Thursday, October 10, 2013

St. Ephraim the Syrian -- Intercession

Praying through the spiritual psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian (as compiled by St. Theophan the Recluse), the depth and richness of the prayers is astonishing. Sincere repentance, deep humility, and thanksgiving form the backbone of the prayers, which touch on all aspects of the spiritual life. Here St. Ephraim pleads for the intercessions of the Holy Saints of God.


Who will not lament for me, who have renounced the eternal kingdom for the sake of meagre pleasures, ignoring the eternal fire? Having surrendered myself to the passions, I have destroyed the integrity of my soul and become like the unreasoning beasts.

At one time I found myself rich with gifts, but now I have come to love the poverty of the passions. I have become a stranger to the virtues and departed for the distant land of corruption. I am half dead; I have only a tiny remnant of life in me.

Because I am this way by mine own free choice, I cannot even raise mine eyes to the kindhearted Lord.

Lament, O blessed and righteous ones, for me who am caught in the embrace of passions and sin.
Lament, O ascetics, for me who am a glutton and voluptuary.
Lament, O merciful and condescending ones, for me who am hardhearted and cause much grief.
Lament, O God-pleasers, for me who strive to please men.
Lament, O ye who have attained meekness, for me who am irritable and wrathful.
Lament, O humble ones, for me who am pompous and arrogant.
Lament, O ye who have attained the nonacquisitiveness of the apostles, for me who, burdened by my love for possessions, cling to material things.
Lament, O ye who have loved lamentation and hated laughter, for me who have loved laughter and hated lamentation.
Lament, ye who contemplate the judgement that will come after death, for me who affirm that I remember the judgement but act to the contrary.

Pray, O saints of God, for my soul which is convulsed by all manner of passions. Inasmuch as you are able, help me, O saints of God.

For I know that if you beseech God, the Lover of mankind, all will be granted you from the sea of His kindness. And, like our man-befriending God, so also when I, a sinner, beseech you, do not despise my supplication; for I have not the boldness to pray to Him myself because of the multitude of my sins.

Your role it is, O saints, to intercede for sinners, God's role it is to have mercy on those who despair.
O saints of God, pray to the King on behalf of the prisoner. Pray to the Pastor on behalf of the sheep. Pray to Life on behalf of the corpse, that He might lend His hand to aid me and strengthen my humble soul in its feebleness.


St. Ephraim of Syria, pray to God for us!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Being, Consciousness, Bliss [Review]

Astonishingly, given the somewhat deceptive (or perhaps inept) marketing of the book, this was David Bentley Hart's best book to date, which is saying something monumental. What neither the title, nor the jacket cover, nor even the blurb reviews reveal is that the book is primarily a relentless, blistering attack on the superstitions and credulous fideisms of materialism. Over and against this decrepit and impoverished philosophy of reality, and in response to its inept attempts to demystify the world, Hart turns to the common deposit of theistic metaphysical tradition for the arresting and compelling antidote. 

In the mystery of being, in the mystery of consciousness, and in the manner that they blissfully coinhere as a surfeit of physical reality, the Supernatural, the Absolute, the Good, Beauty -- in a word -- God is immediately present to us in every moment. Yet we dull and numb ourselves to this reality in innumerable ways, but especially through the barbarisms of the 'mechanical philosophy' that we have inherited from 'the Enlightenment'. 

As for the attempts of naturalism to sweep away such an obvious reality, Hart is insistent all such attempts are pitifully incoherent and suffer massive -- almost certainly insuperable -- explanatory deficiencies. While the traditional metaphysical arguments for God -- arguing from contingency to a necessary and absolute ground of being, for example -- are comparatively sublime with scarcely any of the objections lodged against them being worth serious consideration.

According to Hart, most materialistic attempts to deal with the question of being either try to dismiss the central question -- namely "why is there something rather than nothing?" -- as a fallacy of grammar or as ultimately unintelligible (it clearly is not), or to posit that the sum total of contingent, physical reality might somehow (magically and irrationally) add up to the source of its own being, and not itself be contingent. And that's when they're not being really sloppy, confusing cosmology for metaphysics and making simplistic category errors such as mistaking a quantum vaccuum for 'nothing.'

Similarly impotent are the physicalist accounts of consciousness, which Hart sees as an undeniably immaterial datum, and the most primordial one of them all, present to each of us in every moment and upon which all other realities that we perceive are dependent. Hart claims there is an infinite qualitative abyss between the neurochemical events which consciousness is dependent upon and consciousness as experienced, such that no number of purely quantitative mechanical steps could ever give rise to this peculiar and fortuitous subjective interiority, which each of us owes all our knowledge, experience, and awareness to. Hart writes:
Most attempts to provide an answer [to the question of consciousness] without straying beyond the boundaries of materialist orthodoxy are ultimately little more than vague appeals to the power of cumulative complexity: somehow, the argument goes, a sufficient number of neurological systems and subsystems operating in connection with one another will at some point naturally produce unified, self-reflective, and intentional consciousness, or at least (as strange as this may sound) the illusion of such consciousness. This is probably just another version of the pleonastic fallacy, another hopeless attempt to overcome a qualitative difference by way of an indeterminably large number of gradual quantitative steps. Even if it is not, it remains a supposition almost cruelly resistant to scientific investigation or demonstration, simply because consciousness as an actual phenomenon is entirely confined to the experience of a particular mind, a particular subject.
With this being the case, materialist accounts of consciousness reek of magical thinking. Even if we grant that one day neurobiology will exhaustively map every aspect of the brain, science will have not come a step closer to puncturing through the veil and entering into the content and interiority of the purely subjective conscious mind. One can only deny that such an immaterial, or supernatural, reality exists -- if one can at all -- by sacrificing reason itself on the alter of materialism in a self-immolating act. A high price to pay, indeed, if one is to prize 'reason' and 'empiricism' above all else, as so many scientistic materialists putatively do. 

Just as impossible to account for on materialistic terms is the innate human longing for the Good and the concomitant abhorrence of evil, which materialists must deny as being in any sense 'real' in favor of them being illusions in a deterministic universe (though few of them seem willing to fully come to terms with this logical inevitability). If you can't but do what you are bound by the laws of physics to do -- as you are no more than matter in motion -- no materialistic morality can ever amount to anything more than nonsense. As Hart puts it:
A naturalist morality is a manifest absurdity, something rather on the order of a square circle, and it requires almost heroic contortions of logic to make the notion seem credible. Fortunately, the human will to believe is indefatigable.
Attempts to ground morality in evolutionary incentives (once materialism has cleared the hurdle of being and consciousness, which it necessarily can not do) are ultimately tragically resistant to empirical verification, and must always remain just-so fables. This doesn't mean that it's completely false that certain evolutionarily advantageous 'moral' traits are preserved and passed along via natural selection acting on genetic material, but this hardly is an account of the actual nature of human morality as it exists. From a materialist perspective what would be called 'moral' can't be other than that which is evolutionarily advantageous, and our genetic so-called 'self-interest' (wherever it comes from, and whatever it is exactly), is tied to the interest of, for example, our tribe. Hence a degree of selflessness and cooperation (at least within the tribe, though usually not between tribes) is more likely to ensure the passing on of our genetic material. This hardly explains the origin of the moral impulse, however, rather only its transmission within the species. And even then, only to an incomplete degree, when we consider the many ways that the moral impulse far exceeds, and often contradicts, the dictates of evolutionary incentives. The evolutionary explanations of this phenomenon are quite clearly ludicrous attempts to force the data into a conceptual scheme which has no room for it. 

Central to Hart's argument is the claim that most of the contemporary debates surrounding God do not have as their subject the God of traditional theistic metaphysics, but rather some particularly potent cosmic demiurge, or watchmaker god, or an especially large and benevolent gentleman who is perhaps the first of a long series of causes, but not Being as such which gratuitously donates being to beings. Not the God who is utterly transcendent and fully imminent, filling all things, yet beyond all things. Not the fullness of actuality, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. etc. Once such a confusion is eliminated, and the content of the concept of God is understood as it has widely and traditionally understood by the venerable contemplative theistic traditions, most of the contemporary debates melt away into utter irrelevance.

Hart covers a great deal more than I've hinted at here: teleology and intentionality in consciousness as necessary elements of reality, and without which we can't begin to reason; the self-defeating and demonstrably false assertion of scientific empiricism having an exclusive claim to genuine knowledge; qualia as a datum inexplicable by naturalism; the materialist failure to dispel with free will; the manner in which being, consciousness, and bliss interrelate and are not only metaphysical explanations of God, but also phenomenological explanations of the human encounter with God; the absolute poverty of materialistic aesthetic accounts; mystical experience visa vis contemplative prayer and asceticism as the only 'empirical' means for investigating 'the God claim'. Just to name a few. 

Rising above the nature of the current debate on such issues -- both sides of which usually share covertly atheistic presuppositions -- Hart's lucid argumentation, acerbic wit, and stellar prose masterfully combine to produce one of the most stunning, potent, holistic, and engaging arguments for belief in God and against materialism that I've ever read.


P.S. In one of the blurb reviews advertising the book, Hart was said to have been advocating an 'ecumenical theism'. Happily, that's not exactly accurate. To an Orthodox -- or any religious particularist, really, but especially to Orthodox -- such language can sound like syncrenistic sloppiness, if not heresy. Hart makes clear in the introduction that in attempting to define 'God' as precisely as possible, and in accordance with the overlapping metaphysical wisdom of all the venerable theistic traditions, he isn't advocating a milquetoast relativism or against particularism, and certainly not denying the truth of the full revelation of God in Christ. Rather, he is only attempting to provide clarity to an essentially philosophical debate that is desperately in need of it. He is quick to note that, such philosophical knowledge about God, is not the same as union with God or knowledge of God, in accordance with Orthodox teaching.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Žižek, Tony Jones, and 'Christian Atheism'

A little over a week ago, Tony Jones hosted a piece that was meant to service as an introduction to Slavoj Žižek, particularly his 'Christian' or 'theological' thought. I took issue with the piece, primarily with the notion that it's acceptable for Christians to get their theology from atheists, or for atheists to do Christian theology in any legitimate sense. Such an idea is, of course, absurd. And this seemed to me like a fairly elementary and obvious point to make, eminently supported by scripture and orthodox Christian tradition. But I also know that one of the dogmas of this particular brand of progressive, postmodern, heretical Christianity is a kind of infinite openness to ideas and 'dialogue', regardless of the provenance of said ideas (blatantly ignoring scriptural warnings against such absolute openness i.e. Romans 12:2, 2 Cor. 6:14-18, Gal 5:1, 1 Tim. 4, 2 Tim. 2:16-17, 2 Tim 4:3-4, etc.). Wanting to disabuse anyone who might listen of such a dangerous openness in theology -- especially with regard to atheists, worldly speculators and conjecturalists -- I happily obliged when Tony offered to host a response by me.

To Tony's immense credit, and contrary to the actions of one of his brother's in arms, he published my response which he disagreed with, and in which I even take a pot-shot at him. This demonstrates a true openness to dialogue and opinions from all quarters, even the traditionalist-conservative quarter, and so consistency with his principles (although it also reveals a bit of a masochistic streak).

There was a fairly large dust-up in response to my piece (on Twitter, primarily), as many of Tony's readers -- quite understandably, given their vantage point -- took issue with the piece and with Tony's decision to run it. Tony replied here in defense of running the piece, and I agree with his defense.

However, while defending his running of the piece he also briefly noted why he disagrees with it. He writes:
The bottom line is that Nathan thinks that, while interesting, Christians should never look to Žižek for theological insight. In fact, he thinks that Christians should never take any theological insight from an atheist.
Well, I think that’s hogwash. (Nathan defends this as a teaching of the Orthodox Church, but I have not been able to substantiate that.) Theological insight comes from all sorts of places, atheists included. Indeed, if we’re reliant solely upon the church for theological truth, then two things are true: 1) God is bound exclusively to one human institution (a laughable idea), and 2) we’re pretty much screwed (because the church is so clearly fallible).
Before defending the idea that Christians ought not turn to atheists for theological insight, (it feels a bit odd typing that) let me first clarify a few things that I'm not saying. I'm not saying that God doesn't reveal himself in a general way through creation. I'm also not saying that God doesn't act in the lives of unbelievers at all. I'm also not saying that non-Christian philosophy is completely useless. None of this, however, means that atheists are capable of anything (truly) good apart from regeneration in the waters of baptism and a subsequent life in Christ, much less are they able to add or somehow contribute to the full revelation of God in Christ through their blasphemous speculations which deny Christ.

To the extent that worldly philosophy has value, it's that, in its venerable formulations, one can see what St. Justin Martyr -- writing in the 2nd century as a convert from Greek paganism -- referred to as the spermatikos logos. This is the seed of divinity in each human person which can be dimly apprehended through Greek philosophy, for example, which in turn acts as a preparation for the full revelation of God in Christ and his Church.

But this is only the case where Greek philosophy dimly apprehended the truth of divinity, not where it raged directly against it in utter folly (Psalm 14:1), or where it continued to do so even when confronted with Christ and his Church. And this is the crucial distinction. In the latter case, the Church (and the Bible) unequivocally rejects the notion that there can be any parity or fellowship between the Church which confesses Christ come in the flesh and risen from the dead, and those who deny it. Hear 1 John 4:3 :
And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist.
Žižek confesseth not. Game over.

Of course, one could multiply at will references to the New Testament's stark and undeniable dichotomy between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the 'god' of this world (2 Cor. 4:4) i.e. Satan. See: James 4:4, John 16:33, 1 John 2:17, Rev. 3:15-17, etc. And if 'the world' (in this sense) does not include the spirit of antichrist which denies Christ is God in the flesh, then there is no such thing as 'the world' in this sense, and the Bible is speaking nonsense. This seems a high price to pay in order to defend an illicit and wicked desire to marry truth with error, darkness with light. Speaking of which, we could also turn to the most clear and unequivocal scriptural rebuke of Jones and co.'s modus operandi in 2 Cor. 6:14-18.

As for whether my position is that of the Orthodox Church, I would want to tread carefully in claiming to speak for the Church. Though I would say that, in the Church's vindication of the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century over the heresy of Barlaam, the purity of heart obtained through the healing graces of the Church was defended as essential for genuine theology. The impotence of philosophy to lead to true illumination was also confirmed by the Church, in the course of this controversy. Which would all be relevant here, both as a rebuke of Žižek and his 'Christian' defenders.

One could go on to note that the actual content of Žižek's 'theological' speculations (if he truly held to them), and not just the method used to arrive at them, are formally rejected heresies. One of the earliest and most significant heresies in Church history, propagated in the 4th century by the bishop Arius, was that Christ was divine, yes, but a created and subsidiary divinity, and not consubstantial with the Father. At Nicaea, his view was anathematized by the Church as incompatible with the apostolic deposit of faith, at which point it became impossible for Arian speculation to count as true Christian theology. If Arius confessed Christ's divinity (albeit as a created demigod), and was and is anathema, as are any who follow him, how much more of those who deny that God even exists?

Granted, with this last move I've made an argument that appeals to a particular biblical, apostolic, orthodox ecclesiology. And therefore I might be talking past those who hold to the anti-ecclesiology of protestantism, especially in its progressive-postmodern-evangelical variant. C'est la vie. One can only hope they turn from this error as swiftly as they ought to turn and flee from the error of mixing God's truth with a lie.

Monday, August 12, 2013

On Behalf of All

I've happily accepted an invitation to be a contributor to the top-notch Orthodox blog On Behalf of All. My first contribution is a response to Timothy George at First Things on the question of 'Is Jesus a Baptist?' Check it out. Also be sure to bookmark, add to your reading feed, follow on Twitter (@OnBehalfOfAll) or Facebook, or otherwise keep track of On Behalf of All!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Top 10 Things Protestants Should Know About Orthodoxy

A trad Roman Catholic follower of mine on Twitter asked me to compose my own version of this list of 10 things Protestants should know about Orthodoxy, since I had commented that my own list would be quite different. While Dunn's list is pithy and lighthearted, mine is somewhat more self-serious. I'm sure there are similar lists out there written by more knowledgeable people, and these points will be quick glosses of subjects which could be expounded upon in great length, but here is my list.

1)  Tradition.

Holy Tradition is how the faith is passed on. The Bible is not the sole criterion of the faith, rather it is one aspect -- though an especially glorious, radiant, central, and exalted aspect -- of Holy Tradition. The Church, the Body of Christ, is a living organism and her faith is a living faith. The Holy Spirit is not only operative and authoritative within the Church when the Apostles were putting pen to papyrus, but also when they taught by their word (2 Thess. 2:15), when they convened councils to make decisions on controversial matters in the Church (Acts 15), when they are passing on their authority to others (1 Tim. 4:14; Acts 6:2-6), and when they decided on the canon of Scripture. The New Testament is the written expression of apostolic tradition, and as such is authoritative as an extension of the authority of the Church which Christ established (Matt. 16:18-19). But this authority can never be divorced from the Church, and the Bible is true and authoritative to the extent that the Church wrote, canonized, interprets, and teaches it. These functions are integrally related, which is why you can't take one of them (the canon, for example), and divorce it from its source and life, which is the Church.

Because the following is true, Ecumenical councils and their canons are received as authoritative and binding on the whole Church (though their application is left to the Bishops). This is also why the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is the definitive statement of Faith of the Orthodox Church, being the product of the First and Second Ecumenical Councils.

2) Salvation.

Salvation is not a juridical imputation of Christ's righteousness which transpires the moment one first 'believes'. Certainly Christ's incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension are our salvation, and it is only by Christ's gracious acts in history that salvation is possible. Without Christ we would be dead in our sins and without hope. And it is through faith that we receive His grace, but faith is not mere intellectual assent, it's also faithfulness; living in accordance with that faith in the Church. Individuals can truly respond to the free gift of salvation that Christ offers, or reject it. Responding means an ongoing process of being saved, and being saved means union with Christ in his Church through the sacraments and by the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Church calls this process theosis. We are called to become "partakers of the divine nature", in the words of St. Peter. With this being the case, there is no 'assurance of salvation', and instead we are called to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12).

3) Sacramentality.

The Orthodox Church is highly sacramental. The sacraments of the Church are the mysteries of Christ through which his grace is made incarnate in the Church by the Holy Spirit. The grace of Christ is offered freely to all through his Church, and the sacraments are the means by which it comes to us. In Baptism, the priest calls the Holy Spirit down onto the waters and we mystically join in Christ's death and resurrection, putting off the old man, being grafted into the Body of Christ, and thereby being made into new creatures. The change that is effected is not merely an outward sign of an inward change of heart, but it is in the waters of the font that an actual, real ontological change is affected. This is why it's necessary that we are baptized (John 3:5), and it's true that baptism actually removes our sins (Acts 2:38). The Eucharist is the body and blood of our Lord (Matt. 26:26-28; John 6; 1 Cor. 11:27-29), given for the healing of soul and body and the binding together and sustaining of the Church. The Orthodox Church recognizes 7 'official' sacraments (Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion, Holy Orders, Confession, Marriage, Holy Unction),  though it doesn't teach that sacramentality is confined to these things.

4) Ecclesiology.

The Orthodox Church is the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church" referred to in the Nicene creed. It is the Church that Christ founded. The authority that Christ gave to the Apostles is passed down by apostolic succession within the Church -- that is by the laying on of hands to the successors of the Apostles, the Bishops. The Orthodox Church has uniquely and exclusively maintained apostolic succession and fidelity to the faith as handed down by Christ and the apostles, without addition or subtraction. Orthodoxy rejects the innovative 'branch theory' of ecclesiology which holds that the Church is invisible. In the first millenia of the Church, there were no 'denominations': there was the Church and schismatic sects who willfully departed from the Church. St. Paul writes that there "must be heresies among you" so that the truth can manifest itself (1 Cor. 11:19). And so it is today. The Orthodox Church also rejects Roman ecclesiology (as it developed and came to a head in the 11th century) which holds that the pope is the head of the Church, with a special claim to authority over the other bishops. The head of the Church is Christ and all the bishops share equally in the apostolic inheritance, despite the bishop of Rome's exalted place of honor in the early church.

5) Anti-innovation.

The Orthodox Church teaches that the faith was delivered "once for all to the Saints" (Jude 1:3) and that "Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday, and forever" (Heb 13:8). As such, Orthodoxy rejects in principle innovations in doctrine, praxis, or worship as deviations from Holy Tradition. If it's new, it can't be true. Various small-t traditions -- some good, some neutral, some bad -- obviously exist within every local church and differ from culture to culture and age to age. It's important to distinguish these variable traditions of men which exist in the church from infallible Holy Tradition, the Tradition of God. Guidance for such discernment is provided by the teachings of the Church.

6) Authority.

Bishops are the recipients of the fullness of Apostolic authority. They are the locus of authority in the Church, and a priest's authority is derivative of that of the bishop. Not everyone who hears the Gospel preached and responds positively thereby becomes an authority on the things of Christ and the Church. We don't see this in the New Testament. This is uniquely the ministry of the priesthood. Just as Christ chose twelve to be his disciples, so his chosen and set-apart disciples choose and ordain those who are to receive the apostolic ministry of the priesthood. However, this authority is also subject to what is called 'conciliarity', meaning lay people have a role in receiving decisions of bishops as in accordance with the rule of faith. The 'amen' of the people is a necessary element, as this prevents rogue councils of bishops from legitimizing heresy, for example.

Because the Church possesses the mysteries of Christ by the Holy Spirit, and its teachings are therefore authoritative, the proper disposition of any member of the Church -- lay person, deacon, monastic, or bishop -- is one of humble obedience. If the Church teaches something that you don't agree with, then it's incumbent upon you to acknowledge that you are wrong, give up your personal opinion and submit to the authority of the Church.

7) Asceticism

Asceticism -- persistent repentance, prayer, fasting, labor (physical and spiritual), self-denial and obedience etc. -- is the authentic mode of Christian spiritual life, and not something that is "just for monastics" or -- a much worse slander -- not Christian at all. It is the means by which we enter into the life of Christ and partake of his suffering, taking up our cross daily and denying ourselves. We're called to not only thankfully receive suffering and hardship as it comes to us as a means for our own growth and upbuilding (though we are so called), but also to willfully search out and walk the path of the cross, which is the path of Christ. The pitfalls along this path -- such as empty outward performance without true inward contrition and humility, or haughty self-righteousness -- are perilous indeed, but it is in walking this path that we are forced to confront such temptations and, by God's grace and our own struggle, overcome them to our own sanctification and the benefit of all we come in contact with.

Those who are able to devote themselves most fully to a Christian life of asceticism are the monastics, who have a special place in the life of the Church. They devote themselves to prayer for the world, to living a life of obedience and self-abjection for Christ's sake, and it is from their ranks that many of our bishops come from. Monasteries also have an important relationship in maintaining standards for the whole church, which laity look to for inspiration, edification, and example.

8) Liturgy.

The worship of the Orthodox Church is liturgical. As with matters of doctrine and morality, how we worship is extremely important and is authoritatively passed down within the Church. Indeed, it is in the services of the Church that theology is actually done. Lex credendi lex orandi. The hymnography, prayers, iconography, liturgical calendar, and architecture of the church all work together to express the truths of -- and draw us into the life of -- the Holy Trinity. The form of worship is closely and intimately bound up with the 'content' of it, and loosing standards on the form inevitably affects content. Examining those traditions where worship is not done in accordance with Church tradition always reveals a corresponding 'loosing' of standards elsewhere -- doctrinally and morally, for example. But such practical concerns are not the main reason for liturgical worship, rather it's because liturgical worship is of apostolic provenance, and the Church is One -- the Saints (and the angels) in heaven worship with us in one accord, and we worship with them. And so we worship how the Saints worshiped when they were alive on earth.

9) Veneration vs. Worship.

In the Orthodox Church we venerate. We venerate the cross, the Holy Icons, the Holy Gospel, the relics of Saints and other things. Veneration (ghoulia in Greek) is not worship (latreia in Greek), which is reserved for God alone. We venerate Holy items because, as St. John of Damascus says, "I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation!"

10) The Theotokos and All the Saints.

The Theotokos -- Mary the Ever-Blessed, Most Pure, and Mother of Our God -- has an exalted place in the Orthodox Church. She is the first of all the Saints, and we ask for her Holy intercessions more frequently than any other Saint, and also venerate her in accordance with scripture (Luke 1:48). This is because God found her worthy to be His Mother, and she submitted to His will. Her powerful intercessions are evident in the Gospels as it is through them that Christ performs His first miracle. He tells her it's not the time to do his first miracle, yet when his mother effectively insists, He goes on to perform it anyway (John 2:1-10). If Christ honors His Mother -- and even obeys her! -- shouldn't we do the same? And shouldn't we desire her miraculous intercessions on our behalf? We pray to the Theotokos and the Saints because God is the God of the living not the dead (Matt. 22:32; Mark 12:27), and the Saints are alive in Christ. With this being the case, we turn to them for prayer first and foremost because "prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16).

The Saints also edify us through their lives and their writings, by being examples of how to live a Christian life, and a testimony to the authentic reality of the experience of God in the Church. Because the Church isn't a fossilized object waiting to be exhumed, but is a living organism, new Saints are always being made and nourishing the Church with the wisdom of the Holy Fathers. But whether it's a living Saint or a Saint in heaven who we come into contact with through the Tradition of the Church, we should look to them as examples and submit to the wisdom of those who have beheld the true light of Christ.


For a trad Roman Catholic, much of this will be familiar. My list of 10 things Catholics should know about Orthodoxy would be somewhat different, on the Orthodox view of issues like the filioque, the papacy, liturgical theology, modernism, divine essence and energies as opposed to 'created grace', etc. But, being that I come from a Protestant background and not a Roman Catholic one, those are things I'm also much less equipped to comment on in an illuminating manner.

Much more could be said on each of the above points, so please forgive any imprecision or mistakes. If anything in the above list is wrong, which is entirely possible, please correct me.

Friday, June 21, 2013

St. Herman of Alaska & The Science of Sciences

In the life of St. Herman titled Herman: A Wilderness Saint, the following remarkable letter is referenced and, after coming across it, I felt compelled to share it. It was written in 1819 by Simeon Ivanovich Ianaovskii some time after he had become the main ruler of the Russian colonies in America (e.g. Alaska), where St. Herman was the head of the spiritual mission. The letter cites a malady all too common in the modern world -- certainly not unique to early 19th century Russia -- and its cure. Enjoy:
   I was thirty years old when I met Father Herman. It should be mentioned that I trained at a naval college. I knew much science and had read widely but, unfortunately, the science of sciences -- that is, the Law of God -- I hardly understood even superficially and what I did know was theoretical, not applied to life. I was a Christian only in name, while in my soul and in action, I was a free-thinker and a deist. In this I was like almost everyone who has been trained in colleges and official institutions...
    What is more, I did not acknowledge the divine nature and sanctity of our religion; I had read many of the godless essays of Voltaire and other philosophers of the eighteenth century.
    Father Herman immediately noticed this and wanted to convert me. It was not easy! I had to be convinced, to be shown the holiness of our faith; this is why it required time, knowledge, and the ability to speak well and convincingly.
    To my great surprise, this simple uneducated monk, Father Herman, inspired by grace, spoke so forcefully, so wisely, and argued so convincingly that it seemed to me no erudition or earthly wisdom could hold out against his words! Father Herman truly had a great mind, sound thought, and had read many spiritual books; most importantly, he had the grace of God!
    We spoke unceasingly: about love, about God, about eternity, about the salvation of the soul, about the Christian life, and other things. An unceasing flood of sweet conversation flowed from his mouth!
    Through such constant talks and by the prayers of the holy elder, the Lord converted me wholly to the path of truth, and I became a true Christian. For all of this, I am obliged to Father Herman; he is my true benefactor. 
O Blessed Father Herman of Alaska, together with all the Saints and the Heavenly Hosts, pray to God that on each of us He will bestow wisdom for our mind, strength for our will, light for our spirit, enabling us to attain to the true peace of life which is from God alone. Amen.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Christ and Nihil

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." - Matt. 6:24

"Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." - James 4:4

"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou were cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth." - Rev. 3:15-16

When it comes to God and his Kingdom, there is no halfway allegiance. There is allegiance and defiance; fidelity and apostasy; communion and exile. The verses above are just a small sampling of a consistent theme that runs throughout the New Testament: the Incarnation of the Word of God inaugurates the Kingdom of God on Earth, and this Kingdom stands victorious over and against the kingdom of the "god of this world" (2 Cor. 4:4), i.e. Satan.

Because God alone -- and participation in His life, the life of the Holy Trinity -- constitutes true being, rejection of this life in favor of kingdom of this world that is passing away, constitutes a turning inward to the Self and self-will, and therefore toward nothingness and non-being. Toward the nihil.

In his short text Nihilism -- which was to be but one chapter in his unfinished magnum opus THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND THE KINGDOM OF MAN -- Fr. Seraphim Rose seizes on this fundamental truth and uses it as a matrix for analyzing the condition of the modern world. If rejection of Christ is ultimately a single phenomena, then that phenomena lies behind, underneath, and within every species of unbelief and idolatry. There should be a discernible continuity that unites all who stand opposed to God, whether they know it or not and despite any apparent differences.

If this is true, then the same force that gives life to Liberalism, Humanism, Scientism, Realism, New-Age spiritualisms, and compromised and worldly Christianities is the same force that gave us Nazism and Bolshevism. The differences between these various phenomena must be a quantitative rather than qualitative one; a difference of degree rather than of kind. And Fr. Serpahim traces the contours of this modern dialectic with acute precision.

While Fr. Seraphim keenly analyzes the specific instances of the various manifestations of nihilism in the modern world -- in areas of philosophy, politics, religion, and art -- the basic argument is echoed with characteristic verve and brilliance by David Bentley Hart in his magnificent essay Christ and Nothing, which concludes this way:
But we Christians — while not ignoring how appalling such a condition is — should yet rejoice that modernity offers no religious comforts to those who would seek them. In this time of waiting, in this age marked only by the absence of faith in Christ, it is well that the modern soul should lack repose, piety, peace, or nobility, and should find the world outside the Church barren of spiritual rapture or mystery, and should discover no beautiful or terrible or merciful gods upon which to cast itself. With Christ came judgment into the world, a light of discrimination from which there is neither retreat nor sanctuary. And this means that, as a quite concrete historical condition, the only choice that remains for the children of post-Christian culture is not whom to serve, but whether to serve Him whom Christ has revealed or to serve nothing — the nothing. No third way lies open for us now, because — as all of us now know, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not — all things have been made subject to Him, all the thrones and dominions of the high places have been put beneath His feet, until the very end of the world, and — simply said — there is no other god.
Let us then cast ourselves upon the only God Who Is, Christ our true God, and pray that He would have mercy upon us.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

California Pilgrimage

An Orthodox friend of mine recently invited me to join him and some parishioners from his previous parish on a pilgrimage to St. John monastery in Manton, St. Herman monastery in Platina (resting place of Blessed Seraphim Rose), and finally to Holy Virgin cathedral in San Francisco (resting place of St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco). All of my fellow pilgrims had been to other monasteries and on other pilgrimages, while this would be my first time doing either.

Fr. Innocent prepping for Matins

Last week we departed for Manton and were greeted by the guileless and pleasant superior of the monastery, Fr. Innocent. After we met some of the other monks and settled in, we attended vespers. The next day we went to liturgy at 6 AM, and afterward had breakfast with the monks who ate in silence as one of them reads from the lives of the saints, as is customary. Later we pilgrims helped with some of the monks obediences as they fixed fences, retrieved honey from beehives, and made candles in the workshop (unfortunately I was busy during this time and didn't get any pictures).
Frescoes in the lower church at St. Herman.

The solitude and beauty of the monastery along with the simple, humble lifestyle of the monks was quite a change of pace from our normal hectic lives, and a welcome one at that. It's conducive to prayer, spiritual reading, and directing of one's attention toward God and heavenly things. It also gives one a different vision on the way that life can (and should) be lived and experienced.

Our next stop was St. Herman of Alaska monastery in Platina, which was founded by Fr. Herman and Fr. Seraphim Rose, with the blessing of St. John. St. Herman monastery is on a peacefully secluded piece of land, and the monastery is quite rustic, without any electricity or hot water. Fr. Seraphim and Fr. Herman wanted to live the fully Christian monastic life, in the tradition of the early Orthodox desert monastics, completely forsaking the comforts of the world for Christ's (and their soul's) sake.

Fr. Nicodemus showing us Fr. Seraphim Rose's kellie
It was a joy to experience the beautiful services at Platina in the magnificent Church building -- even when they began at 4:30 in the A.M.  When we weren't attending services we took a tour of the grounds with the delightful Fr. Nicodemus as our tour guide, explored (and patronized) the bookstore -- stocked with the writings of Fr. Seraphim and other material that the monks of St. Herman publish themselves, such as Fr Josiah's (my own priest's) newly published book -- or venerated and prayed at Fr. Seraphim's grave.

Abbot Damascene was eminently hospitable and gracious as were all the monks, showing themselves to have hearts of humility and service. 

While the treasures of the monastery could continue to be expounded upon, let us turn to our final destination: San Francisco. 

When we arrived in San Francisco we first went to the orphanage that St. John started, which is now a parish. As a very welcome and pleasant surprise, Archimandrite Irenei -- an incredible Orthodox scholar whom I had met at my home parish of St. Andrew once -- was serving at the orphanage (which is now a parish) and gave us a tour of St. John's living quarters, while telling the history of St. John and the orphanage. We took turns sitting in the chair that St. John would sleep in (he never slept in a bed). A chair which has, since his repose, imparted miraculous grace to some sick and injured people. Fr. Irenei went on to serve vespers in the chapel inside the orphanage, which was beautiful and mostly in Russian.

The next day we went to the spectacular Holy Virgin cathedral, where the incorrupt relics of St. John reside. After venerating the relics of St. John and placing a letter containing petitions for intercession under his casket -- it's said that he reads them all -- a hierarchal liturgy took place, presided over by his Eminence Archbishop Kyrill, which was as stunningly gorgeous as the iconography on the walls.

Afterwards we talked with one of the chanters who served during liturgy, a 16 year-old Romanian son of a priest, and he told a remarkable story of how St. John healed his grandmother. She had acquired muscular dystrophy, which had made it difficult for her to get around and caused her to fall down often. This caused grief for the entire family. One night she said the Akathist to St. John before falling into a sweet sleep. While sleeping, she dreamed that St. John came to her with a censor and censed her body. When she woke up she ran around the house and was healed! The family returns to the cathedral once a year to show their gratitude to St. John for his powerful intercession. This is just one of countless such stories that testify to St. John's wonderworking ministry.

Oh Holy Saint of God, St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco, intercede with Christ on our behalf!


Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Elusive Outsider Vantage

How can we know which religion (if any) is true? Are there any objective tests we can devise to help answer the question? Do we need anything other than the standard tools and methods of inquiry that we use to assess any other sort of truth claim? John Loftus thinks such a test is possible and necessary, and he proposes that the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) is the best test available.

His central argument in the book goes something like this:

(1) the fact of vast global religious diversity.
(2) the fact of cultural, historical, and geographical dependence of religious belief.
(3) the mutually exclusive nature of many, or most, faiths.


(4) there's a low probability that whatever your largely culturally determined faith happens to be is the correct one and
(5) a disposition of informed skepticism toward one's faith – the same sort of skepticism members of faiths typically have toward other faiths – should be adopted in order to best determine which, if any, faith is the true faith.

The actual test itself is not terribly controversial, it seems to me. Most believers who were raised in a particular religious tradition, as they grow older and are exposed to a wide world of conflicting opinions and claims, begin to question what they were taught, and go on to apply skeptical scrutiny to those beliefs and teachings to the best of their ability. Most are forced to face, to some degree, these facts and apply this test at some point, whether they realize they're doing so or not. And for those who don't, they should.

However, even this brand of natural skepticism is not enough for Loftus as he demands the skepticism be of a narrowly circumscribed, scientific bent. He does so, he claims, because science has proven a tool of unparalleled success and fecundity at establishing truths about the physical operations of the universe. But why ought we assume science is the appropriate tool for assessing a question that fundamentally is not a scientific one, namely which religion is the true religion? The tools of science can conceivably aid us in assessing specific claims of supernatural activity in the present-day, and so can, in some manner, contribute to the discussion. But it's a tool that's hardly all-sufficient for the task.

Further, he introduces a false dichotomy when he appeals to the problem of mutual-exclusivity. Namely: either you are a sectarian exclusivist (for whom the problem applies in full), or a syncrenistic liberal who alleviates the difficulty but only by defining God down to some milquetoast non-entity. But he neglects the fact that religions have ways to solve this problem without succumbing to this dichotomy. As an Orthodox Christian, for example, I believe my faith exclusively represents the fullness of the apostolic faith as bequeathed to us by Jesus Christ, but also believe that all other genuine religions possess various degrees of that truth. Roman Catholics possess a greater degree of it than Buddhists, and Buddhists more than atheists, but there is a continuum of truth. This schema – and I'm sure other religions address the problem in a similar way – obviates the problem of mutual-exclusivity and so reduces the need to adopt a stance of severe skepticism. He would no doubt object that these alternative schemes do nothing, in and of themselves, to help answer the question of which is the true faith given his preferred set of data. To which the answer, of course, is: so what? 

Another question that arises is why the facts of religious diversity, dependence, and mutual-exclusivity should be the starting point for inquiry as to which religion is true? If we accept that they ought to be, then Loftus' recommendation to adopt a mode of severe skepticism mostly (with some qualifications) follows. But in order for this to be one's starting point of inquiry, one must attempt to strip away everything else that he knows to be true in the arena of religion. If, for example, you have solid evidence that that none of the antique polytheistic gods or god-schemes are true, and you further have strong metaphysical arguments both for the existence of God and that God must be One (to take just a couple of things you could conceivably know), then you can rationally narrow the range of contenders for the one true religion considerably. This is an alternative beginning point of inquiry, in which case the probability that one of that remaining small pool of potential gods is the true God is substantially larger than it would otherwise be, and severe skepticism would not be warranted. Loftus demands we bracket out this sort of knowledge and begin with only the facts of religious diversity, dependence, and mutual-exclusivity, but why? Loftus insists that we attempt a Descartes-esque feat of discarding all our beliefs and knowledge in favor of a couple of his pet data points. But why? He doesn't make a case for this preference – for these particular facts over and against the vast array of other facts available to us – other than that they happen to better serve his agenda.

The answer to the question of "why the OTF?" he gives later in the book, and it's that "what we've been doing isn't working." By which he means people aren't becoming atheists, or aren't consolidating their view of God, or aren't all converting to the one true religion (whatever it may be) at a fast enough pace for his taste. Which, of course,  begs the question. Why would we expect to see any of these things happen if a particular faith was true? Why does their failing to happen constitute "not working"? According to what standard?

And even if we wanted to begin with Loftus' preferred set of data, is it even possible for an insider to apply the test? Late in the book Loftus reveals his hand: "Faith is not something Christians can have while seeking to examine the religion that was given to them, since that is not how they approach any of the other religions they reject." In other words, you must first become an atheist (since a Christian without faith is an oxymoron) before you can truly examine the truth of your own or other religions. You must actually become an outsider first, not merely do your best to examine the evidence as if you were one. But this is clearly absurd, for whatever epistemological ground one currently occupies, one is an insider to it. There's no escaping except to some other insider position.

Loftus has an unfortunate penchant for repetition and one of his most oft-repeated assertions is that "Possibility doesn't matter, probabilities do." After the 30th time (literally) he had declared this, or some close variation, I gave up counting. In any case, his point is that absolute certainty does not exist, and the scientific mindset only deals with probabilities. Things that are highly likely to be true and things that are highly likely to be untrue are where the most certain knowledge we can attain (about the physical world) is. Again, not terribly controversial, so I'm not sure why the incessant repetition. The cynic in me suspects some sort of insecurity, but I digress.

Loftus' blind spot, with regard to his probability point, is that, while low probability that a particular faith is true logically follows from his premises – given his arbitrarily selected set of data – this low probability applies to all opinions about the religious question, including the stance that all religions are likely to be false -- his stance. Given the diversity of opinions about religion, their cultural dependence, and mutual exclusivity (and only those facts) the likelihood that any opinion on the matter is correct is very low, including his own. He might then appeal to other facts and knowledge in order to justify his not adopting a stance of extreme skepticism toward his own view, but religious people can do the same thing. So he hasn't advanced the ball a step.

In the book he quotes Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga making a similar point: 

[T]here is no safe haven here, no way to avoid risk. In particular, you won’t reach safe haven by trying to take the same attitude towards all the historically available patterns of belief and withholding: for in so doing you adopt a particular pattern of belief and withholding, one incompatible with some adopted by others. You pays your money and you takes your choice, realizing that you, like anyone else, can be desperately wrong. But what else can you do? You don’t really have an alternative.

Precisely. It's this critique and some closely related objections that Loftus spends most of the second half of the book attempting to ameliorate the effects of, but without any success. In response to Plantinga, without so much as a hint of self-awareness, he avers that "Plantinga fails to understand the huge difference between assenting to a belief and doubting it or denying it. There is no epistemic parity at all between accepting a belief and doubting (or rejecting) it. Doubting (or rejecting) a belief is easy. We all do it all the time. The hard part is to set forth a positive case on behalf of any one particular truth out of the choices available." But Plantinga is obviously making the point that rejecting one belief – especially the particular species of belief that belief in God is – logically entails holding another belief (if not a whole array of other beliefs). In this case, rejecting belief in any religion entails the belief that all religions are very likely false. There exists no neutral epistemological vantage to occupy.
Numerous times throughout the book Loftus accuses believers (usually falsely) of special pleading on behalf of their religion. But in response to these sorts of critiques he special pleads on behalf of atheism or skepticism constantly. When speaking about the cultural dependence of religious belief he cites statistical global maps of religion that show high concentrations of religions by geographic area (as if this could alarm or surprise any informed believer). When responding to the objection that atheism is similarly geographically situated – heavily in places like Sweden and Denmark for example – Loftus gets to the special pleading. He does so by citing wide agreement between scientists on scientific matters, regardless of where they're from. But this would be akin to a Roman Catholic citing broad agreement on many central matters of faith, regardless of where the Catholic lives. It doesn't actually address the critique but moves the goal posts, and equivocates between atheism and science. The mechanical philosophy of the Enlightenment is not a neutral, necessary outcome of science and reason, rather it's just as much a culturally and historically contingent source of belief as being born into a Christian home in the 21st century. And, if you live in much of modern Europe, it's at least as big a culturally determining factor of your beliefs about religion as Christianity is.
Loftus responds to one of his interlocutors on a similar point by declaring that "If he thinks for one moment that, as an outsider, I must take an outsider stance to an informed skepticism based in science and reason, then he needs to show why the science I base my argument on is faulty." Must Loftus first exhaustively demonstrate why each believer's particular faith, or epistemology, is faulty before suggesting they submit to the OTF? Not according to him. He claims the facts of diversity, dependence, and mutual-exclusivity makes this incumbent on any rational believer, irrespective of whatever defenses they may have for their particular faith. Yet these same facts do not make the same thing incumbent on him: one must first knock down his position, then demand he take a stance of skepticism towards it, while the believer must avail himself of no defense before adopting the same stance. Again, he’s special pleading.
Another critical problem with this text is the explicit faith-reason false dichotomy that runs throughout, and comes to a head in the final section. He conceives of faith and reason as diametrically opposed and competing epistemologies. This is fine when preaching to the choir of atheists who share this understanding of ‘faith’, and while remaining incurious about what faith actually is in its essence. But since the stated purpose of the book is to propose a test for believers to apply to their religion and determine whether it's likely true, it would be of more significance if he examined what ‘faith’ has been considered to be throughout history, and across cultures, or at least what current believers – his main audience – understand it to be, and what its relationship to reason is. If he did so, he would see that he's attacking a straw man.
He would further have to acknowledge that, on this proper understanding of faith, it isn't optional. Every act of reason always-already entails an act of faith. When some of his interlocutors (mostly Christians who tenaciously comment on his blog, apparently) point out that there are many things we do not know by way of scientific or rational inquiry, such as that there is a material world, that we aren't currently in a virtual reality, that our senses are reliable etc. rather we must accept these things on faith, he replies:
Christians retort that I have faith in reason, in skepticism, in science, in my senses, and in the evidence, but what can they possibly mean? Could trusting them be conceivably wrong at times? Yes, of course. We even know this. But there simply is no alternative but to trust them.
Well, yes. Quite. That's precisely the point. Faith isn't optional.

He further objects to these sorts of objections by, once again, reiterating that we must go on probability, and the probability is extremely unlikely that, for example, the material world doesn't exist. But what tests can be devised to assess the probability that we do not currently reside in a virtual reality? Or that you didn't pop into existence 5 minutes ago with all of your memories intact? By the very nature of these sorts of problems, the probabilities can't even be assessed at all and so appealing to probability is a nonsensical move. He's right, of course, that we can do nothing but proceed as if our senses can be trusted and as if the material world exists. But to claim that this doesn't constitute a faith commitment requires justification, and he gives none.
Loftus attempts to make hay out of the fact that believers will use science and reason when objecting to the truth claims of other religions, but not their own. Yet he doesn’t demonstrate that science and reason contradict the claims of the Christian faith (his admitted chief target), so we’re left to take his word for it that they do. If these inputs don’t unequivocally disprove the Christian faith or make it very unlikely to be true (and they don’t), then there’s no reason to suspect that believers aren’t critically availing themselves of the tools of science and reason in examining the question of religion. Begging the question, Loftus assumes an answer to the very matter of contention without any justification.
It all gets a bit tedious after a while – the hectoring tone, the argument-by-assertion, the repetition, the special pleading and question-begging, the myopia. And quickly. Despite the book's massive flaws, the central contention – that it's a profitable endeavor to subject our culturally inherited beliefs and biases to critical scrutiny, availing ourselves of the tools of science and reason – is certainly true, and not particularly controversial. The OTF itself can be salvaged from the wreckage of the book if you broaden it to include all manner of beliefs, rather than only explicitly religious ones, and extricate the author's unsubstantiated foregone conclusions which permeate the text. But really, what's the point? In a culture as modern, pluralistic, and secular as our own, this amounts to preaching to the choir. Even if the sermon did happen to echo beyond the pulpit, reaching the apostate faithful out on the street corners and miraculously leading to some of their conversions, they still won't have become outsiders. They'll have done the only thing that's possible: traded one insider vantage for another.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Adaptation & Blue Like Jazz

Blue Like Jazz provides a compelling case study on the process of book-to-film adaptation, as it reveals how the conversion between mediums can result, not only in losing something in translation, but in positively inverting the meaning of a text. In the book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller unequivocally depicts the quasi-autobiographical character Don's experiences at a secular university -- having been raised Baptist -- as a process of maturation, of being exposed to a wider world of intellectual openness and breadth, of fruitful experiences with new types of people who influence him for the better, of growing in wisdom, of coming to view his religious roots as narrow-minded and hypocritical. Because we are privy to Don's inner monologue in the book, this understanding of his journey is forcefully impressed on the reader and unmistakable. One may have suspicions (as I did) that what's really going on -- as it does for so many new college students -- is the character is succumbing to the seduction of sinful worldliness, and nothing more. The text of the book is ambiguous enough to allow that this is perhaps some minor aspect of what is occuring, but it also makes abundantly clear that ultimately what is transpiring in Don's life is good.

The translation to film is fascinating because, without Don's inner monologue constantly available, it not only becomes possible to read Don's journey as a straightforward discarding of one's faith in favor of seductive worldliness, but it positively screams to be read in this fashion. There aren't any narrative clues that anything else is happening at all, save perhaps the final 'redemptive' moments that themselves contain decidedly mixed sentiments. The film could practically be used as a Scared Straight propaganda video, showing Christian parents the soul-corrupting dangers of secular University life in modern America. While the book emphatically rejects this narrative and depicts his journey as a process of enrichening, enlightening spiritual and personal growth.

The character of Penney in the film supplies the only counter to Don's descent into effective unbelief. Her faith fuels her political activism and world-saving pretensions, without her having to always, you know, talk about Jesus and be all religiousy. Don clearly admires Penney and sees her brand of faith as more genuine and mature, but if she were an unbelieving, secular do-gooder it's hard to see what -- if anything -- would be lost about his admiration. She says she read the Bible in an ancient literature class and fell in love with Jesus, exactly as if he were some inspiring literary character and nothing more.

The final moments do acknowledge Don's grief at his having been ashamed of Christ, but this is consistent with interpreting his college experience as utterly negative and corrupting up to that point. Again, the precise opposite of what the book portrays.

This disconnect between book and film makes me curious whether this was an intentional move. It probably makes the film more pallettable for a young evagelical audience (the only crowd they could even hope to be appealing to), but it seems to radically compromise on the message of the book to such a degree that one wouldn't think Miller would be OK with it. Yet he wrote the script and was intimately involved with making the film. The only other possibility is that it was unintentional, in which case I would hypothesize it's attributable to an over-familiarity with the source material to the point where the filmmakers assume the audience has (much) more information than they've actually been given. Either way, it's a potent testament to the precarious nature of film adaptation.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Rublev Trinity Icon

I'm going to put in a short, good word on behalf of the excellent book by Heiromonk Gabriel Bunge, The Rublev Trinity. In the book, Bunge traces the historical development of the iconographical tradition of Genesis 18, or the Hospitality of Abraham, beginning in the 4th century and culminating in the 14th century with the Russian monk Andrei Rublev's famous icon. Due to the iconoclasm of the 7th and 8th centuries, the extant icons from the first millennium are very limited in number, but they still provide a sense of the various contours of the tradition.

Broadly speaking, the tradition goes from angelological to christological to trinitarian. The visitors are originally portrayed as simply three angels who visit Abraham; as the tradition develops, the central angel begins to be distinguished as a type of Christ; and finally the tradition comes to full fruition by reading the episode as a typographical appearance of the Holy Trinity. 

To refresh your memory, in Genesis 18 Abraham and Sarah are visited by three men, one of whom is called "Lord" by Abraham, and who Abraham and Sarah show hospitality by preparing a meal -- bread and a calf -- for. The Lord goes on to tell Sarah that she will bear a child in her old age, and then reveals to Abraham the coming fate of Sodom of Gomorrah. 

Some of the earliest frescoes show the three visitors as angels and as essentially identical, or as slightly different but not in any manner distinguishing one as more significant than the other two. 

By the 5th century, certain distinctly christological elements begin to arise. A mosaic from San Vitale, Ravenna (pictured above), placed in the sanctuary of the Church, reveals  that the scene is being understood as an Old Testament type of the Eucharist. This is due both to the elements of the icon itself (the calf in the dish, as a type of Christ, the Lamb that was slain "from before the foundation of the world."), as well as its placement within the Church space: in the alter area (where the Holy Gifts are prepared)  and adjacent to depictions of the sacrifices of Abel and Melchisdec. This is significant because, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, "Christ is both simultaneously the sacrifice and the priest: prefigured in Abel (cf. Heb 12:24), Melchisdec (Heb passim), and Isaac (Heb 11.19)." In this icon, the three angels are portrayed as almost identical to each other, with no real distinguishing features.

As the iconographical tradition develops, it begins to single out one of the angels as distinctly representing Christ, while the other two are reduced to angelic companions. This is done by changing the color of the central angel's nimbus to red, then by including a cross within the nimbus and depicting him as much larger than the other two angels, and later by dressing him the way that Christ is usually depicted as dressing in iconography. 

(Again, I'm outlining the iconographical tradition in extremely broad, inelegant strokes. For the full picture, please read this excellent text.)

A Trinitarian type of depiction begins to take shape long before Andrei Rublev's definitive icon is written, as many icons of the Hospitality of Abraham began to bear the title "The Holy Trinity", along with the depictions themselves becoming more trinitarian. But to save space I want to skip straight to Rublev's icon and discuss it some, with the guidance of Heiromonk Bunge.

During the development of the tradition, Abraham and Sarah were depicted for a long time, but in Rublev's icon they are no longer there. The observer takes their place as he gazes upon a type of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and is invited to become a partaker in the inter-Trinitarian life that opens up to him by way of the Eucharist. Because the icon is a festal icon for Pentecost, Bunge reads the icon as a pictorial representation of Christ's Farewell Discourse in John 14-20, which "is completely shot through with the mystery, now being revealed, of the Triune God." 

In that discourse, Our Lord begins by telling his disciples that in His "Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" Note the house in the background of the icon, which aligns with the figure on the left. This is one indication that the figure on the left is to be read as a type of the Father, which becomes more certain the more we contemplate the icon.

Rublev follows in the iconographical tradition that identifies the central angel as the Son. This is made clear by his dress, which is the same as that of Christ in most iconography. In addition to this, a vertical line through the center of the icon aligns the central figure with the calf in the chalice, as well as the tree in the background, which Bunge reads as an image of the Tree of Life and the Cross. Another visual cue is that the outlines of the bodies of the outer angels form a second chalice, within which the central angel sits, further deepening the Eucharistic theme.

One interesting thing that I learned from this book is that, in the process of recovering the icon from being painted over, one of the two fingers of the central angel was added on later. Originally, the only finger extended was that which now appears to be the middle finger, but is actually the index finger. This is significant because the gesture of the central figure is actually pointing at the chalice, and past it to the third figure, the angel on the right that represents the Holy Spirit. 

The angel on the left inclines his head toward neither of the other two, while they both incline theirs in the same angle toward him. This is a visual depiction of the fact that, in concert with orthodox Trinitarianism, the Father is the fountainhead -- the monarchia -- of being, from whom the Son is eternally begotten and from whom the Spirit eternally proceeds. 

Further, the figure on the left is clothed such that no arm is 'free', while the Christ-figure's right arm is uncovered, and the Holy Spirit's left arm is. This is another means for distinguishing the figures, and draws on the venerable, orthodox formula of St. Irenaeus of Lyons that says that Christ and the Spirit are the Father's "two hands" who do the Father's work within salvation history. 

The gestures of each further indicate truths about the inter-Trinitarian life that Bunge more thoroughly explicates.

Bunge also points out that, while the table with the chalice on it is obviously a type of the alter and the Eucharist, the perspective is reversed. That is, we aren't looking into the alter from the angle that laity are accustomed to, from the West looking East, rather the perspective is from behind the alter looking West, as Christ stands before the alter as our great High Priest. 

The last figure in the background, the rock which lines up with the figure on the right, most likely originally had a crack in the middle of it, according to Bunge. This would be to indicate the rock that split for Moses in the desert and poured forth water for Israel to drink (Exodus 17:6). The rock being a type of Christ, and the water which flows from the split a type of the Spirit. The sending of the Spirit being the culmination of the Johannine Farewell Discourse, and apropos of this being an icon for Pentecost.

While most of what I've highlighted focuses on the manner that the figures are distinguished in relation to each other, just as significant is that they are depicted as the same size with identical facial features, which is an expression of the consubstantiality and equality of the persons of the Godhead. 

The beauty and the mystery of this icon run much deeper than my outline do any sort of justice to, so please read the book if the subject piques your interest. 

In The Art of the Icon: A Theology of BeautyPaul Evdokimov reads the Rublev Trinity in an extremely bizarre manner, completely out of sync with everything I had come to understand about it and seemingly contradicting some of these these obvious facts about the icon, especially in the context of the iconographical tradition. Specifically, Evdokimov identifies the central angel as the Father, rendering his reading quite incoherent, from my perspective. Which is not to disparage that text as a whole, as it is quite profound, but Bunge's The Rublev Trinity provides a richer and more accurate reading of this particular icon, substantiated by tracing the tradition that lead up to its production.