Since I have not written anything in nearly two months, I fear some of you might be wondering whether I still have anything to blog about after completing my transition to Orthodoxy. The answer is an emphatic yes, but I’ve been channeling my writing energies in other directions lately, leaving me with a growing backlog of bloggable topics that are stranded in my head, rather than flowing across your screens. I hope to resume my more-or-less weekly blogging pace soon, but I can’t make any promises about when.
I am finding Orthodox Christians, collectively, very odd in their consensus about which bits of Anglophone Christianity to embrace and which to reject. Many Orthodox, for instance, insist on saying Pascha, rather than Easter, as if these were two different, totally unconnected events. Or as if Easter somehow embodied the peculiarities of Western or Catholic or Protestant belief. Some claim to reject it because of its possible indirect connection to a putative ancient pagan goddess, Eostre. But the only testimony we have to the worship of a goddess of this name comes from the Venerable Bede, a 7th-century English monk, in his speculation about the etymology of the term Easter. Bede himself was, of course, an Orthodox Christian who called the feast by its English name when speaking English. It goes by similar names in other Germanic languages, all corresponding to their languages’ names for the month of April.
(In the early days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the speakers of Old English often avoided transliterating terms from Latin and Greek, instead preferring to coin new words rooted in their own language. This preference even persisted into the early modern period, resulting, for example, in the peculiarly English word atonement for reconciliation.)
Yet Orthodox Christians do not hesitate to call the Great Fast by its English name, Lent, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the season of spring, corresponding to the lengthening of days at that time of year. Nor do they shrink from calling the morning office Matins, which is cognate with the name of Matuta, the Roman goddess of the dawn.
My newest pet peeve about Orthodoxy is its ubiquitous adoption of the Puritan practice of capitalizing divine pronouns, i.e., pronouns that refer to God. It seems that some people have actually been taught that this practice is a rule of English grammar! But if you look at the King James Version of the Bible or any edition of the Book of Common Prayer, you will find that the practice of official English-speaking Christianity (i.e., Anglicanism) has always been to treat divine pronouns like any other pronouns. Nor does this practice have precedent in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture. The use of mixed cases – i.e., uppercase and lowercase letters together in the same text – developed long after the Scriptures had been written and collected. No, this practice was first introduced by the Puritans, who published their own Bibles and devotional materials outside England, in defiance of the Established Church.
(I understand that those who capitalize divine pronouns intend thereby to “honor” God. I try to imagine what the prophets might say to them about the proper way to honor God. Perhaps, “This people honors me with its capital letters, but its heart is distant from me.” cf. Isaiah 29:13.)
My first objection to the capitalization of divine pronouns is practical and asesthetic: I find it hard to read a text cluttered with capitalized words that are not nouns and that do not begin a new sentence. Every time I run into Thou or Thee, I want to start reading a new sentence! But I object even more to the Protestant hermeneutic implicit in this capitalization. It assumes that one can always identify every pronoun as referring either to God or not to God. This, in turn, rests on assumptions that 1) the meaning of Scripture is transparent, and 2) Scripture is only to be read literally. These assumptions defy the Orthodox method of reading Scripture inherited from the Fathers. In addition to the literal level, we Orthodox read Scripture on a typological level. A person or event might be interpreted simultaneously on both levels. The entire book of Song of Solomon, for instance, has traditionally been read typologically as describing the relationship between Christ and the Church, yet the capitalizers do not capitalize any pronouns in this book of the Old Testament.
(If the Puritans were reading Song of Solomon literally, perhaps they were not as “puritanical” as is often supposed!)
In short, I object to the practice of capitalizing divine pronouns in texts intended for Orthodox use because 1) it is contrary to standard English usage; 2) it has no precedent in the original Greek texts of the Scriptures; and 3) it is inconstent with Orthodox readings of Scripture.
While most Orthodox Bibles and liturgical books continue to capitalize divine pronouns, I have found some exceptions, so I know I’m not alone. In the liturgical texts on the Anastasis Website, for instance, Archimandrite Ephrem’s translations follow the traditional English liturgical usage, which does not capitalize divine pronouns.