Saturday, April 18, 2015

What If?

When I got my copy of Randall Munroe's (of the amazing webcomic xkcd) new book What If?I had been holding out hope that in it he would finally answer some of the (multiple) questions I've asked him. Unfortunately, he didn't (although he did answer a very similar one from someone else). So I guess the only thing left for me to do is to take a crack at answering them myself. Obviously, I am not a webcomic artist or an astrophysicist who used to work at NASA, so my answers won't be nearly as funny, well-illustrated, or (possibly) correct as Randall's would be. But hopefully they'll still be worth it. Let's go back through my old Emails...

If people packed shoulder-to-shoulder on every floor of a tall building and jumped, would they have any chance of bringing the building down?

Great question, me! As our example skyscraper, I'll use the shiny new One World Trade Center; since it was built to survive being hit by a hijacked airplane or a truck bomb, it should have at least as much of a chance as any other skyscraper. The gross floor area of One WTC is 325,279 m2. If we assume three people can fit in a square meter, that's 975,837 people that can fit into the skyscraper (nevermind the hellish logistics of getting them all in there, which would be almost as bad as Randall explains in his similar answer here).

If I then assume that an average adult weighs 75 kg and can jump 0.3 meters in the air (per this article), they would be traveling at v = √(2gh) = √(2 * 9.8 * 0.3) = 2.42 m/s when they came down. The force exerted by an impact is the change in momentum divided by time. How much time does it take for you to stop moving after you hit the ground while jumping? It's hard to find good figures, but from this solid-looking question from a physics textbook and some testing that would no doubt confuse my roommate if he saw it, I'm going to be conservative and say about 0.1 seconds if you're smart and bend your knees.

So, the force exerted by a 75kg person when landing from a jump is about 2.42 * 75 / 0.1 = 1,815 N, decelerating the person at about 2.5 g. The force from all 975,837 people would then be about 1.771 GN (giganewtons), the equivalent of about 181,000 metric tons. All of this force will be transmitted to the Freedom Tower's base. Will it survive? Well, considering how each of the old towers weighed about 500,000 tons (I can't find data on the new one), it's safe to say that this additional load should be well within the structure's margin of safety. That [architect of One World Trade Center] David Childs really thought of everything.

I hope it isn't in bad taste that I originally answered this question on September 11th.

What would happen if you somehow brought a cubic meter of neutron star matter to earth? (Both the actual case where it would probably explosively decompress, and the hypothetical case where it stayed together in a solid unit)

Randall almost answered this one in his new book. The actual question was, "If a bullet with the density of a neutron star were fired from a handgun (ignoring the how) at the Earth's surface, would the Earth be destroyed?"

My guess of what would actually happen was right. It would indeed explosively decompress into superhot normal matter, apparently releasing more energy than a nuclear bomb. So Randall assumes it somehow stays in its superdense state; the bullet would weigh as much as the Empire State Building.

It wouldn't matter much if the bullet were fired or dropped. It would immediately burrow its way to the center of the earth, forming an underground shooting star, and would then sit there pretty uneventfully. He then explores what would happen if you could somehow keep it on the earth's surface. (Answer: if you tried to touch it, it would try to rip your arm off with gravity; surrounding it with water would allow buoyancy to cancel out the gravity and maybe, just maybe, allow you to touch it) It was a pretty cool question. But my question was about considerably more neutron star material. Let's see what happens...

According to Wikipedia, neutron stars have an average density of 3.7–5.9 × 1017 kg/m3. So our cubic meter of neutron star matter would weight about three to six hundred million billion kilograms. The Empire State Building weighs 365,000 imperial tons, or about 332,000 metric tons. So (if we take a middling estimate of the neutron star matter's density, 4.5 × 1017 kg/m3), our sample would have the mass of about 1.2 billion Empire State Buildings. Incidentally, it appears that Randall was (gasp!) wrong in his answer about the mass of the bullet. Assuming its volume is a teaspoon, it would weigh about as much as 7,410 Empire State Buildings, not just one. Sadly, this means you probably wouldn't be able to get within about twenty meters of it.

Anyway, our sphere (I'll assume it forms a sphere as expected rather than a cube) of neutron star matter is much bigger and much more massive. This means that its gravity becomes much more appreciable. The results are hard for me to imagine. The surface of the sphere will have a gravitation acceleration of nearly eight million g—four times that of the best ultracentrifuges. At ten meters, the sphere's gravitational force would still be equal to about thirty thousand g. This decreases to (only) 306 at 100 meters and 3 g at a kilometer. An easier measure might be that due to its smaller mass and radius, our neutron sphere has an escape velocity of 9.8 km/s, nearly equal to that of the earth. This also means that at six kilometers out, the gravity of the sphere would make you feel like you were on a slope with a grade of about 1:11.75—steep enough to constitute a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If you somehow kept this sphere together, it would, of course, fall to the center of the earth, probably causing a good deal more damage on the surface as it did so. If you managed to keep it on the surface as well, things would get pretty weird. If we assume the ground around the sphere is made of reasonably firm dirt with an angle of repose of 45°, all the dirt within about 1.7 kilometers of the sphere (along with anything on top of it) would avalanche towards it. As it turns out, because of the inverse-square law, an object just five meters from the sphere (the equivalent of dropping something to earth from beyond geostationary orbit) will, ignoring air resistance, have picked up 95% of its escape velocity when it impacts. It's hard for me to specify exactly what would happen, but the energy created by the hypersonic impact would probably be contained by the continuing avalanche of dirt, eventually resulting in a large, hot hill developing around the sphere. It puts me in mind of a certain song by Megadeth: "High Speed Dirt".

What would the atmospheric pressure be at the bottom of the Mariana Trench if you took out all the water?

This is much easier than the last question. The relationship between atmospheric pressure and altitude is common knowledge. The side effects of draining the world's oceans (which Randall studies exhaustively in the book) would slightly change things since there would no longer be oceans to displace the atmosphere upward, but this won't significantly change our results (I think). Plugging in the depth of Mariana Trench gives us a pressure of 3.65 atmospheres at the bottom. Apparently, if you stayed in this pressure for several hours, you could develop pulmonary oxygen toxicity, whose main symptom is respiratory inflammation. We all know that humans need supplementary oxygen to survive at high altitudes, but apparently exceedingly low altitudes have problems of their own.

The more interesting part has to do with the atmospheric lapse rate, or how quickly it gets colder as you go higher. It is about 6.5 K per kilometer. As you might guess, it also works in reverse. With the Mariana Trench being 10.911 kilometers deep, the air at the bottom should be about 70(!) degrees Celsius hotter than at sea level—potentially hot enough to spontaneously boil water, if water didn't boil at 140° C due to the increased pressure. Also, due to the Mariana Trench being over five times the depth of the Grand Canyon, it's hard to predict what kind of climatic effects will moderate this temperature increase (I don't imagine the bottom of the trench would get much sunlight).

The Earth has come closer to this scenario than you might think. During the Messinian salinity crisis, which began about six million years ago, the Strait of Gibraltar closed off and the Mediterranean Sea dried up into a sort of super Dead Sea, a hypersaline lake surrounded by a desertified abyssal basin where temperatures may have reached 80° C. Rivers that fed into the basin, like the Nile, cut deep gorges as they ran down to several kilometers below their current mouths. African species like hippopotami migrated across the basin before it got too hot and dry, then were stranded on cooler highlands like Malta and underwent island dwarfism. The crisis finally ended with the Zanclean flood, in which the sea refilled through the Strait of Gibraltar at a rate of about a thousand times the discharge rate of today's Amazon River.

A common trope in anime, video games, or other media is to depict the moon as much larger in the sky than in real life, often seeming to fill half the sky. If the moon were actually this large (or, alternately, this close to the earth), how would it affect life on earth, gravity, the tides, etc.?
Okay, maybe I was exaggerating a bit. This GIF is a less extreme example of what I'm talking about. Technically, with the right use of a zoom lens, it is possible to make the Moon appear this big relative to foreground objects. But assuming that's not the case in this image, let's try to estimate the angular size of the Moon. Let's assume that Inuyasha's (or whosever that is) seated figure is about four feet tall. Due to the lack of perspective it's impossible to know for sure how far we are from him (her?). I'll guess about twelve feet. This gives him an angular size of about 18.9°. The moon's angular size, then, is something like 9.9°. By way of comparison, the real Moon has a maximum angular size of about 0.57°.

This can't end well.
The scale of the real-life Earth-Moon system, for reference.
If we increase the size of the moon to match this new angular size but keep its distance the same, we get a new lunar mean radius of about 33,300 km, as opposed to 1,700 km for the real Moon. Or 6,300 km for the Earth. This truly super-Moon would be by far the largest rocky body in the Solar System. It would not orbit around the Earth; the Earth would orbit around it in just under three days. If we naively scale up the real moon in its proportions, this truly super Moon would have the mass of 87 Earths, nearly as much as Saturn, and a surface gravity of over 3 g. This moon would also have a gravity differential over the earth more than seven thousand times that of the regular moon, which would probably cause mile-high tides or something. (In real life, the earth would be tidally locked to the super-Moon just as the regular moon is to the earth)

That's no Moon...
If, on the other hand, we move the moon closer to the Earth so it appears this large, we get a new semimajor axis of 20,000 km, about 5% of the old semimajor axis of 384,000 km. This is just over three Earth radii and perilously close to the Moon's Roche limit, the distance at which tidal forces from the Earth tear the Moon apart and turn it into a ring system. It will have a new orbital period of less than eight hours and produce even higher tides than the super-Moon. Its gravity would probably also destabilize the orbits of satellites in geosynchronous orbit (which it would orbit beneath) and make it impossible to keep them up for long.
Oh, hello there.

Here is an extreme example. Considering the fisheye effect in use here, let's suppose this moon has an angular size of 30°. Now things get really ridiculous. Scaling the moon up to these proportions gives it a ludicrous radius of 103,000 km, over a quarter of the distance to the Earth, and about 150% of the radius and eight times the mass of Jupiter. Its gravitational pull would cause your weight to tangibly fluctuate with the tides, which would be tens or hundreds of thousands of times their current proportions. Again, I don't know the science involved with packing this much dirt together with these kinds of forces, but this is probably astrophysically impossible.

Jupiter for scale.
Moving the moon this close to earth puts it at a distance of just 6,500 km, giving it a new orbital period of less than 90 minutes and off-the-scale tides, but that doesn't matter because before you can get the Moon this close it will collide with the Earth and kill us all.

This is actually NASA's conception of the impact that created the Moon, but the actual result would be similar.
This is one way that I'm glad real life isn't more like anime.

What would happen if you could somehow connect two planets (say, Earth and Jupiter) with an unbreakable, unstretchable tether? Or an unbreakable, rigid girder?

Bad, bad things.

I wasn't sure how to answer this from a purely physical standpoint, so I wrote a quick Python simulation to model the situation. The results are interesting. If you connect the two planets at their point of conjunction (so they are about 4.2 AU apart), Earth basically acts a a pendulum hanging towards the Sun from Jupiter. Meanwhile, Jupiter's distance from the sun varies surprisingly regularly from about 5.3 AU to 4.64 AU over a 16-year year period; I think the Earth's swinging motion off the tether (which gets faster or slower as it gets closer to or farther from the Sun) acts somewhat like pumping your legs on a swing to go higher or lower; the force of the Sun's gravity on Earth, transmitted to Jupiter through the tether, either pulls it higher or lower in its orbit.

What this means for Earth is that instead of a normal year, it has a pendulum-like swing cycle that lasts about 10 months at its/Jupiter's furthest point from the Sun (where its distance varies from about 1 AU to 1.7 AU, beyond the orbit of Mars) and 4 months at their nearest approach (where the distance varies from about 0.45 to 1 AU, within the orbit of Mercury) with about 8 years elapsing between the high and low points of Earth/Jupiter's orbit. For reference, the habitable zone of the Solar System is (very roughly) around 0.75 AU to 1.4 AU. Earth's "orbit" will take it close enough to the Sun to boil the oceans and far enough away to freeze them. Presumably the atmosphere would exert some kind of moderating effect on these wild temperature swings (until it gets blown away by the close-range solar wind), but things look pretty grim. There is also the risk of planetary collision with Mercury, Venus, and Mars to worry about.

If the Earth and Jupiter start out in opposition, then the tether obviously does nothing. (Even assuming it is indestructible and can survive passing through the Sun) What about if Earth and Jupiter start out 90° apart in their orbits?

That's not good.
On second thought, let's not build an unbreakable, unstretchable, indestructible tether to Jupiter.

What (roughly) would Mars look like with all the water we drained from the Earth's oceans on it? How would the water affect its climate?

Randall actually answered this one! (As asked by someone else)

What if every human being on earth used all their mechanical power (say, on exercise bicycles) to heat and boil the oceans? Would this have any noticeable effect on water levels or the weather? What if we also turned the power we generate from other sources (turbines, generators, cars, etc.) to this purpose?

The average power output of someone working hard is about 500 W. Assuming the fit people are able to balance out the infirm/children, the human race should be able to produce about 7 × 109 × 500 = 3.5 TW. Impressively, this is about a fifth of the total power consumption of the world, so the answers of the two parts of the question are more similar than I expected. Assuming we are boiling water from the surface of the ocean, which has an average temperature of 17 °C, we could boil about 1,334 tons of seawater per second. This becomes about 8,000 tons/second if we include our other means of generating power, which works out to roughly 250 km3 of water per year—just 0.05% of the global evapotranspiration caused by the sun. So it looks like the Sun wins this one. If we were smart enough to actually capture all that distilled water instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere and return as rain, though, we could solve California's water woes 34 times over. This sounds nice, but put another way it means that distilling enough water to satisfy California would require about 615 gigawatts, 3.8% of the energy generated worldwide. With that much power, we could power over 500 time machines to just go back in time and tell California to use less water.
In homage to
What would happen if you changed the rotational period of the Earth to one hour? Two hours? Half an hour? One minute?

This question was inspired by this one, in which Randall describes the catastrophic consequences of speeding the Earth's rotation so that a day lasts one second. So I wondered, what about some more moderate day lengths? What is the shortest day the Earth could have and still have things remain "normal"? Jupiter has a ten-hour day; at this angular speed, the Earth's surface would be moving at around 1.1 km/s instead of the usual 0.46 km/s. The effects of the centrifugal force would not be enough to noticeably counteract Earth's gravity, so the most catastrophic effect would be having to adjust to a ten-hour day.

A two-hour day would cut the Earth's apparent gravity in half. This would likely be awesome and extremely fun. Swimming and sports would be more exciting, people would travel by bunny-hopping everywhere, and we might already have flying cars. The effects would probably be similar to those of increased gravity as described by Randall in this answer, only reversed. On the other hand, the Coriolis effect would be much stronger, potentially increasing the incidence of hurricanes, and the atmosphere would be less dense, which might make it harder to enjoy your newfound antigravity powers.

You can't go much further than a two-hour day. At about 84 minutes (just over the length of a day in Skyrim), the centrifugal force at the equator equals the force of gravity. Long before this, the Earth would deform into an oblate spheroid (more noticeably than it already has) and accordingly slow its rotation. With a one-hour day or less, the Earth's mass around the Equator would break off and fly out into space (moving at escape velocity), though without the awesome consequences of the one-second day.

What would be the effects on Earth if its axial tilt were 90°, like that of Uranus?

Increasing the Earth's axial tilt from 23.5° to 90° would have some pretty drastic effects on the climate. As commentors in this discussion say, this would basically mean that the Equator and the Arctic/Antarctic circles would become the same. Everywhere on earth would get experience the midnight sun and polar night for part of the year. I'll break down what the day-night-year cycle would look like at a few select latitudes:
  • The Equator: Exactly 12 hours of daylight every day of the year (just like the real Equator), except on the solstices. The Sun's maximum elevation during these days ranges from 90° at the equinoxes (the Sun would travel directly across the middle of the sky) to very low around the solstices; it would just barely peek about the horizon, albeit for longer than it does at the real-life poles (still 12 hours). At the solstices, the Sun would circle the entire horizon without actually rising above it, creating 24-hour twilight. This Equator would probably have more extreme seasons than the real one; it would likely get quite cold at the solstices, and would be hot around the equinoxes much like in real life.
  • 30°: Two months of midnight sun, from about May 21st to July 21st, polar night from about November 21st to February 21st. Lahaina Noon on about August 21st and April 21st. At the Summer solstice, the Sun would hang at 30° in the sky all day; consequently, Summers would be surprisingly cool. Spring and Fall would be very hot due to the high insolation and winter would be bitterly cold, but this might end up being one of the more habitable latitudes.
  • 45°: Three months of midnight sun from about May 6th to August 6th, polar night from about November 6th to March 6th. The days of maximum insolation would also be May 6th and August 6th; on these days the Sun rises from the horizon at midnight to directly overhead at midday; these days would be sweltering. At the Summer solstice the Sun would stay at 45° all day. Late Spring and Summer would be brutal, but at least you get to look forward to three months of icy darkness to make up for it!
  • 65°: Near the real-life Arctic/Antarctic circles. Four-plus months of midnight sun, from about April 16th to August 26th, and polar night from about October 16th to February 24th. At the Summer solstice the Sun is at a constant 65° of elevation, and during the entire month of June it is at over 45° 24 hours a day. On May 26th and about July 14th, the Sun rises from 45° to directly overhead. In case you haven't noticed, things are getting worse the closer we get to the poles.
  • The North Pole: The Sun's elevation is constant throughout the day, every day. Six months of midnight sun, six months of polar night. We have no Earthly analogue for what the Summer solstice would be like: the Sun would stay over nearly the same point on the Earth's surface for weeks, causing unimaginable amounts of heating and evaporation. Meanwhile the Winters would be even colder than those of our poles.
In a nutshell, the seasons would become much more extreme than those of the real Earth the further you go away from the Equator. Closer to the Equator, the equinoxes would be hot (as hot as the real-life Equator) and the solstices would be cold, but not uninhabitably so. Most people would probably live close to the Equator. I don't feel qualified to speculate about the plant and animal life that would inhabit this alternate Earth. I really think Randall should answer this one; it would be a good counterpart to his fascinating article Cassini.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

War and Peace

The following is the final(!) paper for my master's program, on the ethics of war and peace. (Not the book)

War is one of the oldest ethical questions that have faced Christians. Teaching on war has existed between two poles since the early days of the Church. The early Latin father Tertullian, speaking about the possibility of Christians serving in the military, unambiguously states that "there is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Caesar."1 Conversely, two hundred years later Augustine wrote, "it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars."2 The traditions they represent, Christian pacifism and just war theory, have coexisted in the Church, sometimes uneasily, ever since.

Christian pacifism was a significant, though not dominant presence in the early church, as represented by fathers like Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Lactantius, and has remained so ever since.3 The pacifist tradition they helped originate was continued in the Middle Ages by the Waldensians and after the Reformation by Protestant denominations like the Mennonites, Swiss Brethren, and Quakers. In the modern era, reforming figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. have powerfully demonstrated the redemptive power of nonviolence to effect social change and publicly model the love of Christ. Christian pacifism "is more than simply approving of peace, which everyone in some sense would do, it is the conviction that the commitment to peace stands higher than any other commitment"4—even the commitment to seek justice.5

The biblical basis for Christian pacifism is centered on Jesus as "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15 RSV); he reveals the Father to us (Mat 11:27); he is God in the flesh, the final and greatest revelation of the divine (Heb 1:1-2). "He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power." (Heb 1:3) What is true of Jesus is true of God, and it is through the Incarnation that God has revealed to us both who he is and what it means to be truly human. And what kind of God does Jesus reveal to us? A God who responds to evil with mercy (Luk 15:11-32), who "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mat 5:45), who submitted to a horrific, unjust death on the cross, the ultimate demonstration of nonviolent love in the face of evil and an example for Christians to follow (1 Pet 2:21). The Incarnation is the "normative revelation of God" for Christians,6 and a major implication of it is that God is nonviolent.

Further support can be drawn from the teachings of Jesus. The first and most greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, and inseparable from this is the command to love your neighbor as yourself. (Mat 22:34-40) But Jesus expands this command to include not just those we identify and get along with, but our enemies (Mat 5:43-45, Luk 6:35-36). We are to respond to evil, persecution, and violence not in kind, not with violent resistance (Mat 5:39) but with love and mercy. In doing so we are simply following the example of God, who loved us and showed us mercy (especially through Christ) when we were sinners and his enemies (5:8,10). These sharpened teachings are not simply unreachable ideals or general attitudes we are supposed to have; Jesus fully intended for us to obey them just as much as he intended for us to obey his command to love one another.

Commenting on and expanding Christ's teachings, Paul writes, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13:10) According to him, we are called to engage not in physical violence, but in spiritual warfare.7 (2 Cor 10:3-6) We must "Repay no one evil for evil...but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:17,21). Violence, Christian pacifists argue, is not redemptive; it only leads to more evil, more violence, and so it can never positively advance the causes of justice or mercy. "The only ultimately redemptive response to sin and how it profoundly distorts human social life is, as Paul asserted, to seek to overcome evil with good (Romans 12). The only way successfully to resist violence without simply adding to violence in the world is overtly non-violent resistance."8 (Emphasis the author's)

While I support nearly all of the points made by Christian pacifism and believe that its Christ-centered message of peace needs to be heard more widely, I cannot follow its case to the absolute conclusion that war and violence are never permissible. In this it confuses private duties, in which a Christian is responsible foremost for his own soul, with public duties, in which a Christian, especially a parent or civil authority, is responsible for the protection of those in his care.9 One need look no further than the present situation in Iraq and Syria for an example of a situation in which an exclusive prescription of nonviolence would be impossibly idealistic (i.e. placing moral ideals before people), and for that reason heartless towards the vulnerable facing the real danger of violent persecution or death. For the sake of peace as the most important commitment and to avoid dirtying one's own hands, Christian pacifism is willing to allow death, suffering, and injustice to befall innocents. For the sake of loving one’s enemies, it is willing to compromise on loving neighbors, innocents, and those one may be charged to protect. Christ's teachings of pacifism and nonresistance are a high and vital calling for his followers, but to refuse to fight in the defense of others is to impose those teachings on those who, by and large, are not able to obey them to the utmost. It is to force martyrdom on them. To deny that such difficult choices ever have to be made is simply to deny the pervasive reality of sin in our world.

Christian pacifism also runs into some exegetical difficulties. It ignores Jesus' propensity to use hyperbole to accentuate his moral teachings; for example, I know of no one who has ever applied Matthew 5:29-30 literally and mutilated themselves to avoid sinning. Likewise his command to hate one's father and mother (Luk 14:26) is qualified by (among other things) his act of compassion on Mary from the cross in John 19:26-27, as well as Paul's command to provide for one's family (1 Tim 5:8). Its flat definition of Jesus as the "normative revelation of God" wanders dangerously close to Marcionism when it allows this reality to invalidate the depictions of God as blessing warfare in the Old Testament, reiterated in Heb 11:32-34. In context, its use of Romans 12 and 13 is also somewhat ambiguous: the justification for Christians not avenging themselves is not God's unwavering mercy but his self-declared monopoly on vengeance (Rom 12:19), and in Romans 13:1-7 Paul describes governing authorities as instituted by God, bearing the sword to execute his wrath (as a proxy) on the wrongdoer.

Thus even in the biblical support for Christian pacifism are found the seeds for just war theory, which holds that while war is evil, it may be permissible in certain circumstances. Augustine was the first to articulate the rationale that since the state is God's servant, appointed to bear the sword against wrongdoers (Rom 13:4), there are cases in which war (and capital punishment) can be just, in congruence with the examples of the Old Testament.10 Nonetheless war remains at best a lamentable necessity, an evil made permissible only by the presence of worse evils.11 The Scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas built on the teachings of Augustine, going into more detail on the specific criteria that make a war “just” and reiterating that the aim of war is the restoration of peace and justice to the social order.12 The early reformers (except the aforementioned proponents of pacifism) continued to uphold the just-war tradition.

Just war theory distinguishes between at least two sets of criteria. Jus ad bellum criteria evaluate whether or not a given war is justifiable and include things like declaration by a competent authority, a just cause, proportionality of the means of war, exhaustion of peaceful means of resolution, and probability of success. Jus in bello criteria, including proportionality of force and discrimination of targets, are intended to minimize the evils of a war already in progress and avoid dehumanization of the enemy.13 Unlike Christian pacifism, just war theory does not hold that war always necessarily creates a worse evil than it overthrows, or that violence against a military opponent necessarily leads to hatred. It is possible to love one's enemies while using force to stop them from harming others, remaining ready (even eager) to lay down one's arms when peace is declared. God himself faces the same challenge of honoring and loving us (as his sacred image-bearers) even as we persist in destroying each other.

Just war theory enjoys plenty of biblical precedent, especially throughout the Old Testament, which presupposes that warfare can be legitimate. Abraham gets into a skirmish to rescue his nephew Lot (Gen 14:13-16), and is presented as an example of faith in the New Testament (Rom 4:11-12, Heb 11:8-30). The same can be said of Joshua (cf. Heb 11:30), the judges, and David (Heb 11:32-34), who are praised for their faith, including their willingness to fight in the name of God. In the New Testament, John the Baptist (Luk 3:14), Jesus (Luk 7:2-9), and Peter (Acts 10:1,24-48) have encounters with soldiers, in which we receive no hint that their profession is inherently sinful. As previously mentioned, in Romans 13:1-4 Paul states that governing authorities are servants instituted by God, appointed to bear the sword against wrongdoers. In John's apocalyptic vision Christ is depicted as one who "it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war." (Rev 19:11) "While the warfare in question is spiritual, nevertheless the suitability of the war metaphor implies that the activity itself is not a violation of the purposes of God. By way of contrast, God is never described as a 'harlot' or in terms of other occupations that are by their very nature immoral."14

Yet the logic of just war theory must not be taken too far. If overapplied, especially as a set of criteria for evaluating whether a given war is a "just" war, it risks becoming a moral "free pass" for war and killing, declaring them to be "good" when (as the destruction of God's image) they remain anything but. Just war theory can even end up sanctioning an implicit "end justifies the means" philosophy: if the end is considered to be "just", the horrors of war are declared "righteous". The Latin word iustus that is translated to "just" here should probably be taken to mean more "lawful", "legal", or "legitimate" in this case than positively "righteous", as is the connotation of the Greek dikaios. The point of Christian pacifism that violence is never redemptive is somewhat true; besides its destruction of the image of God, all war can do is prevent a greater evil or injustice by way of a (hopefully) lesser; this must not be confused with the actual creation of goodness or justice.

Both just war theory and Christian pacifism, when applied alone, have parallels with the kind of theodicy David Bentley Hart calls out for trying to make evil and suffering morally intelligible.15 The latter has echoes of a "greater good" theodicy: we are right to allow evil and injustice to occur in the short term for the sake of a longer-term good that cannot come about any other way. The suffering of innocents at the hands of the unjust is perversely necessary for the sake of the justice which, it is thought, can only come about through nonviolence. Conversely, just war theory can paint killing as "right" if it prevents a worse evil from occurring, which is dangerously relativistic. How can the Christian equally, consistently condemn and fight against all violence and injustice—both that within himself and that committed by others?

This tension is real, a consequence of the fallen world in which we live, and it is tempting to resolve it by simply adopting either a total pacifism that denounces all war as evil or a doctrine of "holy war" that makes (just) war into a positive norm. But the tension is an integral part of a truly biblical approach to war. Just (or perhaps "justifiable", or "permissible") war theory is good when it acknowledges that war is an evil and seeks to make it less so, and that any doctrine of war can only ever be a concession to human sinfulness. Yet war may be a necessary evil.16By pretending that we are already entirely free from war, we may unwittingly become culpable in even worse evils: Fr. David Alexander, an Orthodox chaplain in the U.S. Navy, says that "To fail to defend the innocent is paradoxically consenting to their elimination and extermination."17

Yet still more, the Christian pacifist tradition is needed as a voice of compassion and restraint even on our cautious dealings with war, a reminder of the potential of human sin and weakness to twist even the best intentions into dehumanizing atrocities. If just war theory is a concession to the reality of sin and human weakness, the voice of pacifism rings from a coming age without sin in which war will truly be obsolete—an age in which we within the Church already dwell, and into which we beckon all who will come in the name of the Lord (cf. Rev 22:17). Unlike just war theory, pacifism truly represents God's loving design for how we are ultimately made to live; any participation in war, even with the best intentions, falls short of this vision. In this evil age, sometimes it is necessary to fight; but as Christians, let us fight as those who have renounced violence (cf. 1 Cor 7:29-30), as ready and waiting to lay down our arms at the first chance of peace, as those looking forward to the final banquet where we will enjoy communion not only with our God and our neighbors, but with our enemies.

  1. Tertullian, On Idolatry, XIX, <> (11 April 2015).
  2. Augustine¸ The City of God, XIX.7, <> (11 April 2015).
  3. John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2004), 242.
  4. Ted Grimsrud and Christian Early, "Christian Pacifism in Brief," Peace Theology, <> (14 April 2015).
  5. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 243.
  6. Grimsrud and Early, "Christian Pacifism in Brief."
  7. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 243.
  8. Grimsrud and Early, "Christian Pacifism in Brief."
  9. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 246.
  10. Augustine, The City of God, I.21.
  11. Augustine, The City of God, XIX.7.
  12. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 247.
  13. Kevin Allen, "Orthodoxy and War," Ancient Faith Radio, 11 August 2013, <> (7 April 2015) and Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 248.
  14. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 250.
  15. David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 44,61.
  16. Fr. Stanley Harakas, “No Just War in the Fathers,” In Communion, 2 August 2005, <> (15 April 2015).
  17. Allen, "Orthodoxy and War."

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

My Journey, Part 16: Looking Back, Coming Home

This is the final part of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home


When I first started this series, I promised 35,000 words over "about 13 posts", "in relatively quick succession". What I instead produced ended up being about 112,000 words over 22 posts and eight months. I am terrible at estimating. To avoid forcing more people to read through them all, I'll summarize my trajectory here as briefly as I can.

Growing up in a Presbyterian church, I was apathetic about God for most of my life. When I first started caring about the faith I'd been raised in, I had picked up some misconceptions: the version of Christianity existing in my head was highly dualistic ("it's not about what I do, it's about what God has done", "all I can do is trust God and let him take care of the rest", etc.), rationalistic, inward-oriented, and reduced everything to the state of my all-important "relationship with God". It was a caricature of authentic Christianity, but I didn't know anything better at the time, and it was still an improvement from my former near-total apathy toward God.

In college I became more closely involved with evangelical Christianity, which placed a strong emphasis on "making your faith your own" and "living it out" through intentionally following the teachings of Jesus, discipleship, and missions. In the course of following this calling, I ran into my first serious doubts in my newly personalized faith. First, my dualistic thinking led to great discouragement and doubt in the authenticity of my faith when I felt unable to see my obedience bearing any "fruit". Due to the pressure of the ministry I was involved in, I set this doubt aside, thinking I had conquered it. But the next year, I began questioning the point of it all: why do we seek to grow in relationship with God and introduce him to others? When does this become more than an activity or exercise and pervade the whole life? My other two misconceptions about my faith had begun to catch up with me; I went through a difficult time of doubt and rethinking of the ways I applied my faith, trying to make the inside and outside match better.

Reassessing the ways I was living my evangelical faith out, I realized many were more because of external pressure than any deep conviction within me. Rather than simply dismiss my uneasiness and remind myself that Christian living doesn't depend on feelings, I sought to reassess and deepen my beliefs to help them to make more sense to me, so that I could live my faith out more authentically. I wanted to make my "internal faith" match my "external faith".  But, turning to the Bible in hopes that it would help me to do this, it instead ended up giving me stronger, deeper doubts. I encountered passages that seemed to depict God telling people to sin, or outright lying—what was going on? God's own word seemed to be calling his goodness into question. I took a biblical theology class at my church in hopes that it would help, but as it took me on a tour through the Bible from cover to cover I instead got even more questions. Amid all of these, a "meta-question" burned in my mind: why do I have to struggle with the Bible so much to get it to make sense?

I "knew" that the all-important gospel was the key to making sense of the story of Scripture, but around this time (in 2012 and 2013) the account of the gospel I had been taught so often from a Reformed evangelical background also stopped making sense. I questioned its assessment of the "big problem" the gospel solves (universal, endemic sin and just condemnation) and its origin; I questioned the sensicality of the proposed solution (penal substitutionary atonement); I questioned the strong evangelical focus on securing individual "decisions for Christ" and "getting saved". Though the authors and blogs I read offered tantalizingly ethereal alternatives to the teachings that gave rise to these questions, I was plagued above all by the problem of Paul: his writings, more definitive of the "gospel" I was trying to make sense of than any other part of the Bible, seemed to be irreducibly at odds with the Old Testament; it made the gospel appear to be a solution to a problem that God himself created. And if this was true (as it seemed to be, inescapably), the whole thing stopped making any sense.

Finally, I got tired of my attempts to push all these doubts aside for the sake of not making my faith about an "intellectual assent" rather than a "relationship". I realized that by refusing to deal with my doubts or thinking that they were "just me", I was allowing them to eat away at my faith until there was very little left. Finally I confessed to God that he had stopped making any sense to me and that his word had contradictions in it. But a funny thing happened: I didn't simply despair at losing my faith. I realized that I still had faith in God, that it ran deeper than what I could rationally make sense of. The trust I still had in God that led me to pray to him—I realized that is what faith really is.

My confidence renewed by this realization, I set out to reconstruct the edifice of beliefs and theology that my doubts had pulled down. Taking plenty of inspiration from "post-evangelical" types like Peter Enns, I sought new paradigms for thinking about the Bible, God, and truth itself. To address my doubts head-on, I learned to read Scripture in its original cultural and historical context, via something Enns (and others like Christian Smith) call the "incarnational hermeneutic". In search of a more humble epistemology that could see past all the denominational divisions between Christians (an area of increasing concern for me). I explored the implications of Jesus being the Truth (Jhn 14:6), and of truth therefore being bigger than what I can grasp with mere rationality. In my nerdier moments, I struggled to put into words the frustration I had with the tendency of evangelical theology to oversystematize things and pack weighty truths into convenient jargon. I looked for answers to my questions about the gospel, finding the idea of the New Perspective on Paul especially fruitful for reconciling Paul and the Old Testament. Yet I was frustrated by the individualism of my quest, the implicit relativism of trying in isolation to construct a theology that made sense to me, and the academic, idealistic nature of my search for truth: even if I did lay hold a vision of the gospel that had the ring of truth, where would I find a church that practiced it?

Then, through the master's program I was taking at the University of Northwestern, I stumbled upon both in the form of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The more I studied its teachings, the more I realized it was the church and the faith that I had been seeking for years, despite my initial misgivings. Unlike the traditions I'd been weighing, it has the historical backing to support its claim to be the Church holding the Faith that Jesus established on the apostles two thousand years ago, claims that are a dime a dozen within the Reformation tradition. (When they are considered possible at all) In its ecclesiology I saw the antidote to the metaphysical dualism, individualism, and divisions plaguing Protestant churches and their claims. In its approach to the Bible I saw the way past the doctrinal confusion and divisions sown by the ahistorical Protestant approach of sola scriptura; the answer is not Scripture alone, but Scripture at the center of the Holy Tradition of the Church, the body of Christ, reading, praying, and living the Scriptures together. Orthodoxy also exemplifies a more mystical, practical, incarnational approach to theology that is the perfect answer to the rationalism that divided my faith into interior and exterior dimensions and gave rise to my seemingly endless questions. It not simply a matter of believing the right things and then living or "applying" them; Orthodox spirituality is "real" (in the language of my doubts) to the core, and never simply heady.

But even as it has helped me see past the misconceptions that made my questions and doubts about evangelical Christianity seem so necessary and important, Orthodoxy has shown me a far better, more coherent, more intuitive, and more beautiful vision of the gospel than I had ever heard before, one which either makes my old questions unnecessary or replaces them with better ones. The Orthodox approach to Genesis is more compatible with modern science and makes clear that the "problem" of the gospel is not in any way God's doing, nor is it a total derailment of his purposes. The eastern telling of the gospel avoids the numerous problems of penal substitutionary atonement and instead offers a rich, multidimensional heritage of interpretations centering around Christ's defeat of sin, death, the devil, and all the spiritual forces that enslave and imprison humanity. It also offers an alternative to the various dichotomies (faith vs. works, law vs. gospel, human agency vs. divine agency) that contributed to my former confusion about how to "live out" the gospel, and the perhaps-excessive evangelical focus on "decisions for Christ" and the singular conversion experience. And finally, though it wasn't one of the reasons I initially felt drawn to Orthodoxy, I found its liturgical worship more beautiful, more historically grounded, and more consistently incarnational than a contemporary style.

Whither ecumenism?

Looking over previous posts (and even the previous iteration of this one), I keep noticing how I used to be much more concerned for the unity of the church than I am today. This is understandable, because I used to think that the church—the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that Jesus founded—really is divided up into disparate denominations, communions, and confessions. I felt adrift in a sea of relativism, unable to find any solid answers to my questions of faith; whatever answer I preferred, there seemed to be a denomination, church, or (at least) theologian that supported and legitimated it. Though most claimed to be after this elusive beast called "biblical Christianity", I feared that it had been lost in the plurality of viewpoints.

But now I am blessed to see that the Church is not divided and biblical Christianity is not lost. God has not simply abandoned us to to try to derive the Christian faith for ourselves from first biblical principles. Rather, he is faithfully present with us through his Spirit which knits us together into the one, holy body of Christ, within which there can be no schism. Though the reunion of Christians is beneficial and highly desirable for many reasons, we do not "reunify" or "assemble" the Church by doing so. Protestants tend to consider it "arrogant" to claim to be the church that Christ founded, but consider the alternative! Such objections are little different from the relativist's argument that it is arrogant to make exclusive truth claims; I find it ironic that apologists who are so eager to defend "absolute truth" in epistemology are so reluctant to accept it when it comes to ecclesiology.

Moving forward, I face the challenge of continuing to be ecumenically-minded when when absolutely everything doesn't depend on it, as I used to think, and of pursuing unity humbly even while earnestly believing that this unity means everyone becoming Orthodox in some form. As I become more settled in the faith, I want to affirm it wherever I see it reflected in others, to learn to disagree constructively and charitably. Really, this has been my desire for years, but now I am called to do so even more and without compromising on my newfound certainty. In the end, I don't just want to cross over the gap between churches; I want to see it closed.

Looking back...

Through all of this transition, I've continued attending my old evangelical church and Bible study, which I consider a good thing. When I was just beginning to discover the riches of the Orthodox faith around a year ago, I was at risk of succumbing to "conversion sickness", becoming resentful of the tradition I was leaving and ignoring my own advice about not defining yourself by what you reject or disbelieve. I was not yet Orthodox, but I certainly felt "post-evangelical". Yet because of my continuing ties to it, I couldn't just fling criticisms at evangelicalism as from the outside. This was a tradition that many of my friends still belong to, that had been responsible for much of my own spiritual formation. How could I just step away and call it bankrupt? So as I continued to stay at least somewhat within the evangelical bubble, I felt called to make peace with my old tradition, albeit as an ecumenically-minded outsider to it: to affirm and encourage the good within it without feeling threatened or offended by the bad as I used to. So I started to think about things that evangelicalism does get right. Somewhat to my surprise, this list was not empty.

Engaging and redeeming culture. While I do prefer the traditional, liturgical, a capella worship of the Orthodox Church, this doesn't mean that more contemporary styles of music are outside the scope of the gospel. Though not always for the right reasons, evangelicals tend to be quite open to contemporary culture and seek to engage with it constructively. This is a truly scriptural impulse, based as it is on the universal scope of redemption, and in many ways better than the traditional Orthodox mentality which is content to let culture pass it by to preserve its traditions untouched. In their better, more creative moments, I think evangelical can teach Orthodox a thing or do about approaching and redeeming the culture around them from within.

Biblical/textual study. Even many Orthodox admit that Protestants, especially "Bible-believing" ones, tend to have a higher standard of biblical literacy for laypeople; all that emphasis on reading the Bible for yourself every day is really good for something. I've not sure how much background knowledge of the Bible I would have if I'd grown up Orthodox. A huge amount of academically solid biblical and theological studies go on in Protestant schools (again, their separation from the Church is unfortunate), and most textual criticism of the Bible is done by Protestants; English-speaking Orthodox mostly use Bible translations created by Protestant scholars, such as the RSV (which has also been approved for use by the Catholic Church). Of course this knowledge can be used to blaze your own path of personal interpretations away from the rest of the Church, maybe even taking others with you, but with the right attitude it is a precious resource.

Proselytizing/widespread willingness to go, even on missions. It's hard to deny that evangelicals take Jesus command to go in Matthew 28:19 very seriously. I had trouble going along with this constant push toward missions because a) it felt overwhelming at times, b) the main form of "evangelism" I heard about was walking up to strangers to start "spiritual conversations" with them, and c) the "gospel" I was supposed to be sharing didn't make sense to me. But the evangelical argument that you should be eager to share the best news of your life with people still holds. Even the prominent magician/atheist Penn Jillette acknowledges that if you really believe that the gospel is the best news anyone can ever hear, then you should be sharing it. As I've been taking in more of the Orthodox faith, I have started to notice myself really wishing that others could know it as well and for ways to share it—an impulse that was largely external in evangelicalism, but now comes from within.

An emphasis on personal, authentic, lived faith. If I had to pick the greatest strength of evangelicalism (and the greatest contribution of western individualism to Christianity), this would be it. Though language of Christianity as a "personal commitment/decision/relationship" is often used erroneously or reductionistically, the truth is that Christianity is all of these things, though it is also much more. If evangelical Christianity had not deeply impressed on me the importance of personal applicability, authenticity, and practical, ground-level application in my faith, it's likely I would never have found the Orthodox Church, or even looked for it.

I hope my continuing relationship with evangelical (and Protestant) Christianity is a long and fruitful one.

Coming home

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven", says the preacher. (Ecc 3:1),
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (3:2-7)
To these I might add: "a time to doubt, and a time to put away doubt." When I stopped denying my doubt and started trying to truly address it, I adopted a very positive view of doubt, as something healthy, necessary, and normal. I also cautioned against excessive or "bad" doubt, and now I see this danger clearly. Doubt can be the chisel by which God carves away our unworthy beliefs, attitudes, and habits, or it can be our excuse for hesitating and ignoring our conscience. But while I still agree with all of this, it turns out I had my definitions reversed. Experiencing "good" doubt (uncertainty and skepticism) is actually a bad sign insofar as the thing you are doubting is worth doubting; experiencing "bad" doubt (hesitation and aversion) is actually a good thing insofar as the thing you are doubting is worth actively pursuing. (Jesus himself seemed to experience it; Mat 26:39) So I count it a blessing that I very rarely experience "good" doubt about Orthodox teaching; the challenge is no longer forcing myself to believe it or getting it to make sense to me, but consistently abiding by it, the test of every spiritual athlete.

In biblical studies, there is a literary technique called chiasmus in which a pattern is repeated in inverted order, which gives the text a concentric structure which (in some cases) can be quite elaborate. Looking back over my story, I can see this structure in it. When I first started to be intentional about my faith, I was concerned with matters of practice, with consistently living what I saw as the truth. But as my doubts grew, my faith turned more and more inward as I questioned what "the truth" really was. Now this questioning is very nearly over, and in many ways I'm back to where I started, with a lot more clarity and conviction. As I hoped and prayed, I have found a vision of the Christian faith which I can wholeheartedly believe, but this is only the starting point for the real journey it reveals stretching out before me—a path heavily trod by past generations of saints, leading ever upward to God.

Monday, April 6, 2015

My Journey, Part 15: Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends

This is part 15 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

This post will be more defensive—a response to some other common arguments against Orthodoxy I hear, some of which I previously believed, or just things that people find confusing and off-putting.


Some Protestants may be uncomfortable at the degree to which Orthodoxy honors and focuses on Christian saints, commemorating them yearly, displaying and venerating images of them (as I discussed last time), even going so far as to pray to them. Is this not idolatry, or at least a distraction from worshipping God? Why pray to mere men and women who don't have power to do anything for us, rather than to God? And how can you designate specific people as saints when the New Testament repeatedly seems to equate the terms "saint" and "Christian"? This is a common feature of Paul's epistolary greetings when he writes to the saints at such-and-such church, or to those called to be saints (cf. Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1. Phil 1:1, Col 1:2) and elsewhere (Acts 9:13, Rom 8:27, 2 Cor 13:13, Eph 5:3, Heb 13:24, Jude 1:3).

First, as to terminology: The Greek word for "saint", of course, simply means "holy person"; it is the noun form of the adjective hagios, meaning "holy". And in a very real and basic sense, it is true that all Christians are called to be saints (that is, called to be holy), and indeed that they have already been made into saints/holy, or "sanctified" (same root again; 1 Cor 1:2, 1 Cor 6:11, Heb 10:10,14, 1 Pet 1:2). The Orthodox Church does not deny for a moment the holiness of those who are united with Christ, or the importance of actively growing in this holiness; it is precisely through the Church that people partake in God's holiness.

But it also uses the word hagios, "holy person", "saint", in another way, one which quickly grew directly out of its teaching on the first meaning. In this second usage, it refers to (in my own words) an individual who has heavily partaken of God's holiness or attained to an especially high degree of communion with him in this life. We are all meant to be saints, but the Orthodox Church publicly recognizes those who, through their life and teaching, have become living examples of what it means to be made holy and partake of the grace of God. Of course the saints who are publicly honored in the Orthodox Church are not an exhaustive list; their full number is known only to God. Of course in heaven we will all be holy and blessed beyond imagining, but those recognized as saints serve as living glimpses of heaven on earth. One of my Orthodox catechisms relates these two senses of the word "saint":
Every Christian is called to perfection and is capable of revealing the image of God hidden in him. But only a few become so transfigured through the Holy Spirit during their earthly life that they can be recognized as saints by other Christians and are canonized as such by the Church. This should not draw our attention away from the fact that every baptized Christian is called to be a saint. In the New Testament the saints were not a spiritual elite but the whole body of Christians. That never meant that all Christians were regarded as having reached a sinless perfection. In that sense there are no saints in the New Testament, for even the best Christians are far from perfect. The only saints the New Testament knows are forgiven sinners who are always ready to place their utter dependence on God's mercy and grace. (Coniaris, Introducing the Orthodox Church, 94)
The catechism also gives a list of other illustrative definitions of a saint, of which I have reproduced some:
  • A saint is one who makes God's goodness attractive.
  • Saints are forgiven sinners living out their lives in the forgiveness God has given them.
  • Saints are people who make it easier for others to believe in God.
  • St. Symeon the New Theologian says that the reason vigil lights are placed before the icons of the saints is to show that without the Light, Who is Christ, the saints are nothing. It is only as the light of Christ shines on them that they become alive and resplendent.
  • A saint is one who sees himself in the sins of others.
  • A saint is one who has been made actually what baptism declares him to be, one set apart for God.
Reading through Dostoevsky's classic novel The Brothers Karamazov, I saw these descriptions reflected in the character of Elder Zossima, who was based off a real Orthodox saint. Zossima's selflessness, kindness, patience, and wisdom are one of the most memorable parts of the book, and the fact that such people can and do exist in real life is strong evidence for the truth of Christianity. His holiness quite literally sets him apart from all the other characters (even his spiritual son, Alexei) and demonstrates the qualities that the Orthodox Church in its saints. I don't think anyone but an authentic Christian could even have written such a character.

Protestants arguably commemorate significant people of faith without the "saint" terminology; depending on your denomination, you may respect Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and/or Wesley (to name a few) as much as the Orthodox do their saints, though not in the same way and probably more for the soundness of their theology than for their lives of breathtaking holiness. Hebrews 11 has the same idea in its commemoration of examples of faith from the Old Testament. The saints are part of this same "cloud of witnesses" (12:1), exhorting and encouraging us as we "run with perseverance the race" after them.

I believe that honoring the saints, embracing this second dimension of hagios, far from risking idolatry, is good and valuable to us. I think that in much Protestantism there is a tendency to overly focus on the settled, already-done aspect of our salvation over running the continuing race marked out for us (correlated with the centrality of forensic status to salvation). This leads to a kind of spiritual flatness (better described by Fr. Stephen Freeman), seeing everyone as equally sinful and equally holy solely because of their status in Christ, which marginalizes our continuing contribution to our salvation as described by the athletic imagery of sanctification in Hebrews 12, 1 Corinthians 9, and 2 Timothy 4 (which, I assure you, is still quite common in Orthodox spirituality). The Orthodox way of venerating saints, while not denying the universal holiness of the Church as Christ's body or the universal calling of all believers to be saints, also celebrates and remembers those whom God has made into special examples for the divine transformation he will work in all of us.

Far from idolatry, this honor is another way of worshipping the true God by celebrating what the Holy Spirit has done in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. (Which, by the way, we should certainly also be doing in our own friends and contemporaries as well) Again, applying the Incarnation as always, we see that there is nothing intrinsically dirty or wrong with created humanity. As Fr. Freeman points out in another article, God seems strangely interested in letting others share in the work of salvation, regardless of his own sufficiency to save us. He does not defile himself by accomplishing his will through human flesh;  rather, his taking on flesh is the crux of salvation history, to be remembered for all ages. And likewise, those who by the Spirit become channels of God's grace are not to be treated as distractions to true worship, but celebrated as objects of his love and living examples of his holiness (cf. 1 Cor 4:16, 11:1, 1 Th 1:6, 2:14, Heb 6:12).

But what about praying to the saints? This is something I seriously questioned about Orthodoxy (and more so about Catholicism) for most of my life. Why pray to anyone but God himself? Who else is able to save you? Is this not clear evidence of idolatry? To which I would now reply: no, it is simply a reflection of the communal nature of Christianity, the Church, and salvation. Orthodox theology views prayer not merely as asking for things with faith, but as the practice of "active communion with God", which is our salvation. But precisely because salvation is deification, union with God, no one is saved alone. As we grow in communion with God, we cannot but grow in communion with one another as well. In more Protestant terms, salvation has both horizontal and vertical dimensions, and both are essential. As I said last time in the context of worship, the term "the communion of the saints" refers to the spiritual unity of the Church as the one body of Christ; this unity spans both space and time, including believers who have finished the race as well as the angels. St. Symeon describes the unity of the saints in God as a "golden chain":
The Holy Trinity, pervading everyone from first to last, from head to foot, binds them all together. ... The saints in each generation, joined to those who have gone before, and filled like them with light, become a golden chain, in which each saint is a separate link, united to the next by faith, works, and love. So in the One God they form a single chain which cannot quickly be broken. (Centuries, 111.2-4)
If we commune with God through prayer, we also inescapably commune with the rest of the saints. So why not recognize this? Orthodox Christians invoke the saints in their prayers to God not because they think the saints have some divine power of their own for us to draw on, or because God is quicker to listen to them than to us, but because the faith, the Church, and the salvation in which we are partakers by grace are communal to the core. So we remember the saints in our prayers and ask them to pray to God for us (this is no more questionable than asking a friend to pray for you at Bible study or asking for prayer from your church—and of course praying with and for our Christian brothers and sisters on earth with us is important too). Prayer is not a magic formula you use to get things, but the expression of our living union with God and each other. (I am probably the worst person to try to explain prayer in any detail; you should read the previous article) So, though it is just my opinion, I think it is more accurate (or at least less misleading to Protestants) to say that Orthodox pray with the saints rather than to the saints.

One last order of business: why do Orthodox keep relics (bodily remains) of the saints and venerate them? Don't they know that they have gone to be with God? This is a subject I am still pretty ignorant about. It is also a relatively minor part of Orthodox spirituality; I have not seen a relic at my church nor heard them discussed. But apparently the second Council of Nicea (the same one that legitimated the veneration of icons) also declared that each church should have a relic in its altar, so apparently we have at least one. The veneration of relics reflects the Orthodox belief of salvation, that God redeems us as whole people, as both souls and bodies. So we make no sharp distinction between the two in our veneration; as the soul becomes deified as it draws closer to its maker, so does the body. Fr. Kallistos Ware explains this better:
Belief in the deification of the body and in its eventual resurrection helps to explain the Orthodox veneration of relics. Since the body is redeemed and sanctified along with the soul, and since the body will rise again, it is only fitting that Christians should show respect for the bodily remains of the saints. Reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs from a highly developed theology of the body. (Ware, The Transfiguration of the Body)
This is still a little strange to me, but there is also precedent for it in an obscure corner of the Bible, in 2 Kings 13:20-21:
So Eli'sha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Eli'sha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Eli'sha, he revived, and stood on his feet. (RSV)
So it appears that even after his death, the remains of the prophet Elisha were infused with supernatural power and performed miracles seemingly independently of his soul. St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains, "Though the soul is not present, a power resides in the bodies of the saints because of the righteous soul which has for so many years dwelt in it, or used it as its minister." (Catechetical Lectures XVIII.16) In Orthodox theology, the body is more than simply a container for the soul. It is not the case that you are a soul and you have a body; you are a body and a soul, or simply an ensouled body. Both are part of full humanity as created and redeemed by God. The Orthodox perspective on relics is based on this.

One last point of information: there is no formal, four-step process of "canonization" in the Orthodox Church as in the Catholic Church. Rather, since the deification of the saints is considered a work of God, saints are recognized as such in the same way as theological truths of God, simply by the consensus of the Church. Often evidence for sainthood will develop based on miracles manifested through relics, which leads to a formal proclamation of sainthood. Once this is accepted in the other churches (much the same way as a local council), the person has not been made into a saint, but only recognized by the earthly church as such.


Because of the special attention shown to Mary in Orthodox and Catholic liturgy (she is prominent in the iconography of my church, which is also named after her), veneration of her is an especially common target for charges of idolatry from Protestants. Yet I suspect that more than anything else, these accusations are driven by ignorance and an automatic suspicion of anything "too Catholic". Orthodox venerate (but do not worship) Mary as the highest and most glorified of God's creatures, not due to any specialness "of her own" as with God, but because of her central role in the glorious and salvific mystery of the Incarnation, as the gateway through whom God became man. My catechism says, "the Mother is venerated because of the Son and never apart from Him." The attention shown to Mary, far from a distraction from worship of the true God, is another way in which we honor and commemorate his work of salvation through Christ. "When people refuse to honor Mary, only too often it is because they do not really believe in the Incarnation." (Ware 258)

Mary is known by three main titles in the Orthodox Church: Theotokos (God-bearer, mother of God), panagia (all-holy), and aeiparthenos (ever-virgin). The first of these, Theotokos, is practically an alternate name for Mary. It not only expresses the central truth that Mary is the mother of God (the reason for Orthodox devotion to her); it is also a reminder of the victory of the Orthodox dogma of the Incarnation. The heretic Nestorius, because of his inadequate Christology which drew too strong a division between the human and divine natures of Christ, taught that Mary could be called "Christ-bearer", but not "God-bearer". Thus the title Theotokos, besides describing Mary herself, also serves as a continual reminder of the mysterious union of humanity and divinity that took place in her womb. "Anyone who thinks out the implications of that great phrase, The Word was made flesh, cannot but feel a profound awe for her who was chosen as the instrument of so surpassing a mystery." (Ware 258) Since the veneration of Mary springs from Orthodox Christology, it is understandable that it is present only in seed form in the New Testament but grew later as the Church further meditated on the Incarnation.

Mary is also called panagia, all-holy, because she is the supreme example of synergistic cooperation between God and humanity. God could presumably have impregnated Mary with his Son without her consent, or without even telling her, or even have simply had the incarnate Jesus appear without a human mother. Yet he staked everything on Mary's willing consent: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." (Luk 1:38) Thus Mary is considered the supreme example of man's intended submission to and cooperation with the will of God for salvation.

The last title of Mary, aeiparthenos, ever-virgin, gave me a lot of trouble. This teaching of the Church seems blatantly unscriptural. After all, numerous mentions of Jesus' brothers are made throughout the New Testament (Mat 12:46-50, Mar 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21, John 2:12, Acts 1:14, 1 Cor 9:5), with no qualifications that they were really step-brothers or anything like that. Matthew writes that Mary did not "know" Joseph "until she had borne a son" (1:25), and Luke describes Jesus as Mary's "first-born son" (2:7). Not to mention that remaining celibate was even more unusual in Jewish culture than it is today, especially for a married woman—wouldn't at least one of the apostles have mentioned something so bizarre?

So this teaching of Orthodoxy was one of the main ones that kept me from wanting to be Orthodox last year. Unfortunately, it's not just something I could have private doubts about; it is a dogma of the Church, established by the fifth ecumenical council:
If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; and the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Mother of God [Theotokos] and always a virgin [aeiparthenos], and born of her: let him be anathema. (Canon II)
So why do Orthodox (and Catholics) believe that Mary remained a virgin her whole life? Here is where I think a lot of Orthodox apologists get it wrong, and why I remained unconvinced of this dogma for a while: they focus on undermining the arguments Protestants field against her ever-virginity, or by showing how their scriptural support can be interpreted differently, but without explaining why it should be, why interpreting it as supporting the ever-virginity of Mary is really the sounder, more intuitive way to go. I will attempt to rectify this procedural mistake by starting with the theological basis for the doctrine.

The basic theological impetus for the ever-virginity of Mary (besides the fact that it is presumably historically true and would have been passed down from the early days of the church) is the fact that Mary was profoundly sanctified by her role as the living sanctuary in which God dwelled (quite literally) for nine months and from whom he derived his human nature. That is, Mary was made holy, or set apart, by her crucial part in one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith. (This ties back in with the Orthodox belief in the redemption of the physical body) After all of this, for her to have children the "normal way" would be unthinkable, like repurposing the Jewish temple into a dining hall or the Ark of the Covenant into a box for transporting goods to market (it comes with convenient handles!). Having children is not bad in and of itself, but for Mary it would have been unimaginable in light of her set-apartness as the source of her Lord's humanity. This Greek Orthodox article clarifies that "it was the practice for devout Jews in the ancient world to refrain from sexual activity following any great manifestation of the Holy Spirit." Orthodox fathers have also interpreted Ezekiel 44:2 as typologically as referring to Mary: "And he said to me, "This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut."

Moving on to the scriptural rationale, which is based on John 19:26-27.
In this passage, often depicted in Orthodox iconography, Mary and the disciple John are standing near the cross, mourning their Lord. "When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home." The fact that Jesus entrusts the care of Mary to John before his death strongly indicates that a) Joseph was dead by this time, and b) Mary had no other children of her own, or they would have taken care of her instead of John. Since we know that James, the "Lord's brother" (Gal 1:19) survived long enough to become a bishop and preside over the council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15) and write an epistle, he can't have been the son of Mary: either he was a child of Joseph's from a previous marriage, or more likely a cousin or other indirect relation (the Greek word for "brother" is flexible enough to mean this). In short, this passage is very difficult to explain unless Mary had no children other than Jesus, which constitutes fairly strong biblical support for the ever-virginity of Mary. Even when I disbelieved it, I was still unsure because of John 19:26-27.

Another biblical evidence I didn't hear or consider until after I was convinced of the doctrine comes from the Annunciation in Luke 1. The archangel Gabriel appears to the virgin, promising that she will conceive and bear a son who will be called Son of the Highest and reign forever from the throne of David. (Luk 1:30-33) To which Mary responds by asking, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" (i.e. since I am a virgin) Mary's response is commonly used in sermons to show her simple faith in the promises of God in contrast to Zechariah's initial doubt, but there is another angle from which to think about it. Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time (1:27). So when the angel promises the virgin that she will bear a blessed Child, why does she not merely assume that this promise will be fulfilled after she is married to Joseph and "knows" him in the usual way? Gabriel does not tell Mary that she will conceive Christ immediately, or that she will do so as a virgin. Her responding question makes no sense if she is expecting any sort of "normal" marriage to Joseph. But it makes sense if she had taken a vow of virginity, as the tradition of the Church teaches, and Joseph was an older man betrothed to her in order to care and provide for her.

The biblical evidence against the ever-virginity of Mary is more ambiguous. As I mentioned, the Greek for for "brother", adelphos, can also mean "half-brother", "cousin", "relative", or just "kinsman". The Greek word for "until" in Matthew 1:25 can be used to describe a situation that continues after the event mentioned (Mat 5:18, 11:23, Rom 8:22, 1 Tim 4:13). Surely Jesus did not mean to tell his disciples that he would depart from them at the end of the age! (Mat 28:20) The word prototokos, first-born, in Luke 2:7 is similarly inconclusive; for example, its usage in Col 1:15 doesn't imply that there is a "second-born" over all creation! The term doesn't express order of birth so much as legal primacy as the rightful heir. None of these points are positive evidence for the doctrine, but they still show that the common counterargument doesn't have as much force as it appears to. There is also the fact that it has been the consistent and unbroken teaching of the Orthodox and Catholic churches for their entire history, and has only been seriously questioned in the wake of the Reformation drive to go "back to the Bible" (even the early Reformers continued to affirm it).

I should also mention the distinction between Orthodox and Catholic Mariology. The Orthodox Church does not take the veneration of Mary to the extent that the Catholic Church does, and is suspicious of western attempts to honor her in her own right, apart from her relation to the incarnate Jesus, or even to elevate her to the status of "co-mediatrix of salvation" with Christ or even (it sometimes seems) an honorary fourth member of the Trinity. The eastern churches consider these expressions of Marian piety to be excessive and doctrinally false. Later Catholic theological developments regarding Mary, like the Immaculate Conception, are considered to be innovations with no basis in the early church. In the Orthodox Church, Mary is commemorated and honored, as she predicted (Luk 1:48), but never worshipped.

This Syriac hymn exemplifies the role of Mary in the life of the Church, and how venerating her comes hand in hand with celebrating the Incarnation:
Blessed is she: she has received the Spirit who made her immaculate. She has become the temple in which dwells the Son of the heights of heaven...
Blessed is she: through her the race of Adam has been restored, and those who had deserted the Father's house have been brought back...
Blessed is she: within the bounds of her body was contained the Boundless One who fills the heavens, which cannot contain him.
Blessed is she: in giving our life to the common Ancestor, the Father of Adam, she renewed fallen creatures.
Blessed is she: she gave her womb to him who lets loose the waves of the sea.
Blessed is she: she has born the mighty giant who sustains the world, she has embraced him and covered him with kisses.
Blessed is she: she has raised up for the prisoners a deliverer who overcame their gaoler.
Blessed is she: her lips have touched him whose blazing made angels of fire recoil.
Blessed is she: she has fed with her milk him who gives life to the whole world.
Blessed is she: for to her Son all the saints owe their happiness.
Blessed be the Holy One of God who has sprung from thee.


Next, a few words about Orthodox theology of sacraments. (I am not the best person to explain the sacraments fully, so if you are curious, you should look elsewhere. I am mostly just trying to explain my rationale for changing my mind about them) The Greek word used here is mysterion, so they are equally called "mysteries". The main connotation this use of "mystery" carries is "something discerned through faith, and not merely by sight". As St. John Chrysostom preached:
And in another sense, too, a mystery is so called; because we do not behold the things which we see, but some things we see and others we believe. For such is the nature of our Mysteries. I, for instance, feel differently upon these subjects from an unbeliever. I hear, “Christ was crucified;” and forthwith I admire His loving-kindness unto men: the other hears, and esteems it weakness. I hear, “He became a servant;” and I wonder at his care for us: the other hears, and counts it dishonor. I hear, “He died;” and am astonished at His might, that being in death He was not holden, but even broke the bands of death: the other hears, and surmises it to be helplessness. He hearing of the resurrection, saith, the thing is a legend; I, aware of the facts which demonstrate it, fall down and worship the dispensation of God. He hearing of a laver, counts it merely as water: but I behold not simply the thing which is seen, but the purification of the soul which is by the Spirit. He considers only that my body hath been washed; but I have believed that the soul also hath become both pure and holy; and I count it the sepulchre, the resurrection, the sanctification, the righteousness, the redemption, the adoption, the inheritance, the kingdom of heaven, the plenary effusion (χορηγίαν) of the Spirit. For not by the sight do I judge of the things that appear, but by the eyes of the mind. I hear of the “Body of Christ:” in one sense I understand the expression, in another sense the unbeliever. (Homilies on 1 Corinthians VII.2)
Ware comments on this, "This double character, at once outward and inward, is the distinctive feature of a sacrament: the sacraments, like the Church, are both visible and invisible; in every sacrament there is the combination of an outward visible sign with an inward spiritual grace." (Ware 274) In this way, they are intentionally, distinctly incarnational: "The human person is to be seen in holistic terms, as an integral unity of soul and body, and so the sacramental worship in which we humans participate should involve to the full our bodies along with our minds." (274-275) Here the Orthodox idea of a symbol as an accompaniment to (rather than a substitute for) the reality symbolized is evident: a sacrament is a visible symbol or sign by which the life, grace, and love of God is communicated to us. My catechism gives some other useful descriptions of the sacraments:
If it is true that Christ has been invisible since the Ascension, it is also true that He has remained visible in the Church which is His body, through which He is made present to the world today. From the Church, Christ reaches out to us with the Sacraments to bring us His grace and love.
Every sacrament puts us in touch with Christ and applies to us the power of the Cross and the Resurrection.
It has been said that the blood and water on the Cross, flowing from the Body that was pierced by the lance, represent the Sacraments. These flow from Christ's love for us, which led Him to give His life in our behalf.
The Sacraments are the kiss of God where He pours out the riches of His love. They communicate to us the very life of God.
Every Sacrament is a theophany, the appearance of God to us for a specific purpose and need.
The Sacraments are the way to theosis (becoming like God) since they make us partakers of divine nature.
The Sacraments are the ways by which we come into intimate personal communion with Jesus today.
The Sacraments are like the hands of Jesus reaching out over the expanse of time to touch us with His love and power and to let us know that He is still with us.
Through the Sacraments we go to Christ to appropriate the fullness of life that is in Him.
A Sacrament is a divine rite instituted by Christ and/or the Apostles which through visible signs conveys to us the hidden grace of God. The Basic requirements are: divine institution, visible sign, and the hidden power of God. (Coniaris 123-124)
Obviously the Sacraments, like the rest of Orthodox belief and practice, have in view a gospel by which we are not saved completely and instantaneously, but in which the work of Christ is "once for all" and appropriated by us through the process of deification by which we grow closer to God; there is again little distinction between what Protestants call "justification" and "sanctification". Thus the sacraments are not simply memorials or reminders of the salvific life of Christ; they actually convey his life and grace through visible symbols, which is just what we need as body-and-soul creatures in constant need of grace.

A few more words on specific sacraments, which are another area of disagreement between Orthodox and Protestants:

Baptism was another area of major disagreement with Orthodox theology for me. After all, I've already written two posts explaining and defending the symbolic view of baptism, which I've been told have been useful as teaching aids. And even besides my own disagreement with it, the Orthodox practice of infant baptism seems profoundly at odds with other Orthodox teachings: how does a synergistic view of salvation fit with baptizing infants who are unable to actively have faith or take any role in their salvation? Monergist reformers like Luther and Calvin continued to practice infant baptism because they saw it as a perfect, visible example of how Christ saves us when we are totally helpless and unable to contribute anything to our salvation. So what is it doing in the Orthodox Church?

First of all, my old symbolic view of baptism (that it doesn't actually "do anything" to you, but merely symbolizes what has already been done in you by grace through faith alone) is rather dualistic, in contrast to the Orthodox incarnational approach to sacraments, in which the symbolic nature of a rite makes it more rather than less "real". By threefold immersion, the one baptized symbolically dies with Christ and rises to new life. (See Rom 6:4-5, Col 2:12) Again, the spiritual reality of baptism which Paul proclaims in these passages is not seen by Orthodox as undermining the sacramental nature of the visible act of baptism; rather, the visible symbol is how we partake in the grace of baptism. Weary of dualism in other areas of theology as I was, I began to find the Orthodox view convincing.

In response to what is called "baptismal regeneration", many Protestants question the implication that the physical act of baptism is necessary for salvation: what if a sufficient amount of water isn't available? What if someone is too sick to be immersed? Will God deny someone salvation simply because they didn't go through the physical rite of baptism? Of course Orthodox don't believe that the grace of God is subject to rules like this, or that we can somehow control it through the Sacraments; in special cases baptism can be done by pouring, though this is never to be preferred. But this line of questioning again seems to be after what is minimally necessary to "get saved", which is, again, not something that Orthodox concern themselves with. The question is, rather, about how to maximally appropriate the grace and life of God for the utmost salvation of our bodies and souls, not simply how to "get by". Again, even before I could fully accept the Orthodox view of baptism, I had to admit that this seems like a better question to be asking.

It turns out the monergistic reformers' logic is more correct than I thought: God's grace, love, and acceptance are not dependent on anything in us, and infant baptism correctly shows this; he loves us and desires us to be his from the moment of our birth. Conversely, "to say that a person must reach the age of reason and believe in Christ before he may be baptized is to make God's grace in some way dependent on man's intelligence. But God's grace is not dependent on any act of ours, intellectual or otherwise; it is a pure gift of His love." (Coniaris 129) Ironically, all that Great Awakening-inspired talk of "making a personal decision for Christ" introduces a false conditionality into what is still called "salvation by grace alone".

Where I think the distortion arises is the Protestant idea of salvation as virtually synonymous with justification, instantaneous and complete due to the merits of Christ, as I addressed in posts 13.3 and 13.4. If this is indeed the case, then of course baptism and anything else done apart from the "decision of faith" cannot be salvific, since only the decision is; they can only memorialize it. There is then a single, all-sufficient "moment of salvation", and nothing we do can add to it. I think I have already sufficiently explained the Orthodox alternative to this view, in which salvation is the process of deification by which we grow in holiness and become "partakers in the divine nature", a process which does not happen instantaneously and indeed is never complete in this life. Anything that is conducive or beneficial to our deeper participation in the life of God is considered "salvific"; again, in Orthodoxy, there is no impetus to find what is minimally necessary for salvation and elevate it above everything else, but to lay hold of salvation by every means God has given us.

The Protestant characterization of baptismal regeneration as claiming the baptism "saves" us or that it is "necessary" to be a Christian is thus misleading, and often with dualistic undertones. It is entirely conceivable to view baptism as conveying salvific grace on us which we "grow into" and live out over time, even if we are too young to understand what is happening at the time of baptism. In the Orthodox Church, infants are baptized and chrismated (anointed with oil and the Holy Spirit, the eastern parallel to Catholic "confirmation") on the same day, and afterward become full participants in the life of the Church. (The divine liturgy therefore tends to be peppered with the occasional screams of children and the cries of babies) Diadochus of Photike explains:
By the baptism of regeneration grace confers two benefits on us, one of which infinitely surpasses the other. It gives the first immediately, for in the water itself it renews us and causes the image of God to shine in us....As for the other, it awaits our collaboration to produce it: it is the likeness of God. (Gnostic Chapters 89)
With these obstacles cleared away, some positive Orthodox arguments for infant baptism include these: it is the fulfillment and new covenant successor to circumcision, the sign of the old covenant, which was mandated to be administered to infants (Gen 17:12); thus any argument against infant baptism also applies to infant circumcision, and falls flat. The New Testament repeatedly speaks of entire households being saved at once (Mat 10:12-14, Luk 19:9, Jhn 4:53, Act 10:2, 16:15,33, 1 Cor 1:16, 2 Tim 1:16, Hbr 11:7-9); though it makes no comment on whether infants were or were not among them, this seems to be the pattern of the early Church rather than the individual, decision-centered salvation assumed by adult baptism. As well, infant baptism reverses the Lord's teaching that "unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mat 18:3) Commenting on this, Fr. Josiah Trenham says, "It is not the children who must grow up and become like adults in order for them to be baptized and saved ... but, on the contrary, it is the adults who must be converted and become like children if they hope to be saved." (Rock and Sand, 118)

You shouldn't just take my word for it. The mystery of baptism has been the subject of extensive study and meditation by most (if not all) of the church fathers; there is no shortage of better material on the subject. I have only set out to explain roughly the reasoning by which I have become convinced of the Orthodox view of baptism.

In contrast, I had no trouble at all accepting the Orthodox view of the Eucharist (communion), though it wasn't one of the things that positively drew me to the Church. Like the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church believes that the bread and wine of the Eucharist actually become the body and blood of Christ. Unlike the Catholic Church, it makes no attempt to further explain how this works, least of all with Aristotelian metaphysics. When Orthodox do describe their view with the term "transubstantiation", it is with none of the medieval philosophical connotations. As defined above, the sacrament is a mystery, and we are not able to fully explain or define the change that takes place in the elements. Suffice it to say that Orthodox take the Lord's words, "this is my body...this is my blood," and "I am the bread of life" not as "merely" symbolic or metaphorical parallels, or as absurd contradictions of the visible data, but as profound, incarnational mysteries central to the Christian faith.

Because my weariness with dualism, when I learned of the Orthodox view of the Eucharist the only other difficulty I had in accepting it was a literal-minded lack of imagination and faith to accept what I can't understand. Once you take into consideration that it is not making any sort of scientific or empirical claim, I consider the Orthodox doctrine to be somewhat of a strengthened version of what the Protestant belief of symbolism seeks to accomplish, minus its rationalistic unease about mystery. But again, I am not giving a complete theology of the Eucharist here, just explaining how I came to agree with the Orthodox view on it.

One other point to note: Orthodox do not believe that Christ's sacrifice is reenacted in the Eucharist every time it is served. (I'm not even sure Catholics really believe this) Though the sacrifice offered is that of Christ, it is not re-presented, but his once-for-all atonement is mysteriously made present with the communicants; this is essential to the doctrine of the communion of the saints. Nicolas Cabasilas says it this way:
First, the sacrifice is not a mere figure or symbol but a true sacrifice; secondly, it is not the bread that is sacrificed, but the very Body of Christ; thirdly, the Lamb of God was sacrificed once only, for all time. ... The sacrifice at the Eucharist consists, not in the real and bloody immolation of the Lamb, but in the transformation of the bread into the sacrificed Lamb. (Quoted on Ware 286)
I won't go into much detail on any of the other sacraments here. They have some differences from their Catholic analogues; as I mentioned, chrismation takes the place of confirmation and follows baptism for infants; the anointing of the sick is done for anyone who is ailing, not just the dying. But the Orthodox don't rigidly limit the number of the sacraments to seven, like the Catholic Church; "sacrament" has a broader, adjectival use that is applied to other rites like the burial of the dead, monastic rites, icons, prayer, charity, or the blessing of waters, crops, homes, cars, rifles, helicopters, MRI machines, spaceships, swimming pools, and horses (I think that is especially true of the Russian Orthodox). The number seven symbolizes perfection and was never insisted on until the reformers sought to reduce the number of sacraments to two; certainly it is not meant to limit them. There is also a hierarchy of sacraments, with the eucharist considered the most important. The late Fr. Thomas Hopko states: "Traditionally the Orthodox understand everything in the church to be sacramental. All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God." (Quoted on Coniaris 124) The Incarnation of Jesus Christ can be considered the ultimate and original sacrament that makes all the others possible; the universe itself is a sacrament; man, with his dual physical/spiritual nature, is a living sacrament. All of life becomes a sacrament as we learn to see the grace and love of God through everything and everyone around us.

So obviously, there is no rule in Orthodoxy that the sacraments have to have been instituted by Christ. (Where is this stated in Scripture?) The above definition of a sacrament does not involve us having to imitate Jesus in something he did in his earthly life (though all seven of the main sacraments are reflected in some form somewhere in his life). Again, because his teachings and authority have been passed down to his body, the Church, there is no inherent problem with the apostles or their successors instituting sacraments. In light of the maximalism of Orthodoxy which seeks to preserve and enjoy the fullness of the apostolic faith rather than take everything "back to the Bible", I no longer have trouble accepting the teaching of the Church regarding sacraments.

National churches

I'll cover one last subject, one which is a major source of confusion about Orthodoxy for many outsiders. Why, in contrast to the single Catholic Church, are there so many various ethnic Orthodox churches: Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, the Orthodox Church in America, and so on? This is a historical artifact of how Orthodoxy spread to North America. It first arrived in 1794 in what is now Alaska, from Russia. Until the 20th century, all Orthodox Christians in North America were nominally under the Russian Orthodox Church. But when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, the American churches had to become administratively independent. At the same time, immigrants from other national Orthodox churches established their own missions under the jurisdiction of their mother churches, resulting in the unfortunate patchwork of churches we see today. (By the way, the Catholic Church is actually in a similar situation with 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic churches in addition to the Roman Catholic Church; it is less well-known because the latter is so dominant and visible that most people consider "Catholic" and "Roman Catholic" to simply be synonymous terms)

It should be noted that the various Orthodox churches in America today are not different Orthodox "denominations". Unlike Protestant denominations, the differences between the churches are purely administrative; all confess the same faith and are in full communion with each other. There is nothing dividing the churches on the same order as, say, Protestant debates over gay marriage, the nature of communion, or even how to worship. The particular flavor of Orthodox Church you attend is largely just a matter of preference (I attend an OCA church since it is less ethnic and feels welcoming to newcomers, but I chose it over a Greek Orthodox church largely because of the service time and location), and this is fine since they are in full agreement in their teaching and worship. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Orthodox Church actually enjoys the unity that Protestants dream and theologize about, and the administrative divisions in the North American churches pose no threat to this. Still, no one is particularly happy about the present situation; it is detrimental to the Church's mission in America and technically in violation of a council decision that each diocese should have only one bishop. Orthodox hope to take a decisive step towards a resolution at the upcoming council next year.

Further Reading