‘Meteors on a Moonless Night’ or ‘Singles’ Awareness Day’

Today is Valentine’s Day. You know this already. If you didn’t know it when you woke up, you were surely reminded by the waterfall of love-themed Facebook posts flooding your news feed. Poring over your friends’ comments and statuses, you might have noticed that while many people take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate romantic love, others are more sarcastic. Some people jokingly refer to it as ‘Singles’ Awareness Day’. Valentine’s Day is when the romantically involved celebrate their relationships, but it’s also the day where everyone else is awkwardly compelled to reflect on their own singleness. That reflection is often uncomfortable, because of the surprising way our culture usually talks about romantic love. It struck me recently that even though our modern culture is usually wary and stand-offish when it comes to religion, there is one thing which many secular people still talk about using very religious language: romantic love.

Obviously, we moderns don’t build literal temples to Cupid and burn roses drenched in virgin’s blood on his altars; that’s not what I mean when I say that we treat romance ‘religiously’. I only mean that the way we moderns talk about romantic love is the same way religious people talk about God or the gods or the cosmos. Take for example, this exchange from the romantic comedy called ‘Fools Rush In’ (1997), starring Matthew Perry  (Alex) and Salma Hayek (Isabel):

Alex: This morning I couldn’t decide between a hamburger and a tuna melt. But my life made perfect sense. Now I know exactly want I want, but my life makes no sense. Somewhere between tuna melt and your aunt’s tamales, life lost meaning and gained a purpose.
Isabel: What are you saying?
Alex: I am saying … This is morning I was worried I’d met the girl of my dreams at the drycleaners and not recognised her. But you – you are what I never knew I always wanted. I’m not even sure what that means, but I think it has something to do with the rest of my life!(emphasis added) Continue reading

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‘Wondrous Humility’ or ‘Does God have narcissistic personality disorder?’

As Christmas is celebrated this year, thousands of Christians over the world will be offering praise to Christ. But the act of ‘praise’ or ‘worship’, so central to all religions, is something which can make modern, Western minds extremely uncomfortable. There are probably several reasons for this, but one of the central ones is that we feel that any god who demands praise must be a narcissistic tool. In 2009, Catherine Deveny wrote this (pretty entertaining) piece of New Atheist rhetoric where she suggested that the God of ‘monotheistic religion’ suffers from an acute case of narcissistic personality disorder: “a condition in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves (source).” Deveny argues that God’s behaviour is typical of an NPD sufferer (NPD for short):

“[NPDs] expect the best but give very little. They cannot love and have no empathy. But they are emotionally needy and crave attention so hone their skills to attract love, admiration and attention to fill a hole inside them that will never be filled. NPDs don’t feel they exist without an adoring fan club …”

An NPD’s chief fault is that he has a pathological need for praise, because it temporarily numbs a (false and rather tragic) sense of inferiority. So they amass wealth and resources (e.g. political or military power, wealth, fame) and then share out benefits in small amounts to anyone willing to exchange them for some praise or adoration. The practice is distasteful because it’s all entirely self-serving on both sides; the NPD cares nothing for the people around them in themselves because he only wants their adoration. And his followers provide him with praise, not because he deserves it, but because they want what he can give them. Both sides are ultimately in it for themselves and neither of them are being honest about their motivations.

"You descended from Your Heavenly Glory to our humility and consented to be born in a manger ..." (Prayer before Communion)

“You descended from Your Heavenly Glory to our humility and consented to be born in a manger …” (Prayer before Communion)

So is this rather sad situation analogous to Christians and their worship of God? Regardless of what some individual Christians think in their private prayer lives, Christianity’s early history reveals a very explicit rejection of the idea that God needs our praise, or that we could receive benefits from Him in return for the praise we offer Him. Why? Because both those ideas were central beliefs of paganism. Pagans, unlike Christians, believed the gods had no innate care for the human race; they were certainly not gods of ‘love’ in the Christian sense of giving without expecting to receive in return. Historian Everett Ferguson says, “There was a common idea in the ancient world that the deities needed the food and drink sacrificed to them. This was especially so in Rome. Sacrifice was thought of as increasing their supply of numen, which would be used up in helping people.” In other words, the pagan gods would (and could) only give you something if you gave them something in return. Pagan prayers were very explicitly aimed at ‘sealing the deal’; a pagan called Valerius Maximus (1st century CE) described the basic principle behind pagan prayers as follows:  “By ancient practice, attention is paid to the divine: through prayer when anything requires entrusting to the gods; through a vow when a favour is requested; through a ceremony of thanksgiving when a vow is to be paid …”  All pagan prayer is offered with reference to some favour the god has performed. Continue reading

Is Christianity anti-intellectual?

“Imagine the people who believe such things and who are not ashamed to ignore, totally, all the patient findings of thinking minds through all the centuries since the Bible was written. And it is these ignorant people, the most uneducated, the most unimaginative, the most unthinking among us, who would make themselves the guides and leaders of us all… I personally resent it bitterly.”

That was how science fiction author Isaac Asimov described religion. He was expressing what was then, and still is now, a fairly widespread aversion to ‘religion’ in general. This popular distaste is particularly directed against ‘organised religion’; ‘institutions’ like the Catholic Church get considerably more flak (or at least are viewed with a greater baseline of disdain off the bat) than other, more ‘liberal’ and less ‘organised’ branches of Christianity. Bertrand Russell even called organised Christianity, “the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.” And we Orthodox, with our priests, ‘magic rituals’ and our ‘bells and smells’ are in the same boat as the fusty old Catholics. We’re equally culpable for holding back Western society, equally to blame for stifling free-expression, oppressing women and propagating superstition.

St. Justin Martyr, wearing his philosopher’s robes.

So the popular ‘intelligentsia’ would like us to believe that institutional Christianity is fundamentally opposed to good, rational and scientific thinking. But we Orthodox/Catholics are told in Church that the ‘One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church’ is the guardian of the most important truth of history; one through which the entire Creation (both human and non-human) will be, and is being saved. What’s a good ‘apostolic’ (i.e. Catholic or Orthodox) Christian to make of all this?

Well, to put it more explicitly, the charge is really something like this:

Institutional Christianity is anti-intellectual and anti-scientific.

For me, this criticism has always seemed a little spurious, purely because of the ‘institutional’ Christians around whom I have lived and grown up. My father, for example, is an Orthodox priest, who is also undertaking post-graduate studies in Philosophy at a secular university (and doing ridiculously well thereat). He uses the same fingers which type and footnote his essays on phenomenology, morality and metaphysics to swing the censer in prayer and select an offering for Eucharist. It was hard to feel threatened by the charge of anti-intellectualism in a household were Dawkins and Hitchens (with notes on the margin of every page) were already sitting along side the complete works of Pope Shenouda III in the library upstairs.

Continue reading

‘Religion’, Christ and the Church

As you probably already know, Jefferson Bethke’s video below has sparked a lot of discussion of late:

‘Religion’, Jeff would have us believe, is hypocritical, bigoted superstition, whereas ‘faith’, a personal relationship with God, not bogged down by authority or ritual, is the essence of true communion with God. Truth be told, Jeff isn’t really saying anything new. ‘Organised religion’ has been a dirty word for years now – ‘personal religion’ is fine and dandy, but when religion becomes an institution, with priests and creeds and rituals, then it becomes a cult-like abomination. To be fair, Jeff (a Christian) obviously doesn’t object to the Church itself, but from his video, one gets the impression that he would prefer a Church completely devoid of rites and rituals and other overtly ‘religious’ things.

But besides that, the brute fact of the matter is that as simple and occasionally powerful as Jeff’s words are, they simply cannot survive an encounter with real evil. The problem isn’t that Jeff goes too far, it’s that he doesn’t go far enough. It goes without saying that religious hypocrisy is a bad thing, and others have already dealt with Jeff’s arguments in this respect (see Fr. Antonios Kaldas and Fr. Andrew Damick). That’s not my concern in this post. My problem is with Jeff’s climax, his ultimate solution, what he calls ‘grace’:

“I no longer have to hide my failures, I don’t have to hide my sin

Because my salvation doesn’t depend on me, it depends on him.

Salvation is freely mine, forgiveness is my own,

Not based on my efforts, but Christ’s obedience alone.

Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you

He paid for all your sin, and then buried it in the tomb …”

Everything’s going to be okay, Jeff tells us, because Christ has already paid the penalty for our sins. He did all the hard work on the cross; He’s already paid the price so that we can be forgiven, now all that remains is for us to accept His forgiveness and stroll gaily into Heaven. You don’t need priests or magic rituals; the Church is a cool place to hang out with other Christians, but there’s not much reason beyond that for you to be there. Once you’ve accepted Christ’s sacrifice and been forgiven, that’s all you really need, right? ‘Organised religion’, with it’s magical spells and rigid rules is superfluous.

I’ll explain why I disagree in a moment, but first I need to admit something: I used to agree heartily with Jeff. Surely, I thought, pure Christianity, the Christianity of Spirit and Truth (John 4:24) was all about sincerity, love and forgiveness. The only things that Orthodoxy seemed to add to this ‘pure’ Christianity were blindly observed rituals like the Eucharist and suspiciously paganish ‘unctions’ for the healing of illnesses and blessing of houses. I often used to think quietly to myself, “I’d be much happier in a less ‘superstitious’ church”.

Obviously, I’ve since changed my mind. Orthodoxy has a very different, (and what I believe is a far more scriptually accurate) concept of ‘grace’, and it refers to far more than forgiveness. Yes, of course Christ has forgiven us. And yes, there is a sense (although not necessarily an accurate one) in which Christ has ‘paid the penalty’ for our sins. But that is not the whole story. You see, while I am genuinely grateful that Christ has forgiven me, I would be a fool if I was content with forgiveness alone, and Christ would be cruel if He stopped there. Of course I want to be forgiven, but what I want beyond that, and what Christ really wants for me, is for me to be HEALED. For that to happen, Christ needs to do more than simply tell me, “I forgive you.” The only thing that can heal me (and you and Jeff) is God’s actual presence; intimate, real communion with Him. And for that, we need a Church; a living connection to the physical, historical Christ.

But it goes far, far deeper than mere ‘personal’ redemption. In Orthodoxy, it is not only human beings that need redemption, it is all Creation. When Adam and Eve sinned, they plunged the entire physical world screaming downwards into the dark ‘nothing’ from which Christ had called it – and in that terrible place we sat for thousands of years, ‘in darkness and the shadow of death’, where death instead of Christ became our king. That’s why the world we now inhabit is infused at once with both breathtaking beauty and unfathomable horror. We can admire, for example, the beauty of the world’s oceans when they are glassy and serene; but when their terrible jaws are opened, they swallow cities whole and leave beaches littered with children’s corpses. The whole world is comprised of beauty tinged with terror. When confronted with the wreckage of entire cities laid to waste by a hungry ocean, or bodies torn to pieces by carpet bombs, or the lonely teen who spends lonely, tear-filled nights cutting herself in a locked bathroom, Jeff’s cry that “Christ has paid for your crimes!” rings out surprisingly hollow, not because it’s false, but because it’s incomplete.  Our selfishness and stupidity cry out for forgiveness, but our brokenness, our loneliness, our terror and our pain scream out even louder for health and life and redemption. Our personal sin is only part of a far larger problem, and even personal sin cannot be healed by forgiveness alone. We need not only for God to forgive us, we need Him to draw us up into Himself. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” God did not make us so that we might sin and be forgiven; that was an unfortunate extra chapter which we added to what should have been a much shorter book. The reason that you and I and Jeff exist, is to be drawn into God, to live in communion with Him. Only then, when the whole world, including and beginning with our own hearts, is shot through with the brilliant light of God’s presence, will all tears be wiped and every wound be healed. That is what we understand as ‘grace’ – God’s actual, living, healing presence in and among us. The Greek word ‘kharis’ which we translate as ‘grace’ literally means a ‘gift’; God has given us the gift of Himself.

And that is why Christ came – the Incarnation was the epicentre of a sort of ‘creative (or re-creative) explosion’, whereby God began the process of remaking the broken world by becoming ever more present within it. He didn’t just order it to be made right, He personally invaded it. By taking flesh, by binding Himself to physical atoms and cells, He began to inject Himself into the world, almost like a virus or an infection (in fact, CS Lewis often the phrase ‘good infection’.) And here’s the point of the entire post; this is why I think Jeff has only half the truth: the Church IS that infection, and a lot of the things it uses to achieve its purpose (symbols, sacraments, community, a ‘priesthood’) are fairly clearly properties of ‘organised religion’.

St. Paul didn’t pull any punches when he described the Church as Christ’s ‘body’:

For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.

(Eph 5:30-32)

The marital imagery of Christ and the Church deserves far more attention than can be given to it here, but Orthodox writers often go stunningly far describing how the Church’s members become assumed into Christ’s life. St. Athanasius said “God became man so that men might become gods.”  The Church is far more than a place to hold Bible studies, it is Christ’s invasion force. He is literally turning us into little Christ’s; so that He can use us to set the world right, to do His re-creative work by tending the afflicted, (Matt 25:34-36) healing the sick (James 5:14-15) and forgiving the sinful (John 20:22-23, James 5:16). Christ has given the Church Himself, and bestowed upon it His own powers of healing and restoration (even, to an extent, His miraculous powers), so that those powers can be exercised over the physical world. The Church enacts and exercises those powers through its sacramentality (especially its Eucharist), things which Jeff might dismiss as empty and ‘religious’. The ritual, ‘religious’ element of Church life is not blind, paganish superstition – it is what the Orthodox often call ‘sacramental grace‘ – the divine invasion of the Creator into the Creation; God’s gift of Himself.

Historically speaking, it is almost undeniably certain that the historical Jesus uttered something like the words, ‘Take, eat, this is My Body,’ and ‘This is My Blood of the New Covenant’. An honest reading of John 6 would seem to demand that He did not mean this metaphorically. He is saying to the Church: “I promised to heal your broken world, and here’s the proof. Whenever you gather together and call upon Me, I will become atoms and molecules before your eyes; I will become matter.  Not just any matter, but Bread and Wine. That’s because I want you to eat Me. Yes, that’s right. Don’t just admire Me. Don’t just pray to Me. Don’t just thank Me for forgiving you. I have forgiven you, but that’s only the beginning. I am not only your Forgiver but your Redeemer, your SAVIOUR. So EAT ME! ABSORB ME! Take My flesh into yours! Let Me HEAL you! Let Me CHANGE you from the INSIDE! Let your flesh become MY Flesh, let your blood become MY Blood. Then, My dear son/daughter, You will see what real flesh, real blood and real LIFE really mean.”

Let me finish by summing up, as shortly and sweetly as possible, the essence of my objection to Jeff’s video. Jeff would have us believe that:

 “Religion says ‘do’, [but] Jesus says ‘done’”

But no. Jesus does not say ‘done’. Jesus says, “There is much to be done. While your body still groans with illness, while My children still weep and die, while you are still poisoned by foul desires to dominate and destroy, there is more to be done. Your world is broken, you are broken, and you need ME. You need not only My forgiveness, not only My love, You need My presence. You need ME.” Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion, He came to abolish death. And the ‘organised’ Church, complete with sacraments and what we call a ‘priesthood’ (although the early Christians never used that term), is where death goes to die. I can’t speak for other ‘organised religions’, but the organised Christian Church (as tragically dogmatic, unthinking and corrupt) as it sometimes is, is one body which I don’t think humanity can do without.

(Edit: According to his Facebook page, Jeff apparently acknowledges the importance of the Church as the Bride of Christ (although it’s not clear what he understands that to mean). Perhaps whenever he said ‘religion’ he merely meant ‘hypocrisy’, although if the organised body of Christians is not a ‘religious’ body then I don’t know what is.)

Big Bangs and Trained Riflemen

In my opening post I stated that  although I am far from sure, I have pretty much decided that Christianity is true, and so I thought it would be a good idea to use my next few posts to outline why that is, since it is the framework upon which most of the forthcoming discussion will rest. Once that’s done however, I’d like to begin to discuss the problems I have with Christianity – those nagging inconsistencies which keep me up at night.

So to begin with, in this post, I want to briefly outline why I believe that the universe we live in was not a freak accident, as atheists like Richard Dawkins would contend. Of course this has little to do with Christianity specifically, but it is very important in establishing a belief in God and a supernatural world that exists in tandem with our own. Here are my reasons:

1) A very big Bang

Until the 1930’s, cosmologists leaned uniformly towards a model of the universe that was eternal – a bubble of space and time which had always been, and which, to the best of their knowledge, always would be; changeless, unending and in which we were nothing but a single point upon a line of infinite length. But that all changed when scientists like Georges Lemaitre and Edwin Hubble discovered that the the universe was not static and unchanging at all – the stars around us were (and still are) being flung away from us at an ever increasing rate and the emptiness of space is permeated by scores of seemingly sourceless radio waves – the source of static on radios and televisions not tuned to any particular station. These were the artefacts of an event that had occurred somewhere in the distant past, one whose echoes are still audible 13 billion years later – the Big Bang. The more recent work of Stephen Hawking has hypothesised the existence of a ‘singularity’ an infinitesimally small and incomprehensibly dense ‘spark’ which contained all the matter and energy which ‘exploded’ into our universe. Naturally, the above is a very simplified version of the complex physics involved with this remarkable theory, but the fact is that modern physics has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that roughly 13.7 billion years ago, a universe appeared where before, no universe was.

Now, I can see no massively compelling reason to think that the rule of causation (everything that has a beginning has a cause) should apply beyond the borders of our universe – going only on what we know, what’s to say that singularities like the one that became our world aren’t able to materialise out of nothing? It would certainly be very strange, (and it probably isn’t the case), but we don’t have enough evidence to say that it is impossible. But even if singularities are in the habit of spontaneously materialising, the idea our universe is simply an uncaused, accidental universe is still very unlikely for the following reason:

2) Life on a Knife’s Edge

Forget the incredibly fragile and subtle mechanisms that life requires in order to function, simply in order for a universe to be able to contain matter more complex than disparate fundamental particles, a ridiculously specific sequence of numbers must be built in to it. The strength of gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces, the rate of expansion of the universe and many, many other mathematical constants must be tuned to an mind-boggling level of specificity just so that atoms can exist. For larger structures like stars and planets (and eventually of course, us) to exist, even more miraculous coincidences are needed. This is simply a scientific fact, and even the staunchest of atheists acknowledges that our ability to exist in this universe is one of the most ridiculously improbable things ever.

Atheist Dan Barker has an analogy (-ed. I’ve since learned that this analogy originally came from theistic philosopher Richard Swineburne, Barker’s is simply an attempt to give the analogy an naturalistic conclusion to counter Swineburne’s theistic one) which I find particularly apt; he describes life on earth as a prisoner tied to a chair and about to be executed by one hundred expert riflemen. (Each rifleman represents a universal constant for which only one, extremely specific value will allow for life). Blindfolded, the prisoner hears the order to fire shouted, and grits his teeth, preparing for oblivion, only to hear a deafening bang and realise that he is still alive. Naturally, Barker admits along with every other physicist and philosopher who takes themselves seriously: this demands an explanation. Pure chance could never account for every single rifleman missing his mark, and pure chance could never explain why our universe did not snuff us out before we had a chance to exist. Barker offers his explanation in the form of a Multiverse – he says that if the prisoner were to remove his blindfold, he would in fact find that there had been 101 prisoners, and he was the lucky one upon whom no rifle had ever been trained. This is a simplification of the idea that there are in reality, an infinite number of universes, and ours simply happens to be the one in which life can exist.

Admittedly, this is a logically coherent explanation – if there are an infinite number of universes, then it is no more surprising that one of them contains life than it is when one person out of a million wins the lottery.  It simply had to happen somewhere. But the problem with this theory is simple: there is no convincing evidence that it is true. While equations can be developed which allow for their hypothetical existence, this makes them only as real as the square root of negative one – theoretically conceivable, but with no actual counterpart in the real world. A die-hard skeptic would have to conclude that our universe is the only one in existence, because that is the only one which we can empirically show to be real.

So let me summarise the above information into three simple statements which are relatively uncontroversial scientific fact:

1) Our life-conducive universe began to exist 13.7 billion years ago.

2)  The chance that a universe should be able to support life by chance is negligibly small.

3) There is no conclusive evidence that any universe other than our own exists.

It is because of these three facts that I believe that our universe’s birth was not an accident at all, but an intentional, planned event, instigated with the express intention of allowing for complex life to exist – that is to say, somebody paid the riflemen to miss. The notion that the universe was ‘created’, i.e. brought into existence by an intelligent mind for an intelligent purpose is often laughed at today by many an atheist and agnostic as ridiculous, but this derision is based mostly in ignorance. Those who are aware of the current state of the science are much more open to the idea; even Richard Dawkins admitted in a debate with John Lennox that it is possible to have a ‘serious discussion’ about a deistic creator.

Having established that it is at least rational to believe that an intelligent being created our universe, we come to massively interesting question: who are they? A question I hope to discuss in my next post.