“They suppose such things about the Creator that would not be supposed of the most savage and unjust human being”

After having spoken, as in summary, about the inspiration of the divine Scriptures, it is necessary to proceed to the manner of reading and understanding them, since many errors have occurred from the fact that the way by which the holy readings ought to be examined has not been discovered by the multitude.

For the hard-hearted and ignorant of the people of the circumcision have not believed in our Saviour, thinking they follow the language of the prophecies regarding him, and not seeing him visibly proclaiming ‘release to the captives,’ nor building up what they consider to be truly ‘a city of God,’ nor ‘cutting off the chariots from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem,’ nor ‘eating butter and honey, and before knowing or preferring evil, choosing the good’; and thinking it was prophesied that the ‘wolf,’ the four-footed animal, was ‘to feed with the lamb and the leopard to lie down with the kid, the calf and the bull and the lion to feed together, being led by a little child, and the ox and the bear to pasture together, their young ones growing up together, and the lion to eat straw like the ox’—seeing none of these things visibly happening in the sojourn of him believed by us to be Christ, they did not accept our Lord Jesus, but they crucified him as having improperly called himself Christ.

While those from the heretical sects reading this, ‘A fire has been kindled from my anger’ and, ‘I am a jealous God, repaying the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third or fourth generation,’ and ‘I regret that I anointed Saul to be king,’ and, ‘I am God, who makes peace and creates evil,’ and, amongst others, ‘There is no evil in the city which the Lord has not done,’ and again, ‘Evils came down from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem,’ and, ‘An evil spirit from God throttled Saul,’ and numberless other passages like these, have not dared to disbelieve that these are Scriptures of God, but believing them to be of the creator, whom the Jews worship, they thought that, as the creator was imperfect and not good, the Saviour had sojourned announcing a more perfect God, whom they say is not the creator, motivated in various ways regarding this; and once fallen away from the Creator who is the only uncreated God, they have given themselves up to fictions, mythologizing for themselves hypotheses according to which they suppose that there are some things that are seen and certain others which are not seen, which their own souls have idolized.

However, even the more simple of those who claim to be of the Church have supposed that there is none greater than the Creator, doing so soundly; but they suppose such things about him that would not be supposed of the most savage and unjust human being.

The reason for the false beliefs and impious or ignorant assertions about God appears to be nothing else than Scripture not being understood according to its spiritual sense, but taken as regarding the bare letter.

Origen Adamantius
On First Principles 4.2.2

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Marcus Plested on St Gregory Palamas and the Hesychast Controversy

“To conclude, there is no sense in [St Gregory’s] theology which may justifiably be characterized as a defeat of reason (against Podskalsky) or as the triumph of an anti-scholastic mystical theology (against Lossky or others), or indeed in any way as anti-Latin. So, having poured cold water on the suggestion that Palamas’s theology represents some sort of antithesis to the scholasticism of the Latin West, I will now turn briefly and lastly to the attitude of Palamas and his circle to the Latin/Greek schism.

“Here again we shall see that it is not Palamas but rather his opponents that exhibit most open hostility to the Latin West. Few slurs in Byzantium were deadlier than the charge of being Latinofrone or Latin-minded. To be in theological sympathy with the Latins could be seen as tantamount to treason, a betrayal both political and cultural of the embattled Empire. But while charges of Latin-mindedness and Latin sympathies were often thrown around with some abandonment in the course of the Hesychast controversy, the dispute was never a question of East versus West but rather an internal dispute conducted largely within the traditional parameters of Byzantine theology.”

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“He is joined to God who is without sin, having immediately become sinless himself through the forgiveness of his sins”

It was love of human honour that distanced the Pharisees from faith in the Lord, which is why He said to them, “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” (John 5:44). Others were prevented from drawing nearby lands, weddings, or worries about the affairs of this life (Luke 14:18‐20), but the paralyzed man’s physical weakness put an end to such things and removed them from his thoughts. There are times when illness is better for sinners than good health, because it helps them towards salvation and blunts their inborn evil impulses. Inasmuch as it repays the debt of sins by means of suffering, it makes them able to receive healing of their souls in the first instance, then healing of their bodies. This happens most of all when the sick person, understanding that the affliction is a remedy from God, bears it courageously, falls down before God with faith and asks for forgiveness, through whatever works he can manage. This was shown by the paralyzed man who did what he could, and proved by the Lord’s own words and actions. The Pharisees, however, were incapable of comprehending, and blasphemed and murmured among themselves (Mark 2:6‐7). “When Jesus”, it says, “saw their faith”, the faith, that is, of the bed-ridden man who had been lowered, and of those who had let him down from the roof, “he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee” (Mark 2:5).

What a blessed way to be addressed! He hears himself called “son” and is adopted as the child of the heavenly Father. He is joined to God who is without sin, having immediately become sinless himself through the forgiveness of his sins. In order that his body can subsequently be renewed, his soul first receives deliverance from sin from the Lord, who knows that in the beginning when the soul fell into the snares of sin, physical illness and death followed, in accordance with His righteous judgment.

But when the scribes heard, “They reasoned”, it says, “in their hearts, Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?” (Mark 2:6‐7). As the Creator of men’s hearts, the Lord knew the secret thoughts in the scribes’ hearts, and said to them, “Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk?” (Mark 2:8‐ 9). It seemed to the scribes that the Lord was unable to heal the paralyzed man, so He had resorted to something obscure, forgiving him his sins. Just to pronounce words of forgiveness, especially in such an authoritative and commanding way, was blasphemy; but it was also something easy that anyone could do. That is why the Lord said to them, “If I wanted to utter empty words without any practical outcome, it would be just as easy to declare that the paralyzed man should rise from his bed as that his sins were forgiven, both statements being of no effect. But so that you may know that my word is not ineffectual, and that I did not resort to forgiving his sins because I was incapable of granting him healing of his illness, but that I have divine power on earth as the Son who is of one substance with the Father in heaven, although, according to the flesh, I have become of one substance with your ungrateful selves”, He then says to the paralyzed man, “I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house. And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all” (Mark 2:11‐12).

Although Christ’s words and the miracle were at odds with the scribes’ reasoning, in some ways they agreed with it. They show that no human being is able in his own right to forgive sins. They also show, however, that the Pharisees’ opinion that Christ was merely a man, not almighty God, was false and devoid of understanding. Something that no one had ever seen or heard of had now come to light. Christ was both God and man, twofold in nature and energy. On the one hand He spoke as a man like us, on the other hand as God He accomplished whatever He pleased through His word and command alone. He confirmed by His deeds that in the beginning, according to the psalmist, “He spake, and it was done, he commanded, and it stood fast” (Ps. 33:9). Now the deed immediately followed His word. The paralyzed man stood up at once, “and took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed” (Mark 2:12). Often men can bring about by a word the forgiveness of the sins of someone who offends against them. But only God can put to flight such an illness as this merely by a word of command. The evangelist remarks that everyone watching was amazed and glorified God, for it was clearly He who had done this wonder. They glorified Him who does innumerable glorious and extraordinary works, saying, “We never saw it on this fashion” (Mark 2:12).

St Gregory Palamas

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“If nothing else were to be gained from God becoming the Son of man, we are entitled to say that the Incarnation of the Word had nonetheless to come about, since it was entirely fitting that the Virgin become the Mother of God”

But since God remained silent and did not foretell to her anything that was going to happen, He clearly showed that He did not know anything more beautiful or greater than that which He perceived in the Virgin; from this fact it is evident that He did not choose for His Mother the best of all those in existence, but her who was absolutely the best; nor did He choose her who was more suitable for Him than anyone else in the human race, but her who so totally suited Him, that it was fitting that she become His Mother. Indeed, it was absolutely necessary for human nature at some time to make itself fit for the task for which it was created at the beginning, that is, to bring forth someone capable of worthily serving the purpose of the Creator. For God did not create humanity with one purpose in mind, only to decide later on to use it for a different purpose, in the way that we take tools designed for one pursuit and misuse them for another, so that there is no need for them always to be congruent with their original function. Rather, He created mankind with this end in view, that, when He needed to be born, He might take from it a Mother. Having first established this need as a kind of standard, He then fashioned man in accordance with it. For, neither should we posit any other end for the creation of man than that which is the most excellent of all and which brings the greatest honor and glory to the Artificer, nor is it conceivable that God should in any way fail in creating the things that He creates. After all, builders of houses and manufacturers of clothing and footwear are able to ensure that their product is always in conformity with its end, although they do not have complete control over their materials and the latter do not always coöperate with them but, on the contrary, sometimes put up opposition to them; even so, by virtue of their skill, these craftsmen succeed in drawing the materials towards their purpose. But God has sovereignty over matter, and in the beginning He created it according to His pleasure, knowing how He would use it.

What, therefore, was there to prevent human nature from being in conformity, and in every way in agreement and harmony, with the purpose for which it was created? For it is God Who governs His economy, and this economy is the greatest work of God and par excellence the work of His hands; and He did not entrust the matter to the ministry of any human being or Angel, but reserved it for Himself. Therefore, whom, if not God, does it behoove, when producing anything whatsoever, to observe the requisite standards? And in the case of what else than the most beautiful of His works? On what else, of all things, if not on Himself, would God confer what is appropriate? After all, Paul required that a Bishop “rule well himself and his own house” before caring for the common good.

So be it. When, therefore, all of these factors came together at the same juncture—the most just Ruler of the world, the most suitable minister of His economy, and the most beautiful of all of the works of the Creator from all eternity—, how could everything appropriate not have been present in that place? Complete harmony and agreement had to be preserved, and nothing could happen that would be discordant with this great and wondrous undertaking. Therefore, since it behooves God, Who weighs all things with a balance, to be just and to create all things in a fitting manner, in response to this, the Virgin, who was in every way suited to the task, bore Him and became the Mother of Him Whose Mother it was fitting that she be. Hence, if nothing else were to be gained from God becoming the Son of man, we are entitled to say that the Incarnation of the Word had nonetheless to come about, since it was entirely fitting that the Virgin become the Mother of God, and that the fact that God was bound to render unto every creature that which was proper to it, that is, to act in accordance with justice, was a sufficient reason for the renewal of natures.

For, if the All-Blameless Virgin upheld all of her obligations to God, and proved to be so prudent that she did not neglect even one of the virtues that she was obligated to possess, how would it have been possible for God not to comport Himself with equal justice? And if nothing conducive to her becoming the Mother of God eluded the Virgin, and she had such an intense yearning for God, it would scarcely have behooved God not to accord her the commensurate recompense of becoming her Son. And if God gives rulers to the wicked according to their hearts’ desire, how could He not have taken for His Mother her who proved to be truly in accord in every respect with His own heart? So entirely proper and appropriate to the Blessed Virgin was this gift. Therefore, when Gabriel clearly said that she would bear God Himself, and that “He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His Kingdom there shall be no end,” she joyfully received the news as if she had learned something unexceptional and not at all at odds or discrepant with the normal course of events. And so it was that with a blessed tongue, an unperturbed soul, and thoughts full of tranquillity she said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

These were the words that she said, and they were fulfilled at once: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”; and, after giving her reply to God, she received the Spirit that created from her that flesh which was one with God. Her voice was a “mighty voice,” as David puts it; and the Word of the Father is formed by the word of a mother, and the Creator is created by the voice of a creature. And just as when God said, “Let there be light,” “at once there was light,” so, as soon as the Virgin spoke, the true Light dawned; and He Who “lighteth every man that cometh into the world” was joined to the flesh and carried in the womb. O sacred voice! O words of great power! O blessed tongue, which restored the entire inhabited earth in one fell swoop! O treasury of a heart which, by a few words, poured out upon us an abundance of good things! These words made the earth Heaven, emptied Hades of its prisoners, caused Heaven to be inhabited by men, joined Angels with men, and formed the Heavenly and earthly races into a single chorus around Him who is both, being God but becoming man.

What gratitude could we express to you for these words? What should we call you, of whom nothing human is worthy? Our words derive from existing things, whereas you surpass the whole world beyond every sublimity. If words are to be offered to you, this, I ween, is a task for Angels, for a Cherubic mind, for a fiery tongue. Hence, having mentioned, as far as we are able, those things which redound to your praise, and having chanted hymns to you, our salvation, to the best of our ability, we ask next for an Angelic voice. We will conclude with the salutation of Gabriel, adorning the sum of our oration with this additament: “Rejoice, thou who art full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.” May you prepare us to make a habitation for Him within ourselves, for this is conducive to His glory and to the laudation of you who gave birth to Him, when we not only talk about it, but also put it into practice, for unto Him belongs glory unto the ages. Amen.

St Nicholas Cabasilas

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March 25th — What Happened on This Day?

God created the universe.

God created Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

The Ring of Power was destroyed in the fires of Orodruin.

Abraham offered in sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.

The Angel of Death passed over the Hebrews in Egypt.

The angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Savior.

The eternal Word of God took flesh in the womb of Mary.

Jesus Christ was crucified on Golgotha.

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“The Incarnation of the Word was the work not only of the Father, Whose good pleasure it was, and of His Power, Who overshadowed, and of His Spirit, Who descended, but also of the will and faith of the Virgin”

If there is ever a time when a man should rejoice, exult, and cry out with gladness, when he should go off and search for what great and brilliant statements he might utter, when he should wish to be vouchsafed sublimity of ideas, beauty of diction, and powerful oratory, I see no other occasion than this day, on which an Angel came to earth from Heaven bearing every good tiding. Today Heaven is exalted; today the earth is resplendent; today all of creation rejoices, and He Who holds Heaven in His hands is not absent from the Feast, either. Rather, the present celebration is in very truth a festival: all things are gathered together in a single act of rejoicing—the Creator, all of His creatures, and the Mother of the Creator herself, who made Him a partaker of our nature and of our liturgical synaxes and feasts. For He, being our Benefactor from the beginning of creation, and making this His own proper activity (never being in need of anything from anyone), to bestow gifts and to do good, and knowing only such things as these, on this day both does those same things and assumes a secondary place and stands in solidarity with the recipients of His benefactions. Bestowing some things on the creation from Himself, and receiving other things from it, He rejoices not so much in giving great gifts, since He is munificent, as in receiving small gifts from those to whom He has done good, since He loves mankind. He obtains honor not only from what He has laid down for His poor servants, but also from what He has received from us paupers.

For, although He chose to empty Himself and took our poverty upon Himself, yet in accordance with His judgments, as recipient, He used the gift that He received from us for His own adornment and majesty. What greater occasion for delight could there be for the creation—by which I mean both the visible creation and that which transcends our eyes—when it beholds its own Maker in its midst and the Master of all among the ranks of His servants, not divesting Himself of His Lordship, but assuming the form of a servant; not throwing away His wealth, but imparting it to the poor; and not falling away from the summit of His eminence, but elevating the lowly? She who is the cause of all these things for us all rejoices, on the one hand, at sharing, for her part, in the common goods, in that she belongs to the order of creation; and she rejoices, on the other hand, that she shares in these goods before all and most of all, and that through her all of these goods were bestowed on everyone; and fifthly, and most importantly of all, she rejoices because not only did God bring about resurrection for mankind through her, but she also brought it about herself, through the things that she knew and foreknew.

For the Virgin was not like the earth, which contributed to the creation of man but did not bring it about, but merely offered itself as matter to the Creator and was only acted upon and did not do anything. But those things which drew the Artificer Himself to earth and which moved His creative hand did she provide from within herself, being the author thereof. What were these things? A blameless life, an utterly pure way of life, the rejection of all evil, the practice of every virtue, a soul purer than light, a body that was entirely spiritual, brighter than the sun, purer than Heaven, and more sacred than the Cherubic thrones; a mind furnished with wings that was not daunted by any height; a longing for God, which had absorbed the entire appetitive faculty of the soul into itself; possession by God, a union with God inconceivable to any created intellect. Having trained both body and soul to receive such beauty, she turned the gaze of God towards herself, and by her own beauty rendered our common nature beautiful and won over the Impassible One; and He Who was despised by men on account of their sin became man because of the Virgin.

The “middle wall and barrier of enmity” were of no account to her; indeed, everything that divided the human race from God was abolished as far as she was concerned. Even before the common reconciliation, she alone had made peace with God; or rather, she was never in any need of reconciliation, since from the very beginning she stood foremost in the choir of the friends of God. However, such a reconciliation was made for the rest of mankind. And she was, before the Comforter, “an advocate for us before God,” as Paul puts it, not lifting up her hands to Him on behalf of mankind, but holding out her life as an olive branch. The virtue of a single soul was sufficient to put a stop to all of the evil committed by men from the beginning of time. And, just as the Ark, which saved man during the general shipwreck of the inhabited earth, was not itself subject to the calamities that befell the entire world, and just as it preserved for the human race the resources for its continuation, so also did it happen in the case of the Virgin. And, as if no man had dared to commit even one single sin, but all had abided by the Divine commandments and were still occupying their ancient habitation, thus did she ever keep her mind inviolate; and she had no awareness of the wickedness that had, so to speak, been diffused in every direction. The cataclysm of evil, which held all things in its grip, closed Heaven and opened up Hades, started a war between God and men, drove the Good One from the earth and introduced the Evil One in His stead, was yet completely powerless against the blessed Virgin; although evil had dominion over the entire inhabited earth and had everywhere wrought confusion, commotion, and havoc, it was defeated by a single thought and a single soul, and it yielded not only to her, but also, on account of her, to the entire human race.

This was the contribution that the Virgin made to the common salvation of mankind, even before that day arrived on which God was to bow the Heavens and descend. As soon as she was born, she constructed a dwelling-place for Him Who is able to save and fashioned a beautiful house for God—and one that would be worthy of Him. The King could not find any fault with His palace; and indeed, not only did she provide a dwelling fit for His royal majesty, but she also prepared from herself His purple robe and cincture, and the majesty, strength, and the Kingdom itself; just as an illustrious city that surpasses all other cities in size, beauty, wisdom, population, wealth, and all its resources, is able not only to offer a welcome and hospitality to the King, but also to establish, adorn, strengthen, and arm his royal authority, and in this way to inflict inevitable woe upon his enemies, but to confer salvation and an abundance of all good things upon his friends.

Thus did the Virgin benefit the human race before the time came for our common salvation. But since that time had now come and the Angelic messenger was at hand, she believed, gave her consent, and undertook her ministry. These things were indispensable and in every way necessary for our salvation; without them, there would have been no hope for humanity. For, neither would it have been possible, had the Blessed Virgin not prepared herself, as I said, for God to look kindly on mankind and to desire to descend to earth, that is, had there not been someone to receive Him, someone capable of serving Him in the economy of salvation; nor would it have been possible, had she not believed and given her consent, for God’s will for us to have been realized. This is evident from the fact that Gabriel, in addressing the Virgin and calling her “Full of Grace,” expressed everything pertaining to the mystery. God did not descend until the Virgin sought to learn the manner of her conceiving. But when He saw that she was persuaded and that she accepted the invitation, the deed was accomplished straightway; and God clothed Himself in humanity and the Virgin became the Mother of her Creator. In the case of Adam, God neither foretold nor persuaded him concerning the rib from which Eve was to be fashioned, but put him to sleep, and in this way deprived him of the member in question; in the case of the Virgin, however, He first instructed her and awaited her assurance before proceeding to the deed. Regarding the creation of Adam, He conversed with His Only-Begotten Son, saying: “Let Us make man.” But when, as Paul says, He was going to bring this wonderful Counselor, the First-Begotten, into the world, and to form the second Adam, He made the Virgin a participant in his decision. And this great counsel, about which Isaiah speaks, God proclaimed and the Virgin ratified. The Incarnation of the Word was the work not only of the Father, Whose good pleasure it was, and of His Power, Who overshadowed, and of His Spirit, Who descended, but also of the will and faith of the Virgin. For, just as, without those Three, it would have been impossible for this decision to be implemented, so also, if the All-Pure One had not offered her will and faith, this design could not possibly have been brought to fruition.

Having in this way taught and persuaded her, God made her His Mother and borrowed flesh from her with her knowledge and consent, in order that, just as He was conceived voluntarily, it might equally come about for His Mother that she should conceive voluntarily and become His Mother willingly and by her own free decision; and so that, even more importantly, she might not simply contribute to the economy of the Incarnation as one who had been conscripted like some puppet, but might herself offer her own self and become a fellow-worker with God in His Providence for the human race and, thereby, be made a partaker and sharer with Him of the glory deriving therefrom; and so that, furthermore, just as the Savior Himself became man and the Son of man not only for the sake of the flesh, but also had a soul, a mind, and a will, and everything else that is human, He might in the same way obtain a perfect Mother who would minister to His Nativity not only through the nature of her body, but also through her mind, her will, and all that she possessed, and that the Virgin might thus be His Mother in both flesh and soul and might endow the ineffable birthgiving with human nature in its totality.

St Nicholas Cabasilas

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American gods, American idols

by John Stamps

“My little children, guard yourselves from idols.”
(1 John 5:21)

The US is not and never has been secular. We are awash with gods. Gods and goddesses surround us. The whole universe is filled with deities. We think we Americans live in a secular world and a secular nation. We don’t. The bogeyman of secularism haunted us, but rank idolatry stalked our blind side. We imagine we live in a disenchanted world—the gods of old vanished. No, they did not. The old gods—Moloch, Baal, Mars, or Eros come to mind—simply re-appeared in different disguises. Fr Richard John Neuhaus was wrong. The Public Square has never been naked.1

Once upon a time, the famous German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) begat a whole generation of intellectual historians, philosophers, theologians, and so on, who fretted about Entzauberung. The German word literally means de-magic-ation, what we now call “disenchantment.” Weber prophesied the desacralization of the West and the decline of “religion.” He was also wrong. The pantheon is filled to capacity.2

Yes, Americans are deserting churches in record numbers. Even so, we’re not becoming “secular.” My favorite Augustinian philosopher wisely observed that everybody has a hungry heart. The self-declared “SBNR” crowd—spiritual but not religious—is growing in record numbers. Whatever we Christians are selling, they aren’t buying. But the SBNRs are not “secular” simply because they won’t darken the doors of our churches. The human heart still aches for God.3

Demythologizing the American gods

The novel American Gods by Neil Gaiman is the most important book on theology I have read in recent memory.4 It is Homer updated for the 21st century. The novel shook me out of my secularist dogmatic slumbers. It is based on a fantastic premise: what happens to old gods like Thor, Odin, Ēostre, Thoth, or Èṣù when their worshippers have moved to America and then died out? And who are these new American gods? Their names are familiar to us all.

  • Technology.
  • Media.
  • Liberty.
  • Globalization.
  • Democracy.
  • Capitalism.

One more truly important American god we know quite well. But he has changed his name many times over the centuries. Jesus named him “Mammon.” But we call him “Money.”
St Paul and the rest of the Bible begrudge false gods a weird semi-existence:

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor 8:5-6)

The American gods live, move, and have their being only because we have created them in our own fallen image. We invented these gods and then we serve and worship them. When fed with human blood, they speak. What is surprising about the American gods is just how truly vulnerable and needy they are. Without regular transfusions of money, oil, and yes, human blood, the American gods would shrivel up and die.5

During the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, we pray that the Lord will deliver us from a destiny nasty, brutish, and short:

Ὑπὲρ τοῦ ρυσθῆναι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης θλίψεως, ὀργῆς, κινδύνου καὶ ἀνάγκης τοῦ Κυρίου δεηθῶμεν.

That we might be delivered from all Affliction, Wrath, Danger, and Necessity, let us pray to the Lord.

If I was an ancient Greek, I’d fear the goddess ἀνάγκη (Ananke) more than any other god. She weaves the implacable fates of all gods and all mortals on her remorseless loom. But as an American, we fear being chewed up in the maw of Capitalism. Industrialization and globalization have left untold misery to persons, cities, states, and nations in their wake. Capitalism tramples us without mercy or consideration. Our livelihoods can be ripped away from us by global forces beyond our control. If you give them a finger, they will take your entire arm. As we’ve been warned by better prophets than me, Capitalism dissolves every­thing solid into thin air. It baptizes greed as a virtue and transforms materialism into a sacrament. But as recent events have shown us, while Capitalism might be inexorable, there is nothing inevitable about it, to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

O Foolish Americans, Who Has Bewitched You?

If we want to understand why and how the American gods have so completely seduced us, we can turn to The Enchantments of Mammon by Eugene McCarraher. Reading McCarra­her’s tour de force is a serious life commitment. The book is 800 pages. It is a brilliant economic and intellectual history of Capitalism in America. Fortunately we can summarize McCarraher’s entire argument in a single quote: “The world does not need to be re-enchanted, because it was never disenchanted in the first place.”

Page after page after page McCarraher describes how ministers and theologians, economists, captains of industry, and advertising executives worked to “enchant” the dismal business of Capitalism, economics, and the American empire. They succeeded all too well. Capitalism is the default American religion. We are enthralled by it and we cannot imagine any alterna­tive. But there were those who begged to differ otherwise, who offered us a truly amazing countercultural witness. For example, William Blake famously vilified the forces of “Progress” that shoved people out of the commons into England’s “dark Satanic mills.” McCarraher lumps these critics of Capitalism under the general rubric of “Romanticism.” These “Romantic” voices from the past are an astonishing counterpoint to the enchantments of Mammon. McCarraher eloquently describes the glorious protests of:

  • Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers
  • Robert Southey
  • John Muir
  • Via Dutton Scudder
  • William James
  • Dorothy Day
  • Lewis Mumford (probably McCarraher’s favorite)

But there are two serious flaws to McCarraher’s magnificent book. The first flaw is that McCarraher makes Capitalism sound more omnipotent than it really is. Come to find out that all kinds of things can topple the American gods. There is nothing inevitable about them.

  • Democracy has proven to be more fragile than any of us ever realized. The full effects of the January 6 terrorist attack on the US Capitol are yet to be felt.
  • Technology is surprisingly vulnerable. A coldsnap caused untold misery to millions of Texans when the power grid failed. State-sponsored hackers attacked a little-known technology service provider (also in Texas) called SolarWinds and exposed deep flaws in our nation’s security, despite the best security software that money can buy.
  • Wall Street looks like an almighty god, but it is not. Reddit, GameStop. RobinHood, and short-sellers brought the stock market to its knees until panic and the SEC stepped in. Wall Street is also amazingly vulnerable to disease. Covid-19 posed a dire threat to Capitalism that was completely unexpected. Businesses failed left and right. Mom-and-Pop stores and restaurants simply vanished.
  • In the financial crisis of 2008, we witnessed the near-collapse of financial institutions too big to fail (TBTF) and yet many of them did. If the Treasury Department had not propped up the system with trillions of dollars, Capitalism as you and I know it would have died a miserable death.

With the wisdom of 20-20 hindsight, McCarraher concedes too much power to Capitalism, way much more than it deserves. But in all fairness to McCarraher, the American gods looked pretty darn formidable in 2019. Not so much in 2021. To paraphrase St Paul, the American gods are weak, beggarly, and preposterous, like all principalities and powers. Every American god has one or more fatal flaws.

Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered

The second flaw is that Romanticism represents almost the entire load-bearing infra­structure in McCarraher’s criticism of Capitalism. The Diggers, the Arts and Crafts movement, Populism, and other protest movements do all the heavy lifting. McCarraher’s critics and friends alike ponder this Romantic critique of Capitalism. Is the Romantic movement the only viable alternative to Capitalism?

McCarraher’s conclusions disappointed me for two reasons. First, he needed to focus more on Jesus Christ and less on Romanticism. American Christians can be insouciant about the American gods for one crucial reason—Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross under Pontius Pilate but He is now risen from the dead on the third day. If death does not terrify us, the American gods have no hold over us. If we truly believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, we can bear witness that we are not enslaved to the principalities and powers, though they would try to persuade us otherwise.

Second, is there a genuinely viable alternative to consumer Capitalism? Sure there is. We call it “the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” There exists in space and time one community who is tutored by the Holy Spirit to bear faithful witness to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I suspect McCarraher doesn’t trust the church will prove to be “the community of character” that she needs to be. The church looks more like an all-too-willing collaborator than a courageous counterbalance to offset the forces of Capitalism.

Yes, it is certainly true that American churches have given in to craven fear. Yes, American churches try to serve God and Mammon, despite the stern warning of Jesus. Yes, American churches have sold their precious birthright to the Wall Street Journal for a meager bowl of ideological pottage. Even so, we have powerful resources ready-to-hand, in good working order, to form us and shape us in how to tell the truth.6 That is, we can speak and live the truth and boldly witness to the gospel; but it requires us to exorcize our parishes of the American gods. Whether we broker commercial real estate deals or we drive a taco truck, the church can train us to become faithful witnesses to the resurrection. We do not need to live our lives in fear. We do not need to opt out of society, to escape the world and its tempta­tions. Ordinary Christians can live ordinary lives in the world with joy and courage because our identity is not from the world. God has freed us from the tyranny of the American gods by raising His Son Jesus from the dead on the third day.

We can go to church and feast lavishly on the sacraments, yes, for the life of the world. God has freed us to ponder Lewis Mumford, and also Wendell Berry7, and Jacques Ellul8 and Jim Forest too. We can imitate Dorothy Day or her Russian counterpart, Mother Maria Skobtsova. We can fast, we can pray, and we can give alms to the poor.

These simple acts of faithfulness are profoundly subversive to the principalities and powers. Our open hands and our open wallets testify that we are not governed by greed, anxiety, and fear. The threat of scarcity does not terrify us. We trust God’s promises of abundance and blessing and providence. We bear witness that the inexorable law of supply and demand does not rule our hearts. The mere sight of a homeless man or a bag lady does not frighten or repulse us. They are made in the very image of God and Jesus summons us to help them. What God has given us in His generosity, we do not need to protect with guns.

Finally, we can love our enemies. Loving our enemies is the most preposterous, impossible statement ever spoken. Unless of course Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on the third day.

Our Lord Jesus Christ entrusted us with no power in this world except for faithful witness. But the principalities and powers tremble and shake before that testimony. For every American god amounts to nothing but lies and violence. Ultimately, they are impotent. Devotion to them grows only in darkness, out of lust, greed, and fear. “As the smoke vanisheth, so shalt Thou drive them away.” The American gods are merest smoke, without fire. They are a miasma, a foul stink. God arises and blows them away.

 

Footnotes

[1] The title of this article is my own riff on We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour. Thinking I was clever, I wanted to title it, “We have never been disenchanted.” Then I discovered Eugene McCarraher had already beaten me to the punch. His 2015 article was only the tasty appetizer he was cooking up for us. We had to wait until 2019 until the full feast. It was certainly worth the wait. Also see McCarraher’s article “You’re a Slave to Money, Then You Die,” as well as the Syndicate symposium on The Enchantments of Mammon.
[2] On the subject of Entzauberung, Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences is the finest book I know of. Learning how Madame Marie Curie attended seances in fin-de-siecle Paris is easily worth the price of admission. As Josephson-Storm observes, by all rights she should not have been there. And yet there she was.
[3] Tara Isabella Burton describes the amazing lengths that Americans will go through to fill their restless hearts. It’s the finest spirituality—typically disguised as an exercise routine—that money can buy. Take up and read Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.
[4] Read the novel. Ignore the television series on Starz.
[5] One of the most chilling lines in American Gods is “Liberty is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses.”
[6] Stanley Hauerwas famously labels himself as a “high church Mennonite” or a “congregationalist with Catholic sensibilities,” because he can’t find an actual empirical church in which to situate his theology. By contrast, I’m reasonably happy being empirically Eastern Orthodox. And yet I realize I am speaking a dialect about “the principalities and powers” that is certainly unusual in Orthodox claims about the supposed “symphonia” between Church and State. But if we shake off Constantinianism, it’s certainly within our wheelhouse.
[7] “And it seemed that The War and The Economy were more and more closely related. They were the Siamese twins of our age, dressed alike, joined head to head, ready at any moment to merge into a single unified Siamese, when the crossed eyes of government should uncross. The War was good for The Economy.” (Jayber Crow, p. 273)
[8] “Thus when we claim to use money, we make a gross error. We can, if we must, use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims. We are not talking only about our inner life; we are observing our total situation. We are not free to direct the use of money one way or another, for we are in the hands of this controlling power… That Mammon is a spiritual power is also shown by the way we attribute sacred characteristics to our money. (JS: it is the “almighty dollar” after all) The issue here is not that idols have been built to symbolize money, but simply that for modem man money is one of his “holy things.” Money affairs are, as we well know, serious business for modern man…. We understand then why money questions are not considered, in the Bible, as part of the moral order. They are actually part of the spiritual order.” (Money and Power, pp. 76-77)

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Orthodox First Sunday of Lent

St Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on John 1:43-51

43 The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee; and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, “Follow Me.”

Likeminded with those preceding was Philip, and very ready to follow Christ. For Christ knew that he would be good. Therefore also He says “Follow Me,” making the word a token of the grace that was upon him, and wherein he bid him follow, testifying to him that most excellent was his conversation. For He would not have chosen him, if he had not been altogether good.

45 Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, “We have found Him, of Whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth the Son of Joseph.”

Exceeding swift was the disciple unto the bearing fruit, that hereby he might shew himself akin in disposition to them that had preceded. For he findeth Nathanael, not simply meeting him coming along, but making diligent search for him. For he knew that he was most painstaking and fond of learning. Then he says that he had found the Christ Who was heralded through all the Divine Scripture, addressing himself not as to one ignorant, but as to one exceedingly well instructed in the learning both of all-wise Moses and of the prophets. For a not true supposition was prevailing among the Jews as regards our Saviour Jesus Christ, that He should be of the city or village of Nazareth, albeit the Divine Scripture says that He is a Bethlehemite, as far as pertains to this. And thou, Bethlehem, it says, in the land of Judah, house of Ephrata, art little to be among the thousands of Judah, for out of thee shall He come forth unto Me That is to be ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. For He was brought up in Nazareth, as the Evangelist himself too somewhere testified, saying, And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; but He was not thence, but whence we said before, yea rather, as the voice of the prophet affirmed. Philip therefore following the supposition of the Jews says, Jesus of Nazareth.

46 “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Nathanael readily agrees that something great and most fair is that which is expected to appear out of Nazareth. It is, I suppose, perfectly clear, that not only did he take Nazareth as a pledge of that which he sought, but bringing together knowledge from the law and Prophets, as one fond of learning he gained swift understanding. Come and see.

Sight will suffice for faith, says he, and having only conversed with. Him you will confess more readily, and will unhesitatingly say that He is indeed the Expected One. But we must believe that there was a Divine and Ineffable grace, flowing forth with the words of the Saviour, and alluring the souls of the hearers. For so it is written, that all wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His Mouth. For as His word is mighty in power, so too is it efficacious to persuade.

47 “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.”

Not having yet used proof by means of signs, Christ endeavoured in another way to persuade both His own disciples, and the wiser of those that came to Him, that He was by Nature Son and God, but for the salvation of all was come in human Form. What then was the mode that led to faith? God-befitting knowledge. For knowledge of all things befitteth God Alone. He receiveth therefore Nathanael, not hurrying him by flatteries to this state, but by those things whereof he was conscious, giving him a pledge, that he knoweth the hearts, as God.

48 “Whence knowest thou me?”

Nathanael begins to wonder, and is called to a now firm faith: but desires yet to learn, whence He has the knowledge concerning him. For very accurate are learning-seeking and pious souls. But perhaps he supposed that somewhat of him had been shewn to the Lord by Philip. Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig-tree, I saw thee. The Saviour undid his surmise, saying that even before his meeting and conversing with Philip, He had seen him under the fig-tree, though not present in Body. Very profitably are both the fig-tree and the place named, pledging to him the truth of his having been seen. For he that has already accurate knowledge of what was with him, will readily be admitted.

49 “Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God, Thou art the King of Israel.”

He knows that God Alone is Searcher of hearts, and giveth to none other of men to understand the mind, considering as is likely that verse in the Psalms, God trieth the hearts and reins. For as accruing to none else, the Psalmist hath attributed this too as peculiar to the Divine Nature only. When then he knew that the Lord saw his thoughts revolving in his mind in yet voiceless whispers, straightway he calls Him Master, readily entering already into discipleship under Him, and confesses Him Son of God and King of Israel, in Whom are inexistent the Properties of Divinity, and as one well instructed he affirms Him to be wholly and by Nature God.

50 “Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.”

Thou shalt be firmer unto faith, saith He, when thou seest greater things than these. For he that believed one sign, how shall he not by means of many be altogether bettered, especially since they shall be more wonderful than those now wondered at?

51 “Verily, verily I say unto you, hereafter ye shall see Heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Common now to all is the word which seals the faith of Nathanael. But in saying that angels shall be seen speeding up and down upon the Son of Man, that is, ministering and serving His commands, for the salvation of such as shall believe, He says that then especially shall He be revealed as being by Nature Son of God. For it is not one another that the rational powers serve but surely God. And this does not take away subjection among the angels (for this will not be reasonably called bondage). But we have heard of the Holy Evangelists, that angels came to our Saviour Christ, and ministered unto Him.

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