Arimathea
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Religion
The human animal is the worshipping animal. Toward the divine, we have a need to pray, to sacrifice, to offer up, and to praise. From the spirit dances of primitive animism to the rational contemplation of philosophical paganism, from the ethical code of the rabbis to the theological vision of the scholastics, from the sprinkled blood (the origin of blessing) of temple cults to helping the poor in simple Christian charity, men need to relate the immanent and the transcendent -- they see their particular lives in time and space transfigured and transfused with meaning unbounded by human things. Religion is this aspect of human life where the everyday and worldly intersects with the ultimate and divine. Is this an accident of human evolution, or is it a racial neurosis brought upon us as conscious beings who live in the shadow of our own death? Is it a reflection of the divine order, where creatures naturally orient themselves toward their source? Has God revealed himself to us, as the Christians claim? In this realm, I shall try to delve into such questions as an Orthodox Christian who ever pesters God with "Why?"
Wednesday, February 25, A.D. 2009
Fitna

On this Western day of penance, I wish my Latin friends a beneficial Lenten fast.

Quite far from the meaning of Ash Wednesday, I also want to publicize the short film, Fitna, directed by Dutch politician and “fatwah survivor” Geert Wilders. Wilders has been on Mohammedan terrorists’ hit list for several years for his liberal criticism of the religion that Mohammed founded. Such should not surprise anyone who has been following current events for the last three decades. What is shocking is that Wilders has run into several problems with Western governments. The Dutch state has charged him with hate crimes, and the British government has denied him entry into the United Kingdom for similar reasons.

Here is an interview with Wilders by Russia Today.

Is Wilders a neo-fascist thug? No, he is a liberal, and he dislikes the European right. Is he a terrorist? No, he is the leader of a mainstream Dutch political party. Has he spread lies about Mohammedanism? Of course not; why would anyone resort to slander when the truth is so interestingly damning? His “hate speech” film Fitna merely reproduces words of and footage from the news and the Mohammedan world. For this, he must live in constant danger of the barbarians. For a film that is but a mirror to the grotesque absurdity that many call Islam, he has been prosecuted, ostracized, and demonized by a Western world that no longer tolerates open expression—especially when uncomfortably true.

You may watch Fitna online (graphic):

You may also wish to watch Obsession, as well:

For how long will Westerners remain ostriches?

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, February 25, Anno Domini 2009
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Sunday, February 22, A.D. 2009
Religion Blogs

As much of a natural Luddite that I may be, I love the internet. I remember the days when an answer to an obscure question might require hours of research at the city’s main library. Now, one can find such information online in less than a minute. Of course, such “old-fashioned” skills are useful, and the ease of online research may have some unfortunate consequences for the new generation. Nonetheless, I feel fortunate to have lived in both eras.

One of the more interesting opportunities that the world wide web affords us is the ability to encounter various points of view so easily. In the “real world” meetings places of classrooms, cafés, train cars, youth hostel lounges, and church meals, it takes a considerable amount of time investment to discover people who share certain interests and to build up a relationship so that such matters can be discussed. The internet facilitates this process, though the depersonalized medium has its own shortcomings. For example, many folks feel free to behave like arses in ways that they would not so act among flesh and blood associations. Still, the phenomena of discussion groups, blogs, and alternative news sites are quite exciting.

In tribute to this new medium, today and tomorrow I am offering some sites that I find interesting. You may enjoy them, too. On this Lord’s day, I offer some sites that focus mainly on religion, though with commentary about society at large, while tomorrow’s entry will concern sites about truth more generally. Besides these, I recommend my “blogroll” offerings in the left column of each subject area, as well.

Orthodox sites:

Ad Orientem
American Orthodox Institute
Energetic Procession
Glory to God for All Things
Journey to Orthodoxy
Living Theology
The Ochlophobist
Orrologion
Orthodoxy Today
Paradosis
Pravoslavie
Theandros
Two Natures

Roman Catholic sites:

Ignatius Insight
Inside Catholic
Thomas Peters’ American Papist
Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s What Does the Prayer Really Say?

Posted by Joseph on Sunday, February 22, Anno Domini 2009
OrthodoxyLiturgyPatristicsSaintsScriptureEcumenismRoman CatholicismCommentsPermalink
Sunday, February 8, A.D. 2009
Competing Claims

On the Christian Theology blog, Dante Tremayne expressed his frustration with Orthodox (non-) apologetics in “Can Eastern Orthodox prove they’re the One True Church?.” His basic complaint is that Orthodox arguments appear to be circular and that they all rest on the Orthodox claim to be the Church of Christ:

Therefore, what they say is the truth, is the truth. There is no higher authority or objective standard to which they appeal. Thus, when the church says that they are the True Church, it’s true, because they are the Final Authority, and they are the Final Authority because they are the True Church. This is a rather obvious tautological statement, and completely meaningless.

I attempted to respond with the following lengthy comment on his entry:

Dear Dante,

I am sorry to hear that you have found nothing but unhelpful and circular statements from Orthodox quarters. This doesn’t help, but let me say that the above statements do make some sense once you see the Orthodox perspective.

The basic Orthodox claim is similar to that of Rome: the Orthodox Church is the Body of Christ, spread throughout the Roman empire and beyond by the apostles, and nourished by the Holy Spirit throughout the ages. For the Orthodox, there is no sudden change—no apostasy, no turbulent switch—in Christian history. From Paul to Justin to John Chrysostom to John of Damascus to Gregory Palamas to today, there is a public continuous Christian community that lives in the light of Christ’s resurrection. Rome claims the same. Protestant communities, as you mention, also claim as much, but rather dishonestly.

How should we judge these competing claims? Well, we can look for continuity. It is not enough to find some sort of precedence—we must find a general and consistent acceptance of doctrines throughout the Christian era. If you do this, you will see that the Protestant confessions are aberrations in Christian history. It is true that Luther and Calvin found their inspiration in Saint Augustine of Hippo, but his peculiar views were quite singular, and they were rejected by the Western Churches for a thousand years after his death, despite his being the greatest Church Father who wrote in Latin. In the East, Augustine’s quirky theological speculations never influenced anyone. All of the great teachers in Christian history had their individual doctrinal musings. Favorite sons of the Orthodox Church Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus also had peculiar ideas. However, such views were simply their own and did not reflect the general consensus of the faith as inherited through the centuries from the apostles. As such, they were considered the private opinions of wise and holy men—but they were not doctrine. The East had an advantage in this, as most early Fathers were Greek speaking and writing—there was no lack of witnesses writing in Greek from any era of the apostolic faith. No one person and his theological idiosyncrasies could substitute for the general catholic faith that everyone held.

It is a common Orthodox contention that most Western errors resulted from this lack of patristic diversity in the West. As the Empire in the West crumbled, fewer people knew Greek, and the knowledge of the early Church was lost in a way that never happened in the Greek East. Moreover, with the onset of the Dark Ages and fewer educated folks in the West, the place of Augustine and the few Western Fathers held an inappropriate influence over the West. Furthermore, the bishop of Rome was forced to take on secular responsibilities as civil authority either crumbled or was taken over by heretical Arians. Over centuries, this aggrandizement of power perverted Rome—from the Orthodox perspective—and made it more about princely power than about guarding the ancient faith for the salvation of souls.

Therefore, the Orthodox acknowledge that Rome has ancient roots, but they hold that historical circumstances facilitated Rome’s slow departure from the apostolic faith. Rome also acknowledges its changes, but it argues that such changes were divinely ordained. To weigh the two, you should consider the relative arguments. However, I think that the burden of proof must rest on Rome, which changed and gathered great power by those changes. Did the papacy transform into a super-episcopacy due to the will of God or due to the self-interest of power hungry men?

The Roman position puts so much stock in the power and infallibility of the papacy because it then allows Rome to justify all other changes. To any question, “Why did the Roman Church change from the ancient practice to another?,” Rome can simply answer “Because the Holy Spirit works through the magesterium of the papacy and directs the Church through Christ’s vicar on earth, the pope.” In one stroke, Roman Catholicism self-justifies.

The Orthodox reject such papal authority and rest with the ancient apostolic and patristic consensus. Obviously, new questions always arise, and new answers must develop to address them. Yet, the Orthodox position is that these new answers are based in the consistent unchanged “phronema”—the mind set—of the Church. Roman theologians often accuse the Orthodox of being stuck in the past, but for the Orthodox, God’s truth isn’t constrained by time. The Word of God is eternal.

The “truth is a person” bit that you mention is not an excuse not to engage intellectually, though many Western Christians initially think that of Orthodox Christians. Rather, it is a typical Orthodox response to what they see as the hyper-rationalization of divine matters. For the Orthodox, theology is not an academic exercise; it is not an engagement with abstract concepts but rather an engagement with the living God. Out of pastoral reasons, Orthodox priests try to steer Western inquirers to consider their faith more like a life lived—in a relationship of love—than one of propositions to which one assents. Westerners often misunderstand this move, since their prior experience with such responses usually comes from the post-modern, post-doctrinal, post-Christian factions of their own religious tradition: “Only the closet atheists say such things.” Thus, they dismiss Orthodoxy as wishy-washy feel good mystical gobbly gook nonsense.

Concerning scripture, the Orthodox rightly treasure the Bible, but they do not see it as something separate from the rest of their heritage from God. The legacy of Abraham, the law of Moses, the prophets, the apostles, the first Christian communities, the martyrs, the great theologians of the early Church, the great councils, the wisdom of the desert monks, the hymnography, the liturgical riches, and the poetry of the Church—these are all aspects of the Christian life, lived in the community of Christ’s gospel. You may hear such and interpret it as denigrating the scriptures, whereas the Orthodox are, from their perspective, putting the Bible in its greater context. The Bible isn’t a document without a home; its home is the Church, where it was written, where it has been kept, and where it has been taught for two thousand years.

So, with apostolic succession, scriptural interpretation, and doctrinal positions, the Orthodox can point to any century in the past and state that Christians held the same beliefs then. They do not see the Fathers as distant authorities—Orthodox Christians are not ecclesial archaeologists digging around in dusty cathedral basements—but rather the Orthodox see the Fathers as familiar pastors and teachers. For this reason, the Orthodox do not have the same crisis of faith that many Westerners have when it comes to learning the great upheavals in Church history. The Arian controversy is touted as evidence against the Trinity by some Protestants and apostate Christians, whereas the Orthodox remember it in the way that our parents remember Vietnam . . . it’s a family memory. They know that Arius was wrong, and they know why he was so successful for so long. The intricacies of the conflict are not arcane matters but stories that one knows because they defined a significant moment in one’s personal past—and often such moments are painful and complicated.

This is not to say that Orthodoxy doesn’t have problems. Rather, it is to admit that the problem with Orthodoxy is Orthodox Christians, whereas the problem with Protestantism is Protestantism. Anything connected with fallen man will be tainted and disappointing. Nonetheless, God has given us a path, and it is available to all.

My presentation of an Orthodox defense is highly unorthodox in that it is overtly intellectual. The more immediate Orthodox response to an inquirer of Orthodox claims would be an invitation to see if you find sanctity and spiritual nourishment in the Church. For it is easier to trick the intellect of most people than to deceive their hearts.

I, myself, don’t find the historical arguments ultimately fulfilling. Sure, they might show that the Orthodox Church has more in continuity with the earliest Christians, but it does not establish that the earliest Christians were right. Why follow Jesus at all? For me, Orthodoxy makes the world make sense; it provides better answers to my questions than any other system. But that is my own path.

However, each person comes to God in a unique manner. I wish you the best in your search.

The comment obviously does not do justice to the historical complexity of Christian history. I have “been there and done that” with endless arguments over papal claims, replete with innumerable patristic references, scriptural commentary, conciliar minutes, and canon law case precedents in cross-diocesan judicial appeals. My basic opinion, sufficient for the present purpose, is that one can build a case for papal supremacy by employing extraordinary circumstances as normative ones. During all the Christological controversies, some bishops played ruthless politics for the sake of the faith while others did so for personal power. A pious bishop in exile often sought assistance wherever he could, and canonically questionable actions were taken and justified by the higher goal of defending the faith from heresy. Rome was usually a haven of sanity during these disputes; early Western Christians were not as a theologically interested, philosophically educated, or politically connected as their Greek brethren in the East. Hence, the Roman Church was blessedly boring while the major theological controversies raged across the Empire. It was often necessary, then, for orthodox hierarchs to seek Rome’s interference in ways that defied common practice. Papal supremacists see their justification therein. The will needs very little evidence to claim the inviolable correctness of its desires . . .

Nonetheless, the normal position of ecumenical Church government was decentralized and conciliar. Such is the Orthodox ideal to this day, though it has taken many forms, with the autocephalous system’s being the current organization. At any rate, the subject has become a moot point. Rome largely abandoned its orthodoxy centuries ago, and whatever primacy the bishop of Rome should have had has become an anachronism. Petrine fundamentalism aside, the Churches’ deference to Rome rested as much on the Roman Christian community’s sobriety and fidelity as on Rome’s status as the old capital, on its being a major center of power, communication, commerce, transportation, and ideas, and on its giving the world countless martyrs, especially Saints Peter and Paul. When Rome forsook its faith, it forfeited its special honor.

Posted by Joseph on Sunday, February 8, Anno Domini 2009
OrthodoxyPatristicsEcumenismProtestantismRoman CatholicismCommentsPermalink
Sunday, February 1, A.D. 2009
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

Last week, the Local Council of the Russian Church elected Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad to be the sixteenth Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. You can read the official report here. Here is a news story about the election:

Today, the new patriarch was enthroned at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. Aaron and I had the opportunity to visit the cathedral one year after it was rebuilt and consecrated. The Soviets had destroyed it during their reign and turned the spot into a public swimming pool. Now, it has become the chief religious edifice in Moscow. Here is a news report on the enthronement:


You may recall that I worried about Kirill’s possible election in two posts months ago, “Boring Church Politics” and “Of Patriarchs and Bishops.” Indeed, long before the reunion of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, I worried that Kirill might replace Patriarch Alexy II; poor Andrew had to listen to my preemptive complaints several times. Unfortunately, there is good reason for those with foresight to be pessimists.

I do wish the patriarch well. I hope that he guides our flock with wisdom. He certainly has a lot of work to do. Russian society is not spiritually or morally strong—or stable. It will take generations to undo the damage of the last century.

However, as noted in the previous entries, Patriarch Kirill has voiced some disturbing opinions over the years—often in odd, secular (namely, Hegelian) language. He is fond of using the word “contradiction” in the Marxist sense. Perhaps, anyone educated in the Soviet regime shares those habits of vocabulary, but they make me nervous, all the same—especially when he buddies up with atheist dictators on foreign trips. Moreover, he has been Russia’s chief ecumenical liaison for two decades. I do not look to the W.C.C.‘s favorite Orthodox bishops with much hope for a robust defense of the faith. I hope that Kirill’s work has all been a matter of ecclesial diplomacy. Political and diplomatic cleverness are dangerous in the wicked, but quite useful in the good. Be wise as serpents . . .

If his heart and mind are in the right place, he can be a powerful tool for God. He is bright, diplomatic, and apparently hard-working. If Patriarch Alexy’s role was to stabilize and reunite the Russian Church after the fall of the Communists, perhaps Patriarch Kirill will actually help it take root in the heart of every Russian. There is much to harvest.

I have been annoyed at the media coverage of the election in the Western press. There were reports that Kirill’s chief rival in the election was supported by “fundamentalists.” I suppose that those of us who oppose much of what euphemistically passes as the “Orthodox witness” in the ecumenical movement are “fundamentalists.” Some press releases branded Kirill a “liberal” and others called him a “conservative nationalist.” It is odd how Western media types—completely secular right down to their scrotal blood vessels—always interpret religious matters through their own political filters. In no way is Kirill a liberal; he has publically and repeatedly denounced—correctly, in my opinion—the Western tradition of human rights as inherently secular and alien to the Orthodox tradition. Nonetheless, he appears to be a modernist in the Russian sense of the word. Let us hope that his understanding of renewal is more like that of Saint John of Kronstadt and less like the Renovationists.

Furthermore, several media stories that I read noted that he was elected by businessmen, politicians, and the wife of a regional governor—as if the election were secularly staged. What they fail to mention is that the patriarchal election involves all the bishops as well as clerical and lay representatives from every diocese. Lay electors cast a third of the ballots. People from more than sixty countries participated, and a majority of them were not citizens of the Russian Federation. I harbor no illusions about the transparency of Russian politics, but reporters should at least try to be fair.

One positive editorial on the election is Leonid Sevastyanov’s “Kirill’s Vision of a Great Russia” in The Moscow Times:

Russia is a conundrum. On one hand, it is a profoundly secularized society in which traditional religious practice is sporadic and often superficial. This abandonment of the country’s traditional Orthodox faith is in part due to the period of state atheism from 1918 to 1991 and the subsequent 18 years of nihilism in which idealism is as out of fashion as religious belief. But on the other hand, Russian society longs for political idealism and religious faith.

And so Kirill, who was elected patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church on Tuesday, faces a difficult problem. Within the church, he must go beyond what his predecessor, Alexy II, accomplished over the past two decades, rebuilding the institutional structures of the church. He must fill churches, seminaries, monasteries and schools with fervent believers. Outside the church, he must persuade society to engage with the church and seek to build a post-Soviet Russia that can flourish and provide a just, prosperous life for the Russian people.

Kirill has deep convictions about the role of the Christian faith in the future of Russia and about Russia’s role in the future of Europe and the world. As he has stated on numerous occasions, he is convinced that only a return to “real values” can enable Russia and Europe to confront the current economic crisis. Moreover, he believes that Russia’s greatness, eclipsed in recent years, can only be restored by renewing its ancient Orthodox faith.

Given his relatively young age, 62, Kirill could be patriarch for the next generation. He will undoubtedly set out to fulfill a double agenda. First, he will want to build on what Alexy II accomplished during the 18 years of his patriarchate, continuing the rebuilding of the church’s ruined infrastructure. Thousands of churches have been rebuilt across Russia since 1991. Second, he could start a series of new initiatives to strengthen the church’s voice and influence in Russian society.

The new patriarch can be expected to reopen schools, expand seminaries, renew monasteries and in general restore the outward signs of Russian Orthodox religious life. But Kirill, who was the key figure behind the unprecedented promulgation of the church’s social teaching in a document in 2000, can also be expected to take bold new steps to go beyond renewing the institutional structure of the church.

One big question concerns his relations with the pope and with the Roman Catholic Church. Kirill will be looking for allies in his effort to move Russian and European society in a religious direction. But he will not strive for a theocratic state. Indeed, it is precisely his acceptance of the need for dialogue with non-Christians in a modern, pluralistic state that has prompted some of the more conservative elements in the Orthodox church to be sharply critical of him as too “progressive.”

Kirill, who has been serving for eight weeks as “interim patriarch,” made his thoughts clear in a sermon he delivered on Jan. 6 at a Christmas Eve service held at Christ the Savior Cathedral. Kirill invited those present, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to be valiant during the current economic crisis.

The word “crisis” comes from the Greek meaning “decision,” Kirill said. He said that today, decisions have been affected by attitudes such as “greed, loss of control over consumption, a bid to enrich oneself by all means and have as much as possible.” He said the crisis began when people forgot true values, and that further crises could be avoided if those values provided the foundation for the economy.

Kirill has his own vision for the future of Europe. In an address to the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu in September 2007, Kirill said that in order for Europe to survive the tribulations that have befallen previous civilizations, it must retain its Christian identity. An increasing number of Europeans—Christians and non-Christians alike—have come to recognize “Christianity [as] a powerful source of support for European civilization,” he said.

At the same time, Kirill was careful to explain that this does not imply that “there is no room” in Europe “for people of other religions and with other outlooks on the world.”

With Kirill’s appointment as patriarch, Russian society opens a new page in its history.

Patriarch Kirill, many years!

Posted by Joseph on Sunday, February 1, Anno Domini 2009
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