31 January 2016

Questioning the Chinese liberal inquisitors

It is one of those strange little nagging historical questions that I’ve never gotten a straight answer to, and probably never will – but it is a question which continues to compromise my ability to take the ‘Confucian liberals’ seriously. It is a question which continues to rise to mind whenever I hear ‘Confucian liberals’ criticise the small present-day group of Confucian classicists, traditionalists and communitarians on the mainland for being, in their estimation, ‘authoritarians’. It is a question which rises to mind again and again when I read the work of Joseph Chan in particular, but it’s a question that shoots at an intellectual lacuna which describes a broad swathe of Taiwanese, Hongkonger and overseas Chinese liberals who inquisitorially decry any whiff of what they see as a betrayal of democratic values, without examining closely their own intellectual history and that of their forebears.

By ‘Confucian liberals’ I mean that body of white émigrés and overseas Chinese intellectuals which followed in the footsteps particularly of Xiong Shili and Hu Shi – a body which includes Mou Zongsan, Xu Fuguan, Zhang Junmai and Tang Junyi – which first acquiesced to most of the cultural drift of May Fourth, and afterwards collaborated to a high degree with the Nationalist government in Taiwan under Jiang Jieshi, far beyond any specific call to gratitude. And that very action goes straight to the heart of the question. These thinkers were very quick to adapt concepts which were then popular in German idealist philosophy. And I’m sure that they felt that in doing so, they were adapting Confucianism to something more amenable to the values of the West. But what they ended up doing in practice was legitimating a Nationalist dictatorship which could be every bit as brutal, albeit on a smaller scale, as the Communist government they had fled. The Nationalists flooded and starved their own people during the Second World War (particularly at Huayuankou), a policy which, arguably unlike the Great Leap Forward, was done in full consciousness and forethought of the human consequences – the millions who would be drowned, displaced or starved. And subsequently they massacred over twenty thousand protesters in Taiwan in the 28 February incident. It does not speak well, to say the least, of the ‘Confucian liberals’ of the New Confucian movement, that among their number only Zhang Junmai demurred from support of Jiang Jieshi on account of his heavy-handed brutalism, and parted ways with his associates for a career in the United States.

I don’t want to downplay in the slightest the valuable intellectual heavy lifting this group of scholars did. It is largely on account of their work that Confucianism has any recognisable presence at all in the modern world. But it seems to be far from a personal failing on the part of each member of this group of New Confucians that all but one of them openly and materially supported, legitimated and sought the patronage of Jiang Jieshi’s brutal, bloody and blatantly un-Confucian dictatorship – and further that they subsequently had the gall to claim their thought as ‘democratic’ and to take a stand on the ‘new outer kingliness’ of Western liberalism. The circumstances of modern Taiwan, a developed and democratic polity, might in some measure justify their choice in retrospect, but they could have had no knowledge of such an outcome at the time, and at any rate it is not a Confucian attitude to take that the ends justify the means. If Confucianism is virtue-ethical, we cannot fail to ask these questions; after all, wisdom (zhi 智) and sincerity (xin 信) are two of the cardinal Confucian virtues.

And let us be fully honest when we are comparing them with thinkers who were doing work in similar directions – in much more straitened intellectual circumstances – on the mainland, always at the risk of their livelihoods and very often of their lives. I am speaking specifically of China’s first and greatest sociologist, Fei Xiaotong. The situations of Fei Xiaotong and the New Confucians are in fact quite comparable. Like them, Fei received a Western education – and like them, he thought it indispensable and even necessary to learn from certain forms of Western thought. But very much unlike them, Fei’s knowledge of (and sympathy for) the Confucian corpus was not acquired through a classical education, but rather through his encounter with the sediments of that corpus that were still alive in the rural culture. Fei does not quote from classical scholars at length in From the Soil, but his understanding of Confucian practical ethics, mindset and worldview (though expressed in the language of Western sociology) are still every bit as deep as those of Mou and Tang and Xu.

But here’s the kicker. Fei had been a member of the Democratic League and eventually became a ‘reluctant Communist’. Ideologically he was much closer to being a distributist or even something like a Chinese narodnik. To the end of his career, he insisted that it was the job of the intellectuals to understand and inhabit the mindset and practices of the common people, without presumption and without condescension. And in an instructive counterpoint to the New Confucians’ cosy relationship with the Jiang government, he didn’t seek Mao’s patronage but instead stood fast in defence of his sociological discipline and of the ‘Confucian’ rural culture. His books were banned in the Cultural Revolution. He was branded as a ‘rightist deviationist’ for his advocacy during the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, stripped of his professorship, physically assaulted by the Red Guards and assigned the most demeaning janitorial labour. He weathered the inhuman upheavals of the Cultural Revolution with as much integrity as he was able to under the circumstances, and went on after Mao’s death to advocate both for a ‘people’s sociology’ and for the peasantry.

In truth, even though Fei Xiaotong was not a classicist and never would have described himself as a Confucian, he ultimately made a much better Confucian gentleman, a much better junzi 君子, than the modernising intellectuals who fled to Taiwan in Jiang Jieshi’s shadow. His instincts were populist and pro-peasant in the best sense meant, possibly in the tradition of Ban Gu – he was always eager to allow rural people to express themselves on their own terms. Yet my suspicion is that the liberal thinkers who follow the New Confucians would nowadays seek to brand Fei an ‘institutionalist’ or an ‘authoritarian’ and cast him posthumously as a ‘leftist deviationist’ into a cultural-revolutionary outer darkness of their own making, for his empirical observance of the differential mode of association and his implicit disavowal of the idea of individual moral autonomy as a necessary component of Chinese society or ethical thought.

And, as I have noted before, he would in this respect join a number of venerable Confucian gentlemen – radicals, reformists and advocates for the poor and downtrodden – who are written off by the right-wing neoliberal intellectual elites of China’s modernity as ‘institutionalists’ and ‘authoritarians’: a number which includes Dong Zhongshu, He Xiu and Kang Youwei.

30 January 2016

Orthodox primates criticise global economy

See the article here. An alternative headline probably should be, ‘Primates of Orthodox Churches deliver solid backhand to Acton Institute’. Have a read of the relevant passages:
The Church cannot remain indifferent to economic processes that have negative influence on the whole humanity. It insists on the necessity not only to build economy on moral basis, but to serve a person by action with its help.
The gap between the rich and the poor dramatically broadens in the result of the economic crisis, [as] the result of impetuous speculations of financial circles, concentration of riches in hands of few people and perverted financial activities which are deprived of justice, humanity, responsibility and eventually does not satisfy true demands of human race.
[The] viable economy is the economy which combines efficiency with justice and social solidarity.
I’m very much hoping that these interesting-sounding snippets from what appears to be a much longer and more in-depth document from the pan-Orthodox council presage a much closer and more just examination in Orthodox circles of the theoretical economic work of, for example, Father Sergey Bulgakov and other Orthodox critics both of Marxist determinism and of the implicit materialism and amoralism of capitalist, libertarian and laissez-faire modes of economic organisation (for example, Vladimir Solovyov). Such a close reading and examination of these Russian religious philosophers’ economic thinking is indeed long overdue. Let’s hope they get it!

29 January 2016

The legitimacy crisis is real

It should be abundantly clear by now that I am not a fan of Donald J Trump. He is a vulgar Calvinist, a vulgar Caesarist and our version of Kleon – or, if you prefer a modern analogy to a classical one, he’s our version of Silvio Berlusconi. It’s unclear if the man has any convictions at all apart from ‘look out for number one’. He’s certainly not a true populist in the mould of Bill Peffer or John Rayner, or even a quasi-populist like Huey Long, who appealed to people’s competence and self-respect, instead of to their overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of complex global threats to life and livelihood.

But in spite of all of this, the Trump campaign has proven a source of endless fascination. Among the ordinaries and the shock troops of movement conservatism, his candidacy is immensely popular. But among the elites of that same movement, his candidacy is met with immediate and visceral revilement. The reason for this is that the political game which they rigged to play out a certain way, isn’t doing so. They used the moral capital from the culture wars in order to drum up support for foreign and domestic policies which have proven ineffective and indeed devastating to the cultural fabric they were claiming to protect. Now the grandees of movement conservatism are finding, to their grief, that the culture-war rhetoric no longer works, and the democratic structures they claim to support are being used against them.

The same thing is happening on the left, it should be noted. The campaign of Bernie Sanders is being driven as much by a rejection of Democratic politics-as-usual (as personified by Hillary Clinton) as it is by Bernie Sanders’s ideas themselves. I should note that I wholeheartedly support certain aspects of the Sanders campaign – particularly the commonsensical ideas to reintroduce postal savings banks for small-volume lending (not a new idea at all), and Glass-Steagall regulations on commercial banks. (But the disappointing truth, which likely will prevent me from voting for him, is that Bernie doesn’t differ that much from the Democratic establishment on foreign policy or on life issues.) That isn’t stopping Sanders, though, from making a great deal of hay out of his outsider status, and the fact that he isn’t Hillary.

However, whether I support them or not, both the Bernie and the Trump campaigns represent an inflection point in our political structure and guiding ideas – possibly a critical inflection point. The political and mass-media institutions which have been carefully constructed with the purpose of bringing popular opinion into alignment with the policy preferences of cultural elites, of financial elites and of the deep state, are weakening. They are weakening because they have run up massive deficits against the public trust. Ordinary citizens have been told that our beefed-up and heavily-intrusive national-security infrastructure would keep us safe, and yet we see a world that is more insecure than ever and a political class which is not only dismissive but even contemptuous of our fears. We have been told that the technocratic (but largely privately-administered) tweaks to our economic system in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 are causing the economy to improve, and yet far too many of us are continuing to struggle to make ends meet. In response to this, only the same ideological talking points of commanding-heights capitalist management on the ‘left’, and vulgar-libertarian market fundamentalism on the ‘right’, are being offered to us. This is broadly exemplary of what the excellent Chinese social historian Wang Hui referred to, in his own context (though applicable also to ours), as the ‘depoliticised politics’ of the elite.

The fractures between the will of a growing section of the populace on the one hand, and the governing philosophies in our ‘depoliticised’ political establishment on the other, are rapidly growing more apparent – even to the ideological apparatus of that establishment. Expect to see the opinion more and more explicitly voiced as time goes on, possibly well after the election cycle, that certain ‘undesirable’ segments of voters ought be actively disenfranchised, for the sake of preserving the republic. Our political system is very rapidly losing its veneer of democratic legitimacy, and the Bernie and Trump campaigns are bearing witness to that in some rather embarrassing ways.

The subject of legitimacy is not a particularly comfortable one to bring up, as it calls into question the very governing logic of democracy. It is often more tempting to dismiss such talk as reactionary or impractical when someone (someone such as, for example, Chinese Confucian philosopher Jiang Qing) is so gauche as to broach it. And the subject becomes even more difficult to broach in a nation like ours which is founded not on a common language or religion or history, but instead upon an ideology which admits only one possible source of legitimacy (namely, the consent of the governed) to the exclusion of any other (historical continuity or divine sanction). But clearly, governments require legitimacy to function, and when it becomes clear that their legitimacy has run out completely, their collapse can be sudden and unforeseeable. We’re running up very close to the edge of the fiction that our state is being run in response to the consent of the governed. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine the question of legitimacy.

22 January 2016

Why I am an Orthodox Catholic Christian

A response to the ochlophobic faith-literary-art challenge.

Wise Men from the East - Hossein Behzad


The Dao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Dao.
The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
(Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.
Always without desire we must be found, if its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be, its outer fringe is all that we shall see.
Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them the Mystery.
Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.
- Dao De Jing, 1.1


The Master said, “I would prefer not speaking.” Zi Gong said, “If you, Master, do not speak, what shall we, your disciples, have to record?” The Master said, “Does Heaven speak? The four seasons pursue their courses, and all things are continually being produced, but does Heaven say anything?”
- Lun Yu, 17.19

Rustic Peasant Girl in Prayer - Kimberly Wakeman

‘Bloodstone’ – Judas Priest
I've been trying, there's no denying:
It’s sending me out of my mind.
I've seen reason change to treason;
It's losing its sense of all kind.

How much longer will it take
For the world to see:
We should learn to live
And simply let it be?

21 January 2016

When the Russians came to San Francisco

A Soviet postage stamp featuring Admiral A. A. Popov

I recently finished reading a book, Friends in Peace and War, by Dr. C. Douglas Kroll. The subject is the visit by Admiral Andrei Aleksandrovich Popov’s Pacific squadron of the Imperial Russian Navy to the San Francisco Bay at the height of the Civil War, as a display of Russian amity with the American Union and as a warning to other European powers – namely France and Britain – not to get involved on the Confederate side. It is not a very well-known subject, and I was grateful to Dr. Kroll for having introduced it – that said, I do wish the book had been written better, and had lingered with greater depth and attention on the grounds for this goodwill between the two nations. The reigning mood that Lincoln and Tsar Aleksandr II had similar motives and stood in similar positions with regard to the liberation of servile classes in their respective nations is one intriguing hint. As, indeed, is the more classically-realist motive for Russia’s stance, on which more below. Unfortunately, in this narrative they remain merely hints. Even so, the book is remarkably entertaining, involving intrigues and plots, high-stakes trials, earthquakes, fires, heroism, intercultural romance, a fancy ball, and more descriptions of naval ‘wessels’ (sorry, couldn’t resist) and their equipage than the non-military layman ever wanted to read.

Dr. Kroll does a very good job of setting the stage, with San Franciscans and Californians generally feeling isolated from protection by the federal government, underequipped and vulnerable to intrigue, attack and plunder by Confederate forces during the entire first half of the war. These fears were not groundless. Confederate raiders certainly saw California gold (and the Union’s dependence on it) as a tempting target. San Francisco was protected for most of the war by one single Revenue Cutter Service steamer, the USS Shubrick. Confederate sympathisers even attempted, during this time, to use a small schooner, the Chapman, to commandeer the Shubrick, load her up with Mexican guns, and use her to raid Union gold and silver shipments on the Pacific coast. Though the plan was thwarted, it still drove home to most San Franciscans the vulnerability of their port.

Enter the Imperial Russian Navy. At that time, the Russian Empire was facing a situation largely parallel to the American one. The Poles were revolting against Russian rule, and France and Britain stood poised to intervene on behalf of the Poles in Russia’s conflict, much as they stood poised to intervene on behalf of Dixie in the hemisphere opposite. Though they were marked by dramatically disparate political systems and governing philosophies, Russia and America stood at that time as de facto allies. And they stood so for the same reasons, in fact, that Russia and Syria stand allied today. Lincoln had refused to countenance a Western intervention in the January Uprising on the grounds of Russia’s territorial sovereignty and on the principle of non-intervention in foreign affairs. When the Civil War happened, the Tsar sent two squadrons – one in the Atlantic to New York City, and the one under Admiral Popov in the Pacific to San Francisco – as a show of support for the same principle of territorial sovereignty on behalf of their ally in Washington. Popov was willing to go even further than his government was in his support of the Union cause, and remarked on multiple occasions that he was prepared to fire on Confederate vessels that made a threatening move against San Francisco.

One thing I truly appreciated about Friends in Peace and War was that even in its brief and cursory treatment of the background to the informal wartime alliance between Russia and America is that it was not ideologically pinioned to one explanation or the other. In truth, abolitionist elements in the United States had been watching and indeed supporting from afar the Slavophil enthusiasm for the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, and it appears this interest was very much reciprocated, particularly in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is not difficult at all to believe that the Slavophils would have had an immediate and visceral sympathy for the cause of black emancipation in the Americas, given the idealism with which the likes of Yuri Samarin and Ivan Aksakov approached the subject of the liberation of the serfs. And indeed, Tsar Aleksandr II and Abraham Lincoln were personally on the warmest possible terms even up until the end of Lincoln’s life. But neither does Dr. Kroll deny or overlook or conveniently elide the conservative, classically-realist and national-sovereigntist principle which Russia found it in her own best interests to support on the world stage, and how the mutually-reinforcing interests of American union and Russian territorial integrity worked to each others’ advantage.

The two ideological camps of Civil War historiography each conveniently elide their own favoured side’s true motives for fighting, which in one case is an ugly travesty, and in the other case is almost worse: a wasted opportunity. It is the height of bad faith to argue that the Confederacy as a whole was fighting its war for something other than the continuation and expansion of chattel slavery, when the documents of secession themselves demonstrate otherwise. The defence of slavery deployed by the Confederacy – as stated prior to the war by Calhoun, Harper, Dew and Fitzhugh, among others – was largely on terms which were utilitarian and ‘scientific’. In short, it was very much a continuation of the ideological revolutionary state. Likewise, the triumph of power-realism in the North can be understood as a Thermidorian reaction against the nation’s wonted idealism.

But there are various reasons which serve to obscure both these understandings. Firstly, Americans are often lazy in their historical characterisations. Secondly, pride and cultural temperament on each side demand more idealistic, less cold-blooded and less prosaic causes for war than political self-preservation (on the Northern side) and pro-slavery economic calculus (on the Southern side). Thirdly, because the national myth demands some level of continuity, the justification of the Civil War had to be retrospectively recast in terms of a narrative of progress which was only nascent at the time. Between 1861 and 1863, the North fought for the preservation of the Union – and nothing else. This cause they justified by what was, from the beginning of the American republic, the most realistic, most restrained and least utopian mode of governance that was publicly allowable in the United States – to wit, the federalism of Adams and Hamilton: the least revolutionary of the revolutionary ideas of the New World.

As I have before mentioned, this stance makes an unwelcome sound in many traditionalist ears. But Tsar Aleksandr II of Russia deserves the credit – as consecrated head of a conservative, autocratic religious monarchy bridging two hemispheres – of understanding which of the two sides in the American Civil War was more amenable to cooperation.

16 January 2016

Pointless video post – ‘Kong Valemons Kamp’ by Midnattsol

I recently discovered Nordic folk metal band Midnattsol through this song, which is apparently based on a traditional Norwegian folktale similar to Beauty and the Beast: a king bewitched to wear the hide of a polar bear, and a girl who falls in love with him and tries to save him from the curse. The music has some similarities to the likes of Nightwish and Edenbridge, but the tone of it is far mistier, more melancholy, and has some similarities with some of Forefather’s recent work that way. The singer, Carmen Elise, is younger sister to Liv Kristine of Leaves’ Eyes; and though they use their voices somewhat differently, there is a similarity also in that they add a sad and wistful colour to their songs. Carmen has a more understated (but consistent) presence, which allows her to do some creative blending with the instrumentation. This gives Midnattsol a fun versatility which is lacking in a number of other bands in this symphonic-gothic-operatic-power subgenre. But what really sealed the deal for me was the truly icy, spine-tingling guitar hook that creeps in on ‘A Predator’s Prey’ - if you’re going to do Nordic folk metal, you really want to be able to hit those sublimely evocative boreal highs. Midnattsol’s sophomore album Nordlys is an excellent album also, but The Metamorphosis Melody just has a number of these brighter points of brilliance to it. Do give them a listen, gentle readers!

14 January 2016

On the Shia-Christian alliance

A longer version of this article has been posted at Soul of the East:

Earlier this month, a peaceful cleric of Shia Islam, the Arab ayatollah Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, was put unjustly to death by the odious extremist Saudi regime, for making the statement that the Shi’ites under their rule deserved the bare basics of human respect – and that if they didn’t get it from the government, then they should appeal to authorities elsewhere. But he never appealed to violence: he insisted that protesters use ‘the roar of the word’ rather than the blade of the sword. Naturally, the only way to deal with a troublemaker like Sheikh al-Nimr is to prove him right and to further his cause by making him a martyr, and that, the Saudis have accomplished with remarkable effectiveness.

The unjust shedding of the blood of the righteous ayatollah has led to something of a chill in Saudi-Iranian relations, naturally. But what is truly interesting about al-Nimr’s case is how it has highlighted the common plight of Christians and Shi’ite Muslims in the Middle East, particularly in areas and under regimes where the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam holds its strongest sway. It is this shared plight that has brought together Shia and Christian first in Iraq, then in Lebanon, then in Syria. But is this shared plight merely the basis of an alliance of convenience, as Rony Khoury claims? Or is there some deeper and theological reason that Shia Muslims and Christians are making common cause throughout the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, and look set to do so even in repressive Saudi Arabia?

It certainly hasn’t always been the case, and it is never wise to look at the history of relations between Christianity and Islam without a good cold dose of realism. Both Sunni regimes and Shi’ite ones have historically repressed Christians – and these usually belonging to the Assyrian, Armenian or Georgian nations. Modern revolutionary Iran, though Armenian and Assyrian Christians are for the most part left to themselves and even guaranteed representation on the Majlis, still does not legally allow any ethnic Persian to become a Christian. But it does seem fair to say, in the same spirit of realism, that the Sunni regimes have always treated us more barbarically than the Shi’ite ones, and very often, the nation of Iran has been the sole convenient refuge for Christians facing worse repression elsewhere. I think it may be warranted to look at the philosophical, if not theological, reasons why Shia Islam is often closer to Christianity – and not just the political reason of the convenience of two minorities banding together against a violent and murderous majority.

From the first, in the Shia-Sunni split, there have been interesting parallels with Christendom amongst the followers of Ali. The martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala in particular, is of a Christian type. The seventy-two followers of Husayn, who were hopelessly outnumbered in the fight against an army of five thousand, behaved chivalrously, riding out one at a time to draw the fighting away from their main camp, in order to protect the women and children who were with them; Husayn himself did the same thing, and fought in personal combat against the armies of Yazid, and was killed. His body and those of his followers were mutilated outrageously. But in that battle, they laid down their lives for their friends in the same way many military saints of our Church have done.

This is not to say, naturally, that the Islamic theology they held to, with its Arian presuppositions, is correct or justified, or that Husayn (or Sheikh al-Nimr) should be treated as a saint by Christians. Only, rather, that the Shia Muslims have for their own prominent spiritual model, a type which (whether consciously or not) recalls the self-sacrifice of Christ. Martyrdom is treated very seriously by the Shi’ites. And as I have noted before, Shia Islam, particularly that of Iran, has been for understandable cultural reasons highly receptive to the ideals of righteous kingship and social justice that pervaded the convictions of the Zoroastrians who preceded them. Thus on the level of ethics also, Christianity finds some strong overlap with the Shi’ite tradition, which places such insistent emphasis on a model of justice which favours the poor and powerless: particularly the ‘red Shi’ism’ of Dr. Ali Shariati which Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr reflected so strongly in his own life and work. At any rate, I believe there is a foundation besides convenience on which the Shia-Christian friendship can stand, and on which further work in making the Middle East safe again for both minorities can be done.

12 January 2016

No King in Israel

On the 4th of July last year, I wrote a piece defending monarchies against revolutions, which seemed the à propos thing at the time. I wrote this using as inspiration an Orthodox exegesis I read, which used the Old Testament Book of Judges as its primary basis. The phrases ‘and there was no King in Israel’, and ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’, which repeat so often, and at the end of every chapter in Judges, are laments. They usually follow hard upon the heels not just of theft and deceit, but of gross and heinous injustices, and brutal and barbaric crimes of the worst sorts – debauchery, torture and murder, committed by those who claimed kinship in Abraham, and the protection and justification of Abraham’s God.

Seeking justice, therefore, the elders of Israel sought out their last good judge, the Holy Prophet Samuel, and asked him to appoint for them a King, such as the other nations had, and who would do three things for them. Namely: the king would provide them with justice; he would go out before them, to represent them before the Gentiles and before God; and he would fight their battles, protecting them from their tribal enemies. Samuel himself seems not to have taken too kindly to the idea at first, expressing qualms that a king would oppress and beleaguer his people in ways that the judges had not done. But in the Torah there is a commandment that the children of Israel would take for themselves a king in due time, and the elders of the Tribes insisted upon it. The subsequent story of Samuel’s appointment of Saul, and then of David, who was succeeded by Solomon, is well-known to us from Sunday school.

And as we also know, each of these kings ruled well and wisely for the most part, but usually had some flaw either of personality or of the temptations of power, which led them to fail in some fundamental way, to deliver upon the charges enjoined upon them by the elders of the Tribes, and by God Himself. Saul withheld a portion of the war booty for himself, when God explicitly commanded him not to; and because he failed to fight the battles of Israel rightly, he forfeited the right of the kingship to David. David failed to deliver justice when he seduced Bathsheba the wife of Uriah, impregnated her, and then had Uriah killed. And Solomon, though he was wise enough to fight his battles with care and to deliver justice, failed to represent the children of Israel before God: in spite of having built the Temple to God, he also erected temples and monuments to the idols worshipped by his hundreds of foreign-born wives.

The entire promise to the people of Abraham, to which the Orthodox Church holds as well to this day, is that the Kingship rightly belongs to God, and that the earthly king is merely ‘captain over His inheritance’. The demands of kingship are truly resolved and recapitulated only in Christ Our Lord, who not only fulfils the three earthly marks of the King demanded by the elders of Israel in the first Book of Samuel, but who also fulfils the Heavenly Kingdom as the living God. Earthly kingship is viewed sceptically: all earthly kings being sinful – even the best of men like David and Solomon – they will never fulfil their earthly duties in perfection. Yet the ideal of kingship is not forsaken in the slightest. Earthly kingship is the icon of the Heavenly Kingdom, and its marks, as suggested in the Book of Deuteronomy and in the first Book of Samuel, are in the active pursuit of social justice and the common good; in the representation of the people before God; and in the defence of the people from their enemies within and without.

The Kingship of Christ fulfilled all three, even as He was living amongst us. He healed the sick and ‘unclean’ who were unjustly kept from entering into the Temple to worship and to be forgiven their sins; and He also opened His table fellowship to prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners, debtors and other sinners. He forgave sins and bade people to go and sin no more – in this way He perfected the justice which had been demanded of His forefather David. He preached to the people and taught them in the Temple, He went before the people who lined his way into Jerusalem shouting ‘hosanna’, He preached the Kingdom of God which had come near, and He stood before Pilate’s judgement as the ‘King of the Jews’; in this way He represented the children of Israel to the nations, and being God in human flesh He naturally represented all people before God, as had been demanded of His forefather Solomon. And He drove out demons from those afflicted, He drove the money-changers out of the Temple who had been turning it into a house of commerce and a den of thieves, He went to the Cross and He fought with and defeated the power of death, which is the enemy of all people – thus fulfilling what Saul had not done in fighting the battles of his people.

And yet all these things being fulfilled in the fullness of time as well as within history, we still find ourselves contending with sin and injustice and facing it on every side. We therefore still need good government; we still need earthly kings to be ‘captains over God’s inheritance’. Without absolutising its demands in some post-millennial fever dream of earthly self-sufficiency, some true attention to social justice, to the common good, to the respect for persons as they are, socially-situated and yet possessed of free will and choice, is demanded. Anarchy, as the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church rightly notes, ‘run[s] contrary to the Christian outlook’.

But we American Christians (particularly those of us who hold to the Orthodox and Apostolic wholeness of truth) are caught in a very difficult civic dilemma, when it comes to facing the intellectual consequences of the deposits of Scripture and Holy Tradition honestly. ‘Each man doing that which is right in his own eyes’ is in a certain way the moral underpinning which guides our civic thinking. The sad thing is that mainstream American Protestantism appeals to the brutal and violent era of the Judges not as a warning, but as a kind of ideal. In modern times this underpinning is appealed to on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum in the relationship of the person to the culture, and on the ‘right’ of the political spectrum in the relationship of the person to the economy. Each man ought to be free not only to his own life, but to his own ‘liberty’ and to his own ‘pursuit of happiness’, however he cares to define them. So the saying comes down from the idols of our civic life: John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

And this, ‘each man doing that which is right in his own eyes’, is the saying that underpins the entire intellectual and political enterprise of American individualism. That individualism is the same which champions the ‘right’ of a mother to destroy her own child in the womb, and which champions the ‘right’ to sell a weapon to anyone without reference to their character or to their health. That individualism is the same which undermines civic organisations generally (and labour unions especially, with a vengeance), and which also undermines the nuclear family. And it is this individualism which has eroded the very moral legitimacy of the American government. On one side our government acts as though it is the sole global arbiter of democratic governance and individual rights; and yet on the other side we behave with an extraordinary gluttony when it comes to weapons sales and petrol consumption (to which individuals and businesses feel themselves entitled in perpetuity), which totally compromises our moral capital in the first endeavour, and shows it for the hypocrisy it truly is.

On one level, it is psychologically understandable – and this is a trend to be approached with sympathy and understanding – why people would turn in anger, as many on both the right and the left of the American political spectrum already have to an extent, to political expressions of anarchy in an attempt to detach themselves from a government which seems totally dysfunctional and perhaps even philosophically flawed from inception. But this is ultimately not a healthy approach. As said above, this kind of individualistic anarchism runs contrary to the Christian outlook. Rare if not impossible is the revolution which achieves what it wants without an equal or greater cost. It strikes me that a tactic of both engagement and detachment, respect for government’s right purpose and civil disobedience against its wrong practices – what The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher has been referring to for a long while now as the ‘Benedict Option’ – will need to be set in motion, evaluated and re-evaluated, and maintained with some level of individual and community self-sacrifice. It strikes me thus far that this is the most effective way to witness to the Kingdom of Christ in modern American society.

09 January 2016

Unions matter for families

This Post and Courier article by David Wren is from September of last year, but it is worth reading (or re-reading) all the same. Labour unions do not just confer benefits on their members; they benefit their members’ children. As Wren writes:
According to the study, children of noncollege-educated fathers earn 28 percent more as adults if their father was in a labor union. They also attain higher education levels than their nonunion counterparts.

Just a 10 percent increase in an area’s labor union membership is associated with a 1.3 percentage point increase in the ability of a low-income child from that area to reach the top 20 percent of wage earners as an adult. The percentage increase is 4.5 percent for children in all income levels.

Previous studies have shown five factors strongly associated with upward mobility in children, including an area’s: rate of single motherhood; high school dropout rate; degree of income inequality; degree of residential segregation; and social capital, such as participation in community organizations.

Single motherhood is, by far, the strongest factor associated with a lack of upward mobility for low-income children, researchers say. Union membership is about equal to the other four previously studied factors.

The presence of unions also can benefit the upward mobility of children in nonunion households, says the study.
Dr. Frank Tannenbaum, the Austrian immigrant Wobbly firebrand turned conservative historian at Columbia University, said it already. In an industrial society characterised by the concentrated ownership of capital and the insecurity of labour, labour unions are vital to the cohesion of society, even at its most basic and intimate foundations. If you are a concerned about conserving the social order, and concerned about the breakdown of the family unit, particularly in working-class America, the single most important battle is to keep up the fight for the rights of working members of families to collective bargaining arrangements. Those rights, at the moment, are under legal attack, and the ease with which labour unions can conduct their business is likely to be further constrained by the Supreme Court. Those who want to conserve the family need to stand up strongly on the side of the unions.

08 January 2016

How the libertarian technocracy spawned the victim-identividualist moment in our schools

A couple of weeks back, the head of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, chimed into a long and protracted argument over the prevailing culture in American higher education. He argued that American institutions of higher education in particular are suffering from a ‘victimhood culture’, marked by an increase in the aggressive tactics used by campus liberals in particular who attempt to police speech they don’t like. Such aggressive tactics include the deployment of concepts of ‘microaggression’, ‘triggering’ and ‘safe space’ to curtail the physical and cultural spaces in which controversial ideas can be freely expressed. Brooks sees this as a threat to freedom of speech and individual expression, which isn’t particularly interesting, but with the twist that he peppers his rather flaccid and uninteresting analysis with libertarian buzzphrases throughout (being concerned with the victimisation of ‘wealthy people’; saying one can tell genuine visionaries who laud ‘earned success’ and ‘treat people… as individuals’, from demagogues and charlatans who treat them ‘as aggrieved masses’).

I say this analysis is ‘uninteresting’ in part because he joins a long list of people who have spoken up about the topic of campus political-correctness culture, with varying degrees of lucidity and usefulness. This list includes people like Laura Kipnis, Edward Schlosser, Michelle Duguid et al., Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt, Caitlin Flanagan and, of course, Jonathan Chait. Though I have some serious (and indeed fundamental) disagreements with the philosophical and political premises from which many of these professors, journalists, columnists and authors argue, it’s hard to ignore the reality of the ‘chilling effect’ that the campus political-correctness culture has had on the intellectual climate of the modern American academy. There has indeed been an impoverishment of the campus, and the entire enterprise of language- and tone-policing on the basis of identity politics is only one of the more visible manifestations of it. And the obsessive focus on this particular aspect of our educational malaise is exacerbated by the perennial paranoia in the American psyche that someone out there might tell us that there’s something we aren’t allowed to do.

But there’s something far deeper to the malaise of higher education than the free-speech crusaders seem to suspect, and a deeply bitter irony in such staunch champions of technocracy as Brooks beginning to wring their hands. What psychological need is there which drives students to flock to these causes of cleansing the campus of offensive and ‘problematic’ speech? Jonathan Haidt reports that the campus itself may not even be to blame, but that the problem of political-correctness culture may have its roots in secondary schools – which would seem to suggest that the students who are doing the policing are not being coached into it by over-zealous and overly-ideological professors. What is clear, though, is that the political-correctness policers do not think of themselves as stifling free speech; they think of themselves as actively contributing to the betterment of the campuses they find themselves on. They see themselves as advocates. They see themselves as the ensign-bearers of a new paradigm which is ‘just and kind, sensitive and free’. In short, there is an idealism that students are literally acting-out by finding outlets in campus activism. And they flock to it because activism promises them meaning. It promises them that they are going to make a difference, that they are going to change the society and the world for the better.

In short, looking at how they themselves argue for it, and how and when they begin arguing for it, the students who are looking to make ‘safe spaces’ of their campuses are flocking to a source of meaning which has been denied to them by their educational upbringing to-date. They get certain platitudes – more like mathematical formulas, really – drilled into their heads from day one of their public schooling. They are told, straight from the yellowed and venerable pages of the National Founding Myth, that hard work plus education is a formula for upward economic mobility in America. They are told that success is a formula for happiness and meaning in life (defined, naturally, in utilitarian terms). Students do take these formulas very much to heart. They look for meaning in life in terms of the formulas they’ve been taught, even and especially when they find these formulas themselves intellectually, emotionally and spiritually unconvincing.

And by Jove, have we ever found them unconvincing. Just ask us, if you please.

But think about the depth of what we miss out on teaching young people, when we teach them along the technocratic, libertarian lines prescribed by Arthur Brooks and his think-tank. We don’t teach children quietude. We don’t teach children that greater wisdom lies in the past than in the mad scramble for future payoffs. We teach children that youth and health and able-bodiedness only are valuable, and don’t teach them to respect age and experience. We don’t teach children how to deal with adversity or failure in existentially-healthy ways (if at all). We don’t teach children the importance of building virtuous habits other than industry. We don’t ask children, or challenge them, to wonder about what it means to be human. So mad are we to impart to children the ‘marketable skills’, to wedge them into excelling in the technical STEM fields, that we are no longer bothering to instruct them in the humanities. English literature, music, history, social sciences education are all becoming increasingly rote and even vestigial as they are shoe-horned into a results-oriented rubric. Long story short: if we don’t teach our children in ways which allow them to reflect rather than simply to react, should we wonder at the fact that they understand themselves as victims? Should we wonder at the fact that they seek to construct special ‘identities’ for themselves, to give their lives meaning, when their intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives have been deprived of so much else?

We are looking out upon the brave new world. That world has been built assiduously by the ideological forebears of the people who are now surveying their handiwork from a safe distance.

07 January 2016

Statues and symbolism in Tongxu

In Tongxu County in northeast Henan Province, China (right outside Kaifeng), local businessmen and villagers have completed an immense, 37-metre-tall golden statue of the Great Helmsman, construction of which began in March this past year. The erection of this statue – admittedly, rather an eyesore – has met with all of the opprobrium one might expect, both domestic and foreign. Naturally, there has been something of a cottage industry springing up, especially of erudite Western journalists, expats and China-watchers reverting to true imperial form and condescending to inform the silly and forgetful simple rustic village folk of Henan that Chairman Mao had, in fact, starved to death millions of their forefathers. (As though they all forgot their own history.)

As to the rationale for why it actually went up, that’s still not yet known, because the local businessmen who funded the statue haven’t yet come forward for comment. But one academic quoted in The Guardian made the point that ‘Mao Zedong represents the embodiment of fairness and justice’ for many people in China, in the absence of fairness and justice being represented broadly in any other quarter of the society. And as many of these articles themselves point out, Henan has for most of modern history been one of the poorest provinces in China – having gotten struck more than once by horrific famines – and though that poverty has been ameliorated somewhat by the strong national economic growth of recent years, it is still considered incredibly poor. In addition, Henan and her people have been stuck with a rather bad reputation. These stereotypes of Henanese people are largely unmerited and which is a considerable source of resentment among people who have lived and grown up there. (Full disclosure: my wife is Henanese, as are our kids. I’ve seen and heard first-hand some of the truly ugly bigotry which Henanese face from other parts of the country.) If there are any folks of China who still truly long for ‘fairness and justice’ in a tangible, visible and sensible way, the good people of Henan Province would rank fairly high among them.

To a certain extent, I have to wonder whether erecting a huge statue of Mao Zedong like this is an expression of frustration with the direction of the broader society. I’m sure the people who set it up do have a genuine affection for Mao, but part of me suspects that the project is instead something of a thumb in the eye of the sorts of sophisticated, ‘liberal’ coastal urbanites who are eager to criticise Mao and make self-serving displays of denigrating him to people on the ‘outside’. The same sort of sophisticated ‘liberal’ urbanites who despise and look down on Henanese people and others from China’s impoverished interior while pretending to be broad-minded and cosmopolitan. It’s hardly a secret by this point that the cultural and political divides in China tend to be between a wealthy, individualist and ideologically-libertarian coast and a less-wealthy, family-centric and ideologically-populist interior. And though there are and will be no end of problems with placing him front and centre of China’s politics, there is no symbol readier to hand for China’s populists and socialists than the Great Helmsman himself.

As ought to be clear by this point, I’m very far from being a fan of Mao Zedong. In fact, I do have something of a grudge – my favourite Chinese ‘Communist’ intellectual, China’s first sociologist Fei Xiaotong, got sent to work cleaning lavatories during the Cultural Revolution, for the ghastly crime of saying sensible things about the value of social education, which Mao didn’t like. But it ought to be clear by now that this statue, like so great a proportion of the modern discourse around Mao generally, has very little to do with the man himself and much more to do with the symbolic politics for which he and his legacy are continually conscripted. And I can’t help but sympathise on a personal level with the folks who put up the statue, even if I don’t side with its subject.

EDIT: Well, that didn’t last long.

04 January 2016

Imagination, memory and personhood: a belated look at Inside Out

I watched Pixar’s recent movie Inside Out when it first came out in cinema (largely on account of the voice talent of Lewis Black), and thought it was an excellent film and a worthy addition to their corpus. However, the depth of its psychological, anthropological and even theological engagements hadn’t really managed to strike me on that first watch; the more fool me, I suppose! It took Matthew Tan’s brief but excellent treatment of the film over at The Divine Wedgie to clue me in that the movie might be saying something deeper than that it’s healthy for children to feel sad sometimes. In a film whose story takes place on two different levels the way this one does, it is probably not surprising that there’s actually a lot more going on than we might think at first!

Riley Andersen, a 12-year-old Midwestern homegirl from Minnesota, is actually a fairly happy kid, as we learn from hearing the emotion Joy inside her head essentially narrate her life from an ‘insider’ perspective. Joy essentially runs the show from ‘Headquarters’, alongside the emotions of Fear, Disgust, Anger and Sadness; at first Joy doesn’t really know what to do with Sadness or how to get her on-board, despite her being the second-oldest emotion on the scene. It’s clear, however, that Riley is fairly well-adjusted, to start with, in any case. We learn that she’s kind of a ‘goofball’, she plays hockey well, she has at least one very close friend, she’s very honest and that – most importantly as far as the film is concerned – she loves her family. But her mother and father decide, apparently without telling her, to uproot themselves and move to San Francisco; which is the precipitating event of the film’s main story.

It becomes clear at once that Joy is out of her depth. No matter how she tries to keep Riley happy, the realities of San Francisco (the filthy house, her parents being busy, broccoli-covered pizza, a new school where she feels isolated and alone, being removed from her old friends and hockey team) quickly overwhelm Joy, and Joy is too busy fighting with Sadness over Riley’s memories that Riley finds herself at the mercy of Fear, Anger and Disgust. When Sadness almost touches one of Riley’s Core Memories (defining memories which shape her personality), the fight between her and Joy gets them both sucked out of Headquarters and into Long-Term Memory; the rest of the film concerns the internal struggle by Joy and Sadness to get back to Headquarters, and the external story of Riley’s running away from home.

There are a number of excellent sight-gags and puns throughout the film, but also a number of very astute and subtly-made observations about how each of us persons operates essentially as our own full world, with its own vast geography and hidden treasure. (It would be difficult to imagine, for example, that the internal structure of Riley’s brain isn’t influenced at least indirectly by the labyrinthine and often dangerous warren of shelves and trap-filled secure rooms in Warehouse 13, that ‘world of endless wonder’. They even have Joy and Sadness reuse Warehouse 13’s running ‘read-the-manual’ gag!) The entire perspective of this movie, in fact, is deeply and inescapably personalistic; everything is seen through the eyes of one individual pre-teen girl (Riley), but at the same time we understand that Riley can’t be Riley unless she has the right relationship with her family and with her friends – in short, with her social context. As far as the story itself goes, the film has a particularly important poetic ‘point’ to make about the roles of imagination, memory and emotion in producing a fully-functional, socially-adept and responsible (in short, virtuous) person.

When Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s Long-Term Memory along with all of her Core Memories from Minnesota, they find themselves completely lost without having a guide. That guide, in fact, turns out to be the film’s personification of imagination – Riley’s imaginary friend Bing-Bong, who (at least as far as Joy and Sadness are concerned) is still ‘real’ enough to help them save her. Bing-Bong helps them store all of Riley’s Core Memories safely inside his Bag of Holding +2 (‘What? It’s imaginary!’). It is actually Bing-Bong who helps Joy start to realise the correct role Sadness has to play in Riley’s personality, when Sadness successfully comforts a distraught and despondent Bing-Bong over the loss of his imaginary rocket, by sitting down and remembering with him all of the adventures he and Riley had together. However, Bing-Bong does have a knack for trouble, even if well-intentioned. He leads Joy and Sadness (over Sadness’s protestations) through the Abstract Thought machine, which almost successfully gets them fragmented, deconstructed, flattened, denatured and nearly abstracted out of existence. Even though the entire scene is an extended sight gag that plays with concepts from modern art, it also manages to make a serious point about the dangers of subjecting reality, and especially those realities pertaining to personality, to needless abstraction.

In the meanwhile, without Joy or Sadness to balance them out, Riley’s Fear, Disgust and Anger begin to alienate her from her friends and family, and even begin to rationalise her into running away, back to Minnesota. Unwittingly, they derail her Train of Thought and cause Joy and Bing-Bong to fall into the Memory Dump.

This is one of the most existentially-poignant parts of the entire film: Joy sitting forlorn among the forgotten memories of a past that is literally fading, dying and blowing away in the wind, remembering the parts of Riley’s personality that made her who she is, and weeping over the doomed memories she had been protecting. As it turns out, it is only imagination that can save Riley from forgetting joy. The imagery of Hades and Heaven, and the immeasurable gulf between the darkness of the Memory Dump and the brightness and colour of the Personality (‘We may as well be on another planet!’), lends itself at once to a theological reading. In short, though Christ is never mentioned explicitly, we get to see Him partially, in type. It takes two acts of self-sacrifice to ‘save’ Riley from running away and becoming emotionally-numb: one by Bing-Bong to get Joy back up to where she needs to be in the Personality; and one by Joy to relinquish her control over Headquarters, and to let Sadness restore Riley’s Core Memories, so that she can help to remember with her parents a past that she felt in danger of forgetting altogether.

There are likely more than a few problems with taking Inside Out’s ‘internalised’, psychologised view of salvation (which other authors have tackled with greater acuity than I could), but these are balanced out by what they manage to get right. The entire dramatic and emotional weight of the film rests on the conceit of the person as an entire world contained in herself, of immeasurable complexity and value. We get invested in Riley Andersen’s life by seeing things not only through her eyes, but from inside her head; by being awed at the depth of even a 12-year-old girl’s personhood, and by investing ourselves even in what little fragments of her memory and imagination that we get to see.

This is a point that we might do well to dwell on. It is entirely possible that the abnormal and unhealthy outworkings of disgust, fear and anger in our own society, of the sort that result in poisoned political discourse and mass shootings, reflect our own inability to process memory correctly. Sadness is not something foreign to us, but it does not always find welcome in a New World psyche that is eternally focussed on technological progress and liberation from a poorly-imagined past, and that unbalances us. The idea that we can and should grieve over a past that is gone, that we can and should (as Sadness does) ‘listen for the intimations of deprival’, and that we can and should engage our moral imaginations to ‘live critically in the dynamo’ and reconstruct in the right way a place for remembering – is actually a pretty radical one for an American audience to consider. For that alone, Inside Out is not only worth watching twice or more, but also worth deeply reflecting on.

03 January 2016

Christian populism and the Western Fathers

Cross-posted from Christian Democracy Magazine:

Russian Christianity has, sometimes with good reason, a tendency to cloak itself in the language of its own philosophical heritage. One can trace this tendency back many centuries—the Russian monastics always had a spiritual character peculiar to their patria, and the devotional life of the Russian people is unlike any other—but it can safely be asserted that this tendency took off with the romantic reaction against the Westernising elements in the governments of Tsar Pyotr I and Tsarina Ekaterina II. The main proponents of this peculiarly-Russian religious philosophy included both the broad philosophical movement of the Slavophils and the religious movement back to the Early Church Fathers spearheaded by Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow. It is shown in the treatment of the language of sobornost’, of integral knowing, of the forms that attach to the monastic community and to the peasant commune, of the deep and rich spiritual soil that has always belonged solely to the crude, unlearned, rural Russian peasant—the roots of political narodnichestvo, of Russian populism. Yet this tradition, though it often uses the language of exceptionalism, has a firm basis in Christian thinking which predates any Russian state.

I may be treading out on some thin ice, here. But it strikes me that the religious populism of these 19th-century Russian philosophers and clergymen reflects very strongly the thinking and practice of two of the early Western Church Fathers: Holy Father Irenæus of Lyons and Bishop Saint Ambrose of Milan. Special care must be taken here, because it is very clear that the Russian philosophers of the 19th century imbibed from highly modern sources, including from the German idealists like Hegel and especially Schelling. And the parallels are far from perfect. But it is not accidental—indeed, in the case of the ‘rediscovery’ of the Patristics under Saint Filaret, it is wholly intentional—that the special concern and even admiration of both Irenæus and Ambrose for the accessibility and commonality of Orthodox Christian belief to even the simplest of believers, and their implacable hostility to elitist artifice, strongly prefigures the Russian tradition.

Hieromartyr Irenæus, one of the most important ante-Nicene Church Fathers in both East and West, lived only two generations removed from the Apostles. He was a countryman and, in his youth, a disciple of the Apostolic Father, Hieromartyr Polycarp of Smyrna, who in turn learned from the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John. Though he has written a number of other works which are now lost, he is remembered for two writings which have survived to the present day: On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (popularly known as Against Heresies) and the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.

Though an Asian Greek by language and heritage, Holy Father Irenæus spent most of his life ministering and preaching among the Gauls from the Roman city of Lugdunum (now Lyon), first as a cleric and later as a bishop. He has, as he himself humbly acknowledges, a rather rough and unrefined style of writing, though he is certainly capable of a biting and Juvenalian wit, which occasionally turns up in Against Heresies. But in preaching the faith and witnessing some of the egregious contortions of it by con men, predators, hucksters and street magicians who claimed for themselves a special spiritual insight, or gnosis, Irenæus applied himself with admirable vigour to the defence of a proto-Orthodoxy which was still beginning to be fully articulated. It is notable that he was strongly motivated to do this for the people who found themselves exploited by these Gnostics—who often took full advantage, whether financial or social or sexual, of their victims.

Though the heresy of Gnosticism has wide and seemingly inexhaustible permutations (all of which are made up, as far as I can tell, of tedious metaphysical codswallop), these share a similar theme in that they all seem to construct elaborate, labyrinthine cosmologies with male-female mating pairs of spiritual powers (Æons) in groups of eight (an Ogdoad) or ten (a Decad) or twelve (a Duodecad), which exist entirely apart from the physical material world, in the spiritual realm of the Pleroma. The reason that the physical material world exists is because one of the female members of the Duodecad began to experience impure passions for her ‘father’, and gave birth to an abortive, non-spiritual substance, which she gave to another of her offspring (the Demiurge), from which he shaped and formed the material world. In Gnostic thought, human beings, as part of this lifeless and impure material reality, can only communicate with the spiritual realm, and thus achieve salvation from it, by the means of magic incantations and formulæ, which can range from invocations of the names of the spiritual powers to nonsensical phrases to just strings of vowels. These the Gnostics proceeded to justify through the use of a numerological reading of certain passages of Scripture, whose ‘true meaning’ had been cunningly hidden, such that it would reveal itself only to those possessing the proper knowledge to interpret it—that is, only to them.

This pretension is what Irenæus attacks with such relentless drive in Against Heresies. ‘These doctrines,’ Irenæus writes of the teachings of Valentinus, ‘are… abstruse and portentious… to be got at only with great labour by such as are in love with falsehood.’ But these he contrasts with the doctrines of the Church, which ‘believes… as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them… with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth… and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth’. Those who turned in faith to Christ, those who attained to true spiritual gnosis, were not the superior men, not ‘Caiaphas, and Annas, and the rest of the chief priests, and doctors of the law, and rulers of the people’, but instead they were ‘those who sat begging by the highway, the deaf, and the blind’. Indeed, Irenæus cannot lay it out more clearly as when he says,
It is therefore better and more profitable to belong to the simple and unlettered class, and by means of love to attain to nearness to God, than, by imagining ourselves learned and skilful, to be found among those who are blasphemous against their own God, inasmuch as they conjure up another.
The Gnostic teachers almost to a man belonged to the upper and educated class, and—as Irenæus showed—adapted concepts at will, syncretically, from ‘the wisdom of the Egyptians’, from Homer, from Pythagoras, from Plato and Aristotle. And yet, they used these ideas with all the integrity of sophists, to defraud and debauch the innocent—and they did so by dividing knowledge (gnosis) from the practice of love. But for Holy Father Irenæus, love is preferable to learning not because learning is of no worth (Irenæus does not despise the intelligent), but because we are only capable of learning of divine things through the practice of love. This teaching lies at the root of the integral-knowing of Khomyakov and Kireevsky. It is possible, and indeed easier, for the ‘simple and unlettered’—for Khomyakov, Kireevsky and the Slavophils embodied in the model of the rough, crude Russian peasant situated in his commune—to practise love of God and neighbour. In Slavophil eyes the peasant thereby easily and freely attains to a wisdom that the Russian intellectual—lusting as he does with the knowledge of modern France and Germany which gives him power, influence and social high standing—has difficulty reaching.

Speaking of France and Germany, though, their knowledge had not always been marked by the libido dominandi. On the contrary, this selfsame preference for the simple folk, for the peasantry and for the unlettered, pervades the letters of the blessed and erudite Bishop of Milan. He gives voice even more stridently to what might today be considered a populist stance. Holy Father Ambrose writes in his seventy-fifth Letter:
Let them take the estates away, if it pleases the Emperor! I am not giving them away, yet I am not withholding them either. They ask for gold. I can say, “I ask for neither silver nor gold”. However, they stir up ill-will against me because gold is being spent. But that kind of ill-will does not frighten me, I have riches of my own. The poor of Christ are my riches. This is a treasure that I know how to amass. I only wish that they may always charge me with expending gold on the poor! But if their charge is that I use the poor as a bodyguard, I will not repudiate it. I even vaunt it! I do indeed use them as a bodyguard, but my defence lies in their prayers. Though blind and lame, weak and old, they are stronger [in faith] than vigorous warriors.
And later, in the same Letter:
They assert that the people have also been deceived by the spells of my hymns. I am obviously not denying that. They are indeed a mighty enchantment! There is nothing more powerful — for what is more powerful than the glorification of the Trinity which is celebrated day after day by the voices of the whole people? All eagerly vie with one another to confess the Faith. All know how to praise in verses Father, Son and Holy Spirit! So they have all become teachers, where before they were pupils.
It is necessary to note that Holy Father Ambrose’s opponents are not Gnostics, but they are still ‘elitists’ of a sort. The followers of Arius, whose cause was then alternating with the doctrines of Nicæa in royal favour, were as much representatives of a class and of a political position inhering to the interests of that class, as they were proponents of a Christological heresy. Arianism, according to historian Robert Pattison, ‘was a theological expression of nostalgia for the economic laissez-faire of classical civilisation. Arians were the apologists for a fading libertarianism which reached its high-water mark two hundred years earlier in the age of ambitious Trimalchios and virtuous Epictetus… a coalition of intellectuals, bureaucrats, professionals, artisans, merchants and freedmen.’ The Arian Christ who was of different substance from, separate from, and subordinate to the Father, appealed equally to men who had no interest in claiming solidarity with people who were beneath them, or in obeying those above them, particularly when Imperial taxes were under consideration.

When the opponents to whom he addresses himself in his Letter are placed in this light, Ambrose’s stolid championship of Nicene Orthodoxy and his full-throated, even defiant preference for what is clearly the vulgus, for the common and impoverished rabble who sang hymns in his Church, begin to make much more sense in juxtaposition. The truth of Christ’s Incarnation to which the Council at Nicæa confessed was radical—intolerably so, to people who believed in their own self-sufficiency and political and metaphysical independence from their ‘inferiors’. But to the vulgus, it was nothing more and nothing less than the promise that they were not abandoned, that they were saved by a God, even the One who is Creator of all things, who took on flesh—as one of them. Nicene Orthodoxy holds out for nothing less than divine solidarity with even the least, the poorest and the most wretched of mortal creatures. Indeed, the blessed Bishop—directly prefiguring the spiritual pilgrimage of the Slavophils and the narodniki—looks to the poor and the wretched, not as objects of pity, as those who have immediate access to a spiritual wisdom unattained by the learned or the wealthy, or by ‘vigorous warriors’ of the sort who were drawn to the teachings of Arius.

It is with a Chestertonian apology that I write this article. It’s as if I am setting out to sea in search of some long-lost and uncharted land only to discover not only that many people have come thence before, but in fact it is the very same beloved home town I set sail from. Naturally there is a strong and deliberate connexion between the Russian Slavophils and the earliest of the Western Church Fathers—a connexion which indeed ought to be shared by Christendom in the main—and this modest contribution likely amounts to little more than a restatement of it. But it is still worth showing forth, again and again. Christian West and East are perhaps not as foreign to each other as one might be led to believe.

02 January 2016

Remembering Righteous Father John the Wonderworker of Kronstadt

Righteous Father John the Wonderworker, one of my favourite Russian saints and spiritual authors, is commemorated today on the Old Calendar – I missed his feast day on the New Calendar; mea maxima culpa! Born into the poor family of a Church reader, Ilya Sergiyev, in Archangelsk, Father John’s ascetic endeavours never diminisheded but rather increased his solidarity with and devotion to serving the poor in remote and destitute parishes. He was blessed with a monumental wisdom and vast reserves of personal and political fortitude, which he also exercised on behalf of God’s beloved poor – yet though he possessed all of the natural virtues, his writing and his life are marked by a gentle and meek humility, and a firm and utterly unshakeable faith. Father John may have lived his earthly life even as the Russian Empire was waning and dwindling in its influence, and even as its political power was unravelling from below, but his demeanour and his service mark him clearly as a latter-day Father of our Holy Orthodox Church.

In his youth he was very sickly and a bit slow, but he attended Liturgy regularly, served at the altar and loved to study the Gospel. Also, though young John worked very diligently at school, he did not make much progress at first. However, through the power of his fervent prayers, one night he felt a sudden shiver all through his body, a curtain fell away from his eyes, his mind ‘opened up in his head’, and his heart was filled with light and joy. Thereafter, reading and retaining what he studied came with much greater ease to him, and he graduated at the top of his class. The Church was his calling, and he went to seminary in S. Petersburg with an eye to doing missionary work among the Tungusic and Turkic tribes of Siberia or the Inuits and Aleuts of Alaska, which had long been his dream and aspiration. But he saw that his own countrymen were poorly catechised, and in dreams the vision came repeatedly to him, of his service at a cathedral in Russia; this he took as a sign from God, and he acquiesced to be sent, upon becoming a priest, to the S. Andrew Cathedral in Kronstadt. When he arrived, Father John was stunned to find that this was the very same cathedral that had appeared to him in his dreams! From then on, he referred to himself not by his natural surname, but as John Kronstadskiy.

Father John was married, to Matyushka Elizabeta Konstantinovna, but their relationship was a purely ascetic one, virginal and dedicated, as Father John willed it and as Elizabeta agreed, to God. John’s considerable energies were bent, rather, upon caring for the many poor and the destitute of Kronstadt, always helping them, according to the Gospel mandate, in secret, and ‘let not his left hand know what’ his ‘right hand doeth’. At that time, Kronstadt was a remote outpost – a place where the government sent debtors, vagrants, murderers, thieves and other low-class criminals; conditions there were utterly horrible, and even the children would turn to crime to stay alive. Into such a place Father John came to serve as priest. He spent hours every day ministering to, listening to and helping the poor, the beggars and the sick with whatever he had to hand; and he would often return home without his cassock or even his boots, having given them away. The parishioners of S. Andrew would often give boots to Elizabeta, saying to her that her husband would be coming home barefoot. For this habit of his he was often chastised and mocked; even his hierarchical superiors in the diocese eventually refused to pay him his salary directly, knowing that as soon as he got it, Father John would give every kopek of it away.

His total faith in God and his meek services to the poor gave him great spiritual gifts. He became known very quickly for miracles of healing, when he visited the sick and infirm, even the deathly-ill; but all of these miracles occurred quietly, anonymously, to the people that Father John visited, without any great pomp or showmanship. He even reached out to Muslims and Jews, who would approach him and ask for his aid. One story tells of a Tatar woman who brought to him her ailing husband, who was so ill he could not rise – she had to drag him along in a cart. Father John asked the woman if she believed in God, and the Tatar woman replied that she did. ‘Let us pray together,’ Father John then said. ‘You pray in your way and I shall pray in mine.’ Father John blessed the Tatar woman and left; when she got back to her cart she was startled, and wondered to find her husband not only standing but walking to meet her! At another time, in Kharkiv, a Jewish lawyer sought out Father John to beg him to save his eight-year-old daughter, who was suffering from scarlet fever – the doctors had told the lawyer that her case was terminal, and that there was nothing they could do. The lawyer fought his way through the crowds and throwing himself at his feet cried out to Father John, ‘Holy Father, I am a Jew, but I beg of you — help me! My only daughter is dying; pray to God to save her!’ Father John placed his hand on the lawyer’s head and began to pray, before sending him home to his wife and daughter, who was well and speaking with the same doctors who had pronounced her as good as dead. Because of this miracle, the girl would later be baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity and enter the Orthodox Church under the name of Valentina.

His charitable deeds and his healing became renowned, but Father John was troubled in part because he began to realise that his own individual efforts were not enough to help the poor of Kronstadt, and in fact might have been contributing to a worse condition. He began organising. He set up a charitable House of Industry through the Cathedral, funded by the wealthier parishioners. This House was set up with its own chapel; with workshops for the able-bodied; with an orphanage; with a free elementary school for poor children; with a boarding-house and a homeless shelter that housed 40,000 each year; with a cheap public canteen which could serve 800 free dinners on feast-days; and with a free public library. Even though he defended with rigour the monarchy of Russia and condemned the revolutionary and anti-clerical mood that was sweeping the nation, and even though he was a (non-active) member of the Black Hundreds, he actually shared many of the sentiments of the socialists, about the problems they hoped to address. He began to preach against the political and economic causes of poverty, often addressing both the wealthy and the government in his sermons. At one point he preached:
The greatest injustices on earth are committed by people who are wealthy or by those who want to become wealthy, who rake up riches in their paws using all possible measures, regardless of the suffering of the poor.
And on another occasion:
The question of poverty in our city and in Russia must be posed directly to the Church and to the government. Poverty has greatly multiplied, it has nowhere to go, there is no demand for its labours—and we do not know what to do with it. It is overcoming us; it strikes us in the eye on streets and at intersections, on the roads and highways. What can be done with it? We have a Duma, and the Duma needs to think about it, all the more so given that our poverty is its adopted child. A positive resolution of this matter is required by the Gospel, by the Church—by the Lord Himself; the Head of the Church and the Sovereign, the Head of the government, must act on this… O, if only we had more Zaccheuses in our midst!
Father John’s sermons were always expressed in a simple and clear language, understandable even to children. He even taught the Gospel in the public schools, and spoke out about the need to preach it in such a way that the schoolchildren would be drawn to it, not as something like a lecture. His daily journal, My life in Christ, is also a great treasure of the Church. It is among the finest of Orthodox writings I’ve yet read; at once profoundly wise and deeply personal. Father John’s self-effacement and his revelation of the need to be hard and unsparing on one’s own sin, yet instantly merciful and forgiving of others’, come through with crystal clarity – again in clear and simple language. Here are several excerpts from his diary:
Christian! you must absolutely be humble, meek and long-suffering, remembering that you are clay, dust, nothingness; that you are impure; that everything good that you have is from God; that your life, your breath and everything you possess are God’s gifts; that for your sins of disobedience and intemperance you ought now to redeem your future blessedness in Paradise by the long-suffering which is indispensable in this world of imperfections and innumerable transgressions of the fallen men living together with us, and forming the numerous members of the one sin-sullied human race. “Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”

Love every man in spite of his falling into sin. Never mind the sins, but remember that the foundation of the man is the same – the image of God.

As the particles of the body of an animal, of a tree, of grass, of stone are held together by cohesion, so all the worlds are held together by the powers and laws laid in them. As the soul carries the body and gives life to it, so also God carries the world, giving life to it through His Holy Spirit; it is not without reason that a man is called a little world.
Father John lived a very long and spiritually-fruitful life. He was witness to the repose of Tsar Aleksandr III, and he lived through one of the great upheavals of Russia’s history – the revolution of 1905; he went to his repose at the age of seventy-nine, on the 20th of December, 1908. As a worker of miraculous healing and as an incessant advocate for Russian society’s most vulnerable, he was one of the most beloved religious leaders of his time, particularly amongst the poorest and most wretched members of his home parish, for whom he embodied the virtues of kindness and justice.

This day the pastor of Kronstadt
Appears before the throne of God
Praying fervently on behalf of the faithful
To the chief pastor Christ, who has promised:
“I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it!”