On the strength of anecdotal evidence, I’m convinced people are now especially interested in apocalyptic themes. Social unrest, fires, climate change, a global pandemic—all of these evoke themes found in apocalyptic texts from numerous traditions. Christianity has its own narrative of what will happen at the end of all things. The variety of interpretations that are offered, though, leaves us to wonder whether people are satisfied with what they find when they look to these texts. The idea of apocalypse intrigues us, but the question of how to draw sustenance from it remains.
If we look at Mark 13, for example, we are stunned by images that would portend disaster, should they actually occur. I propose that one helpful way to look at this chapter is to understand its images as portrayals of the kinds of trauma that sometimes occur at the extreme edges of our existence, and to understand its admonitions as pertinent to moments in which trauma separates us from our usual sources of assurance.
The church of Hagia Sophia was the preeminent monument of Christian architecture and an active church for almost a millennium until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when the clergy and people were slaughtered as they celebrated their last Liturgy. Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque for Muslim prayers until 1934, when the new secular leadership of the Turkish state declared it a museum. Hagia Sophia was preserved as a tourist site, and no prayers of any kind were allowed. However, earlier this year, the Turkish government under the leadership of President Erdogan, restarted Muslim prayers. Hagia Sophia became a mosque again.
For the current president of Turkey and his supporters, the meaning of this event is clear: the ascendancy, supremacy, and inevitable victory of Islam. For Orthodox Christians—and for all Christians who are aware of it—the event is a source of anguish. These two meanings are clear and incompatible.
In a recent piece in the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie writes:
Our society was built on the racial segmentation of personhood. Some people were full humans, guaranteed non-enslavement, secured from expropriation and given the protection of law, and some people – blacks, Natives and other nonwhites – were not. That unequal distribution of personhood was an economic reality as well. It shaped your access to employment and capital; determined whether you would be doomed to the margins of labor or given access to its elevated ranks; marked who might share in the bounty of capitalist production and who would most likely be cast out as disposable. (“Beyond ‘White Fragility’“)
These words are a vivid backdrop for reflecting on the economics of Father Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944). They provide the social parameters for appreciating the insights of one of the most profound and creative Orthodox theologians of the 20th century. While Bulgakov does not pretend to solve the problem of poverty, he offers a prophetic voice for how the Church can address, in an industrialized context, the social structures that foster it. He extends the work of previous pastor theologians who recognized that social structures perpetuate social and economic disparity.
It was with academic and existential interest that I read two summer yoga essays by Aristotle Papanikolaou and Metropolitan Konstantinos. As a scholar of South Asian religions engaged in interreligious work, and as a proponent of the comparative theological project among Orthodox, I found much that resonated, not only in terms of accurately reflecting the benefits of yoga practice, but the constructive Orthodox hermeneutic by which we should encounter the religious Other.
The reader should know that much ink has been spilt on the origins of yoga, its development into the modern period, and even what is meant by the word “yoga.” The Sanskrit root yuj means “to unite, join, or connect.” (The word yoke is an Indo-European cognate.) Generically, then, yoga simply means “union”—and it is possible to unite the mind/body organism, or oneself to Śiva or to non-dual Hindu understandings of the divine Self or to the Trinitarian God. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain schools and lineages use the term yoga differently, tracing practices to different ancient texts and teachers. Practices will vary. The encounter of East and West in the colonial period has had as much to do with what yoga is today than many would care to admit. By the way, not every Hindu does yoga. Hindus might be surprised to hear that yoga is “integral” to Hinduism, the word used by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece—at least if that means everyone practices yoga or is an absolutely necessary soteriological practice, though Hindus would almost universally agree that it is beneficial and salutary in the pursuit of liberation (mokṣa), variously conceived. While we are at it, most English-speaking Hindus don’t refer to their tradition as a religion at all. Rather, “Hinduism is a way of life.” Sound familiar?