Friday, May 22, 2015

Nicea: Who Cares?

Those for whom ancient history is irrelevant and who equate “old” with “out-dated” (or better yet, “medieval” with “barbarically primitive”) will have trouble appreciating the Fathers of the First Council of Nicea, since they met and produced their work well over a thousand years ago, in 325 A.D.  How could a creed so old be remotely relevant today?  Accordingly, some churches have produced their own creeds (such as the United Church of Canada, which produced its own creed for alternative use in 1968.  It is a cautionary tale, for it began “Man is not alone; he lives in God’s world” and they soon enough found that political correctness demanded its alteration to “We are not alone; we live in God’s world”).  Among other things, the Fathers of Nicea declared the full divinity of Jesus of Nazareth by saying that He was homoousios with the Father—of the same essence as Him.  Later attempts to create consensus would suggest that maybe it could be said that Jesus was homoiousios with the Father—“of like essence”.  After all, it has been pointed out, it only involves the difference of one letter, and a tiny one at that.  Why fight over a single iota, a single “i”?  Who would care?  Why should any sensible person get worked up over whether the pre-incarnate Word was homoousios with the Father or homoiousios?  The ruckus of Nicea and afterward only went to prove how miserable and contentious those Christians were.
            A moment’s thought however will reveal the nonsense of saying that Jesus was homoiousios with the Father.  He was of “like essence”?  What could that possibly mean?  That He was divine-ish?  God in an honourary kind of way?  Sort of God?  Almost God?  Anyone not obviously drunk and who thinks for a second will realize that the distance between God and His creation is infinite, so that one is either absolutely God or not God at all.  The eternal Creator, without beginning or limit, stands on one side of an ontological abyss, and all creation stands on the other side.  One can’t be a little bit God any more than one can be a little bit pregnant.  Like pregnancy, divinity is an all or nothing kind of thing—either one is completely divine or not divine at all.  Either Jesus was God and homoousios with the Father or He was created and of a completely different essence than the Father.  Even Arius, the villain of the Nicene piece, got that much.  But still one may ask:  why should we care?  Sure, we confess His divinity, but what does it really matter?   
This is why it matters:  salvation consists in giving one’s life, heart, and soul to God, living and dying for Him down to one’s last breath and one’s last drop of blood.  The issue is:  may we give such loyalty, allegiance, love, and commitment to Jesus of Nazareth, or not?  If He is not truly God, then giving Him such allegiance would be idolatry.  No one sensibly would live and die so totally for a mere celebrity.  And if the Nicene Fathers were wrong and Jesus is simply just an ancient celebrity, we ought not to give Him our lives.  Our admiration, perhaps, but not lives and our worship.  But in fact the Fathers of Nicene were right, and Jesus of Nazareth is God in the flesh—Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, homoousios with the Father.  It is through Him that all things were made, and to Him that all things shall return with bowed knee.  It is our salvation that we bow the knee in love to Him even now before that final end, and confess that the road to His city runs through our heart. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

God is Not Interested in Religion

          Of the many shocking and revolutionary things the Lord said, perhaps nothing was more shocking and revolutionary than His words to the Samaritan woman at the well.  The conversation had become a little too close for her comfort (“you have had five husbands, and he whom you have now is not your husband”), and she was only too happy to change the topic to religion.  When she saw from Jesus’ words that He had prophetic knowledge, she broached the main subject separating Jews and Samaritans—the subject of worship.  The Jews inherited the religious tradition of David and Solomon, and worshipped in the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.  The Samaritans followed a rival tradition that rejected David and his kingdom’s subsequent history, and insisted that sacrifice could only be authentically offered to God from atop Mount Gerizim.  In response, Jesus said, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain [of Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in the Spirit and in the truth” (John 4:21f).     That is, a day was about to dawn when God was no longer interested in temples and sacrifices—in other words, in religion.  Religion would no longer be the way to worship God or draw near to Him.  That access would now be found in the Spirit (compare Ephesians 2:18).  Or, if the words “not interested in religion” seem a bit too extreme, perhaps one could quote the words of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews:  religion (such as Judaism) had now become “obsolete” and “ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13).
            What is “religion”?  Religion is best defined as a system of practices whereby one seeks divine favour, something that by its performance binds one to the transcendent for blessing.  It has many components.  Religions commonly have sacrifices, which involve killing and burning the flesh of animals.  They have altars on which those animals are sacrificed, and personnel (priests) to do the sacrificing.  They have a list of foods which may not be eaten, but are considered to be unclean.  They assert that certain things make one ritually impure and ineligible to sacrifice, such as having a physical discharge or touching one who is impure.  Religions have certain days which are considered to be holy, and certain places which are considered holy, places where rituals and sacrifices are performed.  They have common rituals of feasting.  They assert that certain types of clothing must be worn when performing rituals. 
Judaism was such a religion—it had its own calendar of holy days, its own times of feasting, its own holy place (Jerusalem) with a Temple and an altar there, served by its priests, who had to wear certain kinds of clothing when offering sacrifice.  It asserted that certain foods were unclean, and that certain things rendered one ritually impure.   In His words to the Samaritan woman, Christ claimed that God was about to sweep it all away, so that it would soon be obsolete and ready to vanish.  God was no longer interested in religion.  One wonders if she really could understand all that He meant.  It was certainly a lot for any ancient to take in.
            Obviously Christianity is not a religion, though this was more obvious before Constantine than it is now.  This was the point of much of what Paul wrote, and why he was so upset when his Galatian converts considered accepting Jewish circumcision as if Christianity were a religion like any other.  For Paul Christianity was not a religion, but a new creation (Galatians 6:15).  Religion belonged the man’s infancy, and now in Christ man was finally coming of age.  Judaism was never meant to be the final goal of God’s working with His people.  Jewish religion was simply one step along the way to spiritual manhood, a maturity now available to all the world.  The end and goal of it all was not religion, but Christ (Romans 10:4).  In Christ we transcend this age and all its religions and its religious categories.  In Christ we participate in the powers of the age to come (Hebrews 6:5).  To vary the Pauline metaphor, for us to become religious would be like slipping back into infancy, and putting on diapers.  Diapers are fine for babies, but in Christ we have come to maturity.
            It is easy for some to regard Christianity as a religion like the other religions of the world.  It is true that there are similarities.  Religions often have a holy text—the Hindus have the Upanishads, the Muslims have the Qur’an, the Jews have the Torah and we have the New Testament.  Religions have priests and functionaries set apart:  Muslims have imams, Jews have Rabbis and we have bishops and presbyters.  Religions use special buildings:  Muslims worship in mosques, Jews worship in synagogues, and Christians worship in churches.  With this and other similarities, how can one imagine that Christianity is not a religion?  By this understanding, Jesus is simply the Founder of yet another religion, the Christian one.
            But in fact these outward similarities hide profounder differences.  Let’s take them one at a time.

  1. Unlike all religions, Christianity knows no holy places, no locales which are holy in themselves.  Churches are not holy in themselves, nor is a church building an actual temple.  Rather, church buildings are simply places where Christians meet to worship—it is they who constitute the actual temple, a temple made up of living stones (Ephesians 2:20-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5).  Christians can meet anywhere for worship.  They can meet in a forest, or a cave, or a private dwelling, or even in a beautifully adorned building built for that purpose.  But even when such a building is built and blessed, it is still not holy in itself, but only because of what happens there.  Its holiness is real, but referential.  It is the Christians meeting in assembly who are the real temple, and the holiness of Christ in their midst which conveys holiness to the place where they meet.
  2. Unlike all religions, Christianity does not have sacrifices, or priests.  Or, to be more accurate, it has but one sacrifice and one priest—Jesus Christ.  He is the only true priest, the One who has offered the sacrifice of Himself on the Cross and who now pleads that sacrifice before the Father in heaven (Hebrews 9:11f).  And because the Church is His body, the Church also partakes of His priesthood, so that all Christians are part of His royal priesthood, corporately offering His once-for-all sacrifice through anamnesis or memorial (1 Peter 2:5, Revelation 1:6).  Since the earliest days, the members of the Church who rule it and offer its prayers (the bishops and presbyters) were called priests, since they were the ones who voiced the Church’s anamnesis whereby Christ’s sacrifice was present in its midst.  But like the rest of the Church, those clerical priests are only priestly by virtue of their participation in Christ, the only real priest.  In religion, priests offer sacrifices whereby worshippers are joined to God.  They are true mediators.  For us there is only one mediator, one priest, one man who joins us to God—the Man Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5).  All priesthood in the Church flows from Him.
  3. Unlike all religions, Christianity has no food laws, no list of certain foods which it declares unclean and not to be eaten.  Paul is clear that no food is unclean in itself, and he denounces such a teaching in the church as a doctrine of demons (Romans 14:14, 1 Timothy 4:1-5).  Mark even asserted that such a freedom from food laws could be legitimately read into Christ’s teaching that no food going into a man could defile him, since food does not enter into the heart (Mark 7:18-19).  Christians may occasionally fast from certain foods for the ascetic value of self-control and abstinence, but all food is considered to be clean—even the foods from which we sometimes fast.
  4. Unlike all religions, Christianity does not assert that certain days are holy in themselves.  Judaism asserted that Sabbaths and other days such as new moons were holy in themselves, but Christianity esteems all days alike and considers the concept of a holy calendar as a mere shadow (Romans 14:5, Colossians 2:16-17).  What we sometimes call “holy days” (such for example as the Feast of the Transfiguration) are not holy in themselves, but only because of what we do and remember on that day.  We could have equally well chosen another day for the celebration and remembering.  And our use of two calendars, the Old Calendar and the New Calendar, is proof that (for example) August 6 is not holy in itself, for some Christians remember the Transfiguration thirteen days later on August 19.  Once again the holiness resides not in day itself (as in religion), but only in what Christians do on that day.  Our feasts are movable; the holiness of days, according to religion, is not.

Christianity then is not a religion, and Christ did not found yet another religion, but used the Jewish religion as the vehicle for His own saving work, fulfilling it and transcending it.  We still come to special buildings where clergy lead our prayers, dressed in special robes.  (We note in passing, however, that as late as St. John Chrysostom’s day, clergy did not wear special robes when leading worship.)  We take our part in offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice and receiving Holy Communion.  And we come to church on certain special days to remember and celebrate certain special events and special people.  But none of this means that Christianity is a religion.  Christianity is simply how Christ’s Body experiences here and now the saving realities of the age to come.  God is not interested in religion, and we shouldn’t be either.  Instead, we are interested in Christ.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Death of Dialogue

“Dialogue” is a happy word, along with other happy words like “inclusive”, “tolerance”, and “acceptance”.  It is assumed by our culture that all reasonable people are open to dialogue—that is, open to hearing the other person’s point of view, and to a respectful exchange of views, and to possibly changing one’s own view in favour of the opposing viewpoint if the arguments of the other person are found to be compelling.  Dialogue is good.  We do not assume we are correct in all our views to such a degree that we will not even give an opposing viewpoint a respectful hearing.  Our western civilization, I suggest, is based on a willingness to dialogue.  One might even suggest that such openness to changing one’s mind is rooted in a Biblical world-view:  God calls us to such dialogue when He says through the prophet Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).
            Given the importance of true dialogue to our civilization’s health, it is all the more distressing to find that willingness to dialogue is dying.  People still talk and respond to each other, of course, but the exchanges are more like a boxing match than true dialogue.  That is, people are not really open to hearing what the other person says, and then responding to it.  Their mind is already made up, and the arguments of the other person are regarded more or less as mere room-noise.  Their responses are simply attempts to land a verbal punch.
            Take for example the current debate on homosexuality.  In perusing Facebook exchanges, for example, I see that true debate rarely if ever occurs.  The side speaking in favour of homosexuality holds to a number of dogmas, and nothing anyone says will cause them to question them.  These dogmas are:

  1. Anyone who asserts that homosexual practice is sinful hates homosexuals and may properly be denounced as homophobic.
  2. The classic distinction between sin and sinner and any talk about hating the sin while loving the sinner is simply an attempt to mask one’s hatred of homosexuals.
  3. All homosexuals were born with that innate and inalterable orientation.
  4. Science has proved this conclusively.
  5. Since people were born this way, that is how God made them, and homosexuality must therefore be accepted as a legitimate lifestyle.
  6. Anyone quoting the verses from Leviticus denouncing homosexuality are logically committed to putting every Levitical law into the American criminal code.
  7. There is no distinction between private peccadillo and public ideology.  Thus, for example, if a baker would serve a customer who has what he considers a private peccadillo (such as homosexuality), he is bound also to serve at public function which promotes such a lifestyle or ideology (such as a gay wedding or a Gay Pride event).
      These dogmas are fixed in their mind, and no amount of dialogue or argument will ever dislodge them.  If someone attempts this and says that he actually does not hate homosexuals, but in fact has a number of close friends who are gay and they all get along just fine, this assertion is simply disallowed.  It is judged an impossibility, because “anyone who asserts that homosexual practice is sinful hates homosexuals”.  If someone quotes scientific opinions to the effect that at least some cases of homosexuality might not to innate, that also is simply disallowed, because “all homosexuals were born with that innate and inalterable orientation”.  If someone cites the prohibitions of homosexuality in Leviticus, one is told that they then must logically push for stoning people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, since that also is in Leviticus.  It is no use to attempt to distinguish between laws reflecting timeless morality (such as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”; Leviticus 19:18), and those laws reflecting a time-bound theocratic state (such as the one about keeping the Sabbath).  Such an attempt to nuance and distinguish in is simply disallowed, because “anyone quoting the verses from Leviticus denouncing homosexuality are logically committed to putting every Levitical law into the American criminal code”.  Those committed to legitimizing homosexuality rarely in my experience seem capable of true dialogue, and any attempt at it will inevitably result in a recitation of one or more of the dogmas outlined above.  It is as if the mind has been caught in an endless loop, like a record stuck in the same groove which keeps on repeating.  One does not need to refute the thoughtful arguments of others to win the debate; all that is required is a forceful recitation of one of the dogmas.
      To be sure, there are plenty of people speaking against homosexuality who do the same thing and also cannot seem to engage in true dialogue.  Their dogmas are:

  1. Homosexuals are all going to hell because the Bible condemns homosexuality.
  2. Because God hates homosexuality He would never make anyone a homosexual and so no one was born with a homosexual orientation.
  3. Any homosexual therefore could change his or her sexual orientation if they really wanted to.
  4. Faithful Christians may legitimately hate homosexuals.  
       Once again, it is no use arguing with anyone in this mindset.  If you say that you think at least some homosexuals were born with such an orientation, this is simply disallowed.  It cannot be, because "no one was born with a homosexual orientation".  Again, real proof of the assertion is not required, simply the recitation of the dogma.  One could go on, but you get the idea.
        In this important debate there are plenty of folk on both sides who simply are not listening or responding to the arguments of the other side.  What is needed, if civilization is to resist the current drift toward disallowing politically incorrect opinions, and toward draconian enforcement of politically ascendant norms, is more real listening and more true dialogue.  Granted it is hard work to pay close attention to people we find irritating and whose opinions we abhor.  But that hard work is essential if real civilization is to continue.
            Currently it is all very discouraging.  When thoughtful Christians try to argue their case for traditional sexual morality in the public forum, their argument doesn’t get very far.  That is, I submit, because a dialogue is not actually occurring.  The other side is not listening.  They are simply talking to themselves.  If this continues to be the case, it is best to recognize this sad fact and cope with it.  What does coping with it involve?  Well, in the early church it meant taking canonical action. 
            For there comes a time in some exchanges when further debate and dialogue are useless, for neither side in the debate share enough common presuppositions for them to reach an agreement.   Sometimes, even after true debate and with all the good will in the world, the two sides share incompatible first principles, and so can never reach consensus no matter how long they talk.  When that happened in (say) the first century with St. Paul and his Judaizing opponents, there was nothing for it but to agree to disagree.  And since the debate was not over trifles but over something basic, this involved the Church drawing a canonical line in the sand and declaring the other side outside the Church. 
            This happened again in the fourth century.  The debate over the nature of Christ—was He God Almighty in the flesh or not—raged on and on.  Eventually it became apparent that continued debate with Arius and his supporters would not result in consensus, since they were following a different set of first principles.  As this involved something basic to Christian discipleship there was nothing for it but to take canonical action and to anathematize Arianism.  Note:  this did not involve hating Arians or refusing them service when they walked into your Constantinopolitan barber shop.  It just meant that the person confessing Arianism was no longer a part of the Church. 
It seems that we may rapidly be reaching this now over the issue of homosexuality.  The issue is not marginal, but basic to salvation and to what a life of Christian obedience to God looks like.  Let us hope that the possibility of true dialogue is not really dead and that it is not quite time to throw in the towel.  Our task is to remain faithful to our inherited apostolic Tradition, and to argue for it as irenically and persuasively as we can.
But if it at length it becomes apparent that there remains no possibility of convincing the other side with argument, the Church has little choice if it would remain faithful to its timeless Tradition. The time will have come to draw our canonical line in the sand over this and declare that we Orthodox no longer regard as fellow-Christians those who insist on contradicting the Tradition.  Obviously we will continue to love them, as we love everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  But the line in the sand must be drawn.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Longest Week

What is the message for us on Paschal Eve, when the churches celebrate Paschal Vespers?  When we read the story of Thomas’ doubt and anguish, we want to jump ahead to finish the tale, and reflect on how Christ at length came to Thomas to resolve his doubts, fill him with joy, and elicit the saving cry, “My Lord and my God!”  But that story belongs not to Paschal Vespers, but to Thomas Sunday, a week later.  The message for Paschal Vespers is not “Christ is risen!”  It is a much harder message and a more difficult lesson.  And it can be summed up in one word:  “Wait”.
            It is not a very happy word.  Try using it on a child who wants something badly, and take notes on their reaction.  We don’t like to wait, even if we suspect there may be a good result at the end of our waiting, or even if we are promised a good result.  Waiting is hard.
            It was even harder for Thomas.  Thomas, I have always said, did not speak as he did because he was a hard-hearted doubter, but rather because he was a soft-hearted lover.  He loved Jesus deeply, profoundly, and heroically.  If we turn back a few pages in John’s Gospel, we see that he was even prepared to go and die with Jesus when he thought that Jesus’ trip to Judea to see Lazarus would end in His death (John 11:16).   Jesus was his whole life, and his whole life therefore fell apart when he saw Jesus betrayed, abandoned, condemned, tortured to death, and buried.  Harder still, Thomas knew that he had a part in that abandonment, when like all the others he forsook Him and fled during His arrest.  Thomas’ poor battered old heart could stand withstand another blow, another crushing disappointment.  He had to get off the emotional roller-coaster.  And so it was that when his companions reported that they had seen Jesus, Thomas had to draw the line in the emotional sand:  “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails,” (we can almost hear Thomas’ voice rising), “and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe!” (John 20:25).  That was how the first Paschal eve ended—not with a joyful revelation, but with a desperate cry of pain and despair.
            And then the wait.  For Thomas, what we call “Bright Week” was the longest week of his life, and possibly the worst.  How many times did he burst into tears that week, or find himself unable to eat or drink or converse?  How many times did depression smother him like a black blanket so that he had trouble even getting out of bed?  We may never know for sure.  But we may be sure that his mind played and re-played the horrible events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion over and over and over, and when he closed his eyes, he could see the cross.
            At last, of course, the week was over, and we know how joyfully it ended.  The true lesson for us therefore is that if we wait for Jesus, it will all end in joy.  Waiting is still hard.  Like Thomas during his longest week, we may have to endure pain.  We may have to endure bereavement, sickness, and a thousand other tragedies which pierce our hearts and wring tears from our eyes.  But at the end of it all, at the end of our earthly existence, Jesus will be there, to make it all right, and to wipe away every tear.  Then like Thomas we too can fall down before Him, crying out, “My Lord and my God!”  It is okay to wait.  It’s hard, but it’s okay.  Christ is risen.