Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fasting, converts, Jesus, etc.

I once made a bad joke, "How can you tell if somebody's a convert? They start talking about fasting." This can come off as mildly mean-spirited, but I don't mean it that way. There's a perverse focus on that matter in a lot of discussions. I spend some time on the internet in places where there are a lot of people who are having their first exposure to Orthodoxy or are starting their inquiry or catechumenate, and it seems like the focus of Orthodoxy in their mind is fasting, prayer ropes, and prayer rules. This is bad marketing: the first three things that pop to mind should be Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, or maybe Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or something else more basic, not these little external things that are helpful perhaps but not central.

Perhaps once they start hanging around a parish a little more some of that sanity is going to get through to them, that the point of our religion isn't to think about whether "tree-oil" is synecdoche for all oil or really just means olive oil, it's about the gospel of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

So I try to do my part to reorient their questions to "the one thing needful" rather than reciting the party line (which, if you're interested, is explained well in the front matter of the edition of The Lenten Triodion translated by Mother Mary and now-Metropolitan Kallistos - but this is the least important part of the book, much more valuable is te liturgical material, which is generally about our life in exile and the salvation we have in Christ's passion and resurrection). I can't however give them real guidance (I'm not qualified to give spiritual advice nor am I disposed to be) nor can I really concretely tell them the various ways in which the disciplines of fasting actually play out (I don't want to scandalize people who have a more rigorous rule, worry people who have a less rigorous rule, give people the wrong impressions, etc). So I generally tell them something along the lines of the above and noting that advice about these things generally comes in a pastoral context from your priest, and that generally you do what you can and then forget about it rather than taking on a hard task and failing and worrying about it. That's a distraction and it's not healthy in any sense. It's better to start with a more minimal rule that you keep without fail than something you fail at all the time and spend a lot of "noetic energy" fretting about. So that's what I say to them.

But here is what I would say when it comes to how we advertise ourselves: we should not emphasize fasting and prayer rules and big long ropes, and discussion of the fasting discipline should primarily be done in pastoral settings rather than bruited through the village. Web-log posts about Lent should be more about repentance than that, gosh, we don't eat cheese right now but maybe shellfish is okay. And when these things do come up, they should primarily be discussed in terms of the Good News of Jesus Christ (rather than even discussing Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy).

Monday, October 26, 2015

Is it a witch?

First, my apologies about evolution: I put off the second installment for a while and then I forgot what, exactly, I was going to say. But the real point is that this isn't what it's all about, that isn't what faith is, that's just an easy answer.

Here's another easy answer: wouldn't it just be so nice if all our physical problems were really spiritual? There is an unfortunate line of thought in Christianity in general that tells people with chronic illnesses or mental illnesses that perhaps the real answer is God.

For somebody who is completely closed to spiritual explanations, perhaps some minor consideration of whether there is a spiritual aspect to sickness is warranted. But, generally, this sentiment is expressed at religious people by religious people. Most of the religious people it is expressed at know all too well that there is a spiritual aspect to sickness and may have come from an environment where that is expressed to a fault. Honestly, if you have somebody who's coming to church on a regular basis, they're probably not in need of a spiritualizing explanation of illness. That is a tactic also used in spiritually abusive environments, by the way, and one should probably avoid the resemblance.

Wouldn't it be nice, though, if it were true? Oh, you have a chronic illness of some sort? Perhaps you sinned, or don't have enough faith, or a witch cast a spell on you. Those are horrible or tragic things, but, you know, they can be fixed directly. Confess your sins or visit a monastery or eat the witch or something and, BAM, you're fixed. All those doctors don't know anything. There is nothing in the world that cannot be fixed.

Somebody who is suffering constantly and for years has already thought of this and tried it. There isn't some special prayer that they were missing.

I don't mean to deny that there are people with chronic illnesses healed by holy people - it's in the Bible and it definitely happens in the post-biblical era. However, those are exceptions rather than the rule and most of those were physical ailments rather than demons, witches, etc. And demons are real and do afflict people and holy people do cast them out and rebuke them, but it's not the normal order of things and Christians are not under the power of demons.

The short story here is that most people don't know how to be anything other than Job's comforters. And it is horrible. This is not faith and this is not from God. They are pious platitudes that may as well be atheism. It also seems to be all a certain brand of Orthodoxy - an ascendant one - offers people.

In short, no, we're not under a witch's spell, but thank you for your concern. We wish some malevolent corn witch were behind it, though.

Monday, August 10, 2015

In the interests of parity...

I mentioned a few days ago a resolution about spiritual abuse that I saw when looking at the documents from the All American Council. There is, of course, a flip side to that: congregations can also abuse their clergy (or other staff, but most Orthodox parishes don't actually pay anybody else), and sometimes they can make things go pear-shaped rather quickly. It can get ugly. There is a fairly good book on the phenomenon and how to avoid it: When Sheep Attack. Indeed, they often go after people who make successful changes and are doing good things. Just because they don't like them or don't like change.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Serious question about the prayer of intercession at litiya or at matins

That is to say, at litiya at vespers, the prayer that starts something like, "Save, O God, Your people..." and includes a rather long litany of saints. If litiya is not said, it is after the gospel reading at matins.

In your parish practice, how many women are in it besides the obligatory Theotokos and Anna (of "Joachim and Anna")? The exact text used varies considerably - at least among the Russians. The Antiochians and Greeks have more of a tendency to textual uniformity.

Here are some examples:

EDIT: I added numbers. I'm not going to moralize this, it's merely information to consider.

Sets of facts and evolution, part 1.

EDIT: this is a quickly dashed out sketch of thoughts - this needs a lot of elaboration, but I thought it was interesting enough to put out even in an unfinished form in case people have comments. This touches on a couple things mentioned earlier in another post.

Some parts of the church are perhaps rightly skeptical about "modern philosophy", including the modern philosophy of science, so one should attempt to make arguments about evolution in a manner that respects a broad variety of philosophies of science rather than presuming a specific epistemology or, for instance, the correspondence theory of truth. There are certainly some positions that I think Christians are required to take (namely, that real knowledge of the material world is possible), but those are fairly minimal, as are their implications. Though even that one can be dispensed with if, as some do, one points out that we have "fallen" faculties of perception and therefore can't wholly trust them to ever give us knowledge of the material world (but see St Augustine's anti-skeptical argument).

In that case, then, and since the crowd I am most interested in dealing with is the YEC "Rose" crowd whose position implies that there is no death prior to perhaps around 10,000 years ago, we can deal with the "fact" of evolution rather than the "theory" of evolution. That is to say, dealing with the complex of facts that include a 4.5 billion year old earth, hundreds of millions of years of complex multicellular life, and a succession of organisms that slowly look more and more like the plants and animals we have today. But no "theorizing" yet, not even a consideration for, say, methodological naturalism. Somebody constructing a theory - whether it is naturalistic in methodology or not - has this pile of facts to contend with. If we come up with a new theory that is seriously at odds with this set of facts, we're not going to be very happy with that new theory.

The YEC will of course have some objections. First, that the earth is 4.5 billion years old is not a fact, it is a conclusion based on a theory plus some other facts. The facts are the instrument readings and astronomical observations and such that, when plugged into the model, spit out that the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. This is certainly a fair objection. Another objection is that we are attempting to apply human reason beyond the "Fall of Man". This is less satisfactory for reasons that will become clearer later in my exposition.

The set of facts, then, that we have is the list of oscilloscope readings, dates of astronomical observations, etc that we have compiled. It is a giant list of facts. Let's call this set of facts Set A. With a rather small set of assumptions, we can then generate a rather minimal theory that gets us to an interpretation of Set A that suggests "the fact of evolution". This answers objection 1: we now have a set of facts and a theory accounting for those facts. The second objection, though is met with the following reply: "Great, provide your own accounting for the facts in Set A." They need not use the same assumptions as above. They just need to provide something that explains the facts as well and do so even if we withhold portions of the facts and then see how well the theory fitted without those facts still explains them. Or generate new facts and see how well those fit. The unfortunate thing here is that, even with the claim that knowledge of the world prior to the Fall is inaccessible to naturalistic methods or human reason absent divine revelation, they can't come up with theories that work as well to explain the facts. They are handwaving them away.

Now, of course, as Orthodox believers, we assent to all the truths that the Orthodox Church teaches. There is then a new strategy: we have a second set of facts, namely, the dogmatic assertions of the Orthodox Church. They say all the holy elders and all the Fathers of the Church taught young earth creationism. My point here, though, is that this is not, it turns out, a fact. It is an interpretation in light of a theory that requires certain assumptions and then into which they insert the facts, just as the 4.5 billion year old earth is not a fact. We can take as the atomic facts, perhaps, the manuscripts we have of Genesis, the writings of the Holy Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church, and the manuscripts of the pronouncements of church synods. And whatever other facts of this type that you may think of. We can call that Set B. The YEC "Rose" crowd, then, notes that, while they do not have a satisfactory model for A, they do have a satisfactory model for B and it is the only acceptable model for B. As such, they do not need to account for set A.

So far, I should not be saying anything controversial. Sure, there are thing to quibble with, like what I mean by "explaining" the facts. However, I hope we can pass over those quibbling details, because what matters here is the big picture about the two different stances. One group says that they have a set of assumptions and theories that gives a consistent explanation of set A. The other group says that they have a set of assumptions and theories that gives a consistent explanation of set B.

Here is my problem: I think the first group, the one that has a reasonable explanation for Set A can have a reasonable enough explanation for Set B - it doesn't catch all of the nuances, but it does not go outside the borders that we cannot go outside of, though it has to admit that many things are still left unknown. Fortunately, the Church itself strongly suggests that these issues of origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery, so that suggests a perfect explanation of B is not really obligatory.

Here is my other problem: the second group has immense difficulties with set A and I don't think the Church warrants sufficient confidence in their assumptions for set B to swallow the difficulties with A. It only really works well if you're going to deny that any knowledge of the physical world by naturalistic means is possible - which is a line of argument that has been used. This is already getting fairly long, so that will have to be part 2.

Friday, August 07, 2015

On Spiritual Abuse

I haven't personally been in a spiritually abusive environment, or at least not experienced one as such, but I do talk to a lot of people about their experiences with church and churches, good and bad. There's a somewhat serious/not-serious term: "Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome". There was a resolution about spiritual abuse at the All-American Council this year that was approved by the Synod. It's short, but reading it definitely helped me to make sense of a lot of the bad experiences people had told me about. Take a look at it!

But what strikes me is that there seems to be an entire movement, at least on the internet, which seems bent on glorifying some of the bad behaviors outlined in the document and presenting them as the Tradition (Canonical). Particularly the rigidity and legalism and the aspects of shaming people who don't follow all the unwritten rules. Those people are, of course, mostly laity, so it's not such a big deal, but it is still a problem.