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Fr. Jonathan,

You raise some interesting points. I've been trying to internally reconcile much of this myself, especially with regards to modern society's dependence on the federal government, specifically public education as a panacea.

The UN set 8 Millennium Development Goals in 2001 (they were set in 1990 for 2000, but of course never met) to be reached by 2015. Goal 2 is "Universal primary education." It's not going to be met by 2015, even though the World Bank, UNICEF, UNESCO, The Gates Foundation, you name them, have been throwing billions of dollars at it.

The point is that modern society is looking to government and the UN to solve all of our problems, when in reality we should be looking at our family, our neighbors, our neighborhood, our school district, our town. You've seen the bumper sticker "Think Globally, Act Locally," well I say "Think Locally, Act Locally." If we take care of our own, if I actually get to know my neighbors, I'll care about what happens to them, and they me, and we'll begin to connect and form a real bond, which will transform us more than any government-imposed regulation will.

I am a student of Theology, but I am also a student of International and Development Education. Amidst all the theories of neo-liberalism, neo-conservativism (pretty much the same as far as I can tell), communism, post-structrualism, post-modernism, I have become a voice for a kind of radical localism.

This is how to reconcile the agrarian dream with Orthodoxy. Even in the crowded, anonymous city, we must make connections with our neighbors. Most of our parishioners live outside of our cities now, but our churches have remained -- that's for another conversation -- but we have a treasure trove right outside our doors! Americans are dying for spirituality. We need to find a way to connect our inner-city parish with the inner-city people. Well, there's the counter-argument that we'll scare off the old folks -- again, an argument for another time.

If we're really moving towards more and more urbanization (and globally, this is undeniably the case), then we must end urban anonymity now! I know Wendall Berry thinks the same thing, and I don't mind piggy-backing on his ideas (smart men, after all, think alike). It's time for another Christian urban revolution!

And just this morning I read:

Concepts, like individuals, have their histories and are just as incapable of withstanding the ravages of time as are individuals. But in and through all this they retain a kind of homesickness for the scenes of their childhood.
-Kierkegaard

Maximos, you said what I was trying to say, but much better. As Fr. Jonathan says, it's worth a post of its own. Kudos.

If I'm not mistaken, Grumpy, "la nostalgie de la boue" is more a gravitational pull on the nouveau riche which belies their roots. I do not see this urge toward mud as a romantic earthiness from the nostalgic progress-fatigue set. Rather, I see it as an explanation of the near-ineffable mystery of very comfortable (and college-trained) nouveau riche (which can be applied to all Americans) who addict themselves to the McDonalds politics and culture that surrounds us today.

Maximos, your comment is a post in itself, and a solid one at that.

I am not sure we differ. It seems that you hold out hope that nostalgia can be "worked back from" to "anamnetic labours by which memory is unearthed and revivified."

In that sense, I do not dismiss nostalgia either. I contrasted, as does Lasch in his superb tome, the beneficent "memory" with the deceptive, and ultimately unhelpful, nostalgia.

Thank you for your fine writing,

Fr. Jonathan

While agreeing with virtually all of the analyses given in the post, I cannot be so quick to dismiss the phenomenon of nostalgia, inasmuch as it is a symptom, and fairly begs to be diagnosed as such. Christopher Lasch, in his The True and Only Heaven - a near-magisterial treatment of these themes, in my estimation - is at pains to distinguish nostalgia and memory, as well as optimism and hope. Obviously, the former terms in these binaries are disordered, but what is important is that the phenomenon of nostalgia is the mirror image of progress, the relentless, churning, ceaselessly-revolutionizing, creatively-destroying Gadarene plunge into a fervently-desired future of BiggerBetterFasterMore, which, so far from increasing human satisfaction, seems to increase discontent with every achievement. Progress is typically portrayed, especially among certain 'conservative' temporizers, who wish to combine the incongruous elements of modernity in economics and material culture with traditionalism in morality, as a merely neutral relieving of man's estate that leaves us 'stuck with virtue' - although they also want to have it the other way, with the wellsprings of modernity, on their constructions, arising from the deepest aquifers of Christianity - but it is obvious that progress is merely a transposition, to the societal level, of the dialectic of the passions. It is driven, not by an impulse or judgment that human desires and aspirations should be conformed to natural limits, either those of our common nature or those of the nature that remains a common inheritance, however much we feign otherwise, but by the impulse to fulfill an ever-increasing wish-list of desires, typically, as is modernity's wont, by means of greater quantities of desire's objects. Progress is the attempt to satiate the infinite appetite of desire, to fill its fathomless abyss, with sheer quantity; as such, it is both born of a certain spiritual restlessness and productive of that restlessness, as each evanescent satisfaction generates a greater longing.

However, because this process itself has been made possible only by the ceaseless revolutionizing of all social forms and arrangements, the reduction of every tradition to a transient style or mode, as all social fixities are made to yield to the reign of quantity and the false infinity of desire, it generates a sense of unhomelikeness. We become restless, not merely because each temporal satisfaction fails to quench desire's flames, but because we sense, however inchoately, that we have become alienated from ourselves, and from a manner of living that better conforms to aspects of human nature other than sheer desire. This gnawing sense of unhomelikeness is the root of nostalgia, the ineliminable doppelganger of progress. It is not too much to suggest that, as our very discontent with the ephemerality of temporal satisfactions is the trace of paradise, that restlessness that only rests in God, so also is this sense of unhomelikeness a trace of a better sort of societal existence, one that more nearly conforms to the lineaments of human nature.

Nostalgia, then, is merely the derailment of this healthy sense of alienation or unhomelikeness, its devolution into false idealizations of past periods of history - or even the creation of entirely abstract, mythical pasts, as in certain forms of literature and political philosophy - shorn of their contingency, complexity, and all-too real ethical failings. But nostalgia, however much it may thus falsify, nonetheless latches on to real failings in the present. There are reasons why, from the seventies until the present, much American nostalgia has gravitated towards the 1950s, and why still older strains of nostalgia have conjured images of small-town life, or of pastoral tranquility. The practical problem of nostalgia, then, as signaled by the idealization, is that it hermetically seals the past from the present, sighing wistfully at something irrevocably lost; for, absent memory, the past cannot function as an example, stimulus, or even a tradition guiding personal and communal reform in the present.

Instead of dismissing nostalgia, then, we should work our ways back from its false idealizations and comforts, to the unhomelikeness that spawned it; from thence we can engage in the anamnetic labours by which memory is unearthed, and revivified in the present.

Insightful indeed.

Why do I keep thinking of "la nostalgie de la boue"? (Nostalgia for mud; the longing for a false earthiness, among other things).

Dear Father - Your words struck deep into my heart. I have been struggling of late with various tangled thoughts arising from reading Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist, and Orthodox Psychotherapy, and Palamas' Sermons. I was (and in many respects still am) torn with nostalgia for a Christianity that never was and a life that I have never lived. Along you come with clarity and wisdom - I have a locality of Tradition (quite similar to yours it seems) that gives me rootedness if I can open my eyes and see. Perhaps I can enjoy this life that God has blessed me with - my home, wife, children, grandchildren, parish - and thank Him for my history, and for the hope of eternity. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

P.S. I too am an Orthodox, a Pittsburgher, and a Front Porcher, and I appreciate very much your thoughts on all these matters.

Fr. Jonathan, I think that you're largely correct here, but I'd make one observation. Sentimentality seems to me to be the sort of error that's dangerous primarily when we're not aware of it. As I am a person with considerable sentimental/romantic tendencies I must be on my guard against allowing that facet of my personality to hold sway when more rational, tough-minded thoughts are needed.

Having said that, however, I've found that this tendency in myself is one that doesn't need rooting out altogether, as much as it needs controlling. Sentimentality sometimes gets an overly bad rap among conservatives; although it may be slippery and not particularly sturdy, it can, if one is careful about it, serve as a stepping stone to charity.

Ditto nostalgia. While it's obvious that we should not look at the past through rosy spectacles, it's equally wrong to view the past as everywhere and always shot through with oppression and error, as "progressives" tend to do. The fact is that there are some things about the past that do merit a longing look backwards. This backwards looking, however, must not be a thing-in-itself, but should provide an impetus for our behavior now.

It does no good, in other words, simply to lament the fact that we can no longer tell our kids to go out and play after dinner and "come home when the street lights go on." That we can't do that anymore is lamentable; but our sadness over this fact should spur us towards activity which would help make such a thing a reality again. As with sentimentality, nostalgia can be a stepping stone to charity.

Father Jonathan:

In more ways than I could know, you answered my questions below. Thank you.

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