This blog is an ongoing unworthy reflection on Orthodox Christian life, apologetics, and Bible study in Northern Appalachia by an American country priest and literature professor who asks for your prayers. Tall Timbers nature preserve, pictured above, is a landmark in our region that includes partial old-growth hemlock woods. It rests in a patchwork of public and private lands and forest in our area of Northern Appalachia sometimes dubbed Penns Woods and according to legend a haunt of Big Foot. Tall Timbers was home to the American nature writer and food forager Euell Gibbons. Northern Appalachia more deeply was home to foundational American thinkers who developed distinctly American views of nature that relate to traditional Christian ideas of Creation: The writers James Fenimore and Susan Fenimore Cooper in Cooperstown, NY, and Charles Peirce in Milford, PA, the father of ecosemiotics. Later in the region toiled missionary saints of our Church, Patriarch Martyr Tikhon and St. Alexis Toth, among others; may they intercede for us! The region of Northern Appalachia also is directly contingent to Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY (pictured below with the author during his 40 days of priestly training there), on whose campus lies the hydrological source of the Susquehanna watershed central to the entire region. In our Northern Appalachian neighborhood of central Pennsylvania, Tall Timbers, about 45 minutes from our Church in the Winfield-Lewisburg area, has been a gathering place at times for our parish picnics, family outings, and my university seminars. It sits near the family homesteads of deeply rooted local Orthodox Christian friends and fellow converts. In a corner of the countryside not far away, we build a small Orthodox temple for our mission parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (see photo far below). All glory to God, come and see.
Bible Study on Exodus, photo by Luke Soboleski
Join us in this Bible Study co-hosted by the Bucknell University Orthodox Christian community and St. John’s Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA. Video summaries follow below of our “live” Bible Studies usually held on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at the Bucknell University Barnes & Noble Bookstore Cafe (to confirm the schedule, please see stjohnthewonderworker.com). All are welcome regardless of background and no homework or previous knowledge is needed! (For video summaries of our earlier Bible Study, “Genesis and Job in the Orthodox Tradition,” please look here.)
Learn how the Church Fathers and Orthodox Tradition provide truths that go far deeply beyond the famous 1956 American film The Ten Commandments (which in many ways represented the high-water mark of what is called American “civil religion”), by drawing on Scripture and Tradition that date back across cultures and geography and generations to the days of Moses in the 16th century BC, accounts from more than 3,600 years ago, to find their fulfillment in our Lord’s Orthodox Church today. For biblical study we as Orthodox Christians turn to the holy elders, saints, and prophets of the Church, seeing in the Old Testament the prefiguring of the full realization of its accounts in our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ (still the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, “He Who Is”), and His Church as the new Israel, leading us out from the bondage of sin and death and freeing us from Pharaohs ancient and modern. We read the Bible both literally and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church, symbolically, while we pray and struggle together to put into practice unworthily but with God’s grace what we learn.
As the Apostle Paul puts it: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:16). And the Holy Prophet Solomon: “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield unto them that put their trust in Him. Add thou not unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5-6). To which St. John Chrysostom adds: “This is the cause of all evils: the ignorance of the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how ought we to come off safe?”
Isaiah 1-6 in Orthodox Christian Tradition.
A paper presented to the Nature Philosophy and Religion Society session at the Society for Phenomenological and Existential Philosophy conference, 2023, in Toronto
James Fenimore Cooper
It struck me in working on this paper that there is what I like to see as a thread in American thinking about nature that is very compatible in my view with Russian views of nature in literature and philosophy, but which has been neglected. This is not the famous nature philosophy of Transcendentalism in New England, but the tradition of nature seen in the foundational mythic fiction of James Fenimore Cooper in his Leatherstocking Cycle and reflected also in his political philosophy writings on American democracy, and also in the essays on nature and community of his daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper, and also in the very extensive philosophical and semiotic work of their younger contemporary, Charles Sanders Peirce. Coincidentally or not, all three writers lived in counties that are part of Appalachia, in the Northeastern U.S. but in the Middle States so to speak and not in New England, in upstate New York and in the case of Peirce in Milford, Pennsylvania, where Peirce lived much of his life and wrote most prolifically up to his death. So, I am calling what I see their shared strand of writings on nature as American Appalachian philosophy of nature, as if it were a school and needs a category, which I think it does.
I think this is justified because of their common philosophical approach, general regional orientation in rural upland areas of the so-called Middle States, and shared religious culture in old Trinitarian Anglicanism, which seems for all of them to have been a kind of choice in what could be called a resistance to secular modernity, evident in their writings and approach to nature. While Appalachia may be best known as a region of the American South, of course it extends into the North as well, and has some common haracteristics as what has been termed flyover country, a bit divorced from the culture of the urbanized coast, and politically in modern times recalcitrant toward progressivism. In the North, Appalachia is probably somewhat less Scots-Irish in background and more Anglo and German. However, northern Appalachia arguably had earlier and perhaps more intense encounters with industrialization in the so-called Yankee world, and those seem evident as context to both the writings of the Coopers and of Peirce. James Fenimore Cooper wrote what has been called the first environmental novel in American literature, The Pioneers, and through the work of Rochelle Johnson and others his daughter Susan’s essays and book of reflections Rural Hours have become recognized as important early American nature writings. Peirce himself in Milford PA became a neighbor and best friend of Gifford Pinchot, a leader in early conservation efforts in America, and Peirce’s ideas involve the type of Christian panentheistic approach to nature explored in this essay as common to elements of both American and Russian literature and philosophy. Not to mention that the elder Cooper’s fiction had been an important influence on that famous son of the Empire State Theodore Roosevelt and his conservation efforts involving the national park system in America.
On the Russian side of things, the fiction of the elder Cooper has long been numbered among popular great books for reading among Russians back into the Soviet era and earlier. In fact, the famous Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky referenced the Leatherstocking Cycle in his film of environmental apocalypse Stalker. Both the elder Cooper and famous Russian fiction writers, most notably Dostoevsky, wrote philosophical fiction. But the Russian parallels also extend to holy Christian tradition, which also informs American ideas of wilderness. Recently I was reflecting on the fall Church feast day celebrating St. Sergius of Radonezh, the famous 14th-century forest monk who was pivotal in the history of Russian Christian culture and pre-communist political history. St. Sergius went to live in the woods, and it seems that the world came to him. According to traditions of his life, his wonderworking prayers ranged from friendship with a bear to spiritually aiding the cause of Prince Dunskoy in the Battle of Kuliko, a key watershed in the end of Tatar control over what became Russia. St. Sergius’ forest monastery ended up becoming Sergei Posad, today the large monastic spiritual center and important pilgrimage destination of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The love of the forests as a spiritual retreat in Russia is reflected in the use of a term meaning desert to describe monastic centers there. This parallels the American love of wilderness as a spiritual place, foundationally shaped in literature shaped by Christian views, notably the elder Cooper’s mythic novels of the great American Eastern Woodlands. Henry David Thoreau went to the woods, too, in New England. But before his more individualistic and modernistic quest, the fictional Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper based in the headwaters of the Susquehanna Valley helped to shape a more Christian-related sense of wilderness as a place of spiritual renewal, reflected more in the philosophy of Charles Peirce than in the New England Puritan-derived Transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson. In the nature philosophy expressed by the elder Cooper and his daughter Susan, and Charles Peirce, lies what I call here an Appalachian American philosophy of nature, reflecting the region in which they lived, away from the Puritan-rooted region of Thoreau and Transcendentalism. I will argue that between this foundational Appalachian American philosophy and Russian views of nature as especially expressed in the works of Dostoevsky and the philosophers Ivan Ilyin, S.L. Frank, and controversially Alexander Dugin, there lies a common significant thread. That is the thread of what I shall call Christian panentheism.
First, that term needs clarification. It comes from early 19th-century German idealism, but has been associated with the medieval Catholic mystic Nicholas of Cusa’s influence, who argued that Creation occurred within God. Nicholas of Cusa himself, although a German Cardinal in the West, was strongly influenced by Orthodox Christian ideas through John Scottus Eriugena, the early Irish philosopher and Latin translator of the works of St. Maximus the Confessor. The term panentheism has a pedigree that transcends supposed differences between Eastern and Western Christianity by harkening back to their common root in what can be called pre-Schism Orthodox Christianity.
The early twenty-first-century Orthodox Christian and exegetical writer Priest Daniel Sysoev, considered a modern martyr for his assassination by a Muslim extremist, described Christian panentheism in this way from a Russian Orthodox perspective. He wrote that Creation is in God. His statement can be taken as panentheism as it emerged from 19th-century German philosophy. But it is more than that, too, as Christian panentheism, so to speak. Sysoev’s explanation is scriptural from Church tradition. Genesis 1.1 states that “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth.” John 1.1 states that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Here in this connection between Old and New Testament, beginning is identified or equated with the Word, the Logos. So, in the Logos, God made the heaven and the earth. The Logos also can be translated as the Story, the Harmony, the Reason, the Purpose, the Principle, and so on. However, Logos meaning the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is also a Person. Creation is in the divine person, Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man. He is one of the three Persons also of the Holy Trinity, one in Essence. This is not an impersonal God, and is a Trinitarian God.
The result is a sense of personal relationship in Creation, and a special role for man as both in a sense microcosm and macrocosm, in Christ as theanthropos or God-man, that sets Christian panentheism apart from the New Age panentheism that made Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory skeptical of the term. Such impersonal panentheism, so to speak, ended in exaltation of the individual will, a nice match for the typical American mindset. But that is the distinction between the philosophy of nature of the Coopers and Peirce in Northern Appalachia and New England Transcendentalism. The Coopers and Peirce were skeptical of the individualistic mob emerging in American democracy. Transcendentalism emerged from the Unitarianism that evolved out of Puritanism with its Judaistic tendencies and rationalism that tend toward Scholasticism, which was also in line with the Deistic tendencies of American elites. But Christian panentheism is simultaneously pansemiotic (viewing Creation as living text in the Logos) and personal (experiencing the Logos as Jesus Christ, one of the three Persons in mysterious relationship in the Most Holy Trinity).
Christian panentheism necessitates a view of natural law different from Scholasticism. To this, the modern Orthodox bioethicist Herman Engelhardt added, “Natural law is, after all, the spark of God’s love in our nature, not the biological state of affairs we find in broken nature. Natural law is not an objective external constraint, but the will of the living God experienced in our conscience…. Traditional Christians recognize the reference environment for humans to be Eden, and the goal of all adaptation to be the pursuit of holiness.” Engelhardt based the above description of natural law on a statement by St. Basil of Caesarea that referenced “the spark of divine love latent within you,” to be enkindled by ascetic effort in synergy with grace, as the transfiguring and dynamic basis for natural identity. Here, the translation of logos as harmony is apropos, harmony as principle, but not rationalistic and legalistic. Rather, natural law draws man and subsequently Creation into Paradise through relation with the Logos, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, Himself in both oneness and relationship with the Holy Trinity, a mystery beyond human ken, felt by us only through the energies rather than the essence of God. Those uncreated energies are a central feature of Orthodox Christian Trinitarianism. Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid writing in the 11th century characterized natural law in Orthodox terms in this way, in his commentary on the Prologue to the Gospel of John: “…indeed He gives light to all—but coerces no one to accept it. Are we not all endowed with reason [logikoi]? Do we not all by nature know right from wrong? Have we not all the power to apprehend the Creator from His creation? Therefore, the logos given to us, which teaches us by nature and is also called the natural law, may be called ‘light’ given to us by God. But if a man makes poor use of this logos, he darkens himself.” The non-Puritan American nature writers of northern Applachia, the Coopers and Peirce, had in their nineteenth-century Anglican Trinitarianism a sense of this too.
Peirce likewise described natural law panentheistically as situated in God. He argued that nature’s laws were potentialities that come into being and evolve, and yet ambiguously can be at once both divine and in creation. Peirce viewed natural laws as in a sense theophanies, or manifestations from God, which constitute both the origins and purpose of creatures in God. Peirce wrote in this way that the universe is perfused with signs, similar to St. Maximos’ description of natural law as contained in the Logos as elements contained in a book.[i] Of course the ultimate distinction of Christian panentheism in both cases is that that book, so to speak, the Logos, is a Person, and a Person in unity but distinct in the mystery of the Trinity as Divinity. There is no sense either of a watchmaker God of Deism here, nor of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, in which the individual will has become the divinity without the grace of deification, and the distinction between deifying uncreated energies and divine essence, found in Orthodox Christian tradition.
Emerson wrote in his essay nature that in becoming a transparent eye-ball, “all mean egotism vanishes… I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Losing biases and contradictions of the self within nature, the unity of the transparent eyeball with nature shapes what has been described as a private cosmic freedom. But this interiorization of supposed spiritual unity easily itself falls again into egotism of a higher level, encompassing a virtual reality of instrumentalism. We see this reflected in Joseph Priestley’s contemporary materialistic determinism of Deism, in which progress and American exceptionalism become both naturalism and divine. Thoreau’s different drummer becomes one with the sun as but a morning star at the end of Walden. The exertion of the will to power becomes transcendent and virtual and in our age digital in an online nature that is both wholly instrumental and increasingly controlling, as if Charles Taylor’s modern buffered self has reverted to a premodern permeable self, which is however really a permeable cortex in the hive mind of the Machine.
The genealogy from Puritanism to Unitarianism to Transcendentalism to the New Age and New World Order if you will involves a significant element of the ancient heresies of Monoenergism and Monothelitism. These asserted that there was only one energy and one will in Christ, namely the divine. The Fifth Ecumencial Council, of which St. Maximus would afterward act as articulator, in upholding Theopaschism lay the ground work for later rejection of those heresies. Christ had two energies and two wills, human and divine, like his two natures in one Person, unconfused and undivided. Christian panentheism, as in the works of St. Maximus, recognizes that distinction, unlike Emerson, who promotes unity with nature without the transcendent Person of the Logos. The void left by the loss of the Godhead is filled by the individual’s will to power, which becomes falsely identified with the divine. Thus we end up with a modern atheistic monotheletism and monoenergism, and the identification of natural law with technological science designed for the human will to know and mold into a hive mind of the global Machine.
Unlike the American Transcendentalists, the Russian Orthodox Christian philosopher S.L. Frank, in a line from Dostoevsky, did not confuse fallen nature with natural law. Rather, in a Christian panentheistic way, both Russian writers sought the natural in the Logos, Jesus Christ. Unlike some of the Slavophiles and Communists alike, S.L. Frank did not identify sobornost, the Russian idea of spiritual mystical unity as in the Eucharist, based in Byzantine Christianity, with obschestvennost. The latter term, rooted in the Russian word for peasant commune, was used by Frank to indicate the mechanical and individualistic existence of worldliness in society. The term obschestvennost in a more technical sense has been defined as “a social connected system of interacting subgroups that reside in a broader social milieu” (Sergei Horujy). In identifying human society associated with nature, the peasant commune, with sobornost, many populist Slavophiles and communists in late imperial Russia conflated in effect a sense of the human being in the fallen natural world with sobornost, the spiritual unity embodied in the Eucharist. Frank in his writing on society distinguished the two, calling for an interconnection between them, in the sense that sobornost should inform obschestvennost, but not an identification of the two. In this again he expressed Christian panentheism typical of Orthodox Trinitarianism, rather than a pantheism or more individualistic conflating of nature and will with the divine. Dostoevsky in his philosophical fiction made the same distinction. In the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, it is the corrupt church man who conflates society and the divine, establishing the basis for totalitarianism, like the Communists who would do the same, or in Dostoevsky’s view the capitalists as well lacking the spirituality of sobornost. The elder Zosima warns that we are all at least in part responsible for one another’s sins. This highlights also the distinction between our fallen state and our spiritual unity in Christ. We find ourselves in losing ourselves in Him, as is indicated in Crime and Punishment by the appeal of the Gospel account of the raising of Lazarus to the murderer Raskolnikov. He finds a spiritual unity with his beloved Sonia the prostitute and that flows into the promise of a unity and resurrection in Christ. However this is something personal pointing toward Christ, rather than to fallen self. Raskolnikiv, a nihilistic murderer, symbolically bears a name indicating schism, someone cut off from sobornost by worldly individualism. The self-assertion of modern Western individualism is in this distinguished from the self-emptying of Christian panentheism, in Dostoevksy’s work and in Frank’s explication of Russian philosophy.
The American Charles Peirce provided a kind of typological diagram for this Christian panentheism also found in contemporary Russian literature in his semiotic work. As previously mentioned, Peirce in his philosophy developed a view of natural law as theophanies or manifestations of God, situated at once both in the divine and in Creation. He engaged in this with the work of medieval philosophers including combatively but engagingly the aforementioned Eriugena, an influence on Nicholas of Cusa, who in turn also influenced as noted the Russian Orthodox philosophy of Frank. Peirce’s trinitarianism was evident throughout his work, he said law in terms of triadology, reflecting the nature of the Holy Trinity as one essence but three Persons in Christian panentheism. From that triadic relation came the uncreated divine energies described in Orthodox theology. A more binarized view had arisen in Scholasticism, which rationalistically had subsumed the Holy Spirit to a union of the Father and the Son, and thus binarized the essence of God and Creation beyond the continuum with the energies of God articulated by Orthodox theologians such as St. John of Damascus, St. Photius the Great, and St. Gregory Palamas. Peirce clearly stressed the full mystical triadology of the Orthodox view, not the binarizing of Scholasticism. In fact that emphasis on triadology is reflected in his semiotic model. For Peirce, meaning emerged from a combination of Sign, Object, and what he called the Interpretant. This was different from semiotics as it emerged from more mainline Western thinking in the work of de Saussure, which came to predominate. For de Saussure, meaning emerged from a binary religion of the Signifier and the Signified, which was arbitrary and interiorized ultimately within each human mind. For Peirce, triadology opened up a connection between meaning and environment, or the Object so to speak. Meaning involved often a relationship between the sign or text and the environment and the linking of the two by author and reader, to use another series of terms later developed by Peirce’s successors in the Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics, where scholars in countries of the historically Eastern Christian cultural zone proved receptive to the American Peirce’s view of nature.
From Peirce’s triadic sense of meaning and its relation to environment, he also developed his idea of abduction. Peirce used the term abduction not to mean kidnapping, but to indicate an intuitionism that combined deduction and induction, into abduction, or in effect a hunch. Thus, he also saw epistemology as a kind of triadic process, with an emphasis on intuitionism. To get back to panentheism, nature and transcendence were not merely fused in a transparent eyeball of human will in Peirce’s model. Rather, that which was natural existed in a personal relationship with the transcendent. This was symbolized again by the relationship between text, which could be consider logos, and environment and the combination of author and reader as interpreters. This dance, or perichoresis, of cosmic meaning-making formed in effect a type of the Trinity’s relation to Creation. Another type of that can be seen in the image of marriage as involving Christ as bridegroom and the Church of many souls as Bride, or more particularly the Dance of Isaiah in the Orthodox wedding service when the hands of Priest, Bridegroom, and Bride are tied together as they circle an icon of the Wedding at Cana three times, symbolizing the presence of Christ with the Husband and Wife in the spiritual aspect of Christian marriage.
Parallel to Peirce’s interest in triadic intuitionism, the Russian Christian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, a twentieth-century contemporary to S.L. Frank, became known for his scholarship on Hegel, which was even recognized for its brilliance albeit negatively by the Bolshevik leader Lenin who exiled both Ilyin and Frank on the so-called philosophers’ ships in 1922. While the communist evolution of Hegel’s dialectic involved a fusion of two elements materialistically, dialectical materialism, Ilyin’s interpretation of Hegel as compatible with Christianity involved a sense of intuitionism like Peirce’s, arising from a dialogue so to speak in the synthesis of dialectic, not a materialistic fusion. Ilyin developed from his interpretation of Hegelian intuitionism his concept of legal consciousness, which served in many ways a synonym for sobornost, the mystical unity also developed in Frank’s philosophy of nature. For Ilyin, legal consciousness expressed in effect Peirce’s idea of natural law as situated in God and on a continuum between the divine and Creation but not a fusion of them, reflecting the way in which the uncreated energies of God infused Creation so that Creation emerged in Christ and would return back to Christ in St. Maximus’ view. That Creation again was constituted and redeemed by logoi that formed a text in Christ as the Logos, the Gospel book so to speak or personal storyteller and author and reader all in one of the cosmos. This involved too one of Ilyin’s more controversial ideas, that of resistance to evil by force, which he developed as a Christian ethos of dealing with totalitarianism. This was applied by him in the 1920s to Communism but would be applied also later to Nazism by the Orthodox Saint Alexander Schmorell in the early 1940s, among others. Ilyin’s developed ethos of resistance to evil by force involved the idea that such resistance could become a duty for Christians facing totalitarian evil in order to protect the vulnerable. It involved a sense of shared responsibility for sin and duty to the vulnerable similar to that expressed by Dostoevsky’s Elder Zosima. Likewise, however, it was not deterministic but an existentialist expression of free will that Ilyin argued needed to include penitence for such resistance. In this it drew on Byzantine Orthodox ideas of necessary war different from the idea of the just war as it developed into first Crusades and then secular idealistic campaigns in the modern West. Ilyin’s ethos here likewise involved a sense of Christian panentheism, in which there was not a fusion of the divine and Creation in the will to power of the self, but an overlapping yet distinction. Just as St. Basil wrote about the spark of divine love in each human heart as natural law, so the same early saint also argued that a soldier fighting in battle and killing an enemy under orders, even if that enemy was an enemy of the faith and his country both, should still consider doing penance for three years of excommunication after that killing. There was no fusion of will and right, but rather a mystical interplay of difference yet interconnection between the divine and the human, involved in the complex process of theosis or becoming one with the uncreated energies of God in Creation, but not the mystery of the essence of God as Trinity.
To return to American fiction, we see these elements expressed in the philosophical themes of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing about nature. Cooper’s Deerslayer, published in 1841, includes a scene at the headwaters of the Susquehanna in which Natty Bumppo, the titular Deerslayer, is described as contemplating the beauties of the break in the Eastern Woodlands at Lake Glimmerglass or Lake Otsego, where the water and the sky seem to reflect the forest into each other. There “he felt a portion of that soothing of the spirit which is a common attendant of a scene so thoroughly pervaded by the holy calm of nature,” Cooper writes.[ii] Here the sublime is related to a specific place and experience of it, not transcendental primarily, although it retains the edginess described by Burke of terror at great expanse and imminent danger mingled with joy. Natty and his foil, Hurry Harry March, then argue about the nature of the place and its overlapping cultures.
In their discussion, Deerslayer identifies a relation human personhood to a context of the divine, in response to Harry’s brief diatribe against “redskins,” Natty replies that, regardless of race, “I look upon him as the most of a man, who acts nearest the right, Hurry. But this is a glorious spot, and my eyes never aweary looking at it.” As they continue talking, Natty also reveals his aversion to the disturbing of nature and attempted ownership and manipulation of it through naming, in the way that European Americans do it in their mapping. Harry in fact has engaged in giving the lake his own private name of Glimmerglass with his friends, in private resistance to any attempted official naming, but admits it is just his own term in objectified form. “I’m glad it has no name,” Deerslayer says, “or, at least, no pale face name, for their christenings always fortel waste and destruction.” Harry notes that different Indian peoples have different names for the lake. Deerslayer says that hunters and trappers are likely to call it by something reasonable and resembling. That’s when Harry tells him of the name Glimmerglass, so given because of its reciprocal reflection of sky and water. as a kind of archipelagic opening or poetic clearing in the sea of the primordial forest. In the discussion that follows, though, we are told that “Hurry Harry thought more of the beauties of Judith Hutter,” a local beauty, “than of those of the Glimmer glass, and its accompanying scenery,” unlike the intrepid Natty, more overwhelmed by the larger context of the lake as mirror of sky and forest both.
Deerslayer questions why Judith’s stepfather Mr. Hutter is in his words burrowing or fortifying in seclusion on the lake: “To my eye it is such a solitude as one might open his whole soul in, and fear no one to disarrange his thoughts or his worship.” Harry tries to disabuse him of these sensibilities by speaking of the evils of the Indians roaming the area. The narrator warns that while Deerslayer’s ingenuousness guards against sophistry, he is not totally free of prejudice. But, in arguing with Harry’s notion of racial hierarchies, Natty reminds Harry that “God made all three” races, white, black and red, described by his companion. “God made us all,” Natty argues, “in the main, much the same in feelin’s; though I’ll not deny that he gave each race its gifts….
I do not pretend that all that white men do is properly Christianized and according to the lights given them; for then they would be what they ought to be, which we know they are not; but I will maintain that tradition, and use, and colour , and laws, make such a difference in races as to amount to gifts….When the colony’s laws, or even the king’s laws, run ag’n the laws of God, they get to be onlawful, and ought not to be obeyed. I hold to a white man’s respecting white laws, so long as they do not cross the track of a law comin’ from a higher authority, and for a red man to obey his own red-skin usages, under the same privilege.[iii]
This narrative of place at the source of the Susquehanna River, from Natty’s experience of the headwaters in Chapter 2 to this discussion of gifts in Chapter 3 of The Deerslayer, elides place and names and gifts and laws, shaping an awareness of the multiplicity of deep experience of landscape, which ultimately in turn contextualizes a kind of theophanic spectrum, spanning the divine and the experience of human beings in Creation. Only through openness of the soul to that multiplicity and its theophanic origin and purpose does a human find realization in personhood. Different overlapping names and laws as metaphors both emanate from and merge into the ultimate metonym of the river and lake, across different dimensions of time, evoking in Cooper’s cycle a sense of the landscape as being in God panentheistically. The place’s meaning, in relation to a sense of experiential human identity both constituted of and heading towards gifts from God, nonetheless related to a sense of place in the divine, changing and adapting to that latter experience. All this occurs in the context of a Creation that is a place of worship ultimately in the divine, involving (we are told) the holy calm of nature soothing the spirit, offering such as one might open his whole soul in, in which to fear no one able to disarrange one’s thoughts or worship.
Natty’s discussion of the gifts of different races, while critiquing Hurry’s assertion of racial hierarchy, comes shortly after the narrator has warned us that Natty has his prejudices too. The whole discussion comes right after the description of the transformative power of nature at the headwaters, with its melding and reciprocal mirroring of river, lake, sea, sky and forest. Natty’s discussion of how the laws identified with gifts are superseded or fulfilled in the divine laws culminates in his later comment, “different gifts, but only one nature.”[iv] Natty’s notion of gifts, which he describes as a combination of tradition, use, culture and laws, parallels the notion of cultural semiospheres developed by the mid-twentieth-century Baltic semiotician Juri Lotman.[v] Lotman, following on von Uexhull’s work, described how organisms and species have their own Umwelt or meaningful environment, in which they engage in making meaning. But a semiosphere could be thought of as a larger bubble of such bubbles of meanings so to speak. Thus, too, a semiosphere associated with a particular eco-region could be called an eco-semiosphere, which removes a central focus from human concerns and places them in a larger context of meaningful environment including the non-human. So Natty’s sense of gifts depend both on place and ultimately the divine, in which they meld into nature at large, in a path that nonetheless involves the personal, the particular, and the place-based. Thus, throughout The Leatherstocking Tales, Natty as hero, is, as he observes at times, a meld of gifts from both Indian and Euroamerican cultures, amid the influence of the ancient forest. Such gifts can also be thought of as emanations in which we grow, and reflect and engage in dialogue and personify and grow beyond, depending on our engagement or not in a sea of divinity, to which the medieval Eriugena compared the Scriptures or the logoi of the Logos in Maximus’ terms, articulating the uncreated energies of God infusing nature.
In this sense of gifts as overlapping and morphing emanations related to larger contexts of nature, Natty’s personification of them in a cultural and environmental exchange evokes an empathy with other beings and larger contexts. When Natty shoots an eagle carelessly, his sense of his gifts arguably shapes his remorse, for which he finds solace in the forest and perhaps penance in his captivity with the Mingoes. We hear his regret at the wasteful shooting of passenger pigeons in The Pioneers. He, together with his close Indian friends, all vanish with the forest whose disappearance at the hands of a rapacious and objectifying economy he mourns as well for destroying humanity, an early image of what the Christian environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth today calls the emergence of the global Machine or technocracy, the triumph of what SL Frank called obschestvennost over sobornost, of a self-centered pantheism over the Christian panentheism of Frank and Cooper.
The character of David Gamut in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans represents a Puritan in the wilderness who is nonetheless a psalmodist, bearing a pitchpipe and comically singing holy music based in Scripture. He offers comic relief while also convincing the hostile Natives that he is a mad man and thus getting special positive treatment as a type of holy fool. Gamut’s character arguably represents in Cooper’s view both the inadequacies of the transcendentalist-leaning Puritan view of nature, while also his music suggests the underlying panentheistic tendencies of Christian faith disrupting worldly hostilities and adversaries. Gamut is also a pacifist, symbolizing perhaps some of the absolutism of an individualistic pantheism in Christian heterodoxy, as decried by Ilyin’s anti-pacifist writing against Tolstoy in Russian philosophy. Not distinguishing clearly between self, nature, and the divine can lead to a delusory absolutism, Cooper suggests. Yet typically Gamut’s complicated if often stock role in the novel indicates the complexity and mystery of life in God as well. The main hero of the novel, Hawkeye, decries Gamut’s pacifism, but finds his role useful in subterfuge nonetheless. Hawkeye has been most influenced by the fading-away Moravian Christians of the Eastern Woodlands, who were less absolute in establishing cultural boundaries with the Indians than many other brands of Protestantism on the American frontier. In this his respect for both Native traditions and the Moravians is more reflective of the Cooper family Anglicanism and a less ultimately will-to-power view of nature. Power as a synonym for energy and virtue becomes linked more to grace than private strength and self-will.
Susan Fenimore Cooper’s exploration of the details of the landscape and ecology of her home region, relative to human dwelling there, adds to the mythic overlay landscape of her father’s writings in a Christian panentheistic way. In her writing about village improvement societies and of human society as embedded and interwoven in nature, there emerges a sense of the sacral garden and the ghost of the sacral forest, a potent invocation of imaginary regionalism anchored in detailed observations about the physicality of the Headwaters region. The overlay landscape is a time-honored element of Christian literature going back to Byzantine novels and early Irish and Welsh otherworldly tales among other sources, and ultimately to biblical and hagiographic narratives. It involves a spiritual or imaginary dimension interwoven with the physical landscape, linking the spiritual to specific historical places and often creating a sense of region. This type of overlay landscape reflects the Incarnation and the two natures of Christ in one person. It can be seen in Russian novels, such as the way that Dostoevsky’s great novels tend to have actual and recognizable geographic settings, what the Russian author called fantastic realism. In S.L. Frank’s vision of society, this is the overlay of sobornost on obschestvennost. It is not a fusion but an embodied and dialogic emplacement of the Creation in the human in the divinity. Perhaps Susan Fenimore Cooper’s most notorious essay was her gentle but powerful defense of women not having the vote, against women’s suffrage. In it she essentially took the Christian panentheistic approach that we live in Christ, not in the statistics of manipulatable mass voting, and that women’s spiritual and family and philanthropic roles were more essential than the former. No slouch herself, she in addition to her work as a writer founded and directed an orphanage and was key in founding a hospital, among other community duties. Never marrying herself, she was in many ways a lay Anglican monastic, striving for the Christian panentheistic practice of self-emptying in Christ rather than self-assertion.
At the intersection of beauty and memory or piety with the physical creation in this imaginative geography lies what the Christian phenomenologist Erazim Kohák meant when he said that we live authentically as persons, relationally, when we live at the intersection of time and eternity. An experience of beauty in the world is an experience of time, yet that combined with memory that is sanctifying becomes also piety that partakes in Kohák’s sense in eternity. This geography of the imagination becomes relational rather than objectifying. This involved also what in the Coopers’ time was known as the sublime, in particular Edmund Burrke’s more physiological or environmental version, emphasizing the intersection of beauty and terror on a boundary between worlds.
Susan Fenimore Cooper’s central metaphor of the garden for human community life as regional connects again the universal and particular in this sense. She clearly draws on a Christian universalism in doing so. Her philanthropic work and conservation writings helped shape civic regionalism around Otsego Lake. Her father’s patronal and somewhat aristocratic view of American republicanism set up his critique of commercial Whiggery, and his allegorical critique of a rule by business oligarchy in his fiction about Venice. A paradoxical aristocratic Jacksonian Democrat critical of the development of the mob in American life, which he saw as atomistically disconnected from the overlay of spiritual unity and place, his stories and essays linked to his daughter’s Christian communitarianism. Both Coopers pointed beyond the purported physical source of the Susquehanna River at Otsego Lake to the mystery of the origins of the beauty of the Headwaters of God’s Creation, in a cosmic gift economy of relationship. That formed the source of their critique of the emerging impersonal matrix of a globalized consumerist landscape of mass media and ideological motivations, endangering in the elder Cooper’s view the American republic. In that evocation of the mystery of relationship, spanning the material and the spiritual, their legacy of region endures panentheistically in the imagination of their readers.
To return to Russian literature, Dostoevsky’s Elder Zosima was written in part on Elder Ambrose of Optina, whom the novelist visited. It was a younger contemporary at Optina, Elder Anatoly the Younger, to whom is credited a post-revolutionary prayer against the Antichrist, in which he asks to be protected in God’s “hidden desert of salvation.” That evokes again the overlay landscape, as do more graphically Elder Zosima’s descriptions of the natural world as lit by the love of God. The Grand Inquisitor can be taken as Dostoevsky’s ultimate parable of Christian panentheism. The progenitor of the Antichrist who is the Inquisitor calls for Christ to succumb to the three temptations, including using miracles to amaze and stupefy the masses, to take power, to take materialistic surfeit. These are all the temptations of atheistic panentheistic mixed with pantheistic views of nature today, that result in a virtual reality re-enchanting the world with delusion and creating a permeable cortex out of the old liberal individual. In the so-called Anthropocene, there is no real escape into nature a la Transcendentalism, only technocracy. The existence of Creation in Christ is willfully forgotten even when it cannot be escaped.
The Life of St Sergius tells how young Bartholomew (later Sergius) and his brother searched for a desert place in many parts of the forest, until finally they came to a clearing near a stream, and obeying the voice of God were satisfied. His brother reminded him that God gave a sign before Sergius was born, in three cries from within the womb, that he would lead others to believe in the All Holy Trinity, to which the Chapel in the woods was dedicated. We are told that everywhere on all sides were forest and wilderness where the saintly desert-lover and desert-dweller stayed. The saint requested tonsuring as a monk, being given the name Sergius, while saying “I thirst as the hart thirsteth for the springs of the living water.” Living alone in the wilderness, we are told that a bear used to come to the holy man and became a kind of companion. “The forest was not far distant from it as it now is; the shade and the murmur of trees hung above the cells; around the church was a space of trunks and stumps; here many kinds of vegetables were sown,” it says.
Later in the Life, the saint is famously found gardening by a visitor who cannot believe he is the abbot until he is corrected by a visiting prince and becomes a monk himself. We’re told that St. Sergius as abbot “himself baked the holy bread; first he flayed and ground the wheat, sifted the flour, kneaded and fermented the dough”—the same bread involved in his originally gaining the gift of reading. He taught by example the monks “to have the Psalms of David all day on their lips.” Although wilderness surrounded the monastery at first, within first years Christians began coming to live around it, and the forest was cut down and a plain created with a village. St. Sergius’ prayers for Grand Duke Dmitry against the Tatars indicate the significance of a Christian society as a meaningful environment that would help shape what can be called the natural world of generations of Christians to come growing up in what would become Russia. “God provides for everything, and neither does he abandon this place,” the saint counseled the monks. Ultimately a country, like the Coopers’ region, could rest in Christ, but as neither as a materialistic nor virtual object, rather in Christian panentheism in an energized relationship that defied essentializing. Thus in the end Dostoevsky was not a full sated Slavophile but in the Back to the Soil movement was more complicated. So too Flannery O’Connor’s fiction dwells in the Christ-haunted South and not a neo-Confederate, neoconservative, or neoliberal constructed virtual world. Christian panentheism is more complicated and too nuanced for twenty-first-century memes, until it is assumed in life.
In the end, we can think of commonalities between elements of what I have called American Appalachian and Russian Orthodox Christian philosophy of nature as not focused on the natural world in modern secular terms, but about natural law as a kind of energy field of grace. Both view natural law neither as an external constraint of a Deistic God nor atheistically as a grid for interiorized manipulation of the external. Rather it lies within the embrace of a personal God who dwells within the mystery of the holy Trinity, the God-man Christ, the Logos or Story in Whom Creation both moves and rests, in the sense of life as embodied story, in this case the story of God.
 H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., The Foundations of Christian Bioethics (Beverly, M.A.: 2000), 246-47.
 St. Basil, Ascetical Works, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 9, Sr. M. Monica Wagner, trans. (Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1962), p. 233 (response to Question 2 in The Long Rules).
 Blesed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria, The Expalnation of the Holy Gospel According to John, trans. Fr. Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom Press, 2007), 17.
 Eriugena’s theophanic philosophy of nature also parallels in certain unexpected respects the postmodern “ecoosophy” or “geophilosophy” of Deleuze and Guattari, two late-twentieth century European writers influenced by the early 20th-century Baltic scientist Jakob von Uexhull, whose biosemiotics in turn overlapped with Peirce’s work.
[i] Charles S. Peirce, “The Basis of Pragmaticism in the Normative Sciences,” in The Essential Peirce, Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2 (1893-1913), ed .the Peirce Edition project (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1998), 360-397, at 394.
[ii] James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer, in The Leatherstocking Tales, ed. Blake Nevius, The Library of America (New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1985), 524-25.
[iii] Ibid., 528-29
[iv] Ibid., 921.
[v] Juri Lotman, “On the Semiosphere,” trans. Wilma Clark. Sign System Studies 33.1 (2005): 205-229/
Reflections on the Gospel readings for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, the Feast of St. John Chrysostom, in the Holy Orthodox Church, Nov. 13, 7532 [Nov. 26, 2023 on the civil calendar]
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke 10 (see the full text below) tells of how our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ cited the Mosaic law to the interrogating lawyer, in noting the Great Commandments: That that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, our soul, our strength, and our mind, and love our neighbor as ourself. The Blessed Theophylact in his commentary on this passage says all our heart means with all our biological powers (akin he writes to vegetation); all our soul, our sensory powers (akin to animals); and all our mind, our intellectual powers (our distinctive gifts as human beings). With all our strength, Theophylact adds, means to pull — with all of those powers — our stubborn selves to God. Force yourself, as Bishop Luke of Syracuse put it recently. As the Gospel notes elsewhere, the violent take the kingdom of heaven by force (Matthew 11:12, Luke 16:16). This is part of the synergy between spiritual warfare (or ascetic struggle) and God’s grace, for our salvation, and for realizing the purpose of man in theosis, oneness with grace.
Theophylact also notes that Christ went beyond the law, in that He taught us to love our neighbor more than ourself. For He also said in the Gospels, “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This relates to the other Gospel reading, from John 10 (also given in full at the end below), that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. In knowing God in that intimate way as the Good Shepherd, Theophylact notes that first the Gospel says we must enter in — in effect into loving God again with all our strength, dynamis, and with all our biological, sensory, and intellectual powers. But for all this to happen, Theophylact explains, “It is impossible to know God unless we are known by Him. Christ first united Himself to us in the flesh when He became man, only then could we become united to Him by grace and become God-like by theosis.” In all this, note too how love is a key term, for we are told elsewhere by the Evangelist John that “God is love,” and we are given the ultimate example and mystery of the love of the Trinity in the relation of Three Persons Who are One in Essence. Also our Lord gave us the image of the Bride and the Bridegroom for the relationship of God and His Church, the full realization of Israel of the Old Testament in the New. In the Apostle Paul’s famous chapter on love (I Cor. 13), he writes, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
All this relates to the account of the Good Samaritan, which is about love. The Church has depicted Jesus Christ iconographically as the Good Samaritan. For as the Good Shepherd he takes care of us when we are fallen, when we are targeted by demonic foes and sins that may be our own, or unfairly by others in human fallenness. He binds up our wounds. Yet significantly the framework of the account involves the opening question by the lawyer, And who is my neighbor? At the end of telling about the Good Samaritan’s care for the injured many on the road, Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three who had gone by was the neighbor? The man says he that showed mercy. Jesus says, go and do likewise. The Greek word for neighbor here has the meaning of “he who is close by,” “one who is nigh or near.” We all share a human nature that makes us nigh or close, Theophylact says (and just so also Christ Himself is always nigh or close to us, of course, as God). Theophylact adds that it expressed our human nature that the man was going from Jerusalem, its name symbolizing peace, to Jericho, a place low-lying and suffocating with heat, symbolizing passions. A man fell among thieves, that is among demons. Stripped of virtues and wounded by sin, he appears abandoned. The priest and the Levite symbolizing the law and the prophets pass by, as if into the past of the Old Testament, unable to help him. But the oil and the wine given the wounded man by the Good Samaritan remind us of the oil of chrismation and the blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The Innkeeper is the type of those pastors in the Church, the inn, who care for those wounded with two pence from our Lord, the two testaments Old and New, showing the fullness of the Church and its welcoming to all, Jew, Gentle, or Samaritan. So Theophylact helps us to understand all these symbolic readings in the account of the historical telling of this story by Jesus Christ.
Finally, there is one other thing to mention here in this brief comment. We are told to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, mind. Then to love our neighbor as ourself. Who is the example of the neighbor? The Good Samaritan, who is a figure of Christ. We are all one in Christ, a spiritual unity worked out in the Church as the Body of Christ. Then to love our neighbor we might say is to love him or her as an icon of Christ. Then if we love our neighbor so, we love him as ourself, because we are loving Christ, God, with all our biological, sensory, and intellect powers, as Blessed Theophylact put it. This is the mystery of sobornost, that deeper sense of catholicity as not just universality but solidarity, as given us by Orthodox Christianity.
May we emulate the Good Samaritan and Good Shepherd, Christ, in Whom we lose ourself in love to find ourself.
Glory to God for all things!
The Reading from the
Holy Gospel according to Luke,
At that time, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, ‘Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said unto him, ‘What is written in the law? How readest thou?’ And he answering said, ‘‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbour as thyself.’’ And He said unto him, ‘Thou hast answered right; this do, and thou shalt live.’ But he, wanting to justify himself, said unto Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ And Jesus answering said, ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his raiment and wounded him and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was. And when he saw him he had compassion on him, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host and said unto him, ‘Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again I will repay thee.’ Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?’ And he said, ‘He that showed mercy on him.’ Then said Jesus unto him, ‘Go and do thou likewise.’
Holy Gospel according to John,
§36 [10: 9-16]
The Lord said to the Jews who came to Him: ‘I am the door: by Me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he who is a hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is a hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good Shepherd, and know My sheep, and am known of Mine. As the Father knoweth Me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice; and there shall be one fold, and one Shepherd.’
Homily at St. John’s Russian Orthodox Church, Lewisburg PA, on the 24th Sunday After Pentecost, Nov. 6, 7532 (Nov. 19, 2023 on the civil calendar)
In the Gospel reading for today (Luke 8) we read about Christ mentioning that he perceived that virtue had gone out of Him. It is part of a conversation that he must have had with Peter and those with Him to enlighten them further. Sometimes virtue in the text is also translated in English as power, and the original term in Greek, dunamis, has both meanings. When we think of virtue, we may think of qualities of character such as honesty, purity, self-control, compassion, courage. Yet these are also in the Orthodox Christian view powers that are grace. They are not just legalisms, things we ought to do or be. They are gifts from God. Specifically, this Gospel account indicates they are gifts from Christ, God Incarnate. Another term for powers can be energies. What really is discussed here, as suggested by the Church Fathers, is the uncreated energies of God, or grace. Blessed Theophylact in his commentary notes that “The prophets did not have power that went out from them; instead they worked miracles by the grace of God. But Jesus is the source of every good thing and the source of all power, and He indeed has power that goes out from Him. The Lord grants the woman a double healing: He first heals her sickness and then He dispels the fear from her trembling soul by saying, Daughter take courage.”
When Jesus arrives at the home of the ruler of the synagogue Jairus, He comes to the dwelling of a man deemed powerful in the eyes of the world. Fear not only believe, he says. Blessed Theophylact adds that the message here is “Consider the woman who had the issue of blood. Imitate her and you will not miss the mark.” She had reached out with great humility and urgency and persistence and focus to Jesus. Jairus and his house should do the same.
When we seek healing, physically or emotionally, in Christ, we must go about self-emptying in Him, rather than self-assertion. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Who loves us. He does not grant a miracle of grace like the Old Testament prophets. He is the miracle Himself. We experience this through His power or virtue, the uncreated energies of God. Virtue is not just etymologically related to power, but also by the way to manliness—the kind of manliness that the holy fathers say both men and women can express, through God’s grace.
Laughed to scorn, our Lord paid no here. He raised the 12-year-old girl from her death bed and we are told “her spirit came again.” Just so in the second Gospel reading for today, in Luke 12, He speaks to us that we should take no thought for what we should say when we are called to witness for Him in a hostile setting of worldly power, for the Holy Spirit will give us the words we need, give us the real power of God.
The nous, the eye of our soul, is also called by Church Fathers the spirit. This is where God’s uncreated energies can enter into us and touch our heart. Opening ourselves to that and nurturing that is how we empty ourselves in the power of Christ, and become one with the divine energies. The Trinity being one in essence, of one nature, although three Persons, the power from Christ is also the power from the Holy Spirit. This is the power that surges through the Church from Pentecost and even before from Jesus breathing on the Apostles, all the way down into our private saying of the Jesus Prayer in our most troubled moments: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
This is why Jesus calls blaspheming against the Holy Spirit such a great sin. Blessed Theophylact writes: “What the Lord means is this: when someone sees signs from God, great and extraordinary deeds, and does not believe but instead slanders them, attributing the activity of the Holy Spirit to Beelzebub, then he blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, saying that these signs were done by an evil, not a divine spirit. Such a blaspheme is not forgiven and will be guilty, unless he repents.
Some years ago, a political figure told people they had to learn that “you didn’t build that” when claiming credit for a business or career. Many other people contributed to what you did, he said. There was a backlash. People criticized the statement for taking away credit for individual hard work and sacrifice. But the whole truth in the Gospel is this: God built that. That which is built on the Rock, Christ, and which endures in our lives, is of God, and not either from any government program or our own skill. It’s true that both character and community can make a difference. But a real sense of both is a gift from God, it is grace, not legalism. We do not know what tomorrow will bring.
It may sound morbid, but it could be said that my life as an Orthodox Christian to date has been bookended by car accidents. These were unexpected events, but to me on reflection signs, reflections of those factors in our life that are a surprise and a mystery, even as our very birth and death are mysteries.
I was returning from the conference in New Orleans where I snagged a job at the university that led to moving to this area more than two decades ago now. As I was driving back, I was on an interstate near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when my newish sporty car suddenly caught on fire. I barely had time to pull over, jump out, and go to a safe distance. The volunteer fire department arrived, alerted by calls from other drivers. Despite warnings, I returned quickly to grab a few items. One was an icon that had been at the front of the car propped up against the dashboard, of the Mother of God the joy of all who sorrows. It was smoldering and burned around the edges but still intact. That icon with its burned edge sits still today on our icon table at home. What perished in the fire, which totaled the car, included boxes of folders belonging to my Ph.D. dissertation adviser, a collection of photocopied scholarly articles he had collected painstakingly for years before the internet, which I was using for research. Years later, he and my old fellow grad students still spoke about the lost files.
I bring this up because that very unexpected event marked a milestone, not only in getting a job and a new home, but also not long after getting engaged and then married to a wonderful Orthodox woman and establishing a family and fully a new life in Christ, and ultimately coming to a place where we would find our Church family, and join in starting a new Orthodox mission. I had been baptized not long before. This then marked as it were a lot of aspects of my life coming into focus, a literal trial by fire, a separation from my old life marked by the burned Ph.D. files and sports car. It was time to get serious.
The other bookend car accident happened almost a year ago now, when I was driving outside of Harrisburg after having dropped off Matushka Olga and Kevin as they started a trip to see my mother-in-law in Chicago. I was listening to recorded prayers in the car. A white truck behind me suddenly loomed larger and larger like a whale in my back windshield, speeding up and rear-ending our hybrid, which spun across lanes of crowded traffic. Police and tow-ers expressed amazement that anyone survived. It turned out that the truck driver had had a diabetic seizure. And he was Russian, Russian Orthodox. What were the odds of that? We expressed thanks to God together on the side of the road, that no one had been injured. The car was a loss but a loss that gave me a renewed sense of what priority should I have in my life, given that we never know if today will be our last. My sense of being called to the priesthood grew and a deeply felt need to follow up. As Archdeacon Paisios the beekeeper at Jordanville told me shortly before my ordination this summer, the times we live in give us a more urgent sense of the most important things we should be doing. That for me had been underscored that unexpected way, and following it through in the coming year with God’s help.
(I would add, however, that in that second accident, the files of the Church that were in my car were not destroyed, thank God, although the file box was banged up badly!)
So, two very unexpected moments came to mark significant times of feeling God’s power. The first marked the transition period, begun in baptism and turning toward marriage, in two mysteries of the Orthodox Church, which opened the door to more to come, from a previous time of real despair and uncertainty, like the woman with the issue of blood, toward feeling the power of Christ in my life. That period had involved the untimely death of my sister when I was in college and she was in her 20s, which impacted my family greatly, and my passing in and out of heretical religion and sin. God never gives up on us, though, however sinful. Christ reaches out to us saying, as to the woman with the issue of blood and to Jairus: “take courage….fear not and believe.” Last year’s crash marked unworthily a sharpening of that focus of a new life in Christ, too–turning toward experience of another of the Church’s mysteries. For a day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day. His plan for us comes in unexpected moments, even if separated from our experience in years. Each of our identities is not shaped by our skill at a job or career, but by our life in Christ.
When we look at the building site of our Church in rural Winfield, we can see the power of Christ at work. He has led us thus far, and God willing will do more so, in ways totally unexpected and mysterious across the past eight years and beyond, in each of the details of the project and the back stories of it. We see this too in our Church family and how we have been gathered together. Power has gone out of Christ, we feel that, too, as we most of all experience it in the Eucharist. Because He is good and the lover of man.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Homily at St. John’s, Lewisburg PA. 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, 10/30/7532 [Nov. 12, 2023 on the civil calendar]
Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, from the early 6th century, of the Gospel account.
The Gospel reading today on the possessed man in the land of the Gadarenes has many elements noted by the Church Fathers. For one, he is possessed by a group of devils causing the man to identify himself with them under the name Legion. That is also a term associated with the violent power of the pagan Roman Empire, the dreaded Roman Legion. A godless mob possesses him. He identifies himself as that godless mob by name. According to the Fathers it is the demonic speaking through him saying that name. How similar to this is the temptation we face in today’s world to identify ourself with a godless mob, so to speak, whether online, or in daily social conformity, to be man-pleasers rather than God-pleasers, to be more concerned with worldly power than the power of God. The account warns us to identify with Christ unto the healing of soul and body, as our pre-communion prayers put it.
To identify with a mob of influencers or spirits, symbolized by the plural personal pronouns adopted by some in our society today, is to encourage demonic forces in our lives. This becomes easier perhaps with the hours each of us spend online. A wise older priest once told me that much of my trouble can be assumed to be my own doing as the worst of sinners. The devil is busy enough elsewhere. At the same time, though, we know that there are unseen forces. This account reminds us of that, and is an example for us to heed.
Orthodox catechumen prayers include exorcism prayers. Those prayers also can be found in the priest’s prayer book for special needs, although we are instructed there to ask a bishop for help with any serious problem of that nature.
When participating in athletics of various kinds, repetitive motion and exercise is important to train for a right response. In the same way, Church Tradition helps us to see the importance of the scriptural admonition to pray without ceasing, to prepare all of us with God’s help to handle such spiritual attacks, which the Church tells us are to strength our faith to the glory of God. This is preventive medicine, so to speak. The Jesus prayer offers a short way to do this throughout the day: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. The name of God in that prayer, and the sign of the Cross we make on our body, evoke spiritual power against demonic influence.
So do our following the daily prayers of the Church, composed by holy saints and holy tradition of the Church. We find those in the Orthodox Study Bible and in the Jordanville Prayer Book, and in other publications from Jordanville such as the booklet on Small Compline for evening prayer, and the booklet on the Prayers before Communion. Participating regularly in the Eucharist is a powerful protection, when prepared by having said those pre-communion prayers, by confession, and by proper fasting. Reading Scripture daily is also a protection, such as a chapter of the Gospel each day, and regular reading of the Psalms. Psalm 90 traditionally is considered protection against demonic forces. Those who pray help protect their families and communities too, and we should remember whenever we can morning and evening prayers with our families as possible. We can also if needed ask for prayerful help from a priest or fellow Orthodox Christian. So too the upcoming Nativity Fast is a time to spiritually re-charge, and to make plans in advance to participate in the 12 major feasts of the Church that guard our year, such as the Entry of the Theotokos coming up on Monday Dec. 4. The Church charges us with attendance on those feasts even if it involves taking a day off from work if possible.
As a clue to how evil forces may seek to take advantage of the sins in our lives, we can consider the modern phrase to demonize. It means to objectify or essentialize a person or group, and perhaps ourselves. To demonize means to create a kind of virtual reality or lie to confuse and isolate us, who are made according to the image of God, or according to Christ and in His love. Such a lie can even be about ourself. The creates an idol, a delusion. Idols can be considered good or bad by the idolatrous. But our Lord Jesus Christ calls the devil a liar and the father of lies. We see in today’s Gospel account the power of Christ over demonic forces and their lies. The man finds himself in his right mind and can go home, beloved of Christ. For Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life. It’s important to think about Truth in positive terms, not just being against something. Freedom in Orthodoxy involves not only freedom from sin and demonic influence. It is freedom to serve voluntarily the universal truth of Christ, our God Who loves us.
Every person deep down wants to live their life in the truth of His love. This is done by emptying ourself in Christ, not asserting ourself. The Gadarene demons tried falsely to offer a counterfeit sense of community, a lie of false togetherness, and lead the man to assert himself in a frenzy. Real unity and togetherness exist in Christ our Creator and in His Body the Church, who is also our caring Mother. In her there is peace.
Years ago I struck up a friendship with someone who was struggling, and God turned it into an opportunity to share Orthodoxy. This person, precious in the eyes of God, was then not Orthodox, and in an oppressive same-sex partnership with an older partner. As this friend came to learn more about Orthodox Christianity and experience the beauty of the Church, that old situation faded away and the chains of confusion and sadness with it, without arguments or debate about sinful issues involved. Although people of influence in our society, others in the community and a mob of online voices had encouraged the relationship, it involved a false identity with a group way of thinking, apart from God and His Church. Instead, that person discovered true meaning and identity in Christ, glory to God. Becoming an Orthodox Christian, while a struggle, was a source of real happiness in discovering the freedom of voluntarily serving truth, Christ, in His love. Lies and demonic influences fell away. Godless relationship dissolved. A new sense of Orthodox family became the goal in Church and home.
Glory to God, likewise I as an unworthy sinner experience freedom in Orthodox Christianity, as do many of you, and as did the man with the demon centuries ago, the account of whose healing we still remember today in the Church. God’s grace in His Church frees us from all manner of false influences, most of all from our fallen self, which Christ heals and transforms like the man in the Gospel. In daily struggle through prayer and fasting and Church participation, let’s remember that God loves us and helps. There is no other real power, just lies claiming to oppose Truth. Like Christ, who did not leave the man with the demons alone, but helped him to restore his grounding and wholeness as a beloved child of God, so let us also help one another, lift one another up, and reach out to those who have not received the Holy Gospel of Orthodoxy. This is our job as missionaries, and we belong to a mission Church.
In this way, societies can be saved too. Dostoevsky used the account of Legion as the epigraph for his novel Demons, and the central character comments on it near the end of the book. The old-professor-sinner comments that the possessed man is like the country of Russia, where he lives, and the demons that go into the swine are people like him who have been deceived. But when the exorcism occurs, then the society as a whole will be healed. May it be so in our time and land, we have our work as they say cut us out for us, but may God help.
Let us remember the wonderful gift of freedom given to us, and pray it forward with love in truth. Then we shall be in our clothes and back home. The Church Fathers say the clothes of the man at the end of the Gospel account symbolize baptism, and coming home symbolizes living in the Church, the dwelling place or ark of Christ on earth.
As St. Cyprian of Carthage put it, he who would have God for a Father, must first have the Church as a Mother. All today need to awake to our true identity in Christ, find delivery from evil memories, and as missionaries seek to share the Truth Who is Christ, because otherwise our friends, neighbors, families, and communities will not know the full truth about themselves in Christ. Let us feel the love of coming home to Him in our right mind, like finding our way to a warm lit cabin on a dark winter night, to meet friends and family, no longer lonely and afraid beneath outer turmoil and defiance, free of our chains, and loved and loving in the glow of His grace.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.
Above: Groundbreaking on Oct. 8, 2023; earlier blessing of Cross at building site by Vladyka Nicholas (now Metropolitan Nicholas); and Community Bible Study in downtown Lewisburg this summer.
New Russian Orthodox Church Rises in Winfield
St. John Russian Orthodox Parish is building a Church temple in Winfield, with groundbreaking being celebrated this week. Excavating and laying the foundation are scheduled to be done by Thanksgiving, with the building to be up and enclosed by early 2024 and hopefully occupancy by summer, according to Church officers.
This week’s groundbreaking was celebrated with prayers and a group photo on Sunday featuring members and supporters at the Winfield site, off of Felmey Road near the Union Twp. offices. Equipment is on the site and work is scheduled to begin Monday (10/9).
St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church is the only Orthodox parish established in the central Susquehanna region, and was founded in 2015 by converts to Orthodox Christianity and associated with the Orthodox Christian community at Bucknell University.
The community has had a steady stream of new converts since, with five local people from Protestant and unaffiliated backgrounds currently in training to be baptized as Orthodox Christians. Families who are members include former Protestants, Catholics, and atheists who found inspiration in the ancient but living faith of Orthodox Christianity, which traces back to the apostolic Church through Byzantine culture that missionized Russia in the Middle Ages.
Since then, its denomination, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), was founded in 1920 by exiles from Communism during the Russian Civil War. The denomination is based in New York City and is autonomous in governance from the current Church in Russia, although they renewed mutual communion and symbolic connections in 2007. The parish welcomes worshippers of all backgrounds, including those from different parts of the worldwide Orthodox family of churches, whether Greek, Ukrainian, African, American, or other.
The local mission, which currently meets in rented worship space at the Lewisburg Club, recently had a second priest ordained to help with the growing community, a longtime professor at Bucknell University, Paul “Alf” Siewers of Lewisburg, who had been serving as a Deacon previously.
Currently the mission parish conducts weekly services in Lewisburg, and a weekly community Bible Study at the Bucknell Bookstore, which draws participants from other faith backgrounds as well.
“People are hungry for the beauty and depth of traditional Christianity found in Orthodox tradition,” said the Rector of the mission, Father George Sharonoff, of Drums, PA, who himself was born in the faith and descends from White Russian exiles from Communism.
“We say that we are evangelical, but not Protestant; Orthodox but not Jewish; Catholic but not Roman; not non-denominational, but pre-denominational,” Sharonoff noted. “As the Scripture says, ‘come and see.’”
The area around the Susquehanna Confluence previously has not been served by an Orthodox parish, lying somewhat outside the anthracite coal region that historically defined areas of Slavic immigration to northeastern and east-central Pennsylvania. Nearest Orthodox parishes are in Berwick, Mount Carmel, and Williamsport; there is also an outpost chapel of the Orthodox parish in State College, located in Beavertown in west Snyder County. The Winfield mission also is the first ROCOR parish, and hence the only Russian Orthodox parish, in central Pennsylvania.
Father Claude Vinyard, 95, of Danville, was founding priest of the Lewisburg-Winfield mission in 2015. He was former priest of historic “coal town” parishes in places such as Mount Carmel and Centralia.
“I was approached by converts to Orthodoxy in the Lewisburg area who were hoping to start up a parish there because there was none nearby,” Vinyard recalled. He in turn went to the local Russian Orthodox bishop, then based at the historic Orthodox cathedral in Mayfield, PA, also in the coal region, and received a blessing to proceed.
Siewers, the Bucknell professor and Orthodox priest, also a former Chicago newspaper reporter, noted: “As the Orthodox Christian writer Dostoevsky said, ‘beauty will save the world.’ Even in our small mission, newcomers will find the beauty of the iconography, the music, and of aspects of worship such as incense, that mark traditional Christianity, to which we seek to remain true in apostolic succession both in worship and in life practice.”
A former Unitarian and Christian Scientist by family background, whose study of early Irish Christianity and Russian literature helped lead him to the Orthodox faith more than two decades ago, Siewers said: “Russian Orthodoxy is a spiritual tradition that endured Communism and extreme persecution in the last century, and has been kept alive and flowered abroad. But you don’t need to be Russian to be Russian Orthodox any more than you need to be Roman to be Catholic, and we include both early Irish Christian missionaries, and saints of North America such as our mission’s namesake St. John of San Francisco, in our living heritage. It is part of an ancient and worldwide tradition of the early Church that continues today.”
The new structure will be a small and simple temple on the outside, Sharonoff noted, but will be decorated over time with traditional iconography inside. The parish is raising funds for an onion dome with a Cross on top to be placed on it when construction is finished, a traditional feature of Russian churches. Space on the Church’s 6-acre parcel of land, which includes the former Chestnut Hill Cemetery (now St. John’s Cemetery), could include room for an additional building in future years, Sharonoff said, although there are no specific plans currently.
For more information on St. John and its services, Bible Study, and new temple, Orthodox Christianity, and how to visit or help, including online materials and contact information to reach clergy, please see stjohnthewonderworker.com. Those wishing to help with donations can also go directly here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-beautify-gods-temple
The new Priest at the mission Father Paul, also Associate Professor of Literature at Bucknell, will assist with needs of the growing parish.
There is a lot of American Orthodox Christian activity online these days, especially via podcasts, of mixed quality, sometimes very helpful and sometimes problematic, often with a lot of energy. This year I’ve been interviewed unworthily by two podcasts interested in how an Orthodox clergyman functions as also a secular university professor, with thanks to both for the invitations. I was impressed fwiw with the thoughtfulness and strong faith of the young men interviewing their crazed guest on both podcasts. In both, the “front page” image for the interview also had interesting visual pairings of this sinful deacon–one with Orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher, one with psychologist Jordan Peterson. Though I respect both and it is honored to be pictured in their company, it is a likely indication that there could be trouble ahead. Lord have mercy! A special shoutout to my most recent interviewers, the new Light of the World Podcast, a production of Holy Trinity Publications at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, my spiritual home-away-from-home, hosted and produced by seminarians there. Godspeed, and Glory to God!
Here also are a couple other online video/interviews from the past few years by the great ROCOR Studies project, in which I unworthily tried to convey perspectives of an American convert to Orthodox Christianity. Thanks to Father Deacon Andrei Psarev, Ph.D., for these opportunities, glory to God!
Irish Orthodox Christian writer Paul Kingsnorth spoke to a class I co-taught in spring semester 2023 on “Technology and Freedom.” Here is a recording of his remote visit. Thanks to the Open Discourse Coalition for sponsoring his virtual appearance.
An interview with the Orthodox Squad Podcast
Stephen A. Schwarzman, the CEO of the Blackrock Group, a global investment group, wrote a memoir that includes his remembrances of growing up Jewish in an affluent Philadelphia suburb in the 1960s. He recalls it as a comfortable childhood in a predominantly Episcopalian community with few other Jewish families, and although at that time Pennsylvania state law required saying the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the public-school day, he didn’t mind. Then a family of Unitarians (my own childhood religious background) in his high school sued in protest of that requirement, in a case that was decided by an 8-1 Supreme Court decision in 1963 striking down that state law and prohibiting the requirement of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes from the Christian Gospels. This was one of the milestones in the deconstruction of the “soft establishment” of Christianity in the United States and the emergence of systemic secularism as a hallmark of the American system in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
This all struck me while leafing through a copy of Schwarzman’s 2019 book today at our local Ollie’s discount store (incidentally, I had the choice time-wise of dropping by either Ollie’s or a college-town independent bookstore this morning, and chose Ollie’s because of its religious book section, low prices, and eccentric collection and customers, of whom I am sometimes one since they used to carry the Orthodox Study Bible at discount prices in large quantities).
Nearby to Schwarzman’s book was a discounted copy of George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility, which former Nixon acolyte Hugh Hewitt praised as a “wonderful” “magnum opus.” The book includes a chapter on why the conservative sensibility ultimately should be secular rather than theistic.
Will’s career, which overlaps mine only in that we both incubated for a while amid the University of Illinois community in Champaign-Urbana, integrates well with establishment conservatism in the U.S. in the past couple generations. And praise from Hewitt (who was an aide to Nixon in his post-presidential exile and also directed for a time the Nixon Library) reflects, like his presidential mentor’s career, the limitations and paradoxes of that American conservatism as much as Will’s book. Hewitt as an observant Catholic who is mainly “in” the conservative establishment like Nixon (whose West-Coast Quakerism found common group with key Christian Scientist aides in his White House administration), in his endorsement of Will’s book, ultimately comes down on the side of the secularism that marks an undoing to the American republic. It stands at odds with the “soft establishment” that characterized Schwarzman’s Jewish youth in the United States decades ago, but is of a piece unintentionally with the sexual revolution and other developments that have led to deep cultural divisions within the U.S., and to “culture wars” in which those adhering to theistic traditions native to American culture are often decried as aggressors while the framework for “both sides” is set by a systemic secularism.
An Orthodox Christian Bishop in America recently stated that the minority of Orthodox Christians in the U.S. naturally have conservative tendencies, but that this is not enough, they must be traditional, which is something different. With that in mind, we can take into account briefly here a summary of Wills’ views as representing the conservative side of things, and then reflect also briefly on the differences between that a traditional Orthodox mindset that is of necessity theistic and more than that Trinitarian, and why that basic is essential to the American republic, even as conceived originally in a non-Orthodox heterodox Protestant context.
Wills’ chapter “Welcoming Whirl: Conservatism without Theism” offers a denunciation of Russell Kirk’s view of theism as necessary for American conservatism. “Regarding the question of our government’s logic, the idea of natural rights does not require a religious foundation, and the Founders did not uniformly think that it did,” Will writes. “It is, however, perhaps the case that natural rights are especially firmly grounded when they are rounded in religious doctrine. So religion is helpful and important, but is not essential” (p. 473). Will in the conclusion of the chapter writes of his supportive view of Shakespeare as a secularist (a view with which I personal as a professor of early literature do not agree), who believed “that the meaning of life does not derive from any source beyond itself,” approvingly writing of facing “the multifaceted human condition without reference to transcendence but also without immobilizing despair” (p. 511).
This could be taken as a creed of the conservativism that the afore-quoted Orthodox Bishop cited as not enough for the Orthodox Christian.
But it is also, I would add, insufficient for what Will claims.
For the American Declaration of Independence includes in its critical references to God the term “Providence,” that of a sustaining and governing power, which ultimately can be understood as theistic, not just a “watchmaker” Deistic view easily discarded for today’s American systemic secularism. When Abraham Lincoln linked the Declaration so firmly with the U.S. Constitution, and sealed by his Second Inaugural Address from shortly before his death on the Western Good Friday, he further highlighted America’s founding principles to theism. “All men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” is a theistic underpinning. Most Americans of the day, including most of the signers of the Declaration and Constitution, were theistic Christians, and the Constitution itself was signed under the date “in the year of our Lord.” Despite the Masons and Unitarians among them, most were Trinitarian Christians of a heterodox sort. Subsequently, America remained a predominantly Christian culture, whose “civil religion” evolved by the time of the Eisenhower administration in the Cold War into a sense of “Judaeo-Christian” heritage with school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance “under God,” and “In God we trust” on the currency. However much the “soft establishment” of foundational Protestantism has been struck down, mainly by court decisions by more recently by the Congressional so-called “Respect for Marriage Act,” it remains historically a foundational framework of the Republic, reflected in the balance of powers and checks-and-balances and limited federalism and Bill of Rights in the Constitution still being fought over legally and bureaucratically.
An Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) leader said at a meeting I attended at the Confederacy’s longhouse in the early 2000s that America had borrowed much of its Constitution from the Iroquois via Benjamin Franklin and others. But, he said, a major problem of the U.S. was the “separation of Church and State,” by which he meant the lack of a spiritual core to its system, which he characterized as borrowing mechanics but not spirituality from indigenous cultures. Yet the biblical spiritual basis of American remains shadowed in the founding documents and suggested in the republic’s history, however fragmented. The Orthodox Christian standpoint, going back to the long-lived Byzantine Republic (as historian Anthony Kaldellis has called it) of symphonia, the inter-relation of Church and State, provides the Christian realization of what is suggested in the foundations of the American system. That is symbolized in the double-headed eagle of distinct Church and State nevertheless related and serving as a kind of check-and-balance on one another. The West has tended to make the Church into the State and now State secularism has become a type of religion to the detriment of the virtue that even the Unitarian John Adams saw as essential to the survival of the republic, given that Unitarianism in his day was still somewhat closer to historical Christianity in the Protestant genealogy than it is today. His son John Quincy Adams specifically would call the virtue inherent in a Christian sense of marriage as inherently essential to the republic as well. Conservatives like George Will, swimming in their own modern American cultural goldfish bowl, cannot fully reach toward the traditional in a cross-cultural and cross-historical sense, and in this also provide only a limited mirror for a deeper sense of America as a country with Christian roots, however heterodox.