Monday, 26 December 2011

Update on the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos of Photiki

We have passed our translation of the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos of Photiki, together with all the rights, notes and commentary, to Fr Theophanes (Constantine) of Kavsokalyvia, Mount Athos. He has thoroughly reviewed the translation and published it on his own site. Hence, those wishing the best translation of the work should go there. We will be removing our own translation and commentary shortly. Fr Theophanes will be writing an introductory essay on the work which he will be posting to his site in due course.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Is a Rasophore a Monk or a Novice?

We have received an email from someone who describes himself as a rasophore monk in a canonical Orthodox church. While his email states that he would prefer to keep the communication private, we did subsequently receive his written permission to post his email publicly and discuss it. Seraphim is not the rasophore monk’s real name. We should point out that we really regret private correspondences we have engaged in. It is much safer for all concerned for the discussion to be conducted publicly with the identifying information removed. That way Orthodox Monk avoids hassle. He also gets to convey his views to his whole readership. Here is Rasophore Monk Seraphim’s email, somewhat edited:
Dear Orthodox Monk, greetings in the Lord!
First of all, let me introduce myself. I am a rasophore monk from a canonical Orthodox Church and my name is Rasophore Monk Seraphim. I've been reading your blog ‘Orthodox Monk’ and there has been a discussion of whether or not a rasophore monk is a monastic. It was stated that the Greek Church does not consider a Rasophore a full monk, but a novice, because he hasn't made any vows (such a statement was really striking to me), while the Slavic tradition (Russian and others) considers him a monk even without his having made vows—a kind of ‘pre-fully-monastic’. I myself was tonsured a Rasophore and during my tonsure I did not give vows; however, my bishop and the laity consider me fully monastic. My question, I mean, questions are: if a rasophore decides to return to the world for whatever reason, will he be canonically punished? Are there any canonical proceedings to leave the rasophore state and return to the lay state?
I ask this because I've met rasophores who have decided—and still decide—to leave the monastic state (as rasophores), not necessarily to take up the married life but for other reasons such as caring their parents who are ill (if they are their only male child), or to find a job to support their parents and so on. Some of them even say they plan to return to the monastery when their parents pass away. I'd like to know how our Orthodox Church deals with these particular situations (parents, jobs), at least on the canonical level. If such a rasophore decides to live in the world as a celibate and unmarried Orthodox lay person, will the Church grant him a return to the lay situation? Is there any difference among the Orthodox traditions? If they decide to return to the monastery some time later, will they be accepted again?
I very much appreciate, Orthodox Monk, any help you might give me to settle my doubt. Thank your very much! These questions are only monastic curiosity. If possible, keep this e-mail unpublished and in your particular in-box I await your reply.
In Christ
Rasophore Seraphim
There are a number of issues here. First of all, is the rasophore a monk or a novice? There is no clear ruling in canon law on the status of the rasophore. The canons of the Church are clear on the status of the monk, and perhaps to a lesser extent, on the status of the novice. The issue here, however, is whether a rasophore is to be considered a monk or a novice. Next, there are issues of conscience for the rasophore—how did he understand what he did in becoming a rasophore and what personal commitments did he make to God before and during and after his tonsure?
Let us start with the status of the monk or nun in the Orthodox Church. For the sake of argument let us consider a monk of the small or great schema, so that there is no doubt that the man is a monk (or the woman a nun); we will address the particular issue of whether a rasophore is also to be considered a monk below.
There is no canonical provision for the laicization of a monk in the Orthodox Church. In the Roman Catholic Church there is a provision for the laicization of the monk that accomplishes its purpose by treating the monk’s vows as given to the community (monastery) and not to God. The point of this strategy, we understand, is that vows given to men can be dispensed (revoked, nullified) whereas vows given to God are irrevocable. Hence, if the monastic vows are given to the Community (monastery), then they can be dispensed by the Community (monastery). However, if the vows are given to God, then they are eternal. This might seem like jesuitical casuistry, but we once met a Jesuit priest who had left his order without permission and who explained the reasoning to us, also explaining that in his own conscience he considered his vows as given to God and therefore irrevocable. In other words, he himself considered that his vows were unbreakable even though he had left the order and was living as a married layman. Needless to say he had psychological problems being in this condition.
In the Orthodox Church, there is no similar provision for the laicization of monks. The monk is understood to have given his vows to God. And the best teaching in the Orthodox Church is that vows given to God are irrevocable. However, it is known that in some jurisdictions when a priest-monk is defrocked he is also reduced from the monastic to the lay state. The reason for this is obvious: as a monk he would be wearing the habit and be a cause of scandal. But there is no canonical foundation for such a practice of reducing a monk to the lay state. What does this mean? To us—and we are neither theologians nor saints with the gift of clairvoyance—this means that although the man is no longer wearing the habit he is bound before God for his monastic obligations.
Let us make this a little clearer. Let us suppose that a monk who has given vows to God violates his vows. The monastery expels him and the Holy Synod reduces him to the lay state. Does this mean that the man can do what he wants? No. The vows cannot be dispensed and he will answer for them on the Day of Judgement. What he must do is keep his vows while living as a layman. It doesn’t make any difference whether he’s wearing blue jeans or the habit or whether he shaves or not: he’s still bound.
We don’t want to go into details, but there is a very famous case of a priest-monk hearing the confessions of political persons who engaged in espionage—evidently passing on what he learned in confession and otherwise to a foreign intelligence service—and who in a crisis of conscience ceased his priesthood, cast off the habit and married. He was counselled by an Elder to continue living with his wife in the lay state—but as a monk. Needless to say the man experienced psychological crises up to the time of his death.
Now the question is this: is the rasophore a monk? What we understand in our limited knowledge is that the consensus on Mt Athos is that the rasophore is a monk and obliged to continue in the monastic state. However, for the pastoral reasons alluded to above, the Church of Greece treats the rasophore as a novice, which means that he can take off the habit and live without penalty as a layman. Here it should be understood that the Church of Greece does not have jurisdiction over Mt Athos; the Patriarch of Constantinople does. However, if a Greek monk leaves Mt Athos he will almost invariably end up in Greece under the jurisdiction of the Church of Greece, so the attitude of the Church of Greece to a rasophore who has cast off the habit and left Mt Athos is of great practical importance. As far as we know there is no particular procedure for this, just as there is no particular procedure for a novice to leave a monastery and resume his life as a layman. However, as rasophore monk Seraphim points out, Slavic jurisdictions treat the rasophore as a monk, not as a novice. So in such jurisdictions the rasophore who returned to the world would not be able to marry in Church—unless people looked the other way. In the diaspora, anything goes, which is unfortunate.
What penalties does the monk who returns to the lay state have? We are not a confessor and not an expert on the canons, but we imagine that the only possible conditions under which a confessor would allow the man to receive communion would be if he on the one hand lived as a monk in the world and on the other hand sorted out any problems he had with the monastery and the circumstances surrounding his casting off the habit (e.g. was there a woman involved?).
This brings us to the matter of conscience. Let us suppose that I am on a boat on the high seas. There is a storm and I am afraid that the boat is going to capsize. I make a vow to God that if he saves me, I will give two sheep to such-and-such a monastery. I am saved. I don’t give the two sheep. I die. What happens next? I have a problem. I owe God two sheep. He doesn’t need the sheep but I am obliged to keep my vows to God. Let’s suppose that it’s a really serious storm and instead of two sheep I vow to become a monk. Same thing. If I don’t become a monk, then when I die I have an unfulfilled vow to God. I have a problem.
So in the case of someone who has given vows to God—for example the Jesuit mentioned above—the problem on the Day of Judgement is his conscience: what he obliged himself to do before God.
So let us consider a man who is tonsured a rasophore. Let us first take the case where his jurisdiction treats the rasophore as a novice. What did the man himself understand in conscience about what he was doing when he became a rasophore? If he understood that he was becoming a monk, and was committed before God to becoming a monk, then he has implicit vows to God. He must keep these implicit obligations to God even if his jurisdiction treats him as a novice. He must live as a monk. But if he thought he was becoming a novice? Let us hope that he had a serious conversation with the Abbot before he was tonsured, so that there was no confusion about what was involved in the tonsure.
Let us now take the case where the jurisdiction treats the rasophore as a monk. Then certainly unless there are issues such as psychological incapacity to understand what was entailed in becoming a rasophore, the rasophore is a monk bound to remain in the monastery working towards the fullness of the monastic state. Hence, if he returns to the world for whatever reason, he still has his obligations to God. He has to live as a monk.
Rasophore monk Seraphim raises the issue of possible legitimate reasons to return to the world—aged parents and so on. These things are pretexts since on the one hand they would have been discussed with the Abbot before the tonsure and directions given; and, on the other hand, the monk has no obligations to those in the world such as Rasophore Monk Seraphim describes. For example, when a married man becomes a monk, under canon law the marriage is automatically dissolved. So the monk is free of such worldly obligations; indeed they must be seen as temptations of the Devil to return him to the world.
However, this is not the place for Rasophore Monk Seraphim to raise such questions. The appropriate place is at the feet of his Elder and Abbot.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Orthodox Veteran (Updated 22.11.2011)

We have received an email from Glen Barrett (not his real name). With his permission we print it, slightly edited, and provide our answer. However, we must point out that we are not a medical doctor or lawyer and cannot provide personal advice to anyone; our answers must be taken only in the most general terms, as applying to anyone who might be found in a situation such as the one described. Here is the email:
Dear Orthodox Monk:
I have recently discovered your blog and it has been a source of great education and edification for me, so thank you for that. Before I get into the substance of my question I’ll give a little background. Some years ago I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy from Protestantism. I did so after reading for some time about Orthodoxy and taking catechumenical classes at the nearest canonical Orthodox Church. I felt drawn toward Orthodoxy then, both spiritually and intellectually, and I still do today. However, at the time I was a member of the US Armed Forces and not long after my conversion I had to deploy to the Middle East and wasn’t able to attend services for upwards of eighteen months. Upon my return, I slowly began making my way back into Orthodox practice during which time I was diagnosed with a series of injuries that precluded my continued service in the military. Not long after my medical retirement from the military I accepted a position working outside the US as an instructor for the military. It pays the bills, and for that I am thankful, but the area I am in is remote and doesn’t offer me the opportunity to take part in Orthodox services, as the nearest canonical Church is several hours away and presents multiple language barriers.
Background offered, here is the substance of my question:
God’s will, as related to an individual, seems to have two aspects: general and specific. In general, as I understand it, God’s wants all of us to live moral lives and grow to know Him. By living moral lives, I mean following morality as it is understood by the Orthodox Church in Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture. But what of the specific, more personal aspects of God’s will? Growing up as a Protestant, I was taught, in as much as generic Protestantism teaches, that God has a specific, particular will for every Christian. Go here, do this, go there, be that; very scripted and divinely managed. Does Orthodoxy teach something similar and, if so, how does one discern God’s particular will for himself? Less abstractly, here is my personal dilemma and the situation I am trying to make sense of.
My background in the military was very tactically-oriented and in that environment I flourished. In that environment, I felt a sense of belonging and accomplishment and felt as though my particular talents were being used to their best. It was a hard life, physically, mentally and spiritually, but I enjoyed the challenge of it. I was sad to leave the military but understood the necessity of it as I had injuries that precluded my continued service. Since leaving that environment I have been listless, to the point of ennui. I would like to rejoin that community or one similar, albeit in a different capacity, but have had great difficulty in gaining admittance. So, my question: how should an Orthodox Christian (i.e. how should I) discern the difference between a door that is temporarily closed and one that is closed permanently? How should an Orthodox Christian discern in himself between persistence and stubbornness?
I understand that this is a complex issue and one that would be best served by working with a spiritual father or Church Elder but as I said those options are not available to me at present. I am hesitant to engage in more advanced spiritual practices to assist with this issue, as I am not actively practising the liturgy and I understand that spiritually speaking a young Orthodox should not run off into the numinous without the guidance of a more experienced member of the Church.
I apologize for laying this burden on you, but I do not know where else to turn in this, as I am the only Orthodox member of my family and, forgive my lack of charity, the pat Protestant answers that served in my youth no longer satisfy.
God Bless and Thank You,
This is a very complex issue. Let’s start from the beginning. A man has found fulfilment in the military in a ‘very tactical’ assignment. In a classic description of the esprit de corps of an elite military unit he writes, ‘I felt a sense of belonging and accomplishment and felt as though my particular talents were being used to their best. It was a hard life, physically, mentally and spiritually, but I enjoyed the challenge of it.’ But now the man has been injured and has been obliged to leave his unit. He wants to return to it in any capacity at all but has not been allowed. Should he keep trying?
We don’t know. We don’t know what injuries Glen has suffered even at a lay level of description. We don’t know the medical and administrative policies concerning medical discharges of the particular branch of the US Military to which Glen was attached. We have no idea whether anything would come of it if Glen were to write to the Secretary of the Army (or equivalent) or to the Secretary of Defense or to the President. Maybe yes, maybe no, depending on the circumstances. Short of a revelation, there is no way we can answer the question.
However, we can make some general observations. There are really two possibilities: either the man should and can, through persistence, return to his unit; or he should drop the matter and move on with his life. That of course is Glen’s issue with the discernment of the will of God for him.
Assuming that none of Glen’s listlessness and ennui is due to his injuries, Glen is essentially suffering from a form of grief. His listlessness and ennui—one might think ‘mild depression’—are the result of his bereavement in being separated from his unit. This is perfectly natural, we think, so long as it does not go on an inordinate length of time. However, we are not a medical doctor.
Moreover we think that the transition from a very intense life to a rather more sedentary life is also causing Glen’s ennui: when we transition from a very intense way of life to a less intense way of life, there is necessarily the feeling of listlessness and ennui that Glen refers to. This again is natural; it is only overcome when we begin to transfer our psychic energy to new endeavours. This can take some time and implies that we find other endeavours which interest us to the same degree that the old endeavours did.
Should Glen write to the officials mentioned above? Assuming that his injuries do not objectively preclude his returning to his unit—he will have to be honest with himself—there is no reason not to give it a try. The worst thing that can happen is that the officials either ignore his appeal or say no.
However, before he writes, Glen might wish to think about the following issues. If we assume that Glen’s injuries do in the final analysis constitute a barrier to his returning to his unit in any capacity, then he has just found out the will of God for Glen: objective circumstances which either impose a duty on someone or prevent him from doing something are the will of God for that person.
Let us explain. Let us suppose in a first hypothetical case that the unmarried Glen has fathered a child with an unmarried woman. Then the will of God is that Glen marry the child’s mother. Case closed.
Let us suppose in a second hypothetical case that Glen is happily married and his wife dies. Then the will of God is that Glen live without his wife. Glen is going to experience grief for a time and then must move on with rest of his life. Glen’s present predicament vis à vis his military service is that he doesn’t know whether he’s in the position of a man who has lost his wife or whether persistence will pay off in his returning to the unit.
Let us look at broader issues that Glen should think about. First of all, conversion to the Orthodox Church by an American Protestant, especially from an Evangelical (including charismatic or Pentecostal) background is very difficult. The basic problem is that such people have a spiritual experience—either being ‘born again’ or ‘being baptized in the Holy Spirit’—before entering the Orthodox Church and that prior experience seems to them to be a touchstone for all further religious experience even in the Orthodox Church. The experience of joining the Church seems to them to have been accomplished in their being born again or in being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Hence conversion to Orthodoxy is often seen as merely the culmination of an authentic spiritual life already lived long before entry into the Orthodox Church.
But that means a number of things. These people bring a lot of evangelical or charismatic spiritual baggage with them into the Orthodox Church. They have a tendency to remake their local Church into an idealized version of what they think the Orthodox Church should be based on their pre-Orthodox Protestant spiritual experiences. They have a tendency to pick and chose from Orthodoxy since they received the Holy Spirit long before they entered the Orthodox Church and have the spiritual discernment to purify Orthodoxy. They tend to impose their will on their fellow parishioners. Much of the disarray in the Orthodox Church in America can be traced to this.
Properly, a conversion to the Orthodox Church implies a spiritual death to all that has gone before and a learning of the authentic patristic interpretation of Orthodoxy. Properly, it entails being ‘born again’ in baptism. Hence, in being born again in baptism, the new convert encounters a life that is Orthodox, and learns how to live that life from his priest and from the Fathers of the Church.
We are not suggesting that Glen comes precisely out of this background. However we want to make clear that conversion from Protestantism in America to the Orthodox Church is problematical.
Now, the issue we would like to pose to Glen to think about is this. It is perhaps possible for you to return to your unit and the Orthodox Church does not forbid military service. However, you have just converted to Orthodoxy and perhaps it is time for you to concentrate not on rejoining your unit but on becoming a mature Orthodox? We don’t have an answer to this. It is conceivable to us that a Spirit-bearing Orthodox Elder might to one person counsel return to the unit and to another person leaving the military to concentrate on the Orthodox spiritual life.
And here we get to the substance of Glen’s question—how can we discern the will of God for us? God’s will is not quite as rationalist as Glen’s description of the Protestant understandings of the will of God that he encountered in his youth. However, as part of a personal relationship between the Orthodox believer and God, God does have a will for each person. Sometimes we learn the will of God situationally, as we described above, and sometimes we learn it charismatically—but charismatically from an Orthodox Elder. This usually involves Life and Light. That is, when in discussion with an Orthodox Elder we discover the will of God for us, the experience is that of meeting the Light and Life and Love of God in the person of the Elder. One common problem Westerners have in meeting such an Elder is that they tend to over-interpret his words as if the Elder were an oracle. What must be received is the sense of what the Elder is saying as he is illuminated by the Holy Spirit concerning us. The Spirit gives life. The letter kills.
(Update 22.11.2011: Here is what we wrote in an older post:
Let us look at the full definition that St John of Sinai gives of discernment, to be found in Step 23, 1 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent:
23, 1 Discernment, first, is in beginners the true deep knowledge of things which pertain to themselves; in intermediates, then, the spiritual sense which faultlessly discriminates among that which is really good, that which is naturally good and the opposite (i.e. the bad); in the perfect, finally, that spiritual knowledge existing within the perfect which comes about through divine enlightenment and which is strong enough to illuminate that which exists darkly in others.
O perhaps most generally this is known to be and in fact is discernment: the sure possession of the will of God in every time and place and thing, which exists only in those who are pure in heart and body and mouth. Discernment is an unspotted conscience and a pure sense.
First, it should be obvious that the degree of discernment that St John assigns to the perfect is rare.
Next, from what we have said it should be clear that this has nothing to do with the exercise of reason by the mind or nous, although the mind or nous certainly has the faculty of reason. However, what is involved is a higher faculty of the mind or nous, what the philosophers call ‘intuitive cognition’. That means ‘seeing directly without using the reason’. So when the Holy Spirit illuminates us, we see directly what it is that we see. This seeing is knowing. It is a spiritual seeing that becomes a spiritual knowing.
We can further see that there are stages in the evolution of the charism of discernment in the man as he proceeds on his spiritual road, and that personal purification plays a very important role.
Wounded by Love contains spiritual reminiscences by Elder Porphyrios, who had the gift of clairvoyance in power. Elder Paisios of Mount Athos is quoted as remarking about his own gift of clairvoyance in relation to Elder Porphyrios’ gift: ‘I have a black and white television set, but Elder Porphyrios has a colour television set.’
On pp. 27 – 33 of Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios describes his reception at the age of 16 of the Holy Spirit in power, his resulting illumination, and his simultaneous reception of the gift of clairvoyance. These things were transmitted to him through another Athonite Elder, Elder Dimas, without Elder Dimas’ having anything to do with it: the Holy Spirit ‘jumped’ from Elder Dimas to the young monk without Elder Dimas’ knowledge. Why? How? Who knows?
The translation of the Greek text of the passage has a few problems, but the essential message gets through. Note that ‘clear sight’ in the text is clairvoyance; the original Greek is to dioratiko.
Here we have an account by a modern Elder of how he received the gift of clairvoyance, and if what he says isn’t clear, we are not in a position to make it any clearer.
Let us return to the present post:)
There is another way to learn the will of God which is more difficult. That is to pray. Not to hear a voice or see a vision—God forbid that Glen should do that—but if we pray sincerely and insist, then God will hear our prayer. We will understand our way. It is important to be decisive and to insist—not with arrogance as if God owes us great guys something but rather like the widow in the Gospel Parable. Remember the widow who hassled the wicked judge until he gave her justice—her persistence is what paid off. The wicked judge figured that she wasn’t going away and that to be done with her he had to give her what she wanted. God tells us that we have to do the same with Him. We think that Glen should do this humbly and without getting into an anxiety state. The very act of praying is in some sense an answer. Even if objectively the answer takes time, God knows what he’s doing by delaying. Remember, in the ‘Our Father’ we pray, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.’ Given that Glen has a job at the moment that keeps food on the table—not to be sneezed at in this day and age—we would think that he should continue doing what he is doing while he prays.
Additionally, since Glen is living overseas, he might consider visiting Mt. Athos. Who knows, maybe a conversation with a Spirit-bearing Elder will happen and he will see what he is to do.
We give him our best wishes.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Ich bin ein Weltanschauungfixer

We have received an email from Scotty (not his real name) from Rose-of-Sharon, Kansas (not his real address). The email reads:
Dear Sir:
Are you an Eastern Rite Catholic monk?
Rose-of-Sharon, Kansas
To which we replied:
Normally we only reply to emails by posting the email, edited for grammar and syntax and to remove any identifying information, on the blog and then replying on the blog.
Is this acceptable?
Orthodox Monk
To which Scotty replied:
Yes, you may post my question. Thank you for asking. Perhaps I should rephrase my question: Are you a member of a monastic order within the Byzantine Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, under the authority of Pope Benedict XVI?
Answer: No.
Comment: We are puzzled that someone would even ask. The blog is named Orthodox Monk.
Orthodox Monk

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Theodor Returns

Theodor has returned. He is insistent that we answer some of his questions. We didn’t want to but we see that we haven’t posted for a while so we are going to answer his questions. Here they are:
A few odd but serious (or so I think) questions:
  1. What is the Orthodox Church's teaching/belief regarding intelligent/sapient (human-like) extraterrestrial lifeforms? Could the belief in their existence be in some way compatible with the belief in Christ (as true God and true man)?
  2. What on Earth were the “sons of God” and the “Nephilim” or “giants” mentioned in the Old Testament?
  3. And why used Jesus to call Himself the “Son of Man” rather than the “Son of God”?
  4. What would have happened if the Jews and the Romans would have refused to crucify Christ? I mean, was it really necessary that Christ should die on the cross and only on the cross?
If you have the time, please answer. Thank you.
Whether there are or are not sapient extraterrestrial life-forms is a matter of science. So far no positive evidence has been presented that is both public and scientifically confirmed. There are of course reports (some probably conscious fabrications given their provenance) of visits of alien spacecraft and the like. (We will return to this aspect of the matter below because it is important.)
As far as we know there has been no success with attempts by NASA to discern alien radio signals in the cosmic background noise and there has been no reply to Carl Sagan’s specially coded message to alien life-forms that he had put on an American satellite travelling into deep space.
As Enrico Fermi the Nobel physicist is said to have remarked on the subject of extraterrestrial intelligences, “So where are they?”
Moreover, there’s just an itty-bitty problem with the structure of the universe. Under the current cosmological model, the absolute maximum speed that anything can travel (in any frame of reference) is the speed of light. Some scientists using a cute trick (maybe they’ll get a Nobel for it) managed to photograph the youngest extra-solar planet known to date. It’s about the size and condition of Jupiter. No place that Theodor or we would want to live. How far away was that planet? 450 light-years. That’s a long way away. Under the current cosmological model it would take at least 450 years for aliens living on that planet to reach earth.
So is the current cosmological model valid? Who knows? Some guys think they may have discovered some neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light. Their evidence is being investigated. If the scientific community finally judges that in fact their evidence is valid and something was moving faster than the speed of light, it’s roll over Einstein.
It is certainly true that science is not a finished business and that one day Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity might be over-turned. But for the moment it’s all we have. Everything else is sheer speculation: worm-holes, extra dimensions etc. Using tricks like worm-holes or short-cuts through extra dimensions to visit that youngest planet just discovered is the stuff of science fiction. (Of course we all know that that youngest planet’s moon is Pandora and that there are mystical 12-foot-tall blue humanoids on Pandora.) We can’t even get an electron to do the trick. Moreover, there is absolutely no way to know whether a human being going through a worm-hole would come out the other end anything more than hamburger—after all we’ve never ever found a worm-hole in the cosmos to experiment with.
So one distinct possibility—subject to further discoveries in science—is that the universe is structured the way it is because that’s the way God wanted it to be: although there are sapient extraterrestrial intelligences they are so far away that we’ll never be able to meet. There’s simply no way to know given the state of science today.
As far as we know, there is no teaching in the Fathers on extraterrestrial life-forms. The world-view of the Fathers simply did not encompass that possibility. The Fathers do talk of angels and demons as spiritual realities but there is NO reason to conflate patristic discussion of spiritual realities with the scientific question “Are there extraterrestrial intelligences?”
So we are in a situation where Theodor wants to know whether something that is at the moment extremely hypothetical—there’s still a problem finding a microbe on Mars, Theodor—is going to interfere with his faith in Jesus Christ as true Man and true God; let us say with his faith in the Nicene Creed.
Theodor, don’t you understand that the question itself is the problem, not the answer? The question is the temptation. You might just as well get caught up in speculation, “Well what happens if a meteor strikes my village in Bulgaria?” Well yes it’s possible that a meteor might strike your village; we can’t exclude that possibility. But it’s never happened in recorded human history that someone’s village was wiped out by a meteor. So why would you want to spend all your time making preparations for the event?
Theodor, it is true that a Professor of Theology in the Faculty of Theology in your home-town university might want to deal with the issue in a study of dogmatic theology. Then again he might not. But it is simply too hypothetical for you to worry about. The temptation is that you accept to think about such things. These are the thoughts that make your head spin. If you want to get off the merry-go-round, stop thinking and start loving.
Theodor, the passages in the Old Testament that refer to the “Sons of God” and the “giants” and the “nephilim” are very intriguing and we suspect that if you refer to St John Chrysostom’s commentaries on the relevant passages, you will see what he thinks the terms signify. But the fact of the matter is that no one knows what exactly is being referred to. Scripture seems to be referring to actual realities but with such brevity that nothing concrete can be made of the references. However, if you are interested, you might wish to read some recorded homilies of Elder Porphyrios Baϊraktares (1906 – 1991). These are published in English as Wounded by Love. In these homilies, the Elder, who had very strong gifts of clairvoyance and prevoyance, discusses with a woman her finding ruins on Patmos which would correspond to giants. He also discusses the excavations of the house that the ancient Greek seer Tiresias lived in, with the archaeologist doing the excavations. However, Wounded by Love is the translation of an early edition of Bios kai Logoi, the Greek original, so some material might be missing.
Jesus called himself both “Son of Man” and “Son of God” depending on the particular Gospel. Since he was both true man and true God, this is reasonable.
Theodor, with regard to your fourth question, if you look at St Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, you will see a portrayal of the pre-eternal counsel of the Persons of the Holy Trinity concerning the creation of Man, the fall of Man, the incarnation of the Word and the earthly life of the incarnate Word, including his Crucifixion and Resurrection. (Incidentally, the angel on the left is the Father; the angel in the middle is the Word; and the angel on the right is the Holy Spirit.)

The point of looking at this icon of great serenity and transcendent beauty is to consider that God had it “all planned out from the beginning”. There is simply no possibility that Christ would not have been crucified. You are dealing with a hypothetical that couldn’t and didn’t occur.
Theodor, the problem is that you allow yourself to think about these things. As St. Diadochos of Photiki writes, when we have a simple faith we are calm but when we insist on investigating everything then we are agitated. The spiritual life is a life of becoming like a small child who loves its mother (one of the psalms portrays this) and its father (all the Gospels portray this). You will go to Heaven based on whether you had mercy, not on whether you knew the answers to the questions you are posing.
That is part of the problem.
The other part of the problem is that the topics you are addressing—the existence of extraterrestrial intelligences, mysterious references to mysterious beings in the Old Testament, what-if questions about what would have happened if those who crucified Christ decided to stone Him instead—are eruptions into your life of a demonic fantasy world. You would be far better off avoiding these issues and others like them.
It is hard to explain this. Even if we assume that these are valid theological questions—and we are sure that a Roman Catholic professor somewhere has addressed them—they are not for you. For although they are questions that might deserve a theoretical answer, the psychological and SPIRITUAL dynamic that you are living is such that for you they are temptations to take you away from reality. In the general case this is clear in historical reports of people taking trips on flying saucers. The people who have made such trips who are not outright charlatans have problems staying in contact with reality. Moreover, this is not just a psychological problem but a spiritual problem also. In addition to anything else these people might have a problem with, they are being tempted by demons. Keep your feet on the ground, Theodor, going to the church of your preference (we are not going to try to convert you to Orthodoxy) and emptying your mind of all such thoughts and questions. Try to be nice to someone instead of thinking about such things. Pray to God that he free you from these things.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Some Questions about Orthodox Anthropology

We have received a very interesting email from a person named Jean Gove’. Here is the email:
I have come across your blog and have read enough to come to respect your erudition and your broad-mindedness. I can describe myself primarily as a seeker since I still have not settled anywhere securely, although there is always an undeniable attraction pulling me towards an essential Christianity and I have become especially attracted to the Orthodox Tradition.
I have a number of theological problems some of which have surfaced upon a cursory reading of Orthodox doctrine but for now I will stick to the topic of the human soul.
The problem arises from a comparison of Gnosticism and Christianity and the realization that one of the basic differences between the two is that Gnosticism treats the human soul as eternal, and in fact as sharing completely in the essence of God from which it emerged and to which it must eventually return. Christianity on the other hand describes the human soul primarily as a creation of God with no existence prior to the human body in which the soul is embodied.
While the accusation of dualism is usually laid at the Gnostic’s doorstep, the Gnostic doctrine actually resolves itself in a monistic world-view, where everything and everyone is God. On the other hand, it is Christianity that retains the eternal dualism of Creator and created.
At this point, a number of branching problems emerge in my mind:
  1. Since God is described as spirit, is the human soul something essentially different from spirit and from God?
  2. If the soul has no existence prior to the human body to which it is joined, how can its eternity in the future be described? The soul continues to exist forever but has had a beginning. Isn't this a logical impossibility, in that something that has a beginning cannot be eternal? Has there been any discussion of this question in Orthodox theology?
  3. How is the embodiment of the soul best explained? Gnosticism explains it by treating the body as an entrapment of the eternal divine soul, which must free itself from the body to return to the Divine. For Christianity, the case must be that God fully intended for each human being to exist as an embodied soul or ensouled body. Why then do Christians believe in an afterlife (Heaven) where the soul alone continues to exist while the body dies? Wouldn’t a more consistent belief place its hope in an eternal re-embodiment, and in fact consider death, the separation of body and soul, as the evil resulting from the Fall? I know Orthodoxy does consider death as the main result of the Fall but I don't know what its position on Heaven is, or whether there is a position on an eternal re-embodiment. Or is there another explanation to which I am blind?
Eagerly awaiting discussion.
Jean Gove’
The issues being raised are in what is called ‘anthropology’. Now of course there is a social science taught at university which is called ‘anthropology’ but there is an older philosophical and theological discipline called ‘anthropology’ which studies the nature of man as understood in Christianity or in any other religion, or even in non-religious philosophical systems. What Jean Gove’ is doing is raising issues in anthropology, or to put it another way, in the way that Christianity and non-Christian belief systems view man and his place in the universe. Needless to say there are many different anthropologies. Indeed, a clever philosopher of the social sciences would study the philosophical anthropology underlying any particular ‘scientific anthropology’. But let us turn to Mr. Gove’’s questions.
The first issue is this:
The problem arises from a comparison of Gnosticism and Christianity and the realization that one of the basic differences between the two is that Gnosticism treats the human soul as eternal, and in fact as sharing completely in the essence of God from which it emerged and to which it must eventually return.
We had to dust off our handbook of philosophy to check up on Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a label applied to a very complex family of disparate, although related, beliefs that arose in the region stretching from present-day Iran to Syria to Egypt to Greece at about the time that Christianity itself developed. These beliefs competed with Christianity until about the 4th Century, when, we might say, Christianity won. One of the key elements of these Gnostic beliefs was that the innermost part of the human soul was a part of the highest God. Through a very complex chain of events involving demigods and similar, this bit of God has become imprisoned in the human body in an essentially evil material creation, precisely the creation that we experience in our daily lives: the sky, the sun and so on. Indeed, the demiurge which created the evil creation that we humans are imprisoned in was the God of the Old Testament, considered to be a very low god on the celestial totem-pole and an evil one at that. A very complex salvation narrative ensues that involves outwitting the God of the Old Testament to free the divine spark in the soul of man so that it might traverse the very complex celestial hierarchy until that spark of the divine in the human soul reaches the unitary divine far above the God of the Old Testament and the Creation that we know. The primary means to accomplish this return to the unitary divine is gnosis, or knowledge. This seems to have comprised both a proclamation of the truth of the matter and means to overcome the problem, including special magical formulas to pass from one degree in the hierarchy of being to a higher degree.
One of the Gnostic systems was Manichaeism, which held St Augustine before he became Christian. The founder of Manichaeism, the Iranian Manes, taught that the Buddha was one of the messengers of the unitary divine, along with Zoroaster (remember Iran), Jesus and himself. The gnosis that is the means to escape this imprisonment in this body and this creation has structural similarities to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism—the content is quite different, certainly, but the combination of a statement of the problem and the means to solve the problem is reminiscent of Buddhism. Of course we have no idea whether that is in fact a result of the influence of Buddha on Manes.
Moreover, for those who are up on their history of religion, there was a dualist religion in ancient Iran. This religion posited two eternal principles of good and evil in permanent conflict. Manichaeism and some other related Gnostic systems reflect their origins in Iran in showing aspects of this dualism. This is particularly true of Manes’ system, which is consciously dualist, positing eternal opposed principles of Light and Darkness.
Let us now look at Jean Gove’’s assertion:
While the accusation of dualism is usually laid at the Gnostic’s doorstep, the Gnostic doctrine actually resolves itself in a monistic world-view, where everything and everyone is God.
We are not experts but we would think that the accusation of dualism might have much, although perhaps not everything, to do with the historically dualist strains in Gnosticism that arose from Iranian influences.
Would Gnostic systems that do not show this Iranian dualistic strand be truly monistic? Since the demigods are in some fashion parts of the original divine unity, on that level yes. But these gods do wicked things, culminating in the creation of the present Creation, which is unremittingly evil. For the goal of the divine part of the human soul is to escape its imprisonment in the present evil body in the present evil Creation to return to the unitary divine. On this level, an assertion of monism seems forced.
Of course, one can see that a major philosophical problem in Gnosticism is the explanation of how the original unitary God comes to be divided up into a number of lesser gods on successively lower planes of being, which gods show a remarkable propensity to act wickedly, until we get to the God of the Old Testament who creates the world we know in order to trap the divine in us so that it cannot return to the unitary divine. For the whole Gnostic drama is understood to arise because the divine spark in man should not have separated from the original unitary God—that was the result of wickedness and deceit in high places that culminates in the creation of this world by the God of the Old Testament.
Now we strongly doubt that today Gnosticism in its various historical forms would seriously attract anyone. However, although Jean Gove’ doesn’t mention it, there is a philosophical tradition of Neo-Platonist mysticism founded by Plotinus which has much the same structure as Gnosticism but without the heavy-handed mythological apparatus. In Plotinus’ Enneads, there is a simplified hierarchy of degrees of being generated by emanations from higher degree to lower degree, starting with the One and ending with man. Man’s task is again to return to the degree of being from which his innermost self came forth. However, Plotinus, who conducted polemics against Gnosticism, treated the Creation we live in as good. In Plotinus, man’s return to his home is accomplished by what we might call meditative or contemplative practices. There is nothing Christian about Plotinus’ system; it is a development of Plato’s thought.
Let us now look at how Mr. Gove’ contrasts Christianity with Gnosticism.
Christianity on the other hand describes the human soul primarily as a creation of God with no existence prior to the human body in which the soul is embodied.
On the other hand, it is Christianity that retains the eternal dualism of Creator and created.
Usually when philosophers speak about theories of or beliefs in God, they divide those beliefs into two main strands of the immanence and transcendence of God. Let us first look at the immanence of God.
In theories of the immanence of God, God is somehow present in the material world, which might even be of the same substance as God. The classical expression of the immanent God is found in Hinduism in the Vedanta of Shankara , although Hinduism is an extremely broad religion that contains very many strands of belief and theological speculation, some of which are diametrically opposed: there are transcendent strands in some schools of Hindu thought. The immanence of God is one of the elements of some forms of Hindu yoga: since man is of the same substance of God, and since the material creation is an illusion (maya) it is a matter of man surpassing illusion to realize his godliness.
Another strand of belief in the immanence of God is the systems such as Taoism, where the universe is a primordial unity that resolves into two complementary principles, yin and yang. These two principles are associated with the female and male respectively, but the concepts are raised to the status of universal principles. Moreover, as this famous symbol shows

when the yin has reached its apogee it turns into the yang and vice versa. That is the explanation of the dots in the tear drops. The tear drop is yin or yang but contains the seed of the complementary principle within. The circle around the two tear drops represents the primordial unity of universe. Now it is somewhat forced to introduce a concept of God into this system since the basic Taoist system doesn’t foresee God as we might understand that concept in the West. However, since Taoism plays the role of a religion for its adherents, we can take it as a doctrine of the immanence of God.
Some aspects of this doctrine of the immanence of God and of two complementary universal principles are to be found in Buddhism. We certainly are not experts in Buddhism, which is very complex both philosophically and in its social and cultural manifestations. Moreover, Buddhism does not treat of an over-arching God. However, one of the Buddhist sutras makes the very bald assertion: “All is Void and Void is all.” This sutra is one of the doctrinal bases of Mahayana Buddhism. If the Void plays the role in Buddhism that God plays in theist religions, then after a fashion one can see an immanent God here. Moreover, in Tibetan Buddhism the theological basis of tantric yoga is the treatment of the male and female as the two basic principles in the universe.
We can see that religious systems which posit an immanent God or First Principle tend to treat ordinary Creation as we know it as impermanent, as a mask of the really real or as a door to the really real. And while we would not want to identify the immanence of God with philosophical monism, the two concepts would in the history of ideas often be found together. For example, there is one strand of Tibetan Buddhism which is a monist mentalism—everything is mind. We would infer that the Void is pure undifferentiated mind.
Let us now look at the doctrine of the transcendence of God. This doctrine is usually associated with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each of these three religions has a somewhat different understanding of the transcendence of God.
The main issues with a transcendent God are the relation between God and his Creation, the relation between man and Creation, the relation between man and God and how man can know the transcendent God.
In the three religions just mentioned God created the universe that we know out of nothing. This is to be distinguished from Aristotle or even Plato, who both posited a sort of pre-existing stuff without shape or form (called by Aristotle matter) upon which the creator of the universe imposes form to make matter into the various concrete objects we discover in the universe. In the three religions this universe is not illusory. The reality of Creation is particularly strong in Judaism, which emphasizes the devout Jew’s role in doing something in this concrete world. In all three religions, the Creation is considered to be good. The key statement is that in Genesis: “And God saw all that he had created and it was good.”
Let us now continue with Christianity. Man holds a special place in the Creation. As the Greek Fathers of the Church point out, although in the case of the rest of Creation God merely spoke a word (“God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”) in the case of man God himself fashioned Adam out of the dust of the earth and then breathed into Adam a “breathe of life”—which is taken by the Fathers to denote the spiritual identity of man, unique in all Creation. St Gregory the Theologian develops the theme that man was to be the connecting link between the material and angelic creations.
Further, God created man in his own image and likeness. These terms ‘image of God’ and ‘likeness to God’ play a very important role in the Greek patristic tradition. In the Greek Fathers the image of God is located in the nous or mind of man, which in the West would be taken to be the created spirit of man, the highest part of his soul. The fact that the spirit of man is in the image of God gives man his dignity as the crown of Creation and also gives him the possibility of knowing God. However, the fact that the spirit of man is finite and created makes man different from God. The Cappadocian Fathers, especially St Gregory of Nyssa, deal with these issues.
The likeness to God the Greek fathers take to refer to the virtue that man had at his creation—virtue as an adornment conferred by God as Grace, not as the mere keeping of rules. Although Fathers such as St John of Damascus teach that man was a spiritual infant at his creation, they agree that man was full of virtue at his creation. Moreover, this virtue was such that man was able to talk to God face to face. St John of Damascus asserts that Adam and Eve did not eat physical food in the Garden of Eden since they were nurtured by the contemplation of God himself.
Man was created with free will. The Fathers of the Church universally locate the explanation of evil in free will. To test man’s free will, God gave Adam and Eve a commandment, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Despite being in the image and likeness of God, Adam and Eve could obey or disobey God. They were neither robots nor the playthings of Fate. But Eve was tempted.
It is important to grasp the patristic understanding of the temptation story of the Garden of Eden. Before the visible Creation was made by God, God made the angelic creation. And all the angelic creation was good. But the angels, who also have nous, also had free will. And one angel led a rebellion in Heaven: Satan, Lucifer, the Devil. He and those angels who followed him were cast out of Heaven and became the demons which exist with one foot in the material creation and one foot out. These demons have lost all likeness to God and all connection to God except for continuance in being, for in Christian theology all that exists is maintained in being by God himself. However, the demons did not lose the intelligence which their possession of nous conferred on them. They are not stupid. It was the Devil which used the serpent to tempt Eve. The Fathers teach that the only thing the demons can do to man is tempt him: they cannot force him to do anything. (The ascetic writers do develop the theme that continued sin leads to addiction to that sin.)
So Eve is tempted and falls and leads Adam to fall. Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden. It is important to grasp how the Fathers understand this. In being cast out of the Garden, Adam and Eve lose their likeness to God—the virtues they had, including their ability to contemplate God. However, they retain the image of God although it has been distorted. This is a less radical view than either that of St. Augustine or that of his Calvinist descendants: both taught a more complete corruption of human nature by the sin of the Fall.
Thenceforth we have the whole sorry story of human history. However, although God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden, thus making them die spiritually, he did not forsake man. Over time, God reveals himself to man according to man’s now greatly diminished ability to cognize God directly. Ultimately, God reveals that he is a Trinity of Three Persons. The Greek Fathers consistently identify the God of the Old Testament with the First Person of the Trinity, the Father. They also make the Father the principle of unity of the Trinity, in distinction to the West, which following Augustine treats the substance of God as the principle of unity of the Trinity.
God’s interventions in man’s life culminate in his sending the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word of God, to take on flesh as the son of Mary of Nazareth, betrothed to Joseph of the line of David. The Word of God made flesh is a man like us in all things but sin called Jesus who, as St John the Baptist teaches his own disciples, is the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’
To do this, Jesus dies on the Cross and is resurrected on the third day. On the 40th day he ascends into Heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the Father (this is taken to refer to the humanity of Christ, since the Word of God is always united to the Father).
On the 50th day, Jesus sends the Third Person of the Holy Trinity to his disciples. This is the Holy Spirit which proceeds from the Father (you can see that the Father is the principle of unity).
Part of the Christian message is that Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. This is an event in time but the date is unknown to all but the Father. The dead will be resurrected with their bodies and will be judged by Jesus in the Last Judgement. Those who have done good will enter into eternal life; those who have done evil will depart into eternal fire. In either case man will have resumed his natural state, which is that of an embodied soul. The saved, however, will be embodied souls that have been glorified by the Holy Spirit. For just as Jesus when he was resurrected wasn’t just an ordinary man who had come back from the dead, so the resurrected will not be just ordinary men, but like Adam and Eve were before the Fall, and even more glorified by the Grace of God.
It is important to understand the work of the Holy Spirit. When a person is baptized with an Orthodox Baptism, then the Holy Spirit cleanses the nous, the created spirit of man, from the Devil and all influences of the Devil. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit restores the image of God in man to what it was before the Fall. The Holy Spirit then adds some likeness to God to the man. However, this is not the complete likeness. The task for the baptized Christian is to work as a member of the Church in a synergy with God the Holy Spirit to restore the likeness to God in full. This is God’s test of the free will of every Christian. Not only does God give Grace but he leaves room for the Christian to express his own free will either for or against the will of God.
As St Diadochos puts it, the final stage in the restoration of the likeness is the divine love conferred on the person in a vision of light. This constitutes a mystical experience of God conferring on the person the ability to love others with a Christ-like Gospel love. This final stage has a number of names in Orthodoxy: divinization, adoption as son, resurrection before the general resurrection, theology. It is the state of great Christian saints such as St Seraphim of Sarov. In Orthodox theology, it is understood that the uncreated Grace of the Holy Spirit permeates body and soul of the divinized person in such a way that the likeness to God is attained.
We can see that although there is an essential duality between Creator and created in Orthodox theology, there is a possibility of real mystical knowledge of and communion with the Creator through the Grace of God because man is created in the image of God.
However, even the saints die. As Mr. Gove’ points out, the fact of human death is a consequence of the Fall which happens even to the baptized Christian. When a man dies, there is a personal judgement which is not final until the Last Judgement. The soul of the good man goes to Heaven (Heaven is where God is) while the soul of the bad man goes to Hell (Hell is where the demons are). However, this is incomplete. The full adoption of the good as sons and daughters of the Most High will not take place until the General Resurrection—for Mr. Gove’ is quite right: in Christianity only an embodied soul is complete. Moreover, the condemnation of the bad after death is also not complete and awaits the Last Judgement. Until then, the souls of the bad can be helped, sometimes in very dramatic ways, by the prayers of those still on earth. But a bad person is resurrected with his body just as the just are and appears before Christ, who separates the sheep from the goats. Christ’s criterion in the Last Judgement? Whether we have shown mercy.
After the General Resurrection, the saved will be as the angels in Heaven. This does not mean disembodied, but means ‘without bodily passion’. And the saved will continue eternally, as will those in Hell. There is also an expectation that Heaven and earth will be renewed at the Last Judgement.
We are left with one final issue:
If the soul has no existence prior to the human body to which it is joined, how can its eternity in the future be described? The soul continues to exist forever but has had a beginning. Isn't this a logical impossibility, in that something that has a beginning cannot be eternal? Has there been any discussion of this question in Orthodox theology?
Mr. Gove’ is bringing forward an Aristotelian argument, that something that has had a beginning must ultimately have an end. But although the Catholic Church became quite Aristotelian in the Middle Ages through the work of Thomas Aquinas, even Thomas Aquinas made some alterations to Aristotle to preserve Christian doctrine. More generally, the Orthodox Church is not as Aristotelian, although some great Orthodox saints are Aristotelians. The Orthodox Church more carefully subordinates philosophy to the data of Revelation, treating the mystical experience of God as the highest form of theology.
The main way for Mr. Gove’ to look at the problem of the eternity of the soul is to see that Aristotle posited an eternal universe subject to certain basic metaphysical principles which imply the doctrine that Mr. Gove’ is alluding to, that what begins in time must ultimately end in time. Christianity is a revealed religion which might use one or another philosophical system to assist it in understanding Revelation but without subordinating the data of Revelation to that philosophical system. It is certainly clearly revealed in the New Testament that souls continue to exist infinitely into the future after their creation, and after the General Resurrection with their resurrected bodies. It is a matter of Orthodox dogma that the soul is created at conception.