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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?"
Protestantism
Children of the Reformation
Friday, May 9, A.D. 2014
God Does Not Charge Interest

Christ is risen!

It is a funny thing how many of us expect to pay for the good things that we experience through suffering in the future. We do not consider Fortune a capricious dame but rather a diligent keeper of accounts who ensures that happiness must be balanced by misery. We do not enjoy blessings easily because we suspect that horrible news awaits us just around the corner; the time of reckoning must come.

Perhaps, this attitude is due to our fundamental suspicions about our place in providence, as I noted in “Pessimist,” but I wonder if something more universal is at work. In this world of finitude, men are always in need. As such, they do not give away what treasure or skill they have until they have secured their necessities. Instead, they trade, and most everything has a price—and everyone has to accept limits.

It is easy to interpret our relationship with God within this framework. Natural religion—paganism—does this explicitly, and we heirs of Abraham often harbor some residual pagan opinions of mortal-divine bartering. We pray for blessings, and we speculate about the cost. We might propose deals to God—and then worry about our failing to keep our end. In all this, we assume that God is like man—that he must exact a payment. Yet, we forget that the bartering economy arises from limited resources. The divine economy has no such restraint. As Kristor Lawson often remarks on the Orthosphere, God creates ex nihilo, and God’s free giving of being radically differs from the world of the market. God has no need and requires nothing of us for his own benefit. For God is perfect. In what way could a perfect being benefit?

But, then, what of us and of our relationship with God? What does the perfect God have to do with us besides creating and holding us in existence? Is he simply that timeless clock maker and tinkerer? This question troubles many folks who deal with the dilemma either by depersonalizing God or by reducing God to a creaturely level. A good example of the latter is another Orthospheran, Bruce Charllton, who praises Mormonism for its anthropomorphic understanding of God. For how can we have a relationship with the “beyond being” that has any resemblance to the scriptural images of the relationship between God and man: father and son, king and subject, bridegroom and bride, and so on. What can the Perfect and Unchanging get in return for our devotion?

I believe that those human relationship images indicate an answer—or rather the path to the answer. What binds human beings as human beings more than love? Love is an odd dynamic, whereby the lover gives and benefits in such giving by rendering good to the beloved. What does the lover get besides the happiness of being a lover? Perhaps love in return, and such certainly adds to act of loving as a completion, but true love is not a payment in expectation of a return. The happiness of love is in the act itself. It is, we might say on many levels, a pure act.

God is the lover par excellence. In the divine liturgy, we call the Lord the lover of mankind—φιλάνθρωπος. God cannot be defined, but Christians have always used love as the best way to talk about God. God is love and the archetype of love. In Christianity alone may we maintain that love is essential to God. According to rabbinical Judaism and Mohammedanism, love requires creation; God only loves that which he creates. So, love is a created force, even if God eternally loves that which comes to be in time. Christians, however, believe that the community of the Trinity is one of eternal love—which is essential to God—and that this relationship is the ground of all existence. We do not judge that we anthropomorphize the cosmos when we speak of love among non-human beings. Rather, we believe that human love in its many forms is an imitation of and participation in the fount of reality—God’s inner life of love.

As with so many dilemmas that result from trying to pigeonhole the Almighty into creaturely categories, the problem disappears when we reflect upon God. God is the Lord of both/and and not simply either/or (ha!), and he freely gives being and goodness. God only enters the marketplace of exchange to rectify our creaturely debts; in such manner are we bought with a price—and yet God frees his bondsmen.

Truly, he is risen!

Posted by Joseph on Friday, May 9, Anno Domini 2014
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Thursday, May 8, A.D. 2014
Orthodoxy in the Mormon Zion

The Salt Lake Tribune published an article this week on the latest Orthodox temple to be built in the Hive: “Utah’s newest Russian church built on faith, secret donation.” The story includes a photograph of Saint George Russian Orthodox Church‘s new home. The style strikes me as a Russian spin on Mormon architecture—a bizarre but often oddly attractive way of combining traditional and modernist elements. Maybe some parishioners are converts from Smith’s religion and have brought their L.D.S. marketing savvy with them. Who would have thought it possible that Russians could mormon Mormons—and in their own backyard!?!? From my “Questionable Misogyny” post:

Mormons seem to be bred or well trained to appear similar to whatever you espouse. They regularly exhibit an image quite akin to whatever you say so that you come to see their religion as recognizably familiar to your own. I have even coined the verb, “to mormon” someone, which means to trick others into thinking that one is similar to them when one is quite different. Perhaps, Mormons developed this behavior as a survival mechanism, which then became useful as a missionary tool. Besides a smile, a well-groomed Mormon kid’s chief artillery consists in, “We, too.” That is how the children of Lehi reel in the wary, and then they keep them in the tent with healthy family and community lifestyles: L.D.S. Strategy 101.

Христос воскресе!

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, May 8, Anno Domini 2014
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Friday, April 4, A.D. 2014
Rabbinical Christianity

As I was digging in the yard this week, a thought came to me about a widespread contemporary phenomenon among Christians in the West—the nascence and spread of rabbinical Christianity. By rabbinical Christianity, I do not mean Christianity dominated by teachers—though one might say that is another woeful current fad—but rather one that sees Christian morality in the same way that rabbinical Jews see the Mosaic law. According to most currents of rabbinical Judaism, the Mosaic law only places obligations on Jews. The heathen gentiles have no such requirements. Certain rabbinical traditions hold that God’s universal moral law—applicable to all people—is contained in the Noahide law, which is far less demanding.

Christians altered this framework as they developed their understanding of natural law from Hebraic and Greco-Roman philosophy and law. Doctors of the Church taught that men may know the natural law according to reason, while the moral perfection of love is revealed only through and by Christ. Natural law is applicable to all people as they are—like the Noahide law, while the vocation to become truly Christlike is for all people, as well, though this universal call to holiness does not come naturally. I am not completely comfortable with the clean demarcations of reason and revelation or of nature and grace, but I think that the categories point to some basic realities.

Unlike their forebears, these latter day rabbinical Christians no longer appreciate natural law. For them, what once was considered according to reason now only applies to them as Christians who keep their religion’s way of life. The new Noahide law—the modern ius gentium—has devolved to the contradictory moral notions of liberal society—namely an idiosyncratically limited tolerance and an emotional version of warm fuzzy kindness. When traditional Christians advocate the upholding of the natural law, these rabbinicists rebuke them by arguing that it is not just for Christians to impose Christian morality on the heathen who have no way of living up to such stringent demands. For them, what was once deemed according to nature has become possible only by grace. Hence, the practical reason of the Greek philosophers is now only for the “chosen people” of Christians. Unlike the Hebrews, though, Christians must not take any pride in being thus chosen. Like the self-hating Jew, Christian morality (meaning natural law—not the sacrificial perfection of true Christian morality) is their “special burden.”

I conjecture that rabbinical Christianity has resulted from Christians’ attempting to reconcile their moral tradition with liberal society. According to the previous Western tradition, human beings may know the human good both from reason and from revelation, while liberalism denies that there is any human good or, if there is, that it is knowable. Thus, each human will may decide its own good. These two positions cannot coexist peacefully in the same soul. For traditionalists, we simply reject liberalism as wrong. Accommodationist Christians who have accepted the transformation of Western civilization, however, must find a way to live with their cognitive dissonance. For man is a rational animal, and he must try to rationalize his contradictions. Therefore, liberalized Christians reserve natural law for themselves like the old Mosaic law, while they follow the rest of society in acknowledging any further demands upon human beings. The Frankfort School is their Noah.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, April 4, Anno Domini 2014
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Tuesday, February 4, A.D. 2014
Paul and Constantine

Last week, I received the following thoughts by James M. Kushiner from the Fellowship of St. James:

Paul, Jesus & Kings

Following up on last week’s comments about Constantine, at the risk of seeming overly preoccupied with this controversial figure, I offer some comments (with questions) on Holy Scripture as it pertains to the matter of a “Christian king.” I begin with a few references to kings in the New Testament:

1. “You will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony.” (Jesus to his disciples, Luke 21:12b-13) The witnesses of the gospel will go all the way to the top, so to speak.

2. “Go, for [Saul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” (Jesus to Ananias, Acts 9:15) Jesus explicitly says Saul will be witnessing to kings as “a chosen instrument of mine.”

3. “At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun shining round me… And the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” (Saul, now Paul, in his defense before King Agrippa, Acts 26:13,15) Here, Paul is, in fact, witnessing before a king, as Jesus said he would.

4. “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that ... you ... might become such as I am-except for these chains.” (Acts 26:27-29) Paul witnesses to Agrippa with the intent of converting him to Jesus Christ. (What would have happened had Agrippa converted?)

5. And Agrippa said to Festus, “This man [Paul] could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” (Acts 26:32) Was Paul’s earlier appeal, then, rash and ill-advised? Did he see the opportunity to bring his case before the Emperor and jump at it? Did Paul hope to convert Caesar himself?

6. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life…..” (1 Timothy 2:1-2) Paul urges Timothy about intentional prayer for kings (why does he use four words to describe our efforts?).

It is no stretch to say that Paul would have rejoiced at the conversion of the Emperor. So why not Constantine? My point is that Christians, following the New Testament teachings, would have welcomed royal sympathy and certainly even conversion to Christianity. (“Trust, but verify”?) They were taught to pray for a “peaceable life,” which I assume would entail the end of state persecution. Constantine ended it.

But the temptation to either blame Constantine for a supposed “demise” of Christianity or to over-exalt him for what others regard as successes may be rooted in a false notion. That is, placing all our hope or blame on one person. That goes for modern as well as ancient times. While we would be foolish not realize the harm that one man can do to the church or to a nation (Stalin? Hitler?), the bedrock upon which Christians must stand is the confession that Jesus is Lord no matter what, and to accept whatever consequences attend to that witness according to the times in which we live, even persecution.

Further, bearing witness before kings requires being willing to speak to all kings, pagan and Christian alike, as Ambrose rebuked the Emperor Theodosius for the massacre at Thessalonica and as Patrick rebuked Coroticus for his crime. The strength of the church always depends on the strength of its members (see the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation), and its strength is not in worldly measures of “success” or even societal “influence,” but in the power of holiness and faithful endurance. So we pray for our rulers, in season and out of season. The Lord will separate the Wheat and the Tares in the End.

Unlike secularized modern Protestants, we Orthodox do not fret over Constantine. After all, we venerate him as a saint, and we see a just cooperation between the throne and the altar toward the common good as the ideal human political arrangement. Unfortunately, Constantine’s story teaches us a sad truth, too, which was lamented long before the advent of Christian empire: that even good kings sometimes have crappy children.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, February 4, Anno Domini 2014
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Monday, January 27, A.D. 2014
Walsh and the Good Book

Happy feast day of Saints Nina and Sava, especially to the Georgians and Serbians out there!

I recently followed a recommendation by John C. Wright to read Matt Walsh’s page. Wright is, as usual, right; Walsh’s writings are quite sensible and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed his post “Why do you Christians always throw the Bible in my face?” A sample:

In any case, Christians are always shoving their religion in people’s faces. Everything they say, every position they hold, every thought they express — it’s all RELIGION. Even if they don’t explicitly say, “I think this because of my religion,” we all know the score. If it comes from RELIGION, as a secularist, I must hate it. If it’s been heavily influenced or transformed by RELIGION or RELIGIOUS people, I must hate it. That’s why I’m not a big fan of art, architecture, democracy, science, medicine, philosophy, astronomy, the university system, the abolition of slavery, America, Natural Law, Natural Rights, mathematics, the justice system, literature, music, and civilization.

Devious. Devious Christians. It’s like they have this secret plot and they use all of these methods to subversively give glory to their fake sky wizard. That’s a good line, isn’t it? I take this idea of God; the uncaused cause, the first mover, the Creator, the Absolute, the Answer to the riddle that no quantum physicist has ever been able to solve, and I equate it to a “wizard.” As if belief in dimensions of existence that transcend our physical plane can somehow be fairly compared to belief in magical Disney creatures. It’s an effective tactic, isn’t it? Aquinas, DaVinci, Shakespeare, Washington — most of the intellectual giants and great leaders in the past two thousand years have been guided by this conviction, but I can utterly dismiss it with one sarcastic and belittling phrase. There are thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of Christian apologetics written by some of the smartest men and women to ever walk the face of the Earth, yet I can chalk it all up to something as absurd as the Tooth Fairy. And you know what? I can do that without even reading ANY of those pages! You know why? Because I’m a critical thinker, my friend.

A critical thinker — I think about criticizing things. And then I do, without understanding the depth, enormity and beauty of that which I mock.

Walsh goes on to do a contemporary version of C.S. Lewis’ great point about Jesus’ being a madman, a con man, or the Son of God.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, January 27, Anno Domini 2014
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Friday, December 27, A.D. 2013
Why December?

Dr. William Tighe has a fascinating article on Touchstone“Calculating Christmas.” Tighe argues that the dating of Christmas on December 25 has nothing to do with the pagan celebrations of the solstice, Saturnalia, or Sol Invictus. Rather, he states that there was a Jewish belief that a prophet died on the day of his conception that Christians inherited. Tighe shows that Christians in the early centuries tried to figure out the solar calendar date for the crucifixion. In the West, March 25 became the favored date, which then determined the feasts of the Annunciation (Jesus’ conception) and of Christmas nine months later. If Tighe is right, then the tendency to attribute December 25 to the Christians’ appropriating a pagan festive season is poor historical scholarship—like a nineteenth century version of the Discovery Channel.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, December 27, Anno Domini 2013
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Tuesday, October 15, A.D. 2013
The Good Emperors Persecuted Christians

Bruce Charlton recently posted Charles Williams’ reflections about the Roman persecution of Christians: “The most tolerant, noble, moral, stoical non-Christians, regard Christianity as an evil.” Williams notes that it was the good emperors who persecuted the Church. I marveled at this fact when I studied Roman history. How odd it was to a young classics student that an admirable philosopher king like Marcus Aurelius would have waged war upon God’s people, or that Diocletian, among Rome’s greatest administrative architects and reformers, ordered possibly the worst persecution of the Church in antiquity. How strange it seemed until I started to have a similar suspicion that the Gospel was spiritual poison. I wandered for years in exile from the faith because I took the pagans’ criticism seriously. From the accusations that triggered De Civitate Dei to Nietzsche’s rejection of Christianity as a degenerate Western Buddhism, these pagan attacks troubled me greatly, and I came to doubt the veracity of the Christian message. For if I found Christian doctrine to be false in some part, then the whole Gospel could not be trusted. Christians appeared to counsel madness in the face of evil, threats, and injustice, and I thereby dismissed Christ’s revelation. I resigned myself to the idea that I only valued the faith insofar as it had maintained Hellenic wisdom through the centuries—often despite itself (e.g. Tertullian and his ilk in every age). After venturing for years in the wasteland, I came home—like the venerable bishop of Hippo—though I was still ill at ease with the tendencies toward error that seem to beset Christians. I have mentioned this frequently (for examples, see “Religion of Last Resort,” “Christianity’s Odd Place in the World,” “Forgiveness Sunday,” “Ethnic Parishes,” “Judge Lest Ye Be Mugged,” and “Forgetting the City of Man”). Yet, I realize that any truth will have its corresponding and concomitant errors. I believe that it is Aristotle who uses the image of archery to illustrate the search for truth. One aims at the mark, which is small, but one may miss the mark in many ways—namely, at every other point. It is easy to err, and it is not surprising that we Christians repeatedly fail in our understanding of God’s way. The path to truth is hard, and we are quite weak for the task.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, October 15, Anno Domini 2013
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Friday, June 14, A.D. 2013
The Righteous Methodists

Years ago, I enjoyed mocking the United Methodist Church’s old television campaign with my friend Andrew. The advertisement includes a woman who says, “I can’t believe there’s a church that believes these things,” as if that were an effective hook to bring in people! Now, whenever I find the Wesleys’ children indulging in folly, I file the story under “I can’t believe there’s a church that believes these things.” A few months ago, I sent Andrew the following article about a Methodist congregation in North Carolina: “Church Won’t Do Weddings For Straight Couples Until Same-Sex Marriage Is Legal.” If the article is not enough for you, you may wish to visit the Green Street Church. It is “Where the Kingdom of God is breaking through!” They inadvertently put down the wrong preposition.

I looked at the photograph subpage, and the first image has seven people prostrating toward one another in a circle. The photograph is an excellent visual essay on how mainline Protestantism has largely degenerated into mutual self worship—and the idolaters are blind to their idolatry. But, then, aren’t they always? Moreover, do not miss the sub-Saharan African themed designs on the altar. You see, such multicultural pandering is how the white people in the parish show the little colored boys that Jesus loves them . . . though it is odd that those kids’ own parents failed to set the proper tone when deciding how to clothe their children. For they are dressed like normal American kids. The false consciousness of the racially oppressed—will it never cease?

Posted by Joseph on Friday, June 14, Anno Domini 2013
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Friday, May 31, A.D. 2013
Ancient Jewish Icons

המשיח קם

The Orthodox Life has a short but interesting post on the sacred artwork of early synagogues: “Ancient Jewish Icons.” Yale’s EIKON site features many images from the pictured Dura Europos Synagogue. It looks strikingly like an Orthodox Temple.

Earlier in the year, I visited the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at Cincinnati’s Museum Center. I did not have time to visit the Israel Museum when I was in Jerusalem, and I was happy to get to see some of the Qumran fragments. Since the exhibit only had a few dozen pieces, it padded the experience with hundreds of artifacts from ancient Israel, including spears and stones from the Assyrian attack on Lachish as well as commemorative displays from Nineveh that celebrated Sennacherib’s success. The oldest object was a three thousand year old four horn shaped altar. I never knew before exactly what they looked like. I also learnt more about the money changers in the Temple; the exhibit had a pile of Tyrian shekels. There was also a small section on Masada, which featured a tartan garment that had been left at Masada by a Roman soldier during or after the siege. One wonders if the soldier had bought the clothing while stationed near the Caledonian border—or if he was born among those ever savage northerners! There were many other items from everyday life—from religious objects to commercial tools to home goods to political propaganda.

The exhibit as well as my amateur archaeological adventures in the Holy Land contradict the iconoclastic notions of biblical Israel held by certain Protestant groups—as if the detailed descriptions of the two Temples and of the Temple rituals in holy writ were not enough to dispel the folly of white walled Calvinists. The Lord, the Lord our God, is a Lord of color and form. Let the iconoclasts seek after their nihilism; we worship the Lord in spirit and in truth.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, May 31, Anno Domini 2013
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Wednesday, March 13, A.D. 2013
Saint John Cassian

If it were a leap year, tomorrow would be the feast of Saint John Cassian. As it is, we celebrate the good saint’s feast on February 28 (March 13 on the Gregorian calendar). On my patron’s feast day last year, Fr. Stephen De Young published a decent article on John Cassian on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: “The Curious Case of St. John Cassian.” I recommend it. It is yet another reminder of how the preponderance of Saint Augustine in Western Christian thought—without adequate patristic counterweight—has perverted the West. I do not quite understand how it happened, though. Even without the multitude of voices from the Greek fathers, the West still had Hilary, Ambrose, John Cassian himself, and others, though I suppose that Augustine’s writings were so vast and impressive that they overshadowed the rest. Still, it was not until the Reformation that the balance truly tipped, but why then? Why did Luther, Calvin, and the gang draw their inspiration from Augustine’s extreme anti-Pelagianism? Was it their rejection of scholasticism and the medieval tradition, where the next previous stop in history was Hippo? Did they find a soulmate in the “Doctor of Grace”? Why did a Platonist from late antiquity appeal to the nominalists who transformed post-Renaissance Western Europe? Curious, indeed.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, March 13, Anno Domini 2013
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