Saturday, February 14, 2009

Faith and Skepticism

Today I'm pondering my last post and noticing that it was a lot different in tone from my previous posts, which were written two or more years ago. This is partly a matter of audience -- it was originally written to a Christian online forum of which I am a part, and I think I've directed other posts to a somewhat more diverse group of readers.

But I'm also thinking about how much I've "settled in" to my faith in the past several years. And that this isn't a bad thing.

When I decided to come back to Christianity after having had a bit of a tiff with the Christian God and His people, it was because I'd figured out I can't do spirituality any other way. I need the Christian story and I need my faith to be Jesus-centered and I need for Jesus to be the God-Man, who was interested enough in relationships with people that He'd come in a form we can understand.

So as much as I had come to admire aspects of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Neo-Paganism and other faiths, I realized that I had to have Jesus as God or I'd be miserable.

I've said before that the faith of my youth had an enormous emphasis on prooving itself to skeptics. Since I grew up with a skeptic, it seemed very important to me to prove that Christianity was rational, factual and ultimately impervious to argument.

But when I came back to faith, I did so with the realization that I can't prove any of this stuff -- I just need it. So I more-or-less "special-ordered" my faith:

  • God is Mystery (check)

  • God is "everywhere present and fills all things" (check)

  • God loves and is a befriending God (check)

  • God came in the flesh to save us from death (check)

  • Jesus, who is God Incarnate, died and then came back to life (check)

  • We are never, at any time, without hope (check)

But a funny thing happened on the way to the altar. The first few years, I was more a skeptic-with-hope; now I seem not to need the skepticism anymore. And this is a strange realization -- that skepticism was as much a need for me as faith was. Skepticism was my safety-net, just in case I ended up being a fool. If, at the end of all things, my beliefs about Jesus turned out to be a fantasy, I wanted to be able to say, "Yeah, but I wasn't absolutely sure. I wasn't operating on blind faith. I STILL HAVE A BRAIN, ya know."

Of course, I wasn't sure who it was I'd be saying this to, because if the atheists are right, I won't exist anymore, anyway.

Am I simply more psychologically invested in my faith? Yes, definitely. But it's more than that. It's a kind of caution-to-the-wind thing -- a lack of concern over whether others find me foolish. And what happens now is that I encounter God more frequently, now that I don't hold back. There's a freedom in this -- in being able to light the candles in the chapel and not second-guess myself in the middle of the night, but to simply know that Christ is present with me. It is, I think, something like the stages of falling in love. At first, we are unsure of the beloved -- we don't know whether we can trust him, even though we are attracted and he seems attracted back. But after some time goes by, the relationship develops a surety. I've noticed this in 26 years of marriage. And I notice it in my faith.

So I find I am at a new phase now. One that fills me with wonder.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thinking 'bout the Saints

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Hebrews 11:32-38

I know a man who, when it is his turn to read this passage, cannot get through it without tears. I wonder if it is because after years of not only studying, but celebrating daily the lives of the Saints, these events do not seem to him like something that only happened in Biblical times, but at all times in our history as the Church.

Today's my birthday and I'm thinking about Saints. (I wish there was a connection, but there's not). On this day (in the Gregorian calendar) we celebrate The Hieromartyr Charalampus, Bishop of Magnesia, the Martyrs Porphyrius and Baptus and Three Women Martyrs, who suffered in the year 202, The Holy Virgin Martyrs Ennatha, Valentina and Paula, who suffered in the year 308, and Saint Prochorus of the Caves, who was a native of Smolensk, and entered the Kiev Caves monastery under the igumen John (1089-1103). (For more go to and click Feasts and Saints)

In looking at the Saints listed above, I would note that only one of them, St. Prochurus, could be called specifically an "Orthodox" Saint. This is because the Church split in 1054. Up to then, we were one Church. (There were no Protestants until the Reformation, several hundred years later.) So it begs the question -- if these Saints are our great-grandparents in the faith, why don't most American Christians know about them?

That's how I've felt as a convert to Orthodoxy. And I grew up in a liturgical church. While the Saints are not God, neither are they ordinary. They are the ones who have, at great expense, pressed into God to the point that His light shined through them. Here's just one example from Scripture of their not-ordinariness:

And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.Revelation 20:4

I first began reading hagiographies before I was Orthodox. I was writing a book about St. Vaclav ("King Wenceslas"), who was a 10th century saint. The things said about him seemed so fanciful to me that I despaired of finding some "real history" to read about him. All the miraculous stuff was thrown right in with the "real" stuff. I read hagiographies that way for several years, kind of winking and snickering, even at the gruesome deaths of martyrs. It seemed so over-the-top.

Now it occurs to me that I never winked and snickered at the crucifixion, nor at the story of the youths in the fiery furnace, nor at the beheading of John the Baptist. Those stories seemed "real" to me because they were in the Bible. And the fact that Jesus rose from the dead and that he previously walked around with Shadrach, Mishak and Abednigo in the flames was easy for me to swallow because I'd been told those stories since childhood. Yet I'd discount as fanciful the stories of the Christians who followed over the 2000 years since the Resurrection and gave their lives wholly to Christ. They gave themselves way, way, way more than I have, and many are doing the same today.

So I think it is at our peril that we discount the Saints. Without them, we would have no Bible, no Church, no Good News. It would have been lost to the ages, just as many of their lives have been to generations of Christians.