Sunday 3 December 2023

Second-hand Christians and spiritual scaremongering

For a couple of years back in 2010-11, I was deeply immersed in Eastern Orthodox Christianity (as can be seen from this blog, at that time) - and I was especially interested by that tradition's embrace of mysticism and spiritual experience; how this 'worked' and how they dealt with the problems. 

The US lay-monk Seraphim Rose (later a priest-monk) wrote on this topic with what seemed like great insight and a full acknowledgement of modern conditions. 

What I derived from this; was that the ascetic monks and hermits of the EO tradition (including the millennium before the Great Schism division of the Catholic church; which was caused by divergence of the Western Latin tradition - especially the emerging influence of philosophical theology) were indeed actively seeking a direct and personal relationship with the divine and with spiritual Beings - with God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, Mary the mother of God, angels, and saints - dead and living.  

This active seeking of mystical spiritual experience was pursued by very extreme measures! Including extreme asceticism (lack of food, extremes of heat or cold, immobility,) and heroic vigils (staying awake praying for many hours, sometimes is adverse conditions), and by prolonged meditation including solitude for extended periods - sometimes years. 

The EO tradition is, however, very aware of the problem of achieving spiritual experiences that are demonic rather than with representatives of God. 

This is often represented as demonic attack, or sometimes of succumbing to temptations such as spiritual pride, or being deceived. Some of the greatest of Saints are represented as susceptible - for example it seems that England's greatest Saint - Cuthbert - was assailed (i.e. badly tempted) by demons when he went into solitude on the island of Inner Farne, off the coast of Northumberland. 

Seraphim Rose also explained that there was no valid method or system by which angels and demons could be distinguished reliably, because demons were capable of impersonating angels convincingly; and because the mystic's own evaluations were affected by his own (inevitable, because human) sinful impulses. 

According to SR; over many centuries, the best method for protecting mystics from demonic temptations was a Spiritual Father who had himself known and overcome such temptations, and who might reasonably be assumed to be wholly dedicated to the spiritual good of his spiritual sons and daughters. There was (especially, and in the end, only) in Russia an unbroken lineage of Spiritual Fathers in the premier monasteries, that ensured the overall and across-time integrity of the Russian Orthodox tradition. 

But this lineage was broken, permanently, with the Russian Revolution of 1917; and the subsequent murder of the Tsar and his family, and (essentially) all of the true-hearted Bishops, Abbots and holy monks - except those who escaped overseas and were dispersed in non-Orthodox nations (and they left no heirs of their stature). 

What I got from this was that direct mystical spiritual-contact was essential to Eastern Orthodoxy over many, many centuries; therefore it was worth taking the risks of being deceived by demons - even though there was no really reliable method of ensuring that some aspirants were not deceived. 

There could be, and was, pre-selection of those monks who were best motivated - before they were allowed to become extreme ascetics, or hermits. But this was no guarantee, since all Men are sinful, hence susceptible, to some extent. 

And even the best supervision by Holy Fathers did not reach into the 'desert' conditions of the hermits, which may last for years - e.g. there was nobody to supervise St Cuthbert in the harsh solitude of Inner Farne.  

But the background to all this implicitly seems to have been that personal contact between Men and spiritual Beings, and God; was so vital that risks must be taken

Eastern Orthodoxy works in a society in which there is a communal spirituality, such that individuals are immersed in the group mind of the people; such that the Tsar really can represent his people in relation to God; and monks really can be intermediaries between the divine and the mass of lay-people. 

But modern Western consciousness excludes this possibility; and therefore we are confronted by a choice between - on the one hand - personally taking the same kind of risks that the Eastern Orthodox monks used to take - but without the possibility of valid human supervision (because the churches are all net-corrupted, and Men of the spiritual stature of past Holy Fathers are not to be found - Seraphim Rose was very definite about that). 

And - on the other hand - practicing a second-hand faith. 

Practicing, that is, a Christianity that has lost its beating heart of contact with the divine, angels, and good-spirits of other kinds; a Christianity of mere scholarship... A Christian faith that is about being a Christian - got from books and other-people, following rules and rituals, doing set tasks, and expressing certain formulae of words - rather than actually being a Christian.

That mainstream modern Christianity is merely second-hand and not a real faith and therefore weak and easily (eagerly!) corruptible, was made obvious in 2020 - if it was not already so. 

The problem is that being a second-hand Christian, is another way of Not being a Christian.  

That is why a second-hand Christianity that engages in spiritual scaremongering, and eschews or proscribes direct and personal spiritual contacts with God, Jesus Christ and the wide range of divine and good spiritual Beings - is a weak, fake Christianity - because it is spiritually dead. 

Therefore, the only way actually to be a Christian is to take the risks of being deceived

And to have faith that anyone who is genuinely motivated to God and Jesus Christ will be able to receive the necessary divine corrections, when things go wrong. 

(When, not if, things go wrong.)

Now that traditions of Spiritual discipleship are broken, and now that Men have no good churches upon which faith can be pinned; and when our consciousness has become individual and agentic, rather than being immersed in a group (so that Christians must take personal responsibility)... 

We can be sure - 100% confident - that God our Heavenly Father and the Creator - has ensured that every single person is, nonetheless,able to get the experiences and guidance he needs for attaining salvation and spiritual development. 

If individual spiritual knowledge and mystical experience are indeed a necessary part of being a Christian, as was believed by the Eastern Orthodox for nearly 2000 years - then we can be sure and confident that this has been made possible. 

Possible for me, and for you. So; if you do not already know this by experience, than it is time you found out (that is; if you desire to be and remain Christian). 

To summarize: There is no safe way to be a Christian; therefore the danger of spiritual scaremongering is considerable, and safety-first-ism must be rejected - since the sanction for yielding to spiritual scaremongering is to become first a second-hand Christian, then (because that is so feeble and easily corruptible) not-at-all. 

One who rejects personal discernment and responsibility and seeks safety in external institutions and rules - will simply not be a Christian before very long, will be led by the nose away from Jesus Christ. 

Remember: This is (here-and-now) a world where all major institutions (national and global - including the churches) are under overall-demonic control.

Demons want all religion to be mediated by human institutions, because demons can control institutions.

Surely that is obvious? 

Thus; all Christians need direct spiritual contact with - and guidance from - the divine and all possible Beings of Good; and must therefore take courage, take the risks - in a spirit of trial-and-error; while being always open to correction by "divine-feedback" (which will me made available): and ready for repentance. 

Note added: I suppose I should say again what I have already stated so many times: which is that I think the current situation is that many (most? all?) real Christians have actually already started doing exactly what I recommend - have used personal discernment and taken personal responsibility for their Christian faith, including their choice of denomination and church, and which "authorities" to follow in that particular church. But... Because this has been unconscious, hidden from their own awareness; they have not acknowledged explicitly to themselves that this is what they have actually done -- and instead they pretend/ assert that their choices were actually compelled by "evidence", "reason", "logic" or some such external and supposedly-objective source (for which they, personally, eschew responsibility for choosing; claiming necessity). These are living in a situation of Bad Faith by denial of what is true. Since such a situation is fundamentally incoherent; therefore their Christianity is weak - and readily corrupted or diverted. I suspect that something of this kind is responsible for the incremental loss of once-real Christians, year by year, as they fail one or another Litmus Test; become this-worldly in their primary orientation and aspirations; or fall into an externally-controlled form of second-hand Christianity that presages de facto exit from the faith. 


agraves said...

Bruce, perceptive as usual! What I find to be a major problem with the West is its two main emotions: fear and sentimentality. Fear of really examining their religion and its failures, and why it is failing. Sentimentality is heavily present throughout our media and politics, especially around holiday season. This immature sentiment causes people to not want to move out of something which does not provide for them. This is causing the inability to see things clearly especially where governments are concerned. So all our political systems are failing even when they are saying they are doing their best, while destroying society. The West has lost its ability to do what it must to save itself.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ag - Those leaders at the *very* top are *deliberately* destroying the West; while those upper mid-level leaders we see in the media are either very stupid and cannot learn (over-promoted middle managers), or else don't care and are out for themselves entirely (psychopaths).

But as CS Lewis once said; nobody sets out to create a civilization - they are by-products of peoples with much larger and deeper goals... and we don't have any of them!

I do wish that sometimes more people could take things seriously enough to follow through their thinking beyond just the next step, or what sounds vaguely plausible. But, then again, why bother when nobody else is doing so?

Bruce Charlton said...

dienw has left a comment:

"Interesting. My immediate intuitive response is that God calls us and our hearts are prepared by Him before hand to accept, even desire, that call: Abraham was called out of Ur; the Old testament prophets did not suddenly jump up declare they were going to be prophets; and the apostles did not hold a committee meeting and declare they were going to chase after Jesus: He called them as they were occupied in their daily work. I believe each was prepared by circumstances, even harsh circumstances, wherein they desired the relationship with God.(...)"

Daniel F said...

Perhaps one of the reasons why Fr. Seraphim Rose achieved so much, spiritually, is that he was directly in the authentic Orthodox lineage that you discuss. Rose was a spiritual disciple of (the future St.) John Maximovich, who was an old school Russian monk and bishop, who had himself been discipled by such eminent Eastern holy men as Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky and the Serbian (future saint) Nikolaj Velimirović. Rose also learned from other Russian monks, including Archbishop Averky and Bishiop Nektary, who was himself a student of an Optina startsy (elder).

So Rose was arguably one of the last people, and certainly one of the only Americans, to benefit from the authentic, living Russian Orthodox tradition, and this may have contributed to his incredible discernment, perspicacity and wisdom.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - I agree, that probably was the reason.

But Fr Seraphim was adamant that he himself was not of the same stature as St John; and that the spiritual tradition had been broken. he said that it was *now* (ie during SR's life) a matter of teacher and discerning pupil, rather than of spiritual father and wholly trusting child.

Somewhat related; Fr Herman - Eugene Rose's long-term great friend Gleb, co-founder of, and the Abbot at, Platina - went very badly wrong (the usual kind of sexual stuff) especially after Seraphim Rose died; and he was disgraced and defrocked, and the monastery was expelled from ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia) - last I heard they were Serbian Orthodox.

My point is that Platina was unable to resume the tradition.

Daniel F said...

I see Rose as a gift that God gave to late-stage America. In Rose's translation of I.M. Andreyev's book "Russia's Catacomb Saints: Lives of the New Martyrs", Rose included the following dedication: "This book is dedicated to the Christian Martyrs. Today in Russia. Tomorrow in America."

I am aware of the sordid story and end of Fr. Herman. I tend to see him as the "Judas" to Rose's "Christ".

As for whether Rose is not as great as St. John, perhaps time will tell. They were very different types of men. St. John was a sort of Fool for Christ, of a type that is very unusual among bishops. Some people downplay St. John's importance and imply that he didn't do anything "spectacular", but I see it the opposite way: He was precisely the type of Christian to only look for the "one thing needful" in any given moment, and he did not look much beyond that, which is the best type of Christian.

The more I learn of Rose, the more impressed I am with him. His asceticism, his incredible productivity -- it seems like every day I discover another volume that he translated or edited -- and his relevance to our age, more than just about any other figure I can think of.

Bruce Charlton said...


Yes indeed. He was perhaps the last Man, of whom I am aware, that I am confident was Holy in the traditional way.

I don't know if you are aware - but I host a Fr Seraphim translation of The Apocalypse by Archbishop Averky on these blogs.

I think it was set-up 12 years ago as a back-up mirror copy, done on request from the author of this site - which you must already know:

Daniel F said...

I had not known about your hosting that Averky text. Thank you for the link.

As for the StartingOntheRoyalPath link, coincidenta… (I mean, “there are no coincidences!”), I just discovered that site a week or so ago and was going through various parts of the site. It also let me to a sister site with a lot of available downloads of a wide range of Orthodox books, including many by or about Rose. Very interesting and useful site. I believe they are also affiliated with a sort of “schismatic” or not fully communing faction of the Orthodox Church.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - Yes. They are that part of the ROCOR which refused to rejoin the mainstream/ official ROC, because if its (un-repented, they say) near-complete corruption under the USSR.

Which sound a good reason.

On the other hand... there is (I believe) only one such ROCOR church in the entire UK (a monastery in Essex).

An old penfriend of mine, the Harry Potter expert "Hogwarts Professor" John Granger, is a devout member of this remnant group (a Reader, I think).

Michael Coulin said...

I've been reading your site for some time but this post has compelled me to leave a comment. As someone who has come to the realization that all Traditional religions have been compromised, I found your message inspiring and heroic.

It also reminds me of Julius Evola's prescription that men of spirit still standing among the ruins must 'ride the tiger' in this age of dissolution, despite the obvious risks that this entails.

I was raised Catholic, and after reading Traditionalist authors I've been thinking about whether it's worth re-connecting with the church, despite a part of me knowing that the 'glory days' are long gone. And of course - as you pointed out - 2020 proved that most Churches are not willing to side with God when the state threatens to intervene.

I think the solution you propose here is the only valid one remaining; according to Seraphim Rose we have to confront demonic forces when we die, so we might as well get used to battling them in this life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael C - "according to Seraphim Rose we have to confront demonic forces when we die, so we might as well get used to battling them in this life"

That's another angle I hadn't considered - I presume you mean the "toll houses". I think this is literally not true for us (i.e. to the modern Western mind), but the basic idea of it captures a vital spiritual truth which it is very valuable to consider.

My current understanding is that we need to decide, after mortal death, whether or not to accept Jesus's offer of resurrection to Heaven (and to make the necessary sacrifice of leaving behind our sinful - non-loving - nature).

As this decision proceeds, I envisage that we bring to bear influences upon it; we may invite demons to "put their case" for rejecting salvation, or this stance may have become habitual and desired during our mortal life. So, very likely post-mortal demonic temptation - although not in the formalized system represented by the idea of toll houses.

Against this, I assume that this "decision time" is when those whom we love and who have been resurrected into Heaven, are also able to come into contact and share their knowledge of Heaven and its life; and encourage us to join them. I would imagine this is a very powerful help for those who are fortunate enough to have such loving 'contacts'. (And also such contacts are also possible during mortal life.)

G. said...

Great post. I relished it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - Glad to be of service, sir...