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Kansas and the Transfiguration of Longing

Kansas is always between. West coast, east coast. North Dakota and Texas. On the way to somewhere else. For non-natives, a place to travel through, but not to stay. It is surely a divine prank that the largest industry in the largest city of the state is aircraft manufacturing. Kansas, flyover country, some call it. The winds that whip the wheatfields lift those aluminum tubes into the air and . . . away.

That farmer’s son, sweat-soaked on the football fields of August, lifts his head to the sky at the sound of the jet engines and idly dreams for a moment, following the contrails out of town. That banker’s daughter, whose dad runs the bank that owns the land, the equipment, and the home of that farmer whose son gazes skyward, also tilts her chin to the cerulean heaven and holds on to the thought, skipping through her mind, of how full life must be . . . elsewhere.

But Kansas is called the heartland, and not without reason. For whatever the longings of passers-through and natives alike, Kansas was not made for easeful transience. And all who plant their feet in her soil, or breathe her air, or sip her rain will find themselves bewitched by the between, ever moving and ever rooted. The seasons flow into one another in ceaseless parade. Seedtime and birth, harvest and life, winter and death. The turning of the year brings with it the cyclic labor, the unrelenting debt of toil.

The hardscrabble farmer’s life is the unrelenting struggle against an ad hominem creation, the ceaseless tilling of the soil whose constant cycle can harden the soul as it hardens the man. Who can blame the one-armed, cantankerous coot who sits, weary, on his stoop and envies his urban counterpart his air-conditioned, television-dotted world of boredom. And yet, once that glittering glass box sits prominent in the georgic living room, that once-envious farmer finds the device a soporific and slips easily into a too-early sleep, reclined in his chair, paper athwart his overalled belly.

This labor-engendering geography of Kansas is the geography of the mortal soul. Always betwixt and between, always looking to fill its longings elsewhere, always laboring and always seeking rest from the toil. The longing of the Kansan for life elsewhere is the longing for an imagined and unreal surcease from a toilsome existence. The stretch of the Kansas sky, the expanse of its plains, offer a wideness to the world that shimmers like a mirage to the laboring soul. And we Kansans will run for that horizon, seeking the phantasmic oasis, that toilless life of ease.

But the oddity of being between is that it keeps bringing one back around to the place from which one first set forth. Ever moving, and ever rooted. In leaving, one finds that one returns. In the seeking of rest, one finds that the struggle continues even so. The longing and the labor wear the edges of the soul, and, if one finds such a grace, make a man that blessed of all states: simple. This is the transformation Kansas works to the soul’s longings, a transfiguration which finds at last the embrace of such toil. And in the embrace, the final and longed-for rest.

Other Kansas Meditations:

Why Social Justice is Not a Category of Ecclesial Thought

It’s an intentionally provocative title, so let me clarify what is and isn’t meant. But first let me say that this post will not explore in any great detail the relationship between the Church and the state, though such talk will nonetheless be inescapable. I will not here entertain acceptance of or defend against various charges of various church groups (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) such things as caesaropapism, erastianism, or theocracy. I am vary narrowly focused on one particular thought, a thought that animates much of mainline U.S. Protestant Christianity (and, because they apparently don’t want to be left out, is animating more and more of evangelical U.S. Protestant Christianity) as well as quite a swath of U. S. Roman Catholic activists. And because I am so very narrowly focused, it is crucial that I state what I mean by “social justice.”

By what is meant I’m referring to that sort of thinking which seeks, as its immediate end, the alteration of political (and also social, usually the social by way of the political) structures and processes toward some proximate end (alleviation of poverty, race/gender/sexual orientation equity and political rights or advantages, etc.) by primarily social and political means (demonstrations, “community development” [euphemistically so called, but really mass political organizing], voter campaigns, editorials and other media utilization, etc.). By what is not meant are such activities as homeless shelters, free health clinics, manning soup kitchens, food pantries, clothing drives, sewing shrouds for deceased babies, etc. Now there can be overlap between the two, especially when some of these outreach locations are used for political organizing, or when backers of the latter efforts form PACs or lobby government to achieve former ends. But generally the distinctions are quite clear: on the one hand is the use of political means for political ends (ostensibly for the alleviation of human ills); while on the other hand are the use of social (here more often personal) means for the alleviation of human ills.

And it is precisely on this divide of endpoints that social justice is not a category of ecclesial thought.

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The Dead Ends of Protestantism

On a message board for former church of Christ (Restoration Movement) converts to Orthodoxy, a thread was started by those who wondered about ever having doubts about Orthodoxy. I gave the following reply, which I want to explore a bit more in this post:

For myself, when it comes to the Orthodox Church, I have never had any real doubts. I had already investigated Rome, and had gone into and was on the way out of Anglicanism. I knew that the rest of Protestantism was a dead end. So by the time I got to Orthodoxy, it didn’t have to prove itself on the terms of Rome, Canterbury or the Protestants (since all those arguments had fallen apart under their own weight): all Orthodoxy had to do was to establish itself on its own terms.

So, when I began investigating the Orthodox Church in 2000, and for the next couple of years or so, I listened to Orthodoxy on its own terms. I didn’t try to make Orthodoxy Protestant or answer my objections. I wanted to see what it had to say, why it said what it did, whether its teaching held together and was consistent, and whether that teaching truly was old. I was satisfied on all counts.

I want to discuss a bit more what I mean by these “dead ends” of Protestantism. But in so doing, I will be speaking primarily out of my own narrow range of experience, that of the Restoration Movement churches and the Episcopal church.  Before I get to these critical remarks, let me first ensure that I quite clearly state my appreciation for my experiences with these two Christian groups.  I would not have been quite so ready for Orthodoxy without my background in the Restoration Movement.  And although the Episcopal church served primarily as a negative catalyst for Orthodoxy, I nonetheless gained much by (as Fr. Martin Thornton schematized) the Benedictine and triadic shape of Anglican liturgy and prayer: the Mass, the daily office and personal devotions.  Although I was not so strongly shaped by particular liturgies (I see now why so many decry the BCP ’79), I was quite strongly shaped by this schema of worship and devotion.  And I would not have had such formation apart from my time in the Episcopal church.

That said, there are most definite dead ends in Protestantism.  These dead ends are exemplified primarily by a divorce from the Church and are symptomatic in sola scriptura, a disconnect from the lived history of the Church, and the attempt to critique the Church from starting points outside the Church’s life. I’ll discuss each of these three related items in turn.

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Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue VI

[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

The following citation from St. Greogry’s Dialogue encapsulates one of the fundamental points of theology in Orthodoxy. While there is dispute as to whether this energies/essence distinction has Ecumenical Conciliar backing, it has been dogmatized in two Local Councils and is accepted throughout Orthodox theology and experience, with a heavy emphasis on the experience of God.

Its patristic lineage is long, although the terminology has not been codified, and if one does not grasp the substance of the distinctions the Saint lays out here, one cannot accurately engage Orthodox faith and life. Indeed, these distinctions make it possible for life and dogma to be ineffably united, to grasp, however imperfectly, that Truth is a Person.

XXX. . . . O[rthodox]. Those who say that in God the activity is not different from His essence contend that He does not have essence and activity but only activity or only essence. For if there is no difference whatsoever between those things, why do they say that God not only has this but that as well unless they say that those things belong to God as empty names which have nothing to do with real things? In this way, they lead their followers astray by this tautology, pretending that they accept both ideas, whereas in fact they themselves believe that God is essence without activity or activity without essence.

B[arlaamite]. They claim that God is active essence but that he has no other activity besides His essence lest He be a composite being.

XXXI. O[rthodox]. Take caution that they do not bestow upon God “active” as an empty sound of a word, while they contrive precisely by that fact to lead astray those who are in dialogue with them. For the divine Maximus says: “Just as it is impossible to be without being, so is it not possible to be active without activity.” [To Marinus 200C] Hence, by taking away the divine activity and by fusing it with essence by saying that the activity does not differ from that essence, they have made God an essence without activity. And not only that, but they have also completely annihilated God’s being itself and they have become atheists in the universe [a world without god]; for the same Maximus says: “When the divine and human activity is taken away, there is no God, nor man.” [To Marinus 96B; cf. 201AB] For it is absolutely necessary that the person who says that the activity in God is not different from his essence falls into the trap of atheism. For we know that God is only from His proper activities. Hence, for him who destroys God’s activities and does not admit that they differ from His essence, the necessary consequence is that he does not know that God is. Furthermore, because the great Basil has revealed everywhere in his writings that “no activity can exist independently,” [Against Eunomius 4] those who contend that the essence of God does not differ from His activity, have surpassed even Sabellius in impiety. For he made only the Son and the Spirit without existences (hypostasis), but those people make the essence of God, which has three hypostases, without existence (hypostasis).

–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XXX-XXXI (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda)

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