I eagerly began reading the chapter on Byzantium thinking I would make faster progress, but soon found myself amazed enough by what I was reading that I felt compelled to make note of it. After all I wanted not merely to see how fast I could get through this first book of 2011, but actually learn from it. Orthodoxy is quite a new world for me so why not record notes? (I find I remember information better if I take time to write about it.)
Just as I read the Quran and books about Islam through my own Western, Baptist, Christian lenses, I find I am doing the same with this book. Yes, it's Christianity, however, it is hard for me to come at it completely without thinking of and comparing it to what I've believed all these years. I wish I could approach new topics as a blank slate and read them without biases already in place, but I'm not really good at forgetting all I've known. I hope that makes sense and you keep this in mind as I critique this new (to me) faith. Please don't take it personally. That said, let's proceed through chapter 2 ... or at least the first part. I couldn't even finish the chapter I had so many notes to write!
So I read about Constantine's vision of the cross: in this sign conquer, the inscription supposedly read. Being able to look back at history and knowing how often Christians did use the cross as a reason for and rallying point in their battles, I had to take seriously and mull over this supposed sign from God. I like to compare things to Jesus in the Bible and have a hard time seeing him rallying his followers around the same cross and telling them to conquer in his name. Yes, Jesus spoke of the division between family members because some would reject him while others accepted his message of salvation, but never did I get an impression that Jesus wanted us to pick up swords to kill opponents of his way.
Christianity in Rome went from being a persecuted religion to a tolerated faith (thanks to the Edict of Milan) to a favored religion and then, compliments of Theodosius, fifty years after Constantine's death Christianity was the only officially recognized religion of the Empire! The tables were turned: now it was paganism that was suppressed.
Additionally the capital of the Roman Empire was moved from Italy to the Greek city of Byzantium. Constantine named the city after himself and after its "solemn inauguration" he declared that "no pagan rites should ever be performed" in Constantinople. I couldn't help but think of Mecca when I read this. In no way should this holiest city of Islam be stained by a nonMuslim entering it.
The author notes the first council of Nicea clearly demonstrated the new Church and State alliance with one observer reporting that the Emperor presided as if he were "some heavenly messenger of God." (pg. 19) (Muhammad anyone?)
The next section discussed the first six councils. As I read about the Church's attempts to explain the nature of Christ, our relationship with God through Christ, theosis, homoousios, hypostasis, Theotokos, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism and such things I was starting to have such heretical thoughts of does all this really matter? and does God truly care that we fully grasp these things about Jesus? Again I thought back to Scripture and Jesus' words to follow him and he would make us fishers of men. His way seemed much simpler ("my yoke is easy and my burden is light") compared to all these theologians' debates and these various schools of thought.
Is it absolutely essential that we understand the nature of Christ, his relationship to God? I suppose the answer is yes and someone can tell me why, but, goodness, I think of Jesus' words about coming to God with childlike faith and, yes, children question, but do they always fully grasp and understand our answers? Even the book admits the Church didn't intend to explain God for how can God be explained by mere man? So the Church dealt with fencing in the Mystery, that is excluding false facts that would lead people into error and heresy. Part of this is dealing with those Greek words mentioned above.
Theosis is the one that gave me the most pause. I thought I took the Bible literally until I read where the Greek Fathers thought Paul and John were speaking of our (humanity's) 'deification'! "If humans are to share in God's glory, they argued, if they are to be 'perfectly one' with God, this means in effect that humans must be 'deified': they are called to become by grace what God is by nature." That part about "by grace" was extremely helpful in curbing my rising alarm, but then I read St. Athanasius' summary of the purpose of Incarnation: "'God became human that we might be made god'" and couldn't help that Mormon belief of our becoming gods of our own planets came to mind! Also thoughts of the beginning - Garden of Eden, Genesis 3 and Satan tempting Eve and throwing in:
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (vs. 5, emphasis mine)
I think theosis by far was the most troubling part although I couldn't quite grasp why balancing the nature of Christ was of such supreme importance. Then again, I'm not a theologian so ...
Re: the Trinity, I stopped to mull over the classic summary: three persons in one essence recalling how the Old Testament stressed God is one and Jesus said God is spirit and how did those things fit into this Trinitarian summary. Here is something of how my brain reasoned it:
God is One -- but the OT didn't say one what. Jesus said God is spirit so we can't think of God as one person such as we are. So God can be one spirit (essence) but three persons (Father, Son, Spirit) if He chooses. (He could be more than three persons in reality.) Throwing in a healthy dose of "this is a mystery" and "God can't be fully explained by my little mind," I could appreciate the summary.
(This book has over 300 pages and these notes cover the first 23. At this rate, still reading this book in October is entirely possible!)