Month: April 2010

Orthodox Spiritual Life and the Environment Conference

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All of the talks from the April 16-17, 2010, conference of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration held at St. Tikhon’s Seminary are now online, courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio:

  • Dr. Seraphim Bruce Foltz: Nature and Other Modern Idolatries: Kosmos, Ktisis, and Chaos in Environmental Metaphysics. (Dr. Foltz is philosophy professor at Eckerd College, a founder of SOPHIA, the Orthodox philosophical association; author of “Inhabiting the Earth: Heidegger, Environmental Ethics, and the Metaphysics of Nature,” and co-editor of “Rethinking Nature: Essays in Environmental Philosophy.”)

  • Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick: The Cosmic Cathedral: Orthodox Liturgy and Ecological Vision. (Fr. Andrew is pastor of St. Paul’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Emmaus, PA, and author of the “Roads from Emmaus” and “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio, as well as of the blog “Roads from Emmaus.”)
  • Abbot Sergius (Bowyer): Monasticism and the Restoration of Creation. (Fr. Sergius is abbot of St. Tikhon’s Monastery and music instructor at St. Tikhon’s Seminary.)
  • Prof. Alfred Kentigern Siewers: The Desert Sea: Early Irish Ascetic Landscapes of Creation. (Prof. Siewers is associate professor of English, and Nature and Human Communities coordinator, at Bucknell University’s Environmental Center; author of “Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape,” co-editor of “Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages.”)
  • Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff: Environmental Concerns and Orthodox Christian Witness. (Dr. Theokritoff is visiting lecturer at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge; author of “Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology,” co-editor of “The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology.”)
  • Protodeacon Sergei Kapral: The Orthodox Church and Non-Orthodox Eco-Justice Movements. (Protodeacon Sergei is deacon at Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and a member of the National Council of Churches Committee on Eco-Justice.)

The above blurbs are from the conference schedule.

I enjoyed this conference. It was much less political (and by that, I mean in the annoying, activist sense) than I had been prepared for, leaning far more heavily to questions of ecological vision which, I believe, are more critical to us. Blundering about with big policy recommendations can be, frankly, rather silly, when one is not guided by anything of a higher order. It also depends greatly on whatever the “scientific” fad of the moment is.

Churching the Nation: Sharing the Orthodox Christian Faith in America

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Both parts of my March 7 talk at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are now up on Ancient Faith Radio, at the Roads From Emmaus podcast. (They’ve got it titled “Evangelism and Orthodoxy.”)

Get it here: Part 1, Part 2.

You can download the referenced Orthodox Gospel tract here.

Cultural Recusancy in Quotations from Men Whose Names Start with Initials

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…the spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and many-headed in its incarnations that there seems nothing more to do than personally refuse to worship any of the hydras’ heads. – J. R. R. Tolkien, from a 1969 letter to Amy Ronald

The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. – T.S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”

The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. – C. S. Lewis, from his introduction to St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation

The comedy of man survives the tragedy of man. – G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 1906

My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday. – GKC, Orthodoxy, 1908

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.ibid.

Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back. – GKC, What’s Wrong With the World, 1910

Comforts that were rare among our forefathers are now multiplied in factories and handed out wholesale; and indeed, nobody nowadays, so long as he is content to go without air, space, quiet, decency and good manners, need be without anything whatever that he wants; or at least a reasonably cheap imitation of it. – GKC, Commonwealth, 1933

…In the brown bark
Of the trees I saw the many faces
Of life, forms hungry for birth,
Mouthing at me. I held my way
To the light, inspecting my shadow
Boldly; and in the late morning
You, rising towards me out of the depths
Of myself. I took your hand,
Remembering you, and together,
Confederates of the natural day,
We went forth to meet the Machine.

- R. S. Thomas, “Once”

The Theological Significance of Political Liberty

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Troxell-Steckel House, 1756 (N. Whitehall, Pennsylvania)

While attending this conference this weekend, I happened in some of my offhand remarks during one of the discussion sessions to tip my political hand as “localist / libertarian-leaning.” Of course, questions of ecology and how to work with God’s creation eventually do lead to economic and political issues, though I felt the conference successfully mostly steered clear of such things. (My impression of its purpose was that it was for exploring and imparting proper theological vision, not for issuing policy memoranda.) But my one minor comment was later the cause of a minor private confrontation of sorts in which I was informed that libertarianism necessarily means Randian Objectivism and its basic ethic of “rational selfishness.” As such, libertarianism is not compatible with Orthodox Christianity, and it in no way is concerned for the common good.

This came as a bit of a surprise to me (even apart from the reality that both the notion of and the term for libertarianism pre-date Rand), as I’m sure it would to others who share similar political sympathies to mine. I am not, mind you, a doctrinaire nor partisan Libertarian, but even if I were, I would feel no special loyalty to Ayn Rand or her philosophy. Libertarianism, even in its many varieties, by no means requires that one be selfish. Indeed, libertarianism is not really about preventing oneself from doing things for others. Rather, it is about preventing oneself from doing things to others, most especially by means of political (and thus ultimately, violent) force. You can of course be a selfish cad and be a libertarian, but you can also be a great philanthropist and be a libertarian.

Anyway, I am not, properly speaking, a libertarian. I’m basically a localist, which is not a word that most people understand to have a political meaning. It does, though, and it implies at least a similarity with libertarian political philosophy. Political localism is, at its core, the belief that massive national systems are not so good, while local solutions to problems between neighbors (even politically) are much better. Many localists are also distributists, which is an economic philosophy whose core principle might be described as “don’t let anyone get too big for his britches.” It has anti-monopolism as a basic economic principle. I don’t yet know enough about distributism to endorse it explicitly, but if it is as one writer I once saw described it, essentially the economics of the Shire (where no one grabs more than is really proper for him), then I like it. In this, though, distributism is more of a culture and less a specific politically endorsed economic policy.

What this post is really about, though, is why a dedication to liberty is actually compatible with Orthodox Christian theology.

There is a variety of person who believes that Christ’s commands for us to love the poor should lead us to a progressivist political outlook, that we should expand the welfare state, because doing so is fulfilling His will. I really do not agree with that, if only because it smacks to me entirely to be too much like those ancient Jews who wanted the Messiah to come riding in on a white horse to inaugurate a political salvation. That approach doesn’t work, though. St. John Chrysostom tells us why:

Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first—and then they will joyfully share their wealth.

But we as a society don’t like that method. We figure the best way to achieve justice is to enact massive programmes and legislation. This approach is endemic to our political culture, whether it is the progressivists on the right or on the left. Both of our major political parties have this essential narrative within their agendas. Neither of them are particularly interested in actual liberty of the sort Chrysostom speaks of here. (Alas, I have no citation for this quote other than its inclusion in the little On Living Simply volume.) There must be some kind of systemic solution to our justice problems.

But the localist in me distrusts any systemic solutions, because they fail to take into account the actual common good and only address theoretical constructs of what our society must be like. And the theologian in me (be he ever so simple) abhors systemic solutions, precisely because of what Chrysostom says here. It is far, far easier for me to vote for you to be charitable to someone else (and even to offer up my own money in taxes, as well) than it is for me to be charitable to someone right in front of me.

The common good is actually served when neighbors in communities care for one another, not when they facelessly vote for a faceless law enacted by faceless men, supposedly benefiting faceless people somewhere in the faceless Out There. There are those statists who say that our government is really just an expression of our collective will, and there is of course some truth to that. But it is one thing for our collective will to express charity, and it is another for our collective will to use the tyranny of the majority to force it out of others and ourselves.

But all that is only the negative, accounting for us, in moral and theological terms, why centrally planned “justice” is not terribly just.

The positive side of the dedication to liberty, even political liberty, is that it serves one of our basic theological affirmations, that the human person is free. God never compels us to act morally, though He does sometimes restrain us from becoming public menaces. Likewise, if we who are made according to His image would attain to His likeness, we should do likewise. In a real sense, pursuing limited government is not just a “conservative” or “libertarian” “value.” It is rather a means of trying to treat our neighbors as God Himself treats us.

Yes, we should restrain the public menace, but we cannot (and I use this phrase with much delicious irony but also much literalism) legislate morality, whether that is the morality of the bedroom or the boardroom. Yes, of course, we want people to behave themselves in both the bedroom and the boardroom, but the best means to promote that is to aim for their souls’ salvation, not for their means’ taxation.

We must change people’s hearts first. Anything less will fail, anyway. No just people was ever legislated into being. But the prophet Jonah succeeded in inspiring Nineveh to repent. And Jesus, even while appearing before the authorities, did not lobby them. Rather, He died for them and then rose from the dead, and the sun then rose on a kingdom unlike any other, where true freedom resides in men’s hearts and is given unconditionally by their God, where no one is compelled to love another. Love under compulsion isn’t love, anyway.

Update: I haven’t been able to track down the source of the Chrysostom quote, so I cannot be sure that it is authentically from him. Nevertheless, whether Chrysostom said it or not, what it says about the spiritual ramifications of coerced charity is true, so I leave it in place for its wisdom.

Reason and Conversion to Christ

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A longtime friend of mine (and former co-worker from my stagehand days) has apparently listened to the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy podcast a lot more times than I have (he claims seven times, poor fellow). He recently sent me a note entitled “The subjugation of reason” and gave me permission to publish an excerpt here, along with my response:

At your leisure, I would request a little more insight on what has been the most prominent question triggered in my mind by your words. If reason is to be subordinate to Orthodox teaching, tradition, and scripture, by what basis does one rightfully, or properly, choose to join the community of the Church? Setting aside reason for a moment, I’m left with feeling, emotion, and intuition; which are arguably more fallible than reason. To me it would appear that, while outside the Church, I retain the God-given volition to make the ‘correct’ (for lack of a better term) choice to be within the Church. Yet, upon joining the community I forever forfeit the right to make such pivotal decisions for myself, at least in matters of faith and worship.

You’ve hit upon something that in my experience doesn’t occur to most folks (at least, outside the rarefied intellectual world of Internet religion and the darkened but enlightened ethereality of stagehand converse), and that is the epistemological element in conversion. You’re right that there is a contradiction between debasing reason within the Christian community but at least tacitly acknowledging its place as a means to get inside it. The larger question here is what the place of reason is within the context of conversion and the subsequent life in Christ, which Orthodox teaching actually describes as an ongoing conversion.

Concerning reason itself and its usefulness in making big decisions, our secular world of course at least claims to have privileged it exclusively. Almost all of our political discussion is based in these kinds of terms (“what will work,” etc.), and these claims are based on scientific studies and the like. But one thing I’ve learned about science is that the true gurus of those disciplines, the people getting deep into the inner recesses of what physical existence is made up of, tell us that things there don’t really work reasonably or predictably. How much more should this be true when speaking of a complex creature like humanity? And thus, how much more is this true when speaking of humanity attempting to connect with Divinity?

Reason is a gift from God; indeed, it is His invention. Thus, to suggest that it should be “subjugated” is perhaps only necessary because of its current unnatural position of privilege. The proud man often needs to be humiliated a bit in order to have some humility, and reason often has need of precisely this, at least in terms of what one expects in the big moments in life. None of this is to say that I believe that reason in itself needs to be subjugated. It is one of our God-created energies, and, as such, is inherently good. I agree with your argument that reason is less fallible than feeling, emotion and intuition. But all are fallible.

Our error lies, I believe, in seeking absolute psychological certainty in anything, no matter what means we use to get it, logical or no. But of course there is much more to logic, to the Logos, than is generally thought of as proper to the discipline of logic in our own time. Human reason, along with our feelings, emotions and intuition, have need of enlightenment by faith.

And faith, at least in the Orthodox Christian understanding, is not mere belief in concepts we otherwise know are not true. Faith is rather the result of an encounter with the Divine, and just as is the case with any encounter between persons, arriving at it is not the result of any inner psychological process. I cannot have dinner with you by thinking about it and making decisions about it. I can only do it by doing it. But if you are the Thou of the transcendent, ineffable Divinity, then no matter what I do, I cannot have the encounter. To put it most bluntly, I cannot find God. But God has come looking for me.

This was true both for St. Paul on the road to Damascus and also for Ss. Luke and Cleopas as the Lord met them on the road to Emmaus and revealed Himself gradually to them. For both encounters, the fulfillment was finally sacramental, in baptism and the Eucharist, respectively. Yet both involved a lot of oral instruction, which of course employs reason. Yet this reality is ultimately mysterious and difficult to define in language.

One of the Church Fathers boldly describes the makeup of the human person as tri-partite: Body, Soul and Holy Spirit. Thus, it is revealed that a person who is whole is not just his natural, corruptible, mortal elements, but also requires communion with the Divine in order to be fully alive. Someone who is in a crippled state cannot be expected to make right decisions, hampered as they are by their fallibility. But if there is the communion with the Divine present, well, that is something else.

Thus, whether speaking of the initial conversion or the ongoing process of growing in holiness, the whole human person must be engaged, but that engagement only works within the context of communion with the Divine. Practically speaking, that means that, even when once inside the Church, we are not called upon to set aside our reason, but rather to be prepared to have it transformed, to realize that we came to the hospital to be healed, not to take up the job of hospital administrator. So there is the need for trust, but it is a trust based in experience, not blind belief.

This discourse probably seems circular, and it is, but then, so is human existence. The point, finally, is that there is nothing wrong with using one’s reason, and even feelings, emotion and intuition, in making decisions, even big spiritual ones. The key element is that there be humility in doing so, because humility is the only way to permit communion of any sort, especially the kind needed for communion with the Divine.

When I was a kid, having been given a solidly Christian identity by my parents, I came to believe that the big divide in the world was between believers and atheists. But there are of course very few actual atheists, and even the big-money ones of our own day are mostly just celebrities who will fade when their time comes. What I have learned, through making many foolish decisions of my own and also through my experiences with others and as a cleric, is that the great divide is really between humility and pride.

Pride insists that there must be some human power or set of powers that can apprehend all things. But this really is not so. We are limited creatures. No matter what self-esteem propaganda may have been tossed at you today on a billboard or on Facebook, you are limited. You cannot grow up to be anything you want. You are not limited only by your imagination. You have real limits that go beyond your will. Acknowledging that, and most especially acknowledging deeply within that you will someday die, will transform your outlook into something else.

Epistemology is quite critical, whether it comes in initial conversion to the community of faith or in the ongoing conversion that is needed to attain to authentic holiness. But let me suggest an epistemology of humility. Even if there is no God, such a posture will at least help you to see the flaws in your own reasoning. But if there is a God, then humility will open you up to divine illumination.