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:: Wednesday, July 30, 2003 ::

Being Guided Into Personal Experience

I thought the following exchange on the Evangelical-Orthodox Discussion Group was intriguing, especially as it relates to the personal vs. individual discussion.

For the sake of differentiation, I have put Anastasia's comments in normal font. Richard's are in blogger italics.


Anastasia wrote: "...For us, truth *has to be* a matter of personal experience, and theology is nothing but description of that concrete experience. (The alternative is what?)"

"On the other hand, the Church insists that she guide us into *the* experience, which is to say the Apostolic one, the very same experience of Christ that they had and have passed down from person to person."

Richard responds:

"That is the most befuddling thing so far I have heard yet concerning Orthodoxy. It would seem that even the occultist who has a plethora of religious experiences would back up his/her experiences with their 'theology'. Thus 'truth' is formulated. But that obviously puts us in the category of subjective truth."

"The alternative is Thy Word is Truth. When it comes to God and His Ways and our condition before Him we have no other sure foundation of Truth even when our experience/reason would say otherwise. e.g. Incarnation."

"How can we experience in the same way the death and resurrection of Christ whom the Apostles say they are eyewitness and who touched him? In my own experience I had a few powerful 'spiritual' encounters which led me to search the Scriptures which led me to repentance/faith which led to the Church. That is how experiences sometimes work."

Anastasia responds:

"For the Orthodox, theology is not to "back up" experience or anything else. Instead, it is the outgrowth and explanation of a particular experience, namely our Life in Christ. That comes first, theology comes afterward as its verbal expression."

Quoting Richard again: "But that obviously puts us in the category of subjective truth."

Anastasia continues: "Provided it IS Truth, Truth as attested to not only the Holy Spirit in the believer's heart but also in Scripture, by the Fathers, by the whole Church, over a period of 2,000 years and counting -- what's the objection to its being 'subjective'? (We would call it 'inward' rather than 'subjective'.) I mean, within a Prot. context, I can see the problem with 'subjective' but not within an Ortho context....."

"What I'm saying is that ALL theology, like the Scriptures and including them, is an account of experience with God. Or else it is bogus. In Jeremiah 14:14, false prophets are denounced because they were speaking things out of their own heads and not expressing encounters with God; God had neither commanded them nor spoken to them."

"IOW, the Word of God comes to mankind FIRST in living reality, in experience, and THEN gets written about. Orthodox theology is *based upon* experience with God, experience guided, informed, explained and articulated by the whole Church, especially by the Prophets, Evangelists, Apostles, and Fathers."

"That is, not an individual's private experience, but upon the experience of the whole Body together and of each of us, personally, as members of that Body."

"If theology is based upon anything else than experience, then at best it's just abstractions, concepts, mental exercise. And if theology is based upon experience but experience other than that of the Church, then it will indeed be more than shadows, but will not faithfully reflect the Apostolic experience, hence, not be able to help transmit it, and in fact will become a hindrance to the transmission of it, and that's the definition of error."

Quoting Richard again: "How can we experience in the same way the death and resurrection of Christ whom the Apostles say they are eyewitness and who touched him?"

"Sorry, I worded that badly. I should have said it is the self-same experience of the crucified *and risen* Christ. His historical sojourn here upon the Earth is finished and not to be repeated. We can and do have the same experience of the post-Resurrection Christ as they do."

"And YET --- and yet, not physically, but in the transcendent Christ, by the timeless Holy Spirit, we do experience His life on earth, both as He lives it now and as He lived it then, in such a way that we are at no spiritual disadvantage as compared with those who were present at the foot of the Cross, at the empty Tomb, on Mt. Tabor, or in the Garden of
Gethsemane. (Ask any Orthodox Christian who has been 'put through' all the services of Holy Week whether he has 'been there' and you will get a resounding 'Yes!')"


:: Karl :: 4:46:00 PM [Link] ::
:: Tuesday, July 29, 2003 ::
The Difference between You and a Philosophical Construct

After serendipitously finishing the latest issue of First Things last night, I have been inspired to muse a bit more about the nature of personhood vs individualism. The articles by Gilbert Meilaender and Alan Jacobs about memory, personhood, and narrative theology are excellent reads. I should have somethng up later this week on this...

For now, I invite you to check out Tripp's blog where a robust discussion is going on about this, and other related ecclesiological topics. Check out the comments box at this post, and then jump up to the comments at this post.

In one exchange, Megan wrote, "I believe that the individual's relationship with God does not require a church. And that the individual's relationship with God is everything. Church may feel good, and it certainly may help us defend time to attend specifically to our relationships with God, but ultimately, Church is a luxury, not a necessity, in my (humble?) opinion.

.... I think each individual's path to God may be laid with a mixture of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. The only thing that can be judged, and only God can judge it, is whether the individual is truly striving to follow God and embody God's will in the world."

Cliff responded: "As I'm sure you know, the concept of the individual is a particularly modern notion, philosophical construct that was thought up only relatively recently. The "individual" as we understand it today, was not even understood as such till Descartes."

"And even then, it didn't gain its full force until Kant's Groundwork. Prior to that, the concept of the person--which included the inescapable corollary of the community--was the only way humankind was understood. I submit, it is the only Christian way to understand personhood."

One thing I should have noted (or better emphasized) in a recent post is that every person's journey is, as Megan said, "a mixture of orthodoxy and heterodoxy." In the end, only God will be able to judge the human heart.

However, this does not prevent us from being able to know and participate in the that which God has in fact revealed. How we function, interact, and grow *in community* is what this judgment will be about (Matt. 25), not a judgment of our "individual" lives. As the saints say, "We are saved together but we fall alone." More soon....

Update: Rick writes a bit about individuality and what it means for the concept of "self-worth."

:: Karl :: 4:11:00 PM [Link] ::
:: Monday, July 28, 2003 ::
Planning for a "Lay Ascetic" Orthodox Community

It has been a while since I last wrote about our plans for creating a communal living situation. It is about time to give an update!

With the leadership of my wife's parents and the enthusiastic help of close friends from our respective parishes, we have continued to research and formulate our vision for a specifically Orthodox "lay ascetic"/intentional community over the last few months.

At a recent meeting we talked about what each one of us is looking for, how we think this should take shape, what it will look like and how it will function. When you say the words "co-housing" or the words "intentional community" it is amazing to see how different the assumptions and ideas are from person to person!

It has been important for us to all agree on some basic plans and flesh out how the Orthodox experience of koinonia would be the foundation of our vision. In some ways, this discussion has been similar to pre-marital counseling!

Briefly, our goal is to collectively purchase (probably via a LLC) a 10-15 unit apartment complex. We would have a core group of committed financial partners among the family units who would commit to purchasing shares in the company as well as people simply paying rent to live in our community.

Even with a rise in interest rates, the numbers crunch out very favorably for everyone involved. If you figure in things like common meals, and other shared resources, the financial side of it is even more advantageous.

What is more important, however, is the amazing opportunities for spiritual growth. If Orthodoxy is ever to really flourish in America, we must be diligent about creating authentic community that goes well beyond pleasantries at coffee hours, small talk after Vespers, and discussions that always end with "Hey, we'll see you next Sunday." Here are just a few of the ideas we brainstormed about:


being able to help those in need
learning how to set boundaries
organic relationships: ability to transcend the "cult of the nice"
sharing our gifts and talents
sharing resources, financially advantageous
Incarnated living; Orthodoxy in context
able to draw from spiritual father's advice
raising children in safe community


becoming exclusive/cliques
taking advantage of others
privacy issues
problems with growth
guilt for those who choose not to participate
property/legal rights
people leaving/lack of commitment
maintenance/insurance issues

One of our main goals is to create a bridge between the intensity of a full-blown Athonite monastic living situation and the fragmented, suburban, isolated living most of us have been sucked into via American culture.

For most of us in parish life with families, the full monastic life is obviously not an option. However, many of us are starting to realize that the isolated and wasteful way of living in American culture is, in many ways, incompatible with a vibrant Orthodox lifestyle.

I will have *much* more to say about all this as time goes on. Stay tuned....

:: Karl :: 10:41:00 AM [Link] ::
:: Sunday, July 27, 2003 ::
A Saint for our Times

Check out the July 27th issue of Parade magazine (of all places!) for a nice cover story about the work being done by Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos of Albania. The money quote by his Eminence: "We must not waste a single day."

About two years ago, Touchstone published a biography of his life and witness which I found very moving when I first read it. Let us pray that we may all strive to live such lives of sacrifice and courage.

:: Karl :: 9:16:00 PM [Link] ::
:: Friday, July 25, 2003 ::
Individual vs Personal: What is the Nature of a Christian Spiritual Journey?

In the comments box of my last post, a reader asks how the following statement made to her in the past fits into what I wrote about the spiritual journey. The statement made to her was "Nobody's journey is their own, that's a post-enlightenment, individualistic lie."
I started a comment but it was long enough to warrant a full post. Here is my response:

I don't think the sentiments at the end of my last post necessarily contradict the sentence you quoted. I think the disconnect may be found in the different ways in which we use the word �journey.�

First of all I would reiterate what I wrote in my Feb 6 post about the incredibly important distinction between �individual� and �personal.� From an Orthodox POV, your cousin is right; there is no such thing as having your own individual, private spiritual journey. In fact that is the definition of hell!

In other words, I am not an isolated creature whose spiritual life has little bearing or impact on others, nor do I have the right to dictate to God what the rules of the journey are. True, I must own the journey in that I am the one who has to walk the path, personally. But it is not mine in that I don�t walk it alone nor do I create the path.

So when I said ��.no part of our human experience is left untouched by the grace of God--no matter where we are along the journey� I am in no way affirming the modern Protestant understanding of the word �journey.� The modern idea tells me if I don�t happen to like:

a) the historic, apostolic, way of doing or being �church�
b) the moral teachings of the Church
c) the ancient and proven spiritual praxis of the Church's ascetical life
d) anything not fitting comfortably into my idea of what Christianity should be

then I am perfectly free to jettison the parts I don�t like to better fit �MY journey.�

Here we see the difference between the two views: For the Protestant, the word �journey� is primarily seen through the subjective eyes of journeyer, rather than the path itself. In American Christian culture, everything about our lives is sadly judged through the lens of the individual person rather than the ways and will of God as have been revealed to us in the Church. ("You have what works for you; I have what works for me"....and other such relativistic worldviews...)

For the Orthodox, there is only one journey for all of human beings and it is the same journey. Our job (and our joy) is to learn to actually follow the path laid down for us by the Fathers, the Saints, the Apostles, the Martyrs, by Christ Himself.

Some of us may spend a lifetime just getting started along the path. Others may advance far along on it. Either way, the journey is the same and can�t be reinterpreted or created by us. �The fullness of the faith was delivered once to the saints,� St. Jude tells us.

But our understanding of what the Christian life is has dramatically faded in the Christian world today. Tragically, many Christians have come to believe that "true" doctrines and "good" worship and what constitutes a God-pleasing �spiritual journey� are to be measured by how well they fit with "where we they are personally"--or in other words, by how closely they conform to our own fallen opinions, feelings, and desires.

It is true that God "meets us where we are." No questions there. But He always encourages us to move, as C.S. Lewis put it, "father up and further in." While it may start outside, this journey is only able to be *completed* in the Church.

It is the Orthodox teaching that the only authentic Christian journey is one toward Christ and his Church. Union with Christ must also mean, even perhaps in some way mysterious to us, union with His Church. For Christ and His Body comprise an organic union. (�Why are you persecuting *ME*� Jesus told Saul, not �why are you persecuting my individual spiritual journeyers��)

Once a person accepts the fact that it is history and the visible Church Christ established, and not our personal interpretations, that show us what the Christian journey is, the fact that Orthodoxy is the one true expression of that path is fairly easy to discover and experience. Once we have discovered this (by the grace of God) it is imperative for us to act upon the truth God has revealed. ("To whom much is given...." Luke 12:48b)

We must trust the wisdom of the Church above our own fallen feelings, opinion and judgments--for as the prophet Jeremiah said, "The heart is deceitful above all things, a desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). Part of the authentic Christian journey is learning to trust those wise and holy saints who have shown us the way.

The path that God has created for us in the Church is a narrow one, and not even outward membership guarantees full union with God. But we must seek it out, for our salvation depends on it. Jesus tells us to "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few." (Matt. 7:13-14)

YMMV, of course. No doubt I�m probably just as opinionated as your cousin!

Update: Pastor Brad Boydston makes a good point about individualism

:: Karl :: 9:04:00 AM [Link] ::
:: Wednesday, July 23, 2003 ::
Finding Your Place in the Family: Struggles of an Inquirer

Erica writes a very vulnerable and fascinating blog about her experiences and frustrations as she looks into the Orthodox Church. She is in that familiarly painful place many converts reach at one point in their journey: the realization that they can�t go back to Protestantism, but they can�t see how they can move forward into the life of the Church.

In this recent post, she writes, "I have spent so long so passionately studying Protestantism, that even if I thought Orthodoxy was truly right, I don�t think I could change my whole fundamental line of thinking to line up with it. It is also frustrating that I have spent my whole summer (literally) in my pursuit of Orthodoxy, and yet don�t �get� it. I still am not even a catechumen; and I cannot bring myself to become one. Yes, I have had some interesting experiences, and some I will always remember, but I do not have any faith. I am still on my own as far as that goes; Orthodox to a Protestant, and Protestant to any Orthodox.�

If there is one thing I've learned in being an American Protestant convert to Orthodoxy it is this: I will spend the rest of my life trying to actually *be* Orthodox. Acquiring an Orthodox mindset , that struggle for purification of the nous, is what our life in the Church is all about and there is a sense in which none of us ever really �gets it.� The saints do, of course, but then they realize that Orthodoxy, while including�right belief,� is much richer and deeper than the shallow joy of simply having our �theological ducks in a row.�

There is a lot of advice one could give people who have reached the stage Erica is at: read this or that book, pray these prayers, read the Bible more, talk with so-and-so about �X� issue, talk with your priest, etc. These are all good, and all will play a crucial role in the journey to the Orthodox Faith. However, the one piece of advice I would give is this:

Enjoy and cherish this place in your journey.

I know this sounds trite, but I know it will help because I didn�t do it during those early months of encountering Orthodoxy. Looking back, it was the one thing I could have done that would have made it more bearable. I probably would have saved myself a lot of unnecessary agony if I had just taken a deep breath once in a while and laughed at myself. I was in such a rush to get where God wanted me to go, I sometimes forgot He was the leader of the dance, not me.

The theology, the history, the Church Fathers, the liturgy, the praxis; all of this and more will make sense in time. But it will start to make a lot more sense once you are actually *living* the faith and not just studying it, thinking about it, dabbling in it, gazing at it from afar, or whatever. And it will take time, probably years. And that is ok.

This is one of the first lessons we converts have to learn about the Orthodox Faith�it is not a philosophical paradigm to master; it is an *incarnated* way of emptying ourselves and living for God and our neighbor that, if followed with faith and love, will produce holiness. There is nothing that more seperates our western Christian experience from Orthodoxy than this point. Orthodoxy, like no other faith, perfectly weds our heads and our hearts by showing us how no part of our human experience is left untouched by the grace of God--no matter where we are along the journey.

:: Karl :: 9:51:00 PM [Link] ::
:: Tuesday, July 22, 2003 ::
Recreational Christianity: The Story of an Atheist Youth Pastor

Something on the front page of this site caught my attention. [warning: this site contains an enormous amount of infantile and offensive material. Click at your own risk!]

I stuck around just long enough to read this explanation of what "Recreational Christianity" is from the FAQ link:

"Essentially, the term is used to describe any one of a number of activities where a non-Christian (or person not involved with a particular sect of Christianity) indulges or immerses themselves in activities, literature, and media of a given sect of Christianity which they perceive as strange, bizarre, or off-beat, for the sole purpose of having fun at the expense of that sect of Christianity."

Have you known someone like this? I did, and reading this took me back a few years to one of the more memorable of my spiritual conversations.....

Glen was an older student, having been a youth pastor in the Church of Christ denomination during his 20's. When I met him he was a staunch atheist.

In fact, he remains the last intellectually robust, genuinely friendly, philosophically complex, pure atheist I have ever met. Most people who claim to be atheists are really agnostics in denial---they typically lack the intellectual capabilities or the passionate spiritual desire to seriously investigate and live out their beliefs.

One day, after getting out early from a literature class we shared, we went out for coffee and mused about spiritual and philosophical issues. I had become Orthodox just a few months prior and he was interested to hear about this "exotic" form of Christianity. After talking about our classes for a time, I changed the subject and asked him why he wasn't a believer. He said, "I no longer believe in Christianity because I know it doesn't work."

At first I thought he was going to go down the Logical Positivism road. But he continued.

"Well, it isn't so much about it working, I suppose," he said, taking a sip of his latte. "It has more to do with what it actually *is*." I asked for an elaboration. He then said something I will never forget: "If I could lead people to Christ, go on youth retreats, sing the songs, and be a Christian leader, but not really believe in God myself, Christianity must be false."

I paused, taken aback. "So, you had already become an atheist while you were a youth pastor?" I asked, incredulously.

"Actually, a few years before I ever entered the ministry!" he exclaimed, with a smile.

I dropped out of college a few months later. It was the last conversation we had. There was something about his story that was horrific and tragic, but almost noble at the same time.

Yes, he was an atheist, a state of the heart some never escape. But we shared a common bond, one I feel might lead him to the truth someday--at a crucial point in both of our lives we stopped believing in the Christianity of our youth. Sadly, we had very different ways of dealing with this.

:: Karl :: 10:10:00 AM [Link] ::
:: Monday, July 21, 2003 ::
International Blogger

I've noticed I've been blogrolled at this blog as well as this blog. Both are written completely in German. Odd. Or maybe not...

Ja bin ich vom deutschen Abfall. Aber mein Deutsch ist schwach! (Yes, I am of German descent. But my German is weak!)

I took two years in high-school, but many years later and very little exposure since, my memory of it is fading fast. I'm not sure, even under physical torture, if I could properly conjugate a German verb! Case in point: I had to use Babelfish for the translation above!

All I can hope is that I don't forget the two years of Latin I just finished as quickly as I let my German slip away.

:: Karl :: 10:08:00 AM [Link] ::
:: Friday, July 18, 2003 ::
The Good, the Bad, the Interesting

Last week, I received (from different readers) two very interesting links about Evangelicalism. Keep 'em coming!

Link One:
What did the church do before television?
The money quote: "Martoia believed that the traditional church service didn't draw newcomers. 'So we said, Let�s take a cue from MTV [and] from TV commercials and what�s capturing people�s attention.'"

Taking a large swig from the postmodern trough of greed, lust, and rampant consumerism doesn't seem to be where one is likely to find the "hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge."

My grandfather's Master's thesis explored the idea of the church as primarily an advertiser. Of course, back in the 40's advertising was very different than the "shock & awe" kind we are now accustomed. Either way, molding your evangelistic vision on Britney Spears, Jackass and Coors Light seems...well....oh, nevermind.

Link Two:
After I posted the second part of my critique of the Baptist handbook, a reader emailed me a fairly decent analysis of Orthodox theology from an Evangelical apologetics site. On the whole it is a very fair and informed essay, and a nice example of someone doing it right. Well done.

The author concludes, saying "while we [Evangelicals] might have serious questions about certain doctrines and practices of Orthodoxy, we can't help but be enriched by others:

"The centrality of corporate worship as contrasted with our primary focus on the individual; the importance of beauty grounded in Christian beliefs contrasted with either the austerity of Protestant worship in the past or our present focus on personal tastes in aesthetics; the way fundamental doctrines such as that of the Trinity and the Incarnation weave their way throughout Christian belief and life in contrast to our more pragmatic way of thinking and living; these things and more make a study of the Orthodox Church an enriching experience. Even if one is simply challenged to rethink one's own beliefs, the effort is worthwhile."

While I'm at it, here is one more interesting Protestant link:

Pastor Brad Boydston posts a powerful quote from
this critique and analysis by Michael Horton of postmodernism's influence on contemporary Evangelical praxis. The concluding statement sure sounds like a description one might give of the Divine Liturgy:

Mr. Horton states "The agenda of the church in postmodernity is its task in every age: to tell the story, be written into it ourselves through Word and Sacrament, and to live that story in the power of the Spirit who incorporates us into its unfolding plot."

:: Karl :: 9:26:00 AM [Link] ::
:: Wednesday, July 16, 2003 ::
My Race is Human, New Bloggers, Drug Addicts and a Request

There are several small items I had wished to blog about in more detail this week but, with my Greek mythology final looming before me, I thought I'd offer up just small portions and quotes for your blogging consumption.

I know, a poor liabation. I'm sure you'll forgive me.

*I enjoy reading Jay Nordlinger's "Impromptus" column at NRO. Whether you agree with his politics or not, he is an excellent craftsman of the English language. The following quote, pulled from a recent column, is part of a letter he received from a reader. It gave me a chuckle:

"Upon the birth of our daughter last year, the State of Hawaii sent the requisite forms to acquire her legal birth certificate. The predictable, odious racial-category box appeared on the form, and I treated it in my usual manner - I checked the box that said Other and wrote in *human*."

*As Huw has already noted, a new Orthodox blogger has joined the discussion. T.E Grey is writing "on Orthodox Christianity, family, American rural living, and related topics"....Sounds like a good read! In this post he offers his perspective on some of the questions I brought up a few days ago about ecumenical dialogue.

*I'm trying to find a copy of "Freedom to Believe: Orthodox Christian Existentialism" by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo but am having problems locating a copy. If any of you have this book or know where to find it, let me know.

* Tripp, now focusing more on his work as a hospital chaplain, reflects on a recent encounter he had with a drug addict.

"Once they stabalize her she'll want to leave. She'll go back to her drugs. I'll sit here and be mad and horribly sad. This is beyond the realm of choice. yet she thinks she is choosing. She will die of way or another. And I wonder if I will be holding her hand again when she does. Strangely, I hope I am."

:: Karl :: 10:36:00 AM [Link] ::
:: Monday, July 14, 2003 ::
Catholicity and Matthew 18:20

One of my favorite books is Jordan Bajis' "Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the Western Christian."

It is a gold mine of fascinating tidbits of information and was extremely helpful as I first encountered Orthodox theology from a Protestant perspective.

One of the interesting and useful features of this book is the extensive footnotes after each chapter. In many instances, the number of pages devoted to footnotes almost eclipses the actual text of the chapters themselves! They are an excellent source of knowledge and provide ample material for further research and contemplation.

The following is a personal footnote he adds to his chapter entitled, "Catholicity and the Local Church" (page 147).
After reading a discussion at Mac Swift's blog about Matt. 18:20, I thought this tidbit from Bajis' book might shed some light on their discussion:

"Bible studies, 'fellowship' nights, prayer meetings, etc. may be expressions of the Church, but they are not the Church. The word ekklesia is used only twice in the gospels (Matt. 16:16-19; 18:17); in the first instance ("upon this rock I will build my church..") it is a reference to the faith upon which the Church is built, in the second ("and if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church") it is in the context of a court similar to the Jewish synagogue which had the authority to decide and settle disputes and exercise discipline."

"It is this second quotation which makes it very clear that the Church is not just an occasional gathering of a few random Christians in their living room."

"Certainly, a reflection of the Church is seen in Matt. 18:20 where Christ states that in the gathering of two or three in His name, there He is in the midst, but the idea that this is the same thing as the Church (ekklesia) is countered in the statement that if a brother is not sufficiently corrected by 'two or three witnesses' (Matt 18:16) 'tell it to the church.'"

"If the Church were merely the grouping of two or three brothers, why would there be a need to report it 'to the Church?' To borrow from St. Paul's description, the Church *as the body of Christ* is not merely two or three members but the entire body *assembled.* It is the whole Body of Christ which makes the Church (again the significance of the Eucharistic celebration can again be seen here)."

"Going back to the image of the Qahal, a couple of Jews together celebrating the Sabbath did not constitute the nation of Israel (i.e. the Qahal). They *expressed* Israel, they *belonged* to Israel but *those few gathered* were not Israel."

"It is the same with the membership within the ekklesia. Two or three Christians in prayer may *testify and demonstrate* their membership in the Church, but these few gathered are not the Church."

"Besides, as we have explained, to merely gather with Christians is different that to gather in Jesus' name, for to gather in Christ's name is to signify the covenantal and organic understanding of God's bond with His people...."

:: Karl :: 11:56:00 AM [Link] ::
:: Saturday, July 12, 2003 ::
Ideas and Frustrations about Debate in the Blogosphere

It seems I am not the only one thinking about
the nature and place of ecumenical dialogue in the Christian blogosphere.
Here are some thoughts by other Christian bloggers about their fears, their expectations, and their perspectives:

Ben writes optimistically about Christian discussion because in his view "....debate and confrontation can only strengthen your beliefs. Either you will be wrong and be forced to accept the other side, or you will prevail, and your conviction will increase. In both cases you are closer to the truth then you were before."

AKMA wonders whether clergy should blog. He writes, "Not everyone has to be as hyperbolically careful about what they say as are some folks (I, for instance). But (a) we ought certainly to do the best we can, not giving ourselves a pass by blaming people who misunderstand us when we write ambiguous, poorly-composed, just plain wrong-headed stuff for public consumption; and (b) when we write casually, we ought to write in a full awareness that what we say can and will be used as evidence against us."

Ray, in his July 11th post, suggests we adopt a more formal, legal, and philosophical style of discussion.
He writes, "Traditionally styled debates are useful. They are especially useful when it is just as important how the debater performs as whether his position is right or not. But we would have to agree that in a religious debate, this is not the case. If we are to be honest then we must admit that the truth is the goal. This format would feel strange. It would be uncomfortable. But it would get at the truth more closely and expose the erroneous arguments more quickly."

Robert Williams, after a lengthy and emotional round of discussions, feels frustrated and wonders if fruitful debate is even possible. He writes, "It seems that even mildly controversial religious topics are not best discussed in print. I've seen many of them, in Yahoo clubs, mailing lists, and now blogs, quickly turn pretty nasty. Strangely, unbelievers seem to be quite capable of having civil disagreements online, from what I can tell. But Christians can't."

:: Karl :: 9:14:00 AM [Link] ::
:: Wednesday, July 09, 2003 ::
Greeting Visitors with a Measure of Genuineness and Sincerity

This question is for those of you who are Orthodox, but especially for my non-Orthodox readers who have at least visited an Orthodox Church. Would you agree with the conclusion of the following observation (made on the Orthodox Convert Discussion Group):?

"I personally realized (something my wife already knew because she is Greek) was that the ethnic Churches may not be as friendly "up front", because it takes time to gain the people's respect and affection. But once you have it, you never have to watch your back or doubt their sincerity and genuineness."

".... It is my experience that the American culture is very shallow. People will let you into their intimate space very quickly
with no testing or time to measure who you are. They can be very friendly to your face and can share intimate things with someone even within the first conversation. On the surface this can appear very appealing."

"But most of the time it doesn't run very deep."

"On the other hand, the ethnics take their time in getting to know you. In their homes, you don't usually get past the formal living and dining rooms during the first visit. They watch you and measure your genuineness and sincerity. After they start to feel secure with you, then they will appropriately start to open up and share themselves with you. The Russians have a saying about friendship. 'Someone is not a friend until you have eaten a pound of salt together.'"

"I am so grateful to God for letting me experience a parish with mostly old country ethnic people. It did wonders for my shallow American bred soul."

While in many ways this is a subjective preference and may have no universal answer, it seems to be a perfect example of what happens to the "feel" of our parish community when we attempt to superimpose our American ethos onto the Church.

Or does it? Do our parishes need "welcoming committees" (as my father-in-law passionately pushed for in his Greek parish) that make an aggressive attempt to greet and meet every visitor who sets foot in the church? Should we let people naturally enter into the life of the parish, or do we need a more formal approach?

From your experience, what would have been more helpful for you as you came in contact with Orthodoxy for the first time?

:: Karl :: 1:30:00 PM [Link] ::
:: Monday, July 07, 2003 ::
A Beautiful Dance or a Futile Debate?

I reviewed the text I had prepared for Part Three and decided, after several re-writes, to bury it. I couldn't get it worded properly and (with the humble criticism of an Orthodox reader) decided I had said enough to make my point and should just let it go.

In place of Part Three I thought I'd post excerpts from a very lively and engaging series of emails I received from said Orthodox reader about some of the sentiments I shared in Part Two. In the past, I have written about the issues my critic was concerned about. IMO, they are worth considering and praying about on a regular basis.

I will warn you: this is a rather long post. However, our discussion brings up a series of intriguing and challenging questions that I think you'll find thought provoking if you stay till the end. So, here we go:

The reader first wrote, "I was quite bothered by this sentence from
your most recent blog entry:

'this advice shows the humility the Orthodox have toward missions in particular, and evangelism in general.'

"With all due respect, I wonder how humble it is to point out the humility of the group to which one belongs."

I responded, "True. I could have worded that a bit better. However, as Lewis once said, a beautiful women who calls herself ugly isn't humble...she's a liar. In 6 years of being Orthodox, I have yet to meet in any Orthodox missionary, OCMC speaker, or anyone speaking about evangelism from an Orthodox perspective, the kind of pride seen in the handbook I linked to. Not only does Orthodox *teaching* about evangelism "show this humility" but those who incarnate these teachings [live out lives of authentic holiness]."

"In a culture that reeks of inauthenticity and false humility I think telling the truth about ourselves even if it may come across as "prideful" is more authentic. But perhaps the best tool is simply silence.....which means, among other things, none of us should be having blogs at all."

He wrote back saying, "It is true that a beautiful woman ought not to call herself ugly, but a woman who finds the need to tell the world how beautiful she is while pointing out the ugliness of others ought not to have spoken in the first place. I am not disagreeing with your assessment of Orthodox missionaries and Orthodox teaching about missions, but the best way to combat another's pride is most certainly not by proclaiming one's own vaulted level of humility."

I responded, "I guess my question is: What is the purpose of dialogue if we can't call a spade a spade? If we can't acknowledge when one group, one church, one idea, one theology is in fact more true and containing more fullness than another? Is it inherently sinful to acknowledge when something is closer to truth? I guess I don't feel insulted if someone claims that their teaching is more ___, *if in fact it is true.*Even if humility is the fill-in-the-blank virtue."

"I'd be the first to concede that my 78 year old died in the wool Baptist grandmother is more humble than me. She even recognizes it! But neither her, nor my, recognition of this truth in no way nullifies her humility....while at the same time, it doesn't mean that her church's handbook is something that should go unrefuted."

He wrote back, "...all that I am concerned about [is] thumping Protestants over the head with the greatness of our own humility as opposed to their (or at least one man's) seeming lack of it....When I see things like this I can't help but read this as, Protestants are bad, bad, bad. We Orthodox, on the other hand, are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.....I suppose as well that I even wonder about the usefulness of this so-called dialogue with Protestants and, as is probably less the case for us, Roman Catholics."

"Sometimes I wonder what effect there would be if we (at least we hardly-out-of-the-cradle, blogging converts who are often the least qualified to wave the theological banners of Orthodoxy) used the time spent in actively seeking to dialogue with Protestants to help remove the burdens of those who need such help, for instance through feeding the homeless or something similar. Surely that would be a much more worthwhile Orthodox witness in the world then the countless and often futile debates in which we so many times find ourselves."

"Not only that, but we would at the same time fulfill an apostolic mandate and one of Christ Himself. And I am aware that we must be always ready to give an answer to anyone who demands an account of the hope that is within us, but I am not so sure that this sanctions actively seeking out Protestants for the purposes of 'dialogue' (which in most cases really means debate) or having a weblog for such a purpose or whatever."

I responded, "I guess I'm curious then: why did you take the time to write me in the first place then? Wouldn't it have been better for you to take your own advice and simply say the Jesus Prayer and let it go in silence?"

"You've pointed out where I may have been a bit on the callous and triumphalistic side. And you have a good point. It is something I need to think about a bit more and continue to pray that I won't come across this way. However, I have done the exact same [as you have to me] in regards to the Baptist handbook; asking that this man consider his words and rethink the way he presents them. What's the difference?"

"From where I sit, I am much more edified having had this discussion with you. It gives me an opportunity to think, to pray, to reorder my thoughts etc....I don't know the writer of the Baptist handbook personally. He may be a holy man. But it doesn't matter. His words were wrong and I felt they needed a bit of correction. You don't know me personally. I may be a holy man. But it doesn't matter. My words needed a bit of correction. It is all a beautiful dance."

So here are my questions for you, the reader:

1) I have always maintained there is a huge distinction between the ideas a person holds and the person themselves. Is this a fair distinction? Is it useful? Due to the highly emotional subject matter, is communication and ecumenical dialogue possible without it?

2) Are maintaining true humility and pointing out another's errors (including one's own!) mutually exclusive activities? Is the statement "I am humble" an oxymoronic assertion along the lines of "there is no absolute truth" other words, are you cutting the epistemological (or in this case, moral) foundation from beneath you the minute you utter the words?

3) Along those lines, does your answer to #2 change if you are stating, not that *you* yourself are humble, but that you have more tools with which you can achieve humility? Can this be both a true and humble statement at the same time?

4) Since text is by nature confrontational (and most of the time) impersonal, blogs that are explore ecumenical dialogue seem to have a combative edge to them almost by definition. How do we go about maintaining both an authentic and robust defense of truth, while at the same time making sure not to lead others into stumbling? Or was my critic correct is stating that, perhaps for us bloggers, the task is next to impossible?

5) Without non-verbal communicative clues, is it even possible for both humility and a healthy, intense discussion of ideas to coexist in the blogosphere?

I could think of several other questions, but I'll let you fill in the rest....Thoughts?

:: Karl :: 1:47:00 PM [Link] ::
:: Saturday, July 05, 2003 ::
How Not to Convert the Orthodox: Part Two

I initially intended for this to be a two-part series but, somewhat unsurprisingly, I got a little carried away. So this is part two of three. Look for the final installment early next week.

Back to the handbook: "They [Orthodox] perceive the idea of praying the sinner's prayer as nothing more than a Protestant ritual that might help them."

But isn't it just that? Where in Scripture do we see anyone doing nothing more than the sinner's prayer to become a Christian? How is this different than an enlightened, educated American who hears an altar call? This relates to the issue Mark Byron and I have gone back and forth on last few weeks about "church ritual" Are they all just man made traditions or has God actually ordained certain practices, symbols, and rituals for His glory in the Church? More importantly, by what criteria do we use to determine the difference between "little t" traditions and Holy Tradition?

Now I must give credit where credit is due because the author does make an attempt to qualify the intent of the handbook with this short statement:

"Please realize that none of us are experts in the subject of Russian Orthodoxy."

"No kidding!," I said to myself the first time I read this two years ago. "Why then are you telling us what we believe and why it's wrong? Where is the humility, the acknowledgement of ignorance, to be found in the rest of this handbook?"

There is a famous saying in Orthodox circles: Don't write a single word about the Faith until you've been living the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church for at least a year.

While always said somewhat tongue in cheek, this advice shows the humility the Orthodox have toward missions in particular, and evangelism in general. Nobody should write books or teach others about subjects of which they have no intimate knowledge. Keep in mind, this advice is given to Orthodox thinking of writing about their own faith! Can you imagine what the shelves of the local "Christian" bookstore would look like if this axiom was followed by the Protestants, not just in regards to their "rebuttals" of Orthodoxy, but their own faith?

However, as C.S Lewis pointed out (and as Basil recently noted), you don't have to be an expert in something to correctly determine the error in it. After all it was a little child who pointed out the emperor had no clothes on. We certainly need to be willing to listen in humility to critiques and advice from those outside if their analysis holds up.

The difference in the case of the Baptist handbook, IMO, is that the intellectual and moral requirements of missionaries and official documents are much higher than they are for the normal "critic." In general one is free to display one's ignorance and sin anytime one wants. (We in the blogosphere know this all too well!) But parading around ignorance in official "missions handbooks" won't win one many converts.

Part Three coming soon...

:: Karl :: 12:34:00 PM [Link] ::
:: Thursday, July 03, 2003 ::
New Orthodox Sites of Interest

Ephrem recently started a new Orthodox website site that might interest us literary types. He writes, "I hope for this site to become something of a portal for all things related to art (music, literature, photography, etc.) and Eastern Orthodoxy--not separately, but the two together. Stop on by!"

Speaking of missions work, check out Orthodox Witness. According to the site, their goal is "is to bring together Orthodox clergy and laity from all Orthodox jurisdictions into a unified and coordinated effort to spread the truth of Orthodoxy, its mindset and way of life to all people in their locality through the use of modern means of communication, for the glory of the triune God and the exaltation of His Holy Orthodox Church."

"Modern means of communication"....I wonder how blogs might fit into this?

:: Karl :: 3:42:00 PM [Link] ::
:: Wednesday, July 02, 2003 ::
How Not to Convert the Orthodox: Part One

A disturbing handbook from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on how to convert the Orthodox in Russia has bounced around the Internet ever since its publication in 2001. I recently ran across it again and decided I'd take another look at it.

The history portion, while painfully inadequate and highly simplistic, is almost half-way decent. However things get murkier toward the end of the essay. Try these two little items on for size and see if they fit:

1) "Grace is received through a variety of magical, ritualistic methods."

2) "Orthodoxy believes it to be the goal of obtaining deification without justification."

These are just two examples from the handbook of how ignorant and flat out false statements make ecumenical dialogue difficult. Have you ever wondered why the Orthodox are wary of western groups in their country? This handbook is a great example. It would be the equivalent of an Orthodox person stating "all Protestants worship their Bibles." Both of the quotes from the manual are so far off the mark, and betray their own faulty theology in so many ways, the only word that can describe it is breathtaking.

I have many friends who are Protestant missionaries. I know they love the Lord. So I say the following in love, but it must be said with urgency: Please, I beg you, before you go off to "convert the heathen" do some *serious* research into what the local populace *actually* believes and practices. Here are some suggestions:

Look deeply into their history, theology, and spirituality. Visit an Orthodox Church more than once before you get on a plane for Russia (or Serbia, or Greece, etc). Talk with an Orthodox priest about how best to minister to the needs of people living in an Orthodox country. At the very least, talk with someone who is an Orthodox Christian about their faith and confirm that what you study in a handbook corresponds to reality.

You can never understand the local people and their religion until you have become one of them. You should never attempt to be a missionary until you have been truly integrated into their vision and way of life. You certainly won't win them over to your point of view with a few pages of mediocre history under your belt and a plethora of straw man arguments.

Does this mean that superstition and heresy doesn't exist in some of the local piety? Does it mean that the local Orthodox person may not be woefully ignorant of both the Scriptures and Church history? Of course not. But it bothers me to no end to see western Christians assuming that they have the answers for a nation crushed for a generation by a totalitarian regime. We have no idea what it's like to suffer and we have no idea what it means to be an Orthodox Christian under persecution. One wonders how long our Protestant faith would hold up under the horrors of the Gulag?

A few weeks ago, there was some discussion on blogs4god about Orthodoxy and evangelism. It would behoove western missionaries to study the Orthodox perspective of the missionary life. It will give them a much wider and holistic vision of what their ministry should look like.

St. Innocent and St. Herman are perfect examples of what true evangelism should look like...and they were right here in America. They lived with the Alaskan tribes for years, in quite humility and service. They lived out true Christian lives of piety and love, always willing to teach and guide those who came to them. They were uncompromising in the Faith, but never hostile or pushy.

Can you imagine either of these great missionary saints crafting a "Handbook on the Aleut Religion" before they had ever even set foot in Alaska? Can you imagine them thinking that a crash course in "Native American Spirituality" would suffice for true and intimate knowledge of both the people and their theology?

Neither can I.

A bit of good news about this handbook to follow in Part Two, as well as some parting thoughts...

Update: James posts his thoughts about several other false statements from the handbook.

Update 2: John's last couple of posts feature some great quotes by St. Theophan as he gives advice to his spiritual children who came in contact with non-Orthodox preachers and missionaries.

:: Karl :: 11:49:00 AM [Link] ::

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