Atonement: Wright and Florovsky

I had thought that NT Wright’s views on atonement were moving toward traditional Orthodox thinking (see my previous post on Wright’s book), but I was never sure I had found a full Orthodox exposition on the subject until a dear friend (and better theologian) pointed me toward the review of Fr George Florovsky titled On the Tree of the Cross.

Some Orthodox want to make an absolute opposition between Western and Eastern theology, seeing one as legal and the other as organic; is the problem sin or is the problem death?  There are priests I have met who will deny that Orthodox believe in atonement (of almost any form, let alone Anselm’s substitutionary atonement).  I have fought this either/or thinking, and tried to see it as a both/and position, with different emphasis.

This collection of essays is causing me to rethink my position.  I have been Orthodox for over 30 years, but it seems I still do not have ‘the mind of the Church’.  This book is an affirmation of my both/and thinking, though it pushes the affirmation of all sides stronger than I have.  What I find challenging is how the theology is done; the starting point is neither scripture nor systematic theology, but liturgy.

While the Church Fathers are frequently cited in the articles, there is an acknowledgement that different ones have different emphasis (and omissions).  The ‘mind of the Church’ cannot be found in one Father or another because there is a diversity of thinking, and it is too easy to selectively pick through them to justify one’s own position.  It is liturgy that has a slower development in which the faith and practice (lex orandi lex credendi) comes together.  It is here that atonement is not addressed (only) in Pauline theology but more in priestly actions and the words of Hebrews.

While I appreciate the careful scriptural work of Wright (and many Orthodox could use more of it), it is this liturgical theology that always takes my breath away.  The final result of theology is not admiration of my thinking, but worship; worship of the redeeming and atoning God.  The other beauty of liturgical theology is that while systematic theology wants to rationally divide and categorize (did the ransom get paid to Satan or to the Father?), liturgical theology is more poetic, allowing ideas to be jumbled together and thrown against each other, and left in a confusion of mystery.  Jesus was a baited hook that deceived the fish of Death (ie. allusions to Jonah), and after being swallowed makes Death vomit up all those who had been held captive until then.

Maybe a better scholar could find some differences between Wright and this book on Florovsky, but I found them very complimentary: scriptural exegesis in light of first century Judaism combined with patristic writings and liturgy, a wonderful combination; Glory be to God.

Freedom of Religion

Are you for it, or against it?

As an Orthodox Christian, I am for religious tolerance.  When ,William Seward talked the United States government into buying Alaska from Russian in 1867, the Civil War had recently ended and people were looking to Westward expansion – and concerned about Indian uprisings that would interfere with ‘progress’.  To most people, the Alaskans were another native American threat that needed to be managed via the ‘Pennsylvania Plan’: removing native children from their families and villages, put them in Protestant boarding schools which forbid them to use their native language and practice their customs.  What they didn’t realize was that due to Russian Orthodox missionaries, Alaska was more literate than the ‘lower 48’ at that time, with some natives captaining and navigating ships that circumnavigated the globe multiple times.  Unfortunately, their appeals to Congress to protect their religious freedoms were ignored, with disastrous results that impact the people to this day.  (for a history of this time, see Fr. Michael Oleska’s Alaskan Missionary Spirituality).

With this past as a part of my ‘faith tradition’, I am still not sure I agree with the modern understanding of religious freedom.

The Bill of Rights defines religion as one of the ‘inalienable rights’, something that cannot be taken away because it is not something given to us by the government; it is a part of ‘how things are’ as given to us by the Creator (which is not defined).  Like much of the founding of the government, this was a compromise that leaves many (if not most) less than fully satisfied.  This was also a position of the federal government; not state government, for many of the states individually supported specific religions. Massachusetts financially supported local Congregational churches as late as 1830. It was Virginia that lead the way in tolerance, under the influence of European Rationalists and Protestant values, with support from minority groups like the Baptists (who theologically separate church and state).  This policy gradually became the norm for most states.

There was however, never a complete open toleration of all religions and religious practices.  Human and animal sacrifices are not permitted, as well as polygamy and child brides.  At times various native american practices have been outlawed (Ghost Dance and peyote).  In the last 150 years, many practices that were forbidden are now legal.

Modern thinking about religion is vastly different from the time of the Bill of Rights, and the modern Structuralist (Rationalist) approach, and post-modernism, while affirming religion, significantly redefine it, and ultimately destroy it.

Ever since Kant and Hagel, meaning and values have been pushed into an ‘upper story‘ where all meta-physical, meaning and value are considered to be non-rational. As Nietzsche put it “God is Dead”, so god is no longer a source for meaning or values.  This is the undisputed belief of modern thinking (both Structuralists and post-modernism).  Religion has changed from doctrines, practices and beliefs to a personal, internal spirituality (see Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion for a good discussion on the changes to the definitions of science and religion).  For modern Rationalists (Structuralists) the concept of religion is something to be disposed of as meaningless (sort of like Unicorns).  Post-modernists are willing to affirm religion, as long as we obey the bumper sticker and “Coexist”, but affirm it as long as we are willing to let them deconstruct any particular religion and let them redefine so that any ‘teeth’ of value and meaning have been pulled.  By definition, religion has nothing to say regarding practical issues such as abortion, marriage or sexual practices.

Since god is dead, religious freedom (along with any other rights) are no longer something inalienable, as there are no metaphysics and values ‘out there’.  Governments that follow this modern thinking may make laws affirming rights (such as abortion and gender identity), but at the expense of defining them as something the state grants, and hence can also take away.

The problem I face as a minority philosophy in this country (ie Patristic Orthodox Christianity) is how to affirm tolerance, yet also see the need for limits.  Any talk of sacramentality (ie: God working through and being reflected in the creation) sounds to many people an lunacy.  I want tolerance, as I want the freedom to express and live out my values (even as I mournfully watch others exercise their ‘freedom’ to destroy themselves by disregarding those values).  In some ways, I am not too concerned about the future of Christianity, as it started under Roman rule; which was no friend to anyone challenging Ceaser’s authority and divinity.  I don’t think it is likely that human sacrifice will be re-introduced soon (unless one puts abortion in that category); however, my real fear is what will happen to this ‘tolerant’ country when it encounters pre-Kantian thinking that is not tolerant – in particular I am thinking of certain threads of Muslim theology.

I need to be careful here as Muslim theology is somewhat diverse and varied.  Accusing all Muslims of terrorism is similar to blaming a Baptist or Quaker for the Crusades.    Yes, there are devout, peaceful Muslims; but don’t confuse Sufi with Wahhabi (the latter being a particular focus of concern).  Saudi Arabia is quite willing to use western tolerance to fund mosques wherever they can, but it is not a reciprocal policy that is open for the West to build churches in their country.  They will take advantage of our tolerance, but are less free to give it back (ie, to ‘Coexist’).  Orthodox Christians have a long and complex history with Muslims.  Mohammed was given protection by St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and in return he gave them a document of protection.  Yet there are innumerable saints who were martyred under the Ottoman Empire and are still martyred to this day in many places.  It is a complex issue that requires more than a blog to resolve.

I want freedoms and tolerance, but I also see the legitimate need for limits.  We need boundaries to protect us from each other.  The problem I face is that such conversations (of having limited freedoms) has no coinage in modern thinking.

Structuralism and Post-Modernism

A couple of recent articles caught my attention.  One was an evaluation of Donald Trump’s campaign as a successful understanding of post-modernism, the other was a review of Derrida’s development of deconstructionalism (continental philosophy or post-modernism) and its conflict with structuralism (analytic philosophy or rationalism).  This is poignant to me, as much of Indiana University and the local politics (I live in Bloomington Indiana) are based around analytic philosophy; with many students and the community following post-modernism.

Besides helping to shine a light on modern philosophy for me (I have been out of touch with technical philosophy for a while), the articles have left me with a range of mixed feelings, from appreciation of various aspects of both sides, horror at the spiraling suicide of philosophy, and humor that both sides are fighting each other so hard: ie. in post-Kantian philosophy there is not suppose to be thesis and anti-thesis,but opposites resolve through systhesis.  So how can both sides be fighting each other with such thesis/anti-thesis perspectives?

Structuralism developed out of Wittgenstein, a mathematician who was involved with process/analytical philosophy – he proposed that clarity of thought (definition and process) would help articulate basic philosophical issues, which would hopefully provide a solution to the problem of existence.  This line of thinking has been very productive, and has influenced a lot of science; computer languages being a key example.  Computer codes are a language of structures and relationships that give precision and clarity to logic.  Thus:

“Philosophy, in most if not all of its forms, must rely on the possibility of truth. It is a search for meaning, which assumes meaning can be found, and that ideas and concepts have meanings in themselves in some sense, not simply as they relate to the concepts. Science and logic become the final arbiters in a search for meaning which holds that all can (and eventually will) be explained by a rational and scientific approach.”

If this sounds like much of the “New Atheism”, you are hearing correctly, most of their thinking (when they acknowledge philosophy) comes out of this school.  Structuralism holds to the idea that meaning is found in fundamental ‘structures’ that can be discovered through the analysis of structural relations (almost the ghost of Plato’s ideals, behind the shadows of particulars).  But if there are no fundamental structure, then there is only discourse: words pointing to words and no real meaning.  It is like if the “C” computer language had structures (if/then, procedures, …) and pointers but no fundamental data types (integers, strings, …).  You are left with only pointers pointing to pointers pointing to pointers.  Structuralism and science can put people on the moon and create quantum computers; but can give you no reason why you should.

Derrida held the pin that threatened to pop (deconstruct) the Structuralist balloon; and much of its pride needed deflating.  Post-modernism says that language has no intrinsic meaning, it is only meaningful in the context in which it is used – change the context and you change the meaning: hence all meaning is relative to the context (there is only discourse), and there is no final structure (meaning).  Such deconstruction is useful, it is the basis of pointing out prejudices and biases behind many statements (who is paying for this?  who benefits from this action?).  The problem is that it is basically a skeptical philosophy, it can tear anything down but has no ability to build anything.

Few people have the courage and integrity to wield deconstruction as carefully as Derrida.  Saturday Night Live can wonderfully parody Donald Trump, but fail to let the sword cut in both directions with their own values and ideals.  Black Lives Matter will deconstruct police prejudices, but don’t want the body cameras pointing to their own culture and practices.  We demand ‘justice’, but nobody can rationally define what that would look like.  Anyone who attempts a claim to ‘goodness’ is attached; for in a relative culture any claim to ‘better’ or ‘superior’ is rooted in inequality which inevitably will cause prejudice, conflict, and oppression.

It is disturbing that most-modernism puts an end to discussion, as any discourse is defined as only an attempt to gain power over another.  Yet, I find some optimism in the idealistic utopianism that many of these people still hold – there is still an element of humanity left in them that has not been deconstructed.  It may not be the western approach of rational logic that gets through to them, but an older approach that first seeks beauty, then goodness and truth.