Month: April 2011

The Road to Emmaus, Pennsylvania (The Transfiguration of Place, Part VI)

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Emmaus, Autumn 2010

The following is Part VI (the conclusion) of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V. There are six parts in all.

I live in a place called Emmaus, a small borough of about 11,000 people nestled onto the southwest edge of the Lehigh Valley, next to Allentown. If you spend any time around me at all, you will know that I love Emmaus. It’s a beautiful place to be during all the seasons of the year. The people in our borough love it, and they love it with a curious passion that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

When Emmaus was founded in 1759 by a group of Moravian Christians, it was founded deliberately as a Christian community. And when Bishop Spangenberg named it for the little village in ancient Palestine called Emmaus, it may be that some of what happened at that Palestinian Emmaus made its way permanently into the dirt of the Pennsylvanian Emmaus. In the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the resurrected Christ joins with two of His disciples—not of the Twelve, but Luke and Cleopas. And He walks with them on the road to the village of Emmaus, but they do not recognize Him.

But then they come to the house of Cleopas in that village, and there they go in with Him and eat supper together. And then it was as Christ broke bread and blessed it that they suddenly realized Who He was. It was in that place, in that Eucharistic moment, that divine revelation came to them. And the Church later appointed that same place to be the site for many centuries of the church of Emmaus, which for a time even had its own bishop.

Since the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise, mankind has had a broken relationship with his place. Globalization has accelerated that brokenness and introduced whole new levels of alienation between us and each other, between us and our places, and as a result, between us and our God. Our collective exile is becoming ever further and further from the homeland of our souls.

The Church understands that exile and the need for the healing of not only ourselves as individual human persons or even just as communities of persons, but as communities in places. We therefore hear again and again our liturgical services prayer not just for specific people or even just for groups of people, but also specifically for places. We pray for “this church.” We pray for “this city” and for “every city and countryside.” Monks and nuns pray for “this sacred monastery.” All these references are to places, not only to the people who happen to live in them. We are meant to be in harmony with our place, to pray for our place, to sanctify our place by our prayer.

We might be tempted sometimes to think of the Lord’s words that His kingdom is “not of this world” and to interpret them to mean that He doesn’t care much for our place, that His only real concern is for our souls. We even sometimes think of the Church itself in this way, when people say that the church is not a building but is rather the people. All of this is true in its way, but if we take these things to mean a denigration of place, then instead of privileging the human soul and the very human character of the Church, we are instead engaging in a de-humanization.

When our Lord became material, when He became matter, then He opened up the possibility for the restoration of all matter back to the “very good” character in which He originally created it. This world was meant to be a blessing to us, to serve as the vessel of God’s holiness for us. And our responsibility to it is as its priests. In considering the vocation of a priesthood, it has always been a canonical stipulation of the Church that a priest is ordained for and canonically attached to only one altar. There are no priests “at large,” nor bishops or deacons. All are connected to a specific place.

When you love a place and care for a place, then that place reflects who you are. And if you are an Orthodox Christian who is seriously trying to live the life of Christ, then your place will reflect Christ. We know from the beginnings of Russian Christian history that the emissaries of St. Vladimir were so stunned by what they saw in that place, in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, that they were convinced that God dwelt among people. In that place, they experienced its transfiguration—the material of this world came to be a conduit through which the divine light shone.

Place matters. It is not only essential to our humanity, but it is critical to our salvation. And being critical to our salvation, it is also critical to our evangelism. Consider within yourself where you are paying your attention. Is it primarily to far-off things and people that you will never meet nor touch directly? If so, then you are contributing to your own dis-incarnation. In this televised, computerized age, we are all guilty of it to one extent or another.

The beauty of the Christian faith, however, is that change is really possible. With prayer, with sacrifice, with time, with attention, and above all, with grace, we can return our gaze back to the place we are. In doing that, every day can become a pilgrimage, and every stone, every stoplight and every street we encounter can become a vessel of divine grace.

And thus each road—not just “every” road, but this road—can become the Road to Emmaus, a path to the Eucharist. There, what has been created by God is offered up to Him once again for His transformation and then His return to us as the very means of receiving His presence. May that be true for each of us a little bit more today.

Deepwater Horizon, revisit

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To mark the one year anniversary of the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought I would post the link to my June 17, 2010, post:

Deepwater Horizon: Why Evangelical theology is helpless in the face of a catastrophic oil spill.

Paying Attention (The Transfiguration of Place, Part V)

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The following is Part V of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV. There are six parts in all.

This question therefore brings us to the practical side of this anthropological question—that is, the applied theology. In Orthodoxy, all theology is necessarily applied theology, or else it is merely speculation. Fundamentally, what is needed is a change in attitude, but the part of attitude that needs the change is our attention. We are called upon again and again to “attend” in Orthodox Christian worship, to pay attention to what is before us, to collect our fragmented thoughts into the moment at hand, to become one with our place and what is happening in it. “Let us attend!” has been the call of the Orthodox deacon for so many centuries, precisely because the Fathers who developed our liturgical tradition knew all about the impulse to let our attention wander, to be every place but the place where we are.

For this reason, I believe that the applied solution to our spiritual problem of globalization is one of attention. I pay attention to every place but this place. I pay attention to everyone but the one in front of me. Why, after all, are we a nation filled with bad listeners? It is precisely because we have not learned to control our attention. Why are we a nation of gluttons and the lustful? It is because we have not learned to control our attention. You can see that attention is right near the bottom of many spiritual problems. It is no mistake that one of the cardinal virtues spoken of, especially by the ascetical fathers, is vigilance—in Greek, nepsis. Watchfulness. Where are we watching? To what are we paying our attention?

When we pay money to something, then there is a necessary change in our relationship to it. The same holds true for paying something else, our attention. And believe me, attention is very much something that is paid. And like money, we only have so much of it. So where are we spending it? And what kind of return are we getting on this spiritual investment?

It is clear that most of us are wasting our precious resource of attention on things that are not near to us. So how exactly do we pay our attention to what is local? More and more in our day, as local economies buckle under pressure, we are being encouraged to “buy local.” This is a great thing for a lot of reasons! But we should not only spend our money locally. How do we “buy local” when it comes to attention?

For one thing, spending your money locally really is one way to pay attention to your actual place. When your economy is a local one, then that means you have the possibility for relationship with your local shopkeepers. The connection of your lives become defined by more than simply the exchange of goods and services. When you pay money, you also pay attention. And when the person to whom you pay money is in front of you, then you are paying attention to him. And most especially if he produced what he is selling you, then your attention becomes multi-dimensional. Buying local is actually a spiritual act. Mind you, it is not merely a principle of address location—it doesn’t count if you buy local from someone by using the Internet and getting it shipped to your house. You’re not just trying to put money into the pockets of your neighbors, but God into your relationships. There must be a meeting of persons. And in that meeting, communion can be established.

Another practical way of paying attention to your place is to try to move your disparate places closer together. The easiest time to make these kinds of decisions is when you’re about to move—whether you’re moving your residence, your workplace, or your church. Consider getting a job closer to your home. Consider going to an Orthodox church closer to your home. Or—and here I know I’m being revolutionary—consider moving into a home closer to your church. Or even closer to your job. When you bring these places closer together, the space in between comes to be not just scenery seen from the car window but actually a space that defines you and your life. And if you can walk it, so much the better!

Indeed, consider walking almost everywhere you go. If you can’t do that yet, try to walk somewhere nearby, especially if it’s a place where you can go and do something, like shop in a store, play on a playground, walk in the woods, read at the library, or most especially worship in your church. Because when you walk around a place, your attention is getting paid to it in a far more thorough manner. You begin to care about it. They’re not just roads any more. They’re places with people. They’re trees and rocks that you begin to love. And your unceasing prayers—you do practice unceasing prayer, right?—bathe these places gradually in the love and holiness of God. You can’t love a place that you don’t know, and you can’t know a place that zips by at 45 miles per hour.

So here is a list of some suggestions for living a more local life, one defined by an unfragmented attention paid to people and places who can be loved and not merely distantly connected through a supply chain:

1. Buy local, especially local food. It tastes better, for one thing, and it’s had less time for its nutrients to drop out. But you also have the chance to meet the people who make it. Meet them, talk with them about their vegetables, their goats, or what have you. Most farmers are actually pretty cool people. But it’s not just the farmers. Someone who is selling you the work of his own hands has a different relationship with you than someone merely passing on a “product” that got shipped in from somewhere else.

2. Attend the church closest to you. Obviously, don’t attend one that’s heretical, but attend whatever’s nearest and is preaching the true faith. (Yes, that means it has to be a canonical Orthodox church.) If you have some sort of major, major problem at that church, then check out the next nearest one to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your preferred cultural flavor. Those are still God’s people, and that’s still the Eucharist there.

3. Don’t worry so much about having to “maintain” friendships with people. Just go about your business and show genuine interest in the people you encounter. Favor old people over young people, or at least try to favor people who aren’t your own age. Do all that, and you’ll probably find that “maintaining” friendships will be a joy. Our relationships were meant to be mediated by the everyday commerce of life, not by deliberately planned phone calls, text messages, emails and dinner dates.

4. Walk around your neighborhood. Walk around your town. It’s a different place when you walk it, and it’s a lot more interesting when, once again, you’re not zooming by at 45 miles per hour. (Plus, your kids will be less antsy.) It’s also a lot healthier, and you save money on gas. (This will also stand you in good stead if we ever do hit peak oil, that is, if supply can no longer meet demand, making fuel skyrocket in price.)

5. Take pictures of your town. They will help you to look for what’s beautiful in it.

6. Try to do all your shopping, banking, and other business within two miles of your home. The closer, the better.

7. Move out of the suburbs and into an area where there is a real center of the community. Or better yet, do what you can to get your suburb to turn into a semi-urban area (also called “new urbanism”), where almost everything can be walked to.

8. If you are ever involved in building something, try to make your new building be reminiscent of the oldest architecture in your area. It doesn’t have to be identical, but it should not draw attention as radically different from the surrounding landscape. Good, humane architecture is about tradition, not really about innovation.

9. If you are building or altering a house, put a front porch on it, one big enough to put chairs on. Go outside when it’s hot inside rather than cranking up the air conditioning. Likewise, make your bedrooms small and your common rooms big.

10. Learn how to garden. Use up less stuff. Reuse more stuff.

11. Think up a name for your house. (Not “Ralph,” either, but something appropriate for a place.)

12. Give up the idea that privacy is an inherent good. It’s not. You were made to commune. That doesn’t mean that everything you do has to be in public, but the public good needs to become more important to you than your private good.

13. Learn the history of your town. It’s probably really interesting.

14. Get involved in local politics. Support candidates for public office who will work to devolve power to the lowest possible civic level. When the people on whose behalf you are making decisions are your neighbors, you will govern quite differently than if you were hundreds or thousands of miles away. Less concern will be given to systems and policies and more to people and community.

15. Figure out ways for your parish community to connect with its immediate neighborhood and to be involved at local civic events. Invite your priest to give the invocation at public events, such as graduations, sporting events, club meetings, etc. Have meetings of your parish organizations at public places other than the church.

16. Give to local charities and minister to people with local problems. I think this is largely one of the biggest reasons that our charitable output, on the whole, is not very good. I get about seventy to eighty people on Sunday morning at my parish in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. I recall when it came time last year to give to earthquake relief in Haiti, we took up a collection of less than $100. But earlier this year when there was a natural gas explosion in Allentown, immediately to the north of Emmaus and just blocks away from some of our parishioners’ homes, we collected over $700 to help with the needs of those affected (and then the parish council kicked in to make it an even $1000). There are needs everywhere. People are more likely to feel connected when the need is next door.

17. Have your parish or a group of parishioners start a non-profit small business in your town, perhaps selling coffee, books and icons. Not only will its non-profit status help to keep it afloat better in difficult economic times, but it will provide a set-aside, sacred space for relationships, will provide some part-time jobs for parishioners and others, and will introduce the faith in a non-confrontational way to your town.

I’m sure you could probably think of many more practical ways to connect yourself and your parish to the local community.

On to Part VI.

Thin Places (The Transfiguration of Place, Part IV)

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St. Columba's Church, Donegal, Ireland
The following is Part IV of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II and Part III. There are six parts in all.

In the British Isles, the ancient Celtic Christians spoke curiously of certain places in their experience as being “thin.” In these places, they believed, this world and the otherworld were nearer to one another, the veil between them being “thinner” than in other places. It is probable that the belief in thin places precedes the introduction of Christianity to the Celts, but even if it is pre-Christian in origin, this idea is one which is also thoroughly Christian in its essence, not because of some doctrinal statement by the Church, but because of a basic human understanding of the interaction of the divine and the created, especially the human.

From the Christian point of view, we have to ask ourselves what is it that makes certain places “thin.” It cannot be that there is some inherent material element in a place that makes it “thin,” for while we might point to many mountain-tops as thin places, we can also find caves and pits in the earth which show forth a special sanctity. Neither open spaces nor closed-in ones are exclusively characteristically thin, nor even are places untouched by human architecture exclusively so. What draws all these places together seems to be summarizable in one word: pilgrimage. What they all have in common is that human beings have thought of them as places to go where we get in touch with the divine. Whether they are forests or caves or deserts or churches or huts or mountains or islands, thin places are destinations for divinity. And in being so, they are therefore places of prayer.

It is prayer that sets man most completely apart from the rest of creation. We have the ability to communicate with the divine. We do not offer up only wordless obedience to God as the rocks, the plants and the animals, though of course we do say such poetic things as that the heavens declare the glory of God. But nothing else in creation goes to a place to pray. While we believe that we can and should pray everywhere, there’s just something about pilgrimage. Whether our pilgrimages are long journeys to far-off lands or only the few steps from our bedroom to our icon corners at home, we have a sense that prayer involves going to a place to make it most effective.

What we as Orthodox Christians are called upon to do is to make our places, wherever they are, into thin places. God made us all to be the priests of creation, to offer up creation to Him in prayer and thanksgiving. And in receiving that offering, He sanctifies it and returns it to us as a vehicle for our sanctification. When a Christian takes that vocation to heart and continually prays for years in the same place, giving it his love and his attention, then that place becomes holy. It becomes a thin place, a place where the divine breaks through from the otherworld and into this world.

When someone finds himself in such a thin place, he finds himself freed from the slavery of this world. He feels that he has possibility. He is almost overwhelmed at the power of the place, because there is God! Those of you who have made pilgrimages to places sanctified especially by centuries of prayer know what I am speaking of. A holy place helps to make us fully human, to heal our humanity, to set us free from the shackles of the fallenness and falseness we carry around with us everywhere. There’s just something about those places, that there we know we can be better, nobler, higher, truer, more beautiful.

And this connection between true humanity and the holiness of a place is reciprocal, as well. A holy place makes us more human, but a human being who is dedicated to the life that God has created for him makes a place holier. The holiness radiates from the holy person into his environment, and the holiness of a place permeates those who visit it.

On to Part V.

My Bishop’s Paschal Greeting

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His Grace, Bishop Thomas (Joseph)

Beloved brother Hierarchs, Reverend Clergy, God-fearing Monastics, and all my Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ our True God:

Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!

We are again drawn to contemplate and stand in awe at the holy Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the God-man and our Savior. This year, I pray that we will not mark Pascha as a mere remembrance on the calendar, a happy annual festival that is anticipated and enjoyed but whose power does not provoke us to a radical change in ourselves, a challenge toward holiness and perfection in the Holy Trinity. Indeed, I think many times we enjoy these delightful feasts but have so “institutionalized” them within ourselves that we do not actually let them touch us.

Fundamentally, Christ’s Resurrection is a cataclysmic event. It marks not merely the beginning of a religious movement, but truly the utter reversal of history, the moment that death itself was turned back, when the ultimate catastrophe befell the powers of darkness and bright hope came again into the world. When the God-man died, as St. Basil tells us, “the Author of life could not be held by corruption.” And so He rose again! And so we can be saved from death and from all corruption.

May we ourselves be not simply emotionally moved or cheered by this Gospel; may we never be the same! If even time and history could not stand to remain as they were, how can we ever be content with a mere recollection of past events? Let us once again shout out in victory to the Conqueror of death, casting aside all of our earthly entanglements and entering with Him into that glory that will never fade.

Yours in Christ,

Rt. Rev. Bishop THOMAS (Joseph)

Globalization: An Impediment to Salvation (The Transfiguration of Place, Part III)

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The Exile from Paradise
The following is Part III of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I and Part II. There are six parts in all.

We use the word community to mean a lot of different things these days. We talk about “community” in terms of race, partisan politics, academics, etc., but it is more and more rare to hear community used to refer to a group of people who all live and work and worship in the same place. At issue here is really communion, the coming together of separated people to share a common life. That is what communion and community are fundamentally about.

But where globalization takes the most hold, community is erased. Yes, we still have friendships and other relationships, but now we base them more and more on “things we have in common.” What we have in common is less a truly common life of interdependence with our neighbors but more often common interests, common ideas. On the whole we don’t harvest in common, shop in common, worship in common, and work in common with the people who live around us. What we now have in common is something intangible—ideology and preferences, rather than place.

The people I work with, worship with, live with, study with, and shop with may all be entirely separate groups of people. And the tenuousness of those relationships therefore depends on the maintenance of my behaviors in those disparate realms of activity. Some of them almost even preclude the possibility of relationship. I often see people I recognize in the places I go, but I have no idea what their names are, and in some places, it would probably be considered rude if I were to approach them. And if I no longer go to a particular store, I may never see someone I see there ever again. If I change churches, I may lose touch entirely with someone there.

We supposedly live in a “global village,” but if so, then it is a village where no one knows each other’s names and where no one sees each other, yet we trade bits of information and currency. That’s not like any village I’ve ever heard of. We are being presented with the illusion of community, with the virtual reality of community, yet without the solidity of it, the incarnational warmth and nearness of real community.

Why is this a spiritual problem? Why does it matter that our economies, our lives and our relationships have been so transformed? Does that somehow mean I can’t be saved, that I can’t grow in the image and likeness of Christ?

The Incarnation bears many implications within it, and place is one of them. Christ was not incarnate in a universal body killed upon a universal cross in a universal city. No, He had one body, taken from one woman, crucified on one cross in the one city of Jerusalem.

Christianity was always meant to be local, evidenced by the many small churches built in many places throughout its history, rather than this ridiculous, monocultural, globalist idea which insists that churches should resemble rock-n-roll arenas that seat thousands. Every street corner was meant to be sanctified. We were not meant to drive out of the suburbs and fill up some massive stadium in order to have a mass trance in group hysteria over a rock-n-roll band that puts Jesus’ name into otherwise secular songs which (badly) imitate the pop music of the monoculture. Yes, Christianity is a universal faith, but it is not a mass faith of faceless consumers who buy into a bland religious product.

Of course, even if you’re not a believer, the truth is that the time will likely come when our currency’s bottom will drop out or we lose our ability to travel easily and cheaply (due to a spike in transportation costs, most especially of oil). When either or both of those things happen, it will be the relationships you’ve built in your community which could not only save your life but allow you to grow and thrive while the rest of the country flails about. (It will also be the death of the mega-churches.)

More and more, I’m starting to suspect that, even if a life defined by globalization is not an outright obstacle to salvation, it is probably an impediment. The reason I think this is that what globalization has effectively done is to de-humanize us. When God made us, He made us as communal beings, people in communion with each other and also with the place where we live. When God made man, He placed him in a garden. He did not plug him into an Ethernet port. And when man sinned, the consequences of that act included exile from his place.

So we know that place has a lot to do with humanity as God created us. And sin means exile. Exile is one of the key elements of the Fall of mankind. And as Orthodox Christians, we believe that salvation consists precisely in getting up from the Fall and returning to Paradise. Another way of putting it is that salvation consists in becoming fully human. Death and corruption entered into the world with the first Adam, but the New Adam, Jesus Christ, inaugurates eternal life and incorruption. And if we are to become like the New Adam, then that means we are becoming fully human. We are not only being divinized by our contact with the divine, but we are also becoming truly humanized by that contact.

But globalization’s dehumanization of mankind introduces a new kind of problem for our theology. While the great revolution of Christian theology was that God became a man, that divine Incarnation was not only possible but the very center and height of human nature’s potential, then what happens when we lose sight of what it means to be human? The miracle of Christianity is that, through the humanity of Jesus, we access His divinity. But what happens when we cut off our access to humanity?

In some sense, I believe we have now entered into a new stage of evangelism, one in which we must not only preach the Incarnation—that through God’s humanity in Jesus we can access His divinity—but now we have to start even earlier in the chain. Now we have to show what it means simply to be human. Because if we do not know how to reach humanity, then we are cut off from divinity, and the Incarnation’s awesome power is nullified for us.

The good news of the Gospel is that Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection can save mankind. But if we are losing the very object of that salvation—mankind—then how can we be saved? We can see the repercussions around us already. Have you not noticed that those whose lives are the most thoroughly defined by the virtual, electronic reality often have the least interest in doing things like getting up from the chair and going to church?

Now, what I am saying is by no means a condemnation of all electronic communication, international shipping and commerce, etc. But when we unthinkingly embrace such things and allow our lives to be reshaped by them so profoundly, should we not consider the spiritual consequences? Is not our age one in which the primary question facing us seems to be “What is a human being?” Whether we are discussing abortion, homosexual desire, bioethics, cloning, euthanasia, and so on, it is clear that we have now reached an age in which humanity is becoming more and more uncertain as to just what it is. With lives so permeated with interchangeable technological parts, it seems almost inevitable that we would begin to look at ourselves in the same way. Without a true understanding of our humanity, then we cannot see the tragedy of sin. And if we do not see our sin, then salvation becomes irrelevant to us.

What this means for us as Christians who desire to live the Gospel and to preach the Gospel to others is that we now have the task of articulating a vigorous theology of humanity. We have arrived upon an age when we will have to show ourselves and the world just what it means to be human. Because if we do not, then we have cut ourselves off from the one conduit toward divinity that God gave us. When we look at Jesus Christ, before us stands the perfect Man. But what good is His perfection to us, if we do not even know what a man is? The Gospel’s miraculous good news is that God became a man. But if we have forgotten what a man is, then how is this good news?

On to Part IV.

The Locus and Economy of Community (The Transfiguration of Place, Part II)

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The globalized supermarket: Do you know any of these farmers?

The following is Part II of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I. There are six parts in all.

Let’s think about this effect for a moment: What if transportation became so expensive that you could no longer travel easily? What if you lived your whole life within about a mile of your house? What if your community really had an actual locus to it, that is, a place? What if you walked almost everywhere you went? What would life look like?

Because you would see them all the time, you would probably know almost everyone in your neighborhood. Because the streets would be filled with walking people, you would have a porch on the front of your house and probably not a patio in the back—a porch is a place of public connection, while the patio is for privacy. You would be more concerned with how your lawn looks, not just whether it’s mowed but whether it actually frames the life you want to live. You would have a garden in your yard, because a lot of the things you want to eat just wouldn’t be at the stores in your neighborhood. And those stores in your neighborhood would be less specialized and more geared toward the general basics of the home and garden.

I think it’s hard for us to imagine what this would be like because we’re so oriented toward constant mobility. Our societal watchwords are easier and faster. All our technological development seems to be pointed in that direction—things that make life easier and faster. The ATM is faster: I don’t have to go in and see a bank teller, and I can use it any time, day or night. Online bill-pay is easier: I don’t have to send an envelope to some far-off place, nor do I have to practice my penmanship. The superhighway is faster: I don’t have to drive through all those small towns with their stoplights. My smartphone is both easier and faster: I don’t have to look things up in a book, call an informed person on the phone or even be inconvenienced by sitting at a computer.

But all these technological wonders—which, it must be admitted, have also been used for much good—leave us both freed and also enslaved. Every time I use another “labor-saving device,” I am almost inevitably cut off from another person with whom I had an opportunity to have a relationship. Every time I prefer centralization over localization, I am de-localizing myself. Every time I login to Facebook, I am neither seeing actual faces nor reading a book. This is the nervous system of the simulacrum commonly called “globalization.”

The essence of globalization is supposedly interconnectedness, that all of us who were formerly cut off from one another now have the possibility of becoming networked. But if we think about what is actually happening here, we are not more connected but more isolated. We may have more connections, but they are much more anemic relationships. A man with a thousand friendships will have a hard time maintaining one good one, because he just won’t have the time. His interconnectedness actually limits or prevents real connection.

Or consider something like the supermarket. In that one building, there are products from all over the world. Probably tens of thousands of farmers contribute to the products in one supermarket, not to mention those who work in the packaging and shipping industries. With one full shopping cart, I could be contributing to the livelihood of thousands of people. And yet these days, I do not have to interact with even one. I can even use the self-check-out machines rather than letting an employee scan my bar-codes for me.

We hear about how we are now a “global community” and a “global economy,” but I wonder what exactly that means. In the grocery store, my money is distributed in miniscule amounts in tens of thousands of directions. On television and on the Internet, I read and watch about people suffering in far-off places. I have opinions about politics in North Africa and Wisconsin. My tax dollars go to people not only throughout my state and my country, but also the whole world. I know more about musicians from another country than I do in my own Pennsylvania borough. But I don’t know any of those people. It is almost impossible for me to have a relationship with any of them. Our web of economic and political interdependence is essentially anonymous. I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. Public life has become about policies and publicity, but there is little in the way of the palpable.

But why does that matter? Why shouldn’t I give my one thousandth of a cent to a produce farmer in South America and another thousandth to a Malaysian chair maker?

It is because we do not really depend on one another, at least, not very much. I have no sense of loyalty to them or responsibility for them. Our interdependence is so diffuse that there is almost no possibility that any of our hearts would be stirred to gratitude or to admiration for the work we do for each other. We cannot even look each other in the eye. And that is a spiritual problem.

On to Part III.

The Politics of Hobbits (The Transfiguration of Place, Part I)

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The Return of the Hobbits to the Shire

The following is the introductory section of a talk I gave last week at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” There are six parts in all.

There is a mythical place where many of us, including myself, have often fantasized about moving to. In it, people live a mostly agrarian lifestyle. There is little government, and what there is consists mainly of the post office, an informal sort of border patrol, and a handful of policemen who are little more than a community watch. There is also a mayor, but his primary duties are to give toasts and to preside at parties and such. Most people live in the homes their parents lived in, and hardly anyone ever thinks about buying up property and renting it out. And certainly, no one there would ever kill anyone else, no matter how annoying they became.

Life there is dedicated to the good things and the slow things, to plants and livestock and good food. On birthdays, people give away presents rather than get them, which means that if you go to plenty of birthday parties, you will have a fairly steady stream of presents coming in. And anything you don’t happen to like can get re-gifted, and no one particularly cares.

I am of course describing the Shire, the fictional home of hobbits, invented by author and Oxford Anglo-Saxon professor J. R. R. Tolkien to be reminiscent of the rural England of his youth, before what in those days was called the Great War but what we now call World War I. The Great War radically changed the face of Europe and of the world in general, though not only in terms of geographic borders. In that conflict, for the first time, the world came together in a new way, not for cultural or religious reasons, but rather to make war. And that war was fought by tearing men from their homes, taking them on long, long journeys, and most especially by pitting them against one another by using machines.

Tanks were first used in that war, developed by the British mainly as a means of breaking up the deadlocks of trench warfare. Although they had been imagined and described in a 1903 short story by H. G. Wells called “The Land Ironclads,” the first working tanks were rolled out in September of 1916 at the Battle of the Somme in France. With the distances traveled by soldiers in that war, and with the ground they were able to acquire with the use of tanks, no longer were men defending their homes and families by camping out next to them and digging trenches. Instead, they were rolling out massive armored units, wielding these terrible weapons, fighting for something much more ephemeral than home and family. They were of course fighting to turn back invasions from the Germans and their allies, but the mechanized era of warfare that was inaugurated in 1916 became the beginning of a very new kind of culture, something never seen before in the history of mankind.

A maelstrom followed, upending all the old rules of commerce, communication and economy, fueled by something exciting and yet, in retrospect, culturally very dangerous. You see, with the industrialization of war also came the industrialization of life in general, particularly with the most pervasive of industrial products—transportation.

Transportation turned out to be a temptation we as a race simply could not resist. At first, ever easier access to transportation meant that frequent travel was no longer solely for the wealthy. Yet it came to be critical to commerce. And it has now come to define us as people. Whole cities and suburbs are built assuming that their residents own cars. Many modern suburbs so presume the use of the car that a walker would have to travel for miles and miles to find a place to buy food.

And this mobility not only connects our homes with numerous places once too far away to make frequent stops, but it has also has changed us into people who no longer really have homes. Since the 1940s, another decade of major industrial advance, in a given year, between one out of eight and one out of five Americans will move to another community. 42% of Americans have lived in more than one state, and nearly one out of seven has lived in at least four states.

People who move this often are not, as you may imagine, going to live like hobbits. Hobbits are largely self-governing, but a mobile populace requires much more detailed and precisely defined legalities. With a neighborhood where people don’t really know each other, since their houses are basically for parking their cars and for sleeping at night, a more externalized and impersonal polity must prevail. Likewise, for a people who are unlikely to have much sense of personal loyalty to the town they live in, not having grown up there, there will need to be lines of information and entertainment that transcend the mundane local life and turn the mind toward what is national and, indeed in more and more cases, international.

This brings us back, however, to the politics of hobbits. One might ask how hobbits, who really have little in the way of legal life or a ruling class, could have politics. After all, we think of politics these days in terms of the power-brokering of the mighty, those who now wield those great fleets not only of tanks but also of stealth bombers, nuclear missiles and aircraft carriers. But political life has not always been defined by the clashing of governments and policies. In former times, the term politics referred much more broadly to all public life.

With that understanding, hobbit politics have numerous qualities which we might admire, though I think most people nowadays would probably prefer the Shire mainly as a vacation destination, not as somewhere they would want to live. After all, there are no video games there, nor are there exotic restaurants or Internet access or any of the other kinds of entertainments and comforts made possible by quick and cheap transportation. But hobbit politics are defined most of all by their place. Even the hobbits in Tolkien’s books who leave the Shire are constantly talking about it and trying to get back. The Shire is a place that its people love, and even within the Shire’s four Farthings and its little internal towns, people rarely move. Thus, generations upon generations of hobbits may live in the same neighborhood, walking the same streets, living in the same homes, tending the same gardens for centuries. This dedication to the same place has a name for it—localism.

My reading of history is such that most people were basically localists until recent times, though there was no need for a name for it. There was no television or cheap oil or cheap broadband access to draw our attention everywhere but here. Necessity and economics required that we know our neighbors, if only so we could trade or buy our necessities, so that we could find husbands and wives for our children, so that we would not be left bereft of comfort and help when tragedy struck. But now, all those connections have been stripped away, and our collective alienation is so acute that we grope around politically to try to find national, systemic solutions to almost all our challenges. It really used to be that your local family doctor would probably treat you anyway when you couldn’t pay him, but once our government told him that we’d pay him so he wouldn’t have to be charitable any more, something precious was lost. But why should he care? He probably doesn’t even live in the same neighborhood as you, anyway.

On to Part II.