Volume 1 Number 4

June 15, 2010

Volume 1, Number 4 of Wonder


Can we Coexist?


Orthodoxy, Relativism, and Truth

by Dr. Peter Bouteneff

Coexisting with Science

by Ms. Alexis Boyd

Coexisting with Wicca and Neo-Paganism


Coexisting with Buddhism

by Fr. Brendan Pelphrey

Faith and the City

by Ms. Clio Pavlontis

For more information about the authors and contributors, please visit this page.

Orthodoxy, Relativism, and Truth

June 15, 2010

By Dr. Peter Bouteneff

This article was originally published as the forward to the book “Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions” by John Garvey. It is republished here with permission and edited for our blog. The full book is available from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Our’s is an age when people of different faiths are likely to live side by side and have the means of communicating with others all over the globe. At the same time, especially with the rise and spread of terrorism, the faiths do not seem to be talking to each other very well. In many of today’s civil and international wars, as well as in acts of terror on the part of non-national groups, the parties involved accuse the enemy of being godless infidels. In such a climate, dialogue is a critical necessity. When the rhetoric of faith becomes an inflammatory tool, the faiths involved need to begin to talk to one another. Only then, when the “other” becomes a real person, can people begin to stop generalizing and objectifying each other. At this point, they can begin to peel away stereotypes and explore the actual faith that lies behind the polemics. When it comes to dialogue, however, we have to consider very carefully this question: What is it that we are trying to achieve? A common response is to say that we are looking for increased tolerance. But what exactly do we mean by “tolerance?” Some people take it to mean simply peaceful coexistence; others think that it means a compromise of religious convictions. In looking for a viable definition of tolerance, we need to be clear about two distinctions that are commonly overlooked:

§ the difference between tolerance and compromise, and

§ the difference between firm religious belief and religious violence

If we equate tolerance with theological compromise, we will find ourselves falling into one of two camps. One rejects the pursuit of tolerance (and therefore rejects dialogue) because that process would necessarily result in yielding deeply held convictions and betraying one’s faith. Another contingent embraces tolerance as compromise because this affirms their own relativist worldview, where none of the world’s religions can claim the truth for themselves because all are equally true. Both of these options are unacceptable. How do we look at tolerance, then? Inter-religious dialogue is possible for the Orthodox Christian only if tolerance is taken for what it really means: the recognition and respect of the other. We have to believe that it is possible to co-exist with people of other faiths in a relationship of mutual respect and mutual tolerance without either side surrendering its faith convictions. To be tolerant does not mean suggesting that our own faith is wrong or lacking. In short, tolerance and compromise must be dissociated from each other.

The other commonly associated phenomena that must be consciously detached from each other are religious belief and religious violence. In fact, the reason why some people think being tolerant necessitates giving up one’s convictions is precisely because they associate firm conviction with violence. They think that to believe strongly — to see certain truths as absolute or universal — necessarily means being intolerant (and by extension, violent) toward persons with conflicting convictions. When people consider faith and violence, one word that often comes up is “fundamentalism.” This is a tricky word because it can refer to a specific category of Christian faith that is not by definition fanatical or small minded. But the term is now also commonly used in a pejorative sense, where “fundamentalists” are those who believe that anyone who does not share their faith is damned in the afterlife. This may also carry the assumption that a fundamentalist is ready at any time to resort to violence against people of other faiths. For again, in many people’s minds, violent religious extremism is the natural extension of a firm religious belief that is unthinkingly characterized as “religious fundamentalism.” This trajectory of thought is sometimes further extended: If I believe that the foundational Christian teachings are absolutely true and, therefore, that contradictory teachings are false, this is already an act of violence. Christian apologetics become hate-speech. This logic is highly problematic. Unless we are prepared to distinguish firmly held faith convictions from violent fundamentalism, and unless we dissociate tolerance from compromise, we are destined to choose between two impossibilities: an unacceptable isolationism and an unacceptable relativism. What we are seeking, then, is the place that admits absolute truths and absolute falsehoods, admits belief in the truth (in some cases the exclusive truth) of one’s own convictions, but rejects bringing violence on people because they believe differently. We are also seeking to bring a spirit of creativity, patience and inspired discernment to our speaking as well as to our listening — for dialogue is both.

In his book Seeds of the Word Fr. John Garvey seeks to describe just such a place. The kinds of distinctions I have described serve as his point of departure and inform the whole book. But his intention is ultimately practical. Knowing that the best way to begin considering dialogue is by informing ourselves about our dialogue partner, he devotes a substantial portion of his book to an investigation of key beliefs and practices of some of the world’s major faiths. He maintains a clear and sober tone while conveying his intellectual and spiritual inquisitiveness. Fr. Garvey knows that there are a variety of ways and a variety of contexts in which Orthodox Christians have approached other faiths, ranging from missionary to polemical to apologetic. What he is seeking, and what I believe he identifies, is “a consistent Orthodox pattern” in this variegated history. Here are some of the elements of this pattern: The encounter between Orthodoxy and other faiths has a long history. Since its origins Christianity has been an apologetic faith, meaning that it has had to explain itself within a pluralistic and often syncretistic context. The relationship between Christians and Jews, pagans, Gnostics and, later on, Muslims, acquired different characteristics, but each was an interfaith encounter. Today, some of the most important Orthodox interfaith encounters occur in pluralistic settings, such as in the Middle East.

The encounter between Orthodoxy and other faith is, at it best, an informed encounter. The earliest Christians were a minority, living under governments that often persecuted and killed them, which meant that early on, Christians had to learn to give account of themselves and their faith, if not also to persuade. But persuasion, and even self-explanations, entailed knowing the faith and presuppositions of the people being addressed. The encounter between Orthodoxy and other faiths rejects relativism. Orthodox Christians today, as in the past, have found that the most fruitful dialogues happen with partners who have deep and clear faith convictions, hold that absolute truth exists, and agree that some religious teachings are simply wrong. In such an encounter, even as one works creatively to find places of genuine and perhaps unexpected convergence, it is also necessary to name with precision the points of disagreement, to identify those positions which cannot both be true at the same time. Genuine dialogue cannot occur in a state of denial about real differences. Orthodox Christians admit truth in other faiths. The rejection of relativism does not mean rejecting everything in the other’s faith. Indeed, the earliest Christian Apologists taught that the Word (Logos) of God, identified by Christians with Jesus Christ, is accessible in “seed form” in non-Christian and pre-Christian faiths and philosophies. Truth is truth, wherever it is found, and while Orthodox Christianity does claim uniquely to teach the fullness of truth, it does not claim a monopoly on truth.

On that basis, Orthodox Christians are open to mutual learning and mutual transformation. This step may sound radical, but once we admit that truth exists outside our own faith, and especially if we say that everything that is true is true because it reflects Jesus Christ (who is Truth), then we must be open to the ways in which God’s truth has been found even in faiths that do not share our belief in Christ. Conversely, even the encounter with different, sometime false doctrines, can shed light on our own teachings and reveal to us new dimensions of their truth. This means that while we must pray that our interfaith encounters result in a godly learning and transformation in the other, we must also pray to be open to the enrichment of our own personal faith and life. Having identified these principles, a further problem comes to mind regarding tolerance in the inter-religious encounter: What is to be done when it is not mutual? It is one thing to work on a proper spirit of tolerance and love on our own part, but what is to be done when that spirit does not appear to be shared? What do we do, for example, with the relative intolerance of non-Muslims in contemporary Islamic states? There is only one answer to this question from a Christian perspective, and it is both a familiar and a hard saying: Our responsibility is to embody Christ’s love and compassion, as well as his truth, in all circumstances. The receptivity of the other is not within our control and, in a way, is utterly beside the point. This universal call to exemplify Christian love and truth and to be missionaries in Christ’s name will apply differently to different people. It is not up to everyone to engage in interfaith dialogue or even a meaningful interfaith encounter. But the imperative to reflect carefully on other faiths applies to us al — for we do live in a world where terror and intolerance, both across and within religious traditions, are very much on the rise. It is also a world in which God, in the mystery of his will, had evidently allowed a diversity of faiths to develop and flourish. And finally, as Orthodox Christianity make its home in more and more places, situating itself increasingly in pluralistic contexts, it is essential that we consider how we ought to relate (both individually and as a Church) to other faiths and to the people who hold them. May this issue serve as a way into the reflection and as an invitation to go deeper into other faiths, as well as into our own. The two views of religion that seem to prevail in our culture are contradictory. On the one hand, you encounter people who believe that religion is a completely private phenomenon, something like a matter of taste. No religious statement can be considered truer, or closer to the way things really are, than any other religious statement. All religions are equal. Religion becomes a completely subjective thing; you end up “in” one or another religion, or none, depending on how and where you were brought up.

From this relativistic point of view, no one set of values or beliefs can be seen as superior or privileged; there is no such things as “the truth” but rather conditioned points of view. This movement away from the idea that there is such a things as truth, and that it can be truly encountered, has permeated the popular culture. So has the sense that the main value of religion is therapeutic. It makes you feel better about yourself and provides direction in a confusing, difficult world.

The other prevailing view is broadly termed “fundamentalism.” From this point of view, my religion alone has truth; anything outside my religion is false, even a work of darkness, and if you do not believe the way I believe, you will be damned for all eternity. Religious fundamentalists believe that truth can be found in one particular set of teaching and can be found clearly — it is not so much a question of struggling for clarity as accepting the truth of the give teaching. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that someone who does not hold to the one true religion might still have something to teach us or might still share in God’s truth in a way that is hidden to us.

There are obviously shades of grey in between the views I have presented so simplistically, and few people will fall nearly into one or the other category. There are very sincere fundamentalists who are in practice much more tolerant than they are often seen as being, and some relativists, ironically, are downright fundamentalists in insisting that anyone who does not agree with them is a fool. How does the Orthodox Church regard other religions? That is the question explored in this issue. It must be said that there are a range of approaches among Orthodox Christians. Some may sound almost relativistic; others may deny that through can be found anywhere outside of the boundaries of the Orthodox Church. What I will try to do here is to show a consistent Orthodox pattern in dealing with other religions, drawing on theology, history and present-day experience.

Orthodoxy had, from the start, dealt with other religions, the first of which were the religions of the world into which it was born: Judaism, which was the earliest Christian context, and the pagan religions and philosophies with which it first had to contend. In confronting these religions, there is an Orthodox tradition that can be traced back to the beginning of the Church’s history, and it engages what might seem two contradictory claims: Orthodoxy insists that the fullness of truth is found in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church understands itself to be the Apostolic Church and affirms that no other Church, religion or philosophy can show forth that fullness in quite the same way, or so completely.

At the same time, Orthodox have believed from the earliest years of the Church’s history that God has worked outside the boundaries of the Church and that religious truths have been manifested in other places. In its missionary work, Orthodoxy has at times been able to bless traditions that originated outside of Christianity because they not only did not contradict Christian belief but also in some ways were consistent with it and, therefore, should be received.

The second claim stands to reason, because it is unlikely that God would make the right path so completely obscure that only one tradition could see it at all, and all the others would be completely lost. We often encounter people who reject all religion because religions say so many different and contradictory things, and all claim to be the true way. But these people must not have looked closely at many serious religious traditions because what is more remarkable than their contradictions is their agreements. At the end of the The Abolition of Man, the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis offer a selection of readings from the number of religious and philosophical traditions, showing how Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Greek philosophy agree on may theoretical and spiritual principles. Orthodox Christians take this point seriously and celebrate it. But they do not join with those way say, because of this agreement on so many profound and important points, “All religions are finally the same. We are all climbing the mountain, reaching the same peak by different routes.” This is an attractive idea on its surface, especially in a world which has been torn apart by so many religious wars. But, as we shall see, it ultimately takes none of the great traditions seriously, on their own terms.

The differences matter at least as much as the similarities, and the differences teach and challenge us to understand our own tradition more deeply. The way Buddhists understand the self conflicts with the Christian understanding in interesting and illuminating ways. The horror Jews and Muslims feel at the thought that God, who is Lord of the universe, could have taken on human flesh, becoming “like us in all things but sin,” challenges us to see if we are wrong about this central revelation of Christianity. We might be startled into seeing how radical the claims of Christianity are, which we wouldn’t if we refused to take other religions seriously enough to listen deeply to what they have to say. As we will see, the history of Judaism and Christianity has shown that the Christian tradition can absorb truths from other religions and grow from the contact. So, a dialogue is necessary and can help us to sharpen our appreciation of our own Orthodox heritage. But, we do have to insist on a few things that make some people uncomfortable. We cannot, finally, be relativists. We must affirm that Jesus Christ is the Word of God who became man for the redemption of all human beings. Among some Christians today this truth is sometime muted, or even denied. Jesus is the way for us, they say, but not necessarily the redemptive truth for Jews, or Buddhists or Muslims; they have their own ways. This is not the Orthodox view.

We have to say that if Jesus was not the redeemer of all human beings, then he redeemed no one. The gospel is for all human beings. It is sometimes said that Orthodox Christians do not proselytize, and if that means that we do not apply coercive pressure on people to join us — that is true — or it should be. But it is our duty as Christians to let others know what we believe to be matter of life or death and leave them free to respond. Here we must take some personal responsibility; it is one thing to preach the gospel, and another to live it. When our lives contradict what we preach, we should not be surprised that those to whom we preach are not impressed by what we say. We do not know, or claim to know, God’s will for those who do not accept the gospel, except to say that God is merciful and loving, drawing all people toward eternal life. We can leave it to God to do that, in God’s own way, but we are obliged to bear witness to the gospel by living it and by preaching it.

In Fr. Garvey’s book he began by looking at several of the world’s great religions, giving them each a chance to speak, and then turning to look at the way the Orthodox Church has historically encountered other religions. He then examines some modern Orthodox approaches to mission work and inter-religious dialogue — especially important since, during the last several centuries, Orthodoxy has moved into the Americas, Africa and Asia, encountering a new religious frontier. Looking also at how other Christians have explored the question of dialogue between major religious traditions, we will then return to the religions we examined in order to look for some of the more relevant and useful points of interfaith discussion.

One final word of caution: Many people who undertake the study of comparative religion find that there is a natural impulse, when you see something that resembles your own belief in another context, to say, “This is what makes us like them, or them like us.” For example, Buddhism speaks often about compassion, and a Christian might be inclined to overvalue this, to see it as more central to Buddhism than it may in fact be. This is not to deny its importance in Buddhism, but it is not as important as the enlightenment that leads to compassion. Similarly, we may be impressed by the Muslim devotion to Jesus, but this is not the Jesus Christians worship. This Jesus is not the incarnate Son of God, he was not crucified for our sins nor does his suffering join with ours. Indeed, the Muslim Jesus was not crucified. The differences between religious traditions are sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle, but they matter deeply. At various point we will not similarities between for example, aspects of Orthodox theology and theologies of other religions, but they are not absolute similarities, and, if taken too quickly to heart, they can be deceiving. As someone said once about the North and South poles, they look the same in some places, but between them is all the difference in the world. We may learn from what Buddhists say about compassion, and we may learn some things we would never otherwise have known. We should be grateful for this, but without too easily equating things that need to be seen discretely and in context.

Coexisting With Science

June 15, 2010

By Ms. Alexis Boyd

Hello, my name is Alexis and I’m a scientist. If it sounds like I’m beginning the meeting of a support group, sometimes I feel like I should be. I am an Orthodox Christian, and I am a scientist. For many people those two things are incompatible — two separate facets of my personality that obviously are separated by an impenetrable brick wall. I have been repeatedly asked both from fellow scientists and fellow Christians about how I reconcile these seemingly polar opposite viewpoints. In fact, it is surprisingly easy. I do not feel that there is any conflict or wall I need to break down, hurdles to jump over or opposed viewpoints that I need to reconcile. The further I have gone along in my scientific career, the more convinced I am of God’s infinite power and glory. The wonders of His creation come alive under a microscope and are sometimes best viewed when you can’t see them.

I believe that bringing my faith into my work allows me to appreciate the science on a whole different level: to constantly be awed by what I see in the lab. I am not saying that other scientists do not feel a sense of awe when confronted with the perfection of DNA replication, but for me, my faith in God adds another dimension of wonder as if I get to watch a tiny little piece of creation happen right in front of me. That being said, as an Orthodox Christian, I do believe that certain research is wrong and that just because we can do something does not mean we should do it. While my faith has enhanced my understanding of science, I believe that science has enhanced my faith as well. I absolutely bring my analytical mind and scientific reasoning into my faith. To me, this is not detrimental to my spiritual growth. My ability to question allows me to explore my faith and grow spiritually without compromising the mystery of the Church. And, as anyone who has done molecular biology knows, believing what you can’t see is part of the course.

One of the more intriguing aspects of being an Orthodox Christian scientist is the conversation that happens with both groups. There can be a high amount of misunderstanding as well as misinformation present all around — in this I include myself, of course. I remember being in a group of graduate students discussing religion. One student was saying how we couldn’t take everything in the Bible literally because we weren’t working with a full translation, and since we can’t speak Aramaic we can’t read the Bible in the original language. I very nicely pointed out that there were many scholars of various faiths who can translate from the Aramaic so the translations are likely very good and that the Bible is mainly written in ancient Greek. Joking aside, I hope that people of both communities stop viewing each other as the “dirty word.” You never know who is a Christian and you never know who is a scientist. We are called to practice right speech but you would be amazed how many people will speak about issues of faith or science in a derogatory fashion as if everyone would naturally agree with them. I’ve done a few “um … I’m Christian” and “well, that’s not exactly what the science means or what the scientist intended.”

I am not alone in my views on the intersection of science and faith. Gregor Mendel discovered inheritable traits and the laws that govern them. Mendel was also a priest. Dr. Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University has said, “Creationists inevitably look for God in what science has not yet explained or in what they claim science cannot explain. Most scientists who are religious look for God in what science does understand and has explained.” Dr. Francis Collins, the current director of the National Institutes of Health, is an outspoken scientist and man of faith.

As I move forward with my career, I would pray that people stop asking me these questions all together and that being a scientist of faith becomes accepted as completely natural by both the scientific community and the religious community. Fortunately, I have seen more and more acceptance and it lightens my heart. Of course there will always be individuals who believe that science and faith go as well together as oil and water. To those individuals I would suggest that they look up what a surfactant is and practice a little patience and understanding. For me, I am a scientist and I am an Orthodox Christian and I get to go into work and try to understand God’s creation. I am so blessed to have that opportunity.

Coexisting With Wicca

June 15, 2010

By Fr. Brendan Pelphrey

A trip to any local bookstore will quickly reveal that Wicca or Witchcraft, sometimes simply called “the Craft,” is very popular in America today, along with various forms of Paganism and Neo-Paganism. Numerous books devoted to Wicca and Paganism are for sale in any bookstore, and over five million sites are listed on-line for the interested reader. A number of popular films and television shows have also appeared in recent decades which depict Wicca in positive ways, most of these films being directed towards teens or children, and several having been produced by the Disney corporation.

In spite of their popularity, however, it is sometimes easier to say what Wicca and Paganism are not, than what they are.

First, Wicca is not identical to Paganism or Neo-paganism. Paganism deliberately harks back to ancient Greek, Roman or other pre-Christian religions: for example, in the modern worship of Athena, Diana or Norse goddesses. Wiccans on the other hand honor the Earth and are attempting to practice rituals that manipulate or honor unseen powers or spirits. These rituals may be identified with supposed Celtic practices and gods, but many Wiccans do not worship any particular god except, perhaps, the Earth.

Thus, Wiccans may mingle with Pagans in common meetings and picnics; but often the representatives of the various groups disagree with one another, much in the way that Protestants and Catholics disagree–each claiming more authentic roots than the others. Nevertheless, most members of local neo-pagan societies (for example on the college campus near you) may well count themselves as Wiccans too.

Second, Wicca is not Satanism. This confusion is constantly made by zealous Christians, but it is offensive to Wiccans who consider Satan to be a Judeo-Christian invention. In general, Wiccans prefer to see only good in the world (including the world of spirits), but in any case few would be willing to worship evil spirits. Owing to this perspective, Wiccan websites often refer to Satanism as a Christian heresy or an inversion of Catholicism, which in their view has nothing to do with the Craft.

Also, Wicca is not really New Age. “New Age” (which today is becoming known as post-modernism) looks forward to the creation of new spiritualities, chiefly by combining elements of many other traditions. Wicca, on the other hand, along with various forms of Paganism, looks backward to certain religious practices–or at least supposed practices and mythologies–from the past. That being said, Wicca and Neo-Paganism mingle with New Age especially when we think of such things as crystal therapy, developing “positive energies” or worshipping Celtic divinities.

Finally, Wicca is not necessarily the practice of magic, at least in the popular sense of the word. Much which passes for Witchcraft today is, in the view of serious witches, simply child’s play or entertainment, having little to do with the actual religion.  Certainly witchcraft is not slight-of-hand, although the practice of serious “magick” (the invocation of spirits and unseen powers) is part of withcraft as many people know it.

We should add, perhaps too obviously, that Wiccans do not wear black pointy hats or black dresses and do not fly on brooms (although these, incidentally, are phallic symbols in certain rituals). Strange black hats and billowy black robes are worn by Orthodox Christian clergy, not by witches. The popular Halloween costume stems from the Welsh national costume of medieval times, and is quite unfairly associated with witchcraft. Your modern witch, either a man or woman (men are not “warlocks”–another popular misconception) could be the lovely young lady serving you at your bank, your doctor, lawyer or soldier.

Having said this, it is generally agreed among Wiccans that there are three primary types of witchcraft today. These are Gardnerian (named for the Englishman Gerald Gardner, 1884-1964); Alexandrian (named for Alex Sanders, also English, who founded this branch in the 1960’s); and Celtic (supposed to be derived from ancient Celtic practices). Witches are organized into covens, which in Gardnerian practice are limited to 13 members.

Gardnerian witchcraft is what is known as a “British lineaged tradition and includes secretive initiations, “skyclad” (naked) meetings and occult practices. Alexandrian is public and popular and is practiced in America often without any attempt at lineage. Celtic practice is…well, largely made up, since it is difficult even for archeologists to know what Celts really did. In any case, American wicca was imported from Great Britain in the early 1950’s and is arguably a modern phenomenon, not an ancient religion. It gained ground especially with the growth of feminism and women’s political issues. The Salem “witch” trials of the early American colonies actually involved African Yoruba voudon, not English witchcraft, although today the town is inundated with modern covens and touristy wanna-be’s.

As a mnemonic device, modern Wicca can be categorized by colors. So-called “White” Wicca concerns itself with personal purity and maximizing the Self. Ritual and magick is positive in its character, seeking to improve situations or personal habits. “Green” Wicca is concerned with the Earth, personified as The Goddess or Gaia (Greek for “Earth”).  Rituals and prayers are directed towards preservation of the Earth and honoring her. Yellow is associated with the more serious practice of spell-casting, for example, to retain a lover or turn away a suitor. Red correlates to more directly evil practices such as cursing. Black, finally, characterizes the descent of spell-casting into serious evil, defined as deification of the Self which then seeks to harm others (in this sense, Satan-worship is actually self-worship). Most Wiccans would, at least publicly, decry the latter two practices and shun them altogether, but it is a fact that these levels of Magick exist, even if as occult or secret practices.

Wiccan ethics are summed up in the so-called “Rede” (Middle English for “Rule”), i.e. a Rule of Life, which is: “Do what ye will, an ye harm none” or, “Do whatever you want, as long as you do not harm anyone.” In this view there is no sin other than causing harm; no Last Judgment other than the judgment of history.

Wiccan worship revolves around annual, monthly (lunar) and weekly festivals. Rituals are memorized and involve fun and energetic chanting, such as “Merry meet, and merry heart, and merry meet again!” as a final benediction. Altars at home create “sacred space” for meditation and prayer.

Orthodox Christians can enter into fruitful dialogue with Wiccans on a number of important levels. We accept that there are indeed “elemental spirits” (mentioned by St. Paul); the only question is whether they are to be worshipped and manipulated, or acknowledged as created and intended to serve the Creator. We agree that there should be no harm to others or even to ourselves. St. Ephrem the Syrian referred to the Earth as “our mother,” and advocated our care for her. Wiccan home altars are reminiscent of Orthodox icons and prayer-corners. Orthodox Christians do not condemn or judge others, which is important to Wiccans. Some former Wiccans in our congregation were drawn to Orthodoxy because of our deep sense of “sacred space” in the sanctuary, and the profound nature of Orthodox worship.

For these and many other reasons, an Orthodox Bible study that we conducted at a local university drew numerous Wiccans for a period of several years. Participants expressed genuine appreciation for the Orthodox perspective of God, of judgment and for our kindness towards them, when numerous so-called Christians on campus derided them and condemned them. We should keep in mind that many–perhaps most–Wiccans in America today were reared in Protestant or Catholic homes, and were hurt by their religious up-bringing.

As a last word perhaps it is good for Orthodox Christians who might be drawn to Wicca to remember St. Paul’s words to the Colossians, to “see to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition and according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). But on the other hand St. John was speaking to pagans when he said,  “God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not be lost, but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be healed through Him.”

Coexisting With Buddhism

June 15, 2010

By Fr. Brendan Pelphrey

Many Christians, if they know anything about Buddhism at all, would probably say that there is no way for Christians to have fruitful dialogue with Buddhists. After all, Buddhists are atheists–right?

Not really. There are many different kinds of Buddhism, and their followers are as different from one another as snake-handling Pentecostals are from Roman Catholics. In Hong Kong, for example, what is more properly known as Chinese Folk Religion includes at least two hundred local gods, not counting the Nine Fairies and all sorts of local spirits and sprites that inhabit auspicious streams and forests. In this environment, whatever the historic Siddhartha the Buddha may have envisioned has been fully integrated with ancient Taoism–and, apparently, also with Christianity.

Ancient Buddhism, which calls itself Theravada (the “ancient path”) adheres closely to the Buddha’s insights, which are spelled out in the Tripitaka (holy books). These include the Buddha’s original insights (the “Four Noble Truths”) which includes the Eight-Fold Path, a prescription for daily living.

Siddhartha, the Buddha–who was a Hindu Brahmin prince but who for a time struggled ascetically–had the insight that severe ascetical struggles cannot in themselves release us from the sufferings of this life. Chiefly, these are poverty, illness, old age, and death. Pursuing this thought he realized that in a very real sense the struggle itself, along with everything around us, is illusory. We grasp after status and possessions that quickly become meaningless when we are confronted by illnesses or death; and in any case nothing persists after we die. So what should we do?

The way out of this conundrum (the second part of Buddha’s great insight or “enlightenment”) is to stop grasping altogether. Accept that you are passing through life very briefly. Accept that to think otherwise is an illusion that leaves you wanting. Through acceptance, you can become tranquil and stop the cycle of trying to get more and to be more. This “stopping” is called Nibbana (Nirvanha) which means, literally, blowing out the candle, i.e. the flame of desire.

The Buddha did not have much to say about God or the gods, since, as he pointed out, you cannot see them. Neither can you conceive of the Absolute. Better, he thought, to deal with the realities we can see and touch, especially the “sea of suffering” (samsara) that surrounds us in this life. A great calumny is to claim, as some Christian radio-evangelists do, that the Buddha thought he was a god. He not only did not think this, but among the first of his insights is that in some sense we ourselves do not truly exist; and if not we, then not the gods either.

Mahayana Buddhism (the “Greater Vehicle”) integrated the Buddha’s insights with Taoist culture, but also apparently borrowed from Christianity in China after the 6th century CE. Thus there was added the idea of a heaven (“Western Paradise”–why West?), savior-figures (the Arhats), intercessors, merit, Hell (actually eighteen hells), and after-life. In this view there are many Buddhas who can help on the path towards enlightenment and total release. In Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia, the Buddha’s insights were integrated with ancient cultural religion called Bon (or Pun) and Lamaism, so that modern lamas are living Buddhas.

An important feature of all this is the desire (there is desire again) to cease the cycle of birth and rebirth, or reincarnation. Americans do not seem to grasp this essential part of Buddhism: namely, that rebirth is a curse rather than an exciting New-Agey opportunity. No one in Asia wants to be re-born; that is reserved for American Hollywood actresses. Everyone else is working to get out of it.

Now, how does any of this have anything in common with Orthodox Christianity? Actually, there are many “points of contact,” as was pointed out historically by the Lutheran missionary Karl Ludvig Reichelt. On a superficial level, Mahayana Buddhists daily “take refuge” in the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic community). Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, take refuge in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; but we also depend upon the Christ (Jesus, the Word of God), His Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (the Church).

Buddhist ascetical communities have much in common with the life-style of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Church, a fact which was beautifully drawn out by the Japanese scholar and artist Yushi Nomura in his book, Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers. Nomura used Zen-style illustrations and brief quotes from the Fathers to demonstrate the similarities. Both seek to extinguish the passions and to tame the flesh. Both seek tranquility (in Greek, hesychia). Both advocate radical simplicity of lifestyle and a total acceptance of what the day might bring.

On a deeper level, the Buddha said that the world is subject to suffering; so do we (we call it “evil,” which leads to death). He said that this was due to desire; so do we (we call this “sin,” that leads to fear and disappointment–the “passions”). He said that therefore, we must accept the transitory nature of life; so do we (we call this repentance and humility). He said, finally, that we do not truly exist; so do we (we say that only Christ is “He Who Is,” Who exists truly; we are creatures who have fallen into death).

The Buddha said that we cannot see God or understand divine nature, the Absolute; we agree, but we believe that God revealed himself in the flesh, in Christ. Christ is above-thought, the “name above all names.” But He rose from death and could be seen and touched and heard. This is proof of the Resurrection, which ends the cycle of birth and rebirth. Enlightenment is to realize that (the early Church called baptism, “enlightenment”).

The Buddha said that everything is illusion; we do not say that. We believe that Christ restores everything so that everything can exist truly. God made it, God God loves it, God keeps it. In that sense we are not-Buddhists.

The Buddha said that we must cease to be, in order to be free; we believe, rather, that we must be born again in Christ–effectively dying to our old life and being born into a different dimension. Perhaps we should call it Nibbana: stopping all passions, existing in a new way which cannot be grasped or imagined. We, who are enlightened in Baptism, can say that our “Buddha-nature” has been realized in Christ: it is Christ-nature.

Faith and the City

June 15, 2010

by Ms. Clio Pavlontis

This year, Holy Week came at the same time for East and West. New York City was quiet. More people were off from work, and scattered groups of children were out. In the congruence of Eastern and Western celebrations, I became part of a visible majority: the Christian Faithful. While I may have seen myself as profoundly different from my Catholic and Protestant Brethren, the world at large had a different opinion.

After morning Liturgy on Holy Thursday, I went to have coffee with a group of men that I’ve known for four years. I am the only woman in the group, and one of two Christians. The other Christian is a lapsed Catholic. Often, the Canon from St. John the Divine joins us, and brings the Christian count up to three. The other members of the group are Jews, mostly Jewish by background and culture, although among the half dozen men, there may be those who are more observant. We gather to discuss various issues, often political and economic, but theological from time to time. They know that I am an Orthodox Christian, and they know that I am at Seminary. Up until Holy Thursday morning, I had not heard the coming of Pascha discussed. That did not surprise me.

It was a shock, then, for an acquaintance to sit down beside me and begin to talk about how he had to prepare for being called a “Christ Killer.” This man is a history professor at a university in “the City.” He has a wonderful sense of humor and at first, I didn’t know if he had had the misfortune to tell what he thought was a joke, but there was an edge to his voice that indicated he was serious. I sat in disbelief while he spoke of how he always lectured to his students on the historical events around the Passion, “setting the record straight” and “beating them to the punch.” That was when the term “Christ Killer” came up. I saw that the man was completely serious and even a bit aggressive in his tone and message. I have vague recollections of giving my own version of the historical events of the Passion and touching on the difference between the Jewish expectations and the Christians’ perceptions of Messiah. (Many thanks to Seminary!) I left the coffee shop in a state of shock, in the company of another member of the group.

As we walked together, he asked me if I was all right, and I asked him if I had been too forward in my response. He said he was surprised at how non-aggressive my reply had been. I must add here that I have spent a lot of time in this man’s company, and he has introduced me to many of his friends. He has come to Church with me many times and we talk a lot about Orthodoxy. He is a secular Jew; I am a cradle Orthodox. As we walked up the street, we ran into one of his co-workers, and my friend introduced me. She said, “Have you converted him yet?” I was appalled and embarrassed. I had the sense of being caught between two sides of a war that I did not want to fight.

In New York, inter-Christian and inter-Religious Ecumenism is an everyday affair. This Holy Thursday, it had become a battle ground, a chaotic sea shifting under my feet. In this storm my regard for fellow human beings seemed a fragile anchor and yet it was all I had. Silence was my only response. In the Ecumenical landscape that is America, it seems profoundly important to walk circumspectly and to speak gently, quietly affirming truth as the Orthodox understand it. The only way to address the fear and triumphalism that various religious beliefs appear to engender is to listen to the person put in front of you. At those moments when prejudice breaks out, it is important to step back and let God answer. In such moments, human beings have no wisdom. The history professor is a deeply wounded man, and in the face of such brokenness, it would seem that few words could address his pain. Will he ever understand that the Christians who have clearly hurt him have also hurt themselves by removing themselves from Christ’s love? Would he care? Will the woman who clearly saw me as putting pressure on my friend ever take Christianity seriously enough to understand that conversion is Christ’s work alone?

Last Supper Icon, inviting us all to participate

In the end, we have to look within ourselves, and ask what role each of us plays in the diverse society that is America. Are we “missionaries”? Are we “Defenders of the Faith”? Do we speak, or do we remain silent? I would answer that it is not what we do or say, as much as who we are. Perhaps the real questions to ask are about our own spiritual development. How well do we live our faith? How do we receive the people and events God puts into our lives? Do we accept the lessons he sends us? Do we accept the world around us, the people created by God? There are many examples of those who have lived their faith or belief in the wider world beyond their ethnic community: Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Mother Gavrilia all come to mind. They are a testament to the sacrifice such living entails. As Orthodox Christian Americans we are called to our own path of sacrifice among our neighbors. Who is our neighbor? The one who has need. Sometimes we address the need best when we only listen.

Volume 1 Number 4 Contributors

June 15, 2010

Ms. Alexis Boyd is a PhD Student at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. She did her undergraduate work at Rutgers University in Biotechnology. She has previously worked for pharmaceutical companies and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. She currently conducts research on vaccines for parasites. She attends St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Ms. Clio Pavlantos is a resident of New York City and is currently working towards her Masters of Divinity degree at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY. She is looking to complete her clinical pastoral education certification, which would allow her to actively minister in hospitals.

Dr. Peter Bouteneff is an associate professor of Systematic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY. He holds a D.Phil from Oxford University in theology as well as a Master’s in Divinity from St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary and a Bachelor’s in Music from the New England Conservatory of Music. He is the author of numerous books and articles, most notably “Sweeter Than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma and Truth.” He is a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches.

Fr. Brendan Pelphrey is the pastor at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Shreveport, LA. He holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in Christian Dogmatics and Practical Theology. He has taught at numerous colleges and universities including Hellenic College, Southwestern University, and Texas State University. He was a missionary for several years in Hong Kong before his conversion to Orthodoxy.

We thank all of the contributors for their work.