personhood

The Mass Cult of Big

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The Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California

The following is essentially a piecing together of selections from a Facebook thread in which I participated today. The following quotation led off the discussion:

We have become fascinated by the idea of bigness, and we are quite convinced that if we can only ‘stage’ something really big before the world, we will shake it, and produce a mighty religious awakening. – D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, 1958

This response was given by a poster:

“Doing something big, for bigness sake is silly and egocentric… however we shouldn’t fear something becoming something big…”

This was followed by a back-and-forth discussion. Here are my responses, more or less, stitched together and revised a bit:

I don’t fear big. But I am deeply suspicious of it.

Why? “Big” almost always means systems and ideology, but rarely attention to persons. It is typically about marketing, not about communion. It almost always means vanity (though usually is not advanced enough for real pride), but almost never any humility. It is usually about control and not about freedom. That’s why.

I am not talking only about church size, but about more than that, i.e., philosophy, politics, economy, architecture, education, etc. But even if we were talking solely about church size, a church designed to be big is automatically subject to all those problems. It is so prevalent one could almost assume that it’s written down in some sort of mega-church mega-manual. But such things are by no means prevalent on the much smaller scale. Why? Because human beings can only truly know so many people. After one’s communal capabilities are saturated, the only way to maintain things is through ideological and technocratic systems. Even the mega-churches at least sense this, which is why they do “small groups” to try to offset their technocratic leviathan.

Yes, some little church communities do indeed exert a kind of control over members, but that is rather the sectarian/cultic impulse, which is not really about the question of big/small or systematic/local, but rather of fierce personal loyalties. The fact that a mega-church cannot command such loyalties is precisely because of its inherent weakness—it is not about incarnational communion, but about marketed, corporatized consumption. Loyalty is created to a product, to programmes (which are a kind of product), not to persons.

If a mega-church is less susceptible to cultic-style control, it is essentially because it is a corporate entity that does not and cannot care. But it exerts a far more subtle and pernicious kind of control over its clients. It is one vast system, and if the mice wandering around in the maze do not realize they are in a maze, so much the better! The control here is essentially the control of the consumerist market, keeping consumers trapped in their own passions and desires. The rules it enforces are the demands of ideology and system—why do you think mega-churches need so many signs, ushers, automated check-ins for kids, etc.?

At least a little cult-like religious community still maintains the clear sense for its members that it is a set-apart elect. Members can more easily leave such a group, because all the control is usually focused into one or two people, and members may more easily have full social networks that are not comprised by the sect. And at least there is the possibility for repentance of the leadership. In a mega-church, if one head of the hydra is cut off, no one particularly questions the whole system. They just find another head to run the monster.

Loyalty should be only to Christ, not to personalities or religious products or programmes.

Yet “big” tends to lead in such directions almost without fail. “Small” actually quite rarely does. Very few small churches are cults of personality. But big ones quite often are, and they are more often (and sometimes simultaneously) cults of religious product.

It is telling that, in the early years of the Church, when congregations started becoming large enough that not everyone in the same city could easily join together for worship, the bishops began delegating their authority to presbyters to lead spin-off congregations.

And then when the faith was finally legalized in the early 4th c., there wasn’t a sudden move to building gigantic church buildings so that the full Christian population of cities could recombine.

The general rule was always small and local, even when necessity did not require it. It was because of a theology of the Incarnation and the communion that it creates, something that simply cannot scale up indefinitely, because of the God-made limitations of human personhood.

A desire to scale up indefinitely is indicative of a defective theology of the Incarnation, usually one that is devoid of any ecclesiology. Church is conceived of not as communion, but as rock concert.

It is true, of course, that some 3,000 people were baptized into Christ on Pentecost. That’s actually a fascinating and telling example, though—the Apostles were clearly perfectly capable of attracting a mass “rally” of sorts, but there’s only one example of such a thing ever happening. This exception proves the rule.

It is one of the great (at least linguistic) ironies of modern American Christianity that it has become a mass religion—a massive religion about masses of people, but without any hint of the mass.

Ite, missa est.

Conversions

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Ten years ago today—April 26, 2002—I first sat down and had coffee with the beautiful woman in the picture above. This picture was taken about sixteen months later, on our wedding day.

Our pairing was (and in some ways, remains) unlikely. When I met her ten years ago, she was actually an atheist with a Lutheran background she had left behind in her teens. Although when I met her I was quite interested in her, I never attempted to convert her to anything, though of course I invited her to church (at our first meeting, in fact). She came, and she stayed.

I proposed to her a little less than four months later, while she was doing dishes. I was fairly sure of her response before I began (by reading her a poem and giving her a ring with an amethyst), especially since she already had her wedding dress purchased. (It had been the tax-free weekend, you know.) We had also actually arranged a wedding date with the priest. I don’t remember when that was, to be honest, so I don’t really know when we had essentially agreed to be married, although without yet going through the ritual of proposal.

We were also something of an unlikely pairing because, although we never really explored it very much at the time, we were probably initially worlds apart politically. We’ve both changed a lot in that regard since then, and now we have nearly identical opinions about politics and even work together to figure out how we want to vote.

Probably the biggest unlikelihood of our courtship and marriage was cultural: I was raised Midwestern/Southern/Missionary/Evangelical, while she represents a hybrid of upper-Midwestern/Lutheran and immigrant/Palestinian/Lebanese/latent-Orthodox, favoring the latter in many respects, though of course she still says melk (rather than milk) like her Wisconsin relatives and was raised with their religion. The curious mix of communication styles that come with each of our backgrounds (not to mention, the basic fact that we are a man and a woman) have made for challenges over the past ten years, but I do think that we’ve largely acquired something of the best of each other’s worlds, especially in our better moments.

I was an Orthodox Christian when I met her (though only about four years into it), and of course now we both are, as she was received into the Church just a few days before our wedding. Yet while we are both Orthodox Christians, we are different kinds of Orthodox Christians. From my pastoral experience, I can see that these differences are partly just the differences that come because we are a man and a woman, though they also come from the different paths we took to get into the Church. Hers was always communal, whether from her father’s childhood background in Orthodoxy (and even her Middle East relatives’ sense of membership that doesn’t much include actually going to church) or her reintroduction to it through the guy she decided to date and marry, while my path was (and in many ways, remains) a kind of personal quest, the quest for beauty.

We still have many differences, and some of the things we used to have in common we don’t have in common any more. But we also have new things in common. And what we truly share between us is life—in all of its rugged, ragged, rickety glory.


As I write this, she is now quite expectant with our third child, a second son. The due date is less than three weeks away, which puts us in the “any day now” stage. (Inexplicably feel like buying us something for this event? Go here.) She took to motherhood quite a bit more rapidly and with surer commitment than I took to fatherhood, something I think is probably true in many families, if only because of the essential and deep link that is shared in the initial period of life between a child and his mother. But as the children gain more and more interface with the world outside our home, I find that fatherhood is making more sense to me, that I am becoming more a father. So I am slower at this than she is, but God gives His grace in His ways and times and completes that which is lacking—and if there is anything fatherhood reveals to a father, it is that he is lacking.

I think that what we most have in common—though often with different iterations of it—is a deep and enduring longing for home. We are both children of itinerant families and have nearly two dozen residences under our belts, and we are weary of moving, of uprooting and restarting. We want to know this place and remain in this place until our deaths, and our prayer is that our children will desire the same thing. And we mean home for all that the word means, both earthly and heavenly.

I have titled this post Conversions, because that is what it is about, really. Over the past ten years, we each have had to convert on a number of occasions—not just trying to put on an idea of what we think we ought to be, but actually having to become different people in order to meet the new demands of communion.

One of the singular insights of Orthodoxy is that man is not simply a lone hero on a quest, searching for his absolute identity and trying to acquire it or to authenticate what he suspects is his true essence. Rather, man is a dynamic being, dependent for identity not only on God but even (as dangerous as this may feel) on other human persons. He is capable of repentance. He is capable of conversion. He is capable of communion. He is capable of union with the Other.

For all of this and in all of this, I am and will always remain grateful to the Creator for my beautiful, beautiful wife Nicole. Her spunk, longsuffering, flexibility, patience and ingenuity are all elements of her beauty. She is a woman brightly-adorned by her Maker. I do not know or wish to know what my life would have been like without her. But from that moment, ten years ago today, when our communion began, I knew that I had found beauty—and that I would, even in my imperfection and frequent failure, try to be with her always.

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.

Why I Can’t Be Your Spiritual Father: A Localist Lament

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Do you really know this man?
As I think probably happens to just about every clergyman who has some sort of media presence (even one so minor as mine), I get requests every so often from folks essentially to do the job that their local pastor should be doing.

Now, it may be that they don’t have a local pastor, perhaps because there is no Orthodox church near them, because they’re not Orthodox yet, or because they’re not committed to a particular parish. It may also be that their priest doesn’t have the time to help them, perhaps because he has a secular job, because he has health problems, because he’s lazy, because he doesn’t like them, or because the bishop has given him other responsibilities. It may also be because they don’t like their priest, because they want more from him than he has to give, because they don’t like their parish, or because they don’t want to commit to someone standing in front of them. It may also be that their priest is uneducated, that he’s overwhelmed, or even that he’s simply unaware of their problem. Maybe they’ve never even approached him.

There are probably many more reasons why people contact clergy they don’t know to try to get from them something that they aren’t getting locally.

If I already have a relationship with such a person, I may offer some advice, but ultimately, I always try to steer them toward the local church. If I don’t have a relationship with them, I may offer brief comments but typically will shy away from them. Here are some reasons why I almost always have to turn down such requests. I list them here not to talk about me, but rather as some things to think about when people are navigating the intersection of their spiritual lives in three dimensions with their virtual lives on the Internet.

    1. I don’t have the time. This is the biggest reason. I have a family and a parish I have to care for, and they require my time. If I began admitting people into my care who are not local to me, I would quickly become overwhelmed with email, phone calls, etc., that would soon destroy my ability to take care of my family and my parish. Most everyone who emails a priest out of the blue probably thinks he’s the only one to do so, but he’s usually not.

    2. I don’t know you. It’s really easy to lie over the Internet, whether intentionally or out of one’s own self-delusion. It’s also very easy to get the wrong impression about someone, because online we only present part of ourselves to our readers. It’s much harder to be fake and distorted with someone standing in front of you. Therefore, I am not qualified to give you spiritual direction over the Internet. I don’t have enough data to give informed advice.

    3. It’s draining for me. If you and I had a real spiritual relationship in person, then it could be sustainable for us both, but long-distance spiritual direction almost always is a one-way affair, and the clergyman can find himself giving and giving, and there is none of the renewal that comes of incarnate relationship. And, just to put it in stark, “earthly” terms, when you call on a clergyman outside your community to do work for you (and it is work), then you are practicing a sort of “spiritual socialism.” He is being supported spiritually and financially by another community, and you’re asking him to serve you without participating in giving to that community.

    4. I am not special. Just because someone writes a weblog or has a nice podcast or a book you liked does not make him an expert in theology, spiritual direction, etc. It also certainly does not mean that he’s holy. I’ve been given the responsibility by God for my family and by the bishop for my parish, and I try to do right by them. But I am no one special. Really. Don’t think that the clergy you see online are elite in any way. We’re not. In fact, you may want to question why a clergyman you see online all the time seems to have time for that kind of thing. Some of us are more “plugged in” than others, but that doesn’t mean we’re supermen. Some are online all the time because they have a lot of time on their hands. Others have just integrated Internet use into their work to a high degree. (See #6 below.)

    5. I do not want control of your life. I know that some people think of spiritual fatherhood in this way, and I think that’s a mistake. Even your local priest should not be treated as some sort of holy elder whose every command must be obeyed. That’s why I don’t like to use the term spiritual father to refer to myself, even for those who really are committed to my care. Confessor or simply father-confessor (or good old pastor) delineates the job more clearly. You are fundamentally responsible for your own spiritual life. The clergy are here to guide you, but they are not here to command you such that all you have to give is obedience. You’re a “rational sheep.” Use the brain God gave you. I can’t accept total responsibility for your salvation. I have a tough enough time with my own.

    6. I am not here for you. Yes, I have time to produce things that you’re seeing online, but almost all of them are simply a part of my parish ministry—I’m just doing my local job, and I happen to have a microphone and a weblog to go with it. I have them so that I can reach my own people even more effectively. If someone else can get something out of them, that’s a wonderful bonus, but that’s all it is. Now, if God puts you in my town or puts me in your town, then I will be there for you.

    7. I will not cheat your local community. If there is a genuine lacking in your local community, then instead of seeking out faraway surrogates, work to establish better community where you are. Talk to your priest, talk to your bishop, evangelize your neighbors, serve those in need—in short, do the job of bringing Christ to your place. If you instead rely on people far away and use them as stand-ins for what should be local, then you are cutting short the local hunger that makes the banquet possible. That is, if you think you’re getting via email what you should be getting locally, then you aren’t working to make it present to you locally. Don’t short-circuit the development of the Church in your community by bypassing the community. If you do not have it in you to do that sort of work where you are, then it might be a good idea to move some place where you can plug in to a healthy parish community.

    8. The priesthood is local. This is my most fundamental point. Almost everything a priest does in his priesthood requires physical presence. The sacraments, preaching, etc., are all fundamentally local acts, and even if some elements of the priest’s work can be published or broadcast, they always lose something in the transmission.

Now, there are of course many legitimate reasons why someone might be engaged in long-distance spiritual direction. The best one is probably the case of the person who physically moves away from their confessor after years of his spiritual direction. But even in that case, it’s a good idea to transition to someone local.

Most clergy are the kind of people who like to help, who may even feel a need to be helpful. And it can be flattering to have someone approach you because of your “fame” online. But, like Admiral Ackbar said, it’s a trap! (Especially if the person contacting you is an apparently attractive female. Or at least her profile pic looks that way. Remember that, on the Internet, no one is quite who they claim to be.)

Curiously, many of the dangers of online, long-distance romantic relationships essentially apply to online, long-distance spiritual direction. It’s really the problem with any virtual relationship. Man was not made to live in a non-dimensional world. He was made to live in communion, in community.

All that said, if you happen to email me, I will try to answer your email. If I do not already know you, especially if your email requires thought, my response may well be quite delayed. It’s nothing personal. Really. But maybe it’s time to go ask your own priest. Don’t have one? Here’s a place to start.

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.

“Spiritual But Not Religious” and the Path to God

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St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the Gnostic's least favorite guy

I sometimes encounter folks who tell me that they are “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). I wish I asked more often what exactly that is supposed to mean, though I am usually held back from asking by a strong suspicion that such a statement is not meant to undergo any sort of scrutiny. But what does it mean, anyway?

This post is a reflection on why people choose to be SBNR, along with an examination of its inherent problems as a religious movement and some answers from an Orthodox Christian point of view. I think this is a major question that needs to be addressed these days, as the SBNR are those who are often likely to respond to the Gospel not so much with outright rejection but rather with “Sure, whatever.”

Underneath, “spiritual but not religious” probably means, “I like certain religious things, but I have had a bad experience with religious people and don’t attend any sort of religious gatherings, at least, not ones I wouldn’t feel bad about abandoning next week.” (In other words, they are the victims of people who are religious but not spiritual.) But I think most SBNR sorts don’t mean to put that out as a viable reason for their self-description. After all, that just sounds rather cowardly, lazy, etc. (And in many cases, it is.) But usually, once the SBNR person dwells on their SBNR state for a while, they eventually come up with their own theology—probably their favorite parts of what they used to have, coupled with some reactions to what they didn’t like. SBNR becomes itself a kind of religion, complete with its own (usually assumed but not stated) dogma.

Mind you, there are of course SBNR people who have never been involved in religious communities, and while on the rise, they are still not the majority of such people. Despite what you may see on television or read in newspapers (if anyone does that any more), “organized” religion in America is still quite strong.

At its most basic and in its most understandable form, SBNR is typically a reaction to bad people. Having been burned (or seen others burned) by connection with religious believers, the SBNR person withdraws and makes “spirituality” (what in any other context would still be called “religion”) subject only to his own private preferences. This makes sense in our culture, which (despite our constant tendency to out-source) still sees itself as a do-it-yourself culture. But what is not usually examined in this approach is that it is essentially Gnostic, a privileging of private revelation and opinion over corporate knowledge and tradition. It is also essentially Protestant, in that its basic movement is one away from community and tradition.

There are a lot of issues packed into this essential narrative of escape. Let’s look at three of them:

  1. Abuse: Religion is full of bad people. But so is pretty much every other pursuit in human experience. Bad apples do not, in human associations, spoil the bunch. Some bunches are spoiled from the get-go (e.g., the KKK), but just because the Inquisition killed people does not mean that Christianity is broken. (Indeed, one can easily argue from within the Christian tradition that the Inquisition was a betrayal of Christianity.) Religions should not be judged by their worst adherents, but by their best—those the religion itself holds up as saints. It should also be judged by its doctrine, not by those who fail to do what the doctrine says (e.g., Roman Catholic ephebophile/pedophile priests do not by their behavior render Roman Catholicism illegitimate).

  2. Authority: Once you escape from authority (other people who have legitimacy in telling you how you should live), where do you go? You have a choice between finding a better authority or making yourself the authority. The SBNR chooses the latter. He is the sole arbiter of what is true and good. If he realizes that he is not really an expert, then he will mitigate his theology with a strong dose of relativism: “This is what works for me, but I’m not saying you have to do it.” But if you’re going to embrace relativism, what’s the point in being “spiritual,” anyway? If spirituality is in any sense about becoming a better person, who defines what “better” means? At the bottom, there really is nothing noble about striving to meet a set of standards if you get to make the standards up for yourself. Or, at least, the relativist who believes in self-sacrifice is inherently no nobler or in any way better than the relativist whose goal in life is to eat more twinkies. If you think he is, then you have to dump the relativism, because you just embraced a transcendent truth, one that is not subject to what any of us think about it.
  3. Community: Where there is no authority, there can be no community. Community always requires hierarchy, and hierarchy means that someone will have a coordinating role. But where there is no coordination, there is no community. A group of SBNR people can, of course, function as a kind of spiritual club, but the longer they stay together, they will find they have either formed a religion or irritated each other enough that the whole thing will eventually dissolve. Community is a critical element of human life, which is why SBNR cannot bind it together, being inherently anti-communal. It is also why so many SBNR people eventually end up either completely non-religious (e.g., as atheists, agnostics, or “SBNR” who nevertheless never do anything remotely “spiritual” or religious) or as members of religions. It is an unsustainable way of being. Any philosophy or mode of life which makes claims about higher order issues such as spirits and religion has to resonate with essential humanity. And since humanity is communal, SBNR does not last nor can it truly satisfy.

There is a lot more one could say here (e.g., about SBNR being just another form of consumerist, “have it your way” religion), but down underneath all of this is the question of whether God actually cares about His creation, which is why I believe that these issues touch upon the very heart of the Gospel.

If God does not care about His creation (deism), then of course there is absolutely no problem with being SBNR. But there’s also no more point in being SBNR than in being a golfer. The golfer probably isn’t making any claims to higher order knowledge and experience, though. (No offense, golfers!) But he’s just as much entitled to do so as the SBNR person, because God hasn’t bothered to let us know that He even exists, much less that there are transcendent truths to which we are all responsible. Thus, once again, the proper response is, “Sure, whatever.”

I can certainly agree that deism is a logical conclusion to come to—the world is so complex and interesting that there has to be a Creator. But anything beyond that (e.g., chi, spiritual energies, wisdom, goodness, virtue, nobility, and even love) is really just anyone’s opinion. It still falls down the Nietzschean hole, however—with no revealed truth, it’s finally all about power. If there are no revealed truths, then why should I not just take whatever I want, because I can?

At its heart, I believe that the SBNR person simply does not want to worship. At least, he doesn’t want to worship anything other than himself. (This sounds really bad, and it is. But we all do it, SBNR or not.) Worship is fundamentally about giving oneself over in complete union to the Other, which involves sacrifice and risk. It is love, but it is a much higher order love than the “love” which is spoken of in the idolatrous language of popular eros. Worship requires submission, freely offered, and that is something the SBNR person is simply not going to do. Once there’s a divine Thou to go with my I, then that means there’s religion, for religion is the reconnecting of what was separated (re+ligio). When there’s connection going on, then that means there must also be some sort of arrangement between those being connected, and that is, once again, religion.

Fundamentally, the SBNR person is cheating himself out of the real transcendence he is probably dreaming about. After all, transcendence means ecstasy (ek+stasis), standing outside yourself, and that means that your own ideas about what’s true don’t matter in the face of what really is the truth. There cannot be “your truth” and “my truth” in transcendence. There is only the Truth. After all, if we are transcending to a somewhere, then it’s certainly not a somewhere that we make up for ourselves. Nor is it a place that can be navigated by our opinions. One does not step into outer space without a spacesuit.

The Gospel is simple, though: God speaks to us. That means He’s real, and that He has an objective existence apart from our opinions of Him. Seeing our disconnection from Him, He sent us His Son, Who became one of us. He entered into the whole human experience, even death itself. And when death met the God-man, it began to work backwards. And if we want to have that same conquest over death, we have to follow the God-man and be united to Him.

That’s the path to God. There aren’t any other paths to Him, because He didn’t build any others. And no civil engineer, no matter how spiritual, can build one in place of that one. Why would you want another one, anyway? Conquering death is where it’s at, folks. Let’s do it.

Ecological Vision in James Cameron’s Avatar

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Ecology was never particularly a subject I thought I would find myself thinking too much about, much less writing about, but it seems to keep coming to the fore for me, especially as I’ve begun to apprehend more of its theological, rather than secular/political, significance. Framing this theological vision in terms of “the story of home” (which is one literal rendering of oikologia, from which we get ecology) makes a good deal more sense than putting it in the rarefied categories of “environmentalism.”

As Master Bueller once put it, “A person shouldn’t believe in an ism.” I don’t agree with him, of course, that a person should instead “believe in himself.” Our confidence and spiritual center as Christians is in Christ, not in ourselves. Ferris’s substitution of self-worship for ideology—and boldly explored in what is still one of the most entertaining films to come out in the past 30 years—is not really much better, but at least he got it half right. Ideology is not the answer. As an Orthodox Christian, I assert that communion is the answer. And that brings us to James Cameron’s Avatar.

This past Sunday afternoon, I went with my father-in-law to one of the local big cinemas (alas, not to the Emmaus Theatre, which, not surprisingly, is probably not going to be showing Avatar; Update: Actually, it looks like it is!), and we took in a matinée of Avatar. I’ll be honest: I like big, action-packed sci-fi flicks, and that is precisely what I expected to see in Avatar. I’ve read some reviews from some of my fellow Orthodox which criticize the film’s lack of character development and serious dialogue, as well as its theological unidimensionality, but I wasn’t expecting any of that kind of depth in Avatar and wasn’t disappointed when it wasn’t there. I still judge these kinds of movies like I do Star Wars, which particularly in its 1977 first installment also didn’t have that kind of depth. What it and Avatar do have are archetypal characters dealing with fairly predictable situations in fairly standard ways. All that means is that I still try to watch these movies like I watched Star Wars through the early ’80s—like a kid hoping for a good time. I see nothing wrong with that sort of homely fun. I also admit to some amusement at the film’s humans’ quest for a mineral called unobtainium. Some critics, it seems, took this to be a sign of uninventiveness on the filmmakers’ part rather than the sci-fi in-joke that it is. But no matter.

Anyway, for an intriguing, if brief, comment on the soteriological problems of the film, see these remarks. But perhaps my favorite weblog review is this one from the Front Porch Republic, which takes a localist/conservative look at the film, rather than a neo-conservative/globalist look (the worldview for much of the right-ish punditry on this flick).

That being said, I do think that there are some fascinating questions being explored by Avatar which go a bit beyond the standard cinematic explosions-in-space fare that I was raised on. Given the basic Idyllic-Noble-Savages-in-Tune-with-their-Planet set upon by the Bad-Mean-Military-Industrial-Civilized-Types narrative of the film, there are some writers who have taken Avatar to be “environmentalist” propaganda, and it may well be and may even have been intended that way. But I still think there are some elements of the film worth thinking about and worth comparing with Orthodox ecological and cosmological vision.

One of the basic assumptions of much of modern secular environmentalism seems to be summed up in this question: How do we take mankind out of the picture? Man is typically conceived of as an alien on Earth, and thus the environmental project is to remove man’s presence as much as possible from the planet. The only permissible sentient life is the “noble savage,” who are writ quite large (literally) in Avatar. The Na’vi people are essentially sinless and innocent.

It is a common notion in pagan cosmology and anthropology that there is an identification between mankind, the planet and the creator—in most ancient myths, mankind is birthed from an earth-goddess, and the planet Pandora in Avatar is no exception. The Na’vi’s goddess Eywa is essentially a sort of consciousness for the planet itself, which the scientists there tell us is host to a bioneurological network more complex and conscious than the human brain, via bioelectric connections that run through all the flora of the planet. The fauna, including the Na’vi, are able to interface with other animals and even with plants, thus allowing memories to be stored in the shared network. “Memory eternal” for each person is entirely possible in the mind of their goddess, and there seems to be some kind of communion which can be attained between persons by means of the connection to Eywa.

What I think is worth noting in this pagan/pantheistic view of god, man and nature is its similarity to Orthodox Christianity. With most heterodox, anti-sacramental forms of Christianity, matter and spirit are so disconnected from one another that the environment is looked upon as something wholly “other” from man—thus, one is either an environmentalist seeking to remove man from nature or one is an exploitationist seeking to use nature for all it’s worth. Either way, the human intuition underneath paganism and still present within Orthodoxy is lost—that man is not apart from the rest of creation, but rather is its pinnacle, and also that he is meant to serve as the creation’s priest, making sacred use of materiality as an offering to god/God, to be returned back to him as a means of sanctification. The most bloody pagan knew this as he killed bulls on his altar, and the Christian knew this as he received the Body and Blood in the unbloody sacrifice of the God-man on his own altar.

The Na’vi form a coherent culture, one which is deeply concerned with Place. This goes a bit beyond the devotion to “the forest” or somesuch that we have seen in other kind of environmentalist films (e.g., Fern Gully). The Na’vi not only have their Hometree, but they also have what amount to temples and cemeteries. It is finally the threat to their holiest shrine that is the greatest potential catastrophe in the film. This, too, is an indication of a sense of the holiness of Place, that materiality not only has a functional purpose but a spiritual significance, that any given place is irreplaceable and unrepeatable.

One thing that is a bit different about Eywa, the planet goddess of the Na’vi, is that she apparently hears prayer. This is why I regard the theological vision of this film as more pagan than truly pantheistic. In this, I regard the film as more advanced than most modern environmentalist theologies, which usually want nothing at all to do with a deity with any sort of personal existence. But when we see swarms of native creatures begin a coordinated assault on the mechanistic military of the invading humans, narrated by the deep-chested declaration of Neytiri—”Eywa has heard you!”—then we are clearly being told that this is a deity with self-awareness and with potency. Eywa is concerned only with “maintaining the balance” of life and does not take sides, much like the Holy Trinity Who is not partial and only acts according to the divine plan. But both, nevertheless, in some way interact with the persons in their care in a way that can only be understood as answering prayer.

Another intriguing element in the film is that all energy is “borrowed.” On Pandora, what that seems to mean is that, when anything dies, it returns back to the planet and ceases to exist. Yet its being is somehow remembered by Eywa, such that sentient voices can be heard by those who tap into Eywa’s neural network. Again, this is a more advanced vision than modern secularism, which has no idea whatsoever how to deal with death (other than coming up with new ways to hasten it). That humans (and Na’vi) have always put their dead into the ground is an indication of our understanding of the connection between that ground and the flesh which is made from it. Thus, even in death, the Na’vi’s communion is in and through Eywa. Further, even basic communication seems to carry with it the notion of communion and interpenetration, as with their repeated phrase, “I see you,” meaning “I am looking deeply into you.”

Yet while the Na’vi can only hope for the storage of their memories in Eywa, perhaps in a modified form of the personal oblivion of Hindu and Buddhist Nirvana, the Christian knows that “Memory eternal” in God’s memory means that He continues to give us His energy so that we may live forever, whether we are righteous or wicked. The Fathers teach us that we are not naturally immortal, but God does sustain us forever, such that we are effectively immortal.

This leads me to my final question, one which I have not yet seen any writing on at all: Why is it that the scientist leading the Avatar Project, played by Sigourney Weaver, is named “Dr. Grace Augustine”? It’s possible, to be sure, that the juxtaposition of Grace and Augustine is purely coincidental. But could it perhaps be an anti-Pelagian comment, that salvation for a people (whether the Na’vi or the humans who are exploiting them) can only come through divine intervention?

So, yes, I am looking forward to a sequel.

Update Dec. 26, 2009: One bit that could probably do with some fleshing out in the above is the major difference between pagan and Orthodox Christian theology—the utter dissimilarity between the Creator and Creation. We have no idea whether Eywa is the creator of Pandora (indeed, she seems to function on the purely created level), but the identification of Eywa with the Na’vi and other life puts this theology firmly in the pagan camp. Persons are quite literally children of their deity.

For Orthodox Christianity (and Judaism before it), the Creator is utterly different from the Creation. Creation is not birthed from the Creator, but rather created ex nihilo. This is probably a major reason why the traditional Jewish and Christian image of God is as Father and not as mother, to preserve the critical theological affirmation of the total difference between the created and the uncreated. Indeed, it is this difference which makes the Incarnation of the Son of God such an astounding miracle. It is honestly nothing terribly special if a deity which is already identified with her worshipers chooses to make herself known as one of them. It is something else entirely if the eternal, changeless, infinite, invisible and uncreated God becomes temporal, subject to change, finite and visible, while yet simultaneously retaining all the fullness of His deity.

Pagan philosophy had begun to head in this direction by the time of Christ (that is, to profess a total disjunction between uncreated and created, as the Unmoved Mover and the Moved), which is why the Incarnation took the world by storm. This is also why the big theological problem of the early centuries of Christianity was not how this man could be God, but rather how God could possibly have become man.