These are extracts from recent postings to the OPF’s e-mail discussion list. If you are an OPF member and wish to take part, contact Mark Pearson or Jim Forest.
Questions: Via the OPF web site, we receive a steady flow of letters. A recent correspondent asked this question: “I read on the OPF website about people whose conscience compels them not to fight. What about people whose conscience compels them to fight?” Here is my response.
I believe that there are several questions tied up in this one:
Should individual conscience be respected and followed?
Is the voice of conscience reliable as a moral guide?
Can fighting, in general, ever be a Christian endeavor?
In answer to the first question, I think that the answer is yes. Law in the USA, for example, recognizes blanket objection to war on the grounds of an individual’s conscience. Unfortunately, recognition of selective conscientious objection – that is, acknowledgment that an individual’s conscience opposes a particular conflict – is not recognized under the existing law. I think that this a wrong approach, in that it takes away the individual citizen’s right to exercise his/her own conscience and makes each person a “good soldier” just following orders. It was this sort of reaction that led to people being executed under the Third Reich for resisting conscription into Hitler’s war efforts, and which leads to men and women being jailed today because they cannot in good conscience serve in Iraq, based on their understanding of the (lack of) justification for that conflict.
This leads us to the second question – can conscience be used with or instead of other sorts of decision-making processes – is it a better way to make important choices? I would say that we never have a mutually exclusive set of methods – one can do all the other sorts of calculations (political, economic, self-interest, etc.) in conjunction with conscience. One ends up saying either, “this would be prudent, cost-effective, advantageous or popular – and it would be the moral thing to do” or “this would be a right decision in every other way … but, it would be wrong.”
Of course, the conscience is only as reliable as the process which formed it; if brought up by parents and teachers who emphasized self-denying compassion, one would have a different sensibility from a person who was imbued with values of cut-throat competition, brutal denial of any consideration for others and so forth.
Lastly, when is it right to fight? Orthodox tradition (especially in the early church) holds that it is never good to take human life. The Church also recognizes, though, that sometimes people have what are essentially “Sophie’s choices” – an untenable set of alternatives, such as war or the slaughter of innocents. Therefore, we acknowledge that certain actions may seem inevitable or unavoidable and yet they would still be lamentable. If a man shot an intruder in the belief that he was threatening his children, he might be acquitted by a jury of his peers and might be judged sympathetically by his neighbors, but he should still mourn the loss of a human life at his hands and deal carefully with its effect on his moral constitution.
The more absolute pacifist tradition (taken by many saints) is that there is no circumstance in which killing can be entertained; that, like Christ, we must even go to our own death rather than becoming a killer. Since this might entail suffering for others, one may be tempted to see it as a “passivist” tradition. Conscience, though, does not let us off the hook that easily. One should do whatever is within our power – short of killing – to effect protection of the innocent. Non-cooperation, sabotage, or putting oneself in the way of deadly force to save another might all be moral choices that would be required. Conscientious objectors have done everything from washing bedpans to serving as unarmed medics on the front lines in their quest for moral purity and responsible citizenship.
Secretary, OPF-North America
Saved by beauty: Dostoevsky’s famous comment about beauty – “Beauty will save the world” – appears in the dialogue in The Idiot (in which the words are attributed to Myshkin, the prince).
Regarding beauty, I think there is an aesthetic quality even to the love of Christ. If prayer is an art, as is maintained in the Philokalia (literally “love of the beautiful”), then its object must be conceived of or experienced somehow by its subject. The quote cannot be reduced to such bare conceits as one’s appearance, or the subjectivity of eye-pleasing preferences. Beauty may have something to do with the intrinsic worth that subsists in everything, even in that which is desecrated, even in the dignity of an enemy, and the vision one must acquire to see it does involve a kind of aesthetic task.
I don’t think there is any problem in seeing beauty as salvific. This isn’t a threat to the redemption of creation via the cross. We are all involved in the salvation of each other, we work it out “with fear and trembling.” There are many facets to the synergistic cooperation between God and man, which may of course include beauty, or may in fact define beauty in its absolute context.
God’s fragrance: While aesthetic experiences can and often do lead to self-transcendence, and hence perhaps to God, such beauty is not salvific in itself. Rather, the beauty which saves is a treasure hidden in earthen vessels. It is revealed through humility, which is abhorrent to the worldly-minded. The beauty of Christ is “the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.” (2 Cor 2:14-16)
As Bishop Kallistos notes, “In a fallen world, beauty is perilously ambivalent: it is not only salvific but deeply seductive.”
It is ironic that this catchy phrase originates from the one major Dostoevsky novel in which there is, in fact, no salvation. In his other novels, we see repentance come through the interactions betwixt the major protagonists. But The Idiot ends with madness, death, and apostasy – perhaps because, as Dostoevsky noted in his journals, the book was intended to show the futility of viewing Christ as merely a “beautiful man.” If He is not God incarnate, there is no salvation – and in this novel, this is made quite clear.
I believe Dostoevsky was responding to the 19th century attempt to portray Christ merely as a good man, a noble teacher, a “Christian Socrates.” I doubt that he was trying to make any absolute statement about Christian aesthetics or our mutual responsibility for the salvation of each other. The latter view was presented in Brothers Karamazov through the person of Fr. Zosima.
But if our understanding of beauty is as broad as the tradition of the Church, then there is no problem at all saying that beauty will save the world, since “beauty” is then a synonym for God’s grace. But while all this is self-evident to those within our tradition, it becomes problematic when the statement is removed from the context of the Church and her teaching.
Saved by love: Beauty can’t save. In fact beauty itself, in our world, is mortal and corrupted by sin, made “ugly” – and must itself be saved! And of course, this is what Christ did – Christ who “was without form or comeliness” and “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” If this is not the heart of our salvation, I don’t know what is.
I would be happier if Dostoevsky had said “love (agape) will save the world.”
Paul del Junco
Solzhenitsyn: I wonder if the phrase, attributed to Dostoevsky, was as well-known before Solzhenitsyn attributed it to him in his Nobel lecture? I refer to this section:
“One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: ‘Beauty will save the world.’ What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes – but whom has it saved?
“There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.
“Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition – and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such thing are both trusted and mistrusted.
“In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.
“But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force – they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.
“So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfil the work of all three?
“In that case Dostoevsky’s remark … was not a careless phrase but a prophecy? After all he was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination.
“And in that case art, literature might really be able to help the world today?
“It is the small insight which, over the years, I have succeeded in gaining into this matter that I shall attempt to lay before you here today….”
Divine Names: For Dionysius the Areopagite, beauty is one of the divine names or energies that is the same as goodness: beauty is God, the Trinity, in His creative and sanctifying presence to the whole of created reality. Dionysius writes (Divine Names 4.7): “God is beauty because He gives beauty from Himself in a manner appropriate to each thing. He causes the harmony and splendor of all things. He flashes forth on all, after the manner of light, the gifts of His flowing ray that produces the gift of beauty in all things. He calls (kaloun) all things to Himself whence He is called beauty (kallos).”
That beauty, which Dionysius hymns, is the uncreated light of Christ’s divinity which shines forth at the Transfiguration, at Pascha, even and especially at the Crucifixion, as we see in Orthodox iconography. The uncreated light illumines all of the saints and martyrs even in the midst of great suffering. That beauty is the gladsome light of the glory of the Father, who greets us at Vespers; the true light whom, at the end of the Divine Liturgy, we acknowledge having seen and received in His Body and Blood: Christ himself. How could this beauty, this beautiful one, not save?
Fr. John Jones
Likeness of God: In the journal Sobornost (vol. 30:1, 2008), Bishop Kallistos wrote about Dostoevsky’s statement “Beauty will save the world.” By way of a careful explanation of the Greek word for beautiful (kalos) used in Scripture, often translated as “good” in English, as well as quotes from the Fathers and references to beauty in the natural world and in Orthodox life, he concludes that, properly understood, Dostoevsky’s statement is quite correct.
“By virtue of their creation in the image and likeness of God, all persons participate in the Divine Beauty,” he writes. “While this is true of every human being without exception, however outwardly degraded and sinful, it is true pre-eminently of God’s holy ones, the saints….
“So it is also with every expression of beauty in created things: such beauty is symbolic, in the sense that it makes manifest the Divine. In this way beauty brings God to us, and us to God; it is a two-way door of entry. Beauty is therefore endowed with sacramental power, acting as a vehicle of God’s grace, an effective means of sanctification and healing. And that is why it can justly be claimed that beauty will save the world.”
He ends with this: “Despite the effects of the Fall and despite our deep sinfulness, the world continues to be God’s creation. It has not ceased to be ‘altogether beautiful.’ Despite human alienation and suffering, the Divine Beauty is still present in our midst and still remains ever active, incessantly performing its work of healing and transfiguration. Even now beauty is saving the world, and it will always continue to do so. But it is the beauty of a God who is totally involved in the pain of the world that He has made, of a God who died on the Cross and on the third day rose victorious from the dead.”
Beauty of creation: I was coming out of one of the darkest times in my life when my eyes were opened to the beauty of creation and in humankind. It pierced my heart. I realized then that beauty is an expression of God’s love on this earth. It permeates all.
This overwhelming experience of God’s love made me recognize we are suspended every moment by the grace of God. This filled my heart with gratitude. It was gratitude that caused me to re-engage a life I had just about given up on. With time I learned how to integrate the suffering and beauty, trusting that all is being transformed to light.
This is how my heart was reoriented on a path of healing. Yes, beauty will save us!
The tap, tap, tap of the rain will eventually crack the hardest stone heart. Then the healing can begin. Leonard Cohen has spoken of this place of brokenness, saying, “but that’s how the light gets in.”
Reading Dostoevsky: What about resolving to read (re-read?) The Brothers Karamazov in 2011? The translation I would recommend is the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It’s available both in paperback and hardcover for just a little more.
Parish and monastery: Having experienced both parish life and monastic life, each for a fair number of years, I am more aware of the similarities than the differences. After all, though monasticism began among the desert fathers with hermits living in isolation from one another, monasticism as it has been lived in the Orthodox Church for centuries is mainly a life in community.
We could even go so far as to say that a monastic community is best understood as a specialized form of parish—a parish consisting entirely of adults of the same sex who live together, eat together, work together, and worship together. Typically in a monastic community the member spends only the time of private prayer and the hours of sleep – usually a small percentage of the day – apart from the rest of the community.
In other words, what counts in monastic life is basically what counts in parish life – interpersonal relationships. The difference between the two is largely one of intensity. If we could compare parish life to a pot of soup simmering on a stove, monastic life is like a pressure cooker. Much of the internal life of a monastery remains hidden from pilgrims, and as a result pilgrims may have the illusion that monks and nuns are holy people who spend most of their time in peaceful communion with God.
In reality, a monastic community consists of broken people living a life of repentance. Like all broken people, monastics come into intense conflict with one another, conflict which visitors and pilgrims never see because monks and nuns tend not to “wash their dirty linen in public.” What the visitor to a monastery experiences in the gracious hospitality and respectful distance is absolutely genuine, but it has little to do with the experience of the monks and nuns themselves. Outsiders who visit a monastery may consider the members of the community to be “perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless.” Members of the community know better. The basic difference between monastic life and parish life in this respect, then, is that the problems in a monastery become far more severe, but the solutions become even more profound and life-changing.
They say that in any average monastery nine out of ten who come to try the life end up leaving. It’s all about handling the pressure of interpersonal relationships. Either you give up and go away or you stay and make it work. Ultimately there is only one way to make the monastic life work—by demonstrating the willingness to resolve conflict by forgiving others, asking their forgiveness, reconciling with them, and by humbling yourself even when you think you are right. This process does not take place in every monastery, and as a result the monasteries which are healthy are very, very healthy, while the monasteries that go bad go very, very bad. In either case, they serve as an example to the parish, either a good example or a bad example.
What monastic life, at its best, has to offer the parish is a vision of what the Kingdom is like when we make our relationships with other persons work, because ultimately healthy relationships – with other human persons and with God – are the only thing that matters.
Monk Cosmas Shartz
Virtues and Vices: Over the last three decades or so I’ve been a monk, mostly in the city and involved with parishes. I’ve learned that the very same virtues which would make a good monk would make a good marriage, and the very same vices which would destroy a marriage would wreck a monk.
Monk James Silver
Israel Boycott: While our Fellowship does not have a policy on the program of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) which is designed to increase world pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, open up Gaza, loosen its occupation regime and come to the negotiating table and related efforts, I have a personal, slightly ambiguous take on the strategy. I suppose it comes down, basically, to where one stands.
For Palestinians, who are daily impacted by the status quo in the economic realm, one can view BDS as akin to the salt march of Gandhi or the divestment campaigns against South Africa: refusal to actively participate in the propping up of a highly-questionable structure of governance – and subjugation.
For Israelis, one can see that approach as punitive, de-legitimizing and a “blunt instrument.”
What are the requirements of true peacemaking? They are different from those of mere political involvement, even at the upper end of responsible participation in decision-making. They include an almost irrational adherence to principles of balance, fairness, withholding of judgment and the simultaneous embracing of the competing narratives of the particular conflict in question.
The question becomes: will this tactic distance us from either or both of the parties in the situation? Will we, by taking it up, pass from honest broker to partisan? Are we the voice of conscience? Or do we become the hall monitor lowering the boom?
Personally I haven’t been able to reconcile peacemaking with BDS. It is nonviolent, and therefore preferable to many other approaches, but isn’t designed to promote reconciliation, which must be part of every stage and every process.
For me, the focus is on helping bring together Jews, Arabs and others to help shift the thinking on Israel-Palestine to where it needs to be. Another’s talents may put one in the other direction, which is also fine.
On the Sidelines? My question is what would Jesus have done? And what would he have us do? Did he exhibit an “almost irrational adherence to principles of balance, fairness, withholding of judgment” in the face of evil? Not from my reading of the Bible. Would he have us heed the cry of the oppressed? Or stand aside for fear of becoming partisan?
Patricia Ann Abraham
Jesus a partisan? “What would Jesus have done?” He lived in an occupied nation oppressed by a powerful empire, but did not join the Zealots. He seemed indifferent to the importance of political power and many times repudiated the desire of those around him to make him into a conquering messiah (anointed king) who will throw off the enslaver of Israel. As we meet him in the Gospels, he doesn’t seem to be calling his followers to be concerned about such things as nation or statehood.
But clearly we are called to alleviate suffering in any way we can. He seems to assume that no matter what political system or power we’re under, we will always be having to relieve the suffering caused by that system.
Paul del Junco
Hiroshima: A friend of mine from Japan lives in the US with her eleven-year-old daughter. She said that she was nervous when her daughter’s class began studying World War II in school as she didn’t know how the Japanese would be portrayed in US textbooks.
But in one class, when the teacher talked about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she said, “And now we know that it was wrong to drop those bombs and kill so many innocent people.”
My friend said this was very healing and reassuring for her to know her daughter was getting the whole story.
A Justified Act? Well before I became Orthodox, I can remember sitting in a circle with the professor and students of a Senior History Thesis Seminar class while at a conservative Evangelical Protestant college discussing our various projects. One of the students wrote his paper on the use of the atomic bomb during World War II.
At some point during the discussion I realized the question of whether or not use of the bomb was “justified” was not being addressed and the answer just assumed. When I raised my concern I was shut down by the professor who said we weren’t going to talk about that. Maybe it was a matter of staying focused on the thesis, but the thesis seemed to be based on the assumption it was a justified act.
War Against Miners: When Alex and I were driving from the Patico home in Maryland to Murfreesboro, Tennessee in October, we stopped midway in Charleston to visit a friend and spend the night at a bed & breakfast.
There we happened to meet a West Virginian who mentioned a significant event in the state’s history, the Battle of Blair Mountain. She referred to it as if you would have to be a piece of driftwood to be unaware of it.
For me, I confess, it rang only the faintest of bells. I’ve since found a link to a Wikipedia text about this important confrontation between the owners, with their private army, and the men who mined the coal:
America may pride itself on being “the land of the free,” but in those days to be a union organizer, or even a union member, was to risk your own murder. During the Battle of Blair Mountain, the US military intervened, dropping bombs.
Elements of this story made their way into the film Matewan.
Silent as a Stone
Deborah Carter in England has written a play for performance by children based on the rescue story told in Jim Forest’s children’s book about St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris, Silent as a Stone. It’s ideal for parishes and schools and use is free. We’ll e-mail a copy of the script to anyone who requests it – just send a note to: [email protected] .
❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59