Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Friday, 16 January 2015

Sexuality - Discussion with Atheist

Second part of the series on the theme of 'sexuality.' This time, in dialogue with my good friend Michael McKean, a Philosophy & Religious Studies student at the University of Aberdeen. 

Introduction by Michael:
I believe that it is up to the individual how they conduct their sex life, and that they absolutely should not be dictated by some authority, like the Church, or a politician. However if they want to be dictated it is up to the individual. On another note, if somebody performs a sexual act that harms someone against their will, then they should be halted in that endeavour ( because of the harm to the unwilling person ). It cannot be denied that we have a biological need for sexual activity, and that therefore it would be futile to attempt to overcome that instinct completely. However we can limit that need through abstinence, and I consider abstinence a somewhat noble enterprise. That kind of ideology is not for everyone, so therefore they should just engage in their needs to whatever extent they please. 

Personally, I see sexual engagement as a positive activity for the prolongation of humanity, and for the establishment and continuation of emotional relationships between the sexes. 

Are Christians obsessed with sexuality?
Michael : On average Christians are more likely to be obsessed with sexual issues than the non-Christian. An obsession with sexuality usually indicates a troubled view of that issue and I believe that many Christians have a troubled view because they have been compelled to accept a view that the Church maintains. In particular with regards to the perceived holiness of virginity, and that can lead to psychological problems. So I think we should have complete freedom to determine our sex life. 

Alexis: I would admit that within Christianity, it would seem that sexual sins are emphasised far too much, hinting that there may be an underlying obsession with the matter, as you have suggested. However, as I mentioned in the first blog post, sexuality is a powerful drive and human instinct, that must be guided by God and His Church, understood in a healthy, and realistic way. Your position may seem attractive and open-minded,  however we have to remember that not harming anyone else, does not mean we are not harming our own selfs. When taking part in sexual activity, that is based solely on the self, on carnal desires of the flesh, and on personal gain, there are psychological and personal problems that arise. If we base sexuality on the self, and maintain that it is simply a need, then we lose its very essence and purpose. Sexual union between a married couple, is an expression of communion and of love. Communion and love are the complete opposites of self-centredness. When Fr Nikolai Sakharov, was asked by a teenager how we know who our true spouse should be, and how we know we are willing to give our whole lives to that person, he replied 'we see the image of God in them.' This answer tells us many things, but the point which is most relevant for this discussion, is that the human being is created to be in the full image and likeness of God, who is the very definition of love (1 John 4:8). This means that love is natural, personal and relational - bringing together human beings in communion with their Creator, God. For this reason, the Church highlights that 'becoming one flesh' (Gen 2:24, Mark 10:8) is indeed an act of αγάπη (love), a selfless giving of one to the other; a κένωσης (self-emptying of ones own will, and becoming completely receptive to the others will, found in Phillipians 2:7).

When we take on this view of sexuality, as a true gift to humanity, and an expression of intimacy and love that must not be misused, then we will have a healthier and more stable life. Everything which God has created is good (Gen 1), which means we should cherish this gift, protecting and preserving the true purpose of sexuality, as a means of communion between the married couple, and God. The role of the Church, is to guide and protect human relationships, in order for all human beings to obtain this fullness of love and communion. After all, sex is the act of love that brings new life into this world, creating families, the very foundations of our society. I think we can all agree that something which is life-giving, is far from a mere instinctual act of pleasure, but something very meaningful, spiritual and divine. 

In the last and final post of this series, I will continue the discussion about Christianity being 'obsessed with sex' as Michael claimed, dealing with the problem of hyper-sexualisation in todays society and the need for the Church as our guide. Furthermore, I will discuss the debated issue of same-sex marriage, and homosexuality. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Is sexuality condemned by the Church?

This blog post is the first, of a three part series on sexuality. The second post will involve a discussion and debate, with an atheist friend on this matter. This piece consists of an overview, and general discussion on the gift of sexuality, as well as some concentration on the theme of 'lust' in reply to an agnostic friend's question. 

Admittedly, Biblical and patristic writings appear to hold sexuality and sexual pleasure in disfavour, but does this mean that sexuality itself is inherently sinful or evil? Are Christians perhaps obsessed with sexuality? Firstly, the reason for the Church's writings and teachings repeatedly warning us of the temptations and possible corruption associated with sexual behaviour, is that sexuality is of course a great, sometimes extreme, power, inclination and natural tendency, sometimes leading us to sin. However, the Church never condemns sexuality per se, and provides us with a realistic, and optimistic approach to this sacred part of human life. The Church is very aware of the constant struggle, each and every human being has to make in order to control sexual temptations:

'Preserve us from the gloomy slumber of sin and from the dark passions of the night. Calm the impulses of carnal desires, quench the fiery darts of the evil one which are craftily directed against us. Still the rebellions of the flesh, and put far from us all anxiety and worldly care.' (Prayer to our Lord, Compline )

This prayer highlights that our human sexuality can at times be perverse, causing unhealthy, anxious, unclean thoughts and acts which are contrary to God's will. The allusion to sexual lust in this particular prayer is clear, and the importance of preserving chastity (whether in marriage or in a celibate life) is also emphasised. However, it is important to see that this prayer underscores the power of sexual temptation, and does not condemn the gift of sexuality at all. God created mankind with a sexual appetite, and this, like the whole of creation, has a purpose. (Gen 2:24)

As an essential function of human nature, gender permits procreation, which from 'the beginning' ( therefore not merely a consequence of the fall ) is blessed by our Creator, as the means whereby persons bearing His image can participate in His creative activity. (Gen 1:28, 2:23-24) It enables man and woman to fulfil the command to 'multiply and fill the earth', as well as fulfilling each other through their complementary expression of love.

The Gift of Sexuality as a Sacramental Quality
The expression of human sexual love is intended to serve as an image, or icon of the nuptial bond that unites Christ with His Church. It can only do so within the context of Christian marriage, as this is the only context that allows gender and its sexual expression to assume an authentic sacramental quality. Christos Yannaras expresses this beautifully:

'In the mystery of marriage, the Church intervenes to give sexual love its full dimensions, to free the loving power in man from its subjection to natural necessity, and to manifest in the unity of man and wife an image of the Church and the gift of true life.'

Sexuality, or rather sexual relations within Christian marriage, should not be separated or seen as contrary to spiritual life in Christ. Marriage, just like celibacy and monasticism, is a spiritual struggle, grounded in love and repentance. The Church highlights that marriage transforms pride, into tender affection, as well as self-centred lust ( which as we have seen from the example of the Compline prayer, is what we must struggle against ) into self-sacrificing devotion. One of the main aspects of Christian life, is giving to the other, rather than keeping for the self.. and Christ and His Church highlight that this gift of sexuality, should be directed to the other person, in love, rather than a fulfilment of our own carnal desires.

'If God didn't want us to lust, then why does lusting seem so natural and instinctive?' (Question sent from an agnostic friend)

'I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.' (Matt 5:28)

Feelings for the opposite sex are natural. It is when we obsessively dwell on these feelings and thoughts that problems arise, and this is when we fall into lust.  What we can, and are able to do, is not necessarily natural or good. We have the ability to harm our fellows... in fact you could say it is natural to show hatred towards others, and cause harm to others since these feelings can also be instinctual - however, we realise that these feelings do not bring about anything positive, but are simply wrong. All feelings, which can test us, should be redirected from the self, to God and the good for our brothers and sisters. Likewise, sexuality must be sanctioned by God and inspired by the Holy Spirit, used for purposes that God intended. Like all feelings, and physical attributes, through its misuse and abuse, sexuality can be perverted and corrupted - becoming an instrument of sin, rather than the means for glorifying God. The teaching of St Paul on sexuality is analogous to his teaching about eating and drinking, as well as all bodily functions. They are given by God for spiritual reasons, to be used for His glory. In themselves, they are holy and pure, but when misused and self-centred, they become the instrument of sin and death. For this reason, when one commits a sexual sin, the bitterness and guilt which follows can be great and painful. St Paul, the apostle, makes it very clear that all sexual perversions have as their direct cause man's rebellion against God - so if one does not at least try to obtain a good relationship with Christ, and fellow human beings, then their actions will reflect this. This is not to say that Christians are not tempted ( in fact many would argue that we are tested to an even greater extent ), but people of prayer and repentance will continuously 'fight the good fight' (1 Tim 6:12), struggling against their passions, redirecting their energies and feelings to the love and glory of God.

Sources: 'The Sacred Gift of Life', by John Breck
      (Orthodox Church of America)

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The 'god' of our gaps

The reality is that many troubled human beings, who are going through a personal crisis, a lack of confidence, relational and social issues, or perhaps physical and mental health problems, will turn to, and embrace, the idea of the existence of God, and the Christian life. As my good friend, theologian Demetri Salapatas writes:
'Pain, illness misfortune, and any difficulty should be seen as a blessing, allowing us to reach theosis, to reach the true communion with God. That is why it is crucial we respond to these instances, in order to reach our ultimate objective in life..salvation.' ('Will only the Orthodox Christians be Saved', Σπουδάγματα 2014) 

However, there is an unfortunate tendency, in these problematic situations which we find ourselves in, to create our own god of our own problems and gaps. Of course it is understandable that when we are in a vulnerable situation, we will become more prayerful, asking for God's help and mercy - but at the same time, when He answers our prayers, gives us what is best for us, heals our illnesses, do we then continue praying in thanksgiving and appreciation? Usually, we do not. If things do not appear to be going our way, and we are left at the deep end, the god of our own desires and needs certainly exists and we are suddenly pious and thirsty for a 'spiritual' uplift. In these cases,  it is more of a temporary psychological need, that fills in our own insecurities. We completely romanticise the reality of God, His will, what a relationship with Him actually entails and means, as well as the Christian life. Of course Christ healed and saved His servants Who ran to Him, being in vulnerable situations, sickness and disease.. however throughout the Gospel, these people, running to the Lord with hope, were prepared to give up everything for Him, and would have continued their lives sharing this hope and love with their fellows. Saint Lazarus was resurrected from the dead by Christ, for a reason. He went out establishing Christ's Church, preaching and proclaiming His Gospel. In this same way, we must respond to the answers to our prayer - by glorifying God's name, sharing His love with the people who lack it, and bearing spiritual fruit. Christ tells us He is 'The Way, and the truth, and the life..' (John 14:6), which means a never ending commitment and struggle, the very meaning of our individual lives, rather than an 'add-on' to our daily routines, or a contact in the phonebook in case of a crisis or emergency. I wonder how many people believe in 'god', and pray, when they are searching for a partner, when they have certain social relational problems and needs, or when their flight suddenly hits severe turbulence. Does getting out of a difficult situation, automatically mean we are free from the need of a relationship with our Creator? A very good example is when we visit monasteries - we often read spiritually uplifting books, discuss theology, dress piously, often sensing and experiencing the presence of God; and when this visit comes to an end, in which direction do we steer our lives? Do we go back down the road we came from, existing as the complete opposite character, or should we perhaps make this peaceful, spiritual and fruitful few days an everyday reality within the context of our family lives? 

Even though God, as Father of all, will of course answer everyones humble prayers, it is clear that when we only approach, believe and trust in Him when it suits us, in a time of need and pain, our relationship with Him will never grow, and our faith will simply be in vain. Frequent prayer and communion with our Lord and God, renews, refreshes and maintains a stable and growing relationship with Him, and this is needed in order to experience and witness His true existence and love. The 'god' of our minds, troubles and needs is something entirely different, to the personal, true, saving and loving God, revealed to us through history, its people, and above all through His body, the Church. 

Friday, 2 January 2015

'God is not all-powerful if there is something He cannot do!'

Many seem to think this is a tremendous argument (from an atheistic point of view), 'catching out' Christianity and its views on the nature of God. However, God is not subject to fate, or limited roles within the cosmos. The Orthodox Doctrine of God specifies that God's ontology is subject to His perfect free-will... Why is He good? Because He wills good. Why does He not lie? Because He wills to be honest. Why does He exist as Trinity? Because He wills it. The fact that God does not do something in one instance or another, is not because He does not have the ability, but because that is His good will. 

An argument based on strict logical word games can render the idea of 'all powerful' or 'omnipotent' self-defeating. This becomes very clear when one considers the classic question 'Can God create a rock so big that He can't lift it?' For a Christian, calling God all-powerful simply means that all power and authority are God's. The answer to this question would be that God cannot overpower Himself, and this fact is not confounding, but it stresses the point that there is no greater power than God, so much so that one is forced to pit God against Himself in order to find His equal.

With guidance from :
( Where you can find answers to all these refutable atheist 'arguments' ) 

Saint John the Russian

St John the Russian was born in 1690, in Ukraine. At a young age he was recruited to the army of Peter the Great, taking part in the Russo-Turkish war. During the war, he was held captive and sold to slavery to the turkish cavalry, where he was taken to the commander's home in the town of Prokopion, near Caesarea in Asia Minor. 

Even though John was humiliated and tormented, he refused to adopt Islam. As time went on, his master's heart softened as he witnessed his holy slave endure pain and torture with unfading faith, love and humility - consequently assigning him to take care of his stable, which also became John's living quarters. Recalling the lowly Bethlehem cave and manger where our Saviour first lay His head, the blessed John rejoiced in his new dwelling place. 

'My patron is Lord, and no one is above Him. He predestined me to live as a slave in a foreign land... it must be so for my salvation.'

John would leave his stable occasionally, to keep vigil at the nearby church of the Great Martyr George, where he would also receive Holy Communion on saturdays and feasts. Through his prayerfulness and obedience to God, he miraculously helped his master and his family on many occasions, leaving a great impression on them; eventually making them realise that he was indeed a man of God and prayer, in whom they could trust. For this reason they tried to persuade blessed John to change dwelling place, but the Saint preferred to live amongst the animals in the stable, fulfilling his duties there, and continuing steadfast in his ascetic struggles and prayer for others.

Later in his life, he fell ill and called for a priest in order to partake of the Eucharist. The priest, who feared the fanaticism of the Turks, could not have brought the Holy Communion openly to the stable, so placed the Holy Mysteries into the core of an apple, lining the cavity with beeswax. This way, he was able to take Communion to St John. Upon receiving the immaculate Body and Blood of Christ, blessed John surrendered his soul into the hands of God Whom he loved with all his heart. He reposed in the Lord on the 27th of May, 1730.

Until 1924, the Saint's relics were kept in the church of St George in Procopion, however when the exchange of population took place between Greece and Turkey,  many of the Christian inhabitants of Procopion were settling on the island of Euboia , and so did his holy relics. They were received with great veneration and love by the Greeks, who built a holy church and shrine in his honour, in the village of New Procopion ( Euboia ). 

Saint John the Russian is today one of the most popular Saints among Greeks. His incorrupt relics are the boast of the island of Euboia, and many visit his shrine on a daily basis. Countless miracles occur from his relics and icons, where the Holy and Life Giving Spirit dwells and works through this great Saint, who has been sanctified. Saint John was neither a hierarch, nor an eloquent theologian - however he was a true man of God, living most of his life in humility and simplicity in that holy stable.

News of his miracles spread quickly among many Muslim Turks, resulting in them referring to him as 'Wali' ( Saint ). This realisation of his holiness and their personal reverence towards him did not change the way St John lived. He would still spend his days working hard and praying. St John the Russian was also given a Christian burial by order of his master, as a token of the family's appreciation, respect and love for the saint. They also provided him with an expensive cloth, to cover his sanctified relics.