America’s Cultural Revolution: Race and Sex vs. St. Paul’s Running the Race

Oct. 1 marks the appearance of Healing Humanity: Confronting our Moral Crisis is a new book I co-edited with fellow Orthodox Christian scholars Archpriest Alexander Webster and Prof. David Ford, with a team of contributors who are clergy, professors, and prominent writers in the Orthodox Christian tradition in North America. By meaningful coincidence, today marked the appearance of a new book by one of the contributors, Orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher, Live not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. The coincidence is that both relate integrally to the culture of self-destruction, social division, and cultural totalitarianism in our era of “woke capitalism,” which ironically features the melding ideologies of Critical Race Studies, the Anthropocene, Pansexualism, and Antifa, ready to take hold of America like a bad dream from a Dostoevsky novel or a rerun in cultural Marxist form of 1917.

The case for the urgent need for the West to explore traditional Orthodox Christian anthropology and morality made in the Healing Humanity book lies in the model set by the so-called sexual revolution of 1960s America for the materialistic passion and self-pleasure we now see on display in the violent merging of consumer capitalism and socialist self-eradication. The resulting American Cultural Revolution could be trademarked as IdentityTM given its commodified or objectified view of self as built up by targeting others. (Nota Bene: This critique of culturally totalitarian ideology does not question the need for authentic concern for victims of bias or hate, and institutional and personal corruption that enables it.)

The Canadian writer Jonathan Van Maren, drawing on the essayist Mary Eberstadt’s work, notes that, “The sexual revolution may have given people freedom, but what it took away was far more precious: a sense of belonging, identity, and families filled with siblings, cousins, and other relatives. This way of life is so scorned and even demonized that many of the bitter, angry young people marching to the trendy tune of the latest Pied Piper do not even realize that their primal screams are howls of longing for the very things many of them claim to despise.” Hannah Arendt warned in her study of totalitarianism The Origins of Totalitarianism that such loneliness is the modern precursor to technology-enabled totalitarianism.

The effect of the American Cultural Revolution in separating individuals not only from family ties but aspirationally from bodily limitations and real personal relationships, also leads away from the historic Church and our Incarnate God the Lord Jesus Christ. Relying on experiences of initiated cognoscenti, it lends itself to comparisons to the ancient disembodied heresy of Gnosticism, but in a new technocratic mode. Sexually, first more advanced forms of contraception and now other quasi-magical technologies, seek to defy embodiedness and mortality and God in hyper-instrumentalist models of physical life. They move people to seek “out of body” passion without God, their abstracted minds separated from their hearts in a drive for orgiastic power and ultimately violence. May resulting extremities help lead them by God’s grace, with our society as a whole, to faith in Him, in His Orthodox Church!

St. Irenaeus of Lyons in early Christian times, a spiritual grandchild of the Apostle John the Theologian, wrote a classic text Against Heresies, which is applicable today as an antidote to the American Cultural Revolution. It is helpfully summarized and briefly excerpted in volume 6 of The Synaxarion by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, quoted below.

“He showed first that this ‘Gnosis,’ which heretics vainly sought in the mythical plots and complicated constructions of their perverted intelligence, is the pre-eminent gift of the charity that the Holy Spirit gives to the Christian in the living organism of the Church. It is only within it that one quench one’s thirst with the clear water that flows from the side of Christ, thence to receive life eternal. All other doctrines are nothing but broken cisterns (Jer. 2:13). The true ‘Gnostics’ are not those who reject and despise the body to worship God, ‘ineffable’ and his ‘Demiurge,’ but spiritual men who have received from the Holy Spirit the earnest of the Resurrection of the body and of incorruptibility. Breaking with the Hellenic duality of body and soul, Saint Irenaeus developed Saint John’s doctrine of the Word made flesh to interpret the meaning of the vocation of man. The first Adam had been formed from clay by the two Hands of God: the Word and the Spirit, in the image of God conformed to the model of the glorious flesh of Christ; and the breath of life had been given him in order to progress from the image to the likeness of God. Having been tricked by the Devil, jealous of his prerogatives, and having fallen into death, he had not, however, been abandoned by God, who had from all eternity intended to make him a partaker in His glory. The revelations and prophecies of the Old Testament, and above all the Incarnation of the Word, His death, His Resurrection and His glorious Ascension, constitute the necessary stages in this ‘Economy’ of the history of Salvation.  Always keeping in mind this ultimate end for which He had created man, the Word was made flesh, ‘recapitulating’ the first Adam in Himself. As the first man, born into a virgin earth, fell, through the virgin Eve’s disobedience by a tree, so Christ came into the world through the obedience of the Virgin Mary and had been hung on the tree of the Cross. ‘He gave His soul for our souls and His flesh for our flesh, and He has poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God with men, bringing God down into men by the Spirit and drawing men up to God by His Incarnation.’

“The Word of God who had created the world, invisibly making it in the form of a cross, made Himself visible at the time appointed on the Cross, in order to bring together in His body all the beings that had become separated, and bring them to the knowledge of God. Appearing, not in His ineffable glory but as a man, He has shown in Himself the restored image of God, conformed once more to the likeness. He has nourished us ‘at the breast of His flesh,’ so that, accustomed to eating and drinking the Word of God, and strengthened by the ‘bread of immortality,’ we might draw near to the vision of God that gives us incorruptibility. ‘It is impossible to live separated from Life, and there is no participation in life without participation in God, and this participation in God consists in seeing God and enjoying His sweetness…. For the glory of God is the living man, and a man’s life is the vision of God.’

“For Irenaeus, a disciple of those who had known the Apostles, knowledge (gnosis) is love and the deification of man in the Person of Christ the Saviour. Much more than a simple refutation of false ‘Gnosis,’ his doctrine, wonderful in its simplicity and profundity, contains the seed of all that the latter fathers developed in their inspired writings.”

Against such holy teaching and experience of embodied virtue in Christian anthropology, modern revolutionaries on all sides offer the exertion of dominance for pleasure, exemplified in the works of the Marquis de Sade, extended by technological control in enjoyment of control of others and perverse pleasure in self-destruction. Whether it is writer Vicky Osterweil’s manifesto In Defense of Looting, or Prof. Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, both ultimately advocating philosophies of violent anarchism in the service of revolution leading to totalitarianism, or many others, hipster revolutionaries are discovering their own sweet spots of status and potential power in subverting and overthrowing American society.

The roots of today’s intertwined movements of Antifa, Antiracism, Pansexualism, and the Anthropocene, lie in the atheism of Karl Marx and cultural Marxism, a term developed originally by advocates of Marxist revolution emphasizing cultural rather than class struggle. This is not to dismiss the real humanity and concerns of people who are victims of oppression in any form. But the movements as melding ideology, and their increasingly totalitarian culture, separate themselves from such personal concerns in a common drive toward Marx’s goals of undermining traditional networks of family, faith, and community, to overthrow the Christian sense of sobornost or spiritual unity and solidarity in Christ.

Sobornost in Christian tradition involves the intersection of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity “under God,” a trans-generational continuity that defines freedom as both self-restraint and generous service to universal truth, with justice ensuring the opportunity for such service and meaningfulness to all. Sobornost historically was the basis of the American republic, however dimly reflected its practice and deeply flawed, reflected in the references to God as the source of equality in the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address, and the structuring of a decentralized republic “under God” to restrict the fallenness of the human drive for power. A millennia-old experiential teaching and practice in Christianity, sobornost grew from terminology in the fourth-century Nicene Creed, but was coined as a term by modern Russian philosophers, particularly a Jewish-Orthodox Christian refugee from Communist and Nazi totalitarianism, S.L. Frank, in works such as The Spiritual Foundations of Society.

If Christian virtues were distant often in actual practice in American history, it was because of their perversion by a combination of self-serving idealism and materialism now institutionalized in pseudo-revolutionary ideological cultural hegemony. The link between the sexual revolution and passions of civil unrest is suggested by types of systemic violence often ignored by today’s American Cultural Revolution. For example, the systemic violence of abortion disproportionately killing babies of color, and of tragically high number of deaths of youths of color at the hands of other youths of color, often from broken homes, in American cities, and taking sexual advantage of children, are often ignored because of not serving the meta-narrative of our new techno-gnosticism, leaving the most vulnerable to suffer in a system where dissolute elites cheer on orgiastic social self-destruction. Extreme levels of violence involving youths occurs in cities like my hometown of Chicago, which have been ruled for decades by mini-socialistic political machines, ostensibly serving the cause of social justice.

Such systemic violence challenges modernity itself, and if honestly faced would challenge the status of American “woke” elites. In some ways this situation echoes the original cultural flaws of the framework of 18th-century American revolution and its resulting ideology of exceptionalism. Despite the Christian roots of the early American republic, its elites nurtured ideas of American exceptionalism in chiliastic (utopianist) Protestantism and Masonic-Deistic idealism, as well as in Eurocentric Western Enlightenment thinking. Such factors mingling with atheistic Marxism have fed the modern techno-Gnosticism of our current Cultural Revolution, with its attempted erasure of traditional social and faith networks, and its privileging of those culturally illuminated who supposedly enjoy expert magical knowledge outside of traditional faith, family, and social networks.

Across American culture, developments such as the decline of marriage and rise of children outside of wedlock, early sexualizing of children, normalizing of polyamory, opiatizing by online bread and circuses, and pansexualizing of culture, all indicate the essentializing of passions, which rise at the expense of traditional norms of self-restraint in Christian traditions of the old republic. These are all trends in which elites and often ostensibly Christian people have participated, and sometimes led. They end badly. On the link between personal violence and objectification of others, as one micro-example, consider the backgrounds of some of those allegedly involved in hunting down 17-year Kyle Rittenhouse during a recent riot in Kenosha, WI: one a registered sex offender-pedophile, another convicted twice for domestic abuse, and a third allegedly a gang member and amateur porn actor. None of that at all justifies fatal shootings, to be sure. But such contexts suggest how private passions provide a context for erupting social violence and anarchistic politics, which Hannah Arendt also saw as a necessary source of totalitarianism.

Note that in the great tradition of Lenin’s Vanguard, none of our current cultural revolutionaries in education, letters, media, politics, the arts, or the corporate world are stepping away from their careers or incomes to allow others less privileged socioeconomically and culturally to take the status of their positions in accord with their own ideological rhetoric. Life handbooks like How to be an Anti-Racist and White Fragility have become the latest pop culture versions of Mao’s Little Red Book, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, or the King James Bible from other eras and ideologies, garnering fame and status for their contemporary authors as oracles underwritten by elites.

Critical studies efforts in academia have developed since the 1960s as hotbeds of advocacy and activism rather than what C.S. Lewis would have called the “old learning” of the humanities with their cautions on the need for virtuous self-restraint with otherworldly grace. The morphing of humanities fields into race/class/gender studies ghosting “woke” social sciences, of Environmental Studies into revolutionary-technocratic Anthropocene and environmental-justice studies, and other late-twentieth-century “studies” fields of gender and race into ever-more-radical forms of advocacy and activism on the Left, leave little tolerance for dissent, which they classify as phobic madness and hate. They leave a desert and call it victory.

Russian philosophers from an Orthodox Christian standpoint since the days of the Slavophiles and Dostoevsky’s “back to the soil” movement challenged Eurocentric secular ideas as neocolonialist. But today’s American “studies” fields ironically by contrast do so in a unifyingly dominant Eurocentric secular voice, in advancing cultural Marxism with hatred of traditional Christianity.

The claim that the Green New Deal–often closely linked to the Environmental Studies field of activism-advocacy academics–is nonpartisan is a good example of the lack of self-reflection and transparency in this American Cultural Revolution. Organized by the Sunrise Movement, it seeks to galvanize the election of hard-left Democratic officials nationally to gain control of the levels of power. It now seeks to link its “anthropocene” view of cosmology — technocratic and devoid of God — to Critical Race Studies’ Antiracism, a natural fit for cultural elites building the current revolutionary coalition. For years now the official Black Lives Matter has featured its opposition to the nuclear family, which is part of secular Eurocentrism, packaged ironically as a rejection of a racialized white hegemony by group leaders ironically immersed in the global West’s neocolonialist cultural Marxism. Such “radical” views were recently scrubbed from the website in an apparent effort to keep and gain support with non-elites who still identify as Christian.

Authentic Marxism, wrote the young Antonio Gramsci, a founder of cultural Marxism, “sees as the dominant factor in history, not raw economic facts, but man, men in societies, men in relation to one another, reaching agreements with one another, developing through their contacts…a collective, social will; men coming to understand economic facts, judging them and adapting them to their will until this becomes the driving force of th economy and moulds objective reality, which lives and moves and comes to resemble a current of volcanic lava that can be channelled wherever and in whatever way men’s will determines.” (The Revolution Against Capital, Selections from Political Writings, 35-6)

Ironically, “systemic racism” is often another name for socialism’s modern historical effects, oppressing minorities through government-corporate conglomerates. Examples include Chinese Communist persecution of the Uighurs and other minorities; Soviet Communist persecution of Ukrainians, Christians, and Jews; Nazi German persecution of Jews and Slavs; the subjugation of low-income African-Americans in the Democratic “progressive” political machines of America’s major urban centers; and the “industrial slavery” of urbanization with alliances between government, corporations, and unions, which morphed into high-stress paycheck-to-paycheck “professional” as well as working-class lives, often impacting minorities disproportionately, which now offers a “solution” in nascent dehumanizing social credit systems, initiated in Communist China as its contribution to cyber-cultural Marxism.

All this reflects the technocratic categorization and objectification of people and communities begun in European secular projects of scientism, overlaid by Social Darwinism in America’s first “progressive” movement, and now by neocolonial consumer culture, of which identity politics is the latest digitally enabled style. Without critical reflection on the source of this modern objectification of both individuals and whole peoples in materialistic will-to-power virtual reality, Cultural Revolution serves elites as a tool of obfuscation for self-serving and destroying passion, advancing socialism in a broad sense on all sides of the political spectrum as the greatest source of human slavery and suffering in history. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s dissident colleague Igor Shafarevich detailed the self-destructiveness of this trajectory in his prophetic book The Socialist Phenomenon. He includes the important thread of Protestant chiliasm or utopianism in the development of socialism in the West. That is the background or formational cultural milieu (even if now generationally distant) of many in the current revolutionary movement in America.

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (Third Edition) offers basic definitions by practitioners of today’s current lead revolutionary ideology in America, and outlines a few key principles of CRT, which reveal the quasi-religious fault lines in the Cutural Revolution. First, CRT describes racism as ordinariness, in the sense of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “permanent lie.” But this masks the very totalitarianism of cultural Marxism, by which the arbitrariness of the homogenized virtual reality of binarized racism and antiracism is enforced by socioeconomic elites in “woke” capitalism, media, and educational institutions. It ignores the ideologicql complicity of cultural Marxism, of which CRT is a part genealogically, in deaths of tens of millions in racial and cultural genocides in the past century under Communism, a hate-filled legacy that remains the American revolutionary Left’s great unacknowledged unreparated moral debt. And it ignores the companion “secularness,” of which CRT forms a part, seeking to eradicate traditional minority cultures in America.

Another principle of critical race theory according to the participant-authors is “material determinism.” This alleges an unspoken alliance of elite economic interests with psychic needs of the white working class. A version of dialectical materialism, an atheistic ideology going back to Karl Marx, its materialistic approach is undermined by the embrace of CRT by “woke” capitalists and privileged cultural elites. Their material role in the economy would seem to belie their pre-determined support for revolution.

A third principle bited by the book is social constructivism of race and “differential racialization,” concluding that race is fluid identity and constructed for purposes of social control, which is marginalized or privileged in varied ways across time. But, in another paradox, CRT’s “intersectional anti-essentialism” asserts that varied identities can simultaneously shape a person’s socially constructed situationality even as the “voice of color” deserves privilege. In the “voice of color,” “people of color” unite to assert the primacy of their own narratives in a white American culture that is itself becoming a minority culture, by comparison with the aggregation of groups claiming both to be minorities and the new majority, and thus by right dominant, in contradiction of valorization of minority marginalities.

Paradoxes inherent in CRT as an ideologically framed field betray the secular quasi-religious nature of the current Cultural Revolution, a lack of self-reflection on inherent paradoxes and contradictions. That revolution’s para-religious drive for power oddly melds with economic passions of the corporate world, as key elements of the “surveillance state” and “surveillance capitalism” join in. Cyber-scholar Paul Edwards warned of the totalitarian impulse inherent in high-tech virtual reality and its uses by tech-centralized states, in his pioneering study The Closed World. Shoshona Zuboff writing from the Left added the explaanation of how corporate efforts to monitor and control people’s lives accelerate as well, in her Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at a New Frontier of Power.) Both work together in the new Cultural Revolution, as the Orthodox Christian writer Jean-Claude Larchet notes in his book The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul.

To return to the techno-gnostic spirit of the current American Culture Revolution, behold the close ideological affinities between CRT’s Antiracism and Antifa with the latter’s principle of “pre-emptive violence” as a means to eradicate dissent and non-conformity, and both with the “environmental justice” of the Green New Deal movement, objectifying the identities of humanity within an atheistic technocratic frame of resource regulation, and of all with the Pansexualism that asserts the non-essentiality of sex in a new technologically post-human world, while like the ideologies paradoxically at the same time asserting the essentiality of identity political interests. All seek to erase traditional Christian cosmology and anthropology as a public presence by equating them with hate, in efforts such as support for the Equality Act, to relegate public expression of traditional views of sex and family to illegalities. Targeting of dissenters from faith minorities with technologically enabled social and economic pressure are described in Dreher’s new book.

The techno-gnostic spirit of disembodied will-to-power by those with supposedly esoteric knowledge, controlling others through virtual reality, also has fundamentally affected many established religious organizations and movements of America. Their affinity to cultural Marxism results not only from intentional infiltration and subversion of major denominations across decades (although that has occurred), but relates to the departure in emphases of those traditions across centuries from non-Western Orthodox Christianity amid the secularization of the West, again especially in utopianist elements of Protestantism and Deistic-Masonic philosophies. The Orthodox writer Fr. Josiah Trenham provides good background on Western religious wanderings that is a good companion study in effect to Shafarevich’s above-mentioned Orthodox survey of socialism.

In the West, theology historically divided in the view of the Eucharist, as central rite of the Christian Church, into the consubstantiation of many Protestant religions seeing the transformation of the mystery often as symbolic, and the Catholic view of transubstantiation seeing a literal transformation of the bread and the wine into the Body of Christ, God. In Orthodox Christianity, these views remained integrated, in that the Eucharist involves the very Body and Blood of Christ and also at the same time the bread and the wine. This reflects the Orthodox identification of natural law with grace, as can be seen in writings associated with the so-called Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils, by St. Photios the Great and St. Gregory Palamas. The full Incarnational sense of Christian theology is that embodiedness matters integrally with our relation to God, and that our relation to God’s uncreated energies or divine grace is the very source of our identity as embodied individuals. In that lies the Christian antidote to the technocratic Gnosticism of our age with its totalitarian bent. It is perhaps a meaningful coincidence that American racial attitudes developed mainly in Protestant culture involved like consubstantiality a symbolic meaning for the color of people’s skin ultimately separated from the actual physicality of human embodiedness. That same view ironically continues in different forms with Antiracism, and influences the Anthropocene cosmology of the Green New Deal as a technocratic matrix for earth, and the techno-gnosticism of Pansexualism, all encouraging conceptualizations of reality rather than embodied integration with Creation as a gift in the Body of Christ in the Church. Today’s American Cultural Revolution is largely led by secularized people embedded in the civic after-life of America’s foundational utopian Protestant and idealistic Masonic-Deist and Enlightenment cultures, which ironically enabled slavery.

Even the Orthodox Church, persecuted terribly in the modern era while spread diasporically by exile and evangelism, in the secular West today suffers efforts by academics to change her traditional Christianity into the 21st-century equivalent of the renovationist Bolshevik “Living Church” in the Soviet Union, to be the tool of a new secular American order. Some Anglo-American academics claiming affiliation with Orthodoxy pursue agendas of altering its anthropology and cosmology by seeking to justify the ordination of women, and of essentializing sexual passions as identities.

But the extremities of the American Cultural Revolution can be spiritual opportunities for Orthodox Christianity, too. S.L. Frank, the Russian Orthodox exile from totalitarianism in the mid-twentieth-century, described the effects of the breakdown in sobornost or spiritual unity in Christian cultures as offering existential clarity beyond the “fallen idols” of false idealism (see especially the appendix to his book The Meaning of Life). However, a disturbing glimpse into this fall of the idols of American culture without the hope of God can be seen in this video portraying controversy surrounding shootings recently in Kenosha, WI, displaying a bleak wasteland of extremist violence in a small Midwestern American city today.

Perhaps new academic fields will emerge such as Critical Secular Theory and a new movement of Antisecularism. These could show young people the evils of Secularness, Secular Nationalism, and Systemic Secularism, while advocating for Believers to advance from their marginal cultural position in today’s technocratic America, and commemorating the tens of millions killed outright by genocides of Secularness in the past century.

But the systemic evil that critical studies of all types seeks to trace involves ultimately the fallenness of human nature and its drive to power, influenced by demonic forces. Utopianism that would attempt to establish a perfect society in human or post-human technological terms is doomed to fail, as the classic totalitarian systems of Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany did in their own variant forms of twisted utopianism. There is no salvation in extremes of the political Right or Left, nor in their identitarianisms. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in the section on “The Soul and Barbed Wire” in his The Gulag Archipelago,

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through every human heart.”

In today’s America, a 1611 Project, celebrating the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible, and the widespread availability of the Bible in the vernacular in Anglophone lands uniting people in study of Scripture, could be an antidote for the fragmenting excesses of the 1619 Project, with its partisan twisting of history, or any countervailing 1776 Project, given the inevitable mortal limits of the American project.

Ultimately, however, what the Apostle Paul described as running the race is the antidote for any static will-to-power sense of race (white, black, or other), which with sex are now contested master symbols for essentializing of passions and identities by all backgrounds and political perspectives in technocratic Eurocentric atheism’s will to power. The Apostle wrote (I Cor. 9: 24-47): “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”

The anti-Christian spirit of the current American Cultural Revolution seeks to reject the Incarnation of God in our Lord Jesus Christ and His One Holy Apostolic and Catholic Orthodox Church for an abstract and disembodied techno-gnostic critical spirit. The latter leads toward cultural totalitarianism and loss of any remnants of the historically Christian-inspired sense of commonwealth in America. We suffer for our sins. But as the Prophet David sang, the Lord will not despise a broken and a contrite heart. Lord Jesus Christ our God and Savior, have mercy on us and our country!

Preview(opens in a new tab)

Standard

Sobornost: The Unbroken Circle

Homily on Aug. 24, 7528 (Sept. 6, 2020, civil calendar), St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg, PA

This weekend we honor two saints who were influenced by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John, and who all together remind us of the power of spiritual activism and of active love as transmitted from one person to another with God’s grace and our struggle.

Yesterday, we commemorated Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. He was born in Asia Minor about 140, the Synaxarion tells us. As a youth he followed the teaching of the elderly Holy Hierarch Polycarp, who himself had been a disciple of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John.

“It is in the Church that God has placed the apostles, prophets, and doctors, and all the Holy Spirit’s other operations,” St. Irenaeus wrote in his book Against Heresies. “From this Spirit are, therefore, excluded all who, refusing to turn to the Church, deprive themselves of life by their false doctrine and depraved actions. For there where the Church is, there also is the Spirit of God; and there where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace. And the Spirit is Truth…. We must love with an extreme zeal that which is the Church, and take firm hold of the tradition of the Truth.”

His own life exemplified this, for he took the teaching from his spiritual father Polycarp, who had received it from the Apostle John, and transmitted it in the Church that he cared for as primate of Gaul or France.  Around 177 he became presbyter of Lyons, a title that at the time combined the functions of both Bishop and priest. This was at a time of persecution by the scholarly emperor Marcus Aurelius. St. Irenaeus bore a letter from the martyrs of Lyons to the Church at Rome, to Pope Eleutherius, which told of the martyrs’ battles to refute the Montanist heresy, which was a kind of charismatic movement of its day, claiming new revelation outside of our Lord’s Gospel and Church.

His book Against Heresies is a classic critique of the heresy of Gnosticism. The latter’s radical rejection of matter and dualism is still echoed in various forms, such as New Age appropriations of Christianity that reject its basic foundation in the Incarnation and the historical Church. The political philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that modern political gnosticism seeks a disembodied technocracy run by experts, but gnostic tendencies also have been observed in hedonistic individualism of consumerism tending toward atheistic socialism (think Silicon Valley meets the surveillance state).  

St. Irenaeus taught that true gnosis or deep experience of mystery lies in the Holy Church of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, a presence on earth as in heaven, of sobornost or spiritual unity of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity, in which each of us can find meaning and salvation. Her earthly presence in the mysteries of baptism, the Eucharist, Confession, and others, has embodied meaning in history, in a tangible expression of God’s love for us here and now, as we gather in worship and fellowship and unity in Him with the saints around us in the icons of our homes and temples, in our Church family. Just so, the spiritual Church lies beyond us, a mystery, symbolized by the iconostasis in our temples, yet the Church’s earthly presence matters and the two in a sense are one yet distinct. This is what St. Irenaeus experienced in his own spiritual family, from his spiritual father Polycarp, and his spiritual grandfather so to speak, the Apostle John the Theologian, the beloved disciple of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

The following is a relevant summary of St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies as given in volume 6 of The Synaxarion by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra (published in 2008 by the Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady Ormylia (Chalkidlike), translated by Mothers Maria (Rule) and Joana (Burton), based in part, on the Byzantine collection edited by St. Nikodemus the Hagiorite). The summary is interspersed with a sampling of translations of direct quotes.

He showed first that this ‘Gnosis,’ which heretics vainly sought in the mythical plots and complicated constructions of their perverted intelligence, is the pre-eminent gift of the charity that the Holy Spirit gives to the Christian in the living organism of the Church. It is only within it that one quench one’s thirst with the clear water that flows from the side of Christ, thence to receive life eternal. All other doctrines are nothing but broken cisterns (Jer. 2:13). The true ‘Gnostics’ are not those who reject and despise the body to worship God, ‘ineffable’ and his ‘Demiurge,’ but spiritual men who have received from the Holy Spirit the earnest of the Resurrection of the body and of incorruptibility. Breaking with the Hellenic duality of body and soul, Saint Irenaeus developed Saint John’s doctrine of the Word made flesh to interpret the meaning of the vocation of man. The first Adam had been formed from clay by the two Hands of God: the Word and the Spirit, in the image of God conformed to the model of the glorious flesh of Christ; and the breath of life had been given him in order to progress from the image to the likeness of God. Having been tricked by the Devil, jealous of his prerogatives, and having fallen into death, he had not, however, been abandoned by God, who had from all eternity intended to make him a partaker in His glory. The revelations and prophecies of the Old Testament, and above all the Incarnation of the Word, His death, His Resurrection and His glorious Ascension, constitute the necessary stages in this ‘Economy’ of the history of Salvation.  Always keeping in mind this ultimate end for which He had created man, the Word was made flesh, ‘recapitulating’ the first Adam in Himself. As the first man, born into a virgin earth, fell, through the virgin Eve’s disobedience by a tree, so Christ came into the world through the obedience of the Virgin Mary and had been hung on the tree of the Cross. ‘He gave His soul for our souls and His flesh for our flesh, and He has poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God with men, bringing God down into men by the Spirit and drawing men up to God by His Incarnation.’

The Word of God who had created the world, invisibly making it in the form of a cross, made Himself visible at the time appointed on the Cross, in order to bring together in His body all the beings that had become separated, and bring them to the knowledge of God. Appearing, not in His ineffable glory but as a man, He has shown in Himself the restored image of God, conformed once more to the likeness. He has nourished us ‘at the breast of His flesh,’ so that, accustomed to eating and drinking the Word of God, and strengthened by the ‘bread of immortality,’ we might draw near to the vision of God that gives us incorruptibility. ‘It is impossible to live separated from Life, and there is no participation in life without participation in God, and this participation in God consists in seeing God and enjoying His sweetness…. For the glory of God is the living man, and a man’s life is the vision of God.’

For Irenaeus, a disciple of those who had known the Apostles, knowledge (gnosis) is love and the deification of man in the Person of Christ the Saviour. Much more than a simple refutation of false ‘Gnosis,’ his doctrine, wonderful in its simplicity and profundity, contains the seed of all that the latter fathers developed in their inspired writings.

Ending its summary of Against Heresies, Fr. Makarios’ Synaxarion notes that, while most of St. Irenaeus’ writings did not survive in their original Greek, his main ideas continue in the works of Sts. Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, John Damascene, and others. So the circle is unbroken from apostolic times until now in our Lord’s Church.

Thus it is also with the Saint whom we commemorate today, a day after St. Irenaeus’ feast, and that is St. Eutyches the disciple of the Apostle John. St. Nikodemus the Hagiorite associated him with the Eutyches mentioned in Acts 20 as falling asleep during preaching by the Holy Apostle Paul in Troas, and falling from the third floor, to be restored to life by the Holy Apostle’s prayers. He is said to have been baptized by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John, whom he followed on his travels. He threw down idols in pagan temples and endured beatings and long imprisonment as a result. One day in prison an angel appeared to him and energized he endured being cast into a furnace. Thrown to wild animals, he was seen talking with them, about which reportedly he said that they were part of God’s Creation too. By some accounts, he is said to have reposed peacefully in the Lord, by others he is said to have beheaded after praying for martyrdom. The Acts of the Apostle John says Eutyches was present at the repose of the Apostle, who wished to be placed in an uncovered grave while still living, some saying the Apostle’s body then disappeared during the night, but that the Apostle had given Eutyches a blessing to take spiritual leadership of the Church at Ephesus after him, an important Christian center warned in the Book of Revelation.

In any case, St. Eutyches like St. Irenaeus represents to us this weekend the Holy Church as the Body of Jesus Christ, an historical presence with us still, in the Eucharist and in the presence of the Church, even as the spiritual Church, symbolized again by the space behind our iconostasis, remains for us to aspire to through His grace and our struggle in this life.

St. Eutyches was a disciple of the Apostle John helping the Church in Asia Minor with great courage from God. St. Irenaeus was a disciple of a disciple of the Apostle John spreading the Gospel in France. Imagine the blessing of such discipleship. But the Circle is not broken. We are part of that living embodied story, the living tradition and life of the Church, even here in our small mission today. We are a small group, but we are part of our Lord’s One Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church, of sobornost or spiritual unity in Him with His saints. The same family genealogy comes to us through the Apostles down to our Bishops and Priests and spiritual fathers. Think, for example, of our patron, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and his disciple Blessed Seraphim Rose of California, whose writings helped lead some of us into Orthodoxy while St. John was spiritual father to the father of the Chancellor of our Diocese. Then there is St. Joseph the Hesychast of Mount Athos, who was spiritual father to the spiritual father of the founders of the holy monastery in White Haven, Holy Protection, from which our mission took her first name.

Truly we are, as Scripture tells us, surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Let us go forth inspired by their witness, and asking them for their prayers for the same spirit of courage, to bring the Gospel to our families, friends, and neighbors here in the lands at the Confluence of the Susquehanna Watershed, and to stand for Him who stood for us on the Cross and still stands with us. Through the intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos and of all the saints, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us and save us!

Standard

Choosing Life

Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ said, “I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Indeed, our Lord said He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Holy Prophet Moses, to whom Christ had revealed the Ten Commandments and His name “He Who is” and much else, had written much earlier, as recorded in Deuteronomy 30:15-16: “Behold, I have set before thee this day life and death, good and evil. If thou wilt hearken to the commands of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to love the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his ordinances, and his judgments; then ye shall live, and shall be many in number, and the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all the land into which thou goest to inherit it.”

Today our country struggles with global plague, civil unrest, paralyzing social division, economic depression, forest fires, tropical storms–and now even the threat of a reported meteorite hit to earth this fall around the time of the presidential election!

But Christians receive the grace of finding identity in Him, the source of our personhood, not in an essentialized or objectified identity based on race, ethnicity, class, culture, or sex, essentializing our self-willed fallen human passions and will to power. For millennia this good news has been the source of true freedom, which as the Russian Orthodox Christian philosopher S.L. Frank notes, is voluntary service to universal truth, in the Person of Jesus Christ: Loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself.

St. Jonah of Hankou, who trudged across the Gobi Desert fleeing the atheist Communist scourge, to be of service to those in need in China in the 1920s, and who reposed in Christ helping a sufferer from typhoid fever, only to give solace and healing in a vision that same night to a crippled boy, wrote: “Podvig [ascetic spiritual struggle for God] is living for others.”

But how often today we are caught up with death rather than living, with death in the world of materialism and objectifying self-will, with a will to power in the world of our passions, rather than death to that world.

The Soviet dissident and Orthodox Christian Igor Shafarevich wrote a classic book The Socialist Phenomenon, recently reprinted, which details throughout history the death-wish inherent in chiliasm, the heresy that Archbishop Averky also detailed in commentary on the Revelation of Jesus Christ to St. John the Theologian. Chiliasm is the heresy of utopianism, seeking that which is not sustainable for fallen human nature, a perfect objectified world. Instead, efforts to establish such a world destroy the very justice and peace that those working for it claim to seek. It ends in a power trip for a few controlling the many. In the twentieth century, it left tens of millions dead and many more lives maimed.

Such is the world into which we seem to be heading in a new form of technologically controlled culture based in consumerism, according to the new book Live not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Orthodox writer Rod Dreher, whose title draws on a famous phrase by Shafarevich’s friend and fellow dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The “soft totalitarianism” of cultural Marxism in Western consumer capitalism and intellectual ideologies today — Antiracism, Antifa, Green New Deal movements; sexual revolutions of polyparenting, polyamory, and the neocolonial hegemony of secular-Eurocentric sexual anthropology — would erase true personhood in Christ, in the name of self-will. (Cultural Marxism is a shorthand term, used by its advocates to detail socialism that engages with cultural struggle, rather than Classical Marxism’s focus on economic class struggle.) But in doing so it paradoxically erases individuality in nihilistic “group think,” as Shafarevich’s history details.

This extends to young people being isolated from faith, biblical tradition, family, and even physical reality in “virtual” lives, as in the case of the Orthodox Christian boy James Younger in Texas, whose fate is now being played out in secular judicial, educational, and medical-psychological bureaucracies, in an effort to turn him into a girl. Real cosmological difference in the dignity of each person (as detailed by the Russian Orthodox Church in her statements on human dignity and the basis of the social concept) disappears in the consumerist trend toward virtual lives, with burgeoning group-sex and other practices that remove true individual love and family ties, as the sexual revolution moves in tandem with movements to establish atheistic culture. Such virtual lives (disembodied by separating the soul and the body and treating the latter as an isolated object or tool) also are more easily controlled by the perfection of high-tech “surveillance capitalism” and the “surveillance state” in today’s West.

Velikoretsky Procession of the Cross in Russia, an annual tradition that draws thousands today, after decades of attempted Communist suppression.

Basing identity in disembodied individual autonomy and self-will, essentializing the passions of fallen human nature outside a reasoned groundness in larger realities, involves ultimately the erasure of traditions of faith and family and community. Such erasure is all in accord with cultural Marxism. The latter seeks to overturn hierarchy and patriarchy and authority. But in the process it erases the mystery taught in Orthodox Christianity of sobornost. The latter, meaning spiritual unity, involves living at the intersection of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity, which shapes authentic human personhood in Christ. Sobornost in Christ heals the deepest epidemic we face, of loneliness and isolation, which the philosopher Hannah Arendt correctly identified — together with the social, cultural, and physical terror accelerating in the world today — as foundational to totalitarianism. The sexual and cultural and economic anarchy at the heart of “woke consumerism” is only the stepping stone to attempted total oppression and conditioning of humanity. Paradoxically this movement operates in the name of the sovereign individual but ends in enforced homogeneous ideology, as the Old Anglican scholar C.S. Lewis foresaw in his classic 1943 book The Abolition of Man. Lord have mercy.

Standard

Summer Pascha

Homily on the first Sunday of the Dormition Fast, 3 August 7528 (civil calendar Aug. 16 2020)

Greetings in the Lord.

We stand in the beginning days of our summer Lent and Pascha, in which we remember the falling asleep of the Mother of our God, our Mother in the Church, our Most Holy Lady Theotokos.

The Holy Forefather and Prophet Solomon wrote that, “He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.”

Indeed, during this fast we soon also will celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, bringing first fruits of the harvest to the temple for a blessing.

Summer at Tall Timbers, a local old-growth forest and nature preserve, where one can find shelter from the heat in cool dells, and where our mission has gathered for parish picnics in the past.

Let us in these challenging yet joyful times of summer harvest be faithful sons and daughters of our Mother, also called the Bride of God, a title that she shares with the Church that she helped nurture during the time after the Ascension of her son, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, when Pentecost brought the uncreated energies of God, His grace and favor, into our innermost souls in the Body of Christ His Church.

All this was made possible too by her mothering of our Lord, about which the Paraklesis service often sung during this Dormition season says, “You are a gold-entwined tower and a twelvewall encircled city, a shining throne touched by the sun, a royal chair of the King, O unexplainable wonder! You that milk-feed the Master.”

The greatest ancient pagan sages Plato and Aristotle wondered at whether truth was transcendent and to be known through deduction from universal principles, as said Plato, or through induction from physical experience, as said Aristotle. Yet the birth of Christ to the Virgin, and the Cross, brought together the transcendent and the physical in the person of our Lord.

This ushered in the Holy Wisdom of Christ as experiential knowing, that mix of induction and deduction in the intuitive and embodied faith of the saints, the greatest of whom is Our Lady.

The summer season of fasting for her great feast begins with the Procession of the Cross on August 1 of the Julian Calendar, a time of looking to the Cross for healing, and traditionally continues with regular celebration of the Paraklesis service asking her intercession for us as our Mother and the greatest of saints, for just as our mothers would most fervently pray for us, so she does to the utmost when we ask her help.

The start of the Dormition Fast also marks the anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’ under St. Prince Vladimir the Great, the beginning of the summertime of the Church as what is called the Third Rome became established as the last great Christian Empire, the heir to the Christian Roman Empire of Byzantium in Russia. To Russia we owe the transmission of Orthodox Christianity to us in North America first through the Alaska mission and then through saints of the diaspora here, most notably our patron St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco and his disciple Blessed Seraphim of Platina, among many others of different ethnic and national backgrounds who have helped to evangelize North America.

Our mission is part of that story, and as we live in the autumn of the latter days, after the fall of the last great Orthodox empire a little more than a century ago to the spirit of anti-Christ expressed in atheistic communist totalitarianism, we must seek the prayerful intercession of our mother, our Lady the most Holy Theotokos, in whole-hearted devotion to the cause of evangelism through our mission.

Last night we did so as we often did before her icon of Port Arthur, an icon which is known both as the Icon of Unachieved Victory and the Icon of the Triumph of the Theotokos. Through her intercession, defeat is turned into victory, and the retreat from Russia before the Communists has been turned into a spiritual victory as Orthodox Christianity has spread around the world and now renews herself in Russia as well.

St. Luke the Surgeon of Crimea, whose intercession we ask in this time of pestilence and upheaval, witnessed against the spirit of anti-Christ in his time as both Bishop and surgeon under the Soviets, and when the time came for his repose, all efforts by the atheist authorities to suppress his funeral failed, as the outpouring of the people turned into a massive procession through the streets that the Bolsheviks could not stop.

In a sermon on the Dormition, St. Luke recalled the words of our Savior,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). That is the hope and example and help given us by our Mother in Christ the Theotokos.

The beginning of the Dormition feast, in addition to the traditional procession of the Cross, the remembering of our Lady, and the anniversary of the Baptism of Rus’, is also in Russia a festival of honey, the first fruits of the harvest. Let us remember too that we live in sweet harvest time despite the trials of these latter days. One of the phrases used to describe the Theotokos is the spiritual Paradise, and she is depicted in the icon of the Joy of those who Sorrow beloved by St. John as in a spiritual garden, with Mount Athos often described as her garden. Let our mission be her garden too, and let us as followers of her son delight in our role as humble gardeners within the field of harvest of the Church of her Son.

The icon of the Joy of All Who Sorrow

Just as human parents and godparents and our spiritual fathers and mothers in the Church may protect us through prayer and other help in ways that we do not fully realize growing up, so too does Our Lady when we ask her intercession before her Son. The Joy of All Who Sorrow icon at our home chapel is charred by fire around the edges. It was with me when, just three years after my baptism into the Orthodox Church, I was returning from a long-distance trip to a job interview, and my car caught fire on the highway. The car was a wreck, books and files in it burned, but the icon was saved, and I was saved, through the prayers of the Theotokos on my behalf, also amid generally difficult and challenging times at that point, and in spite of my many sins. Through God’s grace I was given the job, and at the other end of the road on that trip waiting for me was my own beloved, whom I soon married, and we moved here, where our sons were born, and through God’s grace and the prayers of Our Lady we joined in this community all of us together, this Church family. Not coincidentally, our first name for our mission was Holy Protection, for her protection, taken from the monastery near here that commemorates her. And now we are blessed with the name of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who had such special reverence for her, that he wrote a classic little book that we should all study about the Mother of God in Christian teaching and history and experience, and reposed beneath the Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God, as he prayed for the evangelizing of North America. Now more than ever is the time for that evangelism, it is so needed. We seek the intercession of the Mother of God in our fervent efforts to bring our friends and family into the ark of the Church in these difficult times.

St. John Damascene wrote centuries ago of the Dormition Feast:

“Come, let us depart with her. Come, let us descend to that tomb with all our heart’s desire. Let us draw round that most sacred bed and sing the sweet words, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Hail, predestined Mother of God. Hail, thou chosen one in the design of God from all eternity, most sacred hope of earth, resting-place of divine fire, holiest delight of the Spirit, fountain of living water, paradise of the tree of life, divine vine-branch, bringing forth soul-sustaining nectar and ambrosia. Full river of spiritual graces, fertile land of the [210] divine pastures, rose of purity, with the sweet fragrance of grace, lily of the royal robe, pure Mother of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, token of our redemption, handmaid and Mother, surpassing angelic powers.” Come, let us stand round that pure tomb and draw grace to our hearts. Let us raise the ever-virginal body with spiritual arms, and go with her into the grave to die with her. Let us renounce our passions, and live with her in purity, listening to the divine canticles of angels in the heavenly courts. Let us go in adoring, and learn the wondrous mystery by which she is assumed to heaven, to be with her Son, higher than all the angelic choirs. No one stands between Son and Mother. This, O Mother of God, is my third sermon on thy departure, in lowly reverence to the Holy Trinity to whom thou didst minister, the goodness of the Father, the power of the Spirit, receiving the Uncreated Word, the Almighty Wisdom and Power of God. Accept, then, my good-will, which is greater than my capacity, and give us salvation. Heal our passions, cure our diseases, help us out of our difficulties, make our lives peaceful, send [211] us the illumination of the Spirit. Inflame us with the desire of thy son. Render us pleasing to Him, so that we may enjoy happiness with Him, seeing thee resplendent with thy Son’s glory, rejoicing for ever, keeping feast in the Church with those who worthily celebrate Him who worked our salvation through thee, Christ the Son of God, and our God. To Him be glory and majesty, with the uncreated Father and the all-holy and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, through the endless ages of eternity. Amen.”

Standard

Three Lives: Tucker, Brawley, Ramer

Today we hear much about what is wrong with American academia.

But three American lives tell us much of what is right about its heritage.

I was reflecting on them as I returned from a three-week stay at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, near Cooperstown. There I woke up most days to start at 4 a.m. helping the serving Priest (Fr. Anatoly, Fr. Cyprian, Fr. Seraphim, or Fr. Theophylact) prepare for the early morning Divine Liturgy, beginning our entrance prayers together by candlelight in the darkness of the beautiful and historic Cathedral. The saints surrounded us in iconography, and the dedicated figures of the priest-monks spoke to the centrality of the daily liturgical cycle. It is hard there not to feel at moments the presence of angels during the services.

Returning to a different temporality at the start of my university’s semester, I reflected on a different kind of educational dedication, evidenced in a pluralistic secular world of modern American education, with its roots in Christian faith. Three graduates of our university illustrated in their lives that dedication to the best of the liberal arts in the modern world, springing from the seven liberal arts developed in Late Antique Christian culture of the “Hellenic-Christian synthesis” at Constantinople and elsewhere, whose ripple effects long after reached places like our campus in northern Appalachia, which was originally a Baptist college when founded in 1846.

Here are the three examples, very briefly presented:

Andrew Gregg Tucker, Class of 1862, whose grave near campus is pictured below, gave his life at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 supporting the American Republic’s ideals of liberty and justice in what Abraham Lincoln at the battlefield a few months later called “this nation under God.”

The Rev. Edward McKnight Brawley, Class of 1875 (M.A. 1878), founded  institutions of higher learning exemplifying a positive relation between faith and liberal arts education, as a pioneering African-American educator and Baptist clergyman in the era after the Civil War.

George Henry Ramer, Class of 1950, who as a U.S. Marine gave his life in the Korean War resisting Communist totalitarian oppression, and received posthumously the Congressional Medal of Honor. He died helping his unit members survive in the middle of combat.

There are many problems and flaws with the history of American higher education — notably in recent times the large-scale adoption nationally of forms of cultural Marxism by many American academics as their educational compass, ideologies seeking to erase the cultural Christianity that nurtured the liberal arts while promoting systems that ultimate in a materialistic will-to-power obscuring the tradition. But the lives of the three figures above should inspire us to remember the greatness of the legacy of the liberal arts even in modern America, and to recommit ourselves to the difficult task of preserving, renewing, and handing on that tradition, amid all our current challenges in the mid-twenty-first century.

Standard

The Bridges Go Up

Recently my hometown of Chicago, where my great-grandfather was in the Wigwam at the floor-stomping nomination of Abraham Lincoln as Republican candidate for President in 1860 at Lake at Wacker, raised its iconic river bridges to head off looter-rioters in a milestone of America’s current civil unrest.

To borrow the language of the cultural revolutionaries, we are in a crisis of secularness that requires antisecularism. Those pretending neutrality are guilty of secular nationalism. There must be discrimination against secularness and a confession of its guilt.

AP20223523732042-1

These are the flipped lessons, as authority collapses and cultural revolution comes to the republic, of the woke ideology of antiracism and its twins Antifa and the Green New Deal, all covers for the current ascendance of cultural Marxism. For those causes currently, voices like Ibram X Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Mark Bray, and the Sunrise Movement, in shallow textbooks masking partisan ideology, provide the socially acceptable and elite-endorsed manifestos for the destruction of America as an historic constitutional republic “under God,” as Abraham Lincoln summed it up.

But what is needed instead is the harder recognition from self-reflection and individual sacrifice that, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted of Russia’s calamity in the last century leading to totalitarianism and cultural genocide, it is the forgetting of God that led us into the current crisis. With each person acting as their own god or idol, and raising their own idols of race or sex or ideology or a combination, comes the atomization that the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt noted leads to totalitarianism — accompanied by the terror of meaninglessness and unfettered self-assertion. In the American case, we want it all and revolution too, as consumerist-radicals.

The result, Solzhenitsyn concluded, is the ethos of “survive at any price” and “only results matter,” which leads to the “permanent lie” of Arendt’s “banality of evil”–a virtual reality that becomes accepted as the only idolatrous (and false) truth. That “permanent lie” ends in the “egotocracy” that Solzhenitsyn saw as the self-destructive finale of nihilistic-scientistic socialism: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, etc.

From the 1929 book Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (English edition), the classic first adventure of Tintin, by Hergé

6za42vueava41-1.jpg

The “soft” or “cultural” totalitarianism America faces thankfully hasn’t involved much physical violence, at least yet, but has involved the capitalistic American equivalent of professional, social, media, and economic force. One collateral target recently was my friend and fellow Orthodox Christian John Kass, lead columnist at the Chicago Tribune for more than two decades. He wrote a column criticizing truthfully the lenient law-enforcement officials, the elected prosecutors, who have been contributing to the anarchistic climate in Chicago and elsewhere. The most prominent have received campaign contributions from billionaire provocateur George Soros, in an effort whose effect has been to weaken the authority of the criminal justice system and open the door to anarchy. A group of “woke” reporters at the Tribune issued a statement accusing Kass of anti-Semitism, of which there was absolutely no evidence, but based on the canard that Soros is of Jewish background. Kass’ column was removed from page 3 into the back of the newspaper, based on an obvious pretext to obscure a “non-woke” traditional voice before the presidential election. But he stands unbowed before the mob.

Kass’ voice is of national stature and the last remnant of the tradition of the Chicago Tribune as a conservative newspaper, going back to the days of Col. McCormick, who built Tribune Tower as a monument to American freedom and faith, including freedom of the press, featuring a statue of Nathan Hale. Tribune Tower recently was sold by its conglomerate media owner and the newsroom moved, so as not to have witnessed the disgrace of the mistreatment of Kass’ voice of freedom.

The Chicago Tribune’s outstanding (and Orthodox) columnist John Kass, preparing for the Orthodox Pascha feast in a past year. Below him, Nathan Hale at Tribune Tower.

DZ4y3mmX4AA4XIF

unnamed-14.jpg

In related news, this week Kamala Harris was made the stalking horse for the US presidency as vice presidential running mate of soon-to-be-octogenarian Joe Biden. A junior senator of a few years she questioned the association of a Catholic judicial nominee with the Knights of Columbus, among other negative stances on religious freedom. Harris joins a presidential candidate who considers transgenderism to be the civil rights issue of our day. Both stands indicate the increasingly immersive nature of secularness in our culture, and how hostility to traditional Christian faith undergirds the current revolutionary anarchism of our cultural moment, as Chicago put up the bridges and John Kass’ column went into internal exile.

download-17

Chicago has a complex history that I have experienced in various decades and different neighborhoods, as urban affairs writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and as a child attending Black churches around the West Side on Sundays with my school principal father. The 1995 book The Lost City, by the journalist Alan Ehrenhalt, illustrates the virtues of strong communities in 1950s Chicago, in that era of the Greatest and Quiet Generations, despite grievous sins of racial segregation, corruption, and materialism.

33664114-0-l.jpg

That complexity of Chicago history is part of the history of human community, in a realm of fallen human nature in the struggle for virtue through faith.

“There is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved,” writes Ehrenhalt. “Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a dream in the end….”

He added:

There is no point in pretending that the 1950s were a happy time for everyone in America. For many, the price of the limited life was impossibly high. To have been an independent-minded alderman in the Daley machine, a professional baseball player treated unfairly by his team, a suburban housewife who yearned for a professional career, a black high school student dreaming of possibilities that were closed to him, a gay man or woman forced to conduct a charade in public — to have been any of these things in the 1950s was to live a life that was difficult at best, and tragic at worst. That is why so many of us still respond to the memory of those indignities by saying that nothing in the world could justify them.

It is a powerful indictment, but it is also a selective one … Our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don’t tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they could have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.

Another Orthodox Christian commentator, Rod Dreher, cited the above passages from Ehrenhalt’s book recently in discussing islands of conservative Christian culture under siege today in places like Iowa, often unaware of their impending collision with cultural revolution.

In the end the degradation of culture by consumerism and modernism, materialistic careerism, technocracy, the sexual revolution, the revolt of the elites and their attraction to atheistic cultural Marxism and scientism, and the corruption in the welfare machine of nationalized big-city politics, proved more decisive than the elements of community that Ehrenhalt saw in old Chicago. I experienced those elements in part growing up with their mixture of deep sins and virtues. I knew them in my grandparents, including my grandfather the carpenter and building-contractor who had grown up on a truck farm in the city the son of immigrants. My parents grew up amid that community as children of the Depression who commuted to Chicago Teachers College and served in inner-city public schools, as did also-hardworking African-American colleagues of theirs whose families I knew growing up. It was the setting of the work of one of the most prominent progenitors of modern American conservatism, Richard M. Weaver, who while an acolyte of the Southern agrarians authored his most famous writings, such as his critique of materialistic modern American culture in Ideas Have Consequences, in post-World War II Chicago. Today I recognize the echoes of Ehrenhalt’s “lost city” still in the journalism of John Kass, who grew up at the butcher store of his immigrant family on Chicago’s South Side: Greek-Americans who had fled Turkish and Communist persecutions.

One thing is certain of our current American crisis, as Solzhenitsyn noted: All these things now happen because we have forgotten about God.

In Soviet Russia and Communist China and elsewhere, it led to tens of millions of deaths., Where will it lead today?

Without the spiritual traditions that underlay the founding of the American republic, the republic cannot survive, and her deep roots of authentic community among families and neighbors cannot thrive to support her.

So the bridges go up, the anarchy will spread, and in the end the cultural totalitarianism now enveloping us will seem as a permanent reality.

But, Lord have mercy, it still will not be the truth.

For as Solzhenitsyn’s life and work showed, at great cost, this too shall pass.

Until the Lord comes.

pasted-image-0.png

P.S. As a postscript to this reflection, a friend reminded me afterward that it was written and posted on the day on which the Church commemorates Benjamin, Metropolitan of Petrograd, who in 1922 became a martyr of Christ to Communist terror. This iconic photo depicts his steadfast faith in the face of totalitarian-atheistic cultural revolution.

210673.p.jpg

The holy hierarch-martyr said at the trial: “I do not know what sentence you will pass upon me—life or death—yet whatever your pronouncement, I will raise my eyes upward with the same reverence, make the sign of the Cross (here he crossed himself broadly) and say, “Glory to Thee, O Lord God, for all things!”

Then he was shot.

Standard

The Oak of Mamre and the Hospitality of Abraham

Here below is a photo of the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham at the Oak of Mamre that is inside the entrance to the main building at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Christian Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY. Just below the golden-covered icon, behind the red vigil lamp, is a dark patch that is a piece of wood from the Oak of Mamre in the Holy Land, the site of a Russian Orthodox monastery. The wood relic of the Tree was a gift from Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to Holy Trinity Monastery, which in its rural location (see also the photo of a gate onto its grounds below) holds a unique place in the global history of the Russian diaspora in the past century, and in American spiritual life today. This year celebrating its ninetieth anniversary, it is a place formed in faith, in persecution, and in the experience of the mystical truths of ancient and still living and embodied Christianity, in the dairy country of upstate New York.

unnamed-12.jpg

unnamed-13

Jordanville as a place name was known throughout the former Soviet Union for its Orthodox Christian publications during the Communist Soviet era, when it was the only place in the world that could typeset in Church Slavonic. Those publications often were smuggled into the USSR and circulated to faithful readers, families, and congregations at risk from the murderous totalitarian atheist regime. It also happens to be on land that some hydrologists regard as the source of the Susquehanna River’s main stem, near which I write downstream in central Pennsylvania today.

This is the centennial year of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), which emerged by crossing its own Red Sea or River Jordan, when many of its founding Bishops among about 150,000 refugees crossed the Black Sea from Crimea to Constantinople fleeing the militant atheist Bolshevist Red Army and secret police. In a former imperial battleship off Constantinople, the founding Synod of the Church in exile formed what became ROCOR, following a blessing from Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow, later a Saint-Martyr to Bolshevism, to found emergency Church government in the crisis of the Red Terror. The Synod in exile moved first to Yugoslavia, and then when Communism came there after World War II in 1946, to New York City, with its main monastery and seminary upstate at Jordanville (the monastery being augmented by new arrivals after the war, and her seminary having been founded in 1948).

The Russian Civil War’s equivalent of Dunkirk: The flotilla on which the Russian Church in Exile was founded a hundred years ago. The strategic retreat ended up being a hard-fought victory in spiritual warfare.

1882552A-5867-4377-9023-0B67CC288DBB

Seeing the icon and the relic of the Oak of Mamre at Jordanville, which were pointed out to me by a Scottish Russian Orthodox monk and friend, Fr. Theodore at the monastery, reminded me of how Orthodox Christianity provides the experience of place in faith. Here in this monastery originally of exiles many in North America find a spiritual home, including non-Russians or members of blended Russian-American families such as myself. Fr. Theodore and I share a special veneration for St. Kentigern of Glasgow, my monk friend’s birthplace before he saw the world in the Royal Navy, and then became a monastic settling ultimately at Holy Trinity in Jordanville. My own study of  early Celtic saints and Christianity led me both to Orthodox Christianity and to St. Kentigern as one of my two baptismal names (the other being for the Jewish-Greek-Roman Apostle Paul of Tarsus).

Monk Theodore, a Glasgow native now in Jordanville NY

4F20B005-B516-4C20-A458-8D08F5B13AE1

Just before taking this photo of Fr. Theodore, I was talking with Fr. Deacon Andrew Doubleday, who was helping me with liturgical training. Father Andrew, who lives near Jordanville and serves at the Russian Monastery’s beautiful Cathedral Church, dedicated also to the Holy Trinity, is a distant cousin of General Abner Doubleday, who according to legend invented America’s national sport of baseball in nearby Cooperstown, NY. Down the road from the monastery is the little Jordanville public library, dedicated in the early twentieth century by Theodore Roosevelt. Here old Yankee dairy country meets ancient Christian monastic traditions from Russia, whose first practitioners locally found the area reminded them of their homeland, lost to Marxist-Leninism, in the western reaches of the old Russian Empire. One of the two co-founders of the monastery 90 years ago, Hieromonk Panteleimon (Nizhnik) wrote:

I went up the wooded hill a few times, relished the quietude around me and gazed upon our property: an old, windowless, two-storey little house and a well, and four other wells in various spots—and that was it, forest and quiet all around; the wilderness. My first purchase, I remember, was a small metal teakettle. I would exit the house into the yard, I remember; I would ignite some logs between three stones and put the kettle with water on top, while I would go to Jordanville to buy food.

Christianity and Sacred Place

Orthodox tradition lends itself to a sense of sacred place, integrating the seen and the unseen. Gathered in spiritual community in faith around the world, tens of millions of Orthodox Christians participate in the same Divine Liturgy (in different languages) at their own holy places, a Liturgy dating back in core form to the early Christian Church of the Holy Land. The icon at the entrance to Holy Trinity Monastery is a reminder of the roots of the Church and her ascetic and liturgical practices going back all the way into the Old Testament, which places Abraham in the 22nd century before Christ, with the burial place of him and his family being in the land promised to him by God near Mamre in Hebron. Orthodox Christianity see God’s covenant with Abraham as fulfilled in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Church whose rituals and designs include aspects of Old Testament symbolism and worship.

As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…. By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, that in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

The Oak of Mamre as depicted at the entrance to Holy Trinity Monastery, is featured in what is probably Russia’s most famous icon, by St. Andrei Rublev, the Hospitality of Abraham, also known as the icon of the Holy Trinity, from the early 15th century, pictured below. St. Andrei was a young contemporary of St. Sergius of Radonezh, who founded a monastery in Russian forests, in which the landscape of trees became the equivalent of the Egyptian and Arabian and Palestinian deserts where earlier desert fathers had lived. That forest monastery became Sergei Posad, the great monastic center of the Patriarchy of Moscow, whose ancestry traces back through Byzantium to the Apostolic Church in the Holy Land.

The Hospitality of Abraham by St. Andrei Rublev

1280px-Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410

The icon portrays the visit by Angels to the Holy Patriarch Abraham at the tree, an account understood by Orthodox Christian commentators to be a pre-Incarnation theophany of Jesus Christ, whose type is interpreted in the middle figure below the tree, itself considered a type of the Cross as the Tree of Life in Paradise, also in turn considered by Church Fathers to be a type of Christ. The icon famously portrays the Russian Orthodox Christian experience of sobornost, a union of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity in love, as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, which is a mystery that cannot be directly depicted.

Two of the figures being hosted by the Holy Patriarch Abraham bow toward the figure on the left, interpreted as a type of God the Father. Colors indicate the symbolism of the three, with the one on the right primarily clad in green, a color identified with the Holy Spirit. Trees and greenery also figure in the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, identified with the Holy Spirit and also the Holy Trinity, as seen in this picture from the interior of Holy Trinity Monastery’s Church sanctuary from a few years ago on Pentecost.

Pentecost at Jordanville a few years ago. Trees inside the Church are part of traditional Russian Orthodox Christian celebration both of the founding of the Church of the New Testament and of the Holy Spirit and of the Holy Trinity.

65122358_10100833180855719_863241031531888640_n-1

Trees function partly also as symbols of Paradise, and do so also in the “Church forests” of Ethiopia, whose Orthodox churches, while not in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church due to differences between their Monophysite heritage and Orthodox theology, are historically closely related in their outlook and practices.

A “Church forest” in Ethiopia

Screen-Shot-2020-07-24-at-10.43.11-PM

Trees are long-lived beings on earth, and evoke a sense of hidden deep roots and life in the upper canopy also mainly hidden to humans, suggestive of spiritual truths in Christianity. To be well grounded in faith is also to lift up prayer to heaven, and St. John of Damascus among others wrote of the Tree of Life as symbolizing Jesus Christ’s redemption of mankind, lifting up our eyes to the Lord Who Ascended as fully God and fully man, bringing humanity into the hope of heaven, as seen also in the Dormition of His Mother commemorated as the “summer Pascha,” Herself being the greatest of saints, the Most Holy Theotokos. Her story, that of both the Second Eve and the Mother of God, was rooted too in the Old Testament genealogies going back to Adam and Eve in Paradise, through her parents the Ancestors of God, Saints Joachim and Anna.

Christ takes the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God to heaven in this icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Her body also then was taken up according to Orthodox Church tradition.

dormition-theotokos-aged-byzantine-icon-8885.jpg

How many of our early childhood memories in fact involve trees in our first sense of place as nurturing experience? Christian understanding of this is not pantheistic but in terms of how embodied living symbolism in God’s creation connects us ultimately to Him. As Dostoevsky noted in The Brothers Karamazov, even one such good memory from childhood can be enough to save someone later in life who has become jaded and traumatized by hard experience. The character Alexei, a novice monk, voices this near the end of the novel when addressing a group of children. Alexei Karamazov is sometimes described by scholars as partly modeled on Dostoevsky’s friend the controversial Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyev, along with his brother Ivan, the intellectual who has lost his faith. It is Ivan who challenges Alexei’s faith by asking why God allows the suffering of children. Alexei answers by the influence of his elder Zosima’s love on his own life, passing that love along to the children in the village in their struggles. That “active love” is an experiential, existentially Christian answer to Ivan’s intellectual question. All that Ivan could offer was the cynical totalitarian system of the Grand Inquisitor in his famous fable of how people need (in his view) material assurance, not freedom in God. In the end, he is drawn to Alexei’s love, which the exiled Russian Orthodox philosopher S.L. Frank called “spiritual activism,” as opposed to the nihilistic revolutionary activism that attracted non-believing intellectuals like himself in later nineteenth-century Russia, with disastrous results.

Exile and Otherworldly Meaning

In the novel, the Elder Zosima describes the Christian experience of place in this way:

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies.

S.L. Frank in his book The Fall of the Idols, in a selection published in English in his The Meaning of Life, describes a “strange love” in exile of a homeland that no longer exists, which is perhaps a modern condition, but also echoes the experience of Abraham, and of mankind generally, following the fall and exclusion from Paradise.

This relates to the diasporic experience of Russian Orthodoxy in the past century, seen at Jordanville. In relation to this, it’s worth noting that, besides Solovyev, another possible historical model for Dostoevsky’s character of Alexei has been offered. In line with his “fantastic realism” technique, Dostoevsky did model his characters on historical composites, such as likely drawing on aspects of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk and Elder Ambrose of Optina for Alexei’s Elder Zosima. Another prototype proposed for the character of Alexei himself was a young man named Alexei also, eager in Christian love, a Church reformer who became an ardent supporter of tradition during and after the revolution, and who had encountered Dostoevsky in person as a young man: Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, the founding First Hierarch of the Russian Church Outside of Russia. Metropolitan Anthony in later years wrote with special emphasis on the redemptive aspect of Christ’s willingness to accept God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane, alone at night in the garden accepting the need to sacrifice Himself for God’s will and for mankind, when it is said the Savior sweated as if blood.

Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky

Metropolitan_Anthony_(Khrapovitsky).jpg

Place versus Space

The upstate New York philosopher Edward Casey has described “place” in his book The Fate of Place as shaped by personal experience of landscape, unlike the impersonal modern secular sense of space that claims to globalize the world. Indeed, the scene of the Hospitality of Abraham (indicated by the tree and mountain and house, symbolic of Temple, in the background of the icon) was made possible by the Holy Patriarch’s kindness to guests, strangers who were angels and more. Abraham’s “active love,” which Orthodox Christians accept as both historical and symbolic, typed the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, seen in the account of his night watch in the Garden of Gethsemane. Dostoevsky sought to portray such active love in modern fiction by Alexei Karamazov, whose story was set in the real Russian town where Dostoevsky summered, as part of the writer’s “fantastic realism” technique, highlighting aspects of Orthodox iconographic art in the novel form.

The experience of place as linking physical and otherworldly experience in Christian tradition is one that with God’s grace and ascetic struggle dissolves and transfigures the fallen objectification of Creation and other human beings, through spiritual relationship with our Lord, and with one another, in sobornost. By contrast to the Hospitality of Abraham, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah included their abuse and intended wickedness toward the two angel guests from among the three figures who visited Abraham at the oak. In Sodom, Abraham’s kin Lot and his family were not so well prepared through faith for hospitality to the heavenly guests as was Abraham. While seeking to protect his guests, Lot was seemingly confused by the evil morals of his city to offer his daughters immorally to save them, later falling prey to drunkenness and his daughters’ own immoral acts, even as his wife made the fatal mistake of looking back at the city they had to flee due its evils, becoming a pillar of salt in the sight of its destruction.

Ultimately, the landscape of faith evident at Jordanville includes a kind of transfiguration of the Russian Golgotha in the twentieth century, which involved the deaths of tens of millions at the hands of Communism, many of them Orthodox Christians targeted directly because of their faith or indirectly because they did not “fit” the totalitarian system, in the hope of Resurrection. As with all such times of persecution, the tree of faith took new roots around the world, and bore new leaves and fruit in places like upstate New York. Today, the Orthodox Church in Russia is in a state of renewal also. Now the monastery and seminary at Jordanville, spiritual center of the former anticommunist Russian Orthodox Church in exile, and back in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole, stand testimony to the spiritual power of that same mystical love of God and the sobornost of His Church, symbolized in the Hospitality of Abraham at the oak of Mamre in ancient times far away.

The former exile Church on her centennial offers needed new witness against rising cultural totalitarianism and self-destructive materialism in the West. To the latter’s placelessness, she offers a renewed meaningful experience of incarnate spiritual place, expressing how the hospitality of sobornost beneath the Oak of Mamre typed the Cross of Jesus Christ, where mystical hierarchy and conciliarity join in His Body, the Church.

In Christianity, the experience of love is the experience of place.

When in The Brothers Karamazov Alexei at his nadir experiences a dream-vision of the newly reposed Elder Zosima at the Wedding of Cana during the reading of the Psalms over his body, the Elder explains that he is there at the wedding banquet with Jesus Christ and His Mother because he “gave a little onion”–a metaphor in the book for a small act of generous kindness–and Alexei, too. Afterward, outside the hermitage, among the stars of God’s Creation, Alexei falls to the earth, watering it with his tears, and then arose from his troubles, as if resurrected there, in that experience of the intersection of the otherworld and this world:

He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterwards…

So struggle and love intersect with grace to beget place.

Standard

Secular Universalism and Lonely Globalism

The Apostle John defined the spirit of Anti-Christ as that which would deny the Incarnation: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:  and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (I John 4: 2-3).

By extension, this spirit would deny the embodied and historical nature of Jesus Christ’s life and words, and the embodied and historical nature of His Body, the Church, in both its Old Testament and New Testament forms, as understood in Orthodox Christianity.

Today this denial comes often in the form of universalism in secularism, related to universalism in theology. Secular universalism does not believe in heaven or hell or an after-life and usually not in God, but rather in supposedly universal views of individualism and rationalism from the European Enlightenment, applied as if global truths.

It promotes a Western cultural type of radical individual autonomy onto the world at large, as if the individual floats in a placeless abstract space, free from God’s authority. Such atomistic Eurocentric anthropology encourages, paradoxically, totalitarian culture, according to the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt in her The Origins of Totalitarianism. Today it fosters a lonely globalism increasingly hostile to Christian tradition.

Universalism in religion as a Christian heresy historically claimed that all will be saved by God. It presumed to dictate the mystery of His love for mankind, and to limit human freedom. Secular universalism in cultural politics today likewise demands a common model for the good life, with increasing intolerance for dissent, and an underlying loneliness. Russian Orthodox Christian philosophy offers the antidote for universalism in deep spiritual unity at the intersection of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity, in the Church as the Body of Jesus Christ, called sobornost.

Below: Destruction of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow by the Bolsheviks (now rebuilt), and the Palace of Soviets they planned in its place with a mammoth statue of the mass-murderer Lenin atop.

478d4a59f8b32183bd6577708ee.jpg

6

Secular Universalism’s American Setting

Before converting to Orthodoxy, I grew up as a member of two historically universalist Protestant-related denominations, namely the Unitarian-Universalists and the Christian Scientists, on different sides of the liberal-conservative cultural divide in America. They both were offsprings of Puritan New England Protestantism. Both ended up arguably far from that tree, but shared traits with Puritanism’s vision of the “city on a hill,” an earthly utopia. Modern universalism was central to both, namely the belief that all will find salvation. The more conservative Christian Science faith had a teaching of “everlasting punishment” for “error,” but not for people. Both fled from ideas of hell and damnation as found in Puritanism, which itself is regarded as heterodox by Orthodox Christianity globally. Universalism and unitarianism traveled together because of their affinity for an impersonal God. The traditional mystery of the three Persons in One God of the Trinity, as the basis of humans made according to the image of God and thus not essential but relational in nature, came to be seen as an obstacle to autonomous individualism, and to the more homogenized concept of reality in an Enlightenment sense of universal space.

For those unfamiliar with the trajectory of these two small sects, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant in origin: 1. Unitarian-Universalism as a denomination has long been influenced by secular rationalism, mingled in recent generations with cultural Marxism and neopaganism, and an increasingly dominant element of social activism. One friend who is a former Unitarian and now an Orthodox priest referred to it jokingly as a political party operating as a church. In recent times it has served often as a kind of religious half-way house for those in mixed-faith households, intellectuals leaving a more traditional faith, and even radicals trying to build a kind of “legit profile” for fitting-in socially by being members of a church. 2. The once-influential but now nearly vanished Christian Science denomination had strands of puritanical rigor, emphasis on Bible study, kinship to “positive thinking” movements (Walt Disney was a fan), and opposition to medicine. It has a special service on Thanksgiving with a patriotic American tone and a newspaper The Christian Science Monitor rooted loosely in a mix of Wilsonian Democratic and Teddy Roosevelt-style Republicanism. That all made it less appealing over time to secular American intellectuals on the Left than Unitarian-Universalism, and its political heyday arguably was when Christian Scientists ran the Nixon White House.

But the unitarianism and universalism of both groups left enduring marks on elite religious and political culture in America, contributing to the erosion of first Theism and then Deism in Anglo-American elite religious cultures. A few nineteenth-century intellectuals in the West, such as the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (interested in founding a utopian American “Pantisocracy” not far from where I write in central Pennsylvania) and the philosopher Charles Peirce (the sage of Milford, Pennsylvania) bucked the trend, moving from Unitarian to Trinitarian beliefs. But they were exceptions proving the rule.

Many religious Americans in both the movements of the “social gospel” of the Left and the “prosperity gospel” of the Right, shared a propensity toward universalism in varying degrees, as now do the growing segment of “nones” not affiliated with a religious denomination. Many accept aspects of radical individual autonomy that fuel nihilism now rampant in American media, educational, and corporate elites. In it, consumerism weirdly melds with cultural Marxism. (“Cultural Marxism” here is used in its original sense, coined by adherents, as shorthand for atheistic intellectual efforts to change society through culture, rather than through economic class struggle as in Classical Marxism.)

John Adams, Puritan Unitarian

1200px-Gilbert_Stuart,_John_Adams,_c._1800-1815,_NGA_42933

While the American founding father John Adams was a Puritan Unitarian, a type of Arian theologically denying the divinity of Christ, he was still far closer to traditional Christian beliefs as a Theist respecting traditional Christianity in its social role than twenty-first century American Unitarian-Universalism. Adams’ Congregationalist religious community officially became Unitarian near the end of his life. It wasn’t until 1961 that the Unitarian and Universalist denominations formally merged, although both shared universalist beliefs and a somewhat parallel trajectory.

Today’s secular universalists of all stripes, inspired by a mix of the European Enlightenment, Romanticism, and cultural Marxism, tend to view traditional Christianity as oppressive. Indeed, the actual Unitarian-Universalist movement, while fairly small, reflects the dominant “woke” political faith of elite America today.

Universalism and Cultural Marxism

The conservative political scientist Paul Kengor, a prominent author on issues of Communist subversion, mentioned to me that the Unitarian-Universalist denomination in 1950s America was often a refuge for American Communist Party members and allies who wanted to establish “normal” social credentials by membership in a religious organization.

Here’s a case study of the actual human complexities, though. My late father (a wonderful man) said that he joined the Unitarians to provide a religious home for his children different from that of his many Irish Catholic relatives in the Chicago area. But he also frequented Communist bookstores to which he took me as a child, giving me presents both of the Soviet Constitution and Mao’s Little Red book for my bedroom library. He had grown up in the now-vanished Chicago West Side Irish community that produced notables such as his cousin and childhood friend Leo Ryan, the liberal Democratic congressman from San Francisco who was killed at Jonestown. But he said that he had learned to dislike Catholicism as a child of a single-parent home in the Depression where his mother could not get a divorce and remarry, finding also the intellectual atmosphere of the Catholic schools he attended restricting. He told me one time of meeting his high school Catholic priest downtown in Chicago when he was wearing a red beret dressed like an early beatnik, and said he wondered if the priest didn’t think he had become a revolutionary. Maybe he had to some extent. But he went on to serve in the Army in World War II. After the war, he advocated for civil rights for African-Americans, once losing a teaching position for objecting to a diner not serving a Black customer in a Chicago suburb.

There was an aesthetic side to his joining Unitarian-Universalism, as well, and that was rooted in his love for the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Transcendentalist-Unitarian minister and writer, and his acceptance as a science teacher of a kind of pantheistic scientism. My father bemoaned how the Evanston, Illinois, Unitarian congregation where we attended had jettisoned its old small gothic-style building for a large concrete brutalist piece of architecture. There I attended Unitarian Sunday School in elementary school, which featured explicit sex education for junior high students, and instead of a saint’s feast United Nations worship day. I read the Bible on my own under the covers with a flashlight at night (along with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) before opting to attend Christian Science Sunday School, my mother’s background, heading into high school. I felt a call to faith in God in good part because of my sister’s chronic and ultimately fatal illness.

Raymond Aron’s classic book The Opium of the Intellectuals decried Western philosophical entanglements with international Marxism and its totalitarian expression.

Aron_-_Opium_of_the_Intellectuals.jpg

Fast forwarding decades, Unitarian-Universalism today arguably is one of the few socially and intellectually accepted forms of religion for American academics, perhaps along with Americanized forms of Buddhism, also socially activist and universalist–and, to some extent, liberal Episcopalianism, which is universalist in tendency today also. Islam, itself unitarian, is politically supported by woke academics as a foil for Christianity, if not generally adopted — traditional Islam would be considered too restrictive on sexual norms and individualism for most denizens of American academia, and with its own non-secular take on the universal. There is also a Protestant social-justice gospel ghost still lingering over many American liberal arts institutions, morphing into today’s brand of secular universalism.

Unitarianism and universalism are dominant religious norms of our small college town’s elite culture, the late stages of the mainline Protestantism whose steeples still shape its skyline. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, traditional Jews, and non-woke Evangelical Protestants have been socially marginalized minorities historically in town and campus. They remain so under “systemic secularism,” “secularness,” and “secular privilege’ now, although those aren’t terms that you’ll hear from those on the universalistic Left concerned with systemic ills.

It’s no coincidence that the French Revolution attempted to establish its own “Temple of Reason” in Notre Dame as an alternative to religion, and the Soviets did the same both in their atheistic education campaigns among youth and their support for a secularizing “Living Church” in an attempt to splinter Orthodoxy in Russia. Universalist-secular radical politics in America attack Christianity and biblical religion freely as racist and sexually oppressive. With the rise of the “nones” and the declining vitality of not only mainline Protestant but also Evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in America among young people, a vague universalism hostile to traditional Christianity, “spiritual but not religious,” mainly atheistic, claims cultural dominance in America in our 2020 era of shutdown, civil unrest, and the now-open march through the institutions of cultural Marxism.

Universalism, Antifa-Style

A recent talk at a protest in my area by a local elected official, who has identified himself as an Anarchist and Antifa-positive, began with him reciting a Unitarian-Universalist song lyric from his congregation, and asking the crowd to repeat it back to him. He organized the rally as a counter-protest to an earlier small neo-Nazi gathering. While supposedly non-partisan, it was clearly beneficial to Democratic Party organizers such as himself, and while supposedly non-sectarian its “civil religion” was his Unitarian-Universalist invocation. Universalism generically often flies its revolutionary politics under the false flags of “non-partisan” and “non-sectarian,” because truly all must recognize its universally applicable imposed truth. Likewise it often aligns with the atheistic materialism of neo-Marxism, claiming that targeting Christianity is “non-sectarian.”

In that same spirit, the Antifa movement targets Nazism (conflated with fascism, somewhat inaccurately from an historical standpoint), while giving Communism a free ride, often displaying the hammer and sickle at protests, clearly aligning itself politically with the Left. Both Nazism and Communism were evil systems deserving of condemnation, the two models of classic totalitarianism examined by Arendt for their common underlying elements. But Communism has killed tens of millions of more people globally, and is a living force in China and elsewhere, still appealing to Western intellectuals for what they see exactly as its secular universalism.

Anarchist and Communist symbolism at a 2017 American Antifa event.

As mentioned, our local Anarchist official began his talk at the counter-protest by quoting a Unitarian-Universalist (U-U) hymn. It invoked the vague “spirit of life,” to inspire all present to justice, rootedness, and connectedness, asking everyone to repeat the lyric back line by line. The message was of caring, in the context of calling Nazis “parasites” on democracy who should be treated as such. But the “spirit” invoked was not specified as the Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed refers to the Holy Spirit as “the giver of life,” indicating His transcendent power, historically evident at Pentecost, and which continues to be invoked throughout the year at altars and high places of local Orthodox churches. The U-U “spirit of life” mentioned was unclear in nature and origin, but the chant required of everyone at a supposedly non-sectarian event was not inclusive of traditional Christians. The latter might ask: What kind of spirit is being invoked, among the many spirits in which we believe? Even Lucifer was the “original revolutionary” to radical activist Saul Alinsky, who famously dedicated his book Rules for Radicals–a book that incidentally is promoted by the Unitarian-Universalist Association–to Lucifer.

The Anarchist official went on to tell the gathering that anti-fascist and anti-racist protests should declare themselves “non-violent” but not “peaceful,” because using the term “peaceful” implied reliance on police and authorities in resisting “parasites” such as Nazi supporters and presumably haters generally, which is often an elastic category including those who oppose Antifa. The rejection of reliance on official law enforcement relates to a general jettisoning of traditional authority in universalist views. The idea of universal salvation and universalist identity of the self ultimately removes the significance of how one personally lives one’s life on this earth based on the choices one makes individually under the authority of God. In that lies its affinity with socialism, with a this-worldliness akin to atheism, and a down-playing of individual moral duty and responsibility to God — instead emphasizing collective ideas of social justice, in which the self finds a materialistic realization.

It’s no coincidence that one of the earlier advocates of what became Unitarian-Universalism in the U.S. was the chemist Joseph Priestley, who came from England to settle in central Pennsylvania. Priestley was an advocate of materialistic determinism in life, parallel to what became the Marxist view of historical determinism, and the progressive view of inevitable Progress with a capital-P. Interestingly, Priestley as a pioneering chemist also was an advocate of literal interpretation of Biblical prophecy, albeit mainly his own individual literal interpretation, unfettered by Church tradition. Those twin ideas of historical determinism and literal interpretation of Biblical prophecy ironically are foundational to American ideas of exceptionalism, first in terms of Manifest Destiny extending the American grid across the continent, and also in utopian efforts that now bear fruit in ideas that America is exceptional in its evil, due to its white nationalism, requiring a new utopianism to resolve that.  In universalistic terms, if everyone is saved, the world is headed toward a better and better future. But everyone needs to be on “the right side of history.”

“Everything is Permitted”: Including Intolerance

Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s greatest novel developed the idea that without faith in God or the after-life, “everything is permitted,” with disastrous results. That’s how universalism sows the whirlwind: Removing accountability to the ultimate highest authority for our acts, and of duty to the unity of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity symbolized by the Cross, in His Body, the Church, accountability ultimately is reduced to one’s self.

With universalism ironically also often comes intolerance–of those who are not universalists and progressives. Thus the Anarchist speaker at the anti-Nazi protest had participated affirmatively in a local talk by an Antifa advocate promoting the idea of “pre-emptive self-defense” or “pre-emptive violence,” the idea that fighting fascism justified resistance by force against those promoting it, including an elastic definition of fascism as including Trump supporters. This may show also the difference between “peaceful” and “non-violent” as terms in radical rhetoric today. Under Antifa philosophy, “non-violence” presumably could include resisting fascism by force, since the latter is violence embodied and can grow suddenly from small things into huge oppressions. However, the definition of fascism again is elastic. Some scholars of fascism consider Nazism a racist movement of its own, not strictly fascist. The Anarchist and Unitarian-Universalist speaker mentioned above cited in his talk General Franco as an example of a Nazi-like fascist, although some historians of fascism place Franco as more a military dictator and not properly a fascist, but in a different non-totalitarian category from Nazism, opposing the totalitarianism of Communism. But such nuances can get lost amid the globalizing flow of secular universalism and its affinity for a kind of necromancy of Communist totalitarian spirit — as if summoning up a dead ideology from the Cold War for creation of new zombie-like armies of people who become interchangeable global cogs, in an internationalist machinery hospitable to consumerism and socialism alike.

To those who may object that intolerance was a function of earlier Christian societies, that sometimes was true. But that was nowhere on the scale of the lower-case secular universalist totalitarian systems of the last century, which left scores of millions dead in both racial and cultural genocides. Modern secular intellectualism encourages intolerance of difference in the name of its various universalisms, whether class, racial, or ideological, by serving a will to universal power. For example, a secular-Leninist university colleague considered himself a universalist in condemning me for “Christian particularism” and calling for my removal from the university as a professing traditional Christian.

Along those lines, a local Unitarian-Universalist pastor on social media called out mainly conservative Protestant Christians in our area for pretending to be “toothless lions” (referencing attending a meeting with them as going into a “den of lions”). Her language in effect dehumanized those holding different views from hers on proposed transgender legislation that would potentially limit their minority religious expression. The Anarchist elected official mentioned above supported that “metaphor” of his pastor, while wrongly characterizing the concerns of religious minorities about their freedoms in the borough as opposing rights of people identifying as LGBTQIA. He earlier had posted, on his podcast website at the political height of “Russophobia” and “Russiagate” scandal, the phrase “go back to Russia.” That had the effect of denigrating the local minority of those of Russian (and Russian Christian) identity, at a time of stereotyping and hate directed against Russia and Russians and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Another Unitarian-Universalist had participated in a discussion about how to reject secretly the candidacy of an otherwise qualified African-American job candidate because of his conservative Christian religious beliefs. That doesn’t mean that these folks are not more caring than me, or that everyone in my childhood denomination acts intolerantly. But it fits the paradoxically deep tensions between the broader culture of secular universalism today and pluralism of particulars, which roil American society, including the bigotry one encounters in casual conversations behind-the-scenes with elite universalists.

Orthodoxy versus Universalism

Human nature being fallen, people from all faith backgrounds do intolerant and terrible things tragically, as has been the case with my own included. And I am the worst of sinners. But secular universalism tends not to admit human fallenness, instead emphasizing unbounded human progress. Eurocentric secular universalism today also frequently bears the trait that the conservative Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton in his book Green Philosophy called oikophobia, a fear of home, or of the groundedness that for the Orthodox Christian is both spiritual and embodied, historically and in holy places, in the human body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and in the Church as the Body of Christ, as well as in the otherworldiness of Paradise, and on a mundane level in one’s region and country. The totalitarian-leaning placelessness of secular universalist spatiality manifested itself in both the Communist International and in Global Capitalist consumerism. The rootlessness of many modern academic, corporate, activist, and media institutions, and households rooted in them, and their anti-patriotic, anti-Christian, and globalist biases, evidences this tendency — along with their lack of understanding of those off its abstract conceptual grid, such as in the “flyover country” of central Pennsylvania where I live.

The late Roger Scruton, philosopher of place.

Roger Scruton Portrait Session

UNITED KINGDOM – SEPTEMBER 28: Philosopher and writer Roger Scruton poses at his home on September 28, 2015 in United Kingdom. (Photo by Andy Hall/Getty Images)

Universalism has a long trajectory in the growth of Western secularism, assuming different forms at different times in its development, from early roots. The late medieval Catholic Scholastic philosopher Duns Scotus both believed in the infinity of space and advocated for the Immaculate Conception, thus downplaying the human in a larger universalism that would, from an Orthodox standpoint, de-emphasize the humanity of the Virgin Mary, despite his apparent advocacy for particularity. (In the secular dimension, but in a similar paradox, modern Anarchism seeks to universalize the autonomous individual, thus losing the embededness of embodied self in the Incarnate Jesus Christ as the source of personal identity. A Russian saying indicates that Anarchism comes and Communism lingers. History has shown that happens.) In a different way, the Nominalist late-medieval Catholic Scholastic William of Ockham also ended up encouraging materialistic reductionism and ultimately a subjectified “universal” individualism. He did this by denying the reality of universals, wielding “Ockham’s Razor.” But that too fed autonomous individualism and secular totalitarian-style culture.

Orthodox Christian philosophy in focusing on spiritual unity as sobornost reunites those binarized sensibilities of nominalism and realism found in Eurocentric thinking, into incarnational and experiential union of “universal” and “particular” together, in the Body of Christ. Sobornost is a Russian term for this, which however draws on broader shared Christian backgrounds from the first millennium. In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, commonly the English translation refers to “one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,” where “catholic” has the meaning of “universal.” However, the Slavonic translation, which uses an adjectival form of the Russian Christian philosophical term sobornost, carries with it not merely the Latin sense of universality in space, but also that of solidarity, and the intersection of mystical hierarchy with conciliarity, evoked in the whole phrase on the Church from the Creed. Sobornost highlights nodes of hidden connections between human beings, related to God, as in by analogy the hidden root systems of a forest.

Orthodoxy’s recognition of particular differences of place and cultures through her local Church jurisdictions, and infinitely more with the particular but everywhere present Body of Christ, involves the practice of embodied oikophilia or love of place, with also a shared spiritual unity of human nature in sobornost. Thus the Russian Orthodox Christian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote of how we are all responsible for each other’s sins. In line with this, the true meaning of ecumenical, sometimes used as a synonym of universal, relates to the oikumene or inhabited earth, originally with meanings like that of “Middle Earth” in Old English and Norse (the inhabited region between different worlds), or the geography of the many-cultured world of the Christian empire of the Romans, from St. Constantine on into the Russian Empire, spiritually if not militarily including the Holy Land and ancient patriarchates. But that sense of habitation by different cultures in a shared habitable world, with a spiritual overlay landscape  in which identity is formed in hierarchy of God, signifies the depth of meaning in “ecumenical” apart from any homogenization of cultures, countries, and peoples. The later easily turns into a potentially toxic secular brew of consumerism and cultural Marxism drawing on a paradoxically too narrow meaning of universal spatiality–too constrained and oppressive because it lacks otherworldiness.

“The Opiate of the Theologians”

One commentator has dubbed universalism “the opiate of the theologians,” and it certainly seems also to have affected some modern Orthodox Christian academics in the English-speaking world, despite the condemnation of it by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Scripture, and other elements of Church Tradition. David Bentley Hart, a self-claimed Orthodox philosopher, has strongly advocated for universalism in his 2019 book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, arguing polemically against any Church authorities past or present that in his view were stupid enough not to embrace universalism (and that summary reflects the sharpness of his language).

The book received negative critiques from traditional Orthodox Christian scholars because of its inaccuracies and polemical over-reach, and the incompatibility of its message with the Tradition in which he claims to write. In my own research, I observe the weakness of his trying to enlist St. Maximus the Confessor in his cause, given the Confessor’s actual writings, as they also relate to those of the early Irish Christian philosopher John Scottus Eriugena, a focus of my work, who translated and was greatly influenced by St. Maximus’ work. Neither were actual universalists, but rather distinguished between the redemption of man and the cosmos in the General Resurrection, and the particular damnation of those who did not use their time on earth in struggle with grace towards theosis or union with God’s uncreated energies. In effect, to those who had not come to experience and practice true love from and toward God, God’s love in the after-life would be a painful rather than a joyful experience, given that they had objectified themselves and others while in their embodied lives on this earth.

This year, Dr. Hart became co-editor with Fr. John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne (of the Patriarchate of Constantinople), of For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, with a group of liberal theological scholars.  Father Andrew Damick’s blog Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy provided a detailed critique of the document’s tendency toward a renovationist approach to Church Tradition. The text starts with a universalist’s error (not surprisingly, given Dr. Hart’s involvement): Claiming that man was made in the image and likeness of God, when the Bible states (Gen. 1:27) that man was made in the image of God. The likeness, according to Church Tradition, is a potentiality (Gen. 1:26) to be attained through a synergy of grace and ascetic struggle. By stating that man was made in the image and likeness of God, the document begins with an assumption oriented positively toward universalism.

Meanwhile, claims in the introduction to the document by the co-editors, about the text speaking for the Orthodox Church, run against Orthodox ecclesiology and offer a glimpse at how the tendency toward universalism among academics involved in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, such as Hart, ironically strengthens false claims of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to govern the Orthodox Church. That mirage-like “universal” Patriarchate scarcely exists today, given that its city is now Istanbul and not Constantinople, that the local Orthodox population there has all but vanished along with its seminary being closed, and that its greatest historic temple, the Hagia Sophia, recently has been converted back from being a museum into an Islamic mosque. It has relied materially on an alliance with both U.S. neoliberalism and neoconservatism since World War 2, and on wealthy Greek-Americans. But the universalist pretensions of the Patriarchate arguably reaped the whirlwind of dividing the Orthodox world by its interference in Ukraine in recent years, forfeiting the type of solidarity with the Russian Orthodox Church that could have provided better traction for its opposition to the re-fitting of the Hagia Sophia for Muslim worship recently, as the Synod of the Russian Church noted.

Reconversion of the Hagia Sopia to a Mosque, 2020

0x0-erdogan-launches-first-classical-turkish-arts-biennial-in-istanbuls-hagia-sophia-1522503952080.jpg

By contrast, the Moscow Patriarchate’s documents on “Social Concept” and “Human Dignity” remain the gold standard for outlining an Orthodox Christian social ethos in the twenty-first century–from the largest “local church,” operating conciliarly with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition, not by decree of one man with a committee of academics. The tilt toward universalism among some Orthodox academics affiliated especially with the Constantinople Patriarchate, as in the secular world, invariably trends towards an openness to cultural Marxism, evident in views on allied websites and organizations of academics  (including some apostates and some of other or no faiths). The Eurocentric triumvirate of Marx, Darwin, and Freud as prototypes of secular universalism in the West are in evidence in their works, and their fruits are not traditional Orthodox ones, but would remove remaining authority that restrains chaos–what the Apostle Paul called the katechon, in his second letter to the Thessalonians. Such removal of restraining power for traditional Christians foreshadows “the return of the king” in the coming of Jesus Christ again.

Freedom from Universalism’s Will to Power

Secular universalism has become the religion of global capitalism and woke cultural Marxism combined, a neocolonial effort of the secular consumerist West. The biggest marker of this universalist “woke” theology is the way in which its conclusions set the stage globally for Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s three principles of totalitarianism, as is the case with universalist politics generally: “Survive at any price,” “only material results matter,” and “existing in a permanent lie”–namely that perception is reality. The latter is the most ironic for academic universalist theologians who give up the universal truth of Orthodoxy, the sobornost of the intersection between mystical hierarchy and conciliarity in the Cross, and in the Body of Christ, for a subjective virtual reality unrelated to the incarnationality of our God in the Orthodox Tradition.

Significantly, Solzhenitsyn also wrote in Book IV of The Gulag Archipelago that he learned in Communist prisons that the line between good and evil runs “not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.” The tendencies of universalism described here are temptations to all in the modern world of any religion or non-religion in background, and ultimately stem from fallen human nature that affects everyone. Importantly, many proclaiming universalist beliefs may be much less wicked than those opposed to them.

But like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostovesky’s last novel, the ideology of secular universalism suggests on a global scale to young people today that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ should have given in to the three temptations of Satan: Materialism, trying to tempt God through self-will, and the will to power. True freedom from an Orthodox Christian standpoint lies in voluntary service to universal truth in the Person of Jesus Christ, found in the relational love of sobornost, not in assertion of a universal will to power. This is also the antidote to today’s global epidemic of universal loneliness, secular universalism’s self-induced bane.

 

 

 

Standard

America 2020: My Big Fat Russian Novel

For many Americans immersed in pop culture, the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding offered a comic if inaccurate view of Orthodox Christians (especially Greek Orthodox!) as part of American Life.

But now, amid rising civil unrest, involving nihilism and separation of intellectual society from country amid a variety of deep crises and controversies, commentators are calling the question of whether America in 2020 may not resemble one of those long Russian novels circa the 1860s, which emerged from Russian Orthodox culture and its own crises. In other words, My Big Fat Russian Novel.

Two writers, one on the Left, and one on the Right, have made the case recently.

They don’t see this as a comedy, however.

0_Ctc-x11SdeTrFRal

Having recently taught an online summer group independent study on “Dostoevsky and Philosophy” for my university, in which we read several nineteenth-century Russian texts, both fictional and polemic, across the political spectrum, I can attest that my students of different backgrounds and views agreed with the serious relevance of Russian literature to our situation today. I’m seeing that even more as I teach an online short non-credit seminar focused on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s historical fiction, March 1917 Book 1, in his Red Wheel cycle. Not long ago I wrote on the relevance of Solzhenitsyn’s great fictional epic in The Federalist.

Russian literature was a vehicle for working out philosophical issues of revolution and anti-revolution, in decades leading up to the establishment of the world’s first classical totalitarian regime, the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik Communist state. That Bolshevik regime’s concentration camps inspired the Nazis, and its ideology still lives in Communist China. Communism originating from the Bolshevik Revolution caused the deaths of 80 to 100 million people in the twentieth century, according to a group of scholars who examined the record near the end of that century in The Black Book of Communism. Solzhenitsyn himself was both a prisoner and a dissident in that system. This is not light comedy, although there is a kind of deeper satirical and wry humor in writings by Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, with regard to progressive utopian ideals, conservative complacency, and human nature.

Orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher makes the case, based on his new book Live not by Lies, that the resemblances of nineteenth-century Russian literary themes to America today presage the coming of totalitarianism to America, as foretold by some holy people in the Russian Orthodox tradition in the twentieth century. Only America’s future, according to Dreher, involves a “soft” or “cultural” totalitarianism, befitting varieties of cultural Marxism, and focused on materialistic and nihilistic approaches to culture, as a means of subverting allegedly oppressive systems, rather than economic class warfare, as in classical Marxism.

Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, was commenting on the writer Peter Savodnik’s astute view from the Left on the relevancy of Russian literature today, writing in Tablet. However, Savodnik’s final hope in his essay is for a resurrected spirit of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev’s liberal humanism. In expressing that hope, Savodnik left out one detail that would not be lost from Dreher’s complementary but different emphasis, based in a deep personal connection to the experience of Orthodox Christians under Communism.

Turgenev was a mid-19th-century Russian novelist who portrayed a young radical nihilist in an affection and humane if tragic way in his classic Fathers and Sons. But another even more famous Russian novelist of the era, Fyodor Dostoevsky, mercilessly but hilariously satirized Turgenev’s approach in his novel Demons, through the character Karmazinov based on his rival, written soon after Fathers and Sons. In that fictional response, Karmazinov-Turgenev’s empathy as an older liberal writer for a younger generation of nihilists finally is reduced to the fictional character seeking from the young revolutionary leader some inside information on when violence will occur, so that he can flee to safety.

Love is a necessary Christian response. But sometimes “tough love” in the social sphere means pointing out the effect of self-destructive ideas and obsessions, and how they could hurt the vulnerable, including young people, and the Christian faith. Such prophetic discernment is what the Russian Orthodox Christian writer Dostoevsky pursued in critiquing ideas that he felt were demonic in their possession of people who became unable to love due to their ideology, and came to treat other humans as only means to their ideological ends.

When the real revolution came in Russia to implement such ideas, no one was safe. Few were left untouched around the world. Now the specter of nihilistic revolutionary totalitarianism is being summoned up zombie-like again in the West, in new forms, this time by intellectual necromancers of both “woke” capitalism and socialism. It is an odd cultural coalition, but one driven by a common sense of meaninglessness in the atheistic, materialistic, consumerist culture of the “global West.”

042C87A7-C6A3-4EBB-BF16-BE780321FD60

A famous mid-twentieth-century writer of a huge novel who also critiqued these trends in earlier form, in English (but representing them more in mythical symbolism), J.R.R Tolkien, wrote of the potential cultural revival of totalitarian systems. Tolkien was a medieval scholar and a Roman Catholic, whose focus on first-millennial (pre-Schism) Christian literatures and their themes also has endeared him to many Orthodox Christians. Tolkien’s hero Gandalf warned that evil comes to each generation in different forms, a distinctly Christian idea rooted in awareness of fallen human nature and its destructive will to power. And in back stories to his mega-novel The Lord of the Rings, published posthumously in the 12-volume History of Middle-earth, Tolkien wrote of how, following the defeat of Mordor in the novel, younger generations in more prosperous and peaceful times sought to idolize its evil system, in cult-like imitations of Sauron’s system of oppression.

Literature based in ancient traditions, from before the age of Twitter and “woke iconoclasm,” today speaks from its supposed grave with uncanny warnings for life in these United States.

 

 

 

Standard

Grounded in the Beginning: Father Seraphim Rose and the Patristic View of Creation

Recently, I had the blessing to be asked to present informally (and unworthily!) at Fr. Felipe Balingit’s online Saturday morning Catechism class, on Blessed Seraphim Rose’s writings about the Creation in Genesis, based in the Church Fathers.  Fr. Felipe’s mission work in the Philippines includes this class, which he conducts usually from Holy Trinity Seminary and Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he is currently studying and helping to conduct worship services. The class mainly consists of dedicated Filipino Orthodox Christians and catechumens, along with others, in various time zones around the world, and usually lasts for several hours with Fr. Felipe’s teaching and answering of questions. His insights, dedication, and theirs are a great blessing to experience, glory to God!

In our discussion of the approach of the Church Fathers to Genesis, as summarized in Fr. Seraphim’s work, two participants asked the questions: “What about the dinosaurs?” and “Doesn’t the Catholic Pope now accept evolution?” These questions involved the relation of the Orthodox Church’s traditional teachings on Creation to current secular-scientific views in popular culture, which influence many in Catholic and Protestant circles, but also some Orthodox Christians. The questions also implicitly raise the issue of how Orthodox teachings, based in the Church Fathers, may differ from conservative Protestant Christian approaches to Creation as well. The whole discussion raised the issue of the importance of a patristic understanding of Creation to our faith today, and the unworthy reflection below is based on the conversation.

The cover of the second edition (2011) of the compilation of Blessed Seraphim’s work on Creation, based in the Church Fathers
51yTaXD4m9L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

Fr. Seraphim (+1982), an American convert to Orthodoxy, went from a dissolute life as an intellectual in America’s beatnik culture in San Francisco to being one of the most influential English-language teachers and writers on Orthodox ascetic tradition, through the guidance of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. He is often called “Blessed Seraphim” by many today, in pious belief in his sanctity, although he has not been recognized yet formally as a Saint in the Orthodox Church. A monastic who became a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, he considered the patristic understanding of the account of Creation to be an indispensable foundation of Orthodox Christian faith. He found that secular materialistic interpretations of Creation undergird the current age’s ethos of radical individual autonomy, tending toward nihilism across all political and cultural views in the modern “global West,” as he experienced himself before his conversion. He discerned these attitudes were contributing to an amorphous global “spirituality,” in the spirit of Anti-Christ, denying the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and by extension the historical aspects of the Incarnation and the founding of the Church, with her roots also in the Old Testament. This is why so much of his work in apologetic theology is focused on the issue of Creation, as seen in the long compilation Genesis, Creation, and Early Man by Abbot Damascene Christiansen, who was brought into the Church by Blessed Seraphim and now heads the monastery that his spiritual mentor co-founded, St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, which is now a Serbian Orthodox Christian monastic community. The book, published originally in 2000, and then in its second edition in 2011, is currently out of print, although a new edition reportedly is in the works.

The patristic teaching on Creation does not fit comfortably with today’s efforts in liberal religious circles to synthesize secular accounts of evolution and “non-intelligent design” with “theistic evolution,” let alone a Deistic view. At the same time, Father Seraphim indicated that Protestant-inspired approaches of “creationism” and “intelligent design” sometimes proceed in an overly rationalistic way to try to understand the mechanics of the biblical Six Days of Creation and of human life before the Fall, which the Church Fathers regarded as mysteries from an Orthodox standpoint.

The Current Controversy

Before highlighting a few main points of Fr. Seraphim’s work on Creation in relation to the Church Fathers, with links for further study, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider how these issues of Creation in secular culture became the basis of anti-Christian polemic. Indeed, Charles Darwin’s nineteenth-century Theory of Evolution, together with the work of Karl Marx in economics and of Sigmund Freud in psychology, are often revered as three foundational pillars of modern atheistic materialism by ideologues today.

Interview of atheist evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins by conservative Jewish commentator Ben Stein, in the film Expelled (2008), illustrating modern secular debate on Creation.

Here’s one example I remember vividly. In 2010, the African-American neurosurgeon Ben Carson was announced as Commencement Speaker at my university campus. Dr. Carson (who then was not in politics), in accord with his Seventh-Day Adventist faith, had advocated for “intelligent design” views, which argue that there is scientific evidence for an intelligent pattern to life in the university, as promoted by the Discovery Institute. (Father Seraphim had pointed to some issues raised by the early “intelligent design” movement in his teaching and writing in the 1970s and 1980s, although always basing his views in that of the Church Fathers, as noted in the next section.) Carson’s visit to campus became controversial. Protest erupted even though Dr. Carson’s speech was about lessons from his own life, growing up in a single-parent home in public housing, and rising to the top of the medical profession, and not about “intelligent design.” A number of faculty called for cancelling his visit, and then for a boycott of it, by turning their backs on him at Commencement. The irony of mainly white faculty at an upscale university turning their backs on an African-American speaker because of his religious beliefs, all while professing diversity and social justice, was not lost on many.

The controversy also set off a long thread of emails across weeks among faculty, with one Neuroscience Professor opining that “religion is a virus that should be exterminated.” The university Communications officer in an effort to tamp down the controversy, concerned partly about a potential negative effect on conservative alumni and area residents, organized a forum on “faith and reason/reason and faith,” at which some faculty members noticeably laughed when I mentioned that Orthodox Christians regard Moses’ account of Creation as a divine prophecy of the past. So much, again, for diversity and inclusion in much of American higher education, when it involves views different from dominant secular ideology. (Meanwhile scientists on our campus continued to celebrate “Darwin Day” prominently on his birthday, while references to Christmas generally disappeared across campus in the twenty-first century, with directives to avoid using the term in greetings and putting up Christmas decorations in academic buildings, apart from the Chapel at our originally Baptist university.)

The conservative Jewish writer Ben Stein’s earlier 2008 documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (see the video clip above) addressed this secular intolerance, as well, which had been exacerbated by the rise of the circle of “new atheist” intellectual-celebrities led by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Many of the anxieties, and hate, brought out by the visit by Dr. Carson to our campus, centered around current controversy over science curriculum in U.S. public schools. Should or would Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution be presented as one hypothesis to be discussed in relation to “intelligent design” views in science classes in some school districts? Generally “intelligent design” ended up excluded from most if not all American public school curricula.

But issues about the gaps in evidence for Darwin’s theory have continued to percolate in discussion and controversy. Recently, the conservative Jewish scholar David Gelernter, an eminent professor of computer science at Yale, while explicitly not embracing “intelligent design” theory, summarized the criticisms of Darwin’s theory to indicate why he no longer accepted it. In an article in the Spring 2019 issue of The Claremont Review of Books, which caused a stir in secularized conservative circles in America, Gelernter wrote at length on his reasons for “Giving Up Darwin.” It was subtitled online “A Fond Farewell to a Brilliant and Beautiful Theory.”

The opening paragraph sums up Prof. Gelernter’s concern:

Darwinian evolution is a brilliant and beautiful scientific theory. Once it was a daring guess. Today it is basic to the credo that defines the modern worldview. Accepting the theory as settled truth—no more subject to debate than the earth being round or the sky blue or force being mass times acceleration—certifies that you are devoutly orthodox in your scientific views; which in turn is an essential first step towards being taken seriously in any part of modern intellectual life. But what if Darwin was wrong?

Dr. Stephen Meyer, interviewed recently about his work on “intelligent design,” by Evangelical Protestant media personality Eric Metaxas

Prof. Gelernter in his article goes on to summarize why Darwin’s nineteenth-century theory was wrong from the perspective of twenty-first-century science:

  1. Darwin’s theory can explain small adjustments to local circumstances by an organism, but cannot explain what the early naturalist proclaimed as The Origin of Species.
  2. The great explosion of life seen by scientists today in the geological record of the “Cambrian explosion” does not fit Darwin’s theory of an “upward-branching” structure of gradually unfolding life.
  3. Darwin lacked access to developments in molecular biology since his time. Neo-Darwinism more recently sought to incorporate the latter field into an explanation of Darwin’s theory. However, evidence for generating a new shape of protein to generate new forms of life is lacking. Random mutation plus natural selection seem insufficient to explain any creation of new protein shapes.

Prof. Gelernter noted, under the subheading “A Bad Bet”:

The odds against blind Darwinian chance having turned up even one mutation with the potential to push evolution forward are 10-to-the-fortieth-power times one/tenth- to-the-seventh-seventh power — 10-to-the-fortieth power tries, where your odds of success each time are 1 in 10 to the seventh-seventh power — which equals 1 in 10-to-the-thirty-seventh power. In practical terms, those odds are still zero. Zero odds of producing a single promising mutation in the whole history of life. Darwin loses…. Neo-Darwinianism says that nature simply rolls the dice, and if something useful emerges, great. Otherwise, try again. But useful sequences are so gigantically rare that this answer simply won’t work.

4. For Darwin’s theory to hold true at a mega-level, involving the formation of new species (as opposed to a micro one involving adaptations within a species), would require gene mutations for which evidence, too, is lacking, Prof. Gelernter wrote:

Evidently there are a total of no examples in the literature of mutations that affect early development and the body plan as a whole and are not fatal.

Prof. Gelernter’s essay was in effect a review of what he called three “essential” books on problems with Darwin’s theory, which also discuss the case for “intelligent design” as the authors are all affiliated with the Discovery Institute:

Darwin’s Doubt (2013) by geophysicist and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer;

The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (2009) by philosopher and mathematician David Berlinski;

Debating Darwin’s Doubt (2015) edited by Orthodox Jewish writer David Klinghoffer, an anthology of articles engaging in debate about Meyer’s book.

Several years before Prof. Gelernter’s article, the scholar often regarded as the leading atheist-philosopher in the U.S., Prof. Thomas Nagel, shocked many secular academics with his 2012 book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. Prof. Nagel crowned a career of criticizing reductionist materialistic views of consciousness by conceding that that the “intelligent design” movement effectively showed up flaws in Neo-Darwinism, which could not account for the emergence of consciousness. While not embracing “intelligent design,” he wrote that it differed from “creation science” (a more explicitly religious conservative Protestant effort to “prove” biblical accounts scientifically true), by contributing valid scientific critiques of Neo-Darwinism. For this, Nagel became something of an intellectual pariah to many in secular academia.

The Church Fathers, Scripture, and the Revelation to Moses

While the main 1,144-page book of Fr. Seraphim’s writings and compilation of patristic quotes on Creation is currently out of print as noted above, there is an article summarizing its points by Abbot Damascene that is available online, and also a short book of St. Symeon the New Theologian’s writings on the biblical Creation account, translated by Father Seraphim, which is still in print and which he considered to be essential patristic reading on the topic.

Icon of Christ Creating the Plants, 15th century, from a fresco in the Sucevita Monastery in Romania.
F111lg

The article by Abbot Damascene is based on a talk that he gave in 2008 at the International Nativity Educational Readings of the Moscow Patriarchate, in the section “The Orthodox Interpretation of the Creation of the World,” at the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering. Support for that session came from a project in Russia aimed at encouraging a traditional Orthodox version of Creation, which is referenced in the issue of the Orthodox Word that published the article. His presentation in Moscow in turn was based on a paper that he gave in 2007 at the “Conference on Orthodoxy and the Natural Environment” at St. Nicholas Ranch in California. Some papers from the latter conference, together with additional contributions (including one on literature and the environment by your unworthy blogger) were included in the edited collection Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation (2013), which was endorsed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew. But as I found out later, Abbot Damascene’s paper had been left out of the collection. Perhaps this was because it was not in accord with another paper in the collection favorable towards adaptations of Darwin’s theory, or with likely perspectives of reviewers through the academic publisher, a liberal Catholic university press. At any rate, Abbot Damascene’s article is included as an appendix to the second edition of his collection of Fr. Seraphim’s writings on Creation.

Offering a patristic vision, Abbot Damascene summarizes Blessed Seraphim’s commentary on Genesis from the Church Fathers in several main points:

  1. Man’s condition before the Fall involved creation in grace, participating in the Divine Energies but not Essence, with the potential for deification. Adam and Eve were “conditionally immortal.” Their bodily existence did not have according to the Fathers the fallen coarser aspects of physical corporeality today. Human beings before the Fall did not experience “irrational desire” for pleasures, finding their pleasure in God. Direct relation with “the most simple and imageless essences of created beings” was possible, without the mediation of imagination, according to St. Maximus the Confessor.
  2. Originally the Cosmos did not involve carnivority, or perishable and obnoxious fruits and plants or creatures. Animals were given plants to eat before the Fall. Decay and death were not present. As Abbot Damascene summarizes from patristic commentaries on Genesis, “the fossil record must be placed, historically, after the fall of man.”
  3. The Fall, as St. Gregory of Nyssa indicated, involved the mind like a mirror receiving the image of formless matter instead of reflecting God as before. In effect, the result was an objectification of self and of the world and others, a “stripping of grace” or spiritual death, an inclination toward sin in fallen human nature. This made man subject to physical death, in the separation of soul from body. Sexual passion and procreation also emerged after the Fall. If Adam and Eve had not fallen, God would have provided other means for procreation, the Fathers wrote.
  4. The Fathers indicate eschatological connections between man’s pre-fallen state, and the state of man and the cosmos to come with Christ’s Second Coming and the general resurrection. There will be both restoration to Paradise and even further fulfillment in deification then, except for those who have cut themselves off from grace because of wicked selfish lives on earth. The latter will experience God’s love then as a burning fire because of not learning to participate in His love during their embodied life in the here-and-now on earth. That involves the mystery of the freedom that God has granted to men. That inextricably relates to the redemption of human beings by Jesus Christ, as seen in the salvation of the Wise Thief on the Cross, and of the rescue of Adam and Eve from Hades on Holy Saturday. It also involves the Church’s sense of theodicy, that suffering and death are not to God’s blame (as some such as Ivan Karamazov blasphemously would aver) but rather are signs of God’s mercy, leading man towards redemption in deification through Jesus Christ, in the divine energies of the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Seraphim Rose translated these seven homilies by St. Symeon the New Theologian, which he considered to be essential for understanding patristic Christian cosmology.
51QYDAXCK9L._SX301_BO1,204,203,200_

As Fr. Seraphim noted in his writings on Creation, the mystery of the Six Days and of man’s state before the Fall (together with that of the Cosmos) may be glimpsed through revelation, but can never be plumbed in any full sense by human reason. Indeed, the Fall brought with it changes in dimensions of time and space, which place a veil between us and a full understanding of our origins outside of what is revealed to us through the Church, and what holy saints have been able to experience. That which is natural in Orthodox Christianity is not our biological state, currently in a fallen world, but the pre-fallen state of man and the cosmos, as it is to be fulfilled in the life of the age or world to come. “The resurrection is the restoration of [human] nature,” as Abbot Damascene quotes from St. Nicholas Cabasilas. He also quotes from Vladimir Lossky, a twentieth-century Orthodox writer on theology: “Nature and grace do not exist side by side, rather there is a mutual interpenetration of one another, the one exists for the other.”

Thus, also, both symbolic and literal interpretations of the Genesis account are interwoven in patristic commentaries, much as how iconography can reflect a spiritual presence in a physical reality, in a living embodied symbolism, as is the case even more with the liturgical mysteries of the Church and in the ascetic struggle toward theosis in hesychasm. Thus the Byzantine calendar, in use in Russia until the time of Peter the Great, still referenced on Mount Athos and among traditional Orthodox Christians, dates the year of this reflection as 7528 from the Creation of the world, based on calculations from Scripture in Church Tradition (this parallels the Jewish calendar to this day as well, although with a different calculation). This shapes the sense of sacred time, alongside the chronology linking all the trans-generational genealogies of the Bible, culminating in the Incarnation followed by Pentecost, through which in the Church all men potentially become descendants of the Old Testament Church Prophets fulfilled in the New Testament. All also are seen as descendants of Adam and Eve, and related genealogically to God through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thus, Fr. Seraphim’s writings also note the consensus of the Church Fathers that Creation indeed occurred over the sequence of seven days described in Genesis, with an historical basis.

The Church views Genesis as a revelation from God to Moses of the primordial past. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself referenced Adam and Eve, and their son Abel, as actual persons. The teachings of the Church indicate that although the Most Holy Trinity is the Creator God, our Lord Jesus Christ as the Son and the Word had a special role in Creation. Thus Orthodox iconography portrays Him engaged in the work of Creation during the Six Days, and so, too, He is referenced as the Second Adam, even as the Mother of God, His mother the Virgin Mary, is referenced as the Second Eve. The genealogical connections and historical accounts of the Old Testament Church in the formation of the first earthly Israel, fulfilled in the spiritual Israel of the Church in the New Testament, relate also to what the Church teaches were pre-Incarnational theophanies of Jesus Christ — His appearing and visions and words to the Holy Prophets, including Moses as in the revealing of His name “I Am” or “He Who Is,” and of the Ten Commandments and laws of God to the Old Testament Church of Israel, as well as earlier to Abraham with the two angels, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, at the Oak of Mamre. All these historical accounts are inter-related with the basic teachings of the Church concerning Jesus Christ and the development of His Church throughout Scripture.

Questions from the Catechism Class

Returning at the end to the Catechism class questions, what about the dinosaurs, and what about the apparent embrace of evolution by the Roman Catholic papacy (and others identifying as Christians) today?

Probably Fr. Seraphim’s most popular book, warning of the nihilistic religion of the spirit of Anti-Christ, denying Christian history and the Incarnation
519U40f2LML

Fr. Seraphim’s writings collected in the large book edited by Abbot Damascene suggest problems with the current science of dating geological time periods and fossils, problems that Fr. Seraphim suggested will loom larger as future science looks back on the primitiveness of the science of our own times. In the meantime, arguably the development of “new physics” and its questioning of conventional notions of dimensions of time and space, as in “quantum entanglement,” may suggest something to modern people of how a great shift or fold in dimensions of space and time altered the entire sense of reality at the time of the Fall, according to Orthodox Christian belief. This makes it particularly hard to discern in any rational way, from the standpoint of human mortals, the nature of the veil between us and the original Creation, outside the mysteries of the Church. (Some Orthodox Christians with training in science, such as Prof. Alexei Nesteruk, have written recently about overlapping borders they see between our faith and quantum physics; also, the field of ecosemiotics developed in Estonia, from which this unworthy blog takes a name, follows recent scientific developments that suggest an informational rather than atomistic basis for life, of life as meaning-making or communication — relatable to the logoi of the Logos in Orthodox Christian cosmology.)

Regarding questions about the dinosaurs and the fossil record, as Blessed Seraphim noted, the fossil record must follow from after the Fall, with the introduction of suffering and death, after a great change in what we today call the space-time continuum, rendering notions of primordial time uncertain. Orthodox Christians are not anti-science, but live in the faith of the Church and our Fathers. Thus, while accepting efforts by scientists to understand biological life, and ways in which theories like Darwin’s may shed limited light on adaptations by organisms to their environments, we do not begin from the standpoint of materialistic and atheistic scientism and technocracy as foundational to life and faith and God’s Creation. Rather, we reject them as materialistic philosophies leading away from God, and look to the experience of life in the mysteries and empirically demonstrated truth of the Church of our Lord and His Most Holy Mother and the Holy Saints.

Those of Orthodox Christian background who have embraced secular scientistic philosophies foundationally, such as the late evolutionary biologist Prof. Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky, end by accommodating them at the expense of holy Orthodox Tradition. Prof. Dobzhansky, for example, as Fr. Seraphim noted, was known for not attending Church services, for voicing heterodox attitudes of spirituality at odds with Church dogma, and for accepting practices such as cremation contrary to Church teaching. Departing from an understanding of the grounding of our faith in Orthodox cosmology enables or accompanies departures from Holy Tradition in other areas, which undoubtedly can negatively affect younger generations especially as well.

Fr. Seraphim saw such departures as inter-related with acceptance of materialistic philosophies of evolution and cosmology in the modern secular “global West.” In perhaps his most well-known work, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, he advanced the connection between nihilistic cosmological views and the development of global “New Age” spirituality at odds with Orthodox Christianity. Blessed Seraphim saw this trend contributing toward the spirit of Anti-Christ abroad in the world today, a spirit that the Apostle John had defined as the denial of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and thus of the embodied historical experience of salvation history. This involves the full range of heresies, including Arianism (in denying the wholeness of the two natures of Christ in one Person, unconfused and undivided) and Gnosticism (which the political philosopher Eric Voegelin defined as the basis for the modern administrative state and economy, the technocracy of modern life–disembodied and run by elites with supposed access to special expert knowledge).

Russian Orthodox writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He warned the West, here at the Harvard University Commencement in 1978, of the danger of forgetting God and His Creation.

6-21-19-1.jpg

Today, transgenderism, politics based on nihilistic categories of essentialist identity, a pseudo-religious environmentalism based in “cultural Marxism,” consumerist careerism, and current forms of the so-called “prosperity gospel” and “social gospel” in American religion, all express faith in the materialistic narrative of cosmology as a kind of replacement spirituality for Orthodox Christianity, opposed to living patristic ascetic tradition. Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Book IV of The Gulag Archipelago, “The Soul and Barbed Wire,” detailed the principles behind this atheistic faith, as they contribute to totalitarianism: “Survive at any price,” “only material results matter,” and the “permanent lie” of believing that “perception is reality,” regardless of truth. These principles all express the materialistic view of the origins and underpinnings of the universe prevalent in secular modernity today, which has “forgotten God” (what Solzhenitsyn saw as the ultimate cause of totalitarianism). The Orthodox funeral refrain “Memory eternal,” featured at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, has deep meaning across generations especially today, involving trans-generational Holy Tradition, in which our saints are our truest family members in the Church, to whom we can turn to pray for us, beginning with the highest of saints, the Most Holy Mother of God Herself.

Nevertheless, there still are significant areas of overlap between the scientific understanding of the physical nature of human beings and Orthodox Christian teachings on human life and community, as opposed to false ideology of the “permanent lie” or “perception as reality” views. Transgenderism is not in accord with biological understandings of sex. Identity politics essentialize categories of race and gender not in accord with basic biological science about human beings. But adoption  of atheistic materialism as the false philosophy of secular science (in what the Anglican writer C.S. Lewis critiqued as scientism and technocracy in his books The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength) has sparked current efforts to suppress “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design” as stalking horses or straw men for the traditional Christian understanding of Creation, generally not well understood in the West. Unlike the approaches of some conservative Protestant writers, Orthodox cosmology recognizes the mystery of the Six Days and the unfallen state of man before the Fall, in terms of how neither can be pierced by rational human analysis, but how their mysteries can be engaged by experiencing mysteries of the Church and salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed Seraphim’s work has both advanced that understanding and highlighted the patristic view of Creation for contemporary Orthodox Christians in these latter days.

Grounding ourselves in the Holy Orthodox Tradition of the Church with regard to her teaching on Creation, based in Scripture and the ascetic experience of saints and elders across centuries, rooted also in the Old Testament Church, we stand in Dostoevsky’s sense of pochvennost’, meaning “groundedness.” This for him was a source for the Russian Christian philosophical term sobornost’, foundational to human community, including a right sense of patriotism and country, and exemplified by the Church as the mystical Body of Christ. Sobornost’ in adjectival form was the Slavonic gloss for “catholic” in the Nicene Creed, carrying with it a sense of the intersection of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity as a source of identity in the Church, a deep hidden spiritual unity, beyond the merely spatial sense of “universal” in the West.

Ultimately, that groundedness in the hidden unity of both mystical hierarchy and conciliarity in our Lord Jesus Christ stems from the opening Scriptural texts of both the Old and New Testaments, as fulfilled in His Church:

In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.                                                        –Genesis 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. –John 1:1

Standard