There was one time when I was sitting in Danada Convenient Care, waiting for a blood draw. A mother led in a little girl who was bawling, sat her down in the waiting area, and began to attend to all the little details: sign in on a clipboard, speak with the office staff, sign a waiver, present an insurance card. The girl was bawling because she had apparently slammed her thumbnail in a door. After a little while I came over and began talking with her. I asked her what her favorite color was. I asked, “What kind of musical instrument does a dog play?” (answer: a trombone). I tried to get her talking, but most of what I said went over her head. After a while, I realized two things. First, I was failing rather miserably to engage her in conversation; I literally could not think of many things to say that a child of that age could respond to. And second, she stopped crying. Completely. I was struck by the near-total lack of pain in her face as she looked at me.
Eventually, I was called in for my blood draw. When I came out, things were totally different. The mother was sitting next to her daughter, and paying attention to her. The daughter was drawn into her mother’s attention. I said goodbye and left.
On another occasion, I was at a dinner at someone’s house, and my eyes were drawn to a goldfish in a fishbowl. I asked the hostess how old the goldfish was, and her answer was followed shortly by my asking how she managed to keep a goldfish for that long. And I remember vividly her answer. She said, “I talk to it,” and then stooped down and began talking to the fish like it was a small child. The fish began eagerly swimming towards her, as if it were trying to swim through the glass to meet her.
Love is a spiritual force, and I thought her answer was looney then because I didn’t understand that there are more than material forces that can affect whether a fish is healthy. I thought that the idea of love or hate affecting how a plant grows made a great exotic feature in fantasy, but in the real world science accounts for all the factors in how long a fish lives. Of course it matters that the hostess fed the goldfish and kept the fishbowl clean, but the reason the fish was alive and healthy was because she loved it. (And she’s a woman with a big heart.) And it matters, no doubt, that I made eye contact with the little girl and squatted to try to be at eye level. But the reason I was able to draw her out of intense pain was the power that love has. I can count on my fingers the times I’ve been in worse pain than smashing my thumbnails as a child; her pain was atrocious. What was strong enough to pull her out of that pain wasn’t my posture, or anything suave at my clumsy failures to say things that were age-appropriate. What pulled her out of her deep pain was love, and I was delighted to see her mother, who had been so busy with a thousand necessary details, giving her attention and love to her now comforted daughter. The mother told me as I said goodbye, “You have a very gentle way about you,” and I hold that story in my heart as one of my triumphs.
It’s hard to pick out a theme more foundational to feminist ethics, and perhaps the whole of feminism, than caring. Many feminists understand feminism as trying to move from a world dominated by male aggression to a world nurtured through motherly love and caring. And I would like to talk about love in Orthodoxy after talking about aggression.
The term “male aggression” is used a lot. The word “aggression” has a double meaning. Narrowly, “aggression” means “unprovoked violence,” a violence that is evil. But there is another meaning to “aggressive,” when a doctor pursues an “aggressive” treatment, for instance. Here “aggressive” does not literally mean violence and need not be at all evil… but there is a connection between the two. There is a real reason why we speak of an “aggressive” business plan as well as an “aggressive” assault. Why does “aggressive” sometimes mean “energetically active,” something that can be good, when the “main” usage is for something despicable?
Men are more likely to be aggressive than women. In which sense? Actually, both, and there’s a link between the two senses that offers insight into what it means to be a man. Talking about “male aggression” is not simply man-bashing, even if it is often done in exactly that fashion. There is something spirited and something fiery that is part of manhood, something that can be very destructive, but something that can be channeled. I don’t think any of us need to be told that masculine aggressiveness can be destructive. But that is not the full story of masculine energy. Channeled properly, male aggressive energy means projects. It means adventures and exploration. It means building buildings, questing after discoveries, giving vision to a community. The same thing that can be very destructive can also energize a man’s gifts to society. It can be transformed.
I would pose the question: If masculine aggression can be transformed in this manner, what about feminine and motherly caring?
Love is big in Orthodoxy. God is love. God is light, and other things can also be said, but he is love. The entirety of ethics and moral law is about loving God and one’s neighbor. The entirety of spiritual discipline, which Orthodoxy as well as feminist spirituality recognize as important for sustained growth, is a spiritual support not simply to one’s salvation, but to love. If my spiritual discipline does not turn me in love towards you, it is fundamentally incomplete. Spiritual discipline without love for others is self-contradictory as a friendship without another person.
What’s the relationship between love and caring? Are they synonyms? There is a deep connection, but I believe that an important difference shows up in the question of abortion.
“My body, my choice!” makes a powerful and easy-to-remember political slogan. But nobody believes it, or at least people who have abortions don’t believe it. Post-abortion is not about assuring women that it was just a surgery that removed something unwanted, but quite to the contrary is about helping women grieve the loss of a child. You may be able to make a legal argument that the child is part of the mother’s body, or say it’s just a potential life that was stopped. But trying to use that in post-abortion counseling is like telling someone who’s drinking milk that has gone bad that the milk is really quite fresh. You might be able to convince other people that the milk is really quite fresh, but not the person who’s actually drinking it. And women who have abortions are the ones who are drinking the rancid milk. In coffee table discussions you can deny that the death of a child is involved and say it’s just unwanted tissue. If you’re not drinking the milk, you can be conned into believing it’s still fresh. But if you’re drinking it? Post-abortion counseling helps women grieve the loss of a child, and for that reason cannot say “It was just a potential life!”
If women who have abortions don’t believe the rhetoric, then why does abortion take place? Quite often, these women feel stuck between a rock and a hard place in which there seem to simply be no good options. This is part of why the pro-life movement has made a major shift to offering compassion and practical help to people in that position. It’s a difficult position, and feminists will often argue that abortion is the most caring way out. It is not caring, the line goes, to bring a child into a situation where it will not be cared for, and women should be caring to themselves by not saddling themselves with too much responsibility. And so the ethics of caring sometimes finds abortion the appropriate choice.
In many ethical frameworks you can get away with saying that a mother’s love is one love among others. That simply doesn’t fly here. In feminism, a mother’s love is considered the most intimate love and a mother’s caring is meant to be the foundation of a better way of living. It is feminists who have given motherly caring the greatest emphasis and the most central place, and feminists who most fervently defend what any woman who’s had an abortion knows and grieves as the loss of a child. It’s almost as if a coalition of historians and archivists were the ones most fervently defending the practice of burning old documents.
My reason for mentioning this is not simply irony. My reason for pointing this out is to suggest that something’s wrong, and maybe motherly caring isn’t strong enough to support the weight feminism asks it to bear. Part of this odd picture is surely rationalization: part of what feminists want is the freedom to live a certain way but not deal with its consequences: be sexually active and not deal with children when they don’t want to, and if killing, or in today’s carefully chosen terms, “reproductive choice,” is the necessary price for freedom on those terms, they accept that price. Part of this is rationalization, but not all. Part of this is the weakness of caring when it is asked to do what feminists hope it will do. Asking motherly caring to do what feminists want is kind of like trying to drive a top-notch car engine to work. It may be a very good engine, and an engine may be indispensible to any functioning car, but things go much better if we have the whole car. I’m not just saying that abortion is wrong. I’m saying that if the people who bear the banner of “mother’s love” as the healing balm for society’s ills are the ones who defend that practice, we have a red flag that may point to another problem: maybe caring might not do what feminists think it does. Maybe it’s not enough.
So what would a whole car look like?
I’d like to quote a passage that has one teacher’s take on love:
Then a Jewish law scholar stood up to test Jesus, and said “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
He said to him, “You must love the Lord your God out of your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole strength, and with your whole mind, and love your neighbor even as you love yourself.”
He said, “That’s right; do this and you will live.”
But the scholar wanted to be proved righteous before Jesus. He said, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered and said, “Someone was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and brigands assaulted him, stripping him and leaving him half dead. And by providence a priest was going down that way and saw him and passed by, giving him a wide berth. Likewise, a Levite was travelling the same way, saw him, and gave him a wide berth. Then a travelling Samaritan came across him and was moved with mercy, in the depths of his bowels, and came over, and dressed his wounds with oil and wine, mounted him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and nurtured him. And the next day he gave a good chunk of his wealth to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him, and if he needs anything more, I will repay you when I come back.’ Now which one of these three do you suppose showed himself a neighbor to the man who was assaulted by brigands?”
He said, “The one who showed mercy to him.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and live that way.”
(Luke 10:25-37, my translation) Cloud and Townsend’s appropriately titled Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life argues that this story is a good illustration of their version of boundaries, and that was when I started listening to some nagging doubts about their theory. They said this was a good example of a measured response: the Samaritan made a moderate and limited response, got the Jew to safety and paid some moderate expenses, and left. Cloud and Townsend ask us to imagine the wounded Jew saying “I need you to stay here,” and the moderate Samaritan drawing a their-version-of-appropriate-boundary and saying “I’ve made a moderate response and need to move on.” and saying “No,” the way their version of boundaries draws a line and says, “No.” And I have not heard a treatment of this story that is further from the truth.
The route from Jerusalem to Jericho was up until the eighteenth century a dangerous place with bandits, and one well-known ruse was to have one bandit lying in the way, apparently grievously wounded, and if someone stopped, the bandits would take advantage of that mercy to assault and rob him. Jesus was saying that the Samaritan stopped in a bad part of Chicago in the middle of the night because a voice in a dark alley said, “Help me.” And the Jews and Samaritans hated each other; they didn’t have, like today, a setup where people want not to be racist. For that Samaritan to help that Jew was for one gang member to stick his neck out pretty far for a stranger who was from a hostile gang. This is near the top of stupid things you absolutely don’t do. Was Jesus exaggerating? He was making a quite ludicrous exaggeration to make the point that your neighbor is every person you meet and every person you do not meet, every person who you like, every person who bothers you, every person who is unkind, every enemy and every pest you loathe. Jesus was exaggerating, in fact, to respond to someone who was trying to be too comfortable and make him pointedly uncomfortable. I believe the other person was expecting Jesus to draw a reasonable line of reasonable boundaries to his love, and Jesus was quite blunt about setting an impossible and unreasonable standard.
If we try hard enough, we can shut our eyes and neutralize this story. We can neutralize how uncomfortable it makes us; we can neutralize any way this story might contradict today’s psychological dogma of boundaries… and we can neutralize the priceless pearl that this story is meant to help us find. And this story does hold a priceless pearl for us.
The point is not that if someone asks you into a situation that makes you uncomfortable, you must go. I don’t really think the point is to set much of any kind of literal prescription for how far your love must go. The point is that what is being asked is impossible. Simply impossible, and beyond your power, and beyond my power. It’s a command of, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain.” If someone said, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds off the ground,” that would be possible for some people with dedicated training. But the most powerfully built athlete who goes through the most disciplined training cannot lift a medium-sized boulder, let alone a mountain. Jesus isn’t saying, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds,” which is something that some of us could achieve through a gargantuan effort. He’s saying, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain,” and he’s exaggerating, but the whole point is that he’s asking something impossible. Only the divine can love that way.
The whole secret hinges on that. The divine became human that the human might become divine. The Creator entered into the creation that the creation might enter into the Creator. Orthodoxy is not a set of rules, however good, to safeguard purely human love. The point of Orthodoxy is to be transformed by the divine love so we can live the life that God lives and love with the love that God loves. It is to live the life of Heaven, beginning here and now. It is to transfigure every human love so that it becomes divine love. Out of love, God became as we are, that out of love we might become as he is. And what feminism seeks in caring grows to its full stature in Orthodoxy.
There is something fundamental that is missed about Orthodoxy if it is understood as a set of practices organized around love, or a set of ideas in which love is prominent, or a movement which tries to help people be more loving. That has some truth, but the truth is more than that. The human cannot be understood without the divine; to be human is to participate, however imperfectly, in God. Orthodoxy can no longer be understood as a movement or a system of ideas and practices than a campfire can be understood as a collection of sticks. The sticks are not just arranged a certain way in a campfire; they burn, and you cannot understand even the arrangement of the sticks unless you are aware of the fire that is the reason they are arranged. Not only to be Orthodox but to be human is to be made in the image of God, which in Orthodoxy has always meant that we are not separate miniatures of God, but manifestations of his glory. God is not merely a First Cause who started things off; he is the blazing Sun whose light shines on everything that daylight illuminates.
Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of feminism. If feminism is a deep question, Orthodoxy is a deep answer that responds to the depths of motherly love with the limitless depths of divine love. This is not just with love. More spiritual feminists tend to like the idea of synchronicity, the idea that materialist causation isn’t the whole picture. Synchronicity is the idea that they’re not just isolated domino chains with one domino knocking another domino down; the chains are linked in ways that go beyond dominos bumping into each other. There is a richer picture. And Orthodoxy believes all this and more. Orthodoxy has never been through the Enlightenment, when people tried to argue that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge and that the kind of cause-and-effect science studies is not only valid but the only way things come about. People used to believe something richer, and in Orthodoxy we still do: that there can be reasons why things happen; there is an explanation for “Why?” and not just a mechanism that answers “How?” Dominoes do fall, but you will never understand the picture if you only think there are isolated chains of dominoes. All of this is part of the Orthodox understanding of divine providence. Yet providence is deeper than synchronicity. Synchronicity is a jailbreak; providence is a voyage home. Less flatteringly, synchronicity is providence with its head cut off. Synchronicity recognizes interesting designs in the events of our lives. Providence turns from those interesting designs to an interesting designer, and to some Orthodox, the idea of trying to be spiritual by delving into synchronicity and other themes of Jungian psychology is like inviting people over for wine and cheese and serving Velveeta. We have Camembert, we have Brie, we have goat cheese, and when Orthodox see how often “being spiritual” to a feminist means “digging into Jungian psychology,” we want to tell you that Velveeta isn’t your only choice! Jesus said, “You will know a tree by its fruits:” people’s lives can offer a serious red flag about whether you should trust them and trust what they say. Orthodoxy has saints with better lives than a psychiatrist widely known to have slept with his patients in a relationship that was far more problematic than a mere case of raging hormones. Velveeta’s the easiest cheese to find at most stores, but it’s possible to find better. Orthodoxy deeply engaged the pillars of Jungian psychology far earlier than Jung did, and the reason we reach for something better is that there is something better to reach for.
Feminism senses that there is something wrong with Western culture, and is searching for healing. One of the strange things about Orthodoxy is that you realize you were right all along. Becoming Orthodox has been a confirmation of things I’ve sensed, and this is not because I was a particular type of Christian or because I am a man, but because I’m human. I believe that becoming Orthodox, to a feminist, will mean much more than an affirmation of what feminism yearns for. But that’s not the only strange thing. One Calvin and Hobbes strip shows the two characters walking through a wood. Calvin asks, “Do you believe in evolution? You know, do you believe that humans evolved from monkeys?” Hobbes’ answer is simple: “I can’t tell any difference.” The strip ends with Calvin chasing Hobbes. Orthodoxy might answer the question, “Do you believe evolution is the right answer to the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?'” by saying:
No, evolution is absolutely not the right answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” For that matter, it is not even a wrong answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” It is not an answer to any “Why?” question at all. It is an answer to a “How?” question, and even if evolution were the whole truth and didn’t have any problems answering, “How is there life as we know it?” it is a mechanism to tell how things happen and not an explanation of why things happened. To say, “Why is there life as we know it? Because life evolved just like the theory of evolution says,” is a bit like saying, “Why is the dining room light on? Because the switch is in the ‘on’ position, causing electricity to flow so that the light glows brightly.” That’s how the light is on, but the reason why the light on is that someone decided, “I want light.”
The theory of evolution doesn’t answer that question. It might answer a different question, but the theory of evolution is not so much false as a distraction, if you are interested in the great and terrible question, “Why?” Instead of figuring out whether evolution is the correct mechanism, you might realize that it answers a different question, and start to ask the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”
“Why is there life as we know it?” is a meaty question, a you can grow into, and if you grow into it, you can learn about a creation that reflects God’s glory. You can learn about layers of symbol, and a physical world that is tied up with the spiritual and manifests its glory. You can learn about many layers of existence, and the body that has humanity as its head. You can learn that the mysteries in a woman’s heart resonate with the mysteries of life, and begin to see how a woman in particular is an image of the earth. You can learn about all sorts of spiritual qualities that the theory of evolution will never lead you to ask about. And you might learn that there are other questions, deeper questions to grow into, and start to grow into something even deeper than trying to answer questions.
So no, the theory of evolution is not the right way to answer the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”
And most of the time it happens without any philosophy or need to wrap your mind around some dense or subtle idea. Part of Orthodoxy is being caught off-guard by God again and again. It’s being informed, “I can’t tell any difference.” It’s asking how to pursue a great goal and learning that you shouldn’t have been pursuing that goal in the first place. It’s trying to find the best way to get all your ducks lined up, and asking the Lord’s help, and realizing that the Lord is calling for you to trust him and let him worry about the ducks. If he wants to. These are two sides of a paradox, and Orthodoxy presents them both to everyone.
The website for the Ubuntu Linux distribution announced that Ubuntu is “an ancient African word” meaning humanity to others. It announced how it carried forward the torch of a Linux distribution that’s designed for regular people to use. And this promotion of “an ancient African word” has bothered a few people: one South African blogger tried to explain several things: for instance, he mentioned that “ubuntu” had been a quite ordinary Xhosa/Zulu word meaning “humanity,” mentioned that it had been made into a political rallying cry in the 20th century, and drew an analogy: saying, “‘Ubuntu’ is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity'” is as silly as saying, in reverential tones, “‘People’ is an ancient European word meaning, ‘more than one person.'” There is an alternative definition provided in the forums of Gentoo, a technical aficionado’s Linux distribution: “Ubuntu. An African word meaning, ‘Gentoo is too hard for me.'”
The blogger raised questions of gaffe in the name of the distribution; he did not raise questions about the Linux distribution itself, nor would I. Ubuntu is an excellent Linux distribution for nontechnical users, it gets some things very much right, and I prefer it to most other forms of Linux I’ve seen—including Gentoo. I wouldn’t bash the distribution, nor would I think of bashing what people mean by making “ubuntu” a rallying-cry in pursuing, in their words, “Linux for human beings.”
The offense lay in something else, and it is something that, in American culture at least, runs deep: it was a crass invocation of an Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom. It is considered an impressive beginning to a speech to open by recounting an Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Awesome Nugget of Profound Wisdom: whether one is advertising a Linux distribution, a neighbor giving advice over a fence in Home Improvement, or a politician delivering a speech, it is taken as a mark of sophistication and depth to build upon the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom.
At times I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Awesome Nugget of Profound Wisdom is the mouthpiece for whatever is fashionable in the West at the time. Let me give one illustration, if one that veers a bit close to the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom:
One American friend of mine, when in Kenya, gave a saying that was not from any of the people groups she was interacting with, but was from a relatively close neighboring people group: “When you are carrying a child in your womb, he only belongs to you. When he is born, he belongs to everyone.” The proverb speaks out of an assumption that not only parents but parents’ friends, neighbors, elders, shopkeepers, and ultimately all adults, stand in parentis loco. All adults are ultimately responsible for all children and are responsible for exercising a personal and parental care to help children grow into mature adulthood. As best I understand, this is probably what a particular community in Africa might mean in saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
What is a little strange is that, if these words correspond to anything in the U.S., they are conservative, and speak to a conservative desire to believe that not only parents but neighbors, churches, civic and local organizations, businesses and the like, all owe something to the moral upbringing of children: that is to say, there are a great many forces outside the government that owe something to local children. And this is quite the opposite of saying that we need more government programs because it takes a full complement of government initiatives and programs to raise a child well—becacuse, presumably, more and more bureaucratic initiatives are what the (presumably generic) African sages had in mind when they gave the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom and said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” There is some degree of irony in making “It takes a village” a rallying-cry in pushing society further away from what, “It takes a village to raise a child,” could have originally meant—looking for advice on how to build a statist Western-style cohort of bureaucratic government programs would be as inconceivable in many traditional African cultures as looking for instructions on how to build a computer in the New Testament.
My point in mentioning this is not primarily sensitivity to people who don’t like hearing people spout about a supposedly “ancient African word” such as, “Ubuntu.” Nor is my point really about how, whenever a saying is introduced as an ancient aboriginal proverb, the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom ends up shanghied into being an eloquent statement of whatever fads are blowing around in the West today. My deepest concern is that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom hinges on something that is bad for us spiritually.
The Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is tied to what the Orthodox Church refers to as a “passion,” which means something very different from either being passionately in love, or being passionate about a cause or a hobby, or even religious understandings of the passion of Christ. The concept of a passion is a religious concept of a spiritual disease that one feeds by thoughts and actions that are out of step with reality. There is something like the concept of a passion in the idea of an addiction, a bad habit, or in other Christians whose idea of sin is mostly about spiritual state rather than mere actions. A passion is a spiritual disease that we feed by our sins, and the concern I raise about the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is one way—out of many ways we have—that we feed one specific passion.
The Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is occult, and we cannot give the same authority to any source that is here and now. If we listen to the wise voices of elders, it is only elders from faroff lands who can give such deeply relevant words: I have never heard such a revered Nugget of Wisdom come from the older generation of our own people, or any of the elders we meet day to day.
By “occult” I mean something more than an Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom that might note that the word “occult” etymologically signifies “hidden”—and still does, in technical medical usage—and that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom has been dug up from someplace obscure and hidden. Nor is it really my point that the Nugget may be dug up from an occult source—as when I heard an old man, speaking with a majesterial voice, give a homily for the (Christmas) Festival of Lessons and Carols that begun by building on a point from a famous medieval Kabalist. These are at best tangentially related. What I mean by calling the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom occult is that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is the fruit of the same tree as explicitly occult practices—and they are tributaries feeding the same river.
Occult sin is born out of a sense that the way things are in the here and now that God has placed us in are not enough: Gnosticism has been said to hinge, not so much on a doctrine, but something like a mood, a mood of despair. (You might say a passion of despair.) Gnostic Scripture is a sort of spiritual porn that offers a dazzling escape from the present—a temptation whose power is much stronger on people yearning for such escape than for people who have learned the virtuous innoculation of contentment.
It takes virtue to enjoy even vice, and that includes contentment. As a recovering alcoholic will tell you, being drunk all the time is misery, and, ultimately, you have to be at least somewhat sober even to enjoy getting drunk. It takes humility to enjoy even pride, and chastity to enjoy even lust. Contentment does not help us escape—it helps us find joy where we were not looking for it, precisely in what we were trying to escape. We do not find a way out of the world—what we find is really and truly a way into where God has placed us.
One can almost imagine a dialogue between God and Adam:
Adam: I’m not content.
God: What do you want me to do?
Adam: I want you to make me contented.
God: Ok, how do you want me to do that?
Adam: First of all, I don’t want to have to engage in ardent, strenuous labor like most people. I don’t want to do that kind of work at all.
Adam: And that’s not all. I want to have enough bread to feel full.
Adam: Scratch that. I want as much meat as I want.
God: Ok, as much meat as you want.
Adam: And sweet stuff like ice cream.
God: Ok, I’ll give you Splenda ice cream so it won’t show up on your waistline.
Adam: And I don’t like to be subject to the weather and the elements you made. I want a home which will be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
God: Sure. And I’ll give you hot and cold running water, too!
Adam: Speaking of that, I don’t like how my body smells—could we do something to hide that?
God: I’ll let you bathe. Each day. In as much water as you want. And I’ll give you deodorant to boot!
Adam: Oh, and by the way, I want to make my own surroundings—not just a home. I want electronics to put me in another world.
[Now we’re getting nowhere in a hurry!]
This may be a questionable portrayal of God, but it is an accurate portrayal of the Adam who decided that being an immortal in paradise wasn’t good enough for him.
Have all these things made us content?
Or have we used them to feed a passion?
We have a lot of ways of wishing that God had placed us someplace else, someplace different. One of the most interesting books I’ve glanced through, but not read, was covered in pink rosy foliage, and said that it was dealing with the #1 cause of unhappiness in women’s relationships. And that #1 cause was a surprise: romantic fantasies. The point was that dreaming up a romantic fantasy and then trying to make it real is a recipe, not for fulfillment, but for heartbreaking disappointment in circumstances where you could be truly happy. (When you have your heart set on a fantasy of just how the perfect man will fulfill all your desires and transform your world, no real man can seem anything but a disappointing shadow next to your fantasy.)
This is not just a point about fantasies in romance. It is also a point that has something to do with technological wonders, secret societies, fascination with the paranormal, Star Trek, World of Warcraft, television, Dungeons and Dragons, sacramental shopping, SecondLife, conspiracy theories, smartphones, daydreams, Halloween, Harry Potter, Wicked, Wicca, The Golden Compass, special effects movies, alienated feminism, radical conservativism, Utopian dreams, political plans to transform the world, and every other way that we tell God, “Sorry, what you have given me is not good enough”—or what is much the same, wish God had given us something quite different.
Why, in my life, is ______ so difficult to me about ______? (I don’t know; why has she forgiven every single one of the astonishingly stupid things I’ve done over the years?) Why can’t I lose a couple of pounds when I want to? (I don’t know; why do I have enough food that I wish I could lose pounds?) Why am I struggling with my debts? (I don’t know; why do I have enough for now?) Why did I have to fight cancer? (I don’t know; why am I alive and strong now?) Why does I stand to lose so much of what I’ve taken for granted? (I don’t know. Why did I take them all for granted? And why did I have so many privileges growing up?) Why _______? (Why not? Why am I ungrateful and discontent with so many blessings?)
Contentment is a choice, and it has been made by people in much bleaker circumstances than mine.
I write this, not as one who has mightily fought this temptation to sin and remained pure, but as one who has embraced the sin wholeheartedly. I know the passion from the inside, and I know it well. Most of my cherished works on this site were written to be “interesting”, and more specifically “interesting” as some sort of escape from a dreary here and now.
There is enough of this sin that, when I began to repent, I wondered if repenting would leave anything left in my writing. And after I had let go of that, I found that there was still something left to write. C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, alluded to the Sermon on the Mount (where Christ said that if our right hand or our right eye causes us to sin, we should rip it out and enter Heaven maimed rather than let our whole body be thrown into the lake of burning sulfur): Lewis said that the journey to Heaven may cost us our right hand and our right eye—but when we arrive in Heaven, we will find that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. Continuing to repent has meant changes for me, and it will (I hope) mean further changes. But I let go of writing only to find that I still had things to write. I gave up on trying to be “interesting” and make my own interesting private world and found, by the way, that God and his world are really quite interesting.
When we are repenting, or trying to, or trying not to, repentance is the ultimate terror. It seems unconditional surrender—and it is. But when we do repent, we realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell,” and we realize that repentance is also a waking up, a coming to our senses, and a coming to joy.
What we don’t want to hear
I would like to say a word on the politically incorrect term of “unnatural vice.” Today there is an effort on some Christians to not distinguish that sharply between homosexuality and straight sexual sins. And it is always good practice to focus on one’s own sins and their gravity, but there are very specific reasons to be concerned about unnatural vice. Let me draw an analogy.
It is a blinding flash of the obvious that a well-intentioned miscommunication can cause a conflict that is painful to all involved. And if miscommunications are not necessarily a sin, they can be painful enough, and not the sort of thing one wants to celebrate. However, there is a depth of difference between an innocent, if excruciatingly painful, miscommunication on the one hand, and the kind of conflict when someone deliberately gives betrayal under the guise of friendship. The Church Fathers had a place for a holy kiss as a salute among Christians, but in their mind the opposite of a holy kiss was not a kiss that was what we would understand “inappropriate,” but when Judas said, “Master,” saluted the Lord with a kiss, and by so doing betrayed him to be tortured to death. A painful miscommunication is bad enough, but a betrayal delivered under the guise of friendship is a problem with a higher pay grade.
Lust benefits no one, and it is not just the married who benefit from beating back roving desire, but the unmarried as well. But when Scripture and the Fathers speak of unnatural vice, they know something we’ve chosen to forget. And part of what we have forgotten is that “unnatural vice” is not just something that the gay rights movement advocates for. “Unnatural vice” includes several sins with higher pay grades, and one of them is witchcraft.
To people who have heard all the debates about whether, for instance, same-sex relationships might be unnatural for straight people but natural for gays, it may be a bit of culture shock to hear anything besides gay sex called “unnatural vice.” But the term is there in the Fathers, and it can mean other things. It might include contraception. And it definitely includes what we think of as a way to return to nature in witchcraft.
Adam reigned as an immortal king and lord over the whole world. He had a wife like nothing else in all Creation, paradise for a home, and harmony with nature such as we could not dream of. And, he was like a little boy with a whole room full of toys who is miserable because he wants another toy and his parents said “No.” And lest we look down on Adam, we should remember that I am Adam, and you are Adam.
We have not lost all his glory, but we are crippled by his passion.
Adam wanted something beyond what he was given, something beyond his ken. An Orthodox hymn says, “Wanting to be a god, Adam failed to be god.” More on that later. Adam experienced the desire that draws people to magic—even if the magic’s apparent promise is a restored harmony with nature. This vice shattered the original harmony with nature, and brought a curse on not only Adam but nature itself. It corrupted nature. It introduced death. It means that many animals are terrified of us. It means that even the saints, the holiest of people, are the most aware of how much evil is in them—most of us are disfigured enough that we can think we don’t have any real problem. There is tremendous good in the human person, too; that should be remembered. But even the saints are great sinners. All of this came through Adam’s sin. How much more unnatural of a vice do you ask for than that?
Trying to restore past glory, and how it further estranges us from the past
When I was visiting a museum promising an exhibit on the Age of Reason, I was jarred to see ancient Greek/Roman/… items laid out in exhibits; what was being shown about the Enlightenment was the beginning of museums as we have them today. I was expecting to see coverage of a progressive age, and what I saw was a pioneering effort to reclaim past glory. Out of that jarring I realized something that historians might consider a blinding flash of the obvious. Let me explain the insight nonetheless, before tying it in with harmony with nature.
When people have tried to recover past glory, through the Western means of antiquarian reconstruction, the result severs continuity with the recent past and ultimately made a deeper schism from the more remote past as well.
The Renaissance was an attempt to recover the glory of classical antiquity, but the effect was not only to more or less end what there was in the Middle Ages, but help the West move away from some things that were common to the Middle Ages and antiquity alike. The Reformation might have accomplished many good things, but it did not succeed in its goal in resurrecting the ancient Church; it created a new way of being Christian. The Protestants I know are moral giants compared to much of what was going on in Rome in Luther’s day, and they know Scripture far better, but Protestant Christianity is a decisive break from something that began in the Early Church and remained unbroken even in corrupt 16th century Rome. And it is not an accident that the Reformers dropped the traditional clerical clothing and wore instead the scholar’s robes. (Understanding the Scripture was much less approached through reading the saints, much more by antiquarian scholarship.) The Enlightenment tried again to recover classical glory, and it was simultaneously a time, not of breaking with unbroken ways of being Christian, but of breaking with being Christian itself. Romanticism could add the Middle Ages to the list of past glorious ages, and it may well be that without the Romantics, we would not have great medievalists like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. But it was also something new. Every single time that I’m aware of that the West has tried to recover the glory of a bygone age, the effect has been a deeper rift with the past, both recent and ultimately ancient, leaving people much further alienated from the past than if they had continued without the reconstruction. I remember being astonished, not just to learn that two Vatican II watchwords were ressourcement (going back to ancient sources to restore past glory) and aggiornamiento (bringing things up-to-date, which in practice meant bringing Rome in line with 1960’s fads), nor that the two seemed to be two sides of the same coin, but that this was celebrated without anybody seeming to find something of a disturbing clue in this. The celebrations of these two watchwords seemed like a celebration of going to a hospital to have a doctor heal an old wound and inflict a new wound that is more fashionable.
The lesson would seem to be, “If you see a new way to connect with the past and recover past glory, be very careful. Consider it like you might consider a skilled opponent, in a game of chess, leaving a major piece vulnerable. It looks spiritually enticing, but it might be the bait for a spiritual trap, and if so, the consequences of springing for the bait might be a deeper rift with the past and its glory.”
Not quite as shallow an approach to translate the past into the present…
Here is what you might do one day to live a bit more like prehistoric Grecians, or ancient Celts, or medieval Gallic peasants, or whatever. Keep in mind that this is at best half-way to its goal, not a full-fledged return to living like an ancient in harmony with nature to a day, but making a rough equivalent by using what is closest from our world:
However exotic the setting may seem to you, remember that it is a fundamental confusion to imagine that the setting was exotic to those inside the experience. We not only meet new people frequently; we see new technologies invented frequently. In The Historic Setting, people most likely were born, lived, and died within twenty miles, and even meeting another person who was not part of your village was rare. A new invention, or a new idea, would be difficult to imagine, let alone point to. So, for one day, whatever you’re doing, if it feels exotic, avoid it like the plague. Stop it immediately. Don’t read anything new; turn off your iPod; don’t touch Wikipedia. Don’t seek excitement; if anything, persevere in things you find boring.
Remembering that there was a lot of heavy manual labor, and stuff that was shared, spend your nice Saturday helping a friend move her stuff into her new apartment. Remember that while stairs were rare in antiquity, it would be an anachronism to take the elevator. Be a good manual laborer and do without the anachronism.
Remembering how the Sermon on the Mount betrays an assumption that most people were poor enough that houses would only have one room, spend your time at home, as much as possible, in one room of your house.
Remembering that the ancient world had no sense of “Jim’s trying to lose weight and is on an old-fashioned low-fat diet, Mary’s a vegan, Al’s low carb…”, but rather there was one diet that everybody day ate, go to McDonald’s, order a meal with McDonald’s McFries McSoaked in McGrease, and a sugary-sweet, corn-syrup-powered shake.If you just said to yourself, “He didn’t say what size; I’ll order the smallest I can,” order the biggest meal you can.
Remembering that in the ancient world the company you kept were not your eclectic pick, spend time with the people around you. Go to your neighbor Ralph who blares bad ’80s rock because he thinks it’s the best thing in the world, and like a good guest don’t criticize what your host has provided—including his music. Spend some time playing board games with your annoying kid sister, and then go over to visit your uncle Wally and pretend to tolerate his sexist jokes.
Lastly, when you head home do have a good night’s sleep, remember that a bed with sheets covering a smooth mattress was only slightly more common than a Frank Lloyd Wright home is today, go to sleep on a straw pallet in your virtual one room house. (You can use organic straw if you can find any.)
This may seem, to put it politely, a way you would never have thought to live like an age in harmony with nature. But let me ask a perfectly serious question:
What did you expect? Did you imagine dressing up as a bard, dancing on hilltops, and reciting poetry about the endless knot while quaffing heather ale?
G.K. Chesterton said that there is more simplicity in eating caviar on impulse than eating grape-nuts on principle. In a similar fashion, there is more harmony with nature in instinctively pigging out at McDonald’s than making a high and lonely spiritual practice out of knowing all the herbs in a meadow.
The vignette of harmony with nature as dancing on hilltops is an image of a scene where harmony with nature means fulfilling what we desire for ourselves. The image of hauling boxes to help a friend is a scene where harmony with nature means transcending mere selfish desire. There is a common thread of faithfulness to unadvertised historical realities running through the six steps listed above. But there is another common thread:
It chafes against a passion that people in ages past knew they needed to beat back.
Living according to nature in the past did not work without humility, and living in harmony with nature today did not work with humility.
There is a great deal of difference between getting help in living for yourself, and getting help in living for something more for yourself, and living for something more than yourself—such as people needed to survive in ancient communities close to nature—is the real treasure. It is spirituality with an ugly pair of work gloves, and it is a much bigger part of those communities that have been in harmony with nature than the superficially obvious candidates like spending more time outside and knowing when to plant different crops. If you clarify, “Actually, I was really more interested in the spirituality of a bygone age and its harmony with nature,” you are missing something. Every one of those humbling activities is pregnant with spirituality—and is spiritual in a much deeper way than merely feeling the beauty of a ritual.
Perhaps we would be wise to remember the words of the Delphic Oracle, “Know thyself,” which does not say what we might imagine today. Those words might have been paraphrased, “Know thy place, O overreaching mortal!”
And, in terms of humility, that has much more to give us than trying to reach down inside and make a sandcastle of an identity, and hope it won’t be another sandcastle.
Should I really be patting myself on the back?
I try to follow a diet that is closer to many traditional diets, has less processing and organic ingredients when possible, and I believe for several reasons that I am right in doing so: medical, animal welfare, and environmental. But before I pat myself on the back too hard for showing the spirit of Orthodoxy in harmony with nature, I would be well advised to remember that there is far more precedent in the Fathers and in the saint’s lives for choosing to live on a cup of raw lentils a week or a diet of rancid fish.
Saints may have followed something of a special diet, but that is because they believed and acted out of the conviction that they were unworthy of the good things of the world, including the common fare what most people ate. My diet, like other diets in fashion, is a diet that tells me that the common fare eaten by most people is simply unworthy of me. This may well enough be true—I have doubts about how much of today’s industrially produced diet is fit for human consumption at all—and I may well enough answer, “But of course the Quarter Pounder with ‘Cheese’ eaten by an inner-city teen is unworthy of me—it’s just as unworthy, if not more unworthy, of the inner-city teens who simply accept it as normal to eat.” Even so, I have put myself in a difficult position. The saints thought they were unworthy of common fare. I believe that common fare is unworthy of me, and trying to believe that without deadly pride is trying to smoke, but not inhale.
In the Book of James, the Lord’s brother says that the poor should exult because of their high position while the rich should be humble because of their low position. The same wisdom might see that the person who eats anything that tastes good is the one in the high position, and the person who avoids most normal food out of a special diet’s discrimination is in a position that is both low and precarious.
The glory of the Eucharist unfurls in a common meal around a table, and this “common” meal is common because it is shared. To pull back from “common” food is to lose something very Eucharistic about the meal, and following one more discriminating diet like mine is a way to heals one breach of harmony with nature by opening up what may be a deeper rift.
If evil is necessary, does it stop being evil?
Orthodoxy in the West inherits something like counterculture, and there is something amiss when Orthodox carry over unquestioned endeavors to build a counterculture or worldview or other such Western fads. If Orthodoxy in the West is countercultural, that doesn’t mean that counterculture is something to seek out: if Orthodoxy is countercultural, that is a cost it pays. Civil disobedience can be the highest expression of a citizen’s respect for law. Amputation can be the greatest expression of a physician’s concern for a patient’s life. However, these things are not basically good, and there is fundamental confusion in seeking out occasions to show such measures.
Another basis to try and learn from the past
To someone in the West, Orthodoxy may have a mighty antiquarian appeal. Orthodox saints, for the most part, speak from long ago and far away. However, this isn’t the point; it’s a side effect of a Church whose family of saints has been growing for millennia. Compare this, for instance, to a listing of great computer scientists—who will all be recent, not because computer science in an opposite fashion needs to be new, but because computer science hasn’t been around nearly long enough for there to be a fourth century von Neumann or Knuth.
Some people wanting very hard knife blades—this may horrify an antiquarian—acquire nineteenth century metal files and grind them into knife blades. The reason for this is that metallurgists today simply do not know how to make steel as hard as the hardest Victorian-era metal files. The know-how is lost. And the hobbyists who seek a hard metal file as the starting point for their knife blades do not choose old metalwork because it is old; they choose old metal files because they are the hardest they can get. And there is something like this in the Orthodox Church. The point of a saint’s life is not how exotic a time and place the saint is from; the point of a saint’s life is holiness, a holiness that is something like a nineteenth century adamantine-hard metal file.
If there are problems in turning back the clock, the Orthodox Church has some very good news. This good news is not exactly a special way to turn back the clock; it is rather the good news that the clock can be lifted up.
There is a crucial difference between trying to restore the past, and hoping that it will lift you into Heaven, and being lifted up into Heaven and finding that a healthy connection with the past comes with it. The Divine Liturgy is a lifting up of the people and their lives up to Heaven: a life that begins here and now.
The hymn quoted earlier, “Adam, trying to be a god, failed to be god,” continues, “Christ became man that he might make Adam god.” The saying has rumbled down through the ages, “God (the Son of God) became a Man (the Son of Man) that men (the sons of men) might become gods (the Sons of God).” The bad news, if it is bad news, is that we cannot escape a present into the beauty of Eden. The good news is that the present can itself be lifted up, that the doors to Eden remain open.
In some ways our search for happiness is like that of a grandfather who cannot find his glasses no matter how many places he looks—because they are right on his nose.
Men are not from Mars!
I was once able to visit a Mars Society conference—a conference from an organization whose purpose is to send human colonists to Mars.
To many of the people there, the question of whether we are “a spacefaring race” is much weightier than the question of whether medical research can find a cure for cancer. It’s not just that a human colony on Mars would represent a first-class triumph of science and humanity; it is rather that the human race is beyond being a race of complete, unspeakable, and obscene losers if we don’t come to our senses and colonize Mars so the human race is not just living on this earth and living the kind of life we live now. The question of whether we colonize Mars is, in an ersatz sense, the religious question of whether we as a race have salvation. The John 3:16 of this movement is, “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one does not remain in a cradle forever.”
The Mars Society holds an essay contest to come up with essays about why we should colonize Mars; the title of the contest, and perhaps of the essays, is, “Why Mars?” And, though I never got around to writing it, there was something I wanted to write.
This piece, having a fictional setting, would be written from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl who was the first person to be raised on Mars, and would provide another comparison of life on Mars to life on earth. And the essay would be snarky, sarcastic, angry, and bitter, because of something that people looking with starry eyes at a desired Mars colony miss completely.
What does the Mars Society not get about what they hope for?
When I was a student at Wheaton College, one of my friends told of a first heavy snowfall where students from warmer climates, some of whom had never experienced such a snowfall personally, were outside and had a delightful snowball fight. And they asked my friend, “How can you not be out here playing?” My friend’s answer: “Just wait four months. You’ll see.”
One’s first snowball fight is quite the pleasant experience, and presumably one’s first time putting on a spacesuit is much better. But what my unattractively cynical friend didn’t like about Wheaton’s winter weather is a piece of cake compared to needing to put on a spacesuit and go through an airlock on a planet where the sum total of places one can go without a bulky, heavy, clumsy, uncomfortable, and hermetically sealed spacesuit, is dwarfed by a small rural village of a thousand people, and dwarfed by a medium sized jail. If you are the first person to grow up on Mars, the earth will seem a living Eden which almost everyone alive but you is privileged to live in. And the title of the snarky, sarcastic, and bitterly miserable essay I wished I could write from the perspective of the first human raised on Mars was, “Why Earth?”
I’m used to seeing people wish they could escape the here and now, but the Mars Society took this to a whole new level—so much so that I was thinking, “This is not a job for science and engineering; this is a job for counseling!” People were alienated from the here and now they had on earth, and the oomph of the drive to go to Mars seemed to be because of something else entirely from the (admittedly very interesting) scientific and engineering issues. Having the human race not even try to live on Mars was so completely unacceptable to them because of their woundedness.
If you don’t know how to be happy where God has placed you, escape will not solve the problem. In the case of Mars, the interesting issue is not so much whether colonization is possible, but whether it is desirable. Escape may take you out of the frying pan and into the thermite. (What? You didn’t know that astronauts do not feel free, but like tightly wedged “spam in a can,” with land control micromanaging you more than you would fear in a totalitarian regime, down to every bite of food you take in? Tough; a real opportunity to colonize Mars won’t feel like being in an episode of Star Trek or Firefly.)
This is the playing out of a passion, and what the Mars Society seeks will not make them permanently happy. Success in their goals will not cure such misery any more than enough fuel will soothe a fire.
Confucius said, “When I see a virtuous man, I try to be like him. When I see an evil man, I reflect on my own behavior.” Assuming you’re not from the Mars Society (and perhaps offended), do you see anything of yourself in the Mars Society?
A more satisfying kind of drink
I talked with a friend about a cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, which I like for the most part but where there was a bit of a burr: the author ground an axe against alcoholic beverages fermented by yeast. The stated position of the book is a report of a certain type of traditional nutrition, and the author overrode that when it came to traditions that used rum and such.
My friend said that what I said was accurate: certain more alcoholic drinks were traditional, and the principles of Nourishing Traditions did not support all the ways the author was grinding an axe against yeast-fermented alcohol, just as I thought. However, my friend suggested, the author was right about this. Lacto-fermented beverages, fermented by another ancient process that gives us cheese, sourdough, sauerkraut, corned beef, and the like, which Nourishing Traditions did promote, satisfy in a way that yeast-fermented beverages do not. People, it seems, use beer, wine, and liquor because they remind them of the satisfaction of the more ancient method of fermentation.
I’m not looking at giving up the occasional drink, but something of that rings true—and parallels a spiritual matter. People turn to a quest for the exotic, and that is illicit. But the Orthodox experience is that if you stay put, in the here and now, and grow spiritually, every year or so something exotic happens that is like falling off a cliff, when you repent. And that may be what people are connecting with in the wrong way in the pursuit of the exotic. If you give up on following the exotic, something beyond exotic may follow you.
There was another piece that I was thinking of writing, but did not come together. The title I was thinking of was, The Idiot—no connection to Dostoevsky’s work of the same name, nor to what we would usually think of as a lack of intelligence.
I was imagining a Socratic dialogue, along the same lines as Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? in which it unfolds that the person who doesn’t get it is someone who has great success in constructing his own private world through technology, introspection, and everything else. Etymologically, the word “idiot” signifies someone who’s off on his own—someone who does not participate in the life of civilization—and our civilization offers excellent resources to dodge civilization and create your own private world. And that is a loss.
And being an idiot in this sense is not a matter of low IQ. It is not the mentally retarded I have known who need to repent most, if at all. Usually it is the most brilliant I have known who best use their gifts and resources to be, in the classical sense, idiots.
Some adamantine-hard metal files that may hone us
At the risk of irony after opening by a complaint about words of wisdom from other lands selected for being exotic…
My mother recounted how a friend of hers was visiting one of her friends, a poor woman in Guatemala. She looked around her host’s kitchen, and said, “You don’t have any food around.” Her hostess said, “No, I don’t, but I will,” and then paused a moment longer, and said, “And if I had the food now, what would I need God for?” That woman is wise. Those of us who live in the West pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and probably have a 401(k) plan. Which is to say that “Give us today our daily bread” is almost an ornament to us. A very pious ornament, but it is still an ornament.
If we are entering hard times today, is that an end to divine providence?
We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:
Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue.
Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.
All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.
The story is probably apocryphal, but I heard of an African pastor (sorry, I don’t know his nationality) who visited the U.S. and said, “It’s absolutely amazing what you can do without the Holy Spirit!” That is, perhaps, not what we want to hear as a compliment. But here in the U.S., if we need God, it’s been easy to lose sight of the fact. Homeless people usually know where their next meal is coming from, or at least it’s been that way, and homeless people have been getting much more appetizing meals than bread alone. Those of us who are not homeless have even more power than that.
An English friend of mine talked about how she was living in a very poor country, and one of her hosts said, “I envy you!” My friend didn’t know exactly what was coming next—she thought it might be something that offered no defense, and her hosts said, “You have everything, and you still rely on God. We have nothing; we have no real alternative. So we rely on God. But you have everything, and you still rely on God!” The point was not about wealth, but faith. The friend’s awe was not of a rich woman’s treasures on earth, but a rich woman’s treasures in Heaven. The camel really can go through the eye of the needle, and we may add to the list of examples by St. Peter of Damaskos, that we may thank God for first world wealth, because it gives us an opportunity to choose to rely on God.
Maybe we can add to St. Peter’s list. But we would do well to listen to his wisdom before adding to his list. We have been given many blessings in first world economic conditions, and if our economy is in decline—perhaps it will bounce back in a year, perhaps longer, perhaps never—we no less should find where our current condition is on the list above.
To have the words “Give us this day our daily bread” unfortunately be an ornament is rare, and perhaps it is not the most natural condition for us to be in. Whatever golden age you may like, centuries or millenia ago, there was no widespread wealth like we experience. Our natural condition is, in part, to be under economic constraint, to have limits that keep us from doing things, and in some sense the level of wealth we have had is not the most natural condition, like having a sedentary enough job that you only exercise when you choose to, is not the most natural condition. Now I don’t like being constrained any more than I have to, and I would not celebrate people losing their homes. However, if we have to be more mindful of what they spend, and don’t always get what we want, that may be a very big blessing in disguise.
Dorothy Sayers, speaking of World War II in “The Other Six Deadly Sins” (found in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World and other essay collections), discussed what life was like when the economy was enormously productive but as much productivity as possible was being wasted by the war effort. What she pointed out was that when people got used to rationing and scarcity, they found that this didn’t really mean that they couldn’t enjoy life—far from it. People could enjoy life when most of their economy’s productivity was being wasted by war instead of wasted by buying things that people didn’t need. She argued that England didn’t have a choice about learning to live frugally—but England could choose to apply this lesson once the war got out. England didn’t, and neither did the U.S., but the lesson is still good.
A recent news story discussed how adult children moved in with their parents as a measure of frugality, where the family was being frugal to the point of planning meals a month in advance and grinding their own flour. And what they found was that living simply was something of an adventure.
But the best of them have understood, as Wells and Stapleton did, that their main aim was imaginative. The were using ‘the future’ as a screen on which to project timeless truths for their own age. They were prophets primarily in the sense in which serious poets are so — spiritual guides, people with insight about the present and the universal, rather than literal predictors. For this purpose, it no more matters whether these supposedly future events will actually happen than it does for Hamlet and MacBeth whether what they show us actually happened in the past. The point of The Time Machine is not that the machine would work, nor that there might be Morlocks [a powerful, privileged technological elite] somewhere, some day. It is that there are Morlocks here now.
Note the last words. C.S. Lewis may quite directly and literally believe in a literal Heaven and a literal Hell, but Lewis understands Midgley’s closing point well, even if he wrote The Great Divorce decades before. He offers an introduction that ends with, “The last thing I wish is to arouse curiosity about the details of the after-world.” He may have no pretensions of knowing the details of the next life, but the reason he writes so compellingly about Heaven and Hell is not that someday, somewhere, we will experience Heaven or Hell. (Even if that is true.) He is able to write with such depth because Heaven and Hell are in us, here and now. And one of the cardinal spiritual factors in The Great Divorce is a cardinal spiritual factor here now. It is called repentance.
In The Sign of the Grail, Fr. Elijah brings George, a Christian, into the communion of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox speak of this as a conversion, but this means something beyond merely straightening out George’s worldview. Fr. Elijah may share wisdom with George, but he is interested in something fundamentally beyond getting George to accept a worldview. He is trying, in all of his various ways, to get George to wake up. It is the same as the blessed spirits in The Great Divorce who are in Heaven and keep saying to visitors from Hell, “Wake up! Wake up!” They do often discuss ideas with their visitors, but their goal is never merely to straighten out a tormented worldview; it is to open their visitors’ spiritual eyes so they will wake up to the reality of Heaven.
In The Great Divorce, visitors come from Hell, visit Heaven, keep receiving invitations to wake up and live in Heaven, and mostly keep on choosing Hell. If it is put that way, it sounds like a very strange story, but it is believable not primarily because of C.S. Lewis’s rhetorical powers, but because of the spiritual realities Lewis knows to write about. I have only heard one person claim to want to go to Hell, and then on the misunderstanding that you could enjoy the company of others in Hell. However, people miss something big about Hell if they think everybody will choose Heaven.
God does not send people to Hell, but the fires of Hell are nothing other than the light of Heaven experienced through the rejection of Christ. Hell appeared as a seed in the misery when, as I wrote earlier:
Adam reigned as an immortal king and lord over the whole world. He had a wife like nothing else in all Creation, paradise for a home, and harmony with nature such as we could not dream of. And, he was like a little boy with a whole room full of toys who is miserable because he wants another toy and his parents said “No.”
The Sermon on the Mount says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” But everyone will see God. God is love; his love is absolute and will flow absolutely. Because of that love, everybody will see God. And the saved will know this as blessing and as bliss beyond description. But to those who reject Christ, the light of Heaven, the light of seeing God, will be experienced as Hellfire. Hell is Heaven experienced through the rejection of the only ultimate joy that exists: Christ.
Repentance is recognizing that you are in a little Hell and choosing to leave by the one way you do not wish to leave. Elsewhere from the quotation from St. Peter, the Philokalia says, “People hold on to sin because they think it adorns them.” The woman addicted to alcohol may be in misery, but she has alcohol to seemingly anaesthetize the pain, and it is incredibly painful to give up the illusion that if you try hard enough and get just a bit of a solace, things will be OK. That’s a mighty hard thing to repent of: it’s easier to rationalize, decide to give it up by sheer willpower (perhaps tomorrow), or make a bargain to cut back to a more reasonable level—anything but wake up and stop trying to ignore that you’re standing barefoot in something really gross, and admit that what you need is not a bigger fan to drive away the stench while you stay where you are, but to step out in a cleaning operation that lasts a lifetime and cuts to your soul.
An alcoholic walking this path craves just a little bit of solace, just for now, and it is only much later that two things happen. First, the cravings are still hard, but they are no longer quite so overpowering. Second, she had forgotten what it felt like to be clean—really and truly clean—and she had forgotten what it was like to be doing something else with her life than trying to hide in a bottle. She had forgotten what freedom was like. And long after she gave up on her way of escaping life, she found she had forgotten what it was like to experience life, not as something to escape, but as something with joy even in its pain.
The gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. This much is true of passion: we think our sins adorn us, and we try to flee from the only place joy is to be found. Fleshly lust disenchants the entire universe; first everything else becomes dull and uninteresting, and ultimately stronger doses of lust lose even the semblance of being interesting. Spiritual lust, the passion that seeks escape from where God has placed us is, if anything, a sin with a higher pay grade than the fleshly lust that is bad enough, but spiritual lust too is the disenchantment of reality, a set of blinders that deflates all the beauty we are given in nature. Spiritual lust is the big brother of merely fleshly lust. Spiritual lust is something really, really, really gross that we need to step out of and get clean. We need to realize that the passion does not adorn us, that the sparkle of an exotic escape from a miserable here and now is, on a spiritual plane, spin doctoring for experiencing the here and now with despair. We do not see that we need not an escape from what God has given us, but gratitude and contentment.
But what if the here and now is not the best here and now? What if it’s with an Uncle Wally who tells sexist jokes no matter how you ask him to stop? What if the people you are with have real warts? There are a couple of responses. You might also think of what your uncle has done that you might be grateful for. You know, like when he helped you find and buy your first car. Or you could learn the power of choosing to be joyful when others act unpleasantly. Or you might read C.S. Lewis, The Trouble with X, and then look at how you might stand to profit from praying, with the Orthodox Church, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Once, when things went from hard times to easy times, one saint complained, saying that easy times rob the Church of her martyrs and her glory. If we are entering hard times, that does not place us outside of God’s reach nor Christ’s promise in the Sermon on the Mount: “For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
I glorify Thee,
Who hast cast Adam out of Paradise,
That we might learn by the sweat of our brow
The joy and the life that Adam scorned
As King of Paradise.
Glory be to the Father
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages.
And glory be to Thee,
Thou who blessest us
For better or for worse,
In sickness and in health,
In the Eternal Light and Love
Who illuminest marriage.
Glory be to thee whose blessings are here,
Not in an escape,
But in the place wherein Thou hast placed us.
Glory be to Thee,
Who offerest Eden,
To us men who forever dodge our salvation.
Glory be to the Father
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost
Both here and now, and in Eternal Life that beckons us
The Son of God became a man in his here and now in Bethlehem.
In your forever honored place,
From this very moment,
Become a Son of God.
Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near,
Heaven awaits with open arms,
Step out of Hell.
Grieve for your sins,
That grief that holds more in her heart,
Than discovering that the scintillating escape from Hell
Scintillates only as a mirage.
And the repentance you fear,
So constricted it seems from outside,
Holds inside a treasure larger than the universe,
Older than time,
And more alive than life.
Glory beyond glory,
Life beyond life,
Light beyond life,
The Bread from Heaven,
The infinite Living Wine,
Who alone canst slake our infinite thirst,
Glory be to God on high.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost,
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages,
Glory forever. Alleluia!
At least some bishops explicitly allow their faithful flock to believe theistic evolution, young earth creation, or any of several other options.
This article is not meant to say you can’t be Orthodox and believe in evolution. It is, however, meant to say that you can’t be Orthodox and misrepresent Church Fathers as saying things more convenient to evolution than what they really said.
Two examples of a telling symptom: Fishy, suspicious arguments
Alexander Kalomiros is perhaps a forerunner to Orthodox finding a profound harmony between the Church Fathers and evolution. To pick one of many examples, Kalomiros’s On the Six Days of Creation cites St. Basil the Great as saying, “Therefore, if you say a day or an age, you express the same meaning” (homily 2 of St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation). So Dr. Kalamiros cites St. Basil as clearly saying that “day” is a term with a rather elastic meaning, implying an indefinite length.
Something really piqued my curiosity, because a young earth Creationist cited the same saint, the same book, and even the same homily as Kalamiros, but as supporting the opposite conclusion: “one day” means “one day,” period.
I honestly wondered, “Why on earth?” Why would the same text be cited as a proof-text for “days” of quite open-ended length, but also a proof text for precise twenty-four hour days? So I read the homily of St. Basil that was in question. The result?
The young earther’s claim is easier to explain: St. Basil does, in fact, quite plainly claim a young earth, and treats this belief as non-negotiable. And what Kalomiros cites? The text is talking about something else when St. Basil moves from discussing the Creation to matters of eternity and the Last Judgment. One of the names for eternity is “the eighth day,” and in explaining the timelessness of eternity, St. Basil writes, “Thus whether you call it a day, or whether you call it eternity, you express the same idea.” Which is not exactly how Kalomiros quotes him, not exactly.
Kalomiros offers a quote out of context, and translates in a subtle but misleading wording, leading the reader to believe St. Basil clarified that a “day” [of Creation] can just as well be an “age” [of time]. This is sophistry. This is disingenuous. What is more, I cannot ever remember following one of Kalomiros’s footnotes supporting evolution and find an appropriate and responsible use of the original text. When I check things out, little if any of it checks out. And that’s a concern. When someone argues like that, the reader is being treated dishonestly, and deceptive argument is rarely the herald of truth.
Let me quote another of many examples celebrating a harmony between patristic Orthodoxy and evolution, Vladimir de Beer’s Genesis, Creation and Evolution. He writes:
The account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is known as the Hexaemeron (Greek for ‘six days’), on which a number of Greek and Latin Church fathers wrote commentaries. Some of them interpreted the six days of creation quite literally, like St Basil the Great who was much influenced by Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Yet the same Cappadocian father insisted that the scriptural account of creation is not about science, and that there is no need to discuss the essence (ousias) of creation in its scientific sense. Others followed a more allegorical approach, such as St Gregory of Nyssa who saw the Hexaemeron as a philosophy of the soul, with the perfected creature as the final goal of evolution.
It has been my experience that for a certain kind of author one of the cheapest ways to dismiss a Father is to say that they were heavily influenced by some kind of non-Orthodox philosophy. Usually they don’t even give a footnote. St. Basil the Great is a Church Father and one of the Three Heirarchs, and if you are going to downplay whether his position is one we should believe, you should be doing a lot more than due diligence than making a dismissive bare assertion that he was heavily influenced by non-Orthodox forces.
St. Gregory’s commentary is not a allegorical interpretation, such as St. Maximus the Confessor’s way of finding allegory about ascesis and ascetical struggles in the details of the Gospel. It is if anything 90% a science lesson, or an Aristotelian science lesson at any rate, and at face value St. Gregory owes much more of a debt to Aristotle than St. Basil does. (At least St. Gregory spends vastly more time talking about earth, air, fire, and water.) St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation assumes and asserts that the days of Creation were, in fact, literal days. And that’s not the end. St. Gregory of Nyssa explicitly ascribes the highest authority and weight to St. Basil’s work and would almost certainly be astonished to find his work treated as a corrective to St. Basil’s problematically literal On the Six Days of Creation; St. Gregory’s attitude appears to be, “St. Basil made an excellent foundation and I want to build on it!” On all counts I can tell, St. Gregory does not provide a precedent for treating young earth creation as negotiable. De Beers may well have a friend among the Fathers, but St. Gregory is not that friend. And if this is his choice of friends, maybe he isn’t aware of many real, honest friends among the Fathers. St. Augustine may be his friend here, but if the Blessed Augustine is your only friend among the Fathers, you’re on pretty shaky ground.
Examples could easily be multiplied, but after a point it becomes somewhat tedious checking out more harmonizers’ footnotes and finding that, no indeed, they don’t check out.
Why it matters
Have you read much creation science seeking to use science to prove a young earth? The reason I’m asking is that that’s what scholars do when they use patristic resources to prove that Orthodoxy and evolution are in harmony. The kind of distortion of facts that they wouldn’t be caught dead in origins science is the kind of distortion of facts that is routine in those harmonizing Orthodoxy with evolution.
I myself do not believe in a young earth; I am an old earth creationist and have seriously entertained returning to belief in theistic evolution. I stand pretty much as far outside the patristic consensus as Orthodox evolutionists. But I don’t distort the Fathers to shanghai recruit them to my position.
It may well be that with knowledge that wasn’t available to St. Gregory and his fellow Fathers, the intellectual dishonesty and distortion needed to believe in a young earth may be greater than saying, “I know the Fathers’ consensus and I remain outside of it.” That’s not ideal, but it is infinitely better than distorting the Fathers’ consensus to agree with you.
It is better by far to acknowledge that you are outside the Fathers’ consensus than make them agree with you. If you are an Orthodox evolutionist, please stop shanghaiing recruiting ancient Fathers to your camp.
A helpful analogy: What are the elements?
Some Protestants made young-earth creationism almost “the article by which the Church stands or falls,” and much of young-earth and old-earth creationism in Orthodoxy, and evolution, is shaped by that Protestant “article by which the Church stands or falls.”
Today’s young-earth creationism and theistic evolution are merely positions on a ballot in single-issue voting, and single-issue voting that was unknown to the Fathers. There are other issues.
(What other issues are there, you ask?)
Let me give my standard question in dealing with young-earth Orthodox who are being pests and perhaps insinuating that my Orthodoxy is impaired if I don’t believe their position: “Are we obligated to believe that the elements are earth, air, fire, water, and maybe aether?”
If that question seems to come from out of the blue, let me explain:
St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation takes a position we can relate to readily enough even if we disagree:
“And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Evening is then the boundary common to day and night; and in the same way morning constitutes the approach of night to day… Why does Scripture say “one day the first day”? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says “one day,” it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day-we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.
Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and [bonds], form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.
The emphatic alternative he offers is a belief in the four or five elements, earth, air, fire, water, and possibly the aether. This is something he finds in Genesis:
“And the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters.” Does this spirit mean the diffusion of air? The sacred writer wishes to enumerate to you the elements of the world, to tell you that God created the heavens, the earth, water, and air and that the last was now diffused and in motion; or rather, that which is truer and confirmed by the authority of the ancients, by the Spirit of God, he means the Holy Spirit.
St. Basil takes the text to mean more than just that water exists; he takes it to mean that water is an element. Nor is St. Basil the only one to make such claims; as mentioned earlier, St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation is not in the business of condemning opposing views, but it not only assumes literal days for Creation, but the “science” of earth, air, fire, and water is writ large, and someone wishing to understand how ancients could see science and cosmology on those terms has an invaluable resource in St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation. Furthermore, the view of the four elements is ensconced in Orthodox liturgy: the Vespers for Theophany, which is arguably the central text for Orthodox understanding of Creation, enumerates earth, air, fire, and water as the four elements. To my knowledge, no Orthodox liturgy ensconces the implicit atheism of modern chemistry.
What are we to make of this? Does this mean that modern chemistry is off-limits to Orthodox, and that Orthodox doctors should only prescribe such drugs as the ancient theory would justify? God forbid! I bring this point up to say that the obvious answer is, “Ok, there is a patristic consensus and I stand outside of it,” and that this answer can be given without shanghaiing recruiting the Fathers to endorse modern chemistry. When science and astronomy were formed, someone was reported to say, “The Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven, not a book about how the Heavens go,” and while it may be appropriate to say “On pain of worse intellectual dishonesty, I must accept an old earth and chemistry as worth my provisional assent,” it is not appropriate to distort the Church Fathers into giving a rubber stamp to beliefs they would reject.
Drawing a line in the sand at a young earth is a Protestant invention that has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, but casting the opposite vote of theistic evolution in a single-issue vote is also short of the Orthodox tradition. In reading the Fathers, one encounters claims of a young earth. However, often (if not always) the claim is one among many disputes with Greek philosophers or what have you. To my knowledge there is no patristic text in which a young earth is the central claim, let alone even approach being “the article by which the Church stands or falls.” Single-issue voting here, even for evolution, is not an Orthodox phenomenon except as it has washed in from Protestant battle lines. If an Orthodox who questions the Orthodoxy of old-earthers is being (crypto-)Protestant, the Orthodox who cites the Fathers in favor of evolution is only slightly less so—and both distort the truth.
“When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”
One Protestant friend said that I had a real knack for insulting analogies. The comment came after I said of mainstream Evangelical “Christian art” that it worked on the same communication principle as hard porn: “Make every point with a sledgehammer and leave nothing to the imagination but the plot.” And I have used that ability here: I have said that Orthodox evolutionists writing of harmony between evolution and the Church Fathers are treating patristic texts the same way creation scientists treat scientific evidence. Ouch.The Orthodox-evolutionary harmonizers are playing the same single-issue politics game as their young-earth counterparts, and are only different by casting the opposite vote. Ouch.
Is there a method to this madness?
I cannot forbid origins questions altogether, for reasons not least of which I am not tonsured even as a reader, let alone being your heirarch or priest. At least some heirarchs have refused to decide for their flock what they may believe: perhaps people are expected to find God’s hand at work in creation, but the exact mechanism of involvement, and time frame, are not decided. But I could wish something like the theology surrounding the holy mysteries, where in contrast to the detailed, point by point Roman account, the Orthodox Church simply says that at one point in the Divine Liturgy the gifts are only (blessed) bread and wine, and at a certain later point they have become the body and blood of Christ, and beyond that point speculation is not allowed.
There are some questions where having the right answer is less valuable than not asking the question at all. Origins questions in the scientific sense do not loom large in the Fathers, and what little there is appears not to match scientific data. But this is not a defect in the Fathers. It is, if anything, a cue that our society’s preoccupation with science is not particularly Orthodox in spirit, and perhaps something that doesn’t belong in Orthodoxy. Again, Religion and Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.
But for the interim, for people who need an answer and are good enough scientists to see through Creation Science, please do not shanghai recruit the Church Fathers to rubber stamp the present state of scientific speculation. For starters, science is less important than you may think. But that’s just for starters.
There is an elephant in the room.But Catholics are very skilled at NOT seeing it.
What might be called “the Orthodox question”
I expect ecumenical outreach to Orthodox has been quite a trying experience for Catholics. It must seem to Catholics like they have made Orthodoxy their top ecumenical priority, and after they have done their best and bent over backwards, many Orthodox have shrugged and said, “That makes one of us!” or else made a nastier response. And I wonder if Catholics have felt a twinge of the Lord’s frustration in saying, “All day long I have held out my hands to a rebellious and stubborn people.” (Rom 10:21)
In my experience, most Catholic priests have been hospitable: warm to the point of being warmer to me than my own priests. It almost seems as if the recipe for handling Orthodox is to express a great deal of warmth and warmly express hope for Catholics and Orthodox to be united. And that, in a nutshell, is how Catholics seem to conceive what might be called “the Orthodox question.”
And I’m afraid I have something painful to say. Catholics think Orthodox are basically the same, and that they understand us. And I’m asking you to take a tough pill to swallow: Catholics do not understand Orthodox. You think you do, but you don’t.
I’d like to talk about an elephant in the room. This elephant, however painfully obvious to Orthodox, seems something Catholics are strikingly oblivious to.
A conciliatory gesture (or so I was told)
All the Orthodox I know were puzzled for instance, that the Pope thought it conciliatory to retain titles such as “Vicar of Jesus Christ,” “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles,” and “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,” but drop “Patriarch of the West.” Orthodox complain that the Roman bishop “was given primacy but demanded supremacy,” and the title “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church” is offensive. Every bishop is the successor of the prince of the apostles, so reserving that title to the Pope is out of line. But Orthodoxy in both ancient and modern times regard the Pope as the Patriarch of Rome, and the Orthodox Church, having His Holiness IGNATIUS the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, has good reason to call the Patriarch of Rome, “the Patriarch of the West.” The response I heard to His Holiness Benedict dropping that one title while retaining the others, ranged from “Huh?” to, “Hello? Do you understand us at all?”
What Catholics never acknowledge
That is not a point I wish to belabor; it is a relatively minor example next to how, when in my experience Catholics have warmly asked Orthodox to reunify, never once have I seen any recognition or manifest awareness of the foremost concern Orthodox have about Rome and Constantinople being united. Never once have I seen mere acknowledgment of the Orthodox concern about what Rome most needs to repent of.
Let me clarify that slightly. I’ve heard Catholics acknowledge that Catholics have committed atrocities against Orthodox in the past, and Catholics may express regrets over wrongs from ages past and chide Orthodox for a lack of love in not being reunified. But when I say, “what Rome most needs to repent of,” I am not taking the historian’s view. I’m not talking about sack of the Constantinople, although people more Orthodox than me may insist on things like that. I am not talking about what Rome has done in the past to repent of, but what is continuing now. I am talking about the present tense, and in the present tense. When Catholics come to me and honor Orthodoxy with deep warmth and respect and express a desire for reunion, what I have never once heard mention of is the recantation of Western heresy.
This may be another tough pill to swallow. Catholics may know that Orthodox consider Catholics to be heretics, but this never enters the discussion when Catholics are being warm and trying to welcome Orthodox into their embrace. It’s never acknowledged or addressed. The warm embrace instead affirms that we have a common faith, a common theology, a common tradition: we are the same, or so Orthodox are told, in all essentials. If Orthodox have not restored communion, we are told that we do not recognize that we have all the doctrinal agreement properly needed for reunification.
But don’t we agree on major things? Rome’s bishops say we do!
I would like to outline three areas of difference and give some flesh to the Orthodox claim that there are unresolved differences. I would like to outline one issue about what is theology, and then move on to social ethics, and close on ecumenism itself. I will somewhat artificially limit myself to three; some people more Orthodox than me may wonder why, for instance, I don’t discuss the filioque clause (answer: I am not yet Orthodox enough to appreciate the importance given by my spiritual betters, even if I do trust that they are my spiritual betters). But there’s a lot in these three.
To Catholics who insist that we share a common faith, I wish to ask a question that may sound flippant or even abrasive. A common faith? Really? Are you ready to de-canonize Thomas Aquinas and repudiate his scholasticism? The Orthodox Church’s response to the Renaissance figure Barlaam and Aristotelianism.Orthodox faith is something incompatible with the “theology” of Thomas Aquinas, and if you don’t understand this, you’re missing something fundamental to Orthodox understandings of theology. And if you’re wondering why I used quotes around “theology,” let me explain. Or, perhaps better, let me give an example.
See the two texts below. One is chapter 5 in St. Dionysius (or, if you prefer, pseudo-Dionysius), The Mystical Theology. That gem is on the left. To the right is a partial rewriting of the ideas in the style of Thomas Aquinas’sSumma Theologiæ.
St. Dionysius the Areopagite, “The Mystical Theology”
Rewritten in the scholastic style of Thomas Aquinas
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense that we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond every assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, it is also beyond every denial.
Question Five: Whether God may accurately be described with words and concepts.
Objection One: It appears that God may be accurately described, for otherwise he could not be described as existing. For we read, I AM WHO AM, and if God cannot be described as existing, then assuredly nothing else can. But we know that things exist, therefore God may be accurately described as existing.
Objection Two: It would seem that God may be described with predicates, for Scripture calls him Father, Son, King, Wisdom, etc.
Objection Three: It appears that either affirmations or negations must accurately describe God, for between an affirmation and its negation, exactly one of them must be true.
On the Contrary, I reply that every affirmation and negation is finite, and in the end inadequate beyond measure, incapable of containing or of circumscribing God.
We should remember that the ancients described God in imperfect terms rather than say nothing about him at all…
Lost in translation?
There is something lost in “translation” here. What exactly is lost? Remember Robert Frost’s words, “Nothing of poetry is lost in translation except for the poetry.” There is a famous, ancient maxim in the Orthodox Church’s treasured Philokalia saying, “A theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian:” theology is an invitation to prayer. And the original Mystical Theology as rendered on the left is exactly that: an invitation to prayer, while the rewrite in the style of the Summa Theologiæ has been castrated: it is only an invitation to analysis and an impressively deft solution to a logic puzzle. The ideas are all preserved: nothing of the theology is lost in translation except for the theology. And this is part of why Archimandrite Vasileos, steeped in the nourishing, prayerful theology of the Orthodox Church, bluntly writes in Hymn of Entry that scholastic theology is “an indigestible stone.”
Thomas Aquinas drew on Greek Fathers and in particular St. John the Damascene. He gathered some of the richest theology of the East and turned it into something that is not theology to Orthodox: nothing of the Greek theology was lost in the scholastic translation but the theology! And there is more amiss in that Thomas Aquinas also drew on “the Philosopher,” Aristotle, and all the materialistic seeds in Aristotelianism. (The Greeks never lost Aristotle, but they also never made such a big deal about him, and to be called an Aristotelian could be a strike against you.) There is a spooky hint of the “methodological agnosticism” of today’s academic theology—the insistence that maybe you have religious beliefs, but you need to push them aside, at least for the moment, to write serious theology. The seed of secular academic “theology” is already present in how Thomas Aquinas transformed the Fathers.
This is a basic issue with far-reaching implications.
Am I seriously suggesting that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas? Not exactly. I am trying to point out what level of repentance and recantation would be called for in order that full communion would be appropriate. I am not seriously asking that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas. I am suggesting, though, that Rome begin to recognize that nastier and deeper cuts than this would be needed for full communion between Rome and Orthodoxy. And I know that it is not pleasant to think of rejoining the Orthodox Church as (shudder) a reconciled heretic. I know it’s not pleasant. I am, by the grace of God, a reconciled heretic myself, and I recanted Western heresy myself. It’s a humbling position, and if it’s too big a step for you to take, it is something to at least recognize that it’s a big step to take, and one that Rome has not yet taken.
The Saint and the Activist
Let me describe two very different images of what life is for. The one I will call “the saint” is that, quite simply, life is for the contemplation of God, and the means to contemplation is largely ascesis: the concrete practices of a life of faith. The other one, which I will call, “the activist,” is living to change the world as a secular ideology would understand changing the world. In practice the “saint” and the “activist” may be the ends of a spectrum rather than a rigid dichotomy, but I wish at least to distinguish the two, and make some remarks about modern Catholic social teaching.
Modern Catholic social teaching could be enlightened. It could be well meant. It could be humane. It could be carefully thought out. It could be a recipe for a better society. It could be providential. It could be something we should learn from, or something we need. It could be any number of things, but what it absolutely is not is theology. It is absolutely not spiritually nourishing theology. If, to Orthodox, scholastic theology like that of Thomas Aquinas is as indigestible as a stone, modern Catholic social teaching takes indigestibility to a whole new level—like indigestible shards of broken glass.
The 2005 Deus Caritas Est names the Song of Songs three times, and that is without precedent in the Catholic social encyclicals from the 1891 Rerum Novarum on. Look for references to the Song of Songs in their footnotes—I don’t think you’ll find any, or at least I didn’t. This is a symptom of a real problem, a lack of the kind of theology that would think of things like the Song of Songs—which is highly significant. The Song of Songs is a favorite in mystical theology, the prayerful theology that flows from faith, and mystical theology is not easily found in the social encyclicals. I am aware of the friction when secular academics assume that Catholic social teaching is one more political ideology to be changed at will. I give some benefit of the doubt to Catholics who insist that there are important differences, even if I’m skeptical over whether the differences are quite so big as they are made out to be. But without insisting that Catholic social teaching is just another activist ideology, I will say that it is anything but a pure “saint” model, and it mixes in the secular “activist” model to a degree that is utterly unlawful to Orthodox.
Arius is more scathingly condemned in Orthodox liturgy than even Judas. And, contrary to current fashion, I really do believe Arius and Arianism are as bad as the Fathers say. But Arius never dreamed either of reasoning out systematic theology or of establishing social justice. His Thalia are a (perhaps very bad) invitation to worship, not a systematic theology or a plan for social justice. In those regards, Catholic theology not only does not reach the standard of the old Orthodox giants: it does not even reach the standard of the old arch-heretics!
Catholics today celebrate Orthodoxy and almost everything they know about us save that we are not in full communion. Catholic priests encourage icons, or reading the Greek fathers, or the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But what Catholics may not always be mindful of is that they celebrate Orthodoxy and put it alongside things that are utterly anathema to Orthodox: like heartily endorsing the Orthodox Divine Litugy and placing it alongside the Roman mass, Protestant services, Unitarian meetings, Hindu worship, and the spiritualist séance as all amply embraced by Rome’s enfolding bosom.
What we today call “ecumenism” is at its root a Protestant phenomenon. It stems from how Protestants sought to honor Christ’s prayer that we may all be one, when they took it as non-negotiable that they were part of various Protestant denominations which remained out of communion with Rome. The Catholic insistance that each Protestant who returns to Rome heals part of the Western schism is a nonstarter for this “ecumenism:” this “ecumenism” knows we need unity but takes schism as non-negotiable: which is to say that this “ecumenism” rejects the understanding of Orthodox, some Catholics, and even the first Protestants that full communion is full communion and what Christ prayed for was a full communion that assumed doctrinal unity.
One more thing that is very important to many Orthodox, and that I have never once heard acknowledged or even mentioned by the Catholics reaching so hard for ecumenical embrace is that many Orthodox are uneasy at best with ecumenism. It has been my own experience that the more devout and more mature Orthodox are, the more certainly they regard ecumenism as a spiritual poison. Some of the more conservative speak of “ecumenism awareness” as Americans involved in the war on drugs speak of “drug awareness.”
Catholics can be a lot like Orthodox in their responses to Protestants and Protestant ideas of ecumenism; one might see a Catholic responding to an invitation to join an ecumenical communion service at First Baptist by saying something like,
I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as an Evangelical… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…
…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.
But Catholics seem to be a bit like Protestants in their ecumenical advances to Orthodox. If I understand correctly, whereas Rome used to tell Orthodox, “You would be welcome to take communion with us, but we would rather you obey your bishops,” now I am told by Rome that I may remain Orthodox while receiving Roman communion, and my reply is,
I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as any Catholic… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…
…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.
If the Roman Church is almost Orthodox in its dealings with Protestants, it in turn seems almost Protestant in its dealings with Orthodox. It may be that Rome looks at Orthodoxy and sees things that are almost entirely permitted in the Roman Church: almost every point of theology or spirituality that is the only way to do things in Orthodoxy is at least a permitted option to Roman Catholics. (So Rome looks at Orthodoxy, or at least some Romans do, and see Orthodox as something that can be allowed to be a full-fledged part of the Roman communion: almost as Protestants interested in ecumenism look at the Roman Church as being every bit as much a full-fledged Christian denomination as the best of Protestant groups.) But the reverse of this phenomenon is not true: that is, Orthodox do not look at Rome and say, “Everything that you require or allow in spiritual theology is also allowed in healthy Eastern Orthodoxy.” Furthermore, I have never seen awareness or sensitivity to those of Orthodox who do not consider ecumenism, at least between traditional communions, to be a self-evidently good thing to work for: Catholics can’t conceive of a good reason for why Orthodox would not share their puppyish enthusiasm for ecumenism. And I have never heard a Catholic who expressed a desire for the restoration for full communion show any perception or willingness to work for the Orthodox concerns about what needs to feed into any appropriate restoration of communion, namely the recantation of Western heresy represented by figures like Thomas Aquinas and not only by Mater et Magistra or liberal Catholic dissent.
Conclusion: are we at the eve of an explosion?
I may have mentioned several elephants in the room. Let me close by mentioning one more that many Orthodox are painfully aware of, even if Catholics are oblivious.
Orthodoxy may remind Western Christians of Rome’s ancient origins. But there is an important way in which I would compare Orthodoxy today to Western Christianity on the eve of the Reformation. Things hadn’t exploded. Yet. But there were serious problems and trouble brewing, and I’m not sure it’s that clear to people how much trouble is brewing.
Your ecumenical advances and efforts to draw us closer to Rome’s enfolding bosom come at a rough and delicate time:
What if, while there was serious trouble but not yet schisms spreading like wildfire, the East had reached out to their estranged Western brethren and said:
Good news! You really don’t need scholasticism… And you don’t exactly need transsubstantiation either… And you don’t need anywhere such a top-down Church heirarchy… And you really don’t need to be in communion with the Patriarch of Rome… And…
There is a profound schism brewing in the Orthodox Church. It may not be within your power to stop it, but it may be within your power to avoid giving it an early start, and it may be within your power to avoid making the wreckage even worse.
The best thing I can think of to say is simply, “God have mercy on us all.”
The Archdruid of Canterbury appeared as head of a delegation to His Holiness THOMAS, Patriarch of Xanadu.
The Archdruid bore solemn greetings and ecumenical best wishes. He presented gifts, including an oak and holly icon, portraying St. Francis of Assisi as the pioneer of “I-Thou” existentialism. The icon was “not made by hands” (“all done by paw,” in the memorable words of Paddington Bear).
The Druidic leader spoke of the Orthodox Church with the most solemn reverence. “The Orthodox Church is not only Oriental and exotic, but has the most hauntingly beautiful liturgy achieves has what we are trying to engineer in our liturgical reform, and the Orthodox Church would make the perfect partner for the most dynamic and progressive forces that keep the C of E a living spiritual power in this world. St. Alban and St. Sergius are Anglican saints, but they are first and foremost Orthodox saints, and are only Anglican saints because they are Orthodox saints. I have personally blended the most excellent traditions of Druidic Bard and occupant of the See of Canterbury. We would be most deeply honoured if the existing profound (if invisible) bond uniting Orthodox, Anglican, and Druid were made explicit.”
After the Druid spoke for an hour, he paused in thought a moment, turned to His Holiness THOMAS and said, “But I fear I have done too much talking, while you have said nothing. Isn’t there anything you’d like to say? Don’t you have questions we could speak to?”
The Patriarch coughed, sat in silence for a moment, and began to squirm. “Have you considered pursuing ecumenical relations with the African majority in your own communion? I’ve dealt with some of them and they’re really quite solid people, with good heads on their shoulders.”
Where to take our bearings: A telling starting point
I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in historical theology at a Catholic university. Part of this program was a seminar with various readings to help us get oriented to what history is and how we should approach it. One of the first readings, possibly the first, was Stafford Poole’s History versus Juan Diego (PDF).
The article had the ring of truth as far as the story it sketched out, but it is quite a grave matter to tell budding historical theologians that this is the sort of thing that should orient their study of history and historical theology.
The article raises grave concerns about the very existance of a major figure in Mexican piety and nationalism; the comparable equivalent as far as U.S. nationalism to go would be to uncover good reasons why we should believe that neither Thomas Jefferson nor Benjamin Franklin ever existed, and the only “evidence” that anyone believed in either of these men before the Civil War was a complete forgery. The lay faithful and clergy who disagreed with the author come across like the Three Stooges.
The article may have been appropriate in itself, and in this case the historian may have legitimately been a figure like the little boy who saw that the emperor had no clothes. But to enshrine this article in a seminar meant to give an orientation to history is another matter entirely, and paints the inspiring, romantic image of the heroic, noble historian who delves past popular piety and the decisions of clergy up to and including the Pope, heroically rips apart a cherished fixture that neither the faithful nor Church officials are noble or brave enough to question, and his trust is shamefully betrayed by the Vatican.
Making this a paradigm example of how a historian should interact with Church hierarchy and popular piety is like holding up, so people can get their bearings, a singularly improbable story about how someone, who was drunk, blindly shot a gun into a building and hit a fire extinguisher, putting out a deadly fire and saving several lives. The problem is not so much the original event, but the fact that the extremely unusual story is being used to give the impression that it is a good idea to get drunk and randomly shoot guns around in a city.
Even aside from classes taught by Catholic dissidents, the question of dissent loomed large in a class on “The Profession of Faith,” in which Rome asked some professors to be basically faithful to Catholic teaching. One of the questions was: If a Catholic scholar through research comes to a conclusion that seems to contradict what the Church teaches, and further communication and research clarifies that there is an irreconcilable difference between the scholar’s findings and the Church officials’ position, what should the scholar do? In the context of the class, with the examples and distinctions we had been asked to consider, this almost meant, “If this happens, how much pressure may the scholar appropriately use to bring the Catholic Church to accept his research, and what kinds of pressure are or are not appropriate?” And the professor was very gracious when I offered a different answer to the question of what a scholar should do: “It should be handled pastorally.”
My response was received very kindly, and welcomed as a breath of fresh air, but it was completely different from anything I had heard in the class up to that point. In the midst of discussing what scholars should do if their research collides with the Church, no one seemed to even consider the possibility that the discrepancy could be handled pastorally on the part of the researcher.
Thinking in terms of “private doubts”
There is a big difference between having a doubt and pressuring the Church to agree with you, and having a doubt which was handled pastorally. I remember one conversation with my godfather, who was complaining about people broadcasting their doubts in the fashion of a dissident theologian, and he saw this as a major problem. But he liked what I suggested about “private doubts,” meaning doubts that were handled pastorally and privately, struggled with, and brought to confession.
As far as “private doubt” is concerned, if you need to privately struggle to believe the deity of Christ, or the Church’s teaching on some aspect of sexuality, fine. It may not exactly be good, but people bring all kinds of sin to confession, and if an Orthodox Christian has doubts in light of scholarly study, this is no more unforgivable than any other sin that gets obliterated in confession. Doubts may be unfortunate, but if these doubts are handled as private doubts and dealt with pastorally, this is not the world’s biggest problem.
This point is why I was somewhat puzzled at journalists making a big to-do over the public announcement that Mother Theresa had painful doubts about God’s existence. (Some asked if she was really a crypto-atheist.) I was underwhelmed at the revelation and wanted to ask, “So?!?” We might have sympathy for her difficult spiritual struggle, but she evidently treated her doubts as private doubts, brought them to confession, and still served God in love to her neighbor. That is about as much as one can ask.
Are scholars’ difficulties really that different?
This is related to why I am a bit bothered when someone who reads the Bible devotionally shows respect to a scholar by saying that his own Bible study is just lightweight and insignificant, but the scholar with access to historical sources is doing the real, serious Bible study. It may be great if they can be humble and out of their humility respect the work of scholars, but the Bible is given by God for devotional use and it is backwards to say that the devout layman reading the Bible is making a flimsy and insubstantial study next to the serious work of scholars. I’ve seen a lot of methodical scholarship that is not nearly as interesting as the devotional reading of common people, and in theology it is simply not true that scholarship is the industrial strength tool to really understand things.
I know that it may appear plausible, even obvious, to place scholarship in a separate category as far as doubt and dissent goes from doubts among the rest of the faithful. But my own experience casts doubt on this. I may have seen liberal Catholics doubting the Vatican’s condemnation of contraception. I do not remember if I have ever read a dissident who tried to fairly understand theological and historical sources and come to their dissident position even though they tried very hard to give their Church’s official position the benefit of the doubt. The invariable trend is to write something that sounds like people who want contraception for the same reason most moderns want contraception, and thenshanghai whatever academic resources they can force to back them up.
Catholics do not have a monopoly on wrongful academic dissent
If you’re Orthodox, are you tempted to say, “Duh, you’re talking about Catholic dissidents! It is the sworn duty of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to oppose, and you can count on His Holiness’s Disloyal Opposition to at least do that much. But Orthodoxy has none of those problems”?
Almost every issue described above with Catholic dissidents is also something I’ve seen in Orthodoxy, perhaps on a smaller scale. The biggest thing I remember about one Orthodox scholar’s lecturing is the consistent meta-message, never put in so many words, that the way we should relate to the ancient works of holy Fathers is ultimately with haughtiness and scorn, as we could unmask what the texts really were like. Nor is it just this one professor. If, in our age, humanities scholars rehabilitate figures like the Marquis de Sade, and some academic theologians rehabilitate Arius and Nestorius, then sure enough, Orthodox scholars, who are not exactly free to rehabilitate heretics, at least rehabilitate the much-maligned Augustine. The list goes on.
There may be a place for scholarship. But whatever that place may be, it is not a reason to stop handling difficulties pastorally. I know that I have, in my research, turned up stuff that appeared to be a reason to impose a significant change. This has happened more than once, and sometimes I was wrong. I once heard an Orthodox bishop give advice to a newly-ordained priest that he should not set about agendas for change in his parish-to-be, even for a pure and honorable purpose that is unquestionably right. That is to say that a priest can be right about something with respect to a parish under his care, and it is not his place to whip it into shape. And if it is not the place of clergy in authority to whip a parish into shape, still less is it the duty of researchers to apply political force to straighten out a benighted hierarchy who don’t see things their way.
But what if you are right?
But what if you’re right? And your words are not heeded? Then there may be sin in the picture, but the sin does not belong to you. St. Paul, at the end of his life, had greater achievements than one would expect of a Nobel Prize laureate. He could have written to St. Timothy, “Veni, vidi, vici!“: “I came, I saw, I conquered!” But what he wrote instead was, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim 4:7): he did not say, “I achieved,” but only, “I was faithful,” and in our life of faith it is not our responsibility to achieve, but only to be faithful.
But what if things are really, really bad?
There is a profound difference between Dante and Luther, to give a Western example, and it is not really which centuries they lived in: both lived in troubled times where there were major problems in the Roman Church. Dante and Luther alike were absolutely incensed at abuses they knew full well, and one surprise to naive Protestants first reading the Commedia is that Dante placed the Pope in Hell and seemed to treat the Pope’s very name as an abomination. The difference between Dante and Luther is this: Dante remained to his dying day a loyal son of the Roman Church, but Luther took matters into his own hands—and created problems that are with us to this day.
What we should aspire to is discipleship: sitting at the feet of the Lord, the Church, the Apostles, the Fathers, the clergy, and the faithful. The academic approach that is called “critical” may be enough to grasp logic, but it utterly fails to grasp the Logos: what makes a theologian and a teacher is not being critical par excellence but being a disciple par excellence. The paradigm example is not “…the inspiring, romantic image of the heroic, noble historian who delves past popular piety and the decisions of clergy up to and including the Pope, heroically rips apart a cherished fixture that neither the faithful nor Church officials are noble or brave enough to question, and his trust is shamefully betrayed by the Vatican.” It is rather everything that such a scholar would seek to push past.
Perhaps I am pushing my own romantic image and ripping up cherished fixtures of my own. But to an interlocutor concerned about irony, I would not deny that I am pushing a romantic image, but rather I would suggest that I am pushing an image that is worth pushing: that of discipleship, that of sitting at the Lord’s feet, that of divine sonship, that of being a servant at the Lord’s disposal, that of living the divine Life. It is not the knowledge of the Enlightenment’s version of Reason, but a knowledge that runs deep as the Song of Songs: the knowing that drinks and the drinking that knows.
A practical example
Let me give one illustration from my own life. Even from very early on, I remember the local priest telling me that, contrary to the prohibition of contraception I expected, the Orthodox Church holds that it can be allowed or disallowed by a couple’s priest after consultation, that it was not permissible to decide not to have children altogether, and the Orthodox Church has never spoken beyond that. I submitted then to Orthodoxy and accepted what he said. Then, later on, I found a really nasty surprise: despite ancient Orthodox condemnations of contraception, a spin-doctoring doozy of an article had apparently been taken simply as a straightforward account Orthodox teaching. And I wrote Orthodoxy, Contraception, and Spin Doctoring: A Look at an Influential and Disturbing Article, and apart from showing it to an Orthodox priest or two and some trusted faithful, kept it off the record for a long time. And then, after a long time, I published it on CJS Hayward, and later, after publishing it, found that I fit in as part of a quite broad consensus on an excellent online Orthodox forum.
What would I do differently if I had to do it over again? The answer is that I probably published my article too quickly: however important the issue may be, I might have done well to wait until later on. But I do not regret, as I was moving towards Orthodoxy, accepting the priest’s word for what Orthodoxy taught, even though something about it seemed wrong at the time. Nor do I regret sitting on my writeup and do nothing with it for a long time, besides bring it up with a few people off the record. I believe it is an important issue (and anything but a matter of correctness for the sake of correctness: contraceception bears some nasty hidden price tags), and that discipleship is more important, so that it is a fundamental error to let My Important Issue trump living and acting as a disciple. Even if I were right and the Church leadership had responded sinfully and wrongly, the sin would belong to them, not me: my concern and duty is discipleship. It would be sin for me to decide it was my place to whip the Orthodox Church into shape, even if I happened to be right about what I thought of as the only issue!
(And there have been other, more embarrassing instances when I thought I could improve things and guess what? I was wrong.)
Scholarship may be useful—but it cannot replace discipleship
Scholarship and discipleship can be found together: some excellent theology has been written by scholars and in an academic context. However, genuine theology is theology because it comes from discipleship rather than scholarly rigor. Even the more academic examples of good theology are good by virtue of discipleship: to ask the scholarly training shared by Christian and anti-Christian scholars alike to power the movement of good theology is like asking a computer with a word processor to be the decisive force in writing a good novel. A word processor is a useful tool and perhaps not wisely ignored: but do not bark up the wrong tree by asking it to make someone a novelist, and do not bark up the wrong tree to ask scholarship to make someone a theologian.
For a theologian to push an agenda to improve the Church makes sense if you think theology falls under the heading of scholarship. But once you understand theology as a flower of discipleship, the picture starts to look quite different.
Theology in its deepest sense cannot be held by books at all: it is contemplation and the flower and the fruit of discipleship. But even for those of us who may never climb so high, the sort of theology one can write down is a flower and a fruit of discipleship. And it seems that academic research is rarely allowed to veto whatever orients a person’s life: conservative and liberal alike go to the sources and return with their beliefs confirmed. It takes something fundamentally vaster—living discipleship in the Church—to unlock the heart of theology.
Diploma in Theology and Religious Studies, 2003
Faculty of Divinity
University of Cambridge
20 May 2003
The author suggests how the concept of ‘patterns’ in architecture and computer science, or more specifically ‘dark patterns’ / ‘anti-patterns’, may provide a helpful vehicle to explicitly communicate tacit knowledge concerning problematic thought. The author also provides a pilot study which seeks to provide a sample analysis identifying indicators for the ‘surprising cultural find’ pattern in which cultural context is misused to explain away offending Bible passages.
Introduction to Patterns, Dark Patterns, and Anti-patterns
The technical concept of pattern is used in architecture and computer science, and the synonymous dark patterns and anti-patterns refer to patterns that are not recurring best practices so much as recurring pathologies; my encounter with them has been as a computer programmer in connection with the book nicknamed ‘GoF’. Patterns do not directly provide new knowledge about how to program; what they do provide is a way to take knowledge that expert practitioners share on a tacit level, and enable them both to discuss this knowledge amongst themselves and effectively communicate it to novice programmers. It is my belief that the concept is useful to Biblical studies in providing a way to discuss knowledge that is also held on a tacit level and is also beneficial to be able to discuss explicitly, and furthermore that dark patterns or anti-patterns bear direct relevance. I hope to give a brief summary of the concept of patterns, explaining their application to Biblical studies, then give a pilot study exploring one pattern, before some closing remarks.
Each pattern consists of a threefold rule, describing:
A set of forces within that context.
A resolution to those forces.
In the contexts of architecture and computer science, patterns are used to describe best practices which keep recurring and which embody a certain ‘quality without a name’. I wish to make a different application, to identifying and describing certain recurring problematic ways of thought in Biblical or theological inquiry which may be understood as dark patterns, which often seem to be interlaced with sophistry and logical fallacy.
Two examples of what a dark pattern, or anti-pattern might be are the consolation prize, and the surprising cultural find. I would suggest that the following provide instances of the consolation prize: discussion of a spiritual resurrection, flowering words about the poetic truth of Genesis 1, and Calvin’s eucharistic theology. If you speak of a spiritual resurrection that occurs instead of physical resurrection, you can draw Christians far more effectively than if you plainly say, ‘I do not believe in Christ’s physical resurrection.’ The positive doctrine that is presented is a consolation prize meant to keep the audience from noticing what has been taken away. The context includes a text that (taken literally) a party wants to dismiss. The forces include the fact that Christians are normally hesitant to dismiss Scripture, and believe that insights can give them a changed and deepened understanding. The resolution is to dress up the dismissal of Scripture as a striking insight. Like other patterns, this need not be all reasoned out consciously; I suggest, via a quasi-Darwinian/meme propagation mechanism, that dismissals of Scripture that follow some such pattern are more likely to work (and therefore be encountered) than i.e. a dismissal of Scripture that is not merely undisguised but offensive.
In the surprising cultural find, a meticulous study is made of a passage’s cultural context to find some basis to neutralise the passage so that its apparent meaning does not apply to us. The context is similar to that of the consolation prize, if more specific to a contemporary Western cultural setting. The forces, beyond those mentioned for the consolation prize, include ramifications of period awareness and the Standard Social Science Model: there is a very strong sense of how culture and period can influence people, and they readily believe claims about long ago and far away that which would seem fishy if said about people of our time and place. The resolution is to use the passage’s cultural setting to produce disinformation: the fruits of careful scholarly research have turned up a surprising cultural find and the passage’s apparent meaning does not apply to us. The passage may be presented, for instance, to mean something quite different from what it appears to mean, or to address a specific historical situation in a way that clearly does not apply to us.
It is the dark pattern of the surprising cultural find that I wish to investigate as a pilot case study in this thesis.
The aim of this case study is to provide a pilot study of how the surprising cultural find may be identified as a dark pattern. In so doing, I analyse one sample text closely, with reference to comparison texts when helpful.
I use the terms yielding to refer to analysis from scholars who presumably have interests but allow the text to contradict them, and unyielding to refer to analysis that will not allow the text to contradict the scholar’s interests. Yielding analysis does not embody the surprising cultural find dark pattern, while unyielding analysis does. I consider the boundary to be encapsulated by the question, ‘Is the text allowed to say “No!” to a proposed position?’
Ideally, one would compare two scholarly treatments that are alike in every fashion save that one is yielding and the other is unyielding. Finding a comparison text, I believe, is difficult because I was searching for a yielding text with the attributes of one that was unyielding. Lacking a perfect pair, I chose Peter T. O’Brien’s The Letter to the Ephesians and Bonnie Thurston’s Reading Colossians, Ephesians & 2 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary to represent yielding analysis and Craig Keener’s Paul, Women, Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul  to represent unyielding analysis. I was interested in treatment of Ephesians 5:21-33. When I use Biblical references without a book, I will always be referring to Ephesians. All three of secondary sources present themselves as making the fruits of scholarly research accessible to the layperson. O’Brien provides an in-depth, nonfeminist commentary. Thurston provides a concise, feminist commentary. Keener provides an in-depth, Biblical Egalitarian monograph. Unfortunately, the ordered copy of Thurston did not arrive before external circumstances precluded the incorporation of new materials (and may have been misidentified, meaning that my advisor and I both failed after extensive searching to find a yielding feminist or egalitarian treatment of the text). My study is focused on Keener with comparison to O’Brien where expedient.
There seems to be an interconnected web of distinguishing features to these dark patterns, laced with carefully woven sophistry, and there are several dimensions on which a text may be examined. The common-sense assumption that these features are all independent of each other seems to be debatable. One example of this lack of independence is the assumption that what an author believes is independent of whether the analysis is yielding: the suboptimal comparison texts were selected partly because of the difficulty a leading Christians for Biblical Equality scholar and I experienced trying to locate yielding feminist analyses other than Thurston in Tyndale’s library. I do not attempt to seriously investigate the interconnections, beyond commenting that features seem interconnected and less independent of each other than most scholars would assume by default.
The substance of my inquiry focuses on observable attributes of the text. I believe that before that point, observing a combination of factors may provide cues. I will mention these factors, but not develop them; there are probably others:
Is the book a monograph organised around one of today’s hot issues, or e.g. a commentary organised around the contents of a Biblical text?
If you just open the book to its introduction, do you meet forceful persuasion? Are those first pages written purely to persuade, or do they attempt other endeavours (e.g. give factual or theoretical background that is not especially polemical)? What is the approach to persuasion?
Does the book contain anything besides cultural arguments finding that Biblical texts which apparently contradict the author’s camp need not be interpreted that way?
How much does the author appear able to question our Zeitgeist (in a direction other than a more thorough development of assumptions in our Zeitgeist)?
What, in general, does the publisher try to do? The publisher is not the author, but publishers have specific aims and goals. It would seem to require explanation to say that a company indiscriminately publishes yielding and unyielding analysis because both resonate equally well with its editorial climate.
There will be a decided imbalance between attention paid to Keener and O’Brien. Part of this is due to external constraints, and part is due to a difference between O’Brien and Keener. With one major exception, described shortly, O’Brien’s analysis doesn’t run afoul of the concern I am exploring. If I were writing cultural commentary for my texts as Keener and O’Brien write cultural commentary for their texts, I would ideally spend as much time explaining the backgrounds to what Keener and O’Brien said. I believe they are both thinkers who were shaped by, draw on, and are critical of their cultures and subcultures. Explaining what they said, as illuminated by their context, would require parity in treatment. However, I do not elaborate their teachings set in context, but explore a problem that is far more present in Keener than in O’Brien or Thurston. I have more of substance to say about how Keener exhibits a problem than how O’Brien doesn’t. As such, after describing a problem, I might give a footnote reference to a passage in O’Brien which shows someanalogy without seeming to exhibit the problem under discussion, but I will not systematically attempt to make references to O’Brien’s yielding analysis as wordy as explanations of Keener’s unyielding analysis.
The one significant example of unyielding analysis noted in O’Brien is in the comment on 5:21: O’Brien notes that reciprocal submission is not enjoined elsewhere in the Bible, points out that ‘allelous’ occurs in some contexts that do not lend themselves to reciprocal reading (‘so that men should slay one another’), and concludes that ‘Believers, submit to one another,’ means only that lower-status Christians should submit to those placed above them. This is as problematic as other instances of unyielding analysis, and arguably more disturbing as it lacks some of the common indicators alerting the careful reader to be suspicious. There is a point of contact between this treatment and Keener’s: both assume that 5:21 and 5:22-6:9 are not merely connected but are saying the same thing, and it is one thing only. It is assumed that the text cannot enjoin of us both symmetrical and asymmetrical submission, so one must be the real commandment, and the other is explained away. Both Keener and O’Brien end up claiming that something is commanded in 5:21 with clarificatory examples following, without asserting that either 5:21 or 5:22-6:9 says something substantively different from the other about submission. I will not further analyse this passage beyond this mention: I consider it a clear example of unyielding analysis. This is the one part of O’Brien I have read of which I would not say, ‘…and this is an example of analogous concerns addressed by yielding scholarship.’
The introductions to O’Brien and Keener provided valuable cues as to the tone subsequently taken by the texts. Both are written to persuade a claim that some of their audience rejects, but the divergence in how they seek to persuade is significant. Keener’s introduction is written to persuade the reader of Biblical Egalitarianism: in other words, of a position on one of today’s current issues. The beginning of O’Brien’s introduction tries to persuade the reader of Pauline authorship for Ephesians, which they acknowledge to be an unusual position among scholars today; the introduction is not in any direct sense about today’s issues. O’Brien’s introduction is written both to persuade and introduce the reader to scholarly perspectives on background; while nontechnical, it is factually dense and heavy with footnotes. Keener’s introduction seems to be written purely to persuade: he give statistics concerning recent treatment of women which are highly emotionally charged, no attempt being made to connect them to the text or setting of the Pauline letters. Keener’s introduction uses emotion to bypass rationality, using loaded language and various other forms of questionable persuasion explored below; a naive reader first encountering this debate in Keener’s introduction could well wonder how any compassionate person could be in the other camp. O’Brien works to paint a balanced picture, and gives a fair account of the opposing view before explaining why he considers it inadequate. O’Brien seeks to persuade through logical argument, and his book’s pages persuade (or fail to persuade) as the reader finds his arguments to be sufficient (or insufficient) reason to accept its conclusions.
Among the potential indicators found in Keener, the first broad heading I found could be described as factual disinformation and emotional disinformation. ‘Disinformation’, as used in military intelligenceordinarily denotes deception through careful presentation of true details; I distinguish ‘factual disinformation’ (close to ‘disinformation’ traditionally understood) from ’emotional disinformation’, which is disinformation that acts on emotional and compassionate judgment as factual disinformation acts on factual judgment. While conceptually distinct, they seem tightly woven in the text, and I do not attempt to separate them.
An Emotional Plea
One distinguishing feature of Keener’s introduction is that it closes off straightforward rebuttal. Unlike O’Brien, he tries to establish not only the content of debate but the terms of debate itself, and once Keener has established the terms of debate, it is difficult or impossible to argue the opposing view from within those terms. Rebuttal is possible, of course, but here it would seem to require pushing the discussion back one notch in the meta-level hierarchy and arguing at much greater length. O’Brien seems more than fair in his style of argument; Keener loads the dice before his reader knows what is going on.
There are issues where most Biblically conservative Christians, including myself, disagree with prominent elements of the feminist movement… But there are other concerns which nearly all Christians, including myself, and nearly the whole women’s movement plainly share….
[Approximately two pages of alarming claims and statistics, including:] …Although “bride-burning” is now illegal in India, it still happens frequently; a bride whose dowry is insufficient may be burned to death so that her husband can find a new partner. There is no investigation, of course, because it is said that she simply poured cooking oil over herself and set herself on fire accidentally…. A Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center study of 1700 teenagers, cited in a 1990 InterVarsity magazine, reported that 65% of the boys and 47% of the girls in sixth through ninth grades say that a man may force a woman to have sex with him if they’ve been dating for more than six months…. Wife-beating seems to have been a well-established practice in many patriarchal families of the 1800’s….
But while some Christians may once have been content to cite proof-texts about women’s subordination to justify ignoring this sort of oppression, virtually all of us would today recognise that oppression and exploitation of any sort are sinful violations of Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves and to love fellow-Christians as Christ loved us. [Keener goes on to later conclude that we must choose between a feminist conception of equality and an un-Christian version of subordination.]
The text starts by presenting Keener as Biblically conservative, moves to a heart-wrenching list of wrongs against women, implicitly conflates nonfeminist Christians with those who condone rape and murder, and presents a choice crystallising the fallacy of the excluded middle that had been lurking in prior words. It has more than one attribute of emotional disinformation.
Keener both identifies himself as Biblically conservative and says that, among some Christians, the egalitarian position is the conservative one (contrast chapter 4, where ‘conservative’ means a reactionary misogynist). Why? People are more likely to listen to someone who is perceivedly of the same camp, and falsely claiming membership in your target’s camp is a tool of deceptive persuasion.
The recitation of statistics is interesting for several reasons.
On a strictly logical level, it is a non sequitur. It has no direct logical bearing on either camp; even its rhetorical position assumes that conservative, as well as liberal, members of his audience believe that rape and murder are atrocities. This is a logical non sequitur, chosen for its emotional force and what impact that emotional recoil will have on susceptibility. The trusting reader will recoil from the oppression listed and be less guarded when Keener provides his way to oppose such oppression. The natural response to such a revolting account is to say, ‘I’m not that! I’m the opposite!’ and embrace what is offered when the fallacy of the excluded middle is made explicit, in the choice Keener later presents.
Once a presentation of injustice has aroused compassion to indignation, most people do not use their full critical faculties: they want to right a wrong, not sit and analyse. This means that a powerful account of injustice (with your claims presented as a way to fight the injustice) is a powerful way to get people to accept claims that would be rejected if presented on their logical merits. Keener’s ‘of course’ is particularly significant; he builds the reader’s sense of outrage by adding ‘of course’ with a (carefully studied but) seemingly casual manner. It is not obvious to a Western reader that a bride’s murder would be left uninvestigated; adding ‘of course’ gives nothing to Keener’s logical case but adds significantly to the emotional effect Keener seeks, more effectively and more manipulatively than were he to visibly write those words from outrage.
The sentence about proof-texts and loving one’s neighbour is of particular interest. On a logical level, it is restrained and cannot really be attacked. The persuasive and emotional force—distinct from what is logically present—is closer to, ‘Accepting those proof-texts is equivalent to supporting such oppression; following the Law of Love contradicts both.’
This is one instance of a broader phenomenon: a gap between what the author entails and implicates. Both ‘entail’ and ‘implicate’ are similar in meaning to ‘imply’, but illustrate opposite sides of a distinction. What a text entails is what is implied by the text in a strictly logical sense; what a text implicates is what is implied in the sense of what it leads the reader to believe. What is implicated includes what is entailed, and may often include other things. The entailed content of ‘But while some Christians…’ is modest and does not particularly advance a discussion of egalitarianism. The implicated content is much more significant; it takes a logically tight reading to recognise that the text does not entail a conflation claiming that nonfeminist Christians condone rape and murder. The text implicates much more than it entails, and I believe that this combination of restricted entailment with far-reaching implication is a valuable cue. It can be highly informative to read a text with an eye to the gap between what is entailed and what is implicated. The gap between entailment and implicature seemed noticeably more pronounced in Keener than in yielding materials I have read, including O’Brien. Another example of a gap between entailment and implicature is found close, ‘…the secular generalization that Christians (both men and women) who respect the Bible oppose women’s rights is an inaccurate caricature of these Christians’ admits a similar analysis: the entailment is almost unassailable, while the implicature establishes in the reader’s mind that the conservative position is excisable from respect for the Bible, and that the nonfeminist position denies something basic to women that they should have. The term ‘women’s rights’ is by entailment the sort of thing one would not want to oppose, and by implicature a shorthand for ‘women’s rights as understood and interpreted along feminist lines’. As well as showing a significant difference between entailment and implicature, this provides an example of a text which closes off the most obvious means of rebuttal, another rhetorical trait which may be produced by the same mindset as produces unyielding analysis.
What is left out of the cited text is also significant. The statistics given are incomplete (they focus on profound ways in which women suffer so the reader will not think of profound ways in which men suffer) but as far as describing principles to discriminate yielding versus unyielding analysis, this seems to be privileged information. I don’t see a way to let a reader compare the text as if there were a complementary account written in the margin. Also, a careful reading of the text may reveal a Biblical nonfeminist position as the middle fallaciously excluded earlier, in which sexual distinction exists on some basis other than violence. All texts we are interested in—yielding or unyielding—must stop somewhere, but it is possible to exclude data that should have been included and try to conceal its absence. Lacunae that seem to have been chosen for persuasion rather than limitation of scope may signal unyielding analysis.
In a discussion of the haustafel’s (Ephesians 5:21 and following injunction that the husband love his wife based on Christ’s love for the Church, Keener says, ‘Indeed, Christ’s love is explicitly defined in this passage in terms of self-sacrificial service, not in terms of his authority.’ The passage does not mention that self-sacrificial service is a defining feature of Christ’s model of authority, and in these pages the impression is created that the belief in servant love is a Biblical Egalitarian distinctive, so that the reader might be surprised to find the conservative O’Brien saying:
…Paul does not here, or anywhere else for that matter, exhort husbands to rule over their wives. They are nowhere told, ‘Exercise your headship!’ Instead, they are urged repeatedly to love their wives (vv. 25, 28, and 33). This will involve each husband showing unceasing care and loving service for his wife’s entire well-being…
O’Brien is emphatic that husbands must love their wives; examples could easily be multiplied. Keener argues for loving servanthood as if it were a claim which his opponents rejected. The trusting reader will believe that nonfeminists believe in submission and egalitarians alone recognise that Paul calls husbands to servant love. I believe that this selective fact-telling is one of the more foundational indicators: some factual claims will be out of a given reader’s competence to evaluate, but so far as a reader can evaluate whether a fair picture is presented, the presence or absence of selective fact-telling may help.
Chapter 4 is interesting in that there are several thoughts that are very effectively conveyed without being explicitly stated. The account of ‘conservatives’ (i.e. misogynistic reactionaries) is never explicitly stated to apply to Christians who disagree with Keener, but works in a similar fashion (and for similar reasons) to the ‘Green Book’ which introduces the first major argument in The Abolition of Man. By the same mechanism as the Green Book leads the reader to believe that claims about the outer world are in fact only claims about ourselves, not the slightest obstacle is placed to the reader believing that Keener exposes the true nature of ‘conservatism’, and that the picture of Graeco-Roman conservatism portrayed is a picture of conservatism, period, as true of conservatism today as ever.
A smaller signal may be found in that Keener investigates inconvenient verses in a way that never occurs for convenient ones. Keener explores the text, meaning, and setting to 5:22-33 in a way that never occurs for 5:21; a careless reader may get the impression that 5:21 doesn’t have a cultural setting.
Drawing on Privileged Information
I would next like to outline a difference between men’s and women’s communication, state what Keener’s Roman conservatives did with this, and state what Keener did with the Roman conservatives. One apparent gender difference in communication is that when a woman makes a claim, it is relatively likely to mean, ‘I am in the process of thinking and here is where I am now,’ while a man’s claim is more likely to mean, ‘I have thought. I have come to a conclusion. Here is my conclusion.’ Without mentioning caveats, there is room for considerable friction when men assume that women are stating conclusions and women assume that men are giving the current state of a developing thought. The conservatives described by Keener seem frustrated by this friction; Keener quotes Josephus :
Put not trust in a single witness, but let there be three or at least two, whose evidence shall be accredited by their past lives. From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex; neither let slaves bear witness, because of the baseness of their soul.
This passage is introduced, “…regards the prohibition of women’s testimony as part of God’s law, based in the moral inferiority inherent in their gender.” The reader is not likely to question whether it’s purely misogyny for a man (frustrated by women apparently showing levity by changing their minds frequently) to find this perceived mutability a real reason why these people should not be relied on as witnesses when someone’s life may be at stake. Keener has been working to portray conservatives as misogynistic. Two pages earlier, he tells us,
An early Jewish teacher whose work was undoubtedly known to Paul advised men not to sit among women, because evil comes from them like a moth emerging from clothes. A man’s evil, this teacher went on to complain, is better than a woman’s good, for she brings only shame and reproach.
This, and other examples which could be multiplied, deal with something crystallised on the previous page. Keener writes,
Earlier philosophers were credited with a prayer of gratitude that they were not born women, and a century after Paul a Stoic emperor could differentiate a women’s soul from that of a man.
The moral of this story is that believing in nonphysical differences between men and women is tantamount to misogyny. This is a highly significant claim, given that the questions of women’s ordination and headship in marriage are largely epiphenomenal to the question of whether we are created masculine and feminine at every level of our being, or ontologically neuter spirits in reproductively differentiated bodies. Keener produces a conclusion (i.e. that the human spirit is neuter) without ever stating it or drawing the reader to consciously consider whether this claim should be believed. In a text that is consistently polite, the opposing view is not merely negated but vilified: to hold this view (it is portrayed) is tantamount to taking a view of women which is extraordinarily reprehensible. Either of these traits may signal unyielding analysis; I believe the combination is particularly significant.
Tacit and Overt Communication
Although the full import of tacit versus overt communication is well beyond my competency to address, I would like to suggest something that merits further study. Keener seemed, to a significant degree, to:
Tacitly convey most of his important points, without stating them explicitly.
Present claims so the opposing view is never considered.
Build up background assumptions which will produce the desired conclusions, more than give explicit arguments.
Work by manipulating background assumptions, often provided by the reader’s culture.
As an example of this kind of tacit communication, I would indicate two myths worked with in the introduction and subsequently implied. By ‘myth’ I do not specifically mean ‘widespread misconception’, but am using a semiotic term comparable in meaning to ‘paradigm’: ‘[M]yths act as scanning devices of a society’s ‘possibles‘ and ‘pensables‘ . The two myths are:
Men are powerful and violent aggressors, whilst women are powerless and innocent victims. The alarming claims and statistics mention aggression against men only in the most incidental fashion.
The accurate spokesperson for women’s interests is the feminist movement. Keener diminishes this myth’s force by disclaiming support for abortion (and presenting a pro-choice stance as separable from other feminist claims), but (even when decrying prenatal discrimination in sex-selective abortion) Keener refers to the feminist movement interchangeably as ‘the feminist movement’ and ‘the women’s movement’, and does not lead the reader to consider that one could speak for women’s interests by contradicting feminism, or question the a priori identification of womens’ interests with the content of feminist claims.As well as the emotional disinformation explored in many of the examples above, there are several points where the nature of the argument is of interest. Five argument-like features are explored:
Verses which help our position are principles that apply across all time; verses which contradict our position were written to address specific issues in a specific historical context.
X had beneficial effect Y; X was therefore purely instrumental to Y, and we may remove X if we no longer require X as an instrument to Y.
The absolute position taken in this passage addresses a specific historical idiosyncrasy, but the relative difference between this passage and its surroundings is a timeless principle across all times.
If X resonates with a passage’s cultural context, then X need not be seen as part of the Bible’s revelation.
We draw the lines of equivalence in the following manner…
‘Verses which help our position are principles that apply across all time; verses which contradict our position were written to address specific issues in a specific historical context’ is less an argument than an emergent property. It’s not argued; the text just turns out that way. Keener gives a diplomatically stated reason why Paul wrote the parts of 5:22-6:9 he focuses on: ‘Paul was very smart.’ The subsequent argument states that Paul wrote in a context where Christians behaving conservatively would diminish he perceived threat to social conservatives. Keener writes, ‘Paul is responding to a specific cultural issue for the sake of the Gospel, and his words should not be taken at face value in all cultures.’ There is a fallacy which seems to be behind this argument in Keener: being timeless principles and being historically prompted are non-overlapping categories, so finding a historical prompt suffices to demonstrate that material in question does not display a timeless principle.’The absolute position taken in this passage addresses a specific historical idiosyncrasy, but the relative difference between this passage and its surroundings is a timeless principle across all times.’ A text embodies both an absolute position in se, and a relative difference by how it is similar to and different from its surrounding cultural mainstream. 5:22-33 requires submission of wives and love of husbands; that absolute position can be understood with little study of context, while the relative difference showed both a continuity with Aristotelian haustafels and a difference by according women a high place that was unusual in its setting. The direction of Keener’s argument is to say explicitly that the verses should not be taken at face value, and to implicitly clarify that the absolute position should not be taken at face value, but part of the relative position, namely the sense in which Paul was much more feminist-like than his setting (‘[A quote from Plutarch] is one of the most “progressive” social models in Paul’s day… It is most natural to read Paul as making a much more radical statement than Plutarch, both because of what Paul says and because of what he does not say,’) is a timeless principle that should apply in our day as well as Paul’s. Without proper explanation of why the relative difference should be seen as absolute, given that the absolute position is idiosyncratic, the impression is strongly conveyed that respecting Paul’s spirit means transposing his absolute position so that a similar relative difference exists with relation to our setting.’We draw equivalences in the following manner…’ This is not a single argument so much as an attribute of arguments; I believe that what is presented as equivalent can be significant. In the autobiographical comments in the introduction, Keener writes:What Keener has been arguing is not just the relevance of culture but the implicit necessity of a piecemeal hermeneutic. The implication (beyond an excluded middle) is that using culture to argue a piecemeal, feminist modification to Paul is the same sort of thing as not literally practicing the holy kiss. The sixth of seven chapters, after emotionally railing against slavery, argues that retaining the institution of marriage while excising one dimension is the same sort of thing as abolishing the institution of slavery; ‘The Obedience of Children: A Better Model?’ explicitly rejects the claim that marriage is more like parenthood than owning slaves. While no comparison is perfect, I believe that these are examples of comparisons where it is illuminating to see what the author portrays as equivalent.In my own experience at least, this kind of argument is not purely the idiosyncrasy of one book. The idea this thesis is based on occurred to me after certain kinds of arguments recurred. Certain dark patterns, or anti-patterns, came up in different contexts like a broken record that kept on making its sound. I’m not sure how many times I had seen instances of ‘X had beneficial effect Y; X was therefore purely instrumental to Y, and we may remove X if we no longer require X as an instrument to Y,’ but I did not first meet that argument in Keener. These arguments represent fallacies of a more specialised nature than post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after the fact, therefore because of the fact”) or argumentum ad ignorantiam (“appeal to ignorance”). I believe that they allow a persuasive, rational-seeming argument of a conclusion not yet justified on logical terms. The experience that led to the formation of my thesis was partly from repeatedly encountering such fallacies in surprising cultural find arguments.I have tried to provide a pilot study identifying indicators of unyielding analysis. These indicators are not logically tied in the sense of ‘Here’s something which, on logical terms, can only indicate unyielding analysis.’ The unyielding analysis I have met, before and in Keener, has been constructed with enough care to logic that I don’t start by looking at logic. There are other things which are not of logical necessity required by unyielding analysis, but which seem to be produced by the same mindset. I have encountered these things both in the chosen text and in repeated previous experiences which first set me thinking along these lines.It is unfortunate that my control text made little use of emotion. I believe my case study would have been better rounded, had I been able to contrast emotion subverting logic in Keener with emotion complementing logic in the control text. As it is, the case study lends itself to an unfortunate reading of “logic is good and emotion is bad”, and gives the impression that I consider the bounds of legitimate persuasion to simply be those of logic.
Directions for Further Inquiry
There were other indicators which I believe could be documented from this text with greater inquiry, but which I have not investigated due to constraints. Among these may be mentioned:
Misrepresentation of material. Recognising this would seem to require privileged information, and work better for an area where the reader knows something rather than nothing, but I believe that a reader who knows part of the covered domain stands to benefit from seeing if it is covered fairly.
Doing more than a text presents itself as doing. A certain kind of deceit, in which the speaker works hard to preserve literal truth, has a complex quality caused by more going on than is presented. I believe an exploration of this quality, and its tie to unyielding analysis, may be fruitful.
Shared attributes with a test case. A small and distinctive minority of cases qualify to become test cases in American legal practice; they possess a distinct emotional signature, and portions of Keener’s argument (i.e. ‘Would [Paul] have ignored her personal needs in favour of the church’s witness?’) are reminiscent in both argument and emotional appeal of test cases.
An Amusement Park Ride with a Spellbinding Showman. Especially in their introductions, O’Brien seems to go out of his way to let the reader know the full background to the debate; Keener seems more like a fascinating showman who directs the reader’s attention to certain things and away from others; knowing the other side to statistics cited—or even knowing that there is another side—destroys the effect. A careful description of this difference in rhetoric may be helpful, and I believe may be tied to disinformation in that there is a difference in working style; yielding persuasion suffers far less from the reader knowing the other side than does unyielding persuasion.Lastly, I would suggest that a study of sharpening and leveling would be fruitful. ‘Sharpening’ and ‘leveling’ refer to a phenomenon where people remembering a text tend to sharpen its main points while leveling out attenuating factors. For many texts, sharpening and leveling are an unintended effect of their publication, while Keener seems at times to write to produce a specific result after sharpening and leveling have taken effect. What he writes in itself is more carefully restrained than what a reader would walk away thinking, and the latter appears to be closer to what Keener wants to persuade the reader of. Combining narrow entailment with broad implicature is a way for an author to write a text that creates a strong impression (sharpening and leveling produce an impression from what is implicated more than what is entailed) while being relatively immune to direct criticism: when a critic rereads a text closely, it turns out that the author didn’t really say the questionable things the critic remembers the author to have said. I.e. the ‘Gang of Four’: Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1994. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992.Ibid., pp. 6-9; compare almost any of O’Brien pp. 4-47. A haustafel is a household code such as the one found in Ephesians; for my purposes, the Ephesians haustafel stretches from 5:21 to 6:9. Keener, p. 163; O’Brien in pp. 405-438 does not cite a non-Biblical primary source likely to be similarly repellent, and portrays opposing secondary sources as mistaken without setting them in a disturbing light, i.e. in footnote 211, page 413. My attempts to find material discussing how these things work, academic or popular, have had mixed success. If I were to write a thesis around this issue, I would initially explore works such as Michael I. Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, and anthropological treatments of the high-context/low-context and direct/indirect axes of human communication (which suggest relevant lines of inquiry). C.S. Lewis’s account of the Un-man’s dialogue with the Lady in Perelandra (chapters 8-11, pp. 274-311 in Out of the Silent Planet / Perelandra, Surrey: Voyager Classics, 1938 / 1943), seems to represent a very perceptive grappling with the issue of tacit communication in relation to deceit.Ibid., p. 7.Ibid., p. 141. Contrast O’Brien’s comments on 6:5-9 in 447-456, seemingly the most obvious place to portray at least some of the text as parochial; O’Brien disclaims that Paul was making any social comment on slavery (p. 448), but unpacks the verses without obviously approaching the text from the same mindset as Keener. Keener, p. 170. Remember that Keener is an American. The suggestion he makes is more significant in U.S. than English culture. U.S. culture has a place for giving kisses to one’s romantic partner, to family, and to small children, but not ordinarily to friends. Because of this, culture shock affects almost any attempt to consider ecclesiastical usage. ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss.’ serves in U.S. Evangelical conversation as the standard example of a New Testament injunction which cannot be taken seriously as a commandment to follow. It seem to be often assumed as an example of cultural noise in the Bible. Keener, p. 148. Comments from Asher Koriat, Morris Goldsmith, and Ainat Pansky in ‘Toward a Psychology of Memory Accuracy (in the 2000 Annual Review of Psychology as seen in 2003 at http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m0961/2000_Annual/61855635/p7/article.jhtml?term=) provide a summary, with footnotes, suggesting the basic psychological mechanism. An accessible treatment of a related, if not identical, application to what I suggest here is found on pp. 91-94 in Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So, New York: The Free Press, 1993.
 I.e. the ‘Gang of Four’: Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
 Keener, pp. 186-188; contrast O’Brien, pp. 409-438, where he elaborates the text’s analogy with Christ and the Church as a model for understanding marriage, rather than comparing to slavery (which Keener not only does but works to give the reader a reservoir of anger at slavery which may transfer when he argues that marital submission is like slavery).
Ibid., p. 4; contrast the series preface before O’Brien: ‘God stands over against us; we do not stand in judgment of him. When God speaks to us through his Word, those who profess to know him must respond in an appropriate way…’ (page viii).
More broadly, I believe there is room for inquiry into the relation between this use of patterns and that in other disciplines. The application I have made is not a straight transposition; in architecture and computer science patterns are a tool to help people communicate about best practices to follow, not identify questionable practice to criticise as I have done here. What becomes of the Quality Without a Name may be interesting. This thesis only suggests two patterns; GoF describes twenty-three computer programming patterns broken into three groups, so that they provide a taxonomy of recurring solutions and not merely a list. A taxonomy of Biblical studies patterns could be a valuable achievement.
On a broader scale, it is my hope that this may serve not only as a pilot study regarding unyielding analysis but a tentative introduction of a modified concept of ‘pattern’, or rather ‘dark pattern’ or ‘anti-pattern’ in theology. The concept of pattern was introduced by the architect Christopher Alexander and is sufficiently flexible to be recognised as powerful in computer science. I believe there are other patterns that can be helpful, and I would suggest that books like Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building are accessible to people in a number of disciplines.
At a fairly basic level, the case study is a study of a cultural dimension of communication. I believe that portions of this pilot study may be deepened by the insights of scholars from humanities which study human culture and communication. I believe that some of my remarks would be improved by a serious attempt to connect them with high-context and low-context communication as studied in anthropology. If I am doing a pilot study that cannot provide much of any firm answers, I do hope to suggest fruitful lines of inquiry and identify deep questions which for which interdisciplinary study could be quite fruitful.
In some cases, the argument types I have described are not things which must be wrong, but things which lack justification. The claim that an absolute position is parochial but the relative difference is timeless is not a claim I consider to be unjustifiable, but it is a claim which I believe requires justification, a justification which is not necessarily provided.
“But it’s part of the Bible!” I protested. “If you throw this part out, you have to throw everything else out, too.” I cannot recall anyone having a good response to my objection, but even as a freshman I knew very well that if I were consistent in my stance against using culture to interpret the Bible, I would have to advocate women’s head coverings in church, the practice of holy kisses, and parentally arranged marriages.
‘If X resonates with a passage’s cultural context, then X need not be seen as part of the Bible’s revelation.’ This is often interwoven with the previous two arguments. Apart from showing a feminist-like relative difference, Keener works to establish that Paul used a haustafel in a way that reduced Christianity’s perceived threat to conservatives. This is presented as establishing that therefore wives are not divinely commanded to submit.
‘X had beneficial effect Y; X was therefore purely instrumental to Y, and we may remove X if we no longer require X as an instrument to Y.’ Keener argues that the haustafel mitigated prejudice against Christianity, which is presented as a reason why we need not observe the haustafel if we do not perceive need for that apologetic concern.
Against (crypto-Protestant) “Orthodox” fundamentalism
If you read Genesis 1 and believe from Genesis 1 that the world was created in six days, I applaud you. That is a profound thing to believe in simplicity of faith.
However, if you wish to persuade me that Orthodox Christians should best believe in a young earth creation in six days, I am wary. Every single time an Orthodox Christian has tried to convince me that I should believe in a six day creation, I have been given recycled Protestant arguments, and for the moment the entire conversation has seemed like I was talking with a Protestant fundamentalist dressed up in Orthodox clothing. And if the other person claims to understand scientific data better than scientists who believe an old earth, and show that the scientific data instead support a young earth, this is a major red flag.
Now at least some Orthodox heirarchs have refused to decide for the faithful under their care what the faithful may believe: the faithful may be expected to believe God’s hand was at work, but between young earth creationism, old earth creationism, and “God created life through evolution”, or any other options, the heirarchs do not intervene. I am an old earth creationist; I came to my present beliefs on “How did different life forms appear?” before becoming Orthodox, and I have called them into a question a few times but not yet found reason to revise them, either into young earth creation or theistic evolution. I would characterize my beliefs, after being reconsidered, as “not changed”, and not “decisively confirmed”: what I would suggest has improved in my beliefs is that I have become less interested in some Western fascinations, such as getting right the details of how the world was created, moving instead to what might be called “mystical theology” or “practical theology”, and walking the Orthodox Way.
There is something that concerns me about Orthodox arguing young earth creationism like a Protestant fundamentalist. Is it that I think they are wrong about how the world came to be? That is not the point. If they are wrong about that, they are wrong in the company of excellent saints. If they merely hold another position in a dispute, that is one thing, but bringing Protestant fundamentalism into the Orthodox Church reaches beyond one position in a dispute. Perhaps I shouldn’t be talking because I reached my present position before entering the Orthodox Church; or rather I haven’t exactly reversed my position but de-emphasized it and woken up to the fact that there are bigger things out there. But I am concerned when I’m talking with an Orthodox Christian, and every single time someone tries to convince me of a young earth creationism, all of the sudden it seems like I’m not dealing with an Orthodox Christian any more, but with a Protestant fundamentalist who always includes arguments that came from Protestant fundamentalism. And what concerns me is an issue of practical theology. Believing in a six day creation is one thing. Believing in a six day creation like a Protestant fundamentalist is another matter entirely.
A telling, telling line in the sand
In reading the Fathers, one encounters claims of a young earth. However, often (if not always) the claim is one among many disputes with Greek philosophers or what have you. To my knowledge there is no patristic text in which a young earth is the central claim, let alone even approach being “the article by which the Church stands or falls” (if I may borrow phrasing from Protestant fundamentalist cultural baggage).
But, you may say, Genesis 1 and some important Fathers said six days, literally. True enough, but may ask a counterquestion?
Are we obligated to believe that our bodies are composed of earth, air, fire and water, and not of molecules and atoms including carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen?
If that question seems to come out of the blue, let me quote St. Basil, On the Six Days of Creation, on a precursor to today’s understanding of the chemistry of what everyday objects are made of:
Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and bonds, form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.
At this point, belief in his day’s closest equivalent to our atoms and molecules is called an absolutely unacceptable “spider’s web” that is due to “inherent atheism.” Would you call Orthodox Christians who believe in chemistry’s molecules and atoms inherent atheists? St. Basil does provide an alternative:
“And the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters.” Does this spirit mean the diffusion of air? The sacred writer wishes to enumerate to you the elements of the world, to tell you that God created the heavens, the earth, water, and air and that the last was now diffused and in motion; or rather, that which is truer and confirmed by the authority of the ancients, by the Spirit of God, he means the Holy Spirit.
St. Basil rejected atoms and molecules, and believed in elements, not of carbon or hydrogen, but of earth, air, fire, and water. The basic belief is one Orthodoxy understands, and there are sporadic references in liturgical services to the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and so far as I know no references to modern chemistry. St. Basil seems clearly enough to endorse a six day creation, and likewise endorses an ancient view of elements while rejecting belief in atoms and molecules as implicit atheism.
Why then do Orthodox who were once Protestant fundamentalists dig their heels in at a literal six day creation and make no expectation that we dismiss chemistry to believe the elements are earth, air, fire, water, and possibly aether? The answer, so far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with Orthodoxy or any Orthodox Christians. It has to do with a line in the sand chosen by Protestants, the same line in the sand described in Why Young Earthers Aren’t Completely Crazy, a line in the sand that is understandable and was an attempt to address quite serious concerns, but still should not be imported from Protestant fundamentalism into Holy Orthodoxy.
Leaving Western things behind
If you believe in a literal six day creation, it is not my specific wish to convince you to drop that belief. But I would have you drop fundamentalist Protestant “creation science” and its efforts to prove a young earth scientifically and show that it can interpret scientific findings better than the mainstream scientific community. And I would have you leave Western preoccupations behind. Perhaps you might believe St. Basil was right about six literal days. For that matter, you could believe he was right about rejecting atoms and molecules in favor of earth, air, fire, and water—or at least recognize that St. Basil makes other claims besides six literal days. But you might realize that really there are much more important things in the faith. Like how faith plays out in practice.
The fundamentalist idea of conversion is like flipping a light switch: one moment, a room is dark, then in an instant it is full of light. The Orthodox understanding is of transformation: discovering Orthodoxy is the work of a lifetime, and perhaps once a year there is a “falling off a cliff” experience where you realize you’ve missed something big about Orthodoxy, and you need to grow in that newly discovered dimension. Orthodoxy is not just the ideas and enthusiasm we have when we first come into the Church; there are big things we could never dream of and big things we could never consider we needed to repent of. And I would rather pointedly suggest that if a new convert’s understanding of Orthodoxy is imperfect, much less of Orthodoxy can be understood from reading Protestant attacks on it. One of the basic lessons in Orthodoxy is that you understand Orthodoxy by walking the Orthodox Way, by attending the services and living a transformed life, and not by reading books. And if this goes for books written by Orthodox saints, it goes all the more for Protestant fundamentalist books attacking Orthodoxy.
Science won’t save your soul, but science (like Orthodoxy) is something you understand by years of difficult work. Someone who has done that kind of work might be able to argue effectively that evolution does not account for the fossil record, let alone how the first organism could come to exist: but here I would recall The Abolition of Man: “It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.” Someone who has taken years of effort may rightly criticize evolution for its scientific merits. Someone who has just read fundamentalist Protestant attacks on evolution and tries to evangelize evolutionists and correct their scientific errors will be just as annoying to an atheist who believes in evolution, as a fundamentalist who comes to evangelize the unsaved Orthodox and “knows all about Orthodoxy” from polemical works written by other fundamentalists. I would rather pointedly suggest that if you care about secular evolutionists at all, pray for them, but don’t set out to untangle their backwards understanding of the science of it all. If you introduce yourself as someone who will straighten out their backwards ideas about science, all you may really end up accomplishing is to push them away.
Conversion is a slow process. And letting go of Protestant approaches to creation may be one of those moments of “falling off a cliff.”
Memories flitted through Martin’s mind as he drove: tantalizing glimpses he had seen of how people really thought in Bible times. Glimpses that made him thirsty for more. It had seemed hours since he left his house, driving out of the city, across back roads in the forest, until at last he reached the quiet town. The store had printer’s blocks in the window, and as he stepped in, an old-fashioned bell rung. There were old tools on the walls, and the room was furnished in beautifully varnished wood.
An old man smiled and said, “Welcome to my bookstore. Are you—” Martin nodded. The man looked at him, turned, and disappeared through a doorway. A moment later he was holding a thick leatherbound volume, which he set on the counter. Martin looked at the binding, almost afraid to touch the heavy tome, and read the letters of gold on its cover:
ON THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS
IN ONE VOLUME
CONTAINING A CAREFUL ANALYSIS OF ALL CULTURAL ISSUES
NEEDFUL TO UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE
AS DID ITS FIRST READERS
“You’re sure you can afford it, sir? I’d really like to let it go for a lower price, but you must understand that a book like this is costly, and I can’t afford to sell it the way I do most other titles.”
“Finances will be tight, but I’ve found knowledge to cost a lot and ignorance to cost more. I have enough money to buy it, if I make it a priority.”
“Good. I hope it may profit you. But may I make one request, even if it sounds strange?”
“What is your request?”
“If, for any reason, you no longer want the commentary, or decide to get rid of it, you will let me have the first chance to buy it back.”
“Sir? I don’t understand. I have been searching for a book like this for years. I don’t know how many miles I’ve driven. I will pay. You’re right that this is more money than I could easily spare—and I am webmaster to a major advertising agency. I would have only done so for something I desired a great, great deal.”
“Never mind that. If you decide to sell it, will you let me have the first chance?”
“Let’s talk about something else. What text does it use?”
“It uses the Revised Standard Version. Please answer my question, sir.”
“How could anyone prefer darkness to light, obscurity to illumination?”
“I don’t know. Please answer my question.”
“Yes, I will come to you first. Now will you sell it to me?”
The old man rung up the sale.
As Martin walked out the door, the shopkeeper muttered to himself, “Sold for the seventh time! Why doesn’t anybody want to keep it?”
Martin walked through the door of his house, almost exhausted, and yet full of bliss. He sat in his favorite overstuffed armchair, one that had been reupholstered more than once since he sat in it as a boy. He relaxed, the heavy weight of the volume pressing into his lap like a loved one, and then opened the pages. He took a breath, and began reading.
At the present time, most people believe the question of culture in relation to the Bible is a question of understanding the ancient cultures and accounting for their influence so as to be able to better understand Scripture. That is indeed a valuable field, but its benefits may only be reaped after addressing another concern, a concern that is rarely addressed by people eager to understand Ancient Near Eastern culture.
A part of the reader’s culture is the implicit belief that he is not encumbered by culture: culture is what people live under long ago and far away. This is not true. As it turns out, the present culture has at least two beliefs which deeply influence and to some extent limit its ability to connect with the Bible. There is what scholars call ‘period awareness’, which is not content with the realization that we all live in a historical context, but places different times and places in sealed compartments, almost to the point of forgetting that people who live in the year 432, people who live in 1327, and people who live in 1987 are all human. Its partner in crime is the doctrine of progress, which says at heart that we are better, nobler, and wiser people than those who came before us, and our ideas are better, because ideas, like machines, grow rust and need to be replaced. This gives the reader the most extraordinary difficulties in believing that the Holy Spirit spoke through humans to address human problems in the Bible, and the answer speaks as much to us humans as it did to them. Invariably the reader believes that the Holy Spirit influenced a first century man trying to deal with first century problems, and a delicate work of extrication is needed before ancient texts can be adapted to turn-of-the-millenium concerns.
Martin shifted his position slightly, felt thirsty, almost decided to get up and get a glass of water, then decided to continue reading. He turned a few pages in order to get into the real meat of the introduction, and resumed reading:
…is another example of this dark pattern.
In an abstracted sense, what occurs is as follows:
Scholars implicitly recognize that some passages in the Bible are less than congenial to whatever axe they’re grinding.
They make a massive search, and subject all of the offending passages to a meticulous examination, an examination much more meticulous than orthodox scholars ever really need when they’re trying to understand something.
In parallel, there is an exhaustive search of a passage’s historical-cultural context. This search dredges up a certain kind of detail—in less flattering terms, it creates disinformation.
No matter what the passage says, no matter who’s examining it, this story always has the same ending. It turns out that the passage in fact means something radically different from what it appears to mean, and in fact does not contradict the scholar at all.
This dark pattern has devastating effect on people from the reader’s culture. They tend to believe that culture has almost any influence it is claimed to; in that regard, they are very gullible . It is almost unheard-of for someone to say, “I’m sorry, no; cultures can make people do a lot of things, but I don’t believe a culture could have that influence.”
It also creates a dangerous belief which is never spoken in so many words: “If a passage in the Bible appears to contradict what we believe today, that is because we do not adequately understand its cultural context.”
Martin coughed. He closed the commentary slowly, reverently placed it on the table, and took a walk around the block to think.
Inside him was turmoil. It was like being at an illusionist show, where impossible things happened. He recalled his freshman year of college, when his best friend Chaplain was a student from Liberia, and come winter, Chaplain was not only seared by cold, but looked betrayed as the icy ground became a traitor beneath his feet. Chaplain learned to keep his balance, but it was slow, and Martin could read the pain off Chaplain’s face. How long would it take? He recalled the shopkeeper’s words about returning the commentary, and banished them from his mind.
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.
He decided to see what it would have to say about a problem passage. He flipped to Ephesians 5:
5:21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
5:22 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.
5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
5:24 As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
5:26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
5:27 that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
5:28 Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
5:29 For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church,
5:30 because we are members of his body.
5:31 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
5:32 This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church;
5:33 however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
The reader is at this point pondering what to do with this problem passage. At the moment, he sees three major options: first, to explain it away so it doesn’t actually give husbands authority; second, to chalk it up to misogynist Paul trying to rescind Jesus’s progressive liberality; and third, to take this as an example of why the Bible can’t really be trusted.
To explain why the reader perceives himself caught in this unfortunate choice, it is necessary to explain a powerful cultural force, one whose effect cannot be ignored: feminism. Feminism has such a powerful effect among the educated in his culture that the question one must ask of the reader is not “Is he a feminist?” but “What kind of feminist is he, and to what degree?”
Feminism flows out of a belief that it’s a wonderful privelege to be a man, but it is tragic to be a woman. Like Christianity, feminism recognizes the value of lifelong penitence, even the purification that can come through guilt. It teaches men to repent in guilt of being men, and women to likewise repent of being women. The beatific vision in feminism is a condition of sexlessness, which feminists call ‘androgyny’.
Martin stopped. “What kind of moron wrote this? Am I actually supposed to believe it?” Then he continued reading:
This is why feminism believes that everything which has belonged to men is a privelege which must be shared with women, and everything that has belonged to women is a burden which men must also shoulder. And so naturally, when Paul asserts a husband’s authority, the feminist sees nothing but a privelege unfairly hoarded by men.
Martin’s skin began to feel clammy.
The authority asserted here is not a domineering authority that uses power to serve oneself. Nowhere in the Bible does Paul tell husbands how to dominate their wives. Instead he follows Jesus’s model of authority, one in which leadership is a form of servanthood. Paul doesn’t just assume this; he explicitly tells the reader, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The sigil of male headship and authority is not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.
Martin was beginning to wish that the commentary had said, “The Bible is misogynistic, and that’s good!” He was beginning to feel a nagging doubt that what he called problem passages were in fact perfectly good passages that didn’t look attractive if you had a problem interpretation. What was that remark in a theological debate that had gotten so much under his skin? He almost wanted not to remember it, and then—”Most of the time, when people say they simply cannot understand a particular passage of Scripture, they understand the passage perfectly well. What they don’t understand is how to explain it away so it doesn’t contradict them.”
He paced back and forth, and after a time began to think, “The sword can’t always cut against me, can it? I know some gay rights activists who believe that the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual acts is nothing but taboo. Maybe the commentary on Romans will give me something else to answer them with.” He opened the book again:
1:26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural,
1:27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
The concept of ‘taboo’ in the reader’s culture needs some explanation. When a person says, “That’s taboo,” what’s being said is that there is an unthinking, irrational prejudice against it: one must not go against the prejudice because then people will be upset, but in some sense to call a restriction a taboo is de facto to show it unreasonable.
The term comes from Polynesia and other South Pacific islands, where it is used when people recognize there is a line which it is wiser not to cross. Thomas Aquinas said, “The peasant who does not murder because the law of God is deep in his bones is greater than the theologian who can derive, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ from first principles.”
A taboo is a restriction so deep that most people cannot offer a ready explanation. A few can; apologists and moral philosophers make a point of being able to explain the rules. For most people, though, they know what is right and what is wrong, and it is so deeply a part of them that they cannot, like an apologist, start reasoning with first principles and say an hour and a half later, “and this is why homosexual acts are wrong.”
What goes with the term ‘taboo’ is an assumption that if you can’t articulate your reasons on the drop of a hat, that must mean that you don’t have any good reasons, and are acting only from benighted prejudice. Paradoxically, the term ‘taboo’ is itself a taboo: there is a taboo against holding other taboos, and this one is less praiseworthy than other taboos…
Martin walked away and sat in another chair, a high wooden stool. What was it that he had been thinking about before going to buy the commentary? A usability study had been done on his website, and he needed to think about the results. Designing advertising material was different from other areas of the web; the focus was not just on a smooth user experience but also something that would grab attention, even from a hostile audience. Those two goals were inherently contradictory, like mixing oil and water. His mind began to wander; he thought about the drive to buy the commentary, and began to daydream about a beautiful woman clad only in—
What did the commentary have to say about lust? Jesus said it was equivalent to adultery; the commentary probably went further and made it unforgiveable. He tried to think about work, but an almost morbid curiosity filled him. Finally, he looked up the Sermon on the Mount, and opened to Matthew:
5:27 “You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’
5:28 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
There is a principle here that was once assumed and now requires some explanation. Jesus condemned lust because it was doing in the heart what was sinful to do in the hands. There is a principle that is forgotten in centuries of people saying, “I can do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t harm you,” or to speak more precisely, “I can do whatever I want as long as I don’t see how it harms you.” Suddenly purity was no longer a matter of the heart and hands, but a matter of the hands alone. Where captains in a fleet of ships once tried both to avoid collisions and to keep shipshape inside, now captains believe that it’s OK to ignore mechanical problems inside as long as you try not to hit other ships—and if you steer the wheel as hard as you can and your ship still collides with another, you’re not to blame. Heinrich Heine wrote:
Should ever that taming talisman break—the Cross—then will come roaring back the wild madness of the ancient warriors, with all their insane, Berserker rage, of whom our Nordic poets speak and sing. That talisman is now already crumbling, and the day is not far off when it shall break apart entirely. On that day, the old stone gods will rise from their long forgotten wreckage and rub from their eyes the dust of a thousand years’ sleep. At long last leaping to life, Thor with his giant hammer will crush the gothic cathedrals. And laugh not at my forebodings, the advice of a dreamer who warns you away from the . . . Naturphilosophen. No, laugh not at the visionary who knows that in the realm of phenomena comes soon the revolution that has already taken place in the realm of spirit. For thought goes before deed as lightning before thunder. There will be played in Germany a play compared to which the French Revolution was but an innocent idyll.
Heinrich Heine was a German Jewish poet who lived a century before Thor’s hammer would crush six million of his kinsmen.
The ancient world knew that thought goes before deed as lightning before thunder. They knew that purity is an affair of the heart as well as the hands. Now there is grudging acknowledgment that lust is wrong, a crumbling acceptance that has little place in the culture’s impoverished view, but this acknowledgment is like a tree whose soil is taken away. For one example of what goes with that tree, I would like to look at advertising.
Porn uses enticing pictures of women to arouse sexual lust, and can set a chain of events in motion that leads to rape. Advertising uses enticing pictures of chattels to arouse covetous lust, and exists for the sole reason of setting a chain of events in motion that lead people to waste resources by buying things they don’t need. The fruit is less bitter, but the vine is the same. Both operate by arousing impure desires that do not lead to a righteous fulfillment. Both porn and advertising are powerfully unreal, and bite those that embrace them. A man that uses porn will have a warped view of women and be slowly separated from healthy relations. Advertising manipulates people to seek a fulfillment in things that things can never provide: buying one more product can never satisfy that deep craving, any more than looking at one more picture can. Bruce Marshall said, “…the young man who rings at the door of a brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” Advertisers know that none of their products give a profound good, nothing like what people search for deep down inside, and so they falsely present products as things that are transcendent, and bring family togetherness or racial harmony.
It has been asked, “Was the Sabbath made for man, or was man made for the Sabbath?” Now the question should be asked, “Was economic wealth made for man, or was man made for economic wealth?” The resounding answer of advertising is, “Man was made for economic wealth.” Every ad that is sent out bears the unspoken message, “You, the customer, exist for me, the corporation.”
Martin sat in his chair, completely stunned.
After a long time, he padded off to bed, slept fitfully, and was interrupted by nightmares.
The scenic view only made the drive bleaker. Martin stole guiltily into the shop, and laid the book on the counter. The shopkeeper looked at him, and he at the shopkeeper.
“Didn’t you ask who could prefer darkness to light, obscurity to illumination?”
Martin’s face was filled with anguish. “How can I live without my darkness?”
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.
Adamant devotees of Fr. Cherubim (Jones) the Half-Converted demand immediate canonization and full recognition as “Equal to the Heirophants”. They have stepped beside their usual tactics of demanding canonization whether or not Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted should be canonized, and demanding that any problems be swept under the carpet, to insist that he be called, “Equal to the Heirophants.”
Much of the work in his wake was consolidated in the book, Christ the Eternal Doubt. Our devotee explained, “Blessed Cherubim Jones saw more than anything the spiritual toxicity of postmodernism. And he sensed, perhaps even more than he realized, that the proper rebuttal to postmodernism is to reconstruct modernism: indeed, there are powerful modernist currents in his thought even when he seems to condemn all Western trends. The great grandfather of modernism was René DesCartes, and Blessed Cherubim Jones uncovered layer after layer of this philosopher whose very name means ‘Born Again’ and whose Meditations put doubt on a pedestal and said, in essence, ‘Doubt what you can; what remains after doubt is unshakable.’ And Λογος or Logos is interchangeable, one might almost say homoousios, with logic and with doubt.” And to quench the ills of the postmodern world, Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted mined a vein that would come together in the classic Christ the Eternal Doubt.
Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted 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. And this is nothing next to what happened when he was the only fashionable Orthodoxy the communist East could listen to.”
Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted was indeed very concerned that his version of the Fathers be adhered to. He pointed out that many Church Fathers, in giving the theology of the created world, absolutely denied that matter was made from atoms and molecules, but insisted that science properly interpreted proves that matter was made from the four elements: “earth, air, fire, and water.” And he drew a line in the sand here, and most of his devotees are extraordinarily suspicious about whether you can be Orthodox and believe anything like modern atheistic chemistry.
There is some slight controversy surrounding Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted’s teaching on the phantom tollbooth. His position, as carried forth by others, is that practically every major element of The Phantom Tollbooth is already in the Fathers and is attested in quite ancient liturgy. Consequently, many argue, the book The Phantom Tollbooth is no mere imaginative children’s tale, but an entirely literal factual account describing life beyond the mundane.