Tradition: An Additional Window Through Which to See the Present

On the 7th Sunday after Pascha (which also is the Sunday after the Ascension), the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council.

Remembering historical events as a normal part of the liturgical year helps Orthodox Christians to understand contemporary issues and current events in the context of the long experience the Christian Church has had in dealing with challenges to the Faith and problematic questions that have been raised.

In recent times a number of media driven questions have through the use of fiction distorted the historical record of Christianity and challenged the faith of some.  Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code is in this genre. 

What commemorating the Ecumenical Councils can do for 21st Century Christians is to remind them that there was plenty of open controversy and public debate within Christianity about how to understand Jesus.  The First Ecumenical Council is held in the year 325AD – 300 years after the death of Jesus Christ the Christians are openly, not secretly, and hotly debating issues regarding who Jesus Christ is and what His miracles and His resurrection from the dead say about Him.   Notions of conspiracies to secretly suppress “alternative” interpretations of Jesus are non-sense.  The Christians spent a great deal of energy in public debate and disagreement about who Christ is and what it means to consider him as the Son of God and as God the Son.    The debaters in these controversies read each others’ writings and were well aware of the controversial “apocryphal” lives of Jesus and his named early men and women disciples.  

In fact it was in these very open and heated debates that the Christians decided that some of these writings though ancient were not within the original Tradition of the apostles.   This was not a secret conspiracy, but open and public debate with leaders taking sides and presenting reasonable arguments to defend or reject ideas and documents.

And notions that the Roman government conspired with the Church leaders is absurd as is well known in history for the first 300 years of its existence the Christian Church was persecuted by the Roman Government not collaborating with it.   That is partly why the First Ecumenical Council is so significant because for the first time in its history the Church found itself being encourage by the State to resolve its disputes.   And this relationship between Church and State got off to a shaky start, for the Emperor Constantine who summoned the First Ecumenical Council at first accepted the decision to oppose the teachings of Arius (one of the main disputants of that day), but later began supporting the followers of Arius.   To think that the Church and state could collaborate when the state’s position on theological issues was not wholly settled, and when the Church’s own position was in tumultuous debate is ludicrous. 

The unsettled times of the 4th Century rather give us a rather public view of how open the church was to debate and how diverse were the opinions of the Christians.   They were searching for ideas and terminology they all could agree on and in this public process they also determined that there were some ideas and some writings that were outside the agreed Tradition and were not consistent with the earliest witness of the Church.

When Christians today lose sight of the Church’s history and think that whatever people are thinking today must be what God is thinking, then the Christian people are at risk for having their Faith undermined by every claim that comes along that challenges Tradition.   For this reason it is important to have an agreed upon body of Scripture, which must be referred to in its entirety when new discussions and debates arise.  And not only are the Scriptures important but the history of how those Scriptures were handled in the Tradition of the Church become significant for how they are used in dealing with contemporary controversies.   It is the bringing forth of the Scriptures and the historical discussions on them which constitutes a living Tradition and helps prevent the past from becoming legalistic chains which inhibit the Church from engaging the world.  Knowing that in the past Christians engaged the world and each other in debate, discussion and disagreement gives us a template for how to deal with controversy in our day. The past, Tradition, in this way nurtures discussion, creativity, thoughtfulness and reason as we look at the Scriptures from our 21st Century viewpoint and look at the 21st Century with a foundation in the Scriptures and how the Church has at all times and in all places handled them.

OCA Membership Numbers: Would a Name Change Help?

“The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the LORD will give” (Isaiah 62:2).

Churches – both individual congregations and entire denominations – from time to time are faced with shrinking memberships.  There are all kinds of ideas about how to reverse declining numbers, but one novel one is simply to try changing the congregation/denomination’s name.  The 8 June 2008 edition of  The Washington Post, “Shrinking Flock Examines Its Identity”   examines exactly the idea of a name change as a step toward reversing membership loss.   “Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country, whose 16 million membership has declined in recent years, has hosted church-naming seminars asking the question, ‘To Baptist or Not to Baptist?'”   And apparently a national survey shows that a number of churches are trying the name change “in an attempt to fill pews.”   

I can’t help but offer the sardonic comment, “gee, I wonder if the OCA has considered a name change? Maybe that would help solve its problems.”    And those who follow the scandal closely might remember the brief moment in which “Syosset” suddenly was using Oyster Bay Cove as its city locale.   So maybe the idea is not so far-fetched.   

Even if you white wash a tomb, it is still filled with dead bones says Jesus. 

The old mantra at Syosset as the solution for every crisis used to be “increase the assessment.”  It never solved the problem of scandal or declining membership, but some must have benefitted from this for they kept offering this “solution” year after year.  The assessment climbed and the membership numbers shrank.  Well, that should at least have translated into more money to serve each continuing member for ministry, right?    That doesn’t seem to have happened but the OCA did employ an ever increasing number of people who were involved in the fund raising arm of the central administration even as membership numbers plummeted.  Fortunately (what an appropriate word in this case!), the scandal did reveal the fallacy in this logic.

Looking for simple solutions to declining church memberships is always tempting.  Change, and true in-depth soul searching and reflection are such hard work and often so unpleasant.  Sometimes they reveal that “we” are the problem and that means we will have to change ourselves. 

Roger Oldham, vice president of convention relations for the Southern Baptist Convention commented, “One hundred years ago, when people moved to a new area, they were looking for the name brand they were accustomed to. Now, people are looking for genuineness and transparency. Not a particular label.”

Genuineness and transparency.   Hmmmm.  I wonder if the metropolitan and the Synod of Bishops have ever considered that as a way out of the scandal and a way to address the OCA’s declining membership? 

Evolution – Proof of a Purposeful not Random Universe?

As often happens for me, when I begin reflecting on a topic, my mind will wander down many paths, sometimes offering new vistas and insights to topics that are related only by the neurological synapses in my own brain.

I was reflecting in my previous blog on the idea of perfection which brought me to the following thought:

Going back to the notion that becoming perfect is like ripening fruit, we can ask, what is the goal of a banana?    To ripen?  No, ripening is the process by which the fruit provides for its seeds the opportunity to bring forth new life.   Producing more fruit is the goal/teleios of any fruit.   The purpose of a tree producing fruit is to produce more fruit!  That is a spiritual truth which is supported by the ideas of evolution and natural selection.

 The previous paragraph caused me to veer into a new path, but one which I think about frequently:  Evolution.   Evolution is a naturalistic theory that offers an explanation for how life on our planet unfolded over an incredibly long period of time.  Evolution is a cause and effect theory, and says that all life forms we encounter today can be explained as a result of all that has happened on this planet over hundreds of millions of years – every effect has a natural cause which preceded it.  The changes within a species were minute occurring over these huge eras.   The theory in as much as it is pure naturalistic science (a-theistic) says the changes which occurred were random, but still part of the creative process of natural selection which constantly works for the survival of the species.

That made me think – if a species is somehow always working for its own survival (and it does seem that even the tiniest of microbes, bacteria and viruses all strive to survive), then each species has purpose to it – their purpose is to survive.  Their purpose is realized in the future, and so they do have a teleios – a goal toward which they are working.   The logical corollary is that the universe is not completely random.   All life is trying to survive into the indeterminate future.  Life itself, even life forms that have no mind/brain as such, are trying to do something – survive. 

Perhaps some of the scientists who read this blog from time to time can comment on this.  Is not every species trying to survive?  Every plant is trying to produce seeds to continue the species and for those life forms complicated enough to use genetic recombination to give the species the best chance to survive the ever changing world in which we live.  So doesn’t natural selection have built into every species a purpose which can only be fulfilled in the future and thus a teleios – a goal?   To me this would be a rather persuasive argument against the idea of a totally random universe, and would suggest a purposeful universe, with the purpose being survival.

I don’t know what that might suggest to a naturalistic scientist, but I would like to hear from some. 

It raises for me the question, WHY do species want to survive in the indeterminate future – a future that they cannot, if the universe is indeed random and mindless, even know exists.     It would also suggest to me that any species than is not simply a product of its past, but is also in some strange way a product of its anticipated and yet not existing future.  Perhaps something like is suggested in quantum mechanics where particles/wave behavior is wierdly determined by an anticipated future.   The survival of the species seems to suggest that species understand or believe in the notion of future – something that does not exist in the present, or perhaps more correctly something which is outside of the empirical universe of time and space.    

Perhaps all life really is moving toward this something which exists beyond what we can observe, measure, test and disprove.  For all life then, the universe is purposeful, teleological and not mindlessly random.