Thursday, November 3, 2016

Christian and Liberal Perspectives on Gender and Life


There will always be conflict between Christianity and liberal ideology with regard to gender and life. There will be people who call themselves Christian and accept liberal ideologies, but there will always be Christians who hold out against it. This is not because they are afraid of change and have a conservative temperament; liberal beliefs on gender and life are built from the ground up on atheistic and other non-Christian foundations.
Feminism and the LGBTQ movement is rooted in the idea that gender is arbitrary. Gender can be arbitrary from the ideological foundations of our modern, atheistic, secular society. The fact that human beings come in male and female is by accident, not design. Since everything is physics to the atheist, the only difference between men and women is physics. Since physics is arbitrary, the difference between men and women is arbitrary. If gender is arbitrary, you can do whatever you feel like with it and call it whatever you want. From the atheistic worldview, there is the physical world and there are ideas created by humans, but there is no deeper reality off of which these two things are based. So they are limited to the following definitions: sex is a biological feature, while gender is a social construct.
Christian belief has very different implications. God designed sex (both the action and the physiology) with intention and purpose. Gender is not a social construct; God had gender in mind when He created human beings as male and female. Since this is by design rather than accident, gender is not arbitrary. You cannot do whatever you feel like in regards to it and call it whatever you want. Going against God's design will result in someone not functioning properly as a person and separating him or herself from God by working against His purpose. This is why all those pesky Biblical authors and Church fathers have gender stereotypes. Not to mention Jesus Christ Himself.
Intersex conditions, same-sex attraction, and gender dysphoria are disorders according to Christianity. Having a sickness is not disobedience, but indulging in that sickness and calling it health is. From a materialist perspective, there is nothing deeper than physical features. As such, since some people do not have purely male or female features, then people can be objectively more than two sexes. A hermaphrodite is neither male nor female, but its own sex which is just as legitimate. Since Christianity believes in realities deeper than physical features, having features of the opposite sex does not change the fact that someone is objectively a man or a woman.
Many times liberals will recognize a real difference between men and women, but men are portrayed as deficient human beings- Peter Griffins and Homer Simpsons. There is also the bizarre example of the blatantly anti-male movie Maleficent. Christians cannot accept a philosophy that portrays either males or females as deficient human beings since both were designed by God. The heretical Gospel of Thomas is an example of portraying the female as deficient.
From the atheistic perspective, conception is an arbitrary event. All that has happened is some biological material has gotten mixed up. As such, abortion is not really a big deal. And since human life comes from an arbitrary process, we can end our own life at any time.
Christians believe that conception is the creation of a human being involving God. Being in the image of God, Christians believe that human life is sacred. Saint Porphyrios was a man with the spiritual gift of clairvoyance. Here is what he said in regards to pregnancy:
“A child’s upbringing commences at the moment of its conception. The embryo hears and feels in its mother’s womb. Yes, it hears and it sees with its mother’s eyes. It is aware of her movements and her emotions, even though its mind has not developed. If the mother’s face darkens, it darkens too. If the mother is irritated, then it becomes irritated also. Whatever the mother experiences – sorrow, pain, fear, anxiety, etc. – is also experienced by the embryo.
If the mother does not want the child, if she doesn’t love it, then the embryo senses this and traumas are created in its little soul that accompany it all its life. The opposite occurs through the mother’s holy emotions. When she is filled with joy, peace and love for the embryo, she transmits these things to it mystically, just as happens to children that have been born.
For this reason a mother must pray a lot during her pregnancy and love the child growing within her, caressing her abdomen, reading psalms, singing hymns and living a holy life. This is also for her own benefit. But she makes sacrifices for the sake of the embryo so that the child will become more holy and will acquire from the very outset holy foundations.
Do you see how delicate a matter it is for a woman to go through a pregnancy? Such a responsibility and such an honour!”
This also goes back into gender roles- how God has given men and women different gifts and abilities. Back to the topic of conception, I heard a Christian say that he saw a woman and he knew she was pregnant because he could see her literally shining. I am not arguing about the legitimacy of his and St. Porphyrios’s spiritual insight, I am bringing them up because I think they provide great examples of the Christian perspective- that the creation of human life is a sacred event. Because God creates human life [in conjunction with a father and mother], life is a sacred gift. This is why Christianity takes issue with abortion and suicide.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Orthodoxy and Protestantism: First Contact

This is my senior seminar essay. Footnotes are not in my current starter edition of Microsoft Word, so I do not have the citations at this time.

          Protestantism was bursting out of the seams of the Roman Catholic Church wherever it had the opportunity in the 16th century. Yet, there was not a single reformation in the Orthodox East resembling the reformations of the Lutherans, the Reformed, the Radical Reformers, or the Anglicans. The reason for this is not entirely a geographical or political coincidence. While geography and politics certainly played a role, I will show how the differences between the Christian East and West in matters of faith and practice greatly hindered the potential for reformation in the Christian East.  The ideas coming out of Germany could not inspire the Greeks to reform to the extent that they inspired Westerners such as the Scots. To show this, I will primarily examine the correspondence between the Lutheran Tubingen Theologians and Orthodox Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople from the years 1573-1579.
            The relationship between Orthodoxy and Lutheranism was present at the beginning. Luther, based on his knowledge of Church history, expressed appreciation for the faith and practice of what he called the “Greek Church” over and against certain aspects of Roman Catholicism. The first real contact occurred when Patriarch Joasaph of Constantinople sent the Serbian deacon Demetrios to investigate the Reformation in Germany.  Demetrios was taken in by Philip Melanchthon, whom he greatly admired.  In 1559, Melanchthon wrote [his authorship is disputed] a Greek edition of the Augsburg Confession called the Augustana Graeca. This document has a few alterations for the intention of making it more understandable to the Eastern Orthodox. Melanchthon sent Demetrios with the Augustana Graeca and a cordial letter to Patriarch Joasaph. However, it appears these documents never arrived. Demetrios was diverted in Wallachia, and died before reaching Constantinople.
            In 1573, a group of theologians in Tubingen, led by Martin Crusius and Jakob Andreae, set out to reestablish contact. The opportunity arose when Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II chose a devout Lutheran as his ambassador at the imperial embassy in Constantinople. Ambassador David Ungnad was a graduate of the University of Tubingen, and requested a court chaplain from there. Crusius was the classics professor at the university and was supposedly the greatest classicist in Europe at the time. He was naturally excited at the prospect of contact with the Greeks for academic purposes. Andreae was the most highly renowned theologian at Tubingen, and he and Crusius had religious interest in contacting the Eastern Orthodox. They selected a promising graduate named Stephen Gerlach to be the embassy chaplain for Ungnad. Crusius often exercised his incredible linguistic talent by translating Andreae’s sermons into Greek as he preached them on Sunday. They sent one of these sermons with Gerlach, in addition to a letter from each of them to the Patriarch. On October 15, 1573, Gerlach ceremoniously delivered the letters from Andreae and Crusius to Patriarch Jeremias II, initiating the first meeting between a clerical representative of the Protestant Reformation and the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church.
            Having established contact with the Orthodox, the Lutherans followed up by sending the 1559 Augustana Graeca on September 15, 1574, asking the Patriarch for a response. Their motives of initiating a reformation in the East are expressed by Crusius, who wrote, “If they wish to take thought for the eternal salvation of their souls, they must join us and embrace our teaching, or else perish eternally!” Gerlarch received five more copies of the Augustana Graeca, which he distributed to the theological advisors of the Patriarch. After receiving his copy on May 24, 1575, Jeremias set to work on a careful point-by-point response, which he completed on April 30, 1576, urging the Lutherans to convert to Orthodoxy. The Lutherans, realizing that uniting the Orthodox to their cause was unlikely, shifted their efforts from conversion to apologetic defense. The Lutherans replied to Jeremias’s response, as well as to two other letters sent by him. In his third doctrinal response, Jeremias signals an end to the correspondence with the words, “Therefore, going about your own ways, write no longer concerning dogmas; but if you do, write only for friendship’s sake. Farewell.”
            Before discussing the lack of potential for Reformation in the Christian East, it is appropriate to examine the extent that the Protestant reformation did have impact. Several Orthodox, such as the previously mentioned Demetrios, were greatly sympathetic to the cause of the Reformation. Michael Katakouzenos was a Greek prince who received one of the five copies of the Augustana Graeca. He held the document in such high esteem that he had it bound in red leather and translated into contemporary Greek. Under the yoke of Turkish rule, most Greek theologians had to receive training in the West by Protestants or Catholics. Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril Lukaris published his Confession in 1629, a work that expressed Calvinist teaching. His Protestant influenced work was quickly rejected by several Church councils. To secure power for himself, Peter the Great abolished the Russian patriarchate and established a Holy Synod. He modelled this after the infrastructure of the Lutheran Church in Germany rather than Orthodox precedent. Under Peter’s Synod, the Orthodox Church in Russia experienced a temporary and partial Westernization in art, music, and theology. Despite all this, it must generally be said that, “The forces of Reform stopped when they reached the borders of Russia and the Turkish Empire, so that the Orthodox Church has not undergone either a Reformation or a Counter-Reformation.” None of the Western influenced theologians became an Eastern Luther or Zwingli, and Peter the Great did not come near to matching King Henry VIII’s legacy.
            The first formal declaration of a Catholic abuse in the Augsburg Confession is Article 22, which complains against the restriction of the laity from the blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The Patriarch’s response to this is the shortest of all the article responses, reaching 44 words [English translation]. It gives a simple statement of agreement with the Lutherans, with the clarification that the Orthodox use leavened bread. This contrasts greatly with the official Roman Catholic response in The Confutatio Pontificia. The Catholics zealously defend the practice of withholding the wine in a 1,258 word [English translation] refutation of the article. Using Scripture and Tradition, they argue that to offer the blood of Christ to the laity, rather than just the clergy, is an “abuse and disobedience.” Even the Catholic Church has ultimately found the practice of withholding the wine to be undesirable, as Catholic laity now frequently receive wine at the Eucharist. Many found the practice to be undesirable before the Catholic Church changed its position, and the Reformation was a potential solution here. However, there is no need for a solution if there is no problem. Luther himself highly praised the Orthodox Church for its administering of both elements, saying the practice,
still continues among the Greeks, whom even Rome itself dare not call heretics or schismatics because of it. . . I now say that on this point the Greeks and Bohemians are not heretics or schismatics but the most Christian people and the best followers of the Gospel on earth.
When considering this quote, it is little wonder that no parallel to Luther rose up in the Orthodox Church. Melanchthon also praises the Greeks, saying, “in the Greek churches this practice [Communion in both kinds] still remains, as it also once prevailed in the Latin Church, as Cyprian and Jerome attest.” The desire for allowing both kinds is also expressed by the Anglicans on article 30 of The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. On the point of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church had a weakness against the Protestantism not shared by the Orthodox Church.
            The second abuse declared in the Augsburg Confession is the restrictions of the clergy from marriage. To this, Jeremias replies, “We too permit those priests who are unable to remain celibate to marry before ordination. God has ordained marriage, and we are not ignorant that severe disorders take place among those in the clergy who have been prevented from being married.” One difference here is that the Orthodox restricted priest from marrying after ordination, whereas the Lutherans encouraged former Catholic clergy to disregard their vows of celibacy. The Confutatio reaffirms the Catholic position of celibate clergy. The Anglicans also complain against the Catholics on this point in Article 32 of their Articles. This is a complaint that the Orthodox Church was far less vulnerable to than the Catholics.
            The third abuse listed in the Augsburg Confession is the way in which the Catholics perform the mass. The Lutheran theologians argue that using the vernacular teaches the common people what they should know about Christ. It is also commanded by Paul in 1 Cor. 14:19. Jeremias makes no comment on this aspect of the complaint, for the Orthodox Church has always encouraged, rather than restricted, the use of the vernacular. The Divine Liturgy was performed in Greek for the Greeks, Arabic for the Arabs, Slavonic for the Slavs, Georgian for the Georgians, et cetera. There are examples of parishes in the West using Greek, but this is due to the fact that these parishes are often composed of Greek-speaking immigrant communities. On the other hand, the Confutatio defends the use of Latin for the sake of unity. Some Catholics point to examples of vernacular use in the Roman Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation, but this does not change the fact that, as a rule, Latin was used at the expense of the vernacular. As the Confutatio states, “First, it is displeasing that, in opposition to the usage of the entire Roman Church, they perform ecclesiastical rites not in the Roman, but in the German language...” In Article 24 of their Articles, the Anglican Reformers express their shared concern with the Lutherans over the use of language, “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understood by the people.” Like the issue of the two substances, the Roman Catholic Church has, in practice, adopted the position of the Protestants and Orthodox by using the vernacular during mass. This is an issue that pressured Reformation in the Western Church and could not be applied to the Church in the East.
            The seventh and final complaint against the Catholic Church in Augsburg Confession is the power of the Bishops. They criticize the Catholic Church for having its clergy exercise religious matters with the authority of a position of the State, saying, “the power of the Church and the civil power must not be confounded.” Jeremias expresses agreement, saying, “there is not small difference among the [civil and religious] commandments.” It should be noted that Patriarch Jeremias himself was assigned by the Ottoman Empire to be the ethnarch, a religious and civic representative of the Christian Greeks. However, any secular powers of Orthodox bishops hardly paralleled those of many Catholic bishops, who often ran theocracies and led armies into battle. This is the fourth, and final, major criticism the Lutherans weighed against the Catholic Church in which they did not find fault in the Orthodox Church.
            It has been shown that several protested issues the reformers used against the Catholic Church could not be equally applied as reasons to reform the Orthodox Church, but what about where the Orthodox and Catholics agree against the Protestants? Even here, while the Catholics and Orthodox have many external similarities, they often have a different foundational reasoning for these similarities. The Protestant Reformers shared with the Roman Catholics certain Western understandings of the Christian faith, and were therefore able to fight on the same ideological battlefield. However, the Tubingen theologians and Jeremias often spoke past each other when they argued during the correspondence. As Jorgenson says it,
Lack of previous contact enhanced a myopic insensitivity to the church life and theological perspectives of the other. The Greeks were profoundly unaware of the pervading spiritual and theological restlessness which sparked the revolt against the medieval Roman Church. The Lutherans, on their part, shared, in general, the unfamiliarity of the Latin West with the theological, spiritual, and liturgical tradition of the Greek Church.
Certain Protestant positions could not be applied as easily on an Eastern foundational understanding as they could on a Western one.
            The responses to Article III of the Augsburg Confession reveal a difference between the East and West. Article III is a short relatively short statement concerning the nature and mission of Christ. The Catholic Confutatio offers a short statement of agreement, saying, “In the third article there is nothing to offend...” For some reason, Jeremias neither confirmed, nor denied the Lutheran statement. Rather, he responded by restating the 12 Articles of the Creed, and by discussing what Christ accomplished using reasoning independent of what the Lutherans had stated. The Augustans Graeca put it this way:
So then one Christ, truly God and truly man, born of the ever-virgin Mary, truly suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried, in order to reconcile the Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for the ancient transgression and the calling to account of the human race, but also for all things whichsoever are worthy of condemnation which are done by man in transgressing the law.
While Jeremias provides a far more exhaustive explanation of the work of Christ, nowhere in his response to article III does he explain Christ’s work as reconciling the Father to humanity as a sacrifice for transgressing the law. Today, the Orthodox reject a penal substitution understanding that the Lutherans would have had, and would say Christ worked to reconcile humanity to the Father. In his response to the fifth article, Jeremias does present a penal substitution metaphor, but, like Jesus’s parable of the vineyard workers, it is narrowly applied for a specific purpose. Jeremias was likely unprepared to understand the extent that the West had taken a judicial understanding of salvation after Anselm.
            In his response to the third article, rather than explaining Christ’s salvific work in the Creed by a satisfaction for transgression, Jeremias expands upon the incarnation and life of Christ:
Humility is aroused by the descent of God, the Logos, from the heavens; modesty, by the Incarnation; poverty, fasting, and purity, in that He was like that; patience and forbearance because He had all these, and finally endured the cross and death. The Savior abolished every iniquity. By humility, He abolished pride from which comes unbelief and blasphemy against God. By lowliness, He abolished ambition from which are engendered madness, envy and murder. By poverty, He abolished greed from which come stealing, deciet, lying, and treachery against God.” (Mastrantonis 35)
This is only a section of Jeremias’s larger discussion on the work of Christ. According to Jeremias, the salvific work of Christ was to fix human nature by living and dying properly as a human. Through his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, the Logos overcame sin and death in the human person. To clarify the distinction: the West has an emphasis on the death of Christ not shared by the East, and the East has an emphasis on the incarnation of Christ not shared by the West.
            The concern in the West was how to attain the merit of Christ by having His condemnation cancel out one’s own condemnation. From this, the Catholics developed the idea of a treasury of merit to which the Church had access. If a Christian does a certain act of penance for a post-baptism sin, the Church can bestow merit on the individual and release that person from penalty for sin. The Lutherans argued that Christ’s merit is fully accessible by faith alone, “The Holy Scriptures ascribe righteousness before God and everlasting salvation not to our virtues and works, but alone to the superior merit of Christ, which we can acquire only through faith.” Rather than attaining the merit of Christ on account of His death, the concern in the East was how to grow in the nature of the Second Adam on account of the incarnation. This renders the Protestant Reformation as far less effective in addressing Eastern concerns than Western concerns.
            While arguing on the topic of justification and good works, Jeremias emphasizes the link between salvation and the incarnation, “the Logos of God, out of merciful compassion, has set us free by becoming man.” This shows that when Jeremias speaks of “justification,” he hardly means what the Lutherans do when they speak of it. As Jorgenson says, “The Orthodox Christian has no way of relating immediately to the sharp cleavage between the three levels of faith, to justification as a forensic non-imputation of sins, and to the separateness between justification and sanctification.” On this topic, Jeremias and the Lutherans frequently spoke past each other. For example, the Lutherans wrote,
it is a matter lacking merit that our salvation be divided between us and Christ, as if we are able to absolve our own sins together with God in such a manner that a part of the achievement of the Mediator Christ would be attributed to us, also, and that it might happen to be said that we would in some way also be saviors, which would be an extreme absurdity.
The book Orthodoxy and Catholicity explains the disconnect between this Western way of thinking and that of the Orthodox:
In Christ, our will is active, but in a redeemed, new manner; it does not only “receive,” it acts, but not in order to fulfil a “requirement” which would have been left unfulfilled by God; our will acts in Christ in order to fulfil in itself the image of the Creator which was obscured by the fall but which has been restored in Jesus- in its former beauty.
It is from this framework that Jeremias reasons for the necessity of human effort in his third response. Man was made in the image of God, with the potential for attaining His likeness, for Genesis never mentions the completion of the likeness. By definition, Jeremias understands attaining the likeness of God (deification) to be salvation. If, Jeremias argues, it were not necessary for us to participate in attaining the likeness, then why did God not grant it to us at creation as He granted the image? Jeremias argues that the attaining the likeness of God demands our participation by its very nature. Both the Lutherans and Jeremias argue brilliantly, but they fail to address each other’s arguments, as they were working from different theological foundations. This shows one aspect of why the Protestant Reformation was not compatible with the East: the Protestant ideas could only be constructed well if they were built upon a Western foundation.
            The Protestant Reformation had less to complain about when it reached the Orthodox. The Lutherans expressed great joy at this, saying, “We are very glad indeed (how think you?) that between Your Holiness and us there is agreement on many of the subjects in question.” Jeremias felt they had enough in common that the Lutherans did not have many obstacles preventing conversion, “since we have agreed on almost all of the main subjects, it is not necessary for you to interpret and understand some of the passages of the Scripture in any other way than that in which the luminaries of the Church and Ecumenical Teachers have interpreted.” The fact that many Protestant complaints against the Catholic Church could not apply as easily to the Orthodox Church prevented the Orthodox from feeling the necessity of a Protestant Reformation. While some of the Protestant arguments were aimed at Orthodox positions, which were shared by the Catholics on a surface level, many of these arguments missed the Orthodox theological foundations on which these positions are built. These two things considered, the Protestant Reformation did not stop at the Eastern borders by coincidence, but because it was less applicable in matters of faith and Practice.



Works Cited
The Augsburg Confession. Champaign, Ill: Project Gutenberg, n.d. eBook Collection          (EBSCOhost). Web. 5 May 2015.
Jorgenson, Wayne James. "The Augustana Graeca and the Correspondence Between the   Tuebingen Lutherans and Patriarch Jeremias: Scripture and Tradition in Theological     Methodology.” ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 1979.
Mastrantonis, George. Augsburg and Constantinople: The Correspondence between the     Tubingen Theologians and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople on the Augsburg     Confession. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 1982. Print.
Meyendorff, John. Orthodoxy and Catholicity. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1966. Print.
            Shaffern, Robert W. The Penitents' Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-      1375. Scranton: U of Scranton, 2007. Print.
Reu, Johann Michael. The Confutatio Pontificia. Champaign, IL: Project Gutenberg, n.d. eBook    Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 5 May 2015.
The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. Dublin: Printed by Andrew Crooke, 1715. Web.             <http://www.cofec.org/The%2039%20Articles%20of%20Religion.pdf>.
Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. New York: Penguin, 1997. Print.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Veneration of Mary and the Saints

Tomorrow is the feast day of the Dormition, commemorating the death of the Theotokos (the Mother of God). It is a major day in the Orthodox Church, as we lead up to it with two weeks of fasting and prayers to her, asking for her assistance and intercessions for us. This is quite controversial considering the context of American Christianity and my Protestant background. As such, I thought it would be appropriate to address the topic of prayers to saints and veneration of the Theotokos. Before starting, I want to point out that the Orthodox Church does not hold Mary to be completely free from original sin in the same way that the Catholic Church does.
The first thing I want to point out is that people interact with Angels very frequently in the Bible. They talk with and are assisted by these spirits time and time again in the Old and New Testaments. There are even depictions of heavenly beings in the Tabernacle. In the Orthodox Church we have prayers to angelic beings from the Archangels to our personal guardian angels. There are many stories in the history of the Church where angels interact with Christians in a Biblical fashion.
Just like we interact with spirits aligned with God, we interact with the spirits of dead who are aligned with God. This is also Biblical. On Mount Tabor, Jesus Himself spoke with Moses and Elijah [Elijah himself never died but was lifted bodily into Heaven]. After Christ conquered death, the spirits inclined to God were freed from Hades to be in Heaven. Through the Holy Spirit, the souls of the saints can now hear us asking for their intercessions. Many of them had very profound gifts of the Holy Spirit during their lives, and these did not go away at their deaths. Take St. Paul in the Book of Acts for example. People simply touched him with rags and brought these rags to the sick and healed them. This is why the Orthodox Church saves items associated with holy people, as well as their bodies. These relics still give grace and healing as when the saints were alive. Also, the prayers of St. Paul are still able to have the profound effect as they did when he was alive. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are still present with the holy saints after their deaths.
As holy as the likes of St. Paul and the Archangels are, we hold Mary to be the highest of all creation. Only the uncreated Trinity is above her. Many Protestants, such as my former self, take the stance that she was a perhaps a cool person, but that traditional Christianity has taken it too far. The veneration of Mary can be hard to appreciate in Western Christianity because Western Christians tend to see the incarnation as a means to an end. In Protestantism, the entire focus of salvation is on the cross (generally speaking). Christ died in our place so now we do not have to be punished for our sins. In the Orthodox Church, Salvation begins with the Incarnation [the conception of Christ]. The Word of God took on human flesh to restore and raise human nature to what it was meant to be. A new type of human being has come into the world with Christ the Second Adam. This new humanity is transfigured and has overcome sin and death. This new humanity was forged in Mary’s womb. The redemption of human nature and all of creation was a process that started within her. As such, the conception and birth of Christ through Mary is not an arbitrary event, but makes Mary the Queen of Heaven. She was not God’s mother temporarily, but will always have this this connection with God which is greater than that of any other created being.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

"If His Grace Abandoned Me, I’d Be Just Another Bum"

“My child, I’m just a human being.  I pray to Christ and he replies.  If His grace abandoned me, I’d be just another bum on the streets of Omonia” (Omonia Square in Athens, known at that time for being populated by drug addicts, prostitutes, and thieves.) – Elder Paisios

It is St. Paisios’s feast day again, and I was motivated to do another blog post on him. I read the above quote while ago. I thought it was interesting at first, but later I was struck by how profoundly true it is. St. Paisios had pretty much zero success by the world’s standards. As a monk, he lived in voluntary poverty and never had a family. He was never even ordained into the priesthood. I am pretty sure he never went to college. He had missing teeth and eventually died of a very painful disease. There are very few pictures and recordings of him throughout his life. He hardly had any sort of official job, sometimes supporting himself by gardening and selling carvings he made. So, on the surface level, he basically amounted to a bum. Yet, thousands of people went to his funeral and he had the second fastest canonization to sainthood in the recent history of the Orthodox Church.

I have done some thinking on nostalgia recently. I think I actually have an idea of what it is. You look back on your life and you see the story of a human soul. It is incredibly beautiful seeing this human soul which is you. It is truly precious. You might also feel sad. You look at your life now and what you have accomplished. You wonder if the life you are living and what you have accomplished is worthy of the value of your soul which you just recognized. Your soul has gone through so much in life, but what for? There might be a little despair in recognizing that the life you lived is not worthy of the precious value of your soul.

Christ is the bridegroom to our souls. Christianity says that at the end of time there will be a great wedding feast for Christ and His Church. Then, we will truly live happily ever after. Without Christ, the soul is in a dark place. With Christ, the beauty of the soul is fulfilled. I have found a bit of a cure for nostalgia by reading the lives of people like St. Paisios. Reading about people with such a close connection with Christ gives me a foretaste of the wedding feast.

I remember visiting a wealthy family friend many years ago. He had a stunning wife who had recently given birth to a beautiful baby. He had a really nice house, a nice car, and an awesome gaming computer. He was good looking and socially charismatic. I imagine he had a prestigious job as well. I thought, “Man, if I could just be like this guy, I will have made it.” I believed that all these things would fulfill the value of my soul. But now I know that even if I could have all of those things it would be hopeless without Christ. Ironically, it is a would-be bum who has shown me this hope.

To those who do not know, I always recommend the book The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios.

A blessed feast day to everyone!


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Review: The Gurus, The Young Man, And Elder Paisios

I said in my first blog article that, since investing myself in the Orthodox Church, I have become as excited about reading as when I first invested in Christianity. Those first readings, years ago, included the Scriptures, C.S. Lewis, and material from my Catholic High School. By this time, I have read several Orthodox books, and have recently finished what I consider the best of them I have read next to Holy Scripture. I felt that this was something I should share at some point, so this July 12, 2015, the first annual feast day of the recently canonized Saint Paisios, I decided it is time to write a review of The Gurus, The Young Man, and Elder Paisios.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that much of society is looking for the "new man." Many look for it as the next stage of human evolution (like X-Men), or as a result of technological advancement (such as the recent movie, Chappie). Christians claim the new man is already here; he came with Christ. This was the reason the Word took on human nature through the Incarnation, in order to make a renewed humanity. There are already people who have been born and grown to maturity into the nature of the Second Adam, walking among us about the Earth. As recorded in Acts, the Apostles started to become like Christ. The woman with the blood condition touched the hem of Christ’s cloak as He walked by, and received healing. In a similar way, people touched Saint Paul with rags, and these rags were brought to the sick in order to heal them. Even Saint Peter’s shadow healed those whom he passed over. These saints exhibited an unearthly Christ-like love and unity with the Holy Spirit. Such people have advanced God’s Kingdom of love, healing, truth, and communion with God throughout the centuries. While I have been reading of the modern saints, such as St. John of San Francisco, or St. Paisios, I recall the exclamations of the Roheryns when they hear the story of the fellowship of the ring in The Two Towers- something along the lines of, “We have heard about such things in tales of old. They seemed so distant, and we wondered if they were even true. To hear and see such happenings in our time is truly strange!”

The book is a memoir by an author writing under a pseudonym. He is a Greek who grew up with the view that the Church and Christianity were superstitious and powerless. At the beginning of his story, he starts getting involved in psychological and spiritual exercises such as yoga and hypnotism. Frightening phenomenon start to occur and his life begins to fall apart in general. By a spontaneous decision, he and his friend take a trip to Mount Athos, a monastic area that is one of the holiest sites in Orthodox Christianity. There, he has a miraculous encounter with Elder Paisios. On this mountain, much of the theology of Orthodoxy, and true Christianity, comes to life through experience. Theology in Western Christianity has been conceived as a sort of science. A western theologian is a well-educated man who can argue about Scripture by using the arts of literary criticism, history, philosophy, etc. The author of this book discusses the scriptures and theological concepts as he encounters the Grace of the Holy Spirit on Mount Athos, and in Saint Paisios, who lives true Christian theology to its fullest. The miracles and supernatural experiences are not arbitrary phenomenon separate from the theological concepts, but a natural manifestation of theology. For a Scriptural example, the Lazarus incident was not just a random event to show the power of Christ, it was a foretaste of the Resurrection. The healings of Christ are a foretaste of the World to come, when Christ fully heals the cosmos.  Theology must always be an encounter with God, and that is what I found in this book. Having just graduated with a religion degree from Baylor University, I have read the best of non-Orthodox Christian material, some of it being pretty good. But none of that comes near to what I read here. It granted me confidence in Orthodoxy Christianity, as I found myself asking, “If this is not the truth of religion, then what could the truth possibly look like? How could it be more profound or reasonable than this?”

These encounters with the saint and other things on the holy mountain force the young man to recognize the value of the Christian faith. Yet, his overly reserved and skeptical nature is strong enough to make him want to give a fair chance to other spiritual teachers. Thanks to his research, and even experiences in the occult, he knows that there are people other than Christians who have spiritual power in the world. To find a possible alternative, he decides to go to India to find the greatest spiritual gurus he can. He even ends up in something of a Satanic counterpart to Mount Athos, where he says everything he knew from witchcraft, paganism, yoga, hypnotism, and more is culminated in its ultimate manifestation. The gurus he encounters do indeed have spiritual abilities, but nothing to the extent that the Elder has (not much different from comparing the pagan priests and sorcerers to the Apostles). They also lack love (though they sometimes have politeness), whereas the Elder radiated Christ-like love that was immeasurable in magnitude and universal in scope. The young man is in extreme danger, both physical and spiritual, and manages to escape the spiritual centers of India by the skin of his chin, much to the thanks of the prayers of his friend, the Elder. He then attempts, and eventually succeeds in, living as a Christian.

The author is quite the philosopher, and he records his thought process that he had during his experiences, as well as reflections after the fact. I took great pleasure in following his reasoning. This, combined with the incredible experiences he records, make this book an essential read for any person who is at least open to the possibility of the Christian faith being true. The book also serves as a reminder for those trying to live as Christians. Paul said to "Imitate me as I imitate Christ." We are all called to be Saints, and this book provides great encouragement by giving a modern example.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Interesting Things I've Learned in College

There have been many moments during my studies where I've gone "Wow, that's really neat! People should know this!" Even though many of these are not officially connected to my career, it's nice to know a little bit more about the world. Here is a list of random things I learned that make me thankful for my college education. Some of you might be thinking, "I learned this stuff in middle school!" You know what? Give yourself a cookie. Hopefully, I will be able to update this post at graduation.

Intro to Mass Communication
One thing I learned in this course is that filmmakers try to use Freudian psychology to make you subconsciously think of adult subject material through the use of symbols. Many doubt that Freud's theories are accurate, but that doesn't stop producers from trying to use objects like fruit, flowers, and trees to bypass the superego and indulge the id. Notice anything peculiar in this scene from Elf?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5zcnUl9Qy0

Wildlife Ecology
While there is nothing wrong with eating meat, this course taught me the problem of its over-consumption. In short, if we stop feeding so much to our livestock, we can feed the world. Energy is lost when it is transferred from plants to livestock, so it takes much more land to sustain the same amount of food if it is meat rather than produce. There is physically not enough land on planet Earth to support the world's human population on the meat-heavy American diet. The unnatural and insatiable demand for meat has led to the clearance of much natural land, resulting in decreased biodiversity. This means that the great variety of animal species found in God's creation is being destroyed and replaced with cattle. Also, the great variety of plant species is being destroyed and replaced with plants that cattle can eat. The virtue of temperance and the sin of gluttony are more than internally consequential.

Descriptive Astronomy
The Sun is not just a ball of burning gas, it's a battle ground between nuclear fusion and gravity. The gravity of the great amount of matter in a star causes so much pressure at the core that atoms can unite, and nuclear fusion occurs. Gravity pulls inward, while the nuclear reaction presses outward. When the star starts to run out of fuel [atoms], gravity wins out and the star collapses. There are several possibilities after this, such as a black hole. Or, the new element that the original nuclear reaction created might start another nuclear reaction and create a new outward force to balance out against gravity. Sometimes, the new nuclear reaction overpowers the force of gravity and the star explodes. If the balance is right, the star may continue the cycle of producing different elements. So stars can sort of be described as element factories. The universe actually started out with just Hydrogen, but this life cycle of stars has produced the periodic table of elements we have today.

Another cool thing I learned in this class: the effects of gravity travel the speed of light. So, if the Sun disappeared, the Earth would continue to orbit around where the Sun was for about 8 minutes.

World Oceans
When the professor stated that she was about to explain how the ocean's currents work, my ears pricked up. It was indeed interesting, and pretty simple as well. Imagine that you have 2 trays of water. If you move one tray faster than the other, that tray will spill more water. This is because matter at rest is prone to stay at rest, even if what's under it is moving. When the Earth rotates towards the East, the water trying to stay in place is pressured towards the West. The Earth's surface moves faster around the Equator than around the Poles, since more distance is covered with the same amount of rotation. Because of this, the water towards the equator has greater pressure to move West. On the Western end of the Atlantic Ocean, there is more pressure around the Equator than away from it, so water moves North and south from the Equator. On the Eastern end of the Atlantic Ocean, there is less pressure around the Equator, so water moves in from the North and South to fill in where the water is moving West. This creates what is called the Coriolis Effect. Here's an illustration: 
http://science.kennesaw.edu/~jdirnber/oceanography/LecuturesOceanogr/LecCurrents/0902.jpg

World History Since 1500
One figure in history that I didn't know much about until college is Mao, the ruler of China for much of the 20th Century. He was considered the leader of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." The revolution seemed to benefit the poor initially with the distribution of resources. However, as usual with communist regimes, it did not take long for things to spiral out of control. One manifestation of this was the Red Guard, a group of politically active students who supported the revolution. When Mao showed support for them, many Red Guard movements popped up and caused chaos. Anything seen as a luxury was destroyed as bourgeois contamination. Some youths in the Red Guard also took advantage of the situation to attack the elders who formerly controlled them. Some people got the Red Guard to do dirty personal work for them, as long as the victims could be accused of anti-revolutionary activity. Eventually, revolutionary factions popped up around China and fought each other for power. Mao stated that this was a good thing, without picking a side. Thus, both factions declared their fight to be a legitimate cause of the revolution. All this chaos helped keep Mao in power, so he kept the chaos going. Anyone who criticized the Red Guard, or the factional fighting, was accused of criticizing the revolution. A criticism of the revolution was a criticism of Mao, a treason worthy of death. Many people did not really believe in the revolution, but everyone labeled it as their cause in order to justify their means of attaining and keeping power. Thus, Mao created a society that systematically condemned honesty and rewarded violent dishonesty. He was one bad dude.

Archaeology & the Bible
This was definitely one of my favorite classes. We started off by studying Egyptian records, which documented their own contact with Semitic peoples, and went on to study the remains of ancient Israel. Some interesting examples are from the reign of King Hezekiah. Archaeologists have discovered coins with his insignia, which is a winged scarab beetle. They also found an ancient wonder: a great underground tunnel which was to provide Jerusalem with water during the anticipated Assyrian siege under Sennacherib.  Hezekiah's tunnel is actually referenced in the Bible (2 Kings 20:20), so it's a neat connection between the textual and physical records.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Difference So Far

Since starting my involvement in the Orthodox Church, the practices and beliefs of my Christian faith have been altered quite a bit. I wanted to share what I feel are the most important differences from my previous Protestant background, which includes the Orthodox perspectives on salvation, the Church and daily Christian living. I’m still no expert in Orthodoxy, so take what I say with a grain of salt. Also, feel free to just read the topics you're interested in if you don't feel like reading my whole article.

Salvation

The Orthodox Church tends to distinguish it's view of what Jesus accomplished on and after the cross as medicinal rather than the Western Churches' perspective as penal. To clarify the distinction, I'll spell out a general Western understanding, though I know there is some variation. The general idea is that we sin by breaking God's law. Because of this, we deserve to die [or be sent to hell.] Jesus took that punishment in his death, and God was satisfied by that, so now He doesn't have to kill us [or send us to hell] anymore.

The Orthodox Church has quite a different perspective. Sin is like a sickness that ultimately culminates in death. God overcame sin and death in the Person of Jesus, and paved the way for us to do the same by uniting with Him. Jesus said to the paralytic "your sins are forgiven," so God was able to forgive people's sins before Jesus died on the cross. One thing I really like about this is the understanding of infant salvation. An infant, or even an unborn child, is not saved by Jesus because Jesus took the punishment that infant deserved for breaking God's law. Rather, that infant dies because the sickness and corruption of a sinful world extends to him or her. Jesus heals and saves that baby from death through His death and resurrection, and this isn't necessarily because he or she deserves to die [or be sent to hell.]

The process of a person's salvation is called "deification." The image and likeness of God we have is tainted by sin, but our goal is to change that. We are to become like God; like Christ. This process is assisted through the sacraments.

I would like to make a final quick note that Orthodox Christians do not believe in predestination in the same way that Calvinists do, but support the idea of free will and us being co-workers with God.

The Church

Like Catholics, the Orthodox believe they make up the one real Church. They do, however, make a distinction between other Christians and non-Christians. For example, an Orthodox Christian can marry a non-Orthodox Christian, but not a non-Christian. Also, a conversion from non-Orthodox Christianity to Orthodoxy is often seen as a progression of God working in one’s life rather than a heathen who just began to interact with God. So, it’s better to be Orthodox than merely Christian, but better to be merely Christian than pagan or atheist.

The Church is made up of several regional self-governing churches led by a bishop called a “Patriarch.” The five original churches were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Before the Schism, the Pope was considered the Patriarch of the Church of Rome and the “first among equals.” The current Church list is as follows: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

I found it particularly interesting how the structure of Church plays out in evangelism. The idea is that missionaries go into a region and convert the populace, translating the Scriptures and Liturgy into the local languages. The local culture is then infused into the regional church. When the church in that area becomes big enough, it becomes self-governing and creates its own Patriarch. Probably the best example of this is the Russian Orthodox Church. There is an obvious cultural and lingual distinction between it and the Greek Orthodox Church, yet they are both in communion with each other as Orthodox.

It didn't really work like this in America, since it wasn't simply a population that was converted. Rather, America is a great melting pot of immigrants, so each group of immigrants brought its own church with it- Russians from the West and Greeks from the East. There is a plan to work this out and have a unified Church in the US eventually. However, there are some difficulties. For example, many Greeks don’t only see their Church as a place of worship, but as a cultural center as well.

I currently attend an Antiochian Orthodox Church, which has its roots in the Middle East. This is pretty cool because my Church has a tradition of music like this- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzRyoWjXMqo

That’s what’s up

Daily Christian Living

I unfortunately found few good tools in Protestantism for my daily Christian walk. Reading the Bible and having a quiet time is often strongly encouraged, but it's a bit discouraging that whenever I would try to read or pray, I would not know when or where to start or end. I'm left on my own in an abyss. I eventually started making my own structures of prayer, such as emphasizing different parts of the Lord's prayer into different days of the week in order to cover everything I thought I should be praying for.

Protestants do have devotionals, but I almost never end up following through with them. The only one I really liked and read through to the finish is a book called Face to Face: Praying the Scriptures for Spiritual Growth. It's pretty hard to go wrong with your book if its composition is 97% Scripture.

I have been pleased to find that the Orthodox Church has a plethora of utilities for daily Christian living. If you feel like interacting with God at any time or place, there is something available for you. First off, there are morning, mid-day, and evening prayers used by Orthodox Christians around the globe. You can participate int the life of the larger Church Body by praying these (even on your own), which I have in my Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians. If you feel like praying in between any of these, you can grab a prayer rope and go through "the Jesus prayer." It's sort of like a rosary, but the prayer is "O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Feel like reading the Bible? You don't need to worry about finding a place to start or end! The global Orthodox Church has a calender with readings for each day, each one taking a bite-sized ten minutes: http://www.antiochian.org/calendar/readings. The commentary in my Orthodox Study Bible also based on a rich history of interpretation. Want to fast but don't know when or how? The Orthodox Church has fasting days almost every week with specific directions! There are also feast days for celebrating appropriate things in the Christian faith.

There's a saying in some Protestant circles- "relationship, not religion," which can be taken as a criticism of some of these things that I have found helpful. I would like to reply that the systematic prayers I have done multiply, rather than replace, my conversational prayers with God.