Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Theotokos, Mariology, and the Challenge of Orthodox Exuberance

A good friend who is a Protestant but sympathetic to Orthodoxy wrote me with a question about Mary.  Many Protestants, it would seem, get queasy when they find themselves in the midst of Orthodox songs of fulsome praise to the Mother of God (Theotokos).  My friend cited this example:

Canon to the Theotokos
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
I hold you as the Intercessor and Protection of my life,
O Virgin Birth-Giver of God.
Pilot me to your haven, O Cause of good things,
O only all-hymned Support of the faithful.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
I pray, O Virgin: dispel the storm of my sorrows and spiritual turmoil.
You are the Bride of God who bore the Origin of stillness and alone are most pure.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
Pour a wealth of generosity for all, O you who bore
The Benefactor, the Cause of all Good. 
You can do anything, for God has blessed you, the Bearer of Christ
Who is might in strength.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
Help me, O Virgin, for I am cruelly tried by severe illness and painful afflictions.
I know, Ever-Undefiled One,
That you are an inexhaustible and generous treasury of healings.

And then  my friend goes on to say:
I don't have a problem asking people, alive or dead (in this physical plane), to pray for us.  I understand the title given her.  I understand referring to people like her as holy, righteous, etc., knowing that doesn't mean without sin or need of a Savior.  I understand that tradition considers her to have been always a virgin - no issue there.  But it seems a stretch, and somewhat dangerous, to pray in a way that seems to imply that she, in herself, saves, answers prayer, grants blessing, protection, etc.  One could say that she intercedes and asks God to grant these things, but I am working with many people who see her and even acknowledge her as the co-mediatrix.

My response was as follows:

Your question about the rather high Mariology that some/many seem to have is a good one.  Orthodox teaching on Mary makes a clear distinction between Mary and the members of the Holy Trinity.  Mary is a woman and not God, and therefore she cannot do the things that only God can do.  Moreover, Mary is presently enjoying a state of being, an aspect of salvation, that all the redeemed of the Lord will one day enjoy in full.  She receives the honor due to one who has done what she has done.  No one can be said to have carried the Almighty and infinite God, as she has, nor cared for the incarnate Son of God in his infancy and childhood as she did.  And as you say, there is no problem with any of this, or at least there shouldn't be, from any of Christianity's main traditions.  But as you point out, sometimes the language in some of the songs and prayers seems rather exuberant.  As the one who gave birth to the Savior, she is often described as the source of the sorts of things the Savior does (heal, save, guide, etc.) and there is truth in that.  But as with icons, Mary is/must always be seen, not by herself, but in the context of her Son.  The exception are those icons that depict a biblical scene.  The danger comes when less theologically-informed Christians separate Mary from Jesus, and make her into a stand-alone dispenser of spiritual and temporal blessings.  At this point the songs, prayers and over-emphases veer dangerously into making Mary more than she is, both biblically and in the Tradition.  In my opinion, a proper understanding and focus on Christ will always promote a proper understanding and appreciation of Mary.  This is what I've found so far, at least, in my experience in the Orthodox Church.  But I am new to this.

I would love to have both Orthodox and non-Orthodox friends share their perspective on Mary!

Friday, September 14, 2012

On How Orthodox Christians Can Be of Genuine Help to their Non-Orthodox Friends

I am borrowing this from Macrina Walker and her well-worth-the-read blog A Vow of Conversation.  We Orthodox, especially new converts, tend towards a black and white, in or out view of religion.  So this is a useful reminder of a more generous, Christ-like posture.

Elder Sophronius Sakharov relates the following story:

I remember a conversation [Staretz Silouan] had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work.  This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain.  The Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people.  The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly, I tell them, “Your raith is all wrong, perverted.  There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.”

The Staretz heard him out, then asked, “Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?”

“Yes, that they do believe.”

“And do they revere the Mother of God?”

Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.”

“And what of the Saints?”

“Yes, they honour them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?”

“Do the celebrate the Divine Office in their churches?  Do they read the Gospels?”

“Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services withi ours how cold and lifeless theirs are!”

“Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…  But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honour the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine Word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them.  And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation….  God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love.  Then both preacher and listener will profit.  But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.”

This  excerpt is taken from Archimandrite Sophronius Sakharov’s book Saint Silouan the Athonite 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Theological Colonialism R Us

For those of us teaching African students in one of the rapidly expanding number of theological colleges on the continent, it's hard to get adequate resources.  But it is not just a matter of securing books at prices that our students can afford.

A friend of a friend who teaches at the diploma level in a small school in a neighboring country asked me for advice about textbooks for about six different theology courses.  For some reason, it pushed a button.  This is what I said:

Let me put my 'senior lecturer in theology at an African University' hat on and make an observation.  There are very few theology books that appropriately engage African (Ethiopian and Kenyan, in my experience) students.  Most are written from a Western perspective and are dealing with western intellectual issues that are remote from and irrelevant to the African churches.  Even those written by Africans are written by those who have been trained in Western contexts or with Western assumptions (as most of them have been trained in Western schools).  We missionaries are keen on passing on our faith, but we usually end up passing on a theological perspective that may actually impede genuine faith and engagement with the local context here.  That may be fine in a Nairobi mega church where everyone is assiduously trying to be Western.  But the shortcomings of the African churches across the spectrum can be traced to the mismatch of missionary/Western theology and the realities on the ground.

So the short answer is, there are presently no good theological resources for the African Church.  The closest one comes presently is late Kwame Bediako, and the conservative Western Christian response to Bediako gives one an indication of what we are up against here.  As long as Western theological traditions hold on to their myth that their theology and perspective is THE theology and perspective, we will simply continue the process of theological colonialism unabated.

What I do is use texts that I acknowledge are deficient for the task at hand (Grudem's Systematic Theology, for example) and then help students understand where Grudem's ideas fit in terms of historical theology and challenge them to grasp, frame and work through the issues from their own perspective.  This is terribly disorienting for students here, as they want desperately to be told what to believe and so will take a Very Reformed or Lutheran or Wesleyan or Liberal or Evangelical or Roman Catholic or Orthodox or Pentecostal perspective - whatever is proffered - and swallow it whole and uncritically.  But there is no uncontroverted position, and the extraordinarily messy state of theology and biblical studies should raise certain red flags concerning the status of the whole enterprise.

At the diploma level, and with students whose proficiency in English is marginal at best, this becomes nearly impossible.  The students struggle mightily to make it through even the simplest of reading assignments (if they read them at all).  And the resources translated into Kiswahili (or whatever language) tend to be the ones that some missionary thought were the most important for securing his/her perspective on the issues being covered.  We end up making disciples of our perspectives but not of Christ.  And the churches and their mission suffer mightily as a result.

So to sum up (in my opinion):
1. Adequate resources do not exist for what we are called to do.
2. Use the resources that do exist as a way to teach our students why they are not adequate.
3. Most of the courses on your list require that we treat what are normally used as texts as examples of historical theology (i.e. this is how Christians in the West as part of whatever particular tradition have dealt with this topic and for this reason), rather than as what should be transplanted into the soil of African churches today.
4. The West doesn't want to hear that what they are doing (and what is considered by them to be 'normative') is irrelevant to the rest of the Christian world.  We've already had to undo political colonialism.  It's time to call a spade a spade and begin to dismantle theological colonialism as well.

Apologies for being unhelpful, but this is the way it is as I see it.

I would love to have your input on this issue.  How do you see it?