25 November 2017

Conversations: Mount Athos

Nima Duncan and I met while he was on staff at Saddle Rock Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Wenatchee, Wash. Though our paths crossed relatively briefly, it was long enough to spark this conversation. He graciously agreed to share his story.

Could you start by summarizing your growing up experience and the steps along the way to Orthodoxy?

...My mom and biological father came to the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970's. I am full-blooded Iranian and a first generation U.S. citizen.

Growing up I felt estranged from the world around me. I had tan skin, black hair, and an odd name...living in a mostly black neighborhood.

I did not grow up religious per se. Rather, my mom and step father had connections to religious types of people. Most of them were Christians of some sort, either Protestant or Catholic. There was also some Muslim influence from our Iranian family, mostly from my grandmother. But because of the radical and militant Muslim extremism reported in the news, Islam never seemed attractive to me.

In middle [and] high school I became good friends with an evangelical. He invited me to a teen rally where the message of Christ's life, death, and resurrection was presented. I don't remember all the details of the event but I do remember being concerned about my eternal destiny and very interested in the person of Jesus Christ.

It did not take long for me to get very involved at the local church and learn more about the spiritual experience I had.

...The next step I took was to attend a popular evangelical college where I studied philosophy and Christian theology. Those years were tough because I was not prepared to deal with the kind of intellectual issues that would arise...the origin and history of the Bible, theodicies of various kinds, reconciling modern science with conservative religious beliefs, etc.

Coupled with the intellectual concerns I had was the greater concern for spiritual depth....

The “spiritualites” I observed in the evangelical world were confusing and frustratingly shallow. Our worship services were indicative of this: full blown rock concerts, revivalist rallies, pseudo-intellectual presentations, political speeches, and more. The experiences were either bombastic, overhyped, and sensationalistic or intellectually combative, hoping to preserve modernized Christian conservatism.

By the time I took a break from school halfway through my master's degree, I was thoroughly disillusioned.

Somehow though, I did not give up on my desire to go into full time ministry! …

Somewhere inside of me I thought I could make a real difference. It felt like the right thing to do. And so I became a Protestant pastor.

In total, I spent seven years in ministry, five working with teenagers and two in an associate role.... As I took my own spiritual life more seriously and observed the kinds of problems that arose in the lives of teenagers, families, and even older adults, there was an emerging pattern that proved concerning to me.

Most of the problems I observed we’re the result of teachings that meant well but ultimately never helped people: 1) face their personal shortcomings and damaging behaviors and 2) know that God was real through a genuine encounter that was distinguished from mental artifices and personal feelings.

These issues are a very big deal! If we cannot face our broken selves and also have confidence that we can and do interact with the triune God, then why pretend to believe anything at all?

At least, that was my conclusion.

After some years of study...what I stumbled upon was the ancient faith—with its dynamic exposition of humanity, our fallen state, the Christological means to healing, and so on.

These Eastern Christian teachings were most acutely presented to me when I discovered the spiritual practices of Mount Athos, a community of monasteries preserving the faith through the very dedication of their lives.

I was challenged and enamored with what I saw. There was no question. I had to convert!

Could you unpack further what you mean by facing our personal shortcomings and encountering God? It strikes me different people might hear those ideas in very different ways.

I want to be careful in my analysis here because some of what I say will undoubtedly be taken as judgmental. Please overlook my unrefined disposition on this matter.

I found that I was (and am) an emotionally and spiritually immature person. But I also found that many other people suffered from the same generalized malady.

As a pastor, I felt a real responsibility to offer sound wisdom that could solve the deepest troubles that people encountered in life. The troubles I came across included: dysfunctional family dynamics (adults and teens), church politics, theological disputes, and psychological issues. To be specific here is difficult because the gamut is wide. But a few concrete examples I regularly saw included: blame-shifting in marriage, depression and phobias of differing kinds, obsessive church-growth schemes, disputes over supernatural spiritual gifts and worship experiences, substance and cyber addictions... I could go on but think you get the gist.

What I mean to capture with a description like "mental artifice" is that...what we want to be true of life and religious practice often supplants the objective reality.

The means to solving this problem of subjectivism (the "personal feelings" I refer to) was supposed to be biblical studies. To be crude, the evangelical Protestant teaching goes something like this: if one studies the Bible hard enough then the mind of God will be revealed in matters of personal, intellectual and ecclesial importance.

In practice, I found the Protestant notion of sola scriptura and biblical exegesis to be an incomplete teaching that either weighed people down with the burden of biblical scholarship (a confusing proposition) or led to debate on matters as essential as salvation (what is justification?), communion (is it essential?), prayer (tongues or written prayers; is kneeling or standing even important?) and church services (Can't I “be with God” on a Sunday hike or listen to a podcast?).

In my assessment, Protestant Christianity was strange because the diversity of opinions and experiences left it devoid of any legitimate spiritual gravity.

In contrast, what I found in [Eastern] Orthodox Christianity was an organic tradition that consistently preserved New Testament faith from one generation to the next and included within it the full life and teaching of the church. Part and parcel to this was the restorative power of repentance, ascetic struggle, sacramental life, and the culminating result of union with God. These teachings are obvious within the New Testament but also fleshed out through the ages in the life and writings of the saints.

Are there any parts of Orthodox tradition and teaching that bother you or that you have had to wrestle through?

[Eastern] Orthodox Christianity is beautiful, sublime, demanding, foreign, and deep in comparison to other things in the western world, especially in the U.S. This combination (among other things) has contributed to our relatively small influence in an increasingly secular world. I don’t know if it is a bad thing to be unnoticed, at this stage of history anyway. But sometimes it is difficult to deal with mass ignorance.

Before we decided to become catechumens I had my share of struggles. Our veneration of the Saints, especially the Mariology, was difficult at first. Evangelicalism demonizes such practices and the English language (though highly adaptable) does not sufficiently convey nuance in meanings at times. Once I made it a point to understand the teachings it was not difficult to wholly embrace veneration and saintly intercession. I cannot imagine my life now without it, to be quite honest.

Several years ago, I went to a Greek festival held by Saint George Greek Orthodox Church...mostly just for the tour of the building. The gospel narrative and description of worship woven into the architecture encompassed everything I find beautiful about Christianity. But less than two miles away from Saint George's stands Saint Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. So I have for Orthodoxy the same question I have for other denominations and for myself—what to make of divisions within Christianity.

...Greek, Antiochian, Russian, Serbian (etc.) Orthodoxy are all the same communion.... The church has a strange presence in the U.S. where various communities of the world found themselves here from the old world but needed priests and bishops to continue their faith. The problem is administrative and has nothing to do with any break in communion. Just this morning a Greek priest served at the alter with our priest at the Antiochian Church we attend....

...I will be honest here. This has not been a big deal to me (though it is something that needs to be resolved). I am not sure why it has not bothered me the way it has other people. Maybe because of my foreign roots? I am not sure....

These questions have intensified for me because of how American Christianity is divided by race and even personality. How do you think divisions might be resolved in Orthodox tradition?

Everything I say in response to this question is out of personal study and is not intended to [speak for] Orthodox Christianity.

...First, I would like to say, differences do indeed matter. Race, religion, worldview etc....

The question I assume you are posing..."how do we appropriately set aside differences of race, personality (and other things) to unite under one banner of faith?"...is a fair question....

If we look at the ancient or medieval world, Christianity certainly had to overcome ethnic barriers...and diverse people had to figure out how to befriend one another.... But this was usually done under...an established culture ruled by emperors and kings (or something like them) and established social mores...whether pagan or Christian.

...Relative to a "free" and democratic modern society, the ancient world (and some pockets of the world as it has been preserved to this day) had a wealth of continuity, order, and health missing from the "progress" we have made.

As contemporary Americans, we have reached a societal precipice.... On the one hand, we want to refashion the old order of people and customs into something new we call the black, white, minority, gay, transgender, or privileged experience of life. And we ask ourselves, "how do we get along as these diverse groups?"

But on the other hand...behind this new grouping of peoples is [the] principle...that encourages each of us to be "true to ourselves." Here people fashion themselves into unique expressions that defy grouping altogether....

Does our new approach collapse in on itself? Time will tell.

And so as Christians, I believe our duty is to concurrently introduce people to the sustaining metaphysical order of life in God while at the same time encouraging them to sift through the rubble of post-modernity and get in touch with a real order, grounded in history. Simply put, each of us should recover our ancestry and history, identify with it as best we can and celebrate the compatible elements that exist with the faith.

How do we reconcile differences? I believe that we need to recognize that differences exist and, with that, similar peoples naturally draw together.

Does this equal moral failure on the part of the church? I don't think so.

Could someone construe spatial divide as hate? Perhaps they could, but that would hardly be a thorough analysis of the matter.

The way forward is to dialogue across differences without assuming to change someone else. Honest dialogue is the first step before anything else.

How have those in the Orthodox tradition worked out the interaction of church and state, since so many Orthodox believers have historically lived in regions dominated by Communism or Islam?

From what I gather we still have a ways to go before better assimilating into the “New World,” so to speak. Parishioners from foreign countries like Syria, Ukraine, or Greece seem enthusiastic about western democracy, and with it the separation of church and state.

Historically speaking, Christians have not lived under Enlightenment political schemes… be it capitalistic, communistic, or some fusion of the two. It is modernity that is the new kid on the block and causing all kinds of problems for various religions, Orthodox Christians included.

What is funny is that I have encountered a small but growing group of established Americans in the “High Church” context recovering valuable aspects of pre-Enlightenment politics. These folks are more critical of an irreligious state, which after all, is the logical conclusion of separation.

We talked briefly a couple years ago about the nature of truth and how western ideas of truth and knowledge have perhaps not been adequately critiqued in Evangelical circles for example. How does the Orthodox tradition see the nature of truth and our relationship to it?

In many ways I feel like "knowing" has been the very theme of my life and study. How do we know? What do we know? Is knowing really possible? If so, to what extent?

...our current cultural climate would have us believe that the most supreme knowledge is information attained through scientific investigation. Material reality is all that is "real" and if we could only master it then maybe we could also solve our [worst] problems (which change, depending on who you ask). What is invisible and mysterious is not cause of celebration, respect, or humility but just another "problem" to be "solved."

...Kierkegaard (under one of his pseudonyms) once wrote...in his “Works of Love”...if all that is real is merely sensory experience, then perhaps the first thing any reasonable person should do away with is love.

His point is that the greatest truth of life is somehow shielded from a so-called "scientific" way of knowing.

I have always found him to be right on this point. In some sense, epistemology and spirituality converge. How can I claim to know anything metaphysical and have no spiritual experience of it? Conversely, how can I ever claim to have a legitimate spiritual experience and yet not be concerned with how it is known...?

So for example...in ancient Christianity the experience of the light of God was (and is) vital in discerning the truth....

When you talk about the light of God and epistemology it sounds like the idea some hold that people can't understand the Bible rationally but the Holy Spirit reveals it to them? You are referring to a 14th century debate regarding God's transcendence and eminence?

As I understand it, the divine, uncreated light of God is the culminating experience of Christian truth. Orthodox Christianity teaches that the way of salvation and life puts a person on the trajectory to encounter [God's] light. That is to say, "light" is not merely a metaphor for knowledge but something much more, something inextricably tied to pursuing and knowing God.

The nature of this light is what was debated in the 14th century, between the eastern and western Church.

The context of the disagreement was among monastics that had been experiencing God's light on Mount Athos in Greece. Was this experience an emanating, exterior creation of luminous activity? Was this God himself? And if it is God himself, then dare they think of the light as the very essence of God Almighty?

...Our Eastern Father, St. Gregory Palamas, defended the encounter of God's light as the very experience of God's uncreated energies.

...The reason this is important to epistemology is because it recovers the most important aspect of our faith that has been lost, noetic experience.

As we understand it today, to know something really well means that we have a discursive mastery over the information related to the object of knowledge. We "know" mathematical formulae, the layout of a city, each word of Shakespeare's prose, etc. This way of knowing is something good and helpful...but also limited to an aspect of reality that is conducive to it.

To put it simply, discursive thinking is an incomplete approach to reality...inadequate in apprehending the divine.

In contrast, Orthodox Christianity teaches that the highest knowledge one can attain is by the human nous—transliterated from the Greek and variously meaning "mind," "heart" or "spirit." The nous has been called the "eye of the soul." It is the immaterial piece of each of us that must be cleansed by God in order to "see" reality for what it is.

To "know" something in this way is immediate (or so I am told, for I have certainly not attained to any manner of spiritual mastery... Lord have mercy!). When the nous is purified, then a person's spiritual perception is heightened. The summit of this experience would be things like clairvoyance...in terms of gifting...and the experience of God's light in terms of encountering truth.

Outside of Christian Orthodoxy...various...spiritualities...claim similar things, I know. So, one might rightly ask, how is this different?

The Eastern Church has...a matrix of conglomerate ideas and practices aimed toward cleansing the nous and helping Christians prepare themselves to encounter God. These things include (to name a few things) confession, ascetic struggle, spiritual reading from scripture and tradition, the Jesus prayer, and the litany of virtues that lead believers toward a spiritual ascent.

The goal of these things is righteousness, which results in sobriety of mind. Ecstatic experiences, of themselves, are not the point. Our goal is to draw near to the source of light and life, God himself. Yet from the Old Testament to the New Testament and throughout the age of the Church, there is a continuity of experiences that testify to this truth, a bonafide spiritual science.

And so, getting to the particulars of your question, "knowing the Bible" is something possible on multiple levels. On the one hand, there is the fact that, let's say, the Canaanite people really existed. Through archaeology, linguistics, and historical analysis, we can critically assess and sometimes further explain the reality of this people in the Bible....

But on the other hand, accepting moral instruction from St. Paul, learning to love God with all one's mind heart and strength, accepting Christ as "light from light, very God of very God," these things are apprehended differently. One has faith in their truth and with the cleansing of the nous, one comes to experience them also.

It is from this perspective that St. Maximos describes the immediate and qualitatively different experience of "seeing" the transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor.

"By the bright garments, they were taught, in a divinely fitting way, in an undifferentiated, simultaneous moment, both the magnificence that lies within created things consistent with the principles whereby they were brought into being, and the deeper meaning hidden in the words of Holy Scripture, into which the intellect may be initiated, and this happens because together with the knowledge of God comes the spiritual power of Scripture and the spiritual wisdom and knowledge of creation, through which God is manifested in ways that are proper to each." — St. Maximos the Confessor on the Transfiguration, from “The Ambigua” (On Difficulties in the Church Fathers)

I'm reading Alexander Schmemann's "For the Life of the World, have Timothy Ware's "The Orthodox Church," and have the Orthodox Study Bible. If you were going to recommend one or three books that represent your understanding, what would they be?

Those are excellent resources...with one caveat. The faith is meant to be experienced. And there is simply no substitute for the Eastern Orthodox Christian services. The very grace present in the whole of reality is gathered up in the rites of the church, especially in the the diving liturgy.

Having said that, here are three books that are dear to my heart:

Fr. John Romanides' “Patristic Theology.” Fr. John is...an academic [who] also preserves a traditional monastic teaching of what Christianity is and how it is to be approached. His “Patristic Theology” is a compilation of lectures that explain the nous (as we discussed above, the Greek word for: “mind,” “the eye of our soul,” or what the New Testament calls the human “spirit”). It also describes the encounter of God’s uncreated light, the divine essence/energies distinction and the Christiological teachings that dovetail with these spiritual issues. The work sharply delineates the differences between Orthodox Christians and others.

Fr. Seraphim Rose’s “Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future.” Fr. Seraphim is a brilliant man that also knew how to write to a general audience. This book is one of his most important works...because it keenly discerns and anticipates the religious ‘spirit’ of the age, especially in America, in light of the Orthodox Faith. “Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future” covers the growing movements of Hinduism, Charismatism, UFO encounters, globalism and more. This is one of my favorite books of recent memory and a veritable prophetic work from our current vantage point.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”...is considered a literary masterpiece by many (and, of course, I agree), but I am picking it as a testament to Orthodox Christianity because of its very real depiction of faith, despite a broken world. The problem of evil presented in the grand inquisitor section is especially of great importance. There are answers but perhaps not the kind that any of us expect.

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