Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Modern Biblical Studies

[an excerpt from an e-mail response to a graduate student in biblical studies]

For the Orthodox Church, the West has generally been asking the wrong questions.  The Orthodox have always read the Bible Spiritually, not literally; so questions of inerrancy--as it has come to be understood in the context of the Liberal-Fundamentalist debate of the 20th century--have been almost completely irrelevant to us.  For example, whether or not St. Paul wrote Ephesians (historically) is not very relevant to the received tradition that St. Paul wrote it.  Ephesians is "pauline" whether Paul himself, one of his helpers, or someone with the same "rule of faith" wrote it.  The Church received it as pauline.  Similarly, that Moses actually wrote very little in the Pentateuch (the "Books of Moses") is irrelevant.  The Church (and Judaism) has received them as The Books of Moses.
Having said this, I think modern scholarship should be understood and then set on a shelf (in my experience modern scholarship is not completely bereft of insight, just mostly bereft).  The rules of modern Biblical criticism assume no God, assume modern scholars know more about the ancient texts than those who actually shared the culture and language of those who wrote the texts, and-most importantly-have removed the texts from the worshiping community where they have any meaning at all.  Outside of the communities that have preserved and given meaning to these texts, the bible is only so many words to be speculated on.

For example, in the Gospel of Luke, the Archangel greets Mary with the words that her Son would sit on the throne of David.  Now tell me, historical-critically, when did that happen?  The Bible has never been read by Christians historically.  Sure, most Christians have assumed that the historical events recorded actually happened when and how they were recorded, but that has never been the gist of the Bible.  For Christians, the Bible is a spiritual book to be read spiritually by spiritual people.  The Bible is eschatological, and only those who have begun to experience the eschaton can have any clue as to what the Bible says, can have any clue what "the throne of David" that Mary's Son will sit on refers to.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Money and Betrayal in the Church

In St. John's Gospel we get the clear impression that Judas betrayed Jesus for the money.  The Gospel tells us that Judas was particularly upset at the "waste" of the woman who poured ointment on Jesus.  Judas calculates the value of the ointment--about a year's wages--and complains that the money could have been given to the poor.  St. John tells us, however, that Judas was not really concerned for the poor because he was accustomed to helping himself from the collective money box.  Indeed, the hymns of the Church during Holy Week repeatedly tell us that greed was the primary motive for Judas' betrayal of Jesus.  

I confess that it is hard for me to believe that Judas would betray Jesus merely out of greed, and for such a small amount--30 pieces of silver, a little more than a month's wages, one tenth of the value of the ointment that was freely "wasted" on Jesus.  I'm not the only one who struggles intellectually here.  Many have speculated on what Judas' real motives were.  Speculations range from political to personal to even pious motivations (e.g. Judas thought he could force Jesus' hand to publicly manifest Himself as Messiah).  However, very few "intellectuals" theses days seem to be able to buy the Church's explanation: greed.  Why? What's our problem?

Well maybe my problem is that I am too much like Judas myself.  It too count the value of what others give to the Church in the form of expensive liturgical items and consider whether or not the money might have been "better" spent elsewhere.  I too make my living out of our little church community's collective money box.  I too fail to give freely, like the generous woman, but rather count my pennies and consider what is enough, rather than what is generous.  I too easily, oh so easily, take offence when someone else seems to be "wasting" church resources: "Why does Fr. X drive such a nice car?"  "Why does His Grace Y have to stay in such an expensive hotel?" Why does His Eminence Z take so many trips to the Old Country?"  Yes, there are times when the Judas demon would feel right at home in my mind. 

The parallels between Judas' relationship with money and mine are frightening.  And if others have these same greedy tendencies, then it is no wonder we have a hard time accepting the Church's testimony that Judas' betrayal was a matter of mere greed.  To admit that is to admit that we too could betray Christ, for we have a similar greed at work in us.

But things are not as frightening as they appear.

While St. John focuses on Judas' motivation for betrayal, St. Mark (14: 3-9) points out that some were indignant, not just Judas; and St. Matthew (26: 6-13) says the disciples generally were indignant.  It seems that Judas was not the only greedy one.  It seems that we who struggle with generosity and are quick to call waste any expenditure that we do not agree with, it seems we are in good company.  Well, good and bad company.

Perhaps the difference between Judas and me, and between Judas and the other Disciples, was not that Judas experienced greedy thoughts and I and others do not.   Rather the difference has to do with whether or not we let greed determine our actions, let greed motivate us, allow ourselves to be driven by fear or anger that has greed at it's root.  

Of course, such an explanation should not lead us to breathe easy.  That I am not generous, that I do "calculate the value of the gift" (as the hymns of the Church say of Judas), that I do sometimes take offence at what appears to me to be the extravagance of others, that any of this is the case, I should fear.  I should fear a holy fear that leads me to repentance.  The seeds of greed have not been completely weeded from my heart.  The thought that I could, if I do not attend to my on-going repentance and under the right circumstances, betray Jesus as Judas did, that thought is enough to scare the hell out of me (quite literally).

Monday, September 19, 2011

Love and More Love

"Christ's final judgement...does not discriminate between those who need love and those who invite condemnation; it only adjudicates between those who need love and those who need more love."
(Andrew Klager, "Orthodox Eschatology and St. Gregory's [Life of Moses]" in Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend published by Cascade Books.

When I read the above line out loud to my wife, she stopped what she was doing and said, "Ahhh."  The kind of "Ahhh" that means, "Yes! That's the God I know in my heart."

Andrew's article is a little tough to work through--he is writing for scholars, after all; but if you get a chance to read it, it is worth the time to work through it slowly.  Use a dictionary if you need one (I always do).  The vision of heaven, hell and judgement are so Orthodox, so different from what we as a western culture are used to think, that I think you too will say "Ahhh" at several points.

Andrew does not (nor does the Church for that matter) say that there is no hell.  He doesn't say that there is no judgement or no condemnation.  What Andrew does is help us understand the Orthodox teaching that heaven and hell are not separate places, but they are possibilities of our human experience of the Love of God.  God's Love is the Consuming Fire.  But what is consumed is only the chaff (our sin, our delusions our vanity) and those who suffer are only those who cling to their sin, their delusions, their vanity.

Of course I cannot unpack in just a few paragraphs what Andrew lays out so well in a twenty-three page article.  Let me just repeat that it is worth reading--but get a good dictionary and take your time.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Wisdom, Faith, Hope, and Love

Today is St. Sophia day.  Her daughters, Faith, Hope and Love (aged 12,10 and 9) were martyred in her presence and she, laying on their graves died.  She is considered a martyr for what she endured.  May God through the prayers of Wisdom, Faith, Hope and Love help us to give our lives away too, in wisdom, faith, hope and love.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jesus Was Angry

"And when He [Jesus] had looked around at them in anger..." (Mark 3:5).

Jesus certainly was angry; but what did He experience in His anger?  Did Jesus experience what I experience when I am angry?

The Fathers of the Church teach us that there are two basic "natural passions" (sinless passions or feelings) that might be called desire and irritation.  These two natural passions are corrupted by sin to become lust in all of its many forms and anger in all of its forms.  Most of the time when we speak of anger, we are referring to an experience that is laced with, if not completely consumed by, sin.  

When the Bible speaks of Jesus being angry, we must keep in mind that Jesus is sinless.  Jesus experienced all that is natural for a human being, yet without sin.  Jesus experienced both desire and irritation, what the Bible normally calls anger and sometimes wrath.  However, the "anger" that Jesus experienced was completely free of sin: it was a passionless anger.  By "passionless" I do not mean that Jesus did not feel it emotionally.  What I mean is that the feeling was not touched by sin and it did not control, push or knock Him off balance.  What Jesus experienced was nothing like anger as we generally experience it.  

We might say that Jesus was angry, but He was not upset.  Jesus could feel the irritation caused by the encounter with injustice and sin, but He never loses control of himself.  He never acts in any but the most loving, kind and patient way possible (and "possible" is a key word here).  However, Jesus does act, when the time is right and for the salvation of all.  It is noteworthy that in St. John's account of the cleansing of the temple, St. John specifically mentions that after Jesus found the money changers in the temple, He took the time to make a whip of cords before He started driving them out.  Although He felt "anger," Jesus was not driven by anger even as he was driving out the moneychangers.  Jesus did not experience anger as a sinful passion.

This is the reason why it is necessary for Christians (or anyone who wants to change the world) to pursue purity of heart.  If we are going to do the works of Christ, if we are going to change evil systems and structures in the world, if we are going to drive the moneychangers out of the various temples of our lives, first we have to purify the passions of our own heart.  Otherwise, we will only be fighting fire with fire, attacking one evil with another, their injustice with mine.

Spiritual life, the personal pursuit of purity of heart, is no selfish endeavour. It is the foundation from which action can bring about real change.  It is the prerequisite for clear vision.  It is the bringing of the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, starting with what I have the most power to change (myself) and moving out from there.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lions In Our Hearts

Jamie Moran in an article in Raising Lazarus: Integral Healing in Orthodox Christianity, uses the metaphor of an evil lion caged inside us. This lion represents sinful passionate desires or urges. Jamie talks about two common ways Christians deal with this lion that don’t work very well and then suggests a way based on the teaching of the Desert Fathers. The first ineffective way is the way of the “Puritan,” the second ineffective way is the path of appeasement, and the way of the Desert Fathers is the way of identification.
These are some of my reflections on these three ways.
The Puritan insists that the lion does not exist--at least not in her heart. The Puritan sublimates; she forces herself to do the culturally defined good; she acts; she pretends. The Puritan may indeed convince herself that there is no lion caged in her heart, but the repressed impulses find their way out in other unhealthy ways of being and relating. Because the Puritan must give herself so completely to pretending, she loses compassion and empathy; she loses the ability to see what she doesn’t want to see in others because she has worked so hard not to see what she does not want to see in herself. The fruit of this Puritan way is self righteousness and pride.
The second ineffective way to deal with the lion is to hide it by appeasing it. The one who hides the lion is continually negotiating with the sinful impulse--appeasing it, throwing it bits of gratification when no one is looking in the hope that it will stay quiet in public. The lion, however, always wants more. Eventually the lion acts out in ways that cannot be hidden. He who appeases is always burdened with guilt, always tormented by a mostly hidden cycle of building desire, brief pleasure, and long-lasting regret that creeps into all areas of life either as a sense of failure or as over achieving (as a compensation for the sense of failure).
In some ways the appeaser is better off than the Puritan. At least the appeaser recognizes the lion and can thus sympathize with others who suffer from their lions. At least he has something to repent of--if he can find the courage to do so. However, some who are appeasers eventually find their way into the ranks of the crypto-Puritans. The crypto-Puritans, instead of denying the existence of the lion, are proud of the lion. They call evil good and good evil, and in this condition they are worse off than the Puritans.
The third way to deal with the lion is to identify with it--to get in the cage with the lion. I think this is something like what twelve-step programs try to achieve. By saying to yourself and to everyone, “I am an alcoholic,” you begin to know both yourself and your problem as it really is, and you begin to find the power to muzzle the lion.
Sometimes Orthodox Christians have a hard time getting into the cage with the lion(s) in their heart. Sometimes they have a hard time admitting that the lions are there at all because their own heart is a closed book to them.
The following is a hymn from the Octoechos, Sunday evening, Tone 4:
Jesus came to save sinners. The sooner we look into our own hearts to discover the lions of sin caged there, the sooner we will be able to find the repentance that Christ established and be saved.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Danger of Miracle Working Icons

When Jesus performed a miracle, all of the people were amazed; but very few got it.  They didn't get that the miracle was a sign, a sign to reveal something else.  The miracle was not an end in itself.  And more importantly, the miracle was not an affirmation of what the person already believed.  The miracles of Christ were signs revealing Christ's divinity, revealing the presence of the Kingdom of God.  The miracles commanded those who saw them or heard of them to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  We know this is the case because this is the message of Jesus, his very first words in the Gospels: "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

In my life I have been blessed to have been in the presence of several myrrh streaming icons and one icon that was self-restoring (a blackened icon--of St. Nicholas, I believe--that was slowly cleaning itself from the bottom up).  However the community in which these icons resided was in contention with its bishop.  From the outside looking in, that is from my limited perspective, it seemed as though many in the community viewed the miraculous icons as a confirmation of their own position against their bishop.  I even had one member of the community actually tell me this.  In the end, this community separated from its bishop resulting in personal tragedies that continue to ooze pain to this day.

Miracles are dangerous.

We all rejoice when God allows us to see a miracle mostly, I think, because our faith is so weak that anything, any undeniable sign from God that what we can see and measure is not all there is, is a great boost to our faith.  We all long for stronger faith.  We all cry with the father of the epileptic: "I believe, help my unbelief!"  Miracles often do that.  They help our unbelief; they strengthen the little faith that we have.

I'm all for the veneration of and wonder at miraculous icons.  In fact, this Saturday I plan to venerate the Myrrh streaming icon of the Mother of God from Hawaii.  I pray that my weak faith will be strengthened by personally witnessing this miracle.  However, if God grants me stronger faith, it is only so that I can better repent of my sins.  It is only that I might learn humility.  It is only that I might trust God more in all areas of my life, especially those most painful areas where I suspect God has abandoned me.  I pray that God does all of this for me and for everyone who venerates this holy icon of the Mother of God.

Yet one thing is certain: Whatever miracle I see or experience, it is not a confirmation that I am right.  It is a call to repentance.