Dr. Moreau Ecclesiology

In my previous post I was critical of a restorationist or primitivist ecclesiology that assumes that one can (re)create (or restore, or renew) the New Testament Church by simply finding all the parts (beliefs, practices, etc.) that belong to the Church as delineated by the New Testament and then establishing the believing and practicing of these things among a particular group (or groups) of people. As though one could assemble the various parts and imbue life into them. Humans have no such capacity to create life from nothingness.

There is a distinct, though related sort of ecclesiology. This ecclesiology seeks to take the lived beliefs and practices of history and current churches, political ideologies, and sociocultural mores and to fuse these various parts together into a new amalgam somehow new and improved over historical bodies, or even that nebulously conceived body, “the Church”–an attempt, as it were, to discover, by culling the best or most innovative or the most dynamic beliefs, practices, or traditions of these various groups and bodies, that “secret” component, the elan vital which makes the Church the Church. It is an attempt to capture the essence of “church” Much as Dr. Moreau’s experiments on his nefarious island attempted to hybridize various creatures in an attempt at discovering and perfecting the principle of life.

The penchant of some mainline churches’ appropriation of historic and present liturgies from diverse and even contradictory tributaries of Christianity, as somehow “improving” on the liturgies from which they borrow, is precisely this sort of irreverent hybridization. The borrowing by the self-described “emergent” churches of ancient practices such as the Jesus Prayer or the rosary or the display (though not usually the veneration) of icons, is another example. The problem of course is not the sincerity of purpose or intention, but rather the wrenching of these practices from their historically lived practices and the rejection of the lived Tradition from which they come. Too, there is the problem of the self-referential selection of these practices: the paradigm of the usefullness for spiritual feeling or self-measured spiritual growth of these various practices, without the need to submit one’s own group or self to the judgment of the Tradition from which these various components come. So in the same church where one might find the Stations of the Cross, one also finds labyrinth walking, clown Eucharists, radical feminist revisions of “patriarchal” texts. In the same church were the seasons of the Church year are kept, and with them the traditional structure of historica lectionaries, one also finds the judgment on the texts of those Scriptures that they are anti-semitic.

But like Dr. Moreau’s pitiful creatures, these hybrids lack that beauty and goodness of the design of the author of life himself. One can no more perfect life than one can create it.

When one comes to the Tradition, one does not come to a set of parts upon which one may practice vivisection. Though the Author of Life came create life from nothing, the cutting off of a part of the life of the Church–icons, the daily office, the sacraments–does not guarantee that what lives within the organic whole will also live apart from it, or sutured on to another form of living altogether. The fusion of strange life forms almost always ends up in sterility or lifelessness.

Similarly, these hybridizations resulting from the admixture of political ideologies, Church tradition, and sociocultural mores give birth not to new forms of the living Church, but to Moreauesque monsters resembling none of the various forms from which it is created, and making a travesty of them all.

The living principle of the Church is not subject to the isolation and manipulation of man, for that living principle is the Holy Spirit himself, the third Person of the Trinity, the divine wind who blows where he will, and comes from where we know not. Our task is to simply receive this life as it as been given to us, to be brought into its infinite variety of goods, and to be transformed ourselves, and all our living as well. We are called to be new creations, not man-made hybrids of myriad parts of our own selection.


Dr. Frankenstein Ecclesiology

I remember in Bible college, seeing or reading about attempts to use the texts of the Old Testament (especially the latter half of Exodus) to reconstruct (on scale) the tabernacle, altars, sacred furniture and vestments of God’s people. Of course, as is inevitable when using texts in ways they were not intended to be used, there were details about the fabrication of these things that the text did not and could not answer, and in which the phrase “artist’s rendering” became pregnant with meaning.

My own Restoration Movement past, as well as other restorationist or primitivist groups, rather regrettably suffered from this mindset when it came to “restoring” the New Testament Church. Of course the question was begged that the New Testament Church needed restoring. A whole host of apologetical frameworks were devised so as to avoid denying Jesus’ promise of the Church’s perseverence: the “trail of blood” history of the Church, redefining restoration as reformation, as well as others–all more or less problematic in that the solution created further problems: those “trail of blood” “marytrs” were all heretics, and how could a Church that is called by St. Paul the “pillar and groundwork of the truth” ever need reforming. But such restoration projects almost always devised a strategy of “just using the New Testament” to figure out what the New Testament Church was all about.

The problem with this is that it is dealing with a dynamic historic entity and not some facts in a book, and thus is limiting the evidence to only one selection of writings and ignoring the plenitude of other historical writings that shed light on the first–which hermeneutic will inevitably skew and distort one’s view of this “New Testament Church.”

But more to the point, the Church is a living organism, not a set of theories, ideals, doctrines or practices. A set of theories, ideals, doctrines and practices is just that: a collection of data. It is not a living being. Humans are not granted the authority nor the ability to create life from nothingness. That is the the sole prerogative of God. We can no more assemble the parts of the Church (even assuming we could discover and/or know what all those parts were and are simply from reading the New Testament) and jolt them with electricity or infuse them with some goo and create a living organism. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is, thank God, fiction.

So, too, is the notion that the Church can be created or recreated from the spare parts of various interpretive ideologies used in reading the New Testament.

God has created only one living organism called the Church. We do not honor him by attempting to created a hybrid monster. Rather, we honor him by learning who and where that Church is, becoming one with that life he gives it, and loving and serving him in that living gift.

The Fatherhood Chronicles C

Kiss Kiss, Delaina?

In the time with Anna’s family in Oklahoma, Delaina learned to making kissing noises. And they are not just approximations. They’re the real thing. Noticeable during most any part of the Divine Liturgy recent experience has taught. Sofie did a similar thing, but Delaina seems to be taking it to a different level.

With Sofie it took a little time for her to get the idea of venerating the icons or the cross. But once she did, it became a very natural thing for her. And this Sunday, her first visit back to the Divine Liturgy in a couple of months, she fell right back into it.

Delaina, however, seems to have taken to venerating icons wholly on her own. I know how weird that sounds, but I don’t quite have another way to say it. For I know that Anna did not take any icons with her, and so Delaina would not have had occasion to venerate any icons. Nor is this something that is habitual with Anna, though she has encouraged Sofie to venerate the icons.

With that in mind, I was taken aback by Delaina’s actions this past Saturday. On one wall in our large room, on a nail that was left by the previous tenants, I have hung a mid-sized icon of our family patron, St. John the Wonderworker of San Francisco and Shanghai. Delaina caught sight of the icon when I was holding her (and thus of a height to notice the icon), and when she saw it she made kissing sounds and reached out for it. Well, as any good dad would have done, I took the icon down to allow her to kiss it.

She had never, to my knowledge, done this before. Nor had she done this to any other icon before, and we have two other large ones hanging in temporary spots in the apartment.

But wait there’s more.

When we got to services on Sunday, given that it was clear she could and would kiss icons, I held her above the icons of the Mother of God and of Christ that we venerate on entering the Church. She didn’t want to kiss them. But when I went to stand in our usual spot in the back of the nave, she noticed the icon of St. John that hangs there–and happens to be the same as the one we have at home. As you can guess, she made kissing noises and reached out for the icon. So I helped her venerate our family’s patron’s icon.

And after that, she seemed to get what the other icons were and allowed me to hold her so she could kiss them.

I just find it remarkable that, so far as I can tell, Delaina began kissing icons by noticing and reaching out to St. John’s icon, both at home and at Church. And that St. John happens to be our family’s patron only adds to the remarkable relationship of events.

I am not at all attempting to suggest any sort of explanation for why Delaina did what she did with regard to kissing icons, starting with St. John. But I find it singularly remarkable, for an almost one-year-old girl to do.

And it adds one more thing for which to thank God for his grace at work in St. John.

The Fatherhood Chronicles XCIX

Mr. Mom

One of my favorite Lonestar songs is Mr. Mom, in which a newly out of work dad really likes the idea of being at home and taking long naps. Of course, he finds out different.

Pampers melt in a Maytag dryer
Crayons go up one drawer higher
Rewind Barney for the fifteenth time
Breakfast six, naps at nine
There’s bubble gum in the baby’s hair
Sweet potatoes in my lazy chair
Been crazy all day long and it’s only Monday
Mr. Mom

I’m going to become Mr. Mom this weekend as Anna heads out of town for the ALA convention in Nawlins. (Color me crazy anxious about her being down there; I’ve heard not good things about current crime and security down there.) We’ve got child care lined up for Friday and Monday (as I can’t take any time off work), but from the time I drop Anna off at the airport till she gets home, I’m Mr. Mom. I’ll have the girls all to myself from Friday evening after work (when I pick them up) till Monday morning (when I drop them off prior to work).

Believe it or not, I’m actually looking forward to it.

The girls have been through quite a bit in the last almost three months. Two major relocations, first out of our old apartment and to their aunt’s place (then their grandma’s place), and then from grandma’s back here to a new place they’d never been before. While down in Oklahoma, Anna’s sister, with whom they were staying, had closed on a house and so they moved from the rental they were in to their new home, and the girls moved out of their aunt’s home and into grandma’s new home. Then there was the major disruption of their normal routine. Try as Anna could, aside from meal times and nap and bed times, there wasn’t any way she could keep up the same routine. And then there’s just the different ways her family disciplines and the way we discipline. Sofie being almost three definitely picked up on some behaviors that will have to change, though nothing that isn’t surprising for a little girl her age.

All that just to say that their lives have been very chaotic for quite some weeks.

But I’m still looking forward to the weekend.

Already the girls are sensing that this is their new home. I think my presence in their daily lives is adding to their sense of stability. And that has already had an impact on their behavior. I’ve seen a difference just in the few days we’ve all been reunited, and in this first week home. Sofie for one really seems to be getting back to her normal self. And Delaina also seems to be doing better. The only issue with Delaina right now is her very real frustration with not being able to communicate her needs to us. We’ve been trying sign language with her–though with being in Oklahoma, that was difficult to keep up with consistently–but Delaina is like me and Sofie: a very low tolerance for not being able to do what she needs or wants to do, like tell us “more” or “drink” or “eat.”

But Delaina is over all such a happy baby. I have very little trouble getting her to bed or calming her down. She’s such a little snuggler. In fact, when I pick her up even when I come home from work, she’ll nuzzle her head into my neck, tuck her arms under her and just lay still.

And as I said, Sofie seems to be getting back to her true self. In fact, last night as I was rushing off to teach my logic class, Sofie stopped me by hollering after me, “Give you kisses, daddy! Give you kisses!” So I stopped and she gave me a kiss and a really energetic hug, and said to me, “I love you, daddy.”

Yep. I’m looking forward to this weekend.

The Problem of an Ahistorical Church

In many Protestant circles today, particularly among evangelical and “emergent” groups, there is either a paradigm of primitivism (a desire to get back behind the purported historical baggage of the two thousand years of the Church’s life to the “pure” first century Church—which usually means things like meeting in homes, small groups, communal structures, and so forth) or one of cafeteria-style selection of various practices and beliefs scattered throughout the history of the Church, without regard to the original setting or the historical development underlying these practices and beliefs. Occasionally, there is an inconsistent mixture of both primitivism and the cafeteria at once. What is ignored, and in some extreme cases even outright rejected, is the place, legitimacy, and authority of the historical life of the Church. That is not to say that certain elements of the history aren’t espoused (few would reject the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definition as touchstones and safeguards of proper Christian belief). It is simply to say that in the final analysis, the historical life of the Church lacks any real authority, other than precedent perhaps, and must be sifted through the first principles and mores of present-day Christian living, normatively on the very specific individual level.

Other evidence of this distancing of Christian thought and life from the historical thought and life of the Church is the modern predilection—among mainline groups as well as evangelicals—toward “relevancy.” Traditional theological formulae, doxological and liturgical language, and various ascetical practices, all are abandoned with relatively little afterthought on the presupposition that old means impractical and incomprehensible, the presumption that Christianity must be repackaged with every generation if it is to “make sense” to that generation.

Ironically, among the aforementioned evangelical groups, this rather cavalier stance with regard to the historical life of the Church is coupled with a dogged insistence on the historicity of Jesus. Great apologetic pains are taken to assert and defend the Gospels as historical and historically accurate accounts of Jesus’ life. (I should note that there are marked instances among “postmodern” and “emergent” churches and individuals of a willingness to forgo a stubborn adherence to the importance of an historical Jesus.) In terms of the importance of history for our knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith, Jesus is divorced from his Body, the Church.

But this gives rise to several problems.
Continue reading “The Problem of an Ahistorical Church”

Joe Sachs on Human Reflection on Experience

It is not the nature of human beings to let thing that interest us go unthought about. “What is it?” and “Why?” are not just modes of speaking and thinking: they are living ways of standing in and toward the world. In the face of our most powerful experiences, those questions may not get fully answered, but it is intolerable for them to go entirely unanswered either, and impossible for them to go unasked. For good or ill, to be greatly and noticeably affected by anything, and not to seek the cause, is no part of life as we live it. If that were not so, if we refrained from all reflection, important things could happen to us without becoming part of our experience at all. Life would pass through us without being lived by us.

–Joe Sachs, “Introduction,” Aristotle: Poetics (Focus 2006), p. 1

The above is from Sachs’ newest translation, and also illustrates why I think his translations are not only well done linguistically, but are the “thinking man’s” translation of Aristotle. He breaks, judiciously, with the Latinate technical tradition to focus on the Hellenic. But more than that, he himself clearly engages Aristotle on a deeply reflective level.

I use Sachs for my Aristotle translations I use in class, and am glad to see one more of Aristotle’s works from him. I still fervently wish he would translate something from the Organon, preferrably the Categories, though one of the Analytics or De Interpretatione would not be unwelcome, either.

So that others may share my own joy and enthusiasm, here are the Sachs translations of some of Aristotle’s major works:

Aristotle’s Physics: A Guided Study (Masterworks of Discovery)
Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Sachs’ introduction to his translation of the Metaphysics, is here.)
Aristotle’s On the Soul and On Memory and Recollection
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Aristotle: Poetics

Sachs also has a translation on one of Plato’s works:
Plato: Theaetetus

St John the Wonderworker and Our Family

In my most recent post discussing the continuing intercessions of St. John the Wonderworker on our behalf, I noted both my struggle with despair over my situation and a tangible answer to our needs. I must confess that my requests for St. John’s intercessions were more often irregular and motivated by anxiety and despair. I do not know why that is, for not only has St. John proven an able patron of our family’s needs, but this most recent answer to his prayers, and our own, for a new job and for housing is not an anomaly.

More to the point, St. John’s intercessions are efficacious for us for one very important reason: God loves us.

A friend and I were remarking to one another how fundamentally the Orthodox Liturgy has reframed our understanding of God. Speaking for myself, I knew God as mostly a God of judgment. Yes, he loved you, but mostly he was waiting for you to step out of line to punish you for your misdeeds. But a few years of continually hearing, “Thou art a good God who lovest mankind” and hearing that God is the “man-befriending” God, have really and radically reshaped my understanding and experience of God. What it has done is helped me to allow my faith to be strengthened.

I say that knowing full well that I have wrestled with and too often surrendered to darkness and melancholy, to a very pessimistic view of the future. I have too often thought that God would not help because after all this was my own doing and I deserved what I got. But thank the man-befriending God that this thinking is a lie. We do not get what we deserve: which is precisely the point of the Gospel’s message of grace. And God isn’t waiting to punish us, but is, instead, waiting with a towel around his waist to wash and bathe weary and sore feet. On divine authority we know that he waits to give us rest and guidance in the midst of our struggles and temptations.

There is no doubt either that we will suffer discipline to correct our misdeeds and set our souls in virtue that we may be made ready and worthy to participate in full union with the divine energies for all eternity. But this is not the same thing as punishment. This is the coach allowing the athlete to endure the muscles which seize, the breath which comes in searing and burning gasps, the pain and ache of growth in size and speed and flexibility. This is the father which lays the rod athwart the backside, not in anger nor in implacable quest for restitution, but with, if I may venture an overbold analogy, tears and love.

This God is, of course, the God who has “come through” again and again and again for us. Lincoln, Illinois. Baton Rouge. Chicago. With numerous and varied examples in each place.

I do not yet believe as I should. I am ever the father in the Gospels who cries, “I believe, help thou my unbelief.”

But with such luminscent examples as St. John and his spiritual son (and one of my patrons), Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim, and with a growing experience of the God who loves mankind, it is becoming easier to believe than it is to doubt.

The Trinity, Categories of Being, and Nominalism

I was reflecting this morning on an exchange on one of the message boards I visit. It was a post on the Trinity, and one of the members, who I take is rather enamored of postmodernist jargon and has what I take to be a somewhat superficial understanding of postmodernist concepts, declared that Christianity didn’t need the theological concept of the Trinity since the concept itself is not explicitly spelled out in Scriptures and since the classical Christian understanding of it is based on categories of being that few people either accept or understand today. That is to say, since we don’t think like the Christians of the fourth century, the theological concept of the Trinity doesn’t make much sense to us. Our minds don’t “process” it well; it doesn’t fit our “programming.” Mind you, he assured me he wasn’t rejecting the concept of the Trinity. He just didn’t care about it.

There are, of course, a whole host of issues to address here, major Gospel-altering problems lurking within this sort of position. And I will not, nor could I, address them all a single post. One of those matters has to do with the addiction to relevance that is pervasive throughout modern mainline and evangelical Christianity here in the U.S. My friend and brother, the priestly goth, talks about the failure of the radical insistance on relevance. He has some very good things to say.

There is also lurking around this the problematic notion of an incipient Jewish primitivism–brought about in part via the latest wave of the quests for the historical Jesus. That is to say, if only we could get behind and before the Harnackian “hellenization of Christianity” to the simple, ethical Jewish teacher Jesus, wholly locating Christianity in a first-century Jewish worldview, we’d finally get to the heart of “true Christianity.” On this, see the redoubtable Perry Robinson’s review and critique of Harnack’s “hellenization” criticism.

But what I want to address here–and which Larry also touches on–is the nominalist heresy that is rife in the Trinity critic’s position noted above. In other words, it is not as though the Trinity is a reality about whom the language we use to speak of is dispensible. We cannot just mix-and-match the terms that makes sense to us. The Trinity is a reality that confronts us and demands things of us. No single philosophical or theological paradigm can grasp the Trinity. But it does not follow that we can say just anything about the Trinity. And some of the ways we speak about the Trinity cannot be jettisoned. It is not the case that we slapped our own conceptual paradigms on the Trinity to make sense of God, but that the Trinity requires us to understand being in a new way, a way enshrined in the divinely wrought terms and concepts of the Church.
Continue reading “The Trinity, Categories of Being, and Nominalism”