Who Am I?

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 8

Posted: January 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 8

15. It you totally fulfill the command to love your neighbor, you will feel no bitterness or resentment against him whatever he does. If this is not the case, then the reason why you fight against your brother is clearly because you seek after transitory things and prefer them to the commandment of love.

Love is never conditional. If you only love someone when they give you no offense, then you don’t really love them at all. I know I often find it hard to love and frequently fail to love at all.


Mary 7 – Matthew 1:25

Posted: January 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 7 – Matthew 1:25

The other common modern scriptural objection to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is found in Matthew 1:24-25.

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

This is actually a pretty weak objection. With ’till’ or ‘until’, sometimes the condition leading up to the event changes after the event and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s easy to illustrate with just a couple of examples, but there many examples of both usages in the New Testament.

And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. (Acts 23:12)

The above is an illustration of a usage where the condition (not eating or drinking) is expected to change after the event (killing Paul). That’s pretty obvious from the context.

For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. (1 Cor. 15:25)

I think most Christians would agree that Christ will continue to reign after all enemies are under his feet, but that’s incidental to the point being made. In this case the condition (Christ reigning) continues after the event (putting all enemies under his feet).

The whole point being made in Matthew is that Mary conceived as a virgin and gave birth to a son who was conceived by the Spirit and then immediately moves to his name, which is an important one, Jesus. Matthew is saying nothing about what happened between Mary and Joseph after the birth of Christ. All that can really be said from the context is that there is not information to conclude whether or not the condition (Joseph not knowing Mary) changed after the event (the birth of Jesus). There’s certainly nothing in the text that refutes the long-standing and ancient tradition of the Church.

And once again, it’s not as though some modern Protestants suddenly discovered a new text in Scripture that the ancient Church knew nothing about. They were certainly familiar with Matthew and were more closely connected than us to the language, culture, and customs that formed the context for the text. Why would we assume we understand the text better than they did? That attitude puzzles me.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 7

Posted: January 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

13.  If you wish to master your thoughts, concentrate on the passions and you will easily drive the thoughts arising from them out of your intellect. With regard to unchastity, for instance, fast and keep vigils, labor and avoid meeting people. With regard to anger and resentment, be indifferent to fame, dishonor and material things. With regard to rancor, pray for him who has offended you and you will be delivered.

If you are indifferent to the recognition and success of others, you will not resent them. And it is hard to remain bitter and angry toward someone when you pray for them. It’s interesting to note that fasting is considered to help discipline all physical passions.


Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.


A Christian Nation?

Posted: January 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments » http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XddLDufkaig

 

 

 

Especially on the “conservative” side, it’s common to hear people claim our country was founded as a Christian nation. It wasn’t, of course. Nor was it founded as an atheistic nation, like the Communist regimes of the 20th century. Our founders were trying to establish the world’s first secular nation and I think, for good or ill, they largely succeeded. Certainly our culture is deeply and thoroughly secular. But that’s a different discussion from the one I want to focus on here.

The video above shows the building and opening of a Rebirth of Orthodoxy exhibit in Moscow. It’s pretty impressive. But there’s a section where an icon is brought in for veneration. The long lines and devotion impressed me, as it has in other videos of Russian devotion I’ve seen. Russia suffered under an atheistic regime that actively tried to stamp out Orthodoxy for most of the 20th century. Virtually nobody still alive in that country can remember a time before Communism. And yet they held onto their faith. Culturally, they remained a truly Christian nation, and when the boot of the oppressor was removed, that deep faith almost immediately began blossoming again.

It’s hard for us to imagine a country, like Russia, which has been a Christian nation for a thousand years, or one like Greece, which has been a Christian nation for even longer. As a nation, we’re still in the early portion of our third century. And our cultural memory tends to be short, anyway. Certainly as far as our privileged majority goes, we tend to dismiss slavery, our genocide of Native Americans, and even the more recent Jim Crow era as “ancient history.” Very often, even if not explicitly expressed, the attitude is that those peoples who have suffered should just “get over it.”

Some form of Christian faith has, collectively, always been the majority religion in our country. But I don’t think that alone is enough to make us a Christian nation. I watch the Russians and I can’t help but think of our own country. While the majority of us can collectively be described as individually Christian, it’s a fractured and divisive Christianity. We have no culturally cohesive and unified Christian identity. If we had suffered under a repressive and often brutal atheistic regime for a century, would we have retained any meaningful Christian identity? Maybe in pockets here and there, but across our country?

I’m skeptical. I don’t see here the same sort of deeply rooted faith we are seeing in Russia. And our cultural memories are short. We are pretty much repeating today the same mistakes we made in the late 19th and early 20th century and most people seem completely oblivious to that fact. Even our cultural memory of the era of segregation, which a lot of people still alive can remember, is fading.

Compared to Russia and other truly Christian nations, in what sense, then, can we call ourselves a Christian nation?


Weekend Update 01-14-2012

Posted: January 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Weekend Update | Comments Off on Weekend Update 01-14-2012

This post contains a really good and very short summary of the Tax Policy Center analysis of the Romney tax plan. Basically the well-to-do will pay less in taxes, the working poor will pay more, and overall revenue will decline. Overall revenue declining will either increase the debt or increase the overall burden on all but the wealthiest Americans as programs and services on which they rely are dismantled or slashed. But those are the same features of every Republican tax plan. I can only conclude that those who aren’t rich and vote Republican either want to pay more to fund more handouts to large corporations and wealthy Americans or they don’t know math or they suffer under the delusion that they will be part of the wealthiest, privileged class in our country so eventually this will benefit them. None of the math required to understand the impact of these plans is particularly difficult. Certainly by middle school we expect our children to be able to do math at this level. So I really don’t understand it.

This is an interesting site where you can find the #1 song on any particular past date. Want to know what the top pop song was on the day you were born?

Americans are more likely than citizens of other nations to believe they live in a meritocracy. It’s mostly fantasy. It’s actually harder now to move up from one economic class to higher ones here than pretty much all the European nations. I will note that, though I don’t see how it can possibly help him win the GOP nomination, Jon Huntsman openly acknowledges and tries to discuss that fact. I’ll also note that Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt are my two favorite American presidents. I’ve read and studied them both extensively. I’m sure any time a modern Republican tries to associate the views of either of those great presidents with the current incarnation of the GOP, they roll over in their graves. Teddy Roosevelt would, indeed, most definitely not approved.

Who fires whom? Romney’s gaffe was all over the news. Frankly, I also thought it was even worse taken in context. Health insurance doesn’t work that way. The fact that Romney thinks it does, even after implementing health care reform when he was a governor, exposes a man who is frighteningly out of touch with the reality of those of us who haven’t been shielded by millions and hundreds of millions of dollars our entire lives. At the bottom of this post, Krugman points out that the lack of empathy Romney evinces does not come simply from his life of privilege. FDR, after all, also lived a life sheltered by wealth and privilege. But FDR could still empathize with those who did not. It doesn’t appear that Romney can do the same.

A business is not like a national economy. That would seem obvious, but apparently it’s not. An economy is also not like a household budget, I’ll add. It’s not just that these comparisons are inadequate metaphors; they are actually misleading and will lead you to the wrong conclusions about the best actions to take. Krugman expands on that point in his column.

Democrats are not anti-market. In truth, politicians always have a tendency to lie, tell half-truths, and distort the truth. That’s been true for as long as there have been politicians. In our history as a country, though, it’s been less common for us to have one party so completely surrender to the temptation of propaganda and fabrication that almost every time an overwhelming majority in the party speak it’s a lie or distortion. While you can find fringe people in every group, the Democratic party is hardly anti-market and never has been. They simply disagree with Republicans on the best way to help markets function well. On the whole, the historical data leans more in favor of the Democratic assertions about the role of governments in a market economy than the Republican assertions. Perhaps that’s why the wheels are coming off the GOP. When your view of what reality ought to be slips significantly from what reality actually is, perhaps a reliable sense of truth is one of the first victims. If you don’t believe me, just fact-check Romney’s stump speech.

I’m pro-woman too. (And pro-child and sometimes even pro-man.) I’m glad that my wife and daughters and daughter-in-law can vote, own property, have a professional career (if desired), and in general, at least in theory, have the same rights and privileges and responsibilities that I do, which definitely makes me a “feminist” by any meaningful definition. I wouldn’t want to live in any other world. But in our modern world, with everything structured as it is, abortion is a hard topic with no easy or absolute answers. Unfortunately, it’s rare that you’ll see anyone on either ‘side’ of the debate confess that reality. More than anything else, that’s why I deeply appreciated Sarah’s post. I commented at length as a result. Oh, and there’s a Princess Bride reference in the post. How can you not love that?

I like spoken word in general and there are places scattered here and there in the video where I empathize with the things he’s saying. But I find I tend to agree more with Fr. Andrew. Watch the video and then read the post. Elizabeth Esther shares similar thoughts. And here’s another post on it from Sarah Moon. Decide for yourself.

The Moral Hazard Myth. This is an article from 2005 a friend sent me. It captures extremely well many of the things completely wrong with treating health care coverage like car insurance (which at its core is what Republicans are doing).

It’s true that Orthodoxy doesn’t have anything if you take out the “God-talk”, but I still enjoyed this post.


Mary 5 – Physically Virgin

Posted: January 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Mary 5 – Physically Virgin

It came up in the comments on Elizabeth Esther’s post, so I felt I ought to write something about this belief. It’s not actually a belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus and then God restored her hymen, though I frequently saw it characterized that way in the comments. Rather, it’s a belief that Mary gave birth without pain and without any physical damage to her body, including her hymen.

It’s primarily a theological point. As I understand it, many have seen in Mary’s ‘yes’ to God the beginning of the healing of creation. And since one of the things described in Genesis 3 as a result of our mortality is that ‘in pain you shall bring forth children’, Jesus being born without pain or physical damage is seen as one of the early signs of that healing and restoration.

I tend to disagree, but not because I find the concept incredible. After all, how is such a delivery any more incredible than a virginal conception? Rather, I lean toward a different theological perspective. Jesus became flesh, or sarx, which means he assumed everything it means to be human in our mortal state. And so I believe he was born as we are born. The healing and restoration of all creation flows from him, but he began life fully and utterly one of us.

Ultimately, though, I think we all have to confess we have no way to know which is true.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 6

Posted: January 12th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 6

11.  Love, self-restraint, contemplation and prayer accord with God’s will, while gluttony, licentiousness and things that increase them pander to the flesh. That is why ‘they that are in the flesh cannot conform to God’s will’ (Rom. 8:8). But ‘they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh together with the passions and desires’ (Gal. 5:24)

Gluttony and licentiousness stand in opposition to love. In the former we consume to meet our own desires. And in the latter we actually treat people as objects to be used for our pleasure. If you are using someone to meet your needs, you are not loving them.


Mary 4 – Ever Virgin

Posted: January 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The next point, the perpetual virginity of Mary, tends to be controversial among my fellow modern Protestants. I will note that the modern objection is not inherently Protestant in nature. Indeed all the initial reformers, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, held firmly to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. As late as the 18th century, John Wesley affirmed the doctrine. No, the objections to this particular doctrine seem more related to our modern sexualized culture than anything historical. There seems to be a sense that living without sex makes you less than a ‘complete’ person. I understand that modern perspective probably better than I do the ancient one. After all, I am also a product of our culture. Nevertheless, I try to avoid imposing my cultural lens onto ancient texts and traditions in an anachronistic manner. It’s clear from the NT texts that living a celibate life was hardly unknown in an ancient Jewish context. John the Baptist lived such a life. Paul also did. (And it appears that he had started down that path in his zeal even before his dramatic conversion.) Notably, Jesus lived a celibate, unmarried life. So there’s nothing inherently odd or out of place in ascribing such devotion to Mary in her context.

Moreover, in the context of their honor-shame culture, it’s a perfectly reasonable response by both Mary and Joseph. We know from the texts and from the tradition of the Church of which those texts are one part that they were both faithful to God. They both sacrificed their own personal honor in order to uphold God’s honor and be obedient to him. And God produced a child with Mary. In both their minds, that would have certainly marked Mary as belonging to God. For Mary to then have sex with Joseph would have been perceived as adulterous and dishonoring God. Joseph would have seen himself as a protector and provider chosen by God for Mary and for God’s son. It’s not that I think they consciously thought through everything and decided to live together celibately. Rather, I find it hard to imagine them, within their context and with their cultural shaping, responding any other way. It’s strange to us, but it fits perfectly in their context.

And as I mentioned, it’s also the universal tradition of the Church until very recently. That’s not to say that you can’t find individuals here and there in the past who thought otherwise. But that means virtually nothing. You can find individuals over the course of history, including priests, bishops, and even patriarchs, who believe almost anything. You don’t find answers by looking at the beliefs of one (or several scattered) individuals, especially when their beliefs left no lasting impression on the Church. No, you look at what’s believed everywhere and in all places. And up until the last few hundred years, this is as much the universal perspective of the Church as almost anything we believe. I’m skeptical that we somehow know better now.

I know there are a handful of Scriptures modern Protestants like to trot out in their objections. I plan to deal with those in a later post. However, I will point out that I tend to find the attitude of Protestants toward Scripture somewhat strange. They tend to point to verses in these discussions as if they had just discovered those verses and the centuries of Christians who preceded them had never read or heard them. And there’s something a little crazy about that attitude. After all, it’s the ancient Church that preserved and eventually canonized what we call the New Testament. They read it, preached on it, and incorporated it the liturgy for century upon century. There’s no verse we can point to that would have been unknown to them. No, Protestants aren’t pointing out anything new in the verses they use in this or other discussions. Rather they are asserting they understand those verses better than the ancient Church did. They are asserting their interpretation over and against that of Christians who preceded them.

Maybe it’s because I practiced Hinduism, studied Lao Tzu, read the life of Prince Siddhartha, and have studied other ancient authors, but I’m a little more humble in my approach. I don’t automatically assume I’ll understand a text better than those who came before me. I don’t believe I’m smarter than those who lived in the ancient past (which does seem to be a modern conceit). I tend to give some deference to those who practiced this faith and lived this life long before my time.

Was Mary perpetually virgin? That’s the teaching of the Church and as I researched and tried to understand her culture, I also found it a reasonable contextual conclusion. I’m familiar with the modern arguments to the contrary and I’m unconvinced by them. Does it matter? Well, I tend to believe it’s better to have an accurate rather than an inaccurate view of reality. Beyond that I can’t really say. I will note that it seems to have had a measurable impact on the honor given to Mary. Among those Protestants who do not believe Mary remained a virgin, she’s almost become an after-thought or a biblical footnote. And that attitude is certainly contrary to Scripture. So if the resulting practice is any indication of the significance of belief, then I find that telling.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 5

Posted: January 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 5

10.  If a man loves someone, he naturally makes every effort to be of service to that person. If, then, a man loves God, he naturally strives to conform to His will. But if he loves the flesh, he panders to the flesh.

I have several thoughts. First I’m reminded by the first sentence of Dallas Willard’s definition of love: To actively will the good of the beloved. (I’ve probably mangled it, but that’s how I remember it.) It’s on that point that modern Christian patriarchy (in both its hard and soft forms) utterly fails. Under that model, the man does not serve his wife and children. Ultimately, he expects them to serve him.

The next sentence flows straight from 1 John. Heck, it flows directly from Jesus.

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:31-36)

Today, you’ll most often see the excerpt “the truth shall make you free,” but that’s not at all what Jesus is saying. (In fact, ‘truth’ in that sense can often crush us, not make us free. Who can stand the complete and unvarnished truth about themselves at once?) Jesus has previously described himself as the truth and we see in the last part he rephrases his earlier statement to make it clear. If we love Jesus, if we abide in him, then we will truly be his followers, we will come to know him, and he will make us free.

We can instead become enamored with our mortal condition — focusing on the pleasures that flow from it rather than the pain. And we are easily enslaved so that we pander to the passions rather than loving others or God — actions which are intertwined and cannot be separated.