Michael Sauter Article

I almost didn’t read the article because I’m not interested in yet another analysis of Jordan Peterson. But, hey, it’s Front Porch Republic, so I gave it a shot. Turns out that this isn’t so much about either Peterson or Sam Harris, but rather about the dangers of utility and the need for solicitude.

https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2018/08/jordan-peterson-sam-harris-and-the-problem-of-bigness/

I also highly recommend the Own Barfield book Sauter mentions, “Saving the Appearances.”

Advertisements

Being both At Rest and Watchful

One of the difficult things for non-Orthodox readers to grasp when they read Orthodox writings is the idea of the “passions.” The word is a technical term of sorts within Orthodoxy, but it is used rather differently than it is in contemporary culture (thus the difficulty in grasping the term). The sentence, “He has a passion for Liverpool F.C” (a soccer team from England), for instance, has no connection to the theological meaning of passions.

The original passion is the prelapsarian drive we have to be in communion with, and eventually, union with God. It is communing with God in the Garden (rather than the forbidden fruit, which was a good creation of God, and forbidden, not because it was bad, but because it was a substitute for God). After spiritual death that is a result of sin, we no longer have a connection to God because we are cut off from his presence, being cast out of the Garden. But this passion for fulfillment that can only come from and with God is part of the divine image, so those passions continue to seek a source of fulfillment. Thus it is, in the postlapsarian world, that the passions are generally bad because they are badly aimed. They are “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” that are commented on in 1 John 2:16. The passions are our desire for fame, fortune, control, popularity, and the illusive goal of a 1,000 upvotes on redit. At their worst they are our addictions. At their best (in our culture’s eyes) the passions are represented by the infatuation of a girl and a boy, and the ends to which they will go for love that Shakespeare commented on in Romeo and Juliet.

In the Orthodox vision of the Christian life, one of the goals is to learn inner peace (apatheia) while being fully engaged in external struggle (pathos), which is more accurately translated “suffering.” But “suffering” is generally considered a bad thing in our culture (yet another disconnect from the teachings about the passions), and is thus not generally associated with our everyday struggles in life, whether those be with our own temptations, our response to injustice, or the difficulty of paying attention in church.

Turning again to Maximos Constas (former Harvard professor and Eastern Orthodox monk), in his, The Art of Seeing, we find a succinct description of the interplay between the two. In ch. 3 he considers the great military martyr saints, and St. George in particular:

The depiction of the saint as simultaneously “at rest” and “watchful,” lends the seated figure [of St. George, with sword pulled half way from its scabbard] a palpable sense of energy and animation. This intriguing duality also expresses the central paradox of Christian martyrdom, and indeed of Christian life in general: the concurrence of inner rest (apatheia) and external sufferings (pathos), for “though the outer man in perishing, the inner man is being renewed every day” (2 Cor 4:16). [Loc 2085 in the Kindle edition]

How many times have I been filled with what I imagined to be holy rage, as I cleaned up debris in the midst of death following the political debacle of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for instance, or the private conversation in my study with a woman abused by her husband, or the dehumanizing system of family welfare after she worked up the courage to leave said husband, to offer but a few examples from my life.

The art and gift of the authentic Christian life is to fully engage in those activities, yet remain in a state of inner rest and peace. That is what St. George embodies. That is what is necessary to slay the dragons of evil in our world.

 

Lamb of God, Who Takes Away the Sins of the World …

The early history of icons in the Christian church is a bit sketchy because, in the 8th century, an iconoclastic Byzantine emperor (Leo III) ascended the throne. He believed his task was to destroy, and when that wasn’t possible, to deface all the holy icons that were in existence. Today there are only a couple dozen pre-iconcolastic icons that remain, along with a few frescoes, etc. In spite of this unspeakable loss, archaeologists and scholars have pieced together a basic understanding of early iconography. Most notable, for the purpose of this essay, is that Jesus Christ was predominantly portrayed as a sacrificial lamb (The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Rev. 13:8.) up until the 6th century.

The 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries were a time a great turmoil in the church. The hegemony of Greek ideas and the Christian worldview that grew out of those Greek ideas was coming to an end. Islam would soon be a threat from the south and east. Many of the same world-shaping ideas that led Mohamed to re-frame Jewish and Christian theology into a highly rationalistic and deterministic theology were affecting the Christian church.

Rationalism and Christian faith don’t dwell together in peace. Christian theology expresses the lived experience of God, the nature of whose existence is beyond the ability of human mind to grasp. As a result, authentic theology is a mix of negative statements (“God is not this.”), subtle paradoxes, and even seeming contradictions that Christian theology simply lets stand, because the contradictions express an aspect of our experience of God. This sort of approach drove the rationalists crazy, and they sought to “clarify” theology so that it could be understood by the rational mind and the common people.

Arianism (a heresy with many parallels to Islam) was by far the most successful of these alternative Christian philosophies during this period. Bishop Arius rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, proposing that the Son of God was the first and greatest of the created beings. Why? Because that makes more rational sense than the doctrine of the Trinity.

This quarter of a millennium period marked by the rise of rationalism (and the consequent rise in the assumption that everything was absolutely predestined…yep, the cycle happened again about a thousand years later…was the context of the great Ecumenical Councils where specific language and formulas that pointed accurately in the direction of the lived experience of God was put into place.

One of the many canons (church rules, of a sort) that grew out of this period was that Jesus Christ should be primarily depicted in human form. Pictures of sacrificial lambs and and lambs bleeding and yet healthy and alive were not wrong, but being pictorial metaphors, they tended to downplay the sublime truth that the incarnate Christ was truly human, born of Mary, and not just a metaphor that God loved us so much that he came to us in mercy to offer salvation.

It turns out that there is a whole lot more to this story. Former Harvard professor and Eastern Orthodox monk (and renowned authority on the history and theology of icons), Maximos Constas, offers this aside in his most excellent book, The Art of Seeing:

It seems, then, that in an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety, the sacrificial lamb was no longer deemed an appropriate symbol for imperial self-expression. What was needed was a powerful, adult Christ, whom later ages would call the “Pantokrator,” that is, “All-Sovereign.” No longer subject to time, still less a victim of the times, this Christ promised to appear at the end of time to judge the world (cf. Rev 19:15). [Loc 675 in the Kindle edition]

The Byzantine empire was still a powerful force in the world, but Emperor Theodosius (a theologian in his own right and the driving force behind the move away from the Lamb of God imagery and toward the “powerful, adult Christ” imagery), had an ulterior motive. (At least this is so if Fr. Maximos is correct, and I have no reason to think he’s not.) Theodosius, to borrow an idea from contemporary society, saw an opportunity to advance the rhetoric of making the Empire great again.

But here’s the key take-away: Just because Theodosius had ulterior motive, this doesn’t deny the proper theo-logic of emphasizing Jesus Christ’s human form in iconography. It’s not that Theodosius made up a doctrine out of thin air in an attempt to make the Empire great again. Given that this was a rationalistic age and given that this reductive rationalism needed to be counteracted, the canons specifying that Jesus Christ should be shown in actual human form rather than metaphorical caprine form, was a theologically solid move that the bishops wholeheartedly supported. The best political manipulation is not arbitrary, but is rooted in principles that are already widely accepted. Political manipulation isn’t just pulling the wool over the eyes of the common folk (or in this case, removing the wool, so to speak), it is more typically an attempt to promote something that has been under-emphasized or even forgotten.

The period of the great Ecumenical councils, that is, the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries (bleeding back into the 3rd and up into the 7th) is often decried as…well, to quote Fr. Maximos, “an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety.” The increasingly abstruse and even esoteric distinctions give the appearance of theology used primarily as a tool to exclude one’s enemies, or, at the very least, to try to make the Christian empire great again.

Fr. Maximos’s aside about the move away from the Lamb metaphor and toward the reality of the incarnate Son of God shown as a real man, might seem like an unfortunate slip, giving ammunition to those who want to dismiss fundamental theological principles as mere political maneuvering. But this misses the real point. Again, we need to be careful of a too-easy rationalism that too easily explains away the mysteries of real life.

Let’s start with the politics and embrace the likelihood that Theodosius used the change in iconography as a political tool. Let’s admit that the Emperor was trying to prop up his empire in the face of the massive threat that eventually became the Ottoman Empire. That was precisely what Theodosius was fighting against. He was a politically astute leader who understood how to manipulate both ideas and people to further his ends.

But there’s a glorious paradox in this political history. Theodosius used truth to manipulate the system. One might be dismayed that the move to de-emphasize the metaphorical Lamb and emphasize the real human body of Jesus Christ was probably a cynical attempt to prop up the Empire. One might even want to promote the use of the Lamb of God metaphor, given this history. But the paradox is that this new emphasis on the reality of the incarnation was not only important, but utterly foundational to the life of the church. True truth, even when it is used in a cynical manner to promote a political agenda, remains true truth.

And this should be of great comfort to us. Who among us can say that our Christian lives are controlled by pure motives and absent ulterior, and even cynical motives? But the story of how the rules of how Christ should be portrayed in icons gives all us hypocrites hope. Truth remains truth. Even if my motives are self-serving, God can and will use the truth that we know to further his Kingdom and even transform our lives. The fact is that our every action is unworthy of God. But God uses those very actions to transform us into the people he wants us to be. That’s why the real person Jesus Christ was willing to become the sacrificial Lamb of God. I find great comfort in this paradox.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

 

There’s Something About Mary

Today (Aug. 15) is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, as the Orthodox name it, or the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, as the Roman Catholics describe it. It is a celebration of Mary’s death and resurrection. It is the last of the twelve major feasts and marks the end of the year in the Orthodox world. The annual cycle begins again on Sept. 8, when the Nativity of the Theotokos is celebrated.

Since my audience is predominantly Protestant, a few words about the church year are in order at this point. Just as we don’t actually know when Jesus was born (the best scholarly guess is early fall), so we don’t know when Mary was born nor when she died. These feasts (Christmas, Mary’s Nativity, and Mary’s Dormition (which is another word for death) are scheduled for theological reasons. Christmas comes near the shortest day of the year. When things were darkest, God entered into the world to bring the Light of Life to a world shrouded in the darkness of sin and death.

The order of feasts follows the plan of salvation. There is an inner and an outer layer. The inner layer (we might think of them as the Christological feasts) starts with the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, followed by his Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple, the Baptism of the Lord, the Transfiguration, the Holy Week cycle, Christ’s Ascension into heaven, and Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit.

But the plan of salvation is not something that was imposed upon creation. Salvation requires the action of God (the inner cycle) and the corresponding human agreement (the outer cycle). It is the Annunciation that illustrates this best. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and she was with child; not the child of Joseph, her husband, but of God. So what the church celebrates is not so much the conception of Jesus, but the human acceptance to this divine activity that immediately preceded the conception. “The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk. 1:25). This announcement didn’t make immediate sense to Mary, so the angel explained what was going on (vv. 36-37), and once Mary understood, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).

The incarnation requires a divine component and a human component. This human component is the outer cycle that wraps its arms around and nurtures the mysterious inner cycle. Mary was the person whom God chose to be the bearer of God (the meaning of the Greek word “Theotokos”) and to give him human flesh. So it is that this outer cycle of the church year begins with the birth of Mary and ends with her death.

So Dormition is a very big deal because it completes the cycle of salvation. It is a big deal because the year draws to a close, and now we await in quiet expectation for when it starts all over again in September.

For the Orthodox in America, it is also a time of much hand wringing. Why don’t Christians honor Mary as they ought? is a continuous quiet refrain that seeps into so many conversations about the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. And indeed, Mary is, for the most part, not given her due in predominantly Protestant America. So it is that the Orthodox are always asking, “Why?”

Today I was reminded of the answer. Or, more accurately, I was slapped in the face with answer today. I prefer using the Roman Catholic breviary for daily prayer because of its inclusion of the Psalms. Orthodox prayer books tend not to include the Psalms as an integral part of the individual prayer cycle. One is certainly encouraged to pray the Psalms, and for convenience, I like the breviary because the Psalms are already integrated into the daily pattern, along with prayers, scripture, and hymns. And today, on the Feast of Annunciation, the breviary is Mariological to a fault.

Even for a guy like me, who has been Orthodox for nearly two decades, I find the Roman Catholic approach to Mary quite uncomfortable. (The theology of Mary is one of the great divides between Catholic and Orthodox that make the possibility of reunion to be very challenging.) The Catholic veneration of Mary appears to cross an uncomfortable line in the direction of worship. While I affirm Roman Catholic claims that they do not worship Mary, the language they use still makes me uncomfortable. I understand completely why so many Protestants (and more than a few Orthodox) believe that outright worship is precisely what is going on in Catholic spiritual practice.

This is the great stumbling block when it comes to Protestants (and former Protestants) giving Mary her due. Proper honor of the Theotokos is always suspect because of the excesses of a few. This is an unfortunate reality.

Salvation cannot be understood apart from Mary. Her life envelopes the life of Jesus Christ. Mary is the one who gave Jesus his human body. Mary and Joseph provided the family structure which allowed Jesus to thrive, and thus be able to grow into his own acceptance of his mission in the world (as is celebrated in the baptism). Mary is each and every one of us. And unless each and every one of us assent as Mary did, and say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” then God’s work in the world would come to nothing. Salvation would then become something forced upon us.

God is a gentle God, never coercing and always inviting. When we forget about Mary, we tend to lose sight of the gentleness of God. Indeed, there is something about Mary.

 

Compassion Reframed

Discussing my previous essay at lunch yesterday, I was reminded that the Christian understanding of compassion is not obvious in modern culture. Compassion, according to my meal companion, is a bottomless pit, or “black hole” as he described it. Because the “quagmire of needs and excess of misery” is so extensive on earth, those very miseries act as a black hole sucking compassion beyond what our beings are able to give. The result is that we are stretched to the point of despair.

That description begs a question: What is compassion? Or possibly more to the point: What is false compassion?

Compassion is not a felt need to fix the world. That felt need, common in modern western democracies, where we believe the lie that we can change the world, is not compassion. It is actually a form of triumphalism, a side effect of the Enlightenment and its wondrous discoveries. Politico-economic theories such as Marxism, National Socialism, and Austrian economics (ie, Friedrich Hayek) all include the assumption that the world ought to be improved. Although they go about it in different ways, they all present theories of world improvement on a grand scale.

Of course governments (in National Socialist theory) and large businesses (in Austrian theory) can do a great deal of good, leading to an improved life (the remarkable standard of living in the Western world being the obvious evidence for such a claim). When these economic theories are combined with the modern democratic tendency, these amazing strides are applied to individuals. We begin to think that we (that is, individuals) can and should do the same thing as governments. This is the fatal flaw of much of the world improving that goes on today.

Compassion, like all the virtues, is neither corporate, governmental, nor societal (although we often misapply the word “compassion” to these institutions. As a virtue, compassion is individual, and must grow from the heart. Rather than “compassion,” we would be better served to think in terms of “justice” when we think of government or corporate policies.

Rather than “fixing” we need to think of our lives in terms of “being.” As a result, authentic compassion cannot be separated from mourning, which is the more fundamental virtue out of which compassion grows. When a whole community is destroyed by a tornado (I live in tornado country, so it is an example that readily comes to mind) such as nearby Whiting or Wayne in recent years, there is, in fact, little that individuals can do to fix the problem. Recovery teams that went into Whiting, for instance, ended up doing as much harm as good because of untrained, overzealous volunteers who were simply beyond their depth.

In situations of disaster, high murder rates, the opioid epidemic, etc., the first and most important thing we can do is mourn. Suffering is a given in this life, and when I mourn, I take other people’s suffering into my own being and thus share their burden. This, by the way, is the etymological meaning of compassion (suffering—”pathos” – with—the prefix “com”).

Once we enter into this state of mourning and are suffering with those who are suffering, we are given insight into what I ought to do (in contrast to what I theoretically can do. Maybe I ought to invite a disaster stricken family to live with me for a few weeks until they get things sorted out. Maybe encourage and participate in an intervention to get an addict the help he or she needs, maybe I make a formal and personal complaint to the police department about how they treat the Hispanics or Native Americans in the community. Maybe I give someone a hundred or ten-thousand dollars so that they can get back on their feet.

So suffering with another person leads to concrete actions. We might call that step one and step two. Step three is learning to accept the accusations and condemnations that will inevitably come because I am not doing more. “You helped, Jane, but you refuse to help Jill. You are so selfish!” Being swayed by such pressure is not compassion; it is actually a form of cowardice.

In short, authentic compassion nearly always appears to fall short of the need. And when our actions fall short of the need, we will be accused of not doing enough. If I am a compassionate person, that will feel like a moral failing. And so I do more; I do things that I am actually not equipped to do. I over-extend. And it is at this point (the point where it is not about the suffering of others, but rather what others think of me) that the despair of helping others sets in.

So the final piece of compassion that is an absolutely necessary part of of authentic, divinely given compassion, is learning to bear the shame of never doing enough. That shame is the shame of recognizing that we are not God. That shame is the shame of recognizing that our resources, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual resources, are not infinite. The shame is the recognition that we live in a broken world, and that we can’t un-break it. That is for God alone to do.

True compassion is a gray and sorrowful nether world. True compassion reveals that we are inadequate and incomplete. True compassion leads full circle to even deeper mourning.

In a world where we think of happiness, comfort, a cell phone, and a free internet connection as rights, this sounds terrible. But if we are willing to take that gigantic and frightful step into the world more properly understood, we will discover something remarkable. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” When we dwell in that state of mourning that completely undoes us, we discover that we were undone all along (while just fooling ourselves with our veneer of happiness and a good internet connection). It is in this state of nether grayness that the true joy of God can begin to spread its light through our whole being. We not only discover who we are (undone and incapable), we discover who we are in Christ.

We, who live in the modern Western world, must always keep in mind that we cannot fix the world. We must also remember that fixing things is fraught with danger. Even when governments or corporations fix things, something else seems to go horribly wrong. Suffering is here to stay. Compassion is not fixing all the suffering around us; it is entering into that suffering, and helping where we can. In our triumphalistic world, that sounds inadequate and even escapist. Why? Because at the root of triumphalism is the assumption that we can fix it better than God can, or we have to fix it because God refuses to. Authentic compassion is the mirror opposite of that sort of triumphalism.