By Alexander Earl
Modern life is an endless performance. Like the proverbial monkey, we are more than eager to dance, and we hope our dancing will be seen and rewarded. While technology has exacerbated this vice, it would be a mistake to think it has changed the formal quality of anything; rather, all it has done is change the material causes by which our nature is worked out. The tools we use to make statements about ourselves, which we consider utterly necessary to our value and well-being, is positively a multitude. Social media, personal websites, public projects, business cards, chic clothing, hair dyes, tattoos, selfies, even what we choose to do with our weekend and how we will display it to others evince the diverse methods we employ to make a statement about ourselves to the world.
In short, modern life revolves around the desire to be seen and validated. This point is a truism. Nothing can ultimately thwart nature, not even modernity; even in its bewildering attempt to destroy any conception of nature it still must operate within its limits and rhythms. Since human beings are by nature rational, political, and liturgical, we are bound to see these realities expressed, even if inchoately. It was a truism in the ancient world that the differentiating feature of the human being was its rational capacity; we use our discursive abilities to “cut reality at the joints,” as Plato said. However, the ancient conception of reason is not the Cartesian one of subjective isolation. We never truly engage in the rational in isolation, for by nature we seek bonds of affection and mutuality. Hence, when Aristotle articulates human nature, he has no trouble discerning that we are political animals. We come together ultimately not for self-sufficiency, or even worse some kind of utilitarian contract, but rather so that we can perfect our rational natures and engage in the noblest activity of all: contemplation. Yet, again, it would be a mistake to think contemplation entails isolation; even Aristotle knew contemplation is better with friends. The condition for contemplation is always political. The Christian tradition takes this fact and roots it in an ancient value that is often overlooked: piety. True contemplation means attuning and harmonizing ourselves with reality through worship; offering reality to reality for reality. In Christian language, it is Eucharistic all the way down, and our whole being and world must be consecrated to that end.
Thus, considered from the vantage of religious practice, the whole display of modern performance is nothing other than a liturgical one. It should not surprise us, therefore, that we find human beings in the act of consecrating reality all of the time, even if it is to idols. The addiction (and what else is it?) to social media, social posturing, and self-augmentation, be it from otiose clothing to sex changes, speaks to the metaphysical truth that all being is manifestation. To be is to reveal oneself, and the act-of-revealing entails being seen, being known. It is a particular instance of the endless and eternal dance between knower and known. It cannot help but beckon the language of the erotic, for the motion of knower to known is a desire for consummation and communion. In fact, the Platonic tradition would say eros is most properly intellectual. It is because eros is an intellectual reality that our bodies mirror it in a material way. We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to recognize the metaphysical priority.
To make the point more acute, the vessels of modern performance are indistinguishable from the vessels you might find, say, in an Orthodox liturgy. The gold of the censer, the candles, the lamps, and so forth, is still there, it is just used for our iPhone cases and wristwatches: our new vehicles for communicating with reality. The pure cotton, silk, and linens of the vestments, curtains, and altar dressings now make up the luxury garments of fashionistas, and, per usual, are usually reserved for the high priests of our age. The expertly crafted and beautifully ordered wood, stone, marble, and glass is dedicated to the great temples of commerce, as any cursory glance at the likes of Dubai will demonstrate. Even time itself must be sanctified to the prevailing order. As well catechized moderns, we all know what the work day and work week consists of. We all know the sanctity of happy hour and brunch. We all know what evenings are dedicated to celestial festivals and which are reserved for opiate-like rest. In the end, this point is rather trivial, human beings are so effectively liturgical that we simply cannot escape it.
What distinguishes us from our predecessors is that the “to” and “for” of our activity is a great void, the Great Nothing, as many commentators have already pointed out. The modern turn toward subjectivity, voluntarism, nominalism, and so forth, has left the most pernicious vacuum of intelligibility. Even though I am still a rational being and can do nothing to thwart it—since any attempt to do so will at the very least guise itself under some rationale—the pervading Cult of the Will, the idea that my will is governed by no prior rational ends, robs me of any sense of the power, nobility, and sanctity of my rational faculties and their right rule over my appetites. Likewise, even though I am a political animal with contemplative ends, everything around me subdues the natural affection of familial bonds and local friendship to the Cult of Ego. That is, all things must serve whatever spontaneous and irrepressible display of selfhood happens to emerge from the void of the Cult of Will. All objects of knowing are subservient to already prior ideological commitments and reduced to the vacuity of my subjectivity (however utterly incomprehensible that is).
So too, as the term “cult” suggests, these two gods are what they are only because they serve the liturgical impulse of human nature, and as such they must likewise manifest a third god: the Cult of Eros. For this infinite act of will that goes out to dominate all in service to its endless impulse is still, inescapably, bound to the primordial reality of consummation and communion. However, given the depth of this perversity, it can only do so in a horridly grotesque and reptilian fashion, a fact easily discerned by the industry of pornography, the culture of casual sex, and the technologies that serve them.
Our nature is simultaneously rational, political, and liturgical, and so these three perversions are likewise inseparable; an Unholy Trinity emerges. Like any religious experience, the altar to the Great Nothing should make us tremble in fear. It is inscrutable, insatiable, and its ways are unknowable. This Unholy Trinity promises us liberation through the endless performance of the sacrifice of each to the all. Even the Christian economy of salvation is inverted. Where we are paradoxically promised true selfhood in Christ through a self-emptying, the modern story of salvation demands endless indulgence and so leaves us with no self at all. In the wake of this realization, I cannot help but recall a poem by Philip Larkin:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life.
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Even a fever-pitch macabre horror film could not compete with that vision, precisely because it is no vision at all. It is utter privation: the great void of nihilism. In the transcendental gaze only ever captured by poetry, we are given a taste of the new world order of sexual liberation, the benefits of dispensing with tradition, and the final relief that we will not be held accountable to anything, certainly not God, and certainly not hell. The whole of life has no transcendental ends, no meta-narratives to force intelligibility upon us. What endless happiness! What paradise! Let us sing together in jubilation our new thrice-holy hymn to the Unholy Trinity, Holy Nothing, Holy Nowhere, Holy Endless, grant us paradise!
If only. And maybe the vision would be convincing if there were no symptoms from its application. I once saw a student dress up as “Netflix and Chill” for Halloween, cladded with the requisite devil horns, as listless in its presentation as it was in its content. When I asked her to explain to me the inspiration, she calmly explained it was out of irony. Perhaps it was. In any case, it reveals that even a teenager immersed in the truisms of modernity can still make a connection between our behavior and the demonic. What other recourse is there, really, to make sense of our little epoch? What is more disturbing is when recognition is followed by embrace. There are those who not only make recourse to demonic imagery, but are soi-disant nihilists. Such eager displays of the Great Nothing should give us pause.
It is easy to be reductive about these sorts of things, and it is not as if the past fifty years is lacking in similar examples. We could chide it to the inevitable behaviors of late-adolescence in an act of hopeful dismissal on our part, or we could tend toward the self-righteous comfort of the street-preacher of Armageddon: all hope is lost! The end is nigh! Both options strike me as unexplanatory. More charitably, my suspicion is that nihilism is now the only thing on offer. As prophesized by Nietzsche, the delusion of the “English fat-heads” is quickly falling away. Even Christianity in its popular expressions is just nihilism draped in Christian wares. It has so thoroughly absorbed the philosophical presumptions of modernity that it can only engage Christ through its distortions. Such things should not surprise us, for what better weapon than to co-opt the language of “Christ” to modern ends? Christ himself assures us as much, “for they will say Lord, Lord, and I will say I never knew you”; Outside of the orthodox context that makes sense of Christ-language, all is noise. The most important truths are not worth being uncomfortable for. Nonetheless, I am under no impression that a human being can look nihilism dead on and “choose” it. It is at the very least incomprehensible in terms of any coherent metaphysics of desire (since I always desire something under the aspect of the good). On the contrary, what has happened is a mass deception of the most demonic kind. Our natures—rational, political, liturgical—have been perverted and oriented to the Unholy Trinity, and we have been told there is simply no other option. So what else should we expect to see?
Of course, there is another option: the full revelation of reality in the person of Jesus Christ. In terms of these reflections on performance, Christ is the only relevant performance, and more importantly the final performance. His life, death, and resurrection capture everything it means to be human, what it means to have value, what it means to be manifest and to be seen. Hence, every work he does is given to us for imitation; we have one performance to give, and that is the one that participates in Christ, in all he is and does; most pertinently, in the way that he dies. The anaphora of St. John Chrysostom has been an endless source of reflection on this point, “for on the night in which he was given up—or rather gave himself up for the life of the world.” The shift from “given up” to “gave himself up” is what Fr. John Behr styles the shift to theological vision: to not see some peasant betrayed, tortured and killed by the powers that be, or to see Christ’s death as a tragic interruption to an otherwise profound ministry of social justice, but rather to see in his very death God’s eternal activity. Christ did not become incarnate and then die, he became incarnate to die. In fact, it is only in his death that we see the incarnation. The greatest tragedy of modern Christianity, in whatever form you wish to emphasize, is the loss of the intimate connection between Christianity and ascesis, between Christianity and martyrdom, to say it even better: between Christ and his cross.
In contrast, Americans are particularly obsessed with questions regarding the status of their salvation, hell, and supernatural phenomena such as angels and near-death experiences, not to mention the oddly Gnostic (despite the fluidity of the term) and materialist conceptions those concerns often take. There is, of course, no accident here. To separate Christianity from martyrdom is inevitably to become reductionistic. We end up with some kind of utilitarian calculus: what is the bare minimum condition for X? So to say, what is the bare minimum condition for communion with God? The question could not be more wrongheaded! As Christ says, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” This rampant nihilism is the product of a minimalist Christianity. On the contrary, we must not ask about minimums, but of maximums. To fail to do so is to separate Christ from the cross. To appeal to Fr. John Behr again, Christ’s rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16, the most vicious rebuke given in the New Testament, is precisely a warning against this separation. The passage is worth contemplating in full:
When Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
This passage is one of the few moments where one of the disciples ‘gets it right.’ However, we should note that even the confession that Christ is the Son of God is incomplete. After Christ’s granting of the keys and promising the Church’s endurance, he instructs the disciples to not tell anyone of these things. This injunction is not some esoteric “messianic secret,” it is letting the students know that they do not have the full story yet. We can see this fact by paying close attention to what immediately follows Peter’s confession. Christ reveals to them what it means to be the Son of God: to suffer, to die, to be raised. Peter’s rebuke is evidence that the disciples do not grasp the content, the real meaning, of the earlier confession, and that failure is met with the harshest response, “Get behind me, Satan!” That is the reply given to the one who would separate Christ from the cross! Moreover, we see that to follow Christ just is to follow him to the cross. The mere confession that Christ is the Son of God is not enough, the demons do that just fine; rather, we must not only understand the intimate connection between the Son and his cross, but we too must take up the same life of self-denial; we too must become cruciform; we too must lose our lives.
To see Christ for who he is entails responding in ascesis, entering into his life, death, and resurrection through our whole being. It is a process that reestablishes the will’s subjection to rational ends, and not just any rational ends, but the Logos himself. Where my ego is often inverted in the monologue of narcissism, Christ’s cross brings it outside itself, that is, makes it kenotic and dialogical: self-emptying instead of self-gratifying, other-oriented instead of self-oriented. Only through this self-emptying does the ego, paradoxically, discover itself. Autonomy is the greatest modern delusion; my endless attempts to ground myself in myself are futile. Instead, I only discover myself when I enter deeply into relation, when I allow myself to be constituted and supported by those around me. In short, I am only a self in reference to others.
However, that relationality cannot merely be horizontal, it must also be vertical. Eros that is merely horizontal is nothing but consumption, because the things of this world can never provide lasting communion. They are fleeting tastes, and so we must always be out looking for more. Instead, we only become ourselves when we are all mutually ordered together in love to the transcendental end that establishes it all, God. Selfhood must be formed by the True Self, the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which, unsurprisingly, is also a relational community of love. In the ascetic response to God’s love for us in Christ, love encounters Love, and replaces the Unholy Trinity with the true Triune God. This truth is most manifest on the cross, for it is there that we see a perfected will, a true self, and everlasting love. It is the divine invitation for us to know the Truth, live together in mutual contemplation of the Truth, and offer the whole cosmos, including ourselves, as mirrors of the Truth—rational, political, liturgical.
To engage in this battle with the Great Nothing requires weapons, and the ascetic tradition gives us the necessary ones for conducting it. Just as we have lost the vision of virtue, so too we have lost how the ascetic disciplines perfect our nature. For example, St. Maximus the Confessor aligns prayer, almsgiving, and fasting with the various faculties of the soul. To aid our rational faculty we must attend to constant prayer. To temper our spiritedness and orient our will, we must learn to give alms. To conquer and properly order our appetites, we must relentlessly practice fasting. Every moment we undertake these ascetic disciplines, we order our whole being to manifest the divine likeness. Moreover, we do not undertake this process in isolation, for not only do we conduct battle with the powers and principalities of this world, but we do so through the strength of the Church militant and triumphant.
Every act of prayer is a death blow to the Cults of the Age that make demands on your time and how you should use it, so let us begin to sanctify our whole day through small acts of prayer. Every act of charity not only conquers pride and self-importance, but it reunites us to the true political community in love, thereby affirming the imago dei and slaying the beasts of the age that would have us gorge ourselves endlessly on vapid praise and consumption.
Every act of fasting, from food and from sex—and the right orienting of them thereof—destroys the industries of mass-processed goods, animal cruelty, sex trafficking, and needless bodily disease, to name just a few. The gorged pig that lives its whole life sideways in a pen, slaughtered on the altar of the Great Nothing, with no consideration to nature, pain, or consequence, is a symbol of our own spiritual state. You are what you eat, as they say, so let us instead consume frequently the Body and Blood of the Lord, the lamb slain from the foundation of the world on the noetic altar, partaking of his life and slaughter, so that we might not only have life, but have it abundantly.
Let us not be mistaken, we will either liturgically consummate all to the Triune God, or we will become the false Trinity. There is only one option before us: a complete, unequivocal, and unqualified commitment to the liturgical and ascetic life of the Church, in all of its beauty and demand. We must recover a vision of the cosmos as theophany—as a rich and multivalent manifestation of the Divine—in all its sacramental and ascetic depth, which sees the end of human nature as fully partaking of the divine nature and attaining total transfiguration.
Such a vision cannot suffer the endless dichotomies between nature and grace, reason and revelation, church and state, and so forth, that plague modernity. There is no place without grace, no space where the Lord is not King, no reality that does not offer him unceasing praise. Our Holy Fathers succeeded amidst the indefatigable powers and values of Rome, not to mention infighting among the faithful. Through the grace of God, we can do it again. Only when “Christ plays in ten thousand places” will we know what it means to be human. And that performance has only just begun.
* * *
Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and Philosophy at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.