Iconography and Idolatry – Part 2

In the last blog, we established that neither God, Moses, nor the scriptures are iconoclastic.  Without a doubt, the Mosaic Law was intended as a firm safeguard against idolatry, but the ancient Jewish temple itself was an image, an icon of the heavenly one complete with various carvings of things on earth and in heaven, including cherubim.  Archeologists have discovered paintings of Old Testament scenes lining the walls of the Jewish synagogues during the time of Christ in the Greco-Roman world.

Yet, in all of this, God was never depicted.  Why?  Because God’s nature is invisible and incomprehensible.  One cannot paint God because God cannot be painted — at least not in His divine nature.

About 2,000 years ago, God became incarnate and mysteriously wrapped His divinity in humanity.  If someone had a smartphone, they could have taken a picture of God and texted it to their friends.  Since such technology did not exist, people settled with paintings of the God-man Jesus Christ.

Continuing the Jewish tradition of lining places of worship with images (icons), Christians had paintings of our Lord, His Mother, various saints, and numerous scenes from the Gospels. Continue reading Iconography and Idolatry – Part 2

Iconography and Idolatry, Part 1

holy friday, good friday OrthodoxWhen walking into an Orthodox Church for the first time, an inquirer may be surprised to see the walls covered with images (Greek “ikon”).  Perhaps even more shocking would be the sight of Orthodox Christians kissing and reverencing the icons in various ways.

Is not the second of the Ten Commandments iconoclastic?

You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. (Exodus 20:4-5)

The answer to that question is no.  Neither God nor the commandments of the Torah [1] are iconoclastic when understood properly.  After all, God created the first icon, and it was of Himself:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image [ikon], according to Our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26)

The word “icon” simply means “image,” so in the Greek Septuagint (Old Testament), God made “ikon” when He made man. [2] Continue reading Iconography and Idolatry, Part 1

A Reflection on an Assembly

A few weeks ago, I attended the 40th Assembly of the Diocese of the South of the OCA.  My priest asked me to write a reflection on it which he shared in the church’s newsletter and I will share here.  I attempted, perhaps not too successfully, to tie the themes together from the various guest speakers, all of whom were quite engaging.

The guest speakers included:

Dr. Nathan Jacobs who has written and directed a documentary called Becoming Truly Human in which he reaches out to the religiously unaffiliated “nones.”  We watched the film and then discussed it for a while.

The second guest speaker was author and professor Dr. Clark Carlton who has written a series of books on the Orthodox faith.  His talk was entitled The Future of Orthodoxy in the Postmodern World: Welcome to the Catacombs (link).

The third talk, given by iconographer, artist, and speaker Jonathan Pageau, was entitled Pentecost for the Zombie Apocalypse (link).  It was honestly quite brilliant.  You can watch it below:

My Reflection

There is ever increasing awareness of the cultural fracturing and disintegration that is happening in America and Western culture as a whole.   From the insanity of our last political election and the riots that followed, to the splintering of sexuality and gender into an inconceivable number of categories, we are seeing an exponential increase in what some are calling chaos. Continue reading A Reflection on an Assembly

Orthodox Fundamentalism

I have seen an erroneous sentiment regarding the Ecumenical Councils expressed among a small number of Orthodox Christians.  It goes something like this, “What was proclaimed in the Councils is dogma of the Church; all other ideas fall into the category of theologoumenon (non-doctrinal theological opinion).”  In other words, nearly anything in the writings of the Fathers of the Church is merely opinion unless it has been confirmed by one of the seven Ecumenical Councils.

I believe this falls into the trap of “Orthodox Fundamentalism” or “Mere Orthodoxy.”  Here is what I mean by that: Continue reading Orthodox Fundamentalism

Theology without the Lines

Imagine some centuries ago, a pregnant woman is placed in a dungeon.  She gives birth to a son while in this prison.  Having no windows except one near the top that allows some sunlight in during the day, the woman uses a pencil and paper pad, her sole possessions, and draws pictures for her son.

The pictures include things such as trees, flowery landscapes, mountains, and some animals.  The boy treasures these sketches for he has never seen the outside world.  Whenever the boy imagines the great outdoors, it is consequently in the form of pencil sketches.

One day, he is released from the dungeon.  Squinting in the bright sunlight, he is shocked to find that the world around him is not composed of pencil marks, but rather of objects that have no hard outlines.  The leaves on the trees, the branches, the birds, and the sun need no outlines because their very essence fills the places that the lines symbolized.

***

Here in our world, the scriptures and the theology of the church have been bestowed upon us by those fathers who, with a purified heart, have experienced theoria.  They have caught glimpses of this expansive Other World and bequeath to us their pencil sketches in the form of enlightened theology.

Sometimes we argue about what the sketches actually represent, but the sketches must remain. Continue reading Theology without the Lines

Toll Houses and the Fathers of the Church

In my last blog, I focused less on quotes from the fathers and more on the controversy itself surrounding the toll houses.  Here, I want to present writings from the saints of the Orthodox Church that discuss the departure of the soul.  If one includes commentary from scripture, patristic writings, and divine services, there are hundreds of these texts.  For the sake of brevity (and because this is a blog and not a scholarly work), many quotes are partial.  More details can be found in the book from which most of these quotes come: The Departure of the Soul.

St. Justin Martyr, †166

Deliver my soul from the sword, and my only-begotten from the hand of the dog; save me from the lion’s mouth (Psalm 21:20-21)…[This was written] so that, when we arrive at the end of life, we may ask the same petition from God, who is able to turn away every shameless evil angel from taking our souls. Continue reading Toll Houses and the Fathers of the Church

Toll Houses: Truth or Lie?

The Unnecessary Controversy:

I first learned about the toll houses from a friend who was quite concerned that I be exposed to the truth early in my journey into Orthodoxy.  He sent me a copy of Fr. Michael Azkoul’s booklet: The Toll-House Myth: The Neo-Gnosticism of Fr. Seraphim Rose.  I was not impressed with the book, but since I had no other knowledge of the subject, I agreed with my friend and the author that the toll house doctrine must be some kind of new heresy that has been emphasized in the past couple of centuries, especially in Russian Orthodoxy.

Several years later, my beliefs have completely changed.  No one argued me into changing sides.  Shortly after my conversion, when I saw that there were various controversies between modern Orthodox people, I decided to mostly stay away from books that were not written by people glorified as saints of the church.  That “limits” me to tens of thousands of texts written over the past 1,900+ years.

I have no shortage of reading material. Continue reading Toll Houses: Truth or Lie?

A Conversation

“I often feel, when I try to repent, that God looks at me saying, ‘You again?  Ugh.  Why can’t you ever get it right?’” she said to me.

“I think that is because we forget that each side eagerly wants to win us over,” I replied.  “The devil keeps receiving us back into sin, even after we’ve turned to God and made a good confession.  We have no problem believing that the devil will always take us back.  However, God desires our return even more so.  Our Lord told the Apostle Peter to forgive his brother seventy times seven.  The Lord is even more merciful than that and will forgive us more than seventy times seven everyday if necessary.”

I continued, “The Lord’s capacity for mercy and love far exceeds the devil’s for hatred.  As much as the devil wants to see us fall, and as much as we feel that pressure, he is not nearly as motivated as God is to see us saved.”

“But I still can’t help thinking of God as being angry.  He must have his finger hovering over the ‘Smite’ button when he looks at me,” she said. Continue reading A Conversation

The Unholy Double Standard

I think anyone who is diligently pursuing the spiritual life of repentance knows the frustration of losing the battle to sin on a daily basis.  Many of us have habitual sins that we cannot seem to break.  We fall into sin, we feel dirty and unworthy, we ask God to forgive us, and then we get up and try again.

However, if we are to be honest, many of us sometimes feel at least a hint of hopelessness.   We wonder if God really wants to take us back.  If we’re constantly falling into the same sin over and over, will God justly become angry with us and refuse to accept our repentance?

The devil would sure like for us to lose hope.  But here is the double standard: when repenting of a sin, and then being tempted to fall into it again, I have never said to myself, “No, I might as well give up on sinning.  After repenting so many times, I don’t think the Devil will take me back.” Continue reading The Unholy Double Standard

Myth and Fantasy Meets Orthodoxy

Fantasy and mythology have fascinated me for many years.  Like JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, George MacDonald, and many others, I have high regard for myth.  In it, we find truths wrapped in story.  Fantasy, when it is done well (which is rare), fits into the role of modern mythology.  Modern classics in the genre are well known by the authors whom I listed above.

My (at-that-time-subconscious) love for myth is part of what drew me into the Orthodox Church.  The colors, the history, the fragrance, the ancient stories and beauty, the architecture: everything seemed so surreal.  I found that the Orthodox Church had a unique ability to not necessarily transport me to another realm, but to elevate my mind to a dimension that was already present but to which I had been blind.

My love for myth blossomed around the time that I became Orthodox, and I began to understand mythology more deeply.  Nowadays, when we use the word “myth,” it is often synonymous with “lie.”  Most myths are not factual, but they are not lies either.  The purpose is to elevate the reader to a deeper understanding of reality. Continue reading Myth and Fantasy Meets Orthodoxy

Judge Not, Part 5 – Stories from the Desert

For the last blog of this series, I wanted to share a few stories from the Orthodox monastic fathers that illustrate the importance of not judging one another.

EXAMPLE 1

One day, Abba Isaac the Theban saw a brother committing a sin.  Abba Isaac judged and condemned the man in his heart.  Shortly thereafter, an angel stood before the Abba with the departed soul of the brother who sinned.  The angel asked, “Here is the person you have judged.  Where shall I send this man’s soul, to Hades or to Paradise?”  Abba Isaac fell to the ground, horrified, stating, “I have sinned, forgive me.”  The holy old man, frightened beyond measure, spent the rest of his life praying with sighs and tears and continuous hard work to be forgiven this sin even though the angel had told him he was forgiven.  Still, Abba Isaac carried the guilt of this sin with him until his dying day. [1] Continue reading Judge Not, Part 5 – Stories from the Desert

Judge Not, Part 4 – Holding Our Tongues

“That idiot needs to learn how to drive!” is something that I have certainly said or thought on multiple occasions while driving down the road.  Even if we hold our tongues, there are many situations in life that anger or annoy us and cause us to label a person an idiot, a jerk, or something else.

However, the fathers warn us of the danger of labeling someone with a derogatory word.  We must be careful to never sum up a human’s entire existence in one unkind thought or word, whether or not it seems justified.  Otherwise, we are condemning that person, which is a dangerous sin.

Condemning a man is saying, ‘he is a wicked liar, or he is an angry man, or he is a fornicator.’ For in this way one judges the condition of his soul and draws a conclusion about his whole life…This is a very serious thing.  For it is one thing to say, ‘He got mad,’ and another thing to say, ‘He is bad-tempered,’ and to reveal, as we said, the whole disposition of his life. [1]

Continue reading Judge Not, Part 4 – Holding Our Tongues