Sunday, March 21, 2010

Checking in with Mustafa

From time to time, I have promoted the blog of a young Turkish writer, Mustafa Akyol. I continue to do so. In his March 9, 2010 post, Akyol address the Armenian Genocide. While most readers of this blog would take great exception to his conclusions, Akyol does articulate, as well as any, the basic Turkish line on the issue. In fact, you might even say, that in Turkey, his position passes for moderate enlightenment. But his defense is thin indeed, and will not stand much scrutiny. The one comment posted illustrates why such a position is ultimately unconvincing, ahistorical, and satisfactory to no one outside of Anatolia. In his March 12, 2010 post, Akyol tackles the question of gay marriage (yes, in Turkey.) Having no desire to get into that issue, I merely find this a good insight into modern Turkey. The debate is being played out within the AKP, the "Islamist" party in power. And it seems to me that Akyol raises the right questions, not only for Turkey, but for other nations as well.

Conversations on Grace

In recent weeks, I have visited with an old Church of Christ acquaintance from the bad old days. We always used to enjoy discussing the myriad problems in the church. And we were as full of "solutions" as we were full of ourselves. Anyway, we have not talked to any great extent in over 5 years, and I enjoyed reconnecting with him. He feigned ignorance of my now being Orthodox, though I suspected his inquiry into where I was worshipping to be, in truth, a lead-in to broach that very subject.

Though I am usually up for anything, his opening question took me back a little. "Now, the Orthodox that some of the old and some of the new?" Huh? I had absolutely no idea what he meant by that, but at least I knew how to answer--"it's none of the new!" The extent of American unconcern and ignorance about anything other still slays me sometimes. But I went on to briefly describe, as best I could, the nature of my faith. I am usually pretty abysmal at this. He said, "I just want to know one thing. Do you believe you are saved by grace?" [This was always his big item, which makes his sticking-with the Church of Christ all these years all the more incomprehensible.] I answered affirmatively, but noted that it was probably not in the same meaning he applied to the phrase.

My friend had read up a little bit by our next conversation. He was prepared to take me to task about "issues"--Mary's perpetual virginity, intercessory prayers, the condition of souls in Paradise, apostolic succession, our ascetical labors being "self-absorbed," etc. Much of what he said I now consider blasphemous, but was tempered in my response by the memory that this was exactly the type of conversation I used to delight in. I did not really engage him as he would have liked on these concerns. I knew the conversation was not going anywhere, and if it were to do so, it would not be this way.

He wanted me to read a book that had changed his life, and I agreed to do so. I have not read anything like this is years--So You Don't Want to go to Church Anymore? I actually felt guilty doing so, particularly during Great Lent, as the book was silly, ultimately sad and a near waste of time. I found the book to be full of angst and frustration and hand-wringing, as this particular author laid out his plan to fix the unfixable (house churches, the best I can tell.) My friend asked me what I thought of it, and I told him, hopefully without being too harsh or condescending.

At one point in our conversations, I suggested that if he read one online source to learn about Orthodoxy, to make it Fr. Stephen Freeman's Glory to God For All Things. I hope and pray he does so. Meanwhile, I decided to take my own advice. Fr. Stephen's posts are always excellent, but the last few weeks have been some of his best. Following are excerpts from two in particular that hit home with me.


There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life.

It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

And from the comboxes:

I cannot have absolute certainty of my eternal destiny. And why is absolute certainty impossible? Because I cannot guarantee my own faith in and love of God. In practical reality all I can do is cry out to God, “Love, have mercy,” in confidence that he is indeed merciful to all who ask for his mercy. And therein is my hope–not absolute certainty … but genuine hope.

Ontologically and transformationally, we usually have no clue what we are doing to ourselves by continuing in our sins. It is those deep and hidden wounds that Jesus heals so that we are able to even approach loving one another. I must also pray that my enemy also be healed of his deep and hidden wounds because it is the combination of my wounds and his that make us enemies.

The Nature of Things and our Salvation

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.”

The nature of things is that people die - and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context.

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed.

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hitchens on Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is something of an intellectual celebrity in this country--always up for a good quote, a reliably outrageous guest on the talk and lecture circuit. My reading of Hitchens fell off markedly once he became such an unabashed cheerleader for American interventionism abroad.

[My Six Degrees of Separation with CH is this: During the summer of 2003, my son remained at college in Tennessee and, I am told, worked at the campus post office. He bunked with another student in the basement/workshop of one of their professors. Hitchens visited the campus to deliver a lecture. Before the night was out, he somehow found his way to my son's basement room, where he remained for some time. My son remembers that he either drunk, or well on his way to being so, and that he thumped cigarette ashes on anything and everything.]

With the release of God Is Not Great, Hitchens is now perhaps this country's most famous atheist. Less known in this country is his brother, Peter Hitchens, a noted columnist and author. In How I Found God and Peace with my Atheist Brother, Peter Hitchens writes of his slow road to faith, his sometimes prickly rivalry with his older brother, and their public and private debates. And, the younger Hitchens has himself just released The Rage against God, which chronicles his personal struggle out of atheism.

The fact that these two brothers, both intellectuals, would follow wildly divergent paths is not so rare, I suppose. But their story is a fascinating one, and I recommend Peter Hitchens' article. If nothing else, it introduced me to Rogier van der Weyden's remarkable The Last Judgement, partially shown here. A h/t to Milton.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Road to Emmaus

I have let most of my magazine and journal subscriptions lapse the last few years. Somehow, life continues on. But I am hanging on to an incredible little journal, the Road to Emmaus. I consider their articles almost essential reading for American Orthodox. We struggle to find our footing here. We fret about our self-consciousness. We debate as to what constitutes a natural, organic Orthodox culture. In that context, I know of no better place to start than Road to Emmaus.

Their latest issue certainly justifies the cost of subscription. The lead article is a lengthy and insightful interview with Alice C. Linsley, who should be familiar to anyone who frequents Orthodox blogdom. The following articles, including one on the Holy Wells of Wales, look promising as well. There are only 4 issues a year, but I guarantee that you will want to keep them.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Empty Mosques of London

Arab Orthodoxy links an interesting interview with a former Muslim preacher who recently converted to Orthodoxy in Great Britain. The story is a bit counter-intuitive, as one is so accustomed to reading of Europe's empty churches and creeping Islamization. From the perspective of the newly-illumined Daniel, a different story emerges. Not that Western European Christianity is not anemic--it is, but rather that the supposed Islamic community is far weaker in faith than generally understood.

Daniel was born in the U.K. and has traveled and studied throughout the Islamic world, engaging in Muslim missions in a number of countries. Oddly enough, he claims he first desired to study the New Testament while standing in front of the Kaaba in Mecca. Even with the strict prohibition against Christian literature in Saudi Arabia, Daniel maintains that with modern communications, "it is not difficult for those who are looking to find the Word of God." He was encouraged by the strength and conviction of Christians he talked with secretly in Saudi Arabia.

Daniel first encountered the Orthodox faith in Sarajevo. After waiting for a group of Imams to pass by, I went into the Serbian church and I felt the astonished look of the Serbian priest when I made the sign of the cross in the Orthodox way and I made a prostration onto the ground. Then I knew that Orthodoxy was, of all the Christian confessions, the closest to me.

Daniel maintains that the Christian West does not understand the true status of Islam.

Muslims of today are rather less religious than people in the Christian world believe. In Muslim countries, there are many mosques and they say prayers there five times a day, but besides on Friday no one goes to the mosque.

In Muslim countries, many people search for truth and it’s because of this that the Christian mission will grow....In general, many Muslims distance themselves from Islam and this is especially visible in Western countries. In Great Britain, many Muslims have converted to Christianity. In the Anglican Church, Muslims who have adopted Christianity are estimated at a hundred thousand people. Many of them are Pakistanis. They have their own Christian churches and are forced to hide because of the danger of reprisals from the Muslims.

Most Muslims won’t ever go to a mosque. The young people have effectively left Islam, even if they say that they’re still Muslims. is to the advantage of certain people to present Islam as an immense force. If one takes the list of mosques in Muslim publications, for example, in West London, we find that there are twenty mosques and much free space in each of these mosques, even though the number of people of Muslim origins in London is such that they would need even more mosques if a majority went....In general, believers are very rare in mosques and most are children who bring their parents. When they grow, they disappear. Christianity offers a free choice, thus it is much better adapted to life in a climate of tolerance, and Islam is unable to pass this test.

I was a part of the Islamic mission to the British and I can say that the number of converts is minimal. At Friday prayers in the center of London, the number of British Muslims at the mosque is maybe one percent. Outside of London, they don’t even reach this number. All the Muslims know the real number of converts to Islam.

When some Muslims say that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, London imams say that this growth is primarily because of the fertility rate, but there is no real mission. I do not doubt that Christianity is much stronger in terms of mission.

...there are very many [converts to Christian faith.] This happens without any publicity.

...many Muslims simply abandon their faith and become unbelievers. Unbelief is an illness common to all. Certain Muslims try to present atheism and the absence of religion as characteristics of Christian civilization, but Muslims themselves, even more than Christians, lose their faith in the Western world.

However, there is the very good example of Russia and the other Orthodox countries where the Church is growing, even with freedom of choice. I hope one day to go to Russia, but in the meantime I need to rebuild my life as an Orthodox Christian.

In Turkey, at least, one sees many near-empty mosques, even on Fridays. And I would not say that the situation was markedly different in Syria. And Daniel does have a point, even in Islamic countries, mosques are not chock-a-block in the way churches once were in Christian countries. But here is where I would draw a distinction: I do not believe that an empty mosque has the same meaning for Islam that empty churches do for the Christian faith. Empty churches speak ill for Christianity. Poor mosque attendance does not necessarily mean that its adherents are any less loyal to its teachings.

But maybe I am wrong. I would particularly like to hear from Muslims in regard to Daniel's claims.