climbing up the rope, and then letting go and dropping five or ten feet into the web, sending little children flying. And as with my other macho ways of connecting with children, if I did this once I was almost certainly asked to do it again. (The same goes, for some extent, with throwing children into the web.)
I speak of that web in the past tense, because after decades of being a cherished attraction, the web was falling apart and it was no longer a safe attraction. And the people in charge made every effort to replace it, and found to everyone’s dismay that they couldn’t. Nobody makes those nets; and apparently nobody has one of those nets available, or at least not for sale. And in that regard the web is a characteristic example of how technologies are handled in the U.S. (“Out with the old, in with the new!“) Old things are discarded, so the easily available technologies are just the newer one.
Software is fragile; most technological advances in both software and hardware are more fragile than what they replace. Someone said, “If builders built buildings the way programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.” The web is a tremendous resource, but it will not last forever, and there are many pieces of technology stack that could limit or shut off the web. Don’t assume that because the web is available today it will equally well be available indefinitely.
This work has involved, perhaps, too much opinion and too much of the word “I”; true Orthodox theology rarely speaks of me, “myself, and I,” and in the rare case when it is really expedient to speak of oneself, the author usually refers to himself in the third person.
The reason I have referred to myself is that I am trying to make a map that many of us are trying to make sense of. In one sense there is a very simple answer given in monasticism, where renunciation of property includes technology even if obediences may include working with it, and the words Do not store up treasures on earth offer another simple answer, and those of us who live in the world are bound not to be attached to possessions even if they own them. The Ladder of Divine Ascent offers a paragraph addressed to married people and a book addressed to monastics, but it has been read with great profit by all manner of people, married as well as monastic.
Somewhere amidst these great landmarks I have tried to situate my writing. I do not say that it is one of these landmarks; it may be that the greatest gift is a work that will spur a much greater Orthodox to do a much better job.
My godfather offered me many valuable corrections when I entered the Orthodox Church, but there is one and only one I would take issue with. He spoke of the oddity of writing something like “the theology of the hammer”; and my own interest in different sources stemmed from reading technological determinist authors like Neil Postman, and even if a stopped clock is right twice a day, their Marxism is a toxic brew.
Take your shoes off of your feet: For the place where you stand is holy ground
And an angel of the Lord appeared to him in flaming fire out of the bush, and he sees that the bush burns with fire,—but the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will go near and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed. And when the Lord saw that he drew nigh to see, the Lord called him out of the bush, saying, Moses, Moses, and he said, What is it? And he said, Draw not high hither: loose thy sandals from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. And he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraam, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and Moses turned away his face, for he was afraid to gaze at God…
And Moses said to God, Behold, I shall go forth to the children of Israel, and shall say to them, The God of our fathers has sent me to you; and they will ask me, What is his name? What shall I say to them? And God spoke to Moses, saying, I am THE BEING, and he said, Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, THE BEING has sent me unto you.
(Exodus 3:2-5, 13-14, Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the LXX)
(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ: And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.
The Fathers bid us, in approaching holiness, to take away the dead thoughts of the passions. In their day, and in Righteous Abraham’s day, and for that matter often in ours, shoes are made of leather, the dead skin of animals, and the Fathers bid us cast away the dead thoughts of the passions as we approach God.
I would like to look at this further, but first pause to look at two distractions and say, “That is understandable, but it is fundamentally inadequate.”
The first distraction: Tinkering to straighten out our worldview
On reading “bringing into captivity every thought”, a natural reading today is “bring into captivity our worldview and every part of it,” and steadily working on our worldview to make it Christian.
But the idea of thinking worldviewishly, and classifying religions (with philosophies and political ideologies) as worldviews is of recent vintage in the history of religions; it would have been as alien to Calvin and Luther as to St. Athanasios or St. John Chrysostom. A worldview appears to stand on its own, but entirely neglected is the thought that a worldview may come into existence as almost a by-product of the Way one walks.
I spoke with one person and quoted G.K. Chesterton saying, “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a doubt.” I pronounced the final ‘t’ rather silently, and he asked me if I had said, “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a Tao,” meaning a Way that one walks. The conversation included his mention of a book written by a Christian missionary to Japan, Zen Way, Jesus Way, and while my intended point was something else, that Buddhism is skeptical and perhaps in stronger form than most Western skepticism, the point he anticipated is also true: Buddhism is not about what you believe but the Way that you walk. And on this point we may saliently point out that the oldest name for Christianity, the name used in the New Testament itself, is not “the Creed,” but “the Way.”
My godfather knew rather astutely what kinds of temptations I would face, and when I asked him a question about building an Orthodox worldview, he pointedly insisted that I had not been invited to work out an Orthodox worldview, but to walk the Orthodox Way. There may be an Orthodox worldview, but it emerges out of walking the Orthodox Way, and the suggestion that it takes seven to ten years to become Orthodox, this does not mean that it takes seven to ten years of worldview tinkering to develop the right worldview, but it takes seven to ten years for a whole person’s transformation to occur. And even then, a number of Orthodox saints, described as being baptized in their own blood because they were martyred before they could manage to get baptized at all, are canonized saints who had pagan worldviews while they lived on earth, and canonized saints who did not spend their brief time confessing Christ on straightening out their worldviews.
There is something seductive about seeing things in terms of worldview; it is a hammer that soon makes everything appear to be a nail, so that “taking every thought captive” seems to mean “installing a piece of your worldview” and not, for instance, taking a lustful thought captive, and breaking it apart. But leave that for later. For now, I would note that the idea of thinking worldviewishly is of recent vintage, and mention that in Islam the term for ‘heresy’ is ‘innovation.’ Not that I am endorsing Islam; but What the West Doesn’t Get About Jihadists and Islam is largely about the Muslim Way and only to a lesser degree about delving into the Islamic worldview.
The second distraction: The refinement of desire
Show me what a person desires, and I will show you his heart.
To the right is a pair of antique opera glasses; I mention it partly to show my temptations. They are a valued gift from a valued friend, but in a way they are also like the Dr. Who sonic screwdriver a team lead got for Christmas: they seem like a touch of another world here: the realms of the Urvanovestilli, or The Steel Orb. And what seems to be a piece of an unreal world brings real pleasure, but on a deeper, spiritual level, is something of a non sequitur: I should only value the opera glasses, not as a token of worlds I have as an author imagined, but as a valued gift from a valued friend.
Reading the saints’ lives has something to do with this. It may be said that the saints’ lives, “biography as theology”, are an important spiritual staple food for neophytes and an important spiritual staple sought out by the more advanced. My own desires have been sought out and something I wanted fulfilled: first of all by my favorite children’s book, Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, which left me desiring kything, Teachers, and giftedness, and much later writing Within the Steel Orb: I went to mail Madeleine l’Engle a copy but found out that she had just passed away. After a different spiritual struggle I made The Minstrel’s Song with its cultures, and I pined for that world. Then later I read medieval sources for the Arthurian legends, and I pined for knighthood and the Holy Grail and wrote The Sign of the Grail. And the same, I believe, holds for Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, romance novels of being swept off one’s feet, and quite a lot of TV, literature, and movies.
This, however, is limited in scope; it is one point among others, and I have not read worldviewish-style attempts to tinker with one’s desires in the Fathers. The verse I cited is beautiful enough, but I have not read any of the Fathers make it a leitmotif. I don’t want to downplay the saints’ lives, but there is more benefit to reading them than just the shaping and reshaping of our desires. But there is something of our thoughts that the Fathers make central. But let us pause for one moment before moving on.
When the ink was still drying on the medieval versions of the Arthurian legends, they told of a Never-Never Land that was long ago and far away. Such things as commerce and peasant’s worknever intrude on the scene; the pseudohistory in the “Brut” which first captivated the hearts and minds of Europe outside of Celtic circles, already placed King Arthur at six centuries in its past, in a past that never existed. There is a common thread in these desires for the unreal; we are better off desiring what is real (see Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a passion for further discussion), and at least one saint has found happiness and said, “Whatever happens to you, desire it.” Again, we are to desire what is real and desire what is good.
Not a distraction: Taking the shoes of passionate thoughts off our feet
It has been said, “Nothing but a metaphysic ever replaces a metaphysic.” Nothing Western, at least. But a true metaphysic can be replaced by an ersatz metaphysic; unlike ‘weak agnosticism’, which says in essence “I do not yet know whether God, or gods, or angels exist,” ‘strong agnosticism’ says “We can never know if God, or gods, or angels exist,” and that rules out any deity capable of decisive revelation, ruling out the Christian God quickly. And that provides an ersatz metaphysic in continuity with the ersatz metaphysics implied by continental epistemology.
However, it is possible to have a metaphysic replaced by something else: Zen replaces a metaphysic with silence, and Orthodox Christianity, which has a metaphysic, also has silence, and beyond Buddhism having been influenced by Christianity and Zen resembling Orthodox hesychasm, the silence of Orthodox hesychasm is on par with the silence that replaces a metaphysic.
“You have more power than you think,” an alcoholic or addict is told. Once temptation is in full swing, it’s a difficult and often losing fight for the upper hand. But there is a brief, easy-to-look moment, when the temptation comes, very small.
If your house is burning down, it may take fire hoses to stop; when the fire is in a room, pouring out a bucket and running for another may stop it; easiest of all is to smush out a smouldering spark as it hits the curtains. If you blot out the spark, with it you blot out all the remaining process of damage. In a monastic setting, men were warned that if a mental image of a man’s face appears, temptation to anger is close at hand, and if a woman’s face appears, temptation to lust is close at hand, and they say “In Christ there is no male nor female“: neither temptation need have dominion over us.
In its beginning, the temptation is not yet a temptation. A passionate image, what the Fathers saw in the dead leather shoes Moses was commanded to remove, is not the very first part of temptation. The very first part of temptation is a simple image not mixed with passion: perhaps not a face, but an image of gold, which will soon be mixed with a temptation to covet. Then if we dally with the thought, it becomes mixed with passion, and the longer you go the harder the fight becomes. Confession is always available and it is a second baptism and a clean slate, but the Orthodox filled with hesychastic silence does not have or develop thick, strong arms from dousing buckets of water onto burning furniture, but attentiveness and quick reflexes from putting out sparks. Now this needs to be put alongside the monk who was asked, “What do you do?” and said, “We fall and get up; fall and get up; fall and get up.” But hesychasm is mindful, mindful of one’s thoughts, observing and mentally separating thoughts and mental images from the passions mixed in them.
Lent, the central season of the Church year: A Lenten Psalm
Great Lent is hard, but it is the central season in the Church calendar. During Great Lent, the choir chants what may be the most politically incorrect part of Scripture:
For David, a Psalm of Jeremias
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat;
And wept when we remembered Sion.
We hung our harps on the willows in the midst of it.
For there they that had taken us captive asked of us the words of a song;
And they that had carried us away asked a hymn, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cleave to my throat, if I do not remember thee;
If I do not prefer Jerusalem as the chief of my joy.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
Who said, Rase it, rase it, even to its foundations.
Wretched daughter of babylon!
Blessed shall he be who shall reward thee as thou hast rewarded us.
Blessed shall he be who shall sieze and dash thine infants against the rock.
(Psalm 136/137, Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the LXX)
“Blessed shall what?!?!? This is sung in church in Lent?”
Yes: the entire Psalm speaks to our spiritual condition. We were made for Jerusalem, the city of peace, which is ultimately Heaven, but we have allowed ourselves, every one, to be taken captive to the foreign land of sin and passion. How can we sing the Lord’s song when we are exiled to the land of passion? As to the last words, the Fathers say that the rock is Christ: infant Babylonians grow into adult Babylonians, and tiny and seemingly insignificant passions, tiny sparks, grow into full-grown passions, a fire burning up our house. And it is against Christ that we must extinguish sparks. The vilest of sins is a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love, but still, the earlier we dash passions against Christ, the better. If we have allowed to a spark to set a chair on fire, douse it with Christ. And in all things remember the holy city, the city of peace which is ultimately Heaven. And strive for it.
An unwelcome, unsought blessing: “Ask better!”
Lent seems to be the sort of thing one would not want. We are to cut back on pleasures, and give more to others. And it is supposed to be a struggle; if we’re cruising through Lent and having no worries, something is wrong, and we need to work with our priest to make it a better struggle. But monks say, “Have a good struggle.”
But this much is a blessing in disguise, and is part of why devout, seasoned Orthodox often look forward to the challenge. The rules forbidding things in the Orthodox life all tell a pet, “Don’t drink out of the toilet,” which really means, “Ask better.” Lent is about letting go of things we believe will satisfy us and accepting the things which really will satisfy us.
In my repentance implied in “The refinement of desire” above, every thing I let go of was so I could grasp something better. Perhaps my growth is more stunted than most; perhaps it is less. No matter; God has summoned me to ask better and open my hand wide to receive blessings. And I mention this not to make a big deal of my own struggle, but because these are one form of the struggles we all face, because (I hope) they could serve as Everyman’s struggles, and I could concretely name something we all must face to ask better.