Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Our Responsibility for 9/11

This was a response to Lori on the Christ Talk board not long after 9/11.


I am no pacifist or socialist. As a CIA analyst, I spent seven years as a professional anti-communist cold warrior. As an economist, I am a professional apologist for the market and the American way. If I were in the same room with Osama bin Laden, I might very well kill him with my bare hands and not feel very guilty about it. But I think Mr. Ghandi is more right than you are, and I think some of your criticisms of him are unfair, and others are un-Christian.

To acknowledge our responsibility for these evil acts in no way absolves the terrorists, as you seem to think it would. But neither does their guilt absolve us.

In the Liturgies of Holy Week, we take responsibility for Christ's death. The fact that the Pharisees and the Romans crucified him two millennia ago does not absolve us. We are not without sin. We must never imagine, just because we can find someone else to blame, that we are innocent.

As Christians, we must always try to assume the point of view of our enemies. The Golden Rule is not suspended just because we are at war. We must ask honestly what motivates our enemies. Only in this way can we get past self-serving propaganda and hope to discover the root causes of the problem and truly resolve it. And only in this way can we fulfill our Lord's command.

How might we be to blame in the recent terrorist acts? Most obviously and directly, we created the Taliban. The U.S. government provided massive funding to the Mujahedin who were fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. But we did not control where any of the money or arms went. The Pakistani military and intelligence services directed the arms to their favored factions of the Mujahedin – and they favored the radical Islamic factions we now know as the Taliban. We knew what they were doing (I remember reading about it in National Review at the time), but we thought ousting the Soviets was more important than the fate of Afghanistan. When the Soviets pulled out, we declared victory and walked away, leaving the country to the mercies of the victors. As always happens in the wake of revolutions, the most violent, amoral faction defeated its former allies to take control.

In the righteous cause of the war against communism, we often used and abused poor countries, discarding them when they were no longer of use to us. In the name of democracy, freedom, and prosperity, we supported governments that deprived their people of these things. In some places, we still do. It is not hard to understand why some citizens of those countries consider us hypocrites.

In other places, where our strategic interests are not at stake, we have tried to impose Western liberal values on countries that were not ready for them. Much of the suffering in Russia these days has resulted from attempts to impose a market economy prematurely, without first creating the cultural and institutional infrastructure required to make it work. We, through the IMF, essentially imposed a kleptocracy (government by criminals) on Russia.

We should not wallow in guilt over our mistakes of the past. But we should repent of them and stop making the same mistakes again. And we should try to clean up some of the messes we have made. Otherwise, new resentment will continue to create more terrorists, and we will never win the war against terrorism.

Monday, July 2, 2001

Bishop Kallistos on Primacy and Prayer

On Wednesday 20 June, I visited St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church, near Fairfax, VA, to hear Bishop Kallistos Ware speak. I will briefly describe the service of Vespers that preceded the bishop's talk and the iconography of the church, and then summarize both his formal address and his brief pastoral talk.

Coptic Vespers. I arrived about a third of the way through Vespers, just as they were beginning a series of doxologies to the Virgin Mary, the angels, the apostles, St. Mark the Evangelist (founder of the Church in Egypt, according to local tradition), St. Athanasius, and St. Anthony. Each doxology consisted of a series of short verses recounting the histories of the saints and requesting their prayers. The cantor would sing a verse in Coptic, and then the choir and congregation would sing the next in English. The bulletin included each verse in both languages, making it easy to follow. (Coptic is surprisingly easy to follow, since it uses an expanded version of the Greek alphabet and borrows a lot of Greek vocabulary for liturgical use.) A proper psalm and gospel reading followed the doxologies, and the service concluded with a series of prayers (during which we recited the Lord's Prayer at least three times). They used the traditional monophysite interpolations in the Trisagion, including the line, "Holy mighty one, who was crucified for us," which once caused so much controversy (some feared that it implied Patripassianism). The only other thing that struck me as strange was the repeated application of the term Pantocrator to the Father, rather than the Son.

The church is quite new – until recently, St. Mark's worshiped at a small, old church west of Tyson's Corner. There is a large central dome over the square nave and a smaller dome over the apse. The window treatment above the side aisles gives it a Middle Eastern feel. Where the royal doors and the deacon's doors would be in a Byzantine iconostasis, St. Mark's has heavy maroon curtains.

The iconography is of mixed types. The central image of the Last Supper above the middle curtain was very Western and representational. The icons along the side aisles are somewhat more stylized, but less so than Byzantine icons. And all of the other icons at the front of the church, corresponding to a Byzantine iconostasis, were in a style I later heard described as "neo-Coptic." It appeared to have heavy Ethiopian influence, with round faces and large eyes. Icons of Christ Pantocrator and the Theotokos flanked the central curtain to the right and left. On the far right was the Baptism of Christ and on the far left St. Michael. Above the side curtains were panels with the twelve apostles. You can find links to neo-Coptic images on this page (you have to click twice to make the buttons work).

Power, Authority, and Service. Bishop Kallistos was in town for the Orientale Lumen Conference, which he attends every year around this time at Catholic University. The theme for this year's conference was "Primacy and Conciliarity: Finding a Common Vision." A brief description of the conference, including a photo of Vespers at St. Mark's, can be found here.

The bishop's address on Wednesday evening stuck to the theme of the conference, exploring the issues of power, authority, and service in the Church. (I did not take notes, so this will all be from memory. I hope I will represent Bp. Kallistos's thoughts accurately.) His first text came from the Synoptic Gospels: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever is great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28). He also read the somewhat different version of this saying from Luke 22:25-27. In the Church, authority comes from diakonia and primacy from kenosis.

Leadership in the Church is so different from the worldly political realm that it can only be misleading to compare them. Authority in the Church is, first, the authority of Christ. He shares his authority with his Bride, the Church. He does not delegate, but shares his authority. Bp. Kallistos singled out the title "Vicar of Christ" for special criticism. This title, usually applied to the Pope, has, in recent times, been applied to all bishops. But it is terribly inappropriate. A vicar is one who exercises authority on behalf of another who is absent. But Christ is not absent from the Church, as this title would imply. Bp. Kallistos pointed more favorably to another papal title that is a favorite of John Paul II: the Servant of the Servants of God.

His second text came from John: "You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" (15:14-15). We are still to obey Christ's commands, but we now do so not blindly as servants, but in knowledge, as friends. And it is not only the bishops who are Christ's friends, but all Christians! That Christ's knowledge and authority are shared by all the faithful is embodied in the traditional formulation, sensus fidelium. It is not only the bishops who are responsible for defining and guarding the faith, but the entire Church. The pronouncements of councils of bishops must be received by the whole Church before they can be taken as final and definitive. There have been times when most of the bishops bowed to heresy, but the laity preserved the true faith.

This, of course, is not to say that bishops have no special role to play in the Church, or that the Pope has no special role to play among the bishops. But the Pope's traditional primacy among the bishops is often misunderstood. This is demonstrated clearly by the recent ARCIC statement, "The Gift of Authority," which focuses on the primacy of the Pope and the authority of diocesan bishops. The document ignores the many intermediate levels of primacy – patriarchs, primates, metropolitans – in an effort to emphasize the special role of the Pope. But the Pope and other patriarchs have no special ontological status separate from the rest of the episcopacy. They do not receive a fourth ordination. Any special authority they have can only be understood as relative authority within the college of bishops. It is only within this context that Papal primacy can be properly understood.

Pray Without Ceasing. The formal address of Bp. Kallistos was followed by a lively musical interlude by the parish choir, featuring chant and percussion. I took this opportunity to get a better look at the icons in the side aisles, all of which depicted Egyptian saints – some familiar (Anthony) and some not (Mina). The bishop then gave a brief pastoral talk to a much smaller audience, consisting mostly of members of the parish. His text was St. Paul's instruction, "Pray without ceasing." He offered practical advice on how to approach this goal more closely in our own lives. His suggestions included: 1) Upon awaking, begin the day by making the sign of the cross. And at the end of the day, make the sign of the cross again before going to bed. 2) During moments of free time say an "arrow prayer" – a prayer like the Jesus Prayer that is short and goes straight to the target. 3) Give thanks before eating. 4) Be conscious of God's presence in our daily activities – for example, to see our encounters with other people as opportunities to meet God. 5) When reading Scripture, read it as if it is God's word to you.

Friday, June 22, 2001

Expectation and Hope

I originally posted this essay to the Christ Talk board, which succeeded UCMPage after the latter board's implosion.


Perhaps I am too comfortably post-Constantinian in my churchmanship, but I'm not sure those early Christians who expected the imminent return of Christ were best examples of Christians in their generation – even if they were in the majority in some places at some times. It reminds me too much of the cults whose members sell all their worldly goods and retreat to await the end of the world.

Instead of forming expectations about Christ's return and then living our lives contingent upon our expectations, should we not be prepared for all possible contingencies? Christ has this habit of not conforming himself to our expectations . . . Perhaps the only thing we should count on is that he will surprise us.

I think St. Paul exemplified such an approach, in a different context, when he said, "Whether I live or whether I die, then, I am Christ's."

However, I think the key question is neither expectation nor preparation, but hope: Do we truly hope for Christ's return? Do we join the early Christians in crying, "Maranatha"? When we pray, "Thy kingdom come," do we mean it?

It is hard for us to wish for Christ's return. The prophets warned that the day of reckoning would not be what their hearers wished or expected – that they would suffer – that one has to be pretty bad off before he can count on his condition being improved by God's judgment. Christ himself often said, "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first." Given our comfortable American lives, we might reasonably fear Christ's coming, rather than hope for it.

But most Americans look to Christ's coming with neither hope nor fear. This is exactly the sort of question that our consumer culture does its best to keep us from facing. The Establishment wants to keep the drones on their treadmills, working and consuming without thinking too much about what it means (or should mean) to be human beings subject to divine judgment.

American business has mastered the tactic of transmuting our spiritual longings into new sales opportunities. This not only makes a buck for someone, it also cons us into thinking that we have "made a statement" by the way we have spent our money. Thus, every sector of our consumer economy now has a special niche where the adjective "Christian" precedes the name of every product. We can now practice our religion by simply buying products bearing our own union label.

Eventually, however, the commercial anesthetic will wear off, and American Christians might then realize that they no longer have a stake in this culture of spiritual death. Then perhaps they will wake up and take up the Revelator's cry, "Come, Lord Jesus."

Friday, April 27, 2001

Culture and Religion

I originally posted this essay to the old UCMPage message board. Most of the participants were United Methodist clergy of a high-church (i.e., sacramental and apostolic) orientation. Popular topics on the board included incarnational theology, eschatology, ecumenism, Calvinist-bashing, and baseball. My two favorite UCMPage participants have moved on, respectively, to the Byzantine Catholic Church and the Anglican Mission in America.


We have the misfortune, unique in human history, to live in a society totally devoid of culture – a post-cultural society. We throw around the term culture a lot, but we are always using it in a metaphoric sense (e.g., "corporate culture"), not in a literal sense (unless we are talking about times and places other than our own).

It is our nature as human beings to live in a culture. A culture ties together a people or nation in much the same way as a language. It provides norms that govern individual behavior, interpersonal relations, and collective action. It serves as a reservoir of common stories, images, and metaphors that make communication and community possible. We inherit a culture that embodies the wisdom of our ancestors, and we pass it on to our descendants. In a lot of ways, it similar to the concept of Tradition in Orthodox Christianity.

But our society has jettisoned culture. In the U.S., the ACLU seems to believe that every remnant of culture is an offense against the Constitution, to be stamped out. Each generation assumes as its birthright the privilege of rejecting everything bequeathed by the previous generation and reinventing everything from scratch. Madison Avenue does its best to squash any carry-over from the past in order to preclude competition for whatever it is selling this week. The establishment seeks to "free" us from culture in order to enslave us to its petty thrills and keep us on the treadmill. All of this is especially true of the Baby Boom generation.

A proper religion must be part of a functional culture. That's what real religion is – the part of culture that addresses the eternal part of our human nature. Some (not all) Protestant churches – and these days even some American Catholic churches – however, have yielded to the surrounding anti-culture. They offer a "religion" that is little more than a hobby or personal idiosyncracy, which does nothing to reconcile us to our ancestors and descendants, our neighbors and enemies, and our own human nature.

But many churches – especially the Orthodox, but also many ethnic Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans (not to mention the Amish and the Old Believers) – respond in a different way to the disappearance of their culture. Since they are no longer surrounded by a functional culture, to which their religion can become enculturated, they simply preserve the culture they inherited. This culture is, unfortunately, not consistent with the anti-culture that dominates the rest of their lives, so it requires a bit of double-think. But real religion must be embodied in a real culture, and a slightly old-fashioned or old-country culture is better than none.

This is not to say that there is one true (or best) Christian culture, and that Christianity must always take a given form. But Christianity must always take some particular cultural form – it must be incarnated in a particular way among each particular people. It should not be surprising if different peoples, with their different languages, histories, and economic/geographic milieus, would diverge in religious expression and practice as they do in other aspects of culture.

I think the Eastern Churches have, for the most part, done a good job of preserving the proper understanding of the relationship between religion and culture. When we of the West visit an Eastern church, therefore, we must overcome two hurdles: 1) We must suppress our perverse modern Western tendency towards anti-culturalism and accept the culture-laden religious expressions of Eastern liturgy and theology; and 2) we must learn to operate in the particular culture of the people whose church we are visiting.

I think the latter problem is perfectly understandable. It is only natural to feel more at home in one's own native culture, just as one prefers to speak one's own language. Until you learn through long practice to operate in another culture (or language), you must spend a lot of energy in translation, and then you still wonder if you aren't missing something important. But eventually, you do learn to function in the new culture, and the added perspective you bring from your native culture can even enrich the experience by suggesting parallels or contrasts to meditate on.

I suspect the former hurdle, however, is more problematic for most Americans – not the particular cultures of the Eastern churches (Greek, Arabic, Slavic, etc.), but the very fact of the importance of culture, which entails an implicit rejection of modern American anti-culture.

I am privileged to be part of an Anglo-Catholic parish that rivals the most ethnic of Orthodox parishes in its preservation of culture and customs from the Old Country. In our case, however, the Old Country is England, so we can have a full cultural embodiment of our religion without having to learn a totally foreign culture.

At the same time, as Orthodox Churches in the U.S. draw American converts and come to be dominated by American-born members rather than immigrants, they face both an opportunity and a danger. The opportunity is to preserve their traditional connection between culture and religion, while adapting to their new cultural environment. The danger is that, as they become Americanized, they will adapt to the anti-culture and forfeit the treasure they have preserved. I have seen examples of both tendencies among the Orthodox in this country.

Wednesday, January 31, 2001

For Sociobiology

This is a letter I submitted to First Things in 2001. They sent me a nice letter saying I had obviously thought long and hard about this issue, but they didn't publish the letter.


Dear Editor:

Tom Bethell's article, "Against Sociobiology" (January 2001), is wrong on so many points that I'm not sure where to begin. So, instead, I'll start with Edward T. Oakes' review of Phillip E. Johnson's new book in that same issue. Oakes cites J.H. Newman's description of a rhetorical trick favored by secular intellectuals: "They persuade the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true." In the particular instance addressed by both Oakes and Bethell, some biologists who proclaim the truth of naturalistic evolution proceed to infer therefrom that God does not exist and that religion is wrong or invalid or obsolete. Oakes is not taken in by this leap of logic, but I fear that Bethell is.

A false implicit assumption underlies the atheistic scientists' argument: That demonstrating a completely naturalistic explanation for a phenomenon is sufficient to preclude any role for the supernatural. For a Christian, however, this reasoning is not only illogical but heretical. If we begin by positing the mutual exclusivity of the natural and the supernatural, we must end by denying the Incarnation. Those of us who affirm that Christ's full divinity and full humanity coexist in him without confusion and without division should have no trouble seeing room for the hand of God behind the completely naturalistic world described by biologists. Likewise, if we can believe in both free will and predestination – that human beings, choosing freely within earthly constraints, unwittingly behave as if according to a divine script – then we should find it no stretch to suppose that a completely naturalistic process of evolution could fulfill a foreordained divine plan.

Bethell gets so sidetracked by his concern over the non-issue of naturalism that he misses the real issue at stake in the Sociobiology Wars: the reality of human nature. While Lewontin and Gould, on the one hand, and Dawkins and Wilson, on the other, agreed on the premise of naturalism, they disagreed – sometimes bitterly – on human nature. Bethell nicely exposes the political motivation of the former pair, whose prior commitment to Marxism demanded that they deny human nature in order to portray humans as blank slates who could be conformed to the revolutionary order. Therefore, Lewontin and Gould asserted an arbitrary limitation on the scope of evolution, requiring that it govern only physical development, but not trespass on the realms of mind and culture. (Ironically, this parallels the arbitrary limitation on the scope of evolution asserted by those creationists who concede the reality of "microevolution" but dispute the evolution of new species.)

Edward O. Wilson, on the other hand, carried evolutionary theory honestly to its logical conclusion. His theories do not, as Bethell contends, imply that human culture and behavior are, themselves, biologically hardwired. Rather, Wilson's theory of the coevolution of mind, culture, and environment implies that culture operates in the human mind much like language. The capacity for language is hardwired in the human brain, but the actual expression of this capacity in an individual depends on the what language(s) the individual is exposed to, particularly in childhood. The forms that human languages can take, however, are limited and defined by the linguistic structures of the mind. Likewise, the capacity for culture is an innate element of human nature. It is our nature to live in a culture as surely as it is our nature to speak. The particulars of culture will vary between different times and places, as culture adapts (evolves) to meet the demands of a given environment, but the functions that culture serves and the forms it takes are defined by the cultural structures of the human mind.

Where does this leave religion? I think Wilson would probably classify religion as a special element of culture that recurs in all human cultures because we have an innate capacity for it – and that this capacity is (or was at one time) adaptive. Wilson's charitable attitude towards religion, a marked contrast to that of Lewontin, is consistent with his sociobiological model of evolution. (And Wilson is not exactly an atheist, as Bethell seems to imply. He describes himself as a Deist, much like his heroes of the Enlightenment era.) So evolutionary biology, carried to its logical conclusion, suggests what Christianity and the other major religions have told us all along: that our religious longing for transcendence is an innate part of who we are as human beings.

Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, takes exception to this conclusion. He largely agrees with Wilson's sociobiology, but he bends over backwards to explain away the obvious implication that religion must be an adaptive characteristic of human nature. I think the vehemence of his attacks on religion reflects the feebleness of his argument. His attempts to reconcile his visceral disdain for religion with his science are utterly unconvincing.