31 October 2007

Ecumenism and Orthodoxy

In a long and wide-ranging post the Ochlophobist looks at ecumenism from an Orthodox point of view. In an earlier post on the Emerging Church and Orthodoxy I pointed out the different views of ecclesiology that make "ecumenism" a controversial concept for Orthodox Christians. The Ochlophobist, however, looks at it much more widely: The Ochlophobist: real ecumenicic, augustinomianisms, there's no such thing as the wicked witch of the west, or, we are all the wicked witch of the west, etc., part 2.

When I taught missiology at the University of South Africa under the late Professor David Bosch he published his magnum opus,Transforming mission, in which he wrote about the "emerging ecumenical paradigm of mission". Unfortunately his untimely death put an end to the discussion about this. But much of the emerging ecumenical paradigm seemed to be built on a Western paradigm, Western history and Western assumptions. The Ochlophobist questions many of these from and Orthodox point of view.

Concerning the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, the Ochlophobist says
We have many differences, but some of them are obviously compatible. Easterns hold crowns over the heads of bride and bridegroom at weddings, many Orientals hold crosses over the heads of bride and bridegroom. Both obviously mean the same thing - that the couple is called to martyrdom. Here we have a classic example of common Orthopraxis. The Oriental and Eastern Orthodox wedding services clearly mean the same thing. Christian wedding services from other traditions, in terms of both text and actions, seem to quite clearly mean something different. For reunion to take place, so say the Holy Elders, there must be acknowledgement of a unity of faith and of a common life. The acknowledgement of the unity of faith must happen among bishops, and among Orthodox and Oriental theologians, and it must happen among clergy and laity at local levels. I must experience as an Eastern Orthodox layman, the act of going to an Oriental church and hearing the same faith taught that is taught in the Eastern Church. The acknowledgement of a common life must come through the broad recognition among bishops, theologians, and the rest, that both Easterns and Orientals share the same intuition with regard to discipline, piety, and prayer. There are differences. The question is whether or not both sides come to understand and trust that the differences are semantic, as it were, and not substantial.

With the Oriental Orthodox -- the Copts, Armenians and Syrian Jacobites -- the Orthopraxy is sufficiently similar, as in the wedding example, to make us feel at home in one another's churches and services. Thouigh there are cultural differences, there is also much that seems familiar. It is not so much the Orthopraxy that is different, it is the Orthodoxy, and specifically the christology over the two natures of Christ.

When it comes to Roman Catholics, and the thousands of Protestant groups, matters become more difficult.

Some thirty years ago in South Africa a group of denominations in South Africa decided to commit unity. Anglicans, Methodists, Congregationalists and several varieties of Presbyterians were joined in the Church Unity Commission (CUC). And on one Sunday in 1974 they were all to get together locally and have a service of commitment to unity.

I was then an Anglican, and in our area there were six congregations belonging to the CUC. The clergy of all of them got together to plan the unity service. It was agreed that it would be a Eucharist, and that it would be held in the Methodist Church and that we would use Anglican blotting paper for bread and Methodist furniture polish for wine. We would use Anglican chalices rather than dinky little Methodist glasses, and we would use the order of service provided by the CUC.

Then began the fun: who gets to do what. We decided to put the names of the clergy into a hat, except that there wasn't a hat, so we used the Anglican rector's fondue pot (fondues were big in the 1970s, but I haven't seen one for years). The Anglican rector's name was pulled out for the celebrant, who would say the Eucharistic prayer. Sighs of relief from the Anglo-Catholics -- it wasn't going to be done by one of those heretics who lacked apostolic succession, so it might be a valid Eucharist. The Presbyterian pulled the intercessions. The Congregationalist objected, because everyone knew that the Presbyterian was charismatic, and that would give him licence to do weird stuff. The Congregationalist also didn't like the fixed form of confession provided by the CUC. He didn't want extemporary prayer from charismatic Presbyterians, but trusted himself with an extemporary confession. The Anglicans objected to that -- how can you confess our sins?

And so the discussion continued. And what this service of commitment to unity revealed was that we were far more divided than we thought we were. The Anglicans wanted an offertory procession (bringing up the bread and wine), but the Methodists and Presbyterians saw no need for it, so it was there in the beginning elegantly covered by a mosquito net. The Anglicans ended up consuming all the leftover Methodist furniture polish (vile stuff!) and the Methodists wondered why they didn't just pour it down the drain.

Compared with that, the question of crosses or crowns at the wedding service is a doddle.

And just to show how effective the whole thing is, the CUC still exists three decades later, and there has been little progress towards unity. The whole ecumenism thing just showed how divided everyone was.

So one really needs to ask what kind of ecumenical mission paradgim is emerging, and whether in fact there is one.

Britain's slide to a fascist police state continues

Any hopes that the replacement of Tony Blair by Gordon Brown might arrest Britain's slide towards a fascist police state have been dashed. Brown's recent defence of "Control Orders" sounded just like Vorster's defence of banning orders against government opponents in apartheid South Africa. And the British Control Orders are virtually indistinguishable from South African banning orders, and in some ways even more restrictive.
clipped from news.bbc.co.uk

What are control orders?

The orders were introduced under 2005 anti-terrorism legislation to give ministers the power to put individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism under close supervision that some say amounts to a loose form of house arrest.

gives the home secretary the power to impose strict conditions on a subject's activities.

This can include a ban on using the internet or mobile phones. The subject can be told to observe a curfew or other restrictions on their movements and travel.

blog it

28 October 2007

Urban legend: government to replace Christian public holidays

Yesterday a friend sent me an e-mail petition against an alleged government plan to change Christian holidays in South Africa.

This is what it said:
ATTENTION ALL CHRISTIANS! It was announced in this mornings Beeld that Government wants to change all Christian holidays e.g. Christmas and Easter, as Christianity has too many public holidays and it is therefore discrimination against other religions.

They no longer want Christian names for these holidays. So if you are prepared to stand up for your faith, please sign the form to say that you are against this proposal.

We WILL stand up for our Lord!

As this had all the marks of an urban legend, I thought I'd check up a bit.

What actually happened was that Mathole Motshekga appealed to the Commission on Culture, Religion and Language to make some changes. He did this back in April, and it was reported in Beeld back then. It wasn't in today's Beeld, nor in the issue on the date of the forwarded e-mail message I received.

So the petition is based on a lie: it is not something that "the government" wants. It is something that Mathole Motshekga wants.

So who is Mathole Motshekga?

He is a lawyer and a politician.

He replaced Tokyo Sexwale as Premier of Gauteng, but didn't last very long in that post, and his tenure was somewhat controversial. He is now director of the Kara Heritage Institute, which appears to promote a new religion of Dr Motshekga's own devising, a rather eclectic religion based on a mixture of gnosticism and African traditional religion.

I heard him a few times on the morning talk show on SAFM radio, hosted by Xolani (or Cwelani, I've heard it pronounced both ways) Gwala giving his views on that subject and others.

To judge from what he said on the radio Dr Motshekga's knowledge of history seemed to be even more wildly inaccurate than that of The de Vinci code. Xolani/Cwelani Gwala appeared to be a fan of his, and Dr Motshekga was on SAFM nearly every day, so that his religion was getting more exposure on the SABC than any other. Eventually I switched to Classic FM, and no longer listen to SAFM.

I have no objection to Dr Motshekga having his own religion, or even speaking about it on the radio. What annoyed me was the lies and distortions about other religions that he was propagating, and the fact that he seemed to be being given a monopoly to do it by the SABC.

But that is no excuse for some Christians to spread lies and distortions about Dr Motshekga's views on public holidays, or to spread urban legends that have no foundation.

A good comment on this is Christian holidays and press responsibility by Amelia Mulder, in which she concludes that:
  1. people no longer pay attention when they are reading
  2. they believe what they want to believe
  3. especially when it has to do with the government's conspiracy against Afrikaners
  4. the press exploits this shamelessly
  5. it makes a person wonder how much you can believe of what you read
Concerning the last couple of points there was another example recently in reports of the arrest of the editor of the Sunday Times, which several journalist bloggers anticipated by writing headlines that implied that the arrest had already taken place, and then later used the rather feeble excuse that it would have happened if they hadn't said it had happened. So if you want to prevent something happening, say it has already happened, even when it has not -- a rather swivel-eyed concept of responsible journalism and media freedom!

27 October 2007

Turkish Armenian Church restored - as museum

Turkey has restored an Armenian church, but it will be used as a museum, not for worship.
clipped from news.bbc.co.uk
Turkey has renovated a 1,100-year-old church in the east of the country, in what is seen as a gesture to improve ties with neighbouring Armenia.

The ceremony on Akdamar island on Lake Van was attended by senior Armenian officials, despite the two countries' lack of diplomatic ties.

The mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 left profound scars and bitterness.

About 70,000 Armenians live in Turkey today. The church will now be a museum.

blog it

26 October 2007

Pagan comments on the Halloween synchroblog

The Halloween sychroblog has got some interesting interfaith dialogue going between Christians and Neopagans, which Yvonne has blogged about on Metapagan.


I’ve been tagged for the 10-20-30 meme by Matt Stone. It has to do with what you were doing 10, 20, and 30 years ago. My story?

10 years ago

Sunday, 26 October 1997

We went to Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Annunciation. They had moved back into the church, and the new ikons by Maria Manetta were beautiful. They seemed to glow with a light of their own.

That was from my journal. The Church of the Annunciation in Pretoria is the biggest Orthodox temple in the Southern Hemisphere, and Maria Manetta was an ikonographer from Greece who had just finished installing new ikons in the dome, and while the church was filled with scaffolding services were held in the hall (hence "moved back into the church".

I was working at the Editorial Department of the University of South Africa, and was also working on my doctorate in Missiology. Our daughter Bridget had just gone to study theology in Greece (10 years later she's still there, working on her masters).

20 years ago

Monday, 26 October 1987
I went to work by car, and read Orthodoxy and the religion of the future, which seemed to regard the charismatic movement as demonic and pagan, as Ann d'Amico does. In the afternoon I left work early and went past Bishop's House, and lent Rich Kraft some of my Foghorn magazines, about Osborne computers. He said Pete & Isobel Beukes were staying with them, and were thinking of coming to work in Pretoria. I went to Makro, where I hoped to be able to buy a cheap microwave oven, but they were all sold out. I bought some envelopes and a tin of coffee instead. We had letters from Theophilus Ngubane and Nora Pearson. Theophilus said that several clergy were leaving Zululand diocese, including the new dean, Father Kow. It sounded quite sad. In the evening I took Bridget to the junior school choir at DSG.

That was my journal entry. Rich Kraft was the Anglican bishop of Pretoria, whom I had known for many years, since he had been university chaplain when I was a student. Pete Beukes was an Anglican priest from Zululand as was Theophilus Ngubane, and Pete's wife Isobel had been a fellow-student with me at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. DSG was St Mary's Diocesan School for Girls in Pretoria, where our daughter Bridget was in Standard III (Grade 5).

I was working in the Editorial Department at the University of South Africa, and we were about to be received into the Orthodox Church (on 8 November).

30 years ago

Wednesday 26 October 1977

Someone phoned from the Archbishop's office in Bishopscourt, saying that Cathy Thomas, of the Daily News, was asking what was happening with the SB and the church in Utrecht. I explained that the papers had published half the story, in relation to the opening of my letter to Lawrence Wood by the Department of the Interior, and so I thought they should have the full story, at least as far as I knew it, to keep the record straight. I also had a letter today from the Secretary for the Interior, saying that my application for the renewal of my passport had not been successful. The letter was dated 7 October, and thus after my letter to Lawrence Wood had been opened by the Department of the Interior, so I can only conclude that if one wants a passport, one does not write to opposition members of parliament. I sent a photostat of the letter from the Secretary for the Interior to Lawrence Wood for his information, but felt that he would not do much, as there is to be a general election at the end of November, and he will not be standing, but will be stepping down for his son Nigel, who will stand for the New Republic Party in his place. I don't think the New Republic Party stands much of a chance in the election. They are too new as a party, and will not have had time to get themselves organised. Wynand Rautenbach is the local leader in Melmoth, and Doris Leitch is also involved, but they did not seem to be at all well organised, and the announcement of the general election had obviously caught them on the wrong foot.

I had recently moved from Utrecht to Melmoth in Zululand, where I was Rector of All Saints Anglican Church, and Director of Training for Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. What had happened in Utrecht was that one of our churches had been closed at gunpoint my a Mr Klingenberg of Commondale, who owned the land on which the church stood, apparently at the behest of the Security Police, who had also hired a Mocambiquan refugee to spy on us. Lawrence Wood was an opposition MP for Berea, formerly of the United Party, which had just become the New Republic Party, and was virtually wiped out in the elections, and it disappeared from the political scene soon afterwards.

I tag Dion, David and the Young Fogey.

25 October 2007

Days of the dead and Halloween

In the recent synchroblog on Halloween, several bloggers say Halloween as a kind of day of the dead. See, for example: Morehead's Musings: Rethinking Evangelical Postures on Halloween.

John Morehead also referred to an earlier post, where he compared it with the Mexican Day of the Dead Morehead's Musings: Imaginarium, Cornerstone and Days of the Dead.

Several of the synchrobloggers, coming from an Evangelical Protestant background, remarked on the lack of an adequate approach to death in their theological tradition. I thought it might be useful to put together a slightly fuller description of some other Christian approaches to this.

In the Western Christian tradition, Hallowe'een, or All Hallows Eve, is the Vigil of All Saints Day, observed on 1 November, which is followed by All Souls Day, on 2 November.

In Anglo-Catholic practice, in the past (which was based on Roman Catholic practice), there would be the first Evensong of All Saints on Halloween, followed by Mattins and Eucharist on 1 November, and the second Evensong in the evening of 1 November. All these are joyful services, in white vestments, celebrating the saints in heaven.

On 2 November, All Souls Day, there would be Mattins and Requiem Mass in black vestments, with unbleached candles, followed by the Absolutions of the Dead at a catafalque. There would be Evensong on the evening of All Souls.

The Orthodox Church does not have a single "Day of the Dead", like the Western All Souls Day. Every Saturday is a "day of the dead". In addition, there are at least five Soul Saturdays during the year. These are on the Saturday of Meatfare (just before Lent), the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Saturdays in Lent, and the Saturday before Pentecost. In some traditions there is another Soul Saturday later in the year.

On these days it is customary to hold a Memorial Service (Panikhida, Mnemosyne), sometimes called a Requiem, but unlike Western practice, it does not take the form of a Requiem Mass. Parts of Psalm 119 are sung, and there are various hymns and prayers, and then the blessing of koliva. The main ingredient of koliva is boiled wheat, a reminder of resurrection. At the end everyone eats some of the koliva.

The same memorial service is used on the 3rd, 9th and 40th day after a person's death, and annually thereafter. It is probably the service most familiar to most people in Orthodox countries. Even people who are not regular churchgoers will usually attend memorial services for members of their families.

This is just a very simplified description of some Christian observances for the dead.

24 October 2007

October Synchroblog - Christian responses to Halloween

The October Synchroblog is on Christian responses to Halloween. As usual, you will find a variety of views expressed by 24 bloggers from various places around the world. Here are links to the posts (revised 28 October, with links to actual posts):

Follow-ups and spin-offs

While not actually part of the October Synchroblogs, the following are posts that either linked to it, or followed up on the general theme. Notes and comments by Steve Hayes.

23 October 2007

You are the 999999th 999999th visitor

Just about every time I go to the Technorati site nowadays I see an all-flashing, all-squiggling, all-jiggling message saying "You are the 999999th visitor" or "This is not a joke -- you are the 10000th visitor".

These ads also appear on several other web sites.

The most annoying thing about them is not just that they jiggle and squiggle, though that is bad enough, and makes me want to leave the page as quickly as possible.

It is not just the obvious untruth. Well, "This is not a joke" is actually true, because it is indeed very unfunny.

But it is the gratuitous insult to the intelligence of readers of the page.

Do Technorati or Photobucket (to name just two) really think that we are so stupid that we will not notice that if we were the 10000th visitor last time, then we must be the 10001st visitor next time, even if there were no other visitors to the site in between? How many 999999th visitors can they have? And how can one be the 10000th 999999th visitor? I'm sure I must be the 999999th 999999th visitor.

If they value visitors to their sites, why do they allow them to be insulted in this way every time they visit?

I realise that they need to have ads to make money, but do they really need to have ads that insult and annoy their visitors like this?

22 October 2007

Last remaining superpower crumbles

Since the end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1990s, the Western media have referred to the USA as the "last remaining superpower". But, as Notes from a Common-place Book: Vlad to the Rescue points out, that is no longer the case. There are no more superpowers, and "balance of power" tactics among ordinary powers have once again taken the place of the "superpowers".

Though many Americans have not realised it yet, one US columnist notes that from afar, America resembles a 2nd-rate power. And meanwhile, the civilizations are still clashing.

Anthropology - individualism, collectivism or communitarianism

A conservative blog for peace quotes, with apparent approval, an article that denounces communitarians as boring, bossy and fascist.

The mind boggles!

When I hear the word "communitarian" the first person who springs to mind is Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, and anyone less boring, bossy and fascist I cannot imagine.

What is communitarianism?

To quote the Catholic Worker movement
We are working for the Communitarian revolution to oppose both the rugged individualism of the capitalist era, and the collectivism of the Communist revolution. We are working for the Personalist revolution because we believe in the dignity of man, the temple of the Holy Ghost, so beloved by God that He sent His son to take upon Himself our sins and die an ignominious and disgraceful death for us. We are Personalists because we believe that man , a person, a creature of body and soul, is greater than the State, of which as an individual he is a part. We are personalists because we oppose the vesting of all authority in the hands of the state instead of in the hands of Christ the King. We are Personalists because we believe in free will, and not in the economic determinism of the Communist philosophy.

If one sets aside the rather overblown rhetoric, this is not all that much different from the Zulu proverb frequently quoted as an example of ubuntu: "umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu" -- a person is a person because of people.

There have been a few reported cases of children who have been separated from their parents at an early age, and raised by wild animals, but in spite of the romantic legend of Romulus and Remus, such children usually find it very difficult to relate to other human beings, and are very deficient in personal development.

This is also similar to Orthodox anthropology -- see, for example, the following books, passim:
  • Vlachos, Hierotheos. 1999. The person in the Orthodox tradition. Nafpaktos: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery. ISBN: 960-7070-40-2
  • Yannaras, Christos. 1984. The freedom of morality. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN: 0-88141-028-4

The young fogey often advocates libertarianism, as does the author he quotes. As far as I have been able to ascertain, libertarianism is liberalism on steroids, and libertarians are liberals with attitude. In other words, libertarians have turned liberalism from a political idea for governing a country into an ideology and a complete worldview. I must admit, however, that Stanley Fish has attempted to turn liberalism into such an ideology. Even though I can see what he is getting at, I am in fundamental disagreement with his thesis.

Liberals tend to see things in terms of practical politics, rather than a complete worldview. I was, briefly, a member of the Liberal Party of South Africa, at a time when its vision of a nonracial democratic South Africa was under extreme pressure from the government of the day. The Liberal Party had members of just about every racial and religious group in South Africa. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pagans and Secular Humanists joined together in a common enterprise. Their theology and their anthropology, their understandings of human nature, may have been very different, but in spite of the differences, they were able to join in a common political vision of the kind of society they wanted South Africa to be -- with freedom, justice, the rule of law, and a nonracial democracy in which all citizens would have a say in the government of the country.

Libertaranism, on the other hand, if I have correctly understood the article cited by the Young Fogey, seeks to impose a much wider worldview, and one that, as far as I can see, is essentially antithetical to a Christian one, in many ways as much so as the Communist worldview. It is based on a view of man that is fundamentally at odds with Orthodox Christian anthropology.

As Christians we have a model, the Holy Trinity, which is neither individualist nor collectivist. The persons of the Holy Trinity are neither three individuals, nor a collective. But libertarianism begins to look like a heresy.

20 October 2007

US Presidential candidates unravelled

I get bewildered by discussions on blogs, newsgroups and elsewhere on the various US presidential hopefuls. I've no idea what most of them stand for or whether I should agree with people who laud them to the heavens or denounce them for their evil policies.

But then I found one of those web sides that asks about policies and links them to candidates, so now I can at least have an idea of who the good guys are (the ones who agree with me, natch!)

So if I was in the US and was a US citizen, these are the two guys I'd be tossing the coin between:

Ron Paul
Score: 28
Stem-Cell Research
Social Security
Death Penalty
Health Care
Line-Item Veto
Dennis Kucinich
Score: 28
Health Care
Social Security
Death Penalty
Stem-Cell Research
Line-Item Veto

-- Take the Quiz! --

And if you can't see it properly because it spills over into the sidebar, check it on MySpace.

Jean Genet, David Bowie and suffering

ArtHeat writes some interesting thoughts about a David Bowie song about Jean Genet.
There is a kind of radical cool associated with otherness and suffering, as reflected in David Bowie's song about Jean Genet. But it is quite another thing for the sufferer. Similarly, amidst the art world's often trite theoretical flirtations with otherness and suffering, it was quite another thing listen to the presentation by Jean Mathee at Studio 2666 on Friday evening.

I didn't know that there was such a song, but having recently found a copy of a biography of Jean Genet on a bookshop sale counter the other day, it pricked my interest.

I first heard of Jean Genet from an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, who mentioned him in a paper he once read at a student conference, Pilgrims of the absolute. He also lent me some of Genet's plays to read, and I bought a few more. An interesting experience was going to see a film of The balcony. Word had apparently got around that it was set in a brothel, and the weekday matinee audince consisted mostly of dirty old men in raincoats, most of whom walked out before the end. It was almost as fascinating as the film itself to realise that there really were dirty old men in raincoats, and in Joburg too. It wasn't just a figment of the popular imagination, and they flocked to The balcony as to a convention.

I haven't got very far in reading the biography yet, but this reminded me to get back to it. And I'll watch out for the song.

16 October 2007

Johannesburg trolley buses

This morning I had a phone call from SABC Radio 2000. They are doing a series of broadcasts on transport, and tomorrow they are doing trolley buses, and somehow they found my trolley bus web page, so they want to interview me tomorrow.

Well, that's rather nice. I'm happy to talk about trolley buses, though they haven't been seen in South Africa for the last 25 years or so. They are still going strong in other parts of the world, and the fleet in Athens was entirely renewed for the 2004 Olympic Games.

The Johannesburg trolley buses shown in the picture are not nearly as fancy and modern as the new Athens ones. The one on the left is a BUT Series II, which joined the fleet about 1956-1958, and the one on the right is an Alfa Romeo-Ansaldo, which came about 1959. At the time the Ansaldos were among the biggest city passenger buses in the world, with a capacity of about 112 passengers.

Our provincial premier, Mbhazima Shilowa, likes to talk about an integrated and holistic transport plan for Gauteng, and initiated the Gautrain rapid rail project. But that on its own will do little to reduce the traffic congestion on the roads. The train needs to have other forms of transport feeding it, and I wish that trolley buses formed part of that plan.

It would be good to see a network of trolley bus routes spreading out from each station on the Gautrain routes, getting people from the trains to work or home, and meeting with minibus taxis further out. The thing to bear in mind is the road space occupied by a double-decker trolley bus and a minibus taxi, to reduce the congestion around the stations.

And even more important would be to do a transport survey of Gauteng, to find where people live, and where they work, and how they travel between those places at present. Only then can a truly integrated transport plan begin to take shape.

Genealogists await outcome of Manto health records case

If the Sunday Times is taken to court over the matter of the health minister's hospital records, genealogists will be watching the case with a keen interest in the outcome, since it may clarify questions about who owns documents generated by government departments, and who holds the copyright, if anyone.

Genealogists are up in arms over a ban on using digital cameras in the Cape Archives. No reason has been given for the ban, but there are rumours that the Department of Education, Arts and Culture, which controls the archives, is being sued over copies of divorce records that are said to have appeared on a web site. There are also rumours that otgher archives depots may also ban the use of digital cameras.

Divorce records are part of the records of the courts, and so are public documents, though there are restrictions on the media reporting of divorce cases. Until recently genealogical researchers used digital cameras to copy archival documents, and study them at their leisure when they got home, and there had been no objections to this practice.

The outcome of a court case about the publication of the contents of a person's medical recordfs could clarify some of the wider issues, even if it does not resolve them.

Media bloggers anticipate journalist's arrest

"Bloggers react to news of Makhanya arrest" reads one blog subject line.

So when did the arrest take place?

Read on:
SOUTH Africa’s small but active blogging community has risen to the challenge of reporting on and commenting on the impending arrest of Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and journalist Jocelyn Maker.

But hang on, what's that little word "impending"? These bloggers are not "reacting to" an event that has already taken place, they are rather anticipating something that hasn't happened yet.

Most of the bloggers who are doing this are journalists, and journalists have a vested interest in freedom of the press. Though blogs are not the press, even when the bloggers are journalists, headlines like that are a bit much. It goes beyond spin. Spin is interpreting events in a particular way, but headlines like that are simply manufacturing events. Since blogs are vehicles of opinion, one expects to find spin in blogs. I could probably find lots of examples from my own blogs.

But in this case, where the government is said to be attacking press freedom by denouncing the press as irresponsible, it seems to be counterproductive when journalists write irresponsibly, even in their blogs. That makes it look as though (the) government has a point when it says the media are irresponsible.

15 October 2007

Orthodox environmentalism

Since today is Blog Action Day on the environment, and so I feel under some kind of obligation to blog about the environment. The problem is that I only discovered that is was blog action day this morning, so there wasn't really time to write anything original about it. The best I can manage is to string together some articles and resources that may be useful to me in future if I want to write something about it later, and may possibly be of use to anyone else reading it and looking for resource materials.

And I close with a couple of quotes from the last item:
For most environmentalists, theology remains a last resort, if they resort to it at all. This generalization stands, I believe, despite the new academic interest in religion and ecology. Even if secular environmentalists are now actively seeking theology’s support, it is not as the “queen of the sciences” that they turn to theology, but merely as a form of eco-ethics buttressed by the supposed moral support of “religion” in general.

For those, however, who are genuinely interested in the interface between religion and the environment as a first line of defense against the rape of nature, a restored theological vision capable of overcoming a disastrously individualistic and anthropocentric worldview and reintegrating God, man, and the natural world is a vision-quest worthy of every effort. Arguably, the deepest ecological thinking, the widest and most inclusive scope of environmental reconciliation, and the loftiest and most complete cosmic vision and spirituality are to be found in the riches of the Orthodox Christian theological tradition.

Blog action day on the environment

Blog action day on the environment -- and it's today!

I hadn't heard anything about it before, and wonder if any South African "green" blogs are taking part. Anyway, for those interested, here's the blurb:
An international initiative of bloggers known as "Blog Action Day" launched today, with the aim of uniting thousands of blogging voices, talking about one issue for one day. This year on Blog Action Day, which is slated for Oct. 15, 2007, bloggers will be discussing the environment.

Major blogs have signed up to participate, including Lifehacker, Dumb Little Man, Lifehack.org, Get Rich Slowly, Web Worker Daily, GigaOm, The Simple Dollar, Zen Habits, Freelance Switch, LifeClever, Unclutterer, Pronet Advertising, Wise Bread and many more.

"For just one day, we'd like to unite as many of the millions of bloggers around the world and speak about one issue - the environment," said Collis Ta'eed, an Australian blogger from FreelanceSwitch.com, and a cofounder of Blog Action Day. "We want to display the potential and the power of the blogging community, which is a disparate community but one with an amazing size, breadth and diversity. By bringing everyone together for one day, we can see just how much can be achieved, and how much we can be heard."

What Kind of Blogger Are You?

Al Gore's peace prize

A conservative blog for peace: On Mr Gore's prize notes some of the ironies in the award of the Nobel peace prize to former US vice-president Al Gore.

The Western Confucian puts it in a nutshell:
This is the man, appropriately surnamed Gore, who was number two during the bombing of Serbia and the Iraq sanctions regime that killed half a million souls, mostly children. And yet when Pope John Paul II was the leading voice for peace in 2003, he couldn't get the prize because of condoms. Instead, it was instead given to someone no one ever heard of and whom we've since all forgotten. Shameful.

Jan Oberg notes that Alfred Nobel wrote in his will that the Peace Prize should be awarded to "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Al Gore's record on that speaks for itself.
Al Gore - as vice-president under Bill Clinton between 1993 and 2001 was never heard or seen as a peace-maker. Clinton-Gore had a crash program for building up US military facilities and made military allies all around Russia - and missed history's greatest opportunity for a new world order.

In contravention of international law and without a UN Security Council mandate, they bombed Serbia and Kosovo, based on an extremely deficient understanding of Yugoslavia and propaganda about genocide that has caused the miserable situation called Kosovo today (likely to blow up this year or the next), and they bombed in Afghanistan and Sudan.

Or, as Alexander Cockburn observes:
It's as ridiculous as as if Goebbels got the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938, sharing it with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for his work in publicizing the threat to race purity posed by Jews, Slavs and gypsies. (The peace prize actually went that year to the Nansen Committee for Refugees. Gore certainly played his part in creating Iraq's current 4 million refugees, among the greatest displacements of the past hundred years.)

I was going to say that one could at least say for Clinton-Gore that in Iraq, unlike Bush-Cheney, they did not pass the point of no return. They did not jump into the quagmire. But then, of course, they did jump right into the middle of the quagmire in Yugoslavia.

14 October 2007

Square No More: Next Synchroblog - Wednesday, October 24th

The next synchroblog will be on Wednesday 24 October, and will be on the theme of Christian responses to Hallowe'en. If anyone would like to participate, you should let Phil Wyman know a couple of says before, here: Square No More: Next Synchroblog - Wednesday, October 24th. He will then send you a list of links to other synchrobloggers that you can put at the end of your post. You need to send him the title of your post and the URL of your blog.

The aim of a synchroblog is for a number of people to blog on the same general topic on the same day, so that one can look at the topic from a variety of points of view.

This time round, I will probably be posting my contribution on my other blog Khanya, and will also be posting it earlier than the deadline date, in case Telkom has cut us off from the web, as usually happens at the end of the month.

Muslims call for peace with Christians

In my previous post I reported some confusion about a letter to Roman Pope Benedict XVI signed by 38 Muslim scholars, and another addressed to a wider audience by 138 Muslim scholars.

The confusion has now been resolved, with the latter being issued on the anniversary of the former. The second and more recent letter is addressed to a number of different Christian leaders and is a call for Muslims and Christians to work together for peace. It is addressed to all Chtristian leaders everywhere, and is addressed to two African church leaders by name: His Beatitude Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa and His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Apostolic Throne of St. Mark.
Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.

Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent of The Times, blogs about it here, and reports that Irene Lancaster thinks the letter is "threatening". Part of the confusion about the two letters was caused by Ruth Gledhill linking to the wrong one on her blog, which one hopes may be corrected.

There seems to have been a mixed reaction among Christians, but I think that any call for peace is a hopeful sign, if it can be followed up. Religious leaders might not be able to deter political leaders who are bent on war. Many of the Christian leaders to whom the letter was addressed urged the USA and Britain not to invade Iraq in 2003, and the call was ignored. But quite a number of ordinary Christians went to Iraq to face the bombs.

Imagine what might have happened if Christian and Muslim leaders had been united, and the Roman Pope, Orthodox Patriarchs and the other leaders to whom the letter was addressed had gone to Baghdad in March 2003 and refused to move until George Bush withdrew his threat?

The world might have been a much less dangerous place today.

So if the letter leads to united action for peace by Muslim and Christian leaders, it is to be welcomed.

13 October 2007

Muslim initiative in interfaith dialogue

Islamica Magazine reports
In an unprecedented move, an open letter signed by 38 leading Muslim religious scholars and leaders around the world was sent to Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 12, 2006. The letter, which is the outcome of a joint effort, was signed by top religious authorities such as Shaykh Ali Jumu‘ah (the Grand Mufti of Egypt), Shakyh Abdullah bin Bayyah (former Vice President of Mauritania, and leading religious scholar), and Shaykh Sa‘id Ramadan Al-Buti (from Syria), in addition to the Grand Muftis of Russia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Slovenia, Istanbul, Uzbekistan, and Oman, as well as leading figures from the Shi‘a community such as Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Taskhiri of Iran. The letter was also signed by HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan and by Muslim scholars in the West such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf from California, Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Professor Tim Winter of the University of Cambridge.

All the eight schools of thought and jurisprudence in Islam are represented by the signatories, including a woman scholar. In this respect the letter is unique in the history of interfaith relations.

The letter was sent, in a spirit of goodwill, to respond to some of the remarks made by the Pope during his lecture at the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12, 2006. The letter tackles the main substantive issues raised in his treatment of a debate between the medieval Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an “educated Persian”, including reason and faith; forced conversion; “jihad” vs. “holy war”; and the relationship between Christianity and Islam. They engage the Pope on an intellectual level concerning these crucial topics—which go well beyond the controversial quotation of the emperor—pointing out what they see as mistakes and oversimplifications in the Pope’s own remarks about Islamic belief and practice.

But like the Patriarch of Moscow's address to the Council of Europe, the Western press seems to be reporting an entirely different letter, unless there are two different letters, and the reporting has got mixed up.

Can anyone clarify this?

12 October 2007

The benefits of privatisation

Walton Pantland, discussing the recent postal strike in the UK, notes some of the benefits of privatisation in Red Star Coven: It's not just about your letters arriving late.

It is not only Britain that has suffered from this process, because the Thatcherist policies of the ANC (and of the Nats before them) have led to a similar process here in South Africa. The Nats introduced toll roads, and the ANC government is extending the system. Life expectancy and literacy rates in some parts of Africa, because the free market enthusiasts demand that governments spend less on health care and education.

11 October 2007

Bush and the Armenian genocide

Why does Bush deny the Armenian genocide?

Could it be because he is participating in it?

From yesterday's Guardian:
President George Bush today urged members of Congress to reject a congressional resolution recognising the killings of Armenians in 1915 as "genocide", warning that it would damage US relations with Turkey.
From todays TimesOnline:
Three Christian sisters, beating their mother’s coffin in grief, wailed and hugged each other at her funeral in Baghdad yesterday as their rapidly shrinking religious community vented anger at the foreign security guards who killed her.
Hat-tip to Fr David McGregor (whose blog unfortunately does not allow backlinks).

Let Tutu speak - protests succeed

This is reported directly from A Jewish Voice for Peace.

We have just learned that the president of the University of St. Thomas acknowledged he made the wrong decision and invited Archbishop Tutu to campus!

Your letters worked! Thanks to you, we generated over 2,700 letters of protest. Please support our work.

With your help, we kept the issue on the news and the editorial pages of a number of local, national, and international newspapers (see a partial list below), including an op-ed published today by JVP's Cecilie Surasky and Mitchell Plitnick. This op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune finally demolishes the myth that Tutu compared Israel to Hitler, putting the libel to rest in an American paper for the first time.

The Anti-Defamation League came out with a statement yesterday in support of Archbishop Tutu. After an exchange of letters between JVP and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), which mistakenly attributed the false quote to Tutu, the JTA reported today that the Zionist Organization of America incorrectly quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu as comparing Israel to Hitler and apartheid, despite the ZOA's protests to the contrary.

At the same time, eighteen member's of the university's law faculty released a letter urging the university to reissue the invitation.
Help us to continue doing our work.
With your help, Jewish Voice for Peace spearheaded a true voice of reason—a voice of Jews and allies that oppose censorship and will not stand idle when people of conscience are falsely called anti-Semitic simply for opposing the policies of the Israeli occupation. Help us to continue doing our work.

10 October 2007

Stanislav Andreski dies

I was sorry to read of the death of Professor Stanislav Andreski, the Polish-British sociologist. As the obituary in The Independent reports:
Andreski always wrote a clear, impeccable and attractive English that was a pleasure to read. He held in contempt those social scientists who were obscurantists and jargon-mongers, and in 1974 published an attack on them in his best-selling Social Sciences as Sorcery. It was very popular with the public but infuriated those of his colleagues whose careers were based on concealing behind verbiage the fact that they had nothing to say. Andreski was equally contemptuous of bureaucracy and when he received an absurd questionnaire from the Social Science Research Council asking him what method he used, he replied "thinking".

In my later career as an editor of academic texts, I had reason to be grateful to Andreski for honing my bullshit detectors, as I was often (too often) called upon to edit texts by academics "whose careers were based on concealing behind verbiage the fact that they had nothing to say". There was even an entire discipline, Fundamental pedagogics, based on that principle.

One might not always agree with what Andreski said, but there was never any doubt about what he was saying. Here are some examples
One of the manifestations (unimportant in itself but very revealing) of the timorous but disingenuous humility characteristic of a burrowing apparatchik is the taboo on the word 'I'. 'One still shudders at the arrogance of the author in his repetitive use of the first singular concerning complex issues' - says a reviewer of one of my books, who for all I know may be the only creature in whom this obscene word can induce actual shudders, although by saying 'one' instead of 'I' he implies that most of his readers suffer from this allergy. I doubt whether the reviewer in question favours the majestic first plural normal among the older French writers, and still common among their successors, but which in England is reserved for the Queen. Presumably he prefers the anonymous 'it', and likes to see an expression like 'I think that ...' replaced by 'it is hypothesized ...', which, apart from expurgating the dirty word 'to think') ministers to the bureaucratic underling's predilection for submissive anonymity combined with oracular authority. I do not see why declaring that I - a mortal and fallible man but entitled to express his opinions - hold this or that view should be more arrogant than pretending to be the Voice of Science.

Andreski has some interesting things to say that relate to my own academic field, missiology and church history, when he says of the Great European witchhunt:
The Witch Craze did not spread to the lands of the Orthodox Church: neither Russia nor the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were affected. The ferocious persecution of the Old Believers in Russia was accompanied by no witch hunts - which provides another argument against the view that they were a by-product of a fight against heresies. The schism between the Eastern and Western Churches occurred before the celibacy of the clergy was established; and the Orthodox priests continued to marry. As the schism occurred several centuries before the demonisation of women had reached a high pitch in the West, the Eastern Church was not affected by this tradition, in contrast to the Protestant denominations.

Though I'm not sure that I altogether go along with his thesis of attributing the witch hunt to the introduction of syphilis from the New World, nor am I convinced of the truth of his assertion that Orthodox bishops were castrated.

09 October 2007

Abandoned places of empire

In the Emergent Africa blog Carl Brook wonders about one of the twelve marks of a new monasticism, which is relocation to the abandoned places of empire.

What does it mean, and what does "empire" mean in that context?

I suppose the simplest thing might be to ask the people who created the "new monasticism" web site what they meant by it, and how they understood the phrase. But it might be more fun to let one's imagination run loose, because it evokes all kinds of romantic images, for all sorts of people. For example, some people have a fascination with the abandoned places of the Soviet empire. I saw many such places in Albania a few years ago, most notably the abandoned steel works at Elbasan, and the hundreds of abandoned concrete bunkers on the hillsides, monuments to the war psychosis of Enver Hoxha, where it could be said that the Orthodox Church has indeed relocated to the abandoned places of empire.

From the holy mountain : a journey among the Christians of the Middle East by William DalrympleAnother image that it evokes is the book From the holy mountain : a journey among the Christians of the Middle East by William Dalrymple. Dalrymple is a journalist and travel writer, and his journey follows in the footsteps of two monastic pilgrims centuries earlier. Western Christians are fond of talking about "The Constantinian Era", but often fail to realise that for many Christians the "Constantinian era" lasted less than 300 years, and ended in the 7th century. In AD 578 John Moschos and a companion set off on a similar journey, to monasteries of the Near and Middle East. Dalrymple follows them, but few of the monasteries they visited still exist. They are among the "abandoned places of empire".

There is also a fictional recording of an attempt to relocate to the "abandoned places of empire" in Rose Macaulay's novel The towers of Trebizond.

These are just a few of the images evoked by the phrase "abandoned places of empire". And perhaps everyone will have their own images so that there can be many more.

When linked with monasticism, it might be given another twist, and it could be understood as being places outside the ekoumene -- the wild and uninhabited places of the earth. The early monks left the cities and went to the deserts, and lived in caves and ruins, which could likewise be seen as abandoned places of empire. Could a neo-monastic community take root in the ruins of the steelworks at Elbasan?

But the phrase can also be seen to have a metaphorical sense. Abandoned places, not just in the sense of being uninhabited, but, from a Christian point of view, being culturally alienated from the Christian faith, and perhaps abandoned by the Church. At least one Christian writer sees it as referring to the inner city, which has often been abandoned by the Church. There is an example in Johannesburg, where the Orthodox Cathedral of SS Constantine and Helen (diagonally opposite the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King) has a congregation that has relocated to the outer suburbs, and commutes to the church on Sundays almost to a foreign country. Around the church are the inner-city suburbs of Joubert Park, Hillbrow, Doornfontein and Bertrams, cosmopolitan, with a high proportion of illegal immigrants, many of whom earn their living through crime, while others are poor and exploited. The church was built by immigrants of an earlier generation, whose grandchildren have prospered and moved to places of green lawns and swimming pools (and often gated communities, ghettoes surrounded by electric fences, like medieval castles).

Perhaps another book, written by another Orthodox priest (though before he was Orthodox), could give a hint of how to minister in such a situation. The book is A new way of living by Father Michael Harper, and describes how an Episcopalian parish in Houston, Texas developed urban Christian communities as members of the church began a reverse migration from the outer suburbs to the inner city to form urban communities. This too could be seen as relocating to the abandoned places of empire.

But if the Christian Church has physically abandoned geographical areas of cities, there is also a kind of cultural abandonment. A conservative blog for peace gives an example of reality TV shows, where sometimes the reality gets too real.

One of the first of these "reality" TV shows was Big Brother. There was a great deal of media hype about Big Brother before the first series here, and it struck me that the very concept was immoral. It was not "reality" -- it was a public experiment on live human beings, encouraging manipulation of others for public entertainment.

I'd like to have seen the result of introducing a hesychast monk into that setup.

But even if one had applied they would probably have been rejected, because the producers of such shows are not looking for people who reject the values of the virtual reality they are trying to create for voyeurist entertainment. But why not?

In the ancient world, the equivalent of reality TV was the gladiatorial games, where gladiators fought wild animals or each other for the entertainment of the public. But they didn't seem to object to having unarmed Christians facing the wild animals, on occasion.

Do reality TV shows create or reflect the values of our societies and cultures? And which aspects of culture constitute the abandoned places of empire?

08 October 2007

Jewish Voice for Peace making news with Tutu protest

The Jewish Voice for Peace group has been making news with its protest over the banning of Bishop Desmond Tutu as a speaker at the St Thomas University in Minnesota

From their newletter

Making News
Your letters about Tutu are making the news! Read the Jerusalem Post. Listen to a live conversation between JVP's Mitchell Plitnick and Steven Walt about the Israel Lobby this Wednesday, Oct 10, 10-11 am PST on KALW-FM.

Also read JVP's Cecilie Surasky's recent op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Tribune, Dissenting at your own risk.

Chicago, Oct 12: In Defense of Academic Freedom
2:00 pm - 7:00 pm, Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago.
Finkelstein protest
What is the nature of the assault on academic freedom by organizations mobilized to suppress criticism of Israel's policies? This one-day symposium features targeted scholars affected by controversy and pressure within academia and the publishing industry. Chair: Tariq Ali (Verso Books). Participants: Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University), Noam Chomsky (MIT, emeritus), Tony Judt (Remarque Institute, NYU), John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago), Neve Gordon (Ben Gurion University), Norman Finkelstein (formerly DePaul University) and Mehrene Larudee (DePaul University).
Co-sponsored by JVP-Chicago, DePaul Academic Freedom Committee, and others. More info: info@academicfreedomchicago.org

Religious Right

It appears from all the reports that the root of the problem in the St Thomas case was "political correctness" on the part of the university authorities -- fear of offending the "religious right". The Jewish religious right put no pressure on the university to cancel Tutu's visit. Rather the president of the university, Fr Dennis Dease, asked members of the religious right if they would be offended, and when they said they would he decided, on his own initiative, to cancel the visit.

As a result of the efforts of Jewish Voice for Peace, however, Fr Dease has received more than 1800 e-mails asking him to change his mind.

06 October 2007

Desmond Tutu barred from US Catholic university

Desmond Tutu barred from speaking at a Minnesota University

A peace and justice group at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota has been forced by the university president to cancel an appearance by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The cancellation was accompanied by the removal of the chair of the Justice and Peace Studies program, Prof. Cris Toffolo from her position as chair. She has tenure, but no longer heads the

The university president, Father Dennis Dease, decided against Tutu's appearance after consulting one representative from the local Jewish Community Relations Council and several rabbis affiliated with the university. This, apparently, amounted to a Jewish "consensus" in Father Dease's mind.

The rumor of Tutu's alleged "anti-Semitism" is based entirely on a propaganda campaign waged by the extremist group, the Zionist Organization of America. Though he is outspoken in his criticism of Israel's occupation regime, sometimes even bellicose, Tutu has never displayed anything other than deep concern for all peoples and his sympathy for Palestinians suffering under the yoke of occupation.

Please write to Father Dease and urge that he reverse this tragic course. Tell him you want to see Prof. Toffolo reinstated as chair of the Justice and Peace Studies program and that the words and views of Bishop Tutu are important ones for the students at St. Thomas University to hear.

Go to Jewish Voice for Peace to write to Father Dease.

04 October 2007

I can't face Facebook any more!

It's worse than being a student and having three assignments due by tomorrow.

I get back from the Telkom bandwidth cap and what do I have waiting for me:

1 friend detail request
4 group invitations
3 sticky note requests
5 cause invitations
4 cause invitations
1 iread invitation
9 superpoke! friend requests
1 you're hot request
1 mood invitation
1 friend quiz request
1 are you interested? invitation
2 movie compatibility requests
2 booze mail requests
13 bumper sticker invitations
1 super wall post request
1 wall post request
1 zombies invitation
2 vibrating hamster requests
1 hotlists invitation
2 my garden invitations
1 (fluff)friends invitation
1 you're hot request
1 travelmap invitation
3 hot potato requests
1 hot potato request
1 my aquarium request
1 hatching gift invitation
4 top friends friend requests
2 wave to friend requests
1 sing badly friend request
1 annoy friend request
1 sing badly to friend request
1 tickle friend request
1 freebee invitation
1 chess request
2 im invitations
1 growing gift invitation
1 puzzlebee request
1 my solar system invitation

What? No partridge in a pear tree?

How can I begin to meet all those obligations.?

I think I'll engage in some displacement activity, to put off having to face it -- filling in my Income Tax return or something.

Why I avoid YouTube, Podcasts etc

I never watch YouTube or other online video stuff. I never listen to Podcasts (don't even have a speaker connected to my computer). I hate it when people refer me to such things online, or when they fill their blogs with multiple photos and videos. I now avoid Facebook, because I'm overwhelmed by demands to look at things that require me to download and install yet another bandwidth-consuming (and possibly privacy-threatening) "app".


The end-of-the-month broadband blues, that's why.

Read this article: The cap that chokes.

We switched to broadband nearly two years ago, just after my BBS computer finally crashed. We calculated that by giving up the extra phone line, broadband would cost about the same as we were paying for dialup (about R750 a month), and we wouldn't have to rush to get everything done on the Internet before 7:00 am, and then wait for callmore time to kick in again at 8:00 pm before looking again. At least if someone referred to a web site in an e-mail or newsgroup, one could look at it any any time of day, instead of saving it up for the evening.

Or so we thought.

What they didn't tell us was that the 2 Gig cap would mean no access at all for half the month. We increased it to 3 Gig (the max). Last month we ran out on the 26th. The month before we ran out on 21st. At least for the last couple of months e-mail still worked, but before that even e-mail was cut off. That doesn't apply to web-mail addresses, of course, like Yahoo or Google mail -- they are still cut off.

And if someone refers to a web site in an e-mail message, sometimes it's not a matter of waiting till callmore time in the evening to look at it, but waiting till Internet access comes back at the end of the month.

It makes blogging impossible. It makes online calendars virtually useless, if you can't check your appointments for half the month. And then the first three days of the month are spent catching up -- trying to read the comments on one's blog (and the complaints that one hasn't responded to someone's comment), reading other people's blogs, deleting spam, marking Usenet trolls as read, putting all the real e-mail into the "to reply" folder.

And that happens even when I do avoid videos, YouTube, podcasts and the like. I wonder how anyone manages to use them. Some people must be looking at those YouTube inserts in blogs, or listening to those podcasts, but how do they manage it?

Free Burma!

Free Burma!

03 October 2007

Towards a theology of religions

Note: This blog has been closed, and this post has been moved to here. If you wish to comment on this post, please go to the new site, as comments on this one have been closed. 

Since the August 2007 Synchroblog on Christianity inclusive or exclusive, I've posted several more-or-less connected pieces on the general theme of Theology of religion. Now it is time to wind up the series, or at least to draw together the threads of this long rambling discourse, though I have no illusions that this will be the last word on the subject, even from me.

In the second posting in the series I pointed out that
Alan Race, in his book Christians and religious pluralism (London, SCM, 1983), quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith as saying
From now on any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purposes among men, some doctrine of other religions. We explain the fact of the Milky Way by the doctrine of creation, but how do we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there?

Race quotes this at the beginning of his book, on page 2, yet one may read through to the end and find that he has still not even attempted to explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. The same applies to Paul Knitter, and most of the other so-called theologians of religion.

Throughout the series I have maintained that the question whether Christianity is, or should be inclusive, exclusive or pluralist is the wrong question as far as "theology of religion" is concerned, as is the related question whether "salvation" is to be found in other religions.

I have also tried to show that there is not one single "theology of religion"; instead there are "theologies of religions". A Christian theology of Islam will not be the same as a Christian theology of Buddhism or a Christian theology of neopaganism. An Islamic theology of Christianity will not be the same as an Islamic theology of Buddhism or an Islamic theology of neopaganism. One Islamic theology of Buddhism may have been expressed by the Taliban's destruction of Buddha statues by artillery bombardment, but the fact that the statues existed for hundreds of years in a predominantly Muslim society shows that the Taliban's response was not the only Islamic theology of Buddhism.

I should also point out that what I say here is not part of the dogmatic theology of the Orthodox Church. Though I write as an Orthodox Christian, this is not a statement of official Orthodox teaching. It is rather a theologoumenon, an opinion put forward for discussion.

I take as a starting point the previous article in the series, from the September 2007 synchroblog, on Christianity, paganism and literature, in which I looked at the views implied in the works of members of the literary group known as the Inklings, and in particular C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. There I wrote
Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis's The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. A child from the normal everyday world hides in a wardrobe during a game, and finds herself transported by magic into another world, where she has tea with a faun, a figure from ancient Roman pagan mythology. A faun is half human, half goat, and the encounter is an introduction to a world of intelligent talking animals - beavers with sewing machines and the like. Lewis has no hesitation in blending Christian and pagan mythology in his Narnian books. There is even salvation. Salvation is at the centre of the plot of the book, but one would have to look hard to find it attributed to any religion at all, Christian or pagan.

Of course Lewis was known as a Christian, and his conception of salvation is a Christian one, but in this particular book he does not deal with what seems to be the central question for many Western Christian "theologians of religion" - the question whether there is salvation in "other" religions.

The next book in the Narnian series, Prince Caspian, is even more populated with pagan deities - Bacchus and Silenus, nymphs and Maenads, and even a river god. Lewis does not identify these with the forces of evil - they are not "satanic", as many Christians seem to think pagan deities ought to be (and many neopagans think that Christians think neopagans' deities are). They are rather part of the army of liberation, and are themselves liberated from the powers of evil in the course of the story.

Now it might be argued that since Lewis had a classical education he incorporated these pagan deities simply for the sake of a good story. They featured in stories that he himself had enjoyed, so he incorporated them in stories that he wrote. But there is more to it than this.

In an earlier post, Notes from underground: Of egregores and angels, I wrote:
Charles Williams, in his novel The place of the lion describes what happens when the powers get loose, and when men worship them independently of the power of God. C.S. Lewis sees them as belonging not just to human groups within the earth, but to the planets themselves, the principalities, archontes, princes he calls oyeresu, and each planet has its oyarsa, or planetary ruler, and this was the basis of astrology.

And someone responded
This paragraph is written as though this is a belief of CSL, not a creation of his imagination, which is what it is. CSL "sees" is not the same as believes. This is not 'theology' or even something approaching church doctrine held by CSL or CW for that matter. You are referencing here works of fiction, right?

Right, I am referencing works of fiction. But wrong, I am going to explore the doctrine expressed in these works of fiction. I could argue why I think such a procedure is justified, but it would take too long, and might require a post on its own, or even several posts. Suffice it to say that I believe that the works of the Inklings that I refer to are not simply fiction, but are mythical, and, as Nicolas Berdyaev has pointed out, "Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept." I shall, perhaps foolishly, try to link some of these myths to concepts.

There are several indications in the fiction of the Inklings of the way in which they see various deities and spiritual forces and powers. The Narnian stories feature a river god, Bacchus and several others. Lewis's "Space trilogy" features the ancient Graeco-Roman gods, Mars and Venus, under the names Malacandra and Perelandra, and several others. Charles Williams writes about the Tarot in The greater trumps, about Islam in Many dimension and about the principalities and powers in The place of the lion. Tolkien writes about the creation of the world in The Silmarillion, which also contains a mythical retelling of the Fall.

The Christian Symbol of Faith begins "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." Among the invisible things are those to which Williams, Lewis and Tolkien have tried to give visible form in their fiction. The "Father Almighty" (Patera pantokratora, Pater omnipotens) has nothing to do with the "omnipotent god" of the atheists, and whether he can create a rock so heavy that he can't lift it. It is a translation of the Hebrew YHWH Sabaoth, which can also be translated into English as "Lord of Hosts". And what are the "hosts"? They are the "invisible things" that God has created.

These invisible things are described in various ways, and have been pictured in various ways by people. Sometimes they are described abstractly, love, beauty, power, strength, justice. Sometimes they have been represented symbolically in pictures, for example in the Greater Trumps of the Tarot, where there are cards representing force, justice, death and so on. At times they are represented by animals, as in Williams's The place of the lion, as lion, snake, butterfly, eagle. In one scene Anthony Durrant asks if what Dora Wilmot saw was Aaron's Rod that turned into a snake (Exodus 7:8-13). "I think the magicians of Pharaoh may have seen Miss Wilmot's snake," Mr Foster said, "and all their shapely wisdom have been swallowed by it, as the butterflies of the fields were taken into that butterfly this afternoon."

Williams was writing fiction. Anthony Durrant, Miss Wilmot and Mr Foster are fictional characters in his book. But I think it is fair to say that Williams believed that the shapely wisdom of Pharaoh's magicians was swallowed by the snake he described.

In Prince Caspian Lewis brings in Bacchus and the Maenads, dryads and fauns, and the river god. Such creatures are found in classical mythology, and Lewis, like many of his generation, and those of several generations before, had had a classical education. British poetry since the Renaissance had many classical references and allusions, and is sometimes difficult to understand without a knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. But this Renaissance classicism was cold and dead, like the bare marble statues of the gods, for decoration, not for worship. The temples were in ruins, or converted into churches (like the Pantheon in Rome), and even the old statues had lost the gaudy paint that once covered them in the temples.

But Lewis brings Bacchus and his devotees to life, in a fertility rite that produces a feast, and Susan says, "I wouldn't have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we'd met them without Aslan."

Nymphs were spirits of nature, of trees and springs. Dryads were spirits of trees, sometimes appearing in human form. Nereids were spirits of the sea, though in modern Greek usage the term may be applied to any nymphs, and in some places, even today, people believe that whirlwinds are caused by nereides dancing. In classical times, before chopping down a tree, the spirit of the tree needed to be propitiated. In premodern hunting societies, in many parts of the world, when an animal is hunted for food, its spirit needs to be propitiated.

Lewis weaves this premodern element seamlessly into his story, and in this demonstrates a Christian theology of religion.

If God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good, then both the trees and their invisble spirits are part of the good creation. Wine, "that maketh glad the heart of man", and Bacchus, the spirit of vineyards, are part of that good creation.

This, in part, answers the question with which this enquiry was begun. We explain the fact that the Milky Way is there by the doctrine of creation, and we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there by the same doctrine of creation. In another of his stories, The voyage of the Dawn Treader Lewis introduces a retired star. 'In our world,' said Eustace, 'a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.' 'Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.'

The stars sing at the creation of Narnia, and in the Ainulindale 0f Tolkien they sing at the creation of Middle Earth, but even in our world God asks Job, 'Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Who laid its cornerstone when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy, and the Sons of God in chorus were chanting praise?' (Job 38:4-7).

So a Christian theology of religion, based on the doctrine of creation, could say that the gods of the Bhagavad Gita were there among them, joining in the chorus. And there among them too were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, or as Lewis calls them, Viritrilbia, Perelandra, Malacandra, Lurga and Glund. Lewis calls them gods and angels, as do the Christian scriptures. In Christian parlance the term "heavenly host" could refer to either the stars of the sky, the angels of the heavens, or both.

At this point some might say, Wait, didn't Boniface chop down the oak of Thor? Didn't Christians go to their death rather than participate in the emperor cult? Didn't missionaries call the gods of the heathen demons?

And the answer is, Yes, Christians did all these things.

St Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian writers to discuss the relation of the Christian faith to other religions, says:
We do not worship with many sacrifices and floral offerings the things men have made, set in temples, and called gods. We know that they are inanimate and lifeless and have not the form of God (for we do not think that God has that form which some say they reproduce in order to give honor to Him) -- but have the names and shapes of those evil demons who have appeared [to men].

In Orthodox ikonography God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are never represented in material form. Jesus Christ, as the incarnate Son of God, is indeed represented graphically in ikons, because though "no one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (Jn 1:18). During the iconoclastic controversy the iconophiles made their position clear: "an idol was the image of a creature which was worshipped as God, as was the case with the pagans." The iconophiles relied a great deal on St Basil the Great's contention that the honor of the image is transferred to the prototype. For a theology of religions the important question is therefore not so much the image itself, but the nature of the prototype. If the image is of Christ, then honor to the ikon of Christ is honor to Christ, and it is therefore not idolatry. If the image is of the Theotokos or of one of the saints, then honor to their ikons is not idolatry because they are not mistaken for God. The essence of idolatry is worshipping the creature instead of the creator. For St Justin Martyr, the pagans not only worshipped images, but regarded the prototype as God himself, whereas Justin himself thought that the prototypes were evil demons.

In the Christian view, God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good. But they didn't stay good. Evil entered the good creation of God, and this fall from grace meant that the human race and creation itself was alienated from God. There is thus both a positive and negative view of human religion, at least among Orthodox Christians. Unlike Calvinists, Orthodox Christians do not believe in total depravity, that everything on earth is so tainted with evil that nothing of God can be seen in it. Human and religion and human worship, like everything else in the world, is fallen, and at best can only give a distorted vision of God. As Father Thomas Hopko notes
While affirming that God is indeed unknowable in His innermost being, and that there are indeed a multitude of manifestations of God and revelations in and toward His creatures, and that there are indeed an immense variety of forms and categories of expression and explanation proper to God in human thought and speech, the Orthodox tradition remains adamant in its insistence that not all of man's thoughts and words about God are "adequate to divinity" (to use a traditional expression), and that indeed most of man's ideas and words about God are plainly wrong, being, as they are, the inventions of the vain imagination of creaturely minds and not the fruit of a living experience of God in the actual reality of His self-disclosure.

Yet Justin's view is not the only possible one. It is also possible that the "idols" of the pagans are false images of the true God, as St Paul seems to suggest (Ac 17:22-31) or of created spiritual beings, not necessarily evil (Col 1-2).

Father Michael Oleksa, the Orthodox missiologist, notes that it was St Maximus the Confessor's opposition to the monothelitism of his times, and to the Platonic theology of Origen, that laid the foundations for the positive view which Orthodox missions have generally had of traditional societies in central and eastern Europe in the 9th & 10th centuries, and across central Asia and into eastern Siberia and Alaska over the next 800 years.
Orthodox evangelists felt no obligation to attack all the pre-contact religious beliefs of shamanistic tribes, for they could perceive in them some of the positive appreciation of the cosmos that is central to St Maximus' theology. They could affirm that the spiritual realities these societies worshipped were indeed 'logoi' related to the Divine Logos, whose personal existence these societies had simply never imagined.

This is the last of a series of five articles on interreligious dialogue and theology of religions.

It has also (a year after it was first posted), been incorporated into a synchroblog on interreligious dialogue. To see links to the other articles in the series, and other articles in the synchroblog, please go to Notes from underground: Interreligious dialogue


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