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What is the Catholic Church to Us?

So… the Catholic Church. Where do I stand? The short and most important answer is that it doesn’t matter. Regardless, I will remain obedient to my Bishop. I have no intention of going rogue and communing at whatever Church strikes my fancy. Should our family ever change parishes, it would still be to another Eastern Orthodox parish. Why? Because we are Orthodox.

The longer and less important answer? Well, as of today I must admit that I am finding it increasingly difficult to figure out or defend what divides us from Catholics at the Lord’s Table. Purgatory, Immaculate Conception, the Filioque and, yes, Papal infallibility are vital. But are they issues that should (or even can) send one half of the Church into oblivion? I find this a more and more untenable conclusion to defend.

If alarm bells are going off that may be because you have rightly sensed what I am suggesting. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Church of the West do not see eye-to-eye on these very important aforementioned issues, there is an essential difference between “very important” and “anathema” and I am not convinced any of them fall under the latter for either side. To put it plainly, I think we have recognized and shown that neither side holds heretical views and that who schismed from whom is an impossible question to answer… one that probably has a faulty premise.

To be fair, I spoke with a friend who is converting from Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy about this very issue. He made the very astute point that if we were to enter into communion again, we are essentially entering into the same unstable union that preceded and lead up to the eventual split. He rightly asked, “What kind of union is that?”

It’s a good question and I believe it would not only be impulsive but irresponsible to open up intercommunion between the Eastern Churches and those under Rome without properly addressing this challenge.

My response is, admittedly, not exhaustive and rather scarce of details but full of good-hearted assumption. ūüôā

First of all, in my mind, it goes without saying that intercommunion is not the end goal. This is, admittedly, a departure from a more typical orthodox perspective: Communion is proof of one-mindness, not a means to it. However, as beautiful as this sounds, I fail to see when in the Early Church we have ever had such one-mindedness on all things. So as mich as I respect the answer, I don’t think it is realistic or reflective of the Church’s historical practice.

Sharing in the Eucharist, rather, the recognition (assuming I am right) of a reality: that we are one (albeit dysfunctional) family… but still one.

If these issues are not soul destroying heresies amd it is not easy (or even possible?) to figure out who left whom, then we are indeed both part of the One, True, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And if this is true, David Bently Hart (among others) is right when he says that the sin of not sharing the Table is shameful. So, even if it might not be an ideal union, a fragile union is better than a artificial division.

That said, it is equally inexcusable that, even in a Church where we finally recognize the reality of being one that we would continue with indifference towards the issues we typically associate with divisiveness. In such a state of intercommunion, ecumenical dialogue would not only have to continue with vigor but with a renewed purpose for it is no longer a matter of “getting them to play in concert with us” or even the more ecumenical “getting the band back together” but realizing that we ARE a badly out-of-tune band, but a band nonetheless… and the world is listening to us play.

In other words, seeing the shameful fact of our awkward unity shoved in our faces would hopefully light some fire under our asses.

So I leave you with that bag of mixed metaphores and welcome any thoughts you might have on points I’ve raised.

Entering a New Era

Ever since I have been Orthodox (some 15 years now), I have always been sympathetic to the faith of my Catholic friends. I have shared in this bond through countless Masses, late night discussions, rosaries, sharing of spiritual struggles and a common understanding on so many issues that made me fall in love with the Orthodox Church in the first place. However, I have always held that bond in tension with a reluctance to pinpoint what that even means.

Over the past year or so, I have begun to confront this question in a more explicit way. Recently, this journey was hurried along after reading an article by David Bently Hart and listening to the respectful and erudite witness of Fr. Matthew Baker on AFR’s Ancient Faith Today. These two men managed to challenge my simplistic notions of what made me Orthodox and what made “them” not. It equally confirmed my suspicions that this narrative of division I had defended myself with was as overly simplistic as it is unfortunately ubiquitous in modern Orthodoxy.

Through this, I have now entered what seems to a more mature stage in my personal understanding of what Orthodoxy is. That is not meant to deride my past as essentially childish NOR is it to suggest for a moment that people who don’t draw the same conclusions as me are less mature. This stage is not so much marked by my conclusions (which will most likely remain a steady instability if the past is any indicator) nut rather my being more secure in my Orthodox-hood; a letting go of my old defensiveness and what now also seems to have been pride, at least at times. Regardless of where I end up on the issue of our Churches, I feel that I will be a better and more honest Orthodox Christian because of it.

This is from a post I recently wrote in a forum in response to this article about three women marrying each other recently in MA. ¬†Others in the forum were arguing about how homosexuality could possibly be related to polygamy, which I thought completely missed the point. ¬†So, I had to chime in ūüôā

First off, we need to be reasonable and separate homosexuality from same-sex marriage. Certainly those who wish to marry someone of the same sex are most likely people who are attracted to someone of the same sex, and have engaged or plan to engage inhomosexual acts. 

But the one does not necessarily lead to the other as many who consider themselves “bi” will tell you. Yet, there are others who consider themselves heterosexual yet are attracted to/have fallen in love with someone of the same sex. And still, here are people who are married to someone of their opposite sex who would say that, on the whole, they have always been attracted to people of their same sex.

The label of homosexual/heterosexual is ridiculous and only clouds these issues at best. As with same-sex marriage, applying terms like gay and homosexual to the marriage leaves room for even more confusion because it completely loses sight of the ACTUAL issue at hand (of which neither group, progressives or so-called traditionalists, have any clue exists).

The problem (as I view it) with same-sex marriage is NOT that people attracted to those of the same sex (whom we insist on labeling as “gay” or “homosexual”) are getting married. This has been happening since marriage has existed.

The problem is that it completely redefines how marriage is understood.

Actually, that last statement isn’t very accurate or fair. I was unfair in blaming so-called “gay-marriage” for this “redefining”. Marriage has been long-since “redefined” already by heterosexuals as a merely romantic union of two people gone after in a quest for their personal happiness. Child-bearing and commitment are optional relics and have had little or nothing to do with how or why the general western society understands or values marriage. Those are relics of the past some choose to resurrect and others (most???) choose not to.

But I also said the statment was inaccurate and this because of the word “redefined”. Our society has not recently redefined anything. We have long-since UNdefined marriage.

Because of how we (Christian heterosexuals) have undefined marriage for a long time now, we have left no good reason as to why “between a man and a woman” should have have anything intrinsically to do with marriage.

Alright… there still is a little bit of definition left: A union between two people. Beyond that, our society has deemed it necessary to condemn anyone who would add to that definition unless it is only for the sake of their own marriage.

But, and this gets to the point of the article (or at least the the question of why these women should or should not be able to marry), the only etymologically necessary part of that definition is “a union.”

I’m serious when I say this. To proponents of so-called “gay marriage”: who are you to define for the rest of the world that marriage must only be between two people? Are you saying that the feelings of these women are not real just because you don’t get it? Just because it seems wrong or wierd to you? “Just because that’s what marriage has always been” is not a reason that can be used anymore. It’s an illegitimate reason in our society since before “gay marriage”. But institutionally the reason is now completely illegitimate SINCE “gay marriage” has become legal.¬†

What these three women did is TOTALLY related to the latest legal triumphs of the “gay” community. Not because they are sexually attracted to each other but because gay-marriage-advocates” have achieved *legally* what “heteros” had achieved *societally* long before: to UNdefine marriage.

Well, here we are. Marriage is whatever we want it to mean both societally and now legally. There is now legitimate reason a to why these three women should not be able to be married other than close-minded, arbitrary “logic” held by us, the abusive majority who feel ourselves better than others simply because we prefer monogamy. Who are *we* to pass judgment!?

In conclusion: it IS indeed due to a slippery slope, but the slippery slope started before “gay marriage” became legal. The latter is only a symptom of what was already well in place.

To Debate or Not to Debate?

I am wondering what you, my beloved subscribers and passers-by, think about the merits of debate vs conversation with someone you disagree with?

Do you think there is a difference?  If so, how?

Do you think both are useful?  If so, when is one more appropriate than the other?

I suppose I am thinking mostly about on-line discussions in forums and the like but you can take it wherever you want.  I really want to hear your honest thoughts so PLEASE share anything you are thinking below in the comments box and feel free to invite other people to comment here.


The Hell of Eternity

Those of us who believe in an afterlife assume that non-believers must have a very bleak and even meaningless existence as they go about life with the understanding that, one day, they and their consciousness will cease to exist. If this dark cloud looming over them is not so apparent to us, they must, so the assumption would go, be hiding or suppressing how this realization actually colors their perception of life.

I have no doubt that this must be true for some. It is literally impossible to comprehend non-existence, especially of our own selves. Surely there are those naturalist atheists who secretly hold to some illogical (according to the schema they live by) unspoken fantasy wherein they continue to exist in some way after death, whereas others ascent to this ‘reality’ in true despair and existential meaninglessness.

The other day, however, I was listening to an episode of the podcast Unbelievable wherein two women spoke of rites of passage: one from the point of view of a Christian, the other as a humanist (a kind of atheist).

At one point the moderator, Justin, asked the humanist, Hannah, how she copes with the idea that, according to her belief, after death she will be ‘no more.’ ¬†She replied that she has never had any desire to exist forever. She enjoys the life she has and has no other assumption that there even SHOULD be more. ¬†I’ve heard these answers before, but they always struck me as insincere and overly defensive; even attacking. ¬†Hannah came across differently for some reason. ¬†Sincere and forthright. ¬†I suppose where she hooked me was when she admitted that no one wants their time to come “now” (unless they have been suffering horribly). ¬†But that doesn’t mean, she continued, that they want it to go on forever. ¬†What’s the point or intrigue of living into eternity; without end?

Faith, the pastor at an Evangelical church in England, represented the Christian side of the discussion. ¬†Throughout the discussion, her responses and interaction seemed wise and respectful, expressing her hope and faith in Christ with both certainty and humility. ¬†She told Hannah that she could understand why she would feel the way she’d described. ¬†She didn’t find a person’s lack of interest in eternal life all that hard to swallow. ¬†I would have been been taken back by such a ‘concession’ except that I was right there with her. ¬†Hannah’s perspective didn’t seem outrageous at all to me.

Certainly, as I said before, it is human nature to assume an afterlife. But I’m not so sure this alone is evidence of a universal hope as much as a universal inability to comprehend non-existence; an unchallenged assumption because human imagination is unable to offer any alternative.

We can say the word ‘non-existence’ which just boils down to ‘nothing,’ but neither theists nor atheists can offer any story or theory that includes actual nothingness.

When theists speak of God creating something out of nothing, the truth of the matter is that while there may have been Nothing in terms of creation, the Eternal Creator was present ‘in the beginning.’ ¬†So there was indeed Something.

As for atheists, one need only listen to or read Dr. Lawrence Krauss’ description of ‘nothing’ to realize that not even he (a man who literally wrote the book on Nothing… or so he and Dawkins tried) comes close to anything resembling a description that doesn’t entirely evade any meaningful understanding of Nothing. Yet, for many (not all) strands of atheism, Nothing is a necessity since a causeless cause is not reasonable and anything unreasonable cannot be real.

While we Christians hold firm to the incomprehensible mystery of Eternity, mainstream atheism grasps on to its own mystery of Nothing.  Fair enough, we both have our mysteries for which even our best theologians (and atheologians) are incapable of doing justice.

The only important difference is that Christians readily admit that the God we proclaim must be beyond our understanding and supersede our own theology whereas naturalists believe that nothing can beyond the scope of reason. ¬†Not even… Nothing. They cannot claim Nothing as a mystery since that goes beyond their logical prison. ¬†But I digress.

The ‘aha’ moment, while listening to this interview, was realizing that Hannah is quite sane to desire Nothing after death… as long as Christ is not real.

When we Christians hear the phrase, ‘in the hope of eternal life,’ I think many of us thoughtlessly accept this as saying, ‘our faith is special because it offers a life without end.’ But if ‘eternal life’ were the promise, there is absolutely nothing special or, I would suggest, desirable about this. ¬†In fact, I would suggest that the humanist assumption, that we simply cease to exist at death, is rather special and even desirable compared to a blanket promise of existing forever. The latter, if left at that, is not only unimaginative but rather pointless- quite literally because a ‘point’ necessarily implies some kind of goal or purpose.

But this is where Christianity is special. It still upholds the incomprehensible human dogma of eternity but reveals the true point of its endlessness: to grow ever closer to God.  We call this theosis which, at its core, is really what Salvation is for us. We spend our life on this Earth battling the passions and allowing God to heal our

Coptic Icon of Jacob's Ladder: a call to begin the everlasting journey Christ-ward (theosis).

Coptic Icon of Jacob’s Ladder: a call to begin the everlasting journey Christ-ward (theosis).

brokenness through this process.  At death we enter into the eternal life which is not simply existing, but existing in order to grow closer to the infinite God. To suggest this process could ever end might satisfy human reasoning but it would turn God into something shallow and reachable; a puzzle to be solved and comprehended so we can move on to a new one lest we risk literally going crazy out of boredom.

To put it in laymen’s terms: eternal life is a gift because we get to spend it in love with God.

On the flip-side, I think this also reveals something of what Hell is: it is a never-ending existence without meaning, without a point.  It is pointless eternal life.

Certainly the humanist is right to be perplexed at a hope in a nondescript ‘eternal life’. I’m not being facetious when I say that that certainly sounds like Hell. ¬†Now, I do not want to philosophize Hell into a place where the only suffering you have is one that could theoretically be overcome with some tricky mind game (assuming you could find some therapist in the afterlife to help you with that). ¬†Hell is very real. ¬†But I do have to think that one of the more hellish aspects of Hell is a meaningless eternity where in the back of your mind, no matter what you tell yourself, there is no point.

Just like a knife has meaning in so much as it is used to cut things, humans have meaning in so much as we grow closer to Christ.  Every time we excuse ourselves for just living for ourselves we lose grip of our purpose and our life becomes that much less meaningful.  In Christ we find meaning because in Him we find our goal, our purpose.  If during this life we never recognize, embrace or work towards this goal, we will be literally lost after death, feeling that ever-present purpose around us but completely unable to figure out what in the hell it is.  We just wander around, aimlessly, eternally trying to feed that emptiness with the same self-manufactured goals but never finding any fulfillment in any of them.

It would seem to me that this earthly life is about training our souls to hear and respond to that calling; not fooling ourselves into believing that this call comes from our stomach, our lust, our comfort, our pride, our achievements and so on.  We are training our spiritual reflexes to recognize and desire that Voice; to instinctively draw toward It.

I could be be going outside the bounds of Orthodoxy here, so take all of this with a grain of salt (I certainly do): I often picture that, after death, we will only have our instincts and God to guide us in the right direction. But if our instincts do not help us recognize God, we will follow whatever voice(s) we instinctively followed on Earth. Our knowledge of theology and the Bible will all be useless insomuch as we simply approached them like an academic exercise. Only God’s voice can guide us and give us this strength, but we can only follow Him with our hearts, not our intellect.

Finally, I have always found it interesting that the Church attests to the fact that certain Saints have reached Heaven before their earthly death and I suppose this was in that moment in which they were able to give themselves completely over to God’s will. ¬†Conversely, the moment one is no longer able to find his or her purpose must be when true Hell begins, so it would seem.

For most of us, that decisive time comes after we die which begs the question: what am I doing to prepare in the meantime?

Bishop update, doubt and Orthodoxy

This post is a follow-up to a past post, “The Bishop is coming, the Bishop is coming!” See the link if you haven’t read it, but basically I talked about my struggles with all of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds our bishops in the Orthodox Church, especially in the context of the Liturgy.

I also thought that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the Divine Liturgy during our bishop’s recent visit which was what prompted the post in the first place. We were going to be visiting our youngest’s Godparents in Ohio that weekend.

However, God seemed to have had a different plan when our middle child threw up the day before we were to leave and my wife was also sick. The visit was canceled and the way was cleared for us to attend Liturgy and greet our Bishop.

And I have to say that I actually enjoyed the entire experience. A lot of what I struggled with before clicked; it began to make sense. Surely my analysis to follow will fall short of a fuller Orthodox understanding but for what it’s worth…

So, for example, while the ornate vestments and rituals surrounding all of that put distance between myself and the bishop, this time it allowed me to see the icon of Christ that the Bishop’s role plays, especially in the context of the Liturgy. It’s purpose seems not to be to highlight every aspect of Christ that I mentioned (such as His humility and love) but Christ as King and Lord. This representation is obvious when you look up at the icon (at least in our parish) above the iconostasis where Christ is offering the Eucharist to the Saints and he is clothed in Bishop’s vestments (or rather the Bishop is clothed in His vestments).

The vestments also played a large role in greatly downplaying the man who is the Bishop since he, of course, is not actually Christ. Here, we are not seeing Christ’s personality (if I may put it so crassly) but His role as God. And so, in this sense, there is a proper element to which an unapproachableness is appropriate and necessary: that Christ made Himself man so that we could approach Him at the most intimate level but that at the same time, He still is the infinite God and we are still His finite creature. This unapproachableness I sensed seems not to be about putting us in our place but rather putting Him in His proper place. The paradox is that if we see Christ as just a mere man and not also as Almighty God, we can never approach Him effectively because we don’t actually acknowledge Who He is. How can we properly understand His humility if we don’t acknowledge the very essence of who He is?

So, the Liturgy seems to be the place where the Bishop’s unique role is emphasized in terms of his representing Christ on earth. Outside of the Liturgy is where, if you have a good Bishop and right perception, you hopefully encounter an embodiment of Christ’s humility and love. However, while the Bishop is most certainly called to be an example of Christ to the Church, the embodiment or call to be like Christ is no more unique to him than it is to any other Christian. The Bishop will always fulfill his first role because it is not dependent on him personally but rather the charisma of his office. However, he may or may not fulfill the latter role of being Christ-like just like you and I are just as fallible and just as likely as he is to fall short of that calling: the very essence of what it is to be a follower of Christ.

Looking back at my past post, there is only one regret or transgression I can see that I need to recognize: My indifference to missing my Bishop’s coming. Perhaps I still couldn’t have avoided being gone that weekend, but I should have at least recognized the situation as truly unfortunate, rather than serendipitous.

As for the rest of that post… well, allowing myself to think out loud knowing that I might very well be wrong is one of the purposes of making this blog. I can hash out ideas and, if others believe me to be wrong, hopefully they would challenge me or offer me some alternative ways of approaching the issue that I may have missed.

But there’s another purpose that I think my blog can offer. There are many great blogs out there that have nothing but quality thinking in line with the Church. While the author may very well have doubts, that’s beside the point. These blogs are important…. More important than mine. They offer time-tested wisdom that acts as lighthouse for all of us.

However, I hope that my blog can demonstrate a couple important truths about The Orthodox faith. First and foremost that I. Our Church it is not seen as a weakness to doubt but rather as a necessary opportunity for growth in faith. Doubt can be a good thing in our Church and so questioning and challenging is too. But doubt must be guided by humility and an awareness of the likelihood that we are missing something when we don’t understand or aren’t yet able to agree.

Also, and this is my personal assertion, there are a lot of canons out there and I don’t personally believe that it is wise to assume that just because they were relevant and good for the time when they were created, that they automatically still are. I want to be clear that I am not talking about canons regarding abortion, homosexuality and other morals. I am referring to practice.

Until recently, the ban on homosexual relationships in the Church never really made sense to me. That said, it was obvious to me that while I wasn’t wrong for not getting it or even for challenging it in order to understand better, it was not a negotiable topic. So, I just accepted that I didn’t get it but that clearly there was something I just didn’t understand. It actually makes complete sense to me now, but being given that space to say, “I don’t get it,” and ask challenging questions in hopes of getting it is what allowed me to come to a confident stance on the issue.

On the other hand, there are canons regarding practice that I don’t believe have any intrinsic rightness to them but have much more to do with culture and practicality. For example, that all bishops are to be unmarried. I actually agree with this canon fully and think it is still a very wise canon. But there is nothing intrinsically immoral about a married Bishop. The same goes for fasting rules and not allowing dogs into a church. For all of these it is morally and theologically acceptable that the canons could be let go of due to irrelevance, impracticality or whatever other myriad of understandable reasons, and the faith would remain the same. And perhaps all of them will always remain relevant and vital. However, questioning them and disagreeing with them is not wrong, in my view. Wrong is when we ignore them, not seeking an economia but becoming our own bishops. We not only lose a valuable opportunity to become more obedient and humble, but also the opportunity to learn and grow in wisdom.

The God of Purgatory

I have got to be careful, when I tell people I don’t have any issue with Purgatory. I guess I’ll get to why later, though.

But the fact is, I really don’t have a problem with it, as a basic concept. Put simply, before “entering” Heaven, you need to be cleansed or purged of whatever still creates an obstacle in your relationship with God (passions, recent unrepented, etc.). I think C.S. Lewis referred to it as a washroom where you would clean up before entering the house.

I’m not saying that I subscribe to the idea dogmatically, but it makes sense to me. And it makes sense to me that such an intense purging is not going to be a fun experience. It’s not punishment, at least not how most people understand punishment, but rather a necessary part of a process that we Orthodox call theosis (becoming like God… in essence, salvation). It seems logical to me that this would involve some sort of pain because these sins, passions, addictions… these are things we have grafted into our being. And now, like gangrene, it needs to be cut off. Ouch! (Useful analogy but with major limits, to be sure). What I have always found attractive about the theologumen of Purgatory (in its basic sense) is the idea that Salvation is a process and not a Divine magic trick.

As a Protestant, salvation always seemed that way, not that I would have couched it in such terms. As an Orthodox, however, I came to realize that, like pretty much everything in God’s creation, salvation is a process, which is basically what theosis is all about. God was no longer a God Who worked by snapping His fingers having “made us saved.”

This change in perspective, at least for me, was dramatic, although I’m not sure I appreciated just how dramatic at the time. It had a profound effect on how I viewed God and my relationship with Him. God was no longer a God who demanded my respect simply because He’s God and He can do that. Don’t get me wrong, He most certainly can demand of us whatever He wills. That said, it became apparent to me that, overall, God preferred a more wholistic, organic approach; working with us, in us. He knocks, we open the door, and he begins healing us. But He’s not a genie that gives a quick nod of the head or a witch that crinkles His nose (60s American sitcom references there… Sorry, I grew up an insomniac who passed the time watching Nick at Nite when the programming was still classic stuff… But I digress). His presence is therapeutic, transforming in a meaningful way. He doesn’t want to be an event in our lives, He wants a relationship with us.

So as this mindset took hold, the idea of an organic God suddenly becoming snappy after death (pow! on to Heaven!) just seemed two-dimensional… forced… arbitrary. The idea of Purgatory in its most basic form seemed, and still does seem, quite Orthodox because it leaves room for a God that works in us. It didn’t trivialize Heaven into a “good try” sticker that everyone gets regardless of how useful their answer was in the end. It allowed the sinner the blessing of finishing up that race St. Paul speaks of, once and for all ridding oneself of the passions and addictions and worldly attachments and bitterness that were perhaps never fully let go of while on Earth. Granted, there is obviously something more extreme about this stage of the process so, again, this is why it only ,ales sense to me that pain would be involved, not because we deserve it but simply because… that’s how it is. That doesn’t mean we aren’t comforted by God like a friend who keeps us company while we’re beyond sick from chemo treatment. It just means that that’s the result of having attached ourselves to sin and sin has no place in Heaven.

For the same reason, I have no issue with the basic idea of the Toll Houses spoken of by Seraphim Rose. Wisely, this theologumena is not dogmatized by the Church and there are many Orthodox who vehemently oppose the notion of Toll Houses. I have no issue with them rejecting it, but I am puzzled by their vehemence. Don’t get me wrong, I have read drawn out ideas of Toll Houses that disturb me and seem quite unOrthodox if not heretical as they almost portray a God who throws us to the wolves to fend for ourselves or that count our deeds as if they were money so that we can pass to the next toll.

But I think many people fail to see the basic idea behind Toll Houses that is indeed very Orthodox in spirit even if not literal: it’s a new stage in the process of theosis by which God allows us to confront our passions that we hadn’t yet fully conquered once and for all. We are offered the opportunity to choose God over the passion at each so-called “Toll”… and vice-versa. As on earth, although in a more intense way, He is there with us, telling us and encouraging us to make the right choices, but never compelling us. Never compelling us because He wants a real relationship with us. But to experience Heaven we have to leave the passions behind. We have to allow Christ to conquer them once and for all in the depth of our souls. I don’t imagine that process would be easy or feel good because there is a reason we had never fully let go of that passion or bitterness while on Earth: we knew it would hurt. To be sure, we started that painful yet freeing journey here, but it had to be finished sooner or later to experience Heaven.

Now, before I continue, I should clarify that I am talking about how God tends to work, as a general rule. Certainly God does work in snappy ways, but these seem to be exceptions rather than evidence of any norm. In fact, it seems these overlap a great deal with what we usually call miracles. An addict all of a sudden loses all desire for his vice. A malignant tumor goes away over night with no medical explanation. A woman prays to forgive her rapist and all of a sudden, at that moment, no longer hates him and feels an intense caring love for him. These are clearly snappy moves on God’s part; miracles in every sense.

That brings me to my very first point. Forgot it? Me too. Just a sec… Oh yeah, why I’ve got to be careful when I say I have no problem with the concept of Purgatory.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a link to an article that talked about the Vatican offering indulgences for following World Youth Day on Twitter. There’s so much that is ridiculous with that alone I don’t even know where to start, so I won’t. But to the broader point of indulgences, my complaint against them is not the medieval practice of selling them as that was left in the past. The Orthodox Church doesn’t have a very flattering history either. So who am I to ridicule the Roman Catholic Church for their past stupidity? We assume all agree on that point unless otherwise stated. No need to act as if there were anyone out there who actually opposed this position. It’s like saying you’re against the Holocaust, slavery, abortio- apparently in some ways we are still pretty medieval. Anyway…

My complaint is that they exist at all. Not because I’m Orthodox and I’ve been trained to decry the use of statues, rosaries, or crossing from left to right; but because of something much more fundamental. They take away the very thing I found appealing about the concept of purgatory in the first place: that salvation is a process that God doesn’t just ‘snap’ away magically because you walked on your knees to an image of the Virgin. Salvation is real, it’s not an obstacle that God puts there to see how much you can take. Indulgences, to me, puts magic into the formula; it takes away from that organic relationship. Indulgences just seem to turn what was a beautiful expression of the common understanding among early Christians that salvation is real and turned it into something little more impressive than the Protestant notion of a God who arbitrarily tests us and then decides the test is over and he will snap his fingers to end it (or snap His fingers and take 5 years off the test). Indulgences are just another divine magic trick.

Can God do this? Sure. But that’s not a God I’ve been exposed to in life. Not a snappy God. A real God.

The Bishop is Coming, the Bishop is Coming!

So the archbishop is coming to town. Archbishop Justinian, second to the Metroplitan (Kyrill) of Moscow and all Russia. It’s a big deal. He’s a big deal. Unfortunately, my family and I will miss his coming because we will be visiting friends of ours in Ohio that weekend.

Well, I say unfortunately, but this is a bit dishonest. For one, we’re really looking forward to seeing our friends. Secondly, I can’t say that I really enjoy the experience of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the bishop. It’s bewildering, nerve wracking and… well… discouraging to my faith.

Before I go on, I should make it clear that this is not so for all or even most Orthodox. Most who talk about it may find it bewildering and nerve wracking but they also find it inspiring and encouraging. Their souls thirst for it and that particular thirst is quenched by the visit. I share in the thirst… but I leave feeling more thirsty if anything, and despite being in a minority, I know I’m not alone (for what its worth).

To me, the bishop seems so shrouded in regalia, both physically (e.g. the clothing) and ritually, that he seems unapproachable by design. I know, I know. This is to honor the office of the bishop and what he represents, not the man himself. But what, or rather Whom, does he represent? Christ, right?

A priest once told me that all of the ritual that surrounds him, especially during the Divine Liturgy, is to prepare us for what it will be like when we are in the presence of God in Heaven but… really? Look, I get why Buddy Jesus is destructive to our understanding of God. Certainly we need to remember who Jesus is. He’s not just some buddy, some peer; a mere reflection of what we want Him to be.

At the same time, do we really believe in a God who is unapproachable by choice? Indeed, He is unapproachable by nature. But let’s not forget, this is the same God who became part of His creation, slept in a feeding trough, died almost completely naked on a cross, allowed Thomas to put his fingers in His wounds, willingly ate with tax collectors, was moved by a prostitute who washed His feet with her hair, washed His disciples’ feet, allows and even demands that we partake of His body and blood and converse with Him unceasingly, and compares Himself to a father who constantly waits for the return of his overly entitled and thankless son who comes back only after everything went to hell in a hand basket.

When I take all of this into consideration, the ritualistic unapproachableness of our bishops, even liturgically, seems overdone and uninspiring. In fact, worse than uninspiring, it’s discouraging. If he is supposed to be a sort of image of Christ, where is the approachableness by deaign to counter-balance His kingship or, better put, to reveal the kind of King He actually is?

Now, I’m not looking for the bishop to walk in in jeans and a t-shirt, tell a funny joke and sit with us in Church. I would like to see a balance that I don’t find much in the Orthodox Church… At least in my (quite limited) experience.

I suppose the balance that seems ideal to me is that which I often see in the Roman Catholic Church of today, at least in the U.S. You definitely know that it’s not Joe-Schmo walking in and the mitre and staff tell you it’s not just another priest. But there is an approachableness that I observe both during and outside of the Liturgy. I observe a bishop that both represents Christ the King and Christ the foot-washer (completely aside from the fact that they, including the Pope himself, do this very thing every Maundy Thursday).

Now, to be sure, I have no doubt that there are many approachable Orthodox bishops. In fact, retired Bishop Nathanial of the Romanian Episcopate in the OCA is very approachable outside of a Liturgy. He actually sat down next to me and some other lay people during a meal following a Divine Liturgy as if he were anyone else. The pectoral cross gave him away though. :). That said, it still seems that he is approachable in spite of the rituals that surround him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he or others like him wouldn’t like to see some of this relaxed in order to allow them to shepherd their flock more intimately. But I can hardly speak for them.

On the other hand, to be fair, the Roman Catholic Church certainly went through its looooong period of unapproachableness and I would assume this began to become more balanced with Vatican II.

And these two final points about the respective churches are what give me hope. First, that if a bishop truly desires to know his people and shepherd them lovingly and as personally as he is able, he can do this in spite of (or maybe because of.. I mean, I might be totally off on all of this) the imbalance I perceive.

Second, the Church goes through ebbs and flows and change is possible just as the Roman Catholic Church changed. While we most certainly won’t change in such a drastic and sudden way as Catholics had to endure in the 60s, I believe our change will come organically (because it must if we are to survive and be properly nourished) and, most likely, already is taking place.

With all of that said, I must remind myself that I am in a jurisdiction that, for all of its benefits (and there are definite benefits) is perhaps among the most clueless as to how to properly respond to American needs (i.e. the Moscow Patriarchate). I do get a sense that the OCA, as a prime example, is ahead of the game on this. So my perspective is most definitely skewed.

I also want to be clear that although I hope for a change that reflects the approachableness of God as well, I don’t know what that will (or should) look like in an Orthodox context.

And…who knows? Maybe in 5 years or even 5 months I will disagree with everything I’ve written here in this blogpost. Sometimes simply vocalizing the things that challenge me allows me to figure out how to better tackle them, at least on my end, which is half the reason I do this silly blog.


Update: I have actually come aways since this post in a short period of time.  See this update post

God of the gaps or just the most probable theory?

As usual I am getting out of my element and into issues beyond any expertise I might have. However, I am comforted by my doubt that I am saying anything new.

I have listened to several debates between atheists and theists (generally speaking, Christians) on the issue of the origin of the universe.

Theists often argue that logically there must be a causeless cause.

Atheists often argue in turn that although they don’t have a plausible naturalistic solution to this question at this time, asserting such a supernatural answer (i.e. God) or even that a causeless cause can’t somehow be explained naturally is a “science stopper.”

I actually get their point on this. I mean, just because we can’t imagine any possible logical naturalistic answer at this point (or even ever, given that we are only human and nothing in the natural world assures that we will always be able to comprehend all aspects of how nature works) does not mean that naturalism has met its match. It only means that humans have met their match (or at least for now), be that because the answer is too complex for our minds to ever grasp or the answer is beyond nature (i.e. supernatural).

So, I do accept that as a scientist (theist, deist or otherwise) one must always maintain as a possibility that there is a natural answer to what their philosophy had once maintained as directly influenced by God. This assertion of mine is nothing new and, actually, I think Christians in science throughout the modern period have lived up to this. Fr. Georges Lema√ģtre, the priest-scientist who first theorized the Big Bang, cautioned a giddy Pope from touting this discovery as “proof of God” because it suggested an ex nihilo event. Thankfully (and I would argue, not surprisingly) the Pope saw the wisdom in the warning and did not proclaim such a conclusion from the Big Bang.

Certainly there are many many exceptions to this, especially from fundamentalist American apologists (like with the Ark Museum). But I do believe there is enough of a tradition among Christians that show them not to be compelled to use God as a “science stopper”, always being open to the idea that their particular theory may have a natural explanation but that until something else comes up, it is the most probable based on what we know.

What does concern me is the naturalist insistence that God never be an answer to anything. I understand why they are compelled to say this, however. A naturalist atheist cannot accept an answer outside of nature because their very philosophy prohibits them from accepting that there could be a supernatural that has any effect on nature. Their philosophy is, indeed, the true “science stopper” (if we assume science means knowledge) because they they have already set the parameters on what is possible and pre-demarcated what is not.

My point in the end is that theism need not be a science stopper. Reasons as to why it has been at certain times are cultural, but not inherent to theism. Atheism, on the other hand, is a potential science stopper because it doesn’t allow one to consider all possible avenues.

Let’s look at it this way. If theists are right, then at some point it is probable that the causeless cause is an answer. That is, that the answer is truly beyond science’s grasp. But if one imposes on humanity the notion that nothing can be beyond science’s grasp, then one is forced to keep looking for answers.

If you have just bought a new puzzle, one of those hard one with no picture to guide you. You have every reason to believe the puzzle should work, though, so you peel off the shrink wrap and proceed to begin putting it together. Imagine you finish and, to your surprise, one piece from the middle is missing… or so it seems. This may be the most obvious conclusion but one could also suggest that such is the intended shape of the puzzle. You look online and you find that every other owner of the puzzle found the same thing. The manufacturer cannot be reached for comment. Some theorize that their was some kind of a mechanical failure during production while others think it was just meant to be that way. The problem is not that either view is held. The problem is if either side explores its theory and insists the other one is definitely not true.

A theist need not be offended when science truly can explain something she once assumed it couldn’t simply because at that time the most probable answer was God. In fact, she may have been the very scientist to search to see if indeed the answer was not God. But the atheist must keep searching and must find naturalistic answers. He will will do so until he finds something that works, no matter how improbable it is… like multiverses… But that’s another post.

Why oh why do we suck at grammar?

So I was thinking the other day…

…that we Americans are terrible at grammar. I know. What a revelation! As a high school Spanish teacher, I am constantly reminded of this fact when many of my students cannot identify the adjective (and forget about distinguishing a subject from an object).

Before I continue, I want to make clear that I do not consider this the litmus test of an intelligent human being. I would surely be throwing stones in the proverbial glass house if I were to hold up such standards for a math teacher could legitimately judge my intelligence by the standard of her chosen discipline.

The deficit of basic grammatical knowledge amongst high schoolers, and even adults, in America is irrefutable and mystifying, especially when compared with other nations.

Like most, I just mindlessly chalked this up to poor instruction or lack of consistency in our nation’s educational system. And there may very well be merit to that. I remember when I coached Quiz Bowl. The student on the team who transferred from the local Lutheran middle school (where I also went and remember very well being grilled on seemingly arbitrary grammatical terms like positive, predicate and participle) was our go-to guy when questions of a grammatical nature popped up. So there isma point to be had, it would seem, in suggesting that many schools can i prove instruction to improve outcome.

However, even if some schools teach it better than others or drill it more than others, this still does not explain why most freshmen in high school (or college for that matter, although to a lesser degree… I hope?) struggle to distinguish an adjective from an adverb or fail to realize that quickly is not a verb. Grammar is still being taught in the public middle schools that I’ve been associated with, confirmed by conversations with my colleagues on the matter.

Then it hit me the other day: Whereas 9th graders here taking French or Spanish for the first time can’t pick out a verb from a noun, I honestly don’t believe it has much to do with lack of instruction but rather that they have nothing practical to apply it to. Sure, we can force them to,diagram sentences in English but assignments and quizzes do not motivate real learning unless it gives them a practical reason to care about applying the new content or skill. All of a sudden they come to high school,and it matters which word is the verb or they will,create sentences that make no sense whatsoever.

Meanwhile, most educational systems in the world have children learn a second (or third, or fourth) language from a much earlier age. This gives them a practical opportunity to apply this knowledge at 5th grade or earlier. They spend much less time with grammar as an arbitrary exercise than we do in the States.

So in short, we unintentionally convince our kids from an early age that grammar is an arbitrary exercise that has value in and of itself (and they are right to eschew such a notion). By the time they first attempt to learn a foreign language, they have been fully indoctrinated to this manner of thinking. Other cultures give grammar a real purpose much sooner so, even if they don’t like it (and most I have met from other countries don’t particularly like it), they get that it matters and why.

See, told you I could post on something other than abortion!