Friday, February 5, 2010

LOVE VERSUS FEAR: The Uniqueness of the Orthodox Message


Note to reader: This article is a two-part series written by Avgerinos in response to a three-part series on fear written by Fr. Jonah Mourtos of Taipei, Taiwan.

By Avgerinos

The last three issues of The Censer carried an article of unusual brilliance and perception. Father Jonah Mourtos, who is in charge of St. John's parish in Taiwan, shared with us his experiences and views on Chinese and Eastern society and religion after spending about two years in Taiwan. His article "Aspects of Fear in an Asian Context" (The Feeling of Fear in Chinese Society), which makes many perspicacious points about Eastern and Chinese culture and beliefs from the viewpoint of an Orthodox thinker, is like a breath of fresh air across a sea of learned and usually very polite tomes authored by Western or Christian scholars on East Asia and its traditions.

Father Jonah does not mince his words. He comes to the point and in most instances tries to call a spade a spade. The love he has for the people he is scrutinizing is evident, though, as one has to care deeply to observe deeply and feel deeply. And I, as an Asian, cannot but applaud his conclusions which are both helpful and Orthodox. We live in a missionary diocese, and in time, with thinkers like Father Jonah, hopefully the development of an Orthodox theology of mission will become more complete.

These words are written with hopes to fuel and enliven the thinking processes which have begun with Father Jonah's observations. In this issue and subsequent issues of The Censer, one would hope to see views and contributions from different people on the subject of the Orthodox message and practice and their impact on and interaction with East Asian civilization. It is written, "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom". St. Paul, unmistakably also, teaches that "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free". Our task is to bring the uniqueness of the Christian message to peoples who have been following other paths so they may have the option of choosing a life and a way which is free from senseless fear. Coming to know the one true God will give us a spiritual wisdom which frees us from ignorance and fear.

Is fear unique to Chinese or East Asian civilization?

Certainly not. A conscientious consideration of the world's major religions and belief systems shows that fear is everywhere. If anything, it is less pronounced in Chinese Confucianist civilization than in some others. Nevertheless it is there. What is unique is its absence, or rather lack of a place, in Christian civilization, which incorporates Judaic and Greco-Roman elements.

Of the world's six or seven major belief systems, Christianity is the only one which teaches the banishment of fear through joy - the joy of the Resurrection, the supreme manifestation of the power of love.

And this is the main message of Orthodoxy. The Mourtos article refers to fear affecting its author upon exposure to certain manifestations of Tantric (Lamaistic) Buddhism. This is a good case in point. Next to Christianity, Buddhism is probably the most peaceful religion in the world. Experienced Asia hands never fail to observe, usually with approval, the mild, compassionate and peaceful character of the Buddhist faith and of its practitioners. Indeed, the supreme patriarch of Tantric Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetans, Mongolians and Manchus alike, is one of the distinguished winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. His patience and principled rationality in dealing with the Communist armies and authorities which have come to control his land is legendary and widely ad mired.

Yet the element of fear mentioned in the Mourtos article is real. In the Buddhist religion evil does not prevail over good, but demonic images abound in its Tantric manifestation. There are even deities that are usually identified in terrifying images of anger. In painted or crafted images, and even in religious song and dance, one is reminded of the power and presence of demons.

This helped to expose Tibetan culture to the Marxist propaganda of liberation. Standard Marxist literature to this day proclaims that Tibetans were freed from enslavement by fear and by tyrannical feudal and clerical overlords, who blinded them intellectually and sometimes physically to keep them in check.

Tantrism (the quest for religious enlightenment through the repetition of incantations) as a religious approach is not restricted to Buddhism. It originated in India, where a number of religions sprang up on the soil and foundation of Hinduism.

The Hindu sensitivity to life is shown in its encouragement of vegetarianism. Of course there could be the element of selfinterest (the Mourtos article points out that the doctrine of reincarnation, which is common to all the Hindubased religions including Buddhism, is a "cycle or terror") as clearly one would not want to have one's deceased grandmother for a meal. Nevertheless the sensitivity to all animal life is not in dispute. In spite of this, Hinduism is not without its fair share of demonic images. In fact Shiva, the Destroyer, is one of the three main deities in the Hindu pantheon. His cult enjoys a greater following than that of Brahma, the Creator deity. It is The Censer reasoned that Destruction leads to new life. It is also believed that Shiva's wife, the goddess Kali, enjoyed animal sacrifices - blood sacrifices which in the Christian religion was ended with Christ.

Most Christians do not think about the issue, but fear does occupy a place in other major religions. There could be a number of reasons for this. First we must acknowledge that fear has played a part in Christian belief. It was in fact one of the hottest subjects of theological debate in centuries past. Theologians who regarded themselves as representing the true Gospel message assailed believers who practiced good works out of fear of the fires of hell or a vengeful Judgment Day. These theologians taught that salvation came solely through faith in Christ, not through earthly good deeds that went towards pardons and remission from the punishment of hell. They said true and sincere belief in Christ (and not a hypocritical mouthing of it) would orient the person towards behavior that leads him Heavenward, away from hell. Fear of hell has no place and hell does not come into the picture. In our age, a clear understanding of soteriology might teach that while faith in Christ is indispensable for salvation, Christian belief and practice would include sensible choicemaking for the avoidance of evil and hell. The Orthodox Church, with her age-old compassion for Man and his human weaknesses, would emphasize the help and healing that God gives to man through the sacraments and forgiveness, freeing man from the guilt-ridden, fear-driven creature that he can become without the grace of Christ.

The place of fear in the non-Christian religions may reflect a difference in orientation, and a dif ference in approach. Orientation, in that Christians have always taken an affirmative attitude towards the world and Creation (a very easily perceived difference may be found in Buddhism, whose soteriology is mainly negativist or even nihilist). The positive Christian understanding of the universe may be seen in their interpretation of the Genesis account of the Creation: when God completed His work of creating the universe, it is recorded, "Behold, it was very good." Christians today often lament that the world is not in good shape, but it only proves the point: they believe it ought to be in better shape. The oftenunconscious subtext of this lament comes from the tradition that the world has deteriorated from its original mint condition, because of something Christian theologians call "the Fall."

This is why Christ God came to fix the problem, in the first place. For two thousand years, Christians have believed that the problem is smaller than the solution, because the solution is the Divine Economy, the Salvific Plan, of their God. In the Christian religion, therefore, problems have solutions, Good triumphs over Evil, and fear is replaced by joy. The same cannot be said of other religions in which, as the Mourtos article pointed out, reincarnation (and consequently the dominance of fate) is a central belief. The same cannot be said of secular systems that dismiss the supernatural (Marxism or Confucianism, for example), in which the destiny of Man is delimited by the end of earthly life, or is unknowable. The same cannot be said even of religions which may be Abrahamic in lineage, but in which the main manifestation of God is His power, but not His love.

The Christian religion also has a unique approach in its teachings. Every single one of today's major religions arose in Asia. Among them, Christianity came out of Palestine and became the dominant religion in Europe. The New Testament was written in Greek, a European language. Christian teachers and thinkers from generation to generation have always had a unique approach to the interpretation and understanding of their faith. This has a lot to do with the Greco-Roman stamp and heritage of the Christian Church, which are characterized by an attitude of rationality and enlightenment. This went hand-in-hand with the affirmative attitude of the Christian faith to the universe and Creation. For the Christian religion, the Supernatural and the Holy Mysteries are not to be feared; rather, they are to be respected and venerated as a Help to Mankind. God is good, and the lover of Mankind. God is knowable, revealing Himself as the Son of Man. God is reasonable, and the teacher of Mankind.

From its earliest days, therefore, the Christian Church understood its religion in a manner that was free from irrational fear. In the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and the dominant influence of the Hellenistic world at that time, a perfect marriage of faith and doctrinal teaching had taken place. Earlier, the pagan pantheon of Greece and Rome had run out of steam because of its amoral and shallow spiritual base, left behind by a highly developed civilization of philosophical and legal learning. This Greco-Roman philosophical and legal learning craved for something more sophisticated, which it found in the irresistible new Judao-Christian religion spreading across the Empire.

In short, when the Church grew to want to better understand herself and her teachings, Greco-Roman philosophy arrived at a point when it needed something truly profound and worthwhile to understand. It was consequently a natural marriage, and quite possibly conceived in Heaven, because its fruits have benefited Mankind to this day.

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