The Orthodox Church Today: Notes and Links

When I first set up this blog, I was not expecting to write so much on religion. But since I have had such a hard time learning about Orthodoxy online, I think it is good to share some of what I found with the hope of combating some common caricatures, not just of the traditionalist sort, but also of the sort that claims the Orthodox Church is full of backwards nationalists.

A good place to start is the May 2014 article in the Scottish Journal of Theology by P. Kalaitzidis, called “New trends in Greek Orthodox theology: challenges in the movement towards a genuine renewal and Christian unity.” Kalaitzidis describes the formation of what is commonly taken to be today’s Greek Orthodox theology: the emphasis on patristics coupled with nationalist, anti-Western sentiment, which is commonly associated with names such as Fr. John Romanides. But he also goes on to describe reactions against this mindset that have taken place in Greece. Contrary to the emphasis on patristic theology, Professor Savas Agourides was a pioneer in modern Greek biblical studies, and was also opposed to the strong anti-Westernism of many of his compatriots. In addition, many of the theology faculty at the University of Thessaloniki have been supportive of ecumenical efforts and attempts to engage with modernity. Kalaitzidis frequently contrasts the 1960s theologians such as Romanides with the “new generation” – which includes such journals such as Synaxi and Theologia (the latter being the official scholarly journal of the Church of Greece), both of which actively engage Greek Orthodox theology with insights from many different countries. This is of course not to say that the new generation has the upper hand. Indeed, there are still a great number of “zealots.” As an example of this, he points to the Confession of Faith against ecumenism made popular by them.

So, as I’ve tried to explain before, the situation in Greece and Russia is actually quite complicated – there are a good number of fundamentalists, but also of moderates, and even the fundamentalists often have pretty balanced opinions. I’ve decided to compile some links below for people to explore firsthand what Orthodoxy is like today.

Orthodox Fundamentalism?

It is frequently said that Eastern Europeans are homophobic, anti-Western, Islamophobic, xenophobic, et cetera, and that the Orthodox Church there is an accomplice to this.

Consider Serbia as an example. Some Serbians have claimed that Metropolitan Amfilohije’s rhetoric comparing the Belgrade gay pride parade to Sodom and Gomorrah was an attempt to encourage right-wingers to take violence against it, a not uncommon occurrence in Eastern European pride parades. Whatever his intentions were, many in the West would agree that such speech is prone to inciting hate. Patriarch Irinej has not spoken so harshly, but has routinely called homosexuality a disease. Similar statements can be found from other prominent Serbian Orthodox.

Take, as another example, the Russian Orthodox Church. We not uncommonly hear that it serves Russian nationalist interests more than Christ and can be dangerously fundamentalist to this end. At first glance, relatively popular priests such as Fr. Daniel Sysoev (now martyred) and Fr. George Maximov, might seem to confirm this. Both have engaged in polemics against Islam. Both have written against evolution. Former Russian Patriarch Alexy II even supported an institute meant to argue for creationism. Further, the Russian Orthodox Church’s arguments to keep close relations between Church and State sometimes claim that Russian culture is primarily Orthodox, which may seems exclusionary to Russians of other faiths. In fact, in 2005, a Russian archbishop, Nikon, called Krishna “Satan” in his opposition to a temple to Krishna being built by Hindus in Moscow.

It is not to be doubted that there are such problems in Orthodoxy. Yet such a depiction is not detailed enough, so it is more like caricature than a true to life portrait. There are many facts that the rough sketch neglects. For instance, in 2010 the Serbian Holy Assembly of Bishops released a statement concerning that year’s pride parade which discouraged violence. Another appeal released that year on the same subject by 29 priests frequently mentions love and forgiveness. For a more in-depth account of Serbian Orthodoxy’s relationship with homosexuality, read the article ‘Silence or Condemnation: The Orthodox Church on Homosexuality in Serbia’ by Miloš Jovanović.

In Russia, Patriarch Alexy II was a well-known opponent of antisemitism. In The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, the famous 19th-century works of Russian spirituality, a holy man at one point exhorts another not to curse Jews, because God made them just as He made the Christians, and we are also told that the Fathers teach that, if one has a good intention and spirit, he may learn from even a Saracen (i.e., a Muslim). More examples can be given. Archbishop Nikon’s anti-Krishna letter, mentioned above, is ironically quite ecumenical. In his attempt to criticize certain Hindus for worshiping the “Lord of death,” he claims opposition to such worship is the common opinion of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs.

Commenting on the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Fr. George Maximov criticized the publication for their crude depictions of Muhammad saying “I will never approve of such cynical and vulgar mockeries of Muslims and their faith.” At the same source, Fr. George tells us that Fr. Daniel spoke against the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Furthermore, while Fr. George has written against evolution, he has also written an article against those who think geocentrism is Orthodox dogma.

It seems fairly clear to me that since a lot of what Eastern Europeans say is behind a language barrier, only a very simple summary of they say is translated into English and so we do not get to see the details of their positions. On the other hand, even the Catholic Church – which publishes everything in English – gets misrepresented by our media.

Prayer from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Fountain of all knowledge,
Spring of holiness,
Zenith of all glory,
Might omnipotent,
Beauty that never fades,
    I will choose the path He shows me,
    And be content with His judgments.

1QS, column 10. Translation from The Dead Sea Scriptures (3rd ed.) by Theodor H. Gaster, p. 138.

EDIT: I realize now that this isn’t strictly a prayer, but more of a vow made by initiants.

St. Augustine Alludes to Plotinus

The individual soul … is itself no slight thing. Yet it must become worthy of this contemplation … it must be quiet. Let us assume that quiet too is the body that wraps it round – quiet the earth, quiet the air and the sea, quiet the high heavens.
– Plotinus, Enneads, V.1.2

So we said: If to any man the tumult of the flesh grew silent, silent the images of earth and sea and air; and if the heavens grew silent, and the very soul grew silent to herself and by not thinking of self mounted beyond self; if all dreams and images grew silent, and every tongue and every symbol – everything that passes away … and in their silence He alone spoke to us, not by them, but by Himself: so that we should hear His word, not by any tongue of the flesh, not in the voice of an angel, not in the sound of thunder, nor in the darkness of a parable – but that we should hear Himself … should hear Himself and not them.
– St. Augustine, Confessions, 9.10.25

Disputed Question: Whether minorities can be rightly called racist?

It would seem that they cannot.

1. Some argue that racism is not simply about prejudice against another due to race, but also requires power to prevent the prosperity of those against whom one is prejudiced. But minorities, though they may be prejudiced, do not have such power, and therefore cannot be called racist. For example, calling American white people “crackers” will not affect most white people due to power structures in America which favor white people, whereas jokes about American black people reinforce negative stereotypes that do affect their livelihood.

2. Some argue that it is prudent in current circumstances to say that they cannot, especially facing situations where affirmative action is called racist for favoring minority students. Affirmative action is not racist because it benefits the disadvantaged. Saying that minorities cannot be racist helps reinforce this.

It would seem that they can.

1. It is often argued that, according to most common definitions of racism, racism is simply prejudice based on race. But this can apply both to minorities and non-minorities.

2. Defining racism as something other than the common definition leaves us without a term for prejudice based on race. This is imprudent, since prejudice is a genus of which prejudice based on nationality, prejudice based on sexual orientation, prejudice based on race, etc. are species. To redefine ‘prejudice’ to take the place of what is commonly called ‘racism’ confuses this totally.

3. Rowan, bishop of the English, says “it is quite often said by white liberals or radicals that ‘there is no such thing as black racism’. Apart from the fact that this is demonstrably untrue (even if ‘black racism’ is in considerable part conditioned by white racism), the statement carries overtones of the idea that the victimized group is intrinsically incapable of the kind of violence from which it is suffering. And this in fact obscures the real atrocity of racial oppression: racism is not evil because its victims are good, it is evil because its victims are human.”

Conclusion

I conclude that it is appropriate to say that minorities can be racist. Redefining racism so that minorities are excepted not only confuses communication (as said above), but also mistakenly elevates what is extrinsic to what is intrinsic. Prejudiced remarks against anyone are always wrong in themselves, and are not wrong merely because they happen to negatively impact a group who are oppressed greatly (although this increases the guilt of the prejudiced remark). As Bishop Rowan noted, prejudice is wrong not because its victims are oppressed, but because they are human. But the above (re)definition obscures this.

However, those who argue that minorities cannot be racist are right to the extent that they want to emphasize that racism against different groups can have different consequences depending on their standing in society, and that racism against certain groups has far graver consequences and guilt than racism against other groups. But redefining racism to achieve this end is incorrect.

Responses

1. It is not true that minorities cannot harm the prosperity of other groups. For, as Bishop Rowan notes, there are in fact cases where minorities have committed violent acts against other minority groups, or even against the majority group. But even if one replies that the harm must be specifically systematic and long-term, then the redefinition still fails because it implies that many actions which all agree are racist no longer count as racist. If, for example, a white American man insults a black coworker using slurs to his manager, but this results in the white man being fired and has no effect on his coworker’s standing in the company, then it would be hard to classify the white man’s words as racist according to the redefinition. Therefore such a definition is not suitable.

2. There are other ways to respond to the critics of affirmative action than by a confusing redefinition. Further, the same reasoning can be used to argue for the contrary conclusion. For instance: the claim that minorities cannot be racist is often used to defend prejudiced insults made by minorities against members of the majority. It is therefore imprudent to defend a claim that enables such behavior.

Knowledge in the Truest Sense

According to Aristotle (Posterior Analytics, 1.2), knowing a thing in the truest sense involves knowing the causes that make the thing what it is. I think this is quite evident in high school mathematics. There is a great difference between students who memorize a formula and know roughly when to apply it, and students who know how the formula is derived and so know the exact circumstances under which it can be used. Indeed, my first-year university calculus professor said that if a student wanted to know if they had a good grasp on the material, they should try his multiple-choice questions rather than his short answer questions, because the former tested most strictly whether students knew the assumptions behind each theorem and when exactly they could be used.

Although high school and first-year university math may seem trivial, this actually has had life-or-death consequences. For example, being able to make a right turn at a red light has been widely accepted in North America, at least in part due to studies which concluded that there was no “statistically significant difference” in accidents at intersections before and after allowing right-turn-on-red. Therefore, lawmakers concluded that right-turn-on-red was not a significant source of danger. However, this is a misunderstanding of how statistical tests work. If a test says there is no statistically significant difference between two numbers (e.g., crashes before and crashes after allowing right-turn-on-red), that does not necessarily tell you there is no difference between the two in reality, nor even that there is no important difference (it is a bit silly to expect a statistical test to tell you how many accidents can be tolerated). Such a result sometimes occurs when there is in fact a difference in reality, but the sample size of the test was not large enough to detect it. And this is what happened: larger studies did confirm a difference. But the lawmakers understood none of this, because they did not have knowledge of statistical testing in the truest sense. This is not really the lawmakers’ fault, but surely there should have been someone to help them properly understand statistical results. Furthermore, equally grave problems have arisen when DNA tests are similarly taken to be magic without any understanding of the processes involved in producing the result.

So maybe it is not so trivial after all to emphasize to students the importance of knowing the assumptions and limitations of theories, tests, formulas, etc., which I believe comes most easily through knowing a thing by the causes which make it what it is. Such knowledge will certainly help give students the “deep learning” that educationalists often talk about, and perhaps will help them avoid fatal errors later in life.

Was St. Augustine a Fundamentalist?

When the topic of the compatibility of science with religion comes up, almost always someone will bring up the quote from De Genesi ad Litteram:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

But recently there has been a bit of a push back against characterizing Augustine as pro-science using this quote. Indeed, some have even gone so far as to say that, when all his writings are considered, Augustine comes very close to a modern fundamentalist.

Stewart James Felker has argued for this. Now, fundamentalism can be defined many ways. Felker chooses to use James Barr’s definition:

What fundamentalists insist is not that the Bible must be taken literally but that it must be so interpreted as to avoid any admission that it contains any kind of error. In order to avoid imputing error to the Bible, fundamentalists twist and turn back and forward between literal and non-literal interpretation.

Consequently, Felker says Augustine fits this definition so well that he can rightly called a fundamentalist. Augustine, we are told, emphasized scriptural inerrancy to the point that he claimed (in the City of God and De Doctrina Christiana) that there could never be errors in the Bible and it should be understood non-literally if a literal interpretation seems to say something false. Felker continues:

Augustine’s commitment to inerrancy extended as far as to deny that the gospel authors could have even gotten Biblical names mixed up—for example, coming up with far-fetched apologetic explanations to explain away verses like Matthew 27:9 (“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah…”), where the prophet Jeremiah may have been mistakenly cited instead of Zechariah.

I will focus on specifically this claim here, because I think considering only this we can answer the question in the title of this post. What he is talking about is The Harmony of the Gospels, 3.29-31. But what he says here is simply wrong. St. Augustine offers three explanations for why the Gospel of Matthew seems to wrongly refer to Jeremiah instead of Zechariah: (i) perhaps a scribe accidentally changed it from Zechariah to Jeremiah, (ii) perhaps St. Matthew mistakenly wrote Jeremiah at first, but when he realized the error, he was directed by the Holy Spirit to keep it, maybe to suggest that all prophets preach essentially the same message, (iii) St. Matthew deliberately chose to write Jeremiah instead of Zechariah, because even though the prophecy strictly speaking refers to Zechariah, there is a related prophecy in Jeremiah to which he wanted to draw our attention.

Explanation (i) St. Augustine dismisses, essentially using the principle of lectio difficilior potior. But he allows both explanations (ii) and (iii). Neither one is particularly far-fetched, and (ii) is especially interesting:

For it may have been the case, that when Matthew was engaged in composing his Gospel, the word Jeremiah occurred to his mind, in accordance with a familiar experience, instead of Zechariah. Such an inaccuracy, however, he would most undoubtedly have corrected (having his attention called to it, as surely would have been the case, by some who might have read it while he was still alive in the flesh), had he not reflected that [perhaps] it was not without a purpose that the name of the one prophet had been suggested instead of the other in the process of recalling the circumstances (which process of recollection was also directed by the Holy Spirit), and that this might not have occurred to him had it not been the Lord’s purpose to have it so written. If it is asked, however, why the Lord should have so determined it, there is this first and most serviceable reason, which deserves our most immediate consideration, namely, that some idea was thus conveyed of the marvellous manner in which all the holy prophets, speaking in one spirit, continued in perfect unison with each other in their utterances.

Note that Augustine allows that St. Matthew might have genuinely mixed the names up while first composing his gospel and decided to leave that error there for the sake of expressing a different truth. Compare this with the solution of AnswersInGenesis (an exemplar of modern fundamentalism) which does not suggest this as acceptable.

So it is not at all clear that St. Augustine was interested in “far-fetched apologetics.” And far from bending over backwards to “avoid any admission that [the Bible] contains any kind of error,” or denying “that the gospel authors could have even gotten Biblical names mixed up,” he does the opposite of both! For these reasons I conclude that St. Augustine is wrongly called a fundamentalist.