Roads from Emmaus is the personal weblog of the Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Christian Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith (available from Ancient Faith Publishing (Conciliar Press) and via Amazon.com) and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.
Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, April 21, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today we remember a woman who walked out into the desert and repented there for more than forty years. On this fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Church celebrates St. Mary of Egypt.
Born in the mid-4th century, Mary was a woman dedicated to pleasure. She is sometimes called a prostitute, but that term is not really accurate, because she would not take money in exchange for her wantonness. She was offered it many times, but she would usually refuse it, and sustained herself primarily by begging. And so she lived this way, constantly seeking out new men to engage in fornication. Being beautiful, she was desired by many, and so she lived an “active” lifestyle. She began this way of life when she was twelve years old, having run away from home to the city of Alexandria.
After seventeen years of what became a more and more tortured way of life, she decided to make a pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September. But she did not go to celebrate the feast. She was instead hoping to find crowds of pilgrims with whom she could satiate her lust, her constant, overwhelming desire. She paid for her travel by prostitution, and when she arrived in Jerusalem, she continued in her manner of life, having found new people to lead into her desperation for physical satisfaction.
She eventually was led to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which includes Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion, within its walls, the holiest place to celebrate the feast of Christ’s Cross. But as she began to enter the doors of that blessed church, she was suddenly stopped by an unseen force. The crowds around her entered, but it was almost as if a great hand was holding her back.
At that moment, something began which the world tells us is really not possible. At that moment, something began which for the world is not in any way desirable. Mary began to repent. And she walked beyond the Jordan River and kept repenting for more than forty years.
When we hear this word repentance, it is likely that we do not hear it as anything positive. It may stir up feelings about guilt. It may sound like judgmentalism or condemnation. It may conjure images in our brains of overbearing, bombastic preachers hurling down sermons on hellfire and brimstone like lightning bolts from angry gods. So why do we talk about repentance so often in the Orthodox Church?
Well, it should probably first be said that there are many so-called churches that have stopped talking about repentance or have tried to massage it out of their message because it is unappealing to their customers—or, I mean, their congregants. And certainly one does not hear about repentance in the public square much any more. It is long since any president declared a day of national fasting and prayer as Abraham Lincoln did in 1863. I daresay there are some things done by those in the public square that need some repentance.
I think there are probably two reasons why repentance is unfashionable. The first is that, as we said earlier, most people have a harsh and painful image of what it means to repent. It is demeaning. It is hard. It is annoying. The second reason is just that we like sin—another word that doesn’t get used too much in public any more.
But since we are Orthodox Christians, we recognize that we need to repent. And since the public proclamation of the Gospel has always begun with the exhortation “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” first in the mouth of John the Baptist and then from his cousin the Lord Jesus Christ, we should ask what repentance really is. And then we should ask why we should not flee from repentance but should actually want it. And this will tell us how someone like St. Mary of Egypt could keep repenting for so very long.
The word for “repentance” in Greek is metanoia, and it consists of two different Greek words—meta and nous, with the latter word being changed by the compound. Meta can mean many things, but here it means “change” or “turning.” And the nous is the innermost sense of human beings, the faculty with which we apprehend divine, mystical reality. It is the “heart” or the “eye of the soul.” So metanoia—repentance—is the turning of the eye of the soul, the changing of the heart. It is to direct our innermost gaze away from what is sinful, what separates us from God’s life, and toward what is good, what connects us with the life of our Maker.
That is the etymological and theological description of what repentance means. But for us to understand repentance, I think we may need some illustrative imagery. The place where Mary of Egypt went to engage in her repentance was the desert beyond the Jordan River. There it is said that she watered the place with her tears, the tears she shed over her many years of evil and self-destruction.
And that is what sin does. It is not just a transgression against some cosmic law. It is self-destruction and nothing less. Sometimes the destruction is sudden and devastating, but other times it is the slow dehydration that turns what is fertile into the barrenness of the desert. That is what happened to much of the Middle East, by the way—so much of it was fertile, but through gradual overuse and misuse of the land, it became desert. So it is with human persons. What is beautiful and fertile and full of possibility becomes, over time, bit by bit, dry and thirsty.
Yet repentance is possible. When a soul repents, the rain begins to fall. Sometimes the rain may bounce off the hard ground because it is so unused to receiving it, and so it may seem to do nothing or even to hurt. But over time, the rain begins to soak the land. And where there may at first be mud and erosion, there eventually comes to be fertility and growth.
Repentance is the springtime of the soul, and is it any wonder that we are now in this Lenten season of repentance, right now, at springtime? Even the very word Lent itself actually means “springtime.” We pour repentance into our souls by shedding those things that weigh us down, those useless burdens of sin that look and feel so good but actually are deeply dangerous to us. And when that repentance comes pouring in, all the many virtues of our souls, like flowers in a garden, begin to awaken, to bud and to bloom. They have been sleeping during the long winter of sin, but now they can grow.
To repent is not to feel guilty. Guilt may encourage us to repent, but it doesn’t always. Guilt is just the pain at recognizing the desert that our souls have become. But pain isn’t repentance. To repent is to turn, to change, to come back to life. We have to see that we have a desert in our souls, and sometimes it takes the upheaval of disaster, depression, divorce, drugs or death to see it. But it doesn’t have to take that. Seeing the desert within may also be inspired by contact with true beauty. Seeing the beauty of Eden, the beauty of Paradise, in the love of our Lord, we realize that we live in the desert. And we want Eden.
And so we repent. We turn back to Eden. We turn to the divine life of Christ, the life of the Holy Trinity granted in communion with the Son of God. This is what it means to repent! It means that we who are dead can be made alive, that we who are dry and thirsty may become fertile and full, that we who are addicted might be set free.
And that is how Mary of Egypt could live in that desert for decades. She was not out there moping around feeling guilty. She was watering her garden. She was tending to the flowers of virtue in her soul. She was walking with God in Eden, just as Adam and Eve had once done. She who had been a desert in the midst of fertility became a walking Paradise in the midst of the desert.
Has this Great Lent been the springtime of your soul? Even if it has not yet been, it still may be. There always is hope. There always is mercy. There always is possibility. Let us repent with joy, brothers and sisters, and so pour the grace of God like long-awaited rain into the desert of our souls.
To our life-giving God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Update: The recording of the discussion is here.
On May 12, 2013, at 8-9:30pm EDT / 5-6:30pm PDT, I’ll be appearing on the live call-in show “Ancient Faith Today with Kevin Allen.”
The topic: “Who is a Christian?”
“Ancient Faith Today” (AFT) is Ancient Faith Radio‘s live call-in show streaming via the Internet, covering multiple topics, from pop culture to politics, from an Orthodox viewpoint with live guests. Calls are taken during the show, and it’s also recorded as a podcast for subsequent downloading.
Learn more about AFT (including how to tune in) here.
I hope you’ll tune in and even give us a call!
It’s a rare, if not exceptional, case. In an era where most people would sell their souls to be talked about, Christopher Tolkien has not expressed himself in the media for 40 years. No interviews, no announcements, no meetings — nothing.
It was a decision he made at the death of his father, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), British author of the hugely famous Lord of the Rings (three volumes published in 1954 and 1955), and one of the world’s most-read writers, with some 150 million books sold and translations into 60 languages.
Was this long-held public silence simply a whim? Certainly not. The 87-year-old son of the great J.R.R. Tolkien is the calmest man imaginable. A distinguished Englishman with quite an upper class accent, who settled in the south of France in 1975 with his wife Baillie and their two children. Has he kept mum because he does not care? Even less likely. During all these years of silence, his life has been one of incessant, driven, almost Herculean work on the unpublished part of his father’s oeuvre, of which he is the literary executor.
The “money quote” that’s been going around from this first interview ever by Christopher Tolkien, his father’s literary executor, is this one, which lends the article its title (“My Father’s “Eviscerated” Work – Son Of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out”):
Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”
This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”
The headline is somewhat misleading, since the bulk of the article is really just about the enormous place of Christopher Tolkien in his father’s legacy. That said, I can appreciate his family’s unhappiness with the popularization of that legacy in film, though my own sense of it is that it has served to introduce more folks to the “real” thing in the canonical Tolkien works. After all, there have been mondo-gigantic boosts to book sales following the release of the films. More people are reading Tolkien than ever. And that is an encouraging thought.
The following is an excerpt from the beginning of one of my lectures that I’ve also posted on my parish website.
It is well-known among Orthodox Christians that the word orthodoxy—often used as a shorthand for our faith—has two parallel meanings. It is composed of two Greek words—orthos and doxa. Together, they form orthodoxia, rendered into English as orthodoxy.
The word orthos literally means “straight,” and those familiar with geometry will recognize it in the word orthogonal, which refers to something lying at a right angle. Those who know something about dentistry will think of orthodontics, which concerns itself with straight teeth, while the orthopedist wants to make sure your skeleton is straight (literally, orthopedics means “straight children”). It should come as no surprise that Greek uses orthos metaphorically also to refer to something that is true, since we English speakers use straight to refer to reliability and truth, especially in such terms as straight-talker or to be set straight. And of course someone who is on the right path is on the straight and narrow. And no doubt our minds are also called to the use of the word straight to refer to a properly ordered sexuality or even from a decade or two ago when straight referred to someone doesn’t take recreational drugs.
The other side of the word orthodoxy is what may intrigue us more, however, and it is the doxa which gives orthodoxia its double meaning, for doxa can mean both “opinion” and “glory.” Often, in thinking of orthodoxy, it is this first meaning that occurs to the world—an “orthodoxy” is a hard and fast, unmovable set of teachings or opinions. And this meaning should occur to us, as well, that Orthodoxy is very much about the straight, true teachings of the Church, teachings that cannot be changed. The orthodoxy of the Orthodox Church is therefore precisely a deposit of faith, a theology that will never be altered, because it is the truth. It is the straight teaching, the true opinion.
There is more to this side of doxa than “opinion” or “teaching,” however. Doxa was used in the ancient world for many things. Indeed, its primary and most basic sense can be translated as “notion,” especially with the question of whether that notion is true or false. From that, doxa can also be an “expectation,” which makes particular sense if the truth value of a notion remains undefined. Thus, we may also know orthodoxy as a “true notion” and as a “true expectation.” Doxa can also mean “a judgment” or “conjecture,” which takes us into a more psychological realm. If you have a doxa about something, then of course that may be your idea or your opinion, your judgment about the character of the subject at hand.
But the inner sense of doxa is even more expansive than these almost purely philosophical definitions. There are also ancient uses of doxa that we may translate as “imagining,” “a dream,” “a fancy,” or “a vision.” It may be almost whimsical to think in these terms, but if you’ll permit me a little mystical whimsy, consider for a moment that the Orthodox faith is also the “true imagining,” the “true dream,” or the “true fancy.” I do not think that it will surprise you at all to learn that Orthodoxy is also the “true vision.” We are accustomed to think of imagination, dreams, fancies and visions as unreliable, flimsy things, and that is perhaps why we need that orthos for our doxa, to make it clear that this one doxa is the true one, the reliable one, the straight one.
So with that in mind, let us dream together a little more about this word orthodoxy. The other side of doxa with which we are perhaps familiar is that it means “glory.” This sense of doxa is derived from its meaning as “opinion,” and so doxa can be used to refer to the opinion that people have about something, its reputation, how it is esteemed. And so it is not a large leap from “reputation” to “glory,” for something with a good reputation is sure to be glorified. But glory does not only mean giving praise to something, and it is not limited in this way for doxa, either. The meaning extends on toward “effulgence” and even “splendor.” Thus, the Orthodox faith is also the “true reputation,” the “true splendor.” And we may say that it therefore implies “true worship,” because that glorification is directed toward the God of the universe, and it is His true splendor that shines through in Orthodox worship.
What a wonderful word orthodoxy is! On reflection, we must certainly agree that all of these varied senses of what the word might mean are all applicable to the Orthodox faith. Orthodoxy is certainly about what is straight and true, and the “what” there is not just a notion or opinion or teaching, but it is imagination, dream, vision, and (of course) glory and worship. No wonder that we say it is a whole life! It’s not just about believing the correct things.
As I am sure many clergy throughout America did this past Sunday, I preached about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut that occurred on Friday, December 14.
Update: If you would like to hear the recording of this sermon as it was preached, go here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
I normally do the major part of my sermon composition on Thursday, and as with most Thursdays, I had my sermon completed by the end of this past one. But then Friday happened, and I realized that I had to write a new one. So please forgive me if it’s not quite as organized and polished as I would prefer.
If by some happy chance you have not yet heard, on Friday morning in the city of Newtown, Connecticut, a young man killed his mother and then went to the elementary school where she worked and proceeded to gun down twenty children aged six and seven, as well as six women who worked at the school and then, finally, himself.
Newtown is only about thirty miles away from my father’s hometown of Southington, Connecticut. My grandmother still lives there. I’ve driven through Newtown many times on my way to see her, and I’m fairly sure I’ve stopped there a few times. I know what towns in that area are like, and they are deeply ingrained in the years of my father’s youth.
I don’t watch television very often, so when I heard about the shooting, it was through reading it in online news, as well as some reports on the radio. The sense of spectacle that television brings to the news is not really something that I prefer to have in my life. So the means through which I learned about the shooting were somewhat less sensational. Nevertheless, no matter how we learned about this story, it is horrifying.
I’ve thought a good bit about what happened over the past couple of days, as I’m sure that most of you have. Some of us have children about that same age, including me. I’ve also read lots of analysis on this, including a lot of strong political opinions about things like gun control, school security, mental illness, and so forth. No doubt there are politicians already poised “not to let a good crisis go to waste” as soon as a few news cycles have passed and it wouldn’t be too unseemly to seize the moment and turn it to political advantage. If there is one thing we can count on from our political class, it is that they will use moments like this to advance their particular agendas.
What I want to address, though, is the horror of this experience and its spiritual impact, something that the politicians cannot really help us with, though I think some folks want them to and therefore trust them a bit too much in moments like this.
There are many things we could say about the spiritual basis for what happened in Newtown, which of course is now at least the seventh killing spree we’ve had in America this year. We should rightly point out that such things are simply another extension of the culture of death that our society pursues. Is it any wonder that human life occasionally can mean nothing to someone in our nation, with decades of pursuing a foreign policy in which we have trained young men and women pre-emptively to kill an “enemy” who has never attacked us, with decades of pursuing a national lifestyle in which the lives of the most innocent and helpless of us all are at the whims of “choice,” with presidential “kill lists” and drone assassinations, with the dehumanization of nearly anyone accused of a crime as an “animal” or a “monster,” with the militarization of our police forces who all too frequently conduct SWAT team style raids on the wrong houses and kill and traumatize innocent people with near impunity, with the subjection of the God-given sanctity of the human person to the whims of social redefinition and the shifting winds of culture? Is it any wonder?
We could also lend some perspective here and point out that, even while we stand horrified at what still is fairly rare in statistical terms, on the day that twenty children were gunned down in Connecticut, nationwide more than 3,500 children were killed by abortion, never seeing the light of day. While we are shocked at what happened in Newtown—and rightly so—there are people here in our own parish community for whom mass killings, even of children, at the hands of gunmen and suicide bombers is the normal, daily life of family members and friends in the Middle East, where people have been driven out of their homes, their schools and churches burned to the ground, their priests tortured and murdered, their families attacked, held for ransom, killed, etc., etc.
There are many things we could use to gain some perspective—not to tell us that what happened in Newtown on Friday wasn’t that big of a deal, but to help us make some sense of it all. And it may also help us to gain some wisdom for what we can do and what we can say.
At its base, our problem is this culture of death, the culture of the diminishing of the human person. And there are moments when we see this diminishing go too far, like on Friday, and we may be tempted, perhaps momentarily or perhaps more compellingly, to begin to lose our faith. How could God permit this? Is the price for us to know God’s goodness really so high? How can we say that suffering can bring about redemption with this kind of suffering?
Such a question is asked in extreme poignancy by the character Ivan Karamazov in the Dostoevsky novel about the brothers by that name, and yesterday I read it quoted by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a devout Roman Catholic, in a column he wrote for this horrible tragedy. Here’s the passage he quoted from Ivan, along with some of his commentary:
“Can you understand,” he asks his more religious sibling, “why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? … Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?”
Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at “too high a price.” Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth “the tears of that one tortured child.”
Douthat goes on to point out that Dostoevsky does not provide any rhetorical argument against Ivan’s complaint against God, a God Ivan might be willing to admit exists, but Whom he rejects because His “price” is “too high.” Rather, Dostoevsky instead demonstrates the goodness of God through the love of his characters in transcending suffering. Douthat writes that this pattern is also found in the New Testament itself, in which God’s love for mankind is established not through a philosophical argument, but through the suffering and death of God Himself as one of us. The cross is the hour of glory for the Son of God.
In case you did not hear, there were also some moments of glory on Friday. At least three of the women killed that cold day in Connecticut put themselves between the shooter and the children—a 27-year-old teacher named Victoria Soto, the school’s 47-year-old principal Dawn Hochsprung and special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy, who was 52. Victoria hid her students in a closet, confronting the shooter and telling them the kids were somewhere else. He gunned her down. Likewise, Dawn physically tried to apprehend the shooter and was also killed for it. Anne Marie died shielding students from the shooter with her own body.
There may well be more stories like these, and we can also compare them to the account of the 14,000 innocent boys two years old and under who were killed by King Herod as he turned his rage toward the infant Jesus, the King of the Jews who threatened him so much. We celebrate their feast just a few days after Christmas.
While reasonable people can disagree on the causes and remedies for evil moments such as these, we ultimately should remember that all death, no matter its cause or its character, is fundamentally evil. All death strikes against God’s purpose for His creation. He did not create suffering. He did not create death. Death is a declaration of war against God Himself, because God is life. God not only creates life by beginning, but He continues to give life, even after physical death.
While of course we have many theological explanations that can be given for how evil came into this world and why God permits man to continue to have free will even in the face of man’s evil, what we should remember and what we must live in our lives is not any explanation. Explanations are useful only insofar as they get us to the business of living. Rather, what we should live is Christ’s conquest of death. We don’t have to figure out death. I don’t think we can. Rather, we as Christians are here to grapple with death and to engage it as an enemy.
As Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his brilliant little book For the Life of the World: “Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely an enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained.”
The truest answer to violence is love. The truest answer to death is life. The only prevention for violence is for the heart to have no violence within it. We can legislate all we like, but the violent heart will still find a weapon and the opportunity to use it. We cannot prevent evil through any system devised by mankind. But we can grapple with evil and defeat it, but only with love—real love, too, not just some sentimental feeling, but self-sacrifice. Those women who died with those children demonstrated love. In that moment when they chose to give their lives for the children in their care, it did not matter if they had happy feelings about them—probably some of those kids annoyed them on one day or another. What mattered was the act, the act of defeating death with life. Christ said, “Greater love hath no man than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
There is no argument, no philosophy, no policy that can properly answer what happened on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It all rings hollow in the end, doesn’t it? But as the columnist Ross Douthat also writes, this horrible story comes to us at a time when another story is almost upon us.
You see, in nine days, we will celebrate Christmas. And yes, the story and spirit of Christmas are largely the stuff of sentiment these days. There is the cute baby Jesus, the happy shepherds, the adoring wise men, and so on. But if you look at the icon of the Nativity of Christ, you will also see that the manger is shaped like a coffin, that the myrrh brought by the wise men is the kind of thing that will be used to anoint the dead Jesus, that the swaddling clothes are very much like burial cloths. In the true story of Christmas, Herod rages and the road to the Cross is already begun.
And that is our answer. We stare evil in the face, and we say again and again: Christ is risen!
To the Christ Who is our life be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
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)