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

Judge Not, Part 3 – Our Upbringing

A TRUE STORY: Many centuries ago, there arrived a slave ship at a certain harbor in a city in which a pious Christian virgin lived.  Her desire was to purchase a young female slave in order to bring her up in love and the ways of God.  Purchasing another human sounds horrifying to our modern ears, but this woman was truly trying to prevent the young lady from enduring what could be a terrible fate at the hands of a merciless master.

The ship owner informed the woman he had two young girls, and the Christian lady purchased one of them.  She raised the young girl in a loving Christian home in which the household operated a bit like a monastery.

The other girl was purchased by someone who was sort of like a pimp.  He forced her to learn seductive dancing so that he could make money off of her by entertaining men.  Such was her fate. Continue reading Judge Not, Part 3 – Our Upbringing

Judge Not, Part 2 – Coming to the Center

I have never met a person who thinks of judgment as a virtue.  Even the most critical people, who seem to thrive on criticizing others, will often become defensive when they are on the receiving end of a stinging remark.

Obviously, judgement is prohibited, but why?  How does it harm us?  It all has to do with oneness, which is one of the final prayers our Lord had for His disciples (and us) while on this earth (John 17).

To explain, I will provide an illustration that I’ve adapted from Abba Dorotheos of Gaza, a 6th century saint and desert father of our church:

Imagine something that is much like a wheel with numerous incomplete spokes that can grow and move from the perimeter to the center.  In the center is Christ, who beckons all of us to move toward him.  The only path to this center is love.  One spoke symbolizes our lives, the other spokes represent our neighbors.  As all of the spokes move closer to the center, they also move closer to one another.  It is impossible to move toward the center without simultaneously coming together with the other spokes. Continue reading Judge Not, Part 2 – Coming to the Center

Judge Not, Part 1 – Making Excuses

Perhaps one of the things we all hate the most is being judged by someone else.  It gets under our skin, makes our blood boil, and hurts us deeply, especially if it is someone whom we trusted.  When we feel that someone is judging us, even for something we can admit was wrong, a multitude of thoughts will flood the mind, “You’re not being fair,” or “If you only knew all of the facts then you wouldn’t judge me,” or “The Bible says not to judge others.”

Yet all of us are guilty of this sin, whether or not we realize it.  While we are walking through the city, driving down the road, or in church on Sunday, we are probably forming all sorts of “little” judgments about other people.  Such judgments usually stay in our heads, so we think they have little or no consequence.  However, Abba Dorotheos of Gaza warns us, I am always telling you that bad habits are formed in the soul by these very small things…” [1] Continue reading Judge Not, Part 1 – Making Excuses