field trips

Fall Speaking Engagements: New Jersey, Georgia, SE Pennsylvania

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I’ve got several upcoming speaking engagements this Fall. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you:

I would love meeting many of you!

“Churching the Nation: Sharing the Orthodox Faith in America” near Atlanta on May 26

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If you live in the Atlanta area, you’re invited to this event on Sunday, May 26, hosted by Ss. Raphael, Nicholas and Irene Greek Orthodox Church, in Cumming, Georgia. I hope to meet many of you there!

For those of you on Facebook, there is an event page there for you to join.

“Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy” in Houston, Feb. 9, 2013

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I will be at St. Joseph Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas, on February 9, 2013, leading an “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” themed retreat. It would be lovely to meet many of you there. Copies of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy will be on hand for purchasing and signing, should you so desire.

Bright Week Debrief

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Christ is risen!

Like most of the rest of the Orthodox Christian presbytery this time of year, I am currently in post-Paschal recovery mode. Lent, Holy Week and Pascha always take a lot out of us Orthodox Christians, and the clergy stand at the center of the liturgical, spiritual and emotional maelstrom that this season swirls us through. But I quote a certain theologian and philosopher when I say: “I’m still standing.” That is, of course, the answer to the question I have gotten the most over the past week, usually asked with some slight concern in the voice and in the eye: “How are you doing, Father?”

Bright Week is normally a week when no one calls the priest, when he tries to leave little for himself to do, except perhaps for a couple of extra Paschaltide services. I wish I could say that this Bright Week has been no exception to that rule, but for various reasons (some of which are my own fault) it hasn’t, so perhaps recovery will have to wait until next week. In any event, it’s understandably been a few weeks since I posted anything here, so I thought I might catch up on a few brief pieces of news and such.

Concerning Lent, Holy Week and Pascha, I felt that things went quite well at St. Paul’s here in Emmaus. Musically and liturgically, things came together quite well, and that is the basis for everything else. The rhythm of Christian life is ultimately liturgical so (if I may paraphrase some wise person whose name now escapes me), when liturgy is good, everything is good. I continually find that the people who are best able to say “it is well with my soul” are those for whom corporate worship is not just a Sunday-only affair. So by any real measure, this past season has been quite good. I have also noticed that there have been more people who have begun to embrace this truth, and we have seen some fruit borne out of this cultivation of souls.

It was wonderful to have a chrismation on Holy Saturday this year, and those who remember my interview with actor and musician Jonathan Jackson should be glad to hear that he and his family were all baptized into the Orthodox Church on the same day at their parish in California.

This week (Thursday, in fact) also featured a similar event for me: fourteen years since I was received into Orthodoxy at All Saints Orthodox Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Every time I mark this anniversary, it seems like such a long time ago and also a short time ago. This next week, my wife and I will mark ten years since we first met each other. Again, a long time and a short time.

It was also good this week to celebrate some Bright Week services with my friend and neighbor Fr. Noah, who is pastor of St. Philip’s in Souderton, Pennsylvania. We both took the opportunity to function as chanters at our respective churches while the other filled in at the altar. I very rarely get to serve as a chanter at liturgy, so the one we did here in Emmaus was a rare treat for me.

This week, I also delivered a lecture at a class on Orthodox Christianity at Muhlenberg College, entitled “A Divine Ecology: An Orthodox Christian Vision for the Environment,” courtesy of the inestimable Dr. Tighe, an Eastern Catholic professor of history who is quite kind to the Orthodox and well known in small-C-catholic Internet worlds. You may also have seen his work in Touchstone or First Things.

On a more familial note, we are now only a few weeks away from the birth of our third child, a boy, to be named Raphael Joseph Caedmon. His coming is welcome, mainly of course because my wife is rather tired and would like to get about the business of raising him. This being our third child, we will be crossing a new threshold of parenting. It seems daunting, of course, but we have multiple friends and relations who have raised far more than three (and both of us come from sets of siblings of at least three), so we do have some examples to draw on. Still, it will be a new level.

Speaking of babies, my Red Spot Nyassae Cichlid recently gave birth to about forty or so little fry. I have no idea who the father might be, but it’s probably one of the other Aulonocara cichlids in my ninety gallon aquarium. On that same note, my post-Paschal gift to myself is another aquarium (yes, I have four now), a fifty-five gallon one for my office at the church. I’m decorating this one far more cheaply (and, I think, effectively) than I have my others (having learned a few things), mostly with rocks in a kind of neolithic ruins look. Think “Stonehenge with caves around it,” and you’ll be in the right mindset. I plan to feature some New World cichlids therein.

Now that the great whirlwind of Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha is behind me for the year, I’m looking forward to getting back to work on the new book.

Lecture at Cornell University, Feb. 14

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I’m honored to be a guest of the Cornell University OCF! I will also have copies of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy on hand.

Updates and Notes

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A number of updates and goings-on of variable interest:

Book News:

  • 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.

Other Stuff:

  • 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.

The Worship of Fire

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Zoroastrian iconography
While I was in Toronto a few weeks ago for an educational event, I had the delight to spend many hours with a good friend from my seminary days. He turned out to be a fine guide to introducing an American to Toronto. One of the many places we stopped was a place of some religious curiosity that he’d apparently always wanted to look into but simply had never taken the time to do so.

The place? The Zoroastrian Society of Ontario.

During our visit to the structure that houses the Society (it looked like a converted stately home), we got to peer around the corner into the room that served as their fire temple. I only looked in for maybe a few seconds, but my first thought was, “What is a baptismal font doing up there?” As you can see from the iconographic image above, a vessel looking very much like a Christian infant baptismal font is at the center of their worship, but they don’t put water or babies in it. Instead, they burn fires there. The ashes are used for anointing and initiation into the faith, as well as providing a sort of “succession” for the setting of new Zoroastrian fires. That is, certain sacred fires’ ashes are brought to new places for the lighting of new fires, thus connecting worshipers with fires purportedly set by Zoroaster himself.

I was reminded again of this religious field trip this week on both Tuesday and Wednesday, as we celebrated (respectively) the Martyrs Acindynus, Pegasius, Aphthonius, Elpidophorus and Anempodistus of Persia and the Martyrs Acepsimas, Joseph and Aethalas. Both sets of martyrs were killed in Persia (including modern day Iran), which in the ancient world was dominated by Zoroastrianism. (Most of us today associate Iran with Islam, but it was Zoroastrian prior to the middle of the 7th century.) In singing the hymns for these martyrs, the image of the fire temple quite suddenly came back to me, because the hymns for ancient Persian martyrs almost always include some reference to fire. The Doxa from the stichera for the first set of martyrs includes this passage: For as servants of the spiritual Sun and destroyers of the Persian doctrines, they guided to piety those who served the visible sun and worshipped the fire.

Zoroastrianism makes it into the apolytikion for the Nativity of Christ, as well: Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath shone the light of knowledge to the world! For by it, those who worshipped the stars, were taught by a Star to adore Thee,the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to Thee! It is likely that the religion of the Magi who came to worship the infant Christ was Zoroastrianism.

Now, if you speak to a Zoroastrian—which itself is a difficult thing for most of us to manage, since there are perhaps no more than 150,000 to 200,000 of them in the whole world—he would likely protest that they absolutely do not worship fire, the sun, stars, etc. Instead, they regard these fires as serving to mediate for them the spirit of Ahura Mazda, who is their supreme, benevolent deity. That is, the fire functions similarly to the way that the Christian icon does, making accessible a presence which is beyond itself.

Curiously enough, that is almost exactly the same thing most followers of other religious from the ancient world would say. The various statues and images to which pagans and others bowed down were not understood by them as having deity in themselves but rather as mediating deity to them in some fashion.

The Christian, upon learning this, might rightly ask himself whether the Bible and all the Church Fathers (not to mention the writers of hymns about Persian martyrs) were getting it wrong all this time. Why, those people aren’t idolaters! They don’t actually think that fire or that statue is a god! When you think about it, who would? Surely a wood carver, a silversmith or a lighter of fires is not likely to think that he has produced deity. But he may well think that the work of his hands connects him with deity.

So are the Jewish and Christian traditions wrong about these people? How is it that they say that these people worship fire, statues, etc.? To learn the answer to this question, we must understand exactly what idolatry is and how it relates to iconography. It also helps to know a little Greek.

The Greek word for “image” is of course eikon, which we have Anglicized as icon. The word for “idol” is eidolon, and this word is the one that the Greek-speaking Jews who translated the Old Testament Septuagint (the Bible of the Apostles) used for the prohibition against “graven images” in Exodus. A Greek reader would read it instead as “graven idols” and would not think it was referring to icons.

Eidolon doesn’t just mean “idol,” however. Its basic sense is actually “phantom,” that is, something that is delusional and unreal. The problem with the images of deities like Baal was not that they were images or that anyone thought that Baal himself was identical with the statue in front of them, but rather that there was no Baal! An icon of Baal is an idol not because it is venerated or because it is an image, but because there’s nothing behind it. It fails as an icon, because it does not mediate any actual divine presence. (It may well mediate another presence, but it would be a diabolical one.)

Therefore, when the ancient Jews and the Fathers looked at people like Zoroastrians or Hindus and saw them bowing down to fire or to statues, they accused them of idolatry. They accused them of worshiping fire or wood or stone. Is it because they didn’t know the real doctrines of those people? (Surely they must have asked!) No, it was because they were drawing a religious line in the sand and saying that there was no such thing as Ahura Mazda or Vishnu. Since those deities didn’t exist, then the honor paid to their images went no further than the image. The honor stopped in the fire or the statue, because Jews and Christians were claiming to know more about the reality in front of them than these followers of other religions did.

Such an attitude strikes the modern “ecumenical” mind as, well, not terribly ecumenical. But if I really believe that I am worshiping the One True God, then how can I see all these other images as anything but idols? How can I see them as anything but depictions of empty, non-existent phantoms, or (worse yet) images to demons? The Fathers knew what they were talking about, because God enabled them to see the truth in front of them. They also had no qualms about stating it quite boldly, too, because they were in a battle for souls.

We’re still in such a battle today, though we might well have to use different rhetorical strategies if we wish the Gospel to be heard. I did not, for instance, tell the young lady who kindly showed us around the Zoroastrian Society that she is an idolater. But if I had a relationship with her, it’s likely that the question of just what is actually real would eventually come up.

There are many idolatries in our own day, images promising to mediate to us some promise of fulfillment, whether transcendent or solely material. But they are phantoms. And we have the God-man, Jesus the Christ, Whose earthy, warm reality drives away such darkness and fills the emptiness we all carry with us.

What I Did This Week

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This week, I assisted at the historic Orthodox Episcopal Assembly of North and Central America, the first such meeting in more than two centuries of Orthodox Christian presence on this continent. To read my impressions of the event, see these two posts from the website:

Samuel Johnson’s Foot

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The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, who it is said was once asked how he knew something was real. In response, he walked up to a tree and kicked it. This is a proper and robust environmentalism cum epistemology.

The following is an excerpt from a much longer talk I wrote but did not deliver, as I learned the day before the event that it was desired that I deliver a very different sort of lecture. The essential thrust of the talk, written for a mixed audience of both believers and unbelievers, was to prepare them to receive the Gospel, in this case, specifically by encouraging them to look at knowledge as something that is not mainly information but participation. This talk is titled “What is Truth?”

I have an atheist friend who believes that it should be illegal for parents to expect their minor children to follow their religion. When I asked him why he believed that, he said that it was because the kinds of claims that religion makes are inherently non-falsifiable. If you’ve not encountered the term falsifiable before, I won’t annoy you with a complex philosophical definition, but you should at least know that it refers to a truth claim that could be proven true or false by anyone.

An example of a falsifiable truth claim is that Barack Obama is currently the president of the United States. The evidence to prove or disprove that claim is fairly available to all, assuming, of course, that we are not trying to thwart the Secret Service. A non-falsifiable truth claim would be something like this: Zeus is the ruler of all the gods. We do not have the gods at hand to interview as to whether their fealty has indeed been sworn to Zeus, nor are we likely to be able to get Zeus himself to speak in front of a congressional committee, to offer testimony regarding the part he plays in Olympian politics.

Thus, falsifiable truth claims are the sort of thing that can be scientifically, objectively proven, while non-falsifiable truth claims cannot be addressed within the context of objective science.

My friend is, of course, quite sincere in his belief that children should not be subjected to participation in non-falsifiable truth claims. There are, however, a number of problems with his position that parents should be prohibited by law from teaching their religion to their children and encouraging their participation in it. Such a law would, for instance, make it illegal for Roman Catholics to have their babies baptized or for Jews to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after their birth. But even aside from the disturbing political issue of suggesting that the state is a better arbiter of parental practice than parents, there remains the question of why it is that only falsifiable truth claims should be taught to children.

Anyone who has ever tried to raise a child knows that most parenting time is not spent on falsifiable truth claims. Indeed, claims such as “It is good for you to stop hitting your brother” are not provable by scientific means. In fact, science might suggest that hitting your brother is an excellent idea, because it helps to keep you in control of his toys. This sort of thing could be said about any moral claims, and although we take many of them for granted, such as the Golden Rule, there really is no hard science which demands that we live that way. In fact, science never says that we ought to live one way or another, but childrearing is precisely about teaching how one ought to live.

The truth of our human existence is that the noblest, most powerful, compassionate, beautiful, and remarkable things in life are almost never undergirded by purely falsifiable truth claims. So why would we want to deprive children of these things, even if we were capable of totally shielding them from such experiences? Who better than loving parents to feed children not just with physical nourishment but nutrition in what is at the heart of humanity? (Of course, loving parents are an inherently non-falsifiable phenomenon!) But supposedly, this is the best way to apprehend the truth without religious or philosophical bias, so that only facts may be known.

What underlies this whole approach to knowing the truth is the notion that truth is a piece of information. If truth is, indeed, only information, then of course it can be reduced to the category of fact. Much of our culture’s behavior is based on this characterization of truth, which is why studies and claims clothed in the language of science and fact are given so very much stock in public discourse, while appeals to higher, nobler kinds of truth typically find their way into the public square only in terms of sentiment. But when we mean business, when we’re being really serious, then we bring out the falsifiable truth claims. That’s when we want men in white coats doing something called “science,” giving us something we call “facts.”

One of the underlying assumptions of our modern idea about truth is that it should be objectively true, no matter what anyone’s particular subjective experiences tell them are true. That’s why we have peer-reviewed scientific journals, so that other scientists can check on the claims of their peers. But underneath this model of knowledge is the idea that we can know things simply by observing them. If we are somehow personally involved in the experiment—for instance, by using ourselves as test subjects—then the results are suspect.

Yet the reality of human existence is that most of us do not solely take up supposedly objective, distinterested means in order to make decisions and live life. For instance, it is unlikely that any of us conducted stress tests on the floor currently beneath us in order to make the decision that we would stand and sit upon it without fear that it will collapse under us in the event of an earthquake. And I doubt that geologists were consulted before this evening’s lecture to determine by means of the scientific method whether there would be an earthquake. And I must confess that I did not ask for a copy of this building’s blueprints to assure myself that the roof would not fall in, should that earthquake in fact take us entirely by surprise.

Setting aside for the moment the incredible difficulty in using the scientific method to predict earthquakes—how, for instance, does one do a controlled experiment on the North American tectonic plate?—the precariousness of our situation from a supposedly scientific point of view should give us pause. Just how do we know that this building will not suddenly send us all quickly to meet our Maker, Whose existence by definition is a non-falsifiable piece of information? We really do not know, at least not in scientific terms, and even if we were to undertake all the possible tests that could be done to try to assure ourselves that this place is safe, conditions would change so much in the meantime that our results would almost necessarily be obsolete before we could sit back and enjoy them.

The end result of all this nonsense is that attempting to live life according to purely “scientific” standards of knowledge would end up in a sort of annoying paralysis of analysis. We simply don’t have the mental or computational power to figure out all the possibilities. And even if we could, how can we say we absolutely know for certain that our own senses are not fooling us when we read the data?

Now, my purpose this evening is not to engage in a lengthy discursus on epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that examines how we know what we know, but I do think it’s worth at least asking ourselves just how we really end up living life, how we make decisions, and how we live with them, especially since there’s really no logistical way to put all our eggs in the “science” basket that our society claims to revere so faithfully.

What we usually think of as a “scientific” philosophy of knowledge is not really science, anyway—it is a philosophical outlook known as positivism, that all knowledge must be based only on empirical sense experience. Yet some of science’s greatest advances, such as Einstein’s theories of time and space, as well as most of quantum physics, are not credible by positivistic standards, instead requiring leaps of imagination and intuition which are beyond what empirical means can yield. And credible scientists hold such things to be true.

The truth is that we all end up functioning mainly on trust. We trust that this floor is solid. We trust that there will not be an earthquake in central Pennsylvania tonight. We trust that the architect and the general contractor responsible for putting this building together did their job correctly. We act on this trust, despite not having the sort of information that we probably really “should,” at least according to the exacting standards of the scientific method. (So anyone whose concern for our safety has been sufficiently raised and would like to exit the building now is welcome to do so.)