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Mar. 6th, 2010

Systematic Theology, Tradition, and the Cross

While I've been waiting for a copy of Cox's book to read, Father Stephen has posted an excerpt from Richard Wurmbrand’s With God in Solitary Confinement.
Jesus Himself thought unsystematically on the cross. He began with forgiveness; He spoke of a paradise in which even a robber had a place; then he despaired that perhaps there might be no place in paradise even for Him, the Son of God. He felt Himself forsaken. His thirst was so unbearable that He asked for water. Then He surrendered His spirit into His Father’s hand. But there followed no serenity, only a loud cry. Thank you for what you have been trying to teach me. I have the impression that you were only repeating, without much conviction, what others have taught you.

In this, we here the echo of that oft-repeated axiom from the fourth century Orthodox monastic Evagrius of Pontus: A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.

In the West, we tend to be systematic about things, studying them, taking them apart and seeing how they all fit back together. But this is not living the Way. The Way operates on us, in us. The Way changes us.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Where is the systematic theology in that? What is being fixed?

If we spend our time praying intead of worrying about re-forming this or that area of the church, this or that system of theology, we'll end up living The Way instead of trying to figure out the right form.

But we need form. We need structure. We create structures to provide a framework for living. Take away the structure, take away the Tradition and we'll create new ones. Jaraslov Pelikan (a late convert to Orthodoxy) observed
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.

At another time, he said “The only alternative to Tradition is bad tradition.”

And this is where we end up without creeds: with bad tradition. In fact, we end up re-formulating our thinking so much — re-creating our personal creed — that we don't have time to actually live it.

As Henry David Thoreau observed:
As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.

This is why we have Tradition. First, because if we didn't have it, we would end up creating it anyway and, second, because we want to create deep mental paths. Where systematic theology failed us, Tradition offers a way out.

Mar. 5th, 2010

Where's Utopia?

When I wrote about possible apocalypses last month, I neglected the other extreme that we tend to go to. Just as many of us live preparing for a coming apocalypse, many think that we're on the cusp of a new utopia, a golden era.

Harvey Cox's “Future of Faith” could be seen as one example of this, just as Sam Harris' “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason“ could be seen as another. Both share a utopian view of the future: “One day, soon, we'll all live in peace!”

Today, a friend shared an article with me that manages to synthesize Cox's utopian view with that of Harris': “Stepping Up to the Age of Empathy; ‘Empathetic Civilization’: When Both Faith and Reason Fail”. I had just finished reading a review of “Kinds of Killing”, so it made an interesting juxtaposition.

Following is my response to my friend.

When Jeremy Rifkin mentioned “embodied experience” the first thing that popped into my mind was existentialism. But then, also, the ancient (Hebrew) conception of belief: that it must be lived. At least in modern times it is common to claim to believe something, but live in ways that contradict that — often, it seems with little self-awareness.

But this bit I would take issue with:
For the former, especially the Abrahamic faiths, the body is fallen and a source of evil.

I'll agree that Augustinian Christians do see the body this way. Eastern Christianity (at least how I've experienced in, and in my reading of the Saints) sees the body as made “in the image of God”. The body is not the *source* of evil. In this way we echo the ancient Greeks who saw evil as the absence of good, rather than something of substance itself. The body isn't evil, but when we fail to do good, we “do” evil.

So, I'd say much of this is an straw man argument, or, at least, an argument against a distortion of Christianity. If we don't think the emotions and the body are not part of our baptism into Christ, then, sure, the argument makes some sense. But those of us who see the body and emotions as integral parts of the whole person would disagree. This may not be the common understanding of Christianity in much of the West, but it isn't a new take on Christianity that only just appeared during the “Age of Empathy”.

Which makes this a non-question:
If empathic consciousness flows from embodied experience and is a celebration of life—our own and that of other beings—how do we square it with faith and reason, which are disembodied ways of looking at reality and steeped in the fear of death?

I think it is telling that the Enlightenment took place in Western Europe, but there wasn't (at least as far as I know) a similar renaissance in the East. The Byzantine and then Russian Empires filled the power vacuum that the fall of the Roman Empire, along with its civilizing influence.

Which is not to say that the East is somehow purer, but that our understanding of history and philosophical development is very Euro-centric. The very notion of “Ages” seems, to me, to be part of our desire to compartmentalize. “That was then, this is now.” This is fed by our infatuation with ourselves: the idea that Humanity is advancing philosophically as well as technologically.

What period of time, wherever people had the resources to sit around and write articles like this, hasn't seen itself as entering some grand new “age”? I'm sure, for example, American slaves didn't see a new age coming, but their masters certainly did often enough.

None of this is to imply that we haven't seen a dramatic technological shift in the past 100 years. But our visions of the future are just that: dreams. Our dreams of utopia or apocalypse may change, but in the end, we'll probably end up somewhere in the middle.

Speaking of apocalypse, I just got done reading this book review.

I thought the first paragraph, which talks about how to prepare private citizens for war was good.

Then, this bit, farther down:
Mostly, though, soldiers complained of the miserable conditions of life that Russian villages offered them. “Partisan resistance prompted further reprisals, leading more to join the partisans, and so the escalating cycle of violence continued.” This inevitability, ironically, seems to have escaped the notice of present-day nations. What is the use of an upper hand if you can't spank someone with it?

May. 18th, 2009

Hearing Voices

(As posted on my regular weblog)

My friend Jim has a couple of good posts on listening to people from the “ex-ex-gay” movement.

I think he is right: the Church does need to hear what people who have tried to convert from homosexual to heterosexual — especially those Christians who believed they could “convert” their sexuality from being gay to being straight. We need to listen especially closely to those men and women who have sincerely attempted to alter their own sexual orientation and failed.

Most importantly, those of us (and, yes, “us” includes me) in the Church who believe that homosexual relationships are sinful need to listen.

Before I tell you what I hear, let me explain a bit about where I'm coming from.

It is no surprise that there are a lot of confused people out there. And by confused, I don't mean the men and women who are homosexual. No, I mean the people who think that being a homosexual is, in and of itself, wrong. There is nothing wrong with being gay.

I would go further, though, and say that if you are not actively seeking a relationship with God, then you are not better off in a straight relationship than in a homosexual one. The thing of primary concern is our relationship with God. Everything hinges on that.

In fact, morality doesn't matter. Morality plays no role in our relationship to God.

This should be clear enough from story of the Publican and Pharisee that the Orthodox begin each celebration of Great Lent with.

The tax-collector may have been the morally disreputable person in Jesus' day — the person everyone knew was doing wrong, cheating them out of their hard-earned money. In his place, I can imagine a gay man, someone all conservative Christians would “know” is a sinner.

The Pharisee stands there proclaiming his piety, ridiculing the tax collector. Likewise, I see many conservative Christians holding themselves up as moral examples, making a very public display of their moral superiority. They kick and scream when they feel they've been wronged — when someone has stripped their courthouse of the Ten Commandments or a creche — and loudly condemn those whose sins are more public.

The answer is not to hide your sin, not to be discreet about it. “All have sinned” and no one persons sin is any less or any more than anyone else's. No one is perfect. No one can exalt themselves above another or look down on another. Jesus told us as much when he said it was the tax collector, not the pharisee, who went home justified.

Which means, of course, that I'm no better than the most flamboyant, promiscuous gay man. In fact, I have no right to comment on anyone else's sin.

I'm reminded of the story of Abba Sisoes from the fourth century:

Considered to be a very holy and venerable man, many drew near to Abba Sisoes while he was on his death bed. In his last moments, he saw choirs of angels and archangels, not to mention prophets, Apostles and saints. Wondering what was going on, those gathered around him asked, “With whom are you speaking, Abba?”

“With the angels,” he replied, and indicated that he was seeking to do penance before he left this life for the next.

Knowing his holiness, one friend said to him, “You have no need for penance, Father.”

Abba Sisoes replied, “I have not yet begun to repent.”

Here is someone no one thought could be condemned, yet, truly embodying the spirit of the publican, he felt he had not yet begun to repent.

At this point, I hope I've made myself clear: I am in no position to proclaim my own piety or tell others that they are condemned.

So what does this all have to do with listening to “ex-ex-gay” people?

One thing I hear is a gay man (Peterson Toscano, founder of Beyond Ex-Gay) who struggled for almost 20 years and spent over $30,000 to become “straighten” himself out. It didn't work.

At this point, it sounds like a bad Scientology tale.

The first thing that comes to mind (and Peterson says as much) is the obsession with sex. Since the focus is on sex continually, it heightens the awareness and temptation. In another video, Peterson even says that he had more sex when he was trying to “de-gay” himself than he has since he gave it up.

But that part of it, obsession with sex, seems to be a part of American Christian culture. Witness sites like Book22.com (a Christian sex-toys web store), or Christian sex toy parties, or even Exodus International's methods — at least, those Peterson describes.

The focus is on sex. Sure, we pay lip service to putting God before all else, but the idea of a married couple voluntarily abstaining from sex? That would be unheard of! Lifelong voluntary “marital fasting” that some saints of the Orthodox church undertook seems impossible and ridiculous to us. As one person described this fasting:
Rather than repudiating the legitimate pleasure taken in eating and in marital relations, fasting assists us in liberating ourselves from greed and lust, so that both these things become not a means of private pleasure but an expression of interpersonal communion.
The second thing I hear is the singling out of this particular sin. As Peterson says: “I thought I couldn't be gay and a Christian.”

While all Christians are called to live pious lives, many of us struggle with a particular sin or temptation. Sometimes, we sin and are not aware that what we do is sin. So, again, the focus on homosexuality, singling it out for special attention and treatment, and not on whether or not homosexuality is a sin, is where we're going wrong.

Consider the advice that St. Theophan the Recluse gave to a young girl: When confronted with a thought to pursue some sin, don't fight it. Don't grab onto it to beat it into submission. Instead, let it pass and immediately pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

By turning our attention to God instead of the thought to sin, we redirect our energy. Note, also, the parallels between the Jesus Prayer and the prayer of the Publican.

Finally, and probably most controversially, it makes me wonder about things that we universally agree are wrong today, but that, at the time the New Testament was written, weren't seen as huge sins.

Slavery, for example. I see no evidence that new Christians freed their slaves or started treating them humanely. I also know of no restrictions on ordaining slave owners.

Yet, today, we see any kind of slavery, not just the brutal kind sometimes practiced in the early American South, as universally wrong.

So what's the point of all this? What have I found from listening to this ex-ex-gay man?

Well, to be honest, I haven't learned anything. I have taken the opportunity, though, to think through my prejudices and to clarify them a bit. Peterson deserves our compassion: he has been ill-served by a church that tried to take him down a road he simply couldn't travel — by a church that made his sexuality more important than his relationship to God.

The focus should, as always, be on God, not our sin.

May. 15th, 2008

Back in the saddle.

(as posted on my regular weblog)

In the past 48 hours, I've put 75 miles on my bike. I'm hoping for another 30 tomorrow.

If I keep this up, I can do 200 a week, easily.

I told dvfmama that it took me 30 years to ride a bike and one of the kids asked what that meant.

"Oh, he just means it took him that long to ride using common sense."

Hrm... Not sure I would put it that way... But I've been told plenty of times I have no common sense, so maybe there is something to that.

In any case, today, for the first time in a while, I wiped out. I took my bike over a guardrail.

That sounds more dangerous than it was.

I was fiddling with my water bottle and going around a curve. I try to stay as far from the center of the road as possible -- usually I'm to the right of the white line. On this particular stretch, the road travels through a bit of woods on the side of a hill and, yep, there is a guardrail.

So, with my water bottle fiddling and riding close to the guardrail, I brushed up against it and, after a bit of a struggle to maintain control, went over the guardrail. With my feet in the clips, the bike came with me.

And, of course, the water bottle rolled into the road where oncoming traffic hit it and gave it a nice leak.

Apr. 30th, 2008

Fight Terrorism! Ride a Bike! (and save money, too)

(cross posted from my main weblog)
Four years ago, during the last presidential election, I was working like a busy bee on the Clark Campaign in Little Rock, AR.  It was there that I met dcm -- a relationship that took me around the world to Rwanda this year.  He gave me a bike sticker: Fight Terror! Ride a Bike!

Four years later, gas prices have doubled or so and, at almost $4/gallon, we're beginning to think of new ways to avoid using oil.

Last year, before gas prices became really uncomfortable, I bought an old beater of a VW Jetta from Eric.  Still, gas mileage on it is almost twice as good as that of our minivan.  (And I'm sure if I ever get the hang of shifting properly, it'll be even better.)  It has become our go-to car when we don't need to take everyone with us.

And, still, there are times when we can avoid using any gas at all.  Today, for instance, I had my semi-annual dentist appointment to get my teeth clean.  The dentist is eight miles away.  What to do ... what to do ...

Ride a bike, of course!

This past weekend, I upgraded to a road-bike.  The inexpensive Redline Conquest.  With some slick tires to replace the knobby ones it comes with (because I'm not into cyclocross) and clips to replace the clipless pedals (I may be a bike dork, but I ain't changing my shoes to ride a bike), I felt like I was flying down the road compared with the effort-to-speed ratio on my older city bike.

So, I biked to the dentist.  Sixteen miles round-trip.  About half a gallon of gas.  Almost two bucks saved.

I'll make this bike pay for itself yet.

if I didn't use oil to heat my home, I'd wish oil prices went up faster so I could ammortize the bike that much quicker.

(My daughter's God father is starting to take the train to Harrisburg and looking at folding bikes.  At $140 for a month of rides on the train vs a 45 minute commute and four gallons of gas, the car really does begin to look less attractive.)

Mar. 27th, 2008

6 word memoir

I love Nate's 6-word Memoir.  I would love to use it.  But he came up with it first.  Let's see:

Done already? But I'm not finished!

Five others? Jeremy, Jim, dcm, a1an, seraphimsigrist

The rules:
  1. Write your own six word memoir
  2. Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you want
  3. Link to the person that tagged you in your post, and to the original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere
  4. Tag at least five more blogs with links; and
  5. Leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!
I'll let this entry do the tagging.

(Also Updated the grandparent post)

Feb. 27th, 2008

In Rwanda

I'm in Rwanda for a couple of weeks and I've been writing daily updates on my main weblog. Check it out if you're interested.

Nov. 13th, 2007


Last night, our library showed Ostrov — a popular movie in Russia that did well at Sundance. When I first heard about this movie (I've forgotten where, now), I knew I wanted to see it. dvfmama didn't know I wanted to see it, but when she saw the description at the library, she knew I would be interested.

(Aside: My three oldest children were the only kids there. One of the older ladies asked us afterwards if were were Russian — our children behaved so well throughout a subtitled film! Little did she know that they always turn on subtitles — even for English language films.)

Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
Somewhere in Northern Russia in a small Russian Orthodox monastery lives a very unusual man. His fellow-monks are confused by his bizarre conduct. Those who visit the island believe that the man has the power to heal, exorcise demons and foretell the future. However, he considers himself unworthy because of a sin he committed in his youth. The film is a parable, combining the realities of Russian everyday life with monastic ritual and routine.
Ostrov is steeped in (Russian) Orthodox monasticism, so well over a third of it is prayers or psalms, but this is what monastics do: they pray.

If orthopraxis were simply about living in a way that others could look at and say “Yes, Father Job is a Holy Man” then Father Job would be the center of attention in this film. Instead Father Job, like the prodigal son's brother, seems jealous of Father Anatoli's gifts. In the meantime, Father Anatoli, instead of living a blissfully pios life, is wracked with guilt and isn't a very pleasant person to be around. He's humble and gifted, to be sure, but he lacks intelligence and people skills.

And that last part is precisely what makes the film so attractive to me. When he was asked why he was spending time with sinners, Jesus replied “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick.” Father Anatoli is clearly not a holy man, but he is blessed, and he blesses others.

(I recommend this movie highly. Still, if you see it, read some of the comments on Amazon.com or IMDB. There are some parts where the subtitles are incorrect. For example, near the end of the movie, he asks someone “Will you take a confession?” and the subtitles translate this as “Do you want to go to confession?”)

Sep. 24th, 2007

What if you write a book and no one reads it?

I know some people who read my weblog entertain fantasies about publishing a book. Say you get your wish and someone publishes your book. But then it doesn't sell. And no one wants to buy the stock from the publisher. What then? Real Live Preacher tells us.

(no subject)

Oh. My.

After what seems like an eternal hiatus, dvfmama has written something!
God is as separate from His creation in as much as I am separate from my children. I have total sympathy for God.

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