Observations on Orthodoxy

The Eastern Orthodox Church might be called a little stingy in its acknowledging of anyone as a theologian. Strictly speaking, our church recognizes but three—just three saints whose names include that epithet. They are Saint John the Theologian (also called John the Evangelist), Saint Gregory the Theologian (also called Gregory of Nazianzus, and one of the Cappadocian Fathers), and Saint Symeon the New Theologian. As it happens, each of these men wrote their theologies in poetry, highlighting to some degree the rabbinic understanding that true theology is always parabolic, as the One of whom we speak extends beyond comprehension, irreducible.

One of the discoveries that led me finally to embrace the eastern church was its disposition toward biblical scripture. The church of my youth approached the scriptures as if they were both knowable and reducible to proposition; each verse was approached as a fixed utterance, dictated, word by word, by God to certain men; the scriptures were understood to be God’s words precisely, and they were understood to be the revelation, as such. On the other hand, Orthodoxy observes that what God revealed to these men was but a glimpse of himself, and that those men thereafter employed their own words to offer up what might be better understood as a witness to the revelation. That is to say, these writers beheld a mystical vision, and sought to share it by whatever means they could muster. What we make of their textual witness is, of course, another matter.

Poet Scott Cairns, in Image Journal.

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The Hermetic Decalogue

If he would leave the self alone,
Apollo’s welcome to the throne,
Fasces and falcons;
He loves to rule, has always done it;
The earth would soon, did Hermes run it,
Be like the Balkans.

But jealous of our god of dreams,
His common-sense in secret schemes
To rule the heart;
Unable to invent the lyre,
Creates with simulated fire
Official art.

And when he occupies a college,
Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.

Athletic, extrovert and crude,
For him, to work in solitude
Is the offence,
The goal a populous Nirvana:
His shield bears this device: Mens sana
Qui mal y pense.

In our morale must lie our strength:
So, that we may behold at length
Routed Apollo’s
Battalions melt away like fog,
Keep well the Hermetic Decalogue,
Which runs as follows:–

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before
Administration.

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
And take short views.

W.H. Auden, Under Which Lyre, subtitled A Reactionary Tract for the Times, debuted as a Phi Beta Kappa Poem, Harvard, 1946.

The poem came to my attention (though I own Auden’s collected poems), by Ross Douthat riffing on a new book from Alan Jacobs.

During his visit, Auden met James Conant, then the president of Harvard and a man associated with the Apollonian transformation of the modern university, its remaking as a scientific-technical powerhouse with its old religious and humanistic purposes hollowed out. “‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself,” Auden wrote of the encounter. “And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”

Ross Douthat.

Lord, count me among the Hermetics when Thou comest into Thy kingdom (if I’m not too far gone already).

* * * * *

Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

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World Poetry Day

Rod Dreher has asked readers to submit favorite poems in honor of World Poetry Day.

No poem has revolutionized my life, but I enjoy poetry more and more as I grow older. Like most art forms, it seems to do some things no other form can do. I once asked someone struggling for words to express something very important to them whether they might sing, dance, paint or build it.

My dirty little secret: poetry is especially good after eight ounces or so of wine. Call that “transcending the left brain/right brain dichotomy.”

I quote or allude often to Yeats’ Second Coming, so I’ll not repeat that. Here are four others, not randomly chosen, but not my final answer, either:

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
A penny for the Old Guy

I
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

II
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

III
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

IV
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

V
Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

(T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men)

The world unfurls its flag of toleration,
issues its edicts of equality,
and he who bears the sign of our salvation
is banished as a public enemy.
As Athanasius, when the world awoke
to find itself ensconced in heresy,
so we whose world must wear a harsher yoke
are called to Athanasian constancy.

We, too, may need to navigate a Nile
to dwell in desert solitude awhile,
with foreign tongue and unfamiliar face
endure injustice, exile, and disgrace.
Hold fast the Faith. Set swords about the Creed.
And call on Athanasius in your need.

(Mark Amorose)

“I hate to say most of these prayers written by saints-in-an-emotional-state.
You feel you are wearing someone else’s finery and I can never describe my heart
as ‘burning’ to the Lord (who knows better) without snickering.”
—Flannery O’Connor

And so I limit myself to the saints
who are sensible, the ones who wear flats
to a party, prickly wool skirts and pink
shirts with a Peter Pan collar. I think
too much, my mother claims. Still, it’s my aim
to talk to God in a voice that’s just my own,
not one on loan from a lonely nun
or a love-starved Spanish priest. The least
I can do is try to be true
though often my words betray me. Like just
now. I tried to read Thérèse of Lisieux
but couldn’t choke down all the icing, a feast
for the sweet tooth where my soul loves salt.
I know. I’m a sinner. I know it’s my fault.

(Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Flannery’s confession)

You passed me on the street
I rode the subway with you
You lived down the hall from me
I admired your dog in the park one morning
We waited in line for a concert
I ate with you in the cafes
You stood next to me at the bar
We huddled under an awning during a downpour
We dashed across the street to beat the light
I bumped into you coming round the corner
You stepped on my foot
I held the door for you
You helped me up when I slipped on the ice
I grabbed the last Sunday Times
You stole my cab
We waited forever at the bus stop
We sweated in steamy August
We hunched our shoulders against the sleet
We laughed at the movies
We groaned after the election
We sang in church
Tonight I lit a candle for you
All of you

(Charlotte Parsons, Nine-Eleven, via the Writer’s Almanac — which is no more thanks to MPR’s unpersoning  Garrison Keillor.)

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Imposter Syndrome

A gem of an essay at Aeon:

‘Impostor syndrome’ describes a problem I don’t especially wish to solve. Its remedy is to recognise that one does in fact belong. Yet I can’t convince myself I want to fully belong – indeed, I would experience belonging as a loss. The reasons for this are several, though all converge on a conviction that being ill-adapted has a value I would not forfeit.

Lately, academia has grown more sensitive to how its culture flattens and normalises those who populate its ranks. Impostor syndrome is a way of explaining how non-standard identities can provoke alienation. Class is one such structure of exclusion, alongside race, gender, sexual identity and disability. But what are the epistemic costs of ‘fitting’? If we look only at alienation, we ignore the ways in which that subtly enforced sameness diminishes understanding.

In his exquisite poem ‘Digging’ (1966), Seamus Heaney observes his own descent from men who laboured. Of his father digging potatoes, he writes:

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

Against this raw strength, Heaney registers with melancholy humility: ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’ and the poem concludes:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

The poem’s beauty is its ambivalence, its reluctance to mark a generational shift from spade to pen as unambiguous progress. I long to wield both, and rue how often academic life would strip spades from those who have them. And that, more than anything else, is what I suspect betrays me as an impostor, though not in the anxious, normalised way.

Impostor syndrome rides on the perception, most fundamentally, that one is getting away with something. I struggle to grasp just why this sleight-of-hand ought be counted a bad thing. I sometimes still feel a fraud in academic environments, but neither do I mind it much. Indeed, taking a little pleasure in getting away with things is something I come by honestly – a family legacy, if you will.

None of my academic bona fides reassure me more than counting myself a squatter

(Amy Olberding, How useful is ‘impostor syndrome’ in academia?, Aeon Essays)

Update:

Did you ever feel like an imposter in Church?

The Rooted Faith in Wendell Berry’s Fiction.” Jack Baker and I write about how Berry’s exemplary characters root themselves in order to bring healing to damaged places:

Berry describes himself as a “marginal” Christian, and his position on the outskirts of our dominant, consumerist culture makes his a voice from the wilderness—one many evangelicals with more orthodox theology might do well to consider. Perhaps the greatest threat to the church today isn’t falling for doctrinal heresy but implicitly adopting the consumerist, self-centered assumptions of our Western culture. It’s all too easy for American Christians to assent to the right doctrines on Sunday while inhabiting a counter-Christian economy the rest of the week, loving ourselves more than God and neighbor.

(Jeffrey Bilbro, for whom also a tip of the hat for pointing me to Amy Olberding’s essay)

* * * * *

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

A man … is only a bigot if he cannot understand that his dogma is a dogma, even if it is true.

(G.K. Chesterton) Be of good courage, you who are called “bigots” by those who are unable to conceive seriously the alternatives to their dogmas.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

We knew full well he was a snake

I suggested soon after the 2016 elections that something big was happening, though I’d barely began to understand it. It feels timely to take another look now.

Trump has co-opted “movement conservatism” almost completely. Former “never Trump” conservatives in many cases have become his sycophants. The three Republicans who want to replace moderate Democrat Senator Joe Donnelly in Indiana are generally trying to out-Trumpify one another (here, here and here). To speak any criticism of Trump, howsoever true (e.g., he’s a lout sexually), is to invite boos and hisses, as Mona Charen learned at CPAC last week.

I detest the media’s reckless use of the term “far right,” but a telltale sign that “far right” may indeed be what’s happening to movement conservatism is that CPAC invited Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. As Mona Charen later noted, Mademoiselle LePen holds no public office or particular prominence in France, but her aunt Marine and grandfather Jean-Marie are, respectively, far-right secularists and extreme far-right, even crypto-Nazi. In short, she was invited for the far-right frisson of her family name, like inviting Milo to your campus only with genuinely sinister undertones instead of just mindless iconoclasm.

UPDATE: I intended to acknowledge that CPAC almost certainly got more than it bargained for from LePen, who did not dish up a racist anti-immigration rant and actually pushed some conservative themes that few American conservatives are ready to hear sympathetically. Rod Dreher discusses this well enough that I’ll link to his blog and quote this:

Do not take me as endorsing Marion Maréchal-Le Pen! I honestly don’t know enough about her to do such a thing, and I certainly condemn the racism and anti-Semitism of her grandfather — and, if she espouses it, then her own racism and anti-Semitism. However, I generally don’t trust the US media’s reporting on her, or on the European anti-liberal right.

And Trump himself gave a CPAC speech that included a poem (actually song lyrics), based on one of Aesop’s fables, which I didn’t know had become part of his schtick. He explicitly makes immigrants the treacherous snake in the doggerel.

During the campaign,

Trump left the stage soon after finishing “The Snake” — and it acted as a sort of lens through which the evening’s hatred and xenophobia and racism could be focused and made clear. Those howls of approval? That’s the sound of thousands of hateful worldviews being confirmed all at once by a single work of art.

(Paul Constant, What Donald Trump’s favorite poem tells us about Donald Trump)

Do you miss mere “dog whistles” yet, progressive Americans?

But Constant continues, elaborating what hit me when I heard Trump read that poem:

Recently, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who worked on Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, pointed out that the key to understanding Trump is this: when he tosses around insults, he is really talking about himself. With this insight in mind, you can see all Trump’s insecurities swirl to the surface in his attacks: he’s called Hillary Clinton “a lose [sic] cannon with extraordinarily bad judgement [sic] & insticts [sic],” he’s labeled Elizabeth Warren a “racist,” said President Obama “doesn’t have a clue,” and he loves to call the press “dishonest.” It’s like he’s performing advanced psychotherapy on himself by projecting his self-loathing onto the world.

And so with that discovery in mind, consider what Trump might find so compelling about “The Snake.” Audiences seem to interpret the poem as a charge against kindness. Trump supporters like to say that we can no longer afford to accept immigrants because our generosity has been taken advantage of again and again. The implication is that we need to get our house in order before we open our doors again. But that’s a misreading of “The Snake.” Instead, “The Snake” is about believing against all evidence to the contrary that someone’s nature will change in different circumstances.

For the last few months, Republican leaders have tried to assure the electorate that Trump would pivot during the election, that he would start calming down and presenting as a more reasonable candidate when we got closer to the general election. Trump himself has said that he would act presidential if he won the election. We have repeatedly been told — by Trump’s family at the Republican National Convention, by Trump himself, by Trump’s running mate — that we are not seeing the real Donald Trump.

But what Trump is telling us with “The Snake” is that he is the snake in that story, and that he will never stop spreading his poison. Trump’s whole pitch is that he’s been an asshole his entire life, and that he’s willing to be the asshole on our behalf for a change. He’s proud of his bankruptcies, his tax-dodging, his dishonorable business practices. Many of his followers argue that he’s just the kind of monster we need to even the playing field with international competitors. But in his speeches, Trump himself keeps urging us to believe the evidence before our eyes: we know damn well he is a snake, so why would we take him in?

(Emphasis added) There’s plenty of other commentary on Trump and this poem, too.

Yet the Democrats thus far will not moderate to seize disaffected conservatives, now read out of their former party and movement. The near-term future thus looks as polarized or even more polarized (“paralyzed,” I typed initially in a Freudian slip) than the present.

In my post-election suggestion of big ferment, I quoted Michael Lind of Politico that what we were seeing was actually the end of a partisan realignment:

The partisan coalitions that defined the Democratic and Republican parties for decades in the middle of the twentieth century broke apart long ago; over the past half century, their component voting blocs — ideological, demographic, economic, geographic, cultural — have reshuffled. The reassembling of new Democratic and Republican coalitions is nearly finished.

What we’re seeing this year is the beginning of a policy realignment, when those new partisan coalitions decide which ideas and beliefs they stand for — when, in essence, the party platforms catch up to the shift in party voters that has already happened … The future is being built before our eyes, with far-reaching consequences for every facet of American politics.

That still rings very true to me, and I am coming to detest the ideas and beliefs of the new Republican party as much as I’ve long detested the deal-killer abortion stance of the Democrats. Maybe, pace Lind, the increasing frank and unapologetic racism of the GOP is the eventuality of the “dog whistles” of which progressive America complained: the kennel’s full now, and the occupants nominated the snake.

But it’s not all bad.

  1. Neal Gorsuch.
  2. The death of Zombie Reaganism as the GOP’s mantra. (Unfortunately, Living Trumpism is far worse than Zombie Reaganism.)

Seriously, within the last two years or so, I’ve affiliated with the American Solidarity Party. Its platform is far enough out of the current mainstream that it feels utopian. In some ways, it’s my ideological placeholder: “not Republican, not Democrat, but flirting with this kind of Christian vision for our common life.”

Over the weekend, I discovered, subscribed to, and delighted in American Affairs, a journal explicitly founded because “the conventional partisan platforms are no longer relevant to the the most pressing challenges facing our country.”

In short, I don’t yet see any place for me emerging from either the Republicans or the Democrats, and I think the interesting discussions are happening in places like American Affairs, with its welcoming conservative atmosphere but no dogmatic positions that I’ve seen.

I’m still not quite sure what’s up, but I’m seeing glimmers that it actually might not be some “rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born.” But maybe that’s just the sunshine and hints of Spring deceiving me.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

An Antidote to 45

There are times when I genuinely wonder whether I can hold up psychologically in our current politics and culture. My shrink tells me I am far from alone in this, and that everyone she listens to is consumed with a depression that swings from despair to rage to what can only be called learned helplessness. There are moments when everything I have come to believe in — reasoned deliberation, mutual toleration, liberal democracy, free speech, honesty, decency, and moderation — seem as if they are in eclipse. Emotionalism, tribalism, intolerance, lies, cruelty, and extremism surround us (and I have not been immune in this climate to their temptations either). Trump has turned the right into a foul, spit-flecked froth of racist reactionism, and he has evoked a radical response on the left that, while completely understandable, alienates me and many others more profoundly with every passing day …

Trump himself seems hard to oppose without in some way mimicking him. Take the high road and you risk genteel irrelevance. Go down to Trump’s level and you find yourself wrestling with a brawler whose indecency eventually defines you as well …

[W.H.] Auden is an antidote to Trump and to our times. He despised celebrity; he ran from fame and money; he never “signaled” his many virtues to anyone; in fact, he went to great lengths to hide them from view. “Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York,” Mendelson recalls. “She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.” He privately paid for the tuition of a succession of war orphans until his death; he made himself look like an asshole in demanding immediate payment for some work — but only so he could quietly give the money to Dorothy Day’s homeless shelter in New York. Mendelson also recalls how “I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Auden’s poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka.” It turns out that there were countless such acts of quiet generosity.

He hated to grandstand. He knew the temptations of the easy political stance. He gave a public speech in the U.S. just after he arrived here in 1939 and got a rapturous response from the liberal crowd. But he wrote to a friend afterward: “I suddenly found I could really do it, that I could make a fighting demagogic speech and have the audience roaring … It is so exciting but so absolutely degrading; I felt just covered with dirt afterwards.”

Auden found this wisdom — and indeed way of life — in Christianity, as so many others have over the millennia, which is why I worry about our day and age. We live in a post-Christian world, and even many who say they are Christian turn out to be craven sophists, dedicating themselves to an evil man for the sake of something they call good. So where do we go to get off the train of history now that faith has “ended,” to see it in some deeper perspective, outside the hot take of 30 seconds ago, the news of the last hour, or the most recent assault on reason and decency from the man at the head of the table? …

(Andrew Sullivan) Read the whole thing, including the second part, on science and sexual harassment.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Only wonder understands

About 51 months ago, I put a Father Stephen Freeman blog in my personal amber. Excerpt:

Everything is far more than it appears.

With the heart of a poet St. Gregory of Nyssa asserts, “Only wonder understands anything.” The role of wonder is (among other things) to slow us down, make us quiet, and help us pay attention. The “flat-landers” sail prosaically through life and miss most of what is true, drawing only the most obvious conclusions, even when what is obvious is incorrect. It is the things that are “out of place” that are easily ignored (they’re so bothersome!), while they are most often the clues that reveal the mystery.

The reduction of the world and its “history,” are the tools of those who lack the imagination and patience to find the truth.

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Maybe my own

Thoughts recorded on a historic and dark day in America:

I dread this nightfall.
(Isn’t it dawn somewhere?)
How long will this night be?
(Do they speak English there?)

I don’t claim authorship of this, though when I journaled it almost five years ago, I gave no credits, which is unusual. The sentiments correspond to my own.

If I was confident I wrote it, I’d be pleased. I’m only the most occasional and untutored poet.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

A day in the land of my sojourn

Again, I’ve lingered too long this morning over very good stuff found in my internet haunts. But I’ve withdrawn some things (see below) scheduled on Hootsuite for later release to Facebook and Twitter, because I’ve found something else that wraps up my feelings poetically.

Much as I’ve thought that every sentient Christian should be moved by Psalm 51 (50 in Orthodox Bibles), so I think they should be moved by Peggy Haslar’s late-Thursday Sparrowfare blog. She’s the poet (even if she borrows from late songster Rich Mullins). Savor it.

“While saints are engaged in introspection, burly sinners run the world.”

(John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1920) p. 196. H/T Edwin Bensen) Be a saint anyway.

* * *

If you’re curious, here are three things I pulled from Hootsuite:

    1. Understanding Conservative Christian Silence on Donald Trump’s Porngate in three perceptive points.
    2. Purity and Prejudice is a weak title for “theme and variations on ‘cads and louts won the sexual revolution.'”
    3. President Trump is the Freest Man Alive, and you’re worse than an idiot if you want to be like him.

The second and third are particularly good, but Haslar’s Sparrowfare outshone them.

The third, it seems to me (from always-insightful Elizabeth Bruenig), vindicates Patrick Deneen’s premise that liberalism (in the broad sense in which even “conservatives” are liberal) has failed. The “burly sinner” in the White House epitomizes the individualism espoused by liberalism, and he is a train wreck of a human being precisely because of his superlative acquisition of all the liberal anti-virtues. Q.E.D.

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“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.