Coercing Reality

One of the most comforting things about gravity is that you don’t have to argue about it. Now that might sound strange were we not living in a time in which ideas are increasingly used as assertions of reality. From gender politics to the multitude of psychological triggers, how our fellow citizens experience the world is being asserted as the world itself. In a society with a history of politeness and kindness (despite its many lapses), there is a drive to please, to make room for all possible demands. At heart, we are not a mean culture. But there is an inherent problem in the new model: it rests on coercion.

Invisible boundaries are tricky. It is hard to respect or regard what you cannot see. For such boundaries to be made visible, they must be asserted and they must be asserted loudly and clearly if they are to be made visible. If what I experience and desire to experience has its primary existence in my mind, making it a public reality can only happen by forcing others to regard what I experience and desire to be part of their reality as well. And this is raised to an even greater level of coercion if my experience and desire is given legal standing. The full coercive force of government asserts a new law of nature.

In our current cultural atmosphere, it is disturbing to some that I, or anyone, should challenge these assertions. Their reaction and disapproval are an absolute requirement if a mental/emotional experience is to be accepted as a social reality. Social disapproval becomes the inevitable consequence in a reality constructed from the human will.

Arguably, all societies have some version of social constructs. The mores and norms that are generally accepted are also enforced through disapproval and legal means. I read an article this morning describing reaction in Singapore to the bad behavior of some mainland Chinese tourists (such as defecating in public). It could be asserted that there is nothing unnatural about this behavior (my dog does it all the time), but it clearly violates an almost universally held notion of propriety. At what point do socially-based norms become too coercive?

There’s no arguing with gravity. I frequently have dreams that I can fly but gravity reasserts itself when I awake, holding me fast in the bed, making every effort to get up somewhat difficult (some days it feels like I live on Jupiter). Gravity works well in social settings because of its inarguable reliability. Those social norms that have the strongest basis in an inarguable reliability are the most easily accepted and practiced. Children learn them with ease and without confusion.

The more nuanced and distanced a mental construct is from an inarguable reliability, the more it will require constant assertion and coercion in order to maintain its existence. If the Emperor is, in fact, naked, there is always going to be that wayward child who shouts it publicly, no matter how thoroughly his clothing is asserted as a reality. The faux pas is reality’s last word.

The politics of gender, which today extend far beyond the previous questions of how male and female are to relate, become inherently coercive as new constructs, unperceivable by others, demand their place at the table. Some institutions have gone so far as to suggest additional pronouns for our language. Facebook offers 58 gender options. I think it likely that such suggestions will eventually fall on their face through the simple gravity of human laziness. It’s hard work to maintain a mental construct that requires 58 genders. The disappearance of the informal pronouns (“thee,” “thou,”) argue against the likelihood of “zhe” catching on.

But there is a spiritual question in all of this. It has to do with our fundamental orientation towards reality itself and the place coercion plays in our lives. Politics is the art of socializing coercion. The increasingly political tensions within modern culture are the symptoms of older norms being challenged by new ones, but not because reality itself has changed. Coercion is the symptom of a political reality.

Classical Christianity is inherently traditional in its orientation. It prefers to treat the things in our lives that are received as the gifts of a good God. Even within the tragedies of our existence, the hand of God is seen hidden, working good in spite of things. This is not the same thing as acquiescing to evil, though Christ Himself says, “Do not resist evil.” It is, instead, a perception that the self-emptying of the Cross overcomes all things and is the true medicine of immortality.

Our modern orientation, despite the language of freedom it inveighs, is coercive in its very nature. Modernity is married to the notion of progress and change. It is the will to power. Modernity is an utterly political assertion and has only ever existed through political action. The birth of the modern world is the story of revolution. It can only live in a revolutionary world.

Classical Christianity is often charged with approving slavery. It is a false charge, grounded in the revolutionary worldview of modernity. The Roman world into which Christianity was born was built on slavery. Their slavery was not race-based, but largely derived from prisoners of war and the fate of conquered peoples. There were occasional slave revolts (cf. Spartacus), but they always ended in bloody executions of the rebels. Slavery was part of the “gravity” of the ancient world. What we see in Christian texts is simply the advice to those whose lives were so consigned. How can I follow Christ while being a slave? There were instances in which slaves rose to the place of bishop in the Church. St. Paul said that even a slave could be “Christ’s freedman.” Of course, slavery gradually disappeared, morphing into the later world of feudal arrangements. Economies change.

The spiritual life given to us in Christ is not coercive. Indeed, it rejects coercion where possible. In this, it follows the example of God Himself, who is “kind to the evil and the ungrateful.” The freedom God gives us is all around and frequently abused. We find such freedom to be intolerable in many instances, and begin to coercively push back. That coercion results in laws and the political life of societies. Modernity, however, assumes that the spiritual life is measured by the goodness and effectiveness of coercive efforts. The will to power is believed to promise a better world. We call it progress.

I believe that modernity represents a new religion with an orientation that is fundamentally opposed to classical Christianity. I have made my own decision as to where salvation is to be found. I think gravity is on my side.

Note to commenters: I will strictly enforce my ban on rudeness or unkindness. Discuss and be polite. Yes. I understand that this is coercive.

 

98 comments:

  1. Wonderful writing, Father. A breath of fresh air in a powerfully oppressive world. Many thanks for this and God bless you!

  2. “The spiritual life of Christ is not coercive” Unfortunately there are many theologies out there which posit such coercion in Christ which have done much to poison the willingness and ability of many to hear the truth and experience the truth.

    Not only that, a society of the will (nihilism) is, as you point out, a society built on coercion–some might argue that such coercion, despite the rhetoric of freedom in our founding documents, has always been at work in our culture. That leads to a situation in which coercion is expected and when it is not there some folks do not know how to react.

    The questions for instance from non-Orthodox that begin with “What is your position on…..? make an assumption of coercion. Or people take any standard of belief and practice as coercion in action particularly if there is a visible hierarchy involved. Hierarchy=oppression. Is that not an essentially modern thought?

    When someone is under penance and away from the cup for awhile, it is quite easy to see that as coercive punishment despite the fact that, done properly and received properly, it is nothing of the kind.

    The actual freedom offered by God in the Church is quite confusing to many people.

    Actual love is hard to bear sometimes.

  3. I think we also must acknowledge the real possibility that traditional ways of seeing the world (e.g., gender as strictly binary) have actually suppressed certain truths, thereby coercing reality. Gender is a good example of this. Traditionally, only two genders are acknowledged. If you have boy bits, you’re a male, and if you have girl bits, you are a female. Done and done. Thus this schema coerces reality. For what if the reality is that gender is more complex than naughty bits? What if chemistry is involved? And what if, in modernity, having discovered a thing or two about neurology and chemistry, we have found room for seeing, and have seen, that physical elements apart from naughty bits do in fact play a decisive role in determining gender?

    Given the coercive power of the traditional view, how can battle not be joined? After all, those who hold the traditional view tend not to trust those who say they experience this divided self. So why shouldn’t they struggle for the right to be treated with respect, including refraining from mockery and derision? And doesn’t that respect involve not interfering with a process we know nothing about? (I have never had this experience, so what can I say about how or even whether to resolve it?)

    So, it’s well and good to point out how gender politics is coercive. But we must acknowledge and deal with the speck in our own eye (the unjust coercion inherent in traditional schemas) before intervening with others’ planks.

  4. Michael,
    Quite so. You are very insightful in pointing to how our modern culture creates a framework that expects coercion and only weighs things under the guise of good and bad coercion. I’ll think more about this.

  5. Ivan Illich, a Roman Catholic priest and influence on the work of Charles Taylor, has written about how Christianity itself might be implicated in modernity’s “coercive turn.” He writes, “Wherever I look for the roots of modernity, I find them in the attempts of the churches to institutionalize, legitimize, and manage Christian vocation.” Do you see any truth to this?

  6. David,
    Yes. There are complex questions surrounding gender viz. genetics, chemistry, etc. And it is a worthwhile discussion. However, we are not having such a discussion. We are having politics. Science has become the art of coercion as well. There is a matrix of interpretation inherent in any “schema” whether traditional or modern, etc. Admittedly, the traditional matrix is largely rooted in family, marriage, procreation and the nurture and protection of children. I know that some have experienced mockery and derision and lack of sympathy. On the other hand, I think that describing that in a universal manner is inaccurate. The history of the Church’s treatment of sexual issues (certainly within Orthodoxy) is far more nuanced than the current political discussion seems to admit.

    Part of the discussion that is not taking place is the deeply problematic question of the interplay of social experience (nurture) and chemical experience (biology). How do they interact? Is there a “feedback” loop? If gender experience is rather malleable, is it useful or good to simply apply just any form of shaping to it? Is it beneficial to have some general gender norms in a culture? It seems to me that the analysis you suggest is extremely narrow and defines things in a manner that actually precludes conversation.

    And, I haven’t suggested intervening in anybody’s plank. I have not suggested a coercive response. I have suggested an analysis that looks at the coercive aspect in the current culture. I’m not advocating a modern response (which is coercion versus coercion). Orthodoxy, rightly lived, will respond to whatever society does in a manner that adjusts to it, without change in our sacramental, ascetical life. I think Orthodox life, the traditional life, is very difficult to live in a modern context. Your analysis seems to presume modernity as the correct way to see things. Step back an imagine it differently, perhaps.

  7. And the victims in turn become the enforcers of that coercive “reality.” It is a kind of spiritual Stockholm syndrome.

    You have probably already mentioned this horrifying dream of Raskolnikov’s, but man is it true:

    “In his illness, he had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish except for a certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgements, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, and could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate. People killed each other in some sort of meaningless spite.”

  8. Erik,
    I think my analysis would run somewhat differently. Modernity, I think, was largely an unintended by-product of the Reformation. But the tendency in the West before that, to make authority highly vertical (i.e. Papal Supremacy), differed from the Synodal model in the East where modernity has been slow to take root. The more vertical the authority, the more likely coercion is. Interestingly, despite our language of democracy, our modern world is highly vertical in its notion of authority. It is highly concentrated. Wealth is a powerful means of coercion. The increasing phenomenon of wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands is creating yet more verticality. And, though the internet would appear to be very diffuse, it is largely in the hands of a very few corporate entities who structure most of everything people see. It is a “soft” coercion.

  9. How amazingly timely this is, Fr. Stephen!

    It seems in some ways that we are living in a time like that of Judges when “every man did what was right in his own eyes”. But today, this man realized that he uses disapproval as a means to coerce others to his own will. Of course this is on the most intimate and interpersonal of ways, but it’s a symptom of the larger problem.

    Disapproval seems to be a most elementary form of coercion and in a world so disconnected from our Creator it’s very effective. Coercion only works if I think I have something to lose. It didn’t work with Jesus, because He began by giving everything up. For the rest of us…we are poor, captive, blind and oppressed and don’t know it.

    I’m not sure I agree entirely with a blanket “do not resist evil” simply because St. Paul says “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities…”. Wrestling is resisting. I still need to resist being a “channel” for the propagation of the evil I have both inherited as well as that which I own. It seems that the best way to “coerce” others (and I know I’m using the word improperly) is to live a changed life. My problem is that it’s far easier to try to make someone else do the hard work first, or at least at the same time.

    I mentioned in an earlier response the part of the sacrifice to be made upon the cleansing of a leper. It was the setting free of the bird marked (and thereby identified) with the bird slain in an earthenware vessel. It was to be set free over the open field. I take from this that there is no coercion of God’s part, no indebtedness, only freedom. In the case of the 10 lepers healed by the Lord, 9 apparently just kept on flying. One, the Samaritan used his freedom to return to its source.

  10. “Yes. There are complex questions surrounding gender viz. genetics, chemistry, etc. And it is a worthwhile discussion. However, we are not having such a discussion.”

    Thanks, Father, for another very insightful article. And you’re right, your article wasn’t about “that” discussion, it was about politics. But where I work, for a social service agency, that discussion has slowly begun to happen, and we are assured that we will be having a “training” (coercing us, not so subtly, to have to find out what pronouns our trans-gender clients prefer when we address them, and who will observe their drug screens, and in which gender bathroom, etc.) Wow – did I never in my strangest imaginings think I would EVER see the day when this was a major societal discussion/debate, let alone that I would be in a context closing in on me.
    In all recent staff discussions of such, I have always remained silent because I simply have no idea how best to respond as an Orthodox Christian who holds to the traditional, strictly binary understanding of created gender, working in a cultural “frontline” secular setting, and being expected to conform (submit, accept, seemingly give credence) to the subjective reality residing very deeply in some of our clients’ minds.
    Oh that I wish I had some context with other Orthodox in similar situations to wrestle and discuss with me a loving and godly way to synergize in this situation. God is faithful, I will not grow faint of heart, but eventually I will not be allowed by my employer to remain silent. At this time, I really have no idea how I will respond.

  11. Father I think coercion is so expected by most of us that if we don’t get it, we ask for it. The abusive cycle. It is a deep sickness that is at the heart of the nihilist understanding. Nietzsche saw it quite clearly, he lionized the coercive. Nietzsche saw clearly that Jesus upset what his coercive philosophy preached Jesus upset coercive order, what Nietzsche saw as the natural order of things precisely because Jesus was not coercive.

    The antidote, as you have been telling us, to this coercion is not more coercion but “the way down” it is a hard saying for modern ears and hearts. Deeply hard.

  12. Father, following from David’s remarks above, I wonder how we might conceive of gender schemas such as those of certain tribal societies (to wit: the Bugis of Indonesia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_in_Bugis_society ) which have as many as five genders? This is not the advent of postmodern thought, ‘queer theory’, third-wave feminism or anything of the like – this is their Tradition which they have received and which has been believed by all. A Christian entering that society might indeed be required to respect that ‘gender pentinary’ under pain of exile or worse.

    I question the insistence upon the gender binary as the default (unless of course one already accepts the Christian tradition), given the existence of other schemas about gender in the traditional human experience, away from the corruption of what you call modernity.

  13. Thank you once again, Fr. Stephen, for sharing your insights.

    “Social disapproval becomes the inevitable consequence in a reality constructed from the human will.” [i.e., in disregard of the God of Love]
    “Politics is the art of socializing coercion.” [and therefore politics is radically opposed to God. No wonder that Orthodox clergy are banned from elected office.]

    Succinctly and clearly put!

    The world that denies the existence of God, or that puts Him safely far away on a pedestal “up in Heaven,” depends on labels. If I don’t see God in the other, then I need to know what categories that person fits into in order to know how to relate to that person. And I need the entire legal system to codify the treatment of those categories. “Gender”, however carefully defined, becomes another category of labels (along with “income”, “race”, “education”, “religion”, etc.) whose every nuance takes us further from seeing the image of God in the individual.

    Without God my criteria for action become: What will others think of me, and how can I get what I want/deserve? “. . . there is a drive to please, to make room for all possible demands.”

    But a Christian puts God first (and only!) and sees God’s image in each individual person. “There is a spiritual question in all of this. It has to do with our fundamental orientation towards reality itself. . . . Classical Christianity . . . prefers to treat the things in our lives that are received as the gifts of a good God.” And these gifts include all the people in our lives.

  14. Think this might not get posted , but here goes. Fr S reponded to David well, but just wanted to weigh in.

    David,

    “And what if, in modernity, having discovered a thing or two about neurology and chemistry, we have found room for seeing, and have seen, that physical elements apart from naughty bits do in fact play a decisive role in determining gender?”

    so modernity knows things the one holy and apostolic faith does not? And by physical elements, do you mean “born that way”? As Fr Stephen points out, we are not even having this conversation yet, so why buy into premises that are unfounded and only assumed (which is a form of coercion)?

    “After all, those who hold the traditional view tend not to trust those who say they experience this divided self. So why shouldn’t they struggle for the right to be treated with respect, including refraining from mockery and derision? And doesn’t that respect involve not interfering with a process we know nothing about? (I have never had this experience, so what can I say about how or even whether to resolve it?)

    Perhaps we dont know anything about it because we are afraid to have the conversation about what the science actually can tell us. And let’s not confuse Orthodoxy with the Baptists. Might it be the case that they are differnt on this issue? And, as Fr Stephen says, is there a place for binary sexual categories (along with fecundity and the belief children deserve to be raised by their biological mother and father if at all possible) within any society?

  15. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for another interesting and helpful post. I think it’s important, if we are to be Christian in a world influenced by modernity, that we recognize the difference so we don’t go astray.

    You didn’t emphasize it, but I notice you consistently referred to “reality” in the singular. Whenever I see or hear people refer to “realities”, warning sirens go off. Maybe that’s a hallmark of modernity…or modernism?…or postmodernism? The terms become confusing for me. Maybe anything from modernity onwards is all part of the same root?

    Interesting point about modernity representing a new religion. If you think it’s worthwhile, I would like to hear more on that in the future. As I slowly learn these ideas, I think it explains many things I’ve been drawn towards in the past, very individualistic ideas that ultimately try to place man as his own god.

    Also, thank you to all who comment here. I’m reading, enjoying, and learning from the conversation.

  16. Ryan,
    That a society could create constructs for gender recognition (though I’m not at all sure that what we are seeing among the Bugis is rightly described as gender) is clearly true. BTW, also go beyond Wikipedia when looking at such stuff. This is a helpful article with a different take on the data: http://www.jstor.org/stable/644265?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents But the Christian story is, of course, deeply enmeshed in a binary account. There is a deeper question here that I failed to mention:

    At the heart of modernity is an assumption that all suffering is bad and that the relief of suffering is the definition of the good and the useful. It then follows with a Utilitarian ethic of alleviating suffering. This is not the classical Christian account of the world. Relieving suffering can be a good thing, but is not the highest good or the definition of the good. The Good is God alone and union with Him. And this, in the Christian account, actually requires suffering. Some suffering is inevitable and inescapable. The Way of the Cross does not describe how to be rid of suffering, but how to rightly bear suffering in such a way that it is redeeming.

    It was in this manner that slaves became saints.

    This is a very different account of the world. I do not argue that the suffering of a transsexual is illegitimate. I’m sure it’s real. The Christian answer to that legitimate and real suffering differs from that of modernity. It’s that simple.

    Hetero’s are not free from suffering, in the classical model. Indeed, monasticism, so absolutely integral to the Orthodox faith, has a way of obliterating the social concept of gender in ascesis. Your life stuff is the stuff that shapes your ascesis. Your ascesis is part of the Cross. If you don’t take up this Cross, then you’ll have to take up some other Cross. But there is no true Life without a Cross.

    Removing the Cross, in the long run, becomes demonic, though that does not immediately seem apparent. “Come down from the Cross,” is a taunt thrown at Christ. “Take up your Cross and follow me!” is His response.

  17. You went in a much different direction than I expected. I am conditioned by my reading of E. Stanley Jones, who once said that all of God’s laws resemble the law of gravity: We don’t break the law of gravity; we break ourselves upon it. All of God’s laws work this way. We may think we are breaking them, when in fact we are breaking ourselves. The commandment was there to protect us, and we are the most whole when we follow His commandments.
    I enjoyed your use of the law of gravity as well.

  18. This discussion of coercion and social constructivism dovetails quite significantly with much of what is postulated by the conspiracy types, which is in no way to demean what you have said, Father – I agree wholeheartedly. For example, the flat/disc-shaped earth theory implies that the model of the earth as a globe is possibly the coercive social construct par excellence – after all, if you can get people to disbelieve what their intuition and experience indicate on such a fundamental level, then there is very little else that cannot be coercively, if very subtly, schematized. The fact that we believe we are spinning around at thousands of miles per hour travelling at similar velocities around a glowing orb is something we only believe because we are told to by those “who have studied these things”, and because of the social pressures to conform and avoid being ridiculed. When in fact no one would believe these things based on pure observation.

    I am in no way advocating a biblicistic literalism, I just find it disturbing that such levels of subtle coercion of perception might possibly be the case. (That and the connections the pioneers of heliocentrism, NASA, etc. have with Masonry and/or the occult…) I hope I’m wrong but sometimes I fear I may not be.

    After all, true reality is hidden in plain sight. And I suppose that is the comfort – that though God is hidden, He really is present; though the evil seem everywhere manifest, it really has no genuine existence.

  19. James Isaac,
    Of course conspiracy thought can suspect anything. It is important to note, however, that the spherical earth was generally accepted knowledge at the time of Christ, as was the general estimate that it was 24,000 miles around. There was virtually no belief in a flat earth in the Middle Ages. The myth has been the notion that the Church ever endorsed a flat earth theory. It never has.

    Actually, truly observant people understood what was happening in an eclipse and learned to predict it, before the time of Christ. This is one where the conspiracy types are just wrong and a little nutty.

    Look up “antikythera mechanism” and marvel at the level of knowledge and technology that actually existed in the ancient world. It’s the myth that modernity created the notion of technology that should be debunked.

  20. Randy,

    What more useful thing can we do but pray? I work in a medical office in a context where people often reveal things to me that “go against my beliefs”. But it’s true for these people — and most nearly every other person I’ve met and conversed with in other contexts — that they are not interested in discussing anything. They just want to be heard. It was a point my late mother pressed home to me— people are starving to be seen, and conversation simply isn’t possible until they aren’t ravenous.

    All I know to do at this point is to refrain from endorsing things I know to be sinful (I recall Fr. Stephen telling a story about his father-in-law’s response to debate… “Well, I don’t know anything about that.”— it’s a great response that I’ve had occasion to use), “see” the person in front of me, and pray for them.

    As far as your employer is concerned, I would merely counsel to pray and cross the confrontational bridge when you get to it. Who knows how it will actually play out?

    🙂 Just two cents from another random Internet voice.

  21. tess and Randy,
    For that matter, my general policy in the parish is non-confrontative. Pastoral matters are just that, pastoral, between priest and parishioner. The pastoral guidelines for communion in Orthodoxy are clear, but allow for pastoral usage, up to a point. I can imagine all kinds of situations, but they are just my imagination. Grace is never imaginary, only ever real. So, there is no grace for figuring out imaginary situations, but ample grace to treat what stands before us. Kindness covers much. Love covers a multitude of sins. St. Paul and the Corinthians would have seen things that make modern America look positively monolithic.

  22. I listened to a local radio program (at least part) this afternoon, that was discussing the topic of “gender fluidity.” This is part of what is known as “Queer Theory,” that asserts that gender is a purely social construct. A few years ago, this was an extreme fringe concept, but seems to now have become mainstream, at least in the US Justice Department (which means a growing number of places). I think it is an utterly extreme assertion that would be disastrous for a society’s ability to nurture families and children. It is, in fact, among the most purely “modern” ideas, an assertion that the will creates even the most fundamental realities. This assertion is not about how you’re born, or chromosomal issues. It’s simply the assertion of gender being “whatever I want it to be today, and you’d better get over it.”

    Children require stability. Their socialization will not flourish in fluidity. This is not a call for some form of patriarchy (or other things so easily dismissed these days). But gender is resoundingly binary, regardless of the issues that a tiny minority may struggle with. A culture can tolerate a fair range of diversity and be truly kind. But kindness does not require the destruction and dismissal of the primary place held by procreative biology. We are mammals, and that comes with a goodly amount of baggage.

    However, we seem poised for a period of insanity. The early Bolsheviks experimented with this. There’s pretty much nothing new in Queer Theory – it’s just old Marxism in a new guise. It was so disastrous that Stalin abandoned it (and that’s got to be a lot of disaster!). I do not plan to go into full-blown reactionary mode. Gravity and all of nature are extremely articulate over the long haul and make arguments that are quite definitive.

  23. Father,

    what solid reasoning and insight in this article again!
    I sort of wished that you had mentioned (what you actually commented on later on) within the article (while mentioning the self-emptying of the Cross), namely, about the false assumption of modernity that all suffering is bad etc

  24. Great conversation and wise counsel (for this chronic worrier) about no grace for the imaginary, only for what is before us and love covers a multitude of sins.

    Father, I agree the claim that we live in a democracy is a well-managed illusion. What we have is an oligarchy, now virtually complete in its global reach.

    For Randy (or was it Ryan?), probably I am naive and being simplistic, but as you would not be taking anyone into a bathroom to do anything inherently immoral in itself (asking for a sample from a function common to all isn’t immoral no matter who is giving it), I see the specific situation you mention as potentially socially awkward, but not involving you in complicity in anything inherently immoral in itself. I foresee a day when all public bathrooms will be non gender specific and have only stalls for privacy. Hopefully, places frequented by families with young children will have a family bathroom option. Possibly there will be other situations in which what your employer requires of you will be far muddier and more directly compromising of your faith.

  25. Much of this coercion is shame based. Shame is only an effective weapon against the prideful.

  26. David how we experience our sex and our sexuality has very little to do with what it really is. We are all disordered. It is the first consequence in our separation from God and deeply ingrained in us, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

    It is not a surprise at all and has long been known in the Church. That is the revealed tradition which is far deeper than anything we usually contemplate.

    Because of the core reality that we are all disordered, great compassion on all such disorder and the sinful consequences is offered by the Church.

    However to not recognize the way in which we are created (male and female) as the norm is agreeing with the sin and participating in the disorder in ways that are not healing.

    I am fundamentally male regardless of my sexual disorders, what ever they may be. That maleness is a cosmic reality in which I am blessed to participate. A deeply liturgical and sacramental reality.

    It is integral to my salvation in ways that are difficult to grasp and participate in, but it is important to make the effort.

  27. “Shame is only an effective weapon against the prideful.”

    Exactly backwards.

    Jesus: has zero pride, enabling Him to “bear our shame” in its entirety.
    Satan: the most prideful being existing, has absolutely no shame.

    Pride prevents bearing shame, Humility enables us to bear it.

    I think what you were likely trying to say is that “only the prideful would ever attempt to use shame as a weapon,” the words just came out funny (happens to me all the time).

  28. Reading this post, I can see why Buddhism is picking up at a cultural level. The first line of the Dhammapada is “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts,” superficially in line with modernism. And Father wrote about the heart of the modern being the idea that “relief of suffering is the definition of the good and the useful.” As do the four noble truths talk about the end of suffering.

  29. When I was in middle school, I was taught that the term sex meant your biological sexual identification and gender is based on your desires. What your sex is is usually straightforward except in some exceptional circumstances. Being in college, I often hear the terms heterosexuality, homosexuality, transsexuality, and many more. These are all identifications based on one’s desires. From listening to various Orthodox podcasts as well as watching the videos of Fr Thomas Hopko’s lectures on the subject, it would seem that the concept of defining oneself by your desire is contrary to the Christian faith: be it heterosexual, homosexual, or anything else. We are male or female (sex not gender). In our ascetic podvig, we are to die to the world and focus all of our desires on the Divine. That is it’s proper place. With this understanding, I find rather pointless to debate about gender simply because it seems to have no place in Orthodox thought. Whether your sexual desire is towards men or women (or both), or if you desire to be something your not or you are fine with yourself does not seem to have a place within Orthodoxy. Marriage or celibacy are the options for the Orthodox Christian. Both are there to help us along the process of theosis and are holy vocations. As male and female marriage is the only recognized Union within the Church (for good reason that I will not address here), it would follow that those who do not “fit” into this understanding would be left with the option of being celibate. But what of non-Orthodox? Can we expect others to abide by our understanding of the purpose of desires? I don’t think we can. However, that does not mean that we should shy away from presenting our beliefs when asked or in the context of conversation. But it does mean understanding that those we talk to have a very different concept of the role of desires in the life of an individual. We are certainly commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves and must love all people regardless of how abnormal their behavior seems. Just because a transsexual does not fit under what we consider normal does not mean that they are more or less perverse than ourselves. As I pray in the pre-Communion prayer of St. John Chrysostom: out of all the sinners “I am first.” Sometimes we, myself especially, get caught up in looking at the behaviors of others and forget our own bad behaviors. I desire many things, but all of my desires are fulfilled in the Divine and that is to Whom we all must direct our desires.

  30. Dino,
    I noticed that myself when I was writing the comment. I think it is the primary issue when speaking to modernity. It’s also very problematic. It sounds really “mean” when we admit that we might be in favor of some suffering.

  31. Buddha realiser that all life is suffering. His solution was denial and escape.

    Christ embraces suffering, not just His own, but the suffering of us all

    Further, He commands us to do likewise. We share in the suffering of all even when we don’t want to, but as Christians we are to voluntarily enter into the sufferings of all and bear one another’s burdens.

    That is prayer.

    It is only possible through the communion we share with and through Jesus Christ. It is what community is all about-sharing each other’s suffering in joy, Thanksgiving and love, is it not?

  32. I listened to a local radio program (at least part) this afternoon, that was discussing the topic of “gender fluidity.” This is part of what is known as “Queer Theory,” that asserts that gender is a purely social construct.

    Forgive me, Father, but I have been considering this idea quite a lot lately (spurred by Ryan’s comment on the Bugis of Indonesia. I find it interesting that they assign what we would consider transgender the labels of “false woman” and false man”, recognizing that they are not true but incorporating them into their society anyway).

    If gender is a social construct, then as something that is created and defined by society it is false at its core. I understand your concern but would it not be simpler to completely refute it and not take it to be a “fact of life” as so many seem to? I only wonder as you seem to be giving it a certain credence that I’m not sure it deserves. Would it not be correct to discard the idea altogether (although we would need to continue to love those who suffer from the dysphoria) or am I going in the wrong direction here?

  33. Byron,
    My intention is only to recognize how people might “experience” something. That experience is always part of a cultural lens. Modern culture has a very false worldview, particularly concerning what it means to be human, including what it means to be male and female. The interpretation of the Bugis culture that was cited (in the Wikipedia article) was highly slanted. I cited another treatment that seemed more helpful. It’s funny that those supporting a notion that gender is only in our heads, seem to need to find an example in nature that proves it. What’s in our head is mostly insanity.

  34. Zachary,

    “When I was in middle school, I was taught that the term sex meant your biological sexual identification and gender is based on your desires.”

    Me, too. Either in school or as a combination of school and later observing their use, I’ve understood the terms as: sex is biology, gender is social construct/based on our desires.

    One thing that concerns me is when people (not saying anyone here) begin to use them interchangeably. We seem free to manipulate gender to whatever extent our minds can go. But once we begin to blur the distinction between sex and gender, we overlay that mental distortion onto biological reality.

  35. Daniel, that distortion is exactly what the gender ideologues want to accomplish. “Everybody knows that desire is the only thing that matters.”

    That is what our political-economy runs on. Nothing real, nothing substantial.

  36. Spot on, Michael. Unfortunately, they have been and are very successful in their attempts.

    I find it interesting that there are so many political groups that willingly fit themselves under the label of “gender ideologues”. According to the Wiki, Feminists first seized on the term to overcome their biological “limits” (as they see them) in the 1970s. That movement has grown to include a large number of political groups that hate the ideas of limitations, restraint, and/or any authority other than themselves. It’s the ultimate in societal movements, where everyone seeks their own personal form of narcissism. Truly insane.

  37. I hesitate to comment because I’m really not interested in “arguing” which seems to be where many such discussions go. It’s also very difficult, at least for me, to express what I intend to say on something like this in a way that others understand it. But with that caveat, I’ll try.

    First, I deeply appreciate Fr. Stephen’s statement that we are mammals, our physicality is part and parcel of our identity. We are our brains. We are our bodies. I’m not even sure we can say there is any part of us which can be separated or distinguished from our physical reality. I appreciate and believe that, in the face of death and non-existence, God somehow maintains our life when our bodies fail. Even when death seemed to rule, God did not remove his gift of existence. But I also believe that the means by which he does so is a deep mystery and that he joined his essence, which is life itself, to humanity to defeat death.

    But if we inextricably are our bodies and our brains, then it’s not really possible to divorce the things we learn about them from this conversation. I don’t know that it’s possible to confine the discussion to the political.

    Even before we discuss the brain, the “physical sex” of our bodies is not always clear and obvious. And as our science and knowledge improve, we’re discovering that conditions (physical ambiguity, chromosomal, hormonal, and chemical) falling under the intersex umbrella are much more common than we even fairly recently believed. I’m not an expert, but I have read a lot of the research. Whereas once we believed perhaps 1 in 2000 or even fewer individuals were intersex, it now appears that as much as half a percent of the population falls into that category. That’s not a tiny minority at all.

    Our knowledge of the brain itself is really in its infancy, but on top of the variation in our bodies, we are finding quite a bit of variation in our brains. And environment certainly plays a factor. We not only exert control over our environment, our environment and experience change our brains in turn. However, moving beyond our bodies to our brains, we are also beginning to discover differences in the brains of trans individuals as compared to cis brains. Given that we are our brains, the fact that it’s “in our head” makes it more rather than less real.

    Of course, a lot of the things we associate with “gender norms” are clearly socially constructed. They vary across cultures and are learned. (And humans are sponges when born, so they absorb culturally norms at truly surprisingly young ages.) So is there a difference between gender non-conforming in that context and non-binary gender? Beats me. But it’s not as simple to sort out the socially constructed aspects of gender from the innate aspects. Unless you define gender to only encompass the socially constructed aspects, I don’t think biology and neuroscience support the assertion that gender is entirely socially constructed. But certainly a lot of the things we commonly ascribe to gender are.

    I’m willing to accept the idea that my true self is hidden in Christ. But that self must, in some sense, be continuous with my current self. And that involves my brain and body as they are and have been shaped since conception.

    And so when I interact with a person, including someone who is trans, I have never believed it’s helpful for me to be coercive. Two minor examples come to mind. While they don’t come anywhere close to the centrality of gender to our core identity, I’ve found them helpful reference points for me.

    First, I go by my middle name. I’ve never found that a name is simply a label. Names are somehow intertwined with our sense of self. Of course, my first name is also my name and I will answer to it. But I’ve noticed, especially at work, that there are some people who will continue to refer to me by a form of my first name (and not one I’ve ever used) even after they’ve been told I go by my middle name. There are even some people who can be counted on to always reply to an email I wrote and signed as ‘Scott’ addressing me as ‘Tim’. And there is a pinprick of pain, a flicker of annoyance, every time that happens.

    I also am adopted by my father. I was not adopted at a very young age, but at 11 (by the time everything was said and done). I told my biological father that was my wish standing in an amusement park at 10 years old, which was not easy. I also both told a judge in chambers that was my wish and testified to that effect in court. The history and reasons are complex and I’m not going to delve into them, but my last name is also a core and important part of my identity, much more so than ‘Scott’ vs. ‘Timothy’. It’s a name I fought and suffered to acquire. And when someone, family or not, who knows I am adopted once to discuss my “real father” (always meaning my biological father), that cuts like a knife. That’s not a person who can be trusted.

    Neither of those, of course, come as close to the core of our identity as gender. So when someone tells me it hurts them when someone calls them by the wrong name or uses the wrong pronoun, I believe them. And while suffering may be inescapable, I don’t see any good in inflicting it on another human being myself. I may not have any way to truly help them in their struggle and in their pain, but I can call them by the name they tell me to use. I can use, or at least do my best to use, the pronouns they ask me to use for them. And I can do the same thing out of their presence. (Even if I didn’t respect their wishes enough otherwise, they might hear about another conversation. Or my inconsistent practice would make me more likely to do the wrong thing in their presence.)

    Do I have some sort of encompassing theology? Do I even know if they are “right” or “wrong”? Do I know what God thinks of them beyond the fact that he is a good God who loves mankind? No. I haven’t a clue. I know that at all levels of our being, gender is complicated. And I know most of us are fortunate and don’t have much struggle when it comes to gender. However, the minority of us who do seem to fall within the normal range of human variation.

    Still, at the very least, I can offer the courtesy and respect of addressing people as they’ve asked to be addressed. I can stand with them in the face of hate (if I have the courage). I can let them know I care even if I don’t necessarily understand what they’re going through.

    And yes, I have actual faces of people I know in mind as I write. Ultimately, perhaps that’s the difference.

    And hopefully the above actually conveyed some of what I was trying to say. I apologize for the ramble. If you read this far, thank you for your patience.

  38. “What’s in our head is mostly insanity.”

    Probably the most strangely comforting thought of the day! Ironic how ‘getting one’s head right’ leads to getting one’s head all wrong…

  39. Scott,
    Thank you for your thoughts on this. While our bodies are indeed foundational in our existence, they are not entirely constitutive for that existence. Is it possible to understand anything as a handicap or deviation from a proper biological norm? There are many, many things in our biological existence that from birth are problematic do not define our existence. Some are born blind and will always relate to the world as blind. But light and sight are both essential to the Christian faith, and even form a part of the vocabulary of the blind. The same is true for the deaf. And no one who is deaf or blind, I would think, would want to declare that these conditions are normative, or merely alternative ways of being human. Nor would they want to suggest that being healed of such conditions would constitute a betrayal of their existence. There is, of course, great bonding within those communities and our culture rightly makes accommodations to their needs. But it doesn’t redefine what it means to be human.

    Binary gender is quite the same. It is obviously normative. Gender (if that’s really even a right term) is about procreation, plain and simple. Any removal of human sexuality from the context of procreation is simply an abstraction and the substitution of ideology for biology. Some people, for a variety of reasons, birth, nurture, etc., are handicapped with regard to the experience and expression of sexuality. The notion of creating new identities based on handicaps, and, worse still, creating a social and educational environment that encourages and fosters emotional and mental handicaps for what are essentially political reasons, is perverse. I am seeing this in spades right now with tremendous confusion among middle school age children who have been flooded with the fad of “gender bending” and the like. And this is happening at precisely the time in life when their psyches are undergoing very formative socialization. It constitutes abuse on the part of our culture. No child deserves to have their heads played with in the way it is as present.

    Like all handicaps, people should be respected and treated with dignity. But something else is being asked and the fundamental categories of our sexual existence is under attack. It’s not safe for children or the stability of families. Handicaps necessarily involve suffering. But making everybody blind does not help a single blind person. Making gender “fluid” is a serious mistake. It is nothing of the sort.

    Sexual behavior is fluid. People do darned near anything to anyone (or animal) in the range of human behaviors. And it is clear that sexual behavior can be molded and modeled. It can be changed into very destructive patterns (cf. the effect of pornography). We are at a moment in Western history in which the entire tradition of family, conception, pregnancy and birth are under assault from many angles, all, I believe, from very misguided people. The statistics of our culture amply demonstrate that we have been destroying the family, are barely fit to raise children, and are in some very serious trouble in the entire realm of sexuality (cf. porn again, along with sexting etc.).

    That a culture, at such a time and in such shape, should think that it is even remotely competent to reshape what it means to be a sexual human being is really insane. Indeed, it is a request to put the inmates in charge of the asylum. The Orthodox Church is one of the last places that has any grasp on the tradition of what it means to be human. I pray we remain steadfast. For when the gravity of our insanity brings us crashing to the earth, someone will need to be there to show the way forward for healing.

    No one cares more for those who wrestle with sexual identity problems than the traditional Church. I have known priests now for about 35 years in a professional capacity. Almost all are deeply concerned and careful in how they treat these matters. We are being vilified and caricatured by many simply for their own political/social agenda. The care of souls is a fearful thing. The models being offered in Queer Theory and other such creations, sound compassionate. They are, at best, a misguided attempt at compassion.

    Thanks for your patience in reading my thoughts.

  40. Fr. Freeman,

    Scott’s post touches on something I’ve been discussing recently with a very rationalist Protestant, and perhaps something that you might comment on. To Scott; this is not directed at you…but your post provoked my question regarding gnosiology.

    Part of the problem (a big part I think) is when Christians do not distinguish between fallen “worldly knowledge” (i.e. gnosis) and revealed knowledge (epignosis).

    What I mean is this;

    Western empirical and rationalist values teach us that our minds are essentially intact and not really subject to sin and death. Our minds…we believe (and our taught)…are gifts from God with which we can observe and deduce “facts” which we apply to our lives. Thus to say we “are our brains and we are our bodies” is fine and dandy…but the real issue is whether — from a Christian anthropological standpoint — this current state of “nature” is one from which we can form truly “logical” conclusions. As I understand it, classical Christianity says that the fall has made all things “unnatural.” There is no way to empirically and rationally access the “natural” creation without God’s direct action on us through His Church.

    If both our brains and our bodies are subject to “corruption” “delusion” and “vanity” — and if likewise the created cosmos shares in the same corruption and vanity and is under the power of the devil who is the “god of this world” and uses both our bodies and thoughts and the created order to deceive us…then it follows that neither the power or purity of our own perception is intact….AND neither is the created object which we observe, study and draw conclusions from. Not only are we dealing with spiritual and psychological issues from the fall – but we have assumed the Aristotelian logic which believes that we can perceive reality rightly by intellection or empirical study of the created order.

    All the research and study and experience in the world can lead us to draw “scientific” conclusions about the brain or sexuality, etc.— but if the “data” we see and experience – as well as the organs we use to sift and rationalize that “data” are subject to sin and death and the devil….then we are simply applying conclusions from corrupt data itself and corrupt organs of sight and intellection, and superimposing these observations onto spiritual matters.

    I suppose I’m asking for some kind of clarification on this. I’m concerned when we cite scientific studies which seem to accept that we have the ability to rightly draw conclusions about the world and spirituality — when our faith tells us in no uncertain terms that we are being deluded both in our hearts…and by our observations of the corrupted creation.

    Obviously, this is not a pastoral question…which (I think) is what Scott is concerned with…but one of great import as we examine our epistemological presuppositions.

  41. Onesimus,
    There is no true “objective” knowledge. Science has a point of view – that of the scientist. We can try to be as unbiased as possible, but everything colors what we see and think. But that doesn’t make it worthless, just somewhat relative.

    The theology of the Church helps ground us in certain ways so that we can reflect (theoria) on what we see. I include science in what I would examine by theoria. It’s not worthless. But, ultimately, only the pure in heart see God, or anything rightly. So, we always have to take ourselves with humility and work at submitting all things to God.

    Too much rigidity is as likely to be wrong as too much leniency. The goal has to be purity of heart. So we pray, fast, give alms, engage in theoria, etc.

    There are those, for example, that want to exalt the literal sense of some Biblical texts, like a seven-day creation, over ever reasonable observation that tells us that the earth and the universe are very old indeed. Like billions of years. I think that approach is in error and is merely ideological. The faith is not an ideology. Observation is not worthless. I’m looking at a tree out my window, and no matter how perverse my heart, I’m confident that the tree is there. Etc.

    I’m also confident, that examining the red shift in light, etc., that we can estimate the universe as it is, to be about 13.2 billion years old. The light I’m seeing at night comes from very far away. And I think it would be the height of perversity to suggest that these things were simply created to “appear” that way. Frankly, I think such an idea is heresy, though I don’t know which one. But it’s just that wrong.

  42. Fr. Bless

    You might check the first sentence of your last paragraph for a rather comical typo.

    Relative is the word I’m looking for. Thank you.

  43. Thanks Father. First, since I may not have been clear, I was describing some of the things I have thought through and consider some basic guidelines for myself. I wasn’t trying to be prescriptive and I certainly wasn’t making any effort to say how a priest in a pastoral relationship with someone should act. That’s way outside my bailiwick. I can barely help my own children and others in my sphere of care. Even the idea of having the spiritual care for others placed in my hands is a terrifying thought to me. Except for instances of actual clergy abuse, I have no inclination to judge or interfere in that arena.

    With that, a few additional thoughts come to mind. First, mammals depend on procreative sex for reproduction of the species. So in that sense, binary genders are normative. However, within all species, inherited behaviors (sexual and otherwise) are passed on through related members that do not manifest them that may benefit the population even though the individual does not directly pass on their genes through reproduction. Those variations can and do fall within the normal distribution of the population and benefit the population. So equating variation with handicap strikes me as a mistake. I’m not saying that these biological or neurological variations in humans are necessarily within the normal distribution, but some of them may be. It’s an area in which we are steadily learning more.

    Next, your response seemed to equate sexual behavior with the question of gender identity. Sexual orientation and gender identity are actually very different things. I know they all get lumped together under the LGBT acronym (or a variation like LGBTQIA), but the trans and intersex categories have nothing to do with sexual behavior or even orientation. In fact, at least one trans person I know identifies as asexual in orientation and, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t engage in any sexual behavior. That does not lessen their struggle with gender identity at all.

    I know that even those with purely physical disabilities like blindness tend to react poorly to suggestions that their condition in any sense impairs their full humanity. No, they don’t want the world to be blind. But they do want to accommodated and integrated into a sighted world. I’m not personally aware of anyone who is trans who believes the whole world should be trans. They know most people are cis and are fine with that. In fact, being trans tends to be such a struggle I can’t imagine any of them wishing it on anyone else. And genderfluid is one descriptor for people who do not fit neatly into either cis or trans male/female categories. It’s not prescriptive for everyone, so I’m not sure what you meant by that. Everything I’ve read confirms that most people are cis male or cis female. Everyone I know who isn’t has no issue with that reality. In that sense, sure, it’s normative. But those who don’t fit in those categories are still human beings.

    Finally, the deeper you delve into the brain, the trickier it becomes to separate identity from handicap or disease. Everyone can agree that clinical depression is an illness that needs to be treated. In other instances it’s not so clear. To make that personal, I’ll share that I’ll be having testing in the near future because it’s possible I’m on the autistic spectrum and that’s the cause of some of my … difficulties. (If it’s not, then I’m back to square one again, I guess. If it is true, then since it tends to run in families, it’s possible some of my kids my also have inherited some of the issues from me. Which would also explain some things, but makes me worry more for them. So I’m not really rooting for either outcome.) Would I love to be relieved of my struggles if there were a magic “cure”? (There isn’t, so it’s a hypothetical.) Sure. But it may be that those same neurological differences are responsible for my very strong visual memory, my intuitive ability to sense patterns and breaks in patterns, my ability to absorb and “catalog” large quantities of information quickly, and other traits. I would be hesitant to sacrifice those abilities. Moreover, it’s not clear that the person who might exist after such deep and broad changes would recognizably be ‘me’ at all. And if that’s the case, then that hypothetical “cure” would, in effect, kill the person I am.

    The deeper you delve into the brain, the more changes inevitably impact our core identity. So I’m not sure that labeling gender identity issues a handicap is helpful, even if those differences aren’t within the normal range of human distribution.

    Thanks,

    Scott

  44. just being a theology/academic jargon junkie here, but this post reminds me of a term “theological realism” that I can across several year back. Digging that term up on the web again and refreshing my memory on it, I still think it does. Some of you guys, and Fr S, might find this tiny entry in the Routledge encyp of philosophy interesting

    https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/theological-realism

  45. Scott,
    Yes. The Church has long been aware of many variations within human experience (that are being lumped under “gender” things today). The stories of the saints are actually quite complex, as is the pastoral direction embedded within the canons. It’s got more texture than most people think. The current debate however, is quite ideological, is directed towards the dismantling of almost all social norms and mores that support the traditional family. It’s not about bi’s, gays, trans, etc. It’s about something very different that is, in fact, driving the entire thing. I’m an old man and I’ve watched and been involved in the discussion around this topic for all of my adult life – some 40 years now. I’ve watched its evolution, been part of the academic discussion etc. It is a political agenda that is re-reading science. It has a commitment to some very radical things regarding culture.

    I’m not blaming anyone who is caught up in it. But I can say, without qualification, that the force behind it is evil, not good. The shame is that the conversation tends to be “either you’re with us or you’re against us.” The reason is that there is no desire whatsoever for conversation. What conversation or “dialog” that takes place has ultimately only been for the purpose of furthering an agenda. The Obergefell decision of the Supreme Court was the result of at least 30 years of careful planning and strategizing, and it is only a step towards something more.

    It is good to love everyone. But it is good to wake up and know where you are and what time it is. Forgive me for sounding like a conspiracy theorist. In this particular case, however, there has been and is a very coordinated conspiracy taking place. It is the most successful such thing since the early 20th century. Quite startling.

    As to our brains, I’m very interested. I have ADD, and cannot take medication for it. It colors and shapes my every waking moment. I’ve got a number of members in my parish “on the spectrum” (I live in a science city where they seem to be over-represented). It fascinates me in every way.

  46. Fr. Freeman & Scott,

    I’ll just say this bit as food for thought…not trying to stir the pot…just give a different viewpoint.

    Personally, I’d balk at my individual mental illnesses being “me” or “my identity.” Both in my clinical training and experience, and in my own experience with PTSD… I know the “me” before I had PTSD and the “me” after…and neither are my “true” identity. (esp. in Christ) Regardless of the fact that my experiences with trauma, death, war and now PTSD “colors and shapes my every waking moment” it does not define…not should it ever define “me.” It may be a part of my personality and biology at this point…but even that…it is still not “me” proper. I refuse as a matter of faith to let it define me or for my ego to get attached to this notion that “I am” my illness — or that my identity is bound up with this biological and neurological baggage.

    Genetic and Epigenetic factors my influence our brains and our bodies — and we may accumulate “scars” (for lack of a better term) which tend to make us react physiologically and neurologically to the environment around us…but these are not properly our identity (or our value as humans) in a theological sense. (IMO) We are all unique and unrepeatable hypostases – but the content of “us” as persons is not wrapped up in our perceived identity and experiences of the brain formed over time….largely by a world which is not as it is meant to be and a fleshly mind which responds to that fallenness. (Heb 2:15, 1 Cor 15:56)

    I’m not interested in really fleshing any of this out or making any kind of prolonged dialogue about it…but as someone who struggles with my own severe mental illness which I’ve acquired tangibly and identifiably through epigenetic factors (war)- I can say without a shadow of a doubt– that I am NOT my mind, and I will not be defined by my struggles. I suppose in some respect I’m lucky that I can compare the before and after — and not have my identity bound up with this…(though many a veteran is not so lucky to be able to do so).

    If I were to allow myself to be captured by this illness and make it my identity…I’d be beyond all hope, and darkness would have long ago enveloped me and those around me.

    I am not what my mind “thinks” I am…nor am I what my eyes have seen…or what my body tells me to “feel” or “prepare for” at any given moment. While I can and must be attentive to those things on a practical day to day basis…to confuse them with “me” in the sight of God – or worse yet, to let my logoismoi tell me “I’m you” is – and would be – disastrous.

    All of this talk centers around the human identity being in the human brain….which is a very common belief in modernity. We think “we are” who we psychologically project upon ourselves…or “we are” the collective experiences we recall.

    But as we increasingly face the reality of hydrocephaly or anencephaly — like my hero Jaxton Buell — I think we should be disabused of the notion that who we are is ontologically or hypostatically bound to our brain and its experiences.

    Jaxton is just as human as any of us…regardless of whether he has a brain or not. His identity is not in his brain.

    I know this flies in the face of what is commonly accepted and “rational” — but we are much more (and much less) than what our brains tell us we are as human beings. When it comes down to it…the brain dead person and the Alzheimer’s patient are still complete human beings with identity in God’s sight outside their brains.

  47. Thanks Father. While I’m not old yet, I’m certainly not young anymore and, since I’m unlikely to be a centenarian, I’m likely teetering off the far edge of whatever we call middle-aged. I’m probably poorly equipped to see conspiracies, real or not. On the one hand, my mind constantly attacks any thought or idea I try to hold, so it’s hard for something broad to stand up over time. And on the other, when discussing people of any sort, I can’t really deal in broad categories very well. When I think of any category, all I really see are the individuals I know or have known who fall into that category. I inevitably think of whether something applies to this specific person. Or if that description fits this other person. Even with statistical research/groupings I tend to fit people I know into the different groups where possible.

    Even at 51, I think I’m too young to actually remember a time when marriage was anything other than a social contract based on mutual love accompanied by a vow of loyalty. (I’m a deeply loyal person.) And I know lots of cultures and times in which it was basically a property arrangement with the woman and children being part of the property involved, which doesn’t seem like an improvement. I’ve read and heard a number of Orthodox descriptions of what marriage ought to be, but I’m not sure I know where that’s what it’s ever actually been. And the descriptions haven’t always been consistent among the different Orthodox discussions I’ve found, which confuses the matter some for me. Without a reference point, it’s not clear to me what that would actually look like as a cultural norm. Or is it something that’s always been embodied in just some marriages in a culture?

    I say that because it seems to me that Obergefell simply allowed same sex couple the legal right to engage in the same social contract based on love and a commitment of loyalty that the rest of us called marriage. With marriage defined that way, I can’t see any reason the legal contract rights shouldn’t be extended to them. They certainly meet the criteria as well as any opposite couple.

    People can argue that marriage should be something else and that may be an argument worth making. But the above is what marriage has been for at least my lifetime. If the cultural, social, and legal definition was changed, it was changed based on the wishes of heterosexual couples in our country and those changes go back farther than 40 years. The merits of any changes that might have happened are certainly open for discussion, but I’m not sure I see how something that broadly desired and effected can be considered a conspiracy effort. Given our current social definition of marriage, Obergefell seems legally inevitable.

    While I see reaction against “gay marriage” in some corners, I don’t see any broad-based social inclination, even in many of those corners, to alter marriage from anything other than a social contract of mutual love and loyalty. And those places where I have seen a drive to change that definition of marriage to something else, it’s mostly been in an explicitly and highly patriarchal direction. I’ve even heard some Orthodox advocating such things, though they seem to be a minority.

    Historically, I know Christianity subverted the Roman paterfamilias household structure, which could be quite harsh at times (for instance when the paterfamilias refused to recognize a child). I’m not really sure I see how our current marriage definition and household structure would be similarly subverted by Christianity today. But then, I’m not even clear what the goal would be.

    I don’t know I could make a claim to love everyone. I’m pretty certain I don’t. I certainly wouldn’t claim I love people because of Christianity or any other abstract ideal, though I do struggle to understand what love means in a Christian context. I also think I’m a pretty bad friend, even when I deeply care for someone. I struggle a lot in that context, which is probably why (as I just realized) a lot of my ‘rules’, including some of the simple ones I shared here, start with ways to try not to hurt people. If I can do that much, it’s a start.

    Thanks again Father. Some days I wonder if I’m Christian. But if I am Christian at all, I’m pretty certain it’s the Christ worshiped within Orthodoxy in whom I believe, at least as much as I am able.

    Anyway, I’m sure I’ve rambled more than anyone wants to read and more than I intended. So I’ll be quiet again now.

  48. Scott,

    To love everyone is feasible only once we love God with all our being and become consequently utterly detached from the more base loves, opinions, attachments etc we mistake as having some relation to ‘the love of neighbour’; and His grace then bestows such a limpid, universal love of everyone.

    That western kind of thinking on marriage BTW might sound plausible, but it does not cut it for a true Christian. We talk of union, (like that binary union of Christ and the Church), not ‘contract’… Jurisprudence might have recognised this union contractually in the past but now is quickly becoming the arbiter of what it understands as marriage [i.e.] –a contract – it’s not the same thing at all. It is sad that the prevalent modernist way of thinking holds such sway on so many nowadays.

  49. Scott, it is quite certain that marriage as a whole has never been the Biblical ideal described by St. Paul and some Fathers.

    A few years ago I had reason to study the mariage canons in The Rudder. I was quite surprised. The canons were for the most part describe who can and cannot marry whom primarily for passing on property and avoiding any possible incestuous situations.

    Marrying outside the Church was and is a big deal. The recommended discipline is 5 years to life away from the cup.

    Marriage is a deeply personal reality that, for Christians, also involves God. It is the most difficult but most rewarding venture I have ever undertaken.

    On the personal level there are many marriages that are in line with what is taught by the Church.

    I agree with you that there is a terrible lack of consistency in how marriage is described and how it is approached however.

    One thing is certain it is about a man and a woman coming together with God’s blessing to be fecund.

    That fecundity does not have to be having children alone although that is a big part of it–olive shoots and all. However there is a fecundity in marriage that transcends the “nuclear family” whatever that is. That fecundity is the result of the synergy of a male-female bond in Christ.

    It is an over flowing of the sacramental life in a Christ focused marriage within the Church. This occurs in the midst of all the existential struggles, selfishness and stupidity that is a normal human life.

  50. Hi Scott,

    I have a teenager on the autism spectrum. I have ADD and issues with anxiety related to that. I have relatives (one a sibling and one a parent) who have suffered intermittent nervous breakdowns to chronic mental illness (i.e., chronic paranoid schizophrenia). This is decidedly some stuff related to the body and brain interacting with psyche and spirit (it’s all connected) and our polluted/corrupted environment and ancestry (Psalm 50:5/51:5). I am, most certainly, not reducible to my brain/body and its processes. That sounds like a nightmarish identity to me, frankly, and for those of my family members who suffer in various ways, No this is the detritus of a cosmic disaster into which the Kingdom is breaking to restore order and to restore us to our true selves. This spiritual reality of the Kingdom breaking in is not something we can see through the lens of the values of modernity or the findings of modern science (so called).

    This doesn’t stop me from seeing (as do you) the gifts of grace God bestows on us in our weaknesses (though these gifts–such as your superior sorting skills–are passing away and limited to helping us cope in the present world which is likewise fleeting and passing away). These gifts/strengths are not my identity either, anymore than my liabilities and weaknesses are. Christ Himself is my true Self and my identity, and I will never be truly myself until I see Him face to face (and not through a mirror dimly) and am transfigured to be like Him (1 John 3:2). But certainly I also agree with you our weaknesses should help us live and deal with others with compassion and without judgmentalism.

  51. Father,

    I am very grateful for your kind and thoughtful comments here and your overall approach. It is so easy to get polarized and make blanket statements and fall back on culture-war thinking (which, from your last comment, I infer has always been a temptation for you as well).

    On a lighter note… ‘And I think it would be the height of perversity to suggest that these things were simply created to “appear” that way. Frankly, I think such an idea is heresy, though I don’t know which one.’ the creator God as a deceiver… Gnosticism, maybe? 🙂

    Onesimus,

    “I’ll just say this bit as food for thought…”

    It was a much needed vitamin in a conversation that was at the risk of scurvy without even realizing it. Thank you!

    Slob,

    Thank you for clarifying something that had been murky in my mind for a long, long, long time now…

  52. Father Stephen,

    There’s one joy that comes from reading your blog posts, and there’s another joy that is reading everyone’s comments and questions, your responses, and seeing the struggle that is our attempt to live according to our Orthodox faith.

    I just want to make a note of something that I find particularly significant in my own life:

    “At the heart of modernity is an assumption that all suffering is bad and that the relief of suffering is the definition of the good and the useful. … Relieving suffering can be a good thing, but is not the highest good or the definition of the good. The Good is God alone and union with Him. And this, in the Christian account, actually requires suffering. Some suffering is inevitable and inescapable. The Way of the Cross does not describe how to be rid of suffering, but how to rightly bear suffering in such a way that it is redeeming.”

    As a sexual abuse survivor who struggled for many years with same-sex attraction (and let’s be honest, still struggles, but in a different way), what you’ve described here is how God lead me to the warm embrace of the Church. We have a seemingly natural desire to find a reason for our suffering, but Western society is unable to come to the conclusion that our suffering can be our permanent companion.

    Having matured (oh, ever so slightly) over the years, I’ve understood that anyone (as I’ve heard, mainly Evangelicals, Scientologists, and Muslims) claiming to have the ability to rid me of these unwanted passions is a) lying, and b) missing the point. As a Greek priest once told me, “this [attraction] is the means by which you crucify yourself every day.” While that can sound hideously grotesque, I felt truly liberated when I heard this–I don’t need to struggle to get rid of this, I need to struggle to bear it without letting it crush me. (After all, I don’t remember Jesus telling anyone, “Take up your Cross and let it smother you.”)

    In other words, how rarely would I cry out to God for help if I didn’t have this Cross to bear? (This is a frightening thought.)

    Having tried both the Modern world’s prescription for same-sex attraction (“relieving suffering” through sex, political activism, long-term relationships, glorifying gay identity as somehow superior) and the Church’s prescription (prayer, struggle, confession, a lot of tears), I can say this: neither option has rid me of suffering. The Modern prescription was like painkillers–it did a wonderful job of numbing me for some time, but it wore off. The Church, however, has given me meaning and peace.

  53. Matvey,
    Thank you ever so much for your witness. May God give you grace in the daily crucifixion that is our true life in Christ. I’m grateful that you found a wise priest and that God gave you grace to hear such a difficult word. It is very much the right word!

  54. Matvey,
    I, too, commented beforehand in awe of the profundity hidden in that comment of Father Stephen’s about suffering (the one you just quoted) – and even inquired why it wasn’t there on the original article considering it’s significance… Of course it is a hard saying in this world, as Father rightfully answered.

    But, as your own and others’ witness manifests, there is a ‘rule’ concerning us humans:

    it is not suffering or the lack of it that is ever our real problem, our problem is the lack of meaning [in suffering -and in everything else].

    For those saintly souls that have found the unshakeable meaning [Logos] in everything, both suffering and joy are momentously eloquent words of God to their hearts, while for those who side with the reasonings of this secular world, both suffering and joy are ultimately futile, and their desperate pointlessness is only ever understood when we are about to leave this world and its distractions in our last hour.

  55. Dear all,

    I have not followed that closely too many of Fr S’s blog posts and the comments section, though I have watched several, always with amazement at the depth of insight on both Fr S’s side, but also very much on the commentators’ side as well. I see deep confusion here within some of the comments, but also incredible wisdom too, and am heartened at what the church can do and is doing through Christ in this confused age.

    I wanted to throw something into the mix though, which I think is pertinent. I was watching some show on population growth and resource use fairly recently–cannot recall the name exactly. But it gave a set of numbers that were stuck with me. It took the world’s population something like until about the mid 19th century to reach one billion. We reached two billion in only a few decades later, something like 1890. We are now a seven billion, and you can see how we are now increasing in billions in very short spans of time.

    The point is the people on the liberal side of the ideological spectrum in terms of human sexuality (which is now the majority of the western public and is certainly the reigning ideology in our political-schooling-industrial complex) who want to say that the new gender-bender ideology is the “green option” have a point. We really do have a natural resource problem. There is a serious fight over water rights going on across the globe. People do not grow anything anymore. People are being pushed off the land and into cities. Forests are being cut down and we are suffocating ourselves because of what that is doing to the atmosphere.

    So it seems to me that on the one hand the Church has to acknowledge that a non-procreative ideology of sexuality is going to be inevitable and that it is no accident that it is here. We can see just from the comments on this blog posts how pervasive it is, and how people want to identify deeply with it and do not like it when you start questioning its metaphysics and healthiness. I am an Asianist, and have just completed a doctorate in east asian history, and the spread of christianity there in the middle ages. I do not think I am being syncretistic when I turn to the Taoist imagery of the yin and yang and what it says about reality itself as being an interplay between male and female forces and this representing and participating in something that is “really real,” not just seemingly real. I think yin and yang and Taoist thinking is now part of the globe’s thinking, and I could easily point to data supporting that. But the point is that I think the classical Christian point of view understands what Taoism understands, which is that nature is procreative and human flourishing comes only when culture is aligned with this. I often find myself saying that the LGBT(or is it this week called the LBGTPQRSTXYZ movement???) has put itself outside the great yin and yang of nature, something that Classical Christianity, which is still with us in the Church, is aware of, and that there may be a bridge here worth exploring. We can create alliances here with the deep ecology movement, and though I know its a pejorative term, with “new agers” and green consciousness folks. I stand by this.

  56. Todd,
    The population issues are easily misinterpreted. Europe, for example, no longer has enough children to replace the dying. They are cultures in population decline. Without immigration, they would not ultimately be able to sustain their economies. The US is not a whole lot better. Population growth is the fastest in the underdeveloped world, and seems always to slow along with development. People make reasonable choices very often viz. children. My mother was one of 12. All of them worked picking cotton in the fields of their family. My father was picking cotton by the time he was 4 years old (and was 1 of 5). Children were literally assets – cheap labor. None of my mother’s siblings had more than 3 children. Circumstances changed. We were no longer working assets, but occasional financial liabilities.

    What we see in the world is an economic system that has very uneven development. The answer isn’t an asexual (Huxley’s Brave New World). It is a more just allocation of resources and development. But, the adversary prefers Huxley’s world. The devil hates human beings. He hats life (“He was a murderer from the beginning,” Christ said). Trust me. Every scheme that is anti-life, pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia, pro-population control, is ultimately rooted in the adversary. That’s not saying that this is conscious on people’s part. I’m simply saying that Christians should be very aware of what is really going on.

    There is not a population crisis. There is economic injustice and exploitation. When people get concerned about population, they always think there are too many dark-skinned people, never that there should be fewer Swedes.

    What we need is to grow deeper and deeper in the true Tradition of the Church. There abides the fullness of truth. All things are there.

  57. Fr S,

    All I am saying is that is perception that there is a population did not come from nowhere. People REALLY do not grow anything anymore. People REALLY are forced into wage slavery and cannot own their own land and have their own living space. Sorry to seem as if I am shouting by using caps–just trying to be emphatic.

    I think the Taoists (and the new agers–however unconciously) are pointing us towards classical Christianity. There is a long history in the church of people finding precursors to Christian truth in seemingly unlikely places. Justin Martyr found in Egyptian religion and Ancient Greece. Missionaries in the British Isles in the early middle ages found it in pagan myths in which the cosmos was reborn when the original snake was slain on a tree, (i.e. the cross) bringing the world back to life. The Taoists know that nature is procreative—this is what I am arguing for. It’s there in my statement if one reads it all the way through. Again, sorry to sound harsh. Don’t mean to.

  58. Todd,
    I was (and am) still a bit confused in your comment. That there is and will be a push towards a “green” excuse for gender-bending, I agree. The Taoist instinct about the binary nature of creation is, I think, correct as well. I’m was only wanting not to cede the notion of the population crisis that is largely a creation of an exploitative economic system.

    Here’s my reasoning. One of the problems of modernity is its belief that all problems can be solved and that modernity is the means of solving them. So. Their schemes create problems. They then point to the problems as an excuse for more modernist solutions. The never-ending cycle results in more and more bad solutions, increasing problems, all of which are used to manufacture the false need for modernity.

    In Orwell’s 1984, perpetual war was the means of maintaining the all-pervasive modern state. In Brave New World, personal pleasure and the absence of pain is the excuse for a false utopia. Today, we have a combination. But at the root, the problem is the false understanding and analysis of suffering. We want to eliminate suffering. That is an impossible task and yields either false utopias built on murder and anti-life measures, or on some form of perpetual war in the name of eliminating suffering. To oppose either is to be accused of wanting people to suffer – i.e. not caring.

    But suffering cannot be eliminated. The right questions have to do with legitimate versus illegitimate suffering, and, primarily, how to live in such a way in which we are enabled to bear suffering and enable others to bear suffering. I suppose that what I am saying is that the problems driving the various “green” excuses of the modernists (including the sexual modernists) are of their own making. They are contrived problems and not actually natural problems. I don’t think I’m arguing with you here, just saying some other things as well.

  59. Thank you Matvey.

    Framing this:

    “..how rarely would I cry out to God for help if I didn’t have this Cross to bear? (This is a frightening thought.)”

  60. Matvey,

    Thank you so very much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. They contain extremely valuable insights for all of us!

  61. Well, I meant it at the time when I said I would be quiet again. (I’ve been reading this blog for quite a few years now, but comment infrequently.) However, some of the comments spurred additional thoughts. I thought I could just set them aside and let them subside, which I usually can do. But sometimes such thoughts keep cycling through my head in different ways and won’t go away however much I try to ignore them. Usually expressing them will stop them when that happens. So if anyone happens to still be following this thread, I beg your indulgence.

    My older son was diagnosed with chronic PTSD at the age of 5 from the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother. We spent years helping him overcome and heal, as much as possible, from the damage inflicted by that trauma. I think I understand PTSD as well as someone who has not personally suffered from it can possibly understand it. At least, I know it from the closest and most personal perspective I can imagine. PTSD is certainly damage inflicted on the brain through trauma and it’s especially bad when the trauma is recurring and inescapable. As depression is a disease at least partially rooted in a chemical imbalance, so PTSD is the equivalent of a traumatic injury (or response to a traumatic injury as the case may be).

    There are many things that are clearly the mental equivalent of disease or injury. I did mention that, but perhaps not explicitly enough. I’m quite familiar at a personal level with a number of them. There’s a fair amount of mental illness on but my side of our family and my wife’s (mostly mine). Those include depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, and some even less common. No, a mental illness or injury does not define a person’s identity in many cases. It’s something that is suffered or endured and sometimes overcome.

    With that said, we are inextricably embodied beings. Having practiced Eastern religions for a time in my life, and studied some of ancient pagan thought and philosophy, that’s actually one of the key differences in Christianity. It fully embraces our embodied reality. We don’t have bodies. We are our bodies. Christ joined God’s nature with ours by becoming (not merely inhabiting) flesh.

    My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and my father-in-law is currently in a memory care facility in the late stages of semantic dementia. Those are some of the worst diseases because they rob a person of the things that made them who they were. Are they still human? Certainly. Are they still the same person they were? No. Not in any meaningful sense, though sometimes a glimmer will still shine through. Changes in the brain do change who we are.

    Resurrection remains a mystery as well as the central hope in Christianity. Certainly God knows who we are and even as his life somehow preserves us in death and the loss of our bodies, so he can prepare new bodies for us. There’s something that seems impossible to describe in the narratives of Christ’s resurrection and there’s clearly a sense in which our resurrected bodies will be whole in a way that we’ve never known. So even those who have suffered a degenerative and destructive disease like dementia which attacks our identity itself can be restored for they remain hidden in Christ and his incarnation and resurrection.

    But nothing in that mystery removes our central embodied nature. We don’t have bodies. We are our bodies. If we lose sight of that, as it seems to me much of Protestantism has, we lose something that is central to Christianity. Without that truth about our nature, it seems to me that the incarnation makes no sense at all and accomplishes nothing. It matters and matters deeply that God became man by becoming flesh.

    Or again, so it seems to me. I’m not an expert in much of anything besides computers, so I could easily be wrong. But if I’m not my body, and if Christ was not and is not as much his body as he is one with the divine essence, then I can’t make any sense at all of Christianity.

    So, with that said, whatever a resurrected body may be like, it must in some sense be continuous with the body and life I have now. My attributes, my memories, the experiences that have shaped me, my relationships with others, the things I have suffered, and everything else that has formed me into the person I am matters or this whole life has truly been nothing but Maya (in the sense used in the Upanishads).

    And that’s what I meant about the line where something in my physical makeup being part of my identity, essentially who I am as a human being, is not necessarily an easy line to find when it comes to our brains.

    I do want to stress that I have no idea right now if ‘autism’ is actually the correct label for whatever it is that is different about the way my brain works. It seems to be a good guess, both according to some professionals and from what I’ve absorbed since the possibility was raised. I’m getting tested out of the hope that if it is correct, I will be able to find tools and resources that will actually help me in the relationships that matter most to me. Since it tends to run in families and it’s possible that some of my children (all adults now) exhibit traits and difficulties that could be related, if I’m actually diagnosed and that guess proves correct, I’m also hopeful that will end up helping them as well. Time will tell.

    However, if it is the correct label, then I’m certain it’s as much intertwined in who I am as a human being as it is a ‘condition’. The weaknesses I have that may be associated with the neurological structures associated with autism are, at this point in my life, largely known. I know I have a hard time reading people, following the flow of conversation, that my brain sometimes freezes (or races) when trying to speak under emotional pressure, sensory issues, and a host of other things. I’ve been trying to figure out why I have them and trying to learn ways to compensate for them for almost 40 years now. I have certainly suffered them, but everyone has weaknesses they suffer. Some of mine are just more pronounced or, at least, more difficult to hide over an extended period of social interaction. (Others I did manage to alter or change to less visible or noticeable manifestations.)

    But I’ve also been aware for much of my life that my brain doesn’t work the same way as those of many others in ways I consider strengths and not weaknesses. And I’m not the only one who has noticed. I was always being ‘tested’ by education professionals in the various schools I attended as a child. And as an adult, I’ve had my coworkers comment on those differences pretty frequently. They often don’t understand how I do some of the things I do. We’ve actually had conversations where they’ve tried to figure out what was so different about the way my mind worked. And I’ve thought about it myself a lot as well. Autism never came up over the years, but from everything I’ve recently read, the neurological differences associated with it could account for those differences as well.

    Which brings us back to identity. Whatever our true self might be, it must have some connection to who we are. I do not believe this life is a charade or a false truth. If I am, in fact, autistic, then I don’t see any way to separate that from my humanness, from the human being I am. Those traits and characteristics have been intertwined throughout every relationship, every interaction, every thought, even every prayer I’ve ever uttered. It’s been a part of who I am from my first breath and will be a part of me when I draw my last. There is no ‘Scott’ or at least no ‘Scott’ with any connection to the person I’ve been for 51 years without a brain having at least some similarities to the one I have now.

    And Christianity is about joining our human nature, our human essence, with the divine, not about erasing our unique humanity and replacing it with something else entirely.

    I apologize again, but I apparently had to get the above out to have any peace. 🙂 I should go back and edit, but I’m worn out from writing it. So please excuse any typos or grammatical errors.

  62. Scott,
    Very interesting thoughts. I particularly agree about how key our embodiment is in our existence. However, I disagree that “changes in the brain changes who we are.” And in this, I’m on pretty solid ground viz. the tradition and the teaching of the spiritual elders.

    “Who we are” is a mystery. It is also hidden. We are not yet “who we are.” Indeed, in point of fact, we are not yet “persons,” but are moving towards becoming persons. The truth of who we are is eschatological, only revealed in the end. Who I am, as a child, for example, contains many hints of who I will be as an adult, but is not yet that adult. Who we are as adults only points towards someone we are becoming. The person I am becoming is “hid with Christ in God” according to St. Paul.

    Another example, The Theotokos is, shall we say, much like we perceive and hymn her in the Church. This is so much more than what can be seen in her lifetime. Her lifetime has some hints, preserved in Scripture, but we have no evidence whatsoever that in her lifetime she revealed what she was to be.

    I think your autism, my ADD, your son’s PTSD, my missing gall bladder, my mother’s narcolepsy, my cousin’s crippling arthritis, some child’s severe retardation, etc. are, at most, a Cross that is borne. The personhood of some is more deeply hidden than others.

    But our life in eternity is not a shrine to this life, a glorification of our memories, etc. Most of what we think of in this life will seem like a dim shadow, in the manner that a woman forgets her pain after a child is born. We are not the sum-total of our experiences and the like. Memory is not what constitutes our personhood. Indeed, memory is a function, and a very faulty one. Much of it is made up of changing images with passions attached to them, while our reality is in the present moment. The personhood, such as it is, of someone with Alzheimers is in no way diminished.

    Our human nature should not be confused with the various vicissitudes of experience. I am not my disease, my handicap, my talents, my memories, or my passions. I am me. And that reality has not yet been revealed. I get glimpses of it. But it is hidden in Christ. As I see Him face to face, I also see me. And this grows.

  63. Father,

    that critical point on [the Holy Tradition’s mystical understanding of] ‘who we truly are’, is made extremely clear through your use of the example of The Theotokos – Her lifetime and how we now magnify Her.
    I can think of many other examples form the lives of saints, but that one in particular resonated uniquely.

  64. Dino,
    My mind soars when I ponder that the reality we now know of the Theotokos was always “hidden” as she went about her earthly life. It makes me think that I should remember this with every person I meet. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” clearly refers to this eschatological reality. We walk among gods.

  65. Father,
    Despite the understandable snags in sometimes applying such an ‘eschatologically oriented’ remembrance in daily human encounters, I think it’s almost impossible to find a healthier prism than what you just described through which to see others.

  66. Father and Dino, your observations in your last few comments certainly comport with statements I have read by Saints and Elders to the effect that they literally see everyone as a Saint (not just that they “consider” everyone a Saint as if it is an exercise in ignoring what the average Christian would consider present spiritual reality!). This certainly does not compute for the modern biblicist nor for most modern believers. These holy Saints and Elders must have the spiritual equivalent of Superman’s X-ray vision! 🙂 Only God and His best friends see the heart. (I’m also reminded by this of the experiences of the “Young Man” in the biographical memoir of a young seeker’s encounters with Greek Elder, now St. Paisios, where the Elder, with his gift of “clairvoyance” courteously asked if he could “come in and have a look around” within the young man’s soul for the purpose of giving him spiritual help.) We are still mostly caught up in appearances, save those few little glimpses where God graciously draws back the curtain a little for us (“as we can bear it”).

  67. Karen,

    St Isaac the Syrian’s eminent dictum is that one’s spiritual sanctification is to the precise measure in which they perceive all others as saints, and their self as the only sinner. Clearly, a person of such a peculiar perception is by no means thick-headed. Such a person’s acuity would in fact be nothing less than remarkable; it’s just that their atypical ‘eschatological prism’ is missing from the rest of us -who mistake our … “discernment” of others’ faults and sins as an impediment to such a holy vision of others.

  68. Most inter-personal relationships involve projecting one’s own ego on others or accepting such projections.

    It is rare indeed to really listen to others or to see them. Too much noise. But He is the light that lighteneth every man.

    In communion with Him we can begin to see.

  69. Thank you very much, Father Stephen, for this timely reflection, even though I have come to it late, as is my wont. The topic of coercion is I think wonderfully set against the reality of the force of gravity, and the message for me ultimately was patience – patience with family and friends, with myself and my own limitations; and above all as I live my ever diminishing time on this beautiful earth, to spend those precious days following Our Lord, whose message doesn’t make the judgments we are so accustomed to making.

    I love that you end with a coercive admonition, because I had been reflecting on even some of the Scriptural messages – the noble Joseph was apparently a rich man, and yet see what a gift he gave in the final earthly critical moment, so that Our Lord briefly rested in a new tomb. ‘With God, nothing is impossible’ is the final part of the message about rich men, so even now when we rightly see the extreme disparities of wealth in our lives and want them corrected – there is that.

    I have been considering Saint Mary of Egypt – she had certainly been coerced by Our Lord into changing her ways, and it was very much like gravity when that happened – the force preventing her from entering the church. And I think, then she could have just turned away and gone about being who she was, but she didn’t. We could analyze it perhaps and call it something psychological, but the force of the message to me has always been her unique and individual path into a closer relationship with God. Her soul wanted that, like an inner gravity, the way the body takes over when a woman is giving birth.

    An early comment mentioned Dostoievski – Raskolnikov’s dream. Sometimes in a dream, the innocent soul speaks out in ways it can’t do when our conscious self, with all its imperfections, imposes. I always think the difference lies between being in the world and not of the world.

    Sorry to be so longwinded. I love your site.

  70. Zachary, your post upstream I enjoyed. I do have an issue with one thing: you ask “can we expect non-Orthodox to abide by our understanding?”

    The revealed truth is the same for all of us. It is not merely “our understanding but a statement of what is real. The consequences for ignoring that reality or trying to subvert it are also real: further estrangement from God. Yet we are more responsible because we have been given more. That responsibility includes articulating what has been revealed in the Church. That can also have consequences for us in the world.

    We are created male and female anything that makes that fuzzy is a consequence of our lack of Union with God. A confusion and disorder in which we all participate.

    May God have mercy.

  71. Michael,

    Thanks you for your comment. I absolutely agree. “We are created male and female anything that makes that fuzzy is a consequence of our lack of Union with God.” This is precisely the problem. Those who are not even Christian are held to what St. Paul calls in Romans the “law of the heart.” The issue is of course that the farther we are from God, the less we are able to recognize our own sin. The law of the heart becomes a blurr. Even as Orthodox Christians, any recognition of our sin is a gift from God. For without the illumination of the Holy Spirit we would not recognize our own failings. If anyone recognizes evil, I would say that is a gift of the Holy Spirit, whether inside or outside the Church. But, I don’t think we can expect those outside the Church to recognize sin. If they do, it is because their heart is open to the moving of the Spirit leading them to Christ. At least partially. Christ says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” So indeed “the revealed truth is the same for all of us.” But not everyone recognizes the need for a Savior if they believe they don’t need saving. I’m not saying they will not be held responsible for their actions. Christ says that we will be judged by his words. And yes we must not shy away from articulating our belief. For we are called to give a “rational defense” of the love found in us. But I cannot expect those who are far from God to accept the Truth. If their hearts are open to the movement of the Spirit and they act on it, then it is possible for them to become closer to God. It is not my place to judge them. As you say, “A confusion and disorder in which we all participate.” Myself especially. Indeed, may God have mercy on us.

  72. Fr S,

    Let me respond to this, if I may

    “I was (and am) still a bit confused in your comment. That there is and will be a push towards a “green” excuse for gender-bending, I agree. The Taoist instinct about the binary nature of creation is, I think, correct as well. I’m was only wanting not to cede the notion of the population crisis that is largely a creation of an exploitative economic system.

    Here’s my reasoning. One of the problems of modernity is its belief that all problems can be solved and that modernity is the means of solving them. ”

    I think there are several planks within liberal thought that Orthodox christian find useful bridges with. This is not to say “please see as one of you, and a groveling to be accepted,” but rather to form bridges with something good and to change minds and opionions towards what is good and holy. The Taoist notion that reality at its deepest level, and perhaps even the sacred it self, or at least its created reflection of the uncreated, is binrary, male and female, and procreative. One need not sign onto some notion that christianity is subservient to ancient chinese metaphysics to say this, as i am sure you’d agree.

    Also, with the anti-capitalist strains in Marxism Orthodox christians should be pointing to how capitalism destroys the family and thus the person itself. Frederick Engels of course wrote on the family and how it needed to be replaced with the state in the transition to socialism. This is anathema to us, but we can and should say that the replacement of tradtional maleness and femaleness is an attack on the person itself, and the state’s attack on the family. It is completely contrary to the ill-considered goals of socialism, which is the building of true community and the free individual.

  73. Todd,
    Where I am, viz modernity, is the need for us to confront it directly at the point in which it presumes that we are to create a better world, etc. Regardless of the analysis. This is the tower of Babel and a tremendous source of evil. People worry that saying such a thing would bring an end to any “progress” or “good things” in the world. Modernity did not invent compassion. Human beings have always sought medicine, cures, etc. But the framework of modernity, in which every good thing done is co-opted and used as a proof of modernity’s superior analysis is extremely dangerous (and also not true). We do not every make a better world. The world is simply the world. And when it is all said and done, we will die.

    The proper stance of a Christian is towards reality, and the “traditioned-ness” of reality. And in receiving that, we understand that we can overcome the death inherent in our present reality, through a life lived in union with the Cross of Christ.

    Male and female, for example, are both promise (eschatological) as well as Cross (they cannot be fulfilled except through voluntary suffering). Many aspects of both need to be healed, but nothing is healed outside of the voluntary self-emptying of the Cross.

    That pretty much says what I want to say.

  74. Scott,

    1 Corinthians 15 might help. Especially around verse 44: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” And 1 John 3:2: “it does not yet appear what we shall be…”

  75. Father bless,

    “Classical Christianity is often charged with approving slavery. It is a false charge… Slavery was part of the “gravity” of the ancient world. What we see in Christian texts is simply the advice to those whose lives were so consigned. How can I follow Christ while being a slave?… Of course, slavery gradually disappeared, morphing into the later world of feudal arrangements. Economies change.”

    While I don’t disagree with any of the specific statements here, I think this paragraph as a whole is somewhat problematic in tone. It could be taken to mean that slavery is a morally neutral institution. I doubt that that is actually your view Father, but I respectfully believe that, in quite rightly countering modernism’s belief that all suffering can and should be eliminated through “change and progress”, we traditional Christians sometimes unintentionally project an attitude of complacency about human suffering and in particular about suffering due to unjust institutions. Slavery, even the nonracial slavery of the Romans, was surely one of these. Also in this category, I would maintain, were such things as official racial discrimination, disenfranchisement of women, child labor and oppressive working conditions and unjust wages. Unfortunately, while some Christians led the efforts for progress on these matters, some were indifferent or hostile to such progress in these areas in the name of traditional values or other labels such as “antiBolshevism”. Some “Christian” commentators today, usually but not exclusively Protestant, regularly deride notions of “social justice”. I do not believe that we have to buy into everything that goes under the name “progress” to recognize that helping free people from injustice and unnecessary need and suffering is a legitimate and essential part of the Christian “agenda” (for lack of a better word). Because Marxism and “liberation theology” go to the erroneous extreme of making an equivalence between salvation and material and political liberation, does not mean we should go to the other extreme and consider them strictly optional or superfluous.

    “The spiritual life given to us in Christ is not coercive. Indeed, it rejects coercion where possible. In this, it follows the example of God Himself, who is “kind to the evil and the ungrateful.” The freedom God gives us is all around and frequently abused. We find such freedom to be intolerable in many instances, and begin to coercively push back. That coercion results in laws and the political life of societies. Modernity, however, assumes that the spiritual life is measured by the goodness and effectiveness of coercive efforts. The will to power is believed to promise a better world. We call it progress.”

    Again, while not disagreeing with what I perceive to be your main point here, I feel it necessary to add the caveat that “laws and the political life of societies”, and some degree of “coercion”, are essential in our presently fallen world to restrain both individual and collective evils. I do not believe that the “spiritual life” is entirely divorced from justified “coercive efforts” or that the efforts toward “progress” are simply a matter of a “will to power”.

    Joseph

  76. Joseph,

    thank you for that. I cannot help but at times hearing passivity being urged in what Fr Stephen says modernity. I know that cannot be what he intends. He intends, I believe, that people with eyes on the kingdom and under transformation by grace though the church via Christ ultimately will have their “charger” plugged into where it should be, rather than where it should not be. But I, as you, think its helpful to say that there REALLY is a crony capitalist class. and they REALLY do write laws and shape the structures of government in their favor. People REALLY do have militate against this. There REALLY is income inequality in the US that is vastly larger than what it was 50 years ago, and nobody seems to realize that mass shootings across our land and violent confrontations between African American communities and police might have something to do with this. We do not need passivity in the face of this. And yes, I understand that fixing it can be a panacea, and far worse, and that my salvation is not measure by it or tied completely, though it might be a little bit. Chrysostom seemed to think so as well.

  77. Joseph,
    The doing of justice has nothing to do with progress. What’s right is right and is always so. Slavery is wrong. And the OT had laws in place to limit it (no more than 7 years a slave – then freedom). Today, we do not have slavery, but we have an entire economic level that does not have a living wage. Their “freedom” is mostly illusory and it is unjust. Much of the “progress” of modernity often masks continuing injustice.

    Orthodoxy need never shy away from asking justice of the governing powers. But there are many and varying situations. For example, the position of the Church in Russia. It is a majority Church and holds a dominant place in the culture. The document “The Social Teaching of the Church” is worth a read. It represents an extremely thoughtful address to the culture and continues to guide the Church’s actions there.

    In the US, we are an extreme minority. As Church, we will have little impact. I am reluctant to endorse the political myths of our culture. For example, we are a democracy in name only. We are an oligarchy at best, in what must be called a Consumer Republic. What we should not do, I think, is measure ourselves by means of the public discourse of our culture. That discourse is extremely flawed and perverted.

    For me, it is important as Orthodox Christians to find ways to frame our lives that are outside the terms of Modernity. Modernity is a false philosophy parading as a culture.

    What distinction do you draw between slavery and poverty. On the plantation that is America, our slaves are told they are free because they can move around the farm and pick their own tasks. And, we tell them that if they work hard and apply themselves, they might move up the ladder considerably. Much that we call “freedom” is nothing of the sort – but it is a myth we tell ourselves so that we can blame our poorest citizens for their own poverty.

    The myth of modernity. Who benefits from it? Who is harmed?

  78. and sorry for the awful prose above. really have to slow down and not write at the speed of thought.

  79. Even those who are not in poverty ate kept in slavery by debt and told that it is prosperity.

  80. Todd, Joseph, et al
    First, understand that when my statements on modernity and progress are made, it should create a sense of unease. The primary reason is that we have all been thoroughly indoctrinated into the ideas of modernity and it is that set of ideas that make us feel that modernity must not only be right, but that the world desperately needs it. We are afraid to do anything.

    And here is the primary point. Belief in progress, in the ability to create a better world have nothing (nothing!) to do with doing the right thing. We do justice because it is justice. There were plenty of laws before the rise of modernity. The only difference was that with modernity you could order the slaughter of millions of people believing you were doing something for a better world.

    Our economic system has some terrible flaws, unjust flaws, at the present time. Correcting that is not a modern act. If done well, it is simply an act to do justice. The Bolsheviks claimed to be correcting certain problems of injustice, but that was not enough. They wanted to create a classless utopia and instead gave us hell on earth.

    There is no passivity in doing the right thing. But learning to do things for the right reason in the right way, apart from the ideology of modernity is essential for Christian living and thinking.

    But that slight fear you have – that nothing might get done – is the voice of modernity saying, “But you can’t live without me!” Yes you can.

  81. Wonderful stuff Fr Stephen, I am starting to get it.

    I am on a kick recently reading Rene’ Girard. Do you know his work? He’s up there with Charles Taylor in terms of important people to read to critique secular modernity. Girard was a Catholic convert and incredibly well read in all the twentieth century “isms’ , Freud, Marx, Structuralism etc, and he’s become a major influence now in New Testament studies. What he’s got to say about Christianity’s unmasking of the culture of violence and the ending of the scapegoat, and which he worked out over four decades and with a massive amount of research to back it up, is incredible. Here are two quotes which are in line with your thinking, at leas to me:

    “Christ’s death represents the loss of Satan’s kingdom: the Satanic circle is broken, and the truth and grace of Jesus can now descend on those who are not afraid of accepting it. The Holy Spirit, which is to say the defender of victims, acts first on Peter and the other apostles, telling them that Jesus is innocent and that they are mistaken. Subsequently it acts on other persecutors, showing them that they too are persecutors, making them see the victim’s innocence. What we call conversion is, finally, the experience of the scapegoat becoming the subjective experience of the persecutor. MSB”
    ― René Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes

    “Our world is filled with competition, frenzied ambition in every domain. Each of us is acquainted with the spirit of competition. This spirit is not a bad thing in and of itself. Its influence has long been felt in personal relations within the dominant classes. Subsequently it spread throughout the whole of society, to the point that today it has more or less openly triumphed in every part of the world. In Western nations, and above all in the United States, it animates not only economic and financial life, but scientific research and intellectual life as well. Despite the tension and the unrest it brings, these nations are inclined on the whole to congratulate themselves for having embraced the spirit of competition, for its positive effects are considerable. Not the least of these is the impressive wealth it has brought a large part of the population. No one, or almost no one, any longer thinks of forgoing rivalry, since it allows us to go on dreaming of a still more glittering and prosperous future than the recent past. Our world seems to us the most desirable one there ever was, especially when we compare it to life in nations that have not enjoyed the same prosperity.”
    ― René Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes

    “no society before ours has taken aim at sacrificial mechanisms. So, what’s revealed by all of this is the tenacity of those mechanisms. If you stamp them out here, they pop up again over there. The value of Foucault’s work consists in having shown this. One day, he told me that “we shouldn’t invent a philosophy of the victim.” I replied: “No, not a philosophy, I agree—a religion! But it already exists!” Foucault understood the very thing that optimistic rationalism didn’t foresee: new forms of “victimization” are constantly emerging from the instruments that were intended to do away with them. It’s his pessimism that separates us: unlike him, I think that historical processes have meaning and that we have to accept this, or else face utter despair. Today, after the end of ideologies, the only way to embrace this meaning is to rediscover religion. Of course, even as the victimary mechanism keeps being reborn, Christianity is always there to transform and subvert it, like a leavening agent—in the humanist rationalism of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, for example. When Voltaire defended Jean Calas, the persecuted Protestant, he was being more Christian than the Catholic priests who were against him. His mistake was to have had too much faith in his own perfection, to imagine that the correctness of his position was due to his own genius. He couldn’t see how much he owed to the past that stretched out behind him. I respect tradition, but I’m not justifying History. ”
    ― René Girard, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer

  82. Father, I read this first as abstract theology, and then began to see it as practical. Your comments about suffering being redeeming are instructive of how we should respond to the tragedies of our existence. And as for others, you say, “grace to treat what stands before us. Kindness covers much. Love covers a multitude of sins,” and ” I do not plan to go into full-blown reactionary mode.” This is very helpful.

  83. Fr. Stephen, I saw above in the comments you were talking about the destructive force that modernity has had on the family and it brought to mind my wife and I’s situation. We were married 5 years ago and have wanted to have children but our business which for four years was growing steadily and doing decent is now in decline and medical debt has crushed us financially. Similarly those same medical issues make work outside of the house very difficult.

    I’ve been investing myself in learning new skills to try to make our life work financially, and make children possible, but the years keep going by unpredictable factors keep knocking us down. In April alone we had to pay about $3,000.00 for a scan and a car repair for instance. It’s embarrassing to say, but we’ve spent our entire marriage living in my parent’s basement. People make a lot of assumptions about you when this is your situation.

    I think we’ve made peace with the embarrassment in some sense, in so far as learning to live with this shame, but when I consider the outrageous taxes, the high cost of living and the crippling cost of healthcare, I really don’t know what to do but sigh and keep on working towards some hope for the future.

    I know this isn’t a question exactly, but I value your perspective more than most anyone I can think of, and it would mean a lot to get your perspective on this, however brief. Thanks for your good work.

  84. Joe,
    I felt great sadness as I read your comment. If you were Syrian Christians fleeing persecution (for example), no one would question how your life is unfolding. But, instead, they will wave the “American Dream” in front of your face and blame you. In truth, our country is in shambles and has been crumbling steadily in some very important ways. The economy, measured with large numbers, is touted for its success, but those numbers hide millions of situations like your own. Millions are underemployed, or underpaid, in a system that increasingly rigged against a normal ability to make a living. All of these things are the result of political/economic decisions that seem to have been a string of disasters.

    Many of the most important questions that should be guiding decision-makers are not being asked because they are blinded by the ideas of modernity. They really don’t care if you can’t afford children, because they don’t particularly want you to have children. We have created an economy that rewards childlessness.

    I could continue with this analysis. Thus, I want to say that what you are experiencing is probably not your fault. You’re in the same situation as many others. It is not something for which shame is appropriate (even though you are right to “bear a little shame”). I will pray for you, as I pray for the many who suffer in a similar manner and measure. This is the true oppression of our time. God takes pity on the oppressed and hears them. May He deliver us speedily from the hands of the oppressors!

    Do not measure your life by the world. Cling to Christ. Give thanks for all things at all times – even though this will be the hardest thing of all. May God give us grace to endure the coming struggle!

  85. It is deeply heartbreaking reading Joe’s story, but I think it is not a bad thing to counter the perils of this consumerist jungle through traditional family support. The corrosion of extended family ties is one of the ways “lone consumers” are created -and it is such (individual, lone consumers) ones who can at any time go from worldly success and financial prosperity to homelessness in the space of a few months. It is not so with the traditional ways of extended family living. The large percentage of destitute in the States, I think, is closely related to the lack of traditional family networked existence. That’s why it’s much harder to see such a predicament in a traditional village and we witness it in the ‘coolest’ of cities so much…
    May God give His Grace in difficulties…
    I remember Elder Aimilianos proclaiming that we can never categorically be assured whether somebody who has good health and decent wealth can even commence to truly love God as one who is undergoing hardships can. It is highly questionable whether a person who never suffers, who knows not how to endure or to smile in his affliction, can ever attain to the end of dispassion. Does not the Lord mention that He ‘disciplines and scourges and chastises’ the ones He loves? The martyr Carpus, on the cross, astounded those around him when he smiled, so that they had to pose the question to him: why was he smiling?! His answer was that he had just seen the Glory of Christ! Despite the unbearable tortures his entire being was undergoing, he encountered Christ in the midst of all that… May God give us his strength in all…

  86. Joe,

    I just wanted to chime in and say that I completely understand the social stigma that you describe. I moved home with my parents when my husband was deployed for 18 months; many different things happened, long story short is that we are still here nine years later. People make hurtful assumptions and judgments and the “advice” they offer can very often feel like a scolding or a slap in the face.

    Learning to “bear a little shame” has helped; some days I’m even able to give thanks. I like to sing “One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus.” May God bless you and keep you, brother; I, for one, don’t judge you based on where you live. 🙂

  87. Speaking as a parent of a 30 year old son who has lived with me most if his life, there is a genuine economic hurdle to climb to get a decent place to live even when single. It often takes two incomes.

    It is an element of the consumer economy that is deeply twisted and destructive.

    When he was on his own it was in a loose commune type of way in not good housing and he almost got killed.

  88. Fr. Stephen: Thanks for this. Hit that one out of the park! And yes, for my part, how could we not realize that salvation is communal and prefer instead to think somehow we’ve merited it… (how indeed!) when in fact our salvation was bought not just by Christ, but earned by His love and admiration of those who pray for us. We’re hopeless without each other.

  89. I enjoyed reading this article and agree that the word “coercive” is so appropriate for these times. Gravity may keep us grounded, but the effects of weightlessness, what little I know, can cause a loss of equilibrium . When astronauts return to gravity, there is a period of adjustment. It is no wonder that, as Christians with a traditional world view, that we are also confused and disoriented in our culture.

  90. Anita, confused, disoriented and under attack. It is the father of lies at work but he makes things seem as if they are our ideas. Chaos, darkness and death is where he feels comfortable, that is to say, the secular world of progress and constant “reinvention” where everything is consumed and nothing valued.

    The only antidote to this poison is Jesus Christ, His Church and our willingness to immerse ourselves in her especially when we are not in the building.

    Lord have mercy.

    Our hope:. Christ is Risen and death had been spoiled.

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