Friday, August 25, 2006

more from St. Theophan

I'm almost done reading St. Theophan's The Spiritual Life. In these final letters, his correspondent has chosen a life of virginity, and he is responding to her desire. In #74, he writes:
No, no. It is quite impossible to rush. When there is haste and zeal like this to hurry things along, it is not of God. Confused desires are well-meaning, but they are not good and do not lead to the good. Godly things move along slowly and imperceptibly, but steadfastly.

Pray and wait with patience, looking to see whether a door will open. The Lord will arrange things in such a way as you cannot guess.

Encouraging words for someone in my position. By this point he has already counseled her to wait for her parents' blessing. He goes on to explain how it is possible to live as a monastic in her home until the time is right to enter a monastery. I'm not sure exactly the same thing can be said about my situation, but I do need to be more trusting that God will bring things along in his own time.

sobering thoughts for a born-again liberal

I grew up politically conservative but somehow found myself leaning more liberal in the past few years. Right now, it's actually kind of hard to know where to put myself in terms of political categories. I tend to prefer a deconstruction of the American left-right paradigm as mostly a false dichotomy designed to marginalize the masses. (Does that make me sound like a Communist?) Maybe my outlook is just a product of the current political landscape, where all mainstream politicians seem to agree on the issues that are important to me. Maybe I just like being on the fringe, where it's more fun to debate. But there must be some significance to the fact that Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan can be found on the same side, over against the President and his chief opponents in Congress.

Anyway, I was excited a couple of years ago to discover left-wing Evangelicalism. I had been feeling pretty depressed about how difficult it was to find Evangelicals who weren't rabid supporters of Bush. That's when I came across folks like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis, who seemed to preserve a more liberal strand that had always been part of Evangelicalism but had been drowned out by other forces. Remember that early in its history American Evangelicalism was actually a progressive movement that pushed through morality and social justice agendas. It seems like the rise of secular socialism caused a lot of Evangelicals to recoil into a more conservative outlook, for fear of guilt by association. Well, it wasn't too long after this discovery that I found my way out of Evangelicalism altogether and into Orthodoxy (at least in heart, if not all the way just yet). But I still sympathize with a lot of left-wing views. Here, then, are some excerpts from letter #16 in St. Theophan the Recluse's The Spiritual Life:
I would guess that among your friends are progressive thinkers, or that you have joined a society having such people in it, and they have scattered your good sense. Such people usually rave in this manner. Phrases such as "the good of mankind" and "the good of the people" are always on their tongues. . . .

Do whatever falls to your hands, in your circle and in your situation--and believe that this is and will be your true work; nothing more from you is required. It is a great error to think that you must undertake important and great labors, whether for heaven, or, as the progressives think, in order to make one's contribution to humanity. . . . The purpose is the blessed life beyond the grave; the means are the works according to the commandments, the execution of which is required by each instance of life. It seems to me that all of this is clear and simple; there is no reason to torture yourself with difficult problems. You need to put out of your mind any plans about "multi-beneficial, all-embracing, common-to-all mankind" activity such as the progressives rant about. Then your life will be regarded as enclosed within peaceful boundaries, and leading toward the final goal without hindrance. Remember, the Lord does not forget even a glass of cold water given to someone tormented by thirst.

Well . . . hmm . . . I guess I have some thinking to do.

more on the abomination of iTunes

If you caught in the comments to my post Seven Bowels of the Apocalypse my frustration with both iTunes and Rhapsody, I thought you might appreciate an update. I finally carved out some time to get Rhapsody out of my life for good. It turned out to be a much easier transition than I would have imagined, for which I am grateful. I looked around online for other options. The major players seem to be iTunes, WMP, and WinAmp. Normally, it's hard for me to say which I despise more--Macintosh, Microsoft, or AOL. I somehow ended up using AIM, I guess because the people I knew were using it, but I recently switched to Gaim for my interface, which at least helps me sleep at night. But generally speaking, my inclination is to avoid all three.

In this case, I decided that, since I'm pretty much stuck with iTunes and WMP on my computer so I can handle their proprietary formats, I may as well see if I can make one of them work for me. I recall there being issues with Rhapsody where the fix involved updating WMP, so I suspect that it's one of those cases where MS forces everything to tie in with its own buggy software--the price you pay for using Windows, I guess. Besides, I was still pretty sore about iTunes's goofy music file format, so I wasn't feeling very generous toward it. WMP was able to pick up everything out of my music library and ended up being much easier and more reliable than Rhapsody to use with my mp3 player. So far, it's doing everything I want it to do.

Meanwhile, Mac continues to outperform MS in the my-way-or-the-highway category. Not only does buying music from iTunes stick you with a worthless proprietary format that forever confines you to iTunes and iPod (aside from the fix of burning a CD, which I guess they haven't figured out how to corrupt yet, and ripping the songs back off into a form you can actually use), now I discover that you can't even use iTunes to put music on a non-iPod mp3 player. So even though podcasts are plain, lovable mp3s (the free ones, anyway), the only way to get them onto my player is to import them into some software that's actually designed to be useful. That's where I'm glad that WMP automatically imports new music files that it spots. I might live to regret my current alliance with MS, but for now, the enemies of my enemies are my friends.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

known by sight

It's become something of a cliche, but I think we really do learn some profound lessons from children. Without any intentional instruction or prompting, Ian quickly learned to recognize Jesus in icons and other pictures. (As an adult, anyway. I did have to explain little Jesus to him.) He also made an intuitive connection between Orthodox icons and church, even though by far his experience has been in relatively bare-walled Evangelical churches. I was once reading Fr. Michael Pomazansky's Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, which in the paperback edition has a rendition of the icon of Christ not made by human hands on the cover. He saw the cover and called it a "church book." Yesterday, I was working on the computer, and he got up to see what I was doing. He saw an icon of Christ healing the blind man and said, "I like pictures of Jesus." (I don't think I convinced him that the blind man was sick, rather than hiding.) Today, my copy of Hymns of Paradise, by Fr. Apostolos Hill, arrived in the mail. There was a fragment of an icon inside the cover, and again, he identified it with church. "Remember when we went to the quiet church?" he asked. Yeah, it's been too long since he went along with me.

This recognition is all the more remarkable, since the only icons we keep in the house are either part of book or CD designs, or a small diptych that I get out when I pray on my own or on the rare occasions that I pray with him before bed. He expects it whenever I put him to bed and always looks for Jesus if I don't get it out right away. Like most Evangelicals, my wife doesn't particularly care for icons, so we don't hang any on the walls. I settle for using them to decorate my computer desktop and recently put up a little icon corner at work. I'm glad that, in spite of their sparse presence in his life, he knows Orthodoxy by sight. I can't recall him ever making such visual associations with anything Evangelical. Not exactly surprising, but meaningful nonetheless.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Apocalypse and salvation

Now that I've finished Fr. Thomas's series on the Apocalypse, I can confirm Jim's comment in response to my post on salvation. (Actually, I finished it yesterday morning, but I wanted to go over some of it again.) Hopko does address several of the issues I raised in the last half of his last lecture. In particular, he responds to the question of whether only baptized members of the (Orthodox) Church will go to heaven. His answer is affirmative, but with qualifications. Baptism only saves a person if it is real baptism, meaning that it has to be followed up with a changed life. On the other hand, he refers to Gregory the Theologian's homily on baptism, which discusses a baptism of desire (parr. 22-23?), and goes on to talk about how a person who is not part of the Church, who doesn't even want anything to do with being a Christian perhaps, because of the bad testimony of Christians he has encountered, may respond with faith and love when he finally meets Christ face-to-face. He considers the last judgment to be the last chance for repentance and suggests that many who never had a real opportunity to respond to Christ in this life will embrace him at the end, just as many who claimed to be Christians will ultimately reject him. He talks about a lot of associated ideas, for instance the silliness of fixating on what is the minimal standard for getting into heaven, and how our judgment will be based on how we have lived, not whether we went to church or recited a creed.

Naturally, I was interested to find the specific section of St. Gregory's homily that he was talking about. I think I've found the right spot, although it's not as encouraging as Fr. Thomas seems to make it. I suspect the reason is that St. Greogry is mostly interested in persuading those who are inclined to put off getting baptized to get on with it. He talks a lot about various excuses people might make, and it is actually in this context that he brings up the baptism of desire. His argument seems to be, yes--the desire to be baptized is worth something--just as there are different states prior to baptism, some of which are better than others, there are different states apart from baptism, some of which are better than others--but that is not the end of the story. He suggests that a person could be in a situation where they are not subject to punishment but not worthy of glorification either. But it's much better to go all the way. If you want the desire to be baptized to stand in for actual baptism, are you also prepared to accept the desire for glory as a substitute for actual glory? Since his audience is presumably in a place where they have the real option of getting baptized, there is no encouragement here to stay as they are. Nevertheless, there is some hope that a person who lacks the opportunity can be saved. The resulting message is something like the Khomiakov quote that I posted at the beginning of this blog.

Fr. Thomas also mentions that at least two saints of the Church were not themselves members of the Church--Constantine (who famously waited to be baptized on his death bed), and perhaps more significantly, Isaac of Syria. St. Isaac was part of the Nestorian Church of the East, which never fell within the bounds of the Roman Empire and therefore did not participate in the councils. After the condemnation of Nestorianism, many of the heretics fled eastward to avoid imperial persecution. Their ideas took hold in the Church of the East and persist to this day. (This group is distinct from the so-called Monophysite churches, which include the Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches. These groups were generally more involved with the earlier councils and were fully Orthodox until Chalcedon. When they split from the Orthodox churches, the doctrinal division tended to run along political fault lines, with the Orthodox favoring allegiance to the empire and use of the Greek language, while the others preserved a more local identity and language. They seem to have been responding at least in part to pressure from foreign occupation, as the empire receded and they came first under Persian then under Arab domination.) Isaac served a short time as bishop of Nineveh but preferred the life of a simple monk. There is some suggestion that he left his see at least in part over his distaste for Nestorianism. In any case, he lived and died in the East and was never part of the Orthodox Church.

I find St. Isaac's canonization particularly interesting, because it shows not only a recognition that Christians can exist outside the true Church, but an affirmation that at least one who was undeniably a Christian and undeniably went to heaven (which is only 100% assured where saints are concerned) spent his life in a heterodox community. Like most American Protestants, he had little if any contact with the Orthodox Church and lived by what he knew. We might assume that he would have been part of the Orthodox Church if he had had the chance, but there is no way to know. I find that encouraging, because it leaves open the possibility that American Protestants, many of whom I dearly love, are not ultimately lost just because they have never found the Orthodox Church.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

shedding some light on politics

I expressed a few days ago some of my struggles over faith and politics. Something I ran across today might be useful for sorting things out. St. Sergius of Radonezh blessed the Russian revolt against the Tatars, prophesied their victory, and prayed with other monks to that end during the battle. Now, on one hand, you might argue that the Russian princes never really gave up their position as God-appointed authorities over their own people, and so they were simply acting as national defenders to throw off the yoke of oppression by a foreign power. On the other hand, they had been subject to Tatar rule for centuries and were themselves as Christians obligated to obey their overlords, at least as much as any Christian is obligated to submit in such cases. If we argue that way, St. Sergius's blessing of the effort shows that armed revolt is acceptable--even desirable--before God, at least in some situations.

Perhaps we would have to limit the allowance by saying that it only works in cases where an established ruler is rebelling against a foreign authority, but then we get into the sticky questions of how we define a legitimate ruler and what constitutes a foreign authority. I'm also not sure how we could really drive home the limitation except by advising caution. Another qualification might be that it has to be a Christian force rebelling against non-Christian oppression. But how does that follow? If anything, these circumstances should evoke the notion of martyrdom, where it is an honor to suffer and die for one's faith rather than fight back. I'm not saying that the blessing on the Russian forces in this case was unrelated to the religious persuasions of the combatants, but as far as the moral justification goes, it seems like you would have to extend it to include other situations where Christians languished under illegitimate rule. For that matter, there's no necessity that either side would have to be Christian at all. Not that it's going to matter to non-Christian combatants whether or not their behavior conforms with Christian standards, but for those of us who are part of an imperialistic nation, it is still relevant. May I, or for that matter, do I ever have a moral obligation to side with those who are legitimately fighting for their own freedom from American invasion? It doesn't seem like a double standard should be necessary, based on whether the fighters are Serbian Christians or Lebanese Muslims.

The experience of St. Sergius doesn't answer all questions by any means, but it does hint at an interpretation of St. Paul's instructions--that what he's really talking about is the day-to-day submission of the individual to civil laws, not the general legitimacy (or otherwise) of rebellion against oppression of various forms. The problem then becomes knowing where to draw the line. Arguably, if it is appropriate to rebel against oppression, it is therefore appropriate to break the law anytime it is seen as oppressive, or even if it is simply that the government enforcing the law is oppressive. Taking it to that extent would virtually eliminate any distinction between the two issues, so it's probably not right. But where then do we draw the line?

seven bowels of the apocalypse

Sorry, I couldn't resist. It really is the best way to bind things up this morning (there I go again). I finally got my hands on Fr. Thomas Hopko's series on Revelation. (Thanks, Jim!) After a little difficulty last night getting it loaded onto my mp3 player, I spent most of the bus ride this morning listening to the first lecture. (Problem 1: it wasn't making the jump very well directly from a CD to the mp3 player, so I had to put the files on the hard drive first. Problem 2: the track titles have to be distinct, and each lecture was broken into a few segments with the same title--I just had to add numbers to separate them. The latter problem, and maybe the former, was probably just a quirk in Rhapsody--I really need to switch to some different software, now that I'm no longer subscribed to their service anyway.) I like it so far. I'd read some stuff by Fr. Thomas before but never heard his voice. He's pretty interesting to listen to. The approach is about what I expected from what I've gleaned about Orthodox eschatology. It's good to hear it all put together in a coherent fashion, though, even if it's not authoritative doctrine. As a recovering Dispensationalist, it's going to take me a while to adjust to a different way of looking at things.

Toward the end of the bus ride, I started to feel some discomfort, and shortly after I got to work, I definitely had to get to the bathroom. I'm not sure if it was the meat I had after the service last night, for the first time in two weeks, or the kung pao shrimp I had with my wife beforehand. (Yes, I ate before Divine Liturgy--I normally try to follow the practice of fasting from midnight or noon, which for an evening DL on a fast day means no eating until after the service, but in this case I made an exception. I can't actually take communion anyway, so I don't think I'm technically required to wait, and I really hate making my wife eat alone.) I'm betting on the shrimp, since returning to meat after a fast doesn't normally do this to me; besides, it contributes nicely to my anti-Chinese-food bias. My wife just reported that she had some stomach issues last night, so that helps. It also diminishes the likelihood that God is punishing me for not waiting to eat :-)

Anyway, the service was good. I had read a collection of Dormition sermons from various Church Fathers over the past week or so, so it was nice to just soak it all in, without having to focus too much on the words. (Not that I zoned out--I just find that it's an easier experience when I'm well-prepared on the content of the service.) I finally met the Khouria at the meal afterward. I started to introduce myself as someone exploring Orthodoxy, when Fr. Gregory said I was really a catechumen. I was quick to interject, "not really," and he of course agreed. As usually happens when I try to explain why I've been exploring for so long without taking the next step, the subject of my wife's reluctance came up. I got the usual affirmation that it's very common for men to find Orthodoxy first and for their wives to resist. Fr. Gregory suggested, although he was careful to say that it's probably not a useful apologetic, that this trend indicates something right about Orthodoxy, in contrast with the struggle of so many Western churches to get men involved. I like to think that he's right, but I agree--it's probably not going to convince anyone.

Friday, August 11, 2006

weird diets

My son is eating falafel on pita for breakfast. Sure, he's drinking milk, but you've still got to love it. I'm the only one in my house who fasts, which certainly has its drawbacks. That's part of the reason that I try to attend services associated with the different feasts and fasts. It's the only chance I have to make this a communal experience. It's still a pain, though, to spend more time thinking about food rather than less, since I have to prepare my own meals. It's a pain that we can't quite share meals as a family during fasting periods. (We try at least to sit together for supper.) Ian doesn't fast, but at least he gets into the food I eat. It's kind of hard to be a vegetable-hating vegan, so I've had to come up with a menu that works for me. Falafel is one of my staples, which he likes and usually wants when I'm eating it. He doesn't do the tahini sauce or lettuce (the only vegetable I can tolerate in with it), but he has to have it in a pita. He also sometimes gets interested in beans that I might be eating. I guess this morning he saw the leftover falafel in the refrigerator and just had to have some. My favorite is the time when we were all eating together, and my wife was having egg rolls. Ian had a pita with an egg roll and falafel, covered in sour cream.

Maybe he'll be the one to bridge our differences. We can't agree on Asian cuisine any more than we can agree on religion. She likes Chinese, which I can hardly stand; I like Indian and Mediterranean, which she avoids. If falafel and eggrolls can co-exist in one pita, maybe there's hope . . .

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


It's become more and more evident to me that I need some kind of response prepared for Evangelicals who ask about Orthodoxy and salvation. This issue in some respects tends to be a higher priority for Evangelicals than for Orthodox themselves. As evidence, consider the results when you google eastern orthodox salvation--almost everything that comes up (in the first seven pages or so, which is as far as I got) is either general interest (,, wikipedia, etc.) or some kind of Evangelical polemic (something written by Evangelicals for Evangelicals about Orthodoxy, mostly to point out what's wrong with it). These results contrast with several other topical searches that I've done online over the past couple of years--normally, if it's an issue that Orthodox writers address, you'll find it on an Orthodox site without too much searching.

The reason for this outcome, I submit, is not that Orthodox adherents are unconcerned with salvation per se; rather, their approach to salvation is different in several respects that affect the way they talk about it. A question like, "Are you saved?" makes sense in an Evangelical context (although those who are sensitive about evangelism would advise against using it, since it's not terribly meaningful to outsiders--presumably the target audience of the question). It makes a good deal less sense in an Orthodox setting, as I hope to explain. This is partly a matter of convention--different groups use different terminology, sometimes to refer to the same things. It goes beyond that, though. In this case, as is so often true of convention, terminology is driven largely by the underlying ideas that need to be expressed in the group. A question like, "Are you saved?" never really needs to be answered--for that matter, cannot be answered--in Orthodox circles; therefore, a convention never developed for asking it.

You see, Orthodoxy takes the long view of salvation. Salvation is something we experience in process now and ultimately in the future. Salvation in Orthodoxy does not stop with a declaration of someone's status or an abstract spiritual turning point. From an Orthodox perspective, the wisdom in avoiding terms like "saved" when speaking to those outside the fold is found precisely in the fact that their meanings are non-intuitive as used by Evangelicals. They carry a great deal of symbolic meaning for Evangelicals themselves, but for anyone else, they don't seem to mean much of anything, or at least don't mean what one might naturally think they would mean. "Are you saved?" for instance, is a question almost exclusive to (Evangelical) religious discussion. In normal life, one might say, "Were you saved?" referring to deliverance that occurred at a specific time in relation to a specific threat; but "saved" does not describe a definable state for most people (aside from something like a "saved seat," but that is not talking about a person).

In this case, Orthodoxy would agree with standard intuition--salvation is something that goes on in process while a threat persists and is completed only when the threat in question is gone or has been effectively overcome. In terms of the Christian life, we are being saved out of our fallen condition and the dangerous consequences that lie ahead, and at the final judgment those who belong to Christ will be saved from eternal punishment. But going beyond this quibble over language, the differences get even more significant. Because Orthodoxy does not tend to focus on the act or process of salvation as defining in itself, you're not as likely to hear or see it discussed. Instead, they talk about things like theosis--the process of being conformed to the image of God--or sainthood, which is the end-goal of the process.

Another critical difference is the role of the Church. Whereas in Evangelicalism, the Church is understood to be the collection of all saved individuals, in Orthodoxy, the Church is the ark of salvation, where we are all saved together. This is not to say that personal faith is unimportant; rather, it is a different way of understanding what "personal" means. In Western terminology, "personal" and "individual" tend to be interchangeable on a certain level, and particularly when used to describe faith. In Orthodoxy, "personal" is understood in Trinitarian terms. For us to be persons is meaningful as an aspect of our creation in God's image. The nature of God defines personhood for us. The three persons of the Trinity are always understood in their relationship to each other, and likewise we are persons as we relate to others. There is still an element of the individual here, because for two persons to be in relationship there has to be some differentiation between them. So each person is marked off as distinct from every other, but this is only in the context of a relationship. Individuality, on the other hand, looks at the defined entity in isolation. An individual can be in relationship, but they are unassociated factors. In fact, to put an individual into relationship involves making that individual into a person.

So, in Orthodoxy, personal faith and personal salvation have to do with community. Yes, I believe, but I believe as part of a believing community, and my faith is defined by the faith of the community. Yes, I am being saved, but I am being saved as part of a community of salvation. There is no need to choose between individual and collective salvation, individual and collective faith. They are integrally linked, and their sequence is not fixed. In Orthodoxy, you might have one person who is baptized as an infant in the faith of the Church and later embraces that faith as an individual, while another person embraces the faith first and is baptized into the Church later. Salvation in Orthodoxy is truly synergistic--with both divine and human elements in the process--and things that happen outside of God's own nature do not happen all at once. Evangelicals like to pick apart the material and spiritual components of sacraments and ask whether regeneration precedes or follows the ritual of water baptism, for instance. Orthodox simply accept that it all goes together--that we experience it as separate elements in time, but in the divine mystery it is one act.

Inevitably, discussion with Evangelicals about Orthodoxy will come to issues considered critical to the Evangelical concept of salvation. How do you know whether someone is going to heaven or hell? How can you be sure of your salvation? Is it possible to lose your salvation? And wrapped up in this line of questioning is usually the further inquiry, what is the fate of non-Orthodox Christians? I don't claim to have great answers for any of them, but I'll offer what I can:

How do you know whether someone is going to heaven or hell? Simply put, you don't. There are some exceptions, of course, but in general, Orthodox are not encouraged to judge the eternal fate of anyone. Recognized saints are known to go to heaven, but many saints of the Church are unknown. Also, there is a distinction to be made between what one can know about one's own situation and what can be known about others. I'll come back to one's own situation when we get to some of the other key questions. Where others are concerned, we generally don't know. We might have a pretty good idea, but we don't know for sure. We are all engaged in a process of growing and striving (or at least we should be), and continuing the journey is the most important thing. God will take care of getting us there in his own way and time.

How can you be sure of your salvation? In one sense, you can't. This will relate directly to the next question, but the point here is humility. We always recognize our sinfulness before God. We always look for ways that we still need to grow. The struggle in this life never stops. This is not as bad as it might sound. Martin Luther agonized over never knowing if he'd thought to confess everything or if he'd adequately paid for his offenses. In this respect, Protestantism started from a legalistic system in Catholicism and didn't substantially change the legalistic framework. They preserved the primary image of God as judge--they simply found a way to separate our specific sins as believers from the implications of negative judgment. Orthodoxy accepts the idea of God as judge and the forensic metaphors used in Scripture, but its fundamental understanding of salvation has to do more with relationship and spiritual health. Yes, our sins against God damage our relationship. Yes, they hurt us spiritually. But the answer to spiritual injury is healing, and the answer to a broken relationship is reconciliation. God is our loving father, who waits and watches for his prodigals to return home. He's not looking for us to mess up, so he can strike us dead and then sentence us to hell because we didn't have time to repent.

Is it possible to lose your salvation? Well, again, we have to begin from the idea that salvation is something you don't really have in this life anyway. Is it possible to stall the process and walk away? God has given us freedom as humans, and Scripture contains severe warnings for apostasy. He respects our choice, if we decide to turn back. More to the point, there is a sense in which God's action is the same regardless of how we end up. There is a common notion in Orthodoxy that the same divine glory is experienced in one of two ways. If we arrive in a sound relationship with God, we come into the light of his glory as something for which we were already created. If we arrive in a state of enmity with God, his glory burns us as the fires of hell. So God has done everything for us that is necessary to make relationship possible. The rest is our choice.

What is the fate of non-Orthodox Christians? This is a question I have asked myself on various occasions from various Orthodox individuals, including more than one priest. It is also a question I have heard from several Evangelical friends. The standard Orthodox answer is agnostic. God's grace works both inside and outside the Church, and we cannot judge the fate of any individual. We certainly don't limit God's grace from working in unexpected ways. There are Orthodox who will say definitively that non-Orthodox Christians are as lost as anyone else outside the Church. They will appeal to unequivocal statements like, "There is no salvation outside the Church." This kind of statement is truly part of Orthodox tradition, but for most Orthodox, it doesn't seem to be the end of the story. As one concrete example, there are Orthodox churches where memorial services for the dead can be performed for non-Orthodox Christians. If they were known to be in hell, or if their status were equated with that of any non-believer, there would be no point offering such a service, and certainly no point in making a distinction between them and non-believers.

Saying that there is no salvation outside the Church may be taken in dfferent ways. Perhaps it was appropriate to a certain time and set of circumstances, but now that millions of people spend their lives ignorant of Orthodoxy yet striving to follow Christ, it is not quite so directly applicable. Perhaps it means we don't know of any salvation outside the Church. Perhaps there is some sense in which those who are outside the Church but who love Christ are striving to get in, if they could only find the way, and God honors this desire. I don't have a fully satisfying answer, even for myself. But even if it is written off as a contradiction, the contradiction must still be allowed to stand on its own two feet. Maybe it doesn't make any sense, but the widespread belief among Orthodox that God is somehow working with those outside the Church has to be acknowledged.

There is more that could be said, but I suppose this has gone on long enough. I welcome suggestions, questions, comments, etc.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

reconciling faith and politics

I'm trying to maintain a general policy of avoiding politics as such on this blog. What does seem more appropriate, however, is to air out my personal struggles over how my own political views need to conform better with my faith. Unfortunately, I have not run across much in the way of Orthodox writing on this subject, particularly that would speak to Western circumstances today. At this point, therefore, I have a lot of questions, but not too many answers. I'm not sure I can put all of this into a coherent form, but I'm going to try to get it all down anyway.

Things used to be much simpler for me. Back in high school, I started listening to Rush Limbaugh, and I accepted pretty readily that the views he articulated on his program went hand-in-glove with Evangelical Christianity. Once I got into college, I started to lose interest in politics, along with just about everything else that had to do with the outside world. That didn't change much throughout seminary either. Toward the end of seminary, as I started exploring other hermeneutical approaches, I came in contact with the ideological criticism of literary theory from about a generation ago (which of course means it's more current in biblical studies, since there's always a lag). This was my first real introduction to radical political views, and I found myself drawn to some of the ideas. Later, I got interested in poverty from an ethical and religious perspective, which also contributed to my left-leaning outlook. Along with that, I was by this point searching for a different faith, and for at least a while my political and faith journeys ran together.

Our Evangelical church decided to organize a discussion of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and since I was interested in Judaism at the time, I offered to work on the anti-semitism question. (Interesting timing that I should bring this up now--I didn't notice the connection until a moment ago, as I was writing the words.) The best Jewish critique of the film that I encountered was written by an American Sephardic Jew who also happened to be a liberal (in the American political spectrum) and critical of Zionism in Israel. Looking for more information about his views led me to an Israeli writer who was an anti-Zionist activist and Stalinist in his politics. I spent a lot of time reading his work and associated materials from an online discussion list. What he advocated was an interesting blend (from the American perspective at least) of far-right, paleoconservative nationalism and far-left, radical socialism. It was at this point that I realized the left-right dichotomy in American politics is not the only paradigm with which to categorize positions. (More to the point, I came to believe that it was a false dichotomy that served those in power.) I started to see things more in terms of class struggle, where the marginalized right and left fringes really need to come together in opposition to the so-called moderate middle.

Along the way, I went looking for a form of Evangelicalism that would fit better with what I was thinking. I discovered the Evangelical left--groups like Sojourners, led by Jim Wallis, and Evangelicals for Social Action, led by Ron Sider. I read a lot of their stuff, which is more mainstream American liberal on economic and foreign policy issues but tries to incorporate more conservative views on issues of personal morality like abortion. Their views never posed much of a problem for me when it came to biblical mandates, but I also never thought their approach went far enough. As an example of where I would differ, I have never participated in an anti-war demonstration, because I suspect that those who do would not want someone like me on their side. You see, I would not be there because I was a pacifist or even simply because I thought America should stay out of other countries' business. I would be there because I actively supported the insurgencies that fought against American occupation.

I've never felt an overwhelming inclination to take up arms against my own government, but philosophically I think it's an important idea. I see in the second amendment an attempt to preserve this option--not that government is ever obligated to lie down and let rebels walk all over it, but that people should have the means available to stage another revolution, if such a thing became necessary. I don't think I would join a militia myself, but on at least one level I support what they're about. Not only is this sort of outlook something that would probably not sit well in a peace demonstration; it's probably not acceptable to most American Christians, and for good reason, it would seem, in light of Romans 13. I'll come back to that in a bit.

As I started to get interested in Orthodoxy (which happened not long after my interest in Zionism), I explored other political views--essentially Russian nationalist and czarist views in opposition to Western dominance of the so-called New World Order. I've come to have a lot of historical respect for the political system under czarist Russia (what I know if it anyway), and I tend to sympathize with the nationalism of Russia today under Putin, particularly as it displays a renewed partnership between Church and state. It also appeals to me, because Russia is one of the few nations in the world today that is able to resist American dominance. I imagine that if I lived in Russia, I could easily support my nation and be content that I was fulfilling my Christian obligations (assuming that I wouldn't transfer my rebellious feelings to the nation I lived in). But living in America, I have no respect for what my government is doing around the world, and I find it difficult not to sympathize with our enemies.

So with all that as background, we come to my present dilemma. I've been trying to follow the lectionary in my personal devotions, and yesterday's epistle reading was from Romans 13. Yikes! As a mainstream liberal, this passage would pose no real problem for me, since I would affirm the value of government as a protector against corporate power and associated evils. I might question some of our foreign policy, but I would not support our enemies. But given my present outlook, there's a lot here to think about:
  • Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. I don't break laws myself, but I would sympathize with a movement to rebel against oppressive government, including if that oppressive government happens to be or be controlled by my own.
  • For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. What does this even mean in a democracy? We have no divine right of kings. Does this mean that we are allowed to oppose political candidates all we want, but as soon as they're elected, we should roll over and submit? What if the election was illegal? What about our laws of impeachment?
  • For rulers are not a terror to good works but to evil. Surely Paul knew that government could terrorize those who did good as well. Generally speaking, this passage is understood with at least one big exception--that government does not have to be obeyed when it's a directly opposed alternative to following God. But how far does the exception go? If in fact a ruler does terrorize those who do good, what then? Our founding fathers' answer was, the citizens should be able to take up arms against their government in such cases. But is this a Christian idea?
I could go on. St. John Chrysostom, in commenting on this passage, calls subjection for conscience's sake the flip side of submission due to fear. Since government is there to restrain evil, we should support its endeavors in that area. But what if government seems also to promote evil? What if the institutions that are supposed to protect us from foreign invasion are invading other countries without just cause and actually making us more susceptible to attack by increasing our enemies? What if our government is actually sacrificing the good of its people to the interests of corporate lobbies or foreign allies? What if our government's supposed advocacy for religious freedom includes compelling Orthodox nations to move toward Western-style separation of Church and state on the one hand, and looking the other way when dictatorial allies allow or support persection of Christians on the other?

Perhaps Paul's point is simply this--we're going to get enough grief from government over our faith; let's not make things any worse by violating the law or acting seditiously when we don't have to. Whatever its methods, whatever its abuses, we can at least respect that government is interested in preserving some degree of order and peace. If it fails in this, those who govern will soon find themselves without jobs, either because they are overwhelmed by their enemies or because they are overthrown or worse by angry mobs. Then again, if Christians are commanded not to rebel, then theoretically a government whose citizens are Christians could do anything it wanted without fear of reprisal, at least from within (assuming everyone acted like a Christian is supposed to act).

But what about prophetic confrontation? Clearly, there were prophets in the Old Testament who were sent to speak against the immoral actions of kings and people. So does the choice between government and Christ include speaking out against immoral actions of governments? To what degree is it permissible? These prophets were imprisoned and put to death for their messages, so apparently they were breaking the law to obey God in this matter. Does this allow for civil disobedience? What about use of violent force? The judges of Israel led various types of armed uprisings. There were also prophetically sanctioned assassinations and coups. Granted, they also encouraged submission at times, as when Jeremiah preached about the invasion of Judah by Babylon. How do these different elements fit together?

In Orthodox history, there have been many different conditions under which Christians have lived. There were the early persecutions under Rome, the Christianization of the empire, the periods when rulers supported various heresies, the dominance in some Orthodox areas of foreign invaders--Persians, Arabs, Turks, Tatars, Latins--and the rise of Communism. Was it right for the White Russians to fight the Reds? Was it right for Greece or Serbia to fight for independence from Ottoman rule? What about the civil wars in Yugoslavia? And today, when so many Orthodox live in regions that were never historically Orthodox, where should their allegiance lie? If the U. S. went to war with Russia, what should be the reaction of Orthodox Americans? What about when the U. S. or its allies carry out operations in the Middle East that lead to death or greater oppression for Orthodox Christians in that part of the world (even if our primary enemies are Muslims)?

Like I said, I don't have many answers. Interestingly, in the few hours since I started writing this, Fr. Andrew has posted a short piece on his site about the war in Lebanon that has some relevance:
How can Orthodox living in the West and citizens of Western countries remain silent in the face of the present outrages?

Orthodox have had to answer such questions in all ages, from the Roman Empire to the American Empire. Their answers are inevitably shaped by the belief that our Faith is more important than loyalty to any earthly State, for eternity is more important than time and space. Orthodox will always put their Faith above their temporal nationality and natural feelings of patriotism. As the West has for nearly a thousand years ideologically opposed the Gospel, incorporating secularism into its very ideology. Orthodox who are devoted to the Truth of Christ are inevitably ambivalent towards the West. We can never integrate the worldliness of the West. We may, and indeed should, love our countries, the USA, England, France or any other, but this is in spite of the actions of particular Western governments, let alone minority regimes, like that of Mr Blair.

For conscious Orthodox, Orthodoxy is in itself a nationality, the ‘nationality’ of Christ, which is above all nationalities and governments. As bombs fall on Orthodox in the Lebanon, we Orthodox feel solidarity with all other Orthodox. As bombs rain down on Roman Catholics and Muslims and rockets fall on Jews, we Orthodox also feel solidarity with all suffering mankind, which is abused and deceived by powerbrokers and their machines of war. All men are created in the image and likeness of God, whatever the religious label, Muslim, Jew, Roman Catholic or any other, which manmade misinterpretation of revelation, conditioned by race, history and politics, have attached to them.

I like what he says here. I wish I could flesh it out with more specifics.

Friday, August 04, 2006

not quite confession, but . . .

I wrote a month and a half ago about my desire for a human confessor. I realized, of course, that as a sacramental non-Orthodox I could not participate in confession sacramentally. (It all goes together in a sort of package. Until you're legitimately baptized, none of the other sacraments apply either.) Still, there's something of a paradox here. Although I'm excluded from the formal sacraments of the Church, I live in a sacramental world. Whether inside or outside the Church, the Spirit of God works through our material experiences to infuse our lives with grace. There is a sacramental logic, if you will, that has little or nothing to do with the formalities of Church membership. (Church membership fits integrally into this logic--my point, though, is that the logic still operates while someone like me muddles his way toward communion. For that matter, the logic operates in the lives of Western Christians and even non-Christians of all sorts--even those who don't recognize sacraments as reality.) So sacramental confession, no; but there is still a meaningful dimension to confession given before another human that goes beyond the experience of private confession to God alone.

The Evangelical shadow of sacramental confession is a simple accountability relationship between two individuals or a small group, who mutually choose to open up to each other about their struggles with sin. Often, this type of thing happens without any particular chain of authority. They are brothers or sisters in Christ who take responsibility for each other. I think this kind of arrangement feels more comfortable to Evangelicals, who tend to suffer from a mild paranoia about human authority. Unfortunately, it also tends to diminish the weight of spiritual guidance that could take place in the exchange.

I'm happy to report that Fr. Gregory was willing to hear my confession and offer guidance. We had our first such session last night. Again, it was not an Orthodox sacramental confession. Aside from the advice he gave throughout, we simply ended with a few repetitions of the Jesus prayer, and he invoked the prayers of the saints on my behalf. But it was still a very valuable experience that I hope to repeat in the future. Not only was it a relief to open up to someone about my sins and to get advice about how to overcome them in the future, but even the couple of weeks leading up to our meeting provided an opportunity not only for reflection but for more active resistance to sin, since I knew that I was going to have to talk about it.

I also had the opportunity to stay for the Paraklesis afterward, which I enjoyed. It would be nice if I could go every day during the fast, but at least it was a taste. God willing, I'll be back for the Dormition liturgy in a little over a week.