The Greatness of a Lesser World

Be an ordinary person – Fr. Thomas Hopko’s Maxim #18

Nothing could be more “cozy” than Tolkien’s description of the Shire. Many think the Shire is an idealization of rural England, and, no doubt, it certainly resembles it. Though the English do not seem to live in holes, they, nevertheless, do like their gardens. And though their major cities resemble major cities elsewhere, rural villages are like nothing so much as themselves. You cannot blame a man for loving something that is already idyllic. Tolkien’s love of England (and Hobbits), however, went far beyond pleasant gardens and good neighbors. The warmth he felt for such things colored his political thoughts as well (such as they were). And it’s difficult to describe a man’s “political” thoughts when those thoughts were about as anti-political as possible. In a letter to his son, Tolkien writes:

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people . . .

I have been struck through the years by something of the same phenomenon in the thought of Solzhenitsyn. His direct experience of the Soviet State certainly made him less than sanguine about the centralized power of bureaucracies. He wrote and spoke, instead, about the need to return to the model of the Zemtsvos, an institution created under the reforms of Alexander II that disappeared after the Revolution. Zemstvos were a modest form of self-government with local councils and elected groups made up of landowners (both large and small), clergy, urban classes and peasants. These small, local ruling councils were to determine the economic needs of any area. Part of the goal was an “economy of permanence,” rather than an economy of runaway consumption. His principles are strikingly similar to the Distributism favored by a number of Catholic thinkers such as G.K. Chesterton.

What they particularly have in common is the philosophical principle of subsidiarity, which elevates the local and the small. Subsidiarity, a stated teaching of Catholic social dogma, holds that it is always preferable to do a thing as close to its result as possible (my wording). That is, do not make decisions for things any further away than necessary. It is rather “anti-statist,” and certainly anti-bureaucratic.

I am neither a political philosopher nor an economist. But it is very much in my mind that three or four of the Christians whom I most admire in our contemporary age held similar views. I find myself in deep sympathy with them on many levels. In a world whose current turmoil forces careful thinking about many things, it seems natural to me to turn to those whom I most trust.

My sympathies are easily understood. First, I have a deep disdain for abstraction, almost anywhere. Generalities exist only in our minds. We do not experience the “love of man.” We can only love this man, or that woman. Because human beings and their lives are utterly unique, the greater the distance we place between ourselves and those of whom we treat, the less accurate we are. A universal law may sound wonderful in theory (how could anything be more equal than one, single, universal law?). However, the myriad of exceptions that actual reality necessarily generates negates the effectiveness of such a law. Our bitter experience in contemporary times is that the “universal” law tends to negate the actual reality – “negation” being experienced as oppression and confusion.

This is often the problem of modern forms of governance. Tolkien, in his criticisms, clearly had the modern experience in mind. His description of the Scouring of the Shire:

A lot of Men, ruffians mostly, came with great wagons, some to carry off the goods south-away, and others to stay. And more came. And before we knew where we were they were planted here and there all over the Shire, and were felling trees and digging and building themselves sheds and houses just as they liked. Soon they began lording it around and taking what they wanted.

… Everything except Rules got shorter and shorter…

Those events in Middle Earth find an almost identical echo in CS Lewis’ depiction of the N.I.C.E and its takeover of Bragdon Woods in That Hideous Strength. He pictures an agency, with a wide-ranging mandate, setting about destroying everything human, decent and worth having in the name of some better, greater scheme (later revealed to have been directed from hell itself). Prison sentences without measure, simply because they “only lasted” until the prisoner had “reformed.” In the name of being humane, the most inhuman things were allowed.

These thoughts on the political and economic structures of the world are not alien to theology, much less to Orthodox thought. Though Orthodoxy has never espoused an economic theory, such as distributism, nor codified a philosophical principle, such as subsidiarity, there are, nonetheless, certain aspects of Orthodoxy that show a preference for the small and the local.

Orthodox ecclesiology, complete with the messiness of autocephalous Churches, roughly identified with ethnic or national identities, demonstrates the abiding importance of the local over the universal. This, of course, comes at the price of complete conformity and creates a new set of problems when those local customs emigrate into new settings. Unity is extremely difficult in the presence of diversity and local autonomy (much less, autocephaly). Note this passage [a moment of rare insight and clarity] from the recent Council in Crete:

In opposition to the levelling and impersonal standardization promoted by globalization, and also to the extremes of nationalism, the Orthodox Church proposes the protection of the identities of peoples and the strengthening of local identity. As an alternative example for the unity of mankind, she proposes the articulated organization of the Church on the basis of the equality of the local Churches.

The habits of modern cultures have become attuned to the generalizations of distant bureaucracies. Our loyalties are attached to distant sounds rather than local reality. Neighbors are the most likely strangers in our lives, while true strangers become our “friends.” These are the habits of alienation and loneliness: friends whom one only sees in digitalized form, but never touches.

Orthodoxy holds the sacramental encounter with God to be the primary means of salvation. We may make professions of faith in things that seem removed, but this abstracted religious form is ultimately alien to Orthodoxy (and classical Christianity). The Christ Whom we believe in, is none other than the Christ Whom we eat and drink. The physicality of the faith also guards the local nature of the faith. The “two or three who gather together” must gather locally, not just in a chat room.

The Orthodox embodiment of the Church has always emphasized its local character. No single language or culture can be seen as the epitome of Orthodoxy. The absence of Great Councils over many centuries is not a failure or lack of unity. Rather, General Councils are themselves rightly seen as failures, required to meet only by the extreme necessity of dangerously threatening heresies. The adequacy of each local Church (defined as a Church with a governing Synod of Bishops), is able to choose and consecrate its bishops, glorify saints, and arrange for the well-being and good order of its life. Each Church is itself the fullness of the Church, and not merely an inadequate branch.

The globalization of modern life (a new feature within modernity) seems to be largely driven by economic factors that are rapidly replacing political entities. The Council in Crete observed:

The contemporary ideology of globalization, which is being imposed imperceptibly and expanding rapidly, is already provoking powerful shocks to the economy and to society on a world-wide scale. Its imposition has created new forms of systematic exploitation and social injustice; it has planned the gradual neutralization of the impediments from opposing national, religious, ideological and other traditions and has already led to the weakening or complete reversal of social acquisitions on the pretext of the allegedly necessary readjustment of the global economy, widening thus the gap between rich and poor, undermining the social cohesion of peoples and fanning new fires of global tensions.

As I child, I was small. I enjoyed “delicate” actions (I don’t know how else to describe this). I liked working with care on small things. I found people who were not careful about such things to be “clumsy” and very likely to break the things that mattered to me. It was a childish fear, something that sometimes alienated me from siblings (I’ll say no more). I have something of the same feeling about globalization. Arguments of “prosperity” ignore the delicate disruptions that such large endeavors entail. Aggregate measures of economics never describe the specific disasters in many lives. When a stranger loses his job, it’s a “recession.” When you lose your job, it’s a “depression.” And “recoveries” in the aggregate often do very little to address the depression borne by so many.

Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton and Solzhenitsyn (and others) gave great attention to the “littleness” of our lives. Our spiritual lives are surely no less specific. Our salvation is found in the little things, as is the truth of our existence.

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Thorin Oakenshield

“Even the smallest person can change the course of history.” Lady Galadriel

“Please be careful with my toys…you’ll break them.” A certain small child to an older brother.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


20 responses to “The Greatness of a Lesser World”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Their is a principal of scale here. Classical economics holds that the unit cost of any good good decreases with the number available. Thus their is talk about economies of scale–getting bigger. Growth is looked upon as more. But that always means lesser quality which is seldom addressed.

    When applied to intimate human living such thoughts are a disaster. Hospitals have long followed the “economies of scale” dictum even though the administrators know that the quality of care goes down.

    The last time I was in the hospital I noticed uncomfortably that my primary care givers spent most of their time putting information into the computer. Seldom did I see them extract information from it. In fact they had to abandon their computers in order to give me care. The reason for the computers is billing, liability protection and to convince the government certain standards are being met. All at the expense of actual care.

    There is a book.I read some time ago titled Human Scale. It was a book on the proper care of our environment (broadly conceived) requiring a scale that is easily dealt with by human beings locally.

    My father taught constantly that ecology was the inter-relationship of an organism and it’s environment. That require nepsis ( although he did not use that term) and balance and human touch to reach maximum health. The large one got the more difficult that became.

  2. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    This is the perfect follow on to the previous post Father and it sheds much light on why we cannot “improve” the world. I, too, think smaller is better. Each person is a variable. We are unique, different and each with their own set of desires, needs and talents. Anyone who has studied mathematics knows that we can work with one variable in a formula and we can even work with two, to a degree, but three variables makes an equation that can only be solved in terms of the other variables. What large state systems do to make all the little variables manageable is attempt to make all variables equal and of one value. This is the only way they can solve their formulas for making the world better. The problem with making all variables one is that the state must crush the individual to make them conform to the accepted assumption of what a person should be. This is why state imposed “equality” is really injustice for all and universal oppression. Thank you for the insights in this post.

  3. Geri Priscilla Avatar
    Geri Priscilla

    A recent visitor to our church asked what is characteristic about Orthodoxy. The word that came to mind was, “touching.” We touch God, each other, and the things of God (everything), and are touched, in turn. That can only happen in the smallness and closeness of life.

  4. Dave Avatar

    I’ve found this post interesting because Chesterton’s concepts of “locality” has planted a seed in me and it is slowly growing. So much of our lives today are governed by distant, nameless entities that are swathed in layers designed to be all but impenetrable.

    The description of your childhood activities leaves one to wonder if you were a model kit enthusiast.

  5. JD Avatar

    Orthodoxy seems to me to be the only Church where this ideal of sobornost is actually possible. There’s something beautiful about how each local community IS the Church, that there’s no “vicar of Christ” or juggernaut bureaucracy that can simply meddle I the affairs of the parish or the lives of individuals.

    I think there’s a lot of potential in Orthodoxy to help build a better society based on the ideals of Sobornost . This was a great reflection Father.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In my little world, every boy built models. My father was an automechanic…it seemed obligatory. I have one or two on my bookshelves today, along with a few diecast replicas. If I were the mechanic my father was, I would lovingly rebuild an early 50’s chevy truck (stepside). Probably my all-time favorite vehicle.

  7. Lenore Wilkison Avatar
    Lenore Wilkison

    I am enthralled by the ideas you have espoused, Fr. and am suddenly much less worried about jurisdictional divides in the church. Thank you.

  8. Byron Avatar

    I recently commented in another thread that a major aspect of modernity is its couching everything in terms of economics. This is a top-down way of viewing things and, not surprisingly, dehumanizing as well. Bravo for the lesser world! Glory to God.

    A recent visitor to our church asked what is characteristic about Orthodoxy. The word that came to mind was, “touching.” We touch God, each other, and the things of God (everything), and are touched, in turn. That can only happen in the smallness and closeness of life.

    What a wonderful answer, Geri! Glory to God.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Touch, yes. But not just us touching the Holy, but Christ touches us as we are leperous and full of sin.

  10. Greg Avatar

    A wise sage crossing my path almost 15 years ago now gave me the soundest counsel. I’ve held on to it for dear life for it brought so much piece & direction when he spoke these words over me. It was this one line, “Greg, always remember small is beautiful.” Your article caused these words to resurface with life once again! Thank you.

  11. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for reminding us of the local and the small. I grew up in a small town and still live in one, 14 miles away! Boyhood memories. Yes, we all built our model cars. My favorite, the 57 Chevy.
    Prayer is small, within us, but includes the Kingdom of God. A touch is a small movement, but speaks volumes. The spoon of the chalice is small, but imparts life everlasting. Babies are small, yet carry the potential of the whole human race. The womb of Mary was small, yet more spacious than the heavens. We could all continue with many more examples, couldn’t we?

  12. David E. Rockett Avatar
    David E. Rockett

    Thanks Father. A wonderful merging of thought in Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton and Solzhenitsyn. Local is better than global, warmth and personal is better than cold abstraction, beauty preferred to ugly — all uniting in the Church — making Byzantium more glorious than ancient Rome & Greece, Holy Russia better than its former darkness…and on… [“that thy [their] progress may be manifest unto all”]

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is difficult to remain small because the “greater good” demands global solutions.

  14. Patricia Avatar

    This article has given me much to consider and casts light on why so many things in our culture have become so cold and loveless. Thank you.

  15. Learning to be still Avatar
    Learning to be still

    We are small town people. We started our family in a town of 500 people. For employment reasons, we moved to Knoxville. What a disaster! The primary school’s student population was three times the population of our hometown! By the grace of God, I found Norris, population 1200. We moved and raised our children there. Never locked the door. The kids would go out and play in the neighborhood. Personal attention in the schools. I could go on and on. Small is beautiful and much better for your soul, in our opinion.

  16. Debbie Avatar

    There are so many things that can sound positive in theory.
    Thank all for the food for thought.

  17. David Kontur Avatar
    David Kontur

    Thank you Father Stephen for sharing this reflection. As I was reading this I thought of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who lived in France in the late 1800’s and what is frequently referred to as her “Little Way”, which she reflects on in her autobiography – Story of a Soul. I also think about Mother Teresa of Calcutta – she was often criticized for not pushng for “systemic change” or for not pushing for social reforms. While she was very much a widely known and traveled person, she always came back to the particular and called on others to do likewise. I am close to finishing my first full reading of the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus and what has really struck me in reading the Ladder is St. John’s uncompromising focus, but always with a view of the particular circumstance, needs and abilities of each particular person. I too have often jumped on board with efforts to make the world a better place only to see damage that often resulted from sacrificing the particular, personal and local for some abstraction and ignoring the real needs of the people closest to me. Thank you again Father for this reflection.

  18. David A Foutch Avatar
    David A Foutch

    No matter what it is we do, local or global, we run the risk of doing more harm than good. We do whatever it is that we have in ourselves to do and then we pray..

    In Daoism, the wisdom of action is not in its scale, but in its quality: The sage follows the path of Yin, the valley spirit.

  19. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    In Christianity we have two tasks. One is to surrender ourselves to Him for Him to correct us through our cooperation and the other is to introduce Him to others so that they surrender to His Grace.

  20. Dave Avatar

    Fr. Stephen: I, too, was a model car builder when I was a kid, as was my older brother (my influence) and just about every other young male acquaintance in my life back then (late 1960s/early 1970s). The contents of my basement suggest that I never grew out of it. One current company makes very nice kits of 1950 and 1955 Chevy Stepside pickups.

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