25 July 2017

The Basis on healthcare

XI. 3. For the Church, the problem of personal and national health is not an external and purely social, because it has a direct bearing on her mission in the world damaged by sin and infirmities. The Church is called to participate, in collaboration with state structures and concerned public circles, in the development of such a conception of national healthcare whereby every person would exercise his right to spiritual, physical and mental health and social welfare under maximum life expectancy.

The doctor-patient relationships should be built on respect for the integrity, free choice and dignity of the personality. It is inadmissible to manipulate him even for the best purposes. The Church cannot but welcomes the development of doctor-patient dialogue taking place in medicine today. This approach is definitely rooted in the Christian tradition, though there is a temptation to reduce it to a purely contractual level. At the same time, it should be admitted that the traditional «paternalistic» model of doctor-patient relations, rightly criticised for frequent attempts to justify the doctor’s arbitrariness, can also offer a truly paternal approach to the patient, determined by the morality of the doctor.

Without giving preference to any organisational model of medical aid, the Church believes that this aid should be maximum effective and accessible to all members of society, regardless of their financial means and social status, also in the situation of limited medical resources. To make the distribution of these resources truly equitable, the criterion of «vital needs» should prevail over that of «market relations». The doctor should not link the measure of his responsibility for giving medical aid exclusively with the financial reward and its amount, turning his profession into a source of enrichment. At the same time, worthy payment for the work of medical workers appears to be an important task for society and state.
Our current system in the United States clearly does not qualify this basic minimum standard, and we are not even addressing the correct issues to be able to make it so. Meanwhile, the Republican proposal to ‘fix’ it would double the number of people without access to affordable care, or insurance to help pay for it. The ultimate irony and demonstration of this evil, is that the deciding vote is cast, against the interests of millions of the poorest Americans, by a rich man whose government-funded insurance plan covers treatment for his case of brain cancer. This is the kind of depraved moral universe that so much of the Beltway inhabits.

Brotherhood, honour, localism and just war


The Orthodox Church does not have a ‘just war’ tradition which can match the Augustinian-Scholastic one which is found in the Latin West. That does not mean, of course, that Orthodox thinkers have never applied Christian ethics to questions of war and peace. It means that a certain tragic and ironic perspective is taken: war is an evil. Full stop. And yet – in a world subject to the ontology of death – it still happens. When it does, for people to act in defence of the weak or of the attacked is morally superior to doing nothing at all – though it always bears reiterating that the worst course is to attack without provocation.

As it turns out, Orthodox social thinking on war and peace is being articulated in subtler and fuller ways in the present, as it has become necessary. Still, reading Fedotov, it’s interesting to see how monks and laymen attempted to deal with the realities of war, in the face of a tradition which wouldn’t and couldn’t countenance it. Who was in the right? Who had the prerogative to make peace? Were the claims of vengeance (so important to the Viking law that prevailed in early Russia) valid? Could God favour one side over the other, or intervene on one side’s behalf? These were not necessarily questions which were asked outright by the chroniclers, but they are certainly present in their minds and in the minds of their readers.

The early Kievan Rus’ princes were somewhat idealistic in their views of the way in which war should work. The state-of-affairs which was most desirable, and that which was most commendable for a prince to uphold, was the state of brotherly affection, care and obedience, even between literal blood brothers and co-claimants, who led separate semi-independent states.
In the mouth of the dying Iaroslav (1054), the Chronicle puts the following political testament to his sons:
My sons: have love between you, because you are brothers of the same father and mother; if you have love between yourselves God will be in you and subject your enemies under you and you will live in peace; and if you live in hatred, in quarrels and altercations, you yourselves will perish and ruin the land of your fathers and grandfathers which they had acquired with great labours; dwell then in peace, obedient one brother to another.
The eldest, Iziaslav, receives Kiev: ‘Obey him, as you have obeyed me, he is in the relation to you that I was.’ Such was an ideal moral and social order, probably written down in the light of princely quarrels and usurpations which had already begun under Iaroslav’s sons…

Taking into consideration that the whole history of ancient Russia is a never-ceasing war between related persons, the conclusion is tempting that blood ties were weak and the ‘brotherly love’ belonged rather to the province of political rhetorics than to reality. This conclusion, however, would be erroneous. There is at least one example of the real implications of clan relationship.
Fedotov then describes the self-sacrifice of Vladimir Davidovich of Chernigov for his elder kinsman, and his resulting death in battle. Iziaslav II of Kiev, though only distantly related to Vladimir, wept over his body – it was not supposed to happen in such a battle that a prince of the same kin group would be responsible for shedding the blood of another. More commonly, a truce (‘kissing the cross’) would happen, or the victor would take the loser as a hostage for ransom or to sign a peace treaty under duress. The kinship ethic and the political rites of ‘cross-kissing’ did have real implications. Blood vengeance against a relative was unheard-of. The kinship ethic of war also implies something very similar to just-war sentiment. As Fedotov writes: ‘Returning to the famous political testament of Iaroslav, which marks the birth of feudal Russia, one finds the precept of a just war in the prince’s words to his son Iziaslav: “If anyone wishes to wrong his own brother you must aid him who is wronged”.’ Though it must be noted that even this justifiable-war-of-defence is opposed rigorously by the Orthodox monks themselves, who consistently prefer and advise peacemaking to the pursuit of a king’s justice, even defensive, delivered at spear-point. Only one kind of war-making was countenanced by the Church, and that was defensive war against the heathen nomadic Polovtsy (otherwise known as the Qypchaqs), who terrorised the countryside.
Before the stark fact of war… Christian charity was badly-armed. Yet, it waged its generous though unsuccessful war against war for centuries. The Church considered it her duty to preach peace and to secure it by all the spiritual and diplomatic means at her disposal. “Prince,” said the Metropolitan Nicephorus to Rurik in 1195, “we are charged by God in the Russian land to restrain you from bloodshedding.” This duty of peace is stressed on every page of the Chronicles… The Chronicles give praise to every prince who yields to his rival, even to the point of giving up his obvious right in order to “avoid bloodshedding”.
To this kind of kenotic self-renunciation and humility (Fedotov makes the etymological point that the Old East Slavic term for ‘peacemaker’, smirinie смириние, carries overtones of humility and self-abasement), the chroniclers consistently oppose the princely sin of pride, hubris, belief in one’s own power to the exclusion of God. In many cases this comes down as a post hoc judgement on the (usually monastic) historian’s part: if a prince fared badly in battle, the loss of God’s favour could always be blamed on his hubristic self-love and pride in his own battle-prowess. The didactic importance of this historiographical practice, however, is clear.

Even so, Fedotov is sensible that such an ideal, in such an environment where Churchly ethics run up consistently hard against noble ones, cannot last more than one or two generations; he traces out how it degenerates in various ways in different settings. The very first cities to succumb to a more militaristic, expansive and less-constrained understanding of just-war sentiment are, unsurprisingly, Galich and Kiev. Fedotov stresses that through their constant contact with the Latin-Catholic Poles and Magyars, Galich and Kiev absorb some of the sæcular ethics of the państwo: the emphasis especially on the nobleman’s right of blood-vengeance against those who insult him. It was a Galician prince who first blasphemously scoffed at the rite of ‘cross-kissing’ (‘What? This little cross?’); and the later Chronicles of Kiev and Galich do not censure princely quests for imperial honour and glory the way the early ones do; in this way they tacitly legitimate blood-vengeance and satisfaction for insult as a political motive for war.

Still, Fedotov makes it clear that, despite the warped, one-sided ethics of libido dominandi which the southwestern principalities borrowed second-hand from the feudal Latin-Catholic world, he prefers this historiographical practice to that of Vladimir, in the Russian northeast. In the town founded by Saint Andrei the God-Loving, the monastic chroniclers did not emphasise honour; they retained the elder-Kievan language of Churchly piety, peacemaking-via-humility, and the censure of pride. But something else changed. Instead of attributing victory or loss to the moral failings or lack thereof of the prince, victory is ascribed to the direct intervention of God; loss is generally passed over in relative silence. In place of the glory-seeking of the southwestern cities, there is instead a kind of cynical realpolitik that creeps in at the edges of the Vladimir Chronicles which Fedotov does not like at all; he sees in it a prelude to a sort of collective chauvinism. ‘The chronicler of Vladimir … opposes to the “justice” of Rostov and Suzdal the new “justice” of Vladimir, which is, at the same time, “the justice of God and of the Mother of God”.’ The city itself and its self-interest are identified with Divine agency and protection – a form of thinking Fedotov is very right to hold suspect.

Only in Novgorod does Fedotov see the old Christian-brotherly thinking survive in a healthy way, alongside the peacemaking imperative of the monastic discipline, through the local Chronicles. ‘The love of peace and horror of war is clearly seen in sentences like these: “God, by His mercy, did not shed any more Christian blood”, or “God did not let Christian blood be shed among them”.’ But even that begins to deteriorate in the years running up to the Mongol invasions, when Fedotov begins to see monastic partizanship take form around the various civil conflicts and riots which broke out there in the early thirteenth century (with the monk-chroniclers beginning to bow to public opinion, and lay blame for the riots on the victims).

Fedotov presents a fascinating cross-section of mediæval Russian historical literature, and whether or not it was his intent to do so, he also raises some interesting questions about the nature of both proto-pacifist and proto-just-war thinking (if such terms can even rightly be used without anachronistic distortion) as it arose in Orthodox monastic histories. Even if the writing of the histories took on a bit of a post hoc character, and even if war and bloodshed were endemic to the time and place, it behoves us (particularly those of us who, following Solovyov, tend to be sympathetic to the just-war tradition) to examine the ways in which wars were understood, justified and resisted by the authorities which recorded them.

24 July 2017

Brief housekeeping note

Yes, I know that the link to the Brown-Greer China expat piece is down. Completely. This isn’t the first time Blogger has disappointed me that way: the post disappeared as I was reformatting the sidebar. Speaking of which, please do check out the Bunakov Series, the Fedotov Series and the Realism and Erōs sections below! (Links are provided for reader convenience as well as my own.) Unfortunately I don’t have an archival copy saved; so I will have to rewrite it or a similar piece at some point in the future.

23 July 2017

A ‘self-perpetuating gap’ that must be closed


Mouse-ear cress

Ten years ago, I worked summers as a lab grunt, for the third largest employer in my hometown (which happened to be a university). I was assigned to the Œcology and Evolutionary Biology department, and spent most of my time with a tally counter thumbing over the number of siliques on dried samples of mouse-ear cress while listening to books-on-tape, or transcribing handwritten field notes into Excel – while listening to books-on-tape. The most exciting part of my job was when I got flown to Finland to visit Oulu at the height of summer, where I spent twelve-hour days in the great Finnish wilderness on hands and knees, examining little mouse-ear cress plants as they came up and sprouted their first bright-green pair of little round leaves, as they ‘bolted’ (sent up their first stalk), and as they put out their first tiny white flowers. And, given that this was just below the Arctic Circle in late June, I would come back home at eight in the evening and there would still be six hours of daylight left. I’d usually order a tuna-fish pizza or fry some chicken for dinner and spend my evenings watching pirated fanservice-heavy Masami Ōbari OVAs in the solitude of my sublet apartment.

But on that job I also got to visit Norwich, England. Our department partnered with the University of East Anglia, which was also the home of the undeservedly-notorious Climatic Research Unit, which was literally right next door to us and with which our research team shared both faculty and data. Mouse-ear cress is a model organism for genetics research, annual, self-pollinating, quick to reach maturity, with only five chromosomes; it can grow in any number of different climates across the European, Asian and American continents. The research project I was assigned to, was attempting to measure the impact of environmental and climatic factors on genetic expression and mutation across multiple generations of the species. Naturally there was considerable coöperation to be done, and so with us the Climate Unit scientists were mostly friendly and open. Still, there was certainly something of a siege mentality toward the outside – rather an understandable one, in retrospect, given the hacking that would happen a little over two years after I left. But even when I was there, there was something of an attitude toward CRU faculty and working-class staff that could be felt. Sometimes we and our English counterparts would go down to a pub in Norwich for dinner and beer, and one night a rather buzzed-looking fellow, clearly one not affiliated with the University of East Anglia, came up to us and asked, on hearing what it was we did and where we worked, ‘you don’t really believe all that global-warming shite, do you?’

This incident came back to mind a few weeks back when a fellow member of my church, a wonderful fellow named T— (who’s been very good about sending me tips on job opportunities and advocating for me among his acquaintances in higher education and the private sector) and I got into a discussion on the topic of climate change. T— is, for lack of a better word, a sceptic of climate change. But the one thing he is not, is unintelligent. He’s far better-read than I am. He’s a professor of philosophy and ethics. He has a strong sense of œconomic equity and justice. But he’s also convinced, not only that the principles and methods of climate science are dubious at best, but further that there is an ulterior motive behind climate research, that it’s driven by an élite globalist agenda of deindustrialising and financialising the American œconomy, and robbing American workers of their self-sufficiency, to favour the industrial sectors of China and India. There was definitely an undertone in that discussion of: ‘you don’t really believe all that global-warming shite, right?’

Well, let’s put it this way. I agree completely with T— that our élite class has done a bang-up job of advancing globalism, deindustrialising and financialising our œconomy, all to the detriment of the working class. The relevant data do show that much quite clearly. What’s far less clear to me, however, is that climate scientists – at least in this country – ever had much to do with that agenda in the first place. Much of the ‘dirty work’ that went into the globalisation and financialisation of our œconomy happened between 1978 and 1985, with the advent of neoliberalism, union-busting and outsourcing, as is evident from the charts and papers that can be seen above. Politically speaking, the greenhouse effect was present but not really high on anyone’s priority list, even of the environmentalist movement, until NASA physicist James Hansen’s testimony to Congress in 1988. So there’s something of a time-based causality problem for those who want to argue that climate advocacy has been a tool of neoliberal œconomic planners and a weapon of global finance against the American worker.

On the other hand, environmental initiatives have been, for a very long time, a convenient political punching-bag for those concerned about job losses and œconomic restructuring. Certain environmental advocates really haven’t done their cause many favours in that regard by embracing a neo-Malthusian misanthropy. Many working-class Americans see hypocritical virtue-signalling endorsements of all things ‘green’ by celebrities leading jet-setter rich-and-famous lifestyles, alongside many of the same policies that continued to immiserate them through the 1990’s, and come to an understandable conclusion about the Beltway-led haute-bourgeois nature of climate advocacy. Is it any wonder the topic of climate change evokes such scepticism?

And then, of course, there is the circle-the-wagons tendency among scientists themselves – particularly climate scientists – who see their discipline as being under attack. In the CRU’s case, they actually were under attack, so I can completely understand that reaction. Having known personally some of the people involved, I couldn’t help but feel a personal stake in that whole affaire. But circling the wagons doesn’t actually help. As Independent Voter Network contributor Remy Reya puts it:
The lack of clarity comes from a self-perpetuating gap between the scientific community and the general public: researchers publish papers that must be actively sought out and use terminology inaccessible to large sectors of the population. Without having heard from the scientists directly, citizens grow weary and skeptical of their claims. In the end, media outlets end up with broad authority on the public’s perception of climate change.
I admit to having a ‘side’ here – the same side as Solzhenitsyn, in fact, which I’ve found is generally a good side to be on. I actually do ‘believe all that global warming shite’. The hierarchs of my Church have spoken on this issue (vehemently, unanimously, multiple times and through multiple outlets); so I follow my Church. It helps, of course, and I’m not at all surprised, that what my Church teaches is largely in agreement with the climate scientists I’ve worked under. But I won’t forbear in criticising my own ‘side’ when I believe they’re making an error – either a moral error, a factual error, or an error in tactics. I think a significant part, the significant part, of the onus is on them, as experts, to do the heavy-yet-needful civic work of convincing (not brow-beating, not condescending, not belittling) non-experts, why the science is solid, why it matters now, and why action is needed.

21 July 2017

‘Repentance is current and radical’


Archbishop Anastas (Janullatos) of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania

There is an article on Pemptousia providing some excerpts from Archbishop Anastas of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania’s address to the World Council of Churches. His Holiness Anastas does not pull any punches at all when it comes to diagnosing the ills of the modern œconomy: as you can see, he makes the case with great conviction, moral force and prophetic power. Here are some quotes from his address:
Respect for the human person has been replaced by the high-handedness of impersonal institutions and forces. Stress on the freedom of the individual has given way to emphasis on the freedom of the market. So, from being a society of free persons, we have reached the point where entire peoples are candidates for enslavement to impersonal groups, anonymous money traders, who are basically regulating the œconomies of entire peoples, who are known as ‘markets’. These give money an independent existence as an abstract ‘accounting’ value and trade it. Among the complex mazes of globalisation, new structures of the financial system of a ‘virtual œconomy’ have been created, which are beyond the control of any state or other political institution. On the other contrary, decisions by these nameless dealers, whose identity is carefully hidden, can devastate states and nations, condemning millions of people to unemployment, and society to squalor. So the whole global œconomy is now living through a dreadful structural crisis of the financial system, which is the most cogent proof of the crisis of values in society.
On the responsibilities of the Church in the European œconomic crisis and the immiseration of southern Europe at the hands of the north, and the attitudes of the north toward the south, Archbishop Anastas also has a few strong words to say:
In this painful financial crisis, the Church cannot remain a mere spectator. It has to be outspoken in giving prophetic utterance directed at three issues:
  1. Bold criticism of the members of our Churches for an attitude which is inconsistent with the Gospel principles, for their participation, to a great or lesser extent, in injustice and social corruption. Mobilisation, with creative initiatives, of the parishes, the various ecclesiastical groups and organizations, for the immediate relief and assistance of the weakest members of our society. Thank God, in this area there is already serious Church activity.

  2. The expression of resolute criticism of the materialistic ideals and systems that are producing injustice generally and the financial crisis in particular. An effort to influence the political leadership. An invitation to eminent scholars and œconomists to work out solutions which would include respect for persons and the identity of peoples, and solidarity with them. The general concept of the human being and creation has been radically subjected to notions of self-indulgence. The Church is being called upon to defend the dignity of the human person as an image of the personal God, and also the sanctity of creation as God’s handiwork. The way of thinking that has people as masters of creation who therefore have the right to abuse the natural environment is not simply mistake, but, from an Orthodox standpoint, sinful. According to the Christian faith, people are an organic part of creation and ought to treat it with respect.

  3. Local Churches have the opportunity to demonstrate mutual support, with a greater impact on the societies in which they live. For example, influencing the peoples of Northern Europe towards understanding and solidarity with the struggling societies in the South of the continent. And, vice versa, restraining the feelings of bitterness and frustration of the œconomically weaker peoples of the South at the arrogant behaviour of some of the œconomically more robust European states. Examples could multiply, clearly, because of the disparities which exist all over the globe between the œconomically powerful and weak states. The Churches in the rich societies have no right to keep silent – sometimes, indeed, to concur – and leave room for the chorus of dismissive voices insulting the peoples who are in trouble.
Archbishop Anastas on why it is simply not enough to engage in vague moralising:
If all we do is repeat the phrase ‘crisis of values’, we risk becoming lost in vagueness. The Church, ‘again and again’, is called upon to name, emphasize and point out these enduring values which have global validity: justice, in the clear sense of ‘So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them’ (S. Matthew 7, 12); also truth, self-determination, the importance of moderation; efforts towards reconciliation; love in all its expressions and dimensions.
And what is the greatest source of danger to environment and œconomy, apart from corruption, greed and mendacity?
The greatest danger is self-love, egocentricity, enslavement to our ego, worship of our individual interests, those of the family, the locality, the nation. The antidote to this is justice, together with mutual support and self sacrifice. The secret of finding one’s self is to offer it. Emphasis on and the experience of this value remains the Church’s greatest contribution: support for the grieving, even if they are themselves responsible for mistakes and omissions. No other institution can offer love and self-sacrifice. To the classic ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am), the Church, drawing on the best pages of its history, adds: ‘I love therefore I am’, based on the model of the existence of the Holy Trinity in love and interpenetration.
And finally, some historical perspective:
This is not the first time the Church as been faced with crises. The tragic conflicts and experiences of the world wars in the twentieth century awakened consciences and led to the abolition of colonialism, of the fascist systems and of racist ideologies. In the course of great trials, when societies reach the end of their tether, rare virtues arise in people’s hearts, such as love of the truth, bravery, tolerance, forgiveness, self-denial, justice and altruism.
I have no doubt that the usual sourpusses in the usual jurisdictions will dismiss everything His Holiness has to say on the basis that he is (supposedly) a dirty rotten œcumenist who has dared to have anything at all to do with the ritually-unclean World Council. But he has made reference only to ‘enduring’, traditional Orthodox principles: the Golden Rule, the call to askesis, the Church’s role as moral guide of the state, rejection of materialism and, most of all, the praxis of true metanoia; in short, he has given voice to the Gospel and the Way of Our Lord Christ. The Church as a whole would do very well to listen to Archbishop Anastas.

18 July 2017

Americanism and intégrisme: theopolitics resurgent


A recent Vatican-issued editorial co-authored by the Jesuit priest Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Presbyterian minister Marcelo Figueroa for La Civiltà Cattolica seems to have ruffled some feathers and inspired some serious reflection among my radical Catholic acquaintance. I find myself in broad agreement with the historical and moral stances written out in this article, given that it probes the sensitive point of the triumphal, right-wing Catholic intégrisme about which I have said several hard words recently. Spadaro and Figueroa make some sound historical points about the origins, nature and inclinations of right-wing political Protestantism (which they term ‘evangelical’ or ‘fundamentalist’) in the United States, link them to several parallel movements within American Catholicism, and attempt to show how they are at odds with a true Christian witness. Some parts of this they do better than others. They make, often very cursory, treatments of disparate elements of American Christendom, and the overall picture they paint seems a bit cluttered as a result.

There are several points where I believe that the authors could have made their point even more forcefully than they have. I will have to come back later and expand on this. I have already pointed out briefly how the sainted Emperor Constantine, despite the dubious place he occupies in Whiggish and Protestant historiography as a wedder of Church and State, was not an advocate of any political theology which might prefigure intégrisme. Constantine’s rule was messy, and he was deeply aware of that himself. He comported himself with humility in the presence of his bishops; and though he called for the council at Nicæa he did not dare to exert any political pressure on the outcome. He refused to be venerated as a god when that was expected of him under the pagan customs. In spite of the motto which has come to symbolise his reign, Constantine’s trajectory as Emperor was one of tragedy, humility and repentance. He was a model of symphonía, and yielded in his own opinions to the counsel of the Church. Not his the triumphal victory imagined by those now comparing him to the current elected occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Considered in the light of Orthodox political philosophy especially, such comparisons are far beyond asinine. They border on defamation and blasphemy against a holy saint.

Another point on which the Orthodox witness needs to stand firm, more emphatically than even Spadaro and Figueroa do, regards the rejection of Manichæan ‘dominionist’ and ‘national blessing’ forms of political theology. For this we must appeal to history of Orthodoxy in North America. Orthodox Christians should be, to a greater extent even than Catholics, aware of the dangers of the faith that drapes the Cross in the Stars and Stripes. The vicious, inhospitable and unbrotherly reception that Saint Alexis Toth received at the hands of Archbishop John Ireland (a corporate-friendly ‘Americanist’ if there ever was one – though not an intégriste!), or the less-dramatic but more-persistent social humiliations working-class Rusyn Orthodox immigrants to mining towns had to endure amidst their poverty for their faith and culture, should be grim reminders to all of us of the dangers of a political theology of ‘national blessing’, from when we were seen as the (cultural or class) enemy. These are forms of political theology which we must reject, with force. The more so since ethno-nationalism has been and remains an idol to which modern Orthodox Christians have proven sadly susceptible in our tragic history of resistance to Ottoman tyranny.

On the other hand, let’s be aware of what is happening with these back-and-forth salvos in the Catholic blogosphere. We are seeing the reawakening of older, longstanding questions of political theology. The intégrisme the authors of the piece attack within American Catholicism, is in fact a movement toward papocæsarism, a movement which Spadaro and Figueroa are right to oppose, being as it is a temptation of special intensity for political thinkers in the Latin tradition. But the authors of this piece somewhat lazily conflate this with an opposite movement in the American church, represented by the dominionist and national-blessing tendencies within the Protestant tradition. These have a tendency toward cæsaropapism: no Pope, no magisterium, but rather the earthly ideational leaders within American political life have the right and authority to dictate the priorities of the public spiritual life. It is true that there is a great deal of overlap – for the time being – in ‘values’ and priorities between these two approaches to political ethics. But these are static and temporary – as Quirk notes in his op-ed, the common cause between the two is ‘superficial’. Whereas, as Berdyaev would say, the political ethics of Christendom are dynamic and fluid. No, but that sounds too peaceful. Political ethics and theology are a veritable Strait of Messina; it is too easy to get sucked away in a rogue current.

At a certain level, there is a kind of naïveté to which Spadaro and Figueroa leave themselves prone. It may or may not be Pope Francis’s study to ‘break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church’, but it should be clear, from America’s own experience, that doing so is actually more difficult than it sounds, and has the added danger of further distorting and poisoning the right relationships between Church and state. There can be no doubt that America is a very religious nation, particularly when compared with Europe, and that despite having an official separation of Church and state, by design of our nation’s founders. Yet clearly Spadaro and Figueroa (and presumably Pope Francis by extension) believe that, in spite of our having broken ‘the organic link’, at least between political institutions and the Church, our religious life is still affected by a number of forms of, let’s politely say ‘weirdness’, that don’t appear in less-religious (but also less institutionally-sæcular) Europe. Now, I’ve been a vocal critic of American-style sæcularism since my Episcopal days. That’s because it’s been apparent to me for awhile that sæcularism or laïcité is easier to realise on paper than it is in practice. France’s violent mood swings between rabid anti-clericalism and loud outbursts of Catholic piety are comical enough in historical perspective, but we Americans shouldn’t laugh too loud lest we forget our own political-cultural-religious dysfunction (of which I freely admit myself to be a part).

This makes it all somewhat ironic, then, that Spadaro and Figueroa go to all the trouble to point out (in most cases rightly) how distant American expressions of religiosity are from an ideal formed within a more deeply institutional religious culture, but their end prescription – ‘breaking the link’ – is the same one which caused those expressions to go astray to begin with.

Orthodox political theology does, of course, have an answer – or rather, a direction – which can sound utopian (or indeed dystopian) to Western ears, including Catholic ones: that of symphonía. But in order to work well, the state needs to internalise the moral and spiritual authority of the Church; and the Church must forsake any claim on temporal political power. These are massive struggles, historically, within the Church and within societies where the Church finds herself. Orthodox religious historian Gyorgi Fedotov claims that the closest any Orthodox polity has come to realising symphonía (as opposed to a cæsaropapist distortion of the same) was in the early Kievan Rus’, whose kings really did bear a heartfelt humility before the teachings of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. Later developments, though, would show that the ease with which moral authority could translate into earthly power also had its temptations.

Still, Orthodox Christians would do well not to ignore the rumbles brewing among our Latin brothers and sisters. Questions of political ethics and theology are back on the menu. And they are more urgent, now especially at a time when older questions of political œconomy in the sæcular sphere are also busy reasserting themselves.

15 July 2017

In praise of Edo



For one brief moment,
Mankind touched the world-soul there
And then parted ways.


Okay, two hundred fifty years of Japanese history under the military leadership of the Tokugawa family obviously deserves far better than one haiku in its defence. Particularly from yours truly, who has written so many hard words on the Kingdom of Yamato for so many reasons these past years. Please allow this worthless blogger the attempt to do better than that in my usual way, even if in doing so I clumsily forsake the brevity and elegance which must match the style of my subject.

The more I read about Edo-era Japan, the more I find in it to admire, and the more I find I must lament its loss, its destruction by its very leadership. I have held previously, and still do, that what is noble and sweet and admirable in traditional Japanese society has been reflected and amplified from the importation of certain forms from Tang-dynasty China.

In terms of governmental and political principles, the parallels with Tang China were close. Tokugawa Ieyasu undertook land reforms similar to those of Li Shimin, if only for pragmatic and political reasons. Once he broke the power of his political rivals he turned much of the arable land over to the peasantry and the old samurai families, and placed them on land reclamation projects. Though this was largely for the reason of disarming them, it had the added effect of contenting them and spreading the wealth to the poor. These reforms ended up making Edo Japan one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, according to Dr Saito Osamu – comparable to many of today’s European welfare states in terms of wealth and income distribution. Between rural peasantry and urban mercantile and military élites, the wealth disparity didn’t far exceed two to one. And the land was quite evenly distributed, with each family (the smallest unit with recognised legal rights) tilling well enough to meet their own needs after taxes were paid. It’s something of an anachronism and a cultural imposition to call it so, but Edo Japan was essentially a distributist society.

Confucian learning was intensely valued, particularly the neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi (to the point where the entirety of Edo Confucian learning was styled Shushi-gaku 朱子學). Tokugawa Ieyasu was especially interested in promoting Confucian principles to consolidate his legitimacy. He established the class structure promoted by Ban Gu in the Han Dynasty: with samurai (supposedly the equivalents of the Chinese literati) at the top, then the peasantry, then the urban workmen, then the merchants at the bottom. The result – at least in the Japanese interpretation – was timocratic. The lovers of honour, the men who (putatively) lived by the sword, were placed deliberately at the top of society; the lovers of money at the bottom. Though Confucian learning, erudition and refinement were all deeply respected in the complete man, the masculine ideal was still that of the warrior.

But Confucianism didn’t stay at the top. The Tokugawas’ respect for Chinese learning did filter down to the grassroots; it saturated all of cultural life – poor as well as rich, women as well as men. As the (much-earlier) Tale of Genji puts it: ‘it is when there is a plenitude of Chinese classical learning, that the Japanese soul is respected in the world’. Or, to quote Gu Hongming’s The Spirit of the Chinese People:
If you want to see the grace and charm expressed by the word debonaire in the true Chinese feminine ideal, you will have to go to Japan where the women there at least, even to this day, have preserved the pure Chinese civilisation of the Tang Dynasty. It is this grace and charm expressed by the word debonaire combined with the divine meekness of the Chinese feminine ideal, which gives the air of distinction [meiki or minggui 名貴] to the Japanese woman—even to the poorest Japanese woman today.
There is indeed much to praise in the ideal of the Japanese woman, the Yamato nadeshiko 大和撫子 of the Edo period. Unlike her contemporary Chinese counterpart, who if she was wealthy enough, crippled her own feet and rendered herself in that way artificial and ornamental, the Japanese ideal woman was disciplined and dynamic, hardworking and subtly alluring – never flighty or superficial. Physically possessed of a supple willowy figure, with elegantly-coiffed black hair, snow-white skin and deep red lips; she was also spiritually endowed with a stoic, all-pervading modesty and a kind of kenotic selflessness. The Yamato nadeshiko of the Edo period is a deep inward concentration of the talented, free-spirited, full-figured Tang Chinese womanly ideal, and yet has a subtly different character.

Women do hold up half the sky, and it should be no surprise therefore that the society they embody has the same characteristics as they do. The society and culture of Edo was similarly concentrated and disciplined, yet it expressed itself in singularly sublime and beautiful ways. In one vital respect Edo did not emulate the Tang. It was not expansionist. It was a society which ‘lived and let be’; it minded its own business quietly and didn’t meddle on the continent at all. The two hundred fifty years of the Tokugawa bakufu 德川幕府 were years of peace – later Western and even later Japanese historians, believing in the liberal brass law of ‘free trade’ or in the militaristic iron law of expansion, would deride this policy as ‘isolationist’. But more than being mere imitators of the Chinese way and the Chinese learning (as were the Heian and Muromachi periods), the Edo period was a deep, spiritual, feminine concentration of the same cultural energies, so ebulliently released in Tang and Song China.

This concentration found expressions not only in high-flown gendered ideals of warrior and wife. The social stratification combined with relative œconomic equality produced a spectacular urban culture in Edo itself where entertainments of all sorts could blossom. Edo was a golden age of visual arts (particularly woodblock prints like the ones shown above, filled with grace and power), performing arts (especially kabuki 歌舞伎 and the tradition of the geisha 藝者), music and literature – including great novels like The Tale of Eight Dogs, which were influenced by Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, yet carried their own character. This sublimely-beautiful explosion in cultural output corresponded with a modest, linear œconomic and population growth pattern. The average family size was above replacement with three children, but also not too large; and the œconomy grew to match – and this was not the result of higher levels of resource exploitation, but through gradual improvements in technology and natural boosts to efficiency and ingenious ways of reducing or eliminating waste (again, with Japan’s elegantly-practical women doing the great bulk of that ‘household work’). The result was a society which was sensitive and attuned to its immediate natural environment, œcologically-harmonious as well as peaceable!

Edo Japan was not a utopia. Christians were violently persecuted by the early Tokugawa bakufu. Easy divorce, prostitution and pornography were far from being inventions of the Meiji revolutionary state, but were already well-established in the same urban culture which produced art, music and drama of such beauty. And the Confucian class system had its ugly underside, too: the handlers of meat and leather – both necessary professions, but distasteful to Japanese sensibilities – were considered ‘untouchables’ by the rest of society. But there is a great, great deal about Edo Japan to admire and hold in reverence, the more so when we consider the devastating cultural effects that came after the appearance of Matthew Perry’s warships; when Emperor Meiji exchanged his nation’s traditionalist, Chinese-enlightened soul for the libido dominandi of modern revolution and the power promised by German-engineered steel.