"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, January 31, 2011

January Books

I was out of town for a few days visiting the beach!  (See photos here.) Now I am home just in time to post about the books I read this month.  I finished the last one on our trip home this afternoon. 

African Notebook -- Albert Schweitzer shares anecdotes from his time in Equatorial Africa. This book inspired two posts one which dealt with taboos and the other with "Differences Between White People and Black People" (this was actually the title of chapter 3).  This book was published in 1939 and translated by Mrs. C.E.B. Russell. 

Land of a Thousand Hills is the memoir of Rosamond Halsey Carr as she shares about her adult life in Rwanda.  Mrs. Carr, an American, married a British adventurer and after a few year of marriage, they decided to move to Africa.  Although their marriage did not last, their friendship did and Mrs. Carr stayed in Africa because she found out that she loved the people and the land.  I enjoyed reading of titled Europeans that had settled there and how they would meet for social events.  I enjoyed hearing about the natives - the Tutsis, mostly shepherds, who were a smaller percentage of the population yet were more educated and regal-looking. These were the rulers of the land.  The Hutus were by far greater in number and they were the farmers.  While the two groups (along with the much smaller population of pygmies) mostly lived in harmony, at times the differences would become too great and conflict would erupt.  The most horrible example of this happened in the 1990s after English-speaking Ugandans (made up of former Tutsis who had been expelled in the late 1950s) invaded Rwanda.  Having seen the world come to the defense of Kuwait when Iraq invaded, the Rwandans naturally assumed condemnation of Uganda and international help would soon arrive.  They were crushed - as was the author! - when world opinion came down on Uganda's side!  Horrible ethnic cleansing evolved (or should I say devolved) from this and Rwandans were murdered, murdering and fleeing.  When things finally settled down, it was not the same Rwanda.  I couldn't stop the tears in my eyes as Mrs. Carr shared about the genocide and chaos.  Young men she had loved as babies turned into evil monsters as they hunted down and systematically killed former neighbors and friends all because they were of a different tribe!  She and the other Europeans (all white people were called European there) fled after the Belgian officials gave them no other choice.  Mrs. Carr found herself trying to heal emotionally in the United States.  Yet she realized she was only a visitor in her home country.  No longer did she belong and despite being told in no uncertain terms that she was "a bit too old" to return, she did just that... at nearly 82 years old!  She wrote:  "My life is spiritually and emotionally embedded in Rwanda and in the lives of the Rwandan people.  Only here does my life have true meaning and purpose, and it is only here that I feel I am at home."  (pg. 217) 

Mrs. Carr talks about people who visited her house and the hard work she put into making her plantations successful.  She is honest in sharing about times when the financial situation was grim.  I enjoyed hearing about her house and field workers and the customs of the people.  Also interesting was the story of Dian Fossey, an eccentric and difficult woman who lived among the gorillas.  I was stunned when Mrs. Carr told that Dian was murdered the day after Christmas and no one knew who murdered her.

This book was published in 1999.  I googled Mrs. Carr the other day and saw that she died in 2006 at age 94. She was buried at her home in Rwanda near the Virunga Volcanos.   Here is a YouTube video of her memorial service.  And here is a great video summarizing her life (less than 4 minutes.) What an inspirational woman!
(My mom is reading this book now and is enjoying the reminder of things she experienced during her years in Africa.  She said there is much in the same in what Mrs. Carr shared.)

Game Change:Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin -- Bridget mentioned reading this book and I was intrigued enough that I found it at the local library in order to read it myself. I enjoyed the background on many of the candidates during the race and it also spoke of John and Elizabeth Edwards since John was in the Democratic primary.  Here is a review of the book if you are curious what it involved, but don't want to read the book for yourself. 

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria -- fantastic book I just so happened to find at the library...and maybe it was recommended to me by Amazon. But I enjoyed it and learned quite a bit from it!  see previous posts for more on the book;

"When you tell us that we support a dictatorship in Sudan to have access to its oil," a young Chinese official told me in 2006, "what I want to say is, 'And how is that different from your support for a medieval monarchy in Saudi Arabia?'  We see the hypocrisy, we just don't say anything, yet."

"American culture celebrates and reinforces problem solving, questioning authority, and thinking heretically. It allows people to fail and then gives them a second and third chance. It rewards self-starters and oddballs." 

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware  -- see gazillions of previous posts  :)

The Appalachians -- by several contributing authors; edited by Mari-Lynn Evans, Robert Santelli and Holly George-Warren -- see previous posts

"If language is the mechanism through which we inherit history and culture, then individual words function as a type of gene, each bearing with it a small piece of the specific information that makes us who we are and tells us where we have been." (pg. 213)

Blood and Sand by Frank Gardner -- A British journalist shares about his experiences in the Middle East.  After 24 good years living and visiting there, he was the victim of a random Al-Qaeda shooting in Saudi Arabia that left him paralyzed from the waist down.  This book recounts this horrific experience and his road to recovery as well as his interest in the Islamic and Arab world.  I enjoyed reading of his college year spent living in Cairo and the adventures he had living among the Bedu in Jordan.  I found myself teary-eyed while he shared his struggle to survive and thrive even while realizing the rest of his life would be spent in a wheelchair. Yet he focused on surviving for his family and what he could still do despite his paralysis.  I marked a few places where he spoke of how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have played right into Osama bin Laden's goal to divide the West and Muslims by bin Laden's spinning such events as the Crusaders seeking to destroy Islam.  This was a book I first heard about on Bridget's blog and received for Christmas after placing it on my Amazon wishlist.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Appalachians -- Why Understanding Other Cultures Is Good

I've heard people scold the United States for how they went into Iraq not even taking time to understand the culture.  Well, really, this seems to be nothing new for us. In The Appalachians I was reminded of this trait of ours while reading about the Appalachian people .. or maybe I should say the European people who displaced the native Appalachian population. There.  Yes, while this book was a celebration of the mostly European groups who settled this region, it did make brief mention of the conflicts with the native population, mostly the Cherokee.

Europeans were used to a centralized government where a political figure or group of them - such as Congress or Parliament - often made decisions on behalf of the whole group.  The Indians on the other hand, each belonged to "one of several autonomous tribal organizations" (often called towns) that possessed its own council and "ceremonial center" in which "decisions affecting a given organization had to be unanimous among all the people within that town." Any town member could speak during these council meetings. Yep, that includes women!  The Cherokee didn't have any "central political figure to negotiate between the tribe's various towns."  So when the colonists came and desired the land, they tried to find the main person in order to do business with the whole group.

"These white leaders, projecting European perspectives onto the Cherokee, attempted to identify tribal leaders in order to negotiate treaties with those individuals, ignoring the traditional Cherokee practice that no one person could speak for the whole tribe."

The Cherokees eventually did try to centralize things in order to "strengthen [their] ability to contend with dramatic change." Sadly a splinter group of Cherokee "signed the Treaty of New Echota, which authorized the selling of all Cherokee lands to the U.S. government for a fee of $5 million.  Efforts by the Cherokee to disclaim that treaty went unheard, and from 1838 to 1839, an estimated 16,000 members of the tribe were force by the U.S Army to march on the 'Trail of Tears' to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma.)"   (pg. 21)

The Appalachians -- Land, Trees, People, Whiskey, Singing

The Appalachians is a collection of short essays by twenty five or so individuals with ties to Appalachia.  There are contributions from musicians such as Johnny Cash as well as former long-time Senator Robert Byrd who died not very long ago and many more who lived there or had grandparents or parents who lived in this region of the country.  I have especially enjoyed the little tidbits describing the types of people making up this region, how their isolation in the past contributed to their almost tribal or clanish mentality while also making them independent and individualistic in nature.

I live near the "R" in Raleigh, North Carolina

Of course many pages are devoted to the land.  The beauty of the mountains and valleys as well as the importance of land to each family since it's where much of their existence derived.  The book includes little stories, poems or added information along the margins and I had to chuckle when a western North Carolina judge wrote of an overlook near Asheville where lovers drove out each night to walk and "do their courting."  Since "old folks are tolerated" there he mentioned going up and witnessing a beautiful sunset, yet "old as I am, I admired the round limbs and tapering waists and merry faces of the girls more than the grandeur of the mountains in the distance. Such is the frailty of poor mankind -- a slave to woman, no matter how silly, if she has a pretty face and ankle."  (pg. 9)   Ankle? This saying was from David Schenck in 1877 so I wonder what he'd say if he were alive today when he can get a glimpse of much more than just a "pretty face and ankle"!

The book spoke of the last real wilderness in America, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County, North Carolina. Apparently it's so remote that it wasn't forested for trees initially and when foresting companies finally put their sights on it, the government had protection plans in place for saving it.  The author said one could go there and see very old and huge trees.  Now I want to go see it for myself!

The authors speak of the Hatfields and McCoys  -- the legendary feud that was popularized and deemed entertainment in other parts of the United States.  On those pages a quote by John Alexander Williams explained how things were:  "The Civil War accustomed people in Appalachia to use violence to settle grievances, and that lasted until the era of state police and automobiles.  There were two or three generations of extraordinary violence, extraordinary by national and regional standards. It took place on the edge of places, the edge of counties, the edge of states, where in the pre-automobile era, the arm of the law didn't quite reach." (pg. 71)

Moonshine still

Whiskey was often a form of money in the mountains.  Some preachers accepted home-brewed spirits in place of cash tithe!  When the struggling young nation needed tax revenue, President George Washington decided whiskey should be taxed.  The mountaineers who had fought against the English were not happy thus the Whiskey Rebellion happened where the mountain folks refused to pay the tax and "tarred and feathered, shot at, and chased out" tax collectors! "Why should we pay tax for drinking our own grain instead of eating it," they argued.  (pg. 32) One college professor notes that "in the late nineteenth century, 75 percent of all the Internal Revenue officers in the United States were stationed in the southern mountains, trying to enforce the liquor tax."  (pg. 85)  I suppose we all know modern NASCAR is rooted in running moonshine during Prohibition, right?  I didn't realize this, but during the frontier days, the people drank almost four times as much alcohol per capita than we do today! Of course alcohol was actually better to drink than some of the water available so maybe that's partly why.

This book also talks of country music and how it has its beginning in Appalachia especially among the Carter family.  You may recall Johnny Cash married into this family.  Storytelling and making up songs were ways of remembering the Old World and passing down traditions and happenings from there. Granted over time these stories took on a New World flavor.  For many years the Appalachians were mostly from the British Isles. Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots were Scottish people sent to live in northern Ireland as part of an experiment by the Queen of England.  These people later came to the United States and made their way down from Pennsylvania to settle Appalachia.  Additionally many Germans settled the region while later - especially when the coal mines opened - people from many more nationalities came to find work.

Music was very important to the people of Appalachia

Some say the term "hillbilly" comes from the "popularity of the names Bill, Will, Billy, and Willy among Ulster mountain men descended from Williamite soldiers of the Irish war of 1690."  (pg. 32)

What did you find most surprising?  Thoughts, comments, additions, corrections?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Just Stuff

I used my crock pot today and made potato soup!  I got the recipe from Cindy. I was so pleased when I learned I could use hash browns and didn't have to peel and chop potatoes since I am not good at either. It turned out quite well. Yay for me cooking something besides frozen pizza.  :-D  

Also I finished The Orthodox Church.  It's the fifth book I finished this month. I enjoyed it and feel I learned a good bit. Hope you didn't mind all the notes too much!  :)  I got The Appalachians at the library. I'm going to read it and Blood and Sand that I got for Christmas now.

I've had some of these random questions in drafts for months now. I will attempt to answer twelve of them now just for fun. 

1. Describe the best sandwich in the world, according to you.
fresh bread, cheese, maybe a bit of sliced turkey and lots of fresh vegetables; also a fresh tomato sandwich is great in the summer (bread, Duke's mayonnaise, garden tomato and black pepper)

2. Which inspires you more: a good conversation, a song, a book or movie?
Often I am inspired by things I read though songs also can be encouraging and inspirational. I don't watch enough movies to give them a chance!

3. What is your favorite board game?
I don't know that I have a favorite as I enjoy games mostly because I can spend time with people.  I've had a lot of fun times over board games and prefer playing games to watching movies with friends and family. Lots of laughter!

4. As you grow older, are you more or less patient with small children?
Hmmmm, about the same.  Maybe a tad more patient.

5. Name one item you never let yourself run out of.
I am one of those who rarely runs out of anything because I go ahead and buy when I notice something is getting low.  If I had to say though, toilet paper. We don't use bidets or our left hands.  Or at least I don't think so!  :)

6. Do you agree with Tennyson's assertion, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?"
Yes.  Life without love is rather worthless, I think.

7. Name one national treasure or monument that you have visited.
The Lincoln and Washington memorials as well as the Statue of Liberty

8. Which is more painful, to be disappointed in someone else or to be disappointed in yourself?
Hmmmm, probably others. 

9. What makes your kitchen uniquely yours?
The juicer that gets used six days a week for breakfast.

10. Are you a crafty person?

11. What is your favorite traditional picnic or bbq (cookout) food?
hamburgers, dessert, chips -- yum, a picnic sounds good right about now!

12. Name one leisurely activity you enjoyed over the weekend.
I went to Michael's basketball game on Saturday around noon and enjoyed seeing some of my family there.

Don't you love it when Blogger won't change all your font to the same color despite the fact you selected everything to be the same?   Ah well.  :)    

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- Holy Spirit, Fulfillment, Heaven, Benches, Children, Sacraments, Death

I'm still reading The Orthodox Church. I finished the history section a few days ago and decided not to post much about the more contemporary times of the Orthodox such as its life under Communism in Russia. Now I'm in the worship section and it's not real light-and-easy reading for me.  Much of it I can relate to, but there's quite a bit more that is new to me. Like praying for the departed.  I never realized our prayers for those already dead could make a difference as I've always been taught we get our chance here. We make the right decision, instant paradise. Reject God, well, eternal separation.  Then I read the view of hell is such that it's basically having to endure God when you don't want to!  Not exactly the lake of fire stuff Jesus described, but I gather that many believe this was metaphorical speech common back then.  Heh. 

I did like the emphasis on the Holy Spirit. My preacher sometimes says we tend to be leery of those who focus too much on the Holy Spirit because we see them as a bit odd. I guess all those faith healings on TV, being "slain in the spirit" and such...they just make us raise our skeptical eyes.  But I like the Holy Spirit. I've actually come to appreciate His role much more in recent years although I'm still not a speaking in tongues kind of person.  Perhaps I don't have enough faith or Spirit for that and my doubts keep me from experiencing this.

This evening I read a few things I wanted to share.  First this which reminded me of the Psalm (16:11) that states,

"'You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever."

Timothy Ware writes:

"Orthodoxy sees human beings above all else as liturgical creatures who are most truly themselves when they glorify God, and who find their perfection and self-fulfillment in worship."

Does this statement not remind you of the verse above? The Psalmist says in God's presence is fullness of joy.  The author here says humans find self-fulfillment in worship.  I wonder if this is why Christian Scriptures view heaven as people of all nations, all tribes, all tongues gathered around God's throne praising Him?  Contrast this to Islam's view of heaven complete with wine, women and honey!  The Islamic view may see fullness of joy and human fulfillment in sex and food and drinks forbidden on earth, but God knows - at least according to the Christian view - that only HE can satisfy our souls.  He is the Creator so why not?  Is this so far fetched?

I just thought of a song we sing -- "All that thrills my soul is Jesus. He is more than life to me" one line reads.  Yes, so God is the One who thrills our souls. Yet we on earth often seek to fill the void, fill the emptiness with materialism, with good food and wine, with fun times, entertainment, sometimes promiscuity.  We are longing for something to make us satisfied when the Bible is clear that God is the Satisfier of our souls!

Do you agree?

One cute thing I read was that in recent decades Orthodox have sometimes added benches to their churches.  The author writes of this with some sadness as he feels this makes services more formal. You cannot move around or get up and leave when you are stuffed on a row where you will disturb those on either side of you if you need to move.  "[Orthodox] are at home in their church -- not troops on a parade ground, but children in their Father's house. Orthodox worship is often termed 'otherworldly,' but could more truly be described as 'homely': it is a family affair."  (pg.270)  I just found the view of informally enjoying God's house as charming and sweet.  I could picture myself at my parents' house and how I flit from room to room enjoying just being there, enjoying the fellowship with other family members.

Baptism by immersion

In speaking of the sacraments -- I've read of three so far -- the author writes that Baptism is by immersion, not sprinkling or smearing.  As a Baptist, I can relate to this myself! :-)  However they do infant baptism, unlike us.   We believe people should choose to follow Jesus for themselves and,therefore, baptism happens after one decides to follow Christ.  Immediately following Baptism, the Orthodox have Chrismation which seems to be some sealing of the Holy Spirit on the child as they are anointed with a special ointment on various parts of the body.  The author noted Chrismation is also used as a sacrament of reconciliation.  For instance, one who left the Church and came back or a Roman Catholic or Protestant who converts is often received this way.  The Eucharist is never withheld from children as the Orthodox believe "suffer the little children to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of God."  They want children to always have memories of taking part in communion.  (pg. 279)

Oh, I cried when I read how the Orthodox treated dead bodies with love not abhorrence.  They often have open caskets and everyone kisses the body. That visual was just so touching to me that I cried.  Also they strongly oppose cremation.

Any thoughts, comments, corrections?

The Orthodox Church -- Incarnation, Jesus Christ the Victor or Victim?

"The Incarnation is an act of God's philanthropia, of His loving-kindness towards humankind."

Orthodox belief is that God becoming human was part of His plan from the beginning and wasn't simply "an answer to the fall." 

Yet because of the fall, the Incarnation became an act of love and an act of salvation.  "Jesus Christ, by uniting humankind and God in His own person, reopened for us humans the path to union with God.  In His own person Christ showed what the true 'likeness of God' is, and through His redeeming and victorious sacrifice He set that likeness once again within our reach.  Christ, the Second Adam, came to earth and reversed the effects of the first Adam's disobedience."

You know, I've never thought of God coming to earth as something God had planned all along, but it does make sense if God wanted to fellowship with His creation. Yet doesn't Genesis 3 say God walked in the garden in the cool of the day thus implying that somehow He did fellowship with humankind even from the beginning.  Was taking human form to do so necessary prior to the fall?  Hmmm, it's an interesting thought!

"'Behind the veil of Christ's flesh, Christians behold the Triune God'" said Bishop Theopan the Recluse.  "Perhaps the most striking feature in the Orthodox approach to the Incarnate Christ [is] an overwhelming sense of His
divine glory."  This divine glory was especially shown during the Transfiguration (remember when Jesus went to the mountain with a couple of disciples and was observed talking to Moses and Elijah?  Peter later recalled it as a time he was an eyewitness of Christ's majesty.)  and Resurrection (Jesus' triumph over death.)

I totally loved when the author wrote about Orthodox accounts of remembering the Resurrection with "sheer joy." I felt joyful just reading about this!

Re: The Crucifixion:  The author says the east has often focused on Christ the Victor - triumphant over evil powers and death - while the west tends to see Him as Christ the Victim - "an act of satisfaction or substitution to propitiate the wrath of an angry Father." (pg. 229)

"The western worshipper, when he meditates upon the Cross, is encouraged all too often to feel an emotional sympathy with the Man of Sorrows, rather than to adore the victorious and triumphant king."  (pg. 228)

How do you think of Christ?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- The Trinity, Humans, Image/Likeness, Grace and Free Will

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware


"'That there is a God is clear; but what He is by essence and nature, this is altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge.'"  -- John of Damascus

So obviously John wasn't even debating the fact of God's existence instead stating rather forthrightly that God's existence is clear.  What and who God is... that's another story.

"Truly our God is a God who hides Himself, yet He is also a God who acts -- the God of History, intervening directly in concrete situations."

I read this just a day after reading Sarah's comment about God being "the ultimate introvert" and had to smile at the visual I had of God hiding.   I do recall God hiding Himself in the sense that He only allowed Moses to see His back parts (whatever that symbolized!...Oh, here is a bit of commentary on that if you are interested.) But I also see clearly in the Bible that God does act, and, therefore, does not hide in the sense of an uninvolved person who just sits back and watches with bemused interest to see what those earthlings He created will do next.

"God is not simply a single person confined within His own being, but a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom 'dwells' in the other two by virtue of a perpetual movement of love. God is not only a unity but a union."  (pg. 209)

I had to stop and think about this statement. (Thus why some books I read so slowly!)


"Humans were made for fellowship with God."

"But humans, made for fellowship with God, everywhere repudiate that fellowship."

Enter story of Adam (representing humankind as a whole) falling and his "original sin" affecting all humanity. (pg.218)

Does this give us our reason for existence? Our meaning for life? Fellowship with the Almighty?


"Then God said, 'Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness...'"  ~ Genesis 1:26

Image "indicates rationality and freedom"  -- bestowed upon us from our beginning

Likeness is "assimilation to God through virtue."  -- a goal only acquired by degrees

"However sinful we may be, we never lose the image; but the likeness depends upon our moral choice, upon our 'virtue,' and so it is destroyed by sin."

"Orthodox religious thought lays the utmost emphasis on the image of God in the human person."

"Because she or he is an icon of God, each member of the human race, even the most sinful, is infinitely precious in God's sight."  (pg. 221)

I rather liked this explanation of image and likeness and the facts of how we obtain each!


"The Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace which might seem to infringe upon human freedom."

While recognizing that "what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what we do," Orthodox believe achieving full fellowship with God depends on us doing our part as well.   "God's gifts are always free gifts, and we humans can never have any claims upon our Maker. But while we cannot 'merit' salvation, we must certainly work for it, since 'faith without works is dead.'" 

I understand this a bit differently and have argued often here that we work because of our faith/our salvation not to earn it.  It's like a light plugged into the power source is going to shine simply because the electricity is flowing to it.  It's not that the bulb tries its hardest to shine so that the electricity will see its effort and decide to give it the power to shine.  We work because we are connected to the Source, not in an effort to earn the Source's power.   Alas, I see that I differ from the Orthodox in this measure. I could point to statements of Jesus and Paul to back up what I believe.  I understand this verse from James as important as well, but understand it as I've described and not that we must work for our salvation. 

The Orthodox view of salvation is this:  "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in."  "God knocks, but waits for us to open the door -- He doesn't break it down.  The grace of God invites all but compels none."  (pg. 222)

As a non-Calvinist, this is basically how I've always believed.  I simply do not believe God chose to eternally damn some for hell.  Maybe I am completely wrong, but I can't wrap my mind around a God like that especially in light of verses such as "God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance."

You'll notice from his description that "the Orthodox picture of fallen humanity is far less somber than the Augustinian or Calvinist view."  They don't believe that a person in a "fallen and unredeemed state" can do nothing pleasing to God.  (pg. 224)

They do believe, however, that "human sin ...set up between humanity and God a barrier which blocked the path to union with God. Since we could not come to God, He came to us." (pg. 225)

And this sets the stage for God coming to earth. Next up, Jesus.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- Updating Tradition?

"'Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration ... Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words.'"

"'When the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth.'"  ~ Jesus in John 16:13

And after saying this, Timothy Ware, in The Orthodox Church states :  "It is this divine promise that forms the basis of the Orthodox devotion to Tradition."

If you are like me the word "tradition" conjures up images of rules and customs and "we've always done it this way" conversations that leave people doing things the same ol' way all.the.time. despite progress happenin' all around them.

Don't hold me back!
Maybe it's my American revolutionary heritage mixed in with a healthy dose of Southern rebelliousness, but it makes me think of being chained down, being given a bag full of rocks and then told "Go now...be on your way."  As if I will make a lot of progress with all that stuff weighing me down!

So reading these words -- growth, regeneration -- in regards to Tradition was somehow strange...yet refreshing!

Hey, isn't this what many of those progressive Muslims want when they say the Quran laid down basic principles for treating people justly, but we must apply them to our times and not think we must do the exact same things in the 21st century that they did during Muhammad's time?  We don't have to brush our teeth with miswaks just because the Prophet did.
Miswak used for cleaning teeth
We can ... *drumroll*  use electric toothbrushes if we please!  We don't have to ride camels.  Cars are legit!  And then there are of course all those other little tidbits we can feel free to update as well. Like demolish slavery completely and greatly curb the practice of polygyny since most men don't seem to practice it like Muhammad declared they should anyway.

But I digress.  This is a post about the Orthodox Church.

So, see how I felt about tradition. Well, this is Tradition and it sounds open to change.  In fact Ware writes, "It is absolutely essential to question the past." 

Granted this doesn't mean you have a free for all and can change things to suit your individual wants.  You want robbing banks to be legitimate because it's fast and easy money for you? Probably notta gonna happen.

The author explains it like this when talking of creative fidelity:

Loyalty to Tradition, properly understood, is not something mechanical, a passive and automatic process of transmitting the accepted wisdom of an era in the distant past.  An Orthodox thinker must see Tradition from within, he must enter into its inner spirit, he must re-experience the meaning of Tradition in a manner that is exploratory, courageous, and full of imaginative creativity.  .. It is not enough simply to give intellectual assent to a system of doctrine; for Tradition is far more than a set of abstract propositions -- it is a life, a personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Spirit....Tradition, while inwardly changeless (for God does not change), is constantly assuming new forms, which supplement the old without superseding them.  (pg. 198)

"Christianity, if true, has nothing to fear from honest inquiry."

Should this not be true of all faiths? If they are true, questioning them should never be frowned upon.  Never should we tell our children and wondering adults that "they just have to accept this as fact" as if their questions are wrong. It's important to know why we believe something especially if we are speaking of things that potentially have eternal consequences.

What do you think... is "Updating Tradition?" too misleading a title for this post?  What do you think about Timothy Ware's views of Tradition - while inwardly changeless - as something that constantly assumes new forms?  Do you agree?  Do you agree with the parallel to progressive Muslims who believe the Quran lays down basic principles for living in any century, but not set-in-stone rules (e.g. using camels) that must be used today?  Why or why not?  What do you think about "honest inquiry" of religions? Why are questions often discouraged? Why are questions important? Any other thoughts or impressions?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- Tradition, The Bible, The Fathers

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware

Some Notes:

Orthodox reverence their "inheritance from the past" while realizing that "not everything received from the past is of equal value." For example John's gospel is held at a different level than Athanasius' writings.  (pg. 197)
Additionally not everything received from the past is necessarily true.  Some things are mere man-made tradition rather than Tradition.
The primary elements that make up Tradition of the Orthodox Church are as follows:
Scripture -- notice this is not separate from Tradition since the Bible came out of Tradition; how do you think those books got canonized?

The Bible "is the supreme expression of God's revelation to the human race...[and] is understood within the Church."  The author gives the example of Philip who asked the Ethiopian if he knew what he was reading.  The Ethiopian said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"  (Acts 8:30,31)  The Orthodox Church says that "it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority." 
People, though sincere, are prone to errors. This is why you have so many people in the world doing their own things and justifying it with Scripture!  And this is why contradictory views abound.  One person says this, another says that. 
The Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament.  Any discrepancies from the original Hebrew, in their thinking, "were made under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are to be accepted as part of God's continuing revelation."  The example given is Isaiah 7:14 in which the Hebrew says "A young woman shall conceive" whereas the Septuagint states "A virgin shall conceive." (pg. 200)
Also mentioned are the Deutero-Canonical Books which are often referred to as The Apocrypha.  Most Orthodox consider these parts of the Bible, but on a "lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament."  (pg. 200)
The Orthodox realize the Fathers as individuals have sometimes "fallen into error and at times contradicted one another."  Therefore it is necessarily to distinguish the "Patristic wheat" from the "Patristic chaff" and "not simply know and quote the Fathers, [but] .. enter more deeply into the inner spirit of the Fathers and acquire a 'Patristic mind.'"  Do not "treat the Fathers as relics from the past, but as living witnesses and contemporaries."  (pg. 204)
"All true Orthodox theology is mystical; just as mysticism divorced from theology becomes subjective and heretical, so theology, when it is not mystical, degenerates into an arid scholasticism, 'academic' in the bad sense of the word."  (pg. 207)

Coming next:  Can you update Tradition?


Thursday, January 20, 2011

China and India: God and Foreign Policy

What does God have to do with foreign policy?  Historically, countries influenced by Christianity or Islam have developed an impulse to spread their views and convert people to their faith. That missionary spirit is evident in the foreign policy of countries as diverse as Britain, the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.  In the case of Britain and the United States, perhaps because they have been so powerful, the Protestant sense of purpose at the core of their foreign policies has made a deep mark on global affairs. China, in contrast, may never require a similar sense of destiny.  Simply being China, and becoming a world power, in a sense fulfills its historical purpose.  It doesn't need to spread anything to anyone to vindicate itself.  So when Beijing seems bloodless in its stance on human rights, it is not simply that the regime is oppressive or takes a ruthlessly realpolitik view of its interests -- though that certainly plays a role.  The Chinese see these issues differently, not with a set of abstract rights and wrongs, but with a sense of the practical that serves as a guiding philosophy.   pg. 112

Hinduism is not really a "religion" in the Abrahamic sense of the word but a loose philosophy, one that has no answers but merely questions.  The only clear guiding principle is ambiguity.  If there is a central verse in Hinduism's most important text, the Rig Veda, it is the Creation Hymn. It reads, in part,

Who really know, and who can swear,
How creation came, when or where!
Even gods came after creation's day,
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start?
Did He do it?  Or did He not?
Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
Or perhaps, not even He.

Compare that with the certainties of the Book of Genesis. 

So what does this mean for the real world?  Hindus are deeply practical.  They can easily find an accommodation with the outside reality.  Indian businessmen -- who are still largely Hindu-- can thrive in almost any atmosphere that allows for trade and commerce.  Whether in America, Africa, or East Asia, Indian merchants have prospered in any country they live in.  As long as they can place a small idol somewhere in their home for worship or meditation, their own sense of Hinduism is fulfilled.   pg. 155-156

~ The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

Just some stuff I found interesting!  Any thoughts, questions, observations?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


These are questions inspired from things I heard or read today.  I'd love to read your thoughts on any or all of them.

1.  Do you believe in life after death? If so, what happens?  If not, what happens? 

2. Do we focus too much on life after death so that we don't concentrate enough on doing good here and now?

3. Since 1 out of 1 people die, is death the ultimate victor?

4.  Does life have meaning? If so, what is it?  Do we make our own meaning in life?

5. What does "intimacy with God" mean to you?  How does it make you feel?  Is it too...well, intimate? 

On Being Western

What does being western mean to you?  In The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria, (who grew up in India and now lives in the United States, by the way) gives some characteristics of what western culture involves.  He seems to agree with Samuel P. Huntington in saying that western civilization "'is precious not because it is universal but because it is unique.'" 

Unique how?  What makes "the West" western?  When I asked this on Facebook an hour ago, I got three replies along the lines of this:

But I wonder if Westerners in Europe would agree!   :-)

Describe it. Contrast it to "the East." Anything!  Just tell me...what does "the western lifestyle," "being western" and all that mean to you?  And do you consider yourself part of the West?  Is it based on where you live or attitudes you adopt?  Can someone like Mr. Zakaria who was born in India become western? If so, how?  By just moving here?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Can Nationalism and Unity Co-Exist?

"As economic fortunes rise, so does nationalism.  This is understandable. Imagine that you lived in a country that had been poor and unstable for centuries.  And then, finally, things turn around and your nation is on the rise. You would be proud and anxious to be seen. This desire for recognition and respect is surging throughout the world. It may seem paradoxical that globalization and economic modernization are breeding political nationalism, but that is only if we view nationalism as a backward ideology, certain to be erased by the onward march of progress."

Jews refer to themselves a M.O.T., member of the tribe. Of course the Bible speaks of the twelve tribes of Israel quite a lot.  There are tribes in Arabia, Africa and this morning I read about the Rise of the Hans, the "dominant cohesive ethnic group in the world."  Then I read the above-mentioned quote in a new book, The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria.  His book brings up interesting points mostly about the rise of emerging markets and other powers such as Brazil, China and India that aren't necessarily choosing to go the "western" route nor are they choosing to be "rogue states." They are forging a middle path. 

Yet the talk about nationalism intrigued me.  As you know I've been reading about the Orthodox Church.  One problem the author mentioned is how when the Church was dispersed into other lands - say into the USA - many of the groups wanted to keep their own languages for the services. Greeks in America would ask for a priest from Greece and the services would be in Greek, a welcome tie to the home country.  The same with Russians and Serbians and others.  All of this just today and without my looking for related topics: a very nationalistic impression of Orthodoxy abroad, an article on the Hans of China that I just happened to come across when reading another article and then this rise of nationalism talk from Zakaria's book!  What are the odds?

Nationalism carving up the world

So what do you think of nationalism? Is it simply patriotism such as we often believe should be the default mode of any true-blooded American who hasn't fallen off the deep end into being one of those haters?  Is it disguised racism or bigotry; what with all that thinking that your race/tribe/culture is better than all the rest?  Is it just a genuine healthy pride in the things that set your group apart from others?  Your contribution to the world as a whole? Is there a healthy balance so that we don't get to Nazi extremes of thinking the best people must look a certain way and come from a "superior" bloodline?

Zakaria continues with, "Nationalism has always perplexed Americans.  When the United States involves itself abroad, it always believes that it is genuinely trying to help other countries better themselves.  From the Philippines and Haiti to Vietnam and Iraq, the natives' reaction to U.S. efforts has taken Americans by surprise. Americans take justified pride in their own country -- we call it patriotism -- and yet are genuinely startled when other people are proud and possessive of theirs."  (pg. 33)

So do you think of nationalism (or patriotism in America's case) as a "backward ideology" that should be exiting the world as the world gets more "flat" and global? Or is it, as Zakaria suggests, understandable as formerly poor countries want their time in the spotlight? 

From a spiritual point of view, do you believe nationalism (or tribalism) is a positive thing showcasing the goodness of the variety of people God created? Or is it negative because it erects walls and divides people according to physical or cultural traits when we should be trying to bring people together?  I recall when I was reading about Islam last year, Muhammad set out to create a new tribe - the ummah - which would welcome people from all backgrounds, all races, all cultures.  

Christianity also speaks of its universality and most Christians are proponents of making the Scripture available in the variety of languages of the world.  One of my favorite biblical passages about heaven speaks of people from all tribes, all nations, all tongues gathered around God's throne praising Him together!

Is nationalism/tribalism divisive and something that needs to be erased so that we can come together as equals? Or is there a place for nationalism?

How can we balance these things? Can we have both unity and nationalism?  Individually can we be both nationalistic and unifying in our outlook? If so, how?  What are your thoughts?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- Peter the Great & The Synodical Period

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware

Next up was the Synodical Period which lasted from 1700 to 1917 in Russia.  Remember in the previous post that Nikon had attempted to give the Church too much power. He wanted the Church to be able to interfere with secular business.  Well, Peter the Great came on the scene and decided that would never happen again. He dismantled the Patriarch position and set up a Spiritual College or Holy Synod made up of twelve members.  Members were chosen by the Emperor as opposed to the Church and the constitution of the Synod was copied from Protestant ecclesiastical synods of Germany! While the Emperor did not attend the meetings, the Chief Procurator, a government official in a Minister of Religion type of role, observed and "wielded considerable power over Church affairs."   Peter's Spiritual Regulation had made the Church a department of the State instead of a divine entity. 

Peter the Great

At this time in Russian history monasteries were the social hub, the chief areas for social work and Peter sought to limit this drastically!  His successors, Elizabeth and Catherine II, went even further in their decrees against the monasteries' work.    Criticism and opposition to Peter's reforms were "ruthlessly silenced."

The author says people often think of this period as the Russian Church in decline.  There was much westernization of theology, Church music and art, however, it wasn't all bad.

The second part of the Synodical period was a time of great revival in the Russian Church.  St. Paissy Velichkovsky studied in Kiev and "was repelled by the secular tone of the teaching."  He later became a monk and ended up combining aspects of Nilus (Non Possessor) and Joseph's (Possessor) teachings to bring the mystical as well as social aspects to monastic life.

Already characteristic figures of Orthodoxy, nineteenth century Russia was the age of the starets, the elders who served as spiritual guides. Most famous among them was St. Seraphim of Sarov whom the author notes is "perhaps the most immediately attractive to non-Orthodox Christians."  (pg. 118)

His life was noted for his devotion to seclusion and prayer so that he could later advise and help people.  He was known as being gentle and his life "illuminated by joy."

Another great figure from the married clergy was St. John of Kronstadt. He would sometimes have such an "intense awareness of the power of prayer" and sometimes would get "carried away" while celebrating Liturgy.  "'He called out to God; he shouted; he wept in the face of the vision of Golgotha and the Resurrection which presented themselves to him with such shattering immediacy.'"

He was a proponent of frequent communion, but since he had no time to listen to every confession, he instituted "a form of public confession, with everybody shouting their sins aloud simultaneously."  Can you imagine?

The 19th century also saw a revival of missionary work with the Orthodox sharing the Scriptures and Liturgy in a variety of languages.  "In the Kazan area alone Liturgy was celebrated in twenty-two different languages and dialects." (pg. 123)  "The greatest of the nineteenth-century missionaries was St. Innocent (John Veniaminov, 1797-1879), Bishop in Alaska, honoured by millions of American Orthodox today as their chief 'Apostle.'"

Alexis Khomiakov helped the Russian Church break from its "excessive dependence on the west." He said no longer should they use Reformed positions against Roman and Roman against Reformed. Orthodoxy was distinct, unique and they shouldn't worry about the Roman and Reformed stuff.

Alexis Khomiakov

The chapter ends with the Synodic Period dissolving and a new Patriarch being chosen, St. Tikhon.  Unfortunately the Bolsheviks soon came and with them, persecution.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- The Third Rome: Russia; The Role of the Fool

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware  -- I have questions for you at the end of this post! :)

The beginning of chapter 6 speaks of the rise of the Third Rome.  You may recall that Byzantium had just fallen to the Turks, the Muslim Sultan was the new "protector of Orthodoxy" and the Hagia Sophia had been converted into a mosque.  Russia thought Rome had fallen to barbarians and heresy; Byzantium too - by allowing the Florentine Union - had fallen into heresy and was punished by the Turks.  Now it was Russia's turn to champion the cause, to become the true protector of Orthodoxy. And they believed they were the Third Rome.  And a fourth would never be needed.

At a church council in 1503, the social and mystical sides St.Sergius brought together in his teachings, became a source of division among his followers. Two groups arose and came to be known as

The Possessors lead by St. Joseph, Abbot of Volokalamsk


The Non-Possessors lead by St. Nilus of Sora

The main issue was possession of land.  You may recall St. Sergius had founded monasteries by blazing paths through the forests.  When people followed and settlements built up, he would soon move further into the forest to find another spiritual retreat.  At the point of this conflict, monasteries owned about one third of the land.

The Possessors argued that monks were supposed to take care of the poor and sick; to teach and do good works.  The land would be used to further these causes and were not in possession for the monks' personal prosperity.  "'The riches of the Church are the riches of the poor,'" they said.  (pg.105)

The Non-Possessors argued that the laity could provide for the poor. Monks were needed to help others by praying for them.  They did not need any connection to land and the burdens this would inevitably bring.  Monks needed be detached from the world and vow themselves to "complete poverty."

A second issue between the groups: the use of torture for heretics.  Remember the close tie between Church and State in Byzantium? This had carried over to Russia, therefore, for many heresy against the Church equaled treason against the State.  (Sounds like what I've learned about early Islam and why they had harsh penalties for apostates.)  So Joseph found the use of prison and torture acceptable, whereas Nilus condemned all forms of it.  He thought of heresy as a spiritual matter in which the Church alone should involve. 

Joseph's group was very patriotic and nationalistic, whereas the followers of Nilus thought of the Church with universality in mind. They "saw that the Church on earth must always be a Church in pilgrimage." It was not the kingdom of God on earth! 

Even the two sides differed on their ideas of Christian piety
with Joseph emphasizing rules and disciplines and the "place of beauty in worship" whereas Nilus stressed "the inner and personal relation between God and soul" and "feared beauty might become an idol."  Joseph liked liturgy and corporate worship. Nilus, mystical prayer.

The Russian Church liked both men and felt they both had aspects worth implementing, however, the Russian Church became "one-sided and unbalanced" and their nationalism and close alignment of Church and State lead to trouble in the next century.

The author then talks of the period of reconstruction and reform in the 1600s. Unfortunately for some, the reforms went too far. In their effort to curb drunkenness and other things of which they disapproved, additions of prayers, fasts and lengthy services were introduced in an effort to return to more righteous behavior.  The author told of seven-hour services where even little children were forced to stand and take part! It seemed the Church was losing its joy by this forced pious living. The author says the reforms made "few concessions to human weakness, and [were] too ambitious ever to be completely realized."

A new Patriarch, Nikon, admired the Greek ways of doing things so much that he wanted to change the sign-of-the-cross ritual from being performed with two fingers to three fingers such as the Greeks were now doing.  For the very ritualistic Russians this was tantamount to changing the faith!  This dispute gradually lead to a schism with the Raskolniki ("sectarians") or "Old Believers" splitting.  The reforms had gone too far for them!

Nikon also tried putting the Church over the State with the Church having power to meddle in secular affairs. Remember from a past post that the two had interdependent powers. The Church did its thing while the State enforced it and protected it.  But Nikon tried to take more power which eventually backfired.  Tsar Alexis began to resent Nikon's involvement and soon Nikon found his Greek policies, his reforms accepted,but himself rejected. He was deposed and another took his place.

One last thing in this section that I found of great interest is:

The Role of the Fool

"Particularly prominent in medieval Russia: the 'Fool' carries the ideal of self-stripping and humiliation to its furthest extent, by renouncing all intellectual gifts, all forms of earthly wisdom, and by voluntarily taking upon himself the Cross of madness.  These Fools often performed a valuable social role: simply because they were fools, they could criticize those in power with a frankness which no one else dared to employ. So it was with Basil, the 'living conscience' of the Tsar. Ivan listened to the shrewd censure of the Fool, and so far from punishing him,treated him with marked honour."  (pg.108)

QUESTIONS FOR YOU:  Do you tend to agree with the Non Possessors or Possessors or segments of both? Why?  What is your favorite parts of each? Least favorites?   How could the Russian Church have been more balanced in your view? Do you think Nikon's reforms went too far? What do you think of the reforms towards more outward piety and those seven-hour church services? Do you think they would backfire or help the people get into shape spiritually?  What do you think of the role of the Fool in Russian society?  Why would someone considered "mad" and stripped of all wisdom be taken seriously by a tsar?  What does this say about the Fool? About the Tsar?  Any other thoughts or observations?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Celebrate! A 'Random Stuff' Post Means A Break From TOC Notes!

Whoa, looking at my list of posts there on the right, I see I have overloaded January with talk of the Orthodox Church!  I appreciate those who have attempted to read and offer feedback.  I've found quite a bit of it fascinating and new, but I know not everyone appreciates history and more specifically Christian church history.  So...thanks for putting up with those.   Unbelievably I'm not even finished the book so I will likely have many more posts if I keep up my current trend of discussing each chapter.  But since I've gotten vibes that I'm going too fast - and I know the posts are so long, but they just have too much stuff in those chapters! - I will try to space them out a bit more.  I heard those sighs of relief!  :-)

Today I wanted to just record a few random things.

Like the fact that every time I go to the library, I see more and more books I want to read!  All this history I've been reading has made me more curious about life back then so yesterday I found a section on European history, the rise of Christianity there and life in a medieval city...such things that made me jot down their titles and shelf numbers.  I even started keeping a list in a notebook (I'll call it The List) so I can easily find books that for one reason or another caught my eye.  I have books concerning North Korea, American politics, the 9/11 terrorists, the Appalachian culture, India's part in this global age, Islam, Christianity, the Bible, on and on.  Some are books others recommended on their blogs that I found in my county's libraries.  (Thank you, online catalog!) 

Another thing: I watched a movie last Saturday!  Church friends, Mike and Cindy (the one who owns 90% of the fiction books I read last year), had us over for supper (soup, sandwiches and salad...and chocolate pie) and then we watched The Bucket List.  I loved the funny parts, but the movie was a bit sad because I knew the whole time the two friends were dying.  Death lingering over the movie just...well, it was a touching movie.  I was wiping tears off my face towards the end.

I've finished two books recently, but neither are the two I started on January 1.  Both were on Africa. And not on The List so you see how The List is only going to continue growing in numbers of books to-be-read if I keep getting distracted by other random books that jump off library shelves.  I really need to stay away from the library so I can read the books I got for Christmas!  But - I tell myself - many of those are books I may want to blog about and I'm already blogging The Orthodox Church to death and don't want to have too many irons in the fire.

Speaking of that, I love idioms!  Especially ones that I know.  Occasionally I teach Samer new idioms like yesterday when we were talking of Tunisia and I said "He (meaning the President) saw the handwriting on the wall" and got to explain that one!   Do you know I attempted to teach Samer idioms before he took the TOEFL a couple of years ago. Sadly there are many more than we could cover, but he did fantastically well on the test....not to my credit since he started learning English when he was 8 and met me when he was 22!   He is trying to pick up my southern accent, but, ehhhh, southern talk on an Arabic speaker just doesn't quite fit!  I tell him his accent is fine to me as it is and there is absolutely no need to say "tiiiin" for "ten" as I do!

I won a contest!  OK, I was one of five winners actually.  Organica had a giveaway. Initially people were supposed to offer a hadeeth that wasn't very common, but pertained to life today.  I told her the idea was cute, but hadeeths aren't my thing and I have no clue what is well-known since I'm not Muslim. She opened it up to all faiths so I offered a saying of Jesus that I thought would be appropriate.  I got the colorful bag in Monday's mail!

I was reading through a modern version of the New Testament that I bought just prior to our trip to Syria. It is small and I wanted to take it since it would more easily fit in my luggage.  Anyway, I was reading through some chapters in Matthew, trying to meditate on things rather than breeze through it quickly as I am prone to do.  Reading without thinking about stuff deeply isn't always good.  'Specially when it's Jesus' words and life being discussed!  I got stuck on the first line of Matthew 12:12 which in that version reads: "Surely a human being is more important than a sheep."   See how normally that would be breeze-worthy?  Yet this time I stopped and thought of that simple sentence.  What did sheep represent back then? Wealth.  Property.  Livelihood.  Maybe food for the family.  Or a sacrifice for sins.  Possibly, but not as likely, a pet.  Jesus recognized this and knew the Jews would rescue a sheep that "fell into a ditch" even if it were on their Sabbath.  Yet the self righteous people faulted Jesus for healing on that holy day!   Surely, you people do realize a human life is more important than your wealth, your property, your livelihood, your food, your sacrifice, your pet.  Jesus' lesson to me:  PEOPLE MATTER TO HIM.  And they should, by extension, matter to those who follow him.

Another reminder for me from a publication:  Is anything too hard for The Almighty?   I love being reminded of this.  It seems so simple written there, but very profound.

One last thing.  Imagine your heart as a house with a few rooms.  Now when difficulties and disappointments come into your life (and they inevitably do arrive at some point), complaint comes in and makes itself at home. He is a very tough guest to rid...probably because we often welcome him by joining along in his complaining.  Which continues filling the house.  Instead,the author reminds us to invite trust into the house.  "Trust and complaint are incompatible roommates. One inevitably pushes the other out,depending on who is made to feel more at home."* I don't know about you, but I want to make trust in God more welcome in my heart.  Join me and let's start praising God and remembering that nothing is too hard for Him!  Let's have faith that our God is the God who can do that which seems impossible and find joy and peace as we rest in His love and care.

Have a wonderful weekend!

* quoted from "The Land Between" by Jeff Manion, InTouch, January 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- Dealing With Islamic Rule & Infiltration of Western Thought

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware

"The Muslims in the fifteenth century were far more tolerant towards Christianity than western Christians were towards one another during the Reformation and the seventeenth century." 

OK, that's it!  Westerners are just brutes.  As much as I like to think we came from an enlightened, tolerant bunch...uh, nope.  Wishful thinking!

Sultan Mohammed II, prior to the fall of Byzantium was called the "precursor of Antichrist," but he proved to not be quite that bad. In fact he took over the role of the former Christian Emperor and became, oddly enough, the "protector of Orthodoxy." 

It wasn't all fantastic since Christians were second-class citizens having to pay high taxes and forced to wear distinctive clothes, forbidden to marry Muslim women and unable to undertake missionary work.  Under Rome in the years before Constantine's conversion, Christians were persecuted and the Church grew. That whole "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" thing, I reckon. But under the Turks, it was more of the "demoralizing effects of an unrelenting social pressure" and - reading between the lines - I think many Christians abandoned their faith to become Muslims.

With Muslims the line between religion and state was blurred even more; there was no distinction.  The Orthodox Church became a civil as well as religious institution. The good of the millet system was that "it made possible the survival of the Greek nation as a distinctive unit through four centuries of alien rule."  One drawback is that this lead to a confusion between Orthodoxy and nationalism.  Orthodoxy is not only for a single group or culture; it's universal. However these Greeks saw Hellenism and Orthodoxy as intertwined to the extent that the results of this linger still today.

Additionally the Church's higher administration "fell a prey to ambition and financial greed."  The positions were basically up for sale to the highest bidder and the Turks "were quick to see that it was in their financial interests to change the Patriarch as frequently as possible."  The Turks drove 105 out of 159 Patriarchs from the throne, 6 suffered violent deaths, 27 abdicated, often involuntarily, and only 21 died natural deaths while in office!  Quite the whirlwind of change!

Turkish occupation had "two opposite effects upon the intellectual life of the Church: it was the cause on the one hand of an immense conservatism and on the other of a certain westernization."  (pg. 91)  "Greek thought underwent an ossification and a hardening...[that] did in fact maintain the Orthodox tradition substantially unimpaired."

Yet also western thought infiltrated Orthodoxy mostly because Greeks who wanted higher education studied in non-Orthodox countries and learned from Roman Catholic and Protestant teachers. When Lutheran scholars visited Constantinople with hopes of introducing some sort of Reformation within Orthodoxy, Patriarch Jeremias, while kind, critiqued the Reformation from the Orthodox point of view in his Answers.

Later Patriarch Cyril Lukaris in an effort to rid any Roman Catholic influence in the Turkish Empire, turned to Protestant embassies in Constantinople for help.  His Confession show how his theology was influenced by his friendship with Protestants as it is "distinctively Calvinist in much of its teaching."  His Confession was condemned by his fellow Orthodox "by no less than six councils between 1638 and 1691."  Though heavily influenced by Roman Catholic manuals and "Latin weapons," Peter of Moghila and Dositheus of Jerusalem produced Confessions of their own with which to defend Orthodoxy against Cyril's Calvinism. 

The four areas which causes the most conflict: "the question of free will, grace, and predestination; the doctrine of the Church; the number and nature of the sacraments; and the veneration of icons." (pg.97)

Through all this, Orthodoxy realized the importance in "express[ing] its mind on these topics, and ... defin[ing] its position in relation to the new teachings which had arisen in the west."

The Kollyvades wanted to keep their fellow Greeks from falling under the influence of western Enlightenment.  They believed returning to the roots of Orthodoxy - as opposed to adopting secular ideas popular in the west - would regenerate the Greek nation.  They championed frequent communion - daily, if possible.  The Philokalia, "a vast anthology of ascetic and mystical texts...devoted especially to the theory and practice of inner prayer" made their appearance during this time and became especially popular in the late twentieth century!

One final thing:  "More than anything else it was the Holy Liturgy which kept Orthodoxy alive in these dark days." 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- Evangelizing the Slavs & The Rise of Russia Within Orthodoxy

Unbelievably I finished a whole chapter in The Orthodox Church today!  You'll recall the past chapters where I had to divide them up in order to cover all the topics involved. I certainly have learned quite a lot from the first chapters of this book. I hope others have enjoyed the lessons and learned from them as well!  Chapter 4 dealt with the Orthodox Church and the Slavs.

Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, "Apostles of the Slavs," knew a variety of languages one of which was Slavonic.  When they went north into Moravia to share Christianity with the Slavs, they translated the Scriptures into the local tongue. The author mentions that this was different from Rome which tended to allow only Latin Scriptures and services.  Orthodox holds no such rigidity and "its normal policy is to hold services in the language of the people."  Of course I love this since I do not believe God limits Himself to speaking the best in only one language -- Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arabic!  Not even American English with a southern drawl! 

Sadly the German and Greek missionaries clashed in Moravia and when the brothers died, the Germans expelled their followers.  So the followers moved on to Bulgaria which became the first national Church of the Slavs.   Serbia was next.

Romania's history was a bit different.  While Latin in national identity, they have the second largest Orthodox Church as of this book's writing.

The bulk of this chapter spoke of Orthodoxy in Russia especially Kiev.

Around 988 when Vladimir was converted to Christianity and married Anna, sister of the Orthodox Emperor, Orthodoxy became the national religion and remained this way until 1917.  He took his duty towards taking care of the poor seriously and "nowhere else in medieval Europe were there such highly organized 'social services' as tenth century Kiev."  (pg. 79)  Additionally "Vladimir was also deeply conscious of the Christian law of mercy, and when he introduced the Byzantine law code at Kiev, he insisted on mitigating its more savage and brutal features.  There was no death penalty in Kievan Russia, no mutilation, no torture; corporal punishment was very little used." 

Hopefully I got the right Vlad here!

Vladimir's two sons, Boris and Gleb, chose to be murdered by their older brother's emissaries than put up any political resistance to Svyatopolk's desire for their principalities.  These "Passion Bearers" took the Gospel literally and offered no resistance.  The author notes, "Russians have always laid great emphasis on the place of suffering in the Christian life."

Theodosius was born into a noble life, yet "emptied himself" as Christ did and lived a humble existence.  Even as a child he worked alongside the slaves in the field.  He founded the Monastery of the Caves at Kiev.

These four saints, Vladimir, Boris, Gleb and Theodosius,  "embody some of the most attractive features in Kievan Christianity" -- social justice, mercy, voluntary suffering and death and "self-identification with the humble." 

Kiev enjoyed good relationships with both Byzantium and Rome.

In 1237 the Mongols came and sacked Kiev.  Nearly all of Russia was overrun.  When another Russian city finally rose to leadership position, it was not Kiev, but Moscow.

A modern church in Moscow

Three saints emerged in the Russian Church during the Mongolian rule.  The author thought these deserved special attention.

1. Alexander Nevsky -- as a "warrior saint" this man preferred siding with the Tartars who did not interfere in the Russian Church rather than the Germans, Swedes and Lithuanians eager to bring the "Russian 'schismatics'" under Papal jurisdiction.  (This was not unlike the Church in Constantinople preferring Muslims to German Crusaders if you recall.  Boy, these Germans are feisty folks!  I see them mentioned often in this book and they most always are fighting!) 

2.  Stephen of Perm --  "Like many other of the early Russian missionaries, he did not follow in the wake of military and political conquest, but was ahead of it."  (pg.84) Russians liked to evangelize their pagan conquerors .. get that? not those they - the Russians - conquered, but those who conquered them.  Can you imagine the oppressed of today caring that much about those oppressing them that they share their faith? I am seriously having my image of Russians shattered here!  I grew up with Russia equaling Big Bad Communism and still don't think very highly of it due to all that childhood conditioning.  :)

3.  Sergius -- "the greatest national saint of Russia," like Theodosius of Kiev, he founded a famous monastery. He would go to the forest (the North's equivalent to the desert monasteries of Egypt, the author states) for silence and as people followed and communities formed, he would move on. In the process he push[ed] forward the boundaries of civilization and subject[ed] the forest to cultivation."

Sergius, called the "Builder of Russia," encouraged the rise of Moscow and the opposition to the Tartars, expanded the country through monks-through-the-forests treks and succeeded in "balancing [the] social and mystical aspects of monasticism."

Sixty-one years after Sergius died, "the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks. The new Russia...was now called to take Byzantium's place as protector of the Orthodox world."

Thoughts? Corrections?