Faith or Works? Or…

Another snippet from my slowly evolving book on Coptic Christianity:

Is the Christian Creed about faith, what we believe, or works, what we should do?

As we saw above, the very name of the Church, “Orthodox” (straight or true worship or belief) itself emphasises the importance of holding to a faith, believing that which is true and correct. Christianity is founded fundamentally on Truth. Jesus Christ Himself was recognised as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and “teaching the way of God in truth” (Mark 12:14). He described Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and promised those who follow Him the “Spirit of Truth” (John 16:13). He commands us to “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) and He teaches that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Truth should be one of the chief motivators for the Christian life. The teachings of Christ resonate with the human spirit because they have an intrinsic tone of truth to them. For example, love is the central theme in the teaching of Christ, yet even apart from that teaching, people of every age and every culture have always seemed to feel instinctively in their hearts the truth that love is the most important thing in life. Thus most people put their family above their career or popularity in importance, and might even be willing to give up their own life for those whom they love.

Yet the beauty of Christian truth is that it takes this basic human reality and extends it into areas beyond our merely human instincts. Christ taught not only basic human love, but divine love, a love that elevates the truth that love is paramount to noble and life-changing heights. For example, He taught that it is not enough to merely love our friends or relatives, but that we must also love strangers and even enemies. Here, the truth of Christ becomes counter-intuitive; it goes against the grain of human nature. And yet, it works! This kind of unconditional love, when practiced sincerely and properly, transforms not only the individual’s life, but whole societies.

This truth about love was reflected, one might say, embodied, in the person and the life of Christ Himself. By becoming a human man, by dying on the cross, by rising from the dead, by all the events of His life, He showed His great love for the feeble human creatures He had created in His own image, and who had abused their free will to their own hurt and detriment. This beautiful story of love and salvation is most clearly and succinctly told in the ancient statement of Christian belief that summarises these truths about our existence and our relationship to the one who created us; the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

However, over the years, the significance of this universal Creed has evolved differently in the various branches of Christianity. I shall share with you my own rather simplified impression of this difference Continue reading “Faith or Works? Or…”

Near Death Experiences

 

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. Continue reading “Near Death Experiences”

Afraid to be Free

 

Most people take it for granted that each of us is free to choose in life. But some philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, claim that most people do not really want to be free. Choices have real consequences, and freedom brings with it responsibility. People do not want to be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. What if I make the wrong decision? What if the consequences are bad? I don’t want to be held to blame! I don’t want to feel guilty. And so people seek ways to shift the responsibility on to someone or something else, whether they know they are doing this or not.

One famous way of doing this is “the devil made me do it”. But a more subtle way of shifting responsibility is to lay it upon God, or upon His representatives on earth. Sartre points out that when a person adopts a faith, they surrender some of their freedom. They surrender the freedom to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, for by subscribing to their faith’s moral code, that decision is taken out of their hands. Of course, each person is still free to choose whether to obey their faith’s moral code or not – they are still quite free and quite responsible in that sense, but they are no longer responsible for the content of the moral code itself.

Now I do not see this as a bad thing in itself. We humans are, after all, quite fallible, and we have a disturbing tendency to try to cheat to make life comfortable for ourselves. If there is a genuinely objective right and wrong in the world (as most people would agree there is), then we are much more likely to find it when God tells us what it is than when are left to work it out for ourselves. Continue reading “Afraid to be Free”

Submission in Marriage

Is it sexist, outdated and even harmful to suggest that wives should submit to their husbands?

There has been some heated debate recently over the question of submission in marriage. It has been stirred up by the conservative Sydney Archdiocese of the Anglican Church introducing optional marriage vows for the bride that include the concept of submitting to her husband. This of course is something that has existed int he Coptic Orthodox rite since time immemorial. It is no novel invention, but derives from the words of St Paul:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Saviour of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22 NKJV)

Liberal Anglicans are outraged. They see this as huge step backwards for their Church, plunging it back into a discredited, patriarchal misogyny. St Paul wrote in the context of first century Greco-Roman society, where the inferiority of women was simply taken for granted. He and those to whom he wrote simply could not imagine a world where things were different, so he was simply giving advice on how to live as a Christian within that existing social structure. Compare slavery, the liberals say. St Paul encourages slaves to be obedient and submissive to their masters as to the Lord. But enlightened Christians in a more developed society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries refused to accept slavery as an institution and changed the whole structure of their society, eliminating slavery altogether, rather than just telling slaves to accept their lot and be submissive. By analogy, they say, our even more enlightened society in the twentieth and twenty first centuries is now changing the very power structure of marriage and introducing the fullness of the equality before God that St Paul mentioned elsewhere:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NKJV)

But both the liberal interpretation of St Paul and the objections to submission in marriage are based on a crucial misunderstanding of the Gospel of Christ, reflected in St Paul. Once clarified, submission falls into its proper place and becomes something beautiful. To identify this misconception, we shall go right back to the beginning of the problem… Continue reading “Submission in Marriage”

Speaking in Tongues (Glossolalia)

Speaking in Tongues. A Biblical gift or … something else?

Did you know that the fastest growth among the Christian denominations in Australia today is happening in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Protestant Churches?

One of the defining characteristics of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity is the phenomenon of speaking in strange languages. It is believed that this is a miraculous gift from the Holy Spirit, that it continues a practice of the Apostles themselves, and that it is even a sign of God’s favour. People who speak in tongues consider it to be an experience of connecting with God, a superior form of prayer in fact. Some will even go so far as to say that Christians who do not speak in tongues are seriously deficient as Christians

All of these beliefs are highly suspect. But don’t take my word for it; read the evidence and make up your own mind. You will find some detailed research here which I will try to summarise briefly below.

Firstly, if speaking in tongues were truly a gift of the Holy Spirit, one would expect it to be unique to those who believe in the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. But in reality, speaking in tongues or glossolalia was not only practiced by pagan cults well before Christianity began, but continues to practiced by non-Christians today, including Hindu fakirs and gurus in India and even, worryingly, by voodoo practitioners in Haiti. There is no doubt that pagans began speaking in tongues long before Christianity began, and there is compelling evidence that the practice was smuggled into Christian life by pagan converts to Christianity.

But didn’t the disciples speak in tongues? Here we must make an important distinction, one you will have already noticed if you have been reading your Bible carefully. Continue reading “Speaking in Tongues (Glossolalia)”

Discontentment with Prayer

It strikes me that many people in the Coptic tradition spend a lot of their lives being discontented with their prayer life. “I don’t pray enough”; “I don’t focus”; “I don’t feel much”.

Now there’s nothing wrong with desiring a deeper, more genuine dialogue with God. What is more important to our being than this? But it is also true that human nature is to shy away from things with which we are discontented. They make us feel bad, and so we avoid them if we can. Hence the struggle that many face to pray. It is not that they do not wish to be with God – it is that in their minds, prayer has become solidly attached to an uncomfortable feeling of failure or guilt or vague restlessness, a tone that makes them avoid prayer whenever possible.

This has to be one of the cleverer tricks of the devil to keep those who sincerely desire the presence of God away from experiencing it. Imagine the opposite. Imagine if prayer were instead attached to feelings of joy, peace and love. Who in their right minds would avoid that?

The question then becomes how one is to rescue prayer from the muddy negative attitudes that so easily encrust it and hide its true beauty. Here are some musings from a fellow struggler… Continue reading “Discontentment with Prayer”

A Subtle Snare

“There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself … as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist! There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ. Man! Ye see it in small matters. Did ye never know a lover of books that with all his first editions and signed copies has lost the power to read them? Or an organiser of charities that had lost all love for the poor? It is the subtlest of all the snares.”

CS Lewis. The Great Divorce.

We live in an age of knowledge and of great power, and the individual citizen today can do things that the most powerful of heads of state could only dream of fifty years ago. This power brings with it opportunities unimagined, but also a raft of new temptations, or rather old temptations adapted to new situations (is there ever anything new under the sun?)

Today, I can sit in my living room and order a rare book from London or read a paper written by a scholar in Zurich at the click of a button. I have access to a marketplace of ideas that is so huge its very size smothers me if I stop to think about it. For the curious mind, this is intoxicating! How easy to lose oneself in an ocean of stimulating knowledge and new ideas! How wonderful to acquire new understanding, to see old things in new ways, to penetrate the depths of ignorance and shine the light of comprehension upon their previously dark treasures!

Apologetics is a marvellous revelation for those whose mind is so inclined. We drink the heady mead of rationality and find that the logic of this world points to its Creator! How wonderful! How sweet! And yet, apologetics is only medicine for the doubting soul; and no one can live on medicine alone. One needs heavenly bread and living water. Apologetics points the way, it heals the wounds of confusion, but then it is time for the daily bread of communion with the existent to carry out the process of nourishment.

Service in the house of the Lord is honourable and fulfilling. It provides the servant with a deep sense of belonging and achievement, whatever the nature of that service may be. I am doing something good for the Lord! Yet it is so easy for that “for the Lord” to turn quietly into “for me”. The very satisfaction and fulfillment one derives from service can become in itself an end, usurping its proper role as a means for the crucifixion of the ego and the losing of the self in the ocean of love that is God. And soon, God Himself is forgotten.

Intoxication is a dangerous thing. Continue reading “A Subtle Snare”

Cosmic Slot Machine Views of God

Is God little more than a coin machine to you?

Australian philosopher Damon Young recently published an opinion piece on the ABC website headed “Prayer is delusional but its power can be real”. In it, he attacks people of all religions who use prayer to take vengeance on their enemies and points to the failure of medical studies to prove that intercessory prayer changes health outcomes, other than calming the person doing the praying and producing effects like reduced blood pressure in that person.

While some of those who commented on the piece charge him with being anti-religion, I find myself agreeing with most of what he says, but probably for very different reasons.

Of course there are numerous Bible verses about asking for things from God, but these need to be read and interpreted in the context of the overall Gospel message. In Old Testament times, people had not yet experienced the fullness of the love of God as expressed in the Incarnation of the Logos in Jesus, so they had some reason to be anxious about their lives. Not so for us Christians! The Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection should mean that we can never doubt the extent to which the love of God will stretch to take care of us (if one ever could really doubt that any way).

So the Christian message about the relationship between God the Provider and our personal needs is this: “Do not worry” (Matthew 6:31). Christ came to teach us divine, aghape love, to make that love the overriding principle of our lives, to make us “beings of love”. And divine love cares not for its own first, but for others. Love draws us out of our selves and transforms us into little images of the God of Love Himself. I cannot emphasise enough how central this transformation is to the Gospel message.

Where can selfish requests for personal needs fit into that picture? Continue reading “Cosmic Slot Machine Views of God”

The Anaphora

A little contemplation on the liturgy, with a linguistic turn…

The Anaphora in the Coptic rite is that part of the Eucharistic liturgy that begins with the priest praying the words,

“The Lord be with you all”,

to which the congregation respond,

“And with your spirit”.

The word anaphora is Greek and is derived from two roots: ano or ‘upward’ and phero meaning ‘to bear, carry or bring’. Thus we find it used in Matthew 17:1…

“Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves”

So, the Anaphora is that part of the liturgy where we are enjoined to allow ourselves to be carried up to God. Note that in Matthew 17:1, it is Jesus who leads the three disciples up the mountain, in that sense ‘bringing’ them. And yet, they must walk on their own legs to actually follow Him, so in that sense, they ‘bring’ or ‘carry’ themselves. Neither is sufficient to get them up the mountain by itself. Christ will not pick them up physically and carry them if they choose not walk on their own feet, and if they walk alone without Christ they will not know where to go. So also, our lifting up of our hearts to God cannot be accomplished by our own efforts, or by the grace of God alone, but the two must act in concert, in harmony.

As part of this dialogue, the priest enjoins the people to

Lift up your hearts: ano emon tas kardias

Again, the words are Greek rather than Coptic. Looking into the Greek origins reveals layers of textured meaning that are sadly lost when translated: Continue reading “The Anaphora”

Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus

There’s been a lot of discussion lately around a video by evangelist Jefferson Bethke that has gone viral called “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”. You can see the video and read an excellent critique of it by an Eastern Orthodox priest here. There is not much left to be said on the topic, but of course, I must have my two cents’ worth!

As is the case with so many debates, problems arise because the words are not defined clearly. What does ‘religion‘ actually mean? What is it that this bloke hates, exactly? Anyone who loves Jesus is bound to also love ‘true religion’, a phrase used by St James in his epistle (1:26,27). He points out the difference between religion properly practiced and religion abused. I think what the bloke in the video is rebelling against is religion abused, but he just calls it ‘religion’, hence the controversy, since people think he is using ‘religion’ in the more general sense of the word, thus hating both true and abused religion together. Of course, that controversy is probably exactly what he was aiming at. What better way for an evangelist to get his message heard by millions?

The abuse of religiion is nothing new. It happened in the Jewish faith at the time of Christ, it happened in the early Christian Church in the time of the Apostles, and, surprise, surprise, it happens today. I fully join with Bethke in rejecting the abuse of religion.

But that doesn’t mean we should toss out religion altogether. As St James points out, Continue reading “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”