Thursday, January 16, 2020

An Anonymous "Open Letter" against Fr. Josiah Trenham

When Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) received a letter, the first thing he would do is look for a signature. If he saw that the letter was unsigned, he would throw the letter away without reading it, because if someone was unwilling to sign a letter, it was not worth reading. Unfortunately, in this case, the unsigned letter is also an "open letter," splashed across the internet. Given that many will read this letter, I feel the need to respond to it, because a great priest is being slandered, but the fact is that Metropolitan Anthony was quite right, and no one really should give such a letter any credence.

If someone is standing for the Truth, and they believe something needs to be said in public, they should have the courage both to say it, and to own it. The martyrs of the Church laid down their lives for the truth of the Faith; the least that we can do have the courage to speak up in an honest and forthright manner, and to do so like men.

What is interesting about this letter, is that there is very little that is actually cited in terms of things that Fr. Josiah has taught, which are alleged to be in error. Mostly, the author attributes malicious intentions that he believes lie behind what Fr. Josiah has said and done, and suggests that perhaps Fr. Josiah holds views that he fails to actually provide evidence for.
"I’ll get straight to the point of this article—on issues related to homosexuality,  politics, and the Church, Father Josiah Trenham of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese (AOCA) has done incalculable damage. As I will highlight in this article, not only has this damage led to numerous people leaving the Orthodox Church, but it also seems to have spurred a discussion going in the opposite direction of his approach, with arguments being made to accept same-sex marriage as a norm."
It is difficult to imagine that the anonymous author really believes that if Fr. Josiah had kept quiet about homosexuality in the last ten years, that there would now be no voices pressing for the Church to accept it.
"Most importantly, this uncharitable approach has deeply wounded many of our faithful who struggle against same-sex attraction and try to lead a godly life. If we Orthodox are to care for all people who come to us in a way that allows us to stay true to our Holy Tradition, our hierarchy must ensure that priests like Father Josiah are tempered in the same manner as others who have spoken out on opposite sides of the spectrum."
Does the anonymous author agree with St. Paul that those who are homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)? If so, how is it more charitable to not tell homosexuals that this is the case, so as not to offend them, and let them die without repentance and fail to inherit the Kingdom of God?
"My purpose in writing this article is to bring attention to Father Josiah’s words and actions because I am quite certain that my brother clergy and the vast majority of the faithful are unaware of these things. Certainly, had they been aware, there would have been an effort to speak with him privately to remove his material from the internet and to cease speaking and teaching in the manner outlined below. Related to that, I wish to state at the outset that I do know Father Josiah personally, and we have spoken about our disagreements. (Unfortunately, with the current climate on this topic in the Antiochian Archdiocese, I feel forced to publish this article anonymously).) I have even worked with him towards common goals on issues where we are like-minded. I am not calling for Father Josiah to be “punished;” I simply want his teachings that are contrary to the Orthodox faith and witness to be corrected and for those materials to be removed from the public sphere."
When St. Paul said his final farewell to the leaders of the Church of Ephesus, with whom he had invested so much, he said:
"Wherefore I call you to witness this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:26-27).
St. John Chrysostom comments on these verses as follows:
"So that he may well say, "Wherefore I take you to record -- seeing I shall be with you no more -- “that I am pure from the blood of all men.” (v. 26.) Do you mark how he terrifies them, and troubled and afflicted as their souls are, how hard he rubs them (ἐπιτρίβει)? But it was necessary. “For I have not shunned,” he says, “to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” (v. 27.) Why then, he who does not speak, has blood to answer for: that is, murder! Nothing could be more terrifying than this. He shows that they also, if they do it not, have blood to answer for. So, whereas he seems to be justifying himself, in fact he is terrifying them. “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers to feed the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.” (v. 28.) Do you mark? he enjoins them two things. Neither success in bringing others right of itself is any gain -- for, I fear, he says, “lest by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away” (1 Cor. 9:27); nor the being diligent for one’s self alone. For such an one is selfish, and seeks his own good only, and is like to him who buried his talent. “Take heed to yourselves:” this he says, not because our own salvation is more precious than that of the flock, but because, when we take heed to ourselves, then the flock also is a gainer. “In which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God.” See, it is from the Spirit ye have your ordination. This is one constraint: then he says, “To feed the Church of the Lord.” Lo! another obligation: the Church is the Lord’s. And a third: “which He hath purchased with His own blood.” It shows how precious the concern is; that the peril is about no small matters, seeing that even His own blood He spared not. He indeed, that he might reconcile those who were enemies, poured out even His blood: but thou, even when they are become thy friends, art not able to retain them" (Homily 44 on Acts).
There are a number of important implications from this passage. First of all, it is clear that to fail to declare the whole counsel of God would make a clergyman guilty of the spiritual deaths of those they fail to fully instruct. Secondly, St. Paul is saying that he did not allow fear to prevent him from declaring the whole counsel of God. How would fear have prevented him? One might infer that this was in reference to the external threats he faced, but it likely also is in reference to the fear one might have within the Church, of telling people things that they don't want to hear. Often when that happens, unpleasantries ensue, and if one just wishes to avoid conflict, it is far easier not to say such things. But Christian clergy are called to not take the easy, gutless way.

Then the anonymous author calls on people to harass Metropolitan Joseph, in hopes of forcing them to silence Fr. Josiah on the issue of homosexuality, and the LGBTQP+ agenda. So while the author is unwilling to sign his own name to his letter, he is hoping to inspire a social media mob against Fr. Josiah.
"I also want to state at the outset that this essay is not an endorsement of the controversial and recently retracted article by Father Aaron Warwick of the Antiochian Archdiocese [Pastoring LGBTQ Individuals in the Orthodox Church and Public Statement]. I have several substantial disagreements with that article, but elucidating those is not my point in writing here. My point is to call attention to the fact that there is a reason priests and laypeople are reacting to Father Josiah Trenham: he has been implicitly endorsed by our church hierarchy who allow him to keep his un-Orthodox and uncharitable material available online—even promoting some of it for sale. My hope in writing this article is very simple. I do not wish to “tar and feather” Father Josiah: I simply hope that our clergy and laity will encourage our hierarchs to privately instruct Father Josiah about the damage he is causing and will have him retract and take down his deeply offensive and un-Orthodox material."
On the one hand, the anonymous author doesn't want to have to defend Fr. Aaron Warwick's words, or actually come clean on his own positions, but he labels Fr. Josiah's work as "un-Orthodox." However, as we will see, he never identifies a specific teaching of Fr. Josiah's that he both demonstrates Fr. Josiah actually holds, and which is in fact "un-Orthodox."
"I should note that I personally know a number of people who have left the Church not only due to Father Josiah’s behavior, but, even more specifically, because of the Church’s silence and inaction, which they believe implicitly condones this behavior. I wish I could wholeheartedly disagree with them. I still want to believe that the hierarchy simply don’t know the extent of what he is doing or saying, or perhaps they just don’t understand the cultural impact of his actions. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to do so."
The fact that people leave because they don't like what they hear is actually not a real argument regarding the question of whether they needed to hear what offended them or not. In the Gospels, we are told that quite a few people were offended by what Christ taught, and said "This is a hard saying; who can accept it?" (John 6:60). And then we are told that "From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him" (John 6:66). What was Christ's reaction? Did he call a Church Growth Consultant to find out where He had gone wrong? No. He turned to the disciples that hadn't left yet, and said "Do you also want to go away?" (John 6:67).

As a matter of fact, however, if you look at every denomination that has embraced the LGBTQP+ agenda, they have been on downward spirals. When I made this point in my response to Fr. Aaron Warwick, the editor of "Orthodoxy in Dialogue" quipped:
"Father Whiteford gloats that all the liberal Protestant churches have emptied out. By this metric, such a righteous, right-teaching priest as himself must have grown his parish to a European-sized cathedral by now. We eagerly await a full report, complete with photos."
In response to this, I would note that the fact that these denominations are emptying out is no guarantee that the Orthodox Church will be the ones who pick those people up. But given that 20 years ago my parish was holding services in a room that is now my study, and we had about 20 people, if they all showed up at the same time; and that now we are typically running around 100 people on Sundays, we have a purpose built Temple (although one getting too small for us), and that our property is current debt free, we are not doing badly, and certainly are not shrinking. But Fr. Josiah Trenham actually has a parish that has a lot more people than most European cathedrals have these days, so obviously Fr. Josiah is not chasing people away from the Church. I would also note that Islam is growing very quickly in the west, and obviously, they haven't changed their views on  the LGBTQP+ agenda to make that growth possible.
"I will outline below, in chronological order, four egregious instances (there are many more) in which Father Josiah’s behavior and words related to same-sex issues have done significant damage to the spiritual well-being of many of our parishioners, as well as irreparable harm to the Orthodox Church’s reputation as a loving hospital for sick souls. Because of his actions, he is now listed as a religious figure promoting hate by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and People for the American Way."
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a leftist organization that has lost all credibility. For example, they labelled the Family Research Council as a hate group, because they take a Biblical stand on homosexuality and gay marriage, which inspired a homosexual terrorist to attempt to murder its staff members. They have also been successfully sued for defamation, and been forced to pay 3.4 million dollars in a single defamation case. They have shady finances, and their founder was forced to step down when he was accused of sexually harassing staff members, as well as being guilty of gender discrimination and racism (of all things). And People for the American Way is likewise a leftist organization, with a very long history of hating anything Christian in the public square.
"Whatever one’s opinion of either of these groups may be, it is important to note that they do not label churches or individuals as hate groups simply for being morally opposed to homosexuality. Rather, they identify figures who, through their words or actions, harmfully disparage and contribute to the persecution of marginalized groups. Sadly, I must agree with them that Father Josiah’s words and actions, both of commission and omission, have clearly crossed these lines. And in each of the following four cases, he has harmed the faith of many Orthodox Christians, a number of whom have left the Church."
What exactly did the Family Research Council or Focus on the Family do that warranted these groups hating on them?
"Father Josiah posted to his parish’s website an announcement that they would begin praying the paraklesis on a regular basis in order to “stem the rising tide of sodomy in our state.” The subtext for this announcement was California’s ballot proposition to amend the state constitution in order to prohibit state recognition of same-sex marriage. (Note: The parish website has been significantly reworked since then and this page can no longer be found.) At the time, I was pastoring ten college students who had recently converted to the Orthodox faith, several of whom even were planning to vote in favor of this prohibition of same-sex marriage (i.e. they were opposed to same-sex marriage being legalized). Nevertheless, Father Josiah’s announcement scandalized all of them for two main reasons. The first was his use of the heavily charged term “sodomy.”"
"Sodomy" and "sodomite" are perfectly good English words, which are often used in well known and highly used translations of the Bible, including the text found in the Orthodox Study Bible (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). In our time, the term "homosexuality" is often defined, not in terms of the sin of falling into homosexual passions, but as the inclination itself, and so to be clear about what we are referring to, "sodomy" is a useful term which keeps the focus on the sin, rather than on a person who might be tempted to commit it.
"The second reason the students were scandalized, however, struck me even more deeply. They wanted to know why, out of all the social ills going on in the world, from famine to homelessness to wars that our own hierarchs correctly and bravely oppose as unjust, Father Josiah was singling out the LGBTQ community as a menace worthy of special prayer services. One of these young people, who knew the Bible and church history like the back of his hand, wanted to know why Father Josiah was using a politically-charged term like sodomy, and not focusing on what the Bible indicates was the sin of Sodom: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ez 16:49). As this student correctly noted, this is the underlying sin of America."
I don't believe anyone who actually listens to Fr. Josiah's sermons could honestly say that he does not talk about things like feeding the poor and helping the homeless. Those matters are obviously not subject to the same kind of controversy either. But our society's surrender to the LGBTQP+ agenda has already had a lot of real world consequences that hit very close to home for us all. We now have LGBTQP+ propaganda regularly taught to children in public schools. We have Christian adoption agencies that have been forced to close because they refuse to adopt children to homosexuals. We have seen Christians who oppose that agenda forced out of business, and fired from their jobs. We have seen groups as benign and respectable as the Salvation Army labeled as a hate group simply because they hold to Biblical teachings on homosexuality. And we have by no means seen the last of where this shift will ultimately take us as a society. We won't know that for sure for many decades. So Fr. Josiah's concerns are absolutely justified. And it should be noted that the proposition against gay marriage that he supported passed by a healthy margin, even in the far left state of California, and gay marriage was only imposed upon that state by activists judges abusing their power.

As for the idea that the sin of Sodom was merely that they were not nice to visitors --  that is absolute nonsense. Not only is this clear from the passage in Genesis itself (Genesis 19), but it is even made clear in the very context of the passage our anonymous author is referencing. Ezekiel 16:49 does indeed say:
"Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy."
But that's not all Ezekiel said. In the very next verse, we read:
"And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good" (Ezekiel 16:50).
The word "abomination" in Hebrew is "tô‛êbah," which was discussed in some detail in a previous article (Stump the Priest: Shrimp and Homosexuality). In every other case in the book of Ezekiel in which the singular of tô‛êbah is used, it is in reference to sexual immorality (Ezekiel 22:11; 33:26). Clearly, the abomination that is referred to here is that of sexual immorality in general, and homosexuality in particular. This is how the famous medieval Jewish commentator Rashi understood that text as well (see Robert Gagnon, Why We Know That the Story of Sodom Indicts Homosexual Practice Per Se). Likewise, the Jewish philosopher Philo, who was a contemporary of Christ, understood the sin of Sodom to be homosexuality (Abraham 133-141).

Furthermore, the Epistle of St. Jude makes it clear that the sins of Sodom included sexual immorality chiefly among them:
" Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 7).
Commenting on this passage Oecumenius says:
"The unnatural lust in which the Sodomites indulged was homosexuality..." (Commentary on Jude, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. XI, Gerald Bray, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2000) p. 251).
St. John Chrysostom likewise connects the sin of homosexuality with the condemnation of Sodom in his homily on Romans 1:26-27.

The sin of Sodom was not that they were rude to strangers. They were sexually perverse, and this led them to the attempted rape of the two angels that visited Lot in Sodom. This sexual perversity is not merely incidental to this story. Dr. Robert Gagnon spells out the reasons for this in great detail in the following video:

"I assured this young man that Father Josiah’s views were not representative of the Orthodox Church as a whole. But gradually, over the next decade, because no one challenged Father Josiah’s attack on the LGBTQ community, because no one redirected him to Ezekiel’s and Jesus’ attacks on those who fail to care for the poor and needy, over half of these young people no longer attend Orthodox churches, despite the fact that they are still fully committed to living out the Gospel teaching."
Perhaps if our anonymous author had actually declared the whole counsel of God to these young people, the results world have been different. The fact that he clearly agreed with them, contrary to the Tradition of the Church and the Scriptures themselves, that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with sexual perversion shows that he not only failed to teach them the Truth, but actually confirmed them in their error.
"On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. Faithful Orthodox Christians have been understandably divided on their reactions to this ruling, and I have my own mixed feelings. What is undeniably clear, however, is that Father Josiah’s ensuing behavior the following Sunday was deeply offensive and in flagrant violation of church traditions. At the Sunday Divine Liturgy of June 28, 2015, Fr. Josiah vested in black vestments and preached a sermon entirely focused on the Supreme Court and its ruling, with no reference to the appointed Gospel for that Sunday. (Ironically, he could have easily preached on the appointed Gospel, Mt 8:5-13, and indicated that Christ could heal people struggling with their sexuality just as he healed the centurion’s servant.)"
Had Fr. Josiah been on the Old Calendar, he could have preached from the Prophecy of Amos, since that Sunday was his feast -- which is what I did, but I applied what the Prophet Amos had to say to the results of that same Supreme Court decision (God's Plumbline). I doubt that Fr. Josiah and I were alone on that Sunday in feeling the need to address this issue. There are times during the life of St. John Chrysostom, for example, in which his preaching departed from the lectionary readings, and he felt the need to speak about a burning issue that needed his attention.
"I was, of course, serving at my own parish that Sunday morning and not in attendance at Father Josiah’s parish; but there was a text message on my phone that afternoon from someone who was there and was concerned. I was somewhat in disbelief and assured the parishioner that Father Josiah had simply overreacted and this issue would “blow over.” But then, two days later, Father Josiah proudly published the transcript and audio of his sermon (with description of his actions) on Ancient Faith Radio (listen here). It should be noted that, according to its website, “Ancient Faith Ministries is a department of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America with a pan-Orthodox outreach.” Since this material was posted on a website that is a department of the AOCA, I thought for certain that these actions and comments would be chastised. I felt confident that the transcript would, at the very least, be removed, and, hopefully, an apology issued. And yet, more than four years later they remain in a public location, and one that is often a first stop for inquirers, catechumens, and the faithful. Sadly, I have received many more concerned questions about these remarks and actions since they were published, meaning people are still viewing this uncharitable material."
You will note that there is actually nothing in Fr. Josiah's sermon (A Black Day: Supreme Folly from the Supremes) that the anonymous author has actually pointed out as being false, or in need of retraction.
"It should be pointed out that black vestments are used so rarely in services that many priests/parishes do not even own any. They are for use only in the first week of Lent and Holy Week, and often are reserved solely for Great and Holy Friday. Yet Father Josiah wore them (and instructed all of his concelebrants to wear them) at a Sunday celebration of the resurrection of Christ! To replace festive gold with the black of mourning on a day celebrating the resurrection is inexcusable and disrespectful to the symbolism and tradition of our Church. Father Josiah further explained that what had happened that day in America was worse than if a parishioner had died: “You’re wondering, probably, who died, and I haven’t told you yet. Much, much worse than that, brothers and sisters. I wish that, instead of the cause for wearing black vestments today, I had only the sorrow to tell you that one of our beloved passed away….” Father Josiah has never worn black vestments when American bombs have rained down killing innocent children (many of them Orthodox) in the Middle East—in wars that our hierarchs have vocally and correctly opposed as unjust. Father Josiah has never worn black vestments to mourn the homeless crisis in California that a UN inspector has deemed one of the worst situations in the world. Instead, a Supreme Court ruling that did not directly affect the life of the Church warranted this action in his eyes."
So now we are concerned about liturgical color schemes. As a matter of fact, no one used black vestments in the Orthodox Church prior to the funeral of the Emperor Peter II in 1821. It became the Russian practice to use them on most of the weekdays of Great Lent and Holy Week. It is certainly out of the normal order to wear black vestments on a Sunday, but if you read the Prophets in the Old Testament, they more than a few times did unusual things to get people's attention.

Unfortunately, the United States has been at war on some level or another for most of its history -- and so if we wore black every time our military did something that resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians, we would be wearing black more often than not. And, at least in most cases, there is no reason to think that we are currently targeting innocent civilians on purpose. But I also know that there is a special sensitivity to the political issues in the Middle East within the Antiochian Archdiocese, and I know that at least some clergy have been told not to make statements on their own, because of the negative impact that those statements (coming from clergy that the Antiochian Patriarchate is responsible for) might have on the Christian population in the Middle East who live in very precarious political situations. Not being part of the Antiochian Archdiocese, I have written and spoken on the immoral policies of the United States in the Middle East. Fr. Josiah probably does not have as much liberty on that issue, and I can understand the concern about blow-back that the Antiochian bishops have.
"If he did these things without the blessing of his bishop, there should have been a sharp reprimand and his sermon should have been removed from Ancient Faith Radio—and it still should be removed now. If he did these things with the blessing of his bishop, then we have an even bigger problem, and the Antiochian hierarchs themselves need to be called out for their hypocrisy and the pastoral harm they are actively countenancing. It is well past time for this rebuke to come, an apology to be issued, and for this sermon to be taken off of a prominent Orthodox website. It continues to do damage to our faithful, as well as to our reputation as a place of love and healing."
Keep in mind in reading these words that the only thing specifically that Fr. Josiah did that the anonymous author thinks should warrant him being disciplined and being forced to issue an apology is to wear the wrong color vestments at a Liturgy.
"Because Father Josiah’s behavior was not disciplined, he went on to catch the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for his disturbing remarks at the World Congress of Families in the nation of Georgia. The SPLC characterized the gathering as a whole a showcase of “anti-LGBT rhetoric and conspiracy theories,” but described Father Josiah’s address as “one of the more virulently anti-LGBT speeches” at the four-day event."
And if Fr. Josiah sued the SPLC for defamation, he might have won 3.4 million dollars too.
"Some lowlights include Father Josiah’s declaration that “today the USA has a national ambassador for the promotion of sodomy,” and his dire warning that the “lavender mafia, these homofascists, these rainbow radicals” will turn Tbilisi into a city like San Francisco, “where there are 80,000 more dogs in the city limits than there are children.” Most horrific of all, Father Josiah—who ordinarily has nothing but mockery and scorn for Muslims, Muhammad, and their sacred texts—referred to the Qur’an with implicit approval, stating, “Muhammad is recorded as ordering the execution of anyone practicing sodomy.” Several in the crowd actually applauded this comment—applause that Father Josiah did not reprimand during the speech, and applause that he danced around when interviewed about the topic, as I will show below."
Rather than focus on the characterizations of Fr. Josiah's speech on the part of those who hate the teachings of the Church, I would recommend that everyone listen to the actual speech in its entirety and judge for themselves whether he said anything untrue or contrary to the teachings of the Church. I would argue that the only people who will object to this speech are those who would object to any speech that insisted that homosexuality really is a sin, and that it is incompatible with the Christian life.

It happens to be a fact that the United States has used its power and influence to promote the LGBTQP+ agenda around the world. Our embassies regularly fly the rainbow flag, our ambassadors regularly march in "gay pride" parades, and we threaten any country with sanctions if they do not play along -- with the curious exceptions of countries like Saudi Arabia, who put homosexuals to death according to Sharia Law.

What Fr. Josiah said about the Quran happens to be true. No one who is trying to be fair here would seriously argue that Fr. Josiah supports putting homosexuals to death.
"The use of such extreme, conspiratorial, and apocalyptic language—in a nation like Georgia, where violence against LGBT individuals remains quite high—is at the very least wildly irresponsible. Groups like the SPLC and People for the American Way are understandably concerned that it can incite violence. Journalist Natalia Antelava gave Father Josiah the opportunity to clarify his position and asked him specifically if he had considered that it could incite violence in Georgia. While he claimed he did not approve of the death penalty for homosexuals, he gave literally no answer for why he did not rebuke the crowd for their applause, only noting that he disagreed with it and so just continued his speech without much pause. You can hear this interview for yourself here: the segment on Father Josiah begins at the 36:45 mark. The applause can be heard at 38:05. There is also a transcript of the interview towards the bottom of the linked webpage."
You will note that if you listen to this speech on YouTube, the applause is not even audible. Furthermore, I doubt he expected that there would be any applause, and so his reaction of just continuing to speak is understandable. When something unexpected happens when you are speaking it's easy to later think of what you might have said or done in response, but it is a lot harder to come up with something in the few seconds you have to process it.
"With complete disregard to widely available statistics and well documented news reports, Father Josiah told Antelava (in the recorded conversation linked above) that he does not believe violence against homosexuals is of any significant concern. He even went so far as to suggest—with no evidence whatsoever—that it is the LGBT community who is a violent threat to religious conservatives!"
Interestingly, I was looking at an old post of mine, which had links to two YouTube videos of LGBT mob violence targeting Christians, and I see that YouTube has removed them both, which underscores the fact that the media skews reporting on this issue. I did a Google search to see if I could find links to articles about the incidents shown in those videos, and Google's algorithms being what they are, nothing turned up. That certainly doesn't mean that it hasn't happened. "Act Up" use to disrupt Roman Catholic Masses on a somewhat regular basis. As I mentioned before, the Southern Poverty Law Center's labeling of the Family Research Council as a hate group inspired a homosexual activist to attempt to kill the staff at its headquarters. And at least in the current climate today, here in the US, where Fr. Josiah lives, it is far more likely that any organized violence is going to be directed by pro-LGBTQP+ activists against those they see as "the haters" than the other way around. Obviously any violence directed at anyone should not be encouraged, but rather condemned. Nowhere has Fr. Josiah ever suggested that violence against homosexuals was a Christian response. His point was simply that the religions that have adherents among the majority of the worlds population all agree with St. Paul that homosexual sex is contrary to nature and a grave sin -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.

Furthermore, we have already had intellectuals on the left making the case that conservative Christians should be treated like Nazis, and not allowed to participate in polite society. So there is no reason to think that the current level of hostility that they show towards those who do not approve of their views is as far as things will go. If they have the power to do it, things may get a whole lot worse for those unwilling to bow the knee to Baal.
"If there were any hopes that Father Josiah may have been privately reprimanded after his remarks in Georgia, they were dashed by his speech at the Parish Life Conference in Portland, and his subsequent audio series on his website Patristic Nectar Publishing, entitled “Patriotism: The Duty of a Christian to His Nation.” This five-part series is riddled with conservative Presbyterian theological concepts that have dubious place in Orthodoxy. It is worth noting here that Father Josiah has degrees from two Protestant institutions, the evangelical Westmont College and the Presbyterian Westminster Seminary, but no academic degrees from any Orthodox institution."
Of course, since our anonymous author has failed to put his name behind his words, we have no way of measuring his credentials against Fr. Josiah's, but if you want to accuse him of saying something that is contrary to the Tradition of the Church, you would normally need to actually cite something specific which he has said, which this anonymous hit-piece has been very short on even attempting to do.

I would simply note that if you read what the Fathers and Saints of the Church have to say about the commandment to "Honor thy father and thy mother," you will find that they teach that this extends to honoring one's country. As citizens of a country, we do have obligations to that country.
"There is no room here to tackle the numerous problems throughout this series, but a few quick observations are important. First, Father Josiah adopts a stance throughout this lecture series that America is a “Christian nation,” and that its identity as such derives from its enshrinement of Christian morality in our laws. In order to make this claim, one would expect him—especially as an academic—to at least address the racism, misogyny, slavery, Indigenous genocide, and countless other immoral actions and beliefs of the majority of the founding figures of this country. Instead of making any such argument, Father Josiah waves off concerns about these aspects of American history as “nonsense.”"
The fact that the United States was founded almost exclusively by Christians is beyond dispute. That one can point to short-comings among the founding fathers is no less true than the fact that most children can identify many short-comings in their own parents. Unless one commits the sin of Ham, however, we don't magnify their short-comings and ignore their virtues. And it is bad history to judge the people of the past by the standards and conditions that prevail today. We should judge people in the past by the standards and conditions that those people would have known. And if you compare the United States to almost every other country at the time of the founding, it comes off looking pretty good, even if comparing the United States at that time with contemporary standards and conditions is another matter. We wouldn't have gotten to where we are on the issues mentioned had we not had those people then, establishing a government based on principles of God given rights and individual liberties. They had short-comings then, and we certainly have them now. They are not the same short-comings, but as we continue to kill nearly a million innocent babies a year, since Roe v. Wade, we are in no position to pat ourselves on the back too much.
"Second, Father Josiah’s argument fuses classic Protestant theological affirmations of America with anachronistic readings of the Bible and the church fathers in order to endorse American exceptionalism from a Christian perspective and to claim that we now live in a “degraded” and “post-Christian” society. For Father Josiah, a culture that has abandoned the horrors described above, given women equal rights to men, abolished slavery, and ended racial segregation and Indigenous genocide has somehow become degraded and post-Christian because it has legalized same-sex marriage."
I rather doubt that Fr. Josiah praised any of the ills in American History. I remember having a lengthy conversation with him about some of the crimes the United States government has perpetrated in its history, and he did not deny in way, shape, or form, that such crimes had been committed. I am sure that he would agree that killing a million innocent babies a year is worse than allowing gay marriage -- in fact, a good case can be made that the sin of abortion has gotten us to where we on the question of sexual immorality -- but condemning one abomination doesn't prevent us from condemning any other abomination.
"Father Josiah thus makes arguments that come close to theonomy, a form of Christian totalitarianism popular in conservative Presbyterian circles. Theonomists hold that there should be no distinction between Christian morality (Christian law) and secular law. The most extreme adherents claim that all criminal punishments in Leviticus should still be in effect. Father Josiah does not explicitly go this far, but he adamantly defends the idea that Christians have the right to “impose their morality” on others because “all legislation is imposed morality.” America’s status is once again exceptional as a Christian nation, despite centuries of genocide and slavery, but will now bring the curse of the prophet Isaiah (Is 5:20) upon us because we now are practicing the “exaltation of sexual anarchy and sexual perversion.”"
This is a very cheap shot, for which no actual evidence is being provided. And indeed all laws reflect someone's morality (or immorality). Why should Christians not try to have the laws reflect Christian morality? Of course we do not want to impose our faith on anyone, but there is no reason why the laws should not reflect Christian principles of morality.
"Relying on these deeply problematic misrepresentations of history and on non-Orthodox theological “foundations,” Father Josiah feels confident enough to openly mock a gay California politician for stating that he has struggled with his sexual orientation and his spirituality. He cackles at this same man for his “intellectual deficiency,” for being “against nature,” and “for living in open sodomy.” He endorses conversion therapy (which is not and never has been a part of the Orthodox response to same-sex attraction), and he audaciously conflates it with Orthodox conversion and repentance."
Since when has it been contrary to the teaching of the Orthodox Church to provide counsel to someone who comes and asks for help overcoming their sin? Whether any approach is actually effective or not is a question of wisdom, but why should we not encourage those struggling with homosexuality to not allow that sin to be their identity, and to see what can be done, with God's grace to overcome it? There are certainly some people who struggle with homosexuality who are probably never going to have a healthy marriage with someone of the opposite sex, but on the other hand, there have been many cases in which someone has fallen into that sin, and yet gone on to do just that. As I have said many times, I think it would be a great service if those who really want to help homosexuals overcome their sin, wrote articles, held conferences, and conducted studies in which  they examined what can and should be done to help people who have this struggle. I am sure Fr. Josiah would agree. The issue of principle here, which cannot be denied without denying the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, is that the homosexual lifestyle is incompatible with the Christian life.
"Once again, our bishops continue to do nothing. In fact, Father Josiah is allowed to charge $15 just to listen to his hateful and condescending nonsense. The offensive and destructive implications that these attitudes have for marginalized groups throughout American history is massive. Our college-educated young people are rightfully disturbed. I have witnessed significant numbers of people have crises of faith and simply withdraw. I have seen so many others leave altogether. But perhaps most importantly, I have seen our brothers and sisters, faithful Orthodox Christians who struggle against same-sex attraction and work tirelessly to commit themselves to celibacy, be deeply harmed by Father Josiah’s words, and by the implicit condoning of these words by our hierarchs who allow this material to be publicly available or even sold as valuable Orthodox insights. I will conclude by asking my brother clergy and my fellow faithful of the Antiochian Archdiocese and the broader Orthodox Church here in North America: What kind of Church do we want? Is it a Church that alienates the spiritually thirsty from what we all so desperately need? Do we really want to implicitly (or worse yet, explicitly) endorse the words and actions of Father Josiah Trenham as they relate to same-sex attraction, relationships, and marriage? Or is it an open, confident, warm, and loving Church that teaches a message of hope and a path to salvation that is relevant to all? Is it a Church that stands by its traditional teachings in a loving and welcoming way, or is it a Church that allows its priests to incite violence against marginalized groups and to deeply wound its faithful who are doing their best to live according to the fulness of the Gospel?"
In order to stand by the Traditional teachings of the Church in a loving way, or in any way at all, one needs to actually teach them. One needs to have the courage to deliver the whole counsel of God, and not shrink from doing so out of fear that many people do not want to hear it. It is clear that the anonymous author not only has in mind not teaching the Traditions of the Church on these issues, but is content to misrepresent them. Again, if you really believe that active homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), then failing to convey that fact is the least loving thing you could possibly do for a homosexual. Shrinking from delivering the whole counsel of God will make your life easier. You will have fewer people who will be offended by what God has to say on the matter, but that is the cowardly approach. But of course, someone who would write an anonymous open letter has already shown the approach they prefer. If it was up to me, the Christian life would be the easy way, but unfortunately, it is the straight and narrow way... the difficult path, that the Lord says is the only path to salvation (Matthew 7:13-14). We don't get to pick the Truth, our job is simply to teach it and to live it, and I believe Fr. Josiah Trenham has been doing an admirable job of that very thing.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Antiochians Don't Disappoint (The Fr. Aaron Warwick Affair)

Metropolitan Joseph (Al-Zehlaoui)

Whatever one might say about the Antiochians, they can't say that they are squishy when it comes to those promoting the LGBTQP+ agenda. That's why it was somewhat of a surprise to see that an Antiochian Priest, Fr. Aaron Warwick, had written a pro-homosexual article and published it via a notoriously pro-homosexual website "Orthodoxy in Dialogue." When I first saw it, I sent a message to an Antiochian priest who is a close friend to ask if Fr. Aaron really was an Antiochian priest, and was told that indeed he was.

I expected to see the other shoe drop before too many days passed, and I was not disappointed. Fr. Aaron posted an apology and retraction (of sorts), and then it was announced that his upcoming elevation to the rank of archpriest has been postponed indefinitely.

The Original Article

Fr. Aaron's article contains a number of errors that need to be addressed:
"I will discuss below how the Church deals with these shortcomings for heterosexual couples. It will be apparent that our approach to dealing with heterosexual sins in the Church is quite different from our approach to homosexual sins. With respect to the class of heterosexual sins, we are forgiving, understanding, and pastoral. Following that discussion, I will outline how we generally treat homosexual sins in the Church, which is primarily not pastoral."
I am not sure what sort of pastoral applications Fr. Aaron has seen on the ground that leads him to this conclusion, but I don't know of any priests who do not treat those struggling with homosexuality with pastoral understanding. I have had parishioners who have fallen into heterosexual fornication, and also those who have fallen into homosexual fornication, and I treat the sins themselves in the same way, though how it would apply in a given case depends on more factors than just the nature of the sin. And I have a great deal of compassion for anyone who is sincerely struggling to overcome a sin that is difficult to triumph over, and most sexual sins fall into that category.
"I am unaware of any Orthodox priest who has ever informed a heterosexual that he/she has one option: lifelong celibacy. However, that is exactly what many homosexuals have heard. I will begin with this double standard. Can we as pastors imagine the looks we would get—the complaints of difficulty, of loneliness, etc.—from heterosexuals if we informed them this was their only path to salvation?"
But of course lifelong celibacy is not the only option for those struggling against homosexuality -- they may marry someone of the opposite sex. If they do not wish to do so, that doesn't make lifelong celibacy their only option -- it makes it the only remaining option if they choose not take the other option. And there are heterosexuals who have no other Christian option than celibacy for very long periods of time, for any number of reasons. My wife's Godmother was from the Soviet Union, and she and her three children ended up in a displaced persons camp in Germany at the end of World War II. Her husband had been drafted by the Soviets, and she never heard from him again. She remained celibate for the rest of her life as a result. She could have asked for the Church to declare her husband dead after seven years, but that still would have required at least seven years of celibacy. Even in peace time there are situations in which spouses are separated for very long periods of time, and yet the Church doesn't suggest that maybe it would be OK for them to fool around because celibacy is too much to ask. And of course there are many single Orthodox Christians who are not married, and may have to wait many years before they are able to be married, and yet the Church doesn't suggest that having sex outside of marriage would be OK, because celibacy is difficult.
"In fact, in my experience, the person who has no sexual contact with anyone throughout their life besides their spouse (and only after marriage) is by far in the minority. And by this I do not mean the split is like 51-49, or even 75-25 or 90-10, but more like 99-1—as in, for every one person who lives up to this ideal, 99 fall short."
While this may generally be true in our time, that does not make falling short of the teachings of the Church no big deal. Perhaps the numbers would be less lopsided if we made more of an effort to teach our children to not conform to the world. The solution to this problem is obviously not to say that conforming to the world is acceptable.
"We do not find it necessary to issue statements repeating the fact that we as a Church are opposed to masturbation, fornication, adultery, and divorce. Yet, we do find it necessary to continually repeat that we think homosexuality is a sin and we are opposed to gay marriage. And then we wonder why we have so few homosexuals in our pews or why our young children (who notice the hypocrisy) end up leaving our churches and/or complain about our lack of acceptance of homosexuals."
The reason why this is so, is because no one in the Church is trying to argue that masturbation, fornication, adultery and divorce are not really sins. We do find people arguing that homosexuality is not a sin, and so we have to send our forces to where the war is actually being fought, not to where it isn't. Although, speaking for myself, I have preached many times on these issues too, and certainly deal with them in the context of confession regularly.

And if you want to see churches with more than their fair share of empty pews, take a look at those Protestant churches that have raised the white flag on this issue. Those churches have been emptying out at staggering rates. It turns out that Churches that don't believe anything have a hard time convincing people that they ought to get up on Sunday morning and come to Church.

"In this self-justification, we completely ignore the fact that there is no movement to promote masturbation, or fornication, or adultery, or divorce because these sins are completely normalized not only in our culture, but in our churches. If we held heterosexuals to the same standard to which we hold homosexuals, then my communion line would be very short on Sundays."
If someone commits fornication, adultery, or is the guilty party in a divorce, they are normally going to be denied communion for some period of time. And generally speaking, I think most priests would handle someone falling into those sins pretty much the same way that they would someone falling into homosexual fornication.
"... homosexual acts are one of the least penalized sexual sins in the canons of our Church. The sins of fornication and adultery are treated much more harshly, and the reasons for this are obvious" [emphasis added].
I happened to speak recently to an expert on canon law, and mentioned this ridiculous assertion, and he laughed out loud in response. There is in fact no basis for this claim.

Here is likely the canon that inspired Fr. Aaron's misunderstanding:
"As for sexual intercourse of men with one another, such as practicing double masturbation, it received the stated penance of up to eighty days" (the 9th canon of St. John the Faster).
This canon references the preceding canon, which states:
"Anyone having committed masturbation is penanced forty days, during which he must keep himself alive by xerophagy and must do one hundred metanias (prostrations) every day."
It should be noted that the canon for double masturbation is precisely twice the penance prescribed for solo masturbation because, as St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain notes: "each of these offenders is not only hurting himself, but is also hurting his brother, and this makes the sin a double sin" (The Rudder, p. 938).

But St. John the Faster has more to say about homosexual sex. If you keep reading through his canons until you get to Canon 18, he states:
"It has seemed advisable to exclude any man who has been so mad as to copulate with another man from Communion for three years, weeping and fasting, and towards evening confined to xerophagy, and doing two hundred metanias. But as for one who prefers to take it easy, let him fulfill the fifteen years."
So he is saying that by economia, a man who actually copulates with another man might be allowed to be ex communicated for a mere 3 years, with weeping, fasting, eating dry vegetarian food (with no wine or oil), and doing 200 hundred prostrations a day, but if they do not do so, then they should fulfill the strict 15 years of ex communication. The penance for adultery in the 20th Canon of the Council of Ancyra is 7 years, though St. Basil appointed 15 years. It is a principle of applying the canons that you do not want the medicine (the penance) to kill the patient, and so in our times, we would not impose a penance that was even close to the lighter penances, but the point here is that the canons do not treat homosexual sex with less severity than they do fornication or adultery. It is considered to be equal to adultery, in terms of the penance, and generally fornication is given a penance of half the time given to adulterers or homosexuals, and so it actually is treated less severely, though no at all lightly.
"If a homosexual parishioner struggles with remaining sexually chaste, we should treat them no differently from how we treat the heterosexual fornicator. There is no need to shame and guilt them; we should instead work to better align them with the Church’s ideal. We should give them many opportunities to repent and to make sincere efforts to remain sexually chaste. Ultimately, if a homosexual parishioner finds it too lonely and too burdensome not to have a significant other, there really is no reason we cannot treat them the way we treat unmarried heterosexuals. Specifically, we should encourage them to refrain from sexual acts with that significant other, while realizing they may very well fall short of that goal, as do 99% of our most devout and pious heterosexual parishioners."
Are there priests in the Orthodox Church that encourage unmarried heterosexual laymen, who find celibacy too hard, to find and then live together with a "significant other"? If so, I haven't met them.
"In reality, I believe we should also accept that, like most heterosexuals, most homosexuals will find lifelong abstinence to be impracticable. In such cases, it is my strong conviction that we should encourage homosexuals to find a lifelong partner. While I understand this offends the sensibility of many Orthodox Christians, I again point to how our Church has dealt with the sin of divorce and remarriage. Namely, we do not enforce the strict legal and scriptural injunctions of our Church; rather, we act in a pastoral manner, allowing people an opportunity to continue working out their salvation within the Church. We never ask a remarried individual to eventually, some day leave their new spouse so their sin will not persist. We simply recognize this person needs compassion and a chance to do as well as they possibly can. Furthermore, we realize that the best way to encourage this is for an individual to belong to some form of community that requires mutual submission and the restriction of one’s sexual life to focus on no more than one person" [emphasis added].
The equation of homosexual sex with those who are divorced and remarried is a false one. The Church recognizes two biblical reasons for divorce, and then makes some extrapolations from them -- Christ stated that one could divorce for the cause of fornication (i.e. a spouse who is unfaithful), and St. Paul also adds that if one has an unbelieving spouse who abandons them, then this is also a justification for divorce. The Church makes some extrapolations based on these two reasons, and so, for example, if one has a spouse that beats the snot out of them and refuses to stop doing so, the abusive spouse has abandoned them, and they may legitimately divorce them. Divorce is always a sin on the part of at least one spouse, and often on the part of both. A second marriage for any reason is less than the Christian ideal. However, the Church does not consider someone who has been divorced (in a divorce recognized by the Church) and who has been remarried by the Church, to be living in perpetual sin. There have certainly been sins committed that got them into their current situation, but after some penance, there is restoration to communion (see The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, Section X.3).

Homosexual sex, however, is inherently sinful, and there is no situation in which it ceases to be sinful. St. Paul says that those who engage in homosexual sex will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). He also says this is true of those who continue to engage in adultery, fornication, idolatry, thievery, drunkenness, covetousness, reviling, and extortion -- but not inheriting the Kingdom of God is a pretty big deal, and it is a grave sin for any priest to give his parishioners the impression that maybe it is not such a big deal after all. That is in fact pastoral malpractice.

The Non-Apology Apology

As I had hoped, Fr. Aaron was clearly told to issue a retraction, and to ask that his article be taken down (which "Orthodoxy in Dialogue" chose not to comply with). The unfortunate aspect of his letter of retraction is that he actually did not retract anything he said. He merely expressed sorrow that some people were confused and misunderstood what he actually had said. The problem was not that people didn't understand what he had said -- the problem is that what he said was wrong. But I am glad that his bishops didn't simply ignore it, but instead took swift action.

Furthermore, Fr. Aaron had been scheduled to be elevated to the rank of archpriest on January 19th. The service for the making of an archpriest asks that God may "adorn him [the priest who is being elevated] with virtue to stand at the head of the Presbyters of Thy people, and make him worthy to be a good example to them that are with him..." (The Order of the Office for the Making of a Protopresbyter (Archpriest), vol 1, Book of Needs, (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 1998, p. 258). This is an honor given to priests after many years of service, and it does suggest that they have been a good example, and should be leaders among their brother priests. Had the Antiochian Archdiocese gone ahead and made him an archpriest after this scandalous article, it would have added insult to injury. Fortunately, they have decided to postpone his elevation indefinitely.

I take no delight in the personal anguish this has no doubt caused Fr. Aaron and his family, but Bishop Basil and Metropolitan Joseph had no good choices here, and they have done the only thing they could have done without the flock being harmed more than they already have been.

It is certainly a good and necessary thing for clergy to consider how best to pastorally deal with those struggling with homosexuality, or any other sexual sin. Suggesting that continuing in that sin might not be so bad after all, however, is not the answer.

Bishop Basil (Essey) of Wichita

Several years ago, an OCA priest published a somewhat similar letter, and the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas wrote a response to that letter. I well remember Bishop Basil, when he visited Houston after this had happened, publicly thanking our clergy association for having done so. I am glad to see that he remains strong in the Faith, and is willing to make difficult decisions to defend that Faith. Many Years to Bishop Basil, and Many Years to Metropolitan Joseph! I only hope that other bishops will take note, and follow their example. The only way to prevent an ever increasing number of such scandalous statements being issued in the future, is to deal swiftly and surely with those that make them.

Friday, December 20, 2019

David Bentley Hart and Marcionism

I have long been aware of the fact that David Bentley Hart's theology was far from Orthodox, but I have become convinced -- after reading more of his writings, and listening to him speak -- that his theology cannot even be categorized as properly Christian. Especially after his recent assertion that the God of the Old Testament was mostly evil, and began as a Canaanite storm-god.

In response to DBH's recent book, "That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation," Peter Leithart, who is a conservative Protestant biblical scholar, wrote a review, entitled "Good God?" Leithart correctly zeroed in Hart's dismissal of the Old Testament. He asked Hart whether he believes that the God of the Old Testament is good, by his (DBH's) standards. Leithart didn't use the label "Marcionite," in his review, but Hart got the point, and wrote a rebuttal, which Leithart posted in full: "Good God? A Response." In this response, he leaves little doubt on the matter, though he tries to turn the Marcionite label on his opponent:
"I often have to remind myself how great a distance separates apostolic, patristic, and pre-modern orthodoxy from modern fundamentalism; somehow it always comes as a shock to the system.  So let me say this upfront, and then return to it: fundamentalist literalism is a modern heresy, one that breaks from Christian practice with such violence as to call into question whether those who practice it are still truly obedient to the apostolic faith at all.  That is not an accusation, but it is a lament.  You may be pure, but your premises are corrupt. 
You ask if I think the YHVH of the Old Testament was “good.”  First of all, there is no single YHVH in the Hebrew corpus.  The various texts that the Second Temple redactors collated into the Torah and Tanakh emanate from various epochs in the development of Canaanite and Israelitic religion, and reflect the spiritual sensibilities of very different moments in the evolution of what would in time become Judaism.  Most of the Hebrew Bible is a polytheistic gallimaufry, and YHVH is a figure in a shifting pantheon of elohim or deities.  In the later prophets, he is for the most part a very good god, yes, and even appears to have become something like God in the fullest sense.  But in most of the Old Testament he is of course presented as quite evil: a blood-drenched, cruel, war-making, genocidal, irascible, murderous, jealous storm-god.  Neither he nor his rival or king or father or equal or alter ego (depending on which era of Cannanite and Israelitic religion we are talking about) El (or El Elyon or Elohim) is a good god.  Each is a psychologically limited mythic figure from a rich but violent ancient Near Eastern culture—or, more accurately, two cultures that progressively amalgamated over many centuries.
Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time.  Neither was ever literalist in the way you apparently are.  The only ancient Christian figure whom we can reliably say to have read the Bible in the manner of modern fundamentalists was Marcion of Sinope.  He exhibited far greater insight than modern fundamentalists, however, in that he recognized that the god described in the Hebrew Bible—if taken in the mythic terms provided there—is something of a monster and hence obviously not the Christian God. Happily, his literalism was an aberration."
Marcion's Error

One has to ask here whether Marcion's problem was indeed that he simply took the Old Testament literally, and then concluded that the God of the Old Testament was evil? The answer, from everything we know about Marcion, is that this was not the problem. Marcion was the son of an Orthodox bishop, but he was ex communicated for fornication, and later went to Rome, and joined himself to a gnostic sect that rejected the Old Testament because the God of the Old Testament was the creator of the material world, and they believed matter to be evil. They also, consequently, denied the resurrection of the body. So his problem was that he came to the Old Testament with a foreign set of philosophical assumptions, and rejected it for those reasons... much in the same way that David Bentley Hart does.

Modern Approaches to Scripture

DBH labels the approach of Protestant "fundamentalists" as a "modern heresy," but then goes on to repeat, as if they were undeniable facts, some of the conclusions of the worst of Protestant scholarship, which is certainly no less modern in origin. It is actually not a fact that the various texts and redactors of the Old Testament originated with those worshiping an evil Canaanite storm-god, or that such a God was the original subject of their writings. DBH apparently takes for granted that the Protestant historical-critical approach to Scripture is a neutral and reliable means of understanding the history and meaning of the Old Testament text, but such scholarship is far from neutral or scientific.

Certainly, there are aspects of such scholarship that provide useful and valuable information, and there are aspects of it that are more empirical than others, but this scholarship does not come free from ideological agendas. In particular, the German Biblical Scholarship that emerged after the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation had a consciously secularizing agenda. I talk about the ideological assumptions of such scholarship in my essay on Sola Scriptura, but for more on why this is the case, I would refer the interested reader to two books on the subject:
Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture (1300 - 1700), by Scott W. Hahn and Benjamin Wiker (New York, NY: Herder & Herder Books, 2013)
The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, by Michael C. Legaspi (Oxford University Press, 2010).
When Rudolf Bultmann, for example, argued that Jesus was not only not the Christ, but that he did not even believe himself to be the Christ, this was not a scientific conclusion that we are bound to accept unless we wish to be anti-intellectual and deny reality. This was the expression of Bultmann's opinions, cloaked in scholarly bluster in order to make it sound scientific. His opinions were not based on any hard evidence or undeniable facts whatsoever. This is true of quite a lot of what passes for biblical scholarship today.

If you take the JEDP theory of how the Pentateuch supposedly came into being from the weaving together of four earlier sources (which forms much of the basis of DBH's assertions here, along with the conclusions of the history of religions school), here you have a theory based on a great deal of circular reasoning. The scholars who formulated it selectively chose the "facts" and "evidence" that suited their agenda and then proceeded, with their conclusions essentially predetermined by their basic assumptions, to apply their methods to the Scriptures. And so if you assume, for example, that any mentions of liturgical worship would be later than the time of Moses (because you're a Protestant, and see that as a later corruption), and obviously, the work of later priests, your starting assumption is how you identify the "P" (Priestly) source, and then you know the "P" source, because it matches your assumptions. The reasoning is circular, but because it is presented with confidence, by people who sound like they know what they are talking about, people too often assume there is something objective and compelling about it, when in fact, it is completely subjective. This theory is still taught only because there has not been a new theory that has gained the consensus that the JEDP theory once held in some sectors, but even among Protestant scholars it has largely been discredited.

Even better Protestant scholars have come to see that such an approach to the text of Scripture misses the forest for the trees. For example, Brevard Childs (a Yale Old Testament Scholar, who was a Protestant, but who came closer to an Orthodox approach to Scripture than does DBH), argues that we should interpret the Pentateuch as a whole, in its canonical form, not as separate sources. It is the form that the Church has received that we regard as Scripture, and not hypothetical atomized sources (see his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,1979).

Is it possible that the Pentateuch was comprised of more than one source? It is possible. Is there any way that we could confidently know which source was which in the Pentateuch, given the information available to us today? No. But even if we knew for sure that the Pentateuch was composed of four sources, and even if we could confidently identify which source any particular portions of the Pentateuch came from, if we believe in God, and believe that the Scriptures are inspired by Him, and have confidence that the form that we have received is the form that God intended for us to receive, then the form we have received is what we should concern ourselves with.
For more on that subject, see: 
A Critical Assessment of the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis, by Colin Smith.
A Rigid Scrutiny: Critical Essays on the Old Testament, by Ivan Engnell. 
The Old Testament and Rationalistic Biblical Criticism, by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky.
Having said all of that, I would never suggest that Orthodox scholars or clergy should ignore such scholarship. In fact, I think it is very important that they be familiar with it, but like the Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, I would encourage them to apply the same hermeneutic of suspicion to that scholarship, which its practitioners so love to apply to Scripture. As Oden observes:
"Scripture criticism is more firmly captive today to its modern (naturalistic, narcissistic, individualistic) Zeitgeist than Augustinianism ever was to Platonism or Thomism to Aristotelianism. Trapped in modern prejudices against pre-modern forms of consciousness, reductionistic exegesis has proved to be just as prone to speculation as were the extremist forms of Gnosticism and as uncritical of its own presuppositions as supralapsarian Protestant scholasticism" (Agenda for Theology: After Modernity What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) p. 111).
"Historical biblical criticism has been allied with polemical concerns since its eighteenth century inception as an ideological agent of "Enlightenment." It has expressed a determined interest from the beginning in discrediting not merely the authority of Scripture, but authority in general -- all authority as such. Just read the biographies of Reimarus, Rousseau, Lessing, Strauss, Feuerbach, and of course Nietzsche (cf. Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other). It has operated especially as a partisan "ideology for the demystification of religious tradition"... It is astutely described as the strike force of modernity, "the Wehrmacht of the liberal Church"... The hermeneutic of suspicion has been safely applied to the history of Jesus but not to the history of the historians. It is now time for the tables to turn. The hermeneutic of suspicion must be fairly and prudently applied to the critical movement itself... One obvious neglected arena is the social location of the quasi-Marxist critics of the social location of classic Christianity, who hold comfortable chairs in rutted, tenured tracks. These writers have focused upon the analysis of the social location of the writers and interpreters of Scripture. Yet that principle awaits now to be turned upon the social prejudices of the "knowledge elite" -- a guild of scholars asserting their interest in the privileged setting of the modern university" (The Word of Life: Systematic Theology Volume Two, (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 225f).
Literal and Allegorical Interpretation

Hart went on to attempt to pit the literal meaning of the Old Testament against spiritual interpretations:
In short, you want me to account for myself in a way answerable to the hermeneutical practices of communities gestated within a religion born in the sixteenth century.  But those practices are at once superstitious and deeply bizarre.  They are not Christian in any meaningful way.  They are not Jewish either, as it happens.  They are a late Protestant invention, and a deeply silly one.  From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority.  In that tradition, even “literal” exegesis was not the sort of literalism you seem to presume.  Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read “spiritually.”
In fact, it is for you to account for your beliefs, since they are so incompatible with the teachings and practices of the ancient church and the New Testament regarding the reading of scripture.  And, while we are at it, please go back and read Galatians several times.  Then, in fact, read Hebrews.  If you cannot see what is going on in those texts—how much of ancient Hebrew tradition is rejected and reinterpreted even in being preserved and reclaimed—then you are not paying attention.
This is of course, complete and utter nonsense. Christians believe that there is only one God not because of allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, but because of the literal sense of countless passages that tell us precisely that. We believe that God is the creator of all things visible and invisible, not because of allegorical interpretations, but because this is literally what is taught throughout the Old Testament.

Both Christ and St. Paul make mention of the various Ten Commandments, and we find them taking them literally. Christ also spoke about deeper implications of these commandments beyond the more obvious literal meaning, but he did not undermine those literal meanings by doing do. In fact, it was the Pharisees who used creative interpretations to try to get around the literal meaning of the commandment to honor one's parents, and Christ took them to task for doing so (Matthew 15:3-9).

DBH attempts to set the literal meaning of Scripture in opposition to its spiritual meaning, because he wishes to get around the former by means of the latter. But the Fathers do not approach the Scriptures this way. The Fathers interpreted Scripture both literally and allegorically.

Very rarely in any of the Fathers do you find them saying that something described as having happened, really did not, but that the text in question should be read as having a spiritual meaning only. Most of the Fathers never do that. But even in those instances where a Father does take such a text allegorically, and denies the literal meaning, he does not ascribe error to Scripture, or suggest that the text was the work of those worshiping a Canaanite storm-god. For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses, does indeed say that he believed the death of the Egyptian firstborn would require an unworthy view of God and His justice, and so he sees it as having only a spiritual meaning (The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J Malherbe & Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press,1990), pp. 75–77). He believed the text was not intended to be read literally because he did not believe it was literally describing what actually happened. He did not suggest that the text was in error or that God was actually evil. And his reading of this passage is a minority opinion in any case. Blessed Theodoret, for example, wrote:
"Why did he kill the firstborn of the Egyptians? Since Pharaoh was subjecting Israel, God's firstborn to such harsh slavery -- as you recall, the Lord God himself had said, "Israel is my firstborn son [Exodus 4:22] -- God quite justly gave the firstborn of the Egyptians over to death" (The Questions on the Octateuch, vol. 1, On Genesis and Exodus, trans. Robert C. Hill, (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), p. 259).
St. Ephrem the Syrian likewise writes:
"The firstborn of the Egyptians died in the middle of the night, and every person in the solitude of his own house, mourned the death of his firstborn, the first of his sons. Just as the river had been filled with the firstborn of the Hebrew women, Egyptian tombs were filled with the firstborn of the Egyptian women" (The Fathers of the Church: St. Ephrem the Syrian, Selected Prose Works, trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr, and Joseph P. Amar (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), p. 247f).
It is in fact a false dilemma to pit the literal meaning of Scripture against the spiritual meaning. As St. Cyril of Alexandria, wrote:
“Those who reject the historical meaning in the God-inspired Scriptures as something obsolete are avoiding the ability to apprehend rightly, according to the proper manner, the things written in them. For indeed spiritual contemplation is both good and profitable; and, in enlightening the eye of reason especially well, it reveals the wisest things. But whenever some historical events are presented to us by the Holy Scriptures, then in that instance, a useful search into the historical meaning is appropriate, in order that the God-inspired Scripture be revealed as salvific and beneficial to us in every way” (quoted in: Dr. Mary D. Ford, The Soul's Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (Waymart, PA: St. Tikhon Monastery Press, 2915), p. 69).
What this reveals about David Bentley Hart's Theology

DBH clearly does not regard the Scriptures as divinely inspired revelation of God to man. He sees Scripture as a record of man's search for God. Gradually, over time, smart people like DBH began to reason their way towards a higher view of God. He does not really see the Scriptures as being different from the writings of the pagan Greeks, the Hindus, or the Buddhists. If you doubt me, consider what he has said in the essay we are examining:
"Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time."
And in a subsequent reply to Peter Leithart, Hart wrote:
"Again, the myths of their war god invoked by the people of ancient Israel to justify acts of slaughter were part of the history of what became Jewish and Christian monotheism.  Just as the Homeric myths were the (frequently allegorized) prehistory of later philosophical pagan monotheism." 
So, according to DBH, just as later pagan philosophers allegorized Homer's Iliad, Christians allegorized the Old Testament. Both were equally primitive myths, unworthy of the real God, but by allegory, later philosophers were able to make good use of them, by completely reinterpreting them to mean something quite at odds with the original meaning of the text.

DBH, was asked, in an interview on the show "Closer to the Truth," how it could be that many religions can be true, despite the differences between them, and he replied:
"Well, I never take any religion as a closed system of propositions, every one of which is true, or true in the same way. And that's the way you think about religion. I mean, I think of all religions -- including Christianity -- as cultural artifacts that express truths, or fail to express them, in ways determined as much by cultural history as anything else.... Among the traditions that are serious traditions, you know, not the kind of religion you might make up, if you were trying to sell a certain product rather than the spiritual life, that yes, they can all converge upon the same truths, with all of the fallibility that every human approach to truth exhibits. The same way the different schools even in the sciences are going to diverge from one another. Now, ideally, we say, well at some point there will be a theoretical breakthrough that will either reconcile the differences in the sciences, or show that one theoretical path was sterile. Well in a sense that's true also in religious experience, I mean, but it's just not going to be within the realm of empirical investigation. But yes, no, many different religions can be true, in the sense that they are speaking of the truth in the best way that the cultural tradition to which they belong allows them to do so, while at the same time differing from one another on specific affirmations which may be right or wrong" (Closer to the Truth, 12/16/2017).

It is one thing to say that there are many truths to be found in other religions. Anyone who has done much study of other religions would generally concede that point. However, it is quite another matter to say that other religions are true, and to put them on the same level as the Christian Faith. DBH sees these many religions as having much in common in terms of philosophy and morality, but he clearly does not appreciate the fact that Christ did not come to establish a philosophy -- He came to establish a Church, which is His Body. And the Christian Faith did not arise because smart people eventually developed true ideas about God, it rises or falls on the person of Jesus Christ, and His incarnation, death upon the Cross, and His Resurrection -- and if those things didn't happen in history, then our Faith is in vain, and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17). If "philosophical pagan monotheism" is equally true, then the martyrs died for nothing, because they could have just embraced this pagan philosophy, fit right in with everyone else, and not shed a drop of blood standing for the Christian Faith.

When I reviewed DBH's translation of the New Testament, I thought it was odd that he was so anxious to read into the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Jude a Gnostic interpretation, by positing that there were two distinct classes of Christians within the Church: those who were "psychics," and those who were "pneumatics." However, it does make sense if you realize that DBH is not far off from the Gnostics, and probably thinks they represented a true religion as well. The Gnostics could attach themselves to virtually any religion, reinterpret it, and simply appropriate the texts and terminology of that religion, sort of along the lines of a religious version of  "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." However, the end result was a religion that had the trappings of the "host body." but a completely different substance. DBH's theology is likewise not derived from Christ, the Gospel, or Scripture, and his theology would not be seriously impacted if you took all three of them out of the equation altogether. He could do just as well with the Iliad and pagan Greek philosophers, or with Hinduism or Buddhism and their texts.

Furthermore, what this tells us is that while DBH will spend time arguing about the meaning of various texts of Scripture, it is clear that it doesn't really matter to him what the Scriptures actually mean. After all, he thinks that much of it was written with an evil Canaanite storm-god as its focus, and yet thinks it perfectly acceptable to reinterpret those texts to fit his views. There is every reason to believe he feels just as free to reinterpret the rest of it to fit his views as well, since they are merely "cultural artifacts" of one true religion among many others.

DBH ended his response to Peter Leithart by saying:
"This is not the true gospel. And one slanders the God revealed in Christ by suggesting that it is. You need to become Eastern Orthodox."
One might say the same thing to David Bentley Hart about his theology.

For More Information, See:

The Strange Theology of David Bentley Hart

The Hart Idiosyncratic Version

Christianity or the Church? 

Stump the Priest: "What About the Violence in the Old Testament?"

Friday, November 29, 2019

Stump the Priest: Cremation and Non-Orthodox Family

Question: "A lot of Orthodox are converts to the faith. Inevitably, we will have situations within the family that would seem to be at best uncomfortable or at worst divisive. One situation would be the final wishes of parents that are not Orthodox desiring cremation as a “cost effective” solution to the high costs of funerals. As Orthodox, do we do our duty and follow their wishes, or do we state our opposition risking confrontation within the family during that time?"

Cremation is on the rise for three primary reasons. One, as you mention, is the cost of a traditional burial; but the other two reasons are the increasing ignorance among Christians as to why we do not practice cremation, combined with an increasing indifference to Christianity altogether.

We should talk about funeral arrangements with any family member that we are likely to end up being responsible for at the time of their death. If you have a parent that is a Christian, but says that they want to be cremated, you want to talk to them about why Christians do not practice cremation (because of our faith in the resurrection and respect for the body, see Stump the Priest: Cremation), but usually, the costs of a traditional burial are the biggest factor. This is often because they cannot afford to make the arrangements themselves, or because they do not want to be a burden to their family.

The cost of a burial can be kept down significantly by pre-planning. You can usually set up a payment plan with a funeral home, and get insurance that would cover the full costs, if the death should happen before it is all paid off. You can also save a lot of money by educating yourself about lower cost options. A great resource for this is the book by Fr. Mark Barna "A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition."

Here are two articles that have some useful tips on how to save money on burial costs:
7 ways to save on funeral costs (Market Watch)
11 Ways to Make a Funeral Affordable but Not Cheap (Money Talks News)
Furthermore, you (and your siblings, if you have any) can either help with the cost, or cover them altogether. When my mother passed, she had made no arrangements, and so my surviving brothers and I made the plans together, and split it three ways. Doing this when the person has already died is the least cost-effective way to do it, but splitting the costs made it manageable. Ideally, however, you would want to work with the loved one to make the plans ahead of time, and keep the costs down.

Another point you can make with your loved one is that when they are gone, you would like to have a grave to visit. Cremated remains usually end up on someone's fireplace mantel, and they often end up getting tossed out eventually. A grave is something that all the family and friends of the person will be able to visit, and to pray for them.

In most cases, if you explain the theological reasons against cremation, and address the cost issue, you will be able to persuade a loved one to not opt for cremation. However, if you have a family member who insists on being cremated, for whatever reasons they may have, it seems to me that you would have to respect their wishes, regrettably. Hopefully, it won't come to that.