Guest Viewpoints

More Dangerous than Doubts about COVID-19

July 11, 2020
By Fr. Mark Sietsema

Those who pit faith against the faculty of reason end up losing one or the other or both…

Two hundred and fifty years ago, a terrible plague befell the Russian people. The faithful of Moscow flocked to venerate the wonder-working icon of the Theotokos of Bogolyubovo, seeking the intercessions of the Mother of God. In September of 1771, however, Archbishop Amvrosy of Moscow realized that these crowds were unwittingly aiding the spread of disease. To protect his flock, he removed the hallowed icon from public display. For this act of sound reasoning and pastoral care, a mob hunted him down, dragged him out of a monastery into the streets and killed him. Having rejected sense and science, these fanatics also became traitors to Holy Orthodoxy as murderers and desecraters. 

If Panagia felt vindicated by the execution of the Archbishop, it was not manifested in subsequent events. The rioters were forcibly subdued by the army, while the plague raged on in Moscow for another year. One wonders how many of the archbishop’s assailants succumbed to the very illness which he hoped to save them from.

What drove them to this madness? Without a doubt, the belief that is touted all around the Orthodox Church in these days of the Coronavirus pandemic: Holy things can’t hurt you. How could it be – the murderous mob must have thought – that a wonder-working source of divine healing and grace should play a part in the spread of death and contamination? How could the icon of the Spotless and Most Pure Theotokos ever act as an agent of corruption? When the question is put that way, Archbishop Amvrosy’s action might indeed seem like blasphemy.

E pur si muove. So said Galileo, purportedly, after the Roman Catholic authorities forced him to recant his statements against the Ptolemaic model of the solar system. “And yet it [the Earth] moves anyway.” The ‘theologians’ opposing him had heaps of pious verbiage to buttress their view that the Earth stands stationary at the center of the universe with the heavens moving around it. Their reasoning was a priori: built on layers of abstraction without examining all of the evidence. Galileo for his part was an empiricist: he studied the phenomena directly instead of engaging in armchair speculation. His observations pointed to one unavoidable conclusion: the Earth moves. Regardless of how vehemently the churchmen denied the facts; regardless of how many telescopes they refused to look through; regardless of how many astronomers they might burn at the stake: the Earth just kept rotating on its axis and revolving around the Sun. Sanctimonious ostrichism cannot change hard facts of the physical world.

Holy things can’t hurt you. Recently an Orthodox writer put forth this idea in a strong form: anything that has become a sacred object will never convey illness or injury. “Even the slightest suggestion that the Holy Mysteries can bring illness, is a terrible distortion of the Orthodox Faith and potentially affects the eternal salvation of countless innocent souls.” She further offers the unsourced assertion that the Evil One “dances with delight” at this very thought.

As a clergyman of twenty-some years, I say: E pur si muove. Simple observation teaches otherwise. Holy things can cause injury and illness.

Consider Holy Baptism. In the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe, the manner of immersion for babies is sometimes more forceful than Greek practice. Every few years we read that an infant has been injured or even died in the course of its Baptism, either through aspirating water or from a cold shock response that stopped the heart. Can we not fairly say that the waters of Baptism were instrumental in the death of the child?

I can imagine, though, an Orthodox Scholastic couching the question thusly: "How dare you suggest that the waters of the Great and Holy Mystery of Baptism – sealed by the sign of the Life-Giving Cross, cleansed by the operation of the Holy Trinity, sanctified by the descent of the Holy and Life-Giving Spirit, so as to make those waters to be a fountain of incorruption, a healing of sicknesses, a destruction of demons, inaccessible to all hostile powers, filled with angelic might – how can you suggest that these holy waters could be an instrument in the death of a child? Perish the thought!!"

Alas, empirically speaking, every few years in Russia or Romania it is not a thought that perishes.

Those who have an a priori commitment to the Absolute Innocuousness of Sacramental Objects dodge the facts in different ways. Some say that the reports of injuries are lies. Others concede that the child was harmed, but by something other than the water. Others say that the harm was due to unbelief or sin in the parents. Some even suggest that the mother handed the priest an abused child to baptize just before it would die anyway, but from injuries inflicted by the parents. Such are the lengths “true believers” will go to in denying facts.

In the words of Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, this is a plain case of letting one’s faith blind oneself to realities that everyone else can see. A Baptism carelessly performed can harm a child. It does not matter that Baptism is a Great and Holy Mystery and that its sanctified waters are a true means of grace. Empirically speaking, children have been hurt in the act of Baptism.

If we can be honest to God and admit that harm can happen in Holy Baptism, it is no stretch at all to see examples of injury through the administration of Holy Communion. 

People have aspirated the Holy Gifts (i.e., gone down the wrong pipe). 

• I once saw a child get burned in his mouth because the priest had put in too much zeon (hot water).

• Vulnerable people have allergic reactions to sulfites in wine, gluten in bread, or residue of dairy or nuts left on the spoon by a non-fasting parishioner ahead of them in the communion line.

• I myself as a layman went to the local OCA parish for a Liturgy and was communed by a bishop whose practice was to turn the spoon over in the mouth. I did not expect this, since I was accustomed to closing down on the spoon from my experience in Greek parishes. He turned just as I was closing, resulting in my biting the sideways spoon. I could have broken a tooth. As it was, I had a toothache for a couple of days.

• A deacon who is required all by himself to consume the remains of multiple chalices after the Divine Liturgy can get drunk.

Of course, one can claim that the real cause for illness or injury was a lack of faith in the communicant, and not some attribute of the Sacramental Objects themselves. “Blame the victim,” in other words. Thus, we commit the sin of judging others in order to dodge the truth.

I myself used to believe that grace overcomes all possibility of harm. As a deacon at the Archdiocese, I fearlessly consumed the remainders of dozens of chalices around the New York area. Even so, with time and experience – and eyes open to the light of reality – I have come to see that it is possible for holy things to hurt people. I take extra care, therefore, to see that the Baptismal water is a proper temperature, that zeon is added to the chalice in judicious proportions, and that I wash my hands thoroughly when visiting parishioners in the hospital. And I share the work of consuming the remainders of the chalices with visiting deacons.

There is a corollary to Dr. Constantinou’s position that has yet to be articulated. She insists that Communion sanctifies and cleanses all that it comes into contact with. If this is so, then why should the Church ask those who are not feeling well to stay home? Should we not rather compel them to come in – the feverish, the nauseous, those who have lost their sense of smell and taste? In the presence of Holy Communion, what would it matter if symptomatic people attended Liturgy? As long as we all receive, the Sacrament will prevail over the virus, right? There could be no ethical reason for preventing the sick from coming for the “medicine of immortality.” Indeed, to prevent them would be a sin. So why does Dr. Constantinou not object to the current directives for those who are ailing not to attend the Liturgy? If she truly believed her position, she should quite literally be screaming bloody murder at the hierarchs for keeping COVID patients away from the celebration of the Eucharist.

There is a more insidious corollary of the novel Doctrine of the Absolute Innocuousness of Sacramental Objects. It concerns the Mysteries of Ordination and Monastic Tonsure. If it is true that Holy things can’t hurt you, it follows that Holy men can’t hurt you as well.

This is precisely the belief that enables abuse in churches. Parents refuse to believe their children. Chancellors don’t take parishioners seriously. It is asked: “Can a man – upon whom the Holy Spirit has descended and filled with “the divine grace which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking” – to whom has been granted access to the most sacred and glorious Mysteries –from whom come the blessings of Christ Himself –can such a holy man possibly be guilty of the dirty, ugly things that have been alleged about him? Never!”

And so, because of this head-in-the-sand piety – this aprioristic denial of plain facts – molesters among the clergy are allowed to persist in their predations. If you speak with people who have been abused by clergy, the common thread is this belief that had been instilled in them: holy people would not, could not hurt them in such a terrible and soul-crushing way. And when the victims found the courage to speak, often they were shamed back into silence. Upon them was imposed an Orwellian doublethink: the evidence of their own experience was undeniable, yet on the pretense of piety, people around them denied it. When faith is pitted against the faculty of reason, reasonable people lose faith, and faithful people abandon sound reasoning.

Dr. Constantinou suggests that a change in practice from a single communion spoon to multiple spoons is more dangerous than any disease, for nurturing such doubts impacts our eternal salvation.” There is no evidence by which to assess this claim: none of us is in a position to judge which specific doubts God will weigh against our salvation. Whereas, there is plenty of evidence from suicide statistics to prove that souls are destroyed by the Pollyannaish insistence that Holy things and holy people can’t hurt you.

“It is impossible, impossible,” she asserts, “that we could become ill either by communion itself or through the instrumentality by which we receive it.” But is not the priest also an instrument of our sacramental reception? And far more intrinsic to the Mystery than any spoon … acting as a living icon of Christ? But is it really true that we could never catch a cold from a priest … or become pregnant out of wedlock by him … or suffer some trauma because of him? Experience sadly proves otherwise. What is true for the man is true for the spoon he wields. Holy people can hurt you, along with the holy things they hold. In this time of pandemic, it is not the Holy Gifts themselves that parishioners worry about: it is the people around the Gifts and the means of distribution that raise concerns – reasonable concerns, like those of Archbishop Amvrosy.

Which brings us to the other grave danger in Dr. Constantinou’s position. It is in the abnegation of the Orthodox and Patristic phronema, which have historically been embraced as gifts from God: the faculty of reason, the insights of science, and the work of scholars. The Orthodox mindset of the Church Fathers never pits faith against reason. It was only the schismatic Tertullian who cynically asked, “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy?”

But taking the other side of the issue were all the brilliant dogmatic Fathers of the Church, such as the Cappadocian Fathers, Saints John Chrysostom, Maximos the Confessor and Photios the Great. Their writings are eminently logical, scholarly, analytical, philosophical, and scientific (in terms of the science of their times). They rejoice in the full and free exercise of the powers of the mind. Consider their testimony about the faculty of reason as a divine bequest.

Saint Basil the Great says (Hexaemeron, Homily 6):

“You will know that you are formed of earth, but the work of God's hands; much weaker than the brute, but ordained to command beings without reason and soul; inferior as regards natural advantages, but, thanks to the privilege of reason, capable of raising yourself to heaven.” [Emphasis added]

Saint John Chrysostom’s 11th Homily On the Statues shines as a beautiful encomium to the divine endowment that is human reasoning. He makes an assertion similar to Saint Basil. Though the animals may have bodily advantages over us, the human mind is greater by far. Though eagles soar high in the sky by virtue of their feathers, human minds are like wings “which can soar, not merely ten or twenty stadia, or even as high as heaven, but above heaven itself, and above the heaven of heavens; even to where Christ sits at the right hand of God!” [Emphasis added]

Contrast this with the disparaging tone of Dr. Constantinou’s remarks, which pit reason against faith, philosophy against spirituality:

“What we need from our hierarchs and our priests at this moment is spiritual leadership, rather in than presenting ‘logical’ arguments which surrender to the ‘slavery of our human reasoning,’ as the communion prayer to the Theotokos states…

“St. John Chrysostom said in Homily 25 on the Gospel of John, ‘For nothing is worse than to relegate spiritual things to human reasoning…We ourselves are called ‘faithful’ precisely for this reason: in order that, having put aside the weakness of human reasoning, we may come to the sublimity of faith, and that we may entrust the greater part of our welfare to the teaching of faith.’

“The Church has never made decisions based on fear, only on faith. The Church also does not make decisions or reach theological conclusions based on human reasoning…”

Dr. Constantinou’s position relies crucially on a mistranslation of the word she renders as “human reasoning.” The Greek original in both the homily of St. John and the Prayer after Communion to the Theotokos is the plural of logismos. The dictionary will tell you that this word can have the sense of “reasoning,” particularly in the writings of the pre-Christian philosophers. But several other senses are possible, too, especially in the centuries following.

The meaning of any word is a function of context –grammatical, literary, and historical. As a plural form logismoi found in Christian writings from the 4th century and thereafter, this word is usually best understood with a particular meaning that has no single correspondent in English. It does not mean “the faculty of reason,” but rather “thought forms” or “mental habits,” usually with a negative connotation as things which obscure the light of God in the mind. Logismoi can be understood as flawed reckonings, intrusive thoughts, vain rationalizations, the mental seeds of sinful passions.

Our problem as human beings is generally not that we are in bondage to logic, but rather to illogic: empty imaginations and self-delusions which we convince ourselves to be correct, but which are objectively wrong and unhelpful. These are the logismoi, the mental slavery from which the prayer seeks our emancipation through the intercessions of the Theotokos. We are not asking Panagia to rescue us from syllogisms and science!

In his homilies about the nighttime visit of Nicodemus with Christ, St. John Chrysostom shows that the earthly-minded literalism of Nicodemus is what makes him miss the Lord’s point about spiritual rebirth. Chrysostom does not scold Nicodemus for the exercise of reason, but rather for his failure to expand his thinking beyond earthly things. In Homily 24, he exhorts his hearers: “Let us then cleanse ourselves, let us kindle the light of knowledge, let us not sow among thorns.” [Emphasis added] Does this sound like a man who casts aside rational inquiry as “the values of the world or the reasoning of Western Christianity”?

The Orthodox phronema is better expressed in this Encyclical for the Feast of the Three Hierarchs and the Day of Greek Letters:

“One of the chief offerings we bring to this world is our uniquely Orthodox Christian understanding of the value of human reason in the spiritual life. Religion and reason are not in contradiction; rather, true faith and sound reason are complementary. Reading and study, scholarship and science, are gifts of God that draw us to Himself; for, as St. Basil says, ‘we cannot become like God unless we have knowledge of Him, and there is no knowledge without learning’ (On the Holy Spirit 1.2).

“In a world where irrational and even anti-rational forces seem sometimes so strong, let our Orthodox Christian voice ring out clear and true in harmony with the Three Hierarchs and our Hellenic heritage: as Euripides somewhere says, ‘Reason can wrestle and overthrow terror.’ This is the Orthodox Tradition that we offer to our world: a reasonable worship (cf. Romans 12:2) that overthrows superstition, an intelligible faith that overcomes the temptations of worldliness (cf. 1 John 5:4), and a perfect love that casts out fear (cf. 1 John 4:18), along with hatred and irrationality.”

Is doubt really the threat to salvation that Dr. Constantinou presumes? When the Apostle Thomas had doubts, Christ invited him to resolve them empirically – to see and touch and probe, and through inquiry to overcome his concerns. (John 20:27).

More dangerous than any passing doubts about communion spoons is the epidemic of anti-intellectualism in the Orthodox Church today. Sadly, many equate the mystical, apophatic character of our theology with a lowbrow rejection of science and scholarship. They forget that many of our Church’s greatest mystics (like Saints Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Palamas) were also truly accomplished academically. Pace Dr. Constantinou, it simply is not true that our Fathers did not reach theological conclusions based on human reasoning. They employed analytical reason up to its very limits: and they also recognized those limits and refrained from idle speculation. Cults and heresies tell people to check their minds at the door: the Orthodox Church welcomes in the human mind; for Christ Jesus assumed also a human mind in His Incarnation, in order to sanctify it along with our souls and bodies.

There are voices being raised in this time of pandemic that call on us to ignore medical realities and scientific understanding. These voices will alienate unbelievers, turn away the younger generation, estrange us from our Patristic and Hellenistic heritage, and send vulnerable souls into the clutches of predatory gurus hidden amongst our clergy and monastics. When rational deliberation is suppressed, no form of persuasion remains in Church life except the appeal to authority. When thoughtful inquiry is discouraged, a blank check is handed to abusers – financial, psychological, or sexual.

Yet, even now, we see a virtual lynch mob forming against those reasonable priests and hierarchs who propose any modifications to our practices; faithful pastors, who like Archbishop Amvrosy of blessed memory, seek only to safeguard “the rational sheep of the flock” of Christ through the exercise of good sense, good science, and compassion. More dangerous than doubt is the renunciation of rationality and learning. For in renouncing these, the Orthodox Church would lose a part of her very self.

Those who pit faith against the faculty of reason end up losing one or the other … or like the bubo-ridden mobs of Moscow, both.


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