Friday, April 29, 2005
Religion is weird and religious people are weird
By: Ray Fulmer
No, you didn't misread the title.
Reading over David Bercot's Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs it struck me how absolutely strange we religious people really are. Here we are in the age of reason and verifiable fact and yet we speak in the language of myth and legend. Think for a second how disconnected it all is? Sure, you're born because your parents made whoopy, you die because your body grows old, nations rise and fall because of economics and military prowess, and outcomes reflect the concious interaction of intention, resources, and effort. Winners are those who have more and weild more power, losers are those who weild less power and have less. This is not difficult.But for us? No. Instead we say that people can be born through the Holy Spirit, we say you die because of sin, nations rise and fall by the intangible will of God, and outcomes reflect all of the above mentioned.... and a completely unquantifiable dimension of providence from the almighty. Winners are those who did the Divine Will, whether or not it rendered unto them anything tangible - indeed they may be considered losers.Think some more on it - we believe that we meet God by eating a little insignificant bread crumb and drinking a spoonful of watered down wine. We think that when we touch our shoulders, head, and stomach in a certain order that it guards us from evil. We sincerely believe that there are invisible spirits all around us, some benevolent and some malevolent, which are always seeking to influence us, guard us, harm us, or what have you. Oh yeah... and we think that by mumbling words into the air that we're affecting some part of this densely populated unseen spiritual cosmos - that's sane.Our entire life is guided by ritual actions and symbolic understandings which underly completely unconnected things. Remember that what goes on for instance at wedding services or at funerals isn't just pomp, but rather we believe that it has an effect - it does something. We hold onto hope for a place we've never been, that noone has ever seen, and that if you do see it you can't come back to tell anyone anyway (and if you did no stable person would believe you). "He isn't really dead, he's just alive somewhere else that I've never seen and cannot empiracally verify." Try to get me to buy that one sometime.So what's it all about? Well for one thing we're weird. Let nobody convince you otherwise. Religious people are strange. Normal people would not spend a day worrying too much about all of this hocus pocus. No well-balanced human is going to seriously consider giving up tangible facts for intangible hopes. It's simply irrational - be honest, it is. We voluntarily curtail our sex lives, eating lives, monetary motivations, and educational beliefs all for the sake of this "thing" out there, which we can't really define.The only way I can synthesize all of this (read: explain myself) is by a mirror of experienced reality. When I have lived my faith, life has been more cogent... it has held together. Part of this is the morality of it all. When I live those morals blindly and faithfully, life just turns out a little different - a little more fulfilling. I read the actions and sayings of Jesus and I think "you know... he's right... this is what we're supposed to be like. This is how it really works."Part of what is so convicting about the gospels that I find nowhere else is the dead on read of what we all know we should be and where we all know that we are. When we see the concerns and reactions of the Jews and other peoples in both testaments it's so full of flesh and blood. While this divine history plays out we can still recognize in its midst people we know, often ourselves. We know why they worship Ba'al. Ba'al's a nice guy. You give him $2 and he gives you a lollypop. He's the kind of God the rich and powerful want to serve. A God that wants to help you out to up your experience and to make you life "happy".Scripture tells us exactly what people are like. None of this flowery yip-yap "you're really a good person deep down" that we hear from self-help gurus. Nono, we all know we're messed up. If you could read my mind I guarantee that you would never listen to another thing I said - ever. I'm sick and I know it, I'm broken and I know it, and I also know that I can hide it from people the vast majority of the time.... and I know that I'm not the only one.We also know truth in God's anger and our fall. Look at the world - destruction, hatred, divisiveness, and the daily indulgence of inhumanity in so many sectors. No nirvana reaching here baby, we're off track.So I guess that I only really subscribe to all of this Christianity business because I see it. History is the product of the winners and science always leaves out that one variable. We always think we know the answers and yet things never turn out like we planned. We try not to give our heart and committments to lost causes, but they pull us back time and again. We know that our way just isn't good enough.When Jesus says to Peter, who is counciling him against voluntary death "get thee behind me Satan" it all becomes clear. What Peter is saying makes perfect sense! Right before this passage Peter had been proclaiming Christ as the messiah, and he knew what Christ was capable of. Slay the dragons! Throw off the yoke! Free the people from tyranny and give them their Universal Human Rights!I can see a mild smile on Jesus' face rebuking Peter... men still don't get it. His ways are not our ways, God doesn't do things like we do, and oftentimes his answers look stupid to us... until they work. His ways are not our ways... and we know the fruits of our ways. His ways are not our ways... and they don't quite square with how we would have written the novel. His ways are not our ways... and that's the only kind of God worth bowing down to worship.
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Reading through Irenaeus' Book 3 of Against the Heresies, I find his concept of divine economy absolutely fascinating. At the same time, I find this view diametrically opposed to what I, as well as many others, have been taught in traditional. Orthodox seminaries. The popular interpretation of the fall is that there was an original state of spiritual purity in which Adam and Eve dwelt before the fall. It is a belief that Adam and Eve were in perfect communion with God and that it was their disobedience that caused this relationship to be severed. Therefore, it is God who is forced in some way to change the divine plan in order to compensate for man's transgression. There are many flaws in such an argument and it is Irenaeus who offers a few solutions.
Firstly, to state that the fall was not part of the divine plan is to imply that if Adam and Eve never transgressed then there would be no need for Christ to have come. However, this poses a problem since John 1:1 clearly states that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God." If there was no need for Christ before the fall, than there would be no need for Him to have existed, unless God predicted the fall. It is such a prediction that Irenaeus deals with in Book 3 of Against Heresies. For Irenaeus, the fall was not contrary to the divine economy but indeed part of it. This is evident in AH 3:22:3 when he says, "For, since He who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who exists should not exist in vain." It is important to clarify here that Irenaeus is not saying that mankind was created to fall for the sake of the Savior. Instead, for Irenaeus, the fall was a natural progression of man towards his deification, not away from it. In essence, the fall was pedagogical, not disciplinary. This form of pedagogy is emphasized in AH 3:20:2, "Such then was the patience of God, that man, passing through all things and acquiring knowledge of death, then attaining to the resurrection from the dead, and learning by experience from whence he has been delivered, may thus always give thanks to the Lord, and may love Him the more, for he to whom more is forgiven, loveth more" (Lk. 7:42-3).
So it is clear that the knowledge of good and evil that came from the tree was both a tragic and yet pedagogical step for mankind. While at the same time man acquired death and sin by his disobedience, he also acquired the capacity to know the difference between good and evil and to love God more completely since he could finally understand his dependence on Him. Furthermore, Irenaeus also states in AH 3:19:1, "For by no other means could we participate in incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been joined to incorruptibility and immortality." Hence, even before the fall, man did not yet possess the ability to be united with God because this could only be achieved by God uniting Himself with mankind after mankind had undergone a pedagogical process. Irenaeus also emphasizes the inability of man and creation to receive the uncreated without first growing. This is stated in AH 4:38:1, "Because, as these things are of later date, so are they infantile; so are they unaccustomed to, and unexercised in, perfect discipline. For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection], being as yet an infant."
Therefore I believe that Irenaeus is clear that the fall is not an event that is against the economy, but something that is part of it. God is patient with our faults and our apostasy because He knows that it is a necessary evil on our path of spiritual growth. Therefore, there is never a time when the Son never existed because mankind must go through these trials in order to progress from spiritual infancy to unity with God.
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
In our conversation we agreed that nominal Christianity is not only a problem within the church, but it is indeed worse than atheism. These may seem extreme in today's society where we are told by most Orthodox hierarchs and spiritual fathers that we must be loving and non-judgmental when it comes to dealing with our neighbors. Indeed, as an aspiring priest, I have been cautioned on many occasions to be gentle in my future ministry when "laying down the law" so that I do not offend many congregants and therefore lose their souls if they decide to leave the church. Yes, the prevailing mentality among the Orthodox clergy today is that numbers equal success. If we have our churches full, we are doing well. If we lose bodies, for any reason, then it is a failure on behalf of the priests.
This to me is one of the greatest problems that the ministry faces today. The unwillingness to truly preach the faith as it is for fear that many will reject it and walk out. We believe that we should be lenient on certain contemporary issues such as abortion, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, etc., so that we do not offend the more liberal minded Christians who feel that it is not fashionable to go against the status quo. The problem with this is that we subjugate truth to the relative and transient sense of morality that is so prevalent in today's society.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating a type of puritanism that only allows those "super-orthodox" into communion. Anyone who knows me is aware of my lack of religious rigidity and piety. What I am saying is that keeping compassion and love in the church does not necessarily mean that we must expell hardline morals and unchanging doctrine. The truth does not change, no matter how unpopular it may get at times. We must stand up for the teachings of Orthodoxy, even if it means a few people walk out of our church. The church exists to cater to the spiritual needs of the people, not to the spiritual laziness of the baptized masses. It is true that no one is perfect and we cannot expect everyone to succeed in the perfect execution of the faith. We are all human and we fall. This is why we have the sacrament of confession. However, we must not stop teaching what the church considers to be sin and the need for it to be corrected. It is on this point that we must exercise resolve. We must present the Orthodox Church as the ark of truth; a truth that cannot be compromised. we must say, "This is it. Take it or leave it. "
As a good friend of mine said in a speech a few weeks ago, "If you don't believe in confession, you're not Orthodox. If you don't believe in fasting, you're not Orthodox." It is statements like these that need to be made more frequently in our churches. Notice that he didn't say "if you don't fast, you're not Orthodox." Execution of the ideal is not a pre-requisite for the faith, but belief in that ideal and an attempt to strive to achieve it is. As Fr. Tarazi says, "you're either holy or you're not. You're either righteous or you're not. You're either part if Israel or you're not." There is no in between. In this case, to be holy doesn't mean perfection, it only means that one agrees to attempt to live under God's Law. This is what the Church is. There is no picking and choosing what we like and what we do not like. Either we subscribe to the whole truth or none of it.
It is for this reason that we are warned in the Gospels about being luke warm in our beliefs. Either we are for Christ or against Him. This is also why I, as well as my fellow seminarian, respect the new Pope Benedict XVI. Many criticize him for being to conservative and for not being in touch with today's world and the needs of modern Catholics. I respect him because I agree with the criticism, he isn't in touch with today's world because today's world isn't in touch with the law of God. In this, Benedict affirms that if you wanna be Catholic, be Catholic! Don't be a pseudo-Catholic. North American Catholics are upset at their new Pope because he will actually insist on them being Catholics. And this is the danger of the pseudo-Orthodox, or nominal Orthodox. Their presence within the Church is not a sign of success in numbers. Their presence is an example of spiritual laxity and liberalism that breeds the same attitude among the faithful. In these cases, whether these people are sitting in the pew or at home, makes no difference. And furthermore, it is better that they sit at home, because at least then they will not inspire spiritual laziness among others in the community. We must not think that if people walk out the door we have lost them, because the way things are now, there many in the pews who are already lost. They are simply going through the motions.
n conclusion I would have to say that while we must have compassion for all in the church, those who are pious and those who are not, we must not be afraid to preach the hard truth, even if it causes some to leave. If the minister preaches the truth, it is not he who is causing the condmenation of those who are nominal. At that point their own rejection of the word is condemning them. Christ came to call sinners to hear the truth, but He did not compromise that truth for tha sake of a larger following. Those who have ears, let them hear.
The typological approach that Irenaeus uses is quite clear and systematic throughout his work On the Apostolic Preaching. He sets up this typology in two parts; from chapter 4-30 he tells the story of all of creation, starting from Genesis and continuing through the flood, Moses, the Prophets, and finally up to the incarnation. The second part starts at chapter 31 and extends to the end of the work. In the second section, Irenaeus takes the opportunity to point out how in every instance in the Old Testament, Christ was foretold. For Irenaeus, this foretelling is more than a mere foreshadowing. It is Christ truly present in all aspects of the Old Testament. When Abraham speaks to the three angels Irenaeus says, “Now two of three were angels, but one was the Son of God, with whom Abraham spoke…” and further down he says, “So, Abraham was a prophet and saw things of the future, which were come to pass, the Son of God in human form-that He was to speak with men and eat food with them…” (Ch. 44). And so, for Abraham, the incarnation was already a reality that he had beheld. It is also interesting that Irenaeus also emphasizes the rectifying of past wrongs in the person on Christ. He likes to contrast the mistakes made in the Old Testament with the successes Christ made in the new. This is shown in chapter 33 when he says, “For it was necessary for Adam to be recapitulated in Christ, that ‘mortality might be swallowed up in immortality’; and Eve in Mary, that a virgin, become the advocate for a virgin, might undo and destroy the virginal disobedience by virginal obedience.” In the same chapter this contrast is continued in reference to the crucifixion; “And the transgression which occurred through the tree was undone by the obedience of the tree-which [was shown when] the Son of Man, obeying God, was nailed to the tree, destroying the knowledge of evil, and introducing and providing the knowledge of the good: and evil is to disobey God, just as to obey God is good.”
Monday, April 25, 2005
Now the Letters of Ignatius were quite fascinating to read and I believe they contain a very advanced Christology. It was clear to me that St. Ignatius was very well aware of the dual nature of Christ and thus emphasizes both the divine and human aspects of the Saviour. This is clear in all his epistles where he intentionally uses contradicting terminology in referring to Christ. Ignatius usually opens his epistles with a greeting in which he makes a distinction between Jesus Christ and God the Father. We see this in Ephesians Ch. 2 when he says, “may the Father of Jesus Christ refresh him.” And again in the introduction of Trallians he says, “by God the Father of Jesus Christ.” So we can see in these cases, as in many others, that there is a distinction between the Father and the Son. But in the same instance, Ignatius will say the complete opposite and unite the two. This is found numerous times such as in Ephesians Ch. 7; “There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.” It is statements like these that laid the foundations for the Nicene faith and express clearly the two natures of Christ and the reality of His incarnation all at once. These two modes of explaining Christ’s natures, the distinction of the persons of the Trinity and the unity of Father and Son, are even brought together in the same sentences such as in the introduction of Romans when he says, “Father Most High and Jesus Christ His only Son, beloved and enlightened through the will of Him who willed all things that exist, in accordance with faith in and love for Jesus Christ our God.” And so we see that even in the same sentence, Ignatius is able to emphasize both the divinity if Christ and the distinction between Him and God the Father. This is the most profound realization and teaching that I came across while reading these works and it is amazing to me that in such an early time, before Ecumenical Councils and local synods, St. Ignatius already has the full realization of the identity of Christ, the Incarnation and Trinitarian theology.
"Within that newfound freedom of thought into which the Enlightenment had launched headlong, dogma or church doctrine appeared as one of the real impediments to a correct understanding of the Bible itself. But freed from this impertinent presupposition, and equipped with a methodology which promised strict objectivity, it seemed that we were finally going to be able to hear again the clear and unmistakable voice of the original message of Jesus. Indeed, what had been long forgotten was to be brought into the open once more: the polyphony of history could be heard again, rising from behind the monotone of traditional interpretations. As the human element in sacred history became more and more visible, the hand of God, too, seemed larger and closer.
Gradually, however, the picture became more and more confused. The various theories increased and multiplied and separated one from the other and became a veritable fence which blocked access to the Bible for all the uninitiated. Those who were initiated were no longer reading the Bible anyway, but were dissecting it into the various parts from which it had to have been composed. The methodology itself seems to require such a radical approach: it cannot stand still when it "scents" the operation of man in sacred history. It must try to remove all the irrational residue and clarify everything. Faith itself is not a component of this method. Nor is God a factor to be dealt with in historical events. But since God and divine action permeate the entire biblical account of history, one is obliged to begin with a complicated anatomy of the scriptural word. On one hand there is the attempt to unravel the various threads (of the narrative) so that in the end one holds in one's hands what is the "really historical," which means the purely human element in events. On the other hand, one has to try to show how it happened that the idea of God became interwoven through it all. And so it is that another "real" history is to be fashioned in place of the one given. Underneath the existing sources — that is to say, the biblical books themselves — we are supposed to find more original sources, which in turn become the criteria for interpretation. No one should really be surprised that this procedure leads to the sprouting of ever more numerous hypotheses until finally they turn into a jungle of contradictions. In the end, one no longer learns what the text says, but what it should have said, and by which component parts this can be traced back through the text."
"But how is it possible to come to an understanding which on one hand is not based on some arbitrary choice of particular aspects, but on the other hand allows me to hear the message of the text and not something coming from my own self? Once the methodology has picked history to death by its dissection, who can reawaken it so that it can live and speak to me? Let me put it another way: if "hermeneutics" is ever to become convincing, the inner harmony between historical analysis and hermeneutical synthesis must be first found. "
"There should be no particular need to demonstrate that on the one hand it is useless to take refuge in an allegedly pure, literal understanding of the Bible. On the other hand, a merely positivistic and rigid ecclesiasticism would not do either. Just to challenge individual theories, especially the more daring and dubious ones, is likewise insufficient. Likewise dissatisfying is the middle-ground position of trying to pick out in each case as soon as possible the answers from modern exegesis which are more in keeping with tradition. Such foresight may sometimes prove profitable, but it does not grasp the problem at its root and in fact remains somewhat arbitrary if it cannot make its own arguments intelligible. In order to arrive at a real solution, we must get beyond disputes over details and press on to the foundations. What we need might be called a criticism of criticism. By this I mean not some exterior analysis, but a criticism based on the inherent potential of all critical thought to analyze itself. "
"In the midst of the theological, methodological debate of his day, Gregory of Nyssa called upon the rationalist Eunomius not to confuse theology with the science of nature. (Theologein is not physiologein.)  "The mystery of theology is one thing," he said, "the scientific investigation of nature is quite another." One cannot then "encompass the unembraceable nature of God in the palm of a child's hand." Gregory was here alluding to one of the famous sayings of Zeno: "The open hand is perception, the clapping hand is the agreement of the intellect, the hand fully closed upon something is the recording of judgment, the one hand clasped by the other is systematic science. "
"Along the same lines, I would like to express the following hopes:
a) The time seems to have arrived for a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method. Scientific exegesis must recognize the philosophic element present in a great number of its ground rules, and it must then reconsider the results which are based on these rules.
b) Exegesis can no longer be studied in a unilinear, synchronic fashion, as is the case with scientific findings which do not depend upon their history, but only upon the precision of their data. Exegesis must recognize itself as an historical discipline. Its history belongs to itself. In a critical arrangement of its respective positions within the totality of its own history, it will be able, on one hand, to recognize the relativity of its own judgments (where, for example, errors may have crept in). On the other hand, it will be in a better position to achieve an insight into our real, if always imperfect, comprehension of the biblical word.
c) Philological and scientific literary methods are and will remain critically important for a proper exegesis. But for their actual application to the work of criticism — just as for an examination of their claims — an understanding of the philosophic implications of the interpretative process is required. The self-critical study of its own history must also imply an examination of the essential philosophic alternatives for human thought. Thus, it is not sufficient to scan simply the last one hundred and fifty years. The great outlines of patristic and medieval thought must also be brought into the discussion. It is equally indispensable to reflect on the fundamental judgments made by the Reformers and the critical importance they have had in the history of exegesis.
d) What we need now are not new hypotheses on the Sitz im Leben, on possible sources or on the subsequent process of handing down the material. What we do need is a critical look at the exegetical landscape we now have, so that we may return to the text and distinguish between those hypotheses which are helpful and those which are not. Only under these conditions can a new and fruitful collaboration between exegesis and systematic theology begin. And only in this way will exegesis be of real help in understanding the Bible.
e) Finally, the exegete must realize that he, does not stand in some neutral area, above or outside history and the Church. Such a presumed immediacy regarding the purely historical can only lead to dead ends. The first presupposition of all exegesis is that it accepts the Bible as a book. In so doing, it has already chosen a place for itself which does not simply follow from the study of literature. It has identified this particular literature as the product of a coherent history, and this history as the proper space for coming to understanding. If it wishes to be theology, it must take a further step. It must recognize that the faith of the Church is that form of "sympathia" without which the Bible remains a closed book. It must come to acknowledge this faith as a hermeneutic, the space for understanding, which does not do dogmatic violence to the Bible, but precisely allows the solitary possibility for the Bible to be itself. "