One of the perhaps most pressing theological questions of our time and place is answered beautifully in this post from Jim John Marks:
The question is not “why can’t God love me the way I am”, the question is “why can’t I love God the way I am”.
And it is the pursuit of the answer to that question which opens the door to a discussion about why our behavior, and our doctrine, matters. It ends the false conversation around whether or not specific behavior or doctrine is necessary to be “good enough” and so undercuts the contemporary appeals to relativism. The conversation then becomes about what the specifics of a relationship to God look like and why.
The whole post is so good that I really wish I’d written it. So go read it.
The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. —T. S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”
When my wife and I married, one of our major logistical problems was figuring out where to put our combined libraries. We still have this problem, although we have discharged a number of volumes from our total. Among the books that were not part of the original merger but are an increasing portion of our cache are tomes with titles ranging from When Technology Fails to The Square Foot Garden. We are, in short, stocking up on books (and items) toward the goal of being more self-sustaining. We have various reasons for this, but one of them is the sense that a possibility exists that we need things like a manual flour mill, because it’s possible that the industrial civilization around us may well collapse. It’s also—and this is perhaps a bit less obvious—because the spiritual civilization around us has already collapsed.
Rod Dreher has written in a couple pieces recently (here and here, both well worth reading), specifically addressing the question of same-sex marriage (SSM) but also touching on larger issues, that the culture war has essentially been lost by conservative Christians. (I use “conservative Christian” here to refer to a theological outlook, not a political one, though of course there are political implications to all theology.)
He writes that the time has come for Christians in America to use libertarian strategies to secure religious liberty for themselves before they find their churches, businesses, education and even private behavior overwhelmed and even outright persecuted, because the competing moral vision that includes same-sex marriage as only one of its many tenets will demand more and more of the moral imagination of the people. The time is coming when Christians will not be allowed merely to tolerate moral dictates that are contrary to their own doctrines but will be expected to endorse and participate in them, or else face real penalties.
As I noted a few posts back, religious liberty is already being penalized by the courts because believers have the temerity to try to live out what their faiths teach them—and I’m not talking about trying to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else, but simply trying to live them for themselves. Christian doctrine is already thoughtcrime in countries not terribly unlike ours, and I have little reason to believe that we will somehow remain exempt.
I am not much of a social prognosticator, but I think Dreher’s right. The culture of what a writer he quotes refers to as “atomism”—that the most basic moral commandment of society is that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he wants under nearly any circumstances, that there is no grand narrative larger than the individual—has become so pervasive that something like SSM is, in Dreher’s words, “only a skirmish in a much broader war that we’ve lost. The essence of the problem? The collapse of Christianity as the foundational bulwark of our civilization — something that happened long before anybody had the slightest interest in promoting same-sex marriage, or the Sexual Revolution.”
That is, the foundation of what was Christendom was ripped out long ago, and I would trace that to long before America’s founding. It’s taken a long time for it to come to such foundational errors regarding the nature of humanity as the Sexual Revolution makes, but those are only logical extensions of the atomistic culture of liberalism—and here, again, I am not speaking of political liberalism exactly, but of this moral idea that the individual and his desires is the only absolute on which the culture is built.
I think that conservative Christians’ problem is that we’re acting as though Christendom is under attack and that we have to defend it. But look around, folks. Christendom has already fallen. All we have left are the ruins, a handful of basic affirmations like the inherent worth of the person and the equality of all mankind—but even those things are subject to the charismatic domination of some ideology or leader, who may well turn those things on their heads, as the 20th century so amply demonstrated for us. As Dreher writes, “My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run. My fear is that by focusing so many of our resources on fighting for ground we’ve already lost, we will have left ourselves unprepared to build the structures and strategies we are going to need to pass on what we know to be true to future generations in a culture, legal and otherwise, that is going to be ever more hostile to those beliefs.”
We cannot act any longer as though we are imperial soldiers defending the borders of the empire from the barbarians. We are resistance fighters engaged in a guerrilla battle against an occupying force that conquered us generations ago. Or, if you like, we are now in much the same situation of the Apostles, who had no particular dreams of reforming the government but were instead concerned with getting the light of Gospel into a world covered in darkness.
So what, then, do we do? I think we have to continue to speak sanity clearly even in the halls of the insane, and we have to be willing to suffer for it. Even if we could use the force of law to try to enshrine certain moral precepts into the legal code, such things will not last long, as they would be counter to the prevailing cultural logic of the age. True morality is always about more than the individual, about an appeal to a narrative grander than myself alone and certainly far grander than the state with its guns. In any event, I do not believe that making the state our primary mode of speaking truth to the culture will actually serve the truth. We should of course remain involved in the political sphere, but we have to keep in mind that the law can only restrain. It cannot make men moral.
If there is going to be any hope for Christians in a post-Christendom culture, it can only be found in that primal Apostolic fire that once, long ago, turned the world upside down. We may well have to suffer some martyrdom. But we will also have to show an increasingly inhuman society what it means to be human. That is the real purpose behind a Christian localism—to demonstrate a humanity of love to those who can receive it, who are right next to us and mostly only know the Machine. This is also the purpose of our evangelism—not only to save individual souls (though that would be enough!) but also to build a new culture, refounded on the one foundation of Christ. The Church has always been counter-cultural, but in some points in history the contrast with the surrounding culture is greater than others. This is one of those moments in history.
All this is part of the great worth of homeschooling, pilgrimage, gardening, opting out of the 24/7 entertainment/infotainment culture, knitting church communities more tightly together, and learning all the skills that many of our pioneering forebears had to know for survival. We may well need these things for basic survival, especially if the moral corrosion of post-Christendom continues to express itself in economic corrosion. But even apart from these skills’ value for survival, they also teach us to be human, to be humane, to love, to deny extraneous and unnecessary possessions. They have a spiritual value, both for our own salvation and for our evangelism.
We may well find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which most of a galaxy is plunged into war and barbarism, but there are two libraries (“foundations”) at distant corners of the galaxy, waiting for their contents to be used to restore civilization far more quickly would have formed unaided. Christians may end up being embattled enclaves of sanity, whose very existence will stand witness to the world that it is possible to live with self-sacrificial love for one another and who will retain the knowledge of how to worship the one God and to receive the divine energies needed to be fully human.
Even if it really is the case that religious liberty is not about to be overwhelmed by the atomist culture of materialism and desire, we still have to approach this culture as the Apostles did their own. We live in an empire that is not Christendom, but rather the domain of spiritual powers working for the Enemy. If the Gospel is going to fall on ears that are anything but deaf to it, it will have to be accompanied by a clear, authentic demonstration of the humanity of love, a sane humanity that loves people, loves the earth, and treats all persons and places as holy and bearing the sacred imprint of the Creator. We will soon be the only alternative to the madness of the Machine.
And some of us may well have to die. I hope we’ll be ready.
There have been several postings online in the past few days of various articles claiming that the Christian Church at some period in history formerly sanctioned same-sex weddings and treated them just like marriages between a single man and a single woman, based mainly on the work of the late John Boswell. Someone even posted one of those articles in the comments section of my previous post. The one making the most rounds is called When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite. These articles are served up as “gotchas” to unsuspecting Christians who were under the impression that Christian history is pretty unanimous about what Christian marriage is about. (Spoiler: Their impression is correct.)
Mind you, someone may reject the Church’s historic teaching on marriage. But there really are no legs to stand on when it comes to the claim that the Church used to teach that marriage could also be between two men or two women (or any other combination). (And note here that I mean the historic Church, which is Orthodoxy. But this would also include almost all churches that are more than about 100 years old.)
Anyway, there are numerous articles which thoroughly debunk Boswell’s work. His fellow historians didn’t take it seriously, and neither should you. The only people who do (and I really am not making this up) are those who either don’t know better or quite desperately want him to be right. Boswell himself was gay and the founder of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1994 at the age of 47. He was also a convert to Roman Catholicism from the Episcopal Church (despite his much greater similarity with the latter on sexual morality).
Anyway, the point of this post is not to invite debate (because for me, the matter really is settled, and there are a quadra-gazillion other places to debate these questions; as such, I am not turning on comments for this post), but rather to point out some of the several places online where one can read refutations of Boswell’s work, far better than anything I could put together. The slams, as they say, are dunked.
- In the Case of John Boswell by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (a Catholic convert from Lutheranism) examines the scholarly reception of Boswell’s work.
- Gay Marriage: Reimaging Church History by Robin Darling Young is a detailed examination especially of the numerous specious translations in Boswell’s work (upon which his conclusions very much hang). Interesting in this piece is especially the reminiscence that its author experienced a same-sex union in an ancient church and was surprised to be told later by Boswell’s book that what she had experienced was actually a marriage. This is the first piece I ever read on this subject, and it packs a powerful punch.
- Failed Attempt to Rewrite History by Fr. Patrick Viscuso is an examination specifically of the canonical and liturgical claims that Boswell makes and how they fail to square with the actual contexts of the rites being examined. Viscuso is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church and a canonist specializing especially in marriage questions. He is also cited(!) in Boswell’s work.
- Rewriting History to Serve the Gay Agenda by Marian Therese Horvat is a general review of Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, especially focusing on what the author calls Boswell’s “advocacy scholarship.”
- A Groom of One’s Own? by Brent D. Shaw shows how anachronistic and tendentious Boswell’s readings of documents are. Shaw is himself in favor of the “liberationist movements of our time,” but he concludes that “tinkering with the moral balance of the past is a disservice to the study of history and to the reform of society.”
- Procrustean Marriage Beds by Robert Louis Wilken can best be summed up by its last two sentences: “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe creates a world that never existed, misrepresents Christian practice, and distorts the past. This is a book on a mission, scholarship at the service of social reform, historical learning yoked to a cause, a tract in the cultural wars, and it is in that spirit that it should be read.” Wilken is one of the most respected patrologists of our time.
- Do you take this man… by David Wright shows how Boswell’s Same Sex Unions is essentially a rehashing of his earlier work that fails to take into accounts the criticisms the earlier one drew.
- Remarks to the Catholic Press by Fr. Robert Taft is not really a review but just some blunt offhand remarks by one of the most respected Jesuit liturgiologists of all time. (Warning: Do not read this out loud to children!)
- Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, the famed liturgical translator from the UK also did a review of Boswell’s work for the journal Sourozh for its February 1995 issue, but it doesn’t appear to be online. There are bits of it quoted in the Wikipedia article on Adelphopoiesis (“brother-making”), the rite Boswell claims was a same-sex marriage.
If readers find other pieces offering up similar debunkings, feel free to send me the links, and I’ll add them here.
Again, just to be clear: I don’t hate homosexuals or people whose politics would have homosexual marriage enshrined and enforced as a civil right by the state. I also don’t hate people who reject Orthodox Christian teaching. The point of this post is to point you to some information debunking the claim that the Church has not always taught that same-sex attraction is a temptation like any other temptation (note I didn’t say “worse than all other temptations”) that has to be struggled against and repented of when indulged. I also do not believe that acting on that temptation is a worse sin than any of my own sins.
Oh, and this bit is pretty good when it comes to laying out a clear sense of what it means to be a Christian who believes in traditional Christian morality and isn’t going around hating people who don’t or who fail to live up to what they do believe in.
Update: This post is now available as an audio recording at Ancient Faith Radio.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil. —Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”
“Aren’t you supposed to hate me?”
That was the question once asked me by a homosexual friend and co-worker, back during my stagehand days (1994-2004), when she learned that I was an Orthodox Christian.
I thought about that moment again today while I watched my North Carolina friends posting online about North Carolina’s Constitutional Amendment One, which in a vote yesterday enshrined into the state’s constitution a legal definition for marriage as between one man and one woman. I lived in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area for eleven years, and from what I could tell, most of my friends there who are active online were very much against the amendment. In fact, I don’t think any of them were in favor of it. Nevertheless, it passed a popular vote with 61% approval.
What really struck me today was that several posters (who normally are not very interested in religious things) declared that anyone who voted in favor of the amendment was not a real Christian. It was kind of surreal to see some of these people making such religious statements when they never seemed to pay any particular attention to Christian doctrine before. Their statements seemed to be based on this syllogism: Voting for the amendment means you hate gay people. Jesus is loving. Therefore, if you voted for the amendment you are no real Christian. (Update: Did you catch that? These are pro-same-sex marriage folks who wanted others to oppose a piece of legislation for religious reasons.)
There were other variations on this claim, though usually without bringing Christ into it. The consensus seems to be that voting for this amendment means that the voter hates gay people (or others who may be affected). It does not seem in any way admissible that a loving person could ever vote for such a thing. One poster even said he simply could not fathom the logic that supporters were using when they voted.
In the course of related discussions, I was actually told by an old friend who (being convinced I would have voted for this particular amendment) essentially said that I believe what I do because my religion tells me I have to and that logic is always opposed to faith. There is of course a long and complex history of the interaction of faith and reason; some communions even go so far as to enshrine reason as a doctrinal pillar, but hardly any religions have ever actually rejected reason as being contradictory to faith.
Likewise, there is another problem with this assumption, namely, that I am actually someone who has chosen his faith and was by no means forced into it. Even had I been raised Orthodox, however, I would have to make a conscious choice to remain in the Church and faithful to its teachings. Come to think of it, I still have to do that. Even aside from simply the basic dynamics of trying to be a faithful Christian, it’s not like the world around me is exactly hip to Orthodoxy. The Church has always been counter-cultural.
Of course, on the other side of these things is the “GOD HATES FAGS” crowd, who actually have fairly little influence on anyone at all, but, if their ideological opposites are to be believed, somehow are identical to everyone who doesn’t all-out support homosexual activity. Still, I’m sure that there are folks who have traditional beliefs about the moral value of homosexual activity who do indeed regard gays as being damnably subhuman.
I also saw one post from an opponent of the amendment telling supporters to “go die in a fire.” Another one claimed supporters used only “weak” arguments from politics and religion and were therefore “fanatics” and “terrorists.” The first poster didn’t surprise me much, since he is given to that kind of language, but the second really did surprise me. (He was also one who said that supporters cannot be real Christians. That surprised me, too, because he’s not ever been, to my knowledge, remotely interested in church or even Christian “spirituality.”)
There seems to be little room here for the idea that someone can disagree, that they can even support unfavored laws, and still love the other. I think there is a little bit of the childish “You hate me, Mom and Dad” attitude here, chafing against anyone who won’t sanction a given behavior, but I believe overall it’s something much deeper, something actually theological, a vision of human nature.
In this view of human nature is also a reading of human history that admits of nothing but the progressivist narrative. “Social progress” always moves in one direction, and of course people who disagree with such “progress” are “on the wrong side of history,” etc. Never mind that history shows all sorts of “progressions” that such folks would find abhorrent. History sometimes moves in some pretty awful directions. And sometimes it even appears to “reverse” course, revealing what seemed to be an inexorable march toward progressive paradise actually to be a temporary anomaly. To one a certain thing is progress, while to another it may be regress, digress or even ingress. And of course everyone but me is wrong.
What’s underneath all of this is an assumption about human nature that almost never comes to the fore. It is essentially assumed that human beings are absolute objects incapable of actual dynamism and change. Reprobates can only be eliminated through force, whether of violence or of law (which always implies a threat of violence). That is, what is assumed is a theological anthropology, and it is the anthropology of Calvinism.
We Americans are hardly ever more Calvinistic and puritanical than when we are at politics. I observe this not about any particular political ideology or party, but about them all.
It is no wonder, of course. America was founded by such people. Calvinist anthropology is deep in our cultural DNA, and it is perhaps most prevalent in those who reject Christianity entirely. Their political opponents are “unloving,” “evil,” “hateful,” etc. There is little attempt actually to convince others of the rightness of their positions, only the assertion that opposing them makes the opponent a terrible person. You must hate me if you do not agree with me.
But “You hate me” is probably the silliest argument there is. It not only presumes a knowledge of someone else’s inner psychological state that is impossible, but it also is a defeatist attitude and presumes that one’s opponents are beyond redemption—and one’s own position is naturally what constitutes redemption.
In a world where everyone knows he’s a sinner and is actively working to repent, one can never have much ground to assume that one’s fellow sinners are “hateful,” etc. But in a world where I am perfect and right, of course anyone who disagrees with me is “hateful.”
When my gay friend asked me whether I was required to hate her, I told her no. She asked me why. I told her it’s because, even though I see homosexual activity (though not identity) as sinful, I believed my own sins were far worse than hers. It’s true. I really do. And I am (by choice) bound by my faith commitments to believe that, to see myself as the “chief of sinners.” I confess that every time I am about to engage in the most central act of my faith—receiving Holy Communion.
I do not in any sense believe that I am better than someone else just because the set of temptations I have and those I succumb to are different from someone else’s. How can I hate someone else for his sins or his temptations? I have so many of my own.
To be honest, I don’t really know how I would have voted on North Carolina’s Amendment One. I haven’t lived there for eight years now, so I’m not really a part of its life any more. I do know that I think the state should get out of licensing marriages entirely, if only because it almost inevitably leads to problems like this.
I do not believe that every sin should be illegal, and homosexual activity is one I do not think needs to be illegal. (And certainly one cannot criminalize feelings, either.) Yes, I do regard these things as symptomatic of a fallen humanity, but I don’t think that anyone’s salvation is furthered by criminalization.
I do, however, have a very serious concern about enshrining things at odds with religious communities’ doctrine as “civil rights,” because of what that does to religious liberty, a civil right long guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Once something is a civil right, then those who refuse to grant that right and not to hinder it in any way are subject to legal action—there have already been people successfully sued for not going along with gay weddings due to the dictates of their consciences, people who were minding their own business and just didn’t want to be a part of it.
I do hope that my friends can understand that I in no way hate them if I disagree with their politics or even with their personal moral choices. If I hated everyone who disagreed with me or who sinned, I would pretty much not have anything else to do with my time. But I’m a sinner, too, and my sins are far greater than theirs.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of friends, co-workers and parishioners who have identified as gay. To be quite honest, none of them ever seemed to be under the impression that I hated them. I don’t think it’s because I have any great virtue, but simply because I just didn’t hate them. I don’t understand why that possibility seems to elude so many.
For anyone who is not an Orthodox Christian or who does not subscribe in some way to the broad outlines of Christian moral tradition as it has generally been held without much real disagreement for centuries, I cannot of course expect that they will see themselves as sinners or that any particular action is a sin. If they don’t even believe in any transcendent divinity, then there is no reason to believe that there should be a transcendent “right” to which we are all responsible. I get that.
At the same time, however, I think it’s worth closely examining one’s presuppositions about such things as the nature of human persons, whether they can change, whether they have inherent worth, and whether it is actually possible to disagree without being consigned to the oblivion of the “hateful” category.
This kind of politics—the politics of hatefulness—comes out of a real theology. In this theology, there are only the elect and the reprobate—the damned.
Wouldn’t it be better to see others in a far more complex and (dare I ask it?) hopeful light? And let us especially remember the words quoted above from Solzhenitsyn: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”
Addendum: I liked this comment from Fr. Stephen so much that I’m reproducing it here in the body of the post. Some of the responses to it are quite interesting, as well.
I think the root of the issue you’re identifying goes much deeper than just Calvin’s anthropology. All of Western Christian thought since St. Augustine (obviously including Calvin) has been Platonist thought, to one degree or another. Even Thomas Aquinas (whose grand project was to try to reconcile the newly discovered Aristotelian science [with] the pre-existing Platonist Christianity he had inherited, over against the Latin Averroists like Siger de Brabant who were ready to discard the latter), as revealed in Book I of the Summa and his eschatology.
Why that’s important is this: One of the fundamental principles in Platonist thought is that distinction implies opposition. Unity, or ‘One-ness’ is a good, and therefore to be truly Good, anything must be One. So, for example, there can only be one correct interpretation of any given passage of Holy Scripture. All other interpretations are not just somehow faulty or incomplete, but are actually opposed to the correct interpretation and seek to subvert it. All of those other interpretations aren’t ‘nice tries’ or ‘alternate takes’ or ‘other applications in different contexts’, they’re sinful attempts to undermine the One Truth.
This results in this horrible confusion of epistemology and ethics, in which ignorance of certain facts, or differing beliefs, even if held with no ill will or ulterior motive, are still treated as sin, as evil acts. Therefore, if I hold that ‘x’ behavior is morally wrong, and you hold that it is morally right, our views aren’t just alternatives to each other, they actively oppose each other, and we ‘have to’ at the minimum, hate each other’s views. Neither God, nor you and I, can just [love] sinners, we have to somehow at the same time hate their sin. It can’t be overlooked, passed over in respectful silence, or ignored.
In light of yesterday’s post, I thought it might be useful to comment on the “other” side of the questions of inter-religious relations. By no means is this a sort of antithesis of yesterday’s thesis. Indeed, I believe a vigorous engagement precisely on doctrinal terms is the basis on which the best inter-religious friendships can occur. I’ve known some good men who have been engaged in honest, “ecumenism with a gun” type of dialogues who have made many good friends along the way, even if they remain on different sides of doctrinal questions.
Now, it should be noted that I do not rise in any sense in defense of “religion.” There is no such thing. There are only religions. Religion is far too broad a term to be useful in any real sense as a phenomenon to which one can point or offer criticism or defense. (For more on this, see the opening pages of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies). That said, I find religion quite interesting, and if we boil it down at least to its etymological roots (re + ligio), it means “reconnection.” Religion is fundamentally about reconnecting oneself—to community, to transcendent principles, to metaphysics, to tradition, etc. And in that sense we can see the fundamental irreligiosity of our age—even while attendance at religious services remains quite high just about everywhere, there is more and more a fundamental cultural sensibility of disconnection rather than reconnection. Indeed, much religion is, in this sense, distinctly irreligious.
The forgetfulness of politics (e.g., the senator who today insists that the sovereign debt ceiling must be raised who five years ago spoke out against it on principle, yet without any loss of reputation or influence), the ahistorical character of much theology and spiritual life, the general ignorance of history and disdain for tradition, the banality of modern industrialized mass education, the popularity of contraception—all of these things form a maelstrom of disconnection, of people from their pasts, of people from each other, of people from what orders their lives toward what is noble. The irony of our age is that, as telecommunications gives us more of the illusion of connection, we are plunged further into isolation.
Thus, I rise today in praise of faith, which is fundamentally not a set of beliefs, but an act. Faith is the act of reconnection. It is the act of religion.
I am fascinated by religions, and the more I learn of them, the more I learn to love Orthodoxy—not out of disdain, happy to be “free” of their problems, but rather out of being able to see my own faith more clearly and having my blind spots cleared up because of the way some other faith emphasizes things. It was a class on Hinduism which helped prepare me for the paradoxes of Orthodox Christianity. It was a friend’s decision to become Roman Catholic that articulated for me why I could no longer be Protestant. It was in seeing Islam in prison that I caught a glimpse of what prisoners experience. It was a Roman Catholic roommate in college who demonstrated for me what firmness in faith could look like for men in their twenties. And of course it was my Evangelical upbringing that gave me Christ.
All those who believe in what is beyond the world of the dull senses, who are willing to use tools of knowing that are beyond what has become standard in our world, have something in common, and that is that we believe in the possibility of self-transcendence. If there is a God (or even gods), then that means that humility is called for.
There is also something about man’s reach for transcendence that produces beauty. I can see the beauty in Buddhist culture, though I have a hard time relating. I can see it much more clearly in Catholic and Anglican Christendom, and indeed, in many ways, I still feel more at home in those Western Christian worlds than I do in the cultures of Orthodoxy. I of course want to go see Greece, Syria, Russia, etc., but I don’t think that they will thrill my heart in quite the way that my pilgrimage to the British Isles did in 2001. And I still try to read Tolkien every year.
I am also moved by the seriousness and capacity for compassion of the believers I meet outside of Orthodoxy, as well. Of course the family in which I grew up is highest among them. But I also greatly respect my clergy friends in other confessions that live and work here in Emmaus. I don’t believe in their theology, but they (who are mostly far more experienced than I) have a maturity and a comfortableness in their own churches that I hope someday to attain in my own. And I also very much wish that the sort of strong moral voice that certain communions have in America (particularly Rome) were characteristic of the Orthodox.
Yes, I want everyone to be an Orthodox Christian. But I do not go around trying to “make” people Orthodox. I will of course debate doctrine if that is appropriate at the moment, but I’m mainly interested in trying to facilitate an encounter with Christ. And just like St. Justin Martyr believed of old, Christ can be encountered outside the visible boundaries of the Church, as the spermatikos logos, the Word of God in seed form. That doesn’t mean that Christ’s Church doesn’t have boundaries, but it does mean that He’s out and about. He’s on the move.
It is not the case that everything outside the Church’s visible boundaries is unmitigated darkness. Any place where God is sought, where Christ is loved, or where the Truth is desired is a place where I can find joy.
There are, of course, cheerful materialists out there, people for whom transcendence or absolutes are utter nonsense yet are not bothered by it. But almost all of them are enjoying the inheritance of religion and not really ready to abandon it.
John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without religion. The last prominent man who really did that with any consistency and honesty was Nietzsche. And I’m not fond of the vision he concocted. He was ready to deal with a world with a dead God.
It’s a good thing he was dead wrong.
I was recently passed on a question by my grandmother from some of my non-Orthodox relations who live out in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The question was whether, in my preaching, there is room for a “personal Gospel.” I must be honest that I don’t know exactly what that phrase means, but I cannot imagine they are asking whether I am “allowed” to make up my own doctrine. After all, they are fairly conservative Evangelical Protestant believers who no doubt believe that truth is truth and that relativism is utter bunk. (There, we very much agree.)
But perhaps what is being asked is really about freedom. My mind has dwelt in this area again of late, as I have become occasionally aware of debates raging between Protestants regarding an “emergent” preacher who at least seems to be espousing the doctrine of universalism (that every person will be saved by God no matter what they do or believe). Those who oppose him are claiming “orthodoxy” as their authority, while those who support him (or at least oppose the opponents) mock orthodoxy, though they mock it as the West understands it—absolute adherence to formulaic, conceptual systems. This gives rise to the attitude sneered at by those who oppose it, “dogmatism.” Thus, the “orthodox” are those who “think they know everything.” As a friend of mine once put it to me: “It must be so exhausting to be so right all the time!” For him, orthodoxy was about “being right.”
I also thought about this question of freedom and what being Orthodox actually means when the subject has again risen to the forefront of the national consciousness of the question of same-sex marital unions (due to the passing of a law by the state of New York). (Of course, it is important to have some perspective here. 41 out of 50 American states have either explicit constitutional (29) or statutory (12) bans on same-sex marriage. In the 28 states that have put up constitutional amendments to a vote, it has passed in all 28. So who knows how long this latest bit of news will really last?)
The issue, for me, has come down to this question: How “Orthodox” do you have to be in your mind in order to be Orthodox?
Is Orthodoxy about thinking the right things? Is it about saying the right words? Is it about signing on to a list of dogmatic and moral precepts? Is it about a fundamental lack of freedom?
I think that, for most of the world, that is, indeed, what the word orthodoxy means, that it is a synonym for another word denoting something hateful, dogmatic. Given my love for language, though, I am not willing to cede this linguistic territory to them. Orthodoxy doesn’t have to mean that, and for the Orthodox Christian, it doesn’t.
Orthodoxy really is a glorious word (literally!). The orthos literally means “straight,” but of course it metaphorically means “true” or “reliable.” The doxa portion of the word can mean any and all of the following: notion, opinion, teaching, glory, worship, praise, reputation, judgment (i.e., a discernment), expectation, imagining, fancy, dream, vision, effulgence and splendor. And I daresay that for the Orthodox Church, orthodoxy means all of those things together. Orthodoxy is the straight/true/reliable notion/opinion/teaching/glory/worship/praise/reputation/judgment/expectation/imagining/fancy/dream/vision/effulgence/splendor. Those who think orthodoxy is really just about a set of concepts and words are either ignoring or unaware of the rest of this vast universe of meaning.
And that bring us to my response both to my relatives and to the general feeling about dogma and orthodoxy that seems (a pun here on dogma, which comes from the Greek for “it seems”) to be out there in the culture. Orthodoxy as it is known and practiced by the Orthodox Church is not a set of concepts or teachings. Those teachings are just one element of what Orthodoxy is. Fundamentally, the commitment to Orthodoxy is not commitment to a position paper but rather to a particular community, to communion.
Therefore, of course when I preach I use my own words to express what needs to be said, and they are specifically tailored to the community who is worshiping with me, which is one with the worldwide, particular and historic communion of Orthodoxy. I can indeed make use of a “personal Gospel” if that is understood to mean that I bring my own personal experiences and expression to the fore when communicating the faith. But what I should be communicating is the faith, not my private opinions. I am not “free” to make up doctrine or to reimagine it such that it contradicts or alters the deposit of faith once delivered to the saints. The truth is the truth, and the Apostles were given all the truth, not a portion of it that later needs to be debated or expanded upon.
Freedom truly is not a question of getting to do or say whatever I want. That’s really about licentiousness. Freedom is rather power to do something, specifically, to do what God created me to be able to do. As I become more and more like Him, my ability to be truly natural grows. If I decide to become less like Him, then my power dwindles. Yes, there is a sort of “freedom” in that, in the sense that I am free to find a prison and lock myself up in it.
But as I said, Orthodoxy is a community, not concepts. There is a great deal of freedom within that community to express the one faith in a multitude of ways. Life in any household can be surprising and variable, and it grows and changes over the years. But we cannot walk out on the Father of the house and say that we are still members of the household. We cannot live in active defiance of the Father of the house and say that we are still members of the household. We cannot go build a new house, set ourselves up as the father, and rightly claim that it is the same household. Dogma is simply the outer boundaries of what the household is, and because dogma is fundamentally about a Person—Jesus Christ—and not about concepts, then transgressing those boundaries is not a “thought crime” but a break in relationship.
So does that mean that the Father wants to control even our thoughts? When do the personal opinions of church members—even if they contradict the teachings of the Church—put them outside the household of faith? Traditionally, the Church’s approach to this question is only in terms of those who set themselves up as teachers, specifically as teachers who are in opposition to the teachers whose task it is to hand on the one faith from Christ. That is what heresy is, choosing to be in opposition and most especially seeking to lead others in that opposition.
I’ve known plenty of people who are formally members of the Orthodox Church who believe that abortion is perfectly acceptable, that homosexual acts are perfectly acceptable, that it’s okay to gamble, to lie, to steal, to cheat, to commit suicide, to commit euthanasia, etc., etc. And these beliefs sometimes affect their behavior, as well. Most of the time, all of these things are addressed within the private, pastoral relationship between them and their confessor. The question of excommunication usually only ever comes up if they take these teachings and use them to create a disruption in the Church.
In looking at the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, one notes that the canons almost never address beliefs or opinions. They are mostly concerned with behavior. But where they do address beliefs, it is in terms of “those who teach,” not “those who believe” or “those who think.” But even their approach to destructive behaviors is about the path to restoration, not the path to exclusion.
After all, we are all sinners. Every single one of us. I may not be tempted by a particular sin, but I’m sure tempted by a lot of others. And I fail constantly. The difference here is not between the sinners and the non-sinners, but between sinners who choose to struggle against the fallenness we have inherited from Adam and Eve and those who set up that fallenness as the “new normal.” We are all called to be perfect.
So we have the choice of striving toward perfection (probably not to achieve it in this life, but quite possibly in the next) or deciding not to strive. It seems to me that the free man is the striver. Yes, there are beliefs proper to the Orthodox Christian, but they are not a system of concepts but rather the experience of a Person. If we say that Orthodoxy believes that the Son of God is of one essence with the Father, it is not because we are holding up some academic concept that has little bearing on real life. Rather it is because that is how God has actually revealed Himself, and because we want to know Him for Who He really is, not for what we’d like Him to be or what we think He is. After all, life eternal (you do want life eternal, don’t you?), is about knowing God, not about adherence to concepts. And the more we know God, the freer we become.
My experience of Orthodoxy is that it is very much characterized by freedom. Though there is instruction on the beliefs of the Church, no one goes around telling people what to think, mounting up witch hunts to see who’s committing thought crimes and holding wrong opinions. (There’s also plenty of instruction on what to do, but what did you expect? What’s the point of religion that doesn’t have any standards?) Yes, there is a clear shape to the life of the household of faith, but there are many ways of living within it. No, not all the ways the world has in mind will work within the household. But that is not because there is no freedom. It is because those ways lead to enmity and destruction. Those ways are not bad because they’re “wrong.” They’re bad because they’re counter to the design the Father put in place when He created everything. If you’re trying to glue thin pieces of balsa wood together, a hammer is not the right tool for the job. No one is violating your “freedom” if they say not to use a hammer and instead offer you some glue and a vise.
Orthodoxy isn’t about limiting anyone. It doesn’t chain people. Orthodoxy grants wings. Orthodoxy grants vision. Orthodoxy fuels the great fire within humanity, allowing it to blaze with the uncreated light of God Himself. Anyone who thinks that’s limiting has either never really touched it or really has a thing for the, ahem, “other side.”
The evidence of the freedom of the Church’s life is to be found in the saints. Sin, like all addiction, is boring, repetitive, ugly, and destructive, while the holiness of the lives of the saints is characterized by glorious variation. Their lives are a peacock’s panoply of color, of all the amazing and curious possibility that human nature may achieve.
Note: This post is not about whether same-sex marriage should be legal, about whether or not Orthodoxy actually teaches traditional marriage (it does!), etc. Comments along those lines won’t be published, not because I’m a censorious meanie, but because there are many thousands of other places online to discuss such things, and I don’t care to make this one of them. My house, my rules.
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today, let’s talk about sin.
Yes, of course, almost all sermons are in some sense about sin, and sin is certainly mentioned a great deal in the hymns and readings of the Church. But let’s take a moment today to address sin head-on, to define it, to look at what it’s really made of, and, because we are Christians, what God has to say about it.
The diligent observer of political history will correctly note that morality cannot be successfully legislated—that is, passing laws doesn’t make people moral; laws can only restrain and punish people. Yet sin and morality are constantly in political news. Sin is also a dominant theme in our entertainment.
Whether the issue is abortion, same-sex attraction, euthanasia, assisted suicide, drug abuse, or even how one finances political campaigns, sin is constantly at the forefront of our public life. But almost no one uses the word sin any more when discussing these things, except perhaps those cruel and obnoxious people from the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church” who like to picket military funerals. Sin has become an unpopular word. Even mentioning something as sin is likely to get you labeled as a hateful bigot.
But what is sin? Sin is anything that distances us from God. The Greek word for sin used in the New Testament, hamartia, literally means “missing the mark.” Thus, whenever we fire the arrows of our life and do not hit the mark that has been set up by God, we are sinning.
We often think of sin in terms of crimes against a divine law, and so when we sin, we make God angry with us. But God isn’t subject to such sinful passions Himself. You can’t make Him mad. Even language about God’s “wrath” that is to be found in Scripture cannot be understood to depict a God Who flies off the handle. Talk about God’s “wrath” is simply an attempt to understand what we experience when we sin.
I think the best way for us to understand sin is as a malfunction. God created the universe and mankind to function in a particular way, perfect and balanced and beautiful. He had a design, and He made us according to that design. But our ability to function well was dependent on staying plugged in to the Giver of Life Himself. And Adam and Eve unplugged us.
As someone who used to be employed in the live music business, I sometimes like to think of mankind like an electric guitar. If you unplug it from the wall, you can of course still play it, but it’s very muted. Mankind without the energy of God can function a little bit, because of God’s design, but we will never be able to make music the way we’re intended while we remain unplugged.
The problem with the world today is that, for so long, we’ve been hearing an unplugged electric guitar and assuming that that is what the music is all about. Little do we know that we were not only meant to be plugged in, but that there are a variety of amps and effects pedals that we can plug in, as well. But we’re malfunctioning, so most of that escapes our ears.
When God tells us not to sin, it is not because He has made up a bunch of arbitrary laws that He’s looking for an excuse to zap us over if we disobey them. Rather, he’s telling us that if we want to “rock out” on the electric guitar that He designed us to be, only certain things will get you there. There are plenty of techniques and options once you plug in, but if you don’t plug in, you won’t make the music. If you unstring the guitar, you’ll make even less. If you bang the guitar against the power amps, that’s not music, either. (Note that most of the bands who do that wait until the end of the concert!)
Morality is really simply what it takes for mankind to make the music he was meant to make. It’s not about judging or condemning anyone. It’s about what works.
There are a lot of kinds of sins, just like there are a lot of ways to make an electric guitar malfunction. Some sins, I am tempted to commit. Others, I am not tempted to commit. But it’s all still sin. It all still unplugs me from God’s divine energy. Sin isn’t bad for me because I’m not following the “rules.” Sin is bad for me because it disconnects me from God.
So when God looked at the world and saw that we were a bunch of sinners, did He storm from Heaven and smite us all with bolts of lightning? Did He shout out in anger and level our cities? Did He picket funerals and tell us that He hates us for our sins? Today’s epistle reading from Romans tells us what He did: “But God shows his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
When God looked at a world full of rotten, broken, messed up sinners—including me—His response was to come here and die for us. As it also says in that passage from Romans, “For while we were still weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly.” God looks at our sin not as creating a bunch of guilty people, but rather in creating weakness. Sin leaves us weak, malfunctioning, unable to do and be what He made us to do and be.
As we look at our world, which more and more is redefining sin as “freedom” and “civil rights,” we have to remember what sin really is and how God approaches it. Abortion is sin because it kills a child. Yes, people who commit abortion are often suffering in other ways, too, but they’re still killing a child. The same is true of euthanasia or assisted suicide—an innocent life is being destroyed. Homosexual acts are sin, just like any other sexual act outside of marriage as God designed it, because they are not God’s design for us. Yes, people with that temptation have been made to suffer for it, but that is because of the cruelty of some sinners toward other sinners, not because God is cruel.
It really does not matter whether we were born with the temptations we face. Being “born this way” (to quote the pop philosopher Lady Gaga) does not mean that it’s natural or good. Lady Gaga is right when she says that “God makes no mistakes,” but what we’re living in is not the world as God designed it or human nature as God designed it, but as man has distorted it. What we inherit from Adam and Eve is not human nature as God designed it. We inherit a malfunctioning human nature, unplugged from the divine energy.
It really does not matter whether we have suffered, either. Sin is still sin. Nothing justifies it, and sinning doesn’t make our suffering better. Indeed, sinning because we have suffered is really the same dynamic that causes blood feuds between families and nations. That is what revenge is—an attempt to release the suffering through sin. But sin never releases suffering, despite whatever momentary emotional reward we may experience. Sin always disconnects us more from God.
It doesn’t matter how we personally feel about it. What matters is the objective reality about how God designed us to function. We may not understand all of His teachings about what works best, and sometimes the results of following or not following them may not be apparent until we reach the next life (though they often show themselves here, too), but the true character of sin is that it is malfunction. It will always be malfunction, even if the world redefines it to be something else or we personally feel like it should be something else.
But God’s love for us is so powerful and strong that He doesn’t want us to stay in our malfunction. He wants to heal us, to plug us in to the life-giving energy that only He provides. That means that we have to respond to the free gift of healing and wholeness He offers by getting rid of our sins that distance us from Him, whether they are sins of commission like some of the things we have named, or whether they are sins of omission like neglecting worship in favor of entertainment or other worldly pursuits. Either way, they’re pulling us away from God, whether through quick jumps in committing evil acts or through gradual decay in not making Him the center and focus of our whole lives.
The only cure for sin is to pay attention to and take hold of the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), to commit ourselves and each other and our whole life to Christ our God.
To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
My Foundations of the Orthodox Faith series is now fully online at Ancient Faith Radio. This series represents an attempt at a sort of catechism—approaching the faith from four foundational angles: the revelation of God to man, authority in the spiritual life, worship, and morality.
As with most of my work, I attempted to keep these talks fairly free of religious jargon, approaching the subjects with only a minimum of assumptions shared with the listeners. My hope is that these will be digestible not only to Orthodox Christians, but to other Christians, members of other religions, those who are “spiritual but not religious,” and even unbelievers.
There’s something of a progression here, so skipping ahead is advisable only at your own risk. The progression makes some sense to me: God reveals Himself (1), leading us to ask what we should trust as authoritative (2), propelling us into acts of worship (3) and ethics/morality (4).
Here’s the full series with all the links:
Whatever assumptions you may have, this series is probably not quite what you might be thinking. (But, hey! Maybe it is.)