Thursday, January 11, 2007

Forever and Now, Culture and Incarnation

(Warning: The following is quite long and, most likely, will be somewhat incoherent at times. Forgive me.)

Tonight, an unexpected Vespers service--unexpected for me, that is, as my wife and child both felt like staying in on what would have been "her night" to attend services--and what would amount to the longest (and best) theological discussion I'd had in months following said service.

Being the "Church geek" that I am--insert comment about being "Geek Orthodox" here--it is difficult to describe the sheer joy it brings me when I am with those of like mind and temperment (in this case, a seminarian; a well-read and newly-converted--as in, still literally oily behind the ears--young man; and our thoughtful, gracious parish priest) and can spend two hours going over everything from biblical text comparison to the identity of "the Jews" in light of the Church to intertestamental liturgical continuity to incarnational anthropology/ecclesiology to convert baggage (both conservative and liberal, both Protestant and Catholic). We could have easily gone 'till two in the morning; the enthusiasm was wonderful.

Regarding the last two topics--the effects of the Incarnation on our beliefs of man and the Church, and the nature of different types of converts...

The "still-oily brother" asked me, the only other former-Protestant in the group, whether or not I thought we converts from Evangelicalism had "so much more" to get over to come into Orthodoxy. I mentioned that we more than likely had no more and no less to get over upon coming to the Church; our baggage, though a matching set, is not so much greater is it is simply different from that of a convert from Roman Catholicism or paganism or secularism or whatever. I mentioned that many books written by converts are geared towards the Evangelical and, thus, have little if anything to say to the inquiring Roman Catholic. A dear friend whose sponsor I was honored to be came in from Catholicism and, mentioning this book in particular, first voiced this sentiment to me and said that books written by former Catholics for Catholic inquirers could "get in the kitchen" of those inquirers in a way that Carlton, Schaeffer, and Gallatin perhaps never could.

That being said, what did seem particular to us Evangelicals was the complete upheaval of our approach to all things Christian when the Incarnation was allowed to fully blossom, all of its implications pervading every aspect of how we saw ourselves as human beings, and how the Church connected us to Christ. Events in the life of Christ which, as far as we could tell, had no practical application to us here and now--as opposed to the "sweet by and by"--were brought dizzyingly to vibrant, tangible, tasty life, the Eternal Now of the Banquet Feast of the Lamb made present for us in the Assembly of the New Jerusalem, the entire Advent of Christ made for the believer "everywhere present and filling all things," with His flesh--which is the flesh of His mother, which is ultimately our shared flesh--being taken from the Theotokos and brought into the world through Nativity; washed and joined with the world and cosmos in the murky waters of the Jordan; emblazoned with piercing, uncreated glory on Mount Tabor; split, torn, impaled and suffocated on a Roman cross; raised in immortal glory in the Resurrection on the third day and seated--this is my favorite part!--seated at the right Hand of God the Father Himself at the Ascension...and our real, physical participation in baptism, chrismation, Eucharist, confession, prayer, fasting, et al, allows the Flesh that is, forever and now, seated at the right hand of Power to join with our feeble bodies, the Blood that is laid before the Almighty to flow--actually and physically flow!--through our fragile veins...such a flesh-to-flesh, blood-to-blood encounter is well beyond the scope of the camps from whence we came, yet familiar territory to those who walked with the Twelve...

Also discussed were the fears that some--namely, theological conservatives who, at least in part, were fleeing from confessions more liberal than they instead of entirely to a Church that transcends and rejects all these labels categorically--bring to their conversion processes and, in the midst of said process, latch on to a seemingly conservative stance on an issue and posit it as the Orthodox stance, usually doing so through a knee-jerk reaction in order to avoid at all costs even the appearance of the chaos and controversies in their former confessions. Father stated that, really, said converts can and must learn to relax, for it's a reality that the chaos arose from the simple fact that those places from whence they came were not the Church and, having now come to the Church, where Truth reigns as a Person, dialogue and inquiry need not be feared, and walls need not be built up prematurely (or, ideally, at all).

Piggybacking on this premise, the "hot topic" of women's ordination to the priesthood--coupled as it always is with the issue of the condoning and/or ordination of practicing homosexuals--was brought forth. Father pointed out that, in many mainline denominations, straight women and gays are often dealt with as one issue largely because they are both classified (tragically) by these confessions as historically oppressed political minorities. Recognized though women and gays may have been by our contemporary secular societies, the confessions which nonetheless allow themselves to use said recognition as their touchstone of "relevance" and interaction with the world inevitably must include the latter in their candidates for the priesthood if they are to be consistent after having included the former. On the other end of the spectrum, conservative Evangelicals are bound (and happily and, to a degree, admirably so) by the New-Testament era prohibition against both women ministers and practicing their consistency is easy to maintain, if a bit blind to cultural norms throughout the ages...

...and it is this phrase--cultural norms--which terrifies those converts coming from groups such as the Methodists, the ELCA, PCUSA, ECUSA et al, which gratefully has no effect whatsoever on the Orthodox Church...or, at least, it shouldn't, so long as we keep to our incarnational moorings... For, after all, reason these reactionary, conservative converts, if we allow for "changing cultural norms" to be our benchmark for allowing women to be priests, what is to stop us from citing those same norms for changing the Church's stance towards practicing, unrepentant homosexuals? Two things surface as an answer.

Firstly: "Changing cultural norms" is not a "benchmark" for any decision we would make. The Church's understanding of christology and what it means to the human race has undergone an astounding process of development that spans several hundred years and, while preserving the core intact, has expanded and articulated it in a way that has shown all the facets of its glory that its primitive, seed version did not reveal. While I am not going to advocate for women's ordination--and I think it incredibly unlikely that this debate will happen among the bishops of this Church within my lifetime--if said ordination were to be allowed, it would only be because the Church was now ready to apply St. Paul's "neither male nor female" clause to the priesthood, and not only to the believer's admission to and participation in the Body of Christ. It would not be because the surrounding culture demanded that we be "fair," "equal," or "same."

Secondly: Were the above to happen, the door to acceptance of the practicing homosexual lifestyle--much less ordination--would still be closed, for the touchstone of the Church regarding the identity of humankind--male and female included--is not the world's culture of minority oppression and victimhood, but Christ, the theanthropos, or God-Man. God's incarnation in Christ results in a human nature shared by men and women, so there is nothing sinful or fallen merely in being female. This revealed nature of humanity, however--male and female, created to be fruitful and multiply--precludes the pseudo-union of those in homosexual relationships: the issue of gender has been assumed and healed by Christ; the issue of sexual orientation remains a cross in this fallen world. As a conclusion, we all reasoned that the christic anthropology of gender inclusion in the Kingdom of God did not necessarily, in and of itself, pave the way for equal access to ordination. We took comfort, however, in the fact that, as with our Eternal Rest seated at the right hand of Glory, the secure foundation of our lives was the Mystery of the divine made visible--the Church made real in flesh and spirit through Her Bridegroom made manifest in Creation--holding, protecting, nourishing and raising us to perfection in all things through He who Was and Is incarnate for our sakes.


EYTYXOC said...

Well, David, you know I would have loved to have been in that conversation! Thanks for sharing it.

Who is the "wet-behind-the-ears" person you mention? Did I meet/see him Sunday? What denomination/seminary does he hail from?

As for women's ordination - Bishop +Kallistos Ware said on a video talk I watched months ago on the Internet that he doesn't rule out the possibility, saying that if it comes to pass, it would be based on the understanding of the Incarnation - i.e., does the Incarnation teach that Christ become a male, or that He became a human? If the latter, then that would remove an impediment to women becoming priests. To counter that, though, is the fact that while women were part of Christ's ministry, and may have been at the Last Supper as well (Mark 14:17-20 suggests that others besides "the twelve" were with Him, and The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John film that came out a couple years ago daringly had Mary Magdalene present through John 13-17), Christ appointed no women apostles, and He explicitly said that the 12 would sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel, etc. (I still sound like a Protestant, don't I?)

Barnabas Powell said...


It was the implications of the Incarnation that did me in. I simply could not justify not becoming Orthodox after having come to accept the largeness of the Incarnation.


s-p said...

Concur with Barnabbas...the Incarnational theology blew me away, it went beyond the boundaries of what I was suspecting and touching the hem of the garment on when I was teaching in the church of Christ.
Nice post. Those are the "good times" I remember most...talking til two AM about everything under the sun.,,,s-p, still trying to navigate the blogger/google thing and can't make it work....

The Ochlophobist said...

I find the thought that Christ could somehow have become human without becoming male or female deeply, deeply disturbing. Christ incarnated as a human male. This is not to say that Christ does not divinize female humanity. I read a brilliant essay some years ago by an Orthodox writer who argued that the combination of blood and water Christ shed on the Cross after His piercing was in fact a mimesis of menstruation and an undoing of the results of the fall on women. I can go down such avenues of thought and be enriched. But as the writer of that essay (whose name I can't remember) said such thoughts have nothing to do with women's ordination. I do not think that women are to be forbidden from ordination because they are somehow less than men. They are usually better than men. The greatest of humans save Christ was a woman. The "lesser" way is the greatest in the Kingdom. The desire for ordination by women is crass and cheap caricature, in my book.

Sorry for all that. Brilliant post, Reader David.

John said...

Magnificent post, David. I agree with Barnabbas and s-p. In light of my former impoverishment, I am still in awe (shock, actually) when contemplating the riches and depth and implications of the Incarnation. I particularly like your following passage:

"...what did seem particular to us Evangelicals was the complete upheaval of our approach to all things Christian when the Incarnation was allowed to fully blossom, all of its implications pervading every aspect of how we saw ourselves as human beings, and how the Church connected us to Christ....a flesh-to-flesh, blood-to-blood encounter is well beyond the scope of the camps from whence we came..."

David Bryan said...

Thank you, all, for the comments...


That oily-eared newbie is none other than the one whose chrismation you came down to witness last Sunday.

Barbabas, s-p, and John,

It's odd, looking back, how my initial reasons for delving deeper into Orthodoxy wound up being peripheral ones when it was all said and done--the sacraments, soteriology, ecclesiology, etc--all of these were what they were because of the ramifications of the Incarnation that I'd never considered, yet I was well into my studies of Orthodoxy before my own personal "mindjob" happened and I began to really "get it," if you can even say that.

Ochlophobist (and, also EYTYXOC),

Oh, absolutely, we should not ignore the maleness of Christ; neither should we jump to conclusions regarding ordination when dealing with issues strictly and solely anthropological. My point is that an interpretive change is a possibility within the Church regarding women's ordination (I personally would stand against it, but it is there regardless), while no such possibility regarding the acceptance of practicing homosexuality on any level is condonable, as it goes inherently against the human nature that the Father created and the Son recapitulated.

EYTYXOC said...

Frederica Mathewes-Green comments on the question of women priests in her latest essay:

Rhology said...

--...if said ordination were to be allowed, it would only be because the Church was now ready to apply St. Paul's "neither male nor female" clause to the priesthood, and not only to the believer's admission to and participation in the Body of Christ. It would not be because the surrounding culture demanded that we be "fair," "equal," or "same."

>>Clarifying question: Is this a prescriptive or descriptive statement? ie, Are you saying it should be a question or that it simply COULD be a question in the future?

If the former, why wouldn't the qualifications for elders in 1 Tim and Titus bring the matter to a complete close before it even got off the ground if the EOC cares about apostolic doctrine?

If the latter, how would that square w/ the EO claim that the EOC is the One Holy *Apostolic* Church?

Just curious. ;-) If it were the former, it would remind me quite a lot of the Emergent folks over at, and that would be a comparison between lib Prots and EOx that I've noted before.


David Bryan said...

EYTYXOC -- Good link. Alan -- I think it's worth a read in answer to your question.

Also, Alan,

My comment is merely descriptive of what COULD happen. I don't desire, nor do I even anticipate, this being seriously considered by our bishops, seeing as how we're more conservative that the Roman Catholics on this issue, and they are leaving this off the table as well. The fact is that the entire witness of the Church is devoid of female priests, and this should be enough for us to put the matter to rest, or at least be seriously suspicious of any attempts to change it. But I thought it important to state that such a thing, even if it were to happen, would not necessitate the consideration of condoning homosexuality, for the reasons outlined in the post. The implications of the Incarnation are the key to the witnesses'--that of the Apostles in Scripture, and that of the Fathers' in Tradition--being what they are.

Rhology said...

OK. You coulda worded it better but I'll call it even due to the extra credit earned from this sentence:

"...were brought dizzyingly to vibrant, tangible, tasty life, the Eternal Now of the Banquet Feast of the Lamb made present for us in the Assembly of the New Jerusalem..."

And yeah I read the link. 'Twas interesting.

The Ochlophobist said...

I agree that a Christic anthropology does not, in and of itself, allow for the possibility of female ordination. It depends on what one means. I believe that +Ware and other Orthodox who promote such a view are incorrect in the manner they approach it. The "no male or female" in Christ refers to ontology, not function. For Orthodox this corresponds to Energy/Essense distinction. We, more than any other Christian theological tradition, can understand theologically how a person might be completely ontologically equal to another, yet act in a manner of complete submission to that other person. Part of the revelation of the Incarnation revealed at Theophany is that specific revelation of the Triune life that witnesses the peaceful coexistence of divine hierarchy and equality. At every level of the Church's life we see hierarchy and equality standing side by side. This is true with men's and women's roles as well. The Christic egalitarianism/Eucharistic egalitarianism does not allow for a functional egalitarianism in the Church.
Another thing that is interesting to note is that modern Orthodox theologians who speak about the possibility of women's ordination use language of interpretation that is essentially text-criticism based. It is no secret that +Ware changed directions regarding the hypothetical possibility of women's ordination after encountering Orthodox feminist literature. I will not deny, as a hypothesis, that if one uses a text critical interpretive apparatus within Orthodox theology, one can arrive at the possibility of women's ordination in the Orthodox Church. But, that said, the Tradition does not use text criticism to interpret itself. Tradition interprets itself in a symbolic/iconic manner. This method of self interpretation will always maintain the Essence/Energy, equality/hierarchy, ontology/function distinctions. To ordain women would be to erase the distinction. When heaven and earth meet ontology and function must dance. In marriage they make love, an act in which too very different functions make for a unique ontological person, of sorts. At every level of human existence we must have this dance, this making love as it were. If both males and females were ordained we would, in my opinion, no longer have a sacramental priesthood existing in a manner consistent with Triune life. Such an androgynous (pseudo)priesthood would simply be a hyper ontologism that would have no place on earth. It is therefore the opposite of Incarnational. Those who take ontic-centrism too far will, in caricature, follow Origen down the path of emasculation. The notion of "Incarnation" can become abstracted to the point that one ends up with its opposite.
As for the comparison with homosexuality, the difference is that homosexuality (in its modern variation) seeks to make an ontology out of a (perverse) function. I am a homosexual, etc. It is sexual nihilism. Women's ordination is the attempt to functionalize an ontological status of equality. Orthodox, of all people, should understand that ontology does not determine function. At every level we are simply not determinists.

David Bryan said...

As usual, Ochlophobist, you've made my brain sweat.

Anonymous said...

Owen, your earlier comment about the Word being human and male is spot on. I hate to have to correct a bishop, but it seems in order, here. His dichotomy is false and reminds me, in some ways, of Constantine V's false dichotomy on behalf of iconoclasm (though the dichotomies are different, they both misunderstand Christology). Christ is a human male. There is no either/or here. Now, tonsuring female readers--why not? We already practice it. Priestesses? No. Never have practiced it and the Church never shall (any Orthodox "church" that starts doing such is no longer a fully Sacramental presence of the Orthodox Church). David, it is an open question but I think only in the sense that we have not held a council on it. I do not at all think it open theologically. The answer is no. I am friends with at least one person who thinks otherwise, who is Orthodox, and I really respect some of her work on other areas of Orthodox patristics and theology, but on this issue we part.

For the record, when I entered Orthodoxy, I wasn't yet opposed to it. It was only later after thinking about this stuff further in an Orthodox context that I came to dissagree. We are all in the image of Christ, but failing to ask how and in what ways fails to appreciate the significance of both Christ's maleness and our Liturgy, where the priest, at times, clearly stands in for Christ. This last comment may push in the direction of your function/ontic distinction, Owen, but I'll have to think more about it. My gut reaction is to say that what you've said is fine.

Fr. Oliver

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article!

Fr Andrew Phillips, priest of St John the Wonderworker in Felixstowe, wrote an article a while back on how people should very quickly stop calling themselves converts. I tried to find it but he's rearranged his website. One is Orthodox or one isn't. I say I am Orthodox and never feel obliged to prefix it with 'cradle', so why do people who came to it a bit later in life keep saying they're converts? I know if someone was [insert religon] for 40 years it colours their outlook but it's like any other wrong understanding in that it needs worked on to make it go away not enlivened by constant reference. I know I'm way off your post and I apologise but, in the context of the post above, I'm increasingly wondering if so many of the problems folk have with the Orthodox church isn't that they never let go of the remembrance that they are converts.

Olympiada said...

>the issue of sexual orientation remains a cross in this fallen world

So sex is always bad? I asked an Orthodox website about BDSM and they say it's a sin. Even if someone is "orientated" to love that way? See what I wrote at this blogsite. I say they are hypocrites, right? If women are less than Christ, so are they!