Whenever we suffer in any way, “from men, from demons or from the body,” as St. Isaac puts it, we are tempted. And how we deal with that temptation makes all the difference. Do we turn to Christ or deny Christ (perhaps not so much with our words, but with our actions)? Do we continue to love others or begin to blame, accuse and condemn others. Do we thank God for all things, or do we grumble in our hearts? It is a temptation. Every difficult and painful circumstance in our lives is a temptation.
And because such suffering is a temptation to sin, it is also an opportunity to deny Christ. It is an opportunity to curse God or curse man made in the image of God. It is an opportunity to become lost in self pity and never-ending introspection. It is an opportunity to become engrossed in the immediate human or demonic or biological causes, and to ignore God almost completely, as though our suffering and difficult circumstance were happening behind God’s back.
The same difficult or painful circumstance becomes for us the means by which we either grow in Christ or in some way deny Him. And of course what is happening to us never makes any sense in the midst of the suffering. That’s part of the temptation. We don’t know why God is letting this happen. We don’t know what God is doing. It just doesn’t make sense. And at that point of confusion, that dark night of the body and soul, all we have left is naked trust, naked hope that God is still God despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the pain and confusion and injustice of the situation. Can we say with Job, “Even if He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”?
NOTE: Because of an unexpectedly busy week (ah, the tyranny of the urgent but pointless!) I didn’t get this essay edited to post in a timely manner. Sunday’s Gospel lesson is at the center of one of my current fascinations, so I’m posting it anyway; better late than never.
I want to approach this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel lesson by way of a bizarre Eastern Orthodox icon that I just recently discovered when listening to this video by iconographer and medievalist Jonathan Pageau. He explains the icon in far more depth in this article in the Orthodox Arts Journal.
This is how St. Christopher was traditionally represented in Eastern Orthodox iconography. In the West, St. Christopher typically appears as a giant carrying a traveler on his shoulder. And not just any giant! He was said to be a “Cainite” (offspring of Cain) and Nephilim, the half angel, half human creature that was the primary cause of the flood, according the standard medieval interpretation of Genesis.
The reason he is shown with a dog’s head is that the Eastern tradition says he was a Canaanite. Canaanites were a particularly despised people group in the near east at the time of Jesus and the early church. And this brings us to this week’s Gospel lesson (Mt. 15:21-28), where a Canaanite woman pled with Jesus to heal her daughter who was tormented by a demon. Jesus initially ignored her and called the Canaanites dogs (as everyone did). Eventually he did heal her, but the Gospel story leaves a sour taste in our modern mouths.
By today’s standards Jesus’ words would probably be considered hate speech. For the followers of Jesus, the scandal was not that Jesus referred to the Canaanites as dogs, but rather that he relented and delivered the woman’s daughter.
The Canaanite woman and Christopher, the Canaanite saint, are examples of how the Gospel reaches beyond the borderlands of culture into chaos. They are uncomfortable edge cases which punctuate our prejudices that often dehumanize the person who is completely other, whether it is a person of another culture or skin color or are different in other ways, such as deformities, deficiencies, or simply lack of good taste or proper politics.
But this is why Christopher has endured as an honored saint. Of course pure people (that is, us in our self-perception) can be Christ-bearers. We also affirm that foreigners can be Christ-bearers, because Jesus sent the apostles to spread the Gospel to the whole world. But the world is also populated by things that are simply “unnatural” and otherwise beyond. It’s too easy for us to see certain people and think that they are beyond redemption, like dogs.
Jesus could have done the correct thing and welcomed the Canaanite woman with open arms, but if he would have done that, an important lesson would have been missed. In order to emphasize the surprising inclusivity of the Gospel he began by emphasizing the exclusivity of polite society. He started with that which people required, and from there he moved to including the unnatural and unredeemable under the umbrella of the Gospel.
In the Western tradition, according to Pageau, Christopher never entered the nave of the church only coming in as far as the narthex. This is a very interesting bit of the story. The church has rules. In all except the most liberal of churches (which are most of the Protestant churches of today especially in America, but both worldwide and historically, this is an outlier) the Table is “fenced.” Not just anyone can receive communion because, to speak metaphorically, the Cup is like a raging flame, and if one is not prepared by God, the Cup might be experienced as judgment rather than an internal enlightenment.
The one who is recognized as a saint that isn’t fully a part of the Body of Christ (entering the church only as far as the narthex), embodies the self-imposed quandary we find ourselves in. Historically, with a handful of exceptions (modernity being one of them), the church has felt strongly that rules are required in order to be faithful to Christ. But as soon as we make rules we discover that the Gospel can extend beyond the rules. Rules always look backward while the Gospel looks forward and outward. Rules, while required, always end up being complicated.
The other problem, and this isn’t a quandary, this is just plain old wickedness hiding in the form of high sounding rules, is that we often want to exclude certain people, and even worse, certain classes of people just because they are our “Canaanites.” In Sioux City it tends to be Native Americans, in South Sioux City it might be Hispanics or refugee immigrants. Elsewhere it more likely to be blacks, while in a small town thirty miles from where I taught high school, it was whites. When I was in college it was Democrats; in seminary it was Republicans (and that was over thirty years ago … it is far worse now).
Those whom God recognizes as saints might appear to us to be dog-headed men, just as in the icon. In the 18th century the Russian Orthodox Church disallowed icons including any dog-headed men. I suspect that decision had to do with the werewolf traditions throughout that region. Today such icons are nearly impossible to find simply because we fancy ourselves too polite, and such an icon seems utterly gauche. (It’s the same reason we shrink from today’s Gospel lesson.) This is a pity. Having holy objects that included dog-headed men, and especially beloved St. Christopher, presented as a dog-headed man, would be a constant reminder that for us the Gospel rarely includes everyone. Each and every one of us have someone that we would rather remain in the narthex. Each and every church communion has someone who doesn’t fit their standards of life-style or belief. And those dogs?
Far away from us, hanging around with St. Christopher at the very margins warming their hands on the divine glory.
This week we have watched, and possibly participated in, one mob seeking to defend what they euphemistically call their way of life, and a second mob seeking to destroy and banish the first mob. The white supremacists are certainly contemptible both because of their willingness to act on their prejudices and the violent way in which they do it. But mobs in general are contemptible.
I find them contemptible because mobs are reduced to their animal natures. Once a person gets swept up into the mob (whether it’s a legal march in a city park and the quasi-legal other night marches with torches intentionally designed to terrorize and intimidate or an online response via social media which reduces everything to either/or and black and white, the person begins to lose their sense of self and is reduced to their animal instincts, or what Maximus the Confessor called “the unnatural passions.”
What is a passion? Maximus says
- Passions are impulses that move us to action by overcoming our will. Because of this these passions enslave us.
- Passions are powerful because they cannot be satisfied. (This is because the root impulse that drives the passions is the desire to be one with God, but the effect of sin is that this drive misses the mark and gets attached to things that are not God. This might be recognizably bad things, such as a desire to be recognized and the center of attention, or seemingly good things, such as the desire for social justice. The inability to find satisfaction is at the heart of mob mentality.)
- Passions are forces that go against what we know to be the proper action and lead us to actions which are counter to the commandments of Christ. But passions also have the ability to self-justify, so often in the moment, we believe we are doing the right thing. It is only with some emotional space that we can step back and recognize that the actions are improper.
- Passions are also distinguished by “natural passions,” such as hunger, fear, and sadness, and “unnatural passions,” which are the unhinged natural passions that lose focus, miss their mark, or even get captured in a mob spirit. The desire to stop bigotry and hatred, for instance, when seized upon by a mob and by our animal instincts of fight or flight, quickly expresses itself in hatred and generalizations – everyone marching in defense of a Gen. Lee statue is, in this particular generalization, a racist and/or white supremacist.
Fortunately there have been a great number of people who have managed to avoid getting caught up in either mob and have recognized that these generalizations are both false and dangerous. My purpose here is not to enumerate the falsehoods or the dangers of the two mobs because others (and here I think particularly of Jemar Tisby and others with his wisdom and local experience) have done this far better than I could, living the insulated life I live in the Midwest. Rather, my purpose is to put the Charlottesville affair into the context of what the church fathers consider the fundamental battle of our salvation.
We can become enslaved by evil by embracing evil. We can also become enslaved by evil when fighting evil. This is not to say we shouldn’t fight evil (although St. Porphyrios did say just that as I’ve mentioned here, here, and here), but when we do battle we must be ever vigilant of both the outward physical battle (in this case, racism) and the internal spiritual battle against the unnatural passions that an outward battle can always stir up.
I will conclude by proposing that the greatest weapon we have against tyranny and evil is joy. (Remember the 1997 movie Life is Beautiful?) When we are joyful, the unnatural passions have great difficulty in finding root in our hearts. Joy also tends to unmask the pretense of the enemy. (Go look at the work of Rachel Fulton Brown for profound analysis on this point.) Finally, true joy chases away the anger and replaces it with sorrow. I doubt there can be true joy that is not coupled with deep sorrow. When that happens we can recognize that the supremacists are not the masters, but slaves of their passions. When we recognize that we can authentically pray for them even as we struggle against their tyranny.
This morning I was asked why I haven’t written something condemning white supremacy in the United States and saying something about the Charlottesville march, the General Lee statue, etc. There’s a very good reason for it, imho, but before I get to that I will say that I find the state of affairs to be abhorrent. It says bad things about us as an American society when self-professed neo-Nazis feel comfortable marching without the anonymity of the white sheets they used to use … And we’re still not doing much about it!
I also suspect that there are a whole bunch of angry but ignorant young people who were never properly taught history who are caught up in the alt-right movement without any real understanding of how dangerous and abhorrent the larger impulse is. So I am more saddened than angry by the current state of affairs.
But social media is not the appropriate forum for this condemnation. For most of us it is easy to express outrage in the relative anonymity and safety of the internet. (I am well aware of trolls and the psychic terror they can cause. Before social media was around I received death threats aimed at me and my family through the mail at the church, so I do have a sense of the violation and fear that these sort of activities create, but that is the exception rather than the rule.) For most of us, expressing our online outrage costs us nothing and accomplishes nothing while simultaneously making us feel morally superior because we merely expressed our outrage.
Expressing outrage is not the purpose of this blog. If I do express outrage about Charlottesville, shouldn’t I also express outrage about Syria and Egypt where they pick up random Christian clergy and jail them or torture them simply because they can? And if I express outrage about Charlottesville, Syria, and Egypt, shouldn’t I express outrage over the child abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Guam? And if I do that, shouldn’t I also do the same about Canada where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has fallen far short in its duty to address the abuses of native people over the years? … well, you get the idea.
If it’s local and I have some insight that others may not have, I do use this blog as a forum. I recently expressed outrage again at ABC when they essentially admitted their culpability in the smear campaign against Iowa Beef Products. I have personal experience and knowledge about how damaging that so-called news reporting was, so it seemed okay to express my opinion. But that is the exception that proves the rule. If I lived in Virginia or was still teaching in Mississippi then Charlottesville would be the exception that proves the rule, but that’s no longer my context.
So enough outrage on this forum for now. I’ll get back to the lectionary, Karl Barth, and the occasional Zombie Apocalypse news flash.
After writing the post, Gender Identity and the Passions, last week I ran across some notes that I had taken from a 2015 podcast back in 2015 by Fr Stephen Freeman that I can’t find in the “Glory to God” podcast feed. His essay illustrates why it is so difficult for Christians to speak in a Christian manner on these issues to people who do not have a Christian context or Christian assumptions.
He begins with the affirmation that we are created in the image of God, but then clarifies that broad statement. “The image we are created in is the crucified Christ (that is Christ, Lamb of God who was slain from eternity according to Revelation). Along with being the crucified Christ, he is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:24). He also emphasizes the fact that this process of being in the divine image is not yet finished. It is “the image in which we were created and toward which we are being conformed.”
In order to understand sexuality (and given our assumptions today, I should clarify that I am not talking about the sex act but rather our sexuality as male and female – two related but very different things) we have to begin with the movement of the Trinity who continually self-empty into each other. “Therefore,” Freeman says, “we must understand ourselves as self-emptying male and self-emptying female.”
What we see in this world is a distortion of this self-emptying mode. All discussions of our gendered existence (and Christians must remember that in all our discussions) male and female are eschatological images. That is, they are images towards which we are moving, not givens by which we automatically live. The male who is not self-emptyingly male is not yet what he shall be or what he should be, the female who is not self-emptyingly female is not yet what she shall be nor what she should be.
For some the experience of the energies of our nature is changed whether through the brokenness of genetics or the brokenness of nurture as we experience it in this world and they are not yet what they shall be nor what they should be. We share a tragedy that is common to all humanity.
The sacrament of marriage must be seen in this same eschatological manner. Sacraments do not merely bless things as they are but transform them in a dynamic manner towards what they should be. In the case of the Eucharist this transformation is complete. But in those sacraments that involve the freedom of persons, the transformation can only be seen in a dynamic manner. Man and woman are blessed towards what they should be.
The heart of marriage is self-emptying love towards the purpose of union and the procreation of children. It does not exist for the self-fulfillment of our tragic existence. Marriage is not legalized sex nor mere companionship. Rather it is towards and end which is just now being made present. And like every other form of Christian living, marriage is marked by askesis and thanksgiving. The passions are as much a part of marriage as they are for the single state. The proper Christian position before all of this should be humility. The world is not divided into good guys and bad guys, the world shares a common struggle towards the truth of our existence. That truth is revealed to us in the Gospel of Christ and the fullness of its story. I’ve written elsewhere that “kenosis is theosis,” that “self-empyting is divinization.” [Note: askesis means “discipline” or “exercise,” kenosis means “self-empyting,” and theosis means “divinization.” the word the fathers and the Orthodox Church use to refer to becoming one with Christ.]
I am perfectly aware that Fr Stephen’s analysis would be generally be classified as hate speech in contemporary society because he does not make room for sexual self-identification. But a more careful reading shows there is nothing hateful about it. He laments, “We share a tragedy that is common to all humanity.” One cannot speak in a Christian manner without speaking of being “self-emptyingly male” and “self-emptyingly female.” But this is a foreign language today, even for Christians. And because it is so foreign, it offends our sensibilities.
The special difficulty is that this talk of self-emptying is not an appropriate starting point in a conversation with the larger society. Instead we need to live in fellowship with people in society. It’s not so much that we need to invite others in to our fellowship, but rather that we need to go out and be with them. This is precisely why Jesus was condemned. He was the Holy One who ate with sinners and tax collectors instead of staying within his presumed community of religious leaders and the synagogue faithful.
Jesus invited all those who were burdened to sup with him. That is the stating point of the Gospel. The disciplines of Christian faith (ie, self-emptying) are not the Gospel, they become the grateful response of those who have ate with Jesus Christ and discovered the reality of the loving and inviting God.
So there is a sense that my previous essay as well as Freeman’s description of the proper life lived as male and female is not useful in cultural arguments about marriage, divorce, LGBT rights, etc. It is true, but if we hammer on it without proper context, it is perceived as hate speech rather than love speech, as condemnation rather than Gospel. A proper life is not something we can force on people, it is rather something that we must exemplify and then invite people to.
In this sense, I have a great deal of sympathy for what Natasha Sistrunk Robinson said in defense of LGBT rights. (See the previous essay cited above.) This might be interpreted as waffling and backing down on my previous critique. It is not. My critique had to do with the uncritical acceptance of cultural assumptions. Rather this is a statement that as Christians we need to be crystal clear in our understanding that we are fundamentally eschatological creatures who are not yet what will be or can be. As Christians we cannot stand against the LGBT community, but must stand with them even as we live out and speak out the glories of the loving and inviting God, and demonstrate the joys and benefits of gratefully responding to God by being self-empytingly male and female.
The Gospel lesson for Sunday, July 16, is what Jesus called “the Parable of the Sower.” (The parable appears in Mt. 13:1-9 and Jesus’ own interpretation appears in 18-23.) To the extent it is a parable about the Sower, then it is a defense of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t particularly successful at this moment. (For instance, no one had a clue what he was talking about when he spoke in parables.) This parable is an emphatic reminder that the incarnation wasn’t about Jesus’ ministry and its success, it was all about the Kingdom.
As we turn our focus to our contemporary situation, it might be helpful to reframe this parable, as Lloyd Ogilvie did in his book Autobiography of God, and think of this as the Parable of the Soils. There is “rocky ground.” This person receives the Gospel with joy, but when “troubles or persecution” comes, they do not endure. There is “thorny ground.” This person hears the word but “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” distract them. But there is also “good soil.” This person “hears,” “understands,” and “bears fruit.”
This parable does not speak of repentance directly. In fact, a facile reading may lead us in a different direction completely, because Jesus says that the person who “hears” and “understands” is the one who bears fruit. Being a culture that holds reason and science as the highest ideal, we tend to conflate “understanding” with reason. But when we speak of understanding the message of the kingdom, something rather different is at work.
John the Baptist went about preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the parts of last week’s Gospel lesson that were scandalously left out, Jesus condemned the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for not repenting (Mt. 11:21). The Kingdom of Heaven life is not compatible with life as we normally live it and so to “hear” and “recieve” the Kingdom, at the most fundamental level, requires us to repent of our current life and way of doing things. Understanding is not an intellectual item but an action item.
I am friends with a Roman Catholic priest and Missouri Synod pastor. We often see each other at the local cigar lounge where they smoke cigars and I smoke my pipe. It is friendship that is becoming increasingly strained because we view ministry/kingdom quite differently. This week my pastor friend showed us a meme that is currently floating around religious leaders circles. The author claimed that if the men in his congregation knew as much about the Bible as they did about football stats, he would have a great congregation. Both priest and pastor chuckled and agreed wholeheartedly. Both then turned to me for the obligatory chuckle and affirmation that, yes, this is why ministry is so difficult today.
But I wasn’t amused. I simply arched my eyebrow and said, “Really? You think that’s what you want?” In the following silence it was clear that they were waiting for me to explain why I was being such a buzzkill. So I pondered out loud just what sort of people seemed to know every football stat in the last twenty years: out of shape men who are somewhat bitter about how life has turned out for them, so they sit around Buffalo Wild Wings, commiserating and trying to outdo each other with their trivial knowledge. I concluded by saying that I would far rather have people who were committed to playing the game than those who replaced that sort of discipline with information about how others play the game.
Paul, uses that very analogy in his letters. We should train like athletes, be disciplined like soldiers (2 Tim 4, et. al.). He warned Timothy, “Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (1 Tim 6:20-21).
The church fathers used the Greek word askesis (“athletics” in English) to describe kingdom life. With this word they encapsulated what it means to be good soil. Repentance involves rigorous training (according to Paul) so that the rocky soil can be broken up and the thorns and weeds removed. Then, the Gospel can produce great fruit.
My friendship with the priest and pastor are strained because we live in a time when repentance and askesis are not celebrated. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, leave verses out of the lectionary that clearly emphasize the consequences of not repenting. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, think that if their congregations have Bible knowledge, their pastoral ministries will be improved.
But I’m here to tell you that the church, at its core, is not a place to transmit knowledge. The church, at its core, is not a place to serve the world. At its core, the church is a place to repent so that the vibrant life of the kingdom can begin to seep into, and eventually pour into our broken and dried up souls.
Ah, but isn’t it both? Isn’t the church both a place of knowledge and repentance? Isn’t the church both a place of service and repentance?
Repentance is not pleasant. It’s not hard, but we will avoid it if we can. This is why Jesus called the kingdom an “easy yoke.” A yoke is something you put around an animal’s neck. We need a yoke so that we don’t throw it off when it is inconvenient. But it is not a terrible yoke, it is an easy yoke (see the previous essay on last week’s lectionary readings).
If we emphasize that the church is both a place of knowledge and repentance, the effect will be to avoid the repentance (which is inconvenient at best) and settle for the knowledge. And we will end up with a Buffalo Wild Wings sort of congregation where we keep statistics on other Christians while sitting around being entertained. This is why we must insist that the church is a place of repentance, period. Once that actually happens, then knowledge and service and prayer will grow out of the repentance itself. Knowledge and service will be the fruit of repentance. This is the good soil. Any other path will inevitably lead to hard rocky soil and weeds.
The “Finely Textured Beef Product” (or “FTBP,” disparagingly called “pink slime”) libel case has come to an end, and sadly, BPI settled with ABC out of court today. I was hoping BPI would publicly clean their clock. With the out of court settlement, ABC doesn’t have to live up to their libel.
I originally wrote in defense of BPI way back in 2012 (read it if you like). Since then BPI has continued to prove their critics wrong and continues to be a vital part of the Siouxland economy. Jamie Oliver and his self-righteous and uninformed feculence (see the previous post) has disappeared from the American scene. So I guess all’s well that ends well.
Except it didn’t end well. BPI lost millions of dollars in lost sales, leading to quite a number of people losing their jobs. The price of school lunches went up. Ah, but who am I kidding … that’s a small price to pay for a ratings boost for the news network.
I am currently reading the textbook Maps of Meaning by Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Univ. of Toronto. Peterson has recently become infamous for his opposition to bill C-16 (a Canadian Parliamentary Bill proposing full civil liberties to trans-gendered persons that has several scary side-effects). My own acquaintance with his work was through the Orthodox Church and the seeming infatuation many Canadian Orthodox thinkers have with Peterson’s ideas.
I worked my way through the 2017 version of his “Maps of Meaning” classroom lectures, available on YouTube. That was a 30 hour slog that made me wish I was in university again. The lectures piqued my interest; the textbook made it abundantly clear why the Orthodox are so enthralled with his work.
It is now expected and a bit trite to blame many of our problems on the Enlightenment. I’ve been on that bandwagon for 25 years or longer since I read Colin Gunton. But other than recommending the Protestant theologian Karl Barth and the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar, as well as the Eastern Orthodox divine liturgy, I’ve had little to work with beyond repeating the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things” trope.
I’ve known since my college days that the Enlightenment was and is fundamentally reductionist, and thus leaves us incapable of adequately discerning reality and the truth. Peterson has given me a glimpse into just what got left out of the Enlightenment equation:
(Yeah, really! That’s the part that got left out.)
In popular usage “myth” means it’s a story that’s not factual, and thus not really true. To say, for instance, that Adam and Eve are a myth (as Samuel Johnson did back in the 18th century) was and is considered heresy by “Bible believing” Christians. We all “know” that there are facts and there are myths and facts lead to truth and myths don’t. Of course the students of myth (the aforementioned Johnson, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, to name a few) say that this bifurcation of myth and fact misses the point.
And the well informed “Bible believing” Christian might sniff, “Well, maybe it does miss the point, but that doesn’t change the fact that Adam and Eve aren’t a myth!”
What’s interesting about this deep divide between what is often construed as conservative and liberal Christianity is a recent phenomenon. The early church didn’t struggle with this “problem” because they didn’t notice a problem. The divide exists because both parties (liberal and conservative Christianity) have accepted certain key presuppositions of the Enlightenment and none of us (including me) can figure out how to move beyond these presuppositions.
This is where I found Jordan Peterson to be quite helpful. He reframes the issue in a manner that helps me (and obviously a number of other people, given his hearty reception among the Canadian Orthodox) to step beyond the Enlightenment problem of reducing reality to too small a box. Furthermore, he does it in a constructive manner. Post-modernists, and deconstructionists of all stripes, have done a good job of stepping beyond the Enlightenment by criticizing it; but beyond that they have nothing positive to say. Like me, once they deconstruct the Enlightenment, they have no path forward, just the old trope, the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things”
Peterson’s solution (and it’s not his invention – he says he’s adding the neurobiological and neuropsychological pieces to an argument already made by others before him) is not only to expand the frame of reference, but move its focus altogether. Critics of the Enlightenment have universally said the Enlightenment was reductionist. Peterson goes much farther by saying that fundamental truth does not revolve around object, but around meaning. “Objective truth” is actually a second-order truth that is extracted from the more fundamental “significance” (an idea closely related to “meaning”). Significance is what allows us to prioritize and organize objective truth. (See Maps of Meaning, ch. 1, “Maps of Experience: Object and Meaning.”)
To return to a possibly overused analogy (but an analogy that is used so frequently precisely because it is so applicable), Peterson is offering a “Copernican Revolution” as a solution to the Enlightenment predicament. Just as the Earth was not the center of our sky, but rather the Sun (or the center of the galaxy, etc.), so objects are not the center of truth, but rather meaning. Objects come forward out of the chaotic mass of atoms and molecules and energy and light to reveal themselves as objects not because they are inherently objects but because they mean something to us and thus reveal themselves as objects.
Mapping objects is a relatively simple task. At least it was relatively simple from a Newtonian framework. Objects fit into a “time-space continuum.” (Of course the mapping of objects gets a bit weird at the quantum level.) Mapping meaning is far more difficult, and yet it is something that we instinctually know and do. The process of mapping meaning is the dilemma that I am quite fond of which can be described (in Michael Polanyi’s turn of phrase) as, “We know far more than we can say.”
So how do we say that which we cannot reduce to words, sentences, and logical thought? I’m already at 850 words, so I’ll save that question for the next essay.
I began this series of essays with some thoughts about the difficulty of entering into true dialogue with people with whom we disagree. I concluded the first essay by saying that eventually, instead of “continuing to dialogue,” I dropped out of the group. Why? Because true dialog is unspeakably hard and the dynamics of the group were not such that the sort of dialog that was necessary for me was not possible in this context.
True dialog is unspeakably hard because the things we must speak about actually lie beyond the realm of what can be spoken. Each of us is unconsciously shaped by meta-stories that help us make sense of the world by transcending words and ideas. The meta-stories are thus able to unify and give meaning to our experiences. This process is necessary because our experience of the world is always larger than we can ever grasp. It is an essential feature of being limited, created beings.
True dialog is unspeakably hard because we must move beyond the realm of words and conversation (the “speakable”) and start the process of uncovering our own meta-stories that shape our perception of reality (the “unspeakable”). The group I was a part of was a group that wanted to do things. I admire that in my friends; in fact, I envy it, and that is why I stayed for as long as I did. But in my months of being part of that group I realized that what I need to “do” at this moment in time is to “pray things” rather than “do things.”
I was surprised how deeply the meta-story of the monks of Mt. Athos has become my own story. I was surprised at how forgettable books on activism were and, in contrast, how moving the life of Thomas Merton, the non-active activist was.
One does not need to be a cloistered monk to seek union with God. The monks specialize in it in order to teach those of us who live in secular society how to do it. What I need to do is “pray things.” If the monks’ meta-story is true, I suspect that as I “pray things” while my friends and colleagues are busy “doing things,” a far more authentic dialog is beginning to happen. It is a dialog of spirit to spirit as my heart expands and the Spirit groans the larger truth to all of us.
In the previous essay I opined that we need to broaden our face-to-face community and interact socially with a broad range of people. In truth it is surprising how difficult that is. Our social networks, our churches, and many of our social groups are “silos of conformity” where no real dialog with those who are different is possible. There’s a reason for this; being with those who are different is hard.
This year I took part in an Advent book study that extended out through winter and Lent. Over time the group inexorably veered toward social justice issues, not by design, but because the most outspoken members were focused on social justice and seemingly quite dismissive of disciplines focused on personal spiritual growth (except for prayer: prayer is good … as long as it leads to social justice; and worship and the Eucharist are good … as long as we understand that the Eucharist is about feeding hungry people). I hadn’t been intimately involved with the social justice wing of the church since my days as a Presbyterian pastor, so this turned out to be an adventure in community with people of quite different perspectives and thus an illustration of that which I was speaking in the previous essay.
I was unimpressed (to put it mildly) by the social justice movement of the 90s which was long on talk and short on action (except for protests, public meetings, and bulletin inserts – in other words, long on action that made us feel good but short on action that actually led to social justice). Over the years I have come to realize that the systemic change the social justice movements of the 80s and 90s were seeking were beyond the scope of anything that movements could significantly influence. For the most part systemic change occurs in spite of, and not because of, social justice movements.
My new experience with social justice was the same as two and three decades ago. We read books and repeated the same conversation we had back then. The characters had changed (Latinos instead of Somalis, for instance; Donal Trump instead of Ronald Reagan) but angst and anger were all pretty much identical.
It was at this point that I began to disengage in the book study. My memory of my Presbyterian days was that it was the anger that propelled the movement forward and the angst that made it feel righteous. We felt bad and a righteous anger burned against those who did bad. But is it righteous?
Righteous anger is a very rare thing because it needs to be constructive rather than destructive. For me, in my very short time with this justice focused group, there was very little that was constructive. (Conversation for conversation’s sake, for instance, is not constructive; going to a meeting about immigration is not constructive.) It was destructive because it left a slow burn in my soul. Righteous anger, in order to be constructive, cannot be the slow burn variety. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26).
Anger that you sleep on, that you mull over in your head, transforms itself into a variety of spiritual problems. It drowns out the silence of God that transforms the heart into the image of anger rather than love. St. Porphyrios said, “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.” Abiding anger is antithetical to the life of love that Porphyrios is talking about.
But when I disengaged from the book study I did not engage the group in a discussion of these issues, or only did so at the surface level. Is this not a contradiction to what I said should happen in the previous essay? As I said at the beginning of this essay, my experience illustrates the difficulty of authentic engagement with those one disagrees with.
The Orthodox vision of salvation is radically but subtly different than the Western vision of salvation. It took me years to begin to understand and embrace the difference. One of the key differences is that the Orthodox recognize that social justice is inherently futile. The world is broken; we are broken. The result is that when we try to fix the world, we inadvertently break it more. The very idea of changing the world (every college kid’s dream, if you believe the commencement speeches) is triumphalistic and thus , to a degree, idolatrous. Only God can change the world.
My role in that primary grand divine process of changing the world is to participate in changing myself. Changing myself is extremely difficult. In fact, it is far easier to put that aside and go about trying to do social justice and hope that others and social systems will change. In this Orthodox framework, social justice is similar to co-dependency.
But the other people in the group didn’t sign up to have a conversation about Orthodoxy and how it is radically different than the liberal Protestant vision of what we need to do in the world. They didn’t come to me, I came to them. It would have been impolite to force the conversation in that direction.
Instead, I’ll hang around and wait. Maybe at some point down the line there will be an opportunity for such a conversation. But before that is truly possible I need to spend more time listening and being … and allowing myself to fully appreciate their personhood and ideas without (1) merely demeaning their ideas, and (2) not allowing their ideas of social justice to create a slow burn in my own heart. The time is not full, the opportunity is not yet fully ripe.