The Cross and the One Ring of Power

The greatest trial surrounding the One Ring of Power in Tolkien’s novels, was the temptation to use it. No one (except for Sauron himself) seemed to think that they would do anything but good with the Ring. The Ring would protect Gondor; the Ring would bring order to the world (Saruman). And though it was indeed occasionally used to escape Trolls or to get friends out of Elfin prisons, every use drew the Ring-bearer deeper into a shadow world of non-being. Tolkien certainly wrote his novels in a manner that would allow them to stand on their own: they were not allegories. Nevertheless, he embedded in them a wisdom that transcends the bounds of Middle Earth. Modernity is the One Ring of Power.

The birth of modernity (the forging of the Ring) took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries driven by a fascination with the principles of rational science. With greater use of those principles has come greater power over many aspects of nature and our lives. This has been coupled with the myth of democratic empowerment, such that every citizen believes that a wonderful ability to change and shape the world is possessed by each. Everyman is a Ring-Lord.

The strange, even paradoxical, temptation of the Modern Project is to do good. That simple temptation becomes an irrefutable argument for taking up the Ring of Power. I was sitting in a doctor’s office recently, browsing magazines. There was an article about a young singer who was touted as “using her voice to end gun violence.” I’m sure she meant well, but the hyperbole is purely modern. No one will ever “end” gun violence. We will not “end” stick-violence, or knife-violence, or hand-balled-up-in-a-fist-violence. No doubt, many things could be done to lessen gun-violence. However, it is the nature of the Modern Project that we never seek to curb: we seek to cure.

This drive to cure (or “end”) is filled with a utopian assurance that has given rise to our many “wars.” We have a “war on drugs,” a “war on poverty,” a “war on terror,” and so on. The nature of modern war is “total.” When it is said that there is a “war” on something, there is an indication that no price is too high to pay for victory. That the war is long, even unending, is beside the point: it’s a war.

Though we can point to various changes wrought through the application of science, there is something we do not see. The power to do good has not produced good people. Those who wield the most power are the most easily corrupted. In Middle Earth terms, we are governed by wraiths.

The logic of the Ring sounds compelling. How can wielding the power to do good not be a good thing? In the context of Tolkien’s mythology, we understand the dangers. However, our modern myths fail to take account of the effect exercising power over others has on those who do so. And though many of us might argue that we have very little such power, our minds do not agree. We believe that we either do, or that we should. Our minds are rarely at rest within the context of our lives. We are all in danger of becoming wraiths, even if only from the anxiety of thinking about what should be done with all that power.

The New Testament presents the Crucified Christ as the image of God’s power. God does not act like a Supreme Ring Lord. When He acts, He yields a loving cooperation to His creation. He does not compel or force us. His power lies in His willingness to lay His life down for all. He tramples down death by death.

The mythology of modernity has created nicknames for those who would oppose its paradigm of power. Christians who choose the Cross are quickly labeled as “Quietists,” hinting that only Ring Lords are true Christians. It is worth noting that the disciples more than once wonder why Christ takes no action. They do not see that His action is a singular commitment to the Cross: He will not turn aside.

I have rarely encountered a Christian in the modern world who has renounced the Ring itself. We do not believe that our “empowerment” has corrupted us. We imagine that the right people, with the right power, exercised in the right manner will solve the problems of the world. We fail to see that none of us wielding power would be safer or more effective than the next.

The road to repentance begins with the renunciation of the world. The Lady Galadriel refuses the temptation:

“And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

“I pass the test”, she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”

The path of diminishment is the way of the Cross.

There is a “mind” of diminishment (Phil. 2:5-11). It is a willingness to be small and insignificant. I think that until we cultivate this mind within ourselves we will continue to be enthralled (literally) to the lure and lore of modernity. We will continue to imagine ourselves as the soldiers of reforming and reshaping power, the bringers of good into the world.

  • Do you think of yourself as part of a contingent that is saving/preserving your Church?
  • Do you worry about political/social issues and whether the right side is gaining ground?
  • Do you want to make a difference in the world?
  • Are you frequently provoked to anger by what you see around you?

These (and many similar things) are symptoms of a growing disease. They are mythic notions that draw us into a wraith-like existence.

Refuse the Ring. It is not ours to use or own. Throw it away.

I can already hear the many protests.

164 comments:

  1. Now I want to read “Lord of the Rings” again. Or at least just watch the movies. Years ago when I read it I didn’t even know it had Christian undertones at all. It would probably much more enthralling this time around.

  2. Michelle,
    Tolkien’s mother died when he was young. He was raised by a Catholic priest. He attended Mass every morning of his life. He was a profound Christian and it informed all of his thoughts in things. It permeates LOTR, though in subtle and deeply integrated ways.

  3. Wonderfully written, Father! Many thanks for this.

    It is easy to think of “throwing the Ring away” but so very hard to do! So much angers me in the world today. I have thought many times that the only chance of my avoiding a “wraith-like” existence is to renounce the world completely and go and live at a monastery. But I know that the things that draw me away from God will still tempt me there; if I cannot seek and cry out and give thanks to God where I am then I will not be able to do so in another place. Pray for me.

  4. Father but what about the kingdom on earth, the reign of God Jesus proclaimed? The healing and transformation that Jesus empowered his disciples to do? Couldn’t one believe by trying to eradicate a certain disease, even going as far as utilizing AI, that they are doing the work of the kingdom? On earth as it is in Heaven?

  5. Fr. Freeman – My greatest challenge is to remain a non-anxious but fully present “presence” in spite of all that is wrong. Failure is my forte’. However, gratitude and appreciation of God and others expressed without expectation, freely without reward, and abundantly with no end or objective in mind is the way of Grace – an antidote for the compulsion to “just *do* something” – or correct someone’s thinking (funny, in recovery we call “correcting someone’s thinking” to be, itself, “stinking thinking”). Instead I’ve found appreciation to be a dance to the alternating rhythms of rest and joy. Elders are my example as well as St. Seraphim’s greeting of each person with “My Joy!”…Not unexpectedly, my own corrupt flesh all too often desires to even “use” this way for my own benefit, reducing God and others to objects – yet more and more often, as I receive healing and as I mellow with age 😊 Eucharist becomes more consciously and clearly the only way of and to Life. Pray for me! Glory to God.

  6. I don’t protest – I agree with all you said, Father. How frequently do we hear “X is the leading cause of death – fight now to defeat X.” As if there will ever not be a “leading cause of death.” What we are hearing is the modernist’s claim to be able to defeat death itself – which already has been done for us by Jesus Christ, though not in the humanistic way promoted by the current world view.

  7. Eliot,
    Many people think that way. It is, I think, a perversion of the gospel and a misunderstanding of the Kingdom. It is a substituting of the secularized notions of worldly progress in the place of the Kingdom. By all means, we should do good. We should not, however, imagine ourselves to be improving the world, or ridding it of evil and the like. We’re all going to die. We think we can do good things without actually being good people. It’s a delusion. Be good, but be small. Don’t save the world. We have no such commandment…and it’s not our job.

    We spend frightful amounts of money researching and trying to “eliminate” a disease. Simply providing clean water and window screens would save more people across the world than most of our medical research. By and large, all of our medical efforts (money-wise) are mostly about rich people’s fear of death. It’s not about compassion. Put down the ring.

    Here’s a short article about the Kingdom…we are not advancing it.

  8. Well, I love what you have written, Father, and I consider it extremely “powerful.” But I will be the one who raises a quibble (apparently first, oh well…). And that is just to say that Christ exemplifies and praises “meekness” and “gentleness” which is really a strength that is under control. The one place I will raise a small issue is that even if we are troubled by such thoughts — and I freely must admit that I am, and often — we place those concerns under the yoke of Christ, the will of the Father. They have to be submitted to prayer. This perhaps is a daily task for me. I have to be content with “abiding” and whatever answer I receive to continue my faith, to seek to find humility, to have faith that one need not be “great” nor met with fanfare to be doing what one is supposed to be doing. I am obviously not a perfect person, I don’t think those rather human sentiments are not predictable given what we see in the world. But priests like yourself, and the Church, are there to give us answers. And I would agree that so much of what I see around me is ignoring all the history that teaches us that humility and faith, cultivating self-awareness and spiritual discipline (gasp), are the answer. I’m dashing this off and probably it’s poorly put, but I trust understandable

  9. Fr Stephen-

    This is brilliant! Since you write of Tolkien in this way, I am comforted knowing my children love his stories, and they will take a certain understanding with them as they mature into adulthood, great examples of how to look be in this world.

    I am intrigued by the juxtaposition in your post of violence and The Good within modernity. It could be said that we wage war on violence! How ironic. I read an article yesterday about people wanting to eradicate hate in society…which one cannot even begin to work on without hating hate itself. Hate can be good…hating injustice, for example. It’s just another example of the desire hold on to sound bites that may seem good on the surface yet in the end reveal muddled, confused thinking.

    Thank you for shining a light on the darkness of the modern project and pointing us in the direction of the Uncreated Light.

  10. Father, Eliot,
    indeed, infinite power is hidden in the inaction of the Cross as compared, to even the most powerful action that comes from anywhere else.
    I recently heard a disciple of Elder Aimilianos answering the question: ‘what is the one thing that you remember of your beloved Father in Christ that you think transformed those around him so phenomenally?’ And his answer was: ‘nothing that he did [despite his superhuman asceticism and virtue], nothing that he said [despite his sublime homilies being spoken ‘as one with authority’ (Matt 7:29)], none of all that! It was only who he was that “spoke” profoundly in our hearts, and without ever interfering, as others tried to’.

  11. Dino, thanks, that is helpful for me. So often I feel like I am doing “nothing” (ah Father, there is that shame speaking!)

  12. Fr. Stephen,
    Thanks. When Jesus said what we Should do, they were things we Could do. You said, “Be small.” When we are small we can act small. Think how small giving a cup of cold water is, of giving a hamburger to one hungry, to visiting folks in hospital or jail. All “small” things, but acts of mercy and compassion almost all can do. Part of the shame I bore through the years was that of feeling small, inadequate, of not measuring up. That was toxic to my soul. Now I can see that the way up is the way down…diminishing self for Christ’ sake as John the Baptist did. Lord have mercy.

  13. Fr. Stephen, I don’t always take the time to read your wonderful posts, but today the title drew me in. I have been struggling with many things lately that cause great pain – that I am truly unable to change – in life and in others. I never really “got” the Lord of the Rings movies, and did not read the books. You just made sense of them to me. Fighting the anger and pain of injustices around me is my first impulse. Facing that the way of the Cross is to give it to God, and letting HIM be the one to fight the battles for us – means humbling myself and admitting I can do nothing to change things. At the same time I am placing it in His hands and trusting that HE can and will do what is right. Each time I speak of it, or get upset over it, I am not totally trusting that God has this and will take care of it. Releasing so much that we struggle with and feel we should be trying to at least make a difference in – is hard for us. Maybe we want those superpowers to do good, but the reality of it is that we have none. We are powerless to change another human being. We can only change ourselves, and how we react to that around us. We can love, comfort, forgive, and pray for others, but we cannot change them. We can do the good we are able to, but the Ring belongs to God. Only He can wield the power without risking the corruption. Thank you Father. You helped more than you know today.

  14. This is so true, Father. As a young seminarian years ago, I found myself angry at how little my church was doing to combat (insert cause here). Of no small significance is the moral and theological ‘fluidity’ that often develops in persons and churches that embrace a ‘do good at all cost’ mentality (e.g. most mainline protestant denominations). Only in finding Orthodoxy, have I begun to see where the true ‘work’ lies; my own repentance and salvation.

    My question is this: what is the proper framework/metaphor/worldview in which we should rightfully conceive and think of serving the poor, doing good to our neighbor, etc?

    Thanks, Father.

    JR

  15. John,
    I think the framework is in love (agape), laying down our lives as servants. We are not masters – the ones who fix. We are servants who do not lord it over those whom we serve. Our culture does not want to serve…it wants to “eliminate the problem.” To love without measuring or judging is important.

  16. I have questions about the implications of this line;

    •Do you think of yourself as part of a contingent that is saving/preserving your Church?

    Is there a hazard that talk of a Benedict Option can become code for a modernist experiment in disguise of defending tradition? Building a stronger community centered on the church, with the growth of monasticism and the like, seems to me naturally orthodox. Saint Benedict undertook his efforts certainly for the purpose of going deeper into the faith, growing community and getting closer to God. If a believer is engaged in a modernist crusade to save the ancient faith, no doubt this would be a fool’s errand. But surely we are also called to look around us, see the signs of the times, and work to strengthen our community. How do we discern the proper spirit in this matter?

  17. Father, lately in public we see so much attribution of motive to another person. It has occurred to me that this is purely practicing judgment — to say publicly we know what is in the heart of another. Could you please put this in context with what you have written? (Unless, of course it is too far off the mark of the topic or something.) Thank you

  18. Thank you, Father, for reminding me once again that I can do almost nothing about what I hear on “the news.” All I can do is get angry, which is exactly what Satan wants.

    What I can do is feed someone who is hungry, and give them something to drink. I can take in someone who is homeless. I can give my clothes to someone who needs them more than I do. I can visit the sick and I can visit those who are in jail. That is all I can do, and it is exactly what Satan hates.

    (I am sure this crowd does not need me to cite chapter and verse.)

  19. Some thoughts:
    Quietism is the belief that power results from being quiet.

    In an article in Time magazine in 1980 about artificial intelligence one of the scietists interviewed said, “My aim (with AI research) is create the next dominate life form on the planet.”

    If one looks at the last half of the 19th century one can see Mordor being built and the Ring of Power being forged in ernest. The darkness and evil small and great that issued from those forges is the horror of the 20th and 21st century. It has been and continues to be the “Transvaluation of All Values” that Nietzche championed.
    Just read his The Three Metamorphosis of the Spirit and you will see. Partial list: Marx, Freud, Darwin, Nietzche, Jung, the Industrial Revolution, the Science of Mind, the preaching of the Rapture and associated awakenings, the work of Horace Mann and others on the philosophy of education, the Progressives in US politics followed by Wilsonian democracy, etc. etc., etc. Antecedants abound with no real end until one returns to Adam and Eve and the Satanic promise that we shall be like God.

    My priest gave a sermon Sunday on the banality of most evil. The small things we all do and all suffer. Yet it is always the large evil that modernity urges us to fight. Never the small evils nesting in my own heart. It is a great distraction that allows evil to flourish. Become a superhero. Don’t worry who or what you have to hurt or destroy.

    Anyone who really thinks that the world can be changed in a progressive manner is deluded and/or willfully ignorant.

    I know myself enough to understand that I cannot live well in a small parish. I will seek to remake it in accord with what I think is right. I have seen mission parishes wither and die because of that same trait in the members.

    I am blessed by God to be in a parish where everyone else is better than I am. The things I think I do well, several other people do better often much better. It is frustrating at times but it does keep me from wreaking havoc. I find service in the cracks because I can’t even wipe tables as well as many in my parish.

    God is good.

  20. Indeed. Cast away the Ring because the desire to use the One Ring is the core of the desire of paganism. The point of pagan belief and rituals is to gain power over the world and its elemental forces. Modernity is paganism dressed up as a New World Order.
    I have noticed in my life that whenever government seeks to “fix” a problem it never really does and only creates many more. The War on Terror is a perfect example. We fought back by attacking two countries and only splattered the problem over all the world. Every time we use a drone to kill an insurgent we wind up killing women and children and turning more people against us.
    The solutions to the world’s problems are not up to us to provide or to carry out. It is the Lord’s to do for His way is the only way that these problems can be solved. Our job is simple: Make Disciples. A heart that truly belongs to the Lord is one less heart that wants to cause problems and add to the woes of the world.

  21. Chris,
    I would think that looking around and doing what is possible in a parish is good. But do it because it’s good for the parish and it’s people and not out of fear. The culture should not define our life. As for “movements” – it’s the American habit to think in such terms and is beside the point. I sort of wish someone would actually do something *before* they wrote the book. The “movement” at present is mostly on social media, i.e. it is nothing more than a set of opinions.

    Among the more “radical” decisions families have made in my small parish – is a decision to move closer to the Church. Many things only become possible when driving 30 minutes to an hour (or more) are not involved.

  22. Fr. Stephen
    I will not protest!
    Interestingly, remember who it was that possessed the One Ring for the longest time, Gollum, and what it made of him. Even Frodo was wounded with a wound that never healed that eventually caused him to leave Middle Earth for a better world.

  23. I will bite and be the protestor–even though I agree with what I take to be your general point.

    My quibble: I think it is problematic to identify Modernity with the Ring of Power (an object of evil origin and for evil purposes), because in many ways I think that Christianity is the source of Modernity, especially in its special privileging of the individual and in its desire to “do good.”

    Now–I would say that these concepts are often understood and lived out in very distorted ways and often for bad ends, but it is not possible to escape the fact that we live in a society framed by individualism, and that we find ourselves as individuals within it, needing to exercise our capacity to choose in unprecedented ways (prior to the Modern era), and that we must also attempt to choose to good in the ways that we can.

    That does NOT mean that I am affirming everything about modernity, but we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In this case, I would say that the bathwater (the Ring in your argument) as presented here is not Modernity, but the use of Power, but specifically the attitude that the ends justify the means. (I’m not sure if one can say unequivocally that this is the significance of Tolkien’s Ring, but it is certainly an idea that he rejects categorically through the story of Boromir and his desire to use the Ring in just this way.)

    You are absolutely right to say that we must “diminish”–and ironically this becomes the full realization of our modern freedom and individuality, to choose not ourselves but Christ.

  24. I work in education – I’ve worked in different public and private schools – and I often see the modern tendency of wielding power for the “greater good” applied to children. Standards are set, and children who don’t (or can’t) reach the standards are subject to remediation. Meetings are held, and children who still can’t reach the standards are then subject to more remediation; often it’s a shaming experience for such children. It’s no wonder that 49% of females and 39% of males in jail self-reported a learning disability in 2011-2012 (according to the US Dept. of Justice).

  25. Father,
    I believe you have something important to say about the modern world – indeed, in much of the Modern Project can be seen the desire to use the Ring of Power for good. There is a temptation there which ought to be resisted, as Galadriel resisted.
    But, I feel like there is more which ought to be said to balance out the possibility of an opposite error to that of modernism, an error of rejecting efforts at betterment in the world. After all, good *can* be done. Change *can* be accomplished through our actions. The Fellowship, after all, was right to set out to save Middle Earth. But, Father, the way in which you say what you say often seems to suggest that this is *not* the case.
    What are your thoughts, Father?

  26. Timothy,
    You are correct about Christianity having created Modernity. It was, however, Protestantism that did so, much of which continues to have married itself to that engine for the worse.

    I will make a distinction between technology and the Modern Project. Modernity, the Modern Project, is precisely a belief in the use of power (primarily scientific rationalism) as widely applied as possible. It has very little morality other than the greatest good for the greatest number. Its economics (Capitalism) has created vast wealth that is currently destroying cultures all across the globe as its multinationals put even the Imperial Empires of the past to shame. Its crowning democracy (America) is so dysfunctional that it need little description. It does not work and has not for a long time. Its prisons are over-filled.

    Technology is here to stay, but Christians need to learn to distinguish Modernity and the Modern Project and its many lies. It permeates us at every moment in the most withering and pernicious onslaught of propaganda the world has ever known. Indeed, its propaganda is itself the result of increasing application of scientific rationality to what spurs people to buy and think. We are not free. We are consumers. They give us a few varying forms of poison to choose from so that we can boast of our freedom.

    No. Throw the Ring away.

  27. Benjamin,
    I think it is because the Modern Project will not be overcome with an edited version of the same thing. The notion of “doing good” is itself perverted. Primarily, the modern model means by “good” only “utility.” In every single case, every human will die. The point of “good” is not in the absence of disease and death, but in the quality of the soul. I would, of course, want to act in compassion and treatment towards all who are sick. But compassion is not about ending suffering. We cannot end suffering – ever. The question is much more about how do we become the kind of people who can help one another bear the suffering of our lives.

    We cure people only to put them back on the streets for an empty life of consumerism.

    When the Soviet Union fell, the West had nothing to offer. American aid consisted in raping Russia for natural resources and exporting our business model. A Russian friend asked, “Did we suffer 70 years of communism just so we could have Walmarts?” American Evangelicals started sending in missionaries who utterly ignored the Christian traditions of Russia and started setting up Churches with Rock and Roll. America is spiritually bankrupt (though not as empty as Western Europe).

    Even the Orthodox countries have been deeply affected by modernity (cf. Greece at present). I was recently in Thessaloniki. There was hardly any bare wall space in the city that was not covered in graffiti, the work of an alienated and empty youth culture.

    We cannot save modern cultures. We have not been given a model for such large projects. We can, instead, learn how to live rightly and then get on with the task of doing so. The results of that must be put in the hands of God. Everything else is idolatry. We mustn’t think that we have to have some sort of plan to fix things. We need to learn how to live, how to nurture the soul. We are not in charge of the culture. The NT Church, for example, never ever had a “plan” for converting the world or changing Rome. That is a purely romantic, modern notion. And it is sinful and idolatrous.

    The Fellowship did not save Middle Earth. They destroyed the Ring. And with it, Middle Earth came to an end. The Age of Elves passed. The Age of Man began. Hobbits seem to have been relegated to a few villages here and there across England 🙂 and even then are hard to spot.

  28. Fr. Stephen,
    What you said of Thessaloniki reminded me of something. Just this past week I heard a Greek lady say that Greece is 100% Orthodox. Well, I’m sure that the majority were baptized as babies. Nazi Germany consisted of a majority who had been baptized Lutheran. Perhaps Germany even today is mostly baptized “Christian”. However, all of this rings hollow as state Christianity always does.
    I think that above you decried the West sending missionaries to Russia. Sunday, a visiting priest mentioned that Christianity Today recently said that the West should no longer send missionaries to Russia. I don’t know if this was an article or op-ed piece. I hope it’s so. Sometimes it backfires. Two nuns, sisters, at the monastery we attend, went as teens with their evangelical parents to Russia. The sisters became nuns as a result of being exposed to Russian Orthodoxy!

  29. Of note: I was stationed at RAF Alconbury (60 miles due North of London on the A-1, the former Roman North Road). I met a man on the streets of the village of Alconbury that had to be a Hobitt. He had furry ears, furry hands (he had shoes on so I did not see his feet) and he was not but 4 feet tall. He had a very ruddy complexion as was a very agreeable chap. He invited me in for tea and biscuits on a late and chilly February afternoon. Even his house was small (I was hitting my head on his ceiling beams). So, they are there if one is observant.

  30. The Hobbits were given the charge of Ring Bearers because they are not power oriented–alone among the races. Even then the Ring influenced them negatively. Once the Ring was destroyed, the Shire was scoured and put under the sway of evil.

  31. It is important to understand that Modernity is a myth, a story we believe in and that is told to us to justify certain actions. However, it is not true and does not actually and accurately describe what is taking place in the world. Indeed, it obscures what is actually taking place. It’s not just a myth – it is largely a lie. Oddly, it is a lie that is so thoroughly believed that even those who are telling the lie believe it to be the truth.

    We are not changing the world, improving the world, etc., and we have not been about doing that over the past 250 years. We make changes, technology, social adjustments, etc., but not actual change in the sense that the Modern Project describes.

    We are not on a trajectory of social betterment. It’s simply untrue. It is the most easily believed by the Middle Class. It’s decidedly untrue for the underclass, whose situations have barely changed at all over the past 250 years.

    It has been an extremely effective myth – on the part of the wealthy. Everyone thinks that the growing wealth of the upperclass means more wealth for everyone, etc.

    The anxieties created by the modern myth help empower the various panacea’s marketed to us. We almost never question the headlines. Take the one cited in my article: Singer Uses Voice to End Gun-Violence. It is patently absurd, but we read it, believe it, and applaud it. We also buy the records.

    A strategy is to question every statement of progress, betterment, world-improvement, etc. Question it and look carefully at what is actually being done (not the headlines or its media description). Refuse to cooperate (mentally, emotionally) with what is, in fact, a lie.

    Solzhenitsyn said: “Do not lie. Do not participate in the lie.” It was his response to the Soviet system – one of the larger examples of a Modern Project. America is another Modern Project, but much, much better at selling itself.

    I am not suggesting any form of political action. That’s nonsense. Just learn to live a true life.

  32. As far as the Benedict Option is concerned it is too self-conscious. Movements of the Holy Spirit are rather more surprising in my experience.

  33. We can view the history of the 20th Century as the judge of the lie of the Modern Project. The century began with the after effects of the Spanish American War, the Huk insurgency in the Philippines, World War I, the intervention in Russia, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the 1st and 2nd Indo China War (the wars in Vietnam), our interventions (mini war) in Grenada and Panama and the various Arab/Israeli wars. Then we enter the 21st Century with the War on Terror which started with our attack in Afghanistan and then Iraq. The conflict has spread all over the Middle East, Asia and Africa. All of this is a result of us making the world a safer place, safe for Democracy. I agree with you Father. We are not making the world a better place, we seem to be blowing it up and we have gotten much better in doing so. Now the war of words with North Korea and the threat re emerging of us playing Global Thermo -Nuclear War (don’t think for a minute that if one nuclear armed power expends nuclear warheads that the rest won’t finds reasons to quickly join in. Its not that I think the end is near but I do see that the Modern Project has only increased not decreased conflicts and these conflicts are fought all over the globe and are increasingly destructive. Peace is a critical sub area in grading the result of improvement and the Modern Project deserves an F and because it is a critical area, the whole project gets an F.

  34. Isn’t there a quote from one of the fathers stating that as the world ages, the effort to achieve even the smallest degree of piety will become harder and harder? I may have even read that reference in this blog. It is not hard to see how this could be true. Look at, as a culture, we have completely distorted our reality.

  35. Nicholas Stephen Griswold,

    When the War on Terror began and the media related that our government and our military was going to “make the world a safer place for democracy”, my husband spluttered back at the TV, “Democracy?! They don’t need democracy! Give them a toothbrush!” Indeed, for all the supposed good we wish to impose on the world, the results have been catastrophic, in more ways than one.
    Kyrie Elieson!

  36. In the moment I’m writing this (just after reading Nicholas’ comment at 9:17), I’m grateful that the conversation has moved from the lure of participation in “science vs Christianity” trend to the division and contentions that lie within our own heart. After becoming elevated and edified by Fr Stephen’s words, sometimes I become discouraged in the comment thread only because it seems to get derailed by the political commentary we hear around us and particularly in the media.

    I’ve mentioned before there is a whopper ‘rock’ in my garden. And that rock is indeed the Ring of Power. I have wielded it for the sake of empowering those who are not members of the ‘ruling imperialistic’ power. For various reasons I choose not to use the words that sociologists and historians use, but I speak in terms of politics. This is indeed about power and the lust for power. I used my capacity in science, my ‘rock’ and my own ring of power against those who held power. I was an activist against science ill-literacy. (intended spelling this time) Frequently, even before becoming a Christian myself, I pitted myself against those who manipulated the words of Christ, against those who justified their inflaming remarks (as if they represented Christ) against science for the sake of creating fear and drive the divide between scientist and non-scientist ever deeper.

    Fr Stephen, you have rightfully named the rock Modernity. The discussion/argument/fight between ‘creationists’ and ‘darwinists’ is a distractor and a diversion of politics and power from the focus on Christ in our own hearts. If there is a dichotomy, it is a false one. There is no reality outside of Christ. If I must speak, I must speak as a servant of Christ, and yet the rock remains in my faith garden. Knowing that, I fear saying anything at all in the context of a discussion about Christ and the path of the Cross. I fear that it will be that rock that speaks and not Christ. When I hear passionate words in the media and reference is made to science or to Christ to justify a political stance, I am walking in a desert. I gaze upon the rock that remains in the place of my faith garden, and I come to tears. I hold a heavy sledge hammer in my hand intended to smash the rock and it too is named Modernity. There is no way I am able smash the rock in my own heart, let alone in the heart of others.

    Father, you have said that there was some measurement of your character that indicated that you lacked courage. But there is no measurement for Grace. Grace heals. Christ speaking through you, invoked Living Water from the very rocky desert garden that I would disparage. Christ said ‘by your faith, you are healed’. I believe, Christ help me with my disbelief.

  37. I’m curious, Father, about your comments on the American Experiment in governing. Have you written an earlier article about it? If not, would you care to expound a little more on what you meant by the “myth of democratic empowerment?”

  38. I’m encouraged slightly by a certain ambivalence that remains in our society. On the one hand, there’s the Silicon Valley cliche about how they are all making the world a better place, and increasingly large numbers of people are irritated by this attitude. And… the English term “do-gooder” is definitely a pejorative term. There’s hope.

  39. The hope is in the Cross and the Ressurection. No hooe in anything of this world.
    There is a play by Romanian Orthodox playwrite Eugene Ionesco. Exit the King.
    It is an allegory about theosis and modernity.

    The King has been in control for a long time but suddenly everything is crumbling. Gradually he is forced to realize that all of the control, power and good things must be jettison for him to enter into glory.

    It is a tough journey.

    In his heyday, Ionesco was group with a bunch of deconstructionist and existentialist playwrights in the “Theater of the Absurd”. He wrote from a different perspective but it should make us realize that Christianity is absurd to the world.

  40. Eleftheria
    Your husband has good insight. Unless a people is steeped in the “Enlightenment” and the Modern Project, Democracy will never take root. What we wind up doing is selecting a thug to run the country we have “Democratized.” The evidence is the string of them we have enthroned across the world….Diem, Hussein, Qaddafi, Mubarak, The House of Saud.

  41. Dee of St Hermans
    Sadly, my words are necessary to show in macro the failure of the Modern Project, however, you are also correct in saying that the same thing occurs in every human heart. In the micro of the individual, we all, in many ways, have wielded the Ring for the “good” of another. The problem is our vision into ourselves, motivations and actions is not nearly so good as our critique of others and the world. Its so much harder to expose our inner deeds but it can be done through prayer, confession and repentance. It takes much self examination with the same focus of nous that we can discern the evils of this world, only tightly focused within. I am first among sinners………………

  42. Nicholas, Dee
    It’s very very difficult to extricate our hearts from this pervasive mindset. It took me a good number of days to write the article. The first pass felt “political.” Narrowing it to the heart, which is utterly the point, is very difficult. We could pick any particular time over the past few centuries to illustrate the fallacies of this mindset. But doing so is always and only to bring us to the heart…and to repent. Refuse the Ring.

  43. It is important in observing what goes on around us not to become obsessed with its errors. The very temptation to analyze its faults (and then dwell on them) is itself part of a false mindset. Modernity is not science – science is not demonic or bad. Modernity is not technology – there has always been technology and technological development, throughout all of human history. Modernity is simply a mindset that permeates our culture. It is a way of seeing and thinking. As such, it can disappear in the blink of an eye. As I look out my morning window, I see trees and birds and squirrels, the beginning of an autumn morning. There is nothing “modern” about it. The newspaper on my kitchen table is filled with angst (Sturm und Drang) as it recounts the unfolding failures around us, all of which beg for more of the same.

    The important things of the day, however, will be the thousand million of small things that happen around us, that have always happened around us. Those places where kindness and generosity and forgiveness may be practiced.

  44. Father bless…

    Best article ever. I am using it this week with our (www.first-things.org) field workers on their way to Sierra Leone to work with Father Themistocles. Our mission is not unlike you state here. Listen. Serve. Stop acting like you matter so much. Do what you can to make the projects of others work well in the world’s toughest neighborhoods. This article is a summation of our mission statement. And I didn’t even have to sit down to write it. Thank you. Thank God.

  45. Bessarion,
    Just read your comment from Father’s penultimate post. I will pray for you. I have so many relatives/friends in the evangelical world. Do visit an Orthodox church. It will speak to your soul/spirit even though, at first, your mind may not follow. In my first liturgy, I knew I was home. God’s spirit spoke directly to mine. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
    Fr. Freeman, forgive me that I do not always follow the thread. Your words so help keep me balanced in this world of disequilibrium.

  46. Father Stephen, thank you for this article. It’s exactly what I needed to hear today.

    I wonder if you could comment on another concept I see throughout the Lord of the Rings: that there is a time to stand and fight. Rohan coming to the aid of Gondor, “To the gates!” at Minas Tirith, the cleansing of the Shire, etc. (Hopefully I’m not conflating the movies and the books too much here). Basically, the traditional masculine virtue of courage. How would you relate that to our modern situation? Certainly there’s a temptation to put the fight in terms of “standing for truth” on the battlefield of opinions. But, if we reject that battle (and I’m agreeing with you here), where exactly IS the fight? Where are the gates?

    This is closely related to the question of how men fit into the Christian faith, which was early on derided as a religion for “slaves and women”. How are men specifically to understand and emulate our Lord’s self-emptying on the cross? It seems to me that God gave men physical strength and a bias toward swift action in the face of hostility for a reason, but at least on the surface, these traits seem at odds with the idea of kenosis.

    I realize a lot of ink could be spilled on this topic; any thoughts or resources you might point to would be much appreciated. Thanks again for your blog, which I consider to be a bright hobbit hole in a dark internet world.

  47. Father,
    It is indeed a difficult task to weed out the infection of the modern project in our own hearts. After my previous post about looking into the micro I spent time trying to prayerfully examine my own heart and I was reminded of an action I took years ago for the good of the military unit I was serving in. I was forced to see what I did in the light of Truth and it was ugly. Even though our efficiency improved and our performance in the upcoming inspection was top notch, I in reality, destroyed a man’s career.
    That was just one little piece of one layer of onion peeled back and it is ugly and hurtful. It takes courage, strength and willpower to go on. I am not looking forward to pulling the layer back anymore but, like taking bitter medicine, I know it is the path of salvation and must be done. I know for certain that why I did it is rooted deeply in the assumptions I was taught in life by the Modern Project. The good news is that having a name and description of the dis-ease, the task is easier to undertake.

  48. Fr. Stephen,

    I was thinking about how the 2 hobbits finally vanquished the ring. Obviously most of us aren’t called to that kind of mission on the large scale, but perhaps you could speak to how we can approach Mt. Doom in our own lives? How do we let things die?

    I have experienced this kind of death many times in my own life: best friend, food, lust (don’t want to get filter-flagged), favorite dog, good job, etc. In many of these cases the thing itself did not die, but my love for it did. God asked me to drop it into the volcano and never look back. While I cannot complete success in these ventures and keep having to climb the slopes to toss things in again, I still am young at knowing how to do this. Can you shed any light on this piece?

  49. Justin,
    The fight is waged in the heart. Other people are not the enemy, no matter how wrong they might be. The enemy can only get us to do things that we agree to. Thus, wage the battle in the heart. There’s lots of courage needed there.

  50. Drewster,
    Because what we’re discussing permeates the culture around us, it will likely be a daily temptation. Fr. Tom Hopko’s 55 Maxims give the best strategies that I’ve seen. Avoiding the major tools of the modern project is helpful: political parties (and discussions); every temptation to “solve” things; the desire to use power. And, of course, give thanks always and for all things. All things.

  51. Father Bless!
    Thank you for this thought provoking article. It is indeed a challenge to look objectively at modernity when we are all moderns ourselves. Your writings on this subject and additional sources you’ve recommended is what inspired me to accept the challenge. Many, many thanks.
    To all the commenters, I also am very thankful for your insights and questions.
    For myself, the appearance of this article was quite timely. A dear friend of mine is about to open up a non-profit thrift store. We met years ago when she was managing another local thrift store where I volunteered. Our common motive for such work is “giving back to the community”. The profits in this new store will be used for the needs of the people. As for the board of directors (required by state law), seven people volunteered. They are going to decide exactly how the profits are spent. My friend is, of coarse, very eager to move forward with the idea of “making a difference” here in this relatively small town. And I….the closer the “grand opening” of this store, the more I begin to question these motives. (You can now see why this article is so timely for me) I very much enjoy volunteering, meeting people, and helping in anyway that I can at the moment. You never know what opportunity is going to come your way, as every day presents itself anew. My desire is to approach this work simply as I just described.
    Yet, it has been my experience as a volunteer, working with other volunteers, that everyone has their own way of doing things “right”. It is not uncommon to hear “whispers”, gossip, and opinions. Plus, anonymity is not easily found in small towns. Customers who have a “reputation” are immediately singled out as “moochers”, users, thieves, lazy, etc. So now, here you have the idea of “doing good”, “making a difference”, “changing the world” and at the very same time gossip, opinions, and egos. Because of my weaknesses, and the impossibility of reconciling these contradictions, I separate myself from these conversations, lest I find myself joining in (which I have done). It’s quite the challenge to do this without offense to others, then to be singled out as one who thinks too highly of herself (a sure opportunity to “bear the shame”).
    These are some of the thoughts that have been occupying my mind. Nevertheless, I am going to go forward and volunteer, one, two days/week and hope that I can at least reach out to someone in a moment of need. Say a little prayer for us, if you would, please. And thank you again, Father Stephen.

    “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” Mk 8:36

  52. Paula,
    God bless the work. Doing charity is difficult in the modern setting. We want to “fix” the problem, which automatically puts us “one up” on those we serve (when we should be “one down”).

    I served a parish once that had a day care program for the mothers of children at the high school…most were unwed. There were also parenting classes for them. We had a board, from the parish and from the community and from the school board. I had to fight tooth and nail to keep various well-meaning people from creating rules to punish and reward the girls. Some wanted a policy to kick them out of the program if they got pregnant again. Fortunately, when we created the program, I insisted that I have veto power on the board. I used it repeatedly to block this kind of nonsense. I told them, we are only here to help. Every girl that graduates high school (rather than dropping out) is an unqualified success. It should be our only measure.

    Doing good is such a huge temptation. Doing good should never be used as power over someone.

    It is possible for a charity to think carefully about these things and make rules for itself to prevent the misuse of its power. They will never change the town or the poverty that is there. It’s beside the point. They need to serve. In a time when the word “privilege” gets thrown about, it is accurate to see “power” as the hallmark of privilege. God laid His down.

  53. It is not that science or technology or any other human activity is evil or bad. It is the ptemise with which these things are approached and used.

  54. Thank you so very much, Father.
    The idea of veto power is wise. I am going to offer her this article before we even start this venture.

  55. It helps to avoid the temptation to engage the problems created by modernity through the use of power (politics) when you come to realize “democracy” is a myth and an illusion. Even in this country. Everything has been coopted and rigged by the globalists it seems. Our U.S. culture is the product of a decades long scheme of propaganda through media, entertainment, and public and higher education institutions. These have been used to completely divorce our cultural mindset and beliefs from reality as it really exists. Media is smoke and mirrors, staging and deception. There are compilations of this all over the Internet. In an age when virtually everyone who has a phone, has a video camera and the means to upload images to the Internet, the lies cannot remain hidden (although they can be exponentially multiplied). “We” have not exported our democracy and set up tyrants, the globalists have in order to steal the resources of the nations, using our stolen tax dollars and our gov’t representatives, administration, military and intelligence agencies as their puppets. All of this is a reminder of our powerlessness and our smallness. May God help us to use our time here on earth to acquire the Holy Spirit, that we and those around us may be saved. Everything else is vanity and a chasing after the wind.

  56. Fr. Stephen,

    The example that you gave in your response to Paula was very helpful. This is the trickiest piece for me: how to avoid the traps of modernity while serving in one of the “do-gooder” professions. Education, non-profits, international development… I have seen the work of John Heers (who posted above) in the international development arena, and First Things Foundation has a very good model! But as for how t work in education without seeking to fix children and schools in conformity with the Modern project is beyond me. The whole goal of education is to enrich children’s lives, right? To “improve” them in a sense. To grow their knowledge, in a way that can look a lot like “progress.”

  57. ELM,
    I understand your point. I suspect that much of modern education has been ruined by constant efforts to “improve it” (frequently driven by unproven theories). Teaching is an ancient duty that adults perform for the young. There need be nothing “modern” about it, though all modern democracies seem hell-bent on using education of the young as their primary tool for fixing the world.

  58. ELM,

    I’ve thought about these things too. The concept is subtle and difficult to hold onto, but I believe it has to with what drives our helping, our trying to do good, our educational efforts. You see, it’s one thing to want to help, to focus our attention on the one in front of us, but as Fr. Stephen said in the past, we don’t try to manage the results.

    My closest example is being a father, and I feel this one keenly. I can do the best job in the world but I can’t guarantee that they are going to turn out well. When parents hear this line they immediately say, “Yes I know but…” There is no but. We are responsible for parenting our kids today; yesterday is done and tomorrow might never arrive. We parent them now the best we can. Results aren’t part of our job description.

    This is an extremely hard concept. We have a tough time letting go of our “need” to be responsible, but the truth is it was never ours to hold. We are responsible for how we respond to what’s in front of us right now; we are not responsible for managing the outcomes. So do good, help, nurture, educate, raise up – these things are good and performing them will bring about much healing for our souls – but don’t pretend to control the results. That’s above our pay grade.

  59. Drewster,
    Yes! I’ve watched parents continue to try and maintain control of adult children…it only succeeds in alienating them. I will not see the salvation of my children (much less my grandchildren) until I’m long in the grave (if I am blessed to go before them).

    God is at work in the world. He asks us to live. If we keep His commandments (without all of the extrapolations of modernity), we will have done enough for the day. Get up and do it again tomorrow. Enough tomorrows and you can sleep with your fathers.

  60. Drewster,

    Thank you for your response. I also have often arrived at attempting to control the results as a major problem in our current education system. And I love how you phrased it: “We have a tough time letting go of our “need” to be responsible.” I’m not the only one to object to this, of course, there’s a whole furor out there over how contemporary education is only focused on test scores. However, reinforcement from you has encouraged me not to get too bent out of shape about approaches to classroom management. When I first started reading about “creating a classroom environment,” I just assumed that this was modern first-world speak because we are never in total control of our classroom environment. I’ve also come to see that this emphasis is partly necessary so that teachers don’t lose sight of what they CAN do to foster a good environment for kids. It seems that there are many areas of teaching where similar emphases are needed, along with some moderation to avoid going overboard on the modernism side.

    I’ve known for a while that my difficulty is going to be not beating myself up over “not doing enough.” This is a control and shame issue. I want to know where my responsibility ends and where I can say “it was out of my control.”

  61. I don’t want to dispute the reality of the temptation you name, nor do I deny that something has changed in the modern era; but I wonder, if this (“to do good”) became the temptation with the advent of the late 18th c., what did it replace? I do think something sets modernity apart, but I don’t know just how to describe it — and I’m wary of any terms that imply that we are especially more wicked, or that we’ve encountered / invented a wholly new temptation…. I don’t say this is what you mean, and surely temptations wax and wane in their general plausibility (*maybe* the temptation of witchcraft is less now than it once was…?) — but these seem like very contingent and almost accidental trends, yes? Even if they are also important to name and address.

  62. ELM,

    I’m glad that was helpful. Let me make one further point. I have found that the “do good” issue is really just a distraction in most cases. What’s really behind it is the topic you mentioned: control. This one has haunted us all the way back to the Garden. We try to play God and want credit for what we accomplish. Maybe another example would help.

    In North America we’re obsessed with losing weight and getting in shape. So let’s say you pick a diet & exercise routine. This time you actually stick to it faithfully for a month and lose 20 months. This is a good thing, but our reaction to this is to be quietly very pleased with ourselves. See what we accomplished? It’s just another accomplishment in the process of building up the empire of “ME”. We argue with ourselves and try to be modest, but in the end we give ourselves the credit for the results.

    The way we should view the whole thing is that we put forth effort and God credited to us as weight loss – or stronger muscles or increased agility or what have you. Hearken the echo of Genesis 15:6. We have to drop our hopes of doing anything out of our own strength and simply see God as the provider of all – ESPECIALLY when it could look we did it on our own.

    Our individualistically trained mind wars against this fiercely since it’s been continually drummed into us that it is up to us to make things happen. But all good things are found in the door of their opposite. So the best stance is to thank God for granting the weight loss – and continue with the new diet & exercise regime since good things were associated with it.

    The same with doing good. We do good because it’s the way we were made, not because we have been guaranteed certain results or because we are master of a particular situation. Hope this helps further.

  63. ELM, having homeschooled my son over philosophical objections to modern education I will add a few things. Horace Mann was a driving force in the public school movement. What drove him was an anger against God. His brother died and Horace blamed God.

    His main goal, explicit in his writings, is to take education out of the hands of Godly parents and transfer it to the state desiring to create children who were loyal to the state. Horace imported the Bismarkian school model precisely for that reason.

    Here lies another aspect of modernity–fealty to the state because only the state weilds sufficient power to force progress.

    IMO the goal if education should be to tradition to children the faith, culture and humanity of the parents. Giving children the tools to continue their own education and teaching them how to think rather than what to think. It also includes some specific information. This improves no one.

    A Christian education involves understanding and communication the premise of Christianity and how to evaluate information and events from that premise.

    In state education that is difficult and can bring one into conflict.

  64. Michael, ELM, and Drewster, please help me out here.

    I am home schooling as well, understanding that, although I hope my children’s lives will improve (materially, with happiness, confidence, etc), I desire beyond all things that they know and worship God, to love Him and love others, even if it costs them everything we seem to value. My efforts, even in their fullest sense, are insufficient, only God can form their hearts toward Him.

    My two children at home do not have a particularly good work ethic, so a huge struggle I have is figuring out how to turn this around. I say to them if you work hard you will see results. If you don’t practice your violin, you will not improve your skill. If you practice well, you will. Etc.

    Am I promoting individualism and independence in my children? I want wisdom and virtue…hard work is necessary…we cannot sit around hoping for transformation, wisdom, virtue will just happen today is.

    As I reread the above it seems blind and naive. I am missed by something obvious here…Please share your thoughts! Thank you!

  65. Kristin,

    As I said before this point is subtle. This is probably due to the fact that is so deeply ingrained in us, so close to the bone so to speak. Let me try again. What I laid out can sound a lot like fatalism: try all you want but it won’t make any difference. Life sucks and then you die.

    That’s not what I’m saying. We are to do the best we can, do good, educate the young, pour our hearts into things. But while one hand is on the plow ahead of us, the other one has to be reaching heavenwards, entreating Him to make up our lack, acknowledging that we are and always will be His children.

    It’s that reaching up and putting our hand into His that’s missing. When we are busy saving the world or making our children successful, we walk alone. When, on the other hand, we put ourselves in the position of a child and continually look to Him for guidance, everything is put in its rightful place and we no longer carry the world on our shoulders. The outcomes belong to Him.

    Not only that, we begin to see things. Rather, He begins to show us. We see things like the fact that our son wasn’t cut out to be the lawyer we’re trying to mold him into, or that many times when our spouse is talking to us, they don’t need answers as much as a listening ear, or that the man we meet on the street isn’t as scary or as different from ourselves as we thought. These revelations only come because as we work, we look to God to lead and manage. When we put ourselves in the position of the servant, we seek answers instead of inventing them prematurely.

    Our work is of great value, but we are never in control – and that’s a good thing. (cf. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/12/01/you-cant-make-a-difference/)

  66. Father, who came to mind when reading this are the clergy of Orthodox-majority countries speaking out on current issues. Specifically, things like this: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/orthodox-leader-gay-marriage-laws-a-break-with-morality-similar-to-fascism

    I tend to put guys like this (probably to my error and future repentance) in the same light as the Nashville Statement folks: managers utilizing their position and privilege to speak condemnation, rather than life, to the larger society and largely missing the point.

    I obviously don’t expect you to undermine or contradict your fellow clergymen (or even respond to this); I’m just curious to know if you consider such actions as those of “Ring Lords” (or “Sarumans”, I guess). Are they erring in trying to preserve their own churches/countries/worldview? These are the kinds of things I think about, coming from a socially conscience Protestant background. Forgive my ignorance.

  67. skholiast,
    Prior to the 18th century, though there were precursors in some of the radical Protestant movements, the notion of “shaping the world” was pretty much absent. The world, particularly in pre-modern Medieval times, was treated largely as a given, as a place where there were duties and responsibilities, but not a sense that the world could be shaped. That idea gets born in the reforming ideas of Protestantism, but took off with a bang when they were married to rational science during the Enlightenment (18th century).

    My observations on Modernity are really nothing new, or particularly insightful. They are a commonplace in many ways, particularly in academia. What is different is the critique that I am suggesting in light of classical Christian tradition. As a small sample, here’s an article of note regarding the many critiques of modernity.

  68. Bessarion,
    It’s easy for clergy to get caught up in saving the world, opposing political forces, etc. Nevertheless, the Church must teach and offer guidance. For example, on the matter of human sexuality, behavior, etc., the bishops of the Church (certainly within the OCA) have repeatedly pointed to their official statements on the topic that are clear, unequivocal and unchanging. Orthodox Christians should be guided by such teaching.

    There are, no doubt, times to speak out in public. My own observation is that there is no lack of public/social speaking. Some Christians, I fear, have come close to selling their souls in order to make a certain outcome within our political world. Legislation, good laws, are important. But good laws do not make human beings better. Bad laws can make them worse, no doubt.

    Power, which is ultimately coercive within the realm of politics, corrupts its users…even when they mean to do good. That is perhaps the major point within the article. Note, I have stated that the driving thread of modernity is the will to “do good.” And it is that that I am identifying with use of the Ring. It is very alluring.

  69. Teaching theology through Tolkien? I love it!

    I’m confused though. Isn’t it problematic to suggest the One Ring represents “the power to do good” and isn’t it even more problematic to equate that with modern democratic empowerment?

    Many powerful characters populate Middle Earth and they often act as agents for positive change. Isn’t a core theme of LotR (and The Hobbit) the idea that even we short, chubby guys can save the day? 😀 And, I would argue that, yes, in the context of the novels, the “power to do good” often involves “political/social issues and whether the right side is gaining ground.” As just one example, consider the fact that Gandalf the White freed King Théoden from Saruman’s influence thus allowing Rohan to ride to Gondor’s aid. If there were no “right side,” Gandalf should have left Rohan in Saruman’s control (but, that would have meant Gondor’s defeat). Well, if there truly were no “right side,” Gandalf should have just handed the ring over to the Witch King or Saruman leaving the denizens of Middle Earth to suffering, war, and enslavement. Or, Gandalf simply could have taken the ring for himself! All hail King Mithrandir!!

    The One Ring is a talisman into which Sauron “poured his cruelty, his malice, and his will to dominate all life.” The power of the One Ring is the power to bend the other rings to his will (the “one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them”). That’s how he enslaved the kings of men and turned them into Nazgul. Gandalf and Galadriel wanted the power the One Ring would give them, but knew that whatever good they achieved would come only through empowering themselves at the expense of others (which they were wise enough to see wouldn’t be good at all). So, it seems that the problem Tolkien was concerned with was the consolidation of power and wielding of that power sans scruples. I feel like this is more of a warning against authoritarianism/totalitarianism than it is a criticism of democratic empowerment.

    Sorry for the long-winded comment. Big Tolkien fan! Look forward to hearing other thoughts!

  70. Chris,
    Consider what our “Democracy” is doing currently and has for quite sometime. Is this really “good” for the world and other peoples? It can be made to sound that way in stirring speeches and sometimes it has been as in the defeat of Nazi Germany, but that power has and is being misused.
    In the Trilogy, we never see the future of Gondor, only the immediate aftermath. It is the aftermath and what the rulers do with their power that matters.

  71. Obviously, I’m not trying to do a systematic theology based on Tolkien.:) However, the theme of the Ring’s attraction (Boromir, Galadriel, et al) is always in the name of doing good. As such, it’s just a way of helping people think about the allure of modernity’s promise of rational/governing/power. It has been a siren song that has done perhaps more harm than good.

    There is no “modern democratic empowerment.” There is a myth of democratic empowerment. I’ll briefly use the US as an example. The early franchise in the Republic was decidedly undemocratic and intentionally so. The franchise has been extended in various ways and times, not really out of a pure love of risky democracy, but in ways that would yield predictable, partisan results. Increasingly since the 50’s, we have not even been governed by our “two-party” system. We are primarily governed by the “Deep State,” the entrenched powers of money, industry, globalization, military/industrial complex. The parties play around the edges. They debate window dressing (like the Right to Life) while continuing to support the real powers that be – which receive little comment or scrutiny. As one American observer once noted, “If voting changed anything, they wouldn’t let us do it.”

    I certainly care about issues such as the Right to Life, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think either side in Washington really cares all that much about it – except as it plays to the constituent games. Follow the money. Money is power in this culture. Most of the money in politics does not come from the “people.” Look at where it comes from and then you’ll know who is charge. We’re not empowered. We are something like clients or customers, or some such thing. We are a distraction, and occasional useful tools, but we are not where the power resides. Almost all political speech in America (including on social media) is useless window dressing – popular opinions driven by various media – great distractions – but absolutely having nothing to do with power.

    I am not a cynic. I am not a conspiracy guy. I am an old man who has heard the lies so many times that got tired of it, tuned it out, and is listening to something else. God is in charge of history, no matter what others think.

  72. Dear Bessarion,
    You have selected an excellent resource for your questions in addressing them to Fr Stephen.

    Sometimes it might be helpful to see a response from non-clergy. I offer mine as a recent convert, (influenced culturally by my Dad’s side of socially conscientious Protestants (Quakers) and my mom’s side of of Florida Seminole and I suppose I might add influenced by my education as I’ve been trained in the sciences (Chemistry). I had similar concerns as you suggest here. (But I should mention that I have not followed the link you have provided and I’m speaking generally.) In addition to Fr Stephen’s perspectives and report on the Tradition, I would recommend Googling, Fr Thomas Hopko, and other ‘prominent’ respected Orthodox clergy leadership, such as, Orthodox Seminary Deans, Bishops and Metropolitans. I recommend reading also Metropolitan’s Kalistos Ware’s books on the Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Way and Fr Stephen’s book, Everywhere Present.

    Early in the process of conversion, my family was greatly dismayed by my gravitation and conversion to Christianity and particularly to Orthodoxy, for several (somewhat superficial) reasons. However, if they had heard a few of the clergy speaking (as I had early on in my catechumenate) on some occasions elsewhere on the internet, they would have fought me even harder to prevent me from my conversion. I wouldn’t report to them anything that I thought would cause ‘the feathers to fly’ so to speak. Instead, I did what you are doing here, asking questions here and there and eventually (after about three years) when I started to attend an Orthodox Church services, I began asking questions of my parish priest, and keeping my sights on what seemed the perspectives of the widely respected leadership. I hope (please Fr Stephen and other Orthodox clergy reading this, correct this writing as needed) I speak correctly in saying Orthodoxy is not like other Churches, such as the Catholic Church in regard to hierarchical relationships in the clergy, although there are certainly parallels. For example there is no Pope, but there is a hierarchy and the Tradition that is taught. By reading the thoughts and perspectives of the clergy across the Churches within Orthodoxy, I suggest, helps to see the scope and spectrum and richness of Orthodoxy.

    Please forgive my shortcomings as a recent convert. I hope only to contribute encouraging words. You also have my prayers

  73. Fr Stephen, You speak my own observations, but stated in greater eloquence and I am grateful.

  74. A systematic theology based on Tolkien! 😀 Well, he certainly left you enough material to work with if you ever wanted to!

    Just to be clear, Fr. Stephen, I would NEVER argue theology with you and I don’t completely disagree what you’ve written about politics. I was approaching from a purely literary standpoint. What did Tolkien mean for the One Ring to represent? I agree the ring lures others in with the promise of power, and, of course, the power to do good (even Sauron believed what he was doing was good, in a twisted way), but the ultimate power of the ring was to bend others to its will. That led me to think Tolkien was warning us not against the illusion of democratic empowerment, but the lure of fascism/authoritarianism/totalitarianism or, at least, having that sort of mindset.

    Nicholas – I didn’t mean to tout democracy and I don’t think Tolkien did either. All I meant to say was that I suspected Tolkien was very much against 1.) authoritarianism/totalitarianism and 2.) consequentialism.

  75. Chris
    The answer as to what Tolkien really meant can only be answered him but his warning is pretty clear: power corrupts even the most well meaning. If one reads only the writings of the early communists, Karl Marx in particular, one could be convinced that Communism is the salvation of the world and yet it took power to implement it and we know the real history of that power.
    Democracy also seems innocent enough but examine it closely. Democracy allows a simple majority (51%) to force its will and standards on the minority (49%). We see this principle applied in the Healthcare mandate better known as Obamacare. In the interest of doing a perceived good-providing birth control and abortion- the majority forces those who disagree, to include celibate monastics, to fund these things. This is why our country was founded as a Republic, but that is fast being eroded. The only people empowered by Democracy are the Majority

  76. Kristen there are a great many approaches to homeschooling and a great many curriculum resources most if which have probably changed since I was doing it (from New Age to Calvinist and everything in between. More Orhodox material now) If you do not belong to the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, you should as some states routinely harass homeschoolers; create a log of time spent in which areas as this can be a legal requirement in some states; if possible find a local homeschool support group you can work with(in my area these were often founded and run on Evangelicals- not always an easy fit); find a rythmn that works for you and your kids (some kids actually learn more with less structure). Find out what your children like and work with that. It does not have to be a segmented approach. Be as creative as you can. Do not fight. If there is a subject you love and are well versed in use that to connect to other subjects. Have older kids help the younger kids. I only had one but I saw the delegation approach work quite well in other families.

    With my son we found he did not do well if we took too much time off, like in summer.

    Concentrate on them learning how to think, to evluate information within a Christian understanding. Decide what “success” means to you. It likely will not match what the world teaches.

    Pray always.

  77. “If voting changed anything, they wouldn’t let us do it.”
    Great quote Father! Says it all in a nutshell!
    I got tired of the lies too…made me pessimistic and cynical. Especially paid attention to the conspiracy view. It wasn’t all for nought though. I did learn about the dark side. Good to know these things. Its important to be aware, and also to have the proper perspective…as you say, God is in charge.

  78. Chris,
    As to what Tolkien meant…that is an interesting question. One can get lost in the Silmarillion. I’ve read his letters and much stuff about his life and thought…his relationship with Lewis…their relationship with Owen Barfield and its influence on their thoughts. I think Tolkien would say (I’m being brave) that the Ring is what it is – it certainly doesn’t stand for something in our world. Middle Earth has its own mythology and lore – and rules and runes.

    I could only draw the comparison. It is worth noting, however, that there were strong similarities with modernity and Mordor. It was very much about exploiting the environment…machines…engines of fire and the like. When you read about the Shire, it’s very much the dangers of modernity to every English village.

    I read a recent author who did a bio on Solzhenitsyn, and some wonderful interviews as well, in which he combined Chesterton, Tolkien, Solzhenitsyn and EF Schumacher (Small is Beautiful). Their conversation was enlightening and Solzhenitsyn seemed to agree with him. The ideas of subsidiarity found in all of them are quite similar – and very much the opposite of modern globalization.

    Globalism is the gradual end of government – or government as subservient to international industry. We’ll all be working at Walmart. I’ll soon be old enough to get a job as greeter.

  79. Fr. Stephen,
    I can just see you greeting with your cassock on! You may not cause much of a stir in the small CA. town I’m from. A while back one of the cashiers at Walmart was an ex (I hope) gang member. His bald head, face, neck and various other body members were covered with tatoos. I do have to admit that he was friendly enough. We’re still such a minority in the US that if you were dressed so now, most would just think it was Halloween attire. 🙂

  80. This is a copy of a blogpost I made on my homeschool blog when my son was about 11 years old and we had just read LotR. It has to do with the imagery of the Ring and Tolkein’s inspiration.
    —-
    Here is what we learned about the Ring and where Tolkein got his ideas.

    In Plato’s _Republic_, two men are discussing whether it is better to be a just or an unjust man. (The nut of the argument is this: it is virtuous to be just, but you get what you want if you are unjust.) A third way is introduced: that of being unjust but appearing just. This way is proposed using a myth that was popular at the time, which included a ring that if it were turned one way on your hand, you were visible; turned another way, you were invisible. So you could be visible when you were being just and invisible when you wanted to commit an injustice.

    Isn’t that interesting?

    We found this out because when we were reading LotR, our son asked me what the Ring symbolized, and I said, “Duh.” Well, I said a lot more than that, but the essence was “duh”. I didn’t know. So I asked my husband. He said, “Hmmmmm.” (Rather Entish, don’t you think?) A couple of days later, he came home with a Gandalf hat, a long Gandalf-like pipe, and, while blowing smoke rings, read to us from _The Republic_, and explained that the Ring is the symbol of unabated, unrestrained power. It was a wonderful discussion.

  81. Glad to hear we’re both interested in Tolkien’s thoughts, Fr. Stephen. I never got into Barthes and the whole death of the author thing. And, I definitely agree with your comments on Mordor and modernity. There’s a lot to debate in Tolkien’s work, but one thing everyone reading LotR should be able to agree on is Tolkien’s distaste for modern technology/industrialism.

    I had to look up subsidiarity! Who knew that by following a blog I’d be assigned homework? 😀

    Nicholas – it’s funny that you mention communism. I almost wrote something about communism in my first comment, but decided it was too tangential at the time. I was trying to think of real world examples for my interpretation of the the ring and the first thing that came to mind was communism. I’m not a Marxist, but I recognize there are benefits to socialism, so for me the lure of the ring might be the promise of establishing a utopia. Of course, as you mentioned, “power corrupts even the most well meaning,” And, there are plenty of real world examples of what happens when socialism is forced by violence and authoritarianism instead of democratic means – that’s how you get Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. I feel like Gandalf and Galadriel were old enough and wise enough to recognize that’s what they would become if they used the ring.

  82. To the frequent “protests” that in LOTR the hobbits/the fellowship/the everyman/the power-to-do-good saves the day, i would like remind us that in the end, Frodo failed. He caved in and took the ring for himself. The weight was too great, ‘even’ for a hobbit. Only through the arbitrary, selfish violence of the most perverted creature (gollum) did the ring even get destroyed. I find this one of the most powerful parts of the entire story.

  83. Ben, thanks for bringing that point to the fore. Being one who has not yet read LOTR, what I know about it I have gathered by discussions like the one here. But the point that ‘the good guy’ even caved in…that’s us, isn’t it…?…in relation to our place as moderns and at the same time Christians. We try our best to resist the world out there, yet cave in….sometimes unknowingly, sometimes simply unable to resist. You use the word ‘arbitrary’…I’d like to say, perhaps the behavior of the pervs is arbitrary, looking at it from their perspective. They’re just behaving from their gut (bestial). From the ultimate Good, God’s perspective, it is everything but arbitrary. Like the Ring, in the end, the powers that be in this world will be no more and only the real Ring, the True Light, will be all and in all. In the meantime, as hard as it is to face, like Frodo, we’re going to succumb. But not totally. This is my take on your comment and what little I know about LOTR.
    Talking about pervs and this current discussion, I was reading an article last night and came across the name Tim Minchim, rock star, atheist, and rude and crude as they come. Having never heard the name, I found an article he personally had written. Between his article and the 200+ comments, these people would have happily been with the pervs in the LOTR. I know things are bad out there by the things I read “about” the condition of the world, but when I read first hand accounts…I mean, this guy and his commenters are beyond blasphemous….I just shudder. He hails from Australia BTW, and tours frequently over here…and is received by large crowds who just love him. After reading this and gaining my composure, I wondered why in the world do these people hate our God so much. I know the arguments…the question of why evil, the hate, etc etc…but they hate Something they know nothing about. It is so absurd. And it is a violent hate. The article I got Minchin’s name from was about the French Revolution….it is that kind of hate these people have.
    Anyway…all I can say is God help us all, and I pray and agree the gates of hell will not prevail.

  84. Father, I’ve been told that Wal-Mart greeters are now also tasked with checking bags as people leave! It would be interesting to see people’s reaction to a priest doing such a thing!

  85. Ben,
    Yes. Indeed, if there’s a point in the ending, it is that the Ring is destroyed providentially – by something greater than all of the players. Frodo’s mercy towards Gollum makes this possible – but it is interesting that it is kindness and mercy that save rather than heroic action.

  86. Chris,
    Ben’s note (and my response) are important viz. Tolkien. It is simple kindness, Frodo’s mercy towards Gollum, that allows providence to do what no one in Middle Earth could do.

  87. Father,
    May we all be more kind and merciful, as you mention with Frodo. Paula cites a Minchin. I shudder too just reading her account of the hate. Father,… how do you get your news? …how much do you expose yourself, if at all, to the hate-filled stories that Paula names? Our Gerontissa at the Greek monastery does not even have Internet capability. How much do we plug into, or disconnect from all that goes on in the world via news outlets, the Internet, etc.?

  88. Chris,
    It is the lure of benefits that tempt. It would be nice if people would live by the Lord’s principles, but they don’t, having the “Seed of Corruption” within themselves. Any attempt to bring a solution by any other means than each person repenting of their selfishness and learning to live in communion will entail force and coercion and violate people.
    Democracy forces the will of at least 51% on the rest and it takes coercion and force to do it. Consider the Affordable Care Act. The goal was to provide healthcare for the uninsured. It implementation was not optional and the coercion is large fines. For the few who gain under the system many more lost access to their doctors and now have expensive plans with huge deductibles. Democracy or any other form of government involves using coercion and force to accomplish it aims and for every ill they may right, they create ten more.

  89. Dean,
    I scan things. I have google news set up to search for stories on certain topics (Orthodox Church, Russia). Of course, the junk it generates mostly tells me about a weird bias of the media. I look through the headlines and rarely read.

    I have an app on the computer called “pocket.” It allows me to save a story for later…it also has a very good engine for bringing up interesting articles on various topics. It’s mostly blog articles and magazine articles…longer, more depth.

    During the last political cycle I blocked all political content from my social media, and have let it with that setting. If I could find a block for hate and anger I would put that in place as well!

    You don’t need to “know” what’s going on in the world to pray for it. Most of what we hear about is simply the noise of the rival propagandas of our culture. It’s a shouting match. There is no thoughtful governance, just power versus power. All in all, it is a war on virtue.pocket

  90. Dean,
    Another quick thought: “all that goes on in the world” is what news outlets think they are telling us. They are telling us a tiny sliver of information that constitutes almost nothing. Everything that goes on in the world is just that – everything. We should ignore the fact that someone out there is telling us “this is what’s going on in the world.” They haven’t got a clue.

  91. Dean…thank you for those questions. Your Gerontissa is wise!
    Father… your answers are most helpful. “Everything that goes on in the world is just that – everything. We should ignore the fact that someone out there is telling us “this is what’s going on in the world.” They haven’t got a clue.” I must remember that…I do recall you saying this in the past. Also want to check out the “pin app”.
    Oh, Dean….Minchen is a “her”?! Oh Mercy!

  92. Very good point, Ben! I’d almost forgotten that even Frodo eventually succumbed to the power of the ring! I was so focused on the uniqueness of the little guy being the hero (at the time the novels were written it was still unique, I believe, even if the trope has been over-used in fantasy since then), that I neglected the importance of Bilbo’s pity and Frodo’s identification with Gollum. If not for that poor, pitiful creature and the mercy he was shown, Frodo would have delivered the ring right to Sauron’s front door.

    People joke about Tolkien’s deus ex machina – “The eagles are coming!” – but, Return of the King truly had a superb climax…

    But, that leads me back to my original argument: does Gollum’s importance negate the usefulness of Gandalf’s machinations and the fellowship’s struggles or does it simply suggest none of us will ever completely understand the role we’re playing in the grand scheme of things (and, to never discount the importance of the most pitiful among us) ?

  93. I recently watched the Ken Burns series on Vietnam. It is a story of smart, well-intentioned people trying to save the world. As a result, thousands were killed, maimed and wounded, and two countries/cultures were torn apart. Nothing else was accomplished.

  94. Father,
    More and more they are telling us only what they want us to know and to influence our thinking. I was thinking also that if you set your filter to eliminate hate, you run the risk of Google cutting off any Christian news.

  95. Learning to be Still
    Actually the numbers of those who perished in the 2nd Indo China War counting the dead of both sides climbs to nearly 2 Million. Those wounded and those traumatized number far more

  96. Thank you for the correction, Nicholas. Decent people with the best of intentions, trying to save the world, ended up killing millions, maiming millions more, and tearing apart more families than we can imagine.

    We have been doing the same in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and I hear there may be plans for North Korea.

    One wonders how much longer the world can survive decent people with the best of intentions, trying to save the world.

  97. Don’t forget Libya or all the South American countries we have “intervened” in over the years. The old adage is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Now that we are the King of the Hill in the world for awhile our temptation to use the Ring is growing. When I was young, I was taught and the general consensus was that the US was a benevolent friend that sought justice and the American Way. It was even in the words of the beginning of the TV show Superman. We have become more like Saruman the White (remember he was a white wizard, allegedly good..) Father’s point is proved out in the examination of history and in the evening news (if they tell you.) The only answer is to refuse the Ring and go into the Uttermost West.

  98. All,
    Please note carefully that modernity and technology are not to be confused. Medicine, physics, etc., are not “modern.” The pre-existed the modern period. Modernity has wrapped itself in them such that any critique is defended with penicillin discoveries, modern dentistry, etc.

    Modernity is a philosophy, a set of ideas that can and has been clearly identified by many, many authors.

    Nor is what I’ve said an injunction not to “do good.” Modernity has no patent on doing good.

    Just to clear up some confusion and to respond to some unposted remarks.

  99. Father, I hope and pray I haven’t stirred confusion. I am still very much a scientist (while no longer active teaching at the university) and God willing, I will grow in faith while using my capacity in science according to the needs of others ( ie not my own interpretation of their need) as an Orthodox Christian.

    Just in case, I will restate here briefly what I have written elsewhere in this blog. I’m now an Orthodox Christian and what led me to Christ was actually findings, specific data in physical chemistry. So through physical chemistry (ie not despite science but through science) Christ found and called me. This happened very likely because through the Grace of God and the effects of that Grace working through my Seminole culture-influenced childhood, my thinking was not so influenced by modernity when I explored atomic and subatomic phenomena. Rather, modernity shaped more of the political landscape I participated in while I took on the ‘power’ of professor, in which my professional mandate was to ‘reform’ the instutional structure of the university. I’ll stop there because a lot could be said on that subject and I don’t want to divert the conversation.

  100. I think it could be argued that the ideas described collectively as “Modernity” not only did not create or own technological change, but have perverted and distorted its natural course.

  101. Drewster-

    Thank you for your clarifying thoughts. Some moments I can get there myself, but I am stunned by the allure the modernity has, and I almost imperceptibly to myself get swayed by its falsehood. Granted, I was raised a bit this way, and my family is full of type A overachievers…

    I like the image of doing what we do in life, in our own corners, while simultaneously reaching our hand to take hold of the Lord.

  102. Michael-

    Thank you for your encouragement! You are right, there are so many ways to home school! I am in Arizona, which allows us great freedom with little oversight.

    Every time I start the year with a plan, early on I wind up scrapping it due to circumstances. This year is no different, with a new wrinkle in my health. It’s discouraging. I’ve been challenged in this thread to really look to God, to pray (as if this is really a novel idea…), to let go of the many things and stick with the best things.

    As this is also our first year really experiencing the Orthodox Church, I am trying to relax a little. This is an enormous change, and, thanks be to God, some of our deeply held and destructive patterns are being addressed! But oh, how painful this can be…

  103. Dee-

    I am fascinated by your comments regarding science. I failed to see beauty in the sciences until I began to discover it through home schooling! Although I have always loved nature, I never cared to understand the descriptive language of science. And only in the last couple years have I been able to look around and ‘see’ science is everywhere.

    Oh how I would love to sit and hear you talk over coffee or tea…

  104. @Dee

    Thank you for your reply. Thankfully I am not leaning on links such as the one posted for my education in Orthodoxy. I have followed Fr Stephen’s blog for some time now, and it has been the driving force behind my growing interest.

    God has also placed some dear friends in my path who have recommended great books, such as some of Bishop Ware’s work which I’ve read. He’s also granted me a very accessible priest locally, who’s been generous with his time, to say nothing of a few others I’ve conversed with through email.

    I’m distressed by things like the link I posted because I want the Orthodox Church to be what I want it to be, free from voices like those of the conservative right in this part of the world. Ultimately that doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter what I want and Orthodoxy is a beautiful tradition that I’ve already gotten an abundance from in my short time of study. It’s not powerful men with talking heads; that’s just a small tidbit of it.

    Anyways thanks for your comment. Pray for me.

  105. A Christian response to “Ring of Power”.

    On Tuesday, October 24, 2017, His Beatitude Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, and His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, Primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese, were the guests of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom [1] in Washington, D.C. Video of their 70-minute discussion regarding the future of Orthodox Christianity in Syria and America is now available. The hierarchs addressed questions about the place of Christians and the Antiochian Church in the future of war-torn Syria, the role the Church has played in humanitarian assistance to the millions of people in need, and why Orthodoxy is finding renewed appeal in Western countries.
    http://antiochian.org/future-orthodox-christianity-syria-and-america-hudson-institute-discussion

  106. Love these discussions that inspire me to research stuff! I’ve already had to dust off my copy of Lord of the Rings and I recently started reading about Tolkien’s life. Never knew he was catholic! Anyway, found a quote from one of his WWI letters on his Wikipedia page that I think sums up his thoughts on the topic of discusssion (power, anyway, not modernity):

    “The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

  107. Chris,
    You haven’t memorized the LOTR? We gotta up your game! I read it when I was in high school (Maybe ’67). An aunt who taught college gave it to me for Christmas saying that the college students liked it. I’d never heard of it (and no one in my acquaintance had either). I got the flu. Read the hobbit, and managed to stretch my convalescence through the LOTR. It wasn’t until about ’70 that I found other readers. In college and seminary I worked my way through the canon of material of all the Inklings – did my senior thesis in seminary on Barfield. I’ve never, ever, been out of love with the whole group.

    At a large, national Orthodox gathering, in 1999, Met. Kallistos Ware brought a room of about 700 priests to their feet in cheers when he said, “As that anonymous-Orthodox writer, CS Lewis, said:” I knew then that I’d converted to the right place. Of course, I was in a room with a bunch of men wearing long robes and beards…chances were pretty much in my favor.

  108. Chris you might find the Simarillion interesting too, especially the editions that have Tolkien’s letter to a publisher (or editor) —( it’s looks like I have to break out my copy too). In that letter he reveals some of his thinking which I found enriched my appreciation and capacity to grasp more of the deeper levels and intentions in his stories. Hope I’m not over indulging in my imagination by ascribing to Tolkien an Orthodox view of nature. Tolkien was clearly dedicated to Catholicism based on what I’ve read about his life. Perhaps there is unity expressed in his Catholic view and the Orthodox view in the way that Tolkien’s work was expressing ‘anti-modernity’, if my understanding is correct. Hopefully I’m not being too redundant here, but I find his view of nature very similar to my own in the way one might see, hear and perceive ‘unseen things’. My own intention is not to romanticize but to express what I see in/through science in an Orthodox manner.

  109. >And only in the last couple years have I been able to look around and ‘see’ science is everywhere.

    I find this very statement very interesting. I have backed away from calling the movements of Creation “science” and view science as our methods of studying the material universe within which we reside. Creation is what it is; science is our attempt(s) to understand and categorize (and control) it. Creation would exist even if we had not created science with which to study it. Perhaps I am drawing too “hard” a line between the two?

    >I’m distressed by things like the link I posted because I want the Orthodox Church to be what I want it to be, free from voices like those of the conservative right in this part of the world.

    Bessarion, I think you will find that Orthodoxy is, in many ways, quite conservative–but, and this is important, not in a political manner. Many will frame any public statement by a priest, bishop, or monk with a political leaning but it is best to simply ignore that bias and listen to what is actually being said within the context of the Church and Tradition. May God bless your journey!

  110. Byron, I know your first question revolved around Kristin’s usage, so I cannot answer for her perspective but just my own. I’m still learning how to express my thinking about science, accustomed as I am to speaking to a science (specifically chemists) audience. In this case, I haven’t had a lot of practice and have kept most of my observations that were in a spiritual context to myself. Therefore I’m not inclined to say a lot at this point that would be more philosophically sophisticated because I fear it might resemble the dialectic as it is presented in the modern project. Because of this uncertainty, I hope that what I say next or how little I might say next, will not stir up confusion.

    In my past, when I have taught chemistry, I have had the privilege to teach indigenous peoples on occasion. From my experience with my mom, whose understanding of fractions was third-grade level (and therefore not at all trained in ‘western science’), I had my first lessons about how to conduct science, specifically how to observe nature (with love and respect), how to ask questions (directly to nature but also to one’s peers and elders) and these questions were respectful and sometimes the ‘response’ seemed inscrutable, in which case the protocol was to rest and wait with the answer one was given. In the list you provided, observation, questions, and categorizations all fit in the protocol that I was given by my mom. The categorizations however were not treated as statements but as another level of respectful questions. However, the aspect of control you mention, seems to create a certain tension in me as though it doesn’t belong to the context I was taught when I was a child. Rather the approach was pretty much how to live in an environment that might present life-threatening circumstances or consequences. Nature was not an enemy to be conquered. Therefore the science I was taught wasn’t to control nature but was in part, a system, and a form of respectful communion of life in nature and prevention of problems, mediated with appropriate behavior and thinking.

    A while back, I had attended a conference (in chemistry) in which I heard from faculty who went to rural places populated by American indigenous peoples, to teach them science. They came back from the experience to report that neither children nor the adults wanted to learn science. And that they, the teachers/scientists, were frustrated with the lack of desire to learn. I had a lot of difficulty listening to this report. I asked them whether they thought to ask them (the native peoples) to teach ‘you’ (the western-trained scientists), about science? In other words to consider the possibility that there might be something helpful to learn in a form of exchange about science? I was treated as if I were speaking Martian.

    For some reason, and I have to think about this longer, but I’m not inclined to think of science as ‘made by man’ in the way that it is taught that it originates with particular individuals in the western culture. It seems, to my way of thinking anyway, to be a form of communion with nature, particularly during the process of exploration. But this would also mean that the scientist, would not be ‘objectifying’ nature as it is often the case in the ‘western’ approach.

    This comment seems rough to me and I’m still processing my own past in light of my conversion to Orthodoxy. Therefore I ask for forgiveness if this seems messy in thinking.

  111. Dee, your instincts are correct I think. It is the “control” part that is off. As I see science it is a structured exploration with the expectation that truth will be revealed.

    That too is rough. However the drive to control and remake is not scientific it seems to me. That is where science is preverted by modernity. I am thinking of “That Hideous Strength” in particular.

    It is not about control but finding how live in harmony with the creator in His Creation.
    The Dominion we are given is not about subjection but about Euchristic freedom.

  112. I think the creation mandate we were given by God in the Garden was “cultivate”, not “control” or “manipulate.” That to me implies communion and “working with” nature, respecting its design, to make it more fruitful.

  113. I would be interested to know whether the scientists in this forum agree with me that there are no scientific facts. There are only scientific theories. Some theories, like the theory of gravity, have been so well tested that we assume that they are true. Still, Aristotle’s theory of gravity was changed by Newton, and Newton’s theory of gravity was overhauled by Einstein.

    My point is that it seems to me that one of the conceits of modernity is the assumption that what is “scientifically provable” is true, and that which cannot be scientifically proven is false or, at best, doubtful. My own view is that what is “scientifically proven” is usually reliable, and that which cannot be scientifically proven is simply outside the realm of scientific knowledge.

    Of course, I am comfortable in believing that there is a great deal that is unknowable. Modernity cannot tolerate the idea that there is anything beyond that which the human mind can grasp.

  114. Ha! Unfortunately, Fr. Stephen, I haven’t completely memorized LOTR yet, but back in middle school my friends and I would sit together at lunch time and quiz one another on the saga. We were SERIOUS nerds! 😀 My sci-fi/fantasy love started with L’Engle, then I went to C.S. Lewis, then Lloyd Alexander. Finally, I read Tolkien. Now that you’ve told me about Barfield, I must read some of his work to see how he influenced a couple of my favorite authors!

    Dee – I’ve only glanced at the Silmarillion. I read the “Genesis” portion. I’d like to go back and read more!

    Learningtobestill – My education is in the social sciences – not hard science – but, you’re right, a “theory” in science is not necessarily true, but it is backed up by evidence. And, no. Science doesn’t necessarily “prove” anything. The goal of science is to gather evidence that either supports or contradicts a hypothesis. Sometimes, really important theories have to be adjusted or discarded. You should read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (or, at least, go over the Wikipedia article)! Based on your comments, it sounds like you’ll find it interesting.

  115. Dee, Michael, et. al.,

    I agree that there is more than the distinction I offered. I tend to use that definition to disarm people who claim no actual interaction with the world but look at, for example, a sunset and say “look, SCIENCE!”. I see that as simply Creation doing what it does, not “science”.

    Now the approach of communion, on some level, that has been noted by several folks is one that is absolutely correct to me but not what many mean by “science” when they talk of it. The folks I’ve talked to are typically more objective in their definition and tend to think of themselves above (or, at best, as observers) what is happening, not as people who may or should be taking part within it. Just my thoughts.

  116. And to clarify, I think the objective approach to understanding creation too often implies, if not overtly states, controlling it on some level.

  117. I look at science and mathematics as ways of seeing what’s already there, as languages that can give us insight, to help us to see and understand. I do not think we can ever exhaust the creation at all; that is, we will never come to the end wherein we understand everything that is and the interrelationships between them.

    When I behold a flower, I begin to engage in wonder. As I learn more about pollination and observe a bee dancing almost magically in a blossom, my wonder increases. The knowledge I’ve gained could dull my senses, or could seduce me into contemplating power over nature, but it is somewhat up to me to allow such knowledge to intensify my wonder. It serves to humble me.

    Mathematics, in my understanding, describes what is using numbers and symbols. Fascinating! As long as I can see it this way, I can walk the path of learning more in order to see the beauty inherent within math.

    I have an inkling that epistemology is involved in all this…how we know… and ultimately that science and math must engage, or rather find their context within, philosophy and theology. For without contemplating our telos—our purpose and end—or understanding our place in creation as worshippers, who find their best expression of being in worship of our Trinitarian God, then we have no reason to suppose we have limits, that ethics plays a part in what we do, and that we can do actions that we ought not to do. And that all leads to us using science, and knowledge in general, as power over creation and one another. And oh how we can brutalize in unrestrained ways…

    I hope this clarifies and adds to the conversation.

    That’s a further explanation of how I see these working.

  118. Fr. Freeman,

    “Do you think of yourself as part of a contingent that is saving/preserving your Church?”
    No, unless you consider teaching what one believes to be Orthodox, or true, or good and beautiful to be an aspect of participating in the salvation/preserving of the Cosmos. In that case, yes. For instance, teaching Christians that we live in a one-story universe is part of a contingent that is a participation (as all true teaching is) in the salvation/preserving of all things.

    “Do you worry about political/social issues and whether the right side is gaining ground?”
    I don’t know about “worry” but am I concerned? Yes, of course. To not be would be inhumane and un-Christ like. The critical point rather is how we respond to political/social issues. Also, if we were to ask an African-American living in the South during the Civil Rights Movement (or even now) if he were worried about current political/social issues and whether the right side was gaining, I think he might give a different answer than you or me. Or, if we were to ask a Jew the same in 1930s Germany, or women in any time period. It is easy not to worry when one is white, Christian, and male.

    “Do you want to make a difference in the world?”
    I want to make a difference within myself. I want to repent. To think that might not impact the greater world, or should not, or should, is entirely another matter. Since we participate in all things, we will (and do) make a difference, the question will always be, to what end? What difference? After all: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” I would say that such makes a difference in the world—but yes, any difference must start with me first. Instead of trying to change my neighbor, I should try and change myself (repentance—acquiring the Spirit…). However, such might lead to a difference in my neighbor’s life.

    “Are you frequently provoked to anger by what you see around you?”
    Hopefully no more than Jesus was at the money-changers or the Pharisees. However, those two things should give us plenty of opportunities.

    We must refuse the ring. However, as you note, we must not refuse throwing the ring into the fires of Mordor. That means participating in the salvation of the cosmos. That means being aware of and concerned about threats to the least among us (social/political issues). Such threats, along with our current money-changers and Pharisees, mean being angry sometimes. And keeping with your LOTR analogy, throwing the ring into the fire did, indeed, make a difference in that world.

    I agree with much in your post, but I also think it is much more complicated than a simple refusal.

  119. So many of my Orthodox Christian friends are obsessed with chemtrails, vaccines, and political issues of all sorts. They seem to have forgotten that this is a Fallen world and that none of that stuff will ever be “fixed.” In fact, giving attention to these kinds of issues is just a distraction from what our true purpose is in this life: to love God and to love our neighbor. And the way we do that is to worship God through prayer and ask Him to have mercy on us all and to off material help to our neighbors whenever possible. Everything else is basically just a waste of time and energy.

  120. DL,
    To a degree, your comment simply says to all of those questions, “Yes, but I’m doing it because it is good.” I am not saying that we should live in the world and not care about it, or take no action, etc. However, saying that in the context of modernity is like saying “sic’m to a dog” (to use the Southern expression). We are so driven by our “doing good” that we quickly lose sight of everything else and become captive to the spirit of the age.

    I am not trying to save the Church. The church is saving me. Teaching a one-storey universe is not an effort to change the Church in any way, but simply to make clear what the teaching of the Church is in a manner that modern people can understand it. What they do with it is beyond my control. I don’t want a one-storey universe movement or some such thing. It would be silly. We don’t need it.

    The anger of Christ at the Pharisees and the money-changers is a card that is played all too often, basically justifying a passion that consumes us. “Be angry and sin not,” St. Paul says. That, I suggest, is extremely rare.

    As for politics, it is a bottomless pit. Again, the Civil Rights movement is cited as a model for things that bear little resemblance to it. For one, it was far more a religious movement than a “political” movement. Indeed, it would make no sense in a purely political analysis. King’s non-violence was grounded in the gospel. I could say much more about this…but time constrains me.

    Obviously, everything is always more complicated than we describe it. It is for the reader to understand how “the Ring” works in his/her own life and what throwing it away looks like. I suggested those questions simply as a way of kick-starting the thoughts. There are probably much better questions.

  121. Chris M – I have read Thomas Kuhn, and once attended one of his lectures. As you noted, it had a profound impact on my view of science.

  122. Byron,
    There is a common misunderstanding among scientists and non-scientists alike regarding the purpose of objectivity, which I would like to propose, is not to objectify nature but rather not to be overly attached to one’s favorite idea, which is something that I think learningtobestill and Michael allude to.

    One thing that I avoided in my earlier description of my mother’s peoples’ science was the role of validation. Getting on this topic is like stepping onto a banana peel for me, it was the crux of heated discussions when I had a certain level of authority in curriculum development in the university setting. Where we need to be objective is to be able to discern whether what we like or want holds an inappropriate hold on our hearts and minds. In this regard, native peoples understand the importance of a form of triangulation. There is a three pronged approach in their science, exploration, question formation (which is also similar to forming an hypothesis) and triangulation (which is similar to testing/validation)–again in some respects it isn’t all that different from the basic approach in western science. Triangulation, using more than one form of query, or testing method to understand a phenomena, was necessary because lives depended on a particular correctness of information.

    My own approach on a science topic, in which I need to learn and be exposed to as little bias as possible, but can’t do the actual exploration myself, is to read research within peer reviewed journals that have an international community of reviewers. International reviewers frequently have ‘competing interests’ and a paper that gets through that gauntlet usually has some quality. Although even such research isn’t immune to bias. One needs to be able to read and recognize bias via sampling methods, testing/validation methods and conclusions.

    All of this is why I pushed for science literacy in the curriculum (and among faculty)–but to no avail, because that push was part of the modern project. And now I return back to Fr Stephen’s original essay and I’m grateful for his words.

  123. Please Father, thank your IT people for me for fixing the problem that prevented me from having access to the newest comments, beyond a certain number. I could read all of them today, even though they exceeded the normal number.
    By the way, thank you Father for all the effort you put into this work, for it is unbelievably fruitful… God bless you and the work of your hands.

  124. The whole kenotic strength in weakness is all well and good, but it has always troubled me that this can be so easy to preach if you aren’t personally under threat by those presently wielding power. I mean, what do we tell dispossessed groups? “you shouldn’t bother resisting your oppressors, because if you gain power it will only corrupt you.” I’m sure that’s not what you mean to suggest, but please explain how what you’re proposing wouldn’t effectively boil down to that.

  125. Esmee,

    The [very modern] trend of conspiracy theorism is one of the deepest, darkest expressions of modernity. It assumes a two-storey universe, progress, and everything else modernity preaches as foregone conclusions, differing only in how it responds to the real world. There are many common responses—numb/distract the soul by various passions (consumption, emotionalism, etc.), give up (despondency), or even fight back (i.e., try to “change the world”)—but almost all of them, while still holding a distorted view of the world, basically accept it as it is—materially, at least. Conspiracy theorism, however, rejects even the most basic observations of the physical world as false (i.e., “An airplane is not an airplane but a …!”), instead denying God’s creation at the deepest levels, from natural processes to, quite paradoxically, the the very technology that they use everyday to post the nonsense they’re consumed with! It is kind of like taking the worst of modernism—in that it (among other things) accepts the idea of progress towards utopia but without any action (except shouting), however small, towards any kind of good—and combining it with some of the worst of postmodernism: not only is truth objective (thus mutable and not Personal—everyone can have their own private world), but all speech (especially “the media”) is power and all power is a direct challenge to the conspiracists’s notion of self, which often involves the myth of self-sufficiency and paradoxically *them* having power, speech, property rights, “the truth”, and so on whilst happily squashing the other. Combine that, in turn, with an elitist, basically Gnostic (in the traditional, not popular, sense: an actual, convoluted hierarchy of fallen powers that are continually manipulating each other and the world (which is itself evil and illusory and unreal in some way) and hiding many “something”s), and yet thoroughly materialistic view of the world (i.e., since God is in the other storey, the Gnostic gods must be material and hidden by other means, so they must be powerful, secret organizations or individuals, or aliens, or what have you) and you get conspiracy theorism. It is, in addition to being mad, opposed to The Faith on just about every level in a way that even modernism isn’t.

    There are also lots of ways we’re not helping the situation, though—I hesitate to lay the blame solely at the feet of modernity for this latest “progress” into the darkness. It is easy to have anti-positions, to beat down strawmen about Catholicism and Protestantism, instead of real asceticism and theology (which comes through real prayer). Any time intellectual theology (as basically and as loosely as those terms are applied and understood) is emphasized but the corresponding praxis (e.g., praying everyday and fasting (without excuse), dressing modestly (for women *and* men), tithing, almsgiving) is “for the individual to decide” or some nonsense, we see anger, especially, develop, as well as a mind that is looking for [secret, hidden] faults, is totally oblivious about Christian living, and consumed with being “right”. This seems to be a natural result of Western theology, and hence why we see it among Orthodox who have either adopted such a mind or never truly left it—and make no mistake, the Western captivity ain’t over, but is merely in its second phase. But those things, despite what some people on the internet seem to believe, are not what Orthodoxy is about. Ask one of these conspiricists (or pre-conspiricists, i.e. the “super correct”) why such-and-such a group is “wrong” and they can go on for hours, if you let them—this kind of talk even takes over parish discussions and whatnot and it is *toxic*—Orthodoxy is *not* an antiposition to anything, but Truth! But try asking about something *positive* and *practical* but still somewhat basic: how can we identify our nous? What directional shape (in addition to The Cross) does the sign of The Cross make over our body, if we’re doing it right (hint: St. Sophrony would get it right away)? Ask these and you’ll either get awkward silence or something really long and rambly (probably with lots of Orthodox-sounding words) that doesn’t answer the question.

    It is also easy to have quasi-mystical views about things and be somewhat of a contrarian (again, paradoxically, it is the popular thing to do! Want to be really radical, though? Obey your priest!). It is even easier when The Church is continually persecuted, lied to, and treated as the underdog. But it is only Orthodox if the mystical vision is *from Christ*, the humiliation real only if it is voluntary accepted *for Christ*. You can see that it is not a true humility because these same ideas about suffering here and now are often coupled with a “but when Judgment Day comes…” kind of theology—it should be a red flag when someone is intent on a very passionate, elaborate view of Hell and/or punishment because, despite their [potential] protests to the contrary, it is not grounded in theology (people really don’t read much of The Fathers, certainly not enough to have such strong opinions on a subject like this) but a conspiratorial, comeuppance, “just wait—its coming” kind of attitude where the [modern, pro-progress] “Savior” is going to overthrow the [Gnostic-style] “powers” and every [special, elite] “true” believer will receive the [postmodern] “paradise” of their own imaginings where they’re finally given the power to have “real” power. Or, put another way, this kind of thinking is basically the same as one would expect of the inner-circle followers of the antichrist. So yes, it is, as Fr. Stephen said, quite concerning. We need to pray—and not forget all the other forms of foundational, Orthodox *action* that our spiritual lives are built on. Healing this begins with *us*—the best thing we can do for these people, as with any others, is to start and end with our own prayer and repentance. They’re only sick because we’re not serious about our own healing, and that is how the end will come. Your inclination was quite correct, both in what to do about and how to spot it (i.e., its fruit): distraction and, especially, pervasive anger.

    Dee,

    Thanks for your continued posts and trying to learn the “language” of Orthodoxy. Though we have comments from every angle, I think Fr. Stephen tries to be consistent and clear (and a bit innovative, in a good way) with language, and I value that very much. I think most of the “language”, though, doesn’t come with words: it is our actions and everyday lives that form the largest part of our language as Orthodox Christians, both in and outside of formal liturgical services. And we really don’t “have it together” when it comes to our words, either, especially in English. It is not because we don’t know enough Greek or anything like that (some of the translations from Greek scholars seem to bother me the most!) but because we don’t take *English* seriously enough. For one example, there is a popular trend, repeated somewhat innocently by many, that there’s a difference between “ancestral curse” and “original sin”. But this distinction isn’t there: The Fathers use them interchangeably and the distinction was invented “whole cloth” by one of the more controversial people of the last century (who regularly attacked Orthodox saints!; this is just one more part of the second phase of the Western captivity). I bring that up to say that even some of the “orthodox” language that we think we know just isn’t so. The only way to deal with that is to get serious about our faith (the more we live it the more we will see, experientially, when things are not true) and get serious about our English language. Another example: I regularly “call out” the young people at my parish any time they use the “F word” (f-u-n). I think it is a huge blight upon our culture, one which completely changes the way we think. I make them say “pleasurable”, “exciting”, or something else. That disconnects them from “the world” and, all of the sudden, all the patristic and Scriptural commentary about self-pleasure (whether good or bad) and the rest that was hidden by our demonically-crafted use the the F word rushes into their minds. It has already affected some of the kids substantially—we’ve now got kids who not only know what the nous is, but can sense its motion and are starting to “get” hesychasm! So language is no small thing; St. James wasn’t just making an off-hand analogy when he compared the tongue to a ship’s rudder and said it “is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.”. But back to your point more generally, Orthodoxy “in English” is still a huge work in progress (and involves more than words). Keep posting, keep striving—your posts already seem to me to take language (and The Faith) very seriously and that is what is needed. Orthodoxy isn’t some secularized “part” of our lives—it is *literally* life and death, and we need to treat it as such.

  126. I have to smile a little bit about trying to “fix” the people (conspiracy theorists or not) who are trying to “fix” something else… modernity gets us all!

    Perhaps it matters less what we believe about these issues that are inconsequential to our salvation, but *how* we believe about those issues? Do we place them under the providence of God and tell our egos to quit trying to control everything? Do we pray for the salvation of the people who disagree with us? (And ask them to pray for us?)

    I merely say this in defense of some intelligent, kind and spiritually honest people I know who also happen to have some beliefs which I find to be odd. 🙂

  127. Fr. Freeman,

    “To a degree, your comment simply says to all of those questions, ‘Yes, but I’m doing it because it is good.’

    That is a rather odd interpretation of what I wrote given nowhere do I state we should “do” something because it is “good.” To the contrary, nothing I wrote has anything to do with “doing” anything because it is “good” in the sense of what modernity tells us is “good” or what “doing” means. Again, I agree with much you wrote; I only take issue what with you think we should conclude from it. In its conclusion, your post seems to take a fatalistic bent derived more from the Stoics than the Christian faith. All the best. Cheers.

  128. The portrayal of General Mikhael Kutuzov in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace always fascinated me. Here is a man, a deeply flawed man, but one who has learned to refuse the Ring of Power. When everyone else in the Tsar’s court is screaming at him that he “has to DO something” about Napoleon in Russia, he keeps retreating further and further back into the depths of the Russian countryside, avoiding open battle as much as possible, and taking care that his soldiers remain well-supplied and in order.

    When Napoleon arrives in Moscow, he finds the city abandoned and empty. Eventually the city does what all large cities do when there is no one around to keep order. It burns, and there is no one around to put the fires out, except the bewildered French, who are still awaiting Tsar Aleksandr’s surrender. The onset of the brutal Russian winter smites the unsheltered French army like a massive body blow, and they flee back the way they came. Now Kutuzov’s unbloodied army springs into action, sniping at the retreating French and accelerating their defeat.

    “The stars in their courses fought against Sisera.”

  129. Eli,
    It is interesting, I think, that Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated non-violence. It was deeply criticized by many within the African-American community at the time. But, I think, he was also wisely aware of the dangers within violence – not just people getting hurt – but people getting changed!

    What do we tell dispossessed groups? If the goal in life is to join the possessors and find your seat at the table of power, then we should probably tell them to kill their enemies and learn to use power as effectively as possible. If, on the other hand, they want the Kingdom of God above all things, we should point them to that Kingdom. Those who “possess” the Kingdom are the only true “possessors.” Social justice is good – but it is an always abstract concept, just out of reach.

    Many people criticize St. Paul’s advice to slaves, etc. But he wrote as someone who was largely “dispossessed” despite his being a Roman citizen. Nothing is more truly subversive than the Kingdom of God – rightly understood. I recommend reading some of Stanley Hauerwas for ideas of what that might look like. This article of mine from last February might be of interest.

  130. Fr. Stephen,
    I didn’t mean to imply that resistance to oppression should be violent. There are plenty of ways to nonviolently resist oppression. I’ve always maintained that to challenge the violence of the system with violence is to unwittingly assimilate to the system.
    I also wasn’t suggesting that the dispossessed merely reverse the power dynamic to revisit oppression on their former oppressors. Standing against slavery isn’t a call to enslave those who formally enslaved others. Standing against the political and economic interests that facilitated the poisoning of Flint Michigan’s drinking water is not calling for poisoning the water of those political and economic elites. Standing with and for the dispossessed is not calling for the dispossession of those who are “possessing” the dispossessed.
    It seems to me that nonviolent pursuits of social justice not only harmonize with God’s subversive Kingdom, but are inextricably linked to it. As subjects of His Kingdom, we accept that Cesar will attempt to crucify us for our devotion to God. If it comes to that, all well and good. But I see no contradiction in all the while nonviolently standing against systems, institutions, and individuals who practice crucifixion. Why not both/and rather than either/or?

  131. While in college I read the Anabaptist, Donald B. Kraybill’s book, The Upside-Down Kingdom. Memory on it is fuzzy, but as I recall it delves into what this discussion is all about. Treats of how Jesus dealt, and still deals with, the marginalized and dispossessed.

  132. Eli,
    I agree, though with the caveat that we understand that we might be crucified and not succeed. As soon as we think that the point is to succeed, we’re heading down the road to violence. We cannot make the world be just. We can act justly – even in civil disobedience. But the dangerous thing that dangles before us is the temptation to make it happen.

    It might seem subtle – but it’s crucial. The point is that God fights for us, not us for Him. God is in charge of the outcome of history. Patience, kindness, long-suffering, repentance – these are our primary weapons.

    I’ll go back to the Civil Rights movement. What did not happen, and has yet to happen, is that America did not repent for its racial hatred. It changed a few laws. Only repentance heals anyone. There is much, much more that our nation needs to repent of – and we cannot even tell ourselves the truth.

    For one, it’s not somebody else that is doing the oppression – we all have a share in the sin – and we have to repent together. This is very difficult. Only repentance can bring justice. And so it waits. Laws change, but the evil continues in new and subtler ways.

    I think great strides were made in the Civil Rights Movement – but we quickly settled for small things and left off repentance. It’s why the topic is still so much alive.

    How do we bring about repentance? By repenting. We lay aside the Ring.

    Our dispossessed (which is far larger than those for whom the Civil Rights movement took place) are a long-standing institution in America, so much so that they are part of the infrastructure of our culture. Only the most profound sort of change would alter than appreciably. In the meantime, they live, and are often closer to God than most others. We should find our way among them.

  133. Father,
    Your response to Eli remind me also, that while I had ‘fought’ as an activist in certain fronts, I was a participant, of enslaving others on other fronts. I have bought at certain stores or certain goods, which I know are affordable to me because of terrible working conditions and poor wages of the poor who have made them, nevertheless I bought them. I participate in their enslavement to poverty. Repenting is more than lip service to the discussion of oppression. We could be Nineveh when we hear the words of Jonah, but are we ready to look into our own hearts and repent?

  134. I certainly agree with you, Father, about success. One of Martin Buber’s quotes has always stuck with me: “Success is not one of the names of God.” No, I think the disposition proper to the Christian in their nonviolent struggle against social injustice was aptly conveyed by journalist Chris Hedges when he said, “I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.” It’s that hope against hope; against all futility; unto death; even death on a cross – where every last vestige of false pretense or ulterior motive is eradicated; where one gives over oneself and all existence with it in a kenotic gesture of surrender. From such a vantage, John Milbank is right to claim “Christian theology is a hair’s breadth away from nihilism.” On the Cross, we and the cosmos have been voided of our separation from God; of an existence apartment from Him. All has been lost because He has been found.

  135. One thing I learned from reading the Gulag:. “When they take you, you have to believe all those you care about are dead, or they will break you.”.

  136. All of “wars” that we supposedly are fighting, seem directly related to our deep need for addiction and the wars within ourselves.
    The first step in the anonymous program is to admit our powerlessness. So easy to forget.

  137. Eli,

    “I think the disposition proper to the Christian in their nonviolent struggle against social injustice was aptly conveyed by journalist Chris Hedges when he said, ‘I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.'”

    Thank you for that,

  138. Thank you Father, for this post. It is especially hard here at a large university to resist power and the need to “change the world.” That seems to be the most common response when I tell people that I am studying environmental science (no, I don’t really want to change the world, I just want to appreciate God’s creation). Everything seems to be valued based on how much it “empowers” you, and your goodness based on how much you fight, argue, resist the system. It is all very exhausting and I struggle with not getting caught up in it. Lord, have mercy on us.

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