I was at a conference recently (I generally, in my crankiness, do not go to these things), where I heard a nice presentation by a young lady.
Her speech was appealing, until the very last line, when she concluded a travelogue with this non sequitur: "And I learned on my trip that the most important thing for an Orthodox Christian is to not judge."
I think she and I might be in agreement, ultimately, once we paddle together through the semantic miasma that separates us. But I'm not sure she would be too keen on my lecture tomorrow, as I present this text in our first ethics class of the season at seminary (please excuse the conversational tone: it's the introduction, after all):
“Judge not,” our Lord said, “lest ye be judged.” “Do not look for specks in the eye of your brother,” He also said, “when you have a log in your own.”
This is as clear a condemnation of judgmentalism as can be. And we know exactly what it means. It means that we should not be putting ourselves on a higher level than others, or putting others on a lower level than ourselves.
And yet, this course is all about judging. This class and all our readings invite you to no less than a lifestyle of judging. In fact, I suggest right here and now that you probably haven’t been judging enough. Not nearly enough.
There is a clear difference between the judging that I recommend, and the judgmentalism that the Lord condemns. Judgmentalism is aimed at other people. It forgets that another person is made in the image of God. It overlooks that the other Christian is on a life journey toward nothing less than theosis. It is blind to the fact that the other human being is immortal by grace, destined for eternity in blessing or fire.
Judgmentalism is guilty of forcing square pegs into round holes. It raises theories and categories to near godlike status, and distorts reality to fit into preconceived notions. It says cockamamie things like “all members of such-and-such a class are all alike.” It says people are defined by their racial heritage, or their psychiatric diagnosis, or their astrological sign, or their genetic composition, or their place on the evolutionary ladder.
That is judgmentalism. You have doubtlessly concluded, by now, that it is not a good idea, and quite a bad thing to do.
That said (and there is more to be said in this volume about judgmentalism), we should conclude, on the other hand, that we should be more dedicated to the business of judging: you know, “be all the judge you can be.”
What I mean by “judging,” as opposed to “judgmentalism,” is probably better served by the word “discernment.” The judging that I recommend is better commended in Scripture, and it has to do with how we think, what we think, and the way that society thinks. “Brethren, do not believe every spirit,” St. John said in his first epistle, “but test the spirits to see whether they are of God” (1 John 4.1).
There are certainly, in this life and society, influences that are certifiably not of God. It is up to us to “discern” these influences to figure out “where they are coming from.” Earlier in the same epistle, St. John warns that “For all that is in the world -- the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2.16). “World” here should not be understood as the planet Earth, or even society in general, but rather as the realm of darkness under the sway of the Evil One and his despairing company. After all, the same Apostle wrote, in his Gospel, that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son” (John 3.16) – obviously, “world” is used in different senses, depending on the context.
What makes “judging” necessary in this life and in this society is that we are faced by a dark world of lust and pride all the time, and there are many, many spirits, or “influences,” that are not of God. There certainly are real, evil spirits that are part of Satan’s regime. They insinuate suggestions to our souls frequently. These suggestions are called logismoi, in the terminology of the Fathers. If such suggestions are permitted to linger and have their sway on our thinking, then the soul “darkens” and becomes ill, infected with passions.
The Fathers of the Church call us to “watch” over the influences, ideas and suggestions that demand admittance into our thinking. We should examine each thought carefully, much as a guard at military facility “watches” each person that comes in. Failure to stay alert in this watchfulness (or “nepsis”) can have disastrous effects for a military facility, or – more importantly – the soul.
This makes loads of sense, of course. No one wants to end up being a puppet for the dark side. It is obvious that we should watch against easily identified insinuations such as “Go ahead and rob that bank,” or “Just blow your family budget on crack cocaine.” But the devil usually does not work in such an obvious manner. He does not wear a red flannel suit with pointy ears, hooves and a long tail ending in a barb. Neither does he go about attired like Jason or Freddy Krueger. Rather, if he wears anything at all (he doesn’t, since he is bodiless), he is more likely to wear a designer suit straight from the glossy pages of GQ.
I mention this only to emphasize that the enemy works subtly and underground (no pun intended, for once). He would rather that people not believe in him, since his best agents are those who are unaware of their employer. For good reason he is called, by St. Paul, the “Prince of the Air,” since he works best in chaos and ambiguity. He is slippery, to be sure, and he does not want to be found, even by the tragic fools who consider themselves his adepts. Satan is embarrassed by Satanists. He is much happier with those who say he does not exist.
Satan works hard at orchestrating conditions of unbelief. This is his number one goal of behind all his work of influence. It is the objective behind his every suggestion. “In the case of those who are perishing,” St. Paul wrote, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, Who is the Likeness of God” (2 Corinthians 4.4).
So in this life, we are confronted by a complex program of influences. Some of them are obviously diabolical. Many others are just as corrosive, but are not nearly so evil-looking. Then again, to make matters even more complicated, some influences and ideas are not obviously Christian, but are good and true nonetheless.
This is why St. Paul wrote, in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, to “test everything, to hold fast what is good, and to abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5.21-22). We are called to test, to watch, to examine what goes into our heads. After all, we become not what we eat, but what we think.
It should go without saying that you cannot think about obviously religious things alone. You and I live outside the monastery, and so we must look at billboards while we drive. We will listen to the radio, watch TV, surf the Internet, and hear the conversations of our friends, colleagues at work, and teachers at school. We cannot escape the hard work of judging by merely ignoring society, and dismissing it as “worldly.” Some people try to do this, and I think that they neglect the command to be “salt and light” in this world. We have to cultivate the discipline of discernment, not only so that we are able to “watch” the influences and “guard” our souls, but also so that we can fight against the darkness, and reinforce the light.
To this end, here is St. Paul again: “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.5). This means that we have to figure out the message behind cultural influences, and to decide to agree with them or not. For example, we need to ask ourselves just what Britney (Spears) is ultimately advertising, or what Howard (Stern) wants us to become (i.e., "grown up" like him?).
Well, okay, that was too obvious. More to the point, we should ask troubling questions like “Why is evolution so aggressively promoted?” “Why does multiculturalism preach tolerance for everything but Christianity?” “Why is homosexuality given the same status of victimization as minority and disabled groups?” "Why is consumerism so entrenched in the Christian community?" Or, "Why are conservative Christians so strongly aligned with the political agenda of industrialism?"
But troubling questions are not enough. Once we find out the answers to these questions, we have to do more than just go along with the crowd, or throw up our hands in despair. I am calling here for a lot more decisiveness in acceptance or rejection of cultural influences. There is much in American and the modern world that we should recognize as good. But then again, there is much that is not. In the past, when faced by the “not so good” or downright “icky,” we have only shrugged our collective shoulders and muttered profound things like “Oh well,” or (my favorite) “whatever.” It is too late, anymore, to say whatever, for the enemy has been very busy at dismantling our civilization. Secular historians like the inimitable Jacques Barzun, in his masterful work From Dawn to Decadence, and even Marxist scholars like Eric J. Hobsbawm have concluded that Western civilization is deeply gripped in the throes of decadence and decline. You and I have just been too close to the action to notice the severity of the change: it’s that “not being able to see the woods for the trees” sort of thing. So while we were shrugging our shoulders and not actively fulfilling our critical task, skyscrapers have plummeted into dust and ashes, infants and the infirm have been discarded, and the media has re-defined “lust” as “liberty.”
We need to become critical in this world – not against people, but about influences and ideas. We do not need to condemn society in broad pronouncements, mainly because society is not completely or even mostly evil to warrant such generalizations. But we do need to make judgments about what is going on in the world around us: we need to tell – not just ourselves, but our children and friends – right from wrong.
This course is all about telling right from wrong. It is about judging the truth and worth of influences and ideas. You will hear repeatedly how important it is for you to become a discerning critic of modern trends, fads and fashions.
I cordially invite you to become a critic and a judge. I do not mean by this that you should become a crank. Criticism is not the same as cynicism, despite their frequent confusion. Cynicism involves constant complaint, pessimism about nearly everything, and the constant assumption of bad motives and the worst interpretation of people and events. On the other hand, criticism is the search for goodness, beauty and truth. The cynic, like his master Diogenes who searched Athens for an honest man, cannot ever find goodness because he doesn’t believe it exists at all. The true critic knows better, because he believes in God, Who has distributed His signs of goodness, beauty and truth liberally throughout the cosmos.
Criticism is not crankiness, to be sure. It is also not eggheaded academic intellectuality. One needn’t have a degree to be a good critic – in fact, you are probably better off as a “real” critic if you don’t have one. This course will have more to say about the present state of education, especially in its failure to train students in good criticism (this is, according to the Blessed Augustine, the main purpose of education). I suspect that the main reason why Christians are not as confident as they should be about criticizing culture is simply because they have swallowed the nonsense that criticism belongs to Ph. D’s (and other degrees).
That is nonsense, and we should stop swallowing it. Criticism not only belongs to you. It is your job as a Christian, especially as an Orthodox Christian. You have experienced Paradise already, in prayer and holy mystery. Perhaps the experience has been small and under your perception – but you really have tasted grace, and you have known sweetness and light. In other words, you have been visited by God with His goodness and beauty. You have known the Truth, and the Truth has set you free.
From this perspective, you and I ought to be able to discern, to test the spirits, and to discover God’s will. It requires practice and discipline, to be sure, but we have all the tools we need, and we have all the heavenly assistance we must have. What remains for us is to practice to “be all the judge we can be.”
The most helpful passage about judging the ideas and influences we admit into our souls from culture is found in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4.8).
Think about good things. Savor them. Treasure them. Cherish them. The main cultural problem for Orthodox Christians today is that they simply do not think about good things nearly enough, or strongly enough.
That is what this course is about: thinking about these things.
There is a little story by a modern writer, whose name is Italo Calvino. In his short book, Invisible Cities, the voyager Marco Polo narrates his travels to Kublai Khan. The traveler describes a journey through the good and the bad, the wonderful and tedious, the lovely and loathsome. Through this travelogue, Calvino accidentally describes the pilgrimage of life for an Orthodox Christian, for we face all of these things – in this life and in this world, we visit glimmers of paradise, but we also suffer the smog of Hades and inferno.
I mention this story not only to commend it for your reading, but also to quote, here, Calvino’s conclusion, which is a motto for us all: … seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
That is one way of describing the goal of Orthodox ethics -- to discern in the midst of a darkening world the good, and to give it space.