Instant Sabbatical

A lot of stressors in ole Tipsy’s life right now, many involving too much work (which beats too little or unemployment).

Grant unto me, O Lord, that with peace of mind I may face all that this new day is to bring.

Grant unto me to dedicate myself completely to Thy Holy Will.

For every hour of this day, instruct and support me in all things.

Whatsoever tidings I may receive during the day, do Thou teach me to accept tranquilly, in the firm conviction that all eventualities fulfill Thy Holy Will.

Govern Thou my thoughts and feelings in all I do and say.

When things unforeseen occur , let me not forget that all cometh down from Thee.

Teach me to behave sincerely and rationally toward every member of my family, that I may bring confusion and sorrow to none.

Bestow upon me, my Lord, strength to endure the fatigue of the day, and to bear my part in all its passing events.

Guide Thou my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to suffer, to forgive, and to love.


(Prayer of the Optina Elders)

I did not greet much that Wednesday brought with peace of mind. Not even after the cathartic outbursts did I accept them tranquilly, in the firm conviction that all eventualities fulfill God’s Holy Will. My thoughts and feelings were seemingly ungovernable.

All those people who are “wrong on the internet”? Not my problem just now.

No promises on when I’ll be back or with what frequency. This has sort of been a personal journal online, and maybe I need to renew that view of it.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Tuesday, 5/27/14

Rod Dreher greeted me Monday morning with a blog on my favorite topic. I suppose I could write this as an update to Is Orthodoxy a Cult?, but I think it works better here, as it has nothing to do with some list of “cult markers.”

Rod remarks in his own voice on something that I’ve noted and commented on frequently:

[O]ne thing about Orthodoxy is that it makes a lot of room for mystery. Orthodoxy has dogmatic theology, and doctrine, but it is remarkably (for such a conservative church) comfortable saying, “We’re not entirely sure,” or “We just don’t know.” I have found that to be both comforting and challenging, even though I have a reflexive bias against too much doctrinal liberty in this anything-goes era. It’s comforting, because it reminds me that God wants more than anything else a relationship with us; we worship a God-man who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” — the Truth is a person, not a proposition. I think you can see why this is both comforting and challenging.

Then in short order, after a brief segue through this territory again, he surprised me with a story unprecedented in my experience (though I think I can see foreshadowings).

BBC Journalist Peter France, has written of his retirement to Patmos:

France’s wife, Felicia, was a convert to Orthodoxy, but she did not pressure him to join her. They were old friends of Metropolitan Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, who had something to do with their retiring to Patmos. After some time living on the island, France felt moved to embrace Orthodoxy, but he simply couldn’t affirm the Creed, not fully. What to do? Met. Kallistos told France that it was time for him to come into the Church. If you can’t say the Creed yourself, the bishop told France, then if you trust me, I’ll say it for you.

What?! France was shocked by this. How could he trust someone else to say on his behalf words he didn’t believe? Yet he thought about how much he had come to love and to trust the Greek people on the island, and their piety. The nuns of Evangelismos had gotten to know him pretty well, and would tell his wife not to worry about Peter, because he’s already Orthodox, and just doesn’t know it. Met. Kallistos, France conceded, knew him pretty well, and probably knew more about his spiritual condition than he did.

And then I remembered the words of Robert Runcie, archbishop of Canterbury, that “Christianity is an experiment which leads to an experience which is verifiable as you go along.” I decided to start the experiment.

France begins the book describing his baptism into Orthodoxy. Later, he says that he had no shattering revelations when he arose from the water as an Orthodox Christian. In fact:

I emerged still agnostic, but with a difference. A part of me was opened that had been shut. I heard no messages, but felt ready to receive them. If I had received grace, it had come in the form of an increase not in conviction, but in awareness, in receptivity.

(Emphasis added)

Aside: I’m not sure how one is received into the Church without saying the Creed; it is part of the Baptismal service. Maybe France said it with his fingers crossed, or with an asterisk, presumably known to the Priest who baptized him. Perhaps only his sponsor/Godfather said it, as is done when baptizing infants.

I am not scandalized. I have described the Nicene Creed as a fence set up by Ecumenical Councils when people were falling off particular cliffs. As Rod put it, “‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ — the Truth is a person, not a proposition.” Christ’s Church believes the Creed. France believes Christ’s Church.

I don’t think anyone would be received into the Church who denies that Creed, nor do I expect to see a rush of catechumens received despite doubts about the creed. But to say “I trust the Church but have a mental block about parts of the Creed” is not different in kind from saying “I trust the Church but have a mental block about the Virgin Mary” — which has been how a lot of us converts from Protestantism entered the Church, for example. 

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

The Sunday of the Hoosier Prodigals

Today, the sixth Sunday of Pascha in the year 2014, we commemorate St. Mario the Pole, also called The Slowing Down, who contended annually in the arena with 32 fierce pagan charioteers before an innumerable host of boozy, bosomy infield babes, thus inciting many men to absent themselves from the Divine Liturgy and lesser ecclesial assemblies and to show themselves openly as double-minded and inconstant.

Verse: To the contest of The Slowing Down with his adversaries in India No Place did the prodigals make haste. Through their prayers, O Christ Our God, grant us, their older brothers, and they the prodigals (I guess – grumble, grumble), repentance and remission of sins.

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The remarks made in this essay do not represent a true excerpt of the Synaxarion, read at every Matins. They are intended as a good laugh for those who’ve attended Matins enough to know the rhythms and word play. Well, and maybe a little chastening for men so keen on motor sport that their churches can’t field a choir on Memorial Day Sunday.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Is Orthodoxy a cult?

At the risk of revealing how oddly my synapses fire at times, a story (see here, here and above all here) about Daniel Harper, a Cameron University (Oklahoma) student started me thinking: how would young Harper assess Orthodox Christianity by his criteria for identifying a cult? Does that tell us something bad about Orthodoxy, something bad about Harper, or something deficient in his criteria?

My point is not to beat up Harper, and I won’t beat him up. I hope and (with Eugene Volokh fully expect) that he will trounce his university in his lawsuit. My point is to reflect on how Orthodoxy differs from Evangelicalism so much that an Evangelical might mistake it for a cult – as some of them certainly have.

To start off with, and based on my own experience, I think an evangelical superficially acquainted with Orthodoxy might indict us for (from Harper’s criteria):

  1. “They say they have the ‘truth,’ which can only be found through their group.”
  2. “Group claims special or elite status.”
  3. “They hide their core teachings.”
  4. “They encourage meetings to ‘study,’ rather than telling you things up-front.”
  5. Real Religions
    1. “Information offered up front.”
    2. “Works within society. “
  6. Cults (Destructive Organizations)
    1. “Exploits/ manipulates its members with mind control techniques.”
    2. “Discourages autonomy and pushes for conformity to the group.”

First, I note that this (and much of Harper’s other criteria) mashes up religious and sociological meanings of “cult,” leaning toward the latter. When I was a young Evangelical, the focus of the term among “my people” was mostly on religious error, not secretiveness or “cultic” mind control. I recall from my parents’ bookshelves, for instance, a tome titled The Chaos of the Cults (full text here). Its list of “cults” was very politically incorrect by today’s standards, leaning toward the abberant Protestantisms (i.e., <snark>those whose foundational interpretations of scripture were more recent than the 17th Century</snark>):

  • Spiritism Thesophy (And The Liberal Catholic Church)
  • Rosicrucianism
  • Christian Science
  • The Unity School Of Christianity
  • Baha’ism
  • Mormonism
  • Destiny Of America (Anglo-Israelism)
  • Seventh-Day Adventism
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Buchmanism (Moral Re-Armament)
  • Unitarianism Modernism
  • Swedenborgianism

I was in college when the emphasis started shifting, with families “intervening” and “deprogramming” their kids who’d gotten into, say, Hare Krishna or the Unification Church, both of which seemed (and probably were) sinister. The meaning of “cult” now generally leans toward the sociological use, the old usage, which really didn’t have much more substance than “any religion newer than mine is bogus,” having died a well-deserved death.

But that point aside, let’s look at the criteria. Bear in mind now, that Harper self-identifies as an Evangelical, yet tacitly endorses relativism by criticizing believing that your group is really right (his point 1, of which I suspect point 2 is duplicative). If you don’t think your group “has the truth,” why are you in it? Because it’s comfy? Well, in any event, Orthodoxy qualifies under his criterion 1. We don’t think we’re perfect, but we think the true light, the true faith, has been traditioned (passed on) to us. And Harper might think that unjustifiably makes us feel special or elite.

Point 6.1: incense, chant, candles, icons – pretty mind-blowing for a Protestant, let alone an Evangelical.


6.2: Orthodoxy puts high emphasis on humility and obedience to legitimate authority, particularly that of your Spiritual Father (though you typically find your own Spiritual Father if you’re diligent; I don’t know of them being appointed). 5.2? We’re kind of counter-cultural. Lots of home-schoolers, folk music fans, and otherwise dissidents, especially among the converts I know.

Above all, Point 4: we encourage people to come and see rather than trying to tell them. That also makes us suspect under points 3 and 5.1. Surely that’s a reliable marker of a cult, right?

Wrong. It’s just that some of Orthodoxy is ineffable. You have to see it to believe (or really to disbelieve) it. Yeah, we can point to the Nicene Creed as what we believe, but so can many others. That’s not a complete description of what we believe, or tend to believe, though. It’s a fence set up by Ecumenical Councils when people were falling off particular cliffs.

We don’t treat the Creed as “the essentials” and all else as optional. We have no “fundamentals” or “core beliefs” to be fundamentalist about. We have no “minimum necessary” beliefs, nor anything I’d call “least common denominators.”

We are a maximalist faith. We want to know/practice the fullness of the Christian faith. And some of that just isn’t cognitive or propositional. Some of it, you eat.

This is a great blessing, but as I was approaching Orthodoxy it was a great frustration.

I wanted to line up my Calvinist beliefs in Column A, what I took to be Roman Catholic beliefs in Column B, and Orthodox beliefs in Column C, so I could compare and contrast across the lines, sitting as judge. I jumped on the title “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” and then was disappointed that it didn’t really seem to deliver – not in the categories I wanted it to deliver in. Just look at those chapter titles. Sheesh!

  • That the Deity is incomprehensible, and that we ought not to pry into and meddle with tire (sic) things which have not been delivered to us by the holy Prophets, and Apostles, and Evangelists.
  • Concerning things utterable and things unutterable, and things knowable and thinks unknowable.
  • Concerning the nature of Deity: that it is incomprehensible.
  • Concerning the place of God: and that the Deity alone is uncircumscribed.

(Emphasis added) Which leads to this: much of Orthodox theology is apophatic:

Apophatic theology — also known as negative theology — is a theology that attempts to describe God by negation, to speak of God only in absolutely certain terms and to avoid what may not be said. In Orthodox Christianity, apophatic theology is based on the assumption that God’s essence is unknowable or ineffable and on the recognition of the inadequacy of human language to describe God.

It has been said, roughly, that if you really want to know what Orthodoxy is, you need to take a year, attend every single service that’s appointed (this probably means spending the year at a Monastery, since you’re not going to find a parish that serves everything appointed), pay perfect attention, make the prescribe prostrations, metanias, and other physical gestures, commune, be annointed, etc. and then you’ll know what Orthodoxy is. Because much – most? – of what we believe is in the hymns we sing, the prayers and litanies we pray, the acts we do, the acts that are done to us, and the entire multi-volume set of books with those services.

Yet you cannot become Orthodox by reading those or any other books. I was drawn to Orthodoxy by books. There came a point where I could have populated “Column C” somewhat. But that couldn’t and didn’t make me Orthodox. I had to “come and see.” And I count it a blessing that my role at the Parish requires me to be in more of those services than anybody except the Priest and maybe our Subdeacon.

And if “come and see” sounds like “we’re not going to tell you until we’ve trapped you,” I’m sorry but you’re hearing it wrong. We can’t (not mustn’t) tell you.

The old Evangelical saw was “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a way of life.” Think of it in those terms and maybe you’ll see why we couldn’t tell you if we tried.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.