My Conversion Story

People have asked me for my “Easter conversion story” before, and since today is Holy Wednesday*, it seems like as good a time as any to talk about this.

Why? I don’t know. Maybe you’ll find it interesting. Or inspiring. Or crazy. I’m sure some “rational skeptic” will tell me it’s a “chemical phenomena akin to insanity that shouldn’t be viewed as proving anything other than the delusion-holder’s personal subjective experience,” and so on.

(Boy, wait until I tell the story about when I had an honest-to-God prophetic vision . . .)

Whatever. All I know is what I’ve experienced and you can take it or leave it. The important starting point for this particular story is that, from the ages of about fifteen to seventeen, I was an atheist.

Or thought I was. Things changed on Good Friday when I was 17.

Let’s back up a little bit though. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church. Both of my parents are 100% Greek with either parents or grandparents from the old country. On my mother’s side, my grandfather is a priest, and so was his father. There were more in the family, but I don’t know how far back it goes.

My experiences with the church were generally positive. I rather enjoyed seeing my pappou up there doing the service and giving communion, and we always went out to breakfast afterwards. Orthodoxy focus a lot on the mystical, the afterlife, the resurrection, and the love of Christ . . . as well as the wages of sin. This didn’t bother me, nor was it prohibitively frightening. In fact, it made sense: Disobeying your own parents and ignoring tradition and common sense lead to big trouble. Why wouldn’t ignoring your heavenly Father lead to the same?

And the fact that there was a Creator didn’t bother me at all either. Everything has to come from something, I thought. And even to this day, “Everything spontaneously came into being in perfect order for no reason and with no cause whatsoever” remains an unsatisfying leap of faith to make.

No, what first got me as I got older was the idea of the Resurrection.

I remember on my way to church with the family when I was 14. It might have been Easter; I can’t remember. What I do remember is expressing skepticism that Jesus Christ really rose from the dead. “I get all the other stuff,” I said, “but how do we know he didn’t just die?”

My family didn’t quite know how to answer. Continue reading “My Conversion Story”

Five Interesting Points from The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis

“An explanation of what happens to you when you die” is sort of the lazy man’s answer to the question of “What is the purpose of religion?” This is true, but it is only a part of it.

The question of what happens after death has enthralled, and indeed scared the hell out, of human beings since we first became aware, unique to all other creatures, that we will, in fact, die at some point, and that this death is inevitable.

This is what author and theologian Nikolaos P. Vassilidis attempts to shed some light on in The Mystery of Death, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective. Published in Greek in 1993 and later translated by Father Peter A. Chamberas, Vassilidis, a member of the Orthodox Brotherhood of Theologians has taken Scripture and the teachings of the Holy Fathers and compiled them in a lengthy tomb big on what Scripture and logical analysis tells us and light on speculation.

It’s heavy reading, as you can imagine.

Religion, most religions at least, deal with more than just what happens when you die. But questions surrounding the end of life are obviously incredibly important, questions such as:

  • Why do human beings know they will die?
  • Why do we die?
  • Why are we here if we’re destined to die?
  • And of course, what happens next?

Vassiliadis relies heavily on the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Symeon, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Nikodemos, and other luminaries of the pre-Schism Church, as well as more recent Orthodox scholars like Georges Florovsky and Justin Popovic. It’s a well-researched book that offered a lot of eye-opening revelations about what death is, why we die, sin and repentance, and what comes after.

It’s tough to do a typical review of this book other than to say I highly recommend it to any Christian, Orthodox or not (although Catholics will probably have an easier time with it than most other denominations). So as with my discussion of Moses Maimonides’s The Guide for the Perplexed, I think it’d be more useful to go over a few of the more interesting points Vassiliadis makes:

Continue reading “Five Interesting Points from The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis”

Book Review: The Dean Died Over Winter Break: The First Chronicle of Brother Thomas by Christopher Lansdown

If you’re into classic “whodunit?” stories, have I got a book for you. The Dean Died Over Winter Break, the newest novel by Christopher Lansdown, will wrap you up like a warm blanket. I’ll admit that this isn’t my preferred genre of novel. Maybe this makes me less-qualified to review this book; who knows? But the concept is so unique I had to give it a shot.

You see, our two detectives are friars from the Franciscan Brothers of Investigation. That’s right, two members of a Franciscan orders–friars and not monks, as explained in the book–named Brother Thomas and Brother Francis, are tasked by their order to investigate the murder of the unloved Dean of Yalevard college in upstate New York. With the help of grad student Sonia Figueroa and their friend and sometimes co-detective Michael Chesterton, our Brothers try to crack the seemingly perfect crime.

And oh yeah: it’s their first murder case.

Christopher Landsdown

The Dean Died Over Winter Break is infused with a healthy dose of Catholic theology and philosophy, as you could imagine, written by one with extensive knowledge of both.

And boy is this book full of philosophy! In fact, nearly every character speaks with a near encyclopedic knowledge of philosophical schools of thought. If you enjoy lengthy digressions into ontological disputes, the nature of sin, and even bits of world history, then this is the book for you. Oh yeah, there’s the murder-solving stuff to, but I get the feeling that Christopher had a lot of fun with these discussions.

And that brings me to my main critique of The Dean Died Over Winter Break. I felt that the murder mystery aspect, which was arguably the most well-done part of the book, faded a bit in the background. Seriously, the sleuthing and clue-gathering and interviewing were fantastic . . . but seemed pushed aside in favor of the lengthy intellectual debates. I wanted more mystery stuff, especially since Christopher’s characters are likable, and he threw in enough credible misdirections and red herrings to really catch the reader off-guard.

And when the Brothers do crack the case, it makes perfect sense, which is a badge of honor for any murder mystery worth its salt.  Continue reading “Book Review: The Dean Died Over Winter Break: The First Chronicle of Brother Thomas by Christopher Lansdown”

Recapturing the Awe

Lent is here. It’s a big deal to the faithful, the biggest deal of all.

Fasting. Prayer. I don’t think I need to get into what Lent is. How about we chat about what Lent isn’t?

Lent is not suffering for suffering’s sake.The purpose of fasting for 40 days (Eastern tradition) or giving something up for 40 days (Western) isn’t to make you miserable. It’s to provide focus and clarity.

The Resurrection is the central tenet of Christianity. If it were false, if it never happened, all would be, as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in vain:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

–1 Corinthians 15:12-18

So yes, Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection, is a big deal. Millions, like St. Paul himself, have died for it. This is why the Lenten period is so important. Continue reading “Recapturing the Awe”

Peak Virtue

What does it mean to be virtuous? What does the end-game look like?

It’s a weird question, sure. But it seems to be a question not too many speak about.

Here’s what I mean: If you’re a Christian, “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40, Luke 6:28-30) has probably been said to you by people who hate Christianity–and likely other Christians!–to discourage you from fighting back against anything, ever.

But this is silly, right? That’s not what God wants, to let us be patsies and doormats and get rolled by any evildoer whoever happens to come along with ill-intent towards us.

After all, what’s more virtuous: To stand up and fight against those would world enslave or exterminate you, or keep you from proper worship of God? Or to refuse to fight until your enemy runs the world, and you and your children and grandchildren are in abject misery but at least you can say “Man, I turned the other cheek like a goddamn champ!

See what I mean?

This isn’t going to be a verse-slinging post, or a theological one. But I think this example makes a good point out of pinning down what is virtue and how does one practice virtue?

I’ve presented a little bit of an unfair binary question here, but let’s play it out for a bit. Virtue is either:

  1. Standing by your principles, even if it means you and your loved ones die; or
  2. Occasionally violating a principle or principles now in order to prevent ruin and damnation for future generations.

I think it’s pretty clear that this is a difficult choice to make, one that will make the principled feel “icky” (a technical term). But it might be the most difficult choice a man faced in his life.

What would a deontologist do? If you “always do what is right,” do you aid the wounded man you know for certain was about to rape and murder your wife because “it’s the right thing to do” (give aid to the wounded) even though that man will resume trying to rape and murder your wife, or do you let the attempted rapist/murderer die?

Which is objectively better? Which is right? Which is virtuous? Continue reading “Peak Virtue”

Physicality = Mentality = Spirituality

 

Here we are in February, and I can reflect upon two New Year’s Resolutions I decided to make in late December:

  1. Adhere to every Greek Orthodox fast day in 2018
  2. Lose some fat

No, these two things aren’t unrelated. And I have done both before. But this year, I felt that I needed a little spiritual cleansing as well as physical cleansing, which often lead to mental and emotional cleansing. It sounds esoteric, but to paraphrase  Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes (who you should follow if you’re in any way interested in fitness):

Physicality = mentality = spirituality

Everything is connected. I’ve written about the benefits of fasting before, and I stand by my assertion that “When I’m not worrying about the food I consume, I start to think about the other stuff I consume.”

I’ve also discussed my thoughts about physical fitness, and how it helps improve other aspects of my life. It’s amazing what a little self-discipline and enforced unpleasantness can do–let’s face it, lifting feels good, but there are some days when you just don’t want to go to the gym.

strength01

Lastly, I’ve discussed how the only way to get anything done and done well is to get obsessed and stay obsessed. Ruthless focus is what you need. At least in my life, when I haven’t been obsessed with something, I just kind of meander around.

This isn’t a post to brag, although I’ve been pleased with my results. Instead, I’d like to hopefully inspire anyone reading this to

So let’s put this all together. First, we’ll go over what I’m doing, and then we’ll go over what I’ve learned. Continue reading “Physicality = Mentality = Spirituality”

Overcoming Individualism

Hi. I’m Alex, and I’m a recovering individualist.

This isn’t tantamount to “becoming a radical collectivist”–I feel like I have to say this for the either/or crowd. Anyway, the point is that it’s difficult to get a herd of individualists to get things done.

Yes, I oppose oppressive state control. Yes, I believe everyone should be free to work towards achieving their goals. But what I’ve had to overcome is self-reliance at the expense of taking a stand or associating with anyone or anything, ever.

It’s romantic to be the “Lone man who knows the TRUTH defying the masses!” But the chances of that guy getting anything practical done himself are slim to none, and his chances of getting squashed by the collectivist state he decries are high.

This is why history has so few successful rebellions of one. Even Jesus had friends.

Brian Niemeier sums it up nicely:

It’s been said before, and it bears saying again: Conservatives’ main weakness is their critical lack of solidarity. It comes from the nasty individualist streak in their capitalist and Liberal influences.

You see how this also relates to organized religion and the knee-jerk reaction many have to it. “Don’t tell me what to do!” can quickly become “I already have all the answers and don’t need help, and. . .”–here’s the damning part–“. . . I won’t risk my neck for anyone else.”

It’s like centrism, really, the pose of being “above it all“: “Don’t associate me with THOSE people, even though I secretly agree with them.”

In order to make any kind of impact, it really takes teamwork. Again, for the binary thinkers, this isn’t the same as saying “Become a communist!” It’s saying don’t be hostile to teams or communities of the like-minded.

As with the absence of great moderates in history, you’ll find few successful individuals who weren’t able to mobilize a serious following through techniques that hardcore individualists claim to hate.

I’m talking rhetoric, imagery, focusing on shared identities and characteristics–in short, the things that make us similar as opposed to the things that make us different.

If “Our differences are what make us stronger,” than Yugoslavia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire would still be things, there never would’ve been trouble between England and Ireland, and racial harmony would have been prevalent in the United States since it’s inception.

Let’s tie this back to organized religion for a second. How presumptuous to believe one knows everything, as though the work of church Fathers never existed. We don’t do the same with science, so we? Or with the arts?

Actually, we do with the arts, which is a problem. But I digress. Continue reading “Overcoming Individualism”