Friday, May 30, 2014

The Army of Abraham

          On the eve of the commemoration of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, there are three Old Testament lessons read at Great Vespers.  Two of them are not unexpected:  from the Book of Deuteronomy, we have one lesson about Moses’ call to appoint elders to govern the vast numbers of Israel, and another lesson about how Israel must not harden their hearts in stubbornness.  Makes sense—the bishops gathered at Nicea in 325 to govern the Church were like the elders that Moses appointed to govern Israel, and it was important that Church receiving the bishops’ wisdom not harden their hearts stubbornly, like Arius did.  One can see why those lessons were chosen for the feast of the Nicene Fathers.  But the third lesson is a bit of a puzzle—the story of Abraham and Lot and the armies of the pagans.
            Read all about it in Genesis 14:14-20.  Lot and Abraham settled down in the occupied Land of Canaan, Abraham settling in Hebron, and Lot in the more lush area of Sodom.  Unfortunately for Lot, an alliance of pagan kings from the north conducted a raid on the area around Sodom, vanquishing its kings and taking lots of plunder before returning home.  Among the plunder was Lot.  Someone who escaped from the scene of battle carnage fled to Hebron to tell Abraham what had happened to his nephew Lot.  Abraham’s response was immediate:  he gathered together an army (or raiding party, as we might say today) and gave chase.  They went far into the north, overtook them, routed them, and brought back Lot to safety.  On the way back home, he was met by Melchizedek, king of Salem, who brought out bread and wine as priest of El Elyon, God Most High.  A good story, one that would make a great movie.  But what on earth does it have to do with the Fathers gathered at Nicea?
            The answer lies in a small detail mentioned almost in passing:  Abraham “led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen of them” (verse 14).  And how many bishops were there at Nicea who rallied around the truth proclaimed by Athanasius and who produced the statement now known as the Nicene Creed?  You guessed it:  three hundred and eighteen.  In fact the creed of Nicea was traditionally known as “the creed of the three hundred and eighteen” (from the definition of faith of the council of Chalcedon).  For the one who chose the lessons for the feast of the Nicene Fathers, that number practically jumped off the page of Genesis, and the typological analogy was too good not to use.  Just as Abraham had gathered an army of three hundred and eighteen and rescued his kinsman Lot from pagan captivity, so Jesus, the Seed of Abraham, gathered an army of three hundred and eighteen to rescue His children from heretical error.  Armies are indispensible when war threatens, and those who fight in them to protect and save us are justly honoured as war heroes.  The bishops who gathered at Nicea are justly honoured as well.  In the case of Athanasius (at the time of the Nicene council, a mere deacon), he would suffer much for the faith, being exiled many times in the long aftermath of the council when the faith of Nicea strove for ascendency against the Arians.  A war hero indeed.
            This tells us that the choices between truth and error, between orthodoxy and heresy, are not merely intellectual options, parts of a mental game played by scholars when they’re bored.  The contest between truth and error is part of a war, the eternal war between light and darkness, between God and Satan, between the woman clothed with the sun and the dragon (Revelation 12).  A war is going on around us, and Nicea was only one battle in that long contest.  Other battles are being fought even now, and show up in blogs and on the six o’clock news.  We are all caught up in it.  All the more reason to honour the war heroes, like the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

They Found Something

  In one of my favourite Woody Allen films, “Love and Death” (a spoof on such Russian novels as War and Peace), the following dialogue takes place between Boris (played by Woody Allen) and his cousin Sonia (played by Diane Keaton):
Boris: “What if there is no God?”
Sonia: “Are you joking?”
Boris: “What if we’re just a bunch of absurd people running around with no rhyme or reason?”
Sonia: “But if there is no God, then life has no meaning!  Why go on living?  What not just commit suicide?”
Boris: “Well let’s not get hysterical.  I could be wrong.  I’d hate to blow my brains out and then [gesturing upward] read in the papers they found something.”
            As is often the case, Woody Allen reflects the assumptions of the common man.  As well as reflecting here some of the nihilism and perplexity of his time, he also reflects the assumption that all truth is essentially scientific truth, and that truths about God, if they can be discovered, will be discovered scientifically.  Like all scientific discoveries, it might be the case that “they” (the scientists) poking about in outer space (to which Boris was gesturing) finally “found something”.  It reminds people of my vintage of the story that when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from his quick journey in space he reported that he looked and did not see God while in space.  (The authenticity of the quote is disputed, but that is another question.  The atheistic propaganda version of what the cosmonaut said stuck.)  Like Woody Allen, this view presupposes that God can be discovered through telescope, or microscope, or through scientific theorizing.  It is true that they haven’t discovered anything yet.  But hold on—maybe one day they will find something.
            Actually, they already have found something.  But not through scientific theorizing and laboratory experiment.  God is not an inert substance to be stumbled upon, nor a rare breed to be discovered in the remote wilderness, like the creatures Darwin discovered in the Galapagos.  Rather, all the initiative for contact between God and man lies with God, and He has said that He will only allow Himself to be found by those that seek Him with their whole heart (Jer. 29:13).  It is therefore not surprising or disturbing that God was not discovered by scientific poking about beyond earth’s atmosphere.  What would have been more disturbing to Christian theology would be if He had.  But God has allowed Himself to be discovered by those seeking for truth.  And long ago, they did “find something”.
            Specifically, they found an empty tomb, with the grave clothes left behind and neatly folded up.  Read all about in the eye-witness document known as the Gospel of John:  “Then Simon Peter came and, following John, went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying and the napkin which had been on His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself” (Jn. 20:6-7).  Eventually they would meet the Lord Himself, and see His wounds, and eat and drink with Him over a period of forty days (Jn. 20:19, Acts 1:3).  That is, proof for the existence of God/ the truth of the Christian Faith was found historically, not scientifically.  This is because, as said above, God is not a thing which can be put under a microscope and examined, but a Person who can be met and loved.  And in Christ He chose to enter human history as a flesh and blood person like the rest of us.  After He did this on the first Christmas day, He grew to manhood, and did many other strange and miraculous things, including rising from the dead and leaving His grave-clothes behind, neatly folded up. 
            All of these things, occurring in history, are susceptible to historical verification, not scientific verification.  To demand scientific proof for historical claims is not to demand rigorous proof.  It is to confuse science with history, and prove oneself an incompetent scientist.  One proves the truth of historical claims (such as whether or not Nelson won the Battle of Waterloo) through historical methods, such as the credible reports of eye-witnesses and other records.  One proves the truth of scientific theorems (such as whether or not water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit) by repeated scientific experiment.  Only an idiot would try to prove in a lab whether or not the Duke of Wellington won the Battle of Waterloo.  That is the work of an historian, not a scientist.  The term “scientific proof” has come to be “conclusive proof”, but a moment’s reflection reveals the nonsense.  “Scientific proof” can only be had when proving matters of science; whereas proving whether or not something occurred in the past—i.e. matters of history—require not scientific proof, but historical arguments.  And the presence of the empty tomb, and the testimony of the apostles, and the astonishing volte-face conversion of the persecutor Saul of Tarsus, and the countless experiences of Christians ever since—all constitute just such historical arguments.  Nihilists should indeed refrain from blowing their brains out in a pique of nihilism.   It looks like they found something after all.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How Good and Pleasant It Is

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is,” said the psalmist in Psalm 133, “when brothers dwell in unity!”  Indeed, it is as if the proverbially-copious dew of Mount Hermon in northern Palestine were to fall as far south as the dry mountains of Zion (verse 3).  Such references to Zion and brotherly unity are all the more timely, given that Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are scheduled to meet and pray together in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem late in May.  The date was chosen as marking the fiftieth anniversary of the historic meeting of their predecessors, when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I met together in Jerusalem and began to thaw the previously chilly relationship between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, initiating what came to be known as the “dialogue of love”.  Prominent and news-worthy in that dialogue was the occasion in 1965 when they together formally “consigned to oblivion” the mutual anathemas pronounced by Roman and Constantinopolitan bishops in 1054.
            Such acts have largely symbolic value, since they do not restore inter-communion between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, nor do they resolve any of the many significant outstanding issues separating them.  They can have little practical value, since the bishops upon whom anathemas were lifted have now been dead for over a thousand years.  But symbolism is important, as Orthodox people should know better than anyone.  Indeed, the meeting this May is all about symbolism.
            We may take it for granted that the complex nuances of ecclesiology will largely escape the media.  They seemingly cannot be persuaded that the Patriarch of Constantinople does not occupy the same place in Orthodoxy as the Pope of Rome does in Roman Catholicism, and they tend to view such meetings as meetings “between the two heads of the churches”, forgetting that the Ecumenical Patriarch is not the Orthodox Pope.  Whether or not the bishop in Rome speaks for all Roman Catholics, the bishop in Istanbul does not speak for all Orthodox, as he would be the first one to admit.  He speaks for his own ecumenical see.  But like all his Orthodox brother bishops, he speaks from within Holy Tradition, so that he is not simply giving his own take on individual issues, but explaining what has always been the tradition of Orthodoxy.  Given that any pronouncements and acts will have only symbolic value, what can we hope for from this meeting?
            First, let us remind ourselves of what we should not hope for.  

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

"And the Marriage of Jesus and…Never Mind"

Well, that was quick.  It was just two years ago that The Latest Thing was the news that Jesus was married.  Now it turns out—not so much.  In the tradition of Mark Twain’s wry comment, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”, it would now seem that reports of Jesus’ matrimonial bliss have also been greatly exaggerated.
            It all began in Harvard, where feminist theologian Karen King (pictured above) announced that an ancient fragment of papyrus contained the words in Coptic, “Jesus said to them, my wife…”  Wow.  So Jesus was married!  Way to go—and to get attention.  For it certainly did get attention.  The papyrus was promptly dubbed the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”, and those dubious of its authenticity (such as the Vatican) were written off as partisans in the church’s continued struggle against women priests.  Harvard scholars with long lists of initials after their names solemnly released a series of articles defending Ms. King’s position.  Time magazine solemnly announced that several “teams of scientists” had therefore “proved its authenticity”.  With all the gravitas they could muster, journalists intoned “the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery”.   The pieces appeared, of course, just before Easter as modern journalism’s contribution to religious dialogue in the West.   The hubbub over the “Gospel of Judas” in about 2006 had died down, so it was time for something else.  What better news for a journalist could there be than the explosive discovery that Jesus was married, and that the Church had been wrong all along about yet something else?  Stop the presses!

            Then it quickly began to unravel.  A Coptic specialist at Indiana Wesleyan University, Christian Askeland, said that a few factors immediately indicated that they were dealing with a forgery, one of which was the fact that the Coptic dialect used in the papyrus fell out of use before the date that radiometric tests indicated that the papyrus was made.   Mark Goodacre, New Testament prof and Coptic scholar at Duke University came to the same conclusion:  “It is beyond reasonable doubt that this is a fake”.  So did Alin Suciu, researcher at the University of Hamburg and Coptic manuscript specialist:  “Given that the evidence of the forgery is now overwhelming, I consider the polemic surrounding the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus over.”  Okay then.  Nothing to see here.  Move along everyone.  Let’s just forget the whole thing.  Sorry, Ms. King.
            I think though that it would be a mistake to just forget the whole thing, however much Ms. King and her Harvard colleagues might like us to do so.  For the episode reveals something important about how our culture, and some in academic circles, look upon the traditional views of the historical Church—namely, that our culture is predisposed to accept any story, view, or discovery which casts doubt on the Church’s traditional faith.  Any news release or theory which could embarrass the Church or portray it in an unfavourable light as a collection of hide-bound obscurantists, will find an eager and ready audience, what sales people call “a motivated buyer”.  Certain sections of the academic world and the totality of the mass media will jump on any band-wagon or story deemed to be destructive of the Church’s traditional beliefs.  No sense sitting on the story until real scholars have pondered it, tested it, and subjected it to rigorous proof.  Easter is coming, and there is nothing that sells better than the latest revelation that the Church has been proven wrong once again.
            This means that we should sit lightly on The Latest Thing that comes down the journalistic pike when it announces in its customary solemn tones that the Church’s faith has been again proven to be bogus.  Whether it’s an ossuary or a papyrus presented for our excited consideration, it is likely that when the dust settles the debate between believers and unbelievers will be pretty much where it was before.  It is a mistake to let journalists or academics get us worked up.  It has all been done before.  Easter comes around every year and the media will be hard at their work of coming up with something new.  Two years ago, a feminist scholar from Harvard helped them out.  Who will help next time?  Stay tuned.