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.