Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Abortion Protesters

This is a Canton specific post, although it probably has at least mild interest for anyone in America. For background: there is a Planned Parenthood nearby. Very consistently there are anti-abortion protesters in front. If nothing else, one must admire their dedication. Neither cold nor darkness nor hecklers seem to deter them. Their presence creates a fairly sharp divide, even among Christians that believe abortion to be wrong. Simply put: should the protesters be doing what they're doing? This is a difficult issue for me. Emotionally I am drawn in support of the protesters, yet I have a great many respected friends and peers who think they ought to cease their activities. Recently I was engaged in a rather heated discussion of the issue, one that served to alter my view of the issue somewhat. I'm going to outline, charitably I hope, both sides of the issue, and then offer my own assessment.

In favor: saves lives. Maybe not too many women are deterred by the protesters, but probably at least a few women who were teetering on the edge of decision will end up not getting an abortion due to the protesters. And really, what cost is too high too save even one life?

My examination: I actually am drawn to this argument. Saving lives is good. On the other hand there is a lack of information issue to consider: how many women actually decide not to get abortions because of the protesters?

In opposition: non-Christians, especially women, will see these protesters and come to the conclusion that Christians are hateful and---

My interruption: Hold on a sec. The local protesters aren't exactly offensive. There's no "You're going to hell if you get an abortion" stuff. Mostly the signs just affirm that the unborn child is fully human. Nothing awful about that.

Opposition response: Fair enough, but there are are enough offensive "Christian" protesters that any Christian protesters tend to get viewed all the same: as being hateful and offensive.

Possible interruption: Is it their fault if their viewed as hateful when they're not actually being hateful?

My personal note: It is true that a wise person avoids generalizations. However, in every person, especially in Christians, there is an uncomfortable but necessary tension (borrowing from Terry Pratchett here a bit) between, on the one hand ,"This is how it ought to be, how do we change things?" and, on the other hand, "This is how it is, how do we deal with it?" As Christians we ought to maximize good, even if it means we have to kowtow to unwise practices. We simply cannot say: people will do what they will, to hell with them.

Back to opposition: Anyway, people will see Christians as hateful due to the protesters. As a  result of this, they will turn away from Christianity, which is to the severe detriment of their own souls. Now, if an unborn child dies certainly nothing too bad happens to it afterwards. Most Protestants will say it goes immediately to heaven, and Roman Catholics say it just goes into senselessness. I haven't a clue what Orthodoxy says, but I can imagine that nothing bad happens to the child. So, ultimately it's a tragedy if a child dies, but less of a tragedy that the spiritual harm a person will suffer if they hate Christians. Ergo, the most good is served if the protesters stop.

Possible issue: I think we really want to keep affirming that the death of unborn children is a very great tragedy, and I worry the above might fail to do that.

My personal assessment of the whole issue: There arises out of this a very uncomfortable kind of moral mathematics. Two unborn children for a soul? Ten for three? Is this how we assess our behavior? Is the world really such a depressing place that we have to choose between two precious goods? I am inclined to look for a third option. Perhaps we can have it both ways. Every Christian, on both sides, wants the same things: babies dying is bad, people's souls being harmed is bad. Perhaps we can be wise and accomplish both. What causes women to decide to get an abortion? No woman is happy to get an abortion, it is always a difficult decision. Poor financial situation, lack of viable alternatives, for some it is the shame of having a child too young or out of wedlock. So, theoretically at least, abortion rates will go down if we work to eliminate poverty, provide free or cheap daycare services, and provide free or cheap childcare products. Most importantly we need serious fostercare/adoption reform. The upshot is that we provide no reason for anyone to think of us as hateful. My only remaining concern is the last sort of abortion: the abortion of opportunity: when someone could bring the child to term and doesn't because it's an inconvenience, or perhaps would interfere with their career. But these are not so common I think, and a thoroughgoing reform of the adoption program might work to halt these abortions. We need to make adoption a straightforward and easy alternative to abortion. We need to start adopting. If you are truly pro-life: adopt. Some women will terminate a pregnancy because they believe the child's life will be so awful that death is a kinder fate. We need to make it evident that this is not so. And so perhaps we can say that the protesters can accomplish what it is the want to accomplish even better if they spent their time and energy proactively attacking the systemic reasons for abortions. Our work together will, hopefully, provide for a world where the unborn are cared for as much as those outside the womb.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Orthodox Christianity: An Introduction

It has occurred to me that I am being rather audacious in writing this. Many are far more qualified to do it, with far more training, education, and experience. Nonetheless, the fact is that a great many of my peers are unlikely to ever read the work of such men and women, and so perhaps I can be forgiven for taking upon myself a task such as this. I will try and be honest about those areas where my knowledge does not extend. My main purpose here will be drawing together what various theologians and writers have said: St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, St. Isaac of Syria, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Fr. Stephen Freeman,Fr. Pete Gillquist, Clark Carlton, and a host of others. Obviously this is going to be a distinctly Orthodox view.

What is the point of human life? What are we here for? Perhaps I can start by saying that the proper question more accurately is: where are we going? Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has said that all humans are on a journey. We are all plodding along - some, tragically, backwards - on the same road. And that road leads to God. We are called, one and all, to attain ever more to union and communion with God. Or, to use Metropolitan Kallistos Ware's phrasing: we are called to be drawn up into the circle of love that exists, eternally, within the Godhead. Or, to use terminology more familiar to modern Evangelicals, we are called to engage in a loving relationship with God.  As we attain more and more to this union and communion we become ever more like God: "Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires." (2 Peter 1:4). This process is called theosis. We take on God's characteristics: His love, His mercy, His goodness. As St. Athanasius famously said: "God became man, so that man might become God.". This is shocking to many Western Christians. We must immediately point out what we do not mean by this. We do not, ever, become the uncreated. Unlike Mormon belief  we never become gods in our own right. But rather it is said that we become by grace what God is by nature. God desires to share of what He is with us, always offering us this as a gift, so that it is true when St. Gregory of Nyssa said: "Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.". In other words: to become a saint.

A metaphor might be useful here, but not mine. If I am remembering correctly it is St. John Chrysostom's, but I might be wrong. Possibly it is St. Gregory of Nyssa's. Anyway: Imagine a stone sitting under the sun. After a time the stone becomes hot, much like the sun in a small way. Does the stone make it's own heat? Is the stone's heat its own? No, it is the sun's heat, but now the sun's heat is in the stone. As we grow closer to God we too start to look like God, and to identify with God more and more. Abbot Meletios has said that when an Orthodox Christian takes communion there is a brief moment where it becomes difficult to say where God ends and the human begins. I confess: something I have yet to grasp is if this process of theosis happens so that we can be drawn up into God's love, or if it is a natural consequence of us being drawn up into God's love, or if the two are essentially inextricable in a way that defies further investigation.

It may be asked: what hinders us from doing this? And we now have arrived at the subject of salvation. What are we saved from? For an Orthodox Christian, we are saved from sin, saved from our inner darkness and brokenness. Sin can be spoken of in two ways: an internal spiritual condition that is opposed to God's nature, and the actions that both arise from those conditions and reinforce them. Greed is an internal spiritual disease, theft is an action that is born of greed and, once committed, strengthens that same greed. The worse of the two, so Orthodox Christianity claims, are the internal spiritual diseases. The actions are, obviously, drastically important, but they are only important insofar as they affect those internal stati. What we are is more important that what we do. Why is sin bad? Because being sinful means being unlike God, and being like God is the whole point of being human. God has no hatred, no wrath, no malice within Himself, and if we have these within us, we are unlike God. Becoming more sinful means walking away from God, away from the source and foundation of all love, goodness, and existence. We must be saved from sin in order to be what we are meant to be. This is the gift of Christ's death: that sin's power was broken and the door to theosis was opened, the way to Eden was made available once more.

Adam and Eve were created sinless, and were called walk the path of theosis. But instead of becoming one with God, they fell away, and sin entered the world. This sin bars the way to our union and communion with God, and so had to be dealt with. And it was dealt with on the Cross by God Himself, allowing humanity a way to see to it that their sins are destroyed. This then is the effect of the Cross: providing for the actual elimination of sin within the human person.

This is a far cry from certain Protestant conceptions of atonement. Many of them speak only of being covered in Christ's blood so that God does not see our sin. God, under this view, treats us as if we were righteous. To this view, Orthodox Christians can only respond with mild bewilderment. The sick person doesn't care if anyone treats them as if they were well, doesn't care if everyone acts as if they weren't sick: they want to get better. In much the same way the Orthodox Christian replies: we don't want our sin covered, we want it gone! And we needn't worry much if God sees our sin or not, or treats us as if we were sinful. If all we had to worry about was what God was going to do to us, then we would have incredibly little to fear. God does not seek retributive vengeance on the sinner, but if God punishes then it is only for the sake of healing and correction.

So then, we are called to be saints. And what is a saint? A saint is one who has accepted God's gift of godhood. A saint overflows with love, God's love in him or her. A saint is what you and I are supposed to become. A great and glorious destiny is offered to us all, one in which we all shine with light as did Moses, walk on water as did Peter, shake off serpents as did Paul, and, always getting closer to it while never arriving, love like God. We are called to be in God, and to have God in us. Glory be to God! Amen.