I started Arimathea largely because Andrew is no longer a daily fixture in my life. For many years, when I encountered something ridiculous or profound, or when I had eureka moments while doing some mindless daily ritual or chore (especially showering, like Archimedes of old), I could process the inner dialectic with my very own Personal Socrates. However, Andrew has returned to the Motherland, and I cannot badger the weasel-owning fellow too much from afar.
Well, some of you may know that I have long struggled with religious matters, and I plan to discuss these issues on this page. I’ll begin with a reaction to a rather obnoxious blog entry that I read a couple of days ago—one that certainly would have ignited an annoyed (and for Andrew, likely annoying) rant over channa saag at Union Station. What interests me in the entry is one of its comments.
The blog entry is titled, “Western ‘Eastern Orthodoxy’ as Boutique Religion.” In it, the writer expresses his disgust at American converts to Orthodoxy who have rejected their occidental religious heritage in favor of exotic incense that is merely religious escapism. I suppose that he means Orthodoxy is not as engaged in the world as Rome is, and hence is it is fantastically escapist in not facing the real world. However, as I am not a regular reader, I really do not know what he means. If such is his attitude, then he expresses the secularism inherent in many Western Christians, where the kingdom of God really is of this world in the terms of this world.
You may know of the Grand Inquistor interogation scene in the Brothers Karamazov where the cardinal charges Christ with the failure of the gospel. Dostoevsky is simply astounding in his insights—and here as elsewhere he illustrates the chasm between Orthodox Christianity and the modern world, exemplified by the cardinal’s worldly religion. Not a few papist apologists find offense here and throughout Dostoevsky’s work, which is understandable . . . that whole “counterfeit Christ” business and all. I suspect that the cardinal’s position does not exhaustively reflect Western Christians, but I do think that the religion of horizontal mammon that he presents is pervasive in the West.
However, the piece from Dostoevsky’s novel is not simply a condemnation of secularism, under or without the banner of the cross. It invokes difficult questions, and the cardinal is not a fool to pose them. Clearly, the Roman prelate has substituted another religion in place of the gospel, and as such he is guilty of mangling the Christian message. Nevertheless, his accusations put Christ on trial, in the narrative and in idea. Is the Christian life possible? Is it even good, or, as Nietzsche claims, is it a disease of weak spirit? Here is an honest question for a honest heart—could a truly Christian society full of truly pious citizens survive in this world? If you protest and say that God’s people will suffer in a world of evil and that we live in a fallen world, then consider the burden of evidence that crashes upon you. For you ask men to live according to an ideal, the evidence for the goodness of which is utterly lacking in the world that we know, when such a life incurs clear harm. I am not proposing amorality or an absence of values or goods, but I am simply questioning the goodness of a system that, if practiced perfectly, would bring doom upon its practitioners.
In the sixth book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates speaks of the few true philosophers that come to be in society:
Then, Adeimantus, I said, the worthy disciples of philosophy will be but a small remnant: perchance some noble and well-educated person, detained by exile in her service, who in the absence of corrupting influences remains devoted to her; or some lofty soul born in a mean city, the politics of which he contemns and neglects; and there may be a gifted few who leave the arts, which they justly despise, and come to her;—or peradventure there are some who are restrained by our friend Theages’ bridle; for everything in the life of Theages conspired to divert him from philosophy; but ill-health kept him away from politics. My own case of the internal sign is hardly worth mentioning, for rarely, if ever, has such a monitor been given to any other man. Those who belong to this small class have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and have also seen enough of the madness of the multitude; and they know that no politician is honest, nor is there any champion of justice at whose side they may fight and be saved. Such an one may be compared to a man who has fallen among wild beasts—he will not join in the wickedness of his fellows, but neither is he able singly to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore seeing that he would be of no use to the State or to his friends, and reflecting that he would have to throw away his life without doing any good either to himself or others, he holds his peace, and goes his own way. He is like one who, in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along, retires under the shelter of a wall; and seeing the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content, if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good-will, with bright hopes.
I have always found this passage quite powerful—and tragically true. What can the good and wise man do in the midst of wolves? As we see over and over again in history, there is an answer besides hiding from the storm . . . an answer that both Socrates and Jesus gave to their fellow men. Was it right? If it was right, should we be happy that God rules the universe in such a way? I do not deny that there are plausible responses to these questions, but they are legitimate questions. They lie behind the impious effrontery of the Grand Inquistor, the rant of Thrasymachus, and the anguished attempt to escape nihilism by Nietzsche.
Returning to the angry blog entry where the writer makes an almost religio-racial attack on Orthodoxy:
Eastern Orthodoxy will never, ever, ever take root in the Western soul. At best, it can sprout shallow roots until the next spiritual fad or tent revival comes along. The soul of the West speaks Latin, prays to statues, and fidgets with rosaries. The soul of the West is covered with side altars, wears lace, and sports a lop-sided birretta. And the soul of the West doesn’t particularily care what was done one thousand years ago, or whether such-and-such a practice was precisely what the early Church did.
Of course, this is nonsense. If the gospel is true, then culture’s importance lies in its ability to facilitate our growing in Christ—in our theosis. While I am ever ready to support particularity, heritage, and the value of one’s own, transcendent matters trump such chauvinistic concerns. It really comes down to who is right, if anyone, in proclaiming revelation. If the Orthodox Church is Christ’s Church and if the gospel is true, then one quickly ought to forget about lace and statues and whatever else and cling to the thing needful, regardless of one’s pedigree. As the Lord said, “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.” Eyesight is an uncontestable good, and yet it would be better to forego such a great good for the sake of a higher good. Consider then what we should say about lesser goods—the idols of our fancy if they keep us from the truth.
Anyway, what interested me in this entry was not the T.F.P. triumphalist drumming but one of the readers’ comments:
I remember reading something that Owen (the ochlophobist) wrote in one of his “uberfromm posts” about how a surprising number of converts to Orthodoxy apostasize from Christianity all together. Orthodox apologetics effectively cure them of Evangelical delusions and they also refute Roman assumptions very convincingly (for some people at least). However, when they turn around and see how freaking culturally irrelevant this little Greek/Slavic/Arab sect really is and how it is dying in many parts of the world, they start to realize that maybe the whole “invincible church” story is just that… a story. At times I wonder whether they are really all that misled.
I found this comment very provocative. I do not think that anyone who rejects Rome would be moved by the “freaking cultural irrelevance” of Orthodox people. If anyone were so moved by such secular concerns, he would have swum the Tiber. With Boethius, we should note how Fortune is a capricious woman, and the winds of history blow in different directions depending on the season. Tomorrow’s “cultural relevance” could be more like the eighth century than the twentieth, and there is good reason to suspect that it will be so. Yet, such is not important to someone who converts to Orthodoxy after being disillusioned with the Reformation and inoculated against the counterfeit Christ of the Grand Inquisitor. For such a person, and I should switch to the first person here, Orthodox Christianity is the religion of last resort.
With Peter, I wonder, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”