Language

“We speak one language: Antiochian”: More Thoughts on the Future of the Antiochian Archdiocese and Orthodoxy in America

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antioch-synod

If you’ve done any reading from modern Orthodox saints, you know that there is a certain tone among the holy elders of Greece, another from Russia and so forth. Each culture enculturates the Gospel in its own authentic way and speaks of the truth of Jesus Christ with its own voice.

One of the things which makes the particular Antiochian voice distinct—although it is often not well known here in America, as I wrote in my previous post—is that it is not tied to any single ethnicity or culture. The ancient cultures and languages that have called Antiochian Orthodoxy home are diverse—Syriac, Greek, Georgian, Arabic, Cypriot, Central Asian—as are those which now are also home to the Antiochian church—English, American, Central and South American, Turkish, Australian, French, German and others. Ancient Antioch itself was a cosmopolitan city even in the time of the Apostles, and while the city of Antioch of today is now a small Turkish municipality, the spirit of Antiochian identity in its Christian form has remained cosmopolitan and multicultural. Some folks today equate Antiochian with Arabic, but that identification has never really been accurate.

Indeed, one of the greatest voices of the Antiochian church in America, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, regarded himself as being a man who identified with many peoples: “I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.”

Yet while the voice of the Antiochian tradition is spoken in many languages and cultures, there is nevertheless a single “Antiochian language,” so to speak, a particular way of being and speaking in the Orthodox Church that is distinct.

I have been talking about this “Antiochian language” recently with friends who know it far better than I, and one of them mentioned to me a phrase used in the Arabic-language publishing and social media of the patriarchate, which gives this post its title: “We speak one language: Antiochian.” It has also been rendered in English as “Our Language is Antiochian. Our Language is One.” This certainly is not a reference to the Arabic language but rather to a kind of spiritual language, that particular voice which is the spirit of Antioch.

With the attention that our archdiocese here in America has received lately from the Patriarchate of Antioch, our connection to that Antiochian language has been strengthened, and I’ve noticed a particular tone—hard to describe, but definitely distinct. If I had to put adjectives to it, I might choose: accessible, direct, refreshing, bright, earthy, peaceful. It is not dark or hard, but it is also not too yielding or liberal. It is loving and un-self-conscious.

A bridge is being built between ancient Antioch and her children here in North America, and now there is traffic on that bridge, a kind of spiritual commerce and economy that has its own idiom. For many, this may be the first time that someone has “spoken Antiochian” to them. It is not that this has been absent from our archdiocese, but we have simply not had access to it in the way that we have over the past several weeks.

As I said, though, that voice is hard to define with adjectives, so I would like to give a few samples, both ancient and modern, which to me all sing in the same spiritual key, which speak with the same spiritual voice. The subjects are different, but the tone (to me) is the same:

Blessed is the person who has consented to become the close friend of faith and of prayer: he lives in singlemindedness and makes prayer and faith stop by with him. Prayer that rises up in someone’s heart serves to open up for us the door of heaven: that person stands in converse with the Divinity and gives pleasure to the Son of God. Prayer makes peace with the Lord’s anger and with the vehemence of His wrath. In this way too, tears that well up in the eyes can open the door of compassion.

- St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Armenian Hymn No. 1,” 4th c.

St. Ephrem is of course familiar to many Orthodox Christians, and he is not often thought of as “Antiochian” exactly, but this tone is still there. (And one recognizes the Semitic image of God’s “wrath” there, of course.) I especially love the phrase “close friend of faith and of prayer.”

Fast forward several centuries, and that same feeling is still there. Here’s Sulayman al-Ghazzi (Solomon of Gaza), an Arabic-speaking Palestinian bishop from the 11th century:

Not all baptized with water are Christians
   Without the baptism of the life of the world to come;
In Christ the peoples of the earth have been baptized
   Though some of them afterward showed hypocrisy.
They became like a body’s parts in its natural state—
   Some helpful, some unreliable.
How many patriarchs are unpraiseworthy in their service,
   Miserable bishops and metropolitans,
Who are among the heretics, in place of truth,
   Preferring falsehood and slander!
Over them, God has favored a Church
   Whose stones are gathered from all corners and climbs.
Truth has built her edifice
   Rising to heaven on pillars and columns,
Fashioned from chrysolite,
   Precious stones, sapphires, and pearls.
Her foundation is the rock of faith,
   Rooted deep with pillars and walls.
All bodily creatures are pleased to see it
   When it appears in races and colors,
Byzantines, Russians, and Franks
   Joined with Indians, Khuzestanis, Abkhaz, and Alans
Armenians and Pechenegs in agreement
   With the people of the Jazira, namely Harran.
And Copts too, in the Lower Egypt father together
   From Upper Egypt to Qus and Aswan.
People of Shiraz and Ahwaz in harmony
   With Iraq, unto furthest Khorasan.
From the place of the sunrise to the place of its setting,
   To the Euphrates, to Sihon and Gihon.
White, blond, and brown in their churches
   Praise God with the yellow and the black.
All of them have come to the religion of Christ
   And are guided, gaining profit from loss.
Seventy nations, each with a language
   Branching off from one Syriac tongue.[*]
Hebrew was the speech of God’s apostles
   Before they set out with the mission of the Gospel.
Each apostle gained a language,
   Beautiful, reliable, and clear.
Not out of weakness but having heard proof,
   Those to whom they preached responded with faith.
So they spread out among their nations,
   None fearing the devil’s wiles.
When their service to God was done, they slept,
   Having roused many sleepers.

- Suleyman al-Ghazzi, from “Not All Baptized with Water Are Christians” (trans. Samuel Noble), in The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources, pp. 163-164

[*] Medieval Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, generally held that Syriac was the language spoken by Adam and Eve.

And roughly 1,000 years later, we still hear this same direct, refreshing voice from the leaders of the Orthodox Youth Movement:

The Church is the salt of the earth and completes the work of Christ in the world. The Church works, she is present, for the sake of the salvation of the world. We can say that she is the center of being, in her its destiny is achieved. The world corrupts and ages, but the Church is continuously renewed for the sake of the salvation of the world. But if the salt is corrupted, then how can it be salty?

The Church is the group of those who believe in the Lord Jesus and who have united around him to live the life of the Gospel, the life of God. They have no concern except to follow the Lord’s teaching and to follow in his footsteps. The group is in the world and for the world, but at the same time it is not of the world. From the beginning, from the ascension of the Lord to heaven, it is oriented toward the age to come, awaiting the return of the heavenly bridegroom and hastening him on. From now on, it lives in the last days, in the fullness of time, “it uses this world as though it doesn’t use it, and buys as though it doesn’t own.”

- Fr. Elias Morcos, “On Revival in Antioch,” 1964

We become children of the Resurrection when we become bridges of communication and encounter between those who are separated, and between those who are in conflict. Let us be bridges exactly like the Lord who did not ask anything for Himself, but gave the world everything, to such an extent that He offered Himself for the salvation of the world. Let us serve as ways of rapprochement for all. Through love, sacrifice and in deeds and truth we shall build our countries.

We become children of Resurrection when we live our faith in genuineness, depth and meaningfulness. External expressions are bound to change with cultures and ways of living, but the genuine Christian content preserves the trust which has been handed down to the saints under many different circumstances, cases and cultures. Let us imitate the courage of Christ who did not fear anything, even death. Instead He faced the cross with love and brought us to resurrection. Let us face the cross of this crucified East with overwhelming love for all those who are crucified on it, until we reach with them the resurrection we all expect. Let us live these painful days in simplicity, enjoying the bare necessities of life and experiencing the true wealth which is life with God….

Last but not least, we do not forget that God is the Lord of history, so we may always hold to patience and hope which do not fade away. Let us remember the words of the prophets and how much they called, in times of distress, for repentance and faith, until God intervenes and removes the distress. In these troubled days we are witnessing, we are in sore need of faithful witnesses. Let us move out of our distress with more faith, more purity and greater loyalty. When we understand that we only need God and no one else, the effects of resurrection will appear in us and in all our humanity. When this happens all around us shall be transfigured.

- Patriarch John X (Yazigi) of Antioch, Pascha 2013 Pastoral Letter

How should I conduct myself at Pascha? I try to become the Gospel, to become the word so that people may read me and live. Christianity is faces that are illumined in order to give light. This is the living Pascha. It is what causes me to pass through people to the Father’s face. How should I live? “I do not live, it is Christ who lives in me.” Christianity is not a religious system. It is love– that is, clinging to Christ such that you forget your own face in order to see His face and the whole world in His face. If we are people of Pascha, then we are in a state of constantly going beyond ourselves and the world in order to become Him and for Him to become us. It is not a matter of systems and it is not a matter of theoretical principles. Everything is His face, until all faces pass away or we read Him traced upon them.

- Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon, “Who Shall I Be at Pascha?“, 2014

And now this “Antiochian language” is also being spoken to us here directly in America by the representative of our patriarch:

Christ defeated death in our lives! He set us free from fear: from fearing death, from fearing evil, from fearing illness and calamities, from fearing each other, from fearing the uncertainty of the future, from fearing insecurity and unemployment, from fearing violence and terrorism, and from fearing persecution and sufferings for His sake. Instead, He gave us the power and the means to seek the true freedom. The freedom to love each other even though we differ in character, education and profession. The freedom to forgive each other even though we have suffered. The freedom to ask forgiveness from each other even though we have badly hurt each other. The freedom to serve each other even though we differ in origin, background and culture. The freedom to work together even though we differ in thinking, worldview, ability and capacity. The freedom to abide by the truth and raise our children to seek Him. The freedom to defend the unjust and the needy and restore them their rights. The freedom to be at the Lord’s hand, obedient, prayerful and faithful.

Christ defeated death in our reality! He gave us the gift to start anew, to renew our heart, to purify our mind, and to reaffirm our commitment of faith at His service. He restored in us the dignity of our person, the beauty of our nature, and the bounty in our personality.

Christ defeated death in our relationships! Christ is the only mediator between God and man. However, He made us “bridges” of salvation to reach others. As Antiochian Orthodox Christians in North America, we are bequeathed an apostolic “lineage:” tradition, inheritance and mission. In this regard, the image of the “bridge” summarizes the Antiochian witness that emerges out of the past, prompts the present and prepares the future of the Antiochian Orthodox Church on the eve of the election of a new Metropolitan to succeed to His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip of eternal memory.

- Metropolitan Silouan (Moussi) of Argentina, “How to Resurrect with Christ: Pascha 2014 Pastoral Letter

I could give many, many more examples, and of course you can find a good bit of this sort of thing on the Notes on Arab Orthodoxy weblog. But I hope that these passages will suffice to give you some sense of the tone of “speaking Antiochian.” It is different from other languages, and while many of its speakers are these days from the Middle East, it is not the same thing as speaking Arabic, and there is no reason why non-Arabic speakers or people from outside the Middle East cannot speak it. It is a beautiful language, and it speaks to us of our Savior Jesus Christ with a peculiar accent and vocabulary of its own, itself building a bridge between persons, between peoples, and between mankind and God.

As I wrote last week, my hope for us Antiochians here in America is that we may hear more and more “speaking Antiochian” to us, so that we may better learn this beautiful language. And in so doing, not only will our own faith be strengthened, but we will also have something beautiful to offer to our Orthodox brothers and sisters throughout America.

Why I Love (True) Religion Because I Love Jesus, Redux

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bethke

This coming Sunday, Jan. 12, will be the two year anniversary of the post that has inexplicably (to me) probably been the most-read thing I’ve ever written. It’s always somewhat odd to me to note the things that get the most hits. They’re almost invariably stuff that’s more off-the-cuff than much-deliberated (like this silly post of coffee and theology jokes). (Kind of depressing, really.)

One thing I’ve noted from the comments on the post is that, at the time, many people chided my criticisms since I was picking on some “kid” who was just expressing himself, while I insisted that he was acting as a professional and making a contribution to public discourse that was therefore subject to critique.

Since then, that “kid” has of course made quite the career from the video in question and now has a book entitled JESUS > RELIGION. It’s still selling quite well on Amazon, with 308 reviews and counting, and is a NYT bestseller. His Facebook page currently has over 231,000 “likes.”

Now, one might argue that it was this video that propelled him from “amateur” to “professional” status, and it certainly did make him a celebrity. But as I mentioned at the time, the video was quite professionally produced, and he had already been soliciting speaking engagements for some time before the video came out. So he was clearly a professional, just not quite yet a very successful one.

But now he has joined the pantheon of Evangelical pop spirituality stars. I wish him well. I do not think that that kind of spirituality will long endure, however, as Evangelicalism now seems to be engaged in a fairly serious self-critique which is coming to look at the sort of religion this gentleman pushes as rather shallow and even heretical.

I actually ended up doing a couple of follow-up posts to explore some further issues related to the original. Here are all the posts in the series:

A lot of this kind of thing I would probably today post on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, but the site didn’t exist yet in January 2012. The popularity of the original post and its follow-ups are actually part of what led me to start the O&H site in the summer of 2012.

Thanks to all my readers. I appreciate whatever attention you can lend.

What Does “Orthodoxy” Mean?

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The following is an excerpt from the beginning of one of my lectures that I’ve also posted on my parish website.

It is well-known among Orthodox Christians that the word orthodoxy—often used as a shorthand for our faith—has two parallel meanings. It is composed of two Greek words—orthos and doxa. Together, they form orthodoxia, rendered into English as orthodoxy.

The word orthos literally means “straight,” and those familiar with geometry will recognize it in the word orthogonal, which refers to something lying at a right angle. Those who know something about dentistry will think of orthodontics, which concerns itself with straight teeth, while the orthopedist wants to make sure your skeleton is straight (literally, orthopedics means “straight children”). It should come as no surprise that Greek uses orthos metaphorically also to refer to something that is true, since we English speakers use straight to refer to reliability and truth, especially in such terms as straight-talker or to be set straight. And of course someone who is on the right path is on the straight and narrow. And no doubt our minds are also called to the use of the word straight to refer to a properly ordered sexuality or even from a decade or two ago when straight referred to someone doesn’t take recreational drugs.

The other side of the word orthodoxy is what may intrigue us more, however, and it is the doxa which gives orthodoxia its double meaning, for doxa can mean both “opinion” and “glory.” Often, in thinking of orthodoxy, it is this first meaning that occurs to the world—an “orthodoxy” is a hard and fast, unmovable set of teachings or opinions. And this meaning should occur to us, as well, that Orthodoxy is very much about the straight, true teachings of the Church, teachings that cannot be changed. The orthodoxy of the Orthodox Church is therefore precisely a deposit of faith, a theology that will never be altered, because it is the truth. It is the straight teaching, the true opinion.

There is more to this side of doxa than “opinion” or “teaching,” however. Doxa was used in the ancient world for many things. Indeed, its primary and most basic sense can be translated as “notion,” especially with the question of whether that notion is true or false. From that, doxa can also be an “expectation,” which makes particular sense if the truth value of a notion remains undefined. Thus, we may also know orthodoxy as a “true notion” and as a “true expectation.” Doxa can also mean “a judgment” or “conjecture,” which takes us into a more psychological realm. If you have a doxa about something, then of course that may be your idea or your opinion, your judgment about the character of the subject at hand.

But the inner sense of doxa is even more expansive than these almost purely philosophical definitions. There are also ancient uses of doxa that we may translate as “imagining,” “a dream,” “a fancy,” or “a vision.” It may be almost whimsical to think in these terms, but if you’ll permit me a little mystical whimsy, consider for a moment that the Orthodox faith is also the “true imagining,” the “true dream,” or the “true fancy.” I do not think that it will surprise you at all to learn that Orthodoxy is also the “true vision.” We are accustomed to think of imagination, dreams, fancies and visions as unreliable, flimsy things, and that is perhaps why we need that orthos for our doxa, to make it clear that this one doxa is the true one, the reliable one, the straight one.

So with that in mind, let us dream together a little more about this word orthodoxy. The other side of doxa with which we are perhaps familiar is that it means “glory.” This sense of doxa is derived from its meaning as “opinion,” and so doxa can be used to refer to the opinion that people have about something, its reputation, how it is esteemed. And so it is not a large leap from “reputation” to “glory,” for something with a good reputation is sure to be glorified. But glory does not only mean giving praise to something, and it is not limited in this way for doxa, either. The meaning extends on toward “effulgence” and even “splendor.” Thus, the Orthodox faith is also the “true reputation,” the “true splendor.” And we may say that it therefore implies “true worship,” because that glorification is directed toward the God of the universe, and it is His true splendor that shines through in Orthodox worship.

What a wonderful word orthodoxy is! On reflection, we must certainly agree that all of these varied senses of what the word might mean are all applicable to the Orthodox faith. Orthodoxy is certainly about what is straight and true, and the “what” there is not just a notion or opinion or teaching, but it is imagination, dream, vision, and (of course) glory and worship. No wonder that we say it is a whole life! It’s not just about believing the correct things.

Orthodoxy, Allegory and Fantasy

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The Last Homely House, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. —J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

There is a new post today on MyOCN‘s “Orthodox Writers, Readers, and Artists series,” whose title caught my eye: Is it Orthodox to Read and Write Allegory/Fantasy Children’s Books?

Friends and long-time readers will imagine that my hackles immediately went up when I read this. Of course, I’ve encountered the attitude in this piece before. I once spoke, for instance, with an Orthodox Christian who was putting together a homeschooling curriculum. He insisted that imaginative fiction of every kind was essentially sinful, that it was phantasia—a word used in monastic literature (and sometimes spelled phantasy or fantasy) to refer to sinful imaginations. This is essentially the same attitude that, when intensified, will condemn Tolkien and Lewis as pagan sympathizers (not to mention those bewitching Harry Potter novels!).

To be quite frank, I think this attitude is puritanical nonsense. I don’t blame those who hold it, though I do believe that they have mistaken the phantasia that the monastic fathers warned against for the fantasy that is imaginative fiction. (I will from here on use those two spellings to make that distinction.) That is, they have turned a specific piece of monastic technical language regarding meditative prayer into a general principle—a literary theory, even—to exclude something that those monastic writers weren’t remotely talking about.

Phantasia is a danger in ascetical writings not because it uses the imagination. Rather, it is a use of the imagination that fixates the heart on created things. More specifically, it is a fixation that is an obstacle to the pure prayer of the heart. In pursuing meditative prayer, the ascetic (who is not just the monastic, but all of us) is called upon not to try to imagine God, to picture Him, or to become obsessed with any created image in order to reach Him, because doing so is essentially idolatry. It is also simply prejudicial, just like relating to any human person by means of imagination rather than through encounter.

But fantasy (even the specific literary genre that goes by that name) isn’t about prejudicial obsessions with created things that block us off from God. If imagination qua imagination were only phantasia in the sense that the monastic fathers warn us of, then many of the great Fathers of the Church would be in rather deep trouble, for a good many of them had rather thorough educations in fiction—even in explicitly pagan literature. No less a luminary than St. Basil the Great admonished the young on how exactly they ought to make use of pagan literature! No puritan he, Basil taught his readers how to sift what they read, how to find the face of Christ even in works specifically designed to promote religion that the Church was in the process of conquering.

Now, the writer of the piece linked above does not quite seem to have it in for all fiction (being a writer of children’s books), but I am unclear on what basis the argument against fantasy is being made if it is not simply that it is to be identified with phantasia. After all, if the problem with fantasy is that it is “whatever the mind imagines end[ing] up on paper,” then that would apply to all fiction. (But what writer actually just writes “whatever” his mind imagines? Any writer worth his salt—or, you know, magic fairy dust—sifts, revises, etc.) But the exit from this charge for the writer seems to be through allegory, because allegory is the specific use of fictional imagery to attempt to teach something.

Because of this, the writer lets Tolkien and Lewis off, because they are supposedly allegorists and because they still lived in a time when “little ‘o’ orthodoxy was still pretty free from relativism, so what they are teaching is, at least for the most part, not contrary to Orthodoxy.” Aside from the fact that “little ‘o’ orthodoxy” by definition is free from relativism (no relativist would claim to be orthodox, even with the little “O”), this again misses the basic point.

But first, let us tackle the writer’s accusation against fantasy, that it is “a pure expression of the passions,” that it contains “werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil,” that it consists of “a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.” Yes, one can certainly find such things out there, and I think I may know what the writer has in mind with the tip of the cards offered later: “modern fantasy generally has some sort of romantic involvement of the characters,” one that is properly “described as downright pornographic.”

No doubt it is Twilight (which happens to be written by a devout Mormon) and its ilk that is in mind here. But really, aren’t such things really just “romance” novels that have only the most superficial resemblance to the fantasy genre, which is populated with writers the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, Eddings, Brooks, Jordan, Salvatore, McCaffrey, Kurtz, etc.? I don’t know whether the writer has read much of the works of the big names in “modern fantasy,” but I’m really starting to suspect not. I think what the writer really doesn’t like is romance novels with werewolves and vampires. If that is really the case, why condemn a whole (barely related) genre?

But let us return to allegory.

It is true that Lewis was fairly self-consciously allegorical, but only with a certain minority of elements in his works. True allegory would have every rock, tree, beast and boy as a stand-in for some other person or lesson. Lewis doesn’t quite do that.

However, the far more masterful storyteller of the two, Tolkien, was vehemently explicit about his rejection of allegory, something made plain in his foreword to The Lord of the Rings:

I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them…. As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical…. I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

It seems to me that the columnist would indeed prefer the “purposed domination of the author,” that the only good fiction is allegorical fiction, but it had better be trying to teach some sort of Christian lesson, “trying to get a person who has been spiritually deadened by this world, and everything in it, to see clearly spiritual principles using imagery that is not familiar to the person,” to get them to see “new worlds with new creatures that have not been co-opted by evil.”

But I am not interested in reading a book where everyone is perfectly happy and good, not “co-opted by evil.” Why? Because such a book would not speak to the reality in which I actually find myself, in which nearly everything around me—including me!—has been co-opted by evil. (To be honest, though, since when have vampires and werewolves ever not been “co-opted by evil”? Twilight‘s mistake is probably that it is attempting to co-opt such evil images as good.) Even the Scriptures themselves are rife with people and things co-opted by evil. And their point is redemption, just as it also is with good writers of fiction, whether they are being explicitly allegorical or not.

This rejection of fantasy as phantasia (accompanied by all of phantasia‘s ills as apparently exemplified by the romance novels with blood and fur and such) is really a denial of the Orthodox anthropology of man as being made according to God’s image. He is our Creator, and as such, we may (to use Tolkien’s language) become sub-creators. We are not merely imitators or allegorists. Such a veiled didacticism will hardly reach anyone these days, anyway. The moment a reader suspects he is being taught a lesson, that the author is “trying to get a person who has been spiritually deadened by this world, and everything in it, to see clearly spiritual principles,” he will reject the story.

I think we can do no better than some of these meditations from Tolkien’s brilliant reflection on such things, On Fairy Stories:

When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

An essential power of Faerie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy.” Not all are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man. And he has stained the elves who have this power (in verity or fable) with his own stain. This aspect of “mythology” —sub-creation, rather than either representation or symbolic interpretation of the beauties and terrors of the world—is, I think, too little considered. Is that because it is seen rather in Faerie than upon Olympus? Because it is thought to belong to the “lower mythology” rather than to the “higher”?…

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed….

But the error or malice, engendered by disquiet and consequent dislike, is not the only cause of this confusion. Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode….

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

In the end, I have to confess that what I think I read in the column linked above was really a distaste for romance novels in the guise of fantasy, with the objection framed in language from the Fathers that was never intended to refer simply to imaginative fiction, whether it happens to have werewolves or not. But the objections to such things were on all the wrong grounds. Those grounds were made to serve other arguments and contexts. The problem with the “fantasy” disliked by the writer is not that it is not Christian allegory, or simply that it is fantasy, but rather that it glorifies that which is base. True fantasy instead redeems that which is base and thereupon reveals its glory.

Addendum: Something that occurs to me to add here is that, unless a publication is explicitly about theology, Church history, saints’ lives, etc., I think it does something of a disservice to the work to put an “ORTHODOX™” label on it. The last thing we Orthodox need is to create our own brand. Orthodoxy is not a brand. It is the Body of Christ. There is no need for us to put out a line of ORTHODOX™-approved books, toys, clothing, etc. (And we’d look dumb doing it.)

Why I Love (True) Religion Because I Love Jesus

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The above video by Jefferson Bethke has been making the rounds lately via various bits of social media. A few people have sent it to me to ask what I think. This touches on a lot of themes that I’ve written on before, and while it doesn’t particularly make any new theological claims—it’s really just a sort of standard, monergistic, anti-ecclesial, sentimentalist Evangelical Protestantism—for whatever reason (perhaps the emotionally moving music in the background), it seems to be getting some attention.

Anyway, the Bethke text is below in italics, and my responses are in standard typeface. (Update: I’ve updated the quoted text verbatim with his official transcription, which is more accurate than the one I found earlier via Google.)

What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion?

Well, I’d ask what exactly you mean by “religion.” After all, that word, which you use as if it were some monolithic institution or set of behaviors or philosophy, can refer to everything from exactly what you’re doing in this video to when Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Passover to the human sacrifice of the Thuggee cult in India to the fivefold kneeling in prayer of the Muslim. There really is no such thing as “religion” in any sense that it could be criticized with any detail. There are religions, but there isn’t “religion,” not really.

No doubt you just mean Jesus came to abolish bad religions. But you didn’t say that.

What’s worst about this, though, is that religion is actually a rather great word, once you look inside it. It’s from Latin, and (at least in its etymological parts) it literally (and yes, I mean literally literally) means “reconnection” (re + ligio). Is that what you mean Jesus came to abolish? I had gotten the impression that reconnection was actually the purpose of His coming.

Of course you probably didn’t mean that. But you should find out what the words you use mean before you use them, even if you’re not going to dive into etymology and plan merely to use common dicionary definitions.

What if I told you, getting you to vote republican, really wasn’t his mission?

He didn’t seem to have much to say about voting in general, actually. I’ve met Democrats who insist to me that a true Christian can only vote Democrat, mapping Jesus’ commands to love with compassion onto a progressivist social agenda. I’m not really sure who you’re responding to here, but I don’t think there’s really any significant movement of Christians who actually believe that “vot[ing] Republican really [was] his mission.” (Do you?)

Because republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian,
And just because you call some people blind, doesn’t automatically give you vision.

Well, the irony here is that you later write “Religion makes you blind.” Where’s your vision coming from? You question the authority of the “you” who “call[s] some people blind,” but you haven’t established your own. You yourself call some people blind later on (“Religion” makes you that way, it seems), but from what source comes your vision?

(But it definitely seems you have a problem with Republicans.)

If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?

I have to assume that you’re just ignorant here. Any real examination of the realities of military history will reveal that religion is almost never the actual impetus for armed conflict. Indeed, even the “Wars of Religion” in Europe frequently saw alliances between various factions who had different religious allegiances, often acting as co-belligerents against co-religionists. (For more on this, I highly recommend David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which is a very badly titled book about doing an honest examination of the evidence of the history of Christianity, especially in the West. It’s a good book, and it’s a slam-dunk against the old urban legends about “religion” being anti-science, starting wars, pursuing witch-hunts, etc.)

Of course, you put that in the present tense, so I have to ask: Can you name even one currently ongoing war that is started by religion?

Also, I know you don’t mean to suggest this, but one could also ask why, if atheism is so great, explicitly atheist regimes succeeded in slaughtering more people (both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of thoroughness) in the 20th century than in the entire rest of human history combined. (This point is not really about atheism, of course, but rather to point out the error in using a body count as a measure of a philosophy.)

Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?

Did you know that the largest charity in the US is Lutheran? Did you know that Americans are the most charitable country on earth? Did you know that people who attend religious services regularly are the most likely to be charitable givers?

Did you know that “religion” essentially invented the ideas of feeding the poor, building free hospitals, and has spent untold amounts of money sending people to the ends of the earth precisely to care for the suffering?

Ever hear of Mother Teresa? Rumor has it she belonged to a big ol’ religion.

Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever been divorced
Yet God in the Old Testament actually calls the religious people whores

Again, which “religion” is this? Divorce is a sin, yes, but God loves all sinners. As for your claim about the Old Testament, I’ll have to see a citation. (Was this the “religion” that God Himself instituted via Abraham and Moses?)

Religion preaches grace, but another thing they practice,
Tend to ridicule Gods people, they did it to John the Baptist,

Again, the moving target of “religion” can be pinned with any malefaction, I suppose.

Did you know John the Baptist used to baptize people as part of a Jewish tradition of a ritual washing for the repentance of sins? That sounds suspiciously like “religion” to me.

Cant fix their problems, so they try to mask it,
Not realizing that’s just like sprayin perfume on a casket
Because the problem with religion is that it never gets to the core,
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores.
Let’s dress up the outside, make things look nice and neat,
Its funny that’s what they do to mummies, while the corpse rots underneath,

Okay, I get what you’re referring to here, and of course it’s the whitewashed tombs that Christ uses to characterize the scribes and Pharisees of His day. But even while He has such strong words for them, He doesn’t “abolish” their position. Instead, He actually says “whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do.” His problem with them is their hypocrisy, not their “religion.”

Your basic error here is that you’ve identified hypocrisy with “religion,” but Jesus Himself actually criticized the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees while explicitly endorsing their religion, which is kind of a problem for your whole thesis.

Now I ain’t judging…

Really?

…I’m just saying be careful of putting on a fake look,
Because there’s a problem if people only know that you’re a Christian by that little section on your facebook

Hey, I agree.

In every other aspect of life you know that logics unworthy

I honestly have no idea what this means.

(Update: Someone sent me a better transcription for this line (I Googled for the one I originally used; I didn’t transcribe it myself), but my comment above was based on an earlier version I found which read In every other aspect of life you know that logics are worthy.

I must admit now that I’m a little disappointed he didn’t actually write “that logics are worthy,” because logics has a certain droll quality to it. He meant logic’s, of course, though his official transcript left out that apostrophe.

His meaning is clearer in his official version, though I do wish he’d’ve used an apostrophe.)

Its like saying you play for the lakers just because you bought a jersey

Again, I agree. Hypocrisy is bad.

But I guess you like the Lakers.

But see I played this game too; no one seemed to be on to me,
I was acting like church kid, while addicted to pornography.
I’d go to church on Sunday, but on saturday getting faded,
Acting as if I was simply created to have sex and get wasted.
Spend my whole life putting on this façade of neatness,

You know what? This is the predicament of almost every Christian I’ve ever known. Perhaps their sins aren’t pornography (though that is unfortunately becoming frighteningly common), drugs (which is what I assume “getting faded” means) and sex and getting wasted (wait… that’s drugs twice!), but every single Christian is a sinner, and indeed just about every member of every religion would probably admit that he fails to live up to his religion’s moral code in some manner or other.

The problem lies not in the sin but rather in hypocrisy (which is claiming to believe something you actually don’t, not merely failing to live up to your beliefs), in pretense.

You say below that the church is a “hospital for the broken,” but you seem to believe that the broken are all just a bunch of fakes who have built a “façade of neatness.”

But now that I know Jesus, I boast in my weakness.
If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean,
Cuz its not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken

I absolutely agree. And that’s what the true Christian religion actually is. The fact that you’ve apparently been a hypocrite and that you probably have been burned or offended by hypocrites doesn’t mean that there really is actually no true religion.

I no longer have to hide my failures I don’t have to hide my sin,
Because my salvation doesn’t depend on me, it depends on him.

Actually, it depends on you, too. If you don’t cooperate, then it won’t do anything for you at all.

because when I was Gods enemy and certainly not a fan,
God looked down on me and said, “I want that man!”
Which is so different from religious people, and why Jesus called em fools

There you go again. Jesus never said any such thing. Indeed, He seemed especially intent on establishing His Church, which is an actual community, a body—in your words, a “hospital for the broken” (that image comes from “religion,” by the way).

Don’t you see hes so much better than just following some rules?

Who actually claims that religion is about “just following some rules”? Yes, there are “rules” in the sense that there are moral standards and traditional ways of doing things, but that’s because, if you’re going to have a functioning hospital for the broken, there will need to be ways of keeping the peaceful atmosphere, passing on the wisdom of the Great Physician, and also in informing the patients what kinds of behavior will help in their healing and what kinds are going to make them sicker.

Now let me clarify, I love the church, I love the bible, and I believe in sin

These are all things that “religion” has revealed, I’m afraid.

But my question, is if Jesus were here today, would your church let Him in?

Well, since you asked about my church… He comes to my church every day, and He actually is present on my altar at least once a week, and we not only let Him into the church, but we let Him into our actual bodies.

Remember He was called a drunkard and a glutton by “religious men”
The Son of God not supported self-righteousness, not now, not then.

But He was also called “my Lord and my God,” and “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” and “Savior” by “religious men.” He came precisely to give righteousness to those who would participate in it. Being “religious” does not make someone “self-righteous.”

Now back to the topic, one thing I think is vital to mention,
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums,
One is the work of God one is a man made invention,
One is the cure and one is the infection.

Actually, I thought sin was the infection. When Adam and Eve infected the whole human race with what they did, was their error the founding of “religion”? I seem to have missed that part.

Because Religion says do, Jesus says done.
Religion says slave, Jesus says son,

There’s a whole lot of “do” from the mouths of Jesus and His chosen Apostles in the New Testament. As for the “done,” yes, His work is done, but even the Apostle Paul had the impression that he needed to keep working on “laying hold” of what Jesus had done for him.

Religion puts you in shackles but Jesus sets you free.
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus lets you see.
This is what makes religion and Jesus two different clans,

Well, like someone said, “just because you call some people blind, doesn’t automatically give you vision..” It seems to me that you’ve conflated sin with “religion” and hypocrisy. They’re really not the same thing. Religion is many things, while hypocrisy is a particular type of sin. The bondage and blindness that Jesus and His Apostles preached about are slavery to sin and the blindness of hypocrisy, not “religion.”

Religion is man searching for God, but Christianity is God searching for man.
Which is why salvation is freely mine, forgiveness is my own,
Not based on my efforts, but Christ’s obedience alone.

“Religion” is a lot of different things. I agree that it is God Who has come to reconnect (religio) with man, but He also created man to have a longing for God. What you’re revealing here actually has a technical theological name, and it’s the heresy of monergism, the idea that the whole of salvation is exclusively the act of God. You’re right that salvation isn’t based on your merits, but you’re wrong that Christianity isn’t about man searching for God. It’s both about God Who has come to be with man (“searching” seems to suggest that He doesn’t know where man is) and about man’s response to his desire for the divine.

Because he took the crown of thorns, and blood that dripped down his face
He took what we all deserved, that’s why we call it grace.

That’s not why we call it “grace.” Grace (in Greek, charis) actually refers to a “gift,” not to the substitutionary atonement theory of the crucifixion.

While being murdered he yelled “father forgive them, they know not what they do”,

I missed the part where it said He “yelled.”

Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you
He paid for all your sin, and then buried it in the tomb,

Sure, though the “murdered” and “dangling” language strongly suggest to me that He was somehow helpless. But He wasn’t.

Which is why im kneeling at the cross now saying come on there’s room

Really? You know what they call it when people pray together in front of a theological image like a cross, right? I’ll give you a clue: It starts with an R and ends with -eligion.

So know I hate religion, in fact I literally resent it,
Because when Jesus cried It is finished, I believe He meant it.

Hatred and resentment (and I really mean this, too) are very dangerous places from which to build a theology. I also believe that Jesus meant it when He said “It is finished” (literally, “the purpose is fulfilled” or “it is consummated,” depending on whether you’re reading Greek or Latin), but there’s absolutely no indication anywhere in His words, the words of His Apostles, or the words of those who received the Apostles’ teaching (the Church) that what was “finished” is “religion.”

…on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18).

If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1:26-27)

It’s worth noting that I touched on some of these same themes in this March 2011 post: “Spiritual But Not Religious” and the Path to God.

It’s probably even more worth noting that Fr. John Romanides wrote extensively on what he calls “The Cure of the Neurobiological Sickness of Religion,” and perhaps that’s what Bethke is attempting to get at, but his use of religion is so irresponsibly vague that I honestly don’t think there’s any real comparison between Bethke’s poem and what Romanides is addressing.

Update: For some reason unbeknownst to me, this post is getting a lot more attention than most of my posts do, and I know that there are a lot of folks who are not members of the Orthodox Church who are visiting.

To all of my non-Orthodox visitors, welcome! This site is written by a priest/presbyter/pastor of the Orthodox Christian Church, the oldest of all Christian churches, to which all Christians can ultimately trace their roots. Want to know more? Start here.

Update: Here are some other critiques of this, representing various traditions, which you might also find interesting:

Feel free to comment with others, if you find them.

Update: Because of the now thousands of hits that this post has quite unexpectedly received, it should be noted that I will not be publishing any more comments whose contents could be summarized as “How dare you criticize this nice young man, you big meanie!” or “Poetry which is rife with theological words and theological statements should not be treated as having anything to do with theology!” or “Everyone has his own interpretation, and how dare you put a different one forward than this nice young man!” (On that last point especially, the phrase you’re searching for is sola scriptura, and we Orthodox types don’t believe in it one bit. We’re also not relativists, so, yes, I do think that some theology is just plain wrong.)

Carry on.

Update: I suppose I should also mention that I’m not going to be publishing the many (more) comments whose purpose seems to be to convince me of Evangelical Protestant theology (especially soteriology, i.e., the theology of salvation). That is the theology I was raised with, so I am indeed familiar with it, and I explicitly left it behind in becoming an Orthodox Christian.

If you’re interested in my more detailed critique of that theology (which this post doesn’t include), I strongly recommend checking out my book Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy or the podcast of the same name (which has much of the same material, though a bit less).

Final Update: I’ve decided to close comments on this post. Details are here.

See also this post on why, curiously enough, I am not in fact arguing that one is saved by “rules” and “religion,” etc.

bethke

Freedom, the Path to God, and the Orthodoxy of Orthodoxy

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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.