Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | November 28, 2009

Heretical Utility

Iyas Wan Wei Hsien at “Torn Notebook” (Thanks!) has linked an article on Fr. Gregory Wassen’s blog “On First Principles” entitled “Thoughts on Bulgakov, Apollinarius, and Ourselves” . There is a lot here, and my route to landing here was a long circuitous course through Palamite discussions of St. Dionysius the Areopagite… so I found my head filling with many weighty things, and of course seized on the simplicity of his close which I share here:

“The truth abides above our personal opinion, and if the we as the community of Jesus Christ – the Church – adopt Fr. Sergius’s generosity of spirit we are more likely to create a space for orthodoxy to develop in us. The way we treat and look at heretics could almost be said to be a good indicator of our spiritual health. For the heretic and the orthodox both find a home in us as much as do the sinner and the saint.”

I would tend to broaden this. I think the way that we look at each other, the way we look at the denominations out of which we converted, the way we look at our bishops, the way we look even at some of our more disgruntled bloggers…. all of these speak to our spiritual health. How we respond to the things that upset us, and how we address these with others and discuss them…. all of this says something of spiritual health as well. I don’t have the answer for what to do about these things, nor do I pretend in the least that I have the spiritual health to comprehend the whole. And I am reminded of that famous section of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech to the Sorbonne in Paris (1910):

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

In case Teddy’s boggled the mind a bit, he adds a little clarity here:

“Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger.”

Is there a problem juxtaposing these two thoughts? Yes, as it’s not the whole picture. There is a lot to be said for those who engage in more than criticism… indeed, if for example you don’t like AFR for whatever reason, then raise the money and produce an alternative. They might even broadcast it. Stranger things have happened. Think “Austin City Limits”. Don’t like our bishops? Got me there. Wonder about our errant theology? There you can go to seminary, earn a degree or two and credibly publish a correction. Hacks… we can all manage that, but I’m not sure it does more than convey the sort of snarly image others so often seem to suggest is the Orthodox norm.

But the whole picture is indeed more complex… sticking with The Teddy, here’s another of his views on criticism… and in particular editorials criticising the office he once held:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”

Substitute priest or bishop for president, and I think we have something of the fullness of American church life. cojoined with some of the struggling currents in the Orthodox Church in particular.  Oddly enough, many of those who voice their disdain efforts to Americanize Orthodoxy seem to embody this peculiarly American view of writing… and desiminating their opinions without linking it to the American style of governance. Indeed, there is a hostility to things American which causes me some pause. Of course this may suggest  no more than that despite the inevitable complexities of our pretenses, we have far less self-understanding, let alone comprehension of the complexity of others than we suggest.  It’s a shame we can’t practice a little more of what that other great American once offered at the occassion of our Civil War: “With malice toward none, (and) with charity for all…”


  1. A tightrope gracefully walked.

    • Thanks. Began to worry about it later when I realized that during this I’d gotten the H1N1 flu, and had a raging fever at the time.

      This whole beat up on the church and her people thing… and then arguing about who started it…I guess I’d not paid much attention to it anywhere before I wandered out of where I’d been and over here. But it goes on not just here, but everywhere. Lord have mercy!

      I’d hoped to escape it… and at least I’ve escaped some sense of engagement in a doctrinal wrestling match… but not completely given the whole “What will Orthodoxy in America look like… y’know… when it’s American?” thing. Now I see it here, there, and everywhere. It’s amazing, and sometimes I’d admit it’s even distressing.

  2. Wow, superb blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?
    you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your website is
    wonderful, let alone the content!

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