Sunday, December 31, 2006

On the Road with Jesus

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they were silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. - Mark 9:33-34

Two weeks ago it was my turn to choose the scripture passage for lectio divina at my monthly Benedictine Cell meeting. Looking for inspiration, I checked the Byzantine lectionary and found the Gospel readings for the week were mostly from Mark 9, and I settled on vv. 30-37. After the Transfiguration, as Jesus and his disciples were walking through Galilee to Capernaum, he told them of his upcoming death and resurrection, but they did not understand and were afraid to ask what he meant. The subsequent verses, quoted above, suggest they might not have been paying close attention because their thoughts were focused elsewhere.

This reminds me of too much on-line religious discussion. We are supposedly all following Jesus, but we waste our time and efforts in arguments that often boil down to questions of who is the greatest.

This is not, of course, to invalidate all argument! Sometimes disagreements must be clarified, and sometimes errors must be corrected. But arguments in the service of our own egos typically edify no one, least of all we who offer them. "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all."

At the Benedictine Cell meeting, before I read the passage from Mark to begin the group lectio, my friends spontaneously interrupted the order of the meeting to begin peppering me with questions about my upcoming move from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy. It reminded me that even the friends who have accompanied me on the road with Jesus for several years have questions about this step I am preparing to take - and those who know me less well probably have even more questions. By the conclusion of lectio, I had resolved to start this blog and committed myself to doing so. But I also resolved not to let it become just another forum for arguing about who is the greatest.

I do not intend for this blog to be just an apologia for my becoming Orthodox, but that subject will probably dominate my first several entries. As I exhaust that topic, the subject matter of my posts will broaden to encompass more of my wide-ranging interests. I anticipate that a majority of my posts will remain broadly within the realm of religion and spirituality, but I might also stray into the areas of culture, history, science, and music, among other things.

If there is a single theme that runs through all of my thought, it is the Incarnation - specifically the perfect union of the two natures, divine and human, in the person of Jesus Christ, as defined by the Council of Chalcedon. This is my touchstone, and I hope it will always be implicit (when it is not explicit) in what I post here.

It is appropriate that this initial post will appear in the midst of Christmas season, as we celebrate Christ's nativity, and on the eve of the new year, a time for new beginnings.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Second Council of Orange

The Second Council of Orange was in 529. Researching it now, I find descriptions of it as rejecting Pelagius and affirming Augustine. Is that what you had said last night? Do the Orthodox churches affirm Pelagius? I'm interested in what you were saying.

I think Pelagius was something of a strawman. The Pelagians were roughly the same people as the Nestorians, who had been rejected by the Council of Ephesus in 431. (The details of the heresies of Nestorianism and Pelagianism, as defined by the councils, cover different subjects, but the same people always seem to have held both sets of heretical beliefs, and they are sometimes held to be logically connected.)

The main target of the Second Council of Orange was in reality John Cassian, who held a position approximately half-way between those of Pelagius and Augustine. The article on Cassian in The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it this way: "St. Augustine regarded man in his natural state as dead, Pelagius as quite sound, Cassian as sick."

The three figures were roughly contemporary. Cassian wrote the official response of Rome to Nestorius, and he found in Nestorius a revival of Pelagianism, so he condemned the former along with the latter. Augustine wrote seven treatises against the Pelagians and three against the "Semipelagians" (a term that came to be used centuries later to describe the teaching of Cassian). Cassian, meanwhile, in his Conferences, tried to stake out the middle path between the extremes of Augustine and Pelagius.

Cassian was a monk in southern Gaul (near Marseilles). He had traveled extensively in the East and learned from the desert fathers. He came back home to Gaul, founded monasteries, and lived as a monk. His Conferences and Institutes, which summarize what he learned from Eastern monks, are required reading for Benedictines to this day – they are mentioned in the Rule of St. Benedict, though Benedict refrained from naming the author in an effort to avoid controversy.

The Second Council of Orange made small criticisms of Augustine's most extreme teachings on predestination, but it largely affirmed his teaching against that of Cassian, as well as that of Pelagius. Cassian's teaching was, essentially, just a summary of the theology of the Eastern church. While I have not read much of Cassian, I know the Eastern Church's teaching regarding synergy, or cooperation with grace, is sometimes described as Pelagian or Semipelagian by some Catholics and most Calvinists.

I think it could be argued that Orange was where the West first made an explicit, formal departure from the patristic consensus, implicitly elevating Augustine above all of the other fathers. Much of the East/West split can be traced to the Western Church's choices over the next few centuries to follow Augustine on exactly those points where he is most at odds with the other fathers.

Another dimension of this is the place of monasticism in the Church. Cassian was a monk who wrote for monks. Monasticism has always held a central role in the East – in fact, all Eastern bishops are under monastic vows. In the West, monasticism has never been quite as well integrated with the secular side of the Church, and it has never held as central a place in leading the Church – except in England, where a majority of the cathedrals were monastic foundations.