A couple of weeks ago, in the fifth week of Lent, we saw in the 400’sCE some more familiar names: Jerome, Augustine, Pelagius, Nestorius, Cyril of Alexandria, and Patrick. Our epiphany was that these orthodox anchors of our tradition might have shared a self-understanding of belated, besieged salvaging of a movement in decline, facing existential threat.
Orthodox or Byzantine churches are rooted in this ancient realignment, and the different relationship that tradition develops in relation to the power of secular rulers. Like the Coptic traditions, they can claim deeper roots in continuity than our western Roman Catholic and Protestant forms of the faith. Their ancestors also survived the brunt of the rise of Islam, then found a coexistence within dominant Muslim culture for a millennium.
Why call the Byzantine churches ‘Orthodox’? It takes little scrutiny to find the diversity and division within even this side of Christian tradition: Greek, Russian, Armenian, Ukrainian communions. The chosen canon of scripture varies modestly, the creedal affirmations differ one iota or another, with the ‘filioque’ clause chosen as a ‘line in the sand’. Iconography and liturgical aesthetics are probably more striking than theological distinctions for most.
In the seventh century, we already noted the tragic massacre of Karbala in 680CE. Husayn, grandson of Ali, was killed by Yazid, son of Mu’awiya. There is an Islamic pious expression that ‘every day is Ashura, and every place is Karbala’, just as we would say ‘every day is Good Friday, and every place is Golgotha’. The reflection today is to confess where we fit in the picture, and what that represents to us about divinity and humanity.
We are not able to judge between Shiite and Sunni versions of the story of Karbala, any more than we can revisit the 16th century objectively as Protestants or Roman Catholics. Sure, one can blame the government, the soldiers, the religious powers – but surely we might also confess, beyond blaming. Socially situating ourselves in any or all of these stories can illuminate the next choice we face.
On this Good Friday, at the end of Lent, pause to wonder at the meaning of ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretic’. We have challenged the claim of any one true set of cognitive propositions as ‘orthodoxy’. If power is the capacity to effect or resist change, and religion can inform and express desirable change, then we have to confess our sins of abuse of power. We have overreached in pride – but we have under-performed as bystanders in sloth.
We’re all heretics. We cling to our partial truths as orthodoxy, and repeat our learned practices as orthopraxy. Peter Berger, sociologist of religion, points out that if your truth and practice differs from the dominant one in your time and place, then to retain your integrity would take the fortitude of a desert saint – so we ‘huddle together with like-minded deviants’. We seek and we need ‘heretics like us’. That includes others who share similar truths, and complementary practices. We also like heretics who like us.
My subculture, the United Church of Canada, used to have a genius for making friends as heretics with heretics. We came from a variety of sects, settlers in a colonial imperial project in North America. We recognized the cognitive dissonance and practical impossibilities of maintaining divisions and distinctions rooted in another world. We united with heretics like us, and kept looking for more like-minded deviants, joining dozens of Protestant sects in larger Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, or Union shops.
What went wrong, and what’s next? Who killed Jesus, and what was my role and yours? Deconstruction of the exaggerated claims of ‘mainline’ religion in the last century, and claims to ‘freedom from’ repressive order, was a part of our story. However, reconstruction of shared common cause, solidarity across human divisions, and inspiration to ‘freedom for’ something more fully informing and expressing the divine and the human might start with the proposition that allahu akbar - God is greater.