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The Shocking Truth about Christian Orthodoxy

This is the recent lecture by Fr John Behr at Augustine College.

Fr John is Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (New York, USA), where he teaches Patristics.

The lecture is an hour long – but/and worth it. Fr John challenges the pulp and popular positions that early catholicity was monolithic, autocratic, homogeneous; despoiling the liberty, diversity, and fulness of life that Jesus brought. Early catholicity, he expertly explains, was what the word means – catholic: diverse. It was the heretics who could not remain in the dialogue of this diversity, who went and took themselves away to form monochromatic communities where everyone would agree with their particular narrow perspective.

Fr John stresses that we cannot access the historical Jesus “neat” as it were. We always receive him interpreted. And the interpretation focuses around the Scriptures and the Eucharist.

Fr John provides refreshing perspectives on much in this lecture, including on what it means for the scriptures to be inspired; that all knowledge, whatever the sphere, ultimately rests on an act of faith; and ultimately provides a moving interpretation of the salvation we have just been celebrating, and which Orthodox will celebrate this week.

Enjoy the lecture. And, as always, what do you think?…

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25 thoughts on “The Shocking Truth about Christian Orthodoxy”

  1. Jonathan Streeter

    I guess I realize that “interpretation” got a bad rap over the centuries, leading to today’s unattainable thirst for purity… but a contextualized Jesus is the one for me.

    1. Interestingly, Jonathan, post-modernism stresses that the “thirst for purity” is precisely unattainable – so that isn’t “today’s” thirst – it’s “yesterday’s”. Blessings.

  2. Hurrah for finding this! I have a friend who teaches at Augustine College, and she was gloating about having Fr. John visiting this year while I’m across the Atlantic! Now to find an extra hour …

  3. I was there in the flesh. A remarkable lecture. (It was actually delivered in the auditorium of Saint Paul University — Augustine College doesn’t have a suitable venue.)

    What I come away with when I listen to Fr. Behr is not so much the feel-good “diversity” message, but the awesomeness of the call to follow the narrow path of orthodoxy, which is so shocking because it insists that we, like Christ, must die before we can truly live. As he points out, all the early heresies effectively watered down this claim by declining to give full assent to one or other of Christ’s natures. If he’s basically just God then his example is not really relevant to us, since we won’t be able to follow it; and if he’s basically just a man, then we don’t really need God to attain salvation. But if Christ is fully human and fully divine, then we see that the only path to the divine life is the following of his human life, a life that reaches its fulness only through death.

    Afterwards, I suggested to Fr. Behr that his observations about how the divine life is realized and attained precisely through dying nicely paralleled Pope Benedict’s observation that hearing Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount can be compared with the terror of the Israelites at Sinai, who could not bear to hear God speaking to them directly:

    “This new goodness of the Lord is no sugarplum. The scandal of the Cross is harder for many to bear than the thunder of Sinai had been for the Israelites. In fact, the Israelites were quite right when they said they would die if God should speak with them (Ex 20:19). Without a ‘dying,’ without the demise of what is simply our own, there is no communion with God and no redemption.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Part I, pp. 67-68)

    Fr. Behr had only a moment to reply, and he said to me (if I remember right), “And God has helpfully arranged that all of us *will* die, one way or another.”

    It’s also worth your while to listen to a lecture he gave on the theological significance of male-female sexual differentiation (where some of the same ideas are applied to “Christian anthropology”):


    The handout for that second talk can be downloaded here:


    1. How amazing, Jesse! How small the world really is!

      Thanks for the links which I look forward to getting into.

      Just some clarification – what you call the “diversity” message certainly wasn’t the only bit I came away with. The strongest point was certainly the one you are making – but I didn’t want to put a spoiler in my post, as I found the conclusion so powerful and wanted people to experience it for themselves. But I did want to offer people some “teasers” so that they would commit the hour to listening. I do think that you are deprecating the “diversity” message by calling it “feel-good”? Diversity for many (most?) is the very opposite of “feel-good” – it is what so many, many people struggle with. And fear. And diversity is enabled precisely through a small core – possibly what you are calling “the narrow path”.

      Christ is Risen!

      1. Fair play. Sound, intelligent folk like you, Bosco, should be allowed to use such words, because they are capable of doing so with precision.

        Alas, my impression of most who trumpet “diversity” and other such freighted party labels (e.g. “inclusion”) is that they use them both to congratulate themselves and to vilify or neutralize those who disagree with them. Nothing like the “diversity” that, say, Athanasius experienced.

        1. I know you’ve been around here enough, Jesse, to know that I would not laud diversity for its own sake. I think that is part of what you are reacting against. You will know that I think the “diversity” within NZ Anglicanism is unhelpful – and the result is a search for unity in all the wrong places. IMO. Easter Season blessings.

          1. ‘a search for unity in all the wrong places’ – Perfectly put.

            I don’t think that this is a uniquely NZ problem tho. The C of E is in the same boat, but it is sufficiently large for folk to hide from each other

  4. Thank you for that video link, Bosco. I’ve just sat at my computer gob-smacked by the fluency, the felicity, of Fr.John Behr’s exposition of how we have yet to enter into our full humanity – via the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ.

    And what a wonderful explanation about how the Anglican Covenant might only enshrine our separation from the ongoing dialogue, en Christo.

    Christos Anesti! Alleluia!

  5. I’m going to have to watch this through again sometimes and take screeds of notes.

    I was impressed that I could follow and understand Fr John, he wasn’t talking over the head of a layperson the way I’ve found some theological writers and speakers do.

    I loved the image of the symphony – many voices and tones, yet each expressing their part harmoniously. That’s one of the things I’ve also enjoyed about this site, is the diversity of the voices yet having a common faith.

    1. Thanks, Claudia. I’m going to say at least nine times out of ten if people are teaching & it’s going over your head it’s the fault of the speaker. With one or two exceptional situations, a person doesn’t really understand their subject unless they can explain it relatively simply. In most cases if you aren’t understanding them, they aren’t really teaching – they are just showing off. Glad you appreciated it – I’m trawling all sorts of fascinating Fr John stuff all over the web – including in google books and youtube. Easter Season greetings!

  6. Why doesn’t his own church ordain women? Or the openly gay? The Orthodox don’t even let their clergy marry again after their wives die! Primitive and very un-progressive.

    1. “Turnip Ghost” thanks for your visit and comment. Your comment does not meet the requirements of the comment policy of this site. We use our ordinary name here – this allows for a more open discussion. We can disagree with each other here, but we do so respectfully and not hiding behind anonymity. I am letting this one comment through on the assumption that you were unaware of our practice here.

      I am not about to defend all Eastern Orthodox belief or practice – the answer to your first two questions is not difficult to find. I have not yet had time to look at Jesse’s links, but they may help. The third question is more subtle. Orthodox and Roman Catholic practice is that one may not marry after ordination. The history of celibacy and clergy marriage is more complex than many realise – there is some way into this here and here.

      Easter Season blessings.

      1. On the women/gay people question, in his lecture on male-female differentiation Fr. Behr sounds suspiciously like an Anglican! His points could be marshalled to support the “liberalization” of ordination and marriage — indeed, his argument could be made to give real heft to those in favour of changing the Church’s practices in those areas (his observations are infinitely weightier than most of the fluff that is endlessly repeated by those entrenched on either side). I have no idea whether he would be content for that to happen. In that second lecture he suggests that just as Christology was the great dividing question in the Church of the fourth and fifth centuries, so Anthropology is the central controversy in the twentieth and twenty-first.

        1. Thanks, Jesse. I still haven’t got to this material. I am a supporter of women’s ordination, but agree with you that the arguments in favour are often very weak. Looking back at the material that led to women being ordained in NZ is embarrassing in places IMO. There is an if-it-feels-good-do-it pragmatism that can, on other occasions, lead to disastrous decisions. Christ is risen!

  7. Bless you for this, Bosco! What wonderful gift, too, for those of us (Orthodox) just on the verge of the Sacred Triduum.

    Following up on the lecture, have you ever gone straight from Luke’s Road to Emmaus (and its companion episode where they take what their burning hearts and open eyes back to the disciples in Jerusalem – where Jesus appears again “while they were still speaking about this”) to the beginning of John’s Gospel? When I do that, it seems that the placement of John between the two texts of Luke is deliberate BECAUSE the Emmaus account is indeed the “key” to opening what John is all about. (And this lecture underscored that for me.)


    1. Thanks, TheraP. There is a discipline (sometimes called “canonical criticism”) which, as you are suggesting, takes note of where the books are in the canon as we have it. The Emmaus account is very special to me. Blessings.

    2. That is a really wonderful insight
      Thank you!

      Just struck me this past day or so that the account of Christ restoring Peter on the shore in John 21 works very closely with Luke 5 – again a miraculous catch and Peter saying to Jesus “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man”

  8. I don’t think being united to the Pope means a lack of diversity. The Orthdox removed themselves from the Church largely over issues relating to shifting power in the late Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic Church includes Marianites, Coptic Catholics, and other Eastern Rites in addition to the new prelatures for Anglican rites. Whereas Orthodox churches largely became narrow national churches.

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment, Alex. I’m not quite sure where you are heading with your comment, nor quite what you are responding to in this thread, if anything. Your reading of history is one interpretation (following Fr John’s thread). Even the Vatican officially calls Eastern Orthodoxy “church” – so your point that “The Orthodox removed themselves from the Church” is not only followed by a questionable piece of historical analysis, but in itself appears to contradict the Vatican approach that the Orthodox churches are churches. That Eastern Orthodox churches have particular issues, I think is undeniable. That the Roman Catholic Church has its own set of current particular issues, I would be surprised to see intelligently denied. Easter Season blessings.

  9. Thanks for the link Bosco
    Compelling lecture – found it Most stimulating

    I think it says a lot to current ideas of schism within the church and the formation of churches of the pure so to speak, but the last few minutes . . .

    Tied a Lot of strands together for me and added a whole new dimension to a teaching course I’m working on on John’s gospel – Thank you!

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