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…