Friday, November 15, 2019

Trying to Make Silk Purses Out of Sows' Ears (Response to "A Theology of the Erotic")


In the second installment of Aristotle Papanikolaou's latest argument against the concept of there being unchanging moral teachings of the Church, "A Theology of the Erotic," he begins by once again invoking the authority of St. Maximus the Confessor:
"If there is to be consistency in the Orthodox Tradition between theology and ethics, dogma and canon, an ethics of sex must be a theotic ethics; that is, it must be such that the performance of sexual eros is potentially sacramental in the sense that the experience of God is possible through eros, as with all of material creation (St. Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names). God’s material creation is not the enemy of God; it is that which God has made in order for us to experience God. That materiality includes eros. No less than St. Maximus the Confessor has affirmed that eros is the driving engine of nature, the fuel that propels us to union with God when all cognitive functions have ceased as a result of encountering the saturated phenomenon of the divine light. As he says, “When in full ardor of its love (eros) for God the mind goes out of itself . . . through love the mind is ravished by divine knowledge and in going outside of creatures has a perception of divine transcendence” (Four Hundred Centuries on Love 1.10 and 1.12; also 1.19, and 1.100, among many other references). In fact, when speaking about love for God, St. Maximus only uses the word eros. Eros in itself is good, as all creation is good, but it can be misdirected.
It is for this reason that St. Maximus gives detailed analysis and description of the various parts of the soul and their interrelation to one another, more than any other patristic writer in the Orthodox Tradition. He is trying to give advice on how to reshape the architecture of the soul so that eros is progressively directed to God and not simply to finite objects. This architecture is constituted by various parts that include desire, emotions having to do with such reactions as fear, hatred, anger, courage, and the cognitive/rational activity of the soul. How any one part of the soul functions depends on its entanglement with other parts, and for one part of the soul to function optimally, the other parts must also function optimally. For example, envy causes our desire to become greedy, which then clouds the way we see (cognitively) the truth of God’s creation, which, in a vicious cycle, can further fuel other destructive emotions and desires. The measure of this optimal function is participation in God, that is, love for God and neighbor, which includes enemy and stranger and which occurs to a greater or lesser degree. (For a more detailed analysis of St. Maximus on the soul and theosis, see my article, “Theosis”).
It is true that in discussing a sexual ethic within the Church, attention must be given to nature, but in St. Maximus nature is dynamic. Furthermore, human nature has something to do with the architecture of the soul and the landscape of emotions and desires. The real ascetical struggle is how to optimize the relation of the various parts of the soul so that eros progressively is directed toward God and, in that sense, is an experience of the divine life.
What does this mean for an ethics of sex? If the goal of life is union with God, then ethics are not rules for the sake of rules; they are not rules to follow in order to score points with God; they are about principles, practices, and rules that are discerned to regulate the architecture of the soul in such a way that facilitates our ascent to God, and in so doing affect our relation to our neighbor (social ethics). Sexual desire, like all desire, needs an ascetical structure to maximize its potential for sacramentality, which means its capacity for manifesting the presence of God."
What St. Maximus the Confessor was not doing was providing grounds for a theology of sex. Eros is a power of the soul, which is perhaps best described as the longing of the soul for God, as seen for example in St. Augustine's Confessions:
"Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." (Confessions 1:1).
Sexual desire is a part of eros, but the longing we have for God is not to be confused with the sexual desire one person may have for another that they are sexually attracted to. This is true even in the most natural and wholesome expressions, within the context of a loving Christian marriage, much less is it related to perversions of that natural desire. St. Paul does indeed use marriage as an image of Christ's relationship with the Church, but this is using an earthly image to speak of spiritual things, and like any analogy, one should not press the analogy beyond its intended purpose.

In Papanikolaou's previous essay, he began with a hypothetical question that he seems to think compellingly makes a point in support of his general thesis:
"Perhaps my point is best illustrated through a story: During the fall 1999 semester, I taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, a course on Ethics. We were discussing St. Maximus the Confessor on virtues and how the development of virtues enables relations, and in so doing, makes space for the presence of God. I then asked the students that if two people (I did not mention gender) were living together in friendship for fifty years and manifesting the virtues, would this be an example of communion and participation in God. They all said yes. I then asked whether the fact that they had sex would negate the good resulting from their virtuous friendship:  half said it would, while the other half got the point that I will try to articulate in this short, two-part essay."
The problem here is of course the false premise that people living in an immoral relationship could nevertheless be "manifesting the virtues". The foundation of any manifestation of the virtues on the part of fallen men is repentance, and repentance requires both a change of mind about sin, and a change of behavior with regard to sin. Papanikolaou intentionally leaves these "friends" genderless in his analogy, because he is pushing the door open for the acceptance in the Church of homosexual relationships.

But let's consider a real world example. There was a man in Corinth who was in a sexual relationship with his step-mother. We are not given a lot of additional details about the nature of this relationship, or how it came about, but it is likely that this man's father had been married to his mother. His mother probably had died at some point and his father remarried, perhaps in old age, and to a much younger woman. His father likely died at some point, and these two people ended up in a relationship. This relationship was far more natural than a homosexual relationship. There was no biological incest at work here, however, according to the laws of the Old Testament, this was a forbidden sexual relationship (Leviticus 18:6-8). Among the basic requirements which the Apostles laid out for gentile converts was that they abstain from sexual immorality (porneia), and the only standard of what constituted sexual immorality they could have had in mind is that standard found in the moral law of the Old Testament (Acts 15:28-29).

Did St. Paul admonish the Church of Corinth to explore how to make this sexual relationship work within "an ascetical structure to maximize its potential for sacramentality"? No, he commanded the Church in Corinth to ex communicate this man (i.e. no potential for sacramentality), and to have no fellowship with him until he repented (1 Corinthians 5). In the very next chapter, when addressing homosexuality and transgenderism, St. Paul says that those who engage in such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). This is stated in no uncertain terms, and so one has the choice of denying the inspiration of Scripture and thinking they know better than St. Paul, or to accept that what St. Paul says is true -- but they don't get to have it both ways.

Regardless of whatever jesuitical arguments Papanikolaou may engage in, if his reasoning leads to the conclusion that it is OK for Christians to engage in any kind of sexual immorality, and yet be members of the Church in good standing, and receive Holy Communion, he is obviously wrong, because, as the saying goes, "you can't get there from here." The Scriptures are clear. The interpretation the Church has given of these Scriptures is equally clear on this subject. If you want to invent your own religion, you are free to make up whatever beliefs you wish, but if you wish to be an Orthodox Christian, you have no such freedom. Even if we granted that Papanikolaou was properly interpreting St. Maximus, St. Maximus is not of greater authority than the Scriptures. But he clearly is trying to twist St. Maximus to support an agenda that we know for a fact St. Maximus would never have had anything to do with.

When Papanikolaou says "attention must be given to nature, but in St. Maximus nature is dynamic," he is alluding to Fr. Richard René thesis in his "Meeting Michelle" essay, which Tikhon Pino has already demonstrated, was a clear distortion of St. Maximus the Confessor (See Response to "Meeting Michelle" Part 1).
"The Church has historically discerned that this ascetical structure would entail a long-term committed relationship between a man and a woman. This relationship, however, must be ascetical in the sense that the human beings involved must engage in the ascetical practices that facilitate the manifestation of the virtues, which shape the flow of eros such that it is sacramental. The ascetical nature of this relationship runs throughout the entire relationship, but in terms of sexual eros, a very simple and basic example of an ascetical approach to sexual eros would be to listen and be attentive to what the other is saying about likes, dislikes, fears, and hopes in relation to the sex act.
Is this a “new asceticism” in the sense that the patristics writings do not point to those specific practices? It may be speaking with the Tradition in a way not yet articulated, but it is not a “new asceticism” if asceticism has always been about restructuring the architecture of the soul to shape eros toward God and, thus, in accordance with nature. Asceticism cannot be self-control or self-renunciation for the sake of those acts, which would reduce asceticism to simply rules to follow rather than practices that experience has confirmed are effective in reshaping the soul. Furthermore, there are several ways that one could interpret self-control and self-renunciation: to engage in practices of honesty and vulnerability throughout one’s sex life with a life-long partner can be seen as a loss of self for the sake of finding the self (Mt 16:25). The good news is that the sex act itself, the movement toward the other, is potentially a moment that is sacramental, that is, iconic of the divine presence, while also simultaneously shaping the flow of eros toward God.
There is more, however, to sexual desire than simply movement to the other who is loved. As human beings, we are fallen creatures because of misdirected eros away from the God who created us. As a result of this fall, sexual eros can be messy, as it is not always clear what is involved in the incitement of sexual desire.  It can be simply wanting to be close to the other, but it also might have something to do with our genes, our biological and neurological infrastructure, how we are feeling at the moment, the time of day, the season, the temperature, what someone was wearing, our own history. Much more tragically, it may be knotted to an experience of rape or other forms of violence and trauma. These interlocking factors often have something to do with the presence of fetish or fantasy that may incite the sex act and even accompany it.
When we pay attention to the details of what’s possibly involved in sexual desire, arousal, and the performance of the sex act, it is not so simple as saying that sex is blessed, pure, made right, correct, neutral, morally allowed within marriage. This claim also forgets that rape has and does occur within many marriages.  Sexual desire is, indeed, complicated, and it is probably because of its complexity that St. Paul said that is was “better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor 7:9). Following St. Paul’s lead, the Church recognized that marriage potentially provides an ascetical structure to erotic desire that does not cancel its complexity, but has the power to shape erotic desire in a way that leads to participation in God even amidst this complexity. Asceticism does not resolve complexity; it simply does not allow complexity to be definitive in such a way that would lead to objectification, demonization, or violence. And for those who have been traumatized as a result of sexual violence or other forms of violence, research has shown that practices that one might describe as ascetical may be a path toward recovery and healing."
So somehow, we are to believe that the same St. Paul who called for the ex communication of a man who was in sexual relationship with his step-mother, and who said that those engaging in homosexuality, or indeed any other kind of sexual immorality, will not inherit the Kingdom of God -- in the very same epistle in which he said these things, no less -- was opening the door to approving of homosexual relationships in the Church, because it is "better to marry than to burn with passion." How far down the sewer things have gotten that we have gone from St. Paul, who said that such things should not even be so much as named among us (i.e., they should be unheard of as occurring within the Church, see Ephesians 5:3), to the likes of Papanikolaou arguing for the Church embracing these sins?

Now we come to the conclusion of this essay:
"What does all this mean for the experience of homoerotic desire? First, even though the authoritative sources weigh heavily toward condemning homoerotic sex acts of a particular kind, I have argued that ethical norms, rules, and practices, codified mostly in the canons of the Church, are discussable in a process of ongoing discernment. Given that, I have tried to provide a framework for discussing erotic desire in the hope of providing discernment for shaping sexual desire so that it leads toward God and not away from God."
Even though God clearly has forbidden such things, we nevertheless need to discuss whether or not God really meant it, or whether there might be some way to dance our way around these clear commandments, and do the opposite anyway. Again, we have theology done the devil's way (Genesis 3:1-5).
"If marriage is discerned to be, in part, an ascetical partnership, and if part of that ascetical partnership has to do with being attentive to the complexity of erotic desire so as to maximize the sacramental potential of this eros, the question for discussion is this: Is the structure of homoerotic desire different than that of heteroerotic desire? And if not, why is homoerotic desire precluded from the same ascetical shaping and sacramental potential that is affirmed of heteroerotic desire?"
What is the difference? St. Paul tells us the homoerotic desires are "dishonorable passions" which are contrary to nature (Romans 1:26-27). On the other hand, he says of lawful marriage: "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled..." and then reiterates, "but the sexually immoral and adulterers God will judge (Hebrews 13:4). One involves violating nature to fulfill base desires, and the other is in accordance with nature, and results in the fundamental building block of society (and the Church), which is the family.
"There is ample evidence that homoerotic desire is shaped in long-term committed relationships in a way in which the virtues are manifest, and if there is to be discussion, then the Church should listen to those bridging voices of experience."
Does Papanikolaou really believe St. Maximus would agree that two men having sex with each other in a "long term relationship" was a means to manifest the virtues? The fact of the matter is very few male homosexuals have long term "monogamous" relationships to begin with, and only a minority of lesbians have relationships that actually end up being truly long term (see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp. 452-460), but even if the opposite were true, it would not matter. St. Paul did not condemn the man in an immoral relationship with his step-mother because it was not for the long term -- he condemned it because it was an immoral relationship. St. John the Baptist did not condemn Herod's marriage to his brother Philip's ex-wife because it was not for the long term -- he condemned it because it was an immoral relationship. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear, and you cannot make a relationship that manifests the virtues out of an inherently sinful relationship.

If Papanikolaou was calling for a dialogue on how best to help those struggling with the sins of homosexuality or transgenderism, I would be very much in favor of it. This is an area that we could certainly use further exploration of, and it would be of benefit to the entire Church, if it were done on the basis of the moral teachings of the Church, rather than in spite of them. Sadly, this ain't what they're up to.

For More Information, see:

On the Writings of Archimandrite George (Kapsanis): A Correction

Discernment or Scaffolding?

Moral Heresy?

Unitarian Morality With a Little "Theosis" Sprinkled on Top

The Living Church 2.0

Cultural Marxism and Public Orthodoxy

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth

Sister Vassa on Homosexuality

Friday, November 08, 2019

Discernment or Scaffolding?


Aristotle Papanikolaou has just had two articles posted on the misnamed "Public Orthodoxy" website. If you had any remaining doubts that they really intend to push for the full acceptance of sodomy by the Church, these articles should remove them. I will respond to the second one in a separate article. This article is in response to ""Orthodox Morality" On Sex or an Ethics of Sex?"

Misusing the Writings of the Fathers

Papanikolaou begins his piece with this anecdote:
"Perhaps my point is best illustrated through a story: During the fall 1999 semester, I taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, a course on Ethics. We were discussing St. Maximus the Confessor on virtues and how the development of virtues enables relations, and in so doing, makes space for the presence of God. I then asked the students that if two people (I did not mention gender) were living together in friendship for fifty years and manifesting the virtues, would this be an example of communion and participation in God. They all said yes. I then asked whether the fact that they had sex would negate the good resulting from their virtuous friendship:  half said it would, while the other half got the point that I will try to articulate in this short, two-part essay.
As this story illustrates, ecclesial ethics on sexuality have been primarily about sex and the criteria for establishing a morally right sex act."
It seems almost every article recently published by "Public Orthodoxy" makes some reference to St. Maximus the Confessor. One would almost get the impression that St. Maximus was some pot smoking hippie, who advocated free love, and sodomy. However, in a recent Twitter exchange on the subject, Papanikolaou acknowledged that in fact St. Maximus believed that any sex that was not for the purpose of procreation, and within lawful marriage, was sinful. That would obviously preclude homosexual sex, and yet these people continue to disingenuously appeal to his authority as if he supported in the slightest their agenda. Why do they do this? Because St. Maximus was a very deep thinker, and many of his writings sound very obscure to the casual reader... and so they use this obscurity as a smoke screen, since they cannot honestly cite either Scripture or the Fathers in support of their renovationist and homosexualist agenda. More on this when we deal with the second article by Papanikolaou.
"From the start, someone might argue that there is nothing to talk about, as the Church’s teaching on sex has been clear and succinct from the beginning. It must be admitted that the overwhelming body of shared authoritative sources of the Orthodox Tradition—Scripture, Councils, Writings/Sayings of Saints, Canons, Liturgy—does limit sexual activity to marriage, with some even restricting the performance of the sexual act for procreation. This raises the question of what can or cannot be talked about in the Church; it is a question of how we should interpret these shared authoritative sources."
For starters, as we decide how to interpret these shared authoritative sources, the "overwhelming body" of which teach that sex outside of lawful heterosexual marriage is sinful -- which of them do not teach that? The verdict is not just "overwhelming," it is unanimous. They have literally nothing to support their position, and so they can only try to use specious arguments which appeal to obscure texts, while ignoring all we know about the Fathers who wrote them.
"Recently, the phrase “Orthodox morality” has been invoked to name a definitive and unchangeable body of teaching on moral rules, but one cannot find such an expression in any of the languages—Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian—used for the texts that have been constitutive for the Orthodox Tradition."
"Morality" is certainly not a new concept in the Church. The only reason why one would perhaps not have needed to use the term "Orthodox" to modify "morality" in the past is because in the history of the Church, even among heretics, few have ever challenged what everyone has always understood as Christian morality -- and within the Church, this was unheard of. Now, however, we have people who claim to be Christian and even claim to be Orthodox who would have us believe that it is acceptable for a Christian man to have sex with another man, not repent of that, and still receive communion. So now, what is Orthodox morality is a matter in dispute, at least by some.

The Nicolaitans and Moral Heresy
"Some even argue that the word “heresy” was used for moral infractions and bring up as proof the Nicolaitans. The Apostle makes passing reference to the Nicolaitans for both their works and teaching (Rev. 2.6, 15), after which they are mentioned only rarely and linked to Gnosticism (St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 3.11). They came to be included in the lists of “heretics” as a result of this affinity with Gnosticism and not for the acts of eating food sacrificed to idols or sexual immorality."
Here Papanikolaou is referencing exchanges he and I have had on this subject, but he is misrepresenting what I have said. I never said that moral infractions (i.e. the actual sins) are heresies. I said teaching that a sin is not really a sin is a heresy. I in fact have repeatedly clarified that this is what I was saying, and so to continue to misrepresent what I have said is simply dishonest.

The Nicolaitans were not heretics because they struggled with certain sins -- they were heretics because they taught that one need not struggle with certain sins, namely with regard to sexual immorality. Papanikolaou claims that they were condemned because they were Gnostics, and not because of their teachings on sexual immorality, but he cannot cite a single Father who would support his claim. The Fathers consistently taught that the Nicolaitans were indeed heretics, because of their teachings on sexual immorality and eating meat sacrificed to idols. Not a single Father gives any description of their teachings as involving any other specific heresy. So Papanikolaou is simply making things up here, because he does not want to have to deal with the implications of a clear example of a moral heresy.

He references St. Irenaeus, but what does St. Ireneaus say about the Nicolaitans when he actually describes why they are heretics, and what they taught?
"The Nicolaitans are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" (Irenaeus. Against Heresies, 1:26:3).
It is also interesting that he claims "The Apostle" makes reference to the Nicolaitans in Revelation 2:6,14-15, when in fact if you look up the text, in a red-letter edition of the Bible, you will see that these words are indeed in red. Christ Himself condemned this heresy, and not just in passing, but rather quite directly.

In Revelation 2:14, the Lord speaks of them thus:
"...thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication."
The Fathers consistently describe the heresy of the Nicolaitans in precisely these terms.
"For the Church, actions were never labeled with the adjectives of “Orthodox” or “heretical,” only beliefs centered around the Trinity or the person of Christ (the dogma on the icon is an extension of the debate on the person of Christ). As St. Basil argues in his “Letter to Amphilochius, Concerning the Canons,” “by heresies they meant those who were altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith” (Letter 188). The dogmatic proclamations of the Council were always separate from the canonical proclamations. Morality was codified in the canons of the Church. Yes—there must be a consistency between theology and ethics, between dogma and canons, but while dogmas are non-negotiable, canons are part of the ongoing discernment of the Church."
It is not the actions of the Nicolaitans that made them heretics, but their teachings about sexual immorality. Teachings are not actions, and teachings can be heretical, and teaching that a sin is not a sin is heretical. That the Nicolaitans were heretics is repeated throughout the Fathers. The nature of the heresy is only described in terms of their teachings on sexual immorality and eating meat sacrificed to idols. Therefore, continuing to claim that there is no such thing a heresy when it comes to teachings on morality is false.

For more information on this subject, see: Moral Heresy?

Red-herrings
"While the Church has always condemned both beliefs and actions, moral infractions are dealt with through penances: a sanction is imposed for breaking moral rules, whereas rejection of the divinity of Christ qualifies for “heresy.” This also explains why, as is readily evident, there are ample examples of once morally forbidden actions that the Church now allows. One of the clearest examples is usury, but the Church has also revised its guidance on divorce, slavery, consulting Jewish physicians, and other canonical matters."
These are red-herrings, but let me address them briefly:

Usury: It is certainly true that as times and circumstances change, how the Church applies unchanging principles to different situations will vary... but that does not mean that the principles are up for grabs. In the case of charging interest, the Church was opposed to charging interest... in the context of a society that had currencies that did not inflate in value (being based on things like gold, silver, and copper that tended to either retain their value or increase in value over time), and in which individuals lent money to people without regulation, usually at exorbitant interest (i.e. actual usury), and in a context in which debtors who could not pay their debts ended up in prison or being sold into slavery (and quite likely their wives and children along with them). In our current context, in which the value of our money decreases with inflation, money is lent in a regulated fashion, in a context in which people who cannot pay their debts can walk away not only without paying the debt but in many cases without losing all that they have purchased with the money they borrowed, and without any fear of jail or slavery, things are just a wee bit different. In the former context, to lend money to the average person with interest was exploitative, and could lead to their complete and utter ruin. In our current context, when a bank refuses to lend to someone because the bank doubts their ability to repay the debt, this is considered to be an injustice. Anyone lending money at no interest today will not only not have the use of their money in the mean time, but will be repaid with money that is worth less than it was when it was lent in the first place. And of course they also run the risk of not being paid back at all, and without that risk having any potential benefit to themselves. To argue that the fact that the Church does not treat these very different circumstances in the same way therefore means that gay sex may not really be a sin is not an argument made by a person who desires to illuminate the truth -- it is the argument of one who willfully obscures the truth.

Divorce: Has the Church "revised" its stance on divorce? Christ taught that one should not divorce except for cases of infidelity (Matthew 19:1-10). St. Paul speaks of one further reason for divorce, and that is abandonment, in which case he says "A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases" (1 Corinthians 7:10-15). All the legitimate reasons for divorce are extrapolations from these two teachings. For example, if a husband beats the snot out of his wife or abuses their children, this is taken to be a form of abandonment, even though the husband may not desire to leave the home, because his actions force the wife to leave the home, if he cannot otherwise be made to change his behavior. Divorce is in fact provided for in the canons, and even for those who are the guilty party in a divorce, there is a path to restoration in the Church. Divorce is always a sin on the part of at least one of the spouses. It is not an unpardonable sin.

Now are there bishops who are too lax when it comes to dealing with divorce? Probably so, but that actually is a pastoral matter, not a matter of a change in principle. In other words, you don't hear bishops or clergy teaching that divorce is no longer a sin. Likewise, when it comes to dealing with homosexuals, there are some clergy who may be too strict, and some who may be too lax, but so long as they all treat it as a sin, this is a matter of pastoral discretion. However, if a clergyman tells people that this sin is not really a sin, he is guilty of teaching error, as well as pastoral malpractice, because he is deluding his flock and giving them a bum steer on the path of salvation.

I am not David Bentley Harts biggest fan, but he actually does make some good points on this subject in his recent essay "Divorce, Annulment & Communion." See also "Divorce."

Slavery: I have addressed this previously in "What about Slavery in the Bible?" But in short, the Church has not reversed any principle here. No one was ever commanded to own slaves, and slavery was never seen as a good thing. Circumstances have changed. We still have some forms of involuntary servitude that are allowable by law (as a punishment for a crime, and in the form of the military draft). In the future, perhaps these will no longer be permissible by law. And perhaps in the future, society may decide that paying someone to flip hamburgers for only $7.25 an hour is immoral too. None of this changes the principles of Scripture or the canons.

Jewish Physicians: In the ancient world, there was no such thing as secular medicine as we know it today. At the time of the canon in question, Non-Christian Jewish doctors mixed their beliefs with their practice of medicine and so it was a religious issue for a Christian to go to such a doctor. Going to see a modern secular physician is an entirely different matter. If one went to a Jewish doctor who mixed faith healing into his practice, then this canon would apply, but I don't know of any modern examples of such things.

Unlike these red herrings, there is nothing about sodomy that has changed since the times the Scriptures and canons of the Church were written. Only if you don't really believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures, or the guidance of the Holy Spirit over the Church would you think that we might need to revise the teachings of the Church on an issue about which the Church has been so clear.

Biblical Morality

Papanikolaou argues that speaking of "biblical morality" muddies the water, but then proceeds to muddy the water himself by trying to conflate Old Testament ceremonial law, and the moral law:
"How can we be sure that our ongoing discernment within the Church is faithful to the Tradition? Some might define this faithfulness in terms of “biblical morality” or in terms of length of time the Church has proclaimed a particular moral principle, moral rule, or canonical prohibition. Phrases like “biblical morality” muddy the waters as it gives the impression that morality is reducible to literal interpretation of injunctions from the Bible. One look at Leviticus would dispel such a way of interpreting the Tradition of our Church, not to mention the New Testament prohibitions that the Church today does not follow to the letter (Mk 10:11-12 [depending on how one interprets this obscure passage]; 1 Cor 11:6, 14:34). Orthodox Christianity is a religion of the person, not of the book, and the Scriptures, which are foundational, authoritative, and sacred, point to the person of Christ who becomes the hermeneutical key for how to read Scripture."
He brings up Leviticus, and obviously is referencing the many ceremonial laws that we in the Church do not observe. The Fathers make a distinction between the moral law of the Old Testament, ceremonial laws, and purely civil laws. Even in the Old Testament, you never hear of a Prophet condemning non-Israelites for things like eating shrimp, or having garments made from different kinds of cloth. I have addressed this question in more detail in "Shrimp and Homosexuality" and "The Continuing Validity of the Moral Law of the Old Testament."

He then again brings up slavery, and laws and canons that regulate it. I have already addressed the question of whether such things constitute an endorsement of slavery in "Laws about Slavery." If there were laws and canons that required one own slaves, and then the Church later reversed them, or if there were laws and canons which prohibited slavery, but then the Church later reversed them, Papanikolaou would have an argument. But this is not the case.

Scaffolding
"Some might argue that to say that ethical norms and practices are subject to discussion is a form of relativism and a result of being influenced by secular, modern, liberal discourse that is diametrically opposed to Orthodoxy. First, discernment is part of the Tradition of the Church and it does not involve relativism since there is a clear telos in sight for this process of discernment—theosis. Second, “diametrical opposition” is itself a form of dualism that is theologically problematic, since the Holy Spirit is “every present and fills all things.” In fact, all heresies are a form of dualism, and the dogmatic Tradition around the person of Christ resisted this absolute dualism between the created and the Uncreated. Moreover, the Fathers and Mothers of our Tradition have always identified what is good in Greek pagan philosophy. Is recognizing what was right in Platonism a capitulation to Greek pagan thought? The very structure of the soul used by St. Maximus (see part 2) to make sense of a life in theosis is itself an appropriation from Greek pagan philosophy. Does that invalidate the theological anthropology of St. Maximus? Finally, why is discerning ethical norms in light of new information a surrender to a diametrically opposed form of discourse? Could not the absolute rejection of modern, liberal discourse itself be a form of defining Orthodoxy in light of this self-opposition? And if the opposition itself is what is defining Orthodoxy, is this distorted apophaticism—we are what we are not—really being faithful to the Orthodoxy that in the end is about our ascent toward union with God?"
So we have a moral issue that Papanikolaou admits the Scripture and Fathers "overwhelmingly" address in a very clear manner. In other words, God has spoken. And yet Papanikolaou says we nevertheless need to use "discernment" on this issue. So he wishes to put a question mark where God has placed a period, if not an exclamation point. This, he wishes to argue, is how the Church "does  theology." This is in fact not how the Church has ever done theology, but it is how the devil does it.
"Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:1-5).
Papanikolaou and his fellow travelers say "We're just asking questions." The devil was just asking questions too. "Did God really say that?" And then after "just asking questions" the devil went on to undermine what God had said, in order to persuade Eve that it was actually OK to do precisely the opposite of what God in fact did say. This call for "dialogue" and "discernment" is not being called for because these folks aren't sure where the "dialogue" will lead. This "dialogue" is just the scaffolding necessary to construct the edifice they already have designed.

We have seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. No thank you.

For more information, see: 

Unitarian Morality With a Little "Theosis" Sprinkled on Top

The Living Church 2.0

Cultural Marxism and Public Orthodoxy

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth

Sister Vassa on Homosexuality

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Volume 5 of the Philokalia available in PDF


People have been waiting for the 5th volume of the Philokalia to be published in English for many, many years, but a presumably unpolished English text was published as part of a bi-lingual (Malayalam / English) edition in India in 2006. Tikhon Pino has made a copy of the text available on his Academia site, which can be downloaded here:

https://www.academia.edu/40333540/Philokalia_Vol._5_Kallistos_and_Ignatios_On_the_Life_of_Stillness_English_


Update: Tikhon has the full text in hard copy, but what he has posted is about a third of the total of that volume. It is the full text of the Chapters of Kallistos and Ignatios.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Contrary to Nature: A Response to "Would the True "Nature" Please Stand Up?"

Fr. Vasileios Thermos, in his essay "Would the True "Nature" Please Stand Up?" argues that when Orthodox writers take the position that homosexuality is contrary to nature, they are dependent on the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, and he then goes on to point out problems with making use of Aquinas' views on natural law.
"Contemporary moral objections to phenomena like homosexuality or gender dysphoria often rely on what we might call the “nature argument”: “this is unnatural,” “this is against nature,” and so on. Such an argument is not confined to those outside the Church. Orthodox Christians, too, make it. Indeed, one crucial hindrance to the Orthodox Church’s efforts to shape a more constructive attitude towards homosexuals and trans people is the idea of “nature” held by many of her members.
Should the Orthodox Church, however, cherish the same logic used by those outside the Church, some of whom invoke the nature argument not only to exclude homosexuals and trans people but also to rationalize hostility or even violence towards them? Is Orthodox theology at all compatible with such an idea of “nature”?
I fear that by adopting the nature argument as a theologically sound one, the Orthodox Church misses a decisive opportunity to look with critical eyes on her unacknowledged indebtedness to the most eminent theologian of medieval Catholicism, Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas, indeed, is widely regarded as the father of natural law theory, provided that “nature” is defined in scholastic terms as a fixed set of “forms” or “essences” underlying reality and generated by human reason. According to Aquinas, sin is considered a violation or undoing of this “nature”— to more or less detrimental effect. On this foundation, Aquinas built a hierarchy of sins and passions, from which certain moral assessments stem."
The only problem with this thesis is that Fr. Vasileios doesn't ask the question of where Thomas Aquinas might have gotten the idea that some types of sex might be contrary to nature. One need only look to opening chapter of St. Paul's epistle to the Romans to find the answer:
"For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature [παρα φυσιν]. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due" (Romans 1:26-27).
It is rather amazing that Fr. Vasileios is either unaware of this connection, or else does not see why it might be significant to note what St. Paul says here, and therefore how Orthodox Fathers and theologians can speak of homosexuality as "contrary to nature" without having to have gotten the idea from Aquinas.

St. John Chrysostom has an entire homily (Homily 4 on Romans) dedicated to these two verses, and he says:
"No one can say that it was by being prevented from legitimate intercourse that they came to this pass or that it was from having no means to fulfill their desire that they were driven into this monstrous insanity.... What is contrary to nature has something irritating and displeasing in it, so that they could not even claim to be getting pleasure out of it. For genuine pleasure comes from following what is according to nature. But when God abandons a person to his own devices, then everything is turned upside down. Thus not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was too.... How disgraceful it is when even the women sought after these things, when they ought to have a greater sense of shame than men have" (Homilies on Romans 4, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. VI, Gerald Bray, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1998) p. 47, emphasis added).
I will go out on a limb here, and suggest that neither St. Paul nor St. John Chrysostom ever read Thomas Aquinas.

Fr. Vasileios goes on to suggest that things like monasticism, celibacy, and altruism are contrary to nature, so how can we say homosexuality is a sin, and they are virtues?
"So far, Orthodox theology appears largely unaware that when it has recourse to the nature argument, it is playing the part of a loyal Thomist. In a recent personal communication I had with Metropolitan John Zizioulas, he rejected this argument without any hesitation. This line of thought, he pointed out, if followed to its rigorous conclusion, can destroy ecclesiastical life and spirit: “Is monasticism and celibacy natural?” I now add to his rhetorical question: Is asceticism natural? Is altruism natural? Let me push it a bit further: Is medicine natural?"
Altruism, monasticism, asceticism are not contrary to nature. They are contrary to the sinful nature, but they do not go against God's created order. They are the opposite of a rebellion against God, as St. Paul speaks of in Romans 1. These things are supernatural. They are things we are enabled to do, by God's grace, to overcome our sinful nature, the weakness of the flesh, and the demons. As St. Maximus the Confessor notes:
"For we have not been commanded to fight against the sense-perceptible creations that are outside of us, but rather to wage perpetual war within ourselves against the "dishonorable passions" [Rom 1:26] that are contrary to nature, which reside in the earth of our hearts, until such time as we eradicate them and take possession of our own earth, which will remain unshakable after the overthrow of the passions, which are foreign and hostile to us" (The Fathers of the Church: St. Maximos the Confessor, On the Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, trans. Fr. Maximos Constas (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2018), p. 311).
For more information see:

“Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: Answers and…People,” by Fr. Lawrence Farley

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sermon: Transgenderism Comes to a Texas Suburb


Click here for a sermon given on October 27th, 2019, on the recent case of James Younger, and the push to indoctrinate our children in LGBTQP+ ideology:

https://saintjonah.org/sermons/transgenderism/

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Ed Sullivan Canon (Response to "Meeting Michelle" Part 2)


You may have heard of the "Vincentian Canon," which is named for St. Vincent of Lerins, who famously said:
"But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.
Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense "Catholic," which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors" (Commonitory 2:4-5).
St. Vincent's definition here of Catholicity has been universally accepted, but it is certainly true that, for example, both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians claim to accept it, but obviously would not agree on whether the Roman doctrines regarding the Papacy or the Filioque fit this definition.

I would like to propose a canon that I believe is a reasonable extrapolation from St. Vincent's, however. This canon will not settle the issues between Rome and Orthodoxy, but it is a quick way of dealing with some of the slam dunk questions that have arisen in our time. If a doctrine or Biblical interpretation was not believed by anyone, anywhere,  or at any time, prior to the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, it obviously is, by definition, contrary to St. Vincent's canon, and so can safely and swiftly be rejected by Christians as being contrary to the faith.


Let us look then at the recent article by Fr. Richard René. "Meeting Michelle: Pastoral and Theological Reflections on a Transgender Inmate."

We see a pattern in this essay, which we have noted before. As Sergey Khudiev wrote, in response to a previous statement by Fr. Robert Arida, which was likewise replete with studied ambiguity, liberal Protestants have “a particularity which entails a tendency to explain themselves with rhetorical questions, vague allusions and highly mysterious phrases from which you can with more or less justification guess at their positions, but are unable to explain clearly” ("Let Your Yea Be Yea and Your Nay Be Nay", July 5, 2011 <http://www.pravmir.com/let-your-yea-be-yea-and-your-nay-be-nay/>).

Making use of some obscure sounding quotations from St. Maximus adds to this smokescreen, but in Tikhon Pino's response to this essay, he has shown rather conclusively, that Fr. Richard's appeal to St. Maximus the Confessor to support the suggestion that maybe there is some basis for transgenderism in Orthodox theology, is without any actual basis.

Fr. Richard concluded his essay with the following quotation from St. Maximus:
“The one who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of detachment knows no distinction between one’s own and another’s, between faithful and unfaithful, between slave and freeman, or indeed between male and female. But having risen above the tyranny of the passions and looking to the one nature of men he regards all equally and is equally disposed toward all.” (Chapters on Love, 2.30).
Now the obvious reason this quote was so used is because it makes reference to St. Paul's words in Galatians 3:27-28:
"For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."
He obviously could have quoted directly from St. Paul, but most people have a Bible, but do not have a collection of the works of St. Maximus. This quote, along with the other dust kicked up by his attempt to make St. Maximus suggest something he clearly never would have imagined, no doubt leaves many readers scratching their heads and wondering if St. Maximus might really provide some basis for a man claiming to be a woman, trapped in a man's body.

If one were to take the most extreme possible interpretation of St. Paul's words, you might argue that St. Paul was saying that we no longer have any sex distinctions at all. But Fr. Richard's man named "Michelle" is not identifying as a genderless person united with Christ. He is a man who wants to believe, and have us believe, that he is really a woman.

Obviously, St. Paul was not suggesting that gender distinctions cease because we are in Christ. Throughout his epistles he repeatedly states his expectation that men and women behave properly in accordance with their sex.

The only reference in St. Paul's writings that we can find to people who today would be called "transgendered," is in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
"Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [malakoi], nor sodomites [i.e., homosexuals, arsenokoitai],  nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God."
To better understand the meaning of the word "malakoi," let me cite Anthony C. Thiselton's highly respected commentary on 1 Corinthians:
"[Robin] Scroggs allows [in his book The New Testament and Homosexuality] that while μαλακός may mean unmanly in general terms, more characteristically it is used of "the youth who consciously imitated feminine styles and ways." This all too readily slips into "passive homosexual activity" whether for pleasure or for pay.  From the classical period to Philo extreme distaste is expressed in Greek and hellenistic literature for the effeminate male who uses cosmetics and the coiffuring of the hair, for which Philo sometimes uses the term ανδρόγυνος, male-female (e.g. De Specialibus Legibus 3.37). These Issues lie behind the astonishing array of English translations in our versions.
In general there is broad (but not unanimous) agreement that μαλακοὶ in 1 Cor 6:9-10 denotes "the passive... partner... in male homosexual relations" (Barrett), but whereas Scrogg argues that it refers to the call boy who prostitutes his services to an older male, usually for pay, many others tend to regard the evidence for restricting the term to pederasty linked with male prostitution as at best indecisive and at worst unconvincing. Scroggs depends for his view on the background of pederastic practices in Graeco-Roman society (whether voluntary, or for payment) and the impact of this culture for the pejorative reactions in hellenistic Judaism (especially Philo)"  (The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 2000) p. 448f).
Robert Gagnon, in his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, (which was endorsed by both Brevard Childs and Bruce Metzger (certainly among the most influential scholars in their fields (Old Testament and New Testament, respectively)), after discussing the conclusions of other scholars on this word, says this:
"In my own reading, the meaning of malakoi in 1 Cor 6:9 probably lies somewhere in between "only prostituting passive homosexuals" and "effeminate heterosexual and homosexual males." Because the word has a broad range of meaning in Greek literature, what it specifically means for any given writer will vary. However, here, Paul places this vice alongside a list of offenses that lead to exclusion from the kingdom. This suggests he refers to an offense more serious than simply a "limp wrist" (contra Martin).... Immoral sexual intercourse, then, would appear to be an identifying mark of the malakoi. Furthermore, the epithet "soft" itself suggests males playing the female role in sexual intercourse with other males" (The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), p. 307f, he discusses the term extensively, especially in pp. 306 -312).
There are no Church Fathers that read Galatians 3:28 as suggesting transgenderism. St. Augustine, for example, says:
"In this faith there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; since all have been baptized, all are one in Christ Jesus. And if this is accomplished by faith, by which we walk righteously in this life, how much more perfectly and completely will it be accomplished by sight itself, when we see face to face (1 Cor. 13:12)? For now, although we have the first-fruits of the spirit (Rom. 8:23), which is life, on account of the righteousness of faith, yet because the body is still dead on account of sin, that difference, whether of peoples or of legal status or of sex, while indeed already removed in the unity of the faith, remains in this moral life. That this order is to be observed on this life's journey is the teaching of the apostles, who hand down very salutary rules as to how Christians should live together with regard to differences of people (Jews and Greeks), status (masters and slaves), sex (husbands and wives), and the like; and it is also the teaching of the Lord himself..." (Augustine's Commentary on Galatians, Eric Plumer, trans., (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003), p 173ff.).
So let's now apply the Ed Sullivan canon here. Has anyone, anywhere, at anytime prior to the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, ever suggested that that St. Paul was teaching that because we are all one in Christ, and in that relationship and context there is neither male nor female, therefore a person who is biologically male can therefore identify as a female? Nope. Not a single person.

Now one is free to believe that the Church has been wrong on this all along, but one cannot be a legitimate Orthodox Christian and come to that conclusion.

Update: Fr. Maximos Constas, the translator of St. Maximus the Confessor's Ambigua, has a text available on Academia, with the following prefacing remarks:

"In his Chapters on Love II.30, St Maximos the Confessor cites Galatians 3:28, which states that in Christ there is "neither male nor female." This passage, along with St Maximos's remarks in Amb. 41 and elsewhere, have led to conflicting interpretations of the Confessor's views on gender. The commentary presented here is by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, and is taken from The Mystical Marriage: Spiritual Life According to St Maximos the Confessor (Columbia: Newrome Press, 2018). Elder Aimilianos was an astute and insightful reader of St Maximos, and his interpretation merits careful consideration.'

The text can be downloaded here:
https://www.academia.edu/38828043/Maximos_the_Confessor_and_Gender_A_Commentary_on_Chapters_on_Love_II.30

Friday, October 18, 2019

Response to "Meeting Michelle" Part 1


In their never ending quest to promote the LGBTQP+ agenda, "Public Orthodoxy" recently publish the article: "Meeting Michelle: Pastoral and Theological Reflections on a Transgender Inmate," by Fr. Richard René.

In part 2, I will look at the underlying Biblical allusion in a quote from St. Maximus the Confessor, which Fr. Richard used to advance his point (Galatians 3:28), but given that St. Maximus is a difficult Father to read, and that my collection of his writings is far from complete, I asked a parishioner, Tikhon Pino, to comment specifically on Fr. Richard's use of St. Maximus. Tikhon Pino is a patristics scholar who acted as research assistant on Fr. Maximos Constas’s translation of St. Maximus the Confessor's Ambigua (Harvard UP, 2014), and so is well qualified to do so. So this could be the beginning of a "Stump the Parishioner" series.

Here are his comments:

That’s certainly one of the more superficial assessments of the transgender question that I’ve come across. Here we see a person who’s committed a violent sexual crime, and this priest simply takes him at his word that he liked to try on dresses as a child… and thus we have evidence that there’s something profoundly unique and mysterious about this individual? Never mind that his mom let him go on a gender-bending shopping-spree. I’m sure that doesn’t indicate further issues with his upbringing.

Anyway, given that the priest in question is so unwilling to move even beyond this poor man’s self-presentation as transgender, there’s not much hope for a deep reading of St. Maximos!

He refers, it seems to me, to three distinct things in St. Maximos’s theology:

1. One is the distinction between logos and tropos, or between the principle of nature (that which makes a thing what it is in accordance with God’s design) (=logos) and the mode in which things manifest or express themselves, whether in accordance with or contrary to nature. Usually this refers to the way we behave, but it can also refer to accidental features of a thing or the way it is (=tropos). Thus, St. Maximos talks about the birth or incarnation of Christ as preserving the logos but innovating the tropos (see Amb. 42). In other words, the essence or logos of Christ’s conception and birth is fundamentally and essentially human, but his birth is strange and unusual in that it was from a Virgin. Thus, though it has the same (human) logos, it has a different tropos. Maximos compares this to the water in Egypt that took on the quality of blood. It had a new tropos (e.g., being red), but it preserved the same logos in that it remained water. In fact, this is the case with every miracle. God does not destroy our reality or disturb nature; he simply makes things (which remain what they are) behave differently.

This whole distinction is ambiguously cast in the article as a difference between “our true identities” and the way we exist. But the principle of our nature is not, of course, “our true identity” in some nebulous sense. It is simply the way God made us and the way God wants us to be. It’s the basis, in fact, for natural law! That there’s a paradigmatic and normative sense of what it means to be human, with things that are good for us and things that are bad for us, makes it possible to say that there’s a right and wrong, and that God wants us to behave in a certain way, in accordance with our nature (see, esp., Amb. 7.17).

2. The second element of Maximos’s theology that he refers to is specific to Ambiguum 71, where St. Maximos exegetes the statement of St. Gregory the Theologian that “The sublime Word plays in all kinds of forms, judging His world as He wishes, on this side and on that.” The sense of ‘play’ that the essayist invokes is popular in certain modern (or postmodern) philosophies. But St. Maximos has a very different sense of ‘play.’

What St. Maximos himself says is about as far away as one can get from “suspending judgement” on moral issues. To begin with, he understands the word “play” as referring to the divine condescension of the Word, being the equivalent of the “foolishness” of God mentioned in 1 Cor 1:25:
“The great and awesome mystery of the divine descent of God the Word was accomplished through the flesh, a mystery in which the truth of right faith in God was given to human beings, and which, insofar as it utterly transcends the whole order and power of nature, was called the foolishness and weakness of God by the divine Paul, the great apostle, … whereas the great and God-minded Gregory characterized this mystery as a kind of “game,” on account of its surpassing prudence” (Amb. 71.2).
And again, ‘the “foolishness” and “weakness” of God, according to the holy Apostle Paul, and the “play” of God, according to Gregory the wondrous and great teacher, signify the mystery of the divine Incarnation, since in a manner beyond being it transcends the whole order and arrangement of every nature, power, possession, and activity” (Amb. 71.3).
To be sure, St. Maximos offers other interpretations. Another reading of “play” sees it as the very interchange that God undertakes between his own uncreated nature and our lowly world.
“The sublime Word plays in all kinds of forms, judging His world as he wishes, on this side and on that.” Is this not then the same thing that he says in his oration On Holy Pentecost, when he speaks about divinity and created nature? “As long as each nature remains in its proper domain, the one atop its lofty height, the other in its lowliness, God’s goodness remains unmixed, and His love for mankind is not communicated, and there is a great chasm in the middle that cannot be crossed
So here the emphasis of “play” is on the movement between God and creatures. So far, this has little to do with “suspending judgement” on anything like a person’s gender. But the passage that the author of that article seems to invoke is the following:
“We know that parents—if I may use examples we are familiar with to illustrate things that are above us—providing their children with opportunities to shake off their sluggishness, frequently condescend to their level, and thus we see them indulgently taking part in childish games, such as playing with nuts and knucklebones with them, or showing them many-colored flowers and colorfully-dyed clothing to beguile their senses, thereby attracting their attention and filling them with amazement, for young children have no other kind of work or occupation” (Amb. 71.6).
So far so good. The topic here is condescension. And the author of the Public Orthodoxy article would have us believe we must condescend to the level of self-identified transgender folk by countenancing some sort of mystery at work in their confusion about whether they are male or female. But if we look carefully at what St. Maximos says, it’s not about being open to some kind of [fallen] ambiguity surrounding our fellow sinners. He says very explicitly how God condescends to us:
“Thus, perhaps the teacher [St. Gregory the Theologian] is saying that God, who is superior to all, by leading us through the nature of visible creations, as if it were a kind of story, seeks to amaze us or attract our attention by the sight and knowledge of these things, as if we were no different than children, after which he directs us to the contemplation of the more spiritual principles within these things, and finally leads us by way of theology up to the more mystical knowledge of Himself, so far as this is possible” (Amb. 71.7).
The “play,” then, is God’s condescension to our sensible minds by speaking to us through creation and visible things, the way we capture the attention and interest of children through a pedagogy appropriate to their age and development. There’s nothing here to suggest that God 'suspends judgement’ on our immorality or pretends that perversions are mysterious fun and games.

But Maximos offers yet another possibility:
“Or perhaps the mutability of the material objects which we hold in our hands, which shift things around and are themselves shifted around in various ways, having no solid foundation, save for the first intelligible principle, in accordance with which they are carried along wisely and providentially, and carry us along with them—and whereas it might be thought that they can be controlled by us, they slip through our fingers far more frequently than we control them, and they rather almost repel the desire of those among us who insist on clinging to them, and so they neither maintain their hold over us nor are they held by us, since the only stable characteristic their nature possesses is their state of flux and their instability—perhaps this, I say, was fittingly called God’s “play” by the teacher, seeing that it is through these things that God leads us to what is really real and can never be shaken” (Amb. 71.9).
Here we see that God “plays” with us through the elusive character of the material world and created natures (though not fallen realities as such!), which lead us up to God by their very instability. Again, I’m not seeing how this either affirms the mystery of the androgene or leads us to ‘suspend judgement’ on moral issues.

And, finally, St. Maximos offers one more interpretation and a last chance to salvage some meaning in that priest’s article:
“And if we ourselves, in accordance with the prevailing sequence of our nature, are now born like the rest of the living creatures on the earth, after which we become children, and after which, in the manner of quickly fading flowers, our youth withers into the wrinkles of old age, and dying we are transferred to another life—then not without reason are we said to be the “plaything of God” by that God-bearing teacher. For this present life, when compared to the archetype of the divine and true life that is to come, is a child’s toy, than which no other such toy could be more insubstantial. The teacher states this much more clearly in the funeral oration for his brother Kaisarios, when he says: “Such is our life, brothers, of we who live only briefly: a sort of game played upon the earth. Not having existed, we were brought into being, and having been brought into being, we are dissolved. We are a dream that does not last, a phantom that cannot be grasped, the flight of a bird that passes and is gone….” (Amb. 71.10).
No dice, unfortunately. We’re mortal, and our lives are thus a plaything. Again, I don’t see how that justifies ambiguities surrounding the gender of a sex offender, however much that person deserves our compassion.

3. Lastly, the essay ends with some rhetoric about not having to compromise our morals even in “suspending judgement” any more than the Lord had to compromise his morals when he ate with sinners. I’m not sure why, then, the author leaps from “suspending judgement” to telling us how “the one who is perfect in love” sees neither male nor female. If one follows the logic of the essay, the transgender person is a sea of unfathomable mystery, and yet we might also be right to see them as perverse and disordered, while at the same time we have to suspend judgement, while at the same time we shouldn’t countenance the difference between male or female. Which is it? On the difference (or lack thereof) between male and female in St. Maximos, he cites an offhand remark in the Chapters on Love that merely echoes St. Paul. St. Maximos goes into this topic more in depth in Ambiguum 41; and it is nothing new for would-be scholars of St. Maximos to claim that the saint espouses some kind of eschatological transgenderism. But here it’s not necessary to comment on this aspect of St. Maximos’s anthropology, since the author of this article has merely thrown that comment in at the end without connecting it to any of his other claims. The only observation we need to make is that it does not follow at all from what he has said about tropos, logos, “play,” or anything else.

I think, in the end, the problem with this essay is not that the author seems to misuse St. Maximos (which of course he does). I think the real problem is that even the author doesn’t know what he’s trying to say. Is Michael-Michelle a mystery, or are we allowed to have moral convictions about his state? And if we’re allowed to have moral convictions about his condition, what are we being called to apart from the same merciful love we’re supposed to show everyone? It’s not clear from this essay. The only thing the author manages to get across is that he himself didn’t know how to assess this person he met in jail. Which to me proves why we need to have moral convictions in the first place. Because one day we might meet a man named Michelle and be confused about his identity--even if he’s in jail for violent sexual crimes.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Stump the Priest: Jacob Wrestling an Angel


Question: "Why did Jacob wrestle with an angel in Genesis 32, what does it mean?"

To understand this passage, you have understand the story of Jacob and Esau from the beginning (which begins at Genesis 25:19). They were twins, and rivals. Jacob's very name means "usurper" or "supplanter," because he was born grasping the heel of his brother who was born first. He then gained Esau's birthright in exchange for a pot of stew, when Esau was hungry after a long hunt, and then usurped the blessing he would have received from their father Isaac by trickery, and with the help of his mother. So Jacob's very name pointed to a flaw in his character. He left Canaan to go to his uncle Laban because his mother feared Esau would kill him. While in Haran, Jacob found himself on the receiving end of trickery, when his uncle tricked him into marrying Leah after seven years of laboring for the hand of Rachel. After laboring seven more years for Rachel, and then laboring more to gain cattle, Jacob finally left his uncle, and began the journey home.

On his way to Haran, Jacob had an encounter with God at Bethel, which was the beginning of his spiritual journey. This incident happened the night before Jacob would meet, after so many years, the brother he had wronged. All his family and all that he owned had crossed over the river, and he remained behind this night. He justly feared for his life and the lives of his family. And so during this night Jacob wrestled with an angel, which the Fathers tell us was the pre-incarnate Christ.

St. Ambrose writes:
"Therefore Jacob, who had purified his heart of all pretenses and was manifesting a peaceable disposition, first cast off all that was his, then remained behind alone and wrestled with God. For whoever forsakes worldly things comes nearer to the image and likeness of God. What is it to wrestle with God other than to enter upon the struggle for virtue, to contend with one who is stronger and to become a better imitator of God than the others are? Because Jacob's faith and devotion were unconquerable, the Lord revealed his hidden mysteries to him by touching the side of his thigh. For it was by descent from him that the Lord Jesus was to be born of a virgin, and Jesus would be neither unlike nor unequal to God. The numbness in the side of Jacob's thigh foreshadowed the cross of Christ, who would bring salvation to all people by spreading the forgiveness of sins throughout the whole world and would give resurrection to the departed by the numbness and torpidity of his own body. On this account the sun rightly rose on holy Jacob, for the saving cross of the Lord shone brightly on his lineage. And at the same time the Sun of justice rises on the person who recognizes God, because he is himself the everlasting Light" (Jacob and the Happy Life 7:30, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. II, Mark Sheridan, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2002) p. 218f)).
St. Augustine writes:
"So what does it mean, Jacob's wresting and refusing to let go? The Lord says in the Gospel, "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and those who act violently plunder it [Matthew 11:12]." This is what we were saying earlier on: struggle, wrestle, to hold on to Christ, to love your enemy. You hold Christ here and now if you have loved your enemy. And what does the Lord himself say, that is, the angel in the person of the Lord, when he had got the upper hand and was holding him fast? He has touched the hollow of his thigh, and it has withered, and so Jacob was limping. He says to Jacob, "Let me go, it is already morning." He answered, "I will not let you go unless you bless me.: And he blessed Jacob. How? By changing his name: "You shall not be called Jacob but Israel; since you have got the upper hand with God, you shall also get the upper hand with men." That is the blessing. Look, it is a single man; in one respect he is touched and withers and in another he is blessed. This one single person in one respect has withered up and limps; in another he is blessed to give him vigor" (Sermon 5:6, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. II, Mark Sheridan, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2002) p. 220)).
It is important to note that the Angel asked Jacob to state his name, which was in a sense a confession of his sinful past of usurpation and deception. He is given a new name, and this incident is an image of the spiritual purification and perfection that Christ can work in the lives of those who like Jacob, struggle for virtue, and prevail.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Stump the Priest: The Feast of Tabernacles


Question: "What is the meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles?"

The feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) was one the three great feasts of the Old Testament, along with Passover and Pentecost (Deuteronomy 16:16; Exodus 23:14; 34:23). Passover is obviously connected with the Pascha ("Pascha" being the Greek form of the Hebrew word for Passover "Pesach" (פֶּסַח)) of the New Testament. And Pentecost, which commemorated the giving of the Old Law, is connected with the giving of the Holy Spirit. However, the connection between the feast of Tabernacles and a New Testament counterpart is not nearly as obvious.

Josephus gives a good summary of how the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated during the time of Christ:
"Upon the fifteenth day of the same month [the seventh month], when the season of the year is changing for winter, the law enjoins us to pitch tabernacles in every one of our houses, so that we preserve ourselves from the cold of that time of the year; as also that when we should arrive at our own country, and come to that city which we should have then for our metropolis, because of the temple therein to be built, and keep a festival for eight days, and offer burnt-offerings, and sacrifice thank-offerings, that we should then carry in our hands a branch of myrtle, and willow, and a bough of the palm-tree, with the addition of the pome citron: That the burnt-offering on the first of those days was to be a sacrifice of thirteen bulls, and fourteen lambs, and fifteen rams, with the addition of a kid of the goats, as an expiation for sins; and on the following days the same number of lambs, and of rams, with the kids of the goats; but abating one of the bulls every day till they amounted to seven only. On the eighth day all work was laid aside, and then, as we said before, they sacrificed to God a bullock, a ram, and seven lambs, with a kid of the goats, for an expiation of sins. And this is the accustomed solemnity of the Hebrews, when they pitch their tabernacles" (Antiquities of the Jews 3:10:4).
The historical significance of the feast was to recall the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. It also marked the end of the Harvest. Of all the feasts, this feast was celebrated with the greatest joy. Everyone spent the days of the feast outside in tents or booths, and there were celebrations that went late into the night. Every morning at the temple there was a drawing of water at the pool of Siloam by the High Priest, which was then carried in procession to be offered along with the appointed sacrifices and hymns (see The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, by Alfred Edersheim, Book 4, Chapter 7, for more detail), and this was the occasion for the events recorded in John 7The Mishna, which recalls many of the traditions from the period before the Temple was destroyed, records this statement about this morning service, and the festivities that followed it each day: "He who did not see the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life" (Mishna, Sukkah 51a).

The Venerable Bede, commenting on Nehemiah 8:13-17, explains the spiritual significance of the feast to Christians, which he sees as an image of the Christian journey through this life, on our way to our heavenly homeland:
"These matters are written about more fully in Leviticus [Leviticus 23:34-43], and it is also written that they were ordered to be done in memory of that very long journey, on which the Lord, leading his people out of Egypt, made them dwell in tabernacles in the desert for forty years, daily revealing to them the precepts of his law through Moses. Moreover it was ordered that the setting up of tabernacles (which in Greek is called skenopegia) was to be done every year for seven days, that is, from the fifteenth day of the seventh month to the twenty-second. It is well worth our while to make a thorough examination of the mystery of this observance through spiritual investigation, especially since in the Gospel the Lord deigned to attend the same feast and, as he addressed the people who gathered there, dedicated it with his most holy words [John 7:2-14]. Our ancestors too, therefore, were set free from slavery in Egypt through the blood of a lamb and were led through the desert for forty years that they come to the promised land when through the Lord's passion the world was set from from slavery to the devil, and through the apostles the primitive church was gathered and was led as it were through the desert for forty years until it came to the homeland promised in heaven, because in imitation of the forty-day fast that Moses and Elijah and the Lord himself fulfilled [Exodus 24:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:2], the primitive church used to lead a life of great continence, thirsting always for its eternal homeland, and having set itself completely apart from all the distractions of this world, conducted its life as though in secret in daily meditation on the divine law. In remembrance of this time, we, too, ought to dwell in tabernacles leaving our homes, that is, having forsaken the cares and pleasures of the world, we ought to confess that we are pilgrims in this life and have our homeland in heaven and desire that we may arrive there all the more quickly; this, too, in a holy feast in the seventh month (i.e., in the light of celestial joy) when the grace of the Holy Spirit, which was commended by the prophet as sevenfold [Isaiah 11:2-3], fills our heart. We are ordered to remain in these tabernacles for seven days because during the entire time of this life, which we accomplish in as many days, we mus bear in mind that, like our ancestors. we are dwellers and pilgrims on earth in the eyes of the Lord" (On Ezra and Nehemiah 3:27, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. V, Marco Conti, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2008) p. 355f).  
The Prophet Zechariah foretold of a time when the gentiles would also celebrate this feast:
"And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles. And it shall be, that whoso will not come up of all the families of the earth unto Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, even upon them shall be no rain" (Zechariah 14:16-17).
St. Cyril of Alexandria explains the meaning of this prophecy in a way very similar to the Venerable Bede:
"After saying that those making war on the churches and directing a lofty and arrogant attitude against holy Jerusalem would be caught up in penalties befitting them, he forecasts adoration by those left in their wake -- namely, adoration in Christ through faith. It is he, after all, who is the "expectation of the nations" [Genesis 49:10 LXX], as the patriarch put it; he is also set to be "light of nations, a covenant for the race, to open eyes of the blind, and bring out from their bondage those who are bound, and from prison those seated in darkness" [Isaiah 42:6-7]. Accordingly, he makes clear that, on leaving the gloom of idolatry and having broken the bonds of the devil's knavery, those from the nations will come to the light of truth and hasten to the yoke of the Savior. He means that the survivors from those who were punished, or those fighting against the churches, who are innumerable, will come up year by year to worship the King, the Lord almighty, and to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles. The Law of Moses, remember, ordered the feast of Tabernacles to be celebrated on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when the harvest had been brought in to the storehouses from the fields; consequently, he calls the feast "finale" since work in the fields was now complete. They were bidden take "fronds of palm trees, fruit of a handsome tree, dense foliage of a tree, willow branches," drink water from a brook, and rejoice in it.
     While the Law cited as the basis of the feast Israel's dwelling in tents when rescued from the oppression of the Egyptians [Leviticus 23:34-43], the event was in fact a type of the mystery of Christ. We too, in fact, were rescued from oppression by the devil, called to freedom through Christ, as I said, and became subject to him, the King and God of all, spurning the knavery of those formerly in power. We celebrate the real feast of Tabernacles, that is, the day of Christ's resurrection, when the bodies of all, despite being dissolved in corruption and in thrall to death, become solidified in him, as it were. After all, he is the resurrection; he is the life, the spoils of the dead, so to say, and "first-fruits of those fallen asleep" [John 11:251 Corinthians 15:20], filling us with spiritual harvest and, as it were, causing the produce collected from the fields to be stowed in the storerooms on high. He it is who will rewards us with life and enjoyment in paradise  -- obviously of a spiritual nature -- now that we have conquered sin, exude spiritual fragrance, and bear the handsome and commendable fruit of the evangelical way of life by living in a pure and holy manner. A further sign of this would be having the palm fronds and fruit of a handsome tree combined with the other foliage. He is the brook of delights from which the God and Father has given us to drink; he is the fount of life and the river of peace, who directs to us those called from the nations [Psalm 35[36]:9; Isaiah 66:12].
     To these matters, however, there has been partial reference, by us in other places. Those coming up to worship the King, the Lord almighty, and to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles, therefore, are those who are justified through faith in Christ. Those not coming up, by contrast, he threatens with ruin and punishment equal to that sustained by the persecutors and abusers; those opting not to love will suffer the same fate as the enemy. In my view, this is the meaning of what Christ himself said, "He who is not with is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters" [Luke 11:23]" (The Fathers of the Church: St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, Vol. 3, trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012),  p. 273f).
So the feast of Tabernacles is about our spiritual journey to the Kingdom of Heaven, and it may be that its full significance with be revealed when we come to the New Jerusalem:
"And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death" (Revelation 21:3-8).