Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Orthodoxy versus Byzantine Seven-Councilism

In discussions of a possible reunion of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions, an objection that arises among some Eastern Orthodox is, "perhaps they share our faith, but for us to unite they must recognize the seven ecumenical councils." The parsing of divergent Christological formulae and history has been done abundantly elsewhere- here I will just focus on this particular point, the insistence on formal recognition of the seven councils as a sine qua non for Orthodoxy.

That this insistence constitutes a real and practical obstacle to unity is borne out in a recent article on the history of ROCOR's missions in India and their contacts with the Syrian Jacobite and Malankara Orthodox churches. Here we learn the following about an early overture for unity from the Malankara Orthodox Church, which was received by the Russian bishops at a council in Serbia in 1935:

...[T]he council of bishops had heard a report from Archbishop Anastasii and had read a letter from the Indians, in which they explained their confession of faith. Archbishop Anastasii responded to them and stated that the council found their confession of faith to be the same as that confessed by the Orthodox Church, although further clarification was required regarding their acceptance of later ecumenical councils. 
Bishop Dimitri, one of ROCOR’s bishops in Manchuria, was met by Father Andronik upon his arrival in India in February 1936 and, during his three weeks in the country, he discovered a church that had around five hundred parishes, five bishops, a monastery with around twenty monks in Travancore, a small convent, a seminary in Kottayam, and a network of parish schools and charitable institutions. Accompanied by Father Andronik, who served him as translator, he met with the catholicos [Baselios Geevarghese II] at his residence in Kottayam. According to Father Andronik, there were no dogmatic disagreements between Bishop Dimitri and the assembled Indian bishops, although the question of recognising all seven of the ecumenical councils proved to be a barrier to further progress in discussion. 
 Two decades later, the basic problem remained the same:
In the winter of 1953, Father Lazarus [Moore] engaged in extensive dialogues with Catholicos Baselios Geevarghese II, Metropolitan Alexios Mar Thevodasios, and Metropolitan Thoma Mar Divanyasios, regarding the Christological controversy of Chalcedon. The outcome of this was a statement by the Theological Commission of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church that was very favourable towards the Chalcedonian definition, but nevertheless insisted on a union based on the first three ecumenical councils. Father Lazarus supported this move, although the Synod of ROCOR did not agree, telling him that common prayer and liturgy is only possible with the Indian church on the basis of their acceptance of the fullness of the Orthodox teaching, which specifically includes the seven ecumenical councils.
Fr. Angelos, who must be thanked for the research and labor he put into this fascinating article, says this in the conclusion:
It is evident that, unless the Indian Church is willing to accept the fullness of the Orthodox faith as defined by the seven ecumenical councils, and not merely in theory, then the hopes for union with the Orthodox Church that they strove for in the 1930s and 1950s will never be realised.
I find this highly frustrating. Several times the Indian bishops made overtures to ROCOR for unity- not simply idle dialogue and joint statements, but a real establishment of communion. The ROCOR bishops heard their statements and concluded that "there were no dogmatic disagreements." But the Indian Orthodox did not want to repudiate their entire history and tradition going back to apostolic times. From their perspective, it was not a change of heart that led them to seek communion with ROCOR but a recognition of having held a common faith from ancient times. It was on the basis of their own tradition, and not despite it, that they wanted unity with the Eastern Orthodox. They wanted unity with the EO but did not want to become Syriac-rite Byzantines, and because of this ROCOR could not accept them.

The assertion that their acceptance of Orthodoxy is "in theory" is insulting and parochial. It is like someone who takes an arduous path up a mountain and reaches the summit. There, he meets another climber who has taken a different but equally rigorous path, though they both started from the same place and reached the same destination. The first person says to the second, "You are only here in theory; to really be here, go back to the bottom and take the same path I did."

History and historical particularity are important in Christianity, perhaps more than in any other religion. But that particularity can take many branches and detours and it is seldom neat. The controversy over Chalcedon is complex and full of historical and political problems along with the theological ones. The two factions, pro- and anti- Chalcedon, largely remained members of the same communion for at least a century after Chalcedon, and for a time the latter party held all the eastern patriarchates. It was only during Justinian's time- and with the crucial support of his wife St. Theodora- that the opponents of Chalcedon felt compelled to create their own hierarchy and parallel communion which we now call Oriental Orthodox.

I belong to the Eastern Orthodox communion and accept the council of Chalcedon. But what does that mean? Does that mean everything declared and done by that council is right? That would be an untenable position, since the council famously reinstated Ibas of Edessa on the basis of his letter, which the council fathers declared to be orthodox. This same letter was condemned as heretical at the next ecumenical council. So my acceptance of the council must be a little narrower- it means I accept its doctrine, and that, despite any mistakes they made, the fathers were proclaiming important truths about Christ.

But even if the definition of Chalcedon is true, it must be admitted that the language it employed was novel. Only twenty years prior the Church had overcome Nestorianism and St. Cyril of Alexandria was the champion of Orthodoxy. His Christological formula, "One incarnate nature of God the word," opposed the teaching of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius that Christ was a conjunction of two natures and two hypostases in one person.

St Cyril however accepted that the incarnation could be described with varying language, all formulas being mere approximation of an unfathomable mystery. Hence, two years after the Council of Ephesus, he was willing to reunite in communion with the church of Antioch, on the basis of an orthodox Christological statement- and without insisting that the Antiochenes also recognize the Council of Ephesus. He also did not ask that they repudiate their great teacher Theodore of Mopsuestia, though he contested strongly against Theodore's Christological doctrines.

The definition of Chalcedon, however, introduced wording which, in the context, was bound to cause discomfort to many orthodox who were loyal to St Cyril. The phrase "in two natures" would have sounded Nestorian, even if preceded by "One person and one hypostasis." It also did not help that previously fierce defenders of Nestorius were reinstated to their bishoprics (after a requisite condemnation of Nestorius), and Theodoret of Cyrrhus was given a prominent role in the council proceedings.

Some orthodox, to be sure, were able to see that the language of the definition was saying something quite different from the teaching of Theodore and Nestorius, despite apparent commonalities. However, others saw, at best, a dangerous and unprincipled compromise. In the heated and combative context, it is easy to see how sincere orthodox Christians could have taken either position out of concern for the faith and the church. Both parties, striving to preserve the true doctrine of Christ, tragically diverged in their paths toward the same summit.

The next two centuries saw various attempts to resolve the dispute, which eventually became a full schism. After the loss of Egypt and the Levant to the Arabs, these efforts largely ceased as the majority of the dissenters were now outside the empire. The Roman empire and its church adopted an insular attitude and the iconoclast controversy of the 8th century is an expression of this insularity. While the Egyptian and Syriac churches venerated icons, the outsized role and significance icons took in the imperial church after the triumph of the iconodules was something that set this church apart from churches that had not been scarred by the same controversy.

 This insularity remained embedded in the imperial church even after the empire's resurgence- and after the empire's final collapse. It was the basic conviction that the whole of Orthodoxy subsisted in the empire and its satellites, that Constantinople, with its rite, its history, and its recognized councils, was the standard against which churches were measured. Hence the eventual replacement, among the Eastern Orthodox, of the rites of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch with the Constantinopolitan rite.

Suppose that this was not the only way, but one detour through the woods in a troubled era, and that other Christians were likewise groping their way through the wilderness. We can take pride in the tough path our church has taken, without feeling insecure at the validity of other paths. Now that we recognize that both families have attained the summit, it is perverse to bicker about the path taken. History is important, and the path we have taken is important, but we must value the path primarily for where it has taken us, just as the other party must value theirs, and we must find a way to stand together without either party disowning its heritage. Lest anyone accuse me of using the language of religious indifferentism, let me remind you that I am talking here of two apostolic Christian communions who teach essentially the same dogmas regarding Christ (as the ROCOR bishops admitted) as well as all the other truths summarized in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.

Behind the insistence on recognizing seven ecumenical councils as a precondition for Orthodoxy, I believe there is a great deal of fear. The most frightening question is this: "If our fathers were wrong about Dioscorus and Severus, what else were they wrong about?" This anxiety is needless.  When the second council of Constantinople condemned the letter of Ibas, they were not repudiating Chalcedon where this letter had been approved. They were tacitly correcting a mistake that had been made at Chalcedon, but to the end that the faith expressed at Chalcedon would be clarified and strengthened, not contradicted. So we can also say that our fathers were right in condemning any doctrine that erased or blurred the distinction between Christ's divine and human natures; that it was for the protection of the Christian faith that they condemned this error in the persons of Dioscorus and Severus. We can simultaneously acknowledge that the Dioscorus and Severus venerated by the Oriental Orthodox did not advance such a doctrine.

Lastly, lest my viewpoint be construed as an eccentric opinion uttered by a nobody, I urge you to read Metropolitan Hilarion's "The Reception of the Ecumenical Councils in the Early Church" wherein he suggests the possibility of reunion on the basis of dogmatic agreement, without insisting on formal subscription to councils:
We think that while the Oriental Orthodox could continue to use their own dogmatic terminology and consider ours unsatisfactory, they nevertheless must accept that the dogmas of the Ecumenical Councils mentioned do not contradict their own teaching. Only such theological agreement can provide a genuine basis for reunion. This agreement does not mean that the Oriental Orthodox must accept all seven Ecumenical Councils absolutely and unconditionally. The Oriental Orthodox are not prepared to sign the dogmatic formulations of the later four Ecumenical Councils, as their theological terminology remains alien to them. We must not demand that the Oriental Orthodox accept the fifth, sixth, and seventh Ecumenical Councils absolutely and unconditionally because they did not take part in those Councils and thus the problems discussed were alien to them. For example, it is not reasonable to expect that the Oriental Orthodox will use the seventh Ecumenical Council in their theology of icons, as they did not experience in their midst the heresy of iconoclasm and had no need to develop theological arguments for the veneration of icons. The Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox Churches parted because they did not find agreement in the reception of the Council of Chalcedon. Thus theological dialogue between the two families must be centered on this Council alone. We must not demand that the Oriental Orthodox accept this Council as their own. But they must be invited to accept that the Christological formulae ofthat Council do not contradict the teaching of the ancient undivided Church. On the other hand, the Orthodox need to accept that Oriental Orthodox Christological terminology can also be maintained, as it reflects the terminology of the third Ecumenical Council. Such an agreement would represent the bare minimum that would permit (according to St Basils principle) the reinstitution of eucharistic communion. Only in this case would it be possible to say that the theological dialogue has been completed. From that point, the Churches may turn to the questions of history, ecclesiology and procedure (e.g., the lifting of anathemas, veneration of saints, etc.) 



Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Thoughts on a permanent pan-Orthodox synod

At the recent meeting of the International Orthodox Theological Association, Patriarch Daniel gave a short address wherein he said:

If synodality is a permanent canonical norm at the local level, it must be today a permanent practice also at panorthodox or universal level, not just in exceptional or in crisis situations, but in maintaining and permanently asserting the ecclesial communion and the pastoral and missionary co-responsibility of Orthodoxy in today’s world.

His statement is very short and general. Fr Daniel Greeson gives some helpful pointers for further reading on the concept here. Not having access to those books myself, I can only give some general thoughts which may been expressed better and answered elsewhere.

My instinctual feeling is that this basically a good idea. We are a global communion and, with the ease of modern transportation, a global synod makes sense. The beautiful vision of a loose fraternal network of autocephalous churches doesn't seem to stand up to the realities of political upheaval and territorial disputes. On the other hand, the increasingly pronounced self-understanding of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as First Without Equals, holding the power of supreme and final arbiter of Orthodoxy, is not a solution and is as damaging as it is untethered from the Church's tradition and the teaching of Constantinople's own most revered canonists. There must be some kind of unifying organ which isn't dominated by a particular faction.

This standing synod would be very different from the 2016 Cretan council, which had been planned for decades and was restricted to the discussion and emendation of a set of pre-written documents. Open and unrestricted discussion of pressing issues would be a necessary factor.

It's easy right now to see potential obstacles to such a synod convening any time soon. Different local churches would likely propose mutually exclusive conditions for their participation- for instance, Moscow demands that the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine be excluded, whereas the EP demands its presence. Some churches with legitimate grievances (e.g. Antioch) may demand that they be addressed, while others will want to postpone such problems indefinitely.

It also seems likely the EP, while in favor of synodality on paper, would be tempted to sabotage the actual synod, as so much of its claims regarding its primacy are nonetheless subject to an ecumenical synod. A permanent pan-orthodox synod with freedom of discussion and debate, which is not choreographed in advance, and holding genuine authority, would take the wind out of the EP's sails and render its cherished prerogatives superfluous.

It may be necessary to start by having two or more different synods, with overlapping participation, before everyone can agree to be in one room together. This of course carries the danger of formalizing global factionalism in the Orthodox communion, which is by all means to be avoided.

Assuming these obstacles can be surmounted one way or another, I also foresee a potential doctrinal problem, namely, the sense, in some circles, that ecumenical councils carry some charism of infallibility, rendering their decrees automatically binding, an idea I like to call "Hive Pope." After the Cretan council of 2016, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church issued a critique of its document on relations with other Christians. I find much of the critique of ecumenism very fussy, often reading meanings into terms that aren't really there, and I am not much on board with the anti-ecumenist zealots. However, one part of the Bulgarian critique echoed a concern of mine:

Finally, with regard to paragraph #22, which states that the "preservation of the true Orthodox faith is ensured only through the conciliar system," the Holy Synod states, rather, that the final criterion for the acceptance of Church Councils is the vigilant dogmatic conscience of entire Orthodox pleoroma (the fullness of the Body). It states that the Ecumenical Council does not provide automatic or mechanical correctness of the faith professed by Orthodox Christians.

This is a point that needs to be reiterated and amplified in any discussions about a permanent pan-Orthodox synod.


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Ukrainian Orthodoxy and Holocaust Revisionism

The above photo is from a news item on the official website of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, dated October 15th, 2017. It shows their Archbishop Daniel (Zelinsky) at the jurisdiction's headquarters in South Bound Brook, NJ, in front of a monument to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The UPA was a Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary organization, imbued deeply with anti-Semitic and xenophobic ideology, which gladly assisted the Nazis in their extermination of Ukrainian Jews, and waged a genocidal campaign against Poles in Volhynia and East Galicia. The fact that Orthodox hierarchs would celebrate such an organization should be deplored by Orthodox Christians everywhere.

How is this celebration of genocidal hatred possible? It may in fact be the case that Archbishop Daniel and those around him do not consider themselves to celebrate any such thing at all, or even share the real ideology of the UPA. Thanks to an intense, decades-long campaign of historical distortion by Ukrainian nationalists, the bloodthirsty UPA has been laundered into a plucky band of freedom fighters, equally opposed to Soviet and Nazi tyranny. Anti-Semitic? No! That's Soviet/ Russian propaganda. There is even an attempt to fabricate Jewish UPA militants and thereby prove that the organization harbored no strong anti-Semitic feeling. In short, it is by means of holocaust revisionism that Ukrainian nationalists are able to whitewash their historic anti-Semitism- and perhaps in some cases they even believe their own propaganda.

In Ukraine itself the UPA and its leader Stepan Bandera have been written into textbooks and public monuments as heroes and, indeed, the key torchbearers of Ukrainian nationalism in the mid-20th century. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ukrainian nationalism today is inseparable from adulation of the UPA. For this reason, the Ukrainian government passed a law criminalizing criticism of the UPA and the associated OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists). Holocaust revisionism is fiercely and officially promoted by the Ukrainian government's Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.

Thanks to the prevailing geopolitics, the USA is willing to overlook the growing strength of neo-Nazi elements in Ukrainian politics and even provide arms to the infamous neo-Nazi Azov Battalion. On the ecclesiastic level, the present intervention of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine gives legitimacy and strength to the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, schismatic bodies whose leaders are unapologetic supporters of the OUN-UPA legacy. Archbishop Daniel (Zelinsky) is in good company with them and Banderism and holocaust revisionism are widespread in the UOC of USA (which belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate). In this newsletter, for instance, describing an event with Archbishop Daniel in attendance, one finds Stepan Bandera included in a list of celebrated Ukrainian heroes.

Despite the abundant evidence of anti-Semitism and fascism in Ukraine, Ukrainian nationalists and their Western sympathizers continue to dismiss it as an elaborate Russian hoax. However diverse and credible one's sources, they will smear any critic as a purveyor of Russian propaganda. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Mental Imagery and Orthodox spirituality

In popular presentations of Orthodox spirituality, especially those aimed at distinguishing it from the spirituality of modern Catholicism or Protestantism, there is a pattern of oversimplification or  distortion that needs to be addressed and corrected. Sometimes it is done by well-meaning writers who know better but don't want to confuse neophytes with too much nuance; sometimes it's done by overzealous polemicists; sometimes it's just repeated by people who only read stuff by the above two sources and don't know any better.

The biggest canard is probably this one, as reported by Fr Sergei Sveshnikov in his article "Mental Imagery in Eastern Orthodox Private Devotion":

"Unlike some forms of Roman Catholic spirituality, the Orthodox Tradition does not encourage the use of mental imagery.  In fact, it almost appears to forbid sensory imagination during prayer altogether."
A typical patristic passage used to support this stance is the following, from St John Climacus: "During prayer do not admit any sensory imagination, so as not to be subject to distraction."

Fr Sergei cites several other Orthodox authorities, particularly the work of St Ignati Brianchaninov. The article's argument is broadly misleading, but to see why, one has to unpack some key terms in the above sentences, with reference to patristic writings in prayer. The two big questions:

1. What does the term "prayer" mean as used in so many discourses by hesychastic fathers?
2. What does "imagination" mean in this same context?

Prayer, Psalmody, Meditation

Let's go back to St John Climacus and his admonition: "During prayer do not admit any sensory imagination, so as not to be subject to distraction." If we come across these words with the assumption that the word "prayer" stands for all the different kinds of activities- individual and corporate- where we address God in supplication, thanksgiving, praise, or repentance, it would seem that St John is indeed telling us to banish mental imagery from our spiritual practice. But elsewhere in Saint John, we read passages like the following:

He who is not alone but is with others cannot derive so much profit from psalmody as from prayer; for the confusion of voices renders the psalms indistinct.

Here we see a key distinction made by Saint John and so many other ancient Orthodox ascetic writers, that of prayer and psalmody. If we come to this passage with our prior, broad understanding of the word "prayer", then we will be confused and in fact we will be confused again and again reading through other spiritual writings in the same vein. Isn't psalmody a form of prayer? Of course it is, but in these ascetic fathers the term "prayer" is frequently used for an activity distinct from this psalmody.

So what do these terms mean?

Psalmody refers to the various chanted or read prayers, especially those making up individual or collective prayer rules. Psalms would form the bulk but other prayers, such as the troparia and canons, would also be broadly included here. The backbone of psalmody is the daily cycle of the hours.

Prayer, in this case, is an interior activity, vocal or silent, simple and intensely focused; in higher stages ("pure prayer") it goes beyond any words or thought. Most famously it is associated with short, repeated prayers like the Jesus prayer, though the Jesus prayer in itself does not inherently constitute this activity.
A third activity, meditation, involves the continual reflection on readings from scripture or a specific subject- the topics most commonly recommended are death, the last judgment, heaven, and hell. The life of Christ is also recommended as a topic of meditation in some places.

In a monastic setting there are distinct, set times for these activities, although one can be rapt into prayer in the course of psalmody or meditation. A clear distinction between meditation and prayer is not always evident- for instance, the famous advice of Abba Philemon: "Without interruption, whether asleep or awake, eating, drinking, or to company, let your heart inwardly and mentally at times be meditating on the psalms, at other times be repeating the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.”

The importance of psalmody is a given- St John Chrysostom says "It would be better for the sun to fall from its orbit, than to neglect reading the Psalter." But for individual monks, many ascetic writers take a view of psalmody as a secondary practice for the spiritually advanced, which should gradually give way to prayer. Some even see a danger of distraction and delusion in prolonged psalmody. Elder Basil of Poiana Marului, who uses the term "noetic work" for prayer, says :
"...we must also recall that those who know the art of noetic work realize that psalmody is not suited (it is proper for beginners and the passionate) for constantly praying for one’s sins or against evil thoughts and the passions, because of the multitude of words employed, some to glorify God, others beholding His creatures or God’s dispensation and providence or His threats and promises or that He is pre-eternal and incomprehensible, and such things as these which the passionate and ailing mind cannot behold. In psalmody one’s thoughts fall into fantasy and only passively observe."

The word "fantasy" here is key- it is, of course, the Greek word "phantasia" that is typically being translation as "imagination" in our English Philokalia. Important too is the element of passivity.

Imagination as a passive faculty

The following passage by St Gregory Palamas (in Philokalia vol. 4) greatly clarifies this passive quality of phantasia, which connects it closely to memory:

These sense impressions are in turn appropriated from the senses by the soul's imaginative faculty; and this faculty totally separates not the senses themselves but what we have called the images that exist within them from the bodies and their forms. It stores them up like treasures and brings them forward ulteriorly - now one and now another, each in its own time - for its own use even when there is no corresponding body present. In this way it sets before itself all manner of things seen, heard, tasted, smelled and touched. In creatures endowed with intelligence this imaginative faculty of the soul is an intermediary between the intellect and the senses. For the intellect beholds and dwells upon the images received in itself from the senses - images separated from bodies and already bodiless - and it formulates various kinds of thought by means of distinctions, analysis and inference. This happens in various ways - impassionately or dispassionately or in a state between the two, both with and without error. From these thoughts are born most virtues and vices, as well as opinions, whether right or wrong. Yet not every thought that comes into the intellect has its origin in the images of things perceived or is connected with them. There are some thoughts that do not come within the scope of the senses, but are given to the thinking faculty by the intellect itself. As regards our thoughts, then, not every truth or error, virtue or vice has its origin in the imagination.

For your part, if you are rightly cultivating stillness and aspiring to be with God, and you see something either sensory or noetic, within or without, be it even an image of Christ or of an angel or of some saint, or you imagine you see a light in your intellect and give it a specific form, you should never entertain it. For the intellect itself naturally possesses an imaginative power and in those who do not keep a strict watch over it it can easily produce, to its own hurt, whatever forms and images it wants to. In this way the recollection of things good or evil can suddenly imprint images on the intellect's perceptive faculty and so induce it to entertain fantasies, thus making whoever this happens to a daydreamer rather than a hesychast.

So the imagination warned against here has to do with images and thoughts that arise without the person's conscious bidding. We can choose to not entertain them- or train ourselves toward this end- but their arising is largely involuntary. It is when we entertain them that the danger comes that we will mistake for reality and fall prey to any number of delusions. The involuntary character of these images is a key to their danger, because if we are not careful, we may begin to think they are not fabricated in our minds and that they are real, when in fact they arise from our stored experiences and thoughts, or from demonic suggestion.

Images and meditation

Throughout his letter to Nicolas the Solitary (found in Philokalia, Volume 1), St Mark the Ascetic continually exhorts Nicolas to meditate on the manifold blessings God has bestowed:

You should continually and unceasingly call to mind all the blessings which God in His love has bestowed upon you in the past, and still bestows for the salvation of your soul. You must not let forgetfulness of evil or laziness make you grow unmindful of these many and great blessings, and so pass the rest of your life uselessly and ungratefully. For this kind of continual recollection, pricking the heart like a spur, moves it constantly to confession and humility, to thanksgiving with a contrite soul, and to all forms of sincere effort, repaying God through its virtue and holiness.

He returns to this theme frequently, and focuses particularly on the life of Christ:

So you should continually keep in mind the great humiliation which the Lord took upon Himself in His ineffable love for us: how the divine Logos dwelt in a womb; how He took human nature upon Himself; His birth from a woman; His gradual bodily growth; the shame He suffered, the insults, vilification, ridicule and abuse; how He was scourged and spat upon, derided and mocked; the scarlet robe, the crown of thorns; His condemnation by those in power; the outcry of the unruly Jews, men of His own race, against Him: 'Away with him, away with him, crucify him' (John 19:15); the cross, the nails, the lance, the drink of vinegar and gall; the scorn of the Gentiles; the derision of the passers-by who said: 'If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and we will believe you' (cf Matt. 27:39-42); and the rest of the sufferings which He patiently accepted for us: crucifixion; death; the three-day burial; the descent into hell.
This call to continual reflection on Christ and other sacred themes- in quite vivid terms- would seem to be quite an odds with the version of Orthodox spirituality presented in many popular sources. Is St Mark an anomaly here? Not at all. Exhortations to meditate on death and the last judgment are common in patristic spiritual writings from all ages- St Theodore of Edessa, for instance, gives a particularly vivid exhortation to reflect on death, the last judgment, as well as the glory of heaven. In his book The Life in Christ St Nicholas Cabasilas writes an extended examination of the beatitudes as a guide to meditation on the life of Christ, which he exhorts his readers to make their constant activity.

How to reconcile this with the warnings against imagination in prayer? First of all, these meditations are not passive, unbidden thoughts, arising from sensory imprints or a restless mind, but purposeful and holy subjects drawn from revelation. They do not lead us astray because they are given us by God himself in his providence for us and are not products of our own self-will or passions.

Second, they are, strictly speaking, not "prayer". As mentioned above, the Orthodox spiritual writers tend to address prayer and meditation as distinct, if not always separate, activities. Prayer might be regarded as a higher, more direct activity but it usually rests on a foundation of meditation and psalmody.

What about the rosary?

The practice of the rosary, beloved by Catholics since it emerged in its present form some time around the 13th century, is rejected and condemned by some Orthodox on the  basis of its employment of meditations on the life of Christ and the Mother of God. These meditations are juxtaposed to Orthodox passages- ripped from context- warning against the intrusions of imagination in prayer. The underlying assumption is that the rosary occupies a place in Catholic spirituality directly comparable with the role of hesychastic prayer in Orthodox spirituality. But in fact the Catholic rosary arose as a way for Catholics, who did not have access to books or have the time to navigate them, to pray a version of the hours. That means that the rosary would be more accurately classed as psalmody.

If we compare the rosary to the Orthodox practice of psalmody, things look very different. The hours consist chiefly of psalms- poems, some quite lengthy, praising God and also reflecting on his many mercies and other spiritual subjects. These poems are packed with images, which, while reflective of high spiritual realities, are images all the same. If you pray the psalms attentively you will perforce reflect on these images. Likewise the canons and troparia that we sing are packed with vivid images that will flicker across the mind of those who follow them attentively. Our feast-day service texts- Pascha, the Nativity, Theophany, etc.- invite us to reflect on these events in salvation history, and not in some abstract, imageless way but, on the contrary, with a stream of vivid images. In this light the dismissal of the rosary as dangerously imaginative is both unfair and indicative of a misunderstanding of Orthodox spiritual tradition.


So what does this mean? There is an undeniable place for the use of mental imagery in the Orthodox spiritual tradition. Some writers emphasize it, others refer to it only in passing or argue that it should be minimized in favor of imageless prayer, but the notion that it is heterodox or inherently dangerous is a foreign one.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Usury: Clutching Vipers

In his article on the Lord's prayer, "A Prayer for the Poor", David Bentley Hart discusses debt and usury, as a pervasive evil in our society as well as the one in which our Lord was incarnated. Like he sometimes does when uncovering an important and neglected truth, he takes it a little bit too far, but his basic point is solid: that the evil of usury, and the moral and spiritual imperative of debt relief, were foremost in the mind of Christ when he taught, and in the minds of his listeners. Over time this priority has been papered over, qualified, or spiritualized away, to the point where one might conclude that the Church has revised her condemnation of usury or accommodated it as a necessary evil.

Such a conclusion must be fiercely resisted, however quixotic the resistance may appear. The bankers must be made to feel uncomfortable in our churches, and the debt-ridden and oppressed must feel championed, even if only by a few isolated voices. That usury, lending at interest, is hated by God is the unavoidable conclusion from sacred scripture and the God-inspired fathers of the Church. The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox admirably collects some evidence of that here. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, in this interesting book review (alas, I haven't read the book yet, but it sounds fascinating) declares that, "We must stigmatize and cauterize usurers who exploit the anguish of their fellow-man and who remain unemotional in the presence of their misfortune." Imagine that- stigmatizing them instead of commemorating them, awarding them with prestigious orders, making them parish or diocesan officeholders.

Those teachers of the church who overlook or, worse, give comfort to the monstrosity of usury are bad shepherds. Often they are eager to take theatrical stands for trendy "culture war" issues that cost them nothing, as when a well-known California priest perverted the divine liturgy to offer a bombastic "funeral" for America, in response to a Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage.

I add another patristic quote (one could add many more), this one from Saint Gregory Palamas:

As for those who are unwilling to lend to borrowers who promise to repay in full and on time, but demand payment with interest, and high interest at that, and without it will not allow their tax or their money to be seen, they are almost lawless and worse than sinners, obeying neither the old law nor the new covenant. For this latter exhorts us to lend even to people from whom we cannot hope to receive back the loan, whereas the ancient law states, "Thou shalt not lend thy money upon usury", commends the man who "putteth not out his money to usury", and considers it necessary to flee from the city where interest and guile are at work in the streets, that is to say, openly. Do you observe how the usurer deprives not only his own soul but also the community of its good reputation, inflicting on it the charge of inhumanity, and doing the whole city in general a considerable injustice? He is one of its citizens and everything he has was acquired from it, but he does not use his possessions for its good. To those who have nothing he is unwilling to lend, and to those who have something, however meager, he lends at interest, in order cunningly to take from them what little they have to live on. Perhaps that is why the prophet links deceit and usury, saying, "I would wander far off, and remain in the wilderness, for I have seen violence and strife in the city, usury and guile depart not from her streets."

The man who lends at interest is eager to grow rich with sins rather than money, destroying both the borrower's livelihood and his own soul. For interest payments are like a brood of vipers nesting in the bosom of those who love money, foreshadowing the fact that such men will not escape from the unsleeping worms threatened for the age to come. If one of them were to say, however, "As you do not allow me to receive interest, I shall keep my surplus money by me, and shall not offer it to those who need to borrow", he should be aware that he is holding the mothers of those vipers in his breast, who will also be for him the mothers of those unsleeping worms.

(Homily 45, 'On the Verse, "As Ye Would That Men Should Do To You..."')

David Bentley Hart, like many others, notes how in our society money takes on a life of its own, defying all law and morality:

Before long, the principal has itself become almost sacred in its unapproachable exaltation, a mystery sealed within in an inaccessible sanctuary, in the service of an unappeasable god. It truly is an infallible formula. A few draconian penalties written into credit agreements, a few legal but unreasonably immense shifts in interest rates, a cynical liberality with regard to the amount of credit extended to persons too much in need to calculate the inevitable destructive consequences of accepting credit—and all at once the poverty of the unfortunate becomes an overflowing wellspring of revenues for the wealthy. Especially profitable for such creditors are the catastrophic medical emergencies that so frequently reduce the poor to virtual slavery, and that the American system especially—with a Darwinian prudence almost majestic in its stern, barbaric indifference to the appeals of pity or morality alike—refuses to alleviate.

Usurers are unequivocally culpable for their greed and indifference toward their fellow man's suffering; at the same time, the whole brutal apparatus appears to them like an impersonal, iron law which they can defy no more easily than their hapless debtors. The rich young man must have faced a similar delusion when he fled, weeping, from the Lord who had told him about the camel and the needle's eye. Wealth and the knot of passions that drive its acquisition, with promises of pleasure and freedom, become fetters not only for the individual man of wealth but for the whole expanding network of social, economic, and political relations depending on it.

As I've said before, Marxism is fatally flawed in its materialism, but in its critique of a brutally materialist civilization it is insightful. One thing Marx noted was the seemingly autonomous character of capital, transcending even the desires of the capitalist himself. As quoted in Bordiga's Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil, he says:

By turning his money into commodities which serve as the building materials for a new product, and as factors in the labour process, by incorporating living labour into their lifeless objectivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labour in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorisation process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if possessed by the devil.'

Working from this insight, Bordiga notes the decreasing relevance of individual capitalists in our society, where much wealth and power resides in bureaucratic entities, whether banks, government departments, or corporations. It was also a prediction made by Engels in Anti-Duhring:

If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.

As Christian teaching has always said, a man who succumbs to passions is the slave of the passions, and of the devil who manipulates through them. The same is true of society- we have been enslaved by capital, and the demonic possession that the Marxists employ as a metaphor is in fact not metaphorical at all. The vipers the usurer clutches to his bosom are nested in the heart of our society and they are in control.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The truth that refused to realise itself

When a time revolts against eternity, the only thing to set against it is genuine eternity itself, and not some other time which has already roused, and not without reason, a violent reaction against itself.

These words come from Nikolai Berdyaev's essay, "The Religion of Communism".

Berdyaev is one of the few Christian commenters on Marxism I've read who is really familiar with Marxism, both its important insights and its fatal flaws. He warns that, if Christianity continues to fail to live up to its own eternal principles, instead settling for comfortable coexistence with capitalist civilization, then the torch of justice will be taken up by some other force, with disastrous results. Such was the Bolshevik revolution. Berdyaev wrongly predicted a communist wave overtaking the world. It was an understandable mistake made by many intelligent people, both anti- and pro-communist. But his essential point is clearly borne out today: reactionary Christianity is decrepit and the gospel precepts it has dropped are taken up and twisted by other trends and movements. "The truth that refused to realise itself in beauty, in divine beauty, is carried out in ugliness."

Putting aside all the arguments about when the revolutionary wave that began at the end of World War I was defeated, it was pretty clear that it was dead when the Soviet Union collapsed, and that communism was not the inevitable future for humanity that reactionaries so viciously feared and that Marxists so devoutly hoped for. But the triumph of atheism and materialism seems as assured as it ever was. From the yawning emptiness of capitalist civilization, ideologies spring up like hydra's heads, some more ugly than others, some more foul of breath, but all springing from the same hollow core. The corpses of liberalism, nationalism, fascism, and Marxism refuse to decompose but multiply in a kaleidoscopic array of mutant progeny.
Within the Orthodox Church there continues, among some of our loudest voices, the continued incantations of reactionary formulas, the continued refusal to realize truth in beauty, the continual alignment of the gospel with the interests of one or more of the hydra-heads of Mammon. The equation of Orthodoxy with monarchism and Tsarism, itself erroneous, often poorly masks a true allegiance to some form of liberalism and it is not uncommon to find "traditionalist" priests mouthing liberal economic maxims like they came straight from the Sermon on the Mount, swallowing the camel of usury while straining out gnats of trendy social issues. The obsession with homosexuality- for or against- currently sweeping through the Orthodox world carries behind it a fundamental capitulation to our Satanic civilization, as apart from this or that erroneous social policy, our culture is fundamentally sound. It is an acquiescence to war and empire, and to a global system where the poor are crushed by their creditors. This is how priests of God become in fact priests of Mammon.

This corruption of the body of Christ can not be countered by adopting a counter-ideology, charging at one hydra head on the back of another. The Marxist system of historical materialism has much explaining power for our society, the domain of Mammon, because this society compels us to behave as base, carnal creatures. Therefore materialist laws seem to dictate the very thoughts and ideals expressed within this society. Nonetheless materialism remains a fundamental, soul-destroying error and the apparent dovetailing of certain Christian ideals with certain goals of the left must never be confused with a true harmony.
We can't have a platform apart from the beatitudes. At the same time, we can't pretend aloofness, even if, as Berdayev says, "genuine Christianity can, apparently, never obtain complete mastery and power in this world. Mastery and power have only belonged to pseudo-Christianity. The world turns away from integral Christianity." Withdrawal is another illusion, another head of the hydra. When I hear about this "Benedict Option" I hear the declaration of sour grapes from those who, in their hearts, would greedily seize dominion if the option were open to them. We have to stand in the world with a humble but concrete witness, born from the gospel and primarily from the beauty and love of Christ.

So much of the ostensibly Christian intervention in modern society has no basis in this beauty and love. Why should anyone change or sacrifice anything to abide by Christian principles, if we cannot first show this beauty that makes such struggles worthwhile? It's not enough to say, "this is God's law" especially when the ones proclaiming this law are so manifestly lawless.

Like as the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so longeth my soul for thee, O God. All of us- all of humanity- desire this cool, refreshing water, the life-giving spring of Christ, but we do not know we desire it, we do not even know what it looks like. It can only spring up in the love between persons, unmediated... programs and policies lose their Christian usefulness when this personal encounter, and the value of the person, are overlooked. We cannot manifest this love as a promise, a plan, even less as a command. We manifest it with prayer and compassionate action, conjoined with poetry and vision and Christ behind us and before us.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Ethnic and Civilizational Phyletism

Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun has published an interesting article on the Wheel addressing phyletism in its various forms and how Orthodox councils have addressed it.

Fr. Cyril produces an interesting distinction between two kinds of phyletism: ethno-phyletism, specific to a particular nation, and civilizational or imperial phyletism. He then points out that the 1872 council in Constantinople condemned the latter (addressing Bulgarian nationalism and its attempt to form a Bulgarian exarchate within Constantinople) but overlooked its own Phanariot phyletism. So far, so good.

Things get weird though. He says the Cretan Pan-Orthodox council gave a complete condemnation (implicitly) of both kinds of phyletism, and therefore represented a step forward. He speaks almost as if the old Phanariot phyletism somehow vanished over the last century and was not a factor at all in the recent council. Instead, the main form of civilizational phyletism is the Russkiy Mir being pushed by Moscow. And, truth be told, I find Russian nationalism and the MP's complicity in it loathsome.

But the article gets a bit paranoid and essentially says that the only reason the Church of Antioch and other churches backed out of the council was because of Russian influence. He does not even acknowledge Antioch's longstanding grievance and stated reason for abstaining- the Jerusalem Patriarchates incursion into Antioch's canonical territory, and the EP's refusal to help resolve the issue. And this issue has everything to do with the civilizational phyletism Fr. Cyril opposes, namely the Phanariot phyletism that he himself acknowledged to exist, or to at least have existed before. It is likewise Phanariot phyletism that shuts out the Arab faithful from the Greek-dominated upper echelons of the JP, and Phanariot phyletism that the Church of Antioch itself not too long ago had to struggle free from.

The second paragraph:
The Council of Constantinople gathered specifically to cope with the issue of nationalism, at the time of the Bulgarian “national awakening.” The Council of Crete, in contrast, met without a particular issue to solve. Its purpose was to meet for the sake of meeting and demonstrating the ability of the Orthodox Churches to come together. Without such a council, the idea of “conciliarity” as the core of modern Orthodox identity would not stand. Crete dealt with the issue of nationalism on the margins.

This exposes, inadvertently, a key problem of the Crete council- it "met without a particular issue to solve", despite the fact that there are many particular issues that urgently need solving. "Its purpose was to meet for the sake of meeting and demonstrating the ability of the Orthodox Churches to come together"- in other words, sweep substantial problems under the rug, or kick them down the road, and just come together to demonstrate an artificial unity. Fr. Cyril says it himself and yet he does not see the problem of "meet[ing] for the sake of meeting."

And he confuses Orthodox conciliarity with conciliarism, the idea that Church-wide councils are the highest authority of the church and therefore indispensably must be convened for the church to function. Such an ecclesiology is exposed as heterodox by, among other people, the Ecumenical Patriarchate's theologian John Zizioulas.

I'll close with a remark on the article's near-hysterical Russophobia. I am not a big fan of the sleazy, rotten edifice of Putin's Russia or the way the Moscow Patriarchate has accommodated itself so thoroughly, blasphemously, to such a thoroughly rapacious and cynical monstrosity. But my antipathy to Russkiy Mir ideology does not compel me to join in this popular Western pasttime of finding Russian agents behind every tree. On so many issues this attitude renders people apoplectic and incapable of addressing any situation in a substantive way.