Localism

Rootedness and Uprootedness: A Lament

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mosaic

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned of impending relocations of more relatives west of the Mississippi River, including one family that has been in the same state for decades and one elderly relative who has even been in the same house since the mid-1960s. One by one or in clumps, over the past several years it seems that both sides of my family (or at least the parts I stayed in touch with) are gradually relocating at least two time zones to the west, with all indications that they mean the move to be permanent.

I couldn’t quite place how I felt about all that when I learned it. It seemed a combination of anger, disappointment, betrayal, regret, helplessness and loss all bound up together into one unnameable emotion.

I don’t blame the individual members for their reasons, to be sure. For some, it is for work. For some, it is health. For others, it is simply a desire for a major change of scenery they’ve never had before. For still others, it is to be close to those who were already headed that way. And even though we haven’t lived less than hundreds of miles from most of them for many years, this series of relocations seems to me far more tragic than when we at least lived in the same time zone, within a day’s drive.

It all seems just wrong, like a violation of some sort. And of course, I suppose I have little room to talk. I ran off and went to seminary, offering up my locus and domus on a platter to the hierarchy like a good soldier. I just happened to get assigned to my native time zone at something relatively near my accustomed latitude. So my loyalty to—what, exactly?—only remains vaguely intact for reasons mainly beyond my control. But I still nevertheless feel that it is right I should be here (even though it is no credit to me) and that my family ought to be somewhere accessible to me and to my children. Shouldn’t they be allowed to know them?

Again, I am not blaming any of them individually or even as a group. Their reasons are all pretty decent reasons. But for many of them—for many of us, I should say—there is nothing to violate. There is no home. There is no hometown. There is no ancestral land, no place where we all once were from, no place to go back home to. There’s just nothing.

For generations now, my family on both sides has been mobile. They usually didn’t head this far out, to be sure, but they were mobile. There hasn’t been a home for… well, I don’t exactly know how long. Maybe a century. Home seems to me some kind of artifact hanging on the wall of a museum, fashioned by hands long cold and dead. I can see it and see how beautiful it is, but I can’t quite touch it. It is out of reach, behind the glass, above my head, somewhere else. But not here.

One of the curiosities of what it means to experience the peoples of Orthodox Christianity in America is that we are always encountering immigration. In one form or another, immigration touches everything we do. Everyone here either is or knows someone who is far from home, who has left family behind somewhere, stranded on a map somewhere. We continually are confronted by uprootedness, an unsettled restlessness where the heart is always somewhere else. But even the immigrant has a home, a place to locate his heart, even if it is not here. I’m not really sure what my family has. It’s not that.

My wife and I made a commitment to try to give our children this thing we’ve never had—a home. It’s kind of laughable, though, isn’t it? I’ve moved twenty-two times, and she’s moved twenty-three. We’re not experts on home, not by a long shot. But we want roots. I want them really badly.

Roots are a curious thing, though, something that can take generations really to put down, even for trees. And some trees will never come to their full glory within the lifetime of those who plant them. I feel that way sometimes about my now 15-year-old move into Orthodoxy. I know so many families whose whole lives are bound up in this faith, bound together with cords that are centuries old, and I am deeply covetous. I don’t know of anything that binds my family together like that. Even though most of them are all Evangelicals of one sort or another, they’re distributed nearly randomly among a post-denominational handful of churches that happen to be close to them and are mainly the kind of thing they’re used to.

But I dream of “the Orthodox Damicks,” and I don’t know if I will ever see such a thing. Right now, we are the only ones. Will my children remain in the Church? Will they marry Orthodox Christians and raise Orthodox Christians? Will they know Emmaus as their home and remain in the Lehigh Valley so that we all will celebrate Pascha and Christmas and Theophany together, so that I will get to baptize and marry them, so that many cousins will go to church together, so that love will not only be something we do over the telephone?

Forgive me all this. I know it’s self-indulgent. But I do have a point in all this. Even though it’s true that we have no continuing city, that we seek the one to come, we best reflect and preach that city that is to come by making the homes we have into Paradise as much as we are able.

I think it will be long after I am dead before the Orthodox Damicks will have their earthly Paradise, at least the incomplete, contingent one that will help them along to salvation toward the true Paradise. But like a monk I know once told me, you still plant the tree, even though you know it may be a century before it’s truly grown.

Gardening is hard. We do it anyway.

Priest vs. Machine: Dollar Rent A Car as an Emblem of Bureaucratic Nihilism

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I offer up the following experience as a data point along the continuum into deeper inhumanity because of the too-big-to-care nature of much of corporate and government life in these latter days:

I recently had the misfortune of renting a car from Dollar Rent A Car at the Atlanta airport. The original estimate for the rental was $93.50 for three days’ use. But in the end, I paid $233.28. I thought it might be a little more than the estimate, since I forgot my GPS device at home and asked to use one of theirs, but I was unprepared for a rate that was roughly 250% what had been estimated, though I had been prepared to get something ignominious like the screamingly red Kia they assigned me.

Somehow, I also signed for insurance and “roadsafe options,” and the sales representative never once explained to me that those things were not actually required. Mind you, even though I asked questions and tried to understand all this (I am not a regular car renter), the sales representative’s thick non-American accent made it hard to understand the monotone script that he no doubt had well memorized. (I do not blame him, of course, for the unavoidably degrading nature of his employ. Nor, of course, do I blame him for being from another country. I love people from other places, and I love other languages, but someone whose job it is to talk to people needs to be comprehensible to his customers.)

On top of all that, even though I knew that I was reserving a car for three days, when I returned it, I was actually only a little over 17 minutes past 48 hours’ use. I sent a letter to Dollar explaining all this in a most irenic tone and not once demanding a refund (I was sure they had my signature on file for everything), but hoping that perhaps they might at least not count 17 minutes as 24 hours and give me a partial refund. I also told them that, based on my experience, I did not see myself renting from them again and would warn people off from doing business with them. This is what I got in return:

Dear Rev. Damick,

Thank you for notifying us of your recent experience with Dollar Rent A Car in Atlanta. We appreciate the opportunity to assist.

We have attached a copy of the final billing contract that we received from the location for your review. We are showing that LDW, the navigation unit and the roadsafe options we [sic; no doubt they meant "were"] accepted and signed for at the beginning of the rental. Due to this information all charges are done correctly and we are not showing a refund. Please let us know if you have any further questions.

Thank you once again, Rev. Damick, for taking the time to notify us of this situation. We look forward to serving you again soon at Dollar Rent A Car.

Sincerely,

[Name redacted - Fr. A]
Member Services Representative

Case ID: 2013018

I probably should have searched to discover that this is what I would likely get. It seems that “Refuse to adjust, relying on terms of agreement” is their S.O.P. Here’s my response to that (slightly edited to fix some typos and grammatical mishaps):

I will essentially take this to mean “You signed for all this stuff, so even if we didn’t really explain it to you, we have the legal upper hand, so no refund.”

I’m not sure whether what I was attempting to communicate really got across, though. I was not actually demanding a refund, though it might have been a gesture of goodwill on your part to offer at least a partial one. I was sure after I realized what happened that I had indeed signed for all those things. I’m not accusing you of cheating me.

The problem, though, is that the process itself leaves almost no room for actually understanding what is being signed for, and your representative certainly did not explain these things to me, something that would perhaps be expected in the normal circumstance of a traveler renting a car after having gone through all the annoyance of air travel. That is the essence of my difficulty here.

Now, I have no doubt that you do enough business that people getting charged for things they signed for but didn’t really understand does not particularly bother you. And especially since they signed, it probably doesn’t have to bother you in any legal sense. But I do hope I might appeal not to your sense of legality here but rather of simple, basic courtesy and humanity (even if not morality). One would imagine you would want your customers to know exactly what they’re buying and what they don’t have to buy if they don’t want to. I certainly didn’t want to buy insurance or “roadsafe options” (I still don’t even know what those are), but somehow I did anyway.

In any event, my purpose is not to come off as a pompous know-nothing who breezed through something without any care for the consequences. I asked your representative why all those charges were there, and whatever it was he said was incomprehensible to me, perhaps because the script he no doubt is required to read from is written that way and possibly that combined with his thick accent. In any event, the point is that one of your customers has walked away disappointed.

I am sure that you do not have to care, but I hope you might. We’re human beings out here. Perhaps there are some in there, too. I hope so.

A shout into the darkness, I am sure, but one may as well say something and try to be civilized about it and even wax slightly philosophical. Caveat emptor, caveat lector.

Update: It looks like a problem quite similar to one of mine is actually the subject of a lawsuit against Dollar.

The Election’s Over: Let’s All Work Together?

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I was never going to be happy with the results of yesterday’s election.

The leadership of both major American political parties is deeply compromised by corporatist interests who are served by an inflationary monetary policy managed by people who largely used to work for those interests and/or will do so again. Both major candidates are representatives of this entrenched political class. So there was no way I was going to be happy with who won. There are many problems with this political class and what it pursues (many of which are enabled by the aforesaid monetary policy), no matter which party banner it happens to wave, and I have a lot of criticisms for it, so no one who is a champion of this class is likely to garner support from me.

As such, I was prepared this morning to see elation by the people whose candidate won the election and not really to feel good about it, even if one candidate was slightly closer to me in terms of his rhetoric. But I didn’t really think too much about what else I might see, which turned out to be some folks’ attempt to be gracious and conciliatory following a bitterly fought campaign. (And I do hope that at least some folks out there will note the irony of a corporatist-backed candidate fighting bitterly against a corporatist-backed candidate. Will Pepsi win? Coke? O! the excitement!)

This graciousness has essentially boiled down to one major sentiment: Let’s put all this behind us now and work together.

I’ve seen a lot of rather nicely warm posts online about America “coming together” to stand “shoulder to shoulder,” etc., to “work on our problems.” The sentiment behind such comments is of course laudable. We should indeed be united. We should indeed work together. But such sentiments imply that there are common goals.

Some goals at least seem to be common, to be sure—jobs, peace, etc., but they are so nebulous in their terms and the means to achieve them required by different political philosophies so divergent that one has to wonder whether such goals really can be worked on together. If, for instance, you believe that it is wrong to increase employment by making more people into employees of the state or your neighbor thinks it’s wrong to increase employment by giving rich employers their tax money back, neither of you are “against job-creation.” You’re both for job-creation, but your principles require different means to achieve that goal. One or both of you may of course be wrong about whether those means actually work.

But there are goals that some of our politicians have that I absolutely refuse to work with anyone toward putting into effect.

I will not work with anyone to pay for, encourage, or permit abortion on demand. Likewise, I abhor faceless drone warfare and extra-judicial assassinations, undeclared wars, interventionist foreign policy, the surveillance state, the notion that all property belongs to the state and may be confiscated at any time for any reason, the increasing centralization of political and economic power, the sanctioning and subsidy of every base human impulse (and I don’t just mean sexual ones), the drive to shove religious liberty and even discussion out of every facet of public life, and several other things besides. Most of these convictions are based directly on moral principle determined by my core beliefs, while others are derived from those principles.

To “work with” anyone to accomplish these goals is a violation of my beliefs. I am also saddened by the reality that most of these things, either by explicit commitment, by omission or by the weakness of political will, are indeed the goals of both of the major American political parties.

Thus, when I read these calls for us to “set aside our differences” and “work together,” while I fully understand and appreciate the sentiment behind them, it’s hard to read them as saying anything much different than “Stop believing in your principles and work with me on mine instead.”

No, I don’t think so.

I’m not a “culture warrior,” at least not in the sense that I think that the force of law should be used to make people behave as I would prefer them to. If they become a public menace, yes, of course the law should restrain them. But I cannot make them moral by passing laws against immorality. That said, I do think that there is a war going on, and it’s a war that requires that people stick to their principles, even (and especially) in the face of calls to “work together.”

There is a very deep problem with our modern political culture, and it’s one that I think that not only Christians—who believe in the inherent and infinite worth of the human person as created according to God’s image—but also non-Christians who also believe in that same worth on other bases need to take note of. For every problem, there seems to be a system that needs to be invented, a new machine that will solve everything. Why can’t everyone just shut up and submit to the machine? Don’t they realize that this machine will finally be the machine we have all hoped for? Don’t they realize that we should all work together to make the new machine a reality?

The temptation is not only to utopianism, which is the eschatology of secularism, but it is something even more insidious—a direct attack on the integrity and sanctity of the human person. That is what stands behind the drive by our whole political class always to begin some new programme, some new initiative, some new regulation, some new standard, some new thing to which we must all submit so that we will have happiness, peace and prosperity, whether we like it or not.

This affliction, you see, is much deeper than DECISION 2012™, etc. It goes down to the root of our desire to dominate all life, all matter—whether animal, mineral, vegetable or especially human. Once we decided that all the world must finally be malleable to our will, then we decided something very dangerous.

This has become something of a rambling rant, I know, and you can probably tell that thinking overmuch about our political state is not something that brings out much hope in me. But I will try to leave you, gentle reader, with some hope, nevertheless. You have, after all, deigned to read this far.

I know a number of Orthodox Christian clergy who are quite vocal about their politics, even in terms of parties and candidates, though I don’t know any who use their position as clergy to make any official endorsements. I can’t be one of those, at least not in that way, if only because I see little that is redeemable in our current political culture.

But I am indeed interested in politics, and I have strong political opinions. I propose a politics, however, that is far more subversive than any SuperPAC ever can be, one that will not please any party and probably very few candidates. And what is that more subversive politics? It requires taking some of our central political ideas and reinterpreting them.

It is part of the American political mythos that any single person can change the world. There is a sense in which I believe that, though I don’t believe it in terms of the “any kid can grow up to be president” piece of it. (Statistically, almost no one will grow up to be president.) Rather, I believe that the infection which afflicts our political culture requires not merely some policy nor even a philosophy. Neither is what is needed merely a new marketing strategy to reach the electorate. What is needed is a new electorate. As long as the electorate continues to prefer the Machine, they will continue to get the inhuman and dehumanizing effects of the Machine.

The only way to a new electorate is the change of the human person, a genuine spiritual reorientation and movement toward a different set of goals than comfort, predictability and domination over the whole earth.

How do I intend to change the world? Primarily, I must change myself. But I also hope to influence you to change, too. What can we work together toward? We can pursue humility. That is a goal I think we all really can embrace together.

But this call to set things aside and work together comes with a price and therefore a warning: If we really seek humility, learn it and practice it, then we will find that our desires for comfort, predictability and domination will be stripped away. But we should also take joy in that, because in casting those things aside, we will find freedom and become people who don’t just “care about” particular classes or categories of people, but actually self-sacrificially love the person next to us. Such people need few (if any) programmes or policies.

Never give in on principle, not even to “work together.” But here is something we should all be able to agree on—humility, the most neglected virtue of the modern age. Let’s all try it and see what happens, shall we? Hardly anyone can grow up to be president. But everyone—without exception—can grow up to be a saint.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)

A Firm Foothold

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I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again. —Frodo Baggins

I happened upon this quotation again yesterday evening, while I was reading my daughter The Lord of the Rings. It seems a dauntingly long tome to read to a five-year-old, but of course we have years, if need be. She’s also already listened to the whole of The Hobbit and liked what she heard and wanted to hear more about hobbits. So of course I could not resist. Naturally she will not remember everything or understand all the details this time around, but that doesn’t particularly matter. So it goes with all of the good tales for any of us, including, I think, the Book itself.

As someone who is in some sense homeless (though not houseless), having lived now in twenty-two separate dwellings across fifteen towns, six states and one unincorporated territory, these words from Frodo in anticipation of his great Quest always make me a bit sad. Much of Tolkien’s work is about a sense of loss, of remembering things that never will return, and when Frodo speaks these words to Gandalf, he has no idea yet how much he will lose, that he will indeed lose the Shire for himself, even while he saves it for others.

The sadness that I feel is not quite Frodo’s sadness, though, because there is no geographic place that I have left behind and can return to or at least hope for while I am in my wanderings. And while I do intend to spend the rest of my days here in Emmaus, I think that it is too late for me to have a home. Though I am not old, I am too old for that. I’ve done it backwards from Frodo—I have tried to find a home after my wandering rather than embarked upon my wandering from a home already found and already loved.

My point here is not really about me, though. My life is what God has permitted it to be, even if I’ve muddled it up here and there, and I am grateful for what I have received. No, the point is about that “firm foothold” that Frodo mentions. For him, it is the Shire, and he carries memories of the Shire throughout the Quest to destroy evil. I do not have a Shire of my own, not in the sense that there is some specific place I can place my mind’s feet to gain that firm foothold.

But even though some of us are homeless in this life, I think that we nonetheless have the possibility for such a firm foothold, for a memory of beauty and homeliness (to use homely in its British sense, roughly homey in American English, though not so rustic). I hope I can say this without sounding like a romantic, but for me that firm foothold has become the worship of the Church, most especially in its Byzantine iteration, with which I was first imprinted in Orthodoxy. It is not quite the same as having a home in the earthier sense—a sense I encourage all to develop as best they can, even in such a homeless state as I find myself—but there is certainly a firm foothold to be had there, a power and glory and sense of belonging that can be carried along in any place of wandering, any struggle, any peril, as we pursue our own great Quest.

There are many instances throughout the history of the Church in which the saints, those people who were most infused with God’s presence here on earth, did something peculiar as they faced imprisonment, torture and even death—they sang hymns. I cannot help but think that their experiences in worshiping the one True God in His Body the Church became for them the firm foothold that made their wandering bearable. And when faced with the gravest of circumstances, they called to mind that power and energy, and they brought it forth again in an act of anamnesis (a term usually referred to the invocational memory that brings Christ’s passion and death into the here and now as the Eucharist). While Frodo could only engage in mneia (recall), we Christians have the possibility for anamnesis, bringing the Savior Whose salvation we remember into the very present by means of collective invocational memory.

As we do that, the orcs and Uruk-hai and evil wizards and the Ringwraiths and even the Enemy himself can be borne rightly, with patience and even with love and with joy. And in so doing, like Frodo, we can also destroy evil and loosen its hold on our hearts.

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 Mass Cult of Big

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The Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California

The following is essentially a piecing together of selections from a Facebook thread in which I participated today. The following quotation led off the discussion:

We have become fascinated by the idea of bigness, and we are quite convinced that if we can only ‘stage’ something really big before the world, we will shake it, and produce a mighty religious awakening. – D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, 1958

This response was given by a poster:

“Doing something big, for bigness sake is silly and egocentric… however we shouldn’t fear something becoming something big…”

This was followed by a back-and-forth discussion. Here are my responses, more or less, stitched together and revised a bit:

I don’t fear big. But I am deeply suspicious of it.

Why? “Big” almost always means systems and ideology, but rarely attention to persons. It is typically about marketing, not about communion. It almost always means vanity (though usually is not advanced enough for real pride), but almost never any humility. It is usually about control and not about freedom. That’s why.

I am not talking only about church size, but about more than that, i.e., philosophy, politics, economy, architecture, education, etc. But even if we were talking solely about church size, a church designed to be big is automatically subject to all those problems. It is so prevalent one could almost assume that it’s written down in some sort of mega-church mega-manual. But such things are by no means prevalent on the much smaller scale. Why? Because human beings can only truly know so many people. After one’s communal capabilities are saturated, the only way to maintain things is through ideological and technocratic systems. Even the mega-churches at least sense this, which is why they do “small groups” to try to offset their technocratic leviathan.

Yes, some little church communities do indeed exert a kind of control over members, but that is rather the sectarian/cultic impulse, which is not really about the question of big/small or systematic/local, but rather of fierce personal loyalties. The fact that a mega-church cannot command such loyalties is precisely because of its inherent weakness—it is not about incarnational communion, but about marketed, corporatized consumption. Loyalty is created to a product, to programmes (which are a kind of product), not to persons.

If a mega-church is less susceptible to cultic-style control, it is essentially because it is a corporate entity that does not and cannot care. But it exerts a far more subtle and pernicious kind of control over its clients. It is one vast system, and if the mice wandering around in the maze do not realize they are in a maze, so much the better! The control here is essentially the control of the consumerist market, keeping consumers trapped in their own passions and desires. The rules it enforces are the demands of ideology and system—why do you think mega-churches need so many signs, ushers, automated check-ins for kids, etc.?

At least a little cult-like religious community still maintains the clear sense for its members that it is a set-apart elect. Members can more easily leave such a group, because all the control is usually focused into one or two people, and members may more easily have full social networks that are not comprised by the sect. And at least there is the possibility for repentance of the leadership. In a mega-church, if one head of the hydra is cut off, no one particularly questions the whole system. They just find another head to run the monster.

Loyalty should be only to Christ, not to personalities or religious products or programmes.

Yet “big” tends to lead in such directions almost without fail. “Small” actually quite rarely does. Very few small churches are cults of personality. But big ones quite often are, and they are more often (and sometimes simultaneously) cults of religious product.

It is telling that, in the early years of the Church, when congregations started becoming large enough that not everyone in the same city could easily join together for worship, the bishops began delegating their authority to presbyters to lead spin-off congregations.

And then when the faith was finally legalized in the early 4th c., there wasn’t a sudden move to building gigantic church buildings so that the full Christian population of cities could recombine.

The general rule was always small and local, even when necessity did not require it. It was because of a theology of the Incarnation and the communion that it creates, something that simply cannot scale up indefinitely, because of the God-made limitations of human personhood.

A desire to scale up indefinitely is indicative of a defective theology of the Incarnation, usually one that is devoid of any ecclesiology. Church is conceived of not as communion, but as rock concert.

It is true, of course, that some 3,000 people were baptized into Christ on Pentecost. That’s actually a fascinating and telling example, though—the Apostles were clearly perfectly capable of attracting a mass “rally” of sorts, but there’s only one example of such a thing ever happening. This exception proves the rule.

It is one of the great (at least linguistic) ironies of modern American Christianity that it has become a mass religion—a massive religion about masses of people, but without any hint of the mass.

Ite, missa est.

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.

Why I Can’t Be Your Spiritual Father: A Localist Lament

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Do you really know this man?
As I think probably happens to just about every clergyman who has some sort of media presence (even one so minor as mine), I get requests every so often from folks essentially to do the job that their local pastor should be doing.

Now, it may be that they don’t have a local pastor, perhaps because there is no Orthodox church near them, because they’re not Orthodox yet, or because they’re not committed to a particular parish. It may also be that their priest doesn’t have the time to help them, perhaps because he has a secular job, because he has health problems, because he’s lazy, because he doesn’t like them, or because the bishop has given him other responsibilities. It may also be because they don’t like their priest, because they want more from him than he has to give, because they don’t like their parish, or because they don’t want to commit to someone standing in front of them. It may also be that their priest is uneducated, that he’s overwhelmed, or even that he’s simply unaware of their problem. Maybe they’ve never even approached him.

There are probably many more reasons why people contact clergy they don’t know to try to get from them something that they aren’t getting locally.

If I already have a relationship with such a person, I may offer some advice, but ultimately, I always try to steer them toward the local church. If I don’t have a relationship with them, I may offer brief comments but typically will shy away from them. Here are some reasons why I almost always have to turn down such requests. I list them here not to talk about me, but rather as some things to think about when people are navigating the intersection of their spiritual lives in three dimensions with their virtual lives on the Internet.

    1. I don’t have the time. This is the biggest reason. I have a family and a parish I have to care for, and they require my time. If I began admitting people into my care who are not local to me, I would quickly become overwhelmed with email, phone calls, etc., that would soon destroy my ability to take care of my family and my parish. Most everyone who emails a priest out of the blue probably thinks he’s the only one to do so, but he’s usually not.

    2. I don’t know you. It’s really easy to lie over the Internet, whether intentionally or out of one’s own self-delusion. It’s also very easy to get the wrong impression about someone, because online we only present part of ourselves to our readers. It’s much harder to be fake and distorted with someone standing in front of you. Therefore, I am not qualified to give you spiritual direction over the Internet. I don’t have enough data to give informed advice.

    3. It’s draining for me. If you and I had a real spiritual relationship in person, then it could be sustainable for us both, but long-distance spiritual direction almost always is a one-way affair, and the clergyman can find himself giving and giving, and there is none of the renewal that comes of incarnate relationship. And, just to put it in stark, “earthly” terms, when you call on a clergyman outside your community to do work for you (and it is work), then you are practicing a sort of “spiritual socialism.” He is being supported spiritually and financially by another community, and you’re asking him to serve you without participating in giving to that community.

    4. I am not special. Just because someone writes a weblog or has a nice podcast or a book you liked does not make him an expert in theology, spiritual direction, etc. It also certainly does not mean that he’s holy. I’ve been given the responsibility by God for my family and by the bishop for my parish, and I try to do right by them. But I am no one special. Really. Don’t think that the clergy you see online are elite in any way. We’re not. In fact, you may want to question why a clergyman you see online all the time seems to have time for that kind of thing. Some of us are more “plugged in” than others, but that doesn’t mean we’re supermen. Some are online all the time because they have a lot of time on their hands. Others have just integrated Internet use into their work to a high degree. (See #6 below.)

    5. I do not want control of your life. I know that some people think of spiritual fatherhood in this way, and I think that’s a mistake. Even your local priest should not be treated as some sort of holy elder whose every command must be obeyed. That’s why I don’t like to use the term spiritual father to refer to myself, even for those who really are committed to my care. Confessor or simply father-confessor (or good old pastor) delineates the job more clearly. You are fundamentally responsible for your own spiritual life. The clergy are here to guide you, but they are not here to command you such that all you have to give is obedience. You’re a “rational sheep.” Use the brain God gave you. I can’t accept total responsibility for your salvation. I have a tough enough time with my own.

    6. I am not here for you. Yes, I have time to produce things that you’re seeing online, but almost all of them are simply a part of my parish ministry—I’m just doing my local job, and I happen to have a microphone and a weblog to go with it. I have them so that I can reach my own people even more effectively. If someone else can get something out of them, that’s a wonderful bonus, but that’s all it is. Now, if God puts you in my town or puts me in your town, then I will be there for you.

    7. I will not cheat your local community. If there is a genuine lacking in your local community, then instead of seeking out faraway surrogates, work to establish better community where you are. Talk to your priest, talk to your bishop, evangelize your neighbors, serve those in need—in short, do the job of bringing Christ to your place. If you instead rely on people far away and use them as stand-ins for what should be local, then you are cutting short the local hunger that makes the banquet possible. That is, if you think you’re getting via email what you should be getting locally, then you aren’t working to make it present to you locally. Don’t short-circuit the development of the Church in your community by bypassing the community. If you do not have it in you to do that sort of work where you are, then it might be a good idea to move some place where you can plug in to a healthy parish community.

    8. The priesthood is local. This is my most fundamental point. Almost everything a priest does in his priesthood requires physical presence. The sacraments, preaching, etc., are all fundamentally local acts, and even if some elements of the priest’s work can be published or broadcast, they always lose something in the transmission.

Now, there are of course many legitimate reasons why someone might be engaged in long-distance spiritual direction. The best one is probably the case of the person who physically moves away from their confessor after years of his spiritual direction. But even in that case, it’s a good idea to transition to someone local.

Most clergy are the kind of people who like to help, who may even feel a need to be helpful. And it can be flattering to have someone approach you because of your “fame” online. But, like Admiral Ackbar said, it’s a trap! (Especially if the person contacting you is an apparently attractive female. Or at least her profile pic looks that way. Remember that, on the Internet, no one is quite who they claim to be.)

Curiously, many of the dangers of online, long-distance romantic relationships essentially apply to online, long-distance spiritual direction. It’s really the problem with any virtual relationship. Man was not made to live in a non-dimensional world. He was made to live in communion, in community.

All that said, if you happen to email me, I will try to answer your email. If I do not already know you, especially if your email requires thought, my response may well be quite delayed. It’s nothing personal. Really. But maybe it’s time to go ask your own priest. Don’t have one? Here’s a place to start.

The Church is Not the Building

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Holy Trinity Cathedral, Jordanville, New York

I hate it when people say that. Yes, there is a certain truth to the statement The Church is not the building. But it is usually said in the context of talking about buildings, and so what is meant by it is not really a counter of an obviously ridiculous idea, namely, that the Church is equal to a building.

Who actually thinks that? Is there anyone who believes that the Christian faith and tradition are about buildings? I don’t think even church architects actually think that. (Actually, they probably think something rather like what I am about to say.) Yes, of course, it does not matter if I have a spiritual life, love God, love my neighbor, or grow in holiness, just so long as I have a nice building to keep and maintain!

Yes, of course, we know people who act that way, but the problem there is not with the building, just as the problem with a dysfunctional home life is not your house. No, saying The Church is not the building is not a serious statement of policy—I’ve never known someone who said that who wanted to move all church services outdoors—but it does present a problematic dichotomy, and it’s also rooted in a certain theology of its own.

One of the inheritances of the streams of Christian theology whose origins flow from 16th century Western Europe is a deliberate de-emphasis on the matter of, well, matter. As many Christians stopped believing that sacraments (ritual acts believed to be means by which God communicates grace), iconoclasm (“image-breaking”) also came alongside. Much of the physical side of being spiritual came to be regarded as idolatry and was shunned in favor of what was summarized in the motto “Four bare walls and a sermon.” Salvation was for people’s hearts and souls, and pretty buildings, vestments, iconography, bread, wine, oil, water, etc., had nothing at all to do with it, because those things pertain to the body and not the soul.

Right?

This theological attitude finds its roots originally not in Christian theology but in pagan theology, particularly the dualism that was characteristic of the philosophers who opposed the prevailing polytheism of their time. Dualism’s essential idea is that “spiritual” things are good, but physical things are bad (or at least of a much, much lower importance).

Orthodox Christianity is not dualist. As such, we believe that man—being a union of both body and soul—is not a soul trapped in the prison of the body. Rather, he is a body just as much as he is a soul, and even if the union of the two has suffered and will suffer because of the disruption of the Fall of Mankind from the time of Adam and Eve, that essential union remains and will eventually be fully healed in the general Resurrection.

What that means is that physical stuff has a spiritual side to it. And if that is the case, then that means that church buildings have a spiritual character, too. We can see this basic intuition in all of mankind, not just traditional Christianity. Everywhere one goes, buildings meant for religious usage have a special character and usually a special beauty to them. Even among the very poor, there is a desire to impart a particular beauty in the place where prayers are said.

For Orthodox Christians, the church building and all that adorns it are icons—that is, they are physical images that connect us with spiritual reality. We don’t worship such things, because only God is due worship, but we do pay them honor and treat them in a special way, because they put us in touch with the divine in a way that our emotions, intellect and imaginations alone cannot.

Ironically, iconoclastic Christianity still makes use of some very physical elements—how could it not? One typically finds sermons and music in such churches, aural expressions making use of the vibrational and resonant properties of physical matter. Orthodoxy essentially just takes the very necessity of physicality in worship and all spiritual life to its fullest and most natural conclusions. The body is intimately connected with the soul, and so what you do with the one will affect the other.

For Orthodoxy, this essential intuition that our species has, that the physical and spiritual have very much to do with each other, was fulfilled in the Incarnation of Christ, that everlasting moment when the invisible, incorporeal, untouchable, ineffable God became visible, embodied, touchable and approachable. God became man, and so physical matter received the possibility of becoming sanctified and sanctifying. He did it all the time when He was here visibly—not just by taking on a body, but with very physical actions in order to effect real changes, e.g., turning water to wine, smearing mud on a blind man’s eyes, raising the dead, etc.

So, no, the Church is not the building. The people are the Church. We get that. But there’s a reason they built that building, and it’s not just a container. There is something there that speaks of the power and majesty and closeness of God, something that connects us to Him in a way that nothing else can. And Orthodox Christians believe that God will not only honor that intention from His creatures, but will respond and, once again, use the physical to affect the spiritual.

Consider this for a moment: What does the building your faith uses for prayer convey about what you believe? Does it connect you with Heaven? Does it connect you with God?