Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever

          Our experience of living in North America today is very different than was the experience of living in Byzantium in the fifth century, or in Holy Russia in the nineteenth century—or even in post-Soviet Russia now in the twenty-first century.  Every culture is different, and these differences profoundly impact on the life of the Church and its mission to those around it.  These differences create challenges for us, because although the Christ and His Gospel will never change, the culture around us always changes.   Our perennial task therefore is how to remain faithful to the Gospel in our ever-changing culture.  
            Some voices would suggest that faithfulness to the Gospel involves not simply confronting our ever-changing culture in a dialogue, but in fact being open to learn from our culture and accept its dominant values as our own.  Those who suggest this course of action usually confuse and in fact identify dialogue with our culture with capitulation to it, promoting this capitulation under the heading of dialogue.  “Capitulation” is an ugly word, but “dialogue” is a nice one. Everyone wants to be open to dialogue with our culture—how else can we preach the Gospel if we do not engage those around us?  How can we reach those in our surrounding culture if we do not speak their language?  Dialogue is good.  Refusing the path of dialogue is thus denounced as narrow-minded fundamentalism, as a failure to allow the heart and mind to expand, a failure to repent and be open to the way of Christ.  Christ wants us to repent, to change—surely then we should be humble enough to learn from our society in a dynamic process with our surroundings and be open to change?  If we refuse, we risk being bound to the past, making former signposts into idols.
            This approach is not new.  In the ‘60s voices were raised telling us (in the words of a 1968 World Council of Churches slogan) “the World sets the agenda for the Church”, and movements such as the Women’s Movement were proclaimed as the work of the Spirit, a sign of the times calling the Church to follow it into new fields of faithfulness to God’s Spirit.   In our day, new voices are similarly raised in the same cry—this time talking not about the ordination of women, but gay and transgender “rights” and the acceptance of the homosexual cultural agenda.
            An old Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times”, but in fact all times are equally interesting to the Christian, because in every time we still live in a world which lies under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19).  Regardless of the secular culture surrounding us, the Christian still walks through a world whose god blinds the minds of the unbelieving (2 Corinthians 4:4), so that the Christian’s perennial and timeless task is to be in the world, but not of it.  That is, until the Lord returns we will always live in tension with parts of the culture in which we find ourselves, and we must resist its impact upon us or we will become salt that has lost its savour.  That is not a fate to be envied; the Lord denounced it as good for nothing, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men (Matthew 5:13).
            Resisting the harmful parts of the culture around us, however, requires discernment.  It will not do to say, “The world is bad and so I am going to leave it”, making a fundamentalist retreat to some survivalist bomb shelter in the Arizona desert, or a monastery on Athos, or a small Amish town in Ohio.  Most of have to stay where we are and bloom where we’ve been planted.  That means that the Church must examine the secular culture around it and differentiate which parts of it are good and compatible with the Gospel, and which parts of it are bad and sinfully incompatible.  Satan, being a great salesman (or, to use St. Paul’s image, able to disguise himself as an angel of light; 2 Corinthians 11:14), is always hard at work to make this process of discernment a difficult one, since in our culture bad sinful things are presented as good wholesome things.   How then can we distinguish the truly wholesome from the only apparently wholesome?  The poisonous things in our medicine cabinets are labelled as poisonous, but not the poisonous things in our culture.  There some things are poisonous that have been convincingly labelled as good medicine.  What then can we do?  In the case our current cultural controversy, how can we decide whether or not acceptance of the homosexual agenda represents openness to the Spirit or capitulation to the spirit of the age?  Are we left entirely at the mercy of our own little wisdoms, or (God save us) the pronouncements of sociological “experts”? 
            Happily, no.  In every time and every culture in which we find ourselves, we have a trans-cultural norm to guide us, a plumb-line to hang against our culture to determine if it is straight or crooked.  That plumb-line is our Holy Tradition, and it can be accessed through the Scriptures and the Fathers.  In other words, by an appeal to our past.  Tradition is not an oppressive tyrant (as some suppose it to be), because it liberates us from the more oppressive tyranny of the present fads and fashions.  Every age has its own blind spots.  Every age thought that its fashions and fads were the latest truths, exciting and liberating discoveries gifted to them from the surrounding culture, deeper insights from the Gospel that previous ages somehow missed.  They were wrong, and the passing of time revealed these errors to be—well, erroneous.  But to those then living under the tyranny of fashion and the spirit of the age, these errors seemed to be so obviously true.  That is why we need something that stands apart from the current zeitgeist—like our Holy Tradition.  The Tradition in our past turns out to be the only way to be truly and safely open to the future.
            Obviously those still under the tyranny of each age’s zeitgeist will denounce appeal to the past as blind fundamentalism, and as contrary to the deepest truths of the Gospel which our secular age now offers as a gift.  It has ever been so.  But if we would remain true to Christ and preserve His unchanging Gospel for coming generations, we must firmly resist the siren song of our secular and ever-shifting age, and stand with the Scriptures and the Fathers.  This is not fundamentalism, but faithfulness.  And it is the only way to preserve the Gospel in interesting times.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Are Christians a Persecuted Minority in the West?

          Everyone loves a victim, and is happy to claim victim status.  It bestows a kind of righteous aura, as well as a Get Out of Jail Free card when caught behaving badly.  Perhaps for this reason many places cultivate a culture of victimhood.  As the North American culture war rages on, the question may be asked:  are Christians victims?  Do they constitute a persecuted minority in the West? 
            It all depends, of course, upon how one defines persecution.  When one looks back historically and abroad geographically, one sees real persecution.  The Christians of pagan Rome in the second and third centuries, and the Christians of Soviet Russia in the twentieth endured true persecution.  They were arrested simply because of their faith in Christ and membership in His Church; they were imprisoned, tortured, sent into exile or killed.  Similar suffering is experienced now by Christians abroad, such as in the world of Islam (for which, I need hardly add, one should not blame one’s Muslim neighbour down the street).  This is true persecution, and as far as I can see, no one in North America experiences that.  Many people face discrimination and bullying, including gays and Muslims, but arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution are not experienced by any citizen on North American soil for their religious allegiance.  If we choose to define as persecution the discrimination experienced by these groups, then we need to find another word to describe the experiences of those who are arrested, tortured, and killed for their Faith.  Accordingly I would reserve the term “persecution” for those experiencing this latter form of suffering.
            Perhaps a better way of approaching the whole question would be to inquire whether those publically espousing and promoting the beliefs and values of the Christian Faith pay a social price for such espousal and promotion.  Here, I think, the answer is clearly, “yes they do”.   But in asserting that traditional Christian values have become unpopular in North America and that Christians pay a price for espousing them, we must further define what we mean by “Christian values”.  All sorts of people claim the Christian label, people as different from one another as John Spong and Billy Graham.  Some assert, for example, that support for the LGBT agenda is incumbent upon them as Christians, while others assert that resisting this agenda is a part of their duty as Christians.  Some feel that their Christian Faith compels them to support a woman’s right to abort her child, while others feel that their Faith compels them to oppose abortion.  Given the tremendous diversity of people all claiming that their values and views are specifically Christian, a definition of Christian values would be helpful.
            By the term “Christian values” I mean the values and views contained in the New Testament Scriptures and held by the Fathers as the authoritative and recognized interpreters of those Scriptures.  Thus, to speak to the two issues mentioned in passing above, the Scriptures and the Fathers assert that homosexual acts are inherently sinful, and that abortion is tantamount to murder.  One can disagree with these sentiments, but it seems clear enough that they are indeed those of the Scriptures and the Fathers.  Of course one can disagree with the foundational documents of historical Christianity and its acknowledged spokesmen and still claim to be Christian.  But integrity would seem to demand that one then admit to inventing a new religion, and have the honesty to give it a name other than “Christianity”. Some label adherence to the older and historical values of Christianity “conservative Christianity” or even “fundamentalism”.  All such heated rhetoric and labelling aside, “conservative Christianity” is the only kind of Christianity that would be acknowledged as such by the Fathers, and a more liberal kind of Christianity that advocated acceptance of homosexual practices would not be called Christianity by them, but rather heresy—or perhaps simply worldliness.  (Please note that I am referring to the historical theology of “conservative Christianity”, not to the politics of the American Religious Right.)
            That Christians find themselves at odds with the prevailing culture is not surprising, and should not be a cause for Christians to wail in shock as if this were something new.  Or, in the words of 1 Peter 4:12 they should “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you as though something strange were happening to you”.  Nothing new or odd is occurring; the World is simply acting like the World, as it has always done.  Our Lord warned us that the world will hate us because we are no longer of the world since He has chosen us out of the world” (Jn. 15:18-19).  Paul exhorted us not to let the world squeeze us into its mould (Rom. 12:2, Phillips translation).  James reminded us that friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4), and John told us that the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One (1 Jn. 5:19).  Recognizing this fundamental opposition of the World to the Kingdom is not paranoia, but a basic category for Christians living in this age.  This age (in Latin, saecula, from which we get the word “secular”) will always challenge and tempt Christians to cease living differently than others live and conform to the fallen categories of the world around us.  These temptations will differ from century to century, and from place to place.  In the first centuries of the Church’s existence, the main temptation was to idolatry.  In the Old South at the time of the American civil war, the prevailing secular blind spot was its racism.  The varying ways in which the World tempts Christians differ according to time and place, but the element of threat from worldliness remains, as the strong and rich tyrannize the weak and poor.  In any age or place if Christians simply go with the secular flow, they will be going in the wrong direction.  Worldliness remains one of the perennial temptations for the disciples of Jesus; and the perennial challenge for us is to discern where the secular world is right and where it is wrong.  This discernment doesn’t require one to be a prophet or a genius.  One just needs to be humble and teachable, able to read the Scriptures and willing to listen to the Fathers.
            Just now in North America the World is pressuring Christians in matters of gay rights and abortion, and identifying yourself as a Christian who opposes these things is enough to bring angry voices and retaliation.  Despite the fact that Christians form a sizable clump of the population in the U.S. (less so in Canada), espousing Christian values in these key areas where the World presses its agenda brings vigorous push back.   This pressure seems to be increasingly hostile and frequent.
            It seems that as long as Christians speak and act like the World in this cultural shift no sanctions will be forthcoming.  If they dare to contradict the World as it changes older Christian norms and values, a price will be exacted of them.  In a very real sense, there will be hell to pay.  Admittedly this does not constitute persecution.  But it does mean that the World is aggressively pursuing its own agenda and putting pressure on Christians to either conform or at least shut up.  Living in a democracy where laws and norms can be debated and changed encourages us not to shut up just yet.  Discipleship to Jesus Christ demands that we refuse to conform ever, no matter what.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Anglicans and Copts and an Agreed Statement

          In October of this year, as reported by theAnglican Communion News Service, the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission held its third meeting at the Coptic St. Mark’s Center in Cairo.  The Commission consists of Anglican and Oriental Orthodox theologians who met with a view to resolving the Christological differences which for centuries have separated them.  The Oriental Orthodox (so called to distinguish them from the Eastern Orthodox—i.e. us—a bit confusing, since “oriental” simply means “eastern”) have in times past been called “the Monophysites” (from mono physis, “single nature”).  The term derives from their historical refusal to accept the two-nature Christology articulated at the Council of Chalcedon in favour of their own single-nature Christology.  They dislike the term “Monophysite” as misleading, if not derogatory.  A politer term for them is “non-Chalcedonian”.  Whatever the nomenclature, since 451 A.D. they have been out of communion with the rest of the “Chalcedonian” Orthodox Church.  The Coptic Church (“Coptic” simply means “Egyptian”) is joined in this dialogue by the Armenian Church, which shares their single-nature Christology.  It is the schism between these churches and the Chalcedonian churches that the Anglican Communion centered in Canterbury wishes to resolve.  In October the Commission met to finally approve an Agreed Statement about Christology which they had been working on and circulating among their member churches since 2002.
            A lot of the Christological legwork and doctrinal heavy lifting has already been done.  Our own “Chalcedonian” theologians have also been meeting with our non-Chalcedonian brothers for some time now (they first started in 1964), and have come to the same conclusions arrived at by this Commission.  That is, it seems that at the end of the day when the political muscle and interference of the Byzantine Emperor is no longer around to muddy the doctrinal waters, that the two groups are both confessing the same truths about Christ using different terminologies.  We both confess that (in the words of the recent Agreed Statement) the incarnate Christ is “perfect in His divinity and perfect in His humanity, consubstantial with the Father according to His divinity and consubstantial with us according to His humanity, for a union has been made of two natures”.  These two natures are so closely united that they can be distinguished “in thought alone” (so St. Cyril of Alexandria), and these natures continue to exist “without separation, without division”.  Christ has a single nature in the sense that He has “one incarnate, united, divine-human nature”.  In many ways the Agreed Statement which our Coptic friends have signed with us and our Anglican friends leads one to heave a heavy sigh.  If we could’ve gotten this in the fifth century, the schism originating in that century would not exist now.  As it is, the current Agreement is being hailed by the Anglican Communion News Service as “a significant step of reconciliation”.  The agreement is now being sent to the “responsible authorities” of the churches involved for “their consideration and action”.
            How should we regard this recent development?  Certainly any level of agreement between Christians is a good thing and should be treasured and celebrated, especially if it involves resolving long-standing disagreements.  But is this really “a significant step of reconciliation” in the sense of being newsworthy?  After all, the Copts and Armenians more or less said the same thing to us some time ago.  Does this recent Agreed Statement mean that Canterbury-centered Anglicanism (there are now several kinds of Anglicanism) will soon reconcile with the Copts and share communion?  Is it really almost time to uncork the champagne?
            Well, no.  The ecumenical goal of restored communion between presently divided churches cannot be accomplished simply by having their theologians issue agreed statements to which their synods later simply sign on.  The insufficiency of such a method is well illustrated in the case of the Anglican Communion—for how can the Anglican Communion agree with the Copts about Christ’s divine and human natures when some of their own clergy don’t even believe that He is divine?  The goal of restored communion presupposes that the churches involved in the restoration share not merely bureaucratic assent to the contents of a piece of paper, but also share the same understanding of what it means to live the Christian life.  This includes not only agreeing upon a Christology, but also upon agreeing upon the very importance of Christology itself, as well as other important things.   
To share the same understanding of what it means to live the Christian life, the reuniting bodies would have to agree upon such things as how decisions in the church are made, and by what authority.  They would have to agree upon what constitutes true liturgy, and how to prepare for that liturgical experience.  They would have to agree upon what things are morally forbidden to Christians, and what things are mandatory.  In other words, they would have to agree upon such presently controversial issues as the synodical structure of the church, the authority of Scripture and the Fathers, the sacrificial Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, of the efficacy of prayers for the dead, devotions to the Mother of God and the saints, the use of icons, and of the necessity of fasting.  They also would have to reach a consensus regarding the ordination of women, the legitimacy (or otherwise) of homosexual behaviour and of abortion.
Put another way, the ecumenical goal will not be reached until the members of either church in those reuniting with each other can attend the other’s churches and find the same doctrinal, liturgical, moral, and ascetical realities and standards.  For sharing communion means not inter-communion between different churches, but communion within the same church.  That is why these other details are so important, for they constitute what it means to live as a part of a church.  If “living the Christian life” for one person means effectively jettisoning the Fathers and Tradition, accepting the ordination of women, gay marriage, abortion, dispensing with fasting, and having a stripped down 30 minute Mass, while for another person “living the Christian life” means abiding by the Fathers and Tradition, rejecting the ordination of women, gay marriage, and abortion, and insisting on fasting in preparation for the Church’s historic Liturgy, then clearly these persons are living in two entirely different churches.  This fundamental fact cannot be altered simply by having some theologians sign an Agreed Statement affirming a Christology which some of one church’s members regard as meaningless anyway.  One wonders if the Anglican Communion News Service recognizes this.  Regardless, it should be apparent even to journalists that the Anglican Communion and all Orthodox Churches, whether “Oriental” or “Eastern”, are miles apart on all these issues, and that the gap separating them grows wider every day.  It is good to have reached this agreement, but it is far from time to uncork the ecumenical champagne.  This agreement is but one step on the long road to unity.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How To Expand the Mission: a List for the OCA

          The theme of the first All-American Sobor of our Church was “How to Expand the Mission”, and this is significant, for the fathers of that Sobor identified their Church as “the Mission”.  Our church in North America is thus a missionary church, with the missionary impulse written into our ecclesiastical DNA.  Those setting the theme of that first Sobor knew this.  We forget this today at our peril.  We sometimes act as if our survival in this country is a “given”, and that because Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church, Orthodoxy in North America is somehow immune to decline or eventual obliteration.  It is not so.  When the church in Ephesus proved unfaithful and disobedient to Christ, He threatened that He would “remove their lampstand from its place” unless they repented (Rev. 2:5).  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Orthodox Church in North America could suffer a similar fate if it embarked and continued on a similar track did as the Church in Ephesus.  After all, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)—both in faithfulness and in judgment.  So, the question remains now as it did for our forefathers at the first All-American Sobor:  How can we expand our mission in faithful obedience to Jesus Christ?  I suggest that a list of faithful duties should include four things.
First, we must preach Christ.  This may seem too obvious to need stating, as some may ask, “What else would we preach?”  Actually, sometimes we preach ourselves.  Of course we call it “Orthodoxy” and not “ourselves”, but it is really ourselves that we are preaching.  That is, we all to often give the impression that our message is about becoming Orthodox, and joining the true Church.  We talk about the glory of our icons, the beauty of our Liturgy, the long pedigree of our history, the richness of our theology.  The glory, the beauty, the pedigree, and the richness are all wonderful, but they do not constitute our central message to the world.  Our main message is not “join us because we’re so wonderful”, but “come to Christ because He is Lord”.  Obviously coming to Christ as Lord involves joining His body the Church, but joining the Orthodox Church is not the Gospel itself, but the way of responding to the Gospel.   As St. Paul reminded us, the trumpet must sound a clear note to be heeded (1 Cor. 14:8), and the note our Orthodox Gospel trumpet must sound is about the necessity of living in repentant commitment to Jesus Christ.  “We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5).  We must preach Christ so relentlessly that when an outsider hears the words “the Orthodox Church”, he instinctively thinks not of  “icons and brocade”, but of “repentance and commitment to Jesus”.
Secondly, we must worship with an eye towards our youth.  The Church must evangelize or die, since it always lives its life on the precipice of mortality.  That is, we are all going to die after about seventy or eighty years of life, and if we do not convert our children and our grandchildren to the Faith during that time, then the Church will be extinct in about two or three generations.  Evangelism is often thought of in terms of outsiders, but it includes us insiders as well.  A quick look around at the people in the pews will reveal that not all churches have retained their children, to the point where some churches consist primarily of the elderly.  That is what the oft-quoted proverb, “Children are the future of the church” means—we must convert and retain our children for the Kingdom of God, or our churches will eventually close (or, worse yet, be converted into museums).  How do we keep our children in the Faith?  I don’t know of any sure-fire way to guarantee that our children will remain faithful, but we can at least not make the way more difficult for them by worshipping in a language they do not understand.  That is, our liturgical worship should be in a vernacular language, such as one the children speak at school and which comes to them as they watch television.  That is the language in which the church should liturgize, though of course using the most elegant and stately version of that language possible. 
We sometimes face the temptation to liturgize long-term in a language other than the vernacular, in order to appeal to the immigrant population of Orthodox coming to us from abroad.  That will pay immediate dividends in terms of making them feel welcome, but it builds in a longer-term problem when it comes to keeping the youth.  The question must be squarely faced:  is the church’s survival here ultimately dependent upon evangelization or immigration?  Obviously we must utilize both in some way, but a church like ours which aspires to be the indigenous Orthodox church of North America must give priority to one or the other.  If we choose to give priority to the former, then we must make the vernacular the main language of our liturgical worship.
Thirdly, we must keep the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).  The perennial temptation is to alter and water down the Faith so that it conforms more closely to ever-changing canons of political correctness—or, in more Scriptural language, to let the world squeeze us into its mould (Romans 12:2 Phillips).  Every generation faces its own temptations to become worldly and to conform to the moral fashions of the day.  In our generation, this fashion includes acceptance of abortion and of homosexuality/ transgender as normal.  Altering the Church’s traditional Faith to conform more closely to the world around us might gather popularity in the world’s eyes, but it is not the scrutiny of the World with which we are ultimately concerned, but the scrutiny of Heaven.   A number of denominations in North America have already changed their belief and praxis to conform more closely to the world in the name of being relevant and inclusive, but this seems not to have resulted in the secular masses stampeding into their emptying churches and filling their inclusive pews.  Rather, the faith-groups which seem to be growing are precisely the ones which demand the most from their adherents and which differentiate themselves most radically from the secular world around them.  Nonetheless, our fidelity to our apostolic Tradition should not be motivated simply from a desire to avoid the numerical decline afflicting the liberal churches, but from a desire to please the Lord and be faithful to the Scriptures.
We should settle it in our minds in advance:  if we remain faithful to our apostolic Tradition in our public preaching, a number of people will be very vocally upset with us.   They will accuse us of being judgmental and uncompassionate, write angry letters to church websites, and denounce us in their blogs and on Facebook.  But we may take comfort in something Dorothy Sayers once said (in her essay The Dogma is the Drama):  “It is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.”  This remains true even though some men resist being thus adapted.  Proclaiming the truth always is divisive and it always upsets certain people.  Bearing this with serenity is the cost of our being faithful in a dark age; it is what carrying the cross is all about.
Lastly, our church communities must become islands of welcoming love and mutual support, shining like lights in the world, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil. 2:15).  The world is a hard and unforgiving place, and the human heart accumulates many knocks and wounds from it in very short order.  Our parishes should present an alternative to the way of the world, and be seen as places where everyone may come, and repent, and find a safe home and a loving family.  The Lord told us this long ago:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).  Too often are our parishes are simply gatherings of religious people who are really not that that much different from anyone else.  We need to repent, and become communities of acceptance, radiating a love which makes us different from anything found anywhere else in the world.  Religiosity is easy to resist.  Resisting love is much harder.
All Christians of the traditional sort in North America will face challenging days in the coming decades, and will have to endure a kind of internal exile, increasingly banished from the cultural mainstream.  That is fine, and represents a new kind of opportunity.  It was difficult to do mission work and convert people to Christ in a day when most equated being a Christian with being nice.  Hardly anyone makes that equation any more.  The time of Christianity’s cultural ascendency and privilege in North America is over.  The time for real mission work has begun.