Friday, 2 February 2007

Coercive Christianity

By way of digression, so that the discussion does not get too tedious, we will change the subject a little so as to talk about coercive Christianity. Our interest in coercive Christianity was piqued by a recent scandal, we are sure that you know the details. We read some very interesting things about how the erring pastor was to be helped.

Before we go into that however, let us look at how Orthodoxy in the tradition of the Philokalia understands sin. As we have been discussing, because of the Fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise, we are each of us born with emotional tendencies to sin. These emotional tendencies to sin are each of them based, with the exception of one, on a pleasure of the senses. The great theoretician of this theory of the passions was none other than Evagrius Ponticus, whom we have been discussing, in his phase as the good Evagrius, the great ascetical theoretician. Evagrius defined eight passions:









In one of his writings (the Skemmata), Evagrius remarks that the root of all the passions is self-love, or what we might call selfishness.

Scripture teaches us that the imagination of man is evil from his youth. That means that when a person enters adolescence his or her passions come to the fore as his or her motivations to action. Before adolescence, the child is largely free from the controlling influence of the passions that the adult experiences, although the child might have accesses of such a passion as jealousy. That is why Christ could say that unless you turn and become as little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of the Heavens.

The one passion that is not a pleasure of the senses is sorrow. Evagrius teaches us that sorrow ‘withers all the pleasures of the senses’. Sounds like something Woody Allen might say. Evagrius was a very deep psychologist.

Now what does this have to do with coercive Christianity? We all of us have emotional tendencies to sin. It is important for the Orthodox Christian to recognize that not all of his emotional tendencies are automatically sanctified. Some of them lead to sin. This is not a fashionable opinion today, when very few emotional tendencies are still outside the pale of civilized behaviour. There are still a few but we would imagine that in the next fifty years even more social barriers will fall.

When we are baptized, the image of God is restored in us but the likeness to God is not: that requires work. Here is the problem: although the passions in us are weaker after baptism, they have not automatically disappeared and we are still able to sin. Here it should be clear that what this means is that we are still able to choose to follow an emotional tendency to sin based on a pleasure of the senses and to put it into action. We have to struggle. This is the Christian life and all the big words that we ourselves have been speaking about asceticism boil down to this: the struggle to purify ourselves of our emotional tendencies to sin and to replace those emotional tendencies to sin with the corresponding virtues, ultimately through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Every Christian is called to this struggle, whether in the married or the monastic state. The monastic is merely a person who tries to put the ascetical program into effect in a full and complete way, whereas the married man or woman cultivates virtue in a somewhat milder way.

Now let us suppose that we sin. No one is without sin. What happens then? Well if we are Orthodox, we eventually go to confession. If we are not? Well, here is where the fun begins.

First of all, it should be understood that in the theory of the passions first enunciated by Evagrius and elaborated by, among others, St John of Sinai in the Ladder, repeating a sin leads to a state where the man or woman is enslaved to that sin. In a rather confusing turn of terminology this state of enslavement is also called a ‘passion’, but in this particular sense. It is the state of someone who is treated for an addiction to a pleasure of the senses.

Recall that we started off this post with a reference to a public scandal where the pastor sinned. He was publicly pious, so much so that his partner in sin got so fed up that he ‘outed’ him. From the published sources, it appears, evidently, that the erring pastor found himself in the position of someone with an addiction to a particular sin: he had a passion in that special sense. Well, so what? Didn’t he get what he deserved? That’s not our business. God knows what he deserved, we don’t.

What interests us, and the point of this post, is what happened next. Here things get very, very interesting indeed. There is talk about putting him through a sort of counselling program with ‘name’ pastors from ‘name’ organizations. Indeed, it is reported that they are even considering the use of a lie-detector during the counselling sessions to get at the truth. A lie-detector? For a Christian sinner? What?

Now for all we know some journalist made this up. (It did get published, however.) Or, more likely, some ‘young whippersnapper’ standing in the aisle in the congregation shot his mouth off while the journalist was making his one and only visit. We hope that this was not a serious idea. Lie detectors? As a pastoral counselling tool? What?

There was a description of the model counselling sessions, with actual reference to past cases. The counselling sessions sounded very coercive. But since the erring pastor was willing to go through the counselling process there presumably was a free choice on his part.

But let us look a little more carefully at this. This sort of Christianity—which appears to have its roots in Calvin’s Geneva—puts a lot of pressure on members of the group to conform, even in thought and even though there is a great formal emphasis placed on the individual interpretation of Scripture. Hence, there is a lot of social pressure to conform, to go along with the group. If you are an erring sinner and the group—perhaps with ‘charisms of the Holy Spirit’ if there is a charismatic dimension to your group—pressures you to go through a coercive counselling process, possibly more to maintain group identity and cohesion than to save your soul, you are going to be in a very difficult position indeed. You are going to need the mercy of God—the real mercy of the real God—to extricate yourself from the mess you're in.

We were glad to hear that ultimately this group brainwashing program for the erring pastor was scrapped and that the man is in private therapy together with his wife. We hope that they landed on a good square, with counsellors who are a little more human than the ‘lie-detector gang’.

We understand that the leaders of the congregation that lost this pastor to public scandal are considering writing into the contract of any future pastor the obligation to go through yearly counselling programs. It should be understood that these are to be obligatory confessions of the pastor to a group of ‘peer’ pastors and that deviations from good Christian practice could result in the new pastor’s losing his pastorship. Pleasant place to work, live and be indeed!

By contrast let us look at what happens to the sinner in Orthodoxy. First of all let us admit that even in Orthodoxy there are sinners. There is even a big book for confessors to tell them how to apply to Orthodox sinners the canons of the Orthodox Church.

First of all, anyone who has ever confessed to an Elder in the Orthodox Church realizes that any pastoral group that needs a lie-detector to get at the truth is lost, very lost indeed. We pointed out in a recent post the case of a fellow who made a life-long confession to Elder Porphyrios. To save time, Elder Porphyrios told the fellow all his sins, including those the fellow had forgotten.

George told us another such story. An Orthodox man who was not practising his Orthodoxy and who was sinning in one way or another finally went to confession. The priest gave him a penance of one year without Holy Communion. That seemed a little severe to the fellow, so he went to another confessor. Again, one year. He went to a third confessor. Again, one year. The fellow threw up his hands. ‘What do they do,’ he said, ‘telephone each other?’ (There is enough discretion for the confessor in the Orthodox Church that it wasn’t merely a matter of each of the confessors following the same passage in the book.)

When Orthodoxy is operating properly, there is a love in relations between the laity and the priests. What do we mean?

It seems to us that in the sad story of the erring pastor, there was a coercion in relations among the leaders and the led, and among the leaders themselves and among the led themselves. This is a Christianity that lacks an interior freedom. Without that interior freedom there can be no love between two persons. There might be sex, there might be back-slapping bonhomie, there might be rousing hymns, there might be childbearing, there might be living together, but we wonder if there is deep emotional communion. To explain: Another erring pastor from another congregation remarked that when he went to his solidarity group (something like a group co-counselling session) and everyone asked how the other was doing, everyone said, ‘Blessed!” while the erring pastor felt like dirt. No emotional communication. Great social pressure to conform, to perform according to the script.

The fundamental problem in this Christianity is a lack of interior freedom: it is a fundamentally fascist phenomenon, a fundamentally totalitarian phenomenon. Hence the proposed counselling sessions which as described from previous cases were essentially brutal: while there was (as far as we know) no physical violence, there was great psychological violence. Heavy psychological pressure on the erring pastor, even the possibility of a lie-detector if he tried psychologically to evade the truth—or, rather, to evade the group: the erring pastor was to be immersed in a closed group which would define to him the truth.

In our experience in Orthodoxy, we have met a spirit-bearing Elder and we were struck by the respect he showed to us sinners. A man who knows God knows that he himself is a sinner and that the person who stands before him was created in the image of God even though he might be a sinner. Us. A man who knows God knows that it is God who judges the living and the dead. A man who knows God fears God. A man who knows God loves God. If you love God, are you not going to love and respect his creation, the sinner who stands before you naked to your clairvoyant eye?

Elders in the Orthodox Church, some of whom literally know what you’ve done yesterday and are going to do tomorrow without the benefit of a lie-detector test, respect the other person. It is this respect which is the foundation of the respect that the sinner who stands before them will show to God. It is this respect that is the foundation on which the sinner builds a new life. It is this respect which saves the sinner. Elders in the Orthodox Church are honest men and women. They don’t perform according to script. They aren’t ‘blessed’ when they feel like dirt. They are honest. With themselves. With God. And in that way they can be honest with the person who comes to them full of sin and they can turn him into a new creation in Christ Jesus.

May Jesus Christ bless all of us, even the erring pastor.

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