Thursday, December 20, 2012

Original Sin & Christ's Full Humanity

The Gospel Coalition has a series of installments answering theological questions that are emailed to them. The most recent installment has Luke Stamps, a professor at California Baptist University, addressing a question that was submitted regarding whether Christ assumed a fallen human nature -- the view of Protestant luminaries Barth and Torrance, as well as that of the Orthodox Church.

The piece essentially answers the question in the negative: there are too many 'problems' with the view that Christ assumed a fallen human nature (and therefore, full human nature as it actually exists). Stamps does at least acknowledge the validity of the motivation for adopting the view but ultimately rejects it. He gives a series of reasons for rejecting it, though they all ultimately hinge on the fact that "the mainstream Reformed understanding of original sin [is that] to possess a fallen nature is to be guilty before God." But this amounts to question-begging. The very question at hand is whether this view of original sin is correct.

In Stamps' first reason for rejecting the view, he says that fallenness is not an essential feature of human nature as such, but rather a result of the fall. "Fallenness is a not a 'part' of humanity that must be healed." While it's true that fallenness is not an eternal feature of human nature, it is still an aspect of human nature post-Fall and outside of union with Christ. Stamps is positing human nature as a static, eternal thing rather than something subject to change, and he does so without any justification given.

His second reason is the one that directly invokes the Reformed understanding of original sin, and as such is the one that makes the least sense. "Presumably 'fallenness' in [the FHN] context means possessing a propensity toward sin, even if no actual sin is committed. But how could a human being in this state not be condemnable in the eyes of a holy God?" His question seems to answer itself. How can God neglect to find something condemnable which is not worthy of condemnation? If your premises force you to ask such questions, it's time to re-examine your premises.

The third objection appeals to a christological conundrum that doesn't actually exist. Stamps asks "how could the infallible Son of God be joined to a morally fallen human nature?" Could one not also ask how the uncircumscribable God could become circumscribed in the womb of the Virgin? Or how the infinite God became finite? Or how the impassible God suffered on the Cross? Are any of these mysteries of the Incarnation any less irresolvable for us? Unless you're rejecting the Incarnation itself as self-contradictory on rationalist grounds -- which no Christian is permitted to do -- then this just is not a difficulty. Further, it calls into question the necessity of, for example, the Cross. If Christ has taken on pre-Fall human nature only, then is the 'flesh' of fallen man really being crucified at the cross? And if not, what good does it do us who indeed possess a fallen human nature?

He goes on to make a specious distinction between the scripturally undeniable "fallen experience" of Christ and taking on a fallen human nature. If Christ is just dwelling amongst fallenness as a passer-through, and not taking it into himself, then how is it that our salvation is affected?

Stamps quotes St. Gregory the Theologian's maxim that "that which is not assumed is not healed." Just so.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Church as Hermeneutic

Because the matter of ecclesiology -- that is the question of "What/Who is the Church?" -- was the primary catalyst for my conversion to Orthodoxy, and because my chief witness as an Orthodox Christian is likely to be to groups of friends and family who are evangelical Protestants (or lapsed ones), I've been reflecting on the issue some more. Having found what I view to be the answer to the question, the issue of how to share that answer becomes a matter that requires cultivating a loving, charitable disposition through much thought and prayer. This issue becomes especially acute in the midst of the Holiday season.

It also requires a strengthening of my own understanding. This being the case, I recently read the book The Non-Orthodox and the essay The Church is Visible and One, both by Patrick Barnes. Both cite, and extensively quote, various Orthodox sources -- Patristic and contemporary -- as well as some Protestant voices, such as T.F. Torrance. I also recently re-watched the stellar lecture by David Bentley Hart on The Intersection of Scripture and Theology (below), which on one level functions as a crypto-Orthodox apologia for the Patristic view of Scripture. A topic which inevitably ties back into ecclesiology.

One key takeaway from Hart's lecture is that, contra modern sensibilities, historical-critical methods of reading Scripture -- as valuable as they often are -- in no sense supersede or make invalid the ways the Church has traditionally read and understood Scripture. He specifically is talking about how the early Fathers read much of the Old Testament allegorically (which isn't always to say non-literally, as Hart explains). This is a narrower point that opens into the broader idea that because Scripture can be read and interpreted many ways, and often in contradictory and irreconcilable ways, an authority is needed. A Church who is united in matters of Truth needs a mechanism for settling disputes in how Scripture is understood and taught, as well as in many other matters. The mechanism the Apostles established in Acts 15, and passed down to their followers, was the conciliar model of Church authority. The convening of Church councils, within which the Holy Spirit is judging and guiding authoritatively (Acts 15:28).

While it is a popular (and true, so far as it goes) postmodern paradigm that no text has an inherent, self-disclosing meaning, and that every act of reading is already an act of interpretation, this truth -- along with either an explicit or effective belief in sola scriptura -- is too often used to lend purchase to a broad relativism. A hermeneutic buffet from which we all necessarily must partake. From which we must make interpretive choices which are not inherently superior to another hermeneutical lens, provided both are equally internally consistent. In response to a naive belief in a text that is fully self-disclosing of meaning, we have a reactionary belief in a divided -- not merely 'diverse and not divided', as I incorrectly speculated on in the past -- Church, which can and must permit mutually exclusive and contradictory understandings of Scripture, because there is no governing authority to which to turn. The situation yields as many interpretations as there are interpreters. A distant cry from the New Testament promise that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church "into all truth" (John 16:13) [emphasis mine].

And, where there is broad agreement among evangelicals on their (small number) of central non-negotiables, such as a proper Christology and Trinitarianism, this consensus was very much forged in the fires of the early Church's creedal formulas and the subsequent cleaving to them by the historical Church. That is, it's a product not of strict scriptural exegesis alone (though of course the orthodox position is eminently and uniquely scriptural), but of the conciliar authority of the Church.

Given all this, the Church's self-understanding as professed in the Creed isn't much in question. As Protestant scholar T.F. Torrance says:
[F]or Nicene ecclesiology the focus of attention was on the incorporation of believers into the Body of Christ on the ground of reconciliation with God which He had accomplished in and through His bodily death and resurrection. That is to say, it was precisely the visible, empirical Church in space and time that was held to be the Body of Christ.
The 12th article of the Creed ("I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church") was referring to this one, visible, concrete, historical entity.

So while my understanding continues to develop and cohere, and as I endeavor to make my life a living testament to the riches and truths uniquely found in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, the living Body of Christ, the question of how to effectively witness is a sensitive one. Certainly the guiding principle must always to be to speak the truth in love, and to humbly recognize that the Grace bestowed to the Church is meant for all men equally. Something that is much easier to say, and to understand intellectually, than to actually live out. Pride is the quintessential sin, after all.

I suspect my spiritual Father would advise me that the period of one's catechesis isn't chiefly a time to focus on witnessing in any direct way, since I am still very much a humble beginner whose focus should be on my own drawing nearer to God and spiritual development. A process that acts as its own witness and testimony. Something I very much would take to heart, if he were to advise me thus. Though sharing my experience and fielding questions on these issues, especially with the holidays approaching, is unavoidable, as I'm sure Father Josiah would acknowledge. May the author of all truth, our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, grant us wisdom and the contrite heart of a servant with which to share it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On Necessity and Love

"Is it necessary?"

As a former Protestant in the process of converting to Orthodoxy who still has a circle of friends that are predominantly Protestant, this question comes up a lot especially with regard to the 'peculiars' of Orthodoxy that are foreign to the evangelical Protestant world. At catechism this past Sunday it seemed that my fellow catechumens often encounter this same sort of question regarding Orthodox doctrine and praxis.

The more generous and ecumenical-minded evangelical is prone to look on things like veneration of icons, high Mariology, and prayer to the Saints as possibly "OK", but as superfluous and perhaps detracting from the "more important stuff." And certainly not as "necessary". So why bother?

But is the question of "necessity" the right question to be asking? Do we serve a God of necessity? Is creation necessary? Is humanity necessary? Did He create because some force outside of himself was compelling Him to do so? Was a higher-up breathing down his neck, pressuring him to turn in His Creation science project on time?

By no means! The Triune God of love is self-sufficient and in need of nothing (Acts 17:24-25). The act of Creation is a gracious self-outpouring of God's love, through his Word, and in no way "necessary". As beings created in His image, our salvation lies in recovering this self-outpouring love within us, through the redemptive, restorative ministry of Jesus Christ and His life-giving Cross.

Not to mention that if we did serve a God of necessity, His first order of business would be to destroy me for my innumerable transgressions. Thank God for His unnecessary mercy.

A better set of questions might be whether something is profitable, honorable, praiseworthy, or good. Even on these grounds, most evangelical Protestants would still take issue with some of these elements of Orthodoxy, but at least they would be asking the right questions!

Monday, November 19, 2012

A New Catechumen and the Saints - Journey to Orthodoxy (part 6)

St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom,
and St. Gregory the Theologian
Today marked a significant event in my journey to Orthodoxy as I was made into a catechumen during divine liturgy at St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside. The process of converting to Orthodoxy can be conceived of in 3 stages: courtship, engagement, and marriage. Today marked the end of the courtship stage (which previous installments in this series described certain elements of), and the beginning of the engagement phase. Here is an excerpt from something Father Josiah wrote called How to Become an Orthodox Christian, explaining what has just transpired for the newly enrolled catechumen.
At this point the inquirer has made a definitive decision to become an Orthodox Christian forever. He knows that this commitment is not a denominational switch, but an approach to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It is a commitment to faithfully serve God as a member of the Orthodox Church no matter where one lives on this earth. The catechumen is engaged to the Church, and will complete this engagement with the spiritual marriage which is holy baptism. It is expected at this juncture that the new catechumen inform in writing any religious body in which he was previously a member his desire to be removed from the membership of said body. The catechumen is numbered amongst a class of catechumens that belongs to the particular parish, and will begin the formal process of catechesis. From this point the catechumen self-identifies to the outside world as an Orthodox Christian. Should the catechumen die before reception into the church, he will be buried as an Orthodox Christian.
So today begins my catechesis and I am now an Orthodox Christian (though not yet a full member). I'm elated and very grateful to Father Josiah and all the kind people at St. Andrew who have been so warm and welcoming to me, including my fellow catechumens. May the Lord Christ bless the catechumens of St. Andrew, through the intercessions of the Saints.

 Now, speaking of the intercessions of the Saints, let's pick up where the previous installment left off.

The primary Protestant objections to prayer to the Saints seem to be either that it's unnecessary -- there is one mediator between man and God, the God-man Christ Jesus, so why get anyone else involved? -- or about practical questions of whether the dead Saints can hear our prayers. Again, my reservations were of a similar character, though they weren't very strong. Nonetheless, I investigated the matter and the following are some things I took away from the Orthodox explanation of the practice.

Even if the Great Saints of the Church couldn't intercede on our behalf, it should still be obvious why Christians ought to want them to. James 5:16 says that "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." All Christians know that it's good to pray for each other and to ask for the intercessory prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ (even when they aren't particularly Holy brothers and sisters, we often still ask). But why limit this practice to those who are alive in the flesh, rather than to all those who are alive in Christ? If we are made into new creatures in Christ (2. Cor 5:17), freed from enslavement to death in the water of Baptism (Romans 6:3-4), sharing in Christ's resurrection to new life here and now, and not at some undetermined time in the future, then a practical implication of this is that those who have fallen asleep in the Lord aren't actually dead in the fullest sense. The Church of Christ consists of all those who are in Christ, whether living or dead. And with the Church being a communal reality, this means we still commune with those who are not currently with us in tangible ways.

Further, the practice of invoking the Saints, asking for their intercessions, reading their words, praying their prayers, and venerating icons of them keeps concrete examples in our mind of the types of lives that are possible to live given the transformative power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Christ remains our ultimate standard, of course, but without a constant awareness of our spiritual inheritance, and the lives of the best of our forebears in the Faith, our own spiritual lives will be much impoverished.

Also, as always with Orthodox doctrine and praxis, praying to the Saints is found early in Church history and has Apostolic provenance (though, of course, some non-Orthodox dispute this). As that is far from my area of expertise, I'll refrain from wading into those waters here.

This is a brief defense of the practice, but -- as should be apparent -- it opens up into the broader issue of how death is to be understood for Christians. Which is another topic I'm not especially qualified to comment on in any depth, but suffice it to say that there is a stark difference here between Orthodox and Protestant tradition as evidenced by the burial practices, praying for the reposed in a liturgical way, etc.

This post somewhat chronologically catches us up to where my journey is at present. I plan to continue the series throughout my catechesis and perhaps beyond. If you have questions, comments, or things you'd like me to address, please comment below.

Friday, November 16, 2012

God's Sovereignty and Obama

On the night of Obama's re-election and the following day, many conservative Christian friends of mine seemed to take solace in God's sovereignty. There is a right and wrong way to do this.

If you take comfort in knowing that no events brought about by human choice can do anything to deter the All Holy and Good God from accomplishing His plan for creation and humanity, then you are right to be comforted.

If, however, you believe that because God is sovereign He will not allow democracies to bring ruin upon themselves by adopting a corrupt and morally bankrupt ideology and appointing leaders committed to it, or that He won't allow our nation to fall, or He won't allow our children to suffer because of our choices, then your comfort is sadly misplaced and naive. See: history.

God is sovereign and empires -- even 'Christian' ones -- fall. God is sovereign and His children suffer in this life. God is sovereign and humans freely choose misery for themselves. If you acknowledge all this and still take comfort and solace in God's sovereignty, and are prepared to rejoice even in the midst of these conditions, then Amen my brother.

Mary, and Icons, and Saints -- Oh my! (Journey to Orthodoxy, part 5)

Icon of St. Gregory of Nyssa
Some common stumbling blocks for Protestants examining or approaching Orthodoxy are the high mariology, the presence and veneration of icons in worship, and the practice of praying to and asking for the intercessions of the saints -- all three of these having certain points of intersection with each other. From a Protestant perspective, certain aspects of these practices and doctrines are usually outright objectionable, while other aspects are seen as tolerable, but simply unnecessary or superfluous. From an Orthodox perspective -- as I've come to understand it -- these are not simply matters of optional worship preferences which the Orthodox happen to have adopted, but are vital elements of the life and mind of the Orthodox Church and are consistent with the fullness of the Faith as it was once delivered to the Saints.

For Protestants -- and for myself, when beginning to explore Orthodoxy -- the question immediately would be what the Scriptural basis for the beliefs and practices are. As earlier entries in the series attempted to explain, given how the Orthodox understanding of Scripture, its relationship with tradition, and how authority is derived within the Church, it's unsurprising that there would be areas of significant divergence between traditions. Which is not to say that there is no Scriptural basis for the practices and beliefs. Orthodox would just say that the scriptural basis are all the verses that are not regularly underlined, or exhaustively cross-referenced, or are poorly understood due to a divergent hermeneutic. For example, some Orthodox note that Mary takes up approximately 10% of both Matthew and Luke's gospel, and that the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) declares that all generations will call Mary blessed. This, admittedly, seems less of a prescription and more of a description, but nevertheless, why not regularly -- rather than once a year -- call Mary blessed given her amazing role in bringing Salvation to the world? This is just one example of how Scripture accords with and provides a basis for the practices. For other examples check out series on the Ancient Faith Radio program Our Life in Christ, which has series on all these topics. That's a good starting point, anyway.

In addition to this, Orthodox would appeal to the Apostolic tradition and the Faith as it was handed down -- some of which by word and not epistle -- all of which accords with scripture, but which can't necessarily be plucked from it absent the proper hermeneutic within the life of the Church.

Icon of Christ's Baptism
At the council of Nicaea, before a canon of the New Testament existed, it was established that, for example, Christ is homooúsios with the Father, or "of one substance". The language of homooúsios isn't Biblical language, but it is still confessed by all Christians and deviations from this belief are considered heretical by virtually all of historic Christianity. There is, of course, a rich and bountiful Scriptural basis for this doctrine, but the doctrine was established before an authoritative canon of Scripture was. So just as the persons of the Trinity are homooúsios with one another, and just as this doctrine was established and settled by the conciliar model of ecclesial authority, via Apostolic tradition, so too with the veneration of icons, intercessions of the Saints, and a high mariology.

Just as the First and Second Ecumenical councils, at Nicaea and Constantinople, gave us the Creed, which is the standard ecumenical confession of the faith of Christians, the Seventh Ecumenical Council declared iconoclasm to be heresy. Just as the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon established the canon of Scripture -- which all Christians adhere to -- the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus established that Mary is theotokos -- the birth-giver of God. That is, not merely the mother of Jesus's human nature and not the divine Logos -- as Nestorius was teaching -- but of God the Son.

Protestants take issue with these beliefs and practices on various levels. They might not object to calling Mary theotokos, for example, but they will object to praying to her or the Saints. They might not have a problem with making icons, or adorning churches with them (though they don't do it), but they do have a problem with their veneration because it seems like idol worship to them. This is approximately where I was when I began attending orthodox services, though by that time I had adopted the stance of a learner and was open to the possibility that I was ignorant. With this in mind, I sought answers on these issues.

Icon of Mary, the Theotokos, with Christ.
A very brief theological defense of a high mariology and of the place of iconography in worship is this: the Incarnation. Both of these elements of doctrine and praxis are consequences of an affirmation of the Incarnation. If Christ is fully man and fully God, then Mary can properly be called the mother of God, or theotokos. If Christ is, as St. Paul says, the "image [or icon] of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), then the invisible God -- who can not be pictured -- now can be in the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.

Also, where the iconography and the mariology merge -- in icons of Mary -- Christ is virtually always depicted with Mary. She is significant because of Christ's significance, and Orthodox veneration of her always points to Christ. She was an obedient and pure servant of God's, but it's ultimately about what God has done through her and which she cooperated with. She was the first believer; She was the culmination of Israel's lineage and was chosen to bear God the Word; Christ took his human nature from her flesh; the uncircumscribable and uncontainable God was circumscribed and contained in her womb. These are magnificent, holy mysteries and it is a disservice to Christ and the reality of his Incarnation to diminish or downplay them in any way.

Of course, many evangelicals might say "well yeah, I affirm most of those things about Mary", which points to a broader issue with evangelicalism. If you affirm that, then why is it omitted from your prayers and worship? This is a separate issue, one that is somewhat touched on in earlier posts, but in my experience it is unhelpful to officially affirm doctrines on your doctrinal statement -- "Christ was born of the Virgin Mary", perhaps -- which then have no consequence in the language or shape of liturgical worship and life. If it is a truth and it's something you affirm, then let it loose, don't keep it quietly locked away on the Church website.

As for Protestants who wouldn't affirm Mary as theotokos or -- to bring up another issue -- her ever-virginity, one wonders why they don't seeing as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Wesley all did.

Returning to the issue of icons and their veneration, the chief issue here is that the 2nd commandment says not to make a graven image and worship it. Orthodox venerate icons but don't worship them, as worship belongs to God alone.

If God's truth can be contained and transmitted through Scripture, which of course it can, then why can it not be contained and transmitted by image? Orthodox see both scripture and iconography as different vessels of the same truth, the truth of the Gospel. One are words written by human hands, hands belonging to members of Christ's church who have the Holy Spirit; the other are images written by human hands, hands belonging to members of Christ's Church who have the Holy Spirit. Both bearing witness to the same truth(s).

As for veneration of icons, I found this illustration helpful: when a World War II fighter pilot kissed a photograph of his wife, was he committing adultery? Was he confused? Did he love the photograph more than his wife? Was he unaware that the image is an icon of a living reality that is not contained by the image? Of course not. The same is true of Orthodox veneration of icons. Icons transmit the Gospel, they are a window to the spiritual realm, they are a testament to the fact that the saints are alive in Christ and not dead, they affirm the reality of the Incarnation, and they are a monument to the beauty of God. Thus when Orthodox venerate them they are affirming these truths and simultaneously ascribing honor and veneration to the living truth which the icon images forth.

As this post is getting lengthy, I will cut it off here and address prayers to the Saints, intercessions of the Saints, and the Orthodox understanding of death in the next post (all of which ties in to the issue of icons, since much iconography in the Orthodox Church depicts saints and martyrs of the Church). I may also touch on an issue I said I would address but neglected, that of the Great Schism and the filioque.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Election (and Country) Post-Mortem

You may have noticed this blog has been light on political content of late, despite the fact I'm a political junky. The political blog world moves to fast for me though, especially during election season. By the time I've diligently thought about some current issue, carefully written a piece, the issue is already yesterday's news and there is something else afoot. Not to mention there are more talented political writers than myself who I would mostly only be echoing anyway.

With Barack Obama having won re-election, this fact and its repercussions will be at the forefront of the political world for quite a while, so I feel comfortable that this piece won't be passe by the time I finish writing it. Plus, most punditry and the conservative blogopshere are missing certain glaring aspects of the fallout, it seems to me. 

The beltway, media, pundit world -- which is strongly liberal -- seems convinced that given the results of the election -- namely Romney's dominating with white males and married females, but getting crushed with minorities and young, single females -- the Republican party must fundamentally alter its own nature or perish, as these demographics are growing while white males are proportionally shrinking. Many movement conservatives also seem to think that the election should be a real wake-up call, and ought to cause us to re-think our entire approach.

For a starting point on my own perspective, I would mostly echo Charles Krauthammer, who gets what the appropriate response to the election for conservative Republicans should be: mostly, change nothing. The one thing he does think we should change is our approach on illegal immigration, but where I diverge with him is in seeing this as a panacea, or as something that is easily accomplished. Neither is the case. Not to mention that for many conservatives, such as myself, this counts as hedging on matters of principle -- namely, on law & order and fairness -- which is what he thinks we shouldn't do. Though his broader take is accurate. What he doesn't say is that, even if we can't easily fix 'issues' with a shifting demographic that make the future bleak (for Republicans and hence the country), the correct response is still unyielding, unapologetic, robust conservatism of the sort the Republican party has mostly been tending towards -- albeit haltingly -- post Tea Party revolution.

What is good for the nation is good for it whether the nation realizes it or not. If what is good for it is short-term pain, loss of comforts we've come to be dependent on, cuts in benefits etc. in order to deal with the mess that our profligate, reckless government (and many citizens) have gotten us into (and it is), well obviously this isn't a pleasant reality to put in front of voters. And faced with unpleasant reality and cheerful falsity, fallen humans almost always prefer the latter. This is evidenced by the fact that even the Republicans are forced to downplay this reality in order to even have a competitive chance at winning. But it's the conservative message, and it's only by following it that we might avoid fiscal calamity and ruin. 

Of course, there are always practical and strategic shifts that can be made, but simply losing doesn't necessarily signify that any significant mistakes were made in the first place. We certainly could have elected a more strongly conservative candidate, and we ought to in the future, but beyond that the very flawed candidate ran pretty well. He just ran up against the wall of a (inconceivably) popular incumbent, and came bearing the burden of  bad news: eventually the government runs out of other people's money. People who like the government printing money and paying for various things in perpetuity do not want to hear it. It isn't a mystery. 

And when I say we ought to nominate stronger conservatives, the comeback is that "It was strong (social) conservatism that was repudiated in the election!", citing losses by Akin and Mourdock (who made half of a gaffe between them, which was then blown insanely out of proportion by the liberal media), state wins for Gay Marriage and pot legalization, Obama's aggressive focus on social issues, in addition to Romney's loss as evidence. Which is itself a dubious reading of the events; for the entire 18 months of the election, jobs and the economy were always cited as the #1 issue by voters themselves. In any event, to the extent that it was a rejection of conservatism, to some degree -- and it was -- what of it? Voters getting something wrong does not mean that conservatives -- pols and pundits, bloggers and volunteers, voters and campaigns -- necessarily got anything significantly wrong, either in message or strategy. You can be right and unpopular; you can be wrong and a superstar. History is not a solvent. 

That said, it is precisely the moderate Republican presidential nominees who lose general elections and the more solidly conservative that win them. Behold these two groups: 

Group I: Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Bush I (pre tax lie), Bush II and Bush II
Group II: Bush I (post tax lie), Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney

Our present run has moderates losing at a 100% clip, while the more conservative win at a 100% clip. Of course, there are many other variables that play into an election such as the country's situation at the time, the candidates' personalities, events and statements during the campaign etc., but still, even over a small sample, this is telling. 

The other widespread reaction by (left-wing) pundits to the election is the absurd, historically myopic contention that there is something unique, or strange, or significant about the fact that many conservatives and Republicans (media and pols) either were, or appeared to be extremely confident going into election, despite the state polls and electoral math not seeming to be in their favor. And that afterwards they expressed disbelief and shock. As opposed to what? Could they acknowledge publicly that their chances are slim going into the election, thereby making their chances even slimmer? Not if they aren't politically suicidal. Afterwards, could they tell supporters and donors that they knew they didn't have much of a chance? Not if they don't want to burn bridges needlessly. This is political psychology 101, and the spinning occurs on both sides, when it needs to. This sort of reaction is precisely what happens anytime someone wins a national election that isn't that close. And there's nothing noteworthy or unique or novel about it at all. 

In our new-media climate of political reaction, where there is a fiercely competitive market for immediate, hastily drawn conclusions, it's unsurprising that so many dubious ones are always the first out of the gate.

Conservatives -- especially Christian conservatives, who worship the God who became Incarnate as a slave and submitted to death on a cross to overcome the world -- should be willing to languish in exile, if that is the cost of bringing truth to the American people. It may not be the cost, and it probably isn't, but if it is, so be it. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Journey to Orthodoxy (part 4)

The previous post in this series highlighted some areas where foundational shifts of perspective took place as I approached Orthodoxy from an evangelical background. The main ones were: (1) how authority in the church is derived, established and passed down (2) understanding of the sacraments, (3) the way the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity intensely shape the focus and the form of the worship of the Orthodox church, and (4) that worship and communion is what human beings were created for.

These realizations fueled others (and each other), which led to a deeper, more full appreciation of other issues, and then ultimately fed back into the primary, fundamental convictions -- who God is, what and who humanity and the Church are, and how they all relate -- again. I discovered the Orthodox faith to be a rich, intricate, and beautiful tapestry woven from these threads.

Initially I was going to explore this infinite inexhaustibility of Orthodoxy in writing, but as a lot of it is too much for words, or certainly beyond anything that I have to contribute, I have decided to defer some of that for now. Instead I would like to take a brief look at my first concrete experiences with the Orthodox Church.

With my interest in the Orthodox Faith piqued, and undergoing a sort of intellectual transformation, I knew attending Orthodox services was the next step. Many of the Church Fathers stress the centrality of the liturgy as a defining witness of what the Church believes and how she lives. St. John Chrysostom says that the best catechism is faithful, mindful attendance of divine services. Having listened to many episodes of Ancient Faith radio programming, one notices how often Orthodox will answer questions or address issues by saying, "Well, at such-and-such part of the liturgy we pray these words.." or "This hymn is sung during such-and-such a period the liturgical calendar for this reason.." And it is a common aphorism, accepted by the Orthodox Church that "we believe what we pray and we pray what we believe". With all this in mind, I set out to attend divine liturgy at an Orthodox parish.

The first I attended was the closest Orthodox parish to my home, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Upland, California. On their website it said that 'Matins' began at 9 AM and liturgy at 10 AM. Not being sure exactly what Matins was, I figured I'd attend both. It was a small, ethnic parish and arriving at 9 AM, there was only the priest, the chanters (two of them) and one member of the laity (though many other parishioners arrived later in the hour). Immediately I realized (I'm a very attentive sort) that the liturgy was almost entirely in some form of Arabic. There were candles, an iconostasis, incense, much crossing of one's self, and other elements of worship foreign to my experience, but the service was beautiful and ancient and I felt strongly compelled to find an Orthodox church with (at least predominantly) English services.

A kind family at St. George recommended St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, which they said performed services in English. It was a bit of a drive, but I figured it was worth it. St. Andrew's temple (I later learned) is only about a year old, and is a magnificent, beautiful building, built in traditional Byzantine style of architecture.

While I had been among the first to arrive at St. George (and so saw no one else as they entered), this wasn't the case at St. Andrew. As I was entering the narthex of the church (the Western portion which is where the main entrance is), the first thing that struck me were the presence of icons and candles, and parishioners venerating the icons, lighting candles and praying. Looking beyond the narthex into the nave of the Church, there were icons in many places -- on the iconostasis, on the pillars, on the walls, inside the central dome, and on the walls and ceiling of the sanctuary. There seemed to be an open-air area of confession off to the side where parishioners were confessing before the priest. At St. George there was just the one priest and some altar boys, while at St. Andrew there was a priest and many deacons or assistant priests performing the liturgy. There was also full choir that sang hymns and prayers, in concert with the presbyters and deacons. Something else that caught my attention was a relative dearth of chairs and that during most of the service -- practically all of it -- the parishioners stand.

Having my senses overwhelmed in such a manner, with such unfamiliar sites, sounds and smells, it was difficult to process everything that occurred. But the beauty -- and therefore truth -- of it all struck me as unmistakable.

Something I kind of passed over without comment in the previous posts was that in my reading I had, in an intellectual way, come to a greater understanding of beauty and its theological significance. Largely -- but not solely -- due to David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Here was a Church that seemed to take what was -- for me, at the time -- mere ideas and manifest them in a living reality.

But venerating icons? The intercessions of the Saints? Mary, the Theotokos? All of these things -- though I was aware of some of the history behind them -- are not just doctrines that the Orthodox Church affirms, but are actual significant elements of their liturgical worship, and elements that were utterly foreign to me, coming from the background that I had. These were stumbling blocks for myself and -- as many programs on Ancient Faith radio attest to -- for most Protestant converts to Orthodoxy. However, as I had already become somewhat inclined to accept the Orthodox Church as the true New Testament church, persisting throughout history and with us still today, I endeavored to approach these matters with a humble heart and the spirit of a learner, operating on the assumption that there must be much that I did not understand. Part of me instinctively recoiled at some of this, but I was eager to learn more. In the next installment we will look at these matters more closely, from the perspective of the Orthodox Church, and we'll examine the scriptural basis for these doctrines and practices as well as their theological significance.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Journey to Orthodoxy (part 3)

In the previous post I listed some of the issues that were the impetus to my exploring Orthodoxy seriously. The first thing this meant was securing a better understanding of the Early Church and its own self-understanding, which in turn meant reading the Early Church Fathers. The first place I turned was the Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and especially St. Gregory of Nyssa, given his influence on David Bentley Hart). I also read some of the earlier fathers like St. Irenaeus of Lyons and Justin Martyr, as well as re-visited Augustine.

While I was reading more of the Church Fathers, I also began listening to podcasts at Ancient Faith Radio. Many of the programs there -- such as Our Life in Christ, At the Intersection of East and West, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, and Faith and Philosophy -- focus on issues of the Orthodox church in America, and often the sorts of things that Protestants looking to better understand Orthodoxy would be concerned about. While the content at AFR was (and is) stellar -- addressing issues such as Church history, ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the differences between Orthodoxy and other Christian denominations -- just as importantly, it introduced me to a variety of voices within the tradition, which I found to be extremely favorable not only on matters of the Church, but how the shared tradition seems to shape their convictions in positive ways.

Listening to some of these podcasts dovetailed nicely with reading the Fathers because the programs revealed high esteem for the Fathers and a deep congruence with their thought on many levels. The theology and ecclesiology that I was being exposed to had a very venerable provenance, but also happened to address many of the issues I had felt as deficiencies in the non-denominational evangelical tradition.

One of the central, large differences the Orthodox church has with Protestantism is its understanding of the Church, authority, tradition, and scripture and the relationship between them. Orthodoxy sees a very organic, mutually enforcing relationship between these things and no contradictions. The Orthodox Church sees authority as flowing from  Christ of course, but also from the Church itself, which is in-dwelt with the Holy Spirit, and who not only wrote, but decided upon the canon of scripture. And the scripture inherits its authority from the Church, the body of Christ. While the evangelical tradition sees the Bible itself as the ultimate authority for Christian life and practice, as distinct from the Church, with the Holy Spirit having worked to create the Bible through human beings, but not necessarily through the Church as a single, concrete, visible, distinguishable historical entity. While the Orthodox Church also sees the Bible as authoritative and divinely inspired, it believes that the way the Church reads Scripture, and Scripture's place in the whole life of the Church is similarly authoritative. This is a large difference, though it may seem like a fine one to some. The Orthodox understanding is crucially at odds with the foundational Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura.

Now, I had not ever had a problem with sola scriptura, but then I never gave much countenance to alternative views before and so I started to question the position. Or really, to think through it for the first time, since in the tradition I grew up in, even though sola scriptura was tacitly affirmed, it was not something that was ever much preached about or taught explicitly but rather assumed.

Is sola scriptura an absolute doctrine or just a local, temporal principle? After all, if it was a doctrine that all Christians throughout the ages should have held to, what were the scriptures that the Church held to from Pentecost to the year 397 AD, when the New Testament canon of scripture was established at the council of Chalcedon?  Almost 400 years is a long time for Christians to go without any authority to turn to. Did God abandon the Church during those 400 years (or at least the years from the time the last apostle died)? Further, given the evangelical emphasis on individual scripture reading and interpretation, in light of your conscience, what about the next 1000 years of lay Christians, before the printing press was invented? Also, isn't sola scriptura somewhat self-contradictory since that principle isn't itself found in scripture?

Of course, defenders of sola scriptura have thought about these issues and can offer their defenses, but in my case the way Orthodox ecclesiology addresses these issues, and the way it feeds into so many others, made it a very attractive solution. And a Biblical one! In 1st Timothy 3:15 St. Paul writes that "the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth." While this mostly does away with sola scriptura, it resolves so many other issues, and is such an elegant solution that does justice to the majestic claims of the New Testament that the Church is Christ's beautiful bride; that she is Christ's body. If the Church is such a highly exalted reality, then why should not the life of the church -- her oral and written traditions, liturgical life -- be authoritative? And was this not the understanding of the nature of the Church as professed by the Fathers, who were directly taught by the Apostles? In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul writes to "stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." Paul doesn't say to hold fast only to that which is written down, excluding the oral tradition of the Faith of the Apostles.

This understanding of the Church addresses many problems, such as the one that was raised in part 2 of this series of blogs regarding unity. It doesn't resolve that problem entirely without remainder, but it does significantly narrow the scope of the problem. The Orthodox Church conceives of itself as uniquely the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The primary question therefore becomes how to maintain the unity of the Orthodox church, rather than ecumenical efforts with heretical and schismatic sects, which aren't the Church divided as much as simply not-the-Church (or, at least, are not in the fullness of the Orthodox faith). This is a much more realistically manageable goal, while the ever proliferating division of the Protestant church offers little hope on this count. Of course, the non-denominational tradition offers an alternative solution to unity, but one that requires theological imprecision and a lowest-common-denominator approach to unity, which is extremely unsatisfying by my lights.

Another question that arises is, if Christians recognize the Christology and Trinitarianism of Nicaea as authoritative, and properly see Arianism as heretical, why do Protestants only acknowledge the authority of the first two Ecumenical Councils and their production of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, and the canonization of Scripture established by the synod of Carthage in 397 (in concert with the mind of the Church on the matter), but disregard the Ecumenical Councils on many other matters? The Apostles established the normative practice of calling councils to settle disputes within the church in Acts 15, so why pick and choose in this way? Well, the Orthodox don't.

When approaching Orthodoxy I was aware that the Orthodox had a high sacramentology, which in my readings I had found to be consonant with venerable, historical Christianity. However, while what I thought was absent was a proper recognition of the centrality of the Eucharist to the worship of the church, as well as a full comprehension of the Eucharist itself, I was not aware just how integral it is not only to Orthodox worship, but to the entire life of the Church. For the Orthodox, it isn't simply a matter of celebrating the Eucharist rightly, but of developing a sacramental worldview, which is intimately tied with the Church's view of creation and the human being and how they relate to God. Some of which I dimly intimated before becoming acquainted with Orthodoxy, and which I began to gain a more robust understanding of by listening to some Ancient Faith programs, but which I really grasped (to the extent the Holy mysteries can be grasped) when I read Fr. Alexander Schmemmann's book For the Life of the World, on the Orthodox view of the sacraments.

Yet another fundamental difference that I recognized in Orthodoxy, and which I truly began to see when I started attending an Orthodox parish and observing the liturgy (which I will describe more of anon), is the manner in which the core Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity intimately shape the form of Orthodox worship and piety. Which is a large change from the tradition I was raised in where, for example, the Trinity is rarely even invoked (though it is affirmed). Along with this, and along with my greater appreciation of the nature of the sacraments, I began to understand 'worship' itself anew. Of course, scripture speaks of offering your body as a sacrifice of worship in Romans 12:1, and gives a picture of what true worship is, and teaches that we are creatures who were made for worship. This was head knowledge I've always had, but the Orthodox Church presented this as a living reality in a way I had never experienced. It's frankly something that is difficult to really put into words, and certainly impossible to encompass in a series of blog posts, so for now I will leave it at that.

These are just some of the real fundamental shifts in comprehension that started to reform my understanding of everything else. In the next post we will look at some more specific implications of these convictions, and touch upon my experience of going from a church of no formal liturgical tradition, to experiencing the highly liturgical Orthodox tradition. And perhaps briefly look at early medieval Church history and why I never gave Catholicism much consideration (partly unfairly). Ultimately this series will bring us up to the present, where I'm currently worshiping, studying, desiring to enter the catechumenate, and seeking the spiritual guidance of Fr. Josiah at St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside.


P.S. I hasten to add as a disclaimer that I haven't even officially begun my catechesis yet, and so I may be mistaken or imprecise about many of these points and my understanding of them. Indeed, Orthodoxy teaches that true understanding doesn't even really begin until one is participating in the life of the church fully, which I'm not. Lord have mercy.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Journey to Orthodoxy (part 2)

While I didn't mention it in my last post, I hope it is clear that the first stage in my journey to Orthodoxy was initiated due to a level of discontent with the tradition I grew up in. Here are some specific examples of  what seemed to be absent, under-emphasized, or over-emphasized in the non-denominational, evangelical tradition, given the general convictions regarding ecclesiology and pneumatology I had begun to arrive at.

  • Lack of authority and consequential divisions in the church 
  • Low sacramentology and view of creation
  • Low ecclesiology
  • Low view of tradition
  • Inadequate recognition of the implications of the Incarnation
  • A strain of Gnosticism in the church
  • A strain of 'moralistic therapeutic deism' in the church (with Christ's name pegged on)

There are probably other things, and if it's requested of me, I would elaborate on any of these (in the comments or elsewhere), but I'd rather not belabor the point of the catalyst to explore other denominations and traditions, and instead transition into that exploration itself, which will in turn illuminate some of these matters.

Given my general dissatisfaction with non-denominational evangelicalism, my inherited, inchoate Romophobia, and my admiration of the Reformers, I initially believed that some form of Lutheranism or the Reformed tradition would best address these issues for me. Around this time I also stumbled upon the work of David Bentley Hart -- specifically his writings for First Things magazine, a predominantly Catholic publication -- an Eastern Orthodox theologian who I found to be utterly brilliant. While I quickly read everything of Hart's I could find, not much of his material was on the subject of Orthodoxy as such, but his Orthodox sensibility while addressing particular topics exposed me to aspects of that tradition. Which put another option on the table for me to explore, though I didn't seriously consider it an option at first because of its remote and 'exotic'-seeming nature, which was so far afield of my own experience.

My investigation of Lutheranism and the Reformed tradition never went very deep, I should confess. I read a lot of Luther and some Calvin, as well as theologians from later centuries within those traditions, and I felt I had a fairly firm grasp on the main features of their thought and the traditions. But when it came to actually investigating the churches in existence today, the plethora of strains of Lutheranism and Reformed churches was a bit dizzying -- where do I start? I could quickly discard the liberal strains of Lutheranism, of course, but where to go after that? It was a bit overwhelming, and so I sort of stalled out in my exploration (to my discredit).

While the issue of 'church unity' essentially never even came up when I was growing up in the church, even when I became aware of it, it didn't interest me much. 'Church unity' is guaranteed because there's a mystical, invisible Church which consists of all those who belong to Christ. Why fret about it? It can't be thwarted, ultimately, after all. But eventually this very process, and the proliferation of divisions in the Protestant church it brought to my attention, did cause some consternation for me, especially in light of Christ's high priestly prayer in John 17.

This brought to the forefront the idea of a 'pre-denominational' church, which essentially both the Catholic and Orthodox claim to be, and seem to be the only ones who could possibly make such a claim. I was already somewhat familiar with the bare basics of the history of the Church, and so with the character of the Early Church, also in a very limited way. I knew that the Great Schism occurred in 1054. But if there was a pre-denominational Church, which was it? How did schism come about, exactly? Being familiar with much of the anti-Catholic polemic of the Reformation, as well as with having my own objections to the Catholic Church today, my first inclination was to suspect that Orthodoxy might uniquely, legitimately make this claim to being the original church. This suspicion was somewhat bolstered by my admiration for the Orthodox thought of David Bentley Hart. In my next post we will (finally) begin to look at Orthodoxy itself and see what drew me to it, as well as shine light back on what bothered me about my own tradition, but which I couldn't see except in the light of Orthodoxy.


P.S. It should be noted that this process I'm describing is more clean and simplified than it actually was, as there were many subtle factors, events, and ideas that contributed to me heading in this direction. I'm streamlining and simplifying to some degree to make the story manageable and coherent.

Journey to Orthodoxy (part 1)

Over the course of the last few months I've begun preparing to convert to Orthodoxy by joining the catechumenate at St. Andrew Orthodox parish in Riverside. While I don't often blog about personal topics, cataloging my journey to Orthodoxy seems like it would be a beneficial enterprise, for myself if for no one else. This will be the first post in a continuing series on the topic.

Being raised in a non-denominational, evangelical Protestant home and church in America, and having had no formal religious education, I was mostly oblivious to church history, the origins of Christian denominations and traditions, and the differences between them growing up. Nor did I have much interaction with those outside the stream of my own evangelical tradition. Also, a prominent feature of non-denominationalism is the belief that most other denominations (well, except Catholicism) are basically alright, as long as they believe in Jesus as God and savior, and as long as they don't have any of a few core Christian doctrines dreadfully wrong in some way. So there wasn't much of an incentive to look into anything else, as everything else was an optional addition to my 'mere Christianity'.

But something along the lines of what C.S. Lewis writes in the preface of Mere Christianity had started to dawn on me (though not as a result of reading it -- I had read it as a teenager, but this passage hadn't stuck with me).
I hope no reader will suppose that "mere" Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. 
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall, I have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into the room you will find that the long wait has done some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. 
Of course, non-denominational evangelicalism could be said to be a room of its own, in a certain way, but in hindsight it always felt somewhat more like the hall. Which is probably partly due to my own sinfulness and non-submittal, I should readily admit, but also seemed to be due to the inherent nature of non-denominationalism.

Along with this realization was a development of love for rich theological reflection -- whether it was from the patristics, the medieval period, the Reformers, or contemporary Christians -- and an interest in the history of Christianity. The more I read on these topics, the more I felt the deficiencies in my own tradition. Not as much in what was believed and confessed -- though I would later see problems on that level as well -- but in the disconnect between what was confessed and the praxis of the church. Which is not to echo the banal complaint that I felt my tradition was hypocritical -- because I mostly didn't and still don't -- but that the theology didn't intimately and rigorously shape the form of the life of the church, in my view. Or at least not in the way that seemed called for. And that this fact has negative consequences.

In addition, while there was a proper high reverence for Holy Scripture in my tradition, there seemed to be an improper disconnect from historical Christianity. My reading led me to the conviction that, while the Holy Spirit has been given to the church, the Spirit doesn't normally alight here and there upon individual believers, or even upon groups of them, in a haphazard fashion, but that the Holy Spirit was bequeathed to a specific, concrete, historical entity at Pentecost called the Church of Christ. And that His work is done among and through this concrete, historical reality. This doesn't mean the Holy Spirit's work is strictly confined to the Church, but it does mean that that is the one place where He always is, is always working in, and will never leave.

These general, ground-level convictions revealed a variety of specific deficiencies in my own tradition which I will discuss in the next post.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Evidentialist Atheism

If you traffic in atheistic circles, online or elsewhere, you'll notice that the primary objection lodged against belief in God is the evidential objection i.e. "I believe things based on [usually 'scientific'] evidence (and others ought to as well); in the absence of evidence for some proposition, I withhold (and others ought to withhold) belief in it; there is no evidence for God's existence that I've ever seen; hence I can't justify believing in God (and neither can anyone else)." Not only is this the primary objection, it's virtually becoming the sole objection. There are many weaknesses to this argument, but I just want to examine one of them in this post. Namely this: for someone who adopts this stance, what would count as evidence of the supernatural or of God? And if it turns out there is not any sort of event, fact, datum, or combination of facts that would count as evidence of the supernatural or of God, then how is this stance distinguishable from a priori atheism, rather than a result of a survey of the pertinent evidence? And if it is indistinguishable from a priori atheism, why countenance the objection seriously at all?

If an atheist can give criteria for what would count as evidence for God or the supernatural, and a good reason for adopting whatever particular criterion they choose, then they can be rationally justified in their unbelief if they have never been confronted with the sort of evidence they require. The vast majority of atheists I've encountered  adopt the 'scientific' criterion for belief. That is: they will believe in those things which are deliverances of scientific method and nothing else. Now, this doesn't mean that some atheist somewhere couldn't adopt some other criterion, in which case I would have to address whatever criterion that would be, but in this post I will be content to address the criterion that the vast majority of unbelievers appeal to.

If 'science' is that certain sort of investigation of natural phenomena via a particular systematic method of observation and experiment, then immediately one must ask why this criterion for knowledge should be adopted to answer a question necessarily outside its purview i.e. the question of the existence of the supernatural. Could the supernatural theoretically exist and never be isolated and observed in material phenomena, with conditions necessary for repeatable, controlled lab experiments? Not only could this be the case, but if anything supernatural did exist, then this would necessarily be the case: science as traditionally understood and practiced, could not be performed on said phenomena. So we are left with no sensible, justifiable reason to think that the scientific criterion for knowledge is capable of addressing the question of whether anything supernatural exists. Anyone who demands 'scientific evidence of the unscientific (or a-scientific)' makes a nonsensical demand.

This problem seems to bear itself out practically in my experience with atheists. Ask them what would theoretically constitute scientific evidence for God and most of them will struggle to think of something that would count. Recently, I tried to help them out and posed the following hypothetical: suppose the famous double-slit experiment revealed that, on the sheet behind the slits, the particles arrayed in a pattern that spelled out 'YAHWEH WAS HERE' or 'JESUS CHRIST IS THE ETERNAL LOGOS', rather than dispersing in the way that they actually do. Would this count as extremely strong scientific evidence for belief in God? The immediate reaction was that they would suspect a hoax, so I clarified that the results were repeated and confirmed in numerous independent peer-reviewed experiments and accepted by the scientific community at large as legitimate. "Very powerful aliens could be controlling that reality", "Could be a mass delusion", "Could still be a hoax" etc. came the responses. In other words, even paradigm-shifting evidence of God's existence, literally written into the fabric of existence, would not count as evidence for God or the supernatural. At which point we can properly accuse atheists of this sort of holding to an a priori atheism that isn't the result of insufficient scientific evidence, but which is entirely impervious to scientific evidence of even the most radical sort.

In the case of atheists who hold to the scientific criterion of knowledge as solely legitimate, but who would accept this theoretical sort of evidence as persuasive (and so avoid being properly accused of evidence-independent atheism), there is another problem. Namely, that those atheists don't apply the scientific criterion of knowledge to many things that they hold to be true. An atheist who ate toast for breakfast, for example, will believe that he ate toast for breakfast if you ask him about it that evening, and he will believe it to be so on no other basis than his own memory. No repeatable experiment results, no test of any sort, no peer-review, just his memory. And, of course, it's rational for him to do so as it's a properly basic sort of belief. Same goes for that which we currently apprehend with our senses. There's no scientific way of demonstrating that these constant sources of beliefs are reliable, but the atheist (rationally) cleaves to them nonetheless, and so breaks his own standard for what counts as knowledge.

An atheist who holds to the scientific criterion of knowledge as merely the best, but not exclusive, criterion of knowledge, and who acknowledges some sensible minimum standard for what would count as evidence for God mostly escapes this particular critique but -- lucky for me -- mostly doesn't exist. I'll rationally withhold belief in such a creature until presented with evidence of his existence.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pop-Pantheist Blasphemy

One of the more prevalent modern blasphemies is that of a sort of pantheism or pandeism which holds that all religions partially and imperfectly apprehend the one true God. In the last few days I heard or overheard versions of this blasphemy at work and from Saul Williams on Twitter. Not long ago, I was in an argument with Immortal Technique on Twitter where he was ineptly defending the position (while not even really understanding that it was his position). And in the case of Saul Williams and Immortal Technique, they had legions of followers expressing general agreement with the stance.

Not many people necessarily consciously self-identify in this way, as those who hold to the position often believe that they have transcended the particularity of confession, doctrine, and -- certainly -- labels. Usually it's a disingenuous posture adopted by agnostics or nominal believers who want to affirm there is a space 'beyond' religion, where all religions are legitimate in their own general way, but where none of their specific confessional details or doctrinal content need be affirmed or denied. But this is obviously impossible: if God is a bland spiritual essence or power, beyond the particularities of religious confession, who is apprehended just as accurately by a Christian as he is by a Hindu, then this god is incompatible with the particular God of historical Christianity (for example), and the specifics of any religion must be denied in favor of this pantheist god who is the "true God".

Or, if God is somehow the immanent all-embracing 'One' of pantheism which all religions vaguely apprehend, then the holocaust, slavery, rape, intolerance, hatred et. al. all become necessary elements of "God's" being -- in fact become part of God him/itself. Once again making this god crucially incompatible with the gods of the Abrahamic religions, and many others besides.

While the incentive to adopt this stance is understandable -- desiring to overcome differences, to promote understanding, peace, and unity across religious divides, to see God as indiscriminately all-embracing etc. -- it is immediately self-defeating. Far from eliminating exclusivist religious claims, it merely introduces another exclusivist claim into the fray i.e. "none of your gods, as you understand them, is the true God, but in your errors of specific confession and practice you vaguely gesture in the true God's direction." Rather than subsuming all religions under the banner of the one true pantheist God, you introduce a new god who is just as in conflict with the historical faiths as any of the gods of those faiths is at odds with one another.

Perhaps this is the reason few people self-identify as pantheists of this sort. On close inspection, the position becomes untenable, evil, or pointless. But many people say and believe things without close inspection.

In the desire to affirm the legitimacy of all religions, you necessarily undermine and oppose them all. The God I believe in is not the god of Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism or Pop-Pantheism. This is not the resolution to the 'problem' of religious exclusivity that some naively believe it to be, rather it's proof of the inescapable, inherently exclusive nature of confessions of faith. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

On Symbolism and Sacrament

I recently listened to an episode of Our Life in Christ -- a podcast at Ancient Faith Radio -- which discussed the sacraments of the Orthodox Church and referenced the book I'm currently reading on the same subject, For The Life of The World by Alexander Schmemmann.

The hosts mention that in some evangelical Protestant polemic they cite writings of the early Church Fathers (one example is given in the podcast, but I forget who it was) which refer to the Eucharist and baptism (or one or the other) as 'symbols', in a defense of a lower sacramentology. The hosts of the podcast -- Steve Robinson and Bill Gould -- point out that 'symbol' as used in contemporary English doesn't mean what the Greek word from which it is derived meant.

The Greek word translated as 'symbol' is Σύμβολο (sýmvolo), and it meant 'to throw together' or 'the joining of two things into one.' One supposes that 'symbol' is a cognate of 'symbiosis', but obviously the meaning of these two words are currently different from one another. It seems that 'symbiosis' retained a meaning closer to its etymological origin, while 'symbol' has drifted. Today we understand 'symbol' to roughly mean 'one thing that stands for or represents or images forth another thing.' Not two things coming together in a living, interacting unity, a la symbiosis. The latter understanding seems to describe the nature of a high sacramentology -- the bread and wine becoming the body of Christ, thereby transforming the Church into the actual body of Christ; baptism as an actual death to our old self and actual resurrection to new life joined to Christ and his Church etc. -- more accurately than it does a 'symbolic' (in today's meaning) representation of a decision for Christ, or a mental recollection of the cross.

And it's not as if the Church Fathers didn't have a Greek word at their disposal that could express this idea of two different things beside each other, one standing for the other. They had that word and it was παραβολή (paràbola), which defined exactly that concept. 'Paràbola' meant (roughly) 'two things alongside one another' and is the word from which we derive -- among other words -- the English word 'parable'. A parable being one story that stands for another story or reality, while remaining separate. This is closer to what we mean today when we use the words 'symbol' and 'symbolism', but the Fathers didn't use this word because it wasn't what they meant.

That is the argument that is made in the podcast, at any rate, and one that seemed persuasive to me.

Teen Pregnancy, Sex-ed, and Smug Liberal Deception

As Ross Douthat has pointed out on Twitter, this piece by Amanda Marcotte is smugly and sloppily wrong. She flagrantly conflates teen pregnancy rates with teen birth rates, leading to a factual error in the title of her piece which subsequently mars her whole argument.

Douthat cites Guttmacher statistics from 2005 which show that the teen pregnancy rates of Mississippi and New York are effectively the same at 85/1000 and 77/1000, respectively. Marcotte cites statistics about the discrepancy in birth rates between the states as evidence in favor of her argument for liberal sex education. But if the supposed superiority of New York's sex education ethic with regard to birth control, condom use, and other preventative measures explained the discrepancy, then that would manifest itself as a difference in pregnancy rates. Yet there is no difference.

Clearly the missing variable between pregnancy and birth is the abortion rate. New York boasts the highest abortion rate in the country at 41/1000, while Mississippi's is 11/1000. Hence the discrepancy between teen birth rates and pregnancy rates. So it turns out what Amanda Marcotte is actually advocating is for "better" abortion education, not sex education.

The pregnancy rates being the same undermines her entire argument about liberal sex education being efficacious. The only resultant difference -- at least as measured by comparing these two particular states -- is in decisions that are made after sex. If you're the monstrous, pro-baby-killing sort, you might argue that New York teens make "better" decisions after sex and subsequent pregnancy; you can't argue that they do so beforehand. They don't.

Liberal sex education doesn't prevent teen pregnancy; it prevents teen pregnancies from becoming births. At most. Of course, the fact that more abortions reduce the number of live births isn't exactly revelatory information. Additionally, the divergent cultural values of the regions are a better candidate for the root cause of the differences in abortion rates, and these would largely remain even in the face of changes in sex education programs. The differences in the types of sex education are themselves epiphenomena of these more fundamental cultural differences. They are effects, not causes. Correlation is not causation.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

With a presidential election looming and the most substantive policy debate (to the extent that there is one) being on the topic of jobs and the economy, turning to this text seemed appropriate. In addition, a reader had recommended William T. Cavanaugh to me in the comment section of my review of Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, so I was eager to read some of his work.

If one of the main characteristics of those authors and thinkers who fall within the stream of Radical Orthodoxy is re-thinking traditionally 'secular' realms of thought and practice according to explicitly Christian premises, language, and categories, then this text is a quintessential example of that sort of disposition and method. In considering the field of economics, Cavanaugh lays out parameters for Christians to approach a just economic life that doesn't aim to overthrow or oppose the reigning global capitalist order -- something he thinks is not actually possible anyway -- but which seeks to seize on its legitimacy and respond to it in a transformative way.

Cavanaugh is often perspicacious in his musings on the nature of capitalism and consumerism. He rightly recognizes that the capitalist definition of economic freedom is defined purely negatively: it is the lack of illegitimate coercion or force in the economic realm. While the Christian definition of freedom is ends-dependent; true freedom is understood with reference to the telos of human nature. Freedom isn't the arbitrary, unmolested exercise of will, as it is defined in capitalism, but freedom is found in choosing rightly. Because Cavanaugh doesn't think progressivism offers a real alternative to capitalism, he only really engages with capitalism and one of its most staunch defenders: Milton Friedman. This is the only spot where Cavanaugh stumbles a bit. At times he correctly recognizes that the Christian understanding of freedom, as positively defined, isn't necessarily at odds with the capitalist understanding -- as defined by Friedman -- but is rather a more specific and demanding sort of freedom that can exist underneath and within the capitalist order (though it's obviously destined to transplant it in the eschaton). But then he will turn around and act as if there is some inherent conflict, when there really isn't. That aside, his observations as to the distinct types of freedom are important and thoughtful.

Another example of penetrating insight is Cavanaugh's recognition that the consumerism of our culture is not marked by attachment to things, but by detachment to them. We don't buy things to satisfy particular desires and then rest content in those things, rather we buy things and once we acquire them, start to shop for something else. It is shopping, not the actual buying, that drives us. We desire to desire to desire, and of course the desires of our heart are never more than momentarily satiated by obtaining material possessions.

Cavanaugh goes on to say that detachment from material possessions is an aspect of the Christian life as well, though consumerism is a perversion of it. The Christian model for what a redeemed, healthy mode of consumption ought to be is found in the Eucharist. We consume and in so doing are consumed by God; we consume the bread so that we might become bread for others. And Cavanaugh gives concrete examples of what this might look like, as lived out in the realm of economics; different sorts of business models, nontraditional charitable activities, etc.

In the section on the 'global and the local', Cavanaugh evaluates the process known as 'globalization', in the context of the ancient philosophical problem of 'the one and the many'. Turning to the doctrine of the Incarnation, Cavanaugh convincingly argues that it is only in Christ that this problem can be solved, as Christ is the 'concrete universal'. Drawing heavily on the thought of Hans Ur von Balthasar, Cavanaugh believes that the Church's catholicity is the living out of this reality of the nature of Christ. The church is catholic -- whole and complete -- in each particular, local church, with Christ as its head. So in the Incarnation, in Christ, the particular, the concrete is redeemed and taken up into the life of the Trinity. The Many need not dissolve into the One, and the One need not disperse out into the Many, but Christ's work infuses the particular with the infinite, without the infinite ceasing to be infinite. And this reality for God is the reality for the Church, which becomes a model for how the Church can engage and affect the economic realities it inhabits, specifically in a time of 'globalization'.

As I've said, Cavanaugh makes these connections -- which I'm somewhat glossing over -- explicit in tangible examples. It isn't all abstraction, and when it is, it's abstraction about concrete, physical realities. One of the examples of an outworking of his premises are supporting certain sorts of local farms, where the relationship between production and consumption is at least a more intimate one, where a communal relationship among parties can develop, rather than the way globalized capitalism tends to set production off in some far corner of the world where workers can be exploited. Another example are business models which themselves incorporate an ethic of gift by having employee ownership, or a certain percent of profits going directly to charitable causes in the community. None of this undermines capitalism and can take place within it, but it also frees those engaged in these mini-markets from some of the more harsh, inescapable realities of the pure self-interest of the global market.

Though Milton Friedman might note that, in decreasing the market for extremely cheap labor in foreign countries, for example, you take away some of the poor-paying jobs those people are glad to have, perhaps making their poor quality of life even worse. There are always trade-offs, and the solutions Cavanaugh offers often have hidden costs. But, to be fair, his examples are not intended to be an exhaustive explication of everything that would need to happen to bring economic justice to the world.

The book is written in a highly readable fashion at a popular level. Cavanaugh seamlessly transitions from appropriating the Trinitarian theology of Balthasar and contrasting Augustine with Milton Friedman, to contemporary implications and pop-culture illustrations and references. The result is an illuminating investigation of what it means -- and what it should mean -- to be a Christian 'consumer' in the modern world of economics.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

'The Master' and Catholicism

I've been a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson since Magnolia came out in 1999, and with the epic, brilliant There Will Be Blood he cemented his spot as one of the best living American filmmakers. Along with The Tree of Life, There Will Be Blood is my favorite film to come out in the last decade or so. With that in mind it should come as no surprise that I've been eagerly anticipating Anderson's latest opus The Master -- loosely inspired by the life of L. Ron Hubbard and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman -- which arrives this Friday in limited release. I've already purchased my tickets for a Friday showing in Arclight Hollywood's Cinerama Dome, where the film will be presented in the 70mm format.

I've been reading some reviews and generally following the hype surrounding the film for the last few weeks. Today an interview with Anderson appeared in the Huffington Post and one bit stood out to me:
I know you were raised Catholic. Do you see similarities between Scientology and Catholicism as you're researching the film?

Not really.

There were times watching the film when I thought, Boy, Dodd is just making up any old thing, but then you're in church and they're saying stuff that got made up 2,000 years ago.

Yeah, sure, I think a lot of people can make that argument. I don't know. I don't really think about it.
There are a couple things to notice here. First is the fact that the interviewer is asking such buffoonish questions at all. What is he thinking? This is juvenile atheistic drivel of the first order. What similarities between Scientology and Catholicism, exactly? Beyond the level of the extremely superficial, there are none whatsoever. Because there are such things as quasi-religious hucksters and charlatans, therefore Christianity was the product of religious charlatans making things up? It does not follow, sir. And, as a matter of fact, such a thesis is virtually impossible to defend given the historical record and logic. Oops.

The great thing about the exchange is Anderson's curt rejection of the initial suggestion and the subsequent polite dismissal of the follow-up. This juxtaposed with all his other responses to questions, where he generously elaborated if he had even the slightest idea what the interviewer was getting at. There's something wonderful about a petty atheist extrapolating a sweeping rejection of all religion from a narrow-minded reading of a film, only to have the auteur respond with the equivalent of a blank stare.

Sorry that none of this was actually about The Master or Anderson as a director. If you're interested in that kind of thing, I'll probably be blogging about it this weekend. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Case For Mitt (and Conservatism)

A friend of mine recently asked me directly why he should vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. It admittedly caught me somewhat off-guard since I so rarely think about that question. My blunt and somewhat tongue-in-cheek answer was that "He's a Republican." And given the platforms of the two major parties and my own values, it really is that simple to some extent. Still, I felt (and feel) compelled to give a more thorough response to the question.

My answer will be written with an audience of wavering or uncertain Republicans, independents, and perhaps some unusually open-minded and moderate Democrats in mind. If you're a fairly committed liberal or progressive, I have nothing in the way of persuasion to offer but this: stop being a committed liberal or progressive.
The Case For Mitt is the Case For Conservatism/Republicanism

Personality politics is what drives many national elections, but it usually massively obscures the fundamental issues at hand. The personality and idiosyncrasies in policy proposals and ideology of presidential candidates is exceedingly more important to consider and weigh during the primary process than it is in a general election. The reason for this is that during the primaries you're winnowing down from a pool of candidates who share many of the same basic values and beliefs, and so the finer distinctions between them become important.

Once we are into the general election, this is no longer the case. We are now dealing with two candidates whose fundamental ideologies are often drastically opposed to each other. And, to get to where they are, each has to have shown some significant level of fealty to the party (and that party's values) which has nominated them for the presidency. Which is a loyalty that usually carries through into their presidency and how they will govern. With this being the case, the real critical distinction isn't between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama but between the Republican party platform -- its values, policies, and vision for the country -- and that of the Democratic party. Mitt Romney is a fairly ordinary Republican; Barack Obama is a fairly ordinary Democrat. What sets them apart as a Democrat from other Democrats or as a Republican from other Republicans is no longer relevant, for the most part.

This is something that many on my own side, myself included, sometimes forget. It is about Obama's failures as a president, sure, but it's important to note that anyone who shares the values of the Democratic party could not have done significantly better because their ideals preclude success.

So, while so much of the national dialogue in the media is focused on things Romney or Obama have said or done, the really savvy voter can mostly short circuit all such considerations by looking at both the Democratic party platform and the Republican party platform. Also helpful would be to compare these platforms to previous platforms and see what direction the parties are headed in. And, in the case of Democrats, taking a look at their attempt to 'remedy' the platform and re-insert some of the language that had been extracted (and shiver).


  • If you value the protection of the lives of the unborn (over a woman's "right" to kill), vote Republican.
  • If you value the Constitution's vision of a limited government with enumerated powers, and don't think it's a 'living document' (beyond the fact that it can be amended) that can mean anything the prevailing spirit of the times deems it to mean, vote Republican.
  • If you value equality of opportunity, self responsibility, and see the dignity of hard work, vote Republican.
  • If you think a robust capitalism, with limited constraints, is the best way to organize an economy and lift the conditions of all (and you correctly recognize, contra ubiquitous propaganda to the contrary, that 'too much market' didn't cause the economic crisis of 2008), vote Republican.
  • If you believe in fiscal responsibility -- that both individuals and governments should not live beyond their means -- vote Republican
  • If you believe in a social safety net for the most helpless in society, but believe that the primary responsibility for them should fall to families, local communities, charities, and local governments, with the federal government playing a very small role, vote Republican.
  • If you believe in a strong national defense and peace through strength, but that war should always be a last resort, vote Republican.
  • If you believe in choice -- and therefore quality -- in education, vote Republican.
  • If you don't believe in socialized medicine -- with its harmful effect on quality and availability of care, and its economic havoc-wreaking -- vote Republican. 
  • If you believe we should care much more what our allies think about us than about the fickle opinion of the world as a whole, vote Republican. 
  • If you believe that the entitlement system is broken and unsustainable, and must be addressed so as to bring the debt under control, vote Republican. 
  • If you believe people should keep the vast majority of the money they make, however much that is, vote Republican.

If you don't broadly agree with these values, then it's my humble submission that you at least abstain from voting, rather than do the unconscionable and vote for Barack Obama.

If I wanted to be really thorough, I would go through those bullet points and argue why you ought to assent to them all, but that is a tall task indeed (in terms of effort and number of words), so I will defer that task to if and when I'm challenged -- in the comments or elsewhere -- on specific points or asked for elaboration.

Sure, it's true that sometimes parties and politicians don't strictly adhere to their expressed ideals and go astray. But by and large, they do sincerely subscribe to the broad values contained in their platforms and will generally govern in the same basic vector of their party. I think this is the case for both Romney and Obama. With that in mind, forget about the men. They are ciphers or icons for ideologies and visions that are diametrically opposed, and should be approached as such.