Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Usury: Clutching Vipers

In his article on the Lord's prayer, "A Prayer for the Poor", David Bentley Hart discusses debt and usury, as a pervasive evil in our society as well as the one in which our Lord was incarnated. Like he sometimes does when uncovering an important and neglected truth, he takes it a little bit too far, but his basic point is solid: that the evil of usury, and the moral and spiritual imperative of debt relief, were foremost in the mind of Christ when he taught, and in the minds of his listeners. Over time this priority has been papered over, qualified, or spiritualized away, to the point where one might conclude that the Church has revised her condemnation of usury or accommodated it as a necessary evil.

Such a conclusion must be fiercely resisted, however quixotic the resistance may appear. The bankers must be made to feel uncomfortable in our churches, and the debt-ridden and oppressed must feel championed, even if only by a few isolated voices. That usury, lending at interest, is hated by God is the unavoidable conclusion from sacred scripture and the God-inspired fathers of the Church. The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox admirably collects some evidence of that here. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, in this interesting book review (alas, I haven't read the book yet, but it sounds fascinating) declares that, "We must stigmatize and cauterize usurers who exploit the anguish of their fellow-man and who remain unemotional in the presence of their misfortune." Imagine that- stigmatizing them instead of commemorating them, awarding them with prestigious orders, making them parish or diocesan officeholders.

Those teachers of the church who overlook or, worse, give comfort to the monstrosity of usury are bad shepherds. Often they are eager to take theatrical stands for trendy "culture war" issues that cost them nothing, as when a well-known California priest perverted the divine liturgy to offer a bombastic "funeral" for America, in response to a Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage.

I add another patristic quote (one could add many more), this one from Saint Gregory Palamas:

As for those who are unwilling to lend to borrowers who promise to repay in full and on time, but demand payment with interest, and high interest at that, and without it will not allow their tax or their money to be seen, they are almost lawless and worse than sinners, obeying neither the old law nor the new covenant. For this latter exhorts us to lend even to people from whom we cannot hope to receive back the loan, whereas the ancient law states, "Thou shalt not lend thy money upon usury", commends the man who "putteth not out his money to usury", and considers it necessary to flee from the city where interest and guile are at work in the streets, that is to say, openly. Do you observe how the usurer deprives not only his own soul but also the community of its good reputation, inflicting on it the charge of inhumanity, and doing the whole city in general a considerable injustice? He is one of its citizens and everything he has was acquired from it, but he does not use his possessions for its good. To those who have nothing he is unwilling to lend, and to those who have something, however meager, he lends at interest, in order cunningly to take from them what little they have to live on. Perhaps that is why the prophet links deceit and usury, saying, "I would wander far off, and remain in the wilderness, for I have seen violence and strife in the city, usury and guile depart not from her streets."

The man who lends at interest is eager to grow rich with sins rather than money, destroying both the borrower's livelihood and his own soul. For interest payments are like a brood of vipers nesting in the bosom of those who love money, foreshadowing the fact that such men will not escape from the unsleeping worms threatened for the age to come. If one of them were to say, however, "As you do not allow me to receive interest, I shall keep my surplus money by me, and shall not offer it to those who need to borrow", he should be aware that he is holding the mothers of those vipers in his breast, who will also be for him the mothers of those unsleeping worms.

(Homily 45, 'On the Verse, "As Ye Would That Men Should Do To You..."')

David Bentley Hart, like many others, notes how in our society money takes on a life of its own, defying all law and morality:

Before long, the principal has itself become almost sacred in its unapproachable exaltation, a mystery sealed within in an inaccessible sanctuary, in the service of an unappeasable god. It truly is an infallible formula. A few draconian penalties written into credit agreements, a few legal but unreasonably immense shifts in interest rates, a cynical liberality with regard to the amount of credit extended to persons too much in need to calculate the inevitable destructive consequences of accepting credit—and all at once the poverty of the unfortunate becomes an overflowing wellspring of revenues for the wealthy. Especially profitable for such creditors are the catastrophic medical emergencies that so frequently reduce the poor to virtual slavery, and that the American system especially—with a Darwinian prudence almost majestic in its stern, barbaric indifference to the appeals of pity or morality alike—refuses to alleviate.

Usurers are unequivocally culpable for their greed and indifference toward their fellow man's suffering; at the same time, the whole brutal apparatus appears to them like an impersonal, iron law which they can defy no more easily than their hapless debtors. The rich young man must have faced a similar delusion when he fled, weeping, from the Lord who had told him about the camel and the needle's eye. Wealth and the knot of passions that drive its acquisition, with promises of pleasure and freedom, become fetters not only for the individual man of wealth but for the whole expanding network of social, economic, and political relations depending on it.

As I've said before, Marxism is fatally flawed in its materialism, but in its critique of a brutally materialist civilization it is insightful. One thing Marx noted was the seemingly autonomous character of capital, transcending even the desires of the capitalist himself. As quoted in Bordiga's Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil, he says:

By turning his money into commodities which serve as the building materials for a new product, and as factors in the labour process, by incorporating living labour into their lifeless objectivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labour in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorisation process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if possessed by the devil.'

Working from this insight, Bordiga notes the decreasing relevance of individual capitalists in our society, where much wealth and power resides in bureaucratic entities, whether banks, government departments, or corporations. It was also a prediction made by Engels in Anti-Duhring:

If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.

As Christian teaching has always said, a man who succumbs to passions is the slave of the passions, and of the devil who manipulates through them. The same is true of society- we have been enslaved by capital, and the demonic possession that the Marxists employ as a metaphor is in fact not metaphorical at all. The vipers the usurer clutches to his bosom are nested in the heart of our society and they are in control.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The truth that refused to realise itself

When a time revolts against eternity, the only thing to set against it is genuine eternity itself, and not some other time which has already roused, and not without reason, a violent reaction against itself.

These words come from Nikolai Berdyaev's essay, "The Religion of Communism".

Berdyaev is one of the few Christian commenters on Marxism I've read who is really familiar with Marxism, both its important insights and its fatal flaws. He warns that, if Christianity continues to fail to live up to its own eternal principles, instead settling for comfortable coexistence with capitalist civilization, then the torch of justice will be taken up by some other force, with disastrous results. Such was the Bolshevik revolution. Berdyaev wrongly predicted a communist wave overtaking the world. It was an understandable mistake made by many intelligent people, both anti- and pro-communist. But his essential point is clearly borne out today: reactionary Christianity is decrepit and the gospel precepts it has dropped are taken up and twisted by other trends and movements. "The truth that refused to realise itself in beauty, in divine beauty, is carried out in ugliness."

Putting aside all the arguments about when the revolutionary wave that began at the end of World War I was defeated, it was pretty clear that it was dead when the Soviet Union collapsed, and that communism was not the inevitable future for humanity that reactionaries so viciously feared and that Marxists so devoutly hoped for. But the triumph of atheism and materialism seems as assured as it ever was. From the yawning emptiness of capitalist civilization, ideologies spring up like hydra's heads, some more ugly than others, some more foul of breath, but all springing from the same hollow core. The corpses of liberalism, nationalism, fascism, and Marxism refuse to decompose but multiply in a kaleidoscopic array of mutant progeny.
Within the Orthodox Church there continues, among some of our loudest voices, the continued incantations of reactionary formulas, the continued refusal to realize truth in beauty, the continual alignment of the gospel with the interests of one or more of the hydra-heads of Mammon. The equation of Orthodoxy with monarchism and Tsarism, itself erroneous, often poorly masks a true allegiance to some form of liberalism and it is not uncommon to find "traditionalist" priests mouthing liberal economic maxims like they came straight from the Sermon on the Mount, swallowing the camel of usury while straining out gnats of trendy social issues. The obsession with homosexuality- for or against- currently sweeping through the Orthodox world carries behind it a fundamental capitulation to our Satanic civilization, as apart from this or that erroneous social policy, our culture is fundamentally sound. It is an acquiescence to war and empire, and to a global system where the poor are crushed by their creditors. This is how priests of God become in fact priests of Mammon.

This corruption of the body of Christ can not be countered by adopting a counter-ideology, charging at one hydra head on the back of another. The Marxist system of historical materialism has much explaining power for our society, the domain of Mammon, because this society compels us to behave as base, carnal creatures. Therefore materialist laws seem to dictate the very thoughts and ideals expressed within this society. Nonetheless materialism remains a fundamental, soul-destroying error and the apparent dovetailing of certain Christian ideals with certain goals of the left must never be confused with a true harmony.
We can't have a platform apart from the beatitudes. At the same time, we can't pretend aloofness, even if, as Berdayev says, "genuine Christianity can, apparently, never obtain complete mastery and power in this world. Mastery and power have only belonged to pseudo-Christianity. The world turns away from integral Christianity." Withdrawal is another illusion, another head of the hydra. When I hear about this "Benedict Option" I hear the declaration of sour grapes from those who, in their hearts, would greedily seize dominion if the option were open to them. We have to stand in the world with a humble but concrete witness, born from the gospel and primarily from the beauty and love of Christ.

So much of the ostensibly Christian intervention in modern society has no basis in this beauty and love. Why should anyone change or sacrifice anything to abide by Christian principles, if we cannot first show this beauty that makes such struggles worthwhile? It's not enough to say, "this is God's law" especially when the ones proclaiming this law are so manifestly lawless.

Like as the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so longeth my soul for thee, O God. All of us- all of humanity- desire this cool, refreshing water, the life-giving spring of Christ, but we do not know we desire it, we do not even know what it looks like. It can only spring up in the love between persons, unmediated... programs and policies lose their Christian usefulness when this personal encounter, and the value of the person, are overlooked. We cannot manifest this love as a promise, a plan, even less as a command. We manifest it with prayer and compassionate action, conjoined with poetry and vision and Christ behind us and before us.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Ethnic and Civilizational Phyletism

Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun has published an interesting article on the Wheel addressing phyletism in its various forms and how Orthodox councils have addressed it.

Fr. Cyril produces an interesting distinction between two kinds of phyletism: ethno-phyletism, specific to a particular nation, and civilizational or imperial phyletism. He then points out that the 1872 council in Constantinople condemned the latter (addressing Bulgarian nationalism and its attempt to form a Bulgarian exarchate within Constantinople) but overlooked its own Phanariot phyletism. So far, so good.

Things get weird though. He says the Cretan Pan-Orthodox council gave a complete condemnation (implicitly) of both kinds of phyletism, and therefore represented a step forward. He speaks almost as if the old Phanariot phyletism somehow vanished over the last century and was not a factor at all in the recent council. Instead, the main form of civilizational phyletism is the Russkiy Mir being pushed by Moscow. And, truth be told, I find Russian nationalism and the MP's complicity in it loathsome.

But the article gets a bit paranoid and essentially says that the only reason the Church of Antioch and other churches backed out of the council was because of Russian influence. He does not even acknowledge Antioch's longstanding grievance and stated reason for abstaining- the Jerusalem Patriarchates incursion into Antioch's canonical territory, and the EP's refusal to help resolve the issue. And this issue has everything to do with the civilizational phyletism Fr. Cyril opposes, namely the Phanariot phyletism that he himself acknowledged to exist, or to at least have existed before. It is likewise Phanariot phyletism that shuts out the Arab faithful from the Greek-dominated upper echelons of the JP, and Phanariot phyletism that the Church of Antioch itself not too long ago had to struggle free from.

The second paragraph:
The Council of Constantinople gathered specifically to cope with the issue of nationalism, at the time of the Bulgarian “national awakening.” The Council of Crete, in contrast, met without a particular issue to solve. Its purpose was to meet for the sake of meeting and demonstrating the ability of the Orthodox Churches to come together. Without such a council, the idea of “conciliarity” as the core of modern Orthodox identity would not stand. Crete dealt with the issue of nationalism on the margins.

This exposes, inadvertently, a key problem of the Crete council- it "met without a particular issue to solve", despite the fact that there are many particular issues that urgently need solving. "Its purpose was to meet for the sake of meeting and demonstrating the ability of the Orthodox Churches to come together"- in other words, sweep substantial problems under the rug, or kick them down the road, and just come together to demonstrate an artificial unity. Fr. Cyril says it himself and yet he does not see the problem of "meet[ing] for the sake of meeting."

And he confuses Orthodox conciliarity with conciliarism, the idea that Church-wide councils are the highest authority of the church and therefore indispensably must be convened for the church to function. Such an ecclesiology is exposed as heterodox by, among other people, the Ecumenical Patriarchate's theologian John Zizioulas.

I'll close with a remark on the article's near-hysterical Russophobia. I am not a big fan of the sleazy, rotten edifice of Putin's Russia or the way the Moscow Patriarchate has accommodated itself so thoroughly, blasphemously, to such a thoroughly rapacious and cynical monstrosity. But my antipathy to Russkiy Mir ideology does not compel me to join in this popular Western pasttime of finding Russian agents behind every tree. On so many issues this attitude renders people apoplectic and incapable of addressing any situation in a substantive way.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Classic of Mountains and Seas

I'm looking over a book that I've enjoyed for a while, but never read all the way through. It's an ancient Chinese mythological travelogue, called The Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shanhaijing). It describes various regions in and around China in a very matter-of-fact fashion, and talks about strange beasts, deities, and people alongside the most mundane vegetation or geographic features, all with the same air of staid detachment.

For example: Three hundred and fifty leagues farther north is a mountain called Mount Hookmy. Jade is abundant on its summit, and copper is plentiful on the lower slopes. There is an animal on this mountain which has the appearance of a ram's body and a human face; its eyes are under its armpits; it has tiger fangs and human nails. It makes a noise like a baby. Its name is the goat-owl. It eats humans.

Three hundred leagues further north is a mountain called Mount Northhubbub. It has no stone. Green jade is plentiful on its south face, and jade is abundant on its north face. There is an animal on this mountain which looks like a tiger, but it has a white body, a dog's head, a horse's tail, and the long bristles of a sow. Its name is the lonely-bigcat. There is a bird here which looks like a crow with a human face. Its name is the turn-rook. It flies by night and lies low by day. If you eat it, it will cure sunstroke. The River Torrent rises here and flows east to empty into Hillock Marsh.

Something I often thought about is how ancient China produced no major narrative literature for a long time, until novels started being written. As far as I know, there are no epic poems from ancient China. Their best literary work was done in lyric poetry and philosophy; the ancient myths tend to have this very dry presentation to them, except in the hands of writers like Zhuangzi who use them to make some broader philosophical point.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Universe as Symbols and Signs

So I received St. Nikolai's The Universe as Symbols and Signs last week. It is a short book- really an essay- about 80 pages long, which has just been re-published by St. Tikhon's seminary press. The essay was originally written by St. Nikolai himself in English.

I think that this is a useful text for a modern Christian, Orthodox or otherwise, to read vis-a-vis the debates over modern science, evolution, the age of the earth, etc.

For those interested, you can purchase this book here: http://www.stspress.com/detail.aspx?ID=3475

As suggested by the title, St. Nikolai puts forward the point of view that the visible world is essentially symbolic- its primary purpose is to reveal to us spiritual truths by representation, until we can finally apprehend those truths without symbolic mediation. Finally, when we have bypassed all created realities and achieved union with God, we can fully understand the meaning behind all creation and look on creation as it really is. This approach to the creation is not new, but is well-founded in the scriptures and Fathers. It is also completely contrary to the Baconian/ Newtonian ideology currently rammed down our throats as "science."

St. Nikolai begins with an interesting analogy- nature is like an alphabet. When children first apprehend an alphabet, they don't understand the sounds the letters represent. Similarly, idol-worshippers and materialists "scarcely go beyond their childlike repetition of the letters that comprise nature." (p. 9) Further on, he says,

'Therefore, it may be said that nature worshippers are analphabetic and spirit worshippers only are alphabetic. To the mind of the former, things and creatures in the natural world represent an ultimate reality, expressed in their forms, colors, functions, and relations. While to the mind of the latter things and creatures are only the symbols of a spiritual reality which is the actual meaning and life and justification of those symbols.' (p. 10)

'It is clear from this that whoever reads the natural without knowing the spiritual content and significance of what he has read, reads death, sees death, appropriates death. Also, whoever considers visible nature as the only reality and not as a riddle in the mirror of the spirit, does not know more than the child who may recognize letters but is far from understanding written words. And again, whoever looks at a visible thing as at something absolutely real and eternal by itself, as the ancient Hellenic naturalists did, asnd their modern followers do, is certainly an analphabetic idol worshipper. He sees the letters but cannot guess their meaning. Spiritual reality belongs to eternity while the symbols of that reality belong to time.' (p. 11)
St. Nikolai describes how Adam was able to immediately contemplate spiritual realities without the mediation of symbols. This is why God allowed him to name the animals- he was immediately knew the spiritual significance of each creature and was able to give it the very best name that represented this meaning. Instead of needing to pass through symbols to understand spiritual truths, his knowledge of God allowed him to accurately bestow symbols on creation, ie his immediate knowledge of God gave him immediate knowledge of creation.

'Such contemplation of realities without parables, which Adam had lost, which the Apostles having lost, regained, is meant for all Christians. And all of us Christians would have had that wonderful capacity, that immediate awareness of the truth in its symbols, had we remained unspotted and unfettered by sin after our baptism. But every sin turns our eyes from heaven to earth, and from our Creator to creation...until nature unwillingly becomes to us a god instead of God. In this way it happens that the truth disappears from our sight and the symbol is regarded as the only truth, the only reality. Finally the most fatal disaster occurs to us: our spiritual eyes are closed and blinded and we give ourselves to our physical eyes to lead us through the dark and incomprehensible jungle of nature. Physical nature becomes our only guide. Then justified is the saying, "the blind lead the blind."' (13-14)

'Therefore, every literal reading of nature leads finally to idolatry... This is the true picture of idol worshippers, of both the scientific and the unscientific, on one side, and the enlightened Christians on the other. The first cleave with their senses and spirits to the symbols of nature, and the others see with their senses the symbols, but with the spirit they read in the spirit, i.e., the spiritual message in the symbols.' (36)

St. Nikolai devotes several sections to examples of how various physical phenomena- celestial bodies, minerals, plants, animals, etc., have spiritual interpretations. Most of his examples are from scripture. He makes a point of distinguished the Christian's "symbolic" understanding of nature from the view (which he calls "Buddhist) that nature is illusory.