Tuesday, July 18, 2017

See You in August!

Just a quick note to my dear online friends:  I will be on vacation and away from the office from July 19 to August 5.  During this time I will not be able to receive, moderate, or post any comments to my blog.  So, if you do post, please don't wonder why your comments are not appearing immediately.  I am not ignoring your comments, but walking the beaches of Oregon and reading commentaries on the Psalter and making notes in the margins of my Bible.  God willing, I will post everything you send upon my return.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Johannine Pentecost and the Social Context of the Early Church

          Ever since my college days many centuries ago, I have been reading about “the Johannine Pentecost”, by which scholars meant John’s version of the Pentecostal bestowal of the Spirit.  The reference, of course, is to John 20:19-23.  In this post-Resurrection appearance of Christ to His disciples, Jesus greets them by saying, “Peace be with you”, adding, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you”.  He then “breathed on them” [Greek emphusao; the same word used for God’s breathing life into Adam in Genesis 2:7 LXX] and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”.   Earlier in John’s Gospel Christ predicted the coming of the Holy Spirit:  “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Comforter, that He may be with you forever, the Spirit of truth…He abides with you and will be in you” (14:16-17); “The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things” (14:26); “When the Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father…He will bear witness of Me” (15:26); “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you, but if I go, I will send Him to you” (16:7). 
These promises of the coming of the Holy Spirit, some scholars declared, found fulfillment in Christ’s post-Paschal breathing on His disciples narrated in 20:19f.  In the words of one such scholar, “Jesus’ promise in the farewell discourse about the coming Paraclete is fulfilled by his breathing of the Spirit upon the disciples”:  for Luke, the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost; for John, the Spirit came prior to that when Christ breathed upon His disciples behind the closed doors of the upper room on the evening after He was first raised from the dead (John 20:19).  The historicity of the event seems to matter little.  Some scholars suggest that Luke’s account of the day of Pentecost is simply his poetical reworking and is of little historical value.  Joseph Fitzmayer, for example, contends that Luke’s narrative is simply his dramatization of the events leading to Peter’s first sermon proclaiming the risen Christ.
There are a number of problems with this scenario, and the main one of which seems to go unnoticed by the scholars referring to “the Johannine Pentecost”—namely, Christ’s breathing upon His disciples on the first day after He was raised from the dead does not in fact fulfill His predictions for the coming of the Spirit that He promised in His farewell discourse.  For consider:  common to all those promises and predictions is the physical absence of Christ during the bestowal of the Spirit.  Christ spoke of His going away from them (16:7), and of the Father sending the Spirit after He had left, and said that the Spirit would not come until after Christ had gone.  The Spirit is portrayed as coming to the disciples from the Father after Christ’s departure.  These words cannot be fulfilled, therefore, until after Christ had left.  When He breathed upon them, He was still present with them—and would be, according to John’s own reckoning, for at least another week or two (compare John 20:26, 21:1-14).  Christ spoke of the Spirit being sent, and Christ breathing upon them (or into them) hardly looks like the Father or Christ sending the Spirit after Christ had gone.  However, the event narrated by Luke in Acts 2:1f, does look like what Christ described in His farewell discourse, for these events did indeed occur after Christ had departed and could well be described as the Spirit being sent from the Father and the Son in heaven and coming upon the disciples.  In other words, Christ’s promises in His farewell discourse were fulfilled not in His breathing upon the disciples on the evening of His resurrection, but in the events fifty days later, and related by Luke.
Scholars who insist that Christ’s post-Paschal breathing upon the disciples was the fulfillment of His promise to send the Spirit do this, I suggest, because they insist upon reading John’s Gospel in isolation from the totality of the Gospel tradition.  John describes Christ’s promise to send the Spirit, and He later describes Christ’s breathing upon the disciples, and so this latter must therefore be the fulfillment of the former.  It is inconceivable to them that John assumed his readers would read the promise to send the Spirit in light of a Pentecostal event that John himself did not relate.  These scholars assume that the ancient Christians of the first century would read John’s Gospel as their twentieth-century students read John’s Gospel—i.e. in isolation from the other Gospels, as if it were a college course.  In their college courses, they study John’s Gospel and debate John’s viewpoint and John’s theology.  If one wants to look at Luke’s theology, one must take the course of Luke, not John.  The Gospels and all the New Testament material are thus read in relative isolation from one another, and not as parts of a totality.  This is quite artificial.  Especially if John’s Gospel was written later than Luke-Acts, it is probable that the readers of John’s Gospel would have some familiarity with the events Luke narrates.  And if Luke’s narrative of Pentecost was not simply his “dramatization” but an account of what actually occurred, it is more than probable that reader’s of John’s Gospel would all know about Pentecost and naturally see it as the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to send the Spirit.
One must therefore read the books of the New Testament as they were written—as a collection of material that circulated within a small and tightly-knit community scattered throughout the Roman world.  If Paul’s letters, individually addressed as they were, were passed around to churches to which they were not addressed, we may be sure that those churches passed around whatever stories they could find about Jesus.  There was a large mass of oral histories circulating among the churches (Christ’s words about it being more blessed to give than to receive in Acts 20:35 were part of these oral histories), and it is clear that stories of the apostles’ miracles formed part of that oral reservoir.  It is a methodological error to read the Gospels in isolation from one another, ignoring the social context in which they were written and circulated.  We must read them as the first Christians read them and as the Fathers read them, as component parts of a total picture and a reliable history.  John wrote as part of the Church, drawing upon and explicating its Tradition.  We must read the Gospel stories as parts of that over-arching Tradition, for only so can we hope to see the traditional forest and not lose it among the Johannine trees.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Replying to Sr. Vassa’s Mail

Recently Sr. Vassa Larin (famous for her “Coffee with Sr. Vassa” podcast) has attracted much and varied attention from a correspondence she published in which she replied to a question from a woman of a fourteen year old boy about how to handle her son’s “coming out”.  (The mother’s question and Sr. Vassa’s response may be accessed here.) Her advice, prefaced by a disclaimer of sorts that it was but her “personal opinion…not in line with some official pronouncements of my Church” (i.e. ROCOR) has drawn lots of admiration and praise from the gay community and lots of criticism from Orthodox clergy.  I have always been and will I trust continue to be a fan of Sr. Vassa’s work, though I think this current episode represents a serious mis-step for her.  Clergy such as Fr. John Whiteford have replied at length to her piece with his customary candour, scholarship, and common sense, and there is no reason for me to weigh in as well and respond to her advice directly.  I have nothing to add by way of critique, and am happy to simply say “Amen” to what Fr. John has written.  But I would like to respond directly to what the mother asked Sr. Vassa, since Sr. Vassa has kindly given me the opportunity to read her mail.  What follows would be my own response to the mother’s query if she had asked me.  Though it is of course my own opinion, I will not offer much by way of disclaimer, since I hope that it also represents the teaching of the Church.  I say this not because I am trying to play it safe, but because I genuinely believe what my Church teaches about this, and because I feel that no one wearing their church’s cassock with integrity has any business publicly dissenting from that teaching.
            One difficulty in responding to a pastoral issue by way of blog post is that a blog post must be made at one remove at least from the situation.  In real life a pastor could sit down with the parents and the young man and talk about what is really going on.  Is the boy really gay?  Is he bi-sexual?  Is it a matter of gender dysphoria?  Is he confusing feelings of admiration and love for an older adult as evidence of homosexual orientation, and thus interpreting strong emotion for eroticism?  In our over-heated debates about homosexuality and transgender, all feelings of love are increasingly sexualized, and delight in physical contact with persons of the same gender is almost always now read as evidence of homosexuality.  It was otherwise in previous eras, when men could express love for other men in open and physical ways and not be considered homosexual.  Given the fact that sexual feelings always exist on a kind of continuum and with some fluidity, the issues of homosexuality and gender are far from clear, whatever the gay community may say.  All the more reason to sit down first and talk.  It could be that the young man has always had a strong sexual attraction to males and none whatsoever for females, living in a kind of sexual inversion to the norm.  The point is, we cannot tell from the little the mother writes. 
A blog post may address the issue of what to do with a young man genuinely experiencing what used to be called sexual inversion, but a pastor working in real life must take nothing for granted.  He is not dealing with abstract issues, but with people’s actual lives, with all their complexity, brokenness, heartbreak, and potential.  If someone sent me an email asking for advice about this situation, I would not give much of a reply because I am at too great a distance to offer a sensible one.  Instead I would send the parents back to their pastor.  They might say that they are “not comfortable revealing this information about my son” to their parish priest, but the priest will find out sooner or later, and anyway it is his job to talk to them and offer love and guidance.  And such guidance must be based on real communication and counselling, not on a 288 word email query.
            In this real life situation, I would tell the mother (and the boy) that God loves him regardless of his sexual orientation, his sexual confusion, and his sexual choices.  In that sense, God’s love is unconditional.  But love is not the same as approval—God loves me, but He does not approve of all of my choices, and because He loves me He calls me to repent of the sinful ones.  God knows that certain choices lead to stability, health, happiness, and life, while other choices lead to instability, sickness, misery, and death.  In His love He insists that I choose the former, and avoid sin.  Sin is not simply a no-no, and God hates it not because He is irritable, unreasonable, mean, or feisty, but because He sees that embracing sin is never in one’s best interests.
            One form of sin is unchastity—i.e. any sexual activity before marriage.  Sexual activity is a fire, which can only be safely contained in something strong, hard, and permanent—like a fire-place.  If a fire is lit in the fire-place, then the house and its occupants will be warmed by it.  If it is lit in the living room outside the fire-place, it will burn the house down.  And here a miss is as good as a mile—lighting the fire very close to the fire-place but not actually in it is no better than lighting it across the room from the fire-place, for the resultant fire will still burn the place down.  In the same way, sexual activity can only safely fulfil its function when contained in the strong, hard, and permanent vows of a marriage commitment—and for Christians, marriage involves the union of two opposites with the potential for personal and numerical growth—i.e. a family. 
            This means that any fourteen year old, whether boy or girl, homosexual or straight, should be dissuaded from sexual activity outside of marriage.  In the case of heterosexual Christian singles, this will involve self-control and celibacy for years, and possibly permanently.  In the case of homosexual Christian singles, it will involve self-control and celibacy permanently, assuming that their homosexuality cannot be overcome.  (Some people have reported that it has been overcome in their lives, and their experience, though perhaps rare, should not be discounted simply because it flies in the face of current gay dogma.)  This commitment to chastity is unpopular advice, but the teaching of Christ allows for no other course of action. 
The main issue here is not homosexuality, but obedience to Christ, who simply disallows His disciples to be sexual active outside of marriage, and who defines marriage as the union of man and woman.  Our own culture has for a generation considered Christ’s expectation of chastity an impossible demand, but our generation is both historically myopic and lacking in courage.  Previous eras assumed that life-long chastity, though difficult, was not impossible.  We have been trained to regard all our desires as “natural” (i.e. legitimate) by definition, and also as irresistible.  In fact they are neither, and so part of our parental counsel to our adolescent children must teach them that.  Our culture gives everything a sexual tinge and declares that sexual abstinence is unhealthy, psychologically morbid, all but impossible, and more than a bit pathetic.  We must teach all our fourteen year olds that in this instance our culture is insane. 

As the fourteen year old boy continues to mature, his parents should refuse to offer any counsel or encouragement but the ones Christ would give.  They will always love their son, of course, whatever he chooses to do, but their actions and approvals, whether explicit or implicit, must conform to the demands of Christian discipleship.  This means remaining in His Church and continuing to grow in a life of prayer, Eucharist, and sexual self-control.  This will reveal that true intimacy need not be equated with sexual activity, but that it is possible to live a full and emotionally-satisfying life even as a celibate.  It will be a difficult path for the young man, and one that will receive its commensurate reward from Christ at its end.  This is all the more reason for the parents to strengthen their son’s hands and encourage him to remain faithful.  One cannot make a treaty with sin and accept it because rejecting it proves ascetically difficult.  Deciding to accept sin in our lives because we are “only human” is not an option for any disciple of Jesus.  We may fail time and again, but our constant striving must be for righteousness, and the path we tread the path of repentance.   To tacitly accept a homosexual lifestyle is to throw in the towel of discipleship and forsake that way.  Now is not the time for acquiescence to the world’s way, but for courage to follow Christ.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Barry McGuire, My Daughter, and the Moon

The moon has cast a spell over the human race since the time when we could look up and observe its haunting face shining in the night sky.  Shifting, changing, waxing, waning, luminous with a beauty which pierces the heart, it has captured us for as long as history has been recorded, and longer.  The righteous Job felt the temptation to worship the moon, though he had the orthodox sense to refuse:  “If I have looked at the moon moving in splendour and my heart has been secretly enticed and my mouth has kissed my hand, this also would be an iniquity to be punished by the judges, for I should have been false to God above” (Job 31:26-28). He didn’t kiss his hand and blow the kiss to the moon in adoration, though clearly he felt the temptation.   
If Job felt this as a temptation, no wonder most others in his day worshipped the moon as a deity.  In 1984, when she was a young child but two years old, my eldest daughter first looked up at the moon’s full face in the night sky and said, “Daddy!  Da moon!”  She could scarcely pronounce the diphthong “th”, but like the rest of us she had been captured by that haunting orb, and her own heart, not yet even three summers old, had been pierced by a beauty the earth could not afford, a beauty found only found in the heavens.  Modern poets, like lovers in every generation, found that when they thought of swooning over their true love in June, it was always under the moon.  The moon was not just a rock orbiting the earth as it orbited the sun.  It was a goddess, an image of celestial beauty, an ineffable longing, an unattainable desire.  When Solomon searched for an image to describe his true love, he spoke of her as “fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners” (Songs 6:10).  Note:  the sun might be bright, but it was the moon that was fair.  Such painful beauty did not shine during the day.  The sun might give life; but it was the moon that provided a beauty which could pierce the heart and transfigure the world.  And (‘fess up, guys), what man does not catch sight of the full moon peaking shyly through the clouds and not be irresistibly reminded of his own true love?
            In 1975, at the height of the Jesus People Movement, Barry McGuire (of “Eve of Destruction” fame) gave a concert with other Jesus People singers.  At this concert, he said the following:   “A brother in the band was reading in the Word one morning, and he was getting all excited…He said, ‘It says here, “He set the sun to rule the day, and He put a lesser light, the moon, to rule the night.”  That’s like us, man.  When it’s night-time you can’t see the sun because it’s dark out.  That’s the way it is in the world with people who don’t know God.  They can’t see God, because they’re living in darkness.  But they can see the reflection of God shining through the lives of His people.’  He said, “We’re like the moon.’”  Barry got it right away.  He responded, “O Lord, I want to be a full moon!”
            I never appreciated until I became Orthodox how wonderfully exceptional it was for an American Protestant Christian in the Jesus People Movement to interpret the Scriptures in a way that would have done proud any Byzantine Christian trained in the allegorical method exemplified by Origen and his Alexandrian followers.  Jesus People were schooled and drilled in rejecting anything but the plain, literal, and surface meaning of the Scriptures, but here was a brother in the band mining the Genesis creation stories for its inner spiritual meaning.  For him the moon was not a hunk of rock orbiting the earth.  It was an image of God’s people, shining with a reflected glory, a divine light that came from God and illumining those in the world who could not bear the direct intensity of His glory.  Flesh and blood had not revealed this to that brother in the band, but his Father who was in heaven. 

            As it turns out, the beguiling, seducing, haunting beauty of the moon which has captivated generations since the world began calls us to imitate that divine beauty.  The world may not be able to see the beauty of God reflected in His creation.  For multitudes living the world who don’t know God, a forest is just a forest, and they literally cannot see the forest for the trees.  The stars are just balls of gas, burning in the heavens, the sea is just countless gallons of salt water, and Science has killed Poetry.  Fact has trampled on the face of Beauty, and the heavens no longer declare the glory of God.  They cannot see the glory of God in His world.  But they can still see us.  We need to reflect the divine beauty, and by our lives of kindness, compassion, and heroic sacrifice for the truth, become the reflected glory of God in the world.  In 2017, as you may have noticed, it’s very dark out.  People cannot see God, because they’re living in darkness.  But they can still see the moon, and be illumined by its reflected light.  We’re like the moon.  May we be a full moon, and may God’s ineffable beauty capture the world through us, and save the world.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Appreciating Anathemas

           The decrees and canons of the Provincial and Ecumenical Councils today often sound odd in our modern ears—the Council Fathers were so zealous, serious, intent, and well, intolerant.  The Council of Gangra, for example, dealing with a movement in the Church which took a dim view of sex, decreed, “If anyone shall condemn marriage or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout and sleeps with her own husband as though she could not enter the Kingdom, let him be anathema.”  Or consider also the first canon of the first council of Constantinople:  “The Faith of the three hundred and eighteen Fathers assembled at Nicea in Bithynia shall not be set aside, but shall remain firm.  And every heresy shall be anathematized, particularly that of the Eunomians and that of the Semi-Arians and that of the Sabellians and that of the Marcellians and that of the Photinians and that of the Apollinarians.”  When Cyril of Alexandria wanted to draw his line in the sand against Nestorius of Constantinople, he did it in the form of twelve anathemas.  One could say more, but you get the idea.  All of the Council Fathers were very, very clear about which views were allowed in the Church and which views weren’t.  Certain views were declared forbidden to the faithful on pain of anathema—that is, if one held and taught them, one would be kicked out of the Eucharistic communion of the Church.  In their view one did not dialogue with heretics, but refuted their arguments and expelled them from the Church if they refused correction.
            This contrasts notably with our modern era.  We are often relativistic, but we don’t notice it for the same reason that fish (presumably) do not notice they are wet—namely, the wetness (or relativism) is all around them and they have never known anything else.  This theological relativism is one fruit of our political pluralism.  That is, in our western culture, pretty much all varieties of thought, opinion, and religion are allowed to co-exist, and so we often draw the unwarranted conclusion that all are equally theologically legitimate.  In this pluralistic world, anathematizing anyone’s view is considered not only embarrassingly rude, but also unenlightened, immoral, and perhaps a little dangerous.  “Live and let live” becomes the foundation for everything, and those wanting to upset the pluralistic apple-cart are emphatically unwelcome. 
            I have no interest in arguing against political pluralism, Justinian’s example notwithstanding.  I am happy that our society allows all kinds of debate, free speech, and the consideration of everyone’s opinion.  But I do take issue with the theological relativism that often seems allied to it, so that one concludes that such untrammelled freedom of thought and acceptance of all views are allowed in the Church as well.  I am reminded of Chesterton’s aphorism about the value of an open mind—that we open our mind for the same reason that we open our mouth:  to close it on something solid.  Our own theological relativism presents the spectacle of a multitude of people walking through the world with their theological mouths open.
            We see this relativism in action whenever we use the words “heretic” or “heresy” in polite conversation.  The words not only sound culturally anachronistic, but for many people bring up unwelcome and unsavoury associations.  If I say that an opinion is heretical, I am often looked at as if I had just emerged out from under some medieval rock, and I am asked if I therefore favour the Inquisition, the rack, the auto-da-fe, and (of course) the Crusades.  The category of “heresy” has, in effect, been banned in polite modern discourse, sometimes even among Christians.  Yet the category remains as a kind standing protest against our beloved relativism, and our conviction that all beliefs are equally valid so long as they are sincerely held by nice people.  Especially in the world of ivory-tower academia where all things are up for debate, acceptance of the category of heresy is not allowed.  (I acknowledge, by the way, that not all academics live in ivory towers or regard everything as up for debate.  There are wonderful exceptions.)
            The use of the phrase “let him be anathema” which found its way into so much of the conciliar legislation and canons comes ultimately from St. Paul.  At the conclusion of his first Epistle to the Corinthians, thinking of those who had loved the Lord and then fell away to join His enemies, he wrote, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be anathema!” (1 Corinthians 16:22)  Paul was not legislating, or issuing a canon.  He was crying from the heart (as he did in Galatians 1:8-9) and trying to persuade the faithful to hold fast their love for Christ in the midst of a hostile and cold world.
            He was also drawing a line in the sand.  The Christians were God’s holy nation, the true chosen people—and the rest of the world was not.  God’s grace may not have strictly defined borders, but the Church did.  Some were in, and some were out, and living a certain way or believing certain things would get you placed among the latter (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 1 Timothy 1:20, 2 Timothy 2:18).  In society one could believe, teach, and promote anything one liked.  But once one joined the Church, one found oneself committed to a particular standard of teaching (Romans 6:17), and from that time on were no longer free to believe whatever took one’s fancy.  If one decided nonetheless to believe and teach things contrary to the Church’s teaching, one would be asked (or compelled) to leave.  Of course one could always start one’s own church.  And many did.
            That was the point of all those anathemas.  They were not intended by the Council Fathers as swear words, as if the heretics were mean, evil, or ill-intentioned people.  All the heretics were well-intentioned, and possibly very nice when met at cocktail parties as well.  The anathemas were intended to serve as boundaries, borders, and warning signs.  They were not intended just or even mainly for those holding the condemned teachings, but for the mass of the faithful.  The anathemas were like road signs, saying, “Warning:  Road Washed Out Ahead”, or “Beware of Falling Rocks”.  The condemned teachings were not banned because the Council Fathers could not bear to engage in dialogue or hated to be contradicted.  They were banned out of pastoral concern for the souls of those not yet infected.  Holding the banned teaching would lead to spiritual ruin on the part of the one holding it.  Heresy was not simply incorrect opinion, like thinking the world was flat, or that it was St. Peter who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Heresy was poison, and as such would eventually kill you if you consumed it.  If one considers all doctrine simply as academic exercise or as cerebral opinion, then of course one also considers the Fathers over the top in their denunciation of heresy.  But if heresy is not just an opinion you hold, but also a life you live, then one begins to see what got the Fathers so worked up about it. 
            In the world of Science (the word usually spoken in reverent if not hushed tones, and always spelled with a capital), of course all questions are perennially open and all debate welcomed.  Science advances by discovery and experiment, and further discoveries could make current convictions out-dated.  Accordingly then even the most firmly-held conclusions are in principle open to revision.  But Christian theology is not Science; its conclusions are not based upon experiment and discovery, but upon revelation.  Christ taught certain things, and for those of us who worship Him as God, His own personal authority suffices.  That is why considering all questions as open questions and all debate as legitimate, though legitimate in scientific questions, is out of court in theological ones.  Of course we keep an open mind when we are looking for the truth.  But as soon as we have found the truth, our mind is no longer open.  Like a hungry open mouth, it has closed on something solid.