Ethnic or Striving

Montenegro clashes as Serb Orthodox Church leader installed - BBC News
Met. Joanikije protected by police in riot gear, 4 September 2021. Protesters were urged by Milo Djukanovic, the Montenegrin president, to block his enthronement (source: Reuters)

A few remarks about the recent strife in Montenegro, another turn around in the shambles that is Orthodox – civil political relations. We’ve had the un-Christian situation in Macedonia for years, the barbarous schism in Ukraine, and now another blow of balkanization. In each of these cases we should remember that the causes behind them are mostly secular: Greek, Ukrainian nationalists, Pro-European, Socialist… If you’ve lived in a foreign country for any length of time, you learn that you don’t understand its political realia. Don’t send money to PACs for out-of-state elections and don’t voice strong opinions about the Balkans.

Don’t forget that the word ’saeculum’ means ‘the world of this time’. It is temporal power. The power that is in the Church – Body of God – is inside and out of time. All this shall pass. 

As it passes, it crushes souls. 

Members of the socialist party set up massive protests and tire barricades to block access to the ancient Cetinje Monastery to prevent the enthronement of the Macedonian Orthodox Metropolitan under the Serbian Patriarch. The candidate was flown in to the monastery by helicopter where he sprinted into the church for the liturgy. He was then whisked up and away.

Protesters set fire to car tires at one of the blockades near Cetinje, Montenegro, Sept. 5, 2021.
source: AP

Note that in Ukraine ultra-nationalist parties supported the schism with Moscow, here it is pro-European socialists. Note that in either case the West is opposed to Orthodoxy. It’s a well-established tradition. However, again, local politics is at the root. Scandalously, the socialist president himself, Milo Djukanovic, incited the protests, according to the BBC.

At the root is the notion that a nationalist polity should be an expression of ethnic identity and that a national identity needs a national church. This foment is the deepest problem facing Orthodoxy, and it is thoroughly pagan, un-Christian. To wit, four problems as I see them: 

  • 1) Eastern Europeans tend to identify en masse their ethnicity and their religion. This extends from Roman Catholic Poles to South Ossetians. This is directly against the teachings of the Bible and Orthodox tradition, it is tribalism; however it has helped preserve Christianity though many non-Christian saecula
  • 2) Ottoman dhimmitude institutionalized the ethno-religious brew and bled into 19th century nationalism. This creates political structures that support the worst of 1, sometimes even in disingenuously opposing it, as St. John of Shanghai pointed out. Those who would like to have power and territory over their alienated flocks hold it in their fists and support the dhimmitude in their own territories, those who see the weakness of their overlords try to break away.
  • 3) Globalization makes international relations ones between large units. Patriarchs and popes are important for the secular influence of religious figures (which can be legitimate). No patriot wants someone else’s patriarch. The Orthodox Church structure, in contrast, was built upon cities and individual bishops as the best figures to represent a polity. The Chestertonian view that we adopt supports this traditional approach; but mass media and international relations do not recognize it.
  • 4) We see all politics in the current, technocratic mode as serving ideals and not as saeculo – temporary. All civil society is a collection of ‘government services’ and all polity is identity politics, which is everything. This holds for the right no less than for the left. As Oliver O’Donovan richly says: “… civil religion wears the form of the Antichrist, drawing the faith and the obedience of the Lord’s Anointed away to the political orders which which should have only provisional authority under him” (Desire of the Nations, 224). Or, as Emanuel Levinas put it: “There is nothing more frightening than an army of Mother Theresas.” Readers of our blog should get a sense of what I mean.

Let’s take an example of globalized Orthodox politics. There are many. I know for a fact that the United States government, through Sam Brownback’s “Office of International Religious Freedom” actively supported the schism in Ukraine. And our government supported the suppression of Kosovo Serbs. And our policies in the Middle East have indirectly led to the decimation of Christianity there for the last 70 years, especially the last 20 years. But I don’t believe the US has a concerted anti-Orthodox policy, despite the evidence. Rather, there are efforts to effect a balance of power in the favor of the US and its allies. The situation in the Balkans was set out of balance by the weakness of Greece and the influence of Saudi lobbying on American policy regarding Albanians. Was there a concerted Orthodox push-back in the United States to influence these policies? No, because of Balkanization, because of 1 and 2. No one is more to blame for our situation than we ourselves.

In an ideal world, we would rely on the kerygma of bishops teaching real Christianity and Byzantine symphony at the local level. Patriarchs would be trans-national figures (based on liturgics and language) who could put the face of Orthodoxy on against the saeculum – prayer breakfasts and speeches against poor treatment of prisoners or migrants, supporting anti-abortion legislation, etc.

What we have instead is 19th century nationalism enforced by 21st century social media-fueled mass hysteria. It keeps us in North-Atlantic dhimmitude – choleric, bitter-tongued, fond of conspiracies that nullify our agency, forgetting that our secular motivations should center around civil peace.

Part of the problem is that we do not have a good theological answer to many problems of the saeculum. Wherever you turn in non-Orthodox theology you see faults – the institutional excesses of Roman Catholicism, the brutal justification theology and normativism of Protestants. But when you turn to our theology you see few answers at all, and not even many questions raised.

One of the greatest gifts of Orthodoxy was a universal recognition of human rights in the union of Christian ethics, the divine image of the soul, and the civil traditions of Roman law. Our democracy has roots in the election of bishops and our fundamental motivation is toward the perfection of that divine image in every individual. Every Montenegrin, South Ossetian, Macedonian, Scotch-Irish Arizonan Patriarch is going to do no more than discourage civil peace, crush more souls, and distract us from our great commission.

Breaking to lead

Try this image, one I can’t quite recall seeing elsewhere.

A horse goes. When you get on a horse and spur him, he goes. He goes forward at a walk until you stop him, or give him the spur again. This might seem like a natural behavior at first, but it is highly conditioned. If a horse is not broken properly to lead he is fairly useless. There are ways of breaking wild horses which follow some of these techniques, but our example comes from horses born and broken at home.

Most colts or fillies are broken to walk by leading them sidelined to their mothers. You hold a rope passed through a ring on the mare’s halter to the colt. The colt naturally follows its mother by instinct. I think we can conceive of this instinct (like a gosling follows a goose, but more so as this is a herd animal) as being transformed into the trigger to walk. You give the signal to walk, she walks and he follows. You give the signal to stop, she stops and he stops. This continues until her lead is imitated by his own. During this time, you’re working with the colt who learns to take commands from you directly as a separate set of lessons.

Many of the concepts we have of human will are privative: my freedom comes at God’s cost. God pulls away his omnipotence and give space for my puny potency. This is in Jewish mysticism: God pulls away Himself to make space for us. I don’t think this view is sufficiently ‘logical’; that is, that it is sufficiently Christocentric, that it is sufficiently incarnational. I would start looking at Sarah Coakley’s discussion of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of knenosis as an attempt to overcome this notion.  

Let’s try another image to do with our two wills, in a parody of Plato’s charioteer from the Phaedrus. God’s will is not absent from our own, God does not leave our will so that we can just sin. God created our will in the image of His own. He acts through our will in our nature and in-through-with His creation. God’s will is the mare teaching the smaller, unexperienced, often randy human will forward. This teaching relies on example, but it also relies on a deep instinct within the nature of the creature. 

We know from breaking wild horses (I’ve never done that) that they break to lead, too. But the process is very different, and the outcome is different. God has the spurs and crops and bridles of His Word. 

Contemplate then this synergy between the direct command of the leader directed through the medium of the mare to the colt. This is the synergy that is the Orthodox doctrine of the free will: man is a co-worker with God.

Note the same lack of a parallel as in the Phaedrus – where we don’t really have much of a place for the charioteer: here there really is no leader, unless you make God’s will the mare and God’s Providence the hand that leads. Perhaps we can retain that allegory, but I wouldn’t take it too far.

V. F. Zagonek (1919-1994), Groza Proshla (1960-61), Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Consider also the notion of the colt’s instinct. Think of how deep is that drive to follow the mother, walk behind her. Step out and frolic and then look back and return. Let that divine will be as deep in us. Redeem the instinct from the Darwinian jungle. 

Look at this splendid painting, The Storm Has Passed by Vyacheslav Zaganyok (1961), how they break a colt to lead, though here he just follows untethered. Now the subject of the piece seems as follows. The boy and his father were  raking hay when struck by a summer downpour. Now that the field is wet, there is no more raking to be done and they pass (from the painter’s view) under a rainbow by an uncut field. Perhaps that’s why the mare has her head up high, she’s on her way home. Her body is a bit tense, after the storm.  But note how the colt’s head bows in happy compliance with the mother’s pace. Always from the belly to the back hip, otherwise she’ll reach back for a correcting bite. Keeping in the course of the road as natural to the colt as the coruscating light of the storm-washed world, natural as the son and his father from whom curls a salutary smoke. 

Let’s go back before the storm to where they were raking the hay, the course forward down the field to make a row, all the gestures and movements of the mother, the hump of the shoulders, the sway of the neck, making that row its effective agent, all that imitated by the colt. Are these lessons not far more full of content than if they were just passed from the driver with the bit and the whip?

This is where His will can move with us, teaches us the inner parts of our nature, not in His voids but in our growth.

Faustian vs. ascetic freedom

There is a position that is called ‘negative freedom’ in theology. It is in some sense a parody of Berlin’s negative liberty in this sense:

‘you are free only to sin’.

One can see versions of this position in Islam, Judaism and Protestantism – it is Calvinism. Augustine’s version is wrongly articulated, I think, but restoration through baptism redeems it. We’re talking about Calvin’s and subsequent positions here.

Negative freedom is correct only if you understand freedom as that which operates against natural constraints. Why? Because evil is nullity. God is the ground of being, the Creator of all that is real, when something is real it participates in God. Sin does not participate in God so it is not real. The ‘privative’ notion of evil is a position present among many traditions, but it was only maintained within late Platonic and Eastern Christian ascetically-oriented thought. Sin is darkness, darkness is only the absence of light. Let’s call the Calvinist position ’negative’ let’s call our position ‘privative’.

Thus in the negative position, you only have freedom to move into darkness. We can also call this the Faustian position. By the time the play begins, Faust had already ‘been there done that’ with God. Where he wont was only against what was. Faust’s salvation through voluntarist ‘mercy’ is as unconvincing as most theology of that period.

But a more correct position of liberty (i.e., in Berlin’s sense) is a positive one: you are free because God is free and He made you in His image. It relies on the privative position. This is closer to Quentin Skinner’s Roman notion of freedom, highly unpopular these days. 

We say freedom has this definition: the Life of and in Christ. The extensional definition of freedom is Christ, its intentional definition is the Holy Spirit. In this we are free of Enlightenment anthropology and the petty-cum-monstrous cruelties of Rousseau’s Emile because the definition is not a set of qualities but a person.  

In fact, any good definition of freedom gives exceptions to natural constraints. Because you are free doesn’t mean you are free to be in three places at the same time or free to shoot X-rays out of your armpits. This Calvinist freedom conflates natural humanity with sin – understandable given the rest of Calvin’s doctrines of sin. These views defined in this way can only have emerged after the 13th-14th century. 

There is another way to read this negative position if you have a different notion of freedom, it comes in the oft-repeated Orthodox statement: 

‘you are only free if you do what God commands.’

Multitudes who comment on this phrase note how paradoxical it seems. They all come after the 14th century, by the way.

In this case we can see why the more Orthodox position was associated with asceticism. Asceticism frees us from desires, desires are bondage. Be free of desires and be free of bondage. This is an argument so strong you can see it from early Buddhism down to Simeon the New Theologian. To be truly convinced, though, contrast it with the diametrically opposite position of the Marquis de Sade: we are only our bodies, engage the desires of the body and you have the power of freedom. Stew in his juice for a while and see how long you can take it before you start eating yourself. Such a position can only come after the 17th century, inclusive.

The privative position also presumes the contents of natural capacity. It is a kind of natural law.

Let us look at the image of light and darkness again. What is light? A state of energy. Indeed, in creation the presence of God is where the state of His presence is constantly flowing in as the act of creation (He didn’t do it once, God creates the universe now). Let’s not look at light as a ‘thing’.

Let’s not look at freedom as a thing, either. Freedom is by all accounts a state. But really freedom is an abstract name for an act. We are fee in our actions. Modern notions of freedom do not include the philosophy of action, they tend to define, as the negative view above does, freedom along a field of already indexed conditions. That itself is not free and is not an adequate notion of freedom. This view has been expressed by Whitehead, I believe, and some pragmatists. 

Take modern, experimental notions of ethics and look at them with this glass and you will see many interesting things, look again at the set of ‘trolley’ arguments, for example. They can lead us, contrary to common interpretation, toward a form of virtue ethics.

We must recognize the Orthodox position in this way as well.  Those commands of God are not fixed conditions: the range of motion of one who does not worship idols. It is a life in the absence of idolatry. And that life is free.

Understand this privative position properly and you see:

‘you are free only to good.’

But understand that ‘only to’ in a philosophy of the act is not a restriction. It says: ‘in this act, in this reality, now’.

Logomorphics: stepping off the edge

The most significant transition to the Modern is the means by which the explanation of phenomena becomes phenomenon itself. The process is what Foucault calls ‘slippage’ and its best descriptions come from members of the Radical Orthodoxy movement and the fundamental work of Lorraine Daston.

Contemporary neuroscience would be a vastly different affair if it didn’t include such fallacies as a ‘phenotype for behavior’, ‘movies in the brain’, etc. This is what I, after Eleanor Gibson, call ‘Crypto-Cartesianism’, or, at a more metaphysical level, ‘Crypto-Platonism’.

What then is that ‘x’ that corresponds to this behavior outside the head? I would say that the theory of affordances gives us a better explanation. That is, the Logomorphic hypothesis relies on an environmental (Multi-E) explanation of neuroscience.

To put it in brief: it is not as though you have your mother’s smile. You have a certain set of inherited biological factors that are in constant give and take with the environment. Let us say that the neural network for or on the left side of the face is a little different from that on the right. These factors give a disposition for having a smile that will lead a member of your culture to observe: ‘He has his mother’s smile.’ The observable physiological features are not the smile. The further you get away from that environment the less a disposition will develop. Adopt a child from Russia as an infant and that typical Russian frown will not occur; but a visiting relative will see other things.

It is not a ‘sign’ which is inherited or ‘encoded’. ‘Encoding’ is death to any resolution to the Hard Problem of Consciousness. The further we go down the Crypto-Platonic path the further away we get.

You see, we tend to extrapolate ‘disposition’ in a sense that means ‘there are x instances of variation in this population, regarding all of them together we stochastically arrive at a causal association of x and y’. That is not what it means. That is how you get paper published, but that is not what the science is about. Rather, ‘there is x biological condition of this individual that has a good probability to become observation y if p is present’. Biologists know this is the case, but they constantly mix these two factors; and these factors sometimes resemble each other in extraordinary macro-microcosmic ways.

Addressing the problem of the Modern is why we consider political theology helpful – oddly, I know – in arriving at a resolution to the Hard Problem of Consciousness and the materiality of thought.

Couplets of motion

girl at a window, Dalí (1925)

Surely I’m not the first to notice the relationship?

  • objectivity : subjectivity
  • static : dynamic
  • dynamis : energeia, ergo: (Metaphysics Θ)
    • wood block : lintel
    • vertical rectangular hole : door
    • horizontal rectangular hole : window

If this is salient, is it not clearly possible to have science that is subjective? I suppose such is the claim of Husserl’s phenomenologists. However it is the relationship of the first two analogies which is interesting. They seem to be a shadow of what both Robert Brandom and Slavoj Žižek are trying to do with Hegel. Brandom will have us go back to rules of dynamism, Žižek to a semiotic hylomorphism.

And we see no less of the early understandings of hypostasis and energeia in the Church Fathers. That there is a conflict between energeia and ousia is because we have begun to think energeia comes out of a socket.

“Little Blessing for My Floater”

Jeanne Murray Walker

After George Herbert

This tiny ruin in my eye, small
flaw in the fabric, little speck
of blood in the egg, deep chip
in the windshield, north star,
polestar, floater that doesn’t
float, spot where my hand is not,
even when I’m looking at my hand,
little piton that nails every rock
I see, no matter if the picture
turns to sand, or sand to sea,
I embrace you, piece of absence
that reminds me what I will be,
all dark some day unless God
rescues me, oh speck
that might teach me yet to see.

Copyright © by Jeanne Murray Walker. Poetry, 09.2003

Little room in the inn… Musings on «Bodas de Sangre»

I’ve read Gabriel García Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre perhaps 7 times, and does it not soak you to the pores every one!

But to artists who sweat with Christ it is no more consolation.

At the end, when all the village women come in to read the vigils for the dead men, the Mother chants what the commentator calls a “hymn to the knife” – that which:

Slips into shaded organs
To stop there
Where entangled trembles
The dark root of scream.

The commentary quotes a passage from the biography of the author by his brother Francisco to the effect that the play was to end with the beginning of the hymn:

Que la cruz ampare a muertos y vivos.
May the cross protect the dead and living.

Now to me this “protect” is rather weak. “Amparo” is a “refuge” better for the intercessions of a saint. Is not the Cross salvation?
No. The knife will not cede it space.
Francisco seems to be conservative in his claim that the play is weakened by the hymn and the couplets translated above; perhaps in 1980 he still wanted to get right with the authorities when he published the book about his brother executed two generations before.
The neighbors kneel and yield to the knife that is all throughout the text – flying, floating, swimming.
There is much more Bacchae here, and just a little of the parables of Christ, mostly the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The Groom is Pentheus: the knife, and not Leonardo, Bacchus.  Such objects for García Lorca are more characters than are the persons.
Bacchae is what lets tragedy sprout up from the “mirror of the dirt” of Andalucía – not autos da fé.
And is this because Hans Urs von Balthasar was ultimately wrong and there cannot be true Christian drama, not even comedy? His project was not complete. Not even Au Hazard Balthazar?
Or is it because tragedy as it is conceived always au hazard, and theology has not found the space to let that work?
May we hope that one reason is that the cycles of festival life and the dark Virgin themselves are already reflected in the mirror of the dirt of this gorgeous and unspeakably profound poet’s province? And so the poet needs to dig a little space for himself in less fertile soil? He did, and those who proclaimed Christs’ victories with rosaries like a rictus stuck him in that ground.
I work on one piece that is determined to end without hymns to knives and it goes at a snail’s pace.
And another one that twists the knife and it cuts as smooth as butter.

The basic questions of political theology

Category:Schist | Metamorphic rocks, Schist, Metamorphic

A. From St. Paul the Christian is both in the world and outside of it. This has been the position of the greatest (Christ)ian thinkers from the Apostle to John Calvin. 

It is important for us Orthodox to remember that the reason we are not in the world is not because the addressee of Paul’s sermons was within a pagan empire. The fact that you are under the Emperor Justinian and not Claudius does not create a tautology.

B. Another central point is that faithful traditions, and God, favor liberalism. Now this is not the liberalism of the political left or right, but the view that government must have a light hand. We see the roots of this in the laws and the historical books of the Old Testament.  Since liberal = left in America, I’ll use different terms – laissez faire, or others. 

1. I am persuaded (but not yet entirely convinced) that these two imperatives should not imply each other and are not interdependent. The reason is that combining them would lead to the state’s formulation of human nature. The last three hundred years have shown us that building a state like Rousseau educated Émile is disastrous. 

C. There is another set of questions related to institutions. Are all institutions as alien to the Christian as the state? That is, is a monastery still, in its own way, the “world”. The lives of the saints suggest it is. However, the Byzantine symphony of state and Church relied on monasticism – and on its relative economic independence – for its health. It was of the world in its world but in that world it was not of the world. This is the greatest lesson Byzantium has to teach us, and we must remember in engaging with (or practicing) monasticism that it was a quite different, much more powerful, system than the one we have now. And thus one which could have much greater effects, good and bad, then ours can.

D. Does B imply that a Christian society is a liberal society? This is the most difficult question as it cannot have an answer other than ‘No’; but that ‘No’ has to have mostly ‘Well, yes’ inside of it. The rub is that answering that question is in large part related to B.1. You start to answer it and you define the state and human nature and that leads to tyranny. So ‘Yes’ means that we don’t set goalposts and let society evolve in the direction of righteousness with our individual action. Be a Christian yourself, don’t put your light under a bushel, and society will be more Christian. So ‘Yes’; but the Christian thought of the late 20th and 21st centuries will show that this is the more wrong of the two options. We are “in the world” so deeply that its habits, habits of the mind and body and nous, cannot be chosen by plebiscite. We are rational animals and both of those physes (conditional natures) have to be made Christian. An American can get baptized in an Orthodox Church at 30, read the Fathers, regularly commune, eat sslouvaki and not shish-kebab, and still be less Orthodox than his 16 year-old daughter who’s having a flirtation with Buddhism. The same holds for society. To maintain or build traditions within society without coercion is not to be right in all circumstances, so the present moment is teaching us. The pain of the present moment is that none of those governments presently enforcing tradition seem to have the interests of their people at heart, regardless of their souls. And this is a lesson to us, too.  

Caloric economies

Whatever you might think, the most basic economic unit is the calorie. However much lighter your flat TV screen is for you to carry up the stairs, in it are the calories spent by the Indonesian migrant worker mixing the cement pouring the foundation for the factory that assembled it. The calories come from somewhere, their greatest concentrates in the fossil fuels that are the conserved, compressed, refined stores of the ages, but the most precious those running in our blood. One can say that the greatest economic shift of the last three thousand years is that fossil fuel has made the most significant investment of the blood that of the blood running through the brain.


The Scene of the Crime IV

In two versions there is a capstone story to David’s becoming king. The chapter in Samuel begins with the “Last words of David” and talks about his mighty men (II Samuel 23). That in Chronicles (I Chron. 11.19) with the public reception of David as king and the martial consolidation of the kingdom.  This is how David became legitimate king in the public eye after Saul’s madness – not from the anointment of Samuel or the promises of the Heavenly Father.

II Samuel 23.14/ I Chronicles 11.17: A Philistine garrison was in his home town and he was out in one of his old haunts, a cave stronghold (I Sam 22 & Chron.) where he had hid with his family from Saul.  There, with his men, under the roiling eye of the noon-day demon (Ps 91.6 LXX), flies buzzing and horses dozing, he lets out a yawn, stretches…:

וַיִּתְאַוֶּ֥ה דָוִ֖ד וַיֹּאמַ֑ר מִ֚י יַשְׁקֵ֣נִי מַ֔יִם מִבֹּ֥אר בֵּֽית־לֶ֖חֶם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּשָּֽׁעַר׃

David felt a craving and said, “If only I could get a drink of water from the cistern which is by the gate of Bethlehem!”

So three of his men break through the Philistine lines and bring him a flagon from his familiar well. But he will not drink it. He balks. In the Septuagint he says: “God have mercy on me to do such a thing!”