Yesterday, I wrote about parenting in a way that caused offense to a number of my friends — including my wife. For this, I ask your forgiveness. Partly, I wrote to get a reaction — with a title like “Radioactive Content”, this should not be a surprise. I’ve revised it since to be less reactionary, but I spent a lot of time last night and this morning thinking about it. A good part of that time, I spent obsessing about what I should go say to defend myself, trying to come up with something devastating that I could say to make it obvious I was right and everyone else had better toe the line. This is something I struggle with constantly: trying to bend the world to my will, to convince others that I am right, that I deserve to be listened to. Of course, you all know better. I’m a narcissistic blow-hard. So I sat down this morning and read over Do not Resent, Do not React, Keep Inner Stillness by Metropolitan Jonah. In it, His Beatitude reviews everything I’ve learned from a number of Orthodox writers, but it was a review I needed this morning — a reminder not to provoke others, not to “enflame the passions”. It was a reminder to keep from causing resentment as well as holding onto my own resentment. It was a reminder that I am, as we pray before communion, first among sinners. I ask your forgiveness.
I’m going to take this from “hot-button” to radioactive. Children deserve a resident father. Women do not deserve to have children simply because they want them. … There’s a difference between what adults want and what children need, and children’s needs trump adults’ wants.
(from Are Fathers Optional?)
In case you hadn’t caught the clue, I’m what most people would call a social conservative in almost the strictest sense of the word. When we make decisions that affect other people, we should consider their needs. When we’re thinking about bringing life into the world, we need to be especially sober. Twelve years ago, Dolly was created and cloning became something that people began to think about as a possibility. Articles were written about the possibility of men and women having themselves cloned so there would be mini-me‘s running around — blatant testaments to their parent’s vanity. Imagine! I could raise my genetic offspring without having to put up with a woman! seemed to be the gist of some of them. But I do not recall the obvious narcissism being discussed. Suppose it is possible in a few years to have a child who shares all my genetic characteristics without the bother of first developing a lasting relationship with someone else — or, for that matter, having much of any interaction with anyone else at all. The narcissism seems so obvious. Perhaps it is because we celebrate narcissism in our culture that this doesn’t bother us. Even many “christian” leaders seem to have discarded the idea that pride is the root of all sin and promoted their face and personality more than they’ve demonstrated humility. I suppose it shouldn’t be any surprise that, here in America, men and women feel the right to pursue their desire to have children, without intending to have any sort of relationship with the child’s other parent. This is, after all, the land of individuality and self expression. Why not buy a child to raise as my own if I can? I don’t think it would be profitable to start legislating my morality — how far would an anti-pride/anti-narcissism ordinance get, and would I be the first one charged? When I read the statistics of how many people are being voluntarily raised by a single parent, whether that parent has 14 children or one, I feel like I am, as Father Stephen writes, standing on the edge of cultural disaster. We’ve been here before and we’ll move on. Life will continue despite a world that seems to be falling apart around us constantly, whether the immanent danger is climate change, abortion, or economic collapse. (Update: The quote that started this post used to include a bit about “stigmatizing women” who choose to have children without fathers. People ended up responding to that, thinking I was directing my ire to women in particular, instead of anything else I said, so, even though I liked the responses, I took it out. I want to make it clear that anyone, man or women, who sets out to have children by themselves, intentionally depriving them from the start of their other parent, is wrong.) Added: No one “deserves” to have children. No one has the right to have children. Parents have an obligation to provide the best household they can for their children. Going into parenting intending to short-change your children by eliminating one parent is not in their best interest and is an avoidable decision.
In response to a NYT article about Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church, my friend Jim writes “I personally find it a bit of a mystery that some people find comfort and hope in that sort of theological framework”. By contrast, I can totally understand it. I understand it, but disagree with it. My experience as a Christian, and a little healthy doubt, has lead me to reject my one-time fascination for hard-core, predestined-from-the-womb Calvinism. But, while I’m not comfortable with a Calvinistic god who is completely arbitrary — one who has no real way of showing love — I doubt an individualized god who looks like a friendly neighbor who practices a “live-and-let-live” philosophy. It seems the Mars Hill congregation does not want a god who will smile on their imperfections, but what they’ve been offered, what they’ve found to fill their “God-shaped hole”, is indeed not anthropomorphic. It is true that anthropomorphizing God, making him like our tolerant neighbor, is dangerously wrong-headed. But just because we have an incomprehensible god does not mean that we have a view of the right one. A hint of what is so attractive about this “New Calvinism” can be found in Dostoevsky:
Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. (source)
Mars Hill parishioners have pursued this false freedom and found it wanting. Naturally, they turn away from that. Of course, we are always in danger of following the wrong leader, but especially so when we feel weak and are offered something that looks unbending. By way of contrast, I offer this quote from Father Stephen. His whole post is an excellent defense of un-individual, Trinitarian Christianity, but this is quote seemed most relevant:
An excellent example of this occurred once in an inquirer’s class I was teaching before I was Orthodox (I was an Anglican priest). I was teaching a class on Christian morality and offered as authoritative the traditional teachings of the Christian faith in matters of sex and marriage, etc. One of the couples in the class seemed upset by my presentation and asked, “What right does the Church have to tell me how to live my life?” I admit that I was stunned by the question, if only because of its honesty. I gave them a short answer, “Because you are raising my children.” The complete answer has more depth, but I thought they might find it helpful to consider that the world included someone other than themselves.
Last year, I was excited about two documentaries: The Singing Revolution and As We Forgive. Both of these movies offer alternative ways to see the world. The Singing Revolution is a revolution unimaginable to most Americans. Most of us cannot imagine freedom without blood. Especially as we’re in the midst of a war, surrounded by “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers, revolution without bloodshed seems, well, crazy. Crazy enough that a small documentary about one has done pretty well in theatres this past year and managed a place on the marquee amongst larger studios blockbusters. You may not have heard of it, but that isn’t because it didn’t come to a theatre near you. Likewise, As We Forgive is an alternative path to justice. The movie tells the path some Rwandans chose after Genocide, after Gacaca courts, after the system had done everything it could. It tells the story of genocideers working to rebuild homes of their victims. The can’t bring back the families they killed, but they can ask forgivess. Sometimes, the victims can even forgive. This stands in stark contrast to most American’s sense of justice, where we can only imagine victim families giving victim impact statements in a court room, never living in a house built by, and next door to, their husband’s murderer. And as a new year starts, I discovered a new documentary project that I can get excited about. God’s Garden is a documentary about the one man’s discovery of genuine African Christianity. Not “white man’s religion”, but a Christianity that came to Africa before Europeans even knew it existed. An Ethiopian priest introduces him to St Moses and it changes his life. I love documentaries like this. They challenge our view of the world and suggest that, yes, there is another way, a way of peace, forgiveness, change, and love. This is a good reminder when the way we so often choose is with violence, retribution, stasis, and resentment.
You cannot be too gentle, too kind.
Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other.
Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.
All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other…
Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.
Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.
— St. Seraphim of Sarov
I’ve spent the past month or so really thinking about this. I’m not sure I’m man enough to “keep silent” — it seems close to impossible for me to keep my mouth shut at times, even when it would be in my best interest to “refrain from judgment”.
It is almost as if St Seraphim wrote this as s gentle rebuke specifically for me.
Χριστός Ανέστη! Αληθώς Ανέστη!
Христос Воскресе, радост донесе!
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!
Yesterday was Pascha, Orthodox Easter. After 40 days of fasting and living like vegetarians, we came home from Church Sunday morning — and by “morning” I mean it was 1 AM when we got home — and had a nice roast lamb. Then the kids popped in a Mary Poppins video (after The Hogfather, the movie I wanted to see, scared them too much) and I promptly fell asleep.
Wow! If you read my posts on Orthodoxy, you know I often point to Father Stephen’s weblog. Since his post three days ago — a little ontology lesson on why Hell isn’t real — he’s gotten 115 comments (five more now that I hit reload on the page). He does have a sizable readership (in the thousands), but nothing else has generated this much discussion. I suppose this comment in his first reply is about as clear as you can make it:
Literalism is the bane of Scriptural understanding. Not that there aren’t plenty of “literal” things described. But many times we have to push beyond the literal to arrive at the truth.
As many Rwandans say, forgiving is an effort that one makes in order to make life livable, especially since victims and the ex-prisoners have to live together as neighbors again. (— from Reconciliation still a major challenge
Rwanda has too many guilty people for “classic justice” — it just “didn’t meet expectations”. Classic justice is having trouble dealing with the hundreds of thousands of genociders that will show up in court. The guilty and the victims are everywhere. So Rwanda has implemented public confession, after a fashion, in the form of its Gacaca courts. Confess, and your sentence will be reduced. Still, as the quote above hints, it isn’t always easy. Victims and perpetrators have to live next door and they can be a danger to each other.
Describing the experiences of living in the same communities, some survivors said that despite having forgiven and reconciled, they found it hard to look each other in the eye.
Tonight, after confession, my priest told me “Confession is easy, relationships are hard”. I immediately thought of this article. Confession, giving voice to your sin, seems so easy, but we have to do it so often. Screw up, confess. Screw up, confess. Repeat ad infinitum, it seems. Because confession is so easy and does not, in and of itself, mean change, it is nothing compared with going back and reconciling with the one you wronged. When I’ve hurt my wife, she isn’t satisfied that I’ve gone to confession. She wants real change. When the man who killed your family confesses to his crime and has his sentence reduced or forgiven completely, you aren’t going to be satisfied when he moves in beside you. You want real change. (And probably, if we’re honest, some “classic”, retributive justice.) Confession is easy. Reconciliation is hard.
Yesterday was Meatfare Sunday, or the Sunday of the Last Judgment. Next Monday, we Orthodox begin our Lenten fast in earnest. Father Stephen has a great meditation on the meaning of the Last Judgement: The Last Judgment:
When I think about the Last Judgment, apart from whatever cosmic images one may draw upon, I’ve often come back to the simple question: “What do you want?” … “Do I want God?” is not the same thing as “I want health,” or “I want prosperity,” or a number of other things that some attach to the Christian religion. … This is a very different matter than saying “I like religion” or “religious practices” or “I like thinking about God and arguing about theology.” Such things may have a desire for God in them or they may simply be distractions like any number of other hobbies in which we engage. The test of our desire, of course, is love. Do I love God – do I want to love God? Do I want to know God? … Christ Himself makes the question even more concrete, or immediate, in His parable of the Last Judgment. There He says that “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” Thus our love of God is as concrete as our love for every other human being around us – down to the very least.
Its great when a weblog post on software design helps me understand religious movements. Even though I had peripheral knowledge of Emergence, I hadn’t made the connection between it and the “Emerging Church” movement, but coming across the term in an article that asks us to consider that formal methods of software design just don’t cut it. Back in my senior year of college I did a course on Chaos Theory. I didn’t get as much out of it as I should have, but the one thing that stood out to me was how the Mandelbrot Set came from such a simple equation. Who could predict that Z = Z2 + C could produce such complex, unending beauty? Often, when I read about the emerging church, I think “You guys are trying to do what the Orthodox have already accomplished” and now I know why. “In philosophy, systems theory and the sciences, emergence refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” (to quote Wikipedia). This is why the formal specification of software is so hard. Formal systems have a nice tidy set of rules and, from those, try to build complex systems. But simple rules, applied in just a slightly different way lead to dramatically different results. The simple rules deceive us into thinking that we have a controllable output, that we have something predictable. My experience in the Protestant church came to a head when I couldn’t reconcile all the positive statements about God (“God never breaks his promises”, “God’s justice must be satisfied”). That, and all the little “facts” about God seemed like so much hubris. Orthodoxy’s negative theology was really attractive. Instead of making definitive statements about who God is, we only say what we know God is not. I’m guessing the Emerging Church people see the same thing. They see rationalists creating a bunch of rules for God and say “Hey, the church is Emergent! All those little facts and figures help build a big Emergent Church!” So now I understand. The emergent church isn’t “emerging” in the sense that it is “coming out”. The Emergent Church is just saying “All those little simple little things you know about God and the Church don’t mean that they’re simple.”