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On Political Philosophy, Fairy Tales, and the Spiritual Life
It might, at first glance, seem strange that I spend time writing articles about political philosophy and propaganda on a site dedicated to Orthodoxy and the spiritual life. It might seem even stranger given the fact that I am a monk, and claim to have renounced the world. Why should I concern myself such things? What does all of this have to do with Christianity, with keeping the faith in the modern world, or with cultivating an Orthodox heart?
Church and State
I argued recently that the modern notion of the “separation of Church and State” is not only a fiction, but a fiction that is inherently impossible. In brief, the entire concept rests on the assumption that some areas of life have to do with religion, and others have to do with public life, and “never the twain shall meet.” But in fact the twain do meet, and quite often at that. This is totally unavoidable, because the truth is that all of life has a spiritual dimension, just as all of life has a secular dimension.
To separate the Church from the State is therefore not to confine each to their proper jurisdiction, but rather to exile the Church totally from public society and to confine it to the realm of mere personal opinion and private worship. It is not even necessary to read the arguments which I made in support of this assertion. It is quite obvious that this has, in fact, taken place.
But to separate the Church from the State does not only undermine the Church in matters of public society and governance. It also undermines the Church even in matters of personal and private belief. As I said before, all of life has both a spiritual and a secular dimension, and therefore secular actions have both spiritual causes and spiritual effects. And it seems to me that many of the problems we modern Americans face today in our spiritual lives are direct results of the political and social structures which we have adopted in the modern world.
A World Without Fathers
To better explain my meaning, I would like to offer the following thought experiment. Let us suppose that in the future, society has continued on its current trajectory and the institution of the family has completely collapsed. Marriages have continued to dissolve with greater and greater frequency, and after shorter and shorter durations (that is, when couples even choose to get married at all). Let us suppose that fathers have begun to abandon their children with such frequency that the government has decided to step in and save the nation’s children from such seemingly inevitable trauma and chaos. Let us suppose that children are no longer allowed to be raised by their delinquent and negligent parents, but instead are by law to be raised by the state.
Some may note that this thought experiment is not even too far-fetched: all that we really need suppose is that public schools become full-time boarding schools, from kindergarten to the twelfth grade. And the rationale for doing so is also, unfortunately, far from unthinkable: in the area of West Virginia surrounding our monastery, over half of all court cases in the judicial system have to do with parental abuse or neglect (very often resulting from drug addiction).
But that is not the point that I am trying to make. To continue with the thought experiment: let us suppose that a young woman, having been raised to the age of eighteen in such a system, one day picks up a Bible and begins to read it. Let us even suppose that this woman is inclined to believe what is written there to be true. But then she reads in the Scriptures that God is her Father.
How would she even begin to understand such a statement? She has never met a father in her life. She has no doubt heard of fathers, but everything she has heard about them is terrible: that they were monstrous, selfish, negligent, unreliable, uncaring, and abusive. When she thinks about fathers at all, she thinks of them merely as unpleasant memories of a past best left behind. She has been taught for her whole life to believe that the progress of human civilization saved her from arbitrary enslavement to the selfish whims and caprices of the parents to whom she happened to have been born, through absolutely no choice of her own. After all, what could be more unfair than for some man to demand her blind obedience for an entire eighteen years of her life, simply on the basis that he happened to have impregnated her mother?
Imagine the difficulties that such a woman would face in embracing Christianity, even if she wished to do so with her whole heart.
A World Without Lords
My contention is that that this thought experiment has, in fact, already become a reality: not on the level of the nuclear family, but on the level of society as a whole. Because what title is given to God far more often than any other throughout all of Holy Scripture? “Lord.”
But we live in a world without lords. We modern men have developed better, more advanced, more moral political systems. We have abolished lordship as something primitive, oppressive, and arbitrary. In short, we think of lords in precisely the same way that the woman in our thought experiment thinks of fathers.
To imagine that this fact does not significantly undermine our ability to become true Christians, or that it does not result in great and immense difficulty when we seek to understand and relate to the Lord God, is simply absurd. Now, I am not at all saying that to understand and to relate properly with God in the modern world has become impossible — with God all things are possible. But surely we cannot deny that these things have become far more difficult. A fundamental mode of human relationship, one which once functioned as an icon of the relationship between God and man, has been smashed to bits and trampled upon by our entire civilization.
Meanwhile, we Christians sit and wonder why so many people have such a negative view of Christianity. We wonder why so many think of God as a tyrant and an oppressor, someone who demands arbitrary obedience, someone who exploits us for his own purposes, someone who threatens our freedom and wants to take away from us the things that we value and love. We say that God is the Lord, and then wonder why people think of Him in precisely the same way in which they have been trained to think of all other lords.
The Bureaucratization of the Spiritual Life
But let us approach the matter from the opposite angle. How many of us — even those of us who are the most fervent of believers — find ourselves all too often relating to God in a way that is impersonal, institutional, systematic, and legalistic? How many of us find ourselves relating to God and to the spiritual life in exactly the same way in which we relate to the people behind the desk at the DMV: just put up with it, get it over with, get what we came for, and then get home? How many of us find ourselves relating to God as to some faceless bureaucrat in Washington, one who levies wearisome taxes and promulgates endless regulations and pedantic ordinances, but who doesn’t really see us, doesn’t really care about us, and certainly doesn’t really love us?
And how often do we substitute real, authentic, burning love for the Lord God with a halfhearted resolution to pay those taxes and to comply with those ordinances, at least most of the time, unless nobody happens to be looking? How many of us find ourselves at a loss when others ask us to explain why such arbitrary ordinances have been issued, or why they should be obeyed? How many of us really and honestly believe that the divine commandments are truly meaningful and life-giving, truly sacred, truly given by God out of a deep and personal love for each and every human heart?
Kings and lords may often have been bad people. But they were nonetheless people, and they were related to as people. Now we don’t relate to those who rule over us as people. We relate to them simply as what they are: as bureaucrats, as mindless and faceless representatives of a more or less arbitrary system which we are all fated to endure. And it is no coincidence that we all too often relate to God in precisely the same way.
The Fear of Power
But though bureaucracy can be tedious, it is also comfortable, because in a bureaucracy nobody has any real power and therefore nobody is a real threat. We are all deeply conditioned to view power as inherently threatening, as intrinsically oppressive. But Jordan Peterson once pointed out that the problem is not power, the problem actually is corruption. And this is precisely our difficulty: we have grown so suspicious, so certain of the inevitability of corruption, that we no longer believe that it is possible to be powerful and not to be corrupt — that’s why we like democracy so much, because it promises to take all the power and divide it up into as many tiny pieces as possible, so that nobody can get hurt. We are terribly afraid of power, because when we see power we see only the suffering that it has caused.
But all of this also carries over into the spiritual life. If all power is inherently oppressive, if all kingship is inherently an usurpation of the rights of the people, then it is no wonder that so many think of God as an all-powerful yet petty tyrant, an imposter who has no right to tell us how to live our lives. And if we fear power because of the harm that we have seen it do, then it is no wonder that when many think of God, they can think only of all the suffering and all the evil that this broken world contains.
And because of our fear of power, because of our loathing of oppression, we have become incapable of relating to anyone who holds power over us with anything other than fear or loathing, in a degree proportionate to the measure of power which they hold. Countless unbelievers loathe the idea of God simply because they loathe the idea of anyone with that much power over them. And likewise, countless believers fear God simply because they fear the idea of anyone with that much power over them.
How many of us truly love God as our King and Lord? How many of us even know what that would look like? We have lost the capacity to look on kings with love. We are no longer able to fathom the ideal of fealty.
On Fairy Stories
But what is impossible for us modern men and women comes easily and naturally to every child. In their purity, they can still see the beauty in a world that adults can only look upon with suspicion, fear, and contempt. Fairy tales are filled with kings and queens, lords and ladies, princes and princesses — and it would a poor fairy tale indeed that spoke only of bureaucrats and administrators, lawyers and policy analysts, middle managers and deputy secretaries. The heart of a child has an instinct for beauty and an ear for the truth.
But even as adults, we can turn to these same stories to soften our hearts, to melt away the icy skepticism of our intellect. We can read stories about honor and valor, about heroism and self-sacrifice, about duty and loyalty, about fealty and love. Some of the best of these stories were even written not so long ago by deep and devout Christians: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. They can help us catch a glimpse of the world we thought we outgrew.
I will close with several of my favorite passages from the latter book, which bear closely on what I have discussed.
‘You are a stern lord and resolute,’ she said; ‘and thus do men win renown.’ She paused. ‘Lord,’ she said, ‘if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.’
‘Your duty is with your people,’ he answered.
‘Too often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?’
‘Few may do that with honour,’ he answered.
‘I have a sword,’ said Merry, climbing from his seat, and drawing from its black sheath his small bright blade. Filled suddenly with love for this old man, he knelt on one knee, and took his hand and kissed it. ‘May I lay the sword of Meriadoc of the Shire on your lap, Théoden King?’ he cried. ‘Receive my service, if you will!’
‘Gladly will I take it,’ said the king; and laying his long old hands upon the brown hair of the hobbit, he blessed him. ‘Rise now, Meriadoc, esquire of Rohan of the household of Meduseld!’ he said. ‘Take your sword and bear it unto good fortune!’
‘As a father you shall be to me,’ said Merry.
Pippin pressed forward as they passed under the lamp beneath the gate-arch, and when he saw the pale face of Faramir he caught his breath. It was the face of one who has been assailed by a great fear or anguish, but has mastered it and now is quiet. Proud and grave he stood for a moment as he spoke to the guard, and Pippin gazing at him saw how closely he resembled his brother Boromir — whom Pippin had liked from the first, admiring the great man’s lordly but kindly manner. Yet suddenly for Faramir his heart was strangely moved with a feeling that he had not known before. Here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race. He knew now why Beregond spoke his name with love. He was a captain that men would follow, that he would follow, even under the shadow of the black wings.
Who can read such passages and not feel that we have lost something beautiful?