Putting Things Back Together

babel.jpg

One of the most striking features of the day of Pentecost, in the Scriptural account, is the emphasis on diversity. The mission to the Gentiles is a major theme in Luke’s writings (which includes Acts) and thus Pentecost has great importance for him. The disciples gathered in an upper room as they had so many times before in the preceding weeks. But now the promise they had been given was fulfilled – the Comforter came. But in His coming, the Holy Spirit made Himself manifest in a very diverse manner – in particular – through the diversity of languages. On that first day of Pentecost the gospel was proclaimed in all the languages of the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem. And 3,000 souls were added to the Church.

But there is a larger point than the mere spread of the gospel. There is within the story of Pentecost, the reversal of an older story – the original story of the splintering of human language at the Tower of Babel. It is a parallel that is mentioned by the Fathers and in the hymnography of the feast. So, although the gospel begins to be shared in many languages – the purpose is to unite the many languages into one gospel. There is nothing in Scripture that makes us think that the unity God would have for us would be a unity brought about by a single language. If so, the miracle would have been backwards – everyone would have understood Aramaic. This is the unity of man – a unity that would force itself on us all – an extrinsic unity.

Instead – there is the gift of a new unity – not one that pretends that Babel never happened – any more than any act of our salvation pretends we were never sinners. The risen Christ bears the marks of His crucifixion. The coming of the End does not abolish the beginning.

And so, although God’s revealed purpose is that He might gather together into one all things in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10), it is nevertheless a purpose which is accomplished without abolishing what has come before. Indeed, even though the confusion of tongues at Babel is treated as something of a tragedy, it is, nonetheless an action of God for the salvation of humanity. That diversity of language saves us from a false unity that would have destroyed us.

Orthodoxy has traditionally preserved this diversity, despite times in its history when a language or culture (such as Hellenism) were in the ascendency. St. John Chrysostom, while Archbishop of Constantinople, was careful to see that there was a Church in Constantinople where the liturgy was celebrated in the language of the Goths (an important component in the Byzantine Empire). And so it was that Sts. Cyril and Methodius sought to preach the gospel to the Slavs in the language of the Slavs. And St. Innocent and others brought the gospel to America in the language of the Aleuts and others.

The unity that the Holy Spirit gives us in Christ is a unity of doctrine, a unity of mind, a oneness in the knowledge of God. That unity is never diminished by the diversity in which it is expressed – but rather magnified. There are aspects of the gospel that are better understood in Greek than in English, better said in Slavonic than in Aleut, and so forth. Just as finally, the fullness of Christ will only be made known in the fullness of His body.

This has nothing to do, per se, with modern fashions of diversity or with various humanistic visions of multiculturalism. Such programs can be as oppressive as any we have known. In the Holy Spirit, there is no oppression, no external compulsion, but liberty.

God, in the salvation of the human race, is putting things back together. But in doing so he cherishes all that we are and does not seek to destroy anything that is good. In Him we are transfigured, but never do we begin as one thing and become another. We do not start as men only to become angels.

This also has implications for those who come to the Orthodox faith from other places (cultures or religions). God does not destroy that which is good – He completes and fulfills it. I have heard the admonition of my Archbishop (DMITRI) any number of times to converts – reminding them not to speak evil or in an ungrateful manner of the places from which they have come. Who we are is, to some extent, formed and shaped wherever we are. I am an Othodox Christian, but there is much I know and see that I would not know or see had I not made the journey from the directions where I had wandered.

It is also true (and I frequently say this to those who have come to the Church) that in Orthodoxy is our true home. In that I mean no triumphalism – but a simple recognition that this is the faith from which all of us stem. My ancestry, as British (Celt, English, Irish, etc.) as is possible, is, when considered in its depths – Orthodox. Yesterday was the feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury – who was sent as a missionary to England, by an Orthodox pope.

God is putting things back together – our lives – His whole creation. Strangely, that healing will also reveal us in our uniqueness as well. But, of course, we speaking of something only God can do. And it is wonderful in our eyes.

20 Responses to “Putting Things Back Together”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The picture is Pieter Breugel’s Tower of Babel.

  2. Meg Says:

    I can’t help wondering if your Bishop has experienced what passes for Western worship. If he had, his advice might more reasonably lean towards, Struggle to find something good about the place you came from. It’s pretty tough to be positive about things like liturgical dancing and Sophia worship.

  3. Ian Says:

    Thank you Father: and I do love the contrast between Babel and the first Pentecost.

    While I understand what Meg is saying, having seen some awful services [though I’ve seen some pretty poor Orthodox ones too: rushed as if 1 hr was too long or mumbled throughout], I really appreciate your Bishop’s [many years!] saying this: I am a convert, and I tend to keep my mouth closed about any former practices I found either odd or downright offensive: unfortunately, especially on the internet, converts seem to take great delight often in criticising others, or else being “more Orthodox than the Orthodox”. As you wrote, “there is much I know and see that I would not know or see had I not made the journey from the directions where I had wandered.” Thank you again.

  4. Don Bradley Says:

    “I have heard the admonition of my Archbishop (DMITRI) any number of times to converts – reminding them not to speak evil or in an ungrateful manner of the places from which they have come.”

    It’s a dichotomy. I would never have read the scriptures, learned Trinity, the two natures, read a Church history book, read the Fathers, or found Orthodoxy were it not for Protestants assisting me along the way. I retain optimism for their salvation, despite our differences.

    But there also exists another part of that dichotomy. They want to reshape Orthodoxy into something else; they want to change us. Many of them despise us and consider us idol worshipers, schismatics, Mary worshipers, Roman Catholic wannabes, etc. There exists in the non-Orthodox the desire to destroy Holy Tradition.

    I embrace Roman Catholics and Protestants as fellow Christians because they worship the same God we do. But I engage them to expose them to something different, things they don’t know, and expose weaknesses in what they think. I don’t proselytize, I advocate. We have an odd relationship with the non-Orthodox: neither rejection nor full acceptance.

  5. Fatherstephen Says:

    I understand Meg’s point quite well. I would described myself as having a ministry that includes a fair amount of evangelism (this Blog certainly has its aspects of outreach). I have spoken to groups of priests from my former “delusion” and worked to make it possible for them to embrace the Orthodox faith. It would be a real stretch for amyone to think that I, or my Archbishop, were easygoing on heresy (and I know no one is saying that in this thread) – but, having said all that, my experience is that those who are considering conversion do not need to be convinced of problems where they are. They are as fed up with liturgical dance and the like as much as anyone. What they need to hear, largely, is the truth of Orthodoxy, its fullness, and stories to give them courage to do one of the harder things they’ve ever done.

    St. Paul, speaking of the pagans of his time, said, “It is a shame even to speak of those things that are done of them in secret” (Ephesians 5:3).

    What I know is that there can be a spirit of anger, pain and indignation that can poison us if we are not careful. I do, even here on the blog, occasionally bring up specific problems – but mostly only to focus more clearly on its antidote within the faith.

    Archbishop DMITRI, while counseling people not to curse their past, has also spoken quite clearly about the Orthodox mission. I’ve heard him say numerous times, that although Orthodoxy was once able to pass over in silence many of our differences with others, that this was no longer the case – because although in the past our differences were not unimportant, it was still largely the case that many of the core doctrines of the faith were held in common. This simply no longer obtains. Things have changed and Orthodoxy cannot be silent any longer.

    I think in the point I am trying to make in this posting – mercy would be its main theme. The merciful God does not destroy the human race in order to save us – but reshapes us and washes us clean. It is also true that so long as I do not lie, so long as I do not say that what is not true is true, then kindness will not go amiss. And there is too little kindness many times (particularly on the internet), much less within my own heart.

    I know the old saw of “love the sinner and hate the sin.” I think the emphasis is to be on the former, for it is love that I am commanded.

    But I do not mean to counsel naivete. Just kindness.

  6. rdreusebios1 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless!
    First off, thank you for another thought provoking piece, I had been contemplating many of those same points since hearing the festal verses at Great Vespers.
    I have also had some interesting conversations with some of my fellow parishioners and friends of our parish on similar issues.
    As a student of Spanish, I have come to realize several things. First, Spanish is a lovely language, based in Latin, and rather easily acquired. It is spoken by nearly half a billion people worldwide, 350 million as native speakers. It is estimated that by 2030 it may well be he dominant language of the Western Hemisphere. I say all that to say that I’ve been quite shocked by the reactions I have gotten suggesting that the Orthodox need to be ready to reach out to the Spanish speaking community, in their language.
    To that

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    rdeusebios,

    My Archibshop (I mention him again) is fluent in Spanish, and His cathedral in Dallas has at least one Spanish liturgy a month. He was Exarch of Mexico for a while – a Spanish speaking Orthodox Church. You’re correct. Time is on your side in this matter.

  8. rdreusebios1 Says:

    (Oops, I somehow managed to cut myself off in the middle of that post)
    To that end, my priest has graciously obtained a number os Spanish language services for me. One of my godchildren was nearly incredulous with the idea. The wife of a visiting priest seriously questioned whether we should be setting up separate Church structures to reach out to this community, the not so subtle implication being that Spanish speakers ought to learn English in order to be reached by the Church.
    Your piece serves as an excellent reminder that this is not the way the Church has worked in the past. We need to be prepared to go with the flow so to speak as we continue to encounter new cultures.
    With regard to the idea of not bashing one’s former delusion, I tend to agree with Archbishop DMITRI. I know that I never would have found the fullness of the faith, without a foundation being layd in Protestantism. Does that mean that we don’t point out the heretical teachings when questioned, no way, we owe it to Christ and His Church to speak the trutj in love at every possible opportunity.
    Alas, I ramble.

  9. Don Bradley Says:

    “I have spoken to groups of priests from my former “delusion” and worked to make it possible for them to embrace the Orthodox faith. It would be a real stretch for amyone to think that I, or my Archbishop, were easygoing on heresy (and I know no one is saying that in this thread) – but, having said all that, my experience is that those who are considering conversion do not need to be convinced of problems where they are.”

    I questioned my own motives when I converted. Was I doing it because of the decay of the west? Or was I converting TO Orthodoxy for positive reasons? Was I being treasonous in forsaking what I once held dear? Was I being disingenuous? Converting is rough, and the biggest challenge is from within, not to mention the pressure not to convert from without.

    There is a different dynamic when the person considering conversion is clergy: They have a paycheck to consider. They also have a hope, bordering on expectation, that they will eventually be clergy again after their conversion.

    Orthodoxy has plenty of problems without importing more from the outside. The Episcopal clergy have ruined their own denomination; the seeds of which were planted long ago, mostly due to a breakdown in ecclesiology and discipline over the course of centuries. So why recruit from their ranks? Are we really that desperate for more clergy? How would we feel if Roman Catholic clergy organized recruiting drives directed at Orthodox clergy? Are we furthering their decay by cherrypicking their conservatives?

    This sounds like a slap. It isn’t. I know this hits close to home because you were once an Episcopal priest, and you actively engage groups of current Episcopal clergy. But surely you engaged in much introspection to become Orthodox, and you also engaged in much introspection prior to engaging these Episcopal priests. So share the fruits of this introspection.

    I realize I am treading on thin ice. You are my protopresbyter, and you engage the Episcopalians with the blessing of our Bishop. Dispel my fears. I don’t want the OCA to become the conservative wing of the ECUSA. I’m leary, and I don’t think my musings here are unique to myself. Squish this concern of mine. Why recruit Episcopal clergy?

  10. Fatherstephen Says:

    Don,
    There’s no recruiting, but the answering of questions and the sharing of stories. Not all Episcopal clergy or clergy from other places are necessarily ordained as Orthodox clergy. They have to meet the same standards of belief and canonical requirements. But, needless to say, as Anglicanism is collapsing, there are some who are asking questions. I have written elsewhere that we certainly owe them hospitality (that kindness). When Orthodoxy was under great oppression by the Bolsheviks, the Anglicans treated us with great kindness and welcome. Not seeking to convert but offering us much substantial kindness.
    I have written and spoken and made it clear that the only reason to become Orthodox is because you believe it to be the truth. Generally, Orthodoxy does not make such a comfortable home as to convert lightly (at least for clergy).
    I might add, that conservative Anglicans, who held to traditional doctrines have not been the ruin of Anglicanism. That story is far more complicated, and certainly, to my mind, represents the fruit of 400 years of error in certain points. But there is certainly no “cherry-picking” going on. Though the number of Anglican clergy who have converted to Orthodoxy in the US would number in the 10’s (maybe even 100 though I doubt it), the total number of Episcopal clergy in the U.S. is something like 13,000. So it’s not a significant issue for that institution. Their biggest battles are with groups that have broken away and gone under more conservative Anglican bishops such as those in Africa.
    On the other hand, were there no Orthodox clergy in America from convert backgrounds, the Orthodox Church would have serious problems. Well over half of the students in our seminaries are converts. Less so with the Greeks, but even there they are not an insignificant number.
    But it would be wrong to characterize the Colloquium in Detroit as “recruiting” – it would certainly not describe what the Anglicans in attendance were there for, nor those of us who were asked to speak.
    I have an obedience from my Archbishop to go and speak wherever I am asked. It is my pleasure to do that – since had no one shared the good news with me I would be very much in the dark to this day.
    I should add, that I did not convert to Orthodoxy with a promise of Ordination nor even a certainty that I would seek it. The decisions were independent of one another – and I would say that this is true of most convert clergy that I know.
    On the other hand, what pressures I am aware of in Orthodoxy towards change (admittedly not much) are not coming from converts.

    But I can’t imagine the Church turning its back on Evangelism. It would be contrary to the gospel and would leave both you and myself in places we’d rather not be. We are at a very significant point in Orthodoxy. Not only is there evangelism here in America, but America is sending Orthodox missionaries to places such as Albania and elsewhere. Evangelism is being conducted by the Orthodox in Russia, Greece, wherever the Church is. How could it be otherwise? This is not an American phenomenon, but an Orthodox phenomenon.

    One simple explanation for America – we now (in our generation) have for the first time, significant materials on the Orthodox faith in English. This was not true as recently as the 1960’s. But we are seeing the fruit of translation and English publishing. Where the light shines, people flee the darkness.

  11. Coroebus Says:

    Father, you have written that your conversion to Orthodoxy took a decade. Are you at liberty to share a little about that process? Even for a clergyman, that seems an awfully long time. What constraints did you perceive prevented you from coming in sooner? And if you had it do again (is this an improper question?) would you have done anything differently? Please forgive my nosiness.

  12. Fatherstephen Says:

    Coroebus,
    Simple. It was very hard. I had to go from “arm-chair” Orthodoxy to realizing that conversion was in fact necessary. I prevaricated, delayed, and avoided what I knew would be painful. It was financially ruinous, though God has redeemed us in ways I could never have imagined. In 1997, events came together (including a job offer as a hospice chaplain) that were obvious to me as an open door from God. When you’re raising 4 kids and serving as Rector of a parish of about 800 it’s easy to let time slip by. I have no defense of my slowness. It was hard – I am a sinner. As to would I have done anything differently? I would that I repented quicker. But in hindsight, God’s mercy triumphed. All of my children were very serious in their conversions as well (two of my daughters are now married to priests – as I’ve probably said too many times – I am a proud papa). I think the time we took allowed for everybody in the family to get on the same page. But that was God’s mercy, not my planning. When you’re serving as the head of a large community, there are lots of things you look at and consider – most of which are probably distractions. In the last analysis, you just have to repent and act. And I can say that it’s a lot easier to say that than it is to do it.

  13. Coroebus Says:

    Thank you for sharing, Father. One more thing, by chance I’ve just been reading the responses to your ‘Why people become Orthodox’ post: Your post generated a slew of personal responses, so, and if it’s not already posted elsewhere on your site, what’s yours? What, got your attention in the first place, and what, specifically and so-to-speak, sealed the deal? (Again, please forgive my nosiness.)

    Here’s, fwiw, a quid pro quo:
    I was raised evangelical and had some earnest come-to-Jesus moments up to and including part of high school. But I fell away from all of this with a precipitousness driven, first, by adolescent willfulness and pleasure-loving and, second, by a growing philosophical and spiritual alienation through my study of the classics of philosophy and literature. These were secular books (more or less) and rich — bones with meat on them on which, I believed, one could nourish a life; by contrast the Christianity I’d been raised on, though fervent, well-intended, and wholly and affectingly incarnated to me by my parents, struck me as a thin platitudinous gruel suffused with the bourgeois ethos of contemporary America which the classics, as I understood them, gird us to resist. Even to this day, God forgive me, each of the various expressions of American Christianity that I encounter almost entirely repel me. Needless to say, with Orthodoxy it was different. I’d attended college with a Greek Orthodox, my best friend there, and we had confronted and digested together the best we could find to read and ponder. So far as I remember he’d never mentioned at any length his Orthodox background save in the context of his once explaining to me an icon of St Nicholas he hung on the wall of his bedroom. I remember today with some, but not enough, compunction the vague feeling of annoyance and distaste the thing always inspired in me. (St Nicholas, pray to God for me.)

    The rest of the story can be bullet-pointed as follows:
    1) Came to find rather quickly after college that while the classics can inform a well-lived life, they are powerless to reshape a broken one.
    2) Was floored one day when my old friend called to share with me that he was returning to the faith in which he’d been raised — floored enough to order and devour every book he recommended by men with strange surnames like Schmemman and Meyendorf, Ware and Florovsky.
    3) Attended my first services in late 1995 and felt that it was probably over; and met a few months later, at the beginning of Lent, my future spiritual father and knew so, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
    4) Was Baptized and Chrismated on the Nativity of the Theotokos, 1996.

    Oh, and 5) the rest has been struggle, struggle, struggle, but praise be to God and His Mother for bringing me home.

    Tag, Father, you’re it! 🙂

  14. Michael Bauman Says:

    rdreusebios1, perhaps part of the reluctance some of your respondents have to Spanish services in the United States is realted to the fact that we are still struggling to have services in English and concern for that seems to be waning actually. There is, if not a prevaling, quite a strong attitude that dismisses Americans as being far too uncouth to really become Orthodox, to enculturate the Church in America is to loose the Church. Russians want us to become Russian, Greeks Greek and Arabic Orthodox, well you get the idea. And you want to promote Spanish.

    While I personally think that English is a vanishing language and that Spanish, Chinese or Arabic may well become the next dominant world language, your proposals may hit people in places you have not considered and brought fears to the surface which had not yet been acknowledged.

    I do think it presents a problem culturally. The generally accepted rule of the Church is to worship in the language of the people. What does that mean in a culturally diverse country. Rome solved the cultural diversity problem originally by demanding Latin. That fell apart. Then they mandated ethnically specific parishes that created a division within the brotherhood of Christ within the country.

    What is the solution that allows us all to worship and be together AND enculturate in the United States of America to save this country? Maybe, the American culture is too far gone to be worth working on and we should just let it go?

  15. Michael Bauman Says:

    Continuing: Maybe we should stop fighting the ethnic disuity of Orthodoxy in this country and maintain Greek, Arabic, Russian, English and now Spanish jurisdictions. It is a fair question to ask without being accused, even mildly of racism.

  16. Fatherstephen Says:

    Coreubus,

    I became interested in Orthodox theology when I was in college, when a friend gave me some Vladimir Lossky to read. That was the early 70’s. I then read a good bit more. I was not presented the Orthodox faith as an option for conversion at that time. Indeed, my first encounter with a Greek Orthodox priest in the early 1980’s, I was told that I should remain where I was, that “I would do more good there.” My interest increased when, after 9 years of ordained ministry, I returned to work on a graduate Degree at Duke. There I did work on the theology of icons. Following that experience, I began to pursue Orthodoxy in a more serious manner, culminating in the more or less 10 year process from academic interest to conversion. I’m not sure that my story is all that interesting to others.

  17. rdreusebios1 Says:

    Michael,
    Thank you for your thoughts, these are some of the very ones that have popped into my own mind of late. I agree that it continues to be a struggle to have english services, and perhaps that should be a priority.
    It has been the rich tradition of our Church to reach out to people in their native tongue however, and it seems that at least His Eminence +DMITRI has realized this, as is evidenced by the extensive resources devoted to reaching the Hispanic community in his Archdiocese.
    In order to not completely hijack Fr. Stephen’s space, I do intend to discuss this issue on my page at some point in the very near future.

  18. Coroebus Says:

    Father, thanks for bearing with me and responding. On review I’m not just a little ashamed of my last post… A lesson in what caffeine, a ‘captive audience,’ and an unfortunate streak of narcissism will get you. I’m grateful for your prayers and, with their help I hope, will henceforth mind my spleen.

  19. aa Says:

    this is in my theology book! 🙂

  20. greywolves Says:

    Just to say thank you.

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