Monday, February 19, 2007

Some Virtues of the East

In my dealings with Orthodox writers, bloggers, apologists, and clergy I have formed a very personal opinion about Eastern Christianity in general that will perhaps come as a surprise to some, but not to all: I wish that Western Christianity could be more like it. Because this is a very personal, intuitive attitude, it is difficult for me to explain, in quasi-technical terms or philosophical jargon, just what it is, exactly, that I am reacting to, but here are a few thoughts about ways in which the West could benefit from being more like the East.

1. Spirituality. Whether clergy or layman, young or old, scholar or punk blogger, the Orthodox whom I have encountered manifest a life of deep faith guided by prayer, communal liturgy, and lectio divina that is both striking and admirable. Obviously there are always exceptions to such things, and I certainly can't claim that my sample is either large or representative, but I do think that the contrast class differs in some obvious ways with what I have felt from my Orthodox brethren.

2. Separation from the world. As I watch our culture slide ever more thoroughly over the edge of materialism, hedonism, and secularism, one cannot help but notice the numbers of folks calling themselves Christians who either will not or cannot fight the prevailing tide. Again, my experience is limited, but the Orthodox whom I have met are not so timid about rejecting the values of the world. Western Christianity certainly has its representatives in this struggle, but - - again, in my limited experience - - there seems to be a greater density of resistance from the East.

3. Theological insight. Metaphor can be a wonderful thing, and Orthodox theology is filled with wonderful metaphor. Very often I think this reflects a deep insight intot he ineffability of certain truths: we cannot say what such-and-such is, but we can say what it is like, and thereby come to have some form of experience of it that is communicable in some small degree. The West can be so analytic that some of these insights are lost.

4. Charity. Christian charity requires two things: love of God and love of one's fellow men. We cannot say that we love God if we do not love our fellow men, nor can we say that we love our fellow men if we do not love God. Putting the two together means that our love cannot be compromised by ungodly ideals: when our fellow men are in need of fraternal correction, we have a duty to offer it, and when we stray from God, we have a right to receive it (correction) ourselves - - charitably - - by our fellow men. The Orthodox whom I have met appear to know, more deeply than many, precisely what this cardinal virtue requires. It is easy to point out the errors of others, less easy to point them out charitably, with love and Christian fellowship, in a spirit of guidance and fraternal care. Again, there are always exceptions, but for the most part I have to say that I am impressed with the degree to which charity informs the lives of the Orthodox whom I have encountered.

Of course, all of these virtues are also present in some degree among Western Christians, and I don't mean to imply otherwise. I'm talking about an intuitive feeling based on my own, personal, and limited experience, an experience of a community that seems admirable and good, and one wants very much to share in what is good to the extent that one can. For this reason I have particularly enjoyed my recent inquiry into Maximos, Palamas, and the essence/energies distinction, because it has afforded me an ample opportunity to see these virtues up close, and spread out over the course of history. It is wonderful and inspiring.


NeoChalcedonian said...

I have tried to buy and read everything written by Maximus the Confessor presently in English. By far the best things that I have read by him are in the Second Volume of the Philokalia. His texts on Love and his "Two Hundred Texts on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God" changed my theological views and understanding of Christian spirituality forever, and I believe for the better.

NeoChalcedonian said...

Here is a quote from Maximus'"Two Hundred Texts on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God":

4. God is not a being either in the general or in any specific sense of the word, and so He cannot be an origin. Nor is He a potentiality either in the general or in any specific sense, and so He is not an intermediary state. Nor is He an actualization in the general or in any specific sense, and so He cannot be the consumation of that activity which proceeds from a being in which it is perceived to pre-exist as a potentiality. On the contrary, He is the author of being and simultaneously an entity transcending being; He is the author of potentiality and simultaneously the ground transcending potentiality; and He is the active and inexhaustible state of all actualization. In short, He is the author of all being, potentiality and actualization, and of every origin, intermediary state and consummation.

Vitae Scrutator said...

Thanks for the reference--I've had the version of the Philokalia translated by Bishop Kallistos for years and have only just recently begun to explore it in any detail; I'll be sure to double check the stuff by Maximos.

Regarding the quotation you provide: I've recently been re-reading Aquinas' treatise On Being and Essence as part of my preparation for posting on Maximos and free choice, and I may post on it in the near future. The quotation from Maximos is reminiscent (to me, at least, with a classicist's background) of the Platonic Form of the Good ("the author of being and simultaneously an entity transcending being"). One of the things that I love about Eastern theology generally is its ability to make use of the concepts of classical philosophy in a way that is clear to the believer without debasing belief itself by, well, becoming just another version of classical philosophy.

Thanks for both comments!

John Farrell said...

Scott, speaking of Virtues of the East, this is sort of related (Greek origins of science--which is always good for a blog spat), and I thought something you might want to address at some point:

I like Wilkins in general, but I have a feeling is a little out of his depth here on the degree to which the Greeks were devoted to rationalism at the stage he speaks of...

Something to blog about?


John Farrell said...

Oops. Full link didn't paste:

John Farrell said...

All righty...let's try cutting the post in two:

Vitae Scrutator said...


I'm a little curious about John Wilkins, because I've been working in the philosophy of biology for nearly 20 years now and I've never heard of him.

I think he's quite right about the origins of science, and to a certain extent about Aristotle as well. He may be surprised, if he were to study Aristotle a little more carefully, to find that he was neither an empiricist nor a reductionist in the modern sense, and I think he would be, to use his word, "gobsmacked" if he were to look into Aristotle's conception of theory formation and confirmation.

He may be right, too, that religion has not always had a beneficial effect on the work of scientists, but if he thinks that this purely contingent historical fact amounts to a reason for asserting that religion cannot, even in principle, advance science as such, he is greatly mistaken--and not only historically, but methodologically as well. Indeed, in his desire to "gobsmack" Mary Graber, he unwittingly endorses one of Sam Harris' most egregious fallacies.

If you have a look at the comments on that post, you will find that there is also a psychological element to this whole debate. For some reason, the folks who complain the most about religious interpretations of science are not religious scientists, but atheist scientists. It seems that the greatest amount of public grumbling about bigotry among religious folks always comes from people who are so openly bigoted themselves that the irony is completely lost on them. The triumphalism is downright positivistic in its orientation, too. These folks have not studied much philosophy of science, however much they may know about science.

I may indeed blog some about the Greek origins of science--I teach a course here at Ohio University called The Philosophical Origins of Western Science, and I always start with the Milesians. The difference is, I don't get them wrong.

John Farrell said...

I would look forward to that post!

John Farrell said...

In fact...I just finished G.E.R. Lloyd's Early Greek Science and enjoyed it very much.

Vitae Scrutator said...

You know, that's a really interesting question, and it's often on my mind because of certain kinds of interactions I have with fellow RCs. I think you may be right about getting stuck in the "have to" stage.

What I think causes this getting stuck is the fact that most RCs, at least in my opinion, misconstrue the notion of "duty" as used in these sorts of contexts. Catholics have often been told, for example, that Mass attendance is a "duty", and so when I attend RCIA meetings or other sorts of catechetical things, I often hear folks griping about that, and there seems to be a consensus that the Church should not call it "duty" or that it should at least not be taught that way.

But I think that "duty" is exactly the right word, provided one understands the meaning of the word as used by the Church. The Latin term officium is the one that's being translated as "duty", and it refers to an act that is something that we do as part of our calling, it is, if you will, our "office" job. Now, lots of people hate their jobs, but if you can imagine having a job that you really love--for example, I happen to really love mine--then doing your job is not really something that is particularly onerous. Sure, it might be hard work, and it might cause stress and whatnot, but if you love it then you are glad to do it and you are, in a sense, doing it freely even while it is something that you "have" to do as well.

This is similar, I think, to Kant's notion of a "duty" in morality. Consider two people, Smith and Jones, one of whom does his duty because it is expedient for him to do so, the other does his duty because he believes that it is the right thing to do whether or not it is expedient for him to do it. (Kant gives as an example two shopkeepers, both of whom charge fair prices for their goods, one because it will help his business, the other because he feels like it is the right thing to do and he would want to pay fair prices himself if he were a shopper rather than a shopkeeper.) Kant argues that there is a difference between doing your duty because you think you will benefit somehow from doing it and doing your duty because you think it is the right thing to do, and I think Kant is right about that. If Smith only charges fair prices because it helps his business, he is doing something that is consistent with what his duty it, but he is not acting "from duty", as Kant would put it. Jones, let's say, charges the fair prices because he believes it is the right thing to do. He is acting "from duty", and of course his business may actually benefit from it but that is not his main concern. Kant says Jones is acting morally, Smith merely prudentially.

I think folks who don't like the idea of Mass being a "duty" tend to see things in prudential terms. They don't understand how something that is a duty can be fulfilling to do, and they want Mass to be fulfilling for people, and so they don't want to tell people it's a duty. Maybe because they don't really believe in that kind of duty, I don't know, but that's my suspicion.

Now, fasting is an interesting example. The rules of fasting in the West seem to me to be far less rigorous than those in the East, and even though there is a sense in which we "have" to fast, it isn't nearly as hard to do as it is for Orthodox, and yet I don't know very many people who do it apart from Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (indeed, some folks don't seem to do it even then). Are they avoiding it because they "have" to do it, or are they avoiding it because they're debauched Westerners for whom feeling a little hungry even for one day is too much to ask of them? I suspect the latter. I actually heard a Roman Catholic Cardinal saying that he doesn't recommend fasting on First Fridays because it might cause headaches. And we're not talking here about the Eastern fast of only one meal in the day with xerophagy, either, we're talking a fast that includes one full meal, two smaller meals, and no restrictions on what you can eat (unless Abstinence is added). Who couldn't do that? I practically eat that way every day anyway, so I try to go the extra mile on the fast days.

Anyway, to sum up: I think I agree with those who think there is a hang-up about "having to do" certain things, and that the hang-up may affect whether people actually do those things. But my own view is that that the concept of officium is a very valuable one, and I would not like to see it disappear.

NeoChalcedonian said...

Have you read anything by Aristeides Papadakis? I got his book "Crisis in Byzantium: The Filioque Controversy in the Patriarchate of Gregory II of Cyprus (1283-1289)" today in the mail. It is spectacular!

Vitae Scrutator said...

I'm sorry to say that I have not read anything by him, but to judge from the title of the work you mention, I really ought to, since that is a question that I'm very interested in. What press publishes it, if I may ask?

Sophocles said...

Dear Scott,

A wonderful post. Rightly you state,"it is difficult for me to explain, in quasi-technical terms or philosophical jargon, just what it is, exactly, that I am reacting to,"
Orthodoxy cannot merely be studied to understand, when you live Her life you will know. Christ is Her life.
It is not an accident that She is the Church of the Martyrs.
I look forward to more correspondence with you, Scott. the Lord bless you and be with you.

NeoChalcedonian said...

It's published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. I got it on Alibris for $12.00

Vitae Scrutator said...


Thanks! Is it not still in print then, or did you just get it for less that way? I had real trouble getting hold of Farrell's book, because apparently it's out of print, and I couldn't get in touch with anybody at St. Tikhon's Seminary Press!

Vitae Scrutator said...


I think I understand your question a little better now. You're right, if doing something to avoid a "penalty" is one's reason for doing it, then one is only acting "in accordance with duty" and not really "from duty", to borrow Kant's language again. It would be prudential rather than moral.

As far as I know, the only "penalty" that attaches to not assisting at Mass is that one finds oneself in a state of sin. But that same penalty attaches to, say, lying. Do people avoid lying only because they fear the punishment for sin, or do they avoid lying because it is the command of God that we do so and they want to be closer to God by following his commandments?

To my knowledge, it is OK to avoid lying for either of those reasons, but it is better to avoid it for the latter reason. If one sins and repents of it because it separates one from God, that is called "perfect contrition"; if one repents of it because one fears hell, that is called "imperfect contrition" but it is sufficient for salvation, apparently (I'm not a theologian!).

So, do people go to Mass because they want to be closer to God, or do they go to Mass because they "have to"? If you ask me, few people these days who feel like they "have to" go to Mass go because they are afraid of hell. They go simply because they think that it's something that they "have to do", and I'd be willing to bet you money that if you pressed them on why they "have to" go they would not be able to articulate it very well even in terms of future punishments (I'm talking here about people who are very superficially religious, obviously, but certainly in the domain of "cradle Catholics" you can find folks like this). In other words, I'm not all that sure that the kind of people we're talking about have a very sophisticated set of beliefs about why they do anything religious, let alone fulfill Mass obligations.

I went to Mass last night for Ash Wednesday and was fairly astonished at the vast numbers of students who were there. Were they there only because they wanted to avoid being in a state of sin? Possibly. But their parents weren't there, and Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation for us, and surely they know that because it gets announced at the preceding Sunday Masses, so if they go to Mass to avoid being in sin then they would have been there on Sunday to hear that they didn't have to come on Wednesday. And yet they came. Perhaps they came only because they have always gone to Ash Wednesday services, and because they feel like they "have to"; but obviously some of them may have really wanted to be there. It's kind of hard to tell the difference, but I usually hope that folks like that are folks who are just deeply religious.

So, sure, I agree completely: quality over quantity, any time. I'm actually all for that! In my view, the folks who see religion as a burden and Mass attendance as something they "have to do" to avoid "penalties" are folks who are only marginally countable as Catholic anyway. These are often the same people who complain about "men in dresses telling us how to have sex and who with" and "medieval strictures against abortion". So in one way I'm not all that concerned about what such people think; I'm almost tempted to say that if they don't enjoy going to Mass, they should forget about "penalties" and just stop coming--but I can't say that because it's, well, kind of awful in its way. But hey, it's Lent and I'll make it my confession to you.

Vitae Scrutator said...


Thank you again for your kind words! If I may be so bold, I will confess that I have always loved Orthodoxy, and when I was leaving Anglicanism I think there may have been circumstances under which I could have gone either way. Because of my love for Greek philosophy and culture, I sometimes I attend a Uniate Byzantine Rite Church, though I know that's not the same, and I hope it isn't actually a sore point. I used to wonder what would happen if a significant number of Anglican bishops were to "Unite" with Rome--how would they be viewed by other Bishops in the Anglican Communion? So please understand that I don't intend to be crass, I do understand that there is some difficult history there, too, it's just my lame way of trying to describe how deeply attractive Orthodoxy is to me, not only intellectually because of the power and grandeur of Her theology, but also in the beauty of Her Liturgies, prayer life, and spirituality. But first of all in Her people who, as I say in the post, make such an effective witness to Her.

Tommy Augustine said...

I am intrigued by Byzantine rite. Is ir acceptable to visit w/o wanting to associate with them? I confess I want to go and not get caught gawking.

Vitae Scrutator said...

It is certainly acceptable for a Roman Catholic to attend a Uniate Byzantine Rite service; you may even receive Holy Communion. It is a very beautiful Liturgy.

Arimathean said...

I recently left the Episcopal Church and am now an Orthodox catechumen. But I got my first taste of the Byzantine Rite (in fact, my first taste of liturgical worship) in a Melkite Greek Catholic church, back before I even became Episcopalian. I can imagine circumstances under which I might have gone Melkite instead of Orthodox.

Western Christians tend to think of the Church's standards as "minimum requirements" - things that everyone should really be doing. There is a resulting temptation to lower the bar so that everyone can meet the standard. Eastern Christians, by contrast, see the Church's standards as lessons in how to be perfect. There is no presumption that everyone (or anyone) actually meets the standard, since most of us are not perfect yet.

So, while the Orthodox Church sets very stringent fasting requirements, most Orthodox Christians (preferably after consulting with their priests, but not always) mitigate the fast in some way, either by limiting it to certain days of the week or by retaining some forbidden foods on their fasting menus. But I think their consciousness that they are observing a mitigated rule makes them actually *observe* that rule, 1) out of gratitude that they don't have to observe the full rule, and 2) out of knowledge that others are keeping the rule more stringently than they, which encourages them to strive to keep at least their lesser rule.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...