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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Into the Now

2019 is nearly upon us and inevitably we become more conscious of the passage of time and with this, questions about time, being human and living a full life in our relationships with God and each other become more prominent.  

Three key questions arise: -
1. What is time and how is it measured?
2. Are there "special times"?
3. Is God "in time" or "outside time" or both?

Let us start with St Augustine and his relative ignorance - and ours!

And I confess to thee, O Lord, that I am still ignorant as to what time is. And again I confess to thee, O Lord, that I know that I am speaking all these things in time, and that I have already spoken of time a long time, and that "very long" is not long except when measured by the duration of time. How, then, do I know this, when I do not know what time is? Or, is it possible that I do not know how I can express what I do know? Alas for me! I do not even know the extent of my own ignorance. Behold, O my God, in thy presence I do not lie. As my heart is, so I speak. Thou shalt light my candle; thou, O Lord my God, wilt enlighten my darkness.” (Confessions Book 11; Chapter 25; Verse 32)

So, let us see how God has enlightened our ignorance with reference to the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the Liturgy of the Church.  Let us consider our three questions in order.

What is time and how is it measured?

That’s the big one!  Is it time simply as we experience it, so-called subjective time?  In part yes, but there’s a bit more involved here!  So we can start with two simple truths.
·        Time is experienced as a sequence of events both passively and actively.
·        The passage of time is heavily influenced by our mental state.  So, time passes more quickly when we are enjoying ourselves or as we get older and we get more used to the seasonal cycles of time. Time travels more slowly when we are bored or anxious about some event in the future, waiting for the results of a test or an exam for example.
So, how does God help us deal with subjective time?  When time passes quickly we need to slow the pace by being mindful of how we are, who we are and how the world is IN THE PRESENT MOMENT.  We only ever live in the ‘now’, but if we spend our ‘now’ moments straining forward towards an unknown future or backwards into the cage of the past then we shall not live fully with the Lord who comes to us in the NOW.  We shall miss Him if we fail to do that and we shall also miss both ourselves and each other.  We shall not be fully present in life and, therefore, not able to enjoy it.
To quote St Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:2:

"For He [God] says: ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

NOW is indeed the day of salvation.  The feasts of the Church and the Liturgy proclaims this with gusto.  We do not shout ‘Christ was born’ but rather ‘Christ IS born’; we do not raise the rafters with ‘Christ has risen’ but with ‘Christ IS risen.’  This is also reflected in the hymns of the feasts. 

Liturgical time and prayer time is always in the ‘now’ moment of God … presently realised in our lives today. This even applies to future events.  Christ, we know will come again, but in the Liturgy we not only yearn for that and anticipate that, we also give thanks for that as a transformative experience in our lives; in other words being in a continual state of readiness for the “Bridegroom that comes in the middle of the night.” (Troparion of Bridegroom Matins in Holy Week).  He comes of course to serve the Messianic Banquet of the Kingdom and in the Eucharist he continually comes with the Kingdom.  In that sense even our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer is His provision for our needs from the future and into the present moment. Meet God therefore and be saved in all the NOW’s of your life.

Following on from this: are there special times? 

Of course, on the human side of this question, of course, there are … falling in love, the birth of a child, a family celebration, an outstanding achievement in your life or in the timeline of humanity.  However, I am not really thinking about these times but rather a special aspect of time when God is involved in our lives. 
The key aspect of Christ’s work here on earth up to and including his death, resurrection and ascension was the kingdom of God breaking into the present from the future.  This is the special time of which the Scriptures and the Fathers bear witness, not simply linear measured time, chronological time, from the Greek word “chronos” – but time as the stage for a transforming encounter with the God who breaks into our spacetime making all things new.  St Paul talks of this when he refers to the Incarnation:

“ … when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman.” (Galatians 4:4). 

This “fullness of time” is kairos not chronos, God’s time, not our reckoning of time. 
The first words of Christ Himself as recorded in the gospel of St Mark after His baptism makes all this clear:

“Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'” (Mark 1:14-15)

Let us be clear then that the measurement of time for each one of us is not simply a matter of a clock, it is a question of quality of our lives in time, how we spend time, the decisions we make for time in the present, the redemption of times past and our trust of God into the future.  The most accurate of atomic clocks cannot deal with these issues of time!  These special times of God, renewing the spacetime of the Cosmos and our own lives when open to the Holy Spirit in the present moment are the most special times of all.

Finally let us finally consider our third question:

Is God "in time" or "outside time" or both?

The answer of course is both.  God in Himself is beyond time (as St Augustine knew, He created time along with space and everything in it) but also and for our sakes in the Incarnation he entered into time to redeem the world, past, present and future.  We do not pray, therefore, as orphans bereft of God.  In the Spirit we cry: “Abba, Father!” (Galatians 4:6).  The kingdom of God, God Himself that is, is always happens, closer than breathing, within us and between us, “Christ in us, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27b).

As the civil calendar then marks the advent of the New Year in a few days and as the Church calendar marks the advent of the New Liturgical Year on 1st September, let us remember as children of the resurrection that we have a much richer experience of life in time with God than those whose affairs are governed by the tyranny of the clock.  We, even in this world, move in eternity, in the Kingdom of God, in a richness of loving grace unsurpassed by anything human yet remaking our humanity radiant and complete.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Orthodoxy - God and Mammon - a Present Crisis

The Orthodox Church has a big problem with money ... and there are few signs that any lessons are being learned, errors corrected and abuses rooted out.

There are the big scandals many of us know about: the OCA from 2005 to 2008,  (
and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in 2017,

Usually these concern accountability and transparency issues in relation to alleged malpractice by senior church officials, but it would be a grave mistake to think that the problems about money in Orthodoxy are confined to "high places."  The seeds of this corruption, abuse and just plain financial mismanagement are sown in many parishes, day by day, week by week and year by year.  Here is a just a short list of outrageous and unsafe practices that many Orthodox have come to think of as normal.  I will then go on to identify causative factors and necessary solutions.

1)  Paying the clergy for "services rendered." 

Because many clergy (especially outside Orthodox countries) are not paid a living wage, they often have to resort, either to back breaking secular work which leaves them with precious little time for ministry and eventual burn out, or they have to augment meagre incomes with fees or charges (not donations) for "services rendered."  So, in some places (including I am reliably told, in Orthodox countries) a priest will not bless your house, offer memorial prayers at a grave or administer Holy Communion to a sick relative unless you pay them, and sometimes upfront, a fee!

There is a fine line, but an important one, to be drawn here.  If a parishioner donates, even to a priest personally, a sum of money for prayers, services or other such spiritual benefits; that is perfectly acceptable.  What is NOT acceptable, and which comes under the heading of canonically condemned simony, is for the priest to solicit payments or make such payments a condition of, or even an expectation of, delivering such spiritual benefits.  If anyone gives me money, for example, for blessing their house, I always put the donation in the church bank account and tell the donor that this is what I shall be doing.  I am able to do this because the parish pays me a living wage - which is what all clergy and people should be striving to achieve.

2)  Charging for sacraments, especially but not limited to baptism.  

This is the most outrageous example of simony present in the Orthodox Church today.  It is often justified as a reimbursement to the Church for the administration of baptismal rolls or the provision of such things as oil and candles for the service.  Really?!!!  Does it really cost £150 (170 euro, $200), the going rate in one archdiocese in the UK, to send a copy of a baptism certificate to the Metropolis or to top up the olive oil (50 ml at the most) for a baptism?  Pull the other one!  This is just a money-making scam, a betrayal of the gospel and an exploitation of the poor.

3)  Charging for membership of the Church.  

If charging for baptisms wasn't bad enough, to go on and charge for church membership, once baptised, is just as bad, if not worse.  The ONLY criterion for Church membership should be baptism.  Annual subscriptions?  You must be joking; just another money-making scam!  Do not try and justify this either as a means of deterring people who don't come to church from voting at annual meetings.  Such votes can still be "bought" of course by paying the appropriate fee.  This is simply an undermining of the significance of baptism AND an escape from personal financial responsibility for the Church's work.  Because such payments do not arise out of faith and thanksgiving but rather (again) from a consumerist mentality; because such payments do not distinguish between rich and poor; as far as I am concerned, they are anathema!

4) Funding the Church by getting other people to pay for it.  

Now, I recognise that fundraising (which involves soliciting donations from sympathetic but non-members of the Church) is often necessary, especially for expensive capital projects.  However, when a parish derives most of its ORDINARY income from such fundraising; then huge problems arise for the parish.  I know of one Christian community, for example, where 77% of their annual income comes from one annual fundraising event!  Even from a commercial rather than a spiritual point of view this is sheer lunacy.  If that fundraising source dries up, then you have nothing else left to fall back on.  However, while this over-reliance on fundraising does exists, it depresses the willingness of the Church people themselves to give personally from their own income in faith and thanksgiving to God, which is the only secure and future proof means of funding the Church's ministry and mission.  This is often observed to be a problem in wealthier parishes, let the reader understand!

So, if these are some of the more outrageous examples of simony in the Orthodox Church today, can we identify the causative factors and suggest possible solutions?  Yes we can.  The point is though: is anyone willing to do anything about this mess rather than just mouth platitudes?  On that, I am not so sure, but we must hope, work and pray.

The most significant causative factor concerns the secularisation of money in the Church.  

We do well to remember that the Holy Apostle St Paul teaches that it is "the LOVE of money that is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10), not money itself.  No less than 16 of the 38 parables of Christ are concerned with how to handle money and possessions!  In the Gospels about 1 in 10 verses (288) deal directly with the subject of money; and guess what? - not one verse deals with fundraising!

Bearing this in mind, why do some clergy say, often quite openly: "this is nothing to do with me … that's the people's responsibility."  On the contrary dear Father.  It is your responsibility just as much as it is theirs, but in a different way.  Do not (please!) collude with the secularisation of money and the attendant materialism in our churches!  Money has everything to do with the gospel, and to refuse to teach about it biblically and patristically is a gross dereliction of priestly calling.  Do not use the money grubbing of some priests, and the materialistic concerns of some parishioners, as justifications for walling off the subject of money as somehow "unclean."  By doing this you keep it unclean; you (unintentionally of course) entrench Mammon in the mentality of the Church.

If you want to be bold in your teaching about sexuality, be as equally bold in your teaching about Christian giving and obeying the Lord in all things.  As to God ... "All things come from You and of your own we have given You." (1 Chronicles 29:14).  Yes, you may be scared that you have to confront some quite powerful people in the Church but take courage and apply the Gospel.  It is, after all, for the salvation of their souls!  If they walk out; they walk out ... but you will sleep more soundly and keep your conscience before God.

A close second causative factor is a reluctance to move beyond pious platitudes and generalised aspirations in the teaching about Christian giving.  

A refusal to be intensely practical about implementing spiritual principles will always lead to failure.  Eventually, in varying degrees of despair, preachers will resort to hectoring people about "giving more" and trying to use both guilt and shame as motivators to "dig a little deeper."  Such utterly horrendous tactics harden people's hearts because they sense and know that you are not being honest about what the gospel requires, practically speaking that is.  You, preacher, cannot get them to give more ... ONLY THE HOLY SPIRIT CAN!  BUT, you have to be intensely practical about this also.  Listen to St Paul: "On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up as he may prosper ..."  (1 Corinthians 16:2).  That's being practical!  EVERY week, not now and again when you feel like it.  If you cannot get to church one week, you still put your offering aside.  It is a promise made to God (spiritual) not "helping out St Agatha's" (secular).

Being practical does not stop there if you - as a priest with a responsibility not only for teaching Christian giving but also for setting up community behaviours - are to reinforce and implement that teaching.  So, how are you going to be practical about implementing Christian giving in the whole community of your parish?  Writing noble articles in your parish magazine is not enough.  Preaching about money when it comes up (as so often it does) in the lectionary is not enough.  It's what you will do together in the community that will count.  If you look to the Scriptures (as you must) then it becomes quite clear that covenant renewal is a communal not an individualistic event in Israel (Joshua 24:1-28).  The people gather and reaffirm their faith and commitment to the Lord and His work in thanksgiving for His mighty acts and in obedience to His Word.  Just like fasting, which is a community response, so is giving.  It is not just a question of generous spiritual individuals doing the right thing, (although that it always necessary): it is a behaviour (Christian giving) that the whole community must renew, and at least annually.

Faithful Stewards

So, Christian giving is operating fairly smoothly in the parish with the people "getting it" more and more as the years go by.  Is that it?  Is everything OK now?  No, not quite.  With gifts from God there comes great responsibility.  There is accountability to Him always for what we receive.  The Church leadership (priest and Council) need to respond to needs outside the parish by communicating such needs to the parish and seeing what the consensus is for action.  Church accounts, published in accordance with law, must show with great transparency how money is being spent and to what effect.  The people themselves must play their proper roles in the parish's Christian stewardship outwards to the world in mission.

Practical Challenges

Let us now examine these first steps towards a practical implementation of Christian giving in the parish.

This, O preacher and priest, is what you and responsible spiritual lay leaders must make as practical provision for in your parish ... communal and annual covenanted renewal in relation to personal Christian giving.  There are many schemes around, at once both intensely spiritual and practical, which can help you achieve this if you do not have a head for such things.  That is why we need each other in the Church: to help each other out with matters in which we may not feel so confident.  So, if you need help with personal Christian giving, Christian leaders, ASK FOR IT.  Don't settle for an eventually corrupting fearful mediocrity.  Don't hand Mammon the reigns of your church.  As the Lord declared to the Church in Laodicea:

"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say -'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'- and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked- I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and I chasten.  Therefore, be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne."  (Revelation 3:15-21)

So let us all together and by God's grace deal with this mess that is money in the Orthodox Church today.  Let us liberate with faith and thanksgiving the necessary resources to have quality full time ministries.  Let us open up the floodgates of our generosity in the generosity of God Himself and let us see the Church transformed and more effective for the Gospel in the world!  Simply, let us be obedient to God's call and not "hide our talent."

Monday, September 03, 2018

No Entry for Narcissus

A Sermon preached by Fr Emmanuel Kahn at St Aidan's Orthodox Church, Manchester on Sunday 2nd September 2018.  

The Gospel referenced is Matthew 22:2-14.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.

The Gospel reading for today from the 21st chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew is about a marriage feast, to which many people are invited, but few choose to attend. St Gregory the Great points out that this "marriage feast represents the Church of the present time" [that is, in the first century] …. The Father made a marriage feast for His Son," preached St Gregory [Forty Gospel Homilies 38.1, 3-4], "by joining the Church to [His Son] through the mystery of His Incarnation." St Gregory cites Psalm 18 (19), verse 5, in which King David declares that God is "like a bridegroom coming forth from the bridal chamber." St Gregory explains that Christ, and I quote, "truly came forth like a bridegroom from his bridal chamber [and], as God incarnate, left the … womb of the Virgin to unite the Church to Himself."

That is a powerful interpretation of this Gospel from St Gregory the Great. The sixth century saint stresses that through the Incarnation, through Christ becoming a human person from the womb of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, Christ united the Church to Himself. So it is that we, as Orthodox Christians, have been united to Christ through the Church. However, there is a problem, both for the Jews of the first century and for us. The last line of this Gospel states the problem clearly: "Many are called, but few are chosen." So today I'd like to consider the question: How can each and every one of us, however old or young we are, be among the chosen ones-be among those to whom God brings eternal life?

Note that in this Gospel the king provides wedding garments, beautiful clothes, for everyone that's invited. But one person, who does actually turn up, chooses not to wear the wedding garment that has been provided by the king. What happens? The king sees him and throws him out of the wedding feast. In other words, this person was not permitted to enter eternal life, because he was not prepared for the happiness and glory of being forever with the Lord. St Augustine poses the question [in Sermon 90.6]: "What is [this] wedding garment, then?" His answer is easy to understand; and I quote: the wedding garment is the "charity [the love of God and of other people] which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith [in God]. This is the wedding garment," concluded St Augustine. So, if we wish to be chosen, we each need to wear the wedding garment of living a life of charity. How can we do this?

In answering this question of how to wear wedding garments, I found helpful a recent programme on BBC Radio 4 about reading. It was suggested that when we read, we seek both empathy and critical awareness. Empathy is the ability to identify with the feelings and thoughts of others, and to appreciate experiences and emotions outside of ourselves. I find when I prepare these sermons and read the Church Fathers I have considerable empathy with their thoughts and feelings. However, they lived in different centuries and in different cultures than we do today. Therefore, we also need a critical awareness of how to bring the insights and understanding of the Church Fathers into our own lives. As we read, whatever we read, we can follow the paths and stories that the authors have set out before us with empathy, with awareness of these stories and characters. At the same time, we can ask ourselves: Is this person, is this story, that I am reading of value for me?

Seeking empathy and critical awareness applies not only to reading, but to how we see ourselves and other people. It is good that we should love ourselves, even as we see our faults and seek to tackle particular and often private problems in our lives. However, it is important that our love does not become narcissism, excessive love for oneself, in which a person is insecure and vulnerable but acts superior to others to compensate for their own inadequacies. In Greek mythology the young man Narcissus who pined away in love with his own image in a pool of water was turned into the flower that bears his name. Anyone can be a narcissist, young or old, male or female. However, there are in fact two types of narcissist, extrovert and introvert.

The extrovert type we all recognise, arrogant, self-obsessed, manipulative, often ruthless. The introvert type is no less self-regarding but hides his true feelings from others. He cannot connect or relate, except to further his own goals.  Hidden or "introvert narcissists" are often unaware of and unconcerned about others.  They are the types who abuse social media by recruiting flatterers and presenting themselves as the focus of attention. These are they that tick "like" on the posts of their followers on Facebook to encourage others to like them in return. Unfortunately, such narcissists are often unaware of their inability to relate to and serve others. They can be quite charming, but underneath they are egotists.  Lacking empathy and critical awareness, they are naked of that wedding garment without which they will not enter to feast with the King.

To avoid these and many other deformations in the soul we need to develop critical awareness of our own soul state, whether purification is happening or contamination, just like the dust that can accumulate in our homes.  As we move through life, this dust of sin and sinful attitudes gathers within us, just as it gathers over time in the carpets in our homes. There are two ways to deal with that dust, we can deny its presence and sweep it under the carpet, or we can take a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush and clean it up. We can choose to face a challenge in our lives or to treat problems with the dust of denial, pretending the problem is not there, even when we know it is there. Introvert narcissists live a life of denial in which they pretend to themselves and others that there is no dust hidden within their personalities. Yet, with deep repentance and faithful prayer, change is always possible for all of us.

The same seeking of empathy and critical awareness that we apply to reading and ourselves also applies to how we relate to other people and to the Lord. We love other people; and we love the Lord. Yet we are also critically aware of the faults of other people and our own faults. We seek to relate to the Lord in prayer and in action, wearing the wedding garments that the King, the Lord, has given each of us.

I close with a beautiful interpretation of this Gospel reading, again from St Gregory the Great. He preached, and I quote: "Since you have already come into the house of the marriage feast, our Holy Church, as a result of God's generosity, be careful, my friends. Lest when the King [who is the Lord] enters He [will] find fault with some aspect of your heart's clothing…. The king came in to look at the guests and saw there a person not clothed in a wedding garment. What do we think is meant by the wedding garment, dearly beloved? For if we say it is baptism or faith [everyone] has entered this marriage feast [with] them. [Those who are] outside [are outside] because [they have] not yet come to believe. What then must we understand by the wedding garment but love? [Those people who] enter the marriage feast … without wearing a wedding garment … [are indeed] present in the Holy Church. [They] may have faith, but [they] do not have love. We are correct when we say that love is the wedding garment," continues St Gregory, "because this [love] is what our Creator Himself possessed when He came to the marriage feast to join the Church to Himself. Only God's love brought it about that His Only Begotten Son united the hearts of His chosen to Himself. John says that 'God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son for us" [John 3.16], concludes St Gregory.

So it is. The Lord believes in us; and He chooses us before we then choose to believe in Him. Once we believe in the Lord and have faith and are baptised and become members of His Holy Church, then we learn to wear the wedding garment of love-love of others and love of God. However, if we permit the dust of denial of any problems in the Church or in our relationships with others to dominate our lives, we do not wear any wedding garments whatsoever. We are then in trouble, because we all face challenges in our lives and in the Church. Let us all wear together the wedding garments of love and face any challenges that come to us in our lives or in the Church. Then we can live with joy with King David as we sing out Psalm 32(33), verse 21: "Our heart shall rejoice in Him because we have trusted in His Holy Name."

So be it, as we ascribe as is justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Father Emmanuel Kahn

God does not Explain Things; Things Explain God

Humans have always tried to understand the world around them, if only to survive, and to value their place in it in order to enjoy life as beings conscious of death. In this context the theology of primitive animist faiths can be seen as a certain science; an early attempt to explain how things are by virtue of their familiar or indwelling spirits. By explaining natural processes both predictable and unpredictable within such a rational framework the world became safer, even tameable within certain limits. Eventually the sense emerged through observation of higher organising principles at work in the world, maybe even a “Highest Principle” and so a Supreme Spirit or High God was “born” out of an existing and enduring spirit pantheon.

Monotheist religions took these developments to their logical conclusion, ONLY the High God could serve the purpose of integrating a created Cosmos as a whole, the lesser spirits being demoted into avatars, angels and other created subordinate servants or manifestations. At this stage, however, it is still the One-God-Who-Is-One who explains how things are. If the wind blows, it is his breath. If the ground trembles and swallows you up, it is his anger. If the stars shine it is because he has provided guides both navigational and astrological for his children. At some point of mature reflection, however, most if not all monotheisms wake up to the fact that there are ways of understanding how the world works that do not involve the all too easy and, frankly, rather demeaning (to God) idea that he has to be invoked to explain the unexplained. If God only exists as a stop gap explanation for our ignorance about the world then he is no God at all. For God to be God He must be the God-of-the-Whole or no-God-at-all.

So, difficult though it may be for all of us in varying degrees to accept, God does not explain anything at all. We do not believe in God to satisfy our ignorance about the world; in short to give us a nice and comforting alternative to science with its seemingly Godless explanations and “theories.” If we are thinking like that we do not truly believe in God nor do we receive the world as it truly is. We need to start the other way round. God does not explain things, things explain God. Many fathers make this approach to the Cosmos and its Creator explicit but perhaps none more so than the great St. Maximos the Confessor. In Ambigua 33 he says:-

“The Word becomes thickened […] concealing Himself mysteriously for our sakes within the logoi of creatures and thus He reveals Himself accordingly through the visible things as through some written signatures as a whole in His fullness from the whole of nature and undiminished in each part, in the varieties of natures as one who has no variation and is always the same, in composites, as One who is simple, without parts, in things which have their beginning in time, as the One without beginning, as the Invisible in the visible, the ungraspable in tangible things.”

The key idea here is the “logoi of creatures” ... what I am referring to in the shorthand of this article as “things.” These “logoi” function for St. Maximos as written signatures of God-in-creation; the disclosure of God in the being and beauty of things. So, as we discover more about the being and beauty of things through science, poetry and mystical contemplation and in so doing we discover or “explain” God. St. Maximos is clear, however, that it is Christ the Word of God, the Logos of God who is concealed and then revealed within the logoi of creatures, the self same Christ who is the Logos Incarnate. To use the theological terminology of St. Gregory Palamas, we might say that the energies of God in creation are disclosed Incarnate in the Word.

Orthodox Christians with this faith do not suppose that science or the arts are alternative truth perceptions to theology. The more we discover and know about the world the stronger and deeper in Christ revealed in the very sinews and flesh of our humanity and in the very physicality of Creation itself; its terrible and majestic glory ... signatures of God, vehicles of God indeed.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Christianity - Not Reformed but Deformed!

Feminism is such a difficult thing to define and feminists are by no means agreed on what feminism is.  For some, feminism is merely an attempt to redress inequality of opportunity between the sexes in employment and gender roles in the family and community.  For others feminism is a battle against the alleged repression of all things feminine by men, the only solution for which is all out gender war until the ground is recovered.  There are religious variants of feminism based on the first view which are content to secure interchangeability of function between men and women at all levels of Church life.  For these, working towards the first (legitimate) female Pope is a sacred task.  Other more militant religious feminists, basing their views on the second model of gender war, regard Christianity as inescapably patriarchal and oppressive.  These seek a new religion with some ties to Jesus but essentially rehabilitating the goddess cult of former times.

This talk is not seeking to address every variant of feminism both moderate and radical, secular and faith based.  I fear we should then get entangled in a morasse of social comment, half-baked theories and contentious subjectivity.  Rather, here, I shall attempt to consider the Person of the Father in relation to feminism as a whole for there are some common themes in the general feminist reaction to this basic tenet of Christianity that God is our Father.

The first person in the modern era to address this issue from a psychoanalytic perspective was, of course, Sigmund Freud.  A lot of water has gone under the bridge since Freud grappled with the tortured neuroses and psychoses of his repressed Viennese patients.  Modern psychiatry no longer doffs its cap to the "Great Master" as once before.  Nonetheless, Freud's assessment of Christian belief in God the Father is pivotal in trying to understand feminism's varying reactions against it. 

Freud argued that "Father" was a projection by us humans onto the nature of God.  We, some of us that is, have had such lousy fathers on earth, that, it is argued, we seek by way of compensation, an ideal Father in Heaven.  This projection is a reaction to a neurosis.  Deal with the neurosis, namely our half-concealed hatred for our human fathers, and the need to call God "Father" will vanish away.  In fact, for Freud, Jew that he was, much of religion was really a projection of our disappointment and pain onto the canvass of Heaven.  Now the reason why Freud's view was so popular was its plausibility at first hearing.  Clearly God is not male, (or female).  Did not Christ himself teach that:- "God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and Truth?"  Freud would not even admit that God was LIKE a father.  God was the ILLUSION of an ideal Father, made necessary by our anxieties and hurts.  The plausibility of this approach then lead many to suggest that since our experience of human fatherhood was sometimes cruel and corrupting we should hesitate before calling God Father for fear of making eternal and immeasurable the pain of knowing the divine in the hearts and lives of those abused by their own fathers.  It goes without saying of course that this made Jesus the archetypal neurotic in the eyes of Freud.  It was he who started the whole "Father-thing" off! 

At this point, along come the religious feminists, who then claim that whereas "Mother" would also be a projection, since all God-talk is symbolic and derived from our human experience, we should offer "Mother" instead as an alternative.  "Mother" is warm and kind, deeply imbued with the dark warmth and comfort of the earth, the breast and the womb.  These are much the same feminists of course who have no compunction in ripping human life from the womb in abortion and parading their sexuality in the media, (and goading men to do the same), on the grounds that this is empowering!  Earth Mother apparently, like the wolf in Little Red Hiding Hood has sharp teeth and claws.  We Christians know this of course since it was the matriarchal dominance of paganism which was so besotted with abortion, child abuse and child sacrifice.  Not much has changed, has it?

We all shrink of course from such perversions of fatherhood and motherhood and yet the logic of Freud's analysis is inexorable.  If paganism is to be resisted, (as a moderate feminist might argue), then God must become "Parent" or perhaps "It", a very unsatisfactory situation, and in Orthodox terms, of course, downright heresy.  So, as Orthodox Christians we need to force our culture to be much more radical on this issue than it has hitherto been.  We need to reach back behind the feminists' agenda at Freud's basic premise that God as Father is a projection for our pain, ever seeking to recover our ideal Father, eternally beyond our grasp. 

Notice how Freud starts. He takes something which is so obviously true, namely, that God is not literally a male person and then proceeds to deny the truth that God is Father, as if one followed the other.  God, of course, can be Father without being male but only by recognising that all religious language is refined by the conviction that God is so utterly UNLIKE anything created.  Therefore, God is not like a father, He is, in the First Person, the Father, the Source, the Fount of all that is; the Son eternally begotten from Him and the Spirit proceeding forth.  There is an "outgoingness in Love" in God which makes "Father" the most singular and apt expression.  True there is an analogy in respect of human fatherhood, but it is an analogy to human fatherhood, not from it.  This truth lies at the very heart of the absurdity of feminism's attack on God the Father.  The Father is not imaged from our human fathers, (for that would be to make God in our own image, an idol); human fatherhood in its highest expression is imaged or derived from God the Father, (in other words, we are made in the image of God).  As St. Paul says in Ephesians 3:14-15:-

"For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and on earth is named."

Now, there is one gaping hole in this presentation.  If Genesis teaches, (which it does), that the image of God in manifest in men and women as created, then why cannot motherhood as well as fatherhood be derived from God in such a manner as to legitimise God as Mother as well as Father?  The answer to this one lies in the nature of God's creative power.  God creates without dependency on another for he is sovereign and free and acts in the first instance alone.  "Let it be" as He says, and it is.  This is not the action of a divine Mother.  Mothers, in a human sense, act co-operatively and in a receptive manner.  Motherhood is derived from the earth, not from the Godhead.  This does not make motherhood any less holy.  Orthodox venerate matter as the creative and fecund principle of life, but this life comes in the first instance from the "outside" as it were, from the Father.  To derive motherhood from the Godhead rather than the earth would be to give God a womb and to make the Universe "her" Body.  This is the very essence of paganism and it has resurfaced again recently in the works of such heretical theologians as Rosemary Radford Ruether.  For Orthodox Christians, motherhood is derived from the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the first and highest sanctified creature of the Lord who, being without form, took humanity upon Himself from her.  In so doing, the Word and the Spirit worked but never ceased to depart from the Father who remained the Father.  When God becomes Mother, however, "she" is revealed a vicious harridan bent upon destruction as well as life, a sort of sub-Christian Durga or Kali, the one who must be appeased at all costs.  The Mother of God is such an affront to feminists because her sanctity protests at this abuse of motherhood and the abominable fruit it has generated, sour and bitter to the taste; the infanticide of abortion, the trivialisation and degradation of sex, the rape of the earth. 

The only remedy for all these ills is to renounce Freud and his perversion of the Christian gospel and to return to a true biblical notion of God the Father and human fatherhood; the Theotokos, the created earth and human motherhood.

Finally, can this agenda be pursued whilst yet embracing a moderate feminism which would pursue equality of opportunity in all realms of human life and work ... a feminism which is, shall we say, religiously neutral?  I'm not sure we can even do that.  Consider equality of opportunity.  This is a good thing and to be promoted.  But what do we make of these opportunities?  Do we send women as battle hardened troops into the front line?  Do we ask men, similarly, to emasculate themselves by posing as women in Cosmopolitan and other such magazines?  Do we promote the idea that gender is irrelevant to function when all the evidence cries out that there are distinctively male and female aspects of our humanity which, if to be honoured, must remain non-interchangeable?  Do we rob a woman of her motherhood by making her a "priest?"  Do we rob a man of his fatherhood by making him feel guilty of his strength?  I think not.  Many have fed from the poisoned wells of Freud and his feminist great grandchildren for long enough and have suffered for it. 

Isn't it about time then that we embraced life rather than death?  Isn't it about time we worshipped the Father again and implored the Mother?  Isn't it about time that we become co-heirs of the Son as children of God?  Isn't it about time that the Spirit ruled rather than the bankrupt false prophets of atheism?  Feminism is dead and death dealing.  The Father remains, and waits for the return of His errant children.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Human Icon

The Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian BeliefsThe Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian Beliefs by Christine Mangala Frost

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dr Frost has capably achieved a gargantuan task in shining a light on the spirituality of Orthodox Christianity for a Hindu audience and likewise illuminating the richness and depth of Hinduism for her own Orthodox Christian community. This has been achieved precisely because she has a foot in both worlds with insights that transcend the possible disjunctions of language, concepts and practice that exist on the surface between the two faiths. Raised as a Hindu but becoming an Orthodox Christian in later life, she speaks from within both religious traditions with an authenticity that is personally tested and encyclopaedic in scope.
In this book, Dr Frost has not simply described the major themes of each religion, comparatively and in parallel. That would have presented a relatively straight forward task. She has gone further and much deeper by identifying possible points of contact, even overlap and congruence, between corresponding themes and insights from both faiths. This has been achieved while at the same time identifying with clear sightedness possible irreducible differences that need to be acknowledged in inter-faith dialogue.
Her realism in addressing these elements of both convergence and divergence is never compromised by any personal intrusive commitments, yet her own blessings in both faiths clearly shine through. She is a critical observer who strives to be fair to both religions both on their own grounds and in dialogue. A reader of this book will be enlightened and encouraged by the possibilities that lie ahead for mutual enhancement and understanding between Orthodox Christians and Hindus alike.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Rolling Back the Darkness

It is with a sad and heavy heart that I must comment on those terrible events that unfolded last night in the great city of Manchester, when the terrorists struck again on our soil.  

This time they targeted defenceless and innocent young people, some with friends and some in family groups, attending a pop concert in the Manchester Arena in the centre of the city. As I speak to you on the day after, there are currently 22 fatalities and 59 people injured, many of them critically. One of the children killed was merely eight years old. Our prayers go out to the grieving families of those who have lost loved ones and also to those who are suffering from grievous wounds in various hospitals around the city. 
IS/Daesh has claimed responsibility for this despicable and cowardly action but that cult of death often tries to promote itself on the back of such attacks for propaganda purposes, so we must resist jumping to conclusions before the evidence is assembled and assessed. Nonetheless, the authorities have confirmed this was indeed a terrorist attack, an improvised explosive device being detonated by a suicide bomber in the foyer of the Arena; timed to inflict maximum casualties at the end of the concert when thousands of young people would be leaving. The police know the identity of this mass murderer but are not releasing it for the time being. This is in part due to the ongoing local and national investigation which looks likely to reveal co-conspirators and terrorist cells. The attack took place just 8 miles from the church that I serve in the suburbs. This morning, just 3 miles away from St Aidan’s, the police raided two houses and there was a controlled explosion at one of them. No further details are available as of this time, but this story is unfolding so rapidly, so by the time you hear this I am sure that much more will be known.
As an Orthodox Christian priest, and together with my parish community in this great city of Manchester, I am trying to think and pray through an appropriate and balanced Christian response to such a tragedy, including how we should handle such terrorist threats and realities into the future. First and in this regard, all of us here in Manchester have already been inspired by the flawless response of the emergency services and the spirit of Manchester people who have rallied round to support those directly affected by this terrorist outrage. The solidarity of the people of Manchester, and indeed of other communities similarly affected in Britain and elsewhere, is an outstanding inspiration and example to all those peoples of any religion and background who are threatened by this evil culture of death, right across the world.
Second, as individual Orthodox Christians, the Gospel of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ calls us to embrace the cross and forgive those who would do us harm. Loving our enemies doesn’t just mean dealing with obnoxious people in daily life it means praying for, and indeed loving those who would do us actual harm. There can be no room for hate or revenge when confronting such an evil as this. Only the love of a God who justly judges and graciously saves can turn the most hardened and bitter heart toward peace, human dignity and compassion.  He usually expects though to do this through our witness, so this then is our responsibility as Christians. However, this is not the whole story.
Third, we need to make a clear distinction between personal morality and social responsibility, while seeing both as being subject to God’s sovereign will and purpose. Individual Christians, according to the Gospel, may choose martyrdom in extreme situations rather than retaliate or seek revenge. They may choose to forgive their persecutors and pray for them. However, none of us can forgive on behalf of those who have suffered at the hands of others. Only those directly affected by such atrocities, and indeed by sins generally, have both the right and the capacity to forgive their own particular enemies. As a nation, our social responsibility is to uphold the law and play our part in the democratic process through which, of course, such laws are enacted, which is why, I believe, voting in elections, notwithstanding its flaws is better than suffering a dictatorship allowed elbow room through cynicism, despair or apathy. The first duty of the State itself, however, but not of course the only one, is to protect its citizens and to ensure the defence of the realm. Passive martyrdom and forgiveness is a choice exercised by individual persons but it can never simply be translated directly into social policy and law; particularly when endangerment of life is current and critical, as it is now.
As I said, the duty of the State is to protect us all and especially the vulnerable and the weak, and to this end we need excellent and ethical intelligence services and a robust and effective police force and military. Such forces of law and order can only function optimally when they are supported by all citizens themselves. The failure to support the forces of law and order in such atrocities is a danger as reprehensible as the actual attacks themselves. The first duty of all citizens, therefore, must be to support the police and the security services in their work. With sufficient safeguards as to personal liberty, if this also involves the deepening of the surveillance trawl through electronic media, then this is something, I believe, that we should support, while at the same time denying to the authorities the opportunity to use these “all-seeing eyes” to interfere with our valued freedoms. It would be a tragedy if terrorism won by encouraging us to adopt measures that undermine the very freedoms that we are defending in opposing it.
However, the battle we are waging here against terrorism is not simply and only to be fought with intelligence and smart policing. That will be like cutting off the heads of weeds while leaving deep-seated roots untouched. There is an ideological, and indeed propaganda, war going on here for the hearts and minds of those who are especially most vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists, both homegrown and otherwise.
How then is such a war to be waged? A number of weapons are at our disposal. Always useful is a good and intelligent use of the disciplines of psychology and criminology, both in dealing with those who are recruited into terrorism (caught alive) and in the messages we promote and adopt in our society through mass media and the pulpit, not only to inform public opinion and form the Christian mind, but also to act as a counter insurgency tactic against the terrorists themselves; a counter insurgency of the heart and the mind.
Here is where religion generally has much to offer, precisely because it is religion that is being perverted and corrupted here. I say “religion” rather than simply Christianity because it is a task that can and should be embraced by peoples of all faiths, those, that is, whose basic tenets are goodness, righteousness and truth. A cult of death such as IS / Daesh may only finally be beaten through active forces of goodness in education and a re-orientation toward the light, especially at the hands of knowledgeable and skilled believers generally and co-religionists especially. Governments need to invest as much time, effort, personnel and money in these methods as in the more traditional aspects of police enforcement, intelligence gathering and military intervention. States in the West which have been accustomed to a secularism which has progressively banished religion from the public square need to develop both a more open mind and an active commitment towards cooperating with faith communities and skilled individuals in this process of rolling back the darkness of hatred and death.
None of these reflections are irrelevant to the practical situation and plight in which we now find ourselves with grieving relatives and bloodied bodies in the city of Manchester and elsewhere. Orthodox Christians need to play their part together with other men and women of goodwill who are prepared to rise up and collaborate in a generous and positive manner, fighting with the weapons of the Spirit, not only for the values and freedoms that are so cherished by us all, but also for the entrenchment of those values in the minds and hearts of those vulnerable persons for whom Daesh/IS and the devil continue to contend. This is a spiritual as well as physical battle that we shall have to face with faith, hope and love - perhaps of the next two or three generations. May the Lord be our very present help, strength and guide as we all do our part to uphold his Kingdom here on earth as in heaven.

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