Monday, October 21, 2013

Converting the Heathen

          In 1996 National Geographic magazine featured an article on my old hometown of Toronto, in which a Torontonian commented on how the great urban city has changed over the years and become more multi-ethnic.  The aging Torontonian delighted in his city’s diversity, and compared it to the more monochrome Protestant Toronto he had grown up in prior to World War II:  “I grew up when you went to Sunday school and dropped your pennies in the box for the missionaries to convert the pagans and the heathens. Now the pagans and the heathens have moved in here, and they’re quite nice people, eh?”  I grew up in the 60’s in Toronto, when it was just beginning to embrace its present cosmopolitan diversity, and I also have met the pagans and heathens of my old hometown.  And yes, they are quite nice people.  Cultural diversity is wonderful, whether encountered in Toronto or anywhere else.
            The question arises then about those missionary boxes and the legitimacy of sending missionaries to “convert the pagans and the heathens”.  (Strictly speaking, of course, one cannot speak of an urban “heathen”, since by etymological definition a heathen is someone who dwells out on the heath, i.e. in the rural countryside.  The term refers to the historical fact that most of those clinging to the old gods of Greece and Rome lived in the countryside; Christianity was primarily an urban phenomenon.  But never mind.)  In particular, one might now ask, “Should we attempt to convert the heathens?  Should we strive to convert to the Christian Faith those who are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, or those of no religious faith whatsoever?  Is this not the height of arrogance?  Why should we try to convert them at all?”
            It is a good question.  Certainly we should not try to convert in an effort to make them “quite nice people”, because as the aging Torontonian noticed, they are quite nice people already.  And we should not try to convert them because otherwise they would go to hell.  Maybe they are hell-bound and maybe not.  That is not and cannot be our concern.  Our evangelistic efforts should, I suggest, be quite separate from the distinct question of anyone’s present eternal destination, if only because that bit of information is not available to us.  This question we must leave to God.
            So then, why should we try to convert the heathen?  Does our present delight in cultural diversity mean that we must now abandon our historical mandate to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15)?  Some would answer, “yes it does”, and argue that striving to convert others to Christianity constitutes a kind of ideological imperialism, a hopeless survival of a past and now discredited colonialism.  Orthodoxy, rooted in the mindset of the Fathers, asserts, “no it does not”, and insists that our Lord’s commission to His apostles remains as binding today as it did when He first uttered it prior to His Ascension. 
            First, a brief history lesson:  the world in which the early Church lived had just as much cultural and religious diversity as we do now.  The existence of a monochrome world culture, be it pre-World War Protestant Toronto, or the western Catholic Middle Ages, or eastern Byzantine Orthodoxy, is the exception.  In the case of Byzantium, it was admittedly a long-running exception.  But it was the exception, and it is over now.  The world of the early church contained an exciting and bewildering collection of languages, cultures, and religions, and they all co-existed more or less cosily beside one another.  Though everyone of course preferred his own religion to that of others, everyone acknowledged the other religions’ right to exist.  “Live and let live” was the motto of the Roman world (so long as one also confessed “Caesar is Lord”).  Everybody in that society accepted this diversity as the divinely-sanctioned status quo.
            Everybody, that is, except the Christians, and it was for this refusal to accept the status quo as divinely-sanctioned that we got into all the trouble.  When we looked at the old religions worshipping the historical gods Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, we did not discern legitimate religious diversity but the worship of demons (see 1 Cor. 10:20).  In our initiation rites, the convert formally renounced his old religion, condemning its cult as the worship of “Satan and all his works, and all his angels, and all his service, and all his pride”.  I have no doubt that the heathen neighbours of the new convert who still clung to the worship of the old gods were “quite nice people”.  But his religion (or “service”, to use our liturgical language) was still recognized and renounced as the worship of Satan anyway.  This is what our present Orthodox Liturgy refers to by the term “former delusion”.
            But if we make no assumptions about the present eternal destiny of those clinging to other religions, why ask them to convert to ours?  In a word, because our Faith is more than simply eternal fire insurance.  We ask people to embrace Christianity for two reasons:  1. because it is in fact true, and 2. because through the worship of Christ we have access to a peace, joy, healing, and transformation not found anywhere else.
            Take conversion from Islam for example.  I gladly put my pennies in my missionary box (or write my cheque to the Orthodox Christian Mission Center) because Islam asks its practitioners to believe things that are not in fact true—such as that Jesus of Nazareth was not crucified (when He was), and that He is not the Son of God (when in fact He is).  Why believe an error when one can have the truth?  Also, I would convert my quite nice Muslim neighbour because I believe that were he to worship Christ as God as part of His historic Church he could find abundant life not otherwise available to him were he to remain a Muslim.  Salvation (or theosis, to give its fancier name) is only found through the worship of Christ our God, and through penitent participation in the Church’s sacramental realities.  My Muslim neighbour is admittedly quite nice already without any such theosis.  I might be nice apart from Christ as well.  But how much happier would we both be with such theosis?  Christ came to offer abundant life (Jn. 10:10), and conversion is simply the process whereby we all lay hold of it.
            I suspect that modern people, in Toronto or elsewhere, have given up the practice of putting pennies into missionary boxes and striving to convert others to Christianity because they have ceased to believe in Christianity themselves.  They do not view religion as a way of seeing the world as it is (i.e. having an accurate worldview), nor as a way of experiencing interior healing and transformation (i.e. obtaining salvation).   Rather, religion is now viewed simply as an expression of one’s earthly culture, like cuisine or manner of dress.  Cultural diversity is rightly valued because differences in cuisine and dress are all equally legitimate.  But religion cannot be reduced to matters of culture.  Rather, it connects us with transcendent realities and powers.  In the case of heathen religions, some of those powers are harmful, and should be renounced.  In the Christian Faith alone do we have the possibility of accessing a power that leads to healing and joy.  And that is ultimately more important than simply being quite nice.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Long Shadows of Byzantium

           Every time I stand at the altar in our little church of St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C., I stand in the long shadows of Byzantium.  That is, I find myself facing the processional cross which we keep at the back of the altar table.  At the base of that cross, there is, in carved metal, the figure of a double-headed eagle.  This does not represent our liturgical choice; the cross was the kind donation of a parishioner, bought from an Orthodox church supply store.  The double-headed eagle comes standard, it would appear, on all processional crosses.  I have seen that eagle even more prominently displayed in other Orthodox places—in a church located on a campus in Winnipeg for example, it is part of the marble flooring, measuring about six feet across, just before the Royal Doors.  It is as if one had to tread on holy Byzantine ground on the way to the Chalice.
            Byzantium casts its long shadow in other ways as well, not the least liturgically.  This is the case especially when the bishop comes to town, sometimes with a deacon in tow.   In that Liturgy when the deacon begins to introduce the singing of the Trisagion Hymn, he cries out, “O Lord, save the God-fearing!”   In invoking God’s saving assistance upon “the God-fearing”, the deacon is not referring to us; he is referring to the Emperor and his family.  And when the deacon then makes his little liturgical twirl, saying, “unto ages of ages!” he is not simply getting exercise.  That twirl is a vestige of the time when he went out to lead the Imperial family to their place over by the side.  There is now no Imperial family to lead, and so this action has been shortened to a picturesque twirl, but originally (like everything else in the Liturgy) it had a practical purpose.  The Emperor, both of Byzantium and of Russia, is long gone, and well past any need of saving, but the actions of praying for him and seating him in church remain. 
            There are other Byzantine liturgical vestiges as well, such as the Antiphons.  Originally, these hymns were psalms, sung with a refrain interspersed between the verses.  By the end of the eighth century, the usual refrains for the three antiphons were “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Saviour, save us”, “Alleluia”, and the refrain we now know as the hymn “Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God”.  When the antiphons first started being used, they were sung as processional hymns as the Christians wended their way through the city on the way to church.  In those days, unlike now, it was not the case that the city was a secular space, dotted with sacred churches.  Rather, the entire Byzantine city was sacred liturgical space, and the churches were simply the loci for the Eucharistic gatherings.  In theory at least, all the citizens were Christian, and all would come to church.  During certain festal days, the Eucharistic gathering at church would be preceded by a procession, a parade through town. 
            These were very popular, partly because everyone loved a parade, and also because it demonstrated which group was in charge of the city, which group “owned the streets”.  At certain times, it was the Arian group that was in the ascendant and owned the streets; later on, it was the Nicene group (i.e. us), and taking over the streets for a periodic parade helped demonstrate that.  John Chrysostom in Constantinople thought it was a great idea, and commissioned a huge, fancy, and expensive cross to be carried in the procession, adorned with candles.  These processions were so popular that eventually the psalms and refrains for them were sung in church at the beginning of the Liturgy even on days when there was no parade.  The presence of the Antiphons in our contemporary Liturgy represents therefore yet another vestige of Byzantium, hearkening back to the days when the Church “owned the streets”, and all the city celebrated the Christian feasts as a city.
            As anyone can tell, the days when the Church owned the streets are long gone.  Any parade through town is now a trek through secular space—sometimes through militantly secular space—and one often needing a permit from the secular authorities.  Such a procession would not be so much a manifestation of the Christian nature of the city, as rather a protest against its secular nature.   The world in which the Church now lives is radically unlike that of Byzantium.  It is much more like the Roman Empire prior to its Byzantine phase—a world pluralistic in form, secular in foundation, and predominately pagan in religious practice.  (The American “Bible Belt” may represent a last gasp of an older way, and a dying “hold out”.  It swims valiantly against the prevailing tide.)
            What does this mean for us Orthodox? The main difference between the Church in the pagan Roman Empire and the Church in the Christian Roman Empire (i.e. Byzantium) is that the former knew itself to be a tightly-knit community standing over against a hostile society, an island of faith and love in a sea of unbelief and unrighteousness.  Each member of the local church made deep personal attachments to the other members—as Gregory Dix once commented, people risking at least penal servitude for life for being part of the same group usually take pains to get to know one another.  In the days of the pagan Roman Empire, the Christians were close as family members to others in the church, and each defined himself as belonging to all the others.   Membership in the church was characterized by deep feelings of solidarity.   Their song was “You and Me against the World”.
            In Byzantium, that old line between the Church and the World was blurred, as the World declared itself to be Christian.  It was scarcely possible for the Church to form tightly-knit communities of faith like in the old days where each member of the local church knew the other and belonged to the other, because “the local church” now included everyone in the city, at least in principle.  After the world accepted baptism, such closely-knit communities were impossible to form.  Obviously there still existed smaller churches in the Byzantine world—that was the point of building the larger ones like the Hagia Sophia, as a contrast to them.  But the people within even these smaller churches no longer shared the same huddled closeness and family feeling that they did during the days of persecution.  Now that everyone in the city or village was a Christian, there was no “World” to huddle against, and individuals no longer defined themselves as belonging to the Christian family but rather to their own biological families.  Thus even in the smaller churches a sense of eschatological personalism was lost.  (Some ascetics would try to recover it nonetheless; the experiment was called “cenobitic monasticism”.)  In the parish church of St. John Chrysostom there was no “coffee hour” after Liturgy.  Deep personal attachments were made of course, but they were made between members of one’s family and one’s friends—not between all the members of the local church.  Belonging to the church for most people simply meant accepting its over-arching culture and fulfilling certain requirements, though of course some fulfilled them with great piety.  You went to Liturgy, received Holy Communion (or didn’t), and then you came home.  Going to church for most people in that culture was something you did, like paying taxes, or going to the theatre, or spending time with your friends.  Membership in the Church did not necessarily define you; the others at Liturgy were not “your people” except in the sense of being fellow citizens of the same city. 
            As said above, Byzantium is gone, its long shadows notwithstanding.  The challenge for us now is to recognize this and begin to recover the closeness and solidarity with others in our churches that existed in the early days.  This solidarity and mutual love for fellow church members was not possible in Byzantium; it is possible now.  And as the world becomes an increasingly darker place, recovery of such solidarity becomes not just possible, but essential.  This involves not simply making sure there is a coffee hour following Sunday Liturgy, but radically rethinking what it means to belong to the Church. 
          We must let belonging to the Church define us, and think of ourselves not primarily as Smiths, Joneses or Farleys, but as members of our local Eucharistic community.  This involves recognizing that the people receiving the Eucharist with us are our true family, and striving to treat them as such—as our close kin, fellow members of the same body.  We must rejoice when one of them is honoured, and suffer with them when they suffer (1 Cor. 12:26), making their trials and triumphs our own.  This is difficult to do, especially in our busy world where we often live far from each other.  But it remains the challenge of our time.  Byzantium is gone, and can only cast shadows.  But Christ remains, and He calls us to follow Him in these exciting new days.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Is God a Sociopath?

I recently saw a brief debate on line, from the show “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell”, featuring a debate about the existence of God.  The segment featured two comedians, Jamie Kilstein (arguing for atheism) and John Fugelsang (arguing for Christian theism).  Although lacking in intellectual substance, the debate was good-tempered and funny in spots, as you might expect when you bring in two stand-up comedians.
            I was particularly interested in the arguments of the atheist Jamie Kilstein (with whom I had greater sympathy than my ostensibly Christian brother).  Jamie seemed to be genuinely humble and open.  At one point in the short exchange he admitted, “If the ceiling came crashing in and someone was like ‘I’m God!’…I’d be like, ‘I apologize’.  But if I get up to heaven and there is a God, and He’s like, ‘You were wrong!  How did you live your life?’ And I’m like, ‘I tried to help people, I tried to give to charity.  I didn’t know if You were real, there was no evidence’, and He’s like, ‘Well, you didn’t worship Me everyday!’, then I’d be like, ‘Fine.  Send me to wherever’s as far away from You as possible, cause You’re a sociopath!”  Jamie’s objection seems to be not to the idea of God’s existence per se, but to the idea that God would damn a good person who was trying his best simply because that person did not worship God.  If all God cared about was whether or not He was worshipped, and that He would damn people regardless of how they lived, it would seem to Jamie that God was an egotist.  Or, to used Jamie’s term, a sociopath.
            So, what’s the deal?  Is God a crazed egotist?  Does He demand to be worshipped simply because He enjoys the attention?  Is our religious worship and praise all He cares about?  The idea was examined by C.S. Lewis over half a century ago in his book Reflections on the Psalms where he talks about the Scriptural exhortations to praise the Lord.  In his chapter “A Word about Praising”, Lewis writes, “All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless shyness is deliberately brought into it…The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside…Praise seems to be inner health made audible.”  His point that we are made in such a way that when we are spiritually healthy, we naturally praise things that our beautiful.  Praise is essential to our enjoyment of something.  Scripture exhorts us to praise God because we were made to enjoy Him, and to behold His ravishing beauty forever.  Our praise is the overflow of that enjoyment.  The Westminster Catechism teaches that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”.  In fact, these two are the same thing, for to fully enjoy is to glorify.
            The human spirit was created to live on God in the same way that the body lives on food, or to vary the metaphor, in the same way that cars run on gasoline.  One can pour lemonade into the gas-tank in a valiant attempt to save money, but the car will not run on lemonade.  Unless one feeds gasoline to the vehicle, it will not move.  And unless one feeds food to the human body, it will not grow or live long.  One can try other things.  During famines one hears of people trying to eat grass.  But man cannot live on grass alone.  Only food can sustain human bodily life.
            In the same way, only the presence and beauty of God can sustain the human spirit.  God does not ask that we worship Him because He wants the attention.  Indeed, a God who left the adoration of the heavenly angels to become a human being and suffer rejection, scourging, mockery, and crucifixion is clearly not a God who cares much about His own ego or His own rights.  God wants us to worship Him because He loves us, and because feeding our spirits on His divine beauty is the only way we can truly live.  When a father tells his children at the supper table to eat their food, he does so because he wants them to grow up big and strong, not because he wants them to praise his culinary skill.  It is the same with our heavenly Father.  He also wants us to live, and grow, and become strong.  We can, like sulky children at the supper table, refuse to eat the food that alone can nourish us, and still expect to thrive.  We can refuse to worship Him and still expect to live forever.  But who is the crazy one then?