Being Orthodox 2: Tradition is a Good Thing.

The barbecue is a fine Australian tradition that brings people together. Traditions give structure to our lives.

To understand anything it often helps to know its history, to explore the factors that made it what it is. I wrote recently to make the point that every religious community must necessarily follow some sort of tradition, whether that tradition be derived from the Apostles, or the ancient Fathers and Mothers of the Church of the first centuries, or St Thomas Aquinas, or Martin Luther or John Calvin, or even L. Ron Hubbard. The difference between the different denominations is not whether or not they are traditional, but which tradition they follow. Of course, a Church may be either more or less faithful to its original tradition, and to be sure, Protestants tend to be more comfortable with changing their traditions than Orthodox or Catholics.

 

What do we mean by ‘tradition’? And which tradition characterises the Orthodox Christian Church? We mean here a faith, worldview and way of life that defines who we are and directs all that we do. Orthodox tradition has its roots in the life and teachings of Christ Himself, and is a long unbroken chain passed down faithfully through the millennia in an unbroken line. It includes the things we believe, most succinctly summarised in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that we often recite when we pray formal prayers. It includes the interpretations of that Creed expounded by the leading lights of the early Church who studied and wrote and taught in the generations after the Apostles and received their faith either directly or indirectly from them. It includes the Books of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, including the Deuterocanonical Books, and preferably in the Septuagint Translation which was the version used by Christ, His Apostles and the ancient Fathers.

 

Tradition is not something you put up on the wall and admire every now and then, but generally ignore when you go about your ‘real’ life. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 2: Tradition is a Good Thing.”

Being Orthodox 1: Introduction

 

Fr Peter Farrington of the British Orthodox Church wrote a very important article in the Glastonbury Review about the history of Protestant missions in Egypt and their influence on the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of many resources now available on this fascinating period of Coptic history. While the main gist of Fr Peter’s article describes the low view the British missionaries had of the Coptic Church of the day, (some even considered Copts to be on a par with Muslims in their ignorance of the Christian faith!) he also describes the willingness of the Coptic clergy of the time to benefit from the help of the Europeans, even to the extent of sending candidates for the priesthood to seminaries run by the Protestants to train them in theology. This shows an admirable ecumenism on the part of the Coptic decision-makers, but it also reflects one of the darker trends in Coptic Church history over the past two centuries.

The trend I am talking about is the tendency to associate Western Christianity with advanced Western civilisation, and therefore to see both as something superior to aspire to. What this means today is that due to this historical phenomenon, patchy though it has been both in time and place, the Coptic Orthodox Church has adopted some worrying aspects of Western Christianity, and forgotten that they are foreign innovations. The same thing happened in the Eastern Orthodox family, a phenomenon they call the ‘Western Captivity’, echoing the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrew people. But the Eastern Orthodox have experienced an inspiring revival of ancient, patristic and apostolic thought over the past hundred years or so, mainly through the brave work of scholars such as Vladimir Lossky and Alexander Shmemann, that has gradually purified their theology from the Western innovations and restored it to something much closer to that of the ancient Church. In the Coptic Orthodox Church, there have always been those who have delved deeply and honestly into this matter and come out with much the same results as the Eastern Orthodox revival, but until recently, they were not influential in the Church. They published their views in scholarly journals like The Coptic Church Review, Coptologia and the Glastonbury Review, the learned journal of our affiliated British Orthodox Church, or in the mammoth masterpiece, the eight volume Coptic Encyclopedia, but for the most part their work was ignored in parishes and Sunday School classrooms. I rejoice to see the winds of revival finally blowing through the corridors of the Coptic Orthodox Church, a trend I believe is being tactfully supported by HH Pope Tawadros II. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 1: Introduction”

Tradition and Denomination

Celebrating the Eucharist is a tradition instituted by Christ Himself. It embodies the core faith and life of Christianity.

 

Some of my best friends are Protestant! I have engaged in innumerable fascinating discussions with Protestant friends over the decades on the differences and similarities between the two approaches to being Christian. One of the benefits claimed by some Protestants is that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are “traditional” Churches while Protestant Churches are not. By this it is usually meant that the traditional Churches adhere to a body of beliefs and practices developed by human beings through the centuries while the non-traditional Churches are not limited by such constraints, and are therefore able to enact the Christian Gospel free of any merely human innovations. But is this really true?

Human nature is such that we cannot, like God, create anything ex nihilo, out of nothing. All we can do is take what is given to us and perhaps synthesise or modify it into something else. In this sense, all that we do is traditional. When we drive our cars on the left side of the road, when we wear clothes of particular fashion, when we follow certain healthy diets, when we use qwerty keyboards; all these are examples of traditions that we follow. If we didn’t, life would be impossible. Imagine if you could not depend on medical research to tell you what a healthy diet looks like, but had to work it all out on your own, right from scratch! Traditions allow us to get on with life, to progress in life, to build on the wisdom and experience of others rather than have to do it all ourselves from first principles. To be sure, it is often interesting to go back and read how a tradition came about, and thus understand why it is a good tradition to follow, and to be sure, some traditions occasionally need revision or even total reformation or replacement, but the idea of living your life according to a set of traditions is something we all do every day of our lives, and indeed, could not live the lives we now live without doing it.

So it is somewhat hard to believe that of all the things in the world of human beings, there is this one particular case, this one exception to the rule, Continue reading “Tradition and Denomination”

A New (Old) Take on Repentance

 

Ancient Christian icon from Egypt. The faith of the early Church is inspiring even today, two millennia later.

Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.

Ephesians 5:14

 

As Lent begins one senses a silent groan in some hearts and minds. How are we going to survive 55 days of strict fasting? What shall we eat? I can’t wait till its over! Lent is a time of prayer and fasting and charitable deeds, but also a time of repentance. Sometimes this same negative attitude can be transferred to our approach to repentance. It can seem such a chore, or at least something we must drag ourselves reluctantly to do.

But there is another way of looking at these things. It may seem quite new to some, but in reality it is very, very old. In fact, it was the way most of the first Christians looked at these things. Apart from my love of all things authentic and original, I find it so much more satisfying, so much more sensible, and so much more realistic than the later interpretations of the Christian enterprise that have spread through most Churches, including our own. It goes something like this:

 

God = existence = goodness = light = life.

 

Therefore, since sin is a separation from God, then to sin is to be diminished in existence, goodness, light and life and to instead be in a state that we describe with words like non-existence, evil, darkness and death.

In this state, our ability to do anything to help ourselves is also diminished. Thus our ability to save ourselves from this state is diminished, quite severely in fact. It’s a little like a drowning man who reaches a stage where he is so deprived of oxygen that his brain can no longer function well enough for him to realise that he needs to swim upwards or keep his head above water.

This is why it was impossible for us to save ourselves. It is the answer to the question, why couldn’t humanity just repent and change itself back into the image of God? Continue reading “A New (Old) Take on Repentance”

Big Kerfuffle about the Big Bang

The Big Bang Theory suggests that the universe had to have a beginning. So does the Bible.

 

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. Continue reading “Big Kerfuffle about the Big Bang”

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…”

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)”

Close Encounters of the Theological Kind.

 File:Fomalhaut with Disk Ring and extrasolar planet b.jpg

Sitting at home in bed with a nasty respiratory infection is not my ideal way of spending a Sunday morning. My groggy head makes it hard to focus, and I find my thoughts turning to the heavens above…

 A milestone was recently passed: the 555th extrasolar planet was confirmed. An extra solar planet is a planet orbiting a star other than our own sun. When I was growing up, there was a debate going on as to whether such planets even existed. Then in 1992 a few thousand years of wondering came to an end when the first extrasolar planet was discovered, whizzing around a pulsar. Since then, the discoveries have come thick and fast, with new methods for detecting the slippery little creatures being developed all the time. A few of the planets have even posed for a photo, like this one orbiting Fomalhaut (see picture), a star just 25 light years away in the constellation of the Southern Fish (Fomalhaut is Arabic for ‘mouth of the whale’). The Kepler space observatory is expected to take the figure into the thousands.

 How exciting! Imagine what it might be like to travel to one of these planets orbiting around an alien sun. What exotic landscapes would we see? What new science might we learn there? For all human existence, we have been limited to one little, tiny corner of the universe. Until a few decades ago, we had no direct physical access to anything except what we could find here on earth. And then, as we began to send robots to the moon, the planets, the asteroids and comets of our own solar system, we were constantly surprised by what we discovered. Our furthest explorers, the Viking probes launched in the 1980s, are only now approaching the edge of our solar system, and again, making unexpected discoveries. What might we discover in an alien solar system? 

Could there be life?

 The scientific answer to that question is an interesting one. Most scientists who think about it believe the chances are pretty good that life exists somewhere else in the universe, but that our chances of ever coming across it are pretty dismal. Much of this thinking can be traced back to the famous Drake equation that calculates the probability of life and compares it to the number of planets that might be capable of harbouring life. There is ample speculation out there on the scientific and social questions that are raised by the possibility of alien life, so I won’t go into them here. But there is another set of questions that is a little harder to find being discussed.

 The theological questions are no less interesting. I recall hearing HG Bishop Moussa commenting on this topic at a conference once: “If we find life on other planets, we’ll just tuck our Bibles under our arms and go and preach to the aliens” he said. A nice repost for an impromptu response, but perhaps there is more to the matter? Continue reading “Close Encounters of the Theological Kind.”

Free Will?

 

Or: “Did the Devil Really Make You Do It?”

 One of the (many) things I find very confusing in life is the question of Free Will. I have yet to find a satisfying explanation for how free will works. On what basis does a person make his or her choices? And if one’s choices are determined by those factors, where is the freedom? And yet, we experience this strange freedom that we cannot explain every day. When Samuel Johnson was challenged to defend the existence of free will, his answer was typically pithy yet profound: “I know I have free will, and there’s an end to the matter!”

 On a more practical level, we grapple with free will. In confessions, “I couldn’t help it Abouna,” is a phrase I have grown accustomed to hearing, usually followed by something like; “He forced me to swear at him!”

 “Hmmm” I will answer if I am in a sarcastic frame of mind, “so he reached into your mouth, grabbed your tongue, and forced it to produce a swear word?”

 The most common response I get is a stare that is usually reserved for inmates of mental hospitals. The question of my sanity notwithstanding, personal responsibility is a deeper issue than I once thought. How much of what we do is conscious choice and how much is ‘mechanical’? And if mechanical, then how are we to be held responsible for it? Continue reading “Free Will?”

IVF and Cloning Part 3

 

We have seen that cloning raises some incredibly difficult ethical and moral questions. But before we attempt to address them, it may be helpful to look at things from the perspective of the infertile parent, and also to survey various religious positions on the matter.

 It is important to appreciate that these are not just hypothetical questions that people in ivory towers can enjoy discussing over a nice cup of tea. They are questions that influence the lives of many people, real living people. I have encountered couples dealing with infertility, and I can assure you, it is no small matter. Until you have gone through the experience yourself, I don’t think you can really understand what it means to be denied the chance of having your own children. Continue reading “IVF and Cloning Part 3”