Constantine, Christendom, and Culture

Wichita, Kansas is something of an Orthodox hub for mid-America. A number of Lebonese people immigrated there several generations ago, and founded two vibrant Orthodox communities. Our Antiochian cathedral is there, as is Bishop Basil, and the founders of Holy Trinity church in Santa Fe were chrismated there. There’s also an excellent bookstore, Eighth Day Books, that specializes in classics and Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, Inklings, etc) books and icons. I had heard of them before because their owner, Warren, sets up a book fair at St John’s College and Holy Trinity every summer.  I was there a few months ago to visit the bookstore on their 25th anniversary with some friends, and back last weekend for a conference at St. George’s Cathedral on Constantine, Christendom, and Cultural Renewal. This is their fourth annual conference, with previous topics that included Inklings, Dostoevsky, and Harry Potter.

These are my people. If I were able to triangulate my exact position within the various sub-cultures and cultural strands that I most identify with, it would end up pretty much at the Eighth Day Institute + some Southwest-ness. At one point on Friday I was in an optional session in side chapel, and was given a handout with collected quotes. The first 4 quotes were Elder Porphyrios (whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet), G K Chesterton, Wendell Berry, and C S Lewis on poetic imagination. St Maximus the Confessor also showed up. I looked at the paper and thought:  yup, these are my people. At one point someone started a lecture on Christendom with Kierkergaard. We had a St Anthony Banquet with mini lectures and wine. Someone mentioned knowing a guy who was sending people to Georgia to learn to conduct supras and bring them to America.

It was delightful, and a little disconcerting.

Most of the pillar lectures were about Emperor Constantine. They were all fine, but there wasn’t in them that I feel compelled to share. If you do care about Constantine, you might want to check out Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart, keynote lecturer and First Things blogger. He’s a solid speaker, so his writing is probably good as well. 

The part that really caught my attention was Vigen Guroian’s talk about culture. Last night I went to a lecture at St John’s by Frank Pagano, a delightfully wry East Coast tutor, on Spengler, Bacon, Western Culture, and what, if anything, is worth defending about post-Englightenment culture. Spengler was characterized as a dogmatic nihilist who says things like “thought is death,” and asserts that when a culture becomes a civilization it is in the winter of its life cycle and is already dying or dead. He also claims that the Western understanding of space and number is inconceivable in many other cultural contexts, including classical Greece, which is intriguing.

For me, the hook in these culture lectures wasn’t so much the specific claims of what our culture is or is not like, how to reform it, or the likelihood of its imminent demise, as simply looking at Western Culture as something we’re responsible for. I want to explore that at some point, but haven’t worked out how yet.

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