What I am Not

I started writing about why I wasn’t a creationist, but, the more I thought about this, the more I thought of giving a more encompassing apophatic description of myself.  I could just call myself an Orthodox Christian, but so many times we have pre-conceived notions for what words mean that a simple label isn’t going to tell you anything about who I am. (I’ve run into the same problem with my friends that I met in my political activities.  I’m a registered Democrat, but I’m not at all in favor of defending Roe v. Wade.  At some point, I’ll have to address my political views in an apophatic manner .  But this should give you a good idea.) My faith in a literal six-day creation first began to waver in high school. At the time, some people around me were convinced that you had to believe the Genesis account was literally true.  Otherwise, the thinking went, how could you believe anything in the Bible?  Something didn’t seem right with that.  I can choose to believe whatever I like.  Believing in something doesn’t make it so.  There’s nothing in the text to indicate that Genesis is meant to be a factual, historical account of creation. The only reason I could find that people thought Genesis account was factually accurate was their standards for understanding scriptural truth.  Father Stephen explains this much better than I ever could when he talks about Scripture as an Icon, so for a fuller explanation, read him, but in a world obsessed with facts and figures, Christians immersed in rationalism look to scripture to provide some straight-forward plain talk. When the “plain meaning” of scripture doesn’t coincide with our observations of the world (what we commonly refer to as science), Christians of this sort have a choice: ignore what their senses tell them about the world, or start to pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe. I have a hard time ignoring my senses.  Complicated attempts to explain away observations are, well, too complicated to be believed (Occam’s Razor). Fundamentalism, conservative evangelicalism, and any other sort of Biblical literalism is out the door. Where could I go?  One place I didn’t feel comfortable with was that strain of Protestantism commonly known as “Liberal Christianity”.  If we consider Protestants as a straight line with biblical literalists on the right and liberal Christians on the left, then, on the far left, there isn’t even any need to believe the Nicene Creed.  These would be  the sort who think the Jefferson Bible isn’t that bad.  It was just another man’s interpretation of the sacred text. Perhaps I’m just too much of a traditionalist, but I couldn’t do that.  My faith includes a belief in the resurrection.  Over time, I’ve come to understand the resurrection not as a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, but as an act of Love by which God empowers us to be fully human.  I can’t ignore my faith.  And I don’t think scripture is just a matter of interpreting text.  Christianity is about relation with God, not figuring out what I think Scripture means. My personal history comes into play here.  I have a lot of trouble with condemning all Catholics — something some fundamentalists seem fine with — so I ended up associating with quite a few in New Orleans (a very Catholic city), dating a couple, and, finally, marrying one. That obviously influenced my path.  I dabbled with Catholicism, but ended up being too Protestant.  And now I’m too Orthodox.  I simply don’t think any one person (even a Bishop, or Pope) can be considered the final word on what God has to say. So I’m not Catholic. Around the time I became Orthodox, the “Emergent Church” began to grow. I’ve said before that I think people interested in the Emergent Church would find a lot of what they’re looking for in the Orthodox Church. Take, for example, this post on War or Jim’s post on Biblical Narrative.  Both could benefit from the traditional Orthodox understanding of the Old Testament that focuses on the types of the Old Testament without attempting to justify the atrocities there. But they’d have to give up something: their individual pursuit of Truth.  I’ve been thinking about this since my friend Jim (who I hope can forgive me for pulling this quote out of context) wrote earlier this week “Maybe I don’t go so far – as Matthew seemed to have no problem with doing – as to use the word fulfillment”.  Orthodoxy, by contrast, is entirely about fulfillment and completely embraces the Gospel.  The resurrection is the beginning and end of everything. I guess, in the end, you could say I am not a biblical interpreter.  I long ago grew tired of debates about the scripture’s meaning and worrying about what I thought about the Bible.  These days, I struggle enough with simply trying to fast, pray, and love my neighbor.  These simple actions, commended to us by Christ Himself, are more than I can manage without worrying about what Just War or Evolution vs Creation.

Emergent

Its great when a weblog post on software design helps me understand religious movements. Even though I had peripheral knowledge of Emergence, I hadn’t made the connection between it and the “Emerging Church” movement, but coming across the term in an article that asks us to consider that formal methods of software design just don’t cut it. Back in my senior year of college I did a course on Chaos Theory.  I didn’t get as much out of it as I should have, but the one thing that stood out to me was how the Mandelbrot Set came from such a simple equation.  Who could predict that Z = Z2 + C could produce such complex, unending beauty? Often, when I read about the emerging church, I think “You guys are trying to do what the Orthodox have already accomplished” and now I know why. “In philosophy, systems theory and the sciences, emergence refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” (to quote Wikipedia).  This is why the formal specification of software is so hard.  Formal systems have a nice tidy set of rules and, from those, try to build complex systems.  But simple rules, applied in just a slightly different way lead to dramatically different results.  The simple rules deceive us into thinking that we have a controllable output, that we have something predictable. My experience in the Protestant church came to a head when I couldn’t reconcile all the positive statements about God (“God never breaks his promises”, “God’s justice must be satisfied”).  That, and all the little “facts” about God seemed like so much hubris. Orthodoxy’s negative theology was really attractive.  Instead of making definitive statements about who God is, we only say what we know God is not. I’m guessing the Emerging Church people see the same thing.  They see rationalists creating a bunch of rules for God and say “Hey, the church is Emergent!  All those little facts and figures help build a big Emergent Church!” So now I understand.  The emergent church isn’t “emerging” in the sense that it is “coming out”.  The Emergent Church is just saying “All those little simple little things you know about God and the Church don’t mean that they’re simple.”

God isn’t Just

At least not the way most people think of it.  “That rapist deserves to rot in Hell.  I’m sure God will see to it.” The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. (From The Injustice of GraceBut does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. This is a long way from the god who reacts to our actions with anger and condemnation.  Read the whole post.  It’s worth it. By contrast, check out how some Protestants deal with sin (the instances mentioned in the WSJ article seem to be primarily focused on challenges to the power of the Pastor).  And I’ll come right out and say I’ve seen similar abuses in Orthodoxy, but even when the priest is abusive, his power isn’t ultimate.  So many of these people obviously lack the humility and grace that should be the identifying characteristics of Christian leaders.

Church Growth

Fr Stephen has written out some thoughts on American Christianity and I found this bit especially apropos after reading this post from Bruce Reyes-Chow:

The problem with this marketing approach [using different sorts of music to attract different groups to your church] is only beginning to reveal its flaws (apart from the theology behind it): America is becoming increasingly fragmented in its music styles. Thus Churches, or at least services, are having to be multiplied to meet the growing diversity of the market. … Someone asked me once (actually more than once) what St. Anne (my parish) does to grow. I answered simply: “We answer the phone.” I cannot explain where the converts come from, though there is a slow but steady stream… The faith remains the same whether the “market” is a village in Africa or a suburb of Los Angeles. It is thus truly “inclusive” and “universal” in the extreme.

The comments become pretty interesting. Especially since my church has Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Stewardship drives, study groups, etc — all things that converts poo-poo in the comments as “too American.”

The Failing Church

Father Stephen writes:

When we look across the Christian scene, however, we should be accurate in what we see: failure. Not by counting numbers (they may tell us very little), but by how well Christians in fact show forth the faith that is within them. That the Church is a mess is a good description of history. The Catholic Church says one thing, but has a hard time finding a parish that actually believes and practices the magisterium of the faith. Protestants have launched into a sea of splintering that can only be justified by positing a deficient ecclesiology. The Orthodox, despite the accuracy of their historical claims, remain in the backwash of collapsing empires (both the Byzantine and the Russian). … The failure of the Church, to put it clearly, is a result of works – a triumph of flesh over Grace.

Read the whole thing (plus the comments, which include how the Orthodox fail the poor) and then read Why I am not Concerned.

Two Religions

(via Jim’s shared items feed)

It has long seemed to me that there are really just two religions in the world, and they show up in each tradition: one runs on risk/ welcome/ abandon/ grace/ transformation/ forgiveness/ creativity/ multiple-possibilities; and the other, on security/ control/ rules/ order/ stability/ only-one-possibility. – Two Religions

This does seem to be a theme that shows up a lot. But I would argue that it is possible to fuse the two strains of thinking. It is hard. It is very difficult to be at once about rules and grace; transformation and order do not easily co-exist, but it is possible to have both. The Orthodox are obviously all about order and stability. There are also, if you can handle them, a lot of rules. But I’ve only seen “control” and “only-one-possibility” from one very bad priest. He was young and a convert, though, so it is easy (for me) to forgive him. Instead, I’ve seen an abundance of grace and forgiveness within the Church. And not just at the parish level. It seems to be throughout the fathers. I won’t go so far as to say that welcome, creativity, or multiple-possibilities is widespread in the Church, but then, I don’t see a lot of emphasis on security and control.

Funny Finney

Reading up on Jim’s weblog, I came across a quiz: “Which theologian are you?” It seems heavily weighted towards those theologians that would be interesting to those in Reformed circles (Karl Barth is like a Reformed demigod; Charles Finney started out Presbyterian; Calvin was a huge reformer; Augustine is their most ancient saint; etc.) but I suppose that since Jim is the one that pointed to the quiz, I shouldn’t be too surprised. According to the quiz, I’m most similar to the anti-hero Charles Finney. I can say that I’ve heard Orthodox theology mistaken for the Pelagian Heresy — something Finney gets accused of here — but I suspect that is because people don’t understand the original heresy nor Orthodox theology. You scored as Charles Finney. You’re passionate about God and love to preach the Gospel. Your theology borders on pelagianism and it is said that if God were taken out of your theology, it would look exactly the same.

Charles Finney

67%

John Calvin

53%

Friedrich Schleiermacher

53%

Karl Barth

47%

Augustine

40%

J½rgen Moltmann

33%

Martin Luther

33%

Anselm

20%

Paul Tillich

13%

Jonathan Edwards