On a personal note, I write this as someone who became absorbed in Stranger in a Strange Land, who has felt its pull, and who has overreached and undershot in the same act many times. The things I critique are never too far from home for me. But there is something interesting to be said, and it begins with Christological heresy.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has often been called the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and these councils, especially the early ones, were about who Christ was and is, namely Christology. The Orthodox Church rejected as heresy a number of answers to the question, “Who is Christ?” as deficient. What the councils affirmed might be titled “Maximum Christology.” And what they rejected was Christologies that were too small, and made Christ too little.
Arius, perhaps the most castigated of the heretics, taught that Christ was “a Creature, but not as one of the creatures,” a pre-eminent created work through whom God created all else. (And his teaching is alive and well, especially among Protestants; what Arius invented, keeps getting re-invented.) The insight of Athanasius was that this “a-mermaid-at-best Christ” failed to bridge God and his Creation: he has been summarized as saying that Arius’s Christ was an isolated post in the chasm between God and his Creation, and the proof that the chasm could never truly be bridged.
Nestorius came on another solution, that Christ included both complete God and complete man, but there was something like a gentleman’s agreement; they were not fully united. The Council that rejected him affirmed that not only was Christ fully divine and fully human, but the divine nature and the human nature were fully united in Christ’s person. Another council affirmed that while the divine and human natures were fully united, they yet remained unconfused. Other rejected teachings included that Christ had a human body but no human soul, the soul’s job being done by the divine nature, or that Christ had most of a human soul but not a human will. (To which the Orthodox reply that this is a most curious omission: it is by the will that we fell from our original glory, and what is not taken up in Christ is not saved. The maxim goes, “What is not assumed [taken into Christ] is not deified.” But more of that later.) The Church in rejecting these affirmed the maximum Christology of a Maximum Christ, maximally God, maximally man, with the divine and human natures maximally united, and yet maximally unconfused. The Christ worshipped by Orthodox is the Maximum Christ.
One book commented that someone had made a perceptive study of Martin Luther’s crisis of faith in light of modern identity crises, although Martin Luther probably would not have understood the comparison between his great crisis of faith and modern identity crises, and he almost certainly would have found the comparison reprehensible if he had understood it. In somewhat similar fashion, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, in either the cut or uncut edition, cannot be placed alongside Arius, Nestorius, or the other classic arch-heretics as trying to offer a compelling solution to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Heinlein has been called a “sex-crazed, anti-Christian libertine,” and Stranger in a Strange Land plays it to the hilt. But Stranger in a Strange Land admits a quite fruitful comparison to seductive Christological heresies, and I might suggest that this book, in which Heinlein was aiming for something monumental, is a Messiah story. Heinlein had nothing higher to shoot for. However anti-Christian Heinlein may be, he had nothing higher than a Messiah story to shoot for.
The figure of Merlin, deepened, becomes Christ. But I would like to clear away a distraction in Michael Valentine Smith, and avoid going down the road of, “Well, Christ has a dual nature, and Michael Valentine Smith also has a dual nature by the end of the book: he is both Martian and human.”
Stranger in a Strange Land is riveting. You can love the book, or you can be offended at it, but yawning and asking if there’s anything good on television is not an option, or at least not one I’ve met. Michael Valentine Smith “passed through the earth like a flame” and quite assuredly “never bored a soul,” to use words Dorothy Sayer applied to Christ. He comes to offer a gospel, and to awaken people to abundant life. Stranger in a Strange Land is a cult classic, with devoted readers who have never liked another science fiction book, and there are people who tried to create and live the Church of All Worlds it outlines: quite an achievement for a work of fiction with no pretensions of being anything else.
In this book, which a number of people consider the greatest science science fiction novel ever written (sound similar to “the greatest drama ever told”?), Michael Valentine Smith is born and raised on Mars with the wealth of Martian culture; early on he is referred to as a man, and another character adamantly denies this, says that he is not a man, calling him a Martian with the genes and ancestry of a man. He is brought to earth, but this is no homecoming, at least not at first; he faces the struggles and challenges of dealing with what is to him a completely alien culture and language.
Much of the early part of the book is concerned with his struggles; when the book moves on to the next stage, where he tries all sorts of professions, fails at most of them, and undergoes a sort of self-directed apprenticeship about living and doing things on our world. Here he is still struggling at being human, and his failures are often spectacular, but he has made a connection on something that eluded him earlier: he has something that those around him do not. He bears a wealth of Martian culture, language, and psychic powers, and he is gaining a foothold in how to do things on earth.
In the last part of the book, he begins a church, the Church of All Worlds, and uses the genre of a mystery religion to share the wealth of Martian culture. It is a microcosm of Mars on earth, as well as being presented as fully human, and the story culminates in the martyrdom of a man who gave and received culture shock practically everywhere he went.
Tenets of faith
Towards the middle of Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael asks Jubal, a father figure who gave Michael (much of) his humanity, why he didn’t mention “faith” when Jubal told him the list of bad words he shouldn’t say.
The “faith” that Michael rejects may well be a “faith” that Orthodoxy rejects too: if “faith” means believing in a God who does not interact with daily life, and a Heaven which only starts after death, then Orthodoxy rejects that “faith” too—as surely as Orthodoxy rejects “faith” without works. Faith in the Orthodox Church is something practical, an interaction that begins here and now, something that tastes and knows. To “grok” in Martian is to drink deeply and to know, and this is bedrock to Orthodox faith. So the “faith” that is rejected in Stranger in a Strange Land is something the Orthodox faith rejects too.
Nonetheless, it seems somewhat clumsy to speak of Michael’s “tenets of faith” in the book, and I will strike through the “bad” word, writing, “tenets of faith.” (You are welcome to read this as “The word ‘faith’ is behind the line used to strike through it.”)
I would like to look at several tenets of faith that run throughout the book, and underscore and unfold something: It is possible to overreach and undershoot in the same act. This happens in Stranger in a Strange Land‘s tenets of faith.
“Thou art God”
Mike, after struggling with human concepts, tells Jubal, “Thou art God!” and Jubal facepalms and says to back up. But Michael is confident and serene, and “Thou art God” becomes a foundational tenet of faith for the Church of All Worlds.
It has been said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give everything I own for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” And that is a hint of why everything simply being God from the beginning is much less powerful a drama than God creating something else besides himself, and then by his grace deifying it. “Pantheism”, the idea that everything is God, has been called “paneverythingism,” the idea that “everything is everything else”—and something like this is underscored by a joke later on in the book where one worm asks another, “Will you marry me?” and the other worm says, “Marry you? I’m your other end!” It kind of drains romance, and if that is being God, then it isn’t really that much of an honor, or that big a deal, to be God. (Or, one might say, it isn’t really that much of an honor to be Everything, like everything else.)
It has been observed that love poetry flourishes in cultures where people believe God has a conversation with something that is not-God. If everyone and everything is God by nature, if as the dialogue in the book goes the cat that eats the bird or mouse is God and the bird or mouse is God and it doesn’t matter who is eaten, then being God does not hold a candle to the Orthodox teaching of divinization, that the Son of God became a Man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the sons of God.
That is the simplicity on the other side of complexity: that is the deification on the other side of being created and not God.
Michael’s Martian “Thou art God!” overreaches and undershoots in the same movement.
The Kiss of Brotherhood
Within the bond of Michael’s group, there was a kiss of brotherhood, and this among the most central tenets of faith—but Heinlein was really borrowing here. Remember the Bible on “Greet one another with a holy kiss?”
The kiss of love, shared within the community of the Church, is the one act the Bible calls holy. It has been said, “Examples of the kiss as a means of making and breaking enchantments have been found in the folklore of virtually every culture in the Western world,” and this resonates with the holy kiss.
The Orthodox holy kiss is a microcosm of spiritual life. It is tied to Holy Communion, and receiving the Holy Mysteries is itself understood as a kiss. It is by the mouth that one breathes with one’s spirit, and with the mouth that one receives communion, and though it is a kiss on the cheek, by implication it is a kiss on the mouth, displaced somewhat.
Perhaps there is much more to be said in this vein, even if the holy kiss seems somewhat restrained compared to the “all-out kiss of brotherhood” which was, um, more than a kiss. But there is another shoe to drop.
“Good fences make good neighbors:” we have a culture with boundaries and limits that are there for our protection. The difference between the Martian “kiss of brotherhood” and the Orthodox holy kiss is a bit like the difference between liberating yourself to be drunk all the time, and drinking wine in moderation. And the holy kiss is not a fixation: it is one of many things that fit into a larger reality, only one tree in a large forest. This factor is completely lost in Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein may have made much more of a to-do about the kiss itself, but there are some things in life where less is more.
The Orthodox holy kiss is much more striking in its original ancient context than one might imagine; and yet the Church preserved a balancing act with a holy kiss that respected boundaries. Exactly how it did so has changed over time, but balance has been preserved. Heinlein, to make it different from Christianity, toppled the balance by leaving nothing of personal or community boundaries. Destroy the balancing act, and the holy kiss becomes a gateway to pain.
In the “kiss of brotherhood”, Heinlein overreached and undershot in the same act.
In Stranger in a Strange Land, the idea of wearing clothes for modesty is ridiculed as an irrational local custom. “Clothes optional” is a defining feature of the little bubble of Mars on earth. Not just a tenet of faith in the book, it was a basic practice when people tried to make a real-life Church of All Worlds following Heinlein’s blueprint. But the bumper sticker saying, “God’s original plan was to live in a garden with two naked vegetarians” is really missing something.
As to what exactly is missing, a frequent Orthodox hymn says of the Devil, “He who of old stripped you both naked” to Adam and Eve. What Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden was not something we re-create by taking our clothes off; we are in fact closer to Adam and Eve’s original condition when we are clothed in modesty. The term “naked” itself comes from “nake”, a verb that one would use to talk about stripping the natural covering from a nut. Never mind that some cultures don’t use clothes, and express their modesty in other ways. The natural condition is to present the person, not simply expose flesh, and the human person is presented properly when properly clothed. The New Eve, the Mother of God, is hymned, “Rejoice, robe of boldness for the naked!” because a person is naturally and properly presented when naturally and properly clothed.
Robert Heinlein sure makes nudity look good on paper. But from all reports, particularly Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty, living nude is not all it’s cracked up to be.
This attempt to remove barriers by removing clothing, too, overreaches and undershoots in the same act.
Laced with escapism
Stranger in a Strange Land has bubbles of Martian culture, and Martian life, introduced to earth; and Orthodoxy brings the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life into earth. But there is a difference. The literary work of Stranger in a Strange Land, and the Martian culture it heralds, is laced with escapism. Escapism is not simply a tenet of faith; an escapist streak gives form and substance to every tenet of faith. By contrast, Orthodox eternal Life, lived here and now, is not escapist. It is intended for the here and now we are in, even the messy circumstances of our real lives, not the lives we might wish we were living.
It is difficult to describe the lust for escape, the lust to escape this world, that is laced through and through the novel and its movement. I tried to describe it in Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a passion. It is a lust I know well. And to those thirsting with that lust, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that you can’t make the escape you thirst for. The good news is that you don’t need to.
Orthodoxy seems exotic enough; when you start out, things are very exotic, and in a certain sense it becomes something better than exotic when you have worn the shoe for long enough. But it lifts up slogwork, and offers engagement where one is tempted to seek escape. Stranger in a Strange Land, when its woven spell works its magic, leaves you wishing Martian culture was something you could enter. Orthodoxy leaves you able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and live the eternal life, where you are now, wherever you are now.
Stranger in a Strange Land, in trying to reach for something beyond the ken of earth, overreaches and undershoots in the same act. We need to let go of escape and discover that escape is not needed.
Water brothers are described as a very serious bond, “much more serious than a marriage,” and the tenet of faith of water brothers is indeed more serious than Heinlein’s version of marriage. But to some readers it seems mysterious how Heinlein tears up traditional, permanent, monogamous marriage and then rushes in with water brotherhood as if there was a gaping hole he needed to fill.
The seriousness of water brotherhood parallels the seriousness of marriage and monasticism the Orthodox Church celebrates, and arguably its “inner circle” version of friendship bears such gravity. I’ve never read a reviewer of Stranger in a Strange Land say, “You know, this ‘water brother’ bond is something I just can’t relate to.” Water brotherhood is good and it appears different ways in different places. But in Stranger in a Strange Land its job is to fill a gaping hole after Heinlein has ripped up traditional marriage.
I remember reading a book where, to build up alchemy and give it a sense of transcendence, a character said he had studied all the world’s religions and spurned them for the seriousness of alchemy. There was a very recognizable move of literary craft being made, if one that struck me as oddly: alchemy is not a more serious alternative to lightweight world religions, but a lightweight alternative to more serious world religions, and any one of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and sundry other religions offer a much meatier alternative to the alchemy that was being offered. Here, in Stranger in a Strange Land, the same kind of move is offered: kindred, friendship, and even traditional marriage are dismissed to make way for the weight of water brotherhood. But we would do well to avoid lusting for the depth of “water brother” bonds and pursue deeper relationships with those around us, especially if we are married to them.
After parenthetically adding a note about “Good fences make good neighbors” being part of how you form healthy bonds, I would say that in Heinlein’s thirst for transcendent friendship, he has overreached and undershot in the same move.
Martian discipline and powers
Although the term “psychic” never appears for Martian disciplines and powers, Michael Valentine Smith and the people he trains in Martian discipline have psychic powers. If you follow their tenets of faith in this book, you should expect to develop psychic powers. Characters see things and communicate far away, they can psychically kill and make things disappear (though a gun is very much a wrong thing, killing by psychic powers is a light and casual deal), and more. And on that point I would admit a comparison.
Orthodox saints levitate, see things past and future and know what is in others’ minds, and shine with the Light of Heaven. But to mention this is misleading, because it is a side effect: The Ladder of Divine Ascent says that people who see these things are like people who look at a sunbeam and see specks floating in the sunbeam because they are looking at the sunbeam itself. Michael Valentine Smith psychically kills a great many people; the greatest of Orthodox saints have raised the dead. But the Orthodox voice is insistent, emphatic, adamant. Repenting of your sins is greater work than raising the dead! The saints insist: Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead! The few saints who work miracles see less wish fulfillment than us, not more; their struggles are like the messy circumstances of our lives, only much moreso.
The freedom in Stranger in a Strange Land is the freedom of wish-fulfillment, of immature desires sated. The freedom in Orthodoxy is the freedom that counts: the Mother of God who is addressed, “Rejoice, robe of boldness for the naked!” is also addressed, “Rejoice, love that doth vanquish all desire,” and the freedom in Orthodoxy is triumph over immature desire, and freedom to move on to more excellent things than one desires. In English, Stranger in a Strange Land tells us, being happy is a matter of functioning the way a person is meant to function; in Martian the statement amounts to a complete working manual. But Orthodoxy knows what it is, and has not only the Philokalia (volume 1, volume 2, volume 3, and volume 4) written out of deep knowledge and experience of what the science of spiritual struggle entails, but has Tradition, a living voice that offers bite-sized morcels to help day-by-day in our struggles. Orthodox Tradition trains us in the only freedom that really counts: not anything like psychic powers to sate unrefined desire, but transforming and transfiguring desire itself, which is itself greater work than raising the dead!
Heinlein offers powers equal to the powers of the saints in the superficial sense of the miraculous, and equal biofeedback-type control over their bodies so that one could stand through an ice storm naked (which some Orthodox saints can probably do), but without the most excellent way of the ABC of moral refinement and spiritual struggle. Fighting lust is one part of it, but not the only one, and here Heinlein offers heroes who win the Nobel prize for literature but do not deign to learn handwriting or typing. In Orthodoxy, the realization is that Nobel prizes are really not the bread-and-butter of life, but literacy in spiritual discipline is.
In psychic giants who embrace lust, Heinlein has overshot and underreached in the same heroes.
The initial working title for Stranger in a Strange Land was, The Heretic, and this seems a carefully chosen title. On that point it is worth quoting St. Irenaeos, Against Heresies:
Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.
This image seems apropos to the “practical gospel”, if you will, in Stranger in a Strange Land, and it doesn’t speak much of Michael Valentine Smith.
Or does it?
In antiquity, there were Alexandrian and Antiochian schools of thought, and the Alexandrian school understood Christ as a teacher and a bearer of important teachings. And from the Alexandrian perspective, St. Paul’s epistles in the Bible are quite puzzling: they make almost nothing of the wealth of teaching preserved in the Gospels; there is little if any trace of the parables the Gospels keep finding in the Lord’s mouth. And all of this is puzzling until you realize that St. Paul was not making an Alexandrian use of Christ as a pivotal Teacher, but laying the foundations for what would become the Antiochian school, which found the significance of Christ in his becoming incarnate as man, dying as a sacrifice, and rising from the dead and trampling down death by death. And that is everywhere in St. Paul’s quite Christocentric letters.
And if we place Stranger in a Strange Land‘s account of Michael Valentine Smith with respect to these poles, Heinlein’s precept and example are alike Alexandrian: his Messiah is a Teacher who is significant for the tenets of faith he bears. At one point Michael is compared to the first man who discovered fire; in that sense he is more like the most important of many important saints than a Messiah proper. In the Orthodox Church, Christ alone is divine by nature; the faithful and even the saints are made to be divine by grace when God transcends the difference between Creator and creature. The uniqueness of Christ is too secure to be threatened by his divinizing work among the Church and Creation with it. And in that sense, Michael Valentine Smith stands the hero of a Messiah story, but in an Alexandrian sense.
Michael Valentine Smith is significant as a deliverer of tenets of faith.
And in that sense his story stands as a Christological heresy, like the heresies the Church rejected in confessing her Maximum Christ.
Some time ago, a pastor contacted me and asked permission to quote one of my poems. We’ve been in contact at least occasionally, and he sent me an email newsletter that left me asking him for permission to quote.
When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is wise. Proverbs 10:19
I recently violated a longstanding position I have held; to avoid all further interaction with social media, particularly Facebook. It wasn’t necessarily because of any moral high ground; it was more because I had already mastered e-mail and was satisfied with my online accomplishments. In addition, I didn’t have any additional time or interest to keep up with pithy little sayings, videos, cartoons, social life, or even cute kiddie pictures. But now I am happily in the fold of Facebook users (particularly if there is a picture of one of my grandbabies on it). In addition, it has allowed me to discover that there are literally dozens of people who are just waiting to be my friends. However, the real reason I’m on Facebook is work related. Thanks to the good work done by a few of our church members; both of our churches have excellent Facebook pages. In order to access those pages, I needed an account, so—here I am. And though all seems well with the world of Facebook, I am discovering that it is not always the case. For all the “warm fuzzies,” and catching up with friends and family it offers … there is also a dark side.
At a recent continuing education event I attended, the speaker presented some dire consequences to uninhibited use of social media. He reported that social media had replaced money as the number one contributor to marriage problems. He said it wasn’t so much affairs that online relationships led to; rather it was the persistent flirting that broke down barriers and hedges, which once protected the marriage. Such interaction often led to a downward spiral, corrupting and compromising the marriage vow. One in five divorces involves the social networking site Facebook, according to a new survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. A staggering 80% of divorce lawyers have also reported a spike in the number of cases that use social media for evidence of cheating, with Facebook by far the biggest offender. Flirty messages and and photographs found on Facebook are increasingly being cited as proof of unreasonable behavior or irreconcilable differences. Many cases revolve around social media users who get back in touch with old flames they hadn’t heard from in many years.
PBS recently hosted a webinar, This Emotional Life, about the internet’s impact on relationship and marriage.[i] One of the panelists, Theresa Bochard, explored the issue a bit farther in an article originally published on PsychCentral.com. She said that after reading hundreds of comments and emails from people who have been involved in online relationships or emotional affairs as well as the responses on several discussion boards, she concluded that while the internet and social media can foster intimacy in a marriage, it seems to do more harm than good. She reported that an astounding 90% of opposite-sex online relationships were damaging to the marriage. Facebook affairs are threatening healthy couples too.
“I have suggested to myself to write a thank you note to the inventors of Facebook and Myspace because they have been responsible for a significant percentage of my income,” says marriage counselor Dr. Dennis Boike. He’s not kidding. “I’m having people say I never would have expected me to do this. It’s in the privacy of my computer. I’m not going out anywhere, I’m not dressing for it, I’m not smelling of another’s perfume. There are no tell-tale signs except my computer record.” But a new study suggests Facebook can also help disconnect you from your better half. The site, which boasts more than 350 million active users, is mentioned in over 20% of divorce petitions, according to Divorce-Online.
Prominent Houston divorce attorney Bucky Allshouse can understand why. “It’s really kind of shocking what people put on Facebook,” says Allshouse. Perhaps it’s not so shocking that the social networking site can essentially pour kerosene on “old flames.” Most online relationships start out benign: an email from a person you knew in college, friending an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend on Facebook (as suggested by Facebook: “people you might know”), getting to know a co-worker or acquaintance better online. But the relationship can take a dangerous turn very quickly if you’re not careful and even more easily if you are doing most of the talking behind a computer.
We have no non-verbals with which to interpret people’s conversation when we communicate online. What we say can be misinterpreted and come off in a way we don’t intend. Or worse, we purposely allow our conversation to drift into an unhealthy area, where we put out “feelers” to see if the person we are communicating with will do the same. We will text things to people that would make us blush if we said them in person. All too often the end result is flirting, compromising our values, and allowing the secrecy of social media to sweep us off our feet and into a quagmire of social dysfunction. This is not a victimless choice. Many times, inappropriate conversations through social media lead to great pain with children, spouses, parents, and friends.
One such instance occurred when Jonathan found Sharon on Facebook, 20 years after he dumped her one week after their high school prom. She had never married, while he had and was also the father of two teenagers. During months of emailing and texting, Sharon proved a sympathetic listener to his sense of isolation and loneliness within his own marriage. He found they could talk easily, picking up with the friendship they had had years before. They shared feelings they had never shared with others. After a few months, they decided to cross a few states and meet half way. Then, they talked of marriage. Shortly after, Jonathan went through with his divorce and months later he and Sharon married. Not surprisingly, and after only four months, they divorced. What happened? Fantasy was hit hard by reality. They went into a marriage without really spending time to know each other as they are today. Their romance was fueled by their history (as 18-year-olds) not their adult present. The romantic idea of reconnecting with an old lover, at a time Jonathan was unhappy in his marriage, was a recipe for danger.
In talking about it later, Jonathan realized he had not intended to start up a romance; he hadn’t intended to leave his marriage in the first place. As he and Sharon shared feelings, he felt more cared for by her than by his wife. When asked who raised the issue of marriage, he wasn’t sure. “Perhaps she pushed it, but I may have been just been musing something like, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we got married,’ and that led her to talk about marriage. I wonder if I led her on. Did I promise more than I had realized and then feel in love with my own fantasy?”[ii]
When we cross barriers that were intended to keep us safely within the parameters of our marriage vows, we start in internal conflict—one that attacks our emotional and mental center. Conversations with people of the opposite sex can lead to flirtations. Flirtations can lead to imaginations which lead to fixations … and there is a fine line between fixation and passion. Promiscuity is rarely a random act. It is pre-meditated. Something triggers our thoughts. And that something can be social media.
Christians must be wary of intimate conversations with people of the opposite sex; it is a trap that too many good people have been caught in. Paul wrote: “We are casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). It is good advice; cast down imaginations … take every thought captive, because it is often out of our imaginations and thoughts that bad choices are born. Jesus said something similar. Speaking to the disciples he warned, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). The battleground is not the computer or cell phone; it is the heart and the mind. But secretive messaging avenues like social media offers can help plant the seed for a battle that good people lose every day.
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and family therapist of 39 years and author of numerous relationship books, offers these social networking guidelines for married couples.
Be clear about your agenda in contacting the other person.
Limit the frequency of your time online. This sets a good boundary around the social networking contact.
Don’t talk intimately. By not sharing intimacies with your correspondence, you reduce the chance of sending a message that you want a more intimate relationship.
Let your spouse know with whom you are contacting. This openness makes it clear you have nothing to hide. (I would add, especially so if you are contacting a person of the opposite sex).[iii].
Share your outgoing and received emails/texts with your spouse. Sharing communications removes any chance for jealousy or misunderstandings (I would add, share passwords with your spouse; give them full access to your social media sites).[iv].
Do not meet in person unless your spouse is with you. Meeting up with old friends with your spouse by your side is a reminder that you two are a team and removes sending mixed messages to your former lover. This also reinforces the importance of fixing your marriage before playing with the flames of old flames.[v].
Jesus taught us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). Social media is a place that Scripture applies. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a person places their personal integrity and honor on the line in the marriage vow more than anything else in their life. And I believe marriage is under attack from multiple directions. I have officiated at many young couples weddings. I spend time with each one, warning them of the potential pitfalls and dangers; encouraging them to make their marriage a priority each day. Because I know the reality; many of the ones I marry won’t make it. It’s not because they are bad people or people of no character; but they get caught in a trap, and they can’t seem to find a way out. And I also know most of them deeply regret their decisions after the fallout of their choices turn to consequences.
Social media can be a wonderful thing. I love keeping in touch with family and looking at pictures of the grandbabies. Now our churches are using social media to share the gospel. But Christians should be wary of the potential dangers. We must keep up our barriers at all times. James warned, “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters” (James 1:14-16). Indeed, we must not be misled, rather be guided by the protective barriers God has placed around us; especially so if we are married. We must watch our words carefully and keep our thoughts captive. The sanctity of our marriage vow demands it.
In part, I wondered if my collection in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, was simply wrong. Or if someone might rightly say to me, “What you give in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is helpful up to a point, at least for someone with a similar background to yours. However, regular people need much more concrete guidance.” What struck me very concretely about Pastor Vince’s article is that it gave very practical advice on how married people can appropriately handle Facebook.
The article reminded me of remarks I’d seen by people interested in making computers that people can actually use that the Apple Macintosh was the first computer worth criticizing. Perhaps some detail of the guidance in the article above could be criticized: perhaps much of it should be criticized: but it may be the first article I’ve seen on the topic that was worth criticizing.
The concept of “social antibodies”: it’s not just Facebook
Paul Graham’s “The Acceleration of Addictiveness” is worth reading in full. (It’s also worth quoting in full, but he’s asked nicely that people link to it instead of reposting, which is a fair request. So I am linking to it even though I’d prefer to reproduce the whole article.)
The Acceleration of Addictiveness talks about a little bit bigger picture about things that are addictive. Though he mentions Facebook as something that’s even more addictive than television, he’s clear that the big picture is more than addictive little Facebook. Graham talks about a concept of “social antibodies” which I think is incredibly useful.
Decades ago, smoking cut through the US like a hot knife through butter. But, while smoking is still dangerous and there still continue to be new smokers, we no longer have glamour shots of celebrities holding cigarettes in some flashy, sophisticated, classy pose. Smoking is no longer “sexy;” over the past 20 years it has been seen as seedy, and “smoker” is not exacty the kindest thing to call someone. (I remember one friend commenting that he could think of a number of terms more polite than “smoker,” none of which were appropriate to the present company.) As a society, the US has developed social antibodies to smoking now.
There are many things that we need “social antibodies” for, and we keep developing new technologies, Facebook included, that need social antibodies. The six prescriptions in the quoted articles are essentially social antibodies for how to use Facebook without jeopardizing your marriage. They may seem harsh and excessively cautious, but I submit that they are easier to go through than divorce. Much easier. A piece of cake! And I quote Pastor Vince’s article because it’s something we need more of.
A helpful parallel to technology: Wine as an example
Simply not drinking alcoholic beverages is an option that I respect more as I think about it, but for the sake of this discussion, I will leave it on the side. I am interested in helpful parallels for “social antibodies” in moderation and restraint in using technology, and as much as I may respect people who do not drink, that option is not as interesting for my investigation. This is especially true because people living in my society assume that you are not abstaining from every technology that can cause trouble. So with a respectful note about not drinking alcohol at all, I want to look at social antibodies for moderate, temperate, and appropriate use of wine.
Wine and liquor slowly increased in strength in Western Europe, slowly enough that societies had at least the chance to build social antibodies. This makes for a marked contrast to escape through hard liquor among Native Americans, where hard liquor blew through decimated nations and peoples like escape through today’s street drugs would have blown through a Europe already coping with the combined effects of the bubonic plague and of barbarian invasions. Perhaps there are genetic differences affecting Native Americans and alcohol. A Native American friend told me that Native American blood can’t really cope with sugar, essentially unknown in Native American lands apart from some real exceptions like maple syrup. And lots of alcohol is worse than lots of sugar, even if some of us wince at the level of sugar and/or corn syrup in the main US industrial diet. (Even those of us not of Native American blood would do well to restrict our consumption of artificially concocted sugars.) But aside from the genetic question, introducing 80 proof whiskey to societies that did not know how to cope with beer would have been rough enough even if there were no genetic questions and no major external stresses on the societies. If there was something of a stereotype about Native Americans and whiskey, maybe part of that is because hard liquor that had been developed over centuries in the West appeared instanteously, under singularly unfortunate conditions, in societies that had not even the social antibodies to cope with even the weaker of beers.
I cite St. Cyril of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book Two, Chapter II: On Drinking as a model for approaching alcohol (and, by extension, a serious reference point in understanding moderate use of technology), with some reservations. The translation I link to is obscure and archaic, and if you can get past that, the individual prescriptions are the sort that would only be all kept (or, for that matter, mostly kept) by the sort of people who are filled with pride that they observe ancient canons more strictly than any canonical bishop. In other words, don’t try these directions at home unless you know you are in agreement with your priest or spiritual father. But the chapter of The Instructor on wine offers a priceless glimpse into real, live social antibodies on how to navigate dangerous waters. This is a live example of the sort of things we need. The book as a whole covers several topics, including clothing and boundaries between men and women, and they could serve as a model for pastoral literature to address the challenges offered to spiritual life today. Not specifically that online interactions between men and women introduce an element of danger. That element of danger has always been there, and always will be there. But online interactions frame things a little differently. This means that people with social antibodies that would show appropriate caution face-to-face might not recognize that you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online, or might not intuit exactly how you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online.
I would like to close this section with a word about wine and why I drink it. The politically incorrect way of putting this point is to say that wine is something which literally and figuratively is not part of Islam. Islam works out, in stark relief, what it means to subtract the Incarnation from Christian faith. It means that not only has the Son of God not become incarnate in Christ, but all the more does God become incarnate in his children. It means that Holy Communion is just a symbol, and wine could absolutely, absolutely neverbecome the blood of God. Water is necessary and wine is not, as St. Clement tells us, but the Orthodox Church that regards Islam as a Christian heresy used fermented wine exclusively in the Eucharist, and condemned heretics’ use of pure water for the same purpose. And my reason for drinking a little wine is that wine has an elasticity that bears the meaning of Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into even more wine when wine ran out at a wedding where the guests were already pretty drunk, and it bears the meaning of the Holy Mysteries: few if any material substances are as pregnant with spiritual depth as wine. Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most dismal book in the entire Bible, and “Go, eat thy bread with mirth, and drink thy wine with a joyful heart” is close to being the only invitation to joy in the book. I do not say that this is a reason why people who have decided not to drink should change their mind. However, the theological motive to drink in Christianity comes from a higher plane than the admittedly very real reasons to be careful with alcohol, or else abstain. It’s deeper.
Is the iPhone really that cool?
The LinkedIn article Come With Me If You Want to Live – Why I Terminated My iPhone talked about how one family decided to get rid of their iPhones. The author talked about how the iPhone had taken over their lives. They suggested that trying to use their habit to use the iPhone in moderation was a nonstarter, however enticing it may look. And, on a sobering note, they had earlier tried to avoid using smartphones, even for work. And I am convinced they made the right choice: not having any smartphone use is better than addictive smartphone use, hands down. And while I am cautious about advertising responsible smartphone use to people who can’t live without their iPhone—the analogy drawn in the LinkedIn article was, “In hindsight, it’s like an alcoholic saying ‘I thought I could have it in the house and not drink it.'” But I have iPhone use which is defensible, at least in my opinion; I have drawn a boundary that is partly tacit and partly explicit, and while it can be criticized, it is a non-addictive use of the iPhone. I average less than one text a day; I do not compulsively check anything that’s out there. A few of the guidelines I found are,
Limit the time you spend using your smartphone. The general Orthodox advice is to cut back a little at once so you never experience absolute shock, but you are always stretched a little bit outside your comfort zone. That may be a way to work down cell phone use, or it may not. If you compulsively reach for your smartphone, you might leave it in one room that you’re not always in. Put a boundary between yourself and the smartphone.
Limit how often you check your cell phone unprovoked. When I’m not at work, I try to limit checking email to once per hour. Limit yourself to maybe once per hour, maybe more, maybe less, and restrain yourself.
When you’re going to bed for the day, you’re done using your smartphone for the day. I am not strict in this; I will answer a call, but checking my iPhone, unprovoked, after my evening prayers or my bedtime is a no-no.
Don’t use the iPhone as a drone that you need to have always going on. This includes music, texting, games, and apps, including Vince’s hero, Facebook. Perhaps the single biggest way that this violates Apple’s marketing proposition with the iPhone is that the iPhone is designed and marketed to be a drone that is always with us, a bit of ambient noise, delivering precisely what the Orthodox spiritual tradition, with works like The Ladder, tell us is something we don’t need.The iPhone’s marketing proposition is to deliver an intravenous drip of noise. The Orthodox Church’s Tradition tells us to wean ourself from noise.
iPhones have “Do Not Disturb” mode. Use it. And be willing to make having “Do Not Disturb” as your default way of using the phone, and turn it off when you want “Please Interrupt Me” mode explicitly.
Don’t multitask if you can at all avoid it. I remember reading one theology text which claimed as a lesson from computer science, because people can switch between several applications rapidly, that we should take this “lesson” to life and switch between several activities rapidly. And in a business world where multitasking has been considered an essential task, people are finding that multitasking is fool’s gold, an ineffective way of working that introduces a significant productivity tax where people could be doing much better. Smartphones make it trivially easy to multiask. Don’t, unless a situation calls for it.I note with some concern that the most I’ve been shocked at someone using an iPhone was when 12 and under kids were manipulating the iPhone, not to get something to done, but to activate the iPhone’s smooth animations. Looking over their shoulders in shock has felt like I was eavesdropping on a (non-chemical) acid trip. Children’s use of iPhones driven by slick animated transitions between applications are even more unhelpful than what the business world means by multitasking. (This feature of kids’ use of iPhones has made me kind of wish iPhones were not used by people under 18.)
Now I should post this with a clarification that this is, so to speak, pastoral advice to myself. I’ve found the basic approach helpful, and priests and spiritual fathers may draw on it if they choose in their best judgment to take something from it, but I have not been ordained or tonsured, and I would fall back on the maxim, “As always, ask your priest.” My reason to post them is to provide another reference point beyond those given to “social antibodies” in dealing with technology. With these antibodies, I hold the reins, or at least I hold the reins a little better than if I didn’t have these antibodies. But I am aware of something vampiric, something that sucks out energy and life, in even my more moderate use of some technologies, and I am a little wary of comparing my use of technology to moderate and sober use of alcohol. Appropriate use of alcohol can be good, and apart from the risk of drinking getting out of control, it is an overall positive. I’m leery of claiming the same for my use of technology, even if I’ve tried hard to hold the reins and even if I may do better than average. There is something that has been drained from me; there is something that has been sucked out of me. Maybe I am less harmed than others: but my use of technology has harmed me. I am wary of saying now, “I’ve found the solution.”
In dealing with another passion besides sexual sin, namely anger, people have started to develop “social antibodies:” as mentioned briefly by Vince Homan, we don’t have the important channels of people’s nonverbal communication, which flattens out half the picture. And when we are angry, we can flame people in emails where there is no human face staring back to us, only letters on the screen that seem so right—or perhaps not nearly right enough!—and write hurtful flames unlike anything we would dare to say in person, even to someone who hurt us deeply. And on that score, people seem to me to have developed social antibodies; I’ve been in lots of flamewars and given and received many unholy words, but I don’t remember doing that recently, or seeing flames wage out of control on many mailing lists, even if admittedly I don’t spend much time on mailing lists. But sexual dangers are not the only dangers online, and for online flaming, most of the people I deal with do not flame people like I did when I was first involved in online community. I’ve acquired some “social antibodies,” as have others I meet online. Some social antibodies have already developed, and the case is not desperate for us as a Church learning how to handle technology in the service of holy living instead of simply being a danger.
Pastoral guidance and literature needed
I visited Amazon to try to get a gauge on how much Orthodox pastoral resources about appropriate use of computers, mobile, internet, and technology were out there, a sort of The Instructor for technology today, and my search for orthodox internet found 109 resources from Christianity, Judaism, and the occult, none of which seemed to be about “How does an Orthodox Christian negotiate the social issues surrounding computers, smartphones, tablets, the Internet, apps, and technology?” Some other searches, such as orthodox pastoral internet, orthodox pastoral smartphone, and orthodox pastoral technology turned up nothing whatsoever. A search for “orthodox technology” turned up one page of search results with… several connected works of my own. Um, thanks, I think. I guess I’m an expert, or at least a resource, and even if I didn’t want to, I should probably make myself available to Orthodox clergy, with my spiritual father and bishop foremost. But this compliment to me, if it is such (maybe it means I’m off the rails) caught me quite off-guard; I was expecting to see at least some publications from people with pastoral authority and experience. But seeing as I’m the local expert, or at least a first author for this particular topic, I’ll briefly state my credentials. I have been an Orthodox Christian for a decade, so no longer a recent convert, have works on social dimensions of technology dating back as far as 1994, have two years of postgraduate theology under slightly silly conditions at Cambridge, and two more years under very silly conditions at a sort of “Monty Python teaches theology” PhD program (one Orthodox priest consoled me, “All of us went through that”), but did not complete the program. I grew up with computers back when my home computer access meant going to an orange and black terminal and dialing up a Dec MicroVAX on a 2400 (or less) baud modem, was on basically non-web social networks years before it became a buzzword, have worked with the web since before it went mainstream, much of it professionally. I’ve been bitten by some of the traps people are fighting with now. And I’m also kind of bright. So I guess I am, by default, a local expert, although I really think a responsible treatment of the issues raised here would see serious involvement from someone with pastoral qualifications and experience. I haven’t been tonsured, at least not yet, and perhaps not ever.
But I would ask priests reading this piece to consider a work on a sort of technological appendix to The Rudder, or maybe I shouldn’t say that because I have only barely sampled the ancient canons. But I would like to see ideally two pastoral works parallel to The Instructor, Book II: one for pastoral clergy use, and one for “the rest of us faithful.” When I was a lay parish representative at a diocesian conference, there was talk about appropriate use of the internet; Vladyka PETER read something that talked about the many legitimate benefits we have received from using computers, but talked about porn on the internet, which is a sewer I haven’t mentioned; he said that young people are spending hours per day looking at porn, and it’s more addictive than some street drugs, and he commented how porn has always been available, but you used to have to put on a disguise and a trenchcoat, and go leave your car in front of a store with the windows covered up, where now, it finds you and it comes free with a basic utility in the privacy of your home. And the biggest thing I can say about freedom from porn comes from the entry for porn in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology:
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 [and a doomed search for the ultimate sexual thrill that decimates sexual satisfaction] even in marriage).
And I would like to suggest some guidelines for fighting Internet porn, quite possibly the most commonly confessed sin among young men today. Sexual sins are among the most easily forgiven: but they are a deep pit. So, in the interest of providing a “dartboard” draft that’s put out for people to shoot at. I am intentionally saying more rather than less because it’s easier for a pastoral conversation to select from a set of options than furnish arbitrarily more additional options. Here are several things I’d consider, both sacred and secular:
If your right eye offends you, tear it out and throw it away from you: for it is better for you that one part of your body should die than that your whole body should be thrown into Hell.These words are not to be taken literally; if you tore out your right eye you would still be sinning with your left eye, and the Church considers that it was one of Origen’s errors to castrate himself. But this is a forceful way of stating a profound truth. There is an incredible freedom that comes, a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light, when you want purity the way you want “Air!“, and you apply a tourniquet as high up as you need to to experience freedom.Give your only computer power cable to a friend, for a time, because you can’t have that temptation in the house? That is really much better than the alternative. Have the local teenager turn off display of images in Chrome’s settings? That is really much better than the alternative. Webpages may look suddenly ugly, but not nearly as ugly as bondage to porn. Only check email at the library? That is really much better than the alternative. These tourniquets may be revised in pastoral conversation, but tearing out your right eye is much more free and much less painful than forever wanting to be free from addiction to porn, but also secretly hoping to give in to the present temptation; as the Blessed Augustine prayed, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” There is a great deal of power in wanting purity now, and once you go slash-and-burn, the power is amazing.
Install content-control software, such as Norton Family / Norton Family Premier, and have things set up so that only the woman of the house knows the password to make exceptions. There are legitimate needs for exceptions, and I remember being annoyed when I went to customize Ubuntu Christian Edition and finding that a site with all sorts of software to customize the appearance of Ubuntu was blocked, apparently because of a small sliver of soft porn in the wallpaper section of a truly massive site. There will be legitimate exceptions, but it cuts through a lot of self-deception if you get the exception by asking your wife.
Don’t bother trying to find out how to disable porn mode “Incognito Mode” on your browser; set up a router to log who visits what websites. However much browser makers may tout themselves as being all for empowerment and freedom, they have refused to honor the many requests of men who want freedom from porn and parents who care for their children in many, many voices asking for a way to shut off porn mode.There is an antique browser hidden in /usr/bin/firefox on my Aqua-themed virtual machine, but even with that after a fair amount of digging, I don’t see any real live option to browse for instance Gmail normally with a browser that doesn’t offer porn mode. But there is something else you should know.Routers exist that can log who visits what when, and if you know someone who is good with computers (or you can use paid technical support like the Geek Squad), have a router set up to provide a log of what computers visited what URLs so that the wife or parents know who is visiting what. The presence of a browser’s porn mode suddenly matters a lot less when a router records your browsing history whether or not the browser is in porn mode.
Rein in your stomach. Eat less food. Fast. It is a classic observation in the Orthodox spiritual tradition that the appetites are tied: gluttony is a sort of “gateway drug” to sexual sin, and if you cut away at a full stomach, you necessarily undermine sexual sin and have an easier contest if you are not dealing with sexual temptation on top of a full stomach.And it has been my own experience that if I keep busy working, besides any issues about “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” the temptation to amuse and entertain myself with food is less. So that cuts off the temptation further upstream.If you eat only to nourish the body, it helps. Even if nourishing food tastes good, cutting out junk like corn-syrup-loaded soft drinks, or anything sold like potato chips in a bag instead of a meal, and moderating consumption of alcohol (none before going to bed; it doesn’t help), will help.
Buy and pray with a copy of Prayers for Purity when you are tempted, and when you have fallen. It is an excellent collection and helps when you know you should praying but words are not coming to mind.
If you have been wounded, bring your wound to confession the next weekend. (And try to have a rule of going to church each week.)It can be powerful, when you are facing a temptation, not to want to confess the same sin again in a couple of days.But in parallel with this remember when a visitor asked a saintly monk what they did at the monastery, and the saintly monk answered, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” Fall down seven times and rise up eight: fall down seventy-seven times and rise up seventy-eight: keep on repenting for as long as you need to to achieve some freedom, and know that some saints before you have risen after falling very many times.
Buy a prayer rope, and use it. When you are tempted, keep repeating a prayer for one prayer rope, and then another, and another, if you need it. Pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or to St. John the Much-Suffering, “Holy Father John, pray to God for me,” or to St. Mary of Egypt, “Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for me.”
Use a support group, if one is available in your area. If I were looking for a support group now, I would call Christian counseling centers in the area if available. Talking with other people who share the same struggle can help.
Use XXXchurch.com, or at least explore their website. Their entire purpose is buying you your freedom from lust.
God is a pet owner who has two rules, and only two rules. They are:
I am your owner. Enjoy freely the food and water which I have provided for your good!
Don’t drink out of the toilet.
Lust is also drinking out of the toilet. Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe. It is a magic spell where suddenly nothing else is interesting, and after lust destroys the ability to enjoy anything else, lust destroys the ability to enjoy even lust. Proverbs says, “The adulterous woman”—today one might add, “and internet porn” to that—”in the beginning is as sweet as honey and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword.” Now this is talking about a lot more than pleasure, but it is talking about pleasure. Lust, a sin of pleasure, ends by destroying pleasure. It takes chastity to enjoy even lust.
When we are in lust, God does not seem real to us. Rejecting lust allows us to start being re-sensitized to the beauty of God’s creation, to spiritual sweetness, to the lightness of Heavenly light. Lust may feel like you’re losing nothing but gaining everything, but try to be mindful of what you lose in lust.
And that’s my best stab at making a “dartboard,” meant so people will shoot at it and make something better, and more complete and less one-sided in navigating the pitfalls of technology. This isn’t the only trap out there—but it may be one of the worst.
I would suggest that we need a comprehensive—or at least somewhat comprehensive—set of guidelines for Orthodox use of technology. Such a work might not become dated as quickly as you may think; as I write in the resources section below, I unhesitantly cite a 1974 title as seriously relevant knowing full well that it makes no reference to individually owned computers or mobile devices: it’s a case of “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Or, perhaps, two works: one for clergy with pastoral responsibilities, and one for those of us laity seeking our own guidance and salvation. I believe that today, we who have forms of property and wealth undreamed of when Christ gave one of the sternest Luddite warnings ever, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, can very easily use things that do not lead to spiritual health: sometimes like how Facebook can erode marriages that are well defended as regards old-school challenges.
The best I know, secondhand perhaps, is that today’s Church Fathers, on Mount Athos perhaps, are simply saying, “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!” What they want instead sounds like a liberal political-social experiment, where people who have grown up in an urban setting and know only how to navigate life there, will move en masse and form some sort of Amish-like rural communities. Or perhaps something else is envisioned: mass migration to monasteries? Given all that monasticism offers, it seems sad to me to receive the angelic image, of all reasons, only because that’s the only remaining option where you can live a sufficiently Luddite life. I have heard of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me saying that we should stop using recent technology at all. I have yet to hear of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me, and who live in places where technology is socially mandated, advise us to unplug completely. For that matter, I have yet to hear of any Orthodox clergy who live in places in the world where technology is socially mandated say, only and purely, “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!”
The Orthodox Church, or rather the Orthodox-Catholic Church, is really and truly Catholic, Catholic ultimately coming from the Greek kata, “with”, and holos, “whole”, meaning “with the whole”, meaning that the entirety of the Orthodox Church belongs to every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: the saints alike living and dead, the ranks of priesthood and the faithful, and marriage and monasticism in entirety belong to every Orthodox Christian, every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: and giving the advice “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!” as the limits of where the Orthodox-Catholic Church’s God and salvation can reach, is very disappointing. It’s comparable to saying that only monastics can be saved.
Total avoidance of all electronic technology is guidance, but not appropriate guidance, and we need advice, somewhat like the advice that began on how to use Facebook, to what I wrote about iPhones or internet porn. A successful dartboard makes it easier to say “What you said about ___________ was wrong because ___________ and instead we should say ____________ because __________.” And I am trying to raise a question. I am trying to raise the question of how Orthodox may optimally use technology in furtherance of living the divine life.
Is astronomy about telescopes? No!
I would close with a quote about technology—or is it? Computer science giant Edgser Dijkstra said,
Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.
And how much more must Orthodox discussion of how to use technology ascetically be no more about technology than astronomy is about telescopes? The question is a question about spiritial discipline, of how the timeless and universal wisdom of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (volume 1, 2).
Resources for further study
All the Orthodox classics, from the Bible on down. The task at hand is not to replace the Philokalia, but to faithfullyadapt the Philokalia (and/or the Seven Ecumenical Councils to a new medium, as it were. The principles of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the Seven Ecumenical Councils are simply not dated and simplydo not need to be improved. However, their application, I believe, needs to beextended. We need ancient canons and immemorial custom that has the weight of canon law: however ancient canons express a good deal more about face-to-face boundaries between men and women than boundaries in Facebook and on smartphones. We need guidance for all of these.
CJS Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. You don’t need to read all of my ebooks on the topic, and they overlap. This one I’m offering because I don’t know of anything better in (attempting to) address classic Orthodox spirituality to the question of ascetical use of technology.
Metropolitan Gregory (Postnikov), How to Live a Holy Life. This 1904 title gives concrete practical instruction. The technology is different from today’s technology, but it serves an interesting and valuable reference point for today.
Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Mander is a former advertising executive who came to believe things about television, with implications for computers and smartphones, For instance, he argues that sitting for hours seeing mainly the light of red, green, and blue fluorescent pixels is actually awfully creepy. Mander has no pretensions of being an Orthodox Christian, or an Orthodox Jew for that matter, sounded an alarm in his apostasy from advertising that is worth at least hearing out. (Related titles, good or bad, include The Plug-in Drug and Amusing Ourselves to Death.
(The only Orthodox articles I mention are my own. This is not by choice.)
CJS Hayward, iPhones and Spirituality. This piece is partly about appropriate use of smartphones and partly what we lose of real, human life when we lay the reins on the iPhone’s neck. It was originally a Toastmasters speech.
CJS Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. This is my most serious attempt at making an encompassing treatment to prepare people for different technologies. Pastor Vince’s article helped me realize it was too much of a do-it-yourself kit, appropriate as far as it goes, but not addressing what the proper pastoral application of the principles should be. And that is why I am writing a piece that will, I hope, provoke Orthodox clergy to expand our coverage in pastoral literature.
There are things that make me uneasy about many of Fr. Seraphim (Rose)’s followers. I say many and not all because I have friends, and know a lovely parish, that is Orthodox today through Fr. Seraphim. One friend, who was going through seminary, talked about how annoyed he was, and appropriately enough, that Fr. Seraphim was always referred to as “that guy who taught the tollhouses.” (Tollhouses are the subject of a controversial teaching about demonic gateways one must pass to enter Heaven.) Some have suggested that he may not become a canonized saint because of his teachings there, but that is not the end of the world and apparently tollhouses were a fairly common feature of nineteenth century Russian piety. I personally do not believe in tollhouses, although it would not surprise me that much if I die and find myself suddenly and clearly convinced of their existence: I am mentioning my beliefs, as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and it is not my point to convince others that they must not believe in tollhouses.
It is with sympathy that I remember my friend talk about how his fellow seminarians took a jackhammer to him for his admiration of “that guy who taught the tollhouses.” He has a good heart. Furthermore, his parish, which came into Holy Orthodoxy because of Fr. Seraphim, is much more than alive. When I visited there, God visited me more powerfully than any parish I have only visited, and I would be delighted to see their leadership any time. Practically nothing in that parish’s indebtedness to Fr. Seraphim bothers me. Nor would I raise objections to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s newsletter affectionately calling Fr. Seraphim “our editor.” Nor am I bothered that a title of his has been floating around the nave at my present parish.
Two out of many quotes from a discussion where I got jackhammered for questioning whether Fr. Seraphim is a full-fledged saint, or in response to this piece:
“Quite contrary, the only people who oppose [Fr. Seraphim’s] teachings, are those who oppose some or all of the universal teachings of the Church, held by Saints throughout the ages. Whether a modern theologian with a ‘PhD,’ a ‘scholar’, a schismatic clergymen, a deceived layperson, or Ecumenist or rationalist – these are the only types of people you will find having a problem with Blessed Seraphim and his teachings.”
You are truly desparate for fame. Guess what? Blessed Seraphim Rose will forever be more famous than you. Fitting irony I think, given that he never sought after fame. Ps. Willfully disrespecting a Saint of the Church is sacreligious. Grow up, you pompous twit.”
Maybe you’re just not strong enough for true Orthodoxy. Maybe you would be happier at a spiritual salad bar like Wicca.
But with all that said, there is something that disturbs me about most devotees of Fr. Seraphim, or at very least most of his vocal devotees. The best way I can put it has to do with subjectivism, which says in essence, “I will accept what I will accept, and I will reject what I will reject, and I will project what I will project.” There is something that demands that Fr. Seraphim be canonized as a saint regardless of whether he really should be, almost like “My country, right or wrong!” This isn’t the only thing that smells disturbing, but it is one. And these followers who insist that Fr. Seraphim be canonized as a saint seem to quickly gloss over how some of his group broke away from canonical status in the Orthodox Church to dodge Church discipline. Now I do not wish to exceed my authority and speakex cathedra to decisively say which sins should be a bar from sainthood; it is God’s job to make saints out of sinners, and any sin that Fr. Seraphim has committed, there are canonized saints who did something ten times worse. However, this is an example of something that needs to be brought to light if we are to know if Fr. Seraphim should be considered a saint, and in every conversation I’ve seen, the (vocal) devotees of Fr. Seraphim push to sweep such things under the rug and get on with his canonization.
To pull something from putting subjectivism in a word: “I will accept what I will accept, and I will reject what I will reject, and I will project what I will project” usurps what God, Ο ΩΝ, supremely declares: “I AM WHO I AM.” Subjectivism overreaches and falls short in the same gesture; if you grasp it by the heart, it is the passion of pride, but if you grasp it by the head, it is called subjectivism, but either way it has the same stench. And it concerns me gravely that whenever I meet these other kinds of followers, Fr. Seraphim’s most vocal advocates, it smells the same, and it ain’t no rose.
Protestant Fundamentalist Orthodoxy
A second concern is that, in many of Fr. Seraphim’s followers, there is something Protestant to be found in the Church. Two concerns to be mentioned are “Creation Science”-style creationism, and the fundamentally Western project of worldview construction.
On the issue of “Creation Science”-style creationism, I would like to make a couple of comments. First, the Fathers usually believed that the days in Genesis 1 were literal days and not something more elastic. I believe I’ve read at least one exception, but St. Basil, for instance, insists both that one day was one day, and that we should believe that matter is composed of earth, air, fire, water, and ether. The choice of a young earth and not any other point of the Fathers is not the fruit of the Fathers at all; it is something Protestant brought into the Orthodox Church, and at every point I’ve seen it, Orthodox who defend a young earth also use Protestant Creation Science, which is entirely without precedent in the Fathers. One priest said, “It was easier to get the children of Israel out of Egypt than it is to get Egypt out of the children of Israel.” There have been many Orthodox who believe entirely legitimately in a young earth, but every single time I have met young earth arguments from a follower of Fr. Seraphim, they have drawn on recycled Protestant arguments and fundamentalist Protestant Creation Science. And they have left me wishing that now that God has taken them out of Egypt they would let God take Protestant Egypt out of them.
I observed something quite similar to this in a discussion where I asked a partisan of Fr. Seraphim for an example of his good teaching. The answer I was given was a call for Orthodox to work on constructing a worldview, and this was presented to me as the work of a saint at the height of his powers. But there’s a problem.
The project of worldview construction, and making standalone adjustments to the ideas in one’s worldview, is of Western origin. There is no precedent for it in the Fathers, nor in medieval Western scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas, nor for that matter in the Reformers. The widespread idea that Christians should “think worldviewishly”, and widespread understanding of Christianity as a worldview, is of more recent vintage than the Roman proclamations about the Immaculate Conception and the Infallibility of the Pope, and the Protestant cottage industry of worldview construction is less Orthodox than creating a systematic theology. If there is an Orthodox worldview, it does not come from tinkering with ideas in your head to construct a worldview; it arises from walking the Orthodox Way for a lifetime. Protestants who come into Orthodoxy initially want to learn a lot, but after time spend less time with books because Orthodoxy has taken deeper root in their hearts and reading about the truth begins to give way to living it out. Devotional reading might never stop being a spiritual discipline, but it is no longer placed in the driver’s seat, nor should it be.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”
Fr. Seraphim has borne fruit in his lifetime and after his death. In his lifetime, there was the one fruit I mentioned, a close tie to someone who broke communion with the Orthodox Church shortly after his death. After his death, he has brought Protestants into the Orthodox Church. But in the living form of his disciples, those who have been taken out of Egypt seem not to have Egypt taken out of them; they have asked me to pay homage to Protestant calves they’ve brought with them.
Let me try to both introduce something new, and tie threads together here. Subjectivism can at its heart be described as breaking communion with reality. This is like breaking communion with the Orthodox Church, but in a way it is more deeply warped. It is breaking communion not only with God, but with the very cars, rocks and trees. I know this passion and it is the passion that has let me live in first world luxury and wish I lived in a castle. It tries to escape the gift God has given. And that passion in another form can say, “If God offers me Heaven, and Heaven requires me to open up and stop grasping Fr. Seraphim right or wrong, I will escape to a Hell that makes no such demand for me to open up to God or His reality.” And it is a red flag of this passion that breaks communion with reality, that the people most devoted to Fr. Seraphim hold on to pieces of fundamentalism with a tightly closed fist. And these Protestant insistences are a red flag, like a plume of smoke: if one sees a plume of smoke coming from a house, a neighbor’s uncomfortable concern is not that a plume of smoke is intolerable, but that where there’s smoke, there’s fire and something destructive may be going on in that house. And when I see subjectivism sweep things under the rug to insist on Fr. Seraphim’s canonization, and fail to open a fist closed on Protestant approaches to Holy Orthodoxy, I am concerned not only that Fr. Seraphim’s colleague may have broken communion with the Orthodox Church to avoid Church discipline, but that Fr. Seraphim’s devotees keep on breaking communion with reality when there is no question of discipline. The plume of smoke is not intolerable in itself, but it may betray fire.
I may be making myself unpopular here, but I’m bothered by Fr. Seraphim’s fruit. I know that there have been debates down the centuries between pious followers of different saints—but I have never seen this kind of phenomenon with another well-known figure in today’s Orthodoxy.
So far as I have tasted it, Fr. Seraphim’s fruit tastes bad.
Early in one systematic theology PhD course at Fordham, the text assigned as theology opened by saying, “Theologians are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics.” Not content with this striking claim, the author announced that she was going to use “a term from science,” thought experiment, which was never used to mean a Gedanken experiment as in physics, but instead meant: if we have an idea for how a society should run, we have to experimentally try out this thought and live with it for a while, because if we don’t, we will never know what would have happened. (“Stick your neck out! What have you got to lose?“—”Your head?”) The clumsiness in this use of “a term from science” was on par with saying that you are going to use “an expression from American English”, namely rabbit food, and subsequently use “rabbit food” as obviously a term meaning food made with rabbit meat.
In this one article were already two things that were fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears. Empirical sciences are today’s prestige disciplines, like philosophy / theology / law in bygone eras, and the claim to be a science seems to inevitably be how to mediate prestige to oneself and one’s own discipline. When I had earlier run into claims of, “Anthropologists are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences,’ like physics,” I had winced because the claim struck me as not only annoying and untrue, but self-demeaning. But it simply had not occurred to me that theologians would make such a claim, and when they did, I was not only shocked but embarrassed: why should theology, once acclaimed the queen of scholarly disciplines, now seek prestige by parroting the claim to be every-bit-as-much-a-science-as-the-so-called-“hard-sciences”-like-physics (where “so-called” seemed to always be part of the claim, along with the scare quotes around “hard sciences”)? To make my point clearer, I drew what was meant to be a shocking analogy: the claim that theologians are “scientists, and every bit as much as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics” was like trying to defend the dignity of being a woman by saying, “Women are male, and they are just as much male as people who can sire a child.”
This “physics envy” looks particularly strange next to the medieval Great Chain of Being as it moved from the highest to the lowest: “God, Angels, Man, Animals, Plants, Rocks, Nothing”. Theology is the study of God and Man; no discipline is given a more noble field. And however much other disciplines may have “physics envy”, no other discipline looks lower than physics, the science that studies Rocks and Nothing. There may be something pathetic about an anthropologist trying to step up on the pecking order by claiming to be “just as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics.” Yet on the lips of a theologian, it bears a faint hint of a CEO absurdly saying, “CEOs are janitors, and they are every bit as much janitors as the people responsible for cleaning wastebaskets.”
Furthermore, the endemic claim I saw to introduce a “term from science” was, so far as I could remember:
Rarely if ever used in any correct fashion.The one exception I can remember being Wolfhart Pannenberg’s illustration of a point by talking about fields such as one finds in the study of electricity and magnetism: the non-scientist theologians in the room said they were having real trouble understanding the illustration conceptually, which would make it seem somewhat dubious as an illustration to help get a point across.
Always reflect an effort to claim some of science’s prestige.I remember the “you’re being quaint” smiles I got when I suggested that a point that Pannenberg was trying to make by comparing something to a field as defined in physics, seemed in fact to be a point that could have been much better made by a comparison to the Force from Star Wars.Why the patronizing smiles? The job of the example from physics was to mediate prestige as well as to illustrate a concept that could have been better explained without involving a particularly slippery concept from physics.
A first response
Examples of this kind of “science” abounded, and I was perhaps not wise enough to realize that my clumsy attempts to clarify various misrepresentations of science were perhaps not well received because I was stepping on the Dark and Shameful Secret of Not Being Scientific Enough, and reminding them of an inferiority they were trying hard to dodge. And my attempts to explain “Not being a scientist does not make you inferior” seemed to have no soil in which to grow. In an attempt to start an online discussion, I wrote a piece called “Rumor Science”:
I really wish the theology students I knew would either know a lot more about science, or a lot less, and I really wouldn’t consider “a lot less” to be disappointing.
Let me explain why. When I was working on my master’s in math, there was one passage in particular that struck me from Ann Wilson Schaef’s Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System. Perhaps predictably given my being a mathematician in training, it was a remark about numbers, or rather about how people interact with numbers.
The author broke people down into more or less three groups of people. The first—she mentioned artists—was people that can’t count to twenty without taking off their shoes. She didn’t quite say that, but she emphasized artists and other people where math and numbers simply aren’t part of their consciousness. They don’t buy into the mystique. And they can say, and sincerely mean, that numbers don’t measure everything. They aren’t seriously tempted to believe otherwise.
The second group—she mentioned business people—consists of people for whom math works. Even if they’re not mathematicians, math works for them and does useful things, and they may say that numbers don’t measure anything, but it is well nigh impossible to believe—saying and meaning that numbers don’t measure everything is like saying that cars are nice but they can’t get you places.
And the third group in the progression? She mentioned scientists, but what she said was that they know math in and out and know it so well that they know its limitations and therefore they can say and mean that numbers don’t measure everything. And in the end, even though the “scientist” and the “artist” represent opposite extremes of mathematical competence, they both know there are things numbers can’t measure while the second, middle group for mathematical competence are in a position where they expect numbers to do things that numbers can’t do.
I was flattered, but I really think it stuck with me for more reasons than just the fact that she included me in one of the “good” groups. There is a sort of Karate Kid observation—”Karate is like a road. Know karate, safe. Don’t know karate, safe. In the middle, squash, like a grape!”—that is relevant to theology and science. It has to do with, among other things, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the question of evolution, and the like (perhaps I should mention the second law of thermodynamics). My point in this is not that there is an obligation to “know karate”, that theologians need to earn degrees in the sciences before they are qualified to work as theologians, but that there is something perfectly respectable about “don’t know karate.”
I’d like to start by talking about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Now a lot of people have heard about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Not many major mathematical theorems have had a Pulitzer prize-winning book written around them (and by the way, Gödel, Escher, Bach has been one of my favorite books). Nor do many theorems get summarized in Newsweek as an important theorem which demonstrates that mathematical “proofs” are not certain, but mathematical knowledge is as relative as any other knowledge.
Which is a crass error. The theological equivalent would be to say that Karl Barth’s unflattering remarks about “religion” are anti-Christian, or that liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor means that special concern for the poor is optional and to be dealt with according to personal preference. And saying that about liberation theology is a theological “squash like a grape,” because it is better to not know liberation theology and know you don’t know than believe that you understand liberation theology and “know” that the word “option” implies “optional.” It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, but what you know that ain’t so.
For the record, what Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem means is that for a certain branch of mathematics, there are things that can be neither proven nor disproven—which made his theorem a shocker when there was a Tower of Babel effort to prove or disprove pretty much anything. It proves that some things can never be proven within certain systems. And it has other implications. But it does not mean that things that are proven in mathematics are uncertain, or that mathematical knowledge is relative. It says you can’t prove everything a mathematician would want to prove. But there are still lots and lots and lots of interesting things that can be proven, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem does not touch these proofs, nor does it mean that mathematical knowledge is merely relative in humanities fashion.
And I’d like to mention what happens when I mention Gödel’s Completeness Theorem:
The same great mathematical logician proved another theorem, which does not have a Pulitzer prize winning book, which says that in one other branch of mathematics, besides the branch that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem speaks to, you can have pretty much what Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem says you can’t have in the other branch. In other words, you can—mechanically, for that matter, which is a big mathematical achievement—either prove or disprove every single statement. I’m not sure it’s as important as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, but it’s a major theorem from the same mathematician and no one’s heard of it.
There would seem to be obvious non-mathematical reasons for why people would want to be informed about the first theorem and not want to mention the second. I consider it telling (about non-mathematical culture). I know it may be considered a mark of sophistication to mention Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and share how it’s informed your epistemology. But it hasn’t informed my epistemology and I really can’t tell how my theology would be different if I hadn’t heard of it. And my understanding is that other mathematicians tend not to have the highest view of people who are trying to take account of scientific discoveries that an educated person “should” know. There are other reasons for this, including goofy apologetics that make the famous theorem a proof for God. But I at least would rather talk with someone who simply hadn’t heard of the theorem than a theologian who had tried to make a “responsible” effort to learn from the discovery.
And my main example is one I’m less sure how to comment on, and not only because I know less biology than math. There was one almost flippant moment in England when the curate asked if anybody had questions about the upcoming Student Evolution conference that everybody was being urged to attend. I asked, “Is this ‘Student Evolution’ more of a gradual process, or more a matter of ‘punk eek’?” (That question brought down the house.)
Punctuated equilibrium, irreverently abbreviated ‘punk eek’, is a very interesting modification of Darwinian theory. Darwinian evolution in its early forms posits and implies a gradual process of very slow changes—almost constant over very long (“geological”) time frames. And that is a beautiful theory that flatly contracts almost all known data.
As explained by my Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy biology teacher, “Evolution is like baseball. It has long stretches of boring time interrupted by brief periods of intense excitement.” That’s punk eek in a nutshell, and what interests me most is that it’s the mirror image of saying “God created the world—through evolution!” It says, “Evolution occurred—through punctuated equilibrium!”
That’s not the only problem; evolution appears to be, in Kuhnian terms (Structure of Scientific Revolutions), a theory “in crisis”, which is the Kuhnian term for when a scientific theory is having serious difficulties accounting for currently given data and may well be on its way out the door. There are several ways people are trying to cope with this—preserving some semblance of a materialist explanation; there was the same kind of resistance going on before science acknowledged the Big Bang, because scientists who want a universe without cause and without beginning or creator heard something that sounded too much like “Let there be light!” They’re very interesting, and intellectually dishonest.
Now I need to clarify; people seem to think you have to either be a young earth creationist or else admit evolution of some stripe. I believe in 13 billion years as the rough age of the universe, not six thousand years; I also believe in natural selection and something called “micro-evolution.” (By the way, JPII’s “more than a hypothesis” was in the original French “plus qu’un hypothèse“, alternately translatable as “more than one hypothesis”, and the official Vatican translation takes this reading. One can say that micro-evolution is one of the hypothesis gathered under the heading of evolution.)
I wince when I see theologians trying their dutiful best to work out an obligation to take evolution into account as a proven fact: squash, like a grape. It’s not just that science doesn’t trade in proof and evolution is being treated like a revelation, as if a Pope had consulted the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences and canonized The Origin of the Species as a book of the Bible. Or maybe that’s putting it too strongly. It would also be strong language to say that many theologians are adopting a carefully critical attitude to classic Church claims and part of their being critical means placing an embarrassingly blind faith in evolution. But that’s truer than I’d want to admit.
What about the second law of thermodynamics?
I don’t know what the first and third laws of thermodynamics say, and I can’t say that I’m missing anything. I don’t feel obligated to make the second law, which I am familiar with, a feature of my theology, but if I did, I would try to understand the first and third laws of thermodynamics, and treat it as physics in which those three laws and presumably other things fit into a system that needs to be treated as a whole. I don’t know how I would incorporate that in my theology, but I’m supposing for the sake of argument that I would. I would rather avoid treating it the way people usually seem to treat it when they treat that as one of the things that educated people “should” know.
I guess that my point in all of this is that some people think there’s a duty to know science and be scientific in theology, but this is a duty better shirked. My theology is—or I would like it to be—closer to that of someone who doesn’t understand science, period, than that of people who try to improve their theology by incorporating what they can grasp of difficult scientific concepts that the scientists themselves learned with difficulty.
Rumor science is worse than no science, and an ascientific theology is not a handicap. When I say that I would rather see theologians know either much more or much less science, I’m not hoping that theologians will therefore get scientific degrees. The chief merit for a theologian to know science is that it can be a source of liberation that frees people from thinking “We live in a scientific age so it would be better for theology to be scientific.” I’m not sure I would be able to question that assumption if I knew much less science. But what I believe that buys me is not a better theology than someone scientifically innocent but freedom from the perceived need to “take science into account” in my theology so I can do the same kind of theology as someone scientifically innocent.
I’m not as sure what to say about ecological theology; I wrote Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth at without scientific reference that I remember, and I believe there are other human ways of knowing Creation besides science. But an ecological theologian who draws on scientific studies is not trying to honor a duty to understand things an educated person should know, but pursuing something materially relevant. Science has some place; religion and science boundary issues are legitimate, and I don’t know I can dissuade people who think it’s progressive to try to make a scientific theology—although I really wish people with that interest would get letters after their name from a science discipline, or some other form of genuinely proper scientific credentials appropriate to a genuinely scientific theology.
There are probably other exceptions, and science is interesting. But there is no obligation to go from safely on one side of the road to a position in the middle because it is “closer” to a proper understanding of science. Perhaps liberation theologians want people to understand their cause, but it is better not to pretend to know liberation theology than to approach it in a way that leaves you “knowing” that the preferential option is optional. It isn’t what you know that hurts you, but what you know that ain’t so—and rumor science, with its accepted list of important scientific knowledge that scholars need to take into account, is one way to learn from what ain’t so.
Science is the prestige discipline(s) today; you see psychology wishing for its Newton to lead it into the promised land of being a science in the fullest sense of the term. You don’t see psychology pining for a Shakespeare to lead it into the promised land of being a humanity in the fullest sense of the term. And the social disciplines—I intentionally do not say social sciences because they are legitimate academic disciplines but not sciences—are constantly insisting that their members are scientists, but the claim that theologians are scientists annoys me as a scientist and almost offends me as a theologian. It should be offensive for much the same reason that it should be offensive to insist on female dignity by claiming that women are really male, and that they are just as much male as people who can sire a child.
It would be an interesting theological work to analyze today’s cultural assumptions surrounding science, which are quite important and not dictated by scientific knowledge itself, and then come to almost the same freedom as someone innocent of science.
“My theology,” ewwww. (While I was at it, why didn’t I discuss plans for my own private sun and moon? I’m not proud of proudly discussing “my theology”.) I know the text has a wart or two.
But the piece contains a suggestion: “rumor science” may be a red flag to a real problem in the place we give science.
Pondering Einstein, or at least dropping his name
That work left out the crowning jewel of scientific theories to ponder in “rumor science”: Einstein’s “theory of relativity.” Some time later, in my science fiction short story / Socratic dialogue, The Steel Orb, I wrote in fiction something that picked up what I had left out:
Art sat back. “I’d be surprised if you’re not a real scientist. I imagine that in your world you know things that our scientists will not know for centuries.”
Oinos sat back and sat still for a time, closing his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and said, “What have you learned from science?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time lately, wondering what Einstein’s theory of relativity means for us today: even the ‘hard’ sciences are relative, and what ‘reality’ is, depends greatly on your own perspective. Even in the hardest sciences, it is fundamentally mistaken to be looking for absolute truth.”
Oinos leaned forward, paused, and then tapped the table four different places. In front of Art appeared a gridlike object which Art recognized with a start as a scientific calculator like his son’s. “Very well. Let me ask you a question. Relative to your frame of reference, an object of one kilogram rest mass is moving away from you at a speed of one tenth the speed of light. What, from your present frame of reference, is its effective mass?”
Art hesitated, and began to sit up.
Oinos said, “If you’d prefer, the table can be set to function as any major brand of calculator you’re familiar with. Or would you prefer a computer with Matlab or Mathematica? The remainder of the table’s surface can be used to browse the appropriate manuals.”
Art shrunk slightly towards his chair.
Oinos said, “I’ll give you hints. In the theory of relativity, objects can have an effective mass of above their rest mass, but never below it. Furthermore, most calculations of this type tend to have anything that changes, change by a factor of the inverse of the square root of the quantity: one minus the square of the object’s speed divided by the square of the speed of light. Do you need me to explain the buttons on the calculator?”
Art shrunk into his chair. “I don’t know all of those technical details, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about relativity.”
Oinos said, “If you are unable to answer that question before I started dropping hints, let alone after I gave hints, you should not pose as having contemplated what relativity means for us today. I’m not trying to humiliate you. But the first question I asked is the kind of question a teacher would put on a quiz to see if students were awake and not playing video games for most of the first lecture. I know it’s fashionable in your world to drop Einstein’s name as someone you have deeply pondered. It is also extraordinarily silly. I have noticed that scientists who have a good understanding of relativity often work without presenting themselves as having these deep ponderings about what Einstein means for them today. Trying to deeply ponder Einstein without learning even the basics of relativistic physics is like trying to write the next Nobel prize-winning German novel without being bothered to learn even them most rudimentary German vocabulary and grammar.”
“But don’t you think that relativity makes a big difference?”
“On a poetic level, I think it is an interesting development in your world’s history for a breakthrough in science, Einstein’s theory of relativity, to say that what is absolute is not time, but light. Space and time bend before light. There is a poetic beauty to Einstein making an unprecedented absolute out of light. But let us leave poetic appreciation of Einstein’s theory aside.
“You might be interested to know that the differences predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity are so minute that decades passed between Einstein making the theory of relativity and people being able to use a sensitive enough clock to measure the microscopically small difference of the so-called ‘twins paradox’ by bringing an atomic clock on an airplane. The answer to the problem I gave you is that for a tenth the speed of light—which is faster than you can imagine, and well over a thousand times the top speed of the fastest supersonic vehicle your world will ever make—is one half of one percent. It’s a disappointingly small increase for a rather astounding speed. If the supersonic Skylon is ever built, would you care to guess the increase in effective mass as it travels at an astounding Mach 5.5?”
“Um, I don’t know…”
“Can you guess? Half its mass? The mass of a car? Or just the mass of a normal-sized adult?”
“Is this a trick question? Fifty pounds?”
“The effective mass increases above the rest mass, for that massive vehicle running at about five times the speed of sound and almost twice the top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, is something like the mass of a mosquito.”
“A mosquito? You’re joking, right?”
“No. It’s an underwhelming, microscopic difference for what relativity says when the rumor mill has it that Einstein taught us that hard sciences are as fuzzy as anything else… or that perhaps, in Star Wars terms, ‘Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your own point of view.’ Under Einstein, you will in fact not find that many of the observations that we cling to, depend greatly on your own frame of reference. You have to be doing something pretty exotic to have relativity make any measurable difference from the older physics at all.”
“Rumor science”: The tip of an iceberg?
But I would like to get on to something that is of far greater concern than “rumor science” as it treats Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the second law of thermodynamics, relativity, evolution, and so on. If the only problem was making a bit of a hash of some scientific theories, that would be one thing. But “rumor science” may be the tip of an iceberg, a telling clue that something may be seriously amiss in how theology has been relating to science. There is another, far more serious boundary issue.
There is something about the nature of academic theology today that may become clearer if we ask questions about the nature of knowledge and line up academic theology with Orthodoxy on the one hand and modern science on the other. The table below lists a few questions connected with knowledge, and then a comparison between Orthodox Christianity, academic theology, and modern science in their own columns:
What is knowledge like?
“Adam knew Eve…” The primary word in the Old and New Testaments for sexual union is in fact ‘know’, and this is a significant clue about the intimate nature of knowledge. Knowledge is, at its core, the knowledge that drinks. It connects at a deepest level, and is cognate to how Orthodox say of the Holy Mysteries, “We have seen the true Light!”: to receive the Eucharist is to know.
Knowledge is critical, meaning detached: the privileged position is of the outsider who stands clear of a situation and looks into a window. The devout believer enjoys no real advantage in grasping his religion compared to the methodical observer who remains detached—and the ordinary believer may be at a marked disadvantage.
You can’t know how stars age or the limitations of the ideal gas law from direct personal experience. Science stems from a rationalism cognate to the Enlightenment, and even if one rebels against the Enlightenment, it’s awfully hard to know quarks and leptons solely by the intimacy of personal experience.
What aspect of yourself do you know with?
This may not be part of the standard Western picture, but the Orthodox, non-materialist understanding of mind holds that there is a sort of “spiritual eye” which knows and which grasps spiritual realities as overflow to its central purpose of worshiping God. The center of gravity for knowing is this spiritual eye, and it is the center of a whole and integrated person. Logical and other “discursive” reasoning may have a place, but the seat of this kind of reasoning is a moon next to the light of the sun which is the spiritual eye, the nous.
Good scholarship comes from putting all other aspects of the person in their place and enthroning the part of us that reasons logically and almost putting the logic bit on steroids. Continental philosophy may rebel against this, but it rebels after starting from this point.
We have a slightly more rigorous use of primarily logical reasoning and a subject domain that allows this reasoning to shine.
What should teachers cultivate in their students?
Teachers should induce students into discipleship and should be exemplary disciples themselves.
They should train students who will not be content with their teachers’ interpretations but push past to their own takes on the matter.
They should train students to develop experiments and theories to carefully challenge the “present working picture” in their field.
What is tradition, and how does your tradition relate to knowing?
One may be not so much underTradition as in Tradition: Tradition is like one’s culture or language, if a culture and language breathed on by the Holy Spirit of God. Though the matrix of Tradition need not be viewed with legalistic fundamentalism, it is missing something important to fail to love and revere Tradition as something of a mother.
Something of the attitude is captured in what followed the telling of an anecdote about a New Testament Greek class where the professor had difficulties telling how to read a short text, until a classics student looked and suggested that the difficulty would evaporate if the text were read with a different set of accents from what scholars traditionally assigned it. The Greek professor’s response (“Accents are not inspired!”) was presented by the academic theologian retelling this story as full warrant to suggest that scholars should not view themselves as bound by tradition with its blind spots.
As Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman observed, “You get to be part of the establishment by blowing up part of the establishment.”
How much emphasis do you place on creativity?
It reflects some degree of fundamental confusion to measure the value of what someone says by how original it is. That which is true is not original, and that which is original is not true. Perhaps people may uncover new layers of meaning, but to measure someone by how many ideas he can claim as “mine” is a strange measure.
Publish something original, or perish. Better to say something original but not true than not have any ideas to claim as “mine.” If need be, rehabilitate Arius or Nestorius. (Or, if you are Orthodox, meet current fashions halfway and show that St. Augustine need not be a whipping boy.)
Continue to push the envelope. Are you an experimental physicist? If you cannot observe anything new by the layman’s means of observation, pioneer new equipment or a clever experiment to push the envelope of what can be observed. Publish something original or perish.
Where does your discipline place its empiricism?
There is a very real sense of empiricism, albeit a sense that has very little directly to do with empirical science. Knowledge is what you know through the “spiritual eye” and it is a knowledge that can only be realized through direct participation. An “idle word” may be a word of that which you do not have this knowledge of, and this sin would appear to be foundational to the empiricism of science. We really do have an empiricism, but it might be better not to engender pointless confusion by claiming to be empirical when the empiricism known to the academy is pre-eminently that of empirical science, whether it is either actual or aspiring science.
Theologians are just as empirical as physicists, whether or not they know basic statistics. We have such quasi-scientific empiricism as can be had for the human and divine domain we cover; there is a great deal of diversity, and some of us do not place much emphasis on the empiricism of science, but some of us have enough of scientific empiricism to do history work that stands its ground when judged by secular history’s standards.
As much as theology’s empiricism is the empiricism of a knowledge of the “spiritual eye” and the whole person, our empiricism is an empiricism of detached, careful, methodical, reasoned investigation—the investigation of the reasoning faculty on steroids. Our science exhibits professionalism and a particular vision of intellectual virtue. Our empiricism corresponds to this vision, and no one has pushed this empiricism of the reasoning faculty further, and the unique technology founded on science is a testament to how far we have pushed this kind of empiricism.
When they are lined up, academic theology appears to have a great many continuities with science and a real disconnect with Orthodox Christianity. Could academic theologians feel an inferiority complex about Not Being Scientific Enough? Absolutely. But the actual problem may be that they are entirely too scientific. I am less concerned that their theology is not sufficiently scientific than that it is not sufficiently theological.
Origins questions: can we dig deeper?
It is along those lines that I have taken something of the track of “join the enemy’s camp to show its weaknesses from within” in exposing the blind spots of Darwinism, for instance. In the theologically driven short story The Commentary, the issue is not really whether Darwinism is correct at all. The question is not whether we should be content with Darwinian answers, but whether we should be content with Darwinian questions.
Martin stepped into his house and decided to have no more distractions. He wanted to begin reading commentary, now. He opened the book on the table and sat erect in his chair:
1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
1:2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
The reader is now thinking about evolution. He is wondering whether Genesis 1 is right, and evolution is simply wrong, or whether evolution is right, and Genesis 1 is a myth that may be inspiring enough but does not actually tell how the world was created.
All of this is because of a culture phenomenally influenced by scientism and science. The theory of evolution is an attempt to map out, in terms appropriate to scientific dialogue, just what organisms occurred, when, and what mechanism led there to be new kinds of organisms that did not exist before. Therefore, nearly all Evangelicals assumed, Genesis 1 must be the Christian substitute for evolution. Its purpose must also be to map out what occurred when, to provide the same sort of mechanism. In short, if Genesis 1 is true, then it must be trying to answer the same question as evolution, only answering it differently.
Darwinian evolution is not a true answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” Evolution is on philosophical grounds not a true answer to that question, because it is not an answer to that question at all. Even if it is true, evolution is only an answer to the question, “How is there life as we know it?” If someone asks, “Why is there this life that we see?” and someone answers, “Evolution,” it is like someone saying, “Why is the kitchen light on?” and someone else answering, “Because the switch is in the on position, thereby closing the electrical circuit and allowing current to flow through the bulb, which grows hot and produces light.”
Where the reader only sees one question, an ancient reader saw at least two other questions that are invisible to the present reader. As well as the question of “How?” that evolution addresses, there is the question of “Why?” and “What function does it serve?” These two questions are very important, and are not even considered when people are only trying to work out the antagonism between creationism and evolutionism.
Martin took a deep breath. Was the text advocating a six-day creationism? That was hard to tell. He felt uncomfortable, in a much deeper way than if Bible-thumpers were preaching to him that evolutionists would burn in Hell.
There is a hint here of why some people who do not believe in a young earth are no less concerned about young earth creationism: the concern is not exactly that it is junk science, but precisely that it is too scientific, assuming many of evolutionary theory’s blindnesses even as it asserts the full literal truth of the Bible in answering questions on the terms of what science asks of an origins theory.
There is an Dilbert strip which goes as follows:
Pointy-haired boss: I’m sending you to Elbonia to teach a class on Cobol on Thursday.
Dilbert: But I don’t know Cobol. Can’t you ask Wally? He knows Cobol!
Pointy-haired boss: I already checked, and he’s busy on Thursday.
Dilbert: Can’t you reschedule?
Pointy-haired boss: Ok, are you free on Tuesday?
Dilbert: You’re answering the wrong question!
Dilbert’s mortified, “You’re answering the wrong question!” has some slight relevance the issues of religion and science: in my homily, Two Decisive Moments I tried to ask people to look, and aim, higher:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”
I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.
Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.
It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!”
What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!
Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.
An icon of the Resurrection.
Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.
Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!
Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”
Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.
I wince at the idea that for theologians “boundary issues” are mostly about demonstrating the compatibility of timeless revealed truths to the day’s state of flux in scientific speculation. I wince that theologians so often assume that the biggest contribution they can give to the dialogue between theology and science is the rubber stamp of perennially agreeing with science. I would decisively prefer that when theologians “approach religion and science boundary issues,” we do so as boundaries are understood in pop psychology—and more specifically bad pop psychology—which is all about you cannot meaningfully say “Yes” until it is your practice to say “No” when you should say “No”: what theology needs in its boundaries with science is not primarily a question of what else we should seek to embrace, but of where theology has ingested things toxic to its constitution.
What gets lost when theology loses track (by which I do not mean primarily rumor science, but the three columns where theology seemed a colony of science that had lost touch with Orthodox faith) is that when theology assumes the character of science, it loses the character of theology.
The research for my diploma thesis at Cambridge had me read a lot of historical-critical commentary on a relevant passage; I read everything I could find on the topic in Tyndale House’s specialized library, and something became painfully obvious. When a good Protestant sermon uses historical or cultural context to illuminate a passage from Scripture, the preacher has sifted through pearls amidst sand, and the impression that cultural context offers a motherlode of gold to enrich our understanding of the Bible is quite contrary to the historical-critical commentaries I read, which read almost like phone books in their records of details I’d have to stretch to use to illuminate the passage. The pastor’s discussion of context in a sermon is something like an archivist who goes into a scholar’s office, pulls an unexpected book, shows that it is surprisingly careworn and dog-eared, and discusses how the three longest underlined passage illuminate the scholar’s output. But the historical-critical commentary itself is like an archivist who describes in excruciating detail the furniture and ornaments in the author’s office and the statistics about the size and weight among books the scholar owned in reams of (largely uninterpreted) detail.
And what is lost in this careful scholarship? Perhaps what is lost is why we have Bible scholarship in the first place: it is a divinely given book and a support to life in Christ. If historical-critical scholarship is your (quasi-scientific) approach to theology, you won’t seek in your scholarship what I sought in writing my (non-scientific) Doxology:
How shall I praise thee, O Lord?
For naught that I might say,
Nor aught that I may do,
Compareth to thy worth.
Thou art the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named,
The Glory for whom all glory is named,
The Treasure for whom treasures are named,
The Light for whom all light is named,
The Love for whom all love is named,
The Eternal by whom all may glimpse eternity,
The Being by whom all beings exist,
The King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
Who art eternally praised,
Who art all that thou canst be,
Greater than aught else that may be thought,
Greater than can be thought.
In thee is light,
In thee is honour,
In thee is mercy,
In thee is wisdom, and praise, and every good thing.
For good itself is named after thee,
God immeasurable, immortal, eternal, ever glorious, and humble.
What mighteth compare to thee?
What praise equalleth thee?
If I be fearfully and wonderfully made,
Only can it be,
Wherewith thou art fearful and wonderful,
And ten thousand things besides,
Thou who art One,
Eternally beyond time,
So wholly One,
That thou mayest be called infinite,
Timeless beyond time thou art,
The One who is greater than infinity art thou.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
The Three who are One,
No more bound by numbers than by word,
And yet the Son is called Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ,
Divine ordering Reason,
Eternal Light and Cosmic Word,
Way pre-eminent of all things,
Beyond all, and infinitesimally close,
Thou transcendest transcendence itself,
The Creator entered into his Creation,
Sharing with us humble glory,
Lowered by love,
Raised to the highest,
The Suffering Servant known,
The King of Glory,
What tongue mighteth sing of thee?
What noetic heart mighteth know thee,
With the knowledge that drinketh,
The drinking that knoweth,
Of the νους,
The loving, enlightened spiritual eye,
By which we may share the knowing,
Of divinised men joining rank on rank of angel.
The Hidden Transcendent God who transcendest transcendence itself,
The One God who transfigurest Creation,
The Son of God became a Man that men might become the sons of God,
The divine became man that man mighteth become divine.
Monty Python and Christian theology
I would like to start winding down with a less uplifting note. A few years back, I visited a friend who was a Christian and a big Monty Python fan and played for me a Monty Python clip:
God: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don’t grovel! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.
God: And don’t apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it’s ‘sorry this’ and ‘forgive me that’ and ‘I’m not worthy’. What are you doing now!?
Arthur: I’m averting my eyes, O Lord.
God: Well, don’t. It’s like those miserable Psalms—they’re so depressing. Now knock it off!
This is blasphemous, and I tried to keep my mouth shut about what my host had presented to me, I thought, for my rollicking laughter. But subsequent conversation showed I had misjudged his intent: he had not intended it to be shockingly funny.
He had, in fact, played the clip because it was something that he worried about: did God, in fact, want to give grumbling complaints about moments when my friend cried out to him in prayer? Does prayer annoy our Lord as an unwelcome intrusion from people who should have a little dignity and leave him alone or at least quit sniveling?
This is much more disturbing than merely playing the clip because you find it funny to imagine God bitterly kvetching when King Arthur tries to show him some respect. If it is actually taken as theology, Monty Python is really sad.
And it is not the best thing to be involved in Monty Python as theology.
One can whimsically imagine an interlocutor encountering some of the theology I have seen and trying to generously receive it in the best of humor: “A book that promises scientific theology in its title and goes on for a thousand pages of trajectories for other people to follow before a conclusion that apologizes for not actually getting on to any theology? You have a real sense of humor! Try to avoid imposing Christianity on others and start from the common ground of what all traditions across the world have in common, that non-sectarian common ground being the Western tradition of analytic philosophy? Roaringly funny! Run a theological anthropology course that tells how liberationists, feminists, queer theorists, post-colonialists, and so on have to say to the Christian tradition and does not begin to investigate what the Christian tradition has to say to them? You should have been a comedian! Yoke St. Gregory of Nyssa together with a lesbian deconstructionist like Judith Butler to advance the feminist agenda of gender fluidity? You’re really giving Monty Python a run for their money!“… until it gradually dawns on our interlocutor that the lewd discussion of sexual theology is not in any sense meant as an attempt to eclipse Monty Python. (Would our interlocutor spend the night weeping for lost sheep without a shepherd?)
There are many more benign examples of academic theology; many of even the problems may be slightly less striking. But theology that gives the impression that it could be from Monty Python is a bit of a dead (coal miner’s) canary.
Scientific theology does not appear to be blame for all of these, but it is not irrelevant. Problems that are not directly tied to (oxymoronic) scientific theology are usually a complication of (oxymoronic) secular theology, and scientific theology and secular theology are deeply enough intertwined.
The question of evolution is important, and it is no error that a figure like Philip Johnson gives neo-Darwinian evolution pride of place in assessing materialist attacks on religion. But it is not an adequate remedy to merely study intelligent design. Not enough by half.
If theology could, like bad pop psychology, conceive of its “boundary issues” not just in terms of saying “Yes” but of learning to stop saying “Yes” when it should say “No”, this would be a great gain. So far as I have seen, the questions about boundaries with science are primarily not scientific ideas theology needs to assimilate, but ways theology has assimilated some very deep characteristics of science that are not to its advantage. The question is less about what more could be added, than what more could be taken away. And the best way to do this is less the Western cottage industry of worldview construction than a journey of repentance such as one still finds preached in Eastern Christianity and a good deal of Christianity in the West.
A journey of repentance
Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Repentance has been called unconditional surrender, and it has been called the ultimate experience to fear. But when you surrender what you thought was your ornament and joy, you realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” And with letting go comes hands that are free to grasp joy you never thought to ask. Forgiveness is letting go of the other person and finding it is yourself you have set free; repentance is being terrified of letting go and then finding you have let go of needless pain. Repentance is indeed Heaven’s best-kept secret; it opens doors.
I have doubt whether academic theology will open the door of repentance; it is a beginner’s error to be the student who rushes in to single-handedly sort out what a number of devout Christian theologians see no way to fix. But as for theologians, the door of repentance is ever ready to open, and with it everything that the discipline of theology seeks in vain here using theories from the humanities, there trying to mediate prestige to itself science. Academic theologians who are, or who become, theologians in a more ancient sense find tremendous doors of beauty and joy open to them. The wondrous poetry of St. Ephrem the Syrian is ever open; the liturgy of the Church is open; the deifying rays of divine grace shine ever down upon those open to receiving tem and upon those not yet open. The Western understanding is that the door to the Middle Ages has long since been closed and the age of the Church Fathers was closed much earlier; but Orthodox will let you become a Church Father, here now. Faithful people today submit as best they are able to the Fathers before them, as St. Maximus Confessor did ages ago. There may be problems with academic theology today, but the door to theology in the classic sense is never closed, as in the maxim that has rumbled through the ages, “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.” Perhaps academic theology is not the best place to be equipped to be a giant like the saintly theologians of ages past. But that does not mean that one cannot become a saintly theologian as in ages past. God can still work with us, here now.
Trinity! Higher than any being,
any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians
in the wisdom of Heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing light,
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture,
where the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
They pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
They completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.
Ecumenism: Invented by Protestants. Adapted by Catholics. Foisted on Orthodox. Won’t you agree it smells fishy?
Many Protestants see Catholics generously, looking at them as basically equivalent to a Protestant. Catholics extend the same spirit of generosity to see Orthodox as essentially Catholic. But the differences are fundamentally deeper.
What Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant share is genuinely significant. There is really a lot in common. But there is also remarkably much in common between Christian, Hindu, and classical Taoist, even if there is less in common than what Christians hold in common. The commonalities are significant, but beyond the differences also being significant, Orthodox communion makes a profound difference. Looking at theological similarities and ignoring the point of communion is a way to strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.
The Church must breathe with both lungs. (And the sooner she starts breathing with the Western lung, the better.)
I’ve seen the shirts that say, “Orthodox Christian in communion with Rome” and wished to make, among other things, a shirt that says “Catholic Christian in communion with the Archdruid of Canterbury.” Trying to be Orthodox without being in communion with the Orthodox Church is like trying to be married without a spouse.
The Orthodox Church shares common ground. It has common ground in one dimension with Catholics and Protestants, and it has common ground in another dimension with Hindus and Buddhists, and you are missing the point if you say, “Yes, but other Christians share the true common ground.” For all of this, the Orthodox Church is capable of sharing common ground and recognizing differences that exist. And there is a way for Catholics and Protestants, and Hindus and Buddhists as well, to receive full communion with Orthodoxy: they can become Orthodox.
In matters of ecumenism and especially intercommunion, Rome is Orthodox in her dealings with Protestants, and Protestant in her dealings with Orthodox. If you want to know why Orthodoxy refuses intercommunion with Rome, you might find a hint of the answer in why Rome refuses Protestant intercommunion. And if your immediate reaction is, “But our theology is equivalent,” ponder this: that is also what ecumenist Protestants say to you. (And they say it in perfectly good faith.)
It would be strange for every pope from here on to be like Pope Benedict XVI and not Pope John XXIII. And under Pope John XXIII, the question, “Is the Pope Catholic?” might have best been answered, “Well, from a certain point of view…”
In the history that is common to Catholics and Orthodox, every time someone proposed a solution like ecumenism, the Church soundly rejected it. If we have reached a state where we can reject the ancient wisdom in these decisions, this is another reason why we have departed from Orthodoxy and another reason Orthodoxy should spurn our advances.
Christ prayed that we all may be one. But hearing “ecumenism” in that prayer is a bit like hearing a prayer that a room may be cleaned and pushing all the clutter under a bed. Christ’s prayer that his disciples may be one transcends the mere whitewash that ecumenism can only offer. (Christ’s prayer that we may all be one is solid gold. Ecumenism is a rich vein, but only of fool’s gold.)
In Catholic ecumenical advances, I have never heard anyone mention any of the concerns about things Rome has done that may be obstacles to restoring comminuon. What kind of healthy advance bowls over and ignores the other’s reservations?
Good fences make good neighbors. Ecumenism tramples down fences and invites itself into others’ homes. Orthodox can be good neighbors, but when they reject ecumenical advances, it is part of keeping good fences for good neighbors.
As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
Rome (AP). His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has made a historic ecumenical bid to woo Eastern Rite Catholics and stop treating them as second class citizens. Eastern Rite Catholics are essentially Eastern Orthodox Christians who were received into full communion with the Catholic Church under an an agreement intended to let them to preserve their Orthodox liturgy and faith. In the centuries since this historic agreement, Eastern Rite Catholics have found themselves not exactly treated as first-class citizens by the Roman Catholic Church.
In the nineteenth century, the Eastern Rite Catholic priest Alexis Toth entered the U.S. and found that Archbishop Ireland rejected him as a Catholic, not recognizing his Orthodox rite nor even recognizing him or his bishop as clergy, but demanding Roman behavior and Roman rites, nor accepting that Toth quoted chapter and verse demonstrating that he was allowed to continue his traditional practices as an Eastern Rite Catholic priest. Alexis Toth, regarded today as a saint by the Orthodox Church, was a leader among those moving from being treated as second-class citizens by Rome to come home to the Orthodox Church.
Today, Eastern Rite Catholics enjoy somewhat better treatment, but it is a matter of some debate how much better today’s treatment really is. In Rome, priests are basically required to be celibate; in Orthodoxy, prospective priests are usually expected to be married before they are ordained to the priesthood, and Rome respects this by allowing married Eastern Rite Catholics to be ordained priests. However, given the state of U.S. Catholic church politics, Rome is very reluctant to let married men be ordained priest on U.S. soil: Eastern Rite Catholic bishops from the U.S. may only ordain married men to the priesthood if they have special, case-by-case permission to ordain that particular man, and this is actually an improvement: not long ago, Eastern Rite Catholics had to be flown be flown to another continent entirely if married men were to be ordained to the priesthood. This is how Rome allows Eastern Rite Catholics to preserve their Orthodox tradition and practices. (Rumor has it this is not the only rough point of how Rome treats its Eastern Rite Catholics today.)
But the Pope is very keen on restoring communion and seeing that all Eastern Orthodox become Eastern Rite Catholics, or rather restore communion with Rome, if that is really any different. Now that Anglicans have been offered full communion with Rome while keeping a great deal of their liturgy and faith, the Pope is now tackling the ambitious task of allowing Eastern Rite Catholics to keep their liturgy and faith as first-class members within the Roman communion. Some sources suggest the move may be intended to ease Eastern Orthodox apprehensions about being under papal authority implied in restoring communion with Rome.
At present, details remain sketchy about how the Pope intends to improve Eastern Rite Catholics’ standing. Perhaps only time will tell what it is like to be in full communion with Rome while preserving your tradition’s liturgy and faith.
Do children and adults understand each other? To some degree, and if many adults have lost touch with childhood, there are some who understand childhood very well. But when I was a child, I wanted to write a book about things adults don’t understand about children. (I have since forgotten with what I wanted to write.) There is a gulf. A father can read a Calvin and Hobbes strip, and his little girl can ask what’s funny, and the father is in a pickle. It’s not that he doesn’t want to explain it, and he may be able to explain the humor to another adult, but all of those explanations fail with his daughter. Children often believe that there’s a big secret the adult conspiracy is refusing to tell them. And the adult who is trying to get a child to “be serious” by setting aside “make believe” and dealing with what is “real” is like someone who wears a raincoat to the shower. The things that go without saying as part of being serious are in many cases not part of childhood’s landscape.
In this sense, children understand each other. This understanding is compatible with friendship, liking, hating, being aloof, and several other things, but there are certain things that go without saying, and the things that go without saying are shared. Two young children will have a world where the difference between “real” and “imaginary” is not very important, where they have no power and adults laugh at things the children don’t understand, and where the world is full of wonder. And in that sense two children can understand each other even if they don’t know each other’s heroes, favorite ways to play, and so on and so forth. And adults likewise understand things that can normally be taken for granted among adults.
Before suggesting that Western Christianity (in other words, Catholic and Protestant Christianity) is best understood in continuity with the West, I would like to explain what I mean. There are a good many Catholics and Protestants who try to be critical towards Western culture, and who do not accept uncritically what is in vogue. I know several Western Christians who tried to live counterculturally and not accept sour things in Western culture; I was such a Western Christian myself. So is it fair to talk about the continuity between Western Christianity and the West?
There is a common Western tendency to criticize common Western tendencies. I’ve seen Christians eager to criticize Western tendencies. I’ve also seen liberals who were not Christian eagerly criticize common Western tendencies. For that matter, I don’t remember ever hearing someone use the term “common Western tendency” in a flattering way, even though the West is home to many great cultural triumphs (as well as problems). Criticizing “Western tendencies” is a Western thing to do. Taking a dim view of the culture that raised you is a Western thing to do. Working to create a counterculture is a Western thing to do. The focus of this article is not to rebut the West but to explain the East and describe things Western Christians may not know to look for. The Orthodox classics do not try to be Christian by making unflattering remarks about “common Western tendencies.” For reasons that I will elaborate, I know that there are countercultural Western Christians who strive to construct or reconstruct a Christian culture that is very different from the Western mainstream (I was such a countercultural Western Christian), and I still consider their continuities with the West to be significant. More on that later.
This article explores the suggestion that Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity is best understood in continuity with the East, and Western (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity is best understood in continuity with the West. There are of course continuities between Eastern and Western Christianity. But they usually aren’t the point where Western Christians do not understand Orthodox. There are important ways that a Western Christian understands an Eastern Christian and members of (other) Eastern religions don’t. There are also important ways that members of (mostly) Eastern religions understand each other. The purpose of this article is to explain things that the East naturally understands about Orthodoxy, not to explain everything important about Orthodoxy. The understanding between Orthodox, Hindus, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists, and many less well known religions is of this kind. And so is understanding within the West, but East and West are different as children and adults are different—not because one is more mature than the other (each can see the other as childish), but because there is a gulf. The understanding isn’t a matter of how many details you know, or agreement on important matters. For that matter, it’s not even a matter of civil disagreement. Understanding another religion is perfectly consistent with fighting religious wars. But there is a gulf that is rarely bridged, and I am trying to bring a spark of understanding of the gulf. I am trying to explain what is shared that Westerns, even Western Christians, need to have explained. And I will be looking at both East and West, at both worlds.
This article is partly Eastern and partly Western, and doesn’t completely belong to either world. It’s meant to give explanations a Westerner would recognize, while addressing important things that a Westerner might not think to ask about. I was raised an evangelical, and I am a relatively recent convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. This means that for better or worse I have a foot in both worlds. I hope to use this position to build a bridge.
The Most Important Thing Is
“Article on understanding Orthodoxy” is a dread oxymoron, a red flag like the phrase “committee to revitalize,” or for that matter a thick commentary on Ecclesiastes 6:11: “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (NIV)
Orthodoxy is something you understand by doing. If you want to learn to swim, you get in the water with someone who can show you how to swim. So the first thing an article on understanding Orthodoxy can say is that you can’t understand Orthodoxy by reading an article on understanding Orthodoxy. You can understand it by visiting a parish and seeing how we worship, and maybe participating. A book can be a useful tour guide that can help you keep your eyes open for what to see at a historic site, but it cannot substitute for visiting the site yourself. The first thing to do is, if you know someone Orthodox, ask, “May I join you at church?” Orthodoxy is a live community, and the way to understand it is to interact with the community. If you don’t have that live connection, you can search online for a nearby parish (and ignore the error message) (Outside the US). Some parishes (churches) are warmer than others. There are some parishes that unfortunately aren’t welcoming. If a church doesn’t have a sign out in front, that may be a warning. But there are many churches that are welcoming. And don’t worry if everybody seems to be doing things that you don’t understand. There is a great deal of freedom in Orthodoxy, and apart from receiving communion you should be welcome to do (or not do) anything people are doing. Sometimes you will see different members of the faithful doing different things, walking around, entering, leaving. This is because of the freedom in Orthodox worship and a grand tradition of not sticking your nose in what other people are doing. When I first visited my present parish, well before I became Orthodox, I was self-conscious about following what other people were doing and sticking out. In the time that I’ve been Orthodox, I realized that there was no need to be self-conscious, and in fact no one cared that I wasn’t acting like everyone else.
So make a note in your planner, or call a friend who’s Orthodox. Decide exactly when you will make that contact, and do what you need to do to get that in your planner. Actually visiting the site is infinitely more valuable than reading a guidebook about it.
Symbol and Nominalism
Before explaining what symbol is in the East, I would like to talk about what has happened in the West. Symbol in the West used to be close to what it was in the East—like two trees standing tall. Then something called nominalism came along, and cut down the Western tree, leaving a stump of a once great tree. Nominalism is a good part of what has defined the West.
Nominalism was one side in a Western medieval debate, and it was called the “modern way.” The debate was whether categories of things were something real that existed before things and before our minds, or whether categories are things we construct after the fact. What people used to believe, and what the nominalists’ opponents believed, was that a lot more things were real than the nominalists acknowledged. Their opponents looked at the structures we perceive and said, “It’s out there,” and the nominalists said “No, it only exists in your head.” Nominalism was an axe for cutting down most of what people sensed about the world around us. In its extreme form nominalism says that brute fact is all that exists; if it’s not a brute fact, it can only exist in people’s heads. Some scholars will recognize that as a postmodern distinction; nominalism was something that flowered in modernism and bore fruit in postmodernism. At one stage, nominalism defined modernism and the Enlightenment, while at a later stage, people were more consistent and became postmodern.
Another thing that nominalism did was to cut apart the thing that represents and the thing that is represented in a symbol. Nominalism is the disenchantment of the entire universe. Nominalism is a disenchanting force that says, “If you can’t touch it, it can only be in your head,” and the place of symbol was changed from what it once was. Symbol wasn’t the only casualty, but it was one of the casualties.
Imagine two very different surfaces, like the surface of the ground. The first surface, Orthodoxy, is rich in connections, layers, and colors. Imagine that the first surface is textured, like the surface of the earth, while there are not only buildings but great arcs connecting one part to another so that what is present in one place is present in another. A symbol is an arc of this kind, and symbol is not something externally added to reality; it is something basic to what reality is, so that the surface is in fact richer than just a surface and is as connected as a web. If there is something in you that responds to beauty in the surface, or to ways it has become ugly, that is because something inside you is resonating with something out there.
Now imagine another picture, of a surface that is flat and grey, where there is no real order, and any structures and connections you see are only ways of lumping things together inside your head. You can read things on to it; you can imagine structures in its randomness and pretend any two parts are linked; because it has no order, you can project any kind of structure or connection you want, even if this freedom means it is only your particular fantasy. If you find it to be drab and empty, that is a private emotional reaction that says nothing interesting about the drab and empty world, in particular not that it is failing to be in some way colorful like it “should” be. “Should” has no meaning beyond something about our private psychology.
If you imagine these two surfaces—one of them structured, many-layered, colorful, and possessing a veritable web of connecting arcs (symbols), and the other one having only a single grey layer and no connections—you have the difference between what Orthodoxy believes and where nominalism leads. Few people believe nominalism in a pure form; I don’t even know if it is possible to believe nominalism in a few form. Nominalism is more a way of decaying than a fixed system of ideas. Part of what has shaped Western Christianity is the influence of nominalism as the disenchantment of the entire universe. Nominalism disenchants the treasure of a world of spiritual resonance, where symbol and memory have a rich meaning, where a great many things are not private psychological phenomena but something that is attuned to the world as a whole, as much as a radio picks up music because someone is broadcasting the music it picks up.
What was before nominalism in the West, and what is the place of symbol in Orthodoxy now? Christ is a symbol of God, and he is a symbol in the fullest possible sense. How? Christ is not a miniature separate copy of God, which is what a symbol often is in the West. Christ is fully united with God: “I and the Father are One.” God is fundamentally beyond our world; “No man can see God and live.” But “in Christ the fullness of God lives in a body.” And if you have seen Christ, you have seen the Father. Christ visibly expresses the Father’s hidden reality.
The image of God, in which we were all created, does not mean that we are detached miniature copies of God. What it means is that we, in our inmost being, are fundamentally connected to God. It means that we were created to participate in God’s reality, and that something of God lives in us. It means that every breath we breathe is the breath of God. It means that we are to reign as God’s delegates, the moving wonders who manifest God in ruling his visible world.
As an aside, symbol is one important kind of connection that makes things really present, but it’s not the only one. Memory is not understood as a psychological phenomenon inside the confines of a person’s head; to remember something is to make something really present. “This do in rememberance of me” is not primarily about us having thoughts in our heads about Christ, just as saying “Please assemble this cabinet” is not primarily about us seeing and touching tools and cabinet pieces. Saying “Please assemble this cabinet” may include seeing and touching what needs to be assembled, but the focus is to bring about a fully assembled cabinet which not just something in our minds. When Christ said “This do in rememberance of me”, he wasn’t just talking about a psychological phenomenon, however much that may be necessary for remembering; he was telling us to make him really present and be open to his presence, and he isn’t present “just” in our thinking any more than a working cabinet is “just” a set of sensations we had in the course of assembling it. And the idea of “This do in rememberance of me” goes hand in hand with Holy Communion being a symbol in the fullest possible sense: the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine embodies the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. All of these are tied together.
Amomg these symbols, a reader may be surprised about one kind of symbol I haven’t mentioned: the icon. Icons are something I tried to overlook to get to the good parts of Orthodoxy; it took a while for me to recognize how much icons are one of the good parts of Orthodoxy. Icons are in fact key to understanding Orthodoxy.
When one bishop is giving a speech, sometimes he will hold up a picture, of a traffic intersection (or something else obviously secular), and then say, “In Greece, this is an icon. It’s not a holy icon, but it’s an icon.”
Part of what icons are in the East is easier to understand in light of what happened to icons in the West, not only religious artwork but painting as a whole. What happens if you ask an art historian to tell the story of Western art after the Middle Ages, roughly from the Renaissance to the Neo-classicists?
The story that is usually told is a story of Western art growing from crude and inaccurate depictions to paintings that were almost like photographs. It is a story of progress and advancement.
Orthodoxy can see something else in the story. Western art became photorealistic, not because they progressed from something inferior, but because their understanding of symbol had disintegrated.
If a picture is real to you as a symbol, then you don’t have to strive too hard to “accomplish” the picture, in the same sense that someone who has never gotten in trouble with alcohol doesn’t have to make an unprovoked lecture on why he doesn’t have a drinking problem. People who use alcohol responsibly rarely feel the need to prove that they don’t have a drinking problem; it’s someone who has a drinking problem who feels the need to make sure you know that his drinking is under control. People who don’t have a problem don’t feel the need to defend themselves, and artists and publics who haven’t lost symbols don’t feel a need to cram in photorealism. When Renaissance artists inaccurately portrayed the place of Christ’s birth as having a grid of rectangular tiles, they were cramming in photorealism. It wasn’t even that they thought they needed photorealism to make a legitimate picture. They went beyond that need to make the picture an opportunity to demonstrate photorealism, whether or not the photorealism really belonged there. From an Orthodox perspective the problem is not the historical inaccuracy of saying that Christ was born in a room with a tiled floor instead of a cave. The anachronism isn’t that big of a deal. From an Orthodox perspective the problem is that, instead of making a symbol the way people do when they really believe in symbol, people were making pictures the way people do when the pictures are unreal to them as symbols. The artists went for broke and pushed the envelope on photorealism because the West had lost something much more important than photorealism.
Good Orthodox icons don’t even pretend to be photorealistic, but this is not simply because Orthodox iconography has failed to learn from Western perspective. As it turns out, Orthodox icons use a reverse perspective that is designed to include the viewer in the picture. Someone who has become a part of the tradition is drawn into the picture, and in that sense an icon is like a door, even if it’s more common to call icons “windows of Heaven.” But it’s not helpful to simply say “Icons don’t use Renaissance perspective, but reverse perspective that includes the viewer,” because even if the reverse perspective is there, reverse perspective is simply not the point. There are some iconographers who are excellent artists, and artistry does matter, but the point of an icon is to have something more than artistry, as much as the point of visiting a friend is more than seeing the scenery along the way, even if the scenery is quite beautiful and adds to the pleasure of a visit. Cramming in photorealism is a way of making more involved excursions and dredging up more exotic or historic or whatever destinations that go well beyond a scenic route, after you have lost the ability to visit a friend. The Western claim is “Look at how much more extravagant and novel my trip are than driving along the same roads to see a friend!”—and the Orthodox response shows a different set of priorities: “Look how lonely you are now that you no longer visit friends!”
The point is that an icon, being a symbol, is connected to the person represented. It is probably not an accident that in the Reformation, the most iconoclastic people were those in whom the concept of symbol as spiritual connection had completely disintegrated. When I was a Protestant, the plainest sanctuaries I saw were the sanctuaries belonging to people who disbelieved in symbols as spiritual connections. If a symbol is not spiritually connected, then reverence to an icon is inappropriate reverence to a piece of wood; Orthodox believe that reverence to an icon passes through to the saint depicted in part because of the connection that is real to them.
There are other things to discuss about icons. Here I want to talk about them as symbols, and symbols in an Orthodox picture—the mental image I drew above that has a web of interconnections, has both spiritual and material layers, and is very different from the (almost empty) nominalist picture. A lot of people who try to understand icons are trying to fit the Orthodox icon into the nominalist picture, or at least a picture where part of the Orthodox framework is replaced with something more nominalist. I want to return to icons later, after some comparisons.
Compare and Contrast
How is Orthodoxy different from Western Christianity? I would like to answer, focusing on evangelical Christianity in my treatment of Western Christianity but referring to Catholicism. I don’t believe evangelical Christianity is the only real version of Western Christianity, but it is the middle of the (Western) road. From an Orthodox perspective, “Catholic,” “evangelical,” and “mainline” (or, if you prefer an alternative to “mainline,” you can say “oldline,” or “sideline,” or “flatline”) represent three degrees of being Western, much as “rare,” “medium,” and “well done” denote three degrees of a steak being cooked. There are important differences, but there is also something that’s the same. Catholicism is like a rare steak, is almost raw in some parts and almost well done in others. A Catholic may be almost Orthodox (certainly a Catholic is not discouraged from trying to be almost Orthodox), and there are a lot of Catholics who believe that Vatican II says that the Reformers were right about everything (or something pretty close to that).
Catholics tend to be sensitive to the differences to Catholic and Protestant (even if they choose not to pay enough attention to those differences). Yet it is common for Catholics to believe that Catholics and Orthodox only differ in the addition of “and the Son” to a creed. Saying that’s the only difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is like saying that the difference between the Bible and the Quran is only that “Bible” was a French word for “book” and “Quran” is, with remarkable similarity, an Arabic word that can mean “book.” Catholic priests will tell you that Catholics and Orthodox believe almost exactly the same thing, and this is because Catholics know how they are different from Protestants but don’t know where their differences with Orthodox lie. The Reformation took a lot of trends in Catholicism and pushed them much further, but the problem isn’t just that the Reformers pushed them further. The problem is that the trends became a part of Catholicism in the first place. To Catholic readers who have been told that Catholicism is almost the same as Orthodoxy and the two should be joined together—I understand why you believe that and it is what one would expect the Catholic tradition to say. But to the Orthodox that is like saying that the Quran is of a piece with the Bible. You’re looking in the wrong place for the differences between the Bible and the Quran when you try to reconcile them by pointing out that “Bible” and “Quran” both mean book in influental languages. Not only do the differences lie elsewhere, they are far, far deeper.
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.
Adapted from a mailing list post. I’ve still left it as clunky as when it was first written.
In the interests of providing a fuller picture, and perhaps letting other list members understand why I hold a perspective that seems hard to explain in someone who has given thought to the question, I have decided to give an account of how I came to my present position. A serious attempt at representing the cases for and against different perspectives — even the case for my own perspective — is beyond the scope of this letter; I intend to state, without tracing out in detail, my present perspective, but not to give arguments beyond a scant number without which the plot would be diminished. That stated, I am attempting, to the best of my ability, to write with the kind of honesty Feynman describes in “Cargo Cult Science” [in his memoirs Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman]— not a selective account of facts designed to optimize persuasive effect, but (after combing through my memory) as comprehensive an explanation as I can provide without reproducing arguments, one that includes details that will hurt my persuasive impact every bit as much as those that would advance whatever facade I might expect to hold the most compelling influence. I am attempting to place chronological events in chronological order, explicitly noting the exceptions. If there are relevant details (‘relevant’ from the perspective of any side of the debate, not just my own) that are not reproduced here, it’s because I couldn’t find them after looking for them.
My earliest remembered belief, from childhood, was of a six day young-earth creationist view. I read from the Bible, and I think I read some conservative Christian children’s material, although I can’t remember what; I don’t remember it explicitly arguing for a young-earth view so much as assuming it, and warning readers about hostile science teachers when it came to evolution. My father (who holds a doctorate in physics and teaches computer science at Wheaton College) believes in an old earth, but has not (so far as I know) committed to details of theories of the origin of life in a sense that would interest a biologist; in a discussion a year or two ago, I remember him responding to Wheaton’s President’s perspective that some origins questions are purely exegetical by saying, “Science is ahuman discipline; theology is a human discipline.” (I would not put things that way exactly, but I am providing it as an example of the situation I grew up in.) I don’t specifically remember my mother saying anything about origins questions. The only time during my childhood I can recall a Christian adult trying to influence my thought about origins-related questions was when I looked at my Bible, which had a timeline of different figures and events in the Jewish lineage, with estimated years for different people, and then at the far left had the Creation, the Fall, and some other event (I think the Flood or the Tower of Babel), for which no estimated date was given. Assuming a linear relationship between position on the timeline and time, I extrappolated a date for Creation, and my Sunday School teacher tried to explain to me that I couldn’t do that, that that wasn’t using the figure properly. I don’t know what she believed about origins questions, just that she tried to dissuade me from misreading a timeline. At any rate, my beliefs congealed after I had enough mental maturity to understand the details of the Genesis 1 account, and before I had serious contact with scientific findings or with the Biblical-theological case that the natural order is subject to legitimate exploration and discovery.
Sometime in middle to late childhood — I think before eighth grade, but I’m not positively sure — I read a long Christianity Today article about origins questions, following a “four views” format. I remember that theistic evolution was included, and that one of the respondents was Pattle Pun, a biologist at Wheaton; I have vague, inconclusive rememberances that one perspective was progressive creation, and that one of them might have been six day, young-earth creationism, but I’m not sure on either of the last two accounts. After reading it, my beliefs began to shift. I don’t remember exactly what I believed when the process of shifting was going on; to fast forward a bit, I do remember the resting point they came to and stayed for quite a while. It was a theistic evolution account, drawing on quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and intermittently including a belief in distinctly supernatural punctuations to equilibrium. Ok, end of fast-forward; back to chronological order.
In eighth grade (I was attending Avery Coonley School, a private magnet school for the gifted), the yearlong biology course was taught by Dr. John A. Rhodes, a biologist and the school headmaster, a man for whom I hold fond memories. Early in the course, Dr. Rhodes made a very emphatic point that we should tell people at prospective high schools that we were taught from BSCS Blue, which was widely recognized as the best biology text to be taught from (I believe it to have probably been a high school text; math, at least, was broken into one year advanced and two years advanced). I don’t have independent confirmation on this claim, and perhaps a teacher who wanted to de-emphasize molecular biology in favor of other branches of biology might have preferred another text, but he was very emphatic that the text was what I would call the biological equivalent of an O’Reilly technical book.
When it came to the beginning of the chapter on evolution, Dr. Rhodes commented that he was always interested in hearing new theories on questions of origins, and I wrote him a letter stating what I believed at the time. He thanked me, and a couple of class periods later told me that he’d enjoyed reading it. I was preparing for a battle of wills, and found nothing of the sort; I doubt if he believed anything similar to what I believed (before or after), but he provided an open atmosphere and encouraged inquiry.
Some time (I have difficulty dating this as well, but it appears to have been after I was first exposed to serious arguments for believing in something besides young-earth creationism, probably after eighth grade biology, and before my beliefs came to a theistic evolution attractor in high school) I was browsing at the library — not looking for anything specific, just trying to find something interesting and stimulating to read. I found a book from the Creation Research Institute, and read with interest the back cover, which stated that it explained powerful scientific evidence that showed that the world was created in six days, a few thousand years ago. This was exactly what I was looking for. I checked it out and started reading it.
I didn’t get a quarter of the way through.
I was disgusted by what the book presented as arguments and evidence; however much I might have liked to have something I could claim scientific evidence for my young-earth beliefs, I didn’t want it that badly. (Reading that book was part of why I had no reservations in putting Creation Science in front of my “If it has ‘science’ in its name, it probably isn’t” list.)
I skipped freshman year, and entered the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy as a sophomore. (For those of you not familiar with IMSA, it’s a high-powered magnet school; a master’s degree is required to teach, and several times the senior class has gotten the highest average ACT score in the nation. When I went to Wheaton, I was able without difficulty to start off in 300-400 level courses, and I was puzzled as to why so many people had warned me about college being tougher than high school.) There was a lecture by Dr. Pine (staff scientist; didn’t teach any classes) on science and pseudo-science, one that was abrasively naturalistic, and began by saying “It’s OK not to be a scientist; George Washington wasn’t a scientist,” but later parts of which would only make sense under an assumption that science has a monopoly on legitimate inquiry into those questions it concerns itself with (or something equivalent for discussion purposes). His name was a symbol of arrogant scientism even among those who weren’t familiar with the scientism/science distinction, and I remember (when talking about the lecture with an aquaintance) my friend commenting that there were a lot of people offended by that lecture. The lecture wasn’t focally concerned with origins questions, Dr. Pine having focused more of his attack on things like ESP, but I wanted to include this in the record.
Senior year, we had university biology; it wasn’t an AP course in that it wasn’t geared towards the AP tests, but it was a college-level course. I don’t remember the text for this one, but (under the circumstances) I think it was about as competently taught, by people who knew what they were talking about, as one could reasonably guess. (This was after my belief had settled.)
At Wheaton, my Old Testament class covered a few exegetical theories on interpreting the beginning of Genesis (i.e. the gap theory, which says that the Genesis chronologies are accounts with significant gaps), albeit not in a manner that would be interesting to a biologist; they would be equally compatible (or incompatible) with Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution. I remember in particular the time given to the Ten Plagues in Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; massive energy was given to a forced interpretation that would reconcile the Biblical account with an explanation that a materialist could easily swallow (i.e. the water turned to blood was an explosive bloom of some sort of reddishly colored micro-organism in the waterways), and I would rather that the teacher have said, “The ten miraculous plagues are too much for me to swallow,” than “I will rescue the ten miraculous plagues by explaining how they were ten ordinary disasters that weren’t miraculous at all.” (Readers may perceive a degree of intellectual dishonesty in my own version of theistic evolution; such an accusation probably has some degree of truth to it, but I will not try to address it here.) This, and the other two classes mentioned below for completeness, did not alter my perspective so far as I remember.
I took an environmental science elective, and the course material made sporadic reference to evolution (for that matter, one video began with a beautiful quotation from a Biblical psalm about the wonder of the natural order), but neither the teacher nor the texts made a serious attempt to address origins questions, being much more concerned with explaining (part of) how the environment works, and how to be a responsible citizen minimizing unnecessary environmental degradation.
The last class I am mentioning for the sake of completeness of record is my philosophy of science class. Evolution was discussed in so far as the history of scientists accepting the theory is interesting to a philosopher of science; there were no arguments made for or against it, apart from a brief comment in a discussion where one student used the acceptance of Darwinian evolution as an example of a good decision on the part of the scientific community.
To wrap up this part of the discussion, I transferred out of Wheaton for reasons of conscience, and finished up my bachelor’s at Calvin, and did a master’s in applied mathematics at the University of Illinois. I did not have occasion to revise my beliefs concerning origins questions until some time later, and to properly explain exactly what opened up the question again, I need to give a little more background.
There was one Saturday Night Live where the news announcer said, “Michael Bolton just came out with his new Christmas album. [Pause] Happy birthday, baby Jesus! I hope you like crap!”
Being somewhat aloof from pop culture, it took me the longest time to get it through my head that Michael Bolton was not a Christian artist. By that point, I had written in my dictionary:
Christian Contemporary Music, n. A genre of song designed primarily to impart sound teaching, such as the doctrine that we are sanctified by faith and not by good taste in music.
One thing that has distressed me to no end is that much of today’s Christian culture (popular sense, not anthropological sense) is garbage. What Dante and Handel produced is cherished on artistic merits by people openly hostile to their beliefs; the same cannot be said for the contents of John’s Christian Bookstore. I don’t want to analyze historical causes or implications, but it is something I find to be quite embarrassing — and one of the reasons I spend so much time on writing, namely to be one person who produces Christian art that is not trash.
At any rate, there was one point where I was browsing the web, searching for provoking Christian musings — and wading through one banal, syrupy, intellectually juvenile posting after another. I was quite bored, and kept searching long after I should have given up — and then read an article entitled, “Abortion: A Failure to Communicate”, and sat there, stunned.
The article made an argument why, from a pro-life perspective, it is not helpful to say “Save the children!”, argue that a foetus is a child rather than unwanted tissue, or erect a place called “New Life Adoption Center”. The particular argument (or even issue) is not why I was stunned. I was stunned because the article represented an intellectually mature, nuanced, and insightful perspective, and raised points that made sense but which were not at all obvious trivialities. Once I got over being stunned, I poked around and found out a bit more about the site hosting it — an anthology site called Leadership University at www.leaderu.com. In the following days, I looked around and found a number of stimulating articles.
After reading a while — and enjoying it thoroughly — I paid attention to something I had not previously looked at, that the site had a science section. That seemed somewhat strange; I wasn’t surprised at sections for humanities disciplines, as thinking Christianly makes a big difference in the humanities, but why science? My Dad shared both faith and enjoyment of heavily mathematical disciplines (math, computer science, physics) with me, but he had never hinted at what e.g. “Christian physics” would mean — nor had anyone else I knew of — so I clicked on the link to find out what on earth the site listed as a distinctively Christian way to think about science.
My estimation of the site dropped by about ten notches when I saw a list of titles attacking Darwinism. So this otherwise serious and intellectually responsible site had stooped to host Creation Science. I left the computer in disgust.
Some time after that, I began to experience quiet, nagging doubts — doubts that I was not being fair to Leadership University or even to those articles by dismissing them (and assessing penalty points) without consideration. I could see no justification for stooping to Creation Science, for trying to rehash a battle that was decided and over, but at the same time, there was no other point at which I had looked at the site and regretted taking the time to read an article. If a friend (whom I had hitherto known to be trustworthy) were to say something I found hard to believe, wouldn’t I consider him to have earned the benefit of the doubt? So I went back to the computer, expecting to read more Creation Research Institute-style materials, and met with yet another surprise.
I expected to see an attack on Darwinism. I hoped (but did not expect) to instead see something that would live up to Leadership University article standards. What I found was an attack on Darwinism that lived up to Leadership University article standards, and it produced a lot of cognitive dissonance in me.
Some years before, I might have jumped at an argument that Darwinism was seriously flawed. Not now. Darwinian evolution was a part of my education, and (if I did not go into naturalism) an argument that Darwinism was much more flawed than I had been led to believe, affected me as would an argument that any other major scientific theory was much more flawed than I had been led to believe — it had some very troubling implications. So I looked through several articles, hoping to find a fatal flaw — and the hope waned.
I was not open to resolving the question based on the online articles, but the articles disturbed me enough that I very distinctly believed that there was a question in need of resolution. So, not too much longer, I poked around until I found Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial and, a bit later, Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, hoping to find justification to persist in my previous belief, but even more hoping to resolve the inner tension between believing (and wanting to believe) one thing, and seeing evidence that appeared to suggest another.
Reading Darwin on Trial fleshed out what was sketched in the articles. (Darwin on Trial took me an afternoon to read, and I am probably not a fast reader by Megalist standards; Darwin’s Black Box took me a day.) The articles, at least at Leadership University, do not provide what I would consider a basis to decide; they outline the argument, but the length restriction makes it hard to make an argument without holes. The book, on the other hand, had the room to argue systematically and carefully. Its arguments were sufficient to dislodge me from the resting place I had found, and the best metaphor I can use to describe the subsequent sifting of thoughts is a loss of faith.
In a conservative Catholic family, perhaps pre-Vatican II, a child grows up to believe that if the priests say it, speaking officially, it is true — perhaps there is room for miscommunication and the like, but there is a basic faith that the mouth of a priest is the mouth of an oracle. In a contemporary scientific schooling context, a student is taught to believe that if the science teachers say it, it is a bona fide attempt to convey the truth as best understood by the scientific enterprise. There are any number of basic nuances — miscommunication, error, intentional simplification for any of several obvious reasons, the teacher articulating the views of one position in a controversy — but, as with the Catholic family, there is a basic faith (even if it’s not put that way, a mistrust of faith and authority being one of the items on the catechism) that the teacher represents the best science can offer, and so (for instance) if evolution is portrayed as an established theory that explains reasonably well everything one would expect it to explain, then that must be true.
It is that faith which I lost.
There is one example that particularly sticks in my mind. I am not going to call it ‘typical’, with the accompanying implication that I could easily pull half a dozen other examples that serve my point equally well; there are a number of other examples, and this is the one made the most forceful impression on me.
One example that occurred in both my textbooks — as best I recall, they both had photographs to illustrate camouflage effects — concerns pepper moths in England. Before the Industrial Revolution, the majority of pepper moths were white, with a significant minority that were black. Come the Industrial Revolution, when everything was blackened by soot, the proportions shifted, so that the majority of pepper moths were black, with a significant minority that were white. Then, after the Industrial Revolution had run its course and things were no longer covered with soot, the proportions again shifted, so that the majority of pepper moths were white, with a significant minority of black moths. This is given as a supporting example of “evolution”.
Johnson does not treat “evolution” as one amorphous mass; he regards the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution as significant, including that evidence of one is not necessarily evidence of the other. Neither he nor anyone else I’ve read challenge microevolution (or the existence of natural selection as an influence on what survives — though he suggests that natural selection is a conservative force). What is specifically challenged is macroevolution, and whether natural selection constitutes a generative force that is responsible for the diversity of life now on this planet.
The pepper moth example shows natural selection in action; what it does not show is that natural selection is a creative force that causes new kinds of organisms to appear. If black pepper moths were unknown before the Industrial Revolution, and then (once the smoke started billowing) a mutation (one that hadn’t occurred, or at least hadn’t survived, before) introduced a black gene into a previously all-white pool, and the new kind of moth started to take over for as long as trees were covered with soot — then this would constitute a small-scale instance of evolution as a generative force. As it is, both kinds of moths existed before, during, and after the Industrial Revolution, in significant numbers — nothing even went extinct (at least in the pepper moth population). This provides evidence of natural selection in some form, but to present it as evidence of “evolution” is presenting evidence of one claim as evidence of two or more distinct claims, at least one of which is not supported by the evidence — a practice that is, at best, sloppy, and at worst, deceitful.
(This one claim, by itself, is not fatal; it would be in principle possible to present a collection of examples so that natural selection, microevolution, and macroevolution all have their corresponding support; I am not presenting it to establish a case so much as to illustrate a picture.)
My disappointment at my teachers’ presentation of undue optimism about macroevolution was not nearly as significant as my own disappointment at myself, and my having believed it. Perhaps it would have been easier to merely be angry at my teachers, but I was not angry; my chief disappointment was with myself.
After I had to some extent regained my bearings, I read Darwin’s Black Box, which provided one major new concept not addressed by Darwin on Trial, and several examples of that concept (irreducible complexity), and started talking about it on IMSA alumni notesfile forums.
What I saw there was, for the most part, shock and outrage that anyone dare question Darwin’s truth — most ridiculed what I was saying without providing counter-argument; one person, when I discussed the Cambrian explosion, suggested that it could have been caused by mutagen exposure. Mutagen exposure is a hypothesis I’m willing to entertain (stranger things have happened), but when I started doing some Feynman calculations to show how astronomically low the odds are of mutagen exposure producing Cambrian explosion effects, after first saying, “Suppose I claim to be able to predict lottery numbers, and suppose for the sake of argument you can rule out charlatan trickery on my part. After one success, I have your attention. After two successes, you say, ‘What a bizarre coincidence!’ Is there any number of successful guesses (subject to one guess per minute and an assumption of my death in fifty years) that will lead you to believe that you may not know how I’m doing it, but it’s not luck?” — and he said that at most a dozen would suffice, and then I showed how much lower the chances of raw mutagen exposure producing the Cambrian explosion would be than the chance of successfully guessing twelve consecutive lottery numbers — at which point he backed up and said, “There are some things we can never know.”
The one exception was a microbiology graduate student. He read the arguments I drew from the other sources, and commented that I seemed well-read and that the arguments seemed plausible. Part of that is being diplomatic, but I don’t think it was diplomatic politeness covering disrespect or distaste — he didn’t want to commit to a position without first taking an unhurried investigation of the question (which I didn’t want to do either — the web articles didn’t convince me of any conclusion besides that I should read the unabridged take on them).
What is my present position? Let me list a few things that I presently hold, subject to revision if and when I encounter further evidence or indications that my past analysis is less valid than I thought:
Microevolution as a consistent force in our time and probably at ages past, probably a conservative force.
Sudden appearance and disappearance of species, such as has not been accounted for in evolutionary theory so far as I know (perhaps acknowledged in punctuated equilibrium, but not accounted for — saying that changes happen off camera in 100,000 year geological eyeblinks, without explaining why, doesn’t constitute a valid theory).
Irreducible complexity in living organisms due to intelligent design, and in many cases not explained by any known plausible evolutionary scenario.
This is not a scientific theory so much as a framework, a partial specification; it represents a move away from naturalistic evolution as the complete answer and does not represent a fully detailed alternative — I think other people should work on that; I just haven’t invested in it myself. It is like, after having long believed a story about an event, coming to believe that the story is false — another explanatory story does not automatically spring up, although in a scientific community the rejection of one theory as flawed leads to the appearance of other theories to take its place, perhaps involving a shift in framework — witness the ultraviolet catastrophe. If I were a biologist working on a theory of origins, I would try to take this framework and extend it to the point of being a falsifiable theory —Darwin’s Black Box at the end addresses some issues towards constructing falsifiable theories, suggesting the sort of questions to ask in the process. There might be material to be mined in cryptanalysis; a codebreaker who sees a pattern is constantly asking whether the pattern represents a step towards cracking the code, or is only fool’s gold. The concept of p-values may be relevant.
[Remaining specific point, responding to other post, deleted for privacy concerns.]
Post Script, May 5, 2003: Since I posted this some time back, I have learned that leading members of the MegaList have become increasingly involved in the Intelligent Design movement.
I do not believe I can take more than incidental credit for this; I believe they are persuaded, not by my eloquence in a small number of posts, but because the evidence itself suggests things which a purely Darwinian account has trouble explaining.
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?”