Decorum sometimes wrests from friends and family desultory queries about my job. They know I teach at a seminary, so they ask after my courses. “Mostly church history this semester,” I say. “Some modern philosophy, and a course on atheism.” “Atheism?” many balk. Others of more urbane sensibilities nod approvingly. “Well,” they say, “I suppose it is useful to train seminarians to defeat the enemy.”
My course on atheism does nothing of the sort. In fact, my first lecture outlines what our course will not do. It will not teach students to brandish dialectic against internet atheists. It will not dignify the dogmatic scientism of a Richard Dawkins or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, pretenders both to atheism’s tiara. And it will not teach the sort of genealogical legerdemain so common in religious circles that reduces every position with which Christians disagree to atheism in three easy steps. Desirous of apologetics the course will not provide (perhaps), some students invariably and quietly drop it.
The first rising of the sun in the East shoots rose light across the dim landscape; it is a time the early monks knew well, for a prayer service was starting, when the bell-ringer could just begin to see the lines in his hand. The Evangelist Mark leaves us in the Garden by the Tomb of Christ, at what may be the most extraordinary moment in history. For it was when those vivid shards of dawn light shot through the darkness from the East that Mary Magdalene and the other women came bearing myrrh to properly finish the burial preparations for their dear Lord, Jesus. As they approached, the Evangelist says they were anxious about how they would gain access to the tomb, for the stone was heavy.
Then, something profoundly miraculous happened. The Myrrhbearing women experienced something life-changing. All four Gospels describe the moment. Although each tells it a little differently, the message is so profound, and so utterly seminal to our life as Christians, that the details fall away and something utterly transcendent has happened and is revealed. And we too experience it personally and transcendently at Pascha. It is so luminously divine that it can only be described as something like a flashing white angelic figure—like lightning, really—a vision so powerful that the stone is moved and the empty tomb is visible; and in some dazzling way, the women suddenly know to depth of their hearts—He is not dead. Surely, this is the first truly apophatic apprehension of the Resurrection. He is not here! He is not dead! Christ is alive! And the radiant angel cried out to the Myrrhbearers: “Why do you women mingle myrrh with your tears? Look at the tomb and understand: the Savior has risen from the dead!” (Tone 2; Stichera of the Myrrh-bearers, Pentecostarion, for Myrrhbearers Sunday)
The term “accommodationist” has recently become a topic of some contention in global Orthodox Christian conversations on human sexuality. The term was derived from the widely influential book by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (first published in 1989, and reissued in 2014 with a new foreword and afterword). Because this term could continue to influence the way that we as Orthodox speak with each other about our tradition, bringing some clarity to the term itself might be helpful. I therefore reached out to Hauerwas and Willimon directly in order to gain some insight into their understanding of the concept. Both graciously agreed to speak with me about this topic. What follows is my reflection on their key points. (Direct quotations without citation are taken from phone conversations that took place in April of this year, and citations from the text itself are taken from the most recent 2014 edition).
I would summarize Hauerwas and Willimon’s understanding of the term “accommodationist” in the following way: the term “accommodationist” is a critical heuristic, not a category of heresy.
The film Nomadland (2020) offers a spiritual glimpse into America, especially into the Western states, with the help of Chloé Zhao, a young director from China. This is a road movie in the most spiritual sense of the term, where making a road trip is a way to deal with bereavement as well as with feeling useless in a difficult age just before retirement. The film takes place in 2011, during the first years of the economic crisis that had started in 2008. The protagonist of the movie is Fern, a 60-year-old woman who had just lost her husband, but also her work, after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shut down. Each loss is also a painful liberation, and Fern decides to sell her belongings in order to buy a van and cross the country in search of seasonal jobs. The film is based on a documentary by Jessica Bruder on the subcultures of van-dwellers who move from state to state in search of work in the context of the precarity that is inherent in late capitalism. However, the director Chloé Zhao has added her personal existential touch. The film has been very influential in this difficult year of lockdown. This is also reflected in the many awards it has received, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Golden Lion for Best Picture, as well as an Oscar for best director and an Oscar for best actress in a leading role (Frances McDormand).
The van-dwelling culture
Fern is in a difficult age: too old to start her life anew with the vigour of youth, too young to retire. She belongs to a new generation of out-of-works among the middle-aged and those who are at the threshold of the third age. For the latter, it is very difficult to acquire the new skills needed to respond to the dynamic form of contemporary work relations, and thus they succumb to the low self-esteem of unbearable uselessness. Fern, however, combines an openness to life, including its failures and frustrations, with an unexpected dynamism. After a seasonal job at Amazon, she is invited to the Arizona desert, where Bob Wells leads a community that offers help to these new nomads, teaching them basic survival rules in this postmodern version of the Wild West. In many aspects, this is a community of moribunds, for example, people with late-stage cancer. The latter are, however, readier than Fern both for death and for temporary survival in the wild life of these new anchorites. Some of the nomads give naturalistic meanings to death, according to a death coaching that is but the natural consummation of life coaching, as a training for achieving a “successful” death that would be the coronation of a successful life. Nevertheless, other people, such as Bob Wells, invest in love toward unknown fellow men and women, telling them what they didn’t have the chance to tell people that they have lost. In the unknown people of the nomadic communities, they find “images” of the departed; they regard life as a way, where one can find again the loved ones either in other persons or even, as the film alludes, in the continuation of the life-trip in an after-life beyond death.