Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Converts and Straw Men

Recently I came across an online Washington Post book review about ‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture, by an author named James Boyce. The review (by Michael Dirda) summarizes points made by the author, some of which I could refute along the way, and concludes with these words.

“Ultimately, original sin, he argues, isn’t about humanity’s exile from Paradise but God’s exodus from earth.’
“’For in a sense,’ he concludes, ‘the history of the West is an account of what happened when a people were brought up to believe that their deity had turned his back on his own creation.’ What we need now, he suggests, is to bring grace back to earth, to understand that the care of our world is intertwined with the care of our souls.”

The immediate reaction of any knowledgeable Christian ought to be a complete rejection of this description of the doctrine of Original Sin. It is not even accurate enough to be a caricature. Obviously, the Gospel is about the Logos Himself, incarnate to save the world from sin and death. The Gospel does not call on us to “bring grace back to earth,” because God Himself has been giving His grace all along, especially in the coming of His Son, who died for our sins and rose again, and has sent the Holy Spirit to the Church.

          I came across the review because my brother (no – the other one) posted it on Facebook, where it became a topic of discussion. Because the book focuses on “the west” I knew what to expect, and sure enough I was not disappointed. In the comments was a link to a website where one could read the Eastern Orthodox doctrine that supposedly corrects this grievous western error. I am willing to believe that the person who posted that link was trying to be charitable. Nonetheless, it was insulting; why would a member of the Orthodox Church actually think that the “western” doctrine of Original Sin teaches that God exited the earth and turned His back on His creation? No one has ever taught any such thing in the history of Christian theology.

          In the days that followed a young convert to Orthodoxy postulated, also on Facebook, that the Orthodox view of man provides the best way to heal people of addiction. That may be so in some hypothetical and unproven way; but I pointed out, accurately, that the people who in fact have the best track record of helping people overcome addiction are Pentecostals. This has been widely recognized since David Wilkerson founded Teen Challenge. It is no matter of pride for me, an Anglican Catholic, to give this credit to others. It is simply a fact, and we ought to give credit where credit is due.

          However, the theme of my young friend’s post was that the “western” view of the Fall is responsible for causing addiction. Maybe the idea came to him from reading the same book review. I cannot say for sure, but the thinking was along the same lines.

          I have encountered this before, converts to Orthodoxy who are quick to pounce on anything “western” because they see us as a mission field. The symptom of this delusion that seems most disturbing is that they seem unable to remember the beliefs they had held before swimming the Bosporus. Let them think back to a time when they were also “western” Christians, and recall that they never believed such things as they now ascribe to us. That is because they were never taught such things, for these ideas are alien to all of Christianity, east or west.

          When coming across silly modern atheists, the ones my brother (yes – that one) has described so well in Atheist Delusions and in The Experience of God, I have repeatedly heard something to the effect of “I don’t believe in the man in the sky with the long white beard.” My response is simple: “Thank you, I don’t believe in Zeus either.” Well, from such an unlearned and unthinking lot as admirers of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, such dribble is to be expected. They cannot disappoint me because I expect so little.

          But, from other Christians! Several years ago I saw long detailed ramblings by a young convert to Orthodoxy, one who came from a background I know well, explaining that “western” theology believes in a false god, one that is not Wholly Other, but instead merely the highest Being in an order of beings that includes all created things as well. And, this was blamed on all the usual suspects, rounded up neatly, such as Augustine and Anselm, and was also firmly intertwined with the introduction of filioque. Really, it was in response to him, rather than the atheists, that I first used the words “I don’t believe in Zeus.” And, I never have.

          It takes more than a long stretch of the imagination to ascribe such nonsense to “western” Christianity. It takes amnesia on the part of converts (assuming they had ever learned anything before), and blissful ignorance on the part of some life long members of the Orthodox Church who might buy that line. But, at the end of the day it is based on nothing genuine or accurately understood. Really, if one wants to state disagreement with some theological view that is widespread in the west, it would be far preferable, to us, if they would cease from setting up straw men to shoot down. For that is nothing but a distraction.



Anonymous said...

It gets even better if you are a protestant. Every time one of the Orthodox makes a ridiculous statement, another pounces and screams, "What is this protestantism!?" My only solace is the back channels with the educated are different in character. They will instead simply state what they believe. I can am free to agree or not.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I remember one, years ago, telling me about the western doctrine that God the Father took delight in, as in received pleasure from, the suffering of His Son. I replied, rather heatedly, that nobody has ever taught any such thing. He never said anything that stupid to me again.

AFS1970 said...

Some of these arguments don't even make sense. If God had abandoned the world, sending his some would be a poor way to show such abandonment. Why would anyone worship an absent God in the first place, it would seem to me to be pure folly to do so and most likely that such an absent God would be uninterested in the worship of those he left in the first place. As for the addiction being caused by this abandonment, well it seems to me that nowhere in any version of scripture will you find any claim that God is a fan of addiction. As a matter of fact being a drunkard is spoken of quite poorly. So if I wanted to encourage this supposedly absent god to come back, despite my fall, I think addiction would hardly be the solution to the problem.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The only substantial difference between east and west regarding original sin, is the western notion of inherited guilt

Diane said...

How do I like this on Facebook? Hat tip to John Beeler for directing me here.

Unknown said...

What is even more bizarre about so much of this is the fact that the true eastern Christians, Copts, Syrians, Chaldeans etc. consider Byzantium to be part of the western church. Personally, I had no idea that God's kingdom was so tied to geography.