Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

When Truth Becomes Buried in Dogma

Yvonne Seng

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CAIRO: Archbishop Damianos is from a line of holy men who contemplate the soul of the planet. For what seems like eternity, the Greek Orthodox monks of Saint Catherine's monastery in the Sinai have gazed at the ancient stars to find the face of God. Now satellites crisscross their perfect night sky.

Today's monks continue in the study of dusty texts and in meditation of the otherworldly landscape, where Moses received the 10 Commandments, our moral guidebook.

But sitting opposite the Holy Father of the Desert, one can't help but think how unreal it all seems, how divorced these men are from the realities of the outside world. Behind high walls on a Sunday morning, they sit eating ice-cream cake trucked in refrigerated vans from the outside, while only feet away the Universal Herd swarms around their refuge. Holy pilgrims, hardened tourists, and the just-plain curious come from around the planet to climb Mount Moses, check out the icons, have a religious experience.

Behind the stone walls of the fortress, these men are isolated from the wars, poverty, violence, even daily stresses. They have retreated from the mess. In so doing perhaps they have traded one bloody hardship post for another.

Because of their majestic isolation, however, bounded by stark nature, the monks also have a unique perspective of the planet. Life on the margin allows them to pull back and to think in longer, broader terms.

Asked for his views of our recent advances in science and technology, Archbishop Damianos' answers, rooted in history, are directed by a spiritual compass.

"Our knowledge here is so small, so small," he says. "I think that we exist as a small atom, with small knowledge.

"Throughout history," he says, "dogma has been mistaken for knowledge."

Throughout history there have been fights between Eastern and Western Christianity - between Occidental and Oriental, between Catholicism and Protestantism. Over dogma.

"Even today, we are born into the Catholic Church or the Protestant Church," Damianos points out, "or the Anglican Church, or the Orthodox Church. So there will be always religious points of difference between Christians. It is really a very sensitive issue, but we still have a good chance. Through love in Christ."

He elaborates: "You believe ... like the Orthodox, that you have a theoretical basis and you accept it. But it is has to be more than theory. Teaching is alright, but it must also be practical. Practice. On its own, teaching is nothing," he says.

Outside the window rises the dramatic Jebel Mousa. Before meeting with Damianos, I climbed the mountain in the predawn darkness with hundreds of strangers from across the globe. From Korea to Kansas, our individual and social psyches have been shaped by the Thou-Shalt-Nots of this place.

"And the 10 Commandments," I ask, adding: "In practice, the laws of Moses, are the ancient teachings still relevant?"

"The commandments were excellent guides," he says, "but not enough."

Social divisions, and social problems such as drug abuse, poverty and AIDS can be traced to the entanglement of dogma is our modern life, he explains.

"Social problems are also theological problems," he says.

So, is the destruction of the environment a theological problem?

"It is a symptom of the chaos in which we now live," he says. "We naturally suffer from our own actions. For example, atomic energy is common now. Nuclear warheads can be made from it. All right, this is dangerous. Even the testing of these weapons leaves nuclear particles in the atmosphere. We must stop it."

The archbishop believes we now have the ability to destroy the earth more than at any other time in history, that the Second Coming will be a result of our mistakes involving technology - not of technology alone, but of technology without spirituality.

"God gives us liberty," he says, "but because we claim to be God, then we make ourselves into holy men."

If scientists are not men with spirituality, he warns, then the present advances in science are dangerous. Whatever benefits humanity, we should keep. If a particular technology has the potential for catastrophe in human life, however, then we must stop it.

In voicing these concerns, the archbishop joins Pope John Paul II, who in his agenda for new millennium called for a moratorium on certain scientific research. High on the Pope's list was cloning. Although the two leaders may be poles apart on matters of Christology, they are united on this issue.

"To control life," the archbishop says, "to have, for example, men like copies. Like cloning. Okay, we know we can do this, but we also know this is not okay. Then we should give glory to God for what we have discovered, then stop it."

He emphasizes that what we think we create or invent, we only discover. That is, it already existed in God's knowledge.

"We believe that what we discover is a miracle," he says. "That it has come out of our own hat. We make ourselves into gods. We make ourselves divine through our own efforts, not through the spirit."

When asked for his opinion of spiritual life in our technological age, he raises his hands in frustration.

"Egoism," he says bluntly. "We act from our heads, not our hearts. ... Our hearts are the chairs for our spirit," he says. "Our heads are the chairs for the ego."

He is referring to the value of spiritual experience.

Like his colleague the grand sheikh of Islam, Sheikh Tantawi of Al-Azhar, the archbishop also advocates cooperation and the need for understanding. He points to a circle he has drawn on my notepad and to the need for us all to move towards the center from wherever we are on or within that circle.

He explains that each person, according to his or her own religion or religious belief, should move as close to the center as possible. The center is the world of the spirit.

As you move toward the center, he instructs, you experience the spiritual life. Book learning and theory are not enough. Commandments and laws are helpful, sure. But the paradox of the spiritual life, is that range precedes depth.

"We are all creations," he says, "and we are all a point of creation. The Orthodox follows but in a different way."

Christianity, now a minority within the Middle East, is decreasing proportionately in the world. And, although the Greek Orthodox Church is one of the largest of the Eastern line, Orthodoxy is a minority within even the Christian world. I ask the archbishop how the Greek Orthodox Church defines its identity under these pressures to survive and what beliefs keep them going.

"We believe our mission for all the world is not to increase the number of Orthodox in the world," he says, "but to provide a good example for all people. By praying more, by being more mystical, more spiritual. That is the meaning of Orthodox."

One wonders if the past doesn't hold some guiding wisdom for the future. According to the desert father, however, the past is no example for the future.

"If we are looking to the past to find truth ... we are not going to find it," he says.

Looking over our shoulders for a more simple and uncomplicated world, free from the stresses and problems that currently plague us, is not the answer. That perfect past is another of our inventions. Like Lot's wife, we can't go back.

"We need to return to spirituality," Archbishop Damianos says. And we should not confuse spirituality with dogma.

Truth, like faith, has been changed over the centuries by the minds of men.

Truth has become buried in dogma. The head - not the heart - now rules society and religion. The chair now sits on the sitter.

Yvonne Seng, author of Men in Black Dresses: Quest for the Future Among Wisdom Makers of the Middle East, is a cultural historian specializing in the Middle East and Turkey.

Read this article on the the Daily Star website.

Posted: May 29, 04

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