Friday, October 28, 2011

The Gadarene Demoniac and 'the Evil One'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

At Sunday’s liturgy, the Gospel reading will be St. Luke’s account of the Gadarene demoniac. (LK. 8:26-39) This event is both powerful and puzzling. For a man is healed of demonic possession so as to be found “clothed and in his right mind,” and a herd of swine are destroyed in a frenzied and demon-driven act of self-destruction. Not exactly the “stuff” of our everyday lives. This passage, then, records an exorcism. Yet, an “exorcism” seems to belong to a worldview that can only be conceived of as belonging to the past. It is clear, however, that there were many exorcisms attributed to Jesus according to the Gospels. This is because Jesus clearly took the existence of the “evil one” seriously. For the Lord’s Prayer has a concluding petition that implores our heavenly Father to “deliver us from the evil one.” Most New Testament scholars will argue in favor of translating the Gk. poneros as the “evil one” and not simply “evil.” This presents a more concrete, and less abstract, sense of evil in the world.

Our spiritual tradition – especially as recorded in the Lives of the Saints (hagiography) – consistently portrays a crucial part of the “spiritual warfare” of the great saints as a more-or-less open confrontation with the “evil one” or with demons. Allowing for a stereotypical use of this genre, it remains true that within the Church’s living Tradition, we have always interpreted these descriptions with a realism that does not explain away the presence of the “evil one.” And Orthodox Christians do not consider themselves as simplistic and lacking in sophistication for this unapologetic acceptance of the existence of the “evil one” as revealed throughout the New Testament.

As our contemporary world continues to retreat from describing certain events and persons as “evil,” I see no reason that we must join in that retreat. Of course, there are so many factors at work in any given event – from the environmental to the psychological – but the sheer irrationality and mystery behind so many horrific events could rather point to the evil one/evil as “alive and well.”

Back in April 2007, I wrote an article on the Virginia Tech massacres during which thirty-two students were killed and twenty-five wounded. As we know, the killer took his own life. This excruciatingly painful event led me to reflect on the presence of the evil one and the destructive power of evil choices within the world. Below are the links to this two part article in case you may want to read it again – or perhaps for the first time - as we approach these themes on Sunday, however different the historical and cultural contexts between the world of the Gospels and our contemporary world may be.

Meditation - Virginia Tech Tragedy, Pt 1
Meditation - Virginia Tech Tragedy, Pt 2

Please feel free to share any further comments with me.

Fr Steven

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Testimonials to Christian Education

Dear Parish Faithful,

As previously announced, we will begin our Fall Adult Education Class on Monday evening, November 7. We will read Metropolitan Anthony – Essential Writings. Please follow the provided link for further information about this book and its author, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

As is the case with many parish events/programs, we have developed a core group of parishioners who attend this class consistently from year to year. Wanting to understand their motivation – and hoping to recruit new members for future classes, including this year’s – I asked some of our participating parishioners to “testify” to their ongoing interest in the class. I have included three such testimonies here so as to share them with the parish:

Parishioner #1

I highly recommend the Fall Adult Education Class. The amount of reading material is just right and it is a good opportunity to interact with parishioners you may not see on a regular basis. We are fortunate to have Father Steven to lead the discussion and to share his deep knowledge of our Orthodox Faith. Simply put, it is a pleasant way to spend a Fall evening and to nourish your soul.

Parishioner #2

1) I find the reading interesting. It always introduces me to new ideas and sometimes to authors that are new to me.
2) I enjoy the discussion that we have. Different people have different perspectives on the material, and I learn a lot from what they say in class.
3) I enjoy the opportunity to get to know my fellow parishioners better.

Parishioner #3

Our Fall Adult Education Classes have been a very important part of my “continuing” theological and spiritual education here at Christ the Savior. The books used most recently have been some of the most important books I have ever read. I am indebted to Fr. Steven for the time he takes to read and prepare for this class and for fellowship with those who attend. I strongly urge everyone who is able to participate. I cannot think of a better way to spend a Monday evening.

One continuous thread that I read in these three testimonies – in addition to the quality of the reading material – is the stress placed on fellowship with other parishioners. It is a different setting from the “coffee hour” with a different set of priorities and goals. Reading, discussing, and sharing our thoughts about God, Christ, faith and doubt, the actualization of the Gospel in our daily life, etc., is a non-quantifiable – but highly qualitative – component of our six sessions. Mutual encouragement develops out of such sharing. Everyone who attends our classes realizes this.

I know that anyone can sit in front of the computer for hours on end reading excellent Orthodox material from a seemingly endless variety of sources. I certainly do this often. But the fact is, you are sitting in front of and facing a screen, not the human face of a fellow-parishioner, with his/her unique voice and perspective.

So, if possible, please think about “making this happen.” You will read a book by a very deep thinking Christian who offers an endless stream of deep insights into the Christian Faith and Christian living. The commitment of time and the effort needed to read, prepare and attend the sessions will undoubtedly expand your mind and heart in a potentially profound manner.

I hope to see you then!

Fr. Steven

Monday, October 24, 2011

On Tipping and Tithing

Dear Parish Faithful,

“Tipping and Tithing”

(Image Panel: Lazarus and the Rich Man)

The Pledge Forms for 2012 have been distributed both in church and via email in the last two weeks. As we are carefully – and prayerfully – considering our financial commitment for the upcoming year toward building up our parish as the local Body of Christ here in Cincinnati, I would like to share this rather cleverly-composed anecdote. Using a pseudo-biblical rhetoric to both humorous and challenging effect, the anonymous author of this short piece touches upon the issue of our priorities or, in more biblical language, the issue of where our “treasure” is, for that is where our heart will be also, according to the teaching of Christ:

Now it came to pass on a day at noon that the writer was a guest of a certain rich man. And the lunch was enjoyed at a popular restaurant. And the waiters were very efficient. And the food was good. Now when the end of the meal was at hand, the waiter brought unto the host the check. And the host examined it, frowned a bit, but made no comment. But as he arose to depart, I observed that he laid some coins under the edge of his plate. I know not what denomination the coins were, howbeit, the waiter who stood nearby smiled happily, which, being interpreted, means that the tip was satisfactory. Now this parable entereth not into the merits or demerits of tipping. But as I mentioned on the coins that become tips throughout our nation, I began to think of tips and tithing. For the proverbial tip should be at least a tenth, however the prescribed gratuity (tip) is fifteen percent of the bill, lest the waiter turn against you. And as I continued to think on these things, it came unto me that few people who go to church treat their God as well as they honor the waiter. For they give unto the waiter a tithe, but unto God they give whatsoever they think will get them by. Verily, doth man fear the waiter more that he feareth God? And doth he love God less than he loveth the waiter? Or doth the waiter do more for him than his God? Truly, a man and his money are past understanding!

- A twentieth century Christian

St. John Chrysostom delivered a series of homilies based on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (LK. 16:19-31). It was this parable that we heard yesterday morning during the Divine Liturgy. This complex parable is a fearful reminder of the “cost” of being uncharitable, self-indulgent, and indifferent to the sufferings of the poor. To put this in somewhat more contemporary terms: The “gains” of an ever-expanding portfolio can easily lead to a shrinking and loveless heart that renders itself unfit for the Kingdom of Heaven as revealed in the parable, when, in a reversal of fortune, the poor Lazarus finds consolation in the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man suffers the torments of hades. This leads St. John Chrysostom to comment on the nature of theft. With his typical insight, St. John expands the notion of theft to include not only the stealing of another’s possessions, but also the withholding of one’s goods that could be shared with the poor. As St. John expresses it:

I shall bring you the testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation. What is this testimony? Accusing the Jews by the prophet, God says, ‘The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.’ (cf. MAL. 3:8-10) Since you have not given the accustomed offering, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says, ‘Deprive not the poor of his living.’ (SIR. 4:1) To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need … If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give account of the funds which were entrusted to you … For you have obtained more than others, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.

St. John Chrysostom, Homiles on the Rich Man and Lazarus

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Overcoming the Conflict between Science and Religion

Dear Parish Faithful Friends in Christ,

Yesterday evening, we were treated to a very stimulating lecture/power point presentation by Dr. Dan Buxhoeveden from the University of South Carolina. This event was well-attended, for there were over forty participants, and with only a few guests, this means that our parish was well-represented for a weeknight event. I hope that everyone found it as enjoyable as I did. Though the title of the lecture was “Science and Christianity in Dialogue,” Dr. Buxhoeveden expanded his presentation so that it included a quick overview of how science and religion have related – or have uneasily related – over the centuries; together with what I thought was an insightful critique of what he termed “scientific imperialism.” In his estimation this is the position that science can essentially explain all of reality, and ultimately make pronouncements on the existence or non-existence of God. This unwarranted venture into the realms of philosophy and metaphysics only results in the false religion of scientism. Elsewhere, he has written that this scientism is “a vacuum cleaner that desires to swallow all knowledge into the confines of its bag of dust.” I thought that the lecture effectively undermined such claims, while remaining respectful and appreciative for what science has contributed over the centuries to our understanding of the natural world on both the macro- and micro-cosmic levels of reality. In other words, science can explain a great deal about reality, but cannot claim a competency to explain all of Reality. The sum total of scientific truths do not equal the Truth. If I recall correctly, I believe that Dr. Buxhoeveden asked the question: How can science explain everything when we do not know what this Everything is?

I especially appreciated how he questioned the claims of science to a form of pure objectivity. There still remains at least a popular notion that it is science alone that can offer to us an “objective” description of reality, free of any prejudice or preconceived notions. We now know that this is impossible to achieve, for there is always a subjective position from which any discipline begins. To quote from his article “Limitations of Human Knowledge and Its Consequences,” Dr. Buxhoeveden poses this dilemma for such claims to absolute objectivity:

There is the problem of whether we can ever attain ‘non-local’ objectivity since what we are describing is the brain studying the brain, nature studying nature, the same studying the same. Within the model of the matrix, objectivity is only objective within the system. What is meant by empirical knowledge within the matrix really refers to the shared sense experiences of things out there by virtue of the design of a common nervous system. Were it constructed differently, the things perceived ‘out there’ (and the interpretation of them) would be different as well. If we had ways to perceive Z and W rather than A and M, our information and therefore definition of ‘Reality’ would be fundamentally altered. The first implication is that it serves to demonstrate our captivity, not our freedom. It highlights our limitations, not our universality. At best it says we are capable of knowing the matrix of materiality as it is given to us to know.

It is doubtful that Western science was ever designed to go beyond the matrix. It was created within the matrix and for the matrix, and there it remains and so long as it does so, there can never be an essential conflict with Christianity.

If I understood what he was saying, another fallacy of so-called pure objectivity would mean that there is nothing more to discover, or that all scientific discoveries to date have reached a level of perfection. Yet, as Dr. Buxhoeveden pointed out, scientific “facts” are actually correctible, contingent and historical.

Needless to say, Dr. Buxhoeveden did not present this critique from a fundamentalist or obscurantist position. This was not an impassioned polemic “against” science, but the voice of reason from a professor with impressive credentials within the scientific community (he has a Phd in biological anthropology and specializes in the evolution of the human brain). This was not a “cultural warrior” flailing away with the cudgel of religion, but a scientist manifesting a certain humility before the mystery of existence. Realizing the necessity of dialogue between the disciplines of science and theology, Dr. Buxhoeveden has a particular interest in how Orthodox theology is potentially open to any and all scientific truths that expand our understanding of the reality of the natural world in which we live. And theology has nothing to fear in the process. Within a holistic Orthodox understanding of reality, the created world can lead us to the uncreated Creator. We are, after all, logical beings because God created human beings in and through the Logos. We therefore have an open-ended capacity to continually discover the truths of the natural world that yield themselves to honest and humble probing. This, in turn, leads us to a sense of wonder, and insight shared by the earliest Greek philosophers. Dr. Buxhoeveden presented numerous quotations from Orthodox theologians, elders and writers that clearly demonstrate this. In his view, Orthodoxy is more than well-equipped to assimilate, incorporate, and interpret the world of scientific discovery within an all-embracing worldview that embraced the Uncreated and the created. This can be very exciting on both the intellectual and spiritual levels our common God-given human existence.

In a more speculative portion of his talk, he spoke of some new insights or ideas into “left brain” and “right brain” ways of cognition and the perception of reality. This was done based upon a new book by an Oxford scholar entitled, if I recall correctly, The Master and His Emissary.
Over-simplifying, this new book raises the point – supposedly marshalling an incredible amount of data in the process - that the preponderance of “left brain” thinking is responsible for a very “western” approach to reality that is overly rationalistic at the expense of empathetic and intuitive ways of perception. In other words, there are other ways of experiencing the reality of the world around than the scientific western model, successful though it has been in the realm of discovery and technology. I could sense that this intrigued many of us who were there for the talk yesterday evening – (am I “left-brain” or “right brain?”) - but, to use the cliché, this probably raised many more questions than it provided answers.

To just touch on another theme that Dr. Buxhoeveden raised in an interesting manner: what kind of conclusions can science come to when considering such phenomena as love and creativity? At what point are we merely extracting information about something, while losing sight of its meaning and purpose? Here is an example of what we heard, though drawn from the article referred to above:

True facts can become distortions when they are not assimilated in a greater context. It is analogous to someone who sees a painting as a material object within the confines of chemistry and physics while remaining oblivious to art, and therefore claims that the painting is the chemistry. How do you argue against such a stance when all the physical evidence supports the chemical model? You attain the eye of an artist. If we existed in a world where no one had the eye of an artist then the scientific analysis of a Van Gogh painting would be the hard and indisputable interpretation. Similarly, we are told in the New Testament that the pure in heart shall see God. In Orthodox Christianity one is told to purify the heart, to acquire illumination, to see God through the eye of the heart, so as to allow the Holy Spirit to enter into us. Without this the spirit of God, like the painting is not perceived correctly.

What the paint and canvas is to art, the matrix is to life. It is the medium of expression in which we live and breathe and have our being. The tension and the challenge has always been how to understand it, how to place it within the context of ultimate things, and how to situate all forms of knowledge, awareness, and experience, that humans derive from within it.

Of course, this analogy can be applied to the “God question.” Do we want to see only the parts or the whole?

Dr. Buxhoeveden was not in the least bit defensive of religion or God. He was not speaking from the position of an embattled believer that was frightened by the encroachments of science upon religion. He was not advocating the digging in and entrenchment of religious belief against the powerful assaults of an enemy whose victory seems inevitable. For science and religion are not enemies. This is an artificial conflict that can be overcome precisely through open and honest dialogue:

This dialogue of science and religion requires that we keep open channels of discovery and questioning that are not normally part of any single discipline. It is a challenge to all parties and because of that offers an opportunity for breakthroughs and understandings that cannot be had by remaining in our sand boxes.

It was encouraging to see many in the parish – and some of my students from the university! – make the effort and come out for the type of discussion that stimulates our thinking beyond the immediate problems and cares of everyday existence. Thank God for that!

As a special note, for articles and video talks by Dr Buxhoeveden and others on Science and Christianity, please visit the special page on our parish website, which has numerous links for further study on this stimulating topic.

Fr Steven

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Jesus Was Like

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

As remarked last Sunday at the Liturgy, regardless of how well anyone may know the Gospels, it is challenging to form a clear image of “what Jesus was like.” This is not in reference to His deeds and words, for these are amply recorded in the four canonical Gospels. I am referring more to what we would today designate as someone’s “personality.” Are we able to get behind the personality of Jesus? Are we able to describe or analyze His personality with certainty, or at least with a measure of confidence? Some would formulate the question differently and ask if we are able to penetrate or understand the “self-consciousness” of Jesus. New Testament scholars, beginning in the nineteenth century and through to the present day, are often preoccupied with questions concerning the “messianic consciousness” of Jesus. Did Jesus know He was the Messiah, and if so, when did this messianic consciousness dawn upon Him? Yet, we may ask, besides a genuine and justifiable curiosity, is it that important for us to probe either the personality or self-consciousness of Jesus? Is it even possible? The Gospels are decidedly not preoccupied with these questions, for the Gospels do not consciously offer a “personality sketch” of Jesus, as they neither attempt to analyze the psychology of Jesus. The Gospels proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God through His deeds and words. Therefore, whatever insights that we are given into “what Jesus was like” are revealed precisely through His actions and His words – not through a psychological sketch or analysis. In a very insightful article entitled “Quite Beyond Us,” Fr. Patrick Reardon writes the following about what he calls the “unfathomable self-consciousness of Jesus:”

The identity of the man Jesus is rooted in this eternal relationship of the Son to the Father. Self-awareness in Jesus is indivisible at every point from the consciousness of his eternal relationship to the Father. He has no personal identity apart from that relationship.

Now I submit that there is nothing else in any human soul even remotely analogous, and this is the reason why psychological analysis … is an inadequate and even misleading path to the interpretation of Jesus. Jesus, while possessing a human psyche, transcends psychology for the same reason that he, partaking fully in created being, transcends metaphysics.

The “subject,” the self, of Jesus’ consciousness is not a human being who is personally distinct from the consubstantial Son. We have not the foggiest idea how this self-awareness of Jesus took form in his soul, and speculation on the matter is an exercise in either futility or heresy. (October 2007 issue of Touchstone, p. 13)

Fr. Patrick’s words will resonate strongly for any believing Christian that believes and confesses what is declared in the Nicene Creed about Jesus Christ in an orthodox manner: “Who for us men and for our salvation was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.” Without that belief and confession, the psychology of the man Jesus would be fair game for many different and contradictory interpretations.

Bearing in mind the wise words of Fr. Patrick, which I would further claim are supported by our Orthodox understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ; I still believe that we can say a good deal about “what Jesus was like” that neither betrays the Gospel image of Christ, nor our Christological confession of faith in Him as God and Man. To do this, I would like to turn to a work by Denise and John Carmody. Respectfully and soberly, and with an excellent command of the Gospel narratives, they take on the task of summarizing what they believe is a genuine portrait of “what Jesus was like.” Now they do this in a book entitled in the Path of the Masters, in which Christ is discussed together with the Buddha, Confucius and Muhammad. Each figure is treated sympathetically and respectfully. Their goal is to be descriptive and informative, with no polemical edge. Of course, for many Orthodox Christians this would prove to be a questionable, ambiguous - or perhaps blasphemous endeavor! We do not consider Jesus as a “great religious figure” to be compared with others; but again, as the Son and Word of God incarnate. And, together with the Evangelist Luke, we also claim: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (ACTS 4:12) Nevertheless, the Carmodys, Christian thinkers themselves, have offered a finely-written and deeply reflective passage on some of the main characteristics of what they term Jesus’ “personality.” They have obviously meditated on this deeply, and I would like to share some of their insights.

Reading this section in their book, I can compile the following descriptive list about Jesus, though it may not be exhaustive. For them, Jesus is:

  • both fiery and gentle, both sociable and solitary
  • full of energy and subject to fatigue
  • both conservative and a revolutionary
  • eloquent and compassionate
  • having a heart open to the poor, the sick and children
  • making friends and winning the allegiance of women, a very rare quality in His time
  • celibate and unmarried
  • wandering from village to village and living simply
  • courageous in standing up those who opposed Him
  • quick-witted in debate
  • committed to the spirit above the letter of the Law
  • filled with love
  • seeking and responding with appreciation to genuine faith
  • seeking only His heavenly Father’s will and glory
  • consoled by the Spirit of God
  • never sinning and without moral faults
  • not drawn to wealth and power
  • never succumbing to flattery or threats
  • a sense of humor “now and then”
  • often ironic according to St. John
  • loved His friends deeply
  • forgiving
  • realistic about human weakness

As thorough – and convincing - as this may sound, the Carmody’s also acknowledge the “unfathomable self-consciousness of Jesus:”

Still, Jesus remains a mysterious figure, a personality that we cannot fathom, not only because all human beings finally escape our judgment … but even more because the depths of his personality lie in the undecipherable relationship he had with his Father. For Jesus to be was to be God’s Son. This is now orthodox Christian theology, expressing the Christian conviction that the godhead is a Trinity of divine “persons” among whom Jesus is the second, the Son and Word of God become flesh … On the human level, Jesus seems filled with concern for the needs of the poor people whom he encountered. On the more mysterious, divine level, his sole concern seems to be to glorify his heavenly Father.

I very much appreciated these words of caution on their part. Yet, as a kind of final assessment, I will admit that this particular sentence resonates deeply with me when meditating on “what Jesus was like:”

But his over-all disposition seems serious, sad, absorbed in a mighty struggle. (p. 107)

And I also found their concluding paragraph on this subject compelling and profoundly challenging about our own relationship to Christ:

There must have been something compelling about the personality bearing all these traits. By the time of Jesus’ “ascension to heaven” … he had stamped many lives indelibly. Simon Peter and Mary Magdalene, the beloved disciples John and James – all his intimates felt that he had become the substance of their lives, the only treasure they cared about. The report of later Christian saints has been similar. The most intense Christians have felt that Jesus was their reason to be. (p. 107)

For a moment, just imagine Jesus as the “substance” of your life, its true “treasure” and the “reason” to be!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Orthodox Q&A Forum Relaunched

Dear Parish Faithful an Friends in Christ,

Our parish webservant has posted a new announcement on our parish website: Orthodox Q & A Forum Returns. Once you click on the link, a form is provided through which you may ask your question. As you will read there, you may remain anonymous or not - that will be your decision. I would like to share the answers with the entire parish, so the answers will be posted on the website, as well as on our reactivated Orthodox Q&A Forum Blog. I may use some of these questions for future post-Liturgy discussions. It may take some time in getting to any questions, or perhaps some research may need to be done. Please be patient for an answer. Again, questions should be related to issues within the over-all life of the Church; from the theological to the practical. No question is “too simple,” for any question leads us back to the Gospel and the worldview that we embrace as Orthodox Christians.

In preparing for my class at Xavier, I came across these words of a nineteenth c. Russian Orthodox bishop. This is Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow (+1867), who was eventually canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. In speaking of the importance of theological education, he said the following:

“In Christianity, nobody is allowed to remain completely unlearned and ignorant. Did not the Lord himself call himself teacher and his followers disciples? Before Christians began to be called Christians, all of them without exception were called disciples. And why did the Lord send the apostles into the world? First and foremost in order to teach all the peoples: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.’ If you do not wish to teach and enlighten yourself in Christianity, you are not a disciple and follower of Christ.”

Commenting on the this approach of Met. Philaret, Fr. George Florovsky wrote the following:

“Philaret was not afraid of stimulating thought, although he was aware of the temptations this could cause. This was because he believed that these temptations could be overcome and vanquished only through creative activity … Philaret always underscored the necessity of theologizing as the sole irreplaceable foundation of an integral spiritual life.”

I invite you to submit your questions, and follow along with our relaunched Q&A Blog as we follow this healthy approach of St Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow!

Fr. Steven