Saturday, September 30, 2006

skinny St. Nicholas and the flying camera man

My wife is out of town this weekend, so Ian and I are on our own. Tonight and tomorrow are easy--we'll actually get to attend vespers and DL for the same day! We have the car, so we can actually get out to the Antiochian church. This morning they had a float in the town parade, so Ian and I went to watch. His favorite parts were the horses and the candy (and probably more than those, the fact that we got to see a light rail train go by on the way back to the car). Mine were the skinny St. Nicholas pushing the boat and the camera man who went dashing by ahead of the group--I guess looking for a good spot to get some shots. Hi, Jim! I told "St. Nicholas" when I saw him later that I was disappointed. The Presbyterians had a steel drum, the Baptists had singing puppets, and there we were with one of our best chanters in the parade, and all he did was push a boat ;-) He informed me that they were playing recorded chant, but I couldn't hear it. I guess the Shriners on their three-wheelers must have drowned it out. Anyway, Ian had a good time, and the rain held off until we were leaving. We even got to be part of the parade for a while. Since we staked out a place near the beginning, we overtook them and walked alongside. The sidewalks were mostly filled with spectators, so we ended up walking in the street.

My wife has agreed to meet with Fr. Gregory, if we can find a time to do it. I met with him a couple of days ago, and he said he wants to get a better sense of where she's at, so he can figure out what to do with me. I also got some holy water for the first time. Weird, when you think about it too much--to be carrying around water that's really water, as it should be, and in a used jelly jar no less.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

United States, United Church?

In this week's edition of Orthodox Christian News, there's a link to the .pdf version of Again magazine's Summer 2006 issue on Orthodox Unity in North America. Since I don't subscribe to the magazine, this was my first opportunity to read this issue. Frankly, I'm humbled by the whole question and the associated challenges. I think unity is important. Personally, a significant piece of what attracts me to Orthodoxy in the first place is the ideal of unity. I recognize that the Orthodox Church here in North America is far from that ideal, but at least Orthodoxy offers a vision to strive for. Protestantism, and Evangelicalism in particular, has long given up on the kind of tangible unity that Orthodoxy teaches. Its ecclesiology of invisible unity in an invisible Church, defined by an abstraction of those who are "saved," i.e., spiritually baptized, can never produce real-life cohesion. Yes, the idea of Christian unity can and often does work at the level of a local congregation, but that congregation must always be a voluntary grouping of individual believers. If the cohesion breaks down, it is sustained by reshuffling the deck. Those who don't fit in can go off and join or start something else, until equilibrium is re-established. The Orthodox notion of catholicity defies this approach, and I love that about Orthodoxy.

So it pains me to see Orthodoxy here in America divided by ethnic jurisdiction. On that point, I don't see much room for dispute, and I don't apologize for taking a position. The problem is when it comes to fixing the situation. Generally speaking, the Again issue seems to represent one viewpoint on how to achieve Orthodox unity. Perhaps it can be argued that it is the only viable approach, at least for North America. But the fact is, such things must be argued. There are alternatives. I don't feel like I'm in a place to settle these issues, or even to give a well-founded opinion, so I'm going to try to stay out of the discussion for now. There are just a couple of points that I want to make here. First, I thought it interesting that almost nowhere in the various articles on Orthodox unity (there are some other topics covered in the issue) was monasticism brought up as a significant factor. It seems to me like it should at least make the list. Second, I found somewhat disturbing Fr. John Behr's article, "One in Christ." The general thrust of his argument seems to be that, since there seems to have been a multiplicity of bishops in at least one or two large cities in the earliest centuries of the Church, we might be barking up the wrong tree to look for one bishop in each city. Maybe all that's necessary is to get the bishops in a city all on the same page--part of a synod or some such thing, and all affirming each other's Orthodoxy and belonging to the same local church.

Now, I don't think that as an intermediate step this would necessarily be a bad thing, and it seems like I've read elsewhere the suggestion that this might be a step in the progression toward canonical unity. What disturbs me is his suggestion (as I understand it) that this could be the final form of Orthodox unity in America--that perhaps the whole idea of one bishop in one city pertains only to an Orthodox nation or empire. I don't want to criticize too much on the basis of what little he says here--I realize it's not exactly the best medium for articulating a full defense of such things. Still, as I say, I find it somewhat disturbing. In particular, I'm skeptical of his suggestion:
This new situation also reflects an undeniable change in our contemporary experience of space—with the advent of mass private transport and greater communications, our sense of space, the world in which we now live, is not so much geographically defined as it is defined by culture, friendships, family. But if this is the case, what has become of the Church in any given region, as described above? Who, what, or where is the Church of New York, or any other metropolitan area?
I think there is "an undeniable change in our contemporary experience of space," but I'm not sure that he analyzes it properly. For instance, I'm not sure how significant family is in the contemporary (Western) experience, particularly on the scale of world cultures and our own past history. What I think we are finding today is a virtual space of our own choosing. The people who live near me are irrelevant (as such). I choose where and with whom I will work, and there too I have control over how far I carry my relationships with coworkers. I choose my activities, so that the people I interact with at the gym, or on a sports team, or as part of a club, have common ground with me because of our shared interests, but there too, I can choose how intimate things get. This choice is carried even further in the formation of online communities, where I can be still more selective about whom I converse with or even date. And I'm not particularly constrained by family, since I can choose to live as far from or as close to them geographically as I want, and I can choose how much I will put into my relationship with them. Ours is a culture of choice, which I don't think is entirely unrelated to the Protestant culture of the voluntary church. I can choose the type of church that I want to attend, so that it places less demand on my time or energy, so that I'm around people I feel comfortable with, so that the preaching agrees with what I already think, etc. In fact, my faith is all about what I as an individual choose to believe, and the most any church can do about it is disagree, so that we choose to go our separate ways.

So I'm a bit disturbed at the thought that Orthodoxy in America would simply accept this outlook as a given reality, because I'm not sure how it fails to lead to the same approach to Christianity that we find in Protestantism today. Granted, the idea that the bishops must all be in agreement at least doctrinally would provide some kind of curb on excesses in this area, but it still opens things up (it seems to me) for a great deal of Protestantization in the Church. And maybe this speaks to my biggest misgiving about the whole idea of a uniquely American Orthodox Church. Is it possible that American culture is so permeated with American religion (indeed, which has been shaped more by the other?), that a too-American Orthodoxy would thereby become less Orthodox than it should be? American Orthodoxy in the sense of Orthodoxy based and administered within America is one thing--with that I have no argument--but American Orthodoxy in the sense of Orthodoxy shaped by American culture is something requiring a bit more discernment. That's where I worry.

Monday, September 18, 2006

less than ideal

I might have mentioned before the geography of my situation. Right now, we live within walking distance of one Orthodox parish (OCA), which is currently building a new facility that will still make it the closest parish to us, but will pretty much require driving to get there. The next closest Orthodox parish that I know of is a Ukrainian cathedral. I've been there once for a Christmas service--wasn't terribly impressed, but maybe I should give it another try for something normal. For big holidays, I guess they do one combined service where normally they would have one in English and one in Ukrainian. That's about a 20 min. drive, but one advantage is that it's not too far from the Evangelical church we attend. Expanding to 25-30 min., there are two other options in basically opposite directions--one a small ROCOR mission parish, the other an Antiochian parish, where I attend most of the time.

My wife has agreed to teach preschool once a month at our Evangelical church, which means that week she attends both services (works with kids during one, attends worship with adults during the other). Since our son would be in the class she's teaching (which always complicates things), and in any case he and I would have to hang around for an extra service, I offered to take him to the OCA parish those weeks. The service is longer, and he likes to play on the nearby playground afterward, so schedule-wise it works out pretty well. Yesterday was our first time trying the arrangement. I'd visited there a few times before--once when I first got interested in Orthodoxy, again during Lent 2005, then all three of us went right after Katrina hit last year--we'd planned on visiting the Antiochian parish, but with fuel shortages that weekend, we decided to stay close to home. There might be one or two other visits I'm not remembering. In any case, it had been quite a while since my last visit there, and in the meantime I've begun to feel like the Antiochian parish is really my home.

Given our transportation constraints (only one car), it's the only serious option we have for Sunday a.m. services, but it still feels less than ideal. One reason that I haven't gone there more regularly to begin with is because they only have services on Sunday mornings. I tend to be a big proponent of keeping things local, especially when it comes to church. Part of what attracts me to Orthodoxy is the ideal of one city-one church, where the local parish is the parish you go to. It may rarely work out that way in America, given the multiplicity of jurisdictions and insufficient coverage of territory, but at least the ideal is there. (With Protestantism, particularly in America, it's not even a justifiable goal.) But given my circumstances, local is not enough. Right now, I need a parish that has services other than Sunday a.m. I also haven't got much of a response from either priest when I've expressed interest in talking about Orthodoxy. Maybe they'll have more services once they're in the new building, but for now it can't be the only parish in my life. On the other hand, it's the only parish close enough to do Sunday a.m. with any kind of regularity.

So I'm pretty much stuck having to attend at least two different parishes. The overall frequency with which I can attend Orthodox services is bad enough without splitting it. I don't have much expectation of building serious relationships at the OCA parish by attending once a month. Yesterday, I had the usual feeling of sorrowful joy--joy that I could take part in the service if only to a limited degree, sorrow that I could not participate fully. But it felt lonelier than usual, since I really didn't feel like I had much of a connection with anyone there. I was glad to have Ian with me, so at least we could keep each other company. I don't think I've ever felt closer to him than I did in that service. It's hard to explain--maybe just the contrast. I suppose expectations might play a role here, because I don't remember feeling so lonely when I've visited cathedrals where I knew no one but didn't expect to attend with any regularity anyway.

So now I'm thinking that maybe if things move seriously in the direction of attending separate churches, it's probably inevitable that we'll have to get another car. I hate to do it, because it would add financial strain on top of everything else, but it may be the only realistic option.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Velvet Elvis

Today, I read Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill, which according to the back of his book is one of the fastest growing churches in American history. It was suggested to me by the pastor of the Evangelical church we attend when I was explaing to him and the other elders how I ended up attracted to Orthodoxy. My initial thought when I saw the book was--weird format. My second thought was--someone wants this to look postmodern. I don't know if it normally comes with a dust jacket--the library copy doesn't have one. The cover is plain white, with the title rotated 90 degrees (clockwise) and written in Orange. The subtitle is under/next to it in faint gray--the same color as the author's name. Inside, the book is three-color--mostly black and white print, but with a lot of orange highlighting, including fully orange pages between the chapters. The page numbers are also written sideways, and for some reason the chapters are called "movements." It doesn't seem very musical beyond that. There are a lot of one-line or even one-word paragraphs throughout the book, so between the white space and the extra orange pages between chapters, it's actually a much faster read than its nearly 200 pp. (including endnotes) would suggest. Since I brought up the endnotes, I should mention that I find them off-putting. Mostly, the notes are Scripture references, which could easily have been handled in-line. I suppose someone doesn't want the book to look too religious by putting them out there where the casual reader might see them. I tried not to let these elements prejudice my reaction to the book, since it's entirely possible that the publisher had a lot more say in them than the author.

I'm reasonably confident that I know why the book was recommended to me. Early on, it has some positive things to say about tradition and about reading the Bible in community. The author is clearly quite enthusiastic about Jewish tradition in particular, which would seem relevant to my own experience. There are other elements that might have had something to do with the recommendation, but I'm less certain that they were specifically considered. In short, it was probably meant to show that some of the key things I was looking for when I found Orthodoxy can be found in certain types of Evangelicalism that exist right now. It does that, and I'm grateful for it in its way, but as I hope to explain here, it didn't change much about my outlook on much of anything.

I've known for quite some time that there is a subset of Evangelicalism--generally categorized as postmodern or labeled "the emerging Church"--that likes to talk about tradition and reading as part of a community. Personally, I got to those ideas through the literary critic Stanley Fish (among others); I'm not sure these people are coming at it from quite the same angle, but the result is more or less the same. One significant difference, I suspect, is that my hermeneutical journey took me through some more radical methods, many of which are grounded in a completely secularist outlook, so by the time I realized where it was all leading, the picture looked quite a bit more bleak. No, bleak probably isn't the word I want here. What I think I really want to say is that I was more jaded about the whole process of reading for objective meaning. I will freely admit that some of this feeling probably came from the degree to which I had been trained in and accepted the more modernist Evangelical program of mechanistic Bible reading. Although I grew up in a time when I should have been more comfortably postmodern, my friends were adults and conservative Christians, and my favorite reading material was somewhat outdated apologetics (Geisler, McDowell, Lewis, et al.). It was more of a shock to my system when I realized that the approach didn't work, and I quickly progressed through some of the darker levels of postmodern reading.

So in many ways, I would say this book is a sunnier version of my own experience over the past few years. I, too, rediscovered the importance of community in reading the Bible and the inevitable flow of tradition. I, too, was drawn first to Jewish tradition. In my own experience, this attraction had a lot to do with a long-standing affinity for Judaism and a simultaneous intensive study of Semitic languages, mostly Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic. Jewish tradition was also, for me, safer territory than deep Christian traditions. I had no baggage of a Reformation against Judaism, and there was a sense in which Judaism felt like Christianity with some stuff stripped away (as opposed to a lot of extra stuff added that didn't belong). This outlook was willfully simplistic--I knew then, as I know now, that Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament or the parent of Christianity. They are better understood as sister faiths--both picking up where the faith of the Old Testament left off and progressing along their own developmental lines.

I don't know if Bell had any of these feelings that led to his interest in Jewish tradition, but one factor that I suspect we shared in common was the view of Jewish tradition as a free-floating collection of voices--a big, postmodern soup of readings where everyone's comments are valued. Postmodernists love to hold up the Talmud, with its many marginal commentaries, as a prime example of how reading is supposed to work. The only problem is that it never really worked that way. The discussion is meant to have some kind of resolution--some of the voices are meant to be wrong. There is an authoritative structure that has nailed down to a great extent the boundaries of Jewish practice, and the living out of this vision today consists mostly of rabbis quibbling over the pickiest details that somehow their people still need to be told how to think about. Bell might like the postmodern idea of Jewish tradition, but he would not actually want to live by it or by a Christian equivalent. I say this with relative confidence, because he still thinks like a Western Evangelical. He talks about tradition, but he still handles it like a Protestant--at best, he picks out of various traditions what he finds appealing in them and throws the rest away. In my opinion, this misses the point entirely.

The strongest connection I see between Bell's views and my own journey is with what I would call the first of my two options. Once I realized how reading works, I knew there were only two ways I could go--either to find a community that was willing to read with freedom and mutual acceptance and few boundaries, and to somehow muddle along toward a consensus of how we would live, or to plug myself into a community that already had an established and honest tradition. The first option, I decided, could only proceed honestly with a bunch of people who thought like I did. (Even then, I wasn't sure it could be sustained.) Most people feel a need to take seriously their beliefs and balk at constantly changing them. With too many of that kind in the group, it would soon fragment over things that people considered too important to leave fuzzy. And a community that only works for academically minded people just doesn't sound like a good idea for a church. Aside from the contradiction that it appears to be very open-minded but only so long as those who join conform to the type of open-mindedness we want, it would inevitably have problems with children who grew up in the community and ended up rejecting their parents' open-mindedness. Like most forms of Western "liberalism," it would ultimately show itself truly closed to anyone who couldn't adopt the same mindset.

I gave up on the first option before ever trying it in real life, but it looks to me like what Bell is advocating is something like it. He freely admits, however, his superpastor mode in the early days of Mars Hill, and I suspect that the same thing happened here that happens so often in Evangelical churches (particularly megachurches)--people were attracted to him and to his vision, and they signed up because they thought according to similar patterns anyway and willingly conformed their thinking to his. Not that they all thought alike on every detail--I'm talking about the larger framework here, which can often include certain types of openness and flexibility (within boundaries). As he says, the community will keep individuals from going off the deep end in their own understanding (or at least find ways to make them leave if they do), but that presumes that the community has some kind of consensus to begin with. Where a church was started by a charismatic adrenaline junkie, I would be truly surprised if that consensus didn't come mostly from his own thinking and style. And at this point, it's worth bringing up the whole notion of leadership and authority within the community, which probably exists at Mars Hill in some form but is clearly avoided in the book.

And authority is a key, I think, because it means the difference between a postmodern Evangelical who picks and chooses old ideas and practices that he likes, and an Orthodox Jew (or Orthodox Christian) who lives in submission to the Tradition handed down over countless generations. As a glaring example of this point, a quick scan through the endnotes in the book (those that aren't Scripture references) shows that he's consulting a good deal more with Jewish tradition--which in its developed, Rabbinic form has virtually nothing to do with the development of Christianity and therefore can't possibly hold any authority over Christians today--than with Catholic tradition, whether Western or Eastern, or for that matter with Reformed tradition. Authority also means the difference between a free-form gathering of ideas about a text and a received meaning of the text that produces agreement not only within a local congregation but throughout the world. If simply having a tradition is enough, what has prevented the Protestant world from coming together? I would submit that there is no authority in Protestant traditions, so there can never be common thinking across the board. Another thing I would add about authority. He talks about the structure of Jewish discipleship to make his points about Jesus--well taken, I would say--but how does it end there? Where in Christian tradition does this kind of radical submission continue? It is nowhere to be found in his model of community, but it has been central to Orthodoxy.

Having said that, I think he does make a lot of good points in the book. Early on, he makes a good case for negative theology and preserving mystery. Much of what he says in the later chapters (where Tradition seems noticeably absent in the content and the approach) does align pretty well with Orthodox teaching. Salvation is not just about a legal transaction--it is about relationship, about restoring us to the image of God. What's most important is not Scripture--it's God; not what we think, but what we do. We're involved in something bigger than me and Jesus--it's about changed lives that mean a better world for everyone and everything. Nature itself is redeemed in the process, as Christ lives through us. Heaven and hell don't just happen then and there--they start here and now, and we create our own outcome. Evangelism should be primarily about living and welcoming others to live with us, not about looking for just some one-time decision. Amen! I will always rejoice to see Evangelicals coming to such conclusions. And to the extent that this kind of thing gets people thinking in the direction of community and tradition, I'm all for it. May it bring at least some who follow it to where they can see the Church as it was meant to be.

But I'm not convinced that it will. It's still a big leap from recognizing value in tradition to following tradition. It's a desire to have one's cake and eat it too. Let me benefit from tradition, but let me still be the authority. Let me ascribe value to the past, but let me still favor the future. As much as postmodernism seeks to refute modernism, at its root the chronological bias is still the same. Bell's first chapter in the book shows this--it's moving forward, it's creating something new, it's reinventing, it's exploring. Yes, he acknowledges that this often consists of dusting off something old, but the outlook hasn't really changed. Yes, he is comfortable appealing to creeds and councils (in support of Protestant theology), but he still disagrees fundamentally with their mindset--that what is new is suspect, that changing the Tradition is bad, not good. This is not to say that there is no place for creativity in Orthodoxy, or that nothing ever changes. But good change and good creativity is always understood as an outworking of what was already there. There is still an opposition between Bell's approach and the traditional approach of the Church, and the outcome could very well be that this whole movement will be just one more passing fad as Evangelicalism tries to keep up with the secular world.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

baptism of tears

As I brought up last month, Fr. Thomas Hopko refers in his lecture series on the Apocalypse to St. Gregory the Theologian on a baptism of fire and a baptism of desire. Fr. Thomas says the first is martyrdom and the second is where someone dies to self in their heart, as though they've been baptized but without the sacrament. His point is to show that a person who was not sacramentally baptized (i.e., not formally part of the Orthodox Church) in life can still go to heaven. Now, I thought a month ago that I'd found the right spot in St. Gregory, even though it didn't seem quite right. Now I'm a bit more certain that I've found the right passage. It's not in his "Homily on Holy Baptism," but in the one that he preached the day before, on the feast of Theophany, "On the Holy Lights." (Of course, if Fr. Thomas had thought to include better footnotes in his recorded lecture, I wouldn't have this problem.)

Toward the end of the homily (par. 18), he actually discusses five types of baptism: the baptism of Moses, the baptism of John, the baptism of the Spirit (the one that Jesus performs), the baptism of martyrdom (which he calls a baptism of blood, not fire--Fr. Thomas might have changed the terminology so the two would rhyme), and a baptism of tears, which I think is Fr. Thomas's baptism of desire:
Yes, and I know of a Fifth also, which is that of tears, and is much more laborious, received by him who washes his bed every night and his couch with tears (Ps 6:6); whose bruises stink through his wickedness (Job 38:5); and who goeth mourning and of a sad countenance; who imitates the repentance of Manasseh (2 Chr 38:12) and the humiliation of the Ninevites (Jonah 3:7-10) upon which God had mercy; who utters the words of the Publican in the Temple, and is justified rather than the stiff-necked Pharisee (Luke 18:13); who like the Canaanite woman bends down and asks for mercy and crumbs, the food of a dog that is very hungry (Matt 15:27).
Now, if I understand correctly from Schaff's translation (I don't have the source text right now), he goes on to make a point about this last type:
I, however, for I confess myself to be a man,—that is to say, an animal shifty and of a changeable nature,—both eagerly receive this Baptism, and worship Him Who has given it me, and impart it to others; and by shewing mercy make provision for mercy. For I know that I too am compassed with infirmity (Heb 5:2), and that with what measure I mete it shall be measured to me again (Matt 7:2).
This then feeds into his argument against the Novatians, a group that had gone into schism because they felt some bishops had been too lax in allowing lapsed Christians back into the Church. He's using this idea to chastise them for being so unforgiving, when all humans are so much in need of forgiveness.

Of course, now I'm really in trouble, since I can't remember having shed tears in at least 15 years . . . unless really spicy chicken wings count :-)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

shut up and listen

There's a lot of good stuff in Letters from the Desert (answers by Barsanuphius and John to questions from their spiritual children), but two excerpts really hit me yesterday. The first is part of a rather lengthy response that doesn't actually answer a direct question but addresses a monk who refused his abbot's instruction that he should ask forgiveness in a conflict. Barsanuphius writes in part:
For, a submissive person submits in everything; and such a person is carefree about one's salvation, since someone else will give account for him, namely the one to whom one has submitted and to whom one has confided oneself. So, if you want to be saved and to live in heaven and on earth, keep these things and I shall give account for you to God, brother. But if you are neglectful, then you are on your own. . . . And the Father and Son and Holy Spirit bear witness to me, that I bear all of your care before God; and he will seek your blood from me, if you do not disobey my words.
Kind of scary for the spiritual father, I would imagine, but what a relief for the child! In my situation, where I can't find a priest to convert me (at least on my timetable), it's encouraging to think this way. My Evangelical impulse to view salvation as something between me and God says that I could get hit by a bus on the way home and go to hell, all because this silly priest was puttering around instead of dunking me in the nearest cup of water. But if I understand properly what the Old Man is saying here, my responsibility is just to obey what I'm told to do. If I get hit by a bus, it's the priest's problem, not mine! More specifically, if he said, no, it's not time to convert, but do this and this for now, I'm only accountable for doing what he said. I suppose, though, before I sit back too comfortably, I'd better make sure I have that kind of relationship with a priest :-)

The second excerpt is about staying out of theological debates. It's part of a series of questions and responses that run along similar lines, and John encourages this monk to keep quiet whenever possible. In this particular letter, the man asks:
If the heretic is arguing better than the Orthodox brother during this discussion, is it then good perhaps for me to support the latter as much as I can, lest he be harmed in the Orthodox faith by losing the debate?
John replies:
If you enter into the conversation, and speak before God and people, then you are seen to be as one who is teaching. And, if one teaches without having the authority to do so, then one's words are not inspired by God but remain fruitless. So, if there is no benefit in your speaking, why is it necessary to speak at all?
He goes on to advise that if the monk feels he must say something, he should speak in his heart to God, since God can do more in response to his prayers than he can do in his own strength to resolve the situation. I realize these letters are written to specific individuals for specific situations, but keeping silent in theological discussions is clearly something that I need to work on. I usually can't keep my mouth shut (or my fingers still) for very long. It doesn't necessarily speak to the situation with my wife, where I do have a responsibility for our family, but even there, I still might need to shut up more than I do. Generally speaking, my attempts to explain Orthodoxy just make things worse.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

justifying a partial conversion

I think I understand as well as anyone the reason that conversion is approached the way it is in Orthodoxy. I understand that it is preferred to convert spouses together, because Christianity (or any faith) is best practiced with unity in the home, because the children in a family are spared the difficult choice between mom and dad's religion. I understand that a convert is expected to be active in and committed to a local parish before and after conversion, because joining the Church is joining a community, and doing things otherwise creates a disconnect between the ritual and the reality.

On the other hand, it's frustrating to think that conversion must be so contingent on factors over which I have no control. I suppose in theory I could force my wife to attend an Orthodox church. But I could not force her to convert; she would have to choose for herself to embrace Orthodoxy, and short of lying her way through the ceremonies, there's no way to make that happen. In theory, I could also simply choose a path for myself (and our children), with or without her, and hope that eventually someone would give in on the part about converting with one's spouse. But if doing that clearly damaged our marriage and, more than anything else I could possibly do, drove my wife even further away from Orthodoxy, I don't think I would want anyone to convert me under such circumstances. So it seems like the only way out of the double bind is for my wife to change--either to embrace Orthodoxy (which would solve everything) or at least to make peace with my participation in it (which would at least open up the remote possibility that I might convert on my own). Of course, the other side of this issue is that I could change--drop the whole business and go back to being a contented Evangelical. But at that point we're not talking about Orthodox conversion anymore.

The other question, then, is can I justify another way? In short, can I bend the rules enough (I'm talking letter, here, rather than spirit) to get in without a significant change on my wife's part? One option I've explored (which so far has turned out to be a dead-end) is the negative argument--don't look at the ideal of what conversion should be; look at the reality of actual Orthodox individuals. How many have been baptized in the Orthodox Church but have not set foot in a service in years? Or perhaps they only show up for Christmas and Easter. Or maybe they go sporadically because a spouse drags them along, but their heart isn't in it. Who wouldn't prefer a convert who loves the Church, loves its teachings, loves its worship, who can't attend regularly because of a mixed marriage situation but shows up whenever possible? And indeed, how much tangible difference is there between that and someone who was born Orthodox, chose to marry a non-Orthodox, and ends up doing the same thing? The only difference is that at some point in that person's life, they chose a relationship that made it harder to be faithful in their Orthodoxy. The convert who came over already yoked made no such choice.

Well, that argument didn't convince anyone. Sure, you can always find humans to compare yourself with, but the standard still needs to be upheld. A priest can't always prevent a person from wandering away from the standard, but at least he can enforce it on the front end. I understand. Believe me, I do. It still doesn't make the situation any less frustrating. So here's my second attempt--the positive argument.

There are probably other good examples, but I'm going to focus here on St. Mary of Egypt. From what we know of her, it seems that she took communion only twice in her adult life--once right before she entered the desert, and once right before she died. Not only did she not interact with other Christians during her many years of isolation, she apparently never set foot in a corporate worship service of any kind. Now, it doesn't seem like we know much about her childhood. If she was given communion immediately after her experience in Jerusalem, presumably her parents had her baptized before her life of sin. But whatever happened in those early years, there was a decisive return to the Church when she reached Palestine. So even though it wasn't properly a conversion in the sense that she needed to be baptized, it was still a restoration of communion. Immediately after that, however, she entered the desert and lived the rest of her life in isolation. Was it planned? Did she know that things would work out that way? Did the priest who gave her communion? Perhaps not. But she was following God's leading, and God knew.

The argument can be generalized beyond the specific instance of St. Mary. How many other countless hermits throughout the history of the Church have spent most of their time in the desert, in a sense cut off from the community of believers, attached to the Church in a spiritual sense but far removed physically? I chose St. Mary as my example, because in her case at least it clearly can't be argued that she spent time first getting fully integrated and maturing within a community. You can't say about her that her isolation came only after she was well-grounded in the life of the Church. Also, because she took communion before she entered the desert, it can't be argued that all her struggles alone in the wilderness were her preparation and repentance, her necessary prerequisites before restoration to the Church. She was restored first--converted first, if you will--then she spent years in repentance to repair the damage of her sinful life. And while she lived without earthly human contact, without access to Scripture or other spiritual writings, she communed with the saints, her prayers were heard, the words of Scripture were planted in her heart, and she matured to become a saint herself.

If this is possible, is it not also possible for a much lesser isolation to fit within God's plan? For someone in my situation, who cannot find a path to both love his wife and enter the Church as a fully participating member, to still spend daily time in prayer and Scripture, reading from the wealth of spiritual writings in the Church's tradition, living according to the teachings of Orthodoxy, fasting, confessing, communing when possible, and attending services and interacting with other Orthodox believers at every opportunity. Living in a marriage with two very different religious perspectives is difficult enough--loving one's wife as Christ loved the Church in such circumstances is an ascetic practice in itself--doesn't someone in this situation, of all people, need the grace of the sacraments? Doesn't such a person need the strength that comes from even a partial relationship with the community of Orthodox believers? And wouldn't the assurance that one's own spiritual standing before God is firm and secure, that one's spouse is free to make an independent choice, only help to diffuse the tension in the marriage?

I'm not saying that I'm anywhere near a St. Mary of Egypt. I'm about as far from it as you can get. But it still seems like there's a significant parallel here. If so many ascetics have been such an important part of the Church while living in relative isolation, and if the life of a married believer is not supposed to differ significantly from that of a celibate in anything except that they are married, and if indeed marriage is an ascetic struggle in itself, why should a degree of isolation so much less than theirs be considered an insurmountable obstacle to conversion?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Why the Rest Hates the West

I mentioned earlier that I was reading Why the Rest Hates the West, by Meic Pearse. All I know about the author is what it says on the back of the book--he's a trained church historian from Wales with some kind of missionary background. He appears to be Evangelical, but with a very critical eye toward all things Western, including the its take on church. In fact, I think I'm going to have to buy this book, because more than just about anything I've read, it tracks with what I've been thinking over the past couple of years. Not that I just like to surround myself with books I agree with :-) Partly, I'm thinking it would be good to have something to recommend if anyone wants to know more about what I think, and partly he actually does contribute some ideas that I hadn't already come up with.

I should say first of all that he doesn't have much sympathy for Western liberal self-loathing. So this isn't just about bashing Western government or policies. Instead, he's trying to look at deeper issues--the fundamental characteristics of Western culture that not only tend to offend the rest of the world by making us appear barbaric, but that even Western Christians should have some cause to oppose. Along the way, he also points out the positives to be found in the same trends, so for instance one of the first issues he looks at is Western truth to self. He sees a gain in the Protestant emphasis on internal integrity over external conformity to rules, but a loss in the subsequent abandonment of objective morality that has left us with only being true to ourselves, as in being honestly and openly whatever we happen to be. We are honest about ourselves and all of our moral flaws, but then we stop there without any motivation to change.

Other issues he considers include the shifts from duties to rights, from tradition to progress, from personal to impersonal government, from intermediate-level communities to the nationalist/classist dichotomy, and the prolongation of adolescence into perpetual immaturity. He also looks at the unsustainability of Western culture--how these features have added up to birthrates lower than necessary to maintain the population.

Except for the last point, I not only agree with almost everything he has to say about the problems, but have at one point or another fixated on them as major reasons for my own distaste for Western culture. On the demographic issue, I haven't thought much about it, but he's probably right--Western anticulture is gradually killing itself off. Our lack of duty, our rejection of traditional family structures, our expectation that some impersonal system will support us in old age, and our selfish desire for eternal youth all serve to diminish the desire for children. The one European country that exceeds a sufficient birthrate to maintain its population is Muslim Albania, and the one Western nation that reaches a sufficient rate is America, where arguably the decay of religious values has not proceeded quite as far as it has elsewhere. But even in America, the gross statistics hide the fact that immigrant groups inflate the numbers, since they generally have more children than indigenous Westerners. In fact, Pearse predicts that the only way to stem the tide will be increased immigration--not just any immigrants, because those who assimilate to Western culture will adjust to Western birthrates. The vacuum will only be filled by non-assimilating immigrants, who hold onto their own cultures, values, religions, and associated birthrates. Since the alternative is for Westerners themselves to radically change their own priorities, the outcome will be the same. One way or another, in the not-too-distant future, Western countries will be run by people who embrace traditional values.

It's a grim outlook, and he does well to caution against racist nationalism as a reaction. Pearse entertains no rosy notions about how we will solve our conflicts with the non-Western world; clearly, he views Western culture as an aberration that needs to be corrected--that in fact will be corrected whether by our intention or not. But his recommendations are not easy to carry out. Essentially, he calls for a return to personal duty and responsibility--repentance, to put it simply, from our current course. He also advocates cooperation between traditionally-minded Westerners and non-Westerners. One important point he makes in the book is about tolerance. Where in Western thought it has come to mean an intolerant rejection of conviction, it was and still is for most of the world an agreement to let differences of conviction stand. Perhaps his most important point is this--that a return to conviction, to traditional adherence to particular religious and ethical norms, is not something to be feared, not something that will inevitably produce conflict with the world around us. If anything, the opposite is true--that our militant rejection of traditional convictions in any form puts us at enmity with the rest of the world.

All in all, it was an excellent read.

Friday, September 08, 2006

reunified, for all practical purposes

The ROCOR synod has approved the "Act on Canonical Communion" with Moscow! They are expecting one more meeting of the joint committees to work out the details of the signing event, which should then be approved by the end of the year. Their letter to the flock is worth reading.

back in business

We're back from our 1000-mile trek--started with a visit to my aunt last Thursday and Friday, my wife's best friend on Saturday, my grandpa's 80th birthday party on Sunday, a small-town Labor Day parade and fireworks on Monday (my wife's hometown), and finally a little bit of a break on Tuesday before the eight-hour drive back home on Wednesday. At least it was a short work week, but honestly work seemed like something of a break after all that driving! Ian had a blast with the Labor Day festivities. It was probably the biggest parade I've ever seen, and since we were sitting close to the beginning, we walked away with probably three pounds of candy flung at us from the various floats. The fireworks display may not have been as well choreographed as some, but we were sitting within home-run distance of the launch site and got as good a view as you could ever want. I think Ian would have been excited anyway about getting up in the dark to go sit in lawn chairs and watch a fire truck or two drive by; he couldn't resist commenting on just about every blast. Circle! Colors! Worms! Fireworks!

I was hoping and praying for an opportunity to bring up Orthodoxy with the parents, but it didn't happen. I really don't want to do this by phone or e-mail, but I'm not sure I'll ever find the right moment in person. I brought along a couple of books to read--one on the Jesus Prayer that was kind of disappointing for being too academic, and a collection of letters by Barsanuphius and John. That one's shaping up to be quite a bit better. I'm also pretty excited that waiting for me when I returned was the Psalter According to the Seventy. After reading St. Theophan's advice about prayer, I wanted to start spending more time in the psalms. I've had an electronic version for a while, but I need something to keep more handy. On top of all that, today I got Why the Rest Hates the West from the library. I've just started it, but it looks really good so far.