Conversations by email: Winter 2008

These are extracts from recent postings to the OPF's e-mail discussion list.

If you are an OPF member and wish to take part, contact Mark Pearson or Jim Forest .

Fr. Sophrony's conquest of England: Here is a wonderful story I came upon in a book by Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart (Mount Thabor Publishing). The author is a spiritual child of Fr. Sophrony, who in turn was a spiritual child of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos.

When Fr. Sophrony, later to found the Orthodox monastery in Kent, England, applied to go to England, he was interviewed at the British Embassy in France. The Consul there asked him, "How can you contribute to our life in England?" Fr. Sophrony answered, "We will be useless to you; we cannot produce anything, but we are looking for a quiet place to have our Liturgy." And the Consul said, "Strange people!"

But they submitted their application for a visa to go to England, and the case of Fr. Sophrony was discussed in Parliament.

"It was a critical moment, as it was becoming very difficult for foreigners to come to England.... The matter was debated in the House of Commons, and there were some there who were determined not to let them come to England, because Fr. Sophrony made a petition to come with his synodia, that is with his company...

"At a moment when the mood of the debate was inclining towards a refusal, one Member of Parliament stood up and said, 'You do not wish to allow the Archimandrite to come, because they cannot contribute to our economy and to our life; so if the twelve Apostles came to Dover, you would only take Judas, because he had the money!' At that moment, the Home Secretary, Butler, signed the forms and said, 'Give the Archimandrite whatever he wants'."

John Brady

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Orthodox-Islamic dialogue: I am thinking of an issue of "In Communion" sometime in 2008 on the topic of Orthodox Christian-Islamic dialogue. At this point who the authors would be and how the issue would be shaped is far from clear.

I expect one of the articles will address the question: Is Orthodox-Islamic dialogue possible?

I am looking for advice re topics, possible authors, etc.

It hardly needs saying this is a challenging topic. Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa have suffered greatly in lands where they were (and still are) an oppressed minority.

This will not be an issue that provides the reader with rose-colored glasses.

In this regards, here is a paragraph from a letter I received from a priest:

"The fact is that in history Islam has been capable of coexistence with Christians and Jews only so long as it was in charge, and that was during the best of times! A new kind of Islam will be needed if dialogue is to be anything other than making nice. It may be being born in Turkey, which has had the bracing influence of having to deal with secularism and finding it wanting (which explains the success of an Islamic party which is open to Israel and Europe). That's the glimmer of hope, I think."

Jim Forest

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Learning to live together: As would-be peacemakers we're inclined to feel that dialogue is always good. Certainly love of neighbor is required of all Christians; and, since we live with Muslims, we need to negotiate ways of living together as peacefully as we can.

But there are areas where I wonder whether the dialogue is really being conducted in open and honest ways - that is, whether all sides are thinking about what the agenda is.

Discussions of Muslim-Christian dialogue often include the claim that Islam and Christianity are especially close or similar in some way - Monotheistic, Abrahamic, etc. But is this true, or true in a helpful way?

Islam explicitly proclaims the falsity of Christian faith - God has no sons, Christ is not risen, etc. - and puts these claims in the mouth of God Himself. To my mind this puts Islam, in crucial ways, as far from Christianity as any religion can possibly be.

So, I'd be much happier with Christian-Muslim dialogue that aimed to develop neighborly ways of living and left it at that.

John Brady

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A key topic: I agree that dialogue is often conducted in a haze of wishful thinking and good intentions, stressing alleged similarities that evaporate the closer one gets to them.

St. John Damascene regarded Islam as an heretical form of Christianity, not unlike Gnosticism. In itself, that type of understanding of Islam would begin to account for the anti-Christian polemic within Islam.

Nevertheless, the issue of relations between Christians and Moslems is a key topic for a fellowship such as ours. So perhaps we should adjust the approach to this topic by removing the reference to dialogue, which now seems to have come to imply a negotiation towards a settlement that is - as I think John is suggesting - impossible and undesirable, and instead focus on neighborly ways of living side by side.

Alasdair Cross

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Philosophical debate: From a historical point of view, there was in fact a considerable dialogue, at least in the sense of knowing texts from different traditions and dealing with them, among medieval Islamic, Jewish, Latin philosophers and theologians. That's not too surprising because they were working off a common heritage of Greek philosophical thought: Platonic, Aristotelian, and Neoplatonic.

The philosophical debate could get off the ground in the Christian west because of the more or less clear distinction between natural theology (a theology based upon reason) and revealed theology. The dialogue amongst these various traditions was pretty robust at the philosophical level.

John Jones

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Tighter focus: When we speak of an Orthodox dialogue with Islam, the equation is usually not adequately balanced. To phrase it that way means that we are thinking of one strain of Christianity, in this case our own, having a dialogue with the entire spectrum of Islam. Rather we should think in terms of Orthodox Christians in dialogue with a particular strain of Islam.

I can think of two possibilities: Orthodoxy and the Sunni tradition, or Orthodoxy and the Shiite tradition.

Or we might envision a dialogue of the mystical/contemplative branch of Orthodoxy with the mystical/contemplative branch of Islam: Sufism.

Much of what is called a dialogue is a comparison of things that are really incomparable, and therefore real mutual learning never gets going.

David Holden

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The example of St. Cyril: Chapter 6 of the Vita of St Cyril relates how the future Apostle of the Slavs was sent by the Emperor of Constantinople to the Arabs in 851 or 852 to debate with them about their respective faiths. The text provides interesting reading on how imperial politics and religion interacted and how the Orthodox saw Islam as an anti-trinitarian heresy.

Michael Bakker

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Overcoming stereotypes: I am weighing in on this because discussion regarding Islam, even among OPF members, often reveals how little we actually know and becomes instead a series of sweeping generalizations, making it much harder for us to become the peacemakers that Christ speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount.

How can we be peacemakers if we don't even know, much less know about, the people we are called to make peace with and bring peace to?

But deeply-rooted stereotypes die hard. My own has been a hard journey away from bias, ignorance, and narrow thinking. It continues, and I know I am not alone.

It's often argued that there is something about Christianity that permeates a society - even in a post-Christian culture - naturally giving rise to certain ideals, and correspondingly something about Islam, when it permeates a society, that cannot do the same.

Our tendency is to valorize ourselves and demonize "them," to take some of the better achievements of the West and generalize as though they were the natural fruit of our (Christian) culture while ignoring or minimizing our failures, then to take the failures of Islamic society and regard these as the natural fruits of Muslim culture while ignoring or minimizing their successes.

The degree to which we think Islam is against human rights reflects our tendency to focus on the failures of Muslim societies to manifest basic Qu'uranic decrees, much the way that the greatest complaints against Christianity in the world stem from looking at the failures of Western societies to reflect Biblical Christian values.

This is the most common source of conflict between groups the world over. We like to think our virtues outweigh our vices while their vices outweigh their virtues.

The truth is that all "successful" societies throughout history have been a mixture of both. Regardless of what we think of Islam as a religion, Islamic societies, cultures, and states have been little different from Western ones in this regard. Christians and Muslims have tried and failed to make society in their ideal images.

But, while neither Islam nor Christianity has been without measurable and admirable successes in their effects on societies, it would be hard to measure in any objective way which has failed more magnificently. Probably those with the highest ideals are the ones that fell the farthest.

Christianity is so ill-suited as a template for human government that when the attempt is made to use it as such, it not only fails but corrupts society to a shocking extent. Certainly the Christian impetus for Western human rights ideals was real enough; however, their emergence was not so much because of Christianity, but against the failures of Christian institutions.

In all humility, let's remember that it wasn't until civil governments got free from Christianity in the west that we gained widespread human rights (something Islamic societies have largely not yet been able to do but which is changing in many places).

One of the significant differences between Christianity and Islam is that the two come at questions of society and government from opposite directions.

Christianity was not intended to be a religion of State and Islam was not intended as anything else. Christianity has failed to successfully address how it can manage the state, and Islam has failed to address how it can function in society without the state. Christianity must relinquish its claim to power in order to reclaim its true mantle, while for Islam that mantle is altogether alien in the first place.

It's true that our values and morals differ in various respects from a Muslim's. But this shouldn't lead us to think that Muslims are unconcerned with justice, human rights or social order. In fact it is precisely because of Islam's long history as a religion of state that it has a fine sense of human rights/ justice that would flabbergast most of us - notwithstanding any interpretive, cultural, and perspective differences between the two religions.

It is sometimes argued that the emergence of the concept of human rights in societies influenced by Christianity has no equivalent in Islam. In fact Islam has produced concepts of human rights as elevated as ours.

Historically, these have not enjoyed the kind of ascendancy that violence and blood have given human rights in the West (an idea that is itself problematic - we talk about human rights when those rights are gained at the expense of the values they are meant to uphold - think of the French Revolution and The Terror that followed).

They are nevertheless nascent in Islamic scripture and tradition much the way they were in the West for centuries before gross, systemic abuse caused large numbers of people to give voice to those latent values. The Inquisition was no more a mirror of Christianity than the Taliban or Al Qaeda are faithful reflections of Islam.

On a practical note, my sense is that all of this leads to one point of contact that would lend itself to a meaningful dialogue with Muslims.

Pieter Dykhorst

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Not of this world: I agree with Pieter on one salient point: that is that when Christianity slides into the situation of being the religion of state and culture, then we have problems, the fundamental problem of "Constantinian Christianity." Whenever Christians seek to become the state, Christ is betrayed. He said "my Kingdom is not of this world" but again and again the institutional Church has confused this world with God's Kingdom.

Paul del Junco

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Trafficking in women: The widespread exploitation of women occurs with the virtual indifference of society in general.

Many of the women (and young men) who are being exploited are purposely made addicted to narcotics and they work just for the drugs they need. Beatings, threats against their lives, torture and murder are daily experiences among these people.

This issue is one of fundamental humanity, not just the moral concepts that prostitution violates.

It behooves us to attempt some action concerning this matter. Moreover, since it is usually men who seek out the people in order to use and abuse them, men should be at the forefront of taking action against it.

Indeed, the fact that our gender is being defined anywhere in the world by doing terrible things to women should deeply offend us all and move us to action. Whether it is abusing pre-teen girls in brothels or female circumcision in Africa, it is men who are doing the deed and perpetrating the offence. This really should be a source of offence to all civilized men everywhere, and a cause for action on our part..

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

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PS Note that we are planning a Canadian Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference for the second weekend of September. Our theme is "War and Peace in the Post-Human Era." You need not be Canadian to take part. It will be here at the monastery in British Columbia. For more information, contact me.


Doctrinal development: One must be careful with the notion of "the development of doctrine." In its 19th century form, this way of thinking has been especially popular in Protestant circles. Cardinal Newman also developed a form of the idea in Catholicism.

The problem is that some things develop and others don't. It is certainly true that some ideas developed from very primitive beginnings at or before the time of Moses down to the time of Christ. And it is also true that the Church's thinking has come a long way from its earliest credal statements to the high theology of St. Gregory Palamas.

But not everything changed, even from the beginning. An experience of the Holy Spirit in the 15th century BC is not different from an experience of Him 36 centuries later, even though we obviously think about it in rather different ways from Midianite shepherds.

Even more to the point, the Incarnation actually reveals God, God Himself, God in His deity, eternity, and unchanging nature. That being so, there can be no further experience or revelation that would add something new or different to what has already been revealed. But lots of people with the idea of development of doctrine have in fact thought that genuinely new revelations are occurring all the time, especially under the influence of Eastern religions. It is one thing to be open to other religions and to learn what can be learned from them - it is quite another to think that what we have seen and known is somewhat inadequate and that God was not fully present in the Lord.

To get around all this, the Church has an old distinction of Law and Gospel that seems to me to be the most fruitful approach to thinking about war in the Old Testament and peace in the New Testament. The truth is that the Old Testament is not just war and genocide; the mercy of God and the sanctity of life is a teaching in it from the very beginning. Christ our Lord fulfilled the Law, which is to say, He brought it to its maturity, raised it to a higher level of intensity, and made consistent ideas and principles that were formerly contradictory.

That was true of many teachings, such as the Jubilee (economics) and divorce (family life), as well as the teaching on war, violence, peacemaking, etc.

And, incidentally, the New Testament is not all turning the other cheek. God is still fierce and uncompromising, still has eyes too pure even to behold evil. All that was true in the Old Testament is still true.

David Holden

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Re the Old Testament: Much, maybe all of the violence in the Law has to do with sacrifice or the purity needed for the individual or nation to draw near to God with sacrifices - including the depiction of genocide, herem. There is certainly sacramental allegory within even the most literal reading.

However, Christ has taken all these sacrifices upon himself in perfection: "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." So the literal sense of these laws ends, or is completed in Christ; that is, both the injustice and justice, the sullying and the cleansing of humanity. God is sacrificed by his own people and the world is made whole.

The Law, even in its prescriptions for things that seem violent and brutal, points to Christ as the Lord of Glory who suffers and bleeds to finally cleanse or condemn the earthen Adam of wrongly taken life-blood. He came to be judged but he is the judge: so in him we meet either greater reward or condemnation than the Law can mete out.

On a scholarly level, most historical-critical scholars consider these texts to have been written well after any period of warfare like what is seen in Joshua: and thus they are written as allegories about a form of spiritual purity from polytheism. The central theme of the Torah is worship, and we should not care if it is straight from Moses' mouth or the mouth of the institution(s) which was "Moses." The point and the vision of God is the same.

And there are certainly contradictions in the Law as well - Origen said these were providential stumbling blocks. One of those contradictions is that (most likely post facto) the laws about killing false prophets are contradicted by the most likely "historical" (in the modern sense) picture: true prophets being persecuted and killed. Even our Lord Jesus Christ has harsh words on this.

Fr. Elijah Mueller

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Our understanding evolves: I agree that there is nothing further, or higher, or truer that can be revealed to us since the Incarnation, but the way that we understand it is forever changing.

In fact, and in direct contrast to the apocalyptic "prophecies" that so many fundamentalist Christians give us, Saint Cyril has an idea that we are forever ascending to perfection, as humanity, not descending to our basest levels.

He believed that Christ would come, not to save us from our worst moment, but to meet us at our best. So, from this I think it is easy to take the view that we are understanding more and more everyday, in light of the Incarnation, not in addition to it.

For example the fact that ecological friendliness and concern is so widespread could be evidence to the fact that humanity is waking up to atrocities that were never considered before. The fact that, in general, the medieval torture devices once employed are now frowned upon is another. The tolerance of people in other walks of life, instead of the blind hatred and execution of them, can be looked at as well.

Of course it would be very easy for me to compile a list of things I could argue as evidence that we are getting worse, but that is not my point.

My point is that we have received the ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, but as members of the human race we are on a collective journey to understand it and so new 'doctrine', better doctrine that more properly understands Christ and what He was revealing, can develop.

David Costas

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Dorothy Day on DVD: At last there is an excellent documentary film about a modern saint of hospitality, Dorothy Day: "Dorothy Day: Don't Call Me a Saint." I've watched it twice now and look forward to seeing it again.

It's a brilliant piece of work - sober, finely photographed and edited, with excellent interviews, and effective use of still photos and historical footage. I am also impressed with the music. I can't think of anything in the film that I would wish might have been done differently. The spirit and challenge of Dorothy Day is in the film from the first to the last frame

The DVD can be ordered on the web at:

Jim Forest

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