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Broken Not Divided: S1 E1-What are Controversies


This episode explores where controversies come from and the various types of controversies. Next episode will look at how Church resolved some of these controversies. 


Episode 1: What are Controversies?

Christ is Risen.

If you listened to last episode, you would know why I start each episode with the Pascha or Easter greeting. If not, then head over to the last episode. 

Today’s episode is titled what are controversies

Elif Shafak once said in her book, The Forty Rules of Love “Most of the problems of the world stem from linguistic mistakes and simple misunderstandings. Don’t ever take words at face value. When you step into the zone of love, language as we know it becomes obsolete. That which cannot be put into words can only be grasped through silence.”

I know it is somewhat strange to start an episode on controversies from a Christian perspective with a quote from a novel about Sufi Islam (which is the more mystical side of Islam). I chose to go with it anyways because it could be helpful if we accept the fact that at times controversies can be easily resolvable. Sometimes, they only exist inasmuch as semantics and words are concerned. Beyond that however, some controversies pretty much only exist in our minds. Theological controversies sometimes cannot be resolved through words. Many times, there is no single formulation that will capture the fullness of truth. There are times when the greatest way of doing theology is not to talk about it among ourselves, but rather contemplate the whole mystery in silence before God.

But since this podcast is about controversies, and it does not make sense to make a podcast in which we contemplate God in silence, let us actually look at theological controversies!

I think there are three types of controversies or disagreements: disagreements on practice, disagreements on semantics, disagreement on substance.

Disagreements on Practice:

These are the least concerning of disagreements that they can be even called diverse practices rather than disagreements. These include when you celebrate liturgical feasts, what time your liturgy starts, how long your vigils are, what kind of vestments you wear for what occasion and so on.

There are two important things that must be remembered about these.

First, they are never a basis for a schism. However, human stubbornness can make them become a basis for schism. For example, the Eastern and Western Churches that came later to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church had many disagreements that were on substance or that were simply questions of semantics. But when they went into schism, they fought over whether Eucharistic bread should be leavened or not and whether priests should grow a beard or not. Like seriously, these were things that were written down on paper as problems that had to be overcome or else, they would go on schism. Spoiler alert, they actually did go into schism, but it was not just because of these reasons to be fair. Another spoiler alert, we will talk about aspects of East-West schism in future seasons. Eventually, some jurisdictions got over it. Today, we have eastern rite Catholics and western rite Orthodox. We even have some Orthodox priests without beards.

Sometimes, people manage to live with diverse liturgical practices even if they are not that comfortable with them. A good example of that are the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Copts, Syrians, Ethiopians, and Armenians have their distinct rites with different liturgies and different hymns. They celebrate Christmas and Easter on different calendars sometimes. Is it hard when you visit another church? Yes. But can you live with it? Also, yes. Sometimes, you can even enjoy it. I often attend the Syriac Orthodox Church because I am in love with their liturgy even though I was born and raised in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Disagreements on semantics:

Semantic disagreements tend to be either disagreements on words and what they mean (those will often be philosophical terms), or it can refer to the use of words to satisfy human curiosity rather than actually praying. When we run after formulations, we are usually looking for ways to run away from prayers… It is always easier to verbally fight among ourselves, than it is to pray. Don’t believe me? Head over to facebook or twitter.

But if we go a little back on time (actually a lot back in time) to the time of St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria, the Arian controversy took place. Arius believed that the Son of God was of a similar but lesser essence than the Father as He considered the Son to have been created in time. After a lengthy series of controversies, the Council of Nicaea settled on the definition of faith which we recite in Liturgy until now starting with “We believe in one God, God the Father…” but back then it stopped at “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” They settled on insisting on the divinity of Christ using the term “homoousios” meaning of the same essence. The word was used in a very Orthodox way to affirm the identity of essence between the Father and the Son. However, the problem was that there was a back story to this term.

A century earlier, there was a man called Paul of Samosata, a bishop of Antioch. He used the word homoousios but unfortunately, he gave it a heretical interpretation. This made it difficult for some of the faithful to accept the term. St. Athanasius sat with them and clarified misconceptions and received them in communion despite their aversion to using the term homoousios. Athanasius came to a conclusion we all need to come to eventually which is that it is not fit for those who disagree on terms to be divided if they have the same mind. These are certainly no ground for schism. But now, let us look at real disagreements.

Disagreements on Substance:  

These are actually disagreements that really mean something. But before we get into that, let us look at the words of St. Basil the Great in a homily on nativity where he is answering a question he got quite often about the humanity of Christ. Basil says,

“The Magi worship Him [that is Jesus] and the Christians argue: How can God come in the flesh? And what is the nature of that flesh? Has he acquired for Himself a whole or an incomplete man? Let us keep silent in the Church before God’s transcendent matters! And let us praise the realities of our faith and not inquire excessively about what should be revered in silence.”

The words of Basil here are to be understood as the admonition of a Bishop to his congregation which is supposed to pray the liturgy of the nativity of Christ rather than worry about dogma and theology. These are also people who were mostly uneducated in matters of theology and very often illiterate.

This does not mean that Basil did not value these questions and see how they mattered when discussed among theologians. Simply put, Basil knew there was a time and place for everything. That is why the same Basil when he writes rather than gives sermon says things like the following quote:

“it is offered to us to become like God as much as human nature allows. Likeness to God, however, cannot be had without knowledge, and knowledge comes from teaching. Speech, though, is the beginning of teaching, and the parts of speech are syllables and words. So, the investigation of syllables does not fall outside the goal of our calling.”

This quote is from his book on the Holy Spirit. Here it is obvious that Basil sees a value to words and terms when the disagreement has an actual value and impacts people’s understanding of salvation. It is just that there is a difference between what is to be discussed publicly in a sermon and what is to be discussed or read privately among bishops. Now in the day and age of the internet, this can be a challenge. But this mattered a lot to the fathers. The mode of the discussion was crucial.

When the matter had to do with the divinity of the Spirit, Basil saw words and terms to be at the heart of the Christian calling. When Basil saw the Apollinarian heresy of denying the existence of the rational faculty in the mind of Christ’s humanity, the same Basil who admonished his congregants to silently adore the newly born king was the same Basil who did everything he could to oppose Apollinarism and point out how it is a theologically flawed paradigm. It was worth the fight. Thank God, no one today is Apollinarian. This is thanks to Basil, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and his best friend Gregory Nazianzus.

Church history is filled with controversies. Some were resolved. Some were not resolved. Over the next episode, we will explore two controversies from Church history that were resolved. We will look at how “controversial” they really were. How they were resolved. And what was the outcome of them being resolved. Did the Church really live happily ever after when these controversies were resolved? Will see.

For now, let me leave you with yet another quote by Basil the Great to think about. I think there is a Basil trend here. I love Basil the Great in case you can’t tell. But anyway, the following quote comes from a letter he wrote about the controversy surrounding the Holy Spirit. Look at how easy he makes it for Church unity to be reached again and for the controversy to end… In case, you thought the fathers were angry and pessimistic fundamentalists, listen to this quote as it might change your opinion a bit. Basil writes in a letter to the presbyters of Tarsus, 

“Union would be effected if we were willing to accommodate ourselves to the weaker, where we can do so without injury to souls… Let us then seek no more than this, but propose to all the brethren, who are willing to join us, the Nicene Creed. If they assent to that, let us further require that the Holy Spirit ought not to be called a creature, nor any of those who say so be received into communion. I do not think that we ought to insist upon anything beyond this. For I am convinced that by longer communication and mutual experience without strife, if anything more requires to be added by way of explanation, the Lord Who works all things together for good for them that love Him, will grant it.”

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