Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Learning to Sin

January 24, 2012

As strange as it sounds – human beings have to “learn to sin.” Not that we need any help doing the things that sinners do – all of that comes quite easily to us. But we have to learn that we are sinners – and this does not come easily to us.

Oddly, I first heard this when listening to one of Stanley Hauerwas’ lectures at Duke. “You have to teach someone to be a sinner,” was his statement. What he meant by that is that the Christian understanding of sin is not something we are born with. We have to be taught to understand the human predicament and the precise character of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Depending on how you define the problem, the answer will come out differently. Another way of saying this would be: sin is the question to which Jesus’ death and resurrection is the answer. To a great extent, it is likely that the disciples did not understand the teachings of Christ because they did not see death and resurrection as an answer to any of their problems. Indeed, though death is seen as problematic on occasion in the Old Testament, it is not always seen as the over-arching issue. If someone could live to a ripe old age and “be gathered to his fathers,” then it doesn’t sound like the writer saw this as an existential crisis.

Christ not only reveals Himself as the answer to our problem, but defines the problem as well.

In our modern world, the success of preaching the gospel may often depend upon whether anyone thinks he needs such a gospel. In a “culture of death,” is a resurrected Messiah such good news?

From the Church’s perspective, the very fact that our culture has become a “culture of death, ” a place where death can be seen as friendly, a welcome end to otherwise meaningless suffering, is tragic indeed. Some of the “Extreme” character of things today (sports, etc.) has a way of taunting death and mocking it as though it were not a problem. I can recall conversations of my teen years (not particularly great moments in my life) when no one in the room seemed to think living past 30 was such a great idea. The death of contemporaries such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, et al., were seen as tragic only in the sense that there would be no new albums coming from those sources.

Strangely, it was reading history that first taught me to “sin.” I finished high school and announced that I was not going to college (what was the use?). Long story short, I wound up living in a commune (actually a Christian commune) which included among its members a number of young college intellectuals (if you can say that without laughing too hard). But they were the first people I had ever met who actually read history and had a thought or two on the subject.

It was reading the stretch of Western Civilization and realizing that it was, in fact, headed for destruction, that first awakened the despair of sin within my consciousness. If that sounds too intellectual, forgive me. It wasn’t that “heady” an issue. It was simply waking up and realizing that the things around me were the bits and pieces left over from a train wreck and not the “modern world,” that overwhelmed me. It was not so much my own personal death that awakened this sense of loss, but the fact that in the midst of the death of a culture, a single life could have so little meaning and purpose.

That “the wages of sin is death,” made sense – but not the sense that “if you do something wrong you’ll die.” Rather something much larger. I can recall reading Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” as if I’d never heard the ideas before:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

By this time the poem has almost passed into cliche. But it remains prescient. Forty years later the center holds less and less and the shape of the beast that slouches seems far more clear – on many levels. For myself, I feel ever more profoundly the sinner, dwelling in the midst of sinners, and the beast threatens to swallow us all.

Thus it is that I love the Savior who enters the belly of that beast and brings us all safe again to some paradisiacle shore. It is not the footsteps of something slouching I hear, but the approaching sound of victory, trampling down death by death.

Doubtless there are many other ways to present the gospel – Christ is the Savior and the Savior of us all – and not just a gloomy historian. But to know He saves is also to know, at least in part, from what it is we are saved.

The Ancestors of God

December 12, 2011

The two Sundays prior to the Feast of the Nativity are dedicated to the Ancestors and the Forefathers of Christ. One feast honors those who have been ancestors to Christ (according to the flesh) the other feast remembers those who were the “righteous” of those generations before Christ, though not necessarily ancestors according to the flesh.

Such feasts are absent in most of Christianity – as though Christ had come at a point in time without preparation – without ancestors. Just as many Christians refuse to recognize the blessedness of Mary, from whom Christ took flesh, so do they also refuse to recognize that “flesh” involves ancestry. It is a bothersome aspect of the incarnation of Christ. It would be so much easier for many to speak of Christ’s humanity if His humanity did not involve any other humans. Thus there are Christians who worship a God made man, who is no man at all.

The traditional title for the grandparents of Christ (the parents of the Virgin Mary) is “the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna.” They are honored at every liturgy, being invoked as part of the dismissal. If the title, “Mother of God,” can be tolerated by some, the title, “holy and righteous ancestors of God,” is yet more problematic.

In many ways this is not surprising. The modern world is largely devoid of ancestors. Ancestors are inherently part of tradition, and modernity despises tradition – it rebels against tradition. Living in America, I am deeply aware that many of the current generation cannot cite their ancestors further back than grandparents. It is as though we were a culture that came from nowhere. Perhaps this has an element of truth.

To come “from somewhere,” is to come with restrictions on freedom. It is to come with a history – perhaps a history of friends and enemies. This can, indeed, be destructive and counter-productive. But it also means that we come into the world without identity, and thus find the need to “invent” ourselves. And so it is that modern Christians think nothing of inventing their own version of Christianity – for they themselves have no inheritance – no received tradition.

I am in California this week (a very self-invented place) for the Baptism of my second grandchild. It is a wonderful event in my life. It is also a wonderful event in the life of the child Sebastian, for he does not invent himself. As the community of faith, we plunge him into the waters of Christ’s death and resurrection. He is received into the household of faith, into the generations of faithful Orthodox Christians who have offered to God innumerable martyrs and a faithfulness that now becomes my grandson’s inheritance. He will know his name, and the courage of St. Sebastian. He will know his father and mother, a priest and his wife. He will know his grandfather, a priest and his grandmother, a priest-wife. He will also know his grandparents who are Baptists (a minister and his wife). He will know the household of  faith that extends deeply beyond parents and grandparents and extends through the generations of the faithful. All this is part of the content of his baptism.

Modernity has a penchant for invention. But it is not so good for man to invent himself – it is not in the nature of our creation. If our ancestors have made mistakes (and surely they have) we do well to know it, and embrace the humility that it should bring. If our ancestors have given us an inheritance of righteousness, we do well to know it, and not imagine that righteousness began on yesterday.

We do well to know that we did not invent ourselves, our faith, or the God whom we follow. Life is a gift, received and passed along. I rejoice that tomorrow my hands will plunge into the waters with my grandson. For all that have, just as all that he has, is a gift. I did not invent it – I received it. The test of my life is to faithfully live what has been given to me, and to give it to others, faithfully and without change.

Glory to God!

The True Agent of Change

November 19, 2011

As inhabitants of our modern culture, we find ourselves trapped in a world of “cause and effect.” It is a physical explanation of the universe that has, for all intents and purposes, become a universal metaphor, dominating religion and the most personal aspects of our lives.

We see ourselves as the agents of change – or responsible for many of the disasters that litter our lives. Those who “succeed” imagine that they are the masters of their fate, or, perhaps the ones who responsibly “chose” God.

For the weak, the addict, the genetically impaired, the myth of choice and the power of freedom are often experienced as a merciless taunt. We not only fail – it is judged that we fail because we have not willed to succeed. Our weakness becomes a curse, while the blessed enjoy their prosperity and their health. Choice is a myth believed best by the young. Old age almost invariably makes a mockery of its boasts. The “pro-choice” movement and the growing acquiesence to legalized euthanasia are but natural extensions of our “free will.” These last manifestations of our “freedom” are the freedom to kill and to commit suicide, which, of course are only illusions of freedom.

There is an important and occasionally subtle difference between these modern concepts of freedom and choice – man as the agent of change – and the traditional Orthodox understanding of the world and the place that free will plays within it. On the most fundamental level, the world of cause and effect (the realm of our willful choices) is an insufficient arena for the Truth as revealed in Christ. God cannot be described merely as an agent in a world of cause and effect. He cannot be described as First Cause – because He cannot be described by a term of which there is a Second. God is not the First of anything – God is the Only of which there is no other.

The God Who has made Himself known in Christ Jesus is rightly identified as the Creator of all that is. However, how God creates is not a proper subject for scientific study. Cause and effect are simply insufficient as a description of God as Creator. Instead, an interesting verse in the LXX translation of Exodus offers the suggestion of a better starting point for understanding the role that our choices do and do not play:

Now Moses built an altar and called its name The-Lord-My-Refuge; for with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16).

God’s secret hand well describes His involvement in our world – a metaphor which is a recurring theme in the images of Scripture (particularly as understood by Orthodox Christianity).

An excellent example of this theme can be found in the account of the Three Young Men, in the book of Daniel and its continuation in the Song of the Three Young Men (LXX). There, the faithful youths are confronted with the command to commit idolatry, to fall down and worship before an image of the wicked King Nebuchadnezzar. If you will, the threat is typical of those who view the world as simple “cause and effect.” Power is defined as the ability to cause your own will to be done. As such, the Three Young Men are powerless. They are able to do nothing against the power of the King. His threat, of course, is death in a furnace of fire. They refuse, adhering to the commandments of God and trusting in His goodness. Their reply to the king is classic:

So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the gold image which I have set up? “Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. “If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. “But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:13-17).

Thus power, as defined by the world, confronts the power of God, and His secret hand.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” “Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire (Dan. 3:24-26).

In the LXX Song of the Three Young Men we hear this added description:

And the flame streamed out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, and it broke through and burned those of the Chaldeans whom it caught about the furnace. But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah [Shadrach] and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, and made the midst of the furnace like a moist whistling wind, so that the fire did not touch them at all or hurt or trouble them (Song of the Three Young Men 24-27).

Thus, like the bush that Moses saw on the Holy Mount that burns but is not consumed , or the womb of the Virgin that gives birth to Christ and yet remains a virginal womb (and so the image may be multiplied), God acts in a manner that cannot be described. If we say that He causes these things – then the word “cause” has a meaning other than what we normally mean.

Azariah states it this way in his prayer:

Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in Thy forbearance and in Thine abundant mercy. Deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works, and give glory to Thy name, O Lord! Let all who do harm to Thy servants be put to shame; let them be disgraced and deprived of all power and dominion, and let their strength be broken. Let them know that Thou art the Lord, the only God, glorious over the whole world (Song of the Three Young Men 19-22).

I have added emphasis – “deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works.” This is a proper description of the work of God. The power of God is not a power to be compared to the king’s, only bigger. For however the king works, he does not do so in a “marvelous manner.” Such works belong to God alone.

This phrase, “Thy marvelous works,” is echoed in the service of the Great Blessing of the Waters (used at Theophany, Baptism, and all blessings of Holy Water).

“Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works. There is no word sufficient to hymn Thy praises.”

Calling such words over the waters of the Jordan [as I experienced on pilgrimage in September] only emphasizes the secret hand of the Most High. For in the course of the Blessing of Waters, we specifically call down upon the waters “the blessing of Jordan.” It seems strange, at first, to ask God to make the Jordan to be the Jordan. It is an illustration of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s statement that in the sacraments, we do not ask God not to make things to be something they are not, but to be what they truly are. Thus a blessing is not added to the Jordan, but in the prayer, the Jordan is revealed to be what it is: an icon. It is the place where the people of Israel cross to enter the Promised Land. It is the place that reveals the Pascha of Christ – who descends into death to lead the dead to the Promised land of life. An icon does not symbolize, in the modern sense of the word, but makes present that to which it points. Thus, “as many as are Baptized into Christ are Baptized into His death.” The Jordan and all water so blessed are an entrance into Pascha.

Icons do not cause, but reveal. To cause would be a magical understanding (magic itself being something from the early modern world – see alchemy).

When we bring this understanding of God’s work to bear on the human predicament – the will is revealed to be other than what we imagine it to be. Rather than the agent of change, it is simply one part of the human creature which is itself in need of redemption and healing.

I can no more will my salvation than I can will my resurrection.

Like everything else in the human life – the will is in need of redemption, even though it plays its own small role in its cooperation with grace. We cannot be saved except by grace – even though grace requires our cooperation. That cooperation, however, can sometimes be as minimal as a cry for help. It is the voice of the thief on the cross crying, “Remember me!”

We are not the agents of change – but subjects in need of change. The world of cause and effect in which we can imagine ourselves (like Nebuchadnezzer) to be people of great power, is not, after all, the realm of true power. That realm, ruled by God’s secret hand, became flesh and dwelt among us – doing for us what we could not ourselves do. We could not ascend into heaven and become Divine. He descended among us and became Man – that we might ascend with Him and become partakers of the divine nature.

God cannot be chosen or consumed as though He were a product among products. Neither is He an idea or slogan to which we may give allegiance. He is the God to Whom we may cry for help and Who has manifested His love and assured us of the ready answer to our feeble call.

Among the truest insights within our culture (although itself the product of Christian theology rather than modern culture) is the understanding found within the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step recognizes that we are powerless over the addictions which bind us. Strangely, the alcoholic who wants to be sober, must begin by recognizing that he is powerless to become so alone. The second step recognizes that “only a power greater than ourselves could help us.” I would say that only a power that is utterly unlike anything we know as power can help us. The third step is to turn oneself over to that power. Strangely, millions of men and women have found sobriety, not because of the power of their will, but through the recognition of the weakness of our will. It is the most non-consumer community within the whole of our culture – aside from Christianity rightly lived.

We are not the agents of change, though without change our very existence will become moot. The change for which we, and the world, hunger is finally dependent upon the secret hand of the Most High, Who created us, sustains us, and redeems us through His marvelous works. In Him the weak become strong, the meek inherit the earth, and those who weep laugh, while the mighty fall from their thrones.

From the midst of the flames we hear the Song of the Three Young Men, who see the true freedom of creation – not as inert objects or brute beasts to be coerced by wordly power, but as a joyful chorus of grateful creatures, whose voices unite in the great song offered to the God Whose secret hand sustains us in His presence:

O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,
O ye heavens, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye waters that be above the heaven, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye powers of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye sun and moon, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye stars of heaven, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O every shower and dew, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye winds, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,
O ye fire and heat, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye winter and summer, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye dews and storms of snow, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye nights and days, bless ye the Lord: bless and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye light and darkness, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye ice and cold, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye frost and snow, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye lightnings and clouds, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O let the earth bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye mountains and little hills, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye things that grow in the earth, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye mountains, bless ye the Lord: Praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye seas and rivers, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye whales, and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye beasts and cattle, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye children of men, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O Israel, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye priests of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye spirits and souls of the righteous, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye holy and humble men of heart, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever:
for he hath delivered us from hell, and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us out of the midst of the furnace and burning flame: even out of the midst of the fire hath he delivered us.
O give thanks unto the Lord, because he is gracious: for his mercy endureth for ever.
O all ye that worship the Lord, bless the God of gods, praise him, and give him thanks: for his mercy endureth for ever.

In A Strange Land

October 18, 2011

It seems to me that life carries us into strange places on occasion – places where I have not been before. Such experiences can be quite distracting. In very strong instances such experiences can threaten to take over our lives and redefine everything around us. Living as a Christian in a strange land is difficult.

Abraham leaves his own home, complete with its own struggles, and travels to a strange land. The context changes deeply, and yet the context of the God who called him there remains consistent, at least as Abraham knows God.

The goal of my life in Christ is to remain faithful to Christ. Despite changes that inevitably shake my world, the goal remains the same and Christ is without change. Thus there is a Rock which cannot be shaken and whose purpose remains the same.

I have a sense that many things are being shaken in our world just now – and far more than we can see at present. I encourage my readers and friends to remain faithful to the Rock upon whom our lives are present. We have no “abiding city,” no political philosophy, no marriage to the transient things of this world. Many things seem to be shaken at present – though the Kingdom we seek cannot be shaken.

Pray for one another and be hopeful. He who cannot be shaken, and who abides, governs all. It is to Him that our hearts and lives belong and for Him that we alone hunger.

May God keep us all and fill us with the hope that abides – always.

Mind and Heart

October 4, 2011

I write frequently about what I term the Religion of the Heart. Archimandrite Meletios Webber has a short piece on what can be called the Religion of the Mind. The distinction between mind and heart is not a distinction between thought and feeling. Rather it is a distinction between the mind (seat of thoughts and feelings) and the heart (the seat of a deeper awareness – sometimes called the nous in Orthodox writing). Orthodox spiritual practice would ultimately look for the integration of the whole person and the union of mind and heart. Without the heart, the mind behaves in a fashion that is a constant distraction – torn largely between fear and desire. Fr. Meletios’ observations are worth a careful reading. Those interested in reading more should pick up his Bread & Water, Wine & Oil.

In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task.

Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right. Interestingly enough, Jesus never once suggested to His disciples that they be right. What He did demand is that they be righteous. In listening to His words we find that we spend almost all our energy in the wrong direction, since we generally pursue being right with every ounce of our being, but leave being good to the weak and the naive.

People fight wars, commit genocide, and deprive others of basic human civil liberties, all in the name of being right. There is little doubt that if a further nuclear war ever takes place, it will be because the person pushing the button believes himself to be right. About something.

Religion, at the level of the mind, can be a terrible thing, causing wanton destruction to individuals, families, and even entire nations, all in the cause of being right. Almost every religious system can, and in most cases, has operated solely at this level at some point in its history. This is the level of religious awareness that can cause the servants of the King of Peace to wage war on those who think thoughts different from their own; it bestows on those who have been commanded to forgive their enemies the right to annihilate their foes.

Fr. Meletios’ writings are not an argument for a relativist “why can’t we all just agree?” Rather it is a careful analysis of how the heart perceives and responds. It is the place in which we encounter the Kingdom of God:

The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling. Rather, it begins with an awareness of its relationship with the rest of creation (and everything and everyone in it), accepting rather than rejecting, finding similarity rather than alienation and likeness rather than difference. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. Little wonder, then, that the mind, always impatient and very demanding, manages to dominate it so thoroughly.

The State of Things

September 16, 2011

I’m going to break a few personal rules in this post. Normally I try to write within the known bounds of the Eastern Orthodox faith. I also try to write about things I know – both rules limit the range of my writing. But for this post, I want to “think aloud” about some things that seem worth puzzling about.

I’ve long found it useful to look at things that are taken for granted, and question them – not question whether they are true (though sometimes I will go that far) – but mostly to ask what do they mean and to ask if there is a different or better way to say them.

I am not a “political scientist,” whatever that may mean. However, recent conversations on the blog have reminded me about some thoughts that I’ve not entertained for a while. These are questions about the nature of the thing we refer to as “the state.” What is a state and why does it have authority (even over life and death)? Where did the state come from – is it legitimate from a Christian perspective?

First answer. It seems obvious that there is something that people call a “state” and that it is not going away any time soon. The planet has arranged itself into “states” for a number of centuries (not that many actually) and states have amassed for themselves enormous powers, enormous wealth, and dreadful armaments. Whatever states are – they are big, rich, and dangerous.

Most states today embrace some theory of democracy (at least in an official sense). Very few, though some, still make some claim to divine right. Modern democracies do not make a claim to divine right (though some of them are given such a right by many of their Christian subjects – cf. America).

Imagine for a moment, a world that was organized not into states, but into commercial providers and commercial consumers. I’m not sure what we would call such an organization – maybe a business-state or some much more enlightened term. In such a world, providing for consumers would be the primary activity. Failure to provide would create the danger of being replaced by a more attractive provider – sort of like Microsoft being replaced by Apple. Can’t happen? Almost has.

In such a world, would you as a consumer feel any particular loyalty to the product providers? Would you go to war and kill for them? I have used this illustration precisely because killing for a corporation, for Kelloggs, or General Electric, just sounds absurd.

What is it about the nation-state that provokes such loyalty in people? America was the first nation that was founded as an “idea.” Whatever one may think of the Constitution – it is not a divinely inspired document and the founding of our nation  was not a great divine intervention into the course of human history (except in the mind of a few heretical sectarians and cultists). My ancestors, if you need to ask, lived here then, and fought on the side of the American Revolution. However, having been to Great Britain, I cannot think the shedding of blood to have been reasonably justified in that revolutionary cause. Slavery lasted at least a generation longer in American than Britain – so much for freedom as a founding ideal.

I am not opposed to being rich – though I think to be rich is to have an ontologically precarious position (cf. camels and eyes of needles). I do not think that keeping somebody rich is a justifiable cause for killing someone. In the same manner I do not think killing someone to take their money is justified.

I will offer several conclusions – just thoughts from the day.

The State is an illusion (a very dangerous illusion). It is an illusion in that it has no particular standing within the Divine scheme. States are secular entities, the inventions of man for his own reasons, and are therefore illusory (in an ontological sense). The Kingdoms of this World will become the Kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ – Scripture tells us (but not until the end of all things). I am more afraid of being ruled by some Christians than I am of the current corporate class.

Having said that the State is an illusion doesn’t mean that I think you or I should try and make it disappear. I simply think the State should be extremely relativized in the thought of Christians pursuing the Kingdom of God. The State will not usher in the Kingdom, nor make it move further away or come closer.

I have mentioned several times lately that I studied under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke when I was in the Doctoral Program there. I have carried a quote of his with me for the past 20 years or so that seems to go to the heart of question of the State:

As soon as we agree that we are responsible for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do murder.

I am not responsible for the outcome of history – God is. The current world drama is an act upon a stage written by those who believe they are responsible for history’s outcome. Of course, it is presently an absurdist drama. None in the American State Department have any idea what the “Arab Spring” is about. Even those who are making it happen seem to be less than sure. But we are certain enough to kill. That seems to me to be a serious bet that you either know the outcome, or think you can manage it.

One of the great tragic dramas of human world-management followed the Cease-fire that ended the First World War. The winners (led in large part by the British and by American President Woodrow Wilson) re-drew the map of the world. They created countries where none had existed. Some of the countries included dangerous imbalances of ancient enemies (Shiites versus Sunnis, for instance). The decisions were often arbitrary beyond belief. The result has been a century of turmoil and war – much of which is rooted in absurdities born in the space of six months of 1919.

I apologize for such political asides – but the fact that we do not control the outcome of history is made be exceedingly obvious by this small six month lesson.

So what is a Christian to do? “Do your best – and try not to sin so much.” A quote I rather like. But we should understand for our soul’s sake, that God has not placed human beings in the position of world-management. We should obey the authorities under which we live – so long as they do not ask us to break God’s commandments – but we should not become enamored of their power. They are chimeras – endowed with all the power of Pontius Pilate. He imagined himself to be a world manager – one who controlled life and death. The absurdity and emptiness of his self-conceit is revealed in the Person of Christ who stands before him, tolerating his judgment, because, “You could do nothing if it were not given you from above.” It is the Father’s will that Christ obeys – not the wicked fears and threats of a Roman Procurator.

When we think about the State (ours or any other), we would do well to bring the image of Pontius Pilate to mind, and remember the eternal figure of Christ before him. We need have no fear – nor need we listen to snake-oil salesmen who tell us that we rule the world.

God rules.

Hauerwas, said once in class, “Because we are not in charge of history, we have nothing better to do than to have children and tell them the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Please forgive me. I am an ignorant man. But these are things I’ve thought about today.

The God Who Sings

July 21, 2011

My parish is in the process of installing and blessing bells. It is a joyous milestone in our parish’s life and an important addition to the proclamation of the gospel. According to Orthodox thought, the sound of a Church bell is an icon of the voice of God. It’s blessing reaches as far as the bell is heard. Thinking about this coming event has given thought to an article from the past – “Why Does God Sing?” I look forward to His voice sounding across our small city.

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Why would God sing? The question may sound strange and yet it is said in Zephaniah (3:17), “He will rejoice over thee with singing.” I first noticed this verse when I was a very young Christian and have puzzled about it for nearly forty years. Equally puzzling to our modern way of thought is the question, “Why does anybody sing?” I have been to plenty of operas and have to admit that even the ones in English need subtitles – singing does not necessarily make something more easily understood. And yet we sing.

God sings. Angels sing. Man sings.

Other than some adaptations that have been made in a few places in the modern period, any Orthodox service of worship is sung (or chanted) from beginning to end (with the exception of the sermon). Like opera, this musical approach to the liturgy does not mean that it will be better understood. And yet, the Christian Tradition, until the Reformation, was largely universal in its use of singing as the mode of worship. In the Western Church there was a development of the “Low Mass” in which little chanting was used – though this never found a place in the East.

This is not solely a Christian phenomenon. As a teenager I had a close friend who was Jewish. As a young teenager he began training to become a Cantor (the main singer in a congregation – second only in importance to the Rabbi himself). I was curious about Hebrew so he began to instruct me privately. Hebrew is a great language – particularly as published in Hebrew Scriptures.

I mastered the alphabet and began to understand that most vowels were not letters at all, just dots and lines, strategically placed to indicate their sound. I felt somewhat proud the first time I read a line aloud without prompting. I recall that when I finished I pointed at yet another set of markings that my friend had yet to mention.

“What are these?” I asked.

“They’re for the Cantor,” he explained. He also had to explain what a Cantor was and, fortunately, was able to demonstrate when I asked him how the musical markings worked. The sound would have compared easily to Byzantine chant – perhaps with lines of kinship. Several years ago I became acutely aware of another singing religion: Islam. My wife and I made pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September [2008]. The first morning (it was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) a canon went off at sunrise (that will wake you up in Jerusalem!) and suddenly a plaintive chant blared across the city as the Muezzin chanted the morning call to prayer.

Indeed, if you made a study of world religions, you’d be hard pressed to find any people who prayed or worshipped without singing (almost exclusively) other than forms of Christianity that have been influenced by the Protestant Reformation. In light of that fact it might be more appropriate to ask, “If God sings, and the angels sing, the Jews sing, the Muslims sing: why don’t Protestants chant their services?” What is it about modern man that changed his religious tune?

I’ll come back to that question in just a few moments. However, I would first like to take a tour through some experiences I’ve had with music and pastoral care. Wherever in our brain that the ability to sing and understand music resides – it is not the same place as pure speech. I have been making pastoral visits with patients for nearly thirty years. During that time I have frequently noticed stroke patients, who had lost one particular brain function (governed by the area effected by the stroke) be perfectly normal in another area not affected by the stroke. It’s as simple as being paralyzed on one side of your body but not on the other (a common result of strokes).

In the same way, I have seen any number of patients who could not speak or respond to speech, who, nevertheless, could sing and respond to music. The most extreme case I ever saw was in a patient suffering from multiple infarct dementia (thousands of tiny strokes). He was a paraplegic and virtually unresponsive. However, his devout Christian wife had discovered that he responded to both music and to prayer. He would say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer and tried to join in when you sang a familiar hymn.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. And so the mystery grows.

A surprising musical experience for me came in visiting St. Thekla’s Summer Camp (in South Carolina). We have youth in our Church, including some who attend the summer camp. My experience in Church is that, like most teens surrounded by adults, youth in Church remain quiet. However, at the summer camp, surrounded by their peers, they sang with all the gusto of their youth. It was completely natural. Kids sing.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. Kids sing.

So what happened in the Protestant West that made them change their tune? To their credit they did not completely stop singing. Some of the finest hymns in Christian history were written during the Reformation. Hymns that sang doctrine and offered praise to God – all these were part of the hymnody of Protestant worship. And yet something different did take place. What was different was a shift in understanding how or if we know God and the place that worship plays in all that.

For many in the Reformation God could be known only as He made Himself known in Scripture. Knowing God as He had made Himself known in Christ was a description of knowing what Christ said and did in the New Testament. God was distanced from the sacraments in most cases. He was distanced from worship. We could offer worship to God in our assemblies, but not necessarily because He was present.

The distance that arose between man and God at the time of the Reformation had many causes. Among the most important were the politics of severing God, the individual and the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). Such a severing created the secular sphere as we know it today and at last established the state as superior to the Church with, for the most part, the happy cooperation of the newly minted Churches. For most centuries the Reformation has been studied on the basis of its religious issues – indeed “religion” has unfairly borne the blame for years of hatred and wars. The role of politics has  been downplayed – indeed even seen as the force which intervened and spared Europe from further religious madness. The state, as secular state, was seen as the hero of the Reformation. However it is quite possible to understand the history of that period as the history of the rise of the secular state and the state’s manipulation of religion for the interests of the state (Eamon Duffy’s work on this topic is quite revealing).

The Reformation itself brought something of an ideological revolution, a redefinition of man as a religious being. The new thought saw man as an understanding, rational, choosing individual. Thus religious services began to have a growing center of the spoken word. God was reasoning with man through the medium of the spoken word. In most places of the new reforms, efforts were made to establish a radical break with the sacramental past. However God might be present with His people – it was not to be in the drama of the Liturgy. Vestments were exchanged for academic gowns, or no vestments at all. The minister was an expounder of the word, not a priest. The altar that had once clearly been an altar, a place where the bloodless sacrifice took place – a holy place where Christ Body and Blood were present – became a simple table – usually with the minister standing in a position that was meant to indicate that he was performing no priestly action.

The words surrounding the Liturgy were spoken and not sung. Singing at such moments were associated with acts of magic. Thus the “hoc est enim corpus meum” of the Roman Rite, was ridiculed as “hocus pocus,” ever to be associated with magic. Chanting was for witches, not for Christians.

Music did not disappear at the Reformation. As noted earlier, many great hymns were written as part of that movement – and have marked every major “revival” within Protestantism. People sing. But what do people sing?

There is no doubt that vast changes in much of Protestant Church music have taken place in the latter half of the 20th century. The same was true in parts of the 19th century. In efforts to remain “contemporary” much music has taken contemporary form. The influence of Pentecostal worship forms have also shaped contemporary “praise” music.

In many ways a revolution as profound as the Reformation itself has taken place within Protestant Christianity. Whereas the founders of the Reformation saw reason as the primary mode of communicating the gospel – contemporary Protestantism has become far more comfortable with emotion. An interesting player in this modern revolution has been the “science” of marketing which has made careful study of how it is that people actually make decisions and on what basis do they “choose” as consumers. From an Orthodox perspective, it is the science of the passions.

In this light it is important to say that people sing for many different reasons and that not all music in worship is the same. Orthodoxy has long held the maxim that music should be “neptic,” that is, should be guided by sobriety and not by the passions. Thus, there have been criticisms from time to time within the Russian Church that the great works of some modern Church composers are too “operatic” or too “emotional.” That conversation continues.

But why do we sing?

Here we finally come to the question that has no easy answer – just a suggestion based on human experience. We sing because God sings. We sing because the angels sing. We sing because all of creation sings. We are not always able to hear the song – usually because we do not sing enough. I will put forward that singing is the natural mode of worship (particularly if we follow the model of the angels) and that there is much that can enter the heart as we sing that is stopped dead in its tracks by the spoken word.

It is not for nothing that the one book of Old Testament Scripture that finds more usage in the Church (at least among the Orthodox) than the New Testament, is the book of Psalms, all of which are meant to be sung (and are sung within Orthodox worship). Years ago when I was a young Anglican priest – I introduced the sung mass at a mission Church where I was assigned. A teenager confided to me after the service that the chanting had made her feel “spooky.” She was clearly stuck in a Reformation “only witches chant” mode. She also had not learned to worship. In time, it grew on her and she grew with it.

The heart of worship is an exchange. It is an exchange where we offer to God all we are and all we have and receive in return Who He is and what He has. The exchange takes place as we sing to Him and He sings to us.

I have heard the singing of angels. I am not certain that I have heard God singing – though it is something of an open question to me. But without fail, I hear His voice singing in the person of the priest: “Take, eat. This is my Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.” And I have heard the choir sing, in the voice of the people: “I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

God sings and so should everything else.

Existence, Choice and God

June 14, 2011

I recall a conversation with a Russian parishioner some years back. She had been baptized as an adult (by me) and I referred to her as a “convert” in the course of conversation. She bristled slightly at my comment and said, “I am not a convert. Converts are people who choose.” She went on to explain that although she had never been baptized, she was, nonetheless Orthodox, and would not have considered any other option.

I understood her point – converts are indeed people who choose. And it is also true that there are many people whose religious life has not involved a choice, other than to be what they have always been.

In America, we live in an age of conversion – at least we live in an age of converts and particularly an age of choices. Such choices can be embarrassingly numerous when fully recounted. Many “converts” (regardless of their present loyalties) have fairly convoluted stories that include multiple church memberships or worse. Our culture does not include a lot of straight lines.

I think choices occur on many levels – though two particular levels seem to me to stand in strong contrast. We sometimes make choices on a rational level: we consider matters, weigh them, subject them to logic and a number of other processes and we choose. We make the best decision, or approximate a best decision – and can likely give impressive reasons for our actions.

The other level, I would label existential. Such decisions are often messy, or full of hesitation and hardship. Some months after my family’s reception into the Orthodox faith, I asked my wife, “Do ever just feel crazy” (referring to the life that followed our conversion). Her reply was deeply existential: “If you were floating in the North Atlantic with your family in a lifeboat, you’d probably feel ‘crazy’ – but if you looked over and saw the Titanic going down, you’d feel truly grateful, crazy or not.”

If our questions and pilgrimage are ultimately about God, and not simply about preferences, then our journey will likely be marked by such existential choices rather than purely rational ones. Abraham’s journey towards Canaan cannot truly be described as “rational” (nor can the “sacrifice of Isaac”). St. Antony’s response to the Gospel reading in which Christ tells a man to sell all that he has and “come and follow me,” cannot be described as rational. St. Antony heard the passage read and heard it as applying to himself (not to everyone – but to himself). Giving away all that he had and entering the desert is the act of someone who is driven by their desire for God. When such is the case, “choice” is probably not the right word. “Obey” is more accurate. St. Antony’s “conversion” is the choice to obey.

On this level, everyone should want to be a convert – to be so drawn toward God that our response is obedience rather than merely rational choice. I think I would modify the definitions of my Russian parishioner. Converts are not people who choose – Converts are people who obey. Consumers are people who choose.

It is here that the shape of our culture effects so many. With thousands of Christian denominations, and certainly hundreds of local choices for many urban and suburban areas, religious consumerism can become a very common mode of existence. When I was a Protestant I have met new families visiting the Church I was pastoring say, “We’re Church shopping,” without any sense whatsoever of embarrassment. It is what many people do.

I have to say that as an Orthodox priest I find very few “Church shoppers” at any given service. Becoming Orthodox is a difficult and complicated decision for most people who were not born to it. For that reason, I tend to encounter more people who stand at an existential point in their lives. To become Orthodox, they must want God and believe that He can be found here.

Such existential moments are not the exclusive property of Orthodox Christians (or their converts). Life is generally dangerous enough to offer us many such critical points. It is also true that such points need to be respected by those who see them. I can offer to help someone who is in such a place – but I dare not judge the place they are in – or even the choice that may come of it. Not all choices are equally healthy or true – but I dare not seek to transform someone’s existential crisis into just one more consumerist decision.

May God have mercy on us – converts are not people who shop.

The Specific Truth

May 27, 2011

The Truth, spoken in general, is, perhaps, the most easily spoken truth in all the world. It smooths over the rough edges of hard truth and says more easily that to which all can agree. If all can agree – it is not probably the truth – or it is not a truth worth speaking.

As a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, I find the present time to be one in which the truth is both difficult to discern and difficult to speak. My policy on this blog has always been to avoid the “politics” of the moment and to write of things of greater importance. The politics of the moment are among those things hardest to discern. None of us have enough information to speak with clear authority – and we are often compromised by our own allegiances and friendships.

However, I do believe in truth – not the truth that serves only one point-of-view, not a truth that paints itself as all white while painting its opponent as all black. In the long span of human history, such characterizations have rarely proved to be entirely true.

First off, truth is not simply an accurate account of events. Truth is defined in and by a relationship with Jesus Christ. We have all encountered “masters of the truth” who while offering an irrefutable account of events, have somehow departed from the truth as it is in Christ. Telling the truth is a means of our salvation, not a means of gaining an upper hand or of winning battles. Christ has no interest in the upper hand or in winning battles.

All of this is to say that in Christ, there can be no partisanship. Truth judges us all and makes our partisan commitments to be without meaning. Many of our commitments are but a thin disguise for our passions or the false truth of the ego.

Many of the positions of modernity argue for a form of truth that is rather malleable. That we must never offend each other is not a commandment – though some take a perverse pleasure in giving such.

The history of the Church is replete with Bishops, priests and laity who believed that their great mission in life was to rescue the Church from one error or another, just as today there are many (in various churches and elsewhere) who have a deep need to “fix” the world. This is not the same thing as living the truth, telling the truth, or becoming the truth. The world needs to know the truth even as the Truth knows the world.

From Under the Rubble

May 26, 2011

Dostoevsky wrote in the mid-19th century, a time when many ideas and cultural forces were only beginning to coelesce. We live in an age after which those forces have come together, and after which they have largely been judged by history to have fallen short of their stated ideals. The world has witnessed more than a century of failed promises and programs (not that we have completely rejected such things) and are, to a large extent, left drifting in a world in which we have few markers or sure bearings upon which to plot our lives, much less the future of mankind.

The Christian faith has not been immune to the cultural forces of the past few centuries. Some groups of Christians feel compelled to maintain strong ties with the present culture and to change themselves and the shape of their proclamation according to the prevailing winds of cultural understandings. Others have been swept along, always having been “cultural” Churches, and now struggling to know which part of the culture they are to represent.

Holy Orthodoxy has traditionally held to a course which is unchanging – though it has been profoundly influenced by the political and cultural institutions which have surrounded it. Today, with greater freedom than in many centuries, Orthodoxy struggles to find its proper place and stance amidst the rubble of the modern world.

Aleksandr Solzhnitsyn published a small book of essays in the early ’70’s entitled, From Under the Rubble. The “Rubble” of his title represented the rubble of Christian civilization that had been overwhelmed ultimately by various forces of modernity. His experience was of the crude realities of the Soviet System (where he spent some years within the Gulag system and where he spent his “freedom” under constant surveillance). But the “rubble” extends beyond the boundaries of Solzhenitsyn’s cultural and historical experience.

The whole of Christian civilization now sits somewhere in history. Condemned for its excesses and failures, used as the scapegoat for any and every imagined ill. Those who profess the Christian faith today, do so “from under the rubble.” We cannot look around for authentic Christian culture. It is only with difficulty that we may draw on the wisdom of the past.

But the story of the human relationship with God is a constant re-telling of life from within rubble. There is very little in Scripture that can be described as a golden age. Even the righteous King David is beset with his own personal sin and rebellion within his own family. The story of Creation and Paradise are followed immediately with the story of the first sin, the first murder, and the multiple failings of humanity.

However, nowhere in the gospel of Christ are His followers enjoined to create a great civilization. Such things have come about, from time to time, within the context of Christian believing, but always with flaws that mark the weaknesses that will bring about their downfall, and even with periodic persecution of the Church and the Truth itself. States are not inherently evil, neither are they inherently good.

In the gospel of Christ we are taught about the coming of the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is not the perfection of some other kingdom. It is not the product of human imagination and innovation. It comes as a gift – not even as a result of our prayers. As the wondrous gift of God it is the hidden treasure that we find beneath and within the rubble. The Kingdom is the Pearl of Great Price – the indestructible truth.

I once read that even a single commandment of Christ, if kept with all our heart, mind and strength, will become for us the door to the Kingdom. Such singleness of heart is a very rare thing – though it is not a complicated thing. I think of St. Paul’s words in Romans 12:

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another.

It is not complicated – just a simple way out of the rubble. Solzhenitsyn’s boldest recommendation in his small essay entitled, “From Under the Rubble,” was printed in block letters: DO NOT LIE, REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE IN THE LIE.

How simple. How hard.