The Turn of the Screw

It’s not uncommon for people who make big changes in life to be put through an ordeal of some sort by friends and family. For some people who oppose the change, whatever it may be, the desire is to apply enough pressure to stop the person changing. For others the desire is to punish the changer. Either way what you have is the application of some kind of force, emotional, financial, or even physical, directed at the changing one. This is an experience that will resonate with Orthodox Christians in America. For many cradle Orthodox the pressure to conform was applied years ago to your immigrant forbearers. For many converts duress came when you began your journey to Orthodoxy. You would think that being subjected to the coercive force of others would guard Orthodox folk from the temptation to apply this force ourselves but sadly this is not the case. Yesterday an announcement came across my Facebook feed from a clergyman who had recently been received into the Orthodox Church. He has renounced his priesthood and his Church due to his support for marriage equality. For the Orthodox this is a decision with serious spiritual consequences (the practical consequences for this man and his family aren’t negligible either) and one that understandably causes grief. But the responses from those in the Church ought to trouble us as well because many of them resorted to that very same coercive force that others have painfully applied to so many of us.

This willingness to recur to force, to compel others to do as we wish or to hurt them for refusing, is something that we Orthodox ought to be wary of. Coercion is the devil’s instrument. He is the one who turns the screws of earthly power. It was Lucifer in the form of a serpent who goaded Eve into tasting the fruit. It was Lucifer who tried to coerce Christ into forsaking the will of His Father by asking him to change stones into bread. In contrast, Jesus issues invitations: “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn of Me for I am meek and lowly in heart.” (Mt. 11:28) Christ rejects the use of force even when it is directed at Him. He suffers violence and wrong prayerfully: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” If we call ourselves followers of Christ we too must reject the temptation to apply coercive force and instead embrace the way of suffering love and prayer. We cannot allow grief and disappointment to be transformed by our enemy into hostility and recrimination without being sucked into the orbit of sin ourselves. Elder Epiphanios once made the following statement which I think encapsulates a healthy Orthodox disposition toward others. He said:

I want whoever is near me to feel that he has room to breathe, not that he is suffocated. I don’t call anyone to me. I don’t hold onto anyone. I don’t chase anyone away. Whoever wants comes, whoever wants stays, whoever wants leaves. I don’t consider anyone a supporter or a follower. (Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece)

We can follow our Elder’s example even as he follows Christ’s. We can be angry and sin not. We can grieve over someone’s soul without giving in to the satanic temptation to compel them to change course or say hurtful things as they walk out. We can refuse to turn the screws of earthly power and thereby gain the inner beauty which renders that power impotent. May God help us to do so.

David Hume or Richard Parker?

A while ago my wife and I had a rare opportunity for a date. We went to the cinema and saw Life of Pi. We were probably among the last to view the movie in the theater, but we enjoyed it very much. I say among the last because not too long after we saw it I read a new post by Joel Miller, a co-religionist and excellent blogger at Patheos, in which he panned the movie. I was a bit surprised, not that someone would dislike a movie I enjoyed, but by the reason for disliking it (one of them anyway) which he gave and which was echoed by several of his readers in the comments section. If you haven’t seen it, Life of Pi is a story about a journalist who goes to meet a man (Pi) who, he is told, can make him believe in God. Pi tells him a harrowing story about embarking on a sea voyage with his family and a host of zoo animals. The ship sinks in a storm, everyone else is lost, and the teenaged Pi is trapped on a life boat with a Bengal tiger. Pi survives the tiger and the sea and eventually makes it to land. The journalist is amazed by the story but confused as to how it is supposed to make him believe in God. Then Pi tells him in a few sentences a very ugly and prosaic alternative version of the same story involving murder and cannibalism; a version which, if true, makes the tiger story a mere metaphor of actual events. “Which story do you prefer?” Pi asks the journalist when he has finished his tale. “The first one” he replies. “And so it goes with God.” Pi returns.  Mr. Miller contends the point of the movie is that reality and metaphor have equal weight or value in terms of truth and we can choose which we like better as a guide for life. This is certainly true if you grant that Pi’s tiger story is not the true story. However, the film does not require this, it gives no definitive indication either way. The same story is told twice. Once it is extraordinary and miraculous. The other time it is prosaic and brutal. Pi never suggests that the second story is true or the first a metaphor but neither does he tell the journalist which to believe. The journalist must choose and so must we. Herein lies an irony. Contrary to Pi’s agnostic journalist, Mr. Miller and those Christians who echo his objection make the same assumption about which story is true in the movie that materialists make about which story is true of the world; they choose the one that is least challenging to our ordinary experience.

Perhaps this choice is indicative of how deeply American Christianity is infected with the assumptions of materialism. When the object of our consideration is not obviously related to our theological commitments, we recur to the same psychologized, mechanistic mode of thinking employed by most of the secular culture around us. We find Pi’s mystical story just as dubious as atheists find ours and, like them, are able to supply evidence for this conviction. The result of this way of thinking is not consequence-free. If Pi’s story of the tiger is false; Pi, the seemingly gentle, fundamentally Hindu syncretist, is merely a murderer who psychologizes his own depravity and that of the world around him because he cannot face it. He is not a man of faith at all. He does not really believe in God. His beauty is illusion. To accept this conclusion in the context of a movie who’s existential ambiguities closely mirror those of the real world is to validate the materialist’s objection to Christianity. It is, in fact, to reiterate it. But what if Pi’s fantastic story is true? In the first place, Pi is a more beautiful person if this is the case. He is not a murderer or delusional but, like Job, a man whose faith in God does not wither in the face of tremendous loss and suffering. Since the evidence is split why choose otherwise? More than this, to embrace the tiger story is to embrace faith and hope. It is to open yourself to the possibility of the miraculous; a world in which God is present and active. This is the testimony and experience of Orthodoxy. God is present and active in the world. By the Holy Spirit He is present in bread and wine; He is present in the waters of baptism; He is present in icons, and relics; He is present in people. He is even present in a boat with a syncretist and a tiger.