Saturday, August 1, 2015

Do You Know Who You Are?

          One of the Church most pressing needs today has nothing to do with money, or with weathering scandal, or with achieving greater importance in the eyes of the governing powers.  The Church’s most pressing need today is for its members to rediscover who they are.  I say this because there is every evidence that many Christians have forgotten who they are.  They think they are primarily Republicans or Democrats—or anyway, Americans.  Or they think they are consumers, part of the famous 99%.  Or they imagine themselves to be conservatives or liberals, or any one of a multitude of labels which the world is only too happy to fix on us.  It is possible that such labels have their uses (though I am inclined to doubt it), but these verbal tags do not define us Christians or adequately describe our fundamental quality.  That is, we need to remember that we are fundamentally the servants of God, a holy people, a royal priesthood, and as such we belong not to this age with its warring categories and labels, but to the age to come.  In this age we are simply passing through—or (as Jesus People singer Larry Norman once put it), “only visiting this planet”.
            It is crucial for us to rediscover this fundamental eschatological fact about ourselves, because we usually behave consistently with who we imagine ourselves to be.  This can be seen in a brief dialogue from the 1987 film “Moonstruck”, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage.  In one of the film’s subplots, the mother of the character played by Cher, Mrs. Castorini (played beautifully by Olympia Dukakis), is speaking with a womanizing man with whom she has shared an innocent supper at a neighbourhood restaurant.  He walks her home, intent on sleeping with her, and says hopefully and suggestively, “I guess you can’t invite me in?”  She replies, “No.”  “People home?” he offers.  “No,” she says,  “I think the house is empty.  I can’t invite you in because I’m married.  Because I know who I am.”
            Because I know who I am.”  That is, she did not resist the temptation to adultery because she was afraid her husband would find out, or because she was afraid that God would punish her for her sin.  No; it was simpler than that.  She just knew who she was.  She was married, and married women did not cheat on their husbands by inviting in strange men.  Mrs. Castorini didn’t need to read a theological treatise to do the right thing, and she didn’t have to win an arm-wrestling match with temptation.  She just had to know who she was and act like it. 

            The same applies to us.  Who are we?  The New Testament gives us the answer:  we are saints, the people of Lord, servants of the Most High God, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  We belong to God and His Kingdom, and here in this age we are strangers and sojourners—people who are only visiting this planet.  If we really believe this, we will act like it, and the rest of our interactions with the world will take care of themselves.  Temptation to act like the world does and betray our calling will come soon enough.  When it does, we don’t need to screw up our courage and ride out to a hopeless battle to overcome worldliness and sin.  We just need to know who we are.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Reality of Demonic Possession

A great gulf separates those who read the Scriptures over the shoulders of the Fathers and those who read over the shoulders of modern secular academics.  The former are open to the possibility that the ancient worldview might have something to teach us, while the latter dismiss it utterly as primitive, unsophisticated, and unscientific.  These latter are well represented by the late Professor Rudolf Bultmann (the classic de-mythologizer of the New Testament) who famously said, “It is impossible to use electric light and to avail ourselves of modern medical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.”  He didn’t give a reason for his assertion that the two were incompatible; presumably it was because in his office in the German university in Marburg he had the use of electricity and did not meet any students obviously requiring exorcism.   If he had travelled to Africa or Asia, no doubt he would have had experiences which would have made “the world of demons and spirits” seem to him more plausible, but he did not travel much outside of his native Germany.  In other words, he regarded the existence of both demons and electricity as incompatible because he was parochial.
            He was not alone, and a number of people today including some Christians regard a belief in the reality of the demonic as an embarrassing vestige of a primitive worldview which we have now happily outgrown.  When they read the New Testament accounts of our Lord accepting the reality of the demonic, casting out demons, and even characterizing His entire ministry in terms of performing exorcisms and binding the Satanic strong man (Luke 13:32, Mark 3:27), they are embarrassed by this, and quickly turn the New Testament page to something more welcome, like the Sermon on the Mount.  It is true that some of the classic symptoms of demonic possession (such as falling to the ground, writhing, seizures, and foaming at the mouth) are also some of the symptoms of diseases such as epilepsy.  But shared symptoms do not always indicate identical diseases.  Any physician will tell you that many different diseases share some of the same symptoms, which is why the diagnosis of such diseases is best left to qualified physicians. 
            Part of the reason why some of us moderns dismiss “the world of demons and spirits” is that we regard ourselves as wiser than our forefathers.  It is true that we have more technological sophistication than they did, and more scientific gadgets.  But this does not mean we are wiser, and the conviction that “later” means “wiser” has been well skewered as “chronological snobbery”.  If one thinks that later really does mean wiser, then ask yourself what have we done with all of our technological sophistication.  We have better medicine, but a worse ecological environment; more comfort for the few, but more destructiveness in war for the many.  Looking across the globe, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that mankind as grown any wiser with the passing of years.  In fact we might even have grown more foolish than our forefathers.
            Those imprisoned by chronological snobbery imagine that the ancients diagnosed demonic possession simply because they did not know about epilepsy.  But in fact they did know about epilepsy, and still managed to distinguish between it and demonic possession.  Consider Matthew 4:24:  “His fame spread throughout all Syria and they brought Him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and He healed them.”  Note that the ancient author mentioned both demoniacs and epileptics as two separate categories.  It is possible then (and even likely) that some people were misdiagnosed, and thought to be demon possessed when they were simply epileptic.  Misdiagnoses occur even now among attending physicians, so there is no reason to think they did not sometimes occur then.  But the point is that the ancients saw enough different symptoms in some sufferers to diagnose not simply epilepsy, but demon possession.
            What might these symptoms have been?  We can guess by looking at people thought to be demon possessed now.  In my own limited experience and in the wider experience of missionaries in Africa and Asia, we find people exhibiting a wide variety of behaviours not found among epileptics—behaviours such as violence when confronted with icons, or the image of the Cross, or the Name of Jesus, or by contact with Holy Water.  We find them becoming agitated when in church, though calm when taken outside.  We find them speaking with different voices when challenged by an exorcising priest.  And, most significantly, we find that they experience a palpable sense of relief and a subsequent freedom from these behaviours after the exorcism.  Looking at it objectively (and even scientifically), what then should one conclude from all this?  If one has a headache and takes an aspirin and the headache then subsides, one will not unnaturally conclude a cause and effect, and that aspirins help ease headaches.  In the same way, if one exhibits the classic symptoms of demonic possession and undergoes a Christian exorcism and the symptoms then vanish, one will not unnaturally also conclude a cause and effect, and that exorcisms drive away demons.  If one knew for certain that demons did not exist, one would then look for other explanations.  But in fact we do not know for certain that demons do not exist.  The global experience of mankind since recorded history began testifies to the opposite, and to the reality of the world of demons and spirits.
            The lesson here is humility—a difficult lesson for any to learn, but perhaps especially difficult for those of us living in technological affluence and the pride it can often engender.  The whole world until the rise of the Enlightenment (I use the historical term generously) accepted unquestioningly the reality of an unseen world, a world often experienced as threatening and malevolent.  The existence of evil and malevolent spirits was accepted by Christ and acted upon, and He gave not the slightest hint that belief in these spirits was among the beliefs that should be questioned.  He was not shy about telling His contemporaries which beliefs they had wrong—He challenged their view of the Sabbath, the Law, and even the unitary nature of God, so it is unlikely that He would balk at challenging their view of demons if He thought that they had that wrong too.  In fact however He did not challenge it, but enthusiastically accepted it and built His reputation upon it as the great deliverer from Satan’s authority in the world (see John 12:31).  Christ was followed by His apostles, who continued to cast out demons (Acts 5:16, 8:7, 16:18), and by His Church after them.  Exorcisms now form a part of every baptism ritual, and belief in the reality of the demonic is woven into many of our prayers.  You cannot sensibly be an Orthodox Christian while repudiating the existence of demons; it is part of the fabric of our faith. 
We can, if we wish, be as parochial as Professor Bultmann.  But we can also shake ourselves free from the chronological snobbery of our age and learn wisdom from the experiences of the past.  The choice remains ours.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Franklin Graham (son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham) opined on NBC Nightly News that Muslims pray to a “different God” than do the Christians.  Around the same time the Reverend Jerry Vines, former pastor of the large First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida and past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that “Allah is not Jehovah”, and that it was wrong to equate all religions as some forms of pluralism attempted to do.  What are we to make of such assertions (often repeated since first made by Graham and Vines)?  Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
            The question is not as simple as it may appear, and defies a quick and easy response.  Moreover, one must first deal with the underlying issue of what that question might possibly mean.  Does the question ask whether the two groups, Christians and Muslims, claim to worship the same God?  Or does it ask whether or not they really do worship the same God regardless of the differences between the two religions?  And if the latter, how could one know this?   On what basis could one determine that persons practising different religions were in fact worshipping the same God, apart from a pluralistic and ecumenical desire that it be so?  That both religions were technically monotheistic?  What about such fundamental differences as the lack of Trinitarian theology in Islam and its assertion that Jesus was never crucified?  Are these differences fundamental enough to justify the assertion that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God?  Let us try to approach the question of whether or not differing religions worship the same God from the standpoint of the Scriptures.  Obviously the New Testament does not talk about non-Christian Islam, but it does have something to say about non-Christian paganism.
            In one sense, it is true that everyone directing their prayers and devotions to the supreme deity is worshipping the same God, for monotheism declares that in fact there only is one God and so there is no other deity up there to receive such prayers.  Presumably that is what St. Paul meant when he declared that God is not the God of the Jews only, but also the God of the Gentiles also “since God is one” (Romans 3:29-30).  Though the pagan Gentiles might claim to worship not Yahweh but Zeus, still Yahweh was in some sense their God too.  A pagan Athenian might have sent up his prayers addressed “To Zeus, with love”, but the heavenly mail nonetheless ended up in the in-box of the God of Israel.  St. Paul makes precisely this point when he addressed such an Athenian on Mars Hill.   Whether an altar was dedicated to Zeus or to an unknown God (the latter being a pagan attempt to cover all their polytheistic bases) it was the Jewish God who actually received their prayers.  “What you worship as unknown,” Paul declared in his sermon, “this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).  The God whom Paul proclaimed made the world and everything in it, including every nation of men living on all the face of the earth.  God’s intention in creation was that all should “seek God, in the hope that they might feel after Him and find Him”.  Up until then most men stupidly imagined that God was served and fed by human hands, and that He was like their gold and silver idols.  Such “times of ignorance God overlooked”, but “now He commands all men everywhere to repent” and come to Him through the risen Christ (v. 25-30).   From this sermon, it is clear that according to St. Paul anyway, God has some sort of relationship with all people, regardless of their religion. 
            It is also true, as St. Paul elsewhere declared, that pagan religions contained an element of the demonic.  Though a devout, ignorant, well-intentioned, and righteous Athenian’s prayers to Zeus may have been received by the God of Israel, this did not imply that his Athenian paganism was more or less interchangeable with Judaism or Christianity.  While the Athenian’s heart and intention may have been acceptable to God, his actual religion, cultus, and sacrifices were not.  Paul also affirmed that “what the pagans sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Cor. 10:20).  Idolatrous worship, though intended for and aimed at the Most High God, was intercepted and used by the demons, and Christians in the early centuries always regarded pagan religion as infected with the demonic.  That is why at his baptism the converting pagan did not simply renounce his former pagan religion, but did so with the words, “I renounce you, Satan, and all your service and all your works” (from the Apostolic Tradition, ascribed to Hippolytus in the early third century).  By “all your service”, the new convert meant “all my former religious rites”.  The well-intentioned pagan Athenian of course did not consciously intend to have communion with demons.  He aimed his prayers at the heavenly God, but his sacrifices were received by the demons anyway.  That is why the Church in her liturgy referred to pagan religion not just as idolatrous, but as a delusion.
Did this involvement with demons mean that the pagan would be damned on the Last Day?  St. Paul does not say so.  In fact he said that to the pagan who “by patience in well-doing sought for glory and honour and immortality” God would “give eternal life”, for there would be “glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek, for God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:7-10).  Though the pagan Greek may have had no knowledge of divine revelation or of the Law, when he did by nature what the Law required, he was a law to himself, and showed that what the Law required was written on his heart (Romans 2:14-15).  But God’s mercy on the Last Day does not entail His delight in unenlightened paganism in this age.  A pagan seeking the true God in ignorance may be spared at the end, but idolatry was still idolatry and was still to be shunned.   All religions were not equally valid, true, or saving.  In the second chapter of his epistle to the Romans St. Paul was not talking so much about ecumenism as about mercy.
Whether or not a non-Christian religion like ancient paganism could connect one with God seems therefore to have depended upon the amount of light that the ancient pagan had received.  If he or she didn’t know any better and sought to please God by “patience in well-doing”, they might be spared on the Last Day.  In that case, they would not be saved through their pagan religion but in spite of it.  If on the other hand they knew and understood the Gospel and yet still rejected Christ, they could not be saved.  For the words of Jesus are plain:  “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings has a judge; the Word that I have spoken is what will judge him on the Last Day” (John 12:48).  It all therefore depends upon the amount of ignorance in the non-Christian (what western theology used to call “invincible ignorance”).  We are not in a position to know such inner mysteries hidden in the heart of another, but we do know that all will be judged according to the light which they have received.  “From everyone who has been given much shall much be required” (Luke 12:48).  
So what about our Muslim neighbours?  An analogy with paganism would suggest that the religion of Islam does not connect its practitioner with God, and so in this sense Allah cannot be identified with Yahweh or with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But if a Muslim has no real exposure to or understanding of the Christian message, he might still be spared on the Last Day after all if his heart was in ignorance seeking the true God.  C.S. Lewis wrote about such a possibility in the last volume of his Narnian series:  a worshipper of the god “Tash” (a thinly-veiled version of Allah) finds himself in the presence of the true God, the lion Aslan, an image of Christ.  He realizes that his life-long worship of Tash was the worship of a false god, and that Aslan was the true God after all.  In his own words, “Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc [or, King] of the world and live and not to have seen Him.  But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but the servant of Tash.  He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service to me… But I said also, Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.  Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly.  For all find what they truly seek.”
All find what they truly seek”:  that seems to be the crux of the matter.  Let all seek for the truth as best they can.  As for us Christians, our mandate remains the same in all ages—to preach the Gospel and to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Trinity.  We call all men to a saving confession of Christ our God, to sonship and forgiveness in this age, and to glory in the age to come.  If a Muslim in his ignorance had truly been seeking the eternal truth of God, and recognizes that truth when we share the Gospel with him, we have water for baptism.  We can bring him home.