Monday, March 15, 2010

Part 1: My Take on "Why I Am Not a Christian"

Thanks to Andy McKenzie bookmarking it on his blog, today I read this short article by Bertrand Russell titled, "Why I Am Not a Christian." During my attempt at living an honest and truthful life, I always appreciate reading articles such as this, at least as litmus tests for my own faith. If people like Russell can make arguments that I cannot logically refute, then I deeply consider the flaws in my faith that they expose. Unfortunately, all of Russell's arguments do not hold much ground, and I will attempt to refute them in light of my own faith.

Disclaimer: I am no philosopher or theologian. I'm just a normal person with elementary understanding of her [Coptic Orthodox] faith, and I'm definitely not the sharpest tool in the shed, to say the least. If any of the arguments I make are not logically coherent or are not explained well, feel free to call me out. I will very happily take your criticisms into consideration.

First point:
What is a Christian?
He begins his discussion with a definition of Christianity, or what the label "Christian" in today's society implies. Naturally, as an Orthodox Christian, evidently living in today's society, I was offended at the vastness and flexibility he offers those who call themselves "Christians." Russell is a much more gracious person than I am in that respect. According to him, all anyone needs to believe in order to—essentially, profess the name of Christ—be called "Christian," are two things:

1) "Believe in God and immortality"
2) "Some kind of belief about Christ"
(he goes on to say, "I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men.")

To have a relatively sound understanding of the Christian faith, one must believe much more than those two maxims, or else he is a hypocrite by all definitions when calling himself "Christian." In two posts I will be addressing my issues with these incomplete maxims. The first is below, addressing “Believe in God,” the second, in due time, addressing “and immortality” and “Some kind of belief about Christ.”

1a) The
belief in God which he refers to is not simply a belief in a one person monotheistic God, but in the Holy Trinity, a three person monotheistic God. He must believe that our one God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All three, in one. I know many people think that this triune-monotheistic God is high and obscure theology but in reality it is very simple, makes a lot of sense, and is necessary for understanding every hint of Christianity. The best analogy to use in order to explain the Trinity is an example that St. Athanasius the Great gives in his treatise On the Incarnation of the Logos: the sun.

We can agree that the sun has three main facets which make it the sun: the
orb itself, its light, and its heat. We can consider the orb of the sun to represent the Father, the light to represent the Son, and the heat to represent the Holy Spirit. The orb is distinct from the light and the heat, the heat is distinct from the orb and the light, etc., but needless to say, it is only one, uniform sun. I can say "The sun is very bright" or "The sun is very hot" and make perfect sense; which facet of the sun I am referencing is not in question; it is one of the independent facets of the sun which gives it that specific quality, but all three aspects of the sun are necessary for it to be that life-giving star, and not simply a planet (just orb), a lightbulb (just light), or a heater (just heat).

If it were simply the orb, it would not be the sun, if it were simply the light, it would not be the sun, and if it were simply the heat, it would not be the sun. All three aspects are distinguishable, all three aspects are the sun, but all three aspects are interdependent and literally inseparable. The same is true of the Godhead. The Father is Creator, He is the orb, He is the center of the Godhead—yet how can we know that He is there, when He is just sitting up there in space, pulling us towards Him with His massive weight, forcing us into orbit and unconscious worship? How can we as His creatures know who this God is? How can we know He exists?—By the light reaching our eyes, by the Son revealing His participation in the Godhead to us.

The Church teaches us that the theophanies of the Old Testament, e.g. God walking/talking in the Garden of Eden, the burning bush, meeting Moses on Mount Sinai etc., are performed by the person of the Son. And, most importantly, when God incarnates, it is the Son that takes flesh. We are able to see the sun, to see God, by its Light. Yet how do we experience it? What good would the sun be if it were only light? If it were only light, the earth would be a frozen planet, and no life would be sustained. We experience the fruit of this Light by the heat, the Holy Spirit.

When God creates Adam from the clay of the earth (Biblical reference to evolution?), He breathes His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, into him. On the day of Pentecost, the 72 apostles literally receive the Holy Spirit by the tongues of fire upon their heads, and only then are they able to preach the Word of God with unshakable courage and wisdom. One cannot become a Christian without being baptized/chrismated, the act of receiving the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to have the knowledge of Christ; one must be able to experience Him in order to have complete understanding. The same way it is not enough for me to scientifically study the nature of honey in order to understand it, I must taste it to really understand what this glucose means, how these intermolecular forces create this viscose substance, how ants are attracted to it, etc. One person a couple years ago who was converting to the Faith said something along the lines of, "I know who Christ is, I understand Him, I know that the Orthodox Christian faith is the truth, but I still cannot really understand God's presence in my life. All of this is just academic knowledge for me. It all makes sense, but it feels like I am missing something." Of course, she was missing the Divine Enlightenment that the Holy Spirit provides, this real taste of God.

This is what separates Faith from math. To me, math is the same thing as theology, just with numbers. It requires the same “faith” in something intangible (Do numbers exist? What is the number “2”?), it all logically flows, and one must take into account all theorems and postulates when going about problem solving, or it quite literally won’t add up. But you can’t put a distinct trust in numbers, or have a human relationship with numbers. You can really love math with all of your heart and take a personal interest in it, but at the end of the day, it is just knowledge. Though it might shape your thought processing, the methods in which you approach everyday problems, etc., it does not affect your opinions and views of the world. Math, with all its dogmas and absolute truths, does not have the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit which allows for daily practical application.

So, for God to really be God, He must be all three Persons united in one Godhead, analogous to the way the sun must be all together an orb, a source of light, and a source of heat. If God were only one Person, one in Himself, that would be quite an egotistical God; all by Himself in His greatness, having all creatures under Him, and no one to truly be in union, fellowship/communion, and perfect love with. How would He even understand His creation? How can God Himself understand the universal rule of love? How can He create social beings? There is interaction and communion between the three Persons of God. Therefore, when we say God is love, He is love both within Himself and extending outside of Himself. At the end of the day, misunderstanding of the triune nature of God is just an issue of semantics.

(Yes, I understand what Russell meant, that he basically meant one must believe in a monotheistic God, and that a belief in Christ accompanies it, also implying this idea of immortality that Christ's Resurrection promised. But it was necessary for me to add that this is a very slippery and theologically uninformed definition of what a Christian is, and that belief in the Trinity is principal for understanding those other aspects—or else, heresies arise, which horrifically skew Christianity, like the Arian heresy (Arius was a man who claimed that Christ was basically a "sub-God," unequal to the Father in His Divinity.) I feel that employing such a broad definition of Christianity creates a straw man argument and most definitely makes Christianity sound abstruse and lacking much in substance. Many a time I think to myself, if I were born into anything but the Coptic Orthodox faith, I would be atheist—and probably a nihilistic atheist at that, because what “Christianity” has become in America is shallow, un-intellectual, and unfulfilling. All thanks to that crazy German man, Martin Luther.)

In response to another one of his introductory points on the “transformation” of the definition of a “Christian,” the beliefs of Christianity have not changed since 33 AD (when Christ ascended into heaven). Therefore, the beliefs one must hold in order to consider himself a follower of Christianity have not changed, regardless of whether its followers have lost their minds or not. The flaws of the followers do not always insinuate flaws in the message but more probably flaws in the understanding of the message. It is wrong to remove substance regarding the meaning a “Christian” even when inflation and cop-offs of the faith occur.
If you’re going to attack the legitimacy of an institution, you attack the actual institution, not some corrupt connotations that it has taken on in a tiny piece of an ever changing society.

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