Monday, April 24, 2017

Converting the Heathen

In 1996 National Geographic magazine (paged through in a waiting room) featured an article on my old hometown of Toronto, in which a Torontonian commented on how the great urban city had 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 we know that 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” (Mark 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 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 their other motto “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, and the others we did not discern legitimate religious diversity but the worship of demons (see 1 Corinthians 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 would 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 (John 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.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Rejoinder to Dr. Ladouceur

           One dubious joy of publishing anything more controversial than a cookbook is that of attracting critical responses.  One such critical response came lately from Dr. Paul Ladouceur, resident of Quebec, Canada, and a distinguished teacher at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, Toronto.  Dr. Ladouceur’s negative critique of my 2012 book Feminism and Tradition was published in a recent number of the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, which is perhaps a bit odd, given that the book was a publication of SVS Press to begin with.  Go figure.
            If the response were simply an ignorant and dismissive rant such as one sometimes finds in the Customer Reviews section of, one could simply shrug and get on with other things.  But a critique as thoughtful and lengthy as Dr. Ladouceur’s in a journal as prestigious as the St. Vlad’s Quarterly deserves at least the courtesy of a reply, and I will try to give such a courteous reply now.
            I appreciate Dr. Ladouceur’s fairly long and detailed critique, along with his final stated preference for Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s essay in the 1999 edition of Women and the Priesthood because it demonstrates that the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood is still a live one in the Orthodox Church, and that therefore the need for a book like mine still exists.
            To respond to specific critiques:  Ladouceur writes that my “principal arguments revolve around the Scriptural teaching of the subordination of women to men”, and “the witness of the Fathers”.  Actually it is simpler than that:  my principal arguments consist of a re-statement of the Scriptural teaching on the subject and the witness of the Fathers.  In other words, I simply present what the Bible and the Fathers teach on the subject, and assert that for Orthodox Christians the teaching of Scripture and the Fathers should settle the question.  It is significant perhaps that Dr. Ladouceur does not dispute my presentation of what the Bible and the Fathers actually teach.  Does he assert that the Bible for example doesn’t say what I assert that it says, and that I am misinterpreting the texts?  If I am correct in my presentation of the teaching of the Bible and the Fathers, then what is the problem?  Does Dr. Paul dissent from the teaching of Scripture?  This question must be answered before any other really fruitful debate can occur.
            Another point:  Ladouceur writes that I “focus more on the second creation account in Genesis and the fall than the first account, and more on Paul’s teachings concerning women than of Jesus’ dealings with women”.  This gives the impression that I prefer the second account in Genesis to the first, and the writings of Paul to the “dealings” of Jesus.  In fact I deal with the second account in Genesis and the fall more than the first account because there is more material to be examined in the second account—thirty-one verses in the second account compared to just five verses in the first.  It is similar in dealing with Jesus and Paul:  Jesus’ dealings with women constitute a comparatively small amount of material compared to the writings of Paul.  Since my project is rooted in exegesis, how could I do anything else?  Once again I suspect that Dr. Ladouceur and I have different views regarding the authority of the texts themselves.  Since I regard all of Scripture as authoritative, I cannot pick and choose, preferring the dealings of Jesus over the writings of Paul, or preferring the first creation story over the second.  All are parts of Holy Writ, and all must be believed.  One may not oppose one to another and then pick one’s favourite, but must interpret all the material as constituting a single harmonious whole.  Ladouceur grants that “it is certainly much easier to support the contention of women as subordinate to men from the Pauline epistles than from the Gospels”.  One gets the impression that he opts for the Gospels over the epistles.  But my point is that one does not get to choose one over the other, but that both are authoritative and can be harmoniously combined.  I realize that not everyone in Academia views Scripture as possessing such authority and as capable of harmonization (not to put too fine a point on it).  But the Fathers had such a view of Scripture, and the mindset of the Fathers must be ours as well.
            Another point:  Dr. Paul says that I “slide very quickly from the historical fact that Christ did not choose a woman among the apostles to a broad theological conclusion ‘showing that he [i.e. Christ] recognised their [women’s] subordination’”.  This he decries as “a logical non sequitur”.  Dr. Paul offers an adequate statement of my summary conclusion on p. 66, but ignores how I reached that conclusion in the previous pages.  My point in those previous pages was that (as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:34) the Law mandates a degree of social submission on the part of women, and Christ did nothing to overturn this attitude.  He had no problem overturning other Jewish attitudes He found objectionable, but still declined to choose women as authority-bearing apostles.  This suggests that He found nothing objectionable in this part of the Law.
            Dr. Ladouceur also objects that I leave several questions “dangling”, such as the relationship between “‘equality’ and ‘subordination’”, and objects that I “do not reconcile two seemingly opposing ontological principles”.  That is because, once again, I do not view equality and subordination as opposing ontological principles that require any reconciliation.  I realize that feminist exegesis does indeed regard them as opposite and as mutually exclusive, so that if I say that wives must submit to their husbands, I cannot consistently assert any ontological equality between them.  But the feminists are simply wrong about this.  Where they see opposition of principles, I (and the Fathers) see intricacy, richness, and nuance.  It looks as if Dr. Ladouceur tends more to feminist approaches than patristic ones.  This is apparent when he says, “for Farley…sexual differentiation (and hence women’s subordination) takes precedence over ontological equality”.  For me, the issue is not about which opposing principle “takes precedence”, but about how one combines into a single coherent whole all that the Scriptures teach about equality and subordination.
            In one instance at least, Dr. Ladouceur has simply not read what I have written.  As part of the above critique he writes, “another question left dangling is whether this ‘subordination’ implies that all women are subordinate to all men, or, as the biblical and patristic witnesses mostly stress, wives to husbands.”  I do not know why he thinks this question is left dangling.  On p. 41 of my book I wrote, “The translation used [of 1 Corinthians 11:3-12] is that of the English Standard Version, which mostly translates the Greek gyne as ‘wife’, rather than ‘woman.’  This is reasonable, since Paul was dealing with relationships between husband and wife, and not with women and men per se.”   In fairness to Dr. Ladouceur, I admit that it is often difficult to give careful attention to texts which one finds objectionable.
            Another area of disagreement is regarding the distinction between maleness and masculinity.  Ladouceur sees no distinction between them, and accordingly rejects the distinction as “semantic slight [sic] of hand”.  For him, an attempt to distinguish between the two is tantamount to re-introducing the pagan notion of male gods and female goddesses.  It is difficult to respond to this, since here we are left staring at each other across a conceptual abyss.  C.S. Lewis was but one example of someone who did not think God was male, and yet was capable of distinguishing maleness from masculinity.  In his little article Priestesses in the Church? he says that “God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex” and yet still argues that He is a Father and not a Mother.  In his The Four Loves, he speaks of God as “One far greater than Zeus and far more masculine than the male”.   Like Lewis, I also distinguish maleness and biological gender from masculinity.  Without this fundamental distinction, of course my iconic argument will make no sense.  I cannot help but again think of Lewis, when he wrote that there were some things in the Church which some will call irrational and which others will call supra-rational, leaving the two parties staring at each other with no way to bridge the gap.  For me as for the Fathers, the title of “Father” for God was not simply a metaphor or “an analogy” (to use Ladouceur’s term), something rooted in one particular culture, but ultimately disposable in another.  The title has greater depth and meaning than that.  God is not male, yet He is Father, and masculine.
            Ladouceur also complains that I “devote little attention to a straightforward appeal to tradition, which is the strongest argument against the ordination of women”.  That is partly because merely saying, “The Church has never done this in the past, so it can’t in the future” is everywhere rejected by feminist thinking as inadequate, and so my concern in the book was to show why in fact the Church had never done so in the past.  But as a matter of fact, I did appeal to tradition.  Ladouceur himself quotes me in the next breath as saying, “The ordination of women involves a complete denial of our Tradition and of our experience of Christian salvation”.  He may think that this is an overstatement, but he can’t have it both ways.  For what is the assertion that “the ordination of women involves a complete denial of our Tradition and our experience” if not “a straightforward appeal to tradition”?  I everywhere appeal to Tradition, including in the book’s very title.  My task was to reveal what that Tradition in fact says and why it should be embraced.
            Dr. Paul also objects to my comparison to theological feminism with the Arianism of the fourth century.  He is right in saying that I compare the two as equally threats to the integrity of the Church.  The comparison was also made by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, in an interview with AGAIN Magazine soon after he was installed as the Dean of St. Vladimir’s.  In this interview he said that he believed that the issue of women’s ordination “is kind of like our iconoclastic controversy, our Arian controversy.  It shows what a person believes about everything.”  In this interview he also quoted Russian priest Fr. Vitaly Borovoy: “The Russians have a saying.  If you say A you have to say B; if you say B then you have to say C.  I’m interested in where you get when you’re at LMNOP.”  Hopko went on to say that he interpreted Borovoy as meaning “if you take a step in a particular direction, you must see the full implication of where you are going.”  In other words, Fr. Hopko also appealed to the much-maligned “slippery slope” or the “thin edge of the wedge”.  Ladouceur objects to my use of such an approach as “another rhetorical device”.  One wonders if he would say the same of Frs. Borovoy and Hopko.  Dr. Ladouceur does acknowledge, however, that I “may have a point from the experience of Churches which have ordained women”, but says that I must also “demonstrate that the downstream consequences of one act are indeed inevitable”.  One wonders how this might be “demonstrated” without use of a time machine.   
But does it really require such demonstration?  Surely learning from the multiple experiences of other churches and denominations should suffice?  The notion sometimes heard that “such a thing could never happen in Orthodoxy” strikes me as preposterously triumphalistic or simply as magical thinking.  Are we Orthodox that much more intelligent, holy, wise, or prescient than other Christians?  And if so, perhaps one could “demonstrate” this with contemporary examples?  Does anyone really believe we Orthodox are so much wiser and holier than our neighbours that we possess a kind of immunity to the ecclesiastical decline which has befallen them if we take similar steps?  For the ordination of women is not simply “one act”.  The willingness to ordain women is a symptom as much as it is a cause, and (in the words of Fr. Tom) “it shows what a person believes about everything”.   Taking this step involves turning our backs on Tradition as a guiding principle in favour of contemporary and shifting cultural norms, and setting ourselves definitively upon a new path.  Where this path leads we can see from the multiple examples of the denominations which have done so.  No time machine is really required.
            Finally, I note that Prof. Ladouceur does not mention in his review either my chapter arguing against the wisdom of creating a new order of deaconesses, or my chapter arguing for the legitimacy of women receiving the Eucharist while menstruating.  Given that these chapters constitute almost a quarter of the book, and that my latter chapter on “Menstruation and the Communion of Women” is arguably more controversial than the chapters on the ordination of women, it seems that Ladouceur’s main concern was not to review my book, but rather to argue with some of my conclusions.  Otherwise why ignore the last forty pages?

          In conclusion, I would like to put the ball of dialogue back in Dr. Ladouceur’s court and simply ask two questions.  Does he deny that my Scriptural exegesis or my presentation of the Fathers’ views are correct?  And if my exegesis of the Bible and the Fathers as forbidding the ordination of women is correct, does he agree with it?  I would like to end by saying that I appreciate that Dr. Ladouceur did not stoop, as many do in this debate, to using the label “fundamentalist” or any of the other theological swear words often employed to short-circuit debate.  That debate is better served when both parties avoid such tactics and stick to arguments, and I thank Dr. Ladouceur for doing just that.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Understanding Pascha

In recent months I have come to the conclusion that the best place to understand the significance of Pascha is in a cancer ward, or a hospice for the dying, or by a deathbed.  When one stands in any of these terrible places, one enjoys an immunity from the lies of the world.  For the world tells each one of us that we are a race of immortals, destined never to die.  Surveying our surroundings in these places reveals that  this is not so.
Both the cosmetic industry and the funeral industry conspire in their own ways to persuade us that we will remain young and wrinkle-free forever, and our media cheerfully picks up and conveys this message.  We know, of course, that it is nonsense, but we buy into it anyway.  Youth is celebrated and culturally portrayed as if it is eternal, and the dead are rarely allowed to be seen.  People expire privately in hospital rooms, and then are rushed down to the morgue.  Funeral directors (there are happy exceptions) do their best to anesthetise the survivors to the horror that is death, and often the corpse is cremated before the funeral (now renamed the “celebration of life”).  Often in of these services, the corpse is not present, and if it is, the casket is usually closed.  Our forefathers chanted, “In the midst of life we are in death” (the line is from the grave-side service in the Anglican prayerbook), but no longer.   In the midst of life we now rarely encounter death.  In the old days, people died at home, and were prepared for burial by their loving and grieving family.  Now we have people for that.
All of this culture of denial falls away from us when we survey our surroundings in cancer ward, hospice, or by the deathbed.  Whether or not we die of cancer, all of us will die.  It reminds me of the old children’s riddling rhyme:  “Doctor, doctor, will I die?  Yes, my child, and so will I.”  Our cultural denial notwithstanding, we are not a race of immortals, and all of us will one day lie upon our deathbeds.  As a priest, I have stood by a few of them.  And then one realizes afresh what Pascha really means.
Pascha is not simply a liturgical feast, something celebrating the end of a rigorous Great Lent.  And it is not simply the happy historical ending to our Lord’s life, an appendix added after the crucifixion saying, “And they all lived happily ever after”.  Pascha is God’s promise that the moment of pain we endure by the deathbed is not the final word.   For now we must be submerged in the horror and obscenity of death, but God’s plan is indeed for us to be a race of immortals, and one day this plan will be fulfilled.  Hurtling down the years to our deathbed is not a journey to oblivion but to joy.  When death’s cold hand finally closes our eyes, we will open them in paradise, and after our body returns to the dust from which it was taken, it will one day arise and be raised and transformed.   Pascha is not simply about Christ’s happy ending, but about ours. 
If one disbelieves in Christ and Pascha, then our cultural of denial of death makes good sense.  We can’t do anything about the fearful fate which awaits us, so why think about it?  Eat, drink, be merry, and watch television.  But if what the Church says about Christ and Pascha is true, we don’t need the lies or the denial.  We can look death in its fearful face and smile and say with St. Paul, “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?”  Death may prowl the cancer ward or the hospice and may roar at us as we lie on our deathbed, but it will be gone soon enough.  Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.