Orthodox Church to hold ecumenical council?

What do our Orthodox readers make of this?

Twelve heads of autonomous Orthodox churches, the second-largest family of Christian churches, also agreed to hold a summit of bishops, or ecumenical council, in 2016, which will be the first in over 1,200 years.

The Istanbul talks were called to decide on the council, which the Orthodox have been preparing on and off since the 1960s, but the Ukraine crisis overshadowed their talks at the office of spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Don’t do it!

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Why gravitational waves from the early universe are a big deal

Today, the BICEP2 team announced the detection of what they claim is an imprint of long wavelength gravitational waves in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background.  If this holds up (a big if:  lots of exciting discoveries don’t hold up when some neglected systematic error turns up), it will be the most important discovery in cosmology since the first evidence for dark energy, and for physics in general I would rate it more important than the detection of the Higgs boson.

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A plea for mercy

We have all been inspired by Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Kasper’s gestures of compassion to the divorced and remarried.  Indeed, we are all sinners, and these wise prelates know that the Lord’s table is no place to exclude those who refuse to submit to Jesus’ statements on remarriage.  However, it should be remembered that selective mercy is often a greater cruelty to those who remain outside its graces.  Let us not forget those other sensitive Christian souls who have for so long suffered judgement and exclusion from the Church.  I refer, of course, to that other subset of unrepentant adulterers, the ones who haven’t abandoned their first families and civilly remarried.

Consider, if you will, the dilemma of a believing Catholic man who has found himself in a relationship with a mistress.  Rosary-counting Catholics–more Pharisee than Christian!–would condemn this man for his sins of “lust”, but I know that many extramarital relationships involve genuine friendship, love, and spiritual fellowship.  We acknowledge that the love in this man’s marriage has failed, and we have to feel the pain of the failure; we have to accompany those persons who have experienced this failure of their own love.  Not to condemn them!  To walk with them!  And to not take a casuistic attitude towards their situation.

What do adulterers actually hear from us though, when they earnestly desire to participate fully in the life of the Church?  Do we not presume to judge them?  Do we not cruelly demand that they severe those extramarital attachments that bring them so much joy and comfort?  Do we not hold the Lord hostage, saying that adulterers may not receive the Eucharist until they conform to our ideas of an acceptable level of monogamy?  Yes, we acknowledge that it may not be practical for a man never to see his mistress again, but we insist that when he does spend time with her they should behave as brother and sister.  But this is cruelly unrealistic!  A man may have an intensely meaningful relationship with his mistress.  Illegitimate children might be involved.  Plus, she might be totally hot.

Consider also the utter perversity of the fact that if this man were to abandon his wife and children to poverty and fatherlessness and “marry” his mistress, he would be welcomed with open arms in the Church of Pope Francis the Merciful.  Is it not bizarre that we accept a man who breaks all of his marital vows but not a man who only breaks one of them?

What should the Church do in such situations?  It cannot propose a solution that is different from or contrary to the words of Moses.  The question is therefore how the Church can reflect this command of fidelity in its pastoral action concerning adulterers.  It is always the case that those in mortal sin are called to spiritual communion with the Church even though they can’t receive sacramental communion.  But if one, why not the other?  Some maintain that non-participation in communion is itself a sign of the sanctity of the sacrament.  The question that is posed in response is:  is it not perhaps an exploitation of the person who is suffering and asking for help if we make him a sign and a warning for others?  Are we going to let him die of hunger sacramentally in order that others may live?

Now, it is true, alas, that the Church cannot disregard the biblical teaching that cheating on one’s spouse is sinful.  However, while doctrine teaches us what is true in the abstract, it doesn’t judge concrete particulars.  Thus, just as we now know that although sodomy is abstractly speaking always a mortal sin, every particular homosexual relationship is wonderful and deserving of civil affirmation, we can say that although adultery is wrong in the abstract, human beings are not abstractions, and we may not judge any particular extramarital dalliance.  We shall not presume to tell the husband with a wandering eye whom he may and may not love!  Look, the same bible that teaches us about the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people.  So I would say to the married man who’s on the side proudly banging his secretary “Bravo“.

Yes, we may say that monogamy is ideal, so long as we don’t proudly imply that open marriages among our sincere Christian brothers and sisters are therefore inferior.  Nor may we imagine that a man’s sexual desire for his wife is somehow more wholesome than a desire for some random other woman.  That would be to encourage the sin of pride in those who happen to be attracted to their spouses, an inclination that is not in itself praiseworthy.

Acceptance of adultery means compassion toward everyone:  the cheater, the mistress,…, um, yeah, everyone.

Things you can’t ask about symbols: False resolutions

Please excuse me while I argue with myself.

1. The Bible was written for the simple people of that time and used images and metaphors because that’s what people could understand.  We’re smarter, so we can discard that now.

You’re no smarter than the people who first listened to Moses.  If they needed images and metaphors, you need them too.

2. It’s all lies!  Silly fables!  Let’s just have done with it.

Even if this weren’t the word of God we’re talking about, that would be a silly thing to say.  Sure, it seems next to impossible that all the world’s animals really descend from those on the Ark.  Still, a story like the Flood, shared by peoples all over the world, has got to be more than just the product of some random storyteller’s imagination.  Perhaps there was some event that all peoples vaguely remember.  My suspicion is that every legend has some basis in fact.  But even if you don’t believe this, it’s pretty remarkable that this story is so widely shared.  If we assume nothing like what it describes ever happened, then it means either that lots of peoples independently keep recreating this story, or else this story has some sort of special appeal that it transmits quickly from people to people, even when they’re not much interested in other aspects of each others’ culture.  Either way, we have the sense that this story is some kind of given, an archetype not manufactured but discovered, a truth of the human imagination if not of natural history.  It is certainly worth getting to the bottom of.

3. It’s all well and good to say that Genesis is really giving us symbols of spiritual truths, but to be credible as anything but face-saving in the face of scientific disproof, you’d better be able to say exactly what the symbolism is, and why it had to be related in this way rather than plainly and literally.

If I could tell you exactly what the symbols say, then there wouldn’t have been any need for them, and they would ipso facto not have been necessary.  Symbols are not code for literal propositions; they exist to express truths and connections that can’t be expressed with literal propositions.

4. But the only reason you’re looking to chuck the literal–in the modern sense of that word–meaning is that you’re embarrassed by it.  The authority of the Bible doesn’t lead you to these weird interpretations, just the fact that you don’t believe what the Bible is telling you.  That means that, whatever you may tell yourself, there actually are authorities that trump the Bible for you.  Why not be honest with yourself?  If you can’t salvage your faith, at least preserve your honesty.

That’s mean.  Especially since I’ve already expressed my hunch that there is some historical kernel to all of this.  I don’t pretend to have any general principles to offer, but a guideline is to notice when scripture is expressing the inexpressible.  For example, Genesis begins with God about to impose form on the Earth, and the chaos of formlessness is represented (as it is for pretty much all peoples) by the primordial waters.  Now, in reality, formlessness is one thing that the human mind can’t truly conceive, because the way to think about anything is precisely to extract the form.  All our ideas about space, time, mass, and energy are formal aspects of material being.  And even after God forms the world, the primordial waters remain as a sign of whatever lies beyond the realm of intelligibility, a beyond about which, by its very “nature”, we can say nothing direct.  I suspect that all peoples retain this intuition that beyond the realm of order is a vast chaos, not a mere absence of being, but something active, always ready to crash in on the ordered realm, dissolving form and identity, destroying and renewing.  Thus the resonance of the story of the Ark, since indeed the ordered realm is conceived as itself a sort of Ark surrounded by the primordial waters.

Could it be true, that some physical, psychological, or social force of chaos once overwhelmed humanity?  If so, it could only properly be remembered by myth.

Do you believe in Noah?

It’s a funny thing that we’re always making fun of Mormons for their “weird” beliefs, when our own Bible contains a well-known story far more implausible–meaning both intrinsically implausible and seemingly incompatible with geological and genetic (for every animal species!) evidence–than anything in the Book of Mormon.

So, do I really believe that a six hundred year old guy saved the animals from a worldwide flood by putting a pair of each on a big boat?  It’s funny that nobody asks me this, so I never bother to ask myself.  Battles over the authority of the Old Testament always seem to concentrate on whether the Earth was really made in six days, whether there was a historical Adam and Eve, and whether Moses really wrote the Pentateuch.  So that’s what we think about.  The story of the Flood seems to be one where nothing is at stake except the reliability of Scripture (whereas Christian orthodoxy requires some sort of historical Fall in order to make sense), meaning that we’d all be happy to relegate Noah’s ordeal to some sort of allegory.  On the other hand, if we take it on ourselves to start saying that this or that part of the Bible didn’t really happen, where will it end?  The Fundamentalists are right to worry that this sort of attitude will end up making all of revelation optional.

Probably the Church has already spoken on this, pronounced hellfire for anyone who doubts the tale, etc.  If the Church’s enemies start making noises about this issue, I guess I’ll have to read up on it.  For now, I’ll concentrate on more spiritually fruitful questions, and I’ll be careful what I say against the Mormons.

Some links

Here’s something I’m excited about.  Orthosphere-contributor “Proph” has decided to return to the public a bunch of old posts from his excellent prior blog, Collapse:  The Blog.  Collapse was my favorite blog for a while, and as Proph re-releases more posts, you’ll be able to see why.

“Conservatives are stupid and crazy, say totally unbiased social scientists”.  How many times have you seen a headline like that?  Now Radish has gathered up all these reports and subjected them to the debunking they deserve.  As a side-effect, any residual respect for the social science you have might not survive reading that link.

The Vatican II that might have been.  (Hat tip to Phillip Blosser.)  Five of the original schemas drawn up by the preparatory commission (headed by Cardinal Ottaviani) for the second Vatican council have been translated into English.  Compared to the council’s final documents, they are admirably clear and unambiguous.  I note that there was a whole schema on marriage and chastity, and it has a chapter on male headship.

UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has issued a report on the Holy See demanding that the Catholic Church embrace abortion, sodomy, and contraception.  When will the Church accept that the United Nations is irredeemably evil?

My series on Catholicism continues with a post on faith and the sacraments.

Last link on Catholicism–I promise!  Patrick Deneen on the more interesting intra-Catholic battle, the one waged between what he calls too different wings of conservative Catholicism, but that I would call real conservative Catholics vs. Americanist heretics.

For the Olympics, here’s Pat Buchanan asking “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?”  He’s certainly a paragon of sanity compared to any ruler in the West.

The Unz strategy

If nothing else, Ron Unz would win my admiration for his innovative and carefully argued treatises on anti-Gentile discrimination in college admissions and IQ-related topics.  For a long time now, he’s also been making the case for a large increase in the minimum wage (to $12/hour in his state of California).  A short summary of his argument is here.  An even shorter summary is

  1. Having wages so low that workers rely on welfare to survive means the taxpayers are effectively paying business’s labor costs for them.  If one is going to have welfare programs, there needs to be a minimum wage that keeps businesses from unfairly socializing their costs like this.
  2. Illegal immigration is largely driven by the allure of jobs at such low wages that only desperate third-worlders would take them.  Raise wages, and there won’t be jobs “Americans won’t do”, and businesses would have strong incentives to choose the now-available workers that they can legally hire.  Unz originally proposed his plan as the best way to dramatically reduce illegal immigration.

My own interest in the minimum wage stems from my commitment to the core principle of Catholic social teaching in industrial economies, namely that a man should be able to work for a high enough wage that his wife can be home with the kids.  (Even having the men away from home is not the Catholic ideal enunciated by Pope Leo, but it is the ideal compromise with industrialism.)  In a family wage regime, wages would be higher, and the labor pool would be smaller, because the only married women working (family businesses aside) would be those with some special career talent or ambition.  (And remember, we should not be designing economic policies exclusively for that minority of people with a passion for some sort of career.)

The question is, does raising the minimum wage automatically lead to the family wage regime, as most families choose the now available option of a father-only income?  Or does it just increase full family unemployment, with some families getting two incomes and some moving onto the dole?  Surely this depends somewhat on the cultural and legal environment (e.g. demands for proportional representation) and is a matter for careful thought.

Still, I am pleased that, for once, there is an idea on the table that conceivably might lead us toward a more Christian social order.  If you don’t think it would work, can you think of anything that would work better?

Dives in Hell

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Every commentator on this story I’ve read or heard seemed determined to avoid the point Jesus is trying to make.  Many are troubled by that fact that Dives in hell pleads for his family.  He’s not all bad.  It just seems wrong that he’s in hell.  Often I’ll hear priests tell us to ignore that last part.  Dives didn’t really care about keeping his brothers out of hell; we all know there can’t be charity among the damned.  In reading the parable, we should just stick to the main point Jesus is making and ignore (for theological purposes) those little details He adds that make the characters seem to come alive.  Perhaps this is true, but the question is whether in ignoring these details we really are preserving the main point.  The main point is supposed to be that Dives is condemned to Hell because he was rich, Lazarus was poor, and Dives failed to help Lazarus when he could.  In fact, even this is a softening of what Jesus said:  the most straightforward reading of the parable is that Dives is in hell simply for being rich when Lazarus was poor; a philanthropic sin of omission is not explicitly mentioned.  Now, if Dives were indeed a totally heartless man with no concern for anyone but himself, he would have much worse sins on his conscience than failing to help Lazarus.  His damnation would have nothing to do with Lazarus at all, but rather be a consequence of being a complete moral monster.

I once heard a priest say that, according to Thomas Aquinas, Dives is actually in purgatory, because he displays charity, which cannot exist in hell.  This is an interesting argument.  Charity is a supernatural virtue, and the damned are by definition not in a state of grace.  However, could Dives’ plea not be one of natural love and benevolence?  I suppose one could say that even natural virtues are blotted out of the souls in hell.  To me this sounds plausible, but hardly obvious.

The really important point, though, is that we must not alter the parable by making Dives completely wicked during life.  This destroys the point.  Let me therefore add my own embellishments, consistent with the story Jesus tells.

There was once a rich man who lived his whole life in luxury.  He was a pious and patriotic Jew, a loving brother and uncle, a fair and hard-working employer, a generous master, an active and public-minded citizen.  Reverence for God and love of his family guided his life.  He loved children, and many thought it sad that he never knew the joys of fatherhood himself, for his beloved wife having died years ago in a plague, and he could never bring himself to consider remarriage.  There were at his gate poor beggars, faceless shadow beings always on the periphery of his consciousness.  Always there were more important things to attend to.  “Should I toss them a coin?  Perhaps, but not now; let me now attend to my own household.  Perhaps, but not now; let me rest a little.”  And he never got around to them.  When death came, his brothers travelled far to be at his side.  The rich man blessed them all, saying “Do not mourn for me, dear brothers.  I go to the God of Abraham.”  With that, he drifted from consciousness.  He awoke to eternal torment.

Do you like my story?

“Good God, no!  You’ve totally warped the story by making Dives a good man who just does one bad thing.  It wouldn’t be fair for him to go to hell, when so much of his life was good.  You’re making God out to be a monster!”

Ah, but where did you get the idea that “mostly good” people go to heaven, that wide is the gate and broad is the path that leads to eternal life?  Not from the Gospel, I assure you!  We many be damned just for sins of omission to the poor, no matter how good we otherwise are.

“But this is terrifying!”

Indeed.  If you’re scared, you’re starting to get Jesus’ point.


Needless to say, the most important new thing on the internet is part II of my series on Catholicism, connecting part I‘s discussion of the power of natural symbols to the doctrine of the Atonement and setting the stage for part III on the sacraments.

Women who don’t submit to their husbands don’t submit to God.  Nice to have the Church of England acknowledge it, even though they think that non serviam is an acceptable attitude for a Christian to have.  I don’t say this to poke fun; I know perfectly well that my own communion is in an even more lamentable state.

Why does the continued existence of humanity after our personal deaths matter so much to us?  A fascinating exploration of the issue by Samuel Scheffler respectfully critiqued by Mark Johnston.

African American Studies programs explained!  How stupid must these UNC folks be?  It would have been so easy to actually sit their football players in a classroom for a couple of hours a week to bitch about how racist North Carolina and hand out A’s at the end.  Then who would have dared say nothing of academic merit was going on?

Dalrock on the culture’s vigilance in protecting women from the joys of selfless love:

Modern women are warned constantly that acts of service and caring for others are traps they must avoid at all costs, lest they be tricked into a spirit of love and selflessness and “lose themselves”. The very idea of cooking, cleaning, and caring for her husband and family are repulsive and terrifying to the modern woman. If unable to avoid an act of service altogether, modern women are taught to diligently fortify their hearts with a spirit of resentment while doing the act to prevent a spirit of love and selflessness from entering. This sense of determined miserliness extends even to the modern woman’s marital bed. Should even a slight sense of selflessness somehow slip though, modern women are constantly reminded to “be true to themselves” and stamp out any thoughts of love, loyalty, and doing for others before they grow into something terrifying.  A woman who is even suspected of serving others is urgently prescribed a treatment of “pampering themselves” to reorient their frame of mind back to selfishness.

John C. Wright wants to save science fiction from “strong female characters”.

There’s been an outbreak of activity from the internet Overton window police expressing outrage that neoreactionaries and orthospherians should dare reject the intellectual prison known as “the Enlightenment” and its demon god Liberty.  An educational project on our side is obviously appropriate, and I’m sure one of my colleagues or I will get around to it as soon as our current projects are off the plate.

Catholic perspectives

I think it’s dawning on many conservative Catholics that our Church is no longer obviously having any better success resisting modernity than any of the Protestant bodies.  Of course, the ongoing collapse that prompts this realization is evil, but the end of our complacency is for the best.  The “Protestantism=anarchy” apologetic was stupid and didn’t win converts; it just made us feel better.  Now we must reconsider and spell out precisely what it is about our Church that inspires our faith and loyalty.  I’m giving my own answer as a series at Throne and Altar; the first instalment is here.  Since this is an ecumenical site, I thought my old blog would be a better place for it, although Protestant and Orthodox readers will find that I do not criticize their doctrines or communions.  I do not find it necessary, because Catholicism does not define itself in opposition to any other denomination or religion.

If you’d like to comment, you are welcome to do so at Throne and Altar.