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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christ is born. Glorify Him!

An old story is told about a drunk who fell into a pit. The sides of the pit were so steep and he was so inebriated that he could not get out. He cried in alarm to anyone who would hear him.

A Jew walked by, stopped, took out the Psalms and quoted:-

“I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength” (Ps 88:4)

“My son,” he said, observe God’s Law and you will not stumble.” With that he walked on by.

A Muslim walked to the edge of the pit, peered over and declaimed: “You are a drunk, an unbeliever. First submit both Allah and to his laws, then you will know Paradise.” In disgust, he also walked away hurriedly.

A Hindu approached, a sage. “Your karma is now set by this deed. There is nothing you can do. Accept death and on your next rebirth perhaps your soul will make more progress.” The sage calmly walked away.

A Buddhist monk approached and with compassion he looked down on the man and tried to teach him to meditate. “Try to extinguish your desires … for earthly freedom, even for life itself. With desire comes suffering. With the right mental attitude you too can attain nibbana.” The monk retreated from the pit with a beatific smile on his face.

The drunk man grumbled noisily to himself in the pangs of his pain that all men were the same. With much difficulty he slumped and forward and fell into a fitful sleep.

Suddenly he was rudely awoken by a rough fellow gently shaking him. This man had let himself down into the pit with a rope.

The descent was so difficult beset with sharp stones, briars and obstacles that his hands and body were bleeding.

He took a spare rope, tied it round the drunken man’s waist who fell silent in disbelief. The drunk felt himself dragged to the side of the pit whereupon his rescuer strapped them both together and raised them up on a pulley fixed into the edge of the top of the pit for that purpose.

As they both stood out of the pit into the sunshine, unshackled, the drunken man, who was now a little more sober, looked round. The stranger had gone but there was a rather odd charge that lingered on in the air. He did not feel alone.

He looked back into the pit and thought thankfully about the great sacrifice this Man had made to save him.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

No Teddy Bear's Picnic

The imprisonment of Gillian Gibbons in a Sudanese jail for allegedly insulting the prophet of Islam when she agreed to a child’s naming of teddy bear “Mohammed” is outrageous. Of course everyone has been falling over backwards in UK government this week to appease the Sudanese with weasel words such as “saddened” – “shocked” – “concerned” but all this does is indicate weakness. When the representative of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, no less, called for the expulsion of the Sudanese ambassador and all David Milliband, the Foreign Secretary can do is wait four days before calling him in for a chat; one does wonder what is going on.

Appeasement is never a pretty sight even in ‘Real Politik.’ So why do we want to keep the Sudanese sweet? Well, for the same reasons I suspect that we have dithered and made feeble gestures whilst Sudanese militia have murdered and raped their way through Darfur; for the same reason that the crucifixion of Christians and the execution of animists in Southern Sudan has barely raised an eyebrow in Whitehall … in a word, Pakistan.

“Pardon me,” you say, “Pakistan?!” For some unaccountable reason Pakistan and Sudan have made common cause with each other … and we don’t want to upset the applecart in Pakistan do we? More appeasement. Meanwhile the innocent Gillian Gibbons languishes in house arrest somewhere well away from the baying barbaric mob who are roaming the streets of Khartoum calling for her execution. Apparently it’s all a western inspired Christian anti-Islamic plot! Is that really the best we can do? Teddy bear terrorism?

Of course what should have happened was the immediate expulsion of diplomatic staff and the termination of all trading arrangements. Not doing this on the basis that it would antagonise the Sudanese and put Gillian in further peril of flogging was an extremely foolish reaction. Consider the propaganda gift to the Sudanese government … “look how merciful we are, we could have flogged her.” This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Only an administration whose first priority was to defend the western alliance with Pakistan would have been prepared to pay such a price, or of course one that lacked balls.

So is this how we keep the Taliban at bay … by allowing their equivalents space to terrorise with their fanatical barbarism elsewhere whether in Saudi Arabia, Sudan or Malaysia and protect their governments who can’t control their own mobs or hate preaching clerics? We can barely do that ourselves so what chance have we to insist on rational and humane treatment of our citizens abroad? This has been a bad week for freedom and justice and the UK government is deeply implicated in its calculating cowardice. A line has to be drawn.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Curious Case of the Shrinking "God"

This sounds like a lost Sherlock Holmes story doesn’t it? Instead, think of this as the unhappy story of how God has shrunk in the west, certainly in the 20th century but with roots in medieval Europe. Of course, God has not actually shrunk! He is the same, today, yesterday and forever ... but people? Ah, that’s different. That’s where God has been shrunk into nothingness. His sovereign rule, which is and should be over every aspect of human life, has been progressively cut down in extent by a secularising and atheistic mindset.

The first shrinkage took place in medieval Europe. This was the time of the ascending power of an increasingly centralised and powerful papacy. Inevitably the Pope came into conflict with the rising monarchs of increasingly powerful nation and city states. We all know what happened in England when a certain monarch wanted to dispose of an inconvenient wife! Interestingly, without the support of sympathetic German princes it is unlikely that Luther would have got very far with his revolt against Rome. Of course some of the Protestant Reformers also tried to impose a Christian theocratic state on their hapless subjects but by the time we arrive at the close of 18th century there rise up revolutionary movements right across Europe seeking to banish God entirely from the political order. In America of course this had also happened but constitutionally, peacefully and not inspired by atheism. This former colony had been established by those fleeing from religious discrimination and repression in Europe. The original intention in America, therefore, was to give no favoured position to one particular religion. Only later had God come to sit rather uncomfortably on Capitol Hill, which is why the Bush presidency has been such an exceptional anachronism to many. It look longer in Britain for the Established churches of the Union to see their influence weaken on the national scene but certainly by the 1960’s this process was also virtually complete.

The first shrinking was an understandable reaction against religious tyranny but it was based on a complete misreading of the Scriptures. Anyone who think that God as no place in national and political life should read the 8th century prophets .... Amos, Hosea, Michah and Isaiah (first part). In these books the prophets assert God’s judgement against injustice and idolatry in the corridors of power but theirs was a witness of a spiritual conscience, not, as in the west, a contest between the Church and State as two irreconcilable antagonists. What we have now in Europe is a feeble witness of Christians who have surrendered to the State almost the whole of their prophetic conscience, of God’s claim to sovereignty over ALL aspects of human life. The Byzantine ideal was a symphony of Church and State as both accountable to God in their respective jurisdictions. That ideal died with the fall of Constantinople. This balance between State and Church, between leadership and prophecy has been elusive ever since.

The second shrinkage lay in the natural sciences. Again, the root of the problem is to be found in medieval Catholic Europe and the inability of some churchmen to embrace revolutionary ideas arising from explosion of science. These battles may have started in earnest with Galileo but, distressingly they have persisted into modern times. Some Christians are still fighting over Darwin and atheism has readily used such rearguard actions as evidence that Christianity remains antithetical to truth and progress. Whereas at one time most leading scientists were believers and saw their profession as revealing God’s handiwork; now such witnesses are muted and slight. Occasionally religion merits some analysis in a science journal. Usually many of the facts presented are plain wrong, the comments predictably bizarre and prejudicial and the overall feeling is that a sewerage pipe has broken somewhere nearby. Christianity is now commonly thought to have nothing to contribute in this sphere of human activity and even when the ethical dimensions of controversial research might warrant such input. God, finally, has been banished from the Cosmos.

The third and final area of shrinkage has been in personal life. Whereas once most people looked to religion as a source of ethical inspiration, guidance and self discipline it is now regarded as an intrusive threat to personal autonomy. Inevitably, if Man is the measure of all things, God must be banished as the righteous Judge of all our actions and if there is no such thing as sin, then we need social adjustment to society not salvation from God. This last change is the most troubling of all. If the State is now the arbiter of all that is good and true then human freedom has no safe resort, no court of appeal. Personal autonomy then becomes a sham as humans acquiesce to a new slavery; that of their own passions stalking the corridors of power.

So, with God denied a place in both society and personal life where is there left for him to go? It is as if he has disappeared in the centre of a black hole. Nothing visible in human life of Him remains and people soon forget when they be distracted by the allurements and pleasures of this world. But take care, God will not be denied. He can be no more shrunk than the ocean drained by an egg cup. As human life without God collapses there will only be God left, not this time as a Saviour but as an implacable Judge. The day is not far off when this will come upon us and all will be laid waste. People will cry out but their will only be silence in return. Then Christ will come again. Happy will they be who bear not the mark of the beast but who welcome their Lord.

“Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 5:6-11)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Finding Our Way Home

Our bodies are seldom in a uniform state of health, particularly as we mature. Our minds may be in good shape but perhaps that waist line is unruly. Our digestion may be good but perhaps there is a little arthritis to contend with. It is the same with any Church community. It will have its healthy strengths and its relatively infirm weaknesses.

This variable diagnosis extends all the way through to our personal lives and our walk with God. We may be reasonably informed about our faith but how is it with our prayer life? We may be faithfully present at the services but do we find it more difficult to relate our faith to our daily lives? In the same way that we need the specialist advice of a good doctor for our physical and mental health we need the counsel of an experienced spiritual father or mother to keep us on an even keel as far as our spiritual lives are concerned.

Such spiritual guides are not easy to come by. In addition to his or her spiritual maturity such a person must have some natural and personal empathy with us as persons. As Orthodox Christians, if we don’t have a spiritual father or mother, we really need to pray and work hard toward acquiring one. This person probably will not be our parish priest, (the roles can be too easily confused), but our priest may be able to help by recommending someone.

Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has written very powerfully on this matter.

"The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity"

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

God throws a double six!

Albert Einstein once quipped that "God does not play with dice." He was profoundly disturbed by a new science that he himself had played a part in developing. The physics of chance or technically, quantum mechanics, is a now a well established theory that denies our ability to measure anything with perfect exactitude. We may, therefore, talk of the probability of a particle being at such and such a position and having this or the other momentum but more than this eludes us. The strangeness of quantum theory is revealed in the realm of the very small but has implications also for the inflation of such larger scales structures as galactic clusters after the Big Bang creation.

Hitherto science had been accustomed to allow for chaotic behaviours in such complex arenas as global weather systems and species population trends. Here, uncertainty and randomness affecting the ability to predict remained a problem within classical physics and was addressed by chaos theory. With the advent of quantum theory, however, indeterminacy was revealed to be part and parcel of reality itself. Theorists might still argue whether this concerned our ability to speak of nature rather than nature itself but the practical result was the same. We had to get used to a “fuzzy world”, predictably fuzzy in the maths, but practically speaking a landscape shrouded in shifting mists and ill-defined shapes.

For centuries, science and philosophy ... and religion as well for that matter, had worked on a deterministic understanding of the Cosmos. Laplace famously said (and I paraphrase) that were we able to know and measure every physical component of the Cosmos we could perfectly describe its past and reliably predict its future. If he had allowed for chaotic behaviours in his tidied system of inputs and outputs his confidence might have been well placed. So long as this view prevailed, it was thought that "God was in His heaven and all was right with the world." Now, however, in quantum theory, chance had struck at the very heart of reality itself. Einstein recoiled from such a prospect, declaiming that “the Lord God does not play dice.” Doubtless he believed, as had all the determinist philosophers and scientists before him that God had ordered all things in a uniform and predictable manner. The deity’s table manners were impeccable. But then came a new set of diners who did not obey the usual rules of etiquette. There was bound to be trouble.

The first dent in the deterministic account of creation was made by Max Planck who in 1900 realised that radiation came in little packets or quanta and not in a continuous stream. It was some 26 years later that Werner Heisenberg worked out the implications of this for measurement. Measurement means interacting with a system or object measured, but to do that one has to impart energy to that which is measured and this changes it from its initial state. A sensor fitted to a car engine to measure its fuel efficiency will given an erroneous reading if only because it has itself changed the mass of the car. The uncertainties inherent in measurement really show up in the realm of the very small. Shorter wavelengths are required for finer measurements but these come with higher energies that change that which is being measured. Heisenberg called this the “Uncertainty Principle” and it makes the exact state of the Universe in all its parts elusive NOT because our measuring instruments are inadequate but simply because no act of measurement could ever in principle achieve what it attempts. We may only speak of probabilities.

Schrödinger and Dirac then went on to describe all the uncertain aspects of a particles position and momentum in terms of a probability wave, a dynamic map of possibilities for a particle. Worse than this from an intuitive point of view, the particle is the probability wave itself. So, in this fuzzy description of matter and energy one can only talk of the probability that a particle will be at such and such a place when measured. The act of measuring itself collapses the wave function and one then has something which is classically “there.” How such observation achieves this is still a mystery. Look in the box and Schrodinger’s cat is famously dead rather than alive or alive rather than dead, but before then this thought experiment declares that it is neither dead nor alive but in a superposition of both states. If you are not disturbed by that; you are not listening!

There are other tasty morsels in this Danish quantum pastry. Particles may interact, separate and forever remain entangled such that each particle’s state changes instantaneously with that of its partner, no matter how distantly separated. Practical experiments have confirmed this effect over a few kilometres. Although the so-called “Copenhagen” interpretation of quantum mechanics remains controversial in some aspects, the fact is that the theory simply works. It describes the real world perfectly in all its delightful fuzziness. Without it we wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to build lasers, computers and a whole raft of contemporary electronic equipment. So give thanks for uncertainty and distressed felines and Einstein’s when you are next at the supermarket checkout!

Nothing of course is ever so simple so a qualification must be made at this point. The collapse of the wave function is but one interpretation of the transition to classical reality and this, as we have seen, involves observation or, more strictly, an act of measurement. There are other interpretations of quantum theory where the wave function does not collapse. Some of these involve the universe branching out into unnumbered imperfectly cloned copies of itself corresponding to differing outcomes in a classical sense. This supposed infinite number of unobservable parallel universes where all possible states can be manifested, has been criticised on the grounds that it is both inelegant and untestable. The idea that there exists an infinite number of “you’s” reading this article identical in all respects except the precise colour of the spots on your tie (or at least that particular infinite set of “you’s” wearing spotted ties rather than striped ties) stretches credulity somewhat no matter what explanatory power it might have to account for this world as we observe it. The implications of such gross redundancy in creation might comfort those who shrink from thinking of this Cosmos as in any way special but it seems to me that this raises far more issues for science and theology than it apparently solves. If anything can happen and, given enough time, actually does, (Tegmark), then the Multiverse loses all interest as a place where anything happening anywhere is actually significant. Science, in word, disinvents itself by the removal of deselection. Why observe reality when you can imagine reality however you like it? I cannot help but think that this is an explanatory dead end, so let us move on.

Returning now to our review of quantum theory let us examine some of its cosmological applications.

The Universe only becomes classically predictable at large scales where probabilistic effects either collapse or are too insignificant to impact on the system as a whole. Even in classical systems simulations only ever approximate to their corresponding realities when chaotic elements are recognised. In extreme macrocosmic conditions, such as those connected with a black hole, uncertainty prevails yet again but on a very different and larger scale.

Others had theorised about black holes long before Einstein developed his geometrical theory of gravity in his General Theory of Relativity in 1915, most notably a clergyman and scientist, John Michell in 1784. Too dense even to allow light to escape and warping space time round its event horizon, a black hole is a cosmic censor where information can leave our Universe for good. In a truly deterministic Universe you should be able in principle at least to track and measure every natural phenomenon. Black holes dismiss that confidence. It would be trying to calculate the volume of water in a tank that had sprung an inaccessible and unpredictable leak.

A black hole is also an object that shows how empty space is not so empty at all. Quantum theory predicts and both particle accelerators and black holes show that the vacuum of space is in truth a seething mass of virtual particles and antiparticles dividing and violently recombining so as to account for the presence of radiation and gravity. Near a black hole event horizon, one virtual particle partner may fall into the black hole never to be seen again, the other might escape by staying this side of the horizon and becoming a real particle in the process. Stephen Hawking predicted this behaviour which would show a black hole to be not exactly black but a radiator of energy. These effects have been seen. They are not fancies. Eventually over a very, very long time, even a large black hole will evaporate away completely in this fashion.

So what happens to all that information in the form of humans, stars, fridges, and other associated junk that fell into the black hole in the first place? Well it has gone and gone forever. The Universe has suffered a massive information loss. One simply cannot get from the Universe’s initial phase to its final condition simply by the application of classical laws to a deterministic system. Not only is there colossal information loss on the way but also huge areas of uncertainty systemic to the Universe’s behaviour itself. Goodbye Universe as Machine, hello Universe as the Missing Sock Drawer. Some things you just NEVER will be able to find, no matter how hard you try!

We live in a Universe where anything could happen, and, more controversially according to some, given enough time, probably will. We live in a Universe where only probable outcomes are truly predictive. What sense then does God make of all of this and in all of this? In what sense now could He be said to be in control, to know perfectly the outcomes of different possible trajectories of chance and choice? Of course, God can always be projected onto the back cloth of eternity, surveying with perfect wisdom and serenity the outcome of all this chaos, randomness, indeterminacy and freedom. In that sense he would be the Perfect Observer although it is difficult to see how God could interact with His Creation as that Observer without submitting himself to the Uncertainty Principle precisely in his intervention. Must omniscience simply be a matter of knowing everything beforehand? I think not if that comes at the price of compromising human and cosmic freedom. God is smarter than that.

I want to suggest a different and I believe more fruitful model of omniscience, not based on the polarities of foreknowledge and ignorance but rather upon His personal knowledge of the principle co-players (the Cosmos and Life) and His own predictive abilities. Moreover this model suggests that God is more like an Internet Author with an evolving script incorporating the input of other artists rather than a solitary master car engineer where we all have to do is "read the manual." Frankly I believe that this is a more creative view of God ... a more noble one and in greater conformity with Scripture and Tradition than that boring old predictable deity of Blake who must either leave well alone (in deist mode) or be forever tinkering with the machine (the 'bĂȘte noire' of Richard Dawkins).

We need to articulate a new theology of creation that takes seriously the New Physics and that interactive model of divine-human cooperation that we see in the biblical covenants. I suppose when the Universe was seen as a Machine theologians fell to describing that covenant in terms of law, transgression and repair. This, however impoverished the notion of covenant by emphasising predictability, cause and effect at the expense of relationality and subjectivity. It was a mechanical juridical view; elements of which are present in Scripture but hardly emphasised to this extent. The New Physics however encourages to take the more rounded view of Scripture itself more seriously. How does it do that?

A God that throws dice takes seriously the Universe’s own story. He grants creation contingent freedom to develop without external or internal constraint. This is a Universe that IS predictable once a certain course is set but that setting could just as well be chaotic and accidental as measured and purposeful. Richard Dawkins takes this undetermined and chaotic aspect to be evidence against the sightedness of the Watchmaker, against any purpose or teleology in the raw data of life’s trajectory. However it seems to me that this is merely a matter of scale, (aside from the fact that he is still seeing God as Machine-Maker). It may indeed be that the accidental demise of the dinosaurs and the fortuitous mutation in key hominid genes contributed to the rise of homo sapiens but it by no means follows that the openness of causation is a design flaw. Rather on the scale of the history of the Universe itself, such chaotic processes are a necessary aspect of fecundity itself. If laws tightly constrained genetic mutation, if wandering asteroids had “life protection protocols” built into them why not halt hominid development and save the dinosaurs? If, however, branching possibilities and destruction are given aspects of diversity and creation itself (as they clearly are in the earth’s biosphere) then God must allow his creation a truly radical and comprehensive freedom.

Many believers do not find this an entirely comforting or comfortable prospect. If humans are made in the divine image and likeness then how might we contemplate that the Universe might one day swat us out of existence as summarily as a folded newspaper crushes the back of a fly? If for example, a gamma ray burst happened within a few hundred light years of earth, immediately the radiation cone hit, half the world’s life would be erased star-side. It might be comforting to think of God personally managing such unstable stars so that they behave themselves in our vicinity but I cannot go along with that or any other version of cosmic censorship. It makes the Universe an irrational plaything of Olympean deities and that is neither my faith nor my science. Must the Universe therefore reveal itself to be an even more merciless and amoral entity than we ever allowed for when we thought it was a Machine with some operational malfunctioning? In a word, I believe, yes.

As a species, we do indeed live in a very risky and precarious situation on any reasonable long term view. Interestingly we might significantly reduce that risk by moving off world to colonise the galaxy. That way humans would always survive, somewhere at least. However there is another aspect of this risk assessment and it has to do with voluntary sacrifice. If survival is not the be all and end all of existence then submitting to great personal risk for a consequent creative and life giving potentiality is a more integrated approach to life. Moreover it most readily applies to the Christian idea of the God who lays down his life for the World. If God is an Artist rather than a Machine Maker then this truth is even clearer to see.

If God is a Creative Artist and Lover He must work with his own created materials ... you and I. He seeks to make his canvas and pigments responsive to His touch. He labours over His creation risking all as any Great Artist must to perfect His creation. He is acquainted with sacrifice. If part of his creation is lost he enters into that loss, that place of abandonment and gives it a new fecundity and possibility of regeneration. This is precisely what happened of course in the death and the resurrection of Christ. St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:18-25) even makes a connection between the redemption of human tragedy, corruption and death and the regeneration of creation itself. In this humans are a microcosm of universal possibilities where death is not seen as an end but as a beginning.

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now. 23 Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. 24 For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.

This can be the only possible credible faith response to a creation that does not follow the rigid and unbending dictates of determinism, a creation that has the freedom to fall into bondage and corruption, a creation where God has so valued the creative potential of making “mistakes” as to provide the means by He himself may enter those mistakes and in his own flesh make them good. A dice throwing God is no stranger to Orthodox Christian theology, no matter how uncomfortable that might at first appear.

(Transcript of a lecture given by Fr. Gregory to students at Manchester University, St. Anselm's Hall of Residence, courtesy of St. Peter's Chaplaincy, Tuesday 16th October 2007, (c) Fr. Gregory Hallam)

What do you seek?

What do we say when people come looking for God in Orthodoxy? Do we hurry them into our "all singing, all dancing" catechumenates with their shiny Powerpoints © and inspirational testimonies from those who swam the Bosphorus / Orontes / Moskva before them, (delete as appropriate). Or, better, do we sit them down, or rather stand them up and invite them to "come and see." There are huge transitions to negotiate in becoming Orthodox but the first and most important is to learn how to encounter the Living God in this Church and having met Him, to repent.

I was wondering just now why so some people I have chrismated over the last 12 years haven't stayed the course. Most have but many haven't. I think that there is a tendency buried deep in the fascination with Orthodoxy to discover spiritually "the lost treasure of the Incas." This glittering prize has been dreamt of and lives spoilt in its pursuit over many generations. "The pearl of great price" .... "The best kept secret in (X)" ... "Orthodoxy - the Real Thing!" ... you know what I mean. Expectations are raised that becoming Orthodox will deliver on this great treasure. I will find my goal, my marriage will get sorted out, I will discover true peace; all this and more. Well, maybe.

Actually, becoming Orthodox is much more pedestrian than being on a treasure hunt and disillusionment lies not far behind any pedestal worship. Orthodoxy is simply being a Christian and in the most personally profound and challenging way. If you are not prepared then to change on becoming Orthodox and every day for the rest of your life then you will not find what you are looking for with us. If also you are looking for a sinless Church without any blemish then look not toward us but rather to yourself and learn first from your own heart.

Take time then to assess what you really want when you approach the Orthodox Church. There will always be a welcome for you but please, don't fool yourself. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God, (Hebrews 10:31) and that's what happens when you knock on that door. You don't want to be anywhere else though believe me. The smell of sulphur is too strong. Take your medicine. Glory shines from the cross.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


For the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. ..... For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
(1 Corinthians 18, 22-25)

I am just half way through reading Martin Palmer’s "The Jesus Sutras." It is a fascinating read. Palmer chronicles the first exposure of China to Christianity (albeit of the Nestorian heretical type) in the 7th century when missionaries from (probably) Baghdad brought the gospel to the magnificent Tang dynasty in a newly resurgent, open and united China. By all accounts these Christian missionaries were well received and allowed to work openly and without hindrance for 200 years before a subsequent Emperor shut down all “foreign religions” (including Buddhism).

Laying aside Palmer’s own politically correct anti-Roman prejudices and dealing with the facts it becomes abundantly clear that a presentation of the gospel that freely used Buddhist and Taoist language eventually succumbed to syncretism in which the Christian elements were eventually all but eclipsed. It is clear that these Chinese missionaries tried to present the gospel in terms accessible to a highly literate and advanced religious philosophical culture, which was and is a worthy aim. However, the gospel presented was too selectively skewed towards those sophianic (wisdom based) elements congenial to Buddhism and Taoism. Eventually these Christian communities lost their way and further compromised by their geographical and spiritual isolation from Orthodox Christianity succumbed. The fundamental error they made was to downplay the cross and the resurrection, precisely the centre of gravity of the whole Christian without which there is no good news at all. The scandalous elements of God-in-the-flesh dying and rising to destroy death gradually fell away from view.

Could such a thing happen again? Of course it could. It has happened many times before. The absence of the Cross turned Islam from a heretical mish-mash of Jewish, Christian and animist elements back into an old fashioned Semitic law based faith. The absence of the Cross turned secular post Renaissance humanism into a deist, Unitarian philosophy. The absence of the Cross in postmodern Christian pietism turned this into a semi-gnostic New Age spirituality. Some would argue even that the 19th century German pantheistic idealism of Hegel (the philosophical grandfather of Marx himself) drove the Russian theologians of the pre and post Revolutionary period toward a disincarnate and esoteric sophiology.

The scandalous aspect of Christianity, so vital to it being transformative good news is centred on the death and resurrection of Christ the Incarnate God-Man. Anything short of this simply isn’t Christian nor does it have the power to change the world. During the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross let us recall precisely that ... that it is Holy and Life-Giving for us all.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Dormition (15th August)

Although there is no historical record in Scripture concerning the death of our Lady, her repose is within the living memory of the Church and the revelation concerning these things imparted to us by God. On account of the lack of a primary witness in Scripture, however, the Dormition (Assumption) is not part of the public dogma of the Orthodox Church, (in the way it is with the Roman Catholic Church for example).

This does not mean that it is any less significant for us. Quite the contrary; the repose of the Theotokos is a great source of consolation and hope to us that we, with her, may enter the glory of the resurrection of her Son. The Dormition celebrates the great promise of the gospel that we may be glorified in Christ by living and dying well in the Faith and Life of the Church.

"Of the Church" is apposite here. Notice how the Church gathers around the bier of the Mother of God; St. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem leads the assembled company with St. Peter presiding at the funeral rites. The saints of God and the angels join the company of praise and intercession. Christ Himself, carrying the soul of his Mother tenderly, (as tenderly as she once carried Him), is the glory and central focus of the icon in the mandorla of heaven.

The Mother of God is one of us, born into this world under sin and yet not sinning, (Orthodox do not believe in the Immaculate Conception of our Lady which has too much to do with distorted Augustinian understandings of the transmission of original sin). Her perfect obedience to the Word of God and her Son is the portal of her entry into the heavenly kingdom, the first of many to be glorified in Christ. Her ascension prefigures our own if we, by grace, achieve that purity of heart which is our transparency to God and His transparency to us whereby he deifies us. This purity is no mere moralism. It is a completely changed life which is capable of sharing in Christ's death-destroying life. Let us pray that we one day will be received by Christ even as here He receives His Blessed Mother, the Ever-Virgin Mary. Amen.


Coming back from a pilgrimage last weekend I took a parishioner to see a truly remarkable sight, a wayside shrine to Our Lady on the Derbyshire moors overlooking Errwood Hall above the Goyt Valley. The Grimshaws of Errwood Hall were a notable Victorian wealthy family who converted to Roman Catholicism and who endowed parishes in Buxton (St. Anne), Whaley Bridge, my hometown (Sacred Heart) and extraordinarily, Levenshulme, on the very road where our Orthodox Church now stands. St. Mary’s moved from Clare Road much later but there was a convent of poor Clares there at one time, hence the name.

I have known this shrine since my boyhood as I grew up in this area. It was only recently however that I became better acquainted with the history. It still moves me that such an eloquent witness to the Incarnation (so Orthodox in composition as well!) should stand on a busy tourist road leading down from the moor to the Goyt Valley below. It is immaculately maintained and always has fresh flowers in the niche. I can only surmise that some parishioners from St. Anne’s in Buxton keep it so; praise God.

Of course in Greece, Russia and Eastern Europe you see such shrines all the time although in Greece and in the Greek islands they usually have a much more sombre significance marking the places where drivers have plunged to their deaths from accident hotspots on dangerous roads. Nonetheless, the principle is the same. Mark the place. Make Christ, His Mother and the saints visible. Hallow the ground.

I was once at a meeting – I shouldn’t give too many details to maintain privacy – when a gentleman started complaining bitterly about the inappropriateness and “littering” nature of an improvised shrine on a local road erected by grieving relatives for the loss of a loved one in an accident. This astonished and saddened me. It wasn’t (isn’t I should say, it’s still maintained 2 years later) a religious shrine but the basic idea of keeping a light, flowers and a photograph in place is thoroughly Orthodox in ethos. It hallows the memory and connects not just the family but the community as a whole with a “presence in absence.” It is sacramental in character; it makes spiritual things visible in a society that is embarrassed by such a witness; an amnesiac culture that would rather efface all such reminders from its common mind.

It seems to me that we Orthodox (as well as any other Christians of like mind) should start to make the artefacts of our faith visible again. It might be the dynamic visibility of a public procession, the static witness of a permanent public shrine, the temporary imagery of our faith in the media. Of course, this will be resisted. Our increasingly hard bitten secular society would rather tear down such landmarks ... but time after time after time, we must rebuild them. Lest we forget.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Orthodoxy - the Glory and the Shame

By the grace of God I am an Orthodox Christian; moreover I am also by the grace of God a priest serving God and His People in this Church. It was not the church of my baptism, that being the Church of England whose priesthood I also served for 12 years before becoming Orthodox. Grateful as I am to God for my nurturing in the Christian faith within the Anglican Church, I am aware that the last 12 years of my growth in the Orthodox Church have exceeded all my expectations and established me more securely in this Church than any other. Indeed without intending to offend my fellow Christians in other churches I truly believe that this is the one holy catholic apostolic Church that we see in the New Testament and unfolded through Christ in the Old. I cannot even begin to imagine being anywhere else. I shall die in this Church.

I say this because I want you, dear reader, to understand how much the Orthodox Church means to me. It is here that I have discovered the full depth and riches of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is my God-bearing family, and I a sinner find myself here amongst saints. It is a humbling thing to come home to God in Orthodoxy, knowing that if I can only repent, I also shall see the glory of the Lord.

Please also understand that I am a thinking, feeling, striving man, flesh and blood. I did not leave my critical faculties, my God given mind at the door upon entering holy Orthodoxy. I am no crypto-fundamentalist. I submitted to God as one who heals and strengthens me, who calls upon me to love him with all my heart, my mind, my soul, my strength. I cannot do that if I am an automaton, if submission simply means blind belief, unquestioning practice and a disabled conscience. God did not give me all my faculties for them to remain dormant. Serving Him means using them, transformed by His grace to their fullest extent.

By now you are probably feeling that there is a gathering storm here; that Father has lost the plot, that he is going to instruct Orthodoxy rather than be instructed by Orthodoxy, that he is reverting to type; an anguished crypto-Protestant Christian in reality, unable to accept the treasure that has been entrusted not only to him but also through him for and to the others in his care. Far from it! God forbid! If I speak against anything that the Church has handed down under inspiration of the Spirit, cease listening to me at that point. But, as you can probably gather by now; I am not an entirely happy man. How so?

Firstly and positively it must be said that I believe that Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy alone has kept the faith “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). It contains within it all that is necessary to set people free, to unite them with God and hallow all that is good and true. This is Orthodoxy – right belief, true glory. But there is another neglected “Ortho--,” OrthoPRAXY, meaning right or true action of practice. It is by our Orthopraxy that we fulfil and prove our Orthodoxy and it is here that I am troubled; first of course by myself.

Understand please that I am not here to “fix the Church.” If the Church is to be fixed it is I who must be fixed first. I am fixed by all the usual means ... it is the same for all Orthodox Christians: faith, repentance, denying oneself, following Christ, serving God in my sisters and brothers, acquiring the Holy Spirit. That’s not the problem. The problem I carry is that I cannot do my job properly as a priest of this Church because of certain dysfunctions, certain shortcomings in Orthopraxy in the Church at large. As I said, it is not my job to fix these. I am not the Holy Spirit nor am I a bishop charged with addressing such matters. I only ask that my concerns be heard so that I, together with my fellow ministers of the gospel both lay and ordained may become more faithful and effective stewards of the mysteries of God both in His Word and by His Sacraments, in living out the Gospel in the world.

What are these problems of Orthopraxy that hinder me in my work? The first has a fancy name. It is called phyletism. It first reared itself in 1872 when the Bulgarian patriarchate established a bishopfric in Constantinople (Istanbul) open only to Bulgarians. This was interpreting Orthodoxy simple as a national phenomenon, an adjunct of cultural identity rather than a subsistence in Christ in whom there is neither east nor west and certainly no earthly national sovereignty. Since then things have deteriorated fast. Because there has been no resolution of the issue as to who has the responsibility for the governance of Orthodox churches in the west, (although Constantinople claims that), all the Orthodox churches now more or less operate simultaneously on the same territory. The canonical requirement that there be just one bishop for one city or region has now been effectively abandoned.

The consequences of phyletism have been dire in the waste of resources, the rancour of competitive nationalisms and occasional out breaks of turf and culture wars. This means that as a pastor of an Orthodox community in a large northern city in England where there are only 5 functioning Orthodox parishes I have no fellowship with my fellow clergy and there is no collaborative work between these communities. “Well Father,” you might say, “What have YOU done to remedy that?” A lot actually, but eventually you stop knocking at the door when there is no answer or it is slammed shut in your face. It is not as if this is an isolated example, a little local difficulty. Estonia, Ukraine, London, (Sourozh – Amphipolis) ... it doesn’t take too long to chronicle recent examples of this dysfunctionality. It’s no use pretending that “things are not too bad really” and “let’s not wash our dirty linen in public.” I might be a little bit more restrained if steps were being actively taken to address these problems nationally and internationally; but I don’t see it and neither do most other observers. So, in this matter, I cannot do my job properly. Can somebody help?

The Orthodox Christian faith is simply the gospel and the gospel life in worship and witness. This faith and life is for all. Those who gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost to hear the Apostles preach ... “the Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” did not assemble to divide the Church up amongst themselves, they did so (to continue the quotation):- to “hear them (the Apostles) speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” Notice that - “in our own tongues.” In short they were diverse peoples in language and culture but united in the Word; they heard and were understood. The drive to mission therefore starts and returns to this point time after time. It is the Holy Spirit that makes this possible. This is what our own (Antiochian) Patriarch Ignatius once said about this Spirit-filled mission of the Church when he was Metropolitan Archbishop of Latakia:-

“Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organisation,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evocation,
Christian loving a slave mentality.
But in the Holy Spirit ...
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.”

Now I cannot do my job as a mission priest as effectively as I might because many Orthodox still think in terms of cultural reinforcement rather than gospel mission. This means that credibility for evangelism is continually undermined by such attitudes. Too often many Orthodox resort to the mantra “we don’t proselytise” when what that actually means is “we don’t want to present the gospel outside our own community to ANYONE unless they become exactly like us or at least tolerate a foreign language.” So instead of the Pentecostal principle of Church mission other deadly inward looking principles are substituted such as:- “Keep the community together, teach them (the British that is) Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, whatever which of course reinforces the idea that Orthodoxy is ‘just for us.’” You see how this ties into phyletism? It perpetuates this heresy by refusing Orthodoxy to new cultures and keeping by it as an artefact of nationality and an overseas culture. It’s hardly surprising that your average interested British person concludes that Orthodoxy is lovely but not for me ... because in this expression, it isn’t. Of course I CAN still do my job within a loose association of like-minded communities across most of the jurisdictions but this is a car firing on 1 or 2 cylinders, not 4. It is a vehicle that is not going very far and that, neither smoothly nor fast.

Finally I cannot do my job effectively we have lost the facility of speaking to the indigenous, that is, western culture. This is frequently written off as irredeemably Protestant or intractably Catholic. Such despair (for that is what it is) is used to justify lack of engagement within these cultures, losing in the process all possibilities of transforming them. Such churches then wonder why they are losing their young people but this only prompts further retrenchment as it seems to offer yet further proof that integration is dangerous and, therefore, impermissible.

This impacts on my ministry because the ethnically enclosed Orthodox communities that could offer so much from the wealth of their experience and history simply refuse to help. We need, for example, services written for the British Orthodox saints of the first millennium. We need theological assessments of contemporary issues raised in the west concerning human sexuality, the role of science, bioethics, community development and other social aspects of our culture. Even where there is such engagement, usually amongst predominantly convert communities in the US, the results are not always Orthodox in breadth and scope. Too often such contributions are compromised by the reactive neo-fundamentalist positions of those who see themselves as in flight of all things liberal and who have mistakenly supposed that Orthodoxy is the last and only refuge from these positions that they have rejected in their former churches. So in Orthodoxy, apparently, one can hate gays, believe in a 6 day creation, spit at the very mention of women deacons and pursue with legalistic fervour the minutiae of calendars and fasting, despising those who are not “true Orthodox” who have sold out to “the opposition.” Frankly, you might as well be Amish ... except that Amish are much nicer people. I will be able to do my job properly when our theologians who truly teach from the Scriptures and the Fathers enter the arena of theological debate, in English and for a western audience. Then we shall be able to present Orthodoxy as it actually is rather than the hateful distortion it has become in some quarters.

So, do you still love Orthodoxy Father? You bet! It’s just those who despoil Orthodoxy and refuse God’s call that I find difficult. I need them to support me in “speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” not undermine me in so doing. Of course I could respond to this situation by ignoring them. There’s one big problem about that. They are my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. I could no more ignore them than ignore myself or God. So, we have to work this one out together. But the first step is honesty and this is the genesis of this article. What happens next depends ...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Not Waving but Drowning

The recent exceptional flooding in the UK over a sustained period with water and sometimes electricity deprived to over 340,000 people has shown how crises can bring out both the best and the worst in people. Acts of heroism in rescuing endangered people have contrasted mindless and dangerous vandalism and greed in the poisoning or hijacking of precious water supplies. If this was a "real" emergency with widespread social disorder such sociopaths and looters would be shot on sight. Perhaps some brain dead monkeys haven't just quite realised yet what happens when survival becomes the name of the game. It's only when we skirt disaster like this that the stress fractures and fault lines in our social fabric become clear. Civilisation is a fragile disequilibrium at the best of times. It only needs a nudge and it falls over quite easily; perhaps even more easily when water comes out of tap rather than the local brook and food from the supermarket rather than the back garden.

The people of God over 4000 years have had their own "rude awakenings" so we should be alert to this issue by now. Century after century civilisations have come and gone, repression and violence has waxed and waned. A story is told of one of the fathers on Mount Athos who led a secluded eremitical life in his cell. He rarely received visitors but questioned one day one of his spiritual sons:- "And which empire my child today rules the known world?" That's an extreme example but the point is clear. For Christians human tragedy and glory are known alike and are in many ways unremarkable. We are prepared for both but unsettled by neither. We stand ready to greet Christ in the needy and respond to him in distress. Behold, the Bridegroom comes and we shall be ready ... will we not?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Sense in the senses

One of the most gruesome sights I can recall on TV (of a non violent nature) was of a speed eating contest. Donut after donut after donut, it never seemed to stop; bulging cheeks, inflated bellies, an obscenity of excess. This got me thinking about sensory overload, the gluttony of the overwhelmed senses. There is seemingly just no getting away from this assault on our inner life. The background noise that makes us fearful of silence, the visual drenching that leaves us blind, the adrenaline rush that demands attention but offers only diminishing returns.

Two things tend to happen at this point. Some switch off entirely and, stupefied, retreat into a frightened corner. Others, more wise, guard the senses and seek a place of retreat where the “is-ness” of things and God himself can be allowed to room to breathe in our souls. Here we can savour creation and God; we can truly “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Not overwhelmed by our passions we can attend to God and truly enjoy both Him and His world. I suppose it’s the spiritual equivalent of “chew your food” and the rationale of fasting. A piece of fruit that is eaten in a leisurely attentive fashion satisfies much more than a voracious and tasteless swallowing and gulping. In the former food is encounter, in the latter, food merely fuel.

Consider the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist and how much care and reverence attends the feast. We do not take Christ lightly, we prepare, we wait expectantly, we greet Him, we receive Him lovingly. In his great book “For the Life of the World” Fr. Alexander Schmemann reminds us what a holy event eating is and should be. This touches upon not only Holy Communion but any good thing that we consume. It is that fatal separation of the physical and the spiritual that lies behind our peculiarly western sickness; the deadening idea that nothing common is holy. Left to our passions and our own devices in a God-erased world, that which is truly good turns to sickening dust and ashes in our mouths.

How then can we regain our senses unless we first train them? We cannot. We must, particularly as Orthodox Christians, exercise restraint in order to appreciate God, each other and the good things He has given us. We must give him thanks before, during and after we consume and measure what we want by what we need. If not, we shall not only finally destroy ourselves but also the very planet that we live on. We must once again in Christ become priests and not destroyers of creation.

The time is short. Even as we live so shall we die and dying well, that is to ourselves, so shall we live forever in God the Giver of all good things. Glory be to Him for all his many and excellent gifts! Savour them well.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"Apparently Intelligent?"

On a number of occasions in recent days the media when reporting on the failed terrorists attacks in London and Glasgow referred to the alleged perpetrators as "intelligent", "apparently intelligent" and "well educated."

Now this was no mere description but in the context of the commentary an expression of surprise - as if intelligence or a good education and terrorist actions (in contrast to, say, planning) were incompatible.

This seems to be a common error in liberal societies to assume that only the deranged, the intellectually feeble or the impressionable resort to premeditated violence. How this view can be maintained in the light of the long history of human intelligent malevolence is the real surprise here.

However, when we consider the prevailing assumption here that education and material enrichment promote civilised values, the contrast with a Christian analysis of the problem becomes startlingly clear. In the Christian assessment of human bestiality it is the contrast between humility and arrogance, wisdom and knowledge, impassioned rage and repentant transformation that brings understanding. One has to know how ordinary people, whether intelligent and well educated or not, can so easily be corrupted when the conditions are right ... and the conditions are "right" at this time.

We face outworking of a long process in the post colonial period. We have victors and victimhood, a clash of cultures and aspirations if not civilisations. We have very intelligent extremely well educated trouble makers who want to destabilise the whole world in the pursuit of a global Islamic theocracy. This is not some little local problem. This is a struggle for the soul of the planet ... and most can't see it, or refuse to see it.

It goes without saying (or should) that this battle, therefore, is subtle, spiritual and deep. It is not to be engaged only with natural vigilance and cunning but also with a guileless pursuit of justice, peace and freedom. One wonders really whether our rulers realise this, whether they understand the true nature of the struggle here. I really do hope so. Much depends on it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Orthodoxy Lost and Found

Helen and I have just come back from a short vacation break in mid-Wales. We dodged the showers and savoured the delights of the Welsh countryside and renowned hospitality of an artistic Celtic culture. Where, however, was God in this fair land of green clad hills and ancient springs? I suppose I mean, where was God in the culture, for He was everywhere to be seen in the landscape. In human terms though there was a curious vacancy, of a time long forgotten, of as Peter Berger once said “a rumour of angels” but now barely heard. There were of course churches and chapels to be seen.

The churches in rural mid-Wales are pretty, compact, well maintained on the whole. They seem nonetheless to suffer from a certain cultural disconnection except when hosting concerts for the tourists in tourist areas. Does God matter though to the Welsh? The chapels have fared even worse. Village after village after village embarrasses itself with the crumbling facades of the long gone 19th century Welsh revival. It’s as if the dragon roared but the fiery embers were always destined to grow cold and forgotten. But why? Why could not the fire of Christ ignite Welsh culture beyond the immediate generation of those original (largely) Methodist apostles? Why is Wales now seemingly so neglectful of the faith of David, Non, Seiriol, Illtyd, Dyfrig, Gildas, Dwynwen, Melangell, Gwenfrewy, Winefride, Beuno, Asaph and countless others?

The same questions could and should be raised for England, Scotland and perhaps to a lesser extent Ireland, north and south. Why have the landmarks of sanctity in the lives of the Christian heroes of these lands been erased from the public mind, confined to the private realm of the dwindling faithful and the secular archives of the historian? Why has Christianity become disconnected from the culture and replaced by a secular mind more entertained by New Age fripperies and the gods of multiculturalism? As Anglo-Catholic priest Fr. Eric Mascall once wrote as a title to a book:- “Whatever happened to the Christian mind?”

The trouble is that the Orthodox know the answer but few seem to understand the question. We say, of course, that Britain has both forgotten the treasure (our Orthodox faith) and where she has buried it (in the distortions of Rome and Geneva). The incomprehension of the post-Orthodox Christian in the face of this answer is understandable for too many years have passed since the burying and the earthworks have now all but gone. The preachers of the Welsh Revival and all the other revivals of British Non-Conformity faced the problem of Christianity’s decline during the Industrial Revolution but they didn’t do their homework; they didn’t look for the buried treasure but rather they mistook fool’s gold for the real thing. They can’t be blamed for this. They were children of their time drawing by godly revolt from a contaminated source, mistaking its corruption for purity, its artifice for authenticity. The writing was on the wall no sooner had the wall been built.

There are some Orthodox who say that British (or if you like, English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish) Orthodox Christianity is dead and incapable of being revived. These claim that only through a fresh infusion of Orthodoxy with a very clear “country of origin” sticker attached will the real thing be recognised once more. I beg to disagree ... most profoundly! It is no solution at all to point a lost soul to a foreign country just because he has got lost in his own. We need to need to repaint the signs; not have them repositioned in a new direction. St. Arsenios of Paros, a Greek saint of the 19th century knew this full well. He said presciently ...

“When the Church in the British Isles begins to venerate her own Saints then the Church will grow.” St. Arsenios of Paros (+1877)

This is the remedy for the amnesia of the British. Let them see their own saints again ... not just in the churches (that they may never frequent) but in the countryside, in the cities, in the towns. We need to reconnect Christ and Culture the Orthodox way. We need to roll back of the desert of secularism by touching the heart, by restoring the memory, by energising the will. We need to get out there and make Christ visible again.

Friday, June 08, 2007

"Physician, heal Thyself" (Luke 4:23)

Plenty of folk have remedies for reforming their religion. If a spirituality doesn't suit, get a new one. If your pastor isn't to your taste, find one that is. If you disagree with your denomination, maybe strike out and form a new one. How far this is from New Testament teaching concerning the Church! The Church is simply the believers in one place, one body, partaking of the breaking of the bread, the apostles' teaching and fellowship and prayers, (Acts 2:42). She isn't our 'plaything' ... our pet project, our 'bete noir', our favourite punch bag. Self appointed 'popes' abound, self righteous architects of a better, more modern and relevant Christianity ministering only to their own egos and desires.

Hear what the Athonite elder Paisius said about this:-

"If one hopes to help the Church, one would be better to correct oneself, and not others. If you correct yourself, then a small part of the Church will be corrected. And it is obvious that if everyone did that, then the Church would be brought into perfect order. But people today are occupied with everything possible except themselves, because it is easy to fix others, but it requires effort to fix oneself."

Let us endeavour by grace first to "fix oneself."

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Modest Little Proposal

Should the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church ever reunite a new conciliar structure would be required to serve the unity of the Church. The details are difficult to foresee but the general shape might just be discernible.

Each autocephalous church would be represented by its patriarch or pope. The Bishop of Rome would facilitate this body by convening and presiding in love. Any participating hierarch could petition Rome for a meeting and should this be supported by the other churches, the Pope would call his brothers together.

There would be one rule. Any decision would only be effective if it had the unanimous assent of all. “Never the Twelve without Peter; never Peter without the Twelve.”

Clearly there are huge questions left unresolved by this proposal ... the balance of primacy and authority amongst the brethren and with Peter, the relationship to the faithful and Tradition, the linkages between the Pope’s own apostolic role and that of an Ecumenical Council, the day by day administration of the Church to name but a few. Nonetheless, these can be worked out if the questions of primacy and conciliarity have first been satisfactorily resolved in a spirit of love and truth.

There remain also significant challenges to be faced in the mentality and wounded history of both churches. How can we seek that honesty and generosity of spirit that might recover through forgiveness and reconciliation that primordial Christocentric unity that Christians once had across the Oikumene? Only the Holy Spirit can forge such a new mindset. For this to happen, contrary forces are going to have to “move out of the way” ... on both “sides.”

Many will probably not be very popular for supporting such explorations and the temptations to further schism will be great (especially, sadly I feel amongst the Orthodox). Remaining as we are though is simply not an option. Christian unity in truth is never a luxury but a vital component of preaching and living out the gospel. It’s about time we took this challenge more seriously; in the Orthodox constituency at least.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Trinity - Knowing God

I guess that thousands of volumes have been written and millions of sermons have been preached concerning the doctrine of the Trinity over the last 2000 years. Don’t worry. I am not about to try and condense these into a grossly inadequate summary here. There is a much simpler starting point and it has to do with experience.

In truth, the Orthodox Church has it right when she claims that the Trinity is a doxological reality in the Church; that is it concerns worship, and therefore, experience. It was an encounter with the living Christ that convinced a group of monotheist Jews that Christ was God along with the Father. It was the experience of being filled with the Spirit at Pentecost that convinced these disciples that God remained present with them in this Gift and that they should ascribe Godhead to the Holy Spirit also. Interestingly, when St. Basil the Great wrote much later on the Trinity he justified giving glory TO the Father, TO the Son and TO the Spirit he in part appealed to the received practice of worship. This is a source in Tradition for the Orthodox along with the Scriptures and the witness of our God-bearing fathers and mothers in the faith.

Bearing this perspective in mind, when those claiming to be Christians deny the Trinity, one cannot help but conclude that they have not encountered the living Christ who saves; they have not been filled with the Pentecostal Spirit who imparts holiness. It isn’t that they are being wilfully contentious or difficult, it’s just that the experience of God-with-us, tripersonally, has not been present. Therefore, when confessing the Trinity, merely arguing about it one way or the other achieves little or nothing. The way to the Trinity is an invitation to know God personally. There is no other sure route.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sharks without Daddies, Sky without Theology

You heard it here first. Sharks do not need salvation! They are utterly sinless. All that bad press from Mr. Spielberg and others is just a put-up job. Sharks are pure ... and that's official. Or at least according to SKY TV News. Not that I blame SKY specifically for theological illiteracy. The error of confusing IMMACULATELY conceived (that is, without taint of original sin according to Roman Catholic dogma) and VIRGINALLY conceived (that is, without a daddy in traditional Christianity as a whole) is commonplace. It is sloppy journalism though. I don't know anything about cars but I wouldn't dream of commenting on carburettors unless and until I had researched the basics. So, until then with SKY we chant: "Hail O long-toothed one! Your bite saves us!"

The real story of course is that female sharks, under certain circumstances, can give birth without the aid of a male. Right on selachimorphae sisters! Down with shark patriarchy!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Seeing What's Really There

Tony Blair's former press officer, Alistair Campbell famously once intervened when the Prime Minister was asked a question about faith and politics. "We don't do God," he stated curtly. Well, modern liberal secular politicians, even if believers, don't generally "do God" but that doesn't mean that belief is irrelevant to how leaders lead and the projects they pursue.

Both Blair and Brown are practising Christians. Tony is your fairly typical middle-of-the-road liberal Anglican with a social conscience, somewhat emasculated by Thatcherism, but also, and untypically, with an old-fashioned imperial "let's teach Johnny-foreigner civilised values" foreign policy. Gordon is a son of the Kirk, (presbyterian Church of Scotland), brought up in a strict Sabbatarian, Protestant work ethic, social-justice-prophecy environment. He is able, therefore, to square the circle of capitalism, self reliance and international development without worrying too much about the Calvinist inconsistencies between the various strands of his thought.

From an Orthodox Christian point of view, this got me thinking. What would an Orthodox Christian Prime Minister look like in a British context? What would be his or her agenda. Would he or she "do God" ... explicitly or implicitly?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Moscow and ROCOR reconciled

It is an occasion for great rejoicing that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), the (originally) old White-Russian emigre church has now enterred into canonical communion with the formerly Red-accommodating/resisting Moscow patriarchate. This sympathetic observer is mindful of the following spin-off questions.

(1) What of the other "Russian" jurisdictions ... the Exarchate based in Paris under Constantinople, the ROCOR refuseniks (who are now getting even more entrenched in isolationism) and the much troubled Orthodox Church in America (OCA - the old Russian Metropolia established BEFORE the Revolution)? Should they or could they consider loosening something of their jurisdictional autonomy?

(2) The question broached in (1) is not at all likely to be positively answered unless Moscow can show by its actions that its presence outside of Russia is not just for Russians but rather, in the best tradition of Russian missionary activity, for all those who wish to worship and serve God in their own native tongue and culture.

Time will tell.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Going Up?!

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, famously declared on reaching the heavens that he had found no god. We take this so much for granted nowadays that unless Gagarin was being supremely ironic, we laugh to think that anyone could have thought that God was "up there." That the Soviets saw this as an atheistic propaganda coup is astonishing!

[I am grateful to Trevor in the first comment on this article that Gagarin was almost certainly not the author of this comment, (ed. Fr. Gregory)].

John Lennon probably wasn't being ironic either when he wrote this piece of theological drivel for his 1971 "Imagine" album:-

"Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today..."

So, clearly, as late as the 1960's and 1970's, many people still presupposed that God's existence depended on some ancient long superseded celestial topography. How extraordinary!

However, as this article makes clear, ["Is Heaven the Sky?] "God living in the sky" was precisely what the ancients supposed. This is the cosmology of Genesis and how irrelevant it is now to what we know about this planet and the Universe in which it is set.

On the 16th May, the Church celebrates the Ascension of Christ. This is a vitally important feast for Orthodox Christians as it affirms a central truth of our faith. Simply put, it is that in the resurrection of Christ, our humanity has been refashioned, glorified. This is a new creation of God in which even the physicality of our new bodies is not constrained by the spatial and temporal limits of the spacetime continuum in this Cosmos, (as we might say today).
We must not suppose, therefore, that Christ literally ascended into the clouds and had to use an oxygen mask, then later a vacuum sealed space suit. What nonsense is this! Rather, Christ ascended to the Father, taking our humanity, glorified with him and in him. This is why Christ came, to complete the work that the Father had intended for our good in creation.

What might, therefore, characterise an ascended humanity, aside from its already mentioned discontinuous existence in an unspecified transcendent state? First and foremost this would be a humanity that had left sin, suffering and death far behind.

The biblical way of referring to this is the "New Jerusalem" but again we must put away all carnal and this worldly descriptions of this paradisal state. Jesus himself said concerning marriage:- "When they rise from the dead they will neither marry nor be given in marriage but will be like angels in heaven" (Mark 12:25). This by the way is the most striking difference between Paradise in Islam, (also the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses), and that of the Orthodox Church.

Clearly a world in which there was no sin, evil, suffering or death is NOT in any way like our own broken creation. That is why, eventually, Christ had to leave it physically in order that he might open up the new reality of the Kingdom of God fully to his followers ... that, indeed, we might ascend to "where" he had gone before. To this end he promised to send the Spirit from the Father at Pentecost ... for knowing what and where we are called to be does not solve the HOW of acquiring that state. The Church then became the gathering of a new humanity, one in which the advances hitherto of evolutionary adaptation seem tame in the extreme. The Ascension is not so much "up" therefore as "one vast leap forward" for humankind. All that is required from us is a life consecrated to Christ that we might become by grace what he is by nature ... ASCENDED!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

And God created Gliesians

Part Two - Divine Images

Observation has shown recently that only 20.5 light years away there is a planet 1.5 times the diameter of earth with 5 times its mass orbiting much closer in to a cooler star. On account of its close, tight orbit, although its year is only 13 days, the surface temperature should be remarkably earthlike. This appears to be a rocky world so we might surmise the presence of surface water without which life (as we know it) seems improbable. Have we at last found another earth? Well, hardly. There are a lot of "ifs" and "maybes" here but this is probably the best candidate yet for an earth-like planet in our galactic neighbourhood.

Now, just suppose that this planet did have life, even (stretching the probabilities) intelligent life. How would Christian theology respond to such a situation? Doubtless there would be some "creationist" Christians who would deny any significance to such a "find." For them humans and humans alone are made in the divine image.

I suspect that Orthodox Christians would have a much more open and inclusive theological approach ... or at least I hope so. We are approaching the feast of the Ascension of Christ. Orthodoxy believes that in this ineffable event Christ took our humanity into the heart of God where it acquired the deification by grace that Christ had by nature. The compatibility of God and humanity is presupposed by this teaching but why should such compatibility be limited to humanity? Whatever the divine image is in humans it is clear from the Scriptures that we are made in God's image not God in ours. There is every reason to suppose, therefore, that if Gliesians exist, God made them, loves them and takes them to himself. God's character and actions are not quixotic but have all the dependability that his love confers upon them. I suspect that the Divine Logos will have had many incarnations on many different worlds ... or at least I am not constrained by my faith necessarily to think otherwise.

I will leave the last word with Alice Meynell in her wonderful poem, "Christ of the Universe."

With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us. These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.

But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord's entrusted Word.

Of His earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.

No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.

Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens he guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way,
Or His bestowals there, be manifest.

But, in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.

Oh be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The infinite forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

Cosmic Wonder and Human Scales

Part One - Big Bangs

15 million years before the first dinosaurs walked the earth, a star in a distant galaxy, (NGC 1260), some 150 times the size of our sun, exploded in a devastating supernova explosion. Last September the light reached earth and for 200 or more days has outshone in brilliance any previously known supernova, much brighter in fact than that of its host galaxy.

The power of this dying star, anonymously catalogued as SN 2006gy, is the power of birth. Supernovae account for the presence of heavy elements in suns such as our own given that they are too small and cool to have produced them by our their own fusion processes. Life without supernovae would not be possible.

Moreover we have our own SN 2006gy ticking away to destruction just 7500 light years away in our own Milky Way galaxy. A little smaller perhaps at 120 solar masses, this star, Eta Carinae has already had a mini-eruption, observed in the 19th century. Being much nearer, when this star fully explodes, you will be able to read a book by its light at night time and it will be plainly visible during the day. It could happen at any time; although it may have already happened and its radiation would now be racing across the stellar void so that it can "happen" here. Life on earth is probably safe. The supernova would have to involve a gamma ray burst on a very narrow trajectory cone to to threaten us here ... but you get the point. The Cosmos is a dangerous violent place. It has to be if the building blocks of life (the "dust" of Genesis) are to be in place waiting the "breath of God" (Genesis 2:7).

In a now-famous statement, at the end of his book "The First Three Minutes", (1977), the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg wrote that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." In effect Weinberg was claiming that science paints a picture of our universe as a vast purposeless place in which we can see no evidence of a point for ourselves as human beings. Weinberg has now joined the likes Richard Dawkins and other atheistic scientists in an evangelical crusade against religion; yet, as a Jew and unlike Dawkins, he remains wistful for the passing of what he must deny. But is the conclusion - that the Universe is cold, violent, purposeless and devoid of God, rational?

I submit that this question cannot simply be resolved by observation and the explanatory power of scientific theory. We need such methods and operations to understand physical phenomena but it is quite a step to deny the legitimacy of existential questions as if these were simply the lazy and unwarranted speculations of "dust refusing to be dust." It seems strange to me that cosmic wonder should so readily escape those who behold the stars, those who hold life in their hands. Ever since I can remember I have had an intuition about God from the wonder of creation. I gaze at the novas remains of a nebula and I am at once "homo adorans" ... which is why I find Weinberg's melancholy before the apparently cold cosmic vastness so incomprehensible.

Actually I think that we have two problems here. The first concerns the God bearing potential of creation. The Protestant Reformation denied this. It stripped away the sacramental character of the physical realm. It demystified the material world, banishing the spiritual to the private and mental sphere. All science in the west has been conducted in this context since. It has non too subtly shaped popular perceptions of the Cosmos as God-less. Pietism has been its bedfellow. Some (but not all) scientists who are believers sometimes seem to pursue their scientific work quite independently of their spiritual lives; much in the manner of the divorce between public-fact and private-feeling.

The second problem concerns the impoverished vision of the pietist's God who could barely manage to create a good souffle let alone the Cosmos we see through our telescopes. From an Orthodox point of view, his "God" is just too small or rather we say that the true God is beyond all conceptions of size and temporality. Likewise in the "nothing-buttery" of the atheist for whom by definition nothing can exist "outside" the Universe (since the Universe is "everything") the conclusion has been presupposed in the very act of enquiry. How is this a rational open ended approach to the question of why there is anything at all, not just the actual vast Cosmos we see (and the others perhaps that we cannot)?

I guess I am just asking for a bit more humility, not just of the Copernican sort that accepts our smallness in the Cosmos but also of the existential and philosophical sort. There are no knock down incontrovertible arguments for or against the existence of God from creation but there is wonder. Our response to who we are and what we are cannot be exhausted by our ability to explain physical phenomena. Even the biggest bang of the largest supernova cannot match the enormity of the deepest questions that such wonder evokes.

Monday, May 07, 2007

All the King's Horses and all the King's Men

Humpty Dumpty ... who done it?

“Well, he sure weren’t pushed! Guess the old ellipsoid got a bit careless!”

Notes from the police file ...

PRIDE ... he was a top-of-the-wall kind of guy. He needed to be there and he needed others to see how improbably he had achieved the great feat of his ascent.
PERILOUS DISEQUILIBRIUM ... but then, it only took a wobble, no great thing to start with, but then a helpless fall to a scrambled fate.
IRREVERSIBLE ENTROPY ... Humpty learned all too soon the lesson of increasing entropy, the tendency to disorder. No earthly power could mend that logic.

Humpty has things to teach us about maintaining the integrity of the Church and her faith. If pride gets “in the works” as it were, people start thinking that they know better than their forebears; that they need to remake Christianity after their own image (desires, inclinations, opinions) or to appeal to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Sometimes this involves removing key elements or adding new ones. The result is that the whole enterprise is destabilised. Instead of more people being drawn into the Kingdom of God through repentance and transformation, the “Church” (for this is no church) shrinks both in extent and depth. Instead of God being at the centre, man once again takes centre stage and all is shattered.

A little later in this process of decline some people wake up to the real and dire situation in which they find themselves. However, although they see Humpty broken at their feet they wrongly surmise that he is not broken beyond repair. They make the serious error of not understanding entropy, of supposing that the shattering is reversible. Re-forming Humpty is a noble but hopeless task. Vainly do they attempt to mend the poor fellow by, for example:-

(1) Putting a belief back that had been formerly abandoned. However, by now the interconnections and morphology of belief have changed. The former faith has been reconfigured. There are no spaces for the “missing piece.” You can see this classically with the Orthodox understanding of the resurrection. If the west was to return to that, its understanding of the cross would have to change. Its understanding of the cross would have to change because its belief concerning God and Man remained unreformed. Its understanding of God and Man would then have to change because the divine nature and the human predicament would otherwise remain seriously distorted ... and so on, and so on. Beliefs cannot be “re-tweaked” by human intervention and manipulation once compromised. This also applies to just about every other aspect of Christian life and worship. Once the Orthodox Christian ethos has been lost it cannot be conjured back from this starting point of fracture. The king’s horses and men have tried ... and failed, miserably.

(2) Copying what they remember of Humpty before his fall, in effect starting all over again with a “new egg.” For how many years, centuries even, have disillusioned Christians left their churches to form their own new churches wherever, supposedly, all would be made well again? And when this fails, (as fail it must), what then? Where then? Sadly, too often this meant the end of the line for these Christians, a damaged faith and no church or simply atheism as a new fundamentalism replacing former certainties. But must such an enterprise be doomed to fail? Well, to be fair, not necessarily. Consider though what needs to happen for it to succeed. EVERY aspect of Orthodox Christianity would need to be re-constituted from scratch. This would require extreme humility from the church leadership. If, for example, a prevailing idea had been that Mary should have no prominent place in Christian piety and worship and if the New Church research revealed that indeed she had always had an honoured place in the Christian assembly then that would have to change, without compromise, prevarication or qualification. Who would have the grace to respond to that challenge? Historically it has happened as in the recent case of the Campus Crusade for Christ groups in America that embarked on a long period of exploration and discovery that led them eventually into the Orthodox Church through the reception of their own transformed communities. You can read an account of such a journey by Fr. Gregory Rogers in his article “From Evangelical to Orthodox”. Nonetheless such bloc conversions from churches outside Orthodox en masse are exceptional and rare. It can be a hard lesson to learn that Humpty cannot humanly be put back together again.

If these are the problems associated with the Humpty strategy for Church reform what may we characterise as the tried and tested way? The answer will not satisfy some because it involves sacrificing a key part of the western heterodox Christian mentality, independence. This can be very difficult for some people to do. Consider the so-called Continuum or continuing Anglican churches. These bodies, on both sides of the Atlantic comprise Christians who have grown weary and disillusioned with contemporary Anglicanism and who have often shown a long interest in either Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christianity. However, so often when the crunch comes, (doubting the resurrection or some key aspect of Christian dogma, the priesting of women etc.), these Christians do not follow up their interest in Catholicism or Orthodoxy and especially if they are not promised some form of “special treatment” that allows them to keep cherished aspects of Anglican spirituality and life. Independence is a spirit far stronger in such cases than humility. The irony of course is that it is precisely this spirit of independence that led their former ecclesiastical allegiance into rejected unwelcome paths in the first place. Be that as it may, the Continuum remains a dead end ... being neither accountable to anyone else nor being in communion with anyone else.

So to return to the key question, what is the tried and tested way? Simply, to return home as quickly as possible; not temporising or shrinking behind a wall of cowardice, rationalising that godless anxiety in all the countless ways that make delay seem to the responsible thing to do. If saving truth lies in such and such a direction, saving faith means that you delay not but rather trust God, pick up as far as you can all those for whom you are responsible and who wish to travel with you AND MOVE, now, today.

There is a wall that Humpty has neither scaled nor will ever scale.
There is a Humpty that is full of new life.
Let neither the king’s horses nor the king’s men distract you from finding that “egg” entire, whole and complete.
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