American bewilderment in the face of the world we live in

What the mass culture really reflects …is the American bewilderment in the face of the world we live in. We do not seem to want to know that we are in the world, that we are subject to the same catastrophes, vices, joys, and follies which have baffled and afflicted mankind for ages. And this has everything to do, of course, with what was expected of America: which expectation, so generally disappointed, reveals something we do not want to know about sad human nature, reveals something we do not want to know about the intricacies and inequities of any social structure, reveals, in sum, something we do not want to know about ourselves. The American way of life has failed—to make people happier or to make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it. We persist in believing that the empty and criminal among our children are the result of some miscalculation in the formula (which can be corrected); that the bottomless and aimless hostility which makes our cities among the most dangerous in the world is created, and felt, by a handful of aberrants; that the lack, yawning everywhere in this country, of passionate conviction, of personal authority, proves only our rather appealing tendency to be gregarious and democratic. We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.

James Baldwin in “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes.”

the Good God will of course take into account the age and conditions in which we live

From With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man by Saint Paisios the Athonite:


Geronda, why does St. Cyril of Jerusalem say that the Martyrs of the last days will surpass all Martyrs?


Because in the old times we had men of great stature; our present age is lacking in examples—and I am speaking generally about the Church and Monasticism.  Today, there are more words and books and fewer living examples. We admire the holy Athletes of our Church, but without understanding how much they struggled, because we have not struggled ourselves.  Had we done so, we would appreciate their pain, we would love them even more and strive with philotimo to imitate them.  The Good God will of course take into account the age and conditions in which we live, and He will ask of each one of us accordingly.  If we only strive even a little bit, we will merit the crown more than our ancestors.

In the old days, when there was a fighting spirit and everyone was trying to measure up to the best, evil and negligence would not be tolerated.  Good was in great supply back then, and with this competitive spirit, it was difficult for careless people to make it to the finish line.  The others would run them over.  I remember once, in Thessaloniki, we were waiting for the traffic light to cross the street, when I suddenly felt pushed by the crowd behind me, as if by a wave.  I only had to lift my foot and the rest was done for me.  All I am trying to say is that when everybody is going toward the same direction, those who don’t wish to follow will have difficulty resisting because the others will push them along.

Today, if someone wishes to live honestly and spiritually, he will have a hard time fitting in this world.  And if he is not careful, he’ll be swept by the secular stream downhill.  In the old days, there was plenty of good around, plenty of virtue, many good examples, and evil was drowned by the good; so, the little disorder that existed in the world or in the monasteries was neither visible nor harmful.  What’s going on now?  Bad examples abound, and the little good that exists is scorned.  Thus, the opposite occurs; the little good that exists is drowned by an excess of evil, and evil reigns.

It helps so much when a person or a group of people has a fighting spirit.  When even one person grows spiritually, he does not only benefit himself, but helps those who see him.  Likewise, one who is laid back and lazy has the same effect on the others.  When one give in, others follow until in the end there’s nothing left.  This is why it’s so important to have a fighting spirit in these lax times.  We must pay great attention to this matter, because people today have reached the point where they make lax laws and impose them on those who want to live strict and disciplined lives.  For this reason, it is important for those who are struggling spiritually, not only to resist being influenced by the secular spirit, but also to resist comparing themselves to the world and concluding that they are saints.  For when this happens, they end up being worse than those who live in the world.  If we take one virtue at a time, find the Saint who exemplified it and study his or her life, we will soon realize that we have achieved nothing and will carry on with humility.

Just as in racing, the runner speeding for the end line does not look back toward those lagging behind, but fixes his eyes forward, so too in this struggle we don’t want to be looking back and thus left behind.  When I try to imitate those who are ahead of me, my conscience is refined.  When, however, I look back, I justify myself and think that my faults are not important compared to theirs.  The thought that others are inferior consoles me.  Thus, I end up drowning my conscience or, to put it better, having a plastered, unfeeling heart.

good taste in knowledge

Excerpts from the essay “Good Taste in Knowledge” in the book The Importance of Living (1938) by Lin Yutang:

The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct. The cultured man or the ideal educated man is not necessarily one who is well-read or learned, but one who likes and dislikes the right things.

…To be well-informed, or to accumulate facts and details, is the easiest of all things. There are many facts in a given historical period that can easily be crammed into our mind, but discernment in the selection of significant facts is a vastly more difficult thing and depends upon one’s point of view.

An educated man, therefore, is one who has the right loves and hatreds. This we call taste, and with taste comes charm. Now to have taste or discernment requires a capacity for thinking things through to the bottom, an independence of judgement, and an unwillingness to be bulldozed by any form of humbug, social, political, literary, artistic, or academic. There is no doubt that we are surrounded in our adult life by a wealth of humbugs.

…When a man is wrong, he is wrong, and there is no need for one to be impressed and overawed by a great name or by the number of books that he has read and we haven’t. Taste, then, is closely associated with courage, as the Chinese always associate shih and tan, and courage or independence of judgement, as we know, is such a rare virtue among mankind.

…Confucius seemed to have felt that scholarship without thinking was more dangerous than thinking unbacked by scholarship; he said, “Thinking without learning makes one flighty, and learning without thinking is a disaster.” He must have seen enough students of the latter type in his days for him to utter this warning, a warning very much needed in the modern schools. It is well known that modern education and the modern school system in general tend to encourage scholarship at the expense of discernment and look upon the cramming of information as an end in itself, as if a great amount of scholarship could already make an educated man. But why is thought discouraged at school? Why has the educational system twisted and distorted the pleasant pursuit of knowledge into a mechanical, measured, uniform and passive cramming of information? Why do we place more importance on knowledge than on thought? How do we come to call a college graduate an educated man simply because he has made up the necessary units or weekhours of psychology, medieval history, logic, and “religion”? Why are there school marks and diplomas, and how did it come about that the mark and the diploma have, in the student’s mind, come to take the place of the true aim of education?

The reason is simple. We have this system because we are educating people in masses, as if in a factory, and anything which happens inside a factory must go by a dead and mechanicial system. In order to protect its name and standardise its products, a school must certify them with diplomas. With diplomas, then, comes the necessity of grading, and with the necessity of grading come school marks, and in order to have school marks, there must be recitations, examinations, and tests. The whole thing forms an entirely logical sequence and there is no escape from it. But the consequences of having mechanical examinations and tests are more fatal than we imagine. For it immediately throws the emphasis on memorization of facts rather than on the development of taste or judgement. I have been a teacher myself and know that it is easier to make a set of questions on historical dates than on vague opinions on vague questions. It is also easier to mark the papers.

The danger is that after having instituted this system, we are liable to forget that we have already wavered, or are apt to waver from the true ideal of education, which as I say is the development of good taste in knowledge.

…We must give up the idea that a man’s knowledge can be tested or measured in any form whatsoever. Chuangtse has well said, “Alas, my life is limited, while knowledge is limitless!” The pursuit of knowledge is, after all, only like the exploration of a new continent, or “an adventure of the soul,” as Anatole France says, and it will remain a pleasure, instead of becoming a torture, if the spirit of exploration with an open, questioning, curious and adventurous mind is maintained. Instead of the measured, uniform and passive cramming of information, we have to place this ideal of a positive, growing individual pleasure. Once the diploma and the marks are abolished, or treated for what they are worth, the pursuit of knowledge becomes positive, for the student is at least forced to ask himself why he studies at all.

…At present, all students study for the registrar, and many of the good students study for their parents or teachers or their future wives, that they may not seen ungrateful to their parents who are spending so much money for their support at college, or because they wish to appear nice to a teacher who is nice and conscientious to them, or that they may go out of school and earn a higher salary to feed their families. I suggest that all such thoughts are immoral. The pursuit of knowledge should remain nobody else’s business but one’s own, and only then can education become a pleasure and become positive.

Taken from this online transcription by Peter Saint-Andre.

not rooted in a desire to change

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter pages 231 to 234.

Christians are called to related to the world within a dialectic of affirmation and antithesis. The first moment in the dialectic is affirmation. …The significance of affirmation as the first moment in the dialectic is accentuated in a larger public culture defined, in large part, by negation. …It isn’t just that the social order is preserved because the rule of sin is restrained … but that goodness, beauty, and truth remain in this fallen creation.

…More than any Christians would like to admit, believers themselves are often found indifferent to and even derisive of expressions of truth, demonstrations of justice, acts of nobility, and manifestations of beauty outside of the church.

…It is also important to underscore that while the activity of culture-making has validity before God, this work is not, strictly speaking, redemptive or salvific in character. Where Christians participate in the work of world-building they are not, in any precise sense of the phrase, “building the kingdom of God.” This side of heaven, the culture cannot become the kingdom of God, nor will all the work of Christians in the culture evolve into or bring about this kingdom. The establishment of his kingdom in eternity is an act of divine sovereignty alone and it will only be set in place at the final consummation at the end of time. It is only then that “swords will be beaten into plowshares and … spears into pruning hooks”; only then will “the world … dwell with the lamb, and the leopard … with the kid”; and only then will “the earth … be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Perhaps it will be that God will transform works of faith in this world into something incorruptible but here again, it is God’s doing and not ours.

…For Christians to regard the work of culture in any literal sense as “kingdom-building” this side of heaven is to begin with an assumption that tends to lead to one version or another of the Constantinian project, in which the objective is for Christians to “take over” the culture…. …All versions of the Constantinian approach to culture tend to lean either toward triumphalism or despair, depending on the relative success or failure of Christians in these spheres. This is why it is always dangerous to aspire to a “Christian culture” or, by extension, a Christian government, a Christian political party, a Christian business, and the like.

…Indeed, insofar as Christians acknowledge the rule of God in all aspects of their lives, their engagement with the world proclaims the shalom to come. Such work may not bring about the kingdom, but it is an embodiment of the values of the coming kingdom and is, thus, a foretaste of the coming kingdom. Even while believers wait for their salvation, the net effect of such work will be a contribution not only to the good of the Christian community but to the flourishing of all.

Let me finally stress that any good that is generated by Christians is only the net effect of caring for something more than the good created. If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.

It is a major premise of this blog that “goodness, beauty, and truth remain.”

endure all things as if foreigners

Eduard Bendemann “The Sorrowful Jews in Exile,” 1832 (from Psalm 137)

This Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus is a strong contender for the earliest Christan apologetic. Chapter five spells out a simple and beautiful attitude of early Christians toward the world around them:

CHAPTER V — The Manners of the Christians.

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Today I was at the Society for Classical Learning conference where Ken Myers (of Mars Hill Audio) challenged us to consider (among many other earnest issues) how the church (the assembly of God’s people) should live together with a distinctive culture of their own, one that is not arbitrary but like a stable, growing and ongoing new nation diffused within and throughout the nations of the world. This favorite passage about the “Manners of the Christians” seems in some ways to say that the church is not called to produce a unique community with a full culture of its own, so it continually came into my mind as a question during this lecture. However, upon reading the passage again, it is hard to imagine how such a tightly-knit and unique community within any nation could help but form a distinct counter-culture that would mature in beautiful ways, presenting a continual contrast and challenge to the culture of the surrounding nation or empire.