The Gospel’s Good Soil

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The Apostle Paul preaching to the Bereans

In my experience, adding new members to the mission is best accomplished by keeping current members healthy. I think our mission has come to believe that ultimately it is God who plants new seeds in our mission, and that our responsibility is to provide good soil. We can get the word out there, we can advertise and announce our presence, but, generally, the folks who have found their way to us are those who had been looking all along – looking for an expression of Christian faith dissimilar to popular culture, with lasting and time-tested beliefs and practices. Getting folks through the door has largely been outside our influence; greatly within our influence, however, is what they find when they arrive….

Often, inquirers come to our door through means we did not devise: maybe a priest or members of another parish will refer someone to us. What that inquirer finds when he comes to our door, in our experience, influences his decision to continue with us. So, striving to become a loving community has been important. We believe that the kind of growth that we can manipulate is probably not the kind of growth we want – those folks may not last for long. Instead, we emphasize striving for genuine community, and that seems to be attractive to inquirers. Helping converts adjust to the reality of Orthodox life – one where the glow wears off eventually and that necessarily involves struggle – has become important…. —Fr. John Oliver (source)

Though not framed explicitly so, this passage from Tennessee mission priest, author, podcaster and friend Fr. John Oliver illustrates an essentially localist approach to evangelism. In order for human persons to come into communion with Christ within our current culture, the Gospel cannot be treated as a piece of information to be advertised. We are not selling something.

What we seek in evangelism is precisely the communication of the Gospel, which cannot be accomplished independent of community. Though some images of the Apostles would envision them as essentially traveling about to spread a piece of information, they rarely traveled alone, thus bringing community with them, and where they went they typically sought out existing communities of believers in which to do their work, even if those communities were still centered on the synagogue and not the church. Indeed, all of the written communication we have from the Apostles is addressed to believers, as are most of the accounts of their preaching.

I regard the work of building an evangelistic church as being the development of “spiritual infrastructure.” The localist is defined by his attention to what is next to him and by knowing how to live with the consequences of his decisions, rather than formulating grand designs to impose from afar or to impart as a singular datum without incarnate relationship. Though not typically stated in Orthodox patristic ecclesiological writings, this truth is assumed, that Christians and their leaders live with and among the community to whom they bring the Gospel. That means they will care about their place and about the people in that place.

It truly is God Who sows the seed. My experience is that advertising does little but raise availability and that evangelistic outreach events have as their primary effect the invigoration and training of the faithful. (Most of the people who attend such things are not seekers.) Neither are particularly noteworthy for their bringing in those who are not yet among the faithful.

What I Did This Week

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This week, I assisted at the historic Orthodox Episcopal Assembly of North and Central America, the first such meeting in more than two centuries of Orthodox Christian presence on this continent. To read my impressions of the event, see these two posts from the OrthodoxHistory.org website:

Internet Discourse and the Fear of Death

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When I was studying Hamlet in college (which I did several times, being something of an addict for that story, despite my claims at The Tempest being my favorite of the Bard’s plays; I once took a class in which we spent three weeks on “Who’s there?”), if there is one thing I learned that the poor Dane learned too late, it was this: We all die. Indeed, we are all dying. The play is essentially Hamlet’s attempts to come to grips with this truth, but not before his inability to deal with death deals quite a lot of death in the meantime. Funny thing, that.

As such, when I was recently dared into an online debate by a 70-year-old atheist regarding the basis for my religious belief (as if anyone believes in “religion”), it occurred to me more than once that perhaps this pastime must be something like playing golf is for many people, an amusing distraction to bide the time until admission to assisted living, hospice, and then the cold, hard dirt itself. What does a 70-year-old atheist want with trying to convince a priest that he’s necessarily mentally deficient by virtue of believing in something beyond what his eyes see?

But it seems that so much Internet discourse runs along these lines, making the assumption that those involved must have all the time they could ever want. This assumption reveals itself typically with the claim by one of the conversants that, unless the other is willing to engage him and hash through all that stuff with him, he must be a coward, ignoramus, etc. If someone walks away, he is of course admitting that he is wrong. It is never believed when one says that he has been through all this before and doesn’t particularly want to go through it all again. He is not, after all, immortal, and he has things he wants to do before he dies.

The Scripture actually tells us that sin itself is often the result of the fear of death. Fear of death in our own day typically manifests itself in two ways, an obsessive emphasis on the physical body by means of dedication to pleasure, healthcare, etc., and the atemporality of (the usually unspoken) assumption of immortality. That is, either we fear death by trying to extend and enlarge our physical life as much as we can, or we fear death by denying its very reality. (And often, we do both.) In the case of much Internet discussion, the latter is the typical characteristic.

I must admit to having fallen into this trap on many occasions, but I am more often constrained from doing so lately by having more things to do and (most frequently) by being tired of the expectation that I engage in the same back-and-forth with another person who was not there when I did it before. No doubt he’s done it before but hasn’t tired of it yet. We might be accused of a lack of evangelistic zeal when not wanting to dive yet again into this same quagmire of endless oneupsmanship, but even the Lord said that sometimes it’s necessary just to move on. Some make it their mission to keep trudging down these paths, and perhaps that really is their mission.

As for me, though, I’m going to die someday—perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps sixty years from now. I’ve already got my funeral home picked out, though I do still have some work to do on picking a cemetery plot.

Samuel Johnson’s Foot

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The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, who it is said was once asked how he knew something was real. In response, he walked up to a tree and kicked it. This is a proper and robust environmentalism cum epistemology.

The following is an excerpt from a much longer talk I wrote but did not deliver, as I learned the day before the event that it was desired that I deliver a very different sort of lecture. The essential thrust of the talk, written for a mixed audience of both believers and unbelievers, was to prepare them to receive the Gospel, in this case, specifically by encouraging them to look at knowledge as something that is not mainly information but participation. This talk is titled “What is Truth?”

I have an atheist friend who believes that it should be illegal for parents to expect their minor children to follow their religion. When I asked him why he believed that, he said that it was because the kinds of claims that religion makes are inherently non-falsifiable. If you’ve not encountered the term falsifiable before, I won’t annoy you with a complex philosophical definition, but you should at least know that it refers to a truth claim that could be proven true or false by anyone.

An example of a falsifiable truth claim is that Barack Obama is currently the president of the United States. The evidence to prove or disprove that claim is fairly available to all, assuming, of course, that we are not trying to thwart the Secret Service. A non-falsifiable truth claim would be something like this: Zeus is the ruler of all the gods. We do not have the gods at hand to interview as to whether their fealty has indeed been sworn to Zeus, nor are we likely to be able to get Zeus himself to speak in front of a congressional committee, to offer testimony regarding the part he plays in Olympian politics.

Thus, falsifiable truth claims are the sort of thing that can be scientifically, objectively proven, while non-falsifiable truth claims cannot be addressed within the context of objective science.

My friend is, of course, quite sincere in his belief that children should not be subjected to participation in non-falsifiable truth claims. There are, however, a number of problems with his position that parents should be prohibited by law from teaching their religion to their children and encouraging their participation in it. Such a law would, for instance, make it illegal for Roman Catholics to have their babies baptized or for Jews to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after their birth. But even aside from the disturbing political issue of suggesting that the state is a better arbiter of parental practice than parents, there remains the question of why it is that only falsifiable truth claims should be taught to children.

Anyone who has ever tried to raise a child knows that most parenting time is not spent on falsifiable truth claims. Indeed, claims such as “It is good for you to stop hitting your brother” are not provable by scientific means. In fact, science might suggest that hitting your brother is an excellent idea, because it helps to keep you in control of his toys. This sort of thing could be said about any moral claims, and although we take many of them for granted, such as the Golden Rule, there really is no hard science which demands that we live that way. In fact, science never says that we ought to live one way or another, but childrearing is precisely about teaching how one ought to live.

The truth of our human existence is that the noblest, most powerful, compassionate, beautiful, and remarkable things in life are almost never undergirded by purely falsifiable truth claims. So why would we want to deprive children of these things, even if we were capable of totally shielding them from such experiences? Who better than loving parents to feed children not just with physical nourishment but nutrition in what is at the heart of humanity? (Of course, loving parents are an inherently non-falsifiable phenomenon!) But supposedly, this is the best way to apprehend the truth without religious or philosophical bias, so that only facts may be known.

What underlies this whole approach to knowing the truth is the notion that truth is a piece of information. If truth is, indeed, only information, then of course it can be reduced to the category of fact. Much of our culture’s behavior is based on this characterization of truth, which is why studies and claims clothed in the language of science and fact are given so very much stock in public discourse, while appeals to higher, nobler kinds of truth typically find their way into the public square only in terms of sentiment. But when we mean business, when we’re being really serious, then we bring out the falsifiable truth claims. That’s when we want men in white coats doing something called “science,” giving us something we call “facts.”

One of the underlying assumptions of our modern idea about truth is that it should be objectively true, no matter what anyone’s particular subjective experiences tell them are true. That’s why we have peer-reviewed scientific journals, so that other scientists can check on the claims of their peers. But underneath this model of knowledge is the idea that we can know things simply by observing them. If we are somehow personally involved in the experiment—for instance, by using ourselves as test subjects—then the results are suspect.

Yet the reality of human existence is that most of us do not solely take up supposedly objective, distinterested means in order to make decisions and live life. For instance, it is unlikely that any of us conducted stress tests on the floor currently beneath us in order to make the decision that we would stand and sit upon it without fear that it will collapse under us in the event of an earthquake. And I doubt that geologists were consulted before this evening’s lecture to determine by means of the scientific method whether there would be an earthquake. And I must confess that I did not ask for a copy of this building’s blueprints to assure myself that the roof would not fall in, should that earthquake in fact take us entirely by surprise.

Setting aside for the moment the incredible difficulty in using the scientific method to predict earthquakes—how, for instance, does one do a controlled experiment on the North American tectonic plate?—the precariousness of our situation from a supposedly scientific point of view should give us pause. Just how do we know that this building will not suddenly send us all quickly to meet our Maker, Whose existence by definition is a non-falsifiable piece of information? We really do not know, at least not in scientific terms, and even if we were to undertake all the possible tests that could be done to try to assure ourselves that this place is safe, conditions would change so much in the meantime that our results would almost necessarily be obsolete before we could sit back and enjoy them.

The end result of all this nonsense is that attempting to live life according to purely “scientific” standards of knowledge would end up in a sort of annoying paralysis of analysis. We simply don’t have the mental or computational power to figure out all the possibilities. And even if we could, how can we say we absolutely know for certain that our own senses are not fooling us when we read the data?

Now, my purpose this evening is not to engage in a lengthy discursus on epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that examines how we know what we know, but I do think it’s worth at least asking ourselves just how we really end up living life, how we make decisions, and how we live with them, especially since there’s really no logistical way to put all our eggs in the “science” basket that our society claims to revere so faithfully.

What we usually think of as a “scientific” philosophy of knowledge is not really science, anyway—it is a philosophical outlook known as positivism, that all knowledge must be based only on empirical sense experience. Yet some of science’s greatest advances, such as Einstein’s theories of time and space, as well as most of quantum physics, are not credible by positivistic standards, instead requiring leaps of imagination and intuition which are beyond what empirical means can yield. And credible scientists hold such things to be true.

The truth is that we all end up functioning mainly on trust. We trust that this floor is solid. We trust that there will not be an earthquake in central Pennsylvania tonight. We trust that the architect and the general contractor responsible for putting this building together did their job correctly. We act on this trust, despite not having the sort of information that we probably really “should,” at least according to the exacting standards of the scientific method. (So anyone whose concern for our safety has been sufficiently raised and would like to exit the building now is welcome to do so.)

Churching the Nation: Sharing the Orthodox Christian Faith in America

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Both parts of my March 7 talk at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are now up on Ancient Faith Radio, at the Roads From Emmaus podcast. (They’ve got it titled “Evangelism and Orthodoxy.”)

Get it here: Part 1, Part 2.

You can download the referenced Orthodox Gospel tract here.

Reason and Conversion to Christ

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A longtime friend of mine (and former co-worker from my stagehand days) has apparently listened to the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy podcast a lot more times than I have (he claims seven times, poor fellow). He recently sent me a note entitled “The subjugation of reason” and gave me permission to publish an excerpt here, along with my response:

At your leisure, I would request a little more insight on what has been the most prominent question triggered in my mind by your words. If reason is to be subordinate to Orthodox teaching, tradition, and scripture, by what basis does one rightfully, or properly, choose to join the community of the Church? Setting aside reason for a moment, I’m left with feeling, emotion, and intuition; which are arguably more fallible than reason. To me it would appear that, while outside the Church, I retain the God-given volition to make the ‘correct’ (for lack of a better term) choice to be within the Church. Yet, upon joining the community I forever forfeit the right to make such pivotal decisions for myself, at least in matters of faith and worship.

You’ve hit upon something that in my experience doesn’t occur to most folks (at least, outside the rarefied intellectual world of Internet religion and the darkened but enlightened ethereality of stagehand converse), and that is the epistemological element in conversion. You’re right that there is a contradiction between debasing reason within the Christian community but at least tacitly acknowledging its place as a means to get inside it. The larger question here is what the place of reason is within the context of conversion and the subsequent life in Christ, which Orthodox teaching actually describes as an ongoing conversion.

Concerning reason itself and its usefulness in making big decisions, our secular world of course at least claims to have privileged it exclusively. Almost all of our political discussion is based in these kinds of terms (“what will work,” etc.), and these claims are based on scientific studies and the like. But one thing I’ve learned about science is that the true gurus of those disciplines, the people getting deep into the inner recesses of what physical existence is made up of, tell us that things there don’t really work reasonably or predictably. How much more should this be true when speaking of a complex creature like humanity? And thus, how much more is this true when speaking of humanity attempting to connect with Divinity?

Reason is a gift from God; indeed, it is His invention. Thus, to suggest that it should be “subjugated” is perhaps only necessary because of its current unnatural position of privilege. The proud man often needs to be humiliated a bit in order to have some humility, and reason often has need of precisely this, at least in terms of what one expects in the big moments in life. None of this is to say that I believe that reason in itself needs to be subjugated. It is one of our God-created energies, and, as such, is inherently good. I agree with your argument that reason is less fallible than feeling, emotion and intuition. But all are fallible.

Our error lies, I believe, in seeking absolute psychological certainty in anything, no matter what means we use to get it, logical or no. But of course there is much more to logic, to the Logos, than is generally thought of as proper to the discipline of logic in our own time. Human reason, along with our feelings, emotions and intuition, have need of enlightenment by faith.

And faith, at least in the Orthodox Christian understanding, is not mere belief in concepts we otherwise know are not true. Faith is rather the result of an encounter with the Divine, and just as is the case with any encounter between persons, arriving at it is not the result of any inner psychological process. I cannot have dinner with you by thinking about it and making decisions about it. I can only do it by doing it. But if you are the Thou of the transcendent, ineffable Divinity, then no matter what I do, I cannot have the encounter. To put it most bluntly, I cannot find God. But God has come looking for me.

This was true both for St. Paul on the road to Damascus and also for Ss. Luke and Cleopas as the Lord met them on the road to Emmaus and revealed Himself gradually to them. For both encounters, the fulfillment was finally sacramental, in baptism and the Eucharist, respectively. Yet both involved a lot of oral instruction, which of course employs reason. Yet this reality is ultimately mysterious and difficult to define in language.

One of the Church Fathers boldly describes the makeup of the human person as tri-partite: Body, Soul and Holy Spirit. Thus, it is revealed that a person who is whole is not just his natural, corruptible, mortal elements, but also requires communion with the Divine in order to be fully alive. Someone who is in a crippled state cannot be expected to make right decisions, hampered as they are by their fallibility. But if there is the communion with the Divine present, well, that is something else.

Thus, whether speaking of the initial conversion or the ongoing process of growing in holiness, the whole human person must be engaged, but that engagement only works within the context of communion with the Divine. Practically speaking, that means that, even when once inside the Church, we are not called upon to set aside our reason, but rather to be prepared to have it transformed, to realize that we came to the hospital to be healed, not to take up the job of hospital administrator. So there is the need for trust, but it is a trust based in experience, not blind belief.

This discourse probably seems circular, and it is, but then, so is human existence. The point, finally, is that there is nothing wrong with using one’s reason, and even feelings, emotion and intuition, in making decisions, even big spiritual ones. The key element is that there be humility in doing so, because humility is the only way to permit communion of any sort, especially the kind needed for communion with the Divine.

When I was a kid, having been given a solidly Christian identity by my parents, I came to believe that the big divide in the world was between believers and atheists. But there are of course very few actual atheists, and even the big-money ones of our own day are mostly just celebrities who will fade when their time comes. What I have learned, through making many foolish decisions of my own and also through my experiences with others and as a cleric, is that the great divide is really between humility and pride.

Pride insists that there must be some human power or set of powers that can apprehend all things. But this really is not so. We are limited creatures. No matter what self-esteem propaganda may have been tossed at you today on a billboard or on Facebook, you are limited. You cannot grow up to be anything you want. You are not limited only by your imagination. You have real limits that go beyond your will. Acknowledging that, and most especially acknowledging deeply within that you will someday die, will transform your outlook into something else.

Epistemology is quite critical, whether it comes in initial conversion to the community of faith or in the ongoing conversion that is needed to attain to authentic holiness. But let me suggest an epistemology of humility. Even if there is no God, such a posture will at least help you to see the flaws in your own reasoning. But if there is a God, then humility will open you up to divine illumination.

Confessions of a Localist in Training

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I was recently sent this note by a young lady who listened to the first episode of the Roads From Emmaus podcast:

…I listened to your first “Roads From Emmaus” podcast and instead of joy I got a guilty nausea in my stomach. The ideal “me” in my head agrees with you, we should reach out to our neighbors and community. I’ll admit I don’t really have much experience in that area having been an Army brat with constantly changing environments where that isn’t always possible (perhaps I got too used to it).

I can’t use that excuse now though because my husband and I have a house… and we’re here to stay (as far as we know); and yet, I feel a reluctance to really branch out to even our neighbors. We only have 4 houses near us actually because we’re on the outskirts in like a farming community but even if I see them outside I’m reluctant to approach them and talk. I worry that anytime I reach out to someone that I’ll be overburdened or that they’ll want to keep the relationship going and I won’t out of personality mismatch (as has happened many times to me before).

Even if someone in a store randomly strikes up a conversation with me I worry I won’t be able to get away to finish my shopping. Additionally, I worry that once I start up a relationship, I will be the one required to maintain it and if I fail, I will be seen negatively in their eyes…. I’ve thought about joining a local community group here but again I fear my free time will then be non-existent.

I realize a lot of this comes from the passion of love of self that the Church CONSTANTLY reminds us of, but I was hoping you may have some advice on how to get started (slowly!!).

Like this young lady who wrote to me, I have a background in the military (not me, my dad). Indeed, my father and both of my grandfathers were all military men, and when my father finished his tour in the US Navy in the early 1980s, my family joined up with an Evangelical missionary radio organization. My family has thus been mobile over multiple generations. Localism doesn’t particularly come easily to me, since I not only have moved twenty times (spanning across six US states and one unincorporated territory, over fourteen different towns), but I also grew up in the age of mass computing, where everyone had the opportunity to get on the Internet in early adulthood. This is also the age of the ATM, the automated grocery store checkout machine, etc.

These inventions, coupled with my residential background, have not made me an obvious localist. I did not grow up on or near any farms. I have never lived in one home for more than five years. I still define myself very much by the state where I lived the longest (eleven years in North Carolina), but in the five and a half years since I moved from there, I’ve lived in three more homes. I therefore come to localism much the same way that I did to Orthodox Christianity: as a convert, full of wonder at the beauty of what he’s encountered. As a convert to this manner of thinking and living, just as with Orthodoxy, I believe I’ve become grafted in to a form of cultural recusancy, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot meant in his piece Thoughts After Lambeth:

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.

I suppose that all this amateurish rumination requires me to set out some sort of definition of what localism might mean, at least in how I use the term. I believe it to be essentially a matter of attention. I should pay attention to the people around me, to the institutions next to me, to the communing community in which I live, more than I do to concerns beyond my locus. I am thus not in favor of globalism or nationalism. I find more value in patriotism for one’s town or even state than I do to our national government, because it is much better to love what’s in front of you than it is to throw love “out there” to some ideal entity.

Localism is, in the words of one of my favorite weblogs, about place, limits, and liberty (this piece in particular is worth your perusal). Implied in that combination of things is local, self-governance.

My reading of history is such that most people were basically localists until recent times, though there was no need for a name for it. There was no television or cheap oil or cheap broadband access to draw our attention everywhere but here. Necessity and economics required that we know our neighbors, if only so we could trade or buy our necessities, so that we could find husbands and wives for our children, so that we would not be left bereft of comfort and help when tragedy struck. But now, all those connections have been stripped away, and our collective alienation is so acute that we grope around politically to try to find national, systemic solutions to all our challenges. It really used to be that your local family doctor would probably treat you anyway when you couldn’t pay him, but once our government told him that we’d pay him so he wouldn’t have to be charitable any more, something precious was lost.

In any event, I was asked for advice by this young lady, and I promised her in a private note that I’d give some, and she kindly gave me permission to make it in the form of a weblog post. I have to say that I am not really the best example of a non-hypocritical localist, nor do I have much experience at this project. I am trying, bit by bit, with God’s grace, to form a better consciousness within myself and for my wife and for my children. And, indeed, I do believe it is a question of grace. 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 and/or we lose our ability to travel easily and cheaply (due to a spike in transportation costs, most especially of oil). When either 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.)

So, here are some of my bits of advice, in no particular order:

  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. 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 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. 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 you’re not zooming by at 40 mph. (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.)
  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 community center. 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. 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.
  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.

My experience is that, if you do these things, you will have a more peaceful, joyous life, and you’ll also be a living testament that it is possible to be truly human, which also communicates the Gospel to people, too.

Have any ideas of your own?

Raising Humanity

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The following is an excerpt from the lecture on evangelism which I will be giving in Bethlehem this coming Sunday. This represents some of my first articulated thinking on localist themes with regard to evangelism.

Another aspect to the question of location in evangelism is perhaps a bit less obvious, and that is the need for us to foster human community in the places where our parishes are. Our society is fast moving toward converting every human person into a mere part in a big machine. The relationships that used to govern every aspect of our lives have been disconnected because we have cheap oil and fast transportation. Most of us don’t know who produces our eggs or our milk. Most of us will never meet the people who grow our coffee or build our cars. The casualty of our high-speed economy is relationships. Thus, not only do all the people along this depersonalized chain of production and consumption not care as much about what they produce or what they receive, but it’s also become much harder to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

For the majority of Americans, their homes are a place where they park their cars and sleep at night. They don’t know their neighbors. They don’t work near their homes. They don’t shop near their homes. “Community” is a concept that has more sentiment to it than incarnational meaning. In the past, most people worked with their neighbors, went to church with their neighbors, relaxed with their neighbors, and bought things from each other in their shopping. Now, most of these relationships have been severed and replaced with some kind of outsourcing, usually made possible because of easy transportation. It’s extremely easy to have your family, your co-workers, your fellow church members, your neighbors, and the people you see at the markets all be entirely separate sets of people.

I mention this not to encourage nostalgia for a bygone era nor to suggest that we all need to stop commuting to work or church or the store immediately (though some adjustment probably would help!). Rather, our problem is a theological one, an anthropological one. The more we as human persons are stripped of the community and the communion for which God created us, the more the good news of Jesus Christ will sound like a non sequitur. What’s the point in eternal salvation in Christ, of becoming united to the God-man when I have so many text messages to answer? I don’t need a church community—I have hundreds of friends on Facebook (and I can turn them off whenever I like).

This is not to condemn participation on the Internet or use of modern technology—I myself make a lot of use of such things. But a time is soon coming when people will have to make a choice between being cogs in a machine or being human persons. One of the challenges of the Orthodox Church in the 21st century is not only in bringing Christ to people, but simply in showing people what it means to be human. If we have no sense of our humanity, then we will never understand the nature or the tragedy of sin. And if we do not see sin, then we cannot see why we have need of salvation.

Ironically, these devices which were supposed to save us time take up more of our time, and even while we’re more connected than ever, our collective alienation has grown. We as a culture are becoming lost in a virtual world defined by isolation rather than saved in an incarnate reality defined by communion.

As a result, I strongly recommend that every parish takes the time to get to know the surrounding community, reaching out to them and helping to build community links between people. Not only will this yield numerous opportunities to share Christ with people who need Him, but it will raise the collective humanity of our cities and towns. If we are to encounter the God Who is human, then we need to regain a sense of our own humanity, or else we will find Him inaccessible to us. The point of God taking on humanity was so that we could access His divinity. But if we do not even know what it means to be human, then how can we begin to access God in the humanity of Jesus Christ?

The good news is that momentum is already gathering in parts of the culture to counteract the depersonalization permitted by our technology and promoted by our dedication to so-called “higher living standards.” Whether the philosophy goes by “localism,” “regionalism,” or “agrarianism,” there is a desire afoot among many in our culture to try to find new ways to restore true community, even if it’s just by trying to buy food grown locally or by supporting local charities over ones that are far away.

We have to re-learn how to be humane, how to be human. This is critical not only in terms of our ability to raise the collective humanity of our home towns but also because it is part of our internal ministry within our parishes. In order to keep ourselves human, we have to nurture community within our parishes, real community built on relationships which have multiple connections in them, not solely that we all see each other in church on Sunday. Having more frequent church services helps to build this community, as well as joint projects for local charitable work, deliberately patronizing each other’s businesses, introducing our children to each other for marriage, trying to live near one another, and working to live and work closer to the church.

Whatever we may choose to do, we should always have in mind that God has called us to sanctify the place that we’re in, to make it an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven. We will never achieve the Kingdom fully while we still live the earthly life, but there is much we can to do hold back the darkness and to bring the Light Himself flooding into our neighborhoods.

Christianity and Ecology: Lessons on Sustainability from the Early Irish Sea

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A fascinating event held recently at St. Paul’s was this seminar and discussion led by Prof. Alfred Siewers of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (referenced in this previous post). You can now listen to both parts of the recording made of the seminar via Ancient Faith Radio:

  • Part One—the bulk of the seminar, introduced by your host, in which I warble on a bit about my 2001 pilgrimage in the British Isles. Prof. Siewers gives a fascinating talk about Irish Christian monasticism and how it lived in terms of ecology (“the story of home”).

  • Part Two—the question and answer session, featuring both Prof. Siewers and your humble servant.

Interested parties can also download Prof. Siewers’s handout here.