Better Conversations


Open books

Powered by TypePad

« Natural development | Main | The Theotokos is not normal »


You are correct. I was saying almost the opposite. That while there is a "plain reading" (that is, we think it is plain when we do it, but really it is just our prejudices) this reading is clearly a distortion in light of the Church's teaching.

I like your analogy to sports. You see the problem isn't merely that there are great football players and so some high school kid feels bad that he can't be like him (though shouldn't that same kid be sad when he drops the game winning touchdown?); the problem is that in the exuberance, in the midst of the praise, the poetic license (not to say anything is false in them) and the adoration there is an inherent alienation to one who has known little success in their own spiritual battles.

I have seen more than one priest (and I've started commenting on this and making a bit of a fuss of myself over it) quoting all manner of "if you aren't X you just ain't Christian" quotes from the fathers.

There is nothing untrue in these quotes, but the quotes have context. I think there is something wrong with how they, and much of the inheritance of the Church is used in the days of mass media.

I'm starting to think that something which was obvious to me when coming to Orthodoxy is not so obvious to others. You are one of those who I assumed has a grasp of this... let me explain.

Last year there was a priest that wrote a nice blog post about how he couldn't be anyone's spiritual father over the internet. It was a good post, but it failed in one critical test. He never took responsibility for the things he did which resembled such a relationship. He imitated some features of fatherhood, but refused the responsibility of the role. Of course he is correct. He cannot be a father over the internet, but neither should he imitate being one.

These lives of the saints, these sayings, even the scriptures themselves are prescription-strength medicine. They need to be thoughtfully and responsibly applied to those in need. A doctor would never just hand out heart medication to everyone walking by merely because most Americans will die of heart disease.

So a priest shouldn't post on something just because most Americans will suffer from a particular sin.

You see, in a therapeutic relationship (which I believe you understand much better than I do) the therapist is responsible for their actions. They have a personal, immediate, accountable relationship. In some real sense, my bishop has such a ... fiduciary? ... duty. Instead I see a bunch of folks running around handing out pills like candy and throwing pearls before we the swine.

Yes. Stories of greatness can be very harmful. For many of the broken people I know personally, they are in fact potentially deadly. They do not inspire as the doctor thinks they might. They crush.

It could very well be true that this is the real problem presented at that terrible day of judgment. We will see Christ in all his greatness and goodness and some of us will simply not be capable of loving him, instead we will hate him for his goodness and only bow our knee because it is broken.

I don't know. I'm gladly not yet at that day.

But beware of your assumptions and your proscriptions so freely given. I apologies and beg your pardon for the one thing that I can say for sure: nothing I've written in this thread is wise (though it might be true).

Truth is a terrible weapon, fearful and awesome. No one can stand against it. This is only seen as a good think when one believes they stand with truth. As soon as you realize you standing against it...

My apologies to you, David, if I failed to understand the meaning of the term "ignorance" in this sentence: "I simply think there is an ignorance of a perfectly reasonable understanding arising from reading the text of the old and new testament without the context of Church teachings." I assumed you were making a case for the sufficiency of a "plain reading of the text," and that such a reading could be done without any eisogesis whatsoever.

Perhaps you were not making this case.

It is troubling that stories of the saints -- even some of the most hair-raising and hyperbolic stories -- can be taken so despondently. To say that such challenges raised in these narratives are "debilitating" is analogous to saying that the exploits of great football stars should prevent me from ever passing a ball or running five yards.

There are days I look forward to neither getting out of bed or falling into it. And on these days, the hagiographies are all intimidating, and they sound alien to my experience. But in my despondency, I should hope the stories are alien -- because that is the appearance of transcendence to one such as me, who at that point is looking up from the depths of a deeply descended self.

Blessings, David.

Perhaps we are talking about different sorts of ignorance. Yes, minimalism or some form of essentialism in the Whiggish-Rationalist fashion is present. But my point is that they (aka my previous self) couldn't even see that forest for the trees.

I simply cannot agree with you that one would come to the Orthodox understanding without Orthodox ingredients. The scriptures alone (particularly with the goggles my former tradition was/is wearing) are incompatible with Orthodoxy precisely because they are distorted. Yes, without the Church the scriptures are distorted, that is, they must be since it is only within the Church that they can be properly understood.

I believe St Ireneaus would also agree with me on this. Without the Apostolic deposit and the bishops of every age "rightly dividing the word of truth" the scriptures speak whatever the reader wants to hear. Even the recent "Patristic" interests within the Orthodox Church are yet another mechanism of assuring that such a mindset is kept properly in balance.

Maybe we are talking past one another on this point, but I simply will not buy the notion that everyone knows they are fools.

As for the saints, I honor them because I am told that in doing so, I am doing both what is right and what is good for me. My older brothers and sisters insist that Father (excuse the vulgar expression) likes it and has told us we will be better people when we grow up if we do. I can say that I have a certain affection for St Nikolai of Zicha because I read his "Prayers by the Lake" and was moved by the freedom of expression within the safe borders of Orthodoxy and so began my more serious inquiry into the Church, but perhaps even that interest is sentimental.

Perhaps this is just the sort of thing that takes time. Or perhaps there are such personalities that react in such a way. For me, challenges are not motivating, they are debilitating. I admit this freely because I believe there is a prejudice against such persons that dangerously mistreats them among sentimental Orthodox believers.

It is also possible that you are one of those people that looks forward to getting out of bed in the morning and I am one that looks forward to going to bed at night. I am sure the saints were more like you. I cannot say what that means because the logical conclusions are rather melodramatic.

David: I know some accounts of the saints leave you with the impression that their feet did not touch the ground, but these impressions are distortions of Orthodox theosis, not indications of the same.

I think there were some saints whose diet were appallingly sparse, and I am intimidated by them. But not put off by them.

And I admire them, especially the Theotokos.

The protestant mindset is minimalist, and it reads into the Gospel accounts more philosophical baggage than any hagiologist who suggests the overuse of figs and the underuse of the latrine. It is a hard mindset to escape, and it leads to despondency.

i will disagree with you completely about the presence of such ignorance. There may be an understanding, but not an understanding that is "perfectly reasonable" without the context of Church teachings. If the protestant mindset is hard to escape, then the Orthodox mindset is an even harder one to avoid. The very possibility of reasonable reading is itself an Orthodox legacy.

One moment of grace, even a small attempt at forgiveness and a little step in maturity, is itself a God-given moment of progress toward sainthood.

Sainthood is too much part of you to simply become hopeless with "well, what's the point."

I suppose I can at least respond to SubDn. Lucas. Your assertion just doesn't compute with the protestant mind I grew up with. This idea that something should be "worthy" of God is nonsense in that framework. Nothing and no one was ever "worthy" of God.

Everyone in the Bible (including Apostles) appears to have their warts exposed rather explicitly in the text. Name any major player in the narration and I can name you their sin and the scriptures seem to have no need of hiding it. For protestants the Wedding of Canan and the incident at the reading of Isaiah are more than enough to count in her case.

From the protestant mind, there is no need for the Theotokos to be much of anything because God's goodness is imparted by God's presence and action. He can raise sons of Abraham from stones.

I'm not proposing these things, I'm describing a mindset by which these things are unnecessary.

Incidentally, though I am now Orthodox, I still struggle specifically with the Wedding situation. Actually, I struggle for two reasons, not just for what appears to be her sin, but also for what appears to be an angry outburst by Christ. I accept that I don't interpret these passages the way the Church does, but I cannot see any reason to agree with the Church on them accept that "the Church says so" and frankly, I'm fine with that..most days.

I simply think there is an ignorance of a perfectly reasonable understanding arising from reading the text of the old and new testament without the context of Church teachings. There needs to be no reading into anything. I differ with Fr Jonathan on that point as well.

In fact, the fact that the Church teaches something different is often a thing of great concern of mine. Because frankly, I'm no saint and I have no experience which suggests I'm even progressing toward sainthood. So when people start going off about how the saints were so holy they ate nothing but figs and never used the restroom, I think.. well what's the point in me even trying then.

Luckily Dostoevsky usually comes and saves me at this point. (Crime and Punishment: Chapter 2 comes to mind)

To the above, I would add that the Ever-Virginity of the Theotokos is important not only because it just happens to be true, but because of the Christological dimension.

It's said (I heard this by way of a Fr. Thomas Hopko lecture) that St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, was ordered by the Soviets to take the expensive chalices of the Church, sell them & distribute the money to the poor. He assented to stripping off the jewels and extraneous decorations and doing so. He was order to give the entire chalices away. He refused, in that they had held the Blood of God. When told that if he priests would be executed if they did not, he replied, "Then I bless them to die."

This is, of course, the very definition of Holiness--something is 'set apart' for use by the Lord alone.

Upholding the Ever-Virginity is the only consistent understanding if we are not Nestorian. If we believe that she truly is Theo-tokos, then the Pure Chalice of the Lord, the Holy One, would be set apart--anything else would be unworthy of Him.

But what a bizarre sentiment for a typical fiancee; had an angel come to my wife when we were engaged & told her she would bear a son, I suspect her amazement would not have been with how on earth it could happen that she would have a kid. It would have been fairly obvious that after marriage she would expect to have children.
No, her statement (in Greek the verb has the force of continuing action: "I am continually not knowing a man") in context suggests that she is astounded because not only is she not knowing a man, but SHE NEVER, EVER INTENDS TO. ^1
I have never encountered either a protestant source explaining why in the world, if she was a typical Jewish girl typically marrying a typical Jewish guy she would find the prospect of having a baby in the future inexplicable. Neither have I encountered a source--Roman Catholic, traditionally-minded protestant, or even Orthodox--to point out the incongruity between her response & what would be a natural expectation of a typical married relationship.
For your edification; may it be blessed.

^1 This makes sense in light of the Eastern tradition as summarized in the account given in the Proto-gospel of James; the Panagia's & St. Joseph's marriage was one of convenience from the outset as a means of caring for the Panagia with St. Joseph being of advanced age (the 'brothers & sisters' of our Lord mentioned in the Gospels, being St. Joseph's from his previous marriage). There was never any intention for physical intimacy in their arrangement.

(Father, I hope it isn't presumptuous to offer here a brief reflection I wrote on a facet of the Scriptural testimony to the Ever-Virginity):
For those who get discombobulated about the ancient & universal understanding of the ever-virginity of the Mother of God, a thought I'd had during the Gospel Lesson at the Feast of the Annunciation a couple of years ago:
Consider the Gospel according to St. Luke 1:26-34
Had the Panagia (St. Mary), already betrothed to St. Joseph we are told, been planning to have what we might call a 'typical marriage' why on earth is what she says in v. 34 at all material to St. Gabriel's point about the birth of a son?
See what I mean: he tells her she will have a Son in the future, and her response? "How can this be since I do not know a man?" […]

(Apologies if I double-posted.)

Thank you Joseph, and I'll take those stipulations.

I'm looking forward to that next installment, too.

I certainly did not mean to infer that you did suggest any of the above, and I certainly do not contest that the doctrine ought to be believed by all! I just wanted to highlight that St. Basil's attitude seems to be that no one in their right mind would doubt that Mary is Ever-Virgin. What I was referring to was that the doctrine doesn't necessarily follow logically from any other dogma. It is believed because it is *historical* reality. I'm looking forward to that next installment!

"The friends of Christ do not tolerate hearing that the Theotokos ever ceased to be a virgin." That intolerance is the only thing I am contending here. No one suggests (well, not me at least), that Ever-Virginity is "essential to the mystery of the Incarnation."

That stipulated, I do not think you can infer from this a general non-necessity of the doctrine of Ever-Virginity. That it is possible, at a stretch, for someone to remain in communion who denies this is not the same as saying that it is an optional article of the faith.

I will propose, in the next installment, that the Ever-Virginity is the historic sign of the deification of Man, as a result of the Incarnation and the Cross. And out of this deification prayer rises. All prayer. And all prophecy, and the inauguration of the Kingdom.

So is it essential to the mystery of theosis? Perhaps, but it is certainly an inescapable truth of history (and psychology, I might add).

I like this quote from St. Basil:

"[The opinion that Mary bore several children after Christ] ... is not against the faith; for virginity was imposed on Mary as a necessity only up to the time that she served as an instrument for the Incarnation. On the other hand, her subsequent virginity was not essential to the mystery of the Incarnation ....

[nevertheless] The friends of Christ do not tolerate hearing that the Theotokos ever ceased to be a virgin…(Homilia in sanctam Christi generationem, PG 31:1468)"

He stresses that the Ever-virginity is not strictly necessary, as if Orthodoxy would crumble without it, but rather that we believe it because it just so happens to be the case that it's true. I think that much of the apprehension over the doctrine from its detractors has more to do with some perceived necessity. Also, lurking behind much of the apprehension with any Marian doctrine is a perceived concession to pagan goddess worship. Goddess worship is at the heart of all pagan religion, whether it be an Asherah or Diana, and she is worshipped/placated through sacred sex. So, ironically, the Church's exaltation of the Virgin and it's lauding of virginity in general is actually a way of turning paganism on its head. I think this logic goes a long way in explaining why the Church has always felt it proper to be so explicit with its Marian doctrines.

You really hit the nail on the head with this - what has surprised me, no, shocked me, is how desperately and emotionally many grounded in evangelicalism need to believe the Theotokos had sex. Theologically, I am convinced this relates to general Gnosticism with respect to the Incarnation, but the visceral part is precisely related to your point: "I don't think and act that way, so surely she couldn't possibly think or act that way." The entirety of the idea of grace or sanctification or theosis is just thrown out the window.

Anyway - thank you.

I like this process of pitching a little essay and fielding responses. It tells me immediately what points I failed to either make clear or emphasize enough (to give everyone a hint as to what the main points were). It also tells me what points I threw in as texture and background scenery rose up, scurrilously, and took over primacy of notice -- almost like the bawdy chorus of a regrettable high school musical pushing the lead players off stage.

I'm afraid I'm mixing metaphors here, as my essay proved to mix priorities that produced this confusion. The doctrine of Immaculate Conception should not have been named in the piece above, as it was certainly not my wish to open up a dialogue on that long and complicated issue, about which I am not really qualified to comment historically.

Also, my comment about the sinlessness of the Theotokos not being sufficient for salvation was not at all a stab at Roman doctrine: it was -- and I should have made this clear -- a response to evangelical claims that Mary must have sinned (because "all have sinned and fallen short ...") and thus needed saved.

I do think we have much to speak of, perhaps at a different time, about the ideas of "forward-looking merits of the Cross" and "divinization through assent to His Will." I rather disagree with those terms (not, of course, the realities they represent). But that is for a different time and a different conversation.

For that delay, I ask your pardon for the distractions of a wizened pitcher, who tried to throw curve balls and achieved instead the mere hitting of the batter.

In passing, I will note that the reality of Mary's true husbanding should not be passed off as just too biological. I strongly believe that this reason accounts for the early "of course" sort of belief that Mary could simply not have had children after Christ. Jennifer hit this notion with her last comment.

I still find it amazing, even comic, that folks work so assiduously at making Mary and Joseph just another couple that did regular stuff.

Something else to consider is that the word "brothers" in Hebrew is like the word in Navajo - it also means "cousins." If Jesus had had any other brothers, it would not have been necessary for Him to give Mary to John at His crucifixion.

Another reason Protestants do not believe in the ever-virginity of Mary is that we were taught that it was Jewish law that a man had to have sexual relations with his wife a certain number of times each week, and if they were upstanding citizens, then they must have obeyed the law, so she couldn't possibly have stayed a virgin after the time of purification. That's what we were taught.

Something we weren't taught, but that I learned since then, is that it was also custom for people to become abstinent (for a time, or for life) whenever something holy happened to them, and what could be holier than giving birth to the Lord?

Ay, Father. Let me again tell you how much I dig your blog. Nearly every other post you have me wanting to break my general rule of not commenting on blogs (a rule very occasionally violated in my own vanity, alas) in order to duly flatter you.

Usually, I am able to restrain myself for the sake of both our souls. This time, though, I am compelled to speak.

First, brilliant post. This is a subject that cannot be too often visited, one difficult to address hyperbolically. She being indeed "more radiant without compare."

But I have a question for you: you say that the Roman penchant to approach the idea of the Mother of God as "co-redemptrix" is due to a less robust mariology. This made me smile. Really? What do you mean? How so?

As a Catholic revert, an erstwhile convert to Orthodoxy who never renounced (and was never asked to renounce, either by the OCA priest who received me by charismation, or in the 19th century - I believe if memory serves - formula of reception published by the Russian synod that I recited when received) belief in purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption (held doctrinally distinct from the Dormition in that the dogmatic possibility remains that Our Lady never died, and like Saint John the Apostle may yet be alive cf. John 21:22), Augustinian soteriology generally, or (most interestingly) even the Filioque.

I told Father the week before he received me that I think that the Filioque is clearly taught in scripture (cf. John 14:16 and 15:26, etc. "When the Advocate is come whom I will send to you from the Father's presence.." ) and that far too many Orthodox attacks on the doctrine ignored the plain teaching of Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catechism and (most ironically) St. Basil himself, in saying that Rome advocates for a doctrine of duality in the Godhead, when the Catholic teaching specifically gives eternal precedence to the Father..

This supposed "duality in the Godhead" is very often then extrapolated as being reflected in the supposed usurpation of Christ's unique authority as head of the Church by the papacy.. That the error in Roman Christology is reflected in Roman ecclesiology.. Ignoring that the Roman claim has ever only been to stewardship of the kingdom, not to the monarchy itself (cf. Isaiah 22:22, etc.)

Incidentally, Father - being evangelically inclined - received me anyway. A conversion that I do not abjure, but can no longer inhabit.. I got too wound around the theological axle, and my head popped, leaving me with only my heart to guide me, and that heart resides (as it always has) in places like Guadalupe and Fatima..

You - I say, pardon my cheek Father - seem to make a similar error as with the Filioque, here. You glibly diminish Western mariology, and push the whole tradition aside with a dismissive sentence, reducing it with a blunt reference - in attempted caricature - to that tradition's most radical expression. Typical Orthodox - especially Western Orthodox convert - approach to Catholicism.

But here's the thing: just as Eve preceded and precipitated Adam, so too does Mary precede and precipitate Christ. Her fiat is inextricably one with his.

We are divinized by her assent to his will, just as much as we are by his assent to the Father's.

This is basic spiritual geometry, Father. Q.E.D.

In light of that, calling her the co-redemptrix is perhaps rash, in that it's novel, but it seems simply irrefutable.

All grace comes from the Son. He came through her.

How much clearer can it be? We are made virginal (purified, as in purgated) by way of her, which is his, purity. All of which is gift, grace. All of it is received, accepted, not grasped at, as if equality with the Father could be humanly merited..

You get what I'm trying to say? What then say you? I'm ardently curious, Father. What do you think?

I think you are right on in your diagnosis of the strangeness of some Protestant hang-ups, and I myself am willing to accept the ever-virginity of Mary, because it is part of the Tradition. But I have two worries. First, unlike TheronMathis, I don't find the single argument you give persuasive. In fact, it seems to me equate too closely the relationship Mary had with God with the human sexual relationship. God is not the Father of her Son in anything (well almost anything) like the way my Father is mine. Second, the stab at the Catholic view of the Immaculate Conception is an often-repeated straw man. The official view is that her sinless conception was only made possible through the forward-looking merits of the Cross. There are definitely problems with that view, but the Catholics do not thing that anyone can be saved without the Cross, and they think Mary needed salvation just like us.

The following went off like a bomb in my head:

When, in fact, the Bible does: Mary is called "blessed," and could not be called so if she were to have relations with another man while the Father of her Son was still alive.

In all my readings and thoughts on the subject, I have never considered this.

Thank you, and I can't wait till tomorrow.

Thank you Bill for your response, which is worth more than two cents. I don't know of any English translation that does not translate "eos ou" as "until." However, the word "until" is a deficiency of the English language: the Greek term does not exclude the continuation of action beyond the time indicated -- and in this case, the action is not having sexual intercourse (a-ginosken).

The consensus of most of Christianity for the first 1500 years was that Mary bore no other child. So I might suggest that the burden of proof lay with Protestants who quite liberally (with presuppositions loaded from the Enlightenment) asserted the notion that Joseph as Protector should be Joseph as normal sexualized husband.

I think you hit the nail on the head with your third point. Protestants "would expect" because "that's what married people do." This is the curse of Protestant hermeneutics: it is customary, in those rubrics, to extrapolate a hermeneutical trajectory from normal experience onto the Bible.

Which, you might agree, is not really sola scriptura.

With all due respect, I believe many converts to Orthodoxy--especially converts from Protestant traditions--have a problem with the ever-virginity for the following reasons:

1. The Bible says that Joseph "did not consummate the marriage until she gave birth to a son." This translation is from the popular NIV, which certainly may be biased.

2. The Bible also refers to Jesus' brothers. Remember, as per the tradition of sola scriptura, there is no way to know that Joseph was older when he was betrothed to Mary, or that he would have had older children. I don't think that possibility ever occurs to Protestants.

3. Protestants would expect Joseph and Mary to consummate the marriage after Jesus' birth because that's what married people do. Marital relations are not sinful; rather, it might be considered a sin for a wife to withhold relations from her husband.

4. No doubt, many Protestants' views toward the Theotokos have been filtered through an anti-Catholic bias, even if they do not recognize it as such. Hence, many of the lower Protestant churches do not revere Mary much at all. (This is unfortunate.)

In short, I believe converts are taken aback at the idea of ever-virginity because the concept had frankly never occurred to them.

Knowing what I know now, I can understand the Orthodox position. The ever-virginity is still difficult to come to terms with. But I think it is just something you have to try to accept and move on.

But that's just my two cents...

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

August 2019

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31