A Happy Birthday to Ron Paul

I’d like to take a few minutes to wish Dr. Ron Paul a happy birthday today.  I think Americans are privileged to have seen the greatest statesman in our country’s history since the Founders make two very important, albeit politically unsuccessful, runs for the presidency.  What makes Ron Paul so unique in today’s political scene is that he was never interested in holding office for its own sake – he simply wanted to educate people about liberty.  Dr. Paul wanted to give the people their freedom.  This is a man who never wanted to rule over anyone and that is an exceedingly rare quality – unique in political history.  All Americans, regardless of whether or not one might agree with him on specific policies, should admire him for his devotion to principle over party or power and should also appreciate the way in which he served us all by reminding Americans that this country was conceived in liberty.  It wasn’t perfect, but the essence of what it means to be an American has always revolved around the idea of personal freedom.

I owe this man a tremendous debt – I will be eternally grateful to Dr. Paul for removing the neoconservative scales from my eyes.  Like so many others, Ron Paul has helped change my heart and mind for the better.  This, I believe, is his greatest achievement as a statesman – waking millions around the world to the beauty of the principle of liberty.

My conversion from neoconservative to libertarian has been a gradual one and I still have so much to learn, but it was the issue of foreign policy that got me started on this intellectual (and I would also say spiritual) journey.  Perhaps one of the most important moments for me came in the 2008 GOP Primary debate in South Carolina.  As it would turn out, this would also be a turning point for thousands of others and also for Dr. Paul himself as a public intellectual and political figure.  I am speaking, of course, about the infamous exchange between Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani that night in South Carolina.  What Dr. Paul did there took an incredible amount of courage.  For all he knew, the entire Republican Party and a significant portion of the country was against him.  He was, in his mind, Alone.  Yet even in the face of the boos and the inane demagoguery, not only did he not back down from the truth – he doubled down on it!  I can’t count the number of times I watched that exchange over and over again.  At that point, something in my mind just clicked – I knew the good doctor from Texas was Right and I would never be the same again.

So thank, you, Dr. Paul!  I truly believe that the Lord has used you to heal and free my mind from the darkness of the satanic neoconservative ideology.  God bless you, happy birthday, and Many Years!

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40 Questions to Ask a Christian: An Orthodox Response (Part 6)

This series of posts is turning out to be just a little longer than I thought it might be.  But that’s ok.  It’s still fun to go through the questions put out by Thomas Swan and if I can help someone think through a question or issue they’ve been struggling with, then that’s even better.  So, without further ado, we’re on to question #20 and beyond.

20. “Why are Churches filled with riches when Jesus asked his followers to give their wealth away?”

This is an interesting question and it may be helpful to break down the answer into a couple parts.  On the whole, I’d say it largely depends on what Swan means by “riches” and what Christian tradition he’s referring to.  I’ll address the Catholic traditions first.

Briefly, I should first explain what I mean by “Catholic traditions”.  For over a thousand years, Christians were united in one tradition – one Church – until the Western Christians (under Rome) and the Eastern Churches (including Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople) split with one another for various reasons we can’t get into here.  The West eventually became known as Roman Catholic and the East became known as Eastern Orthodox or Orthodox Catholic.  Both traditions were established at Pentecost and can trace their roots directly to the Apostles themselves through the successors of the Apostles – the Bishops.  So while Roman Catholics and Orthodox are no longer in communion with one another, there is still that shared heritage and the hope that the ancient Catholic Church will be unified once again.

With that very short history lesson out of the way, if you walk into some Catholic parishes and virtually any Orthodox parish, you will notice what some would call “riches”.  Elaborate vestments, valuable works of art, gold, silver, liturgical items, and much more are there for anyone to see.  I don’t know enough about the architecture, liturgy, etc. of my Western Catholic friends, so I won’t speak for their tradition.  But for the Orthodox, our churches are covered with icons, incense and candles are everywhere, and the architecture and the Divine Liturgy itself is full of revelation for those willing to hear.

There’s a story about the conversion of the Rus that goes something like this: the king, interested in learning about the religions of the world and wanting to find the true faith, sent emissaries to every part of the world to study their religion and report back to him.  The king’s men were eventually sent to Constantinople – the heart of Orthodox Christianity and the capital of the Byzantine Empire – to see the church of Hagia Sophia (the Church of the Holy Wisdom… Jesus Christ).   In reporting what they saw, they said to their king: “We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth…”  The king chose to convert to Orthodoxy and the Russians have been Orthodox now for over a thousand years.

The point is that Orthodox worship is meant to engage all five senses and the elaborate icons, gold, vestments, etc. are meant to engage the eye and help remind the individual of the divine revelation of liturgical worship in the Old Testament and of the fact that the church is the temple where God Himself comes to commune with us and bring us healing and reconciliation.  Every detail of an Orthodox Church is full of symbolic meaning and the elaborate interior and architecture of the Church is meant to help each person think about the fact that he or she is worshiping alongside the entire Church around the world and in Paradise – we understand that each of us worship alongside the Saints and Holy Angels as part of the Royal Priesthood of believers.  During Orthodox worship, it doesn’t matter how much money a person has – we are all wealthy beyond measure when we stand before God to pray together.  There’s much more that I could get into, but I have to stop here.  For more basic, introductory information on Orthodox worship, I’d recommend looking up the word “liturgical” on Archbishop Lazar’s youtube channel.

Now, with that said, there are far too many people calling themselves “Christians” and even “pastors”  who simply use religion as a way to scam the poor and vulnerable out of money.  I think it goes without saying that this sort of behavior should not be taken lightly by followers of Christ.  Of course, there are also many churches in the world – especially in the U.S. – that tend to focus on the wrong things.  These churches don’t come from a liturgical tradition, so of course there’s no real meaning or reason behind their massive, conference-center or stadium-like buildings with smoke machines, concert lighting systems, top-of-the-line sound and video systems, ridiculously overpaid musicians and preachers, popcorn machines, etc.  These kinds of churches are more like carnivals or concerts or free daycare centers than actual places of worship and spiritual healing.  This is a growing phenomenon in America and it is tragic to see.  There is absolutely no reason for it other than human sinfulness – these kinds of churches are very far indeed from the ancient and Apostolic Catholic traditions.

21. “While in the desert, Jesus rejected the temptations of the Devil. He didn’t censor or kill the Devil, so why are Christians so in favor of censoring many Earthly temptations?”

This is an extremely important point and one that is lost on most Christians, I believe.  I realize that there is, especially in the West, a long tradition of Christians imposing their beliefs on others through the force of law.  This is a horrific mistake on several levels, but I think the most important point is right here in the question itself: if Jesus didn’t use violence to suppress temptation, then why do Christians feel like they’re free to use whatever means they deem necessary to shape society to their liking?

On this point, I fully support non-Christians who take issue to this practice.  The same “Christians” who refuse to allow someone to buy beer before noon on a Sunday in Texas would be the first to complain – full of rage, even – if the government had passed a law in favor of, say, Muslim practices and banned bacon from the shelves of grocery stores or  maybe even go so far as to ban the “Piggly Wiggly” chain altogether!

I am a believer in the “Non-Aggression Principle” and it is largely because of this principle that I am a libertarian.  I am also a firm believer that libertarianism and Christianity are not only compatible, I’d go so far as to say a Christian must be a libertarian.  It is the only political philosophy that is compatible with the Faith.

This isn’t to say that Christians can or should be libertine.  Far from it.  Christians are called to be holy – on guard against temptation – and struggle against sin.  But this doesn’t mean that Christians have permission to persecute or judge others for their actions or beliefs and it certainly doesn’t mean they should hold a gun to someone’s head and threaten to throw them in a cage (or even kill them) if they don’t behave in a certain way.  This is pure evil.  Christians can maintain their standards and preach against certain actions, but never, under any circumstances, should a Christian use or threaten force to stomp out temptation.

22. “Given that the story of Noah’s Ark was copied almost word for word from the much older Sumerian Epic of Atrahasis, does this mean that our true ruler is the supreme sky god, Anu?”

This answer should be a bit shorter.  I’ve already touched on fundamentalism and Old Testament literalism in earlier posts.  Suffice to say, Orthodox don’t have to read the O.T. literally – in fact, it would be a major mistake even from a spiritual standpoint to read it in that manner.  We Orthodox are free to look into the deeper meaning in these stories to see what they reveal about the nature of humanity and the world in general.

I should say, though, that it would make sense for the Hebrews to borrow this Sumerian epic, as Abraham (the Patriarch of the Hebrew people) was originally a Sumerian, so it is likely that he took these stories with him and then passed on the Sumerian oral tradition to his children.  The Hebrews may have borrowed stories from other cultures and made them their own, but there’s nothing about this point (about the origin of the Flood story) that undermines Orthodox Christianity or even the Bible itself.  In the Old Testament, there is still much to learn from the Hebrew tradition – including a great deal of divine revelation on the nature of man, his need for redemption, and wonderful hints at how man is to serve God and live in peace with his fellow human beings.

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40 Questions to Ask a Christian: An Orthodox Response (Part 5)

Continuing with my response to Thomas Swan’s hubpages.com post, “40 Questions to Ask a Christian”, I’m now on Question #17.  My responses have been a bit lengthier than I had initially thought they would be, but these are important questions and it’s tough to strike the right balance between brevity and a coherent, more or less full response.  I could go on longer, believe me.  You can find Swan’s original post here.  So here we go at #17; continuing the line of questions revolving around the characteristics of God.

17.  “If God is all knowing, then why did he make humans in the knowledge that he’d eventually have to send Jesus to his death?”

Here’s another sound, very reasonable question.  But again, I think it is geared more towards Western Christianity than Eastern Orthodoxy.  Why might that be, you ask?

First, I should clarify something about the question.  The question asks, “Why did God create human beings, knowing full well that he would send Jesus to die?”  The thing to remember here is that the overwhelming majority of people who call themselves Christians believe that Jesus is God.  So it isn’t quite accurate to say that God sent Jesus, because Jesus is God.  We can say, however, that God the Father sent God the Son into the world, but that gets into Trinitarian theology – it’d send us off on a tangent that we don’t need to wander off to for this question.

Western Christianity by and large emphasizes the role of Christ’s death in the salvation of humanity and I think this is where non-believers tend to have a moral and logical issue with what they see as the whole of Christian thought.  Western Christians also tend to take a legalistic or juridical view of salvation – they see God as Judge.  All this brings us to the doctrine of atonement: that God requires death as a punishment for sin and also requires the shedding of blood to forgive sin.  So only God the Son – Jesus Christ – would be able to pay the price for human sin in order to satisfy God’s divine justice.  One might say, “God decided to kill himself to save humanity from… himself.”  Here we run into not only the logical incoherence of God creating humans only to kill himself, but also the morally dubious (and neopagan) doctrine of blood atonement.

Orthodox see things very differently.  We start with the knowledge that God is Love and He decided to create the universe as an act of love.  He knew full well that humans would eventually need saving and, in the fullness of time, He would take on created matter and step into the world so that He might save and heal His most beloved creatures.  But how did God do this?  Was it simply by Christ’s death?  Orthodox will readily say that Christ’s death played a part in our salvation, but it goes much deeper than that.  The Apostles understood that something had shifted at the cosmic level when God took on human flesh and the fallen human nature at the Incarnation and they understood that by fully taking on human nature and corruptible matter, God the Son (or the Logos or Word as He is sometimes called) healed us.  God became human so that humanity, and indeed all of creation, would be healed.  Human nature has been restored so that we can now live up to our full potential – interceding for all of creation and looking forward to the day when heaven and earth finally meet.. the entire universe will be transfigured.

So we see an emphasis on healing – that’s what Jesus did all throughout His ministry.  And the story of human redemption doesn’t reach its high point on the Cross – it reaches its peak in the Resurrection when our Lord conquered death.  For the Orthodox, we see the entire Gospel story as part of our salvation.  Ultimately, because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, every aspect of life has been sanctified and we are now free to live life to the fullest – as it was meant to be lived – free from sin and the fear of death because we are no longer captive to our addictions and passions and we know that death “has lost its sting”, as it is not the end.  Death is the natural consequence of being separated from God, Who is the Source of life.  Because of Incarnation and Resurrection, we are promised to live forever with God in a new heaven and earth… and when I say “we” I mean everyone.  For some, the Presence of God will be Paradise.  For others, it will be like suffocating fire.

18. “Why did a supposedly omnipotent god take six days to create the universe, and why did he require rest on the seventh day?”

Another fair question.  Again, this question is geared more towards Western Christians – evangelical Protestants of the fundamentalist bent, in particular.  I can’t get into the reasons why they cling to a literal interpretation of Genesis as they do, but I will say that one doesn’t have to agree with them in order to be a Christian… though I’m sure many of them would challenge me on that!

For Orthodox, we are free to read Genesis literally if we want, but we can also take a look at the real meaning behind this beautiful poem at the beginning of the Bible.  I tend to agree with Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, who has some wonderful and incredibly insightful broadcasts on youtube on this and other subjects, that we tend to miss out on the actual revelation in the text when we read the book of Genesis literally.  Of course, God could have created the universe in six literal days (and rested on the seventh, whatever that means for God to literally “rest”) if He wanted to.  He’s God, so by definition He could have created the universe in one, two, ten, or fifty literal days.  But He didn’t.  The best scientific knowledge available to us shows that the universe is about 13.5 billion years old (give or take) and the earth is also billions of years old.  Not as old as the universe itself, but certainly older than several thousand years, as most creationists would say.

The point is that the Creation Narrative, Genesis as a whole, and indeed the majority of the Old Testament is more about us as human beings than it is about God… and it’s certainly not a science textbook!  In the Old Testament, we learn about the nature and state of man, his relationship with God and his fellow man, and his need for redemption and healing.  We don’t learn much about God until the New Testament, when God Himself physically enters the world to show us the depth of His cosuffering love for us and demonstrate, by His example and words, how we are supposed to live in relation to God and our neighbor.

19. “Is omnipotence necessary to create our universe when a larger, denser universe would have required more power?”

While there are some great questions in the list, I think this one could have been thought out a bit better.  There are some theologians who call themselves “Christian” who would argue that God isn’t omnipotent and they bring in all sorts of points to make their case.  These are, by and large, the “Process theologians”.  I disagree with them, as I am an “unreconstructed supernaturalist”, as one of my professors at SMU once described himself.  I suppose the best way to answer this question would be to say that God, if He is God, is omnipotent and could have created any kind of universe that He wanted.  But this is the universe we have.  It doesn’t necessarily mean anything regarding God’s omnipotence.  One can go on with this until it gets into absurdities.  The reality is that this is what God chose to create.  The density of our universe has no relationship to God’s power – it’s more or less irrelevant.

That’s it for now, folks. Check back in again soon – we’re about halfway though!

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40 Questions to Ask a Christian: An Orthodox Response (Part 4)

It’s time to pick up where I left off in my response to Thomas Swan’s 40 Questions post on hubpages.com.  At this point, we’re getting into questions regarding what he calls the “Characteristics of God”.  It starts at question #14.

14.  “An all-knowing God can read your mind, so why does he require you to demonstrate your faith by worshiping him?”

The Orthodox take a very different view of God and worship than most Westerners are used to.  On top of the basic question here of “what’s the point” in worshiping God if He already knows whether or not you believe in Him, there’s another implied point that God is perhaps a bit egoistic or insecure and therefore requires worship from His creatures.  Then, of course, there’s the question of the omniscience of God implied here – does God really need people to openly express their admiration and loyalty in order to figure out who’s on Team Jesus?

To be fair, I think there is some room for this critique when it is applied to Western Christian thought.  The Western Christian God (or god, I should say), actually is petty and at times downright unstable and can come off as needy or insecure – this is particularly true when one examines the Old Testament in light of the dominant evangelical Protestant view of the Bible as the inerrant, infallible, and (in some cases) divinely dictated Word of God.

For Orthodox, worship is more about us than it is about God.  God doesn’t need anything from us.  Indeed, we are God’s prized creation, but we are still creatures and, as such, anything we give back to God ultimately belongs to Him.  So why is worship more about us, as human beings?  Orthodox see humans as basically good and still bearing the image of God, but we fall short of our calling to be like God because of sin, which is considered to be a disease rather than the breaking of arbitrary rules.  Orthodox see the relationship between God and man as a doctor-patient relationship – not a judge-defendant relationship.  God knows more about us than we know about ourselves.  He created us, after all.  So that includes our innermost thoughts and secrets.  What God wants is for us to be healed – to be made whole so that we can be ready for Paradise in the fullness of time.  God is calling us to maturity – to live up to our potential – but we can’t do that so long as we are slaves to our favorite sins.  Worship in the Orthodox Church is liturgical and symbolic – it reminds us of who we truly are and calls us to prepare ourselves for Paradise or for direct fellowship with God.  Worship is part divine revelation (of who God is and who we are) and part strong spiritual medicine.  Through the spiritual hospital that is the Church, we are invited to participate in the Holy Mysteries (or sacraments) so that we might be healed of our selfish tendencies and be filled with the cosuffering love of God.  Finally, it is an invitation to step, at least for a while, beyond space and time and take part in worshiping God alongside the angels and saints around the world and in the Heavens.  Through the Church, the whole universe divinely sings of God’s glory and of His victory over death and sin and the principalities of hell.

Try finding anything like that in Western Christendom.

15. “If God is all-knowing, why do holy books describe him as surprised or angered by the actions of humans? He should have known what was going to happen.”

Excellent point.  This is a good critique of fundamentalists, which dominate evangelical Protestantism.  Sadly, these Christian fundamentalists can be found in virtually every Christian tradition – they are even present among Orthodox.

Fortunately, though, I think Orthodox have the best answer to this question.  If one truly understands Orthodox theology and its existential nature, one can deal with contradictions in scripture.  Holding on to fundamentalism will not achieve anything except maybe run people away from Christianity.  Orthodox (and Roman Catholics) are not bound to fundamentalism, as the majority of Protestants are.  For the Protestants, if they admit to any problems in scripture, the game is over.  The ancient Catholic traditions (Orthodox and Roman), however, do not rely on scripture as the epistemological bedrock of Christianity and therefore don’t have to take each passage in a literal fashion.  We have, for example, the saints, Church Fathers, councils, etc.  So we are free to look at scripture in its proper perspective in that it is part of the sacred tradition of Christianity, but it is certainly not the whole of it.  I think the existential nature of Orthodoxy provides a bit more flexibility, but Catholics can avoid this problem as well if they wish.  If there are a few inconsistencies or historical errors in the Bible, then it’s not a big deal.  The essence of scripture is what we are concerned with.  In other words, on the whole and in light of the Gospel, what does it reveal about man, or God, or the relationship between humanity and God?

As for the specific question of God being surprised or angry, I think it’s best to look to the Eastern Fathers of the Church.  The Eastern Fathers hold that God is never angry or surprised.  He is “passionless”, as they say.  For specifics, I would recommend the writing of St. Anthony the Great, who explains very clearly that we are not to take these passages in scripture where God is angry or surprised in a literal way.  They are part of the biblical narrative.  God Himself is beyond emotion as we know it and we know that God is love – perfect, unselfish love.  If God were to exhibit passions, as we creatures do, then He would be no God at all and the perfect harmony of the Trinity would be impossible, as each Person would be subject to His own ego and liable to come into conflict with another Person.

16. “An all-knowing God knows who will ultimately reject him. Why does God create people who he knows will end up in hell?”

This is perhaps one of the most important questions.  And it’s a question that has stirred up a great deal of controversy in the evangelical Protestant community of late.  The reason why I mention evangelicals is because there is a massive split between the traditional evangelicals – who hold that God will ultimately condemn the vast majority of humanity to an eternal torture chamber called “hell” – and evangelicals led by Rob Bell, who has dared to question the evangelical Narrative.  Rob Bell is the author of two very important books: “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About God”.  It was “Love Wins” that set off a hysterical, almost rabid, counterattack from traditional evangelicals (though it was done in the classical passive-aggressive evangelical tone) and made thousands of people – if not more – question what they were taught in their Southern Baptist congregations.

The reason why I think Bell’s work is so important is because, though he may not know it, his view of heaven and hell is extremely close to the ancient, Orthodox teaching on heaven and hell.  I intend to write a book or two about this.

According to the Orthodox Church (and Bell, for the most part), God will not condemn the vast majority of people to an eternal torture chamber.  Quite the contrary.  Instead of being tossed into the pits of hell to be tortured by fire and demons forever, every human being will spend eternity with God.  The Eastern Fathers have written extensively on the subject and the difference between the typical, Western view and the Eastern view comes down to what it means to be saved.  For the West, salvation is perceived in a more juridical sense.  For the East, salvation is seen in a therapeutic sense – it’s a process of being saved and one that is completely voluntary.  One can opt out of taking one’s medicine at any point.  But when a person’s life comes to an end and they are finally in the Presence of God – radiating pure, unselfish, perfect love – how will he or she handle it?

In the Orthodox view, there is no such thing as “hell” in the sense of it being a separate “place”.  Rather, hell is being in God’s divine Presence and knowing that you’ve spent your whole life rejecting pure, perfect love.  You had an opportunity to be healed and you finally get to see what you’ve turned down.  Regret and the judgment by one’s own conscience is what will burn people who choose to not repent in this life.  Having passed from this world still addicted to power, anger, lust, money, or any other harmful passion, one will try to get away from the Light that they had once turned away and find no place to hide from it.  There will be nothing available to feed one’s former addictions.  God will eternally be reaching out in love, but the unrepentant person will find themselves unable – unwilling – to accept it.  This is the meaning of hell – to be “at the party, but unable to enjoy it” as Rob Bell put it in “Love Wins”.  God’s uncreated energies will be like suffocating fire to the unrepentant, but to those who have been healed of their selfishness, it will be like cool light.

In order to better understand this, there are two Western writers who I would recommend before moving into the Orthodox literature.  The first is, of course, Rob Bell – the two books I mentioned earlier are an excellent starting point and they are beautifully written, quick reads.  The second writer I’d recommend is none other than C.S. Lewis – specifically, his book “The Great Divorce” in which we see a conception of heaven and hell as being one in which people in hell choose to be there and are not ready for the “reality” of heaven… even though they are welcome to come to heaven at any time.  Lewis understood the ancient Christian teaching that hell is locked from the inside very well indeed.

Christ has already opened the Gates to Paradise.  The question is, do you want to join Him there?

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40 Questions to Ask a Christian: An Orthodox Response (Part 3)

Continuing the short “40 Question” series, I’ll pick up where I left off at #11.  Here’s the link to the original post that inspired this reply.

11.  “Rape wasn’t always a crime in the Middle East two thousand years ago. Is that why `do not rape’ is not part of the Ten Commandments?”

Here again, I think this question is directed more towards Western Christians – particularly evangelical Protestants with a fundamentalist bent.  According to the overwhelming majority of evangelical Protestants, the Bible is the only authority for Christian life.  It is, they say, the infallible, inerrant Word of God and if the Bible says it, it must be true.  Many of the more fundamentalist congregations in North America will take it a step further and say that the Bible is the ultimate, God-given authority for all aspects of life – there isn’t one aspect of life that the Bible doesn’t cover.

Now, when someone poses a question like the one above, it can be tricky for fundamentalist Christians to handle.  Rape is a serious crime and, if the Bible is the Word of God, why wouldn’t God include a specific prohibition against this kind of despicable behavior?  Doesn’t God care about rape victims?  Indeed, as society has developed over time – especially with the tech boom in the last couple of centuries – one can think of several examples of crimes that aren’t specifically listed in the Bible.

Of course, the matter is a bit more nuanced even from an evangelical Protestant perspective.  The time where mankind was bound to the Mosaic Law is passed and we are now in a period where God’s grace reigns supreme (most evangelicals would say).  I think the basic point can be summarized by looking to a popular story of a Jewish rabbi who was asked to give a summary of the Torah (the Christian “Old Testament”) where he said: “Love God and love others.  The rest is commentary.  Now go and study.”  That is to say, we can find basic principles in the Bible that we can apply to all aspects of life.

An Orthodox would have no qualms with this principle and the great thing is that we don’t even have to be bound to the Protestant idea of sola scriptura.  We are free to see the books of the Bible for what they are – some are filled with poetry, others are history books, and others are letters of exhortation.  We understand that, as important as the Bible is, it is not the whole of Christianity.  Again, Orthodox theology is existential in its nature and we have the knowledge that the Orthodox Church created the Bible – not the other way around.  So we look to the Fathers of the Church – the men who spoke the languages of scripture and were made successors to the Apostles themselves in determining how scripture can apply to our lives, making us more like Christ each day.

12.  “Do lions need `god-given’ morality to understand how to care for their young, co-operate within a pack, or feel anguish at the loss of a companion? Why do we?”

This is another interesting question, to which the answer isn’t all that straight-forward.  First, of course lions don’t need any “God-given morality” to do what they do.  They are animals and operate on instinct.  There is no moral reflection on their part.  I think this is something that virtually all Christians can agree to.  I also think most Christians would say that God gave the lions the tools they need in order to survive.

Now, here’s where things get a bit more complicated.  The question doesn’t leave off with lions.  It brings human beings into the equation.  This leaves us to ask, “What is the nature of a human being?”  “Is man a mere animal or something more?”  While most atheists would take one side (we are basically mere animals) and evangelicals would take the other (we are something different entirely), the proper Orthodox answer would simply be “Yes.”  In other words, we are animals, but we are also something much more.  To be clear, most evangelicals and even some Orthodox would recoil at that statement, as they reject evolutionary theory outright in favor of the strictly biblical view that man was created (along with everything else) within one, literal week out of a direct act of God.

It is important to understand, however, that Orthodox do not have to take the fundamentalist view of creation and I (along with many other Orthodox) tend to think that evolutionary theory is perfectly compatible with Orthodox theological anthropology.  Along with the fact that Orthodox are not bound to sola scriptura and a literal reading of the Bible from a doctrinal perspective, it is vital to point out that humanity was created as a “perfect” being in a potential, but not realized, sense.  In other words, humanity was free to choose whether or not we would grow into our calling of God-likeness, as intercessors for creation and a link between the created universe and the noetic (or spiritual) realm.  Orthodox see humanity as a microcosm of the universe – part created matter and part spirit – but all within one, wholistic and undivided being.

So it is perfectly fine for an Orthodox to say that, yes, we are animals, as we evolved over millions of years to the point where we are now as a species (homo sapiens sapiens).  But at the same time, we have a soul that is immortal by the grace of God and we are made in God’s image and called to be like Him.  Our capacity for rational reflection, scientific inquiry, and morality – along with our (by God’s grace) immortal soul – sets us apart from the rest of the animals in creation.  This is part of the beauty of the existential nature of Orthodox theology – we can creatively deal with the latest advancements in the best scientific knowledge available to us, instead of trapping ourselves in an outdated model of reality that puts us (needlessly) at odds with non-Christians.

13.  “If organized religion requires a civilization in which to spread, how could this civilization exist without first having a moral code to make us civil?”

I think the terms here could be clarified a bit, but I tend to see the question itself as a response to the idea that morality only comes from religion.  It is true that many religious people, including many, many Christians, say that their religion is the sole basis for morality.  I think this is a huge mistake.  Obviously, we see people acting with morality all over the world across time.  I tend to think this helps negate the Western Christian idea of total depravity, which is the dominant view in evangelical Protestantism, and the idea that organized religion of one sort or the other is the source of morality.  I tend to think it actually bolsters the Orthodox view that humanity is basically good and that God Himself is the source of goodness and morality.

To be continued…

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40 Questions to Ask a Christian: An Orthodox Response (Part 2)

In this post, I’ll be continuing my response to Thomas Swan’s “40 Questions to Ask a Christian”, which is a list of 40 questions on hubpages.com designed to provoke some thought and dialogue on the part of believers.  Swan’s post can be seen here.  So, with the first three broad questions out of the way, I’ll move on to the more specific issues at hand, starting with the fourth question.

4. “How can you tell the voice of God from a voice in your head?”

One of the major misconceptions that non-religious people have about believers is the idea that God often speaks to people via a small voice in one’s mind.  The implication is generally that the person is crazy for hearing God “talk” to them.

It’s important to remember that for most Christians, God is a Person.  In fact, God is three Persons in One, which is a paradox, but that is the mystery of the Trinity which God has revealed Himself as being.  So while I must add the qualifiers that God is beyond “person-hood” as we know it, God still communicates with people and this can be done in several different ways.  There may be instances of God speaking out loud or telepathically (“in one’s head”), but this is not necessarily the norm.  There is a great deal more nuance than people generally know.  For instance, God can speak through other people in a sermon, lecture, or just an encouraging word from a friend.  Sometimes a certain passage of scripture may come to mind at an opportune time or maybe certain doors in life may be opened or closed.  But that’s more of the “how” question and it’s not necessarily what we’re dealing with in the question above.

The real question is, “How do I know this is God?”  This varies from one religious tradition to the next.  Generally speaking, though, as Orthodox Christians, we know something is from God when we are encouraged to love others, act unselfishly, and put an end to destructive habits or desires in favor of behaviors that make us more like Christ.  More specifically, this “voice” must fall in line with the dogma of the Orthodox Church.  So it cannot contradict the scriptures, the Church canons, the Nicene Creed, and the teaching of the Fathers of the Church.  We have, in other words, a built-in safety net to ensure that we do not fall into egoism or heresy.  Orthodox are protected by 2,000 years of tradition to help us avoid these traps of delusion and/or heresy.

5. “How can you tell the voice of God from the voice of the Devil?”

This is an important question and I touched on the answer in my previous response.  We can distinguish between the voice of God from the “accuser” and “deceiver” because we have so many resources to draw on from the Church.  To put it simply, though, if we are encouraged towards unselfish love, empathy, and service to God and others, this is from God; but the devil encourages us towards self-centeredness, anger, pride, enmity with others.  By taking part in the life of the Church, we are helped along in our journey to become more like Jesus Christ – more like God – and we will more easily be able to “test the spirits” as the scripture says (1 John 4:1).

6. “Would you find it easier to kill someone if you believed God supported you in the act?”

Short answer: no.  Unequivocally, no.  This is because God would not command us to take another person’s life, as we are called to live in peace with others.  Killing is always sin.

7.  “If God told you to kill an atheist, would you?”

Please see the above answer.  Going back to my earlier responses, one must understand that killing another person is not something that would be commanded by God.  If, for whatever reason, someone heard a voice telling them to kill atheists, this would be from the devil – not from God.

8. “When an atheist is kind and charitable out of the kindness of his heart, is his behavior more or less commendable than a religious man who does it because God instructed him to?”

It is much more commendable for an atheist to do good out of his own volition than a religious man doing good because it is required of him to do so.  God looks much more favorably on someone doing good because they want to.  In fact, the Gospel accounts in the New Testament are filled with examples where Jesus Christ denounces religious people who do good works to merely show how religious or pious they are.  God wants us to do good works, but they must be done out of a person’s free will.

One of the great tragedies in the development of Western Christianity over the centuries is this idea of total depravity – that human beings are incapable of doing any good apart from God.  What makes this so sad is that this couldn’t be further from the original, ancient teachings of the Church, which have been preserved throughout the centuries in the Orthodox Church.  Orthodox see every human being as a unique child of God made in His image, so therefore humanity is basically good.  The problem is that people tend to mess up, or fall short of the mark of God-likeness, which is perfect, unselfish and co-suffering love.  Orthodox see sin as a sickness, so no matter how sinful – or sick – a person may be, he or she is still a precious child of God, still bearing the divine image.  No matter where a person is in the world and no matter what a person may believe, he or she is still capable of doing good and acting in a manner that is pleasing to God.

9. “If you are against the Crusades and the Inquisition, would you have been burned alive as a heretic during those events?”

The Crusades and Inquisition were dark times in Christian history.  That said, it is important to remember that those atrocities were carried out by Western Christians.  In fact, Orthodox suffered greatly at the hands of the crusaders, especially during the Fourth Crusade in which Constantinople was sacked and desecrated .  As for the Inquisition, I suppose I would have been denounced as a heretic, as I am an Orthodox Christian and I don’t subscribe to many Catholic doctrines.  I can only pray that I would have had the strength and courage to endure the trials of that time.

10. “If your interpretation of a holy book causes you to condemn your ancestors for having a different interpretation, will your descendants condemn you in the same way?”

First, I don’t condemn or judge others.  I can think other people may be incorrect about their interpretation, but judgment is left to God – certainly not to me.  That said, I come from a Protestant family and converted to the Orthodox Church.  I still think they were incorrect about many things regarding what constitutes genuine Christianity, but I don’t condemn them.  Most, if not all of my ancestors, were probably unaware of the existence of the Orthodox Faith, so I can hardly charge that against them.  I can only hope that my descendants will follow my example and remain in the Church, but if they choose another path, then that is their decision.  I hope they won’t hold my decision against me if that is what they decide.  Now, within Orthodoxy, it is important to note that there are not, generally speaking, serious disputes over the interpretation of scripture as we see in Protestant circles.  We know that individual readings are often subjective, so we must look to the Gospel message, to the Creed, the Councils, and especially the Church Fathers to help us interpret scripture correctly.

To be continued…

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40 Questions to Ask a Christian: An Orthodox Response (Part 1)

One of my favorite economists, Bob Murphy, has a recent post on his blog that I decided to comment on.  Murphy, a Christian, often posts some thoughts on religion on or around Sundays and this particular post brought out some interesting comments.  One commenter shared a link to a post on hubpages.com by one, Thomas Swan, in which he lays out 40 questions for Christians in hopes of provoking some critical thought and, presumably, causing some to think twice about their belief.  There are indeed some good questions, which you can see here.  Since there are so many questions in several different categories, I’ve decided to break down my response into several parts – I don’t want this post to turn into a book.

I enjoyed reading through the questions, which have been broken down into various topics, including the Bible, hell, conversion, and the existence and nature of God Himself.  I especially appreciated how Swan framed the questions.  From the beginning, the questioner makes it clear that, while he ultimately hopes to change minds, the aim is really to provoke thought – not anger.  I’ve seen my fair share of discussions on religion that become very heated, to the point where neither side comes out any better for it and I wish more people would come into these sorts of discussions with the proper mindset, as Mr. Swan has here.

Now, before I get into the questions themselves, I want to make a note that many of these questions that Swan has raised are incredibly relevant to the current discussion on religion in the West (Europe and North America).  I’ve had some of these questions myself over the course of my life and I sympathize with some of these concerns even today.  I also would like to say that I think most of these questions are directed mainly at Western Christianity (Protestants and Catholics, but I think traditional, fundamentalist evangelicals in North America should especially be on their toes here), as most atheists today in the Western world are familiar with the Western version of Christianity – this is all they know.  Even many Christians in the West aren’t aware of the existence of the Orthodox Church, much less what makes Eastern Christianity substantially different from the Western half.

This is a very important time for Orthodoxy, as the Orthodox Church is moving into and steadily growing in the Western world just as more and more people are waking up to what we Orthodox see as inherent problems in Western Christianity.  Secularism is rising rapidly even in North America and the game is just about over in old Europe.  In an age of increasing unbelief, I think Orthodoxy is in a unique position to answer these questions.  So with that in mind, I humbly offer the best answers that I can give to these important questions from an Orthodox Christian perspective.

The first few questions are about “global religion”, which I take to mean religion in general.  Therefore, my answers will be fairly broad.

1. “If a hundred different religions have to be wrong for yours to be right, does this show that people from all over the world like to invent gods that don’t exist?”

This is a good question and the implicit point here is: “If other people make up religions, why isn’t your God just make-believe?”  I think it’s a mistake to look at religion in such “black and white” terms.  The same thing can be said for any culture or philosophy, even secular ones.  One has to be specific when articulating beliefs and ideas.  In other words, I think it’s fair to turn the question around and ask why should this burden be placed on religious people and not atheists or agnostics?  What version of atheism is one proposing?  On what grounds do you base your claims and why is your particular school of thought the correct one?  In addition to rejecting every religious tradition, what makes you so certain about your particular atheist tradition?  Why, or why not, reject the others?

Now, I’m not advocating relativism here.  I want to be clear about that.  But at the same time, I think it’s fair to recognize that there’s a lot more nuance to each religious or secular tradition and coming to a specific belief means that others are at least implicitly rejected.  Of course, one can decide how charitable he or she wants to be with other traditions.  For example, I tend to look at other religions and secular philosophies in a way that helps me learn a little more about the world.  I see something God-inspired in most traditions and I’m eager to learn what I can.  It never hurts to learn something new.

As an Orthodox Christian, specifically, I am first commanded to not judge others.  Every human being is a child of God, created in His image, so each individual is sovereign and free to make his or her own decisions about how to live and what to believe.  All I can do is pray for those who are not in the Church, trust in God’s infinite mercy, and love them and learn from them.  Above all, I must struggle to repent of my own sins and put away my selfishness, becoming more like Christ each day through the life of the Church.  That said, I firmly believe the Gospel that has been preached by the Orthodox Church since Pentecost and I think I have good reason to believe it.  But this is not what I base my faith on, because faith is an orientation of the heart towards God – it is not coming into accord with specific facts in my head.  So the important thing for Orthodox isn’t coming up with arguments to denounce other beliefs in favor of what we believe.  Rather, we are to focus on our relationship with God and our journey towards God-likeness.  As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, the purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and that if we focus on our own repentance, those around us will be saved.

2. “If your parents had belonged to a different religion, do you think you would belong to that religion too?”

The question here is, on its face, perfectly reasonable and understandable.  The assumption is that people tend to take on the religious beliefs that were handed down to them.  So a child raised in a Muslim household will tend to be Muslim and a child raised by Buddhist parents will tend to be Buddhist, and so on.  There’s nothing unreasonable about this and I think there is definitely something to this tendency – there’s no denying that our upbringing has a substantial influence on our beliefs as we mature into adulthood.

Then again, the world is a beautiful and wonderfully complicated place.  If you look a little deeper, you’ll find fascinating stories everywhere and this includes spiritual journeys.  While they may or may not be the norm, I think there are enough occurrences of  conversions of various sorts to sometimes radically different traditions for us to take notice.  Take me, for example.  I was raised in a traditional, evangelical home in the Southern Baptist tradition.  I went to Southern Baptist schools and churches all my life, but then I ended up converting to the Orthodox Church, which I see as the fullness of the Christian Faith.  My sister became Catholic.  Friends from school became atheists and agnostics and Lutherans.

Then there are instances where people who’ve no exposure to certain religions have experiences that bring them to new beliefs.  Sometimes some exposure to a certain tradition can bring great changes.  C.S. Lewis was an atheist and then, after his conversion, became one of the greatest theologians of the modern era.  St. Paul had a vision of Christ and became one of the greatest evangelists of all time.  Of course, those are just a couple examples of people converting to Christianity.  Stories abound of conversions to other traditions as well.  The point here is that while there may be tendency to hold on to the beliefs of one’s parents, life isn’t always so simple.

3. “If people from the five major religions are each told conflicting information by their respective gods, should any of them be believed?”

This question seems to be fairly similar to the first and turning the question around is fair play.  “If five atheists each hold conflicting grounds for atheism or come from different atheist traditions, should any of them be believed?”  There is an assumption here that implies that, because religious people have so many different views, they must all be making stuff up.  Here again I think it’s important to recognize the importance of nuance in various traditions – religious and secular.  It’s important to remember that just because each tradition makes a unique claim and can hold various grounds for it, doesn’t mean that none of them are right.  Again, I’m not for postmodern relativism.  I believe there is such a thing as objective truth and this will have to be hashed out in the arena of ideas.  But I also think it’s unfair for non-religious people to actively attack religious traditions without also laying out their own claims and the grounds they have for them.

In addition, it’s only fair for each side in the debate to not resort to caricature in portraying the other side’s views.  Atheists and religious people alike are guilty of this and it’s time to put an end to this intellectual vice – let everyone lay their cards out on the table, I say, and let each person make up his own mind as to which tradition makes the most sense to him.

I should emphasize, again, that Orthodox have not dogmatized a specific epistemology.  Orthodoxy is existential to its core and not concerned with turning theology into an intellectual exercise or a science.  Let people believe what they will and let them live in peace, trusting in the ultimate mercy of God.

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