Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Meaning of Jesus' Miracles

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the Divine Liturgy yesterday morning, we heard St. Matthew’s account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes that fed the huge crowd of people that had come to hear Jesus speak – “five thousand men besides women and children”  (MATT. 14:13-21).  Out of His compassion, Jesus had first  healed many in the crowd before He fed them in such a miraculous fashion.  Thus, after feeding the souls of those who came to hear Him with His words, Jesus then nourished their bodies with food.  Jesus was concerned with the whole person, what we often refer to as “soul and body.” The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is referred to as a “nature miracle,” or sometimes as a nontherapeutic miracle.  This distinguishes these particular miracles from the healing or therapeutic miracles.  We have no knowledge of Jesus other than as One through whom such “mighty deeds” were enacted.  The miracles attributed to Christ were not invented by the evangelists to enhance the over-all stature of Jesus.  The miracles of Jesus belong to the bedrock of the Gospel tradition, and the evangelists conveyed that tradition to  us so that we have to this day an accurate and full portrait of what Jesus said and did in His earthly ministry.  At the conclusion of an exhaustive study of the miracles -in a book appropriately entitled Jesus the Miracle Worker – the author, Graham H. Twelftree, offers a succinct definition of the miracle that is meant to capture the full extent of these wondrous events narrated in the four canonical Gospels:

In short, for Jesus and the Gospel writers, a miracle performed by Jesus is an astonishing event, exciting wonder in the observers, which carries the signature of God, who, for those with eyes of faith, can be seen to be expressing his powerful eschatological presence.  (p. 350 – author’s emphasis)

Just a bit earlier in the same study, Twelftree had expressed a similar summation a bit more thoroughly:

Therefore … we are bound to conclude that through the experience of the presence of the Spirit of God in him that enabled him to perform miracles, Jesus was uniquely aware that he was God’s anointed individual or Messiah, who was at the same time at the center of these eschatological events that were expressive of God’s reign or powerful presence. (p. 347 – author’s emphasis)

In the Gospels, of course, we do not encounter the word “miracle.”  What we do find is a widely-expressive variety of terms each of which conveys the sense of wonder and marvel that these extraordinary events manifest to us.  (“Wonder,” “marvel,” and “extraordinary events” are precisely how the word miracle is defined).  In the Gospels, some of the terms used are erga – “works;” dynameis – “powers;” thaumasia – “wonders;” endoxois – “glorious things;” and semeia – “signs.”  The “miracles” of Jesus, thus, reveal the coming of the Kingdom of God in power.

A miracle, as narrated in the Gospels,  is hardly presented as a “violation of nature” as was claimed by the famous Scottish philosopher David Hume (18th c.). The evangelists would certainly never have understood such an expression. Unfortunately, that definition has stuck and has had a negative effect on how the miracles of Christ are understood.  God is not at odds with the natural world, but is its Lord.  Perhaps, the “nature miracles” of Christ are best understood as an extension of nature for purposes that reveal the authority and glory of God; even a transformation of the natural world that reveals God’s presence with and for us.  This does much more justice to how we may relate the works and signs of Christ with the world of nature.

I will soon continue and conclude this brief meditation with a few more specific reflections on the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and its relationship to the Eucharist.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Bread from Heaven

Dear Parish Faithful,

We have reached Ch. 6  of the Gospel According to St. John in our Bible Study.  With seventy-one verses, this is by far the longest chapter in this Gospel.  And, in fact, two of the seven signs that dominate the first half of the Gospel are found in Ch. 6  -  the multiplication of the loaves and Jesus walking on the water (the Sea of Galilee).  The multiplication of the loaves is the only “miracle” that is narrated by all four evangelists, pointing towards its significance beyond the extraordinary event of Jesus feeding five thousand persons with five barley loaves and two fish.  There are clear Eucharistic allusions in St. John’s account – as there are within the Synoptic Gospels – that are later deepened in the chapter in the profound “Bread of Life” discourse by Jesus.  When Jesus multiplied the loaves, He is said to have “given thanks” (v. 11).  The verb is based on the Gk word eucharisto which is, of course, not only the Gk. for “thanksgiving,”  but the word that we use for the consecrated bread that we receive as the Body of Christ.  Jesus Himself “distributed” the bread and the fish, as He will do with the bread and wine at the Mystical Supper.  The “fragments” that are gathered after the crowd has been fed,  referred to as klasma, is another word for the Eucharist in the early Church.  We can say with certainty that Jesus is anticipating the feeding of His flock with the Eucharistic bread that will be given to us as a continual gift following His death, resurrection, glorification and the giving of the Holy Spirit, when we also “gather together” in the assembly of the Church.

The “bread from heaven” that “my Father gives you” according to Jesus, is greater than the manna that fed the Israelites in the wilderness (v. 25-34).  The “fathers” who ate the manna hungered afterwards and ultimately perished, while the  “living bread which came down from heaven” is meant to endure to “eternal life.”  (The theme is very similar to that of the “living water” that Jesus assured the Samaritan woman about in Ch. 4, as a gift welling up to eternal life).   The great discourse that Jesus delivers in this setting is composed of two parts, 6:35-50; and 51-58.  In the first part of the discourse, Jesus delivers one of His many great “I am” sayings that characterize this Gospel:  “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (v. 35).  This “bread” is a metaphor for the divine revelation that Jesus brings from the Father.  He who “believes” this “has eternal life” (v. 47).  In the second part of the discourse, the bread is the “flesh” of  the Eucharist, revealed in such a way that no other interpretation is possible:  “I am the living bread which came down from heaven;  if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51).  To make that perfectly clear, Jesus goes on to say:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (v. 53-54).

The word for “eating” – the Gk. trogo – means to “chew” or “gnaw.”  This is a different word from the usual Gk. word for eating. It is used four times in this part of the Bread of Life discourse (v. 54, 56,57,58).  It is meant to convey the very physical process of eating or “feeding.”  There is no room here for a “symbolic” interpretation of the words of Jesus concerning the Eucharist.  This is a graphic sacramental realism!

The two parts of the discourse are thus reflected in the Liturgy to this day.  In the first part of the Liturgy (of the Word), what is stressed is our belief that Jesus is the wisdom of God, the Holy one who reveals the will of the Father to us.  This is the “bread from heaven” that nourishes us in the hearing of the holy Gospel.  In the second part of the Liturgy (of the Faithful), we receive the Eucharist as true food that unites us to Christ.  Here we have, in popular terms, what are referred to as Word and Sacrament.  First we are fed by the Word of God and then by the flesh and blood of the Son of Man – the Word made flesh.  All of this means that we must take the Liturgy very seriously, as the time and place where we meet and commune with Christ.  We need to be present to first hear the Word of God proclaimed in the Scriptures; and then partake of the Eucharist – the flesh and blood of the Son of Man.  We need to practice a “Eucharistic vigilance” that will preserve us from approaching the Chalice in a light-minded or casual manner.  (As Archbishop Kallistos Ware said:  "I accept frequent Communion, but not casual Communion.")

Please read the biblical text for yourself.  If you cannot or will not come to the Bible Study, then read and reflect on these magnificent passages on your own or with other family members.  Jesus has the words of eternal life.  You will not find these words anywhere else.  These words are the "living bread which came down  from heaven.”

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Latest Round of Evil

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Latest Round of Evil Close to Home

I recently read a short note  in a journal called The Week about a well-known scholar and author who recently died.  Her name is Gitta Sereny (1921-2012) and her life-work has been the study of the various horrific forms of evil that seem to be so overwhelming.   The article summarizes her life’s work thus:  “In her decades-long effort to understand why some people commit horrific crimes, she spent hundreds of hours interviewing some of the 20th century’s  most reviled figures, including death camp commanders and child murderers.”  In 1968, she covered a notorious case about an eleven year-old English girl who killed two younger boys.  (The girl had been “sexually tortured” as a child).    A well-known book, Into That Darkness, was based upon seventy hours of interviews with Franz Stengel, a commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp where nearly a million persons were brutally killed during World War II.    Her most famous and controversial book – Albert Speer:  His Battle With Truth - was written in 1995, and it was an in-depth biography of Hitler’s great architect, Albert Speer.  The book was controversial, because it was apparent that she grew to be sympathetic  with her subject, and we know that Speer managed to escape the gallows in the immediate post-war years by his capacity to package his self-defensive prevarications in a cloak of charm and civility.    Somewhat defensively she wrote that:  “I do have to identify with my subjects … That does not mean that I condone their actions.”

I do not bring this up to further darken your day with the stories of horrific crimes, as we are now in the midst of one more evil rampage that has taken many innocent lives and traumatized others for years to come.  (I had planned to write this reflection a couple of days ago).  What struck me, and what now has even more resonance following last night’s shooting rampage in Denver, is that Gitta Sereny came to the following conclusion after many years and many noteworthy publications, in the summarizing words of the article:  “What she heard during those probing hours led her to believe that monsters are made, not born, and that there is no such thing as absolute evil” (emphasis added).  In many ways, that is a deeply “encouraging” and valuable insight from a woman who has encountered the perpetrators of evil face-to-face. 

Evil does not have absolute value because it was not created by God.  It does not somehow just exist “out there.”  Only goodness comes directly from God.  This is precisely an Orthodox Christian insight into the “reality” of evil.  No one is born evil, because every human person comes into the world created “in the image and likeness of God.”  Every person is intrinsically or inherently good “according to nature,” yet we are all born into a “fallen” world that is deeply marred by sin.  Thus, many people end up doing very evil things.  Such “monsters” were not born that way, but were so “made” by circumstances or inclination.  As Orthodox Christians we strongly believe that such persons are morally responsible for the choices they make.  We are not merely the passive recipients of outside influences that come from the environment or genetic inheritance.  At the same time we acknowledge the presence of many forces in the world that may tempt one toward evil – and some of those “forces” we would further acknowledge as “demonic.”  Yet, again, the evil act is ultimately deliberate and freely-chosen. This is the baffling paradox that we must accept as we grow and mature as human beings in the process of experiencing the world around us.  How do we explain this mystery, or what we can term the “mystery of evil?”  Here is a passage from Diadochos of Photiki, a brilliant spiritual writer of the mid-fifth c.  With penetrating precision he explains how evil only exists in its execution:

“Evil does not exist by nature, nor is any man naturally evil, for God made nothing that was not naturally good.  When in the desire of his heart someone conceives and gives form to what in reality has no existence, then what he desires begins to exist.  We should therefore turn our attention away from the inclination to evil and concentrate it on the remembrance of God; for good, which exists by nature is more powerful than our inclination to evil.  The one has existence while the other has not, except when we give it existence through our actions.”

Last night’s shooter has been apprehended.  (Usually these killers end up taking their own lives after their deadly rampages).  As Gitta Sereny did with her “monsters,” this man will be subject to endless hours of interrogation, questioning, probing, psychological analysis and more.  I am ignorant of Colorado’s official position on the death penalty.  So, this man will either be executed or spend the rest of his natural life in prison. The authorities will  want to know how this horrific and murderous shooting spree was conceived and executed.  But we will primarily want to know why?  What possible motive could have been behind this terrible crime?  If any answers are forthcoming, I believe that we will learn that this recent “monster” was not born but made.

As a footnote to the above, I have to ask:  Is there no longer any place that we can go to and feel safe?  Or send our children to with that feeling of safety?  The local movie theatre is a place of retreat  from the grind of daily life.  There is and always has been something escapist about going to the movies.  Who is going to go see a film, at least in the immediate future, without a feeling of unease or a certain “it could happen here” apprehension?   This is the world we live in …

Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Keeping a Prayer Rule

Dear Parish Faithful,

Below I am forwarding a recent correspondence carried out between a sincere Orthodox Christian and myself concerning the creation of a Prayer Rule meant for daily use in one’s personal prayer.  I recently received this person’s request for assistance and that is the first thing that you will read.  I really appreciated this person’s honesty, but also the resolve to establish regular prayer as a daily practice.  My response was written as a direct answer to this person’s letter, so not everything written may mean the same to everyone reading this correspondence; but I am hoping that it can serve as a general answer to how we can effectively approach some of the issues in properly using a Rule of Prayer.

Please pass along any further questions that you may have, perhaps prompted by this shared correspondence.

 ~ ~ ~

Dear Fr. Steven,

I have been listening to a series of talks about prayer that I stumbled across on Ancient Faith Radio, specifically on keeping a personal prayer rule. I think I would like to develop a more specific prayer rule.  I’ve tried doing so myself on my own (before starting to listen to the talks) and can’t seem to be as consistent as I intended to be.   One of the things that the priest talks about is that you should ask your spiritual father and not just make up a rule on your own.  A second point he makes is that it’s better to start small and learn to be faithful every day, and then build more, rather than starting with a rule that is too hard, because it’s not about accomplishing something but about praying.

To the prayer rule subject:  I do sort of have a rule already. Often times I say the morning  prayers (starting with the trisagion etc.) and once in a while the evening prayers. But I'm not very consistent--sometimes when I wake up i just cross myself and go about my day, or not even. Oddly, it is almost never because I truly forget to pray--I always think about it, but decide I am too restless to take the time to be still. And when I do stop to actually do the prayers, I'm often times distracted, bored, restless and feel like it's a waste of time. On those days, it's like I didn't even pray at all and I usually find the distraction stays with me all day. At night, I persuade myself I'm just too tired to pray for five minutes and God probably wants me to sleep and be healthy. One thing that has helped is sometimes I just say the Jesus prayer for 10-15 mins. Sometimes that really makes me face my restlessness. But I don't think I should just be saying the Jesus prayer... I don't know.

So I guess in wanting to develop a Prayer Rule, it is more that struggle I have in mind (the distraction or lack of consistency) rather than getting into the regular habit of praying. I have enough of a habit ingrained in me to pray that I at least think about it regularly throughout the day and set time aside a few days a week...

~ ~ ~

Dear _____,

As “promised,” here is my response and pastoral guidance for your personal Rule of Prayer:

“The principle thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.”  (St. Theophan the Recluse)

First of all, your honest description of the self-generated obstacles that prevent you from consistently praying according to a disciplined pattern could serve as a spiritual textbook account of what prevents the majority of us from praying with any regularity!   The key term that you used was “restless.”  It is our minds, more than our bodies, that are restless.  Hence, we cannot pause to pray; or we rush through our prayer distracted and bored.  This is a huge obstacle, and we must first admit and recognize this before any true “progress” can be made.  However, if I read the Fathers correctly there is no real “solution” short of perseverance and a commitment to stand before God and pray with humility and whatever faith we have at that moment.  As St. Macarius of Optina once said, “Offer to God, with humility, your dry and arid prayer.”  So, again, if I am reading the Fathers correctly, it is never a “waste of time” – even when we are very distracted and only intent upon getting through our prayer as quickly as possible!  Not praying, due to distraction, and then claiming that that is at least honest, sounds more likely to be a suggestion from the “enemy” who is the “father of lies.”

It is precisely the Jesus Prayer that is meant, over a period of time, to halt our rushing thoughts and subdue some of that restlessness of mind that our prayer suffers from.  So, your current practice of saying the Jesus Prayer for 10-15 minutes a day sounds like a good one to me.  If it makes you face your restlessness, all the better.  We have to start exactly from where we are at, and not at some idealistic, dreamy, and blind starting point that does not conform to reality.  Of course, the Jesus Prayer is meant to connect your set times of prayer that are established by your Rule; but I see no harm in doing the Jesus Prayer for the limited amount of time you mention even on those days when you neglect your Rule.

It sounds as if you are already quite informed of the traditional material available for us to begin a good Rule of Prayer, so I am not so sure what I could add here.  To respect our fast-paced lives and hence to be realistic about our daily capacity to set aside time for a Rule of Prayer, I would suggest the following as a basic structure – or “skeleton” – that you could fill in according to a standard Orthodox Prayer Book (I use ORTHODOX DAILY PRAYERS by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press):


+ Trisagion Prayers
+ Troparia to the Holy Trinity
+ Prayer of St. Basil the Great to the Most Holy Trinity
+ Psalm 50
+ The Symbol of Faith (The Creed)
+ A daily choice from among the ten morning prayers that follow
+  “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos”
+  O, Lord, save Thy people”
+  It is Truly Meet”
+  “Morning Prayer of the Last Optina Elders

I believe that this Rule can be done prayerfully and carefully within 10-15  minutes.  Of course, you may edit when necessary. With repeated practice, many of the prayers can be put to memory, and we are not as dependent on our Prayer Book.  We then can add any other “spontaneous” prayer that we choose to; often in the form of interceding for others; thanking and glorifying God for something specific; perhaps over something we lament, etc.


+  Trisagion Prayers
+  Troparia that follow
+  A rotating choice of the next eleven prayers
+  Prayer of St. John of Damascus, said pointing at the bed
+  Final prayer of “Let God Arise”

This can also be edited when necessary.

Well, there is a little something that I sincerely hope will be helpful.  Please pass along any further questions or concerns.  By the way, do you have a copy of THE ART OF PRAYER?  This is an anthology of great texts and insights concerning prayer, that is predominantly chosen from the writing of St. Theophan the Recluse, a great 19th c. master of the “art of prayer.”  It is something of a condensed, and at times, more accessible version of THE PHILOKALIA.  It is available in a rather inexpensive paperback edition today.  I would highly recommend this book as it is filled with insight after insight into the challenging practice of effective prayer – from oral prayer to prayer of the heart.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

~ ~ ~ 

I then received the following reply shortly after sending my letter:

Dear Father Steven,

I really appreciated what you had to say.  The Prayer Book you mentioned is the same one I have loaded on my amazon kindle e-reader.  What you wrote is part of what I feel like a reconceptualization I am experiencing regarding prayer, that prayer cannot be hinged to a sense of convenience, and that most often it is better to go unprepared physically than unprepared spiritually into the day (i.e. that if you choose between taking a shower and praying in the morning, and you consistently choose the former, then something is wrong with both your time management and priorities.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Do You Want to be Healed?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Do you want to be healed?” (JN. 5:6)

Yesterday evening we had a very well-attended Bible Study as we resumed our reading and discussion of the Gospel According to St. John. As always, that is more than a little encouraging and I hope we continue in that spirit for the remainder of our Bible Study.  Clearly, then, we have not  lost our momentum!   We discussed the “sign” of the healing of the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and the profound discourse to follow (JN. 5).  Archeologists have fairly recently discovered this pool demonstrating the accuracy of St. John’s description.  The paralytic had taken his place among a human throng of chronic misery, described by the evangelist as “a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed” (v. 3).  Being there for thirty-eight years and not being able to experience what were believed to be the healing capacities of the waters of the pool, the paralytic seemed resigned to his destiny.  Then Jesus appeared.  He saw the paralytic and He knew of his plight.  And then Jesus asked the paralytic a very pointed and even poignant question:  “Do you want to be healed?” (v. 6).  Surprisingly, considering what must have been his own misery, the paralytic’s answer was less than direct and not exactly enthusiastic:  “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me” (v. 7).  Nevertheless, and even though the paralytic does not commit himself to an act of faith in the healing power of Jesus, he receives the following directive from Jesus:  “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  And then, in that somewhat laconic style of describing the healing power of Christ that characterizes the Gospel accounts, we read simply:  “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked” (v. 9).  The “sign” is that Christ can restore wholeness to those in need.

I believe that we need to concentrate on the question Jesus posed to the paralytic, “Do you want to be healed?”  (The King James version of the question is:  “Wilt thou be made whole?”)  For, if the various characters that Jesus encountered in the Gospels are also representatives or “types” of a particular human condition, dilemma, or state of being; then the question of Jesus remains alive in each generation and is thus posed to each of us today.  If sin is a sickness, then we are “paralyzed” by that sin to one degree or another of intensity.  But do we really want to be healed of the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives?  The answer seems obvious, even a “no-brainer,” but is that truly the case?  Or, are we more-or-less content with continuing as we are, satisfied that perhaps this is “as good as it gets” in terms of our relationship with God and our neighbors?   Do we manage to politely deflect the probing question of Christ elsewhere, counter-posing a reasonable excuse as to what prevents us from exerting the necessary energy from our side?  Our teaching claims that we must also  contribute to the synergistic process of divine grace and human freedom that works together harmoniously for our healing.  Perhaps it is easier and more comfortable to stay as we are – after all, it’s really not that bad - a position reflected in the noncommittal response of the paralytic.  For to be further healed of sin will mean that we will have to make some changes in our life, in our interior attitudes and in our relationships.  It certainly means that we will have to confess our faith in Christ with a greater intensity, urgency and commitment.  Are we up to that challenge?

Actually, we could more accurately say that we have already been healed.  That happened when we were baptized into Christ.  (There are baptismal allusions in the healing of the paralytic by the pool of water).  Every human person is paralyzed by the consequences of sin, distorting the image of God in which we were initially created.   Baptism was meant to put to death the sin that is within us.  We were healed, in that baptism is the pledge to life everlasting, where death itself is swallowed up in the victory of Christ over death.  For we are baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ. So, with a slight variation, the question of Christ could also imply:  Do you rejoice in the fact that you have been healed, and does your way of life reflect the faith and joy that that great healing from sin and death has imparted to you?   Are you willing to continue in the struggle that is necessary to keep that healing “alive” within you?  Direct and simple questions can get complicated, often by the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives.  We can then get confused as to how to respond to such essential questions.  Every time we walk into the church we are being asked by Christ:  “Do you want to be healed?”  Responding with a resounding “yes!” would be a “sign” of the faith, hope and love that are within us by the grace of God.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Regaining our Momentum

Dear Parish Faithful,

We are all aware of the more popular usage of the term “momentum.”  It implies “a strength or force gained by motion or through the development of events,” according to the second definition in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.  It is used in a variety of settings:  a political candidate may be carried to victory on a wave of momentum that “the development of events” has created in his/her favor.  In the world of sports, we know that  during a game the players and spectators can sense that the “momentum” may shift from one team to the other.  That shift can be the key moment that may determine the outcome of the game.  A team is said to have “momentum” when it is on a winning streak, etc.  (Although when pressed, it is almost impossible to scientifically measure the over-all effect of this supposed momentum that is carrying a team forward on its irrepressible waves.  And for baseball aficionados, a manager once said that a team’s momentum is only as good as its next starting pitcher!).   On the other hand “to lose one’s momentum” is something to be avoided at all costs.  It implies the inevitability of defeat.

Be that as it may, perhaps we can apply the popular notion of momentum to parish life.  On the one hand, it seems clear that a parish “loses” any momentum that it gained once we reach the summer months.  Great Lent and Pascha – and all of that spiritual discipline/momentum and the “springtime of the soul”  - are, alas, at best faint or forgotten memories.  The Apostles Fast does not seem to be a momentum-creating event in the over-all life of the parish.  And the “dog days of summer” drain away any momentum before it can gather any strength or force.  Of course, this is the time of year for vacations that take us all in different directions for periods of time.  The “development of events” on the parish level during the summer are simply not conducive to generate that mysterious and hard-to-define entity that we call “momentum.”  A parish “gets through” or even “survives” the summer through its weekly celebration of the Lord’s Day Liturgy, awaiting the restorative qualities of the Fall.  (Although, the Dormition Fast should serve as a momentum-shifter in parish life when it comes in the first week of August.  We will explore those possibilities when the time comes).

Yet, there is an exception to the above.  And that exception comes to us in the form of our Summer Bible Study.  This parish event connects the Sundays in a very meaningful way, as the vertical dimension of reading the living Word of God is intersected by the horizontal dimension of communal fellowship.  And that intersection gives us the Cross on which the Son of Man was “lifted up” according to St. John’s Gospel.  My concern is that we will lose the wonderful momentum that we generated in our first four sessions, because we missed last week due to the Fourth of July falling on a Wednesday this year, and that is the chosen day of our sessions.  For a couple of this year’s sessions, we had record attendance, as our designated space was bursting with a wide variety of parishioners and some “guests” from outside of the parish, and we were scrambling to set up new tables and open us new seats.  Now that we are in July, vacations will start kicking in, but I want to encourage everyone to return to the Bible Study with the same enthusiasm manifested up to this point.  I returned from Detroit to find this very encouraging letter on my email server from one of our Study participants:

“The Bible Study has been really wonderful so far and I am seeing the Gospel in a new light.  The Orthodox prism always makes the text extraordinary and multi-dimensional.  It always remind me of a hologram – something that was previously two-dimensional and flat on the page, suddenly gains depth and perspective!”

Nice.  In a “nation of heretics,”  we will uncover the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

So our goal now is to recover the momentum generated in the first four sessions, as we continue our reading and study of the unique Gospel According to St. John. The Bible Study is the scheduled and enacted  “development of events” that lead to “strength or force” in the life of the parish.  Of course, that momentum is only experienced by the actual participants in the Bible Study.  Thus, as we start up again on Wednesday evening, I am extending an invitation to everyone to join us as we work to keep ourselves spiritually alive during the challenging summer months of parish life.  This is a parish-wide task.  We need your presence to help regain that momentum.  To return to a term from above, we have already experienced the “dog days of summer” as record temperatures have us scrambling for the cover of a cool atmosphere.  The weather as a conversation piece is now more meaningful than a “filler” that plugs up the awkward silences of a discussion that has been drained of content. By the end of one of these days, we seem to be running on empty.  And the intense heat makes us thirsty.   As we quench the thirst of our bodies with expensive bottled water, flavored ice tea, and juices or sodas; we need to think of the thirst of our souls for spiritual drink.  We know through experience that the drinks that will temporarily quench our bodily thirst, will leave us thirsty again shortly thereafter.  The thirst of our souls can be quenched by a drink that is long-lasting in its effect.  That drink comes in the form of the “living water” of the Gospel promised us by Christ.  This water can well up as a fountain of eternal life.  But we need to drink of it.   With this image in mind, perhaps we can expand the title of this summer’s Bible Study as we begin the second half on Wednesday evening:

To Drink the Living Water of the Gospel that Wells Up to Eternal Life.

Vespers – 7:00 p.m.
Bible Study – 7:45 p.m. (Ch. 5 of St. John’s Gospel – The Sign of the healing of the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda and the Discourse to follow).

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Nation of Heretics?

Dear Parish Faithful,

“Man is homo religiosus, by “nature” religious:  As much as he needs food to eat and air to breathe, he needs a faith for living … But – and this is the challenging word of Jewish-Christian faith – so long as he pursues this quest in self-sufficiency, relying on his own virtue, wisdom, or piety, it will not be God that he finds, but an idol – the self, or some aspect of the self, writ large, projected, objectified, and worshiped.”  - Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew

“The confusion avenges itself and becomes its own punishment.  The forgetting of the true God is already itself the breaking loose of his wrath against those who forget Him.”  - Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

Those two quotations above serve as introductory passages to a new book that will certainly generate a good deal of debate and even “soul-searching” among Christians, at least.  The new book is entitled Bad Religion – How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  The author is Ross Douthat, described as an op-ed columnist for the New York Times; former senior editor of The Atlantic; and film critic for National Review. Mr. Douthat is also a believing Roman Catholic of a traditionalist bent, and a politically conservative thinker.  I have periodically shared some of his more religiously-oriented op-ed articles with the parish.  I began his new book as a summer reading project, and find his take on the history of the last half-century or so of Christianity in America  quite fascinating; his often dreary analysis of the American religious scene more than moderately  eye-opening; and his basic thesis a rather unflinching challenge to any myopic conceit as to just how “Christian” we now are as a nation.  That basic thesis is approached in the book’s Prologue, entitled, significantly, “A Nation of Heretics.”  A representative paragraph begins to make the point:

   “The United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well.  But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses.  These faiths speak from many pulpits – conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual” – and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christian warrant.  But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.”  (p. 4)

Douthat follows this with a pithy paragraph that begins to explore some of the tensions, polarizations and bewildering “choices” of American Christianity that will be one of his major areas of analysis as the book progresses:

   “In this America, the ancient Christian teaching that the Scriptures are simultaneously divinely inspired and open to multiple interpretations has become an either/or choice instead.  You’re either a rigid fundamentalist who believes that dinosaurs just missed hitching a ride on Noah’s Ark, or a self-consciously progressive believer for whom the Bible is a kind of refrigerator magnet poetry, awaiting rearrangement by more enlightened minds.  As a result, the Jesus of the New Testament, whose paradoxical mix of qualities and commandments presents a challenge to every ideology and faction, has been replaced in the hearts and minds of many Americans with a more congenial figure – a “choose your own Jesus” who better fits their own preconceptions about what a savior should and shouldn’t be."  (p. 4-5)

A bit more scathingly, we hear the following critique of what can at times be a near-fatal mixture of Christianity and the modern American ethos:

   “Likewise, in this America the traditional Christian attempt to balance the belief that God desires human happiness with the reality of human suffering has been transformed into the simpler teaching that God wants everyone to get rich – that your house or car or high-paying job was intended for you from before the foundation of the world, and that the test of true faith is the rewards that it reaps for believers here on earth.  This result is a country where religion actively encourages the sort of recklessness that produces our current economic meltdown, rather than serving as a brake on materialism and a rebuke to avarice.  (p. 5)
   “This cannot but deeply influence our understanding of that fluid and mysterious entity we call the 'self':

   “In this America, too, the Christian teaching that every human soul is unique and precious has been stressed, by the prophets of self-fulfillment and gurus of self-love, at the expense of the equally important teaching that every human soul is fatally corrupted by original sin.  Absent the latter emphasis, religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness, easily employed to justify what used to be considered deadly sins.  The result is a society where pride becomes 'healthy self-esteem', vanity becomes 'self-improvement', adultery becomes 'following your heart', greed and gluttony become 'living the American dream'.”  (p. 5)

And then we come to the book’s thesis stated succinctly and bluntly:

   “This is the real story of religion in America.  For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is:  not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.”  (p. 6)

Just for the record  – I agree!

For those who come from the historical Christian faiths rooted in the Scriptures, the ancient liturgies and the writings of the Fathers, America has always bred its share of heretics, from early Deism to the transcendentalism of Emerson; from Mormonism to Christian Science and Scientology.  Douthat recognizes and acknowledges all of that by writing, “Pushing Christianity to one extreme of another is what Americans have always done.  We’ve been making idols of our country, our pocketbooks, and our sacred selves for hundreds of years.”  But he persists in his over-all thesis with an early conclusion:  “What’s changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response”  (p. 8, emphasis added).

From there, we come to Part I:  Christianity in Crisis.  The four chapters of this first part outline this crisis:  “The Lost World;” “The Locust Years;” “Accommodation;” and “Resistance.”  Here is where Douthat gives a basic overview of how Christianity has collapsed from an early post-war renaissance, inspired by four major figures of the era – Reinhold Niebhur, Billy Graham, Cardinal Fulton Sheen and Martin Luther King Jr. – to its present malaise of lacking any orthodox foundation and being polarized in a stalemate between “conservatives” and “liberals.”  But at its best, Douthat believes and argues that there existed at least a basic “consensus,” a basic orthodoxy that Christians for the most part agreed upon and practiced.  A couple of paragraphs outlining this consensus is something that we as Orthodox Christians would gladly embrace:

   “What defines this consensus, above all – what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta – is a commitment to mystery and paradox.  Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding.

   “Thus orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil.  They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and somehow also essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew.  They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament God of love and mercy.  They claim that this God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin.  They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead.  And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God’s Kingdom for all the extremes of human life – fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.”  (p. 10)

That is what we, as members of the Orthodox Church, have to offer to American society and to the world.  Sadly, there is no mention or reference to Orthodox Christianity in what is proving to be a fairly comprehensive overview of Christianity in America.  That is a defect, small and demographically unimpressive that we may be to this day.  Be that as it may, this is proving to be a very provocative and challenging book (I just completed Part I).  I hope to offer a sketch of Part II once I get into or through it.  The Conclusion promises to be positive, as it is entitled “The Recovery of Christianity.” But I would imagine that that will be a daunting task after a convincing argument that we are a “nation of heretics.”  Yet, we remember the words of Christ:  With God, all things are possible!