Social Justice, Hayek, de Tocqueville, and Holy Communion

A central challenge in fostering a more just society, as I suggested in a previous post, is the general lack of a cultural consensus on what justice actually is and so isn’t.  Forget for a moment the practical questions involved. How do we decide if the redistribution of income by way of the tax code, to name a point of popular contention, is just or unjust? What standard do we use? Returning to the practical dimension for a moment, in the absence of an agreed upon understanding of justice how do we decide how money is to be shifted or who receives what? Or putting aside this question how could we, as some have, say that such redistribution is morally justified as long as the benefit received by person “B” for every dollar outweighs the pain caused to person “A” for every dollar taken?  Not only how we answer these questions, but even the questions themselves assume a particular understanding of the nature of justice and so what it means to live as a member of a society.

This is why, to give him his due, the economist Fredrick Hayek objected on both grammatical and linguistic grounds to the term “social justice.” Absent at least well delineated and mutually agreed to anthropology, the term simply means nothing and so everything. Moreover though his criticism of the political implications of the term opens him to charges of cynicism, we need take  seriously his argument  that appeals to social justice on behalf of the poor don’t necessarily benefit the poor themselves as much they benefit those making the appeal in the name of the poor. Continue reading

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Losing our religion?

Source GazetteXtra.

Michael Gerson,a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, observes that:

According to Pew, 74 percent of the nones grew up in a religious tradition of some sort. Yet while conversion has increased the ranks of the nones, retention is not particularly good. Protestantism, for example, loses about 20 percent of those raised Protestants. Of those raised unaffiliated, 40 percent fall away from the nonfaith and rebel toward religion, making for a new generation of awkward Thanksgivings.

While I might fiddle with the numbers a bit, this certainly has been my experience in the Orthodox Church. The Church is also suffering from the “declining trust in religious institutions since the 1990s.” This isn’t limited to religion but

…has been accompanied by declining trust in most institutions (with the notable exception of the military). Confidence in government and big business has simultaneously fallen—and the public standing of both is lower than that of the church. Americans may be less affiliated with religious organizations because they have grown generally more individualistic and skeptical of authority.

If I were to hazard a guess, it’s because whatever it is they do, Christians typically don’t invite young people (or anyone else for that matter) to become friends of Jesus AND His disciples. Like the larger culture, the Orthodox Church seem to be raising the next generation of “nones” precisely because we have failed to foster friendship, much less discipleship, among in our own parishes.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

h/t: Mirror of Justice

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Part III: To Know & Believe: Intellectual Formation, Gratitude & Humility

Here’s the conclusion to yesterday’s post on intellectual formation. I hope to have the last post on pastoral formation and the whole essay available by the middle of next week.
In Christ,
+FrG

HighPriest21The Personal Awareness of Grace. Just as I can’t live a Christian life without the grace of the sacraments, I can’t live this life without at least some subjective awareness of God’s presence in my life. It is here, in my subjective or personal, awareness of God that my intellectual formation becomes important. While not unrelated to academics, intellectual formation prepares me for joy. Undertaken in the right spirit, my studies are a preparation for the enduring experience of happiness that is essential to a wholesome human and holy Christian life. How does this happen? Continue reading

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Part III: To Believe & to Know: Intellectual Formation & Joy

HighPriest21The Presence of Joy. Other projects have distracted me and kept me from continuing with my earlier series of posts on formation (you can read them here, here and here). I want now to pick up where I left off in July and look briefly with you at the intellectual formation of clergy (and by implication, of the laity).

Recently there has been a series of essays on natural law. What makes these essays especially interesting to me is that the series was inspired by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart‘s rejection of natural law in an article in First Things (here, with follow-up pieces here and here). While I admire the beauty and elegance of Hart’s language, I find myself agreeing with his critics. There are to be sure various theories of natural law but the Christian (and after reading Levinas’s (1969, 1987) work, I would say the biblical) understanding of natural law is rooted in a careful attention to human experience. Hart, like the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras (1984), rejects natural law as such but a natural law rooted in ontological abstraction. Natural law in the biblical sense does not seek to draw ethical conclusions from abstract ontology speculation but from human experience.

Attending to my experience I realize that I only want to be happy. Looking a bit more closely at myself I realize that some things make me happier than other but that sometimes even the best things can leave me feeling empty. I also realize some things bring me only a temporary feeling of happiness—they make me happy for the  moment—while other things have the ability to bring me a lasting happiness. The Christian tradition calls this latter, lasting happiness, joy. So my experience tells me that not only can I be happy I can be joyful. There are thoughts and actions that bring me a kind of happiness that is not dependent on circumstances event. The paradox of joy is that it transcends the very circumstances that revealed it  to me. My thoughts and actions embody what Paul Ricoeur calls a “surplus of meaning” (1976). Sensitivity to this surplus of meaning, to the transcendent dimension of human experience, is essential to a wholesome human life and especially to the Christian life.

Continue reading

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Conformed to Christ: Spiritual Formation

For many Orthodox Christians spiritual formation is defined practically, if not intentionally, in functional terms: a daily rule of prayer, keeping the fasts, regular attendance at Divine Liturgy and reception of Holy Communion and Holy Confession.  To this might be added the regular reading of Scripture, the Church Fathers and the writings of the saints and contemporary spiritual writers.

Let me first of all say that none of this is wrong. In fact it’s all very good–and especially in the case of the sacraments, essential–to living a wholesome and balanced life in Christ.  Essential practices however are not necessarily sufficient in themselves. To paraphrase St Ignatius of Antioch, it isn’t enough to do Christian things, one must actually BE Christian. Again, this isn’t to deny the necessity of the sacraments, ascetical struggle, daily prayer and the reading of Scripture. It is however to say that these are all means to a particular end.

Self-Knowledge. Spiritual formation is, I would argue, more than just being faithful to good Christian practices; it is about being and becoming Christian, something which is always and necessarily personal. In this context personal is more than just an assertion that I must pray, keep the fast and participate in the sacraments. A personal spiritual life builds on these practices. But spiritual formation requires that we make use of these practices to foster the process of self-discovery, self-acceptance and self-expression of who I am and am called to be in Jesus Christ.

Building on a sound human formation (see here), spiritual formation means coming to know and accept myself in light of the Gospel. While in principle the content of a sound human formation is universal, Christian formation requires my personal commitment to live as a disciple of Christ. This means not only drawing close to Him in prayer and study, but shaping my life around the Gospel and the example of His life. And again this is necessarily personal because while we share a common call and walk a common path, we each of us my respond to that call and walk that path uniquely.

Especially in the preparation of men for holy orders, we neglect to their harm, and the Church’s, the three goals of spiritual formation: self-knowledge, self-acceptance and self-expression in Christ. A priest without accurate self-knowledge will inevitably confuse his own transitory desires—and even his own passions–with the will of God.  In a more positive vein, the primacy of self-knowledge in the spiritual life reflects the anthropological fact that the first revelation of God’s love for me is me. My life, like each human life, is a gift of incalculable value and importance. Each human life is, quite literally, God’s gift to the world.

Far from being the merely functional, “value-free,” examination offered by secular psychotherapy, self-knowledge in Christ is just that, knowing myself in light of the Gospel. This includes not only an awareness of my shortcomings and sinfulness but also (and more fundamentally) the talents and gifts that God has given me uniquely.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so (Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2).

Shakespeare is saying in his own way what King David says in the Psalms:

 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,

The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,

What is man that You are mindful of him,

And the son of man that You visit him?

For You have made him a little lower than the angels,

And You have crowned him with glory and honor (Psalm 8:3-5).

David sees all humanity and so himself as a creature. He embraces his own life within the context of creation’s magnificence and the glory of God. Creation as an expression of the Divine Glory also serves as the context for David’s self-knowledge and his knowledge of his neighbor. This wholly positive and appreciative view of humanity does not, as other Psalms make clear, preclude a sharp, and at times even bitter, awareness of human sinfulness–his and mine. But I would argue that it is awe at the work of God which is humanity that is primary for David.

Self-Acceptance. Without this fundamentally positive view of the human person, true repentance is impossible.  Nietzsche, Marx and Freud—modernity’s masters of suspicion—have all ably demonstrated that an awareness of humanity’s moral failings doesn’t require faith in Jesus Christ. The problem of a Freud, a Marx, or a Nietzsche isn’t that they’re wrong but that they aren’t right. They understand human sinfulness as well as, or maybe even better, than most. What they fail to understand is forgiveness. Vice for them is the constant and defining characteristic of humanity and the life of virtue a mere dodge and act of bad faith.

Self-knowledge then must bear fruit of self-acceptance. To merely acknowledge my failures or my abilities is insufficient. I must accept my life as a gift from God and only within that context can I truly understand my own sinfulness. Sober self-acceptance means that while I acknowledge my sinfulness, it is God’s love and mercy for me that sets the dominate tone. While this is important for all human beings, it is critically important for the priest. Simply put, a priest can’t offer what he doesn’t have. A priest who doesn’t know and accept his abilities as well as his limitations, his virtues as well as his vices, and do so in gratitude for God’s mercy and love for him, can’t effectively communicate forgiveness and so can’t credibly call others to repentance. A man who is not a friend of Christ can’t introduce others to Christ as a friend.

This then leads to the third and final element of spiritual formation: self-expression.

Self-Expression. The personality and character of the priest must be a bridge and not an obstacle to faith in Jesus Christ. This means, on the one hand, that the priest relates to others in such a way as to offer evidence of God’s love and mercy for each and every human person. A priest who is harsh or indifferent, to others is as unlikely to draw others to Christ as the priest who is inconsistent or inflexible in his decisions.

At the same time, a priest’s personality or appearance can’t be such that he, rather than Christ, becomes the focus. If a harsh priest will drive others away from Christ, a priest who is overly familiar with others or eccentric in speech or dress will become the message rather than Jesus Christ.  While I am mindful and supportive of the traditional dress of Orthodox clergy, to offer one example, the priest must be mindful that a purely external fidelity is symptomatic of a priest who has succumbed to the temptation of eccentricity and vainglory. The last thing a priest by word or deed should say is “Look at me!” Rather he should say, with St Paul, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”

Saying the latter, while avoiding the former, is the fruit not only of a sound spiritual and the personal and moral maturity of a wholesome human formation. It also requires a solid intellectual formation and mastery of the professional skills essential to the pastoral life.

Next up, the intellectual formation of priests.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Priestly Formation: A Suite in Four Parts

Being a pastor is more like being a jazz musician than it is being say an engineer. All three of these occupations require a great deal of technical skill to be sure. But the pastor, like the jazz musician, is often called upon to improvise on a theme more than, like the engineer, apply a theory to a problem. This is all to say that pastoral ministry is more art than science.

Over the last 10 years or so I’ve worked with communities in transition. What I’ve notice is that typically problems arise in the parish when someone—it needn’t be the pastor—takes what we might call an engineering approach to the life of the congregation. They have a theory and they are going to fit the community into its framework.

This is also something I see frequently as a spiritual director and confessor. When I talk with people about the different ways they go off track in their prayer lives, at work or with their family and friends the source of their suffering is that life just isn’t working out according to [their] plan. Problems in living arise when life becomes a project to be completed or a problem to be solved and not the other way around. When I lose a living sense of awe in the face of reality, or when I don’t see my life as a mystery to be lived, this is when life becomes a problem. Continue reading

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Young Adult Spiritual Formation and the Family

My earlier post on campus ministry (here) brought some very good responses and questions both on this blog and on Facebook.

One of the questions I was asked is a question I frequently hear. How do we keep our children in the Church? Continue reading

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