Monday, July 29, 2013

I and Thou and the Veil

         Those reading the title of this article will perhaps remember a book of similar name written by Martin Buber, I and Thou, first published in German in 1923.  Buber’s main thesis in the book is that human beings have a choice in their relationships:  they can either relate to another as to an “it”, an object to be used, or can relate to another as to a “thou”, experiencing true relationship with that other person.  Buber’s point was that human existence finds its meaning in such true relationships, all of which are meant to bring us ultimately into relationship with God, the eternal Thou.   The English translation of his work was timely enough, being printed in 1937, just two years before the beginning of the second world war.  (Buber himself had impeccable timing; he wisely left Germany the next year in 1938, settling in Jerusalem.  He died there in 1965.)
            Building on Buber’s central insight, I would like to examine one component of relating to another “thou”—namely, the face of the other.  In the Scriptural language of both the Old and New Testaments, the physical face assumes a great importance, and comes to symbolize the whole person and relationship with that person.  Indeed, the word for “face” in both the Hebrew and the Greek (panim and prosopon respectively) often means “presence” and is sometimes translated that way.  Thus, for example, when the Apocalypse says that one day earth and heaven shall flee away from Christ’s presence seeking to avoid His wrath at the Last Judgment, the word used for “presence” is prosopon, face (Rev. 20:11).   When God grants a man access to His favour and blesses him, it is said that God “lifts up His face” to him (Num. 6:26).  Thus the final goal of human existence and salvation is to “see His face” (Rev. 22:4), whereas for God to “hide His face” from us is to deny us His presence, which ultimately leads to death  (see Pss. 69:17 and 104:29).  In this Biblical usage, the face symbolizes and embodies our entire relationship with the other person.  In the experience of human relationships, the face thus is not simply another part of the body, like a foot or a knee or even a hand.  It assumes a pivotal importance, and in some sense carries the weight of the relationship.
            We see this importance of the physical face to relationship in many ways.  We see it in the classic insistence that one accused of a crime “face his accuser”—i.e. that the accuser not simply lodge an accusation and then hide, but bring the accusation forward himself, so that the accuser and the accused can look one another in the face.  We see it in less forensic and dramatic settings also, as when someone insults us obliquely and we reply to them, “Say that to my face!”  We see it in happier settings, as when we carry photos of the faces of those we love on our persons—your wallet, like mine, is doubtless filled with the faces of spouse and children and loved ones.  In the Church we see this very principle enshrined in our iconography, for in icons we see Christ, His Mother and His saints with their faces full on, or at least somewhat turned to us.  The face of the Lord and His saints are never authentically portrayed in profile—only the face of the devil is painted in profile, for the devil’s face we hope never to see and we want as little to do with him as possible.
            Seeing a person’s face indicates an equality of relationship (in the case of God allowing us to see His face, the equality of course involves His infinite condescension).  This equality is the whole point of the accused being allowed to see the face of his accuser.  It is the whole point of friends looking each other in face as they talk together.  (It also accounts for their desire not simply to talk to each other on the phone, but to “skype” where this is possible and see their faces while talking.)  Thus, if I appear to you always wearing a mask so that you never see my face, the equality between us is destroyed.  Treating another with equality and love, as a true “thou” in Buber’s terms, involves seeing the other’s naked face.
            It is just here where the public use of the veil in the form of burqa or niqab (vestments which cover the face) is so problematic.  There are other issues as well in this whole western debate over the public use of such a veil —issues like individual rights, security concerns, feminist concerns—issues which we cannot examine here.  Here I would only like to focus attention on the fact that use of burqa or niqab in public have the effect of eroding personalism and equality.  Of course that is, in many ways, the whole point of the vestment—to withdraw the person wearing it from the full effects of equality of relationship.  Such equality and personalism between women and men was thought to be too dangerous, and to violate the purdah or seclusion in which women were kept in classic Islamic society. I suggest that the debate about the birqa first needs to settle the issue of equality and personalism before issues of dress; otherwise one will fruitlessly oppose one perceived “right” against another perceived “right” in a duel between a woman’s right to follow her religion and society’s right to security.  The first question to be resolved therefore is:  can a woman be a true “thou” to a man who is not her husband or family?  Is true ontological equality possible between the sexes in their public roles?  Is one allowed to look upon the face of the other?  If not, then that other is (in Buber’s terms), not “thou”, but “it”, not a person with whom equality and friendship are possible, but simply “Woman”.  The fact of gender here displaces any possibility of authentic personalism.  For Christians, for whom love is more basic to humanity than gender, the healthy way forward is plain:  we would look upon the face of all others with love and respect, and let them see our faces as well. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

On the Pope, Twitter, and Maximalism

            The media lately has been delighted to report on the Pope’s alleged decision to grant time off in Purgatory for those who follow him on Twitter.  One headline reads, “Cut your time in purgatory by following pope on Twitter”.  From Slate Magazine, the headline reads, “Pope now offering indulgences in exchange for Twitter followers.”   Really?  What’s going on?  Is the Pope really offering time off in purgatory for following him on Twitter?
            As it turns out, no.  The Jesuit James Martin, writing for CNN, explains that the media is blowing the whole thing out of proportion.  What really happened, he said, was simply that the Vatican Office of the Apostolic Penitentiary (those in charge of matters concerning sin) was offering a plenary indulgence to those who piously attended the upcoming World Youth Day in Brazil.  (A plenary indulgence, according to Roman Catholic teaching, is the full remission of the temporal punishment in the afterlife due to sin.  There is no Orthodox equivalent, and the concepts involved are foreign to Orthodoxy.)  Offering such indulgences to those going on pilgrimage is a very old Catholic practice, and not that unusual.  Somewhat more unusual is the Vatican’s decision to extend the category of those receiving the indulgence to those who participate “with due devotion, via the new means of social communication”.  They didn’t exactly specify Twitter, but the media quickly filled in the blanks.  The concern presumably was to throw the net of forgiveness through indulgences very wide and include as many people as possible.  Roman Catholic defenders of the Vatican’s decision have applauded it as a commendable example of generous inclusivity.
            The real story here has little to do with Twitter or Purgatory or papal attempts to incorporate new social media into its time-honoured system of indulgences.  The real story concerns the death of maximalism in the Roman Catholic Church and the modern rush to lower the bar for everything. 
            If one grants the premise (which I do not; just to be clear) that indulgences may be granted for doing heroic ascetic exploits, then surely the historical practice of going on pilgrimage counts as one of them.  In the Middle Ages, the western church granted such indulgences for a number of things (going on the Crusades comes to mind), including going on pilgrimage, for pilgrimage in those days was hard, expensive, and dangerous.  It involved travel to far off places in a time when most people never strayed more than a few miles from home, and all travel then was dangerous.  One could be way-laid by robbers or pirates, suffer ship-wreck or robbery, or be taken by disease or pestilence.  Pilgrims routinely made their wills before they left home, and pilgrims went about in bands, and well-armed.  It was a podvig of the highest order, and it is not surprising therefore if the western church thought it merited a full indulgence. 
            One cannot compare, however, such bravery and effort to booking a flight with a modern airline and flying to Brazil for a well-organized youth event.  No doubt some expense is involved, but little effort compared to ancient pilgrimage, and none of the danger.  Even less bravery and effort are needed to follow the event “via the new means of social communication”.  The bar is being dramatically lowered to the point of trivializing what was once a heroic, one-in-a-lifetime achievement. 
            This is of a piece with the modern lowering of standards pretty much everywhere.  We see this in modern Roman Catholicism, which is why the Vatican’s latest decision should come as no surprise.  In the past, Roman Catholics were required to keep Lent, on pain of mortal sin.  Now Lenten fasting (in Canada at least) has been declared “optional”.  In the past, Roman Catholics were required to fast from midnight if they were to receive the Eucharist on Sunday morning.  Now the Eucharistic fast has been shortened to one hour before receiving Communion—which is to say it has been effectively abolished, for most people “fast” for several hours each day.  It is called not eating between meals.
            Orthodox are not immune to such modern temptations.  We are tempted to skip fasting or say that it is “only for monks” (and presumably for parish clergy).  We often assume that divorce is simply a part of life in the modern world, so that the divorce rate among North American Orthodox is not dramatically different than it is for the general population.  Other examples could be given, but the point is that we also are tempted to lower the historical bar.  
            Our Tradition bids us keep the bar where it is.  Sometimes of course the pastoral exercise of economia requires that the rules be dispensed or loosened in certain circumstances, but this is not meant to set precedent, or to lower the bar.  We still strive to keep the fasts, and to keep our marriages, and to live by a higher standard than the world requires.   This commitment to maximalism, even when tempered by occasional economia, is what makes us different from the world.  We lose it at our peril.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

In Praise of Old Women

           Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the Church of England comes to the rescue.  This summer a couple was married in the church of St. Mary’s and St. Martin’s in the town of Blyth in Nottinghamshire.  After the Vicar, a lady named Kate Bottley, tied the matrimonial knot with the words, “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder”, she then led the newly-married bride and groom in a pre-arranged flash-mob inspired dance.  The Vicar threw her arms into the air as the piped in music belted out, “Everybody dance now”, beginning the hip-hop song of the same name by the group C. & C. Music Factory.  Vicar Kate and the newly-wedded couple began to dance with hip-hop gyrations, the Vicar’s priestly stole swinging wildly as she gyrated.  A number of people throughout the congregation rose to their feet and joined in making similar gyrating dance moves of their own.  It was all pre-arranged of course, and the bride spent eight weeks rehearsing the dance moves at the local church hall.  I scanned the video of the whole spectacle to see if I couldn’t find Rod Serling sitting somewhere in the congregation, since I had clearly entered the Twilight Zone.  Those with hardy constitutions can view the spectacle here.
            For me the main interest of it all consisted not simply in watching the Church of England’s stately liturgical tradition disintegrate before my eyes (rather like the Church of England itself).  Rather it was in the actions of two old women in the congregation.  When “Everybody dance now” gave place to a rousing “Celebrate good times, come on!” by Kool and the Gang, a pair of elderly women rose from their pew, walked rather unsteadily arm in arm down the center aisle, and left.  They did not look pleased.  I suspect that they did not leave because they felt that everything was over (in fact the priestess’s gyrations to “Celebrate good times, come on” were just starting), or because their own dancing skills were a bit rusty.  I suspect they left because they had been taught since their childhood that this was not the way you behaved in church, and were appalled by what they saw taking place around them.  Their silent and scarcely-noticed exodus spoke volumes, and in their own little way, they were performing a vital function which humble Church folk have performed for centuries.  That is, in perhaps unconscious obedience to St. Paul’s dictum in 2 Tim. 1:14, they were guarding the deposit.
            According to the Orthodox bishops who responded in 1848 to Pope Pius IX, the function of guarding the apostolic deposit of the Faith and preserving Orthodoxy devolves mainly upon the laity. In their letter they wrote, “The guardian of religion is the very body of the Church, that is, the laos itself.”  And it seems that prominent among this vigilant laos are the women, especially the old ones.
            This can be seen in a number of ways, and not just within Orthodoxy.  Most people are familiar with the sight of the forbidding and formidable baba in the Russian church, scowling at impiety, shouting at those with seemingly impious behaviour, and generally acting as if they owned the place.  North American sensibilities recoil a bit at the baba’s roughness, but in fact their roughness was often the last line of ecclesiastical defense during the dark days of Soviet oppression, and their indomitable spirit helped to save the church there.  Such formidable women are not just found in the Russian church.  In environments as different as the Afro-American churches of the United States one can find a similar cadre of women, large black grandmothers often sitting together and amply filling a pew.  They look and act as the self-appointed guardians of church order, and woe betide anyone present who falls afoul of them.  Like their Russian sisters, they fulfill a valuable function.  In their own way, they are guarding the deposit.
            My purpose in writing is not just to praise these old women, but to suggest that the function of watching over the apostolic deposit of faith and worship is not uniquely theirs.  In the days of Soviet oppression, many people abandoned their posts in the church, leaving these women to do that work alone.  (Perhaps this abandonment accounts for some of their scowling.)  But their task, as the bishops writing in 1848 reminded us, is the task of all the laos, not just of old women.  Whether the encroaching threat be Soviet Communism or western secularism, the task of us all is stand guard.  That guard duty may include scholarly argumentation, earnest pleading, or calm denunciation of error and persuasive statement of truth.  It may, if all else fails (as it clearly has in England) include silently leaving.  But whatever circumstance Providence lays before us, our duty remains the same.  The old women have given us an example.  We must join them in guarding the deposit.

Monday, July 8, 2013

On the Temptations of Bureaucracy and the Power of Love

             In the wee hours of the morning on April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler dictated his final Private Testament.  There was some urgency about this, for he was planning immediately afterward to marry Eva Braun and then, shortly after that, to avoid the earthly consequences of his past actions by putting a bullet through his head.  Most of his final message was simply a rehash of the same old delusional stuff he had been proclaiming since the days of writing Mein Kampf.  But in the second part of his dictation, he does something a bit more interesting:  he appoints people to the various offices and responsibilities in the already crumbling Third Reich—Grand Admiral Donitz as the new Head of State, Goebbels as the new Chancellor of the Reich, Schorner as the new Commander of the Army, etc. etc.  It was a fascinating charade, and all the more so since Hitler then knew that these positions had no abiding reality.  The Third Reich, with all its offices, was effectively down the historical drain—which was why Hitler was planning on putting a bullet through his head in the first place.  Why then the charade?  In a word, because bureaucracy has a life of its own.
            This bureaucratic element was deeply woven into the fabric of life in the Third Reich.  Down to the end of the war, bureaucracy continued to thrive, with ever more papers and forms and reports needing to be filled out and filed.  (The extent of such bureaucracy, which seemed to escalate as the national infrastructure collapsed, is documented by such studies as Ian Kershaw’s The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany.)  Indeed, bureaucracy seemed to find a natural place in the Third Reich, and most of the Reich’s most terrible criminals (such as Eichmann) were essentially
            What is bureaucracy?  One online dictionary defines it as “a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation”.  I would characterize it as “power without personalism”, the exercise of power devoid of the personal touch, personal contact—or, to use Biblical terms, “power without love”.  As such, it carries within it the seeds of the demonic.
            But only the seeds.  Bureaucrats are not demonic—although I think it significant that the term “bureaucrat” is culturally tinged with at least some disapproval, so that few people would boast of being a bureaucrat as they might boast of being a teacher or a postal worker.  But bureaucracy is not only not demonic, it is vitally necessary to running the infrastructure of any community larger than a small town.  It is thanks to bureaucrats that social infrastructure works at all, and as such they deserve gratitude and respect from all of us who benefit from their (frequently thankless) labours.  The difficulty comes in because the bureaucrat must make decisions effecting countless people that he (or she) never sees.  There is no easy way around this difficulty, but that simply means that the bureaucrat must tread all the more carefully and do everything possible to nurture connections with the people about whom bureaucratic decisions are made.
            The temptation inherent in all bureaucracy is to make decisions without regard to people’s actual plight and suffering—to exercise power without love.  That is why bureaucracy found such a congenial home in the Third Reich, for National Socialism exulted in the will to power as an end in itself, divorced from love.  The extreme historical example of the Third Reich may serve as a cautionary tale for us all, warning us that all power must be exercised in love and in the service of love. 
            This is especially true of power in the Church.  Clergy exercise power (St. Paul talks about presbyters/ bishops as those who rule), but this power must be of a fundamentally different kind than the power exercised in the world.  In the world power means getting other people to do what you want them to do, whether they like it or not.  It is all about you and your will and your decisions.  It is otherwise in the Kingdom, for power there means serving others and meeting their needs.  The Lord was quite clear about this revolution in defining the nature of power:  “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk. 10:42-44).  In His final earthly hours with His disciples our Lord illustrated what this new kind of authority meant, for He knelt before them and washed their feet:  “I have given you an example,” He said, “that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:15).  Authority in the Church means loving service to others, not forcing them to do your will.  Power must be exercised in love, and manifested as love.  (Perhaps seminaries should write this over their doors as a constant reminder to their students who want to become priests.)
            Exercising power in love can be done by anyone, whether they are clergy or not, for everyone has some degree of power.  Take for example the simple act of buying:  the buyer has the money and therefore the power.  The seller (be it the retail clerk or the girl filling your request for food in McDonalds) responds to your words (sometimes significantly called your “order”), and gives you what you want.  It is a simple human interaction, but how often is it informed by personalism?  How often do we regard the clerk or the girl taking our fast-food order as a person?  Do we smile?  Are we polite?  We do not require such human personal touches when we feed coins into a Coke machine to get our bottle of Coke—do we treat people like we treat the Coke machine?  We may not recognize such retail transactions as exercises of power, but they are.  An old proverb tells us “The customer is always right”, and so the retail clerk cannot respond in kind when the customer is rude.  This reveals that the customer has the more power.  Such power must be exercised with love—in the case of retail transactions, with simple smiling courtesy.
            Bureaucrats (let me stress again) are not bad, but they are sometimes in situations that make it difficult to combine power with loving personal connection.  Their occasional plight reveals our constant opportunity, as well as the call of the Gospel.  When we ourselves come to exercise any power in our relationships, we must take care to do it with sensitivity and courtesy—that is, with the human touch and personal connection known as love.