Archive for June 10th, 2007

Lost in Translation

June 10, 2007

Engaging in conversations about the Orthodox faith – with others born and nurtured in the West – I sometimes feel that something is “lost in translation.” I say, “Church,” and something else comes to the listener’s mind: either something Roman or something Protestant, perhaps Anglican. I begin to explain that Orthodoxy cannot be explained or defined in terms of either Rome or Protestantism, for Orthodoxy did not come from Rome or from Protestantism and does not owe very much to them (occasional influences here and there that remain a matter of debate within Orthodoxy but nothing of great significance). There may be common roots – but the Western experience of the Church began to move in a different direction very early on. The common history of Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy is, in many aspects, slim, at best. But, of course, we human beings want to understand one another and so we struggle on, speaking words of the same language whose context has given them radically different meanings. East and West are “lost in translation.”

I had this come home to me recently while reading my way through the latest copy of the Smithsonian Magazine. I like the magazine – it has wonderful pictures and articles that are informative and just the sort of length that such casual reading demands. In just such a casual moment the other day, my eye was caught (the magazine was lying open) by wonderful pictures of the frescoed Churches of Romania. Some parishes, others monasteries, they have long been part of the ecclesiastical treasures of the Orthodox world. The pictures were enticing enough to demand reading time as well.

All was going well (even if the article seemed to lack depth) when suddenly I read a description of the Churches as:

modest, three-room Gothic churches, covered from bottom to steeple-top with Byzantine iconography in vivid, intense colors.

There it was – lost in translation. I can only hope the author was using “gothic” in the literary sense of the word, as in “gothic” novel. However, when speaking of churches, the word “gothic” tends to have a very specific meaning – something that is radically opposed both to the architecture and the intention of an Orthodox Church. There is a theology of space related to architecture – a theology that is proper to the gothic style – and there is a theology of space related to Orthodox Churches that runs from Constantinople, through Eastern Europe and on into Russia.

What becomes “lost in translation” is convincing someone from the West that “gothic” doesn’t just mean “old church building style.” Or, more than that, convincing someone that the difference in architecture is signficant and represents a very different way of perceiving the human relationship to God.

This is not just a question of comparative architecture; it is a difficulty that runs throughout Church life, East and West. For many centuries, the West has been the dominant culture – dominant in economics, politics and war. It has long been a Western habit to see other cultures as a subset of something already familiar – thus when someone else says, “God,” it is assumed that he means the same thing that anyone in the West means when he says, “God.” And this is simply not the case.

There are many words that are more like “place-holders.” We use them because there is nothing better at hand or no equivalent in the language we now must use. Translating Byzantine texts, and translating Eastern Orthodoxy into a Western language, such as English, and not creating confusion is nearly impossible. Thus from service to service the Orthodox pray, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” Western ears hear blasphemy where none is intended.

The translation problem can work both ways. A conservative Protestant asks an Orthodox, “Are you saved?” If the answer comes back with anything less than, “Absolutely!” the assumption is made that this is a person who has no relationship with God, a person who regularly prays for Christ to save them and have mercy on them. Lost in translation.

It is important for Christians to listen to each other – if only for the sake of understanding what is being said. A standard work on the history of Christian doctrine continues, in edition after edition, to say that the Eastern Church never developed a doctrine of the Atonement. How absurd! What Christian Church would have no understanding of how it is that God has reconciled us to Himself? And yet, there the charge remains, lost in translation. In the end we may have irreconcilable differences. What differences there are will never be overcome by calling something gothic when it’s just Romanian. With more than 250,000 words in its vocabulary, surely English can do more. With charity in our hearts we all can do more.

What Is at Stake?

June 10, 2007

In the struggle to come to the wholeness of Personhood – to become the “true self” rather than to sink into the “false self” our very existence as spiritual beings is at stake. If you read across Orthodox books that center on the issue of Personhood – a common theme becomes visible. Our fall and our brokenness leave us vulnerable, even in our religious efforts, to the development of a “false self” something quite other than the wholeness of true Personhood.  Indeed, religion might be more than just a little vulnerable to this – it may be one of the best ways to pursue a false mode of existence. It should be quickly added that most of our activities contribute to this false self – for it is simply another way in which our sinfulness manifests itself. The movement from false to true self is another way of describing the work of salvation that is wrought in us through grace.

The distinctions being made between “false” and “true” are not about identities: not a matter of my being “Bill” or “George.” It instead a distinction being made between a distorted and improper relation with God and the world around me and a whole and proper relation with God and the world around me. Through any number of life experiences we find ourselves wounded and broken. Our love becomes distorted such that we do not love as we ought. Our feelings (in the very largest and all-encompassing sense of the word) become distorted. We do not love what and who we should love in they way they should be loved. The whole range of emotions from hate, anger, joy, love, etc., all become distorted. Thus it seems that often the longer we live the more damage we receive and inflict.

The healing of the self includes the healing of the whole self. Though purification, illumination and deification (or the various ways of describing the ascetical and spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian) our emotions are restored to their proper function. We are able to love, to be thankful, to have anger even hate (in their proper sense – meaning however whatever is actually in the image of God). We do what is right (not as measured by some abstract set of principles or objective set of rules) but as is measured by the will of God: “whoever does the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

The difficulty in all of this is that it describes something dynamic, that is happening in the life of a believer. It is not static, such that it is finished before it is finished. Instead it is something of a roadmap, and looks at what is going on in the life of salvation and is a way of describing the relative merits of differing things. It is a way of saying what is important and what is at stake.

It is quite possible for a local church (as in a local parish, though we could be describing the more accurate sense of “local” church and mean the Orthodox Church in America or the Russian Orthodox Church, etc.) to go about what looks like the work of the Church, and in fact not be doing the work of the Church. The sacraments may be present (these are utterly essential aspects of the life of the Church). Fr. Alexander Schmemann is quoted as having said: “The Church is not an institution that has mysteries; it is a Mystery that has institutions. But it is quite possible to put things the other way around, and instead of serving the salvation of each member, be serving the creation and the fostering of the false self.

Our American way of life has tended to mold the local church into the local religion store. It offers various programs and activities that keep everyone involved and even maximizing the “ministries” of its members. But it can also simply be a beehive of activity, none or little of which has much to do with the healing of the soul.

In every activity of the Church, whether it is liturgical, or educational, or building buildings, what have you, each activity should serve for the healing of the soul and the nurture of the true self. If not, then the Church has simply become one more secular activity that is destroying true life rather than fostering it.

So, what is at stake? Everything. These things are easy to get wrong, and we doubtless fail at many of them most of the time. What is to be done? First we pray and seek to live our lives as though we believed in God. And not only that we believe in God, but that the goal of our life is our mystical union with Him and one another. We can engage in any Godly activity, but it will be seen as a Godly activity, if and only if, its goal is true union with God and one another. This will be marked by love, freedom, indeed the fruit of the Spirit. It may not be the most efficient of organizations (efficiency is not a criteria of Godly judgment), but if it is moving forward in this work of healing in whatever it is doing, then it is doing the work of God and He will be glorified.

Another specific activity, deeply related to this false and true self, is the knowledge of God, and all that we speak of when we say, “doctrine.” Part of the argument of St. Gregory Palamas, against those who argued for a different manner of knowing God, was his insistence on the experiential character of the proper knowledge of God. Thus when we know God properly, we know Him as Person, not as object or topic. Someone may know all of the dogmatic formulas such that they can repeat them with no trouble, or even quickly analyze a statement as somehow being contrary to the doctrine of the Church, and yet know all of this in a way that is not proper. They simply become experts, like someone studying for a game show. This is an activity that fosters the false self, and may be more dangerous than many, because the person involved can suffer under the delusion that because they “know” all of the true facts, they actually know the truth, when they do not.

In the liturgy we sing: “We have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.” This in no way means, “We now have the true facts.” Anyone could have the true facts. This is almost nothing. The hymn in the liturgy refers to a living relationship that is healing us a whole persons. There is no triumphalism in this hymn whatsover (if there is then one is singing from the “false self”). Instead, there is simple gratitude. We give thanks because God has done this for us (who in no way deserved what has been done).

Thus the Orthodox life should always be marked by a knowledge of God (frequently beyond expression even though it agrees with the doctrine as it has been revealed). But it is not doctrine I wish to know, but Him Whom the doctrine reveals. Again, everything is at stake.