Thursday, January 31, 2008

commence sleeping now

Now that Julie knows I'll complete these silly things just because she tags me, she's merciless. Well, here's payback. You want to know what's the nearest book? Have at it:
הֲקִימוֹתִי instead of הֵקִימוֹתִי
תְּקוּמֶינָה instead of תָּקוּמֶינָה
d. The II yod verbs are, with the exception of the Qal imperfect, imperative and infinitive construct, identical to the II waw verbs in all respects, e.g. קָם and שָׂם.
  • In these exceptions the yod, instead of the waw, functions as a vowel indicator (as the only distinguishing feature of II yod verbs), e.g. קָם and תָּקוּם, but שִׂים and תָּשִׂים.
Ah, Hebrew morphology. Is there anything more exciting? I haven't actually done much with this book lately, but it happens to be one that I keep in my desk, in case the mood strikes to read some Hebrew and I get stuck over a construction.

Monday, January 28, 2008


I guess I've been kinda quiet the past several days. It's probably a combination of factors:
  • not much going on that's worth writing home about
  • reading other stuff
  • feeling less inclined to write about everything
I'm still plugging along with my monastic readings, which probably has a lot to do with the third factor, too. Among other things, they tend to stress silence. If part of the point of starting this blog in the first place was to provide an outlet for my need to say stuff, even when no one wants to listen, maybe I will one day mature to the point where it goes away. (Don't worry--I'm not there just yet.) From the sayings of Macarius the Great:
26. One day Abba Macarius went to see Abba Anthony. He spoke to him and then returned to Scetis. The Fathers came to meet him, and as they were speaking, the old man said to them, "I said to Abba Anthony that we do not have an offering in our district." But the Fathers began to speak of other things without asking him to tell them the old man's reply and he himself did not tell them. One of the Fathers said about this that when the Fathers see that the brethren fail to question them about something that would be useful, they ought to begin talking about it themselves; but if they are not urged on by the brethren, they should not say anymore about it, so that they shall not be found to have spoken without being asked, and to have said unnecessary words.
In this respect, I say a lot of "unnecessary words." If Abba Macarius didn't need to finish a thought when no one else was interested (after, I'm sure, having carefully considered whether it was a thought worth bringing up), what could I possibly have to say that's so important I need to rattle on? When the topic is something that interests me, I tend to give much longer answers than anyone really wants. If I'm interrupted before I finish everything I wanted to say, I try to go back and finish, even if the conversation has moved on to something else. I think there's an important lesson here for me to learn, especially when most of what I feel like saying doesn't really need to be said in the first place.

Anyway, I finished The Spiritual Meadow and The Lausiac History a while ago, yesterday I finally wrapped up St. Cassian's Conferences, and I'm nearing the end of Sayings of the Desert Fathers. In the meantime, I've started getting some Orthodox periodicals that I recently subscribed to (Orthodox Word actually started me off with two free back issues and a calendar). I want to read St. Vincent of Lerins and probably St. John of Damascus; besides that, I'll go back and re-read some of the other ascetic literature I've collected. I'm also reviewing some math stuff. I always enjoyed math up through high school, but haven't taken a single class since. I was going through my old notes from college, scanning a bunch of stuff, and noticed my math-related doodling on the backs of pages. So over the past few days I've been refreshing my memory on some basic algebra, geometry, and trig (while drifting a bit into calculus). I've requested a pre-calculus textbook from the library, which I'll skim through before diving back into calculus. I don't plan to spend a lot of time on it, but right now it's a fun diversion.

I'm adjusting well to life on the porch. As slow as I am, it took me a while to make the connection to the name of this blog, though in this case the doorstep is the temple. Jim gave me some incense samples to play with. I appreciate the variety, but I think I'll be just fine with my (probably sub-par) less expensive, run-of-the-mill frankincense. I don't have much sense of smell anyway (unlike the rest of my family). I spent quite a bit of time and energy wrestling with the "matches or lighter" controversy (again, feeling like a smoker), finally settled on matches with some guidance from Jim; but because we seem to have a lot of lighters around the house right now, I guess I'll use a combination for the foreseeable future. (The big drawback to a lighter is it's harder to get down in the censer. I can hold the charcoal over a candle to light it, but when I'm re-using a piece I already burned, I figure it's less mess just to use a match.)

I was hoping to get to a talk at church last week on 20th-c. persecution and martyrdom, but it would have meant leaving Julie alone with the kids just about the whole day; since they were both sick, I changed plans at the last minute. Lord willing, Ian and I will be at this Saturday's liturgy for the feast of the Presentation.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Georgia on YouTube

In my continuing obsession with Georgian Orthodoxy, I did find some interesting stuff on YouTube, mostly shots of churches set to some background music--liturgical:

and otherwise:

Here are some pics of a monastery:

and of the great Sameba Cathedral--largest in the region:

This one isn't much to look at, but some good singing:

Hope you enjoy. The first few also show some of the landscape, which looks beautiful to me. I could easily put it on my short list of places in the world to visit.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Now that I'm exiled to the porch, I keep thinking about incense and smoking. The initial correspondence is obvious--I have to go outside, because my wife doesn't like the smell or the associated effects of my habit. What's more, she's worried about it permeating everything in the house. I worry about the smell clinging to my clothes and bothering her when I come back inside. I have to watch out for getting ashes on things. When you think about it, the blowing on the charcoal to keep it lit, the container (that can be carried around), the smoke, the scent--aside from direct inhalation, it's almost like smoking a pipe. In fact, in a pinch, you could probably use a pipe as a censer. Hmmm . . .

Anyway, it's got me wondering whether smokers adapt better to this particular aspect of Orthodox worship than non-smokers. Not that I've ever smoked anything in my life (though I did spend a lot of my youth inhaling the smoke and fumes of burning papers)--but would it be easier on Julie if she had?

One thing I'm finding--burning incense tends to make me pray longer. I'm so cheap, I hate to waste anything. It's hard to re-light the stuff, so I tend to keep at it until the incense burns out on its own. I guess that's a good thing--anything for more prayer, right?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

banished to the outer darkness

There aren't too many things that excite me about this new house in Elkridge (which now isn't scheduled to be completed until June or July, incidentally). The setting lacks most of the advantages of a site that's truly urban or truly rural, or even the usual amenities of a truly suburban location. It's not a very walkable area, nor will we have much opportunity to get outdoors within our own domestic space. (There's a small balcony, but it will be off one of the kids' rooms.) The distribution of space is odd, with large bedrooms and a comparatively small living space, due to the garages taking a bite out of the first floor. (This is a stacked townhouse; ours, the bottom unit, has a chunk taken out for the one-car garages--one for us, one for the neighbors above.)

But one thing that I have been looking forward to is having my own walk-in closet. The master bedroom and bath could almost serve as its own apartment. (In fact, it's not much smaller than our first apartment was.) There are double sinks and a double shower, a mammoth linen closet (besides two more in the hallway), a large bedroom area with a bay window, and two walk-in closets, the larger with its own window on the front of the house. Even the smaller one is still a very generous size. I can't possibly make full use of it with my clothes, so I'm thinking about other functions. A desk would be one thing to look at. I won't have a dedicated office, but for my needs a closet might suit. More importantly, though, I plan to establish my icon corner there.

Sharing a home with an iconoclastic Protestant, I've tried to be sensitive in this area. One of the earliest things I bought as I was exploring Orthodoxy was my first icon--a little diptych with traditional Byzantine icons of the Pantokrator (Jesus as Judge) and the Theotokos (Mary holding Jesus as a child). I would only get it out when I prayed (more to the point, when I did my morning and evening prayer rule), and kept it stowed away the rest of the time. A year ago, my Godparents got me a candle for Christmas, so I started burning a candle during my prayer rule as well. I had put some icons up at work, and eventually I asked Julie if it would be OK to hang one of those--another Pantokrator--in our walk-in closet, so I could do my morning prayers in there, rather than going out to the dining room. Later, my Godfather bought me an icon of St. Peter the Aleut (my patron), which I put on the shelf in the closet.

I would also use the diptych with Ian when we prayed before he went to bed. Initially, I carried it into his room for that purpose and put it away afterward. When we rearranged our bedroom to make space for Jenna, a small bookshelf ended up in the eastward corner, so I started leaving my candle and diptych there. Because of Jenna's sleep schedule I was doing most of my praying in the closet, so I started leaving the diptych in Ian's room to avoid the trouble of carrying it back and forth. And that was pretty much the extent of the icons around our house.

So I was pretty excited about the thought of having more dedicated space. Even though I would prefer to have them out in a more public area, it's not my purpose to offend Julie, so I'm fine settling for something that suits my needs without disrupting anything else. I figured I could put my Orthodox books on a shelf that's already built into the closet, my icons on the wall or the shelf, and my candle probably on the shelf as well. I also have a prayer rug that I almost never use because Julie doesn't think it goes with anything in our present decor; I figured I could put that down more or less permanently in the closet. Then I got to thinking about incense.

Incense is a regular part of Orthodox worship. In most services, there's at least some point where a priest or deacon censes around the whole church. At other times, a censer is used just at the iconostasis or in the altar. Often when a particular feast icon takes center stage there will be a part in the service where everyone gathers around it with the priest right in front, censing and praying. The rising smoke has long been a traditional symbol of the prayers of God's people rising up before his throne. In the heavily liturgical scene in St. John's Revelation, a great deal of incense is offered, and it is specifically said to represent the prayers of the saints. In the Israelite temple, there was a special blend of incense that was forbidden from private use, offered at a dedicated altar of incense. In Orthodox homes, it is common practice to use incense during prayers and to cense around the home, just as is done in church. For this, a hand censer is used, rather than the swinging censer with bells. But the purpose is the same. Typically, you cense the icons around the house and the people (because we are also icons of Christ).

I've long appreciated the dimension that's added to my worship in church when the sense of smell is incorporated. I figured especially if I'm going to have my own dedicated space it might be good timing to start using incense in my prayers at home. So this year, when I got money for Christmas, instead of spending it all on books, I spent some of it on a hand censer, charcoal, and incense. I told Julie what I was doing, but I didn't ask if it was OK. I fired it up two nights ago, after she'd gone to bed and again in the morning before she got up. She commented on the smell lingering in the air, so I thought I'd try skipping it in the morning and see if that helped. Last night I got the incense burning before Julie went to bed, and she was already complaining about it. She fled pretty quickly to the bedroom. I think the smell was stronger than the previous night, since I had a better idea what I was doing with it and got the charcoal burning hotter. At least, it seemed like it was consuming the incense faster than before. I couldn't smell anything in the bedroom, but my nose isn't very good anyway, and I was probably acclimated to the more overwhelming scent in the dining room. Julie woke up and complained again.

Even before that, I'd started thinking that burning it in the house was going to be a problem. I'd underestimated both how much it would bother Julie and how much the smell would spread. I doubt that even a closed closet door would be enough, if she were sleeping in the next room. But now I have a censer, two pounds of incense, and close to a year's supply of charcoal. (I was trying to make the most of the shipping cost.) So I'm not quite ready to scrap the idea.

Plan B (or C, or D, or something like that): Take the operation outside. The agreed-upon course at this point is that I'll start keeping my prayer rule on the balcony. Julie's allowing me to hang an icon out there, and I can use a TV tray for the candle and censer. It suits me fine for now, since "I like the cold" (how many times have I heard those words from my son's mouth?), and it rarely gets too cold in MD. In warmer weather, I can just consider it part of my ascetic discipline. Plus, it's usually dark when I'm praying, so at least it shouldn't be unbearably hot. Once we move, who knows? I'm thinking a corner of the garage might work. (Someone said to me about our new house that a man needs his own space, even if it's just a corner of the garage. I'm not sure this is what he had in mind, though he is Orthodox.) Of course, that throws off my plan for the closet. Maybe I could just get them to add an exhaust fan :-)

I've tried to tell Julie that it's only frankincense, and if it was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for her. But all kidding aside, I get it. For much the same reason that I feel different praying with incense, she has a rather opposite reaction. It's her house too, and I have no desire to make it seem less like home, if that's the effect of making it smell like a Church with which she does not identify. This whole experience has reminded me of the "dark machine of superstition" post from a year ago. When the funky smell from the machine's exhaust is causing family members to choke, I guess it's time to take it outside.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

where does it end?

There's a lot of good stuff in The Spiritual Meadow--too much to bring it up here every time something strikes me. But I thought this bit was particularly interesting, from "152. The Life and Sayings of Marcellus the Scetiote, Abba of the Monastery of Monidia":
Brethren, let us leave marriage and the raising of children to those whose eyes are towards the earth, who long for the things of the present and take no thought for that which is to come; who do not strive to possess the good things of eternity, and are unable to disentangle themselves from the ephemera of this world.
I get his point. As St. Paul says, and as any parent whose had small children in a worship service can confirm, it's easier to give your attention and energy to God if you're not distracted, even by things as important as family. And when he says "brethren," I take it he's assuming his audience are already monastics, so in that sense he's preaching to the choir.

What I found striking, though, was how our own culture is so degenerate as to invalidate his point today. It seems to me that "those whose eyes are towards the earth, who long for the things of the present," are no longer at all interested in "marriage and the raising of children." Our selfishness has matured over the past 1400 years. Modern man still has no time for God, but neither will he tie himself to spouse or children. His relationships can only be casual, with no possibility of remorse when he decides to give up and walk away.

In another of these stories, a demon settles into a monk's cell, explaining that he has every right to stay because the monk is still upset with his brother over something about a plate of lentils from three days ago. We see that, even after stripping away as many potential causes for division as possible, it's still a struggle to resist the infection of bitterness. But the monk, when confronted with his sin, runs to prostrate himself before his brother and beg forgiveness. Most of us today would offer the demon a blanket and a hot meal, figuring we can always find new friends.

In this climate, marriage and raising kids must itself be viewed as an ascetic endeavor. If we leave it to those who are lax about their spiritual development, it will stop altogether, or it will be done so badly that we will wish it had. I'm not saying that the monastic vocation has no more purpose. Far from it--we need their prayers now more than ever. But if we don't also have good Christian families, God will have to raise up his monks from the stones. It seems to me that things are a bit more complicated than they once were. For those of us who awaken to the reality when we're already married, the path is rather straightforward. But for singles it's not so easy. The way of the cross may run through a monastery, but equally it may mean abandoning the world's selfishness in a different sense. We need both kinds of ascetics--those who are celibate with regard to all, and those who are celibate with regard to all but one. We need Mary, who rises at night to kneel at Jesus's feet, and Martha, who rises to feed a crying baby. Because without that crying baby, both kinds vanish in one generation.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Orthodox church structure

After Justin's comment on my last post, I thought it would be useful to say something more directly about Orthodox church structure. I should stress for those who don't know (not necessarily you, Justin), that the problems I was addressing are largely unique to the history of Orthodoxy in America (and modern Western Europe, though the situation is a bit different). To some degree these problems do reflect a cultural entrenchment that grew out of centuries of one basic political situation. For most Orthodox peoples, there was no accessible frame of reference within which to adapt life in a non-Orthodox nation. Orthodox Tradition contained a frame of reference, though it required some dusting off. Namely, until the time of Constantine, Christianity existed in a non-Christian, often hostile environment.

But even though pre-Constantinian Orthodoxy grew up without the cooperation of the state, the fundamental structure of the Church was there from the beginning--in each city you had one local church (the New Testament knows nothing of a multiplicity, though they undoubtedly had to meet in many locations to maintain secrecy), with many presbyters but one bishop. (The early terminology didn't consistently label the two offices, but it was a natural development as the missionary apostles died out and church unity was rooted in one head of each local church.) The principle of catholicity is nothing more than the assertion that the Church is not tailored to niche groups. It is what it is, for everyone, wherever it appears. So we see in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers that upon arriving in a given city there was only one entity to be sought out--the catholic church. The only alternatives were heretical assemblies that taught some distortion of Christianity.

As for inter-congregational structure, even this was relatively well established before Christianity became legal. There were already recognized groupings in which bishops would represent their congregations as regional synods (usually according to Roman provinces), and certain cities (Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome) had already achieved a widely acknowledged status as centers for even larger groupings. With the conversion of Constantine, it became possible to assemble all the bishops from throughout the Empire, and the bishops of the capital cities (Rome and Constantinople) took on special status. Later, as the Empire contracted and other lands were Christianized, the same structures applied--first as subordinate to some existing patriarchate, then eventually as independent, national churches.

Even after the death of the Byzantine Empire, it was replaced by the Ottoman, which established the millet system, where Christians had their own internal political structure, headed as it happened by the Patriarch of Constantinople. (The Turks don't seem to have had much inclination to separate civil and religious government--as far as they were concerned, only one leader was necessary for cultural and religious Christianity.) So even though they lived under a hostile government, the structure remained much the same as it had been.

When Orthodoxy began its return to the West, Russia was pretty much the only game in town. Most Orthodox lands were dominated by Russia, the West, or the Ottomans. With the backing of the Russian tsars, Orthodox missionary outreach naturally structured itself as an appendage of the Russian Church. The nearly simultaneous collapse of the Russian and Ottoman empires produced radical change. At the same time that Russia was no longer the default guardian of world Orthodoxy, all these nations that were formerly subject to the Ottomans were now free to establish their own national identity, and to emigrate to the West. Their natural response to the disarray caused by the Bolshevik Revolution was to establish churches under their own, national jurisdictions.

But as Fr. Josiah points out in the interview, the situation we have now is sinful. It violates not just the cultural norms of formerly Orthodox kingdoms but the fundamental principles of Christian unity from the very beginning of the New Testament Church. Part of the reason that the solution is unclear is that there's no binding requirement for the superstructure of American Orthodoxy. If we did nothing more than re-draw the jurisdiction of each bishop currently exercising authority in America, so that there were no overlaps, and if they all remained in communion with each other, we'd have a basically canonical situation. It would be chaotic for a while, but it would probably work itself out in the same way that the early Church did--eventually, natural groupings would develop in which bishops could form synods, and higher level structures on up to some as yet undefined top. Of course, it's never going to be that simple. The existing allegiances exist for better or worse, and it's difficult to see anything happening without whole jurisdictions signing onto a solution.

In the meantime, it is still possible to distinguish Orthodox jurisdictions from Protestant denominations. Aside from some schismatic groups, they are in communion with each other (theoretically, if not practically), and their core theology is consistent. They also share a common notion of what the Church should look like, and although their ethnic divisions belie the standard, they accept catholicity as normative. There are pastoral differences that have arisen over time, but the source of the divisions is mostly political.

And I should add that there is hope. One of the deepest wounds caused by the Russian Revolution was the split between the Russian church abroad and the Russian church under Communism. Last year was marked by the healing of that rift, nothing short of miraculous. If that can happen, anything's possible!

praying for bishops

There's a good interview with Fr. Josiah Trenham on the Illumined Heart, about Orthodox disunity in America. He makes some suggestions about what we can do as individuals, the first of which is to pray daily. He also brings up the issue of canonical territory and multiple bishops, which got me thinking about "my" bishops. Of course, Bp. THOMAS is my bishop in the strictest and most important sense of that term. It is his parish where I was made a catechumen, where I attend regularly, and his priest who is bringing me through this process.

But as I've said before, it's almost impossible to define "canonical territory" in any way that puts me more in his than in that of at least half a dozen other bishops. My earliest visit to an Orthodox parish was to the closest geographically, which happened to be in the OCA. Another early visit was to a Ukrainian parish that's also closer than where I currently attend. I used to visit with some regularity a small ROCOR parish that could just about as easily have ended up my permanent home. And once we move to Elkridge, I'll be closest geographically to a parish of the Moscow Patriarchate. Any number of different circumstances could have put me under a different bishop.

So if I'm going to pray for unity, it makes sense to pray for all the bishops in my territory. Here's the list:
  • His Grace, Bp. THOMAS (Antiochian)
  • His Grace, Bp. JOB (Russian)
  • His Beatitude, Met. JONAH (OCA)
  • His Eminence, Met. HILARION (ROCOR)
  • His Eminence, Abp. ANTONY (Ukrainian)
  • His Eminence, Met. EVANGELOS (Greek)
  • His Eminence, Met. NICHOLAS (Carpatho-Russian)
  • His Grace, Bp. MITROPHAN (Serbian)
I suppose I could have included a few others, since there are more jurisdictions in the U. S. But some of them have no presence in the immediate area (and as far as I can tell, not much prospect of a future presence either), so I think it's a fairly safe omission.

I should say something about the order. I list Bp. THOMAS first, because--as I said--he's most precisely my bishop. Holy Cross uses part of Holy Trinity's cemetery and holds picnics there; I'll live so close that I suspect I'll end up visiting services now and then, so it will become something of a second parish home. St. Matthew's is currently the closest parish and will continue to be near the top of the list; there are other OCA parishes close by, and Met. JONAH's position as abbot of St. Tikhon's monastery makes it likely that I will participate in his services with some regularity. I used to visit a ROCOR parish, and there will still be parishes close by; if Holy Trinity takes second place, I ought to be prepared for developing ties between the Moscow and ROCOR parishes. There will continue to be Ukrainian parishes in reasonable proximity, and it seems like visits between Holy Cross and Four Evangelists in Bel Air are common. Greeks are, of course, ubiquitous; and although I haven't had much interaction with Greek parishes so far, I I expect that closer proximity to Baltimore will start to change that. As for the Carpatho-Russian and Serbian bishops, I'm going mostly by location.

I've commented already on my general thoughts about Orthodox unity in America. Although I have no clear sense of how we should get there, or what it should look like, I do think it should be a high priority. As a lowly catechumen, it doesn't seem like there's much I can contribute at this point, but I do plan to pray--for Orthodox Americans as a whole and especially for these bishops.

And on a vaguely related note, I wish those following the Old Calendar a Merry Christmas! May Lent come quickly, when we shall all be together again, and may we one day put this two-calendars nonsense behind us. In the meantime, you enjoy your feast (Christmas), and we'll enjoy ours (Theophany).

Saturday, January 05, 2008

tag-team fogies

I used to imagine that when my kids were teenagers I'd be hip (or something like it--but that's probably not even remotely the right word to use, so I'm already off to a bad start). Not that I ever was in the first place--I just figured I'd be this incredibly open-minded guy who would listen to the same music as his kids, watch the same shows, keep up with their technology, and be able to discuss such things seriously. I noticed at the time that Julie's taste in music seemed to be drifting more adult, while I was going in the opposite direction, listening to Rage Against the Machine, Kid Rock, Eminem, and System of a Down. I've always been something of an arm-chair techie, and a couple of years ago I got my first mp3 player (not impressive in itself, but relatively speaking--I'm not sure Julie has much clue what to do with an mp3). I've been into newsgroups and e-mail lists for years; she's started on them more recently. I was also the first one to start a blog.

On the other hand, Julie was the first one to get a cell phone. I resisted until I started taking the bus to work and figured it would be helpful if we could communicate during my long, sometimes unpredictable commute. Now, she's joined Facebook, which I want nothing to do with (or anything like it). To me, it seems like a colossal waste of time. I have no idea what the point is of "poking" your friends, nor do I think I want to understand. A while back someone invited me to join an Orthodox networking group. I had no interest then, and I have no more now.

Frankly, I think I'm moving back the other way. If anything, these days I'm looking for ways to get offline. I'm avoiding actual discussion groups. (There are a few that I nominally watch, but none in which I actively participate, including the one I moderate.) I'm still blogging, though I keep asking myself how useful it really is. I'm trying to cut back my dependence on websites for reading. I recently subscribed to a couple of Orthodox periodicals, and I've been trying to assemble a basic Orthodox library of materials I can keep coming back to. I'm trying to spend less time with earphones on my commute. My selection of music has shifted radically--instead of the latest and greatest, I'm listening to centuries-old chants--and even there, I view it as a necessary evil. I would rather be in services regularly enough to pick up the music there, but since my circumstances prevent it, I listen to recordings--for now.

I'm not sure what I'll do when it comes to interacting with my kids about their music and other forms of entertainment. At this point, though, I highly doubt that I'll be meeting them where they are--at least, not in the way I used to envision it. I find myself saying "amen" when someone says kids need direction, not necessarily discussion. I'll be the dad who doesn't like what's on TV, or new technology, or pop music, or electric lighting--who seems like he'd feel more comfortable in a monastery or a shack somewhere in the woods. My kids will avoid me when they bring their friends over (assuming they're not too embarrassed for that)--and I'll know I'm doing my job.

I guess one of these days I should tag Julie again, but right now I'm having too much fun being the fogey. And with that, I need to go whip myself for spending so much time writing this online ;-)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

MD gets a monastery - update

Still not much out there about the new Greek monastery being built in Emmitsburg, but I did run across this discussion in a Catholic forum, by a self-professed acquaintance of the family that donated the land. It was posted back in September, but I have corroboration from another local source that it should be up and running in Feb 2008. That's only a month away!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

river of fire

I can't believe I'm just now reading "The River of Fire" for the first time. This talk was given in 1980 by Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros. Apparently it's a well-known and well-discussed piece. The subtitle says, "A reply to the questions: (1) Is God really good? (2) Did God create hell?" Dr. Kalomiros's answer is by no means unique. He articulates what I would say is the standard Orthodox view on these matters; along the way, however, he speaks pointedly about the corresponding Western ideas and judges them to be no less than a lie of Satan.

I think in all fairness it should be acknowledged that the Orthodox view, at least in general terms, is not unknown in the West. As usual, C. S. Lewis comes to mind as an example of one who seems to have captured the concept. In my feeble summary, the main point is that hell is something we bring on ourselves when we choose to hate God. God's glory is the same regardless; we simply experience it as torment when we reject his love.

Kalomiros sees as pagan the notion that God is subject to some binding standard of justice, whereby his divine offense can only be satisfied by pouring out wrath on the Son. Like the gods of pagan Greece, such a being is really subordinate to arbitrary and inexorable Fate. From this grows the notion of unconditional election and irresistible grace--because if God himself is subject to such external standards, then surely our freedom is no more than an illusion. He also contends that atheism is a natural result of this Western view--that an infinitely punishing God (especially one who claims to be loving) can only inspire contempt.

As I've said before, I think we can be thankful for some currents in Evangelical thinking that seem to de-emphasize the juridical view of God's relationship to man. I'm not convinced that they do so consistently. The same person might speak in a counseling context of God as healer of the wounded soul, while singing on Sunday about Jesus satisfying the Father's wrath. I suspect (though I hope I'm wrong) that in today's theological climate they are simply ignoring the implications of Protestant theology in favor of a more expedient metaphor. This sort of approach can produce occasional gains, but until there is a fundamental revision of the underlying paradigms, it's going to produce even more contradictions and inconsistencies. My hope is that at least the presence of these ideas, somewhere in the vast array of Evangelical thinking, will open opportunities for some to find the truth.

Even so, it may be too much to hope that an argument as polemical as "The River of Fire" will be well received by Western Christians of any flavor.