E-mail Conversations Winter 2000

Marriage

As we see in the Song of Songs, there is an iconographic aspect of marriage. Of course such love is productive, as is God himself, who “filleth all things”and is “the giver of life.” That productivity may be children, or may be the love that pours out of a Christian married couple into the world around them, or probably both. Such a marriage is never a closed circle.

A marriage is iconographic not because it is open to having children but because the couple love each other with the tender exchange of sacrifice and submission that characterizes God’s love for us. It is an ascetic path, like monasticism, in which the couple open themselves to the divine love in the other, which certainly does result in the birth of children, but not always. But when I put it this way it sounds as if I’m saying that the birth of children is secondary. If I were a theological writer I would be more skillful. I’m saying that it is all of a piece, but that the main characterization is the bridal song, the divine eros.

The desire for children is pretty balanced between men and women. I’ve known men who very much wanted to have children and desperately wanted to get married, or unhappily married men who wanted children when their wives did not. The proliferation of single parent families is not because women want to have children more than men, but because in principle they can have them alone, like cats (whereas of course men cannot), and our individualistic, pro-feminist society tells them that they can do anything they want to alone.

Living with the legacy of the Enlightenment as we do, and the idea of equality and rights, we tend to talk about ourselves and other people as if we did not live inside our own bodies — as if we were standing on the moon and studying the world of humanity and commenting on it.

We say, all men and women are created equal, and men are no different from women, as if this kind of lunar observation were the last word in truth. But in fact these kinds of statements are highly abstract, almost imaginative, and certainly not the closest we can come to saying something that is true.

If we return then from the moon, and re-occupy our bodies, and re-enter our hearts (where God is waiting to meet us), we find that we can no longer talk about the relative equality of things.

All we can do — in this case — is to look at the person we are married to and to say, “I adore you. I will die for you.” That’s all. And all a woman can say is, “Welcome. I offer you my unconditional hospitality.”

It’s like the prayer before Communion: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

If we were standing on the moon, we would look at all of humanity and see drug dealers and serial killers or certain heads of state and say, those are the worst people on earth, the worst threats to humanity. But we do not say this when we go to Communion. We cannot, because we have re-occupied our hearts. All we can say is, “I am the worst of sinners.” This is not exaggerated false modesty. It is the only true statement we can utter about ourselves if we have really made a successful re-entry.

Marriage is not a definition of a state of being, with two equal partners each getting his or her equal share. It’s not static. It’s dynamic, it moves, the gracious approach of the man sets off the generous submission of the woman, and back and forth. Static relationships are brittle, I think, but a dynamic relationship is incredibly strong.

This has to do with Christian freedom. If my husband’s love for me makes me trust him so that I can submit to him fully in freedom, it is like no other sense of freedom on earth. It really fills the universe. And it helps me become strong and mature. And if my response to my husband causes him to love me all the more in freedom, it helps him to become strong, too. The strength and love that issues from this kind of dynamic is enormous.

Nancy Forest

OPF in North America

It seems to me that OPF in North America has a ways to go: a group of Orthodox Christians who talk about peace; or Orthodox Christians who give a clear witness (the unborn as much as the born, Chechens as much as Serbs, and affirms the authority of Christ/Scripture/Church/Tradition). The second will not be widely popular, but I believe it will be faithful.

We have to ask what contributions could OPF in North America make to the Church beyond providing things like In Communion and this e-mail list to chat and learn from one another?

OPF is an oasis for me because of my discomfort with the transition from support for an Orthodox state to support for modern secular states — blessing weapons, standing silent or condoning killing innocents.

John Oliver

It is important to remember that the Church itself is the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, that Christ is our Peace, otherwise the OPF will become a sectarian group trying to function at the wrong angle. Some of the tasks which demand response within the Church: how do we as Orthodox Christians encounter the culture? What can we bring to this agenda as Christians concerned with incarnating Christ’s peace? Everything begins in the local Parish, if we do not understand this we will be irrelevant in the most dismal manner. And this does not mean getting into discussions about military service with parishioners, or organizing a letter writing campaign on the need to oppose abortion. It means quite simply to do everything in our power to make possible the restoration of the liturgical life of the Church, by beginning to live by the rhythm of that liturgical life which is the context in which the Gospel is proclaimed. Many parishes live with minimal attention to this urgent need. Vespers Saturday evening possibly, and Sunday Liturgy usually the only service, is the “normal” state of Orthodoxy; we are so accustomed to this as normal that we hardly understand how abnormal it is. This makes serious demands on everyone, including the priest. It is resisted with energy and many excuses.

But we are risking a great deal if we become the voice of “social concern” aimed at the world around us, because that social concern tends to try to replace the Gospel, especially when we do not have our own “house” in order.

Orthodox Christians concerned with maintaining ethnic identities which also replace the Gospel present another challenge. “old” and “new” calendar battles have become more important than the Gospel. Re-introducing Slavonic, or retaining it, or Arabic or Greek all push the Gospel to the periphery. The maintenance of more than one bishop in a city/ or area — and the list goes on. Only the Gospel matters, and making sure that we can proclaim it in with one mind, one heart and one voice presents us all with much work to do, all of which begins in the local Parish. If the OPF is a “refuge” from the Parish, we are in trouble.

What I am emphasizing is that the Gospel is the source of all peace, that Christ is Peace. It is a mistake of tragic proportion when this is not the focus. Participation in the School of Love — creation of Eucharistic communities — is the foundation of witness, of proclaiming the Gospel. Christ invites all to “draw near” and there must be a “local habitation” as Shakespeare puts it, for the afflicted and conflicted, where they may approach Christ. If we do not understand how important this is, it will not matter how many times we get arrested for trespass.

Whatever prevents people from entering the Church and hearing the Gospel needs to be changed. And yes, I think it is either/or. We all want to bring our former agendas into the Church and use the Church to promote our agenda. This is especially true of the Evangelical converts and those of us who were in the peace movement. I do not see the OPF as part of the peace movement, I see us as part of the Church.

Alice Carter

Relating to contemporary culture

The Church’s self understanding of its mission has to grow in order to relate to contemporary culture. We are not here to preserve some ancient worldview in stone but to live and breathe the Holy Spirit of God. Orthodoxy has to engage with the modern world, and yes it does have a mission to point out the sins of the modern world and not compromise. However, it seems that some contributors to this list have a radically different idea of what these sins are to others.

The real sins of the contemporary world that we might speak out about, that Orthodoxy indeed can have a great deal to say about — greed, exploitation, using our “talents” to create and sell weapons of destruction, creating an ecological crisis through our patterns of consumption brought about by our lack of respect for God’s creation — let us speak out in boldness of faith.

Please don’t confuse these genuine evils of the modern world with the sort of right wing agenda as being the essence of Orthodoxy. There are many Orthodox here in Britain, and certainly not all youngsters, who are already asking the questions: Why not women priests? What is our relationship with people of other faiths?

It is healthy that we ask these questions, that we are open to a “change of heart,” that we do not pretend that we have all the answers already sewn up. This is a different world that we experience today from that which the Christians experienced in the first few centuries — and though many aspects of our understanding of the faith, and the relationship between the Church and the world may be the same, other aspects may be quite different.

I have just attended a weekend — led incidentally by one of the members of OPF’s advisory board — on the mystery of death and resurrection. I was the only other Orthodox person there for most of the weekend; most people present were members of non-Orthodox churches. But everyone gained enormously from both the talks and the services — not because Orthodoxy was being presented as something which has all the answers but because it was presented as a living faith which always has and always will need to engage with the contemporary world in a creative theological dialogue.

Andrew Morris

Civil and criminal law

All law may involve police. Considered at its best, one remembers that police and polite come from the same lovely Greek root. Alas, my own personal experience of the police has sometimes caused me to forget this. And from time to time, I must be yanked back from paranoia in this respect.

One of my earliest memories was of a boy in my neighborhood being shot in the back as he ran from the police. It gave me an instinctive distrust of government that has stayed with me ever since. I fear I will carry this instinct to the grave.

I am very afraid of guns, and of those who are authorized to carry them. I will never forget my reactions, and those of my fellow citizens, when Louisville was put under martial law following a tornado back in April of 1974. After two days or so, the tension in the city was so great, and the outrage of the citizens so severe, that the National Guard was obliged to leave off their guns and carry only night sticks. There is absolutely nothing like living in a city controlled by the display of weapons. It was during that experience that I came to realize why I loved Athens and (notwithstanding the bravery of Leonides and his companions at the pass of Thermopylae) felt so little sympathy with Sparta.

Now, just think of the poor policeman who must deal with neurotic folks like me. It can’t be easy, and I do not envy their lot.

Fr. Patrick Reardon

The Desert Fathers

The Constantinian adoption of Christianity has had enormous consequences on the Church, not the least of which is the tendency toward tight Church-State relationships that plague many Orthodox Churches still, not the least of which is the Church in Russia. The Desert Fathers knew this right away and headed to the borders of the state to escape such a compromise.

Andrew Don

Minimalism?

The problem I have with minimalism, in law or related arenas such as public education, is that that way seems often to lead to a “dumbing down” (in a moral sense) to the lowest common denominator. Therefore, publicly-run schools start to take the position that they cannot and should not inculcate any sort of values — not fellowship and mutual aid, not fairness or equity, not honesty or persistence or faithfulness — for fear someone will object.

What we get eventually is nearly the most universally educated populace in the world, but one in which many of its young citizens literally don’t know the difference between right and wrong (meeting the legal definition for insanity, or at least diminished capacity).

Is it always the best policy to “keep government minimal”? Given that there are many areas in which only the public sector is doing any teaching of any kind, shouldn’t that teaching be more than mere custodial supervision? Otherwise, we may inadvertently give the evil one a free hand in the public arena, and should not be too surprised if he is pretty spry and energetic when he intrudes into the private realm.

Alex Patico

The religion of consumerism

I wonder if western consumerism is not the most pervasive and dangerous “religion” the world has ever seen? Its creed believes in ever-increasing wealth, supposedly for all. It demands huge sacrifices from its followers while sucking the resources of the whole planet into its service. There have been some who have said “no more” to the demands from the rich North. They have said that the North does not have the right to all the best land throughout the world to grow coffee, cotton and pineapple or to oil and mineral reserves at bargain prices extracted by near slave labor.

So far, these people have been unsuccessful in their stand and been dealt with in a manner which makes the efforts of the Inquisition look mild. The death squads of Central America, for example, guaranteed an eventual victory at the ballot box for the candidates of choice in the rich North by eliminating vast numbers of opposition leadership and followers (hundreds of thousands) and by convincing a lot of other people that it is futile to try to go in any other direction.

Should some region of our world threaten to become peaceful and prosperous, means would be found to destabilize the area by whatever means necessary. The rich and their corporations must have sources of cheap labor and resources. Those who fall into line, of course, are promised a place at the global table feeding frenzy. To this point, few have experienced what was promised.

It remains to be seen if traditional religions have the strength to withstand the onslaught of the consumerist North. Religion was once beset, as Solzhenitsyn said, by “the party mob in the East and the commercial mob in the west.” Only the commercial mob remains and they are ruling unopposed.

Tom Snowdon