The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism

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The Breaking of Bread at Emmaus

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

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

Consumption, the Ascension and the Dignity of Man

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The Women at the Grave of Christ and the Ascension of Christ
The following sermon was preached on the Sunday after Theophany 2009. As we continue in the economic mess that was so fresh in that January of a little over two years ago, I think this still very much applies, especially as the referenced epistle reading makes mention of the Ascension of Christ, which is celebrated today. Our fundamental economic problem is still fundamentally a spiritual one, and the Ascension calls us up from our appetites to something far better, far nobler.

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

If you follow the news about our nation’s economic woes, there is a word that is used over and over again to describe us as human beings. This word is based on something that we’re supposed to be doing. It really says nothing about who we are or what we are supposed to be. This word says nothing about the inherent dignity or nobility of mankind, but rather says something only about his appetites. What is this word that is used by the media to give us our identity? Consumers.

Most of us probably don’t think of ourselves as “consumers.” That’s a word that means “everyone else” in that faceless economic mass that makes up the rest of our nation. “Consumers” are those people who buy things and use them up, those people who are supposed to make the economy go. When there is a loss of “consumer confidence,” then people lose their jobs and investors pull their money back. When someone has an ingenious idea, they appeal to “consumers” to turn it into a big pay-off. Yes, “consumers” are “those people” who shuffle the money around and keep the economy going, right?

If most of us looked into our own hearts, I think we would find that “consumers” are not only “those people out there.” Rather, as an identity, most of us have really bought into what the media is telling us we are. We’re supposed to acquire things, use them up, and then acquire some more. Buy, buy, buy! Spend, spend, spend! Eat, eat, eat! This very word consume means “to eat up.” In order to see the problem with this way of life, we do not need to look at the destruction that is being wreaked in the rest of the world for our nation’s unending appetites. Rather, we need only look into our hearts.

What are the fruits of this endless appetite for something else to eat, something else to consume, something new and interesting? For one thing, we are often bored. We spend so much of our time voraciously consuming the latest bit of entertainment, gossip, information, politics, and possessions that when we encounter things like beauty, permanence, or—dare I say it?—eternity, our response is “I’m bored.” As consumers, our attention spans get more and more childish.

Our appetite as consumers is such that we don’t just use up entertainment and information, but we also use up people. We see other people primarily in terms of what they can provide us rather than for who they are and the communion we can have with them. This corrupts not only friendships, but also marriages and families. Children and parents use each other up and then reject each other when their appetites are not filled. We expect this from kids, but from adults, too?

The consumer approach to relationships also leads to sexuality without the context of lifelong commitment to family. We want to play by our own rules and use what God created for our appetites rather than for our salvation. Sexuality becomes about what I want, what feels good to me, what I think I should get. This approach can lead to all sorts of delusions which fall short of God’s plan for sexuality—one man and one woman committed for life in marriage.

Anything else—whether it is same-sex activity, pre-marital or extra-marital sex, or pornography and other forms of private self-pleasure—all of these things are based on our appetites and not on the beautiful and perfect balance of complementarity created and designed by God. There are even whole subcultures designed to promote these destructive patterns, to make them appear “normal” and “wholesome,” even to give them the veneer of human “rights.” But how can we say we are the “chief of sinners” and demand “rights”? That is really just delusion.

And none of these things, by the way, is somehow a “better” sin than another. It is not “better” to fornicate with the opposite sex than it is to do it with the same sex. All fall short of the relationship created by God to His glory and for our salvation. If we look into our hearts with true honesty, we will see that such desires come out of our fallen appetites, not out of God’s perfect creation, which has been broken since the Fall of Adam and Eve. So if we see brokenness in our desires, it is because of the Fall, not because God created us that way.

So if we are not to be “consumers,” then what is our real calling? What is this higher, nobler way of living that truly befits human dignity? St. Paul in today’s epistle reading says that “to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” By virtue of our baptism, Christ has given each of us grace as a gift. What are we to do with this gift? What is this grace for? Paul goes on to say that “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists and some pastors and teachers.” Notice that nowhere is there given the grace to be a “consumer.” Rather, this grace given to each of us is for active ministry.

Elsewhere in the Scripture, St. Paul talks about other kinds of spiritual gifts that Christ gives to us. All such gifts are for getting out of our seats, standing up and doing something. This is why, for instance, the traditional posture for Orthodox worship is standing, not sitting. Someone who sits is passive, expecting to get something. The person who stands is active, expecting to give something, to do something.

Indeed, because even our church architecture is made to correspond to elements of the Jewish Temple, we see that where we are right now mirrors the holy place of the Temple, the place reserved for priests! Whether we are ordained to sacramental ministry or not, we are all priests of the Most High God. We are all here to participate in and offer the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, not to sit on our bottoms and wait to get served.

So what is all this activity for? Why did Christ not make us consumers or an audience? Why did He give to each of us gifts of ministry? St. Paul goes on to tell us: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” And what is the goal of this ministry of equipping and edification? It is for all of us to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” What a calling! Perfect unity in faith! The knowledge of the Son of God! Perfect humanity, even to the stature of the fullness of Christ Himself!

With such a noble and beautiful destiny that God has appointed for each of us, how can we be content to sit around and continue to “consume”? How dare the media refer to the adopted sons and daughters of the King of Kings as “consumers”?! Such a way of life is so, so far beneath us. If only we could see ourselves as God does! When He looks around within this holy cathedral, He does not see “consumers.” He does not see people identified by appetite. He sees people called to be saints. He sees adopted, redeemed sons and daughters of God. The angels look at us and see us gleaming with the great light of baptism. The saints look at us and see the grace of God resting upon us as a bright, uncreated Light that illumines the darkness. Truly, as the Gospel reading says to us today, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” This is what has been given to us! This is the light of Christmas, of Holy Theophany, of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ!

The question now is: What are we going to do with what we have been given? Will we turn away from God’s truly awesome gift and continue to be defined by our appetites, to take on once again the low and dirty role of “consumers”? I truly hope not. We are called to something higher, finer, nobler and more beautiful, called by the One Who is Beauty Himself.

And should those who begin to hear this call and respond look down on those who remain struggling with sinful passions? By no means! We are all sinners. There is no sin that is worse than my sin. Just because I am not afflicted with one kind of temptation does not mean that I should condemn those who are. We have mentioned many ways in which sin drags us down and darkens our identity in Christ. None of these ways makes the people who suffer from them worthy of condemnation. Rather, we are all spiritually sick people in need of spiritual healing. There is much hypocrisy among so-called Christians in our time. Let us not join those hypocrites who condemn one kind of sin while indulging in another.

We read in the Scripture that Christ, after He had accomplished all the great works of His life, ascended into Heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father. There sits our humanity. Because God became one of us, now there is one of us seated on the very Throne of the Almighty God. What was the purpose of this holy and blessed ascension? It was so He might fill all things. In partaking of Christ in the Eucharist and in all the other ways He offers Himself to us in the Church, we are becoming filled with Christ. Instead of remaining “consumers,” a title properly reserved only for animals, we are becoming the true consummation of creation, the very pinnacle of what God made through Christ and is now healing and remaking through His death and resurrection.

So let us cast off this “consumer” way of life. Let us take hold of what is eternal, pure and perfect, what is of enduring beauty and holiness, not eating up material possessions and one another, but sacrificing ourselves not just for Christ’s sake, but truly for our own. When we do this, we will encounter other sinners and not condemn them, but rather pour ourselves out for them, just as Christ did for us, even though He was sinless. When we do this, we will encounter God here in Orthodox worship and not be bored, but find ourselves hungry not after earthly appetites, which never satisfy, but after heavenly food and drink, which fill us up and change us forever.

To our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, are due all glory, honor and worship, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Deepwater Horizon, revisit

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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:

Deepwater Horizon: Why Evangelical theology is helpless in the face of a catastrophic oil spill.

Paying Attention (The Transfiguration of Place, Part V)

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The following is Part V 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 and Part IV. There are six parts in all.

This question therefore brings us to the practical side of this anthropological question—that is, the applied theology. In Orthodoxy, all theology is necessarily applied theology, or else it is merely speculation. Fundamentally, what is needed is a change in attitude, but the part of attitude that needs the change is our attention. We are called upon again and again to “attend” in Orthodox Christian worship, to pay attention to what is before us, to collect our fragmented thoughts into the moment at hand, to become one with our place and what is happening in it. “Let us attend!” has been the call of the Orthodox deacon for so many centuries, precisely because the Fathers who developed our liturgical tradition knew all about the impulse to let our attention wander, to be every place but the place where we are.

For this reason, I believe that the applied solution to our spiritual problem of globalization is one of attention. I pay attention to every place but this place. I pay attention to everyone but the one in front of me. Why, after all, are we a nation filled with bad listeners? It is precisely because we have not learned to control our attention. Why are we a nation of gluttons and the lustful? It is because we have not learned to control our attention. You can see that attention is right near the bottom of many spiritual problems. It is no mistake that one of the cardinal virtues spoken of, especially by the ascetical fathers, is vigilance—in Greek, nepsis. Watchfulness. Where are we watching? To what are we paying our attention?

When we pay money to something, then there is a necessary change in our relationship to it. The same holds true for paying something else, our attention. And believe me, attention is very much something that is paid. And like money, we only have so much of it. So where are we spending it? And what kind of return are we getting on this spiritual investment?

It is clear that most of us are wasting our precious resource of attention on things that are not near to us. So how exactly do we pay our attention to what is local? More and more in our day, as local economies buckle under pressure, we are being encouraged to “buy local.” This is a great thing for a lot of reasons! But we should not only spend our money locally. How do we “buy local” when it comes to attention?

For one thing, spending your money locally really is one way to pay attention to your actual place. When your economy is a local one, then that means you have the possibility for relationship with your local shopkeepers. The connection of your lives become defined by more than simply the exchange of goods and services. When you pay money, you also pay attention. And when the person to whom you pay money is in front of you, then you are paying attention to him. And most especially if he produced what he is selling you, then your attention becomes multi-dimensional. Buying local is actually a spiritual act. Mind you, it is not merely a principle of address location—it doesn’t count if you buy local from someone by using the Internet and getting it shipped to your house. You’re not just trying to put money into the pockets of your neighbors, but God into your relationships. There must be a meeting of persons. And in that meeting, communion can be established.

Another practical way of paying attention to your place is to try to move your disparate places closer together. The easiest time to make these kinds of decisions is when you’re about to move—whether you’re moving your residence, your workplace, or your church. Consider getting a job closer to your home. Consider going to an Orthodox church closer to your home. Or—and here I know I’m being revolutionary—consider moving into a home closer to your church. Or even closer to your job. When you bring these places closer together, the space in between comes to be not just scenery seen from the car window but actually a space that defines you and your life. And if you can walk it, so much the better!

Indeed, consider walking almost everywhere you go. If you can’t do that yet, try to walk somewhere nearby, especially if it’s a place where you can go and do something, like shop in a store, play on a playground, walk in the woods, read at the library, or most especially worship in your church. Because when you walk around a place, your attention is getting paid to it in a far more thorough manner. You begin to care about it. They’re not just roads any more. They’re places with people. They’re trees and rocks that you begin to love. And your unceasing prayers—you do practice unceasing prayer, right?—bathe these places gradually in the love and holiness of God. You can’t love a place that you don’t know, and you can’t know a place that zips by at 45 miles per hour.

So here is a list of some suggestions for living a more local life, one defined by an unfragmented attention paid to people and places who can be loved and not merely distantly connected through a supply chain:

1. Buy local, especially local food. It tastes better, for one thing, and it’s had less time for its nutrients to drop out. But you also have the chance to meet the people who make it. Meet them, talk with them about their vegetables, their goats, or what have you. Most farmers are actually pretty cool people. But it’s not just the farmers. Someone who is selling you the work of his own hands has a different relationship with you than someone merely passing on a “product” that got shipped in from somewhere else.

2. Attend the church closest to you. Obviously, don’t attend one that’s heretical, but attend whatever’s nearest and is preaching the true faith. (Yes, that means it has to be a canonical Orthodox church.) If you have some sort of major, major problem at that church, then check out the next nearest one to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your preferred cultural flavor. Those are still God’s people, and that’s still the Eucharist there.

3. Don’t worry so much about having to “maintain” friendships with people. Just go about your business and show genuine interest in the people you encounter. Favor old people over young people, or at least try to favor people who aren’t your own age. Do all that, and you’ll probably find that “maintaining” friendships will be a joy. Our relationships were meant to be mediated by the everyday commerce of life, not by deliberately planned phone calls, text messages, emails and dinner dates.

4. Walk around your neighborhood. Walk around your town. It’s a different place when you walk it, and it’s a lot more interesting when, once again, you’re not zooming by at 45 miles per hour. (Plus, your kids will be less antsy.) It’s also a lot healthier, and you save money on gas. (This will also stand you in good stead if we ever do hit peak oil, that is, if supply can no longer meet demand, making fuel skyrocket in price.)

5. Take pictures of your town. They will help you to look for what’s beautiful in it.

6. Try to do all your shopping, banking, and other business within two miles of your home. The closer, the better.

7. Move out of the suburbs and into an area where there is a real center of the community. Or better yet, do what you can to get your suburb to turn into a semi-urban area (also called “new urbanism”), where almost everything can be walked to.

8. If you are ever involved in building something, try to make your new building be reminiscent of the oldest architecture in your area. It doesn’t have to be identical, but it should not draw attention as radically different from the surrounding landscape. Good, humane architecture is about tradition, not really about innovation.

9. If you are building or altering a house, put a front porch on it, one big enough to put chairs on. Go outside when it’s hot inside rather than cranking up the air conditioning. Likewise, make your bedrooms small and your common rooms big.

10. Learn how to garden. Use up less stuff. Reuse more stuff.

11. Think up a name for your house. (Not “Ralph,” either, but something appropriate for a place.)

12. Give up the idea that privacy is an inherent good. It’s not. You were made to commune. That doesn’t mean that everything you do has to be in public, but the public good needs to become more important to you than your private good.

13. Learn the history of your town. It’s probably really interesting.

14. Get involved in local politics. Support candidates for public office who will work to devolve power to the lowest possible civic level. When the people on whose behalf you are making decisions are your neighbors, you will govern quite differently than if you were hundreds or thousands of miles away. Less concern will be given to systems and policies and more to people and community.

15. Figure out ways for your parish community to connect with its immediate neighborhood and to be involved at local civic events. Invite your priest to give the invocation at public events, such as graduations, sporting events, club meetings, etc. Have meetings of your parish organizations at public places other than the church.

16. Give to local charities and minister to people with local problems. I think this is largely one of the biggest reasons that our charitable output, on the whole, is not very good. I get about seventy to eighty people on Sunday morning at my parish in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. I recall when it came time last year to give to earthquake relief in Haiti, we took up a collection of less than $100. But earlier this year when there was a natural gas explosion in Allentown, immediately to the north of Emmaus and just blocks away from some of our parishioners’ homes, we collected over $700 to help with the needs of those affected (and then the parish council kicked in to make it an even $1000). There are needs everywhere. People are more likely to feel connected when the need is next door.

17. Have your parish or a group of parishioners start a non-profit small business in your town, perhaps selling coffee, books and icons. Not only will its non-profit status help to keep it afloat better in difficult economic times, but it will provide a set-aside, sacred space for relationships, will provide some part-time jobs for parishioners and others, and will introduce the faith in a non-confrontational way to your town.

I’m sure you could probably think of many more practical ways to connect yourself and your parish to the local community.

On to Part VI.

Globalization: An Impediment to Salvation (The Transfiguration of Place, Part III)

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The Exile from Paradise
The following is Part III 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 and Part II. There are six parts in all.

We use the word community to mean a lot of different things these days. We talk about “community” in terms of race, partisan politics, academics, etc., but it is more and more rare to hear community used to refer to a group of people who all live and work and worship in the same place. At issue here is really communion, the coming together of separated people to share a common life. That is what communion and community are fundamentally about.

But where globalization takes the most hold, community is erased. Yes, we still have friendships and other relationships, but now we base them more and more on “things we have in common.” What we have in common is less a truly common life of interdependence with our neighbors but more often common interests, common ideas. On the whole we don’t harvest in common, shop in common, worship in common, and work in common with the people who live around us. What we now have in common is something intangible—ideology and preferences, rather than place.

The people I work with, worship with, live with, study with, and shop with may all be entirely separate groups of people. And the tenuousness of those relationships therefore depends on the maintenance of my behaviors in those disparate realms of activity. Some of them almost even preclude the possibility of relationship. I often see people I recognize in the places I go, but I have no idea what their names are, and in some places, it would probably be considered rude if I were to approach them. And if I no longer go to a particular store, I may never see someone I see there ever again. If I change churches, I may lose touch entirely with someone there.

We supposedly live in a “global village,” but if so, then it is a village where no one knows each other’s names and where no one sees each other, yet we trade bits of information and currency. That’s not like any village I’ve ever heard of. We are being presented with the illusion of community, with the virtual reality of community, yet without the solidity of it, the incarnational warmth and nearness of real community.

Why is this a spiritual problem? Why does it matter that our economies, our lives and our relationships have been so transformed? Does that somehow mean I can’t be saved, that I can’t grow in the image and likeness of Christ?

The Incarnation bears many implications within it, and place is one of them. Christ was not incarnate in a universal body killed upon a universal cross in a universal city. No, He had one body, taken from one woman, crucified on one cross in the one city of Jerusalem.

Christianity was always meant to be local, evidenced by the many small churches built in many places throughout its history, rather than this ridiculous, monocultural, globalist idea which insists that churches should resemble rock-n-roll arenas that seat thousands. Every street corner was meant to be sanctified. We were not meant to drive out of the suburbs and fill up some massive stadium in order to have a mass trance in group hysteria over a rock-n-roll band that puts Jesus’ name into otherwise secular songs which (badly) imitate the pop music of the monoculture. Yes, Christianity is a universal faith, but it is not a mass faith of faceless consumers who buy into a bland religious product.

Of course, even if you’re not a believer, the truth is that the time will likely come when our currency’s bottom will drop out or we lose our ability to travel easily and cheaply (due to a spike in transportation costs, most especially of oil). When either or both of those things happen, it will be the relationships you’ve built in your community which could not only save your life but allow you to grow and thrive while the rest of the country flails about. (It will also be the death of the mega-churches.)

More and more, I’m starting to suspect that, even if a life defined by globalization is not an outright obstacle to salvation, it is probably an impediment. The reason I think this is that what globalization has effectively done is to de-humanize us. When God made us, He made us as communal beings, people in communion with each other and also with the place where we live. When God made man, He placed him in a garden. He did not plug him into an Ethernet port. And when man sinned, the consequences of that act included exile from his place.

So we know that place has a lot to do with humanity as God created us. And sin means exile. Exile is one of the key elements of the Fall of mankind. And as Orthodox Christians, we believe that salvation consists precisely in getting up from the Fall and returning to Paradise. Another way of putting it is that salvation consists in becoming fully human. Death and corruption entered into the world with the first Adam, but the New Adam, Jesus Christ, inaugurates eternal life and incorruption. And if we are to become like the New Adam, then that means we are becoming fully human. We are not only being divinized by our contact with the divine, but we are also becoming truly humanized by that contact.

But globalization’s dehumanization of mankind introduces a new kind of problem for our theology. While the great revolution of Christian theology was that God became a man, that divine Incarnation was not only possible but the very center and height of human nature’s potential, then what happens when we lose sight of what it means to be human? The miracle of Christianity is that, through the humanity of Jesus, we access His divinity. But what happens when we cut off our access to humanity?

In some sense, I believe we have now entered into a new stage of evangelism, one in which we must not only preach the Incarnation—that through God’s humanity in Jesus we can access His divinity—but now we have to start even earlier in the chain. Now we have to show what it means simply to be human. Because if we do not know how to reach humanity, then we are cut off from divinity, and the Incarnation’s awesome power is nullified for us.

The good news of the Gospel is that Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection can save mankind. But if we are losing the very object of that salvation—mankind—then how can we be saved? We can see the repercussions around us already. Have you not noticed that those whose lives are the most thoroughly defined by the virtual, electronic reality often have the least interest in doing things like getting up from the chair and going to church?

Now, what I am saying is by no means a condemnation of all electronic communication, international shipping and commerce, etc. But when we unthinkingly embrace such things and allow our lives to be reshaped by them so profoundly, should we not consider the spiritual consequences? Is not our age one in which the primary question facing us seems to be “What is a human being?” Whether we are discussing abortion, homosexual desire, bioethics, cloning, euthanasia, and so on, it is clear that we have now reached an age in which humanity is becoming more and more uncertain as to just what it is. With lives so permeated with interchangeable technological parts, it seems almost inevitable that we would begin to look at ourselves in the same way. Without a true understanding of our humanity, then we cannot see the tragedy of sin. And if we do not see our sin, then salvation becomes irrelevant to us.

What this means for us as Christians who desire to live the Gospel and to preach the Gospel to others is that we now have the task of articulating a vigorous theology of humanity. We have arrived upon an age when we will have to show ourselves and the world just what it means to be human. Because if we do not, then we have cut ourselves off from the one conduit toward divinity that God gave us. When we look at Jesus Christ, before us stands the perfect Man. But what good is His perfection to us, if we do not even know what a man is? The Gospel’s miraculous good news is that God became a man. But if we have forgotten what a man is, then how is this good news?

On to Part IV.

The Locus and Economy of Community (The Transfiguration of Place, Part II)

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The globalized supermarket: Do you know any of these farmers?

The following is Part II of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I. There are six parts in all.

Let’s think about this effect for a moment: What if transportation became so expensive that you could no longer travel easily? What if you lived your whole life within about a mile of your house? What if your community really had an actual locus to it, that is, a place? What if you walked almost everywhere you went? What would life look like?

Because you would see them all the time, you would probably know almost everyone in your neighborhood. Because the streets would be filled with walking people, you would have a porch on the front of your house and probably not a patio in the back—a porch is a place of public connection, while the patio is for privacy. You would be more concerned with how your lawn looks, not just whether it’s mowed but whether it actually frames the life you want to live. You would have a garden in your yard, because a lot of the things you want to eat just wouldn’t be at the stores in your neighborhood. And those stores in your neighborhood would be less specialized and more geared toward the general basics of the home and garden.

I think it’s hard for us to imagine what this would be like because we’re so oriented toward constant mobility. Our societal watchwords are easier and faster. All our technological development seems to be pointed in that direction—things that make life easier and faster. The ATM is faster: I don’t have to go in and see a bank teller, and I can use it any time, day or night. Online bill-pay is easier: I don’t have to send an envelope to some far-off place, nor do I have to practice my penmanship. The superhighway is faster: I don’t have to drive through all those small towns with their stoplights. My smartphone is both easier and faster: I don’t have to look things up in a book, call an informed person on the phone or even be inconvenienced by sitting at a computer.

But all these technological wonders—which, it must be admitted, have also been used for much good—leave us both freed and also enslaved. Every time I use another “labor-saving device,” I am almost inevitably cut off from another person with whom I had an opportunity to have a relationship. Every time I prefer centralization over localization, I am de-localizing myself. Every time I login to Facebook, I am neither seeing actual faces nor reading a book. This is the nervous system of the simulacrum commonly called “globalization.”

The essence of globalization is supposedly interconnectedness, that all of us who were formerly cut off from one another now have the possibility of becoming networked. But if we think about what is actually happening here, we are not more connected but more isolated. We may have more connections, but they are much more anemic relationships. A man with a thousand friendships will have a hard time maintaining one good one, because he just won’t have the time. His interconnectedness actually limits or prevents real connection.

Or consider something like the supermarket. In that one building, there are products from all over the world. Probably tens of thousands of farmers contribute to the products in one supermarket, not to mention those who work in the packaging and shipping industries. With one full shopping cart, I could be contributing to the livelihood of thousands of people. And yet these days, I do not have to interact with even one. I can even use the self-check-out machines rather than letting an employee scan my bar-codes for me.

We hear about how we are now a “global community” and a “global economy,” but I wonder what exactly that means. In the grocery store, my money is distributed in miniscule amounts in tens of thousands of directions. On television and on the Internet, I read and watch about people suffering in far-off places. I have opinions about politics in North Africa and Wisconsin. My tax dollars go to people not only throughout my state and my country, but also the whole world. I know more about musicians from another country than I do in my own Pennsylvania borough. But I don’t know any of those people. It is almost impossible for me to have a relationship with any of them. Our web of economic and political interdependence is essentially anonymous. I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. Public life has become about policies and publicity, but there is little in the way of the palpable.

But why does that matter? Why shouldn’t I give my one thousandth of a cent to a produce farmer in South America and another thousandth to a Malaysian chair maker?

It is because we do not really depend on one another, at least, not very much. I have no sense of loyalty to them or responsibility for them. Our interdependence is so diffuse that there is almost no possibility that any of our hearts would be stirred to gratitude or to admiration for the work we do for each other. We cannot even look each other in the eye. And that is a spiritual problem.

On to Part III.

Deepwater Horizon: Why Evangelical theology is helpless in the face of a catastrophic oil spill

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The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan

Every so often, I think it’s okay to indulge in an inflammatory headline.

I recently read the lament “Ecological Catastrophe and the Uneasy Evangelical Conscience” by Russell D. Moore. It seems to have gotten a decent amount of circulation online, if only because it is written by an Evangelical Protestant talking about how ashamed he is that “environmentalism” has been the near exclusive realm of secularists and religious liberals, weeping over the “uneasy ecological conscience” of Evangelicals.

He goes on to explain why it is that Evangelicals should start taking notice of ecological issues: “When the natural environment is used up, unsustainable for future generations, cultures die. When Gulfs are dead, when mountaintops are removed, when forests are razed with nothing left in their place, when deer populations disappear, cultures die too.” He puts forward a highly anthropocentric theological view of the natural world, that it exists for the sake of human culture. Although this article appears new to many readers, at least in the sense that here is an Evangelical trying to talk seriously about ecological issues, the theology in it is really quite standard for Evangelicalism. It is the “stewardship” model, in which the Earth exists for man and pretty much not for any other reason. We should be nice to the Earth mainly because if we’re not, it’s not going to be a nice place to live.

Although Moore says “We’ve had an inadequate view of human sin,” he really does not break any new theological ground, except perhaps to allow for a slightly more communitarian understanding of human life. Culture and history are worth something here, and that is good. But Moore does not make the connection between human sin and the material creation. With this theology, one could theoretically justify wrecking almost any part of creation so long as doing so will not affect human culture. What is lacking here is any cosmology. The closest Moore gets to such a thing is in this passage: “Pollution kills people. Pollution dislocates families. Pollution defiles the icon of God’s Trinitarian joy, the creation of his theater.” But even with this image of creation being God’s “theater,” there is still a certain distance between the Creator and the creation.

Evangelical theology really does stand helpless in the face of ecological disasters like the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, because it has no cosmic vision, and it has no cosmic vision because it has no sacramental vision. In Orthodox Christian theology, the goodness of God’s creation is not simply as a nice backdrop and useful set of natural resources for human beings to use in getting on with their lives. God’s creation certainly does have man at its center, but the creation does not exist for essentially utilitarian reasons. Rather, creation’s true purpose is to convey divine sanctification, to manifest the divine energies of God. And man’s proper relation to creation is as its priest. But there are no priests in Evangelical theology, except the “priesthood of all believers,” which certainly has believers, but not really any priests.

Every speck in creation is fundamentally the temple of the living God. As such, the most perfect expression of creation is the Eucharist, bread and wine which have become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Body and Blood of God.

When created matter has such possibilities, not just in the Eucharist as an “object” (which is why isolating it from communion for the sake of “adoration” as is done in the Latin church is a distortion), but in the sense that earthy, solid stuff can be the vehicle for God’s actual presence, His actual touch, then the view one takes toward the natural world is going to be decidedly different. The Earth is not just natural resources that need to be managed wisely. Rather, it is holy, and holiness is not to be “managed”:

We still build houses of prayer; we still consecrate certain material objects specifically for the worship of God. But the relationship between the “holy place” and the rest of the earth has changed fundamentally. The place of worship, and whatever belongs to it, is no longer an embattled enclave. It is now a revelation of the earth as it truly is, transparent to its Creator. Since Christ came into the world, his creation has become “secretly sacramental.” When we consecrate a place or an object, when we dedicate it to sacred use, we are showing our readiness to lift the veil of secrecy. (Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, p. 177)

Without any sense of any thing or any place at all being holy, then how can one see the whole earth as holy? With the absence of the particular, the universal is even more elusive. As such, Evangelical theology can only retreat into its limited anthropocentricism with its emphasis on disincarnate, legal arrangements. Salvation in most Evangelical theology is in terms of a “status,” and so the theological language of “justification” (what gets you your ticket to Heaven) is precisely in those terms. One is either saved or not, and one gets saved by fulfilling certain requirements.

It is not a terribly big leap from there to our dominant political culture, whose ecological focus is precisely on procedures, regulations, and legislation. Surely, there must be some kind of legal arrangement which could have prevented this disaster! Surely, there must be some kind of legal arrangement which will make up for it! The various fiascos with locals and internationals being ready to do some earthy work to get on with the cleanup being prevented from doing so because of lack of legal permission is yet another symptom of the anti-sacramental theology which dominates our culture, both religiously and politically. (In the end, of course, everything is religion, even politics.) What’s most important here is the System, not the Stuff.

It’s easy to sit back and make pronouncements about how all this could have been prevented, and most of them are now being worded in precisely these legal sorts of terms. Some are also saying that we somehow need to back off on our thirst for energy in general or for this kind of energy in particular. Some go more deeply and realize that the culture of perpetual economic growth is itself at the root of the problem. But I haven’t yet seen too many questions being asked about the kind of culture we might have if people saw the Earth as holy, as “secretly sacramental,” conveying through physical presence the divine energies.

Theology has consequences.

Update: One can see some slight hints of cosmological theology in this June 16, 2010, resolution from the Southern Baptist Convention (scroll to the second section), but there’s still no sense here that creation is actually holy. It really only has value because of man’s use of it and because it is loved by God and displays His glory and wisdom. There is still no theology here of material creation actually being the vehicle of divine sanctification.

A Localist Moment in Emmaus

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The 1803 House, the home of Jacob Ehrenhardt, Jr., the son of one of the founders of Emmaus. He was briefly expelled from the Moravian Church for joining the Pennsylvania militia during the Revolutionary War, but then welcomed back when the war was over. (Moravians are traditionally pacifists.) It remained occupied until 1975.

It seems that “quaint” Emmaus (the word the newspapers all use to describe our borough) has been targeted as a potential home for a swingers’ club, to be situated right on downtown Main Street. The fellow behind the club claims that it’s not going to be a “sex club,” that they’re going to be more innocuous than the Freemasons (will they also have funny hats and sashes?), but anyone with just an ounce of worldliness to them knows exactly what the advertising for it means. As you may imagine, the borough is not only abuzz with this news, but a lot of folks are—you guessed it—”up in arms.” (I’d be fascinated to see a bunch of folks actually getting armed, maybe with pitchforks or somesuch.) The clichés abound, it seems.

Your humble servant is, quite naturally, not interested in seeing a swingers’ club in Emmaus. (I was about to write disinterested, but of course that means something else. Perhaps we could coin misinterested. I considered the fanciful antirested, but that’s just silly.) Such a thing is certainly immoral, but morality is not the only question in play here. You might ask how someone dedicated to liberty on theological grounds plans to attend the borough zoning hearing next week that will hear an appeal on the initially denied request for putting the club in, especially with an intent to let the zoning board know he’s in favor of their upholding their previous decision.

This moment is one of those where the localist parts ways with the libertarian (I am usually the former and often the latter). The strict, ideological libertarian would depend on market forces to drive this sort of trashiness out of our borough. (He’s also probably interested in eliminating all our borough zoning ordinances entirely.) If needed, it may well work, mind you. I can see picketers and perhaps even local church clergy and congregations lining up on the sidewalk outside the club and letting folks coming in that what they’re doing is a bad idea. But I’d much prefer the zoning board would nip this in the bud.

Emmaus borough ordinances are such that new uses for public property that are not already explicitly regulated by the borough are automatically prohibited, unless an exception is made. It was on this basis that the request was initially denied. Such an ordinance sounds rather draconian on its surface, i.e., that you’re essentially not allowed to do anything new in the borough in public spaces. But if one considers how this actually works out, it’s quite different. What it comes down to is that the borough, through its locally elected representatives, would like to have a say-so on anything too out of the ordinary before it gets introduced into borough life.

Such a law, if passed on a Federal or State level, would be utterly repugnant. Why? It’s because those governments have no real expertise in such matters and would be downright awful at making the right decisions. But Emmaus, with its population of roughly 11,000, is a place where people actually can know one another, know what’s going on in town, and what would constitute a nuisance and not just novelty.

Yes, I suppose if the zoning board were to deny this appeal, it would constitute something of an imposition of morality, at least in some sense. But consider that the question is not whether swingers should swing, but whether that’s the sort of thing we as a borough want in the most public, most frequented, most beloved part of Emmaus. That’s another matter entirely. As a community, we have a say-so as to what kind of public life takes place in our borough. Individuals dedicated to the common good should not have recourse only to market forces, most particularly on the local level.

This is exactly the sort of question that local governments are qualified to handle. Do we need a one-size-fits-all policy to make such determinations throughout our whole country? Certainly not. Why? Because people in the District of Columbia are unqualified to make such decisions, and—this is critical—they wouldn’t have to live with them, anyway.

Theologically, local government makes so much more sense than centralized, universal policy-making. It is much more commensurate to the nature of human persons, who tend to behave better when forced to live with the consequences of their decisions, rather than examining such questions in the rarefied theoretical world of virtual governance that dominates large-scale politics. This anthropological truth is why I am planning to go to the zoning board meeting (assuming I can get in the door!), because it is part of my pastoral responsibility to this borough, even for the people who may never step through my church’s doors. I have a duty to work for an atmosphere where they can meet God in peace, repent of their sins, and be united to the divine energies. Putting a blight on Main Street will hinder that.

The Theological Significance of Political Liberty

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Troxell-Steckel House, 1756 (N. Whitehall, Pennsylvania)

While attending this conference this weekend, I happened in some of my offhand remarks during one of the discussion sessions to tip my political hand as “localist / libertarian-leaning.” Of course, questions of ecology and how to work with God’s creation eventually do lead to economic and political issues, though I felt the conference successfully mostly steered clear of such things. (My impression of its purpose was that it was for exploring and imparting proper theological vision, not for issuing policy memoranda.) But my one minor comment was later the cause of a minor private confrontation of sorts in which I was informed that libertarianism necessarily means Randian Objectivism and its basic ethic of “rational selfishness.” As such, libertarianism is not compatible with Orthodox Christianity, and it in no way is concerned for the common good.

This came as a bit of a surprise to me (even apart from the reality that both the notion of and the term for libertarianism pre-date Rand), as I’m sure it would to others who share similar political sympathies to mine. I am not, mind you, a doctrinaire nor partisan Libertarian, but even if I were, I would feel no special loyalty to Ayn Rand or her philosophy. Libertarianism, even in its many varieties, by no means requires that one be selfish. Indeed, libertarianism is not really about preventing oneself from doing things for others. Rather, it is about preventing oneself from doing things to others, most especially by means of political (and thus ultimately, violent) force. You can of course be a selfish cad and be a libertarian, but you can also be a great philanthropist and be a libertarian.

Anyway, I am not, properly speaking, a libertarian. I’m basically a localist, which is not a word that most people understand to have a political meaning. It does, though, and it implies at least a similarity with libertarian political philosophy. Political localism is, at its core, the belief that massive national systems are not so good, while local solutions to problems between neighbors (even politically) are much better. Many localists are also distributists, which is an economic philosophy whose core principle might be described as “don’t let anyone get too big for his britches.” It has anti-monopolism as a basic economic principle. I don’t yet know enough about distributism to endorse it explicitly, but if it is as one writer I once saw described it, essentially the economics of the Shire (where no one grabs more than is really proper for him), then I like it. In this, though, distributism is more of a culture and less a specific politically endorsed economic policy.

What this post is really about, though, is why a dedication to liberty is actually compatible with Orthodox Christian theology.

There is a variety of person who believes that Christ’s commands for us to love the poor should lead us to a progressivist political outlook, that we should expand the welfare state, because doing so is fulfilling His will. I really do not agree with that, if only because it smacks to me entirely to be too much like those ancient Jews who wanted the Messiah to come riding in on a white horse to inaugurate a political salvation. That approach doesn’t work, though. St. John Chrysostom tells us why:

Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first—and then they will joyfully share their wealth.

But we as a society don’t like that method. We figure the best way to achieve justice is to enact massive programmes and legislation. This approach is endemic to our political culture, whether it is the progressivists on the right or on the left. Both of our major political parties have this essential narrative within their agendas. Neither of them are particularly interested in actual liberty of the sort Chrysostom speaks of here. (Alas, I have no citation for this quote other than its inclusion in the little On Living Simply volume.) There must be some kind of systemic solution to our justice problems.

But the localist in me distrusts any systemic solutions, because they fail to take into account the actual common good and only address theoretical constructs of what our society must be like. And the theologian in me (be he ever so simple) abhors systemic solutions, precisely because of what Chrysostom says here. It is far, far easier for me to vote for you to be charitable to someone else (and even to offer up my own money in taxes, as well) than it is for me to be charitable to someone right in front of me.

The common good is actually served when neighbors in communities care for one another, not when they facelessly vote for a faceless law enacted by faceless men, supposedly benefiting faceless people somewhere in the faceless Out There. There are those statists who say that our government is really just an expression of our collective will, and there is of course some truth to that. But it is one thing for our collective will to express charity, and it is another for our collective will to use the tyranny of the majority to force it out of others and ourselves.

But all that is only the negative, accounting for us, in moral and theological terms, why centrally planned “justice” is not terribly just.

The positive side of the dedication to liberty, even political liberty, is that it serves one of our basic theological affirmations, that the human person is free. God never compels us to act morally, though He does sometimes restrain us from becoming public menaces. Likewise, if we who are made according to His image would attain to His likeness, we should do likewise. In a real sense, pursuing limited government is not just a “conservative” or “libertarian” “value.” It is rather a means of trying to treat our neighbors as God Himself treats us.

Yes, we should restrain the public menace, but we cannot (and I use this phrase with much delicious irony but also much literalism) legislate morality, whether that is the morality of the bedroom or the boardroom. Yes, of course, we want people to behave themselves in both the bedroom and the boardroom, but the best means to promote that is to aim for their souls’ salvation, not for their means’ taxation.

We must change people’s hearts first. Anything less will fail, anyway. No just people was ever legislated into being. But the prophet Jonah succeeded in inspiring Nineveh to repent. And Jesus, even while appearing before the authorities, did not lobby them. Rather, He died for them and then rose from the dead, and the sun then rose on a kingdom unlike any other, where true freedom resides in men’s hearts and is given unconditionally by their God, where no one is compelled to love another. Love under compulsion isn’t love, anyway.

Update: I haven’t been able to track down the source of the Chrysostom quote, so I cannot be sure that it is authentically from him. Nevertheless, whether Chrysostom said it or not, what it says about the spiritual ramifications of coerced charity is true, so I leave it in place for its wisdom.