Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christ As Hierophant

Every Sunday our little parish serves an abbreviated Matins service before the Divine Liturgy, and part of that service contains a hymn called an “Exaposteilarion” or “Song of Light”.  In the Sunday Matins, it consists of a brief meditation upon the Gospel reading narrating one of Christ’s Resurrection appearances.   In one Song of Light we read the following:
“At the sea of Tiberias, Thomas was fishing with the sons of Zebedee, Nathaniel, Peter, and two other disciples of old. Casting to the right at the command of Christ, they caught a multitude of fish. And Peter, recognizing Him, cast himself into the water. This was the third time He appeared to them and He showed them bread and fish upon the coals.”
            Every time I heard this I wondered what could be the significance of Christ showing them bread and fish upon the coals.  Note:  the hymn-writer doesn’t say that Christ provided a breakfast of bread and fish (though of course He did), but specifically that He showed them bread and fish.  This act of showing clearly seems to have been important to the hymn-writer, but I could never figure out why.
            That is, until I read recently about the important office of hierophant in the ancient world.  In the Mystery religions, anyone wanting to participate in the sacred and saving Mysteries (for example, the Mysteries of Dionysius the wine-god or those of Demeter the fertility goddess, founder of the famous Eleusinian Mysteries) had a secret initiation which culminated in being shown secret cult objects.  The person in charge of these objects of mystical significance was called a “hierophant”, literally a “sacred show-er”, someone whose task it was to show to the initiate the sacred cult objects.  It occurred to me that a Byzantine Christian hearing the Song of Light’s reference to Christ showing His disciples bread and fish would have instantly thought of the work of a hierophant.
            But what then was the significance of these sacred objects, and what was the point that the hymn-writer was trying to make?  Simply this:  that in beholding the fish and the bread, the disciples were being initiated into the Eucharistic mystery of the Church.  When they saw the fish and the bread lying there upon the coals, they were being told that henceforth all their Eucharistic meals would be hosted by the risen Christ, and as they ate the fish and bread with Him there by the sea of Tiberias, so henceforth they would eat the Eucharist with Him every succeeding Sunday.  From at least the days of catacomb art, the Church’s Eucharist was symbolized not by bread and wine (as one might perhaps expect), but by bread and fish.  The multiplication of the loaves and the provision of bread and fish for the multitudes became for the Church an image and foreshadowing of their own festal meal, especially since after the multiplication of the loaves Christ gave His teaching about eating His flesh and drinking His blood (John 6).

            We need to remember this every Sunday when we gather for the Eucharist.  We may think that the person presiding over the meal and mystery is the one we see with our physical eyes—namely, the priest standing at the altar.  But that is not so.  The real host of the meal is the risen Christ, the One whom we see invisibly with the eyes of faith.  He provided a meal of fish and bread for His disciples that cold and fresh morning by the sea of Tiberias after a long and fruitless night of fishing.  He provides a similar meal of Eucharistic bounty and grace for us now every Sunday morning.  It is okay that we come to that meal tired, and sinful, and empty, and needy.  We also have fished all night and caught nothing.  His word to us is the same as it was to them:  “Come and have breakfast” (John 21:12).  Christ provides a meal which fills and warms us, and we eat with Him in the light of a new resurrection morning.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


          With an admitted abundance of irony, I find myself phobic about the use of any word that ends in “phobic”, largely because the word is usually used to shut down sensible sustained debate, and functions as a kind of rhetorical club in the hands of ideological bullies.  Take the popular word “homophobic” for example.  The word is used as a label to denounce and silence anyone arguing that homosexual practice is sinful.  Those in favour of the moral legitimacy of homosexual practice now do not need to effectively reply to arguments that it is sinful.  They need only denounce the opponent as “homophobic” and that is the end of it.  The vanquished homophobe is supposed to slink away and vanish into the mists of history, taking his place alongside Nazis, White Supremacists, and those asserting that the world is flat.  It is nonsense, of course, and I suppose that anyone can play the game.  I might coin the term “Christianophobic” (unless someone has beat me to it?) to describe anyone opposing Christian dogma and history, and use the label to defend everything that was ever done by the Church.  Do you deny that Jesus is divine?  How Christianophobic of you.  Tempting, I suppose, except that our commitment to truth means we are also committed to civil and reasoned debate, and to deciding every argument on the basis of its actual merits.  No ad hominem shortcuts allowed, however useful.
So, I find that I approach the word “Islamophobia” with some trepidation, but current events require some sort of response from Christian teachers, and one cannot talk about what is going on without recourse to the word.  I refer especially to Mr. Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that America ban future entry of all Muslims “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on”.  This last bit seems a bit vague, but I suppose it means something like “until our country’s representatives can be sure that no Muslim seeking entry will ever act violently”.  Given the amount of non-Islamic violence sweeping America and making the news, this seems to set the bar unfairly high for Muslims, but that is not my point here. The larger issue, pushed to the fore by Mr. Trump, is the question of whether or not Islam is inherently violent, and we must address the issue on its own merits.  Sometimes Muslims, feeling that they are under attack, react with the single response, “You’re being Islamophobic!” and try thereby to shut down the discussion.  I can understand such a defensive response, especially when Muslims are indeed sometimes victims of real prejudice, but we still need to keep the dialogue going.
            In examining this question, it is crucial to distinguish several things.  I would therefore like to distinguish between: 
1. Muhammad’s practice and the text of his Qur’an;
2. the history of subsequent Islamic expansion in the decades and centuries following his death in 632;
3. the practice of Muslims throughout the Islamic Empire and in the Middle East;
4. liberal Muslims today; and
5. Islamists. 
Unless these five things are distinguished, we cannot get very far in understanding our Muslim neighbours and making sense of the world today.  Of course if one’s aim is not to work with complexities but simply to inflame voters, then such understanding is not required.  In beginning to examine the question of violence in Islam, we begin with:

1. Muhammad’s practice and the text of his Qur’an.  It seems clear enough that Muhammad had no problem with using violence and warfare to protect, sustain, and expand the progress of his new religion, especially after his flight to Medina.  We think of his slaughter and decapitation of about 700 prisoners of the Jewish tribe of the Bani Quraiza.  One could multiply examples, but no one disputes Muhammad’s use of warfare and violence to spread his religion.  This acceptance of violence in the service of religion is found in the Qur’an also.   Take, for example, surah 2:190f:  “Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not attack them first.  Allah does not love the aggressors.  Kill them wherever you find them.  Idolatry is worse than carnage.  But do not fight them within the precincts of the Holy Mosque unless they attack you there; if they attack you, put them to the sword…Fight against them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religion reigns supreme.  But if they mend their ways, fight none except the evil-doers.”  Or, take another example, surah 9:123:  “O believers, fight the unbelievers who dwell around you and let them find hardness in you.  Know that Allah is with the righteous.”
          Some modern liberal Muslims contextualize these verses and assert that they have relevance only to the time of Muhammad when his young religion was under threat, and should not be applied today.  That is certainly one way to read those verses, and in fairness, that is how we Christians read the verses in the Book of Joshua about (for example) the slaughter of the people of Jericho in Joshua chapter 6.  Joshua and his armies engaged in violence and genocide, but no one today regards these historical facts as setting a precedent which would allow modern Christians (or Jews) to spread their faith with the sword.  The question is therefore whether or not Muhammad’s example and his Qur’anic verses offer a paradigm for Muslims in later ages, or whether they should be regarded solely as an historical “one-off”.  The question may be partially answered by looking at:

2. The history of subsequent Islamic expansion.   When we examine the history of Islam in the years, decades, and centuries after Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D. we see that his followers did indeed seem to regard both his personal example and the Qur’anic verses about warfare (or jihad) to be paradigmatic.  His successor Omar conquered Damascus in 635, and Jerusalem in 638.  The great city of Alexandria was conquered in 640 and Muslim armies continued their outward military push, entering Spain in 711.  The year 732 brought them almost to the gates of Paris, where they were repelled by Charles Martel.  Sicily was invaded in 827 and finally conquered in 902.  Constantinople was repeatedly assaulted, although it did not fall until 1453.  By no stretch of the imagination can these wars be considered as merely defensive.  If Islam in the years following Muhammad’s death regarded his example merely as historical (as Christians regard the wars of Joshua) why did they continue to follow his example?  We come now to:

3. The practice of Muslims in the Islamic Empire and the Middle East, and here we do indeed see a measure of comparative tolerance.  But only a measure, regardless of what Islamic apologists (both Muslim and Western) might suggest, for the non-Muslim populations of Islamic lands were still distinctly second-class.  The official designation for such enforced second-class status was dhimmi—they were “a protected people”, and ostensibly free from harm so long as they kept to their place and paid the required tax.  The practice of treating non-Muslim inhabitants in this way was justified by the Qur’an, surah 9:29:  “Fight against such who do not believe in Allah even if they are People of the Book [i.e. Christians or Jews] until they pay the tribute [Arabic jizya] with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” 
Though the Islamic tolerance shown to religious minorities did not approach modern standards of pluralism, it must nonetheless be judged by the standards of its own time, not by ours.  Tolerance of religious minorities did not thrive much anywhere in Europe either, as our Jewish friends are quick to remind us, and between the practices of the Islamic Empire and Christendom there was perhaps not much to choose.  Yet even in these debased circumstances, Christians and Jews still could find social advancement in Muslim societies—the father of St. John of Damascus, for example, served in the civil administration of the Caliph in Damascus.  And prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Muslims, Christians and Jews managed to coexist peacefully in the land of Palestine.  Evidently an empire is a big thing to run, and Muslim rulers discovered that a certain amount of diplomacy and tolerance was necessary to grease the Imperial wheels and keep things running smoothly.  As the heirs to this fragile tradition of co-existence we find many Muslims today for whom Islam is indeed a religion of peace and who are quite happy to practice their faith within a pluralistic Western setting.  These people I refer to as:

4. Liberal Muslims.  Some suggest that these Muslims are not so much liberal as Westernized, and that the liberalism and tolerance they profess come not from their Qur’an as from an adoption of western Enlightenment values.  They would disagree, and point to such Qur’anic verses as surah 2:256:  “Let there be no compulsion in religion”.  They also point to such classical Islamic teachers as Averroes (the Latinized form of Ibn Rushd) who promoted a twelfth century defense of Aristotle and the supremacy of reason.  Muslims like Bassam Tibi (in his invaluable work Islamism and Islam) certainly assert that one can be authentically Islamic while still embracing the values of a liberal democracy.  But whether their tolerance, pluralism, and genuine love for democratic values spring from Islam or from the West, there is no doubt that many millions of them share the values of our liberal western democracy.  The problem with asserting that all Islam is inherently violent and (for example) forcing all American Muslims to be registered is that this would penalize those peaceful fellow-citizens for the sins of others.  Such penalizing would ironically reduce Muslims in America to the debased status of a dhimmi, so that non-Muslim Americans would reproduce the very social realities they criticize in classical Islam.  The religion many American Muslims practise is clearly a religion of peace.  Is it our place as non-Muslims to define Islam for them?  These liberal Muslims are to be distinguished from what are sometimes called:

5. Islamists.  All Islamists are Muslims, but most Muslims are not Islamists.  An Islamist is defined by his or her desire to establish an Islamic State, wherein a re-invented form of sharia law allows the state to function as a new totalitarianism.  This is forcibly argued by Bassam Tibi (in his book mentioned above).  In Islamist thought, the Jews are responsible everything terrible in the world (including, believe it or not, the Crusades), and are waging war against a besieged Islam.  In this delusional world the infamous Protocols of Zion, which outline a global Jewish conspiracy, are accepted as genuinely historical.  The Islamists declare that Islam is under global threat, and so must defend itself.  Some Islamists openly advocate terrorism (as a redefined jihad); other Islamists renounce terrorism, striving to establish the Islamic State through the mechanisms of democracy and the ballot box.  Their methods differ, but their goal is identical, and after the totalitarian Islamic State is established, all Islamists agree that free elections will be a thing of the past, having been replaced by sharia, which they consider as the reign of God on earth.  Politically-correct assertions that terrorists as “non-Islamic” or as “anti-Islam” are nonsensical, for the Islamists are motivated by genuinely religious motives.  Saying that Islamists are “not Islamic” is like saying that Nazism was “not German”.
            In this Islamist vision of the world, Islamism equals Islam, and true Islam contains all the violent and totalitarian features of Islamism.  This is why the Islamophobia promoted by Mr. Trump is genuinely dangerous, for here he agrees with the Islamists that Islam equals Islamism, and is thereby pushing liberal Muslims into the Islamist fold.  The Islamists contend that Islam is under threat from the West, and that true Muslims should renounce the values of liberal democracy as un-Islamic.  What better way to prove their point than by persecuting western Muslims?  The liberal Muslims regard themselves as full partners in western democracy and their practice of Islam as fully consonant with this.  They distinguish their version of Islam from that of the Islamists.  If America demonizes Islam by denouncing it as always inherently violent, refuses entry to all Muslims worldwide, or makes moves to register its Muslim citizens, what could liberal Muslims conclude but that the Islamists were right all along?  Mr. Trump would prove himself to be the greatest radicalizer of Muslims in all the world.  What Islamist propagandists could not do, Mr. Trump would do for them.  A better path would be to welcome the liberal Muslims as our best partners in dialogue and to share the full fruits of citizenship with them.  Part of this dialogue of course will involve unmasking Islamism in all its forms for what it really is.

            The question “Is Islam inherently violent?” must be answered with another question, “Which Islam?”  The Islam of Muhammad and his early successors was certainly violent.  The Islam of the Islamists is certainly violent.  The Islam of many liberal Muslims today is not.  Which kind of Islam will become predominate in the Muslim world in the future is a question only the Muslims themselves can answer.  The West would be well advised to help the liberal Muslims of the world push for a transformation of classical Islam so that it is their peaceful and pluralist version of Islam which wins the Islamic day.

The take-away for Christians is this:  the Muslim down the street is our neighbour and a soul for whom Christ died.  That means that we must love him and affirm the truth that he has, as well as sharing humbly the truth of Christ that he does not yet possess.  St. Paul did this with the pagans of his day, and won them for the Lord.  We must do the same with our Muslim neighbours today.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Will the Real St. Nicholas Please Stand Up?

As you may or may not be surprised to learn, Santa Claus is an American.  That is, he was born on American soil in 1823 and his poetic father was Mr. Clement Clarke Moore, who in that year published a poem (anonymously) entitled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.  (He ‘fessed up to the authorship in 1837.)  Until that time mention of St. Nicholas conjured up the Real Episcopal McCoy, the sainted archbishop of Myra in the Roman province of Lycia.  After Mr. Moore’s poem became popular, St. Nicholas was increasingly viewed in American culture as the “right jolly old elf” who “came down the chimney” with “a bound” and “filled all the stockings” which had been “hung by the chimney with care”.  He travelled in a sleigh, pulled by the now-famous “eight tiny reindeer”.  (Rudolph was nowhere in sight in 1823; he would not be recruited to take his place in Christmas mythology until 1939.)  Mr. Moore’s St. Nicholas didn’t arouse much feeling of veneration:  when his St. Nicholas got to work, he “look’d like a pedlar just opening his pack”, pedlars with packs not being then highly regarded.  That and the fact that his “little round belly shook when he laugh’d like a bowl full of jelly” could be why the householder in the poem laughed himself when he saw him, in spite of himself.  Not a very respectful response to an archbishop’s arrival.  Bread and salt constitute the preferred welcome nowadays.

Up until Mr. Moore gave the fourth century saint a total American make-over, St. Nicholas was associated with the festivities of Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve.  As the Wikipedia article tells it, “At the time Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year’s Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants—who saw Christmas as the result of ‘Catholic ignorance and deception’—still had reservations.  By having St. Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore ‘deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations’.  As a result, New Yorkers embraced Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.”  Why the saint’s actual feast day of December 6 never entered the picture is left unexplained.  But ever since 1823, St. Nicholas has been coming down our chimneys before Christmas Day dawns and leaving gifts. The actual St. Nicholas has thus been effectively transmogrified into Santa Claus.  Just add a Christmas tree, a long wish-list, obligatory gift-giving, along with Black Friday and you have our present state of affairs.  In fairness to Mr. Moore, he could hardly have foreseen what would happen to his version of St. Nicholas.
It is worth meditating a bit on the differences between the two rival St. Nicholases, and not just because Mr. Moore’s version makes such an easy target, but because a comparison of the two illustrates well the difference between worldly and Christian cultures, and we are called to live in the latter for all twelve months of the year.  The main differences between the elf and the bishop are threefold:  what each one looks like, what each one carries, and what each one says.
St. Nicholas the jolly old elf is, well, fat, while the real St. Nicholas looks as if he knew what it was to fast, which of course he did.  The abundant girth of the jolly old elf witnesses to our culture’s obsession with self-indulgence.  Our rule of “eat, drink, and be merry” is perennially observed, not just at Christmas time.  All through December the World feasts and gorges (all to the tune of atrocious Christmas music assaulting us in the mall), and then collapses in a stupefied heap on December 25, forgetting all about Christmas on Boxing Day while reaching for the Alka-Seltzer.   By contrast, the Church during that month fasts until Christmas, and then feasts from Christmas to Theophany.  The Church and the World thus form mirror images and opposites of each other throughout the month of December.  Looking at the World, it is clear that our culture has deified pleasure, and has a corresponding horror of fasting and asceticism.  Dietary self-control and asceticism are acceptable if the goal is to fit into a bikini, but less so if the goal is holiness.  The different girths of the two St. Nicholases illustrate the two rival approaches to asceticism and fasting.
            Secondly, we note that the elf carries a bag full of toys, while the bishop carries a Gospel Book. The former illustrates our culture’s preoccupation with entertainment and acquisition, as if we really believed the bumper sticker which proclaims “He who dies with the most toys wins”.  That is why the question asked after December 25 is “what did you get for Christmas?”, not “what did you give for Christmas?”  The important thing, apparently, is the getting. The bishop’s Gospel Book tells us that on the contrary “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).  Joy and lasting happiness come from an abundance of the Holy Spirit, not an abundance of stuff, and we are reminded that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).  Note:  not just “better to give”, but “more blessed to give”—i.e. the blessing of God descends upon our lives when we give, not when we get.   The obsession with acquiring does not lead to a more blessed life of joy and fulfillment.
            Finally, we note that the characteristic utterance of the one who bounds down the chimney is “ho-ho-ho”.  The bishop, by contrast, is more likely to say something like “Glory to Jesus Christ”.  In the former utterance we can discern our culture’s superficiality, its allergy to serious thought about ultimate things.  We do not value sustained deep thinking, which explains both the brief sound bites on the daily news, as well as almost all Facebook discussion.  We are, in the words of a 1985 book of the same title, “amusing ourselves to death”.  Life is too scary and complicated for most people; best to retreat into the la-la land of jokes, entertainment, and video games.  Scarlett O’Hara famously put off thinking about such things until tomorrow; our culture tends to put it off entirely.  It is good to have a light heart, but it can be successfully combined with a functioning (and pious) head.
            None of the above reflections are meant as a war on Santa Claus, Christmas, gift-giving, or any others of the joys of the season.  But we must not let our seasonal festive joy become the Trojan Horse which imports into our lives worldly attitudes and practices.  We can still have the trees, the chimneys, the gift-giving, and let the air ring with our cries of “Merry Christmas”.  But we should not neglect to combine it all with fasting, prayer, and generosity to the poor.  That is the way to delight the heart of the real St. Nicholas.