Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Just A Reminder

Just a reminder for those still coming here, my new blog url is

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Site Up and Running!

Category:Wikipedians who use WordPressImage via Wikipedia
Koinonia is now being published using Wordpress!

God willing this will correct some of the problems we've been having with comments as well as give the blog a cleaner, more professional look. Thew new url is

All of the post have been moved over--I will be working on moving the comments over the coming weeks and months.

I will continue to maintain Koinonia on Blogspot for the foreseeable future. But please change your bookmarks and let folks know we are now are at a permanent site.

Thank you for all of your support here in the past and in the future!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Met. Jonah speaks to Anglican Church in North America

Metropolitan Jonah's speech at the recent Anglican gathering in Texas can be seen here: Metropolitan Jonah.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

h/t: Byzantine, Texas

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tommy Tiernan On the State of the Priesthood

While the language is a bit, how shall I put it, coarse at times, I think Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan makes a number of good points about the Eucharist and the priesthood. So putting aside the language, what do you think?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

h/t: The Rosemary Tree.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Orthodox Church Leader Rekindles Relationship with Anglicans

From the web site of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) comes the following new release:

The leader of the Orthodox Church in America has re-kindled the oldest ecumenical relationship in Christian history. Addressing delegates and attendees of the inaugural assembly of the Anglican Church in North America, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah, said, “I am seeking an ecumenical restoration by being here today. This is God’s call to us.” This significant gesture represents the possibility of full communion being exchanged between the churches.

Metropolitan Jonah represents the American branch of the Orthodox Church, a Christian denomination that has a long history of strong relationships with the Anglican Church. “We have to actualize that radical experience of union in Christ with one another,” Jonah said. Speaking for 45 minutes, the Metropolitan addressed the importance of looking past our differences in order to work together for mission. “Our unity transcends our particularity,” he said.

His Beatitude’s message was focused on unity but did not fail to address areas of contrasting beliefs between the two churches. Though united in upholding the authority of the Bible and uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Church and Anglican Church in North America have differing opinions on matters such as the ordination of women and other doctrinal issues. Despite this, the Metropolitan told the audience that “our arms are open wide.”

Following the speech, a representative of an Orthodox seminary, St. Vladimir’s, announced a cooperative effort with Nashotah House, an orthodox Anglican seminary, that would help further these ecumenical relationships and what Jonah described as a “new dialogue between the Orthodox Church in North America and the new Anglican province in North America.

I will post more about this next week after the transfer of this blog to its new host.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory 
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Friendship and The Church's Witness, part 4

And this brings me back to where I began, the mystery of friendship transformed.
Just as in the Liturgy bread and wine, “the fruit of the vine and work of human hands,” are transformed to become the Body and Blood of Christ, human friendships can also be transformed by God's grace into something of eternal beauty and importance. But, and again as with bread and wine, these friendships must be properly formed. They must be real and healthy friendships just as the Eucharist must begin as real bread and real wine. At it best priestly ministry grows out of life long friendships transformed by grace. So to, I would argue, with the internal life of the Church and our Christian witness in the public square. Anything less then ministry, and ecclesiastical life and evangelistic outreach ground in wholesome friendships slowly transformed by divine grace is unworthy of Christ and of the humanity He shares with us.
I have seen my own relationship with Christ and my friends transformed by their ordinations and my own.
If we do not love each other, how can the world believe we love it? And if we do not love the world for whom Christ suffered and died, how can we say that we are love Him or our true to ourselves?
But the real question now is this, how will we proceed?
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

Augustine's Origin of Species

Christianity Today's online edition has an interesting essay by on St Augustine's understanding of the Genesis story of creation by Alister McGrath, Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King's College, London.  McGrath is an Anglican priest who in addition to a doctorate in theology holds a D.Phil. from Oxford University in molecular biophysics.  Given the number of Orthodox Christians who hold to some form of creationism in opposition to the current scientific model of creation, I thought the article worth reading.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th of the publication of his On the Origin of Species. For some, such as Richard Dawkins, Darwinism has been elevated from a provisional scientific theory to a worldview—an outlook on reality that excludes God, firmly and permanently. Others have reacted strongly against the high priests of secularism. Atheism, they argue, simply uses such scientific theories as weapons in its protracted war against religion.
They also fear that biblical interpretation is simply being accommodated to fit contemporary scientific theories. Surely, they argue, the Creation narratives in Genesis are meant to be taken literally, as historical accounts of what actually happened. Isn't that what Christians have always done? Many evangelicals fear that innovators and modernizers are abandoning the long Christian tradition of faithful biblical exegesis. They say the church has always treated the Creation accounts as straightforward histories of how everything came into being. The authority and clarity of Scripture—themes that are rightly cherished by evangelicals—seem to be at stake.
These are important concerns, and the Darwin anniversaries invite us to look to church history to understand how our spiritual forebears dealt with similar issues. 
Read the rest here.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Friendship and The Church's Witness, part 3

A 6th century mosaic of :en:Jesus at Church Sa...Image via Wikipedia

Unfortunately the reciprocity that I mentioned yesterday is often been lacking in our witness. At times its absence has been embodied in our preference for a merely, or at least largely, ethnic parishes that is self-consciously closed to any who would are not Greek or Russian or at least are unwilling to be Hellenized or Russified.

More troubling to me however is a more recent phenomenon.

Largely as a result of an influx of converts to the Orthodox Church, we have seen clergy and parishes that are markedly sectarian and anti-intellectual. In this second case, for all that the community might be a buzz of liturgical activity (in English of course!) and adult education classes and sermons that quote (often out of context) the Father, we see people working zealously to exclude (and condemn) anything “Western.”

In both cases the kenotic character of out witness is sacrificed in order that we might preserve our “special” quality of being Greek or Russian or somehow above or outside the cultural currents and debates that afflict our Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and non-Christian fellow citizens. At the risk of offending, no matter how we are told by Old World hierarchs or monastic elders that it is so, no matter how many quotes we marshal from patristic or monastic authors “Turn on, tune out and drop in,” is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead.

His Beatitude's words about the episcopal ministry are, I think, applicable as well to Christians and even the American people as a whole. He says,
No bishop of the Orthodox Church works alone; each is sustained and aided by a structure, developed over centuries, and implemented in any given place in accordance with the realities of the life which God gives us. This structure has to be capable of existing in a very wide range of different circumstances, as evidenced by the history of the Church. There have been times of plenty and times of famine, times during which political systems have been friendly and supportive, and others when they have been downright hostile and injurious to everything for which the Light of the Gospel eternally shines. As these changes have occurred, the Church has found the need to make laws and rulings, to protect the integrity of the life of Church under all circumstances. These rulings, or Canons, are a treasure-house of experience, which enlivens and enlightens each new situation which the Church, in Her life, faces in every age.

Likewise, and within our own areas of concern, as Orthodox Christians and American citizens, we are all of us sustained social structures both ecclesiastical and cultural, and by personal, economic and political relationships, that have developed over centuries. We are none of us is alone not matter what the reigning ideology of radical individualism might say or what, because of our own emotional and spiritual wounds we might believe about ourselves. In one sense at least, we are all of us cultural and ecclesiastical free riders, and thank God for it since who among us could recreate centuries of human creativity?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Site News: Koinonia is Moving

Men at WorkImage by Red~Cyan via Flickr
I'm making the switch to Wordpress--I apologize for any inconvenience to you during the transition.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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Friendship and The Church's Witness, part 2

It is always tempting to reduce the proclamation of the Gospel to an exercise of power—spiritual, moral, social or political. More easily then I prefer to acknowledge, I find myself thinking that because what I am proclaiming is of lasting, even eternal, significance, I can be indifferent, and if need be hostile, to what is of only transitory or of passing value. After all, “The good,” as some have said, “is the enemy of the perfect.”

Well, no it isn't—the good is just that, good and just as we ought not to sacrifice what is best in our pursuit of a lesser good so too we ought not to sacrifice a lesser good in pursuit of a greater. When we do this—and this happens frequently in ways great and small—we commit an act of violence. The violence that afflicts the human soul and divides the human community arise precisely out of my willingness to sacrifice one good for another.

In the public square we often see this in the debates about abortion. A woman's freedom, her physical or emotional health are often allowed to trump her unborn child's right to life. All are good, but we justify an act of violence by our willingness to accept the sacrifice of some goods in the pursuit of others.

Or, to take another example, think about the pursuit of material progress. Yes, many of us are better off materially then any time in human history. And while there still are people in wretched poverty, as a whole humanity is better off. We have more to eat and we live longer and while these are both good things to be sure, they are good things that often come by our willingness to sacrifice other goods such as community or even the Gospel.

Christianity in the public square must, I think, proceed by way kenosis, a self-emptying witness patterned after the incarnation of the Son of God (see Philippians 2). His Beatitude place this kenotic witness at the heart of the vocation of the Orthodox Church of America. He goes on to argue that it is this self-emptying witness that is the way not only toward Orthodox unity in America, but also at the center of the Church's evangelistic witness and engagement of America and her people. In his own words: “It is the task of the Church in this country not only to offer the life of the Orthodox Church to the American people, but also to bring to the practice of Orthodoxy all that is best, all that is valiant, all that is most noble, in our American life.” As I have suggested before, at the heart of our witness to Christ and the Gospel is a reciprocity in which we embraces not only each other but the surrounding culture.

But this raises for me a question: How has our witness be characterized by kenotic reciprocity?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Friendship and The Church's Witness, part 1

Over the years any number of my classmates, acquaintances or friends (and now SHOCKINGLY! former students) be ordained as deacons, priests and (in two cases) bishops (one Catholic, one Orthodox). Often men I have known since we were together in college are now serving as clergy and it always catches me a bit of guard when I see them vested and standing before God the Father at Christ's Holy Altar.

The Gospel brought with it a great innovation, if I may use that word, in humanity's religious nature. Religion, the spiritual life, was transformed “downward” from something extraordinary to something ordinary. In Greece and other titular Orthodox countries, it was not uncommon to see the village priest at work during the week as a cobbler or at some other trade. His daily labor was not a political statement as was the “worker-priest” movement among Catholic priests in France during the 1950's. It was not, as with the worker-priests, at attempt to reconnect the daily life of the faithful with the Church, but rather simply a playing out of the life of the Church. While not universal, there is still an intimacy between clergy and faithful in the Orthodox Church that a Catholic friend of mine describes (appreciatively) as almost medieval.

The joy of the Church in America is that because of our relatively small numbers and poverty, we have retained, or maybe recaptured, that intimacy. Our parishes tend to be small and our clergy married. While small congregations are common in the Protestant world (both Mainline and Evangelical), these are by and large non-sacramental communities and they have (or so I imagine based on my conversations with my Protestant friends) a different ethos, or feel, about them.

My point here is not to compare Orthodox parochial life to Protestant, but rather is meant as an introduction to my thoughts about an address recently given by His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America. Given the title, “The 1917 Council and Tomos:
St Tikhon’s Vision Then and Now,” it is forgivable if American Christians (including I dare say, many Orthodox Christians) might dismiss His Beatitude's address as having little any application to their own situation.

But as is often the case in our spiritual life, on another, deeper level, I think there is much to in the talk not only for Orthodox Christians (who are after all the His Beatitude's audience) but also Christians in other traditions and indeed for women and men of good will who are interested in the place of religion in the public square.

We will tomorrow look at that talk and see what, if anything, it might say for the Church's life and witness.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Site News: Koinonia is Moving

HALLANDALE, FL - MARCH 20: Giovani Guzi who wo...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
After several months of inquiries with JS Kit, I have been unable to resolve my difficulties with the comments section. I will, therefore, being moving the site to in the next week or so. The url ( will God willing remain the same and I will cross post on the new site and here. If anyone who reads this blog has any suggestions as to other potential sites to host my blog--or if you would like to host my blog--please email me privately.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thinking about America

Some recent posts here have been devoted to my own thoughts about the American Experiment in relationship to the tradition of the Orthodox Church. I thought the following two videos might be of some use.

The first is from Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA-4th District) talking on the floor of the US House of Representatives about America's Judeo-Christian heritage. The second is country music singer Rodney Atkins' song "It's America."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Rep. Forbes, "Our Judeo-Christian Nation":

Rodney Atkins, "It's America":

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Faith, Reason and Science

Yesterday's back and forth between NeoChal and I on the morality of artificial contraception raises for me an interesting question. How did the Fathers of the Church regard what today we would see as the findings of empirical science? When, in other words, the Fathers appeal to the scientific understanding of their era, do the see this data as normative or only illustrative? In other words, is a moral positions being advanced based on the best possible science of the day or do the Fathers simply appeal to that science to elucidate an moral argument?

This is important not only for the question of the morality of artificial contraception, but also those areas of the Church's dogmatic tradition that touch on matters explored today by the natural, social and human sciences. Think about what it might me for a central dogma of the Christian faith, the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in the womb of the Mother of God.

In the ancient world, the best science of the day understood reproduction in a as analogous to agriculture. The male implanted a child in the female much as a farmer would sow seed in a field. The womb was merely the receptacle of the semen and the female was either fertile or not in much the same way that soil was capable of sustaining a crop. In this model of reproduction, the idea of the Virgin conceiving without a human father for the Christ Child isn't much of a stress. But is the dogma isn't dependent on the science, even if the science of the time offered humanity a way of entering more deeply into an appreciative understanding of the mystery.

Returning to the realm of moral theology, those who dismiss the patristic prohibitions against contraception, or the biblical texts cited in against homosexual activity because these positions are based in faulty science are (I think) following into much the same error as I sketched out above. We ought not to confuse, much less reduce, dogmatic or moral truths to our explanation of the truth.

Clearly this is much easier to say then to do in practice. We often don't come to realize that we have conflated dogma and its explanation until science (or philosophy) undergirding our understanding of the truth is challenged. Thinking about this a bit more, it seems to me that we must always be on our guard that we do not put our faith in the fruits of our own reason. Reason is, or at least, should be at the service of faith. Does this mean that faith trumps reason? I don't think so since faith needs reason even as reason needs faith.

Commenting on Wisdom 9.11 ("Wisdom knows all and understands all") the late Pope John Paul II argues in Fides et Ratio that what “is distinctive in the biblical text is the conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge (cognitio) of reason and the knowledge of faith.” The Pope continues by reminding his readers that the “world and all that happens within it, including history and the fate of peoples, are realities to be observed, analysed and assessed with all the resources of reason, but without faith ever being foreign to the process.” How is this possible? It is possible because “Faith intervenes not to abolish reason's autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action, but solely to bring the human being to understand that in these events it is the God of Israel who acts.” For this reason, he conclude, “the world and the events of history cannot be understood in depth without professing faith in the God who is at work in them. Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence” (#16).

What this means is that when the Fathers appealed to the best science of their day they were not confining the Mystery of Faith to the merely empirical, they were not arguing that faith was dependent upon human reason, much less scientific research. What were they doing then? I would argue that they were illuming science, putting it at the service of faith and, in so doing, making clear the necessarily limited character of not only science but human reason itself.

Often when people, in innocence and without a self-seeking motive, dismiss patristic moral teaching because it is based on faulty science, they do so because they fail to reckon with the provision nature of empirical, and especially experimental science. Even the best scientific research is only provisional and this not simply because ALL human knowledge limited, but because scientific research is predicated on the willingness of the scientist to critically re-evaluate and even challenge today what was yesterday's newly discovered truth. Ironically, even if we do so without malice, when we reject patristic moral (or dogmatic for that matter) teaching because it is based on faulty science we inadvertently wed ourselves to what itself will one day be judged as faulty or deficient science.

That said, however, I do not think we can go “backwards.” We can't come to the Fathers as if the intervening centuries and changes in human knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the natural world has not happened. To do this is to dishonor the work of the Fathers and their willingness to struggle with the great issues and thoughts of their day. More than that though, when I “flee” to the Fathers as if the intervening centuries had not happened, I reduce faith to merely history and strip it of its personal quality. How? By imagining that I can divest myself of my own time and culture and imagining—fantasizing really—that I am a Christian not on my own time, but of another.

But I here to tell you, this is the path of delusion, of prelast. I either stand before Christ as a man of my time, faithful not only to what has gone before, but also of what is here and now, or I do not stand before Him at all.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Lessons of Uniatism

While it is not a popular position for an Orthodox Christian, much less a priest, when I reflect on the history of uniatism—of those communities who left the Orthodox Church and joined themselves to Catholic Church—I am struck less by the machinations of Rome and more the failing of Orthodox Christians. Much of what we call uniatism is the fruit of our failure to be reconciled to each other, to support and encourage each other. How different would events then, and now, have unfolded if the actors had seen each other as the precious, irreplaceable gifts from God that each of us is to the other?

What concerns me as well is that even among those Orthodox Christians who left and joined themselves to Rome the same divisions still exist among Eastern Catholics. Forgive me for speaking so plainly, but I cannot help wonder at times at the tribalism that seems so deeply rooted in Eastern Christianity. Whether we are Orthodox or Catholic, we seem to prefer to be with “our people” rather than “those people.” This preference for our own comes at the expense of the Gospel and is in stark contrast to the beauty and wisdom I have found in Eastern Christianity.
The documents of the Second Vatican Council figured prominently in my own journey to the Orthodox Church. Not, as some might imagine, in a negative way, but in positive way. Reading the Council Fathers, looking at the reforms that they struggled to articulate and implement, was struck by the the prominence of the Christian East. To take but two examples, Vatican II's emphasizes the conciliar nature of the Church on the universal level and the celebration of the Eucharist in the vernacular on the parochial level. I could add to this the renewed emphasis on the Liturgy of the Hours (or the daily cycle of services) and the universal call to holiness as the foundation of the life of the Church. Granted these elements were not always embodied with equal success, but the attempt was made and I saw in the attempt a turn to the East that lead me naturally to the Byzantine Catholic Church and ultimately to the Orthodox Church.
The Church of Rome looked to renew herself by looking East to re-appropriate for her own life the importance of the local Church. I wonder if it isn't necessary for the Orthodox Church to look West and re-appropriate for ourselves the importance of the universal Church? Part of this process would , I think, require from us a sober reflection on the failures of uniatism not simple in the pejorative sense of the term, but also at the failure of Orthodox Christians then (and also now) to be true to our own ecclesiological vision. It is this failure I would suggest that failure that made reasonable the departure of some of us to Rome.
Let me be clear, I do not think that re-union with Rome is the answer. Yes, there must be reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and I hope for this in my lifetime.
But while reconciliation with the Church of Rome is essential, there is another, internal reconciliation that must happen as well. If it doesn't then I am afraid we will see deeper divisions not only within the Church but from the Church as well. Even during the relative calm of recent years some 60% of those who join the Orthodox Church as adults leave us. Add to this the young people who leave as adults and the number of adults whose participation in the life of the Church is nominal at best, and the need for renewal and reconciliation on all levels of the Church becomes painful obvious.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Byzantine Politics or Holiness? The Future of the Church in America

A classmate in graduate school once told me that (and I'm quoting), “You are the most cynical man I have ever met.” In response I told him “I am only cynical if I'm wrong; if I'm right you're naive.” (His response to me was, “See!”)

Recent comments on one of my posts (see here) put me in mind of that exchange some 20 years ago.

In response to my query as to what he meant by “ Byzantine politics,” a reader (Peter) offers a number of observations that I am tempted to dismiss as cynical rather than face the possibility that they are true. He writes:

The EP never, and I mean NEVER picks a fight it cannot win. It has survived in a hostile land since 1453. It has plans within plans, and the EP's statement made at Holy Cross was made for a very specific purpose - to assert the Phanar's power over the Orthodox American flock. The OCA cannot afford to underestimate its strength as others have in the past (i.e. former Archbishop Spyridon, the OCL, GOAL, etc.) and have lost and are now simply voices in the wilderness.

Referring back to a speech given at Holy Cross School of Theology by a representative of the Ecumenical Throne, Peter argues that “The EP with that statement at Holy Cross just smoked out Metropolitan Jonas [sic], tested his resolve and now with Met. Jonas' [sic] apology saw him cave in. The EP just won the battle and most people don't realize it.” He offers then what is to my mind a frightening conclusion:

While everybody is arguing about this little war of word the EP has been working in Australia, Britain, Eastern Europe and elsewhere shoring up his power. Once this is done you will have a juggernaut that will be coming towards the OCA and will destroy it canonically. . . . Machinationsare now in place that could either canonically destroy the OCA or force it to join with the Greek Archdiocese.

My first thought in reading this was simply to dismiss the argument being made. To even have such thoughts is horrifying to me. But if I have learned anything as a priest it is to resist my own desire to minimize sin, my own or others, no matter how much I want to do so.

I have no idea whether or not Peter's analysis is correct and I hope to God that it is wrong. At the same time I worry about the easy comfort that comes from dismissing information I don't like or that makes me uncomfortable. If the above scenario is correct—and I have seen no evidence that it is—then there are those in the Church who are doing the Devil's work for him.

While I think that a united American Orthodox Church is essential and (more importantly) God's will for His Church, I also believe that unity can only come by way ofreconciliation.In the Old Testament the Jewish People were divided into the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel because they sinned against God. Division, whether from the Church or within the Church, is always and everywhere a consequence of human sinfulness. We can see the symptoms of our sinfulness not simply in heresies and schisms but in the acceptance of our parallel ecclesiastical lives across jurisdictions and within our dioceses and parishes.

The Orthodox Church is coming quickly to a moment of crisis. The scandals in the United State and in the “Old World” have highlighted our own spiritual anemia. Yes part of our weakness is the result of persecution by the Soviet government and Islam. But as events in America suggest that there is only so much blame we can shift those outside the Church.

Let me conclude with what I fear might be taken as a polemic comment. I'm not being polemical, but I do think we have overlooked something that my wife pointed out to me.

The saints of the American Orthodox Church, the saints that God has raised up in and for North America and the whole Church share two qualities. One they were, missionaries, evangelists and (with a few exceptions) monastics. And second they were under the omophorion of the Church of Russia. Unless this history is acknowledge and appreciated, there will be no real unity in America. God has shown His Church in America the way to unity and it is up to take that road not out of ethnic chauvinism but in gratitude to the work of God in America.

The real competition for leadership of the Church in America, and world wide, is not one that can, or should, be resolved through canonically arguments. Yes the canons have their place. But what is need is sanctity. The saints of North America have given us the path that God would have His Church here in America travel. We cannot be a monastic Church or an evangelistic Church; we must be both. And we can only be one if we are also the other.

Leadership in the Church must not to be based in sterile canonical arguments not but in the witness of holiness. For all that it might be canonically sound, our witness is not true if it is predicated on an attempt to usurp the role of other Churches. For us as Orthodox Christians in American this means, as Metropolitan Jonah has said, that we be shining examples of fidelity to the traditions of the Churches of the “Old World,” of the whole Church. We must be men and women known for love of the saints (both in the body and out of the body).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some Songs for Saturday

Some music to brighten your Saturday.  First up a flash mob pays their respect to some bad music and some very bad pants:

h/t: One of the funnest and most insightful bloggers frrom the Republic of Texas Rachel Lucas.

Next up, an amazing new performance group, Voca People:

h/t: Brian Hollar from a great economics blog, Thinking on the Margin.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Freedom and the Church's American Exile

Both on the AOI blog and my own, my post, “Pentecost, Lincoln and the American Experiment,” brought some very interesting and thought provoking comments. Your thoughts have helped me think a bit more deeply about the relationship between the Tradition of the Orthodox Church and the American Experiment. For this I thank you all.

And even more importantly, your words were very much in mind as I read Michael Baxter recent review of American Babylon: Notes of A Christian in Exile, by the late Fr Richard John Neuhaus.

As is no doubt clear from what I wrote, I do not see Orthodoxy and the American Experiment as necessarily in opposition to each other. Or maybe it might be more accurate to say, that the differences between Orthodoxy and America are certainly no wider or deeper than what one would expect between that between God and Caesar, between the City of God which is to come and the City of Man which is here and now.
Be that as it may, however, my interest in political philosophy is motivated by the intuition that—for better and worse—the City of Man conditions the pastoral situation of the Church until the Kingdom which is to come.

I have not yet had the opportunity to read Neuhaus's last book. Having been a faithful reader of First Things and a follower of the work of its parent organization, The Institute for Religion in Public Life, I have good sense of the argument that he is likely to make and so I was interested to read Baxter's review in the National Catholic Reporter (a publication together with others which, as Baxter puts it, has “bore the brunt of [Neuhaus's] sardonic, scathing, at times unfair attacks”). Together with the work of John Courtney Murray, Neuhaus (and again this probably does not come as much of a surprise) has always served as a touchstone for my own thinking about the inter-relationship and inter-dependence of Church and State in the American context. Far from being merely my own idiosyncratic view, I would argue that this inter-dependence of Church and State is part of the teaching of the Orthodox Church. We can see this, for example, in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

In and through the Liturgy we join ourselves to Christ Who offers Himself as a sacrifice to God the Father. And we do so not with but also on behalf of the “forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith,” the Most Holy Theotokos, “Saint John the prophet, forerunner, and baptist; . . . the holy glorious and most honorable Apostles . . . ; and for all Your saints, through whose supplications,” we ask God to bless us.

And just as in the Liturgy we intercede on behalf of “all Orthodox bishops who rightly teach the word of Your truth, all presbyters, all deacons in the service of Christ, and every one in holy orders” and acknowledge our dependence on their faith, holy prayers and service, we likewise stand before God and intercede on behalf of “all those in public service.” We ask God to “permit them, . . . to serve and govern in peace” so that “through the faithful conduct of their duties” in the civil realm, “we [the Church] may live peaceful and serene lives in all piety and holiness.”

Owning to her conciliar nature, the different orders in the Church each have their own areas of authority and concomitant competency. Modeled on the Most Holy Trinity, in the Church authority and competency are intrinsically personal and reflect not only the unique role of the different orders of the Church but also the personal vocation of each Christian. As such these differences ought not be opposed to each other; nor can one order advance at the expense of the others anymore than one person can (or should) advance at the unjust expense of another. It is rather the case that each progresses only with and through the other orders of the Church. To borrow from Benjamin Franklin in a not wholly different context, “We all hang together or we all hang separately.”

In like fashion while the authority of Church and State are different, difference need not mean opposition even if (I would argue) the State is not a Christian state but (as in the case of America) a secular one. Back now to Baxter's review.
Nuehaus's American Babylon, writes Baxter, “is about being Christian in the United States. The title is an allusion to the Babylonian exile after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.” While in exile “God, through the prophet, called upon the Israelites there to build houses and plant gardens, to make families and multiply.” I imagine that to an exiled people who understandable viewed their overlords, as well, their overloads and enemy, God command “to 'seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare' (Jeremiah 29:4-8)” came as something of a surprise. God counsels captives not simply to forgive but to actively cooperation, support and even enrich their captors. According to Neuhaus both the “New Testament and patristic authors” understood this to mean two different, but related things.

First, “Christians, in whatever land they live, await their return from exile, not an exile from the earthly Jerusalem however, but from the heavenly Jerusalem.” As a result (and I must confess, Orthodox Christians have not always been faithful on this point), for those who follow Jesus Christ “every nation is Babylon.” Second, just as every land is Babylon, it is our duty in every land “to go along with the customs and seek the welfare of the city.” We must not simply suffer America, we must enrich her as I said earlier.

But, as Neuhaus reminds us, “there is a limit to . . . going along.” Again in Baxter's summary: “Like the Old Testament heroes, Christians are not to worship false gods or accommodate themselves to the ways of the city when it involves betraying their faith. Thus there is a tension or dialectic for Christians between their ultimate allegiance to God and their political allegiances, which are “penultimate.”

Acknowledging and honoring this tension is often easier in theory than practice but for that it is important not only for Christians but also all men and women of good will that we take on the ascesis of doing so practically and not only theoretically. If we don't then we are prone to two extremes that must be undermine the proper function of the State (and for that matter the Church). We must not succumb to either to “the twin dangers of direct governmental control of religion, as in a theocracy, and of privatizing religion, as in the militant secularism of many European governments since the French Revolution.” And again, as Orthodox Christians we have (I think) inadvertently helped set the stage for the latter by our unwise embrace of (or in America, nostalgia for) the former.

In like manner, much of the tension we see in the American Orthodox Church reflects I think our heretofore unwillingness, or at least inability, to grapple with the interdependence of Church and the American Experiment in a way that avoids on the one hand our nostalgia for a lost theocracy and our dread of oppression under a militantly secular (or Islamic) state on the other. Digging deeper I think part of the lesson we might draw from the Church's new American context is that just as our “allegiance to America is [as Neuhaus argues] provisional, not eschatological, limited yet substantial and real,” so too our allegiance to the other cultural and social settings and forms of government in which the Church found herself must be also “provisional, not eschatological, limited yet substantial and real.”

No matter how much these other cultural and social settings or forms of government might be rooted in Holy Tradition, and indeed even served to structure public life (for example) around the liturgical tradition of the Church they are not as such Christian. Yes, as I said in my earlier post, they have become carriers of the Eternal but they do so in a way that does not undo their character as limited and limiting. And how could they not remain finite? Their ontological and historical contingency is part and parcel of their character as human artifacts and we dishonor the past not only when we make it less than it is, but also more.

There are to be sure weaknesses in the American Experiment. Too easily does liberty become license; freedom of religion become indifference (and even hostility) to religion; and for more and more Americans, the pursuit of happiness become the mere search for pleasure and profit rather than the cultivation of the virtues essential for personal and civic excellence. Yes the media and secular forms of education have their role to play in all this. But first and foremost the cultural excesses that plague us reflect the failure of the Church to take seriously our responsibilities. As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, (1990) in their book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, put the matter, “All Christian ethics are social ethics because all our ethics presuppose a social, communal, political starting point—the church.” And is is through her “teaching, support, sacrifice, worship and commitment of the church, utterly ordinary people are enabled to do some rather extraordinary, even heroic acts, not on the basis of their own gifts and abilities, but rather by having a community capable of sustaining Christian virtue. The church enables us to be better people than we could have been if left to our own devices.” (p. 81)

We have, I fear, too often contented ourselves (as Orthodox Christians and American) to be anything but women and men of extraordinary and heroic virtue. And we have not simply settled for leaders (religious and political) who are themselves be no better than we, we have actively pursued this goal and punished them when they dared to see their service as requiring of them that they “be better people” than they would “have been if left” to themselves.

There is no question in my mind that in planting the Church here in America God has challenged us to a kenosis and martyrdom as real, if less bloody, as any the Church faced under Caesar, Islam or Communism. What we now face is the terrible temptation of our own freedom. Who will I become if I can become anyone I want to be? Who do I want to be?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Pentecost, Lincoln and the American Experiment

One of the things that interests me a great deal is the relationship between the Tradition of the Orthodox Church and the founding political philosophy of the American experiment. At the risk of appearing overly critical, or even dismissive, I think the failure of Orthodoxy in America is our not having engaged theologically and critically the American experiment on its own terms. Instead we have been willing to use America without necessarily seeing ourselves as obligated to contribute anything to her.
In this the Church has allowed herself to become merely one interest group among others. The Orthodox Church has not engaged the American experiment as yeast in the dough. We have contented ourselves instead merely to fit within the broad, and decadent, framework of modern identify politics.
This failure is more than simply a matter of our presenting ourselves as an ethnic, albeit religiously themed community. Even when the religious character of the Church is focal, it is often the religion of mere morality.  Not without cause have some complained that some in the Orthodox Church seem to want to put the Church's patrimony at the service of the political and social agenda of the Religious Right.
These criticism I think are rather beside the point however. 
The moral tradition of the Church is, in the main, no different then the classical moral teaching of Western Christianity. I suspect the attraction of some Orthodox Christians to the Religious Right reflects more a love of this shared tradition and a real concern for the moral health of American society than a grab for power as such.  Further I suspect that those Orthodox who criticize their brethren's  involvement in conservative politics do so from a desire to see the Church support (if only passively) their own more left leaning politics. But whether from the moral, cultural or political, right or left these criticism are, to repeat myself, are different then my own concern.
The American experiment is I think best expressed by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. Reflecting on the horror of the war tearing at the fabric of the country, President Lincoln looks back to the historical and philosophical founding of the Nation: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The challenge facing the United States in Lincoln's time (and ours) was not war per se, but whether the American "nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Reading over the years the work of the late Catholic theologian and political philosopher John Courtney Murray, I have come more and more to appreciate the wisdom of Lincoln's words at Gettysburg. Unlike other countries that are united by land or blood, a shared culture or language, America and Americans are, or should be anyway, united by an idea, the fundamental equality of all human beings.
While it has not always done so well, or even at all, at its best what the American political experiment asks of us is not to surrender our language or culture. Rather as a nation of immigrants, we ask each other to put the riches of our respective cultural and ethnic heritages at the service of the common social good. Granted in our short history there are times when we have honored this idea more in words than deeds. But even when honored in the breech, if there is a unique American culture or mindset it is that enduring faith in the equality of all human beings and the centrality of committing ourselves to the common good of all.
Contrary to her critics harsh words our failure to be faithful to our own ideals is to be expected. It is to be expected not simply because we are sinners, but and again as Lincoln points out at Gettysburg, because the American experiment is always an unfinished work. Whether in times or war or peace, it remains for each generation to answer in the affirmative Lincoln's challenge to his listeners on that not so long ago battlefield:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
So what does this have to do with the Orthodox Church? Two things I think.
First, internally, if the Church is to be a real, indigent Orthodox Church and not simply a pale copy of the Church in Greece or Russia, we need to take seriously the challenge of America that in the neither the City of Man nor the City of God do we have to lay aside language or (to the degree it does not contradict the Gospel anyway) our culture. Let me go further. 
On Pentecost Sunday I reminded my own community that the work of salvation while it is directed at human beings certainly.  Salvation also, however, results in the deification of culture. Just as Greek culture was Christianized and became the carrier of Eternal truth without lossin of its own character as either Greek (or so ontologically and historically contingent) so too American culture can be Christianized, become itself a means of communicating what is Eternal in and through the contingent and limited structures of culture and language.
Part and parcel of the Christianization of American culture is I think demonstrating, and this speaks to my second point, that E pluribus unum is not simply a political motto. It is also at the heart of all human community. More than that, it is also at the heart of Church. 
The Holy Spirit gives all things: makes prophecies flow, perfects priests, taught the unlettered wisdom, revealed fishermen to be theologians, welds together the whole institution of the Church. Consubstantial and equal in majesty with the Father and the Son, our Advocate, glory to you.
The Church is a pneumatic community of unity and diversity not in opposition but harmony. So too while at it best it falls short of this, this is what America aspires to be. The Church offers America a glimpse not only of  her own biblical foundations but the Eucharist which is both a reminder of that towards which America aspires and the standard against which she must also evaluate her own actions, domestic and foreign.
The American Experiment is for me as an Orthodox Christian a real, if imperfect, icon of the Eucharist. Or to borrow from Hebrews, if the Eucharist is an image of the Kingdom which is to come then American Experiment, seen in light of the Eucharist image, is a shadow of the image. And it is as a shadow, as something which points beyond itself to the image, even as the image points beyond itself to the Reality which is to come (see Hebrews 10.1) that Orthodox Christians can and should not only engage but wholehearted love and support the American Experiment.
If we have as Orthodox Christians have been seduced by the identity politics that has come to so mark  contemporary American political discourse on both the left and the right, this doesn't mean that we have to remain bound by our shared failure. Rather we can, if we only decide to do so, return not only to ourselves but return in a way that we can serve the common good of both the City of God and the City of Man.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Sunday Sermon?

Hmmm, tomorrow is Pentecost after all, I wonder, maybe I should preach a bit more like this? Yeah, maybe, well see.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

h/t: Fr Philip Powell, OP at Hanc Aquam!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Urban Parish Summit, July 16-17, St Theodosius Cathedral, Cleveland OH

The OCA Diocese of the Midwest will hold an Urban Parish Summit on July 16-17 at St Theodosius Cathedral in Cleveland OH. The summit will gather clergy and lay representatives from 17 urban parishes to discuss the possibilities for parish growth and spiritual renewal. My parish is hoping to send at least three lay representatives. I'll be attending as well and will lead a workshop on the second day of the conference. My topic will be the importance of storytelling in parish renewal. 

More information about the summit is available here.

God willing, and if you are able, do consider attending the Urban Parish Summit this July.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Go Vote!

Voting for the Eastern Christian New Media Awards is now open.  This blog has been nominated in two categories, best individual blog and best theology blog.  So on the link and go vote for your favorite Eastern Christian blogs.  Vote here!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, June 01, 2009

And Now Back to Condemns, Sex, the Human Person and Culture

When I think of safer sex and condom education and the anthropology that it informs it, I am struck by the superficiality of its vision of the human. It is not unlike a toddler's temper tantrum; if only I am loud enough, angry enough, assertive enough, I can get what I want. Sadly, and as anyone who has seen a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, if the tantrum is allowed to progress, it quickly becomes an end in itself; self-assertion quickly becomes self-destruction; rage at others and frustration at their lack of submission to my will, quickly becomes terror at my own rage and a growing sense of my own impotence to accomplish my own desires.

So what then should be done?

The great tragedy of human sinfulness, of my sinfulness, is that I am not simply indifferent to my own humanity and yours, but am actively hostile to it. What this means is that I invest immense amounts of energy in avoiding my dependence upon God and neighbor for my self-discover, self-expression and self-fulfillment. I express this in one of two ways.

First, and this has be the main focus of these posts to this point, I simply refuse to acknowledge my dependence. Instead of humble openness and patience that acknowledges the foundational role of your hospitable for my self-fulfillment, I proceed autarkically; I do not receive my life with gratitude but seek to create my own life through the imposition of my own will upon not only the world of persons, events and things but also myself. Life, in this vision, becomes a project of my own ego, a quest for power and control that eventually comes to encapsulate not only the world around me but me as well. I become, in effect, my own project. Ironically, to be even temporarily realized control requires that I narrow the parameters of my life until, and again in parody of the Gospel, my life becomes “one thing,” be that one thing professional success, material wealth or sexual desire.

Compare this to Sören Kierkegaard's description of purity of heart:

Father in heaven! What is a man without Thee! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee! What is all his striving, could it even encompass a world, but a half-finished work if he does not know Thee: Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all! So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing.

For the Christian tradition, and I suspect for most traditional societies that stress the communal nature of the human, willing one thing is not reductionistic, but transcendent. Insofar as safer sex and condom education limits its concerns to the biology and mechanics of sexual intercourse, it offers only a “half-finished work.” And this work, Kierkegaard reminds us, remains opaque, to the degree that our vision remains limited to the specific work itself.

But there is another way that I can be hostile to my own dependence on God. If in the former, I try and impose myself on myself, in this second case, I simply refuse to undertake the work of self-discover and self-expression. (As an aside, this was part of what I was getting at in a series of posts on the psychological foundations of jurisdictionalism.) Instead, I limit myself to simply maintaining the forms of my tradition but never allow those forms to challenge me to self-knowledge and self-expression in any depth.

In either case, however, what we see is an abdication of chastity or a life that is respectful of self and others. Rather than respect, I live a life that sees self and others in purely, or at least largely, instrumental terms, as I try and shape them and reality to my own, increasingly encapsulated will.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, May 29, 2009

Pansexualism: “Do You Think I'm Sexy?”

We see nowhere see the efficiency and popularity of autarky then in matter of human sexuality. Far from being the obsession of the right wing ideologues, unfettered sexual expression has become the rallying cry of contemporary secular society. As Craig Carter, who teaches theology and ethics at Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto and who serves as "Theologian in Residence" at Westney Heights Baptist Church, has written,
Pansexualism is the real ideology driving the sexual revolution. It is the doctrine that sexual liberation means that all should have sex with all at will. It holds up promiscuity and the unisex ideal as its goods. True sexual liberation can only occur when sexual pleasure has been totally detached from the bonds of family life and procreation. Pansexualism seeks to sever the connection between parents and children because that tie stands in the way of complete sexual liberation for the autonomous individual. Parenting prevents individuals from satisfying their hormonally driven desires with whomever they feel like doing it with at any given moment. So the family must die. It is an obstacle to individual fulfillment; it is inherently "oppressive." (h/t: Dr Edward Green)
It is worth noting, if only in passing, that the gods of the Ancient Near East, the gods that tempted Israel to deny God and her own identity, where in the main fertility gods who worship embraced prostitution ( Ishtar) and infant sacrifice ( Moloch). While some contemporary scholarship questions the existence of sacred prostitution, for example, the association between sex and apostasy is unquestioned in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament (see for example, Deuteronomy 23:17-18 and Hosea 4:14 and their parallels).
Pansexualism stands in stark contrast to the Christian (and not merely Christian) notion that human greatness, human transcendence is dependent upon an act of mutual hospitality and service. For me, this requires that I cultivate in myself the virtue of humility, that is an appreciative awareness and acceptance of my dependence on your hospitality and the hospitality of God.
More tomorrow.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Gift Given to be Received

While sexual ethics are not, by any means, the whole of moral concern, they have become so for contemporary culture. Even as other areas of human life come more and more under societal, and even governmental, control, human sexuality seems to be something of a cultural free zone. Where political power is brought to bear at all it is in the service of imposing of sexual freedom grounded in individualistic desire. Contraception, abortion, divorce, to name only three, are all in the service of undoing and even defiling the natural symbolic connection between human sexuality and community. No longer do we see society embodied in procreation. Instead of new life as a gift from a gracious God and the fruit of conjugal love between man and a woman, we come to see procreation more and more as the expression of our own mastery over the human bodies. No longer is a child a gift given to us or not as God (or the gods) decide.

Shorn of gratitude and its connection to what is beyond the person, sexuality has become an instrument of mere self-expression. Culturally, human sexuality no longer reminds us that even in our most intimate desires and moments, we are meant for something larger than ourselves or even each other. Now it seems, that which is larger, that which is shared, has come to serve intimate human desires and moments. But in this service, what is larger is made smaller and cheaper.

Where in traditional societies, immanence and transcendence existed in an ordered partnership (hierarchy) each with its own place and integrity relative to the other, we now see a new hierarchy being proposed in which transcendence is to serve immanence. In doing so, however, transcendence has ceased to what orders human affairs and so both have ceased to be themselves. Returning to what I said above, in this submission of the transcendent to the immanent, the communal to the individual, I see a parody of the Incarnation.

St Paul says of the Incarnate Son,

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)

The self-emptying (kenosis) of the Son is in the service of human transcendence, deification (theosis) in the traditional language of the Christian East. Or, to borrow from Hasidic spirituality, my self-contraction is always in the service of your self-expression; I make myself small so that you can grow larger.

Alas, where have now come to a place culturally (and safer sex and condom education are illustrative of this) where we have lose sight of the anthropological fact that I do not grow except by the gift of another's self-limitation. It is “ your” kenosis that makes possible “my” transcendence. And the first step of that transcendence is gratitude for the great gift of your self-limitation.

This all reflects an anthropological vision that is greatly at odds with contemporary understandings of the person. In place of an anthropology of mutual kenotic self-limitation as the means of our shared self-discover and self-expression, contemporary secular culture offers an autarkic anthropology that sees the self-discovery and self-expression of others (whether human or divine) as obstacles to my will. What you have, you have taken from me and so my self-realization must, necessarily, proceed along the path of your destruction or at least submission to my control.

While traditional (and Christian) societies often fail to realize the anthropological vision I have outlined, secular autarky has proven itself to be deadly efficient and terrifying popular in embodying its own anthropology.

More tomorrow.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Site News

Looking at the stats, I see that Koinonia has this week broken 200 subscribers1 Thank you to all of you who take the time to read here. And a special thank you to those who have put up with the buggy comment system. God willing, that will be corrected in the next few days.

Recently my wife and I got Iphones--a great product and well worth the cost if you (as we do) travel a great deal. But Koinonia, whatever might be its other virtues, is not configured for those who read it on smartphones. Or should I say, WAS not configured for smartphones.

Today I launched a trial, mobile, version of this blog for those of you would read on the fly. Your smartphone should automatically re-direct you to the slimmed down, tiny screen friendly verision. Alternatively, you can point your browser here:

Again, thank you everyone for your support and encouragement.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Conflicting Views of Self-Interest

For radically individualist, for those who hold to what Robert Bellah and his colleagues in Habits of the Heart call ontological individualism, the traditional notion of community is at once both attractive and frightening. A traditional life is attractive in that it offers an end to loneliness, to a life of isolation in which the person is left to his or her own ever diminishing physical and spiritual resources. But a traditional life is also frightening in that admission to such a life is never something I can simply will; I cannot in the strict sense choose this life, I can only be admitted by the invitation of a hospitable other. The love embodied by a traditional society is not mine. Rather life in as a member of a community is, in the strict sense, outside of my control, it a gift that is first and freely given and only then before can I receive it.

And, once received, it limits my autarkic mode of self-presence and self-expression. Contemporary culture is an autarky predicated as it is on an (illusory) ontology of self-sufficiency; traditional societies, for all their differences in religion and even morality, are based on an ontology of what Western Medieval philosophers describe as primary and secondary contingency, on our radical dependence on God and our proximate dependence upon humanity.

Self-discover and self-expression (including in the sexual dimension) remains an essential developmental goal for the human person in both contemporary and traditional societies. And, and again in both, these are done not simply within social structures but with others.

Where contemporary secular culture deviates, however, is on the goal, or teleos, of human self-discovery and expression. In the autarky that is secular culture, human development is directed toward a self-sufficiency that beings and ends in the individual while in traditional societies, our self-sufficiency is in the service of the community and indeed remains inchoate if it is not in the hospitable and gracious service of the community.

Safer sex and condom education, to return to where I began, seem to me to appeal (rightly I think) to self-interest. We hear similar appeals to self-interest in the Scriptures. For example, in Jeremiah, God instructs His prophet:

"Now you shall say to this people, 'Thus says the LORD: "Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes out and defects to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he shall live, and his life shall be as a prize to him. For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good," says the LORD. "It shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire."' (21.8-10)

But where traditional forms of self-interest and expression, to repeat what I said above, are grounded in and return to an appreciative and obedient service of the community, contemporary appeals to self-interest are typically set in opposition to the community. No where is this difference as clearly seen then in matters of sexual ethics.

More tomorrow.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Biology Isn't Destiny But It Isn't Optional Either

A human being is not, as I said yesterday, a being-in-itself but rather a being-with-others, that is to say a social being.

The social nature of the human person is to say rather a bit more that the I simple fact that the human person is a member of something called the the human community in general sense. Bracketing for a moment ontological considerations, it is to say that our being arises not simply out out of a concrete sexual community constituted by a particular man and a particular woman, that is our mother and father.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas reminds us with his usual poetry, that this community is primordially an ethical community. The fecundity of the human is not merely biological, he observes, but moral; a woman becomes a mother through an act of hospitality by which she welcomes into her the intimacy of her own body a stranger whose presence will necessarily reconstitute her life transforming her from a biological to a moral agent.

In most traditional societies, and especially within the Christian community, this biological fecundity is a natural symbol for humanity. To be human is to be a being whose existence transcends the brute givenness of biology and really that whole order described with such precision by the empirical natural sciences. Before all else, I am a being whose being comes to from outside and as a gift from a hospitable other. And I, in turn, become most full myself when (in imitation of my mother) I embody concretely my own willingness not to simply to welcome the stranger into my life, but to allow my life to be reformed and transformed by the presence of the stranger.

For both the pious Jew and the committed Christian, that stranger is not simply a human other but the divine Other. I become who I am by an act of hospitality and care not only for strangers, but the Stranger, Who is God. While I cannot explicate it fully here, it can be argued that the human community as a whole is fundamentally feminine and that while women are by nature maternal, men are only analogically paternal.

Certainly cultural factors play a large role in the development of gender, gender roles as social constructs are themselves grounded in the sexual differences of male and female. The gender roles of a given society may more or less accurately reflect these biological difference, even as they may revere they respect these differences. But it seems to me that we can neither deny the real biological difference between male and female nor can we rid ourselves of gender roles for men and women. The denial of these biological and social differences requires that an anthropological vision that is at odds with most traditional cultures and especially with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Within the Christian tradition specifically, Levinas' analysis of human fecundity and the maternal hospitality of all human beings leads quickly and directly to a consideration of the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ. Human sexuality and reproduction point beyond themselves to a communion that is both ground in the Most Holy Trinity and which embraces the whole created order.

Even if other traditional societies are not themselves predicated on faith in Jesus Christ, there is (or so it seems to me) these societies share a “family” resemblance with the radically communalism that is at the anthropological heart of the Christian tradition. While not universal, nevertheless the communalism of traditional societies stands in stark contrast to the radical individualism and physical reductionism that has come to evermore characterize contemporary Western culture in both North America and Europe.

More tomorrow.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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