232. The Three Hierarchs: January 30 – the Feast of Learning, Searching for Truth

Often in history, including recent history, we have seen what happens when people lack knowledge, fail to seek truth, disregard facts.

We’ll come back to that.

But before we get started, two things:

1 Right to Life: I commend to you this excellent statement by our Orthodox Bishops: https://www.assemblyofbishops.org/news/2021/assembly-of-bishops-endorses-alternatives-to-women-in-crisis-pregnancies    You might also want to see “Father Bill’s Orthodox Blog Post 105” and “106”.

2 Feast of the Presentation of Christ: If you wish, see “Father Bill’s Orthodox Blog Post 49” – The Groundhog who stole Candlemas.

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Now, the subject at hand:

All icons by permission of Saint Isaac’s Skete at skete.com

The Three Hierachs

These great Fourth Century Fathers of the Church played pivotal rules in clarifying the meaning of the Scriptures and establishing the Faith as Christians have understood it ever since.

Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, the Church’s greatest preacher, six hundred of whose popular homilies are extant today, defender of the poor, author of the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy most frequently used today in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

 

Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, valiant defender of the Orthodox Faith, who established the Church’s monastic rule, another great champion of the needy, author of the Anaphora of his Divine Liturgy.

 

Saint Gregory the Theologian, Archbishop of Constantinople, one of only three saints titled the “Theologian”, brilliant theologian, writer and teacher. When all the churches in Constantinople had fallen into Arian hands, his preaching and teaching restored The City to the Orthodox Faith.

 

During the Eleventh Century, some folks (who must have had too much time on their hands) got to arguing about which of these Fathers was greatest. Factions developed: Basilians, Johannites, Gregorians. Then the Three Fathers appeared in a dream to John Mavropoulos, Bishop of Euchaita, and told him (I paraphrase): Look. We’re not arguing about it. We’re all equal. We are all servants of Jesus Christ. And they directed that, to make the point, a feast day be instituted to commemorate all three at the same time. And so it was on January 30, under Emperor Alexis Comnenus, and the day has been celebrated ever since. I think this helps explain why the  Orthodox Church has rarely suffered from theological factions and parties * ever since.

  • though God knows we find other things to argue about!
from the Monks of Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts

The three most great luminaries of the Three-sunned Divinity have illumined all the world with the rays of true and divine doctrines. They are the sweetly flowing rivers of wisdom, who with godly knowledge have watered all creation in clear and mighty streams. The great and sacred Basil, and the Theologian wise Gregory, together with the renowned John the famed Chrysostom of golden speech. Let us all who honor their divinely wise words come together honoring them with hymns; for ceaselessly they offered entreaty for us to the Trinity.

Patrons of Learning 

Especially in the Greek Orthodox tradition, these Three Hierarchs are celebrated as patrons of education, learning and knowledge – and on this day Greek kids get the day off from school!

Here is what Demetrios, Greek Orthodox Archbishop of America, wrote on January 30, 2018:

“As we commemorate these holy Hierarchs, and with this Feast observe Greek Letters Day, we are beckoned by their words to contemplate the limitless possibilities of all that God can do in and through us. Because of our God-given ability to reason and constantly push the boundaries of thought and understanding in our human experience, and through this unique faculty to be able to pursue all that is excellent and good–to perceive and engage with the wisdom and will of our Creator–all things are possible.”

Greek Philosophers

On this day the Greeks also honor their great pre-Christian philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others.

Why pagan philosophers on a Christian festival? Because, though Christianity’s foundations were Jewish and Semitic, immediately Christians began to adopt words and concepts from Greek philosophy, using and “converting” them for the Church’s purposes. For example, “The Word (Logos, λόγος) was made flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14  “Logos” was a concept first used by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus in the Fifth Century BC, later by Aristotle and others, and then by the Apostle John the Theologian. “Logos” in Greek meant not only “word” but also “the rational principle which undergirds the universe, which orders all things”. John said Jesus Christ Himself is that Logos Who orders and holds the cosmos together and Who was made Man and dwelt among us.

Later the Fathers used the Greek words “essence” (“of one essence with the Father”) and “person” and much more.

This is why in the narthex of a few churches and monasteries in Greece there are murals of Greek philosophers – without haloes, of course, because they only prepared the way for Christ. Note: Saint Justin the Christian Philosopher gets a halo.

Photos by permission of John Sanidopoulos at Mystagogy Resource Center, September 19, 2011

By the way…

Did you know that America’s well-read Founding Fathers took much from ancient Greece – the concept of a Constitutional Republic, for example. This explains much American governmental architecture. Does the Lincoln Memorial remind you of anything?  (Imagine a Pantocrator in the dome of the U.S. Capitol!) Much has been written on the subject. One paper concludes: “In short, Greek and Roman political thought was critical in shaping the government of the United States.” Classical Influence in American Government, Nick Richwagen, October 2016

Did you know that the Parthenon was a pagan temple for about 700 years, and then an Orthodox church where the Liturgy was celebrated daily for about 1000 years? Why do we almost never hear about this? It was then a mosque for a while, till the Turks made it a munitions depot, and… …

Back to the subject:

The Search for Knowledge, Truth, Facts

Let’s establish basic principles:

1  Facts matter. Truth matters. That’s obvious. If I step out into the street thinking a car isn’t coming, but it is…

To know truth does not require a person to get a doctorate. We need only gain knowledge, know the facts, and think. My Grandpa Fred (born in 1867!) never finished high school, but he studied and learned and thought and, as my mother said, he could talk intelligently about any subject.

3  Since Jesus Christ is the Logos who undergirds all things, He is the source of all truth, not just “theological truth”. Therefore when people seek facts, truth –  in  theology, philosophy, science *, wherever – they seek Him, whether they know it or not.

  • I note that some people reject modern science – except when they get sick and go to the doctor!

Drawing on God-given reason, the Three Hierarchs took us ever further into the mysteries of God as He is revealed in Jesus Christ. Astrophysicists who explore the cosmos show us how unfathomably great our Creator is. In the same way meteorologists have learned to tell us when to take cover from a tornado, and medical science is producing Vaccines which, God willing, will deliver us from this awful Virus.

Men and women use “our God-given ability to reason and constantly push the boundaries of thought and understanding in our human experience”, as Archbishop Demetrios said. All truth comes from God.

4  However, all lies and “untruths” come from “the devil [who] does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John 8:44  All who lie serve the devil.

What Scriptures say about lies and lying

A few verses among very many:

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16

“A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish.” Proverbs 19:9

“No one who practices deceit shall dwell in My house; no one who utters lies shall continue before My eyes.” Psalm 101:7 

“Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.” Proverbs 12:19

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Colossians 3:9-10 

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” Ephesians 4:25

Clear enough?

Facts

Back in 2003 Senator Patrick Moynihan * said “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

  • also attributed to Bernard Baruch, James Schlesinger and Alan Greenspan. Well, one would hope that everyone would say it!

Are there facts? Of course. I am sitting here writing this Post. That is a fact. Some have said there are “alternate facts”. “Alternate facts” are simply untruths – for example, if someone said I am now outside shoveling our Wisconsin snow. (Right: my wife with snowshovel) Untruths, if said purposely, are lies.

 Is there a way of determining what is true? Yes. For example, to take one of the greatest sources of confusion lately, regarding current events: Search it out. In the media check about various sources  – sorry, brothers and sisters, watching only one source is just laziness. You can hear what competing politicians or political groups say. Is it consistent? in accord with known facts? All you have to do is pay attention. You can check out various competing “fact check” sites. Listen, read and learn for yourself. It doesn’t take much time. You’ll soon learn which sources are usually trustworthy. And then, as my father often told me, “Don’t be one of the sheep”. Think, brothers and sisters, think!

The results of believing untruths

What follows is not political, but it will come perilously close. I am going to talk about “societal issues”. Is this appropriate in a Blog which is about the Orthodox Faith? Yes. As someone (Bishop Kallistos?) wrote, the Orthodox Church has always been concerned not only with saving souls, but with building Orthodox cultures, Orthodox societies. And, to repeat, to do this we must be concerned about not only “theological truth” but all truth. Or more accurately, all things are “theological”, for Theos (God, ο θεός) has created them all.

For many years, I have been warning about what is obvious: When people no longer agree about truth and facts, civilized society begins to fall apart. (So do churches. See “Father Bills Blog Post 74” about the collapse of modern Protestantism.) When I wrote about this a few years ago, I said we in America were almost to that point.

We have now reached that point.

American people have been fed so many non-facts, lied to by so many for so long, that we are divided into factions and can scarcely have rational conversations any more. “Back in the old days” people disagreed, but at least we knew what we were disagreeing about.

When we lose our grasp on truth and facts and honesty, then the only thing left is power. And what begins to emerge is something the world has too often seen before.

Ivan Vladimirov, from Imperial War Museum collection

 

There have been many examples in history of people, even educated people, who gave up thinking, and just “obeyed”.

1  Nazi-ism 

We can still see it online: Adolf Hitler inspiring his “Brownshirts” to go out and raid Jewish homes and destroy their businesses, shouting to great crowds that the Jews were responsible for all that is wrong in the world, and therefore they must be exterminated – and promising his “Thousand Year Reich”. Based on what? no evidence, no facts whatsoever. It was all lies. Yet people raised their arms in allegiance, crying  “Heil, Hitler!” When my wife and I visited Onkel Hermann in Germany in 1985, we met kindly German people, most looking and sounding like my father’s family – and like many people here in old Deutsch Wisconsin. I kept thinking “only forty years ago”, and I wondered “could this happen at home?” This has haunted me ever since.

2  Communism

I remember when many believed, despite all the evidence, in the inevitability of Communism which would bring justice to mankind – even though Soviet “communism” (not really communism) had resulted in immense horrors, and was already failing. I remember how the Russian government put out the most ludicrous propaganda, based on nothing whatsoever – the Russians had invented everything from the airplane to soap. I remember how we laughed, sure that Americans would never believe crazy “propaganda” promoted by our government.

3  The Pandemic 

Because Covid-19 arrived so quickly, it took a little while for medical science to be sure of this: Masks protect the wearer somewhat and protect those nearby a whole lot. Nevertheless, inexplicably and on the basis of no serious evidence at all, many people have refused to wear masks. Or have opposed a “mask mandate” to protect American freedoms – and then get into their cars and accept a “seat belt mandate” and a “stop light mandate” without a second thought. Some have even died of Covid, believing that the Coronavirus is a hoax.

Here is His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the subject:

“… it is unacceptable, in the face of so many victims and so much pain, to have people who deny the reality of the pandemic, who consider it a fabrication of “various circles.” It is even more provocative when such views are expressed by Christians, often by clergy, who self-proclaim to be defenders of a God of their own. The  New Testament affirms that whoever does not love man, cannot love God.
“They are indifferent to the protection of fellow human beings. The rejection of the mask and all precautionary measures does not arise simply from ignorance but from the necrosis of love within them. Science, when it opens auspicious prospects for the future of mankind, is a gift from heaven. Our faith certainly is not affected when we follow the instructions of experts. Nor do the restrictions on participation in the Services diminish the importance of the Church and what is conducted in it for the life of the faithful. Protective measures are not directed against the Church. They protect the faithful, who, like everyone else, are just as vulnerable to the virus.”
4  The 2020 American election

We Americans have just been through a situation where many people fervently believed something for which there was no evidence. The result: anger, violence, mob action, insurrection, personal threats to those who disagree.

To repeat, if people won’t accept facts, don’t bother to search out what’s true, then all that’s left is power.

 by Tyler Webler in Wikimedia

The Three Hierarchs

What can this Feast teach us today?

1  As the Three Hierarchs did, search for truth. Use the mind God gave you. I’ve said before about religion: If anyone wants you to leave your mind at the church door and “just believe” – do not go in. The same is true with politicians, politics, social movements, philosophies, science. People: Think!

2  No one leader or system has all the truth. No Church Father, no Pope, no hierarch, no political leader, no president, no premier, no Founding Father, no political movement, no economic system, no philosophy. If any human being or anything of human origin claims to have all the truth, all the answers, and they alone can save us… run the other way. Fast. Because to accept that is what’s called Idolatry.

Except… When I was in Protestant seminary long ago, it was fashionable for each student to be a disciple of a particular Protestant theologian of the era: “Rudolf Bultmann is best”, “no, it’s Paul Tillich” or Karl Barth or whoever – just like in the Tenth Century. Someone asked me who I followed. In my “naivete” I answered, ” uh… Jesus?” That’s still my answer.

For if Jesus Christ is indeed God Incarnate, if He is Himself “the Way, the Truth and the Life” – then He alone has all truth. He alone can save us. We can trust Him. And in Him, we can seek all manner of truth, never fearing what we will find. For at the end we will always find Him.

Three Holy Hierarchs John, Basil, Gregory, Patrons of Learning –  and reason, knowledge, fact, truth  – pray for us today. We need it.

Next two weeks: We begin a series on The Ten Commandments

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