…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.
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.
The following is a repost from last year of the sermon I gave on Sunday, August 1, 2010. Happy Lammas!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today, let’s spend some time thinking about bread.
I don’t think we have any British wheat or grain farmers here, but if you were such a person, you would probably be working right around this time of year to bring in the first harvest of grain. As such, there is an ancient English Christian custom, probably not really followed much any more, of baking a first loaf of bread from the flour of that harvest and then bringing it to church to have it blessed.
This custom came to be fixed for celebration on August 1st, and so today is called “Lammas,” which is a compound word formed from the phrase “loaf mass.” There are actually a number of English words formed in this way, such as Michaelmas for the feast of the Archangel Michael in November or Candlemas for the feast of Christ’s presentation in February, when candles are traditionally blessed. But probably the only one most of us are familiar with is Christmas, the feast of Christ’s nativity. Today is Lammas, a day to focus on bread.
Blessing a loaf of bread in church may sound a bit odd to some. What’s so special about bread? But to those who find that odd, it may also be interesting to note that the standard Orthodox prayer books for priests also have prayers to bless not just things like grapes for Transfiguration, flowers for the Dormition, or palms for Palm Sunday, but also for digging wells, for salt, for sowing seed, for barns, for herds and enclosures for cattle, bees, beehives, honey, planting vineyards, stocking fishponds, building boats, ambulances, fire engines, trains, cars and bridges. And that’s just in the abridged volume.
What’s interesting to note about all these blessings is not so much their specialness, but rather their very ordinariness. Many of them have to do with an agrarian farm life that most of us never touch directly, but certainly at least one of them touches us in some way, even if it’s just the blessing for cars or salt.
One of the illnesses of our age is that Christians have removed God out of the ordinary. The essence of secularism is not so much a denial of God or even a rejection of coming to church, but rather the relegation of spiritual things to one compartment of our lives. We can understand easily why God would bless someone’s heart and soul, but it’s perhaps less obvious today why He would bless salt or a loaf of bread.
Yet, if we think about when God touches us in the Church most clearly, it is precisely through objects like this, in the most primal, elemental, basic and foundational stuff of everyday life: Water, wine, oil, bread, cloth, hands, hair, dirt, stone, language, fire, wax, wood. All of these are to be found in the sacramental, mysterious life of the Church, and it is through them that the divine presence is communicated to us. Through these things, we connect to God.
The ancient Celtic Christians, the neighbors of the English, also had prayers for rather ordinary things. Babies were washed by dipping them three times in the water, while saying the Names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—an echo of baptism. There were also prayers for rowing boats, walking, giving birth, and lighting fires. It is so, so very sad that so many of us have lost this sense of God’s presence in the mundane, ordinary moments of life.
One of the things priests sometimes hear in confession is that God feels distant. Being told “blessed are they who believe without seeing” is sometimes not very comforting, because our hearts, whether we know it or not, very much long to see God, to experience Him in a way that we know for certain that He’s there, that He loves us, that He is touching us and connecting with us.
If God feels distant to us, it may be because we have not invited Him to be with us. Our Lord and Savior, in His great love and kindness and compassion, will never force Himself into our lives. He is there just as much as we want Him to be. But how much do we want Him? We have all known people who want something so badly that they will do whatever it takes to get it. Perhaps we have been that person. Perhaps we were training as athletes or academically ambitious or in love. Do we have that same fire for the eternal love of God?
The star athlete will tell you that he did not go from being a flabby weakling to an all-star overnight. He worked at it, doing what he could, taking it slow, then gradually building up to an intense, driving training in his sport. Spiritual life is the same. If we want God to be present for us in the extraordinary moments, we need to invite Him into the ordinary ones.
So we begin again with bread. Of all the physical things that the Church makes use of in her life, there are two which are at the very center of what it means to be Christians in communion with our God—wine and bread. Since today is Lammas, let’s talk about bread.
With the exception of God’s gift of manna to the Hebrew people in the wilderness and moments such as the miraculous feeding of the Prophet Elias, bread is always the result of the work of human persons. It is baked in an oven, tended by a baker, who has formed the bread out of flour, salt, water and yeast. And the flour is from wheat, which is harvested by people. The salt is distilled from the sea or dug out of the ground, the water is drawn from its source, and the yeast is collected and propagated. At every stage, human activity is required for there to be bread.
Yet there would be no wheat without God, nor would there be water, salt or yeast. Even the strength and knowledge of the baker find their ultimate source in God, to say nothing of his very existence. And God created the physical laws according to which the matter of the universe normally operates. So it is clear that at every stage of its development, divine activity is required for there to be bread.
These two observations, that there would be no bread without man and that there would be no bread without God, are an indication of what in Orthodox theology is called synergy, the working of God and man together. Far from solely being our Creator and our Lord, God also joins us as our co-worker, standing next to us in the most basic and ordinary moments and tasks of life. If we consider bread in particular even more deeply, it is not only something that we make together with God. It is our nourishment. Nearly every diet in every culture in the world includes bread in some form. Even the most meager of diets—bread and water—includes bread. Bread goes to the very heart of human life.
It is therefore no coincidence that when the Lord chose the means to make His Body available to us as food, as the divine Eucharist, He chose to do it through bread. Let us consider for the moment therefore the holy and divine Eucharist we are about to receive. It was made with the hands and the knowledge of a baker, and at the same time, it is the fruit of the divine Energy of God in His creation. And it is this ordinary product, which comes from the ground, from the water, from the air, and from seed, which is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, but in synergy with the prayers of the holy people of God, the royal nation of priests which is the Church—this is what now holds the awesome mystery of the wholeness of the Godhead within itself.
Christian life truly is so very intimate. Its power is that it spiritually intertwines the uncreated God with the created world. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the most basic, fundamental, everyday things become for us the vehicles for the communication of what is truly beyond our ability to describe it. So consider therefore, when the blessed Chalice comes forth from the altar this morning, that contained within it, in a great mystery, is God Himself. And that is what you will be eating.
How can we not stand in awe at the God Who touches the ordinary to make it holy, Who lifts up broken, messed-up people to become saints? Let us therefore remember at all times to invite Him not just into the high point of our week—Sunday morning—but into every little moment.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Post Script for the 2011 repost: The following is a comment I made on the post last year which further explores why it is the Church blesses physical objects:
In a world in which the Son of God did not become incarnate, there is of course no point at all in mingling up spiritual things with the material world.
But because the Son of God did become incarnate, then that means that physical matter has the possibility for bearing within itself the divine energies of God. The event of the Incarnation has ramifications throughout history, both before and after the Annunciation.
There are numerous cases in Scripture of God working through physical matter—indeed, almost every time we see Him doing anything, it is with created matter as a major element, whether it is healing the blind or snake-bitten, resurrecting the dead (e.g., as upon the relics of Elisha in 2 King 13:21), the cloud and the pillar of fire for the Hebrews, ordination, baptism, the Eucharist, etc.
The point in asking God’s blessing upon physical objects is precisely the same. We are asking God to make Himself present in them, so that in and through them we may come into contact with His divine power, His energies. We do not believe blessed objects are “magical,” possessing any independent power of themselves. They are simply vessels for God’s grace, His actual presence in and with us.
In short, we are banishing secularism from our world. There is no place and no thing where God does not wish to manifest His presence. He has chosen to work through our prayers to make this a reality.
I hate it when people say that. Yes, there is a certain truth to the statement The Church is not the building. But it is usually said in the context of talking about buildings, and so what is meant by it is not really a counter of an obviously ridiculous idea, namely, that the Church is equal to a building.
Who actually thinks that? Is there anyone who believes that the Christian faith and tradition are about buildings? I don’t think even church architects actually think that. (Actually, they probably think something rather like what I am about to say.) Yes, of course, it does not matter if I have a spiritual life, love God, love my neighbor, or grow in holiness, just so long as I have a nice building to keep and maintain!
Yes, of course, we know people who act that way, but the problem there is not with the building, just as the problem with a dysfunctional home life is not your house. No, saying The Church is not the building is not a serious statement of policy—I’ve never known someone who said that who wanted to move all church services outdoors—but it does present a problematic dichotomy, and it’s also rooted in a certain theology of its own.
One of the inheritances of the streams of Christian theology whose origins flow from 16th century Western Europe is a deliberate de-emphasis on the matter of, well, matter. As many Christians stopped believing that sacraments (ritual acts believed to be means by which God communicates grace), iconoclasm (“image-breaking”) also came alongside. Much of the physical side of being spiritual came to be regarded as idolatry and was shunned in favor of what was summarized in the motto “Four bare walls and a sermon.” Salvation was for people’s hearts and souls, and pretty buildings, vestments, iconography, bread, wine, oil, water, etc., had nothing at all to do with it, because those things pertain to the body and not the soul.
This theological attitude finds its roots originally not in Christian theology but in pagan theology, particularly the dualism that was characteristic of the philosophers who opposed the prevailing polytheism of their time. Dualism’s essential idea is that “spiritual” things are good, but physical things are bad (or at least of a much, much lower importance).
Orthodox Christianity is not dualist. As such, we believe that man—being a union of both body and soul—is not a soul trapped in the prison of the body. Rather, he is a body just as much as he is a soul, and even if the union of the two has suffered and will suffer because of the disruption of the Fall of Mankind from the time of Adam and Eve, that essential union remains and will eventually be fully healed in the general Resurrection.
What that means is that physical stuff has a spiritual side to it. And if that is the case, then that means that church buildings have a spiritual character, too. We can see this basic intuition in all of mankind, not just traditional Christianity. Everywhere one goes, buildings meant for religious usage have a special character and usually a special beauty to them. Even among the very poor, there is a desire to impart a particular beauty in the place where prayers are said.
For Orthodox Christians, the church building and all that adorns it are icons—that is, they are physical images that connect us with spiritual reality. We don’t worship such things, because only God is due worship, but we do pay them honor and treat them in a special way, because they put us in touch with the divine in a way that our emotions, intellect and imaginations alone cannot.
Ironically, iconoclastic Christianity still makes use of some very physical elements—how could it not? One typically finds sermons and music in such churches, aural expressions making use of the vibrational and resonant properties of physical matter. Orthodoxy essentially just takes the very necessity of physicality in worship and all spiritual life to its fullest and most natural conclusions. The body is intimately connected with the soul, and so what you do with the one will affect the other.
For Orthodoxy, this essential intuition that our species has, that the physical and spiritual have very much to do with each other, was fulfilled in the Incarnation of Christ, that everlasting moment when the invisible, incorporeal, untouchable, ineffable God became visible, embodied, touchable and approachable. God became man, and so physical matter received the possibility of becoming sanctified and sanctifying. He did it all the time when He was here visibly—not just by taking on a body, but with very physical actions in order to effect real changes, e.g., turning water to wine, smearing mud on a blind man’s eyes, raising the dead, etc.
So, no, the Church is not the building. The people are the Church. We get that. But there’s a reason they built that building, and it’s not just a container. There is something there that speaks of the power and majesty and closeness of God, something that connects us to Him in a way that nothing else can. And Orthodox Christians believe that God will not only honor that intention from His creatures, but will respond and, once again, use the physical to affect the spiritual.
Consider this for a moment: What does the building your faith uses for prayer convey about what you believe? Does it connect you with Heaven? Does it connect you with God?
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: