Thursday, January 30, 2020

Crossing Over

In last Saturday's Otago Daily Times the column by Civis caught my attention.  It was entitled 'Reluctance to accept death a normal part of life.'   He was writing about the death of a German tourist, aged seventy-five, while he was walking the Tongariro Crossing with his son.  As one of those who were with him when he died said, "This man had the most beautiful death he could wish: doing what he loves with his son in a place of breath-taking beauty and without suffering."  I could not agree more, especially as the man himself was already suffering from cancer, and according to his son, "very, very sick".

Civis took to task those who subsequently called for emergency defibrillators to  be installed on the Tongariro Crossing at vast expense, believing that it would be virtually impossible to make use of any one of them before it was far too late to help anybody in the same dire straights  as the German tourist.  He also questioned the use of such phrases as 'passed away' instead of 'died' as being merely cosmetic, rather like the funeral home proprietor who took the bereaved into his viewing suite with the words, 'Mother will see you now.'

Although I would claim that I had become a believer in Orthodox teaching about death long before I became a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I must nevertheless confess that the Orthodox tradition concerning death and burial did come as something of a shock as soon as I experienced it being put into practice.

You are not spared the realities.  The body lies in an open coffin.  When I asked someone how this went down in a hot Greek summer,  I was told that this was where the use of incense could bring a certain relief to the mourners, since embalming is not always possible! At the end of the funeral, after olive oil from the church lamps, along with ashes from the censer, are poured over the body, the mourners are invited to come forward for one last kiss before the actual burial.  And burial it will be.  Cremation is most definitely not thought appropriate or even permissible except in exceptional circumstances.

And then there is the text of the service itself which is almost like a little play in which the body speaks on behalf of all humankind: 'O thou who of old didst honour me with thy divine image, but because I transgressed thy commandments hast returned me to the earth from which I was taken; bring me back to that likeness to be reshaped in that pristine beauty.'  And this: 'I am an image of thine ineffable glory, though I bear the wounds of my sins.  Show thy compassion on thy creature, O Lord, and purify me by thy loving-kindness; and grant unto me the home-country of my heart's desire, making me again a citizen of paradise.'

This rather strange appeal (to western ears) goes to the heart of the matter for the Orthodox.  The loss of the body has come about because in some sense the Creation has fallen away from God (who is the source of life and of existence itself) but it can be, and will be, reversed when God so decides.  And this applies to the whole of creation from galaxies to blades of grass, and especially to conscious beings, all of which survive into the world to come, and all of which will be completely and gloriously restored in God's good time.  One can only hope that female praying mantises will have improved their dining habits by then!

St Gregory of Nyssa (the Father of Fathers, a General Council called him) claimed that eternity is in reality a time of constant growth, change, and improvement without end.  God, he said, is infinite, and therefore there is no end to his wisdom, beauty, knowledge, goodness etc. etc.  And what that means for his creatures is increasing happiness and joy for ever and ever.  Not to mention a total absence of boredom!

And this involves the complete restoration of us all.  Nobody is claiming that your old arthritic knees will be returned to you in all their agonising glory, and anyway our bodies get a make-over about every seven years in any case.  But our identity will be restored in new and shining (and lasting!) form.  My knees are looking forward very much to that.  Me too.
    




Monday, January 13, 2020

Pans Plus

Although we don’t particularly want to admit it, the Church in the Western part of the world is not in a particularly healthy condition. There are are number of reasons for this, as you might expect, not all of them under our control. But there is at least one which I believe we could and should do something about. We seem, to me at least, to have lost our sense of direction.
I say this because it has become very clear that in the last half-century or so the Church has changed enormously, to the extent that it is in some ways almost unrecognisable. Much of this change has supposedly come about in order to enable our mission to the modern world, and here at least it has clearly not been a success. Parishes in most denominations which were flourishing even twenty years ago are now on their last legs, many have already passed into oblivion, and more will be following soon.
Numbers may not be everything, but without them there is nothing – certainly no viable parishes. People and money are essential to the life and work of the Church, and both are now in critically short supply. No doubt the rural downturn has contributed to the decline; the same with the movement of population – and especially the young – to the north, not to mention across the Tasman and further afield. Likewise the changes in our culture and in the way we live have been both very great and very fast. Television, different working hours, Sunday sport, consumerism, the debt economy, computers and the internet have created a world which could hardly have been imagined a generation ago.
And there is the intellectual climate in which we all live and breathe – for good and ill. I have thought for years that we have become quite hopeless at justifying, let alone recommending, the Christian faith to those who do not share it. For all our endless talk about mission, not to mention a ‘mission-shaped Church,’ we clearly haven’t a clue how to go about it. Indeed, it is obvious that often we have no real interest in mission at all – just in survival. We want to perpetuate the life of the institution, but what the purpose of the institution is in the first place, about that we have conflicting and not very clear ideas. Not only do we not know what we are selling – we have no real knowledge of the market either. Thus Professors Geering and Dawkins (to mention but two) can walk all over us, and when we dare to speak up at all, it is usually only to concede that they are making some good points, and that the free expression of opinions is a very good thing.
While acknowledging the importance of our changed circumstances, we have not really understood them. Most of all, we have not grasped a number of very important points:

1. Most people need meaning in their lives. They need to believe that the universe – and their place in it – make sense. Christianity provided this in the western world until the last couple of centuries or so. And it did so because it was believed to be in harmony with human experience. But once experience was thought to be at odds with theology, not surprisingly, problems arose. It became a question of one or the other, either Galileo or the Inquisition, either Darwin or Genesis. And when Galileo and Darwin turned out to be a lot kinder (i.e. Christian) than those who opposed them, then the damage was done. Furthermore, the sacredness of human life appeared to be badly undermined by Darwin, Marx and Freud and their disciples. Darwin desacralised the world, Marx desacralised the community, and Freud desacralised the human personality. Instead of being planned and inspired by God, all three became the products of blind and impersonal forces. Not a lot of meaning and significance was left to human existence after that!

2. Much of religion is often nothing more noble than magic, that is to say, a means of controlling life, of being useful. Christianity has been largely ousted from this role by science, and it is in the latter that most of our contemporaries in the west now put their faith. They have not lost faith as such, on the contrary their faith is flourishing, it’s just been transferred to another system of belief – witness their unquestioning acceptance of such things as quantum theory or general relativity, neither of which the vast majority of them can know anything about. It’s just that the ability to control life (such as it is) is now supplied by another set of presuppositions. Where some vestige of the magic is believed to linger – as in the healing activities (or otherwise) of people like Oral Roberts or Benny Hinn – then popular enthusiasm is more likely to follow. The same goes for the Crystal Cathedral and even Joyce Meyer, whose take on Christianity people clearly find useful in running their own lives.
3. And it’s not just that we have allowed God to be little more than a ghost of himself. We have done the same to ourselves. We are embarrassed by our immortality. We are hesitant to proclaim that we were designed and made for a glorious eternity beyond the grave. So the the very reason for the Gospel – the abolition of death by an Incarnate God who died and rose again – is no longer at the very heart of our proclamation and our public faith. As the Orthodox Liturgy says, Christ has died trampling down death by death. Before everything else, that is what Christianity is all about. I wonder if you agree?


(Written in 2011)

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Our Lesser Brethren

I have a remarkably intimate relationship with my cat.  He is a sixteen-year old chocolate burmese called Claudio.  If the name sounds a little pretentious it is only because his immediate predecessor was called Claud, and no matter how hard I tried to remember to call the present incumbent Eddy (after HRH the late Duke of Clarence and Avondale, of course) I still called him Claud.  The io is meant to make the difference, but has no reference to any deity (polynesian or otherwise) since Claudio himself is an object of enthusiastic worship.

We sleep together, or rather, he sleeps and I do the best to follow his example.  The purring can be rather loud, and the claws (if not recently trimmed) can come as a bit of a shock at four o'clock in the morning (or at any other time, for that matter).  But our intimacy over the years has been very educational - perhaps for both of us.  For as far as I am concerned, Claudio is a person.  Not a human being, of course, but still a person.

A few years ago a friend gave me a book about the animal creation from a Christian perspective.  The thing that most got my attention was the emphasis that many seemed to place on The Fall with reference to our Lesser Brethren.  They can have no place in The Kingdom because they can't repent and be saved, and furthermore, they don't (we are assured) have a living faith in the Lord.

Well, I can't say I agree with that.  Much of it depends on Augustine of Hippo's faulty Greek which led him to believe that Adam's sin and its dire consequence of damnation has been inherited by all human beings - and (it would seem) cats.

Our holy Eastern Fathers (some of whom were very good at Greek) simply would not have agreed that the fall had such dire consequences even for cats.  Furthermore, like the Eastern Churches today they confidently looked forward to the Last Day when everything would be restored in glory, and God would be all in all. 

So when I think of the millions of sentient beings dying in agony in the Australian bushfires at the present time, I have some hope.  Thomas Aquinas held and taught dire Augustinian doctrines concerning the afterlife, even although he also said God loves all existing things.  I'm counting on the latter opinion - and so is Claudio.


The Noticeboards of two Churches in America, facing one another across the same street on nine consecutive Days.
  
Catholic.      All dogs go to heaven.

Protestant.   Only humans go to heaven.  Read your bible.

Catholic.      God loves all his creations, dogs included.

Protestant.   Dogs don’t have souls.  This is not open for debate.

Catholic.      Catholic dogs go to heaven.  Protestant dogs should talk to their pastor.

Protestant.   Converting to Catholicism does not grant your dog a soul.

Catholic.      Free dog souls with conversion.

Protestant.   Dogs are animals.  There aren’t any rocks in heaven either.

Catholic.      All rocks go to heaven.


Thursday, January 02, 2020

Hello again

I'm back, I'm afraid.  I need something to do to keep myself either in or out of trouble.  As a two-year old I was careless enough to catch polio just because a good number of my little contemporaries were doing it.  And I'm afraid that even after seventy years it can come back to bite you, as it has me.  And it's no use telling me to exercise my leg muscles because infantile paralysis attacks (in my case) the nerves which operate my legs and feet - and not the muscles themselves.  The body does it best to grow new nerves, but they are fairly pathetic compared to the originals, and in time they can just give up the struggle and collapse altogether.
  Hence I am learning anew the meaning and value of things like crutches, and walkers on wheels with handy little trays on which to put food and drink in the hope of getting from one room to the next without falling flat on my face and throwing them all over the floor.  Thank heaven for polished wooden floors, at least in terms of clean-ups - if not of bruises.
  Getting about and doing things is a bit of a problem, so I have seized on blogging as something to keep my hand in.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Rebranded (again)

So I have changed the name of this Blog (yet) again.  So what? Whose business is it anyway?

The fact is that the recently deceased title (Gallican Anglican Orthodox) was insufficiently geographical (in the last third) and far too theologically ambitious (in the same third).  What do I know about proskenesis for example - not to mention apokatastasis?  Just spelling the words is hard enough.

But Eastern is just the ticket.  If it had to, it could refer to Eastern Otago (where I live) and thus be safely geographical like Anglican and Gallican and thus largely devoid of any potentially embarrassing theological content.  Heaven forbid that there should be any theological content at all in these progressive and enlightened times.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The sound of the trump

I must say I enjoy politics on television.  One of the most enjoyable aspects being (of course) that you can always turn it off.  But who would want to turn it off when none other than Donald Trump is having a little spat with the Roman Pontiff?  Not me.  And I'm afraid I have gone and taken sides. God bless the Holy Father!

However, we should feel a certain sympathy for The Donald.  (As an aside, I think that Lord Macdonald, High Chief of the Clan, should perhaps threaten The Donald with legal action under the Trades Descriptions Act.  Who does Mr Trump think he is - the equivalent of The Chisholm, or even of his fellow American The McBain of McBain?  Clan Donald is equipped with no less than three fully fledged chiefs already, not counting the High Chief himself who surely is The Donald.  Any more chiefs would be mere ostentation.)

But to return.  We can have a certain sympathy for Donald Trump if only because so many others have thought like him, both in the past and in the present, and I imagine that original thought has never been his strong suit. However, Mr Trump has certainly been living up to his name. He has provided a terrific fanfare for the religious instincts of his tribe, and tribal religion is all too often the only kind of religion that many people can understand.  And strangely enough, this is just what Christianity is most definitely not about.

Take the experience of Christ himself.  Did he or his views appeal to the Tribes of Israel speaking at his trial through the High Priest and his Council?  Not to mention previous conflicts with the Pharisees and the Sadducees?  From the biblical record it doesn't look much like it.  Kierkegaard said that Christ died for one man, and that every man is that one man.  There is a certain contrast here with the declaration  of the High Priest that it was expedient that one man (Christ) should die for the people  - and for the people, read the tribe.

Christianity is often taken for a sort of magic.  It has had its uses from winning wars to curing warts, and I would guess that very many, perhaps most, people have thought of it in such terms.  For them, Christianity is about making life (both here and hereafter) safe for God's people - but not perhaps for anyone else.  It's an understanding of the matter which has a very good pedigree - one which can even be found in the pages of the Old Testament itself.

But divine revelation - indeed divine self-revelation - did not come to an end before Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had picked up their pens.  Indeed, it can be seen to have reached its climax in the pages of their Gospels in the person of Jesus Christ.  And he most certainly did not just rubber-stamp all that had gone before.  From now on you would have to make do with just one wife.  But at least ham sandwiches could be enjoyed by all - except for their recently deceased ingredients, of course.

But religion became completely impractical from the point of view of someone like Mr Trump's friend and supporter, Sarah Palin. Even sparrows are of concern to their Creator - so no assassinating helpless moose from a helicopter, even if you can see Russia from your kitchen window.  Now you have to love your enemies and do them good. Violence is out - especially from helicopters whether in Alaska or Vietnam.   National greatness is of little significance in eternity,  and Christianity is not particularly useful either in curing toothache or in making America great (yet) again.

Christ himself refused to be made an earthly king, despite being the King of Heaven, and he refused, despite all those legions of angels, to defend himself against the mob which came to the Garden of Gethsemane with Judas to take him prisoner. Riches are no longer to be seen as an indication of God's favour but as a means of doing good.  They are to be given away - preferably to the despised poor, and especially to those in need of a decent system of healthcare.

And the Great Wall of America is not even to be thought of, let alone paid for in pesos.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

On the fence

I realise that renaming this blog Gallican Anglican Orthodox probably doesn't help to make it look any more sensible (let alone intelligible) than it did before, but I have not done so without reason. The three adjectives are in an ascending order of significance (as you might well expect) and to my mind the most significant does not obliterate those which are less so.  But then, neither are they are all equally significant.

It seems to me that holding together two or more separate things without making them equal to one another can be a very difficult thing to do.

The temptation to ignore differences altogether and to give First Prize to everyone is as great as the temptation to throw something (or even someone) overboard.  In my opinion neither of these options is satisfactory.  At the present time in the West it seems that Prizes for All are obligatory among the bien pensant, and no more so than in matters to do with the distinction between male and female and its attendant consequences.

Do we have to pretend that nothing has changed even when Bruce becomes Caitlin (if only more or less)?  Are designer babies and wombs-for-hire as ho-hum as all that?  And must we refer to David Furnish and Elton John as husband and husband?  I am not in any way aligning myself with those who are still a little teary over the cruel abduction of gay - that lovely, happy word straight out of Swallows and Amazons, but then neither do I intend to go to prison in Kentucky with any county clerks.

Perhaps we would do well to reaffirm the difference between the sexes and then recognise that this difference can and does include ambiguities - without either rejecting them or canonising them.

So let's just sit on the fence for a bit and have a think, shall we?