Month: July 2011
I hope to meet many of you there!
I hate it when people say that. Yes, there is a certain truth to the statement The Church is not the building. But it is usually said in the context of talking about buildings, and so what is meant by it is not really a counter of an obviously ridiculous idea, namely, that the Church is equal to a building.
Who actually thinks that? Is there anyone who believes that the Christian faith and tradition are about buildings? I don’t think even church architects actually think that. (Actually, they probably think something rather like what I am about to say.) Yes, of course, it does not matter if I have a spiritual life, love God, love my neighbor, or grow in holiness, just so long as I have a nice building to keep and maintain!
Yes, of course, we know people who act that way, but the problem there is not with the building, just as the problem with a dysfunctional home life is not your house. No, saying The Church is not the building is not a serious statement of policy—I’ve never known someone who said that who wanted to move all church services outdoors—but it does present a problematic dichotomy, and it’s also rooted in a certain theology of its own.
One of the inheritances of the streams of Christian theology whose origins flow from 16th century Western Europe is a deliberate de-emphasis on the matter of, well, matter. As many Christians stopped believing that sacraments (ritual acts believed to be means by which God communicates grace), iconoclasm (“image-breaking”) also came alongside. Much of the physical side of being spiritual came to be regarded as idolatry and was shunned in favor of what was summarized in the motto “Four bare walls and a sermon.” Salvation was for people’s hearts and souls, and pretty buildings, vestments, iconography, bread, wine, oil, water, etc., had nothing at all to do with it, because those things pertain to the body and not the soul.
This theological attitude finds its roots originally not in Christian theology but in pagan theology, particularly the dualism that was characteristic of the philosophers who opposed the prevailing polytheism of their time. Dualism’s essential idea is that “spiritual” things are good, but physical things are bad (or at least of a much, much lower importance).
Orthodox Christianity is not dualist. As such, we believe that man—being a union of both body and soul—is not a soul trapped in the prison of the body. Rather, he is a body just as much as he is a soul, and even if the union of the two has suffered and will suffer because of the disruption of the Fall of Mankind from the time of Adam and Eve, that essential union remains and will eventually be fully healed in the general Resurrection.
What that means is that physical stuff has a spiritual side to it. And if that is the case, then that means that church buildings have a spiritual character, too. We can see this basic intuition in all of mankind, not just traditional Christianity. Everywhere one goes, buildings meant for religious usage have a special character and usually a special beauty to them. Even among the very poor, there is a desire to impart a particular beauty in the place where prayers are said.
For Orthodox Christians, the church building and all that adorns it are icons—that is, they are physical images that connect us with spiritual reality. We don’t worship such things, because only God is due worship, but we do pay them honor and treat them in a special way, because they put us in touch with the divine in a way that our emotions, intellect and imaginations alone cannot.
Ironically, iconoclastic Christianity still makes use of some very physical elements—how could it not? One typically finds sermons and music in such churches, aural expressions making use of the vibrational and resonant properties of physical matter. Orthodoxy essentially just takes the very necessity of physicality in worship and all spiritual life to its fullest and most natural conclusions. The body is intimately connected with the soul, and so what you do with the one will affect the other.
For Orthodoxy, this essential intuition that our species has, that the physical and spiritual have very much to do with each other, was fulfilled in the Incarnation of Christ, that everlasting moment when the invisible, incorporeal, untouchable, ineffable God became visible, embodied, touchable and approachable. God became man, and so physical matter received the possibility of becoming sanctified and sanctifying. He did it all the time when He was here visibly—not just by taking on a body, but with very physical actions in order to effect real changes, e.g., turning water to wine, smearing mud on a blind man’s eyes, raising the dead, etc.
So, no, the Church is not the building. The people are the Church. We get that. But there’s a reason they built that building, and it’s not just a container. There is something there that speaks of the power and majesty and closeness of God, something that connects us to Him in a way that nothing else can. And Orthodox Christians believe that God will not only honor that intention from His creatures, but will respond and, once again, use the physical to affect the spiritual.
Consider this for a moment: What does the building your faith uses for prayer convey about what you believe? Does it connect you with Heaven? Does it connect you with God?
Are you an Orthodox Christian who wonders how to explain to your Baptist grandmother, your Buddhist neighbor, or the Jehovah s Witness at your door how your faith differs from theirs? Or are you a member of another faith who is curious what Orthodoxy is all about? Look no further. In Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick covers the gamut of ancient heresies, modern Christian denominations, fringe groups, and major world religions, highlighting the main points of each faith. This book is an invaluable reference for anyone who wants to understand the faiths of those they come in contact with as well as their own.
If you would like to win a free, autographed copy of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith, all you have to do is help a little with the promotion:
- Share or link to this weblog post (shortlink: http://wp.me/prN4b-iY ) on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or your weblog.
- Send me an email with the URL link to your post (if you’re using Twitter, a weblog, or posting publicly on Facebook or Google+), or if you’re posting only to your friends, let me know that, too.
- Your name will be entered once for each site you share or link on (i.e., once for Facebook, once for Twitter, etc.), so your chances of winning go up the more sites you use.
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When you send me the email, include your real name and an email address I can use to contact you.
All entries must be received by July 31st, 2011. A winner will be drawn randomly and announced on August 1st.
I look forward to hearing from you! (You have to send me that email—while I appreciate it when you share this link, if I don’t know that you did it, I can’t enter you into the contest!)
This contest is not officially sponsored or endorsed by the publisher but is purely a private project of the author.
- Conciliar Press tells me that Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy is selling very well. Thank you to all who have bought copies, recommended it to friends, or written reviews! I honestly had no idea when I did the original parish lectures in Charleston and then repeated them in Emmaus that they’d get so far away from me.
- I will be signing copies of O&H at the Conciliar Press booth at the Antiochian Archdiocese Convention at 4:30pm on July 27, 2011. I’ve already done a couple of other booksignings at parishes (one including a lecture), and they’ve been a lot of fun.
- If you can’t make it to the Convention or don’t live anywhere near Emmaus but would still like a signed copy of O&H, you can contact me privately about getting one.
- I’ve added to the sidebar here on Roads from Emmaus a section of reviews and press on O&H.
- You can now follow my goings-on via both Google+ and Facebook.
- I’ve started a new weblog entitled Vox Oriente for the Emmaus Patch, a locally focused website dedicated to my home which kindly ran a short column introducing folks to O&H. The intended audience for VO is local readers who’ve never encountered Orthodoxy before.
- Beginning in August, I will be leading an 8-part Introduction to Orthodox Christianity series at St. Paul’s in Emmaus. I have no plans to record the series for podcasting for a couple of reasons: This is meant to be local and informal (and thus not really suited to international publication), and there is also a wealth of this kind of material already available online from other sources.
- Beginning earlier this spring, I took up in earnest the aquarium hobby. My wife is a wonderfully patient woman who has not laughed at all the poor, dead fish who have given their lives to further my education in aquarium biology and chemistry. If you happen to be in the Lehigh Valley, I strongly recommend you support your local aquarium store and only shop in the corp-stores when you have to.
- As of a couple of weeks ago, our family marked its second anniversary serving in Emmaus. We are grateful to God to be here. This has become home, and we want it to stay that way, at least until the final Day.
I was recently passed on a question by my grandmother from some of my non-Orthodox relations who live out in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The question was whether, in my preaching, there is room for a “personal Gospel.” I must be honest that I don’t know exactly what that phrase means, but I cannot imagine they are asking whether I am “allowed” to make up my own doctrine. After all, they are fairly conservative Evangelical Protestant believers who no doubt believe that truth is truth and that relativism is utter bunk. (There, we very much agree.)
But perhaps what is being asked is really about freedom. My mind has dwelt in this area again of late, as I have become occasionally aware of debates raging between Protestants regarding an “emergent” preacher who at least seems to be espousing the doctrine of universalism (that every person will be saved by God no matter what they do or believe). Those who oppose him are claiming “orthodoxy” as their authority, while those who support him (or at least oppose the opponents) mock orthodoxy, though they mock it as the West understands it—absolute adherence to formulaic, conceptual systems. This gives rise to the attitude sneered at by those who oppose it, “dogmatism.” Thus, the “orthodox” are those who “think they know everything.” As a friend of mine once put it to me: “It must be so exhausting to be so right all the time!” For him, orthodoxy was about “being right.”
I also thought about this question of freedom and what being Orthodox actually means when the subject has again risen to the forefront of the national consciousness of the question of same-sex marital unions (due to the passing of a law by the state of New York). (Of course, it is important to have some perspective here. 41 out of 50 American states have either explicit constitutional (29) or statutory (12) bans on same-sex marriage. In the 28 states that have put up constitutional amendments to a vote, it has passed in all 28. So who knows how long this latest bit of news will really last?)
The issue, for me, has come down to this question: How “Orthodox” do you have to be in your mind in order to be Orthodox?
Is Orthodoxy about thinking the right things? Is it about saying the right words? Is it about signing on to a list of dogmatic and moral precepts? Is it about a fundamental lack of freedom?
I think that, for most of the world, that is, indeed, what the word orthodoxy means, that it is a synonym for another word denoting something hateful, dogmatic. Given my love for language, though, I am not willing to cede this linguistic territory to them. Orthodoxy doesn’t have to mean that, and for the Orthodox Christian, it doesn’t.
Orthodoxy really is a glorious word (literally!). The orthos literally means “straight,” but of course it metaphorically means “true” or “reliable.” The doxa portion of the word can mean any and all of the following: notion, opinion, teaching, glory, worship, praise, reputation, judgment (i.e., a discernment), expectation, imagining, fancy, dream, vision, effulgence and splendor. And I daresay that for the Orthodox Church, orthodoxy means all of those things together. Orthodoxy is the straight/true/reliable notion/opinion/teaching/glory/worship/praise/reputation/judgment/expectation/imagining/fancy/dream/vision/effulgence/splendor. Those who think orthodoxy is really just about a set of concepts and words are either ignoring or unaware of the rest of this vast universe of meaning.
And that bring us to my response both to my relatives and to the general feeling about dogma and orthodoxy that seems (a pun here on dogma, which comes from the Greek for “it seems”) to be out there in the culture. Orthodoxy as it is known and practiced by the Orthodox Church is not a set of concepts or teachings. Those teachings are just one element of what Orthodoxy is. Fundamentally, the commitment to Orthodoxy is not commitment to a position paper but rather to a particular community, to communion.
Therefore, of course when I preach I use my own words to express what needs to be said, and they are specifically tailored to the community who is worshiping with me, which is one with the worldwide, particular and historic communion of Orthodoxy. I can indeed make use of a “personal Gospel” if that is understood to mean that I bring my own personal experiences and expression to the fore when communicating the faith. But what I should be communicating is the faith, not my private opinions. I am not “free” to make up doctrine or to reimagine it such that it contradicts or alters the deposit of faith once delivered to the saints. The truth is the truth, and the Apostles were given all the truth, not a portion of it that later needs to be debated or expanded upon.
Freedom truly is not a question of getting to do or say whatever I want. That’s really about licentiousness. Freedom is rather power to do something, specifically, to do what God created me to be able to do. As I become more and more like Him, my ability to be truly natural grows. If I decide to become less like Him, then my power dwindles. Yes, there is a sort of “freedom” in that, in the sense that I am free to find a prison and lock myself up in it.
But as I said, Orthodoxy is a community, not concepts. There is a great deal of freedom within that community to express the one faith in a multitude of ways. Life in any household can be surprising and variable, and it grows and changes over the years. But we cannot walk out on the Father of the house and say that we are still members of the household. We cannot live in active defiance of the Father of the house and say that we are still members of the household. We cannot go build a new house, set ourselves up as the father, and rightly claim that it is the same household. Dogma is simply the outer boundaries of what the household is, and because dogma is fundamentally about a Person—Jesus Christ—and not about concepts, then transgressing those boundaries is not a “thought crime” but a break in relationship.
So does that mean that the Father wants to control even our thoughts? When do the personal opinions of church members—even if they contradict the teachings of the Church—put them outside the household of faith? Traditionally, the Church’s approach to this question is only in terms of those who set themselves up as teachers, specifically as teachers who are in opposition to the teachers whose task it is to hand on the one faith from Christ. That is what heresy is, choosing to be in opposition and most especially seeking to lead others in that opposition.
I’ve known plenty of people who are formally members of the Orthodox Church who believe that abortion is perfectly acceptable, that homosexual acts are perfectly acceptable, that it’s okay to gamble, to lie, to steal, to cheat, to commit suicide, to commit euthanasia, etc., etc. And these beliefs sometimes affect their behavior, as well. Most of the time, all of these things are addressed within the private, pastoral relationship between them and their confessor. The question of excommunication usually only ever comes up if they take these teachings and use them to create a disruption in the Church.
In looking at the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, one notes that the canons almost never address beliefs or opinions. They are mostly concerned with behavior. But where they do address beliefs, it is in terms of “those who teach,” not “those who believe” or “those who think.” But even their approach to destructive behaviors is about the path to restoration, not the path to exclusion.
After all, we are all sinners. Every single one of us. I may not be tempted by a particular sin, but I’m sure tempted by a lot of others. And I fail constantly. The difference here is not between the sinners and the non-sinners, but between sinners who choose to struggle against the fallenness we have inherited from Adam and Eve and those who set up that fallenness as the “new normal.” We are all called to be perfect.
So we have the choice of striving toward perfection (probably not to achieve it in this life, but quite possibly in the next) or deciding not to strive. It seems to me that the free man is the striver. Yes, there are beliefs proper to the Orthodox Christian, but they are not a system of concepts but rather the experience of a Person. If we say that Orthodoxy believes that the Son of God is of one essence with the Father, it is not because we are holding up some academic concept that has little bearing on real life. Rather it is because that is how God has actually revealed Himself, and because we want to know Him for Who He really is, not for what we’d like Him to be or what we think He is. After all, life eternal (you do want life eternal, don’t you?), is about knowing God, not about adherence to concepts. And the more we know God, the freer we become.
My experience of Orthodoxy is that it is very much characterized by freedom. Though there is instruction on the beliefs of the Church, no one goes around telling people what to think, mounting up witch hunts to see who’s committing thought crimes and holding wrong opinions. (There’s also plenty of instruction on what to do, but what did you expect? What’s the point of religion that doesn’t have any standards?) Yes, there is a clear shape to the life of the household of faith, but there are many ways of living within it. No, not all the ways the world has in mind will work within the household. But that is not because there is no freedom. It is because those ways lead to enmity and destruction. Those ways are not bad because they’re “wrong.” They’re bad because they’re counter to the design the Father put in place when He created everything. If you’re trying to glue thin pieces of balsa wood together, a hammer is not the right tool for the job. No one is violating your “freedom” if they say not to use a hammer and instead offer you some glue and a vise.
Orthodoxy isn’t about limiting anyone. It doesn’t chain people. Orthodoxy grants wings. Orthodoxy grants vision. Orthodoxy fuels the great fire within humanity, allowing it to blaze with the uncreated light of God Himself. Anyone who thinks that’s limiting has either never really touched it or really has a thing for the, ahem, “other side.”
The evidence of the freedom of the Church’s life is to be found in the saints. Sin, like all addiction, is boring, repetitive, ugly, and destructive, while the holiness of the lives of the saints is characterized by glorious variation. Their lives are a peacock’s panoply of color, of all the amazing and curious possibility that human nature may achieve.
Note: This post is not about whether same-sex marriage should be legal, about whether or not Orthodoxy actually teaches traditional marriage (it does!), etc. Comments along those lines won’t be published, not because I’m a censorious meanie, but because there are many thousands of other places online to discuss such things, and I don’t care to make this one of them. My house, my rules.
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today, let’s talk about sin.
Yes, of course, almost all sermons are in some sense about sin, and sin is certainly mentioned a great deal in the hymns and readings of the Church. But let’s take a moment today to address sin head-on, to define it, to look at what it’s really made of, and, because we are Christians, what God has to say about it.
The diligent observer of political history will correctly note that morality cannot be successfully legislated—that is, passing laws doesn’t make people moral; laws can only restrain and punish people. Yet sin and morality are constantly in political news. Sin is also a dominant theme in our entertainment.
Whether the issue is abortion, same-sex attraction, euthanasia, assisted suicide, drug abuse, or even how one finances political campaigns, sin is constantly at the forefront of our public life. But almost no one uses the word sin any more when discussing these things, except perhaps those cruel and obnoxious people from the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church” who like to picket military funerals. Sin has become an unpopular word. Even mentioning something as sin is likely to get you labeled as a hateful bigot.
But what is sin? Sin is anything that distances us from God. The Greek word for sin used in the New Testament, hamartia, literally means “missing the mark.” Thus, whenever we fire the arrows of our life and do not hit the mark that has been set up by God, we are sinning.
We often think of sin in terms of crimes against a divine law, and so when we sin, we make God angry with us. But God isn’t subject to such sinful passions Himself. You can’t make Him mad. Even language about God’s “wrath” that is to be found in Scripture cannot be understood to depict a God Who flies off the handle. Talk about God’s “wrath” is simply an attempt to understand what we experience when we sin.
I think the best way for us to understand sin is as a malfunction. God created the universe and mankind to function in a particular way, perfect and balanced and beautiful. He had a design, and He made us according to that design. But our ability to function well was dependent on staying plugged in to the Giver of Life Himself. And Adam and Eve unplugged us.
As someone who used to be employed in the live music business, I sometimes like to think of mankind like an electric guitar. If you unplug it from the wall, you can of course still play it, but it’s very muted. Mankind without the energy of God can function a little bit, because of God’s design, but we will never be able to make music the way we’re intended while we remain unplugged.
The problem with the world today is that, for so long, we’ve been hearing an unplugged electric guitar and assuming that that is what the music is all about. Little do we know that we were not only meant to be plugged in, but that there are a variety of amps and effects pedals that we can plug in, as well. But we’re malfunctioning, so most of that escapes our ears.
When God tells us not to sin, it is not because He has made up a bunch of arbitrary laws that He’s looking for an excuse to zap us over if we disobey them. Rather, he’s telling us that if we want to “rock out” on the electric guitar that He designed us to be, only certain things will get you there. There are plenty of techniques and options once you plug in, but if you don’t plug in, you won’t make the music. If you unstring the guitar, you’ll make even less. If you bang the guitar against the power amps, that’s not music, either. (Note that most of the bands who do that wait until the end of the concert!)
Morality is really simply what it takes for mankind to make the music he was meant to make. It’s not about judging or condemning anyone. It’s about what works.
There are a lot of kinds of sins, just like there are a lot of ways to make an electric guitar malfunction. Some sins, I am tempted to commit. Others, I am not tempted to commit. But it’s all still sin. It all still unplugs me from God’s divine energy. Sin isn’t bad for me because I’m not following the “rules.” Sin is bad for me because it disconnects me from God.
So when God looked at the world and saw that we were a bunch of sinners, did He storm from Heaven and smite us all with bolts of lightning? Did He shout out in anger and level our cities? Did He picket funerals and tell us that He hates us for our sins? Today’s epistle reading from Romans tells us what He did: “But God shows his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
When God looked at a world full of rotten, broken, messed up sinners—including me—His response was to come here and die for us. As it also says in that passage from Romans, “For while we were still weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly.” God looks at our sin not as creating a bunch of guilty people, but rather in creating weakness. Sin leaves us weak, malfunctioning, unable to do and be what He made us to do and be.
As we look at our world, which more and more is redefining sin as “freedom” and “civil rights,” we have to remember what sin really is and how God approaches it. Abortion is sin because it kills a child. Yes, people who commit abortion are often suffering in other ways, too, but they’re still killing a child. The same is true of euthanasia or assisted suicide—an innocent life is being destroyed. Homosexual acts are sin, just like any other sexual act outside of marriage as God designed it, because they are not God’s design for us. Yes, people with that temptation have been made to suffer for it, but that is because of the cruelty of some sinners toward other sinners, not because God is cruel.
It really does not matter whether we were born with the temptations we face. Being “born this way” (to quote the pop philosopher Lady Gaga) does not mean that it’s natural or good. Lady Gaga is right when she says that “God makes no mistakes,” but what we’re living in is not the world as God designed it or human nature as God designed it, but as man has distorted it. What we inherit from Adam and Eve is not human nature as God designed it. We inherit a malfunctioning human nature, unplugged from the divine energy.
It really does not matter whether we have suffered, either. Sin is still sin. Nothing justifies it, and sinning doesn’t make our suffering better. Indeed, sinning because we have suffered is really the same dynamic that causes blood feuds between families and nations. That is what revenge is—an attempt to release the suffering through sin. But sin never releases suffering, despite whatever momentary emotional reward we may experience. Sin always disconnects us more from God.
It doesn’t matter how we personally feel about it. What matters is the objective reality about how God designed us to function. We may not understand all of His teachings about what works best, and sometimes the results of following or not following them may not be apparent until we reach the next life (though they often show themselves here, too), but the true character of sin is that it is malfunction. It will always be malfunction, even if the world redefines it to be something else or we personally feel like it should be something else.
But God’s love for us is so powerful and strong that He doesn’t want us to stay in our malfunction. He wants to heal us, to plug us in to the life-giving energy that only He provides. That means that we have to respond to the free gift of healing and wholeness He offers by getting rid of our sins that distance us from Him, whether they are sins of commission like some of the things we have named, or whether they are sins of omission like neglecting worship in favor of entertainment or other worldly pursuits. Either way, they’re pulling us away from God, whether through quick jumps in committing evil acts or through gradual decay in not making Him the center and focus of our whole lives.
The only cure for sin is to pay attention to and take hold of the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), to commit ourselves and each other and our whole life to Christ our God.
To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.