Thursday, February 28, 2013

Natural Law and Same-sex Marriage

Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan had a debate on gay marriage last night. I assume that video and audio will be coming soon. I disagree with central aspects of Peter Leithart's take on it, even without having seen the debate yet. Primarily I disagree with Leithart's bizarre assertion that "the only arguments [Christians] have are theological ones." What is Marriage by Robert P. George and friends is sufficient on its own to put that notion to bed.

Given a previous and subsequent post, it's clear Leithart has David Bentley Hart's most recent piece -- on the futility of natural law arguments in the public square -- in the front of his mind, here. Which would be fine, except Leithart seems to be taking Hart's perfectly cogent argument and distorting it for strange ends. When two parties share basic metaphysical assumptions (as Wilson and Sullivan do, putatively), Hart's argument is largely inapplicable to that particular situation. Hart never suggests that natural law reasoning can claim no valid purchase between and among fellow Christians, who are committed to certain shared assumptions and principles. His point is about the inability of natural law reasoning to cut across -- and demand fealty from -- those who operate outside those fundamental presuppositions. This in addition to the idea that such arguments -- even if they may be valid in individual circumstances, as here -- when their total force is pitted against certain monstrous cultural currents, they will prove ultimately impotent.

While waiting for the actual debate footage to roll out, I read Douglas Wilson's prepared comments, which seem pretty devastating for Sullivan. Though George and friends are more precise, and though they marshal a wider array of strong arguments, Doug's rhetorical flair serves him well here. Both George and Wilson contend that marriage revisionists (or SSM advocates) are left with no cogent grounds for rejecting polygamy, given their stated case in favor of SSM. That Sullivan believes “monogamy is central to all marriage”, and yet is indignant that others believe the same about sexual complementarity, is stunning hypocrisy and utterly arbitrary. “My arbitrary discrimination against consenting adults who are in love and who want to get 'married' is OK, but yours isn't!” This is Andrew Sullivan. And Wilson teases this hypocrisy out brilliantly.

Polygamy actually has a much more robust track record of being accepted and codified by many societies throughout history, so it's much more difficult to make the case -- from a detached anthropological vantage -- that monogamy is inherent to what marriage is than it is for sexual complementarity. And the Biblical record (taken apart from Holy Tradition, which neither party here has high regard for) is infinitely more amenable to polygamy than it is to homosexual marriage. (Although, with the light of the Church, both are equally out of bounds.)

With that said, this only shows that Andrew Sullivan and most marriage revisionists are inconsistent in their reasoning and application of their principles. This doesn't cut to the heart of the matter, like What is Marriage? does. WIM goes on to deal with the consistent, principled libertarian who says "yes, polygamy is fine too", or "get the state out of marriage altogether" and shows why they're wrong as well. Such is the nature of live debates, I suppose. That is: relatively limited and inadequate. Still, I'm glad the issue is being debated seriously in public forums by personalities of stature.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Face of God -- Pagan Antiquity and Christianity

Icon of the Resurrection of Our Lord
Over at On Behalf of All, Vincent Martini recently posted on the topic of the resurrection of Christ and the charge by skeptics that this event is a myth that was borrowed and re-imagined from pagan mystery cults. Drawing heavily on N.T. Wright's scholarship in The Resurrection of the Son of God, Vincent points out that the "dying and rising" gods of said cults were gods whose "resurrections" are cyclical  and are linked to the perpetual cycles of life and death within nature. Appeasing these gods or attempting to commune with them had the chief purpose of ensuring a prosperous harvest. As Martini and Wright both point out, this is somewhat a far cry from the resurrection of the Incarnate Son of God, the 2nd person of the Trinity, who conquers death itself and in whom the Kingdom of God is made manifest on the Earth.

Skeptics are quite fond of pointing out the similarities between Christianity and certain mystery cults of antiquity, in order to insinuate that the similarities are (somehow) evidence of Christianity being some sort of fraud or myth. But these similarities are often cherrypicked from a wide range of beliefs and cults, omitting all those which bear no resemblance, and focusing on anything that has even a superficial resemblance. The result is usually a drastic exaggeration of the actual parallels and overlap.

In addition, there is often a historical confusion over which direction the influence is running in. Many ancient religions and cults were influenced by the spread of Christianity, and adopted elements into themselves. Shoddy amateur scholarship that pollutes the internet is prone to see any similarity and falsely infer that the influence necessarily ran in the other direction, since paganism in general preceded Christianity.

With all that said, to the extent that there is some legitimate overlap between certain elements of Christian worship, piety, and devotion and that of certain pagan cults, this is hardly surprising and is no challenge to the truth of Christianity.

In the February 2013 issue of First Things, Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart addresses this topic from this angle.[1] Granting that there are more substantial similarities than some Christians usually feel comfortable admitting -- sacramental initiation rites which are supposed to conquer the power of death, for example -- Hart notes that it's a false inference from these facts to the story of Christ being false or somehow stolen from the pagan religions.

There was a brief period in the early heady days of anthropology of religion when James Frazer was still in fashion, during which it was regarded by many as something of a scandal that so many seemingly common elements could be found in both Christianity of the early centuries and many of the pagan devotions of late antiquity. To this day in fact, there are Christians who become terribly anxious at the suggestion that the early Church, in many places, had something of the form of an Asiatic or Hellenistic mystery cult, or that other sects that offered salvation with a savior deity cherished some of the same religious aspirations of Christianity.
Really, though, there is nothing alarming or even surprising in the discovery that the gospel spoke to religious hopes that existed outside its corporate boundaries, or that early Christian devotion should have been expressed in forms not wholly alien to the culture and language of its time.

On the contrary, we confess that Christ came "in the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4), so it makes sense that his coming into the world would constitute the fulfillment of certain religious longings of the world which was, after all, created through Him. Longing such as as the desire to see the "face of God", as expressed -- among other places -- in Apuleius' The Golden Ass. Hart notes that these religious expectations are both fulfilled and overturned in Christ. The face of God is revealed, but it's revealed in a scandalous form: that of a crucified Jewish peasant.

My main interest in the discussion is to affirm that these two apologetic approaches are compatible, rather than mutually exclusive. Provided that the apologist is careful not to blithely dismiss all similarities while accurately articulating the great, significant divergence that does in fact occur with the advent of Christianity.

[1] - This article is behind a paywall. Hart has a similar piece from 2011 that is available for free here.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Stick-Figure Theology


DISCLAIMER: I certainly don't hold this to be a sufficient or anywhere-near-exhaustive covering of the topic. For example, an aspect of 'faith' is 'repentance', but for simplicity's sake, 'repentance' is subordinated under the umbrella of 'faith' here. Also, it's shown in distinct windows or phases, while I realize that in reality the process is not so neatly distinct (the first moment you convert you are probably also giving praise, for instance). Also, excuse the somewhat serious-sounding disclaimer attached to some stick-figure drawings. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Orthodox Witness in an Un-Orthodox World

"[T]hat servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more." - Luke 12:47-48

This passage has many applications for us in life. We can think of it in terms of spiritual gifts, money, power, talent, or health. In all of these respects, the more that you have been given, the more you will be required to offer these things to others, and ultimately back to God as a living sacrifice.

Another application of this verse that is not typically stressed is with regard to truth. To whom much truth is given, much will be required. Not only required in terms of offering truth itself to others but -- because truth (along with love) is the wellspring of other blessings -- also in terms of offering the many fruits of the truth back to God through others.

Yikes. If the Orthodox church is the place where God's truth in Christ is revealed in its fullness (as I affirm), then woe unto us who have found Orthodoxy and don't live accordingly! To Orthodox people, much truth has been given; of Orthodox people much will be required. If you're a rotten scoundrel who was blessed to find the Orthodox Church, as I am, this should be somewhat disconcerting. Of course, the grace, beauty, and truth found in the Church is more than enough to compensate for being held to this higher standard. But receiving the riches of Christ through the Church in a way that transforms you does entail cooperating with Him and with Her. And this, of course, is not always easy as it entails taking up our cross daily and following Christ.

If you're a Christian of any other stripe, and believe that stripe to be the most true stripe, then -- from your perspective -- all of this would still apply to you as well, and it should cause no small amount of consternation. Knowing our master's will, how much worse is it that we don't follow it? Much worse.

For many of my family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, I'm the only Orthodox person that they know personally. Whether it's fair or not and whether they do it consciously or not, people will primarily be judging what Orthodoxy is all about by looking at my life. Much more than how I can answer questions about my faith, or speak intelligently about my reasons for converting (though we are to be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is within us, 1 Peter 3:15), people ultimately look at whether you're walking the walk and whether your life testifies to the transformative truth that you have found. Again, for sinful wretches like myself this is somewhat unhappy news as it means that, not only am I a wretch, but I'll be held to a higher standard before God. Double whammy, as it were.

In addition to the comfort to be found in Christ's promises and his sanctifying, transfiguring grace (by which I can become less and less of a wretch as I submit to Him and His Church, and therefore become more and more suited to meet the higher standard), another load off is the gift of the divine services. A common refrain in Orthodox circles in response to curious parties is "come and see" (I suspect as a reference to John 1:39, 46). As Fr. Josiah, my spiritual father, says of catechism:
The best catechism is in frequent and watchful attendance at the divine services. This is true because the Church prays what she believes, and believes what she prays.  Every service of prayer is deep theology, and all true theology is prayer.
This catechism of the services is not only for catechumens, but for anyone who wants to know what the Orthodox Church is about.

Other than a holy life (something I don't yet have to offer), the services of the Church are our most potent tool for evangelization. If I can successfully plead with an interlocutor not to judge Orthodoxy by the example that my shabby life puts forth, some pressure is taken off by getting them to attend divine services. At those services there are holy people doing holy things, and worshiping the Holy Trinity in Spirit and Truth. All within the context of the intensely beautiful divine liturgy.

In an highly un-Orthodox society, it's best to share the burden of witnessing, and put forth the corporate life of the Church as the nonpareil witness to the content and beauty of the Orthodox faith, because it is there that the Body of Christ is revealed in all its splendor. Though ultimately our own individual lives must also be transfigured and become shining, sanctifying microcosms of Christ that testify powerfully to the hope that is within us.

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Oh Lord Jesus Christ, Our God, have mercy upon us and save us.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Picking and Choosing" and The Bible

If you follow debates between liberal and conservative evangelicals, you will often see an exchange come down to the conservative accusing the liberal of selectively reading scripture -- of ignoring or downplaying the parts he doesn't like, while accentuating the bits that he does. To which the liberal will often retort that selectivity is unavoidable. That "we all pick and choose." The upshot being that there is no extra-hermeneutical vantage to occupy, and that the meaning of scripture isn't entirely self-disclosing.

While it's true that our presuppositions and biases will inevitably affect how scripture is understood, and that there is no neutral, assumption-less space from which to view the Bible, it doesn't follow that "we all must pick and choose." This is only the case if you believe that the individual and his conscience is the ultimate authority with regard to the meaning of the text. While this approach is standard within Protestantism, it isn't the only option available to us. Rather than selectively reading the Bible according to our own biases, we can also choose to submit our understanding to the authority of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded, and to whom was given the Holy Spirit to guide it "into all truth" (John 16:13).

What the conservative evangelical often doesn't realize is that he's wisely, but unconsciously, appealing to tradition in these arguments. Though he might deny it, he isn't appealing exclusively to the text itself, but to what he perceives to be the traditional understandings of the text. He (again, wisely) feels there's something unsettling about novel interpretations of scripture and has a visceral reaction against it, but can't really do anything about it if his only recourse is to the Bible itself, since the Bible itself can be twisted and manipulated, as the Bible itself warns. (2 Peter 3:16) And if it can, then who's to say who's doing the twisting and manipulating and who isn't?

Blessedly, Our Lord Jesus Christ didn't hand down a book to the Apostles that could be interpreted in various contradictory ways, nor did the Apostles hand one down to their followers. What was handed down was the gospel of Christ -- His life and His commandments -- and the Holy Spirit. This was transmitted by oral and written apostolic tradition (2 Thess. 2:15), with the written tradition eventually becoming the New Testament. But just as the New Testament was written, compiled, and canonized by the Church with the seal and guidance of the Holy Spirit, so must the New Testament be read, interpreted, and lived within the Church according to the Holy Spirit. If you adopt the Church as hermeneutic, the question is no longer "what do I think about this passage?", but "what does the Church teach that this passage means?"

Admittedly, this approach to the question somewhat short-circuits the entire dialogue. If evangelicals did this they wouldn't be evangelicals. Nevertheless, it's critical to point out that not all hermeneutical approaches leave us equally "picking and choosing" from the Bible.