Saturday, January 10, 2015

Performative Traditionalist Orthodoxy

Dashing out a few unformed thoughts about some trends I have seen.

There are some aspects of "traditionalist"-minded Orthodox that strike me - and some others - as performing the role of "traditional Orthodox Christian" rather than being an Orthodox Christian, with all the difficulties entailed. It's certainly very easy to shut off your mind and spout platitudes. I'm reminded of a Thomas Merton footnote: “I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down." It is always very possible and very easy to come up with a more rigid, more conservative position than the last one given, and then you can very easily find somebody to support it. And there is a certain attraction to this - rigidity and conservatism for their own sake are seductive.

I'm not trying to impugn the motives of self-identified traditionalists or treat their discourse as behavior. But there are some odd things that often pop up:
  • Beards.
  • Enthusiasm for the tsar, Putin, Russia, Putin's Russia, etc.
  • Decrying things as feminized, or other examples of performative masculinity/femininity.
  • Susceptibility to conspiracy theories and anti-vax ideology.
  • Neo-Confederate and Monarchist sympathies.
  • Reflexive anti-Islamic, anti-homosexual, or broadly anti-liberal responses.
  • EDIT: Scarves.
With the exception of possibly beards, there is no particular reason why all or some of these should go along with a commitment to being a "traditional" "Orthodox Christian". But demonstrating some of these becomes a de rigueur method of displaying that you are a "traditionalist" and speaking out against some of these, while possibly acceptable, can be very much a matter of swimming against the tide. Then there are various theological questions where some nuance is perhaps required and permissible as an actually traditional position, but the "traditionalist" pose is performed by taking some specific rigid viewpoint or acting in a particular way about an issue. Consider the following list:
  • Talking to other Christian denominations.
  • The Hebrew Bible or the Vulgate.
  • Young Earth Creationism.
  • Not really theological, but goes here: "Thou/Thee" vs "You" language. This really the one that made me write this list. There is no particularly good or truly "traditional" reason to insist on "Thou" or to claim "You" is deficient.
  • Anything to do with sex or gender.
  • Constant referral to Patristic quotes.
  • "Piety".
  • Another big one: using words like nous, phronema, panheresy, prelest, logismoi, etc.
  • EDIT: denouncing the New Calendar.
I'm not saying any of these are bad and wrong or that self-styled "traditionalists" should stop doing them. Some of the things on the last can be good in some way. Young Earth Creationists who insist on saying "Thou" aren't bad people doing Orthodoxy wrong and aren't even necessarily incorrect. I welcome other thoughts, criticisms, examples, etc, as these are unformed reflections.

EDIT: I want to note that being "performative" is not a criticism per se. Crossing yourself at the invocation of the Trinity is "performative Orthodoxy".

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Where, indeed, should Your light have shone, save upon those that sit in darkness?

This is one of my new favorite liturgical lines. It's from the troparia after the sixth reading at the vesperal liturgy on the eve of Theophany. Where, indeed?

Thoughts on religion, politics, climate change, science, etc.

Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with the priest at my own parish.

Another disclaimer: this is somewhat disjointed, as I'm typing out a quick unpolished reflection. I may revisit it later to polish it up as a separate post.

I was recently greatly disappointed by a recent foray into political commentary by a prominent priest, specifically on the issue of climate change, so I am going to offer some of my thoughts on a few of these issues. The rhetoric used was bland and predictable movement conservative tripe: climate change is a political matter rather than scientific, there is not any science or scientific discussion about the matter currently (it is all now politics), the scientists are not trustworthy on the issue, and that discussing efforts to mitigate the coming harms in any kind of moral terms is mistaken because the real evil is in the human heart. My main problem with this is the deeply and personally insulting view he takes of scientists performing climate research and the profoundly and intentionally ignorant view of the science he has which he pushes from his personal pulpit. There is a lot I could take issue with in regard to the politics, but that is not going to be my main concern - it's not insulting and informed people of good will can come to different conclusions.

I would strongly suggest that anybody who wants to comment on the science of climate change, the motivations of climate scientists, or other scientific issues in general, consider answering a few of these questions before opining. Below, "paper" should be understood to be a peer reviewed scientific paper published in a science journal, and conference is a scientific conference.
  1. Do you have a degree in a science?
  2. Are you a scientist?
  3. Have you ever taken a course on the climate or climate change in particular?
  4. Have you ever read a paper on climate change?
  5. Have you read more than a dozen papers on climate change?
  6. Do you make an effort to keep abreast of the literature in some aspect of climate science?
  7. Have you ever attended a conference on the science of climate change, or a session dedicated to the science of climate change at some scientific conference?
  8. Have you ever published a paper on climate change?
  9. Do you know any climate scientists? (merely making acquaintance counts)
  10. Do you know more than 5 climate scientists?
Frankly, if people don't answer "yes" to at least the reading papers at all, if not at least a dozen papers, questions they have no right to an opinion on the science of climate change and should defer completely to experts. FWIW, I answer yes to questions 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 10 and I don't even consider myself capable of having an opinion. Instead, I defer to the overwhelming consensus view. But one thing that is clear from my engagement is that there is quite a lot of very good science being done by honest people, and immediately dismissing that because of our politics or theology is uncharitable at best, and often very insulting.

What makes this more problematic to me is that priests are, for whatever reason, seen as somehow trustworthy on "moral" matters, and this trust carries an undue influence even when speaking outside their expertise. Therefore, this Know-Nothing and baseless discourse on the science of climate change and its intersection with morality carries a weight that it ought not to with his not-inconsiderable following. This is a problem.

This is also a problem when they comment on politics without taking much care, as there are definitely a wide number of issues in politics that are a matter on which Christians of good will can disagree, and careless discussion of these things can imply to others that the Church teaches one specific thing and that to go against it is to go against God, whether or not that is what you intended to get out. This is true even if you take a "Dostoevskian" perspective.

This sort of spiritualizing arrogance pops up in many other places. Clergy have been irrationally dismissive at times of scholarship in several areas (though I would note that not all of these are equal and some are definitely more "political" than others): evolution, archaeology, paleontology, textual criticism, psychology, economics... In some of these, they may have the training to engage critically with the scholarship, whereas in others they may not. There are real harms to this in that clergy are given more credence in areas outside of their expertise, especially when they put a moral or spiritual flavor on it, than they otherwise should be. Therefore, their suggestions are going to poison other discourse on those issues with their mistaken notions.

Even worse, these kinds of digressions can alienate people from the Church - either people within the Church who are now under the impression that their perfectly reasonable and even true views are somehow opposed by the Church or those outside the Church who get the impression that the Church is opposed to truth. As I have mentioned before, there is a a strain of discourse within modern movement conservatism that opposes "Science" and "Religion", as if science is intrinsically hostile to the faith. There is a counterpart movement among liberalists that also tries to use "Science" as a bludgeon against "Religion", as if investigations into natural phenomena can somehow debunk Christianity.

Disappointingly, many in the Church have taken up that conservative rhetoric and lump all the scientists - or even those who simply value scientific contributions to knowledge about the world - in with the liberalists. This kind of rhetoric may score points with movement conservatives and feel good (after all, you're defending Religion against those New Atheists), at comes at the expense of truth and those in the "middle ground" that the Church needs to be courting: those who are faithful to the Church while investigating the natural world. We cannot have a Christian approach to science if we actively alienate Christians doing science. As long as we do that, the New Atheists and liberalists are right: the Church is hostile to reasoned inquiry into the world.

There are some further things to say about the moral content of politics (namely, that there is some and it should not be dismissed entirely, especially as people doing that are typically, despite their protestations, doing it in a rather one-sided way, namely, to quash "liberal" discourse), but I will leave it out of this post, in accordance with my statements above.