Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Filioque Clause

          One of the things which has historically been a point of polemic and conflict between the Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West is the use of the Filioque clause in the Creed. The word “filioque” is Latin for “from the Son”, and it is used in the classically western version of the Creed to describe the Person and procession of the Holy Spirit. In that version of the Creed, the Spirit is said to “proceed from the Father and the Son”.
         Lesson from Church History 101: in the Councils of the Church in the fourth century (specifically the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, held in 325 and 381 respectively), the divine natures of Christ and the Holy Spirit were emphatically set forth. Nicea declared the Son to be “light from light, true God from true God, of one essence (Greek homoousios) with the Father”. Constantinople declared the Spirit to be “the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father”. That is, the Spirit was not created by the Father as the angels were created, but rather proceeded from the Father's very being so that He was as divine as the Father was. These declarations of Nicea and Constantinople came together in the final version of the Creed, the one we recite today at Divine Liturgy. Much later, Christians in the far west (modern Spain to be precise) were hard at it, slugging away dogmatically and combatting the Arians there who still maintained that Christ was not homoousios with the Father. From the days of Augustine these western Christians believed that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son. Everyone believed that, they felt (at least everyone in their western neighbourhood), so why not confess it in the Creed? That would stress in a big way the divinity of the Son and His equality with the Father. So when they recited the Creed, they sang that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son. If asked they doubtless would have said that this was the original version of the Creed. And when they later met some Christians from the East who recited the Creed without the Filioque, they accused them indignantly of omitting this important clause. The reaction of those eastern Christians can be imagined. Since then, the East and the West have parted company, fighting over the use of the Filioque in the Creed (among other things).
          It should be acknowledged that many thoughtful people in the world can make neither head nor tail out of this quarrel. It is, they feel, just one more example of the ridiculous and petty quarrelsome nature of the Christians, fighting tooth and nail over a single word. In particular, why are the Orthodox so stubborn over such trifles? At the end of the day, what does it matter? It's just a single word. Why can't the Orthodox East just chill out?
          A few things may be said in response. First is the question of historical accuracy and honesty. Say, for example, that someone tinkered not with the Creed, but with the American national anthem. Say that someone said that the good ol' American anthem read, “Oh, say! can you see by the dawn's early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming; whose dear maple leaf, through the perilous fight, o'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?” Surely it would be only fair to protest and point out that the original version of the anthem did not extol the Maple Leaf, but the Stars and Stripes. One could change The Star Spangled Banner into The Maple Leaf Forever if one wanted to, but honesty should compel all involved to acknowledge that this was a change from the original. In the same way, surely it is reasonable for the Orthodox East to insist that if Christians say that they are reciting the Creed from the fourth century then that Creed should be recited in its original form, simply as a matter of historical honesty. Of course Orthodox go on to further insist that the Filioque addition is doctrinally erroneous, the venerable opinions of St. Augustine and other western teachers notwithstanding. But even apart from matters of historical honesty and doctrinal truth, there are other considerations which even secular people should be able to understand.
          These considerations are two in number. First is the question of authority. When the western church after the Council of Trent (that was the anti-Reformation council of the sixteenth century, as you recall) wanted to appeal to authority, the first and strongest appeal was to the Pope in Rome. “Roma locuta est, causa finita est,” (i.e. “Rome has spoken, the case is closed”) was the basic mindset. That is, a Roman Catholic reflexively appealed to the central authority in Rome to determine the truth in matters of controversy. But the eastern church has always appealed not to a single living institution (i.e. the Papacy) but to the historical example of the Fathers. We Orthodox do not reflexively ask, “What does Rome (or New Rome) think?”, but rather, “What did the Fathers say?” For us, the first, strongest, and abiding authority is that of the patristic consensus. This is important, because it sets the tone for all our theology and for how we think and live today. For us, wisdom and the way forward into the future come from following in the trajectory of the past, not because we are bound by the limitations of those living ago, but because we are freed by them from the tyranny of the present, a present with its blind spots and its slavery to fad and fashion. For us, Tradition is not a strait-jacket, but a set of wings. It means that we do not have to keep on trying to re-invent the wheel, only to get the shape wrong because current fashion favours octagons over circles.
The second reason that the question of the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Filioque is important has to do with community. That is, to change the original wording of the Creed to include the Filioque would necessitate a new consensus of all the existing Orthodox churches. Take the example once again of the American national anthem. Recognizing that the original version spoke of Stars and Stripes, America could change it so that is spoke of the Maple Leaf instead of the Stars and Stripes, but this would require an impressive consensus of Americans, and would involve not talking about the “National Anthem”, but about the “Revised National Anthem”. (Even the Coca-cola Company had the decency to call New Coke “Coca-Cola II”.) In the same way, the Orthodox Church could decide that the Filioque was doctrinally correct after all and include the phrase, but it would have to speak not of “the Creed” any more, but of “the New Creed”, and this would require pretty much all the various autocephalous churches to sign on to it. What matters with us is community and consensus, and no major changes in things like the Creed can be made without without the whole community first agreeing to it. We march together as one. This means, given human timidity and the reluctance to move out of comfort zones, that change in Orthodoxy usually proceeds at a somewhat glacial pace. But given the catastrophic nature of changes which have occurred in churches outside her canonical borders, this may be a good thing.
          The Orthodox reluctance to monkey with its Creed, that confession which has served as the doctrinal bedrock and the basis of unity, is entirely understandable. We think that the Creed as it stands to be historically original, doctrinally true, a witness to the patristic basis of our faith, and a safeguard of our conciliar unity. Not surprisingly therefore we will leave it as it is.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Cauldron of God: a Visitor's Impressions

            On May 12 I planted my feet on Golgotha.  I am not being metaphorical or poetic; on this Sunday morning I literally stood at the top of the Place of the Skull, and knelt before the Cross.  That is, through the kind generosity of a friend, I travelled with him from Vancouver to the Holy Land, and spent the next week or so visiting and venerating the holy places there.  Our first stop, jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and joyful, was the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  Like one in a dream I climbed the steep steps which led up to the Cross and bowed down at the holiest site in the world.  I will not attempt here a description of what I felt.  But I would like to offer a brief reflection of that brief visit to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.  We visited Galilee and Jericho and other holy places in the Judean wilderness, but most of our time was spent in Jerusalem.
            As all the guide-books say, “Jerusalem is a city sacred to the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam”.  That happy sentence might give the impression that these three religions dwell there in peaceful coexistence, each content in their own particular devotions, sharing that sacred space with equanimity.  I have seen that it is not so.  Jerusalem is not only a city.  It is a cauldron.  In it are mixed and thrown together the adherents of the three major monotheisms, and they swirl together as in a boiling cauldron, and the temperature is not cooling down.
            First and ascendant are the Jews—or perhaps more accurately, the Israelis.  Doubtless there are many secular Jews in the wider Jerusalem and in Israel, Jews rather more like the Jews I am happy to know in Canada.  But the ones in the Old City are rather different.  The Old City teems with very visible Orthodox Jews, clad in their black and white suits, hats, with swinging ear-locks.  It seems that their black and white suits reflect their black and white approach to life, an approach that eschews tolerance as weakness.  While walking in the Old City with my diaconal companion, both of us dressed in cassocks and I with my usual pectoral cross, I was repeatedly spit at by them.  That is, when one of these Orthodox Jews walked past in the narrow streets, he audibly spit at me (or, as I think, at my cross.  I was also asked to hide my cross from sight before being allowed to enter the Jewish “Tomb of David”.)  It was not an unusual occurrence; my dear deacon was counting, and said that he figured it happened about a dozen times in the three days or so we were in the Old City.  Even little children participated in the spitting, in imitation of their fathers.  I was surprised, but not traumatized.  I only commented to my companion, “They are probably not working for the Israeli Department of Tourism.”  This proud exulting in ascendancy is not only seen in the religious Orthodox Jews there.  It is also the official policy of the State of Israel, which continues to build illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, harass the Palestinians with petty humiliations, and fence them in with a forbidding wall.  When we were there, the authorities closed the Muslim shrine at Hebron, because it was a Jewish holy-day.  That is, they closed it simply because they could, and to demonstrate their ascendancy. 
            Then there are the Arabs, most of them Muslim, but some of them Christian.  Like other oppressed people, they are in a tight spot, and react to this with a combination of a desperate solicitation of tourists in order to survive, and a proud clinging to their Islamic faith.  I cannot object much to either, though the desperate solicitation meant that we got financially hosed a few times.  And when we tried to walk along the city wall, we were turned back once by some youths, who said that the place we were about enter was “just for Muslims”.  It was nonsense, of course, and tours regularly took tourists down this place.  But that day was a tough one for Muslims, since the road to Hebron was closed and some masked youths near Jericho had burned tires in the streets in protest before the police showed up.  (We drove past them quickly, and I did not ask our driver to stop so I could take a photograph.)  That day an Israeli and a Muslim clashed, and one of them died.  I could well understand their Islamic objection to us; wounded pride lashes out where it can.
            On the Temple Mount we again saw this proud clinging on the part of the Muslims, as well as the delight of the Jews in their ascendancy.  After passing through the inevitable metal-detector, we entered the Jewish area, the so-called “Wailing Wall”.  We could go a little ways towards it, but could not approach directly.  That is, only Jews were allowed to stand by the wall to pray, and a large sign warned non-Jews not to come any closer.  As we left we passed another sign that read (with unintended irony) “My House shall be called a House of Prayer for All Nations” (Is. 56:7)”.  We then came into the area containing the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims everywhere as the third holiest shrine in Islam.  Once again, we could approach, but not enter:  when we began to take our shoes off as a preparation to enter the Mosque, we were again told that only Muslims could enter.  (Admittedly there was no sign advertising the Mosque as a place of prayer for all nations.)  We did take some photos of the exteriors of those beautiful buildings.
            Then there are the Christians of Jerusalem, many of them milling about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Here finally was the true house of prayer for all nations, for we heard a multitude of languages, and rubbed shoulders (literally) with a multitude of colours and races.  Some people were obviously just tourists, some were devout believers.  I saw more than a few weeping at the Stone of Anointing and at the top of Golgotha.  I heard that Jews also had entered the holy Christian place in peace, and doubtless Muslims would’ve been equally as welcome.  There were no metal detectors to pass through, no signs warning off non-believers.  Sometimes apparently the various Christian groups who use the sacred precincts quarrel loudly (in the Middle East, all quarrelling is done loudly), and this lamentably makes the news.  But here was a place where all could come, and bow, and pray, and find acceptance.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre may or may not be the omphalos or navel of the world, but it is certainly the heart of the world.  In a dry world it is a fountain of grace; in a tumultuous world, despite all the noise and bustle of the place, here one could find peace.
            I enjoyed my brief visit to the Holy Land more than words can express, and will carry the memory of venerating its holy places to the end of my days.  But I was not unhappy to leave the cauldron that is Jerusalem and the State of Israel.  Whatever political arrangements in the Middle East are cooked up by the great international powers, our Lord’s words about Jerusalem remain, and the holy city is still trampled underfoot (Lk. 21:24).  We still set our hearts on the true and eternal Jerusalem, the Jerusalem which is above, and is free (Gal. 4:26).  I rejoiced to see the historical and holy places there.  I rejoiced also to return home, and plant my feet once again on the splendid sanity of Canadian soil.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Roofing Over the Imbomen

The Imbomen (or chapel of the Ascension)

The interior of the roof.
This last May I was privileged to visit the Holy Land, including the building at the summit of the Mount of Olives, the so-called Imbomen (from the Greek en bouno, “on the hillock”).  In the days of Egeria in the fourth century, it was not so much a chapel as a circular colonnade, for Egeria writes in her famous travelogue that it was a place where one could sit down.  Later a lady named Poemenia, a member of the Imperial family, enlarged it into an actual church.  The church endured the same fate that befell much else in the Holy Land, being destroyed by the Persians in 614 and then, after being rebuilt in the seventh century, destroyed again later by the Muslims.  The present structure stands in the midst of the ruins of that church.  Here I would like focus attention upon one significant change that the Muslims owners made to the original shrine—they roofed it over.  For the original shrine, measuring about three meters by three meters, like the original Imbomen of Egeria’s day, was open to the sky.
They could have done worse.  They could have bulldozed the whole building, as the present day Israelis did to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Ascension, which once stood not far from the Imbomen.  The present Imbomen structure, under Islamic authority and open to Christians who pay a fee to visit, is not very impressive, especially when compared to the well-adorned Christian churches in the area, or even to the Muslim mosques in Jerusalem.  But it does mark the authentic place where Christians have commemorated the Ascension of Christ since the days of the fourth century.  (It does not, however, mark the site of the actual Ascension itself.  In Lk. 24:50 we read that Christ led His disciples out “as far as Bethany” and ascended from there—in other words, over the summit of the Mount of Olives and down the other side towards Bethany.  But it is hard to built a chapel on a hillside, and we can scarcely blame the Byzantines for building their chapel on the more obvious spot, on the hillock’s summit.)
This roofing over of the roofless Imbomen is not of merely architectural significance.  The Christians who worshipped in that original roofless shrine could look up into the sky, in their imaginations following Christ as He ascended from earth to heaven.   There is always something inspiring and uplifting about looking up.   The sky is one of the many miracles surrounding us, whether we see it filled with clouds or with stars.  Sorrow makes our heads hang down and look towards the earth, while joy lifts up our heads.  Every Liturgy the priest bids the faithful “Lift up your hearts!”, and the instinctive response is to lift the heads as well.  Joy makes us look up to heaven, to God, the giver of all good gifts.  I have no doubt that the ancient worshippers at the roofless Imbomen often looked up while they worshipped there.  Our destiny as Christians is to eventually share Christ’s heavenly glory (Rom. 8:29-30), and to join Him in His heavenly Kingdom.  Little wonder then if we often look up to heaven, our destination and home.
It is just here that the roofing over of the Imbomen becomes significant, for those who bricked it up did not believe that men could share the glory of the heavenly God.  Better then to look not up, but toward Jerusalem, or Mecca.  But in fact we can share the glory of our heavenly Lord, and His Ascension to glory is a promise and prophecy of the glory that by grace awaits all His disciples.  I enjoyed my visit to the Imbomen, and once inside that Islamic chapel, I looked up to the roof.  I enjoyed even more stepping outside the chapel, and looking up into heaven, following the path blazed by our ascended Lord, and knowing that we would all one day follow Him home.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Concerning Burning

           The burning of books is objectionable on principle.  Indeed, whenever I hear of books being burnt, I always think of the famous quote by Heinrich Heine, who was born a Jew but converted to Christianity, and who died 1856.  He said, “Where they burn books, in the end they will burn people.”  (There is a fine irony in his far-sighted wisdom, since his books were among the many consigned to the flames by the Nazis in the 1930s.)  The reason that book-burning is objectionable is that consigning something to the flames means not just its destruction, but its renunciation, and asserts its total lack of value.  And pretty much all books have value—even the books the contents of which we disagree with.  We may disagree with the ideas some books contain, but the idea of a book itself—that is, offering ideas from one person to another—is valuable and good, for all books involve sharing and dialogue, and all human dialogue has value.
            In the same way that burning books is bad, burning people is bad also.  Put another way, cremation is not a part of our Christian Tradition.  Asserting this flies in the face of much modern North American culture, where cremation is rapidly becoming the preferred method of dealing with the bodies of the dead, but Orthodoxy continues to make this assertion nonetheless.  As far as the historic practice of the Church is concerned, cremation involves the burning of people.
            Modern secular culture denies this.  It says that people—human persons—are to be sharply differentiated from their bodies, so that cremation burns not the person, but the body of the person.  The person—the real person—is identified with the soul, and this soul resides in the body in the same sort of way that a letter resides in an envelope.  In the case of letters and envelopes, the envelope has no real and lasting function apart from the safe delivery of the letter, and after the letter is received, the envelope may be thrown away.  After all, it is the letter which is of value, and it is the letter which we keep.  In the same way, modern secularism holds that the soul is the real person, and the body only the temporary container or vehicle for the soul.  When the soul departs from the body at death, the body has no more lasting value than the envelope has after the letter is removed.  Both may be thrown away, or burned. 
            Over against this, the Church asserts that the body is not simply the container of the soul but, along with the soul, also partakes of the beauty and image of God.  It is therefore not so much the case that we have bodies, but that we are bodies—as well as being souls and spirits.  The body is made by God, and shares His image—not of course that God has two eyes and a nose and ears, but that the body’s beauty and grace have their source in God.  And not only does the body partake of God’s grace in its creation, but also in its redemption, for it is the body which is baptized and chrismated, the body which receives the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the body which will one day be raised to new immortal life at the final resurrection.  In a word, the human body is holy, and is central to our total salvation.  Like all holy things, it must be treated reverently.  As said above, consigning something to the flames speaks of its lack of value.  This practice made sense in paganism, for pagans denied that bodies had ultimate value (that was why the philosophical Athenians scoffed when St. Paul began asserting that bodies would rise again; see Acts 17:32).  Pagans could cremate and burn their dead and be consistent with their religious beliefs.  Christians cannot, for Christians believe that the body has too much value to be consigned to the flames.
            There are other problems as well with the present practice of cremation.  For one thing, some in the funeral industry who promote cremation do not tell the whole truth about it.  In particular, they fail to mention the truth that bones do not burn.  Flesh burns, and hair burns, and fat burns, if the fire is hot enough.   (When it does, it is not an edifying spectacle.  Indeed, some people who have witnessed it have said that if many knew exactly what occurs in the process of cremating a body, they would not have gone through with it.)  But bones do not burn, however hot the fire may be.  What then is done with them after cremation?  They are put through a grinder, and ground down to tiny bits.  I am told that cleaning such grinders is not easy to do, and the bits from one body can get mixed the bits from another.  Some have told me that talcum powder is sometimes added to make the bits look more like ashes.  This of course is an attempt to hide from the truth that bones do not burn.
            There are other problems as well.  I have been present when the ashes were deposited in their designated place in burial grounds.  Prayers were said for the departed, referring to the dead in personal terms, as a “who”.  The worker from the funeral crematorium then came, bringing the ashes in a plastic bag.  The departed had now become not a “who”, but a “what”, for the worker said, “Where would you like me to put it?”  Note:  not “him” or “her”, but “it”.  The worker was not heartless, and I’m sure meant no disrespect.  He was only doing his job, and stating the obvious:  cremation had turned a person into a thing, something able to be carried in a plastic bag under one’s arm and stuffed into a small funerary cylinder.  Cremation meant depersonalization.
            Here then is the main difference between cremation and the historic burial practice of the Church—the latter alone does justice to the personhood of the departed and to the sanctity of human flesh.  This is not to judge or condemn anyone who has allowed the cremation of loved ones, for we all do the best we can, and times of bereavement and grief are not the best times to relearn and rethink.  But though the Church does not judge, it does offer a better way.  We do the most honour to our beloved departed when we avoid cremation, when we commit them reverently in the ground.   We need not burn the bodies of those we love.  Instead, we place their bodies in the good earth, and their souls in the hands of the good Lord.