I finish this week’s Doxaconapalooza with the kontakia of Romanos the Melode for Saint Elijah. Before Metropolitan Savas read selections from the work, he noted that kontakia used to be lengthy hymnographical sermons, though we rarely use them anymore except for a few akathists. In general, the kontakia were abbreviated, and we only hear one stanza of a much larger original work. I found a translation of the kontakia on a document repository site. The bottom of the page goes into further historical detail about the development of kontakia and about Romanos the Melode. Here is a more consistently formatted copy of the selection:
Elijah, of great renown, prophet with foresight of he great works of our God,
thou who didst with thy word old back the rain clouds,
Intercede for us before
The only Friend of man.
When he saw the great lawlessness of man
and the great love of God for man,
The prophet Elijah was provoked and angered
And cast pitiless words at the God of great pity, saying:
“Make Thy anger felt against those who now disregard Thee, most just Judge.”
But in no way d he change the heart of the good Lord for the chastisement
Of those who had scorned Him; for always He awaits
the repentance of all men,
The only Friend of man.
Then when the prophet saw that all the earth was in a state of lawlessness
And that th Exalted One was not angered but even allowed it,
He was moved anger, and he declared to the Merciful One:
“I shall take control over and punish the impiety
of those who scorn Thee.
They have all despised Thy great long-suffering;
and they have not considered
Thee as All-Merciful Father.
But Thou, the Lover of children dost take pity on Thy sons,
Thou, the only Friend of man.
“Now, I shall judge in favor of the Creator;
I shall completely wipe the impious from off the earth,
And I shall decree their punishment; but I fear His divine kindness,
For the Lover of man is troubled by a few tears.
What, then, can I think up in the face of such goodness?
And how shall I counteract His mercy ?
Perhaps in strengthening my decree with an oath, so that, shamed at it,
the Just One will cancel
My harsh sentence, and in so doing confirm my judgment
that He as the All-Powerful One
Is the Friend of man.
The oath preceded the judgment and was a preamble of the decision
But if you wish, let us hurry to the Bible and let us read its words.
For the prophet said in his anger, as is written:
“By the life of the Lord, neither dew nor rain shall fall except at my word.”
But at once the King answered Elijah:
“1f I see repentance and tears flowing freely, it will be impossible for me
not to supply my mercy to men.
I am the only Friend of man.
The prophet at once spoke up and put forward the rightness of his oath:
“I have sworn by Thee,” he said, “the God of all, the most holy Lord,
that rain will not be given except by my command.
Whenever I see that the people have repented, I shall entreat
It is not, then, in Thy power,
O most just Judge, to do away with the punishment
Resulting from the oath that I have made.
Guard and seal it as Thou dost restrict Thy tender care,
O only Friend of man.”
Famine besieged the land, and the inhabitants were brought to ruin,
Groaning and raising their hands in supplication to the All-Merciful.
The Master was distressed by a dilemma:
On the one hand, He wished to open His heart to the suppliants
and to hasten His compassion,
But, on the other hand, He respected the oath of the prophet.
He did not give rain, but
He devised a pretext that would restrain and distress the spirit of the prophet,
He, the only Friend of man.
The Master, seeing that the Thesbite was roused to anger by his own people,
Thought it right that the just man should share the punishment
of hunger along with the others
In order that, when he was pressed by hunger, he would decide
In line with his oath on humanitarian considerations,
to put an end to the punishment.
For it is in truth a fearful thing, the inexorable demands of the stomach!
And He supports through nourishment in His divine wisdom
every living thing—man and beast.’
He is the only Friend of man.
The Compassionate One, who wished to save the earth,
At once answered Elijah: “Now hearken carefully to my words, and heed what I say.
I am suffering, and I hasten to find a release of the punishment.
I struggle to give nourishment to all who are famished, for I am indeed merciful.
When I see the flood of tears, like a father I am moved;
I feel pity for those consumed
By hunger and anguish, for I wish to save sinners through their repentance—
I, the only Friend of man.
“Hear me carefully, prophet, for I am very much in earnest about what you know:
All men have in me a decree of mercy,
And in it I agreed that I did not want to see the death
Of those who had made mistakes; but rather I wished their life.
Do not then, expose me as making false promises to them, but welcome my plea.
I offer my mediation to you, for only the tears of the widow have disturbed you,
but I feel for all men, I the only Friend of man.”
Elijah made his mind, heart, and ears submissive to the words of the Most High,
And he also brought his spirit under subjection and displayed it in these words:
He said, “Let Thy will be done, O Lord.
Give rain and life to the one who is dead, and vivify all creation.
God is life and resurrection and redemption;
grant Thy Grace to man and beast,
for Thou alone art able to save the world from death,
Thou, the only Friend of man.
At once, the clouds, at the order of the Creator,
Pregnant with water, passed over the air, sending down rain in streams.
The earth rejoiced and praised the Lord,
and the woman received her resurrected child.
He rejoiced with all the others, and the earth shouted with joy
To the only Friend of man.
Then, after a certain amount of time had passed, Elijah saw man’s sin,
And he took thought as to how an even harsher punishment might be inflicted.
The Merciful One, observing this, said to the prophet:
“I know the zeal that you have for righteousness,
and I know your intention,
But I feel for the sinners whenever they suffer beyond all measure.
But you, as blameless, grow angry,
And you are not able to endure it.
But I cannot endure that anyone be destroyed;
I am the only Friend of man.”
But after this, the Master, seeing that Elijah was harsh toward men
And that he was disturbed about the race of man,
separated him from their earth, saying:
“Be set apart from the dwelling of men.
But I, as One who pities, shall descend to men and become man.
Depart, then, from the earth, since you are not able to endure the sins of men,
While I, a heavenly creature, shall be with the sinners,
and save them from their sins,
I, the only Friend of man.
“If, as I have said, prophet, you are unable to live with men who have sinned,
Then, come, and with me inhabit the domain of my friends;
there is no sin there.
But I shall descend, since I am able to take
On my shoulders the lost and to cry to the fallen:
‘All you who are sinners, come, hurry to me and find rest, for I have come,
Not to punish those whom I created, but to snatch sinners from impiety.’
I, the only Friend of man.”
And so, Elijah, sent off to Heaven,
appeared as the prototype of the future,
For the Thesbite was translated in a chariot of fire, as it is written.
Christ ascended in clouds among the powerful.
But Elijah sent down his mantel from on high to Elisha,
while Christ sent to the apostles His Holy Spirit whom we have all
When we received baptism.
Through it we are sanctified,
as He taught all of us,
He who is the only Friend of man.
This coming Sunday, I wish my Orthodox readers a blessed feast of Pentecost.
As I have mentioned before in “What Could We Salvage in the West?,” I find the Roman liturgical color for Pentecost—red—superior to the Russian Church’s color of green. I know that the Spirit renews the world, and green is an appropriate color, but fire red is hot! It differs from the maroon red that we use in the feasts of the Lord, and we need not abandon the significance of that tradition. As my personal attempt at low level parochial syncretism, I always wear bright red to the Pentecostal liturgy.
Several weeks ago, I was not able to attend the divine liturgy at my parish due to work, and the Orthodox generally do not have evening liturgies except for certain special occasions. So, when I have to miss my Sunday obligation, my penance is the Roman mass. I attend mass on Sunday evenings as the next best option. Apparently, that practice upsets both the Orthodox and the Latins, but it is what I do. Anyway, by chance, I happened to be wearing a green shirt when the Roman priest entered in his fiery vestments. I then realized that it was Pentecost in the Roman Church, and I was wearing green. Life is funny, and the Lord has a sense of humor.
The readings for that Sunday were the second chapter of Acts that recounts Pentecost, Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians wherein he writes that no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel of John when Jesus breathes upon his disciples and gives them the Holy Spirit:
Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD.
Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.
And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:
Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.
I quoted that same passage in “The Birth of the Church” a few years ago when I challenged the common practice of calling Pentecost the beginning of the Church. Listening to the readings, I had similar thoughts about what the various “givings” of the Holy Spirit mean. The post from a few years ago involved that idea, but I had never before really questioned the differences explicitly. The Holy Spirit inspired the prophets long before Jesus met his disciples on Pascha, and then Jesus breathed the Spirit upon those disciples weeks before Pentecost. What are the specific differences in these givings and receivings?
After I had a few conversations about the topic with friends, our uninformed consensus was that the prophetic and apostolic inspirations before Pentecost were temporary and connected to a particular moment and task to be done. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is active in the creation and sustenance of reality; man has an experience of him just by being. To the extent that the mind perceives truth at all appears to have something to do with the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth as we say in one of our most common prayers,
O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.
I remember reading Dulles’ distinction between revelation from above (in prophesy and scripture) and revelation from below (through nature and reason), and yet all such revelation proceeds from God. The Holy Spirit appears to have a special operational function in that revealing and in our seeing and understanding. It therefore is fitting for the Spirit to prepare the prophets to receive their special revelation, just as it makes sense that Jesus sends the Spirit to the apostles to prepare them to experience and to understand the most significant revelation of all on that first day of the week. In contrast, the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is not limited to a particular moment or mission but is rather a permanent feature of the Christian community to support the body of Christ in the life that God calls us to lead.
Pravoslavie.ru has posted some good counsel by Hieromonk Sergius Chetverikov: “Obstacles on the Path to the Gospel.” Here is Father Sergius’ second point, well worth consideration:
The second obstacle on the path to the Gospel is the excessive preoccupation with oneself, one’s own person. There is nothing more spiritually deadly than to make oneself, be it consciously or subconsciously, the focal point of life. When man makes himself the center of his life, his own idol, he will never reach what he is searching for, i.e. real happiness. He will always be devoured by dissatisfaction and distress. Shower him with millions, give him the opportunity for unlimited entertainment and pleasures, world fame and glory, and after a short period of delight he will feel emptiness and loneliness. And he will feel that way until he can renounce himself. Without that, no matter what kind of elevated goals he sets, he will be doomed to ephemeral and illusory moments of joy, which will invariably be substituted by prolonged disappointment and boredom.
In order to be truly happy, one must consider a life goal outside oneself. The more significant and important the subject, which we consider the goal of our life, the more we dedicate ourselves to it, the more we forget ourselves because of it, and the more joyful and happy we become. Happy is the man, who unselfishly dedicates himself to his favorite activity, be it physical or intellectual. Happy is the scientist, who is completely absorbed in his scientific research, like some Archimedes immersed in his drawings, or Xenophan, who dedicated his life to studying the stars, or Spinoza, immersed in his religious-philosophical contemplations. Happy is the mother, wholly living for her children; happy are the brothers and sisters through their mutual love, and friends, through pure and sincere friendship.
The greatest happiness, the fullness of happiness, according to the Christian teaching, is in unselfish, complete love towards God and humans—not to abstract mankind, but to the neighbor who is near us—with all his infirmities and drawbacks. The terrestrial life of Jesus Christ and His teaching, in particular—His Sermon on the Mount and the farewell conversation with His disciples, His sufferings and death are an example of carrying out the law of love.
And the entire salvation of our soul consists in denying oneself and, taking up one’s own cross, i.e. the burden of one’s own life, and following Christ. Only then will the heavy stone of inner dissatisfaction fall from our soul, and the soul will feel warm and light. A loving person will never get tired of living by loving. And no matter how much time his love will last, it will always seem to him that this love is just beginning. There is no danger for a Christian that his ideal will one day be fully realized or depleted, because the Christian ideal is not in outer achievements, but in inner development, which has no end.
The well-known phrase of Maxim Gorky: “Man—this sounds proud” has some meaning only as much we see in man the image of God; but if one applies this phrase to a person who is isolated from God and deprived of immortality, it will sound pathetic and senseless, for everyone knows the insignificance and powerlessness of man, who exists today, but tomorrow is blown off the face of the earth, like a miserable grain of sand, like a soap-bubble. The power and glory of man are only in the union with God and immortality, but are in no way in himself, in his isolation.
That is why everything that was said in this section can be summarized like this: to approach the Gospel correctly, one has to be freed from the habit of considering oneself to be the focal point and goal of life, one has to humble oneself and bow down before God, Who is the Highest and Only focal point and goal of life of everything that exists.
I recommend the entire essay.
Kristor posted a thoughtful Orthosphere piece last week, “Why Does Jesus Pray?” I recommend the short article and the comments section, to which I contributed. In the article, Kristor makes the point that God knows humanity through the incarnation. I responded:
Though useful preaching material, it doesn’t seem necessary for God to be incarnate — as the messiah — to know what it is like to be a man. God knows me better than I do, though I have no reserved throne of glory. Wouldn’t the Lord God and almighty Father, creator of all things, know what it is like to be a bat?
It’s a tricky question. Obviously, he’s omniscient, right? So how can he be ignorant of what it is like to be anything?
The way I have parsed this is to distinguish between knowing what it is *like* to be a bat, and knowing what it *is* to be a bat. One knows what it is like to be a bat by knowing of experiences that are similar to those of a bat. But one can’t know what it is to be a bat unless one *just is* a bat. And until one knows what it is to just be a bat, one’s inferences about what it is like to be a bat are just that: inferences.
In virtue of the Incarnation, God knows, not just what it is like to be a man, but what it is to be a man. He does this by being a man. And – this bit is quite familiar to you, I know – in virtue of the Incarnation once in history, God is a man from before all time, and eternally; so that in the time of the creation of the first man, God already knows what it is to be a man.
And, obviously, once you know what it is to be a man, you also know what it is like to be a man.
Finally, because God knows eternally what it is to be a man, his omniscience in this regard is preserved. For all we know, God also knows what it is to be a bat; it seems quite certain that he knows what it is to be an angel. God could have committed himself to something like Incarnation in any number of different things, without in the least compromising the special and salvific nature of his Incarnation in Jesus. He is Jesus; but he is nowise limited to the Dominical instantiation.
Perhaps it is my limited imagination, but I find Krishna like multiple incarnations unsettling. I have heard folks postulate sin among alien races and ask whether God would have to become one of them to rescue them. Instead, I lean toward “one and done,” and I explain my thoughts in the next somewhat truncated comment:
I follow my favorite Western father — Bonaventure — in attempting to understand divine knowledge. God knows creation by knowing himself, as he is the source of all. In knowing the divine essence, he knows all that is (and, it seems, all that could be). The Lord is no demiurge who works with pre-existing stuff. There is no input besides God of which God could be ignorant. Still, your words have me thinking . . .
I once had a Platonist Christian professor who taught that creation as a whole was an incarnation of God and that the incarnation of the Logos as Jesus was the most visible and perfect manifestation of that act. This may smell of heresy to some, but it always made sense to me.
God has given man demarcated sacred space (temple) and time (ritual) so that man, in his spiritual blindness, may begin to recognize God’s presence, and then hopefully he will come to see the transcendent divinity that lies beyond and behind all phenomena. It is not that God is absent from mud, or spit, or rocks, but our fallen eyes and minds need trained, and lessons begin with blessings. Of setting things aside. Of offering our first fruits to the Lord. Of separating a chosen people from the rest of mankind. Our carnality needs to start with the concrete and particular before it can comprehend wider vision. And Christ is the first and last pedagogue of mankind. As a person and in his acts, he opens our eyes to the truth. When Christ “transfigured” on Mount Tabor, it was not he who changed but rather than perceptive abilities of Peter, James, and John, who finally caught a glimpse of a higher reality that was always there. I think that something of this is also relevant to the Eucharist. In our most sacred act, we acknowledge the real presence of Christ in bread and wine. When we no longer see through a glass darkly, we may come to see God in all things. Such seems distasteful to those who fear idolatry and immanentism (in other words, religion), but I think that the old pagans, philosophical pantheists, and new agers have a true insight but lack the interpretive apparatus necessary to make sense of it.
The incarnation makes the rise above idolatry possible for us because of the mysteriously unified joining of God and image in the person of the God Man. The rest of creation is an echo, a shadow, an image of this providential unity of creator and creation, and this allows all things to be opportunities for prayer and for communion. For the saint, to be is to be holy. The process of salvation is relearning to see the Lord walking in the garden.
The world is God’s image, and part of that world — man — is an exceptionally clear icon of the divine. How sad it is to contemplate, when we look at actual men! Nonetheless, man is God’s appointed chief and priest. He has neglected his duty spectacularly. Yet, Christ is the New Man, the New Adam, who recapitulates all of creation in his incarnation, and he thus also redeems all of creation through the incarnation, death, and resurrection according to Irenaeus of Lyons. Why should this be? Maximus the Confessor taught that man is God’s cosmic mediator — one of our original and final vocations. In becoming the perfect man, Jesus fulfills man’s true purpose as the creaturely conductor of the Lord’s cosmic symphony.
So, if you are correct that God’s knowledge of being a creature depends on the incarnation (rather than simply knowing his own essence and its effects), then perhaps in becoming man, God knows all of creation “from the inside.” For that is our job, and we succeed at times to a remarkable degree in understanding the rest of creation, even in our wretched state. Observe the relationships that sometimes occur between man and beast, or even man and plant (or thing). Lewis remarked that we bring animals into the intellectual, spiritual sphere by assimilating them into human life, but perhaps that limited activity is but a taste of what human life in the world should really be. The God Man’s cosmic role is not simply as God but as man, and by that, the whole universe is made anew.
Kristor has the last word, ending on a note worthy of Ammonius’ approval:
I would add one thought. When I say (as you have paraphrased me) that God’s knowledge of being a creature depends on the Incarnation, so that, in becoming man, God knows all of creation “from the inside,” that is just another way of saying, as you and St. Bonaventure say, that God knows creation by knowing himself, for in knowing the divine essence, he knows all that is (and, it seems, all that could be). God’s act of being, his act of creation, his act of knowing his own essence, his act of Incarnation, and his act of knowing his creation are a single motion.
I had not considered Kristor’s point beforehand. It is very difficult to abandon entirely “image-thinking” and to re-orient the mind to think beyond the reference points of everyday life. The climb from the cave is arduous and fraught with dangers.
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.
Yesterday, I mentioned Auster’s post, “The afterlife and Christ,” wherein Auster refers to a View from the Right entry from three years ago—“The Gospels: too embarrassing to be fiction”—that concerns Frank Turek’s argument for trusting the scriptural accounts of Jesus. I remember reading the post, but I do not think that I commented on it before. It is good. Here is an excerpt by Turek:
If men were inventing the resurrection story, it would go more like this:
Jesus came to save the world, and he needed our help. That’s why we were there for him every step of the way. When he was in need, we prayed with him. When he wept, we wept with him (and told him to toughen up!). When he fell, we carried his cross. The gates of Hell could not prevent us from seeing his mission through!
So when that turncoat Judas brought the Romans by (we always suspected Judas), and they began to nail Jesus to the cross, we laughed at them. “He’s God you idiots! The grave will never keep him! You think you’re solving a problem, but you’re really creating a much bigger one!”
While we assured the women that everything would turn out all right, they couldn’t handle the crucifixion. Squeamish and afraid, they ran to their homes screaming and hid behind locked doors.
But we men stood steadfast at the foot of the cross, praying for hours until the very end. When Jesus finally took his last breath and the Roman Centurion confessed that Jesus was God, Peter blasted him, “That’s what we told you before you nailed him up there!” (Through this whole thing, the Romans and the Jews just wouldn’t listen!)
Never doubting that Jesus would rise on the third day, Peter announced to the Centurion, “We’ll bury him and be back on Sunday. Now go tell Pilate to put some of your ‘elite’ Roman guards at the tomb to see if you can prevent him from rising from the dead!” We all laughed and began to dream about Sunday.
That Sunday morning we marched right down to the tomb and tossed those elite Roman guards aside. Then the stone (that took eleven us to roll into place) rolled away by itself. A glowing Jesus emerged from tomb, and said, “I knew you’d come! My mission is accomplished.” He praised Peter for his brave leadership and congratulated us on our great faith. Then we went home and comforted the trembling women.
Turek’s article and Auster and his readers’ comments will surely bring a smile to your face.
In the previous posts “Mormons and Jesus” and “Charlton’s Mormon Advantage,” I comment on Alan Roebuck’s treatment of Mormonism on The Orthosphere. L.D.S. commentator Leo wrote a response on the comment thread to “The Basic Case against Mormonism and Other Pseudo-Christianities” by Roebuck. I reply:
Let me clarify that I do not think that the Russian Church exhaustively manifests the Church. Church is said in many ways. In Orthodoxy, we speak of the Church as the Body of Christ, and we also use the term Church for the local manifestations of the Christian community—the local bishop surrounded by his priests, his deacons, and the faithful under his supervision (I originally typed “failful” mistakenly, but that does characterize the Christian flock to a large extent!). As to the boundaries of the Church beyond the Orthodox Churches, I defer to my ecclesial authorities. However, I personally suspect that the Roman Church participates in or constitutes, perhaps in an ailing way, the Church, as well. There is so much good fruit, clear truth, and consistent, perpetual sanctity among the papists. I do not know the nature of schism (or rather, its bastardized anti-nature), but I doubt that Rome and the non-Chalcedonians are not part of the family. Even (especially!) families have their squabbles and sins.
With everyone else, though, it seems like their separation is pretty evident. Anglican and confessional Protestants have drifted farther from apostolic teaching and practice as the centuries have passed, where those who hold steadfast to the theological and moral truths of the faith have become ever fewer in number. And even they cling to poisonous errors, as Protestantism is the spiritual side of modernity. As for pious individual Protestants, clearly there is something to their faith. Kristor and Alan here are good examples. I distrust loosey goosey kumbaya ecclesiology, but there is power in the gospel, in the reading and reflection upon the scriptures, in the name of the Lord, and in the external signs of the Church that light the darkness even apart from their proper setting (in the Church). Perhaps, this truth lies behind Augustine’s and the Roman Church’s understanding of validity—whereby there may be sacramental efficacy beyond the visible Church.
In his Confessions, Augustine writes about the importance of the name Jesus, even in the wildly heretical setting of the Manichees. I think that the same must be true of all fallen away sects. When the Mohammedans show respect toward Mary or when they acknowledge the holiness and authority of Christ, they thereby reap blessings and draw closer to the truth. When the leftist ideologues envision humanity as a family of mutual support and love (and let’s be honest, that does happen), they dip their toes in the river of life. When the young Kristor entered into a state of awareness of God’s presence in bread, he truly witnessed God and the grace of the mysteries, though I do not think that the Anglicans as a group are the Church or that they perform the rites of the Church. I guess that I remain an ecclesial exclusivist who acknowledges the truth that folks like Rahner and Lewis (and Kristor and Charlton) see, though I think that they err in not complementing those insights by solid ecclesiology. “Mere Christianity” is mushy hooey with bits of wisdom.
Just so, I think that the Mormons truly experience the gifts and benefits that God bestows to the extent that they worship him, though they are extraordinarily confused. Most “mainstream” Christians find odd things to criticize about Mormonism, such as that Jesus preached in the Americas, the Mormons’ ethno-mythical understanding of American Indians and negroes, the three heavens, their history of polygamy, or their special underwear. One even hears denunciation of Mormons’ morality, family centeredness, and patriarchy in some quarters. I find those objections wrong or uninteresting. For me, what is obviously repellent in Mormonism is its pagan theology, wherein God is not God but merely a god. Why, then, should we worship him whom we call “God”? If there is something greater than god, such as the universe in which he is a fellow being with us and whose laws he must follow, then ought we not to worship the universe instead? Mormonism, like crude paganism, requires men to succumb to idolatry.
What also troubles me about Mormonism is both the widespread ignorance of its basic theology among its members and the widespread disinterest in this theology (and in the phenomenon of the nearly universal ignorance thereof). Mormons just don’t seem to be bothered by fundamental questions, as in the problem of god regression. Mormonism appears therefore a more wholesome form of Epicureanism, which seeks to guide its practitioners to live decently but without any interest in transcendence. God has been transformed into a Big Daddy in the sky, who, along with Big Mommy, rules over our world like benevolent royalty while, presumably, hanging out in the Celestial Kingdom with other deities (which my brother has affectionately named the God Club). Mohammed simplified monotheism for the masses, but Joseph Smith created a religion wholly appropriate for Americans who have no perspicacity outside their daily lives. As another commentator (A Lady) noted, Mormonism is the most essentially American religion.
As far as the lamentable history of the Puritans’ children, well, I think that their original Calvinist and egalitarian errors have evolved into the chief perversions of American society. Look at the intellectual history of New England since the eighteenth century, and you will find one malady of the spirit after another. Those WASPs have done much to destroy the world. Had they been mediocre or weak folks, they would not have done as much damage. So, I suppose that Mormons were part of this story, yet their own mutations were far more beneficial. I would rather live in a country populated by Mormons than one populated by Unitarians or the average congregants in the United Church of Christ—those religious cultures most directly descended from the Mayflower.
Like Charlton, I am impressed by how Mormons have semi-corrected many of the problems inherent in the Protestantism of their ancestors. Mormons respect and acknowledge hierarchy, reject iconoclasm, and have some sense of sacramentality, though without decent metaphysical support. Mormons do a fine job in seeing one’s life as the setting of both spiritual warfare and the preliminary taste of paradise rather than a mere test that determines one’s everlasting fate in “real life.” Mormons abandoned the bibliolatry of their forebears, though they kept the mistrust and outright ignorance of the continual apostolic tradition of the Church. In other words, Mormons are extremely fascinating.
But every ecclesiastical leader worthy of the name looks out for the interests of his flock.
Surely, Leo could not mean this! Perhaps, he saves the sentence by adding “worthy of the name.” Well, the vast majority (and I do not exaggerate) of the West’s religious leaders are not worthy of the name. They do not govern their institutions with the spiritual or even temporal interests of their flock in mind. They are the vanguards of civilizational ruin.
Concerning Leo’s point about regional culture, even if most Mormons now live outside of “Zion,” the leadership appears to be from and focused on the Mormon heartland. Mormons elsewhere are colonial outposts, working to transform their new frontier into an extension of the promised land. It is a good strategy. Anyway, perhaps LDS is becoming globalized, but that is not a good sign for its future health. There is an advantage in being raised in Zion.
As far as traditions, we, of course, are called to follow the tradition handed down to us by Christ through the apostles and not to follow the meanderings and traditions of men. How may we tell the difference? In the early centuries, the Church Fathers defended the gospel and the apostolic tradition while arguing against various heretics who wished to alter the Christian tradition to appease some philosophical or cultural obsession that Christianity offended. When the gnostics claimed special, secret knowledge of Christ, the Fathers pointed to the consistent public witness of the Church in every generation, where they preached the faith delivered to the apostles. Naturally, life is messy, and an examination of Church history is sometimes trying. Consider the history of Origen’s popularity and unpopularity. However, there is a generally clear witness of the Church’s teaching from the first century to today. It is not hidden from us. It is not secret or mysterious. It is not obfuscated by translations. (And what is it with Mormons and translations? Do they not know that people know Greek? That some Christians have always known Greek? That some Christians still speak Greek [yeah, yeah, it’s not koine, but still!]?) Mormons’ account of a post-apostolic apostasy is as historically ignorant and—not to spare words—stupid as that of the Seventh Day Adventists or fringe Baptists who think that Constantine invented Catholicism. One cannot worship God in spirit and in truth when one’s basic understanding of God and of God’s dealing with man is based on falsehood.
At The Orthosphere, Kristor has posted an interesting reflection on faith: “Faith Is Not Work.” I recommend it along with the comments thread.
I think that Kristor’s account leaves out what my own experience entailed. When I wandered for years in agnosticism, it was not because of willful unbelief. Far from it! Moreover, my exile did not result from a lack of spiritual awareness of God, which I had had for as long as I could remember. Rather, I became fixated on certain problems that I had encountered during my education, which became my focus. In my post “The Faculty of Faith,” I mentioned Strauss’ philosophical-religious dilemma in his “Progress or Return.” Strauss’ impasse along with Nietzsche’s attack on religion and realism captured and held my spiritual focus for many years. During that period, I did not unlearn what I knew. I did not change allegiance. I simply became captivated with particular questions, and I did not attend to other truths of which I was once well aware.
Men are limited, and, as the Jedi say, one’s focus determines his reality. Fellow Cincinnatian Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that the scientific enterprise in the West has not been one of pure progress but rather of shifting paradigms where men seek out answers to different sets of questions. Old lessons are forgotten when they are no longer useful for—or when they complicate—finding solutions to popular problems of the age. As such, natural philosophy is not comprehensive but ever specialized in addressing particular aspects of the world and of our experience of the world. I suspect that individual seekers of truth function in the same way. We set our gaze in a certain direction, and it is difficult or impossible to attend to everything that is not our current object.
I think that this quality of the human mind and of its quest for truth explains the widespread spiritual alientation of modern intellectuals. Their minds have been trained to sniff out mechanistic relations among particular beings in time and space. Entire lifetimes of genius are occupied with what Socrates calls the world of sights and sounds, though made academically respectable with formulae and accurate prediction. The best of our intellectual culture has become thoroughly earthy, and this does not even address the madness of the irrational movements in the humanities.
Kristor does write about the importance of proper intellectual formation and of preparing oneself to understand. I just wish to add that there are traps inherent in “faith seeking understanding” whereby one’s attention could be distracted for a long time in such a way that divine truth becomes inaccessible to the mortal mind.
Happy feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple! Today’s readings include the Magnificat from Luke’s gospel:
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
The feast involves the child Mary’s dedication to the Temple—where the Holy of Holies made of stone is greeted by the Holy of Holies made of flesh. In this way, the feast complements well the entrance into monastic life by women who seek to follow the greatest icon of human obedience to God, the Theotokos herself. Let us, then, celebrate that religious vocation by looking at some simple joys and beauties in monastic life. Here are two such photographic meditations, beginning, appropriately enough, with pictures of the Convent of the Entrance of the Theotokos in Ivanovo by Alexander Brown and Anna Olshanskaya.
You may also read Mr. Brown’s page in rough English.
When my brother Aaron and I visited Russia, we used several guidebooks to get around. We soon discovered that Lonely Planet’s guide was geared toward us as young, budget-challenged adventurers, while Fodor’s book assumed that its readers were wealthy, respectable types on holiday—who moreover fit every W.A.S.P. stereotype. When we were visiting a monastery near Saint Petersburg, the Fodor’s guide siggested that we find the monastic bakery to enjoy some freshly baked “tasty bread.” We love bread—especially fresh “tasty bread.” Hence, we tracked down the monastic bakery. What we found, however, was the prosphora bakery that supplied the monastery with bread for the Eucharist. The bakery also sold small prosphora to visitors who wished to submit commemorative loaves for the liturgy. This was the “tasty bread”! Aaron and I were both horrified and humored. We had already developed an image of the Fodor folks as smug and cluelessly distant, and their “tasty bread” recommendation recapitulated everything we felt about Fodor’s at once.
So, when I sent the pictures of the women’s monasteries to my brother, he responded:
I like the one of the nun with a cellphone. I think she is reviewing the tasty bread on Yelp.
We shall laugh forever at Fodor’s expense.
There are many beautiful pictures on the linked pages, but I really enjoy the scenes with dogs and cats as well as the perched parakeet. There was a great multitude of cats at the monasteries. In particular, I remember well how the cats seemed to live in blessed harmony with the nuns at the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow.
And there are folks who opine that there are no beasts in heaven! Accordingly, you may wish to read Robert Flanagan’s short article, “Humans and Animals in the Kingdom.” The Lord is Pantokrator, not merely the transcendent chief psychologist.
Happy New Year to all Orthodox Christians! I hope that the upcoming year is blessed.
During my break, Kristor initiated an edifying discussion about the Eucharist on the Orthosphere: “The Bread of Heaven.” I highly recommend it; do not forget about the comments.
Kristor may be an Anglican, but he thinks like an Orthodox Christian in many ways.