Nitpicking Heresy

Nitpicking Heresy May 11, 2011

This past Sunday, I attended an Orthodox liturgy for the first time, in the company of Miss Tristyn Bloom of Eschatological Psychosis.  Tristyn gave me an overview Saturday night, so I’d know what to expect and be able to avoid augmenting my normal church awkwardness, but I still spent a fair amount of time of Google and Wikipedia to cover all my bases.  While doing my research, I ran across one article earnestly explaining that the Orthodox don’t believe in Transubstantiation.  (Note, before you run to the comments, I know this is not true).

The confusion seemed to be the result of the Orthodox approach to the Sacred Mysteries (which include those rituals that Catholics term Sacraments).  Both Orthodox and Catholics profess a belief in the Real Presence — the idea that Christ is truly and fully present in the Eucharist, even though they retain the appearance of bread and wine.  But, as the Orthodox terminology would suggest, the Catholics spend more time concerned about the how.

It’s hard not to have all my sympathies with the Catholics, since I enjoy picking apart the kind of metaphysical apologetics this approach yields, but further consideration has pushed me closer to the Orthodox view.  These  divine brain teasers may be fun to puzzle over, but inquiry along those lines isn’t at the heart of the Christian faith.

Consider the new, more technicalized Roman Missal (the script for Mass) set to go into effect this year.  Here’s one of the changes that has sparked a backlash.  In the Nicene Creed, the previous language of “Jesus… one in Being with the Father” will change to “Jesus… consubstantial with the Father.”  One Catholic NYT commenter summed up the objection:

So, how do I explain “consubstantial” to my daughter, who is 9, attends Catholic school, along with her older brother, and pays attention and asks questions as she listens to the words of the homily every week at Mass? I have no problem with the idea of sticking closer to the Latin meaning, having studied the language in high school and college, but that doesn’t mean making it inaccessible

I understand her worry.  At the getting-to-know-the-missal lesson hosted by the Catholic Church on campus, a fair proportion of the students couldn’t explain the meaning of the new language.  But I’m not sure this is such a shift–the Nicene Creed is already a litany of highly technical metaphysical facts professed by the Church.  The current version of the Creed reads in part:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father, God
from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
one in Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

Reading through the list, I’m reminded of the tradition of fighter pilots keeping a painted tally of enemy aircraft down on the side of their own plane.  This is a list of rebukes to defeated heresies that few people besides theologians are acquainted with.  I couldn’t ever really make sense of the Creed until I read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First 3000 Years and ran across them in his history.

So who are these fairly obscure fights relevant to?  Well, theologians, certainly, in much the same way that arcane details are relevant to a Ph.D. candidate.  It’s possible that discussing and researching these nuances is helpful to the spiritual formation of some Catholics, but it certainly isn’t a resource for the people who mouth the words of the Creed and have lost any sense of its meaning or historical urgency.  Pushing everyone toward abstraction makes it hard to focus and act on the problems before us.

The Orthodox approach to mystery doesn’t cut off discussion, but it focuses it toward the questions Christians most urgently need to answer: how to take up your cross and follow Christ.  Sacrements, liturgy, scripture, and tradition are all meant to help answer that question, not to be interrogated to the point of distraction.

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  • Michael Haycock

    It sounds like the Orthodox approach is a little like that typically taken by the LDS Church: hard theology and metaphysics are not sponsored, leaving members to do their best to sort out their lives with the language of scripture as their guide. This approach was, I believe, reflected in your conversation with the Mormon missionary a while back: while you were asking for a universally applicable description of how one could receive knowledge from God, the missionary gave the traditional LDS response – which has existed since the beginning of the Church! – to read our scriptures, ponder and pray on them, and thus gain an experience with God if not a coherent rational explanation thereof. Of course, this has not prevented people from pronouncing rationalistic statements about LDS doctrine, but these are generally left without any official backing.

  • taosquirrel

    For what it's worth, I personally got a lot out of these "nitpicky" theological issues. I often found that my intuitive understanding of things was actually identical to some old heresy. Learning what the orthodox account was, and why it was superior to the heretical one, always made me realize how impoverished my vision of God and Creation was. The dogma inevitably required more from me than I was inclined to change, but gave even more back in return.I'm being rather vague, but these issues *do* focus one on the urgent question of how to follow Christ, as long as one doesn't fall into the trap of thinking of them as academic exercises.

  • KL

    I work with an organization that does a lot to foster primarily academic dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, and the cultural and intellectual distinction you point out here is endlessly fascinating to me. A few months ago we put on a conference regarding war and peace and issues of just war, etc., and while the Catholics spent a long time discussing when and how the killing of another person may be morally justified, the Orthodox were mostly content to simply say, it's always a sin, penance must be done, then let's all just move on. Drove the Catholics (myself included) absolutely bonkers and we had lots of fascinating conversations about it! As an undergraduate and new convert, I was deeply impressed with the systematic approach to theological and moral issues that the Catholic Church takes, particularly in the Scholastic tradition. But I'm becoming more and more sympathetic to the Eastern mindset, even if my analytic temperament won't let me adopt it myself just yet, precisely because of the reasons you raise. Yes, theological and ethical issues matter. But persons of faith, especially educated ones, can often lose sight of the forest for the trees. I loved Tristyn's post a while back in which she compared one's relationship to God to a friendship with a peer: "What happens if I don't bum my friend a cigarette? What happens if I forget his birthday? What happens if I steal from him? A friendship can survive many transgressions. That doesn't mean we shouldn't avoid them." ( ) And conversely, if you spend all your time and mental energy obsessing over whether it's okay to withhold a cigarette from said friend, or keep asking him over and over if it's okay or whether you're required to give him one if he asks, you're probably not going to have a very good relationship with him then, either. Both scrupulous (in the technical sense) laypeople and rabidly intellectual, detail-oriented academics can fall into this trap. The trick — as is the case with so many things in life! — is finding the balance. And I think we're all still working on that. Personally, I suspect the perfect approach lies somewhere in between Catholic Scholasticism and Eastern apophaticism — just don't ask me exactly where!

  • One good resource on explaining this stuff to kids is the YouCat (Youth Catechism) which recently came out. I bought it for my three younger siblings (and myself) as we embark into our summer session of catechism lessons. I don't have the book with me (I know, I know, WHY don't I carry it around with me for constant referencing?!), but I do remember it having a really great part on all of this – and it is completely geared toward the lay reader since it is intended primarily for younger people.Part of the abstraction comes from the Church's desire for us to have us come to God ourselves, and let our love for God manifest into our actions, so that when situations comes up, we respond accordingly to our own conscience (which is not based on how we feel, but an act of intelligence, which weighs the Church's teaching, reason, our experience and Scripture), which makes it personal, and not just, this is what we are told to do and told to say. I know this seems like a thin line since the Church does have many rules and whatnot, but the main point is that we follow them and act according to our own free will. But yes, one of the movements in the New Evangelization is definitely answering a lot more of these pressing questions. I know this is one thing and place I am feeling called to act. :)I hope you enjoyed the Orthodox service! Yay for almost being done with college!

  • Taking up your cross and following Christ shouldn't form a dichotomy with understanding who Christ is and why that matters. He's consubstantial with the Father, not just "one in being" with Him, and that matters, even if there are many who can advance in the Christian life without understanding why it matters. Theology is a body of knowledge, the data of which are given by revelation. Its parameters are not set by "How do I explain that to my 9yo daughter," and since I'm sure you've heard the principle "lex orandi, lex credendi," it follows that either dumbing down or vaguing up the liturgy for the sake of a spurious accessibility is no solution. In pastoral practice, the level of theological sophistication obviously has to be adjusted to the level of the particular Christian being guided; but as a general matter, pastoral practice — that is, help in taking up your cross and following Christ — is helped, not hurt, by theological understanding.

  • (ONCE again google lost my comment!)It boils down to this: IF "consubstantial" has a different meaning than "one in being with" then the change is important regardless of whether lay people can understand that different meaning. Of all the debates about the new translation the only ones that a believer should listen to are either the claim that it is LESS accurate, or that it is aesthetically displeasing in a way that has no impact on meaning.From my limited reading on it it seems that consubstantial has a very specific meaning that "one in being" may be interpreted to mean. I want my lawyer to use specific legal jargon that has a well defined meaning in contracts, not lay-speech that could be reinterpreted by another lawyer! If you think it is too technical the real argument is to remove the creed from the liturgy of the mass, not change it to be less accurate.Think about the "theory of evolution" – if there were a more specific jargon word that meant ONLY what science means by theory and not what lay people think, wouldnt you prefer it's use? then you would simply have to define the word to someone, rather than try to explain that a word they know doesn't mean what they think it means when scientists use it!

  • E Milco

    I converted to Catholicism after a few months of investigating Orthodoxy. The reality is that Orthodox people (especially converts) tend to be even more bogged down in nitpicky quasi-theological concerns than Catholics. However, where Catholics will be more interested in questions about the metaphysics of the sacraments and the "shape" of the mysteries, so to speak, orthodox spend 90% of their time freaking out about liturgy. How things are said and done, when, with what gestures and music, etc. is extremely significant to the Orthodox. Additionally, they're suspicious of change to a fault, so that most of the usual Orthodox complaints against the Romish church deal with slight variations in language that are mostly insignificant (the prime example being the filioque).