Monday, December 14, 2009

The Illness of Religion, by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos

(Picture courtesy of used with permission)

The Illness of Religion, by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos
"The greatest problem of Western Christianity - and of many Orthodox also – is that they have 'religionized' Christianity and have turned the Church into a religion. In this way, they cultivated fundamentalisms, hatreds, divisions, a magical perception and relationship with God, also a competitive disposition of one towards another, a self-centered view of life, a utilitarian and self-benefiting perception of society, an imaginary interpretation of everything, the sentimental approach to living and generally the opinion that the others comprise – and are - a threat to our existence.

Thus, in these circumstances, the brightly-lit Christmas trees, the sentimental melodies, the moral-building analyses, all criminally conceal existential nakedness and make man a tragic being.

The feast of the Birth of Christ cannot be confined to a few sentimental situations: a festive décor, an intellectual, rationalistic interpretation of events, a moralistic framework; it has a very profound meaning and existential significance. If one remains at an external level, then he is leaving himself hungry and thirsty, deprived of a life of meaning and existential freedom.

The incarnation of Christ was considered and was celebrated by the Fathers of the Church and the worshipping ecclesiastical community as the abolishing of religion and its transformation into a Church. In fact, the memorable father John Romanides had said in the most categorical way that Christ became human, in order to free us of the illness of religion.

The word 'religion' is mention in Homer's epics; it is also used by Herodotus to express the worship and the honor that a person has to offer God. Etymologically, the (Greek) word for 'religion' is derived from the ancient word that implies 'ascend', and therefore, with the term 'religion', the ascent of man towards God is implied. But even the (Greek) word for "human" is etymologically derived from the expression "upwards looking", again implying an ascent.

But, it appears at a first glance, that an ascent presupposes the acceptance of the essence of metaphysics, according to which, a person's soul that has fallen from the immortal and impersonal world of ideas and is encased in a body, has to rid itself of the body [the prison of the soul] and return to the world of ideas. But even the Latin word religio – which is used to denote the word religion – signifies, according to dictionaries, the bond-unity-union of man with God; it also denotes the same fact, i.e., the essence and the content of metaphysics. In fact, it also presupposes – if we seek it in eastern religions – a faceless expression of mankind, since man has to disappear like a drop of water in the ocean of the Supreme Being, and thus eliminating the persona.

As the late Father John Romanides had taught, the term 'religion' implies the relating of the uncreated to the created, and actually the relating of the representations of the uncreated with the notions and the words of human thought, and this kind of relating is of course the foundation of the religion and the worship of idols. Therefore, in this case, the face of God is lost, and so is the person's face; man becomes gravely ill, since his vices and his imagination are cultivated even more; and more than this, we can say that the so-called irreproachable-natural vices (hunger, thirst, etc.) become reproachable vices; causes of social anomalies because of unlimited ambition, unjust craving for acquisition and unleashed debauchery.

It is well-known that Feuerbach at first, then Marx, had said that "religion was the opium of the people". We can accept this viewpoint, that religion – as we see it in the East and in the religionized views of western Christianity – is the opium of the people, since it benumbs the people, it mortifies societies and leads them to such a degree of deactivation, that it becomes exploitable material for the institution of a tyranny that deprives mankind of his unalienable right to freedom.

I would like to submit two characteristic examples of religious expression here below.

The first example comes from the Buddhist religion. We know that according to Buddhism, that which preoccupies mankind is the problem of the pain that originates from the desire to live. Hence, the ultimate goal of the "enlightened" one is the discarding of this passion to live. The mortifying of the desire for life is achieved through a special method called Yoga with its different variations, such as Hatha Yoga (uniting with the Brahma through physical exercises), Karma Yoga (uniting with the Brahma through deeds and ritual acts), Mantra Yoga (uniting with the Brahma through chants and magic syllables), Bhakti Yoga (uniting with the Brahma through the absolute worship of one deity or the Guru himself), Jnana Yoga (uniting with the Brahma through mystical knowledge), Kundalini Yoga (uniting with the Brahma through demonic activities), Tantra Yoga (uniting with the Brahma through unbridled sexual acts). With these methods, man is supposed to attain absolute Nirvana, which is the extinguishing of his existence and the riddance of one' desire for life, the ultimate purpose being the avoidance of Samsara – the recycling of life, or, reincarnation. Thus, the personal Atman is united to the overall Brahma, just like a drop entering the ocean.

It is obvious that in a religious life such as this, there is no personality; man is merely considered a unit, as there is also no such thing as society; no social life is encouraged, since every lifetime is considered a beginning of grief.

The second example originates from the theories of Anselm of Canterbury, a scholastic theologian, who founded a Christian system that prevailed in the West, having in mind the feudal system of organizing society. But the feudal lord had absolute value and honor that could not be violated, because every violation of his honor and every disturbance of the feudal system that was considered a work of God, entailed the punishment of the violator; thus God is the highest form of justice, He has honor, and has instituted order within creation, therefore, the violator must either satisfy God's sense of justice or be punished. Thus, Anselm interpreted the crucifixion sacrifice of Christ, not as an expression of love for mankind, but as the atonement of justice by God the Father. This system, with the assistance of the absolute destination, led to enormous problems in the western world; problems both personal and social, as analyzed by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

These two examples, one from the east and the other from the west, indicate how Feuerbach arrived at his motto "religion is the opium of the people". Naturally, we Orthodox also believe that if we give religion this definition, the metaphysical definition, then it can indeed become the opium of the people, because it will destroy every personal life, eliminate personal freedom, and even disintegrate social life, and turn man from a person into a unit.

Christianity however appeared in the history of mankind as the end of religion, and the experience of the Church. The term "Church" is an ancient Greek term and indicates a community, the congregation of the populace – the municipality – that would solve its problems. Naturally, with the term 'Church' we do not imply something external; we are implying the personal communion of mankind with God and its fellow-man, as seen in the Prophets of the Old Testament, in the Apostles of the New Testament, in the Acts of the Apostles, where "all those who believed were of one mind, and had everything common to all; they sold the lands and the belongings and shared them amongst everyone, if they had needs... (Acts,2:44-45). We see it in the communities of monks, in the teaching of the major Fathers of the Church and it extends into our time, as seen in the ecclesiastical communities narrated by Papadiamantis and the Memoirs of Makriyannis. And we know full well, from various studies, that both Papadiamantis and Makriyannis were not religious people; they were ecclesiastical, not inspired by western Puritanism, but by the hesychastic-neptic Orthodox tradition.

The greatest problem of western Christianity, and many Orthodox, is that – according to Christos Yannaras – they have religionized Christianity, and transformed the Church into a religion. In this way, they cultivated fundamentalisms, hatreds, divisions, a magical perception and relationship with God, also a competitive disposition of one towards another, a self-centered view of life, a utilitarian and self-benefiting perception of society, an imaginary interpretation of everything, the sentimental approach to living and generally the opinion that the others comprise – and are - a threat to our existence.

Thus, in these circumstances, the brightly-lit Christmas trees, the sentimental melodies, the moral-building analyses, all criminally conceal existential nakedness and make man a tragic being.

If contemporary, speculating people looked for a meaning behind the Birth of Christ, it would be that with His Birth, Christ abolished the illness of religion and transformed it into a living Church – with whatever its authentic meaning entails. This is the need of contemporary man who is suffering from the tragic trinity as Victor Frankl would have said, that is: suffering, guilt and death, inasmuch as he feels his life is a pre-death experience, an existential and eternal death, and not only seeks the experience of pleasure, but perhaps through pleasure, is seeking the survival of existence."
(taken from: Newspaper "Eleftherotypia" December 23, 2001;

Doxastikon of the Stichera from the Great Vespers of the Feast of Christ's Nativity
Glory. Both now. Second Tone.
By Kasia.
When Augustus reigned alone on the earth, the many kingdoms of mankind came to an end; and when you became man from the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed; the cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one single Godhead; the peoples were enrolled by decree of Caesar; we the faithful were enrolled in the name of the Godhead, when you became man, O our God. Great is your mercy, Lord; glory to you!

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!


Prof. Moses said...

With all due respect to Metropolitan Hierotheos, what he says about Buddhism is completely wrong. The Yogas he describes, and the belief in Brahman, are particular to Hinduism, not Buddhism. In addition, to generalize about Buddhism (or any religion) in this way, as if it is one monolithic system of beliefs, is simply bad scholarship. Further, the notion that Buddhism has no notion of a personal relationship to divine being is a vast over-simplification. I believe that there is a fruitful dialogue to be had between Buddhism and Christianity, and even criticism to be made of Buddhism from a Christian standpoint, but such inaccuracy in regard to others' religion does no one any good. Please forgive my critical spirit!

Unknown said...

Moses, you claimed it's an oversimplification to say Buddhism has no concept of a divine being, but you gave no reason or argument in support of your claim that it's an oversimplification. The fact is that Buddhism is atheistic.

My problem with the Metropolitan's position, is that Orthodoxy IS a religion, and seems to be the most neurotic of them all, with it's thousands of rules and rituals, none of which the New Testament ever taught.

Agioi_Anargyroi said...

Those who have witnessed the Orthodoxy first hand can attest that not only is this the faith and works as practiced by the Apostles of Christ, but that it is truly the Kingdom of God on earth.

Anonymous said...

Michael Wilhide:

I think a big issue is how each person ends up defining the word "religion". So we have to take what Metropolitain Hierotheos says on his own terms by what he means when he uses the word.

For your view on Orthodoxy, can you elaborate what you mean by "thousands of rules and rituals"?
That would be like saying that being in a relationship with your wife. I think it would be cheap of someone to tell you that being in a monogamous relationship restricts you to a bunch of rules and regulations. (You must kiss her good morning, you must kiss her goodnight, you must tell her that you love her, you must return to her at night, you must not go for another woman...) To the outsider, a relationship like this can only appear to be nothing but legalistic rules but all that the person believed were the outward expressions of the love that you have. A man who has never loved another (one person who i actually personally know is like this) is unable to understand how love expresses itself and thus he can only reason it dryly for the actions but never beyond.

As for the New Testament never having taught these things. Can you elaborate maybe? It would help flesh out what you mean. Considering that the New Testament is nothing like the book of Leviticus, it's hard to make a claim that the New Testament is the handbook on worship alone.

The Orthodox Church keeps the teachings of the Apostles and maintains them intact generation after generation without alteration. Besides, how could they be altered? Could it be that all the Churches who were spread out across the known world, without easy instant communication like today, were able to fall into the same heresies at the same time?

Much respect brother

Ian Duncan said...

I agree with Moses - the Metropolitan calls it Buddhism and then describes Hinduism, very superficially at that! I have great admiration for the Metropolitan's writing on psychology, but not really for his knowledge about eastern religions

Agioi_Anargyroi said...

Whether or not the Metropolitan is correct on some of the details, is irrelevant. He is clearly not a professor teaching a comparative religion course in eastern religions, he is a Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church. His argument against Buddhism I believe is very important: "the ultimate goal of the "enlightened" one is the discarding of this passion to live."

Unknown said...

Agioi_Anargyroi, There is no evidence that the apostles believed in the numerous innovative concepts of the Orthodox Church. To say Orthodoxy is the faith of the apostles, is absurd. They had no concept of icons, enormous fasts, seven sacraments, the church office of priesthood, monasticism --and monastic vows and obedience, etc.

Agioi_Anargyroi said...

This is not the venue to address every one of your points, but unfortunately you are wrong. Icons, fasting, the sacraments of the church (including the priesthood) and monasticism are all based in the scripture and tradition of the Orthodox Church, dating back to the first century at least, and often times even to the Old Testament. For more info, you can see other Orthodox posts on this and other sites.