What We Want vs. What We Need

A colleague of mine makes interesting food choices (to some degree so do I). He seems to eat both to satisfy his hunger and to satisfy his taste buds. He basically eats what he wants. The result is that he eats a lot of hot dogs and processed food products. Nothing he eats is terribly healthy, and as you might expect his health reflects that.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s Outreach and Evangelism ministry recently published a slide on their Facebook page stating that Christians seek three things from our church: Transcendence, Significance and Fellowship. Apparently taken from a book on the topic of why people aren’t in Church. Here is the source article. I’ll quote their definitions of these three items:

“Transcendence is to know God and to experience His presence. This we do through prayerful participation in Liturgy and the sacraments”

“Significance is the desire to have a purpose – to do something meaningful – most often in service to our fellow man.”

“Fellowship is connecting with other through meaningful relationships”.

I’ll address each of these items in turn shortly. Fundamentally, I have a problem with none of them at first glance. These are good things to want, and are, in fact, nutritious.

My concern is whether our primary goal should be to focus on what people want, or on what people need. Its a bit humorous to hear me raise the question as companies in the software/computer business often drive me a bit crazy by focusing on giving us what they think we need vs. what we want. However, tech companies are hardly the body of Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, and thus may not really understand what we need (and frequently don’t). So, what do we need, from God’s perspective, from the Church?

If we look to Met. Hierotheos Vlachos’ book “Entering the Orthodox Church” we find a great model describing the relationship of fallen man and God. He uses the parable of the Prodigal Son as that model. Like the son, mankind has left God, the Father, to go seek his fortune far away. Soon he squanders all of his money and is left to tending pigs, who seem to eat better than he does. After a while, he realizes he needs to return to the Father. At this point, he effectively parallels a Christian. We return to the Father through baptism and become united to Him. This brings us to the notion of Transcendence as indicated above. We are told that it is to know God and experience His presence. Attending the liturgy in a prayerful state, and participating in the sacraments is the all that is necessary. My question is, is this really all that the Church teaches? The answer is no. This is, in fact, the starting point. Without the liturgy and sacraments we would be stuck, but we have to take that as a core, and build on it.

The ultimate goal of the Christian is, Theosis, as described here. We are to not only to experience God’s presence, but to actually become united with His energies. This takes more than just showing up to Church on Sunday. Unfortunately, this is not commonly taught in parishes. What is required, beyond attendance at Church and the Sacraments, is both the following two items listed in the survey – caring for our fellow man, and fellowship, as well as more. We are to learn to manage our passions through asceticism – fasting being one major source of it. Interestingly, serving our fellow man is a means of self sacrifice, not of feeling important, or significant. Every person is significant in the eyes of God, and thus should be to everyone else. However, one of the barriers to our growing closer to God, and achieving theosis, is a lack of humility. The desire for feeling “significant” should be handled cautiously, because it smacks of a lack of humility.

The last statement, about our need for fellowship, is quite right. Man was created alone, but God saw that this was not good. We are not meant to be alone or in isolation. A great many saints of the Church were able to do this, because they weren’t really alone, but were communing with God in a way most of us haven’t achieved. For us, we still need the communion of our fellow Christians. In fact, it is so important that the fellowship, retained at the end of our Divine Liturgy on Sunday’s, has its root in an Agape meal that was part of the liturgy of the early church, and has remained ever since. Again, though, it is only a step, a part, of the process of our salvation. It is our salvation that we need, and what we need is a bit more than what we want, at least as described above.

When the Wheels Fall Off

I’ve had a long standing problem when Orthodox writers, writing about theological matters, fail to build their writings on the teachings of the Fathers, the Councils, or on the foundation of our liturgical and iconographic tradition. I need to be much more cautious about that myself. Tradition, all of those things mentioned above, connect us to the Church throughout time. Since the Church is the very body of Christ (Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:23), it is necessarily living and so adhering to tradition is not adhering to something dead. In fact, one could argue that when we don’t begin our theological musings from the foundation of tradition we separate us from the living body of Christ. The wheels fall off and it is we who are no longer moving. We become dead.

Recently, in a journal purporting to be Orthodox (I am rather unfamiliar with it so I can’t say whether or not it really is), Met. Kallistos Ware wrote an article that suffers rather severely from the problems I listed above. This article was actually the foreword to an entire issue devoted to human sexuality. I’ve not read any of the other articles, but the foreword was enough to convince me that the issue would simply be so much rubbish. Others have written about the errors of Met. Ware’s piece, but I feel there are two more key points to be made. Met. Ware is guilty of failing to adhere to tradition, not because he seems to espouse views on homosexuality and marriage that are non traditional (although he is guilty of that), but because he seems to have forgotten both Orthodox ecclesiology Orthodox view on salvation. After 60 years apart from Anglicanism, it feels as if he has returned.

The first major problem comes from his comparison of the confessional process between a “married” homosexual and a single one going through a series of affairs. The committed homosexual refuses to cease having sexual relations, and so cannot receive communion. The single homosexual agrees to not have sexual relations, but has failed several times, but is blessed to receive the sacrament. In Metropolitan Ware’s view, he is treated more harshly. Given that the goal of confession (as the Metropolitan states in his own book, The Orthodox Church) is the cure of the soul, harshness is hardly in view. The question is what is the appropriate treatment that will lead to a cure. On the one hand, we have an individual who refuses to follow, apparently without remorse, the instruction of his spiritual father (and the teaching of the Church). On the other we have someone who is seeking to follow the teaching of the Church. Who needs the stronger medicine in this case? Of note is that the rules for dealing with active homosexuals is the same as for dealing within anyone who engages in sexual activity prohibited by the Church. If I were actively engaged in an affair, or a premarital relationship, the same rules apply (Exomologetarion, Chapter 10, section 8). When Metropolitan Ware looks at the application of spiritual discipline in terms of harshness, it feels more like he is focused on the Western notion as sin being something that requires punishment so that God will be happy with us again and we can be allowed into heaven. Harshness in terms of healing seems very wrong headed.

The other major problem comes toward the end of the foreword. The Metropolitan wonders about our concern with what goes on in the bedroom. “Trying to gaze through the keyhole is never a dignified posture.” This reveals to me that Metropolitan Ware’s ecclesiology may have shifted away from that of the Orthodox Church and perhaps toward that of his Episcopal roots. The Church is not merely some organization. Nobody is peeping through a keyhole. The Church is the body of Christ – the body of God. God is everywhere present (Pentecost prayer). Therefore God is standing in the room, not peeping through a keyhole. It is God that is truth, and thus He reveals the true way of life. If He declares something we do is wrong, than that must be contrary to the true way of life. While I applaud and agree with Metropolitan Ware’s assertion that we must have a conversation around sexuality, it is not because we are wrong about it, but rather we must be able to present a solid case for our views to a modern, secular society that is largely focused on the “me” and the view that our sinful nature defines us, rather than being a temporary condition from which Christ provides a means of escape.

There are, of course, other problems. For instance, I was disappointed in the Metropolitan’s implication that the Church doesn’t believe that marriage serves as a guard against lust or fornication. While a liturgical reference to this would certainly be the strongest support for the view, one would have to ignore St. John Chrystostom, among other Church Father’s to believe that such is not in view. I am forced to believe that either Metropolitan Ware is unfamiliar with St. John’s work or is intentionally ignoring it for the sake of being a provocateur. Either would be shameful for a bishop, an overseer, of the Church.

That brings me to my concluding thought. Metropolitan Ware, while a bishop, is a bishop of nothing. Metropolitan Ware is a bishop of a non-existent state, whose borders are entirely contained within the country of Montenegro. This entire region is under the omophorion of the Patriarch of Serbia and thus has a bishop. If Metropolitan Ware had actual members of his Metropolis, we would expect him to be resident in that Metropolis, not over in the UK. If It has been the custom for some time to elevate priests to a bishopric as some sort of honor. What seems to be missed is that it is a responsibility both to the faithful as a shepherd, and to the greater Church as the protector of the faith. Elevating academic theologians to the office of bishop where they have no responsibility for souls is, to me, problematic. In this case, Metropolitan Ware demonstrates why that is the case.

After this was originally posted, I was made aware of this article, by Reader Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers.  I particularly like the following comment, made by Fr. Johannes who reposted Reader Siewers article:

Sexual identities, in contrast to sexual practices or passions, are a relatively new concept. Only recently were passions taken to define people, i.e. seen as constituting an identity or essence, such as homosexual or heterosexual—an understanding that even many secular circles now scorn as untenable. It is, then, discouraging to see a highly respected Orthodox hierarch dare to breach the unwavering moral tradition of the Church based upon such an “essentialist” notion of “sexual orientation.” Siewers argues that this step undermines Orthodox anthropology by turning the body into a thing (reification) and alienating humanity from the incarnation of the God-man Christ.

Why is the church losing people

A new podcast series began this year from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Youth and Young Adult ministries entitled “We Are Orthodoxy”.  In this series, young adults are interviewed that are in various places regarding their faith.  One was a priest, but most are either marginally still involved in the Church or have left entirely.  The purpose of the podcast is to simply provide data.  It is not intended to provide solutions, but rather give everyone an opportunity to hear the perspectives of these people.  This makes it very useful, although I admit to having a couple of criticisms:

  • The interviewer, a professional psychologist feels as if he is putting words in the subjects mouths quite frequently.  I realize he is trying to elicit a deeper exploration, and perhaps, driven by the time limit of an episode, he jumps ahead to his conclusions about what they are saying, but I dislike that aspect of it.
  • I think they shouldn’t put the limit on the age.  In fact, I would be interested from hearing from older individuals, even much older.  I think that might give us some insights to such things as shifts in the culture, as well as foundations from which these younger individuals come from in terms of their expectations about the church’s role and their role within the church
  • I would love for him to occasionally ask those who declare that their beliefs are no longer consistent with the Church, why they feel it necessary to still be connected to the Church.

The interviews can be quite painful to listen to for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it is because we realize we are doing something wrong.  For me, frequently, it is obvious that we have failed to communicate the whole Christian message.  Sometimes it is because of, frankly, the alarming amount of narcissism you can hear from the individuals.  And sometimes it is because of the pain that we hear being expressed.

I hope to write several posts on this series as it moves along.

Of Dunghills

A friend and I were discussing Luther’s views on salvation vs. Orthodox.  I mentioned, during that conversation, Luther’s analogy about the dunghill, which is debated as to whether it exists.  However, I came across the following two quotes:

Therefore let us embrace Christ, who was delivered for us, and His righteousness; but let us regard our righteousness as dung, so that we, having died to sins, may live to God alone [LW 30:294].
Explanation of Martin Luther: I said before that our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so. It does not hurt the sun, because it sends its rays into the sewer. [LW 34: 184]

It is the latter quote which implies that our sins are covered over in the eyes of God, perhaps covered in snow, or maybe whitewashed.  This morning, the daily gospel reading was, interestingly enough, from Matthew.  Within the reading is the following passage:

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’sbones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

It’s interesting to me because Christ doesn’t seem to look very fondly on the notion of whitewashing the outside.  In other words, would God really participate in a fiction where he pretends that we aren’t sinners?

The Beatitudes

On an Evangelical but seeking blog that I follow, the topic came up recently about how to interpret the Beatitudes. This, like many sections of the New Testament, is hard for Protestants, especially Evangelicals, to deal with as they eschew anything that smacks of a works salvation. The blogger asserted that what Christ is saying is that anyone can come and receive Christ’s blessings, regardless of their state and how society views them. He says that the other way to phrase what Christ is saying is, “even if you are poor, come and receive my blessing, even if your mourn…” etc. The weakness in this argument is Christ is clearly not, then, saying “even if you are merciful come” as if being merciful is a bad thing, or even viewed as being bad by society.

So, I decided to look at what the Fathers of the Church have to say about the Beatitudes, and found that St. John Chrysostom interprets the first beatitude in this manner:

“What is meant by “the poor in spirit?” The humble and contrite in mind. For by “spirit” He hath here designated the soul, and the faculty of choice. That is, since many are humble not willingly, but compelled by stress of circumstances; letting these pass (for this were no matter of praise), He blesses them first, who by choice humble and contract themselves.

But why said he not, “the humble,” but rather “the poor?” Because this is more than that. For He means here them who are awestruck, and tremble at the commandments of God. Whom also by His prophet Isaiah God earnestly accepting said, “To whom will I look, but to him who is meek and quiet, and trembleth at My words?” For indeed there are many kinds of humility: one is humble in his own measure, another with all excess of lowliness. It is this last lowliness of mind which that blessed prophet commends, picturing to us the temper that is not merely subdued, but utterly broken, when he saith, “The sacrifice for God is a contrite spirit, a contrite and an humble heart God will not despise.” [Psalm 50 (51):7] And the Three Children also offer this unto God as a great sacrifice, saying, “Nevertheless, in a contrite soul, and in a spirit of lowliness, may we be accepted.” This Christ also now blesses.”


The blogger went on to assert that the parallel passage in St. Luke’s Gospel supports his view. It supports it more, because that passage lacks the “blessed are the merciful, etc.” verses, but it in no way demands his interpretation. I decided to check Blessed Theophylact and discovered that his interpretation of the parallel passage is in agreement (as I expected it would) with St. John’s interpretation of Matthew:


“These words of the Lord are directed to the disciples. After ordaining them, the Lord uses these beatitudes and teachings to guide them into a more spiritual life. He first blesses the poor, whom you may understand to mean either those who are humble or those who live without greed for money. Simply put, all the beatitudes teach us lowliness, humility, self-effacement, and self-reproach. And accordingly woe awaits those who are rich and propserous now, in this life, those who the Lord says have received their consolation, meaning that in this life they have enjoyed revelry, laughter, feasting, and the praise of men. Let us tremble, brothers, to hear that Woe! awaits those who are praised by men. First we ought to live such a life that will draw down upon us the praise of God, and then others will indeed speak well of us.”


This view of the Beatitudes finds support throughout Scripture, but there are a couple of places that merit pointing out. The first is the 50th psalm (51st in Western numbering), where we learn that “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.” In the 108th Psalm (109 in the Western numbering), we see King David, ruler of Judea refer to himself being “poor and needy,” and that he is weak from fasting. Clearly King David was not really poor, but rather this reflected a state of mind and spirit he had acquired. That his action was involved is clear from the fact that fasting is involved in all of this (among other things).

So, the Orthodox understanding is clearly that we must humble ourselves – make ourselves lowly, in order to be blessed by God. This interpretation agrees with all of Scripture. I fear that the blogger in question is guilty of looking for an interpretation that fit his preconceived theology, then forced it into the text.

Good Works in Galatians

A friend of mine posted a passage from Galatians earlier today:

“Galatians 5:13: For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.”

A great passage, which reminds us of the importance of serving one another, and in a loving manner. That is, serve one another by love, not out of some sense of necessity. Of course, this makes it a part of the greater teaching we find throughout Scripture, but in particular in Paul’s letters about the danger of “empty” works, or works done in the interest of attaining salvation.

However, another question arises. What happens if you don’t comply with this line? What is the risk? There are some groups who would teach that the doing of works is utterly irrelevant. Most notably, various strains of protestantism. So, is this the case? Is there anything we can take from this passage to address this question? For those that don’t have a problem with the importance of works in our salvation, we still must ask the question of how we can learn to serve others by love. What is the key?

As it turns out, both the answer to what it means to not have works and the key exists a bit further on. St. Paul continues with the famous passage about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. He basically sets a stage for the conclusion that comes in verse 24, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” From this we learn two things, the first is that crucifying our flesh is the means by which we establish ourselves as Christ’s (there would be some, I suppose, who would argue that after Christ makes us his, then we automatically crucify our flesh, but that is both a fairly tortured reading, and inconsistent with experience). The second thing is that it is by this crucifying of our flesh that we learn to love others. That is the crux of Orthodox spirituality. We are to serve other’s by love, that happens when we are walking in the Spirit, and that can only happen when we crucify our flesh of the passions. That is why asceticism figures so prominently. If you think about it, how can we truly love other’s if we are focused on our desires? Christ, who is not only the ultimate example of love, but is, in fact, love itself, demonstrates this for us.