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 Grace) But 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.
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.”
Last night, our library showed Ostrov — a popular movie in Russia that did well at Sundance. When I first heard about this movie (I’ve forgotten where, now), I knew I wanted to see it.
Somewhere in Northern Russia in a small Russian Orthodox monastery lives a very unusual man. His fellow-monks are confused by his bizarre conduct. Those who visit the island believe that the man has the power to heal, exorcise demons and foretell the future. However, he considers himself unworthy because of a sin he committed in his youth. The film is a parable, combining the realities of Russian everyday life with monastic ritual and routine.
Ostrov is steeped in (Russian) Orthodox monasticism, so well over a third of it is prayers or psalms, but this is what monastics do: they pray. If orthopraxis were simply about living in a way that others could look at and say “Yes, Father Job is a Holy Man” then Father Job would be the center of attention in this film. Instead Father Job, like the prodigal son’s brother, seems jealous of Father Anatoli’s gifts. In the meantime, Father Anatoli, instead of living a blissfully pious life, is wracked with guilt and isn’t a very pleasant person to be around. He’s humble and gifted, to be sure, but he lacks intelligence and people skills. And that last part is precisely what makes the film so attractive to me. When he was asked why he was spending time with sinners, Jesus replied “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick.” Father Anatoli is clearly not a holy man, but he is blessed, and he blesses others. (I recommend this movie highly. Still, if you see it, read some of the comments on Amazon.com or IMDB. There are some parts where the subtitles are incorrect. For example, near the end of the movie, he asks someone “Will you take a confession?” and the subtitles translate this as “Do you want to go to confession?”)
Last week I got back from a working trip through the South with brief stops along the way in Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama and longer stays in New Orleans, Louisiana and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I’ve some great pictures I want to post here… but not just yet. I’m still recovering. As soon as I can manage to get back on my riding schedule, I should be fine. But, while I’ve got this itch, I thought I’d note that I think I’ve finally figured out why I’m no longer much interested in Theological discussions per se — that is, whose concept of God (or the non-existence of God) is correct. Of course, part of this is because I’ve already made up my mind which Tradition I’m going to follow. Another part is watching people like my friend Jim get involved in seeming never-ending discussions surrounding the the Emerging Church or New Perspectives on Paul and I’m just not that interested in discussing the right way to approach Christianity. I’d rather attempt to live it. I’m reading through John Chryssavgis’ The Way of the Fathers: Exploring the Patristic Mind and he makes this point nicely:
Christ proceeds through the ages in the agency of persons. … The transcendence of the divine Word was always easier to acknowledge than the more scandalous immanence and humanity … [Therefore] the teaching of a charismatic elder in the fifth century desert … is never outdated insofar as that person lived and loved as Christ.
[Finally] one must acknowledge that the high points of theology are not confined to one specific “golden” age but pervade every age which happens to be blessed with those “advanced in theoria [vision] … and purified. By analogy, there is decay in the theological world when such saints are wanting.
Father Stephen puts this point of view succinctly when he writes about evil:
Of course, there is much conversation about the metaphysics of evil and the nature of hell and eternal punishment – and though I have recommended articles on the same that I find of value – I think that a large amount of Christian energy is wasted on such matters. For it is not the mastery of the metaphysics of the universe that makes any difference, but rather the embrace of the Gospel of Christ and obedience to His commandments. [emphasis mine — Mark]
So, when I hear Christians arguing amongst themselves about interpretation or the church or whatnot, I’m turned off. I used to be really dogmatic about my beliefs, sure enough of myself that I would argue incessantly. And I still talk too much. But more and more I’ve come to realize how much more I need to embrace the Christ’s Gospel and obey his commandments and I’ve begun to refocus my efforts on my own life rather than figuring out better arguments for what I believe.
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.
On Monday, Eric asked me why I thought I would need to use a consistent route to get back to 20 miles today. Today I went out at 6:30 in the morning to ride for an hour and half over that 20 mile ride that I used to do and I thought of the answer. Like the Mennonite man that passed me by, it is easier to compete against yourself if you are covering the same ground every day. You can push yourself to go a little faster and get done a little quicker. If you have a Heart Rate Monitor (which I plan on getting), you know that today’s readings are comparable to yesterday’s readings. Also, less thought is involved in the process. Fewer decisions (“Turn this way?” “Turn back now?”) mean I have time (like the woman Nathan ran into) to pray. I try to use the Jesus Prayer. It works something like this: (Inhale)Lord Jesus (Exhale)have mercy (Inhale)on me (Exhale)a sinner. Of course, you can tell by the fact that I was thinking about Eric’s question and coming up with answers for it that I am easily distracted from prayer.
It is only my imaginary relationship with Christ (if the Church is invisible it is little more than imaginary). It is the visible character of the Church, and the possibility of boundary (everything visible has some boundary) that creates the “problem.” … The Problem of the Church is that there is one. Whatever free associations man has created, there still exists a Church whose life is rooted in that first community in Jerusalem and stretches through the centuries into the present. It is not a problem to be solved – but it is a challenge to the fiction of invisible Churches and boundary-less associations.
(From The Problem of Church) Recently, it was pointed out to me that I was not entirely respectful of the way someone chose to “dedicate” their child in church. While it is true that I should have kept my mouth shut, this issue has come up more than once in discussions with family and friends — many of whom are Protestant. And I’ve always been caught short when they confront me about this. It’s a hard nut. On the one hand, I do believe in the “holy, catholic, apostolic Church” and I believe that this visible Church — by which I mean the Church with the visible, historic line of apostolic succession — is the Church. On the other hand, I love my family and friends. I respect their work (many of them work “in the ministry”). I don’t want them to feel like I’m pushing them away or, worse, condeming them to hell. I absolutely do not want to project the image that I am, in any way, superior to them. So what do I do? I don’t know. Just reading The Problem of Church helped me understand the problem a little bit better for myself. It also gives me a point of discussion with friends and family.
The following is a lightly edited copy of an email I sent to a friend. He suggested that I post this. You’re uncomfortable with Dogma. So am I. Dogma is one of the reasons I love the Orthodox. Yes, there are plenty of bad apples, but, the good stuff is completely Orthodox. The triune God and the divine man Christ. That’s all I need to be Orthodox. Well, yes, I do have to be comfortable with Liturgy, otherwise Orthodoxy isn’t going to “speak to me”. But that’s the point: orthopraxis is absolutely as important, if not more important, than orthodoxy. What we believe is important. But what we do is absolutely vital. I remember clearly when I started to see that we (“we” being the western church, especially prots) put to much importance on orthodoxy and not enough on orthopraxis. Somewhere in high school, I was involved in my church’s Evangelism Explosion program. “You believe in Christ,” was the verse we were using. “Good! The devils believe… and TREMBLE!” I’m sure I had begun to grok this sooner, but I remember this clearly. We don’t practice what we preach. If we really believe this stuff, it would be reflected in our action. If we claim to believe something, but don’t follow through, then we don’t actually believe it. All this is a long way to say that I’ve come to believe (and I think the church teaches) that godly action is more important than getting all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed in your belief system. I think I read River of Fire (RoF) for the first time about 10 years ago. It was an eye opener. Reading the RoF was the first time I encountered a spiritual authority that I felt comfortable with who said “God is entirely Love” and didn’t couch the terms. Everyone else said “God is Love, but…” and felt the need to explain an angry God who was so pissed off about sin that he had to send people to Hell. It provided me with a way to reconcile my belief in the reality of Hell with the belief in a loving God. We’re the ones who choose God or not. He doesn’t force himself on us. And, as a loving God, I think he recognises cultural and geographical limits. I don’t think he automatically condemns someone to eternal torment simply because they’re a Hindu who’s never heard of Christ. I think God has some subtlety. So, I’m not really interested in judging Mennonites, Christian Scientists, Mormons or Scientologists. Each of us has a conscience. We instinctively know what is right. If we seek God, I think he will, in Love, respond to us despite our limitations. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still critical of each of the above. But I’ve at least gotten to the point where I’m not going to smack them over the head with the Gold-bound Gospel book from liturgy and force them to repent. And I absolutely agree that we should be able to find truth and beauty (From the philokalia: truth is beauty, beauty is truth) in other spiritual traditions. We should be able to respect the Buddhist Koans or Hindi poetry. “Be able to”, as in “go ahead and appreciate it” not “everyone has to do this”. Most people aren’t comfortable with that sort of ambiguity. We claim to know the Truth and anything outside our tradition makes us uncomfortable. God said, “I AM”. Not “I AM ONLY FOUND IN EASTERN CHRISTIANITY”. Jesus said “I AM the WAY, TRUTH, and LIFE” and he showed us true love. Anger was a rare thing for him. And he didn’t tell his disciples “Go tell everyone about me because they’re condemned to hell without knowing my name.” His words were positive statements: “He who believes in me will be saved.” And we’ve assumed that the converse is also true. In fact, this brings me to another thing I appreciate about the Orthodox. The focus is almost exclusively on me and how I don’t measure up. It is clear that I’m loved and I bear the image of God, but it is clear that Deification is the ideal, that it is what we all desire (even if we don’t know it), what we all strive for. Theosis is the goal, but God is Love. He doesn’t demand Theosis of us. And never have I felt it necessary to judge a good person simply because they haven’t achieved Theosis. Nor have I felt judgement because I haven’t yet been deified. What I have felt is envy for those with a closer relationship with God. I’ve envied other people’s devotion. And I freely confess that since I don’t feel it is a sin to envy spiritual achievement. But I still feel loved. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by guilt. I hold myself responsible for my sin — sin contrary to my true, image-of-God nature. And I fall short of the possible Glory that God placed within me. The glory that he enables me to realize. But the focus is on me and my shortcomings. I can see how others fail, sure, but they’re sin isn’t my responsibility. And when they find beauty, its a good thing. “All Truth [beauty] is God’s.” Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but I don’t really see seekers. I don’t see people who desire God. I see people angry at God (just as the RoF said), people building mudpies when the entire beach awaits them. It is those people that I’m concerned about, not the devout Muslim or the God-fearing Baptist. And when I say “concern”, I don’t mean “concern for the eternal state of their soul”, though, hrm, I do wonder if they’ll be a dwarf tasting hay. I mean a sadness. There is so much more than this. And they reject it.