Monday, May 24, 2010

The Place of Auschwitz in the Problem of Evil

As I near the end of my readings for my course on providence and suffering, I notice that the authors I have been assigned all share a common assumption. They each assert as self-evident that the Holocaust represents a cataclysmic, paradigm-shifting moment in the history of the problem of suffering. Susan Neiman introduced her book Evil in Modern Thought, “What occurred in Nazi death camps was so absolutely evil that, like no other event in human history, it defies human capacity for understanding.” Similarly, Carleen Mandolfo wrote in the journal Interpretation, “There can be no redemption, no understanding in the Holocaust (something the Christians who put up crosses at Auschwitz cannot understand, or simply do not accept).” At first, I accepted this assessment of Auschwitz without question. After all, we live in a society where Hitler’s name has become a byword for evil and invoking the memory of Nazism evokes appropriate disdain from any culturally conscious bystander. The Holocaust does typify depravity in everyday society, and it certainly is unquestionably depraved.

I wonder, nevertheless, whether or not we should afford it the kind of catastrophic significance that these authors do. Of course, I do not dispute that the Holocaust was evil or even that it was tremendously evil. I simply question if it is peculiarly evil, if it truly represents the kind of awful exercise of human will that should shatter every existing theodicy and leave us utterly and specially dumbfounded at the thought of it.

From a purely analytical standpoint, I wonder what it is that makes the Holocaust so much worse than other modern atrocities. It is the number of deaths? Modern technology has given us the capacity to kill in astonishing numbers, and there are abundant examples of massacres which have, if not equal, at least comparably appalling numbers. Consider the successive wars which have plagued this past century particularly but in reality all centuries. Are the lives of those who died in these conflicts somehow ontologically inferior to those of the Holocaust victims? Of course, the majority of these people were soldiers, and, assuming for the sake of argument that this is a valid explanation for the mass extermination of human life, let me propose another possibility.

Was it the innocence of the victims? Ignoring what I would dismiss as a fundamentally invalid moral category relative to taking human life, there have been numberless accounts of the torture and deaths of innocents. Consider the civilian causalities associated with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. Think also of the birth pangs of communist regimes which saw countless innocents slaughtered by their own governments. Conjuring one of the most terrible images possible, Emil Fackenheim (who argues strongly for the sinister peculiarity of the Holocaust) wrote, “In Auschwitz, Jewish babies were thrown into the flames without being killed first. Their screams could be heard in the camp. To find redemption in the suffering of these babies, or of those cursed to hear their screams, is a human impossibility and—so one hopes—a divine one as well.” Whatever the truth in his statement about finding redemption, the suffering of infants is by no means a peculiarity of Auschwitz. In fact, twice in Scripture the systematic mass murder of infants is described. Horrible, tragic, inexcusable, but unfortunately not distinct.

Could it be the attempted extermination of an entire people? The sufferers of various other genocides and racial oppressions are excluded if this is the case. The twentieth century was one plagued with racial, ethnic, and ideological genocides. Some still rage on. Genocides occurred in Asia, Africa, and the Balkans (to name only the few that spring immediately to mind). Meanwhile, the world has regularly seen programmatic racial oppressions which, while not so costly in human life as the death camps, were more prolonged and no less burdensome for those involved. The slave trade from Africa which spanned not years (as did Auschwitz) but centuries saw the torture, exploitation, and incalculable death of Africans. Surely targeting a single group of people for extermination or oppression is neither new nor peculiarly evil.

Could it be the means employed? Certainly we do not believe that the death camps were any less humane than the (often exaggerated) means of the Inquisition. Could it be the apathy of the German people or the world? Human apathy is by no means a new phenomenon, and it has certainly not passed away in the wake of the Holocaust. In spite of the aforementioned culturally appropriate expression of disdain, the horror of the Holocaust does not reach any of us on the kind of level that philosophers and theologians suggest it ought to. Could it be…anything at all? Is there any way to quantify why the Holocaust is radically epoch-making?

My question runs deeper than that. Even if some analytical grounds were presented to me that explained why the Holocaust was somehow radically worse than all expressions of evil previous (and I anticipate that the answer for many would be that no single feature is distinct but the coincidence of all of the above make it peculiarly evil) that would not prove the case for me. Any solution to the question I have posed is inevitably an answer of degree. More people died. People who died were more innocent. The system was more programmatic, more racially motivated. And so on. The reality is, however, that even if Auschwitz represents a new degree of evil it is nevertheless the same old evil out of which man has always made an art form. The annihilation of human life without just cause, without regard for the humaneness of the means, without thought of the character of the victim, and without moral outrage from onlookers.

So I ask again, what justifies this matter-of-fact statement from Mandolfo: “Auschwitz has finally forced theologians and biblical scholars to at least consider that no promised redemption, no good, is worth the price of catastrophic suffering.” If such a conclusion must considered, it must be considered regardless of Auschwitz (and was over the course of the history of thought on the problem of evil). With the possible exception of a shift out of the modernist belief in a progressing society and an imminent utopia, I can see no reason for making the Holocaust a necessarily decisive event in the history of theodicy. The suggestion that all pre-Holocaust theodicy is somehow made obsolete now (as Neiman proposes) requires at the very least serious scrutiny if not outright rejection. It may overturn optimistic modernist theodicy but all theodicy seems to overstate it.

I leave the above without a conclusion on my part, because I certainly do not have the answer, only the suggestion that the assertion of the authors I am tasked to read is by no means self-evident. Instead, I close with a particularly unformed question which has occurred to me: in making Auschwitz an epochal events for the modern world, one that forces us to question God and the traditional theology/theodicy of the church, do we make an idol out of human evil?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Evening with Father Christy: Putting the "Holy" Back Into "Holiday"

Having briefly detoured onto Douglas John Hall, I return for my third and final comment on that evening spent listening with Fr. Christy. The tone of these final reflections will be markedly different from those previous, because frustrating as Fr. Christy’s lecture was he was nevertheless Orthodox and thus inevitably had something to offer me, an explanation which challenged my Western conceptions of religion by its very foreignness. The particular topic is the church’s celebration of holy days.

I come from a tradition which represents the ultimate extreme of the Reformations rejection of all external form and ostentation of the Roman Catholic tradition. If it stank of papism, high church, or tradition the Restoration churches ran from it as from the plague. Since the celebration of any holidays is never prescribed for Christians in the New Testament, the celebration of them is unnecessary. What is both unnecessary and still required of some many “denominational” Christians must be evil. Thus, not only do Restoration churches not celebrate minor holy seasons like Lent, Advent, Pentecost, the Ascension, the Annunciation, and other insignificant events in the life of Christ, but they have even wholeheartedly rejected any religious celebration of Easter and Christmas. You will often find in Churches of Christ both Christmas trees and Santa themed parties but very rarely a nativity. I have attended more church sponsored Easter egg hunts in my life than I have services in celebration of the resurrection. At most, the preacher will structure his sermon to match the basic themes of nativity or passion, but this is a courtesy afforded even to non-religious holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and (most despicably of all, in my opinion) Independence Day.

I have been more or less complacent with the status quo for a long time now. I refuse to attend church anywhere during the week of Christmas or Independence Day (which, sadly, falls on a Sunday this year), and I make a point of attending Easter and Lenten services at churches not associated with the Churches of Christ. Beyond that, I have adopted a ‘no harm, no foul’ attitude about holy days. I wish I celebrated them more – I even tried to mimic traditional Orthodox practices at the latest feast of Transfiguration – but I see (or at least I saw) no pressing need to introduce them to them into my life or into the life of the church. Two events conspired to change that.

This last Easter was of particular importance to me. The combined observance of Lent and Easter in both the East and the West had a substantial spiritual impact on me, focusing my thoughts on the unity of the church total and the profundity of its Easter message. My various Lenten observances further prompted me to redefine and deepen my spiritual and intellectual identity. In the midst of this spiritual revivification, my professor related to us an encounter he had with an elder in his church. The man approached him, quite sincerely, complaining, “I don’t understand why the denominations insist on celebrating the resurrection on Easter. It isn’t as though we actually know what day Christ was raised.” My professor was rightly appalled and explained as best he could that we could quite easily pinpoint to the day when Christ died. Easter, he lamented, no longer fell precisely on that day because of various ecclesiastical adjustments to the calendar, but (unlike with Christmas) the date of Easter is not entirely arbitrary.

Which lead me to my first realization about holy days. The celebration of holy days serves a didactic function in the church. A person who truly understood the chronological significance of Jesus’ death, coinciding as it was with the Passover and the remembrance of God’s salvation of His people through their obedience and sacrifice, could never have made such an obvious blunder about the date of Easter. The incident my professor related is representative of a profound ignorance which pervades the church about the particulars of the life of Christ. (I am not speaking here merely of the Restoration churches, but more broadly of low church Protestant denominations and Evangelical groups that have largely abandoned any sort of serious yearly study of the Scriptures.) The focus has shifted so thoroughly onto contextualizing the Gospel that simply knowing the Gospels has been lost in the shuffle. We have lost a real sense of the life of Christ as it progressed historically, in time. It is not merely a parable that is meant to be mined for culturally relevant paranaesis; it is the life of a real man, temporal as we are, who lived day to day and who died on a particular day. Having snapshot-ed and dissected Jesus for our purposes, we have abandoned both the conception of him as a real man who, like us, experienced life sequentially with particular events representing major historical moments in time (a concept that ought to dominate our Christology and which enlivens our understanding of the mystery of Incarnation) and the knowledge of the particular facts about that life. Such a loss of knowledge has more tragic, though more furtive, consequences than academic blunders like the ones my professor related.

The second event which awakened me to the value if not the necessity of Christian holidays was Fr. Christy’s lecture. Commenting on the upcoming (now past) observation of the Ascension, Fr. Christy drew out the analogy of the Church as bride in a potent apology for the celebration of holy days for the Orthodox and a trenchant criticism of the abandoning of holy days in many Protestant denominations. If the Church truly is the bride of Christ and Christ our bridegroom, then our relationship to Jesus and his life ought to reflect that relationship on every level, according to Fr. Christy. It is typical, expected, and perhaps even required (though I realize that personally I present a rather glaring exception) that spouses should commemorate the significant life events in each other’s past: birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s days, etc. Even loved ones who have passed will still have not only those aforementioned days remembered, but also the day of their death. We commemorate – through both joyous celebration and solemn remembrance – the momentous occasions in the lives of the people we love. How is it not appropriate then that the Church, as the bride of Christ, should not want to make a celebration or memorial of every significant event in the life of Jesus which we have recorded.

Here is illustrated the existential function of holy days in the life of the church. Fr. Christy painted a beautiful picture of a church that did not merely study the life of Christ (something which, as already mentioned, is itself abandoned in many churches) but lives the life of Christ with him every year. When the savior is born the church celebrates that birth. The whole body walks with him as he travels through Judea teaching, preaching, and healing. They ascend with those select disciples onto the Transfiguration Mount and behold with wonder the manifestation of Moses and Elijah. They taste the mix of triumph and anxiety as they enter to Jerusalem for the last time with the Lord. The church, who cherishes Christ as more than a deliverer but as a lover and a spouse, truly weeps as he is tortured and executed. They wait with eager anticipation for the promise of resurrection and exult at its arrival. They watch Jesus ascend on the clouds and confess the promise that he will again return on them. When her own birthday, Pentecost, comes, the church rejoices in her own rebirth. The observation of these holy days is more than merely an intellectual exercise intended to remind us that Christ lived a real life; it is a corporate reliving of that life. How spiritually impoverished are we who have lost sight of that?

I will be the first to admit that reality is not nearly as picturesque as Fr. Christy has painted it, and the actual experience of innumerable Christians who either do not understand or do not care about this existential function testifies to the flaw in any system. Nevertheless, it is a great travesty that rather than trying to purify the experience and educate the participants that we have merely condemned the practice altogether. We forfeit not only the knowledge which, to borrow from the language Gregory Palamas, comes from intellection but also the knowledge of the heart which comes through our direct experience of God. If the church really is the body of Christ on earth, then perhaps it is time it started living out the life of Christ more fully. This is an emphasis which is by no means ignored in the modern, Evangelical rhetoric, but it has been restricted to missiological and charitable applications. I submit that a church that is not experiencing the personal life of Christ, the human life shaped as it was by the momentous events of its story, cannot properly, truly, authentically express the outworking of that life for the lost and the poor. Before we can be Christ to the world, we must know what it is to be Christ. Superficial as it may sound, the observance of holidays is a substantial means to that end.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hall and History (or) History as Propaganda Pt. 2

Reading God & Human Suffering, I found it strange how fervently Douglas John Hall could reject historical optimism (the belief that history is progressing inevitably towards the ultimate good) and at the same time how certain he was in his own superior position in history to judge the barbaric Christians who floundered in the mythical “Dark Ages.” On more than one occasion, Hall spoke of our present “post-Constantinian” Christianity with palpable smugness, embracing the double myth that Constantine somehow radically perverted the church and that we stand somehow purified of that alteration. (Frankly, it is only the thoroughly post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment Christian, confused about the significance of those paradigmatic shifts, that can pretend to be in any sense post-Constantinian.)

Hall falls frequently into the error of nostalgia, picturing an original church that is eerily similar to his own conception of Christianity, and as a result of this error tends to paint the era of Constantinian Christianity as a time when all the ills which plague the Christian mind were born and embedded deeply in the Christian consciousness. As with most in the West, particularly Protestants, he marks the beginning of the rebirth of an authentic Christian worldview with the rise of Scholasticism (particularly the writings of Anselm, in Hall’s case). Setting this presupposition aside – at great personal pain – I would like primarily to address myself to three descriptions which Hall offers of Constantinian Christianity which are as crudely mistaken as they are obviously self-serving.

Ascetics: Perverted Sufferers

Hall first takes aim at forms of monasticism which embrace as part of their rule varying degrees of ascesis. Groups such as these (and monks are by no means the only ones guilty here) have made a religion of suffering. Sufferings have “become interesting in themselves…become ends (or almost ends in themselves.” “…suffering is turned into a law, a principle, a soteriological technique…” Hall rejects this misappropriation of the human suffering intrinsic to nature. Suffering which is good, according to Hall, is that suffering which is productive of life, and “the line must be drawn at the point where suffering ceases to serve life.”

It is strange to see monks brought up in this context, as they would most heartily agree with everything that Hall has said (with the obvious exception of their inclusion among those who are being rebuked). Ascesis is not suffering for the sake of suffering nor is it suffering as a means of salvation. The voluntary sufferings undertaken by monks are not purely for the sake of suffering, a benefit unto itself, and certainly no Christian ascetic would suggest that suffering is productive of salvation. Instead, the ascetics suffer in the service of life. They mortified their flesh in an effort to mortify the sins of the flesh, and they destroyed sin in order to progress in life (that is true, abundant life). The purifying power of suffering is by no means a foreign concept to the “pre-Constantinian” church. It is, after all, a prominent theme in both 1 Peter and James.

Hall’s fails both to understand the nature of the church before Constantine and to truly grasp the change which occurred with the advent of imperial Christianity. Suffering as a way of life is engrained in the early church, something which even Hall stresses, and the life of the Christian was lived in the constant fear of persecution (either current or inevitable). With Constantine this all changed, and the average Christian no longer needed to live in fear. The role of suffering in the identity of the church began to be more or less nominal (not unlike many new Christians). The monks were pursuing precisely what Hall is suggesting is necessary for Christians, participation in the suffering of the world in imitation of Christ in an effort to sponsor life.

Imperial Christianity: Apotheosis of Power

In criticizing the monks of Constantinian Christianity, Hall missed perhaps his clearest opportunity to level a pertinent criticism against the role of Constantine in altering the church. When he does decide to target imperial Christianity directly, his criticism falls well off the mark. For Hall, the pre-Constantinian church conceived of God with love as His central attribute. (Am I the only one impressed by how near that is to the position of Christians in the latter half of the 20th century when Hall’s book was written?) Only with the ascent of the Christian emperor to power and his subsequent corruption of the church did Christianity begin to deliberately stress God in terms of power motifs:

To make the faith amenable to the imperial mentality and at the same time a fitting symbol for and reflection of imperial splendor itself, the church through the ages has permitted its message to be filtered through the sieve of worldly power and glory.

Again, the distorted picture of early Christianity Hall presents cannot survive even the test of the biblical witness much less the whole corpus of ante-Nicene literature. In the Old Testament, the Divine-Warrior motif stresses God’s power in explicitly “worldly” terminology: “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured...Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one and His name the only one.” (Zech 14:2a,3,9) This sort of imperial imagery for God is by no means isolated. “Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.” (Rev 4:1-4) If the imperial Christians were looking for royal images of God, they had them in abundance.

In fact, it is more Hall’s tradition of imagining Jesus as the one on the cross rather than the exalted king that makes him so opposed to power motifs. It has been noted countless times that if you walk into any given church in the West, regardless of denomination, you are infinitely more likely to be greeted by the image of the cross than the image of Christ pantokrator (as you typically would be in an Eastern church). When we are talking about whether or not God is the suffering savior on the cross or the exalted lord of heaven and earth, the West is hardly at risk of over-emphasizing the latter. We have an almost morbid obsession with the broken Jesus hanging on the cross, so much so that we forget that he is no longer hanging there. In the Western imagination Christ is perpetually crucified for our sins (an image which is lamentably in use at youth rallies across the nation every year), and idea which would be repugnant undoubtedly to the early church, before and after Constantine.

The Trinity: Arbitrary Dogma

The above are almost trivial objections to Hall’s conception of history compared to this final point. In his discussion of the value of the Trinity, Hall treats the dogma as in some respects useful but quaint and at other times as positively cumbersome. Hall imagines that after Constantine the doctrine of the Trinity became “interesting in itself” and was therefore “misconstrued.” Hall does not restrict his accusation of arbitrary speculation to the Trinity alone, but extends it to the Christological discussions of the era of the councils. “It is unfortunate that the doctrine of the incarnation of the divine Logos was so soon and so successfully coopted by non-Hebraic assumptions and priorities. Under the impact of a religious and philophical worldview which distrusted matter and sought redemption in the realm of pure and disembodied spirit, the concept of the indwelling of the “mind and heart of God” (Logos) in historical existence was uprooted from its essentially Hebraic matrix and, in the decisive early centuries of doctrinal evolution, encumbered with the heavy, heavenly language of metaphysics and abstract mysticism.”

Could anything be farther from the truth? The assumption that the Father platonized Christianity has been repeated so often and challenged so rarely that it has entered into the modern mindset with the status of infallible dogma. Yet, any honest reading of the doctrinal controversies surrounding the Trinity or the Incarnation see must necessarily reject an escapist soteriology (like the actually platonic Gnostics) or a theology of the disembodied spirit. Hall, and so many others, seems to have confused the adoption of philosophical terminology with the adoption of philosophical presuppositions. But what language did we expect them to adopt? The theology which the nurtured (because we are talking about growth and not innovation) had to be articulated in the language of the intellectual culture of the time. The fact that the terminology was also being used by Plotinus can, in the words of Lossky, “delude only those unimaginative and pedestrian souls who are incapable of rising above rational concepts: those who ransack the thought of the Fathers for traces of ‘Platonism’ and Aristotelianism.’”

More importantly, the concepts of Trinity and Incarnation never became interesting in themselves, they were never pursued out of intellectual curiosity, that is at least not until the post-Enlightenment West took hold of them. These early church debates - productive as they were of unrest, schism, exile, popular uprising, and no small number of martyrs – were not merely the intellectual disagreements of the speculative elite. They sat at the very heart of Christian spirituality, and almost always related very directly both to the question of how we are saved and how we relate ourselves to the God who saved. The affirmation of Jesus’ divinity which gives us that “mystifying terminology” of homoousios was tied directly with his ability of God to save us. If the Son was not coequal with the Father than how was he empowered to save us, and why do we sing hymns to him as God? The centuries of debate about in what sense the Son took on flesh were not particularly heated PBS debates about the compatibility of divinity and humanity. They were struggles to understand how God could truly redeem humanity by taking on human nature, in what sense a God could die, and in what sense the taking on of flesh saves us. They were questions so central to Christian faith that people were willing to die a hundred times over in pursuit and defense of the truth. How Hall paints it, Maximus the Confessor was merely so belligerent so attached to his philosophically cumbersome conception of a Savior with two wills that he would rather have his hand cut off, tongue cut out, and die in exile than be wrong. And how many times did Athanasius go into exile, merely to escape the embarrassment of admitting that he may have been wrong? What arrogant, unreasonable men these Church Fathers were!

If I have learned something recently from Douglas John Hall and Fr. Paul Christy, it is that history is a dangerous tool in the right hands. On the one hand, we may use it to paint to pretty a picture of reality. We can imagine a world where history at every turn validates the institutions which we believe produced it. Just as self-serving, however, we may use history to construct for ourselves a strawman against which to react. We can focus on the seediest most despicable moments of any traditions past – or merely reinterpret neutral events…or for that matter fabricate events completely – in an effort to validate our rejection of them. History will almost always be able to serve the ends to which it is utilized as a means. That is not to suggest, I will quick to point out, that history is entirely subjective. Only that it is malleable by virtue of our incomplete knowledge of it. The fuller one’s understanding of the past, the more cautiously it will be marshaled to that person’s defense.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Suffering" as Becoming

Douglas John Hall, in God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross, introduces the idea that God has created with some suffering (though by no means all suffering) built in to the system. He defines this intended suffering broadly with the phrase "suffering as becoming." He suggests that God did not create creatures complete but with the capacity for growth and the ability to change, and with growth and change inevitably comes suffering in some sense. He gives this broad category four specific manifestations which he believes are witnessed in the various creation accounts of the Old Testament: loneliness, the experience of limits, temptation, and anxiety.

I confess that I was quite taken with this proposition at first. At first glance, I could see all those features in the creation story and was more than willing to relegate some suffering to the necessity of the created order (probably out of some naive hope that it would lessen the total burden of the problem of suffering). With a little prodding (particularly from one NihilNominis, to whom I am grateful), however, I came to realize that Hall's proposal did not stand up to scrutiny.

Certainly his position would be defensible if he were to retreat into the bastion of semantic particularity. If he defined suffering in such a way that it stripped it of any reference to pain as such, if he made it in some sense synonymous with imperfection, his case would be not only provable but self-evident. He could argue quite convincingly that humanity is something less than God and something less than the fullness of its own potential, and he could label the pursuit of those two features of creation "suffering," thus proving that suffering is intrinsic to creation. This would seem to be the route suggested when he writes "we may say that suffering belongs to the order of creation insofar as struggle is necessary to the human glory that is God's intention for us."

He oversteps when he suggests that life was never intended to be "painfree." By attaching not only the negative connotation of "suffering" to the "struggle" of becoming but the more definite experience of pain to that struggle, Hall reveals the great flaw in his argument. I propose that Hall has merely reframed the process of becoming which is intrinsic to creation and which is, according to its intention, positive in negative language in order to support his claim that "life without any kind of suffering would be no life at all; it would be a form of death.

When God creates Adam in Genesis 2, it is readily apparent to the Creator that something is amiss. The man is alone, and immediately we have in creation loneliness. (Hall positively refuses to refer to Adam as "man," preferring to neuter him by calling him the "earth creature," raising the question of how this poor gender neutral beast will ever populate the earth with Eve...but that quibble is for another time.) I will set aside the fact that creation is not yet completed in this scene (leaving one to wonder what could be deduced about what is and isn't intrinsic to creation if we stopped on day three and examined the state of things) and address myself to the larger question of whether or not the experience of a need for relationship constitutes suffering. That is, in fact, what Hall is identifying here, that need for relationship which causes it to be "not good" for man to be alone and is the necessary precursor for his joy in finding companionship in Eve.

But is the need for companionship really pain? Certainly it can be productive of pain. Anyone not living a truly privileged life has experienced the pain of isolation, even when companionship of various kinds is available. In these situations, however, it is the isolation that is productive of pain not merely the desire for relationship. In the same sense that the desire for food only becomes painful when food is unnaturally withheld, the natural desire for relationship which is built into the human creature only produces pain when we are left in contranatural isolation from God and from humanity. As God created the world, that need exists but it is constantly fulfilled both with the community of people and, more profoundly, communion with God. Those communions are by no means perfect, and particularly with regard to God the growth in communion is eternal and never complete. Nevertheless, the fact that communion exists makes that need for relationship a joyful reality, a drive toward greater bliss. By calling the need for communion loneliness and ascribing pain to it, Hall presupposes the corruption of sin.

Common to the lot of all humanity is the experience of limits. Hall writes, "we are not big enough, or strong enough or wise enough, old enough or young enough, agile enough, versatile enough." We cannot merely will ourselves to sprout wings and fly. While this last fantastical analogy is rarely productive of suffering in anyone but small children, the general concept nevertheless holds. No small amount of suffering comes from the "frustration" (to borrow from Hall) of not being able to transcend our limits. Yet again the real source of this frustration manifests itself on closer examination. It is not merely the existence of those limits or our knowledge of them that is productive of pain, but our will to transcend them. The inability to sprout wings and fly doesn't bother adults precisely because most of them have shred their childish wish that they might be able to truly soar as the birds do. Other irrational lusts for transcendence replace these childish notions, however, in the form of women who cling desperately to their youth or men thirst for power which is always just one step beyond them. It is the lust for transcendence that is productive of suffering (defined traditionally) not merely the existence of limits. The question then remains, and I should hope that its answer is obvious, is the lust to transcend the limits of our abilities part of what God has ordained for creation?

Not merely the presence of a forbidden tree (the existence of which would be enough to drive so many modern persons to transgression) but also of a tempter who we must confess is one of God's creations in some sense represent the reality of temptation in Eden. Certainly here Hall is at his strongest. It is hard for anyone who has experienced temptation to suggest that it is anything but a cruel form of suffering. The more we try to resist the pull to do what we know we ought not to do, the more excruciating the experience becomes. It would almost seem pleasurable to given in (and certainly that is the reason we always do) if not for that gnawing fact that suffering, in the truest sense, always follows transgression.

Still, I believe that upon closer examination we will see that it is not the mere presence of temptation which produces suffering but our own arrogance in the form of rebellion against God which makes it so. At its most basic level, the temptation in the garden is merely the presentation of contrary choice. Humans have the ability to decide between right and wrong. Certainly the capacity to decide is not itself suffering. What causes the suffering associated with temptation is not the ability to choose but the two wills which war within us. There is the will of God which steers us ultimately toward glory and our own shortsighted will which struggles to understand the difference between immediate gratification and ultimate glorification. It is our refusal to subordinate our will to the will of God which is productive of suffering, not merely the capacity to choose or even the presence of a tempter who would entice us to choose. Hall references Jesus' temptation as a parallel to that in the garden, but I think that the Temptation provides just the picture of painless temptation that validates my point. In submitting his own will to that of the Father, Jesus not only doesn't suffer at the hands of the tempter, he causes the tempter to suffer in humiliating defeat three times over.

Having understood temptation, Hall's final category, anxiety, is much simpler. In fact, I wonder if it should even be considered at all, as I struggle to see its presence related explicitly in the Genesis story. Nevertheless, Hall speaks of the anxiety of dependency as a form of integrative suffering inherent in the world. Certainly humanity is dependent on God not only for basic things like existence and the sustaining of that existence but also for more abstract gifts like direction and access to truth. The feeling of dependency and the absence of direct contact with the Object on which we are dependent certainly produces not only anxiety but pain.

There are two ways, however, that viewing this anxiety of dependency like this is flawed. First, it anachronistically reads the present lack of connection with God into the Eden narrative. There is a sense in which humanity will always be ontologically apart from God, but the original couple still experienced their dependency on God in more direct, more concrete terms than we do. The radical separation presently experienced is undoubtedly less the intention of the Creator and more the perversion of the creature. Second, the pain produced by the anxiety of dependency is rooted not merely in being dependent but in lacking faith in that on which we depend. If we truly trusted fully in the Provider and Sustainer of life, then there would be no anxiety in our dependency. Suggesting that the suffering associated with our ultimate insufficiency is built into creation is tantamount to saying that mistrust of God was ordained by God. That can hardly be the case.

In the end, it appears that Hall, rather than establishing the presence of suffering in the blueprint of creation, has reframed positive aspects of reality in negative terms which in their very expression presupposes the presence of sin. Isolation, mistrust, rebellion, and arrogance are all productive of suffering, truly painful suffering. These are the qualities that Hall actually identifies. The positive notions he has redefined - the desire for communion, the experience of dependence, the knowledge of limits, and the capacity for choice - are not only not productive of suffering but in fact represent some of the greatest joy-producing gifts which God has bestowed on creation. Certainly when corrupted by improper choice and compounded by the isolation which results from sin, all of the above transform into contranatural sources of pain, but to suggest that God has embedded the contranatural in the natural is a contradiction in terms. Ultimately, I am forced to reject Hall's suggestion that any form of suffering was intended in creation.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Evening with Father Christy: The Greek (?) Orthodox Church

In this second installment of my reflections on Fr. Paul Christy’s lecture, I’d like to depart from the questions of church history which dominated his talk and address a peripheral issue. The Father addressed on a number of occasions the text of Scripture, commenting that when one goes back to the original Greek and translates it without agenda, the validity of Orthodox claims become self-evident. (I will not, for the sake of space and tact, address at length the claim that the Orthodox translate from the original text. Let it suffice to say that it is arguable whether the Byzantine recension on which the Orthodox translation is based is in fact more “original” than the much older Alexandrian recension on which the agenda-driven Protestant translations are based. As for the question of whether or not the Orthodox translation lacks agenda, I hope the answer to that will come in due course.) On two particular instances I would like to call his translation into question.

The Particularizing Function of the Article

It is Fr. Christy’s belief that the church in Acts is “liturgical, hierarchical, and sacramental.” To substantiate the first of these claims (the only one I truly object to), Fr. Christy directed us to Acts 2:42, which a Protestant (myself in this case) might translate: “but they continued steadfastly in the apostolic teaching and in fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer.” Fr. Christy objects that this is a misrepresentation of the text, which actually says, “the prayers.” The reference to “the prayers” is understood by Fr. Christy to be a reference to the liturgical prayers of the early church. There is, however, a flaw in his unbiased translation, viz. the confusion of the English definite article with the Greek article. The article in Greek does not have an exclusively particularizing function in the way that Fr. Christy would require in order to definitely demonstrate that the reference here is to a particular set of prayers.

To demonstrate this, I turn to trusty Daniel B. Wallace and his Greek Grammar:
The function of the article is not primarily to make something definite that would otherwise be indefinite. It does not primarily “definitize.” There are at least ten ways in which a noun in Greek can be definite without the article. For example, proper names are definite even without the article. Yet, proper names sometimes take the article. Hence, when the article is used with them it must be for some other purpose. Further, its use with other than nouns is not to make something definite that would otherwise be indefinite, but to nominalize something that would otherwise not be considered as a concept. To argue that the article functions primarily to make something definite is to omit the “phenomenological fallacy” - viz., that of making ontological statements based on truncated evidence. No one questions that the article is used frequently to definitize, but whether this captures the essential idea is another matter.

Wallace divides the function of the article into three concentric categories: definitize, identify, conceptualize. Whatever definitizes, also identifies, and whatever identifies also conceptualizes. The reverse is not true. While every article conceptualizes in some sense, not every article identifies. Every article that identifies does not therefore definitize. To suggest that the presence of the article with prayer in Acts 2 must indicate a liturgical understanding goes beyond merely particularizing what is likely not a reference to particular prayers but anachronistically reads the later tradition back on to the text. Would Fr. Christy really embrace the logical implications of his understanding of the article?

John 2:25 becomes an enigma if the articles are made particular. Instead of saying, “Thus, he did not need to have anyone testify concerning man for he knew what was in man” it would say, “Thus, he did not need to have anyone testify concerning the particular man for he knew what was in the particular man.” Who is this man, Fr. Christy?

Or Matt 18:17, where “Gentile” and “tax-collector” are understood as concepts or categories, Fr. Christy would have us read “He will be to you as the Gentile and the tax-collector,” but which one? Which Gentile and tax-collector should we treat him as?

Do we suppose that Eph 5:25 is directed at particular husbands about particular wives or a general exhortation for wives and husbands? The article is present before both cases.

More frightening, if the article particularizes and the abstracts by its absence, what are we to do with John 1:1 where Jesus is not the God but merely a god?

Superimposing a particularizing function on the Greek article is fundamentally bad Greek (which I thought was ironic given the context in which the error occurred). It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Acts 2 is reference particular prayers. It is within the semantic function of the article to particularize, but it is by no means ironclad evidence of an agenda that most scholars do not identify that article as particularizing. An equally valid case might be made that it is evidence of bias that the Orthodox choose to see the prayers are particular. Wallace, for his parts, identifies the multiple uses of the article in Acts 2:42 as representing the “familiarity” function of the article, where it is used to designate concepts which are familiar to the audience. The readers were familiar with the practices of teaching, fellowship, prayer, and breaking bread to which Luke was referring. For my part, I wonder if the article is not anaphoric, reaching back to Acts 1:14 to draw continuity between the prayers of the apostles and the church. Either way, Christy’s translation is by no means clear cut.

The Hebrew Liturgist

The second support for the liturgical nature of the early church was an appeal Heb 8:2, where the word leitourgos appears. According to Christy, the typical translation of this word as “minister” is a deliberate rewriting of the text. He all but suggested that another Greek word must be assumed if the translation of minister is to be valid. For Christy, apparently no translation will suffice, since he suggest instead the transliteration “liturgist.”

I confess that without Wallace’s help, I never would have been able to discuss the “phenomenological fallacy.” I can, however, recognize the etymological fallacy when I see it. The only thing more erroneous than assume the static function of the article is assuming the static definition of the word. That our present term “liturgy” comes from the Greek used in Heb 8:2 does not determine the definition of the term historically. It would be grossly anachronistic to look up the word “liturgy” in a modern dictionary or even “leitourgos” in a modern Greek dictionary and assume that the Koine term “leitourgos” can be defined in the same way.

BDAG (the standard biblical lexicon) defines leitourgeo (the verb) as “to serve public offices at one’s own cost,” or generally “to perform public duties.” Within the biblical context, the definition is “to perform a religious service; minister.” This understanding is validated by historical information in TDNT concerning the ancient usage of the term “leitourgos.” “In distinction from the fulfillment of financial tasks, especially in respect of taxation, leitourgeo is the direct discharge of specific services to the body politic.” This usage would eventually be extended to cover all public service. “From the technical and wider technical use there then develops a general and non-technical use in which the words simply denote rendering a service and the significance of the laeitos is lost.” TDNT catalogs the usage of the term in the LXX (which seems an appropriate area of investigation given that the recent translation of the Bible for the Orthodox is from the LXX rather than the MT). In the LXX, leitourgeo and related terms are applied specifically to cultic service but not exclusively to any function of that cultic service and not even exclusively to Jewish cult. The meaning is not even exclusively cultic, as in 2 Kings 13:18 where the term simply refers to a servant. In the New Testament the usage is scarce but nevertheless varied. The term is used to refer to worship in general (Acts 13:2) and even to refer specifically to the collection being taken up for Jerusalem (Rom 15:27; 2 Cor 9:12). “The use of leitourgein, leitourgia in the NT is connected partly with general popular use (Rom 15:27; 2 Cor 9:12; Phil 2:30), partly with the preceding OT cultus (Lk 1:23; Hb 9:21; 10:11), and partly with an isolated figurative use of LXX terminology to bring out the significance of Christ’s death (Heb) or to characterize either Paul’s missionary work with its readiness for martyrdom, or the Christian walk of the community (Phil 2:17). Movement towards a new Christian terminology is to be found only in the one verse Acts 13:2, where leitrougein is used for a fellowship of prayer, which hereby is indirectly described as a spiritualized priestly ministry.”

All that to say what could have been said merely by looking at Phil 2:25. There the phrase “minister to my need” is used. The word translated “minister” is “leitourgon.” I would like to ask Fr. Christy, or anyone who wants to anachronistically transliterate rather than translate these terms, to explain to me in what sense Epaphroditus is a “liturgist to [Paul’s] need” and exactly why Paul would need the Philippian church to send him a liturgist.

I feel confident in asserting that the term “leitourgos” in Heb 8:2 refers to one who performs a religious service on behalf of the church (much in the same way that Epaphroditus should be understood as one who performs a service on behalf of Paul).

I feel even more confident in rebuffing the accusation that Protestants translate with an agenda while the Orthodox have some kind of monopoly on the “original Greek.” Fr. Christy’s translation and transliteration efforts are sufficient to demonstrate that any and all translation is by its nature interpretation. His, by no means above reproach, are in fact more transparent than others. He doesn’t even make an effort to make the method of translation consistent. I will fall short here of suggesting that the Father was attempting to deliberately prey on what he assumed was an audience that knew no Greek. I will say that it is irresponsible (and certainly I am softening my language for the sake of diplomacy) to perpetrate bad Greek onto those who don’t know any better. To the layman, “this says leitourgos, which means ‘liturgist’” is a self-evident truth. Little do they know (though I hope Fr. Christy knows) that the appearance of self-validation is by no means a necessary mark of truth.

The point: if you’re going to be Greek, you ought to be more precise with your handling of the original text not obviously less so. Falling into such obvious linguistic blunders with your own language makes your apology based on cultural continuity with the early church seem farcical.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

An Evening with Father Christy: History as Propaganda

It will undoubtedly come as a surprise to anyone who knows me to discover that the Orthodox Church is the target, in any sense, of my criticisms here. Nevertheless, I attended an “informational meeting” tonight at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church which has compelled me to react here. Too much time reading adept apologetic theologians (e.g. Lossky) and intellectually honest historians (e.g. Meyendorff) – even my experiences with the kindly Fr. John Maxwell who was always patient and encouraging but most importantly humble – did not prepare me for the very frustrating experience of Fr. Paul Christy’s lecture. Whatever I say here and in future installments should be seen less as an assault on Orthodox beliefs and more as a corrective to the distortion of facts that inevitably occurs when I descend from my ivory tower to see the way information is being distributed on the popular level.

“This isn’t opinion folks; it’s history.”

One needn’t have a degree in history to realize that this statement is deeply flawed, and thus – since I do in fact have a degree in history – I was particularly appalled to find that it functioned more or less as a theme statement for everything that Fr. Christy had to say. The belief that history is somehow an objective reality which can be picked up, scrutinized, cataloged, and then utilized impartially is the same kind of nonsensical worldview that tripped up the reformers about the Bible. Even if everything the Father had said in his imaginative retelling of history had been factually accurate (and it wasn’t, but I’m not going to quibble over most of the little details), that does not therefore make it unbiased. There is no authoritative history, only more or less valid histories, histories which have greater or lesser factual probability. The moment the question of historical causality or continuity come into question the historian leaves the realm of concrete fact and necessarily embarks on speculation.

Early Church Math

Fr. Christy’s failure to grasp this not-so-subtle reality can be best expressed in this assertion of dubious value: “We don’t imitate the early church. We are the early church.” There is no doubt in my mind that the Orthodox Church has at its disposal a profound historical apology, if not the most valid historical apology. The above is not it. Reading that claim, I am left wondering in what sense the simple equation between the Orthodox Church and the early church (whatever precisely that means) is valid, and, having discovered its validity, how that equation is particular to the Orthodox.

Uniformity of Belief or Practice

Coming as I do from the Restorationist Movement, the most obvious way for a church to “be” the early church is through a uniformity of belief or practice. Certainly Fr. Christy beliefs in the substantial agreement between the biblical church and the present Orthodox Church in even the finest points of practice (e.g. liturgy, a question which will be dealt with at another time), but surely he would not suggest that a first century Christian could enter into the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church and feel totally at home. The church, particularly from the second through the fourth centuries, underwent substantial growth and change which makes any claim to uniformity with the earliest church at best a myth.

For example, the practice of infant baptism which is so thoroughly engrained in most Christian groups and no less so in the Orthodox Church was a subject not only of development and variation in the early church, but even of controversy. There is no need to rehash Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church to demonstrate that the practice of pedobaptism was by no means standard throughout most of the early church. Even as late as the fourth century, common practice was not only to baptize adults but to delay baptism as long as possible, a fact evidenced by the lives of no less than the saints Constantine and Gregory the Theologian. The Didache continues to speak of strictly adult baptism in the second century. Towards the end of that century we have in Irenaeus and (in the early third) Origen and Hippolytus as the first concrete references to infant baptism. Not coincidentally this is also when Tertullian rages against the practice of baptizing infants.

Another favorite of Restoration historians is the monepiscopate. The biblical text is wholly ambiguous about the nature of congregational authority. The Pastorals could easily correspond either to the Orthodox understanding of ecclesiology or the Stone-Campbell one. More importantly, the earliest historical evidence is contradictory. On the one hand, the tendency towards a monepiscopate is clearly present in the East early in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. On the other hand, 1 Clement would seem to indicate that Clement is part of a plurality of “elders.” Which ecclesiological structure is consistent with the earliest church?

There are other minor but no less obvious ways in which the beliefs and practices of the “early church” differ from that of the present church. The ecclesiological concept of autocephaly is by no means an early development. The liturgy said presently in the Orthodox Church is of fifth century origin. The presence of cathedrals is at the earliest a fourth century reality. Trinitarian formulations which form the backbone of Christian theology are fourth century and would undoubtedly be foreign if not repugnant to the likes of St. Justin Martyr or the multiplicity of subordinationists in the early church. The list of minor points of belief and practice could go on.

The point is not that Restorationists, chief among those who Fr. Christy might label “imitators,” have an authentic claim to being the early church by virtue of a uniformity of belief and practice. It is that no one does. Certainly the Orthodox Church doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) object to the fact that they are not the early church by virtue of homogeny any more than the Pentecostals. The Orthodox believe in the organic growth of the church. To quote the aforementioned Fr. Maxwell, who is himself alluding to St. Vincent: “Inspite of the claims of lack of change, we must admit that many changes occur within the history of the Orthodox. Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said, that the "Orthodox Church is ever changing to ever remain the same." Change is part of life and growth. It occurs in normal development. A baby becomes a child, becomes a young person, becomes an adult, and then becomes elderly.”

Genetic Association

If not uniformity of practice, than what? Fr. Christy appeals additionally to the genetic association of the Orthodox Church to the early church. He can, he assured us, produce for us the bishops roll which links the present Ecumenical Patriarch to the apostle Andrew. This certainly seems the more compelling proof to me, and one that, utilized properly, might function productively in an Orthodox historical apologetic. It is not, however, an ironclad defense for the simple equation of the early church with the present Orthodox Church.

The simplest objection would be to point out that this is by no means an exclusive claim of the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church has an equally valid claim, and in their eyes, a more valid claim based on the doctrine that apostolic authority flows out from Peter to whom the bishop of Rome’s scroll establishes lineage. Nor are these two peculiar in this respect. Perhaps underrated is the fact that Anglican bishops have an equal genetic relationship with the apostles. While Henry may have instigated the breach with Rome, he did not because of this appoint a brand new priesthood. The original clergy of the Anglican Church, those who appointed future clergy, were converted from the apostolic clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. Should they be so inclined, an Anglican bishop could trace his roots back to the apostles as well. The same is true for any “schismatic” sect which has a clerical system like that of the early medieval church.

What is more, there is no reason why the genetic association must be restricted to the clergy. The very basis for Reformation was the belief that the hierarchical church had abandoned its spiritual/intellectual genealogy. The effort was not to pioneer non-apostolic churches but to restore the spiritual apostolicity of a self-invalidating church. Even rejecting this position as valid, one cannot thereby reject all genetic relationship of modern Protestants to the apostles. The ELCA is genetically related to the Lutheran Church at large (something that can hardly be denied), and Lutherans are genetically related to the Catholic Church which is of apostolic descent. Or, more dramatically, the one cup Churches of Christ are genetically related to the Churches of Christ which are genetically related to the Stone-Campbell movement at large which is genetically related to the Presbyterian Church which is genetically related to the Reformed Movement which is genetically related to the Catholic Church which is of apostolic descent.

That convoluted presentation of apostolicity in the one cup churches is perhaps enough to prove Fr. Christy’s point in some people’s minds, but it raises the question of the value of genetic relationship. Is the ELCA more apostolic than the one cup churches by virtue of a less complicated genetic relationship? If so, then the complexity of the relationship establishes legitimacy and the Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church, and more all have an identical and equal claim to genetic authenticity. If, however, mere genetic relationship is sufficient than all denominations presently in existence have an equally valid claim to apostolicity since no church arose in a void but always in response to and in order to authentically continue the apostolic tradition.

Perhaps there is some other meaning to the simple equation of which I am not aware, but, regardless, the above should suffice to demonstrate the dubious value of the assertion that the Orthodox are the early church. That claim can only have value if it can first be defined and then particularized to the Orthodox. Otherwise it functions less as an apology and more as a speculative exercise in the value of static religion and genetic relationships.

History: Puddy in the Hands of Master

Beyond the unsubstantiated (and fundamentally unsubstantiatable) claim that the Orthodox Church is the early Church, Fr. Christy throughout presented a highly stylized retelling of a history that is not nearly as neat as he would like it to be. I concede that perhaps some blame may fall on the constraints of time and medium. The presentation was relatively short and extemporaneous method denied opportunities for precision or even, I imagine, for much fact checking. Some of the blame, however, must be put on the constraints of purpose. In spite of claims to the contrary, the presentation was obviously an apology for Orthodoxy tinged with notes of evangelism. There is nothing wrong with that (and I don’t think anyone was honestly expecting anything else), but to appropriate history to that end led Fr. Christy to oversimplify when it suited his purposes and, at some points, contort the facts to paint Orthodoxy in the best possible light.


The grossest oversimplification was his passing commentary on canon, which, of course, was the product of the church, not, as Protestants believe, the other way around. From the start, I should mention that I sympathize with that sentiment. The ignorant belief that the Bible was somehow handed down from God on a silver platter is perhaps the most detrimental fantasy that the mind of man has ever dreamed up. That does not, however, excuse presenting the development of canon as a coherent, deliberate event in the history of the church. The canon was a process that was undertaken by Christians as early as the first century. Certainly the canon was formalized in the fourth century, but Fr. Christy would have us believe that “there was no Bible until the fourth century.” I won’t rehash the entire history of canon here because I assume that most people who are reading this have some grasp of it. It should suffice to say that both the Gospel canon and the Pauline canon were both fixed and totally undisputed by the end of the second century, a fact evidenced by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and p46. The suggestion that the church decided in the fourth century that, according to Fr. Christy, “it needed more than just an oral history,” grossly misrepresents the situation of the earliest church. The church has from its earliest times been a church of the apostolic texts.

More or less trivially, the particular discussion of Revelation in the place of canon disturbed me. Fr. Christy described it as questionable, entering only by the skin of its teeth. Ironically, there was no questioning of the book of Revelation until the third century Dionyius of Alexandria questioned it on the grounds of its millennialism. These objections had weight in the East, but Revelation saw almost no dispute in the West. Suggesting that it be relegated to some lesser status in the canon ignores that the doubts about it arose late and that they arose only in the east.

Finally, with regard to canon, the statement was made, in the course of a dramatic reenactment, that the “church in council” decided which books were valid and which were not. I would prefer that this be how it happened. If the church had held an ecumenical council or even a very large council to determine canon, canon history would be much easier to define. The truth of the matter is, contrary to popular conceptions, there was not great council on canon. Certainly every Christian should reject the prevailing notion that canon was decided under the shadow of Constantine at Nicea. More importantly, our most critical statements in canon history come not from concilliar decrees but from particular Fathers. With Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Dionysius already mentioned, Athanasius (whose Festal Letter in 367 gave us the first perfect canon list for the New Testament) and Eusebius (who categorized the biblical literature under the headings “undisputed,” “disputed but accepted,” “disputed and spurious,” and “heretical”) deserve to be added. Certainly smaller synods were held regarding canon, the late fourth century Council of Carthage springs to mind, but the church total by no means decided in a council what books would and would not be in Scripture. By the time they got around to meeting in Carthage, the canon had substantially been set.


Fr. Christy’s greatest sin with canon was merely oversimplification. His discussion of schism bordered on revisionist. He talked at length about the unified church that existed until the eleventh century. He made no small point of discussing how, after the Catholic Church instigated schism that they then began fracturing themselves in a way totally foreign to church history. Fr. Christy’s view of the first millennium of Christendom is idyllic but false. I wonder how the 76 million Assyrian and Miaphysite (Oriental Orthodox) churches would feel having been completely written out of church history. Fr. Christy dogmatically ignored the schisms in 431 and 451, even passing out charts diagramming church history which also omitted those schisms. While it served his vision of a monolithic church well, it was fundamentally dishonest to present those substantial schisms as never occurring. In reality, the church was never monolithic. From the very moment that standardization began there has been constant and substantial schism. The Arian schism which persisted in the West long after its conclusion in the East in 381 hadn’t even healed before the Nestorian schism which persists to this day. Twenty years later, another even more substantial schism occurred which also persists into the present. The church was divided between iconoclasts and iconodules in the eighth century. The East and West ruptured repeatedly, over monothelitism in the seventh century, during the Photian schism in the eighth century before finally breaking of in the eleventh century. The church was not only not a monolithic unity through history, but schisms be they temporary or enduring (and she experienced both at every stage of her development) were the status quo of Christendom.

Even the Great Schism and its effects were distorted to fit Fr. Christy’s paradigm (in spite of almost comical reiteration that he had no agenda). Most glaringly was the inclusion of filioque in a list of five “innovations” that resulted from the Great Schism. Ironically, the handout that the Father gave us concerning the timeline of the church correctly dates the introduction of the filioque into the creed in 589, nearly five centuries before the Great Schism. I know that Fr. Christy knew the actual history of filioque, as he later answered questions regarding its meaning and origin, but that did not stop him from including it in a number of errors resulting from alienation from the concilliar church. Surely Fr. Christy realizes that the filioque cannot have been a development from the schism since it was an integral part of the Photian Schism 150 years prior to the final breach. (Of course, perhaps that schism is among the ones that do not accord with Fr. Christy’s monolithic picture of Christian history.)

I realize of course that my quibbles here may seem nitpicky to the point of tedium, but my purpose is not to correct every historical error (factual or hermeneutical) that I believe Fr. Christy made. It is also not my intention to belittle the practice of historical apology in general or of the apologetic high ground of the Orthodox Church in particular. My objection is to the misappropriation of history - both the concept and the data – for propaganda. Appeals to history are not appeals to fact against opinion. They are rhetorical reworkings of facts in order to elucidate the realities of the present. To suggest that we may juxtapose the objective nature of history to the totally subjective nature of personal opinion is to fundamentally ignore what the telling of history is. It is the speculative reconstruction of a narrative on the basis of historical data. In ignoring this, Fr. Christy misappropriates history conceptually. Perhaps the greater infraction is that his speculative reconstruction did not make exhaustive use of the data. Whatever data did not conform to a preexisting paradigm was either excluded (as in the case of the manifold schisms in the early church) or reworked (as in the discussion of canon) in order to meet an agenda that the Father swore he didn’t have.

The point: a good conclusion supported by a bad argument has no credibility. If we are to make an apology for the Eastern faith, and that is (most will know) a hobby of mine, let it be an intellectually honest one.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The God of the Square-Circle

Can God make a square-circle? The standard response is “Of course not,” since that would be a logical contradiction. Here is Ron Highfield’s response in his Restoration Quarterly Article “The Problem with the ‘Problem of Evil’”:

When we say “God cannot do a logical contradiction,” we are not placing limits on God; we are removing them…One can illustrate this principle by analyzing the statement “God cannot create a square-circle.” This statement does not limit God because the term “square-circle” refers to nothing at all, a “non-entity.” The term “square-circle” might as well be gibberish.

That seems logical, right? Yes it does, and that, I suggest, is precisely why it is wrong. Highfield’s argument is logical and a “square-circle” is in fact a logical contradiction, an idea we cannot even truly imagine with any concreteness. This proves, very definitively that beings which are bound by logic cannot create or even conceive of something quite so absurd as a square-circle. But in the formulation of that assertion lies the flaw in extrapolating it to God.

Highfield very bravely asserts that “logical contradictions do not limit God” without analyzing his presupposition that God must be logical, a presupposition which might be just as easily rephrased as “God is bound by logic.” In spite of openly rejecting anthropocentric conceptions of reality, Highfield falls prey to his own critique when he argues that God must be bound by logic since, to humanity, “square-circle might as well be gibberish.”

I can anticipate Highfield’s response to such a criticism by his connection of logic with the “nature of God.” If that is the case, then my protest is essentially vain. If God is in fact necessarily logical in His nature, then Highfield has the high ground. The real question then becomes now whether or not God can create a square-circle but whether or not God is logical by nature. I submit that He is not.

On a speculative level, the question of what logic is can serve to demonstrate this. Logic from a human standpoint is merely a descriptive practice of how the world as we experience it works. Words like “circle” and “square” are terms which we have created to describe observable phenomena, to conceptualize and categorize creation. From a religious standpoint, it may be argued that logic is our innate, God-given ability to interact with a creation which He has ordered to be understood by His creatures, but this falls dramatically short of asserting that God is by nature logical. It is sufficient to point out that God is benevolent to explain logic, because the definition of a creation without logic is one in which all rational beings are in a constant state of crippling confusion. Logic is a gift which permits functional interaction with reality. That God could not have created an illogical world is most properly explained by His Goodness and not because He is, in any sense, Logic.

But speculative arguments are, at the most, speculative. A look at the nature of God which is commonly embraced by Christians will be an even more potent proof that God is not logical by nature. Consider the paradoxical nature of almost all theology proper. For example, is the existence of an entity which is indivisibly one and equally three any less of a logical contradiction than a square-circle? Anyone who has endeavored to create a material analogy for the Trinity can testify that all which we experience, even in our minds, is unquestionably inadequate. The Trinity is no more an egg than it is three phases of water, and each of these analogies, pressed to its logical conclusion leads inevitably to the grossest heresy. Take as another obvious (or at least it should have been) example the Incarnation which presents logical contradictions on a number of levels. The most obvious is the mathematical absurdity of a savior who is 100% God and 100% man without mixture and without becoming thus 200% existent. Consider a God whose definition includes very absolutely the contention that He is uncircumscribable and is nevertheless totally circumscribed in a human, the infinite becomes finite, the immortal mortal, the eternal temporal, etc. The Incarnation is a tour de force of logical contradictions.

In the words of Vladimir Lossky: “These are not the rational notions which we formulate, the concepts with which our intellect constructs a positive science of the divine nature; they are rather images or ideas intended to guide us and to fit our faculties for the contemplation of that which transcends all understanding.” Continuing to take my cue from Lossky, the very truth of God’s suprarational character is the reason for the constant expression of dogma in the form of antinomy.

To make God logical by His nature does perhaps more than merely limit Him; it may limit Him in the most profound way possible. The suggestion that God conforms to logic, a human mode of conception, is to essentially assert that He is fully knowable. If God is logical, then He is comprehensible, and if He is comprehensible then He is circumscribable by the human mind. Even if this is accepted only in theory and never in pre-eschatological practice (as in many minds during the height of Scholasticism in the West), God has been debased in perhaps the grossest way possible. He has been made in some sense less than His creation, by suggesting that He can in any way be contained within it. If we do not fully know God it is a matter of circumstance and not of possibility. God is essentially containable, and therefore necessarily not infinite. Quite the opposite of what Highfield claims, the suggestion that God cannot make a “square-circle” actually has imbedded in it the most profound limitation on God that humanity can imagine: God is limited to our imagination of him, our ability to comprehend Him. (And if I may deliberately be alarmist, the distance is not so great between the assertion that God cannot exceed our imagination of Him and the belief that He is in fact the product of our imagination.)

In Highfield’s defense, I think the flaw in this case is more a product of the analogy chosen than the actual point He is arguing. He parallels the suggestion that God might make a square-circle to the suggestion that He might “lie, die, or be deceived.” Ignoring for a moment the most fundamental Christian belief that God did die, Highfield’s point seems to be that God cannot do that which limits. In other words, omnipotence precludes impotence. The more appropriate example that Highfield could have chosen is the old standard, “Can God make a rock so big that even He can’t move it.” Anselm answered this kind of question centuries ago (in one of the rare instance where I find myself closely aligned to Western Scholasticism). God making a rock so large he could not move it is not an act of power but of impotence. The suggestion that omnipotence requires that He can self-limit confuses omnipotence with the ability to do anything. They are certainly not the same, and on these grounds Anselm also rejects such impotent behaviors as lying or being deceived.

Those the two analogies (the square-circle and the rock) seem very similar, the questions they address are vastly different. The latter only address whether or not omnipotence, properly understood, precludes impotence. Certainly it does. The former, quite unrelated, treats whether or not God is bound by logic. There is no reason to assert that He is, and that assertion, in fact, may be the most profound limit which the human mind could conceive for God. In the final analysis, I must agree with Lossky that “the only rational notion which we can have of God will still be that of His incomprehensibility. Consequently, theology must be not so much a quest of positive notions about the divine being as an experience which surpasses all understanding.”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Aversion of the Modern Mind to Torture (and Other Such Myths)

Reading through Susan Nieman’s Evil in Modern Thought, I came upon this quote:

One can find Hegelian indications of progress in subsequent Western history itself. The abolition of slavery, which he didn’t live to see, and the demand for gender equality, which he didn’t even begin to imagine, can both be read as confirmation of Hegel’s claims about freedom…And the abolition of public torture represents progress not belied by all the horrors of twentieth-century history. Foucault claimed that modern substitutes for torture are subtler forms of domination. But the fact that we can barely stand to read descriptions of things we would have brought our children to watch a few centuries earlier marks an advance in human consciousness that seems hard to reverse.
I wonder what world it is she is living in. I will grant to her that capital punishment has become infinitely more “humane” (if such a thing as execution of another human being could ever be considered in any respect humane) and certainly is no longer a form of entertainment, but that by no means suggests that modern culture has lost its taste for truly perverse violence. The only thing that has really changed, the only “advance in human consciousness” is our ability to enjoy torture virtually and thus to alleviate (if only in our own minds) the guilt of that delight.

Exhibit A: The Saw franchise which has grossed over $730 million over six films, each of which has elevated torture to new heights of creative depravity. These films graphically depict – making full use of our great modern advances in cinema – forms of human cruelty which would be totally unthinkable to the minds of those “barbaric” people of a few centuries ago – mostly because they make full use of our great modern advances in cruelty. I imagine a greater number of children had both the permission and the leisure time to enjoy watching Cary Elwes saw off his leg or Shawnee Smith thrown into a pit full of syringes than any medieval child viewing the public torment of a criminal. Is there really any qualitative difference between the child brought to the torture and execution of a dissident and the child who pays to see innocent people graphically tortured and slaughtered by a lunatic? Perhaps there is, but I don’t know that I would rule in favor of the modern delight in malice quite as freely as Nieman does.

Exhibit B: I realize of course that for many people the knowledge that the violence is virtual is enough for many people to expiate themselves from the charge of perversion, even if that knowledge must be deliberately suspended in order to enjoy the films. So I offer as a second example the case of Nicholas Berg, the American civilian beheaded in Iraq in 2004. While many have suffered dearly at the hands of militants (on both sides) in the Middle East, Berg was unique, at least in 2004, in that the video of his beheading became an overnight sensation on the Internet. The very fact that it was real rather than virtual did not generate the kind of disgust that Nieman might suggest it should but instead fueled its meteoric rise to fame. It was my senior year of high school when it was released, and everyone, even my teachers, were discussing whether or not they should or had watched it. The measure of someone’s “coolness” was temporarily determined by whether or not the video had been watched (something not unlike the present 2girls1cup phenomenon, though that is a perversion for a different time). The video is even still available and linked rather openly from the Wikipedia article about his death. It would seem, if Berg is any indicator, that the only reason why a taste for public torture has been replaced by an insatiable thirst for virtual torture is become the former is less readily available. That may represent an advance in cultural norms, but it certainly doesn’t substantiate a belief in an advanced “human consciousness.”

Exhibit C: It is hard to choose only one video game from the almost infinite list of titles available. Should it be the games where people are made gods in control of civilizations with the sole goal of crushing other civilizations (e.g. StarCraft, Age of Empires)? Or perhaps games where the users is trained to kill personally (e.g. James Bond, Halo, Resident Evil, Call of Duty)? Certainly it is not my intention to enter into the debate of whether or not virtual training in violence leads to actual violent tendencies. My only interest is to demonstrate that our cultural aversion to violence in actuality has not been suppressed so much as transformed into a “guiltless” obsession with the macabre. You’ll never be so disturbed as you are when you realize that you are no longer disturbed to hear adolescent boys rejoicing over a perfectly lethal “headshot.”

I am, of course, drawn to that trustworthy saying, deserving as it is of full acceptance: of sinners, I am the worst. In fact, I am particularly guilty on all three accounts. I have watched all the Saw films, and many more, many that would still turn the stomachs of any reasonable person who might watch them. If you are not familiar with the various and perverse works of Takashi Miike, I don’t recommend that you become acquainted with them. Certainly I am a lover of violent video games, the present or one time owner of almost all the examples I listed and many more. What is worse, I even watched (perhaps more out of social necessity than actual pleasure) the Nicholas Berg video and other films of actual deaths. My point is by no means strictly to offer a critique for our continuing and pervasive love of violence. (Though one is sorely needed, I am in a better position to receive it than offer it.)

My purpose is to point out that we have by no means evolved from our more barbaric ancestors who were so gruesome as to be spectators at public torture. We not only embrace the concept of public torture, but we buy overpriced popcorn to enhance our enjoyment of it. We allow ourselves and our children to be transported into fantasy worlds of violence where they are allowed to act out the most heinous kinds of crimes, acts which we would never imagine them capable of in real life much less tolerate them. The monumental atrocities of the 20th century alluded to in the quote are not exceptions which cloud the rule of the evolved human consciousness. They are points of rupture where the deeply rooted, constantly nurtured desire for mayhem of the most sadistic kind bursts forth from a modern humanity which has, if anything, devolved.

History, if it can actually comment on it at all (and Nieman admits that it can’t really), categorically rejects Hegel’s optimistic view of human progress rather than confirm it. More important than Hegel, however, is the personal realization that you are by no means truly more evolved than your ancestors. We have all only developed news ways to cope with old guilt while still succumbing to our basest carnal desires. We satiate our lust for violence, adultery, power, and countless other vices virtually rather than actually, but we satiate them nevertheless. Even if the act is “virtual,” our subservience to the sin is no less actual than ever before. This, after all, is the critical issue both spiritually and in the evaluation of our ‘advanced human consciousness.’

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Problem of Evil: Solution or Apology?

I am taking a course this summer entitled “Providence and Suffering” which deals very generally with the problem of evil: how it has been approached historically, how it might be approached biblically, and in what way it should factor into modern religious thought. Undoubtedly, that means that questions about suffering, free will, sin, natural disaster, death, evil, and providence will all feature more prominently in my thought as a result. Yet, before I even seriously begin preparing for this course, something about the problem of evil strikes me relative to the witness of Scripture.

My sole encounter with the problem of evil up to this point has been its somewhat clumsy application by the occasional atheist who I have encountered. It is generally presented as some great and exhaustive formula by which the concept of an all power, all loving God may be rationally undermined. It is the novel product of rational thought, emancipated as it now is from the ignorance and tyranny characteristic of the fundamentally religious culture of the past. Inevitably, I accept the argument on these grounds as a peculiarly atheistic attempt to undermine God and respond, myself somewhat clumsily, with rather shallow arguments from free will as if the recognition that humanity is responsible for most evil somehow expiates God from any culpability in its existence.

I don’t propose to solve the problem of evil here – though of course I expect to be able to present an entirely novel and thoroughly incontrovertible solution by the time my course is complete. What struck me at the very outskirts of my study is the blind acceptance that the problem of evil is somehow a modern critique of God born of rational thought or atheist “enlightenment.” Certainly, in its modern formulation – (A) God is omnipotent, (B) God is omnibeneficient, (C) Evil exists, therefore either not A or not B – the problem has a decidedly scientific, atheistic tone. When, however, it is rephrased to get at the root of the existential concern – why do bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad people – the question becomes one as old as Scripture and undoubtedly older, one that Christianity has by no means shied away from engaging, though perhaps not explaining as we might like.

It is something of a cliché to mention Job in connection with the problem of suffering, but he certainly represents a clear engagement of the problem. Qoheleth, though less commonly mentioned, is an equally important witness to the way that even early on the Judeo-Christian faith has understood that the world is not the ideal place which perfectly accords with our expectations of or hopes for it. “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness” (Ecc. 7:15). The creation account and the flood account both try to understand why it is that death and toil and disaster enter the world, and the prophets are constantly explaining both natural and political calamity. Still, these only can justify why bad things happen to bad people, something which few if any would object to or even properly include in the problem of evil. What Job and Qoheleth lament is that bad things happen to good people.

The hope for a world which parallels our inherent sense of justice underlies Christian eschatology. Then the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Ultimate and providential justice are meted out fairly and without hint of corruption. The visions of Micah 4 and Revelation 21 where those who come to God are blessed and those who are distant from Him are destroyed sits well with some primordial expectation we have for sensibility in the world. Whatever the cause of inequity in this world which the faithful have always recognized as deeply flawed, there is always the hope, even the inviolable promise, of a sensible world where inequity is translated into perfect, universal, comprehensible justice.

I am certainly not encouraging metaphysical escapism, and I realize that Christian eschatology does not answer the problem of evil only promises that the problem will be corrected. My point is that the reality of inequity, the problem of evil, is not some great modern, atheist “gotcha;” it is not a philosophical trump card that should catch Christian’s by surprise or cause them some kind of new unease. It is a disquieting reality but one that is recognized as part of our theology which can be dealt with, ignored, or explained away but which should never shock us by its mere existence. That bad things happen to good people is the foundation for our eschatological hope, a great leveling where the room that we have left for God’s wrath is filled with His righteous, reasonable fury. We cannot be surprised when some giddy antitheist discovers the argument and seizes on it like a child with a piece of pyrite. We know that evil exists, in some sense and for some reason in spite of our all-power God of love. Whether or not we should even engage the problem depends largely on the person presenting it and their intention in doing so, but that the problem exists should neither surprise us nor subvert our faith. It has always been there.

In fact, I found particularly interesting the peculiar way that Scripture has us live out our hope for a perfect world in the reality of this imperfect one. It should not go without notice that while we affirm that a perfectly sensible world, ideally in accord with the will of the Maker, is one where bad things happen to bad people and good things to good ones, we are nevertheless never called to actualize such a world in the present. We are not told to dole out justice to the iniquitous nor reserve our praise for those truly virtuous. In fact the Christian, in an almost incomprehensible irony, is called to intensify the inequity of the world. On the one hand, Christians are told to accept willingly, joyfully, with almost reckless abandon suffering which comes on them in spite of and even because of their innocence (Matt 5:11-12; Jas 1:2-3; 1 Pet 2:19-24). On the other hand, they are commanded to treat the wickedest oppressors with the greatest munificence, praying for their enemies, blessing those who curse them, feeding those who hate them, and forgiving those who kill them (Matt 5:38-48; Acts 7:60; Rom 12:17-21; 1 Cor 4:12-13). It is almost as though God has commanded us to spit in the face of this warped, corrupted world. The recognition that we are powerless to truly redeem it (a power which lies inevitably with God, an event which we eagerly await) does not deliver us helplessly into apathy. It calls us to highlight, almost comically, the injustice of it. We proclaim our innocence but do not condemn those who make us suffer on account of it. We decry the wickedness of others but answer that wickedness with even more manifold blessings.

If the problem of evil is truly irresolvable, as I suspect it is, and Christianity does not have the answer to the problem, it at least offers a reaction which is infinitely better than fatalistic despair or self-deluded ethical nihilism. Christ - even if he has not imbued us with the comprehensive, inexhaustible knowledge of the Father - has taught us how to cope in a world which will always be, despite some foolishly optimistic claims of science, fundamentally incomprehensible to us as participators therein. In that way, Christians may offer an apology for the faith without presuming to offer any comprehensive answer to the problem.