War, Ukraine, and Orthodox Epistemology

“Love your enemies… unless they invade your ancestral homeland, overthrow a government you prefer, or enact policies you find abhorrent.”
The Antigospel of Satan (i.e. “Things Jesus NEVER said”). 

47181241Introduction: the temptation of demonization in times of war
I have seen what what war does to the souls of good people. Far too often, the temptations of demonization and despondency overwhelm them. Regardless of their professional training, they lose their intellectual objectivity and the ability to see their enemy as themselves (St. Matthew 5:44). Instead of being charitable about the motives of their alleged adversary and working hard to discern the incentive structure that drives his actions, they take the cognitive shortcut of judging him according to their own prejudices and worldview (St. Matthew 7:1-5).   Instead of asking “what would lead a good man to do this thing that offends me so”, they move straight into “this action is evil … only a demon (or one deluded by demons) would do such a thing”.  If they are secular, they will use secular placeholders for “evil”, “demon” and “deluded”, but the impulse is the same; and if they are well-educated they will (as Taleb argues so well) use big words and the aura of authority to make their analysis inevitable to both themselves and those who share their prejudices and worldview.

This is true of every situation involving discernment, but it is much worse in times of stress because the emotions are so powerful. And through the resulting process of demonization, communion is sundered and hearts are poisoned. 

So what is the answer? In a previous career, I helped develop and implement a curriculum for my little corner of the Intelligence Community (IC) that would help the IC avoid the kinds of analytic errors that allowed 9/11 and helped justify the WMD fiasco. The basic idea is to apply the individual and communal norms of scientific investigation (e.g. hypothesis testing, peer review) to intelligence analysis. While this would go far to help Russophiles understand the Maidan and Ukrainophiles to understand (not support – this is about charity and objectivity, not politics) Russian foreign policy and it certainly must be done, it’s not enough. 

Intellectual objectivity of the kind the scientific method encourages helps to tame the worst excesses of the mind. But what of our emotions? What of our heart? 

Much of Orthodox spirituality describes what we commonly refer to as “the mind” as having three parts: the gut, the intellect, and the heart. Each of these must be trained in order for us to obtain true objectivity and understanding.

Training the Gut
The “gut” is what Khaneman refers to as “System One”; it is pre-cognitive, automatic, emotional, and operates on the basis of stereotypes. For a large domain of human decision-making, the gut is sovereign. It makes decisions that the intellect and heart then endorse, even claiming that their “choice” was the result of active deliberation and discernment rather than the automatic rubber stamp it really was. But, to quote Paul Wheaton and Jack Spirko; “that’s just marketing.”  We train the gut by fasting, following a prayer rule, sacrificial giving, charitable works, and all the other ascetic disciplines. Until it is trained and made subject to reason (more on that below), we cannot trust our instincts and emotions. We cannot even trust our “considered judgement”, no matter what kind of words we fluff it up with. This is a very practical application of the warning that Satan can appear as an angel of light (2 Corinthinas 11:14). In times of war and love, man gives himself over completely to the rule of his gut.  This is as true of intellectuals (and even clerics) as it is for hairy soup eaters (Genesis 25:25-34)

Until a man has trained his gut, his feelings are irrelevant to moral and intellectual judgement. He should be heard and loved, but the content of his words is slander. (Proverbs 10:18)

Training the Intellect
The scientific method is a good start for the intellect, but the foundation is elsewhere. The written Scripture, psalmody (prayers) and hymns of the Church help move the mind to think in the patterns and rhythms of the Church. Regular repetition then creates categories and paths that make rational thinking more natural. Good literature does the same. So do the physical acts of Orthopraxis like prostrations, venerating icons, navigating sacred space, and blessing with the sign of the Cross. The wonderful thing here is that the patterns and paths that these routines create within the intellect work their way down into the sub-routines of the mind, becoming the new (and sanctified) worldview and prejudices that inform the gut. The discipline of silence (hesychasm) is also useful: it allows the mind to ignore distractive stimuli (to include thoughts/logismoi) and focus on the “One Thing Needful.”

Until a man has trained his intellect, his opinions are undisciplined advocates with honeyed voices and fancy suits. Again, such a man should be heard and loved, but the content of his words is the seduction of stolen water and secret bread (Proverbs 13:9-18).

Training the Heart
Training the heart is at once more challenging and simpler than training the intellect and the gut. This is because the heart is a sacred place where the infinite and timeless Kingdom of God enters into creation, creating a temple where God can join Himself to us most directly (e.g. St. Luke 17: 20-21). Our Lord wants to rule from our hearts, but the heart of man is broken, full of idols, and incapable of offering Him a “place to lay His head” (St. Matthew 8:10). Like the Temple before the Passion (St. Matthew 21:12), our hearts must be cleansed and rededicated. Confession of all sins, both voluntary and involuntary, is a good first step, but it is far from the complete solution. What is required is kenosis: the complete renunciation of everything we own; our riches (St. Mark 10:21), our families (St. Matthew 19:29), even our opinions (St. Matthew 6:22-24), must lose their hold over us (scared? don’t be: relax and trust God – He will restore true riches with interest; Job 42:10). We must work at this until we get to the point that we can go into the temple naked, simple, and unencumbered (i.e. descend into our hearts in complete peace and quiet). It is in this silence that we will obtain true objectivity and hear the still small voice (1 Kings 19:12) of True Rationality (God the Logos; St. John 1:1-4). The resulting gnosis is the work of a lifetime lived in union with Christ, the inheritance of the Sons of God, and a fruit of perfection. 

Until a man has gained this quiet and heard that still small voice – that is, until he has become united with Christ in holy sainthood – all of his opinion are so much vanity and striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 1)

I have yet to meet such a man. So while I will hear and love you when you rage and spread your words, don’t get upset if I respond by loving you (and perhaps patting you on the head) rather than engaging in debate. For my words are vanity, as well.



Here are some indications that your life is given over to vanity rather than enlightenment:

  • You love your opinions so much that you will disparage (i.e. murder and break communion) those who opinions different than your own. (St. Matthew 5:21-22)
  • You are unable to come up with a charitable explanation describing why someone would take a position different from your own. (1 Corinthians 13:1-5)
  • You would not be willing to worship and pray with the person who disagrees with you and disparage the sincerity of his commitment to Christ. (Romans 14: 4 & 10)
  • You seek out evidence that agrees with your opinion and find excuses not to take contradictory evidence seriously.


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