Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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We are not neutrinos!

 

On a recent trip to Germany we visited friends in the city Karlsruhe, a typical German city of medium size. I did not know at the time – but found out just days ago – that Karlsruhe is the site of a very important experiment in physics: the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment, Katrin for short. Its purpose is to find the mass of the neutrino – the most insignificant entity in the universe. Insignificant because for a long time it was believed to have no mass, but scientists now know that it has an extremely tiny mass. What is significant about neutrinos is that they are present everywhere. Every second, right now, billions of neutrinos pass through your body! Uncountable numbers have been left over from the Big Bang birth of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago. There are more neutrinos in the universe than any other kind of particle, but because they do not interact with any type of matter, they are hard to detect and measure. Because they are present everywhere in huge numbers, their mass could determine the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand for ever, to all eternity, until it dies a cold death? Or will it stop expanding and perhaps even contract and collapse again?

The main spectrometer of Katrin on its way to Karlsruhe in 2006. The project is set to get under way in June 2018.

You might think that the fate of the universe countless billions or even trillions of years in the future is hardly something for us to be concerned about. How about the fate of your grandchildren or great-grandchildren a hundred years from now? Is that something you might want to be concerned about? Although the current administration in Washington does not believe in global warming and human-caused climate change, the White House did release last Friday an exhaustive scientific report put together by 13 federal agencies that says humans are the dominant cause of the global temperature rise that has created the warmest period in the history of civilization. The report says that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” that anything other than humans — the cars we drive, the power plants we operate, the forests we destroy — are to blame.

Will it change people’s minds about climate change? Will it change the position of the current administration, which allowed the release of this report?

Change of mind is a hard thing for humans. And that is why in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) we hear Abraham say to the rich man: ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’

It is hard for humans to change our minds. It will be interesting to see what impact – if any – this newest report will have on public opinion and the politics of Washington.

The rich man did not change his ways, though he saw Lazarus every day at his doorstep. So also his brothers will not change their ways even if someone should rise from the dead. The human heart can be very hard, implacable.

Do we go through life like neutrinos, not interacting with what’s around us? Do we go through life like the rich man today, not caring for those who need our compassion? Do we go through life not caring how our lifestyles might be ruining the environment and the future life of our children and grandchildren? Those are good questions to ponder on today.

May the Lord preserve us from hard-heartedness. May the Lord continue to work on us, to give us soft hearts, compassionate hearts. We are not neutrinos!


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On the Way to Resurrection

Our Gospel reading today is the story of two resurrections. On the way to raise from the dead the daughter of Jairus, Jesus stopped to raise to life a woman who had no life…. Miracles are signs, they are reminders that Jesus is on the way to resurrection, and on the way once in a while he pauses to perform a miracle. But more significantly, he pauses on the way to resurrection to give new life, life with meaning… Today’s Gospel reading is not about miracles. It’s about the miracles that take place on the way to resurrection! [Hear the rest of the sermon here:]

 


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Searching for a Human

 

Άνθρωπον ζητώ (“I seek a human being.”) Diogenes, the great 4th century BC philosopher, spoke those words as he walked around with a lamp in broad daylight.

Statue of Diogenes with his lamp

Diogenes the Cynic, he is often called, one of the founders of Cynic philosophy – but don’t confuse Cynic philosophy with the cheap cynicism most of us engage in. Diogenes claimed that all the artificial growths of society were incompatible with happiness and that morality required a return to the simplicity of nature. “Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.” Diogenes is credited with the first known use of the word “cosmopolitan”. When he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)”. This was a radical claim in a world where a man’s identity was intimately tied to his citizenship of a particular city-state. He became notorious for carrying a lamp, looking to find a real human being. An exile and an outcast, a man with no social identity, Diogenes made a mark on his contemporaries. (Most of the above information taken from Wikipedia.)

Today also, one can do the Diogenes stunt and go around looking for a human being – as we increasingly lose our humanity. More and more scientists and social thinkers are losing hope in the human race and are talking about artificial intelligence, when humans will evolve into some higher form of existence. Higher? I doubt it – more homogenized uniformity appears to be the fate of the human race, if current predictions and trends continue.

Jesus came looking for a human being. And he found human beings in unexpected places – as in today’s Gospel reading. But the villagers could not stomach what Jesus did and asked him to leave.

Πάντα χρήματα ήν ομού. Είτα ο νούς ελθών αυτά διεκόσμησε (Anaxagoras, 5th century BC). “In the beginning all things were indistinguishable. Then came mind and arranged them.” διακοσμέω – a beautiful verb, meaning to arrange, organize; better yet, to adorn in various ways. Even in modern Greek, we speak of διακόσμησης – what an interior decorator does. In Genesis, God spoke and created order from the initial cosmic mass/chaos. In Greek philosophy, the mind of man created the order and brought out the beauty of creation in its manifold forms; that is the message of the verb διεκόσμησε.

The mind of man can decorate the world, see it in its manifold beauties and give names to its variety – as even Genesis tells us. Today, the human mind seems to have grown weary of itself and of the world. We prefer to narrow the world down to fewer and fewer elements. 75% of all insects have already disappeared according to one recent study. 75% – that’s catastrophe in the making! And not only are we destroying animal and insect life on the planet, we are eradicating the variety of plant life. There are very few original forests left in Maine. One of the most famous books Thoreau wrote, Maine Woods, could not be written today.

The human mind yearns for homogeneity, uniformity; the opposite of what the mind does in Anaxagoras’ profound statement. We seem to have grown tired of creativity and original thinking. Jesus comes today, like Diogenes, looking for a human being.


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An Ordinary Saint

Back in November 2014 I came to Patra, Greece, for the funeral of my mother. Father Andrew at my mother’s parish church ushered me into the sanctuary and gave me vestments to wear so I could preside at my mother’s funeral service. So there I was, a clean-shaven priest from America between two local priests, both sporting typical long beards. Not for one moment did I feel out of place.

The funeral service was followed by a procession to the cemetery where the burial took place. There I encountered Father Mihalis and another priest, who preside at gravesite services. When they learned that I was a priest, they immediately insisted that I do the gravesite service. I didn’t have a book with me, so I went from memory, and they helped when I stumbled on a word or two. Again, a study in contrast, and again total acceptance, accommodation and priestly fellowship such as I have never encountered back home.

The two cemetery priests in 2014. Father Mihalis is on the right, with white beard.


Today I was back in my mother’s home parish for morning Liturgy. At the end of Liturgy we had a memorial service for her. Father Andrew was as kind as in 2014, though I chose not to put on vestments and participate in the Liturgy and memorial prayers. Later in the afternoon we drove to the cemetery, and there was Father Mihalis making his rounds. I immediately accosted him and asked him to come to my mother’s grave.

He showed some signs of recognition. I took out my iPhone and showed him the pictures of the Nov 2014 gravesite service. We started walking to my mother’s grave and he began to introduce me to other people that we passed. I at one point told him to stop doing that, and he was surprised. Why are you nervous? You’re an Orthodox priest and it’s a blessing for people to know you! A woman went to kiss my hand – something very common among Orthodox people – and I pulled back. Don’t be like that, he gently said to me.

I completely surrendered to his loving care. Both in 2014 and today I worried that people would think less of me because I’m from America, clean shaven with short hair, looking nothing like a Greek Orthodox priest. And yet not a single person in 2014 or today even remotely looked at me with any disapproval. So who was more caught up with external appearances – I or Father Mihalis and the people he was introducing me to? The answer was clear!

Father Mihalis is very special. He is an ordinary saint. I couldn’t stop embracing him today. The church canonizes extraordinary men and women and calls them Saints. They might be martyrs for the faith, ascetics and great spiritual masters, renowned bishop theologians, etc. Father Mihalis is not extraordinary in any of the usual senses. He is a simple cemetery priest, making his rounds, responding to every call to go to a grave for a prayer service, and humbly accepting whatever small payment he might receive for his services. His priestly garments are old, worn out and not recently cleaned. His hand are brown from the sun and from handling incense and being close to the earth at every graveside. If Jesus were walking around the cemetery today, he’d probably look a lot like Father Mihalis, but probably younger and with a shorter beard.

He wanted to get vestments for me so I could do the service. I told him, No, I wanted him to do it! When we finally got to the graveside, where my wife and aunt were waiting for us, he immediately included all three of us and even pointed to me to do some of the priest’s prayers, though I was dressed in regular street clothes. Such a spirit of openness and inclusiveness I have never encountered in America. And here I was in conservative Church of Greece and I’ve been blessed to have experienced the love and welcoming spirit of Christ in the persons of Father Andrew and Father Mihalis. They are true priests in the service of Christ, not of worldly appearances.

Today with Father Mihalis I felt in the presence of a saint, an ordinary saint. We need more ordinary saints in the church. They are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the meek who will inherit the earth. Which earth? The earth that Father Mihalis touches in his gravesite services and in which he will join his wife Ismene who died this past January? Or the earth that can still be made holy by men and women like Father Mihalis? I pray that he will continue to make the rounds of the cemetery for many years so I can meet him again and be touched by his gentle spirit. 


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Two Questions for the self-important in each of us

We are in Greece for a long overdue vacation. We stopped in Germany on the way to Greece to visit some friends. My German vocabulary consists primarily of lines from the Wagner operas. Not exactly useful when traveling in modern Germany. So I find myself in the position of most tourists – in a foreign country where I, like almost all Americans, do not know the language.

It is customary when traveling abroad to ask, “Do you speak English?” And that’s what I have done in previous trips abroad. Something strange happened in this trip, however. From the very first situation in Frankfurt, I found myself asking, “May I speak English?” It surprised me that I asked the usual language question in this manner. And I said to myself, there’s something right about it, and I continued to ask the same question in all subsequent situations where I needed to ask someone for help or directions.

“Am I redundant yet?” That’s the question a man we met at Frankfurt airport asks his boss in London with hope for the day when the answer will be, “Yes.” That will mark the day when he can retire, when he becomes “redundant”. So he asks his boss on a regular basis if he is redundant yet.

I love the concept, and I love the question. It’s the deflating question par excellence. We all want to feel needed, that the world revolves around any one of us. To feel redundant is the answer to all the self-importance we impose on ourselves. And it is an imposition, a burden. To feel redundant is a more accurate indicator of our standing in the universe. 

The two questions represent what I’m not on a daily basis, and they both hit me at the same time – one coming from my own better innards, the other coming from a Londoner looking forward to retirement.

How often do we really think about the words we use? And how do our words often reflect underlying, deep-seated inherited attitudes about the world and people who are not like us? How often do our words reflect an underlying imperialist attitude?

When an American asks, “Do you speak English?”, it really implies a position of superiority. Can you help me in my language? Because I never cared to learn your language! But you should know my language. After all, my language has conquered the world – and along with my language, everything my country stands for! So, surely I can expect you to speak my language. “Do you speak English?”

But when I ask, “May I speak English?”, I’m placing myself in the position of lacking something. I am making myself redundant! I am expressing my own lack of knowledge. I am renouncing my imperialist expectation, and I’m asking the other person permission to speak my language, because I don’t know any other, in the hope that he or she will help me in my ignorance. There’s a world of difference in how I ask for help. Do I place the focus in the other person and what I expect or hope for in the other person; or do I place the focus on my shortcoming and need?

Above all, asking “May I speak English?”, also represents respect for the country where I am traveling and the people of that country. I don’t think most people who ask in the customary way are showing disrespect and most people would say I’m overthinking this matter and drawing too many implications that most people can’t relate to. That’s probably true. But I’ve become so sensitive to matters of imperialist pretensions and inherited attitudes that it’s natural for me to overthink something so basic as how I ask for help in a foreign country. Maybe I’m overthinking, but too often we don’t think enough!

Maybe I’m overthinking, but too often we don’t think enough, because we are so important. That’s where the Londoner’s question comes in. Redundant is the antidote to self-important. So yes, let me be redundant. And may I speak English in my redundancy? 


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The true heart of Islam

It is commonplace for people in this country to speak of Islam as incompatible with Western ‘values’. I myself have fallen into that trap more than once – even in these pages a couple years  back. Muslim leaders have often been attacked for not speaking out against terrorism.

The fact of the matter is that Muslim leaders have repeatedly condemned terrorism that purports to be in the name of Islam. The Manchester attacker a couple of weeks ago had been reported to the police by members of the Muslim community in Manchester who had grown fearful and suspicious of his extremist views. Unfortunately, the police failed to take these warnings seriously – and that has also been true of other terrorists.

The Guardian newspaper now reports that a large group of imams in Britain will refuse funeral prayers to any individuals who carry out terror attacks. This is a very bold and courageous move and it should silence critics – though I doubt that they will ever be silenced. Only the elimination or expulsion of Muslims will satisfy those whose own hatred matches the hatred of the terrorists and their Islamic State masters.

Consider some of the statements quoted in the Guardian article:

“We will not perform the traditional Islamic funeral prayer over the perpetrators and we also urge fellow imams and religious authorities to withdraw such a privilege. This is because such indefensible actions are completely at odds with the lofty teachings of Islam.”

“It is the Islamic duty of every Muslim to be loyal to the country in which they live. We are now asking questions to understand how extremism and hatred has taken hold within some elements of our own communities.”

“We know that many of these people have previously led a life of delinquency. It is often the case that the path towards extremism is outside of the mosque and at the margins of society. We are all grappling with this hateful ideology. This is an ideology that makes killing and hating cool, and uses the words of Islam as a cloak to justify it.”

“To condemn is only half way. We must also actively confront loudly and clearly.”

These are bold statements and give me hope that terrorism will be defeated by the only people who can defeat it – Muslims themselves. Instead of demonizing Islam and building walls against them and spreading false stories about sharia law and other nonsense, we need to work together with them as people of faith. We Christians should weep with them, rather than attack them and their religion. We should weep for our own sins of violence and fundamentalism.

It took Christian churches about 1,800 years to stop reading the Bible with fundamentalist eyes and understanding. It took us many centuries to stop reading certain passages of the Bible as justification for wars and crusades and inquisitions. And there are still Christian fundamentalist sects that use the Bible to justify killings, capital punishment, neglect of the environment, nuclear weapons, damnation for gays, subjugation of women, war in the Middle East (so their “rapture” will come), and other forms of hatred too many to list.

The point that I’m making is that our Jewish-Christian Bible has many passages that can inspire hatred, violence and wars. Most Christian churches have come to a place in our evolution where we can place those passages in context and relegate them to the margins of our faith traditions. The same struggle has to happen within Islam, and the decision of these imams in Britain is a sign that it may already be happening. And perhaps Muslims will overcome the fundamentalist tendencies within their faith communities in less than the 1,800 years it took Christians!

We need to pray – not only for our Muslim brothers and sisters, but also with them. Our sorrows are their sorrows too. Their struggles to overcome the fundamentalist temptations have also been our struggles. What these British imams are revealing is the true heart of Islam. It is time for us who are not Muslims to open our hearts too, and stop judging. It is time for Christians too, to reveal the peace and love that Jesus taught – the true heart of Christianity.


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Does the Orthodox Church have a political theology?

Lately I have been reading some pieces of political theology coming from a variety of Christian sources. And I’m not referring to political agendas or endorsement of political parties. Political theology is not partisan politics under the cover of Christendom. What is political theology? True political theology is neither Left nor Right. Political theology is bringing the gospel into the midst of the worldly powers and principalities and letting the gospel judge the powers and principalities of the world as only the gospel can judge them, in God’s total freedom. Any ecclesiastical attempt to domesticate God’s freedom and co-opt God into a caesaropapist hierarchy is a total betrayal of the gospel. That is why Paul posits powers and principalities even in the “heavenly places” – or what we presume to be heavenly places, such as what the churches claim for themselves:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, RSV)

Is such a thing as a political theology in the Orthodox Church? I consulted a book by Pantelis Kalaitzidis, Orthodoxy and Political Theology, translated from the Greek, and published in 2012 by the World Council of Churches. The straightforward answer is that there is no political theology in the Orthodox Church.

Kalaitzidis identifies a number of reasons why Orthodoxy has not developed a political theology, the primary and all-encompassing explanation being the theocratic and caesaropapist inheritance of Byzantium. As the church became ever more dependent on the state during the Byzantine era, it took on more and more the characteristics of the state and empire. And when the empire fell and many Orthodox nations became part of the Ottoman Empire, the church took over the duties of ethnarch (protector of the racial/national identity) while at the same time ensuring the required loyalty to the Ottoman authorities. In a sense, the Ottoman period was a logical extension and evolution of the Byzantine theocracy. The sole exception was Russia, which was not subject to the Ottomans. There, under czarist rule, the church preserved all the elements of Byzantine theocracy as an arm of the state. The recent resurgence of the Russian Church in the era of Putin is the modern extension of this ingrained tendency in Orthodox polity.

After the wars of liberation in the 19th century, two parallel phenomena occurred. On the one hand, the liberated countries fell under the sway of European “Enlightenment” and nationalism. The churches in traditional Orthodox countries, while opposing the values of the Enlightenment, capitulated to the new nationalism. In the words of Kalaitzidis: the church thus seems to be trapped in a purely ethnocentric dimension operating exclusively within history, restricting its mission “to the realization of the fortunes of the race and the nation” (!), and transforming the preaching about the coming kingdom of God into preaching about national salvation and the preservation of a glorious ethno-religious past.

What Kalaitzidis describes has been the situation in Greece since the liberation from the Ottoman yoke. Thus, when the Chutch of Greece attacks globalization and movements of resistance, it is not on theological arguments or criteria, but on cultural and national arguments and the need to defend national independence, language, religious uniqueness, and ethno-cultural identity.

An additional factor has been the so-called “return to the Fathers” – meaning the Fathers (but never Mothers!) of primarily the early church and Byzantium. As a result, biblical studies have taken a back seat and thus much of the gospel teachings of Christ about the poor and the weak, the victims of history and oppression, economic injustice, are absent in most Orthodox discourse. The most recent trend in Orthodox churches is an increasing turn inward. This is happening not only in the old-world churches but also in a big way in the Orthodox churches of North America, especially since the expansion of Athonite-style monasteries which foster an introverted form of pseudo-spirituality.

There are exceptions to this introversion, but the exceptions only prove the general rule. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is one of the few voices in the Orthodox world for any kind of political theology. Though his primary focus has been on the dangers of environmental destruction and global warming, he has also addressed issues of economic injustice, racism – sometimes in fellowship with Pope Francis, with whom he has developed a very close friendship. The Rev. John Chryssavgis has been closely associated with the Patriarch and has edited many volumes of the Patriarch’s speeches, encyclicals and scholarly papers. Most of these volumes have been published in beautiful editions by Fordham University Press.

While the churches of the old world have a history behind them that perhaps understandably keep them shackled to an ethno-religious paradigm, the failure of Orthodox churches in North America to move beyond these shackles is especially tragic and inexcusable. It seems they want to carry the Byzantine practice of subjection to the state into the context of North America where it does not belong – or should not belong. Money and fellowship with power become the prime motivators for church statements and priorities.

Does Kalaitzidis have anything to propose to make up for this lack that he so accurately describes? I’m afraid not; and thus he perpetuates the Orthodox lack that he has identified. In the second half of his book he repeats the usual patristic/theological affirmations about the church; in other words, he gives us the usual ecclesiology that more often than not contributes to precisely the lack that he describes in the first half of his book! This is the usual cul de sac of Orthodox theology. Eventually everything is reduced to ecclesiology!

Even the most aware theologians can’t avoid circling back to the same old, same old. And in the hands of Orthodox theologians – even the best intentioned – ecclesiology becomes ecclesiolatry. And when you have ecclesiolatry, you don’t need a political theology! You don’t need anything that reminds you that there is a world outside the church, the world of gospel imperatives. When your vision is the vision of the self-perpetuating church, everything – including the gospel imperatives of Jesus – becomes sacramental and wrapped up in “the mystery of the world”.

Walter Brueggemann wrote some magnificent advice in his magnum opus, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (p. 107):

It is my urging that a serious Old Testament student, situated in an ecclesial community, has a responsibility to do careful reading of the Old Testament and to present to the ecclesial community not only those readings that confirm church theology, but also (and perhaps especially) those that clash with, challenge, and undermine seemingly settled church theology. It is my judgment that church theology as commonly practiced is characteristically reductionist concerning the Bible, that it engages in providing settlement and certitude. Such reading may be disturbing and unsettling to “the world,” but it provides a coherence for the faithful.

Ecclesiolatry results when the church becomes “the world” – that world, the one that is unsettled and disturbed by the gospel. And let’s make no mistake about it, the so-called “Old Testament” is as much gospel as anything in the New Testament. As I like to say as often as I can, there is nothing “old” about the Old Testament!

In another informing statement, Brueggemann writes the following (p. 113):

The Old Testament insists that there is a moral shape to the public process that curbs the raw exercise of power. It equally insists that there is a hidden cunning in the historical process that is capable of surprise, and that prevents the absolutizing of any program or power. Thus at the edge of an Old Testament theology, we must ask about the ways in which this odd text might make a difference in the large public crisis in which we are all, willy-nilly, involved.

Only in a serious encounter with the entire biblical witness is a political theology even possible. The Orthodox churches have failed to do this beyond returning to the Fathers and their dogmatic, canonical interpretations.

The other major obstacle is the centrality of the Liturgy in Orthodox consciousness. Indeed, Orthodox view the Liturgy and the entire plethora of hymnography as the most accurate reflection of Orthodox belief. It’s the old affirmation, Lex orandi, lex credendi – “what we pray is what we believe.” That old Latin saying was drummed into me countless times in Seminary. No problem with it. Let the Liturgy and the sacramental life of the church represent the visual, aural and physical/material expressions of the faith. But let the scriptures stand in tension to the liturgical and sacramental self-understanding of the church! Brueggemann is masterful in adroitly addressing this necessary tension:

In tension with that propensity to reductionism, I propose that it is the work of biblical theology to counter the reductionism and to bear resilient witness to those texts and their interpretations that do not “fit.” Thus the work of biblical theology, vis-à-vis systematic theology, is one of tension that is honest but not quarrelsome. In practice, I suggest that it is the liturgy that is to enact the settled coherence of church faith, and the sermon that provides the “alien” witness of the text, which rubs against the liturgic coherence. There can, in my judgment, be no final resolution of the tension between the systemizing task of theology and the disruptive work of biblical interpretation. It is the ongoing interaction between the two that is the work of interpretation. (p. 107)

I will stop these reflections here and continue another day. I’ve only began to scratch the surface of this theme. I hope to continue my thoughts another day.