Preface: The title of this post, which was not the original title I had intended, comes from the fact that I can only post to WordPress today underneath a rainbow banner. It’s there, on the screen, staring at me. Perhaps it’s there to remind me that I should be celebrating, or admonish me for not doing so.
Update: Here it is. Everybody can now comfort themselves with the knowledge it was never going to be any other way.
Will the Supreme Court legalize same-sex marriage? For some, that is the only question that matters right now. The Affordable Care Act still has its opponents, but the opposition is largely ideological at this point. Despite its many defects and shortfalls, Americans now believe, by and large, that the country is better off for having the legislation in place. Some inevitable tweaking will have to take place down the line. That’s how these things go. But it will not go away. The integrity of marriage, naturally defined, won’t go away either. Legally speaking, however, it’s already on its way out. When that process began is difficult to discern. Some say it was the moment no-fault divorce became normative. Others hold that a larger cultural shift, one commonly associated with the so-called sexual revolution, is responsible. People rarely contemplate the closing of our horizon, the loss of a vision that includes justice and duty, right and wrong, and God. That is, the real God, not the “god” of political convenience or the “god” of metaphysical surety or the “god” of irrational carping, and so on and so forth.
Neither Catholicism nor Orthodoxy can save the West alone, and by “the West” I mean that civilizational accomplishment which began nearly three millennia ago and is rapidly decaying before our very eyes. Unlike what you might read on some other web-logs, or spouted during podcasts and coffee hour chats, the Orthodox Church is as much a part of the West as the Roman Catholic. Even those communities which still, barely, inhabit the far eastern borderlands of Orthodoxy are not somehow beyond the singular brilliance of the Western patrimony, a patrimony informed by both reason and revelation. To speak of east and west in geographic terms is in many ways sensible. To somehow hold, as some romantics do, that Orthodox thought, built strongly on the intellectual achievements of Byzantium and its pagan forebears, sits now, or has ever sat, outside of both the achievements and pathologies of (geographically) western thinking is pure nonsense. A brief perusal through Fr. Georges Florovsky’s magnum opus, The Ways of Russian Theology, should relieve any right-minded person of any such illusion. And anyone who has studied seriously the trajectory of modern Orthodoxy theology, before and after the Soviet Revolution, should know that it has never rested in splendid isolation from many of the academic currents which were, and to some extent still are, all the rage throughout continental Europe and on this side of the pond as well.
Christ the Savior (Orthodox Church in America) on LaSalle St. in Chicago, Illinois has undergone a surprising, even miraculous, transformation over the past decade. When I first darkened its doorway in 2004 it looked as it was: an abandoned Anglican-style church with dingy walls, poor lighting, and a makeshift iconostasis that was just attractive enough to take one’s mind off the surroundings. Had a city building inspector paid it any serious mind, the place probably would have been condemned. But then things started to come together. Minor improvements were made which gave way to a larger vision of how a temple to God could be erected out of, or rather in place of, dust and decay. Many good souls sacrificed a great deal to bring a beacon of light to downtown Chicago. My contribution was anything but significant, though I still have a scar on my right bicep from my amateurish foray into ripping up carpet. No one warned me that it was affixed with rusty nails.
Christ the Savior, or CTS (as most called it), benefitted greatly from the iconographic work of Fr. Theodore Jurewicz, a priest from the Old Rite Church of the Nativity in Erie, Pennsylvania and arguably the greatest living iconographer in North America. Although he had accomplished a great deal at the parish when I parted in 2011, I was astonished to see the final results. I am not sure I will ever have the opportunity to see it again face to face, but digital testaments like this are perhaps one reason God allows the Internet to exist.
The other reason of course is MLB.TV.
[I]n early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. . . . All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the 19th Century.
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart (Harvard Address 1978)
Much has changed in the 40 years since Solzhenitsyn delivered those words, including the number of Christians open to the idea that the American Founding had much of anything to do with God. There is a small but vocal minority of Catholics (and a few Orthodox and Protestants) who oppose all liberal-democratic institutions on the grounds that they are essentially godless and, further, that their triumph has meant the decline of Christian belief in the West. Most still claim to be Christian, but very few live it out in any discernable manner. God, at most, provides some soft spiritual comfort, but that type of belief really has very little to do with Christianity and much more to do with trite existential security. As for the moral poverty of which Solzhenitsyn speaks, I believe we can all agree that none of the technological achievements of this century, which has given us iWatches and unfettered access to “revenge porn,” has done anything other than bankrupt the entire culture. A few decades ago it was still possible to believe that the most rank and unnatural absurdities would never be front and center in society; now they are enshrined in law. Some still say it didn’t have to be this way. Others, contra Solzhenitsyn, hold that this was inevitable. God’s glory and truth weren’t radiant at the Founding; they were eclipsed by it.
There are many who say that drunkenness is no sin. It is not considered by those outside the Church as a sin, but as a weakness : men speak of it as a misfortune ; physicians class it as a simple mania, to be pitied rather than condemned. Instead of giving to it, as a moral disease, a moral remedy, they encourage it by taking away its enormity. But what says the “Word of God”? It tells us that drunkenness is a mortal sin. St. Paul says : “The drunkard shall not possess the kingdom of God.” And why shall not the. drunkard possess the kingdom of God? Because the sin of drunkenness of which he becomes guilty is a grievous sin against nature, against religion, against himself, against the family, and therefore against God, the Author of nature, the Spirit of religion, and the Founder of the family. It goes against nature, be cause it ruins the body, corrupts the soul, and changes the image of God in man into the likeness of a brute.
– Fr. Michael Mueller, C.S.S.R., Sinners Return to God
Here’s a question: Is it stranger that Roman Catholics, ostensibly informed by a social tradition which has, for well more than a century, rejected the core tenets of free-market capitalism, embrace such tenets in open defiance of their magisterium or that Orthodox embrace such tenets as well? The Orthodox “defense,” which isn’t much of a defense at all, goes something like this. Because communism had such an undeniably disastrous impact on the lives of millions upon millions of Orthodox Christians, it not only makes sense, but is in fact fully justifiable, that they should see in capitalism, with its apparent nod toward “freedom,” a safe haven, nay, a glowing alternative to the communist system which, in practice, oversaw the nailing of priests to church doors and the violent oppression of those who would dare to live out their ancestral faith. The problem with that line of argument — one of many problems — is that it’s simplistic to the point of being worthless. For while it is true that communist rule over Eastern Europe brought with it unimaginable persecution against the Church of Christ, it is not necessarily true that such persecution came as a result of pure economic ideology. That is to say, whatever satanic violence dwelt at the core of 20th Century communism was not generated out of anti-capitalist animus per se. Something else was at work, and that horrific violence could very well have flowered under an apparently “free” economic system as it did under one that was largely command planned.
Several months ago I wrote two posts on Pope Francis and his pending climate change encyclical (see here and here). I had every expectation then, which is receiving confirmation in the media now, that the document would arouse a significant amount of controversy. It’s hard to miss the fact that the same conservative Catholic excuses for ignoring the Pope’s environmental teaching parallel those of who dissent from papal instruction on political economy. Smokescreen statements, such as the Pope should stick to religion and stay out of science, are intended to cover what has become commonplace for most American Catholics: frequent outings to the cafeteria. For years conservatives have heaped scorn upon a certain class of their coreligionists who pay no mind to Humanae Vitae all the while they pay no mind to Rerum Novarum. Some will no doubt defend this discrepancy by claiming the two encyclicals do not carry equal magisterial authority. Fine. But what about the cumulative weight of the Catholic Church’s entire body of social teaching? How lightly can that be passed by? Given the range of social issues Laudato Sii is expected to address, surely it will have to be read (or ignored) in continuity with the entire social-magisterium deposit, yes?
Quite recently, I was in Paris, and I went to my favorite theological bookstore and found books there titled something like this: A Marxist Reading of St. Matthew; A Freudian Reading of Genesis, and so on. Of course, this approach was being prepared over many centuries when it was thought that human reason, human scholarship, knowledge of late Syriac grammar would finally explain to us what Christ meant by the Kingdom of God. And before Dr. Schnuklemeukle wrote his authoritative three volumes on that subject, nobody ever understood what it was.
But today it is taken for granted: that Christianity is in need of utopianism. We have to repent — for what? For having preferred the transcendent to the immanent? For having thought of the Kingdom of God in terms of the Other World? And now we are obliged to mobilize ourselves and join every possible activism, whether it’s called “liberation theology” or “the theology of urbanism,” or “the theology of the sexual fulfillment”… The word “theology” used to mean “words about God.” Now it may also mean words about sex, or contraceptives… And, as a reaction to that development, Christians surrendered to the Me-Too utopianism.
At the same time, we have a fundamental resurrection of escapism, which takes on many forms in religion today. People turn their backs to the world and plunge into almost anything. As an Orthodox priest I can see the forms it takes in our Church: we have people who do not care what is going on in the world. They have discovered The Icon. Or, of course, one of the areas, into which one can endlessly escape, is a discussion of the high-church, low-church, and middle-church liturgical practices. Vestments… Modern or archaic… You can hear people saying, “But that isn’t right: in the third century in eastern Egypt…” — and you already feel that the Transfiguration has begun. The third century in Egypt, or in Mesopotamia, or wherever it is — as long as it is not in Chicago, New York, London or Paris. As long as this Epiphany or Theophany takes place somewhere in some impossible land! In Caesarea of Cappadocia… — that is music itself: Cappadocia, it already gives you the feeling that you are in the right religious school, you know. Introduce Chicago into that religion, and it spoils the whole dream, the whole sweetness, the whole thing.
So we have either Jesuits disguised as the professional unemployed walking the streets of Chicago, finished with all the Cappadocias at once, or we have people escaping — in orderly procession — to Cappadocia. And this is of course the tragedy of our Christian response to Utopia and to Escape. Now, then what?
– Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Between Utopia and Escape”
I have written previously on the so-called “Benedict Option” and the difficulties it presents (see, e.g., here, here, and here). It appears that commenting on the “Benedict Option” — or any other “option” — is turning into a growth industry. A quick glance at Ethika Politika reveals several pieces on the topic, including Andrew Lynn’s “Saving the Benedict Option from Culture War Conservatism” and Jeff Guhin’s “No Benedict Option Without Benedictines.” The latter piece is rather pessimistic, declaring that not only is “liberalism is hard to shake” but that “[w]e are all liberals now.”