24 July 2020

Heinous Admonition

A reply to the 4 June 2020 open letter to the PCA by executives

According to the Scriptures, an accusation of wrong-doing requires every fact supporting the accusation be confirmed by witness testimony (Deuteronomy 19.15), and that verdicts be rendered, not on the basis of appearance but on the basis of righteous judgment (John 7.4). Moreover, it is a sin to demand an accounting of individuals for sins they themselves did not commit. I believe it safe to assume that these requirements hold true whether the subject of the accusation is an individual or a group (eg., ethnic, racial, national, etc). Assuming all of that, our PCA coordinators and presidents (hereinafter, "executives") failed to perform the aforementioned ethical obligations in their Open Letter of 4 June 2020 (hereinafter, “open letter”).

According to these executives, the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, are unquestionable instances of systematic mistreatment of blacks and other people of color. Ostensibly, the circumstances of these deaths are irrelevant, which flies in the face of other provisions of scripture, such as that, at times, a man bears some responsibility for his own death (see Ezekiel 33.4). Arbery wasn't shot simply for being a black man. In their open letter, executives uncritically (and in violation of the ninth commandment) accept the narrative that Arbery’s killers went hunting for black men to kill, when, in fact, he was shot in the course of a struggle over a firearm during an alleged citizen's arrest, a struggle Arbery initiated, whether justified or not. Calling his death a tragedy is understatement, but in a struggle over a firearm someone will likely be injured or killed. Had Arbery been white, there might have no story. But he was black; and that fact alone, apparently, makes his killing a racist act.

One would think, reading the open letter, that Floyd was the only man upon whom a neck restraint was ever applied in Minneapolis. On the contrary, since 2015, Minneapolis police have applied that type of restraint 237 times. In 30% of those cases, the subjects were white; in 60% they were black. In only 44 of the 237 total cases were any subjects rendered unconscious. (Floyd’s seems to be the only death.) Certainly, looking solely at the per capita difference between whites and blacks it is easy to infer racial bias in the use of neck restraint: more blacks than whites. But that inference is predicated upon at least two assumptions: (1) that blacks and whites proportionately encounter police, but that blacks simply receive harsher treatment, even by black officers or (2) that blacks disproportionately encounter police for no reason than that they are black. One possibility only few will mention is that blacks come into contact with law enforcement more frequently on a per capita basis than other ethnic groups because they commit more crimes. (Note, I am not saying this is the case; I am identifying, and questioning, the assumptions that justify the claim that only racial bias and systematic mistreatment, and never the subject’s own actions, explain the disparity.)

Simply put, the race differential alone cannot be allowed as evidence of targeting, certainly not if we are applying the Scriptures and our confessional standards. The Scriptures require that the accused receive much better than that dismissive treatment, even when the accused is a system. Do the authors of the open letter recognize an obligation not to judge by appearances but rather with righteous judgment (John 7.24)? What if, difficult as it may be to believe, appearance is not reality? What if disparity is not, according to the Scriptures, sufficient evidence of systematic mistreatment? And what if the disparity is not what has been reported?

Reading the open letter, one should wonder if the authors are aware that last year police killed 55 unarmed people. If they are aware, then clearly, on their view, 25 of those lives can be ignored, while the remaining 30 demonstrate systematic mistreatment. In fact, however, it may not. A joint study by Michigan State University and the University of Maryland of every police shooting in every precinct (since 2015) found, among other things, that (1) more whites are killed by police, (2) controlling for crime rates, whites are disproportionately killed by police officers, and (3) blacks are more likely to be killed by black police officers.

It’s possible that the study is flawed in some way, but its claims should be considered before sins are confessed, guilt assessed, and penance proffered. But then, poring over statistics probably doesn't feel quite as spiritual as hand-wringing over institutional sins, the sins of people either long dead or dying off. Confessing, and doing public penance for sins you didn't commit just feels better than the push-back resulting from denying the charge, or suggesting that the evidence is flawed somehow.

We are to believe no exculpatory evidence is needed. The fact that George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and now, Rayshard Brooks, were black is the only evidence we need that those deaths are racist, three more examples of the systematic mistreatment executives write about. But if Scripture is to be our guide, then that fact is not sufficient to establish the claim; for if it does so, then we must ask how to categorize the deaths, at the hands of police, of subjects of other races. If the executives will simply, and arbitrarily, add each and every death of people of color to the pile of evidence that the system is mistreating them, regardless of the facts in the case (and the circular reasoning), then what do they make of those other deaths, the ones not being counted? The Scriptures require more attention to detail, more attention to factors other than race in ascertaining racial bias. A method of analysis which has it otherwise is not derived from Scripture, and does not give the accused his due.

There are questions which, in the interest of justice, must be asked, regardless how unpleasant, especially if we are admonished to heed the Scriptures, confess guilt, take responsibility, listen and act, as the executives admonish us to do. The accused, even when the accused is a group, class, or system, are entitled to ask questions before admitting responsibility, before confessing guilt, before engaging in public penance. And in this day and age we should recall that neither the Scriptures nor our confessional standards permit the proposition that denying, or even questioning the charges or the evidence, constitutes an admission of guilt. Quite the contrary: they require a presumption of innocence. Furthermore, the accusers are not to sit as judge and jury.

Reflecting on the study I referred to above, we should consider that the problem is not with racial bias in law enforcement. The problem is with policing. We Americans, regardless of ethnicity, are a violent people, with a murder rate of 4.8 (compared to Japan’s .4, Germany’s .8, Australia’s 1, France’s 1.1 and Britain’s 1.2). Possibly, police violence is an extension of that violence. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck made a similar observation in his 1983 book, People of the Lie, connecting the massacre at My Lai, with the psyche of the American populace in 1968.

True reform is needed. But we are not going to get the reform we need because we cannot see the problem; and, it appears, we will not see the problem because a class of other people also being killed by police is left out of consideration. The authors of the open letter could have demonstrated real cultural, intellectual and spiritual leadership in taking up the question of policing as a problem in which law enforcement violence correlates with violence in the culture at large. But they did not.

We are in the waning days of a cultural cold war, a revolution, which will be a hot war soon enough, if not already. (I'm trying to be optimistic, here.) As the revolution proceeds, Americans may look to various denominations for spiritual, even intellectual and cultural leadership. If the open letter is indicative of what they can expect of the PCA in the future, then Americans can rightly conclude they will not receive leadership from us. All they will get is the repackaging of revolutionaries' terminology, talking points, and goals - all dressed up and paraded around as applications of the gospel. Like liberation theology.
12 June 2017

No, it doesn't make sense to treat islamophobia as racism

The man in this photo is Wagih Subhi Baqi Sulayman, more properly known as His Holiness Tawadros II, 118th Pope of Alexandria (the 98th since Athanasius), leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. I’m thinking about Pope Tawadros (Arabic for "Theodore") today because, a months old, Vox article appeared again on my Twitter feed today, which seeks to explain how it makes since to treat islamophobia as racism.

The TLDR: Even though Islam is a religion, it makes sense to treat “islamophobia” as racism because prior to 911 what we now know as “islamophobia” was previously known as “orientalism” – “the cultural and historical lens through which the Western world perceived, defined, and ‘otherized’ the East, and particularly the Muslim Middle East,” according to Edward Said.

But this is nonsense. The “orientalism” thesis is supposed to be that the West, in general, have a problem with the East, in general, and would have this problem even if the East were not substantially Muslim. We are to believe that “islamophobia” is really just “orientophobia”. But the article’s author undermines his own thesis. According to Khaled Beydoun, the article explains, “orientalism” stereotyped Muslims as a threat long before it was dubbed Islamophobia. On Beydoun's view, the anti-Muslim hate and bigotry of the past decade in the West is an extension of the fear and vilification not only of Muslims but anyone even perceived to be Muslim that’s been taking place for centuries.

I'll grant it seems plausible on its face; but on a close reading, it's verbal legerdemain. Ostensibly, we are informed that anti-Muslim hate and bigotry are extensions of something other than specifically anti-Muslim hate and bigotry, something that is not limited to Muslims, something that includes non-Muslims. This something is “orientalism”. What we truly learn, however, is that “orientalism” and “islamophobia” are indeed synonymous after all. The issue is still Islam: the distinction the author gives us is that between (i) Muslims and (ii) those perceived to be Muslims. Now, one might perceive others as Muslim who are not Muslim and act accordingly; but given that the recipients of this action, whatever it may be, are Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims, the issue, despite Beydoun’s claims, is Islam, not orientalism.

Consider this. If you find that the Arab to whom you are speaking (and whom you perceive to be Muslim) is actually a Coptic Christian, the circumstances alter. For reasons we cannot fathom, you may have concerns about Muslims, but because the Arabic-speaking man is Christian, you have no concerns about him. In fact for reasons we cannot fathom, he may have greater concerns about Muslims than you might ever dream of having. He may be “oriental”, but he is not Muslim; and rightly or wrongly, you both eye Muslims with a wary eye, and for reasons having to do with Islam, not "orientalism".

The fact is it doesn't make sense to treat islamophobia as racism because doing so doesn't account for all of the facts. For example, getting back to Pope Tawadros, a man with whom I have more in common than I do with many of the white people in my neighborhood, you may recall the Palm Sunday attack on a Coptic Christian church. That church was Pope Tawadros's cathedral, Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, where, some time prior to the attack (for which ISIS took responsibility), Tawadros had celebrated mass.  More recently, a group of Coptic Christians en route to St Samuel the Confessor Monastery were attacked, killing 28 and wounding 25. Employing the white man-brown man/oppressor-oppressed narrative, does not account for what Piers Morgan, among others, has called a Christian genocide. Again, the issue, like it or not, is Islam, not orientalism.

The real reason for treating islamophobia as racism is because doing so allows us to dismiss criticism of Islam as cover for moral turpitude. To treat islamophobia as a response to the actions of Muslims or pseudo-Muslims means having to discuss the doctrines which arguably require or permit these actions and the sources: the Quran, the Hadiths and the Sira. But these discussions are tedious, demanding, complex; and since we are dealing with a normative text, they also require minds capable of seeing the importance of admittedly fine distinctions, in other words, legal minds. Few people, arguably, are capable of this, so we need to simplify matters, put them in already accessible categories that the little people can understand, categories such as race and oppression, categories we can easily grasp, having been well-trained in their employment as explanatory models, even if and when those models are inapplicable, if not down right intentionally misleading. Never mind doctrines: these models will tell us all we really need to know.

There are only two types of people: oppressor and oppressed. In the morality play we call history, the white man is the oppressor and the brown man is the oppressed. Islam is the brown man’s religion; criticism of his religion is therefore racial oppression, an act of violence. (This characterization is shared by ex-Muslims such as Sarah Haider, by the way, beginning here.) This dichotomy is the only explanatory model we need. We need not discuss doctrinal matters because doctrine is not the true reason for this oppression. Doctrine is a smoke screen used by the oppressors, nothing more, nothing less.

But if for purposes of argument, we must discuss doctrines, let us simplify these matters as well. Both religions are either equally peaceful, teaching the same peaceful doctrines; or both religions are equally as violent. The oppressor-oppressed narrative requires grading the oppressed on a curve such that, for example, the 27 years of iterative Christian Crusades are equivalent to the 1400 years of progressive Muslim conquest of the largely-Christian Middle East. The only important distinction is the aforementioned. Christianity, as the white man's religion, is the oppressor; Islam, as the brown man's religion, is the oppressed. Critiques of Islam; denials that Islam is a religion of peace; assertions about the violent teachings in the Quran, the Hadiths, the Sira; claims of connections between Islam and terrorism; referring to jihadists as Muslims - all these acts are oppressive, violent, even.

Islamophia-as-racism helps us understand nothing. But it isn't intended to do. It's intended to provide immunity from criticism. It's intended to cow critics, and transform them into the bad - white - guys oppressing the brown man, as usual.

I'm not denying that there is such a thing as islamophobia - provided this is understood as an irrational fear of Islam and not simply any fear of Islam, or simply any criticism of Islam. However reasonable islamophobia is, or is not, it is not racism.
28 February 2017

What is Hotep? Uncle Hotep answers the most asked question on the internet.

22 February 2017

Vain Glory

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (19)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

Vain glory seeks self-exaltation, rather than the exaltation of God, and will do almost anything in order to achieve its goal. The vain glorious person seeks fame purely for its own sake—that fifteen minutes of fame—and will spare no expense, including the jettisoning of any and all self-respect in acquiring it: mass shootings, making and “leaking” sex recordings, the shameless posting of sexual exploits on such social media venues as twitter and tumblr. Also, the law of diminishing returns working as it does, we may engage in ever bolder, more outrageous acts, in order to receive the praise and attention we desire.

One difficulty with vain glory is that in many cases it seems like it would be easy for the vain glorious person to be ignorant of the fact that he is overcome by this passion. One should usually have no difficulty knowing one is angry, or that one is lusting after another, or is gluttonous. I think one reason for this is that vain glory can easily hide behind activity which, on its face, is virtuous, such as work.

For that reason, vain glory often pervades our work environments. Some people struggle to be diligent at work, perhaps because work is an interruption of their lives, or because work is only the means to make just enough money to finance play time. Many are diligent from moral conviction, summed up in the adage, “A day’s labor for a day’s wages.” Others, however, are diligent in their work only because they are driven by selfish desires to be successful, or simply so that the income may be spent on various pleasures (see James 4.3). Often they neglect their families and have no concerns about their souls, or eternity. These matters are forgotten in the race to glory, fame, power, wealth, accomplishment, or success, however one wishes to express it. To glorify one’s self is the ultimate objective.

Sadly, vain glory is frequently present in the worship of our churches. For example a member of a church choir may be accustomed to having a microphone near him, or even in front of him, during Sunday morning worship. Let's say there was no particular reason for the microphone to be where it was; it was just there. One Sunday morning, he enters with the other members of the choir to find that the microphone has been moved. He is offended, or his feelings are hurt. Why was it moved? Did someone in the congregation ask that it be moved because they don't like his voice? Was it moved simply because the person who moved it didn't like him? The real question is this: Why does it matter where the microphone is? For whom do the choir-members sing, the congregation, or for God? If for God, then it doesn’t matter: God hears very well without our microphones. But if the placement of a microphone really matters, then God is not the choir-member's intended audience. And that, to put it gently, is not good. The purpose of the microphone is to be heard by men. And, to the extent that singing in a choir is a good work (since it is an act of worship), it is spiritually dangerous to do our works with the primary intention of being seen, or heard, by others (see Matthew 6.7).

Avoiding vain glory does not mean we should go about our lives indifferently or that we should not pursue excellence in all we do. God expects diligence of us. The issue is motivation. What is our purpose? If our purpose is the glorification of our selves rather than the pursuit of excellence in those activities to which God has called us, then we are wrong, esteeming ourselves too highly. If we are called of God to sing in the choir, then we must answer that call with humility and sing to His glory, in which case it will never matter where the microphone is. If we are unwilling to humble ourselves before others and before God, our success, if any, will be empty and meaningless. If we are driven solely by ambition, we will be easily tempted to sin in attempting to get what we want at any price, having defined success incorrectly.

For a Christian, success is to fulfill God’s will. Returning to the choir member, above, success isn’t making sure your voice in the choir is heard, making sure you have the microphone; success is not to be found in receiving praise for your voice from the congregation. A successful choir member is heard, above all, by God; a successful choir member has God’s approval and praise. The vain glorious choir member is heard, or desires to be heard, and praised by the congregation. When his desire is achieved, he has his reward, such as it is.

It is true, as I suggested above, that vain glory can have certain positive effects. A choir member’s vain glory can drive him to excellence in his singing. Vain glory can drive us to excellence in our work. It can even help us overcome greater sins, such as lust. Abbot Serapion, citing Isaiah 48.9, (Conferences, 5.12) said:

But in one matter vainglory is found to be a useful thing for beginners. I mean by those who are still troubled by carnal sins, as for instance, if, when they are troubled by the spirit of fornication, they formed an idea of the dignity of the priesthood, or of reputation among all men, by which they may be thought saints and immaculate: and so with these considerations they repel the unclean suggestions of lust, as deeming them base and at least unworthy of their rank and reputation; and so by means of a smaller evil they overcome a greater one….

This can also work the other way round. Abbot Daniel (Conferences 4.15) suggests that the temptation of lust can keep one humble who might otherwise become proud and vain-glorious over their achievements:

[I]n the matter of chastity and perfect purity, when by God's grace we see that we have been for some time kept from carnal pollution, in order that we may not imagine that we can no longer be disturbed by the motions of the flesh and thereby be elated and puffed up in our secret hearts as if we no longer bore about the corruption of the flesh, [lust] humbles and checks us, and reminds us by its pricks that we are but men.

Of course, that cannot work forever. Eventually, lust must be dealt with also. Likewise, we will also have to deal with vain glory in a more permanent fashion. Moreover, we need to deal with vain glory, as with all our sins, simply because we are commanded to do so:

 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2.3-8).

A correct appraisal of ourselves begins with a comparison of ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is a man - the eternal Word become flesh - who let go his divine prerogatives and became a servant, humbled himself for our sakes, dying, which is humiliation enough, on a cross, like the worst of all criminals. This is such an offensive notion that Muslims and Jews stumble over it. Muslims, adhering as they do to a power religion, are offended at the notion that the divine nature would unite itself to the human. Jews are offended at the notion that Messiah would die - for goyim above all people.

But what does this point to, if not the humility of God in love? For those He loves, God the Father Almighty is willing to humble himself first by incarnating his eternally begotten Son in human flesh and then permitting His sinless son to be put to death by humans who are not sinless. Then too, there is the humility of the eternally begotten Son, taking upon himself human flesh and submitting to His Father's soteriological purpose and going to his death.

We can only deal with our pride and vain glory by comparing our self appraisals with the humility demonstrated for us, and to us, by our great God and Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. And we must be honest when appraising ourselves. Let me conclude by quoting some counsel from Abbot Moses on the goal of the monk (John Cassian, Conferences 1.22, The First Conference):

[W]henever we do anything with a view to human glory we know that we are, as the Lord says, laying up for ourselves treasure on earth, and that consequently being as it were hidden in the ground and buried in the earth it must be destroyed by sundry demons or consumed by the biting rust of vain glory, or devoured by the moths of pride so as to contribute nothing to the use and profits of the man who has hidden it. We should then constantly search all the inner chambers of our hearts, and trace out the footsteps of whatever enters into them with the closest investigation lest haply some beast, if I may say so, relating to the understanding, either lion or dragon, passing through has furtively left the dangerous marks of his track, which will show to others the way of access into the secret recesses of the heart, owing to a carelessness about our thoughts. And so daily and hourly turning up the ground of our heart with the gospel plough, i.e., the constant recollection of the Lord's cross, we shall manage to stamp out or extirpate from our hearts the lairs of noxious beasts and the lurking places of poisonous serpents.
30 August 2016
One of my favorite philosophers asks, and answers, "If man is made in God's image and likeness, does it follow that God is essentially embodied?"

"[The] ‘reasoning’ [goes] along these lines:

        1. Man is made in God’s image.
        2. Man is a physical being with a digestive tract, etc.
        3. God is a physical being with a digestive tract, etc.

"But that’s like arguing:

        1. This statue is made in Lincoln’s image.
        2. This statue is composed of marble.
        3. Lincoln is composed of marble.

"[The] mistake...is to take a spiritual saying in a materialistic way. The point is not that God must be physical because man is, but that man is a spiritual being just like God, potentially if not actually. The idea is not that God is a big man...but that man is a little god, a proto-god, a temporally and temporarily debased god who has open to him the possibility of a Higher Life with God, a possibility whose actualization requires both creaturely effort and divine grace.

"[The] point of imago dei is not that God is an anthropomorphic projection whereby man alienates his best attributes from himself and assigns them to an imaginary being external to himself, but that man is a theomorphic projection whereby God shares some of his attributes, such as free will,  with real beings external to him though dependent on him." ~ Bill Vallicella

29 August 2016

An interesting question, answered by David Galernter

Why should a Jew care whether Christianity lives or dies?

It comes down to this: Christianity is the Jews’ gift to mankind; the most important gift mankind has ever received. That so many modern leftists would say to themselves, 'All the more reason to hate the Jews,' merely underlines the point. The natural enemy of the Jew is the natural enemy of the Christian, too—the conscience-hater, the man who wants no witnesses. Why should a Jew care whether Christianity lives or dies? Because he must care whether the message of Judaism lives or dies, whether the mission of Judaism fails or succeeds.In the end, that hardly matters. The important question is not why a Jew, but why a human being should care about the fate of Christianity.
And the answer is exactly the same.
27 April 2016

Acedia, the Noon-day Demon

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (18)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

In 2011, "60 Minutes" had a segment on the monks at Mount Athos. (You can view the whole segment here.)

One of the monks interviewed (by the late Bob Simon) was a man from Winthrop, Massachusetts, Father Iakovos, who arrived there in 1986. During the interview, Iakovos told Simon he received news, a year prior to the interview, that his father was dying, but did not return home to visit his father before he died. When Simon asked why, Father Iakovos explained that when monks enter the monastery they renounce the world and are dead to it. This points to one of the greatest difficulties of monasticism: all that you leave behind, including the most intimate relationships.

As I watched that episode I thought back to when, soon after my conversion, I began contemplating becoming a monk. I wondered if I could be so sanguine about the death of one of my parents, or even one of my siblings. I concluded that, while I could, and would, abide by my abbot’s likely denial of my request, for a time life in the monastery would be extremely difficult, that the performance of my duties would be perfunctory and joyless, overshadowed by a feeling of pointlessness. Sadness, perhaps especially over the loss of a loved one, is a dangerous emotion, dangerous because it can transform into something else, something the desert fathers named acedia, and nick-named “The Noon-day Demon.”

Imagine this scenario. A young man applies for acceptance to a monastery. He undergoes the trials of a novitiate, during which time the abbot and brothers assess his fitness for the monastic life. (This, incidentally, is something at which they are quite adept. Abbot Tryphon of the All Merciful Saviour Monastery has said it becomes apparent within a matter of weeks whether or not a postulant is fit for monastic life.)

At last he is accepted for admission as a monk and begins his “spiritual struggles, towards temperance of the flesh, towards purification of the soul, towards mean poverty, towards the good grief, towards all the sorrowful and painful things of that life according to God which brings joy” (as the Vows of the Tonsure to the Great Schema put it). Eagerly, he sets to it, fighting the unseen battle against the demons, living a life of self-abnegation and cross-bearing.

Initially, it may be easy, all too easy. But as I said in a previous post, the desert doesn’t care about you.

The desert doesn't care about your hopes, your dreams, your plans--or your regrets. The desert doesn't know you; it won't miss you when you're gone. The desert will give you no recognition, no honors. The desert doesn't care who you are; it doesn't care who you think you are. The desert can't hear you; it is not even listening to you….

The desert will kick your ass and bring you down to size.

One day, the heat of the desert, or some other aspect of monastic life, bears down on the young man. Under that pressure, he begins to think about all that he left behind, a woman he knew that will never be his wife, the children he will never have. He thinks about the fact that he may never have news of his family; he may never know if his father and mother are still alive. He may never know if his siblings have married, whether or not he has become an uncle. All because he is here, in the desert.

And for what? To live a life in imitation of the angels, through continued life-transforming communion with the Father, by the Holy Spirit?

"No," he might try to remind himself, "to pursue holiness, to be made whole, to be healed. I am here to seek healing from the darkness and estrangement that I have inherited as a result of the fall. I am seeking out the God of righteousness, Who alone can heal me of my infirmity. As Christ increases in me, my fallen nature decreases. In monastic obedience, my Self is replaced by the will of God and my ego is trampled down. I am here to acquire the Holy Spirit from whom comes true repentance and a humble and contrite heart, and inner peace--so that a thousand around me may be saved."

"But," the Noonday Demon tells him, "you don't have to leave the world in order to do all that. Those who receive the sacrament of marriage also can pursue these things. Indeed, they must. Besides, the only thing you are really doing out here is breaking your back and being roasted alive."

He stops in his tracks, in the midst of his work and asks of himself: "Really, what am I doing here? I'm not fighting any unseen war. And even if I am, all Christians, monks and non-monks, are called to this battle."

In this way, the Noonday Demon, acedia, tempts the monk to forsake his vows.  And if he does not forsake his vows then, if the acedia is not checked, performance of his monastic obligations will become perfunctory. Quite simply, his body will be in the work, but not his heart. Hence the association of acedia with laziness; but distinguished from laziness in that it is not a reflection of a desire not to work, but a conviction of the pointlessness of the work. What is all his labor but rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, all day long, every day, forever? To the question, “What’s the point?” the Noonday Demon replies, “There is no point."

As with all the passions, monks are not the only ones who are susceptible to acedia. It is a danger we all face, the apparent pointlessness in all our efforts. When I was a child there was a popular country and western song my friends and I liked (Johnny Paycheck, “Take This Job and Shove It”). It sounded fun and was rather catchy, but in fact it’s rather sad and captures the feelings of a man who has lost interest in his work, and life generally, when he loses all the reasons for which he expended those efforts:

Take this job and shove it I ain't workin' here no more
My woman done left and took all the reason I was working for
Ya, better not try and stand in my way
Cause I'm walkin', out the door
Take this job and shove it I ain't working here no more

There is more to the song than that, all dealing with the apparent pointlessness of the hard work he and his friends have put in over a period of years. But, in general, that sense of pointlessness, is acedia.

But, what to do about it?

John Cassian narrates a progression which, honestly, I didn't find very helpful, or understand, at first:

Wherefore in order to overcome accidie, you must first get the better of dejection: in order to get rid of dejection, anger must first be expelled: in order to quell anger, covetousness must be trampled underfoot: in order to root out covetousness, fornication must be checked: and in order to destroy fornication, you must chastise the sin of gluttony. (Conference 5, Chapter X)

Ultimately, the fundamental problem is the sin of gluttony, which is itself the result of a desire for variety - for its own sake. It is a desire for sensual stimulation, specifically, with regard to food, the stimulation of the palate. Note, from the example above, that the monk is bothered by the lack of variety in his daily experience; every day is the same as the day before. More than likely, if he were to leave the monastery, marry, and have children, he would have days, as a husband and father, on which he experienced the same listlessness. The cure for acedia, to the extent there is one, is to discipline one’s self from the need for excessive variety. And in the monastic experience, the need for variety in food is an expression of something which ends up working its way into every nook and cranny of our nature.

I can recommend that you begin your path to dealing with acedia by simplifying your menu. When I was at university and still single, I ate only two meals at home. I whittled my menu down to the same breakfast every day (eggs, toast, bacon, coffee and orange juice). My supper menu was a weekly, seven different meals, the same thing every Monday, et cetera. If you did this, or something like it, you may find yourself surprised at how much of your time and energy is spent doing nothing but pursuing variety for its own sake. Over time, you may find yourself surprised at how content you become with its virtual absence.

Variety may be the spice of life, but that’s just it. Many of us pursue variety not as a spice, but as a staple. And that is the root of acedia, the desire for variety as if it were the staff of life.
24 April 2015
I'm glad something like this can't happen here.

Writing at National Review Online, David French interviews some of the victims of the "John Doe" persecution, giving voice to those who were simultaneously targeted, humiliated, intimidated and muzzled. Here's one of several terrifying vignettes:

Cindy Archer, one of the lead architects of Wisconsin’s Act 10 — also called the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill,” it limited public-employee benefits and altered collective-bargaining rules for public-employee unions — was jolted awake by yelling, loud pounding at the door, and her dogs’ frantic barking. The entire house — the windows and walls — was shaking. She looked outside to see up to a dozen police officers, yelling to open the door. They were carrying a battering ram. She wasn’t dressed, but she started to run toward the door, her body in full view of the police. Some yelled at her to grab some clothes, others yelled for her to open the door. “I was so afraid,” she says. “I did not know what to do.” She grabbed some clothes, opened the door, and dressed right in front of the police. The dogs were still frantic. TOP STORY: Carly Fiorina Has Hillary Defenders Worried “I begged and begged, ‘Please don’t shoot my dogs, please don’t shoot my dogs, just don’t shoot my dogs.’ I couldn’t get them to stop barking, and I couldn’t get them outside quick enough. I saw a gun and barking dogs. I was scared and knew this was a bad mix.” She got the dogs safely out of the house, just as multiple armed agents rushed inside. Some even barged into the bathroom, where her partner was in the shower. The officer or agent in charge demanded that Cindy sit on the couch, but she wanted to get up and get a cup of coffee. “I told him this was my house and I could do what I wanted.” Wrong thing to say. “This made the agent in charge furious. He towered over me with his finger in my face and yelled like a drill sergeant that I either do it his way or he would handcuff me.” They wouldn’t let her speak to a lawyer. She looked outside and saw a person who appeared to be a reporter. Someone had tipped him off. The neighbors started to come outside, curious at the commotion, and all the while the police searched her house, making a mess, and — according to Cindy — leaving her “dead mother’s belongings strewn across the basement floor in a most disrespectful way.” Then they left, carrying with them only a cellphone and a laptop.

The left are at war, fighting for the little guy.

Inter arma enim silent leges and all that.
21 April 2015

[T]his is an unfortunate result, and also requires Texas courts to now decide who counts as “media” for First Amendment purposes. Do book authors qualify? Filmmakers? Academics? Bloggers? (Does it matter whether they make money blogging? Whether they blog on The Washington Post site, even if they are not newspaper employees?)

It seems unlikely that either the Texas Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear this case, partly because the Court of Appeals concluded that the bottom-line result would have been the same regardless of how the nonmedia rights issue was decided. But I hope that eventually higher courts will overrule the ruling.

Almost literally an unprecedented decision.
15 April 2015
Jonathan Adler asks what it will take to convince libertarians and conservatives that climate change is a problem. Probably the recognition that man-made global warming does not mandate any particular policies. Of course, to a certain extent, libertarians and conservatives are entitled to be skeptical of the grounds used to justify certain policies. Golly gee, there's this problem which, arguable means, we must lose ever more liberty; and the people telling us all about this problem are, in large part, people who are always agitating for policies which result in loss of freedom, especially economic freedom.

Still, no policy position is mandated by acceding to the reality of climate change.
10 April 2015
Unsettled Science? More scientists doubt salt is as bad for you as the government says.
For years, the federal government has advised Americans that they are eating too much salt, and that this excess contributes yearly to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. But unknown to many shoppers urged to buy foods that are “low sodium” and “low salt,” this longstanding warning has come under assault by scientists who say that typical American salt consumption is without risk. Moreover, according to studies published in recent years by pillars of the medical community, the low levels of salt recommended by the government might actually be dangerous.
And to think for decades I've thought the debate was over.

04 April 2015

Hey, you're not being asked to swing with 'em!

According to Penn Jillette,  here, commenting on Indiana’s supposedly anti-gay legislation:

These people are not being asked to engage in gay sex or even endorse gay sex. They're being asked to sell flowers and cake to people....Now, I'm a libertarian and an atheist, so I'm kind of fighting myself on this. I don't like the government involved with telling people what to do and I certainly want people to have religious freedom--because the only way that people who don't have religion are going to have freedom is if people who do have religion have freedom. But all the same, we have to be careful we don't get crazy in the hypotheticals. We are not talking about forcing people to engage in gay sex or even endorse gay sex. We're asking that maybe they can treat people the same as other people and that does not seem unreasonable. It's OK, I guess, but goofy to be against gays, but it's not OK to be against people who simply want to...use your services as a business.

Fair enough. They not being asked to engage in gay sex, or even endorse gay sex.

But now, what if instead of being asked to cater a gay wedding, one were asked to cater a swingers' party. (Note: It is irrelevant that swingers would likely not have their parties catered.) Could the same person who is not free to decline catering a gay wedding, decline to cater a swingers' party? Think of it: A caterer who caters a gay wedding because not to do so, by virtue of being discriminatory, would be illegal, can turn right round and refuse to cater a swingers' party. How could this be? After all, these people are not being asked to swing themselves. Moreover, they may not even see the swinging.

What if, nevertheless, a caterer has a religious-moral objection to the sort of activities in which swingers engage, the same sort of objections he or she may have to gay weddings? That is, it conflicts with the sexual ethics of one's worldview. Apparently, one's religious-moral objections to swinging would be an acceptable basis in the law for refusing a request to cater such an event, but those same objections to same-sex marriage would not justify turning down a request for catering services.

Remember: No one is asking a caterer to swing with the swingers. No one is even really asking that a caterer even see the swinging. No one is asking a caterer to approve of swinging. To paraphrase Jillette, caterers are only being asked that maybe they can treat people the same as other people. That doesn't seem unreasonable. It's perfectly fine, if not a little goofy to be against swingers, but it's not perfectly fine to be against people who simply want to...use your services as a business.

Needless to say, the same goes for a photographer or anyone else whose goods and services may be desired by the swingers, again with the stipulation that these purveyors would not be participating in or even seeing the swinging as it takes place.

24 March 2015

Kelo, ten years later

It was just last week sometime I was wondering about this.
In its highly controversial 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court ruled that state and local governments have the power to take private property and transfer it to other private owners in order to promote “economic development.” It thereby upheld a poorly conceived development plan in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London. Unfortunately, as critics predicted at the time, the plan fell through and the condemned property lies empty to this day, almost ten years later
So, your local government condemns and takes your property and then, well, nothing. To call this insult added to injury would hardly do it justice, so to speak.
23 March 2015

No government can claim the specific power

to command its subjects to buy any particular good without tacitly claiming the more general power to command subjects to to buy anything at all. And given the nature of human action, a government cannot claim the specific power of mandating purchases without tacitly claiming the more general power of mandating anything at all, to include voting.

For example--to drive home the point with a hammer--the way is paved for a subsequent generation of Americans to be commanded to embrace a religion upon pain of taxation. (Justice Roberts explained it.)

You think I exaggerate. But there is a footnote in Justice Roberts' opinion in NFIB v SIBELIUS which should replace footnote 4 in US v. CAROLENE PRODUCTS as the most famous footnote in US legal history.

In footnote 11, (slip opinion, 44), Roberts writes:
[I]ndividuals do not have a lawful choice not to pay a tax due, and may sometimes face prosecution for failing to do so.... But that does not show that the tax restricts the lawful choice whether to undertake or forgo the activity on which the tax is predicated. Those subject to the individual mandate may lawfully forgo health insurance and pay higher taxes, or buy health insurance and pay lower taxes. The only thing they may not lawfully do is not buy health insurance and not pay the resulting tax.
So we still have freedom of choice: (i) choose to buy insurance and pay less in taxes; or (ii) choose not to buy insurance and pay more in taxes. It amounts to a choice between lower taxes and higher taxes. Ah, freedom.

This reasoning could be applied to any act whatsoever, including mandating a religion (or even atheism)--as long as it's tied to congressional taxing power. (No doubt places of worship will be required to keep records of attendance at services, and to make those records available to the IRS upon demand so that miscreants can be fined.)

Here's how the reasoning in footnote 11 could be applied to a law mandating, say, Islam:
Individuals do not have a lawful choice not to pay a tax due, and may sometimes face prosecution for failing to do so.... But that does not show that the tax restricts the lawful choice whether to undertake or forgo the activity on which the tax is predicated. Americans may (i) choose Islam and pay higher taxes, or they may (ii) choose some other religion and pay lower taxes. The only thing they may not choose to do is (iii) embrace something other than Islam and (iv) not pay the resulting tax.
So that future generations would still have freedom of choice regarding religion: (i) choose (a) Islam and (b) lower taxes; or (ii) choose (c) something other than Islam and (d) higher taxes.

One can easily anticipate two obvious objections. (i) No one is talking about making people choose a religion. To which I reply: Yes. And When ROE v WADE was decided, Chief Justice Burger, wrote in his concurrence, "Plainly, the Court today rejects any claim that the Constitution requires abortions on demand." Burger may have been correct in January 1973, but not for long. Burger was entitled to his concurrence, but the opinion of the Court was written by Justice Blackmun, and that opinion made abortion on demand difficult to argue against. Right of privacy and all that. (ii) The Constitution does not explicitly prohibit Congress from making us buy things, while the First Amendment explicitly prohibits Congress making laws respecting an establishment of religion. To which I reply: PLESSY v. FERGSUSON, in which, with the sole exception of Justice Harlan, the Court managed to get round the 13th and 14th Amendments. More relevantly, SCOTUS has treated acts which do NOT establish any religion as if they do so. It will be quite easy, no doubt, to treats acts which DO establish a religion as if they do not do so, especially if they can be linked to the "public interest", the "commerce clause" and--le piece de résistance--the taxing power. And this will be true especially if the law requiring the choice of a particular religion is sufficiently popular, with both houses of Congress, and the Administration.

No, it wouldn't happen overnight, of course. But, two words: (i) Overton and (ii) Window.

It's no exaggeration to call this totalitarianism:
We should understand totalitarianism to refer not the severity of the regime, its propensity to use such tools as terror and concentration camps, but rather the scope of its purview. A totalitarian regime is one that seeks to control every aspect of communal life, and to bring as much of private life as possible into the sphere of the communal. ~ Herbert Schlossberg, IDOLS FOR DESTRUCTION, 222-23.
Not that this guy started it.

The famous footnote 4 in US v. CAROLENE PRODUCTS:
There may be narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality when legislation appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution, such as those of the first ten Amendments, which are deemed equally specific when held to be embraced within the Fourteenth. 

It is unnecessary to consider now whether legislation which restricts those political processes which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirable legislation, is to be subjected to more exacting judicial scrutiny under the general prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment than are most other types of legislation. 

Nor need we enquire whether similar considerations enter into the review of statutes directed at particular religious, or national, or racial minorities, whether prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry.

It is unnecessary to consider now whether legislation which restricts those political processes which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirable legislation, is to be subjected to more exacting judicial scrutiny under the general prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment than are most other types of legislation. 
Nor need we enquire whether similar considerations enter into the review of statutes directed at particular religious, or national, or racial minorities, whether prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry.
06 February 2014

Lust, Part 3

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (17)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

In Part 2, I wrote about the immoral sexual images and messages which assault us these days. How unsurprising it is, that many Christians struggle with lust. We understand that lust, like other sins has its roots in our first parents' fall from oneness with God. That mistake infected us with the disease of death and separateness. We became pure individuals, unable to see ourselves intimately connected to others. We are simply bare objects to each other. Those around us are valuable only to the extent that they can give us pleasure or give meaning to our lives by giving us pleasure. Sexuality is Satan's counterfeit to oneness. For that reason, I think it can truly be said we have no greater enemy than lust.

We must to not succumb to the cultural acceptability of lust, or allow ourselves to be taken in by its subtleties, even though it strikes us where we are most vulnerable: the desire for intimacy. God has given us victory over lust just as he has defeated all other sins through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through union with Him, our nature has been changed and we are no longer bound by nature to the sins which beset us. St Paul tells us (Romans 8.12-13) us that we who have embraced Christ and been given the Holy Spirit have power to put even the most deadly sins to death. But how is this achieved?

The fact that our sins are the result of separation from God, each other and creation, suggests that the answer is that if we can recover our oneness and unity with God, each other and creation, then we can rise above the results of these separations.

Nikolai Velimirović, in his Prayers by the Lake (LXXII), writes

The body knows nothing of adultery, if the soul does not tell it. Adultery is carried out in the heart; the body only repeats in its clumsy way what has been woven with fine threads in the mysterious chambers of the heart.

My neighbors, look upon a woman the way a woman looks upon herself and self-delusion will fall from your eyes like scales. Look upon every being from within that being, and you will look, not with desire, but with compassion.

To see every being from within that being is the secret to dealing with sexual lust. Most of us, especially most of the Reformed, having imbibed anti-supernatural and anti-mystical biases, have no idea what this means.

But we should have an idea what it means; for Nicholai is only describing unity of being. The only way for one person to see another as the other sees himself is to share his soul, and the only way to share is a soul is for beings to interpenetrate one another. This is the sort of life the members of the Trinity share. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are unique individuals, but each one is also the other two in perichoreisis.

But as the Lord teaches in John 17, it's also the sort of life believers are to live with each other, by virtue of their union with Him.

The problem still remains, how to get inside each other's souls, if possible. How can a man look at a woman without focusing solely on her physical features and valuing her as an object on the basis of those physical features? How can he not see "eye candy"?

We might try to escape temptation by concentrating on her personality. But simply limiting our perspective is not the same as seeing her as she sees herself. Ultimately, it would be difficult to avoid evaluating her personality in terms of some desire we seek to fulfill. Her personality may be attractive to us, or it may be repulsive. Either way, it still remains an object to be evaluated, even lusted after, even if the road to lust is a bit longer by this route, than by focusing on her physical appearance.

Another way of addressing what Velimirović is talking about is to say we must die to ourselves, something which Reformed Christians can understand. If I am to replace looking upon a woman lustfully (or potentially lustfully) with seeing her as she sees herself, then I must adopt compassion as my perspective. Compassion sees the lives of others as more important than one's own life. But in order to do that, in order to have that compassion, the part of myself which sees my life as more important than others' lives, and is inclined to look upon a woman, rather than from within her, must die.

The answer to lust—and, really, all the passions—is self-denial, something else even Reformed Christians can understand, even if we are not as practiced as we may think we are. We can accomplish self-denial in various ways, when it comes to sexual temptation. We can give up all situations, television shows, websites and so forth that would feed lustful desires. We can also learn how to avert our eyes when certain occasions call for it. As several of the desert fathers taught, the ground before our feet is always preferable to visual temptations. A hymn or psalm can always drown out the sound of tantalizing voices or other sounds.

But these approaches, while not a bad start, are little more than skirmishes in the spiritual warfare against the passions. Victory is not achieved by avoiding confrontations with the enemy. True victory (or at least the truest victory possible this side of the Kingdom) demands much more than can be accomplished by mere avoidance, although avoidance, given the alternatives, is, again, a good place to start. True victory requires the elimination of lust from our souls.

St Dorotheos of Gaza taught that, "One must reach a place where one has no desires. Through the indwelling spirit of Christ a person may achieve a state in which he or she is without special attachments, in a state of holy indifference."

Indifference certainly doesn't seem like the most effective way to achieve compassion, but St Dorotheos is not talking about indifference to others. He is talking about indifference to ourselves. We don't matter to ourselves. Our wants (even those we are inclined to think of as needs) don't matter to ourselves. What happens, then, when a man looks upon a woman who could potentially be an object of lust, with this holy indifference, is that what he sees has nothing to do with himself. He seeks nothing from her, especially sexually, because what he truly desires above all else cannot be fulfilled by sexual intercourse. Her body cannot fulfill his redeemed heart’s highest desires. Then, he may see her as she is.

Not that this puts one in the position that Velimirović is speaking of. He has not yet come to know the woman from within herself. He is still observing her from without, meaning the potential to objectify her is still present. To touch her soul and see her from within, to see the world through her eyes, requires an exceptional level of self denial. But for one who embraces the sacramental life of the church, a life of perpetual liturgy, this is possible--not easy, but possible. This liturgical path gives us the opportunity to deny ourselves in every aspect of our lives--eating, drinking, sleeping, working, loving, praying. When we deny our own wills in everything we do, Self fades away, and we can become less aware of it. Concurrently, we can become more and more aware of the One who makes the decisions that define our lives, the Lord Jesus Christ living in us and possessing us through the Holy Spirit.

This same Lord Jesus, living in me, also lives within that woman (or man) one is looking at, sustaining her, giving her the same immortality I have. (Note: If she is not a Christian, it is still relevant that she nevertheless still bears the image of God.) So if one is living in a state of constant liturgy and self denial, eliminating all desires that are not Christ's, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, becoming more aware of him than of oneself, when we look upon another of the opposite sex what we will be most aware of will not be his or her body, or personality. What we will see is either Christ living in her, or if she is not a believer, the image of God in her. We will know each other at the deepest levels, possibly better than we know ourselves.  It is impossible to lust after Christ living in another, or after the image of God.

Another way of looking at it is provided by C. S. Lewis. In his sermon, "The Weight of Glory", said

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another....

Lewis’ thinking here parallels that of Westminster Larger Catechism 138, on the seventh commandment. According to the Catechism, among the duties required by the proscription of adultery, in addition to “chastity in body, mind , affections, words, and behavior” is “the preservation of [it] in…others.”

What a difference it can make, to see one who might otherwise be the object of my lust, as one for whose future glory I am somewhat responsible, to see a possible object of my lust as a future goddess, someone I might be tempted not to lust after, but to worship (cf. Revelation 19.10 ) fully partaking in eternity of the divine nature (see II Peter 1.4). This is the way to triumph over sexual immorality, the demonic illusion of intimacy. In the face of the devil's assault on our culture, Christ offers this victory to us who will be transformed by him.

We must die to ourselves. And to die to ourselves is our calling (Luke 9.23).

But what has this to do with my first post on the subject, where I talked about the desert fathers' counsel on the importance of fasting? We are still talking about the mortification of all the passions. And the passions are all related to each other. They are all various ways in which our preoccupation with self is manifested. In some of us, our self-preoccupation is revealed in pride, in others, anger, in still some others, lust--and so on. The disciplines are an all-out assault on self.

The desert theologians have taught various ways of accomplishing the goal--very few of them at all attractive to most Reformed Christians, but not because they are Reformed.

About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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