Sound and Fury Signifying… Quite a Lot

As a person interested in current events in the Orthodox world I have often read, over the years, speeches and statements put out by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. As the First Throne of Orthodoxy it is worth paying attention to what they say. Anyone familiar with the content of those letters and speeches is likely to know that they often contain a lot of flowery language and, occasionally, statements that are difficult to decipher. This can be a problem of translation. But not always. I know this because when I come across such a statement I usually ask everyone I know who belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate what it might mean and how it should be “heard.” Most of the time I get little or no clarification. On a couple of occasions I have written to the Patriarchate itself asking for clarification, but without success. I mention this because I think it is relevant to the current political/ecclesiological dispute taking place among the Orthodox churches as a result of the actions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine. Allow to me explain by means of what may appear to be an excursus.

In 2010 David Wagschal submitted his PhD thesis at Durham University in England, entitled: The Nature of Law and Legality in the Byzantine Canonical Collections 381-883The thesis is an excellent study for those interested in the finer details of Byzantine canon law. The really interesting part, for the purpose of this article, is its fascinating exploration of the “rhetorical” or “literary” dimension of Byzantine legislation. The author argues persuasively that the seemingly rhetorical and literary flourishes that surround what we tend to think of as the “important” bits of canon law are not extraneous in any sense, but absolutely fundamental, and to be taken quite seriously. For example, the introduction to the Trullan canonical legislation contains almost nothing that we would tend to think of as having to do with “law” per se, and yet, it was every bit as important to the authors as the canons themselves. This is because the purpose of such “ornamental” material is to set the “law” in a broad, polyvalent narrative; an evocative set of images and ideals. Precision and clarity of language belong to the texts of particular laws but the overarching context in which the laws rest is not concerned with these values. In one representative passage the author points out that:

…the late Roman imperial chancery tended to produce two types of texts for laws – properly coherent and regular rule texts for internal use, and rhetorically ornate versions embellished by the quaestors for publication – it is clear that the real, i.e. published law is the rhetorical version. This version of the law is the version marked as culturally important, high-status and valued. Anything else is for quiet technical in- house consumption. Although we might still wish to idealize and study this (murky) bureaucratic underworld of technical legal coherence and pure rule expression as law’s “real” life, it is quite clear that late Romans and Byzantines would tend to do the opposite. Law in its most ideal form, its most proper form, does not simply confine itself to pure rule content. It is supposed to be filled with broader cultural padding (pg.177).

The importance of this rhetorical dimension is amply represented in, but not confined to, canonical texts. Rather, the author says, it represents an overarching tendency of Byzantine culture to, “transform almost all realms of knowledge into a subset operation of general literary learning (pg. 118).” “Literary learning,” then as now, is an intimate familiarity with a diverse association of images, texts, history, and deeply embedded cultural assumptions and aspirations. It is these things, operating invisibly in the background, that the rhetorically effusive elements of Byzantine rhetoric seek to connect to.

In light of this, and given the cultural continuity of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we ought to consider carefully whether it is wise to regard as mere baroque fashion or pious puffery flowery statements made today by either the Ecumenical Patriarchate or the Patriarch himself. Is it possible that when the Tomos of Autocephaly given to the newly created “Holy Orthodox Church of Ukraine” begins by stating that, “You have come to Mount Zion . . . and to the Church of the first-born” (Heb. 12:22-23) that this statement is meant in the fullest possible sense? That it is intended to be a serious theological claim and not just grandiose verbiage? If so, in what sense? Historical? Theological/scriptural? Canonical? If Dr. Wagschal’s thesis is any guide, an answer to this is likely to be found, not by looking more closely at the immediate context, but at the overarching literary/rhetorical context of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a whole. In any case, it seems clear that we would be wise to start taking such statements as these with the seriousness with which they are, apparently, intended.

Advertisements

The Theological Vision of Patriarch Daniel of Romania

My friend, Fr. Daniel Greeson, has recently begun blogging again. He’s kicked things off with an excellent commentary on Patriarch Daniel of Romania’s vision of world-Orthodox unity; a vision which is, in my opinion, important and worthwhile, a way between Moscow and Constantinople. Fr. Daniel’s blog intends to focus dogmatic theology and I look forward to more from him.

Ukrainian Autocephaly: A Vision of the Future?

An official translation of the Tomos of Autocephaly given by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) to the newly minted “Most Holy Church of Ukraine” (CoU) has been published. It has already been pointed out that a number of items in the Tomos are unusual in the history of such documents, which is interesting in itself. However, the real import of the document is not how it relates to the past but what it means for the future.

It is no secret that the self understanding of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in terms of its canonical and ecclesial prerogatives among the autocephalous churches, is sometimes disputed. The strength of this dispute is substantially bolstered by the fact that history, along with the status quo, does not always support the claims the EP makes for itself, at least not straightforwardly. For instance, the claim made by the EP that it alone may establish or possess parishes in territories outside the established boundaries of the other autocephalous churches is substantially weakened by the simple fact that many other churches do have parishes outside of their geographical boundaries and have had for hundreds of years. To say this another way, when fact and theory do not correspond theory will have less heft than it would otherwise.

This is where the Ukrainian tomos becomes rather important. It brings the claims of the Ecumenical Patriarchate about itself to life, aligning fact and theory, and thereby weakening the argument of dissenting voices. Further, it provides a canonical model or example which will, if the CoU survives, serve as a demonstration of the EPs self understanding and ecclesial vision. The tomos accomplishes this in at least 3 rather clear ways.

  1. The CoU is forbidden to establish parishes outside its geographic borders and any such parishes it currently has are immediately transferred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Look for such a provision to be included in any tomos issued by the EP in the future. This will have little effect on the ecclesial landscape, at least in the near term, but the important thing is that by accepting the CoU the other autocephalous churches give tacit approval to the terms of its establishment and thereby a sort of soft embrace (or at least little objection) of the EP’s vision of the diaspora which can be appealed to later on in other situations.
  2. On matters of significant ecclesial, doctrinal, or political concern the CoU is required to seek the guidance of the EP, which is definitive.  It remains to be seen how exactly the EP will choose to interpret this stipulation but it could certainly eliminate problems for the EP as it attempts to assert itself to a greater degree in the Orthodox world, and beyond. Again, probably the most important function of this clause, as it pertains to the future, is that it allows the EP to claim, with reasonable accuracy, that he does indeed speak on behalf of many millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the world, a claim that, despite its constant repetition, has not seemed very convincing in the past. The “spiritual leadership” of the Ecumenical Patriarch is getting much more concrete.
  3. The possibility for the EP to establish stavropegia on the territory of other autocephalous churches is venerable. However, it has not been applied in any of the recent autocephalies. The reintroduction of that practice here is advantageous to the EP in several ways. First, because it is a unique privilege, canonically speaking, putting it into practice underscores the uniqueness of the EP. This is another provision one should probably expect to see again in any future tomos issued by the EP. Second, it diversifies the income of the EP, buffering its fortunes against local and regional difficulties. Third, it allows the EP to ordain more bishops, thereby increasing the size of its episcopal rank beyond what the needs of its laity would allow.

In all of the above we note not only a centralizing impulse, with the EP assuming a greater degree of control over the CoU than it has over other churches established in the modern period, but a marked attempt to instantiate the self understanding of the EP in such a way that the arguments it makes on its own behalf will, in the future, have ample demonstration in practice.

Homily for Transfiguration

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The story of the Transfiguration takes place, as tradition and scholarship both suggest, at the time of the Jewish Festival of Booths. The Festival of Booths was both a festival of harvest or ingathering, when people brought the first-fruits of their fields as an offering to God, and time of remembrance. The people would make little booths out of mud and sticks, the kind of thing you could knock together in an afternoon if you knew what you were doing, and shelter in them for the week of the festival. Recalling the tents they dwelt in after escaping Egypt but before entering the Promised Land. In this way, the Transfiguration is connected to the story of the Exodus. This connection is further underscored by the fact that in the Gospel reading for Matins we hear that Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his coming exodus, though the English translation often says “decease” or “departure” instead. But notice here an interesting reversal. In the Old Testament The exodus from Egypt comes first and Moses’ receiving of the law and shining with divine glory come later. Here the law and the glory are present before the exodus, which is Jesus’ passage through death and hell to the right hand of the Father. Why is that? Remember that what happens in the Old Testament is a type or foreshadowing of what was to come in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To say this another way, the Old Testament tells us something, and something important, about the meaning of Christ’s saving work but does not exhaust or circumscribe it. There is something new to be learned here. And the fact that the order is reversed points us to that something. That the glory of God is revealed in the flesh of the man, Christ, prior to his descent into Hades recalls the words from Melito of Sardis’ Paschal poem; Hell took a man and met God below. It is the presence of divine life in the flesh of Christ that makes him a stranger to corruption and it is that divine life which overcomes the power of death. The new lesson for us here is clear. If we are going to come after Him then we will need that same divine life dwelling in our flesh at the hour of our departure from this world. We need the glory before we can cross the water.

It is important to understand that sharing in this glory, the uncreated light of God, isn’t just for monks or ascetics. It isn’t like a secret menu item for those special souls who know what to ask for. This glory belongs to all Orthodox Christians. It is nothing other than the divine life of God in us; the Holy Spirit. How do we acquire this gift? St. Athanasius very clearly connects the glory of God with his crucifixion and death. We enter into that glory-bearing death, acquiring by grace, the same glory He possessed rightfully as the Word of God, in baptism. (Col. 2:12) Recall also the Apostle Paul’s words elsewere: If we suffer with him we shall reign with him, (II Tim. 2:12) and, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom. 6:5) Truly, because of our baptism we now hold this treasure in earthen vessels. (II Cor. 4:17) The fact that we do not see this light or shine outwardly with it, as Christ and some of the saints have done, does not mean it isn’t there. It may mean we are hiding it under a bushel, “veiled” as St. Gregory the Theologian says, by an excess of worldly cares and concerns. But the glory is buried in our hearts despite our unworthiness and we will have to give account on that Last and Great Day for our stewardship of it. (Mt. 25:14-30)  And so we come full circle: The Festival of Booths, the Transfiguration, this Liturgy.

We are folded in to the one story of God’s people. The Transfiguration not only connects us to the Exodus of old, it illuminates the meaning of Christ’s exodus, which, in turn, prepares us for our own. Speaking of Christ, the Apostle Paul says that He is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep… (I Cor. 15:20) The ingathering of the harvest of the Kingdom of Heaven has begun and though we are still making our tents in a foreign land we are a part of it. God’s blood runs thick in our veins, his light burns in our hearts, so that when the pledge of our baptism is fulfilled in earnest, and we die a mortal death, we will likewise be raised to an immortal life by the power of Jesus Christ. You have the glory. Are you ready to cross the water?

A Poem

These hands now resting on the holy place, now lifted, now blessing; reaching to touch the untouchable. These hands cuffed in gold and silk, adorned as best art can achieve, have only late come in from garden. Only recently did they leave off the gathering of sticks and the trash which needed to be carried – dirty diapers and all. The ragged porch rails, which demanded paint to make up for eager children, stained them. The oily dishwater clung to them. These hands which have almost forgotten how to pick a tune, turned out now mostly for other purposes, had to be dressed and cleaned from the blue crabs in the bay, and the wet dog that feared them. They had to be made presentable. And they were. But nothing changes the fact that these hands now lighting upon the altar are not here because they were suitable but because God was not too high to touch them despite.

Homily for Sunday of the Paralytic

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christ is risen!

There has been a lot of fighting this week. Last night there was a big boxing match with two superstars duking it out. The winner of that fight went home many millions of dollars richer, with the adulation of an international crowd ringing in his ears. Earlier in the week we saw a much larger and poorer fight in the city of Baltimore. A fight that pitted citizen against citizen, against policeman, against shopkeeper, against everything. There were heroes too; people who bravely stood for peace or in defense of the weak. But unlike Vegas on Saturday night, in this fight there were no trophies, no accolades, and no winners.

In the wake of the violence voices from every corner have eagerly hurled blame and solutions into the digital winds. “The problem is racism!” “The problem is black culture!” “The problem is poverty and lack of education!” “The Problem is Obama!” “What we need is more government programs!” “What we need is more individual responsibility!” “What we need is more jobs!” On and on it goes in an endless cacophony of opinion, the most bewildering aspect of which is that there is, in most of it, at least a modicum of truth.

It is true that Baltimore’s police department had a history of abusing the authority it was given. It is true that poverty and difficult circumstances do not excuse wanton destruction and theft. It is true that racism and abuse of power are still sadly common in this country, and it is true that heroic public service is too. If all these things are true; if neither fault nor solution can be ascribed solely to the public, the President, or the police, where does this leave us as we look for a way forward? How can justice and peace be realized? As you might expect, the Gospel reading gives us light for this dark problem.

Today we hear about a man who had been sitting by a sheep washing pool in Jerusalem for 38 years in the hope of being healed of his paralysis. Once a year the Archangel Michael would disturb the sheepy water and the first person into the pool at that point would be restored to full health. Alas for our poor paralytic. In all the years he sat waiting, never once did he get to the water in time because, unlike many of those who had been healed in the past, he did not have a friend to help him. Jesus sees the man laying there and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” “Of course!” He gasps excitedly. Actually, no, he doesn’t say that at all. He simply tells Jesus that he can’t get to the water fast enough. He’s fixated on the pool, his old way of thinking about the solution to his problem, and doesn’t know that salvation isn’t in the pool any longer, but in the man standing before him.

In an article written a year ago for this very day, Fr. Lawrence Farley gives the following insight into today’s Gospel:

In John’s subtext, the pool functions as an image of the Law and the man as an image of Israel hoping to find salvation in the Law. The paralytic had been long in his condition, even as Israel had long been waiting for divine salvation. The Bethesda pool was thought to have been stirred by an angel, even as the Law had been given by angels (Acts 7:53). The pool even had five porticoes (John 5:4), even as the Mosaic Law had five books. Like the paralytic who had to stop relying on the pool for salvation and turn instead to Christ, so Israel had to stop relying upon the Law to save them, and also turn to Christ. The old was giving place to the new.

We see this contrast between the old and the new throughout John’s Gospel: not Jewish water, but Christ’s wine, not the old Temple, but Christ’s body, not the manna in the wilderness, but Christ’s flesh. Christian faith involved turning from the old ways to the new, as sacred Jewish history veered upward into the Kingdom and the eschaton. It was as Isaiah foretold long ago: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you now perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

How does this Gospel illumine the ongoing social crisis we saw in Baltimore this past week and may face in our own community in the future? It grounds us in Christ again. Like the paralytic we get fixated on our old external answers. We favor conservative, or progressive, or radical political solutions, and the partial truth they contain, to the intractable problems of human society. We forget that the power that allowed Fr. Roman Braga to confess the faith despite horrendous torture and years of isolation; the power that gave Dr. George Washington Carver, a black man, the willingness to discover, as a blessing to the Jim Crow South, more than 300 uses for its peanut crops; the power that can give frustrated Baltimoreans and world-weary policemen love, compassion, and forgiveness for one another – a true basis for society – is not rooted in politics, economics, criminal or social justice. The power to love one’s enemies, to do good to those who persecute you, and so end the demonic cycle of hatred and violence, is in the grace of the Holy Spirit given as a gift to those who put their faith in Christ.

It seems cliche to say it, but, more than anything else, this is what Baltimoreans need. They need Christ. So do the people in our community where these same tensions are not unknown. And we have Christ, here in the Holy Mysteries, and therefore in ourselves! We are grace-bearing creatures, commanded to be salt and light for those around us. If we obey this divine command and begin to offer Christ to our community, lovingly, patiently, and gently, through prayer, acts of kindness, integrity, fidelity, and all the rest that goes with being His witnesses, He can bring healing to our community by doing in others the work He is doing in us. As Isaiah says, He will lift the low, make the rough smooth, and straighten the crooked. (Is. 40:4)

With His Father, and the All-Holy, Good, and Life-Creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Story We Tell

The stories we tell ourselves have the power to shape what we see and even what we believe possible. In our society one of the most deeply embedded and powerful stories is the story of progress.  Broadly speaking, many Americans believe that, as a society, we are progressing. That is, in many ways – economics, social relations, health, etc. – things are better than they were before. Naturally, there are also many who insist that, at this moment, we are not better off but worse. An example of this would be someone who insists that things were moving in the right direction when Ronald Reagan was president and have been going down hill in the 30 years since. This group denies progress at the moment but accepts the concept on the whole. In other words, those who believe we are currently progressing and those who believe we are currently regressing equally operate with the assumption that society is (or would be if x was different) moving forward.

The story of social and cultural progress is usually told as a sort of historical narrative in which progress is the theme connecting the various historical touchstones. The Magna Carta is the newborn gasp of progress, freed from the womb of a wretched, stultified old order; the Renaissance hails progress’s puberty; the enlightenment is the man-child progress coming-of-age; and the technological and social changes of the 20th-21st centuries represent progress’ further maturation toward the full flower of inclusion, equality, tolerance, and freedom. This story is very appealing. It also happens to be false.  Or false enough to be useless at any rate.

There are four fatal problems with the story of progress.

  1. It is a profoundly first-world story. It is certainly true that in specific ways we in the first-world have experienced progress. Healthcare is better than it was 100 years ago; technology affords us access to more knowledge and facilitates broader communication than has been available at any time before; and individual liberty and tolerance for different modes of life is the norm in most first-world nations. However, little or none of this applies to most of the people living on the continents of Africa or Asia. That is, this story is not true for most of the people living in the world. So when we speak about progress what we are really talking about is progress for us. 
  2. But even this narrower definition of progress is untenable. This leads us to the second flaw in the story of progress; namely, that it is a dramatic oversimplification. Whether we are talking about technological or social change, we can only speak of it as “progress” if we filter out the all the ambiguities and problems that tend to rub the shiny off the story. For example, if one is using the internet as an example of progress one will focus on knowledge sharing, crowdsourcing, and other examples of how the internet has changed the world for good. In such an example one will ignore completely the fact that internet has spawned the darknet and facilitated an otherwise incomprehensible growth in sex-trafficking and other horrors we do not care to imagine. Both stories are equally true but including the nasty part makes it sound less like progress and more like mere change.  Further, the sad fact is that very often our “progress” comes at the expense of others. Racial slavery represented an astounding step up in the quality of life of many Europeans and from their vantage point I am sure things seemed to be looking up. In our own time many of the goods we purchase so affordably, including our most beloved technological gadgets, come from wage-slave sweatshops in Asia or support conglomerates that make money through various forms of human and environmental exploitation. This is not progress in any social or moral sense. It is simply change – better in some ways, worse in others. But it is the kind of change wherein the consequences are placed carefully out of sight and thus out of mind. It is this more than anything else that most enables our illusion of progress. We are not obliged, most of the time, to face the negative consequences our society’s appetites. They remain neatly tucked away in another part of the world, in a womb, or another part of town, and we are free to imagine that we humming happily into a brighter future.
  3. The third problem with the myth of progress, aside from its being untrue, is that it dooms us to a conflict oriented social environment. If society is progressing, or should be, then progress itself, embodied by certain goals or policies, is the fundamental “good” of society. Those who are committed to progress, whatever it happens to be, are “on the right side of history” while those who oppose progress are their generation’s Dodo bird, doomed for the evolutionary garbage heap. As in Robespierre’s French Republic, the continued evolution of human society can be secured if only x person or group is got out of the way – sometimes with a little help. This kind of thinking has ended badly so many times in recent history that it might justly be used as a demonstration of group insanity.
  4. The fourth, and perhaps most visceral, problem with progress is its insatiable nature. If progress is the fundamental good of society then society must always be progressing. We must be in a never-ending state of progressive reformation. There can be no rest, no homeplace free from the righteous urgency of the moment. Progress marches to a relentless and pitiless drum.

To sum up, progress is a privileged illusion. it’s the computer generated pin-up girl of the idea world; a pretty but unreal and unsatisfying story we tell ourselves about the way things are. But if we reject the idea of progress what do we replace it with? That is a question for another day. Stay tuned!