“The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” – His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Prologue: Moscow, June 1990
Natasha had great legs.
And she probably still does, wherever she may be. But on that summer day in the last full year of the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Natasha, dressed in a businesslike white blouse and black skirt cut just above the knee and wearing a petite pair of black stiletto pumps, captivated the attention of the 16-year-old version of me. I was in the Soviet Union as an exchange student, with an itinerary involving several weeks of traveling around the western end of the USSR, an experience I have ever since regarded as the beginning of my life as an adult. Natasha was my governmentally-supplied guide and minder. She was 24, slender, pretty, with wavy chestnut-brown hair and round glasses. Influenced by American-made Cold War movies, I had expected my guide to be a dour middle-aged male KGB functionary in a trenchcoat and a trilby. Natasha had been a pleasant surprise indeed.
The small tour bus slowly chugged its way up the Sparrow Hills, and Natasha stood at the front of it, back to me, chatting casually with the driver. There were a few American exchange students in the bus, and some of their minders had come along as well. Moscow was where all of us came into the country, before splitting up and going on our separate itineraries. I would next go to Sochi, many years later the site of a Winter Olympics, where I would get drunk for the first time in my life, in a hotel bar with a group of young Afghanistan veterans reuniting as civilians for the first time since they’d come home from their service together in the war. Then I would travel to Donetsk, which as of this writing is the front line in a war that would in those days have been unimaginable. I would, in Kiev, walk through October Revolution Square, later renamed Independence Square, and future site of the Euromaidan protests that touched off that very war. And I would go to Leningrad, where, as the result of a hangover following my second youthful experience with drunkenness, I would, as Natasha looked on in horror, vomit my breakfast into the fountains of the Grand Cascade on the grounds of the Peterhof Palace.
The bus reached the top of the hills. Below, the grand expanse of Moscow stretched out into the distance, with Lenin Stadium, which had been the centerpiece of the 1980 Olympic Games, in the foreground. I fumbled for my camera (Natasha had instructed me that she’d tell me in advance if I wasn’t allowed to take pictures somewhere), but before I could get it out of its bag, we were past the summit and the shot was gone forever.
A minute or two later, we stopped at what appeared to be a nondescript, whitewashed house along a four-lane road. We ambled off the bus. The air smelled odd. Everything in the Soviet Union smelled odd. Pollution – exhaust fumes and factory smoke and un-picked-up garbage. A faint smell of burning plastic was always in the air. It had rained early in the morning – small pools of rainwater still sat peacefully in depressions in the uneven pavement – but even that didn’t help much.
This place was, Natasha explained, actually a church – the only church in Moscow that had stayed open and active through the entire history of the Soviet Union – through the revolutionary fervor, through the Stalinist terror, through World War II and the Cold War. And now, in the last full year of the USSR, there it was still. I wasn’t much of one for churches back then. In fact, I don’t know that I’d ever actually been inside a church in my entire life. My mother was and is a lukewarm semi-agnostic of half-Anglican, half-Jewish background, and my father an embittered fallen Catholic who at the time was a convinced atheist, and has since become a devotee of whatever New Age pablum happens to be in fashion with aging Baby Boomers at any particular moment. I was, at the time… nothing, really.
The day was turning pleasant. Some of the group decided to go inside the church, and some decided to skip it and stand under the shade trees that lined the wide boulevard to relax, and flirt, and enjoy the warmth of the day. Natasha went inside, as this was on the tour and it was her responsibility to show it to me. I followed.
The inside of the church could not have been a greater contrast from the outside. Whereas the exterior was nondescript and unornamented, the interior, though not large, was almost indescribably beautiful. Every inch of the walls was covered in art, as is so often true of Orthodox churches. A haze of incense hung in the air, and its smoke made visible shafts of the light streaming through the few, narrow windows which hung close to the high ceiling. Three or four old women, the faithful who had, at tremendous risk, stayed faithful all their lives, were carefully cleaning the mosaics, and the icons, and the dark wooden floor.
The rest of the group, as disinterested in high culture as any normal American teenagers, poked about the place for a bit, glanced quickly at a few of the artworks until they thought their obligation to do so had passed, and then, one or two at a time, quietly shuffled out the door and back into the warm summer air. Even Natasha left. Before long, only I and the faithful old ladies, who continued going silently about their work, remained.
I stood at the center of the small church, in solitude. Particles of dust glittered as they danced in the sunlight coming in through the windows. The incense smoke made the cool air sweet and heavy with its scent. There was a moment of unearthly quiet and stillness, of clarity, and I felt…
I felt God, there, with me in that place.
It was not a moment of faith. It was a moment of knowing. God’s presence there, in that church, at that instant, was as real and tangible as the physical presence of Natasha, or my parents, or any human being. It was the same sensation as when someone you love enters a room when you aren’t looking, but you can feel their presence; you know who it is even without seeing them. God was there, with me in that place, and in one single blinding flash, I knew it.
I’m not sure how long it all lasted. Not long, to be certain, and it did not need to be. It passed, and yet it did not ever truly pass, for it is with me to this day, and will be with me forever.
Eventually, the front door of the church opened, and Natasha, looking a bit annoyed but not really angry, stepped inside.
“Hey, it’s time to go to lunch! Are you coming?”
Of course I was coming. She couldn’t actually let the bus leave without me, after all.
“Oh… yes… I’ll be right behind you” I stammered.
She turned her back and walked out into the warm air of the summer of that last full year of the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I followed, but paused before reaching the door, put my hand in my pocket, pulled out every dollar and every ruble that I had on me, stuffed it all into the donation box, and went away penniless.
Though it would be a couple of decades before I was formally baptized, it would be fair to say that I entered that church an agnostic, and left it a Christian.
* * *
Silicon Valley, Many Years Later
It was a lazy Saturday afternoon in the Silicon Valley in early autumn, a mix of cool sunshine and low, billowy clouds, and a temperature just to my liking. I was out for the day, with a little extra money on me, shopping, exploring, enjoying nothing so much as simply being there. And now it was time for lunch – with my bit of extra money I could have whatever I wanted. And what I wanted that day was Chipotle. For those of you who may not be from a land where Chipotle exists (more’s the pity for you!), it is a chain of burrito shops, a step up from fast food of the McDonalds variety and a step down from places with actual waiters. A step down in formality, at least – Chipotle burritos are renowned for tastiness, and have a particularly strong following among Silicon Valley tech types.
Silicon Valley is a nice place; flush with tech money and full of young, high-IQ optimates. On weekends, long lines of expensive cars carrying the wives of executives at companies like Google, Apple, eBay, and Oracle clog the entrances to upscale malls like Valley Fair and Santana Row. It’s not uncommon to see $250,000 Lamborghinis parked in front of coffee shops, their 25-year-old owners standing in line inside for a frappuccino or a bubble tea. It’s all very new, and very commercial. Locals joke that El Camino Real, the wide, traffic-choked boulevard that runs through the heart of the Valley, repeats itself every five miles – a store or restaurant from every imaginable chain recurring just as quickly as it makes financial sense for it to. The joke is only slightly an exaggeration.
Yet this represents something comfortable – something comforting – for a child of late-20th century suburban America. The shopping malls, the big box retailers, the chain restaurants, the wide streets lined by single-family homes with neatly-mown lawns, the office parks with late-model sedans lined up in freshly-pained spaces out front; all of these things feel like… normalcy. But of course, it is not just normalcy, but the normalcy of the most safe and prosperous age that mankind has ever known, or is likely to know again any time in the foreseeable future (it is, in fact, already in the process of slowly disintegrating).This is what generations to come, not as pampered as we, will never quite understand about this age. They almost certainly will be amazed at the aggressive hedonism that our prosperity has allowed us to fall into, but what they will never be able to truly feel (for while hedonistic pleasure is understandable to all creatures of the flesh, this will be quite alien to them) is the sheer comfort of it all, the safe and warm feeling of it, that sense of normalcy which contained as part of it in the belief, plausible for the historical blink of an eye, that it could all be maintained forever.
The particular Chipotle to which I had come had a few outdoor tables, which on a day like that were preferable to the noise and artificially-processed air inside. I sat at one with my burrito and my Coke Zero; it was past the lunch rush and I was blissfully (as I am an introvert by nature) alone. I removed my iPod from my pocket, put on my earphones, and scrolled through my podcasts for something to listen to over lunch. Being in a light mood, the RetroMacCast caught my fancy. I love retro tech from the 80s and 90s, and old Macs especially. Were the world not in the shape that it is in, were it not necessary to write what I do as AntiDem, I would probably write a blog or do a podcast along those lines myself. I ate, and listened. The food was satisfying, the air was cool, and it was quiet except for the podcast. The discussion turned to the short-lived Macintosh clones of the late 1990s – Ah, yes, I had one of those! My old Power 100! A quirky machine, but it sure served me well, and for a long time! – and I felt a bit of wistful nostalgic cheer. Everything was good, everything was comfortable, and I had not a single care or a complaint at all.
It was then that the thought came to me: What really is so wrong with this world? Surely, all this comfort, all this ease, all this prosperity – it should be enough to make me contented, shouldn’t it? Is it not a waste – of time, of energy, of happiness to which I could devote these moments – to make myself miserable by railing and raging against this, of all things? Shouldn’t I just enjoy it all instead?
This was not like those times when, in despair, I find myself wondering whether my efforts are futile in the face of a system that is far beyond my abilities to affect; or even worse, when I wonder whether the left may actually be correct, and this – in all its materialistic, soulless, hedonistic existential horror – might really be the end of history. No, there was no dread in what I felt; quite the opposite. I felt safe and warm and comfortable, and all of the things wrong with this age suddenly all seemed very distant and abstract and not so very worth worrying about.
And it was when, in one single blinding flash, that I felt the touch of Elua upon me.
But perhaps here some explanation is in order.
Neoreactionaries often speak of Gnon, the “crab-god” they have created to embody the ideas of teleology, of consequences, of inevitability – no more and no less that the simple yet somehow, in the current age, revolutionary idea that implementing bad ideas will lead to bad consequences. The implications of the existence of Gnon, whose horrifying visage hangs heavy over the merry bustle of every civilization (whether they believe in him or not, for he is one of those realities that continues to exist no matter if you do or don’t), is that maintaining a civilization is hard, tireless work; that monsters are always waiting in the darkness to devour those who slack off in this task, whether it be because they have become soft and lazy, or incapable and feeble, or even (perhaps especially) due to the hubris of believing that they are so advanced that such drudgery is beneath them and they can instead devote their energies towards utopian schemes meant to perfect the human condition. Gnon – who is compatible with both a theistic and non-theistic worldview – punishes these sins: this sloth, this gluttony, this foolishness, this pride, this hubris. Gnon is seen both in the God who rained fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah, and also in the collapse of Marxism in all of its supposed “inevitability”. Gnon is to be feared, for he is a destroyer god, and a merciless one. There is no bargaining with him, no reasoning with him, no begging for mercy with him. If you fail, if you slip, if you trust the wrong people or the wrong ideas, if you are foolish or careless, he will destroy you and everything you care about. He exists as a caution to you, and you had better take heed.
In opposition to Gnon, Scott Alexander has placed Elua, a god who he has appropriated from the novels of science fiction author Jacqueline Carey. Rather than explaining Elua to you myself, I’ll let Dr. Alexander explain it in his own words (with apologies to him, I’ve mashed up bits of two of his columns here):
“Somewhere in this darkness is another god. He has also had many names. In the [Carey] books, his name was Elua. He is the god of kindness and flowers and free love and all soft and fragile things. Of art and science and philosophy and love. Of niceness, community, and civilization. All the other gods are gods of blood and fire, and Elua is just like ‘Love as thou wilt’ and ‘All knowledge is worth having’. He is a god of humans.
Other gods get placated until we’re strong enough to take them on. Elua gets worshipped.”
Elua is not the god that humanity deserves, nor the one that it needs – but he is the god that we want. Indeed he is a god of humans, and he is the reason for the warning that if you agree with your god about everything, take caution, because you made him up. Whereas the God of the Bible has commandments etched in stone that must be obeyed, and Gnon is the heartless god of consequences, Elua is the god of no commandments and no consequences. “Love as thou wilt” – and worry not about disease, or about the effects on your children, or about inheritance, or about the descent of your culture into coarseness and licentiousness. “All knowledge is worth having” – even terrible yet seductive ideas that have led to the pointless deaths of millions. Elua, always, in every circumstance, tells us what we want to hear. He tells us to spend, and that the bill will never come due. He tells us to eat and drink, and that we will never get fat, and there will be no hangover the next morning. In other words, Elua is a charlatan. If in Moscow I met the genuine God, then at Chipotle I encountered a fraud of one.
And yet Elua really is a god of humans – he is a god that humans want to worship, because he is the reflection and embodiment of their own desires, whether noble or tawdry – and I, too, am human. There in that place – though I must admit, far from the only time in my life – I was seduced; I allowed myself to momentarily drift into the dominion of Elua and the lotus-eaters who follow him. As in Moscow, the experience lasted for only a moment, and, as in Moscow, the experience never completely leaves me, nor can it, because in Modernity the pull of Elua is everywhere around me: in the shopping malls, in the chain stores, in the wide streets and the mown lawns, and even in my lunch. It is in the ease and comfort and security of it all – things to which, because I am human, I cannot help but have an attachment. But if I am able to break free of Elua – to reject him as a liar and a cheat, to face the true ugliness hidden not far beneath the surface of Modernity, and to rebel against it – most Moderns, understandably, cannot. Elua comforts them, placates them, assuages their doubts, and gives them lotuses to eat – 500 channels of cable television, craft beers, oversized SUVs, spectacularly dirty internet pornography, and wonderfully tasty burritos. In return, they embrace Elua (they may voice an occasional “It’s an awful shame” about the worst aspects of the moral state of the world he presides over, but little more), because they so desperately want to believe his promises, and to not believe that what he offers will result either in Gnon’s consequences or God’s judgment.
The reason that I cannot maintain faith in Elua is both because I have come to understand the truth embodied in Gnon and because I have felt the touch of the one true God. Gnon will not allow illusions, no matter how beautiful, to carry on forever. And as for God, his commandments are often unpleasant, wearying, and burdensome – they require discipline and hard work and self-denial – but in them are also truth, nobility, and decency. Those who follow them – who fight for them – may at some point find themselves denied the comforts that Elua promises, but down that path is also a measure of greatness (perhaps the greatness of a martyr or a saint, or only the simple greatness of a traditional wife and mother), and that is the one thing that Elua cannot offer.