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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

 

 

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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
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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.
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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.
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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
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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.

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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

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Orthodoxy and Knighthood

Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, has blessed the establishment of the chivalric-philanthropic Holy Order of St. George the Great Martyr, and recently named the Order’s first Grand Knight: Konstantin Pandolfi, a faithful Orthodox Christian in Connecticut, whose family descends from Byzantine aristocracy. Those interested in coming to the aid of Orthodox Christians who are experiencing persecution or who are in need worldwide, please consider joining the Pan-Orthodox order as a Knight or Dame, and feel free to be in touch for information. It is a blessing to be involved as President of the Order’s Communications Council. More information can be found here. Below is a short explanation of knighthood in the Orthodox Christian Tradition, which I wrote for the Order’s new website.

Victor Vasnetsov, Bogatyrs, 1898

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 “Through all the great discord of our days, amidst catastrophe, tragedy and loss, in disputes and temptations, we must remember one thing and live by it: the maintenance and propagation of a spirit of knightly service. First and foremost within ourselves, and then within our children, our friends and the like-minded: We should protect this spirit as something sacred; we must strengthen it in those who trust us, those who confide in us, and those who seek our direction.”

So wrote the Orthodox Christian philosopher Ivan Ilyin from exile a century ago, in the 1920s following the start of the Red Terror in Russia with its persecution of the Church, and the genocidal attacks on many Orthodox Christians in the former Ottoman Empire. The Communist concentration-camp system also became a model for Nazi terror, which in turn viewed predominantly Orthodox Slavic peoples as racial inferiors ultimately to be erased.

“Everywhere that the spirit of chivalry weakens or disappears, disaster awaits us,” Ilyin warned. “So it stands now, and so shall it be henceforth. At whatever post [of duty] a man may stand, this duty (if only the cause is not in itself shameful) has its idea giving meaning to his cause, consecrating it not as an occupation, but as service, service to God’s Unified Cause on earth.”

Ilyin, forced to leave Bolshevik Russia with his family, warned against the “rot” of the “lukewarmedness” of self-interest, careerism, and apostasy. That warning is just as true, if not more so, today, a century later, in the 2020s, for all Orthodox Christians around the world, in increasingly troubled times.

Another Russian Orthodox philosopher in exile, S.L. Frank, wrote of the need for “the spirit of religiously-enlightened activity, the spirit of true knighthood [rytsarstvo].” He associated this idea of Orthodox knighthood with “groundedness” or pochvennost’ articulated by Dostoevsky, in a culture of service, involving “humble service defined by faith,” in “the duty of each to generally guard the legacy of one’s ancestors [spiritual if not familial], to enrich it and then transfer it to those who follow.”

Today, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ face persecutions around the world. Many Orthodox communities are in need. Many regimes, societies, ideologies, and systems attempt to overthrow the traditional Christianity of the Orthodox Church. This is why we invite you to join us in the Orthodox Holy Order of St. George the Great Martyr–to renew the time-honored tradition of Orthodox knightly service in the 21st century.

Stand with us, the unworthy, with our fathers in the Church before us, in a legacy inspired by Saint George the Great Martyr, by countless other Orthodox Christian saints, by Scripture, and by the teachings and examples of the Church fathers engaged in spiritual warfare across centuries.

With those witnesses before us, we remember the Varangian Guard who defended the Christian emperor at Constantinople–a multinational band of brothers in the faith, worshipping at the Orthodox chapel to St. Olaf of Norway in the imperial city of the Byzantine-Roman Empire. We remember the legendary bogatyri or Christian knights of old Kievan Rus’ in the days of St. Vladimir the Great. We remember members of the old Russian imperial military orders of St. George, St. Alexander Nevsky, and St. Vladimir, as defenders of Orthodox faith in the world.

With God’s grace, we need that spirit of Orthodox knighthood today more than ever: Not for physical warfare, but for service in spiritual warfare, and for unity of action in supporting our brothers and sisters in Christ: The Orthodox Christians persecuted throughout the world violently for their faith; those brethren in the faith in need of material help and sustenance; the vulnerable and children; the Orthodox Churches and communities in need of material help–so that they all may have the opportunity on earth with us to enter the faith fully, to help spread the Gospel, and to repent in preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven.

As Ilyin concluded, the spirit of Orthodox chivalry goes beyond any self-interest, careerism, and political partisanship, to “first and foremost the voluntary and willed acceptance of hardship and danger in the name of God’s Cause on earth… a cadre of men firm in such spirit and capable of such service.”

He reminds us:

In distinction from the subject himself, having his own personal interests, sympathies and desires, God’s cause has its Transcendent paths of necessity and exaction. And so man’s personal interests and the Transcendent interest of his Cause at any moment can part and place him before the temptation of self-interest. At any moment, a man can find himself in the position of a mercenary, not knowing upon what course to decide, or the position of a traitor who prefers his interest to the Transcendent. The spirit of chivalry is comprised of steadfast loyalty to the Transcendent path.

Today, the Holy Order of St. George the Great Martyr is dedicated to such service on behalf of Orthodox Christians in need. The Order welcomes men and women as members who are Orthodox Christians willing to take up that knightly spirit. We have no affiliation of any kind with Masonic or other heterodox or occult or conspiratorial orders, nor are we a Roman Catholic chivalric group. We are an Orthodox Christian order of knighthood standing for our Orthodox tradition and heritage across the globe.  Under the spiritual blessing and direction of Metropolitan Hilarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, we are open to those joining us in that spirit from all Orthodox jurisdictions, regardless of background.

Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters: Rally with us to the standard of St. George, in service to our Emperor of Emperors, our Lord Jesus Christ, and His Church!

 

 

 

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Two Americas on Screen: Homeland and the Cavalry Trilogy

The Covid-19 collapse, civil unrest bordering on revolution, and now the Bostock decision by the Supreme Court re-defining sex, all seem like the old American republic’s version of the “three horsemen of the Apocalypse” in 2020, from the standpoint of traditional American culture.

But this year also marked the finale of the highly rated Homeland TV series, after eight years of addressing issues of American identity and what it means to be a patriot.

In many ways, disastrous events in America since the airing of the finale season, which began in February and continued into the Easter season of shutdown, were foreshadowed by Homeland’s underlying ethos for Generations X, Y, Z. As the musician Gil Scott-Heron’s voice intoned in some of the openings: “The revolution will not be televised.” But it sure can get deep into our heads.

One may have to go back 70 years to find another visual story-telling cycle as emblematic of its time, but by contrast anti-revolutionary in support of our constitutional republic. Notably John Ford’s classic Cavalry Trilogy of Western films, which appeared annually from 1948 to 1950, marked very different views of America for the Greatest and Silent Generations, transitioning from World War II into the Cold War and the start of the Korean conflict.

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Homeland

First, consider the Twenty-first-century American epic.

The heroine, Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Dames), is a CIA agent who is seriously bipolar and “sex positive” with men involved in her work. For example, she sleeps with a young virgin Muslim medical student to recruit him as a CIA asset. A poster-lady for 21st-century American careerism, she is an unmarried single mom who almost drowns her baby on purpose, then gives up the child to pursue her covert spy work without entanglement. The baby’s father, btw, the love of her life, is a US veteran turned double agent for terrorists, who is executed in Iran.

During Mathison’s time in the CIA, one US President is forced from office while another is killed in a helicopter accident, amid a backdrop of palace coups, all related to her projects. In-between, there is much Russophobia, although she ends the series living in Russia with a Russian spy as a double agent, covertly helping the US while having published a book Tyranny of Secrets: Why I Had to Betray My Country.

From revealing sexual escapades to bipolarity and reputation as “the drone queen” for killing Muslims long-distance, to assumption of an anti-American social justice warrior role near the end of the series, Agent Mathison is a model of postmodern deconstruction and irony. There is nothing simple or honest there, even though she can be charming and alluring and sometimes admirable. Everything about this character, like her country, is layered and tangled and contradictory.

That’s the final word on American patriotism in the series: It’s complicated, not really worth it, but something to hold cynically at arms’ length for the sake of career loyalty. In the last scene, she’s lovingly with her Russian spy lover listening to African-American musicians play jazz at a swanky Moscow venue, while pondering how she has just betrayed her lover and new country by sending missile secrets to her old boss and career mentor at the CIA. She seems to define elite privilege in a deep-statish “woke” kind of way, to which many young American professionals now likely aspire.

Mathison is secret agent for today’s global elite class. Not coincidentally, she exemplifies in her career Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s double maxims of the Soviet Gulag system: “Survive at any price” and “only material results matter.” But she practices these principles in an ironic placeless postmodern way, exemplifying Western soft totalitarianism merging the Deep State, cultural Marxism, and “woke capitalism,” as if in one of the jazz riffs she loves. She is a couple generations beyond James Bond in Western cultural decadence–pomo, post-Cold War, post-Christian (despite dabbling in rediscovered Catholicism, a spiritual-but-not-religious none). Her American heroic cycle celebrates the will to power in a nihilistic setting: Prequel to shutdown, New Depression, revolutionary identity politics, and the Bostock decision’s betrayal of social conservatism.

The Cavalry Trilogy

To America’s Greatest” and Quiet generations, Director John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy offered a cycle of three films on American identity and patriotism, featuring a U.S. Cavalry officer variously named (at various ages) Capt. Kirby York, in the first film, set after the Civil War (Fort Apache); the widowed Captain Nathan Brittles on the verge of retirement in 1876 in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; and the estranged-from-his-wife Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (different spelling), in 1879, of Rio Grande. All these figures are essentially the same character, as played by John Wayne, interacting with the ensemble of actors from Ford’s troupe, in harsh but lovingly presented Western landscapes centered on Monument Valley.

In Ford’s Trilogy we see the national seeds of themes in the later American epic Homeland: The hero dedicated to duty to a degree neglectful of family, and the sins of empire. But here the circle is squared by the hero’s reconciliation with his wife and son, his piety as an older widower toward the grave of his dead spouse, the lack of irony, dissipation, and double-mindedness in his love of country, the encouragement of new family life in marriage and children invoking care for generations to come, and faith.

In the background, palpably hovering, lies the Christian civil religion underlying the old American republic, under attempted revival as the Cold War began, morphing into what was called the “Judeo-Christian” values of the Eisenhower era, with its insertion of “In God We Trust” onto coins and “one nation under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, in the fight against atheistic world Communism.

When the son of Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke returns home, the Irish Catholic father is reading a well-used Bible with domestic religious symbolism in the background, instead of attending the fort dance for George Washington’s birthday. Sergeant Major Quincannon and the child Margaret Mary stoop and cross themselves as they run from the ruined church where children had been held hostage by hostile Indians. There are Christian Scripture readings and heartfelt prayer at a battle-side funeral.

Alongside stereotypes amid Indian Wars comes a focus on national reconciliation, in stories that include Indian allies and noble as well as villainous Indian leaders, some of them friends of the hero, and the honoring of the Navajo Scout Son of Many Mules at the Trilogy’s end. There is also reconciliation of veterans and families divided by the preceding Civil War. The hubris of empire is critiqued in the disastrous machinations of the arrogant Colonel Thursday against hostile Indians, with Thursday modeled on George Armstrong Custer, and in the corrupt and capitalistic government agent preying on Indians. Above all, the Cavalry Trilogy offers a view of history as tragic, rather than merely ironic, with care for the common man, transgenerational in the hopes of family and faith. The latter includes both faith in God and faith in the American republic.

Mixing resurrectional comedy with tragedy, and more than a dash of anti-establishment subversive satire, the older cycle doesn’t mistake the seriousness of the project of the republic for the narcissism of nihilistic self-essentialization seen in the later series.

As the narrator intones at the end of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “So here they are, the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the 50-cents-a-day professionals, riding the outposts of a nation, from Fort Reno to Fort Apache, from Sheridan to Stark, they were all the same, men in dirty shirt blue and only a cold page in the history to mark their passing. But wherever they rode, and whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.”

The Trilogy’s final image is of the Navajo Scout Son of Many Mules riding off into the American landscape, together with Yankee and former Confederate cavalrymen, to grow a republic.

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From Russian Orthodoxy with love? Christian marriage, after the 5th anniversary of Obergefell and now Bostock, faces cultural totalitarianism

A young convert at our Russian Orthodox Christian Mission in Northern Appalachia told me one day after Church that he found it impossible to have respectful online conversations any more on sexual ethics. His traditional views left him targeted as a “hater” and ostracized in cyberspace. That same week, an Orthodox friend in another state told me that a longtime professional mentor had just ended their friendship. My friend had publicly signed an online document opposing introducing the ordination of women deaconesses in the Orthodox Church. His friend, not a believer, called it hate speech. Simultaneously, our small college town of about 5,000 people was debating on social media and in in-person meetings a proposed “Human Relations Ordinance,” echoing the campaign for a U.S. Equality Act to redefine civil rights to include categories of “sexual orientation” and “gender expression.” Provisions would make it illegal to aid and abet illegal discrimination, raising questions about free expression of traditional Church teachings. Meanwhile, at the university, faculty and students were circulating a “trans-affirming” statement online, referencing violent neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic violence in the U.S., and implying that not signing was a form of hate, too.

Saints Peter and Fevronia, patrons of an honorable and loving marriage

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Such incidents reflect a growing cultural totalitarianism of sex in the global West, present even in conservative central Pennsylvania. This movement emerges from an ethos of individualism with deep historic roots, energized by new technological networks. Today, in the fifth anniversary year of the Obergefell U.S. Supreme Court decision, American culture increasingly has embraced a sexual politics of power. Sexual anarchism has quickly moved from the same-sex marriage of Obergefell to transgenderism, polyamory, and nihilistic queerness, seen most recently in the watershed Bostock Supreme Court decision’s effort to redefine the meaning of the term “sex.”

But on the other side of the world, Russian Orthodox Christianity, in its ascetic patristic roots and historical resistance to Communist persecution, surprisingly has nurtured an experiential “apologetic theology”— based in patristic cosmology more than moralism—that has helped Russian Christian culture resist twenty-first-century sexual anarchism emanating from the “global West.” The different position of Russian culture is seen in the pro-marriage constitutional amendment approved by Russian voters in a referendum late last month, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the judicial granting of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right in America.

The Russian exile Prof. I.M. Andreyev in his classic Orthodox Apologetic Theology wrote in the 1950s of how experiential faith helps demonstrate the “complete organic unity” of Christian truths. Andreyev survived the notorious Solovki Communist prison camp in Russia’s far north, to find refuge after World War II at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodoxy Monastery and Seminary in upstate New York dairy country. He drew on ascetic traditions of Orthodoxy with three distinctive emphases: 1. Identification of uncreated grace with natural law. 2. Realizing human being in theosis or oneness with God’s energies. 3. Finding human community in sobornost (“catholicity”), or spiritual unity, in the Church. Such emphases, which may sound strange to Western Christian ears, nonetheless mesh surprisingly well with Christian foundational aspects of the American republic.

First, it’s worth briefly comparing American and Russian public cultures of sex today.

Secular Transhumanism in the Global West

Transhumanism in the “Global West” today seeks to over-ride physical and traditional forms of the human body with technology, to establish a new type of all-encompassing culture of secular identity.  Contraceptive technology and the technologically shaped affluence of postwar American culture nurtured this tendency in the West. Social data frame this change. The U.S. birthrate in 2019 reportedly hit a 32-year low, and the percentage of Americans over 25 who have never married has nearly doubled since 1960. The percentage of adults who have never married in the U.S. (20 percent), percentage of unmarried parents (25 percent), and number of unmarried adults cohabiting (18 million), are at all-time highs in America according to recent studies, with a sharp increase in “involuntarily celibate” young men. Only 65 percent of U.S. children now grow up in homes with a married mother and father, down to 36 percent in African-American households.  Medical developments supporting these trends include refined forms of artificial conception and surrogate mothering, aborting births to increase desired characteristics in children, and techniques for changing male or female body forms from one to another “gender.” Online search engines generate algorithms by which searches for the phrase “men can…” produce hits such as “men can have babies.” Virtual culture meanwhile heavily engages men with cyberporn and its latest innovation, “sexbots.”

The weakening of traditional family structure in the U.S. parallels a decline in the organic non-governmental social networks, including religious communities, that supported non-governmental traditions of sex. A survey in 2019 sowed that “nones,” those Americans who do not belong to any particular religious body, now equal the percentage of the population who identify as either Evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic.

Legally, sexual anarchy pivots on the paradox that each individual’s ability to pursue his or her identity, unencumbered by traditional anthropologies of sex, marriage, and family, should be coercively enforced. It culminates the judicial dismantling since the late 1940s of America’s “soft establishment” of Christian values. Since Obergefell, an establishment of secular transhumanism has emerged. Gay Pride celebrations in some cities now eclipse the Fourth of July. The U.S. government in recent times has exported its sexual politics aggressively to other countries through foreign aid and influence. Decades ago, political scientist Eric Voegelin warned of the emergence of such a technocratic culture in the West, embodied in an administrative state and enforcing a modern “gnosticism”—a culture of disembodied individual will, dominated by elite experts, wielding technological control, in revolt against created reality. Bostock may in the long term well mark a watershed break in the American constitutional fire wall protecting religious expression.

Russia’s Christian Cultural Dissent

By contrast, post-communist Russia, with a renewed Orthodox Christian public culture on issues of sex and family life, is resisting secular transhumanism. The Russian Orthodox Church’s Synod and leaders in the past two decades promulgated crucial documents on The Basis of the Church’s Social Concept or “Jubilee Document” in 2000 and the Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights in 2006, strongly supporting a traditional Christian anthropology of sex and family, reflected in recent state policies. Russia in 2013 passed a law prohibiting promotion of homosexuality to minors, which has resulted in restrictions on media, businesses, and public events. Although often labeled an “anti-gay law” in the West, Russian officials term it an “anti-gay-propaganda law” designed to resist secular Western influence on young people, noting that it reflects social mores that existed in Western countries until recently. Simultaneous with the fifth anniversary of Obergefell on June 26, Russian voters overwhelmingly approved amendments to the Russian Federation’s Constitution to uphold marriage as being between a man and a woman, in a vote across several days that ended July 1. (A similar proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the early 2000s never emerged.)

It is no coincidence that much of the hostility directed by the secular West today against Russia involves its status as the world’s largest traditionally Christian nation, rejecting sexual identity politics. Between the fall of communism in 1991 and 2019, the number of Orthodox churches in Russia has grown from 6,000 to an estimated 36,000. In 2019, an estimated 1,593 candidates for the priesthood were expected to begin training, up 19 percent from the previous year. The civic culture has become majoritarian Orthodox in support of traditional family life and sexual anthropology.

In a controversial 2019 Financial Times interview, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin said liberal governments in the formerly Christian West had failed their peoples by pursuing “sexual diversity” in undermining their traditional cultures: “They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles…. Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that. But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”

Russian cultural resistance, on the basis of Christian tradition, to codifying LGBTQ+ agendas into law, has encouraged American Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham, son of the leading Protestant preacher Billy Graham, to visit post-Communist Russia, as if on pilgrimage.  Russian leaders also support efforts globally to shore up traditional families, such as the World Congress of Families organization. This has drawn fire from the influential U.S. Southern Poverty Law Center, which has all but labeled the Russian Orthodox Church a hate group, despite SPLC’s own struggles with alleged bias and corruption.

Reflecting decades of history under communism, followed by a disruptive transition to an era of Western-dominated capitalism in the 1990s, abortion and divorce rates continue to be high in Russia. Its population remains in decline, amid an economy hurt by Western sanctions. But longer-term cultural trends are moving in a more traditionally Christian direction, as seen in government promotion of large families and the legislative initiatives mentioned above.

Similar efforts to shore up traditional ideas of sex and family in other non-Western countries cast sexual transhumanism as a type of Western neocolonialism. African and Asian United Methodists in 2019 engineered a surprise rejection of their worldwide but American-based denomination’s expected endorsement of homosexuality and transgenderism. Many Asian and African Christians argue that secular Western sexual mores follow American interests today.

No efforts against secular transhumanism in any way justify, from a Christian standpoint, violence against people in various societies over sexual issues, as seen for example in some traditional Muslim societies. Such acts have been condemned as sinful and beyond the pale of Christian mores in Russian Church statements, however imperfectly Russians like others may practice Christian teachings. Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting on why and how Russia is the one major world power today whose public culture evidences a traditional Christian approach to sexual anthropology.

Orthodox Emphases

As mentioned, three distinctive emphases of Russian Orthodox Christianity help account for its staying power in resisting current sexual anarchy. These include:

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  1. An emphasis on identifying natural law with grace, stressing a mystical otherworldly asceticism, in the grace-filled Christian “queerness” of chastity. The late American Orthodox bioethicist H. Tristram Engelhardt in his The Foundations of Christian Bioethics summarized it thus:

Natural law is, after all, the spark of God’s love in our nature, not the biological state of affairs we find in broken nature. Natural law is not an objective external constraint, but the will of the living God experienced in our conscience…. The Christian moral-theological reference point for the appropriateness of sexual behavior is the creation of humans as male and female and the restoration of the union of Adam and Eve in the Mystery of matrimony.

Engelhardt based his description on a statement by St. Basil of Caesarea on how “the spark of divine love latent within you” is enkindled by ascetic effort in synergy with grace, toward theosis. The influential Orthodox Christian theological writer Vladimir Lossky further observed, “The Eastern tradition knows nothing of ‘pure nature’ to which grace is added as a supernatural gift…. grace is implied in the act of creation itself.” Natural law is founded in the Cross, the intersection of grace with ascetic suffering, as the basis of Christian identity.

As St. Maximus the Confessor wrote:

He who apprehends the mystery of the Cross and the burial apprehends the inner essences of created things; while he who is initiated into the inexpressible power of the Resurrection apprehends the purpose for which God first established everything.

In his Ambigua, as translated by Fr. Maximos (Nicholas) Konstas, St. Maximus wrote of how within the logoi or words of God in Creation, the infinite energies of God can be contemplated: “God—Who is truly none of the things that exist, and Who, properly speaking, is all things, and at the same time beyond them,” mystically present in the logos of each thing and all logoi together, manifesting the uncreated energies. In that mystery (beyond understanding), St. Maximus wrote, the Logos and the logoi are one, but in an incarnationally Christian sense, not a pantheistic one.

St John of Damascus noted in the eighth century that “it is of the nature of all things that they may be apprehended through industry and toil, and before all and after all by the grace of God, the Giver of grace.” To “apprehend” with the mind’s eye, St. John argued, one must “knock hard, so that the door of the bridal chamber may be opened to us and we may behold the beauties within.” Marriage thus becomes the master figure for understanding identities as relational in Christ.

The Russian Orthodox philosopher-exile S.L. Frank in his book The Unknowable wrote,

Since all concretely existent things are rooted in the total unity of being and are permeated by the “juices” of the total unity, the element of primordial freedom is present, to varying degrees, in all concretely existent things.

“True freedom,” for Frank, must also involve what he calls unforced service to universal Truth, in the person of Jesus Christ, or active love in Christ. This differs in emphasis, though overlaps in part, with modern Western definitions of freedom as simply individual right and choice. The latter, when emphasizing self-will without God, nurtured secular transhumanism from its secularization of rights.

In Orthodox tradition, law is associated with logos meaning “principle” but also with another meaning of logos, “harmony,” ultimately identified with the dynamic uncreated grace or energies, yet shaping and redeeming embodied Creation. These divine energies transfigure materialistic sexual passions. That is compatible with what the historian Peter Brown notes of how, in first-millennial Christian tradition, sex “was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways…profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body.” Western culture moved, across centuries, to a more individualized sense of both the body and the self, “from seeing the body as microcosm reflecting in itself a cosmic story, to seeing the body as interpreter of human inwardness,” according to the Orthodox patristic scholar Fr. Andrew Louth.

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  1. A teleological emphasis on theosis, which finds inner unity with God in the divine energies, though not in His unknowable Essence. St. Athanasius the Great famously concluded: “God became man so that man could become a god.” Christian anthropology thus, as emphasized in Orthodoxy, defines sex in the context of an otherworldly reality, yet expressed iconographically in the physical bodies of males and females, a type of the embodied union of Christ with His Church. St. Maximus described the “mean” of human nature in Gen. 1:27, in which it was revealed to Moses how man was created male and female, as embedded in the simultaneous “extreme” of God creating man in His image and likeness in Gen. 1:26, in Whom “there is neither male nor female,” as the Apostle Paul put it. Both realities overlap in the asceticism of both marriage and monasticism in Christian history. This is not the fluid consumer-materialism that today emphasizes autoeroticism and sexual activity, divorced from reproduction and face-to-face sexual complementarity. An ascetic Christian view of sex (in Orthodox emphasis) is based at once on the cosmology, anthropology, soteriology, eschatology, and ascetic-liturgical practice of theosis. Secular transhumanism by contrast essentializes the passions, seeking to form them anarchistically into isolating auto-identities.* * *
  2. The Christian alternative to secular anarchism and totalitarianism: Sobornost, or spiritual unity; conciliarity coupled with mystical hierarchy. Sobornost (by the fourteenth century in adjectival form the Slavonic gloss for “catholic” in the Nicene Creed) “means togetherness, wholeness, communality; it emphasizes a oneness, but without uniformity or loss of individuality,” wrote the Russian émigré scholar Nicolas Zernov. It “means a symphonic Church which forms a harmonious unity out of the diverse gifts of its different members; like a well-conducted orchestra it produces one harmony, although each musician plays his own part on his own particular instrument.”

Marriage is a type of sobornost, as expressed both in the family and in the country, and basic to Christian societies on both physical and spiritual levels. This is why the second President of the United States, John Adams argued, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  According to his son John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States:

[T]he social compact, or body politic, founded upon the laws of Nature and of God, physical, moral, and intellectual, necessarily pre-supposes a permanent family compact formed by the will of the man, and the consent of the woman, and that by the same laws of Nature, and of God, in the formation of the Social Compact, the will or vote of every family must be given by its head, the husband and father.

America had its “soft establishment” of Christianity in what was essentially a Christian republic. Traditional cosmic meanings of marriage were central to the ideal of self-government as a basis for the American republic. They remain so today in aspirational renewal of a Christian Russian culture. In Byzantium, within a Christian meld of Roman republican symbolism and empire, the symphonia of Church and State was the ideal–sobornost symbolized in the double-headed eagle. Russia today in many ways continues that tradition. Meanwhile, the internal contradiction in Western secular sexual ideology, between sex as socially constructed and sexual passion as essential identity, remains largely unexamined. To prevent such self-examination arguably is the goal of today’s sexual totalitarians.

To secular transhuman anthropology, the Orthodox Christian view of the purpose of the human being as theosis stands as not a reproach, but an antidote, in a shared heritage of Eastern and Western Christianity. The propounding of an inner “conciliarity” of man and God in theosis mirrors the outer conciliarity of sobornost in community. This is reflected in the close identification of grace with natural law. The deeply Christian sense of synergy of asceticism and uncreated grace promotes a type of Christian transhumanism, a kind of otherworldly “queerness,” with neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality nor any other sexuality as its final goal, in affirmation of free community with God. Yet the coming together of man and woman in marriage symbolizes in embodied form the mystical union–in anthropological, cosmological, and soteriological terms–between the transcendent God and the nurturing community of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The prayer rope or Lestovka (“ladder”), a rosary of Russian Old Believer Christians used today increasingly by Russian Orthodox Christians as well, symbolizes this spiritual unity. Its “steps” and flaps evoke symbolism of the incarnational history of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Its prayer cycle, punctuated by the “Jesus Prayer” with parallel breathing and prostrations, is embodied and performative, like the iconography and incense and chanting of Orthodox worship spaces. It serves as a reminder of the scriptural teaching revered traditionally by all Christians, that our bodies through His Incarnation are the temple of the Holy Spirit, engaging in the Church the mystery of the intersection of hierarchy and conciliarity, symbolized incarnationally in the Cross.

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This reflection draws on longer scholarly work forthcoming in an article in the journal Christian Bioethics and in a separate essay appearing in the forthcoming book Healing Humanity: Confronting our Moral Crisis (Holy Trinity Publications).

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