Mission

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.

In Defense of Dogma

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Even Santa Claus gets a little rowdy over dogma: In this fresco, St. Nicholas is striking the heretic Arius at the First Council of Nicea (Soumela Monastery, Turkey)

A recent encounter by my wife with a Unitarian Universalist has set me thinking again upon what I believe is one of the great Christian evangelistic questions of our time: We now have to make the case for dogma. We no longer have the luxury of assuming that the person in front of us believes that there is Truth, that there is an objective reality and an objectively appropriate way of living in that reality to which we are all responsible, whether we like it or not.

Now, it is not as if, in earnest conversation with someone, he is likely to tell you, “See here, now—I am a relativist, and therefore any positive truth claim you may make to me will fall on deaf ears.” (I suppose it is possible one may find such a rare chap now and then, but he is exceedingly rare.) It is more likely that you will hear something like this: “I don’t need anyone to tell me what to believe.”

That basic anti-authoritarian attitude regarding philosophical and spiritual truth has ironically become something of a dogma in its own right, but instead of turning its adherents into dyed-in-the-wool, doctrinaire relativists (he says, with particular irony), the doctrine instead plays itself out into a moral and spiritual system. That is, it dictates behavior and attitudes and even piety. Or rather, one might say it engenders a sort of allergic reaction. When in the presence of dogma, he will react immediately to it and seek some sort of balm or pill to deal with the symptoms. He rarely asks whether its claims are actually true, because doing so would open up the possibility of becoming responsible to those claims.

Yet one of the inherent ironies of this position is that the believer typically will still place authoritarian faith in another kind of priesthood, something called “science.” “Studies show” that “science” is always right. (Though there is that problem of credentialing: What does one call a “scientist” with whom one disagrees? It is not enough that he has impressive degrees from otherwise trustworthy institutions—institutions that we trust because, well, they’re trustworthy, you know.) He will accept that he is responsible to the claims of “science,” but his will (unfettered, or rather, unstrengthened by other dogma) will still probably not help him to lose weight.

But let us dispense with the irony and face this question head-on: What do you say to someone who doesn’t want to be told what to believe? I don’t know what you say to them, but I typically tell them that they can believe anything they like, because they can.

Why? At the heart of the anti-authoritarian dogma is the desire for freedom. I believe a lot of people who feel this way believe that they’re being put into some sort of straitjacket when someone tells them what is true and what is not. Yet if we are Christians (“little Christs”), then we look at the example of the Christ: He preached the truth—and well He should, for He is the truth—but He never compelled anyone to believe in Him.

Orthodox Christians often make the point that the truth is a Person, not a set of propositions. That is not really something one can wrap one’s head around (ever try to wrap your head around a person?). Yet there are things one can say about that point, and one of them is that the encounter with a person, especially the divine Person, is precisely the opportunity for freedom. We can engage or not. We can love or not. We can hate or not. We can ignore or not.

And that brings us back to dogma.

Dogma comes from the Greek word meaning “to seem,” and its use in Christian theology begins in the New Testament itself, from that first council of the Apostles, when they laid down some dogma, saying that it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.”

Dogma is therefore not the speculations of ivory tower academics or professional philosophers. Rather, it is what has been revealed by God as true. The Apostles did not say that their pronouncements merely “seemed good to us.” Rather, it was an act of the Holy Spirit, the Person of the Trinity Who inspires flawed human beings to see the Truth, Who is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This same “seems”—dogma—has also been pronounced down through the ages by those whom the Spirit has similarly inspired.

Now, of course the anti-authoritarian crypto-relativist will not believe any of that, and he doesn’t have to. But he is usually not very thoroughgoing in his relativism. He probably believes that it is better to be kind than to be cruel. He probably believes that it is better to love than to hate. He probably believes that human beings have an inherent worth to them. But none of that is apparent from a merely scientific examination of the material world.

Scientific observation can say that humans are composed of certain kinds of elements in certain amounts, that certain kinds of behavior make for longer life, more efficient energy processing, etc. But they cannot make pronouncements of value. Why should kindness be better than cruelty? Because it makes more people live longer? Why is that a laudable goal? Why should we honor the value of every human person? Says who?

But these are precisely all dogmatic claims. To say that life is better than death is to make a transcendent claim over and above the observable facts of material reality (assuming we even have the ability to observe all that’s there). It is to say something about that material reality beyond merely what is to what should be. But most people would find countering such dogma so absurd that they would not even countenance mounting a defense for it. So such dogma remains unarticulated or at least ungrounded in any sort of compelling transcendent narrative. Yes, life is valuable, but why? Because you happen to like it that way? So what?

Anti-dogmatism therefore finds itself defenseless against well-grounded materialist ideologies, such as militant communism, which has a proven record of not valuing human life above its own philosophical dictates. If millions must be sacrificed, then so be it. Since there is no God, there is no One Who is going to enforce the value of human life, neither now nor in the next life. The Kingdom Come becomes the Kingdom of Now, and in the Kingdom of Now, whoever has the biggest gun wins. But few of those who do not believe in truth will actually admit this terrifying reality. Nietzsche knew, of course, and he was willing to face the horror of unmooring humanity from transcendent dogma.

That brings us once again back to our practical question: What are we supposed to say to the person who doesn’t want to be told what to believe? Don’t tell him. He won’t believe you. But at the same time, there really is no verbal defense against love. If you love someone—that is, if you sacrifice yourself for him in meaningful ways without expecting anything in return—then you are communicating the One Who is Truth to him. When you love, then you are displaying the image of God within yourself, connecting to the image of God within the other, which is what makes us all worth the king’s ransom that we each are.

No matter what he might say, everyone believes in something. Some only believe they’ll have another drink. Okay, fine. But why is it worth it to make yourself feel good that way? What are you worth? Why?

And that’s dogma.

Choosing Orthodoxy

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The Calling of the Apostles

There is a critique in Orthodox convert circles, especially in what one reads on the Internet, of the “problem” of converting to Orthodox Christianity. Part of the problem, the argument goes, with American culture is its emphasis on conscious choice, that is, consumerism. We are bombarded nearly non-stop by our advertisement culture to make various selections which will be sure to enrich our lives and (most critically) the stock values of corporate shareholders. This mindset finds its way into everything, and religion becomes boutiqued, bourgeois, commercialized, smorgasbordized (if I may).

As such, someone who chooses to become an Orthodox Christian is still really just continuing in his consumer approach to personal life, culture, religion, etc. He may seem to be becoming Orthodox, but because he made a conscious choice to do so, such an act is inherently heterodox and therefore, well, wrong. Ergo, we must conclude that converts really are not truly Orthodox. The norm, you see, is Holy Russia, Imperial Byzantium, etc., where one true religion was the norm, no one made a conscious choice of it, and faith was never commercialized. There may even be some lauding for the compulsory side of this whole business and how much more authentic that really is.

I’ll be quite frank and say that I think that idea is utter garbage.

For one thing, it’s mostly converts who seem to advance this argument, and any argument that necessitates self-loathing is immediately suspect. (And one must ask how these people know what they’re saying to be true, since, by their own definition, they’re not really Orthodox.) But of course I believe the critique has its merits, which is why it seems to have some life and gets repeated every so often. The consumerism of America is a serious problem, and its siren call to put the Almighty Me at the center of everything is indeed a vicious and spiritually debilitating evil. But our problem isn’t the choosing. Our problem is bad choices. My problem is choosing Me.

The norm is not some mythical Holy Nation. The norm, if there is one, is the time of the Apostles, a time where every single Christian made a conscious choice to be one. In the first few generations, relatively few were baptized as infants. Instead, what we see are thousands upon thousands of grown-ups making deliberate choices to become Christians. There was no compulsion to it—indeed, compulsion tended to lead away from the Church. Compulsion was at the hands of the state, which was all too happy to butcher Christ’s followers.

The first Christians lived in a time when there was a lot of religion to choose from. It was pretty normal for most people in the Roman Empire to be poly-religious in one way or another. The notion of One True Faith was something new with Christianity. Monotheism, while on the scene before Christ, really was not a major worldwide force until the Apostles started making it one. So if you were a Gentile, you just picked from plenty of gods, whichever you happened to need for the moment.

But Christ sent the Apostles to call the Gentiles out from that vain world. But one had to answer the call, and in answering that call, converts made a deliberate, conscious choice. I really dare any of these self-loathers to tell me that people like the Apostles and those they converted from among both the Jews and the Gentiles were really not authentically Orthodox because they made a choice to become Christian.

A man who is a philanderer who gets married and settles down is not engaging in more philandering by virtue of choosing one woman to be his wife. He is leaving that life behind, choosing one woman to the exclusion of all others and continually making the conscious, daily choice to remain faithful to her.

Where this self-loathing argument fails is that it assumes we are meant for slavery and that freedom is the real problem. But Christ doesn’t call us to slavery, but to freedom. And in that freedom, we freely choose union with Him. And we have to keep choosing it. Faithfulness is not something one is born into.

Nor is the true Christian life authenticated by virtue of having no will of one’s own. Indeed, this is a kind of monothelitism, in which the will of God so swallows up the human will that the latter is utterly erased. But the Christian, like Christ, is to have a human will in obedience to the divine will. Even the monastic who “renounces” his will does not become an automaton. He still exercises his will to be obedient to his monastic superior.

If this claim regarding the inauthenticity of converts’ Orthodoxy may be likened to a kind of Calvinism, another distortion of Orthodox Christian spirituality is like a sort of semi-Calvinism common to Evangelicals. Many Evangelicals believe in “once saved, always saved,” that your will is operative in choosing Christ, but it immediately becomes inoperative ever after. In the “Orthodox” variant on this doctrine, which a friend of mine calls the “blessing culture,” you are permitted to choose to become Orthodox. But everything you do after that has to have a “blessing” from your “spiritual father,” who is probably your poor parish priest, who now finds himself responsible not only for hearing your confession and giving you spiritual advice, but also must weigh in on what job you will take, whether you will buy a new car, etc. And you must never do anything at all without his direct permission.

Again, this is a form of slavery, and it is not worth the dignity of man. God did not create us to hand over all responsibility for our lives to another person, to turn off our minds. The authentic Christian is not the lobotomized man, but the man whose mind has been transformed by renewal. Again, even a monastic who is obedient to his superior makes the choice to stay in the monastery and to keep on keepin’ on.

Be a man, I say (with no apologies to the women, who know what I mean)! Your life is yours. You can use your will to choose Christ, to choose holiness, to choose to dive into the great depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Or you can choose to live hellishly. He’s calling you. Are you listening? Will you respond?

You gotta choose.

The Gospel’s Good Soil

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The Apostle Paul preaching to the Bereans

In my experience, adding new members to the mission is best accomplished by keeping current members healthy. I think our mission has come to believe that ultimately it is God who plants new seeds in our mission, and that our responsibility is to provide good soil. We can get the word out there, we can advertise and announce our presence, but, generally, the folks who have found their way to us are those who had been looking all along – looking for an expression of Christian faith dissimilar to popular culture, with lasting and time-tested beliefs and practices. Getting folks through the door has largely been outside our influence; greatly within our influence, however, is what they find when they arrive….

Often, inquirers come to our door through means we did not devise: maybe a priest or members of another parish will refer someone to us. What that inquirer finds when he comes to our door, in our experience, influences his decision to continue with us. So, striving to become a loving community has been important. We believe that the kind of growth that we can manipulate is probably not the kind of growth we want – those folks may not last for long. Instead, we emphasize striving for genuine community, and that seems to be attractive to inquirers. Helping converts adjust to the reality of Orthodox life – one where the glow wears off eventually and that necessarily involves struggle – has become important…. —Fr. John Oliver (source)

Though not framed explicitly so, this passage from Tennessee mission priest, author, podcaster and friend Fr. John Oliver illustrates an essentially localist approach to evangelism. In order for human persons to come into communion with Christ within our current culture, the Gospel cannot be treated as a piece of information to be advertised. We are not selling something.

What we seek in evangelism is precisely the communication of the Gospel, which cannot be accomplished independent of community. Though some images of the Apostles would envision them as essentially traveling about to spread a piece of information, they rarely traveled alone, thus bringing community with them, and where they went they typically sought out existing communities of believers in which to do their work, even if those communities were still centered on the synagogue and not the church. Indeed, all of the written communication we have from the Apostles is addressed to believers, as are most of the accounts of their preaching.

I regard the work of building an evangelistic church as being the development of “spiritual infrastructure.” The localist is defined by his attention to what is next to him and by knowing how to live with the consequences of his decisions, rather than formulating grand designs to impose from afar or to impart as a singular datum without incarnate relationship. Though not typically stated in Orthodox patristic ecclesiological writings, this truth is assumed, that Christians and their leaders live with and among the community to whom they bring the Gospel. That means they will care about their place and about the people in that place.

It truly is God Who sows the seed. My experience is that advertising does little but raise availability and that evangelistic outreach events have as their primary effect the invigoration and training of the faithful. (Most of the people who attend such things are not seekers.) Neither are particularly noteworthy for their bringing in those who are not yet among the faithful.

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 OrthodoxHistory.org website:

Internet Discourse and the Fear of Death

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When I was studying Hamlet in college (which I did several times, being something of an addict for that story, despite my claims at The Tempest being my favorite of the Bard’s plays; I once took a class in which we spent three weeks on “Who’s there?”), if there is one thing I learned that the poor Dane learned too late, it was this: We all die. Indeed, we are all dying. The play is essentially Hamlet’s attempts to come to grips with this truth, but not before his inability to deal with death deals quite a lot of death in the meantime. Funny thing, that.

As such, when I was recently dared into an online debate by a 70-year-old atheist regarding the basis for my religious belief (as if anyone believes in “religion”), it occurred to me more than once that perhaps this pastime must be something like playing golf is for many people, an amusing distraction to bide the time until admission to assisted living, hospice, and then the cold, hard dirt itself. What does a 70-year-old atheist want with trying to convince a priest that he’s necessarily mentally deficient by virtue of believing in something beyond what his eyes see?

But it seems that so much Internet discourse runs along these lines, making the assumption that those involved must have all the time they could ever want. This assumption reveals itself typically with the claim by one of the conversants that, unless the other is willing to engage him and hash through all that stuff with him, he must be a coward, ignoramus, etc. If someone walks away, he is of course admitting that he is wrong. It is never believed when one says that he has been through all this before and doesn’t particularly want to go through it all again. He is not, after all, immortal, and he has things he wants to do before he dies.

The Scripture actually tells us that sin itself is often the result of the fear of death. Fear of death in our own day typically manifests itself in two ways, an obsessive emphasis on the physical body by means of dedication to pleasure, healthcare, etc., and the atemporality of (the usually unspoken) assumption of immortality. That is, either we fear death by trying to extend and enlarge our physical life as much as we can, or we fear death by denying its very reality. (And often, we do both.) In the case of much Internet discussion, the latter is the typical characteristic.


I must admit to having fallen into this trap on many occasions, but I am more often constrained from doing so lately by having more things to do and (most frequently) by being tired of the expectation that I engage in the same back-and-forth with another person who was not there when I did it before. No doubt he’s done it before but hasn’t tired of it yet. We might be accused of a lack of evangelistic zeal when not wanting to dive yet again into this same quagmire of endless oneupsmanship, but even the Lord said that sometimes it’s necessary just to move on. Some make it their mission to keep trudging down these paths, and perhaps that really is their mission.

As for me, though, I’m going to die someday—perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps sixty years from now. I’ve already got my funeral home picked out, though I do still have some work to do on picking a cemetery plot.

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.)