Frequently Asked Questions

In this section we ask and answer  the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about our Church, Religion, Faith & Worship. Click on any of the questions to take you to an answer and other references. Clicking on the link at the end of each answer will take you back to the main list of questions.

Prepared by Father Yves, March 2007; updated, July 2013

1. What are your priorities?

2. What do you mean by God?

3. Why cannot we understand what God is?

4. How do we relate to God then?

5. Why talk about God as Trinity?

6. But is not the Trinity a man-made theory?

7. What do you believe about Jesus?

8. How can we relate to someone who lived 2000 years ago?

9. What do you believe about the cross?

10. What do you believe about the resurrection? Was it like someone being resuscitated in hospital?

11. What do you believe about the Church?

12. But don't religious institutions do a lot of harm?

13. How do you baptise people?

14. What is the meaning of baptism?

15. Why do you baptise infants?

16. What is chrismation?

17. Do infants receive communion too?

18. How do you celebrate Holy Communion?

19. What does Eucharist mean?

20. What does Liturgy mean?

21. Do you have other services?

22. Why do you say, 'The Eucharist makes the Church'?

23. What is prayer?

24. Can you quote some of your prayers?

25. Does prayer affect the rest of life?

26. Why use psalms in prayer?

27. What is the Jesus Prayer?

28. What can we do about violence and evil in the world?

29. Does your Church have its roots in this country?

30. Why are Saints important to you?

31. Do you believe God sends people to hell?

32. Do you pray for the sick?

33. Do you pray for the dead?

34. How do you keep Lent?

35. Are monasteries important in your Church?

36. How do you use the Bible?

37. What is your Church's attitude to ecology?

38. Do you work with Christians of other countries?

39. Do you have links with parishes in Eastern Europe?

40. Do you have links with Palestinian Christians?

41. How do you relate to Christians of other Churches?

42. Do you relate to the Jewish community?

43. Do you relate to the Muslim community?

44. Are all religions the same for you?

45. Do you think you have a monopoly on truth?

46. Why do you only have communion in your own Church?

47. How do you reply to an atheist like Richard Dawkins?

48. What is an icon?

49. Aren't icons idols?

50. Does your Church consider idolatry to be a serious sin?

51. What is sin?

52. Isn't religion too moralistic?

53. What books can I read about your Church?

 

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What are your priorities?

Our first priority is to drown in the waters of baptism the dangerous illusions which our minds create continuously, and which lead to so much evil and violence in the world. Our minds and bodies need to experience the death and resurrection of Christ, leading to the transformation of our passions by the new life of the Holy Spirit.

Our second priority is to acquire the light of God's Revelation given in the Scriptures, reading those Scriptures not in a fundamentalist way (which distorts Scripture in an unnecessary literalist way, and also places the Bible above the Church), but interpreting them as the Holy Spirit has always led the Church to do, and still does.

Our third priority is to think creatively from within God's Revelation, transfiguring every aspect of human thought and liberating them from the violence, hatred and pride which always lurk in our fallen human nature.

Our fourth priority is prayer, the means by which we become freed from idols of God, and are raised to an understanding free from the urge to place ourselves on a pedestal while despising others.

Our fifth priority is to maintain ourselves in a steady state of repentance, keeping our minds in our hearts and constantly watching the emergence of passions which distort our life in Christ.

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2. What do you mean by God?

God is the infinite and personal ultimate reality, who cannot be grasped by the mind, in whom we have our being and life.

By God, we mean the infinite ultimate and personal reality, who has created and continues to create the universe by an act of free will, and whom we trust to bring his whole creation into a share of his eternal life by his everlasting love and providence.

What we know of God is received from Revelation, and assimilated through our deep communion with God. It is never attained by human conjecture. Therefore we know God to be the Communion of love, the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one in essence and undivided.

 We believe that other religions contain 'seeds of the Word.' This is not meant in a condescending and patronising way, but in recognition that God is at work throughout the human race: what God gives to people of other faiths does not belong to us, and we are not to invent syncretistic 'solutions' to the incompatibilities between the various religions. It is not for us to judge. It is not for us to place ourselves outside and above our human condition.

 

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3. Why cannot we understand what God is?

God is infinite, he is even beyong the infinite: God cannot be held in a definition, a concept, a set of abstractions. We can relate to God in actual life, but we cannot reduce God to a set of words.

We know God because God reaches out to his creation in love: Grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought light and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1: 9b-10).

The most common error when thinking about God, whether as an unbeliever or a believer, is that we have to make up our mind whether 'a being' named God 'exists.' By thinking on those lines, we already fall into logical fallacies. We assume that God is 'a being,' an entity comparable to ourselves or the universe.But God is not a finite reality like us. We assume that God 'exists' or 'does not exist,' but that too is placeing God on the level of finite creatures. This is why in Matthew 5, we are taught Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Once we manage to get away from grasping after a definition of God, we are liberated from idolatry, we step into the kingdom of God.

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4. How do we relate to God then?

We relate to God by being baptized into the life of Christ, by being fed with the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday and Feast, by sharing the life of the Body of Christ which is the Church, by organising our personal and social life according to the revealed commandments of God.

Jesus Christ is the Revelation of God. He is a Person. He gives his life for each human being. He loves every human being without reservation. That means, he wishes justice, fulfilment and deathless life for every child, woman and man who ever lives. He is God. He is All. He is human. He is beyond all. He is in all. He is constantly present in every human being, but also in everything that exists. He pours into each one the graciousness, the love - that is the capacity for truth, for justice, for righteousness - of which we are not capable without him. He is our liberation from violence, from pride, from hatred, from contempt of others, from using our human identity (national, religious, cultural, racial, linguistic, gender-related) against others. He is the way, the truth and the life. We are to recognise his presence in all without exception.

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5. Why talk about God as Trinity?

We talk about God as Trinity because we encounter God as Trinity in the whole life of our Church: in the New Testament, in our entire prayer life and Church life. The living, personal, revealed God is the Trinitarian God.

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6. But is not the Trinity a man-made theory?

Far from being a theory, the Trinity is our only way of experiencing the reality of God, and it is also our social programme. Our whole life, once we are baptised and live as Christians, is governed by the inter-personal relationship of the Trinity.

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7. What do you believe about Jesus?

We believe, in the words of the Nicene Creed, that Jesus is

  • ‘One Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; and his reign will have no end.

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8. How can we relate to someone who lived 2000 years ago?

We relate to Jesus as someone who lives today. He is not limited to one historical period.

His life on earth two thousand years ago is not legend, but history. We can relate to someone who lived two thousand years ago because there is continuity in the human race. We can understand the literature of that time, and, indeed, of earlier times. The claim that human beings of other times and other places have nothing in common with us is a dangerous form of racism, and unfounded.

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9. What do you believe about the cross?

On the Cross, the Incarnate God-Man took upon himself all the evil and all the suffering past, present and future, of the whole universe. And evil fused itself on his divine reality, and he rose from the dead.

The Cross is not the vengeance of a Sadistic God on his Son as an innocent victim. Such an understanding of the Cross would be blasphemous.

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10. What do you believe about the resurrection? Was it like someone being resuscitated in hospital?

After a patient is ‘resuscitated’ in hospital, he or she will certainly die sooner or later. When we say that Christ rose from the dead, we mean that his entire human nature was transformed into a state which cannot be affected by any form of corruption. He remains a genuine human being, and eats and talks. But his body is longer like ours: his presence is no longer limited to one place, and even his mental faculties are no longer limited to one language or one culture. He mainly communicates with us through his Holy Spirit and in the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church.

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11. What do you believe about the Church?

The Church is the Body of Christ. Christ is its true nature. Of course it functions with an institutional framework: otherwise it would not function at all. For that reason we call the Church a Divine-Human community: its Head is Christ, and its members human beings.

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12. But don't religious institutions do a lot of harm?

Any social group will at times abuse its powers. Religious institutions are no exception. They are never communities of perfect people. The elimination of religious institutions, like all revolutions, can only lead to much worse abuse. All human institutions need to be brought back into line with the will of God to reduce the amount of abuse. It will be so till the end of time. Like all forms of social life, religious institutions must neither be allowed to fall apart nor allowed to tolerate a high level of corruption: each member of the Church has serious responsibilities in that way.

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13. How do you baptise people?

Baptism is preceded by three exorcisms, because demonic evil is a reality in our world. The exorcisms are followed by a renunciation of the demonic forces (the candidate faces west, the source of night) and commitment to Christ (the candidate faces east, the source of light). Then the priest, usually at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy and in the presence of the entire congregation, blesses the font of baptismal water with a lengthy prayer which mentions God’s blessing on water throughout the Bible: at creation, at the crossing of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan and the Baptism of Christ.

The candidate is then anointed with blessed oil, as a preparation for the spiritual struggle signified in baptism. Then after the triple immersion in the Name of the Trinity, the newly-illumined Christian receives chrismation and communion, thus completing his or her Christian initiation.

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14. What is the meaning of baptism?

The word baptism means ‘plunging’ because in baptism we are plunged three times by total immersion into water previously blessed to that effect.

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15. Why do you baptise infants?

We baptize infants, provided their parents can raise them in the Orthodox Christian faith, because people grow better into a Christian life with the help of sacramental grace than without. Nobody is raised ‘neutral.’ One is either raised in a spiritual tradition or in a spiritual desert. It is unwise to starve children spiritually, as it is unwise to wait until their majority to give them physical food.

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16. What is chrismation?

Chrismation is an anointing with a special oil blessed by the chief Bishop of the local Church. It is done immediately after baptism, except in the case of Christians who have been baptised in another Church and are being received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation. The anointing is done with the words, ‘the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit’, repeated with each anointing, on the brow, the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, the mouth, the chest, the hands and feet.

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17. Do infants receive communion too?

Yes, they receive communion from the day of their baptism.

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18. How do you celebrate Holy Communion?

We celebrate it with leavened white bread and red wine mixed with a little water. We call the Holy Communion ‘Divine Liturgy’. A bishop or priest presides at the service, but cannot celebrate alone without a congregation. Because ‘Communion’ means union, unity, in Christ, there can only be one Divine Liturgy on one holy table in one church for one congregation on any one day. If several priests are present, they concelebrate.

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19. What does Eucharist mean?

Eucharist means Thanksgiving, and the service has that name because the long prayer at its centre is chiefly a giving of thanks to God for everything he has done, does and will do for his creation.

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20. What does Liturgy mean?

The word Liturgy means ‘the work of the people’, indicating that the whole congregation does each service, and not the clergy by themselves.

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21. Do you have other services?

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Yes, especially Vespers and Mattins, which, in the Orthodox Church, contain most of the texts which express our Faith.

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22. Why do you say, 'The Eucharist makes the Church'?

The Eucharistic Prayer gathers the whole creation at all times into the being of Christ. It is the Messianic work. What else makes the Church?

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23. What is prayer?

Prayer is standing before God with the mind in the heart till the end of life. This is often done using ‘prayers’ but also happens without words. The body has an important role to play in prayer, and it is wrong to think of it as a merely mental exercise.

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24. Can you quote some of your prayers?

Glory to your holy resurrection O Lord

The ruler of the world, O Good One, to whom we were enrolled by not obeying your commandment, has been judged by your Cross; for having attacked you as a mortal he has fallen by the might of your authority, and has been proved weak.

Glory to your holy resurrection O Lord

You came into the world as Redeemer of the race of mortals and prince of the life without corruption; for you tore apart death's winding sheets by your Resurrection, which we all glorify; for it has been greatly glorified.

Glory to your holy resurrection O Lord

O Christ you have become strength for the weak, resurrection for the fallen and incorruption for the dead by the suffering of your flesh: for it has been glorified.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit

God the Fashioner and Restorer took pity on his fallen image and raised it up when it was crushed, having himself been put to death; for he has been glorified.

Both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

You have appeared higher than every creature, visible and invisible, O Pure and Ever-Virgin; for you gave birth to the Creator, as he was well pleased to become incarnate in your womb; with your freedom to speak implore him that our souls may be saved.

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25. Does prayer affect the rest of life?

Most certainly. Even a few months of deep prayer are enough to experience this fact.

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26. Why use psalms in prayer?

Psalms have always been at the centre of the worship of Jews and Christians. For both Jews and Christians, they are the prayer of the Righteous One amidst persecution and injustice, awaiting the final Redemption of the creation.

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27. What is the Jesus Prayer?

The Jesus Prayer goes back many centuries. Its form is simple:

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

It is and has been at the heart of the monastic life of the Orthodox Church, but is greatly used by all members of the Orthodox Church, and also by other Christians. Its first purpose is to keep us aware of the presence of Christ within us (we receive his presence in Communion, and his presence does not fade away, although our consciousness of it may do so). Its other purpose is to help us let go of the buzzing thoughts, often negative thoughts of resentment, which try to penetrate our hearts. It is important to pray the Jesus Prayer from the heart and not just the brain.

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28. What can we do about violence and evil in the world?

If we let God transform and transfigure ourselves and our communities, turning our passions into ways of serving God and doing his will instead of attending to our selfish urges, we will attack the violence and evil of the world at its root. Secondly, if we see ourselves as profoundly and entirely linked with the entire human race and the entire creation, with all the violence present in both, we will let go of adding to the violence by considering ourselves as uninvolved in the universe’s violence. Knowing ourselves as being one with the universe and its violence, we will, by baptism, chrismation and communion, bring that violence within the healing life of Christ, who has overcome violence by absorbing it on his Cross, and rising victoriously.

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29. Does your Church have its roots in this country?

Our local Orthodox communities, especially but not exclusively our English-language parishes, feel close to the Celtic and Saxon Saints of the British Isles. Reading Bede or Adomnan, we can see immediately that their attitudes, beliefs and practices were those the Orthodox Church still keeps today.

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30. Why are Saints important to you?

Saints are important because they are the brightest members of the Body of Christ. For instance, saint Paul is not a screen between us and God, by a great helper in our understanding of the Gospel.

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31. Do you believe God sends people to hell?

God sends nobody to hell. Hell is heaven experienced by people who refuse the love and grace of God. One second of hell is like eternity, but the God of love will not tolerate that anyone should remain endlessly in hell.

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32. Do you pray for the sick?

At every service and in private, we pray for the sick in general, and for those known to us by name.

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33. Do you pray for the dead?

We do. C.S. Lewis has given an explanation of prayer for the dead which represents the Orthodox point of view:

  • love does not die with the death of the beloved. Within his Body (the Church) Christ has broken every dividing wall, including that between the living and the dead. In Christ, all are one.

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34. How do you keep Lent?

Metropolitan Kallistos describes the task of Great Lent as 'Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.' He explains that the purpose of fasting is twofold:

1) preparing oneself for some decisive action; the change of diet plunges one into a degree of light-headedness which acts as an alarm clock; we waste the fast if that alarm clock does not wake us up to the need to define the decisive step which will be taken during the coming ten weeks; what decisive step? surely some essential step towards a more real relationship with God: removing an obstacle; perhaps also some essential step in human relations: resolving some tension.

2) besides removing some obstacle, taking a direct step towards a more direct encounter with God; for instance letting go of the harmful Western frame of mind which thinks that God is a reality which needs demonstrating (only an idol can be demonstrated; Nietzsche rightly proclaimed the death of a demonstrated God - his atheism does not touch the Orthodox approach to God, who is a living presence and no theory); and/or rooting the practice of the Jesus Prayer in our daily life.

 

Fasting divorced from prayer is harmful, and can be demonic. Any change of diet which either makes us irritable or makes us feel superior to others points to a dangerous lack of adequate prayer.

 

The almsgiving which must accompany fasting can take many forms, but it has to be something quite specific: giving practical help to someone; changing my attitude to someone so that it is manifested in very specific actions; forgiving someone and beginning a new type of relationship with that person. Great Lent will only happen if this element happens concretely. Now is the moment to plan it.

 

The Forgiveness Service in the afternoon of Forgiveness Sunday is not an exercise for the pious few; it is a top priority for all. It has to be followed by some specific gesture within the parish: getting to know someone I see at the Liturgy but do not know personally; or getting to know and understand better someone in the parish I only know vaguely; or becoming friends with someone I should appreciate better.

 

Great Lent is not a time for the exercise of my will, but a time when I welcome a new grace from God. Great Lent is not a time when I strengthen my will - it is a time when I become more obedient, more rooted in the tradition of the Orthodox Church, when my Christianity becomes more coloured by the positive influence someone else can have on me.

 

Great Lent must be a time of greater joy and of greater appreciation of the whole of creation. Not as vague resolutions but as something for which I make time and towards which I pray and invite God's grace within me.

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35. Are monasteries important in your Church?

Monasteries are the heart of the Orthodox Church. They are not a marginal part of our Church. People visit monasteries to deepen their roots in the Tradition and prayer life of the Orthodox Church.

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36. How do you use the Bible?

The Bible is central in the life of the Orthodox Church, but it is not placed above the Church (as in Protestantism) nor is it read in a fundamentalist way, as if it were a source of scientific knowledge or an infallible text. The bible is read in the context of the worship and entire life of the Church: the Holy Spirit is ever guiding the Church in her interpretation of her Scriptures.

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37. What is your Church's attitude to ecology?

As Christians we believe that what happens to our Planet is entirely linked to our relationship with God. Ecology means taking our God-given responsibilities within God’s creation. The Orthodox Church as an institution underlines the importance of ecology, for instance the Church New Year (1st September) is the ‘Day of Prayer for the protection of the Environment.’

Our trust in God, far from absolving us from responsibility towards the environment, prevents us from either shrugging our shoulders our of blind selfishness, or out of despair.

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38. Do you work with Christians of other countries?

We have frequent contacts with Orthodox and other Christians in France, North America and several countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

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39. Do you have links with parishes in Eastern Europe?

Several members of our parish live and work in Russia, and this has led to long-term contacts with Orthodox parishes in that country.

Our parish has also been the temporary spiritual home of a number of people from Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine and Russia, who keep in touch after their return to their home country

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40. Do you have links with Palestinian Christians?

Most Palestinian Christians are members of the Orthodox Church, and we consider it important to receive news from them, pray fro them, and support them in any possible way.

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41. How do you relate to Christians of other Churches?

It is important never to take the risk of saying or thinking that Christ is not at work in Churches other than ours. We have the duty to know and to relate to the other Christian communities around us. That means neither intercommunion nor full agreement on all aspects of the Christian Faith. It means acquiring a solid experience of their faith, worship and community life. ‘Love your neighbour’ excludes ‘have no dealings with your neighbour.’

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42. Do you relate to the Jewish community?

We have a major priority duty to dispose of accumulated false ideas about Judaism, not merely because we can see how they played a role in causing the Holocaust, but simply because lies are untrue.

An Anglican priest, James Parkes, launched during the second world war the foundations of a Christian discovery of Judaism. Much work has been done since, but little by our Orthodox Church. Our Bath parish is deeply involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

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43. Do you relate to the Muslim community?

Of course. Besides the obvious necessity to establish fraternal relations with local mosques, we need also to discover the depth and beauty of Islam, for instance by studying the writings of Al Ghazali.

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44. Are all religions the same for you?

No. Different religions assert very different sets of belief. Rowan Williams has put it very clearly:

  • Christian theology says that the world exists because of the utterly free decision of a holy power that is more like personal life than anything else; that we can truthfully speak of as if it had mind and will. It says that the purpose of this creation is that what is brought into being from nothing should come to share as fully as possible in the abundant and joyful life of the maker. For intelligent beings, this involves exercising freedom – so that the possibility is there of frustrating one’s own nature by wrong and destructive choices. The purpose of God to share the divine life is so strong, however, that God acts to limit the effects of this destructiveness and to introduce into creation the possibility of an intensified relation with the divine through the events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, above all in his sacrificial death. This new relation, realised by the Spirit of God released in Jesus’s rising from the grave, is available in the life of the community that gathers to open itself to God’s gift by recalling Jesus and listening to the God-directed texts which witness to this history.

So what matters for the Christian? That the world is for joy and contemplation before it is for use (because it comes from God’s freedom and delight, not to serve the purpose of a selfish divine ego); that our account of our own human nature and its needs is dangerously fallible and that we are more limited than we can know in our self-understanding; that it is God’s gift in a particular and unique set of events in the world that it becomes possible for us to be released from some of the most lethal effects of this fallibility; and that the new possibility is bound in with life in community centred on praise and listening and mutual nurture. This is the Christian universe in (very) small space. It must argue against other traditions that the world comes from and as deliberate gift (Buddhists would disagree), that our self-deception is so radical and deep-seated that we cannot be healed by the revelation of divine wisdom and law alone (Jews and Muslims would disagree), that our healing is a ‘remaking’ effected through a once and for all set of events (Muslims and Hindus would disagree). The Christian must argue that because this picture of the universe makes the fullest allowance possible for human failure and self-deceit and gives the most drastic account possible of divine presence in addressing this failure (God coming to inhabit creation in Jesus), it has a good claim to comprehensiveness as a view of how things are.

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45. Do you think you have a monopoly on truth?

In no way. Human beings do not own the truth, they do not own God, they are not the divine judges of other human beings. The truth makes claims on us. The Revelation of God limits clearly what we can say truthfully. But it does not entitle us to rule out any insight into truth by other religious traditions. A group of Jewish theologians, a few years ago, brought out a document entitled ‘Dabru Emet,’ ‘They speak truth,’ about people following other faiths. They did not say, ‘They speak The truth.’ Christians can do the same.

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46. Why do you only have communion in your own Church?

In the Orthodox Church, Holy Communion is by no means just a link between one individual and Christ. It is the climax of the celebration of the Messianic work of Christ, gathering the broken fragments of the creation into One Life. Ideally, it should be the feasting of entirely achieved unity, within the human race, within the Universe, and between those two aspects of reality and God...

It is obvious that at this stage, Christ's work of gathering the pieces is not yet complete. To behave as if it were would be harmful, because it would either mean that there is no longer any division to be healed in the entire creation (disregarding the evident and painful fact of continuing divergences, and of violent conflict everywhere), or it would mean that a totalitarian pseudo-unity can be imposed on the entire human race (and that would be the kingdom of the anti-Christ, of which 20th century totalitarian regimes have been a foretaste).

When I attend a Shabbat service in a Synagogue, I do not expect to be invited to read from the Torah Scroll: I am not Jewish and I respect the difference. If I were to go to a Mosque, I would not share in the prayers, because I would cease to be a Christian by becoming a Muslim. When I attend a Roman Catholic Church, I do not take Communion, because the Roman Catholic Church equates submission to the Pope with membership of the Church, and, for me, as an Orthodox Christian, that is in conscience impossible. When I attend an Anglican church, I do not take Communion, because within the Anglican Church one has to be in Communion with Bishops who deny every article of the Creed, with other Bishops who proclaim Calvinism as their faith, and deny that the Orthodox Church is a Christian body: agreeing to any of that would require my leaving the Orthodox Church. So, given present circumstances, I have no choice but limit my sacramental life to the Orthodox Church. That most emphatically does not mean that I believe God is not at work in other Christian Churches and in other Faiths: I could on no account subscribe to that!

I cannot conclude without a basic explanation about Holy Communion, our "feeding on Christ." This central aspect of the Christian life requires from every Christian two distinct activities. On the one hand, we are asked to leave our personal isolation from others, and come together for the Eucharistic Liturgy. We cannot be truly human or truly Christian as an isolated individual. Neither earthly survival nor eternal destiny are a possibility for an isolated individual. That is true in practical terms: we need others to be born and to go on living. It is true in religious terms: God's salvation is the gathering of his creation, not the separation of an elite.

On the other hand, Holy Communion requires a constant personal effort to leave behind our little ego, and join Saint Paul in saying, 'It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me' (Galatians 2: 20). How can we do that? By going down with the mind into the heart, the chest, and there watch our attitudes: emotional reactions to people and events, frustrations, anxieties, thoughts of many kinds. These must be transformed through contact with Christ and his teaching. It takes a lifetime.

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47. How do you reply to an atheist like Richard Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins, like various other authors who share an ideological platform with him, denounces and derides all religions, theistic or otherwise. I assume that you only wish me to reply to Richard Dawkins's denial of God.

Richard Dawkins is right when he points out that belief in one more being alongside the Universe does not make sense. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus would entirely agree with him. Richard Dawkins does himself an injustice when he writes that believing in God is like believing that there is a teapot orbiting the sun. I suspect few people believe that there is a teapot orbiting the sun. But a much greater number of people, both among those who believe in God and those who reject belief in God, do actually hold the bizarre notion that God, as if he were a finite being, is one more existence alongside the universe. None of the great religious traditions holds such a belief. They all assert clearly that the entire Creation adds nothing to God.

God is infinite. God is "beyond being." God is the incomprehensible ultimate Reality in whom the whole universe exists, and who is entirely present within everything that exists. Therefore, to try to prove or disprove God seems to be a waste of time. What are you trying to prove? What are you trying to disprove?

Richard Dawkins and his associates do not seem to have come across the teaching of the various major theistic traditions about God. Richard Dawkins battles justifiably against many vicious, intolerant and totalitarian attitudes found among religious as well as non-religious people. He is less justified when he ascribes those attitudes exclusively to religious people. Richard Dawkins pronounces as ridiculous beliefs which all major religious traditions also pronounce as ridiculous. The real problem with Richard Dawkins is that he monologues in highly emotional language, ridiculing beliefs which are not part of the official teaching of any religion. It is unfortunate that some of the people who publish replies to him join him in using inflammatory rhetoric.

More serious dialogue has been established by academic specialists who know well both theistic (i.e. Jewish, Christian, Muslim) and non-theistic cultures (like Buddhism). In this instance, the non-theistic specialists are not anti-religious ideologues, but deeply religious people who reject nihilism and firmly believe in an eternal destiny.

I believe that the key issue between religion and anti-religion holds in the question, "do human beings have a destiny beyond death?" rather than the messy arguments around the "existence" of God. The issue of the eternal destiny of human beings is far from simple! Many who believe in it, and many who don't, talk as if they owned the ultimate answer about our destiny beyond death! I personally believe that nihilism is intellectually untenable. But I am not sure I would convince a determined nihilist. My reason for rejecting nihilism is that the absence of eternal truth and eternal destiny would deprive the universe, and also human language, of coherence. Nihilism limits reality and life to a hand-to-mouth temporary survival; it limits truth to utilitarian statements. Many people seem satisfied with that. It contradicts my own experience of life.

Experience rather than argument is the answer to Richard Dawkins. Our experience of Christ first of all. We do have direct access to Christ in Holy Communion, in the New Testament and in going down into our heart with our mind, replacing the frequent agitation there with the presence of Jesus Christ, 'who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him.' We have further experience of Christ through the persons he entirely fills, the greatest Saints. For instance Saint Seraphim. One sentence in his biography summarises for me his entire life and the presence of Christ-God in him, 'Father Seraphim was truly the guardian angel of his people; he believed himself responsible for all the evil that lay spread out before him, and that is why his supplications and tears increased in intensity as the number of his sons and daughters grew.' The answer is therefore not an aggressive talking back, but the slow, painful, patient work of allowing Christ to fill our lives.

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48. What is an icon?

An icon is not just a work of religious art. It is part of the worship life of the Orthodox Church. Every church has on either side of the Royal Doors (the entrance into the altar space) two icons: on the right, Christ holding the Gospel Book, and on the left, Christ as a child in his Mother’s arms. One icon stresses the fact that Christ brings the Revelation of God, and the other, that he is a genuine and historical human being. Icons are never naturalistic pictures: they represent the human body transfigured by the grace of God. The perspective is inverted, so that the onlooker is the focus: the icon reminds us that heaven sees us; they represent our faith, but not a real window into heaven. The window is from heaven into us!

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49. Aren't icons idols?

Icons are directly related to God’s incarnation in Jesus. In Hebrews, 1: 3 it is said that Christ is ‘the express image of his (God’s) person.’ As Christians, we believe that whoever sees Christ, sees ‘the express image of God.’ Seeing Christ is not seeing the essence of God – that is invisible and unknowable in all eternity – but what we see is a human face filled with the presence of God. If God were not incarnate in Christ, then idols would be idolatrous. Besides being a reminder of the incarnation of Christ, icons are venerated as ‘pointers,’ ‘reminders’ of a heavenly reality, and the Orthodox Church teaches scrupulously that the veneration goes to the person represented, not the material object.

But what about icons of Saints? These are reminders that salvation is by integration into the Body of Christ: Saints – and their icons – are venerated on the basis of their incorporation into Christ, and in no way as individuals separate from Christ himself. Indeed the presence of numerous icons in churches is essentially a pointer to the fact that any worship is always the gathering of the entire Body of Christ in heaven and on earth, and not of the local congregation only.

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50. Does your Church consider idolatry to be a serious sin?

Idolatry is fatal. It replaces the living God with a false god: an ideology, a distorted perception of God, either as the great Sadist, or as a hypothetical ‘being’ alongside the universe: its ‘first cause’, ‘the principle of explanation of the universe.’ All three produce spiritual crises. No ideological system can save us: they are only human blueprints. The Sadist who sends everyone except the members of a privileged religious club to hell is an idol in the image of Hitler or Stalin. God as an idea which explains the universe is also something produced by the human reason: hardly a living person.

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51. What is sin?

Sin is separation from God, giving up all hope, relinquishing all responsibility.

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52. Isn't religion too moralistic?

Jesus said, ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’

There are conflicting stereotypes of Christian communities; on the one hand, Churches come over as authoritarian, with a sex-obsessed morality; on the other hand, many feel that Christians nowadays are prepared to go along with anything trendy and overthrow any moral sense. Undoubtedly, such extremes exist. However, generally speaking, Christian and other religious groups attempt to provide everyone with a loving welcome. The aim of the Christian Church is not moral self-improvement, but entering into a relationship with the living God, accepting his grace which transforms and transfigures us

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53. What books can I read about your Church?

By Metropolitan Kallistos:

  • ‘The Orthodox Church’
  • ‘The Orthodox Way’
  • ‘The Power of the Name’
  • ‘The Inner Kingdom’

By Fr Alexander Schmemann:

  • ‘For the Life of the World’
  • ‘Of Water and the Spirit’
  • ‘Great Lent’

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