In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a collection of wise stories and sayings from the first Christian monks, the following is attributed to one Abba Zeno: “Never lay a foundation on which you might sometime build yourself a cell.” This saying has at least two possible applications: 1) Do not start something you do not intend to see through. 2) Do not put off for tomorrow the asceticism you can do today. Unfortunately, both of these lessons are lost on our federal government when it comes to financial responsibility, and it is our children who will pay for the sins of their fathers.
If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.
I ended my Acton talk with a quote from Bonhoeffer. I did so because I think it is important ( both evangelically and culturally) for Orthodox Christians to make the argument, as I did at Acton, that asceticism is not unique to the Church but a discipline common to all Christians. The ascetical intuition of the Orthodox Church isn’t, in other words, foreign to other Christian traditions or at odds to how many Christians understand their own spiritual journey.
Culturally, it is important to emphasize that whether we are concerned with the benefits of the free market or the care for those in need, both require an ascetical effort. Without such an effort the free market doesn’t remain free and prosperous and we will be unable to care for the poor. The irony here is that this is so in BOTH cases because we will remain encapsulated in lives centered on the pursuit of self-aggrandizement and pleasure.
As I said in my talk, the “Third Way” of Christianity is not some accommodation between the economic policies of the political right and the social policies of the political left. Rather our Third Way, is the Way of the Cross, the way of personal ascetical struggle.
Acton University is a unique, four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society. Guided by a distinguished international faculty, Acton University is an opportunity to deepen your knowledge and integrate rigorous philosophy, Christian theology, and sound economics. At this year’s event, the following Orthodox speakers were featured.
Together with Fr Michael Butler and Fr Hans Jacobse, I lectured last week at Acton University. Fr Michael spoke on an Orthodox understanding of natural law as well as the relationship of Church and State in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Fr Hans spoke on why Aleksander Solzhenitsyn matters to us today. My own talk was on consumerism and the ascetical life. All four talks can be found on Ancient Faith Radio (Acton University 2013) and are free to download or listen to online. You can also purchase the audio at the Acton Institute.
While I welcome people’s comments on the presentations, please listen to them before you comment.
A new blog site, Ethika Politika, has published my essay exploring American individualism in light of the ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church. Here’s the conclusion:
American individualism is not intrinsically immoral nor is it an anthropological heresy. For all America’s real faults and sins, it is founded on — and until recently preserved by — an ascetical intuition that helped Americans avoid the excessive of both the radical individualism of the Enlightenment and of pre-Modern aristocratic authority. The Puritan work ethic, the US Constitution’s separation of powers, our Bourgeois virtues, and commitment to Civil Rights all reflect that aspect of the American character that takes seriously the need to correct what is worse in us so that what is best in us can shine forth. Americans are not by any stretch of the imagination monks, but we are, in our way and when we are our best selves, an ascetical people nonetheless.
For the whole essay go here.
The recent statement on the environment by His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (here) got me thinking about the theological implications of creation (notice I didn’t say the environment). Briefly, I would suggest that the creation—the cosmos—is a sacrament of God’s love. This is to say that the creation— both as a whole and in each part—is both a revelation (mysterion) and a pledge (sacramentum) of God’s love. For this reason, in God the creation—again both as a whole and in each part—is a fit object for human love and so our personal and collective creativity.
This last point I think is important for our consideration of what some would call “environmental ethics.” Yes, we should respect the creation and, as the Patriarch has said, we need to repent of materialism and a purely materialistic and mechanical understanding of humanity’s relationship to the larger created order and to ourselves. We need to do this not simply because materialism is harmful to the environment but because materialism is not fitting for human beings created in the image of God and called to live in likeness to the divine life.
At the same time what we can’t do, and the Patriarch’s statement unfortunately if unintentionally lends itself to this, is engage the larger creation in a way that neglects, minimizes or undermines human creativity. Yes, economic development can and has caused environmental harm even as it has harmed society and the individual. To be human, to be a loving human being, is necessary that we be creative after the example of God. While we can’t create ex nihilo, that is from nothing, we do have the God-given ability to bring a fitting human order to creation and so reveal creation’s internal meaning (logos) in a humanly meaningful fashion. Continue reading
Earlier today, I read Fr Patrick Henry Reardon’s pastoral letter “This Year’s Election” (you can download the pdf here). Like Fr Patrick, if it is at all possible I avoid discussions on partisan politics. The only exception is on those issues where the Church has clearly spoke. I think Father has identified three of these areas.
First, the origin of human rights. These, since they come directly from the hand of God, are determined by the moral law. That is to say, no political institution can give citizens a right to do something wrong—not the Constitution, not the Congress, not the Supreme Court.
Second, the unborn child in the womb has an absolute right to be born. This right, which comes from God, is subject to no qualifying circumstances, including the conditions of the child’s conception and the health of the mother. One may not murder an unborn baby. A baby in the womb has the same right to life as its mother and her doctor.
Third, marriage is the union of a man and woman. This principle, rooted in God’s creating act, can be altered by no decision of any institution or agency of government. No one can be given a right to do a wrong. Whatever name is conferred upon it, state-sponsored sodomy is an abomination to the created order. It is a radical offense against the divine Logos.
Unfortunately, this puts the Church in a more critical posture toward the Democratic Party. We shouldn’t however assume from this that the Republican Party is somehow the “Orthodox” choice or that its policies are exempt from criticism. Much less can we assume that one party and not the other has received the Church’s blessing. In fact,
About policies—most questions of political concern—we may expect some legitimate disagreements among Christians. Among these we should include questions about the application of civil punishments, the funding of public education, the tax code, the authority of federal agencies, this or that social program, and so forth. These matters, properly governed by prudence, leave much room for legitimate disagreements among Christians.
(Source: Religion & Liberty vol 22, no 2)
Among other things, Ross Douthat argues in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, that Americans have become a “nations of narcissists.” He sees the evidence for this in our becoming a “nation of gamblers and speculators, gluttons and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough” (p. 25).
Looking around, it is hard to dispute this. The free market is no longer really and truly free but distorted by crony capitalists who collude with government regulators to further their advantages at the expense of their neighbors. Likewise under the guidance of a materialistic anthropology that merely seeks to throw money at the tragedy of human suffering, our social safety net is no longer safe or social for the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
And yet, while I appreciate his analysis, I’m not sure I agree with Douthat that we have become a nation of narcissists. It isn’t that I don’t agree that narcissism is a problem in America, it is, but it is not an American problem as such. Much less is it unique to our era. Self-absorption – one of my professors in graduate school referred to it as selfaggrandizement, is constant temptation in our fallen state. The central struggle of our life in both its personal and social dimensions is precisely to resist the lure of our self-centered and self-aggrandizing desires. Continue reading