Review on “The Crazy Side of Orthodoxy” by Charles Shingledecker (Regina Orthodox Press, Salisbury, MA, 2011, 194 pp., ISBN 978-1928653)
What do Orthodox Christians believe? This question may seem odd. Don’t we know it? Of course we believe “in one God the Father Almighty… and in one Lord, Jesus Christ… and in the Holy Spirit…” and “in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Yes, but one may ask, what about details? When we want to find out exactly, what is God, who is Christ, why is the Church Holy, Catholic and Apostolic – to what and to whom do we turn? What authority do we listen to when we need answers to these questions, or answers to questions regarding our Christian life, morality, ethos?
And again the answer may sound so simple. Of course, our source of authority is the Holy Tradition of the Church, which includes the Bible, the writings of our Holy and God-bearing Fathers, and the documents of the various Councils of the Church, especially the Seven Ecumenical Councils that took place in the 4th – 8th century A.D. The latter include the so-called Canons, from the Greek word κανών, which literally means “reed” or “cane” but is commonly used in the sense of “measure” or “rule.” So, the Canons are rules that the Church has set for us to live by. Because the Church is Holy, then all these Canons must also be Holy, God-breathed, inspired, right? And they are timeless, right? Should we really live by them? Can we?
How many of us have actually read all the Canons? Do we even know, how many of them exist? Also, the Church uses the book, called “ The Rudder” (Πηδάλιον), which is a compilation of the relatively recent interpretations of the Canons made by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain in the late 1700’s. Are these interpretations also Holy, God-breathed, inspired? And then, maybe, because “The Rudder” was written much closer to our time compared to the original Canons, it makes it easier for us to understand these ancient rules and to apply them to our present-day 21-century lives?
The author of “The Crazy Side of Orthodoxy” says, “well, let’s not leap to conclusions.” If one really looks at the Canons as well as at their interpretations by St. Nicodemus, one might become literally shocked. For example, one of the Canons still “on the books” says that a woman who has miscarried must be penalized by a year-long excommunication. Another Canon, technically still valid, says that a Christian must be excommunicated from taking medicine from a Jewish doctor, and St. Nicodemus pushes it further, writing that those who eat Matzoh bread made by a Jew, or those who are even “in any way friendly with Jews,” must be excommunicated also. Yet another Canon says that we should be excommuncated for eating non-Kosher food; yet another forbids our clergy to enter a restaurant or a hotel; and yet another says that if a maiden was raped, a thorough investigation must establish whether she behaved like a whore and thus “invited” her rapist to do what he did. In short, quite a number of Canons contain commandments that either are completely ignored (like the commandment not to eat non-Kosher food), or sound completely disgusting and plain immoral (lke the comandment to blame the rape victim)!
Analyzing these numerous instances where something in the Canons apparently sounds “fishy,” the author turns to the concept of divine inspiration. What is it? When we say that this or that is inspired by God, do we mean that God literally dictated this and the men who served as scribes writing this down merely listened to God as we listen to a record or tape? Here is the author’s take:
“Christians certainly believe that the Bible is inspired, but did the early Christians really think that inspiration was akin to hitting the record button? Well, probably not when it came to the Bible, in great part because they didn't even have the Bible. The Bible as a complete text all bound in "genuine" imitation leather, with the words The Holy Bible emblazoned on the cover wasn't even an idea that remotedly crossed the minds of the early Christians…
Does anyone think that the verse "Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign" (2 Kings 21:1) is equally as inspired as the Sermon on the Mount? ... If ancient and modern Christians can see degrees of inspiration within the Holy Scriptures, why on earth can't we see Canon law in a similar light?
God certainly inspires. He inspires political and social progress, such as desegregation and women's rights. He inspires great works of art, literature, and music. Within the Christian religion itself, He inspires Chrystian hymnology, iconography, and architecture. All of these are inspired by God, but no one claims that the Holy Spirit actually built the Sistine Chapel or the Church of Hagia Sophia and that because of this all other churches must look exactly like them until the end of time. The entire world is full of God's inspiration because it is full of the Holy Spirit. True inspiration cannot be defined or put into a box because God cannot be defined and put into a box. Inspiration is far more subtle, deeper, and intuitive than that… “(Op. cit., pp. 30-33).
The mere idea that God inspires people to do right and beautiful things rather than binds them by allegedly immutable rules mouthed and penned by allegedly perfect Church luminaries makes some Othodox angry. Our Church here in the USA is being filled, on a daily basis, by those who come to Her from Heterodox confessions specifically because they are against “Modernism” or “Liberalism.” They are the so-called Traditionalists within the Orthodox Church. They want, crave some “immutable truths” and carved-in-stone authority. And they fear change. Here’s how the author replies to them:
"I love history, and I truly believe that learning from the past is one of the most important endeavors of human civilization. If that was what the world "Traditionalist" implied these days within Orthodoxy, I'd be one too! But that is not what the word means today. It means covering up the insanity of the church... If some people think that an honest look at history is scandalous or will challenge people's faith, then good: the truth is scandalous and should challenge people's faith… (Ibid., pp. 171-172)
I am a Christian who loves the Bible, the Christian Church, and my Orthodox Tradition, but I'm no longer afraid to admit that none of these are perfect; especially a collection of laws which includes forbidding people from dancing at weddings or having Jewish doctors... Sometimes the men who wrote these Canons were very wise, other times they were, - well - kind of idiotic. Usually they were both simultaneously: just like every other human being that has ever walked the earth.(Ibid. pp. 173-174)"
In other words, yes, of course the Holy Spirit inspires, sanctifies, and guides the Church so that eventually, She comes to the Truth of Christ. And yet, the Holy Spirit, Who respects our free will, does not necessarily eliminate the fallible, even corrupt, human element from every proceeding of the Church, from every documet She formulates and adopts:
“The Christian Church learns and grows in knowledge because human beings, which make up the Church, learn and grow in knowledge. Does God want His people to be stupid? There should be no shame in admitting that the Church makes mistakes, because it is we human beings who make these mistakes… Questioning is a risk worth taking because Truth is more important than tradition. Or put it this way: do we worship a book or books if you include the Canons, or God?.. I believe it is a Christian’s moral imperative to criticize and question the Church. To refuse to do so is a great sin” (Ibid., p. 44).
“We need to look beyond the facade of centuries of Christian whims, desires, fears, and wishes, to see the harsh reality that is the Church, and life on this pale blue dot we call earth. It is simultaneously glorious and harsh; beautiful and ugly, joyful and painful, but it is worth being on this short journey we call life. And it is worth being in the Orthodox Church too. We Christians need to realize that our religion's history was never all good; that the Bible, Tradition, and everything that goes along with it is not perfect or infallible. And we Orthodox Christians need to realize that Canon law is not divine, then and only then will we be able to begin to truly focus upon the One Who is” (Ibid., pp. 179-180).