Does the condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’ contradict Chalcedon?

21 10 2014

Justinian, San Vitale, Ravenna

One of the events of import when looking into Leo the Great’s legacy is the Three Chapters Controversy of the sixth century. Many western bishops and clerics — as well as some of the East — felt that an edict of Justinian condemning ‘Three Chapters’ (544), and the Second Council of Constantinople (553) that approved this edict, undid the work of the Council of Chalcedon (451). As a result, besides writing texts In Defence of the Three Chapters, the opponents of the condemnation put together collections of texts and acts of the Council of Chalcedon to better present their opposition to Justinian (who was likely to depose and exile you if you resisted).

But what are the Three Chapters, and do they contravene the Council of Chalcedon?

The Three Chapters first emerge in an edict of Justinian’s in 544. They are part of his overtures to the Miaphysite/conservative Cyrillian contingent in the eastern Church that was at this time coalescing into its own ecclesial structure in opposition to the imperial church, especially in what will become the Syrian Orthodox Church (traditionally ‘Jacobite’ due to the tireless efforts of one of its founding bishops, Jacob Baradaeus) and the Coptic Orthodox Church.*

I have not as yet read the text of the original edict, but in one of his letters to dissenters, Justinian summarised the contents of the Three condemned Chapters:

If anyone defends Theodore [of Mopsuestia], or the letter allegedly written by Ibas [of Edessa], or the writings of Theodoret [of Cyrrhus] which set forth teachings contrary to the orthodox faith, he is numbered with the heretics and he sets himself outside the catholic faith whose head is the only-begotten Son of God, our Lord and God Jesus Christ. (A Letter on the Three Chapters, trans. K P Wesche, On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian, p. 158)

How might this potentially abrogate Chalcedon? Well, the chapter against Theodore of Mopsuestia won’t. It is the chapters against Theodoret and Ibas that pose the problem for most — especially, it seems, against Ibas.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus was a tireless critic of Cyril of Alexandria, and wrote a number of dogmatic works, including refutations of Cyrils anti-Nestorian anathemas — anathemas considered essential to orthodoxy in the mid-sixth-century East, whether Miaphysite or Chalcedonian. In fact, the interpretation of Chalcedon produced by the above-quoted letter of Justinian is that Chalcedon approves of Cyril’s anathemas.

Theodoret’s anti-Cyrillian activities got him deposed at the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 — the council Leo dubbed a latrocinium, a den of robbers, in a letter to the Empress Pulcheria. At Chalcedon in 451, the actions of Second Ephesus were undone, including the condemnation of Theodoret on the condition that he give assent to the Tome of Leo as orthodoxy and condemn Nestorius. These things he did; there is a chance that he is one of the few people in antiquity who actually changed his mind.

Since Theodoret was reconciled to the Church at Chalcedon and reinstated as Bishop of Cyrrhus, it struck the supporters of the Three Chapters that a vague condemnation of his anti-Cyrillian writings was dangerously close to contravening Chalcedon.

Ibas of Edessa, on the other hand, appeared at Second Ephesus after having already been tried for heresy, allegedly having said, ‘I do not envy Christ becoming God; what he is, so can I be.’ He was also condemned for having written a letter to ‘Mari’ (which means ‘My Lord’), a Persian; Richard Price reckons that Ibas’ letter was written after 433 when the Antiochene party was reconciled to Cyril of Alexandria to help remove the sting. This letter makes quite clear that before 433, Ibas considered Cyril a heretic.

Ibas’ letter to ‘Mari’ was read out at the Council of Chalcedon as part of the acts of Second Ephesus during Ibas’ reconciliation to the church that, as with Theodoret, included the anathematisation of Nestorius and Eutyches.

Some of the sixth-century Chalcedonians had become what Richard Price in his introduction to The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553 calls ‘conciliar fundamentalists’ — they treated the acts of the ecumenical councils the same way a fundamentalist treats the Bible. As a result, if it’s in the official acts, they believe it is to be accepted wholly and uncritically. However, the acts of Chalcedonian are simply the minutes of what transpired, and they include the acts of Second Ephesus, which Chalcedon actively overturned, as well as statements from various bishops not meant to be taken as binding for the Church. Nonetheless, for such readers, Ibas’ letter to ‘Mari’, a Persian, was a stumbling block when Justinian passed his edict.

To others, it was the apparent acceptance of the letter as evidence of Ibas’ orthodoxy by the papal legates and Maximus of Antioch. It is true, the rest of the bishops present did not accept it as such — the most any of them would say was that ‘the documents’ proved his orthodoxy, and that would mean that acts of the synods that tried Ibas, not the letter to ‘Mari’ alone.

I do not think that condemning the letter to ‘Mari’ abrogates the Chalcedonian settlement. First, doing so does not condemn Ibas himself post-Chalcedon, for one thing, which was the major issue at the Council. Second, the opinion of most bishops was not positively in favour of this letter — does endorsement by the papal legates mean endorsement by the whole council? Not necessarily.

Third, and this is the argument put forward by Justinian, a document so anti-Cyrillian cannot be reconciled with the First Council of Ephesus (431) and the spirit of the Chalcedonian Fathers who approved of two of Cyril’s letters as official doctrine and commended Leo on the basis of his own alleged Cyrillianism.

Fourth, when you read the acts of Chalcedon, it is evident that these bishops have little or no interest in reconciling Ibas at all. When the imperial magistrates running the show first ask them if they are willing to readmit Ibas into communion, there is one of the most awkward silences in Church history. No one wanted to do it. They were forced into it by circumstance and the council’s goal of completely overturning Second Ephesus, not by their own will.

Interestingly, there is less argument about condemning the vague selection of works by Theodoret. Since his person is left unscathed, and none of those documents made their way into the acts to be adored by conciliar fundamentalists, he is less of a hot topic than Ibas, even though his memory is also more widely regarded.

In sum, I don’t think the Three Chapters abrogate Chalcedon. They are, to a degree, in the same spirit as the Chalcedonian Fathers, but adding a stronger Cyrillian emphasis to the doctrine of the church. I do, however, think Justinian was breaking the rules when he tried to enforce them by edict.

*Justinian, in writing to the opponents of his condemnation of the Three Chapters, denies that he is making overtures to Miaphysites, but argues that there is a nascent Nestorian resurgence that the edict is countering. That’s false — even non-Nestorian ‘Antiochene’ Christology had long ago entered into critical decline with the Empire years before this.

Love for neighbour: The key to love for God

21 10 2014

Elder St Porphyrios writes:

Love towards one’s brother cultivates love towards God. We are happy when we secretly love all people. Then we will feel that everyone loves us. No one can attain to God unless he first passes through his fellow men. For the person who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? (1 John 4:20) We need to love and sacrifice ourselves selflessly for everyone without seeking recompense. A love that seeks something in return is selfish. It is not genuine, pure and sincere.

Love and have compassion for everyone. -Wounded by Love, p. 180

We can search the Scriptures, meditate & contemplate, think on the lives of the saints, sing the songs of the liturgy, fast, and all these things, but we will never love God without loving our neighbour.

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum

St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

So let’s ask ourselves, can we love God if:

  • Because of ISIS we don’t love our Muslim neighbours?
  • Because of differences in belief we don’t love Mormons?
  • Because of a stance on marriage we don’t love homosexuals? Or, because of a stance on marriage, we don’t love those who support traditional marriage?
  • Because of an old wound we don’t love a colleague?
  • Because of 500-year-old wounds we don’t love Roman Catholics? Or Protestants?
  • Because of loud, shouty preachers we don’t love evangelicals?
  • Because of wounds in our hearts we don’t love fellow parishioners?

If we have not love, we are nothing. And if we love not our fellow humans, we do not love God.

Love/eros for God: Contemplation beyond reason

20 10 2014

ELEHSON ME KYRIEYesterday and the day before, I blogged about an encounter I had with some Mormon Missionaries and the reasons I gave for rejecting the Mormon position as well as some reasoned reflection on some Mormon beliefs. The main proclamation the young missionary had was, ‘I read The Book of Mormon and I felt the Holy Ghost telling me this is true.’

While not much of an argument, it is not a thought to be entirely ignored when we start discussing belief at any level — why one believes (or not), or how one believes (or not), or what one believes (or not), or how one acts in light of belief (or not).  Many of us, if we were to be honest, will admit that, whatever reasons we may marshal on behalf of our chosen worldview, there is always an element of the irrational in how/what/why we believe.

There are even atheists who admit this.

Besides these posts about reason and Mormonism, I have also discussed the reasoned study of Scripture and philosophy recently, specifically in the questions of providence and predestination. I think reason is a gift from God that enables us to interpret our world and the events in our lives and the Holy Scriptures and all sorts of things. There are even applications of reason to the philosophical question of God’s existence.

At the end of the day, though, all belief reaches beyond reason.

Love/eros for God, the deep-seated desire in the human soul, one of the basic facts of human life, is one area where Christian belief and human experience step beyond reason. This has also been a recent topic.*

When we start trying to reach for the invisible God, however, the non-rational aspects of how we live are to become entwined with our reason. We should seek a union of the mind in the heart (cf. Theophan the Recluse). We can reason that He exists, we can maybe ascertain some of his attributes from nature, we can reason truths about him from the Scriptures, we can formulate systematic theology about him, we can apply reason to the writings of the theologians and the history of the church.

And then we should step beyond that, into contemplation.

Here, I think, we will meet God’s love and start to love him.

Contemplation in the Christian tradition isn’t just thinking about stuff, like how sometimes I contemplate the terrible horror Captain Picard must have gone through as Locutus of Borg at the Battle of Wolf 359. It is seeking to apply the affective aspect of our spiritual self to the encounter with God. Sometimes it includes meditating on passages from and truths of Scripture — like thinking about Capt Picard only setting our minds on higher things. At the meditative stage, all those truths and aspects we have reasoned about can be avenues to God.

But contemplation also calls us beyond the rational. It involves a clearing of the clutter of the mind, an ignoring of the many dissonant, flapping thoughts (logismoi) that constantly plague the human mind. In this respect, it looks like Buddhism,** but it goes where Buddhism tends not to go. Thomas Merton considered the practices of Zen Buddhism as essentially psychological, as a way of calming the psyche; Merton, of course, is a slippery fish, and his ideas changed as his life went on, as discussed here.

But the Christian does not seek to empty the mind to stay empty (I understand that at least some Buddhists do, based upon conversations with a Buddhist).

The Christian wishes to fill him/herself with love of the Holy Trinity, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, with the love of Christ himself, experienced by clearing away the clutter, by entering into peace, into what Greeks call hesychia.

When we practise contemplation, all those things we have reasoned about go beyond mere thoughts we hold. God become more than an object of study — he becomes a subject to encounter. He becomes the Subject to encounter.

This is what those mediaeval mystics I’ve blogged about were seeking; what Carmelites like St John of Cross, St Teresa of Ávila, and Brother Lawrence found; what Theophan the Recluse and Elder Porphyrios are discussing in relation to the Jesus Prayer. Contemplation is a path to love of God.

Thus, through the mystics and their ways, we can enter into a life suffused with the greatest commandment — love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.

*Love/eros for God 1: Preliminary Thoughts; Love/eros for God 2: Beyond commandments; Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross; Love/eros for God: Elder St Porphyrios, ‘Christ is Our Love, Our Desire’.

**I am thinking here of the Jesuit Anthony de Mello in particular and his book Sadhana: A Way to God. De Mello argues that Greek philosophy gave ancient Christianity the intellectual apparatus to speak accurately of God, and that Buddhism can give modern Christianity the techniques to come nearer to him. I think the Christian tradition is self-sufficient in this regard, but the simple parallel with Buddhism may be helpful to some readers.

Authority and the Latter Day Saints (Mormons)

19 10 2014

One of the trickiest things to try to deal with these days, especially with the wide multitude of Christian denominations out there, is where you can find authority residing. This was something that came up in the aforementioned conversation with Mormon missionaries. As you may guess, this conversation provided me with a lot of food for thought.

When asked about authority and where it resides in the Church today, I moved into the episcopal/Irenaean line on Apostolic Succession. I said that the authority resides with the bishops within Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy (possibly Lutheranism as well). When asked where the bishops derive their authority, I said that they stand in direct line of succession from the Apostles. The elder who did all the talking kept trying to trip me up with how do I know who has authority, so I recall repeating that the Archbishop of Canterbury stands in direct succession from St Augustine of Canterbury in the 600s who was in succession from the Bishop of Rome, who stands in direct succession from St Peter.

He asked how the authority is transmitted, and I said through the laying on of hands, but that there is also a succession of the teaching ministry of the apostles — the teaching ministry being what was most important for our earliest, second-century apologist for Apostolic Succession, Irenaeus of Lyons. The authority of the apostolic successors such as Clement in Rome (whose First Letter to the Corinthians was treated as Scripture by some!) consisted in maintaining the unwritten rule of faith and transmitting the faith to the next generation of believers. This coinherence of personal authority with the rule of faith and the growing canon of Scripture is part of the messy story of how orthodox Christianity got itself a Bible as well as a set of doctrines and an episcopal structure.

I said most of that — at least, about the coinherence of the teaching ministry of the apostolic successors with the discernment of the Holy Spirit to produce both Trinitarian faith and the New Testament canon.

He still asked where ultimate authority sits, and I said that it resides in the collegiality of the bishops. He then wanted to know about the Reformation, and I explained that it had to do with the failure of the Bishop of Rome in his pastoral duties, as well as a belief that the Bishop of Rome does not have universal jurisdiction, but that I still see him as standing in apostolic succession and an orthodox, Trinitarian Christian with jurisdiction at least in Italy if not further.

I guess he had a script, because he moved on to how wouldn’t it be nice if there was one person in whom authority still resided, as in Mormonism. I asked about Mormon schisms, and he said he didn’t know what I was talking about. I mentioned the groups that broke away that still accept polygamy as well as some others that don’t — what about them? Why doesn’t authority reside with them? He said that the true prophets are the ones that reside in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I didn’t press the issue (see more below, however).

He then said that it just makes sense that God would have a person who held authority and was a prophet leading his people. I proceeded to list off orthodox Christians who also are recorded to have had visions and words from God — and some of them have been bishops, in fact. He sort of looked at me like he had no clue who/what I was talking about.

I think their script is designed for free church/dissenting/American evangelicals who are cessationists (don’t believe in the gifts of the Spirit after the death of St John the Evangelist) and who believe in some sort of similar apostasy. The number of times this poor elder had to ignore me or change tack or laugh awkwardly was probably disconcerting for him.

Had I been on script, I wouldn’t have believed in Apostolic Succession, nor would I have believed any of the stories of saints and prophets from the sub-apostolic age (such as St Ignatius of Antioch) to the mainstream Patristic era (St Cyprian of Carthage, St Martin of Tours) to the Middle Ages (St Francis of Assisi, St Bernard of Clairvaux) to today (Elder St Porphyrios) who have had visions and words from God. Instead, I believe that there is to this day an unbroken sacramental, teaching, apostolic ministry alive in the church as well as prophetic and ‘charismatic’ gifts that never left.

The informed Christian, however, will not be deceived by the Mormon Missionary script, because they, too, have a multiplicity of sects. At the moment of Joseph Smith’s death, there was a schism with some saying Brigham Young was the true successor and others Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III; the former are the mainstream Mormons we meet everywhere, the latter are mostly in Missouri and call themselves the Community of Christ. Later, people rejected Young’s successors when they rejected polygamy; the largest polygamist Mormon group is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (given that Joseph Smith had 33 wives, of whom 10 were still married to other men, and given that celestial marriage means people are still married in heaven and that widowed Mormons can remarry, the polygamists are maybe the truest successors to Joseph Smith).

There’s a nice, clear article at Wikipedia about sects in the Latter Day Saint movement. If you have trouble deciding where God’s real church is found and where authority lies, the Mormon should be just as troubled, if not more so. How could God restore his Church through Joseph Smith only to have what amounts to a Second Great Apostasy immediately following Smith’s death? Why trust Brigham Young more than Joseph Smith III?

I realise that even for the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian, Apostolic Succession is not as cut-and-dried an argument as I made it out to be. If these groups stand in Apostolic Succession to derive authority, why are they in schism? And aren’t Copts, Ethiopians, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenians also within Apostolic Succession? And the Charismatic Episcopal Church? What about them? I concede that we are divided, and that Apostolic Succession leaves outside of it a multitude of Baptist and Presbyterian types. Nonetheless, Mormons are fractured, too.

However, throughout the Old Testament we see periods when the prophets and priests were unholy and turned away from God, yet the people were still held to God by God’s faithfulness to them, and bound by their authority in some way — there was always a remnant, let alone a belief that God could work through the office of the priests even when they were corrupt. The Gospel of John even mentions Caiaphas prophesying Jesus’ redemptive death through the office of High Priest. What this says to me is that however divided we may be now, and however corrupt ecclesiastical institutions may become at times, God is still with His people, and He will always be driving the Church to reform itself and enter into deeper knowledge of Him both corporately and individually, just as he did with the undivided church before 1053. It is this use of broken, fragile vessels that speaks volumes to me of the power and compassionate love of God, not his abandonment of the Church for 1800 years. Such a God is callous and uncaring. End excursus.

I didn’t bring up the weaknesses in my position, mind you, and the conversation moved on to another topic after that. While I enjoy explaining my beliefs to others, it felt a bit-onesided, anyway. Repeatedly, I was told that if I asked God if the Book of Mormon was true, I would feel the Holy Ghost and realise that it is true while reading it. Objections such as the lack of archaeological evidence were ignored.** The question of where God and Jesus came from was also basically ignored. After being told that God has flesh and blood (which would discount the elder’s earlier agreement with me that God is simple in essence), when I asked again where God came from I was told that spirit and intellect have always existed; this says nothing about the person of God if God is flesh. FYI, God used be a man on another planet; Jesus is his biological son by the Blessed Virgin Mary — Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both taught this.

Anyway, suffice it to say that no proper rebuttals of my arguments were made; either Mormon doctrine was quoted, or issues were sidestepped. I have no doubt that some Mormons have some arguments, but I did not meet them two days ago. He did, in his defence, say that he didn’t think he could convince me by argument, but simply wanted to invite me to read the Book of Mormon with an open mind.

When we consider how difficult it can be simply to believe these days, I don’t think I could ever be convinced by the Mormons — I’d be more likely to chuck Christianity altogether and become a Buddhist than to become a Mormon.

**The alleged Hebrew inscriptions in the USA are, in fact, in a palaeo-Hebrew script that did not exist until the Hellenistic Age, and so, if written by Hebrew immigrants to the ancient Americas, they could not have been written by the people discussed in the Book of Mormon. Chances are, then, they are a forgery made by someone trying to use an ancient form of Hebrew who had insufficient knowledge. Like those alleged Viking inscriptions in the northern USA.

The alleged ‘great apostasy’ of Mormonism and the New Testament Canon

18 10 2014

Yesterday I met a couple of Mormon missionaries in the Meadows, and we had a bit of a chat because I decided, for once, not to be rude and not to basically ignore them. I saw them in the distance and even prayed the Jesus Prayer, saying that I’d talk to them if they spoke to me. And, of course, they spoke to me.

I think it would be really hard to be a Mormon these days. Not only do you have to work through all the arguments against belief that non-heretical Christians have to work through, you have to work through all the arguments against Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon and all of that as well.

The elder who did all the talking brought up the Great Apostasy as an explanation for why The Book of Mormon was necessary. According to Mormons, at the death of the last apostle, there was a Great Apostasy, and all Christians everywhere turned away from the truth, and God waited around for 1800 years or so until it was the kairos and he granted a new revelation to Joseph Smith and cleared out terrible heresies such as the Holy Trinity.

Now, this Catholic website has some solid biblical arguments against the Great Apostasy, so I encourage you to read it and work through it.

I’m going to take a tack that uses my own special expertise. Church history.

According to a tradition Mormons would maybe reject since the ‘apostate’ church teaches it, the last Apostle to die was St John the Evangelist, around the turn of the second century. Everything that the church did after that doesn’t count because we fell into apostasy. At this time, if we accept the traditional attributions of the New Testament texts, the entire New Testament existed.*

But, if the whole New Testament existed, did all Christians believe that all 27 books thereof were the inspired revelation of God? What about other books? Were there other things they may have gone for that we and the Mormons don’t?

The answer to the first question is No. The answer to the third question is Maybe. In A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon, Craig D Allert addresses the related issues of authority and the canon of Scripture, and he demonstrates that it took centuries for the organic process of sifting out what qualifies as the ‘canon’ of Scripture to transpire; he also demonstrates that the unwritten ‘rule of faith’, such as the Apostles’ Creed, was seen as authoritative alongside the growing sense of authority applied to the apostolic writings. It was the coinherence of this growing Christian canon alongside the authority of the rule of faith (and church leaders, no doubt) that helped settle the Christian canon of Scripture.

We start getting lists in the late 100s, such as the famous Muratorian fragment (ca. 170, to date it early), but most are much later, many emerging from the pens of, say, St Athanasius or St Augustine in the 300s, or as late as Pope Gelasius in the late 400s. Of course, it does seem that along the way a lot of prominent Christians were drawing from the same collection of apostolic documents and treating them as Scripture, even if the boundaries hadn’t been formed up yet.

One story I like is that in the 200s, a clergyman wrote the Bishop of Antioch if it was okay to use the Gospel of Peter at Church. The bishop said, ‘Sure!’ After, the Gospel is the Gospel, and Peter is Peter. Then he got his hands on a copy and saw that it’s a bit … wonky. I imagine this sort of thing happened more often in the Early Church than we are comfortable with — but less than extreme, pro-Gnostic cynics/skeptics would have us believe.

One canonical text that took a while to gain universal acceptance was the Book of Revelation. I understand it never quite passed muster to enter the Byzantine liturgy, but I could be wrong.

One non-canonical text that pre-dates the alleged ‘Great Apostasy’ and which many ‘proto-orthodox’ treated as Scripture for a long time is 1 Clement. Another text that a lot of people really liked was The Shepherd of Hermas — its popularity lasted so long that in the fifth century, John Cassian cites it the same way he cites canonical texts (this is the only non-canonical text he so treats).

The ins and outs make for a fantastic, messy story. But in the end, if you want to accept the 27-book New Testament, you have to accept that the Holy Spirit was working in the Church for centuries after the year 100, helping the people of God come to grips with the new faith and new life produced by the Jesus Event, and that only through much prayer and meditation was this 27-book canon sorted out.

And it was sorted out by people who often read like Trinitarians, some of whom were fully-fledged Nicene Trintarians, others possibly ‘proto-Trinitarians’ before Nicaea, others of whom would have rejected a bodily God even if they couldn’t yet push belief towards Trinitarianism, all of whom live during the alleged Great Apostasy of Mormonism.

So — why trust the New Testament if you’re a Mormon? Why trust the judgement of a church you condemn as apostate and heretical? If our forebears were inspired enough to choose the right revealed texts, why would they also perpetrate what Mormons consider one of the greatest heresies — belief in the Most Holy Trinity?

I admit that orthodox Christian history and orthodox Christianity are less tidy than the Mormon solution. Maybe that’s why they are more true.

*I’m not actually arguing that, say, 2 Peter was actually written by Peter or even before ca. 100 — just saying this for the sake of argument.

Honestly confronting the failures of your own religion

9 10 2014

There’s been a bit of curfuffle online recently concerning Bill Maher’s statements concerning Islam which garner accusations such as ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobe’ that are not really logically valid if you pay attention to what Maher has actually said. When he criticises Christianity, some Christians will say, ‘You are wrong.’ To my knowledge, most of us don’t think Maher is a racist or bigot for thinking our religion is a lot of hooey. We think he’s just plain wrong.

And that’s the way things are supposed to work in a just, liberal society. People can criticise my religion all they want. And I, in response, can offer reasoned refutation of their position or perhaps a clearer explanation of my own. But it’s not the Carolingian age anymore. People shouldn’t and, in most countries, don’t go to jail for criticising Christianity. And that’s a good thing. I can’t remember which Late Antique or Early Mediaeval Christian said it, but you can’t force people to believe. Not truly. If we truly want people to love Jesus, everyone needs the legal and social freedom to be able to reject him as well.

What some people do when their religion is criticised by a person such as Bill Maher is simply state contraries, with no evidence, that this fellow is wrong. That there is nothing in Islam that would promote the subjugation of women or the beheading of prisoners.

Or that there is nothing in Christianity that would promote, say, slavery…

Oh, wait.

Well, that’s awkward. There is.

What shows intellectual maturity in how you defend and view your own faith is when you meet something like, say, 1800 years of Christian slavery, you don’t explain it away, you don’t say that those people weren’t true Christians. You admit that this is a thing that went on.

Oh, and you don’t blame Constantine. Can’t play the Constantine card here.

Instead, admit the truth. Say, yeah, most Christians for most of history were pro-slavery. It’s one of those things in the ancient world — you wouldn’t want to be a slave, but almost no one makes the logical conclusion that no one else should be, either. Some do, and some of them, I’ve been told, are Christians. Some are ‘pagans’.

Maybe mention the anti-slavery ancient Christians, if you have a chance. Mention also that a great many of the earliest Christians were themselves slaves.

But admit that, yeah, Christians were slave owners.

Also, don’t act like there’s no slavery in the Bible.

Disagree with Sam Harris’ interpretation of how Christians should apply those passages, but don’t act like they aren’t there. They are.

17th-c Quaker John Woolman opposed slavery

But then, if you do want to show that Christianity is good for human rights, talk about the early Quakers who were abolitionists as early as the 1600s and who made pacts to avoid acquiring goods involved in slave labour. Then talk about the biblical basis for Quaker opposition to slavery — that, yes, there is slavery in the Bible, and, yes, you’ll even hear a few people to this day using those verses to support it, but there is a thematic thread running through the entire Old and New Testaments that points to the emancipation of slaves to a position of legal freedom that parallels their spiritual freedom.

This is how to look at your religion’s history full-on. Own the moral and intellectual failures of your predecessors. And then show the way out of this difficulty.

Such should be the response of moderate Muslims when people such as Bill Maher criticise the extremist and conservative practices of many Islamic states — acknowledge the weight of history and the errors of the past, but then show a way out. It will do a few things:

  1. Free up intellectual debate and conversation about Islam so that critics do not hide in corners but can speak their minds and have a real conversation about religion, and be corrected when they are wrong rather than shouted down by Ben Affleck.
  2. Show Muslims who may sympathise with more extreme visions of the religion a way forward that is still Islamic.
  3. Address the real Islamophobes and their problems, rather than attacking Bill Maher, and demonstrate to them that, while they may fear certain things, there are real Muslims who share some of their fears and who are seeking alternatives.

This is how debate is meant to work in free, just, liberal societies. And this is how people of faith should engage the failures of their own religions.

Love/eros for God: Elder St Porphyrios, ‘Christ is our love, our desire’

6 10 2014

The second chapter of the teachings of Elder St Porphyrios (d. 1991) in the book Wounded by Love is on nothing other than divine eros. If we were somehow fully in love with Christ, what would it look like? Elder Porphyrios writes:

If you are in love, you can live amid the hustle and bustle of the city centre and not be aware that you are in the city centre. You see neither cars nor people nor anything else. Within yourself you are with the person you love. You experience her, you take delight in her, she inspires you. Are these things not true? Imagine that the person you love is Christ. Christ is in your mind, Christ is in your heart, Christ is in your whole being, Christ is everywhere. …

One thing is our aim — love for Christ, for the Church, for our neighbour. Love, worship of, and craving for God, the union with Christ and with the Church is Paradise on earth. (97)

The entire chapter on divine eros is quotable. Indeed, my own commentary can add nothing.

However — how on earth do we get there?? I have spent years being inspired and stirred up by writings like this and by the examples of holy men and women — by St Francis of Assisi, St John of the Cross, St John Cassian, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Lady Julian of Norwich, St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Teresa of Avila, St Gregory of Nyssa. But when do I move beyond commandments to such love as this? How do I? How can I?

Elder Porphyrios acknowledges this reality with hope:

I try to find ways to love Christ. This love is never sated. However much you love Christ, you always think that you don’t love Him and you long all the more to love him. And without being aware of it, you go higher and higher! (99)

His recommendations for entering into the love of Christ are to expend energy through ascetic effort, but remembering that all things come through Christ. He recommends praying and seeking to simply live in grace. He also recommends reading the Scriptures and the Fathers and spending time with the liturgy of the church and seeking to truly mean the words of the prayers.

Perhaps this, joined with love of neighbour, is sufficient? To find Christ in the Holy Scriptures, in the advice and teachings of others who have loved Him, and to truly mean our prayers whether liturgical or spontaneous. In such conditions may love/eros for the unreachable God grow.


Other posts in this little series on divine love/eros:

Love/eros for God 1: Preliminary Thoughts

Love/eros for God 2: Beyond Commandments

Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross


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