What is the relationship between the Christian and the world? Should a Christian isolate herself from the world in order to find holiness and goodness? Or does a Christian have a responsibility to participate in the world around her?
One of the things people notice about Orthodox Christianity is its strong focus on monasticism. Monks and nuns, and consecrated servants like deacons and deaconesses are valued very highly, and Orthodox faithful often speak as though their lives are clearly superior to those of the “common” faithful who live “in the world”, in secular society, getting married, having children, holding down jobs and paying mortgages. While there is certainly much to admire in those who take up the cross of consecrated life, there is also an important thread that runs through ancient Christian thinking that brings some balance to this view. For example, there are the many writings of the ancient Fathers of the Church that speak very highly indeed of the virtues of family life and see the family as an icon of divine love in diverse ways. There are stories of great ascetic saints like St Anthony and St Macarius being led by God to meet some “common” Christian individuals living the family life in the world, and being told that these “common” Christians excel even these heroes of monasticism in the eyes of God, simply by living a life of sincere divine love.
Most readers are not living the consecrated life (nor am I really qualified to write about it) so let us focus instead on what it means to be a “common” Christian, living “in the world”. Are we meant to be an active part of this world, or are we meant to be sojourners: strangers passing through a foreign land in which we never feel at home? There are passages in the Bible that suggest that we must be “the light of the world”, yet there are others that suggest we are but travellers who never put down roots. So which is it to be?
What does it mean to be human? This question has occupied humanity since time immemorial, and of all the different answers we have come up with, I find none so true, so useful or so satisfying as that given by Orthodox Christianity. In Eastern Christianity, there is a powerful push for integration rather than disintegration. It is very easy for the Christian to end up with a life divided into a lot of separate little boxes labelled ‘Work’, ‘Recreation’, ‘Family’, ‘Spirituality’, and so on. So, when I go to church on Sunday, I jump into my Spirituality box. When I finish and go home, I jump out of Spirituality and into, say, the Family box, since of course, these are two very different things. And on Monday, I jump out of Family and into the Work box, a different thing again. This may be our natural tendency, but that is only because we live in a broken and fallen world. Because our world is broken, our lives also tend to be broken. In this state, inconsistencies, internal tensions and hypocrisy are all too easy to fall into.
Instead, we ought to strive to make all these aspects of human life just different faces of the one unified and integrated whole, so that there is no contradiction between any of them, so that I am the same person whichever of them I happen to be engaged in, and so that the presence of God permeates and characterises them all. Instead of having lots of little discreet boxes and jump from one to another, we ought to have just one single box in which we live all our lives, and into which we pour every aspect of that life; the box, labelled ‘Christ’.
This principle of unification applies at every level of our lives. In the Church, lots of different individuals come together. As a Church, we aim to unify all the disparate and unique personalities that we bring into one unified Body of Christ, united in the liturgy by partaking in one voice, one heart and one prayer and in the sharing together and partaking of His one Body and one Blood. No matter how many people there at a Coptic liturgy, there can only be one loaf of bread to be consecrated as Christ’s Body – even if it must be the size of a truck’s wheel – and one cup of wine to be consecrated as Christ’s Blood – even if it must be the size of a large bucket.
As Christians living in this world, we aim to bring harmony and unity to everything in it. We pray for and strive for harmony between families, neighbours, races, religions, genders and even nations. We strive to bring harmony between humanity and its world. Christians understand humanity to be the pinnacle of the creation. That does not mean a selfish rapacious authority whereby the world exists only to fulfil our needs, but Christ-like stewardship and service. We are the servants of this world, of the animals and the birds and fish, and even of the global environment. We have power over the world, but like Christ, we exercise that power to care for the world to do all we can to help it to flourish and grow in beauty. We rejoice in its beauty and its health, and weep over its destruction.
As Christians sojourning in a broken and fallen world, we yearn not for the world’s destruction, but for its renewal. (more…)
One of my all time favourite people passed away yesterday. Fr Thomas Hopko was a priest of the Orthodox Church in America whose distinctions are too many to list here. What I liked most about him though, was listening to him speak and reading things he wrote. He displayed a rare gift for insight and understanding, the kind that leads to a profound wisdom. His knack for synthesising new ways to express the ancient Orthodox Christian faith and Tradition to modern life in ways not only relevant, but even inspiring, was remarkable. He combined this with an indomitable humility and sincere compassionate love for all. The motto of one of his podcast series, “Speaking the Truth in Love”, nicely captures his courageous contribution to desperately needed Church reform in many areas.
He will be sorely missed by many in the Christian community. One of them is Samuel Kaldas, who provides a much more fitting eulogy for Fr Tom than my brief words in the following guest post…
Fr. Thomas Hopko fell asleep in the Lord today. As a theologian, he had a remarkable gift for delivering important and complex ideas to a non-academic audience. Through his constant (and ridiculously high) output of podcasts, sermons, books and articles, he became a bridge between the “ivory tower,” academic world of the Seminary and the “real-world” of the Orthodox faithful. In many ways, his work as an educator achieved precisely what his father-in-law Fr. Alexander Schmemann identified as the chief task of the theologian: to supply “that essential link between the Tradition of the Church and the real life, to assure the acceptance of the faith by the faithful.”
This was only possible because of his great humility: he did not spend his time on original research that would only be read by professional theologians, though he certainly had the intellect, and encouraged many other brilliant students to do such research during his time as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He did not trumpet himself as a new and exciting voice in academic theology. Instead, he was always concerned with the Church outside the Seminary. As he himself put it:
As Christians in general, and as Coptic Orthodox Christians in particular, an important part of our heritage is the ancient Christian School of Alexandria, which flourished from the second to the fourth centuries and produced such giants of ancient Christian thought as Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Origen, Didymus the Blind and of course the great theologian-patriarchs, Pope Peter the Seal of Martyrs and philosopher-priest, Pope Athanasius the Apostolic and Pope Cyril the Pillar of Faith. Most historians regard this School as the cradle of Christian theology and philosophy, not just for the Copts, but for the whole Christian Church, East and West. That is no small legacy to inherit! But inheritance is not about boasting of past glories, it is about continuing the traditions that made that past glorious. And how can we continue that tradition if we are unacquainted with it? So to begin, I will offer some contemplations on the School of Alexandria, as it was in ancient times.
What made the School of Alexandria so influential? My view is that truth has an inevitable power to it. Things that are true tend to eventually win out, while things that are false sooner or later collapse. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Greek philosophers of two and half thousand years ago, are still studied carefully in universities today because they touched deep and timeless truths that remain forever relevant. The genius of the School of Alexandria lay in its courageous pursuit of truth, wherever that pursuit might lead, and using any and all tools that might help in that pursuit. Thus the Christian Alexandrian scholars studied not only theology and sacred texts, but all the natural sciences (as they were then), mathematics, geometry, rhetoric (the ancient art of arguing) and philosophy. They used every available tool in their world to conduct a pursuit of truth that was as all-encompassing as possible. This is reflected in their writings that often go far beyond the merely religious and present a worldview that covers every aspect of the world and human life.
They were not afraid to engage with their non-Christian critics, pagan, gnostic or any other variety. They met them on their own turf, using the tools of philosophy to engage with the philosophers, history and literature to engage with the historian, and the natural world to engage with the ‘scientists’ of the day. They seem to have believed that all true knowledge must inevitably lead to the God of Truth, and found the fingerprints of that God even in the writings of the pagans themselves. (more…)
I began to write a post on the situation in Egypt, or more specifically on the inspiring reaction of the Copts and the sensible Muslims to the troubles in Egypt, when I came across the following little essay. It was posted on Facebook by a Mary Sarkis, apparently a Copt, though I do not know her personally. The wonders of the modern age of the internet! I don’t think it needs much comment from me, for she says what I wanted to say so much more beautifully than I could have said it. As an aside, I came upon this lovely piece via a podcast by William Lane Craig, an American Christian philosopher and apologist. Our Apologetics Group had the privilege of meeting him and atheist Laurance Krauss after their recent public debate at Sydney Town Hall.
This message has really been on my heart so please take a minute to read!
IT WILL GO DOWN IN HISTORY the grace, love, self-control, and patriotism that Copts have demonstrated in this chapter of Egypt’s history. Persecution is not new to Copts (as is the case with many minorities), but I have never been more proud to be a Copt! Not because Copts are persecuted but because of the way Copts have responded and what I’ve seen of the reaction of Moslems to the behavior of Egypt’s Christians. When 50-70 churches, Christian schools/orphanages/ monasteries (some ancient) were attacked this last week, ALL eyes were on Copts to see their reaction. Moslem-Egyptian media figures / authors like Amr Adeeb, Ibrahim 3eesa, Youssef el Hussaini, Fatma Naoout, Tarek Heggy, to name a few, all testified to the Copts’ endurance and loyalty to their country regardless of the horrific abuses that they’ve suffered, not just now but throughout history. Here’s a sample quote from talk show host Youssef El Husseini… (more…)
We parish priests often tear our hair out (those who have any left) when we hear of parties or receptions thrown by members of the Church that don’t reflect our Christian values. One of the sins most modern Christians really despise is hypocrisy, and yet some of them don’t seem to realise that a celebration that encourages non-Christian behaviour is a form of hypocrisy. Perhaps they feel that Christ does not really think that drunkenness, immodest clothing and sexually-enticing dancing are wrong? Hmmm, I’d like to see where the Bible says that.
But it seems the problem is not just a modern one. Thank you to Fr Athanasius Iskander of Canada for sharing the following excerpt from St John Chrysostom in the fifth century.
Marriage is a bond, a bond ordained by God. Why then do you celebrate weddings in a silly and immodest manner? Have you no idea what you are doing? … What is the meaning of these drunken parties with their lewd and disgraceful behaviour? You can enjoy a banquet with your friends to celebrate your marriage; I do not forbid this, but why must you introduce all these excesses? Camels and mules behave more decently than some people at wedding receptions!
Is marriage a comedy? It is a mystery, an image of something far greater. If you have no respect for marriage, at least respect what it symbolizes: “This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the Church.” (Eph 5:32) It is an image of the Church, and of Christ, and will you celebrate in a profane manner? “But then who will dance?” you ask. Why does anyone need to dance? Pagan mysteries are the only ones that involve dancing. We celebrate our mysteries quietly and decently, with reverence and modesty.
How is marriage a mystery? The two have become one. This is not an empty symbol. They have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God Himself. How can you celebrate it with a noisy uproar, which dishonours and bewilders the soul?
Coptic Apologetics Discussion Group is up and running for the third year, and the first two monthly topics are scientific ones. January’s meeting was on the Big Bang Theory while February’s meeting will look more broadly at the sometimes rocky relationship between faith and science. But how rocky does that relationship need to be? Does it need to be as difficult as some would make it to be? If you are one of those people who believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, I must warn you: you are not going to like what I have to say.
I have to confess that although I took an interest in Young Earth Creationism for some years, I have now come to pretty much reject it wholesale. It really comes down to how you read the Bible, and how willing you are to let reality be itself rather than trying to squash it into a pre-arranged box of your own making. Such an approach can lead to ridiculous situations, such as the one Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine dug for himself in the early seventeenth century. Consider his view of the preposterous new idea that the earth might orbit around the sun rather than the other way around.
… to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the centre of the heavens and that the earth revolves very swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.
“Injuring our faith and making the sacred scripture false”? Really? The good cardinal’s words seem absurd to the modern Christian. Why in the world would he be so dogmatic? The fault lies, I think, in his mistaking his own way of interpreting scripture for the scripture itself. Even today, Young Earth Creationists fall into the same trap, insisting that if their very literal interpretation of the Bible is disproved by science, then the whole Bible becomes worthless and all of Christianity – all of it, mind you – collapses into a bottomless abyss of unreliability. Nice of them to include us in their prophetic doom.
But no, I object. (more…)
Sometimes we Copts forget that we are part of a wider community of Orthodox Christians, but I feel a sense of joy and comfort when I make any kind of contact with another community of faithful Christians. One of the ways I do that is to look in periodically on an Orthodox Christian news service, OCP Media Network. Please let me share with you two recent little items, one happy, one sad, from the lives of our fellow followers of Christ…
First, the sad. While the situation in Egypt for Coptic Christians is dangerous and difficult, the plight of our sister Oriental Orthodox Church in Eritrea is in many ways much worse. Here in the west, we hardly ever hear news of the dark and distant Horn of Africa. That silence is all the more disturbing when one realises what is going on there. Anyone who loves freedom and human rights should be outraged at what is happening to the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church. Together with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, the Eritreans trace their Christian heritage back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, and consider their first archbishop to be St Frumentius who was consecrated by the Egyptian St Athanasius the Apostolic in the fourth century AD. They have a long and rich history of spirituality and ascetism that reflects their unique culture.
But today, the Eritrean Church in Eritrea is slowly dying. Persecution of the Church is hitting it on all levels. Abune Antonios, the duly elected patriarch who was consecrated by the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 2004, stood up to the Eritrean government when it tried to interfere in the affairs of the Church. As a result, he was deposed and replaced by a government appointee in an effort to turn the Church into virtually another department of the government. Abune Antonios was chosen for the patriarchate for his good character and his sincere devotion to raising the spiritual standard of the Eritrean Church. But now he has been held incommunicado by the government in an undisclosed location for some years, unable to pursue his spiritual agenda, while government puppets submit the Church to the agenda of a government that cares little for the Christian gospel or spirituality.
What is worse, the government has waged an unmitigated campaign against Eritrean clergy in an effort to weaken the Church. In the just the past eight years it is estimated that 1,500 priests and deacons have been conscripted against their will into the army for an indefinite period of military service, while clergy who refuse to submit to the government are arrested and defrocked. This has led to a drastic shortage of clergy for the parishes, and 1,500 parishes are in danger of being closed for lack of parish priests to serve them. Further, there are estimated to be up to 3,000 Christians currently held in Eritrean prisons as prisoners of conscience, subjected to torture and deprived of medical care.
It was a truly historic moment, and one that brought hope for many reasons. The tension built as millions of Copts around the world sat glued to their screens and prayed and chanted Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) with those in the cathedral. I hoped fervently that it was only going to be 41 Kyrie eleisons and not 400! Anba Pachomius enjoined everyone to raise their hearts in supplication and submission, and a silent united supplication from millions around the world rose up to entreat God to choose a shepherd after His own heart for His Coptic flock. And then, a little boy named Bishoy dipped his hand into the bowl and pulled out a transparent orb. Time seemed to stretch out forever as Anba Pachomius fumbled with the seal and then unfolded the piece of paper that held the name of the poor man who is to lead the Coptic Orthodox Church into the future. After a quick peek himself, he held it up for all to see, and we had our new Pope…
Allow me to share a few impressions at this historic moment in time. Firstly, we must appreciate how wonderfully HE Metropolitan Pachomius has carried out his duties as locum tenens since the departure of Pope Shenouda. He had to care for a bereaved Church and soothe their sorrow (whilst no doubt dealing with his own). He had to tread a careful path in a tumultuous post-revolutionary Egypt, forging good relations with the new authorities while at the same time standing up for the rights of Christians suffering persecution and crying out for a father to defend them. He had to deal with a number of major unresolved issues within the Church, any of which could easily have led to huge splits in sections of the Church. He had to run the papal elections according to an outdated yet necessary set of bylaws, negotiating the conflicting opinions about diocesan bishops and (possibly) ambitious candidates, contrary to the venerable humble spirituality of our Coptic tradition.
All this he carried out with serenity, humility, integrity and profound wisdom. I had a personal experience of this during my recent trip to Egypt concerning one of those sensitive matters, (more…)
There have been many tales of people who have experienced the life beyond death and returned to describe it, but none has impressed me as much as this one. The reason it impresses me is that the subject of the experience, unlike most other cases, was a hard-headed, fairly agnostic and highly intelligent scientist … a neurosurgeon, no less! If anyone should be able to tell a purely physiological phenomenon from a genuine supernatural experience, you would think it would be someone like Dr Eben Alexander.
A near death experience is one where a patient is clinically dead for a period of time and is then resuscitated. Such patients often recall strange experiences during the time they were unconscious; some of them pleasant, some of them deeply distressing. A variety of natural explanations have been put forward for this very real phenomenon, such as the effects of a lack of oxygen in the brain. Others have pointed to the possibility of producing strange experiences using the general anaesthetic ketamine as suggesting a similar natural process underlying near death experiences.
Which is why the story Dr Alexander tells is particularly pertinent. He contracted E. coli meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining around the brain that seriously imperilled his life and flung him into a coma for seven days. During that time, numerous scans of his brain and its function were conducted, and showed that his brain was not just impaired, but genuinely non-functional. What this means is that his vivid experiences are unlikely to have been produced by a lack of oxygen or damage to neuronal circuits causing the brain cells to misfire and produce hallucination, or any other natural process. To put it bluntly: a brain can’t hallucinate when it has stopped working altogether.
I have been interested in near death experiences for decades now, ever since reading Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings back in the eighties. His description of a patient who could recall the details of a neck tie worn by a staff member who came into his hospital room after he had clinically died and left before he had recovered consciousness struck me as being pretty good evidence for the reality of such experiences. Another striking tale I came across on the net was that of a Russian priest (from memory) who had a near death experience in a hospital during which he wafted out of his body and came across an infant in another bed who wordlessly told him that his hip hurt. Upon waking and describing the infant and his location to doctors, it turned out that the infant had been in hospital for weeks crying constantly with pain but without a diagnosis. When they examined his hip, they found that was where the problem was. This kind of knowledge, inaccessible to the patient, discounts the possibility of any natural explanation.
So I was fascinated when I heard of an experiment to be conducted by Professor Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia that planned to test out the reality of near death experiences. His plan was as elegant as it was simple. (more…)