Hell in the Orthodox conception is a form of redemption, where even those who resist God freely (which, when the creature of time is swallowed up, becomes for eternity) will be burned continually by God’s unwavering presence, since he will never leave us nor forsake us, no matter what crimes we have committed, and God as Creator of all things is an all-consuming fire, likewise consuming all things, and yet he preserves and does not annihilate us, allowing our individual wills and minds to remain as they are, even resurrecting our bodies so that nothing of us is lost, despite our wasting of the gift of life in his image. This allows us to seek salvation through continually confessing the gravity of our failure, and the unapproachability of God (a theological reality), and to say with the fathers of the desert, “I am kindling for the fire, fit only to be burned, and surely all will be saved and I alone condemned – I do not know the sheep, but I am one of the goats”, and yet also with even St. Job, who was deprived of everything, “I know that my Redeemer lives” as, trusting in God and seeking his mercy continually, we release ourselves to the reality inaugurated by the Creator, who by becoming his creation, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, has redeemed all things, and is redeeming them, and will redeem them, and does redeem them, and will never cease redeeming them, forever and ever, Amen.
A fundamentalist preacher once said, “If you want to start an argument in an elevator full of Jews, ask ‘What is a Jew? Is it a religious person, an ethnic person, or a citizen of Israel?” Before anyone screams “racist”, it isn’t racist – he happens to think Jews are the “people of God”, which is a tenent of dispensationalist fundamentalism, which is what that was.
But he has a point. What the heck does being Jewish really mean? You ask different people, you get different answers. And for all the sort of “well, there is some consensus” that people try to pass off on us to calm things down, that seems sort of like a cover for real and serious disagreement, which if you’ve ever lived in an international city which includes all kinds of Jews, you get immediately.
In the same way, this word “Christian” is thrown around so much, and by people who can’t get along, that you get the impression that it’s not one thing. Here again, peacemakers do what peacemaking personalities do in any context – they try to smooth it over – “well, but there is some consensus” – no, there’s not. Not by a long stretch. You get someone saying “we pray to the same god” (do we? some of us think the god described in Sunday School is imaginary.) or that we agree on the essentials (what essentials? some of us don’t think there is such a thing as essentials).
Critics of “Christianity” do the same thing (it’s so easy to be a critic – you don’t have to be religiously literate – don’t have to really know anything – you just have to have a kneejerk response to the worst examples of what you’re criticizing – of course, in debate, the man with integrity selects the best of his opponents, not the worst). Critics talk of “Christianity” and “Christians” as though they concur with those who smooth things over – that we’re talking about one thing – which is convenient, because by simplifying it to that degree, you can dismiss or criticize it more easily.
The fact of the matter is that most of what passes for “Christianity” in media, in public culture, and in any visible way, isn’t even vaguely related to historic Christianity at all (“salvation” as accepting something, getting your own “personal saviour”, the rapture and all that crap, and even the “Bible”, which didn’t exist in the early Church – and, if you listen to TV or some Sunday School, has become a collection of “books” to be “studied” so you can “come to the truth” – gone is any sense that these were ever purely liturgical works meant to be sung (what are those choir-instructions in the Psalms about), not collected into a single “book”, and certainly not read in your lap in some auditorium as you squint to get answers to personal religious riddles, like a Ouiji Board or a Magic 8-Ball).
Furthermore, if you listen to “Christians” you’re led to believe that there was Jesus and the Apostles, and then corruption set in, and then Constantine politicized it all, and then 1200 years of ‘darkness and dark ages’ until Martin Luther unchained the “bible” and you get Jerry Falwell. Really? It’s amazing how many critics of “Christianity” (no wonder) have actually accepted that story as real, in varying levels of sophistication. This, despite the fact that decent historians of the period would tell you (e.g. Joseph Strayer, Norman Cantor) that the so-called “dark ages” didn’t exist. Some of the most complex works of architecture, literature, learning, and culture were created during this supposed blank spot, and it’s not true that the Roman Catholic Church controlled all of it, by any stretch, or that people lived in a kind of destitute, blind slavery. You could make an argument about the city or Rome itself, after the Goths, but Jeez, that was a backwater of Europe – it’s like saying the U.S. is Hildale, Utah. Heard of the Hagia Sophia? It’s one of the architectural wonders of the world. And that’s just getting started.
If I raided your closet, dressed up as you, and went around being taken seriously as you, doing and saying things you’d rather die than do, wouldn’t you expect anyone with any acumen to eventually learn the difference? Well all right, that’s if it was you. What if it was Elvis? Ever seen an Elvis impersonator on a Vegas stage or TV or at your cousin’s birthday party and thought it was the real thing? If he was drunk on stage in Vegas, would you go home and say “Elvis is a drunk. I don’t think I can listen to his music anymore.” Reductio. The thing the so-called Christians have done that screws it up for everyone, including people who might otherwise know something about it, is that they’ve made it so anyone can say they’re a “Christian”. What, all you have to do is “accept” something, right? And maybe “believe” a few things. So that’s what Christianity is? Badger puke. So for the last 1000 years or so, anyone can claim to be Elvis, so to speak, and the thing is *you* the critic are just as much a believer, because you took that premise seriously. You actually listen and call these folks “Christians”, despite readily available historical information to the contrary.
The point is, some of us who know that history, and might be tempted to talk about Christ very differently, are thinking, ‘Jeez, if these people are Christians, then I’m nothing of the kind, and vice versa.’ and ‘Whatever god they are talking about doesn’t exist.’ and ‘This rapture crap is stupid -there’s no such thing.’ Now, it’s easy to claim that “all religion is made up, and none of it is real”, because that keeps you from needing to know anything about the “all” you’re talking about. Blanket statements simplify things, all right. Might as well say Elvis never really existed, or you don’t exist, since I stole your clothes. And yes, anyone who has listened to amateur critics go on about “religion” in general (is there such a thing?) in a coffee shop, has heard argument by definition (“all religion is x, therefore religion is y”) – e.g. “all religion is the speculation of one man who invented it”, “all religion is man-made”, “all religion is a belief in magic and the supernatural”. And the “y” invariably means, therefore “crap”. Well, certainly what passes for “religion” in the equivalent of the tabloids, that stuff schlepped out by anyone who can open a storefront and accept donations is crap, but some religious people aren’t telling you anything, don’t need you to join, don’t hand you any literature, and don’t make it a point of explaining to you what they’re doing or thinking about it. Some religion isn’t a belief system at all, and I’m betting, if you’re one of those coffee shop critics, you don’t know whit about it.
Thing is, logic says the “all of these people, or all of this thing” simplifications are shite. First, you can’t sit on theological illiteracy and claim you know the basis of “all religion” based on dime-store reasoning, any more than I can speak of “all football fans” being violent, or “all Americans” being slobs. If you don’t know, you don’t know – it’s like claiming “the US is the greatest country on earth” when you haven’t ever lived anywhere else, let alone everywhere else. Some religion is based on history, which actually happened, and is distinct from religious philosophy, which is a form of speculation (i.e. ‘someone thinks it might be so’). Some religion is historical, in other words, and some ahistorical. If you’re not even making that distinction, it’s like saying “evolution is proven science!” or “evolution is just an unproven theory!” without even getting the difference between macroevolution and microevolution, and what’s actually been done in the real of experimental science in this area, and what hasn’t.
And yeah, any sophomore can say “history is just what someone thinks happened – you weren’t there” (neither were you, but there’s more evidence for a lot of historical events than a lot of current ones – were you there when Osama bin Laden died? Which of the four times?). Saying things like that means you’re not taking your own reason seriously, let alone anything else. Subjectifying all history means your comments are even more subjective – i.e. you’ve removed the ground of your own argument, since that would include everything you think you can describe about what religion really is, or what happened instead of what didn’t happen. That’s the problem with armchair criticism – it’s all fun and games until someone actually thinks.
Not everything critics say is without merit, of course – and, it can be hard when different groups seemingly calling themselves the same thing are at odds about whether that’s in fact, true. But easy answers that say, “well, they’re just arguing with themselves, they’re all the same thing” are just as made up and oversimplified as a lot of the criteria you hear coming out of the least intelligent voiceboxes on TV. Hasn’t your own career even been oversimplified to the point it made you disgusted with the ignorance, or your region of the country, or your country, or your cultural preferences, or any number of things you take seriously? But aren’t some of the people who do what you do actually some of the reason it gets stereotyped that way? We owe it to each other to be a bit more liberal, and try to understand distinctions, and not just say all Republicans are Ollie North and all Democrats are Barney Frank, and be done with it. That’s cave man thinking.
My solution to this stuff doesn’t get wide approval, but I really don’t care – it works exceedingly well for me. If someone asks if I’m a Christian, I tell them no. It’s quite simple – what they think of when they mean that word is imaginary to me, and is a system of religious philosophy, and I’m not a believer in religious philosophies – I’m not even a ‘believer’ in systems of belief. Orthodoxy isn’t primarily a belief system – it’s an ascetic activity – it’s something one does, like Yoga or photography. You might need to think about it, but it’s not primarily a system of thought. Some Orthodox don’t agree with me, but I think my way of doing it is the most honest, when people are looking for a simple answer, not a conversation or deep analysis. If someone asks if I believe in “god” I usually say “no” because, again, I think what they’re talking about in most cases is imaginary – the guy in the sky, Charlton Heston, that guy Pat Robertson talks about – these, to me, are like comic book superheroes, in a weird kind of world where nothing is cool and no one has fun. Nope, I don’t believe in the tooth fairy or Easter bunny, either. More on this, in a sec.
Even if someone wants to debate “religion”, to cater to that assumes religion is one thing which, again, is ignorant, or if they want to debate belief in “god”, then to accept the ground of that, one has to accept the premise that “god” is a describable philosophical construct, a ‘something’ of religious philosophy, a concept of speculation, and that he has attributes the way a human being ascribes attributes to a thing or other human beings – he is just, he is kind, he is good, etc. But I’m an atheist in that regard – such a god doesn’t exist. We have a people among the Orthodox called Hesychasts who keep us in mind of that. They teach us to remove all false images from our minds and conventions of speech, because all such constructs are idolatry, are constructions, are invented, are man-made, are thought of. If there were a “god”, he would be unknowable, and beyond being unknowable, because unknowability too is a construct. Therefore, the Hesychasts do not so much believe as act. This is not a course in religious history, but a little wouldn’t hurt, from what I hear out of most critics.
The “god” people describe is, inherently, a speculation (= made up = imaginary). It’s a circular argument – a god who can be described couldn’t be “god”. If they want to talk monotheism, I point out that Orthodox people are not monotheists. We do not believe in (or in our case act because of) a countable “god”, of whom we can say “there exists one of him”. And we are more ready to say that God does not actually ‘exist’ in the sense that people can think of existence – God’s “existence” is the last thing we could believe in. One could talk about this at length, and I’ve done so elsewhere, but that’s not the point.
The point is critics who try to bundle everything for simplification don’t have the answers they think they do about “all religion” or even about “Christians”. To “hit” something, logically and rhetorically, in your conversation, you have to at least know it. And lumping things together, invariably, means you don’t know. This is why we call it “ignorance” when people make hasty generalizations about “all Jews” or “all white people”. It’s just, with “religion” or “christianity” or “christians” somehow we miss that it’s just as philosophically primitive.
One last illustration. Just because there’s no Santa Claus, doesn’t mean St. Nicholas isn’t a real person. And if you can unpack that, it pretty much answers oversimplifications and ignorance with a logical construct that is truly simple, but not simplistic.
At the coffee shop today, a confident young man is explaining to a credulous young girl how if anyone shows up claiming to be a messenger from God, they’re not a messenger. Then he explains why: “because God doesn’t want….”
It doesn’t matter what comes next; you see the problem. 🙂 By speaking for “God”, in terms of what he supposedly wants, you’re that messenger, the one we should ignore. I ignored.
Protestantism: how it’s wrong when everyone else does it, but OK for you, because you’re right.
A friend of mine writes on esoteric matters and one of his recent video talks got my attention. He was discussing dispensationalism as an ‘engineered ideology’. You’ve probably heard the tenets of dispensationalism, even if you don’t know that word. It’s the Protestant evangelical theory of the imminent disappearance of millions of people (Protestant evangelicals) into the sky – an event called “the rapture” – after which, according to the theory – there will be a 7 year “tribulation” on the earth (terrible things happening – rivers boiling with blood, etc.), and Israel will fight as ‘the earthly people of God’ against the antichrist who has taken over a “revived Roman empire” and stamped everyone with his insignia. Then Israel gets martyred, and the Savior returns with his angels to win the war, inaugurating a 1000 year golden age of peace on the earth. Then the world is destroyed after all, and judgment occurs. Or something like that (it’s been a while since I looked closely at the various charts they’ve made, so a few details might be off).
Dispensationalism is not part of Christian tradition: My friend points out that this is a relatively recent system and, quite correctly, that it is not part of historic Christianity, but is in fact considered a heresy by the Orthodox Church and was, at least until recently, by the Roman Catholics too, and still is by Reformed Protestants. It became the dominant preoccupation among religious fundamentalists in the West, based on the popular ‘study bible’ notes of C.I. Scofield (someone who wrote in the margins of his book a lot), and was propagated by Dallas Theological Seminary and the gazillion independent evangelical churches those graduates founded and inspired during the Goldwater-Reagan era, and so was linked with neo-conservatism as a quasi-religious political ideology (see Sharlett’s book “The Family” if you’re interested in how that really happened) and therefore with the military industrial complex Eisenhower spoke of. It is largely the reason why the US considers Israel an inviolable ally to this day – seemingly unaccountably (any politician challenging that doctrine is signing a political death warrant) – and also for the massive opposition to climate science, with private studies funded by corporate energy lobbies (the ones who have been benefitting from the last few wars) and backed by religious ideology.
Most Christians consider it heresy: One point, that this friend made, I think is particularly worth repeating – and that is that dispensationalism has become so prevalent that the average person, who is religiously illiterate, thinks that’s just what Christians believe. People seem completely unaware that actually any Christianity with a history going back more than a few hundred years holds to nothing of the kind and considers such ideology alien if not repugnant. Keep in mind, Protestantism itself is of fairly recent vintage. That particular Protestant ideology, eschewed by Reformed Protestants but adopted by the Brush Arbor Revival movement that gave us mass evangelicalism and populist politics, incidentally, is even more recent.
It’s inconsistent with what Christians have always said: All of this “Left Behind” stuff would be baffling to Christians just 5 centuries ago, before there were any Protestants at all. Back then, there was no looking at Hebrews as a special people – Christians (Orthodox and Roman Catholic) considered themselves the new Israel whose Messiah had come, fulfilling all the Patriarchs and Prophets, just as Reformed Protestants do now – an idea they inherited from the original stream, if you will. The idea of a separate chosen people and the validity of some kind of re-instituted animal sacrifices as atonement for sin in a rebuilt temple, which dispensationalists push for according to their theory, would have been considered most dire heresy to anyone receiving the blood of Christ in the Christian liturgy. In the West, you’d likely have met the Inquisition for such an unChristian proposition, if you’d said something like that in the wrong era.
2000 years of ‘end times’: As for the 21st century being “the end times”, no one thought that in the 4th century, of course, nor the 5th, 6th, etc. There have always been moments of hysteria among ordinary people, but the Church has maintained that the ‘last days’ began when Christ came, fulfilling all the Patriarchs and Prophets. In other words, the ‘last days’ are all the days of the Church itself.
There are many antichrists: As to specific events and trends that signal the death throws of the world, the thinking of the Orthodox includes various opinions, but a general consensus is that there are and have been many antichrists, many tribulations, and many fallings away – that these things have occurred in every age, and will occur again. That is not to say that there will not be a finality to the world at some point, and a rather bleak one, a necessary working out of Death to its logical conclusion, in a kind of fascist enthusiasm for leadership and authority, with people clamouring to be led and for someone to be ‘strong’ on their behalf, trying to use power to bring all the world under one overriding system of cultural influence. You see it now, don’t you? To say “government” now is to think of something dominated by an executive, isn’t it? Hardly what the founders of the fledgling US would have considered a balanced republic.
One world culture: It’s interesting that just a few years ago, evangelicals were up in arms over “submitting” to anything like a “one world government”, calling that the great “babylon”, but they were working doubletime to ensure the world submitted to their own nation’s hegemony, and outraged when anyone even expressed disagreement with its consolidation of power (remember the French on Iraq?). But creating a one world *culture* – a monoculture – is virtually a stated goal of the same evangelicals, not just politically (in terms of “furthering our interests”) but religiously as well. That’s literally what “evangelicalism” means – to evangelize the world – to make it, specifically, evangelical – to self-propagate. And when that culture is operated from a political ‘city on a hill’, that’s exactly what a one world government is. It’s a city with “many hills”, on which the one harlot perches, as the prophesy goes. So, it’s easy to be skeptical about the prophetic doubletalk.
All sizes of Antichrist, sixty for the price of one: Likewise, we don’t question whether Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin were the antichrist – of course they all were. So was Diocletian. Herod was an antichrist. So are all the various little antichrists – Gaddafi, if you like – the list is very long. Most of them, during and since the cold war, have actually been funded and supported alternately by the United States or Communist Russia – now just the US. I find that interesting, in the wake of all the little revolutions against various antichrists happening all over the world, the vast majority of which we plan to ignore and allow to be crushed, and so the power of antichrist to be consolidated for the sake of a ‘stability’ and ‘flow of energy resources’ to the one great nation (the ‘superpower’, if you like). The one big beast supports a crown of many little horns. You’ve probably met an antichrist in a corporate setting, or a family, in a religious venue, or on the roadway driving a big vehicle and railing at you – micro-antichrists of a sort. The world is awash with any number of us ready to step up in any capacity to act as antichrist of whatever power we can gain. The person matters less than the personality and the power that is exalted as the basis of humanity and human interaction. Craving for power is high witchcraft, and you’ll see it on the airwaves, as people squint and talk about exercising the ‘power’ of “jesus” too. The ideal culture of antichrist occurs when it no longer matters who you elect to rule – you get the same thing – it could be any one of us because, eventually, it’s all of us.
Dispensationalism itself is part of the “falling away”: As for apostasy, we could read forth a litany of ‘fallings away’ – the Protestant Religion itself is a falling away from its Roman ancestor (and a logical conclusion initiated by an original falling away of one Patriarchate – the Roman one – from the other Patriarchates of the world). Evangelicalism is considered a falling away within Protestantism by other Protestants, watching their break with Rome further fragment into 10,000 denominations – as many as there are storefronts to support them. Dispensationalism itself is an example of falling away within Evangelical denominations, too, and from the tradition and eschatological thinking and analysis of the originate Christendom. The children repudiate each other, and their children’s children, just as they deserted their mother.
The “falling away” began with the first humans: The world itself fragments. As the poet said, “the center cannot hold”. That’s what we Orthodox mean by Death – first, the fragmentation of man physically (his body from his soul – do we not find them in conflict?), then of man’s soul itself (his mind conflicting with his will at odds with his emotions), of man from man (conflict among people), of the one man and the many, of one multitude and another, of man from ecology (man and all other natural creatures and things, even the world itself, the whole cosmos), of one animal species and another, one plant species and another – the lion slaughters the lamb, and the little boy spears the lion, and we all bend our plowshares into swords, and death is evermore, and sorrow and crying go on and on, and of course man from his creator – the one thing is not somehow separate from the other – it is the meaning of Death indicated in the dis-integration of all things, and addressed beyond all measure in the Incarnation. Want to see apostasy? Look at greenhouse gases. Look at war. Look at extinction. Look at epidemics. Look at how many marriages fall apart. We are always, all falling away.
Tribulations aren’t magic acts: And tribulations we have known all along. Need we enumerate them? Sure, it’s not done yet, and there’s going to be some really bad stuff go down, but it’s not without (so far) ten thousand years of tremors leading to it. An incredible blowing out away from paradise, spiraling from eternity toward entropy. Even the cosmos itself is said to be an explosion, expanding away from a fragmented center. This magic act stuff of people flying off by the gazillions isn’t happening, and certainly isn’t the point, even if it weren’t itself a form of religious apostasy – a falling away in its own right, in its pretense at ‘flying’ away.
Why would these people be raptured? I mean come on, are there really that many people who are without pride or hypocrisy or hatred or anger, who have given their surplus to the poor, shelter to the immigrant and foreigner and stranger, relieved prisoners in prison, made sure the sick had health care? That’s who Christ said the righteous are, right? And if there are a lot of such people, as many as say they are ‘saved’ in their hearts, are they really the people who have consistently done the opposite all this time, and voted against it, and lobbied against it, and screamed on talk radio about how they shouldn’t have to, and no one’s going to make them, and have erected enormous political seige engines to lay waste to anyone trying to see that it gets done? Good Lord, if they’re right about the rapture, they’re not the ones going!
The rapture as a ratline operation: The “rapture” sounds more like a Gaddafi exit strategy than justice being served or the righteous being rewarded – if anything, it’s a way out for the people who made sure the poor didn’t get public assistance, the immigrant got chased out as quickly as he arrived, the prisoners got neglected with worse treatment not better, and the sick died for lack of healthcare not healed by the willingly parted with coin of good samaritans. The rapture is more like an elevator ride out of danger to the great bomb shelter in the sky after nuking Hiroshima, draining the world of resources, starving most of the people on the planet, poisoning everything that was pure, creating the longest running period of nonstop warfare in human history, and bringing on a climactic extinction event. If there were a rapture, it would seem more like a post-WWII ratline escape to Argentina than a joy bus to cloud 9.
You’re needed here – your work isn’t done: Besides, the people with the rapture bumper stickers have been the ones clamouring for strong central leaders, the very people we need for antichrists to succeed and to get all that important work done building up that “one world government” that binds all other governments to its will, ensuring our interests are followed, and extending this particular culture into every corner of the world where “American” values can be understood, to mix a little Hal Lindsey, Darth Vader, and nearly every president since Reagan together. My own view is that whenever the people talking about the rapture get what they want, politically, economically, and religiously, we’ve got another antichrist on our hands. Remember the last one? The little devil doesn’t have to be able to string a coherent sentence together – heck golly gee, we could even see the first female president in that role in 2012 and rest assured it won’t just be more mooses that get shot from helicopters then, don’tcha know? Don’t get excited if you voted for Obama, though – same policies, difference of degrees, different face.
Which way is Rome? What about the great city among all cities they call the “whore of bablyon”? You’ve probably heard that phrase. The dispensationalists say it’s a symbolic “revived Roman empire” that weds economic, religious, and political power into one monolithic monoculture that dominates the whole world. Um… I thought we have that already. When I learned the Pledge of Allegiance, I thought that’s what we were saying – “one nation under god” – just one – not many. And currently, that nation is driven by a corporate-evangelical-neoconservative nexus of power. Do you deny it?
Eschatology is sociology: See, this is where I think they almost have it right. Eschatology (the science of prophesy) is really a sociological analysis projected forward to its logical conclusion by people with discernment – it’s a social science, as much as anything. The ancient tradition says basically, ‘hey, when you see this (aforementioned) power nexus occur, you’re looking at the culture of antichrist or, if you prefer, an anti-Christian culture’. And the fathers that wrote that stuff knew full well that “anti-” means not just opposite of, but having the trappings of the thing it is opposing – a counterfeit. In other words, the culture of antichrist, in the view of the original Christians, will mimic and proclaim itself as a “Christian civilization” and will oppose all other civilizations in its bid for hegemony (check out Samuel Huntington’s book, The Clash of Civilizations http://goo.gl/yiBWR – it’s a neoconservative bible and almost dispensationalist-like blueprint for the necessary wars of the future that will resolve all civilizations into one).
All antichrists are puppets: In short, it will be an unparalleled imperialism, under a princely executive, at the ostensible head of an economic-religious-political power structure with enormous military power (yep, that’s what the prophesy says – it says, to paraphrase, ‘you should see his armies – mess with the bull, get the horns!’ ) – but that leader, who will attempt to dominate the whole world in the name of that all-consuming, all-dominating “city”, civilization, or “nation/empire” will be just a puppet, according to the tradition. Maybe it’s even just the office of the executive and a succession of such leaders, but I think it’s certainly both. What is really behind him is the systemic evil that supports such a thing, an almost nebulous reality one could call ‘the beast’ (some have called it ‘the octopus’, some ‘leviathan’, some a ‘monster’) and, underlying that, the personal enemy of all mankind himself – the one for whom ancient pagans tossed babies to burn in the belly of Molech, whereas modern civil religionists toss white phosphorous at the babies – more efficient that way. The thing about the illusion of a presidency is that long-term policies are too important to be left to the exigencies of a single person and a 4-year timetable. A shadow government *must* exist in any successful world power, or it simply couldn’t get anything done. In that sense, it’s absolutely necessary that any president and any antichrist be a puppet. The change that’s evolving is simply that the conglomeration of power structures is becoming “multinational” as we like to put it in stock reports – or “global” when we advertise or picket it.
Onward Christian soldiers: Among the ways evangelicals tend to err is in thinking the systemic antichristian society is a single political structure, a unigovernment, like some pristine nation, instead of a massive multinational set of relationships governed by influence from a center of power which is at once both national and global. Nationalism itself feeds the culture of the beast, if you will, and blinds us to the tradition as it is elaborated before us. Anyone who has touched governmental bureacracy knows the smell of brimstone quite well, though. What, did they think you’ll know the beast by a one-page tax form, a balanced budget, and no filibustering in congress? Simple is too simplistic. Likewise, they tend to think there’s some kind of new religion, like spectacular devil worship, that will be the cult surrounding the antichrist. They fail to look at what has happened to their own religion, and how it has become the dominant political force, a civil cult, at the apex of power, a religio-political reality, and to correctly assess the antichrist living in and through that coopting of anything like real faith they might have had. You don’t vote for Sarah Palin because she makes any sense – you do so because of ideology – and religion reduced to political ideology is the ideal religion of antichrist.
Mark of the beast: In short, if I were looking at the bumper stickers, then looking up and looking around for candidates for all of this, and I had a strong background in the ancient form of Christianity that typifies Orthodoxy, I would have to shrug and burn my draft card, rather than hand out a tract on a “rapture”. There’s a ticket to ride, all right, but it’s going the other way. You know it’s weird, they still ask for that darned thing (draft registration) any time we do anything official, even if we’re too old. Did you register? Yes, sir I did. You spelled my name wrong, so I’m officially not in the system, for the umpteenth million time – but here, I’ll take the mark… (I’ve filled out the darned form to re-register half a dozen times over the years).
If there’s a mark of the beast, though, it would seem to be whatever credentials make one successful in the beast’s society, wouldn’t it? So, in this society, that’s being White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Republican. Being a WASP, and all that goes with it. Another way of putting it is that I’d need to be an evangelical fundamentalist neoconservative, or at least comfortably existing in their world, under their influence. A more skeptical and rationally anarchistic way of putting it is that I’d have to just participate, in nearly any way, in the system emanating from the USA. It allows plenty of room for participation – protest, within reason – dissent, within reason. It just asks for some basic signs of upholding the core, underlying premise, and then you can have your parade. After all, haven’t the last few wars been fought in part to enrich certain energy, arms, and security investors, in part to ensure the operation of the physical power plant that keeps the beast’s heart beating, but also, at some level, to eliminate genuine resistance – the kind that says ‘we’re not participating at any level – we’re going to oppose you at every level’? I think that’s exactly what’s going on. Certainly, it fits well with that Huntington thesis, again.
Does the mark work? The evangelical WASP thing, though, probably seems unfair, but it seems even more unfair to those who aren’t part of the good old boy ‘network’ that makes that mark work. Doubt that it exists? What do you think a political coalition is? It’s a nexus of corporate lobbies and moral doctrine disseminators that shape society in a way that best benefits the interests of a particular type of person at the expense, one can easily argue, of some other types of people. Natives over immigrants, corporations over individuals, tax-exempt religious institutions over non-exempt ones, Christians over Muslims, or whatever. And that’s without even appealing to the lowest examples of those who wish blacks and women had never got the vote. Someone with integrity argues with the best, not the worst, among their opponents. Of course the mark works; it works very well. The mistake is in assuming it’s an actual tool and die stamp or some kind of microchip. If there were a microchip, it would just be a symptom of the order, as another form of control, but not the total story. The mark is, according to tradition, the political, economic, and religious currency of the realm – and the mistake is thinking of it in terms of one one person getting some kind of tattoo on his one forehead. Instead, it’s a system that supports, sustains, and entitles participants in the beastly system – not a magic stamp reduced to a meaningless microdot on the hand, but a full ideological reality involving one’s mind and one’s labour.
Understanding marks: The Christians who actually wrote those original texts would have gotten it, as they touched their own foreheads and hands together with a different mark, the sign of the cross – ‘my mind, my gut, my strength is marked by my hand with this sign.’ The titillation over a mysterious mark has more to do with iconoclasm in the Protestant evangelical mind, that rejects physical signs themselves as inherently spooky and evil, and that skews the reading, so they go looking for which microchip or barcode is the bad one. The people that wrote the books have always had physical signs and icons of many kinds, including lots of marks. If you’re a Westerner who has been to an Ash Wednesday service and gotten the cross marked in ashes on your forehead, you know there’s something very old which that’s left over from. The Orthodox are continually marked in many similar ways, all year long.
You’ve got it, and you don’t even know it: The thing is, even if you’re “against” all that global hegemony and system of personal control stuff, the US has been pulling you farther right, while calling it center, so to speak, and using dialectic to get a little concession there, a little more over here, until basically if you’re not an evangelical fundamentalist neoconservative, you’re just being inconsistent. Shop at Walmart? What’s the difference then? You might as well be. Don’t shop at Walmart, but sending your kids to patriot camp? Er… public school? Same thing. What kind of conditioning do you think they’re getting in there? Centrist, moderate, “balanced”, conditioning. <evil grin> They’re being conditioned to take their place and pursue their role in the system, and not to want to overthrow it or refuse all participation, or some such thing. School is about citizenship, not learning, otherwise it would be bad at the one, and good at the other, not the opposite. Have a job, pay your taxes? We all give tribute, in some way, right? No, we’re all evangelical fundamentalist neoconservatives, in some sense, right down to the most herbal progressive of us – let’s not fool ourselves. We’re all children of antichrist. How’s it going, brother?
No evangelical ‘bar code’: I should say that I realize any number of people reading this might be believers in the system we’re talking about. I won’t try to convince any one individual. I never argue with belief when I encounter it. People believe all kinds of things. Aliens among us. Elvis being alive. Healing scarves sold on TV. Effortless diet plans. Talented “contemporary christian” musicians. That Sarah Palin, or that sorority bimbo you’re dating, is actually quite intelligent. Respect in the morning. In fact, credulity, and this age of creedence is, in my view, one of the principle conditions necessary to progress toward that final antichrist – people must be conditioned to believe, and believe easily, not necessarily in traditional magic, but in things that have the equivalent epistemological value – easy currency that distances one from tradition (makes us ahistorical) and discernment (e.g. logic). I just won’t argue religion because, generally speaking, religion is magic in this contemporary culture.
Not gonna argue: Besides, my interest is only in saying look ‘this stuff’ isn’t ‘our stuff’. I am willing to concede, on a theoretical level, that you may well be right, and the god I pray to is a fiction (it is certainly not the Protestant evangelical god), and the church on which I will forever stake my salvation is a blindness (it is certainly nothing even remotely like Protestant evangelicalism). But I don’t think so, obviously, and I seem to be doing fairly well, epistemologically speaking – unlike Kansas ( http://goo.gl/WXbqx ), an icon of what evangelical fundamentalist ideology can do to shift a people away from the kind of authetic self-interest that protects their families and communities from decline and harm, by getting them on a kick of “national self interest” and appealing to their ‘morality’ as a temptation to exercise control over others, and so be lured into the culture of power .
So if you’re of a mind to convert, convince, or cajole me, I can tell you it won’t even flower into a discussion. This is, for my part, a monologue. Not every article is a debate – almost none of mine are – and I’m well aware of the fragmenting tendency in evangelical religious circles toward continual argument. Orthodox people, properly, aren’t trying to discover truth by arguing. We simply say this stuff isn’t what we received from Christ, the Apostles, and the Fathers, and preserve to this day. In fact, to consent to argue it, would be one possible form of participating in the very alien deviation from tradition, or apostasy, we must necessarily oppose.
The process is: argue, fragment, reduce fragments to any shared denominators, transform the shared denominators into central essentials, unite under a banner of coalesced power to go after others together for a similar process of synthesis and mutual conversion. It might easily be, in effect, participating in the very culture of antichrist I’ve been describing, which necessarily is a force for fragmentation, and then reconsolidation and control (which is why the myriad fundamentalist “christianities” (sic.) are united under a political force, coopted into reducing their interests to “moral issues” and blind support for corporate interests, by having been transformed into cultures more amenable to integration into a political-economic reality – that is, said culture of antichrist.
So if you’re inclined to dislike what I’ve written, all I can say is I’ve written worse, and probably will write worse still, but the writing itself doesn’t change the fact of the distinction I’m drawing – which is the point, not anything that could be argued. Or as Christ said, “Does this offend thee? It gets worse…’
To believe in a transcendent reality is to necessarily believe in a transcendent justice and vindication. When you see those who kill people indiscriminately, or for money, those who torture, those who conspire to deprive people of their basic human needs, you see people who, regardless of the emblem they wear, or what they do at prayer meetings, or the acclaim they receive because of wearing a uniform and serving some national ideology or local sense of “law and order”, you see people who don’t believe in a transcendent reality. If they say they do, they are liars. If they did believe, they would fear what will happen to them, and the rising up of their victims. Whether they’re US soldiers at Fallujah or Abu Ghraib, or US intelligence and security people who tortured or murdered or committed massacres, or they are the armchair ideologues who enabled them, or they are Qaddafi’s paid murderers in Libya, they are atheists apart from any religious confession they may pretend, even to themselves. They are bereft of belief. They are apostate to all. They will, with us all, face judgment, but they don’t fear it – they don’t really think it’s there or it’s going to happen. You judge what someone believes by what they do, apart from what they say. Action is belief. There is justice coming, though – and I don’t mean to put things off with a shrug and say “I’m not going to get too concerned about the present, because judgment is coming – they’ll get theirs”. No, that’s someone who believes in the transcendent, but not the reality of the present – someone who is denying the Incarnation, if they are a Christian. Now is real. This is real. And the justice to come is real. And it all matters. All of it. When the sparrow falls, it matters. One who cannot contain both belief in a transcendent reality and belief in the here and now cannot be a Christian, at least. He cannot be an Orthodox person.
When a monk says “I am nothing”, I think he’s saying that what I am and what I think I am, in my passions, are not of the same order. Likewise, when he says “I have done nothing good” or “what I have done is nothing”, I think he’s saying that what he has done and what he sees he ought to do are so far removed, that there is no comparison. It’s the same, in a way, as when we say that if God exists, I don’t, and vice versa. There is no analogy between contingency and the Holy Trinity. To say “I am nothing” is not to deny that God created me, nor that God loves me. It’s to say that all that I have attributed to “I”, quite falsely, has no analogy to what I really am designed to be – we are created in the indelible image of God, but the likeness of God is something only reachable through theosis. Somewhere along the lines, Death seeped into my best efforts, my best intentions, my seemingly “pure” motives.
A cake is not terrible because it’s fallen. But it’s not what we mean, exactly, by “cake”, nor was it the intention for that particular cake. It might taste delicious. It might be wonderful in its mess and failure. But it’s not a cake, not really. As far as cake is concerned, it’s nada. And that’s because a cake is more than just the shape, or the taste, or any of the components – it’s the far greater sum of the whole.
We might do things well, and so thing we are “good” according to one order of thinking. But to say simultaneously that what we call “good” is nothing, is to say simply that there’s no analogy between God and man. I can achieve good only in a broken way. I can become good only in that way. But brokenness isn’t analogous in any way to the whole that we were meant to be, untroubled by Death. That whole is more than the parts we see broken, as if gluing them back together would create what God had in mind, let alone make it godlike. “I am nothing” means “there are other worlds besides these”, that not everything is of this order, not everything is subject to Death – just everything that I see. In that sense, “I am nothing” is the quintessential expression of faith itself.
I am nothing is to say that being made in God’s image does not, in this Death that consumes all that is, confer godlikeness. The image and the likeness, precisely by the severing sword of Death, have become disconnected, flung apart, so far apart that there is no longer any analogy.
When we read in the scriptures, “if I have not charity, though I move the mountains, I am nothing” and we listen to all the monks denying that they have charity, saying “I have not loved,” “I do not love”, “I know nothing of love – I have only failed at love”, meaning that what they have achieved of love is so far removed from the love that God tells us about and has revealed in Christ, so un-analogous, it is only consistent, and indeed the same thing for them to say “I am nothing” for exactly the same reasons. All that I am is so far removed from what I am meant to be and what Christ truly is, and I someday may be through theosis in Christ, that today I say “I am nothing”.
The fallacy the general populace makes is to think all things are of the same order, making God only a “higher” form of eggplant. But these monks would say that it is so far removed that if I were to attribute an “order” to things, God would not be of any order, and vice versa. To say “I am nothing” is not so different than to speak of the darkness of unknowing, or alternately that God “dwells in unapproachable light” – these things, again, simply underscore the failure of analogy between the created order and the Holy Trinity. Indeed the life St. Paul described (“the thing I do is the think I would not, and the thing I would not is the thing I do”) is another way of saying not that he didn’t do ‘good’ things, but that this the good of those things is so far removed from the good he is striving for, that it is not the goodness that we do, make, or think, or *are*, that is in question from the words “I am nothing”, but rather the limitation of our own vision of the good, because the only good we see is the good accessible to this created order, this contingency, this orb of existence revolving in Death.
The vision the monks have is of things beyond the created order. They’re saying that compared to my best and all I am in contingency (which is forever) and in Death (which is not), the other is everything, and I’m nothing. This is badly written, and I’m not wise. I am not really able to say what the vision is the monks have. Because I listen to them, doesn’t mean I can tell you what they are talking about. Only someone who has seen what they can see can say. Even to repeat is to lose, in ‘translation’, the meaning, when I do it – it is to recontextualize and reduce it and even misuse it. So forgive me for where I have erred. This blog is a way of looking and trying to listen, and to remember and to think, far more than it is an attempt to tell anyone anything. I realize that’s unconventional – it’s just what works for me.
I used to teach my catechumens that if anyone speaks against the Fathers, or the monastics, or the Bishop, to cross themselves discreetly, and dismiss themselves as quietly and politely as possible, and go outside or get away. St. John the Small used to do as much whenever anyone was spoken against, and his example is fruitful. Perhaps I should close my ears and run away, as did St. John. But in this case, hospitality and the possibility of giving shape to this place for future visitors seems to invite comment.
Someone stopped by the other day to drop off a blanket potshot (submitted a comment to the site): saying the quotations (the words of the Fathers) are “worthless” without sources. I’m always fascinated for a moment or two by those whose sole mission seems to be scrawling a “what you’re doing is nothing – it’s worthless” on things they don’t like or are unfamiliar with. We don’t usually publish such comments here, because they start needless and fruitless discussions. But I will respond to the general trend.
As Franky Schaeffer once observed, back when he was Protestant, it’s very Protestant to give things a label, even when they don’t need one. Nothing can go without comment. A mountain must have a ‘verse’ scrawled across it. A sunset isn’t commentary enough – it needs a slogan attached. It’s part of the overall mentality that all things must be placed in categories – right/wrong, true/false, correct/incorrect – and our job is to help you do it. A tree is suspect without an appended ‘word’, because all things, in this mentality, are reduced to concepts, to didactic, pedantic propositions. A tree, by itself, might lead you to the ‘wrong’ conclusion. A tree is therefore ‘worthless’ without a ‘point’ made about the tree in a format that can be categorized, debated, and easily referenced. You gotta be careful – you might end up hugging it, or protecting it from loggers, and that wouldn’t be “Christian”.
Case in point, we do generally attribute any quotations. It might say “St. Seraphim of Sarov” or “Our Father among the Saints, Maximus”. But this is insufficient for the Protestant visitor. Instead, he wants the exact page of some edition of some work, so he can go and look it up and compare it to other ‘sources’. But that’s just the issue, isn’t it? Sources. We already know what the sources of our Faith are – these are not up for debate, are not a matter of conjecture, and do not need to be proven among our people. And we’ve said repeatedly that this is an internal discussion. First, the blog is an interior one turned outward as an act of Confession, and secondly the content of our fathers’ words is for our fathers’ people. It is not really for someone who is attempting religious archaeology to construct their own religion from sources they did not produce in a context they are specifically rejecting and cannot duplicate. As someone once said, ‘If you believe the Apostles’ words, then join the Apostles’ Church!”
In the same way, we’ve pointed out that the Holy Scriptures themselves were written by us, by the Orthodox, for us, for use by us in the context of our community. They are liturgical works, concerning Jesus Christ, written by a people for themselves. For someone else to come along and wish to argue with us about what we meant when we wrote them, or whether our fathers intended them for use as our fathers used them, is silly. Protestantism must ever take other people’s works, revise their meaning for import into an alien context, and then claim that the original authors did not know what they were doing, saying, what they meant, and were using them incorrectly. It’s the equivalent of you telling me that some poem I wrote is not about what I say it is, nor written in the context from which I know I wrote it, but is about the sister who I never had dying in the childhood abroad that I never lived. Or more accurately, is about your sister who I never met, who lived her entire life in a country I never visited, and who rejects everything I thought or believed when I wrote it. It gets that absurd.
We know who St. Seraphim or St. Maximus are, and we know what they said, did, wrote, and what it means (they’re part of our community), and we know what to do with it. The notion that somehow this must be posted on a door in Wittenberg, like Martin Luther’s 95 theses, to try to gain the acceptance of people who have nothing to do with it at all is equally absurd. The Orthodox do not offer our religion as one of many religious philosophies to be held up to the light of something external (and presumably superior) for it to be judged. What would that superior thing be? We deny that there is anything superior to it, or anything outside or alongside it that is the science of determining its efficacy as truth. As C.S. Lewis has said, truth is its own justification – if a thing is really true (if a thing is *reality*), nothing external can be drawn upon to validate or invalidate it. When a thing is true, there is no appeal beyond that. Real is real, even if everyone and everything else said it isn’t. If the “Warren Commission” of religion made a pronouncement on what is and isn’t real, it wouldn’t change anything, would it? What is, is. And we Orthodox do not merely *argue* that our Faith is true, do not *conjecture* that it is so, do not *hypothesize* or offer a theoretical set of “claims” (to use the Protestant parlance – think Josh McDowell); we are not constructing a religious philosophy; we act and live in it as true, as ultimate, as comprehensive of the cosmos and all created things. We have received what we have received from the Incarnate God, in person, in the flesh, and there is no further court of ‘validation’ or appeal. As one witness said, “Whether this (jibes with your religious philosophy or not) I can’t say, I can only tell you what happened to me.”
‘Sources’, as such, are for people trying to *prove* something, trying to argue in favor of something to some *external* party, trying to support a *propositional theory*. Indeed, in that respect, to such a person intending such an endeavour, Holy Orthodoxy is indeed worthless and would remain worthless if we listed chapter and verse, since the intent of the person is not to become Orthodox but to build his own religion as a construct of his mind – something an Orthodox mind can have no interest in.
But to those of us who are Orthodox, and seeking salvation, by which we don’t mean anything like what a Protestant would mean by such a word, we find it very worthwhile and far from worthless to hear the words of one of our fathers saying, “Keep your mind in Hell, and despair not.” This is one of our own, who is glorified, speaking to those of us aiming for that very thing. It isn’t for those who are trying to fabricate a historical context for themselves out of parts of other people’s religion in a religious Piltdownism. Such a revisionism, some might say fraud, can only be perpetrated by those who, for example, have already rejected the notion that God became man, physically, laid physical hands on other men and made them bishops, who themselves repeated this process, until the Church remains gathered around that very succession of bishops to this day. If one accepts that, one goes where the bishops are and discovers their Faith, one does not ignore Christ and create another “Christ” out of concepts that are more conveniently portable, adaptable, and transferable to anyone with a store front and a feeling that God appointed them to “cook their own meth”, so to speak. We’re not trying to “prove” that there’s a succession of bishops, as though historical reality itself must be submitted to another source of validation – but we’re living in that reality. We were there, and our fathers led their children to those men, and they led their children, and so on as it happens to this day. The attempt to come up with a validation for history (that we ourselves are experiencing first hand) is only sensible among those who aren’t, in fact, part of that history at all – and in fact, the result is the fabrication of an alternate history situating people that never were into things that never happened.
The sources of our Faith are those of our Faith. Take this example: the (Greek) Orthodox do not have to have sermons in which they’re constantly saying “in the original Greek it says…” (something prevalent in Protestant settings) – because they never lost Greek as the West did. They never ceased the constant recitation of the actual original in their Churches and monasteries to this day. They aren’t doing religious archaeology, they aren’t trying to piece together a mystery amid the ashes of the Great Schism, at which the West departed Orthodoxy, or among the bones of the Reformation, at which one part of the Schismatics departed another part of the Schismatics, or within the chaos of the Great Awakening and evangelicalism, in which each individual “believer” (of various propositions and doctrinal statements and personal philosophies) departed from each other and created 50,000 denominations of Protestantism and invented quite a few previously unheard of religions, establishing for all those “believers” schism as the basis of faith itself (and therefore the need for constant proofs and references to establish one’s intellectual pedigree). The Orthodox aren’t trying to figure out what piece of a millenia-old puzzle goes where, while operating with a box cover that looks like a 20th century Sunday School painting of ‘Jesus’. They aren’t having a “dialogue” with the saints or an “encounter” with ancient Christianity, and they’re not antiquing for the beauty and splendour of a golden age that somehow no longer exists for them. They are just living their lives, praying, remaining in the same community they always have, as established by Christ, and following in the same well-trodden footsteps of holy men that they always have, leading back and forth to Christ like a ladder to Heaven on which angels ascend and descend.
This is why you don’t see the Orthodox carting around 20lb tomes and looking up and quoting references to one another in lunch rooms, trying to figure out how to solve various problems from whether its right to watch R-rated movies to free will and predestination. That latter, for example, is a Western heterodox problem – a Protestant and Roman Catholic one – it has nothing to do with Orthodoxy. We didn’t invent that construct, it’s not a dilemma that arises in Orthodox thinking as it is for someone whose sole “sources” are a theoretical system of dialectic and requisite proof texts, and we’re not possessed with solving it for someone who’s part of a culture of religious philosophy that necessarily produces those dilemmas for them. We’re not inventing a religious philosophy; we never were. Why would anyone want to go through that, when the end result is submitting one’s “belief”, one’s intellectual and moral fidelity, and the fidelity of the heart, to something self-created (invented) and fictional?
The god of such a system doesn’t exist – he’s a figment of various imaginations – a gazillion individual schismatic ones – a construct of vocabulary or of concepts, himself merely a super-concept, a ‘pure essence’. For all the evangelical talk of a ‘personal relationship with “Jesus” in one’s heart’, it turns surprisingly quickly to a war of philosophical constructs where whoever has the most presumably authoritative “sources” wins – but even that, any first year logic student can tell you is a running Appeal to Authority, and hence an unreasonable non sequitur. The god of those sources is just a footnote in the imagination, a bibliography in the mind. That god is about as formidable as a big Excel spreadsheet (I’d pit a VAC computer from the 1970s against him any time), and just about as conducive to overcoming the chains in which people live in their hearts – pride, anger, jealousy, rage, accidie, despair, despondency, vainglory, vengeance, dissipation, bitterness, and the other various passions that have produced such agony in the heart of each individual person, visible in phenomenon like the constant need for stimulation (my music, my games, my news, my TV, my movies, my magazines, my friends, my texting, my phone, etc. etc. to try to drown out the cry of the heart in an anguish against which ‘having the right answer’ is no match). There is no peace, and the great spreadsheet of references in the sky just makes it worse, not better – for that god has no power to purify the heart of such diseases of death.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to elucidate what we are not. For that, the comment is appreciated. For what it recommends, we can only respond that you must do your own research – we’re not here to do it for you, and we certainly can’t be involved in helping you create a personal heterodoxy, since that would be, for us, to commit apostasy. One again, this is merely the blog of an Orthodox Christian who, while failing utterly in all things and at all times, is striving (including by means of this blog) to be united to God in theosis. But he has only just made a beginning, and keeps failing again. So even if you were striving for the same thing, he couldn’t help you. He does, however, find the words of the fathers to be of inestimable worth. By their prayers and yours may he be saved.
You know, ever since the gnostics there has been an apocalyptic, quasi-occult culture of superstition, pseudo-scholarship, and titillation surrounding the future – what the evangelical fundamentalists like to call “prophesy”. One of their key themes is the re-creation of a “Roman Empire” that will wed the economic and political structures of society into a globally pervasive environment, with people finding it impossible to do business (buy, sell, trade), make a living, and support their families unless they adhere to the system. In other words, it’ll be a pugilistic entity that uses pressure, leverage, and force to compel participation in its system. It’ll starve, bankrupt, or make war on and ultimately (with much suffering wreaked upon the poor) absorb peoples that don’t want any part in it. This empire is essentially the cultural face of antichrist.
For the past 100 years or so, all kinds of entities have been called that “revived Roman empire”. The League of Nations, the UN, the European Union, NAFTA and GATT – all kinds of things. Most of this has involved all kinds of selective information and reasoning, dubious analysis (to onlookers), and again a quasi-occult culture of superstition, pseudo-scholarship, and titillation surrounding the future. The enlightened who “see it” (gnosticism) get together for prophesy conferences and do a brisk trade in tithes, tapes, tabloids, and book sales. Everyone is convinced they need to explain their version of it to you (how else would they make a living?) but it’s really just the same sermon repeated again and again. Daniel and the 7 weeks, etc. etc.
Now of course, we Orthodox don’t think the same way. There have been many antichrists, many romes, and we expect there will be more again, until Christ comes. We have no need to understand all prophesy, as if analysis were understanding, or numerological theories were the same as knowledge. We say the books are sealed, and not yet opened. So we have written in the holy scriptures. But we’re not above some speculation, tho the best speculation is merely recognizing the typologies that we know from the holy gospel. We recognize Pilate. We recognize the Evil One who met us in the desert. We say this emperor, potentate, nation, or false prophet – these are antichrist. Stalin was antichrist. Pol Pot was antichrist. Hitler was antichrist. One might have more contemporary leaders in mind, if they did what those persons did – torture, bomb, and subjugate others, etc. Typology. I’ve no objections to calling any such person antichrist, even if he bleeds red, white, and blue. Perhaps especially then.
But I find it quite compelling that these fundamentalist prophesy gurus (vicarious prophets offering derivative visions of the future) have not pegged the United States as the best example in all of history of a “revived Roman empire”. It’s the seat of international lending and credit institutions and currency exchangers, “food” and chemical conglomerates, energy conglomerates, NGOs (world bank, IMF, etc.), private military-security forces and “intelligence” networks… if ever there were horns coming out of some beast, the metaphor would certainly be the most apt in this case. The US has fundamentally wed political and economic (commerical/corporate) interests, and created a global system into which it compels participation, by subjugation, leverage, and all manner of economic extortion – it is the Walmart of world powers – it is *the* world power – you basically can’t do business, as a people, unless you’re involved with the US system. And if you’re the exception, holding out and giving the US the finger, you get bombed into oblivion and made a client state as we ‘rebuild’. One way or another, you break and yield – if we have to claim there are WMDs hidden somewhere under your house, and fabricate documentation, we’ll do it. If we have to claim you have “ties” to nebulous global organizations that threaten us, we’ll do it, even if you’re fundamentally incompatible with those organizations. If we have to say that you attacked us, not the other way around, that’s in the contingency plans – always has been. Whatever it takes, one way or another, you get the mark. That flag will wave, that dollar will prevail – you’ve got to be in bed w. the leviathan, the behemoth, the enormous, all-consuming world empire that sets the markets, manipulates the rise and fall of governments, and wages war on those who stand against it.
I think one would be hard pressed *not* to say, using the Orthodox ‘hermeneutic’, that this is one of the “Roman Empires”. As I say, I think it’s the best example ever. It’s on a grand scale, compared to all the localized Romes we’ve known. Sure, we think there’s a final Roman Empire, and there’ll be a final antichrist, out of many. Whether this is it, or is just one more, from which once again there will be redemption, God knows. I merely think it’s silly to fill our eyes with flags and love of McDonalds and Oprah and Chevy trucks, and pretend it’s always the other guys. The rest of the world knows. We’re the only ones who go around thinking we do little wrong, that the rest of the world either must be like us, wants to be, or should be, and that it’s OK to profess our friendship with a gun pointed at someone’s head and the other hand taking the food from their children, while we crap under their dinner table. If someone were to ask for an example of what Christ is talking about in the gospels, this is what I’d tell them.
Of course, the fundamentalists are busy trying to figure out how to make their “bibles” fit with President Obama being “the” antichrist. They want to stop just short of his “blackness”, what there is of it. But they’re just not being creative: he’s a pugilist and a bully, too. He’s continuing, not discontinuing, the extension of the system of global US influence, control, and possession of markets through military, economic, and cultural force that his predecessor was also continuing and extending. Parties change – this underlying global policy does not. It’s too important to leave to the exigencies of a single executive. The duality of parties is like the difference between being bludgeoned or merely beaten – it’s a form of words.
I share more faith with those who used to shout that the US is the “great Satan”, before we set up secret prisons in their countries, and helped get them rounded up and tortured to death by their governments. They at least have a correct analysis of typology, and are doing it in an Orthodox manner. Listen to the rational ones, and they’re saying that the US is trying to dominate the world culturally, economically, and militarily in a global empire of influence and control. In other words, they’re saying, “look, here is Rome”. Remember, all roads lead to it. Or put another way, our “worst” critics are also most accurately describing what we, in our speeches and white papers, declare as our express goals, whenever we talk about “pursuing US interests” – those aren’t your interests or my interests, but those of the entity – the ‘beast’, if you will. It’s as if our biggest problem is with those who don’t cooperate, and our second biggest is with those who say “Look, there is Antichrist!” Let those who have understanding count the number of the “beast”. Hell, a turnip could understand it when it’s this obvious.
It’d be interesting to see those toting around their prophesy pamphlets and Scofield bibles work up a set of “parallels” (their concept), representing Christ’s words about Antichrist and his empire and US economic, industrial, political, and military endeavours over the past 70 years. “Hers” for those of you into ‘inclusive’ bibles and female antichrists. Instead of the manifest destiny bit in the back of their Birch Society minds about “America” being “special” or “chosen” or a “Christian nation” (that one makes me laugh) – just assume for a moment that all of that is made up – foolish blathering – that none of it has been correctly understood (that’s certainly the way almost everyone else on the planet looks at it). Instead, play devil’s advocate and just compare Christ’s words in the gospels with things like the decade of Reagan’s secret wars or, more blatantly, every military and international banking action, and every US trade dispute since the Berlin Wall came down, and its plethora of effects in the world. My favorite quotation right now from the US is “We’re going to open up new markets, one way or another.” Sounds pretty much like that ‘Bible’ to me, if you ignore the notes in the margins, and just listen to the beast talk. 🙂
Incidentally, the Protestants will never understand the Rome of Antichrist until they understand the Rome of Christ, and how it is said (in one of our prophesies) “Two Romes have fallen, a Third stands, a Fourth there shall not be.” Amen.
Also, the fundamentalist “prophesy” sticklers will say I missed one. They say the empire weds political, economic and *religious* aspects of the culture together, and we’re back to that “but we’re a Christian nation” rhetoric. If that’s all we’re missing, I’ve got two words for you: Max Weber. If there was ever a wedding of those three elements, it was right there at the beginning, when the US was founded (and it continues to this day). The US was founded as a “Christian” nation only in this sense that, utilizing Weber’s thesis (“The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”) it’s in perfect symmetry as an Antichristian one. Remember, these are their criteria – economic, political, religious- I merely point out that Weber answers that nicely. Give it a read. It’s a required text for any US political science degree. Then grab Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (also required reading, if you do US foreign policy) for his delightful diagrams of the “end times”. That’s the real “prophesy” in use in US foreign policy. What is ‘prophesy’ anyway, but the belief in the inevitability of a thing?
And just to be fair to Walmart, I think it’s one of the “little” beasts. I didn’t want to leave that out. It’s got horns everywhere.
In the sense in which the West offers it, I don’t recognize any authority “over” me. No president, congress, pastor, leader, boss, block captain, warden, or petty supervisor has authority over me. I accept none. I’m obliged to keep my word, compelled to follow my honor, and committed to adhere to my ethics. But these are comments on my own inclinations, on the authority of character, not of any external force.
I used to take a lot of flack for this from the evangelical fundamentalist crowd that talks in terms of overseers, and “the leadership” (as though it were an objective entity that should rightfully rule the world), and that does not distinguish their political inclinations from objective religious obligations – claiming, in their support of corporate structures, that the boss is appointed by God and that the president is “Il Duce” – nothing short of messianic, provided he’s Republican. “You don’t submit to authority,” they would shout.
Right. I don’t recognize an authority to submit to, and wouldn’t if I did – I’d rebel against him and join the opposition. They’ll appeal to the “Bible” (a Protestant contraption made out of clippings and arranged parts from some of the Holy Scriptures we Orthodox authored).
And yes, there are words about authority in there. However, they are several in kind. One is adherence to the Bishop, which the evangelicals certainly are not. Those who think you can think and feel a “church” into existence and then appoint yourself or others to “positions of authority” certainly cannot accept that Christ objectively founded a historical Church in a place and time, laying hands physically on bishops, empowering them to lay hands on others, and so they themselves must adhere to the Church that has never ceased to exist down to our own day. In short, the Protestant cannot accept that rather than inventing the Church, they are required by the only authority to locate and be received into it.
Another type of authority reflected in the holy scriptures is that conditional authority given to rulers, which is limited, not absolute or blanket (not fascist in character) and which is practical and de facto. Remember, Pilate had “authority” to murder Christ. He did not have the right to do it, the divine ordinance or sanction to do it. He merely had the ‘authority’ in the sense that God literally put the power to make it happen in his hands. It’s not so different from the authority of Bishops. Bishops *are* in authority, in the sense that who the bishop is is not a matter of opinion – you don’t create him, you locate him, and adhere to him. With a ruler like Pilate, he’s got the guns and the tanks and the legions – you pretty much can identity who he is. This in no way implies you can’t oppose him, resist him, or even ignore him (things Christ did more than once). Being Pilate doesn’t make you good or right, or make his decisions good or right or the divine intention.
Another kind of authority in the holy scriptures is authority in terms of experience. Obviously the monastics, who have walked long in the desert, fasted fiercely and humbly, and have overcome the Evil One, have experience that may be regarded as authority. If you were consulting an authority on engine overhauls, you would consult an experienced mechanic. He’d speak with some authority. His boss, who might be a corporate geek who has never rolled up his sleeves, has no such authority in that sense. The Orthodox Faith is eminently practical in this way.
We’re basically mechanics of the body and soul, attempting to accomplish our union with God, not create a religious philosophical system to which we can then provide membership or advocacy. As our fathers would say, we don’t have time to argue with your religious philosophies, we’re too busy trying to save ourselves.
So, I know there is a kind of authority in various governmental and industrial (same thing) figures of power – I am usually opposing them, so of course I accept that they exist.
Obviously, I know that there is a kind of authority in the Bishop – I can’t be saved without him – I’d be a fool not to locate him, and be a part of his Church – he is Christ on the earth – to separate myself from him, is to be without Christ.
And finally, I listen to our fathers in the Faith, because they are our authorities – the repositories of the Word of God, which always comes to us as persons. Trying to “cook my own meth”, so to speak (invent and live out my own religious experience) would be a delusional exercise, a kind of inner Protestantism – “personal savior” indeed. I can’t really get by without looking to and seeking the help of those who have gone farther ahead, been proved and made perfect, living and praying for us in their glorified union with God. An example is an authority on what it represents.
This is why our ikons are authorities – they are repositories, in person, of our Faith. When we say “faith” we don’t mean first and foremost “content” in a religious philosophical way, but “history” – experience – what happened, what is happening, and what will happen. That’s the gospel, the Creed, and the means of our salvation – practical, real, tangible, personal, historical, experiential events. We don’t “believe” our Faith so much as live it out.
When we say the words “I believe” in the Creed, it’s not “here follows didactic content” but “here is what happened to us”, “here is what we are responding to”, and “here is how we intend to live”. That too, is authority – the authority of simply being true. A thing that is so has the authority to command our adherence, and when we dispute or disdain it, evading history and experience and reality, we are disdaining that authority.
So, no I recognize no authority in heaven or earth in the sense that Western, Protestant, Republicans do. No such thing. Figment of their imagination. False god – Baal – idol. Illicit authority. But neither do they recognize the authority that layed hands on the apostles and gave them all authority, binding and uniting heaven and earth together as one. If they did, they would join their Church and become their disciples, thereby becoming disciples of Christ who gave them such authority. Not the authority of power – but of truth, reality, and the body of Christ himself. It’s not a Western Protestant, Republican story – it’s the gospel.
I feel completely free to be at once an anarchist (if I like) and an Orthodox Christian. I know some would take exception to that, but then we’ve got all kinds of things that creep into any religious context, including neo-conservative fascism that repudiates the very Faith of the adherent. Someone is bound to think that loyalty to their political system is required of those who follow Christ within it. They no doubt would take exception to Christ having worked on the Sabbath, had they been Jews. I’m OK with someone taking exception. As I said, it’s following Christ, not joining the party of those who trumped up the charges against him. A little more disdain for the significance of one’s government, and a lot more concern with those persecuted by it, would be far more Christian if, by Christian, we mean Orthodox.
Why, why do people have this impulse to form religious groups within their churches? Women’s groups that are chapters of the such and such association of women. Men’s groups that have men’s breakfasts and luncheons. Men’s “business” groups that either seem to be about networking or about reinforcing attitudes toward work that are drawn from the culture and merely bronzed with religious platitudes – honor your boss, who might be a violent screwball – don’t disobey, because “god” will be unhappy. Or worse yet – the thinly veiled dating societies that megachurches put together – the thirty somethings, etc – dim lighting and alcohol (dimmed wits) provided.
I mean, I suppose on the surface I’m sympathetic to people getting together to help one another with their lives. That’s what marriage is like. It was various wise monastics who explained to me, before and after Holy Matrimony, that the Western mediaeval gospel of romantic love, which is a poetic, chivalrous veil for a feudal contractual exchange of male property rights for female exclusive sex, isn’t why God gave a man and a woman to each other – it’s to be a help to each other, for one another’s salvation. It’s eminently practical. It’s the stuff of households, not date movies.
But I can’t help but feel these groups inside the churches, however well-intentioned they often seem, and however purely they seem to start out, become inevitably very religious, in a way I don’t like. – And that they deepens the divide between and artificial definitions of genders, age groups, wed and celibate, and various social classes distributed between degrees of wealth, types of employment, or whatever.
And that has the resultant effect not only of stigmatizing any communication I might have with, for the best example, members of another gender, but especially of another gender in my own age group! Try being an independently-minded married man who finds himself engrossed in an intellectual discussion with a single woman who is a member of whatever designated decade-group we both fit in. Now, this has not happened any time recently that I can recall, and there’s nothing illicit going on that motivates my concern – it’s just years of experience with religiosity. Try likewise being a young, single man who isn’t interested in the young “singles” group (God-forbid), which can be a prettified organizational meat market for marriage – designed to perpetuate membership and fidelity by keeping procreation in-house, and wasn’t interested in the “youth” group eithern (which is usually led by a dope-smoking pedophile just a couple years older than the “youth”, and who the parents think is doing a wonderful job of “relating” to the kids – yeah, I’ll say). Try telling a bunch of ingrained corporate bosses in pastel shirts and bad ties that you told your boss to take a short walk off a shorter pier and that you’re not letting him bully you, because it makes it just that much easier to create an atmosphere of intimidation for everyone else, and yes you think Christ would have you act exactly that way. Fun stuff – you’ll fit in so well with that squinty-eyed prayer that we’ll all be more “submissive” to whatever little Napoleon “god” has appointed “over” us (despite the heterodox and fascist notions in that kind of hierarchical mentality).
In other words, these groups always seem to reify experiences as being proper to one or another gender or age or class or societal role. There’s no coincidence that political uniformity often seems to result, not to mention the more subtle devotional unformity – the Faith gets processed and becomes a particular kind of faithness – a consistent, predictable, comprehensible faith product – the equivalent of the fettucini at Olive Garden, with none of the edgy roar of real Italian food. If I’m a man, it’s presumed I have X experiences (in marriage, in work, in economic pursuits, in aspirations) that will be relate-able, share-able, overlap-able with other men. Maybe we’re all working for the four keys of success the WWII generation instilled in their successors as the proper end and aim, heart’s desire, fascination and preoccupation, and general badge of maleness: the wife, the house, the career, the cars or investments.
And even if there’s nothing wrong with someone, or even 90% of someones, wanting and deciding that’s the look, shape, and feel of their salvation – let’s be honest, what we spend most of our time and attention on is what we mean by working out our salvation, in Orthodox thinking, contrary to the notion that it’s something holy we tack on to the “mundane” pursuits (Roman Catholic thinking) that are derived wholly from the culture – Still, the inevitable result of religion is to reinforce the idea that somehow the most common experience is the right experience – in other words that the most cliched gender roles, cultural pursuits, social (and even political) views, relationship scripts, and religious platitudes (all those likewise para-Faith catchphrases that either do not appear in our holy writings or are quoted from them with creative recontextualization) are the ones somehow backed by God. In other words, classification makes uniformity seem like the divine will and dissidence and difference seem anomalous to piety. Classification gently (or perhaps ungently) transforms religious experience into stereotyp by casting common experience as expected experience. And the result can be actually, opposite of the original intent, intolerance, increased misunderstanding, and undue pressure to uniformity. Those with common experience – the 90% – will feel very comfortable – indeed more comfortable within than absent such an environment. But that’s precisely why it further reinforces the transformation of the exceptional into the common.
I don’t like it. Yeah, I know there’s lip service to “bring your diversity and we’ll be enriched by it” – but come on, there’s diversity, and there’s diversity within the bounds of commonality, and those are not the same thing. Within the bounds of “manly” or “womanly” things, there’s plenty of room, even to the point of illicit behavior – bring your accursed freemasonry and we’ll ‘understand’ – be the single, hormone-filled guy who is dating that nice Lutheran girl (“Who knows, maybe she’ll see the light that way.” – That’s right, bed her into the Faith), etc. But what if you don’t bring any of the attitudes these groups seem to foster, and quite a few that suggest the bulk of their assumptions are superfluous? In my experience, that’s less welcome. It’s a one-way ticket not to the group widening its expectations, transforming itself by realizing its assumptions are too limited and don’t account for everything (i.e. are *not* God’s thinking), but rather to oddballness if you’re lucky and rather serious stigmatization as a conflicted, troubled, unholy person if you’re not.
And no, it’s not just me, I’ve seen it happen to plenty of others. Women who just aren’t interested in talking about their babies and shopping and their husbands all day – women who’d feel more comfortable with the men at the “Men’s Breakfast” – but of course they can’t freaking go, because talk about stigmatizing you in one of those penis-rallies, try being the one with no penis at all! That’s the fun part, though – being a living testament to the question ‘What does having a penis have to do with preferring sports to shopping, talk of work (and never of one’s penis) to constant talk of one’s uterus and related products and dependencies as almost the sole measure of life? Or what if you’re the house-husband, and your penis makes you a member of the wrong group?
Sure, there’s always “one” on the team, right? We’ve got a black guy, and an Asian, and a Democrat, and a feminist, etc. Next time you see them, give them that kiss of peace and say “Hi, Token.” Come on, be real. There’s tokenism within certain bounds for certain acceptable minorities (as long as they stay minorities, of course). But try just being freakishly incoherent to any of the cultural expectations. How “embracing”, “loving”, “tolerant”, and “accepting” is your group at that point? I’ve seen the lingo, the beautiful words, but I’ve seen far less of the real thing. In fact, the real thing doesn’t seem to stand a chance – I’m trying to say that it’s a structural problem, as the academic criticism would render it. There’s something about the way these groups are chopped up, and you’re funneled to the ‘right’ one, that spoils any chance for the individual groups being routinely challenged, continually enriched, and constantly expanded by unknown diversity, the diversity that can’t be classed, identified, or put in a tolerance care package, the micro-minorities. The latter are the ones who, as the cliche goes, “fall through the cracks” of religion – not because someone didn’t scoop them up into a group (“We men are all getting together on Monday mornings down at the…”) – that’s exactly the thing that will push them all the way through the cracks and out the other side.
When you’re given that corporate-ish visitor’s packet that feels like a job application, or cornered for that visitor’s handshake and exchange of biographical data (in the smaller, friendlier communities), how long (you can time it) does it take for someone to look at (or listen to) the data and then pair it with a ‘group’ that matches that data? Isn’t that the purpose of collecting it? “You’re married, in your 30s, and female. Great, the Couples Seminars are Wednesday nights (my Bill and I lead the class), the Women’s Group meets Friday mornings (so we can bake recipes for Sunday), the Midlife Warriors have a dinner on Thursday nights (never on weekends, because it’s mostly singles, and they’re all pairing up and going out), and by the way have you met Susan – she leads a crafts luncheon with prayer in her home on…” Holy farking crap, can you picture it? If you have a soul left that hasn’t been sharpened down to a nub by your religion, would you not say it’s pretty bleak?
Let’s translate, shall we? “Women belong largely with other women, especially if you’re married – hanging around with men other than your husband would be improper. While we don’t judge you if you work in corporate life and eat out a lot, really the standard is cooking and keeping house to enable the men to go out and do that sort of thing. At your age, too, don’t expect to go out and have a lot of independent fun – you know that part of your life is over, hon, don’t ya – those of us that are past that, and haven’t really found another particular point in life, have got to stick together so we don’t fall apart. At least we can look at the people that haven’t gotten the house, the husband, the kid and feel gratified that we’re no longer running around with their busy, desperate lives. There are a couple of people who really sum all of this up in their lives, the ones that have it all figured out, and they’re who we should mimic – it’s what God wants, and that’s how we fit in here.”
Did you hear it? Well, a lot of people do hear it, and hear it with crystal clarity. And even if that’s not exactly what you mean, or you wouldn’t say it like that, or even if it’s not what you intend, that’s the message coming over the loudspeaker as surely as if you’re walking around inside a barbed wire fence to the tune of “Conform. Your individuality is an illusion. Your leaders are your parents. Give up the self.” And instead of communism, it’s “god” waving at you on that red flag. I at least want little emblems to sew onto my shirt. “St. Smithereens Men’s Group – Putting the Sausage in Salvation” or “The Faithful Forties – Half Way to Heaven and Feeling Like Hell”. I need the stripes to aspire to.
All this said, I’m quite certain that a lot of good is done by these groups. I don’t think that’s a justification of their existence (we can conceive of other kinds of groups – why not just “People Who Want to Get Together and Pray”. I know, I know that people want to hang with the likeminded. In fact, sometimes you even see that taken to its logical conclusions – religious chess clubs – the “softball game” (if you tack “men’s” on it, you’re back to square one) or “the baking society” (which has its token man). I find these annoying for entirely different reasons. Maybe a future post. But I certainly don’t think the good a group does is a justification of its exclusivity, intended or not, of its core assumptions, which often as not are heretical, or its underlying structure. Again, it is possible to conceive of groups who don’t create these issues – it’s just extremely hard to find any. As a concession to human frailty, I acknowledge that any group is likely to be imperfect (though I disagree with those who suggest ridiculously that that’s part of the desirable allure). But likewise, what’s open to criticism is open to criticism, and criticism too may be imperfect and yet have some benefit. I’m sure this critique is overly this or that. Still, there’s something real there, prevalent enough that it bears talking about.
Personally, I tend to weigh in on the side of not wanting any of these groups, though in fact I’ve started more than one – just not within the context of an official offering on a bulletin somewhere – they’ve always been informal (and no, not one of those heretical gatherings of the really and truly true people that tries to get a “church” of the correct or of a higher consciousness going inside a church – that stuff lacks honor and is forbidden). I prefer to get together with who I want to get together with, not with who I don’t, and not to feel any need to pair up on the basis of demographics, or to pair up at all if I just want to get my coffee and go home. I want what’s real in my experience, and nothing if there’s nothing. Sure, I want to ‘belong’, but I’m just not willing to pay the usual fare for it. Where I am now, I haven’t been pressured, which is good. I don’t know – maybe some people are pressured – I haven’t seen it, but then I don’t stick around much. I just know what I do see, and find people describing, explaining, discussing in general all over the spectrum of religious experience. And it reaffirms my basic thesis – while Holy Orthodoxy is as distinct from say Protestantism or Roman Catholicism as sailing is from golf, religion (as a characteristic attitude of transforming the tenets of the dominant culture into liturgical and traditional constructs) is ubiquitous in attaching itself to anything it can. Call it “spirituality” or whatever canard you want – there’s something that follows around anyone who prays – it’s not integral or endemic – it’s something that stalks the experience, an emissary from the culture, and it begins to transform all it touches into something far less charitable, hopeful, and faithful while dressing it up in the language and recontextualized concepts and constructs of its host. It often even engages in benign acts, but underneath there are things worth questioning that bring into doubt the whole process. For whatever reason, some of these articles seem aimed to draw out these relationships and to argue in favor of de-religionized religion, or at least question what it might look like and how it might be accessible within our various confessional boundaries and in true fidelity to those boundaries as its first premise. Lord have mercy. The sinner writes this. And at the risk of repetition, just to be clear, I’m interested in an Orthodox religion that’s more free of religion – I’m not trying to construct a “Faith” – we Orthodox don’t do that. I’m trying to think in terms of the actual fish without the flukes (for you non-anglers – those are the little black parasites that burrow into the animal), not of crafting some custom-built Frankenfish.
Listening to NPR the other day, I heard an apocryphal account of an artist’s death blamed on Holy Orthodoxy. It was said that, under the guidance of a particular priest, he destroyed his health with fasting.
What’s interesting about that are:
- With health conditions, economia is granted, whereby the fast is kept by including any foods deemed medicinal. In other words, the fast is for our salvation, so it’s forbidden to fast from medicine. What is otherwise forbidden becomes prescribed. This is also why nursing mothers and infants keep the fast, but not by omitting foods.
- The fast in Holy Orthodoxy is a vegan fast. Nothing of animals (including alcohol) and no olive oil. It’s also followed by feasting, where fasting is actually *prohibited*, and feasting required. In other words, a ton of the world – even whole cultures (Hindu) keep this fast for life without ill effects. This includes old women who have been doing it all their lives and fall asleep at ripe old ages.
- A priest does not make the fasting rules. There is one fast for the whole Church. There are some greater depths of fasting for monastics, but the artist was not one of those, and their fasting likewise is merely abstension from meats (most monastics eat fish only, even when not fasting). And it is the Bishop, not the priest, who sanctions economia and akkrivia – so the priest is not permitted to unilaterally make broad adjustments.
- Abstinence (from food), unlike fasting (removing certain foods and frequencies of meals), is only prescribed a couple of days out of the year. The rest of the time it is only permitted at any length under the guidance of a monastic or other father, and then only in small steps in keeping with gradual religious advancement, then too only for some among the Orthodox who have the physical stamina, and only in a voluntary manner (i.e. cannot be required in any way).
I find the mythology of the Orthodox fasts being harsh and unreasonable to be a commentary on the gluttony, egotistical wealth, and obsession with death in our culture. The same claims would make no sense at all in many Asian and Near Eastern cultures. Which is it that’s so awful, horrendous, and unthinking – the temporary veganism or the temporary removal of olive oil? The notion that these things are some sort of abusive throwback to a pre-enlightened era, before we knew that lots of hydrogenated corn syrup and processed meat products are all that’s keeping us alive, is retarded.
I’ve met people that throw such a fit at the notion of living for a while on vegetables that they should have to apologize to the rest of the world for their decadence and taking more than their share. People in this part of the West eat several times more meat per day, per sitting, and per portion than even Western Europe, let alone the rest of the world. It’s a violent, passionate culture made high on protein overload, as though you can never get enough – cheese on this, pork belly on that, it’s all got to have meat. To listen to some people at the prospect of going even a day on vegetables, grains, and fruits, you’d think it was a violent moral outrage, torture, or an offense to their “god-ordained” right to endlessly slaughter and consume things. It’s stupid.
Anyway, this is not to say that there exists anything anywhere that can’t be abused. We’ve probably all seen some of everything abused in some way. But abuse is not a commentary on the whole. Now rampant, widespread abuse (like the incessant porking of boys by gay Roman Catholic priests) reflects deep and abiding problems there. Or the constant financial and sexual scandals among televangelists, etc. But come on – how many people do you see dropping dead on a daily basis from veganism, whether for their whole lives, or half the year (the Orthodox requirement)? Pish tosh. NPR can eat me over that one. Maybe that way, we’d spare half of the 8000 pounds of cows one of them eats in a lifetime.
By the way, there are Orthodox who blow off the fasts, or make it up themselves, or even express disdain for the fasts. Most are either lifers who think being born into it is the important thing – that somehow merely belonging to the right institution is the Faith, or else converts from non-fasting traditions who bring their basic assumptions with them, preferring to remain unconverted in that way, and present the Faith as a collection of “beliefs” and a basic moral structure – a Protestantized propositional/ethical/institutional religion. They just don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Orthodoxy is not a belief system, it’s an asceticism. What you believe is best summed up in what you do. Failing is easy – I’m not knocking anyone for failing – I’m knocking the dismissal of reality and reduction of it to a mere religious philosophy which, frankly, if we were going to do that, we might as well shove our heads in our arses and sing alleluias, because they’re a dime a dozen.
Contempt for the core behaviors of our Faith can only come from contempt for God, contempt for man and oneself, and contempt for reality and creation. As St. Seraphim said, “He who doesn’t fast, doesn’t actually believe in God at all.” Until those words are understood, it’s not penance and theosis – it’s philosophical masturbation. I’d be more concerned about dropping dead from that than from eating my vegetables. Try a cucumber. Despite what your pastor tells you, it actually won’t kill you. Remember God’s first discussion with man? “Here, eat all the veggies and fruits you want, they’re good and that’s why I made them. You can live on them, and they have all you need. But fast too – don’t touch the tree that makes you a philosophical fool, because that’ll separate you from your Creator and what we have together, and then you really will die.” You know the rest of the story and what came from the gluttony.
So, one of the things that’s mildly annoying about those who like to say “You Christians are responsible for the Crusades…” is that usually there’s a complete lack of familiarity with the history of the Crusades. It’s just something they saw on TV, barely comprehending even that much. So, here’s a crash course:
First Crusade 1095-1099: The Turks had invaded Anatolia, and the Byzantine Emperor requests military aid to repel the invaders. Pope of Rome responds by requesting volunteers, and eventually sees opportunity to elicit a larger geopolitical goal of recapturing the “Holy Land” – especially Jerusalem. On the way, the Western crusaders set up “kingdoms” for themselves through the Middle East. Jerusalem is recaptured. To the disappointment of the Western crusaders, the Byzantines had much more limited goals (repel invasion), and openly utilized diplomacy to negotiate and settle with the Muslims wherever possible, while the Western crusaders are there to “reconquer the Holy Land” and invade and massacre accordingly. The massacre of Jerusalem is historic, and the “first holocaust” against Jews in Western Europe is inspired by this same effort.
Second Crusade 1144: Muslims capture Edessa. Western saint Bernard of Clairvaux travelled Western Europe asking people to take up arms. No clear goals or leadership. Result is that little came of it except to combine Flemish, Frisian, Norman, English, Scottish, German, and Portuguese crusaders. The Western forces were a super-alliance.
Third Crusade 1189: Muslims had recaptured Jerusalem. Western Europe again mobilizes en masse. Frank emperor Barbarosa dies en route to Jerusalem. Lionhart (England) recaptures several coastal cities, but does not enter Jerusalem. Instead secures a treaty for pilgrims to enter the city.
Fourth Crusade 1202: No clear goals or leadership. Massive Western armies looking for a target, however. Franks and Venetians invade Orthodox Byzantium, systematically desecrated the Byzantine (Orthodox) temples, and looted the products of Byzantine civilization. Vast numbers of the artifacts of civilization (dating from ancient Greece and Rome to modern) in Western Europe actually date from this crusade – both in originals and copies. The Library of Constantinople (last of the great libraries of the Ancient world – successor to the destroyed library of Alexandria) was burned. Schism is regarded as universally permanent from this time on.
One historian writes: “The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.’
Fifth Crusade 1217: Western European monarchies (Hungary and Austria) captured Damietta. The Muslims offered Jerusalem in exchange, but they refused.
Sixth Crusade 1228: Western Europe (led by the Frank Emperor). Ends in negotiated return of Jerusalem.
Seventh & Eighth Crusades 1270: Western Europe (led by King of France). Won but lost Damietta again.
Ninth Crusade 1271: Western Europe (led by King of England). Failed to defeat sultan of Baibers.
“The Children’s Crusade” is an apocryphal series of events and myths dating to 1212, taking place in Western Europe, notably Italy, but amounting to little historical import. Popular versions of these stories still abound.
So here are the points I draw from that history:
- While there’s a religious pretext for them, except for the 4th, it’s a mistake to think the Crusades have a primarily religious impetus. The 2nd Crusade failed to get legs precisely because it was purely religious in character. The third Crusade ended in European monarchies fighting over loot.
- To take the religious aspect at face value is also to remove the ground of any such argument – after all, how many crusades by atheists (Leninist, Maoist, etc) have been far more brutal and totalitarian? Does this mean that, to be consistent, atheism is to be impugned in general on the basis of those? Every ideology is an opportunity for violence. More recently, it’s “Western Democracy”. Logic demands consistent applicaton of a rule w/o prejudice for one’s own group.
- It’s inaccurate to attribute the crusades to only Christian influence. It is precisely a response to the wholesale Muslim invasion of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Africa that the Europeans are responding. You don’t get one w/o the other. In all the rhetoric that “Christians are responsible for the Crusades” one wonders if anyone is left who knows who their opponents were. Ironically, they are the same opponents Europe is fighting as we speak, over the same area of the world as the earlier Crusades. One again, this underscores the point that what you say about “Christians” in the one context, you must concede about “Western Democracy” in the current one, otherwise it’s just a prejudice against religion and not an interest in logical consistency.
- It’s inaccurate to attribute the Crusades to some kind of generic “Christianity” – or a “Christianity” in general. We Orthodox not only didn’t participate, except arguably in a nominal way (i.e. we asked for help of the West to drive back a massive invader of our own empire), but we were the victims of the Crusaders’ massacres at least as thoroughly as the Muslims in Jerusalem. In fact, one of the reasons we enraged the Crusaders was that we were not Crusading with them. Rather than invading the Middle East – we were using diplomacy to repel invaders of our own empire where possible, and asking for military assistance where it wasn’t. We were defending our homeland, not trying to dominate Jerusalem. To paint everyone w. a broad brush might be a testiment to the absurd simplicity of some Western intellects, but it’s not the reality of what happened, and it reflects a theological illiteracy akin to saying “you people” to all Asians when referring to the Chinese. It only persists as cute, because the one bigotry and ignorance is more culturally acceptable than the other.
You know, it’s fun for some people to aim their guns at religious adherents, but it’s usually more like a joke about the evening news that gets the facts wrong, so the punchline doesn’t matter.
You know, I’m not a huge fan of mosts priests. I pray for them. I show reverence to their person. But I find that most of them are entirely unhelpful, primarily because of the tendency to substitute religion for life. I don’t mean that they offer faith but don’t into account some need I have to be generally dishonest as a corporate minion, to murder that unwanted child in the womb or euthanize granddad at the pound (er… hospital). That’s not life – that’s just being a complete religious fraud. No, I mean the substitution of religion – the principles of the world dressed up as faith – in place of living experience. I’ll explain. First let me say, my lack of fondness for most priests extends to “pastors”, if your religion was invented in the last few centuries. “Religious leader” or “band director”, if you’re one of those mega-churches whose domain name ends with “.TV”. So this is a survey of how priests (or parochial religious leaders) sometimes fail us:
The neo-gnostic: You know that person that always presents an exception to everything, because he doesn’t really believe that anything is true? The closet nihilist? It could be the anthropology instructor who, when you say “homosexuality is demonstrably unnatural, because it does nothing to extend the survival of the species, and no species survives without procreation” (a demonstrably Darwinist principle), pops off with “well, there’s an obscure tribe in a remote corner of an island in New Guinea, consisting of 40 people, among whom…” You see, the remoteness of the exception demonstrates the genuineness of the rule. If you have to resort to something almost non-existent, you’re demonstrating the opposite point. The religious version of this creature, using the same gnostic technique, will respond to a statement about the Fast with “one monastic instructed another…” (different context) “that he should specifically refrain from the fast” (a rare exception) – or, for example, to “according to our tradition, women may not serve in this capacity…” with “1700 years ago, in a cave Church, in a remote village of what is now Romania…”. You get the point. This priest just doesn’t like Aristotles law of identity: a=a or the law of excluded middle: a or not a – he doesn’t believe a thing can be so or not so at all – for him, the thing religion is a tool to eliminate is the false belief in any certainties. His role is the reinterpretation of the certainties of the faith, the world, and human experience as a series of “yeah buts” on a program of “nothing can be known for sure” and “nothing really is really, really real”. He’s so committed to his nihilism and gnosticism that all he knows for sure is that you don’t know anything for certain. If you detect groundless, circular reasoning there, it’s because yeah, it’s religion – it has nothing whatever to do with the Faith. I find these priests inhabiting large parishes in the established jurisdictions. They’re loads of fun.
The perpetual seminarian: Ever get the feeling that you’re being “handled”? The neo-gnostic is handling you, too, and this is no less a form of religious manipulation. But I’m talking about something seemingly more benign, if every bit as sophomoric. It’s as if there is a class somewhere on what things to say to people to make the bundle up their concerns, their hurting, and their fear, and take it away with them, so the religious offices are not burdened. There are a gazillion things a priest can say to that end: “Maybe this is a trial, so you’ll learn humility” is one of the best. After all, when you say to someone, “you need more humility”, they can’t argue, can they? Not if they’re honest, and not in any case w/o seeming to prove you right. But it’s a non sequitur. In any other venue that religion, it’s understood that your issue is being blown off, and a kind of ad hominem is being used in its place. Only in robes, or with parents to their children, or husband to wife, or from employer to employee is this tolerated. In other words, it’s only gotten away with when one is in a position to emotionally manipulate another. The perpetual seminarian has a complete compendium of these can pop off with. It makes you think there’s a big book of them somewhere. Much to my disappointment, some years back I went to see, and such books actually do exist. It makes one considering buying the biggest one and carrying it around with a highlighter but, of course, religion is so all-consuming that that would just be more fodder for religion’s usual response to too critical an eye.
The guru: Similar to the perpetual seminarian, the guru is rife not with the helpful and practical words of the fathers, not with the ascetic demands they place on us, so that our deification is possible. But instead, they give us the swami response. “Sometimes, all you need is a love.” or “Wherever you go, God is there.” I mean, that latter is pretty good, and sometimes they get it right. But precisely because they don’t seem to see a difference between the words of the Beatles and the wisdom of the Fathers, you really don’t know what you’re getting, whether it’s consistent, and whether ultimately it’s even helpful. It all blends together in a self-help, personal psychology – a religion of personal improvement and the acquisition of self-fulfillment. I figure you can get this anywhere. There’s no need to dress it up in religious garb – just go down to your local coffee shop, breathe the incense, and smoke the ganga. Ganga is actually a form of organic coffee, you know. 🙂 I’m kidding – I like organic coffee – and ganga smoking is for dumbasses. But you see what I mean – is the Faith about deification or is it about personal enhancement. If the latter, religion becomes just a different flavor of something on sale in the CD section at Starbucks. “The question may be more important than the answer.” Really? Then what do I need you for? “The journey is…” You get the picture.
The top of the pyramid: This could be the quasi-rogue priest who keeps dossiers on everyone and leads his followers into the true, truth, of the true, one, only true, trueness, but strangely manages to stay within the lines well enough to avoid defrocking, all the while making it clear that his own brand of the brand is what’s really important. It could be the priest who sees himself as indispensible – without him, his public would just be the sheep w/o the shepherd (it is the Bishop who is the shepherd, not the priest, and the Bishop is a monastic who cannot but see himself as servant of all, if he is rightly dividing the word of truth). This kind of bandleader priest gets annoyed easily, talks in terms of the burden things pose to him, the emotional distress it provides him when he ‘has to deal’ with people who aren’t inherently propping up his view of things. It really is all about him. This gets helped along by those parishioners who apologize to visitors whenever the priest is sick or on leave or out of town, as though someone how the prayers will be less effective, or little of meaning or interest can possibly be conveyed in his absence. The two forces condition each other – the indispensible priest and the sacramentally gluttonous, dependent congregation. In the Church of our Fathers, a liturgy cannot even occur without the presence of at least one layperson. The laity are just as necessary. Does the priesthood of personality ever ask what emotional burdens it is placing upon the congregation?
The cool guy: This priest is the one who focuses on the 80%, and the 20% can either stray or get lost. 🙂 The focus and emphasis is always about what the majority want, or are thinking about, and he takes great care to remain popular – which isn’t wrong in itself – except that he also tends to frame things in terms of how you are pleasing others, fitting in, and making it all go smoothly. The parish is a machine, and you’re either oil or you’re sand – he encourages you not to be sand. Everyone likes this priest, except those who don’t, of course, but it’s all about fitting into the “family”. I always get creeped out when visiting some place and they pop off with, “we’re all like a big family”. It sounds like a small, white town to me, except that it’s about religious homogeneity rather than racial. It’s a cultural uniformity, and your role is supposed to be to ensure its continued existence as what it is – not extend it to embody more diversity. The rock star priest is fun, if you like that kind of music. If not, you’re on the sidelines like a nerd at a high school dance. You can hang on for the liturgy, but the picnics are going to suck – again, at least if you’re the other 20%,
Now I’m not picking on priests in general. I’m not interested in the anti-clerical cultural impulses that can prevail on the fringes of religion, any more than I am the anti-monastic ones that can prevail in parochial environments, or the anti-episcopal ones that typify fanatical manipulators who like to start their own missions across the street from the congregation. There are great priests. If priests had reviews, all of the above would get 5 stars from a ton of their fans. Fans are like that. Microsoft has made a ton of people its bitches, who are ready to sell their soul and everything else for a different color toolbar. The reviews don’t mean much – after all, do people really know what they want and need – if you’ve asked that question about me, ask it about yourself, too. It’s a fair one. So neither should you mind my reviews. I haven’t even named names. But obviously I’d give more of my stars to priests who don’t seem to want the above roles.
My preference, lately, is for the priest who is just doing the best he can. I’ve known a couple of them. One used to travel to minister to us, at his own expense sometimes, with often little sleep. He wasn’t perfect – he was just genuine. Another feels free to say “I don’t know” but without fixing you up with some artificial (and gnostic) platitude like “maybe the question is more important than…”. He’ll just say he doesn’t know, and give you the best advice he can. Not to laud these men, but let me ask you a question. When someone close to you has fallen asleep (you might say “has died”), do you want platitudes, guru-ism, emotional manipulation, to try to swallow your grief so you fit in better, or the general uncertainty of all things, or do you want someone to say “Your pain is yours. I don’t know what to say. I’ll stay here with you.” I know which one I prefer.
I look at political neo-conservatism as a quasi-religious entity, like freemasonry – a kind of social religion. The religious people involved seem to be looking for precisely a quasi-religious talmudism that allows them to re-interpret the historical Christ and Christianity much like the Talmud allowed Hebrews to reinterpret the requirements of the law. The focus is on keeping most of your money and rejecting responsibility for the poor, militarizing against foreigners, foreign nations, and immigrants and rejecting the love of strangers, and maintaining a closed, bigoted society and rejecting the diversity required by following Christ’s teaching. In short, to be a neo-conservative is to become a religious Pharisee, with all the attendant self-righteousness, obfuscation of rational debate, and filibustering to paralyze society when it doesn’t cooperate with the agenda. It is the religion of this world, expressed in the particular formula recognizable in all fascist societal movements.
To say that I have no respect for it, is an understatement. Certainly, I don’t have respect for the ideas, thoughts, motivations, and activities of its adherents, any more than I do those of brown shirts or black shirts. But I also see it as a tremendous blight and cancer upon civilization. It is the formulized antithesis to Christianity itself.
- Christ preaches constant concern for the poor. They preach constant concern for “us and our own” and that the poor can take care of themselves. You stick with yours, I stick with mine.
- Christ preaches welcoming and embracing the stranger, the foreigner, and the alien. They preach denying hospitality and treating the alien as less entitled. There is a reification of nationality, and overtones that nations of other ethnicities are generally inferior. Who are they always bombing? Little brown people.
- Christ preaches tolerance continually for others, religious, cultural, gender, ethnic, sexual, everything. Yep, that means gays too. They preach denying to those who don’t hold their values the very things Christ freely gave – his community, his attention, his interest, his compassion and charity, his involvement, his help, and his protection.
- Christ preaches visiting those in prison, relieving their suffering, and healing their wounds. “I was in prison,” says Christ. They preach putting more people into prisons, depriving prisoners of adequate medical care, decent food, and substantive emotional and mental comfort, and closeting them in ever more deprived situations, far from the public eye. In some cases, they preach secret prisons, torture, and utter deprivation of human dignity – things that no Christ, real or imagined, can inspire.
- Christ preaches constant concern for the sick, and securing their health at our own expense, just like the good Samaritan. They preach “I am not responsible”, and letting the sick die for lack of anyone to treat or attend them. They say the government should not be involved, but they do not themselves, like the ancient Christians who founded the first hospitals as charities, found hospitals to heal those who cannot find healing.
In the end, the only relationship of neo-conservatism, especially as a para-religious society for protestant fundamentalists, to Christ and the Christianity of the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers is an inverse one. It is the antithesis. It is every word of Christ turned on its head, sandwiched in a “yeah but”, “only if”, or “that means”, just as the Talmudists did to the law. And Christ preached also against Talmudism – saying they had reinterpreted the law and thereby ignored its precepts.
In short, neo-conservatism in general, and religious fundamentalism in particular, are systems of modifying Christianity and Christ until you get the pseudo-“Jesus” of the airwaves and the campaign trail and the Klan rally and the closed community. It is “Jesus” as a Rush Limbaugh figure, “Jesus” as an Oliver North figure, “Jesus” as the powerful fascist leader that keeps soccer moms and “women of God” safe from the unclean hordes outside the culdesac. “Jesus” of the Country-Western station and the torture chamber and the neighborhood association. It is the “Jesus” of beating up “faggots” behind the bleachers, “Jesus” of the prom queen who thanks him for winning. It is a made-up, tooth-fairy Jesus who doesn’t exist, most certainly is not due our worship, and is in fact a demon masquerading under the name of the very God who pointed out that there will be false Jesus’ and false Christs. The “Jesus” of expedience, of convenience, of national interests – the red, white, and blue clad “Jesus” of U.S. hegemony.
The false “Jesus” is the “Jesus” who told the poor that they should get a job, and turned his back – the “Jesus” who chased away the stranger or called immigration or the police when they showed up, and who plotted how best to invade the Samaritans. It is the “Jesus” who told the woman at the well that she belongs at home – the “Jesus” who cast the first stone at the harlot and asked if they had any gays on hand. It is the “Jesus” who said, “you didn’t visit me in prison – good job – they were too easy on me, anyway.” It is the “Jesus” who told the blind man and the sick, “you’re not my responsibility. I don’t believe in social welfare”. It’s the “Jesus” who instead of saying, “my mother and my brothers are those who do the will of God”, said, “I’m for good, old-fashioned family values – family comes first. To heck with staying on the cross for people I’ve never met, charity begins at home, can someone give me a ladder?”. This “Jesus” would never have gone to the cross in the first place – it just wouldn’t make sense. The false “Jesus” says the end justifies the means, the outcome justifies whatever we have to do, “collateral damage”, torture, suspending rights, punishing sedition, and building a security state. This “Jesus” would never feed 5,000 from a few loaves – he would say “we can’t help everyone” and then go to Dennys with the apostles for a “Men’s breakfast” and eat five pounds each of fatty foods.
Do you see how the “Jesus” of neo-conservatism deserves only our derision and scorn, our contempt and ridicule? And if the mascot of their movement, then the movement as a whole. The people are lost people, deceived people, enthralled by a false Christ, in the power of the demonic, and compassion is what we must provide. Contempt for their ideas, compassion for their persons. We must never do what they have done – commit the heresy of reducing persons to their ideas or affiliations (“those people” while forgetting that they are people like us) or reducing persons to their actions (“terrorists”). That last is the fallacy into which existentialists fall, and it is heresy, and rejected by the Church. It is a denial of the Incarnation. Hate neo-conservatism, but love the neoconservative. At the same time, this system of neoconservatism deserves unrelenting opposition as an anti-human, anti-life, anti-Christ, and anti-Christian force to substitute fascism for faith at the expense of every person and group they would abandon, imprison, or trod under foot in the name of a demonic “Jesus” who hates you if you don’t follow him.
You know, when I was taught to interpret Genesis as a Protestant, I was given a choice between two versions of it. One was the fundamentalist literalist version which asserted redundancy in “the text” (as people like to call it) – an “account” (another popular word) of creation in brief summary, followed immediately by a more elaborate and detailed account – a kind of built in repetition. Not a ridiculous apparatus – don’t we use such techniques liturgically? Think of the Psalms. Certainly it is far more credible, given the liturgical significance of all scripture than the alternative – the higher critical “approach” (a word it’s hard not to laugh at). The latter asserted that accounts by multiple authors were woven together by a third author, to produce a kind of poorly contrived first chapter – this editor, not wanting to lose any words of either, simply blended them in a rather ‘obvious’ way.
Besides being an assertion that the poorest imaginable editor was chosen to edit the most important work in his culture, an editor for which there is no evidence other than a particular reading of the text itself, it sort of makes Christ out to be a liar too, as the fundamentalists correctly retort, quoting Christ, “If you don’t hear Moses’ words, neither will you hear my word.” If God Incarnate were unaware that St. Moses didn’t actually write the books attributed to him, then of course we’re all just playing ‘church’. An Orthodox person doesn’t reason this way, of course – Christ’s Incarnation is the first principle and beginning point of history, so it is by that tangible reality that we judge and interpret more distant historical realities, not vice versa. Anyway, out of the two options, you can guess which one I subscribed to as a young man, but mostly out of laziness, because I wasn’t really interested to read and think through it myself. I assumed the redundancy approach. After all, I wasn’t going to shove my own head up my arse with higher criticism. I’m aware of other Protestant interpretations, such as attributing to the text an anachronistic form of mysticism, I’ve just always thought they were too inadequate to interest me enough to write out a refutation.
Recently, I’ve done a little reading (very little) of some work written by a friend of mine on another but related paleographical topic, and I began to think about the similarity of Genesis 1 with what was being suggested in another field. So I decided to take a look and see if the pattern I guessed was there, was there. It seems to be. As a result, I’m reading Genesis 1 a bit differently now. Now I think that it’s an amazingly linear (non-redundant) text, with a quite intentional set of repetitions (like “Lord have mercy” in a litany) that reflect precisely the work of one author doing a very tight presentation in which each repetition represents a unique assertion about the relationships between systems and subsystems. In other words, they are repetitions but not redundancies. They are more akin to when someone is building a logical argument: this a+b=x, b+c=x, and c+d=x. The “=x” is a repetition but not a redundancy. This part of the argument is quite linear and will lead to the conclusion that a=b=c=d=x/2. Clearly the work of a single mind elaborating a single argument without redundancy.
So here follows a loose account of the “creation narrative”, as people like to call it, in my own no doubt prejudiced and inadequate treatment, but one I think is certainly more plausible, dealing with the text structurally, than either version I learned from the Protestants:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The first act is a creation of a distinction between systems – i.e. Heaven and Earth. “Earth” does not mean land. It isn’t “earth” or “Earth” as we think of it, since later there is the clear assertion of the creation of land and sea at a different point in time. “Earth” here might merely mean “space”. Instead of redundancy, perhaps the creation of earth is simply the creation of the necessary space and physical properties that must antedate matter itself. One takes the cue from “heaven and earth” that these, while different systems – each their own order – are also systems sharing an order – they are interactive systems, not eternally distant, absolutely differentiated, and estranged ones.
“And the earth was without form, and void…” The next statement is a description of the system called earth. It is without form and void – which is to say that it has none of the physical properties by which we now even attempt to describe space. It is a kind of space devoid even of space. It is not space as we think of the space of the universe, which is anything but empty and without physical properties.
Yet it is a kind of substantive void – a void with positive existence. What follows seems to be the creation of the first physical property to impact the void and give it quantities and qualities capable of sustaining and indeed defining subsequent creations (subsequent modes of existence or substance?). Before the creation of those properties, however, there seem to be properties even of the void. In other words, void is something: “…and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” The waters will be referred to as the stuff of the void farther on. But here it is as if the void has positive qualities – if for no other reason than that it was created, rather than a constituting a pre-existing (i.e. eternal) absence of creation. Creation itself then takes on a non-dialectical quality. Neither creation ex nihilo as creation out of a pre-existing nothing, nor yet out of pre-existing matter, nor yet out of the Creator. Creation as a much more radical act of a positive without a negative. But then comes the creation of additional properties.
“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” God creates light. But I question whether this light is necessarily what we think it means today, based on an experience with light that would require our existence before light’s existence – i.e. brightness – illumination. Instead, I conjecture it is the physics of light (i.e. motion) that must, again, necessarily antedate matter and other physical properties.
There is a statement, now: “And God saw the light, that it was good:” This is something “saw that it was good” that will recur from now on with the completion of each system or subsystem. It’s curious that it was not stated when God created heaven and earth. It is as if earth itself (space?) were not complete until it were given a governing or defining property – light. And when it was, then, and only then, “it was good” (i.e. a complete system).
“and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Previously light had been created, but now light is distinguished from its context – set free, if you will, in the vaccuum of night. And immediately this has the effect of creating time – another physical force and property – defined or characterized by movement through two principles (e.g. by movement itself): evening and morning. From here on out, the entire creation narrative will be punctuated by statements of time as the context of all further creative acts, and perhaps a co-creative force in the sense of contributing to the properties of those creations. Note that the celestial objects had not been created yet (e.g. stars) – this evening and morning is not daylight and its absence, but an integral principle of time itself – night and day as ambiguous moments through which time moves – time is an operative movement. These distinctions, however are stated a little differently. Between light and darkness is a “divide”. In other words, they are not properties of the same order. They are not like the distinction between interoperative systems – i.e. heaven and earth. Evening and morning do share that interoperative characteristic, but not as separate systems, but as properties o
f another force – time: “evening and morning were the first day”. It is not a distinction between systems but of moments (movements) within a system. It is in fact the elaboration of a system – as if to say that time moves, that that is its most characteristic property. In fact, one might summarize by saying, “God created time as a moving thing – a motion – moving through one principle to another, distinct moments, but each properties of time.” And perhaps further elaborating, “It is light, operating in the context of space, distinguished from what is not light, that co-created time.”
Again, this is speculative interpretation. But so far, you have the creation of two systems, divided from one another – heaven and earth – earth perhaps referring to the properties of space – the capacity for matter. The space is made no longer void by the creation of light. Not light as in illumination – indeed the distinction between light and dark has not yet been created – but rather the properties of light. Then the creation of a physical context for light (darkness). This immediately resulting in the creation of time, itself a force conferring, perhaps, characteristic behaviors on the previously created properties of light. In short, it seems that what what was created first are the systems and properties of systems without which nothing contained in a system can move, cohere or have meaningful existence. In fact, in summary, we might say that thus far, God created existence – a set of systemic properties which, incidentally, cannot be ascribed to God himself, who is no creature. God, who does not exist created existence as the context of all things that would later be said to exist. Put another way, God created multiple systems with multiple interoperative properties bounded in contradistinction but elaborating and being elaborated by each subsequent creation. Or in short, God created boundaries or bounded sets of physical principles and properties which allow subsequent things to exist.
One might further observe that what has been created so far is abolutely necessary to the creation of man. One cannot create man with godlike knowledge, if the capacity to know something in particular does not previously exist by means of the creation of systems and properties of systems. One cannot create godlike creative capacity unless matter exists from which to create particular things, and matter cannot exist without the properties on which matter depends, and indeed the energy of light, coming first. In short, existence must predate the existence of godlike creatures – imagine waking up insane in a cosmos in which you had the capacity to know but there was nothing to know, the capacity to create but nothing out of which creation could occur, or which even gave definition and shape (properties) to creation. Man could not come first. Existence must come first, and systems (e.g. earth) with properties of systems (e.g. light), and time for movement, and then there must finally be matter.
“And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.” Again, the movement of time is contributing where God is creating. This Heaven isn’t the Heaven created already “in the beginning”. This is something else, made clear by the next part, “And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas.” This again, isn’t the Earth created “in the beginning” but something else. It’s interesting, though that the interoperative subsystem of heaven and earth refers to the universe sky and a planetary environment should be given the same names as the interoperative systems Heaven and Earth created “in the beginning”. This is, of course, the point that confuses the reading for people – is it a repeat and further elaboration on the creation of the same two things? Are the first two lines of Genesis a preface summary of what is to come? But I’m still considering that this is rather a nuanced comparison of subsystems with systems by means of the convention of naming. After all, “in the beginning” it is said God “created’ the heavens and the earth. Here it is said that God named them after dividing the waters to create them. This is the second act of naming in the account. Previously, God named “the light Day and the darkness Night” after dividing them, and we conjectured that that reflected a different kind of distinction that that between the heavens “and” the earth. We said that it seems like this indicates a sharing of properties within another system. If our initial interpretation is right, that this heaven and earth were created within Earth (the void), then the narrative is consistent.
In short, God created the first material context out of the stuff (waters) of the previously created earth (void) – one of the two interoperative systems created “in the beginning”. God created a distinction in the system between celestial space and (planet) earth which is in some way similar to the distinction between darkness and light which antedated the previously created light. Light – then light and darkness. Heaven and Earth (void) – then heaven and earth within Earth. Another way of putting it is that there is a created Heaven outside of time, and a created Earth before time, and then there is a created heaven and earth in time and depending on time. What I find most compelling is that we are given celestial space as a type of Heaven – a context that we can immediately compare cognitive so that the idea of Heaven, created in the beginning, will not have no meaning. What more direct and powerful way to provide a metaphor than naming a thing. And again, it is juxtaposed cognitively with Earth. It is as if to say, “the relationship between celestial space and the planet on which you live is a metaphor for (is like) the relationship between Heaven and that which is not Heaven, but is by comparison formless and void. Without all of this being done first, speaking words like “Heaven” to man or even offering a creation narrative at all, would be futile – there could be no cognition without the convention of comparison expressed most clearly by direct naming of a subsystem after systems. Again, the conditions of cognition (the properties of physics and the capacity for cognitive relationships – i.e. comparisons, naming) precede the creation of godlike man with cognitive capacity.
This is interesting when thinking about the theory that the observer affects the thing observed, and that the understandable properties of the universe are those which presume cognitive man, so that perhaps the previously created universe was a necessary condition of man’s creation, and the creation of man affects the properties of the very universe that man is cognitively observing just as time does.
“And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.” Now God brings forth biological life: grass, herb bearing seed, fruit which is seed. Then again it’s a complete biological subsystem: “it was good.” Then again the system is subject to and sustains time: “third day”. Put another way, we can conclude that biological systems share common properties with non-biological systems, each deriving something from the other.
Then follows not only the creation of the celestial bodies but simultaneously an interesting statement of distinctions and recapitulation of the whole system dependent subsystems of 1)
space, 2) time, 3) matter, 4) biology : “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.” Besides illumination, these celestial bodies are signs (e.g. symbols – hieroglyphs – paleographic instruments – musical notes – mathematics – language) – to represent all that has gone before. It is the creation of an elaborate symbolic language explaining systems, physical properties and creation. In other words, God created the stars and planets in part as a cognitive system – a set of references – cognitive matter, if you will – a cognitive material and apparatus. And God did this prior to creating animal life. Life that is capable of cognition by interaction with a cognitive material context. God created science – cosmology, physics, and the science of light and of time. The only conclusions are that God created signs for something already elaborated or for something not yet elaborated or both. But this is the creation narrative, and we’ve already suggested that each prior creation contributed to each subsequent creation as well as each subsequent creation contributing to each prior. One could argue that God created an empirical basis for cognition of material creatures subject to time precisely with a view that these creatures, once created, would elaborate that very cognition to shape the universe itself. And you thought it was just to give us a sundial or a calendar!
What’s interesting about this creation of a cognitive system is that God not only spoke it into being, as God did with all the subsystems. With major systems, God is said to have “created” Heaven and Earth. And to have “made the firmament” and “divided the waters”. All other things were “God said let there be…”. In fact, each time God says “let there be”, it is followed by “it was so”. I should stop at this point and say explicitly that what I think is happening is that systems, subsystems, and properties of systems are being distinguished by clear boundaries in the narrative, repeatedly articulated as “it was so”, “it was good”, “and the evening and the morning were the x day”. And also that I think some understanding of the character of created works is being articulated by the means by which God is said to have created them, “And God said”, “and God made”, “God created”, “and God called” – and that this also is indicating distinctions between systems, subsystems, and properties of systems. If one were to take a highlighter and mark these all in various colors and section out what was done in what order and most importantly how it relates at least to each prior order (the creation narrative is inherently linear – hence the seven days schema) but also to each subsequent order, one would be elaborating in a diagram what I am attempting to elaborate in prose. In any case:
“And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.” So the solar system has been created. The first thing I notice is the way in which firmament is now used – as if a previously created physical reality and construct now produces precisely a cognitive metaphor – a symbolic language for understanding further elaborated realities and constructs, in the same way that heaven and earth speak of Heaven and Earth, and this is precisely and immediately upon creating celestial bodies as signs (symbolic language) for just such an endeavour. “Firmament” here is taking on a generic quality as a term used to mean space, substance, area, the quantity or quality of category, space, time. In other words “firmament” seems to come to represent physical properties themselves – the properties of physics – any subset or subsystem of physical categories – whether subject to time or not. There is a firmament outside of time, and there are firmaments within time, including one of the space of the universe. God has created science and is using science now to explain subsequent creation, as already done in single example (not requiring an elaborate science) with heaven and earth. And time, again, plays its role in this cognition. “And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.”
So God has created all the stars and planetary objects and then… makes them “rule over” day and night – i.e. govern time. And to divide light and darkness – physical properties. In other words – let their be objects in the vacuum of space (firmament of physical properties of space capable of containing matter) that govern time and divide moments of time from one another so that the motion of time is sustained by the existence of these objects. In short, just as scientific cognition and symbolic language elaborate upon prior creation, so physical entities created subsequently affect physical entities created prior. The creation is linear, but non-linear, it is a system being shaped in arrears by each subsequent creation. And this, too, of course, suggests that man’s cognition, in so much as it is godlike, must again be predicated on the exact order in which creation has proceeded, though it will then precede to itself reshape and reform that order in accordance with that very creation of man and man’s unique capacities and needs.
Then God creates animal life. “And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.” Again – firmament as a generic term describing bodies of physical properties or systems or subsystems of the larger physical universe. Then completion again. “And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.”
So far, several patterns within a linear process. There is one non-redundant process of creation here, punctuated by hard distinctions between systems (God separated x from y), soft distinctions within systems among things of the same order (God named one thing x and another thing y), the passage (engine) of time (was the x day), and completion of systems (saw that it was good). This is very much like an engineering map, a blueprint of a cosmic systems plan.
But God then does a new thing. He blesses them (the animals). And declares reproduction. The fifth day passes. “And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth. And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.”
God then creates land animals (the others were sea and air animals). “And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” But this is done separately. It is done after the completion “it was good” of a subsystem and the passage of time as a boundary “were the fifth day”. Why is this a separate subsystem? It’s as if to say that the properties that each biological subsystem depends upon (sea and air vs. land) are themselves bounded as distinct systems within the same order, and by time. God then again, says of this act “God saw that it was good”.
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful
, and multiply…”
Finally, God makes man, creates a distinction within the same order (male and female), blesses them (second blessing) and declares reproduction in this order too. It’s interesting that this is not the third blessing and declaration of reproduction but only the 2nd, indicating a sharing of order between air, sea, and land animals, despite them being bounded by other properties related to the physics of their habitat, that is nonetheless somehow distinct in qualities from man, precisely in the area of reproduction. This further underscores the previous interpretation of those distinctions indicating relations between physical properties on which each type of biological creation are predicated. So, only two blessings and two declarations of reproduction, not three.
“And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.” Then what happens? God saw that it was good, again. This time saw “everything that he had made”. In short, a complete system. A complete Earth created in the beginning, but now a kosmos thriving with physical properties – shape, form, motion, light, time, biology, and cognition. The crowning act being the creation of godlike man. “and, behold, it was very good”. Completion par excellence. And the engine of time operates again. “Sixth day.” It’s as if all things being created sustain the engine of time on which they also depend for their existence.
“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.” And then of course, it’s the 7th day. The narrative of seven days shows itself as a systematic formulization of the physics/physical properties and cosmological properties of all systems and subsystems that have been created.
As we known, there is the seventh day, needing far more explication than should be done here or than I am qualified to offer, this being so significant in our Faith. But in the 4th verse of the 2nd chapter of Genesis, this “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens…”. In other words, here even the symbol/idea of “day” is now used, as were “heaven”, “earth”, and “firmament” to refer to and recapitulate the entire linear process of creation before, including, and through time “the generations”. It is as if to say, “This is the necessarily successive order of dependent events “the generations”, bounded by time “when they were created”, which is an explication of a system in which all things are unified by mutually dependency “in the day”, by the hand of God.
Well, this is all speculation. So if you take it and run off somewhere with it and let it eat your mind, I’m warning you now, that I’m not claiming this is the truth. It’s one reading subject to many personal and biased thoughts. But it sure isn’t the reading the Protestants gave me. Things might be simpler the other way, but I’ve never been satisfied with the notion that the scriptures are story books. I think they can have some value as that, but I think they were written by incredibly intelligent men who were producing a liturgical text with multiple layers of meaning (not one correct interpretation but many) lending themselves to multiple forms of cognition, and that the key thing in a creation narrative is for it to actually account for the creation logically and rationally in some way that is connected to cosmology and physics that we can at least become equipped to hear. If you’re thinking there are aspects of modern physics and systems theory (I don’t know anything about systems theory – that’s what a friend called what I’m doing), then yeah probably. I mean, how frustrating is it to look out at a universe we are understanding by means of quantum mechanics and think that maybe the only relevance of the account of creation is as a story that seems to have no bearing on anything we’re thinking the rest of the time? I think maybe we’ve just often been trained to misread it. It would be intellectually dishonest not to include that possibility along with the possibilties that it’s nonsense and that it’s just a story. What if it’s an account in metaphysical and religious language, to quote a friend, of realities that we are only rediscovering in the areas of physics and mechanics? What if it really is telling us how the universe was built, and is just as good Monday through Saturday as it is for a few hours on Sunday morning before the game?
Dammit, I want a book that explains it better than Hawking and Einstein! They’re too prone to error. If you’re going to hand me a creation narrative, it had better be *about* the creation, so I can take it outside and sit under an apple tree and contemplate motion and light and time and not thing, “well gee, this is more like Little Red Riding Hood, I think I’ll see what the latest theoretical astrophysicist is aching over right now.” Frankly, I think Genesis 1 is perhaps the most brilliant, comprehensive, and elegantly simple texts in the fields of cosmology and physics ever written. It’s just my take, but it sure beats looking for that third author, as though that would even be helpful. I want to “use” the book, not give it marks for unattribute citations.
Oh, and I know that what people are typically looking for is some sort of refutation or validation of evolution. But no self-respecting scientist that actually deals in evolutionary research believes in Darwinian evolution anymore anyway. Just ask Carl Sagan. That’s just your high school science teacher that believes in that schlock. And no reasonable fundamentalist can deny microevolutionary processes as a set of observations, though as demonstration of macroevolutionary notions, microevolutionary processes are as useless as hokum, and the result is often evolutionary intellectual voodoo. But I don’t see how Genesis 1 has any bearing one way or another. It’s just not a comment on the subject. The part everyone zooms in on is the “literal seven days” – but that question is just as nutty as “creationists” are claimed to be by skeptics. I don’t consider myself a creationist, incidentally, because I can’t see making as “ism” out of it – to me that’s all a debate over public education, which I think is just a social conditioning program for corporate states – so debating about whether there’s enough prayer or God in it, to me, is kind of sick. If the Genesis narrative indicates anything, it’s something that’s in agreement with modern science: namely, you can’t really discuss what forces are like apart from (e.g. prior to) man, because a) man’s own cognition affects those forces and b) man can only perceive things about those forces that his nature permits – his cognition conditions his perception – making his view subjective. I don’t claim anything about what is meant by “day” because the narrative specifically indicates, along with what we understand about cognition and physics, that the question would be silly. In that regard, the skeptics who ask it have much more in common with the “creationists” who define it, than either do with the author of the text and modern science.
Put another way, you can’t ask how long a day was in the creation narrative – because that presumes properties of time that the narrative is not only specifically not addressing, but I would argue it is specifically denying – and also because you’re presuming man’s cognition prior to the phenomenon, which not only is not what the narrative claims, it’s not what anyone claims – including skeptics. To be intellectually honest, you can’t beg the question by asking the narrative to account for only one of its points – separate from the others – on the basis of an assumption specifically alien to it, and even alien to what’s being used in your own realm. If the narrative is claiming that time conditions cognition of time, which I think it does, then you can’t ask it to substitute, out of hand, a much more limited and absolute an understanding of time without first refuting its initial claim. It’s a form of straw man (substituting
a fake premise in your opponent’s argument) and burden shifting (you’ve failed to substantiate the premise you’re trying to substitute). These understandings of the observer effect and cognition are current science, preclude the question of length of days, and invite a consideration of the text’s own commentary on physics, which is agreement with science. Readers must constuct questions appropriate to the actual thesis of the Genesis creation narrative.