Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Sunday, 29 March 2015

St Mary of Egypt


St Mary of Egypt is commemorated today, the fifth Sunday of Lent. Rather than the Holy Church commemorating a great apostle, evangelist, or martyr on this Sunday leading to Holy Week and Pascha, it remembers someone who began her life as a prostitute. She fell into the passions of the body to a great extent, offering herself to men for seventeen years. Refusing money from the men who she copulated with, Mary made her living from begging and spinning flax.

One day she met a group of young men who were shortly heading towards Jerusalem in order to venerate the Holy Cross of our Lord. Mary decided to join the group in order to seduce them along their way - however as they arrived in Jerusalem and were entering the church, Mary was prohibited from entering by an unseen, divine force. After three attempts she remained outside the church; where her life miraculously changed. This force was essentially a wake up call, a call for repentance, and an invitation to turn her life around and follow Christ, the source of joy and life.

Mary renounced her worldly desires, and accepted this calling from God to live a life of repentance, chastity, and holiness - a life which we are all called to live. Though she realised and accepted that she had to point her life in the direction of Christ, she was still faced with constant desires and passions for seventeen years. However, her humility, patience, ascetic way of life and love for God led to the overcoming of her passions and a truly holy and prayerful life in the desert.

After forty-seven years in solitude, Mary met St Zosima who was searching for holy ascetics in the area. She recounted her wonderful story to him, and asked him to return the following year so that she may receive Holy Communion. The following year, St Zosima yet again returned to visit this holy lady, however she had passed away, with her name written on the sand, as well as a message revealing that she had died immediately after receiving the Holy Mysteries the year before.

Saint Mary was given the opportunity of a new beginning, a relationship and communion with Christ, just as we all are given this opportunity of repentance and confession. The Church reminds us of this great Saint who turned away from all her previous mistakes and passions, rising up from the deep pit of sin and repenting with tears, fervent prayer, and boundless love for our Saviour and Lord. God's mercy truly transcends any sin, and can transform any human being, leading them back onto the path of salvation. St Mary's experience and story is beautiful for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly because it shows that especially during the period of lent, no matter how many times we have 'fallen short of the glory of God' (Rom 3:23) it is our time to accept the Lord's calling for repentance and a renewed life with Him. For this reason the Church tells us to look forward, to how we will act later in the day, how much effort we will put into our lenten fast from now (rather than dwelling on our leniency and lack of effort during previous weeks), who we will forgive, feed and pray for, fighting 'the good fight,' carrying the cross in preparation for the Risen Christ on Holy and Great Pascha. Only through this fight (that was fought by Saint Mary having accepted the road of fasting and repentance) are we able to experience and witness the joy of Christ's glorious resurrection personally.


'The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother,
for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. 
By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away;
But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal.
Therefore your spirit, O holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the Angels.'

Troparion of St Mary of Egypt

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

St Justin Popovic on the Incarnation as 'The Meaning of Life and of the World'

Saint Justin Popovic proclaims that the very meaning of life, is founded upon the fact that 'the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.' (John 1:14) 


He writes, 'the whole Gospel, of heaven and earth, really consists of four words: the Word became flesh.' These words are crucial to the understanding of our existence, as the Word became 'Θεο-σάρξ' (God-flesh) in such a manner that neither God ceases to be God, nor does flesh cease to be flesh. Flesh, in its mystical and real union with God, lives and radiates all the perfections of God. He tells us that these words from St John's Gospel mean that the Word has become soul, Θεο-ψυχή (God-soul), but nevertheless God remains God, and the soul soul. Only now however, does the soul 'walk in the streets of the eternal and joyful mysteries of God'. Similarly,  the Word becoming flesh means that the Word has become sense - and again, in doing so, God does not cease to be God. Sense continues to be human sense, however the difference is that our senses live in divine infinity ( or non-limitation). Furthermore, the Word has become 'κτίσμα, Θεο-κτίσμα' (a divine creature). Only now are creatures able to be transformed 'from glory to glory.' Finally, St Justin writes that John 1:14 means that the Word has become man - fully man, God-man. Therefore, man finally acquires divine eternity and divine glory, with the opportunity of becoming one with God. 

God the Word became man in order to reset, or rather renew mankind back to his archetype and Creator. Man has been created, through God the Word, with this very goal and purpose - union with 'Our Father' (Matthew 6:9). God is the very foundation, and basis of existence and of life. 'For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.' (1 Cor 3:11) St Justin writes, 'Our origin is God, and for this reason our very being, life and existence is completely dependant on God.' 'All creation is from the Word, and through the Word'   : 

'For in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities - all things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.' (Col 1:16-17)

To conclude, ' by Christ's birth,  He has given us the revelation and meaning of both the mystery of man, as well as the mystery of Heaven and earth.' Through the Lord's birth, we are granted full revelation of God's truth, His justice, as well as His mercy and love. 

It is on this day, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, that we celebrate the Virgin Mary's acceptance to deliver the incarnate Word of God - God taking on flesh and becoming man, building the bridge between humanity and divinity, granting salvation, joy and the very meaning to our existence. 

With guidance from :  Οσίου Ιουστίνου Πόποβιτς 'Φιλοσοφικοί Κρημνοί,'  Ι.Μ Χιλανδαρίου,1969 (141-149)

Monday, 16 March 2015

Saint Alexios - the Man of God

The rare title, "Man of God," was bestowed on St Alexios for the manner in which he gave his whole self, and sacrificed everything for Jesus Christ, forsaking a bride even at the altar in order to fulfil the will of the Lord. 


St Alexios was born in 380 AD in the city of Rome during the reign of Theodosios the Great and was raised in a royal household by his loving parents, Ephemios and Aglaia. The couple were childless for a number of years, and constantly prayed to the Lord to grant them a child. Answering their fervent prayers, God granted them their son, Alexios. Though they realised their son (as a young man) had a divine calling to serve God and His Church,  they could not stand the thought of losing him. Consequently, they sought to discourage him from this, and arranged for his marriage. In respecting his parents wishes, he reluctantly suppressed the call he felt to the Lord's service and agreed to the marriage, until he had a vision of St Paul, who said he should answer this call to God at all costs, proclaiming the words "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37)

The bewildered Alexios was torn between his sense of duty to his parents and the urge to serve the Lord.  With much thought, he decided to go through with what he had promised his family. However, as he stood before the altar as the wedding ceremony came to a close, he looked upon the Cross of Jesus Christ, and walked away from his bride, family and friends in order to answer and fulfil God's will and calling.

After eighteen years in a Syrian Monastery, Alexios was transformed into a respected and holy man, whose solemn and strong dedication to Christ was recognised by the wider monastic community. Unlike other monks, he was a man of few words, and left preaching and speeches to other brothers, while he concentrated on writing on the Christian Faith.


Saint Alexios had a great urge to visit Tarsus, the birthplace of Saint Paul. The boat he travelled on to reach his desired destination went through a violent storm, blowing the vessel off course and in serious danger. A passing ship, on route to Rome, picked him up - and he found himself back in the city of his birth. He returned to his family estate, where he (albeit anonymously) served his family and many others as a spiritual father and guide. 

He went about his duties in Rome with grace, acquiring respect and admiration from many families in the area. When he felt death drawing near,  Saint Alexios movingly expressed his great love towards his family, by leaving a letter. The letter was read and appreciated by his family, as well as by the bishop of Rome, who had him buried in the chapel of St Peter. He died in Christ on the 17th of March 440AD, after thirty-four years of celibacy and devotion to our Lord Who 'shall reign for ever and ever.' (Exodus 15:18)

Saint Alexios, 'the Man of God,' who's name I unworthily bear, is an example to us all, as he did not conform to the world, but was transformed by Christ (Rom 12:1-2) by accepting, and living by God's holy will. 


 - The head of St Alexios was given as a gift to the Great Lavra Monastery of Mount Athos, by the Emperor Emmanuel Paleologos in 1398. 


Sources: 
 - 'St Alexios, Man of God', by Fr George Poulos, from Orthodox Saints v.2, Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
 - oca.org ( Orthodox Church in America ) 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

God in Aristotle’s Metaphysics


Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics is a collection of his writings from the year 350B.C.E. This collection, literally meaning ‘after the Physics,’ from ‘μετά τα φυσικά,’ consists of a range of arguments investigating the things that exist. It is not a unified piece of work on a specific enquiry, but a general enquiry that goes beyond the cataloguing of things (physics), investigating ‘being qua being,’ - being understood as being. This essay will begin with a brief introduction to the foundation of how Aristotle’s understanding of God arose, followed by a detailed account and commentary on the kind of a Deity he is referring to. I will then refer to the writings of Catriona Hanley, as well as David Bradshaw, discussing their comments on the text. Finally, I will briefly show how the God of Aristotle’s Metaphysics has influenced Christianity’s well known theologians Augustine and Aquinas.

Aristotle’s study of the divine begins with his assertion that in order for movement to occur, something has to affect it. Movement cannot exist without previous movement - and of course this process points to a problem of infinite regress. There simply cannot be an infinite regress of movers, because if this were true, then nothing could have started this process of movement. Aristotle therefore comes to the conclusion that there are ‘unmoved movers,’ that are unseen and undeniable. Unmoved movers cause movement through their power of attraction - which for Aristotle, proves their goodness. They are responsible for all the good in the world. 

Aristotle seeks to explain what makes a primary cause (or unmoved mover). He is not interested in tracing causes and movements back through time, but rather to discern what the first causes actually are. Aristotle’s study of the divine (Aristotelian theology) dismisses the ancient greek gods of the pantheon, however these gods are elaborations of a greater truth. This truth is the first cause, and the unmoved mover. He understands that there are objects which must be in eternal motion, so for this reason it would equate that there are eternal unmoved movers. The eternal heavens must be moved by a mover ‘which moves without being moved, eternal and a substance and actual.’ This is a very important claim, as ‘the subject of our inquiry is substance;for the principles and the causes we are seeking are those of substances.’ Substances, for Aristotle, exist in a primary way, and are not dependant on anything else. ( as opposed to accidents ) They are knowable and can be conceptualised, but more importantly substances are independently existent, as the unmovable mover cannot be dependant on anything else. They ‘can exist apart.’ These substances are the source of all movements and modifications, as they are the ultimate sources of desire, responsible for all the goodness in the world. For this reason, many understand the first causes as being providential, in the sense that they are responsible for the arrangement of the natural world, existing for a good purpose. It is here that we can see the connection between Theology (the study of God) and Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics.’ These first causes of motion, link with the causal aspects of the Divine. Aristotle writes that if there are substances outside and beyond nature, the science which investigates them must be a primary philosophy, suggesting the investigation of divine existence, and their attributes. It would seem that for Aristotle, the unmoved movers are actual (from έντελέχεια, actuality) rather than potential (from δύναμις, potentiality). Actual means they are perfect, and in fullness of being, as well as eternal and an immaterial substance. All material things have potentiality, in that they are formed of material, and are imperfect and incomplete. 


So, for Aristotle, God, as the eternal prime mover, is immaterial. His life is one of ‘νοήσεως νόησις,’ self-contemplative thought, in that He cannot be distracted potentially from His eternal self-contemplation. God, Who everything depends upon, appears to be in this eternal state of goodness, fullness and pleasure: 

"On such a principle, then, depend the heavens and the world of nature…since its actuality is also pleasure…And thinking in itself deals with that which is best in itself’

This concept of God, the unmoved mover, as being perfectly good is rather interesting. Aristotle tells us we will only be in this good state of thought (which the prime mover is always in) occasionally. This certainly links with much of Christian theology today, as God is the source and definition of goodness, and it is humanity’s goal to reach the heights of divinity, with Him as our end. Aristotle also implies there is a standard of good - the Divine, which we should in a way look up to. ‘God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are..’ 

God is described as ‘thought of thought,’ in other words God does not think about anything which causes Him to change in any way, but simply thinks of Himself. From these assertions, Aristotle concludes that God only knows Himself, with no knowledge of, or plan for the physical world. Augustine elaborates on this statement, by writing ‘singula propriis rationibus a Deo creata sunt.’ sunt - God knows His own essence perfectly; and He knows it in all the ways in which it is knowable…’ Furthermore, He is not affected by the world that we inhabit, and therefore it would seem God has no personal relations and connections with human beings. Due to His nature, consisting of full actuality, something potential simply cannot be connected to God, as this would cause an absence of the actuality that God perfectly has. In summary, God in Aristotle’s metaphysics appears to be the prime mover, Who is immaterial, eternal, transcendent of the physical world, purely spiritual and intellectual, Who’s activity is that of unchangeable thought.

Catriona Hanley argues that as the prime mover, God, is an ‘αιτία’ (the cause) of the eternal shift from potentiality to actuality. This means that God is the ‘ground for the attainment of form.’ For Aristotle, unlike his teacher Plato, the form of an object is not an abstract idea, but is within the object’s structure. God is the source, and ground of the continued manifestation of form in the world, as He is pure form. Hanley highlights the fact that humans do not fit into God’s plan, according to Aristotle.  Although the responsibility for the ordered cosmos falls on God, God simply fits the human plan, in that without the notion of a prime mover there would be no rational order within the cosmos. God, as an ουσία (substance), means He cannot be present in the world as an abstraction. Interestingly, Catriona Hanley points out that for Aristotle, God (as αιτία) is the ground of the workings of the physical universe, but is also an αρχή (principle) - and principles relate to scientific knowledge, making it possible to have knowledge of universal grounds. God is an αρχή because His existence (as pure form) makes universal knowledge of form possible. We can see that for Hanley, God in Aristotle’s metaphysics is responsible for the continued presence of form, and universal knowledge - implying that God, as the supreme subject and source of thought, motivates us and attracts us towards understanding and rationality. However, the human role in creating a necessary God of reason alone does not appear to be at the forefront of Aristotle’s metaphysics, as Martin Heidegger points out. To summarise Hanley’s commentary, as the supreme αρχή, and αιτία, God is the primary cause of qua being.

Hanley points out that Aristotle’s metaphysics, as an enquiry of being and the knowledge of ‘what is,’ (as opposed to what is not) searches for the presence of beings in particular. This concept of presence seems rather strange as Aristotle makes it clear that God is unable to interact with, or have a relationship with humanity and the entire physical world. Surely presence is only felt or known when there is some form of interaction? However, in ‘Metaphysics,’ God is not physically present, but eternally present, and in fact the very ground of the presence of beings. In Heidegger’s view, Aristotle does not in fact connect the relationship between beings, and God as the unifier of beings. This view does indeed make sense, because in Aristotle’s writing the importance lies in the fact God is the eternal and transcendent prime mover, not focussing at all on His presence. On the other hand,  it would be difficult to refute the idea of Aristotle having the notion of God’s presence at all, as God’s eternal presence is clearly motion, form and rationality.

David Bradshaw draws attention to the fundamental shift which takes place in Aristotle’s discussion on God. Aristotle describes God’s activity as a constant state of thought and pleasure (ηδονή η ενέργεια τούτου), which is rather unexpected, as up to this moment he has portrayed the prime mover as simply the cause of motion. Only after asserting the fact that the eternal unmoved mover is a living, thinking ‘actual’ being, does Aristotle refer to it as ‘God.’

‘It is a life such as the best which we enjoy, and enjoy for but a short time (for it is ever in this state, which we cannot be), since its actuality is also pleasure…We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God.’ 

This leap from a rather elementary and uninvolved prime mover, to a God who’s activity is that of goodness and love (‘κινεί ως ερώμενον’) does begin to , albeit slightly, resemble the Christian God Who ‘is love.’ (1 John 4:8) Of course Aristotle does not go as far as saying God is personal, and this is perhaps the main difference between the Creator and Lord of the Old and New Testaments, and Aristotle’s description of God. One could question why Aristotle thinks that God must be real, if the mover’s only role is to ‘serve as an ideal for the first heaven to imitate.’ However, Augustine would argue that this is a central mode of revelation - the vision and concept of God as truth, enjoyed by the intellect. It is certainly through his own intellect, that Aristotle realises there is indeed a prime mover, a perfect and all-good God. For Augustine, this intellectual process, consisting of observation and investigation, leads to reality and truth, and vitally, the knowledge of God. Furthermore, Augustine’s ‘Doctrine of Simplicity’ asserts that God, as divine nature, has no accidents (is not necessary) which is of course routed in Aristotle’s metaphysics, consisting of his own assertion. There are no divisions or distinctions in God’s nature, and so His entirety is attributed to Him, highlighting the view that He is utterly transcendent of all else. Thomas Aquinas’ perspectives on God are highly influenced by Aristotle’s ‘prime mover’ (his cosmological argument being a development of this), as well as Augustine’s ‘Doctrine of Simplicity.’ We can see these clear aristotelian concepts throughout ‘the Summa Contra Gentiles,’ with Aquinas concluding that God is ‘actus purus.’ (pure act)

To conclude, I have summarised what kind of God is portrayed within Aristotle’s Metaphysics, with an overview, followed by references to writers such as David Bradshaw and Catriona Hanley, as well as to the connections to Christian theology, with Augustine and Aquinas as examples. 





Bibliography:

Aristotle, Metaphysics (translated by W.D Ross) Book XII.
Bradshaw, D 2004, Aristotle East and West, Cambridge : CUP, 27-31.
Gilson, E 1990. The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 157.
Hanley, C 2000, Being and God in Aristotle and Heidegger, Oxford: R&L, 89-94.
On Aristotle’s Teleology, 127-135.
The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle 1995, 103-105.
Weigel, P, Divine Simplicity (within the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Monday, 9 March 2015

Science, Religion & Atheism

This essay will argue that contemporary atheist accounts of the relationship between science and religion are unsatisfactory and unconvincing. By referring to the writings of contemporary atheists, and a selection of their arguments, this piece of writing will highlight particularly common features of their arguments which make their accounts unconvincing. Firstly, the failure to recognise both science’s limits, and the contribution of religion in humanity’s quest for truth and meaning; and secondly the misrepresentation of religion, through extreme examples which are far from the reality of mainstream religious faith. Furthermore, I will present examples of how Christianity, and religion in general, undoubtedly fulfil the deeper needs of humanity, responding to the questions which often arise out of scientific discovery, but which cannot be answered by science. Discussions on the different roles of science and religion will inevitably lead to the proposal that contemporary atheism should not dismiss religion, but acknowledge its importance, its contribution today and throughout history, for the good of humanity. 

It is important to remember that science seeks to describe the forms and processes of this world. However,it refrains from (or perhaps cannot) make observations on issues of value and meaning. Thomas H. Huxley, a supporter of Darwin, makes this very point long before the writings of contemporary atheists, declaring that science ‘commits suicide when it adopts a creed.’ This means that if science is taken over by fundamentalists, whether atheist or religious, its very principle is overthrown, with its authority and credibility compromised. The experimental method, notably comprised of the accumulation of evidence through observation, must be blind to, and unconcerned by race, gender, or religion - particularly with regards to its researchers.   

Contemporary atheists do not see compatibility between science and religion. Their view is that science can only look down upon religion, as a multifaceted phenomenon, from its soaring heights of knowledge and rationality. Science can observe religion, explaining this ‘psychological state’ which believers appear to be in, along with their ‘drug-induced hallucinations’ and ecstasy. This attitude of superiority over religious faith is found throughout the writings of contemporary atheists -conveying religion as childish and unintellectual. Richard Dawkins for example argues that recent scientific discoveries shatter the illusion of created design, and that these discoveries are in fact alternatives to inferior religious thoughts and ideas, rather than compatible. When posed with the question ‘how did life get here?,’ Dawkins argues that one should choose the intellectual path of science, reason and evidence to answer this question; pointing to natural selection. For him, natural selection is the only workable solution to this question, with the argument from design being simply too improbable, and in fact refuted by Darwin’s discovery. In his book ‘The God Delusion,’ Dawkins states that as science continues to advance  and break new boundaries, religion will have no part to play in answering such questions on existence, with the idea of God eventually ‘having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.’ Therefore, religious belief desperately grips onto the small gaps of knowledge which limitless science has still to discover and explain. This is not remotely convincing, as the world’s ‘actual and observable’ not only define science, but also define its limitations . Although Dawkins, in ‘The God Delusion,’ is quick to question religious morality and its fruitfulness he contradicts himself by stating ‘science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.’ On the other hand, Sam Harris argues that science and rationality alone can solve ethical problems, as long as we agree to morality being a question of happiness and suffering. He suggests we use a scientific method when faced with a ‘right or wrong’ dilemma, based on our intuition. There is indeed a moral code engrained in each person, acting as a guide,  which Christians would refer to as our ‘human conscience.’ However the issue with Sam Harris’ approach, as he suggests himself, is that our human reasoning and intuition has ‘been known to fail.’ This is perhaps where contemporary atheists such as Harris could acknowledge for example, the contribution being made by the Christian Church, in its effort to guide human conscience and intuition towards the good, with its goal of preserving life and love.

It is quite clear that science alone simply cannot answer some, if not many of humanity’s questions, specifically with regard to morality. It is easy for Dawkins to say that humanity can easily live harmoniously without the idea of God, or without religious moral guidance. However one of the fundamental principles of natural selection is the survival of the fittest. In practice, this could mean feeding yourself instead of your weak neighbour, or making sure you alone are financially stable, rather than sharing your possessions with people less fortunate. This mentality clearly goes against our human conscience, as well as the basis of Christian life. Love, humility, charity and compassion are virtues we could scientifically survive without - but we generally strive to keep these self sacrificing, arguably spiritual attributes of man, as we realise they benefit the human psyche and society. 

Dawkins seems to hold the view that questions such as ‘why does anything exist?’ or ‘why are we here?’ are rather inferior and childish, and science has no part to play in answering such questions. Perhaps this is precisely the point. Science clearly has its limits. This appears to be the main issue concerning contemporary atheist accounts on the relationship between science and religion. They appear to dismiss the basic premises which are the foundation for the arguments of the opposing (religious) group. No one can deny the profound spiritual and religious need, thirst and fulfilment of humanity, whether one believes in, or approves of it or not. There are around 2.2 billion Christians in the world, and many more religious believers, living and experiencing their faith - this must not be dismissed. For contemporary atheists, and particularly for Dawkins, the disciplines of philosophy, theology and psychology, which clearly answer questions the natural sciences cannot,  are at the best of times secondary, if not useless. ‘If you are not a scientist who never bothers to ask the reason for the existence of anything, from the beauty of the universe to the sheer evil that men do, you are an idiot.’ Contemporary atheism insists that we only discuss God’s existence on the basis of science, however questions concerning our Creator and religious life are metaphysical. If atheism concentrates solely on science in the quest for knowledge, then metaphysical discussions will certainly be dismissed, along with religious experience and teaching. This yet again points to the difficulty in finding atheist accounts convincing - they refuse to accept or contemplate anything which is seen as revelation, divine presence, or religious experience. In fact, Dawkins claims that humanity’s spiritual and religious tendencies are an accident - a natural characteristic gone wrong. Perhaps this ‘accidental by-product,’ or the ‘misfiring of something useful,’ is actually a natural gift of spirituality granted to humanity for a divine purpose and meaning. There is no scientific evidence for either position, however they are both equally valid points of view. It is this lack of consideration, and bias orientation which seems to be held by Dawkins and his fellow contemporary atheists, which causes their accounts to be rather unconvincing.

Christopher Hitchens uses extreme examples (mostly islamic fundamentalism and Catholic  teaching) in order to convey his view that science and medicine oppose religion. The writer of ‘God is not Great’ does this by highlighting that as modern medicine advances, miracles can be scientifically explained. Hitchens’ aim is to emphasise the inferiority of religious belief in opposition to medicine and science. Although he clearly sees religion as unhealthy, as opposed to medicine which clearly promotes good health, he dismisses the abundance of care which religion offers society, and its individuals. Within Christianity for example, the mystery of confession is proven to release psychological tensions, decrease the likelihood of depression, and create a pastoral oasis in the faithfuls’ day to day struggles. Just as science contributes to the wellbeing of man, religion does likewise and in addition offers guidance and compassion. Similarly, in the writings of Sam Harris, the profoundly pastoral and caring contribution of religion to society is masked by extreme examples of the holocaust and terrorism. These are clearly not representative of mainstream religious faith. Such arguments prove ineffective and unconvincing, due to the use of rare cases of violence. The same style of argument could easily be made against atheism, with the soviet authority’s attempt to eliminate the entire Christian community between 1918-1941 in an atheist pursuit - but it is clear this is misrepresentative of atheism.

Alister McGrath, (the renowned scientist and theologian) in his latest lecture on ‘God, Science and faith’ in Edinburgh, states that scientific facts about the world induce metaphysical questions, which can only be answered by other disciplines, and in particular religion. Science, particularly biology, can be rather mechanistic, however it is clear that as the natural sciences discover how wonderful the universe appears, ‘a religious type of emotion is liable to be aroused.’ There are various layers of questions that one can ask, and a great number of existential questions cannot be answered within the realms of science. For example, when discussing who we are and what we are doing on this earth, both biology and chemistry would be able to give us answers - but there are deeper answers, which we as human beings look for through philosophy, theology and spiritual life. These questions may not interest Dawkins and other atheists, but they certainly do interest most human beings; seeking true meaning behind the physical realm of reality. We are able to explain why we instinctively make a cup of coffee, and eat (due to our chemical need for ‘fuel’, our desire and will to survive). However, it is rather difficult for science to explain why many will decide not to eat, in order for someone else to have food. This is the self-sacrificing love we find in the poetic psalms, in the Gospel, and within examples of Christian lives. Contemporary atheists, in keeping with their own line of argument, reject the divine essence of Christ’s Gospel, however it would be encouraging if they were to acknowledge its revolutionary, loving nature - taking human being’s worth and potential to renewed and great heights. Christianity today, just as it always has done, brings something rather special to society - good acts and a positive vision, without precedence.


This essay has shown why contemporary atheist accounts of the relationship between science and religion are unreasonable, insufficient and unconvincing. To conclude, this piece of writing highlights the different goals which both religion and science have; with contemporary atheism dismissing this deeper meaning and understanding of the world. These deeper meanings, concentrated on the inner man, transcend scientific methodology,  so it does seem unfair for atheism to compare science with religion on the same level. Spiritual and religious life is central to humanity’s understanding - and this should be positively considered by atheists in relation to science. 



Bibliography :

Dawkins, R 2003, A Devil’s Chaplain, Boston : Houghton Mifflin, p.34.
Dawkins, R 2006, The God Delusion, London : Black Swan, p.139-151, 188.
Dennett, D 2007, Breaking the Spell, London : Penguin, p.29.
Fraassen, B 1980, The Scientific Image, Oxford : OUP, p.202-203.
Gauch, H 2003, Scientific Method in Practice, New York : CUP, p.1-110.
Harris, S 2004, The End of Faith, London : Free Press, p.170-184.
Hart, D 2009, Atheist Delusions, Michigan : Yale, p.45.
Huxley, T 1893, Darwiniana, London : Macmillan, p.252.
Hitchens, C 2007, God is not Great, London : Atlantic, p.43-48.
McGrath, A 2007,The Dawkins Delusion, London : SPCK, p.48.
McGrath, A 2011, Why God won’t go away, London : SPCK, p.72.
Papavassiliou, V 2013, The God Debate is Over, but no one has noticed (Online Article)
Smart, J 2003, Atheism & Theism, Oxford : Blackwell, p.11.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Great & Holy Monastery of Vatopedi


The monastery of Vatopedi is located on the north-eastern coastline of the Athos peninsula. According to Athonite tradition, it was built by the emperor Constantine the Great between the years 324 and 337AD, and was subsequently destroyed by Julian the Apostate at around 362. Vatopedi was re-founded by the Emperor Theodosius as an offering to the Virgin Mary for saving his son Arcadius, from drowning in the rough sea near Mount Athos. Arcadius had been miraculously carried to the shore safely after being in serious danger, and was later found by sailors sleeping near a bramble bush (βάτος,vatos in Greek) The title 'Vatopedi' therefore derives from 'Βάτος,' and 'πεδίον' meaning plain.

In the 10th century, Arab pirates looted and burnt down the monastery. St Athanasius the Athonite, knowing that the monastery was in ruins, sent three nobles (Athanasius, Nicholas, and Antonius) to restore it. A document dated in 985, shows the signature of the monk Nicholas, as Abbot of the monastery. 

To this day, the monastery has subsequently continued to grow, and by 1045 it was given second place within the hierarchy of the monastic state of Mount Athos (after the monastery of Great Lavra). At the end of the 12th century, the former prince of Serbia Symeon Nemanja and his son Savvas were monks at Vatopedi. These two Saints contributed to the monastery's great prestige. At this point, due to the Saint's fruitful work and efforts, the monastery consisted of 800 monks, with the founding of the monastery of Hilandar, as well as five new chapels and extended buildings within Vatopedi's grounds. 

The current Abbot, Archimandrite Ephraim, was elected and enthroned in 1990, and the monastery today consists of around 150 monks. One of the main treasures of the monastery is the Holy girdle of the Virgin Mary, which is the only relic belonging to the Theotokos. Holy Tradition tells us that the belt was made out of camel hair, by the Virgin Mary herself, and she gave it to the Apostle Thomas. Furthermore there are several other miracle-working icons of the Holy Mother of God, such as Panagia Vimatarissa, Panagia Paramythia, and Panagia Esphagmeni.


Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Enlightenment, the Reformation and Atheism

It is commonly thought that atheism is totally independent of Christianity, however the relationship between the protestant reformation & enlightenment, with the new atheism movement and its line of argumentation is strikingly close. 

Pre-reformation, the Holy Scriptures were always seen in four main senses 1) Literal 2) Allegorical 3) Tropological 4) Anagogical

The interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, had always been structured by the Tradition of the Church. The texts would have been experienced and understood in the context of worship, prayer, preaching, as well as holy writings and teachings. However, the reformation introduced the mentality that Scripture is a self-contained entity, which we can understand individualistically. This means that the Scriptures can be picked up, read, and understood without any insight, relationship with God, or commentary. 

For example, the 'days' of Genesis had always been interpreted allegorically, theologically and not literally. The reformation created a fundamentally different method of reading and understanding Scripture, which was literal, rather than theological, metaphorical or allegorical. 

Sola Scriptura, and Sola Fide
The two central aspects of the Protestant reformation, are 'Sola Scriptura' (the Bible as the only authority) and 'Sola Fide' ( justification by faith alone)

William Tyndale (1490-1536) argues that ‘Sola Scriptura’ brings out the true meaning of Scripture, enabling any individual to read the Bible and come to their own conclusions. He argues that the Church and its tradition is not needed, and simply takes away humanity's ability to read the word of God. Furthermore, William, like all early reformers, claims that Scripture exhausts all of revelation.

This has never been the practice of Christianity and the Early Church. Of course every individual can read the Holy Scriptures, but within the community and communion of Christ. This mentality, introduced by the reformation, wipes out the notion of community, and the strength and understanding gained from one another. 

Richard Hooker soon took a closer step back to the original Christian teaching, claiming that tradition and reason are in fact important, but after the authority of Scripture.The basis of Protestantism was the idea that the Bible is the only thing needed, but it would seem Hooker realised the issues at hand with this reformed theory. Many followed 'Sola Scriptura' in order to challenge existing theological and political fields, as well as following 'Sola fide' to ignore Church and Scripture altogether, and follow their ‘inner light.’ These were known as ‘protestant enthusiasts - in other words fanatics. John Locke (regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the enlightenment) created a new theory of revelation, that it must be compatible with reason. He set reason as the judge of revelation and divorced Scripture from commentaries and the confessions of the Church. However, the reformation's consequences clearly went further - with anti-Christian thinkers like John Toland and Anthony Collins, not only arguing against institutional Christianity, but also arguing that Christians change their Scriptures in order for them to be in line with prophecies, claiming they are being fulfilled. These anti-Christian arguments are protestant arguments, taken to logical conclusions. The same thinking that was needed for the reformation, is taken a step further in order to come to atheistic conclusions and ideas. One of the central aspects of this connection, is the idea of Scripture being literal - which created a strong conflict between Christianity and Science & rationality. It is this literal, 'rational' reading and understanding of the Scriptures that led to new atheism. If one is to understand Genesis in literal terms, then of course there will be a clear conflict between this belief, and rationality. If however, one is to examine the text theologically, just like the original Church's writers have been doing for centuries, then there is no contradiction. The individualistic, anti-institutional, and anti-traditional movement of the reformation, led to a catastrophically misconstrued understanding of Christianity - with the denial of the Church's apostolic Tradition at its centre. 

Protestant reformers argued throughout the reformation that Christians who do not take the Bible literally are not true followers - which is the exact same argument Richard Dawkins, as well as other new atheists argue today. Christians who read and understand them in the original manner, are deemed to be 'cherry pickers' and untrue to their faith. 


In the early 1800’s there was an illusory gladiatorial contest between the supporters of the enlightenment and churchmen , who defended their faith. 

Religion was deemed irrational, a bid for power, fuelled by deceit, and the enlightenment was promoted as the voice of freedom and democracy. Those who defended faith , spoke of the inner conscience of the individual, who develops a personal and loving relationship with the Creator God.

Interestingly, these two groups were both anti-institutional. The enlightenment strived to emphasise that the individual can rationalise, and can understand the truth for himself even when it is confiscated. This was to be contrasted with blind faith, even though the defenders of faith also emphasised the importance of individually and freely coming to divine truth and knowledge (of God). Christianity highlighted the importance of freedom, just as did the enlightenment.

Followers of the enlightenment would emphasise the importance of daring to think for themselves and realising personal courage. It promoted the ability to decide things for themselves, with education being a spur to your own independent enquiries. The enlightenment’s goal was to teach and encourage individual strength, undermining institutions that oppress, and reforming education so that every individual’s judgement can be used in its fullness. 

The minority groups undermined the institutional, oppressive churches (in England for example), as they wanted to purify themselves , and free themselves. The enlightenment is a development of this, and the enlightenment does not have any limits in what it can criticise. It can critique all traditions and beliefs, rather than a select few traditions. 

This purity for which the new atheists argue, is the same purity that the oppressed (mainly protestant, now evangelical) groups were striving for, against institution, for the literal reading of the Bible, and the rationality of every human being.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Oracles against Foreign Nations

Oracles against the foreign nations are an important part of the Old Testament’s prophetic tradition. This thematic essay will introduce these foreign nations, discuss why judgement exists against them, and in addition show why this judgement importantly reflects one of the main themes of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

In the Old Testament Scriptures, the concept of ‘nation’ (גוי in Hebrew, and Έθνος in LXX) includes four main components. Firstly; a group of people; 2) living within their own territory; 3) consisting of its own government; and finally; worshipping its own gods. Humanity is depicted as being divided into nations, in Genesis 10:1-32 for example, then we read that the people of Israel appeal to find a king ‘like all the nations.’(1 Sam 8:5) The Hebrew Bible’s oracles against the nations attest that prophecy was certainly not confined to Israel. We find Jeremiah and other prophets urging rulers from nations such as Edom, Moab and Ammon not to pay attention to their false prophets, diviners and intermediaries, who were backing the planned rebellion against Nebuchadrezzar (נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר in Hebrew, a Chaldean king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Jer 27:1-15)

All of the Major Prophets’ writings consist of prophecy relating to God’s judgement against the foreign nations. In the book of Ezekiel we find these oracles preceding the description of Israel’s restoration, in chapters 25-32. These chapters consist of oracles against the nations of Ammon (east of the Jordan river), Moab (eastern shore of the Dead Sea), Edom (south of Judea and the Dead Sea), Philistia (a pentapolis comprising of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath), Tyre and Sidon (present day South Lebanon), as well as Egypt. In the book of Jeremiah, we find oracles against the nations between chapters 46 to 51. In this case we find oracles against Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus (also titled in some texts as ‘Against the Syrian Cities’), Arabia (the Bedouin tribes of the Syrian desert, east of Transjordan), Elam (far west of modern-day Iran), as well as Babylon (largest city of Ancient Mesopotamia, with its empire eventually dissolving after long periods under Assyrian, Kassite, and Elamite domination). In the book of Isaiah we once again read oracles against Babylon, Assyria (centred on the upper Tigris river - a major Mesopotamian kingdom and empire), Philistia, Moab, and other foreign nations from the early exilic period, before the fall of Babylon. Similarly, within the Minor Prophets’ writings we see oracles against the nations, such as in the opening chapters of Amos, and the book of Obadiah (which is a judgement speech against the people of Edom). In Amos, each speech condemning foreign nations follows a similar pattern, using formulae that are repeated in each oracle:

‘Thus says the Lord:                      
“For three transgressions of Damascus,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they… and the people of Syria shall go into exile to Kir”
Says the Lord.’

‘Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Gaza,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they… and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish”
Says the Lord God.’ (Extract from Amos 1:3-2:16, RSV)

This section consists of eight oracles, each with the same beginning and structure. ‘Presumably Amos’s Israelite leaders would have listened with delight to the announcement of doom against neighbouring nations..however the series does not end with the seventh (Judah) as would be expected.’ Israel is the last in this section of Amos, significantly directing the focus onto God’s people, with a more detailed, and descriptive list of accusations, and warnings of a greater punishment. This highlights one of the main Old Testament themes, relevant to this essay - God’s special relationship with Israel, and His Sovereignty and Kingship over all the world’s nations and their people. Yahweh is Lord of all nations, Creator, and ‘God Almighty’ (Gen 17:1). The climax of these verses, as with all prophetic oracles against nations, stresses this. Yahweh affirms that He will not take Israel back as His ‘vassal’, any more than the other nations. Like the six nations, Israel has broken the relationship and covenant with their Lord, by going against their neighbours, oppressing the poor (2:6) as well as falling into other immoral and unholy acts. The Lord accuses the Israelites more severely, and as St John Chrysostom writes, ‘showed that they deserved greater punishment, because they had sinned after receiving the honors that he had bestowed on them.’ In other words, even though the holy nation of Israel has had God’s blessings and has heard His commandments (Deut 6), they have still chosen to disobey Him along with the foreign nations. 

Israel is of course the divine heritage; the people of God. However the Lord Who is due praise from all His nations (Psalm 117:1), is King of the entire world, and sovereign over all people. These oracles, and the Old Testament in general, remind us of this, as they show the work and will of Yahweh - working and acting within all nations and people. Often, the ‘gods’ who are worshipped in some parts of the near east are deities associated with their particular area and territory. The oracles against the nations emphasise that the true God of all creation is not nationalistic, but is ‘King..the Lord of hosts’ (Is 51:15, Jer 46:18, Jer 48:15, Jer 51:57, Amos 5:27), Who is in control of every political situation. Referring to the book of Jeremiah (46:19), we notice that God is able to announce that the people of Egypt are going into exile, just as the Lord does when Judah is also going into exile. He is in control, and this is the fundamental message. Another relevant example is when we read of the refugees fleeing to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them, in order to avoid the judgement of God. Jeremiah warns them that going into Egypt will not remove them from God’s territory, as He is sovereign and reigns everywhere.

Despite the fact the oracles are against the nations, (in that they have fallen into sin and turned their backs on their creator and Lord) the passages may also give them hope and reassurance that there is indeed one God Who will redeem all people if they are faithful to Him. God’s plan is not only one of judgement and punishment - but more importantly an opportunity of freedom from idolatry, and a relationship with Him. One main point of the passages relating to the nations, is ‘that man is incurably religious, and if he forsakes a real faith he will develop a substitute religion or lapse into the grossest superstition.’ Similarly for Israel - the Lord’s chosen ‘people’ (Λαός, in the Septuagint) - these oracles could be seen as a word of encouragement, that their Lord will certainly deal with their enemies and protect them from opposing nations. ‘But fear not, O Jacob my servant, nor be dismayed, O Israel; for lo, I will save you.’ (Jer 46:27-28) The Lord promises this safety and security to His people of Israel, ‘for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye.’ (Zechariah 2:8) Several foreign nations, including Babylon, oppress the people of Israel - and of course this deserves a response and reaction from their God (Exodus 29:45). The problems faced by the foreign nations are not mere political issues that could be solved with coalitions or arrangements, but are spiritual issues. As Dr Gary Yates writes, ‘they had a problem with God.’ Again the cosmic, and political sovereignty of the Lord is highlighted; with His power and might transcending boundaries. Throughout the Old Testament, it is clear that when one turns their back on God and His commandments, they will fall into darkness and suffering (Exodus 32:33) - and of course this is what we see with the nations who unrepentantly oppose the Lord’s people. 

The early Church fathers see the oracles against the nations, as a calling to the people who are desperate and beaten down, by evil deceptions and idolatry. Furthermore, the theme of expectation and hope within the oracles is seen as a projection of the coming of Christ, the Messiah; for example, within the oracle against Egypt in Isaiah 19, it is indeed the Word of God, coming to Egypt ‘on a swift cloud.’ The foreign nations are all in need of the forgiveness, defence and salvation of God - and so ‘He will send them a saviour, and will defend and deliver them.’ (Isaiah 19:20) 

To conclude, the foreign nations, and in particular the oracles against them which this essay has discussed, point to God’s sovereignty over the world. He works through these lands and their people, in order to convey His message, offering freedom, the ability to worship Him, and consequently salvation.  Babylon for example is both ‘the executor of Yahweh’s plans and the object of Yahweh’s punishment.’ These oracles relate to the Old Testament theme of the Lord protecting His faithful people,  working through various political situations and contexts, emphasising His kingship and ruling will. This thematic essay has introduced many of the foreign nations through scriptural examples, explaining why judgement exists against them, and how the nations, along with Israel, could understand the scriptures in a positive and hopeful light.




Bibliography

Blenkinsopp, J 1996, A History of Prophecy in Israel, Westminster : WJK , p.41.
Reimer, D 1993, The Oracles Against Babylon in Jeremiah, San Francisco : Mellen, p.1.
Yates, G 2013, Oracles Against the Nations (Online Article).
2000, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, Cambridge.
2013, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, London : Bloomsbury, p.321-322, 238-240, 294-296.
2008, The Orthodox Study Bible, St Athanasius California : Thomas Nelson, p.998.
1982, The Interpreters Bible Volume 5, Nashville : Abingdon Press, p.273.
2003, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture - Isaiah 1-39 Illinois : IVP, p.134-144.