Archive for September, 2006

The line in Benedict’s lecture about Mohamed, even though quoting someone else, and not explicitly endorsing it himself, was not germane (no pun intended). He didn’t have to say it, to make his ostensible point. But he’s not stupid as that word is commonly defined. I think he meant those words to be heard and to have an effect. Well, they are. 😦

What, in fact, is Orthodoxy’s position on Islam? It’s somewhat varied, in my (admittedly thin) reading. Without doubt, Orthodoxy believes itself to be the True Religion of the God of Abraham, to whom Muslims, Jews, and other Christians also look as “father in faith.” In fact I once saw a timeline-chart depicting Orthodoxy starting with Adam and Eve, continuing in a straight line through the whole Old Testament, the life of Christ on earth, the Apostolic Era of the Church, with what we now know as Judaism branching off from it, along with other early groups, the Nestorians, the Oriental Churches, then Islam in the 7th century A.D., then on with the Latins, and depicting some of their Protestant branches later. Some Muslim practices of piety are traceable to Eastern Christianity, most famously a version of the prostration (Muslim depicted). But of course, Orthodoxy continues to uphold the Trinity of the Godhead, the Divinity and Resurrection of Christ, the importance of His Death, the necessity of the Holy Icons, and other things which Islam denies.

It is true that for most of the history of Islam, many Orthodox have lived under the rule of Muslims, and some continue to do so in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, primarily. Although according to Muslim law Orthodox, like all Christians and Jews, are supposed to be treated with some regard as “people of the Book,” in reality they have often been subject to mob violence, intense social and economic pressures, and governmental stances ranging from benign neglect to active persecution. (Even in officially-secularist Turkey the Patriarchate of Constantinople is severely crippled by law.) Even so, some Orthodox have affirmed that Allah is the same God we worship, and the theologian St. John of Damascus, who was chief councillor to the Umayyad Caliphs for their capital of Damascus, provided some insightful comparisons of Orthodoxy and Islam. (In defense of Catholicism, they too revere John of Damascus [or Damascene] as a Saint, Father, and Doctor of the Church.) The current Orthodox Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow, and the Antiochian Orthodox Metropolitan of North America (a Lebanese native), value their warm relationships with Muslim religious officials in Turkey, Russia, and America, respectively, and the current Orthodox Archbishop of Albania is revered by his country’s Muslims for providing social services without regard for religion. There has been very little, although some, Orthodox evangelization among Muslims, even in the face of the potential extinction of Orthodoxy in places such as Palestine, its birthplace, and Turkey, its historical center. The Arabs of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch headquartered in Damascus, Syria, though called “Greek” or “Rum,” have always distinguished themselves in modern Arab nationalism. Palestinian Arab Orthodox Christians were among the leadership of Palestinian liberation from the start. Most recently Antioch’s Archdiocese of North America has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the relief of Lebanese victims of the Israeli bombing and invasion, and (U.S.-based) International Orthodox Christian Charities has recently increased its already-substantial efforts in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza, also. Some Russian Orthodox have characterized the putting-down of the Chechen rebellion as a religious war, but so have at least some Chechen Muslims. Arguably Muslims have been freer in Orthodox countries, generally speaking, historically, than vice-versa; Islam is legally respected as a traditional religion of Russia, by far the largest Orthodox country in the world. Orthodoxy certainly never launched a “crusade” against Islam, although Orthodox nations and empires defended themselves against aggression by Muslim nations and empires, as against Catholic and Protestant ones. Many Orthodox, especially in or from the Balkans, harbor feelings against Islam, rooted in their nations’ and ethnicities’ historical experiences of oppression under Islam.

So as I said, the record is mixed…but arguably ‘more mixed’ than the history between Western Christians and Islam.

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Media coverage of Pope of Rome Benedict XVI’s lecture at the University of Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany, yesterday, is focusing on some comments he allegedly made on jihad. All he really implied about that is that it’s not Christian to spread belief in the One True God by violence because God is “reasonable” and would have His Good News spread by persuasion and reason, and because faith pertains to the soul, not the body, and so is not appropriately spread by threats to the body. He critiques those streams of Islam that seem to him to deny God’s reasonableness, that put God so far away from humanity that they can’t even talk about Him being reasonable, good, loving, etc., that He could be completely capricious.

His main goal, though, was to affirm the Western Christian teaching of a usable analogy between God and humanity and human reason as currently constituted…and to attempt to tie it to pagan Greek and Byzantine, i.e., Eastern Christian, including Orthodox, thought. And this is where he is mistaken, perceiving Orthodox “thought” through the lens of the pagan Hellenism adopted by the West ultimately in the “Rennaissance,” rather than the other way around. Because as Fr. John Romanides reminded us, there is no analogy between Creator and created. This is not to deny that God is reasonable, good, loving, etc., but rather to affirm that it is God Who is Reason/Logos, so whenever God seems faulty to us, it’s our fallen reason that is at fault. God is most “reasonable” to His Orthodox Saints whose energies/activities have become united to His own, and it is they we must trust, not just any human or ostensibly Christian philosopher – Orthodox Saints are the true Theologians. True Theology is empirical, as Fr. John also reminded us, but just as with physical or human sciences, we need to be trained, disciplined, to be able to do it – what an Evangelical T-shirt I once saw called punningly “Cross Training”! I don’t know enough about Emperor Manuel II Paleologos, but if he was knowledgeable enough about his Orthodox Faith, he wouldn’t have confused the human reason of the fallen, with that Reason/Logos that is God. This is another example of a Western theologian mis-reading Orthodox theology.

The pope’s most telling quote was this: “God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.” This displays the usual Western Christian overconfidence in fallen human reason, and also attributes it to those certain streams of Islam. For such ‘philosophers’ God is close enough to being a creature that we may manipulate Him like chemicals – or babies – in a test tube. They think they’ve got God ‘down’ enough that they can fight over whether they want Him to be more transcendant or more immanent or anything else. Rather, they should submit themselves to Orthodox teaching, practice, and experience – “Cross training” – the way of the Orthodox Fathers and Mothers of the Church and the Orthodox Saints – and learn that way. Their words left to us are to guide us to the same life and way and experience as they, as feebly as those words may encapsulate or hint at their experience.

All that said, he has some good points. Reformation anti-Traditionalism has indeed individualized, privatized, and de-historicized (Western) Christianity, reducing it to (further) hyper-rationalism and/or emotionalism and/or moralism. It, and its later modern Catholic outworkings, by (as it thought) “de-Hellenizing” Christianity, simply ‘Germanized’ it rather than ‘universalizing’ it! (A better model for this would be the Orthodox missions of Sts. Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs in the 10th century, and St. Innocent of Alaska to the Aleuts and Tlingits in the 19th. [Or even the initially-successful Nestorian mission to medieval China as discussed in The Jesus Sutras, or the initial approach to China by the Jesuits under Fr. Mateo Ricci before the Vatican ordered him to ‘Latinize’ them.] They made their audiences Christians without turning them into Greeks, Russians…or Germans…but without abandoning the good lessons for Christianity learned through the help of Greek and Byzantine expression.)

His wisest words are: “In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.” Not only that – it’s imperialistic, without being, as it thinks, “universal.” *Is* nothing universal? Orthodox Christianity believes Orthodoxy is universal, but incarnatable in any culture, without losing Communion/koinonia/fellowship with Orthodox outside that culture.

What about the question of religious violence? Orthodoxy is not incarnated in a culture by violence, but by a profound translating, by face-to-face ministry, by spiritual eldering and the leadership of the new culture’s Orthodox Saints.

(The pope forgot to ask forgiveness of those peoples on whom Catholicism did indeed seek to impose itself by violence. Islam is not the only offender in that respect.)

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed includes the words, “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Catholics and many Protestants use this Creed. Catholicism teaches that *it* is the Church referred to. Many Protestants believe that the Church referred to is invisible, unknowable here on earth, and will only be revealed in heaven, and some, that it even ceased to be between the years 100 (or 313) and 1517 or so.

My invitation to you is to consider what is the Church of the Creed.

Consider that the Nicene Fathers were presumably talking about their own Church, visible and active in the world “but not of it,” with certain teachings and practices and experiences of Faith and fellowship (communion, koinonia) like those described in my blog. Does their Church still exist? It’s the Church against which the Lord promised and prophesied “the gates of hades will not prevail.” So it can’t have ceased to exist between the Apostolic Age and the Protestant Reformation, without making the Lord a liar. Does your Church teach and live and experience the same Faith as the Nicene Fathers, and the Fathers and Mothers of the other six commonly-accepted Ecumenical Councils, or does it disagree with them in some ways, or has it added new doctrines to theirs? Was your Church, or its founding Church, perhaps represented at one or more of those Ecumenical Councils, and if so, has it kept faith therewith, or has it undergone any significant changes in direction since then, maybe once, maybe more than once? Can your Church trace the actual human bonds of fellowship between those Council Fathers and its own today, or has that communion across the ages been interrupted? Is your Church set up like theirs was?

It would be really interesting to get a list of the Fathers of the Councils, the Bishops, because each of them was bishop of a place, a local Church, a diocese. Those dioceses were scattered throughout the greater Mediterranean and beyond. And to see if those dioceses still exist, and if their faith is still like that of their Fathers, and then see the dioceses they founded in other lands, and see if their faith is still like that of those Fathers, and so on, throughout the world.

If you do so, you may discern the outlines of the Orthodox Church, the Church of the Nicene Creed, i.e., The Church.

Psalm 50 (51 MT):9:
Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, make me whiter than snow.

Until recently in my private prayer when I came to this Psalm (once a day) I would instead say “cleaner than snow,” sometimes even “cleaner than obsidian”! Then I saw a connection with theosis, the transfiguration by God’s Energies (salvation) for which we hope. The Lord was a swarthy Palestinian, and that didn’t stop Him from appearing mostly “white,” radiating all that Uncreated Light not just from His clothing but also His exposed face, hands, and feet. Orthodoxy traditionally relates this verse to Baptism; in fact we call the newly-baptized “newly-illumined.” So Christianity isn’t a race-change operation!

Icon of Transfiguration of Christ

Some people say of the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11/01, “How could God do this?” God didn’t do it. God is not responsible for the evil that people do, not mine, not Bin Laden’s, not Bush/Cheney’s, not yours. Sure, He’s quoted in Isaiah 45:7 saying, “I create evil.” But Orthodox Christians usually don’t prooftext, but look at the larger Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy (including but not limited to Scripture…and the whole Scripture for that matter, not isolated 3-word phrases). In the assessment of the whole Tradition, people and demons are responsible for human-made evil. God allows us – gives us – free will because He loves us and wouldn’t impose goodness on any of us, because then we’d be unwilling slaves, automatons, not beloved sons and daughters and friends and co-workers of Him. One of the aspects usually considered to be part of “the image of God” in which humans as a species are created is free will, the ability to choose good or evil. If we as a species didn’t have free will, we wouldn’t be in the image of God, we’d be some lesser animal. God then allows evil, but works infinitely hard to bring good out of it, without, again, thwarting human free will. Has any good manifested yet from 9/11? I wouldn’t care to say. But it will, if we let it, and if we work for it.

Bin Laden and the executors of 9/11 are said to have thought they were fighting for God and His cause…or at least Allah. (I’ll leave to better minds the question of whether Allah is real, is any god or demon, or the God of the Old and New Testament Church, the Orthodox Church, i.e., the Most Holy and Consubstantial Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Muslims deny the Trinity, as do those Jews who have not embraced Christianity, and even some supposed Christians.) Can people who don’t rightly believe in God “fight” for Him? Of course, adherents of Judaism and non-Orthodox Christians don’t rightly believe in Him either, and they’ve done lots of fighting purporting to be for Him. Orthodox have too, but not nearly so much as non-Orthodox Christians: just compare the histories of Orthodox and Heterodox Europe. The truth is, the True God would not be fought for, that’s why He sent Apostles to the nations rather than rampaging armies. Martyrs, starting with Himself. (No, killing yourself isn’t martyrdom, it’s suicide, always a sin in Orthodoxy.) God’s method is the word and life of the Orthodox Church, not the sword, the gun, the bulldozer, the tank, or the bomb. Orthodoxy is not a ‘peace sect’ because it concedes that governments war, even purportedly Orthodox ones, and sometimes it has blessed military defense of innocents and the Faithful – but not, authoritatively, aggression. For most of its history the Orthodox Church had a rule that banned from Communion for several years those who had shed blood even in defense, and its monastics and clergy are categorically forbidden to do so, upholding the imperative of the Gospel. The ranks of recognized Orthodox Saints are filled with ex-soldiers and ex-rulers (or ex would-be rulers, like the traditional kinsmen of mine, the Passion-bearers St. Boris and St. Gleb of Russia – how many Russians have borne Boris’ name in the last thousand years!) who turned from violence, many of whom even laid down their lives for the Gospel ideal (i.e., were slain by others). And just for the record, “ethnic cleansing” is unfaithful to Orthodoxy. But to be fair, “Balkanization,” beginning in the 1800s, was empowered by Britain and France, first to dismantle the Ottoman Empire in their favor.

In short, most, if not all, who say they’re killing for God, are liars, whether they know it or not. Has “religion” caused so much war in human history? Orthodoxy claims to be the cure for religion, a pathology blamed by the late Fr. John Romanides on an atrophied human nous. Though not all Orthodox have been cured yet, including me, by the mercy of God Orthodoxy’s war record pales in comparison to those of Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, and the ancients. Orthodoxy has certainly suffered far more casualties than it has inflicted throughout history. Look at the 20th century alone! At its beginning a Russian bishop even said most Russian soldiers don’t go on the battlefield to kill, but to die for their country; by contrast there’s the Western quote, “Your job isn’t to die for your country, it’s to make the other poor b—— die for his country.”

In conclusion, sometimes the good that God brings out of evil is repentance.

Not new to readers of this blog, but I just found his biography, mystery solved!: Gary, Indiana-born St. Varnava (Barnabas), Bishop-Confessor of Hvosno, Yugoslavia (PDF), lifelong American citizen, glorified by the Patriarchate of Serbia in the last couple years. (Info is still sometimes hard to come by!)

UPDATE: Lots more info avail here.

Because I have the URL memorized, because having grown up Catholic it’s the one I’m most familiar with, because there’s no “Orthodox Bible” online in English (yet), because in spite of that it’s usually useful, etc.

(St. Mark 3:20-27 and 28-35, respectively)

From St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses XXXII, 1, 2, in Johanna Manley, The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox, p. 207:

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to attribute His operations {“energies”? -LPO’F} to the opposite spirit, as says Basil the Great. How does one do this? Whenever one sees miracles brought about by the Holy Spirit or any of the other divine gifts in any of his brethren – that is compunction or tears, or humility, or divine knowledge, or a word of wisdom from on high, or anything else that is bestowed by the Holy Spirit on those who love God – and says that this comes from the deceit of the devil. But he also blasphemes against the Holy Spirit who works in them{,} who says that those who as sons of God are led by the divine Spirit, and perform the commandments of their God and Father, are being deceived by demons. This is what the Jews of old said against the Son of God …Like unbelievers and those completely uninitiated into the divine mysteries {“sacraments”? -LPO’F} when they hear anything about divine illumination, or of the enlightenment of soul and mind, or of contemplation and freedom from passion, or of humility and tears that are poured out by the working and grace of the Holy Spirit, {immediately} the eyes of their hearts are darkened rather than enlightened …They audaciously aver that these things come from the deceit of demons …To deny that at this present time there are some who love God, and that they have been granted the Holy Spirit …that they have become gods by knowledge …and contemplation, that wholly subverts the Incarnation of our God and Savior Jesus Christ! It denies the renewal of the image that had been corrupted and put to death, and its return to incorruption and immortality.

(FYI, St. Symeon the New Theologian is very big on the Divine Energies, hence his title “Theologian.”)

It’s literally “blasphemy” because it touches on the Divine “operations” or Energies as above, and God is fully present in His Energies – literally, to say God is the devil – as St. John Chrysostom also suggests in his Homily XLI on Matthew XII, 5, in Manley 258:

[T]his sin is above all things unpardonable. Why so? Because {Christ} Himself indeed they did not know – who He might be – but of the Spirit they received ample experience. For the prophets also prophesied by the Spirit whatever they said …You are offended at Me, He implies, because of the flesh with which I am encompassed. Let it be so. But can you say of the Spirit also we do not know {Him}? And therefore your blasphemy is unpardonable.

God is unable to pardon it not because He’s so highly offended and affronted, but because it’s a denial of the People of God’s whole heritage of Divine experience, including forgiveness. It’s self-estrangement from YHWH, it’s not wanting His forgiveness.

The logic here is that since Satan doesn’t cast out Satan, but only God the Holy Spirit, to deny this seemingly-simple reality (as the Lord expresses it) is to estrange oneself from the God one would need to forgive it, to not want to be forgiven by Him. As St. Chrysostom says, you don’t have to believe Christ is God, to believe that the Holy Spirit of God (in Him) casts out demons.

This is confirmed in the quote Manley (328) offers from an Orthodox theologian of today, Christos Yannaras, from his The Freedom of Morality:

God is not the “judge” of men in the sense of a magistrate who passes sentence and imposes a punishment, testifying to the transgression. He is judge because of what He is: the possibility of life and true existence. When man voluntarily cuts himself off from this possibility of existence, he is automatically “judged.” It is not God’s sentence but His existence that judges him. God is nothing but an ontological fact of love and an outpouring of love: a fulness of good, an ecstasy of loving goodness …Man is judged according to the measure of the life and existence from which he excludes himself. Sin is a self-inflicted condemnation and punishment which man freely chooses when he refuses to be as a personal hypostasis of communion with God and prefers to “alter” and disorder his existence, fragmenting his nature into individual entities – when he prefers corruption and death …For the Church, sin is not a legal but an existential fact. It is not simply a transgression, but an active refusal on man’s part to be what he truly is: the image and “glory,” or manifestation, of God.

That is to say, a refusal to be a “partaker in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

The West is often boggled by this expression “to blaspheme the Holy Spirit,” but it seems pretty clear – simple, really, like so much else – in the Orthodox Fathers of the Church.

Is your Old Testament (or if you’re Jewish, your Torah/Prophets/Writings) Sacred Scripture? It’s probably largely, if not entirely, based on the Masoretic Text (MT) of the “Hebrew Scriptures.” Are you dedicated to the oldest text, “closest to the origins”? The MT was edited down in the latter centuries of the first millenium After Christ. Changes were introduced to the “original text,” changes to undermine Christianity. The biggest example is, was the Messiah to be born of any young woman, or one who had not known a man? That’s the basis not only of today’s Jewish Bibles, but the Protestant and increasingly the Catholic Bibles as well! Is an emasculated text “Sacred Scripture,” or human meddling? You don’t have to believe the books of the Bible fell down out of the sky, to believe they have been composed under the influence of the All-Holy Spirit of God, One of the Trinity. But what about a deliberately skewed text…one with an “agenda,” arguably against its original meaning?

What else is there? A thousand years before the MT – centuries before Christ – there was the Septuagint [pronounced “sep-TOO-uh-jint”] Greek version, by tradition translated by seventy or 72 devout Jewish translators at once, under Divine influence, in Alexandria, Egypt, from Hebrew and Aramaic originals that, interestingly, keep popping up in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient manuscripts “in these latter days.” At the time of Christ/the Second Temple, the Septuagint was “the Bible” for most of the world’s Jews, including many in Palestine as well as outside, and also their Gentile (i.e., Greco-Roman) proselytes. Usually it’s the version quoted in the New Testament. The Septuagint was also “the Scriptures” for the Apostolic Church, and for a number of centuries afterward, until the final New Testament canon was added to it.

Why did Protestants abandon the Septuagint after a millenium and a half of Christian use? Because they figured “the original” was in Hebrew/Aramaic, so any version not translated into another language was likely to be closer to “the original.” But as we have seen, it is not. Why did Catholics pretty much abandon the Septuagint in the last century or two? Because that was the direction of (Protestant-led) “Scripture scholarship,” and because they wanted to get on better with the Protestants?

What choice do we have? The Orthodox Church, traditionally, has consistently used the Septuagint Old Testament, in its original Ancient Greek or in translation into Old Church Slavonic. [Can someone tell me about Romanian and Albanian usage?] In the Western world we’ve sometimes had to settle for MT-based translations into the local vernacular, but a new translation into English, at least, is tentatively expected to be released next year. What does it matter? Well, if you’re thinking about o/Orthodox Christianity, or even about Judaism before its texts were changed to be anti-Christian, and your thinking is based on faulty texts, you’re bound to go astray. Now, o/Orthodox faith in YHWH, both before and after Christ’s life on earth, isn’t textual, but experiential. But the ancient patriarchs and prophets left us these texts to report about and guide us to the experience of uniting our energies and activities with God’s Uncreated Energies. That’s why they’re important, and “only” that.

In the interests of full disclosure, as with many ancient texts, there is not one single Septuagint text, but a number of versions, even in use in the Orthodox Churches. But these do not differ significantly, doctrinally, like the MT – and modern Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish Bibles – do from them. I should also point out that some Orthodox consider none of the existing English translations of the Septuagint to be satisfactory, so be advised.

And that’s my “higher criticism” of “Higher Criticism”!