Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | June 17, 2008

Herd Science: “On your mark, Get set… Ummm”

Thinking and hearing and getting precisely backwards the Gospel for Pentecost got me thinking the other day about the gifts of speaking and hearing – but especially of hearing:

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them and they follow Me.” (John 10:27)

Hearing is hard. Knowing and following even more difficult. Also in John, we read that folks following Christ for three years – almost his entire ministry! – hear “a hard teaching” and wander off. “No can do, Buckaroo.” But more than hard, it seems that in so many places it’s more like trial and error… and mostly error. But at least we have the sacrament of confession to review our experience, and form the journal of our experiment in Christian living.

One thread runs straight up the gut and lies in those confessional moments where we admit those portions of our lives as Christians that fail to conform. Gandhi’s observation that “If Christians just did what their Lord commanded, we’d all be Christians” means that we don’t; and we’re not.

Instead, we argue, or puff ourselves up with pride in our “take” on things, or our superior understanding of this or that or our church or whatever. In short, we make of our faith either a study of philosophy or literature, a field of debate, or the basis of our pride. I am guilty of all of these. And as immensely rewarding, thrilling and enlightening as this sounds (Not!), it seems something of a perversion of the Pentecost. Either we can’t hear our teachers in a mutually understood language; or we’re just so used to our busy-ness, our distractions and talking past each other that we can’t see ourselves as clearly as our kids who see our dissembling ways and wonder why anyone would bother professing to be a Christian.

Here in Orthodoxy, much is made of our culture’s side-track into faith-as-literature, faith-as-philosophy and faith-as-pride routes – all for want of recovering the lost sense of Holy Tradition. Yet pointing out how the Orthodox Church has kept these “lost” traditions doesn’t really cut much ice so long as popular notions seem to equate tradition with a suffocating imposition of “someone else’s ideas” – especially God’s. My guess is that as wildly off-base as notions of this sort are; they are neither new nor were they as narrowly held in the past as our sense of nostalgia would prefer to suppose. History teaches that “all ages are corrupt” (G.K. Chesterton).

Some scholars now suggest that as our understanding of oral cultures continues to increase, Biblical scholarship may morph less stridently and more congruent with Tradition. Fairly, the advent of the internet together with its study has revived the study of oral traditions as an analog so that there may be some merit in the suggestion. Yet I have my doubts that an avenue of this sort will prove more than a new dead-end, and a new way of continuing to avoid the obvious.

Consider that in our study of John (Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation) at St. Nicholas Cathedral (OCA) in Washington these past few weeks we’ve been blessed to hear wonderful priests and scholars illuminate the texts without fear of Holy Tradition or straying into the province of the novel and weird. “Just the facts, m’am.” For my part, many of my manifold fogged over misunderstandings and all-too-common “I was sure it said (but it doesn’t)” notions have thankfully been dispelled. But as good as this is, it isn’t really “it”, is it?

Unlocking the scriptures may begin with “borrowed” understandings of this sort, but surely this is not the primary intent. It’s a start and a good one, but only a start and at that, not even “rent to own” unless we take the next step to convert it. And it is this next step that is the only Bible translation that matters: The translation we make from the Word of God into our way of life.

Do we have the courage to do this? Without it, we’re stuck in neutral. We may even prove more flatulent than the other guy, as we rattle on about “getting it” while “…dose bums in Brooklyn”….just don’t. Borrowed understandings of scripture reach their limit quickly. Like reading how to ride a bike, or like the engineer who rails that “mathematically” the Bumble Bee can’t fly – our knowledge stands in the way of reality, and has no virtue in filling our storehouse. Stored up there unused, our accumulated intent ages, our knowledge fades into forgetfulness, and “on the night when our soul is required of us”… these stored riches offer nothing.

Thus I naturally prefer Archimandrite Zacharias’s expression (and many others before and since as well) that Orthodoxy has to be a positive science of the heart rather than “just a religion”. Our understanding has to come by better means: by daily living and ascesis. Indeed, all other means to understanding are simply… well… to borrow provocatively from one oft-demeaned scholastic’s assessment his own writings… “no better than straw”.

If we cannot be kind to our families, friends and co-workers; if we cannot be good; if we cannot love one another; if we cannot honestly admit our faults and limitations and live with them in peace; if we cannot pray for our enemies – just what is the point? Indeed.

“We can perform our own experiments. In physics for instance, we see that an able scientist first forms an hypothesis, then he or another scientist carries out experiments to verify this hypothesis, and if it is verified then it is formulated and recognized as a law that governs the relationship of physical phenomena. That is how we have obtained all the laws of physics. (The Enlargement of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias, p. 154)

He continues:

In our faith, all the revelation of God is given to us in a hypothetical form. Do you know why? Because God is kind, and does not want to constrict our freedom, to impose anything on us, and He says, “If you accept my teaching, you will know whence it comes” (cf John 7:16-17), that is to say, whether it is from a human being or from God; and if it is from God, it will engender newness of life. And you will notice that the commandments of the Lord, and all His words, are given as hypotheses. For example, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). If you try stillness, if you make your own experiment, then you will know. “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). If we mourn, then we shall receive the comfort of the Comforter. Although I have not prepared verses specifically on this subject, I have already mentioned one: “If you receive my teaching, you will know whence this teaching comes,” (cf John 7:17). All the revelation of God – the word of God – is given to us as a hypothesis, which we can analyze in its hypothetical form, not because it is true, but because God is kind and wants us to carry out the experiment, and prove it to ourselves, and establish it as a law of our life. That is how the commandment of God becomes a law of our life. We make our experiment, we see that it works, and therefore His word becomes absolute for us. That is why it is wrong to classify theology as a theoretical science; it is a positive science. It follows the method of positive sciences exactly, and even more so than the science of medicine. (The Enlargement of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias, pp. 154-155).

As the man said, “What began at Pentecost was meant to continue.”


  1. Good thoughts. Its seems that your studies have been quite fruitful. I’ve wondered about those Bible study’s at St. Nicks. I was tempted to go before not that long ago as our parish wasn’t having a Bible Study this year and I miss it. However, we just did St. John last year.

  2. Thank you for visiting and your comment, but I’m still very much a beginner, a yearling.

    The St. Nick’s class is especially good for a guy in a small parish where resources are more pressed. Good chance to hear other folks, meet other folks… and I like the round-up of folks they’ve been bringing in to keep it fresh. For a guy who’s always shied away from these things to avoid 1) the determined, 2) the weird, 3) the hidden agendas, 4) the argumentative, and 5) the “let’s one-up and stump the lecturer” game show… it is a pleasure to see that in the proper setting, with a common approach, that even with today’s high pressure and high powered types… a simple Bible Study can be calmly considered, constructive and enlightened. I’m sure this doesn’t hold everywhere or in all places or at all times in the Orthodox world, but it is a pleasant surprise for one coming from the outside. Maybe it’s the sense that no one’s going to pull a fast one and that it’s Christ’s Church and not ours that makes the difference and removes the sense of entitlement.

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