Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Chieti, Reunion, and the Rush to Embrace

On September 21, 2016, the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church met in Chieti and released an agreed statement with the long title, Synodality and Primacy during the first Millennium: Towards a commonunderstanding in service to the Unity of the Church”.  It did not chart the way forward toward consensus, but did agree upon a common understanding and interpretation of the past—a not inconsiderable achievement.
            This achievement was significant because Roman Catholicism, represented by its polemicists, formerly held to a view of history in which the Orthodox East of the first millennium embraced a view of the papal primacy more or less identical with that of post-Vatican I, in which the eastern part of the Church submitted to the Pope as the head of the Church with jurisdiction and canonical rule over its totality.  In this view of history, the East rejected its former attitude of complete submission to the Pope’s authority and was therefore guilty of the sin of schism and rightly anathematized as heretical and schismatical.  The only path forward therefore for the East was one of repentance and return to their former submission to the Pope.  That is what passed for ecumenism in the old days. 
            The Roman Catholic Church has since modified its view of history.  In the words of the Catholic Herald reporting the meeting in Chieti, “The document has accepted a reading of the first Millennium which is more in tune with the way Orthodoxy has tended to see it than that favoured by Catholic apologetics until recent times…It recognises that even in the West the understanding of Roman primacy was the result of a development of doctrine, particularly from the fourth century, and that this development did not occur in the East”.  This is a great step forward, since any further progress toward unity must at least agree upon what did or did not actually occur in the past.  Both Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy regard the praxis of the early church as in some way authoritative, so it is imperative that they agree about of what the praxis consisted.  The consensus achieved at Chieti is therefore to be welcomed and celebrated.
            But not, I think, over-stated.  That is, as even the Catholic Herald discerned, it is far too early for those hoping for an imminent reunion of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy to uncork the champagne.  When and if the hoped-for reunion takes place, it will not take place because a few people have met someplace to produce an agreed statement.  If it takes place at all it will take place because everyone everywhere throughout the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodoxy sees that the two groups have become so similar in their approach to life, in their dogmas, and in their spirituality that staying apart is manifestly stupid.  That is, the unity will be apparent as a reality on the grass-roots parish level, and not simply on the level of ecclesiastical bureaucracy with delegates meeting somewhere in the stratosphere to produce yet another agreed statement (which statements already exist in enough profusion to wallpaper the Vatican or the Phanar).
            Some people (who always seem to end up on Facebook) have suggested that before reunion can take place the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodoxy, the former must first renounce its attachment to the papal dogmas pronounced at Vatican I, its views of ancestral sin and the Immaculate Conception, its view of Purgatory, etc., etc.  Others have retorted that such an insistence simply sets conditions whereby a reunion will never occur, and is therefore ill-considered, if not actually churlish.  But surely reunion is not the issue?  Rather truth is the issue, and reunion can only be based upon agreement in the truth.  Orthodoxy must not insist upon (for example) Roman Catholicism abandoning its views on Purgatory because it wants to rub the Pope’s nose in the polemical mess of history, but because those views are in fact erroneous.  It would be happy if the Roman Church abandoned those views even if reunion never took place, simply because truth is preferable to error.
            The sad and sober fact is that the hoped-for reunion is miles away because the Roman Catholic communion differs from Orthodoxy in many things which are essential to the fullness of life and the healthy functioning of the Church.  One thinks here for example of the Roman Catholic Church’s virtual abandonment of its ascetical tradition, wherein Lenten fasting is made optional in North America and the Eucharistic fast reduced to one hour prior to receiving the Eucharist.  One thinks of its legalistic view of divorce and remarriage, of its centralism whereby the Pope is made the pilot of the entire Church in a kind of cult of celebrity.  These things are objectionable not simply because they are barriers to reunion, but because they are barriers to spiritual health, and Rome should dump them even if they never spoke another word to the Orthodox. 
Roman Catholics do not need to embrace the entire liturgical tradition of Orthodoxy and begin celebrating the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as is currently celebrated among us.  Their own classic Roman Mass is valid and wonderful as it is (or was).  The Orthodox do not insist that Rome “return to Orthodoxy” in the sense that it scrap everything western to embrace everything eastern in its stead.  But Orthodoxy does or should insist that Rome return to its own primordial western traditions of the first millennium, when it functioned efficiently as part of the historic Pentarchy, as the elder brother among its other patriarchal brothers.  When this occurs, with all the liturgical, ascetical, canonical, and dogmatic consequences this implies, all will see that there no longer remains any reason for East and West to remain out of communion.  The reunion then will not be a controversial possibility to be debated, but an obvious reality to be celebrated and sealed.  But until this occurs, reunion between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism will not be a godly possibility, and such a reunion would only result in a schism among the Orthodox.  And any heart, Roman Catholic or Orthodox, which desires the unity of East and West, will regard such a future schism with horror.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Just the Facts, Ma'am"

          I cannot have been the only one to have noticed on Facebook and other public forums an overwhelming use of ad hominem arguments when discussing controversial topics.  Whether the hot-button topic is abortion, the ordination of women, homosexuality, the revival of the office of deaconess, altar girls, transgender washrooms, Russia, the Ecumenical Patriarch, gun control, or the value of ecumenism, things very quickly slide from the objective to the subjective.  Rather than dealing with the actual substance of arguments by either disputing the facts or their interpretation, the respondents often respond by pointing out how heartless, misogynistic, arrogant, or generally terrible their opponent is.  This may or may not be true, though it is difficult to see how someone could have such deep insight into the character of strangers, but even if true, it is irrelevant to the argument at hand.  What matters is the reasonableness of the argument presented, not the general likeability of the person presenting it.  One sees this too in ad hominem attacks upon the scholarship involved:  sources cited are derided as being too old or (among the Orthodox) too western, when presumably the only thing that really matters is whether or not what the cited source says is true.  Unless the old source has said something which has later been proven by more recent scholarship to be unreliable, the date or provenance of the quote is as irrelevant as the likeability of the person citing it.  After wading through post after post of ad hominem responses online, one is tempted to reply with the quote often attributed to Sgt. Joe Friday from the television show Dragnet:  “Just the facts, ma’am.”
            The temptation to avoid dealing with the facts has a long and deep root in our culture.  As early as 1941 C.S Lewis examined the phenomenon in a slightly tongue-in-cheek essay entitled, ‘Bulverism’ or, The Foundation of 20th Century Thought.  In it he wrote,

“The modern method is to assume without discussion that [one's opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this by busily explaining how he became so silly.  In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it.  I call it Bulverism.  Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’  ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument.  Assume that your opponent is wrong and then explain his error and the world will be at your feet.  Attempt to prove that he is wrong and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’”

            Lewis was, of course, decrying the comparative absence of reason from popular argument in his day—an absence he detected throughout his culture in arguments about religion, economics, and politics.  The Bulveristic approach is popular, then as now, because it is so easy to use—understanding, analyzing, and dissecting someone’s argument is hard work, especially if the argument is long and nuanced and argues for a position one finds personally repellent.  Ignoring the argument and the facts and simply throwing verbal rocks is much easier.  And it also pays greater immediate dividends, for people respond more quickly and more deeply to emotion than to reason.  Painting one’s opponent in (for example) the glowing colours of a modernist apostate ecumenist liberal—or perhaps the glowing colours of a fundamentalist fanatical anti-ecumenist zealot—are both easy enough to do, and very emotionally satisfying.  Listening to their arguments with enough sympathy to try to understand how they might actually have a point somewhere is a lot more difficult.  But if the issue under discussion is to begin to find resolution, this hard work must be undertaken.  We must begin with just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.
            I remember during a presentation at the weekend seminar “Marriage Encounter” how the presenter encouraged couples to hold hands while they argued.  The idea was that the tactile connection of holding each other’s hands would keep the discussion from escalating out of control.  I have never found it necessary to follow the advice in a domestic setting, but I still think it good advice in an ecclesiastical one.  Not, of course, that one can actually hold the hands of the person one debates with online (or even see their faces).  But we can hold hands metaphorically, and remember that the person with whom we may disagree is more than their online words—that he or she a person for whom Christ died, someone deeply loved by God.  We owe it to them for God’s sake to listen as dispassionately as we can manage, and respond with calmness and charity.  We don’t need ad hominem approaches.  We can hold hands instead, and listen to the facts.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Jesus and Women

If we read the New Testament through the lenses of our modern egalitarian culture we may miss some things in it which were shocking to the original readers and hearers, especially in the ministry of Jesus.  We moderns in the West do not bat an eye when a man stops to speak with a woman in public.  If I go down in the elevator of my apartment with a female neighbour, we both think nothing of it if I comment on the weather or if I ask her how she is doing today.  In the homes of my parishioners we hold Bible studies which the women attend as well as the men, the ladies contributing comments and questions as frequently as do the gentlemen, and no one thinks anything of it.  We mix socially across the gender divide with complete ease, and never even realize that there is a gender divide to be crossed.  We do not stop and think to ourselves, “I am speaking with a woman”.  For us the person with whom we are speaking is not “a woman”; she is just Christine or Susan or Amy.  We naturally project this egalitarianism back upon our reading of the Gospels, and assume it was also like this.  But it is not so.
            In the time of Christ (and in much of the Islamic world today) a respectable man would never speak publicly to a woman, even if that woman were his wife.  He would never start a conversation or exchange words in public with a woman he did not know.  And Rabbis would certainly not teach the Torah to a woman.  Indeed, there was a Rabbinical saying it would be better for the Torah to be burnt that to be taught to a woman.
            Given this we can appreciate how revolutionary was the example of Jesus.  We can appreciate how shocking it was for Him to say that He had the authority to forgive the sins of the sinful woman who wept at His feet at He reclined in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36f).  We often fail to appreciate how shocking it was for Him to speak to her in public at all.  Yet He did this sort of thing habitually, cheerfully trampling upon what was regarded as respectable in order to reach people.  Thus He spoke to the Samaritan woman in public, and even asked her for a drink from her bucket at the well (John 4:4f).  When the disciples returned to Him from their errand, John relates in a wonderful and typical bit of New Testament understatement, “They marvelled that He had been speaking with a woman” (v. 27).  Respectable Rabbis never did that, but Jesus seemed to do it almost unthinkingly.
            We see the same overturning of cultural convention in the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38f).  Martha as a good host was busying herself preparing a meal for Jesus and His disciples, doubtless with the customary Middle Eastern sense of lavish hospitality.  This was women’s work, and she not unnaturally expected her sister Mary to help her with this important and large task.  But Mary was not prepared to help her.  Instead she sat at Jesus’ feet with the male disciples, listening to His word and receiving His teaching.  What the Rabbis who thought the Torah was better burnt than taught to a woman would have said about this we can perhaps imagine.  What Martha thought we don’t have to imagine.  The Gospel account tells us plainly what she thought and (probably loudly) said:  “Lord, don’t You care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone?  Then tell her to help me!” (v. 40).  Once again Jesus overturns the customs of His time, and refuses to send Mary back to the kitchen.  He gently chides Martha for her inflated concern about the meal, and tells her that Mary had chosen the best part—receptiveness to His Word—and that He would not take this from her.  Women as well as men were welcome at Jesus’ feet as co-equal disciples. 
            Jesus rejected some of the cultural norms of His day regarding women not through any cultural iconoclasm, but rather because He was preparing a new reality, one offered to both men and women alike—that of a new nature.  Through baptism in the Church, anyone could be born again, and live thenceforth with a new nature, the “new man” which was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Ephesians 2:15, Galatians 3:28).  Women could participate in this spiritual reality and spiritual power equally with men.  Whoever would be baptized into Christ would put on Christ, whatever their gender or race.  Jesus’ full acceptance of women as disciples pointed ahead to this new era of salvation.
            As the Church slowly expands its mission and begins to spread among its neighbours of Islamic background, we need to keep this revolutionary approach of Jesus in mind.  Much of the Islamic world bears a great resemblance to that of Palestine in the time of Christ.  In this Islamic culture, a man would never address a woman in public and ask after her welfare, or accept her hospitality if her husband were not present.  And a man might ask another man how his family was doing, but would never ask specifically how his wife was doing.  In that culture, even when women are not covered with the all-encompassing burqa, everyone is acutely conscious of the gender divide.  In our conversation with Muslims, we must be clear that what we are offering them as an alternative model for relations between the genders is not that of the secular West, which they all too often assume to be Christian, but that of Jesus.  When they look at the West and observe Miley Cyrus twerking, they not unnaturally reject this in favour of the more traditional and modest Islamic norms.  We must be clear that we Christians also reject such unseemly indecency and embrace a more modest model of behaviour.  That model is rooted not in the secular and degenerate West, but in the Gospels.  Not all egalitarianisms are created equal.  The example of Jesus offers a different kind of egalitarianism from that of the secular West—one that combines modesty with social equality.  It is this divine and Dominical egalitarianism which we offer to them and to the world.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The New American Family: Terminus Station

Time Magazine recently featured the story of a woman who decided to become a man and then decided to have a baby, which she eventually did.  The story was provocatively entitled, “My Brother’s Pregnancy and the Making of a New American Family”, and it included a photo of the mother of the baby, still sporting her beard, nursing her child (seen above).  The facts of the story are as follows.
            In 2000, when the woman (left unnamed with the usual political correctness) was nineteen, she decided she wanted to become a man, and later in 2003 at the age of 22 began the hormone injections involved in such a transition.  My guess is that her father’s decision to “come out” and declare himself gay at the age of fifty and the messy divorce which followed had something to do with her decision.  She did not have her breasts cut off through mastectomy as did many transgender women, nor have her genitals surgically altered.  She did however tightly bind her breasts.  The hormone therapy resulted in her hips thinning and hair beginning to grow over her knuckles and on her face.  She now called herself “Evan”.  Throughout all this she continued to want to bear a child.
            Her marriage partner was another woman, so of course conception by her was impossible.  (Some women who become men have male partners.)  She tried to conceive through artificial insemination, but was unsuccessful at first.  Eventually over the course of several years and $12,000 worth of fertility treatments, she managed to conceive and carry the child to term.  This New American Family now consists of two women (one with a beard) and child of unknown or unrevealed parentage.  The icon of the New American Family is a photo of the bearded mother breast-feeding her child.  The canons of the transgender movement of course do not refer to the act as “breast-feeding”, since “breasts” presuppose that a woman is involved and they are insistent that the mother is a man.  The new and acceptable term is “chest-feeding”.   
What is an Orthodox Christian to think of all this?  Granted that it is unnatural in the most basic of senses, since it is against nature for bearded men to conceive and bear children, but are there other lessons to be learned?  I can think of three of them, for by glancing at a trio of insanities we can learn what sanity really looks like.
            The first insanity is that which regards gender not only as fluid or as something one chooses, but also as something to be created.  Prior to this dark moment in the cultural history of the human race, gender was considered a gift, something received at birth, a gift containing both certain advantages and disadvantages.  Conformity to the dictates of one’s given gender was part of one’s larger conformity to and recognition of how the universe was supposed to run.  People did not invent their own moralities, but strove (or perhaps did not strive) to conform to a set of given truths—such as the truth that kindness was to be chosen over cruelty, that murder and theft were wrong, that self-sacrifice for the greater good was admirable.  (C. S. Lewis referred to such a shared universal inheritance as “the Tao”.)  Authentic human living meant conformity to these given transcendent truths.  These truths were not created by men, but discovered by them, and universally held to be true.  A father passed them on to his children, like a bird teaching its offspring how to fly.  The given nature of gender was one part of this complete package.       
          In the New American Family however, as in the transgender movement generally, gender is not a gift received, but the result of our sovereign choice.  We create our own gender, using technology as our tool.  (Let us pause to note the classist nature inherent in the transgender movement:  only the rich can afford to create their own gender with such expensive technology.  The poor of the Third World must be content with the gender they received at birth.)  The decision to create our own gender is part of our larger project of self-deification.  The serpent in the garden once promised that we could become like God (Genesis 3:5), and we have followed his counsel in refusing to accept the limitations of creaturehood.  We have become our own creators, and have used scientific technology to cast aside the necessity of submitting to God and His laws.  It is as if Mary Shelley had never written her famous novel.  By observing the horror that is the New American Family, we can relearn the truth that gender is a gift we receive, part of the large life-giving inheritance of transcendent truth given to all men.
            The second insanity is that which views a child as a commodity, as something to have simply because one wants to have it.   Once again everything here depends upon our unbridled and sovereign choice—if I want a child, then I must have it; and if I don’t want a child, I must not have one forced upon me simply because conception has occurred.  Using the twin tools of fertility treatments and abortion, we can have whatever we want, regardless of the insistent and intractable facts biology.  Prior to this, children were regarded as a gift, just as (for the Christian) everything in life was regarded as a gift.  God might close the womb and deny the gift or open the womb and give the gift (see 1 Samuel 1:5, 19), but the reception of the gift did not depend upon our will, but upon God’s. 
Such submission is intolerable to the New American Family.  As a part of the privileged and affluent secular West, it must have whatever it decides it wants.  If a family or a woman does not want to have a child, then the child, if conceived, must be aborted.  If a family or a woman does want to have child, then the child must be produced, even if it is impossible for two women (or two men) to conceive.  This is not to deny that the child produced may be loved and valued.  But we must recognize that the child has been produced on demand, like any other desired commodity.  And the mindset which regards one’s desires and demands as absolutely primary and imperative will inevitably produce other unforeseen and unfortunate results also.  Throughout the New American Family will run the silent but constant theme, “I must have whatever I want.”  Such selfishness (to give its true and traditional name) is a poor foundation on which to build authentic and selfless character.  Many people today are demanding and entitled enough already, and have little regard for the demands of self-sacrifice and self-denial.  The New American Family is likely to have even less regard for these demands.  The will to power becomes all.  One can almost hear Nietzsche stirring in his long sleep.   
            Finally we note how such insanities tend to increase throughout the generations, as madness builds upon madness.  Whether one calls this “the thin edge of the wedge argument” or not, experience teaches us that what one generation quietly allows, the next will exuberantly celebrate, and that this celebration will form the foundation for further developments.  St. Paul was referring to this process of inevitable and increasing degeneration when he reminded the Corinthians that even a little leaven would eventually leaven the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6).
We see this in recent history:  not long ago, the homosexual community insisted vociferously that sexual orientation was set at birth, and declared that a homosexual was born gay, with his homosexual orientation as firmly given at birth as if it had been set in stone.  Now we can observe the next step in this erosion of traditional values, and see how gender and orientation themselves are regarded as entirely fluid.  We can now pick our gender from a whole range of choices.  We have created a “transfeminine spectrum” which includes such categories as “genderfluid”, “nongender”, “transmasculine”, and most alarming of all, “cisgender”—the now preferred term denoting the state where one’s self-identity conforms to the gender of one’s biological sex.  What used to be called simply “normal” has now been transformed so that it is but one option among many.  Since each generation builds, for better or worse, upon the inheritance it received from the previous one, we can expect even more and catastrophic confusion in the generations to come.  Family, rooted in the given realities of gender, is the factory which produces authentic and healthy persons, and whenever the machinery in the factory has been altered or damaged, the persons produced by the family will be correspondingly hampered.  The downward spiral and consistent erosion of basic human categories reveals the importance of preserving inherited truth and of drawing the line against further erosion.
            In the public transit system in the city in which I live, a voice is heard over the light rail train’s loudspeaker as the cars approach the final stop.  It announces that stop as the “terminus station”, the end of the line, thereby inviting everyone to leave.  I believe that the recent celebration of the New American Family featured in Time Magazine is evidence that we have reached the terminus station.  I cannot see how the family factory can go any further astray than it has now gone; and unless we reverse the trajectory it is the end of the line for us culturally as far as family is concerned.  Time Magazine has kindly announced we are at our terminus station.  I suggest that it is time get off the secular transit in which our culture is riding, and return to an earlier form of travel.  It would seem that our culture stands at a cross-roads, where the choice is between the unnatural monstrosities of the New American Family, and the supernatural sanities of the eternal Family of God.