29 March 2019

Gender is a grammatical construct

I’m taking the title of this blog post from a paraphrase of an anecdote that my Classical Hebrew teacher, Fr Paul Tarazi, once told to our class. Fr Paul Tarazi’s class is an experience, by the way, and it is not to be missed when it is offered. He is full of these anecdotes, particularly from his time teaching in Romania, and he loves to use them as ‘asides’ with his class. Unfortunately, he learned very quickly that I am both of Ashkenaz descent, and (worse) a philosophy major with an interest in the Classics – and he likes to poke gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) fun at both groups: we ‘German Jews’ because we cannot pronounce our own language correctly – confusing ב /b/ and ו /w/ by pronouncing both of them /v/ – and we philosophers because, in his view, we over-speculate about everything. ‘The Greeks,’ he says, ‘always want to go down into the depths of everything. The Russians want to ascend the lofty heights, among the heavenly clouds. No one wants to stand here, with me, at eye level!’ It is always good to know my place. And so taking a class with Fr Paul Tarazi is a salutary exercise – not just for my language skills!

At any rate, he once made a point about liberal theologians wanting to make God to be a ‘her’ as much as a ‘he’, saying that God has no gender. No – he says – in the text, God has a gender, and grammatically speaking, He is always male. The speculations about God’s gender (or lack thereof) stem not from the texts but rather from the classical theist conception of God combined with the fact that the English language has no grammatical gender. He does not take offence, of course, but he does imply that the idea that God can be a woman is a form of intellectual colonialism. These texts which are in classical Hebrew and Aramaic, which belong to the Church and to the people of that region, are subject to ‘Anglo-Americans’ (actually, not just Anglos) with fancy degrees and a narcissistic attachment to their own ideas, who think they know better than the people who wrote the text, or than the indigenous people who can read it for themselves. Whether liberal or conservative, ‘the British and the Americans think they own the Bible,’ says Fr Tarazi. But we don’t, and Zionism is not the only error that results. ‘Holy Wisdom, hokmâh חכמה, may be a nice woman,’ says Fr Tarazi, ‘but,’ – unfortunately for the Anglo-Americans, whether feminist or misogynist – ‘the opposite of Wisdom is a woman, too!

Still, it is interesting to hear such anecdotes now. There are two distortions of gender which have unfortunately generated from this confusion of what is essentially a grammatical category. The first is the metastasis of gender into something with its own valence separate from language. English does away with grammatical gender entirely, and the East Northern Germanic languages do naughty, base, common things with grammatical gender. Owing in part to this Germanic linguistic confusion over gender, the concept itself is no longer a grammatical construct but a ‘social construct’, one which – because it no longer inheres to a real twofold distinction in the language, attaches itself to rôles that operate at a level above language.

Secondly, it has become overly-important in postmodern metaphysics as a philosophical property of mind, one that exists without reference to the body. God is grammatically male; and the Old Testament authors could speak of God as male only figuratively, the same way we would now talk about the ‘hands of God’, the ‘feet of God’, the ‘eyes of God’. Only the Incarnation renders God a literal, biological man. Gender is not to be considered a philosophical property of mind – at least, not provably. (There’s the pernicious philosophical confusion of classical theist notions with the grammatical conventions of Scripture.) The basic idea that ‘gender’ can be assigned such a pivotal metaphysical position in the modern philosophy of mind seems to be of relatively new (that is to say, post-1960s) provenance. And this is actually a much older position from which the earliest feminists (and the latest, but more on that later) rose in revolt. The idea that brains, that intellects and minds, could be ‘male’ or ‘female’ was inevitably attached to misogynist political-theological views of the mental capacities of women. And that position was precisely what early advocates of the parity of the sexes, like Christine de Pizan and Mary Astell, attacked in their work. Pizan and Astell insist that the capacity of women for the labours of the spirit and the mind is in no way inferior to that of men, because gender is not a property of the mind.

So: neither does gender inhere to the mind (that we can tell), nor does it have anything to do with the ‘social’ except as a part of language. Gender is a grammatical construct! That is how the authors of the text understood and used it. The philosophical speculation of whether or not God could be a woman, or the literalist personification of Holy Wisdom – still something a bit controversial in Orthodox iconography and theology – are both foreign to the indigenous understanding of the text. Muslims who read in Arabic, Jews who read in Hebrew and Christians who read in Syriac-Aramaic are, one hopes, simply not so stupid as to make such basic grammatical errors when reading the text. (But thus – to borrow Fr Paul Tarazi’s phrasing – is Holy Wisdom confused by the Germans with her opposite, while still remaining female!)

It is therefore not an accident that both confusions about gender have taken an outsized importance in the theologies of Western, Germanic-speaking countries which have lost the perspective about grammatical gender. Thus also the philosophy of Western countries; thus also the social theory of Western countries. John Milbank notwithstanding (though his postmodern theological critique of social theory is still important), Oxford is not the centre of the Christian world. Still less so are Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Durham, Nashville or Chicago.

It is important to understand that these distortions of the proper place of gender in the chain of being, even if they might seem liberating to a French poststructuralist or an American queer theorist, are ultimately misogynist. I hinted at that above in the allusion to Christine de Pizan and Mary Astell. The always-asserted, never-proven male mind / female mind distinction can only be pernicious in its effects against equality of the sexes. But interestingly enough, on a more contemporary note radical feminists are the ones leading the charge against it, and so I do defer to them here. Radical feminism has been finding since the 1980s that the assertion of a meaningful linkage between somatic biology and womanhood (that a woman is an adult, human female) actually allows for better, and better-informed, radical critiques of institutions and practices that oppress, injure and harm women. But they have been largely swimming against a current in Western feminist academia that was mispositioning ‘gender’ as the relevant analytical term.

I do not think it is accidental, either, that the perspectives of women in the West and those of their sisters living in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and South Asia began to diverge in major ways around the same time. Non-Western feminists have been largely focussed on œconomic gains and recognition of what might be called somatic issues. For example: promoting girls’ education; promoting better pay for women; promoting women’s healthcare; ending female genital mutilation; opposing forced marriage, child marriage and domestic violence; ending human trafficking; helping women exit from prostitution. In general, there is also a more positive attitude among non-Western feminists toward the dignity of motherhood. At the same time, liberal third-wave feminists in the West were beginning to steer the conversation in poststructuralist and constructivist directions oriented around the gender concept as applied to sociology and the philosophy of mind. In many cases, the actual aims of liberal third-wave feminism have been at odds with those of Third World feminism.

I don’t think it’s either fair or useful – and in fact I would consider it patronising – to assert a developmentalist or Whig-historical logic and to assume that Third World feminists are simply ‘behind’ postmodern feminism, or that their perspective is conditioned solely by an adverse, ‘illiberal’ political climate. One could more usefully consider that the relevant difference is one between survival values’ versus ‘self-expression values along one axis of the World Values Survey. But I think phrasing the dichotomy in this way misses certain underlying theological distinctions that are, in turn, rooted in the linguistic confusions noted above. This may be overstating the case rather badly, and in fact I’m almost certain it is. But when so much of this particular political-philosophical problem is semantic, perhaps the languages in which gender is preserved as a feature of grammar, are also those in which the truth of the struggle of the sexes can be better-articulated and -informed.

Righteous Gwynllyw and Gwladys, King and Queen of Glywysing

The twenty-ninth of March, in the Orthodox Church, is dedicated to the memory of a Welsh husband and wife who, while perhaps not the best exemplars of saintliness in their early lives, exemplified in their marriage the love and practical holiness that all such couples might aspire to. Saint Gwynllyw and Saint Gwladys – lovers, spouses, parents, co-rulers and ultimately hermits – are given their individual due as saints but are remembered together on the Calendar.

Gwynllyw [also Woolos or Gundleus] was the son of Glywys Cernyw, a semi-legendary king of southcentral Wales, and his wife Gwawl. He was one of twenty-two siblings, among whom was Saint Pedrog. He flourished as a youth and excelled in arms, and he came to maturity as an arms-bearing retainer in his father’s service. After Glywys died, Saint Gwynllyw saw to the apportioning of his realm under the custom of cyfran. Such systems of inheritance were ripe for abuse, and very often brothers would betray each other for advantage in the inheritance. But Saint Gwynllyw divided the lands of his father impartially and did not interfere in his brothers’ claims. Gwynllyw ruled in Glamorgan, and was renowned as a just and fair ruler to both rich and poor within his own cantrefs; there was no civil strife in his realm and travellers were safe on his roads.

Being single, however, his advisers and the representatives of the folk advised him to take a wife. He had one and only one woman in mind. He sent messengers to Brychan King of Brycheiniog, to ask his blessing to marry his eldest daughter Gwladys. The Life of Gwynllyw implies that she was promised to him and given in marriage willingly. However, the Life of their son, Saint Cadog Ddoeth, tells a different tale. In this telling, Brychan, ‘full of anger, refused to bestow his daughter on [Gwynllyw]’, and ‘slighted the messengers and dismissed them without honour’. Gwynllyw, on receiving his messengers again, wasted no time but called up three hundred young men from his retinue and marched on Talgarth. Gwynllyw saw Gwladys sitting outside with some of her sisters, and had his men grab her and ride off. As soon as they were clear of Talgarth, Gwynllyw asked Gwladys to ride with him on his horse.

Brychan gave chase, and caught up with the fleeing men of Glamorgan. Of the three hundred young men that had entered Brycheiniog, two hundred were caught and slain by Brychan’s men. Gwynllyw broke free of the snare with Gwladys, only to be seen and stopped by the tyrant Arthur and two of his retainers, Cai and Bedwyr. Arthur was taken with desire for Gwladys himself, but Cai and Bedwyr warned him against taking her. Instead, Arthur was convinced to intervene on Gwynllyw’s behalf against Brychan, and he chased Brychan back within his own borders. He later sent messengers to both sub-kings and made them reconcile.

Still, both Lives relate that Gwladys was happy with her new husband. She conceived, and bore Saint Cadog. This birth was marked with portents – four fiery lights stood at the four corners of the house where Saint Gwladys rested while she was pregnant. When Saint Cadog was born, the still rather-violent Gwynllyw took his men and went on a celebratory raid in Gwent. His men came upon the hermitage of a certain Gælic holy man named Tathyw [also called Meuthi or Meuthius]. They took from him his only means of sustenance: his milk-cow and her calf. Tathyw took to his heels after the raiders from Glamorgan, and followed them all the way back to Fochriw, where he demanded that the king return his cow. Saint Gwladys prevailing over her husband’s excesses, she convinced Gwynllyw not only to return the cow to Saint Tathyw but also to ask him to baptise their newborn son. Tathyw did this willingly, and gave him the baptismal name of Cadfael.

Saint Tathyw was kept on as young Cadog’s tutor, and raised him to venerate Christ and to do right to all. Whatever goods Cadog received, whatever gifts his father and mother gave to him, these quickly found their way out of his hands and into those of the poor and needy. Cadog took no delight in fine clothes or amusements or sumptuous banquets at Fochriw, but instead preferred a diet of bread and water, dressed simply, and attended the Liturgy. Gwynllyw, distressed at seeing his son prefer ‘low’ things to ‘high’ (as seen from a perspective of worldly vainglory), attempted to force him to join his retainers in war. But Cadog would not.

Instead, Cadog took to admonishing his parents on the transitory vanities of their courtly life, and encouraging them to prepare their souls for the heavenly kingdom instead. Apparently Cadog was quite persuasive, for Gwynllyw accepted baptism and agreed to mend his ways – particularly his raiding and making war on his neighbours.

It was shortly thereafter that a vision occurred to Saint Gwynllyw – in it an angel showed him a white ox with a very peculiar marking: a black spot, in the middle of its forehead, just below its horns. The angel told Gwynllyw that for the love of Christ who had redeemed him, he must put aside all worldly things and live a life of solitary repentance, in a place which would be shown to him by this very ox. When he awoke, Saint Gwynllyw recounted his dream to his entire court, and no sooner was this done but he made arrangements to leave the government in the hands of his son Cadog, and left Fochriw together with Gwladys to take up his eremitical life.

He found the white ox with the black mark just as the angel had told him, in a spot of land which was then yet uncultivated. He named the place Dutelych in honour of the white ox (modern day Stow Hill in Newport), and set up his hermitage there. He used oxen to cultivate the land around his hermitage, and he was blessed and assisted in his efforts by Saint Dyfrig, at that time Bishop of Llandaf. Saint Gwladys, his wife, settled off in a spot one furlong distant, in a bend on the river Ebbw. Both Saints Gwynllyw and Gwladys lived lives of austere reflection and repentance, wearing hair shirts, drinking only water and eating barley bread mixed with ashes. When they met they would talk only of holy things, and not of the idle amusements of the court they had left. Even so, living off even as far from each other as they did, they were apparently no less immune to temptation, having been earthly husband and wife for so long. When Saint Cadog came to visit them, he sternly upbraided his father and made his mother move off seven furlongs further, into a mountain retreat at Basaleg where wild animals were her only company.

Both Saint Gwynllyw and Saint Gwladys spent the rest of their lives in solitary ascetic struggle. As he was reaching the end of his life, Gwynllyw was visited by both Saints Cadog and Dyfrig; Dyfrig even administered to him the last rites and the Holy Gifts before he reposed, probably in the year 523. Gwynllyw and Gwladys are remembered together on the twenty-ninth of March. Gwynllyw is associated with a holy well in Newport, which sprang forth in answer to his prayers. Holy Gwynllyw and holy Gwladys, righteous monarchs and venerable anchorites, bound close in both earthly and in heavenly love each in due season, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Rejoice, thrice-blessed Gwladys,
Daughter of King Brychan,
Wife of holy Gwynllyw and mother of Saint Cadog.
O worthy Gwynllyw,
Thou didst forsake thy pagan warfare to fight as a Christian ascetic
And didst end thy days as a hermit.
We praise you, Gwladys and Gwynllyw.

Vision of St Gwynllyw, Newport, Wales

28 March 2019

Virgin-Martyr Hǽlcelde of Middleham

Church of St Mary and St Alkelda, Middleham

The twenty-eighth of March is the feast-day of Saint Hǽlcelde, a beautiful Northumbrian virgin-martyr who was put to death by a Danish woman during the ninth century. She is remembered in the toponymies of two Yorkshire towns: Middleham and Giggleswick. Each of these towns has a church dedicated to the saint: in Middleham, the Church of St Mary and St Alkelda, and in Giggleswick, St Alkelda’s Church.

According to the local tradition, Hǽlcelde [or Alkelda] was a virginal princess and a nun, who was involved in evangelising the Northumbrian countryside. She was en route from Middleham to Giggleswick, two towns thirty-three miles distant from each other on a road now called St Alkelda’s Way, when she encountered two heathen Danish women. They held Saint Hǽlcelde between them and strangled her with a thick scarf. This murder occurred on the twenty-eighth of March, possibly in the year 800.

Further complicating matters, is that Hǽlcelde may not have been the saint’s real name. The word ‘hǽlcelde’ is an Old English compound: háligholy’ (or hǽlan, ‘healing’) and celdewell’. Because her name itself merely means ‘holy well’, and because such a name is not attested anywhere else in the written record, the historicity of this saint has been called into question. Another more likely possibility is that the Christian name of this virgin-martyr, but not her story, was lost to time. She would have become known locally as the ‘saint of the holy well(s)’, and this cognomen was eventually remembered as her proper name.

Hǽlcelde is indeed associated with two holy wells in Northumbria, each one located nearby each church named for her. The well of St Alkelda in Middleham unfortunately has had the reputation of being the most-neglected such well in the shire. Saint Hǽlcelde is also associated with the Ebbing and Flowing Well in Giggleswick, whose water is still used for baptisms in the church named for her there. Holy martyr Hǽlcelde, victorious witness to Christ among the heathen, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

St Alkelda’s Holy Well, Middleham

26 March 2019

Tao Xingzhi and Sâti‘ al-Ḥuṣrî, part 3: œconomic divergence

Tao Xingzhi’s Yucai School in Chongqing (t),
and the Iraqi University of Mosul (b)

One of the great distinctions I am finding between the thought of Tao Xingzhi 陶行知 and that of Sâti‘ al-Ḥuṣrî ساطع الحصري has to do with the approaches of these two men to œconomic problems. Both men were, of course, primarily educators of their respective nations – and both men taught with an eye to a gaining a degree of collective self-determination for their respective peoples. For both men, national self-determination was of overriding concern. Neither Tao Xingzhi nor Sâti‘ al-Ḥuṣrî proclaimed the superiority of his society over others – and this is a point on which both men proved more humane than their Western teachers. However, both men were adamant that the Chinese and Arab nations, respectively, deserved unity, deserved justice, deserved political strength and deserved a seat at the international table that had hitherto been denied them by the Western imperial powers. But whereas this led Tao Xingzhi to a deeper appreciation of and attention to the œconomic plight of the Chinese peasantry – which made him a champion of coöperative societies and peasant self-organisation at the village level – from the limited reading I have done so far, there does not seem to have been any corresponding development in the thought of al-Ḥuṣrî, whose engagement with œconomic thinking seems to have been shaped and somewhat limited by his historiographical interests and his objections to the determinism and teleological orientations of Marxist historical discourse.

There are, I think, good reasons for this divergence on œconomic issues. The first reason, I believe, is that the problem of political unity in China wasn’t nearly so acute. As Wang Hui 汪暉 has pointed out repeatedly, one of the minor miracles of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 was that the Qing polity didn’t simply fragment into a half-dozen smaller squabbling nationalist ethno-states or end up carved up by opportunistic imperial powers. (And a good deal of Wang Hui’s academic work is oriented to trying to explain why and how that happened.) Despite having similar political climates and even similar internal relations between the ruling minority group and the larger but subordinate ethnic majority, both things happened to the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria and Romania peeled away in nationalist revolt; so did Serbia and Greece. And the careful relationship the Turkic Ottomans maintained with their Arab subjects began to deteriorate as well, to the point that the Arabs were willing to revolt. At the end of the First World War, the victorious allied powers carved up the Ottoman Empire like, well, a Thanksgiving… turkey.

As a result, the good Ottoman subject Sâti‘ bey found himself in the position of having to advocate for a polity which did not exist yet. In his view, the œconomic woes of the Arab fallâhîn, so apparent and so pressing to Salâma Mûsâ (and, ironically, so evident in their similarity to the Chinese), were downstream from politics (in the sense that Arabs could not advocate for themselves as long as they were divided between artificial statelets and European dependencies), which in turn was downstream from culture. Once a rigorous nationalist curriculum buttressing a unified Arab culture could be established in countries like Iraq and Ægypt and Syria, the political divisions among Arabs could be overcome, and the œconomic problems of rural privation and exploitation would resolve themselves. Sâti‘ was first and only ever an educational activist and a cultural nationalist; although he was sympathetic to socialism in its non-internationalist manifestations, he did not see it primarily as his job to resolve class disputes.

Tao Xingzhi, on the other hand, could not help but be affected by class; and what’s more, he could not help being engaged on behalf of one class: the rural peasantry. The political problem of the Qing-Republican transition was essentially a fait accompli by the time he had reached majority. If he ever felt the kinds of political compunctions against the new Republic that drove Liang Juchuan 梁巨川 to drown himself in protest, those compunctions would surface only later. China under the early Republic and the warlords was, it is true, politically weak and its internal institutions remarkably unstable. But culturally, it was unified to an extent that the Ottoman Empire never really had been. The Manchus were already assimilating when they received the Mandate of Heaven. Their policy of official ethnic and religious toleration also managed to bring the Mongols and the Tibetans (who espoused the same form of Vajrayāna Buddhism) and even the Muslim Uighurs into the fold.

In short, for twenty years there was no real, concerted political threat to the external integrity of the Chinese Republic, the way there was to the external unity of the Arabs for Sâti‘ al-Ḥuṣrî, until the Japanese invasion in 1931. However, when Tao Xingzhi returned from his studies at Columbia University in 1914, he found the threats of illiteracy, usury, famine, banditry and disease to be the true existential enemies of Chinese life. Putting aside that ‘Western thinking’ he found least useful, and taking up with zeal a dynamic amalgamation of Wang Yangming’s 王陽明 conservative Confucianism, Social Gospel Christianity and John Dewey’s American pragmatism, Tao Xingzhi threw himself into both the Mass Education Movement and the Rural Reconstruction Movement alongside Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 and Jimmy Yen 晏陽初.

Both Tao Xingzhi and Sâti‘ al-Ḥuṣrî, intriguingly enough, see mass literacy as one of the primary means of achieving cultural-national self-respect and self-determination. However, they take opposite tacks. Al-Ḥuṣrî is convinced that all Arabs must be compelled to learn classical Arabic and to use the language of the Qur’an and that all-important pædagogue ibn Khaldûn as their primary mode of written communication. Dialect is an obstacle to political unification, and plays into the hands of the imperialists. In his view, that could bridge the gulf not only between rich Arabs and poor Arabs, and achieve a worthwhile degree of dignity and self-respect for the latter, but also between the various regional variations on Arabic speech. Not only that, al-Ḥuṣrî is surprisingly constant on this aspect of his national curriculum in Iraq.

Tao Xingzhi, on the other hand, varies his approach. At first, he endorses and champions Jimmy Yen’s Thousand-Word Primer, the instrument by which he taught northeastern Chinese ‘volunteers’ in the trenches of WWI to write letters home. But later he finds Jimmy Yen’s Thousand-Word Primer to be still too restricting and slow-paced in bringing about the mass literacy he seeks. He briefly, but fervently, becomes an advocate of Ladinghua 拉丁化: the replacement of Chinese characters with Romanised pinyin. (Interesting historical tidbit: Tao Xingzhi was one of the people instrumental in designing Sin Wenz, and thus also the modern mainland Chinese schema for Pinyin!) Later in his career, however, it seems Tao Xingzhi grows frustrated with the practical limitations of pinyin. Even though he continues to advocate for phonetics in education, by the time he begins making plans to establish and fund the Yucai School 育才學校 in Chongqing, his enthusiasm for Romanisation cools, and he considers it simply another tool in the toolbox of achieving mass literacy in Chinese.

Tao Xingzhi’s idea of education is not nearly as linear as Sâti‘ al-Ḥuṣrî’s. Because he is constantly faced in his pædagogical experimentation with the realities of class exploitation and deprivation, he finds he constantly has to revise his methodologies. Faced with a lack of facilities, he advocates open-air classrooms. Faced with shortages of supplies, he teaches writing with wet chopsticks on a kitchen table. Faced with the cultural conservatism of young Chinese women reluctant to learn from adult male teachers, and the desire of elderly men and women both to learn, Tao Xingzhi does not impose on either one, but instead crafts a novel solution: the ‘little teacher’ and the ‘relay teacher’. Kindergarteners and young schoolchildren become educational assistants who can enter women’s rooms and assist their grandparents to teach them writing, science and mathematics. ‘Relay teachers’ – essentially, adult student assistants – become popular among ‘circuit’ teachers who are overburdened with large class sizes and lack of materials.

The subject matter, too, expands. Through learning how to write, and through direct contact with the problems of the peasantry, Tao Xingzhi begins to experience something like a populist awakening. He becomes a harsh critic of usury and warlordism, and a particularly voluble critic of Guomindang œconomic policy and corruption. He begins to encourage the organisation and growth of rural purchase, marketing and credit coöperatives in order to beat out the gaolidai 高利貸, and also to encourage physical conditioning and rigorous training in traditional martial arts so that beleaguered villagers can beat out the warlords by themselves. He advocates learning in practical subjects and sciences, and excoriates the ‘bookish weaklings’ who are encouraged to copy Western educational fads. Although his programme for collective self-help is, at first, quite Confucian, conservative-traditionalist and not explicitly socialist (nor, indeed, was Jimmy Yen’s), by the end of his life no lesser a figure in the Communist Party than Zhou Enlai 周恩來 is comfortable referring to him as a ‘non-Party Bolshevik’: a term of high praise.

The œconomic-activist dimension of Tao Xingzhi’s pædagogy contrasts rather starkly with the cultural-activist pædagogy of Sâti‘ al-Ḥuṣrî, and this is not surprising given the political backdrop behind each educator. Tao had a friendly and unified culture at his back against a hostile republican government; al-Ḥuṣrî had a series of friendly kings at his back against a divided and often (but not consistently) hostile culture. The historical shadows left by the Qing and the Ottoman empires, respectively, were quite long, and created contradictions that were left to their inheritors to deal with. In the Arab world, it is unfair to say that Sâti‘ al-Ḥuṣrî did nothing to connect the drive for political unity with that for œconomic equity and justice; it is simply that the circumstances were very different. Much of that job would be left to later men: Michel ‘Aflaq, Constantine Zurayq and, of course, Jamâl ‘Abd an-Nasr.

The deadly dud of Russiagate

As has seemed likely to me from the very start, it appears now that there was never any substantial collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and the Russian government. As my gentle readers know, I was never a great fan of Trump, never supported him, and never really understood those among his supporters who like to make references to classical Greece and Rome (let alone Persia, for crying out loud – what a slap in the face to Jews that comparison is!). I am not and never have been on the Trump train.

But, yes – I fully and cheerfully admit to being one of those folks on the ‘crank’ left, like Rania Khalek, Abby Martin, Caity Johnstone, Katrina van den Heuvel and Stephen Cohen, Margaret Kimberley, Ajamu Baraka, Stephen Kinzer, Michael Tracey, Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames, Max Blumenthal, Aaron Maté, Glenn Greenwald and the fine journalists at Consortium News, who always thought the Mueller investigation was going nowhere fast. Like them, Russian interests never seemed to me to align well enough with a Trump candidacy for me to have supported such a narrative to begin with. The accusations of collusion always had too high a degree of innuendo for my liking and not enough evidence. Trump’s actions in office still seem inimical to the theory that he’s a Russian puppet. And the Russiagate peddlers always stank of an insidious kind of McCarthyist red-baiting paranoia and a ready excuse for liberals to censor and smear the domestic left.

So we ‘cranks’ are all currently doing a small victory lap, which in my view is all too well-deserved. These people called it correctly, just like they called Bush’s lies about Iraq correctly. But the problem is – and I think that my fellow lefty ‘cranks’ recognise this perfectly well – that a lie does not die by mere exposure. For a lot of the people that so assiduously spread these untruths and innuendoes about Russia-Trump collusion in 2016, the thing has taken on a Nietzschean significance. It has become a matter of pride versus memory. Russiagate has become, in the doughnut collective consciousness, a mechanism whereby the sins of the Democrats can be expurgated by scapegoating: it cannot possibly be the case that Clinton lost because of her own failings; therefore, Russia must be to blame. And so, Mueller is not only not going away, but those of us on the left who saw it for the chaff it was must be made to pay the price as well – just as we were made to pay the price for being right about Iraq.

But here’s the real crime. All of that airspace, all of that bandwidth, that was spent paying attention to the utter fiction that was the Mueller investigation into Russian collusion and election interference – all of it – could have been used instead to point to the real problems and real wrongdoing of the Trump Administration: the still-ongoing starvation in Yemen; the needless escalations and violence in the Golan Heights and Gaza; the illegal attempted régime change in Venezuela; the continued dismantlement of environmental regulations for big oil; the continued building of tar-sands pipelines; the continued cuts to basic programmes for the sick and elderly; the continued war on labour rights across the board; and the inaction and heel-dragging on the quiet death-by-overdose of a hollowed-out rural America.

Unfortunately, for pro-establishment liberals, most of the above are inconvenient issues because investigating them would shine an uncomfortable searchlight on the moral status of the status quo ante of the sixth of November, 2016. Trump would no longer be, in such a view, a sui generis stain on American political life and an intrusion from ‘outside’, from Russia. If Trump were investigated on these questions, the moral standing of pre-Trump American liberalism on issues concerning MENA, Latin America, welfare ‘reform’, labour rights and environmental issues would start to come under scrutiny as well. Again, pride would be at war with memory. But there is a real human and œcological cost that comes with preserving the fantasy of a pristine status quo ante, and it is not clear if that cost is something we can afford in the long run. So, yes, Russiagate was a dud – as expected. But as Taibbi and others correctly note, duds can still be deadly, and in this case they almost certainly are.

Holy Hierarch Liudgar of Billerbeck

Holy Hierarch Liudgar, Bishop of Münster

The twenty-sixth of March is the feast of Liudgar of Billerbeck, the first bishop of Münster. An inheritor of the missions to the Frisian people left by Saints Willibrord and Boniface, Liudgar – born to a family that was intimately connected with both saints – was the first Christian priest of that folk, and managed to reap many of the fruits that had been left him by his predecessors.

In Saint Willibrord’s time, the king of the Frisians was Redbad – not a great friend of the Christians or their mission, seeing them as agents of the Franks. One of Redbad’s þegnas, though, a man named Wursing, befriended Saint Willibrord and converted to Christianity along with his wife Alburg and his two brothers-in-law, Willibrecht (who was tonsured a deacon under Willibrord) and Thiatbrecht. Wursing lived near what is today Utrecht, but was forced into exile by Redbad – who only forgave Wursing and welcomed him back to Frisia toward the end of his life.

Wursing’s son, Thiatgrim, was allowed to return to Utrecht. Thiatgrim married a local woman, Leofburg daughter of Nothrad and Aldburg, who bore him a daughter, Heriburg, and two sons: Liudgar and Hildegrim (also a saint, commemorated on 19 June). He was present in Frisia when Saint Boniface was martyred at Fulda; some sources say he was actually present at the occasion. Whatever the case, Liudgar proved to be a devoted student – a tale from his Vita tells of how when he was just able to walk, he went out into the trees and collected birch-bark, and scribbled on them with reeds dipped in homemade ink. When his nurse asked him what he had done, he replied: ‘I have made books’, or ‘I have written and read all day’. When she asked him who taught him, he answered her: ‘God taught me.’ He was sent to the monastic school for boys at Utrecht, where he was placed under the tutelage of the abbot – Saint Gregory of Utrecht. He was tonsured and became a monk around 760, and Saint Gregory, noting Liudgar’s aptitude for learning, made him a teacher in the monastic school. He was friendly with his schoolmates, who remembered him fondly:
Liudgar was much loved by them, by reason of his wondrous gentleness and kindness: his face was cheerful, though he was not easily provoked to laughter; he combined prudence with moderation in all his actions, for he constantly meditated upon Holy Scripture, and especially upon those portions of it which pertained to the praise of God, and to the Catholic faith, for all which reasons he was loved by his venerable master as an only son.
An Englishman named Aluberht came to join the mission of Boniface sometime after, and stayed at the monastery at Utrecht. Saint Gregory, being impressed with Aluberht, wanted to make him a bishop; Aluberht conceded only on the condition that some of the local clergy would join him and consent to be educated in England. Saint Gregory obliged him, and sent with Aluberht two of his clergy: the priest Sigibod and the deacon Liudgar. Liudgar accompanied now-Bishop Aluberht back to York in 767, where he continued his studies under that towering intellect and that wonderful tutor of the Franks, Saint Ealhwine of York. So deeply enthralled was Liudgar by the profundity of Ealhwine’s knowledge and teaching, that he desired to stay on in York the following year – a request which his abbot in Utrecht granted only with the greatest of reluctance. Liudgar stayed with Ealhwine for three and a half years more.

Ealhwine sent Liudgar back to his home country after an incident in 774, in which a Frisian merchant killed the son of a local Northumbrian eorl in a brawl. Fearing for their safety, the Frisians of York packed up and left, and Ealhwine thought it prudent that Liudgar should go with them, though he sent along an English deacon as companion to Liudgar for his safety from the wrathful eorl’s þegnas. When he returned at last, whole and hale, to Utrecht, Abbot Gregory received his young pupil and monk with great joy and warmth.

It was around this time that the priest Wine (known as Lebuïnus in Dutch) from England came to Utrecht to establish a missionary church in Deventer. This mission church was a resounding success: so much so that it proved a tempting target for Saxon attack. The heathen Saxons burnt and plundered it several times, but Wine went back time and again to rebuild. Eventually Wine died there and became venerated as a local saint. At this time, too, Saint Gregory of Utrecht fell ill and reposed in the Lord; his successor Albric sought the young monk Liudgar to take Wine’s parish and continue his missionary work. Liudgar did not at first succeed, but wondrously Wine appeared to him by night and told him his relics lay at the foot of the church’s old south wall. When the church was rebuilt, Liudgar took care to extend the foundations to include Saint Wine’s relics; and many wonders were wrought within that church thereafter.

However, the Frankish king Karl the Big was apparently determined also to pursue a policy of ‘an eye for an eye’ against the Saxons who had plundered Wine’s church so often and tried to desecrate his body. Liudgar went into Deventer with the task not only of rebuilding the church and the mission from Albric, but also the mission from the king of smashing idols, destroying heathen temples and returning the stolen goods that had been taken. Most of these items went back to Paris, with some of them being held over for the use of the church in Utrecht.

Albric was thereafter elevated to the rank of bishop, and ordained Liudgar as a priestmonk. Liudgar was sent to the stead of Saint Boniface’s martyrdom, near Dokkum, there to right a kirk where he had fallen. For this church, Saint Ealhwine composed a poem in Latin to be inscribed on the kirk wall, which begins: ‘Hie pater egregiis meritis Bonifacius almus, / Cum sociis pariter fundebat sanguinis undam.’ Liudgar was also placed as one of the priors in the abbey at Utrecht. In both offices he served with exemplary zeal and love for his people; and many Frisians were brought to the Faith at this time. However, again the Saxons attacked under the heretog Widukind, burning the Christian churches as they went – and Liudgar was forced to flee Utrecht for Rome. While in Rome, he stayed at the abbey of Saint Benedict. Although he was apparently a member of the antique Black Canons and never left his order for another, on account of his friendship towards Monte Cassino and his veneration of Saint Benedict, the Benedictines nonetheless consider Saint Liudgar as one of their own.

Although Liudgar was not a wholly-peaceful witness among the heathen – he did his fair share of idol-smashing at the behest of the Frankish king – he was absent in Rome for what was perhaps the most wicked of the Franks’ deeds toward the Saxons in this age, and a reversion in spirit to Frankish paganism on the part of Karl the Big. The Frankish king defeated Widukind at Essen, and the latter was forced to flee into Denmark. A large mass baptism of Saxons followed, but the Saxons rose up shortly afterward with Widukind at their head. Following their second defeat, Karl the Big ordered a brutal mass slaughter of four and a half thousand Saxons at Verden an der Aller. Though this act did quell Saxon military resistance to Frankish rule for perhaps half a generation, it also engendered a great distrust of Christianity and relapses into heathenry among the Saxons and peoples further north for centuries to come. Notwithstanding Widukind’s conversion, it would take the better part of two hundred years, and the efforts of better, gentler men like Saint Bernward, to bring the Saxons fully into the sheepfold.

However, as mentioned, Saint Liudgar had little if anything to do with this event. Saint Liudgar returned to Fryslân only in 787 and resumed his missionary work under the victorious Karl. He was sent into Groningen and Norden, and even visited the same Heligoland that had nearly proven so fatal to Saint Willibrord, and there destroyed the idols to Fosite and preached the Gospel among the inhabitants there. After the subjugation of the Saxons, Saint Liudgar was sent to found a cathedral in Münster and an abbey in Essen. From here he preached the Gospel and ministered among the Saxons, where his meekness and gentle suasion worked greater good for their souls than Karl’s swords and axes had done.

Receiving foreknowledge of his own death, Saint Liudgar turned again to his studies of the Holy Scriptures and to chanting from the Psalter. He met his repose peacefully after celebrating the Liturgy at one of his churches in Billerbeck. Of Saint Liudgar’s writings, only the Vita of his beloved master and predecessor Abbot Gregory survives and is universally accepted as genuine. Holy Hierarch Liudgar, apostle to the Frisians and to the Saxons, intercede with Christ our God to save our souls!

25 March 2019

Glorified and honoured in the highest

For us Orthodox, the Annunciation of Christ’s birth to the Mother of God has a particular and deep significance. This sudden feast in the midst of the most solemn period of fasting in the Church catches us, if I may paraphrase Fr Paul of St Herman’s OCA a bit, off our guard. It throws us off-balance. If we are ever tempted in the Lenten season by thoughts of self-importance or sufficiency unto ourselves in the fast, this feast (which normally falls right in the middle of the great fast) on which the Mother of God herself at first refuses to believe what she hears on account of her own humility cannot and should not but put us to shame a bit. The feast isn’t just a day inviting us perhaps to enjoy a tuna salad sandwich or two, but also a day which calls us to ‘check ourselves before we wreck ourselves’.

In a certain sense, this episode – this sudden, unannounced, unexpected visitation – plays a central rôle in the history of human salvation. This young child herself unlooked-for, this oblate, this last flower of a kingly house long faded into obscurity and povertythis child was chosen by the Most High to bear the Messiah, to be sure. But there is more to it than that. From the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke:
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
This last ‘be it unto me according to thy word’, that willing, knowing ‘yes’ from Mary, is one of the central events, if not the central event, in the human drama which has to this point shaped up to be, not truly a tragœdy, but a bitter and cruel farce of self-destruction. Mary’s ‘yes’ in St Luke 1:38, her willing coöperation with the grace of God, is the eucatastrophe of the New Testament: the means by which the disobedience of Adam and Eve and all of its ramifications came undone. The philosophical ramifications of this are seen in the writings of Saint Irenæus, who goes so far as to call Mary the second Eve, the mother through whom all of humanity is reborn. More than that: Mary’s ‘yes’ is the model that serves for the rest of us fallen, sinful human beings – the only way by which salvation can work within us is if we too can bring ourselves to say ‘yes’ to God with the same simplicity, the same here-hood (that is to say, doyikayt) and the same degree of forgetfulness of self that the Mother of God had.

But note what is required, if we are to accept this ourselves. The Ever-Blessed Virgin occupies a position in the divine drama which is very difficult, if not impossible, to define by the means of the mere discursive reason alone. The Mother of God is not just another woman (with all that that phrasing can be taken to imply) as the misogyny of certain sixteenth-century French and German ‘reformers’, and those who follow them, would have it. Nor is it quite right to say she was somehow specially and metaphysically set-apart, as if in an experimental test-tube, from the rest of wicked and sinful humanity – as the Latins, especially after 1854, hold. Both of these distortions unfortunately warp not just the understanding of Mary but that of God Himself.

After all, what does it say about God, if Mary was indeed ‘just another woman’? If Mary was not blessed with a particular degree of humility and simplicity, and if any woman at all would have done to bring forth Christ, why would God have waited so long? Why would God not have chosen to save humanity through the wife of Cain, or the wives of Enoch, or the wife of Seth? For what possible purpose would God have allowed so many countless generations of humanity to founder – to lie, cheat, exploit and destroy each other – before any shred of eschatological hope could be offered to them? And although our separated Latin brothers and sisters come closer to the truth in holding fast to the doctrines set forth at Chalcedon regarding Mary as the Mother of God, still the doctrine of the ‘Immaculate Conception’ has some profound and unfortunate consequences. If it was within God’s power to preserve Mary from original sin from before her birth, why would he not do so for any other woman – for example, the wife of Cain, the wives of Enoch or the wife of Seth? The German distortion, denying Mary her honour, deliberately lessens the greatness of her virtues; the Latin, seeking misguidedly to heap upon her greater honours than she ever sought, lessens her freedom as well. Both distortions would make God into something of an arbitrary tyrant. But it is not a tyrant who comes and speaks with Mary through His servant Gabriel in the Gospel of Saint Luke, but a God who is willing to wait for her freely-given ‘yes’.

I have written along these lines before, but it bears repeating. We can affirm that Mary was special; following the witness of the Fathers we can affirm that she was virgin in perpetuity, and the grace which was imparted to her by becoming the Birthgiver of God was indelible and divine. But notice that her virtues – her obedience to God, her tenderness, her self-effacement, her utter lack of guile, her sisterly affection, her hospitality, her solidarity with the poor, her self-giving love for her Son in those passages of the Gospel where she appears in person – these things are wholly and truly human. Though it does not efface her fundamental humility or openness to God, we can even see in this passage of Saint Luke a trace of the disputatiousness which is typical of the Hebrews in their relation to their Creator. Yes, Mary, glorified and honoured above the very highest of the cælestial powers, truly is one of us.

Perhaps we are not meant to approach the Mother of God with our analytical, discursive brains at all. After all, would we approach our own birth-mothers this way? Perhaps we would – but that wouldn’t say very good things about us as sons and daughters, would it? But, as Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco (to whom I am indebted for much of the content here) put it: ‘There is no intellect or words to express the greatness of Her Who was born in the sinful human race but became “more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim”.’ Instead, we need to approach the Mother of God at the level of the heart. Do we ‘worship’ Mary? Do we merely ‘venerate’ her? These questions betray a preoccupation with rhetoric, semantics and sophistry which profoundly misses the mark. We Christians love Mary, not only because she is the Mother of God – though she is very much that! – but because as the ‘second Eve’ and the one who gave birth to our Saviour, she is also our Mother.

Пресвятая Богородица, спаси нас!
Today is the beginning of our salvation,
The revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
Hail, O Full of Grace,
the Lord is with You!

22 March 2019

Theopolitical questions abound

The future of politics and the rôle of the Church in a world where liberalism appears to be increasingly exhausted is again a hot topic. Chase Padusniak at Patheos Catholic has given a good run-down of a recent debate in the Roman Catholic Church Life Journal on the topic of post-liberal political theologies. To wit: is the future of Christian political theology intégriste, anarchist, or something else entirely?

To be honest, I do feel like I have drifted away somewhat from the flow of this debate in the blogosphere – my interests on this blog having largely delved into historical topics rather than current affairs. But, as chance would have it, they are not unrelated – and I do on occasion pop up for a breath of air. I won’t say it’s exactly ‘fresh’ air in the current instance; the Church Life Journal debate is essentially a reprise, in a slightly different key, of a blogosphere argument sparked by an article in La Civiltà Cattolica a year and a half ago, on Americanism and the œcumenism of fear. But that does not mean by any stretch that the CLJ debate is without importance! We are, after all, trapped in a post-liberal moment whether we like it or not. It is only good sense that we should begin to examine the grand narratives and comprehensive doctrines that will naturally fill the void. It is also good sense to interrogate them hard. We need to question where we go from here, and also to begin asking what, if anything, can be salvaged from the ordo of liberalism as it steers itself towards shipwreck.

The problem, as it is posed by both Troutner and Waldstein, is clear. Liberal social orders pretend to be neutral arbiters and level playing fields between various incommensurate comprehensive doctrines about what constitutes the Good. The liberal ‘creation story’ is one in which a neutral state is able to stave off – either with actual violence or with the mere threat of it – the various forces of religious bigotry and fanaticism behind which lurk the disintegrative forces of chaos. We are now beginning to see and understand that this pose of neutrality and levelness is, indeed, just a pose – that liberalism itself is a comprehensive doctrine, but one which does not actually constitute its own substantive ‘good’ and instead provides only various formal and procedural simulacra of the Good (debate, discourse, proceeding, election, trial, rules-based order). So far, so good, so to speak. Where Troutner and Waldstein begin to disagree is in their diagnoses of the liberal worldview – and this leads them toward diametrically-opposed conclusions about the correct uses of political power and the correct relationship between the Church and the state.

For Troutner, the nature of liberalism is fundamentally parasitic on the legacy of Christendom’s improvements on prior pagan systems of political ethics. Liberalism appeals to various expectations which grew out of the apostolic and patristic witness at the beginning of the Christian age – things like human dignity and equality before the law – and, to slightly contort his analogy, metastasises those expectations into bedrock principles of a new order which must be preserved at any cost even from the religious worldviews that brought them into being. Troutner believes that liberalism can be defeated only by providing counter-narratives which demonstrate this sophistic sleight-of-hand. Waldstein, on the other hand, understands the rejection of hierarchy and obedience as ethical categories to be present in the fall of Lucifer and, consequently, in the first fall of man. Satan, in this account, is the first liberal. Waldstein’s account of the distinctions between liberalism and the Christian worldview become, in this perspective, far more Manichæan in character. It is therefore not surprising in the slightest that Troutner ends up espousing a form of Christian anarchism and Waldstein, a form of theocracy.

As a brief aside: I do wish Troutner had gone a bit further in his critique of intégrisme, and gone into its – so to speak – moral genealogy. In its original form, the intégrisme of Charles Maurras and Action française was not particularly Catholic: Maurras was an agnostic, and the creative force behind Action française came from the anti-Dreyfusards. French intégrisme was rooted not in Catholic thought but in atheism and positivism: the thought of Auguste Comte and Ernest Renan in particular. It does not take a great leap of the imagination to substantiate from this Troutner’s point that intégrisme is often little more than an imitative inversion of liberalism. The ‘moral genealogy’ of intégrisme matters, because the one true point about the liberal compromise on matters of religion is that it does stave off, temporarily, the more substantive question of what takes its place. That question does indeed seem an ominous one, in no small part because those of us who have been steeped in liberalism’s self-written mythology are the ones who must bring forth what replaces it. For those of us who are critics of liberalism, that should scare us.

More: Orthodox Christians cannot afford to remain neutral on this question, and in fact we already are struggling with it in ways that heighten our awareness of the underlying problems in ways which are not necessarily as immediate for our Western brothers and sisters. This is one of the Big Questions, to which the Russians in particular were keenly sensitive when they were grappling with the notions of nihilism, anarchism and autocracy in their own country, before the Revolution. One need only peruse one of the novels of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy to understand immediately that the most sensitive minds of the Russian intelligentsia found the liberal compromise to be not only untenable, but in some sense contemptible: the characters in the great Russian novels who espouse the ideals of contemporary European liberalism, progress and Whig history almost always turn out to be hypocrites. The sensitivity of the Russian men-of-letters to the stakes of the Big Question of political theology, however, did not save them – the Revolution hit them all the same. The attempts at articulating the Kingdom on earth failed miserably even as their final triumph was proclaimed from the Kremlin in 1917.

This failure is still with us. The current political problems currently dividing the Orthodox Church can be traced back to an imperial ecclesiology which neither the Russian nor the Constantinopolitan Church has fully managed to shed. Still more problematically, this imperial ecclesiology undergirds on a practical level what may be the most useful and worthwhile concept the Orthodox historical witness has to offer on the Big Question of political theology—symphony.

Once one begins to acknowledge that Church and state are two distinct things – a realisation that struck Christian thinkers very early in their interactions with the Roman Empire – various forms of theopolitical engagement begin to emerge. The first and oldest form of theopolitical engagement there is, is simply the state cultus: cæsaropapism. Cæsar is the pontifex; or, still more crudely, Cæsar is god – and the state is (above) the church. Obviously, this form of theopolitical engagement was unacceptable to the early Christians living under pagan Roman rule, but it would become much more palatable when Rome’s emperors became Christian themselves. In more subtle forms, every kind of civic religion and every kind of personality cultus that forms around a sæcular leader partakes in this form of theopolitical engagement.

The second form of theopolitical engagement is the inverse of this: theocracy, or papocæsarism, wherein the church is (above) the state. The divine laws as interpreted by the priesthood with direct reference to the æternal ends of man become the laws by which all human beings must be made to live. For Christians and heretics both, from Savoranola and Chauvin to Joseph Smith, this has always been an attractive option – and intégrisme does not entirely avoid the temptation of it. It has also been, for most of Muslim history, the preferred form of theopolitical engagement: the primary political organ being entirely contiguous with the religious community, the ummat al-Islâm, it made sense for there to be no distinction either between religious law and civil law.

The final form of theopolitical engagement to emerge is laïcité: the idea that there is a bright and impenetrable line between the affairs of the state and the affairs of the Church, and never the twain shall meet. This is the dominant form of theopolitical engagement encouraged under the liberal order. There can be friendly forms of laïcité characterised by pluralism and tolerance – this is the model encouraged in the United States. There can also be less-friendly forms, like those adopted in France and Turkey. And there can be forms that are downright hostile, where the state actively oppresses and attempts to destroy the Church – as under the ideocracies of the twentieth century.

Orthodox Christians recognise a third form of theopolitics that emerged under Emperor Saint Constantine and was theorised under Emperor Saint Justinian of Eastern Rome and, in Russia, under Tsar Ivan IV Grozniy: the theopolitics of church-state symphony. It shares with theocracy an acknowledgement that politics has an æternal dimension. But it also shares with laïcité the acknowledgement of separate spheres of Churchly and stately concern; however, it does not draw the bright impenetrable line between the two. Church and state are partners, or brothers, and assist one another in various ways. In Orthodox theology, the model for this relationship is that of Moses and Aaron. Aaron, the elder brother, is kohen (כוהן, priest); Moses, the younger brother, is məḥoqeq (מחקק, lawgiver). Moses stands above, and goes up the mountain; Aaron stays below among the people. Moses commands, compels, prods, rebukes; Aaron persuades, pricks consciences, reconciles, makes peace.

Now, obviously, even from the Hebrew perspective this relationship is fraught with irony and dysfunction, as all good families are. Moses has a nasty temper and even murders an Ægyptian in a rage – which is what leads to his exile. Aaron is weak-willed and bows to the will of the crowd when they demand an idol be built with gold they’d brought out of Ægypt. God permits neither of the two brothers to enter the Promised Land with the people, because both of them are impatient and grumble at God in Miribah. Also, despite their dissimilarities of function, the two brothers and their offices are not exactly equal. Even though it is Moses who anoints Aaron, in Jewish (and in Orthodox Christian) tradition, Aaron began his work as prophet before Moses did—which is not the case, significantly, in the Islâmic tradition. When Moses dies, only the ‘sons of Israel’ weep for him; when Aaron dies, all of Israel weeps for him, including the women. Even so, it is clear that only these two could lead the Hebrew people out of Ægypt and get them within sight of the Promised Land; and it is not coincidental that this is treated in the Greek Patristic literature as both a this-worldly, political end and an æternal, spiritual one.

The good thing about looking to the Exodus as a model for the symphonic relationship between Church and state is that it seems to imply it doesn’t necessitate an Emperor. Remember, there was no melek מלך in Israel before Saul! However, the bad thing about the idea of symphony in Church-state relations is that in the Christian era, it has never been done without one. And there seems to be an unhealthy tendency among the ‘priests’ of our time to seek out a ‘lawgiver’ among the ‘nations’ who are not our brothers. The American right-wing evangelicals who in our time hold up Trump as their ‘Cyrus’ (even as Trump rages and threatens and sanctions the children of the actual, historical Cyrus) is merely the most visible and risible example.

In that case—chto delat’? When I first wrote that article on symphony, I mentioned that Fr Stanley (Harakas) held up symphony as a yet-unfulfilled ideal to be striven for, and that Vigen Guroian was the one urging caution and a less-maximalist approach to the question of political involvement by the religious. I fear I may have gotten that slightly wrong. In his book, Fr Stanley does indeed hold up symphony as the only desirable form of theopolitics, but takes a decidedly more pessimistic tack when it comes to the question of how and whether it can be achieved. Harakas and Guroian actually agree far more than they disagree on this particular question, to the point that Harakas actually advocates little more than issue-based advocacy for Orthodox laypeople and clergy, to the tune of about two core issues.

I would love to see either Guroian or Harakas (or both!) engage with both the advocates of Christian anarchism and the intégristes. Personally, I hold with neither the anarchists nor the intégristes nor the liberals, and am rather deeply distressed that in the imagination of a very significant portion of the American electorate – including portions of the American electorate I naturally tend to sympathise with – these three options seem to be the only ones on offer or seriously considered. After all, Berdyaev (and the rest of the Vekhi authors, for that matter) was none of the above. None of the above, too, was Mother Maria, who spurned the ‘egoistic vegetarianism’ of Day’s anarcho-pacifism, but also had no easy words of comfort either for the émigré Russians who dreamed of a fœderal liberal-democratic Europe, or those who dreamed of a new Tsar. By the end, none of the above was Saint Ilya Bunakov – who, rejecting liberalism and anarchism and theocracy, was prophesying a ‘new word’ of political synthesis when he was murdered by the Nazis.

Axiomodernity is going to demand, soon if not already, a politics of the Cross that falls into none of these traps. We do not get to the Cross by imitating the unrepentant water-bearers for Pilate; nor do we get there by taking up arms on the roadsides with modern-day Zealotry; nor do we get there by fleeing to the hills like the Essenes. Or, we may as well say, we can get to the Cross on any one of these roads but only through repentance, prayer, fasting and self-giving (how else?). With regard to the symphonic ideal, we need to bear in mind the example of Metropolitan Onufriy of Kiev, who is living and working under the most hostile of conditions. If such a symphony is ever to manifest itself, I do not claim to know what it will look like, but I have a hunch that it will have to be through aggressive gestures of humility and generosity.

Arabia tristis, iterum

American Senators Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee and Chris Murphy have recently seen through the Senate a resolution to stop supporting the Saudi régime’s war on the Yemeni people – a war of aggression waged by one of the wealthiest nations on earth against one of the poorest. This would indeed be welcome news and an admirable move on the part of these Senators – and the consistency and involvement of these lonely voices of both the socialist left and the libertarian right is something that will be remembered in future generations as a mark of their moral courage against this century’s greatest humanitarian disaster.

But this most recent vote is essentially a do-over of a resolution supported by the same people and passed in the Senate last year, which got derailed in the House by an unrelated procedural amendment from Republicans (but also supported by the Democratic establishment), meaninglessly and cynically posturing against anti-Semitism. Such meaningless and cynical posturing has been a long-standing feature of American policy while our policy-makers continue to aid and abet the Saudis’ slow genocide by starvation, disease and bombing of the long-suffering Yemeni Shi‘a. It is telling: the same people who loudly demand that America recognise the historical starvation of Ukrainians, or who demand that America now intervene in Venezuela (and these are, by and large, the same people), will not lift a finger now to save a starving Arab child – whether in Palestine or Syria or, most urgently, Yemen. We must do better. The only other option is cynicism, nihilism and despair, and those do not help.

I keep using the Latin phrase ‘Arabia tristis’ in the titles of these blog posts, but have not yet explained that use. That’s a ‘my bad’. My use of the phrase is a bitter historical irony. In the Byzantine era, the Greeks and the Romans called what is now Yemen ‘Arabia felix’, ‘happy Arabia’, on account of it being a land of plenty. Today, Yemen is still in desperate and dire need, and its people are grieving after these long years of dearth and tragœdy. Today it truly is ‘Arabia tristis’; and as Christians we are called upon to condole with the grieving – especially those who grieve at our hands and on account of our sins. We need to do so with more than just platitudes, but with actions. We fast; Yemen starves. During this Lenten season of struggle against the passions – a struggle I lose very frequently – and of almsgiving as well as fasting, if you are an American especially please consider giving to the people of Yemen (through organisations like Share Aid Yemen and Human Needs Development) as they desperately await not only food and medicine but also justice and peace. And please also pressure your elected officials to commit to a real peace, to end military support to the Saudis at the very least, and not to be distracted by grandstanding.

20 March 2019

Can we still get a Chomsky from Trubetskoi?

In the Western press especially, the idea of ‘Eurasianism’, along with the ‘Russian world’, has become a watchword for a specific and virulent form of Russian state ideology which is irredeemably anti-Western, totalitarian and fascist. It is also immediately understood in conjunction with the primary contemporary theorist of Eurasianism, Aleksandr Dugin. But the question is still worth asking: is Eurasianism actually an intrinsically totalitarian ideology? Or is this simply another case of Orientalist projection encouraged by the racist attitudes engendered by the rightward-lurching political climate in Central and Eastern Europe (and indeed, closer to home)? The answer to this lies in the thought and principles, not of the last of the Eurasianists, but of the first – Prince Nikolai Sergeevich Trubetskoi. For various reasons, I think it particularly apposite that I am posting this on the evening of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year which is celebrated throughout much of Central Asia: for which again, with my whole heart and soul I wish my dear Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Azeri and Iranian friends and readers all a very happy, blessed and light-filled holiday. Наурыз құтты болсын! !نوروز مبارک

But: about Prince Trubetskoi. This younger Prince Trubetskoi was the son of Prince Sergei Nikolaevich Trubetskoi, one of the very close friends of Vladimir Solovyov, who made a similar turn in his thinking in his youth from positivism and atheism toward an Orthodox Christianity coloured by both German idealism (similarly to Khomyakov and Kireevsky) and a modernised Platonism (the same sort that would be espoused by George Grant and Simone Weil in the West). Solovyov and the elder Trubetskoi not only had much the same intellectual experience, but they also mutually influenced each other. Trubetskoi, however, for his part was drawn more to the Orthodox theological tradition than Solovyov was – whose own philosophical leanings brought him very close to Roman Catholicism. The elder Trubetskoi, however, shared one of his friend’s less-attractive traits, in his rank bigotry against East Asians. Trubetskoi unfortunately shared Solovyov’s wild-eyed terror of the barbarian Mongol hordes to the east, and viewed the rise of Japan with an undisguised apocalyptic horror and revulsion.

The elder Prince Trubetskoi’s life, however, was cut tragically short by a brain hæmorrhage in 1905, which in truth was also the same year that Old Russia died with New Russia having yet to be born. Sergei Trubetskoi left behind him a brother Evgenii, and a son Nikolai – both of whom were first-hand witnesses in Moscow to the revolutionary upheavals that took place in the following decade. Both of them, being both aristocrats and intellectuals of, in Bolshevik eyes, the wrong kind of leftist bent, were exiled from the Soviet Union. Evgenii died en route, of camp-fever.

Very early in his own exile, however, Nikolai Trubetskoi began to detect certain dialectical patterns that connected the professed liberal, cosmopolitan and ‘world-civilised’ ideas of his émigré compatriots to the brute blood-and-soil chauvinism of the Nazis on the other. He began to see within the liberal-cosmopolitan mindset a certain attitude that centred the concerns of Europe in world history; and that relegated the rest either to the forces of barbarous darkness to be overcome, or to the ‘raw material’ that must be moulded by the self-same ‘world-civilised’ ideas. The new ‘racialism’ kept all of the underlying assumptions of cosmopolitanism but emptied them of any pretense to altruistic ethical content. In short, Trubetskoi became an anti-racist and an anti-imperialist very early in his exile – and this provided the basis for his Eurasianism. It was as much against some of his own prior biases and those of his compatriots in exile, as against Western civilisation per se, that he wrote Europe and Mankind from the University of Saint Kliment in Sofia in 1920.

These convictions of his only deepened during his tenure in Prague, where he would spend the rest of his life. Many if not most of the intellectual émigré Russians landed in Paris: including Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Mother Maria and her circle. But Nikolai Trubetskoi managed to land, significantly enough, in the very heart of an accidentally-independent republic with a newfound intellectual craze for things Byzantine and a penchant for populist peasant politics. Prince Trubetskoi, an intellectual’s intellectual, could not help but be swayed by the general academic atmospheres of the two cities. He could not help but observe both the good and the bad – the liberated atmosphere of historical and cultural inquiry on the one hand; but on the other hand, the tensions between German, Slav, Magyar and Jew. In this atmosphere, one can certainly see the allure of particular readings of Nikolai Danilevsky and Oswald Spengler!

He also could not help but note the dual (and in his own view, hypocritical) attitude of his own cohort of fellow Russian émigrés in Prague. On the one hand, their attitude toward their ‘brother Slavs’ was everything sweet and amiable; however, there was a certain kind of superiority complex toward the Czechs amongst his fellow-intellectuals that repelled and incensed him. He also witnessed with great alarm the inroads that fascism, ‘scientific’ racism, anti-Semitism and Nazi ideology were making among the émigré community. The Nazis were particularly quick to exploit the Austrian ideology of ‘Ukrainianism’ to racialist ends and specifically to divide the Slavs, and this did not escape Trubetskoi’s notice either. In such a spirit, perhaps he cast a suspicious eye back on his own intellectual roots.

It was in Sofia where Trubetskoi first developed the Eurasianist tendency, but the idea really took off in Prague. It cannot be emphasised enough that Trubetskoi’s energies in developing Eurasianism as an idea were aimed directly against the racism he witnessed around him within the émigré community and in the Central European intellectual society in the main. Ironically enough, Trubetskoi’s opposition to the Eurocentrism (a term he himself coined, by the way) of the Russian exile community seems to have stemmed from his own father’s Christocentric, Incarnational theology. For him, taking seriously a fully-human Christ who is also fully God – a Christ who, being human, was also Middle Eastern and belonged to a specific civilisation, a specific gæography and a specific time – could not be squared with the gharbzadegi (an Iranian term he did not coin, but a concept which is still useful for understanding Trubetskoi’s turn of thought) of the exiles or of the European intelligentsia more broadly. Before Christ, any civilisational construct based on either a Eurocentric cosmopolis or a European race-nationalism could be nothing short of idolatrous, could do nothing but offer a false Christ. Underwriting his opposition to both the empty, abstract ‘ideocracies’ promised by both fascism and atheistic communism, and his adoption of a specifically-Christian socialist polity, was precisely this Orthodox Christology. It was his father’s Christology, in fact – Solovyov’s and Berdyaev’s personalist Christology – shorn of the nineteenth-century scientific racism and irrational paranoia of Asia that unfortunately cast a shadow over some of Solovyov’s thought.

For a certain portion of Trubetskoi’s intellectual life – between roughly 1929 and 1934 – he stopped writing about Eurasianism and distanced himself from the project. Perhaps he felt his Eurasianist colleagues (i.e. Savitsky, Vernadsky and Florovsky – the first and the last of whom had likewise come to Prague via Sofia) did not share his priorities. Instead, he directed his energies to the study of linguistics, which contributed significantly to the structuralist theories of the Prague linguistic circle. However, it was Savitsky who ultimately prevailed upon Trubetskoi to return to the Eurasian circle; and he did so with an article aimed squarely against Nazism which was entitled, fittingly, ‘On Racism’. He continued writing on anti-racist themes, which brought the wrath of the Nazis down upon him. The Nazis, having undertaken a campaign of intimidation in Austria in 1938, began harassing Trubetskoi on account of his writings, and he subsequently died of a heart attack.

I am going to be slightly controversial here, and propose that neither the more prominent of Trubetskoi’s followers nor his detractors fully understood this aspect of his work. In particular, Berdyaev and Bulgakov – who both saw themselves as following in Solovyov’s footsteps – seem to have trod directly into the trap of misunderstanding Trubetskoi, and twisting his writings into something of a caricature of their polar opposite. Trubetskoi was no worshipper of Xerxes; he chose Christ and only Christ, and left the movement when he believed it had failed to make that choice. Likewise, the later ‘friendly’ ideological interpreters of Trubetskoi – for example Lev Gumilyov – despite their admirable goodwill to various indigenous peoples of Asia, still do not quite seem to grasp the importance of Trubetskoi’s polemics aimed at swaying the émigré community as a whole.

Intriguingly, one Russian-Jewish scholar and indirect pupil of Trubetskoi who did seem to inherit much of his political leanings and penchant for internal critique of his own societal milieu, was Noam Chomsky, who belonged specifically to Trubetskoi’s structuralist school of linguistics, and who also ventured out of his linguistic circle into political commentary. Although Chomsky is much more of a political anarchist than Trubetskoi ever was (and I personally find that a problem, along with several other of Chomsky’s political choices), the same attitude of prophetic critique against material wealth and power on the civilisational scale, and the ideological structures that accompany them, pervade Trubetskoi’s writing. Even though some of Chomsky’s political priorities and calculations must be laid aside, it is precisely this prophetic language and mode of explication that Eurasianism must maintain. In the present miasma of ‘ideocracies’ rising around the globe – from Brasília to Washington and Kiev, and from New Delhi to Tôkyô – anything less would be tantamount to a surrender to a grim and godless nihilism. If Eurasianism played in its original key can conjure a Christian Chomsky, I would be overjoyed to see it. That is a wish for this Nowruz in which I hope my gentle readers can join me.