27 October 2006

Orthodoxy, postmodernity and the emerging church

Last weekend we had Bishop Jovan of Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro visiting. He spoke on the miracles associated with the relics of St Basil (Vassilje), the founder of the Ostrog monastery.

It was difficult to follow what he was saying, because the interpreter was not very good, and I found that even I knew when he was mistranslating (using "religion" when the bishop meant "faith", for example). It comes of the communist education many Serbs had, I suppose.

Later I got an opportunity to talk to Bishop Jovan, and to clarify some of the things he had said. Among other things he had spoken about the contrast between the emphasis in Western theology on intellectual knowledge and rationalism, and the Orthodox emphasis on life. He spoke of the danger of trying to intellectualise and rationalise things like the healings that had taken place at Ostrog, and the temptation to use these to try to "prove" the existence of God. Miracles of healing can easily become idolatrous if we fail to realise that the biggest miracle is the incarnation. What is important is not education, but holiness. Book religion is not enough: the Western church may have holy books, but the Orthodox Church has holy people, like St Basil. As an Anglican friend, John Davies, once wrote to me, what we need is not more good men, but more holy men.

On thinking about this, it seems to me that the core of this is the difference in anthropology. Western anthropology sees the individual and the collective. In the West there may be debates about which is more important, the individual or the collective. But Orthodox anthropology sees persons in community.

On the way to see Bishop Jovan I was listening to a talk show on the radio, and the host, Xolani Gwala, was interviewing the author of a book called I am an African (unfortunately I have forgotten the name of the author). One of the points made by the author of the book was that European (Western) thought saw people primarily as individuals, whereas in African thought community is more important. The contrast he made was almost exactly the same as that made by Bishop Jovan and other Orthodox Christians when comparing Orthodox anthropology with Western anthropology.

Both African and Orthodox anthropology tend to see man in terms of persons in community rather than in terms of individual or collective. The individual is like a monolith, a single stone. The collective is like an aggregate, a pile of stones. But the person in community is like a building; in biblical imagery, like living stones built into a temple. As a Zulu proverb puts it: umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu -- a person is a person because of people.

What Orthodox and African anthropology have in common is that both are premodern, and therefore contrast with the modernity of Western anthropology. Western anthropology is "European" in the sense that modernity arose out of certain cultural movements that took place in Western Europe, especially the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But there is nothing intrisically "European" about it, any more than the "person/community" model is intrinsically "African". I believe the author of "I am an African" errs in associating it too much with geography, though he does make the point that it is primarily a matter of values.

Before the Renaissance Europe was premodern too. Christian mission in Anglo-Saxon England, in Solomonic Ethiopia, and in Kievian Rus used essentially the same methods and were based on the same values, and the same anthropological assumptions. It was modernity that made the difference, and modernity is not confined to Western Europe, but is spreading throughout the world; the process is usually called globalisation.

It is one aspect of modernity, reason, that was the subject of Roman Pope Benedict XVI's controversial Regensburg address. The media focused their attention on its alleged anti-Islamic content, but the deeper implication has gone largely unremarked: that Christianity is fundamentally "Western" or "European", and that there is no place in it for "African" or other non-Western insights.

Orthodox Christianity, as Bishop Jovan remarked, does not altogether reject modernity. We make use of modern technology, like air travel and the internet. We can accept the scientific method, based on empirical research and reason, to better understand the natural world. But what we can learn by using these methods is not all that we need to learn, and exalting them into ideologies, such as rationalism, empiricism or positivism, becomes idolatry.

Postmodernity in the West is a reaction against modernism. Among other things it is a recognition that what we can know through reason and empirical investigation is not all we need to know, and that what we can learn through the scientific method can tell us nothing about values. In addition, the notion that the scientific method makes researchers objective and their findings "value-free" is a delusion.

To that extent, Orthodoxy can empathise with Western postmodernity. And Orthodoxy can also empathise with the "emerging church" movement that is trying to come to grips with postmodern society in the West.

In the last few months I've been trying to find out what this "emerging church" movement is about, and something of its missiological significance. I've tried to read and listen and ask questions, but have said little. But now I think I can say something about the emerging church movement from the point of view of Orthodox missiology.

Several people who have identified themselves as part of the "emerging church" movement have said things like "Orthodoxy has much to teach us about spirituality". And it is here that I wish to make a distinction.

As an Orthodox Christian, I am suspicious of words like "spirituality". It is a Western word, and denotes and connotes a Western concept -- "spirituality" tends to be divorced from "materiality". Yes, Orthodoxy has terms like "dushevnost", which can be translated as "spirituality", but a better translation would be "Life in the Spirit", because it denotes a specific relationship with the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.

In Orthodoxy, "spirituality" cannot be divorced from "materiality". And so here is another point of difference between Orthodoxy and the West, even the postmodern West: Orthodox theology is holistic, whereas Western theology, even (or especially) emerging or postmodern theology, is eclectic.

It could be said that eclecticism is a characteristic of postmodernity, and that may well be true, but it is a characteristic that arises from modernity. Western (ie modern) thought is analytic. In studying something, it breaks it down into its separate components and examines each one separately. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to find out what is wrong with a car engine, you might need to dismantle it to replace the worn-out main bearings, for example. But that tells you nothing about what a car is for, or the effect that it has on society or the environment.

For Orthodoxy, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Isolating aspects of Orthodoxy, like "spirituality" loses something essential. So, if there is to be dialogue between Orthodoxy and the emerging church movement, the holistic/eclectic difference is one of the things that needs to be looked at. Not in isolation, of course.


PS: I am posting this in various places. For the sake of communicating with the emerging church movement, the main one is my blog here. That is because emerging church people seem to communicate mainly through the blogosphere, rather than through mailing lists or newsgroups, but I'm posting it in mailing lists and newsgroups as well, where there are others whose views and opinions I value. Some of those forums, on Orthodox mission and Christianity and society, can be seen in the sidebar.

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25 October 2006

The Gaelic Starover: Impeach US President Bush

The Gaelic Starover: Vote Early!

Mainly of interest to Americans, no doubt -- a poll in an American newspaper on whether to impeach US President George Bush for starting an unjust war. But I suspect that a lot of people in other countries will have an opinion on that too.

24 October 2006

Orthodoxy and Liberation Theology

When I posted my response to the quiz on theological worldviews in my LiveJournal, I pointed out that quite a lot of theological worldviews were missing from the list, including Orthodoxy and Liberation theology.

Someone asked for my views on Liberation Theology, and so I decided to put an article I had written on the subject some years ago on the web. If anyone is interested, it is Orthodoxy and Liberation Theology.

Comments are welcome, either on the message forum linked to the article, or here.

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23 October 2006

Theological worldviews

I found a quiz on "What's your theological worldview?"

I was struck by the remarkably narrow and circumscribed view of the author. It has no provision for Orthodox Christianity. It has such things as "Classical liberal" and "Modern liberal", which I find difficult to conceive of. It also omitted significant movements in Western theology like liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology etc, and non-western movements like Zionism.

So one couldn't even say that it had a Western bias -- its bias seemed far narrower than that.

I posted my results for the quiz on my other blog, here and was interested to see that (in admittedly small sample) Orthodox Christians seemed to come up with
  1. Roman Catholic
  2. Evangelical Wesleyan/Holiness
  3. Neo-orthodox
in the top three.

I suppose that, of all Protestants, Free Methodists come closest to Orthodoxy in at least sharing some similar concerns.

The quiz also had an "Emerging/Postmodern" category, which I had only heard of quite recently, yet I am sure that both the Orthodox and Zionists outnumber them by several millions.

19 October 2006

The "Cultural Protestant" Origin of Multiculturalism

A conservative blog for peace had an article on "Unitarianism, Modernism and multiculturalism are all Protestantism gone bad" with a link to 西儒 ─ The Western Confucian: The "Cultural Protestant" Origin of Multiculturalism. These bloggers attributed the origin of multiculturalism to "English Calvinism" and "New England Puritanism" respectively.

I made a comment:
Whereas it was the descendants of Dutch Calvinists who proposed the grand solution to multiculturalism -- apartheid.

To spare us the discomfort of having to live in proximity to anyone whose ideas, manners or skin colour differed from our own, they simply bulldozed their houses and removed them to another place -- a process for which the term "ethnic cleansing" was later invented.

Several people responded to my comment, but nobody seemed to "get it". All were trying to find someone (other than Dutch Calvinists) to blame for apartheid. It's easier to find a scapegoat than a solution.

But the bigger question is ignored. And that is the assumption that "multiculturalism" is "bad" or "blameworthy". If the descendants of English Calvinists created the "problem", why are the descendants of Dutch Calvinists "blameworthy" for trying to find a solution?

In South Africa we found that apartheid was a thoroughly bad thing, and that the problem it was intended to solve -- multiculturalism -- was not such a problem after all. And suddenly the rest of the world seems to have switched its view. As South Africa abandoned apartheid, Yugoslavia embraced it, with the help of Germany and Nato. And now, it seems, Americans are doing the same.

The question is not who is to "blame" for multiculturalism, but why do people like this "Western Confucian" and so many others simply assume that it is a Bad Thing?

I can agree that the English Calvinists contributed to it in America -- after all, they emigrated there and created a multicultural society. But if their descendants think it is such a bad thing, then they should either return to their ancestral homelands, or learn to live with the multicultural society that their ancestors created by settling there in the first place.

14 October 2006

Lebanese joke

This joke is doing the rounds in Lebanon:

A Christian whose house was destroyed by the Israeli onslaught lost all his possessions. All that remained was a picture of the Christ. He took it with him and went to see Saad Hariri, who gave him 100 thousand dollars to rebuild.

Seeing this, his Shia neighbour took down his picture of Nasrallah and went to see Hariri with it. Hariri gave him $5,000. The man was surprised:

"But you gave my neighbour 100,000!"

"That's right. He brought a picture of his Lord crucified. Bring me a picture of yours crucified and I'll give you 5 million."

12 October 2006

Orthodoxy and the emerging/missional church

There has recently been quite a lot of talk in Western Christian circles about the "emerging church", or the "missional church", or the Emerging-missional Church.

Most of the discussion seems to have emerged in the blogosphere, and not in many other places. One of the more useful sites I found was Friend of Missional, which gives a description of what a missional church is, and what it is not.

I wondered how any of this linked with Orthodox Christianity, and here are some preliminary thoughts. I think that some of the things that distinguish missional from non-missional churches are covered in an article I wrote on the difference between evangelism and proselytism.

I discovered the "emerging church" phenomenon soon after I started this blog, and searched for other bloggers who were interested in missiology, which is one of my interests. I discovered that a large number of them had also listed "emerging church" among their interests.

There is a sense in which the Orthodox Church is emerging, or re-emerging. Most Orthodox Christians live in the former Second World, and in those places the church is still emerging or reemerging from 40-70 years of Bolshevik persecution. I visited some of the places where Orthodoxy has been emerging: Russia, Bulgaria and Albania, and something different seemed to be emerging in each of those places. I saw only a tiny fraction of it, of course.

I gather from my reading in the blogosphere that the Western "emerging church" is concerned about Christianity in the postmodern world.

In Africa, where I live, Orthodoxy is faced with a society in which modernity, premodernity and postmodernity are mingled together in swirling ever-changing patterns like paints of different colours being poured into a pot and stirred. What eventually emerges may be a dull beige-grey, but for the moment they are not yet all mixed up, and the mixing is still taking place.

A similar process seems to be taking place in Albania, where much of the premodern world survives. Albania was a tribal society until well into the 20th century, and that was the dominant loyalty, above religion or political affiliations. Enver Hoxha tried to stamp out religion, but he didn't manage to eliminate tribalism. And where else do you see farm labourers cutting hay with scythes and loading it onto a horse-drawn wagon, and taking it back to a farmstead with a TV satellite dish on the roof?

Orthodox Christianity and Western Christianity encountered modernity in different ways, and so perhaps the approach to post-modernity may be different. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Western Christianity was fairly thoroughly contextualised into modernity. For Orthodoxy modernity remained something external, something that the Bolsheviks tried to impose on society, but that the Church resisted.

As for how Orthodoxy will end up relating to the postmodern world, well, not enough has emerged yet.

But I'd welcome thoughts from others to help clarify my own thinking.

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11 October 2006

The values of liberal democracy

British MP Jack Straw has caused a storm by his remarks about the way some Muslims dress, with some even going so far as accusing Muslims who dress differently of rejecting the values of liberal democracy. I am not alone in thinking that those who say such things seem to have a swivel-eyed idea of "liberal democracy" -- Madeleine Bunting puts it rather well when she says:
This latter prompted the memory of being taken as a child by my mother to visit the Poor Clares' convent in York. We gave alms to these impoverished women who had chosen complete segregation from the world as part of their strict spiritual discipline; we talked to the gentle, warm mother superior through the bars of a grille that symbolised their retreat from the world. No one accused these nuns of "rejecting the values of liberal democracy" - yet they were co-religionists of the IRA terrorists of their time.
One of the features of liberal democracy is its tolerance. The word tolerance is much abused nowadays, so perhaps I should expand on that by saying that I agree with Fr Thomas Hopko when he said
Tolerance is always in order when it means that we coexist peacefully with people whose ideas and manners differ from our own, even when to do so is to risk the impression that truth is relative and all customs and mores are equally acceptable (as happens in North America).

Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God's creation.

To be tolerant is to be neither indifferent nor relativistic. Neither is it to sanction injustice or to be permissive of evil. Injustice is intolerable and evil has no rights. But the only weapons which Christians may use against injustice and evil are personal persuasion and political legislation, both of which are to be enacted in an atmosphere of respect. While Christians are permitted under certain conditions to participate in police and military actions to enforce civil laws and to oppose criminality, we may not obey evil laws nor resort to evil actions in defence of the good. This means that Christians are inevitably called to suffer in this age, and perhaps even to die. This is our gospel, our witness and our defence.

In my youth people conformed to a far stricter dress code, and being countercultural may have been cool, but social pressure was against cool. Males went to church wearing suits and ties, females wore skirts, stockings and hats, sometimes even gloves. The only excuse for not dressing like that was poverty, and in many middle-class suburban churches the poor were not welcome, especially since most of the middle-class suburban parishioners were white and most of the poor were black. On one occasion a friend and I went to such a church wearing Basotho blankets (not really to "make a statement", but it was midwinter, and we'd ridden there on a motorbike). It caused more than a stir; it was a typhoon in a teacup, and the next Sunday the parish priest peached a sermon on it, in which he said, among other things, that "the only garment we need to enter God's house is the garment of charity."

The Poor Clares, mentioned above, did deliberately dress in such a way as to identify with the poor, with those who were not welcome in the respectable middle-class churches. St Xenia of St Petersburg was a crossdresser, wearing male clothes in addition to their being ragged. Several other examples are given in a paper read to students by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection. The paper was called Pilgrims of the Absolute.

One of the things about religious freedom is that protecting the religious freedom of others is also a protection of my religious freedom. The freedom of Muslim women to dress as they choose is also a protection of people of other religions or none to dress as they choose. If Muslim women are prevented from wearing the niqab, how long will it be before Orthodox monks are told to cut their hair, shave their beards, and wear the same clothes as everyone else.

Come to think of it, that has happened before.

It was done by those fine upstanding supporters of liberal democracy, the Bolsheviks.

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10 October 2006

The international community

Over on the alt.usage.english newsgroup my friend Tony Cooper said:
I also heard President Bush saying that North Korea has "defied the wishes of the international community" by performing a nuclear test. I'm glad the US never defies the wishes of the international community.

08 October 2006

Christianity and culture -- inculturation or countercultural?

Mark van Steenwyk is writing a book on Christian resistance to the dominant culture, at least in North America, and has posted an outline in his blog.

As an Orthodox Christian, I've looked at Frank Schaeffer's attempts to do something similar, but havent found them very inspiring. Some of his books, and a paper I heard him read at an Orthodox mission conference 11 years ago, seemed to be the wrong approach -- going out with a shotgun and blasting everything that moves. Linking things that seem to have little to do with each others, and then attacking them on the basis of criteria that are not stated, as if it is assumed that everyone will know what they are (I wrote more ab out that here).

So I'll follow Mark's project with interest, and see how it develops.

07 October 2006

Truth, reconciliation and healing

I finally got the book, Namibia by Bishop Colin Winter, via Amazon. It seemed new, seemed new though I had paid $1.14 for it (postage and packing was about 10 times that).

I had not really known that the book existed at all until I saw it mentioned in the bibliography of Buys and Kritzinger's book on the history of the church in South West Africa - the Kritzinger in question being Dons. But the fact that they knew of Winter's book and cited it makes their playing down of the persecution of the church by the South African government between 1960 and 1990 inexcusable. Colin Winter did not mince words, he told exactly what went on, and Buys and Kritzinger diluted it and covered up the persecution.

The book is not in the Unisa library, perhaps because it was banned at the time it was published, but it is one that should be there now. Maybe someone had told me about the book, but it had not registered with me, perhaps because it was banned, and so I am reading it as something new and fresh 29 years after it was published -- and when I went to Namibia and met Bishop Colin Winter for the first time I was 28 years old, so that makes it feel rather strange to read it.

Of course Colin Winter's style makes it a frustrating book to use as a historical source. He is great at conveying atmosphere, and has many vivid descriptions, but the chronology is all over the place, and some incidents are conflated. It's written more like a gospel than anything else, with pericopes where you have to try and work out the sitz im leben.

That's one of the things that make it interesting.

I'm reading it a bit like the people who read the first written gospels, 30 years after the fact. I read about events that I witnessed at first hand, while Colin Winter writes about them by hearsay, what he heard from others. Many, of course, are things that he witnessed at first hand, and I heard about from him or others. And if I write my Namibian memoirs, perhaps they will differ from his book as much as, or more than, the gospels differ from each other.

The vivid descriptions, of course, are part of the fund-raising style. The Anglican Diocese of Namibia was always poor, always asking for help from overseas donors, and so much of the description is aimed at getting people in other places praying and paying. But it's not just that. Colin Winter had a genuine love of people, and that comes across in the book. He has harsh criticism for the political system of apartheid and its cruelty, but when it comes to individuals, one can see the Christian love of enemies. He rarely has anything bad to say about anyone.

Yesterday I went to a symposium at the University of South Africa on religion and reconciliation, to celebrate the 75th birthday of retired Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu. Much of it dealt with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Bishop Tutu chaired.

Piet Meiring and Tinyiko Maluleke spoke about the role of faith communities in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The idea to have groups in the TRC hearings was a late innovation. It was originally intended only for individual perpetrators and victims. But it was the faityh communities that acknowledged their failures to oppose the partheid system. Other groups of civil society, such as business and the media, were only concerned to exonerate themselves.

The TRC did not really concern itself much with human rights abuses in Namibia. But given South Africa's involvement in Namibia up to 1990, they are closely linked.

And eventually, perhaps, the cover-ups and papering over the cracks in these two books will need to be confessed. Buys and Kritzinger play down the persecution, and try to pretend that it did not happen, and so events are disjointed and inexplicable. Winter makes no secret of the persecution, but fails to set it in its context, and at times it seems that it just happened, and no one was responsible.

Many people mentioned that the youth of today are not interested in that sort of thing. That is for the old people to sort out. But Bishop Desmond Tutu, addressed some of his remarks to the students watching from the galleries, and said we need to know where we have come from when we try to see where we should be going.

And having seen Namibia, I think the full story has yet to be told.

05 October 2006

Almost thou persuadest me to be a conservative

When Tories begin talking like this, I'm almost tempted to think that a Conservative government in Britain might be a good thing.
We urgently need a new foreign policy. Get out of Iraq. Talk to Iran. Chase hearts and minds as well as insurgents in Afghanistan. And start 'dancing with wolves'. Above all, cut the umbilical cord with George Bush, and have a British foreign policy again.


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