Month: December 2016

Death to Death to the World

Things slow down this time of year. If you don’t believe me, then click over to the pop-culture website The Outline which ran a story last week on Death to the World (DTW), the Orthodox zine that comically blends superficial Eastern Christian content with a hardcore-punk aesthetic. Started in 1994 in association with the then-schismatic St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, the zine’s name, which in substance means detachment from “all earthly cares,” is meant to appeal to angry, disenfranchised, and largely uneducated young men for whom “death to the world” means a nihilistic disdain for all humanity. More grotesque still is the zine’s frequent use of skulls, graves, and other dark imagery not for the purposes of memento mori, but simply to look “cool.” In many ways DTW’s cheap antics are similar to numerous anarcho-punk and crust bands using pictures of war crimes and other atrocities on their 7” sleeves, ostensibly to “send a message.”

Missing from The Outline’s overview of the zine is any mention of the numerous problems associated with St. Herman’s, not the least of which being its willingness to shield its abbot Gleb “Fr. Herman” Podmoshensky from accusations of sexual impropriety. St. Herman’s and DTW are also shameless propagandists for Fr. Seraphim Rose, a homosexual Eastern spiritualist-turned-Orthodox monk who is best known for penning a series of intellectually fraudulent books on everything from UFOs to a literalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Rose, more than any other Orthodox crackpot writing in English, is responsible for anti-Catholic prejudices among American Orthodoxy’s convert culture and the cult of worship that surrounds him still has frustrated any sincere inquiries into his alleged holiness. It is telling that Rose’s home jurisdiction, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, has yet to canonize him despite the circulation of icons, akathists, and other pious practices in his honor.

As for DTW itself, despite failing to attract many subscribers in the 1990s, it now enjoys a second life as a web-zine while peddling clothing clearly meant to imitate the attire of black-bloc anarchists. How much of an impact DTW still has is difficult to measure. American Orthodoxy has a time-honored tradition of artificially inflating its numbers even though it is missing an entire generation of adherents due to intermarriage or apathy. While noble efforts have been made over the past several decades to turn Orthodoxy away from being a boutique religion for bored white people and/or an ethnic social club, the sad fact remains that Orthodoxy in America remains splintered along cradle/convert and nationalistic lines. As for giving Orthodoxy some intellectual gravitas in the Anglophone world, it should come as little surprise that the scholarly efforts of the late Frs. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff are often held in contempt by those associated with DTW and its followers. For them, Orthodoxy is a pseudo-rebellious religious posture with candles and exotic pictures; nothing further need be known.

Instead of being the subject of a positive news article, DTW ought to be derided by serious Orthodox Christians who have no interest in having their religion reduced to a fad. Those who find their way to Orthodoxy through DTW and other similar resources are likely to enter with a woefully incomplete and despicably inaccurate picture of what the Orthodox Church is. This is not what Orthodoxy needs, particularly in the United States where fervent religiosity often takes the shape of barking-mad hysterics. Of course, Orthodoxy is not alone in suffering through attempts to blend its character and traditions with disposable convictions and self-important posturing. I used to listen to Pedro the Lion after all.

Y100B: Political Theology

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (University of Chicago Press 2005 (1922), 116pgs.)

It has been a decade since I last sat down with Political Theology, one of Carl Schmitt’s most cited and misunderstood works. Or, maybe I should say, contentious works to the extent that hundreds of readers (most of whom are academics) have put forward interpretations of mixed plausibility concerning what Schmitt is “really saying” in the text. Most infamously, Heinrich Meier — a German “Straussian” — argued that the text is the launching point for a literal political theology which privileges revelation over reason in the ordering of human affairs. All of life, according to Meier’s reading of Schmitt, comes down to a decision: “Am I with God or am I with Satan?” Granted, you won’t find this question formulated anywhere in the text; Meier has to draw it out from not only a selective reading of Political Theology, but an even more selective reading of the Schmittian corpus, including the jurist’s private reflections. Not surprisingly, Meier’s interpretation has drawn a great deal of criticism, particularly from the cabal of Left-leaning theorists who, for reasons which remain more than a bit obscure, find Schmitt’s theories of the state, legality, and the political congenial to their own pet ideological projects.

To be frank, most of Political Theology is a bore. Originally published in 1922, Schmitt’s immediate concern was to attack certain liberal theories of law in vogue during that time by highlighting the importance of the “state of exception” (or “emergency”). Moreover, Schmitt also introduces, or rather reminds his audience, of the secularization of theological concepts in modern jurisprudence. It is a sociological insight made long before Schmitt walked the earth, though largely forgotten about in the “post-theological” environment of early 20th C. legal thought. Where Political Theology turns interesting is in the last chapter, which confronts the counter-revolutionary thinking of Bonald, Maistre, and Cortes. Here, in the midst of interpreting these three men, Schmitt comes the closest to making an absolute theological claim on the necessity of deciding between man’s goodness or wickedness before proceeding with any theory of the state. Such a decision cannot be informed by a legal theory, and perhaps the defective state of human reason eliminates the possibility of answering the question philosophically. Only theology, rooted in a concrete revelation from Above, can provide a sure answer.

How much Schmitt believed this himself will likely remain an irresolvable question for as long as people bother to read him. Although it is doubtful that Schmitt shared Cortes’s radically pessimistic view of human nature, a good case can be made that he often doubted man’s intentions and certainly had no time for the liberal presumption of man’s goodness. Regardless, Political Theology — for better or worse — remains the most influential text Schmitt ever produced and has inadvertently given legs to “political theology” as a distinct intellectual and moral endeavor. Given how many Christians today, including Christian readers of Schmitt, embrace the liberal presumptions that Schmitt abhorred is no small irony. In fact, by Schmittian lights, it’s a catastrophe.

A Thought on “Thick Faith”

David Mills has penned another one of his customarily thoughtful pieces for Aleteia, “Make the Faith Thick and the Church Expensive.” In it, he discusses some recent sociological data on orthodox Jewish birthrates compared to non-orthodox birthrates. (For some reason the piece comes accompanied with a picture of an Eastern Orthodox subdeacon, but whatever.) Not surprisingly, orthodox Jews are “out-birthing” other Jews by a considerable margin, likely because they take the tenets of their religion concerning children seriously. That is to say that orthodox Jews, rather than paring down the Law in the name an inner “spirituality,” following through on the Judaism’s legal prescriptions as an indispensable part of their religious life. Critics, I suppose, will say that this is proof that orthodox Jews are only concerned with “externals” while glibly ignoring even the possibility that adherence to “externals” is reflective of deeply held religious convictions.

Good sophisticated Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) of the 21st C. will have none of this, of course. There is nothing worse in the minds of many than adherence to “externals,” ranging from counting Rosary beads to receiving Communion on the tongue to rejecting contraception. All of these “rules,” all of these “empty rituals,” went out the door 50 years ago, or so they say. Moral prescriptions, while ideal and nice, are difficult; people must be brought to them “gradually” so as not to feel isolated or alienated from God’s mercy. Perhaps, after undergoing a purely internal transformation, a Catholic may be brought, by their own conscience, to think more deeply about “externals” and even follow through on them. If they do, they should, of course, keep it to themselves so as to not come across as “judgmental.” For the rest of the Catholic faithful, however, they are fine where they are at, so long as they don’t deny global warming or harbor any reservations over open-door immigration policies.

As 2016 draws to a close, let me just come out and say that as much as I admire Mills’s call not to present a thin, cheapened form of the Faith, this is all that’s really available to most people today — and it’s the only form that many Catholic priests and bishops know how to deliver. While there are pockets of resistance out there to the liberal and secularizing trends that overtook the Church during the last century and continue to cause chaos today, they remain few and far between, largely marginalized and even openly mocked by the Ordinary of Rome himself. It’s not that people who truly wish to take up their cross and follow Christ are barred absolutely from doing so; it’s just that the Church, at this present and perilous moment in history, is so grotesquely unwilling to help them along the way.

Lord have mercy.

My Eighth Shameless Professional Wrestling Post in Years: Best Wrestlers of 2016

For the four of you who care, I have put together my list of the Top 5 professional wrestlers in 2016 from across the wrestling spectrum. I made my selections based on not only in-ring ability, but the impact they had on the sport in general. Obviously there are some factors which will always be out of a performer’s direct control, such as how well they are booked; the opponents they are given; and the overall health of the companies they work for. However, truly great wrestlers will find a way to transcend these limitations, sometimes in ways we’ve never seen before. Enjoy.

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Y100B: Kierkegaard

Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan 2016, 301pgs.)

As 2016 draws to a close, I found myself doing something I once thought impossible: reading a book published by Zondervan.

Backhouse’s biography of the great Dane purports to be “a fresh look” at the man and his times, but really it’s just Kierkegaard’s life and thought watered-down for generalists. Not that there is anything wrong with that. As Backhouse makes clear from the start, the extant Kierkegaard biographies available either amount to hagiography (e.g., Walter Lowrie’s classic treatment) or dense academic exercises. Backhouse delivers something slightly different, a treatment of Kierkegaard that is not entirely devoid of intellectual seriousness and yet gossipy enough for semi-popular consumption. In the end, however, the Kierkegaard of Backhouse’s biography is not all that different from the Kierkegaard of pious or academic study; he is still the tortured soul who broke a young girl’s heart on his way to attacking “Christendom,” that is, the official iteration of Lutheran Christianity that reigned supreme in 19th C. Denmark.

Mindful of his intended audience’s short attention span, Backhouse divorces his discussion of Kierkegaard’s life from his summary of the latter’s literary output, which constitutes a 50-page appendix to the book. That’s unfortunate since the summaries, rather than inspiring readers to explore Kierkegaard for themselves, are ripe for plagiarizing. Why spend a week with Either/Or or Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments when you can spend 5 minutes with Backhouse? By weaving his thoughts on Kierkegaard’s oeuvre into the text, Backhouse may have been able to entice his audience to explore Kierkegaard for themselves. An opportunity has been missed, methinks.

Overall, I can’t say too many bad words about Kierkegaard: A Single Life. Backhouse’s prose is fluid, his narrative well-paced, and his subject matter fascinating. Even so, Backhouse unintentionally stumbles into banality in a chapter assessing Kierkegaard’s legacy and influence. When he writes on Søren’s reception in European intellectual circles, I am intrigued; when he notes how pop bands and comedians reference Kierkegaard today, I am nauseated. But I suppose everyone has access to Wikipedia these days. It shouldn’t surprise me at all that the lowest elements of our disposable culture can so easily, and thoughtlessly, reference the most interesting man . . . in (1813-1855) Copenhagen.

Y100B: Confessor Between East and West

Jaroslav Pelikan, Confessor Between East and West: A Portrait of Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj (Eeerdmans 1990, 249pgs.)

Maybe there isn’t much more for me to say about this book beyond what I noted earlier this year when I compared it to Cardinal Lubomyr Husar’s recollections. It is, however, a work I return to often, not because of its thoroughness (which is debatable) but because the sad reality is that so little exists in English on Patriarch Josyf and his writings. More than that, however, Peilkan’s portrait (and it is just that: a portrait, not an exhaustive treatment) is personally important to the extent that it helped turn my back to my Greek-Catholic childhood roots after spending more than a decade running away from them, first as an atheist; then as an Eastern Orthodox Christian; and finally as an Easterner in a decidedly Latin environment. Now is not the place to get into all of that; but I wanted to make mention of it if only to offer some explanation as to why I return regularly to a text that is sadly out of print and in some ways incomplete.

Hodie Christus Natus Est

When Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of men came to end: and when Thou wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead. The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; and we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, when Thou, our God, wast made man. Great is Thy mercy: glory to Thee.

– Doxasticon of St. Cassia for Nativity Vespers (Byzantine Rite)

2016 – 10 Most Popular Posts

With 2016 drawing to a close, I thought I would put together a list of the 10 most popular posts on Opus Publicum this year based on WordPress’s accounting. Although Opus Publicum is far away from ever being a “major web-log,” several posts managed to caught far more eyes than I anticipated. Overall, however, 2016 was a “down” year with respect to traffic, likely due to the fact that other endeavors occupied a large chunk of the year. Befoe proceeding with the list, I should note that the most popular post was not an original piece by yours truly, but rather an unofficial translation of Patriarch Sviatoslav’s comments on the “Joint Declaration” signed by Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana, Cuba earlier this year.

  1. Patriarch Sviatoslav on the Joint Declaration
  2. More Francis Effects
  3. Francis Effects
  4. Heaven Forbid
  5. A Few Comments on “Life in the Orthodox Church”
  6. Council No More?
  7. Shea, Zmirak, and Catholic Politics
  8. Review: Christ’s Descent into Hell
  9. Another Traddie Sin
  10. Some Thoughts on the Recent Tridentine Mass Dustup

Enjoy.

Lightfoot

While thumbing through Lightfoot’s The Apostolic Fathers today, it occurred to me that these epistles and other documents from the second century of Christian history must still strike many today as strange, divorced as they are from our common experience of the Church. Indeed, many of the most treasured works from the centuries following the Ascension bear little resemblance to the theological manuals, spiritual scribbings, and unctuous religious prose that Christians of all confessional commitments consume on a regular basis. This isn’t a novel observation, mind you; it’s just an unsettling one. Could it really be that the Church of today—One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic—is not only far removed from the “church of yesterday,” but really amounts to little more than a hollowed-out relic that people cling to out of cultural habit more than sincere religious conviction?

As 2016 draws to a close, I would prefer to not slip into pessimism, but it is . . . difficult. Still, in these times, I try to remind myself that I have no right to despair. None of us do. The problem is that hope, sincere and realistic hope, is so alarmingly elusive. It’s not enough to just say, “I hope for the best” or “I hope things will improve.” That desire never leaves. What doesn’t wish to stay is the sense that this hope can lead anywhere except to crushing disappointment. And then I look back to the Apostolic age, the Arian crisis, Iconoclasm, the Great Schism, and the relatively more recent onslaught from atheistic communism and I start to see, albeit faintly, that what unites the Church of Christ through the ages is suffering for the truth. Granted, in this day and age of entertainment and ease, the meaning of suffering has been grossly distorted to the point where we might need a new word to describe experiences more agonizing than poor cell phone reception or slow download speeds for pornography. So it goes.

Confronted with these truths and listening to them with attention, ye shall know how much God bestoweth on those that love (Him) rightly, who become a Paradise of delight, a tree bearing all manner of fruits and flourishing, growing up in themselves and adorned with various fruits. For in this garden a tree of knowledge and a tree of life hath been planted; yet the tree of knowledge does not kill, but disobedience kills; for the scriptures state clearly how God from the beginning planted a tree [of knowledge and a tree] of life in the midst of Paradise, revealing life through knowledge; and because our first parents used it not genuinely they were made naked by the deceit of the serpent. For neither is there life without knowledge, nor sound knowledge without true life; therefore the one (tree) is planted near the other. Discerning the force of this and blaming the knowledge which is exercised apart from the truth of the injunction which leads to life, the apostle says, Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. For the man who supposes that he knows anything without the true knowledge which is testified by the life, is ignorant, he is deceived by the serpent, because he loved not life; whereas he who with fear recognises and desires life plants in hope expecting fruit. Let your heart be knowledge, and your life true reason, duly comprehended. Whereof if thou bear the tree and pluck the fruit, thou shalt ever gather the harvest which God looks for, which serpent toucheth not, nor deceit infecteth, neither is Eve corrupted, but is believed on as a virgin, and salvation is set forth, and the apostles are filled with understanding, and the passover of the Lord goes forward, and the congregations are gathered together, and [all things] are arranged in order, and as He teacheth the saints the Word is gladdened, through Whom the Father is glorified, to Whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

– Epistle to Diognetus

Critical and Unclear

Critical theory is a fun little tool that will get you published, maybe even laid on a college campus, but not much else. Pick whatever you wish off the shelves of any Left-leaning library and run with it. If you should be endowed with better-than-average literary chops, you might even be able to secure tenure, or the next best thing: a well-trafficked web-log. Although it stands to reason that there have been critical theorists over the past century who genuinely believed that their largely masturbatory pet projects were actually in the service of “human liberation” (whatever that means), the harsh reality is that most of what emerged from, and following, the so-called “Frankfurt School” remains a niche academic interest for graduate students who don’t really understand life and undergraduates who understand neither life nor the theories that ostensibly elucidate it. Rather, under the critical gaze, all of life is reduced to a series of power struggles, deceptions, interpersonal conflicts, and epistemological anarchy and communication becomes little more than an empty exchange of jargon-filled platitudes parading as insights.

Had I, more than a decade ago upon leaving undergrad, thought that I would still be running across the critical-theory crowd, I might have been inclined to go live in a shack in Montana. It had been my assumption that children’s things would no longer be relevant once I entered the “real world,” and for a time my “real world” was legal academia as both a student and faculty fellow. Sure, legal studies, like most disciplines at one time or another, flirted with critical theory, but by the time I was hard at study that movement had been suffocated by the equally noxious “Law & Economics” movement (one, which I am sorry to say, I actually got behind). Penning law-review pieces that quoted Marx, Horkheimer, Barthes, Habermas, etc. stopped being “edgy” 25 years ago. Sure, for obvious reasons there was still room for some Foucault, but who today wants to admit they spend serious time with the likes of Catharine McKinnon, Duncan Kennedy, and Roberto Unger?

I write this despite the fact several acquaintances of mine believe that what we need now more than ever is a refresher on critical theory, specifically its roots and the social movements some believe it inspired. I imagine this sentiment has emerged out of a general frustration with the contemporary Left, specifically the contemporary young Left and its obsession with the pettiest form of identity politics and melodramatic declarations of oppression. Although less visible, and probably not front-and-center in the mind of any Leftist, is the small but apparently growing body of Christian Leftists who, in an often confused and contradictory manner, adopt what they think is a Leftist posture in order to make themselves appear relevant in a cultural milieu that really has no interest whatsoever in what “Jesus Kids” have to say about poverty, racism, war, and so forth. Might it not be possible, some hope, for the Left to be reinvigorated by a return to a more serious time, a period when critically engaging the world and its power structures meant more than sending out Tweets and discussing “polity” with your fellow white, Ivy League graduates?

Maybe, but it seems to me that a return to seriousness is a return to the days when men would kiss their wives, hug their children, and take to the streets, mountainsides, or forests with knives, guns, and Molotov cocktails to not simply “make a point” but literally take apart the machinery of their misery. Not that I endorse such a course of action, mind you, at least not for all of the purposes and interests that often motivated such otherwise well-meaning men, but there is a great deal to be said for having, as they say, “skin in the game.” For nearly a century, a good number of anarchists, communists, and socialists of all shapes and sizes had a great deal of “skin in the game”; if you don’t believe me, just spend a bit of time perusing the history of Western Europe and the United States from the 19th Century onward. Tales of government-backed manipulation, maiming, and murder—all in the name of upholding the fruits of liberalism—fill the history books or, rather, ought to. Actually, what fills the history books even to this day is one long lie about the “progress” of human history and our arrival at its “absolute moment,” an era of unfettered access to porn, booze, and reality television.

During long stretches of highway driving, or even in just a quiet moment of personal reflection taken while in line to buy cigarettes, I have found myself wondering that if/when the “revolution” comes, who will be lined up against a wall and shot first: Me or the coffee-shop commie kid? I jest. There is no revolution coming, at least not from the Left. The steady erosion of life—its meaning and transcendence—that is and has always been part of the liberal project will likely continue unabated during my sojourn on this earth. To hope for anything else seems unreasonable, and yet it is terrifically easy to imagine three or four moves on the global chessboard that could quickly turn the relative passivity of Western (post)modern existence into a bloodbath. Perhaps that’s already happening and for reasons which are still unclear to me, I don’t want to see it.