Conversations by E-Mail – Summer 2011

These are extracts from recent postings to the OPF’s e-mail discussion list. If you are an OPF member and wish to take part, contact Mark Pearson <markp -at- earlham.edu> or Jim Forest <jhforest -at-gmail.com.

Osama Bin Laden: The killing of Osama Bin Laden reminds me of the summary execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. At the time, there was jubilation because this event signified the slow-in-coming fall of an important piece in the political domino of ex-communist Eastern Europe

However, as a Romanian who had experienced first hand the terror of the police state headed by him, all I could feel was shame that people who called themselves Christian were so pleased with political assassination.

I feel now a sadness that there is so little room in this culture for views beside pleasure in manhunts and killing as a solution for dealing with terrorism or political opposition in other countries.
I am convinced that it does eventual harm to all of us who live here, especially to children who grow up learning that this is the “way.”

Ioana Novac

Pascha 2011: Last week we celebrated Easter. The world really needs Easter. An earthquake plus tsunami knocked the Earth off its axis in Japan, the American South was being decimated with storms, a megalomaniac was and is running wild in Libya, and now the extrajudicial killing of Osama Bin Laden has taken place in “defense of freedom.” The world really needs Easter.

Benjamin Abbott

Constantine the Great

Constantinian conundrum: Part of my OPF work is to respond to the hard questions people send via our web site or e-address. Here is one someone has asked plus my answer. How would you have answered him differently

Question: “I struggle to understand St. Constantine’s vision of the Cross and the message to violently conquer in the sign of the Cross. He is a saint, and who am I to question his actions? But such a message seems to be a perversion of the true meaning of the Cross, whereby Our Lord gave His own life and showed us that we must turn the other cheek. How do we reconcile our nonviolent philosophy with the actions of St. Constantine?”

My response: While I cannot speak for the whole Orthodox tradition, I would answer your question in this way, hoping that I am doing justice to the scriptures and the wisdom of the Fathers (or at least not doing damage to either).

In a sense, if we are Christians, we are all called to be “pacifists” – the Way of Christ is the way of peace. But few of us fit the definition of the term very closely.

The Church has always been leery of what happens to the soul of any Christian when he takes a human life, yet also realistic about the fact that a person might be confronted with what seem like impossible choices – between allowing another to be harmed and acting in their defense, between responding to the unity of humanity and to the claims of patriotism, and so forth.

For Constantine to see the cross as a sign of divine approbation of war was wrong. He was not made a saint because of his success in battle or other violent actions as emperor, but for his ending the persecution of Christians and for his support of the Church in its good works.

By the same token, St. John Chrysostom is not honored for his various failures (such as his harsh words regarding Judaism) but for his living out of fundamental message of Christ, his eloquence and his defense of doctrine that is central to the Church.

We all commit sins, but should still strive toward the perfection that God asks of us and toward which He helps us.

Alex Patico

Anomalies: There are many anomalies in the Orthodox Church. A perfect example is the commemoration on Pentecost of the Uniate last Emperor of Constantinople in my Russian parish. Another example – on the same day – was our prayer, during the third kneeling prayer, for those in Hades, the only time we do so liturgically during the year. It is an extraordinary prayer. Normally, we simply don’t pray for those in hell; but on Pentecost we do. There are also a few scattered examples in the lives of saints who sought, through prayer, to pray people out of hell (e.g., Trajan by Pope St. Gregory the Great).

My view is that we ought not be predisposed to eliminate what at first glance seems odd or anomalous. Rather, we ought to assume the practices to be correct unless they can be shown, with great force, to be wrong. Rather than start by judging odd practices, we ought to look at how they may push us to expand our views and not put God into a box.

To quote Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev: “Orthodox liturgical texts are important because of their ability to give exact criteria of theological truth, and one must always confirm theology using liturgical texts as a guideline, and not the other way round. The lex credendi grows out of the lex orandi, and dogmas are considered divinely revealed because they are born in the life of prayer and revealed to the Church through its divine services. Thus, if there are differences in the understanding of a dogma between a certain theological authority and liturgical texts, I would be inclined to give preference to the latter. And if a textbook of dogmatic theology contains views different from those found in liturgical texts, it is the textbook, not the liturgical texts that may need correction.”

When we see things that seem anomalous to us, let’s not be so sure that the anomalies need to be removed. Let’s not be so sure we know all the answers, or need to.

Daniel Lieuwen

Maybe: The Church is such a complex institution, the scriptures so rich and (sometimes) ambiguous, and the nature of God so unfathomable, that it is reasonable to say “maybe” more quickly than “definitely not.”

An Iranian author I like described a situation involving her uncle. Her Muslim friends were talking over how best to relate to Baha’is. One man said, “They usually seem like very nice people … but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.” Another said, “They are apostates – they knew Islam and rejected it!” A third asked her uncle what he thought on the subject. His response was: “I am glad that Allah is larger than the closet in which you keep Him.”

Alex Patico

Population: The world population will hit seven billion in the next few weeks. There is no limit in sight. Meanwhile whole habitats are destroyed and the earth becomes less capable of sustaining life. Species are dying out because of the sheer number of people and the influence we exert on the planet. Each time a link in the eco-chain disappears, we endanger our own survival.

It is not just that we as individuals create more pollution than our ancestors did. In fact our behavior as individuals may even be improving in some ways because of recycling, less polluting cars etc. The problem is in the sheer number of us. If you solve the population problem, many of the other problems, such as emissions, pollution, erosion and destruction of habitats, will more or less go away.

At the time of Early Fathers, over-population wasn’t an issue. This may be why the Church, even if it has a lot to say about ecology and our relationship with Creation, didn’t address such issues as over-population. Also, over-population is not a moral category like cruelty, murder or theft. These are universal crimes, and one can justly aspire to a world where no one is cruel, kills or steals. But reproduction is not a “crime” or a “sin.” You cannot aspire to world where no one has babies, as then the human race would become extinct: the patient would be cured, but dead! The problem lies in the way we act in aggregate, not as individuals.

Somehow – I don’t know how – we must evolve to become more hospitable and compassionate towards one another while at the same time being realistic about the challenges posed by over-population. What should we as Christians be thinking, saying and doing about this problem?

James Chater

Other factors: I agree, James, but there are so many other factors. One is corrupt government that fails to distribute food equitably or to distribute food aid at all. Another is cash crops – poor countries serving as the farms of the distant rich. Another is education – there is a tendency for better-educated people to have fewer children. The poor are kept poor, and poor people tend to have more children. The notorious approach of the past century was in various ways to limit the size of poor families by means of birth control, abortion and even sterilization. But this doesn’t get to the root of the problem. If the failure of the world to feed, clothe and educate its population was better dealt with, would it reduce the population problem? Or exacerbate it, keeping ever more people alive and give them longer lives?

Nancy Forest

Above: Adam and Eve with Christ in Paradise (Monreale, Palermo

Sexuality: I suspect that we can’t really learn about human sexuality from Adam and Eve, who were initially beautiful, good and pure but immature, who then also suffered the disintegration associated with the fall.

Being fallen, we are probably not good judges of how things should be because of the lack of integration between heart (nous) and head and body, or soul. We experience a fractured existence with the elements of our personhood out of sync with each other. We are materialistic about more than foods; we misuse what is essentially good in an idolatrous way, and this includes our sexuality.

And so we drift this way and that, and then convince ourselves that we are discovering a rule or the truth. But Truth for us is someone, not something. Jesus is our Truth. We must offer ourselves to Him to begin to learn without guile, with a broken and contrite heart.

Maybe sexuality augments our understanding of God. Maybe biology is meant to help open the eyes of our understanding. God could have given us different forms, but made us as we are.

Like the relationships in a monastic vocation, the relationship between married persons is a path toward salvation that can contribute to our redemption and deification if it is lived sacramentally with thanksgiving. Our God-given sexuality can be good, instructive toward wisdom, and useful.

The pattern and prototype comes from the Holy Trinity; and it is modeled for us by Jesus in the Incarnation as He fashions, or creates, His “bride” (with “her” voluntary collaboration) – together with the Father and the Holy Spirit – and makes all things new. In other words, this great and Divine Liturgical relationship is creation. It is a Divine dynamic that cannot be circumscribed in words.

The parable of bridegroom and bride is one very good way of describing the relationship between the Israel of God and the Eternal Son; and the “parable” of children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, our High Priest over all creation, is another. But each is a “parable” or “typos” and does not fully reveal the glory of what we may eventually become through God’s grace and our desire for Him. The Holy Trinity is creating. Trying to find words to contain that Truth leaves us helplessly speechless.

It’s a question, not an answer… But it’s hard for me to see sexuality without a context. It is a gift for edification, although we may misuse or waste it.

Sally Eckert

After the Fall: Thanks, Sally. Part of our problem with living in this world is that we only know of the world in its fallen condition and we can never fully apprehend what life was like before the Fall. Everything we experience, no matter how “natural” is experienced through the lens of the Fall.

In some ways this is a great limit on our understanding how to live in this world. Just like science cannot peer into anything prior to the “Big Bang” – that is the limit of science – so too we cannot peer into the world before the flood let alone the world before the Fall.

These are “worlds” beyond our perception, though we can know about them through the Scriptures. The eschaton and heaven too are beyond our normal experience, though we are granted hints, prefigurations, glimpses into these “worlds.” We are granted awareness of these “worlds” which allows us to anticipate them, which is somewhat the joy we experience in and through the Liturgy.

But as the Fathers saw it, sexual activity belongs to this world – the world of the Fall and the world of sin and death. They tended to believe there was no sexual activity in Paradise (perhaps because none is mentioned in Scripture until after the Fall) and that there will be none in the Kingdom to come (“they will be like angels not given in marriage”).

So our entire experience of and understanding of sexuality and gender is, as we experience it, in this the world of the Fall. So we are left to theorize about it, and to understand the commandments related to it (these commandments by the way are also given to us in the world of the Fall, so they may have no eternal validity belonging to the first Covenant rather than to Christ), and to interpret what it is to be human.

Discussions about sexuality and gender are therefore conducted within an incomplete experience of the entire cosmos; creation and paradise as well as the eschaton and heaven are beyond our experience. They are part of the context in which we are to understand sexuality.

But because of our limited experience with them, sexuality has an element of mystery (in the sacramental sense) to it. This is also why to overly dogmatize about some of these issues raised by sexuality is to forget our human limits in understanding and that our understanding is at times imperfect.

There is a logic at operation in the universe which is not ours. What has occurred in the world of the Fall regarding gender and sexuality may have some meaning which we cannot at this point fathom or grasp. God does work in mysterious ways.

And we who say human life is sanctified and valuable, and who can embrace and even celebrate life for the handicapped and the challenged, may have to find the sanctity which is also present in those whose gender or sexual orientation is inexplicable or different.

We are dealing with complex issues with implications for the lives of many. We do have to deal with these issues in the world of the fall. What are the limits of acceptable sexual behavior in human society?

Here we come back to the wisdom which is available to us through Scripture and Tradition.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

Merton on Nonviolence: “Nonviolence seeks to ‘win’ not by destroying or even by humiliating the adversary,” wrote Thomas Merton, “but by convincing him that there is a higher and more certain common good than can be attained by bombs and blood.

Nonviolence, ideally speaking, does not try to overcome the adversary by winning over him, but to turn him from an adversary into a collaborator by winning him over.”

This passage touches the root of my deep skepticism of the state or the political process as an active force for genuine peace. I can’t even begin to imagine a world where my own State, the U.S., will ever take the attitude toward any enemy that there is a higher common good for both parties if only both could strive together to attain it.

To be sure, “we” (identifying ourselves with the State) are convinced that there is a higher good, but we are equally convinced that we have either already attained it or are darn close, and it is “they” (the other state) who are holding it back or refusing to attain to our good already achieved or “seen.”

Conversely, Merton convinces me that peace begins with me, that the higher good really is far above me, and possibly, in the degree to which I succeed in attaining it, I can influence those around me sufficiently that corporately we might have an eventually sufficient influence on the State that it may at least act something like a peacemaker of the sort Merton describes. It’s the last part I really don’t believe.
Pieter Dykhorst

Caesar always leads: I have the impression that Copts in Egypt, like Christians in many countries, are asking for a particular freedom, not for freedom for everyone in the country.

But democracy is an all or none proposition. Christians cannot ask for particular freedoms, while asking that existential freedom be denied to those whom it wishes.

Liberalization is in the very nature of democracy, because it eventually expands to encompass all citizens. In the end, if you wish to deny the benefits of democracy to some, to the “not us,” or those who, for example, feel the need to divorce, then you must resort to a dictatorship and a set of religious laws: and Islam is the dominant religion, so the laws will be theirs, not yours. Democracy is all nor none. If you wish to dance with Caesar, you must remember that Caesar always leads. And Caesar is always an opportunist.

Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo)

Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church, is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. A church was built on the site in the 3rd century.

Photo: Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church, is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. A church was built on the site in the 3rd century.

Egyptians Coptics: The Copts here in Egypt tend to want either a full-blown secular state, a liberal democracy with rights and freedoms for everyone, including them, or else protection by a benevolent ruler from forces that would persecute them, as they think they had under Mubarak.

After 1400 years of either outright persecution or discriminatory treatment at best, it seems that these are understandable longings.

What is truly amazing about this is that the Coptic Church here is the healthiest church I have ever seen. Churches are full to over-flowing with multiple services on multiple days on the weekends.

Monasteries and convents are active and growing with young monks and nuns, often very accomplished people, living and working out of new or newly refurbished facilities. Impressive development services for poor villages and slums are undertaken by both the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Evangelical churches. It all says to me that we Christians do better under duress than privilege.

Whatever the shape of Egypt’s political future looks like, I hope it doesn’t undermine this health.

Thomas Snowden

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011