Note to Orthodox Evolutionists: Stop Trying to Retroactively ?̶ℎ̶?̶?̶?̶ℎ̶?̶?̶ Recruit the Fathers to Your Camp!

Cover for Origins Questions: Creation, Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Orthodoxy

At least some bishops explicitly allow their faithful flock to believe theistic evolution, young earth creation, or any of several other options.

This article is not meant to say you can’t be Orthodox and believe in evolution. It is, however, meant to say that you can’t be Orthodox and misrepresent Church Fathers as saying things more convenient to evolution than what they really said.

Two examples of a telling symptom: Fishy, suspicious arguments

Alexander Kalomiros is perhaps a forerunner to Orthodox finding a profound harmony between the Church Fathers and evolution. To pick one of many examples, Kalomiros’s On the Six Days of Creation cites St. Basil the Great as saying, “Therefore, if you say a day or an age, you express the same meaning” (homily 2 of St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation). So Dr. Kalamiros cites St. Basil as clearly saying that “day” is a term with a rather elastic meaning, implying an indefinite length.

Something really piqued my curiosity, because a young earth Creationist cited the same saint, the same book, and even the same homily as Kalamiros, but as supporting the opposite conclusion: “one day” means “one day,” period.

I honestly wondered, “Why on earth?” Why would the same text be cited as a proof-text for “days” of quite open-ended length, but also a proof text for precise twenty-four hour days? So I read the homily of St. Basil that was in question. The result?

The young earther’s claim is easier to explain: St. Basil does, in fact, quite plainly claim a young earth, and treats this belief as non-negotiable. And what Kalomiros cites? The text is talking about something else when St. Basil moves from discussing the Creation to matters of eternity and the Last Judgment. One of the names for eternity is “the eighth day,” and in explaining the timelessness of eternity, St. Basil writes, “Thus whether you call it a day, or whether you call it eternity, you express the same idea.” Which is not exactly how Kalomiros quotes him, not exactly.

Kalomiros offers a quote out of context, and translates in a subtle but misleading wording, leading the reader to believe St. Basil clarified that a “day” [of Creation] can just as well be an “age” [of time]. This is sophistry. This is disingenuous. What is more, I cannot ever remember following one of Kalomiros’s footnotes supporting evolution and find an appropriate and responsible use of the original text. When I check things out, little if any of it checks out. And that’s a concern. When someone argues like that, the reader is being treated dishonestly, and deceptive argument is rarely the herald of truth.

Let me quote another of many examples celebrating a harmony between patristic Orthodoxy and evolution, Vladimir de Beer’s Genesis, Creation and Evolution. He writes:

The account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is known as the Hexaemeron (Greek for ‘six days’), on which a number of Greek and Latin Church fathers wrote commentaries. Some of them interpreted the six days of creation quite literally, like St Basil the Great who was much influenced by Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Yet the same Cappadocian father insisted that the scriptural account of creation is not about science, and that there is no need to discuss the essence (ousias) of creation in its scientific sense.[1] Others followed a more allegorical approach, such as St Gregory of Nyssa who saw the Hexaemeron as a philosophy of the soul, with the perfected creature as the final goal of evolution.

It has been my experience that for a certain kind of author one of the cheapest ways to dismiss a Father is to say that they were heavily influenced by some kind of non-Orthodox philosophy. Usually they don’t even give a footnote. St. Basil the Great is a Church Father and one of the Three Heirarchs, and if you are going to downplay whether his position is one we should believe, you should be doing a lot more than due diligence than making a dismissive bare assertion that he was heavily influenced by non-Orthodox forces.

But at least de Beer is kind enough to allow St. Basil to believe in six literal days. I am rather mystified by his treatment of St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose commentary On the Six Days of Creation is here. Are we referring to the same work?

St. Gregory’s commentary is not a allegorical interpretation, such as St. Maximus the Confessor’s way of finding allegory about ascesis and ascetical struggles in the details of the Gospel. It is if anything 90% a science lesson, or an Aristotelian science lesson at any rate, and at face value St. Gregory owes much more of a debt to Aristotle than St. Basil does. (At least St. Gregory spends vastly more time talking about earth, air, fire, and water.) St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation assumes and asserts that the days of Creation were, in fact, literal days. And that’s not the end. St. Gregory of Nyssa explicitly ascribes the highest authority and weight to St. Basil’s work and would almost certainly be astonished to find his work treated as a corrective to St. Basil’s problematically literal On the Six Days of Creation; St. Gregory’s attitude appears to be, “St. Basil made an excellent foundation and I want to build on it!” On all counts I can tell, St. Gregory does not provide a precedent for treating young earth creation as negotiable. De Beers may well have a friend among the Fathers, but St. Gregory is not that friend. And if this is his choice of friends, maybe he isn’t aware of many real, honest friends among the Fathers. St. Augustine may be his friend here, but if the Blessed Augustine is your only friend among the Fathers, you’re on pretty shaky ground.

Examples could easily be multiplied, but after a point it becomes somewhat tedious checking out more harmonizers’ footnotes and finding that, no indeed, they don’t check out.

Why it matters

Have you read much creation science seeking to use science to prove a young earth? The reason I’m asking is that that’s what scholars do when they use patristic resources to prove that Orthodoxy and evolution are in harmony. The kind of distortion of facts that they wouldn’t be caught dead in origins science is the kind of distortion of facts that is routine in those harmonizing Orthodoxy with evolution.

I wrote a thesis calling to task a Biblical Egalitarian treatment of the Haustafel in Ephesians, and it is part of my research and experience to believe that sophistry matters, because sophistry is how people seek to persuade when truth is against them. And when I see misrepresentation of sources, that betrays a problem.

I myself do not believe in a young earth; I am an old earth creationist and have seriously entertained returning to belief in theistic evolution. I stand pretty much as far outside the patristic consensus as Orthodox evolutionists. But I don’t distort the Fathers to shanghai recruit them to my position.

It may well be that with knowledge that wasn’t available to St. Gregory and his fellow Fathers, the intellectual dishonesty and distortion needed to believe in a young earth may be greater than saying, “I know the Fathers’ consensus and I remain outside of it.” That’s not ideal, but it is infinitely better than distorting the Fathers’ consensus to agree with you.

It is better by far to acknowledge that you are outside the Fathers’ consensus than make them agree with you. If you are an Orthodox evolutionist, please stop shanghaiing recruiting ancient Fathers to your camp.

A helpful analogy: What are the elements?

Some Protestants made young-earth creationism almost “the article by which the Church stands or falls,” and much of young-earth and old-earth creationism in Orthodoxy, and evolution, is shaped by that Protestant “article by which the Church stands or falls.”

Today’s young-earth creationism and theistic evolution are merely positions on a ballot in single-issue voting, and single-issue voting that was unknown to the Fathers. There are other issues.

(What other issues are there, you ask?)

Let me give my standard question in dealing with young-earth Orthodox who are being pests and perhaps insinuating that my Orthodoxy is impaired if I don’t believe their position: “Are we obligated to believe that the elements are earth, air, fire, water, and maybe aether?”

If that question seems to come from out of the blue, let me explain:

St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation takes a position we can relate to readily enough even if we disagree:

“And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Evening is then the boundary common to day and night; and in the same way morning constitutes the approach of night to day… Why does Scripture say “one day the first day”? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says “one day,” it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day-we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.

That’s on our radar. What’s not on our radar is how bluntly St. Basil treats his day’s closest equivalent to modern chemistry, and please note that alchemy has nothing to do with this; he does not condemn alchemy as being occult, but chemistry as atheistic:

Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and [bonds], form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.

The emphatic alternative he offers is a belief in the four or five elements, earth, air, fire, water, and possibly the aether. This is something he finds in Genesis:

“And the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters.” Does this spirit mean the diffusion of air? The sacred writer wishes to enumerate to you the elements of the world, to tell you that God created the heavens, the earth, water, and air and that the last was now diffused and in motion; or rather, that which is truer and confirmed by the authority of the ancients, by the Spirit of God, he means the Holy Spirit.

St. Basil takes the text to mean more than just that water exists; he takes it to mean that water is an element. Nor is St. Basil the only one to make such claims; as mentioned earlier, St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation is not in the business of condemning opposing views, but it not only assumes literal days for Creation, but the “science” of earth, air, fire, and water is writ large, and someone wishing to understand how ancients could see science and cosmology on those terms has an invaluable resource in St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation. Furthermore, the view of the four elements is ensconced in Orthodox liturgy: the Vespers for Theophany, which is arguably the central text for Orthodox understanding of Creation, enumerates earth, air, fire, and water as the four elements. To my knowledge, no Orthodox liturgy ensconces the implicit atheism of modern chemistry.

What are we to make of this? Does this mean that modern chemistry is off-limits to Orthodox, and that Orthodox doctors should only prescribe such drugs as the ancient theory would justify? God forbid! I bring this point up to say that the obvious answer is, “Ok, there is a patristic consensus and I stand outside of it,” and that this answer can be given without shanghaiing recruiting the Fathers to endorse modern chemistry. When science and astronomy were formed, someone was reported to say, “The Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven, not a book about how the Heavens go,” and while it may be appropriate to say “On pain of worse intellectual dishonesty, I must accept an old earth and chemistry as worth my provisional assent,” it is not appropriate to distort the Church Fathers into giving a rubber stamp to beliefs they would reject.

Drawing a line in the sand at a young earth is a Protestant invention that has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, but casting the opposite vote of theistic evolution in a single-issue vote is also short of the Orthodox tradition. In reading the Fathers, one encounters claims of a young earth. However, often (if not always) the claim is one among many disputes with Greek philosophers or what have you. To my knowledge there is no patristic text in which a young earth is the central claim, let alone even approach being “the article by which the Church stands or falls.” Single-issue voting here, even for evolution, is not an Orthodox phenomenon except as it has washed in from Protestant battle lines. If an Orthodox who questions the Orthodoxy of old-earthers is being (crypto-)Protestant, the Orthodox who cites the Fathers in favor of evolution is only slightly less so—and both distort the truth.

The young-earth Creation Science makes scientific evidence bow before its will. The Orthodox evolutionist makes the Church Fathers bow before his will. Which is the more serious offense? “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.

“When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

One Protestant friend said that I had a real knack for insulting analogies. The comment came after I said of mainstream Evangelical “Christian art” that it worked on the same communication principle as hard porn: “Make every point with a sledgehammer and leave nothing to the imagination but the plot.” And I have used that ability here: I have said that Orthodox evolutionists writing of harmony between evolution and the Church Fathers are treating patristic texts the same way creation scientists treat scientific evidence. Ouch.The Orthodox-evolutionary harmonizers are playing the same single-issue politics game as their young-earth counterparts, and are only different by casting the opposite vote. Ouch.

Is there a method to this madness?

I cannot forbid origins questions altogether, for reasons not least of which I am not tonsured even as a reader, let alone being your heirarch or priest. At least some heirarchs have refused to decide for their flock what they may believe: perhaps people are expected to find God’s hand at work in creation, but the exact mechanism of involvement, and time frame, are not decided. But I could wish something like the theology surrounding the holy mysteries, where in contrast to the detailed, point by point Roman account, the Orthodox Church simply says that at one point in the Divine Liturgy the gifts are only (blessed) bread and wine, and at a certain later point they have become the body and blood of Christ, and beyond that point speculation is not allowed.

There are some questions where having the right answer is less valuable than not asking the question at all. Origins questions in the scientific sense do not loom large in the Fathers, and what little there is appears not to match scientific data. But this is not a defect in the Fathers. It is, if anything, a cue that our society’s preoccupation with science is not particularly Orthodox in spirit, and perhaps something that doesn’t belong in Orthodoxy. Again, Religion and Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.

But for the interim, for people who need an answer and are good enough scientists to see through Creation Science, please do not shanghai recruit the Church Fathers to rubber stamp the present state of scientific speculation. For starters, science is less important than you may think. But that’s just for starters.

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Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthane?

Cover for A Cord of Seven Strands

(Please let me know if you would like to own the original painting!)

Christ crying out from the cross.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from my deliverance and the words of my groaning?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
By night, and am not silent.
But you are holy,
You who are enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
They trusted and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm and not a man,
Reproached by men, and despised by the people.
All who see me laugh at me,
They separate the lip, they shake their heads:
“He trusts in the Lord, let him deliver him,
Let him rescue him, if he delights in him!”
Yet you did take me from my mother’s womb;
You have kept me safe on my mother’s breasts.
Upon you I was cast from my birth,
And you have been my God from my mother’s womb.
Be not far off from me,
For trouble is near,
And there is none to help.
Many bulls have surrounded me,
Strong bulls of Bashan encompass me;
They open wide their mouths at me,
Like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like wax;
It is melted within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
And my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
You do lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs have surrounded me,
A band of evildoers have encompassed me;
They pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
They look, they stare at me;
They divide my garments among them,
And for my clothing they cast lots.
Be not far off from em, for there is none to help!
O you my deliverance, hasten to my assistance.
Save my soul from the sword,
My only life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion,
my only life from the horns of wild oxen!
I will tell of your name to my brethren;
In the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you sons of Jacob, glorify him.
Stand in awe of him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
neither has he hidden his face from him,
but he cried out to him, and he heard.
From you comes my praise in the congregation;
I will pay my vows before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
Those who seek the Lord shall praise him.
Let your heart live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
And turn to the Lord;
All the families of nations
Shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
And he rules over the nations.
All the wealthy shall eat and worship;
all who go down to the dust will bow before him,
Even he who cannot keep his soul alive!
Posterity shall serve him.
They shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation,
And tell of his deliverance to a people not yet born—
That he has performed it.

Psalm 22: first verse quoted by Jesus as he lay in agony, dying on the cross.

The religious leaders knew the Scriptures by heart, and when Jesus quoted the first words, it was as if he had quoted the entire psalm. Perhaps more powerful: Jesus spoke the first words and was then silent as they recalled the words and saw prophecy fulfilled before their eyes.

The opening words, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthane?” are the only sentence in the entire New Testament where Jesus is quoted in his native tongue.

The words quoted are the words I memorized one Lent — the only time I have been able to memorize a chapter verbatim. I am not sure I have captured every word the same, and I used a Bible to help me recall.

The painting shown is an imperfect copy of a vision I had Wednesday of Holy Week, 1993.

Explore a high quality fine art reproduction of this work, entitled, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthane?

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An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Surgeon General’s Warning

Roman Catholic readers are asked to seriously consider hitting the “Back” button and not reading further than this warning.

This piece is being kept online for the benefit of Orthodox readers.

Rome’s position is that Rome and Orthodoxy agree on all essentials needed for appropriate reunion. Orthodoxy’s position is that there are unresolved essential differences which need to be addressed before appropriate reunion. This piece is intended to specifically, clearly, forcefully, and bluntly articulate some (not all) of unresolved essential differences for what is held as essential in the Orthodox Church in response to Roman communication that acknowledged no genuine Orthodox objection to Roman ecumenism. It remains posted because it may be helpful for Orthodox who are searching for why Orthodoxy disagrees with Rome and Roman ecumenism.

You have been warned.

There is an elephant in the room.But Catholics are very skilled at NOT seeing it.

What might be called “the Orthodox question”

I expect ecumenical outreach to Orthodox has been quite a trying experience for Catholics. It must seem to Catholics like they have made Orthodoxy their top ecumenical priority, and after they have done their best and bent over backwards, many Orthodox have shrugged and said, “That makes one of us!” or else made a nastier response. And I wonder if Catholics have felt a twinge of the Lord’s frustration in saying, “All day long I have held out my hands to a rebellious and stubborn people.” (Rom 10:21)

In my experience, most Catholic priests have been hospitable: warm to the point of being warmer to me than my own priests. It almost seems as if the recipe for handling Orthodox is to express a great deal of warmth and warmly express hope for Catholics and Orthodox to be united. And that, in a nutshell, is how Catholics seem to conceive what might be called “the Orthodox question.”

And I’m afraid I have something painful to say. Catholics think Orthodox are basically the same, and that they understand us. And I’m asking you to take a tough pill to swallow: Catholics do not understand Orthodox. You think you do, but you don’t.

I’d like to talk about an elephant in the room. This elephant, however painfully obvious to Orthodox, seems something Catholics are strikingly oblivious to.

A conciliatory gesture (or so I was told)

All the Orthodox I know were puzzled for instance, that the Pope thought it conciliatory to retain titles such as “Vicar of Jesus Christ,” “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles,” and “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,” but drop “Patriarch of the West.” Orthodox complain that the Roman bishop “was given primacy but demanded supremacy,” and the title “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church” is offensive. Every bishop is the successor of the prince of the apostles, so reserving that title to the Pope is out of line. But Orthodoxy in both ancient and modern times regard the Pope as the Patriarch of Rome, and the Orthodox Church, having His Holiness IGNATIUS the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, has good reason to call the Patriarch of Rome, “the Patriarch of the West.” The response I heard to His Holiness Benedict dropping that one title while retaining the others, ranged from “Huh?” to, “Hello? Do you understand us at all?”

What Catholics never acknowledge

That is not a point I wish to belabor; it is a relatively minor example next to how, when in my experience Catholics have warmly asked Orthodox to reunify, never once have I seen any recognition or manifest awareness of the foremost concern Orthodox have about Rome and Constantinople being united. Never once have I seen mere acknowledgment of the Orthodox concern about what Rome most needs to repent of.

Let me clarify that slightly. I’ve heard Catholics acknowledge that Catholics have committed atrocities against Orthodox in the past, and Catholics may express regrets over wrongs from ages past and chide Orthodox for a lack of love in not being reunified. But when I say, “what Rome most needs to repent of,” I am not taking the historian’s view. I’m not talking about sack of the Constantinople, although people more Orthodox than me may insist on things like that. I am not talking about what Rome has done in the past to repent of, but what is continuing now. I am talking about the present tense, and in the present tense. When Catholics come to me and honor Orthodoxy with deep warmth and respect and express a desire for reunion, what I have never once heard mention of is the recantation of Western heresy.

This may be another tough pill to swallow. Catholics may know that Orthodox consider Catholics to be heretics, but this never enters the discussion when Catholics are being warm and trying to welcome Orthodox into their embrace. It’s never acknowledged or addressed. The warm embrace instead affirms that we have a common faith, a common theology, a common tradition: we are the same, or so Orthodox are told, in all essentials. If Orthodox have not restored communion, we are told that we do not recognize that we have all the doctrinal agreement properly needed for reunification.

But don’t we agree on major things? Rome’s bishops say we do!

I would like to outline three areas of difference and give some flesh to the Orthodox claim that there are unresolved differences. I would like to outline one issue about what is theology, and then move on to social ethics, and close on ecumenism itself. I will somewhat artificially limit myself to three; some people more Orthodox than me may wonder why, for instance, I don’t discuss the filioque clause (answer: I am not yet Orthodox enough to appreciate the importance given by my spiritual betters, even if I do trust that they are my spiritual betters). But there’s a lot in these three.

To Catholics who insist that we share a common faith, I wish to ask a question that may sound flippant or even abrasive. A common faith? Really? Are you ready to de-canonize Thomas Aquinas and repudiate his scholasticism? The Orthodox Church’s response to the Renaissance figure Barlaam and Aristotelianism.Orthodox faith is something incompatible with the “theology” of Thomas Aquinas, and if you don’t understand this, you’re missing something fundamental to Orthodox understandings of theology. And if you’re wondering why I used quotes around “theology,” let me explain. Or, perhaps better, let me give an example.

See the two texts below. One is chapter 5 in St. Dionysius (or, if you prefer, pseudo-Dionysius), The Mystical Theology. That gem is on the left. To the right is a partial rewriting of the ideas in the style of Thomas Aquinas’sSumma Theologiæ.

St. Dionysius the Areopagite, “The Mystical Theology” Rewritten in the scholastic style of Thomas Aquinas
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense that we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond every assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, it is also beyond every denial. Question Five: Whether God may accurately be described with words and concepts.

Objection One: It appears that God may be accurately described, for otherwise he could not be described as existing. For we read, I AM WHO AM, and if God cannot be described as existing, then assuredly nothing else can. But we know that things exist, therefore God may be accurately described as existing.

Objection Two: It would seem that God may be described with predicates, for Scripture calls him Father, Son, King, Wisdom, etc.

Objection Three: It appears that either affirmations or negations must accurately describe God, for between an affirmation and its negation, exactly one of them must be true.

On the Contrary, I reply that every affirmation and negation is finite, and in the end inadequate beyond measure, incapable of containing or of circumscribing God.

We should remember that the ancients described God in imperfect terms rather than say nothing about him at all…

Lost in translation?

There is something lost in “translation” here. What exactly is lost? Remember Robert Frost’s words, “Nothing of poetry is lost in translation except for the poetry.” There is a famous, ancient maxim in the Orthodox Church’s treasured Philokalia saying, “A theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian:” theology is an invitation to prayer. And the original Mystical Theology as rendered on the left is exactly that: an invitation to prayer, while the rewrite in the style of the Summa Theologiæ has been castrated: it is only an invitation to analysis and an impressively deft solution to a logic puzzle. The ideas are all preserved: nothing of the theology is lost in translation except for the theology. And this is part of why Archimandrite Vasileos, steeped in the nourishing, prayerful theology of the Orthodox Church, bluntly writes in Hymn of Entry that scholastic theology is “an indigestible stone.”

Thomas Aquinas drew on Greek Fathers and in particular St. John the Damascene. He gathered some of the richest theology of the East and turned it into something that is not theology to Orthodox: nothing of the Greek theology was lost in the scholastic translation but the theology! And there is more amiss in that Thomas Aquinas also drew on “the Philosopher,” Aristotle, and all the materialistic seeds in Aristotelianism. (The Greeks never lost Aristotle, but they also never made such a big deal about him, and to be called an Aristotelian could be a strike against you.) There is a spooky hint of the “methodological agnosticism” of today’s academic theology—the insistence that maybe you have religious beliefs, but you need to push them aside, at least for the moment, to write serious theology. The seed of secular academic “theology” is already present in how Thomas Aquinas transformed the Fathers.

This is a basic issue with far-reaching implications.

Am I seriously suggesting that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas? Not exactly. I am trying to point out what level of repentance and recantation would be called for in order that full communion would be appropriate. I am not seriously asking that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas. I am suggesting, though, that Rome begin to recognize that nastier and deeper cuts than this would be needed for full communion between Rome and Orthodoxy. And I know that it is not pleasant to think of rejoining the Orthodox Church as (shudder) a reconciled heretic. I know it’s not pleasant. I am, by the grace of God, a reconciled heretic myself, and I recanted Western heresy myself. It’s a humbling position, and if it’s too big a step for you to take, it is something to at least recognize that it’s a big step to take, and one that Rome has not yet taken.

The Saint and the Activist

Let me describe two very different images of what life is for. The one I will call “the saint” is that, quite simply, life is for the contemplation of God, and the means to contemplation is largely ascesis: the concrete practices of a life of faith. The other one, which I will call, “the activist,” is living to change the world as a secular ideology would understand changing the world. In practice the “saint” and the “activist” may be the ends of a spectrum rather than a rigid dichotomy, but I wish at least to distinguish the two, and make some remarks about modern Catholic social teaching.

Modern Catholic social teaching could be enlightened. It could be well meant. It could be humane. It could be carefully thought out. It could be a recipe for a better society. It could be providential. It could be something we should learn from, or something we need. It could be any number of things, but what it absolutely is not is theology. It is absolutely not spiritually nourishing theology. If, to Orthodox, scholastic theology like that of Thomas Aquinas is as indigestible as a stone, modern Catholic social teaching takes indigestibility to a whole new level—like indigestible shards of broken glass.

The 2005 Deus Caritas Est names the Song of Songs three times, and that is without precedent in the Catholic social encyclicals from the 1891 Rerum Novarum on. Look for references to the Song of Songs in their footnotes—I don’t think you’ll find any, or at least I didn’t. This is a symptom of a real problem, a lack of the kind of theology that would think of things like the Song of Songs—which is highly significant. The Song of Songs is a favorite in mystical theology, the prayerful theology that flows from faith, and mystical theology is not easily found in the social encyclicals. I am aware of the friction when secular academics assume that Catholic social teaching is one more political ideology to be changed at will. I give some benefit of the doubt to Catholics who insist that there are important differences, even if I’m skeptical over whether the differences are quite so big as they are made out to be. But without insisting that Catholic social teaching is just another activist ideology, I will say that it is anything but a pure “saint” model, and it mixes in the secular “activist” model to a degree that is utterly unlawful to Orthodox.

Arius is more scathingly condemned in Orthodox liturgy than even Judas. And, contrary to current fashion, I really do believe Arius and Arianism are as bad as the Fathers say. But Arius never dreamed either of reasoning out systematic theology or of establishing social justice. His Thalia are a (perhaps very bad) invitation to worship, not a systematic theology or a plan for social justice. In those regards, Catholic theology not only does not reach the standard of the old Orthodox giants: it does not even reach the standard of the old arch-heretics!

Catholics today celebrate Orthodoxy and almost everything they know about us save that we are not in full communion. Catholic priests encourage icons, or reading the Greek fathers, or the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But what Catholics may not always be mindful of is that they celebrate Orthodoxy and put it alongside things that are utterly anathema to Orthodox: like heartily endorsing the Orthodox Divine Litugy and placing it alongside the Roman mass, Protestant services, Unitarian meetings, Hindu worship, and the spiritualist séance as all amply embraced by Rome’s enfolding bosom.

What we today call “ecumenism” is at its root a Protestant phenomenon. It stems from how Protestants sought to honor Christ’s prayer that we may all be one, when they took it as non-negotiable that they were part of various Protestant denominations which remained out of communion with Rome. The Catholic insistance that each Protestant who returns to Rome heals part of the Western schism is a nonstarter for this “ecumenism:” this “ecumenism” knows we need unity but takes schism as non-negotiable: which is to say that this “ecumenism” rejects the understanding of Orthodox, some Catholics, and even the first Protestants that full communion is full communion and what Christ prayed for was a full communion that assumed doctrinal unity.

One more thing that is very important to many Orthodox, and that I have never once heard acknowledged or even mentioned by the Catholics reaching so hard for ecumenical embrace is that many Orthodox are uneasy at best with ecumenism. It has been my own experience that the more devout and more mature Orthodox are, the more certainly they regard ecumenism as a spiritual poison. Some of the more conservative speak of “ecumenism awareness” as Americans involved in the war on drugs speak of “drug awareness.”

Catholics can be a lot like Orthodox in their responses to Protestants and Protestant ideas of ecumenism; one might see a Catholic responding to an invitation to join an ecumenical communion service at First Baptist by saying something like,

I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as an Evangelical… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…

…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.

But Catholics seem to be a bit like Protestants in their ecumenical advances to Orthodox. If I understand correctly, whereas Rome used to tell Orthodox, “You would be welcome to take communion with us, but we would rather you obey your bishops,” now I am told by Rome that I may remain Orthodox while receiving Roman communion, and my reply is,

I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as any Catholic… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…

…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.

If the Roman Church is almost Orthodox in its dealings with Protestants, it in turn seems almost Protestant in its dealings with Orthodox. It may be that Rome looks at Orthodoxy and sees things that are almost entirely permitted in the Roman Church: almost every point of theology or spirituality that is the only way to do things in Orthodoxy is at least a permitted option to Roman Catholics. (So Rome looks at Orthodoxy, or at least some Romans do, and see Orthodox as something that can be allowed to be a full-fledged part of the Roman communion: almost as Protestants interested in ecumenism look at the Roman Church as being every bit as much a full-fledged Christian denomination as the best of Protestant groups.) But the reverse of this phenomenon is not true: that is, Orthodox do not look at Rome and say, “Everything that you require or allow in spiritual theology is also allowed in healthy Eastern Orthodoxy.” Furthermore, I have never seen awareness or sensitivity to those of Orthodox who do not consider ecumenism, at least between traditional communions, to be a self-evidently good thing to work for: Catholics can’t conceive of a good reason for why Orthodox would not share their puppyish enthusiasm for ecumenism. And I have never heard a Catholic who expressed a desire for the restoration for full communion show any perception or willingness to work for the Orthodox concerns about what needs to feed into any appropriate restoration of communion, namely the recantation of Western heresy represented by figures like Thomas Aquinas and not only by Mater et Magistra or liberal Catholic dissent (but I repeat myself).

Conclusion: are we at the eve of an explosion?

I may have mentioned several elephants in the room. Let me close by mentioning one more that many Orthodox are painfully aware of, even if Catholics are oblivious.

Orthodoxy may remind Western Christians of Rome’s ancient origins. But there is an important way in which I would compare Orthodoxy today to Western Christianity on the eve of the Reformation. Things hadn’t exploded. Yet. But there were serious problems and trouble brewing, and I’m not sure it’s that clear to people how much trouble is brewing.

Your ecumenical advances and efforts to draw us closer to Rome’s enfolding bosom come at a rough and delicate time:

What if, while there was serious trouble but not yet schisms spreading like wildfire, the East had reached out to their estranged Western brethren and said:

Good news! You really don’t need scholasticism… And you don’t exactly need transsubstantiation either… And you don’t need anywhere such a top-down Church heirarchy… And you really don’t need to be in communion with the Patriarch of Rome… And…

There is a profound schism brewing in the Orthodox Church. It may not be within your power to stop it, but it may be within your power to avoid giving it an early start, and it may be within your power to avoid making the wreckage even worse.

The best thing I can think of to say is simply, “God have mercy on us all.”

Cordially yours,
Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward
The Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt; Lent, 2009.

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Archdruid of Canterbury Visits Orthodox Patriarch

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The Archdruid of Canterbury appeared as head of a delegation to His Holiness THOMAS, Patriarch of Xanadu.

The Archdruid bore solemn greetings and ecumenical best wishes. He presented gifts, including an oak and holly icon, portraying St. Francis of Assisi as the pioneer of “I-Thou” existentialism. The icon was “not made by hands” (“all done by paw,” in the memorable words of Paddington Bear).

The Druidic leader spoke of the Orthodox Church with the most solemn reverence. “The Orthodox Church is not only Oriental and exotic, but has the most hauntingly beautiful liturgy achieves has what we are trying to engineer in our liturgical reform, and the Orthodox Church would make the perfect partner for the most dynamic and progressive forces that keep the C of E a living spiritual power in this world. St. Alban and St. Sergius are Anglican saints, but they are first and foremost Orthodox saints, and are only Anglican saints because they are Orthodox saints. I have personally blended the most excellent traditions of Druidic Bard and occupant of the See of Canterbury. We would be most deeply honoured if the existing profound (if invisible) bond uniting Orthodox, Anglican, and Druid were made explicit.”

After the Druid spoke for an hour, he paused in thought a moment, turned to His Holiness THOMAS and said, “But I fear I have done too much talking, while you have said nothing. Isn’t there anything you’d like to say? Don’t you have questions we could speak to?”

The Patriarch coughed, sat in silence for a moment, and began to squirm. “Have you considered pursuing ecumenical relations with the African majority in your own communion? I’ve dealt with some of them and they’re really quite solid people, with good heads on their shoulders.”

The Archdruid made no reply.

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Doxology

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How shall I praise thee, O Lord?
For naught that I might say,
Nor aught that I may do,
Compareth to thy worth.
Thou art the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named,
The Glory for whom all glory is named,
The Treasure for whom treasures are named,
The Light for whom all light is named,
The Love for whom all love is named,
The Eternal by whom all may glimpse eternity,
The Being by whom all beings exist,
יהוה
Ο ΩΝ.
The King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
Who art eternally praised,
Who art all that thou canst be,
Greater than aught else that may be thought,
Greater than can be thought.
In thee is light,
In thee is honour,
In thee is mercy,
In thee is wisdom, and praise, and every good thing.
For good itself is named after thee,
God immeasurable, immortal, eternal, ever glorious, and humble.
What mighteth compare to thee?
What praise equalleth thee?
If I be fearfully and wonderfully made,
Only can it be,
Wherewith thou art fearful and wonderful,
And ten thousand things besides,
Thou who art One,
Eternally beyond time,
So wholly One,
That thou mayest be called infinite,
Timeless beyond time thou art,
The One who is greater than infinity art thou.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
The Three who are One,
No more bound by numbers than by word,
And yet the Son is called Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ,
The Word,
Divine ordering Reason,
Eternal Light and Cosmic Word,
Way pre-eminent of all things,
Beyond all, and infinitesimally close,
Thou transcendest transcendence itself,
The Creator entered into his Creation,
Sharing with us humble glory,
Lowered by love,
Raised to the highest,
The Suffering Servant known,
The King of Glory,
Ο ΩΝ.

What tongue mighteth sing of thee?
What noetic heart mighteth know thee,
With the knowledge that drinketh,
The drinking that knoweth,
Of the νους,
The loving, enlightened spiritual eye,
By which we may share the knowing,
Of divinised men joining rank on rank of angels.

Thou art,
The Hidden Transcendent God who transcendest transcendence itself,
The One God who transfigurest Creation,
The Son of God became a Man that men might become the sons of God,
The divine became man that man mighteth become divine.

Beyond measure is thy glory,
The weight of thy power transcendeth,
Thy power of thine all-surpassing authority bespeaketh,
And yet art thou,
Not in fire, not earthquake,
Not wind great as maelstrom,
But in soft gentle whisper,
Thy prophets wait upon thee,
For thy silence is more deafening than thunder,
Thine weakness stronger than the strength of men,
Thy humility surpassingly far exceedeth men’s covetous thirst for glory,
Thou who hidst in a manger,
Treasure vaster than the Heavens,
And who offerest us glory,
In those things of our lives,
That seem humble to us,
As a manger rude in a cavern stable.

Thou Christ God, manifest among Creation,
Vine, lamb, and our daily bread,
Tabernacled among us who may taste thy glory,
Art come the priest on high to offer thy Creation up into Heaven,
Sanctified,
Transfigured,
Deified.

Wert thou a lesser god,
Numerically one as a creature is one,
Only one by an accident,
Naught more,
Then thou couldst not deify thine own creation,
Whilst remaining the only one god.

But thou art beyond all thought,
All word, all being,
We may say that thou existest,
But then we must say,
Thou art, I am not.
And if we say that we exist,
It is inadequate to say that thou existest,
For thou art the source of all being,
And beyond our being;
Thou art the source of all mind, wisdom, and reason,
Yet it is a fundamental error to imagine thee,
To think and reason in the mode of mankind.
Thou art not one god because there happeneth not more,
Thou art The One God because there mighteth not be another beside thee.
Thus thou spakest to Moses,
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Which is to say,
Thou shalt admit no other gods to my presence.

And there can be no other god beside thee,
So deep and full is this truth,
That thy Trinity mighteth take naught from thine Oneness,
Nor could it be another alongside thy divine Oneness,
If this God became man,
That man become god.

Great art thou,
Greater than aught that can be thought,
And thus dealest thou,
With thy Creation.

For thou camest into the world,
O Christ,
Thy glory veiled,
But a few could see thy glory,
In a seed.

But thou returnest soon,
In years, or centuries, or ages untold,
A day or a thousand years, soon,
Then a seed no more.
None shall escape seeing you,
Not an angel choir to shepherds alone,
But rank on rank of angel host.
Every eye shall see thee,
And they also which pierced thee,
Thou camest and a few knees bowed,
Thou wilt return,
And every knee shall bow,
And every tongue shall confess,
Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father,
As the Father triumphs in the Son.

Who mighteth tell of thy glory, thy might?
We hope for Heaven yet,
Yet the Heavens cannot contain thee.
Great art Ο ΩΝ,
And greatly to be praised.
Thou art awesome beyond all gods,
Who sayest,
Wound not my christs.
For the Son of God became the Son of Man,
That the sons of man might become the sons of God,
And the divine image,
The ancient and glorious foundation,
And radix of mankind,
Be transfigured,
Into the likeness of Christ,
And shine with uncreated Light,
The glory of God shining through his sons.

Let our spiritual eye be ever transfixed upon thine eternal radiant glory,
Our hearts ever seeking thy luminous splendour,
Ever questing,
Ever sated,
Slaked by the greatest of draughts,
Which inflameth thirst.

Glorified art thou,
In all ages,
In every age,
Thy soft, gentle whisper,
Speaking life,
In every here and now,
And today.

Let us give our lives,
To thine all-surpassing greatness,
From this day,
From this hour,
Henceforth and forevermore.

Αμην,
So be it. Amen.

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Dissent: Lessons from Being an Orthodox Student at a Catholic University

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Where to take our bearings: A telling starting point

I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in historical theology at a Catholic university. Part of this program was a seminar with various readings to help us get oriented to what history is and how we should approach it. One of the first readings, possibly the first, was Stafford Poole’s History versus Juan Diego (PDF).

The article had the ring of truth as far as the story it sketched out, but it is quite a grave matter to tell budding historical theologians that this is the sort of thing that should orient their study of history and historical theology.

The article raises grave concerns about the very existance of a major figure in Mexican piety and nationalism; the comparable equivalent as far as U.S. nationalism to go would be to uncover good reasons why we should believe that neither Thomas Jefferson nor Benjamin Franklin ever existed, and the only “evidence” that anyone believed in either of these men before the Civil War was a complete forgery. The lay faithful and clergy who disagreed with the author come across like the Three Stooges.

The article may have been appropriate in itself, and in this case the historian may have legitimately been a figure like the little boy who saw that the emperor had no clothes. But to enshrine this article in a seminar meant to give an orientation to history is another matter entirely, and paints the inspiring, romantic image of the heroic, noble historian who delves past popular piety and the decisions of clergy up to and including the Pope, heroically rips apart a cherished fixture that neither the faithful nor Church officials are noble or brave enough to question, and his trust is shamefully betrayed by the Vatican.

Making this a paradigm example of how a historian should interact with Church hierarchy and popular piety is like holding up, so people can get their bearings, a singularly improbable story about how someone, who was drunk, blindly shot a gun into a building and hit a fire extinguisher, putting out a deadly fire and saving several lives. The problem is not so much the original event, but the fact that the extremely unusual story is being used to give the impression that it is a good idea to get drunk and randomly shoot guns around in a city.

Even aside from classes taught by Catholic dissidents, the question of dissent loomed large in a class on “The Profession of Faith,” in which Rome asked some professors to be basically faithful to Catholic teaching. One of the questions was: If a Catholic scholar through research comes to a conclusion that seems to contradict what the Church teaches, and further communication and research clarifies that there is an irreconcilable difference between the scholar’s findings and the Church officials’ position, what should the scholar do? In the context of the class, with the examples and distinctions we had been asked to consider, this almost meant, “If this happens, how much pressure may the scholar appropriately use to bring the Catholic Church to accept his research, and what kinds of pressure are or are not appropriate?” And the professor was very gracious when I offered a different answer to the question of what a scholar should do: “It should be handled pastorally.”

My response was received very kindly, and welcomed as a breath of fresh air, but it was completely different from anything I had heard in the class up to that point. In the midst of discussing what scholars should do if their research collides with the Church, no one seemed to even consider the possibility that the discrepancy could be handled pastorally on the part of the researcher.

Thinking in terms of “private doubts”

There is a big difference between having a doubt and pressuring the Church to agree with you, and having a doubt which was handled pastorally. I remember one conversation with my godfather, who was complaining about people broadcasting their doubts in the fashion of a dissident theologian, and he saw this as a major problem. But he liked what I suggested about “private doubts,” meaning doubts that were handled pastorally and privately, struggled with, and brought to confession.

As far as “private doubt” is concerned, if you need to privately struggle to believe the deity of Christ, or the Church’s teaching on some aspect of sexuality, fine. It may not exactly be good, but people bring all kinds of sin to confession, and if an Orthodox Christian has doubts in light of scholarly study, this is no more unforgivable than any other sin that gets obliterated in confession. Doubts may be unfortunate, but if these doubts are handled as private doubts and dealt with pastorally, this is not the world’s biggest problem.

This point is why I was somewhat puzzled at journalists making a big to-do over the public announcement that Mother Theresa had painful doubts about God’s existence. (Some asked if she was really a crypto-atheist.) I was underwhelmed at the revelation and wanted to ask, “So?!?” We might have sympathy for her difficult spiritual struggle, but she evidently treated her doubts as private doubts, brought them to confession, and still served God in love to her neighbor. That is about as much as one can ask.

Are scholars’ difficulties really that different?

This is related to why I am a bit bothered when someone who reads the Bible devotionally shows respect to a scholar by saying that his own Bible study is just lightweight and insignificant, but the scholar with access to historical sources is doing the real, serious Bible study. It may be great if they can be humble and out of their humility respect the work of scholars, but the Bible is given by God for devotional use and it is backwards to say that the devout layman reading the Bible is making a flimsy and insubstantial study next to the serious work of scholars. I’ve seen a lot of methodical scholarship that is not nearly as interesting as the devotional reading of common people, and in theology it is simply not true that scholarship is the industrial strength tool to really understand things.

I know that it may appear plausible, even obvious, to place scholarship in a separate category as far as doubt and dissent goes from doubts among the rest of the faithful. But my own experience casts doubt on this. I may have seen liberal Catholics doubting the Vatican’s condemnation of contraception. I do not remember if I have ever read a dissident who tried to fairly understand theological and historical sources and come to their dissident position even though they tried very hard to give their Church’s official position the benefit of the doubt. The invariable trend is to write something that sounds like people who want contraception for the same reason most moderns want contraception, and thenshanghai whatever academic resources they can force to back them up.

Catholics do not have a monopoly on wrongful academic dissent

If you’re Orthodox, are you tempted to say, “Duh, you’re talking about Catholic dissidents! It is the sworn duty of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to oppose, and you can count on His Holiness’s Disloyal Opposition to at least do that much. But Orthodoxy has none of those problems”?

Don’t.

Almost every issue described above with Catholic dissidents is also something I’ve seen in Orthodoxy, perhaps on a smaller scale. The biggest thing I remember about one Orthodox scholar’s lecturing is the consistent meta-message, never put in so many words, that the way we should relate to the ancient works of holy Fathers is ultimately with haughtiness and scorn, as we could unmask what the texts really were like. Nor is it just this one professor. If, in our age, humanities scholars rehabilitate figures like the Marquis de Sade, and some academic theologians rehabilitate Arius and Nestorius, then sure enough, Orthodox scholars, who are not exactly free to rehabilitate heretics, at least rehabilitate the much-maligned Augustine. The list goes on.

There may be a place for scholarship. But whatever that place may be, it is not a reason to stop handling difficulties pastorally. I know that I have, in my research, turned up stuff that appeared to be a reason to impose a significant change. This has happened more than once, and sometimes I was wrong. I once heard an Orthodox bishop give advice to a newly-ordained priest that he should not set about agendas for change in his parish-to-be, even for a pure and honorable purpose that is unquestionably right. That is to say that a priest can be right about something with respect to a parish under his care, and it is not his place to whip it into shape. And if it is not the place of clergy in authority to whip a parish into shape, still less is it the duty of researchers to apply political force to straighten out a benighted hierarchy who don’t see things their way.

But what if you are right?

But what if you’re right? And your words are not heeded? Then there may be sin in the picture, but the sin does not belong to you. St. Paul, at the end of his life, had greater achievements than one would expect of a Nobel Prize laureate. He could have written to St. Timothy, “Veni, vidi, vici!“: “I came, I saw, I conquered!” But what he wrote instead was, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim 4:7): he did not say, “I achieved,” but only, “I was faithful,” and in our life of faith it is not our responsibility to achieve, but only to be faithful.

But what if things are really, really bad?

There is a profound difference between Dante and Luther, to give a Western example, and it is not really which centuries they lived in: both lived in troubled times where there were major problems in the Roman Church. Dante and Luther alike were absolutely incensed at abuses they knew full well, and one surprise to naive Protestants first reading the Commedia is that Dante placed the Pope in Hell and seemed to treat the Pope’s very name as an abomination. The difference between Dante and Luther is this: Dante remained to his dying day a loyal son of the Roman Church, but Luther took matters into his own hands—and created problems that are with us to this day.

True discipleship

What we should aspire to is discipleship: sitting at the feet of the Lord, the Church, the Apostles, the Fathers, the clergy, and the faithful. The academic approach that is called “critical” may be enough to grasp logic, but it utterly fails to grasp the Logos: what makes a theologian and a teacher is not being critical par excellence but being a disciple par excellence. The paradigm example is not “…the inspiring, romantic image of the heroic, noble historian who delves past popular piety and the decisions of clergy up to and including the Pope, heroically rips apart a cherished fixture that neither the faithful nor Church officials are noble or brave enough to question, and his trust is shamefully betrayed by the Vatican.” It is rather everything that such a scholar would seek to push past.

Perhaps I am pushing my own romantic image and ripping up cherished fixtures of my own. But to an interlocutor concerned about irony, I would not deny that I am pushing a romantic image, but rather I would suggest that I am pushing an image that is worth pushing: that of discipleship, that of sitting at the Lord’s feet, that of divine sonship, that of being a servant at the Lord’s disposal, that of living the divine Life. It is not the knowledge of the Enlightenment’s version of Reason, but a knowledge that runs deep as the Song of Songs: the knowing that drinks and the drinking that knows.

A practical example

Let me give one illustration from my own life. Even from very early on, I remember the local priest telling me that, contrary to the prohibition of contraception I expected, the Orthodox Church holds that it can be allowed or disallowed by a couple’s priest after consultation, that it was not permissible to decide not to have children altogether, and the Orthodox Church has never spoken beyond that. I submitted then to Orthodoxy and accepted what he said. Then, later on, I found a really nasty surprise: despite ancient Orthodox condemnations of contraception, a spin-doctoring doozy of an article had apparently been taken simply as a straightforward account Orthodox teaching. And I wrote Orthodoxy, Contraception, and Spin Doctoring: A Look at an Influential and Disturbing Article, and apart from showing it to an Orthodox priest or two and some trusted faithful, kept it off the record for a long time. And then, after a long time, I published it on CJS Hayward, and later, after publishing it, found that I fit in as part of a quite broad consensus on an excellent online Orthodox forum.

What would I do differently if I had to do it over again? The answer is that I probably published my article too quickly: however important the issue may be, I might have done well to wait until later on. But I do not regret, as I was moving towards Orthodoxy, accepting the priest’s word for what Orthodoxy taught, even though something about it seemed wrong at the time. Nor do I regret sitting on my writeup and do nothing with it for a long time, besides bring it up with a few people off the record. I believe it is an important issue (and anything but a matter of correctness for the sake of correctness: contraceception bears some nasty hidden price tags), and that discipleship is more important, so that it is a fundamental error to let My Important Issue trump living and acting as a disciple. Even if I were right and the Church leadership had responded sinfully and wrongly, the sin would belong to them, not me: my concern and duty is discipleship. It would be sin for me to decide it was my place to whip the Orthodox Church into shape, even if I happened to be right about what I thought of as the only issue!

(And there have been other, more embarrassing instances when I thought I could improve things and guess what? I was wrong.)

Scholarship may be useful—but it cannot replace discipleship

Scholarship and discipleship can be found together: some excellent theology has been written by scholars and in an academic context. However, genuine theology is theology because it comes from discipleship rather than scholarly rigor. Even the more academic examples of good theology are good by virtue of discipleship: to ask the scholarly training shared by Christian and anti-Christian scholars alike to power the movement of good theology is like asking a computer with a word processor to be the decisive force in writing a good novel. A word processor is a useful tool and perhaps not wisely ignored: but do not bark up the wrong tree by asking it to make someone a novelist, and do not bark up the wrong tree to ask scholarship to make someone a theologian.

For a theologian to push an agenda to improve the Church makes sense if you think theology falls under the heading of scholarship. But once you understand theology as a flower of discipleship, the picture starts to look quite different.

Theology in its deepest sense cannot be held by books at all: it is contemplation and the flower and the fruit of discipleship. But even for those of us who may never climb so high, the sort of theology one can write down is a flower and a fruit of discipleship. And it seems that academic research is rarely allowed to veto whatever orients a person’s life: conservative and liberal alike go to the sources and return with their beliefs confirmed. It takes something fundamentally vaster—living discipleship in the Church—to unlock the heart of theology.

Let us be disciples!

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Two Decisive Moments

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”

I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.

Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.

It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!

What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!

Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.

An Orthodox icon of the Resurrection.
An icon of the Resurrection.

Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.

Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!

Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”

Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.

That is a decisive moment, but decisive moments are not some kind of special exception to Christian life. Christian history and the Christian spiritual walk alike take their pace from decisive moments. I would like to look at the decisive moment in the Gospel reading.

In that reading, the people who have gathered to listen to Jesus went beyond a “standing room only” crowd to being so packed you couldn’t get near the door. Some very faithful friends of a paralytic did the only thing they could have done. They climbed on the roof and started digging through it. I suspect that the homeowner didn’t like the idea. But they dug in, and lowered him, hoping this teacher will heal him.

Jesus saw their faith and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And people were shocked—there was a very good reason for this! If I have two friends, and one owes the other money, I can’t tell the first one, “Your debt is forgiven. It’s wiped clean.” That’s not my place. Sin is not a debt, or a crime, or even a disease. It’s worse. And Christ told a man who owed an infinite debt to God that his slate was wiped clean and his sins were forgiven. And the reason people were saying, “This man blasphemes! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” was that they understood exactly how significant it was for Jesus to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Maybe they failed to recognize Christ as God (it is very rare that anyone but the demons identified him as the Son of God), but they were absolutely right when they said that Jesus was saying something that only God had the authority to say.

They were murmuring, and Christ knew why. So he asked them, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Arise. Take up your mat and walk.'” Everybody knew the answer, that forgiving sins was an infinitely weightier matter, but Jesus was about to give a lesser demonstration of the exact same authority by which he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” He said to the paralytic, “Arise. Take up your mat and walk.” And the paralytic did exactly that.

That is authority. That is the authority that commands the blind to gaze on the light of the Transfiguration, the deaf to listen to the song of angels, the mute to sing with God’s angels, the lame to dance for joy, and what is greater than all of these, command you and me, sinners, to be freed from our sins.

Great and rare as the restoration of one paralytic may be, everybody knew that that was less important than the forgiveness of his sins. The story of that healing is a decisive moment.

But it’s not the only decisive moment, and there is another decisive moment that may be much less rare, much less something we want to write home about, but is profoundly important, especially in Lent. I am talking about repentance.

When the Holy Spirit convicts me of my sin, there are two responses I give, both of which I ought to be ashamed of. The first response is to tell God that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Now of course I am not blunt enough to tell God, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” (Perhaps it would be better if I did.) What I say instead is something like, “I can see where you’re coming from, and I can see that you have a point. But I’ve given it a little thought and I’d like you to consider a suggestion that is much better for everyone involved. Would you consider this consolation prize?” Now again, perhaps it would be better if I were honest enough to simply tell God, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” Not only is it not good that I do that, but it is spurning the grace of God.

When a mother takes a knife or a sharp pair of scissors from a little boy, this is not because the mother wants a pair of scissors and is too lazy or inconsiderate to go get her own pair: her motivation is entirely for the child’s welfare. God doesn’t need our repentance or our sin. When he commands us through his Spirit to let go of our sin, is this for our sake or for his need? It is entirely for our own benefit, and not something God was lacking, that we are commanded to repent from sin. And this has a deeper implication. If God convicts us from our sin and asks our surrender to him in the unconditional surrender for repentance, then that is how we will be healed from our sin: it is the best medicine chosen by the Great Physician, and it is out of his mercy that the Great Physician refuses all of our consolation prizes that will cut us off from his healing love. Repentance is terrifying at times; it is letting go of the one thing we least want to give over to God, and it is only once we have let go that our eyes are opened and we realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” The more we understand repentance the more we understand that it is a decisive moment when God is at work.

The second response I give to the Holy Spirit is even more an affront to the decisive now in which the Lord meets me. I say, “Well, I think you’re right, and I need to repent of it, only now isn’t the best time for me. I’d like to deal with it at another time.” Here, also, things might be better if I were at least honest enough to acknowledge I was telling God, “Your timing is far from perfect.” God lives outside of time, and yet he has all the time there is. There is never reason for him to say with a sheepish grin, “I know this really isn’t the best time for you, but I only have two minutes right now, and I’m going to ask for you to deal with this now even though this isn’t the best time.” When he comes and tells us to repent, now, the reason for that is not that some point later on we may feel more like repenting and that is a better time; the reason is that by the time I am struggling against God’s Spirit I have already entered the decisive moment when I can choose either to be cleansed and freed of my sin, or keep on fumbling for the snooze button while God tells me, “Enough sleep! It is time for you to arise!”

Let us repent, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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Death

Cover for How to Survive Hard Times

In the time of life,
Prepare for death.

Dost thou love life?
Be thou of death ever mindful,
For the remembrance of death,
Better befits thee,
Than closing fast thine eyes,
That the snares before thee may vanish.
All of us are dying,
Each day, every hour, each moment,
Of death the varied microcosm,
The freedom given us as men,
To make a decision eternal,
The decision we build and make,
In each microcosm of eternity,
Until one day cometh our passing,
And what is now fluid,
Forever fixed will be made,
When we will trample down death by death,
Crying out from life to death,
O Death, where is thy victory?
O Grave, where is thy sting?
So even death and the grave,
Claim us to their defeat,
Or else,
After a lifetime building the ramp,
Having made earth infernal,
Closing bit by bit the gates of Hell,
Bolting and barring them from the inside,
We seal our decision,
Not strong enough to die rightly in life,
We sink to death in death,
Sealing ourselves twice dead.
Choosest thou this day,
Which thou shalt abide.

Seekest thou a mighty deed,
Our broken world to straighten out?
Seek it not! Knowest thou not,
That the accursed axe ever wielded in the West,
To transform society, with a program to improve,
Is a wicked axe, ever damned,
And hath a subtle backswing, and most grievous?
Wittest thou not that to heal in such manner,
Is like to bearing the sword,
To smite a dead man to life therewith?
Know rather the time-honeyed words,
True and healthgiving when first spoken,
Beyond lifesaving in our own time:
Save thyself,
And ten thousand around thee shall be saved.

We meet death in microcosm,
In the circumstances of our lives and the smallest decisions,
The decision, when our desire is cut off,
In anger to abide, or to be unperturbed.
Politeness to show to others, little things,
A rhythm of prayer to build up,
Brick by brick, even breath by breath,
Our mind to have on the things of Heaven or on earth,
A heart’s answer of love and submission,
To hold when the Vinedresser takes knife to prune,
The Physician takes scalpel to ransack our wounds,
With our leave, to build us up,
Or to take the gold,
The price of our edification,
And buy demolition in its stead.
Right poetic and wondrous it may sound right now,
Right poetic and wondrous it is in its heart,
But it cometh almost in disguise,
From a God who wishes our humility never to bruise,
To give us better than we know to ask,
And until we see with the eyes of faith,
Our humble God allows it to seem certain,
That he has things wrong,
That we are not in the right circumstances for his work,
When his greatest work is hid from our eyes,
Our virtue not to crush,
Knowing that we are dust,
And not crushing our frame dust to return.
Right frail are we,
And only our Maker knows the right path,
That we may shine with his Glory.

Canst thou not save thyself even?
Perchance thou mayest save another.
Be without fear, and of good cheer:
He saved others, himself he cannot save,
Is but one name of Heaven.
Canst not save thyself?
Travail to save another.
Can God only save in luxury?
Can God only save when we have our way?
Rather, see God his mighty arm outstretched in disaster,
Rather, see glory unfurl in suffering.
Suffering is not what man was made for,
But bitter medicine is better,
And to suffer rightly is lifegiving,
And to suffer unjustly has the Treasure of Heaven inside,
Whilst comfort and ease sees few reach salvation:
Be thou plucked from a wide and broad path?
Set instead on a way strait and narrow?
Give thanks for God savest thee:
Taking from thee what thou desirest,
Giving ever more than thou needest,
That thou mightest ever awaken,
To greater and grander and more wondrous still:
For the gate of Heaven appears narrow, even paltry,
And opens to an expanse vast beyond all imagining,
And the gate of Hell is how we imagine grandeur,
But one finds the belly of the Wyrm constricting ever tighter.

Now whilst the noose about our necks,
Tightens one and all,
Painful blows of the Creator’s chisel stern and severe,
Not in our day, nor for all is it told,
That the Emperor hears the words,
In this sign conquer,
The Church established,
Persecutions come to an end,
And men of valor seeking in monastery and hermitage,
Saving tribulations their souls to keep,
The complaint sounded,
Easy times rob the Church of her saints,
Not in our day does this happen:
For the noose is about our necks,
More than luxury is stripped away;
A Church waxen fat and flabby from easy living,
Must needs be sharpened to a fighting trim,
Chrismated as one returning to Orthodoxy,
Anointed with sacred oil for the athlete,
And myrrh for the bride.
And as Christian is given gifts of royal hue,
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh:
Gold for kingship,
Frankincense for divinity,
Myrrh for anointing the dead,
A trinity of gifts which are homoousios: one,
Gold and frankincense which only a fool seeks without myrrh,
Myrrh of pain, suffering, and death,
Myrrh which befits a sacrifice,
Myrrh which pours forth gold and frankincense.
And as the noose tightens about our neck,
As all but God is taken from us,
And some would wish to take God himself,
The chisel will not wield the Creator,
The arm of providence so deftly hid in easy times,
Is bared in might in hard times,
And if those of us who thought we would die in peace,
Find that suffering and martyrdom are possible,
We must respond as is meet and right:
Glory to God in all things!

Be thou ever sober in the silence of thine heart:
Be mindful of death, and let this mindfulness be sober.
Wittest thou not the hour of thy death:
Wete thou well that it be sooner than thou canst know.
Put thy house in order, each day,
Peradventure this very night thy soul will be required of thee.
Be thou prepared,
For the hour cometh like a thief in the night,
When thou wilt be summoned before Christ’s dread judgment seat.
If thou wilt not to drown,
Say thou not, I can learn to swim tomorrow,
For the procrastinator’s tomorrow never cometh,
Only todays, to use right or wrong.
If thou wilt not to drown,
Learn, however imperfectly, to swim today,
A little better, if thou canst:
Be thou sober and learn to swim,
For all of our boats will sink,
And as we have practiced diligently or neglected the summons,
So will we each sink, or each swim,
When thy boat is asink, the time for lessons is gone.

For contemplation made were we.
Unseen warfare exists because contemplation does not.
Yet each death thou diest well,
A speck of tarnish besmircheth the mirror no more,
The garden of tearful supplication ever healeth,
What was lost in the garden of delights:
Ever banished our race may be from the garden of delights:
‘Til we find its full stature in vale of tears,
‘Til we find what in death God hath hid,
‘Til each microcosm of death given by day to day,
Is where we seek Heaven’s gate, ever opening wide.

The Lord shepherdeth me even now,
And nothing shall be wanting:
There shall be lack of nothing thou shalt need,
In a place of verdure, a place of rest, where the righteous dwell,
Hath he set my tabernacle today,
He hath nourished me by the waters of rest,
Yea, even baptism into Christ’s lifegiving death.
My soul hath he restored from the works of death,
He hath led me in the paths of righteousness,
That his name be hallowed.
Yea though my lifelong walk be through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evils;
Thy rod and thy staff themselves have comforted me:
Thy staff, a shepherd’s crook,
A hook of comfort to restore a sheep gone astray,
Thy rod a glaive, a stern mace,
The weapon of an armed Lord and Saviour protecting,
Guarding the flock amidst ravening wolves and lions,
Rod and staff both held by a stern and merciful Lord.
Thou preparest before me table fellowship,
In the midst of all them that afflict me:
Both visible and invisible, external and internal.
Thou hast anointed me with oil,
My head with the oil of gladness,
And thy chalice gives the most excellent cheer.
Thy mercy upon me, a sinner, shall follow me,
All my days of eternal life even on earth,
And my shared dwelling shall be in the house of the Lord,
Unto the greatest of days.

Death may be stronger than mortal men, yet:
Love is stronger than death.

Want a good dose of clear thinking about the spiritual side of surviving in a world with coronavirus and COVID-19? Read more of How to Survive Hard Times!

Our Crown of Thorns

Cover for The Sign of the Grail

I remember meeting a couple; the memory is not entirely pleasant. Almost the first thing they told me after being introduced was that their son was “an accident,” and this was followed by telling me how hard it was to live their lives as they wanted when he was in the picture.

I do not doubt that they had no intent of conceiving a child, nor do I doubt that having their little boy hindered living their lives as they saw fit. But when I heard this, I wanted to almost scream to them that they should look at things differently. It was almost as if I was speaking with someone bright who had gotten a full ride scholarship to an excellent university, and was vociferously complaining about how much work the scholarship would require, and how cleanly it would cut them off from what they took for granted in their home town.

I did not think, at the time, about the boy as an icon of the Holy Trinity, not made by hands, or what it means to think of such an icon as “an accident.” I was thinking mainly about a missed opportunity for growth. What I wanted to say was, “This boy was given to you for your deification! Why must you look on the means of your deification as a curse?”

Marriage and monasticism are opposites in many ways. But there are profound ways in which they provide the same thing, and not only by including a community. Marriage and monasticism both provide—in quite different ways—an opportunity to take up your cross and follow Christ, to grow into the I Corinthians 13 love that says, “When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me”—words that are belong in this hymn to love because love does not place its own desires at the center, but lives for something more. Those who are mature in love put the childish ways of living for themselves behind them, and love Christ through those others who are put in their lives. In marriage this is not just Hollywood-style exhilaration; on this point I recall words I heard from an older woman, that you don’t know understand being in love when you’re “a kid;” being in love is what you have when you’ve been married for decades. Hollywood promises a love that is about having your desires fulfilled; I did not ask that woman about what more there is to being in love, but it struck me as both beautiful and powerful that the one thing said by to me by an older woman, grieving the loss of her husband, was that there is much more to being in love than what you understand when you are young enough that marriage seems like a way to satisfy your desires.

Marriage is not just an environment for children to grow up; it is also an environment for parents to grow up, and it does this as a crown of thorns.

The monastic crown of thorns includes an obedience to one’s elder that is meant to be difficult. There would be some fundamental confusion in making that obedience optional, to give monastics more control and make things less difficult. The problem is not that it would fail to make a more pleasant, and less demanding, option than absolute obedience to a monastic elder. The problem is that when it was making things more pleasant and less demanding, it would break the spine of a lifegiving struggle—which is almost exactly what contraception promises.

Rearing children is not required of monastics, and monastic obedience is not required married faithful. But the spiritual struggle, the crown of thorns by which we take up our cross and follow Christ, by which we die to ourselves that we live in Christ, is not something we can improve our lives by escaping. The very thing we can escape by contraception, is what all of us—married, monastic, or anything else—need. The person who needs monastic obedience to be a crown of thorns is not the elder, but the monastic under obedience. Obedience is no more a mere aid to one’s monastic elder than our medicines are something to help our doctors. There is some error in thinking that some people will be freed to live better lives, if they can have marriage, but have it on their own terms, “a la carte.”

What contraception helps people flee is a spiritual condition, a sharpening, a struggle, a proving grounds and a training arena, that all of us need. There is life in death. We find a rose atop the thorns, and the space which looks like a constricting prison from the outside, has the heavens’ vast expanse once we view it from the inside. It is rather like the stable on Christmas’ day: it looks on the outside like a terrible little place, but on the inside it holds a Treasure that is greater than all the world. But we need first to give up the illusion of living our own lives, and “practice dying” each day, dying to our ideas, our self-image, our self-will, having our way and our sense that the world will be better if we have our way—or even that we will be better if we have our way. Only when we have given up the illusion of living our own lives… will we be touched by the mystery and find ourselves living God’s own life.

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Creation and Holy Orthodoxy: Fundamentalism Is Not Enough

Cover for The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts

Against (crypto-Protestant) “Orthodox” fundamentalism

If you read Genesis 1 and believe from Genesis 1 that the world was created in six days, I applaud you. That is a profound thing to believe in simplicity of faith.

However, if you wish to persuade me that Orthodox Christians should best believe in a young earth creation in six days, I am wary. Every single time an Orthodox Christian has tried to convince me that I should believe in a six day creation, I have been given recycled Protestant arguments, and for the moment the entire conversation has seemed like I was talking with a Protestant fundamentalist dressed up in Orthodox clothing. And if the other person claims to understand scientific data better than scientists who believe an old earth, and show that the scientific data instead support a young earth, this is a major red flag.

Now at least some Orthodox heirarchs have refused to decide for the faithful under their care what the faithful may believe: the faithful may be expected to believe God’s hand was at work, but between young earth creationism, old earth creationism, and “God created life through evolution”, or any other options, the heirarchs do not intervene. I am an old earth creationist; I came to my present beliefs on “How did different life forms appear?” before becoming Orthodox, and I have called them into a question a few times but not yet found reason to revise them, either into young earth creation or theistic evolution. I would characterize my beliefs, after being reconsidered, as “not changed”, and not “decisively confirmed”: what I would suggest has improved in my beliefs is that I have become less interested in some Western fascinations, such as getting right the details of how the world was created, moving instead to what might be called “mystical theology” or “practical theology”, and walking the Orthodox Way.

There is something that concerns me about Orthodox arguing young earth creationism like a Protestant fundamentalist. Is it that I think they are wrong about how the world came to be? That is not the point. If they are wrong about that, they are wrong in the company of excellent saints. If they merely hold another position in a dispute, that is one thing, but bringing Protestant fundamentalism into the Orthodox Church reaches beyond one position in a dispute. Perhaps I shouldn’t be talking because I reached my present position before entering the Orthodox Church; or rather I haven’t exactly reversed my position but de-emphasized it and woken up to the fact that there are bigger things out there. But I am concerned when I’m talking with an Orthodox Christian, and every single time someone tries to convince me of a young earth creationism, all of the sudden it seems like I’m not dealing with an Orthodox Christian any more, but with a Protestant fundamentalist who always includes arguments that came from Protestant fundamentalism. And what concerns me is an issue of practical theology. Believing in a six day creation is one thing. Believing in a six day creation like a Protestant fundamentalist is another matter entirely.

A telling, telling line in the sand

In reading the Fathers, one encounters claims of a young earth. However, often (if not always) the claim is one among many disputes with Greek philosophers or what have you. To my knowledge there is no patristic text in which a young earth is the central claim, let alone even approach being “the article by which the Church stands or falls” (if I may borrow phrasing from Protestant fundamentalist cultural baggage).

But, you may say, Genesis 1 and some important Fathers said six days, literally. True enough, but may ask a counterquestion?

Are we obligated to believe that our bodies are composed of earth, air, fire and water, and not of molecules and atoms including carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen?

If that question seems to come out of the blue, let me quote St. Basil, On the Six Days of Creation, on a precursor to today’s understanding of the chemistry of what everyday objects are made of:

Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and bonds, form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.

At this point, belief in his day’s closest equivalent to our atoms and molecules is called an absolutely unacceptable “spider’s web” that is due to “inherent atheism.” Would you call Orthodox Christians who believe in chemistry’s molecules and atoms inherent atheists? St. Basil does provide an alternative:

“And the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters.” Does this spirit mean the diffusion of air? The sacred writer wishes to enumerate to you the elements of the world, to tell you that God created the heavens, the earth, water, and air and that the last was now diffused and in motion; or rather, that which is truer and confirmed by the authority of the ancients, by the Spirit of God, he means the Holy Spirit.

St. Basil rejected atoms and molecules, and believed in elements, not of carbon or hydrogen, but of earth, air, fire, and water. The basic belief is one Orthodoxy understands, and there are sporadic references in liturgical services to the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and so far as I know no references to modern chemistry. St. Basil seems clearly enough to endorse a six day creation, and likewise endorses an ancient view of elements while rejecting belief in atoms and molecules as implicit atheism.

Why then do Orthodox who were once Protestant fundamentalists dig their heels in at a literal six day creation and make no expectation that we dismiss chemistry to believe the elements are earth, air, fire, water, and possibly aether? The answer, so far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with Orthodoxy or any Orthodox Christians. It has to do with a line in the sand chosen by Protestants, the same line in the sand described in Why Young Earthers Aren’t Completely Crazy, a line in the sand that is understandable and was an attempt to address quite serious concerns, but still should not be imported from Protestant fundamentalism into Holy Orthodoxy.

Leaving Western things behind

If you believe in a literal six day creation, it is not my specific wish to convince you to drop that belief. But I would have you drop fundamentalist Protestant “creation science” and its efforts to prove a young earth scientifically and show that it can interpret scientific findings better than the mainstream scientific community. And I would have you leave Western preoccupations behind. Perhaps you might believe St. Basil was right about six literal days. For that matter, you could believe he was right about rejecting atoms and molecules in favor of earth, air, fire, and water—or at least recognize that St. Basil makes other claims besides six literal days. But you might realize that really there are much more important things in the faith. Like how faith plays out in practice.

The fundamentalist idea of conversion is like flipping a light switch: one moment, a room is dark, then in an instant it is full of light. The Orthodox understanding is of transformation: discovering Orthodoxy is the work of a lifetime, and perhaps once a year there is a “falling off a cliff” experience where you realize you’ve missed something big about Orthodoxy, and you need to grow in that newly discovered dimension. Orthodoxy is not just the ideas and enthusiasm we have when we first come into the Church; there are big things we could never dream of and big things we could never consider we needed to repent of. And I would rather pointedly suggest that if a new convert’s understanding of Orthodoxy is imperfect, much less of Orthodoxy can be understood from reading Protestant attacks on it. One of the basic lessons in Orthodoxy is that you understand Orthodoxy by walking the Orthodox Way, by attending the services and living a transformed life, and not by reading books. And if this goes for books written by Orthodox saints, it goes all the more for Protestant fundamentalist books attacking Orthodoxy.

Science won’t save your soul, but science (like Orthodoxy) is something you understand by years of difficult work. Someone who has done that kind of work might be able to argue effectively that evolution does not account for the fossil record, let alone how the first organism could come to exist: but here I would recall The Abolition of Man: “It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.” Someone who has taken years of effort may rightly criticize evolution for its scientific merits. Someone who has just read fundamentalist Protestant attacks on evolution and tries to evangelize evolutionists and correct their scientific errors will be just as annoying to an atheist who believes in evolution, as a fundamentalist who comes to evangelize the unsaved Orthodox and “knows all about Orthodoxy” from polemical works written by other fundamentalists. I would rather pointedly suggest that if you care about secular evolutionists at all, pray for them, but don’t set out to untangle their backwards understanding of the science of it all. If you introduce yourself as someone who will straighten out their backwards ideas about science, all you may really end up accomplishing is to push them away.

Conversion is a slow process. And letting go of Protestant approaches to creation may be one of those moments of “falling off a cliff.”

Read more of The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts on Amazon!