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)
…we are supposed to act with great deference to natural rhythms and patterns when it comes to nature “out there,” but extend—by government fiat, if necessary—the greatest possible technological control over human reproductive rhythms and patterns. We should learn to live with and in nature out there, but conquer nature in here. To what can one attribute this fundamental contradiction?
Peter J. Deneen, “Forward” Into a Sterile Future” (emphasis in original)
This fascinating piece from today’s First Things column by Patrick J. Deneen (whose work I’m used to seeing at Front Porch Republic) highlights something I’ve also commented on in some of my pieces on ecology, that left-environmentalism is ultimately a misanthropic philosophy. But it also points out that the true aim of the combination of the contraception/environmentalism culture is really just unbridled indulgence. Human desire is to be limited by nothing at all, not even human nature. The dark thread connecting these two philosophies together is human sterility, which will “liberate” both man and nature from our fellow man.
One of the things that I believe Orthodoxy has to offer the culture is what we might term a “consistent green ethic,” in which all of nature—including mankind—is held in reverence as having the potential to be a vessel for the divine presence. With this attitude toward man and the rest of nature, violence becomes an impossibility.
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.
There have been several postings online in the past few days of various articles claiming that the Christian Church at some period in history formerly sanctioned same-sex weddings and treated them just like marriages between a single man and a single woman, based mainly on the work of the late John Boswell. Someone even posted one of those articles in the comments section of my previous post. The one making the most rounds is called When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite. These articles are served up as “gotchas” to unsuspecting Christians who were under the impression that Christian history is pretty unanimous about what Christian marriage is about. (Spoiler: Their impression is correct.)
Mind you, someone may reject the Church’s historic teaching on marriage. But there really are no legs to stand on when it comes to the claim that the Church used to teach that marriage could also be between two men or two women (or any other combination). (And note here that I mean the historic Church, which is Orthodoxy. But this would also include almost all churches that are more than about 100 years old.)
Anyway, there are numerous articles which thoroughly debunk Boswell’s work. His fellow historians didn’t take it seriously, and neither should you. The only people who do (and I really am not making this up) are those who either don’t know better or quite desperately want him to be right. Boswell himself was gay and the founder of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1994 at the age of 47. He was also a convert to Roman Catholicism from the Episcopal Church (despite his much greater similarity with the latter on sexual morality).
Anyway, the point of this post is not to invite debate (because for me, the matter really is settled, and there are a quadra-gazillion other places to debate these questions; as such, I am not turning on comments for this post), but rather to point out some of the several places online where one can read refutations of Boswell’s work, far better than anything I could put together. The slams, as they say, are dunked.
- In the Case of John Boswell by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (a Catholic convert from Lutheranism) examines the scholarly reception of Boswell’s work.
- Gay Marriage: Reimaging Church History by Robin Darling Young is a detailed examination especially of the numerous specious translations in Boswell’s work (upon which his conclusions very much hang). Interesting in this piece is especially the reminiscence that its author experienced a same-sex union in an ancient church and was surprised to be told later by Boswell’s book that what she had experienced was actually a marriage. This is the first piece I ever read on this subject, and it packs a powerful punch.
- Failed Attempt to Rewrite History by Fr. Patrick Viscuso is an examination specifically of the canonical and liturgical claims that Boswell makes and how they fail to square with the actual contexts of the rites being examined. Viscuso is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church and a canonist specializing especially in marriage questions. He is also cited(!) in Boswell’s work.
- Rewriting History to Serve the Gay Agenda by Marian Therese Horvat is a general review of Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, especially focusing on what the author calls Boswell’s “advocacy scholarship.”
- A Groom of One’s Own? by Brent D. Shaw shows how anachronistic and tendentious Boswell’s readings of documents are. Shaw is himself in favor of the “liberationist movements of our time,” but he concludes that “tinkering with the moral balance of the past is a disservice to the study of history and to the reform of society.”
- Procrustean Marriage Beds by Robert Louis Wilken can best be summed up by its last two sentences: “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe creates a world that never existed, misrepresents Christian practice, and distorts the past. This is a book on a mission, scholarship at the service of social reform, historical learning yoked to a cause, a tract in the cultural wars, and it is in that spirit that it should be read.” Wilken is one of the most respected patrologists of our time.
- Do you take this man… by David Wright shows how Boswell’s Same Sex Unions is essentially a rehashing of his earlier work that fails to take into accounts the criticisms the earlier one drew.
- Remarks to the Catholic Press by Fr. Robert Taft is not really a review but just some blunt offhand remarks by one of the most respected Jesuit liturgiologists of all time. (Warning: Do not read this out loud to children!)
- Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, the famed liturgical translator from the UK also did a review of Boswell’s work for the journal Sourozh for its February 1995 issue, but it doesn’t appear to be online. There are bits of it quoted in the Wikipedia article on Adelphopoiesis (“brother-making”), the rite Boswell claims was a same-sex marriage.
If readers find other pieces offering up similar debunkings, feel free to send me the links, and I’ll add them here.
Again, just to be clear: I don’t hate homosexuals or people whose politics would have homosexual marriage enshrined and enforced as a civil right by the state. I also don’t hate people who reject Orthodox Christian teaching. The point of this post is to point you to some information debunking the claim that the Church has not always taught that same-sex attraction is a temptation like any other temptation (note I didn’t say “worse than all other temptations”) that has to be struggled against and repented of when indulged. I also do not believe that acting on that temptation is a worse sin than any of my own sins.
Oh, and this bit is pretty good when it comes to laying out a clear sense of what it means to be a Christian who believes in traditional Christian morality and isn’t going around hating people who don’t or who fail to live up to what they do believe in.
Update: This post is now available as an audio recording at Ancient Faith Radio.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil. —Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”
“Aren’t you supposed to hate me?”
That was the question once asked me by a homosexual friend and co-worker, back during my stagehand days (1994-2004), when she learned that I was an Orthodox Christian.
I thought about that moment again today while I watched my North Carolina friends posting online about North Carolina’s Constitutional Amendment One, which in a vote yesterday enshrined into the state’s constitution a legal definition for marriage as between one man and one woman. I lived in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area for eleven years, and from what I could tell, most of my friends there who are active online were very much against the amendment. In fact, I don’t think any of them were in favor of it. Nevertheless, it passed a popular vote with 61% approval.
What really struck me today was that several posters (who normally are not very interested in religious things) declared that anyone who voted in favor of the amendment was not a real Christian. It was kind of surreal to see some of these people making such religious statements when they never seemed to pay any particular attention to Christian doctrine before. Their statements seemed to be based on this syllogism: Voting for the amendment means you hate gay people. Jesus is loving. Therefore, if you voted for the amendment you are no real Christian. (Update: Did you catch that? These are pro-same-sex marriage folks who wanted others to oppose a piece of legislation for religious reasons.)
There were other variations on this claim, though usually without bringing Christ into it. The consensus seems to be that voting for this amendment means that the voter hates gay people (or others who may be affected). It does not seem in any way admissible that a loving person could ever vote for such a thing. One poster even said he simply could not fathom the logic that supporters were using when they voted.
In the course of related discussions, I was actually told by an old friend who (being convinced I would have voted for this particular amendment) essentially said that I believe what I do because my religion tells me I have to and that logic is always opposed to faith. There is of course a long and complex history of the interaction of faith and reason; some communions even go so far as to enshrine reason as a doctrinal pillar, but hardly any religions have ever actually rejected reason as being contradictory to faith.
Likewise, there is another problem with this assumption, namely, that I am actually someone who has chosen his faith and was by no means forced into it. Even had I been raised Orthodox, however, I would have to make a conscious choice to remain in the Church and faithful to its teachings. Come to think of it, I still have to do that. Even aside from simply the basic dynamics of trying to be a faithful Christian, it’s not like the world around me is exactly hip to Orthodoxy. The Church has always been counter-cultural.
Of course, on the other side of these things is the “GOD HATES FAGS” crowd, who actually have fairly little influence on anyone at all, but, if their ideological opposites are to be believed, somehow are identical to everyone who doesn’t all-out support homosexual activity. Still, I’m sure that there are folks who have traditional beliefs about the moral value of homosexual activity who do indeed regard gays as being damnably subhuman.
I also saw one post from an opponent of the amendment telling supporters to “go die in a fire.” Another one claimed supporters used only “weak” arguments from politics and religion and were therefore “fanatics” and “terrorists.” The first poster didn’t surprise me much, since he is given to that kind of language, but the second really did surprise me. (He was also one who said that supporters cannot be real Christians. That surprised me, too, because he’s not ever been, to my knowledge, remotely interested in church or even Christian “spirituality.”)
There seems to be little room here for the idea that someone can disagree, that they can even support unfavored laws, and still love the other. I think there is a little bit of the childish “You hate me, Mom and Dad” attitude here, chafing against anyone who won’t sanction a given behavior, but I believe overall it’s something much deeper, something actually theological, a vision of human nature.
In this view of human nature is also a reading of human history that admits of nothing but the progressivist narrative. “Social progress” always moves in one direction, and of course people who disagree with such “progress” are “on the wrong side of history,” etc. Never mind that history shows all sorts of “progressions” that such folks would find abhorrent. History sometimes moves in some pretty awful directions. And sometimes it even appears to “reverse” course, revealing what seemed to be an inexorable march toward progressive paradise actually to be a temporary anomaly. To one a certain thing is progress, while to another it may be regress, digress or even ingress. And of course everyone but me is wrong.
What’s underneath all of this is an assumption about human nature that almost never comes to the fore. It is essentially assumed that human beings are absolute objects incapable of actual dynamism and change. Reprobates can only be eliminated through force, whether of violence or of law (which always implies a threat of violence). That is, what is assumed is a theological anthropology, and it is the anthropology of Calvinism.
We Americans are hardly ever more Calvinistic and puritanical than when we are at politics. I observe this not about any particular political ideology or party, but about them all.
It is no wonder, of course. America was founded by such people. Calvinist anthropology is deep in our cultural DNA, and it is perhaps most prevalent in those who reject Christianity entirely. Their political opponents are “unloving,” “evil,” “hateful,” etc. There is little attempt actually to convince others of the rightness of their positions, only the assertion that opposing them makes the opponent a terrible person. You must hate me if you do not agree with me.
But “You hate me” is probably the silliest argument there is. It not only presumes a knowledge of someone else’s inner psychological state that is impossible, but it also is a defeatist attitude and presumes that one’s opponents are beyond redemption—and one’s own position is naturally what constitutes redemption.
In a world where everyone knows he’s a sinner and is actively working to repent, one can never have much ground to assume that one’s fellow sinners are “hateful,” etc. But in a world where I am perfect and right, of course anyone who disagrees with me is “hateful.”
When my gay friend asked me whether I was required to hate her, I told her no. She asked me why. I told her it’s because, even though I see homosexual activity (though not identity) as sinful, I believed my own sins were far worse than hers. It’s true. I really do. And I am (by choice) bound by my faith commitments to believe that, to see myself as the “chief of sinners.” I confess that every time I am about to engage in the most central act of my faith—receiving Holy Communion.
I do not in any sense believe that I am better than someone else just because the set of temptations I have and those I succumb to are different from someone else’s. How can I hate someone else for his sins or his temptations? I have so many of my own.
To be honest, I don’t really know how I would have voted on North Carolina’s Amendment One. I haven’t lived there for eight years now, so I’m not really a part of its life any more. I do know that I think the state should get out of licensing marriages entirely, if only because it almost inevitably leads to problems like this.
I do not believe that every sin should be illegal, and homosexual activity is one I do not think needs to be illegal. (And certainly one cannot criminalize feelings, either.) Yes, I do regard these things as symptomatic of a fallen humanity, but I don’t think that anyone’s salvation is furthered by criminalization.
I do, however, have a very serious concern about enshrining things at odds with religious communities’ doctrine as “civil rights,” because of what that does to religious liberty, a civil right long guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Once something is a civil right, then those who refuse to grant that right and not to hinder it in any way are subject to legal action—there have already been people successfully sued for not going along with gay weddings due to the dictates of their consciences, people who were minding their own business and just didn’t want to be a part of it.
I do hope that my friends can understand that I in no way hate them if I disagree with their politics or even with their personal moral choices. If I hated everyone who disagreed with me or who sinned, I would pretty much not have anything else to do with my time. But I’m a sinner, too, and my sins are far greater than theirs.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of friends, co-workers and parishioners who have identified as gay. To be quite honest, none of them ever seemed to be under the impression that I hated them. I don’t think it’s because I have any great virtue, but simply because I just didn’t hate them. I don’t understand why that possibility seems to elude so many.
For anyone who is not an Orthodox Christian or who does not subscribe in some way to the broad outlines of Christian moral tradition as it has generally been held without much real disagreement for centuries, I cannot of course expect that they will see themselves as sinners or that any particular action is a sin. If they don’t even believe in any transcendent divinity, then there is no reason to believe that there should be a transcendent “right” to which we are all responsible. I get that.
At the same time, however, I think it’s worth closely examining one’s presuppositions about such things as the nature of human persons, whether they can change, whether they have inherent worth, and whether it is actually possible to disagree without being consigned to the oblivion of the “hateful” category.
This kind of politics—the politics of hatefulness—comes out of a real theology. In this theology, there are only the elect and the reprobate—the damned.
Wouldn’t it be better to see others in a far more complex and (dare I ask it?) hopeful light? And let us especially remember the words quoted above from Solzhenitsyn: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”
Addendum: I liked this comment from Fr. Stephen so much that I’m reproducing it here in the body of the post. Some of the responses to it are quite interesting, as well.
I think the root of the issue you’re identifying goes much deeper than just Calvin’s anthropology. All of Western Christian thought since St. Augustine (obviously including Calvin) has been Platonist thought, to one degree or another. Even Thomas Aquinas (whose grand project was to try to reconcile the newly discovered Aristotelian science [with] the pre-existing Platonist Christianity he had inherited, over against the Latin Averroists like Siger de Brabant who were ready to discard the latter), as revealed in Book I of the Summa and his eschatology.
Why that’s important is this: One of the fundamental principles in Platonist thought is that distinction implies opposition. Unity, or ‘One-ness’ is a good, and therefore to be truly Good, anything must be One. So, for example, there can only be one correct interpretation of any given passage of Holy Scripture. All other interpretations are not just somehow faulty or incomplete, but are actually opposed to the correct interpretation and seek to subvert it. All of those other interpretations aren’t ‘nice tries’ or ‘alternate takes’ or ‘other applications in different contexts’, they’re sinful attempts to undermine the One Truth.
This results in this horrible confusion of epistemology and ethics, in which ignorance of certain facts, or differing beliefs, even if held with no ill will or ulterior motive, are still treated as sin, as evil acts. Therefore, if I hold that ‘x’ behavior is morally wrong, and you hold that it is morally right, our views aren’t just alternatives to each other, they actively oppose each other, and we ‘have to’ at the minimum, hate each other’s views. Neither God, nor you and I, can just [love] sinners, we have to somehow at the same time hate their sin. It can’t be overlooked, passed over in respectful silence, or ignored.
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.
Sunday before the Elevation of the Cross, September 11, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“Nothing will ever be the same.” So went the refrain again and again and again on September 11, 2001, and for weeks and now years following. I also clearly remember Dan Rather just saying over and over again, “There are no words.” Some people called it “the day the world changed.” Almost everyone seems to agree that the 9/11 attacks were a watershed moment in history.
Certainly, there is now a whole industry dedicated to supporting that claim. Books, movies, TV and radio specials, an almost endless array of columns, articles, analysis, conspiracy theories—all these things shout out in a cacophonous symphony playing one melody: “Nothing will ever be the same.” And the rhythm underneath it all is the drums of war. Our armed forces have been sent by our leaders into at least sixteen different countries since those attacks, with varying results.
No matter what one’s views are about foreign policy, military interventionism, Islamic Jihadism, the “War on Terror,” the effect on personal liberties of the Patriot Act, etc., as Orthodox Christians we have a unique perspective on what the meaning of events like the 9/11 attacks really is.
For one thing, a major part of what gave 9/11 such a cultural impact was its sheer scale, that nearly 3000 people died in those attacks, and another 6000 were injured. Those deaths and injuries were indeed terrible, and many stories of genuine heroism emerged in the aftermath.
The impact of 9/11 is also great because it is the first large-scale attack on mainland American soil in living memory. There was a strong sense of vulnerability that resulted from hijacked airliners slamming into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and also downing in the fields of the western part of our state. How could such a thing happen here? I thought we were safe. This doesn’t happen to America.
As Orthodox Christians we have an ecclesial memory of numerous instances when many thousands of Christians died for their faith—the nearly 2600 beheaded with St. Andrew the Commander, the 9000 killed with St. Ia of Persia (whose feast is today), the more than 11,000 killed with St. Meletius the Commander, the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia (burned for their faith), and let us not forget the untold millions killed in the 20th century in Communist Eastern Europe. We are a Church defined by martyrdom. We know what it means for there to be a holocaust, a great sacrifice of people for some evil cause.
At the same time, we Orthodox Christians have a strong tradition of facing death squarely in the eye, of not feeling safe and secure and comfortable. Death can take any of us at any time, whether in the sudden immolation or crush of a flaming ruin in the heart of Manhattan or through the decay of cancer or an accident on the highway. Truly, none of us has the guarantee of a long, comfortable life. And whenever that death does take place, our funeral service is honest and straightforward about it, not glossing things over with nothing but praise for the deceased, but a serious and honest confrontation with the horror of death and what its spiritual meaning is.
With all of that in mind, can we say that “nothing will ever be the same”? Did 9/11 fundamentally alter the course of all history?
It is certainly true that 9/11 altered the course of many people’s lives, and not just the ones that have made a career out of the 9/11 industry. Thousands died, and many thousands more will mourn for years to come. But is it true that nothing will ever be the same?
We can alter our foreign policy. We can take different approaches to relations with Muslims and the nations which are their homes. We can choose a different use for our military. We can approach civil liberties differently. As a democratic, representative republic, those things are not unalterable. They do not have to remain the same. But, in a deeper sense, will nothing ever be the same?
I think that such a claim is fundamentally myopic. For one thing, there are many nations on earth where thousands of people have died and continue to die. Such attacks may be a surprise on American soil, but for some places in the world, they have been a way of life for decades. And we know that history is replete with too many great massacres to name. So while we should never impugn the memory of those who were sacrificed on 9/11, we must also take a larger view of our history, of the world in general, and more critically, a larger view of human history.
You see, there has indeed been a moment when nothing would ever be the same. It is not the union of the Greek city-states by Alexander the Great. It is not the Roman Empire’s Pax Romana that stretched from the eastern shore of the Black Sea in the East to Great Britain in the West. It is not the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. It is not the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It is not World War I or World War II. All of those major turning points in human history can and probably will be turned again. Even our American empire will someday contract and then fall.
The moment when human history irrevocably turned, when nothing truly will ever be the same again, was that moment that we are about to celebrate this week in the Church. It is the moment of the death of God.
If you want to know what it is that sets us apart as Orthodox Christians from the rest of the world, this is it: God became man, and God died. One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh. And because God is immortal, when He died as a mortal man, He broke the power of death. And then He passed on the power to conquer death to His Apostles, who have passed it on to us.
Orthodox Christianity is about coming face to face with death, grappling with death, and wrestling it to the ground. It is not about accommodation to this world. Those who prefer to be accommodated to this world will always be utterly devastated by moments like 9/11, because they cut so sharply into the comfortable complacency of a consumerist culture. For them, it is true that nothing will ever be the same. But those who will not surrender, those who will not be defeated by death or by the world that death holds in its thrall, those who have put on Christ and struggle to put on Christ every day—they cannot be destroyed.
Be sure of this: We are indeed engaged in a war. But it is not a war against grasping politicians, tyrannical dictators, or fundamentalist terrorists. As Orthodox Christians, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). We are engaged with much deeper and darker spiritual forces than even the nineteen Jihadists of 9/11 who set it in their minds to slaughter our countrymen were trying to conjure up.
Because we do indeed live on this earth and in time, we as part of an earthly nation must face the real threats that come our way. But as a heavenly nation, the royal priesthood of the Church, our greatest attention must be on those great spiritual threats, the threats of complacency, of secularism, of accommodation to this world. If we do not remain vigilant, if we do not constantly train ourselves to embrace Christ’s death on the Cross and therefore conquer death with Him, then we will be conquered by death, as evil takes deeper root in our hearts.
If anything, 9/11 was a great wake-up call to America that our comfort and complacency can be shaken by people who have strong wills. I don’t care if it takes 9/11 or something else, but we ourselves are being called upon to wake up, not so much to the temporal threats of those who can destroy bodies, but rather to the destruction that can be wreaked upon our souls.
Is your soul in ruins? Can you look at your spiritual life and say that it is not just “pretty good” (which is not a spiritual life at all!) but truly alive? Today, on this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let us remember the suffering and the dead. But let us also remember the path to Life, which is by joining ourselves to the Cross of Christ and thus to His conquest over death.
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
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 following is Part VI (the conclusion) of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V. There are six parts in all.
I live in a place called Emmaus, a small borough of about 11,000 people nestled onto the southwest edge of the Lehigh Valley, next to Allentown. If you spend any time around me at all, you will know that I love Emmaus. It’s a beautiful place to be during all the seasons of the year. The people in our borough love it, and they love it with a curious passion that I’ve never seen anywhere else.
When Emmaus was founded in 1759 by a group of Moravian Christians, it was founded deliberately as a Christian community. And when Bishop Spangenberg named it for the little village in ancient Palestine called Emmaus, it may be that some of what happened at that Palestinian Emmaus made its way permanently into the dirt of the Pennsylvanian Emmaus. In the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the resurrected Christ joins with two of His disciples—not of the Twelve, but Luke and Cleopas. And He walks with them on the road to the village of Emmaus, but they do not recognize Him.
But then they come to the house of Cleopas in that village, and there they go in with Him and eat supper together. And then it was as Christ broke bread and blessed it that they suddenly realized Who He was. It was in that place, in that Eucharistic moment, that divine revelation came to them. And the Church later appointed that same place to be the site for many centuries of the church of Emmaus, which for a time even had its own bishop.
Since the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise, mankind has had a broken relationship with his place. Globalization has accelerated that brokenness and introduced whole new levels of alienation between us and each other, between us and our places, and as a result, between us and our God. Our collective exile is becoming ever further and further from the homeland of our souls.
The Church understands that exile and the need for the healing of not only ourselves as individual human persons or even just as communities of persons, but as communities in places. We therefore hear again and again our liturgical services prayer not just for specific people or even just for groups of people, but also specifically for places. We pray for “this church.” We pray for “this city” and for “every city and countryside.” Monks and nuns pray for “this sacred monastery.” All these references are to places, not only to the people who happen to live in them. We are meant to be in harmony with our place, to pray for our place, to sanctify our place by our prayer.
We might be tempted sometimes to think of the Lord’s words that His kingdom is “not of this world” and to interpret them to mean that He doesn’t care much for our place, that His only real concern is for our souls. We even sometimes think of the Church itself in this way, when people say that the church is not a building but is rather the people. All of this is true in its way, but if we take these things to mean a denigration of place, then instead of privileging the human soul and the very human character of the Church, we are instead engaging in a de-humanization.
When our Lord became material, when He became matter, then He opened up the possibility for the restoration of all matter back to the “very good” character in which He originally created it. This world was meant to be a blessing to us, to serve as the vessel of God’s holiness for us. And our responsibility to it is as its priests. In considering the vocation of a priesthood, it has always been a canonical stipulation of the Church that a priest is ordained for and canonically attached to only one altar. There are no priests “at large,” nor bishops or deacons. All are connected to a specific place.
When you love a place and care for a place, then that place reflects who you are. And if you are an Orthodox Christian who is seriously trying to live the life of Christ, then your place will reflect Christ. We know from the beginnings of Russian Christian history that the emissaries of St. Vladimir were so stunned by what they saw in that place, in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, that they were convinced that God dwelt among people. In that place, they experienced its transfiguration—the material of this world came to be a conduit through which the divine light shone.
Place matters. It is not only essential to our humanity, but it is critical to our salvation. And being critical to our salvation, it is also critical to our evangelism. Consider within yourself where you are paying your attention. Is it primarily to far-off things and people that you will never meet nor touch directly? If so, then you are contributing to your own dis-incarnation. In this televised, computerized age, we are all guilty of it to one extent or another.
The beauty of the Christian faith, however, is that change is really possible. With prayer, with sacrifice, with time, with attention, and above all, with grace, we can return our gaze back to the place we are. In doing that, every day can become a pilgrimage, and every stone, every stoplight and every street we encounter can become a vessel of divine grace.
And thus each road—not just “every” road, but this road—can become the Road to Emmaus, a path to the Eucharist. There, what has been created by God is offered up to Him once again for His transformation and then His return to us as the very means of receiving His presence. May that be true for each of us a little bit more today.
To mark the one year anniversary of the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought I would post the link to my June 17, 2010, post: