Cultural Recusancy

Saving the World from Suicide: Localism, Christian Evangelism and the Culture War

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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”

When my wife and I married, one of our major logistical problems was figuring out where to put our combined libraries. We still have this problem, although we have discharged a number of volumes from our total. Among the books that were not part of the original merger but are an increasing portion of our cache are tomes with titles ranging from When Technology Fails to The Square Foot Garden. We are, in short, stocking up on books (and items) toward the goal of being more self-sustaining. We have various reasons for this, but one of them is the sense that a possibility exists that we need things like a manual flour mill, because it’s possible that the industrial civilization around us may well collapse. It’s also—and this is perhaps a bit less obvious—because the spiritual civilization around us has already collapsed.

Rod Dreher has written in a couple pieces recently (here and here, both well worth reading), specifically addressing the question of same-sex marriage (SSM) but also touching on larger issues, that the culture war has essentially been lost by conservative Christians. (I use “conservative Christian” here to refer to a theological outlook, not a political one, though of course there are political implications to all theology.)

He writes that the time has come for Christians in America to use libertarian strategies to secure religious liberty for themselves before they find their churches, businesses, education and even private behavior overwhelmed and even outright persecuted, because the competing moral vision that includes same-sex marriage as only one of its many tenets will demand more and more of the moral imagination of the people. The time is coming when Christians will not be allowed merely to tolerate moral dictates that are contrary to their own doctrines but will be expected to endorse and participate in them, or else face real penalties.

As I noted a few posts back, religious liberty is already being penalized by the courts because believers have the temerity to try to live out what their faiths teach them—and I’m not talking about trying to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else, but simply trying to live them for themselves. Christian doctrine is already thoughtcrime in countries not terribly unlike ours, and I have little reason to believe that we will somehow remain exempt.

I am not much of a social prognosticator, but I think Dreher’s right. The culture of what a writer he quotes refers to as “atomism”—that the most basic moral commandment of society is that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he wants under nearly any circumstances, that there is no grand narrative larger than the individual—has become so pervasive that something like SSM is, in Dreher’s words, “only a skirmish in a much broader war that we’ve lost. The essence of the problem? The collapse of Christianity as the foundational bulwark of our civilization — something that happened long before anybody had the slightest interest in promoting same-sex marriage, or the Sexual Revolution.”

That is, the foundation of what was Christendom was ripped out long ago, and I would trace that to long before America’s founding. It’s taken a long time for it to come to such foundational errors regarding the nature of humanity as the Sexual Revolution makes, but those are only logical extensions of the atomistic culture of liberalism—and here, again, I am not speaking of political liberalism exactly, but of this moral idea that the individual and his desires is the only absolute on which the culture is built.

I think that conservative Christians’ problem is that we’re acting as though Christendom is under attack and that we have to defend it. But look around, folks. Christendom has already fallen. All we have left are the ruins, a handful of basic affirmations like the inherent worth of the person and the equality of all mankind—but even those things are subject to the charismatic domination of some ideology or leader, who may well turn those things on their heads, as the 20th century so amply demonstrated for us. As Dreher writes, “My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run. My fear is that by focusing so many of our resources on fighting for ground we’ve already lost, we will have left ourselves unprepared to build the structures and strategies we are going to need to pass on what we know to be true to future generations in a culture, legal and otherwise, that is going to be ever more hostile to those beliefs.”

We cannot act any longer as though we are imperial soldiers defending the borders of the empire from the barbarians. We are resistance fighters engaged in a guerrilla battle against an occupying force that conquered us generations ago. Or, if you like, we are now in much the same situation of the Apostles, who had no particular dreams of reforming the government but were instead concerned with getting the light of Gospel into a world covered in darkness.

So what, then, do we do? I think we have to continue to speak sanity clearly even in the halls of the insane, and we have to be willing to suffer for it. Even if we could use the force of law to try to enshrine certain moral precepts into the legal code, such things will not last long, as they would be counter to the prevailing cultural logic of the age. True morality is always about more than the individual, about an appeal to a narrative grander than myself alone and certainly far grander than the state with its guns. In any event, I do not believe that making the state our primary mode of speaking truth to the culture will actually serve the truth. We should of course remain involved in the political sphere, but we have to keep in mind that the law can only restrain. It cannot make men moral.

If there is going to be any hope for Christians in a post-Christendom culture, it can only be found in that primal Apostolic fire that once, long ago, turned the world upside down. We may well have to suffer some martyrdom. But we will also have to show an increasingly inhuman society what it means to be human. That is the real purpose behind a Christian localism—to demonstrate a humanity of love to those who can receive it, who are right next to us and mostly only know the Machine. This is also the purpose of our evangelism—not only to save individual souls (though that would be enough!) but also to build a new culture, refounded on the one foundation of Christ. The Church has always been counter-cultural, but in some points in history the contrast with the surrounding culture is greater than others. This is one of those moments in history.

All this is part of the great worth of homeschooling, pilgrimage, gardening, opting out of the 24/7 entertainment/infotainment culture, knitting church communities more tightly together, and learning all the skills that many of our pioneering forebears had to know for survival. We may well need these things for basic survival, especially if the moral corrosion of post-Christendom continues to express itself in economic corrosion. But even apart from these skills’ value for survival, they also teach us to be human, to be humane, to love, to deny extraneous and unnecessary possessions. They have a spiritual value, both for our own salvation and for our evangelism.

We may well find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which most of a galaxy is plunged into war and barbarism, but there are two libraries (“foundations”) at distant corners of the galaxy, waiting for their contents to be used to restore civilization far more quickly would have formed unaided. Christians may end up being embattled enclaves of sanity, whose very existence will stand witness to the world that it is possible to live with self-sacrificial love for one another and who will retain the knowledge of how to worship the one God and to receive the divine energies needed to be fully human.

Even if it really is the case that religious liberty is not about to be overwhelmed by the atomist culture of materialism and desire, we still have to approach this culture as the Apostles did their own. We live in an empire that is not Christendom, but rather the domain of spiritual powers working for the Enemy. If the Gospel is going to fall on ears that are anything but deaf to it, it will have to be accompanied by a clear, authentic demonstration of the humanity of love, a sane humanity that loves people, loves the earth, and treats all persons and places as holy and bearing the sacred imprint of the Creator. We will soon be the only alternative to the madness of the Machine.

And some of us may well have to die. I hope we’ll be ready.

The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism

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The Breaking of Bread at Emmaus

Both parts of my talk, The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism, are now available via Ancient Faith Radio. Get them here: Part 1, Part 2

I have to say that this is one of my favorites among the things I’ve written. A number of folks have actually asked me to expand this into a book, but I don’t think I really yet have the experience or background to have enough material to warrant a book on this. Perhaps I will someday.

“We have to begin building our own institutions.”

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Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (by John Martin)

October 9, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

I have a friend who is a Ph.D. student at a university in New York City. He is a brilliant, traditional Orthodox Christian who is serious about his faith in Christ and also serious about doing real scholarly work. He is also possibly the smartest person I’ve ever met. I recently had the privilege of spending some time with him at a history symposium in Princeton, and he and I began talking about the doctoral work he was pursuing.

He’s in the theology department at the university, and he said that pretty much everyone on the faculty were almost entirely hostile to traditional Christianity and of course therefore to Orthodoxy. He said that they tolerate his presence but that they are so steeped in secular fundamentalism that they would never consider eventually acknowledging him as a colleague. I asked him why he was there, since he knew he would never break into their world. He answered that he was simply trying to get the work done, but that he regarded most of the modern academy, especially the theological academy, as really too far gone to even include the possibility of working in it from within.

“We have to begin building our own institutions,” he said. “We have to develop our own culture.”

I’ve been thinking about that last comment now for these past couple of weeks, and it came to mind again when I was looking at the epistle reading for today. In it, the Apostle Paul references to the Christians of Corinth from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Ezekiel these words: “‘Therefore come out from among them, and be separate,’ says the Lord, ‘and touch nothing unclean; and I will receive you, and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Is. 52:11; Ezekiel 20:34, 41).

What did my friend mean? And what does this mean, when the Lord Almighty says to us, “Come out from among them, and be separate”?

It is one of the most basic problems of true Christian life. Indeed, the very word for the Church in Greek, the language used when the Church was conceived, is ekklesia, which means “those who have been called out.” We as the Church have been called out of the world. We have been called to be separate. What does that mean?

In the earliest years of the Church’s life, the separateness of the Christian was pretty obvious. If he was a convert from Judaism in Palestine, he was someone who was withdrawing from the majority Jewish practice. He no longer was ruled by the Mosaic Law and the customs of the rabbis. He at first supplemented his synagogue and Temple worship with the Christian Eucharist, and then, when the Christians were thrown out of the synagogues and when the Romans destroyed the Temple, he worshiped exclusively with Christians.

Likewise, a pagan convert to Christianity was even more conspicuous. He stopped worshiping pagan gods. He wouldn’t join the army, because serving meant worshiping the god your unit took as its patron and also worshiping the Emperor as divine. The Christian also held to a much higher moral standard, and he even was known for loving and caring for the pagans, not only members of his own group, something no one else did.

Whether a convert from Judaism or from paganism, the Christian understood himself to be separate from the world, if only because the world was quite often prepared to put him to death for his faith. And he knew he was separate, because he now belonged to a new community, the Church, the first truly counter-cultural community.

As time went on, in the fourth century Christianity eventually was not only legalized but gradually became the majority religion of the Roman Empire, and the idea of Christendom was born, in which the separateness of Christians from the world was no longer quite as literally obvious as it had been, because now almost everyone was at least formally a Christian. One did not have to leave society in any sense in order to become a Christian. Indeed, being Christian became expected by society. About this time monasticism arose as a major movement, because the fervor of those first martyric Christians had been replaced by Christianity becoming “normal.”

And now we live in the age of post-Christendom, when the ruins of what had once been Christian society are here and there around us, but we again find ourselves in an empire that is becoming more and more hostile to the Gospel. This time it is not paganism, however, but secular fundamentalism. And like all fundamentalisms, secular fundamentalism will not stop until it has taken over every moment of our lives.

If you don’t believe that that’s true, consider the kinds of changes that have occurred within the past couple of centuries and even within many of our own lifetimes. In the great age of Christendom, daily participation in corporate worship was the norm for every Christian. Your day was regulated not by alarm clocks but by church bells. No one went to work on Church holy days—not just Christmas and Easter, either, but all of them. Rulers were not only comfortable with using sincere religious language in their governance, but most of them had actually received a theological education. Now, they’re almost all lawyers and businessmen.

As time has gone on, Christ’s name has been less and less comfortable to use in public life. People eventually whittled down their personal investment in worship into just an hour or maybe two on Sunday morning. And for a while, Sunday was still regarded as sacred. Stores weren’t open on Sunday. It was a quiet day, begun with God and continued with family. But now, even Sunday morning is under assault, and there are all kinds of activities that are impinging, bit by bit, on Christian education and on Christian worship.

I wonder whether most Christians will simply quietly surrender, and yield the last little scrap that we had once reserved for God, so that now all seven days of the week, all 365 days of the year will be dominated by the anesthetic of activity. Personally, I think the moment came a long time ago when we returned back to those first days of the Christian Church, when choosing Christ meant truly giving something up, when the Church functioned as the ekklesia, those who have been called out. But make no mistake that the moment has indeed come. And perhaps the moment will soon come again when choosing Christ may mean giving up our very lives. It already means that for some of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.

We have to begin building our own institutions. We have to develop our own culture.

As Orthodox Christians, we are not called to reject the created world that God made and filled with His creatures, but we do reject Satan and all his angels and all his works and all his service and all his pride, either at becoming catechumens or being baptized. That is “the world” which we are called to reject, the corruption and the fundamentalism of secular society, the endless and mindless pursuit of pleasure and possessions and prestige. When will we say, “Enough!”? When will we say as the Prophet Joshua did so long ago, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15)?

While there have been periods when the mind of Christ forms culture and even perhaps in a sense begins to rule over it, we are again in a time when we as Christians must be counter-cultural. We cannot afford to live life the way everyone around us does, just because it “makes sense” or because it’s “normal” or because that’s how we “get ahead.” I tell you the truth: None of that will count for one scrap when we stand before the Throne of God! Are you going to spend your life and your children’s lives getting prepared for success in this world, which might last a few decades, if you’re lucky, or will you spend this life preparing for eternity?

“Choose you this day whom ye will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

To our Lord Jesus Christ be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Encomium Fidei

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The Anthem of Nihilism
In light of yesterday’s post, I thought it might be useful to comment on the “other” side of the questions of inter-religious relations. By no means is this a sort of antithesis of yesterday’s thesis. Indeed, I believe a vigorous engagement precisely on doctrinal terms is the basis on which the best inter-religious friendships can occur. I’ve known some good men who have been engaged in honest, “ecumenism with a gun” type of dialogues who have made many good friends along the way, even if they remain on different sides of doctrinal questions.

Now, it should be noted that I do not rise in any sense in defense of “religion.” There is no such thing. There are only religions. Religion is far too broad a term to be useful in any real sense as a phenomenon to which one can point or offer criticism or defense. (For more on this, see the opening pages of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies). That said, I find religion quite interesting, and if we boil it down at least to its etymological roots (re + ligio), it means “reconnection.” Religion is fundamentally about reconnecting oneself—to community, to transcendent principles, to metaphysics, to tradition, etc. And in that sense we can see the fundamental irreligiosity of our age—even while attendance at religious services remains quite high just about everywhere, there is more and more a fundamental cultural sensibility of disconnection rather than reconnection. Indeed, much religion is, in this sense, distinctly irreligious.

The forgetfulness of politics (e.g., the senator who today insists that the sovereign debt ceiling must be raised who five years ago spoke out against it on principle, yet without any loss of reputation or influence), the ahistorical character of much theology and spiritual life, the general ignorance of history and disdain for tradition, the banality of modern industrialized mass education, the popularity of contraception—all of these things form a maelstrom of disconnection, of people from their pasts, of people from each other, of people from what orders their lives toward what is noble. The irony of our age is that, as telecommunications gives us more of the illusion of connection, we are plunged further into isolation.

Thus, I rise today in praise of faith, which is fundamentally not a set of beliefs, but an act. Faith is the act of reconnection. It is the act of religion.

I am fascinated by religions, and the more I learn of them, the more I learn to love Orthodoxy—not out of disdain, happy to be “free” of their problems, but rather out of being able to see my own faith more clearly and having my blind spots cleared up because of the way some other faith emphasizes things. It was a class on Hinduism which helped prepare me for the paradoxes of Orthodox Christianity. It was a friend’s decision to become Roman Catholic that articulated for me why I could no longer be Protestant. It was in seeing Islam in prison that I caught a glimpse of what prisoners experience. It was a Roman Catholic roommate in college who demonstrated for me what firmness in faith could look like for men in their twenties. And of course it was my Evangelical upbringing that gave me Christ.

All those who believe in what is beyond the world of the dull senses, who are willing to use tools of knowing that are beyond what has become standard in our world, have something in common, and that is that we believe in the possibility of self-transcendence. If there is a God (or even gods), then that means that humility is called for.

There is also something about man’s reach for transcendence that produces beauty. I can see the beauty in Buddhist culture, though I have a hard time relating. I can see it much more clearly in Catholic and Anglican Christendom, and indeed, in many ways, I still feel more at home in those Western Christian worlds than I do in the cultures of Orthodoxy. I of course want to go see Greece, Syria, Russia, etc., but I don’t think that they will thrill my heart in quite the way that my pilgrimage to the British Isles did in 2001. And I still try to read Tolkien every year.

I am also moved by the seriousness and capacity for compassion of the believers I meet outside of Orthodoxy, as well. Of course the family in which I grew up is highest among them. But I also greatly respect my clergy friends in other confessions that live and work here in Emmaus. I don’t believe in their theology, but they (who are mostly far more experienced than I) have a maturity and a comfortableness in their own churches that I hope someday to attain in my own. And I also very much wish that the sort of strong moral voice that certain communions have in America (particularly Rome) were characteristic of the Orthodox.

Yes, I want everyone to be an Orthodox Christian. But I do not go around trying to “make” people Orthodox. I will of course debate doctrine if that is appropriate at the moment, but I’m mainly interested in trying to facilitate an encounter with Christ. And just like St. Justin Martyr believed of old, Christ can be encountered outside the visible boundaries of the Church, as the spermatikos logos, the Word of God in seed form. That doesn’t mean that Christ’s Church doesn’t have boundaries, but it does mean that He’s out and about. He’s on the move.

It is not the case that everything outside the Church’s visible boundaries is unmitigated darkness. Any place where God is sought, where Christ is loved, or where the Truth is desired is a place where I can find joy.

There are, of course, cheerful materialists out there, people for whom transcendence or absolutes are utter nonsense yet are not bothered by it. But almost all of them are enjoying the inheritance of religion and not really ready to abandon it.

John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without religion. The last prominent man who really did that with any consistency and honesty was Nietzsche. And I’m not fond of the vision he concocted. He was ready to deal with a world with a dead God.

It’s a good thing he was dead wrong.

Ecumenism with a Gun

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Statue of Elias on Mt. Carmel

I was recently taken to task via email by a local acquaintance who is a senior clergyman in another Christian confession. At issue was my occasional habit of using sarcasm when discussing the differences between faiths. A couple of his parishioners had attended one of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy lectures that I gave in Emmaus in the Fall of 2009, and I think appalled is probably the right word for their impression.

Now, there are a lot of reasons why someone might walk away from an encounter with me appalled, and most of them are probably pretty good reasons. Some of you know that I worked as a professional stagehand for ten years, and in that world, sarcasm is essentially the basic mode of communication. I confess that I still use it entirely too much, and I’m still working on cutting back.

Aside from my own sinfulness, though, it’s an interesting question as to whether it is ever okay to ridicule other doctrines—not just a little incredulity (which is probably the primary mode of my sense of humor when it comes to other doctrines), but actual ridicule. I actually think it’s a bad idea to ridicule other people, and I don’t believe that doctrine itself is a laughing matter, even utterly false doctrines. But let’s face it—prophets, saints and even the Lord Himself have been known to use strong language when speaking against those who oppose them. Perhaps the clearest use of sarcasm by a holy person in the Bible is when the Prophet Elias openly mocks the prophets of Baal even while they were in the midst of prayer. And if that moment of ecumenical sensitivity were not quite enough, Elias later had his ecumenical partners seized and then killed them (a scene which is depicted iconically on a small medallion my father-in-law gave to my son Elias at his baptism).

Now, I don’t think that Elias’s behavior is a normative model for ecumenical engagement. After all, he was alive in a very different time and place than our own, and in some sense we have to look at the slaying of the prophets of Baal as a sort of capital punishment for their crimes of leading the people of Israel astray.

But nevertheless, even if inter-religious engagement is not properly embarked upon by Christians with the use of violence, we can still see that, throughout the history of the revelation of the true God in true religion, first to the Jews and then to the New Israel, the Church, those who represented the faith did so with great vigor. The ecumenical “niceness” which is now the general norm in our own time is, historically speaking, something of an aberration. Throughout most of history, people who disagreed with each other over religion did so with fire, even when they weren’t using the sword. (So perhaps Elias can be rehabilitated as a patron saint of inter-religious dialogue, after all.)

This brings me to what I (yes, sarcastically) call “ecumenism with a gun.” To me, this phrase is shorthand for being a true representative of one’s religion, not compromising on its teachings or practices in order not to offend. So if I ever call someone an “ecumenist with a gun,” that’s what I mean. I don’t mean someone who attacks other people, but I surely expect them to attack what they believe are false doctrines.

Now, part of the problem with the word ecumenism of course is that it can mean anything from (1) doctrinal compromise to (2) real doctrinal engagement to (3) simply meeting together with folks from other faiths for the sake of friendship and cooperation in charitable work and common moral witness. I think the latter two of those three are worth doing, and I try to do both of them with some regularity. Usually, those two aren’t mixed very much, though I think it would be quite interesting if they were. Nonetheless, one must gauge what’s going on (especially with the third) to see if the second is going to work within those particular relationships. (I belong to an Emmaus group of clergy of various kinds, mostly Trinitarian Christians. We do not, in general, really discuss doctrine, though we once had a fascinating discussion on the spiritual character of church architecture.)

In thinking about all this, it occurs to me that there actually is a realm of vigorous discourse in which most of us are fine with an energetic pursuit and critical approach (and even assault) regarding the beliefs of those with whom we disagree. Indeed, it is almost expected that such discussions will turn into debates, and we commonly select people to conduct such raucous dialogues on our behalf, while also not neglecting them ourselves. And what realm of discourse is that? It’s politics. In politics, if you’re not pushing ahead full-bore and openly declaring the wrongness of your opponent’s ideas and even sometimes expressing incredulity or ridicule toward his stances, then you’re not doing it right.

Why is this? Why do we have no problem with knock-down, drag-out politics but want inter-religious discussion to be “nice”? I don’t think it’s out of a sense of religious charity, but rather out of a sense that religion really just doesn’t matter that much, that doctrine isn’t worth fighting over. Or perhaps we think that religion is basically private and therefore inappropriate for public debate. But if the sovereign debt ceiling of the United States is worth fighting over, isn’t eternal life for billions of God’s children worth something? And isn’t the self-revelation of the God of the universe to all of mankind a matter of public concern?

Anyway, I actually am sorry that I do indeed get carried away with my sarcasm at times. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t do it, and I apologized to my fellow cleric and asked him to pass on my apology to his parishioners.

At the same time, I very clearly remember their visit to the lecture, and I don’t think they were appalled only by the tone. I think they were (at least partly) appalled that someone was describing their religious tradition in critical terms. They engaged me during the lecture, and during that engagement, neither they nor I mocked each other but only talked specifically about doctrine and practices in direct terms. They said that I was misrepresenting their tradition, and I know that I was—but mostly in the sense that I don’t believe in it. (I did make some changes when I revised the originals lectures to become the book, and there were some corrections of errors to be made. I had gotten some things wrong, so they were at least partly right.)

But it’s not as if the advertising on those lectures was in any way misleading. The title for the lectures was also “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” and the posters and other publicity all made it clear that we were going to be looking at other faiths from the point of view of Orthodoxy. And obviously, since it was an Orthodox priest giving the talks at an Orthodox church, Orthodoxy was being presented as the right way to go.

I did send the flyer to some of my contacts in other faith traditions, but when I do that, I always preface my request for their consideration with a comment that I’m asking them only to post such things if they find it appropriate. I myself do the same. Most (though not all) of the publicity I get from other religious traditions I would never put on the walls of my church, mainly because they promote a spirituality and doctrine that are alien (and even hostile) to Orthodoxy.

As I said, I am sorry that I offended some folks. I did not know until they began engaging me that I was dealing with folks from the faith tradition in question (though I should have known better and adjusted accordingly). The vast majority of the audience were Orthodox, and the lectures were explicitly designed for Orthodox Christians (something I also noted in the preface of the book). They were not designed as inter-religious dialogue.

But my hope is that, instead of just being offended, folks who become appalled at criticisms leveled at their beliefs (though not at them personally, since that is really not the point and is not honorable) will research and see whether what I or other critics say is true. And if what we’re saying is not true (at least from the viewpoint of their own tradition), what I would like to see happen is the mounting of a vigorous response. At the very least, I would love to sit down and talk with them about this very bad impression they’ve remembered for two years and perhaps express my regret to them directly for the offense I caused.

Although these issues are apologetical in their character, I’m really not an apologist, but I do try to understand the basic apologetic issues, because they’re important. Why? For one thing, truth is worth debating and contending for. When the issue is doctrine, I fully expect to be doctrinally attacked by people whose tradition puts me under anathema. I always am a little suspicious when I’m not. I have little time for the ecumenical professionals’ “agreed statements” while the official books of other faiths officially consign me to the netherworld. (“Yes, well, technically we do curse your name and cast you into Hell because you do not believe this thing we believe, but can’t we really talk about something else, like recognizing each other’s baptisms?”)

There are, of course, inherent limits to apologetics. There are the human limits of people like me, who are not as well-versed as we should be in all the realms of religious theology that are available. And some people are simply not very well-versed in their own tradition. (I continually find a discrepancy between the official teachings of a faith and what its followers actually believe or are being taught.) Another limit is the simple reality that different people (even smart, sincere people) can look at the same set of evidence and come up with different conclusions. But perhaps the most important limit for this discussion is that followers of disparate traditions don’t always have to be talking about doctrine.

We can be friends without that. You can tell me that doctrinal engagement is off-limits, and unless you’re actively seeking to undermine my faithful and my church, I will leave such topics alone. (Public statements invite public response, however.) I have lots of family and friends, people I love and who love me, with whom I don’t talk about doctrine. (My Baptist grandmother did happen to attend the lecture I gave which critically treated the revivalism that is the source of her tradition’s shape, but she knew what she was getting into.) We can even still talk about religion, which I find fascinating even when I don’t agree with particular tenets. And on top of all that, it’s not like we should spend most of our time on these things. Most of what believers should be doing is following the teachings of their traditions.

And even if I do not agree with the doctrines and practices of another religion, I do respect the faith of those who follow it, especially those who follow it with seriousness. Indeed, I almost always make it a point not to stir up such serious people to try to coax them into Orthodoxy. Someone who loves God and is earnestly seeking the Truth is not someone I need to seek out for prodding.

I believe that Orthodox Christianity is the one, true way, that the Orthodox Church is the one, true Church, and that every single man, woman and child should be an Orthodox Christian. I hope that other religious people believe the same things about their religions. If they don’t, they are at least partial relativists, and if one is a relativist, I don’t see the point in being part of a religion. (Or they could simply be very mean—their faith is the one, true faith, but they don’t want to see other folks in it.)

But that does not mean that I or anyone else have to spend all of our time trying to make people into members of our churches. One must try to gauge the right moment to present the Gospel in its fullness (especially in terms of comparative theology). Not every time and place is the right time and place to do that—but rest assured that there is indeed such a time and place.

We should be at least as serious about religion as we are about politics. If we’re not, I have doubts about whether we really believe in that stuff, anyway.

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.

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”

Confessions of a Localist in Training

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I was recently sent this note by a young lady who listened to the first episode of the Roads From Emmaus podcast:

…I listened to your first “Roads From Emmaus” podcast and instead of joy I got a guilty nausea in my stomach. The ideal “me” in my head agrees with you, we should reach out to our neighbors and community. I’ll admit I don’t really have much experience in that area having been an Army brat with constantly changing environments where that isn’t always possible (perhaps I got too used to it).

I can’t use that excuse now though because my husband and I have a house… and we’re here to stay (as far as we know); and yet, I feel a reluctance to really branch out to even our neighbors. We only have 4 houses near us actually because we’re on the outskirts in like a farming community but even if I see them outside I’m reluctant to approach them and talk. I worry that anytime I reach out to someone that I’ll be overburdened or that they’ll want to keep the relationship going and I won’t out of personality mismatch (as has happened many times to me before).

Even if someone in a store randomly strikes up a conversation with me I worry I won’t be able to get away to finish my shopping. Additionally, I worry that once I start up a relationship, I will be the one required to maintain it and if I fail, I will be seen negatively in their eyes…. I’ve thought about joining a local community group here but again I fear my free time will then be non-existent.

I realize a lot of this comes from the passion of love of self that the Church CONSTANTLY reminds us of, but I was hoping you may have some advice on how to get started (slowly!!).

Like this young lady who wrote to me, I have a background in the military (not me, my dad). Indeed, my father and both of my grandfathers were all military men, and when my father finished his tour in the US Navy in the early 1980s, my family joined up with an Evangelical missionary radio organization. My family has thus been mobile over multiple generations. Localism doesn’t particularly come easily to me, since I not only have moved twenty times (spanning across six US states and one unincorporated territory, over fourteen different towns), but I also grew up in the age of mass computing, where everyone had the opportunity to get on the Internet in early adulthood. This is also the age of the ATM, the automated grocery store checkout machine, etc.

These inventions, coupled with my residential background, have not made me an obvious localist. I did not grow up on or near any farms. I have never lived in one home for more than five years. I still define myself very much by the state where I lived the longest (eleven years in North Carolina), but in the five and a half years since I moved from there, I’ve lived in three more homes. I therefore come to localism much the same way that I did to Orthodox Christianity: as a convert, full of wonder at the beauty of what he’s encountered. As a convert to this manner of thinking and living, just as with Orthodoxy, I believe I’ve become grafted in to a form of cultural recusancy, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot meant in his piece Thoughts After Lambeth:

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.

I suppose that all this amateurish rumination requires me to set out some sort of definition of what localism might mean, at least in how I use the term. I believe it to be essentially a matter of attention. I should pay attention to the people around me, to the institutions next to me, to the communing community in which I live, more than I do to concerns beyond my locus. I am thus not in favor of globalism or nationalism. I find more value in patriotism for one’s town or even state than I do to our national government, because it is much better to love what’s in front of you than it is to throw love “out there” to some ideal entity.

Localism is, in the words of one of my favorite weblogs, about place, limits, and liberty (this piece in particular is worth your perusal). Implied in that combination of things is local, self-governance.

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 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.

In any event, I was asked for advice by this young lady, and I promised her in a private note that I’d give some, and she kindly gave me permission to make it in the form of a weblog post. I have to say that I am not really the best example of a non-hypocritical localist, nor do I have much experience at this project. I am trying, bit by bit, with God’s grace, to form a better consciousness within myself and for my wife and for my children. And, indeed, I do believe it is a question of grace. 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 and/or we lose our ability to travel easily and cheaply (due to a spike in transportation costs, most especially of oil). When either 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.)

So, here are some of my bits of advice, in no particular order:

  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. 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 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. 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 you’re not zooming by at 40 mph. (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.)
  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 community center. 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. 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.
  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.

My experience is that, if you do these things, you will have a more peaceful, joyous life, and you’ll also be a living testament that it is possible to be truly human, which also communicates the Gospel to people, too.

Have any ideas of your own?