Friday, August 26, 2011

Religion Friday: Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox Church, comprising of around 220,000,000 followers, has its origins in the early Greek-speaking churches of the Byzantine Empire. Until 1054, there was only one Christian Church. However, many people in the eastern churches had different religious and cultural views than its western counterpart. That year, due to these differences and a lot of politics, the Church officially broke apart, known as the Great Schism. The Roman Catholic Church remained loyal to the Bishop of Rome (the pope) while the Eastern Orthodox Church established no head of the church, though the Patriarch of Constantinople carries the most weight. Rather than operated from one source, the Church’s regions have autonomy, united mostly in their shared statements of faith.

Coming from the Greek tradition, personal experience and finding the truth for oneself is a focus of the Church. While Western churches tend to take a legalistic approach to faith (what sin is, how we got here, how to obtain salvation), the Eastern Orthodox Church takes a more mystical view, believing salvation can be achieved through a better communion with God. Like the RCC, the Eastern Orthodox Church is highly liturgical. It follows its own calendar, which has Christmas celebrated on January 6 and Easter falling on a different day than the Western churches.

Orthodox believe all souls in heaven are saints. Those that have been recognized are venerated, especially Mary, Mother of Jesus. Death is seen as abnormal, a result of the fall of man that we must overcome to be reunited with God.

Most Eastern Orthodox churches have a domed top to symbolize heaven. There is also an iconostasis, a wall of icons or religious paintings that separate the nave from the sanctuary. The Devine Liturgy can only be performed once a day on any altar. This is to promote the idea of a universal church and reduce private masses. While I like the idea, I imagine this is difficult logistically for large churches. People stand for the entire service. I admit, I probably don’t have the stamina for an Orthodox service. But it does sound like a great experience.

I really don’t have much personal thoughts on the Eastern Orthodox Church because I’ve never had any experience with them. I admire the mystical approach to faith and think that is something many Western churches could learn from. God is hard to define and legalize; sometimes it’s necessary to let go of the dogma and just “be” with God. (But there is a time and place for dogma as well.)

[The Greek Orthodox cross has two smaller bars than the typical cross. The top crossbar represents the sign Pilate placed, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." The bottom bar represents a foot bar believed to have been attached to crosses. There are multiple opinions as to why this bar is slanted. Some say is it to signify the theif on Christ's right that chose salvation; others say it is to show the movement upward to heaven.]

Next Friday: Reformation Protestants

Thursday, August 25, 2011

WASP to Was

Sometimes I think I don’t know how to be happy. When anticipating something (like starting college, going to England), I don’t get excited. I just prepare and try not to expect too much. I don’t want to be disappointed, so I set expectations low. It’s mostly an unconscious decision and only recently have I started to regret that I don’t know how to feel the excited butterflies that others do. Instead, when something good happens, I feel butterflies of another sort. Nauseated would be a better word. My fears of vulnerability in a new situation and hesitation of setting expectations too high physically make me sick. Then I feel bad about feeling bad and the cycle perpetuates itself.

But I’ve learned that I can still feel happy. Even if my stomach says otherwise, my heart can be happy in knowing that a good thing is happening. In analyzing why I feel the way I do (cause I do tend to analyze and overthink), I can understand that I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes the right thing is uncomfortable. (Maybe most of the time the right thing is uncomfortable.)

I can be happy and worried. I can feel elated and sick. I can be at peace and uncomfortable.

I’m a history and genealogy buff. I’ve always loved tradition and have been proud of my family’s history. On my mom’s side, the Anabaptists that fled Alsace to Pennsylvania for religious freedom and continued the Mennonite/Brethren traditions right up to my mom’s generation. On my dad’s side, the French Huguenots that fled France and settled in Virginia, also seeking religious freedom. Long story short, I come from a long line of (persecuted) Protestants. And that’s why it feels so uncomfortable to reject that label. I can’t really consider myself Catholic yet or Orthodox or anything else, but I can’t go on considering myself any form of Protestant either. I’m still a Christian, just one in transition.

I know that personally my spiritual journey is taking its correct path. But thinking of leaving behind the traditions I know makes me feel vulnerable and uncomfortable and nauseated. I want to be happy but I feel happy and nervous and guilty all mixed up together instead. The guilt comes from worrying that I’m (or others will think I am) running out on a church or a family that’s been so good to me. But I’m not running away; I’m just running toward something else.

If I weren’t feeling miserable, I wouldn’t know how real or important this is to me. If I want something deeper or more challenging, I have to accept the pain. I have to ask for the pain. Once I do, the pain can produce happiness.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Religion Friday: Catholicism

The Roman Catholic Church stood as the only official Christian church for centuries. With more than 1.2 billion followers, it is still the largest of the Christian denominations. The RCC is headed by the pope, who is seen as having divine-given power over the Church. The pope is seen as infallible when speaking ex cathedra on formal matters of faith or morals. (This isn’t as common as one thinks; the last ex cathedra proclamation was in 1950.) The tradition of the pope dates back to St. Peter, the founder of the Church at Jesus’ direction.

The Church suffered persecution for its first 300 years, but in 318 Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, making it the official religion of the Roman Empire. After that, the Church found itself on the opposite side of the fight, able to collect vast wealth and administer force. Today, the RCC still shows signs of it empire through Vatican City, a city-state situated within Rome.

The RCC is seeped in tradition and dogma. I’m going to try to go over the main points that differ from other Christian branches’ beliefs. The most obvious difference is the iconography and prayers to the Blessed Virgin and the saints. Catholics believe the saints, by being closer to God in heaven, can intercede in prayer and help pray for people on earth. Many Protestants see the images and prayers of the saints as idolatrous; however, Catholics do not worship the saints. For me, this belief really opens up a larger theological issue: the bridge between now and the afterlife. By asking saints for prayer as you would ask your neighbor for prayer, Catholics are asserting that those in heaven are able to keep their identities and are able to observe and communicate with earthly goings-on. The Christian community isn’t fractured between those on earth and those in heaven. While I find it very awkward to try to talk to some saint you never knew or rely on Mary to get prayers answered instead of going straight to God, I think the concept of the continuing community is quite beautiful and reflects the conquering of death by Christ.

There is a caveat in this idea. Catholics also believe in purgatory, a transition stage after death where those who aren’t condemned to hell must pay for their sins before entering heaven. I'm not sure how they know who is in heaven or purgatory. Yet while it seems like a dark idea, this one makes sense to me. To be in heaven, of course you need to be purified from your earthly self. As much as we try, we are never pure enough for heaven; we get in on grace. It’s like wiping your muddy boots before walking into the house.

But perhaps the most important distinction is the way the RCC views eucharist. Catholics believe in transubstantiation, or the belief that the essence of the communion elements is literally changed during the Mass, becoming the body of Christ. It is central to the worship service. While Protestantism recognizes two sacraments (baptism and communion), the RCC recognizes seven: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, confession, anointing the sick, holy orders, and marriage. Holy orders are the ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops. Catholic clergy must be men, and they are forbidden to marry. They administer the sacraments, including hearing confessions and giving absolution. I would find both having to listen to people's confessions and giving confessions to a priest very awkward. Like asking the saints for help, it's uncomfortable to me to use a middleman to talk to God.

Though there is a long history of rigid rules and excommunication for not following those rules, (and violence but I don’t have room for all that), Catholics don’t suppose themselves to be only Christians. The Second Vatican Council stated that all baptized Christians are "in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church." On the other hand, there are many Protestants that don’t recognize Catholics as fellow Christians. But I will get more into the rift between Catholics and Protestants when I cover the Reformation in a couple of weeks.

[Catholic churches have a crucifix instead of an empty cross. The image of the suffering Christ is to remind us of the painful sacrifice He underwent to pay for our sins. It also bears the letters INRI for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.]

Next Friday: Eastern Orthodoxy

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Religion Friday: Gnosticism

In the early (ok, and recent) days of the Church, there were lots of interpretations of what it meant to be Christian. Lots of sects sprouted up that attached Christianity to a belief system or culture that already existed. As the orthodox church (not to be confused with the later Eastern Orthodox) gained power, these groups disappeared. One group that I’ve always heard about but never really known about are the Gnostics.

Gnosticism (from the Greek word meaning “knowledge”) existed before Christianity, but many early Christians adopted a Gnostic view of their faith. They drew these beliefs from a series of 2nd century writings (including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary) that were not recognized by the orthodox church. References to the Gnostic Gospels is where I heard about the Gnostics. (The selection of the canon should be its own post.)

So first, Gnosticism in general. It was seen in Greek traditions as well as Zoroastrianism and Judaism. Gnostics believed there is a pure, spiritual world and an unclean, material world. God exists but will never be known and is not involved in humans’ lives. How did fit with Christianity? In the Gnostic version of creation, Wisdom sought to know the unknowable God, and her yearning for this created a Demiurge. The Demiurge knew nothing of the unknowable God and, mistaking himself for God, created the material world. The following stories of the Old Testament referring to God are really referring to the Demiurge. To the Gnostics, knowledge of this mistake and renouncing the physical for the spiritual was the key to salvation. Jesus had this knowledge and passed it on to others.

Different groups interpreted how to do this differently. Study and figuring it out yourself was key, so there were bound to be different interpretations. The orthodox church, though open to mysticism, called the Gnostics heretics. The Gnostic belief of renouncing what they saw as the Demiurge and others saw as the true God, they were bound to be targeted as a heretical group. The presumption of “secret” knowledge about God didn’t help either. The attack against them was not an attack against knowledge, but an attack on a belief of the spiritual realm that contradicted the orthodox.

The Gnostics had a belief transferred from the existing culture, not one actually rooted in Christianity. On the surface, combining knowledge and spiritual seeking together seems like a great idea. Yearning to open our minds to the realm we can’t see and can’t know seems to be a staple of religion. But the Gnostics claimed to have secret knowledge of the spiritual, and they separated it so much from creation that they couldn’t appreciate anything material, or find sacred in the material world. While I love being caught up in my head most days, the Gnostics took it to an extreme, at least for a faith that is all about God physically entering the material world.

[The Gnostic cross is a well-known symbol for Christian Gnosticism, but as the Gnostics were never an organized group, there was never one representitive symbol. Some variations include the Gnostic cross sitting on top of a regular cross or a snake eating its tail forming the circle.]

Next Friday: Catholicism

World Religion Tour gets more local

Since I wrapped up my overview of some different faiths last week, this Friday I will continue the format but with different branches/movements within the Christian faith. So stop by tomorrow as I try to tackle Gnostic Christianity.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Just Like a Prayer

I don’t like praying in groups. Either I feel uncomfortable having someone speak to God for me, or I feel under pressure to make my prayer sound good for the other people listening. Outside of a worship service, I like prayer to be left to the individual. But there are obviously times when groups need to have a group prayer, and I struggle with focusing on the prayer more than the awkward situation of having someone else speak to God on my behalf.

I don’t get much out of the Just Lord prayer. Do you know which one I’m talking about? (hint: It has nothing to do with the Lord’s justice.) It’s the one people pray when they are leading prayer for a group and they are trying to sound casual but respectful, but it comes off as ill-prepared.

Example: Dear Lord, we just come to you today, Lord, to just thank you, Lord, and to just ask that you just forgive us of our sins, Lord, and just look over us, Lord, as we just go about our day. And Lord, we just ask that You help us to be good witnesses for You, Lord, and just help us with any struggles, Lord. Just use us for your will. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Nothing is technically wrong with that prayer, seems sincere enough and all, but I always get so distracted I end up counting “just”s instead of praying. After the first Lord, I’m pretty sure God knows we’re talking to Him, and I’m not going to forget that’s who we’re addressing in the two minutes a prayer takes. “Just” is the “uh” and “Lord” is the “um” of prayers. (I admit my prayer "uh" is the word "and." I'm working on it.)

In my opinion, group prayers are better if it’s a well-known, already written prayer (unless you are praying for specific people/situations obviously). That way, everyone can participate in saying it, and they can know beforehand what they are agreeing to. Have you have ever been listening to someone lead prayer and think, “Wait, I’m not sure I theologically believe the same as that. God, I’m editing that part out, but I offer up the rest. Oh, except this part where she got political.”? I feel like I got tricked into praying something I wouldn’t. Memorized prayers alleviate that. You know before you start whether you can be sincere or not.

The problem with memorized prayer is that some people just go through the motions. But just because you know what you are saying doesn’t mean you can turn it on autopilot; you still have to be sincere with each statement and request. Jesus warned against just repeating prayers, and some use that as a reason to never used pre-written prayer. But I think He meant don’t just say words without meaning, out of tradition or habit. Pray sincerely. Always mean it.

In high school, I would occasionally eat out with a group of kids that were super-Jesusy. The kind that went to the “cool” youth group and wrote Bible verses in my yearbook and questioned my faith since I didn’t get moved by alter calls. So they always insisted on praying before eating, which I had no problem with. The problem was that they would play the nose game to determine who would pray. Last one to put finger on their nose was the one stuck with doing the prayer. This bothered me to no end. If you don’t want to pray so much that you compete to get out of it, just don’t pray at all. Or if you are so uncomfortable with asking the blessing in front of eight or so friends, just suggest we do a group prayer.

That gets me to the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s the best one to do in a group since odds are everyone knows it. Until, that is, you get to the line, “And forgive us our...as we forgive…” Oh, no! Is it “debts” or “trespasses”? If the group praying isn’t from the same church, it’s practically guaranteed someone will stumble out “debt-passes” or “trets.” I grew up in a debt-saying church, but I know a majority say trespasses, so I’m good at covering my one-syllable word in their three-syllable word.

Maybe it’s because I grew up saying debts, but it just seems like a better word-choice. Debt is something owed, a heavy weight, something accumulated. It sounds financial, and Jesus talked about money a lot. Trespasses only makes me think of stepping into someone’s yard. The debts translation is older (John Wycliffe, 1395), but the trespasses translation was used in the first English Book of Common Prayer (1549). The Latin word is “debita” which clearly looks more like debts than trespasses, but that’s no argument against someone who grew up saying trespasses. Once that rhythm is set in your mind as a kid memorizing prayer, it’s hard to adjust.

In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter. The idea is the same: forgive us as we forgive others. Judge us by how we judge others. Which when I think of how I judge others, I get really depressed thinking how God might judge me, which I’m pretty sure is the whole point.

[Portrait of a Praying Woman by Hans Memling, 1485]

Monday, August 8, 2011

Christmas in August

I’m in a Christmas mood. I want the chilly weather, and the gatherings, and the decorations, and the songs (I keep getting Angels We Have Heard on High stuck in my head). The big stretch between Easter and Advent is getting to me. I want to bypass the Halloween season, which stores dictate has already started. I want to avoid the time where Advent hasn’t begun but pop culture pushes commercialized Christmas on us. I want to skip to the good stuff. I know I can’t. If it were Christmas every day, it would lose its meaning. There are more than a few holiday movies about that. But for almost two weeks, I haven’t been able to shake this Christmas mood.

The feeling is part of a bigger picture, I think. I can’t conceptualize what I’ve been going through the past few months. It’s like a change, but I hesitate to call it that. It’s more a deepening of what I already believed. It’s some serious evaluation and decision-making that I wasn’t expecting. My heart has been opened to the mystical side of my faith, a side that can intellectually contemplate and accept the supernatural. So I’m eager to start a new church year in this light, to think about the virgin birth and the ramifications of having God on earth (and as a helpless infant in poor family no less). Could I think about those things now? Of course. But they are heightened and deepened during that time of year. The community focus on the same aspects of faith help the individual. Each week, the beautiful complexity of the season grows more intense.

If Advent is about waiting and preparation, I don’t know what waiting for Advent is. (Like the promise rings some girls get before engagement rings?) Fortunately, I know the Christmas decorations in stores in October will ruin the mood. Because even if we really want to speed up the calendar, we shouldn’t. There is a time for everything. Christmas in August or October isn’t it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Religion Friday: Baha'i


The Baha’i faith developed in the Middle East like many of the monotheistic religions, but it’s not from thousands of years ago. It was founded by Baha’u’llah in 1863. He was an Iranian nobleman who left the comforts of his rich life to preach the message of unity. Baha’is believe his coming was foretold by the Bab, a prophet that split from Islam just a few years before Baha’u’llah announced his message. The words Baha’i and Baha’u’llah both derive from the Arabic baha meaning “glory.” Though founded in Iran, persecution pushed the new religion out, and the international headquarters of the religion is now in Isreal.

Baha’is believe that every major era of civilization is given a messenger by the one God to guide that generation. Zoroaster, Moses, Krishna, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, and Baha’u’llah are all messengers for their time. Because of this belief, they see all of humanity as part of one culture that should strive to be unified. Three principles include: The Oneness of God, the Oneness of Religion, and the Oneness of Humanity.

There are no priests in the faith. Local assemblies look over communities, and Baha’is elect representatives to an annual national convention. National assemblies sometimes gather for international convention to elect the Universal House of Justice, which legislates on matters related that affect the whole faith, such has positions on sacred writings. For worship they read the writings of Baha’u’llah and focus on prayer and meditation. The relationship with God is seen as personal and not ritualistic. They celebrate two major holidays: the Baha’i New Year at the spring equinox and the Ridvan festival in late April, marking the declaration of Baha’u’llah’s mission in 1863.

Houses of Worship are built to be open to people of all religions to pray. All Houses of Worship have a dome and are shaped in a nonagon, with a door on each side. There are no images inside. All of this is so the houses are open to people of different faiths and represents the global view Baha’is have. Baha’i law does not allow sermons in Houses of Worship but does allow scripture or accapella music of other religions. There are only seven completed worldwide. Most Baha’is gather in small groups or study circles to worship. Today there are an estimated 7 million Baha’is all over the world.

I can see how the Baha’i faith grew out of the time that it did. As the world began to globalize, it was easy to establish a faith that incorporated the faiths of the past. I admire the democratic structure of the Baha’i faith. But I also feel that in attempts to be so universal, it lacks structure. While there are common writings and prayers to unify the faith, I think ritual and worship service is important too. With only seven Houses of Worship, most don’t get to have that experience, certainly not on a regular occasion. Still, it is a interesting spin on how religion can relate to modern times.

[Nine plays an important role in the Baha’I faith. Nine, as the highest single-digit number, symbolizes completeness. The nine-pointed star is the simplest symbol of the importance of nine to the faith.]

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Help Wanted

I don’t fully understand the mentor/mentee relationship. Are they friends that have deep discussions, or is there a level of leader/follower that keeps it academic? In any case, I’ve always wanted a mentor to meet with regularly and have deep discussions. I don’t know how one goes about finding the right person though.

A professor offered herself as mentor my first year in college. She meant well, and I did grow because of her, but we weren’t a right fit. I wanted desperately for it to work mainly out of the idea that college was a good time to have a mentor. That was probably a bad reason. I don’t know many people who have mentors. I know some who have therapists, and to an extent, a therapist is a close substitute when you just need confirmation and assurance. (“Do you think I yelled at him like that because I was really mad at myself? Or am I trying to justify his jerk behavior?”) I went to therapy for a short time in college too. It didn’t help much other than give me a sense that I was at least doing something about my stress and feelings, which is all I expected from it. But that’s a different relationship than a mentor. Mentors can offer their opinion, and you don’t have to be working on anything, just talking, listening, learning.

I have this grand idea that a mentor would be someone older than me that “gets” me. That genuinely is looking out for me and offering me specific advice. Someone I can confess things to and be accountable to without judgment. Someone who in turn will bear some of that responsibility back onto me. We don’t necessarily have to be friends, more like a parental relationship from a non-relative. But I don’t know how to ask that burden of someone, and I don’t know how to go about cultivating such a relationship since I tend to be guarded with my ideas or feelings.

How is this related to faith? Because I think it helps to have someone guide you in faith. Not have someone draconically telling you exactly what to think and believe, and not to be left adrift on your own either. Plus a lot of the deeper discussions I have involve faith or religion in some way, so the things I imagine my mentor and I discussing involve a lot of Jesus. It seems obvious that a pastor would be the best person to talk to, but I don’t want to burden them by becoming some sort of project. And where my beliefs defer from the church’s, would it become their responsibility to try to steer me back or could they stay impartial? It probably depends on the individuals, but it feels murky.

When you learn about writers, you learn so many of them had mentors that encouraged (or discouraged when necessary) them. I think having a mentor would be good for me, but I’m not getting my hopes up of finding one anytime soon. So until then, I’ll bumble around on my own and keep my eyes open for the opportunity. Like dating all over again.