March 20, 2009


I'm taking a class right now at the University of Texas . I like the class and my professor, and my fellow students are just fine. However, since beginning the class, it seems like we are trying to learn about our subject (The Spanish Inquisition) without reference to any fixed standard.

As an Orthodox Christian, my fixed standard is, of course, Christ and His Church. I don't expect a university, especially a public one, to use that as a standard. Still, I find it troubling that the standard most universities seem to choose is "None of the above".

From my perspective, most secular universities have abandoned really dealing with God, thinking that God is an issue of faith and not fact. What has gone in His place is a philosophy that states, “All truth is relative,” which is basically a denial of any absolute truth or standard. Many students seem to have absorbed this philosophy, often without realizing it. Perhaps after years of not dealing directly with questions of truth, many have learned to not regard truth as important.

In the classroom, when we try to learn about something without reference to a standard, we end up learning things “about” the subject. The most interesting and meaningful questions not only go unanswered, they become unanswerable. It is no wonder that many students see college as a necessary step towards a career and little else. Education for its own sake? Does that even make sense if there is no truth?

In the classroom, the standard-less approach is just kind of annoying. If used to guide a person’s life, this approach is tragic. How can we hope for people to seek Christ, the Truth, if they are convinced that there is no truth to seek?

So, should a university adopt Orthodoxy as its standard? I wish all universities would, but I don’t think it is entirely necessary. It would be enough if they would adopt any standard at all. This way students could accept it or reject it and move on towards the truth, rather than having that process stifled before it even began.


Children & Nature

Upon reading Richard Louv's article in the March/April Orion Magazine I was struck by a truth that I have tried hard to disbelieve for the past several years:

Most kids do not play outside anymore.

Sometimes there is a larger reason why outdoor play isn't possible ... parents are fearful of the neighborhood, a family doesn't live in an environment where the outdoors are conducive to exploration (urban city apartment, extreme temperatures), or families have competing indoor activities.

Still, I believe that interaction with nature is an important part of a young persons development. It would seem that "a growing body of scientific evidence" would agree. There are certain
"strong correlations between experience in the natural world and children's ability to learn ... Stress levels, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cognitive functioning ... are positively affected by time spent in nature."

" is reported that greener neighborhoods are associated with slower increases in children's body mass, regardless of residential density."
(pg.70, MArch/April Orion)

So how did we get away from the neighborhood or nature-based play? I don't really know, but here are a few of the things I think diminish our outdoor play.

1. Parental fear that their child will be abducted or harmed outside and that there isn't anything on T.V. or in video games that can permanently damage a child, besides its inside and I (as the parent) can control what my kids see and hear.

2. The continuous stream of "news" that infiltrates our lives and fills us with fear about events that rarely take place, but are over-emphasized for affect.

3. Lack of real knowledge about flowers, trees, animals, faming/gardening and water ... once again the flukes are over-publicized making parents and children afraid that flowers, trees, animals, farming/gardening and water will harm them.

4. The belief that sweaty, dirty outdoor work is bad for kids and we gladly hire adults to do work around the house that teenagers in the not so distant past once took care of for the family /community.

When I was twelve years old I started to "work" for the neighborhood association watering and weeding the signs that welcomed people into Tall Oaks IV (in Edmond, Oklahoma). I rode my bike to each of these signs and got my knees dirty in the mud, gouged my fingers open on the thorns of roses, and probably complained to my parents about how hard my job was and how much I hated working, but the independence and freedom that the $100 at the end of the month gave me was worth riding my bike uphill in August.

I am sure my mom worried about my riding around the neighborhood, but somehow it was more important for me to learn responsibility, to grow in time management skills and let her alone for two hours a week that her fear was allayed.

Really I have very little "right" to discuss this topic since I am not a mother myself, but I feel the need to start these conversations in our bookstore community. I want to see the children we all love grow up to be creative, thoughtful, healthful people. Hopefully some of you have opinions about this topic too.


March 18, 2009

Conversion as Immigration

As we are getting ready for Rod Dreher, I remembered something that I read on his blog several weeks ago; it's a post about whether or not it is possible to 'adopt' a tradition. Here's a portion of Rod's thoughts on the subject:

This discussion reminds me also of something Vigen Guroian, the Armenian Orthodox scholar, once said to me: that you cannot choose a tradition (this, in a conversation in which he expressed skepticism over my conversion to Orthodoxy). I don't think this is true, because if it was, the last Christian would have died on the Cross. Still, he has a good point: there is something phony about promoting tradition in the postmodern world. How can it be anything more than lifestyle advocacy? I see the point, and admit that our historical condition makes recovery doubtful, but I must ask in return: what else is there? Does the fact that I'm something of a phony with all this crunchy-con, neotraditional stuff obviate the criticism I and my fellow travelers make of our rootless society? Is the alternative to just throw up our hands and accept the world as it is, and offer no protest, or try to chart out a more humane alternative? I think not.

That post and the discussion which followed later developed into a conversation about the tensions between those born into a particular tradition and those who later choose to be a part of that tradition. Many of the people participating in the conversation were Orthodox Christians, and the exchange eventually focused on the differences and tensions that exist between ethnic Orthodox and convert Orthodox. Here's an extended quotation from a great response which was written by Richard Barrett, who is Antiochian Orthodox convert:

Hypothetical example: let's say you're a third-generation [fill in the blank] in this country. Maybe your grandfather was the first priest at the church you attend. In the Old Country, your family has been Orthodox as long as anybody can remember. You've never confessed and you've never observed a fast. You've no idea what any of the Ecumenical Councils decided. You probably come once or twice a month on Sunday, and maybe you slide into your pew halfway through the Gospel reading on a routine basis.

Nonetheless, your wife makes sure your boys serve at the altar and get there on time, and you are in a financial situation where you're able to give around $500k a year, at least. When there is a need you happily write a check. How seriously do you take converts, if you're this person? They have shelves full of St. Vlad's Popular Patristics series, they can prattle on and on about theology, they go to every service and usually show up a few minutes early, they fast (and ask you why you're not), but so what? They give maybe $1000 a year and already had to leave something else to become Orthodox (maybe multiple somethings else), so who's to say they won't leave Orthodoxy down the road? You may not go to every service, but you'd never think of leaving the religion of your fathers. You may not believe it all the time, but it's more than what you believe -- it's what you are, in a way it can never be for a person who is there because they picked up a book and on whom the chrism is barely dry. Do you really want to be told how to run your church, or what is Orthodox and what isn't, by those people?

Richard goes on to say that he doesn't believe these folks are right, but he has accurately described the attitude of many ethnic Orthodox Christians. And while I find that attitude understandable in a whole lot of ways, I also find it very, very puzzling and very, very troubling.

It's troubling because in Holy Scripture we are instructed to be kind to the sojouner and to take special care for the alien and to practice hospitality. Watching your parish or archdiocese fill up with converts--many of whom are zealous know-it-alls--may be disconcerting and uncomfortable, but our lives are not to be normed by our natural reactions but by the commandments of the Most Holy Trinity. In fact, that's the specific message of the opening chapters of the Book of Acts when the first (Jewish) Christians had to make room for all those outlandish Gentile converts from places like Caesarea and Antioch. That was a tough transition, but the Church went on to "preach the gospel to all creation".

But the reaction of many ethnic Orthodox is also really puzzling because most of these folks know, at some level, what it's like to be immigrants. They may have been in this country for several generations now, but their families still retain that living memory of what it's like to leave everything that is familiar and travel to a place where you don't understand the language, where just about everything is new, and where very few people are welcoming. That's precisely what it's like for most people who convert to Holy Orthodoxy. And just as most immigrants understand that they will never feel entirely at home in their new land, but they make that sacrifice for the sake of their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, in the very same way, Orthodox converts give up the comforts of familiar traditions and pieties for the sake of future generations.

So even if ethnic folks have a hard time coming to grips with the mandate of Holy Scripture--and who doesn't?--they should at least be able to remember what it was like for Grandpa Sergei and Aunt Hariklia. They should at least be able to welcome all of the spiritual immigrants that arriving in their communities.

fr. aidan

March 16, 2009

Two Weeks To Rod

On Saturday, March 28th, Christ the Lightgiver is going to be hosting Rod Dreher. Rod is an editorial columinst for the Dallas Morning News, and he also writes the popular blog, "Crunchy Con", on beliefnet.

Rod is going to be speaking on one of his favorite topics, what he calls "the Benedict Option," and it just so happens that he was blogging about that subject this past Saturday--which was the day when the Church honors St Benedict of Nursia. Here's a bit of what Rod wrote on the subject:

I highly, highly recommend this reflection from Orthodox Agrarian on the relevance of St. Benedict and his Rule to our time, and to the lives we do live, and ought to live. It touches on what I often call The Benedict Option, which is the idea that the times call on those (Christian and otherwise) who wish to live out a life of virtue in community should to some extent separate from the wider world for the pursuit of that life. (Laypeople, I mean). In our parish here in Dallas, I've been talking with a few people about what that could mean for us, practically speaking (versus idealistically; ideally, we'd all live in the same neighborhood, and build some sort a common life, though that is hardly possible now).

The Orthodox Agarian that Rod mentions also had some really good things to say on the subject. Here's a long passage from his blog:

In my final semester of college, I was required to take a so-called "Values Seminar." Quite serendipitously, I happened to choose a course that exceeded my wildest expectations. It was called Classical Values: the Art of Living. The course took as its premise the idea that philosophy should not be a pedagogical exercise or a graduate school discipline but a way of life, and it should (taking a cue from Pierre Hadot) contain spiritual exercises.

One of the books chosen for the course was After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre's spectacular indictment of the Enlightenment experiment. And at the very end of the book, MacIntyre offers his own remedy for any possible reform of the West, writing:

"It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the more misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age . . . and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. . . . What they [those that withdrew from the Roman commonweal, including monastic communities] set themselves to achieve—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for Godot, but for another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict."

Waiting for St. Benedict

As I said above, St. Benedict's life and his Rule offer an important example to the Christian family, what Rod Dreher, author of Crunchy Cons, calls the Benedict Option... we should devote our time to the construction of new communities, adapting the methods and means of St. Benedict to the realities and difficulties of contemporary communal and family life. Like St. Benedict's monasteries, these new communities must always be organic developments, not decreed from on high and ordered by a centralizing authority. It will look much like the new growth around Clear Creek Monastery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the slow but steady stream of families that have chosen to settle around the monastery, where access to the sacraments in the traditional rite are readily and openly available, where families have access to rural farmland where they can grow their own food and raise their own livestock. These families are choosing a lifestyle that's both revolutionary and reactionary, a life in tune with both the natural and religious cycles. St. Benedict must surely be smiling. A similar example is the Eastern Orthodox community of Eagle River, Alaska, gathered around St. John's Antiochian Cathedral.

I think to develop this monasticus sensus in the greater Christian community must be one of the great tasks of the future, and the ones who must naturally lead the way are the clergy, and more specifically, the episcopacy. The large bureaucracies and centralized chanceries that characterize most churches (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) are no model for the kind of de-centralization and sacralization that's needed for American churches. Orthodoxy, in particular, is still a small, if growing, population in this country; the Orthodox Church in this country also has an inordinately large number of bishops (owing to the multiplicity of ethnic jurisdictions). The de-centralization of church bureaucracy, with its concomitant decrease of ecclesiastical paperwork and ecclesiastical committees, will allow for greater episcopal-laity contact. It will also decrease the rather relentless flow of money back and forth between parish and chancery. Like the Christian home, let the parish be as self-sufficient as possible. There's no reason why a parish church cannot provide for much of its own needs if the practice of Christian stewardship is honestly preached and practiced. The homeless within a parish's boundaries should be fed, clothed, and sheltered with the resources of that parish. National collections, or even diocesan-wide collections, can serve a noble purpose, for instance, in collections for particularly baneful disasters, like the Asian Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, but they should be rare.

Of course, all of this is what we are trying to foster through our community at Christ the Lightgiver. We want the store to be a place where people can gather and get to know one another, a place where people can find support for a world view and a way of life that is increasingly at odds with the prevailing culture. And this isn't at all a marketing ploy: we are all aware of those bookstores and coffee houses and restaurants that are part of large corporate enterprizes, and those bookstores and coffee houses and restaurants often bill themselves as places where people can gather--many times, they even refer to themselves as communities. And, someone, somewhere in the corporate structure may, in fact, want to see that actually happen, but, ultimately, the reason these establishments describe themselves as gathering places and communities is because their market research has indicated that's what folks want to hear.

But at Christ the Lightgiver, we actually are in the community building business. Yes, we sell books and icons and tea, but we do that as a way of providing folks with the best resources available for living a traditional Christian life (we don't believe that beauty and truth are optional); we also want to provide folks with access to some of the pleasures that are a natural part of life ( intelligent discussion, good movies, great tea). And, thankfully, we don't need to make lots and lots of money--we just need to pay Matt and Rebekah and Vickie.

As we get ready to host Rod--he'll be speaking at 4pm on that Saturday, and there should also be plenty of time for him to answer questions and sign books--we'd like to hear about your ideas on community and "the Benedict Option". What would you like to see at Christ the Lightgiver? What could we do to help foster community? What kind of support would help you?

fr. aidan

March 12, 2009

It's All Connected

I haven't been blogging for a while.

Let's pause there for a moment.

Now that's a sentence I've never written before.

But it is, after all, 2009.

So, let's start over.

I haven't been blogging for a while. I've got this day job as an Orthodox priest, and last week was the first week of Great Lent which means lots of additional services and lots of fasting, none of which leaves much time for messing with technology and none of which leaves much energy for sustained thought. But now it's the second week of Great Lent, and there are a couple of things that I want to write about. The first is the Jan/Feb Touchstone. Of course, you can read the entire issue and enjoy a couple of great cups of tea just by stopping by the bookstore, but, if you don't have time to get through the entire magazine, be sure and read the article "Phony Matimony" by Christopher Oleson. Mr Oleson teaches philosophy at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum in Thornwood, New York. His article is about the current controversy over the definition of marriage, and he has some really important things to say about the way most conservatives approach the debate. Like this:

What traditionally minded defenders of life-long heterosexual couple hood are left to object to (when it comes to same sex marriage) is either that (1) homosexual behavior is "yucky" (an instinctual and, by itself, subrational repugnance) or (2) that the Bible simply happens to anathematize such behavior (as through God arbitrarily thundered prohibitions without reason and without reference to the goods which human nature is meant to realize). Neither one of these objections provides a rational understanding of why such behavior could be morally problematic or why God would forbid it. They are therefore not only justifiably open to the charge of being intellectually hollow, but constitute a recipe for a public routing in the marriage debate.

The truth of the matter is that the ultimate reason why homosexual acts are contrary to human nature--namely, that the violate the generative purpose of sexual union--is the same reason why contraceptive heterosexual activity is unreasonable behavior. They stand or fall together.

In other words, by embracing contraception in the 1960's, American Christianity paved the way for same-sex marriage in this century.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to the argument, and I'm still thinking about the import of it all, but I've seen this dynamic of unintended consequences at work in another issue that is troubling American Christianity--the ordination of active homosexuals. I was a United Methodist pastor for twelve years, and I was what was then called an evangelical or conservative. Like most conservative pastors in that denomination, I was fully supportive of women's ordination. I wasn't thrilled about the biblical gymnastics that it took to support such a view, but, without the resources of a broader tradition, it was almost impossible to construct a reasonable objection. But then the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians came along, and I began to realize that the one issue was dependent on the other. That is, if sex wasn't an issue when it came to the ordination of women, then sex shouldn't be an ordination issue at all. Just about all of the conservative pastors I knew were blind-sided by that one. A lot of them eventually gave in on the issue of homosexual ordination; a few, like me, left the denomination (although I would hasten to add that the issue of gay and lesbian pastors was not at all the main reason for my decision); but most of these conservative pastors continue to fight a losing battle against the proponents of homosexual ordination. And they will eventually lose because they cannot remain United Methodists and oppose the ordination of women--but if they can't/won't oppose the ordination of women, then they cannot, with any degree of logic or even good conscience, oppose the ordination of gays and lesbians.

So, like I said, I haven't completely thought through all the implications of Oleson's article, but the dynamic he identifies is a real one: Truth is a unity, and you can't begin to tinker with it in one spot without eventually bringing down the entire structure.

fr. aidan

March 05, 2009

Cheerios & Christmas

This morning I had a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast, and it wasn't that exciting.

In my younger years Cheerios were the highlight of my morning, but the floating little O's just tasted bland and their ability to pop back up to the surface just seemed blah. I don't think floating marshmallows or Fruit Loop colored milk could have cheered me up.

Christmas too has been sub-par. I think of how bright and beautiful that day is, but it has not held that special sweetness of bygone years . I thought it might be that I was sick and unable to travel to be with relatives, or getting used to a new job, or I wasn't in the "mood" for Christmas last year, but now I am starting to think it is something else:

I am getting old.

Now I know all of you octogenarians and forty-somethings are giggling to think of me aging, but I am! (just look at all my grey hair) In my last year of teaching my students thought I had lived through the seventies, rather than just knowing about them.

It seems that somewhere along the line I let go of my ability to be amazed and I want it back again. I turned into one of those stodgy people who think about why Cheerios float instead of just laughing all morning while I try to dunk those little rings. I got too wrapped up in the stuff of Christmas rather than the silent wonder. I never really believed in Santa Claus, but making cookies with my parents and brothers has always been my favorite tradition, but that hasn't happened since 1999!

Perhaps I need to make the effort to find fascination in minuscule things, but who has the time? Anyway, the disappointing cereal has got me thinking about what an adult I've become and I do not like it one bit.