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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Dead Dog No. 5: Gnosticism Rides Again

The Church struggled and prevailed against Gnosticism many, many centuries ago.  It was perhaps the earliest heresy.  Gnosticism existed well before the advent of Christ and infected many religions of antiquity.  It keeps popping up under many guises.  Sadly the Orthodox Church is not immune from it either. 

But what is Gnosticism?  This is by no means easy to answer.  There are many different forms and in that sense it is similar to cancer - many diseases but all sharing certain aspects in common.  "Gnosticism" comes from "gnosis" or "knowledge."  Now this isn't any old knowledge such as might entertain you on a quiz show on TV.  Gnosis is SAVING knowledge.  By it's very nature it is secret knowledge ... only available to those "in the know."  Get gnosis and you are home and dry. 

Rarely is gnosis associated with any kind of personal faith.  It is more like some sort of esoteric magic key, a special illumination, a way to eternal life untrammelled by the alleged crudities and imperfections of this mortal life.  Whenever folk speak of the soul as some sort of divine spark that needs liberating from the heaviness of the flesh, you know you are dealing with Gnosticism.  Whenever others declare the world to be evil, the creation of a lesser god (perhaps of the Old Testament - the Demiurge) then you know that the Gnostics have been active.  Whenever you are told (even by other Orthodox) that you need to join a secret society to advance in this world or the next - such as freemasonry - the smell of Gnosticism will be unmistakable.

Now earlier I claimed that even Orthodoxy is not immune - by which I mean that the ethos and even the practices of Gnosticism can sometimes be found amongst those in the Church who profess to be Orthodox.  The more blatant examples of this can easily be spotted ... although how many priests for example in Orthodox and non-Orthodox countries are able to hold a firm line against any intrusion of masonry into the Body of Christ?  One wonders.  The less blatant and more subtle forms of contemporary Gnosticism are, frankly, more worrying because (as usual) these "slip under the radar" sometimes undetected.  We need to be alert.

A key example of this form of Gnosticism is the tendency amongst some Orthodox to think that they have some sort of special insight and possession in the Church that others cannot possibly have because they are not "in the know."  Nor could they ever be "in the know" because Orthodox culture is closed to them.  Keeping this insight, this gnosis, SECRET is an essential part of preserving its character.  It is not to be shared with "barbarians."  Another gnostic mind set is revealed in the tendency to regard worldly involvement in politics and social issues as unworthy of a true Christian.  The gnostic "gospel" is only concerned with abandonment of this evil world for the sanctuary of heaven ... and access to this refuge is necessarily strictly limited.

In the early Church Gnosticism was combatted by two primary weapons of our faith ... the full humanity of Christ and the reality of the Incarnation as God's personal engagement with the world.  Moreover it was for the salvation of the world that Christ came.  Our Lord was immersed in the world and its affairs without using its methods or succumbing to its corruption.  He did not escape it; He transformed it by His healing touch and by the resurrection he finally liberated it from the grip of evil to be glorious and free.  Orthodoxy, true to its nature, lives this faith; but once again, Gnosticism must be purged from every aspect of our ecclesiastical life in both its blatant and more subtle forms.

Friday, 1 June 2012

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Thursday, 16 December 2010

Dead Dog No.4: Fortress Orthodoxy

The labels conservative, liberal, traditionalist and progressive have no place or meaning within Orthodox Christianity.  When Orthodox Christians use these words of other Orthodox, usually in a disparaging manner, they do not have the excuse that others outside the Church have, namely an ignorance of the ethos of Christian believing and living. They should know better.  There are not different ways of being Orthodox, as it were, to the left and to the right; rather instead we might speak in terms of greater or lesser degrees of faithfulness.  If, however, one's appreciation of the richness and depth of Tradition has been impoverished by a myopic and legalistic frame of mind then the perception of Tradition will be grossly distorted and limited.  Orthodox Christians, sadly, are not exempt from temptations to fundamentalism, obscurantism and a fortress mentality.  Sometimes these temptations are born from a fear or alienation generated by a wilful or unconscious rejection of the world as evil, full of antichrists, heretics or simply, strange folk.  Refuge is then taken in the Church as a place of purity and safety and sermons about the Creation as good and the Incarnation as God’s redemption and enlightenment of the whole world are passed by unheeded.

Against such fatal shrinkage of the heart we set the catholicity of the Church and this is indicated by the length, breadth, height and depth of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints,” (Jude 3).  The Church is not an impeccably clean corner in an otherwise dirty room but a glorious and wondrous palace of untold size, fit for the King of Kings.  In here are countless mansions, rooms, corridors, cellars and attics … many of them unexplored … and any of these may be inhabited as befits the residents.  In this palace there are vast libraries of paper and digital record, of holy persons and sacred places of energies of prayer filling the whole place with Light.  There is nothing here cramped or ungenerous; nothing hateful or narrow minded.  So to some of my fellow Orthodox I say: “abandon your self-made fortress mentality and enter into the generous love of the mind of Christ which is open, free and radiant in hope!”  This does imply an abandonment of faith or surrender to the world.  We do not believe because others don't.  We live as Christians because we have a Light to bless rather than a darkness to curse and who knows where that Light might be found!

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Dead Dog No. 3: Baggage Orthodoxy

I will make one admission about myself ... I was received into Orthodoxy from another Christian body.  Part of the process of reception included a rigorous self examination assisted by my Orthodox spiritual guide and confessor.  What we were looking for was unwanted baggage that consciously or unconsciously I might drag with me into Orthodoxy from my previous Christian confession. 

Of course not everything I brought with me was of this nature.  We all have good things in our past that are of God and find a ready home in the Orthodox Church.  However, there are other things that are incompatible with living an Orthodox life and these must be rooted out, confessed and discarded; hopefully before reception but if not s soon as possible in the years that follow. 

Becoming Orthodox therefore is a life long process and this involves acquiring an Orthodox "phronema" or frame of mind.  The well known author Dr. Maya Angelou said this once in an interview:-
I’m trying to be a Christian. I’m working at it, and I’m amazed when people walk up to me and say, “I’m a Christian.” I think, “Already? Wow!”  ....   It’s not something you have and you sit back, “Whooo, I have that now!”
We are all a "work in progress" in God's hands and we need to make sure that, for our part, we are discarding our "excess baggage."  At spiritual "check in" (I won't labour the metaphor!) this check list for unwanted items might prove useful ... whether you are moving into Orthodoxy from another religious confession or if you are already Orthodox and you need to take stock:-

Unwelcome Excess Baggage
  1. Hatred of any kind for anyone.  We need to be careful here.  We may think that we don't hate anybody but a key test might be:- "Would I be happy to share my home with this person as a lodger?"  So if you have issues with gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, political or ideological opinion, that needs to be acknowledged and worked on.
  2. Pet issues.  It might be that in your previous religious body you had issues that really exercised you and made you a "one trick pony" campaigner.  Maybe you found yourself fighting against things in this body that annoyed you (with or without good reason).  If you bring that mindset into Orthodoxy you will be told to desist and confess.  We don't have campaigners and reformers we have penitents and prophets.  Don't think of yourself as a prophet though; strive only for holiness and all else will follow.
  3. Unexamined beliefs.  You may assume that long cherished beliefs that you already have are the common patrimony of all Christians and are therefore Orthodox.  You are seriously mistaken.  Many of the words are the same; for example, Salvation, Church, Trinity, but the Orthodox Church means very different things by these doctrines.  Get better acquainted with the teaching of our Church before you make any assumptions.
  4. What I want.  Some people think that they have a right to certain things when enterring the Church.  They may be ministers or priests in another Christian body and think that this qualifies them somehow to be ordained in the Orthodox Church.  They may get grumpy or slighted when faced with the prospect of ordination afresh on the grounds that they want recognition of what they were before.  Others (not necessarily ordained) may feel that they can bargain or push for the Orthodox Church to accept certain things just because they are usual elsewhere.  The truth is that you must accept Orthodoxy with humility and be ready both to unlearn and relearn.  That doesn't mean that you cannot express an opinion ... but it is an opinion you express, not a right or a platform for your own desires and goals.
Over the years I have had to examine more and more closely my beliefs and practices to make sure that they truly are compatible with Orthodox faith and life.  This is not because I want to lobotomise my will or critical thinking.  Far from it!  But, it is to ensure that excess baggage doesn't weigh me down and hinder my prospects of salvation.  Basically, I trust both God and His Church to teach me.  Sure, it is sometimes a dialogue, particularly over difficult or even contentious questions that I am wrestling with, but it is never a conflict but rather an attentive engagement within and with the Tradition of the Church.  That is what you buy into when you become Orthodox.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Dead Dog No. 2: Monoculturalism

Dogs are pack animals, dead dogs no less so.  The pack partner of Orthodox Nationalism is Monoculturalism,  Actually I am being a little polite here ... which disgraces the memory of St. Symeon.  Racism is a much shorter word to type after all.  For that is what monoculturalism really is, racism, albeit of a subtle and spiritual kind; although more gross forms of it sometimes occur.  This racism is all the more pernicious because it shelters under the politically correct myth of MULTIcultuiralism but in fact is its exact antithesis; a ghetto mentality that is fearful of The Other. 

Now this is subtle and easily misunderstood.  Orthodox in the west are right to be wary of the Borg of western liberalism, (non Star Trek fans look it up in Google ... the Borg Collective's proud boast was:- "Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated").  Assimilation and intermarriage has often led to a falling away in faith commitment, a drowning in the fetid waters of  post-Protestant secularism.  This lies at the root of the fear of many pious Orthodox of immigrant backgrounds that the only alternative to seeing their children lost to the Church is to try and build an impregnable wall of piety and culture round about them ... and this of course the ghetto immigrant church community readily provides.

Of course this doesn't work but it doesn't stop the wall of separation being built taller and taller around a shrinking and ageing congregation.  Within one more generation, or maybe sooner, such parishes will have disappeared.  In the meantime the pious separatists become more and more confirmed in their view that those outside the Church are a threat, spiritually inferior dangerous influences.  When this is compounded with those nationalistic identities which pit one ghetto Orthodox community against another (cloaked in ecclesiastical speak) then the idea takes root that we "here" are better than The Others "there".  This is the little seed that grows into the ugly weed of spiritual racism.

Of course if one's only possibility of becoming Orthodox from a non-Orthodox background is to join such a community then putting up with an incomprehensible liturgical language and accepting that one will always be a second class proselyte "convert" (because one has not been raised in "it" and therefore one is at a permanent disadvantage) is the only course of action possible.  Of course, if one really tries hard and affects an ersatz imitation of Greek / Russian / Arab / Serb / Romanian etc. culture and if this is really good and nearly indistinguishable from "the Real Thing", then some measure of equality and respect may be assured; but if not, watch out.  You may be asked: "What are you doing here?  The English Church (Ahem!  They mean the Church of England!) is up the road.

Of course monocultural spiritual racism then also spreads like a virus to infect "convert" communities.  If the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish huddle together under the banner of Celtic Christianity or Saxon Christianity or some other such nonsense, then the same exclusivist monocultural spiritual (and sometimes not-so-spiritual) racism may prevail in these communities as well.  Such Orthodox may be more than happy to organise conferences, retreats and pilgrimages but not be at all disturbed that the great majority of Orthodox from other "ethnic" (now a term of abuse) parishes do not attend ... although they may pay lip service to the regret that the "Cypriots fish and chip shop owners" have not turned up.  After all, if they had  come along they would have wanted big chunks of the Liturgy in Koine Greek or Church Slavonic wouldn't they.  Honestly?  Well, yes, probably, but at least then they would have been there as part of the one Body of Christ.

Which neatly brings me to the solution; the cutting loose of yet one more dead canine.  We are ALL part of the one Body of Christ.  No member of that body is superior to any other member by reason of culture, ecclesiastical precedence or accident of birth, (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).  We are all Orthodox because we are in Christ.  We are not Greek Orthodox because we are in Hellenism, Russian Orthodox because we are in Slavism or Antiochians because we subscribe to Arabism. 

This is a spiritual problem you see.  People need to be Christians in and out of the Church.  It's quite simple really.  In Christ there is neither east nor west and race, culture, gender and social class in all their rich diversities do not define our primary identity as children of God.  If we are children of God by baptism and new birth then ALL origins, cultures, genders and social classes belong to us.  Our "comfort zone" should not be amongst those who are like us but rather amongst those who are different from us but who bear as we do the image and likeness of God.  This diversity must be fully represented in our church communities.  If it is not then that is automatic evidence that something is seriously wrong and needs immediate attention.  How does your church community stack up?

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Dead Dog No. 1: Orthodox Nationalism

Just about every Orthodox bishop you meet will tell you earnestly that "phyletism" is terribly, terribly wrong.  Quite so!  It is indeed.  But SOME of these very same bishops will be the very first to practice phyletism themselves. 

OK ... let's dump the jargon.  What is phyletism?  This word was first used at a Synod in Constantinople in 1872 to refer to the setting up of a church on ethnic or nationalistic grounds.  The Bulgarians had wanted a church in Constantinople (Istanbul) for "their" people.  Rightly, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in the name of God and the whole Church, condemned this vile practice.  The Body of Christ is One and this means that we are a diverse and inclusive Church, NOT to be thought of as a shrine to national culture and identity at all.  Now comes "the dead dog."

What an excellent witness the Synod gave in 1872 ... and what an atrocious response many local churches and some bishops (who should know better) have given since.  For example, in the 19th century there was a real prospect of a single united local Orthodox Church in America including native Americans, Greeks, Russians, Arabs, Serbs and many other ethnic backgrounds in one body under a united episcopate.  Then it all fell apart.  Why?  Because second and third generation bishops came under pressure from nationalistic tendencies in countries far away to uphold the languages, cultures, traditions and national identities of the "Mother Church" in the diaspora, in this case, America.  They often did this not out of nostalgia (which would be bad enough) but because immigrant communities would be much more likely to send money back to Europe, the Middle East and Russia if they did.

On the other hand, it didn't take much persuading for these bishops to convince Americans of (say) Greek background that they really needed a Greek bishop rather than, (say) a Serbian or Arab bishop.  This ecclesiastical racism (for that is what it is) has been a curse in Orthodoxy ever since.  All over the world, this pattern has been repeated. 

Fine sentiments about the unity of the Church have always been forthcoming from church leaders ... but this has frequently been only for show.  What many (but not all) bishops have done is to perpetuate widening ethnic divisions between their "jurisdictions" and strangle the development of genuinely diverse local churches in those new lands into which Orthodox Christianity has been received.

A particularly reprehensible example of this in recent times has been the reaction of the churches in Russia, Serbia and Romania to the agreement in Chambesy in June 2009 (which they all signed up to!).  Having agreed to work together towards local church unity in the diaspora they then made it crystal clear that they had every right to minister to "their people" wherever they might be found across the globe, thus undermining the very objectives of Chambesy itself, which was to render jurisdictional claims secondary to the proclamation of the gospel and the building up of ONE church in each place.

One bishop, one city anybody?  Grief the stench of dead canines here is overpowering!

Dragging the Dead Dogs

Simeon was Syrian by origin and born in Edessa, where he lived unmarried with his old mother. With his fellow ascetic friend John, at the age of 30 years, Symeon took monastic vows in the monastery of Abba Gerasimus. After 29 years in the desert getting close to God, the holy Symeon moved to Emesa. The saint asked God to permit him to serve people in such a way that they would not acknowledge him. By feigning madness he drew attention away from himself and prophetically preached Christ. As a first example of this kind of behaviour we note that he entered Emesa dragging a dead dog behind him tied to his foot. He thereby showed to those who would receive it the truth that we all have death clinging to us, and often without noticing its stench.

So, this blog attempts in its own small way to identify the "dead dogs" tied to our feet so that we might cast them aside and embrace Christ.  It is an anonymous blog although the author will confess to being an Orthodox Christian.  It is anonymous because the author wishes to raise issues that some might find painful, even offensive.  Unfortunately I do not have the holiness of St. Symeon or else I would not care about receiving blows for my pains.  My "dead dog" is a reluctance to die.  Lord have mercy on me!