Four Most Common Myths About Holy Orthodoxy

I have been meaning to write this article for a long time, but the other night I smoked cigars with someone who expressed all four of the most common myths about Orthodoxy, and this is as good a time as any. I certainly wouldn’t pick on my guest – he’s to be congratulated for summing up the most common misinformation and lauded for rightly identifying that, if those myths are correct, Orthodoxy is certainly bunko. But since we hear this stuff all the time, it’s handy to take that set of myths and put down my own response to them in the hopes that, once I blog it, I won’t have to keep doing it. So thanks to the unnamed person who knows who he is, and here goes:

MYTH 1: There are two types of Orthodoxy – Russian and Greek Orthodoxy – that are religiously different. Another way to put this is “Orthodoxy is a federation of national(istic) or state churches based on ethnicity”, which you will even find in some encyclopedias of religion. Even some Orthodox perpetuate myth, which is based on a heresy (phyletism – that is, raising ethnic culture above religious identity). It’s easy for those born in Protestant countries to become confused about the reason, origins, and character of local religious traditions and misconstrue this as a different “denominations” or Orthodoxy. In fact, all Orthodox, bar none, may commune in any Orthodox Church. Another way to put that is that there is one Orthodox Church only, and all churches together are that Orthodox Church, whether the Jerusalem Patriarchate, the Greek one, the Russian one, the Romanian one, or the Orthodox Church of Korea. Anyone who tells you different is either being dishonest or just ignorant, and surely you aren’t surprised if ignorance is a commonplace trait in the world. Actually, to claim such a thing is to utter a heresy, and any Orthodox person saying it should know better. I happen to participate in the Orthodox Church of America (the OCA). But when I’m traveling, I will go to whatever Church is where I am traveling. If in the Ukraine, I will go to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. A lot of people frankly have just assumed that because one Church tends to name its kids for Saints and another tends to do it for Religious Events or Ideas, or because one Church eats dumplings on Pascha and another eats grape leaf rolls, they’re different in some fundamental way. And there are people with common bigotries that grow up in any religion and may express those as “Oh, those Russian people are all screwed up, I’m Greek – or vice versa”. Orthodoxy looks upon this as “silly talk”, which is not to say it doesn’t happen. The notion, also, that all Orthodox Churches (or even most) are Russian or Greek is patently silly. The Apostles founded churches all over the world, notably in the East, but also in the West, and for instance the Patriarchate of Egypt (the Antiochian Orthodox Church) isn’t some kind of subset of either Russian or Greek Orthodoxy. Precisely, the terms “Russian Orthodoxy” and “Greek Orthodoxy” themselves give the wrong idea to English speaking people, because English speaking people are coming from a context of Protestantism, where a religious designation refers to a distinction in religious belief that results in a difference of denomination rather than speaking of merely a distinct administrative reality, like the location of whichever Patriarchal throne, which is more like a distinction between states under the Articles of Confederation. A diocese and the diocesan governance in the Church is actually simply adopted from a) the legal administrative districts of the Roman Empire, and b) those places where the Apostles or their successes founded a new diocese. There’s really no such thing as either Russian Orthodoxy or Greek Orthodoxy in a religious/doctrinal sense, that is if you are thinking of religious doctrine. There is a Russian Orthodox Church in that Russia has a Patriarchate, but not in the sense that it has a Russian doctrine. The same with Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Bulgaria, Georgia, Serbia, and Romania. These are all distinct Patriarchates, which are administrative distinctions, but not religious or doctrinal ones.

MYTH 2: The Orthodox Church is an offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church. This implies, really two things – that the Roman Catholic Church precedes all others in time, and that the Orthodox Church is essentially a Protestant phenomenon – a “protest” movement (today we might call it a breakaway or separatist movement, or even a nationalist movement) against the Roman Catholic Church. This isn’t historically accurate at all. For the first 1000 years of Christianity, there was one Church. It was, by Creed: “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic”. The Church was conciliar (that is, it relied on Ecumenical “Councils” to distinguish its doctrine from heretical movements), and collegial (meaning all Bishops, including all Patriarchates of the Church were equal in what the West would later think of as “authority”, though that concept really only took shape as part of the much more recent Roman Catholic claims of “papal authority”, for obvious reasons). In short, all Patriarchs were popes (it means “papa”), and all patriarchs, with their people, constituted the fullness of the Church on earth, in their dioceses. To illustrate this, when the Roman Patriarch tried to assert authority in the sense of control over all the others, the other Patriarchs told him the Apostles had consecrated bishops and founded dioceses all over the Mediterranean East (primarily, in fact), while the city of Rome had become a lonely backwater in the West, overrun by Goths, with very little left. For all Patriarchs (Patriarchs are Bishops of first honor) of the Orthodox, even a Bishop whose diocese was the size of Norman, Oklahoma was as much a Bishop with the same “authority” as a Bishop whose diocese spanned a territory the size of Texas. The break came 40 years before the “Great Schism”. In 1014, the Orthodox began to remove the Roman Patriarch’s name from the diptychs, which are the prayers for Orthodox bishops. This indicates that whatever the Roman Patriarchy had become, it was no longer regarded as what the other Patriarchates remained – it was thought of as having departed from Orthodoxy, as no longer being conciliar and collegial in some way. In 1054, the emissary of the Roman Patriarch “excommunicated” the Patriarch of Byzantium in a last ditch effort to assert “authority” over other Patriarchates, but this was of course ignored by all other Patriarchs in the world. It was after this that, to distinguish themselves from the radical changes being implemented by the newly dubbed “Roman Catholic Church” (a religion no longer collegial and bound by the Seven Councils, but one that now had only one head and that had began having its own innovative councils), the other Patriarchs adopted the term “Orthodox” from the Church’s own tradition. While Orthodoxy remained Catholic in fact, the Roman Catholic Church became merely Roman (i.e. merely national) and therefore no longer catholic at all. The term “Orthodox” showed that the Church was originally and is still collegial and conciliar, and cannot be parceled off into individual movements of control, whatever they may be called, and whatever might be used to justify it, nor can it be turned from a college of equals into a hierarchy of one global dominion. For the Orthodox, the Roman Catholics are the first Protestants, a merely nationalistic/imperial movement in the West, and the father of the 50,000 Protestant denominations that exist today as likewise non-conciliar, non collegial (and therefore non-Catholic and non-Orthodox religious groups). One last note: The terminology isn’t a trick – all Patriarchs (not only the Roman one) are rightly called “pope” which means “papa”, which is why even the Copts in Egypt refer to their patriarch in this way (e.g. the recently reposed Pope Shenouda). Likewise, the Orthodox venerate, make icons of, and consider some “popes” of Rome, before 1014, as Church Fathers, precisely because, at one time, Rome was actually Catholic and actually Orthodox, because there was only one church, which was that of the Seven Councils and the college of all bishops. Notable, for instance, is Pope St. Leo the Great – i.e. a Patriarch of Rome.

MYTH 3: The Church innovated its fundamental beliefs and doctrine at the Council of Nicea. Does one really think that all the Bishops of the world showed up and came to agreement in a few short years over something they were “inventing”? Anyone who has seen Protestant denominations try to reduce instead of expand their divisions knows that’s not likely, and they have far less to agree or disagree about than a Church with an extensive historical, liturgical, iconographic, hymnographic, hagiographic, and intellectual tradition. At Nicea, which is only the first of the Seven Oecumenical Councils, all of which are equally binding, the Church expressed what it already believed and already was doing the world over, including the Creed that had already been said for 200 years, and merely agreed on the standardized language that would mitigate minor differences in local expression, so they could distinguish the Orthodox Creed from that of heretics. In fact, the Creed predates the New Testament Scriptures and is even quoted in early form in the Holy Scriptures, just as are sections of liturgy, including numerous hymns, as well as pagan philosophers, well known stories, and even other Christian writings. It’s silly to act as if things happened in a vacuum. Just as there had to already be (logically and historically) a global community living and practicing the things it wrote about in its own scriptures, in order to write those scriptures, so it had to exist and be living and practicing the things it agreed were proper at one of its earliest Church councils. Incidentally, the first Church council, which isn’t ecumenical but local, was called by the Apostles and is recorded in the book of The Acts of the Apostles, which is Scripture. Nicea didn’t even invent church councils! But if you really want to know what did occur at Nicea, the minutes of the Council are available – why guess?

MYTH 4: The Orthodox Church, like every Church, claims to be the original one founded by Christ, so there’s no way to know that. Actually, every church does not claim that at all. They claim to be living in the same manner as the first Christians, to have adopted the same beliefs, or to be likewise following Christ. They do not, and cannot, credibly claim to be the actual physical, historical Church founded by Christ. To do that takes substantial evidence that a) Christ actually founded a Church, b) that Church is historical, not intellectual or one of mere personal affinity, attitude, and intellectual belief, and c) it requires documentation of who consecrated every Bishop of that Church in succession from Christ, through the Apostles, their successors (like St. Timothy), their successors, and so on, down to every single Bishop of the Church today. Simply popping up and claiming to be “Christian” or to be “the Church” isn’t the same by any stretch, which is exactly why, of course, we’d keep track of that stuff. In fact, the idea that the Orthodox have to make “claims” is inherently Protestant, and is the kind of language used by Protestants. It assumes religion by religious archaeology, an attempt to recreate something, like a Civil War reenactment, rather than something that has never ceased to exist in the first place. After all, if you’ve been doing the same things since the beginning, you don’t have to make “claims”, you can simply continue being what you were and let those who pop up and invent new “versions” make all the claims. For the Orthodox, you either belong to Orthodoxy, or you do not. If you like the Apostle Paul, join his Church. If you believe the Scriptures, great, we wrote those. It should be pointed out that a variation on this particular myth is the idea that Orthodoxy came into existence only 2000 years ago. While again that is what is said by a lot of Protestants about their own religion, their own “version” of Christianity, which is based on drawing a distinction between themselves and Israel, who they regard as a continuing and separate people of God, the Orthodox deny this distinction. In fact it would be a heresy to claim that there is a continuing “people of God” based on ethnicity, because Christ has come and become the fullness of all mankind. Actually, the Orthodox consider their religion the original religion of man (e.g. St. Adam and St. Eve), and the Orthodox themselves the Israel of God, the continuation of the Israel who awaited and then received the Christ or “Messiah”. Saints Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are our fathers as readily as St. John Chrysostom. We think of ourselves as the people God led out of Egypt and through the wilderness, for which reason anyone who has listened to the annual liturgical cycle knows our prayers are replete with such language, and our religious calendar is choc-a-bloc full of this history and these events as feasts and fasts among our people. Likewise our Churches are resplendent with the iconography of this history and these events, while our temple looks for all the world like the Temple of Solomon, gold implements and all. The Gospels are venerated when carried from the altar as the Torah was when carried from the Ark. Baptism is the new Circumcision. For us, the Mother of God is the Ark of the New Covenant bearing within her Christ the Law who becomes written on our hearts. She is the bush that is burned and not consumed, since God is born of her and she is not obliterated. Our understanding of our history isn’t a mere 2000 years old. We hear God talking to us in the person of Moses of the coming Christ. As far as we’re concerned, Israel *received* her King, and therefore we are his people. There is no St. Paul without St. David. The ancient genealogical succession at the beginnings of our Gospels is fulfilled in Christ who creates in himself the apostolic succession fulfilled in the Church, and so we do not merely “trace” our lineage to the beginning, as though we were trying to dig something up or resurrect or recreate it, but we have never ceased to continually *be* the people of God, historically and really. We don’t go around “claiming” it, in that sense; we just keep being it. And if people don’t wish to “believe” that, it’s fine. We aren’t really a belief system, per se, anyway, in the sense that we need to have a lot of people “accept” what I’m telling you about. We’re historical, visceral, ascetic. Anyway, in that case, Peace. Go your own way. Make up your religion, if you want. I think some of us wish you would just do it from scratch, instead of taking our stuff all the time. It’s kind of “Ozzy”. Give us our books back, and write your own. That would be cooler.

Advice Given to Someone Visiting the OCA Cathedral

My friend (“The Pugilist”) is planning to visit St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas. This is the preview I gave him.

– Standing is the norm – there are no pews, but there are always benches in the back or along the wall in some places for the elderly, exhausted, injured, infirm, nursing mothers, etc. Pews are not the norm, because they restrict Orthodox worship which involves movement of the whole body, for the salvation of the whole man. If you’re hurting, take a break. If standing more than 10min hurts, sit down the whole time, except maybe a few times when you’ll see even the people in the wheelchairs attempt to stand. 🙂

– Praying along with all the prayers is the norm, even with most of the prayers that are said by the Priest or Reader, with our lips moving and breathing the words almost silently. Some words are back and forth or augmented or completed by us, so the priest says something and we say something in response, just like Psalms are sung antiphonally. The most common response occurs in the many litanies, and that’s “Lord have mercy”, which we pray ad infinitum.

– Prayers called “secret prayers” (which doesn’t mean secret per se, but “secret” in the classical sense refers to any prayer said privately) when said by the Priest or Bishop are not audible to us, and occur behind the Iconostasis (icon screen in the temple), and we are praying other prayers at that same time anyway, so no issue comes up there – you can pretty much grasp quickly what seems good to pray with and, if it does, pray it – you won’t hurt anything.

– The word “choir” actually refers to the *entire* congregation – it means “the people” – basically everyone not currently serving the liturgy – so even though there is also a learned choir occupying the two side wings of the church (the church is shaped like a cross and/or an ark inside), when they sing, we also sing with them, not just listen. Not everyone realizes this – a lot of new Protestant converts or visitors think we’re supposed to be quiet and let the “choir” sing but not at all – the liturgy is sung and there are no professional prayers that do it for us. We sing as the choir, and the designated choir is normally an *aid* to help us keep the correct tone for the day and because we don’t all know the words, but learn them by liturgizing over the years. After all there are no “hymnals” – we are not “people of the book” but a liturgical community. The majority of hymns, though, are the psalter, so if you know the psalms, it’s fairly easy to follow even if you’ve never sung anything else with us. And we’ll also sing the Beatitudes, and a whole variety of other scriptures that day. For us, the Scriptures are a liturgical instrument, not a textbook. This is actually how we learn the scriptures, by singing them and continually. Keep in mind, we are also the instruments, the human and rational instruments fit to offer the fullness of praise to God, hence there are no guitars or trumpets. Some Orthodox churches have organs, but not the ones where I usually go to liturgy – those tend also to have pews and so of course people who aren’t standing are often not engaged in a full body experience, nor acting as the choir and potentially not praying along, because the organ takes their place, often loud enough to drown out thought. I prefer the tradition as I understand it, the keeping of which is piety itself. Generally, in the Diocese of the South of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), you don’t find organs in common use.

– An Orthodox person crosses himself by joining the first two fingers to the thumb, which declares the Holy Trinity, with the second two fingers free, declaring the two natures of the Incarnate Christ. Then he touches forehead, abdomen/belly (the bowels), right shoulder, then left shoulder, then briefly the ground, which action stands in place of a full prostration at times where it would bog things down to prostrate oneself continually (which is almost always). Full prostrations occur during certain times, though, notably during some Holy Week liturgical services. It’s helpful to understand the meaning of touching the ground in that way, as intending prostration of the whole man.

– It’s appropriate to cross oneself to venerate an icon, including the Holy Cross, which is an icon, or the Gospels, which are an icon, or any holy object, and then to kiss the icon (not on the face, but usually humbly on the edge, or upon feet or hands), or also when praying at certain times (such as saying “Lord have mercy” or “alleluia”, or when referencing the Holy Trinity explicitly as the three Persons: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit), or whenever it is normally being done by most people in a liturgy or prayers, which reasons you don’t even have to understand to pick up fairly quickly. We also cross ourselves when passing a cemetery, or an Orthodox Church, or when mercy is especially needed (some of us do this when there are emergency vehicles or when an animal has strayed along the road or when someone is in distress), as well as in other times of prayer or during the appropriate prayers of one’s private prayer rule which is established with one’s own Orthodox father confessor, and which usually is a section of the communal liturgy or other common hours of prayer. If you don’t want to cross yourself, or can’t manage it, don’t worry about it. But you’ll find it does help with the flow of prayer if you intend to pray along (and not be bored out of your gourd) rather than be an observer and find the service long and exhausting. It’s always funny how “observers” who are literally merely spectating or watching the “beautiful service” are vastly more exhausted than the people actually doing the work of the liturgy, which is prayer, because they aren’t praying along. 🙂 Anyway, you’re not going to offend anyone by doing it “wrong” or not doing it – you just might find the liturgy less comprehensible, since it’s meant to be understood experientially by doing it.

– The one thing I would advise is that if you say the (Nicene) Creed aloud with us, do not insert the extra clause the Roman Catholics (and hence Protestants) use, but if you don’t already know and say it by heart, that won’t be a problem of course. It’s usually only visitors from Roman Catholic or Protestant churches that might add in the extra words which are a heretical change, and they usually know that’s the one thing that would stick out like a megaphone and either omit them just as our fathers never said them, or else say them quietly to themselves, if they’re intending to remain Roman Catholic or Protestant. Just about anything else you could do would probably passed unnoticed, since everyone is busy praying, and you probably are too, or else you’re in agony from the sheer volume of content coming in from every inch of the cathedral covered by icons full of meaning, with the depth and intricacy of the liturgical prayers being said (sung), and all the visual and visceral things going on at once. So don’t sweat things in general – people likely won’t notice unless you open a hot-dog stand in the middle of things.

– It’s not normative to talk conversationally during a liturgy, as it’s a time we communicate primarily with God, and moving around during Holy Communion especially is not really appropriate. But there is a lot of freedom of movement at other parts of the liturgy in the Church, because there are no pews and, after all, the church is the place where God walks around. People will light candles at certain times, while others are venerating an icon, and others are singing, and so on. Personally, I will often walk a few feet away from where I was standing just to give my feet, knees, or back a relief from one spot, or to move away from any distractions to continual prayer. You will never lack for words or things to pray the entire time you’re there, if you remember that *you* are the choir, that prayers are primarily sung(chanted/intoned), which is what we mean by “said”, and there is continual prayer being offered as a guide to help us pray along. And since the words of the liturgy are objective, we don’t have to compose, stammer, or worry about it – the doctrine and thinking of the Church toward God is contained in those prayers without error or deviation, so we can just let go and “say” along, letting the mind of the Church teach us what we have received from God and the adoration which is our attitude toward God. The time sails past differently than it does outside. Besides, we are praying for a vast number of things that Christ has asked us to consider, think about, be mindful of, focus on, pray for, pray about, ask him for, and intend to do, not the least of which is the adoration of God. Some people might say “hello” and try to shake your hand during liturgy. Personally, I do the absolute minimum necessary to try to avoid offense without breaking the cadence of prayer. It’s really not meet and greet time, and they really should know that by now if they’re Orthodox, but it’s up to you. I may squeeze their hand and keep my eyes forward, without saying anything, because it would stop me saying the words of the prayer I was just saying. What I find works best tho is that my lips never stop moving, if almost silently. After all, even a waitress usually won’t interrupt you if you’re praying and she sees your lips moving. It tends to remind people to keep distractions down and that conversations are for outside the temple, even after the faithful have been dismissed, because others are still coming in to pray for the dead or for other reasons. 🙂

– it’s Tradition, tho not all keep it, for men to stand on the side of the church where the icon of Christ is predominant (the right – the Christ side), and the women to stand on the Theotokos side, the left, where the icon of the God-Bearer predominates. This minimizes distractions between married couples (my wife and I always go to different sides) and between men and women in general. The idea is to minimize normal distractions that hinder prayer. For this same reason, it is traditional, though not all women do it, for women to cover their hair in the Church, since hair is a primary eye-catcher for men, even as an involuntary response, and the idea is to do nothing that would distract from continual and unceasing prayer. I’ll always stand on the right, but of course you’re free to stand or sit wherever. And if you’re back is troubling you, and the only spare bench is on the left, do it.

– Entering an Orthodox Church is usually done by venerating the central icon, which is the icon of the feast of that day or of the season or of one of the saints venerated that day, etc, then the icon of Christ on the right at the front of the Church in front of (not on) the iconostasis (icon screen), then one crosses over at the back of the church to the left side, crossing oneself as one passes in front of the altar (even tho we may not see it, because the doors on the iconostasis are closed), and one venerates the icon of the Theotokos (god-bearer – the mother of God) on the left in front of (not on) the iconostasis. Then, crossing back, if you are returning to the Christ side of the Temple, it’s appropriate to cross oneself again as one passed in front of the altar. If it sounds complex, it isn’t after you’ve done it a couple of times, and most other people will be doing it upon entering too, at least in a place like this where the innovation of pews has been avoided. When they enter, you can just watch and imitate, if you wish to pray according to the tradition. We do this same thing when taking our leave of the Church too, after the post-Communion prayers. You can say a little prayer when you cross yourself like “Holy Trinity have mercy on me” or “Lord have mercy” or “Theotokos pray for me” or “(name of the Saint) save me by your prayers”. If you do get confused, don’t sweat it. When I’m tired, I do things entirely out of order in all respects, and no one ever looks askance or says anything. If you don’t want to do it at all, don’t do it. 🙂

– If ever in doubt of what to do, what to pray, and your goal is trying to keep the flow of praying continually without becoming an observer (observers never “get anything out of it” except incredibly distracted and usually confused, because the words don’t mean the same thing when not prayed) – don’t sweat it – the default thing is always to pray almost silently “Lord have mercy”, and you can cross yourself if you like (even if other people don’t, it’s ok). You really can’t go wrong with those two most basic things. The only time when crossing oneself could be wrong is approaching the chalice (because moving hands could knock the chalice) but only Orthodox Christians (meaning the Church has declared you Orthodox and received you to communion, not that you’ve adopted a personal preference or private feeling of affinity with the Church) who have likewise prepared themselves by fasting and a recent confession (i.e. not all Orthodox will partake of the gifts each time). So other than that, and you would learn a way to hold your hands at the chalice anyway, so you don’t cross yourself by accident out of habit, it pretty much can never be a wrong thing to cross oneself and say “Lord have mercy”. And then usually you’ll find it easy to return to the flow of things.

– It is not normative to leave immediately after Communion, even if some people (or a lot) do so, and even if one does not partake of the gifts. The post-communion prayers are not, for Orthodox Christians, normally optional. While a more heterodox attitude might be to show up for communion to partake of the gifts and then take off, the Orthodox attitude or mind is there for the fullness of prayer, which is expressed in the entire liturgy. Giving thanks for the gifts one receives at communion could never really be optional, and the Orthodox mind views the entire liturgy as communal, rather than the bare/reduced act of the chalice alone, which is a more heterodox attitude. For that reason too, even those who don’t partake of the gifts, rightly remain and give thanks for them. If you have to go to the bathroom during the liturgy, you can – it happens to all of us, but general advice is go before at least, and we usually hold it if possible during the Communion at least, because of the solemnity of what is taking place. If someone comes late, and communion is occurring, they usually don’t even enter the Church proper but remain the narthex, while those in the Church do not move about at that time.

– Attire for men is usually pants (not shorts), any kind of shirt (but usually not one with logos, advertisements, or messages on it – we’re not showing up to proclaim that Winger “rocks”), no watch (we are in the timeless place – upon entering the temple, we have also entered the temple in Paradise, because there is only and can only ever be one temple) and no cell phone vibrating or beeping (distractions).

– While only Orthodox people who have prepared properly may approach the Chalice (for Communion) and, after they do, it is normal for them to cleanse their palates with a little ordinary blessed wine and ordinary blessed bread, there is a time when ordinary blessed bread is offered to all present, Orthodox or not. If blessed bread (which comes from the same loaves as communion bread, but isn’t the Holy Gifts) is offered toward the end of the liturgy, not during communion, but afterward, around the time of the dismissal, feel free to partake of it. Blessed bread is what it sounds like – bread that has been blessed. But generally, because it’s blessed, we do not throw it in the trash, and try to avoid dropping it on the floor, wasting it, or not consuming what we take.

– On any given Sunday – if you’re curious what the order of the liturgy is, assuming you’re there for the Divine Liturgy, on a normal day where we are doing it, it will be as follows:

  1. The Hours (these are the normal prayers that occur throughout the Orthodox day – they are monastic prayers, because the Orthodox ethos, or in the West someone might say “spirituality” is ascetic and comes from our abiding connection and root in ascetic life. We pray monastic prayers, keep monastic fasts, and pursue a monastic ethos and means of salvation. During the hours, the Proskomide (preparation of the offerings), which is the preparation of the communion “gifts” (the bread and wine), is being done behind the iconostasis to the side of the altar by the priest. So multiple liturgical things are, as almost always, happening at once.
  2. The Liturgy of the Catechumens – this is essentially the liturgy of catechesis (education) of those (catechumens) seeking to enter into Orthodoxy, which includes all Orthodox Christians as well, who are all also lifelong catechumens. We sing troparia (hymns) for the particular feast day and saints on this day of the Orthodox Calendar (rather than a religious calendar with Christmas, Easter, and a lot of white space, all the days of the Orthodox calendar are filled with multiple things). Our history and our current religious life are inextricably linked. The Holy Gospels are brought in (this is called the Lesser Entrance), the same way we brought the Torah out of the Ark for veneration before our Messiah came, and the Gospels are venerated, brought from their traditional place of hiding in the altar (where we kept them during the persecutions). Then we have our Readings for the day, which begins with the Epistle (as the Apostle instructed, the Epistles are read aloud in the Churches). Then the Gospel is solemnly read.
  3. The Liturgy of the Faithful – this is the liturgy of the Orthodox, and begins with the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, the cherubikon or song of the angels. “We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity…” The priest at this time, while we are singing, is preparing the altar and continues to prepare himself through prayer and asking forgiveness of the faithful, culminating in the Great Entance, which is a procession with the holy gifts. The gifts are returned to the altar, and Holy Communion begins, which we don’t generally discuss in detail, but there is a lot going on during this time, and it involves our most solemn activity during the liturgy.
  4. The Dismissal – we pray prayers of thanksgiving for the holy Gifts, and other prayers concerning our intentions for our lives as we are intending to go out, and for our relationship to the world. We share more ordinary blessed bread, and then we begin the post-communion prayers.
  5. The Post Communion Prayers – After the dismissal, while the priest is doing the last things that need doing related to the Holy Communion, the faithful are praying our most common prayers, in concert with the Reader, and praying the Psalms and, as always, for mercy. When these prayers are complete, we leave the Church proper, quietly and solemnly, it remaining a place of prayer, venerating the icons the same way we did upon entering.

– Besides the psalms, the most common prayers will be litanies, and the most common phrase in any Orthodox liturgy, said hundreds of times, is “Lord have mercy”. Notably, we say this at every petition in many of the litanies. A litany (or ektina – but who needs technical terminology?) is a sequence of supplications which, as part of the liturgy, are intoned by a deacon or priest in the name of all those praying (we pray silently along). After each petition, the choir (the people) add, “Lord, have mercy,” or “Grant this, O Lord”, or “To Thee, O Lord”, as appropriate to the petition. After the supplications, each litany concludes with an exclamation (doxology) said by the priest glorifying the Holy Trinity (again, we pray silently along, and then add the “Amen”). The Litanies are prayers for all the world (the sick, the poor, the suffering, travelers, nations, peoples, and so on) as well as for the whole community (all who labor and work in it, all who are sick, all who… etc). Essentially it is all those things we have written in Scripture that we must pray for. The Great Litany (it is long and important) is the first one. To each petition we add “Lord have mercy”. There is also the Small Litany, which is abbreviated. The Litany of Supplication is a litany of completing our prayer to the Lord for that liturgy. The Litany of Fervent Supplication is particularly fervent, with a threefold “Lord have mercy” accompanying each petition, and it is often augmented with special petitions, for intense needs of the community (someone is very sick, etc). The Augmented Litany is the petitions from the Litany of Fervent Supplication with the petitions augmented by imploring God to attend to them. This litany might also be augmented with special petitions related to current events in the world or people’s lives, as pastorally needed. The Litany for the Departed is for those who have fallen asleep (died) in Christ. We pray for them, because Death is not a barrier between us and them, and they are our own, and we are theirs, and they pray for us likewise. The Litany for the Catechumens happens at the end of the Liturgy of the Catechumens, of course, and is followed by the first Litany of the Faithful, at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Faithful, as one could predict. The Litany of Thanksgiving is a litany that includes thanksgiving. Litanies are pretty simple, but highly elaborated.

– If you aren’t praying along, religious culture shock (this is really a religion, not a religious philosophy, an asceticism, not a belief system) might eat you alive. If you are, probably not, because man was designed to pray, and it begins to become a cadence for the human person, once the ancient way is rediscovered. You will only likely be surprised then by two aspects of the prayers, aside from the richness of content, the depth of it, etc – one is the amount of repetition (it’s not really an amount – every repetition has a purpose – even the number of repetitions signifies something – saying something 40 times or 12 or 3 matters, in other words). The other thing is the veneration given the Theotokos. It is continual. Any time we may be speaking to, lauding, or venerating “Thee Our Champion Leader”. She will be addressed as many other things that may not be readily clear to people who don’t read our Scriptures the way we do (e.g. the Old Testament). She is The New Eve. The Ark of the New Covenant. Sanctified Temple. Rational Paradise. etc. One of the charges against the heretic Nestorius was that, in order to deny the Incarnation of Christ by denying the Theotokos as Mother of God, he reinterpreted many of the prophesies of the Scriptures (the Old Testament) in order to apply them to Christ or Christ only where the Christians (e.g. the fathers of the Church and the consensus patrum) had always understood those words to be speaking of the Theotokos. She is the Ark of the New Covenant, and Christ is the New Covenant, the Law written on our hearts. She is the New Eve, and he is the New Adam, redeeming Adam and restoring us to Paradise. But Nestorius found ways to reinterpret the mother of God out of the Scriptures almost entirely, to fit his claims against Christ himself, denying that he was one person, two natures, both God and man. It’s not by accident that Protestant understandings of our writings (the scriptures) make use of this same technique today, calling “Mary” the mother of only Christ’s humanity, which effectively divides Christ into two persons rather than one person with two natures. But as we venerate the Incarnate Christ, we therefore venerate the God Bearer, the Burning Bush that is Not Consumed. The Portal. The Heaven. The Earthly Paradise. Her womb more spacious than the heavens, because it contained, by a miracle, the uncontainable God. If you have a Protestant background, it might make you a bit uncomfortable facing this in the Orthodox prayers – if I were to predict one thing that would be most surprising to some Protestants in terms of content (remember, about 75% of things are sung), it would be this. Don’t feel pressured to think as we do. After all, you’re not us. Questions about things like that can be postponed. Just remember that you are hearing those who authored the scriptures singing of their meaning, not doing archaeology from “the original Greek” and not taking them out of the context of the community that wrote them, with the fullness of *all* that it is saying and doing, and was before it penned even the New Testament, which incidentally is replete with quotes from our liturgics, as well as the other way around. It’s helpful to get a dose of that, if one is thinking about where all this came from in the first place, and the community out of which it came.

– If we say words in another language, it will be something that is so traditional that all Orthodox know what it is – for instance kyrie eleison for “lord have mercy”. Most liturgies in the US are in English unless that particular parish was founded to serve a particular diaspora or immigrant community in a particular language. Don’t sweat it or think you have to learn a new language, if there are some ‘foreign’ words in the English liturgy. Remember, Orthodox don’t have to go citing “the original Greek”, because the original Greeks are still Greek Orthodox and have never ceased to speak the language they created out of Hellenic Greek to contain the liturgical concepts in the Scriptures and other books of prayer. But some phrases and words are so venerable and beloved that we say them sometimes in Greek or Russian, for instance.

– If you wish to greet the priest, e.g. at coffee, don’t hesitate, and don’t sweat how you approach – he’s used to visitors, but Orthodox don’t shake his hand – instead, we touch the ground simply, open our hand to receive his, and then kiss it when he extends it. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, or don’t get how yet, just say hello.

– That’s about it – if you’re nervous, there’s no reason to be, because we have visitors all the time. And feel free to disregard these notes. The advice portion is just an opinion, not some official dictate by anyone. I provide them because, for some people, they clarify the most notable superficial things, so they can enjoy the experience of much deeper things that are also notable, without getting caught up in the basics of what’s happening around them.

Beliefs are Trivial

ImageIt seems a peculiarity of the dominant culture in the US that beliefs are accorded the status of conviction, something just a hair shy of “reality”. I blame a lot of fighting on this. I regard beliefs as trivial. I have them, but they’re more like suspicions, guesses, bets, mental gossip. When I say “I believe that x is so” – I don’t mean I’m willing to fight and die for the insistence that it occupy the status of reality for other people, that I need it to dominate all competing guesses about reality. But that’s exactly what a lot of people are doing with the attitude of “belief”. I regard beliefs as ephemeral.

Right away, people ask about religious beliefs. What about those? But that’s circular reasoning. That assumes that one’s religion is a belief system. That’s certainly true of Protestant religion, and indeed that’s the source of this cultural attitude about beliefs. For the Protestant cultural order, whether religious or atheist, whether the beliefs are political or cultural, belief is everything. Belief is the basis of reality. But I’m not Protestant, and no there’s no such thing as a generality about “all religions” which intellectual dilettantes seem to favour in place of actual understanding. This is a fairly recent phenomenon in human history, and it is peculiar to a particular cultural force. When someone asks me about my religion, if I answer at all, I do not frame the answer in terms of belief. I’m interested in reality. Beliefs are like packets of instant gravy. By themselves, they’re not much use, and you darned sure don’t want them as a central foodstuff. Beliefs are condiments for reality, not reality itself.

Once you get political and societal doctrines at work, people seem to become virulently dangerous about it. They glob together with guns and money and go after people who don’t share the same ideas. But what are we really talking about here? It’s the equivalent of a guess on which sports team will prevail, and that’s all it is. A person that can’t distinguish a question of fact from a matter of opinion has committed a psychological violence to himself, and it’s not surprising he’s then willing to do it to others. Beliefs are fine, taken as guesses. Confused with something more serious than that, they’re outright dangerous.

Fasting is the Natural Order

ImageWhen other animals get sick, the first thing they do is stop eating – they fast, in other words. Fasting is an acknowledgement that, as all the Fathers have taught us, we are fundamentally sick with the disease of Death. Not to fast is to deny the most basic truth of our Faith, that we have become separated from God, and is to deny the example of God himself, who became man to unite us to himself, and who likewise fasted and still does fast. As St. Seraphim says, he who does not fast does not really believe in God. Certainly, he does not believe in the “god” we mean when we say that word.

Memorial Day is my All Souls Day

As the Syrian power structure once again shells protesters and slaughters their families door to door, and sounds the refrain that it’s “terrorists” (it learned this from my own people), and NATO and the West yet again bombs civilians and issues the standard statement that “there’s no evidence of civilian casualties”, it is, once again, Memorial Day in the United States.

memory-eternal-memorial-day-2012There are always people who choose to swallow whatever official line is issued. Our livestock-like lives require it as we sit in our cubicles, our pews, our sofas and lawn chairs, our various slots in the established order. We set our minds aside, we set aside the cries of those dying around us, and we nod like bobble heads: “there’s no evidence of government wrongdoing”, “the West is not responsible”, “it’s an indiscernible mess that can’t be sorted out or meaningfully understood”.

If we’re thinking consistently and not simply as bobble heads in the war culture, though, there should be a Civilian Casualty day, a Collateral Damage day, a Murdered in Our Beds day, for those who are victims of those we memorialize. I know, I know – it was never anyone’s daddy or brother or son that did it – they would never do anything like that – it was always some other rogue apple.

I contend that you did iit. You. And I did it. Me too. And so did they – your daddy, your brother, your son, your daughter – all those who’ve worn the uniform. The corporate lackey did it. The corrections officer did it. The technical support rep did it. The spoiled kids at the local protest did it. The person who fancies himself independent of everything did it.

Actually “did” is in the past tense. We are “doing” it, continually, always, and still. We are going along with. the explosion, the knife in the gut, and the official story.

In my tradition, remembering the dead is important. We are still one with them. We are dead, also. This weekend is really more about burgers on the grill than anything, if you look around, which is also doing it – we eat more meat in greater quantities at once than any people on earth or in history – we’re the people for whom the consumption of flesh is critical to our self-understanding and our attitudes about war.

This weekend I’ll keep the memory of those killed who didn’t put on a uniform, who didn’t go out ready to kill other people, who are most often families like those feasting on America’s insatiable diet for production livestock, except they were not insatiable – they were just trying to survive. They did not have a myth of perpetual warfare. They didn’t obsess over uniforms, so that every other show on TV was cops, spooks, soldiers, or uniformed professionals. They were people who loved their children, people with hope, people who had dreams that were burned to the ground.

To you, who hear us still, who repose and wait for the last of us to do so, who my people put to death, who the friends of my people put to death, and who I helped put to death, memory eternal. I remember you. You are remembered. Pray for me that I may be forgiven and enter the place where no murderer may enter. Deliver me from blood guiltiness by your prayers to the one in whose presence you now rest or wrestle in torment.

Why I Do Not Believe

The general Protestantism of the culture (whether you’re atheist or whatever, you’re still essentially Protestant if you drink deep of it) is perhaps nowhere more visible than in its marketing:

  • At Valspar, we believe there is power in color.
  • I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities… (the President)
  • I believe we’re all equal…

Belief, statements of belief, belief systems are the culture’s primary communicative stock and trade. Protestantism focuses on belief because it denies the sacramental character of reality. For the Protestant, the inner man is what is most authentic, and an ultimate personalism (each person is the priest of their own atittudes) supertends the identity. You are, in effect, what you believe, and what you believe (even if you just borrowed it from a movie or someone else’s speech or common parlance) not only defines you, it is inherently made personal by being made the center of identity, since the Protestant, necessarily, conflates person with nature in a “personal nature”.

I mention this because the cultural Protestant (whether religious or not) is simply unaware that many of us do not in fact operate in this way. For those of us who are not believers (in the cultural religion), beliefs are trivial, incidental, generally irrelevant. When confronted with someone offering up their contrary beliefs, instead of feeling compelled to stop and debate, as though those beliefs were relevant, we might be thinking that people believe any number of things – beliefs are cheap – some people believe Elvis is alive – other people believe in income redistribution – still others believe our culture needs this or that solution to a problem they believe plagues us.

These beliefs are significant to the believer to such a degree, having confused them with his own identity, that to dismiss them is (for the cultural Protestant) to dismiss him – he himself, and indeed anyone who shares his attitudes. To a nonbeliever, beliefs are ephemera, transitory, and ultimately peripheral. “What do you believe?” people ask, or “What do your people believe?”, never realizing that the question itself is incorrect. The question itself begs the question, presuming in its premises that belief systems are definitive are a means of identity. The person who asks the question is presuming not only that we are both Protestant, in the cultural sense, but that Protestantism is total – it is all there is – it is simply ‘how things are’ or ‘what the world is’.

This is why it is necessary to offer occasional statements of unbelieverness – which is not the same thing as “disbelief”. Disbelief presumes that culture is propositional and, again, begs the question. I am not a collection of beliefs. My soul – that is my mind, will, and emotions – does not consist of propositions, nor does the soul of anything I am part of – not my family, not my religion, not my friendships, and not my life. I wasn’t born an unbeliever. Like you, I took in Protestantism of one form or another with my mother’s milk. So the journey to becoming an unbeliever meant first considering the culture as might Max Weber or Eric Voegelin – exploring for the possibility of a bigger world, a world beyond, a world that is not adequately explained by the culture. And then it meant rejecting the religion of those around me, and paying with that the requisite costs, which I understood and traded on gladly. You cannot become an unbeliever if you value consensual reality over reality, or the culture over the world.

The tedious drone of belief is unending. Turn on the radio, stick your head into a coffee shop, pick up a newspaper, consume some popular art, and most of what you hear will be a statement of belief. A doctrinal proposal. An alternative conclusion within the same tired epistemologies. I have an answer, actually, for those who ask me what I believe. I don’t believe.

It’s interesting that the first two words of the Creed in my Faith are “I believe”, and the West has borrowed and revised that Creed to suit its own principle of deity and personal religion. But the most significant revision is not the words themselves, but the meaning and act of saying “I believe”. For my people, the next several words of each stanza are the point. It is not the subjective “I believe” that could just as easily believe in longer prison sentences for drug offenders or in some theoretical principle of community. Rather it is the eternally personal object of belief, that must precede the operation of belief. “In one God the Father… And in one Lord Jesus Christ… And in the Holy Ghost… In One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” – always a belief in a pre-existing personal object. The subjective is a participation in the objective personality.

For this culture, by contrast, the significance of belief is in the “I” – in the subjective personalism of the mental action. What follows the phrase “I believe”, even if it is the same phrase, is a propositional reality – a hypothesis – a thing that could as easily be Buddha or Job Growth or Individual Liberty. In short, even when we are saying the same words, we are not speaking the same language. The Protestantism of the culture is talking about itself – the object of its talk is an extension of itself. It’s like when someone says or asks if this or that food is good. Good for whom? According to whom? Or is the speaker the only one who really exists? The fundamental solipsism of preference, and of belief, are a hallmark of the cultural attitude. Whoever it is who is the “I” in “I believe” is the one who exists in a way that the rest of us don’t really exist except as participants in the same propositional assent.

Why am I an unbeliever? So I can exist. So others can exist without believing or disbelieving. So the world can exist, not merely the culture – which consists of propositions. I am an unbeliever for the very reason that I say the original Creed in the manner of my people – so that persons beyond myself can exist (or more correctly, since that’s cultural language – so that I can allow for their existence). I am an unbeliever so I can know – know, specifically a world and persons outside of the subjective perceptions of the ideologue. Belief locks us up tight in the squinting inner prayer to the omni-essential self. Which is why Protestant religionists pray in that manner, and Protestant non-religionists are unaware that we do not share their assumptions and yet do exist independently of them. I am an unbeliever so that when I believe, it is not a subjective preference for one of any number of subjective perceptions, but rather an interaction with someone that is not me or a mere extension of my solipsism – so that it is rather the encounter with someone else entirely.

So next time you hear the phrase “I believe” and “I believe” and “I believe” (and if you listen, you’ll hear it at least 20 times today, in one form or another), think “blah” and “blah” and “blah blah blah”.

On the Anniversary of Ann Boleyn’s Imprisonment

Today on NPR, they read Anne Boleyn’s last letter to Henry VIII, on the anniversary of her arrest. I think if I had been Henry’s successor, and were I a Western Christian, I would have first restored the Church to Rome, and then ordered Henry’s body exhumed, beheaded, burned, and the ashes cast into the sea. And lastly, I would have asked the rightful Patriarch in the Church of Rome to pronounce the anathema on Henry as a heretic (which of course was done already, but still). What a horrendous ruler he was, and a horrendous individual. So much in recent history depends on the arrogance of that prince. He was a hydra with seven heads, once for each of his six wives, and the beastly central visage his self-proclaimed religious primacy as “head of the Church”, for which he executed those who would not agree. Henry, wherever you are, you summed up the fickle use of whatever the proud and powerful cast their eyes upon. You were a new Nero.

I don’t expect people with scant knowledge of religion and history, or who can’t distinguish fact from opinion, or one opinion from another for that matter, or who don’t have a spouse they are sworn to defend to understand this attitude. One can only expect it to be misunderstood and mischaracterized. It is thought that the various antichrists appearing throughout history belong merely to the realm of religion and not to abomination against all that is genuine and honorable. But as Christ addressed himself to all of life, to the whole of human experience, so do those who have taken power where Christ brought peace, and have used that power to use the rest of us, despitefully as Anne wrote in her letter. The dissolving of the monasteries, and the slander against the monks that preceded it, just as Henry slandered Anne in order to demolish her, summed up a fundamental attack on the culture, cleaving it from any remaining ascetic character, along with the ‘virtues’ that entails. Henry is said to have died in his disease shouting “Monks! Monks! Monks!” but who knows.

I am not claiming to be more honorable or less guilty than Henry, and don’t have much use for people who would. I do, however, mark this as one of the great points of failing in Western history, where the West’s knees buckled and it finally fell. Not the only point, certainly not the worst one, but certainly a significant one. It was a catastrophe of vast seismic proportion. I’m currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale, which is about a similar situation to Anne’s. She was rejected for failing to bear Henry an heir. It’s instructive to ponder her final written words, which were to her husband, May 6:

“Sir,Your Grace’s displeasure, and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth, and so obtain your favour) by such an one, whom you know to be my ancient professed enemy. I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your demand.

But let not your Grace ever imagine, that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought thereof preceded. And to speak a truth, never prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn: with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your Grace’s pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation or received Queenship, but that I always looked for such an alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your Grace’s fancy, the least alteration I knew was fit and sufficient to draw that fancy to some other object. You have chosen me, from a low estate, to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire. If then you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace let not any light fancy, or bad council of mine enemies, withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain, that unworthy stain, of a disloyal heart toward your good grace, ever cast so foul a blot on your most dutiful wife, and the infant-princess your daughter. Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and judges; yea let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open flame; then shall you see either my innocence cleared, your suspicion and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatsoever God or you may determine of me, your grace may be freed of an open censure, and mine offense being so lawfully proved, your grace is at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me as an unlawful wife, but to follow your affection, already settled on that party, for whose sake I am now as I am, whose name I could some good while since have pointed unto, your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicion therein. But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great sin therein, and likewise mine enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strict account of your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear, and in whose judgment I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me) mine innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared. My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your Grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I found favour in your sight, if ever the name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing in your ears, then let me obtain this request, and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions. From my doleful prison in the Tower, this sixth of May;

Your most loyal and ever faithful wife,

Anne Boleyn”

This is not the Anne of a TV miniseries, or the speculations of historical gossips who fancy themselves historically literate. This is a human Anne, not a white trash fantasy characterization. The woman was not only despitely used by her husband, and those who abandoned her to his tyranny and sacrificed her to their own greed and religious arrogance, she is now so often used by us to titillate. One has only to catch a few episodes of The Tudors where she appears, or listen to some armchair survey of historical scandals by men who read detective magazines in their spare time to know this is so. Some have even blamed her for “making” Henry a heretic, equivalent to blaming a woman for adultery when she’s been raped (which goes on in various places, as we all well know). We wronged you, Anne. You will stand up in the Judgment you referred to and say that we wronged you, we who have been pleased to make that wrong into a culture and a set of ‘values’ and assumptions and premises that typify the wrong. You will point your finger at my culture, at my country, not only your own, and we will not be able to answer it. As you have prayed mercy on Henry, spare us also by your prayers for the same.

A Liberal, Cross-Cultural, Catholic Mind

Revisiting an old hymn from my Anglican days, “Be Thou My Vision”, I find it full of depth and meaning. But I realized that it uses some of the special language that grow from all religions, and that all cultures, tribes, and lovers develop, and it won’t mean much to a lot of people. I’m fine with that. It’s not for them, it’s for us. But as I go through the coffee shop today, I hear the continual refrain against religion, “church”, and “Christianity” from people whose trite insights indicate they don’t really know much about any of those things, not really – not with any depth. And the dialectic is out in full force – I like meditation therefore I do not like church – I like spirituality therefore I do not like religion – I like tolerance therefore I do not like Christianity. You could fit the point (these are all the same point – x defined as not y) on a postage stamp.  And I think a lot of those folk would be hard pressed to understand the meaning one finds in hymns like Bi Thusa mo Shuile (“Be Thou My Vision”). Again, fine – but dialectic walks awfully close to bigotry. And I’ve listened to people casually dismiss some of the mainstays of meaning for my people, with neither knowledge, nor recognition, nor understanding. It is, at that point, simple bigotry.

I prefer a genuinely cross cultural attitude – or what we might call a catholic one, using the original shorthand instead of the upstart lingo. That’s just the point – what one dismisses without understanding, one finds it necessary to reinvent – to “discover”, as though it weren’t already there.

A genuinely catholic attitude (or liberal one, if you prefer), doesn’t have to derive personal meaning from something to take stock of the depth that’s in it for other people. When a tradition has grown up around something that gives people inspiration, solace, or a sense of honor, such a mind recognizes substance in the meaning that people derives from it, and appreciates it. A fake liberalism tries to do this with paintings in a museum but fails in its areas of special prejudice. A hypocritical liberalism, become shrill with its imitation of the catholic mind and its falling short, like a finger painting to a Rembrandt, looks for justification in the failings of a people. The Inquisition and the Crusades are favorites. One could cite the genocides of their own people – if they were Americans, the only people ever to use nuclear weapons on a civilian populace, the people that broke every treaty it ever made with the Indians and reduced their population to a speck, the people that only recently – in the last 50 years or so, fully honored its former slaves’ right to vote – but tit for tat won’t make the point. There’s always the more righteous or less guilty crime to play with in the argument. And simply put, it would be just as much a fallacy to paint every example of meaning in American culture with the brush of Hiroshima as to dismiss Africa as the dark continent as to guilt-by-association Mother Theresa with Torquemada. And if you have to look that reference up, you really shouldn’t be citing the Inquisition in regard to anything. It’s disappointing to watch people bring up the Inquisition and not even know there was more than one, and they were different and highly localized. If they had more knowledge of it, they might be turning up their noses with indignation at Chorizo and Gazpacho instead of 6th century Irish hymns. It would be just as silly, but closer to the mark.

Last illustration: when you see a family about to part through travelling, and someone sits on their suitcases, and the family joins hands and prays for their safe journey and safe return, you might walk on by, oblivious, because it’s not your family. But if you’ve ever loved someone – I don’t mean the infatuation of hearts and flowers – I mean if you’ve ever breathed with their breath because they were flesh of your flesh (it’s saddening how many young people haven’t ever known this, and become commensurately shrill in their dismissals and denunciations of others) – then you know the same agony, concern, desire, and hope of those travelers. And you may have no one, but you at least understand there is meaning for those people in those moments and, if you have any character, you regard the meaning as substance. You may never have found or experienced anything good for you, with depth for you, in religion. And if that’s true, you should at least understand that, to some of us, it’s like learning that you’re that person that has never had anyone to worry over when they travel. And I’m not suggesting you then rush out and acquire a religion from a menu of options in a buffet of faith. You only get fast food options that way, anyway. Shrug if you like, at religion. But don’t casually wave all examples of it away as ephemeral or ridiculous. As Hopkins wrote, “there lives the dearest, freshest deep down things” even if we don’t always understand them.

Sticky Truthyness and Hover-handing Reality

A writer’s job is to tell the truth. It may be murky, slightly off the mark, or distorted, but it’s still the truth. You can tell when it happens because nearly everyone breathes a bit of relief, as though something pent up and trapped has been let go.

Image by Plastic Legions

A joke about pedophile Roman Catholic priests is an admixture of truth and cynicism, truth and dishonesty. The collective breathe easier, because someone has finally acknowledged the disgust, the pent up frustration. In that sense, humor is always a sign of truth telling. It is the truth that some religious people committed foul things, and other religious people covered it up. But it is also an incontrovertable truth that many morally blameless men of exemplary ethics occupy the priesthood and daily make the world a better place because of it. If you don’t know that, you’re a bigot, not a truth-seeker. So humor is also equally untruthful, because it tends to paint an entire reality with the broad crayon of momentary titillation. It doesn’t generally get at the hard issues. It can’t adequately deal with apartheid or the communist revolution except on the most superficial and inadequate, and ultimately misrepresentative level. Without it, though, without anyone saying “hah hah”, as Lewis Black points out, we become distorted by the doctrines we hold in place of truth.

A thing is either true or it isn’t. There are no degrees of truth. However, there are degrees of understanding, and there are admixtures of representation that we call truth or untruth not because they are not mixed with their opposite, but because instinctively, we love the truth enough and despise untruth enough, that we are overjoyed to get mostly the one and outraged to get mostly the other – enough to greet truth burdened with distortion and error with perhaps undue enthusiasm, and error that contains some truth with perhaps undue rejection and outright dismissal – perhaps too great a sense of purity. In effect, we are in love with the pure, in the sense of being enamoured with it, but we love, in a deliberate and lasting way, the truth itself – we love it more than purity – and we’ll endure some level of impurity to get at it. If it’s too much impurity, we’ll pretend we don’t mourn when it carries away some of the truth, but deep down we feel even that loss in the form of bewilderment, the way a grieving person seems a bit directionless.

Each of these comments is a rejection of the absolutist confusion of truth with purity. For the absolutist, whatever is not mixed is truthful. The story which seems to fit perfectly is taken as gospel – as adequately explaining a thing. Impurity is everywhere, and admixture is the way of the world – there’s nothing that isn’t polluted with Death, which is why the absolutist finds it most convenient to retreat from the world and into theoria – theory – doctrine – the truthyness (not truthfulness) of propositions – political, religious, or common platitudes. It’s not that we don’t love purity as well – it’s that it is nowhere to be found in this world, if it is of the substance of the world. We either take our truth polluted with runoff, or we make up (fabricate) our “truthy” propositions, our doctrinal statements about things, and our unspoken doctrinal assumptions. Doctrine, in this sense – not falsehood –  is the opposite of truth.

We’re not talking about expedience. Sometimes the evangelical’s assertion that goodness in ordinary art is to be applauded can devolve into encouraging art to have a “message” – a doctrine – that stands in for art’s capacity for truth. “What’s the message of this film?” you’ll hear on NPR. It’s not just the evangelical right – it’s the whitebread, yuppy liberals too. Doctrinal types are all on one side of the spectrum, for all their pretense of being right and left – they are arrayed, as doctrine is arrayed, on the opposite side from truth and falsehood. Purity on one side – truth and falsehood on the other. But it is true that those who love truth more than they are enamored with purity will find relief, comfort, and encouragement in art that contains distortions. You can hate cop shows, because of the constant justification of expedience – cops are paid to lie – no two ways about it – if you deny that, you’re just ignorant of the job . And also because cop shows often receive funding from government agencies to run scripts that ‘advertise’ a certain message – the doctrine makers are always poking their noses in – this month it’s what happens to drug users, next month it’s shaping the perception of terrorists – again, if you reject this, you’re just uneducated on how it works – it’s not lack of available information – it’s that you don’t know. But those shows sometimes, because of the strength of the writers, also tell a good story, and a good story is always the truth.

It’s a common adage, a cute one, that fiction writers are in the business of being paid to lie (just like cops). But successful fiction writers, the ones that grab us and inspire us, or make us weep, even when they kill people we love, and hurt people we adore, are in fact being paid to tell the truth. A good story is always the truth. True enough, the word “good” is easy currency, and there are plenty of people calling the Twilight series a good story who don’t know the difference. It’s like saying “this bean dip is good”; I’m sorry, but it’s bean dip – it’s about as far from good as good gets. We’re not begrudging their enjoyment, but it doesn’t have to involve a conversation any more than taking a “good” dump. But truly good stories, the kind of stories that inspire, encourage, or move minds of every calibre, can only do so because they are the truth, even if completely inaccurate or wholly made up. Braveheart is a good example. The guy that sits in a first viewing of Braveheart and claims he’s above it, that it’s lowbrow, is just a snob (i.e. dishonest about culture and preferring doctrine/purity over truth). It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the entire Western canon or if you have to ask what calibre of shot that cannon fires, you must acknowledge that Braveheart is a good story. And at the same time, if you know anything about it, you must acknowledge it is a woefully historically inadequate one (conflating periods of history and people who didn’t live at the same time as each other). It’s messianic fiction of the most egregious kind (part of that trend of every ethnicity gets a hero – the first Polish postal worker, etc). It features an American as the Scots hero, because there aren’t any good Scots actors (sorry Sean Connery). Actually there are many, Moneypenny. But for all that, it’s a good story, and it is, in that most important way, the truth. In fact, the people that want to sit around after and say “you know that Robert the Bruce didn’t actually fight in that battle…” – well, you just want to throw your sandwich at them. They’d make excellent school hall monitors.

It’s just as common to dismiss any underlying truth to human experience – to feign superiority in that way – as to pretend to be above being affected by the truth of a good story. The conscientious evolutionist rejects religion, but usually can’t stay in a room when basic logic is defending it. The guy who wants a life of bean dip and video games writes off the Western canon, but also the Watchtower – so it’s not like he really knows the difference – it’s just easier to disbelieve than to make distinctions. The fundamentalist rejects ethics and tries to turn the epic of a people he finds in a book, that his people didn’t write, into a set of doctrinal propositions that supercede the precepts of justice those very people struggled with – which gives you neoconservatism as fundamentalism turned into expedience (pragmatic utilitarianism). There are those who reject anything that doesn’t gain social approval – they want the ‘truth’ of cool. You hear them mouthing various assertions about social ethics in the form of doctrines, but they’re not interested in the ethics of how they respond to the ‘uncool’ and those who disagree with their group – not in actual ethics – not in truth itself. Truthyness rules the day. Remember the Saturday Night Live skit, where they asked GW Bush to sum up his policy in one word and he said… “strategery” (stra-TEE-jury). Truthyness abounds.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses came to see me today, and I sent them away. They had the truth(yness). I saw it in their hands. I could have had it for a very modest donation. But the truth was they sent women, in pairs, in nice cars, dressed a certain way, because the truthyness has to be presented a certain way to get people to take it. That’s the truth. It’s also the truth that underneath the doctrine, that the bean dip guy has absorbed from his culture just as much as the Watchtower fundamentalists have from theirs, are real people. So I tried not to snarl, not to be too growly. I was incredibly firm – they didn’t say a word when I said, “Whatever you’re selling (didn’t dismiss their particular doctrine), I’m not interested. Could you please leave?” Maybe I could be a “nicer” person, but I don’t think so. But, if anything, it does give me an opportunity to think about truth and how much we all desire it, tho at the same time we are afraid and tend to make love to it through a sheet – which is the doctrines – the messageness –  I mentioned.

When you look at photos of virgins, often, they are doing the hover-hand thing with the women in the photo. Maybe it’s not virginity per se, but it’s a certain delicacy in handling women – a sense that she might be outraged and the embarrassment or other social penalties extreme for touching her without her express consent (at least that’s the theory – I think it’s also that touching is an intimate thing – a truth, there – and his feeling is that she’d reject intimacy – but photos extort people into pretense situations – forced to smile – forced to stand close). Let’s go with the theory, tho. If you’re in a photo with me, and we’re getting in tight for the camera, my hands are going to be on you. Hips, shoulders, maybe even a bit of neck. I’ll fit right into the nearest curve. I try to stop short of thighs, even though I’m really comfortable with it. I find that a lot of skeptics about truth are simply virgins when it comes to it. Not that they haven’t experimented with truthyness. But joining an evangelical cult, sitting in the back of a Methodist Church, or being active in a political movement isn’t really the same thing – it’s more sex with a sheet up – it’s truthyness. Strategery. It’s like the WMDs in Iraq (now Iran). We know they’re there, but that isn’t the truth. The truth is who we are as a people that we still want to want to decide to decide to believe what people want us to in order to not have to face up to what we are. Strategery is truthyness is strategery.

We’re ready to bomb someone (because we want to) because they have WMDs.  We dismiss Roman Catholicism (without any theological literacy), because all priests are molesting children or complicit in it, or because they’re guilty by association – and while we’re at it, let’s reject all religion too (because while we’re dropping distinctions, it’s easiest to drop all distinctions). We’re ripe for truthyness; we’re virgins in regard to the truth. Or we “have” the truth (right there, tucked under our arm – whether it’s the Watchtower, or our understanding of the Hebrew/Orthodox scriptures – even if we’re not Hebrew or Orthodox). We come from long lines of virgins to the truth. But art still gets us. You don’t have to drag a fundamentalist, a neoconservative, or even a non-violent liberal to see Braveheart the first time. And there’s a reason the Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden to watch such movies (except sometimes under the premise that it will help them relate to the people they’re trying to convert). The Mormons, of course, create a cleaned up version with no sex or swear words (all the violence still intact) for the Utah market, but they don’t reject the story. The gamers know the game will suck, but try it out anyway, because even though they reject “truth”, the movie was good, and they watch it again eating bean dip. Art gets through. The truth gets through. Truth is that thing that lets us breathe, that provides relief. That’s where the Soviets (and now the “Red Chinese”) failed – the more you drop an “iron curtain” over people’s access to art, the more they will hunger for it.

“Information” has become the truthy substitute for truth in this regard. Wikipedia and Google and Youtube stand in for truth and art (sometimes Youtube is art, to be fair). But you can get wrong information. And it will indoctrinate, but not set you free, in the way truth does. We live in such an information glut that even the people who specialize in information seem to be lacking the pertinent truths. How common is it for some kid to mouth off “you can’t tell me anything about x, I have a degree in x.” I’m especially amused when x is ethics or theology – but really, anything. In truth, the degree doesn’t mean diddly just now if you missed the truth that’s operative at the moment, or that’s applicable to the situation at hand. Put your hands on her, dammit! If she slaps you, smile but don’t move your hand. If she only slaps you once, move your hand deliberately – either away or on her. But stop being truthy – be truthful. Information isn’t always truth, except in the way Stephen King uses it (“information” is a very special word in his book “Hearts in Atlantis”, which is a book about truth).

You see truthy people flirting, hover hand, with truth by dabbling. A little ‘realization’ here, a little mental upgrade there, but always keeping that sheet up – always the distance. St. Irenaeus of Lyons described it as “always asking questions, but never intending to really come to the truth”. Truthy flirters stop at the first breath of truth, and ooh and ahh over the profundity of it. Wow, a girl. Yeah, but imagine what actually touching her shoulder would be like. Imagine if you didn’t take out the sex scenes and the swearing. Imagine if it was good like Braveheart was good.

The first step in getting past being a truth virgin is allowing for the possibility. The next step is questioning the truth of the truthy platitudes you’ve used like a sheet to shield you from truth. It could be that intellectually superior dismissal of anything not informationally doctrinal. Hordes of IT types go down that path to truth virginity (citing those Roman Catholic child molesters as they go). It could be the lazy, bean dip dismissal of all distinctions (there’s no underlying truth, there’s just simplicity, and the next X-box). Or maybe it’s the way you’re reading our book, which your people wouldn’t have the capacity to write, which is why you’re always “explaining” it. Or maybe you did write your own book, and you’re just going to the next door after I shoo you away from mine, all dressed up to market something which doesn’t have the authenticity to sell itself. Maybe you’re deep in the cool social ethics, and above all the rest of us trogs – I know I am, sometimes. It keeps me insulated from the truth, when I want to be. But real ethics, truthful ethics, is so very much more involved. It’s the difference between a woman and thinking about a woman on the way home after the photo where you hover handed her.

I’ve never met anyone who I thought was interested in truth who didn’t allow for the possibility of truth and who wasn’t critical and dubious of the sheet they had up against it. If there’s really nothing on the other side of the sheet, why have it at all? If there’s no possibility of something there, why would you need a barrier? Fear of the truth is the reason we hover hand it. What I’m interested in is slipping past the hand with art. I’m not an artist yet. I’m not a writer yet. It’s my intention to be one. We’ll see. In the meantime, shoo, shoo away from my door with the brochure containing the truth. You’re better off bringing over a Braveheart DVD and offering to come in and watch it with me one more time. For me, it’s 13th Warrior, but I can do Braveheart.

Koran Equals US Flag for Religious Conservatives

I don’t take the census of what people think where I live about koran burning. I fully expect to hear “Awl bern one them KO-rans rat now.” But I’ve tried to think of what one could do to fundamentalist neoconservatism that would have the same impact. Not because I’d advocate it – that would make me an idiot as well. But because if you needed to convey how it would feel to people who possess no empathy for other cultures, religions, or skin colors what could you point to? And I have it. Burning the US flag – the “American” flag, as they’d call it. That would carry the same emotional impact. They’d handle it differently. There’d only be an increase in driveby shootings involving trucks, beatings up of gays (someone would draw some feeble relationship to that), and general school bullying. No bombs in the street, because fundamentalist neoconservatives are stymied by their own endless demands for a security state that would catch them – it was only supposed to catch the bad guys.

Isn’t it odd, though? Try to deny it. Isn’t it odd that what the Koran is, as holy book, to fundamentalist Islam, so the US flag is to fundamentalist neoconservatives in the US. Not the bible or the cross, but the flag. Is that not telling as to what that religious and cultural persuasion has become? You could go on – Reagan could be their Mohammed – etc. But the flag – that’s truly the corpus of worship in the predominant religious movement in the US. It’s really “me”-ness in all it’s forms. Whiteness. My truckness. US-ness. My politicsness. My personal philosophyness. It’s the ultimate cult of self-worship. The flag is merely the best external symbol that represents simultaneously me-ness and the collective, homogeneity-ness – the us-ness. For the fundamentalist neoconservative, the US flag is the ultimate resolution of the perceived contradiction between the one and the many, monism and pluralism. It is the prime talisman of the social attitude.

Maybe there should be a policy: for every Koran the US ‘accidentally’ burns, it should have to burn one US flag of the same condition or better. That might be taken for contrition. Saying “we’ll issue training” probably will just sound corporate and lame. You could even see some groups holding flags hostage to exchange for the return of Korans that shouldn’t be in infidel hands. When you hand over the book, they hand over the flag, and everyone’s happy. A kind of MAD policy for korans and flags could be in place – take down 5 of one, and they take down 5 of the other.

We don’t think that if fundamentalist neoconservatives or neoconservative fundamentalists (same thing) understood that Koran = US Flag they would say “Oh, I get it now. We’ll make sure we never, ever do that. WE’ll try to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot that forbids Koran burning.” No, because the attitude is very much that the US flag should fly over all. Imperialism is part of the religion, if you will. Cultural, religious, political, ethnic (if we don’t try to kid ourselves and say ‘no, no, that’s the one exception’), or whatever. No, we’d hear “tough titty” from that camp – we know that any pretense at ethics is a facade – ethics being the science of consistency with principles that establish the self and the human race. No, it’s me-ness and us-ness, not ethics. The flag is the ultimate expression of ethics-free imperialism.

But at least if the non-fundamentalist, non-neoconservatives, known by “true Americans” as “you people” have in your toolbox this comparison, you can waste less time deciding whether to engage in debate if someone in a checkout line brings it up. All you need is a 49-cent flag from the dollar store and a lighter to make your point. “What if I did this? Would this be OK?” Of course, expect riots, beatings, and lots of airplay in the news.

What is It OK to be Proud Of?

Image“It is shameful to be proud of the adornments that are not your own, but utter madness to fancy one deserves God’s gifts. Be exalted only by such achievements as you had before your birth. But what you received after your birth, as also birth itself, God gave you. Only those virtues which you have obtained without the co-operation of the mind belong to you, because your mind was given to you by God. Only such victories as you have won without the co-operation of the body have been accomplished by your efforts, because the body is not yours, but a work of God.” – Saint John Climacus

Editor note: the things we call “male pride”, “civic pride”, “national pride”, “personal pride” are all covers for things forbidden by authentic Christianity. You do find the sort of ‘victory’ ‘armies of god’ ‘triumphant’ megachurch insane power-mongering out there that makes of pride a religion – a religion cut almost wholly from the cloth of that grievous passion. But that is to Christianity what KFC is to Chicken, or MTV is to Music. The Orthodox Mind is forbidden all forms of pride, just as it is forbidden the fiction of “righteous anger” and all other forms of “virtuous sin” and “righteous unrighteousness” and “bullshit truth”. We are forbidden to turn the temptations of Christ into the virtues of the Christian, and any “Christianity” that does so is an abomination, besides not being that which Christ himself founded and has never ceased to preserve intact.

A Faith that can’t grapple with the actual teachings of the Church might be a cultural icon, a revered institution, in an NPR kind of way, but it’s still not Christian. Christianity is far more challenging than that. It doesn’t leave us all right in the main areas of our lives and just clean up our ethics a little bit. It’s not primarily a religious philosophy. It’s an ascetic war. It transforms the things we *most* want to protect. It casts down the established pillars of our culture that we consider most authentic and to be believed. That which we are most prone to wink at. That which we think is so “traditional” that it has to be accepted. That is the idol to be destroyed by the One who is before the ages, and the tradition that is older than our oldest institutions.

Epistemology, Judgement, and Identity

ImageFor me, epistemology, judgment, and identity are the core variables that determine whether I engage people seriously or merely humour them.

How do you deal with motivations and behaviors you don’t understand? Do you superimpose meaning over them, thereby substituting an illusion for understanding, an assumption for reality, or do you allow yourself to remain in the dark and be comfortable with the dark, rather than fabricate artificial illumination?

How do you deal with motivations and behaviors you don’t agree with, but that harm no one? Do you need to get the other person to agree, or do you accept other people being ‘wrong’ and living ‘wrongly’? Are there areas where my harmless but “wrong” attitudes and behavior are simply unbearable? Should I then continue to bear with *your* wrongness, or shall I now decide that your wrongness is likewise intolerable?

How do you distinguish your perceptions from reality, or do you? Do you see the world as a function of your own mind, or is it a thing in itself that is often beyond your grasp? Can you live in a world like that, or do you require a solipsistic world – one in which you are the only real thing, and all else has reality only to the degree and in the way in which you perceive it?

Are you looking continually for truth in life, which is our representative word for the at once transcendent and real, or is expedience more important, which is a life that’s merely self-defining and has no significance in relation to another thing of which it is a part and microcosm? In short, is it just getting this or that thing you want, or is knowing worth more even if you get nothing?

Are other people the measure of you as a person, or are you unique and immeasurable by any standard, imcomparable, non-analogous, beyond comprehension? Is it more important to know what other people expect of you, what they like and don’t like, what they prefer, how they might respond, or rather to know who you are and what you want? Or again, is who you are and what you want a quantity of what other people expect and how they respond – which is simply to answer “other people are the measure of me as a person”?

Personally, I am comfortable with the darkness, I am comfortable with you being wrong and living wrong, I am not limited only to my perceptions – I can actually touch reality and know that I have, I do not accept existence without continual pursuit of truth – consequences be damned, and the world is not the standard – I am the proverbial unique star and there is no measure of me but me – I am an incomparable universe – a microcosm only of God himself, frail though I am. If you answer these questions differently, I accept that. I don’t need you to answer them the way I do. But we probably won’t ever engage seriously in the areas where we differ – not *these* areas. I consider these fundamental, core – determining factors of what we mean by knowledge, ethics, reality, transcendence, and identity. I think they are the core epistemic and moral questions. That’s all.

image is Diogenes by Jules Bastein Lepage

Fundamentalism is to Christianity what Top 40 Country is to Folk Music

It’s Thistle & Shamrock night, and Folk Salad night. I’m always surprised that people seem surprised, sometimes, because I listen to Celtic or Appalachian folk. Likewise, I have a straw hat I wore when I ran a company based on working outdoors. Normally I come off as either a bit Breaking Benjamin or just Wagner, though my secret passion is lesbian music. I’m a diehard Sarah Maclachlan fan, and adore Tori Amos, which makes all the gruffer men around me shake their heads in vicarious embarrassment. I actually bought the Lillith Fair CDs.

ImageThe answer is simple. I respect things that have a long tradition – either of development or of sustained and resilient meaning. That’s not what I see in a lot of pop music nor in most pop religion, each of which are rife with ill-advised fads – like the mullet which, for a time, was supported by both, to mention the least embarrassing example. I’m not an Anglican, but no one can witness the prayer of humble access contritely offered and scoff, except a small-minded buffoon. The same with the cycle of Holy Week liturgics in the Church of the East. And I’ve never seen a child left hungry, or a mother deprived of a coat in one of those rural, full gospel black congregations.

It’s popular to utter trite remarks in coffee shops like “organized religion is just stupid”, but I can’t help but feel such pseudo-intelligent postures are a cover for a certain lack of experience and inability to take stock of the heft and substance around traditions with which the dilettante isn’t familiar. The comment could just as easily be, “Baroque music is dumb” or “there’s no value or significance to the poetry of the Romantics”. One cringes at people who can be so small minded about calling things small minded.

But small mindedness certainly does prevail in almost any area of human endeavour. We like to hold up medicine or law enforcement or military operations as somehow sacred priesthoods, or the laboratory as a place of unquestioned sanity and sanctity. Yet we are aware of daily abominations in each of these fields of endeavour – indeed – we have created of them a popular machine that serves craven and prurient interests. The standard has become widespread incompetent care, brutality, disregard for the innocent, and the inflicting of immeasurable suffering, pollution, and corruption. In the main, there is nothing pure. The middle of the road is always a Hell, to paraphrase Our Lord.

There is no question that among the fields of human endeavour suffering from vapid mediocrity, saccharine pretense, and shallow hypocrisy, art and religion are as burdened as statecraft and education. The critics are often as insipid as the thing criticized. You may think that of me. Everywhere, disappointment is abundantly available.

But the fact remains that, as Hopkins said, there yet remains “the dearest freshness deep down things”. There is substance in our world, and it is to be found in all of the aforementioned areas, however rare it has become and therefore more precious. A person that cannot appreciate tradition in its many faces, who cannot abide the enduring things, the things that have grown mature or show stern metal by lasting largely unphased by the exigencies of human frailty, is neither educated, nor a person of art, nor of books, nor of man – not really, nor of the earth.

And to love those things, is to at the same time at least distinguish them from passing novelties and temporal confections, however fun those might be for the moment, with whatever passing fascination. This is simply discrimination – a positive virtue, lost in the fake egalitarianism of the 1990s, where noticing the complexity of a Rembrandt vs. the simplicity of a Matisse, or of Michaelangelo’s sculpture vs. a straw basket, was a thought crime. One can like something about each, and still appreciate the depth of the Sistine Chapel vs. a random spot of paint tossed onto a canvas in a some inflationary New York studio. One can like Alice Walker and not claim in some sophomoric pretense that her poems are no different than Hallmark jingles, nor need to insist in some bourgeois way that likely Walker herself would reject, that her work equals the Bard. The confusion of processed food with food, by analogy, results in the thoughtless obesity of our age. And the snobbery that insists your gruyere is better than my cheddar isn’t a solution.

I love Depeche Mode and dig Johnny Cash, but it’s not Handel’s Messiah, nor is the Messiah, wonderful as it is, capable of conveying the depth of ages more vast in the voices that arc across a Russian cathedral dome at the birth of God into his world. When I compare any of these things to what I see when I glance (I can’t bear to watch for long) at megachurch prosperity religion with its amped up “soldiers” of a make believe “christ” or when I can’t make it out of a store before someone flicks on some overfed urban cowboy affecting a drawl as he claims our country is right even when it’s wrong (often crossing over, in fact, into the very Velveeta faith we’ve mentioned), I detect more than a difference of degree or of flavour. I detect a difference of phyla – like the difference between SPAM and the ham steak my grandmother used to serve on Southern holidays. One of those even my dog won’t eat. He knows it isn’t food. It’s what Hawaiian Punch is to fruit juice or what Wonder Bread is to bread. What is it Lewis Black says? “MTV is to music what KFC is to chicken.”

So yeah, folk music. I’m all about it. For the same reason I prefer those Russian voices and incense of the same substance that was two millennia hence placed before the newborn God, instead of plasma screens and theatre seating with some guy telling me it’s all right to base my life on the production cycle of the Mercedes. I’m not a snob. I snack a little on sugar, salt, and fat. I read Stephen King. But as a culture, I recognize we’ve become artistically and religiously obese, because we can’t tell substance from crap. There is definitely a difference, and if one can’t appreciate that difference, then perhaps it’s at least a worthy goal. Call it education, refinement, or just awareness. The alternative is to toss out every voice with a twang, and chase the widow out of her temple for daring to offer a mite, like some beret-wearing pseudo revolutionary going on about the ‘purity’ of the “movement”. Fascism (whether in the name of socialism or culture) is every bit as popular as a complete absence of discrimination that leaves us at the mercy of pop-everything. Both are equally to be abhorred in favor of an open and exploratory conscience that can appreciate those “deep down things” Hopkins mentioned, wherever they may be found.

Conversion as Time Travel

ImageWhen some people ask about my religion and, and I mention our traditions, they express surprise because I wasn’t raised in it. Their point is that, if you didn’t grow up in the Faith, speaking of “my people” or “our tradition” seems false or contrived. It has taken me some years to realize that, because they are inundated with fundamentalist ‘messages’ from every megaphone the world offers, they have never grasped the core concepts of actual Christianity.

For some religions, ethnicity is everything. The original Hebrew religion is like that. Likewise, for some ethnicities, religious identity is almost assumed – in some Muslim countries for instance. In fact, you could say those twin means of religious-ethnic identity were almost the essence of religion itself, until Christ. What Christ did is not merely teach an ethical life, but actually institute an ethical premise – the concept of conversion as we know it, that is the removal of barriers between people that persist on the basis of differences like ethnicity. The distinctions are preserved, the opposition removed.

By rejecting the notion of either a Hebrew religion or a Hellenistic religion (as the Apostle put it, “in Christ there is now neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female”), the original Christians made all converts the full inheritors of all the history and tradition of God’s dealings with man since the beginning, without regard to race or gender. The origins of this attitude are, it seems, not widely understood. One of the damages done by the Protestant creation of Sunday School is that the average American regards chunks of our history as “stories” that have no real significance except something to color while the parents worship. It’s the equivalent of what has happened to historical education in public schools, and for much the same reason. Ask your kid the actual significance of the Versailles Treaty, not what it contained, not what year it took place, but its significance in the history of European affairs. Sunday School.

So it’s necessary to observe that Adam was pre-Hebrew and certainly pre-Greek, but as the literal embodiment of mankind had divided himself from his Creator (the beginning of man’s fundamental despair), from his wife through accusation, blame, and suspicion (the beginning of gender conflict), and from the rest of creation through misuse of its bounty – literally it’s fruits (the beginning of natural and ecological catastrophe). Adam rejected any restraint or limitations on his consumption whatsoever, could not even fast from one single tree and then rejected accountability to even his Creator by trying to hide what he’d done and, finally, when challenged, blamed the woman.

I find it necessary to say that, in my experience, this is where a lot of eyes glaze over or, in academic circles, bigotry so often prevails. It’s common for antagonists to say “none of this matters, because I don’t think it’s true”. That’s like saying that the Epic of Gilgamesh has no significance whatsoever. It’s the mark not of cleverness, but of a kind of anti-intellectual prejudice for the topic. If one is experiencing simple lack of education in Christian tradition, that’s one thing. If it’s “this doesn’t matter” or “this doesn’t mean anything” it’s actually the preclusion of education – simple bigotry, which is to human attitudes what a fart is to reasoned discussion. If one is interested in the other half of this egg though, it’s necessary to point out that Christ, in the Christian tradition, is “the new Adam” and his mother “the new Eve”.

God by becoming man as the New Adam restored as Christ (the Hellene’s word for Messiah) the originate paradise, the union with God, by joining all men to himself (restoring God to man physically and totally by becoming man himself, in the flesh). In doing so, he reversed the aforementioned process of alienation, breaking down the barrier between men and women- evidenced, for instance, by sitting and talking with the woman at the well despite both the cultural taboo and the ethnic one (she was of another race – a Samaritan – rejected by the Hebrews), and by exalting his Mother, our “Champion Leader”, the God-bearer or “Theotokos”, the “earthly Paradise”. Likewise, he set man on a path of compassion, asceticism, peace, and community intended to redeem the whole cosmos that, as the Apostle said, “lies waiting and in pain for the sons of God to show up and be what they are”. The continuity, in other words, between Adam’s Fall and Christ’s Redemption is a core premise of Christian experience.

In other words, a core Christian premise is the principle of conversion itself – that religious tradition and genuine belonging to a people is not predicated on ethnicity, or of familial proxy, but instead the true Faith is available to all who essentially break into this inherently historical process of restoration, and we all thereby belong to each other. The gates are thrown open to every man – not to artificially start his own religion like Adam tried to do, which is another act of alienation and what you get with 50,000 Protestant denominations which have neither historical standing nor primordial tradition (being inherently innovative and ahistorical), but rather to have access to the one true Faith, a genuine belonging with a continuity that lies inviolate as the fulfillment of the history of man’s relationship with God. In effect, a person cannot be restored to God, unless he himself participates fully in the full continuity and history of God’s redemption, from Adam, through Moses, and in Christ. It is not an intellectual conversion, nor a mere emotional attitude. Unless we are with the pillar of cloud in the desert, we are not Christians.

To miss the mystery of conversion is actually to fail to understand anything of Christianity. In essence, while it is the fullfillment of the Hebrew religion, and all we are Jews in that sense, still venerating She who is our Ark of the New Covenant, and just as we are also all Greeks in Jesus the Hellene (did you know “Jesus” is a Greek name?), we also all must convert. Even St. Paul the Apostle, faithful Hebrew religionist, still had to convert – he had to participate in the fullness of the redemption from Adam who was no Jew to Christ (“of whom is made of one blood all the nations of the earth”). St. Paul had to be of one Faith even with “Gentiles”. Why do you think we list the geneologies in the Gospels? 1) Because ethnic succession is the form of ‘apostolic’ succession until Christ, so it is necessary to show it just as it is necessary for a priest to show succession all the way back to Christ, today. 2) Because it is necessary that every people be somehow in some way connected to that lineage, so that literally and physically in the flesh, all nations participate in the body of Christ, though in fact, it is only necessary that Christ be a descendant of Adam, which all people are, which point the geneologies are meant to document. He didn’t arise like a ghost from a swamp somewhere, spontaneously generated, or land in a spaceship as an ‘alien’. In order to redeem us all, in Adam and including Adam, he had to be Adam’s descendant.

In that way, when one converts to a mere religious philosophy, one only has to think the right ideas, say the right words, have an emotional connection. Conversion is essentially, for them, a nominal change of allegiance. Protestantism is an example. Buddhism is another. In a religion requiring ethnic pedigree, there is that special requirement. But Christianity – the Christianity of Christ, of the Apostles, of the Fathers, of the Orthodox – conversion to that requires physical and historical participation. After all, you can’t make up your religion – cook your own meth so to speak – you can’t “create” a church – not if you’re of Christ, the actual physical, historical person. Instead, you must locate the actual Church he created, those who maintain the apostolic succession that is not essentially ethnic nor merely hypothetical. It must be the actual Church he created. The only one. That’s Christianity. The versions of “Christianity” one hears on the airwaves and sees on bumperstickers and billboards and gets accosted with outside bus stations is to historical Christianity what KFC is to chicken, to borrow a phrase from Lewis Black.

Likewise, it seems to be the prevalent misconception that there’s a “difference” between Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox and that somehow the American Orthodox is a made up thing. People’s ideas are bizarre when they don’t really get it. They fill in with all kinds of things. The only reason for an attachment of the appellation “Greek”, “Russian”, “Jerusalem”, “American”, “Antiochian” or whatever to a jurisdiction of the one, singular, undivided Orthodox Church, in which if you commune in any one you may commune in any other, is that our government is structured along the pattern of Roman Imperial government which is broken down into dioceses, etc. You can’t really administer a global reality in any number of languages and cultures if you can’t make some local decisions  – not about Faith – that requires the *whole* Church to gather in universal council, and even then they can’t change the Faith itself, only repudiate heresies and heretics and require or repudiate certain practices, or mediate disputes. But you need to be able to fully minister the entirety of the Christian experience to people, regardless of language, nationality, etc.

So people on the outside who look and say “oh, they’re individual national religions” really have got it backwards. The very reason they’re speaking different languages is that instead of imposing on them a universal Greek or Latin or some other language, for instance, as Roman Catholicism did, we always simply translated the books into the local language. This is how Cyrillic came about – named for St. Cyril – because when we went to Russia, there was no written language, so we created one, which is why it so greatly resembles Greek. Jesus came as a Hellene – a Greek Jew. The Septuagint, the Greek “Old Testament” was his Scriptures. The first converts were Hellenes. Etc.  The idea is not that we force people into some national or ethnic experience, but rather we invite their participation in an inherently human one. It’s always rather amazing to me that people speak of “national” churches as though they were cooked up on the basis of political status, citizenship documentation, or ethnicity – that would be opposite the entire point and, in fact, is specifically a heresy called Phyletism – the escalation of one’s phyla, if you will, to the status of religious consequence. The closest thing to a national Church is either the one-language monoculture approach taken by Roman Catholicism evidenced for instance in converting the Irish by the sword (from Orthodoxy, I might add) and imposing Latin liturgies, or the phenomenon of the “religious right” in the US, which seems to equate Christianity with a particular set of cultural values that correspond to a polarized electorate.

I realize some people may take exception with these ideas. Fortunately, I can’t really take credit for them. They’re not primarily ideas – they’re simply a communication of a reality experienced actually and historically by a people, my people, the people of my Faith. They’re not really an opinion – they’re a description. Even in critiquing the West, one must remember that we were the victims of a Crusade by its religion, among other depredations, and the criticisms are borne out of experience too – experience with permanent effects.

You don’t have to believe anything I’m saying, naturally. I’ve heard various beliefs to the point of utter boredom. Personally, I’m not interested much in what people believe, and not much of a believer in things myself. People believe in lots of things – some people believe Elvis is still alive. Others believe Egyptians came from lizard people from other planets – though why they should favor converting to Islam, I don’t fully understand. Christianity, the authentic Christianity, isn’t a belief system. That’s religious philosophy – which is why it frames discussion primarily in the form of talking about what one believes. Christianity of the actual kind is primarily historical. It talks mainly about what has happened. It’s a religion of teleological and ascetic experience. It doesn’t need you to concur with it or join it in order to go on being what it is. It doesn’t require you. A belief system on the other hand requires believers, essentially, in order even to exist. If you want that, to be absolutely necessary to something, look for the guy on the corner with the pamphlet. His thing *needs* you in order to keep on being what it is. It talks incessantly of “church growth”, though by “church” it’s referring to a facility for propagation rather than a temple whose priests are still attending the altar as they did in the desert with Moses. An asceticism, by contrast, is more voluntary – it’s not trying to control or convince you.

You don’t have to believe, but an educated person should probably make some effort to understand at least something about it. Imagine if the only thing you knew of poetry was a Valentine’s day card you got as a kid in class. That isn’t really poetry, you know. It might rhyme. It might be a nice sentiment. But it’s not what we mean, when we say “poetry”.

Not to be critical of everyone that doesn’t get it, but there are quite a few nut jobs too who intentionally level distinctions, because it’s just less work for a mind that can’t cope with the agony of actual thought. If distinctions don’t matter to you – if you’re a person that insists that everything is really everything else, you’re being inconsistent by even reading this. You’re supposed to discovered, eventually, staring off into space, if you’re consistent because, for you, to be catatonic is the same as to be thoughtfully engaged. I’m always amazed by people who claim that the sound of a wheel being off-balance is music, and mush on the bottom of a shoe is art, and religion is religion, but who don’t treat whatever I point at as food, or hard drugs as medicine. Or who say they do, to seem intellectually clever, but who don’t actually live that way. Whatever popular religion is, this isn’t really the same thing as what St. Basil was talking about, or St. Maximus, or St. Seraphim of Sarov. It’s like comparing Thunderbird to wine or instant packets of soup to food or a cardboard box to a house. It’s a sophomoric contrivance, but not a very useful one in actual experience.

It is, of course, quite obnoxious when converts engage in ‘convert syndrome’ – immediately, without a pause, becoming evangelists delivering the ‘message’ (an attitude they borrow from popular religion which, as a belief system, can exist for no other reason than to propagate), or going around emphasizing some kind of ethnic caricature (missing the point – while you might have become Orthodox and pray in a Russian Orthodox Church, you’d better be able to walk across the street and also pray in the American one or the Greek one or the Egyptian one or you’ve just re-ethnicized religion in place of Christ’s whole point for showing up). When in Rome, translate it into Italian so the Latins can actually understand what they’re praying. Conversion syndrome can be obnoxious, but it’s understandable, as long as it eventually calms down – people get excited when they step into something larger than themselves alone. But eventually, even in the calm of continuing in the tradition, keeping the calendar, fasting the fasts, feasting the feasts, participating in the sacred Mysteries, liturgizing throughout the full cycle of services in the Christian year, participating in a community way in births, baptisms, marriages, funerals, you begin to take root more and more in something that is increasingly your own in attitude as well as in fact. It really was our God who led us in the pillar through the desert. It was him, it was us, and it was there, and it was. What are we, if we cannot draw on our accumulated history for self-understanding, and for understanding of God’s activity? In short, we would be… a religious philosophy. Inherently ahistorical, rife with a priori assumptions.

The other thing to keep in mind, is that we Orthodox speak to our dead. We say that Christ has destroyed the barrier there too. We don’t think of one Church in Heaven and another here. We think of One Church. We think of ourselves as with the dead, and the dead as with us. So of course, we are always, all of us, even those ‘born’ into the Faith (baptized at a much earlier age), are involved in a *process* of conversion, of integration into the community of the many and countless dead who are the eternal living. We are all learning to partake of our tradition, to inherit, in an ongoing way, the wisdom and experience of our ‘ancestors’. None of us says “I am saved” – we all, even if alive to the Faith from the cradle, are *being* saved, and striving to be saved, and expect to keep on striving to be saved until and perhaps beyond the veil of death. But for us, the continuity – the absence, that is, of barriers, is with Adam to whom we yet speak, to our mother Eve, to whom we still pray, to St. Moses, whose prayers we still ask, and so on. Our history and tradition are fundamentally in the people themselves, from whom we are never divided and with whom we are continually one.

As the Apostles continually described it, we are “inheritors” of all of that history and tradition. “We who were once not a people, are now a people.” We “have all become one” as Christ prayed for in the last moments before he was taken to face the the lash, the thorns, and the cross. “For there is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all” as we all say. “There are not many Faiths, nor many Baptisms, nor many Gods.” For the historic people of God, the people who all we are, who choose to become one with them in the Faith of the Orthodox, pluralism of religion is polytheism of theology, and ultimately a denial of the union of all men created in the person of Christ in favor of a fundamental alienation of men in differing and incompatible claims of what is real and what is not. For the Christian, there can be only one history and one reality.

There’s every manner of cheap progressivist theory and assertion out there of “shouldn’t we all find a way to agree?” but it’s silly. If you’re going to claim that there’s just as much room for the notion that climate is changing as that it is not, or that torture is wrong as that it is not, then you’re not saying anything at all – it is an inherently hypocritical hypothesis, because it pretends to say something, when anything it says must equally accept its contraindication. And no one who isn’t in a mental ward lives that way. It’s an unlivable attitude offered as empty critique, and not an attitude with genuine adherents, not even among the people talking. To walk in front of a bus is the same as not to walk into a bus – natural selection simply kills off people who actually think like that, so they can’t exist – and meanwhile it removes the ground of their argument. So it is with all illogic carried to its logical conclusion – it reduces, inevitably, to the absurd.

One doesn’t really have the option to disagree with history, anyway. You’re not entitled to your opinion – you’re entitled to your reasoned opinion, to quote Lewis Black again. Denying things just to deny them is nuts, not thought. Besides, why should one’s goal be for all people to agree, anyway? That presumes that we’re no longer talking about what has happened to us historically, what we experience as a people and a community, and what we participate in by conversion, but rather that there’s a philosophical premise, a belief system (assumptions about philosophical uniformity) which must take precedence, and which we must bring a priori to our experience. That would make us yet another belief system. Beliefs would become, as they are for the Protestant, fundamentally dominant. We must reject that.

In this way, non-believers are essentially Protestant (or heterodox), in attitude, even when they have no religious beliefs. They ask us to adopt their belief system their underlying premises, in one form or another, even though many of them claim precisely to not be asking that. It is asked by insisting that we be comprehensible as a mere intellectual construct, or that we be accessible entirely hypothetically, or that we acknowledge the concealed premises that go along with being ‘sensible’ modern men in a pluralistic cultural cacophany. If we really actually meant what we were saying, we of course wouldn’t do that. In fact, we would reject it out of hand, recognizing it as an attempt to substitute propositional psychology for historical identity. And look where that’s gotten the people that do it. A nice, well adjusted, society that doesn’t nuke, exterminate, or torture anyone – right? It’s not that utopias don’t exist (they don’t), it’s that they are inherently hypothetical constructs – thought experiments – not really meant to exist. They are experiments in substituting hypothetical principles for historical reality, which is why utopians never actually create utopias – they merely talk about them – ‘believe’ things related to them. Use a lot of moralistic ‘shoulds’ in regard to them. It’s a form of philosophical fundamentalism. Why would we regard the grass as greener in the world of theoria, of philosophical conjecture and the hypothetical, if we meant what we were saying? For us, we are neither predicated fundamentally on belief, like a philosophy, nor are we choosing beliefs based on expedience (because we prefer some outcome) which is mere invention – fiction – fabrication, but rather we are simply experiencing history that anyone can experience. Fundamentally, if you want one thing we insist upon, it’s reality. We aren’t interested in cooking up things to think. We think according to what happens to us, not a priori, which is why when someone wishes to quote the apostles to us, for instance, we invite them to join the apostles’ church. Otherwise, what’s the point? Theory? But if you read the apostles, that isn’t what they were talking about. To do that to our books is to fail to comprehend. These books were collated for use in the temple, as liturgical instruments by a historical community, not as instruments of theory.

The Executive Principle, Politics, and the Spirit of Antichrist

ImageWe live in an age of AntiChrist. I don’t mean a fundamentalist theory that plays “who’s the devil”. I mean in principle, politically, and ethically, it’s one of the ages of AntiChrist, of which there have been many – perhaps (as is my attitude) all of them. There are several core principles of AntiChrist or of an antiChristian ethos, many of which are supported fervently and even rabidly by the loudest and most obnoxious of those who pretend to be “Christians”, i.e. the evangelical right.

One of those core principles is rule by one man. For all the lip service to “democracy” or representative government, for instance, the Faith of the political man in the US is in one “strong” executive. Regardless of political persuasion, it is not a parliamentary system (neither is Britain, really, with it’s president-Prime Minister). In the US, people quickly throw most if not all of their political energy into presidential politics, presidential faith, a belief in the responsibility and the power and the presumed authority of one man. In France, it’s the same way. Virtually everywhere. It’s the spirit of the Age.

When you listen to news reports that talk about “the Russian ruler” (president), the Faith is really clear. The people talking view society primarily in terms of power, and power as being vested primarily in an annointed person. Differences of political persuasion are over primarily the method of annointing – how one, ideally, should be sprinkled with totality – but even those differences are relatively minor. It is an Age of Empire and Kingship, a feudal age, in principle and principal where not in name.

In that sense, the fundamental ethical premise is that which the original Christian Church dubbed “antiChrist” or “antiChristian” – that is society predicated on power and that power vested in an ever smaller number of elites at the top, culminating in a figurehead. The Christians were more subtle, of course, than political believers today, including and especially the religious right (for whom politics and political culture *is* their religion – they are *literally* the “religion of the right”). The original Christians pointed out that one can’t confuse a figurehead with the actual locus of power. The word “beast” conveyed not only a representative status but an animalistic set of responses, an almost machinelike doing of the bidding of true power.

For these visionaries, power itself was the tool of AntiChrist, for all that the current crop of fundamentalist whackos uses no other word quite so often in their vocabulary (watch their TV shows – “we have access to the power”, “walk in the power”, “utilize the power”, etc). For them, it’s an AntiChrist Jesus, and an AntiChristian one, who is the figurehead merely standing in for the Beast by any other name.

The structuring of a society, a culture, indeed a global one along these lines was precisely the anti-Christian culture of AntiChrist that genuine Christianity decried. To be authentically Christian meant (and means) to reject statism, totalitarianism, papism, elitist power structures, and the rooting of power in a universal figurehead. This is not to say that one cannot have a Christian monarchy or Christian empire, but there is a difference between Caesaropapism and the atittude that made Emperor Theodosius stand with the penitents, stripped of royal garb, in the doorway of the Church, unable to enter, because he was subject to the same moral strictures as the homeless beggar.

When a Caesar/Czar is forced to walk pilgrimmages on bloody feet as penance for his crimes, it is a Confession that power is not the basis for existence at all, much less the rooting of power in one man, an illicit faith in an Adam that cannot save but can only control. An ultimately Christian response is to assert the universality of ethical righteousness, not the universality of power, and to resist power in the sense of it being the dominating principle of human experience. For this reason, not merely because they were men or were pagans, the Christians did not bow to the Roman emperors. They rejected, as all we must always do, the illicit doctrine of the ages of Antichrist, that the world is its own standards. We reject the Rule of rule. It is not just because the Fuhrer did evil things that we reject Fuhrers. It is because the very principle, whether you call it fascism or “a strong executive” or “presidential politics” is AntiChristian.

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