The Moribund Orthosphere

Bruce Charlton recently noticed that things have been quiet around here lately, and wondered whether it might not be due to an insuperable incoherence in the notion of the “mere Christianity” to which this site has generally been committed as a de minimis condition of true – that is to say, godly – civilization.

It isn’t. Not for me, anyway. There’s a much simpler explanation. For me as for bonald, there has lately been much to write about and almost no time to write. I’ve had little alternative this summer so far but to focus all my energies on my business and my family (for reasons that are all both urgent and happy). There have concomitantly been some interesting developments in my spiritual life, related to the beginnings of my immersion in Roman Catholic spirituality, that have disinclined me to write for the last couple of months – not just here at the Orthosphere, but in my correspondence, and even in my private journal. These developments – not so much a correction as an elaboration, amplification and implementation of the Christian spirituality I had learned as an Anglican – strike me as salutary, but I don’t quite understand them yet. Indeed, with the ground shifting somewhat under my feet, all my understandings, in every department (such as they are), are likewise shifting. This gentle seismic motion is generating a torrent of grist for my intellectual mill – too much, so far, for me to get much of a handle on any of it. So it seems somewhat too early to write about it. But the shift is pervasive, and that means it has been tricky to approach writing about anything at all.

Nevertheless, I feel that I am now ready to begin again. Which will be a relief, because I have about 80 posts waiting to be set down.

The Orthosphere is in no sense coordinated. We don’t vet each other’s posts, and there is no plan about who will post what when. We just write what we feel like writing. I doubt therefore that the late quiet around here is due to any cause other than the happenstance that from time to time opens a moment of uncanny silence even in a room full of people happily chatting away with each other. Such silences are meaningless in themselves. But I find them strangely refreshing, as reminding everyone involved that all our discourse supervenes upon a wider world of far more powerful and urgent currents, with altogether other, bigger, wilder concerns, that nevertheless graciously stoops to admit and support our little engagements with each other.

I suppose that means that such “happenstantial” silences are not in fact altogether meaningless, even vis-à-vis the details of the conversations they punctuate. Silence, after all, is not noise.

In any event, they pass too quickly away, and the subsequent renewal of conversation seems then even more vivacious than before.

So I will not be surprised if things get a bit busier around here in the coming weeks. Or if they don’t. Conversation here at the Orthosphere is like weather. Sometimes there is a lot of it, and sometimes there isn’t.

None of this, of course, is to say that Bruce is wrong in his skepticism about the viability of mere Christianity. I’m of several minds about that myself.

27 thoughts on “The Moribund Orthosphere

  1. It doesn’t matter how frequently you post, what matters is whether you post interesting things, and I trust you to know whether or not you have something interesting. Your voice is valuable.

  2. Pingback: The Moribund Orthosphere | Reaction Times

  3. Regarding that “insuperable incoherence in the notion of the ‘mere Christianity,’ Charlton says that “there is a basic schism between the conservative Protestants (Alan R and Thomas B) and the Roman Catholic majority.” Well, yeah, but so what? Prots and Cats have always been in schism; that’s why we call them by different names. I’m Catholic but C.S. Lewis is my friend. When I was at W4, we had some knock-down drag-outs along these lines, but no friendships were ruined by it. So have at it, always keeping mind the ranks of the true enemies arrayed against you.

    “Silence, after all, is not noise.” There you go. Substance over sound. The Orthosphere will do fine once the lazy days of summer are behind us. This is one of the few blogs I regularly read. Take it and the elegance of Kristor’s musings away and I won’t have much left.

    What’s a ‘theoretical Mormon’? On second thought, don’t answer that.

  4. Mere Christianity is a low goal in my view. My goal is to complete the Reformation. Oh, you thought the Reformation had no end, no goal, no hope- like the War On Terror? Oh no. It has a happy terminus. God willing, I will bring it to be. That’s right. Maybe I will even bring the East and the West back together too. No Mormons though. Mkay?

    I will post a link to my blog when I start my great task. Some day…

  5. @Kristor

    Point of information!

    ” wondered whether it might not be due to an insuperable incoherence in the notion of the “mere Christianity” to which this site has generally been committed as a de minimis condition of true – that is to say, godly – civilization. ”

    If I gave that impression, it is not what I meant to say – because I do not believe that is the causality involved.

    As I went on to say in the comments, the Orthosphere does not work as it was intended and as it should because of

    1. infrequency/ irregularity of blog posts, and

    2. unmoderated comments (where Gresham’s law ensures that the bad drives out the good, and set the tone – and some of the commenters are very good, and deserve a better environment).

    This amounts to a failure of anybody to take responsibility for the blog. Thus nobody is overall responsible for what gets published on the blog, and even specific bloggers are only responsible for the postings, and not for what comes after – which is almost equally important.

    Responsibility and (as part of it) censorship are core traditional values – and lacking here.

    • Thomas Bertonneau has no qualms about blocking and deleting the comments of unwelcome interlopers, and Alan Roebuck has done the same. The Orthosphere is not as tightly controlled as, say, View From the Right was, but it is not a free-for-all, either.

  6. Touchstone magazine and the Fellowship of St. James seem to have made a go of “mere Christianity” for quite a few years now.

  7. Dear Kristor,

    Lately I was wondering that despite I don’t think I am a liberal, I may be in a way the worst type of liberal. I have to admit my rejection of theism correlates in one specific way with the modern world very well.

    As we have discussed before, my issue with theism is that it is too rationalistic, focuses too much on logic, words, reasoning, causality, syllogisms, and so on. And even non-intellectual faith – i.e., that of the majority of believers – is rationalistic, just simpler – it still requires people to accept statements as truth. It requires people to _care_ about truth. Essentially my issue is that I don’t really care about truth – I don’t care that much about words at all, or statements.

    I care about experiences, and for statements or words only so far that they predict experiences. For example, I think the reason everybody considers lying, cheating, scamming a bad thing, because liars purposefully mis-predict experiences for others, that is the essence of lying or cheating.

    This is why non-theistic Buddhism suits me. Every statement in B. that is not directly predictional of experience has a secondary importance, they are just explanations for the curious but can be ignored by the not curious. The only important ones are really predictional like “sit cross legged for a long time and you will feel something” or “don’t break certain ethical rules, as they will lead to you feeling suffering”.

    This is also why the most accessible part of Christianity for me is the mystics, like Saint Theresa. She wrote a prayer book, basically a recipe on how to pray in a way that you are going to feel a mystic joy and happiness through it. Well, that sounds cool! Why don’t you guys preach that first instead of the Gospel – isn’t are recipe for experiencing uplifting feelings something that could be quite popular? And then you would be more successful preaching the Gospel because you would have the _authority of something that predictably leads to the experience of happy feelings_ behind you. You could say: “See? We can make you feel good. So you must admit we know stuff.”

    This is how the modern world works – science, scientist have authority, because they make our lives safer and more comfortable. It is from the experiencing of these good feelings – we like being safe and more comfortable – is their authority derived, we listen to people who talk about relativity, because they gave us GPS satnav and thus an easier way to find our way to a hotel or something. This is roughly how Buddhism is taught, too – making people experience things – nice things – makes them respect you and listen.

    Interestingly, Christianity almost completely does it the other way around.

    But when I got to this step in my thinking, I realized that I talk like a liberal.

    Literally. Liberalism and the modern world is very much experience oriented. Feelings
    oriented, too, as they are a form of experience, but even more generally experience

    For example, the losing war against drugs. Drugs are very typical of the modern world – they give experiences, fast and easy, for a price in health and addiction. In the modern world, almost everything is like a drug – fast, easy experience. TV is a drug. Movies are drugs. Music – now that is funny! I like electronica, techno, house, and compared to e.g. rock, blues, or jazz – I think electronica is specially engineered to be a kind of music that is like a drug! Like, rationalistic aspects, like lyrics with a meaning, were removed. Usual emotions were removed – metal makes you angry, classical music makes you sad or hopeful, but techno or house is just supposed to give this generic feeling of “high” (I mean, even without drugs, the music is a drug in itself), the raw feeling of uplifted joy, which is the rawest, most primitive kind of human experience. This raw joy, and pain, our most basic, most animalistic experiences. And yes, I like it – even though it is the most unintellectual, simplistic feeling, which even the most primitive animal could theoretically feel. Just the raw “Aw yisss!”.

    So there is something very modern, and very liberal in the rejection of words and truths, and aiming for experiences, fast, easy, strong. There is something very modern about being a mystic without religious faith.

    If a Christian asked me what could Christians or even God do to make me convert, my answer would be essentially “be a drug”. In the sense, throw a brutally overwhelming mystical experience on me. Don’t talk to me about faith and words and truths and logic. Just give me a fiery experience of God and some methods for me to keep this feeling alive. I mean non-verbal methods, I am tired of all the words, I want turn off my mind. But for example, if a mystical experience could be gained through fasting or scourging, I’d consider it. That would be just like going to the gym or working – do stuff and stuff happens, so, something real, not words. Just don’t make me have to care about having faith in words, statements. I just want the experience and could work for it in non-verbal ways. So I care for experiences and I care for methods that achieve them, and I don’t care for the truth in words.

    This suggests to me, that if I am so much allied with one of the most crucial aspects of the liberal modern world: that both this age and me are very much experience oriented instead of “truth in words” – oriented, I may be wrong somewhere. But I don’t know where. The only real fault I find is that it is more like the manifesto of an animal than a human. But I don’t see what is wrong with that. Animals may as well be happier than humans.

    Still, I get that something is wrong with it. What is wrong with it?

    • Dear Shenpen:

      Thanks for this searching and insightful comment. I think it is right to be concerned with orthopraxy, which is after all the point of religion, and indeed of life. We don’t live just to live, but to live rightly, so realizing the Good and its Beauty; and in the end, there is no other way to live that can long succeed.

      But orthopraxy without a foundation in orthodoxy is more vulnerable to philosophical challenge, or to simple error – and so to a fall into heteropraxy and wickedness – than need be. Man is an animal, to be sure, but he is a rational animal. The whole, true man, then, man as he is meant to be, must not fail to express his rational nature, both rightly and fully. This can be accomplished only via an integration of the whole of life, both intellectual and practical – our practical faculties are not eo ipso irrational, after all, however ignorant or thoughtless we may be – ordered to man’s true end, and properly coordinated with his world. This duty to our nature, and indeed to our world, to the mere fact and gift of our being, calls for an engagement with the gamut of intellectual discourse, from metaphysics to politics and engineering, to sports physiology and agronomy. It calls for a relentless effort to understand the truth.

      It is not enough to do right, guided by the instincts we share with our cousins in the animal kingdom. The full diapason of the animal instincts vouchsafed to man, after all, includes our intellectual faculties. Our nature calls out to us, and so behooves us, to try to understand what we do, how it works, and why it is good.

      You say that you are not so concerned with philosophy, and doctrine, as with mystical practice. Yet you worry about that, so perhaps you are more concerned than you suspect. The Christian mystics who are for you the most amenable window into the Christian world were almost all theologians as well, brilliant intellects questing for the Truth. This is how they became mystics, rather than, say, superb farmers or traders; and it is what gave them the capacity and inclination to write books. Could it be different with the Buddhist mystics? I have to doubt that it could.

      Having said all that, I can tell you that the techniques those Christian intellectual adepts discovered do indeed work, both in the mundane pursuit of righteousness, and in the mystical quest for sanctification (in the Limit of the vision bestowed by honest and persistent Christian praxis, these two domains are revealed as integral). And they work even for men and women who are not intellectually talented, or who are otherwise disposed. If you find the Christian mystics compelling, perhaps you should give the Jesus Prayer or the Rosary a shot for a few months, and just notice what happens. It worked for Pascal.

      • This is seriously interesting, thank you. In Christianity, just like in its predecessors in Juadism and Greek Philosophy, there is central idea of celebrating the kind of rationality that sets men apart from animals. In Buddhism and in many other kinds of mystical traditions it is a bit different, nobody ever says except for the most primitive kinds of shamanisms that it would be actually better to be born as, say, a bear, yet the rational mind is often seen just as much a distraction and a misleading organ, as much, of course, it is a very useful one in many other cases. So effort is invested into learning to turn it off at will, and the superiority of humankind over animals is only half-heartedly supported. This seems to be a very crucial difference.

        This may be turn out to be main difference between traditions i.e. how important and how good they see the rational human faculties, as opposed to some kind of direct, raw experience, which also says something about how they see the human-animal difference.

        Setting all religious, mystical questions aside, I have seen already in my teens that dumb people are often happier as they can just go and enjoy life, and people like myself who are attracted to intellectual analysis and philosophy are more trapped in their own brains and often more unhappy. So I learned to dislike my own intellectualism early as it was nothing but a source of pain, and envied the typical “jock” who is always confident and happy because he is so dumb he does not even recognize things that could shake his confidence.

        I wonder if either todays Christians or e.g. the forerunners in Greek philosophy had a good case that intellectual people actually should be happier? All I know is intellectuals are prone to depression due to too much introspection and analysis, due to thinking about the water of life instead of jumping in it and enjoying it. I never really understood e.g. Aristotle when he said the philosopher should be able to live a happier, wiser life than others.

        So any tradition that essentially says turn-off-your-brain attracts people like myself who think their intellectualism and over-analysis is just making them depressed. And any tradition that says think-cleaner, as Christianity, may attract people who already found a lot of joy in their rational thinking. But I wonder why do people find a lot of joy in it?

      • I’ve known lots of people who were for one reason or another uninterested in intellectual pursuits. Many have been far more intelligent than your run of the mill intellectual (many intellectuals, I find, are rather clueless about the real world). Some of them have been happy and well-adjusted. But many of them lead lives that are one appalling trainwreck after another, suffused with truly horrible sadness, fear, anger and depression.

        Likewise for intellectuals. Some are happy, some not. I don’t think intellectuals are predispositionally more likely to be unhappy than are other sorts of people.

        What I do think though is that men who are not well-rounded are indeed more prone to depression, ennui and unhappiness. An unreflective practical man is more likely to get himself into trouble, less likely to take the long view and act prudently, more likely to be swayed by the urgings of the present moment. An intellectual who never gets any exercise or does any manual labor, on the other hand, is prone to a febrile neurasthenia, to hypochondria, obsession, and so to the sort of vice that feeds on obsession.

        One wants balance, then – the whole thrust of Aristotle’s ethics. When he argued that a reflective man is more likely to be happy, he meant that an active man – the only sort of man there was, in his day – is more likely to be happy if he takes the long view that philosophy engenders and supports. How can this be disputed?

        You ask why people find joy in rational thinking. To me, that’s like asking why people find joy in music, or love, or babies, or this wonderful hoppy beer on the desk in front of me. People find joy in Being, in Beauty, and Goodness – and Truth.

    • Shenpen, you precisely described why I am slowly and painfully turning away from the “world of experience”. Your situation reminds me of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

      As you are tired by words and concepts I was tired and disgusted, if it’s not too strong to say, by the endless hunger for experience in me and in others. It doesn’t matter if it is new car, new movie, health, mystical experience or whatever. I was tired by all the relativity around me, relativity of truth, ideas, lifestyles etc. This “unbearable lightness of being” troubled me. That which does not kill us doesn’t make us stronger but often weaker. I suspect the safety and comfort you’re talking about make worms of us. Btw what you say about electronic music is true. I used to like it for the same reason about 20 years ago.

      I had a hunch or a hidden hope that there is something absolute that doesn’t hinge on me, that is the only truth, something that is close but distant at the same time, dignity, sublime or sacred. Yet as atheist or later agnostic raised in atheist country in atheist family I dismissed Christianity and was stupidly hostile to it. The little hope pushed me to Buddhism finally. Not to some traditional Buddhism with all the Eastern mumbo-jumbo around it but to what I considered the “rational” core of it, the satori experience or experience of Being through the technique of zazen. As for you for me this experience was supposed to be more real than any concept, word or idea. All reality is mere concept and I have to go through it to the real Being that is behind it and to become one with IT or thus the story goes.

      I haven’t reached the satori experience though I went through some stages. But I knew other people who have. So I think it is true experience. However, I had a feeling that I am missing something. Though innocent of philosophy (which I still am) I noticed that the concept of “reality is mere concept” and some other ideas I cherished at that time are incoherent. How could reality be mere concept when we are so good at manipulating it? Etc. So I started to appreciate reason and its findings and refused relativism. Later I came across a book explaining difference between natural and supernatural mysticism – something that I felt but couldn’t put my finger on. So I believe Catholic mystical experience and Buddhist mystical experience are different and mere technique is insufficient for supernatural mystical experience (experience or communication with God). I was attracted to Christianity several times but only recently I have started to really get in touch with it. My renewed confidence in reason (not mine but in general) helped me to appreciate rational arguments for God’s existence. And I was even touched by power of very strong place of Virgin Mary nearby. I don’t dare to call it mystical experience, it was far from it but perhaps it was sort of God’s gift to me to move my ass in the right direction. Anyway, I realized that it is true that the satori experience and Buddhism in general is not deliverence from self as I hoped but expanding of it. I am still measure of everything. But if there is God out there, something beyond my reach and yet I am totally dependend on then that’s a really new perspective. That puts my self to a place where it belongs. And it really makes possibility of relationship more real.

      The funny consequence of all this is that now I better understand my uncomfortable feelings I sometimes had as a child about certain things that were not directly immoral but kind of putting dirt on something clean or revealing something that should remain hidden. In short I think I had sense for sacred as a child but have lost it later.

      • This is a very interesting comment and gives me lot to think about, thank you very much. (BTW the interesting thing is that expanded self is exactly how B. argue against Hinduism i.e. about the idea of the higher self, the atman, and non-supernatural mysticism (welln, non-enlightened mysticism) is exactly how B. argue against all kinds of magick and witchcraft and these kinds of things.)

      • @Kristor
        I could find only French edition of the book:
        There is a remark somewhere in the book that M. Eliade created new word “enstasy” for the ultimate experience of natural or imanent mysticism to distinguish it from “extasy” of transcendental mysticism. So perhaps something about the difference can also be found in Eliade’s Yoga: immortality and freedom but I have not read it myself.

        I am glad to hear it makes some sense to you. And you are probably right about the Buddhist criticism of Hinduism, its concepts and practises. In that sense Buddhism is more “pure” and/or “empirical” (though Mahayana reintroduced some of them back into its religious practise). Yet it uses very similar technique as Yoga and thus, I guess, it has to lead to similar end, that is, in my view, profound but still natural experience.

    • So, a basic assumption required to make Christianity intelligible, I would say, is that we are in this imperfect mortal world for the formation of our souls, one way or the other. The utility of having experiences of whatever sort, then, would be evaluated against this basic assumption. If the experiences we have or seek do not change us in any fashion, they are irrelevant or useless, because later in Heaven we have an opportunity to have infinitely more intense and varied experiences indefinitely; that is simply not what we are doing _now_. Then the question is whether our experiences make us better or worse; and it seems like excessively intense experiences are unhelpful in this, as distracting from a broader reality. To some extent we are even invited to endure suffering, learning to act according to higher principles not determined by what experiences we get out of it; it is fairly clear to me that a person is only able to _enjoy_ (rather than merely possess) health, prosperity, family, power, beauty, a daily rush of exciting experiences and novelty, or any other thing, or even Heaven itself, once they have become capable of giving up all these things as required by God’s higher law.

      As for what specific experiences are deliberately cultivated by various techniques in Christianity, these reduce mostly to the experience of penitence (for sins committed) and of gratitude (for blessings received). Neither of these is known for being a particularly intense or addictive head-trip, I think; and some denominations of Christianity admit of more overt mysticism, but it is rather beside the main point of the thing.

      (Many Eastern Orthodox monks, from what I’ve read, even deliberately avoid anything resembling mysticism or ‘experiences’ in favour of an almost crushing discipline of penitence, and are rather fond of circulating very depressing stories about some foolish monk who thought he saw angels, who turned out to be demons, who convinced him to go jump off a cliff. You could read St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, or St. John of the Ladder, to get a flavour of that kind of thing — but it is rather too narrow-minded to fit with the outlook of the Orthosphere, I suppose. I doubt most people would agree with Brianchaninov’s analysis of St. Francis of Assisi as being subject to demonic visitations.

      I think, echoing Bruce Charlton’s logic, I would say ascetics of this sort might be useful to read — to see most clearly what Christianity can be based on _besides_ experiences — but their positions cannot be taken unmodified because they effectively fall into fatalism by denying humans any significant ability to discern truth from falsehood.)

      • >So, a basic assumption required to make Christianity intelligible, I would say, is that we are in this imperfect mortal world for the formation of our souls, one way or the othe

        Wait, I thought Christianity is largely silent about why men were created at all. Is it really a widespread thought that God’s intention with the universe is to create a form of training ground or school?

        But, I happen to agree with you about the importance of formative experiences, the question is simply that whether having right thoughts is formative enough (and faith is a form of right thinking, it is the affirmation of the truth of statements), or whether rawer or more basic experiences are more formative? It is a central idea in Buddhism that it takes a lot of time and effort to make teachings go down from the head to the heart and only there do they have any practical use at all, and even outside religions we can generally say that intellectually knowing how a sport is to be played worths much less than having a lot of practice in playing it. The former is intellectual, and thus similar to faith, religious faith says Jesus resurrected, sport faith says X, Y, and Z are the most effective movements in judo. But I think it worths much more to have practiced so much as to have judo in your bones and blood rather than in your head, that instead of being able to tell intellectually what to do in a given situation your body does it automatically, without having to think. This is the particular sense in which I talk about mystical experiences or experiencs in general. Surely they are more formative?

    • I was corresponding with a friend via email and she was asking me what liberalism is, as in what is the very essence of liberalism. I thought for a while and said, “rebellion”. You are rebellious, as is every man since Adam and Eve and the difference between conservatives and liberals is that the latter glorify rebellion and the former don’t.

      • Well, I would disagree with this one approach, because it does not say what is the cause of rebellion. Most likely the ego, like, vanity. So if you would for example focus on reducing ego / vanity, you could very easily get e.g. Christians and Buddhists and many other traditions to work together. If you focus on rebellion, you can only work with theists and I would say, of the more authoritarian sort of theists only. If you focus on vanity as the root cause of rebellion, you can work with everybody except the most obstinate liberals.

  8. Prior to my conversion to Christianity (and Catholicism) I found this website of great interest and a great resource. However, having now entered into a relationship with Christ I find the consistently uncharitable attitude displayed in many posts to be objectionable. I understand and deeply feel that we as Traditional Christians are under fire (literally, in places like Iraq). However, when I read a blog post which is adversarial or nasty – no matter how justified – my inclination is not to read further but to pray for the soul of the obviously troubled and angry person who wrote it. When I occasionally venture back onto this website to see what conversations are going on, I see post after post which is filled with rancorous judgment and bile. In many cases I agree completely with the factual arguments stated, but the mean-ness of the verbiage and the arguments I find tremendously off-putting.

    My favorite apologists: Chesterton, Lewis, and Sheen, were able to ridicule and poke holes in their opponents’ arguments while still evidencing their love for those same opponents. I am not accusing any of the authors of this blog of failing in human charity and compassion, but this quite often does not come across in their writing.

    What I am asking is hard to do. I am new in faith and relationship with Christ and I admit it is easy – so easy! – for me to enter into an argumentative, adversarial modes of thought and communication when considering the many errors made by secular culture. It is simply that I admire the various authors of this blog so much that I expect better of them. I expect them to make a rational point while remaining charitable towards the opposition. I expect them to respond to a blasphemous, horrible attack with love and compassion. What I read here is pretty much what I would write. That’s not good enough.

    • Monsieur le Chevalier:

      Congratulations, first, on your conversion. Thanks be to God!

      Second, thanks for the criticism. We’re a work in progress.

      Third, while I share your distress at the occasional descent of the discourse here into nastiness and backbiting, I think that there is a place for sternness, and even wrath. “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34). As our banner illustrates, this site is intended to be a participation in the sword.

      Fourth, note the serenity in St. Michael’s face, as he makes ready to thrust his blade through Lucifer. That’s the ticket. It is that serenity – and, indeed, charity – in the expression of the truth – now irenic, now wrathful – that ought to be our ideal.

    • My experience is that nastiness is rather rare here in comparison with other traditional or non-traditional websites I sometimes visit.


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