Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “Western theology”

The emerging African church… South Africa’s unpaid debt

Reggie Nel writes in his blog Alpha Christian Community: The emerging African church… South Africa’s unpaid debt:

The current obsession of theologians and pastors with whatever is new and funky from the West or from US churches, reveal an evident identity crisis. The contextual challenges of these ‘foreign’ regions are presented as our challenges and so, the answers they’ve heard from God is gospel to us. Hence our impotence in the face of xehophobia and the humnitarian crisis in the wake of this challenge. Well, this is Africa. This is the real challenges of ministry of being church here in Africa.

And just yesterday I received a message from John Davies, one of the contributors to the Message to the people of South Africa, in which he said:

It showed that South Africa could have a mind of its own in the world of theological discourse, that it was not simply part of a loudspeaker system run by British or American power-base.

At the time the Message to the people of South Africa was being drawn up, I was studying theology in Britain, and had been for two years, and in many ways found the atmosphere stifling, and felt I needed to go and study somewhere else, like South America, or Central Africa, in order to be able to breathe again. I came back to a South Africa in which the “Message” was published, but at places like Rhodes University in Grahamstown people like Basil Moore were still plugging the latest theological trends from the USA (back then it was “God is dead”). So Reggie’s comments rang a bell for me. Things havent changed all that much in the last 40 years.

Christianity, North and South

A long time ago I wrote an editorial for a magazine called Ikon, which is reproduced below. It was for the Summer 1970 Issue (published in about January/February 1970)

One hears much these days of the “New Theology”. There is a great debate about God. Is God dead? Is he up there or down here or in here? And this debating makes the fundamental assumption that God can be known by talking about him. This seems to be especially affecting white Christian students in South Africa. There is a demand for a theology which is relevant to secular man. This demand was created by the theologians, and they are now doing their best to fulfil it by creating a god in the image of modern secular man.

But this demand for a modern secular God is the demand of a minority. Modern secular man is white, prosperous, and has the leisure to engage in theological debates. The ‘new theology’ is another product of Western neo-colonialist society, and for the vast majority of mankind this theology is totally irrelevant. They are not so much looking for a revolution in theology as for a theology of revolution.

For decades now we have been conditioned to think of a world divided into two opposing camps — East and West. The East consists of “democratic” peoples republics, and the West likes to call itself the “free” world. This distinction has been fostered by power politicians to keep people ignorant, and to serve their own ends. The real division, however, is not between East and West, but between North and South. In the North live the haves, and in the South live the have-nots. Most of the wealth of the world is concentrated in the North — Europe, Russia, North America. The bulk of the world’s population, and the poorest, live in South Asia, Africa and South America.

The poor of the world are not interested in singing anthems to the status quo, as the secular theologians would have us do. They look to a God who changes things, who upsets the existing order. They look to a God who will depose the mighty and exalt the poor and powerless, who will literally turn the world upside-down, putting the poor south at the top in place of the rich north.

Theology is important, but the Church makes two great mistakes. The theologians are generally set apart from the rest of the Church. They engage in debates in a cosy academic setting, in the calm unhurried atmosphere of ripe scholarship. They throw away years of research into trivialities, which have nothing to do with the proclaiming of the Gospel of the Kingdom. And the rest of the Church suffers, because it has nothing to guide it. Christians go on doing things that were done by their forefathers, but they have no idea why their forefathers did these things, and therefore have no idea why they themselves do them. We need something more than academic theology — we need applied theology — a Christian ideology which can interpret events and forces in the world in the light of the Kingdom of God. Up till now they have been kept separate — “Religion and politics don’t mix”.

Theology is important. And it is important that theology should be capable of application in the world in which we live. The ‘Message to the people of South Africa’ is the first step towards such a theology, but it must not be the last. It will be noted that the Message is not debate-theology. It makes a series of proclamations about what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is. To the academic or the secular theologians this is arrogant. One cannot make proclamations, one can only make a tentative contribution to the debate. But the world does not have time for drawn-out debates. We have to act on the answers to these questions now. To the Christian theologian there is only one relevant question — What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? To the Christian activist, only one course of action is open — proclaim the Gospel, and make visible God’s revolution in the world.

Perhaps Abraham is a good model for theologians, and for all Christians. Abraham was not seeking a way — he was on the way. He was aware of direction, but not of his ultimate destination. He did not know what the promised land was to be like; all he knew was that God was leading him there. It is important for Christians to know where they are going, for they cannot be effective otherwise. We should stop playing around with ideas around an abstract God, and rather concentrate on where God is leading us. Action which is not based on sound theory is what the Marxists call adventurism. For Marxists all action must be directed towards a goal — the revolution and the classless society. For Christians likewise, all action and theologising must be directed towards a goal — the revolution and the Kingdom of God.

Well, that is ancient history. It was written more than 37 years ago. The world has changed then, and I have changed. If I were writing it now, I would not have written it in the same way, and would be more aware of how I have allowed myself to be caught in the trap of academic theology. But it is worth asking what has changed? What has remained the same?

Some answers may be found in an article mentioned on another blog, Believing in the Global South, by Philip Jenkins. Jenkins says

some western Christians have since the 1960s expected that the religion of their Third World brethren would be fervently liberal, activist, and even revolutionary, the model represented by liberation theology. In this view, the new Christianity would chiefly be concerned with pulling down the mighty from their seats, through political action or even armed struggle. All too often, though, these hopes have proved illusory. Frequently, the liberationist voices emanating from the Third World proved to derive from clerics trained in Europe and North America, and their ideas won only limited local appeal. Southern Christians would not avoid political activism, but they would become involved strictly on their own terms. While many espoused political liberation, they made it inseparable from deliverance from supernatural evil. The two terms are indeed related linguistically and often appear together in biblical texts, but the juxtaposition of the two thought-worlds of liberation and deliverance seems as baffling for many Euro-Americans as it is natural for Christians in the Global South.

The last part was obvious to me when I first went to study theology in England in 1966. The first essay I was asked to write was on “Jesus and the demons”, and when I had finished reading it to the college principal he said, “But you haven’t told me whether you think demons exist or not.” I replied that I didn’t think it was important. When you have been run over by a bus, you don’t think to ask philosophical questions about the existence of a bus. Coming from South Africa, I was aware of our conflict being against principalities and powers, which were bigger than Mr Vorster’s flesh and blood security police, but nevertheless inextricably linked with them. One of the things I find interesting is that this kind of thinking is beginning to penetrate Europe as well, if the film Pan’s labyrinth is anything to go by (see review in an earlier post). Whether the director is a Christian or not I don’t know, but his vision seems far more in tune with the South African experience of the 1960s than the Western secular theology of the 1960s ever was.

Actually Jenkins is a bit off the mark when he said “some western Christians have since the 1960s expected that the religion of their Third World brethren would be fervently liberal, activist, and even revolutionary, the model represented by liberation theology.” That kind of liberation theology only penetrated the consciousness of Western theologians in the 1970s. In the 1960s they were too busy uttering paeans of praise to the status quo. Liberal theology led to conservative politics and vice versa. As G.K. Chesterton put it: the modern young man will never change the world, for he will always change his mind. Western theologians were concerned to change their theology to fit the world, and the last thing on their minds was to change the world to fit any theological vision. They wanted a revolution in theology, not a theology of revolution.

But for the most part Jenkins gets it exactly right. Over the last 37 years the differences between Western and African Christianity have become clearer. Neither is monolithic, of course, and Jenkins points this out. But if we want to know what Christianity will be like in the 21st century, Africa rather than Europe or North America will be the model. One question, however, may be whether South Africa will continue to fit that model. South Africa is becoming increasingly secular. People have long said that South Africa is both “First World” and “Third World”. Outmoded as such Cold War terminology may be, there is nevertheless some truth in it.

Emerging church and Orthodoxy revisited

This morning I was playing around with the tag surfing feature on WordPress and came across this post, which was more than 9 months old, so I might not have found it otherwise: Just an apprentice: Emerging church and orthodoxy. This linked to some articles by Scot McKnight, an emerging church theologian, which answered some of the questions I posed in an earlier post here: Notes from underground: Orthodoxy and Evangelical Protestantism. And “just an apprentice” puts a finger on the biggest stumbling block in all ecumenical discussions between Orthodox and Protestants, whether the Protestants are Evangelical, Emerging, Pentecostal, Liberal, or anything else:

This question that Scot McKnight addresses is one that I have been asking on my journey. It is a question of ecclesiology. What is the center of the Christian church? What is the prism through which we worship God, read Scripture, and interact with our culture? What is the relationship of the emerging church with the Creeds of classical Chrisitianity? The commentary and analysis by McKnight are helpful in connecting a few dots.

The stumbling block is ecclesiology.

It was this that nearly caused all the Orthodox Churches to leave the World Council of Churches recently. It is this that causes some conservative Orthodox to call “ecumenism” a heresy.

The book to read is Beyond the East-West divide — the World Council of Churches and “the Orthodox problem” by Anna Marie Aagaard and Peter Bouteneff (Geneva, Risk, 2001 ISBN 2-8254-1350-X).

If you’re Protestant and want to talk to Orthodox Christians, read this book to understand where the Orthodox are coming from. It doesn’t matter what kind of Protestant — Evangelical, Ecumenical, Lutheran, Calvinist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Emerging, Anglican (even Anglo-Catholic, if you believe in the “branch theory” of ecclesiology).

One can’t go into all the nuances in a blog post, so what follows is probably over-simplified, not to say simplistic, but I try to summarise the point.

Most Protestants share a common basic ecclesiology.

Methodists (for example) are quite happy to see themselves as one denomination among many within a particular religion — Christianity (which is in turn seen as one religion among many). That applies to most Protestant Christian denominations, and those that do not see it in that way are regarded by the others as sects. Even non-denominational bodies tend to think of themselves as one nondenomination among many denominations and nondenominations within one religion, Christianity.

The Orthodox Church does not regard itself as a denomination, at least in the ecclesiological sense. And even the sociological sense, for conservative Orthodox, comes too close to the “heresy of ecumenism”. The “heresy of ecumenism”, in this case, being to regard the Orthodox Church as one denomination among many.

The Orthodox “statement of faith” (to use an Evangelical Protestant term), is the Symbol of Faith, usually called by Protestants the “Nicene Creed”, though the actual Nicene Creed was a much shorter document, which says nothing about the Church.

Among the statements in the Symbol of Faith is “(I believe) in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” (is mian agian kathoikin ke apostolikin ekklesian). Not in many denominations (and nondenominations), but One Church.

In what sense is the Church “apostolic”?

If we read about the day the Church began, in Acts 2, we see that the first Christian converts “continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (isan de proscarteroundes ti didache ton apostolon, ke ti kinonia, ti klasi tou artu, ke tis prosevches).

The Orthodox Church believes that it has “continued” unbroken in those four things from that day to this. It is not “Wesleyan” or “Lutheran” or “Calvinist” but “Apostolic”. The “apostles’ fellowship” is maintained by, among other things, the apostolic succession of bishops. The “apostles’ fellowship” is among the key elements of Orthodox ecclesiology, and, with the “apostles’ teaching” is what makes the one holy catholic Church “apostolic”.

There are numerous denominations, especially in the Pentecostal tradition, which have the word “Apostolic” in the name of their denomination, such as the Apostolic Faith Mission (from which many of the others sprang). As David du Plessis puts it, their criterion is not so much “apostolic succession” as “apostolic success”. But for the Orthodox Church the “apostles’ fellowship” (or “apostles’ communion”) is an essential mark of the Church.

In the New Testament the word “church” never means a “denomination” or “communion” (or even a “nondenomination”). In the New Testament the word “church” refers either to the local church or to the universal church. The worldwide church is the “ecumenical church” (not in the modern sense of “many denominations together”, but in the geographical sense of “the inhabited earth”). The local churches are bound together in the apostles’ fellowship through the communion of their bishops, as they commemorate and pray for each other in the Divine Liturgy.

The church is catholic, not in the sense of being “universal” (for the Orthodox that is covered by “ecumenical”) but more in the sense of being holistic. Catholic means “according to the whole”. In a holographic image, if you divide the image in two, you get not two half images, but two whole images. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So the church is like a temple, where the building is more than just the individual bricks and tiles. But each local church is not just a brick in the building, but like a holographic image, whole in itself.

From an Orthodox point of view, therefore, the congregationalist ecclesiology resembles a pile of bricks rather than a whole building, while Roman Catholic ecclesiology resembles a monolith – a single boulder rather than a building.

So for the Orthodox, schism is not within the church, but from the church.

And for the Orthodox it makes little sense to talk of “emerging ecclesiology”, unless it means that the ecclesiology that submerged a long time ago in the West is resurfacing.

I realise that to ecumenically-minded Protestants this all looks extaordinarily arrogant, saying “we’re right and you’re wrong” (non-ecumenically-minded Protestants, like those who generated the Biola report mentioned in an earlier post, assert that far more strongly than most Orthodox). But for the Orthodox it is more a matter of being true to the Orthodox understanding of history — that the Orthodox Church has continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers, for twenty centuries, and it would be false to say that it has not. The Orthodox Church participates in the ecumenical movement because it believes that it would be good to restore the apostles’ fellowship among all who declare their faith in the Triune God, but not at the price of abandoning its own ecclesiology and adopting a Protestant one (and there have been times in which there has been pressure within the World Council of Churches for the Orthodox Churches to do just that — see the book by Aagard and Bouteneff for details).

In dialogue there are four things we need to learn: you need to know who I am, and how I see you. I need to know who you are, and how you see me. We need to know the reality of both sides, and the way in which both parties perceive themselves and each other. Or if you want to be really postmodern about it, the way the self is perseived by the self, and the way the self is perceived by the other. And our perceptions of others show the others more about how we see ourselves. So the Biola report about the Orthodox tells the Orthodox a lot about Biola, and much less about the Orthodox.

So when I describe Roman Catholic ecclesiology as a monolith and Congregationalist ecclesiology as a heap of stones, that tells you more about Orthodox ecclesiology than it does about Roman Catholic or Congregationalist ecclesiology. And so we learn more about each other, even through our misperceptions.

Let the discussion continue.

Anglican introversion

Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the BBC that the Anglican communion was spending too much of its time and energy on debating differences over gay priests and same sex marriages – a subject, he said, that had now become “an extraordinary obsession”. The crises in Zimbabwe and Darfur, corruption and HIV/Aids were not getting enough attention, said Tutu. To which one might add, for American and British Christians, such things as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

In his blog Journeys in between, Matt Stone remarks that “Consumerism, pluralism, spirituality, collapse of Christian credibility and moral authority in the media and public discourse … don’t these issues deserve some attention? I don’t recall Jesus being that sex obsessed.”

The Anglican obsession with sex has led to some disturbing changes in the attitudes of the West. As one columnist put it

But the largest adjustments are coming on the religious left. For decades it has preached multiculturalism, but now, on further acquaintance, it doesn’t seem to like other cultures very much. Episcopal leaders complain of the threat of “foreign prelates,” echoing anti-Catholic rhetoric of the 19th century. An activist at one Episcopal meeting urged the African bishops to “go back to the jungle where you came from.” Not since Victorians hunted tigers on elephants has the condescension been this raw.

Perhaps these are not changes in attitude, though, but rather the multicultural mask being stripped off, and revealing the paternalism and imperialism that was there all along, and had been covered up, as I noted in an earlier posting in this blog: Mission is a two-way street… or is it?.

One of the Anglican blogs that appears quite frequently on blogrolls and is recommended as a good one is Father Jake stops the world. Yet when I read it recently it seemed to be almost entirely concerned with the internal politics of the Anglican Communion. There were older post on other issues, but now sexual politics within the Anglican Communion seem to be the dominant theme. The same seems to be true of other Anglican blogs, and I’ve seen it in other forums such as Usenet newsgroups. The sexual obsession seems to have rendered many Anglicans incapable of seeing anything else, and to have almost paralysed the Anglican Communion.

Religious symbols as aid to developing local theology

Joey Dela Paz writes (Missions and Theology: Religious symbols as aid to developing local theology)

I’m reading illiam Dyrness’ book entitle Invitation to Cross-Cultural Theology. Here, Dyrness did five case studies of the way ordinary Christians, in a variety of settings, think about and live out their Christian faith. He points out that Academic theology have a lot to learn about theologies of the people that are done outside the bounds of Western academic setting and from written sources.

That is one of the reasons why I find the African Independent Churches (AICs) so interesting, especially the Zionists. One of the things that I have been thinking about recently, because of a book I am working on, is the use of holy water in healing.

Martin West, in his book Bishops and prophets in a black city (Cape Town, David Philip, 1975), writes:

The administering of holy water appears to be fairly uniform. Sufficient water (either from tap water or a spring) is put in a large container and then prayed for by a prophet, or by all the prophets and other senior officials of the church. In some cases the blessing of water may include stirring with a holy stick. The water is then given to the congregation members to drink, usually in small glasses, at a particular time in the service. In the Full Gospel church, for example, drinking of holy water often takes place at the same time as members are treated at the Holy Place. During the dancing they may come to the table which has the holy water on it, be given a glass to drink, and then receive a blessing and laying on of hands by a prophet. This is a rather informal approach, but in other churches the drinking of holy water may be much more formal.

What strikes me about this is that the description is almost identical with the celebration of the Great Blessing of the Waters that takes place in Orthodox Churches at Theophany (Epiphany). When the water has been blessed, members of the congregation come forward, and are sprinkled with holy water (the priest dips a sprig of basil into the vessel containing it, and uses that to sprinkle it) while drinking the water from glasses. At the end of the service members of the congregation bring bottles and other containers to take the holy water to their homes (usually the plastic bottles in which one buys bottled water in shops). They drink this when they feel ill, or use it for sprinkling it on objects they want to bless, or if somethuing bad has happened.

I very much doubt that the Zionists learned to do this from the Orthodox Church (which has done it for centuries), and yet the fact that the ceremonies are almost identical seems to point to something in human nature that needs to worship in this way, or the Zionists rediscovering something that their Protestant predecessors had dropped — premodern religion emerging from the veneer of modernity, perhaps?

The AICs usually have very little “systematic theology”, and missiologists have referred to the “enacted theology” of the AICs. Actually something similar happens when Western theologians write about Orthodox theology. They usually base what they write on written works by Orthodox Christians, but Orthodoxy does not have a systematic theology, but rather a holistic theology. Written theology must be read in conjunction with the enacted theology, and cannot be understood apart from the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the church. Orthodoxy cannot be understood apart from orthopraxy.

I referred to something similar in relation to holy water in an article Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism, which I also cited in the December synchoblog on syncretism.

St Constantine, Scapegoat of the West

For the last 30 years or so I have read that the greatest villain, the one responsible for most of the ills of Christianity, was the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. I’ve read it in academic texts, in undergraduate essays I’ve marked, in journal articles. I’ve read it in postings in electronic forums like BBS echoes, mailing lists and newsgroups. I’ve read it in numerous blogs and online journals, and in works of popular fiction like The da Vinci code.

This notion has become a myth, a legend, an unexamined assumption of stupendous proportions. People see no need to to substantiate the assertion, because “everyone knows” that it is true. And the number of things attributed to Constantine grows and grows. We are told that he censored the Bible, reducing the number of books in the New Testament to a mere 27, and that he ensured the dominance of Christianity in the world for the next 1500 years.

There are at least two historical phenomena that need to be examined. One is the question of St Constantine himself, and his alleged legacy, in the 4th-7th centuries. The other is the scapegoating of Constantine in Western culture in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

There isn’t space in a blog post to deal adequately with either. It would take several books to refute all the assertions that have been made. My aim in this essay is more modest — to question some of the unquestioned assumptions, to point out some of the contradictions, in the hope that some church historians will take up the task. Actually it’s more than just church history. The assumptions are widespread, not just among Western Christians and Western theologians, but among neopagans and in secular circles as well.

I first really began paying attention to this when I was marking undergraduate assignments in Missiology at the University of South Africa. If there was one fact that almost all of them mentioned, and remembered, it was the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312. Whether it was relevant or not, it was a Fact, and therefore to be mentioned. None of them, however, knew anything about Christian mission between that date and Roman Pope Alexander VI who divided most of the world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence in the 15th century.

The general Western belief seems to be that Constantine imposed an official belief on the Christian Church at the Council of Nicaea, which made the Christian Church dominant in Society for the next 15 centuries or more. This is repeated again and again, as if it were a simple, unquestionable and authoritative fact. Christians lived in a society in which they were the top dogs, and, for the most part, the only dogs.

But this view is rooted in Western chauvinism, ethnocentrism, and assumptions of cultural superiority. Western missiologists have tried to get away from the ideas of Western imperialism. They have recognised that there was something wrong with the association of mission and Western colonialism, mission and Western imperialism, mission and Western capitalism in the 19th century. And one way they have tried to do this is by making Constantine the scapegoat for all these things.

Unfortunately in doing this they have tended to ignore or downplay some of the historical facts about Constantine and his legacy. It is commonly asserted in Western culture that Constantine imposed his version of doctrinal orthodoxy on the Church at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, and that thereafter the Church was obedient and subservient to the Roman state, a condition which, according to the common Western view, is adequately summarised by the adjective “Constantinian”.

What this ignores, however, is the fact that, far from imposing Nicene orthodoxy on the Church, Constantine and his immediate successors supported the anti-Nicene faction, and opposed the views of the Church expressed at the Council of Nicaea. St Athanasius, the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, was sent into exile five times during this period for his defence of Nicene orthodoxy which he, far more than Constantine, had helped to shape.

Constantine’s sin (in the eyes of the West) was that he proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman Empire in the Edict of Milan in AD 313. It is strange, in the light of this, that one of the things the West thinks important in constitutions of states is a guarantee of religious freedom. For Christians in Constantine’s time, he was the Liberator. He was like Simon Bolivar in South America in the 19th century, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa in the 20th century. When Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, an era of constitutional freedom of religion began. All Christians were now free to preach the gospel, and not just the government-approved varieties, the Dutch Reformed Churches and (later) the Apostolic Faith Mission. I wonder whether, 15 centuries from now, missiologists will be telling their students about the evils of the Mandelan era.

Perhaps the most revealing assumption of all is the one that the “Constantinian era” lasted for 15 centuries. For the majority of Christians in the Roman Empire it lasted a little more than three centuries. In the seventh century most Christians became a minority group, and were treated as second-class citizens from then until now. But it appears that to Western scholars they do not count at all, and are not worth mentioning, because they are “non-Europeans”. Thus in speaking of “the Constantinian era” Western scholars display the very ethnocentrism, chauvinism and racism they are trying to distance themselves from by blaming it on Constantine.

For a good corrective to this, I recommend the book

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of ByzantiumFrom the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium by William Dalrymple

It is not a heavy treatise on church history, but more of a travel book, where the author retraces the travels of two monks in the twilight of the “Constantinian era”, just before it ended for the Christians in the lands where they travelled. Dalrymple is also not a propagandist or apologist for Orthodox Christianity. He writes from a Western secular/Protestant point of view.

If one wishes to talk about links between Church and State, it would be more accurate to speak of the Theodosian era, for it was the Emperor Theodosius who, 60 years after Constantine, made Christianity the official religion of the empire. But right up to the last ecumenical council the interests of Church and State did not always coincide, and often clashed. As Fr Michael Oleksa points out:

The iconoclastic controversy was the last, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt by the Byzantine empire to influence church doctrine as it had often influenced church administration throughout the post-Constantinian period. Their opponents were mostly monastic theologians living beyond the boundaries of the empire where they could preach and write in relative security and peace. They pointed out that whereas in the Old Testament God never assumed visible form and could not be depicted, he had now become flesh, and to forbid ikons of the Saviour was tantamount to denying his humanity. They insisted that Christ not only assumed flesh temporarily, but also ascended in glory as transfigured man, having fully retained his human nature (Oleksa 1992:62).

Saints Constantine and Helen

Saints Constantine and Helen

So one of the divisions between Eastern and Western Christians is the attitude to St Constantine. St Constantine was, and remains, a hero and favourite saint among Orthodox Christians, as can be seen by the number of people bearing the name Costa. St Constantine and his mother St Helen are joint patrons of numerous Orthodox Churches. St Constantine is honoured as the one who ended the persecution of Christians, St Helen as the one who promoted the Christian faith, and paved the way for Christians to return to the Holy Land, from which they had fled at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and she is therefore known as Equal-to-the-Apostles.

At times, indeed, the devotion to St Constantine takes on extreme forms, which do not always meet with the approval of the bishops, such as the Anastenaria or Firewalkers of northern Greece, who walk through fire on St Constantine’s day (May 21), carrying ikons of the saint.

And the contradiction continues. The Western Christians (and non-Christians) who denigrate St Constantine, and seek to blame him for the faults of their own history, actually demonstrate those same faults in their treatment of Eastern Christians. The crusaders of the 11th century and later paid no regard to the local Christians in the lands they “liberated”. They had not liberated them but conquered them. And this can be seen in the neo-Crusaders of the 21st century, whose actions seem calculated to eradicate Christianty from the lands of its birth and early spread.

So my appeal to Western Christians is this: next time you want to attribute something to Constantine, or to use the adjective “Constantinian” to describe something, stop and think what you are doing. Examine your assumptions, and only use the term if you are sure that is historically appropriate. And when you see the term in the writings of others, do not simply accept it uncritically, but question it.

Syncretism in Western Christianity

On 14 December 2006 a number of Christian bloggers have agreed to post something about syncretism and Western Christianity. Here are links to those who have agreed to do so.

My own contribution is based on an article I wrote a few years ago, Deconstructing Sundkler: Bethesda AICs and syncretism.

Bengt Sundkler, the Swedish missiologist, was an expert on African independent churches, but in the very act of accusing the Zionists of being unbiblical and syncretist, he betrayed his own syncretism. Instead of using the Bible to demonstrate his contention that the Zionists were unbiblical, Sundkler used Western Enlightenment rationalism and Freud.

Theological worldviews

I found a quiz on “What’s your theological worldview?

I was struck by the remarkably narrow and circumscribed view of the author. It has no provision for Orthodox Christianity. It has such things as “Classical liberal” and “Modern liberal”, which I find difficult to conceive of. It also omitted significant movements in Western theology like liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology etc, and non-western movements like Zionism.

So one couldn’t even say that it had a Western bias — its bias seemed far narrower than that.

I posted my results for the quiz on my other blog, here and was interested to see that (in admittedly small sample) Orthodox Christians seemed to come up with

  1. Roman Catholic
  2. Evangelical Wesleyan/Holiness
  3. Neo-orthodox

in the top three.

I suppose that, of all Protestants, Free Methodists come closest to Orthodoxy in at least sharing some similar concerns.

The quiz also had an “Emerging/Postmodern” category, which I had only heard of quite recently, yet I am sure that both the Orthodox and Zionists outnumber them by several millions.

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