An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
A friend brought me down to earth with the following gentle reminder:
Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth.
Someone who is considered among men to be zealous for truth has not yet
learned what truth is really like: once he has truly learnt it, he will
cease from zealousness on its behalf
-St. Isaac of Syria
Until I have a purified heart and can even remotely pray more that I ramble off my theological "know-how" here, what business do I have claiming to know truth? As Jesus said, truth is a Person. And I've not yet truly seen Him.
I am continually engaged in an ongoing conversation with my beloved Atheist. A perpetual theme in our conversation often revolves around his point that a loving God would make it abundantly clear that He exists – leaving no question. “Where,” he asks, “is the clear, undeniable, and irrefutable empirical evidence for God’s existence.”
I have given this a good deal of thought as of late because in my old protestant days I would have gathered all those wonderful apologetic books that lay out all the “evidence” to show how “reasonable” our faith is and I would have gone through all the “data” with him. Honestly, I’ve never viewed this data as being very conclusive and have to some extent believed that there was always a need for a ‘leap of faith.” So, why would I have utilized such an approach anyway? Quite simply because I thought exactly as He did: my religion was one founded upon the “eye of the senses” and the “eye of reason.” From my perspective, he was right: there had to be at least enough empirical and reasonable “proof” for God’s existence to make the “leap of faith” reasonable (hmmm…now that doesn’t really make sense, does it?)
As I mentioned before, in Orthodox Spirituality there is only one way to truly see God – through the eyes of a purified heart. Until we do this, we are unenlightened and unable to perceive Him no matter the evidence laid before us. Fr. Maximos in the book Mountain of Silence is quite blunt when asked on this matter:
[the author asks Fr. Maximos] “So, Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics are not the way to know God?”
“But of course not. That’s the message given to us by all the elders and saints throughout history. Logic and reason cannot investigate and know that which is beyond logic and reason…Christ Himself revealed to us the method. He told us that not only are we capable of exploring God but we can also live with Him, become one with Him. And the organ by which we can achieve that is neither our sense nor our logic but our hearts…do you understand what this means? Those who wish to investigate whether God exists must employ the appropriate methodology which is none other than the purification of the heart from egotistical passion and impurities.”
…then in a more serious tone I asked: “Are we to assume that the philosophical quest for God, one of the central passions of the Western mind from Plato to Immanuel Kant and the great philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has in reality been off its mark?”
Wow…How can I explain the “eye of contemplation” to my beloved Atheist when I am not at all sure that I myself have sufficient knowledge or experience of it? I am like one still chained in the cave that has only heard of the idea of sunshine and yet feel that I am qualified to lecture and pontificate on the topic of astrophysics.
The Third Sunday in the Preparation for Lent The Sunday of the Prodigal Son
I used to joke to my friends and fellow cynics during my stay at Northwest College, that the Assemblies of God always schedule their revivals – which always seemed odd to me. But, now as an Orthodox Christian we too are scheduling something of great spiritual import…albeit it somewhat different in scope: we are approaching a time of scheduled REPENTENCE. Great Lent and Pascha, the climax of the Orthodox Liturgical Year.
The five Sundays prior to the beginning of Lent all emphasize certain aspects of the process by which we come to God, each of which is reflected in the Gospel reading assigned for that day. My wife and I are together reading Schmemann’s book “Great Lent” during this season and he describes the first three Sunday’s thus:
1st Sunday – Zacchaeus Sunday: The Desire for God 2nd Sunday – The Publican and the Pharisee: Humility 3rd Sunday – The Prodigal Son: The Return from Exile
In the movie Jesus of Nazareth, Zeffirelli has Jesus using the parable in part to reconcile Peter with Matthew and it is fantastically and beautifully done…it brings tears to my eyes each time I see it. Yes we all easily identify with the prodigal son, but how hard it is for us to see ourselves in the devoted brother.
Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role Part Six An Alternative Theology: Tradition and The Mysteries
Outside of the obvious external differences, Orthodoxy also has a deeper unseen dimension, which can only be discerned by way of careful examination and can only begin to be understood – I think – by active participation. It is, more than any other thing, that which can fully clarify what makes Orthodoxy so foreign and sometimes so difficult for us westerners to grasp.
Initially, I thought for this segment I would simply rattle off the facts about how the early church held to the authority of something called “Holy Tradition” (having no defined NT canon) and that their theology was heavily sacramental – fully affirming the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements as well as the regenerative powers of the baptismal waters – just to name the “two biggies.” But something I have been thinking about has changed my mind on the course of my writing here…and something I have read – or I should say have begun reading – is more sharply focusing my understanding of what makes my faith so different from that of “Joe Baptist” across town. And more importantly it is helping me to realize how far I have to go in this journey into the Orthodox Faith.
The Eye of Contemplation
“The Way” for the Orthodox is commonly understood as a path of three stages: purification, enlightenment, and Theosis. This alone, I think, shows how Orthodoxy approaches Christianity from a radically different perspective. For us, when we “do church” we are doing more than simply expressing ourselves…we are participating in a Way of Life.
In the book The Mountain of Silence (which I cannot recommend highly enough) Kyriacos Markides affirms that “we can know reality in three ways: through the ‘eye of the senses’ (empirical science), through the ‘eye of reason’ (philosophy, logic, mathematics), and through the ‘eye of contemplation’ (systematic and disciplined spiritual practice to open up the intuitive and spiritual faculties of the self.)” The author further suggests that the west has all but forgotten the “eye of contemplation” and has instead built a Christianity founded on the eyes of reason and of the senses. To me, in a very personal way, this rung quite true for it seemed that Fr. Maximos (one of the main factual characters in the book) described me perfectly as “simply an ideological believer.” I had – and to a large extent still do not have – a cultivated ‘eye of contemplation’ and I was never encouraged to do even while being trained to be a protestant pastor.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” To the Orthodox, the heart is the organ of contemplation. Hence the need for the first and ongoing step of purification…for only the pure in heart are able to truly see God. But how do we go about purifying the heart? Where on earth would we begin to seek advice or guidance in such matters? Could you simply figure such a thing out on your own, and yet still be able to trust such a self invented solution?
Let me say this with all frankness and clarity: THIS IS WHY THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IS SO SET IN ITS WAYS AND SO RESISTANT TO CHANGE. Because they believe they have in their possession, two thousand years of collective knowledge and experience on the process of purifying the heart – and they have come to find, as is witnessed by the saints who have gone on before us, that participating in the life of the Church (the Holy Mysteries, the Liturgy, the Fasts, the Feasts, the Prayers, the guidance of a Spiritual Father or Mother, a rule of prayer, etc) is the exercise which brings about purity of the heart. This “spiritual exercise” (and make no mistake about the use of the term spiritual, for it is also quite physical in nature) is known as askesis from which we get the word ascetic.
Is this Orthodox Way, the ONLY way? Who knows…but I’m not betting that I can figure it out myself. Consider this very carefully: A religion which relies so much on the “eye of contemplation” lends itself naturally and necessarily to the idea of discipleship, which we seem to forget means to be under a sort of discipline. It is to sit submissively at the feet of an authority and soak up the wisdom that comes from experience…in the case of the Orthodox Church, that authority is Holy Tradition. And all of this, the Fathers tell us, must be closely mentored by a Father-Confessor who will offer guidance and direction which will overcome our often visited state of self-deceit. BUT, if you have a religion which relies primarily on the eyes of reason and/or of the senses, then really such discipleship seems less necessary…rather perhaps something more akin to a modern teaching relationship would suffice?
Kyriacos closes the first chapter of his book with the following: “Mount Athos might have the answer to the question of ‘why Christianity as we have known it in the West is anemic and wasting away.’ Therefore the Holy Mountain may have the potential to inject Christianity with the new vitality it so desperately needs.”
I think he may be right. Orthodoxy is certainly injecting me with a new vitality that I desperately need. I am learning…very slowly and pitifully…what it means to use the ‘eye of contemplation’ and to use the tools offered to me by the Church to purify the heart. It is a great wonder to behold – this Orthodox faith – as it seems to be a vast cyclical way of being that intertwines with itself on so many levels…the Calender, the Litrugy, the Prayers, EVERYTHING is so interconnected and necessary to the path we are required to travel. And it takes on a life of its own in our lives and even in the short time that I have been Orthodox I can see how it is literally shaping the way I live from day to day. I think I am beginning to understand why Christianity was at first called “The Way.”
I have a long and arduous journey. Your prayers are coveted.
THIS - the awakening of the “eye of contemplation” - may be the most important role Orthodoxy can play in “Where the West is headed now.”
Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role A Primer to Part Six or
What the hell have I been blabbing about
I’m thinking this little series has become a bit (or perhaps a lot) disconnected, so let me try and connect the dots in my scatter plot-like thinking before delving into what little meat might exist in part six.
Recall that it all began with a quote on pop culture by Gene Veith which lead me to an article by him in which he discusses the paradigm shift of post-modernism in western society and how it relates to and is changing the face of Christianity. What was of particular interest to me was the effect postmodernism was having on Christianity (in particular the evangelical brand) and how it was playing itself out in the expression of “simple” church or “organic” church. The supposed connection with “historic” Christianity was also stimulating to my ears…sinful as they are.
I wondered to what extent this new way of seeing the world for the “emerging” church was a “return to historic Christianity” and also what exactly this meant. I suggested that much of protestant theology and practice was in fact rooted in the modernism which is itself so maligned by postmodernists and I lamented that it seems that postmodern Christianity is still failing to escape the bounds of the protestant mindset – which includes an underlying individualism inherent in protestant theology and a propensity toward theological relativism in order to maintain a balance between the unity commanded of the church in scripture and the need for diversity – as a moral value in and of itself – seemingly necessary in our culture today.
How do we know when we are caving into the wiles of our culture or just appropriately morphing the presentation of the Gospel to more effectively offer it to our culture? In other words, when we look at the history of the Church – pining for the “pure” church - it seems we begin to ask ourselves: what is cultural baggage and what is critical in the life of the Church today? And this becomes just as problematic as it is to interpret the Scriptures themselves, when it is left to the whims of each and every individual. What if the prevailing culture (of the world at this point) is diametrically opposed to the Christian paradigm? In order to know the answer to these sort of questions, I think we need to stop and ask ourselves what exactly IS the message we are trying to communicate?
Postmodern Christians, such as Wolfgang Simson often characterizes themselves as looking to the early church to see where they have come from and what they might be, but with varying degrees or respect or seriousness. Simson himself brings many presuppositions to the New Testament and looks to it as a guide on "doing Christianity" but he offers little in regards to considering other extra-canonical works of the same time period. In my humble quest I simply came to the decision that in order to understand what Christianity is all about (beyond the modern and somewhat multi-faceted concept of granting intellectual assent to the ‘lordship’ of Jesus Christ.) I ought to escape the millions of opinions surrounding me and get as close to the beginning as I possibly could. Let them (meaning those who were disciples of the disciples and such) judge me and my Christianity today – under the assumption that they would know better than John Calvin, Martin Luther, AW Tozer, Max Lucado, or the illustrious and well know biblical scholar James Ferrenberg.
This is what led me to the Orthodox Church. And this is also where I think the Orthodox Church can offer something of great substance to those seekers trying to escape modernism. First and foremost, as I pointed out, there is an alternative history, which stands outside of the common protestant/modernist take on the matter. It is a history ripe with a Christianity not seen in the west, not well understood by modernism, and certainly not much appreciated by our culture. It is a history that will both please and irritate postmodernist Christianity. And by the same token, the Orthodox Church offers an alternative theology, and I think this is a huge area where the postmodernist emerging church can reap some fantastic benefits – if for no other reason than because as I have read and listened to others it seems to me that postmodern Christian thought is simply 500 year old protestant theology repackaged more simply and tied with the bow of a new language. Otherwise, it is the same modernist Christianity.
Part six coming soon…
An Alternative Theology: Tradition and The Mysteries
How to REALLY reach our culture for Christ in the vernacular!
PETA is doing it!
The Peace Protesters are doing it!
And both are getting alot of publicity and perhaps even some results!
A perfect way to appeal to the 19-30 year old male demographic...with whom we typically do very poorly in reaching.
Bikini or Nude babes (Boy that's gonna bring some interesting google hits!) carrying little strategically placed signs that might read: "Jesus loves you!" or how about: "Jesus died for your sins!" or even better: "Real Men love Jesus." Oh yes....the men we could reach....think about it: They'd come in droves if we'd include a scantily clad Jesus Cheer squad in our services.
Ahhh.....the lives that would be changed....Praise God!
Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role Part Five
(An Alternative History – The Early Church, the Temple, and Religious Authority)
“How should we do church?” Or the even more basic question: “What is Church?” is often on the mind of the pomo Christian today. Now, I’ve no intent or ability to delve into the deep ecclesiological musings that Cliff, Trip, and Jeff have been fascinatingly involved in, but rather I will generally outline some aspects of the Eastern Orthodox affinity with the Early Church and thus perhaps inspire the potential to see a different image of the much coveted and misunderstood Early Church.
Like we often do with Jesus, I think we have a tendency to romanticize the early Church and project upon them an image created from our own desires and wishes. Loaded with scattered biblical proof texts and the most admirable of intentions we develop a model that fits well within the context of what we yearn to see. The motivating fuel in trying to understand the early church is the assumption that the closer one gets chronologically to the original the more likely you are to see “pure” Christianity. I believed this to be the case, but unfortunately, I missed a lot of the “data” before I had firmly come to believe in my hypothesis.
From my perspective, the early Church – just like Jesus - shunned the Temple/Religious Institution from which it had been delivered. The early Christians shook their fingers at the Temple and condemned it as basically worthless because the Veil had been torn and this clearly…clearly indicated that God was no longer in need of such Institutionalized forms of worship. I also believed that they rejected Hierarchical Religious leadership along with their pompous religious rituals. I fully imagined the early Christians gathering together and just hanging out: maybe singing some songs, raising some hands, praying (always extemporaneously of course) and sharing a purely symbolic communion. Ahhh…it was evangelicalism some 1500+ years before it’s parent (Protestantism) existed!
Well, as you can well imagine the bubble was burst when I began being directed to numerous unusual and obscure un-underlined verses in the scriptures that seemed to call into question my image of the early Church. As if this weren’t enough, I made the horrific mistake of finding out what the second generation of Christians practiced, believed and taught. But, first the Scriptures.
Consider the end of St. Luke’s Gospel where the followers of Christ have just experienced the glorious Ascension. One can imagine the TV interviewer: “Hey First Christians! You’ve just seen victory over death and watch your Savior ascend into Heaven. What are you going to do now?” Well, they didn’t go to Disneylnad.
And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen.
It was a little disconcerting for me to imagine these guys worshipping in the Temple…I mean my impression was that they only went there to witness to the unsaved Jews! And then that little word “continually” really messed with my presuppositions…what the heck were they doing there “continually”? Maybe Luke was wrong or maybe it was added later…after all Martin Luther said such things and worse about the Epistle of James, why couldn’t I if I didn’t like what it said! Well at least there was nothing else like this in scripture…oops!
So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house…
Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.
Oh Nuts! Now the "going house to house" idea jived well with me, but “continuing daily” in the Temple – what were they thinking!?! And worse yet they were going to Temple to pray the traditional Jewish hours of prayer! None of this fit well with my mental image of the Early Church. And here’s why:
We must keep in mind that the early church saw itself as fulfilled Judaism – and as such they maintained a Jewish identity to such an extent that it would require later church councils (such as in Acts 15) to discern exactly “how Jewish” they were to be. But the scriptures are clear: they continued going to Temple and as I said maintained the traditional hours of prayer. (Acts 2:46, 3:1, 10:1-9) In fact the Acts 2 verse clues us in to the evolution of Christian liturgy. Christian liturgy evolved from a melding of the Jewish liturgical services of the Temple and the Synagogue. Of course, the new Christian sacrificial offering was the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist and this was done (as the Acts 2 verse implies) in private homes. There is little doubt however, that the Early Church continued to offer worship in the Temple for as long as they were permitted to do so. Wolfgang Simson, a big proponent of the newest house church movement is bold (and wrong) to insinuate that the early church rejected the use of special buildings and that St. Stephen was martyred for standing up against the Pharisee on this issue – I address many of Simson’s claims in detail via this old email to a friend.
Furthermore we see in the Early Church the development of Hierarchy growing out of the leadership of the Apostles. The threefold form of ministry leadership is noted clearly in the New Testament: Bishops (lit: supervisors), Priests (lit: elders), and Deacons (lit: servants). We are exhorted by St. Paul on numerous occasions to honor and obey such leaders. And I’ll not even begin to mention in detail the many writings of the Early Church Fathers who give us further insight into the everyday life of ancient Christianity- Christianity centered around the Bishop and the Eucharist. Some of these writings are so contrary to our popularized view of Christian leadership today that they are simply dismissed, ignored, or we somehow deem ourselves able to judge the writers as mistaken…or as I have heard it phrased: “they were being silly, just like many Christians today are sometimes silly.”
Such thinking and rationalizing leaves us with little tools to discern what the early church was really like. Trying to piece it together from the Scriptures alone is about as effective as trying to develop a systematic theology from the scriptures alone – you end up with 20,000+ versions. But when you look at the extra-canonical documents of the Early Church a much clearer picture emerges. Quite frankly these ancient resources lend themselves rather nicely to understanding the Scriptures because we get a glimpse into the overall cultural context in and from which the New Testament was born. When we admit that the New Testament was not written or canonized as a guide to “re-create” the Church, we free ourselves to be able to really examine the history. In so doing we begin to see in the New Testament many new facets that we’d been missing or ignoring, and new light is shed on old verses that we were sure we had all figured out. For instance, is the prayer in Acts 4 an example of an early Christian liturgical prayer?
As I engrossed myself in the writings of the period I began to wonder if I ever really understood what this religion was all about - because so little of what they wrote seems to mesh well at all with what I believed and did. I realized very quickly that they could no more recognize my church as Christian any more than I could theirs!
Okay, so where are we at? As I mentioned, the Orthodox Church offers pomos seeking kinship with the early Church an alternative history. One based not solely on one person amongst many persons’ interpretations of the Scriptures, but rather on an all encompassing historical and theological context which when examined closely testifies to the Orthodox Church’s own affinity with the early Church. Furthermore, it is based on something else that is much belittled by our society and culture, but was in fact held in VERY high regard by the early Church. It is the title of this blog.
More to come…
An Alternative Theology: Tradition and The Mysteries.
The Liturgical Dance moves us along...Last Sunday - in the Slavic Tradition - was the Sunday of Zacchaeus which is a tell-tale sign that Lent is coming. Where does the time go?
This Sunday will be the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. Where does the time go?
I believe it was St. Isaac of Syria who reminded us that time is given to us for repentence and that we ought to wisely make use of such opportunity. Time can be a sacred thing and the fact that I lose track of it probably says something about how well I have been using it. I hope my thighs are ready for the Canon of St. Andrew - I have lost a good deal of weight since last year so perhaps it will be easier for me. Though truly I have no less sins to repent of...and thus I suppose it is fitting that I should gain rugburns on my forehead in the first week of Lent.
Here I was again, not yet quite awake in Matins after having gotten up at what seemed the crack of dawn in order to make the 35 mile drive in time for my girls to attend Church School. (Aren’t we cool to not call it Sunday School - well whatever.) My son was contentedly sitting at my feet listening to the beautiful chanting of the choir as I stood near the center of the temple amidst a small crowd of persons who may or may not have been equally as yawn-full as I was.
The censor bells jingled and the aromatic smoke filled the room while I found myself afforded the rare opportunity to really let the moment soak in. Christ and the Theotokos- through the fog - gaze into me, the Altar is lavish and carries upon it icons which I have brought to be blessed, I feel enlivened by the presence of the host of Saints who join us for worship and surround us on the walls. For a moment, my son could have gotten up and walked away and I would not have known it. As I listened to the profundity of the chanter's words I began to feel undone…who am I to be here? Who am I to speak of the things of God on this blog or anywhere else?
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
"Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The LORD of hosts."
I was glad to see that the Seraphim behind the Iconstasis did not approach me with a tong and fiery coal. “This is all too big for me to take in,” I thought to myself, “This Faith I’ve become apart of seems to rise so far beyond me…it’s beauty is at this moment staggering to me and I shudder to take it all in.”
I felt enveloped in pure potent truth that at once convicted me and blessed me. In every place that I directed my senses, I was confronted with another facet of truth in what seemed to me to be an endless array of crystalline knowing and unknowing reaching forward from the day of Pentecost, past and through me and then on into eternity. I wanted to cry and I wanted to laugh…but God and Nicholas had other plans.
A tug on my pant leg brought me back to my parental duties and there is a certain perfect beauty in such things. I picked my son up and directed his attention to the large Icon of Christ before us. He smiled and raised his hand and sang: “Awoly”
Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role Part Four
An Alternative History – Jesus, the Temple and Religious Authority
Some pomo’s (postmodernists) argue that the Orthodox Church is simply a different part of the same flawed church paradigm which they have rejected, and of course people are perfectly free to reject whatever they wish. And if this is the core of the matter (that what we personally reject is “truth” enough for us) then we are finished and there is really no further need to mention the issue – except perhaps to examine whether or not it is in fact the core of the matter. But, many pomo’s see themselves – like the reformers who have come a thousand times before them – as restoring or at least seeking to restore “original” Christianity. And furthermore they often see themselves as developing a church model that is much more in keeping with the mind of Christ and the early church than any of the currently existing “traditional” or “modern” models. It is within this construct that I believe we Orthodox can offer some insights and perhaps some alternative views on the mind of Christ as expressed during His earthly ministry and the spirit of the early church than what is popularly understood in the up-and-coming postmodern Christianity.
Much of what I was taught in Bible College along with a good deal of the current thoughts in postmodernist Christianity seems to model a Jesus who was bent on paradigm smashing - particularly smashing the structure of the Jewish religious institution. He is seen as radically altering or reinterpreting the Jewish Faith, much to the chagrin of the religious leaders whom Jesus intentionally marginalized. He is believed to have demonstrated his transcendence of the Temple religion by purposely distancing Himself from the physical Temple, teaching primarily out in the midst of the common people who had been ostracized by the institutional Judaism of the time.
Well, I think caution is advised, anytime we begin to think that we have “gotten” what Jesus was all about. Where are the specific teachings of Christ that affirm these many assumptions listed previously? Yes, of course Jesus often challenged and criticized the Pharisees and other religious leaders of His time, but nowhere does He criticize their office or their rightful role as leaders. In fact, on the contrary! (See Matthew 23:1-3) Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was not that He saw them or their function as irrelevant or unnecessary, instead He criticized their hypocrisy and their abuses. (As can be seen clearly in the verse above which just about sent me to the floor when I first read it – because it seems to really contradict what I thought Jesus was “all about” in terms of religious authority) And how is this (criticizing hypocrisy and abuses amongst religious leaders) at all different from the long history of Prophets in the OT who did this very same thing to their contemporary leaders or the general whole of Israel? The fact is, Jesus has no problems with religious leaders and in fact we can even see Him granting tremendous authority to His Apostles - even to the extent of being able to forgive sins! (See Matthew 16:16-19, Matthew 18:15-18, John 20:21-23)
Obviously Jesus did a lot of preaching and teaching outside the Temple (but He also did a lot inside the Temple too!) and throughout Palestine. But, this in no way necessarily suggests that Jesus was rejecting the importance of the Temple or the forms of worship that took place therein. Jesus’ ministry form of traveling about and teaching wherever and whenever the opportunity arose was nothing new and nothing at all novel. We see such methods being used by many preachers and teachers of Christ’s time and indeed we again see it exemplified in the ministerial work of many of the OT prophets. The point being this: Jesus was not breaking religious paradigms by teaching from boats or in the wilderness, this was a living part of Judaic religious tradition and had been for as long as the faith has existed. We cannot forget that God Himself commanded the existence of the Temple and even specified to the minutest detail how it should be built and decorated. In accord with this fact, Jesus did go to Temple to participate in many Judaic traditions; He expressed an affinity for the Temple (Luke 2:46-50), and even defended it’s sacredness against abuse (Matthew 21:13). And here is a passage from Matthew 23 that is quite noteworthy and I’ll quote it fully here:
16"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, "Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.' 17Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? 18And, "Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.' 19Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. 21He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.
23"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
I’m not sure that commentary is needed here, but I’ll give it anyway – being the opinionated loud-mouthed jerk that I am. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and Scribes for being hypocrites and for missing the point in terms of where real worth lies in regards to the Temple – in other words it isn’t in the gold or the material gifts! We must note that clearly Jesus is ascribing worth and importance to the Temple and to the Altar contained therein and I think the last part of verse 23 is critical to understand. Our Lord does not decry the traditional religious practices of the Law, rather He says they should be done, but to do them and then forget the more important things (“justice, mercy, and faith”) is where the error lies, NOT in the traditional religious practices themselves! Again, this is not a new concept that Jesus is bringing into the picture here, surely we see exactly this spirit expressed in the exhortation of many OT prophets, no?
Even if we look at Christ’s specific teachings (such as the famed “You’ve heard it said…BUT I tell you..”) can we not hear Christ’s words as an echo of the teachings of the OT prophets? Can we find a Jew today who would read the beatitudes and proclaim that their religion rejects such teachings? Or that their faith has no recognition of the concepts of justice, mercy, and humility? Just like the OT prophets, Jesus is calling the people back into faithfulness, without abandoning their traditional practices – as is exemplified in the passage I quoted above. Another excellent example is the time when the Pharisees challenged Jesus about whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath (Matthew 12). Jesus upholds the sanctity of the Holy Day while at the same time showing the fallacy of the legalism that had crept into the Judaic practice.
None of this is to say that Jesus did not change things...surely He did and I will address some of these things in my next post. But we cannot make gross over zealous assumptions about what Christ had in mind about certain matters which He did not specifically address as recorded in the Scriptures. Too often we project our own image of what we WANT or HOPE Jesus would have thought or believed about certain matters and we tend to glaze very quickly over verses that show us a side of Jesus that just doesn't jive with our picture of Him. I'm often suprised at how sure some people are in their personal ability to answer the vogue question: "What would Jesus do?" I mean, seriously, who would have thought Jesus would defend the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees and tell His followers that they ought to obey them? Hmmmm...in some sense, Jesus is a smasher of paradigms but we must take care to be fully aware that our own paradigms may be made of glass and are ripe for a good smashing.
Mine got smashed and look at the mess it got me in! May it continue to be smashed everyday and thereby lead me closer to Christ and His Church.
more to come...
The Early Church, the Temple, and Religious Authority
Two old men had lived together in the desert for many years and had
never quarreled. The first said to the other, "Let us also have a fight
like other men do." The other replied, "I do not know how to fight."
The first said to him, "Look, I will put a brick between us, and I will
say it is mine, and you say, `No, it is mine,' and so the fight will
begin." So they put a brick between them and the first said, "This
brick is mine," and the other said, "No, it is mine," and the first
responded, "If it is yours, take it and go" - so they gave it up without
being able to find an occasion for an argument.
Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role
As I said before, I truly believe there is an intricate relationship between our enchantment with relativism and diversity and the supposedly antiquated individualism. The individualism of the modern age is still with us, is it not? And I believe there is another factor, which I will bring into play here shortly, that is the binding agent between the three (relativism, diversity, and individualism): rationalism. I think a brief look at the origins of individualism would help clear my thinking a bit, in particular the spilling over of the philosophy into the life of Christianity.
You will recall that I believe the womb of the “modern age” extends back much further than Veith suggested and I think we can see Protestantism being born shortly after it’s rather solid establishment. Modernism arose from the enlightenment in which rationalism (the belief that the exercise of reason, rather than experience, authority, or spiritual revelation, provides the primary basis for knowledge) began to take root in society. Now, of course Protestants believe in spiritual revelation, but they believe it exists primarily – and in many cases exclusively in the written word of the Bible. Applying rationalism to the Bible would become the flagship of Protestant belief and practice.
I’ve heard it said that the Protestant reformation rejected an infallible Pope and in his place set up millions of infallible laypersons all of whom have Bible in hand and presuppositions in mind. Thus began the great splintering of Christianity. (I understand of course that this was not the first splintering, it was, however, the first one in which philosophical and theological innovations would, if not directly, certainly indirectly clear the way for more and more schism – the numbers of which are today staggering.) Individualism was – almost subconsciously…perhaps covertly - holding Protestantism’s hand all the way and the two have walked a good distance together since. The Protestant experiment was/is essentially to recover Christianity and to fully understand what Christ intended for His Church by relying solely on and by rationally examining the scriptures. And furthermore individuals were naturally qualified to do just this. The end and continuing result of this hypothesis was naturally selected as if Darwin himself had proposed it: diversity…lots and lots of diversity. (Sorry I couldn’t resist.)
We reconcile this diversity to the biblical concept of Christian Unity by way of relativism. Enter the doctrine of the “unseen church”. We reduce the faith to it’s lowest common denominator in order to still say that the invisible unity of the church is secure. Folks lets be honest, that common denominator is getting lower and lower. Where are we going to draw the line…I mean seriously, where specifically are we going to draw the line and say this you must affirm in order to be a Christian? Are we not simply protecting our precious individualism?
As postmodernism arises, we as a culture emerging into something different (I hesitate to say new), are beginning to frown upon the idea of individualism. We are beginning to see a tremendous benefit to a more intimate communal experience, which our society (and by that I mean primarily our western society) has been deprived of for quite sometime. But I wonder if we are really willing to let go of individualism…or at least on some subconscious level we are continuing to integrate aspects or offspring of individualism into our new postmodern Christianity: such as relativism and diversity – just like the reformers developed the doctrine of an unseen church that I mentioned above. What new doctrines will we espouse in this postmodern age?
Here is the crux of the matter; the point where I think the Eastern Church may be able to offer some input. Many of the emerging postmodern groups of Christians are looking for affinity with and indeed guidance from the ancient and earliest church. They seek such by looking backwards to try and discern what was done in pre-modern times and are thereafter trying to bring such practices back into their church experience. I truly laud them for this. As the oldest branch of Christianity on Earth…a branch, which as Laura mentioned in one of her comments to me holds to "old beliefs and is resistant to change", the Orthodox Church ought to have something to offer these people. I believe we do.
Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role Part Two
I do not wish to under emphasize one of the points I made in the previous post. Protestantism is, at once, the nurtured child and the nurturing mother of the modernism that is so rejected by the post-modernists. The two, and to be fair we might also include the RCC have grown up hand in hand to the point that it is difficult to know where aspects of one spawned aspects of the other and vice versa. To be overly simplistic, the Western Church in the form of the RCC began the journey down the road of explicit rationalism and scholasticism within the first millennium of church history and once the Protestants came along they simply expanded the paradigm. Late arriving secularism (no doubt itself bearing a very similar relationship to modernism as Protestantism does) would then take the philosophical system to its logical, albeit extreme conclusion.
And now we stand upon a great precipice, which we as a society (quickly becoming a worldwide one) teeter toward a sort of absolutist relativism. Veith tells us that postmodernists value diversity and there can be little doubt that the culture creating forces of our society today are striving to ingrain in us the “smiley-happy” slogan that pleads with us to “Celebrate Diversity.” Now, don’t get me wrong I have no qualms with people being diverse, but I am not convinced that it is always something to be celebrated…rather often it might be something we should lament – especially within the church. I think Veith’s article does a great job of noting where the concept of “truth” has evaporated into a sort of meaningless idiom that can ONLY be ascertained by individuals and is really only intended to be used for those individuals. In the end we find that one individual’s concept of “truth” is as valid as the next person’s. Unfortunately, this very quickly spills over into the realm of ethics. Veith writes that the only moral absolute in the postmodern world is that people must be free to choose…in essence right and wrong are primarily dependent on the extent to which a person was free to choose what is “true” for them. All we need do is look at the world around us, listen to conversations, and watch a little television to see that this concept is becoming more and more dominant. And so we seem to have the following ideas dominating aspects of postmodernist thought: a celebration of diversity coupled organically with a moral and epistemological relativism. And yet strangely, we are encouraged by the postmodernists to dislike individualism? Am I the only person who sees an intimate connection between all of this and individualism?
Where the West is headed now, and how the Eastern Church might play a role PART 1
We are told the postmodern age is at last upon us and the so-called “modern” age is passing away. I, myself, am trying – with some degree of difficulty – to wrap my head around what this paradigm shift is all about – and the extent to which it is actually playing a role in society. Will it be merely a passing fad like the “Age of Aquarius” which many of our mothers and fathers hoped to see change the world? It seems rather obvious that one societal paradigm bleeds seamlessly into the next and in a way one gives birth to the next…but major changes takes centuries, perhaps even a millennium. Veith’s assessment that “modernism” began in the enlightenment of the 18th century seems to me to be abit shortsighted. Rather I would argue that it goes back much further than that…I’d say at least another 300 years…even more if we were to look closely at the history that shaped the very gradual division between East and West beginning from a relatively early date.
This introduces one amongst many facets of why postmodernism interests me so much. Modernism is a phenomena that exists almost exclusively in the western world and obviously I have in recent years come to be apart of a venerable religious tradition that has historically not been a part of any culture that embraced modernism. Consequently, some (and it is important that I note “some”) of the “hang-ups” that postmodernists Christians have with the Christianity of modernism (of the West, if you will) were generally not ever apart of the Eastern Church. When I became willing to abandon western Christianity, I had no idea there was actually a “postmodern” movement. I was simply a disillusioned Christian who came to hope that I could find “true” or “pure” Christianity by going back in time and seeing exactly what the early Church actually believed and taught. I saw very quickly that my current mode of thinking was inadequate to understand ancient Christianity and that many of my beliefs were flat out wrong – at least when compared to what they believed (and based on my criterion, guess who I came to accept was wrong?) It had become apparent to me that something was amiss in my “modern” understanding of the world and to some extent I see this(these) same something(s) as being generally recognized by today’s postmodernists. And so here I am, an American who was born and raised amidst modernist thought, trying to engross myself in an Ancient Faith that in many ways is utterly foreign – albeit beautiful – to me. As people today begin to see the failings of western culture, one must wonder to what extent they might look (or dare I say even walk) eastward to see (or dare I say even enter into) an altogether different Christianity – and by that I do not mean reinvent it. Have we not learned our lesson from the original Reformation’s attempts at reinventing Christianity?
“Postmodernism, like its predecessor, also attacks orthodox Christianity, though for completely different reasons. A new liberal theology is emerging--this time, ironically, among Evangelicals. But the postmodern age also presents untold opportunities for recovering the historic Christian faith.”
Now, I’ll not even mention the absurdity of the assumption that the historic Christian faith needs to be recovered, but sadly this does seem to be the foundational presupposition that has fueled and continues to fuel ever increasing schism and division in Christendom. I fear postmodern Christianity will make this same mistake. (Oops…I guess I did mention it.) That being said, I am intrigued to see exactly what this “new liberal theology” will inspire and the extent to which the postmodern shift will bring folks back to “historic Christian faith.”
We might well ask: what is historic Christian faith and how will we know when we’ve found it? A faith built solely upon the Bible you might say? Well, unfortunately this only represents a brand of historic Christian faith about 500 years old. Protestantism and many of its tenets (sola scriptura, sola fide etc) are actually a product of modernism itself and so trying to create a postmodern faith that still clings to so many protestant presuppositions will be little more than a newly dressed up Presbyterian, Baptist, Assembly of God, or _________(fill in the blank) church.