Different approaches: East vs West

In relation to my previous post on The Vision of Theophilus, I was doing a little reading and ran across some interesting comments from a Coptic Orthodox priest on the relationship of faith and scholarship. The source is Be Thou There: The Holy Family’s Journey in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra (American University in Cairo Press, 2001), page 114.

These are the words of Father Philoxenos of the Monastery of the Holy Virgin, Dayr al-Muharraq, Upper Egypt:

Not every fact of history is recorded in historical documents. Let’s not speak about Theophilus, but consider instead the Prophet Isaiah, who wrote about the altar in the midst of Egypt. The proof of Isaiah is stronger than Theophilus. We first depend on the Bible, then we have the doctrines of the Apostles, and the third source is Tradition. These are the three sources of faith of the Coptic Orthodox Church. We do not base our belief on Theophilus only, but on Isaiah.

You see, Coptic people are a very religious people. We have a strong belief in the Bible, in the Church, the sayings of the Church, and the history of the Church. We can’t deny that there are many stories that are exaggerated. We don’t deny this. But we have faith in our Church Fathers and in what they say. This is a very strong source for the people of Egypt.

The first source we depend on is faith. If historical evidence adds something that confirms it, it is fine, it is acceptable. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter because I already have the faith in my heart.

I look at whether such a story is a benefit to the faith. If what people believe makes their faith stronger and vital, fine, that is acceptable. But if a certain story contradicts accepted belief and dogma, we must oppose it.

[On those in Egypt who believe their various churches were visited by the Holy Family:] It is some kind of spiritual pride and a kind of blessing. They want to be connected to the Holy Family, and that is not a problem, because it is not against the dogma and not against tradition. Here the people are not so focused on the history but on spiritual things. We are not talking about research of a PhD on the Holy Family. We are talking about faith, blessings, miracles, about something spiritual. What benefit do we have if we confirm it here and cancel it there? But this is not accepted in the Western world. They ask for documents, proof, and if you don’t have proof, it can’t be true. That is a different way of thinking.

Indeed! “That is a different way of thinking” from that of the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church as well.

I think in part it boils down to the simple choice of where one has one’s heart: on things of the flesh, or on things of the Spirit; on the temporary things of this age, or on the things of eternity. The salvation of the soul is the most important thing that a person can focus on, and should be focusing on. Matters of historical truth are not important when such do not contradict the dogma of the Church. That is a very important point, very clearly brought forth by Fr Philoxenus above, and instantly thought-provoking. Fr Philoxenus (and others whom I’ve spoken to) have a very healthy attitude, not denying that there are “exaggerations” but that these serve a purpose other than documentary, something that the Western approach fails in grasping anymore, which is quite sad. Our cultures have gone so far down a particular path of intellectualism that they can no longer be touched by the faith-stirring and wonder-inducing accounts of Saints and their doings that are still living wells of inspiration for the, frankly, much stronger faith found amongst others. I speak also for myself, as the wonder I felt as a child all around me, and throughout my reading of the Bible, is now in so many ways attenuated by having my head crammed full of intellectualist ideas about the Bible. It is only with great difficulty that I am recovering that sense of wonder, and part of the help is precisely in reading the Lives of the Saints, where, despite my own failures, I am moved and changed, through the merciful working of the Holy Spirit, it must be, because I can’t be doing that alone!

In any case, it’s something to think about.

Love and Marriage

Recently I’ve had some very interesting, though very saddening, conversations. I don’t know what it is about me, maybe I’m just a good listener, but people tend to open up and tell me things that they most likely would rather just not talk about. It’s an interesting position, and one that I at times regret. These days, almost always.

In any case, I’ve noticed now personally something that I’ve only previously been anecdotally aware of: the confusion of love as passionate attraction, and the definition of a properly working marriage or relationship as one in which that passion is alive. I suppose that it’s so ingrained in us by our typical cultural intake (by which I mean the vileness and intellectual vapidity that is entertainment-industrial escapism) that I doubt there’s any way to rescue people who have already been deeply immured in this quagmire but by the grace of God. But there is likewise a kind of recalcitrant clinging to unreality lying behind this, a denial of one’s own changing through time, that may be the root rather than the tree of the whole situation.

There seems to be no understanding that love has phases in a relationship, and that the very active passion of youth will give way to a more sedate relationship as time goes on. Heaven forfend that these people actually realize and admit to themselves and others that they’re aging, and that neither their minds nor their bodies are the same as they were when they were twenty-two years of age! At forty-four, one’s perspective had better be different, as one’s body certainly will be, as at sixty-six and at eighty-eight. To deny such is unrealistic to the point of ridicule, yet is is so very common. In the autumn of life, it should be understood that the comfort of a long-present partner, when all else around one will have been changing ceaselessly and frenetically, will be one of the greatest comforts of all–a stable and constant companion, one who’s weathered all the storms of life at one’s side. What a thing to look forward to! It is the unchanging, after all, that we ought to appreciate most in our lives. Yet, again, our culture teaches us that change is unequivocally good by default, and yet that paradoxically the retention of unrealistic youth is somehow a good thing. This is tied to the image of progress in the secularist gospel of social evolution, and in what one might call the socialist gospel of religious liberals which both seek to establish the Kingdom of God here and now through legislative means (though neither would necessarily name their goal thus or admit to this goal). All of this shows willful ignorance, a recalcitrant self-blinding of one’s eyes to aging, to change, to entropy, all the while proclaiming a paradoxical freedom to retain their youthfulness and not have their will thwarted. It is the mentality of a herd of two-year-old children. They would like to ignore their mortality, which is nevertheless always present, and their dissatisfaction in being reminded of changing bodies and relationships is unacceptable in the extreme. Their discomfort with this situation then expresses itself in dissatisfaction with the marriage that reminds them every day of this change, with the idea that out of it, somehow they’ll be younger, freer, happier, when in reality they will be starting from scratch, old and half-worn, deprived of the long-lasting stability and comfort later in life of one constant companion through thick and thin, through joys and sorrows, agreements and arguments, successes and failures, lives and deaths. It’s so selfish and so sad.

They ignore the possibility of letting love, real love, grow and change in their growing and changing lives with someone else. I find this deeply saddening.

The Plan

The goal in the plan of God is that human beings become like the resurrected and glorified Christ, that is, that they attain a heavenly, eternal existence.

John & Adela Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God, p. 121

The trick lies in effecting this!

Reading about instead of reading

You know what bugs me about my reading habits? I’ve gotten into kind of a rut in which I’m reading good books about great books.

The latest example is the Burton-Christie book The Word in the Desert which I mentioned in my previous post, which is a book about the Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. None of what Burton-Christie writes about the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is revolutionary or innovative. It’s simply stuff that’s there in the text and available to the sympathetic and attentive reader. In this sense it reminds me of Derwas Chitty’s masterpiece (much more impressive for the amount of work it evidences, which I don’t think Burton-Christie would quibble with at all) The Desert a City. But, again, these are good books, even excellent books about great books, books and writings which stand in a completely different category.

So why am I not more often reading the great books?

I see that one reason is that I don’t want to take such a book as the Philokalia into my local pub and perhaps spill something on it. And although I’ve always found the noise of a café or pub to be conducive to reading (those are what I habitually did my studying in, in university), I just don’t feel right bringing the Evergetinos or the sermons of St Gregory Palamas into a bar, to be blunt. (And I used to, and my friends found it interesting, but I seldom would get reading done, anyway.) So, don’t go to the bar, right? Read at home, right? Where I’ve got all this other stuff I should be doing, too (three books in preparation, three handritten pages of a To Do list for the summer, and a laundry pile larger than I am), right? Okay, so out on the street corner under the streetlamp reading? (Another favorite spot!) Some of these books are heavy. My hands can’t hold them up for too long before wearing out. Also, I don’t want to get any of these books, some quite expensive, dirty by spilling coffee/beer on them, or dropping them, or possibly having them swiped from my table (it’s happened), or dropped and banged up by my clutzy tired hands (that’s happened too).

But these practical matters are, I think, just excuses I’m making to avoid diving in and paying attention, getting to work, knuckling down spiritually, you might say. Is that so surprising? Don’t we tend to avoid what’s best for us sometimes just when we need it? There’s that at root, partly.

This is especially the case with the Bible. I don’t know how many books I’ve read about the Bible, using up time that would have been much, much (millions of times!) better spent in simply reading the Bible itself. Not only do we have a cacophonous pandemonium (let the reader understand!) in the commentaries and journals and just about anything Bible-related, so little of it even remotely edifying or even interesting, we have very little incentive to weed through it all. The ideal of scholarship is to be widely read and to be able to discuss all aspects of an issue from an informed perspective. That sounds noble and correct. Only the Bible is not an academic treatise, a product of Reason. It is the work of the Prophets, a product of Faith. And regarding the books under consideration, this is the dichotomy: the “good books about” are products of reason, whereas the “great books” are products of Faith. These latter, to the discerning, truly belong in a different category. This is not only because they hold a “classic” status in a religious community and are therefore honored by proxy. It is because they are ontologically different. Their words work differently than those same words work when used by others. The reasons are: Inspiration and Revelation. Is it no wonder that those who are best qualified to write about such things typically ending up simply contributing to the body of them rather than the commentary on them? Only the inspired succeed, but then as they are inspired and their own words are a sort of revelation, their works become honored as more than just “a good book about a great book” and become “a great book” on their own. In any case, to subject a work of one realm to the ministrations of the other realm always ends badly. The realms are entirely separate. The Spiritual is not accessible to the Rational, contra Scholasticism and all its legitimate and illegitimate children. The Rational is thoroughly accessible to the Spiritual, yet it is irrelevant to the Spiritual, which is a much more interesting dynamic. The quixotic (or psychotic) thing is that the Rational thrills to examining the results of the Spiritual, all the while denying the validity and authenticity of the latter. I don’t see how anyone is supposed to take that kind of behavior seriously. In any other such pairing, such as Oceanographers and French Literature, that’d be considered irrational behavior, or at the very least extremely rude. But, that’s the world we live in.

And where was I going with this? Ah, yes! I have some assigned reading that I need to get to: three small books written by the Abbot George of the Monastery of St Gregorios on Mount Athos. I am going to finish The Word in the Desert tonight (an excellent “book about”), and then start on Abbot George’s little books tomorrow. So there we go!


Is everything sad going to come untrue?  *
Yes.  Someday.
*  A fine question asked by Sam Gamgee, near the end of The Lord of the Rings (page 951 in the 50th Anniversary hardcover edition).

The things one finds on my desk

On a piece of scrap paper:

More on Semler’s particularity:

Removing the tie to Israel, little, hated, poor, removes the necessary asceticism from Christianity. It also removes the distinction between oppressor and oppressed, so that, presumably, there is no judgment, a standard in the “Christianity” of “thinking people”, exemplified by an attitude of “I’m okay, you’re okay (unless you disagree with that).”

That’s not Christianity, but a quasi-religious social construct of the bourgeoisie.

I make these kinds of notes for myself, and then they are often lost. I’m glad this one was not.

As I posted briefly on Semler earlier, and this note is related to that, providing an additional critique of Semler. I will expand upon this note.

More on Semler’s particularity. Semler accuses the Jews of “particularity”, of adamantly sticking to their own ways in the face of liberal German blandishments to convert to some kind of flippy-floppy ethical universalism which Semler calls Christianity, but which is far from any known species of the Christian faith. Yet, importantly, Semler is blind to his own particularity. Semler’s own requirements are quite exclusive, and the attitude he exudes and which is maintained by later modernists following him generally, is one of complete particularity: only liberal German theology is valid. Even more conservative German theology is rejected. So, Semler’s ideal is not only enthnocentric (German), but further restricted by being his own particular liberal stream of theology and scholarship. Only those who would accept his ideal would be acceptable. That’s quite a rigid particularism! That explains my “More on Semler’s particularity.”

Removing the tie to Israel, little, hated, poor, removes the necessary asceticism from Christianity. The “tie to Israel” refers to the continuity between the Church of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament, as we say in Eastern Orthodoxy. Semler, of course, posited a complete break between the two, because he (and so many other “enlightened” Germans) couldn’t stomach the idea that Christianity owed anything to Jews. But the continuity between Israel and the Church is there, as all modern scholarship recognizes, to one degree or another. One would have to be insane to posit otherwise. And, as part of that continuity, we find the Church assimilating, as Israel, the asceticism involved in being lesser than those around. The humble national status of Israel in the ancient world, hated for its peculiar customs, is something embraced by the Church in its asceticism. There is, too, the wholly iconic reflection of this relationship, which inheres in this scrawled note, of Israel and Church. This came from the pen of an Eastern Orthodox writer,after all, steeped in the iconic worldview of his tradition. There is both continuity and image between the two, Israel and Church, Church and Israel, forward and backward. The iconic worldview does not move in only one direction, after all. One becomes the image of the other at various times. Semler, in denying the continuity between Israel and the Church, removes the heritage of asceticism from his “Christianity.” Like some iconoclast of old (anathema!), he plasters over the image of both Israel and the Church, so neither can be seen for what they are: reflections one of the other.

It also removes the distinction between oppressor and oppressed…. When there is no more image of the one wronged, then there is no way to recognize the one doing wrong. Semler restricts one’s analogical view to a Christianity that is sui generis, one that is the “ultimate emanation of the world spirit” or some such rot. Stripped of its very historicity, the Church no longer exists as an historical entity at all, but rather as an emotion, a longing for good, a purely Romantic ideal. (This Romanticism is found most strongly in Semler, but it is also present in de Wette and others of the period, ludicrous as it is.) There is no longer any sin, nor any sinner, for these are legalistic, Jewish categories of thought, passé, and, I daresay, verboten in Semler’s new construct. With no sin, then, there can be no fault and no guilt in oppressing others. How convenient! The primary point here is, again, iconic: without the icon of Israel, wronged and hated by the world, the Church cannot recognize itself. To continue:

It also removes the distinction between oppressor and oppressed, so that, presumably, there is no judgment, a standard in the “Christianity” of “thinking people”, exemplified by an attitude of “I’m okay, you’re okay (unless you disagree with that).” When a concept of penalty is absent, there can be no judgment. Only a simple mind would depict this as “mercy.” This is instead anomianism: there can be no Judge and no Judgment, for there are no laws. This mentality denies God His sovereignty to do otherwise than His subjects determine should be done. For Semler, God is dead, executed by nice. And this perspective lives on in many liberal quasi-religious-themed social groups (a.k.a. “churches”). Fortunately, God is otherwise engaged than in conforming to Semler’s ideal for Him. Not only will there be sheep and goats, right and left, Abraham’s bosom and Gehenna, the Banquet or Wedding Chamber and outer darkness, but there are also these fearsome words: “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.”

That’s not Christianity, but a quasi-religious social construct of the bourgeoisie. Indeed. In Semler’s day and afterward it was precisely the burgeoning middle class, or bourgeoisie, newly prosperous and wishing to continue to increase in prosperity, that were the greatest source of support for such liberal ideas as Semler’s. The royalty, nobility, and the lower classes were almost universally conservative in religious, social, and political outlook. But the middle classes saw greater opportunity in loosened restrictions socially and economically, and they desired to advance such agendas for the firmer establishment of their own selves, primarily through their wallets. The ethics, such as they are, of such desires, come to be debated not in relation to traditional mores (Church or custom), but in relation to the newly constructed and very, very conveniently permissive ideas promulgated by supporters of their movement amongst the so-called intelligentsia. And while the situation is nowadays different, the intelligentsia still parrot the liberal anomianism of two hundred years ago (or forty), as though this were some refreshing new breeze of the intellect. It’s not. SSDD: same stuff, different day. In any number of “mainline churches”, in any number of “megachurches”, in any number of “emergent churches”, whether any of these would call themselves by these or any other names that might remotely imply ownership by His Lordship (for to be Κυριακη is Not A Good Thing), we see and hear of a comfortably bourgeois existence extolled as Christian, the Gospel of Mammon instead of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Woe. Woe. Woe.

True refinement

When he had offered up the “Amen” and finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit the fire. And as a mighty flame blazed up, we saw a miracle (we, that is, to whom it was given to see), and we have been preserved in order that we might tell the rest what happened. For the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of a ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a fragrant odor, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 15

True refinement consists not of the best breeding and upbringing, the best schooling and finishing, but in living a life fully in God. The safety and comfort of the former life is not a component of the latter. But what is more important? A crown that you might only wear for seventy years or so, one that can be taken away and melted down, and its wearer forgotten? Or to be wearing an eternal crown, forever living with it upon your head, and your never being forgotten by Him who crowned you? Polycarp—Christian, bishop, saint, martyr—knew the answer and lived his life accordingly. Let us all do the same.

Something clicked at last

I forget where I read it today, but someone quoted Hebrews 2.14-15:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.

Suddenly, I understood that italic section above, verse 15. I don’t know why I didn’t grasp it before, as it seems so obvious (and probably is to everyone else!). It really was something of a revelation to me. Here’s what came to mind.

We often live our lives doing all kinds of strange things, sinful things most of them, because we are afraid of death, trying to get in as much “life” as possible. These sinful practices are a kind of bondage in themselves, which is something repeatedly emphasized throughout the writings of the Church Fathers. Ironically, this grasping at life so-called is really only grasping at death, which is the wages of sin, as we’re told elsewhere. Not only does the poor person, inspired in these things by the evil one, think he’s avoiding a kind of death through non-indulgence of some compulsion or other while actually piling on more and more death, but also all this, without the intervention of repentance, keeps that person from the necessary preparation for an eternity of life in joy in the presence of God.

The author of Hebrews, whoever that was, had a deep understanding of what we now call psychology. The therapy anonymously prescribed is redemption and sanctification, resulting in the transfer of the prisoner from the dank, reeking dungeons of the evil one to the wards, peaceful and sunlit, of the hospital where all patients are healed: the Church, the Body of Christ.

Save us all, O Lord our Physician!


I curse my studies. Sometimes, anyway. What good is it to be following a Bible reading plan for the faithful when half of what is going on during my reading is (Lord, have mercy!) a critique of the translation, a mental retroversion to the Hebrew and/or Greek involved, mental notes on historical illumination and literary parallels, and all manner of distractions. The wonder is often gone. I hate that.

Just the other day, I read the Book of Jonah. It’s such a short book amongst the Twelve Prophets, it takes only a few minutes to read through. But what a powerful book! It’s a story that has struck people down through the ages, and was a popular artistic subject in early Christianity (Jonah either going into or coming out of a sea monster; or Jonah resting under his vine hut). And it’s the taking of that story at face value that gives it such power, as a real tale of something that happened to a real prophet of a real Israel, having dealt with a real sea and real giant fish, and a real city of Nineveh. Where does my mind go? Oh, to thinking about this period of Assyrian weakness just before the Neo-Assyrian empire expanded its border at the expense of any number of smaller nations; to thinking about the city Nineveh at that time, how it was not the magnificent place that Sennacherib would begin to make it, and how the description and the book’s writing really must therefore date to the seventh century; to thinking this book’s popularity may partly be due to its having the smallest vocabulary of all the LXX books, yet still being a cracking good tale; to thinking of “gourd” and “vine” and Augustine and Jerome. There is too much noise. This is not reading, but something else, and it is certainly not joyful or enlightening. I have to force myself to step back and turn off that running commentary, that mental footnoting, imposing silence. The silence is necessary.

Then the story unfolds, and wonderment with it. The darkening skies and the heaving sea. Threatening waves and a flimsy boat. Kindly sailors who don’t want to throw Jonah in. Sinking, sinking, “Full fathom five Thy prophet lies….” Seaweed wraps a drowning head. Then a salvific gulp. And this wayward prophet’s last act before dying is prayer in the belly of a fish. And that, his death, is important to recall. He did not, as in Disney’s Pinocchio, live inside the fish. He died. He was dead for three days. And then he was alive again. This was “the sign of Jonah” recalled in the Gospels: three days dead, then alive again. Jonah lives again, still in the belly of the fish, and prays again, and then [blah] he’s freed from the fish. His last act and first act were both prayer: a lesson. And oh, oh, oh, look at Jonah’s “righteous” anger, and what lesson do we gain from that, the tale of an anger that thinks it knows better than does God? And what a strange, but entirely merciful ending: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Confused or ignorant people deserve pity, not anger, and certainly not destruction, though that would attend Nineveh in time, which is something that seems to be inexplicably hanging in the air throughout the book.

It’s time to take back the wonder. Give the glory to God!

Give thanks . . .

. . . to the Lord, for He is good.

Give thanks for all the good you have witnessed, experienced, and, hopefully, prayerfully, inspired thoughout the year.

Give thanks for all the good that you will witness, experience, and, prayerfully, inspire in the coming year.

Give thanks to have suffered and had your faith made stronger by it.

Give thanks for your future suffering, so that your faith will always increase.

Give thanks always to God, Who loves and saves.

For He loves you, and will save you, if you will have it.