Glory to God for All Things

The Specific Truth

The Truth, spoken in general, is, perhaps, the most easily spoken truth in all the world. It smooths over the rough edges of hard truth and says more easily that to which all can agree. If all can agree – it is not probably the truth – or it is not a truth worth speaking.

As a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, I find the present time to be one in which the truth is both difficult to discern and difficult to speak. My policy on this blog has always been to avoid the “politics” of the moment and to write of things of greater importance. The politics of the moment are among those things hardest to discern. None of us have enough information to speak with clear authority – and we are often compromised by our own allegiances and friendships.

However, I do believe in truth – not the truth that serves only one point-of-view, not a truth that paints itself as all white while painting its opponent as all black. In the long span of human history, such characterizations have rarely proved to be entirely true.

First off, truth is not simply an accurate account of events. Truth is defined in and by a relationship with Jesus Christ. We have all encountered “masters of the truth” who while offering an irrefutable account of events, have somehow departed from the truth as it is in Christ. Telling the truth is a means of our salvation, not a means of gaining an upper hand or of winning battles. Christ has no interest in the upper hand or in winning battles.

All of this is to say that in Christ, there can be no partisanship. Truth judges us all and makes our partisan commitments to be without meaning. Many of our commitments are but a thin disguise for our passions or the false truth of the ego.

Many of the positions of modernity argue for a form of truth that is rather malleable. That we must never offend each other is not a commandment – though some take a perverse pleasure in giving such.

The history of the Church is replete with Bishops, priests and laity who believed that their great mission in life was to rescue the Church from one error or another, just as today there are many (in various churches and elsewhere) who have a deep need to “fix” the world. This is not the same thing as living the truth, telling the truth, or becoming the truth. The world needs to know the truth even as the Truth knows the world.

31 Responses to “The Specific Truth”

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  1. Steven Clark says:

    It is harder to do the truth than it is to be right. I learned a few years back the fruitlessness of being right. Knowing that it is fruitless does not make the temptation go away.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for reminding us that Truth is a relationship with He Who IS the TRUTH.

  2. Mark Basil says:

    Oh man did you hit the nail on the head here Father.
    Thank you. This is something I can tend to lose sight of, and thereby faithlessly lose my peace in the paradoxically mighty power of the God who is a Whispering Love.

    -Mark

  3. Robert says:

    I am thankful for the courageous calls by many for transparency and accountability from those in leadership. Let the light shine!

    I am also thankful for the Internet, it is such an amazing and powerful communication tool.

  4. Andrew B. says:

    That specificity is the Kingdom (or Truth) being revealed in all. Amen!

  5. Bill M says:

    “The history of the Church is replete with Bishops, priests and laity who believed that their great mission in life was to rescue the Church from one error or another. Their actions are often consonant with those who believe God has died and left us to protect his legacy. This is madness.”

    The particular controversies in the little corner of Christianity where I live are different than those churning the murk in Orthodoxy, but this motivating energy is much in evidence there, too.

    One side MUST change the church, or there is no justice! One side MUST protect the boundaries of the church from cultural forces that would surely destroy it were it not for their personal steadfastness.

    I recently read an exchange (online, of course :) ) between a man on one side, and a man on the other. They had such trouble even using words in the same way, so that understanding could happen. We can’t seem to communicate anymore. I wonder if having more tools and more words at our disposal actually hinders the task.

    But, we do seem to be able to call each other names pretty well, still…

  6. Karen says:

    Dear Father, bless! Seems appropriate that today’s Epistle reading is Acts 15:35-41, which recounts the “contention” between Paul and Barnabas on account of John Mark that “became so sharp” they parted ways for a time. I hope the present discord in the OCA may only be of such a nature, but I cannot say with any certainty.

    All that you have alluded to is very troubling for a faithful member for a number of reasons. I have been following a lot of the Internet discussion, and all that is clear to me presently is that all is not clear! I’m praying, therefore, for purity of heart for us all…. May God grant real wisdom and courage to all to do what is right for the healing of the Church, even where it may be costly.

  7. kevien henry says:

    I watched a video of an archbishop in the Orthodox Church the other day, from a few years ago, tell his audience that any one who does not believe that the earth is billions of years old is a stupid fool.

    This made me feel sick. How could someone in such a position be so ignorant? He neither understands the nature of science or the Church. And what could make such a one compromise his faith to this degree?

    There is today a great pressure to befriend the world. We sometimes feel that this is the way to reach out. Or we see so clearly the ditch on the left that we fall into the ditch on the right. In this case the poor bishop saw the error of christian fundamentalism so clearly that he fell into scientism.

    I know very few Christians who don’t consider themselves to be very loyal to the truth. But being loyal to the truth is too often being loyal to some idol. Like science or the bible. And we have a great capacity to make idols -out of just about anything.

    Our culture today is full of idols. The Christian is one who worships The Holy Trinity alone. Christ is the truth. So we need to be loyal to Him alone. God help us navigate through the modern minefield of idols.

    As the Fathers say:” friendship with the world is enmity toward God… Little Children keep yourselves from idols.”

  8. Chrys says:

    Thank you Father for an important and timeless post.

    Since I am a member of the GOA and in no position to speak to the issues involved in the OCA, I can speak to my own experience on both sides of institutional turmoil. Reflecting on that experience in light of Father’s (vital) insights, a few things come time.

    First, it does take courage to call for transparency and accountability, as Robert noted. In the face of genuine corruption (which requires an extensive network to enable it), it can require considerable courage. Yet this is a fairly common demand at all levels of governance, and its meaning – beyond a being a expression of distrust – depends very much on the context.

    When both sides agree on the vision and the means to pursue it, this demand is a simple expression of the need to comply with standards and procedures that are often already in place. Since the foundations and assumptions are generally shared between the parties involved, this is the form of conflict most likely to be successful, though it can still be painful.

    When both sides generally agree on a vision but disagree over the means to pursue it, the demand for transparency and accountability is part of a larger desire for control. We see this kind of conflict in the political arena every two years. The faction out of power neither endorses the agenda nor trusts the party in power, and so seeks to limit or overturn their efforts. There can be a very real concern over potential corruption, but it is rooted in an enduring distrust based on a larger disagreement over the agenda itself.

    When the issue reaches the level of the vision, the demand for transparency and accountability may be little more than a veiled call for revolution, in which one party seeks to take over and restructure the existing institutions in the service of a competing vision or purpose. If history is any guide, this can be traumatic and may take a very, very long time to reach a successful resolution, if ever.

    I offer this only to indicate that the call for transparency and accountability – like the call for obedience and compliance – may have very different meanings in different conflicts.

    In each conflict, however, there is ALWAYS the danger, as Father rightly pointed out, that we will see “us and ours” as morally pure and the opposition as morally compromised if not evil. In my experience, this danger increases with each of the levels described above. The more “meaningful” the disagreement, the more contentious it is. The more deeply we become invested in our respective stances, the more the passions are likely to be engaged and override reason. (Almost any heated household argument could provide serve as a suitable example.)

    This is where we are most likely to risk the enormous danger of self-righteousness. Both Scripture and the Fathers continually warn us of this temptation. This is point at which we become so convinced of the justice of our own ends that we become blind to the means employed, to our own conduct. We are so focused on our own conscious intentions that we can not see our behavior apart from them; since we can only see the behavior of the other side, we may well assume that they are evil since they disagree with us and our pure intentions. The danger is manifold. In addition to judging others falsely, we judge ourselves falsely. We can become so confident in our conscious intentions that we fail to see both the self-serving elements within them and, worse, our own behavior for what it is. As Elder Paisios noted, we are always prone to seeing ourselves as we imagine ourselves to be rather than as we truly are. Elder Joseph often insisted on the importance of knowing oneself – especially the passions and sins that expose our self-flattery and shatter our self-satisfaction. In the best of times, seeing oneself clearly requires tremendous detachment, calm and relative passionlessness. It is only in this condition that we are remotely willing to see the ugliness in ourselves what we really do not want to see but must see. If we do not do this, we risk living lives of unreality as Father noted. This danger is only compounded by any hint of self-righteousness. During the most heated moments of dispute, passionlessness is extremely difficult to maintain. When that dispute is “meaningful” (i.e., over the purpose of an organization), the energy of the passions are given way since – in our minds – they “serve” the cause of “justice.” When this happens it is impossible to rightly perceive “the truth.” If the passions leading to self-righteousness are fully enflamed, we can move beyond delusion to real evil – even crucifying the Son of God.

    To help avoid this, those calling for transparency and accountability must themselves be subject to transparency and accountability lest that call be a pretext for – perverted into – a means to usurp power. Conversely, those who demand obedience or compliance must themselves also be subject to obedience and compliance with the principles of the organization lest that demand be perverted into a tool for self-serving tyranny. In both cases, genuine humility in oneself and loving openness toward the other may be the only way of avoid the passions that lead to unreality and potential evil.

    Because these are so difficult to achieve in even calm moments, it is not surprising that procedures acquire paramount importance – as annoying as they are to anyone who wants to “accomplish something.” Procedures ensure that due consideration is given to all concerns – and, hopefully, due transparency is required of all parties. Since we can not know “the truth” in the heart of others and can often only see it “as through a glass dimly” in our own hearts, procedures offer a less-impassioned way to work through the minefield of passions and agendas often present as we try to address conflicts in a constructive manner. As Father also noted, this is where the canons provide the needed guidance for the issues currently being addressed in the Church. Yet in every case – even where procedures are followed and goodwill is abundant, we must take great care not yield to the temptation of self-righteousness, recognizing that righteousness belongs to God alone and what passes for it in this world is often self-serving and for that reason self-destructive. May God have mercy on us all.

  9. Chrys says:

    Sorry for the typos. Too many to correct. The 2nd paragraph warrants clarification – hence, I re-post it here:

    Since I am a member of the GOA and in no position to speak to the issues involved in the OCA, I can only speak to my own experience on both sides of institutional turmoil. Reflecting on that experience in light of Father’s (vital) insights, a few things come to mind.

    Again, my apologies.

  10. Fr. Thomas says:

    Regardless of whatever tumult inspired this and the previous posts they are certainly applicable any and all tumults that involve the kind of diabolical behavior you mention.

    As a retired Episcopal priest I began, over the years, to realize that many who sought to move through the issues that confronted our denomination as “faithful servants of Christ, awaiting those who would speak the truth without self-service or enmity, but the simple truth of Christ.” were ostracized in various ways by both extreme wings of the controversy (the “liberals” and the “conservatives”) who, it might be contented, believed in essence that “God has died and left us to protect his legacy.” That was one of the reasons I began to embrace “the heart of Orthodoxy” in an active way. I found, deep in the recesses of its Holy Tradition what I might call “the sane way forward” about which you speak so eloquently.

    You hit the nail on the head by saying “If forgiveness and repentance have no place, then the Kingdom of God is not present.”

    Thank you for being a clear voice of simple sanity…

  11. Andrew B. says:

    “If forgiveness and repentance have no place, then the Kingdom of God is not present.”

    I vouch for this Chrys, Fr. Thomas. The Kingdom is present though often difficult to put in words…

  12. Chrys says:

    Andrew: amen! Though my prior comments focused on the occasional organizational distress I have experience, the experience of the dangers of self-righteousness have also been my own. Were it not for forgiveness and repentance – even unto 70 times 7 (hopefully to the 7th power, since I think I am personally testing the limits of that number), there would be no possibility of salvation or redemption in my life. To me, the wisdom in Fr. Stephen’s post is that he points out both the enduring Reality of the Kingdom (the ONLY Reality), as well as the jeopardy we risk in either living in unreality – an unreality that either presumes on or simply denies (or both) the Kingdom. Fortunately, as he notes, the Kingdom’s reality and presence are wonderfully persistent and unfailingly loving – even (especially) when we are persistently and unfailingly self-serving (which, per the original sin, always begins with re-shaping the truth in our own image). His alone is the glory – and the Reality – and the unfailing mercy, which we all live.

  13. Robert says:

    Chrys,

    Since power, control and procedure are wielded by those in leadership, the onus for transparency and accountability belongs to them. I am a firm believer in the whistle-blower laws protecting the anonymous.

  14. Robert says:

    We should absolutely not need to qualify the conditions for transparency and accountability, in other words. Transparency and accountability is a prerequisite for Christian leadership, and when evidence points to the contrary, then it should be demanded. If it is not forthcoming, then the corrupt leadership should be replaced.

    The sin of self righteousness is a straw man in regards to this matter.

  15. Chrys says:

    I don’t disagree Robert – especially when the power (and potentially corruption) is deeply entrenched and the threat facing the whistle-blower is material. Large government or corporate bureaucracies come to mind. Protecting the whistle-blower is especially important where power is asymetric, since the voice of the one can so readily be silenced by the power/threat of another. Indeed, one could say that such protections are especially necessary wherever the power to threaten exists.

    But my point remains that the virtue of such action very much depends on context. When the power disparity is not significant, such claims are likely to be primarily politically motivated and “ethics” are just the tool at hand to accomplish a political objective. Thus, in smaller organizations, the virtue of such action is more qualified, since often the individual does indeed have venues for remediation. In such cases (a parish, for example), a great deal of destruction can be promulgated in the name of virtue – whether it is obedience or transparency and accountability or efficiency or loyalty or “principle” or simply one’s own vision (whatever that may be). Ultimately, however, my concern is that humility – no matter which side one is on – is always in order, lest we risk delusion or worse.

  16. The Church has always had its discipline (canon laws) which have been faithfully applied and also ignored. Laws are never better than those who use them. However, laws will not bring about the Kingdom of God – and thus cannot truly bring us truth. I do not despair of the fact that I am a man, and live with laws (both civil and religious), but I know that what I seek has to be found elsewhere (in my heart) and must be confronted in the truth. No lie will ultimately serve the truth or the fullness of being as it is given to us in Christ. And no failure to act, or wrong action of another, can prevent the Kingdom of God in my life. God help us all. God protect us all. God save us all.

  17. Chrys says:

    Robert, you posted your second set of comments as I submitted my post. I fear we MAY be talking about different issues. So – to clarify: you are absolutely correct that leadership should exhibit integrity at every step. (Frankly, all Christians should – and Christian leadership should lead by example.) In fact, I would say that holiness is a prerequisite for genuine Christian leadership – which includes but transcends any notion of transparency or accountability. At the same time, few of us are the saints we should be – so, yes, I agree.
    Moreover, having worked in a variety of organizations, it is imperative that workable procedures are established and observed in order to ensure regular, ongoing compliance and disclosure. This protects the integrity of leadership as much as the interests of those being led.

    At issue here is your use of the term whistle-blowing. My comments were NOT directed at ethical or legal breaches, but rather broader complaints about the direction or management of an organization. When it comes to legal issues – where whistle-blowing is a concern, we are on EXACTLY the same page.

    As for self-righteousness, no – my experience says otherwise (provided that you understand that I am addressing organizational conflict, not whistle-blowing per se). Whenever I have been involved in any organization conflict, there have been times when I faced the temptation to assume the virtue of my cause to the degree that it blinded me to my own behavior. (Whether the behavior was good or bad, accommodating or confrontational is irrelevant; I was blinded regardless by my own “righteousness.”) Again, this seems to involve a broader complaints or internal conflict than the ethical issues you have in mind. It is first sense, then, that I stressed the issue of context. If there are serious legal or ethical issues, then I agree that the issue of self-righteousness is functionally moot (though it is always spiritually a risk in any crusade). Thus I believe that in the kind of organizational conflict that most of us are likely to encounter, procedures should be put in place to ensure that the concerns of each are addressed – and good will should be assumed on all sides. In these cases, it seems to me, humility is all the more vital. I hope that clarifies my comments.

  18. Chrys says:

    Father: yes! You said far, FAR more in far fewer words. Your point strikes me as profoundly and absolutely true. It is something I should have seen, but tend to get so lost in the details that I don’t. So now I will need to chew it over and digest it, and see how I can live by it more fully – especially in the midst of conflict. Please forgive my torrent of relatively dross-like words.

  19. I happen to be a member of my Church’s parish council and when we asked our priest about the goings on he said, “Everything we need for our salvation is right here…”
    I just keep reminding myself of this simple fact…

  20. tomás quejada says:

    pls send of new posts via email.

  21. Andrew B. says:

    Worth keeping that one in mind thanks for saying it Leah.

  22. Robert says:

    Fr Stephen & Chrys – thank you both for your follow up clarifications.

    Leah – I don’t know the specific context and subject matter, but that sounds like it could be a setup for a bad situation. Perhaps it is just the way you phrased it, I hope.

  23. Hi Robert- no, I phrased it correctly. Everything we need for our salvation is in our parish church.God is good and He provides…
    What I do not need for my salvation is to become embroiled in issues that I can do nothing but pray about anyway- so my mandate is clear: work out my salvation in fear & trembling and pray for God’s mercy on the rest.
    The place that gets somewhat tricky is in discerning when I can be effective and have some role to play (other than gadfly) and can actually be helpful to others & myself. Again, I pray and work on not losing my peace about any situation.
    I am the first to tell you it is a struggle and the temptations are great.

  24. Robert says:

    Leah I don’t dispute your phrasing (sorry I should have phrased my comment differently :D) so much as the specific context and the subject. So for instance, if it is in regards to accountability and disbursements of parish funds, for which you as a parish council are (at least partly but specifically) responsible, you have a fiduciary duty to the parish and before God. In those and similar cases, the hands-off “everything is in the hands of God” approach amounts to negligence and irresponsibility, and often plays into the hands of clericalism.

  25. except I said nothing even close to what you are saying…
    I have specific duties on the PC and within those duties I must seek my salvation, same goes for my duties as a wife and mother- these positions and the interactions that I have with others creates the framework within which I must seek my salvation- everything I need is available to me locally.
    The national church, politics, culture wars whatever- none of these can be affected by me personally on a macro scale, all politics is local and so is one’s salvation. Its true what St Seraphim says: “Save yourself and a thousand around you will be saved.”

  26. Robert says:

    “except I said nothing even close to what you are saying…” – wasn’t that what I was questioning, “as to the specific context and the subject”? Your usage of what precisely constitutes the “goings on” in your parish and your parish council is quite cryptic. But I think I get it now, you are referring to the latest scandal in the OCA, I thought you were referring to a local matter within your circle of influence, as you mentioned your membership on the parish council.

  27. well that would explain the crossed wires then, I hope it is clearer for you now…

  28. Robert says:

    yes thank you!

  29. BV says:

    This is a declaration of war on modern, contemporary western societies:

    Telling the truth is a means of our salvation, not a means of gaining an upper hand or of winning battles. Christ has no interest in the upper hand or in winning battles.

    Even as one of those awful Anglicans, I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote. Blessings, as inadequate as my wishes may be.

  30. Ibn Battenti says:

    Indeed and well said.

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