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A Warning from the Fifth Century
by Theodore Pulcini
Teaching religion at a secular college can be a challenging business. It is bad enough that so many of my students have had no consistent exposure to any religious tradition. What is worse is that many have had just enough to “inoculate” them against the development of a serious spiritual sensibility. Every now and then, however, I am stunned by the insights that one of my students will bring to an examination of religious phenomena.
Recently I taught our basic departmental course, “What is Religion?” As part of the course requirements, students had to attend a religious rite of a tradition different from the one most familiar to them. They were then to write an essay analyzing what they had seen and heard, using the various methodological tools discussed in the lectures.
The remarks at the conclusion of one paper in particular caught my attention. The student had gone to a local revival, a camp-meeting crusade that had been brought to the area by local evangelically-oriented congregations. There was much at the event that the student found intriguing, engaging, confusing, and amusing. But it was the reflection at the end of the paper that included one of those stunning insights. It read something like the following: “These people all seemed angry about something. Under all the talk about truth and love and righteousness and morality and compassion and faith, there was a current of anger that swept the people away. They were most enthusiastic, it seems to me, when they were angriest. The speakers knew that the surest way to get the people whipped up was to play on their anger. That is why I am not a religious person. Whenever I went to church or talked to committed Christians, of whatever stripe, the anger was always there, like endless fuel powering the engine.”
I have to admit, this student’s observations hit a nerve. For some time I had been peculiarly uneasy with much of what I was reading in Christian publications, both popular and scholarly, both “traditionalist” and “modernist.” In many cases, it was not that I took exception to what the author was arguing. It was, rather, that the tone was shrill, high-handed, pedantic, mocking, and caustic. These works caricatured and dismissed the other as villainous, insidious, or just plain stupid. What was ostensibly an informed discussion of a topic sometimes even lapsed into sheer harangue. In short, anger took over.
But, one may argue, can anger not be a force for good? Can it not be a means of challenging evil and encouraging righteousness? Can anger not be godly? Should it not be exercised in the defense of truth? Does not even God get angry? Did not Christ openly display anger (Mt. 21:12–13; cf. Mk. 11:15–17)?
My initial impulse was to answer all of these questions in the affirmative. I had no doubt that anger could be salutary when expressed in the service of an upright cause. Now I am not so sure. In preparing for one of my lectures, I had occasion to reread the Institutes of St. John Cassian (who is commemorated in the Eastern Church on the rather hapless date of February 29). Probably born in the West (some hagiographers claim he was born in Rome), he eventually made his way East, to monasteries in Palestine and Egypt before being ordained a deacon by St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople. Eventually he settled near Marseilles where he founded two monasteries, one for men and the other for women. Before his death in 435, he wrote the Institutes, containing some of his most penetrating insights into the ascetical struggle. In the Institutes, he focuses on the eight major vices vexing the monk, among which is the spiritus irae, the spirit of anger.
How would St. John Cassian answer the foregoing questions? Firmly in the negative. To him, anger is nothing less than a mortiferum virus, a lethal poison, which “blinds with its hurtful darkness the eye of the soul,” precluding the possibility of our attaining “judgment of right discretion” (judicium rectae discretionis) or “maturity of counsel” (maturitatem consilii); it deprives us of righteousness (8.1; cf. 8.6). Anger is, in short, a pernicious influence. It leads astray. It distorts.
Consequently, one dare not attribute “this most pernicious disease of the soul” (8.2) to God:
. . . they say that it is not injurious if we are angry with the brethren who do wrong, since, say they, God Himself is said to rage and to be angry with those who either will not know Him, or, knowing Him, spurn him . . . , not understanding that, while they want to open to men an excuse for a most pestilent sin, they are ascribing to the Divine Infinity and Fountain of all purity a taint of human passion (8.2) (Edgar Gibson’s translation, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [NPNF], series 2, 1894, 11:258).
If one is willing to say that God becomes angry, Cassian asks, why not take literally all the other gross anthropomorphisms applied to God in the Scriptures, for example, that he sleeps, he stands, he sits, even that he is drunk with wine (cf. Ps. 78:65)! These things, and anger as well, cannot be attributed to the immutable nature of God “without fearful blasphemy” (8.4).
Malignant Source, Malignant Result
Astounding in his psychological insightfulness, Cassian locates the source of Christian anger in the malignant need to control others. When we feel that others are not complying with our agendas, either by stubbornly refusing to do what we aver they ought or by perversely insisting on doing what we aver they ought not, we become angry. This is a perilous road to travel, according to Cassian, because it makes our spiritual health dependent on the will of others:
The chief part then of our improvement and peace of mind must not be made to depend on another’s will, which cannot possibly be subject to our authority, but it lies rather in our own control. And so the fact that we are not angry ought not to result from another’s perfection, but from our own virtue . . . (8:17) (NPNF, 11:262).
This leads to another of Cassian’s insights: that “the vice of previous anger” results in another spiritual malignancy, dejection (tristitia) (9:4). If we come into the grip of this ruinous aftereffect of anger, we find endless excuses for further anger. As Cassian notes, we take umbrage at the slightest provocation, becoming fault-finding in the extreme:
. . . and whatever subject of conversation is started by [others], we regard it as ill-timed and out of place; and we can give them no civil answer, as the gall of bitterness is in possession of every corner of our heart (9:4) (NPNF, 11:265).
Anger Properly Directed
But still, can one really maintain that anger is always bad? No, not even Cassian does so. He himself recognizes a constructive power in anger properly directed. We are commanded, he declares, to be angry in a healthful manner (salubriter), that is, to be angry with our very own selves (nobismet ipsis) and with the “evil suggestions” that arise (suggestionibus accedentibus pravis) within us (8:9). For anger to be justified, both of these conditions must be met. The only justifiable anger is that directed against the evil in oneself; anger directed at others, no matter how evil they are, is proscribed.
We should not assume that Cassian is oblivious to evil in others; he simply gives advice for conquering it, which seems strange to us, accustomed as we are to direct confrontation. Through directing anger toward the evil in oneself, Cassian would argue, one attains a goodness that in itself stands against the evil of others. On the other hand, anger directed toward others, while ineffective in eliminating the evil in them, corrupts the one cultivating it, no matter how noble his intentions, thus adding evil to evil.
Cassian’s message is clear: There is no righteous anger apart from that which is directed at the evil infecting oneself. Anger directed at others, no matter how righteously intended, is to be rejected. We ought to resolve, Cassian asserts, “never to be angry at all, whether for good or for bad reasons” (8:22).
Speaking to Us?
So how do these fifth-century admonitions pertain to those of us who, out of our sincere concern for the welfare of the Faith, feel compelled from time to time to critique various aspects of contemporary Christian experience? Certainly St. John Cassian does not say that such undertakings are forbidden (the Institutes itself is obviously a critique!), but clearly he does warn that any critique driven by anger and aimed at cultivating anger is proscribed.
We must, I believe, start taking Cassian’s warning more seriously. Rarely a day goes by when I do not read, either on the Internet or in print, a piece aimed at combating a perceived error afoot in the world. The motives of the authors are usually quite lofty, but their purity of intention is often tainted by the unmistakable manifestations of anger, among which the following figure most prominently:
• Simplism. In righteous zeal for establishing what ought to be, one finds it is so much easier to deprecate opponents by depicting them with as little nuance as possible. Anger has no time for detail. Besides, simplistic depictions are effective precisely because they lack complexity; they can be easily grasped—and dismissed.
• Caricature. This is simplism taken a step further. Angry commentators usually understand their opponents much better than they let on. They know that if those opponents are depicted with accuracy, there has to be at least some sympathy for their position. The solution? Take the least appealing aspects of the opposing stance and exaggerate them while minimizing the aspects that might win the most sympathy. As Cassian so accurately observed, anger distorts.
• “Nostalgism.” What better way to stoke the fires of anger than to depict one’s opponents as the saboteurs of a better time, when things were more like they ought to be. Anger not only clouds one’s perception of the present, it also tendentiously reshapes memory. It creates a past that serves one’s present purposes.
• Arrogance. This is anger’s flip side. Anger constantly assures those within its grip that they have every right to scorn their opponents. After all, those others are stupid or immoral or vicious or selfish or duped or unenlightened. How could one not help feeling superior to such an unseemly lot?
So much of what we, as Christian thinkers, say and write is prescriptive; we specialize in articulating how things should be and how others should believe and behave. When others repudiate our vision, we become indignant, frustrated, defensive, dismissive. In short, we react in anger. And among many of us, just as Cassian describes, backlogged anger has led to dejection. Often coupled with our anger is an ain’t-it-awful mentality of mournful commentary and portentous prognostication. Cassian would not be surprised.
A Cassianic Suggestion
It is only natural that our anger is roused by what we deem flagrant violations of the Christian way of life. But what should we do with this anger?
We should do exactly what Cassian prescribes: direct it at ourselves, individually and communally, for the purpose of purifying our witness. Before we are tempted to inform everyone else where they have gone wrong, let us focus on strengthening our counter-witness and on providing a clarified and vital alternative to their way of seeing and doing things. This can effectively neutralize the influence of those we oppose. Anger wasted on condemning others edifies no one—not them, not ourselves; anger aimed at self-perfection edifies both ourselves and others.
Then, if we feel moved to write about a certain topic in order to foster further awareness and discussion, we must be vigilant not to compromise our witness by lapsing into directing anger at others. We need to maintain the clarity of our vision for the sake of historic Christianity and ecumenical orthodoxy. This requires the repudiation of that vice that, according to St. John Cassian, “blinds the eye of the soul.” Otherwise we cultivate a culture of anger that will eventually destroy itself.
Theodore Pulcini, a Touchstone Contributing Editor, is a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and a member of the faculty in the Department of Religion at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.