The moral horse and the doctrinal cart

Once again, Fr. Stephen gets my juices going:

In early centuries, [the catechumenate, that process by which we initiate persons into the life of the Orthodox faith,] lasted as much as three years. Surprisingly, it consisted primarily in “moral instruction” (teachings on how to behave). Instruction in the doctrines of the faith did not take place until after Baptism! The assumption behind this was (and still should be) that catechumens needed spiritual formation before they were ready to receive doctrinal instruction. This assumption has been greatly weakened in our modern culture.

We labor under the myth of being an “information-based” society. We imagine that we are deeply informed, have ready access to massive amounts of information on the basis of which we are able to make free and well-considered decisions. This over-simplification of our human experience is deeply flawed …

Catechumens, if given only a diet of information, … fail to thrive. Above all else, it is the practice of the faith that makes faith possible.

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn. 8:31-32)

“Abiding in the word” (keeping the commandments, engaging in the practices of the faith) is the necessary pre-condition for “knowing the truth.”

This suggests to me that we set our minds to become “perpetual catechumens” in which we give our attention to the softening of our hearts rather than inundation of our minds …

The heart’s learning is the true point of salvation. Information does not save us – but there is such a thing as “saving knowledge.” We speak of this, formally, as “holy illumination.” It is the consistent teaching of the Church that holy illumination is our desired path to God.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, ‌The Perpetual Catechumen

Had I read this 25 years ago, I’d have wondered what kind of squishy Kum-Bah-Yah cult taught such things as "spiritual formation before doctrinal instruction."

Not a digression: I remember a rather fringe figure in my Evangelical years, Col. R.B. Thieme, Jr., teaching sometime in the 1976-79 range that "God loves nothing better than doctrine in the frontal lobe."

I didn’t believe him — but I lived as if it were true, or as if enough doctrine in my frontal lobe would eventually cure my disordered life. It never did, and it never would have. The trajectory it put me on was that of an irascible "discernment blogger" with a hot steaming mess of a private life. Only the lack of a consumer internet spared me that fate.

When I entered the Orthodox Christian faith some 20 years later, I did so expecting to get my doctrine straightened out, having seen a couple of fundamental flaws in my prior approach — the kinds of things you can’t un-see — and having somehow gained an implicit trust in the Church.

But for some reason, early in that same transitional period of my life, I saw in re-reading C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce that I needed to forsake one particular moral failing, lest it make me the kind of person who wouldn’t even like heaven had he inherited it. In that regard, Anglican Lewis — and his message to my imagination, not my intellect — was my Orthodox moral catechist.

And now, twenty-four more years down the road, Fr. Stephen makes perfect sense to me. To my surprise, "Orthodox" Christianity turned out not to be all that much about doctrine. Beyond the Nicene Creed, there are few doctrinal dogmas. We are conspicuously apophatic, a tendency that Col. Thieme presumably would have anathematized.

What it is about is — well, you’ll just have to come and see.


You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

A few thoughts

I’ve had major, major computer woes over the past eight days and blogging went on the back burner, but I have read a bit a clipped a bit and, well, I have thoughts.


First, an interesting bit of tonic contrariness:

> Frankly, a big problem in our society is that many of our institutions are still too trusted relative to the amount of trust they deserve. Think about blue chip brands like GE or Boeing that were once synonymous with American can-do business, but are now joke companies. The response to the coronavirus should have revealed to everyone the institutional incompetence of much of our public sector. And I’ve been on record for years as writing that most communities would be better off if half of their non-profits disappeared. > > I plan to write an entire future Masculinist on why we should in many cases cease to identify the public good with the continuation and propping up of our failed institutions. As Alasdair Macintyre put it in After Virtue, “A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.” > > Care for your neighbor or the American people does not necessarily have to equate to maintenance of the American “imperium.”

Aaron Renn, The Masculinist


Second, an introduction that’s better, in my opinion, than the overall article that follows:

> People complain about QAnon, but truly lasting, impactful lunacy is always exclusive to intellectuals. Everyone else is constrained. You can’t fish on land for long. Same with using a chainsaw for headache relief. An intellectual may freely mistake bullshit for Lincoln logs and spend a lifetime building palaces.

Matt Taibbi, Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the Pseudo-Intellectual


On sitting out the new culture wars:

> An actress who rose to prominence in a sport I loathe had been fired from a television program I have no plans of ever watching on an online streaming platform that I would never subscribe to for employing a tired but once-popular Holocaust-derived analogy in an argument about — well, I really don’t know, but I was supposed to be thrilled that she is now engaged in an unnamed new film venture with another journalist whose work I despise. Sandwiched between these two incidents was at least one other pseudo-controversy involving the inconsistent application of privacy rules at the aforementioned paper. It led to a once-pseudonymous blogger, who was supposed to be the subject of an abandoned profile, outing himself and then being written about in a somewhat nastier manner by the same publication. This in turn gave rise to dozens of impassioned defenses of the unlucky scribe by countless other 40-something male bloggers, including one prominent defender of polygamy.

Matthew Walther

I’m about 80% sitting them out, too. The remaining 20% is a weak presumption that any conservative who got cancelled is ipso facto a pretty good ole boy or gal.


Beam me up, Lord:

> An Israeli startup that is developing 3D printers for meat undertook a successful fundraising round that will allow it to distribute its products to restaurants this year. Redefine Meat combines 3D meat modelling, food formulations and food printing to build complex-matrix “meat” on its machines, made from proteins found in legumes and grains and fat from plants. The steaks resemble the texture and taste of choice cuts of beef, but with no cholesterol. Bill Gates this week called on rich countries to switch to “100% synthetic beef” in order to lower greenhouse-gas emissions from the cattle industry.

Business this week | The world this week | The Economist

The "meat" photo with the article looked very good, but I’m really not keen on faux meat. When fasting from meat, I avoid fake meat 99% of the time, especially now that the fakes are so like the real thing.

And seriously, Bill Gates: Is it really all that obvious that synthetic beef is better for the environment (and/or cows) than pastured beef?

As Michael Pollan says, if it’s made of plants, it’s food; if it’s made in a plant, it’s not food.

Eat food.


You can read most of my more impromptu stuff here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Miscellany

Surveillance capitalism creeps me out.

I don’t control my lights, door locks, or anything else by speaking commands to my 1st-generation Amazon Echo. Indeed, I shut the microphone off about a year ago and I only use it like a table radio — direct streaming or bluetooth from my phone — and controlled from the Alexa app on my phone, not by voice.

When Echo dies, it will either not be replaced or will be replaced with a streaming radio with better sound quality (though Echo isn’t too bad). And no voice control.

There is no way I’m going to wear a pair of Alexa-powered Bose earphones, wandering around in “public” but in my own little world inside my head, isolated from the world except for asking it “how do I get shiny hair?” when I see a slick Afghan Hound.

Nor Echo frames.

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I’m partial to the hypothesis that living in unreality (in which I’d include virtual reality) creates ennui.

I noticed recently, though, that most articles of the “digital detox” genre are focused on productivity, not on humanity let alone holiness. I’m told that Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism is different. I hope so, because after I catch up on a little backlog of magazines, it’s my next book (on Kindle, of course — so sue me).

Indeed, much of my reading lately seems to evoke gentle regrets: “Gosh, I could have lived this better way if only I’d been wiser.” There’s a reason for the saying “Too soon old, too late smart.”

Notice I said “gentle,” not “bitter.”

A magazine that frequently gives me gentle regrets is Plough, from the Bruderhof community. I think Mother Jones and my secular “alternate lifestyle” magazines will be going unrenewed, Plough renewed.

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Meanwhile, I’ve taken a deep breath, installed Freedom, and instructed it to help my self-control by cutting me off from the internet and from various apps at times of day when I am resolving to do something other than sitting on my arse with a computer on my lap.

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I had an Impossible Burger once. It was surprisingly burgerlike.

But Michael Pollan says “if it comes from a plant, it’s food; if it’s made in a plant, it’s not food.” Heck, you don’t even save calories and fat grams with Impossible Burger. If I want burger taste, I’ll buy a burger.

Except maybe when I’m dying for meat in Lent. Once or twice, tops. I think it was Lent 2019 when I tried one.

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Did I mention that I came of age in the 60s? And was an Audio-Visual Dept. geek?

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I just saw San Francisco 49er defender #2 helping a Green Bay Packer runner to land on his back rather than the top of his helmet when undercut by San Francisco 49er defender #1.

There is magnanimity in the world. Especially from teams that are up 20-0 in the first half.

 

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All Christian readers could benefit from listening to the podcast The Struggle Against the Normal Life. It’s a short (11:05) detox for our toxic faux Christian environment.

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

The virtue least able to stand alone

Children reveal our instinct for fairness, the root concept in the virtue of justice. Of course, as every parent knows, that instinct is often distorted, with the desire for fairness being expressed only as “fairness for me.” Justice is a virtue with deep, visceral content. Whenever it is invoked, it should be accompanied with flags of warning. Of all the virtues, it is the least able to stand alone.

The virtue of justice, when taken alone, moves towards vice. The instinct for fairness quietly blends with the sin of envy, the desire that someone should “get what’s coming to them,” ironically named, “just deserts.” When we take pleasure in another’s misfortune, it is not the virtue of justice – it is the sin of envy. It is quite rare in our world that we find justice standing alone, pure and undefiled.

When mixed with envy, justice has the nightmare problem of no limitations. It is never satisfied with fairness – it requires punishment (inevitably justified as “fairness” or “recompense” or “justice”). The desire for justice, by itself, easily becomes an instrument of great evil … The natural appetite for justice knows no limit. The quiet virtues of temperance and prudence are the necessary antidotes to such excess. They are also much less easily acquired.

… Temperance and prudence require ascetical efforts.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, Justice, Temperance, Prudence and the Virtue of “No”.

Bonus from the same blog:

Conservatism is easily little more than the resistance to change. Receiving a tradition is a matter of a living relationship with what has gone before and recognizing its place in the present. Conservatism treats the past as important – tradition treats the past as still present.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

Too many things to give up

Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

(I Corinthians 9:24-27)

When we train there are all kinds of things we have to add to our regimen: stretching, weight-lifting, and so forth. But there are also things that we have to subtract: sweets, drinking, and other things. When you’re training, what you take away is just as important as what you add, but when you talk to Christians it’s all about what their faith adds to their lives and never about what it takes away. And the thing with college students, and the reason why they’re Moralistic Therapeutic Deists is not just because they haven’t been trained properly in certain practices, it’s because there are too many things they don’t want to give up, especially sex and drinking, but also their desire for material success. And so they think about God in a way that allows them to do things they want to do but not be held morally responsible for them, nor be required to take things out of their lives. In my Bible study I am constantly arguing with them about their claim that God wants us to be happy. “Where are you getting that from? That’s not in the Bible. God wants us to be holy, not happy.” But you can’t get anywhere with that argument.

(Student interacting with her prof after Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option lecture at Notre Dame)

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

A life in a string of epiphanies

I’ve been blogging now for more than seven years, and religion has been a frequent topic. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never set out an orderly account of my religious pilgrimage or explained just what my beefs are with the Christian traditions I’ve left.

I intend to remedy that right now.  Continue reading “A life in a string of epiphanies”