Thoughts Along the Tour de Donut

It all began with the Tour de Donut.  (What a name!)  This last time I only did ten miles of it.  I was out of shape, every hill was a challenge.  One of them started me thinking: when on a bicycle, every hill is a negation.  It is a deal brokered between biker, bike and hill.  If any of the three are not in agreement, the deal is off and the hill is not surmounted.  I wondered how a horse would fare on this hill – I was in Amish country after all.  I wondered how often a person would be willing to climb this hill if all they had was foot, hoof or bike tire.

And then it hit me.  Not literally, thankfully, but how malevolently useful is a car.  Cars make hills flat.  Sure, a terribly long or steep hill still might tax a car, but seriously, hills are no challenge for an automobile.  Cars make going to the store trivial.  Cars make going to the store many times a day trivial.

And therein lies the problem.  Well, one problem.  Cars create within us a certain type of forgetting.  We forget the idea of distance, we forget concepts like topography, and we forget the cost involved in travelling like this.  If we were on foot or using a bike we would notice every hill – preparing for the climbs and maybe rejoicing for the descents.  Not so with a car.  The car’s travel is measured in time, not miles.  If we are late, we just accelerate.  Hills are of no consequence.  We dominate our surroundings, oblivious to its challenges and its benefits.  We pay more attention to the pavement than to the world around us.  The scenery is something to be overcome or consumed, not appreciated.  That is the tax for the benefit of the automobile: a world reduced to a box within a moving scene.

 

I thought further.  I am an amateur woodworker. Thanks to the likes of Nick Offerman and Paul Sellers, I am becoming more interested in hand tools than power tools.  With power tools you can assert your will on just about any type of wood in any type of condition.  A circular saw, a table saw, a planer, a jointer, a router  – all of these useful tools cut through wood like a hot knife through butter.  Who cares about grain?  Who cares about hardness?  All succumb to the power of circular motion, created by a motor, and passed on to a blade or cutting bit of some kind.  You can make that birdhouse in no time.  But it comes at a cost.

With a handsaw you have to know more.  You need to know the difference between cutting with the grain and across the grain.  You need to use a type of saw that will make the edges of your dovetail joints sharp, and you need the skill to keep it in the correct plane as you cut.  And speaking of planes, you need to know if the wood is hard or soft, you need to know which direction the grain is running, you need to account for moisture content and knots and all other sorts of information that the wood has to offer before work is finished, and sometimes even before work is started.

The hand tool user has to know more, so the work, again, is more a negotiation than an imposition.  You have to come to an agreement between craftswoman, tool, and wood.  The wood-worker knows more about the wood and therefore is likely to build an even more amazing birdhouse – a birdhouse that is the result of a harmonious relationship between the person and the material.

 

A final realization of a list that is by no means exhausted is that the medium you through which you are reading this message also comes at a cost.  Messages are sent and immediately received.  Texts are responded to at break-neck speeds sometimes without the care needed to assure clear and successful communication.  Messages become throwaways, consumed, and inconsequential.

My great aunts and my mother wrote to each other every week.  Every Friday or Saturday we would receive a letter from them.  My mother would keep the envelope from the letter that had come the previous week and would use it to take little notes of the events of the days following.  Then on Sunday night she would compose a letter of her own, written by her own hand, that would tell of the week’s events and maybe answer some things that came in the letter from Friday or Saturday.  And while these letters took time to send and to receive, they reflected a care and even a love that is just not obvious in a text or an email that is sent within a minute of the receipt of the most recent message.  These letters were not just communiques, but they even had a certain aesthetic to them, the elegant beauty of someone’s handwriting, the choice of stationery and the like.  If you messed up, you had to start over if you wanted it to be neat, so you took extra care in crafting a letter.  Thoughtfulness, planning, and care were all part of a well written letter.

The immediate response lacks care, and sometimes it lacks the restraint necessary to respond to a letter or message that was not so diplomatic.  The speed is nice, but something gets lost in the transaction.

 

Of course, we could talk about the cow that went into your burger, or the chicken, or even the Maryland blue crab.  Each of these consumables involves a significant commitment that involves an ultimate cost.  This, however, is a conversation for another day.

 

All of these things are representative of an increasing loss of the relationship between person and object (subject?).  The person becomes the sole agent, and everything around them becomes a consumable.  There is no conversation, no negotiation, no appreciation of beauty as a participant in that beauty, but rather as a spectator of said beauty, if there is any beauty at all.  It all comes at a cost –our willingness to integrate with the world around us, the care and concern for things of beauty in our surroundings, even our very humanity.

 

The Philosophers

I absolutely love this painting.  It’s just two people walking in a pastoral setting, but there is so much there to see.  It was painted in 1917, in the midst of the ongoing turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution that would result in one of these men being exiled and the other dead.  The former, the man in the background wearing a black suit, is Fr. Sergius Bulgakov.  The one in the front is Fr. Pavel Florensky.  Bulgakov gave his own thoughts of this work.  Frs. Bulgakov and Florensky are pensive: revolution is upon them and their beloved Russia.  Each as a way of expressing their concern.  Though the painting was done in Fr. Florensky’s back yard, the setting is actually that of the woods of the Monastery of Saint Sergius.  Fitting.  You can read his thoughts and much more here.

Umberto Eco once said that an author should die once his or her work has been published; their intended meaning of the text is irrelevant once the text has been finished – it is up to the reader, not the writer, to derive meaning.  With this in mind, I offer my own interpretation Nesterov’s work.  

Orthodox theology has been in a bit of a stale age.  Why this is happening is anyone’s guess.  Certainly the horrors of the Communist revolution and the subsequent generation of misery did not help.  Neither has the recent phenomenon of phyletism which is increasing rather than decreasing been of any help.  But there were other places, other strains, that could have picked up where the writers of the late 19th and early 20th century left off.  Instead there has been a palamist resurgence in the form of neo-patristics and a neo-athonite insistence on hesychasm being the sole means through which theology is “done”.

Bulgakov and Florensky are the Orthodox writers of the early 20th century par excellence.  On several occasions John Milbank has told me that he believes that Bulgakov is the greatest theologian (not just Orthodox theologian) of the 20th century.  And while Bulgakov was writing amazing works of vast scope and depth, Florensky, a polymath, was infusing his theology into everything he did, including his works on imaginary numbers, physics, and electrical engineering.

In this painting, then, I see the hope of Orthodoxy.  I do not see it limited to one man, but in the unity of the two – a dialogue, not a monologue. They are walking together, along a common path.  They are close, indicating the closeness of their friendship, but also of their common journey.  Bulgakov, in his business suit, is deep in thought.  He is pensive.  He is working out the complexities of his theological and philosophical concepts, seemingly in a worldly manner – in a school, a seminary.  He is dealing with critics, detractors, and others who are more eager to attack than try to understand.  Maybe he’s going to talk at Cambridge, or Oxford, or Basel, or Harvard.  At any rate, he has the vast richness of Orthodox thought, hymnography, and hagiography at his disposal  He’s brilliant, and he’s formidable. He’s trailblazing.

Pavel Florensky is altogether different.  He is no less pensive, no less formidable, but where Bulgakov is seemingly fretful, Florensky is interior, deep in prayer.  In Florensky the glory of God saturates everything.  God is always revealing something; you just need the eyes to see it.  Those “eyes” come from intense study and from a life shaped in prayer, reverberating with the love God has for us, his prized creation.  So where Sergei Bulgakov frets and furrows, Pavel Florensky exudes prayer and peace.

And that is the glory of Orthodoxy.In these two, the wrestling of the intellect and the peaceableness of the nous are merged into one.  There is always work to be done, and the work is intense and the work is challenging.   But the beauty of God is everywhere, if you have the eyes to see.  Those eyes come from that very work, and from the devoted life in prayer that is expected of everyone who calls him or herself a Christian.

The Start (and End) of Something

“Love all God’s creation, the whole and each grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light! Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.”

Vichnaya Pamyat (+Fr. Tom Hopko, +3/18/2015)

 

“Looking forward!”
Those were the last words of the last message
You left on my voicemail.
We were making plans for lunch
And what a lunch.
Syrian food from Mary’s

Dairy Queen to top it off

You were so happy.
And so was I
You shared so many stories
Of Wainwright and the WCC
Of being an ant among giants
With you I was the ant
And you were the giant.
But most of the time, we were just friends.
We met long ago, a lifetime ago.
You the traveling dean and lecturer, yearning to retire
Me the seminarian, your unlikely chauffeur from Meadville to airport.
You were so gracious. You were so patient.
I was so protestant.
When we next met it was thanks to your friends and neighbors.
You needed help with your computer.
There I was a giant and you the ant.
That’s nice how that works
And the monastery liturgies.
You, sitting in the nave.
Me, nervous beyond words.
We got through it. And it became commonplace.
Then we would sit together, after services.
And talk. About whatever.
The last time we spoke was of +Evlogy. That was Jan 1.
Then you disappeared. You got sick.
And I prayed. And I tried to reach out.
But the walls were too high.
Then it was the end. Unction.
I prayed with giants. I was an ant.
But I prayed too.
When I came to you you said
“Thank you for being my friend”
I remember your voice.
That look in your eyes
They will never leave my heart.
The next day I sat with you
as you began your transition.
And then you were gone, Holy Cross Wednesday.
I got to vest you.
At your funeral,
I got to stand at the altar aside the priest
Who chrismated me all those years ago
And hundreds or so of your closest friends
That altar
Where we served together from time to time
Where I still hear your voice, your lilting laugh
And I contemplate the profundity of many of your thoughts.
In the years that have passed
There are times when I am asked
 What did I see in you?
To each I look, straight in the eye
With a mix of sincerity and defiance
And say
He was my friend.
Looking forward, Fr. Tom.

Αἰωνία ἡ μνήμη (For Fr. Matthew Baker, +2015)

 You were the fourth of our triumvirate

Our short-lived little fellowship
You were present, but you were casual, aloof
You were our dogmatic imprimatur, brilliant
You knew more about everything
Loved by Metropolitans, a promising young voice
Wary of experts, challenged by parish ministry
And there we were… an unlikely duo.
We never met, face to face. 
I can’t recall the sound of your voice.
But through many late evenings and nights we would chat
About everything: people, theologians, music, politics 
You taught me about Florovsky and Heidegger
I taught you about dealing with parishioners
And still we talked on about lots of stuff. 
Now that I think about it, 
We did actually talk by phone near the end
We talked about meeting for a beer in Boston, near the end.
The end
O God. Why?
Four years gone and I am still asking why
So many of the particulars are so damn frustrating
So many of the events are so horribly fresh
The news (I’m sitting right where I was when I found out)
Our face to face was at your funeral
Your face was hid; I kissed your hand.
The funeral 
That funeral. We talked, near the end, about how much 
You hated our funeral
You wanted pascha, not food for worms and stench.
How ironic, that one of our last would be about that.
How fitting that in your own service you got what you wanted.
Your service. God.
Today is not the anniversary of your passing. 
But it is for me.
For me you have passed from chronos to kairos.
You are defined by liturgical time.
You died on the Sunday night of the
Sunday of Orthodoxy
And that night will always bring us 
Back together
To talk about Barth, and Kate Bush and Florovsky
And nosy and mean parishioners (yours, not mine)
And beer
Meanwhile, I press on in chronos
I miss your depth of thought
Most of all, I, selfishly, miss your presence.
For as short as it was, it was indelible.

 

Memory eternal, dear Brother and Concelebrant,

And friend.

 

Prussia or Jesusalem (OK… Cappadocia)?

 

When you love someone you love them not only despite their fragility but also, because of it.  They wouldn’t be who they were if they weren’t fragile and limited in their particular way.

When you have a sick kid it’s like, oh my God how can the world be constituted so that a child can unfairly suffer in this manner? You can’t have them being vulnerable and cute and interesting and small and needing care but striving to develop and grow without them also being prone to pain and destruction and vulnerability.  And then what do you do?

Teach them to be strong.  That’s what you do. You don’t get rid of the vulnerability. You teach them to be strong.

You don’t protect your children. In fact, you do the opposite. You expose them to the world as much as you possibly can. You make them strong. That’s the best antidote to their vulnerability.

The first noble truth of Buddhism, life is suffering. This is true. And it’s worse than that because it’s suffering contaminated by malevolence.

So that’s very pessimistic, but the optimistic part is that you are so damn tough you could actually not only deal with that, you can improve it. It’s like, “Oh, well that’s a horrible situation, but it turns out I’m armed for the task.” Well that’s a great thing for people to know.

I think the fact that we’re armed for the task is even more true than the fact that life is catastrophe contaminated by malevolence. We’re stronger than these things are terrible. And I do believe it’s the case because I’ve watched people do very difficult things. Like people who worked in palliative care wards, so all they’re ever dealing with is pain and death. And they can do it. They get up in the morning, they go to work, and they take care of those people. They lose people on a weekly basis and yet they can do it and what that shows is that if you turn around and you confront the suffering voluntarily you find out that you are way tougher than you think.

It’s not that life is better than you think. Life is as harsh as you think. It might even be worse. But you are way tougher than you think. If you turn around and confront it. It’s a very good thing to know and it’s not naive optimism. It’s a very different thing. It’s like, no, things are terrible. They’re brutal.

And you are so damn tough, you can’t believe it.

Life is catastrophe contaminated by malevolence and we are damn tough.

In recent days I saw this video.  It is promoting a way of describing life that was profoundly unsettling to me. The speaker in the video (Jordan Peterson) actually said that life was “catastrophe contaminated by malevolence”. I guess the speaker has been some sort of champion in recent days for a particular political point of view. I wouldn’t know. I just only recently heard of him, from that same video. At any rate, I don’t care who he is, I just care that his view seemingly runs completely counter to (Orthodox) Christian ways of seeing the world (well, maybe it’s OK if you are a Calvinist and believe in total depravity and all).
 
Orthodoxy sees life as the reverse of malevolence-infused catastrophe: life is a 1) a gift from God and as such is good; 2) essentially beautiful and bent towards praise of God.  This last one can be divided into humanity and creation as follows:
  • 2a) humanity is made in the image of God, has free will, and in this free will has the capacity to strive for and perhaps even achieve theosis. But having free will humanity can also set up idols and turn away from God.  And so we fell, though through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ death has been overcome, our estrangement from God has been overcome and our sadness has been transformed into joy.
  • 2b) creation fell when humanity fell. That means it is subject to the same corruption that humanity has (a definite beginning, a definite end, and a tendency towards chaos, or disorder, which we can call entropy).  But even still it is from God, and it still has the capacity to tell of the glory of God.  And ultimately it will be restored just as humanity will be restored.

So Peterson speaks of “life” being malevolent catastrophe.  Where in the world did he get that idea?  Well, I would argue it has less to do with Jerusalem (or Cappadocia) than it does with Prussia.  The whole narrative sounds more like Nietzsche and his idea of the Übermensch.  Think about it: The world is turbulent, even hostile.  Yet you are STRONG.  You are DAMN TOUGH.  This is right out of Nietzsche’s play-book: Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  So let me be clear: this is about as Orthodox as Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Reinhold Niebuhr.

The concern, for why Peterson’s video is so important to some people, is that we are raising a nation of “wimpy” men.  Peterson’s narrative will surely help to inspire something counter to that.  But is it the right message?  I don’t think so.  The right message would keep as its foundation the core beliefs that the world is not malevolently catastrophic yet it is subject to corruption.  (“Fairness” is not an issue because it’s not like some aspects of creation are perfect and others are not – all are subject to the same conditions.)  Second, it is absolutely essential to bear in mind that in the Incarnation, strength was shown in weakness, and more importantly, life was manifest in death.  These beliefs are not wimpy, cowardly or pathetic (as Nietzsche would assert that they were).  In fact, the will to power, the eagerness to express control through violence (the subtext of Nietzsche’s program) is more a sign of weakness than the Christian way of strength through submission.  It is far tougher to turn the other cheek or walk an extra mile than it is to take an eye for an eye taken.

One more note: In Christianity there is something else, something despised when thinking of these “tough” qualities: empathy or compassion.  In empathy you develop an awareness of the struggles of the people around you so that at times you actually become co-sufferers.  In compassion you desire to help and heal those around you.  These qualities, in the Nietzschean model, are weaknesses.  In Christ and in the Christian life they are virtues.  Toughness in the Christian sense often means being willing to sacrifice your desires, your will, sometimes even your life (see the life of Saint Maria Skobtsova, for example) to understand and to help the other.

In Christianity you are indeed tough.  It is that very toughness, I would argue, that enables you to see that the world, in fact, catastrophe contaminated with malevolence, but is rather the creation that still – even in its entropic, “fallen” state – declares the glory of God.  Christians would do well to find inspiration from places other than Nietzsche and his modern interpreters.

A reading list from David Bentley Hart

Distilled from the blog, “A Theologian’s Library”.  The message is addressed to contributor Ben Davis.  Get it here: https://theologianslibrary.com/2015/11/21/an-email-from-david-bentley-hart/

You could buy these books from Amazon, in written or electronic format.  Buy local when you can, please. If Eighth Day Books has these, the link is included.

NOTE: Some of these books are plagued by Amazon’s “supply and demand” algorithm.  Some of these paperbacks are selling for over 600 dollars.  You money is best spent elsewhere.  If there is no link, that is why.  Check them out of a local library.  

Metaphysics:
Richard Taylor, Metaphysics(4th edition).Buy from Eighth Day Books. Buy from Amazon.

E. L. Mascall, He Who Is
E. L. Mascall. Existence and Analogy

W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many. Buy from Amazon

Matthew Levering, Proofs of God.  Buy from Eighth Day Books  Buy from Amazon.

Theology (always start with the fathers):

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man Buy from Eighth Day Books  Buy from Amazon
Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection.  Buy from Eighth Day BooksBuy from Amazon

Ps-Dionysius Complete Works, Buy from Eighth Day BooksBuy from Amazon

Cyril of Alexandria On the Unity of Christ.  Buy from Amazon.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation. Buy from Eighth Day Books.   Buy from Amazon.

St Isaac of Ninevah (especially the “Second Volume”)

Maximus the Confessor. Chapters on Love. Buy from Eighth Day Books.   Buy from Amazon
Maximus the Confessor. The Cosmic Mystery of Christ. Buy from Eighth Day Books   Buy from Amazon

Mediaeval and Early Modern Theology,

Symeon the New Theologian’s Mystical Discourses (or whatever it’s called in English), Buy from Eighth Day Books   Buy from Amazon

Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God.   Buy from Eighth Day Books   Buy from Amazon

Nicholas of Cusa. Buy from Eighth Day Books   Buy from Amazon

Thomas Traherne. Centuries  Buy from Eighth Day Books   Buy from Amazon

George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons   Buy from Eighth Day Books   Buy from Amazon

Modern Theologians

Sergius Bulgakov. Bride of the Lamb,  Buy from Amazon

Hans Urs von Balthasar. Glory of the Lord.  (This is a seven volume set, available in various forms and from both 8th Day Books and Amazon.)

Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church,  Buy from Eighth Day Books   Buy from Amazon

Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World,  Buy from Eighth Day Books   Buy from Amazon

Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics part IV, (There are 5 volumes in this set.  14 total.)

Henri de Lubac’s Supernatural (currently being translated I believe, but if you read French go ahead),

Rowan Williams’ Resurrection (2nd edition).  Buy from Amazon

I hope this helps,
David

Me too, Kevin.

If you go far enough east or far enough west… 🌎

Ecumenism.  I do not think there is a dirtier word that exists in the American Orthodox playbook.  For decades now I have sat in national gatherings of my church and listened to the passionate and uncharitable calls from brother clergy to abandon all efforts to talk with Christians of other persuasions.  “They are feminists,” they say; “they are gnostics,” others comment; “they are tree-hugging, Christa-worshipping, communist-supporting, family-bashing, left-leaning, immigrant-protecting heterodox secularists.” Or something like that.  It’s hard to tell sometimes, but I am pretty sure that’s what I heard.  Not a bit of charity.  And certainly no interest whatsoever in learning about outsiders.  Well, of course, we know everything we need to know about them, as was cited a few lines above this one (the tree-hugging part).

I think this sentiment – and make no mistake, I do think it is a sentiment (def: 1 – a view of or attitude toward a situation or event; an opinion. 2 – a feeling or emotion. [I choose both]) – comes from many people who themselves are converts to the faith from some other form of Christianity.  That means they came from somewhere else first, like Methodism, or Lutheranism, or Calvinism, or Catholicism.  Maybe, if they are truly industrious, they came from all four of those!  Journeys take weird paths sometimes.  Thank God.

Anyway, I was given an article a while back from someone, a convert, who was sharing his own thoughts about ecumenism and the Orthodox Church.  I thought it might be of use to add my thoughts to his. I am not going to say who the writer is. Sorry. The writer says that he spent a great time in seminary “studying theology as an intellectual, academic enterprise with philosophical underpinnings”.  So did I.  But even then, when I was in seminary, I was not unaware that I needed to do some heavy lifting on my own.  I knew that theology was literally the study of God and needed to be augmented with worship, spirituality and ethics.  I knew that some ethicists disdained spirituality and that even some theologians never went to church.  I didn’t care. I did what I knew was right.  I did not despise them, I actually kind of pitied them for their lack of dimensionality.

I read Henri Nouwen.  I read Thomas Merton.  I read the great collection of books from Renovare (Devotional Classics, Spiritual Classics).  I read voluminously from the Classics of Western Spirituality.  I also read the writings of the Desert Fathers (thanks to Merton and Nouwen), and especially my beloved patron saint, Gregory of Nyssa (thanks again to Merton).  I learned to appreciate the Church Fathers as voices to listen to and learn from, recognizing that they have an enduring authority in that they were dealing with matters quite similar to our own and they were largely bishops and priests or nuns – people immersed in the theology of the church along with the worship and spirituality of it as well.  I found that their sacrifices and their love and commitment to God put my own feeble way of life to shame, and they made me appreciate the need to devote my life to God – heart, mind, soul, strength.  So in effect, Christianity outside of Orthodoxy is not merely an intellectual pursuit – it has a rich spiritual tradition as old as that of Orthodoxy, even going so far as to include the very church Fathers we ourselves honor.  Note: I learned this as a Christian, not necessarily as an Orthodox Christian.

So why did I convert?  Because everywhere I went politics, not theology, ruled the day.  Who cares about theology? what matters is how you feel about abortion, the death penalty, liberalism, conservatism, red, blue, etc.  And look: now those denominations are splitting into conservative and liberal facsimiles of themselves.  How cute (actually how tragic).  I became Orthodox because Christianity’s fulness was preserved in her, from theology to worship to spirituality to ethos.  It was there, and the politics was not.  Thank God!

Back to the writer. He mentions Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos and his understanding of theology as therapy.  He sees this as a crucial aspect of life in the Orthodox chuch.  But he writes as if the only way that the Orthodox think of theology is the way that Metropolitan Hierotheos does.  If this is really what he believes, then he is mistaken.  In my early years, I learned that Orthodoxy was big – global in fact, and diverse. In seminary I learned about and read Ugolnik, Bulgakov, Hopko, Florovsky, Zizioulas, Yannaris, Lossky, Romanides, Schmemann, Meyendorff, Florensky, Evdokimov, Rose, Ware, Azkoul, Tsirpanlis, Allen, Harakas, Guorian, and others, for sure.  I read a lot. They were more my conversation partners than were Edward Farley and Hendrikus Berkhof (the ones I was supposed to read in seminary).  I learned that the writers that I was reading came to write their books from many disparate points of view.  I learned that Romanides and Azkoul really disliked Augustine.  I thought that Schmemann wrote clearly and pastorally, and reminded me of Stanley Hauerwas at points. Rose reminded me somewhat of a Orthodox Thomas Merton, but his path was and is not my path.  I had some I liked, others I did not.  I did not see one as more Orthodox than the other, much like I did not see Hans Kung and Hans Urs von Balthasar as more Catholic than the another.

So now we come to today. The Orthodoxy of America today, in the context in which this article appears to have been written, has veered.  In some present-day circles, it seems, the neo-patristic/neo-athonite/neo-palamite theology of Romaindes and Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos has become the exclusive theology of Orthodoxy, even the litmus test of one’s orthodoxy.  The model of theology as therapy (a valid model, for sure, but not the only one, as Larchet himself points out in his magisterial Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses), and the rejection of anything that is outside of the narrow band of palamite/hesychastic theology has the (hopefully) unintended side-effect of promoting a form of Orthodox fundamentalism. Among its characteristics is that fundamentalism rejects ecumenical discussions as being unfruitful and useless because of the insistence that, in all honesty, it is perceived that the east is so very far from the west.

The picture at the top of this article comes from a poster from the Mennonite Central Committee.  As pacifists, they believe that embracing Christianity means embracing a lifestyle that makes real the possibility that swords will indeed be beaten into plowshares and that one day we will indeed learn war no more.  It is living into the “ethos” of Christ’s Gospel teachings in the fullest way possible. The only way we can do this indeed is to agree, and to agree about some important things.  We can agree not to kill each other.  We can agree, each of us, to live honestly into our Christian faith – not judging, but loving our neighbor, and loving God fully and completely.  We can learn about each other, and this is where I think ecumenism is most important:  I am not looking for pan-Christian sacramental participation.  I am hoping for each expression of Christianity to talk openly and honestly about themselves and about each other.  Do I think Orthodoxy is Christianity in its fulness?  Yes.  But I also believe it is important to talk with others.  We learn about ourselves when we do.  Our faith may be perfect, but we humans are only human – corruptible and imperfect.  We see through the mirror dimly and we must have the humility to understand that God can teach us in any way He chooses.  And we can learn just how far we have to go sometimes to attain the theosis we are so eager to partake of.  It is foolish and arrogant to abandon opportunities to talk to each other, to learn from each other, to work often with each other in times of need or common purpose, and help all peoples to get closer to the living God whom we love and revere.

 

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I have been going through a transition of sorts.  Actually a return.  I can’t explain it, but I am recalling the summer of 1993 (25 years ago…  Ugh!) and the beginning of my journey to Orthodoxy.  The recollections are so clear.  Clearer than they have been for some time.

Here is what I remember:  I remember Umberto Eco, Anton Ugolnik, and Sergei Bulgakov.

Umberto Eco: In 1993 I read Foucault’s Pendulum for the first time.  The book is monstrous.  It is saturated with allusions to actual events, to philosophical and theological concepts, to a widely diverse array of topics and ideas.  And in the end it signifies absolutely nothing.  In many ways it is a laborious journey to nowhere.  It drives home Eco’s sense of the importance of details that is joined with the pointlessness of one’s journey.  I could not help but get the sense that one of the characters was Eco.  And just think: Eco was not a believer (well, maybe he was…), but he spent all of that time working over details and concepts and philosophies and cabals and yet…  It was all seemingly pointless.  To use one’s brilliance to go nowhere…  Imagine if you actually had someplace to go.

Anton Ugolnik:  I had met Fr. Ugolnik in 1989, in the closing weeks of my college experience.  Who knew that it would be so transformative.  I read his book, The Illuminating Icon, in the summer months between college and seminary.  It was excellent.  For me it served at minimum three major purposes.  First, it helped to introduce Eastern Orthodoxy to me in an excellently constructed book (he is a professor of English after all…); second, it helped to show the tenacity of Orthodoxy under communism (under any regime, honestly); and third, it helped to show that Orthodox Christianity is far from a rigid, rules-driven, legalistic faith.  It has its fasts and its canons, but Orthodox Christianity is organic, and takes the mandate of Christ, “Love God with all your mind” seriously.  It is an all-encompassing faith, integrating all of the senses.  It is a rich faith, requiring you to use your brain but not to worship it.

Sergei Bulgakov: A controversial figure in Orthodox circles, I suppose, but one that should not simply be dismissed out of hand.  The man was a brilliant scholar.  He was a polymath.  He was an economist who wrote lucidly and powerfully about a type of economics that took Christianity seriously (something that neither socialism nor capitalism do).  He wrote lengthy volumes on the Forerunner, the Mother of God, Christ, the Church, the Holy Spirit, and much more.  He wrote devotions.  The man was amazing.  I found in him and in Pavel Florensky (a physicist and priest) powerful examples of doing everything as best as one possibly can.  Given my background in electrical engineering and physics as well as religion, you can see how intriguing these figures would be.

Flash forward to now.  It’s as if I have awoken from my dogmatic slumbers (hi Karl.).  I remember.  I remember why I love the Orthodox faith, I remember the beauty of creation and that the heavens are indeed telling of the glory of God.  I remember as a younger adult how I understood that the study of the natural sciences helped to point to God’s glory.  I understood that it did not so much reveal as confirm it.  Christ reveals it, the creation says amen.  I understood that then, and I understand now.

And more: we are not in a vacuum, we are not in diaspora.  As American or western Orthodox believers we are not alone.  We think the same way, we reason the same way as believers of other faiths.  We have some theological and historical concerns to straighten out, but in the words of Steve Hogarth of the band Marillion, “there’s more that binds us than divides us.”  To live only in the differences is both unhelpful and inaccurate.  I’ll let David Bentley Hart’s comments suffice (see “The Myth of Schism“).

I will have more to say.  Much more.  These are interesting times.  We have work to do.  And most of the work is in using what God gave us to the best of our abilities to His greater glory.  The field is ripe.  Time to get busy.