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.