Secular Privilege and Natural Law
Two of the best Orthodox Christian commentators on current events today are (in my view) John Kass, the main columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and Rod Dreher, columnist for the online American Conservative.
Both are friends (John I have known in person from when I worked as a reporter for the rival Sun-Times; when I converted, he gave me instructions on how to get equipment to rotisserie lamb for Pascha; Rod is an occasional but valued e-friend), with whose views I don’t always agree, but whose thoughtfulness typically defies easy labels. Both write openly about being Orthodox, although John less often in the context of his reflections for a major metropolitan daily.
Both, this past Fourth of July week, wrote really thoughtful reflections of relevance to what is happening in American intellectual culture and its growing attitude of bigotry and dehumanization toward traditional Christians. This is something of which all Orthodox Christians should be aware as they consider the education of their children (biological and spiritual) within the faith.
In the past week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy perspective by Prof. Peter Conn of University of Pennsylvania that argued in no uncertain terms for un-accrediting religious institutions of higher education, claiming that there is irreconcilable conflict between religious faith and higher education. Prof. Alan Jacobs of Baylor responded to this call for a purge of faith, and by extension of believing traditional Christians, from academia, by pointing out its arrogant assumption of universality for a particular Western secularism.
Conn’s attack on faith as irreconcilable with the project of higher education is, of course, of concern to many Orthodox Americans working and studying in higher education in the U.S. today. Christians are de-humanized, not only without penalty, but often with approbation, despite rules prohibiting religious harassment and bias.
Yet the growing intensity of this secular privilege should be a matter of prayerful concern and action for all Orthodox Americans today. It will hurt our families and parishes in future even if not seeming to touch us directly now. In fact, it already is at our door and with our children. As Dreher argues, traditional Christians and Jews in the U.S. generally still don’t seem to take these developments seriously.
That is where I also found John Kass’ Fourth of July column important and extremely relevant. He asks: “What would we tell the founders and the men of Valley Forge about the nation they gave us? Would we tell them that many Americans probably know more about the curves of Kim Kardashian than we know about the Bill of Rights? Or that we’ve traded liberty for entertainment, and worship smartphones that record our movements, our thoughts and our ‘likes’?”
The Venn Diagram overlap between Kass’ concern with civil society and Dreher’s with academia is a secularism in both that is religious in its passions. The Catholic writer Joseph Bottum argues in his recent book An Anxious age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America that the intensity with which Protestantism became woven into American culture transferred through the social-gospel movement into modern secularism, only then to head on into academia and intellectual culture at large, having shed any theism. The result is a secular natural law, whose main qualities can be summed up currently by four terms that are revered in contemporary intellectual culture but that often elude specific definition: Social Justice, Sustainability, Diversity, and Queerness.
The apologetic challenge to the Orthodox Church in post-Christian America and Western Europe may well center on adapting, converting, and in effect baptizing such terms to a Christian sense, in a modest echo of how the Apostles John and Paul, the Cappadocians, and many others, baptized Classical and vernacular terms and approaches in the apolstolic and patristic eras.
–While Social Justice first was a Catholic term developed from Scholastic notions of natural law, it lies at the heart of today’s secular rhetoric. The Orthodox sense of natural law draws more on transformative noetic experience related to theosis, than a more static sense of natural laws in our fallen world. As the editors of the St. Vladimir’s Press Popular Patristics edition of St. Basil the Great’s writings on philanthropia indicated in their title, On Social Justice, it is possible to adapt the term to Orthodoxy. That can involve offering people inter-generationally an opportunity for meaningful life in all its aspects, in the embodied transcendence of freedom that our faith offers, including especially transfigurative theosis. The Grand Inquisitor’s offer of material well-being in Dostoevsky’s parable is not sufficient by itself.
–Sustainability in Orthodoxy is our living tradition across generations, paralleling the Seventh Generation ethos of the Iroquois, but including the saints and generational links of biological and spiritual families and cosmic hierarchies. Our tradition focuses on asceticism that is also divine aesthetic, the beauty that will save the world and that is, as in the Septuagint version of Genesis 1, kalos, both beautiful in terms of physical harmony and good in spiritual harmony.
–Diversity in our tradition again is intergenerational and profoundly multicultural as well as including, to echo the Apostle Paul, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, in Christ. Orthodox apophatic theology does not essentialize identity in the sense of objectifying it, but realizes it in relationship to God and to one another in His Church and creation. Orthodox Christianity worldwie is in many ways today “postcolonial,” definitely not globally or in its historical tradition embodying the standard WEIRD bias defined by some social scientists as Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Developed.
–Queerness evokes a sense of wondrous subversion of objectification sought by many young people today. C.S. Lewis wrote of “Mere Christianity” but today we might think of Christianity as counter-cultural in terms of “Queer Christianity.” What truly is more queer, more radically wonderful and magical, than the melding of God and human being in the Incarnation? Than the transfiguring power of grace in the uncreated energies of theosis in hesychasm? Than the spiritual help of saints and holy elders, and most especially of the Theotokos as both the Mother of God and in a sense also the Virgin Bride of God? Than the personhood of the humblest fetus and the poorest and least-educated member of our society, and our personal responsibility for them as Christians? Than the mystery of monogamous marriage between a biological man and a biological woman becoming one, uniting male and female as the basis for family crossing generations, with the husband iconographically as both self-sacrificial servant and lord of his family?
Realizing the seriousness of our situation in today’s “post-Christian” Western culture, we need to grow our lives and our apologetics to baptize the terms of religious secularism and convert them–to flip them and with God’s grace help protect new generations of the Church in America.
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