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The Orthodox Ethos Podcast
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Episode 14
May 17th, 2020

The Spiritual and Ecclesiastical Crisis We Now Face: An Interview with Professor of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Demetrios Tselingides (Part 1 of 3)

The First of a Three-part series of interviews with Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Demetrios Tselingides, on the Ecclesiastical and Spiritual Crisis We Now Face. 

We have a tremendous need in the Church today for the Patristic word, for answers to the faithful’s questions, and the challenges the Church is facing, based upon the teaching of the Holy Fathers. This is especially true for those outside of Greece, in the West, who are troubled and scandalized by the response which has been offered to date, and who are in search of consolation and clarity. Professor Tselengides comes to fill this need today. 

Professor Tselingidis’ depth of knowledge, education, studies, diligent research and labor have made him an internationally renowned academic theologian of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. His most important characteristic, however, is his work’s fidelity to the Holy Tradition and the Deposit of the Holy Fathers, a faithfulness he acquired by following experiential theologians of our day, such as Saints Paisios of Mt. Athos and Ephraim of Katounakia. He considers himself a humble minister, always emphasizing the absolute interrelation of right doctrine with the right way of life, distancing himself from the creation of a sterile, cold academic discourse.   

He is the author countless articles and seven books on Dogmatic Theology, covering a wide range of topics, including the theology of the icon, grace and freedom, critical studies of the doctrine of salvation in Luther and the satisfaction of divine justice in Anslem of Canterbury, the Soteriology of Western Christianity, and the presuppositions and criteria of Orthodox Theology. Through his many lectures, articles, and appeals to the hierarchy on pressing ecclesiastical matters such as the Orthodox-Roman Catholic, and Orthodox-Anti-Chalcedonian Dialogues, the documents of the Cretan council, and the Ukrainian schism Professor Tselingides has given much courage and consolation to the faithful. 

We come to him once again, during this time of troubles that the Church of Christ is facing, troubles not on account of a virus or pandemic, but on account of the undermining of, and departure from, the Orthodox Identity, Dogma and Ethos. 

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Transcript


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Interview with Professor Demetrios Tselingides (Part One)

Fr. Peter: The first thing I would like to ask you in this first part of our three-part interview, is the following: this crisis is presented first of all as a crisis related to health, private and public health, and now we are entering into an economic crisis worldwide. We don’t hear too often of the spiritual crisis, or the ecclesiastical crisis. How are we to respond to and encounter this state of things? How should we understand it and what are the messages God is sending us? How should we face and respond spiritually to this unprecedented situation?

Professor Tselingides: It is true that most people understand the crisis in a material sense. When an economic problem arises, a problem with employment, with making a living, this is when it is felt, because the man of our day has become a materialist. The spiritual dimension of man, which is the most fundamental, has been relegated to the margins, even within the life of the Church. In the recent past, a few decades earlier, twenty to thirty years ago, in light of the negative developments, into which we have already clearly entered, we did not pay proper attention [to what was happening] in order for us to prepare ourselves spiritually.

In the Old Testament we read, “Attend to yourself” (Deut. 6:12). St. Basil the Great has a whole treatise on this. The Fathers emphasize this, especially those of the hesychast tradition, where it has been associated with noetic prayer and is practically expressed as a readiness of the spirit. In other words, when a man prays with appropriate attention and is conscious of Whom he is talking to and what he is asking of Him (more on that later), in the Church this is called a stance that gives us a kind of spiritual readiness, so that, when an issue of great importance arises, whether on a personal or societal level, we may have trained our spiritual sensors and so be able to deal properly with the difficulties (and by “properly” I mean not in a worldly way but according to the will of God). We, all of the faithful in the Church, have equally received our healing at our baptism. Thus, we have no ontological or existential difficulty in keeping God’s commandments. On the contrary, God’s commandments are the specifications of being in the image of God, which we had. The only difference is that now we Orthodox Christians are at an advantage over the other people in that we have not only been healed by baptism and no longer have any weight or ancestral sicknesses (and much less does the evil one have any sort of power in us to direct us) but all of us faithful have equally received (equally, I repeat) the advantage of having the Kingdom of God within us, which Christ promised. This occurred by Holy Chrism. Yet although we equally received this Kingdom of God, it is not seen to be active in the vast majority of Christians (I do not wish to analyze this: I am simply mentioning it.) To what is this due? As St. Paisios aptly put it, it is because we are filled with rubble. This rubble is the various kinds of noetic “refuse of vainglory”, as St. John Chrysostom says, or simply our sins, which are purely the results of our free will, of our free choice of sin, and not of some internal ancestral sickness, since we have been healed. Because God is a God of gentleness and freedom, the grace of baptism is not expressed by force but remains inactive within us, although it is inalienable. It is as if we were not baptized, since we act, think, and speak like the rest of the world. Simply from this realization, we understand that because of sin we have spiritually become like those that aren’t even baptized. When, however, we desire to reactivate this Kingdom of God within us, this is very simple and easy. It has repentance as its starting point. Let us remember the parable of the formerly prodigal and thereafter saved son: the first action is to turn towards our father, towards God. This action is very much helped by God Himself. Even before we approach Him, He is depicted in the parable as being outside of the house and waiting for us, embracing and kissing us while sin is still upon us. Repentance, however, has already effected a first cleansing. We read that when the prodigal son went to his father, the father embraced him and kissed him lovingly on the neck: He “fell upon his neck, and ardently kissed him”, not simply “kissed him” (Luke 15:20). This means that God does not take issue so much with a man’s sin as with his lack of repentance. Realistically, this allows us to be very optimistic, that is, this first move on our part for this beginning which is uncreated inside of us, that is, the Kingdom of God, which defeats all the powers and Lucifer and his armies and, of course, death and sin. Therefore, thenceforth man does not act on the basis of fear, which defines his ethos, the quality of his life. The evil one, of course, uses fear as his instrument.

Fr. Peter: To keep a man from repenting.

Prof. Tselingides: To keep him from repenting… He makes it difficult for him to repent in this way: when a man commits sin, he provides space for the evil one to exist in.

Fr. Peter: He grants rights.

Prof. Tselingides: Rights to the evil one. And so, when a man wishes to drive him out of himself, the evil one does not leave because he is a bad master. He says, “I now have rights upon you. Since you gave me space, now I shall not come out, even if you believe that I should rightfully leave because you have denied me.” He is a bad tenant.

Fr. Peter: Is this seen primarily in habits?

Prof. Tselingides: It is can be expressed as a habit, but it can also be expressed by continual requests (“telegrams”, as St. Paisios would call them) which the evil one send us in the form of thoughts, which are craftily invested so as to seem logically beneficial, until we realize that we have been terribly deceived. But then, he brings us other difficulties (also seemingly logical) to stop us from repenting. There he presents shame. He does not present shame when a man is sinning but rather when a man is about to repent and confess.

Fr. Peter: This does not concern moral, bodily things only.

Prof. Tselingides: This concerns a man’s entire stance. What do we mean by a man’s entire stance? A man either turns towards God in repentance — and what does repentance mean? In Greek repentance means “I turn my mind in the opposite direction.” That is, I turn my back on what I was previously facing. I was facing the world, which “lieth in evil” (1 John 5:19), and consequently the entire civilization that I built within myself by my education, since this education and this civilization are largely the result of the worldly spirit, and so not of God. We do not need proofs to say this. “The whole world lieth in evil.” Therefore, whoever repents must turn his back on the worldly mindset, of which the devil is ruler. But this is not for the one moment when a man has realized one specific sin, since man is on the blade of a razor, meaning that, independently of his baptism, he is free to decide with his disposition to move towards the evil one and towards the world. But because the world surrounds us, especially in our day because of technology, which for example presents to us on television whatever filthy things exist in all the world (while in the past these things were not so widely known), and then because there is the internet, too, where someone can go whenever and as much as he wants, therefore man has become weighed down by this one-sided unloading into the dump that his soul has become. As a result it seems impossible for him to develop a spiritual life. The evil one tells him so, too. Yet things are not so. The Kingdom of God within us is not created but uncreated. In other words, it has the Divinity. The Divinity pulverizes all these things, even if they be reinforced concrete on our spirit and our heart, precisely because it is the divine power. The key, however, for the activation of this power, the “okay”, is found in freedom which is expressed as repentance. Repentance is simply the turn. Beyond that, all the things we have mentioned cannot be activated — a man can receive a downpayment, even from his turn alone — but all of these things are granted sacramentally. That is, the Church is the hospital that heals us. Christ Himself is the doctor, hierarchs and priests and others are the hospital’s staff, the medicines granted are perfect and do not leave behind even a scar of sickness. “Man is healed perfectly,” says St. John Chrysostom, because these medicines act uncreatedly. While they do have an external, material, sensory form, as is the case with the water of baptism, the holy water, the bread and the wine, within them is the Divinity. Thus, an icon also is equally a carrier of the uncreated divinity. Speaking of icons, St John of Damascus, for instance, says that a man is sanctified not only in his eyes— (in fact he characterizes them as the first sense). The eyes are sanctified when they behold an icon of the Church because it is a carrier of the grace of the one depicted. And when he venerates it, because that is a more proximate relationship, then particularly he does receive the grace of the saint. In this case, St. Theodore the Studite in the second phase of iconoclasm says that even if someone should say that the Divinity is present in the icon, he is not mistaken, except that it is by a union by grace. Thus, it’s not the paint, the wood, the metal that is sanctified, but rather the form that is depicted and to which the veneration goes. Thus, we are now speaking of a dogma of the Church, and I am elaborating a bit more on this because it is somewhat relevant to our times.

Fr. peter: We will have to return to this topic.

Prof. Tselingides: As you like. For now, with reference to this let me close by mentioning the dogmatic importance of this matter. In the minutes and decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council on the icons we read that whoever does not venerate them, if he be a priest he is defrocked, while if he be a layman he is excommunicated. Thus, it is not a good, pious tradition: if you like you venerate them, if not you don’t venerate. No: if you don’t venerate for any reason, then you are outside the Church. You will tell me, “So, all these people who do this, are they condemned, excommunicated?” I will say, “Yes”, regardless of the fact that they haven’t received a personal excommunication from the leadership of the Church because it doesn’t deal with this matter, and it does well in not dealing with it. The Church wants to inform you of the certification of what you will be living. In other words, just as we receive payment in full consciousness for every sin that deactivates the Kingdom within us— How? We do not have communion with God. Let someone ask himself if Christ is living within him while he is not keeping the specifications of the life of the Church (and by “specifications” I mean the dogmatic teaching). Let such a man claim, if he can, that Christ is living within him. The Ecumenical Council comes along and states this to help us, so that we won’t need to search long. It tells us, “Did you not do this? Now you are suffering the consequences.” Adam’s Creator, the bodiless Word, had told Adam not to eat of this fruit because if you eat of it you will die. “Did Adam die right after he ate it?” Yes, spiritually (since we are speaking of the spiritual life). Where is it seen that he died spiritually, that he no longer communed with his Creator? When he heard the sound of God’s feet, he hid and God asked, “Why did you hide?” Adam said, “I am naked.” “But you were always naked. Who told you that you are naked?” They have a whole conversation for Adam to repent, but Adam and Eve remain unrepentant. I wanted to speak of the spiritual death, which comes first, but I shall close here with the biological death, which God permits so that, when Adam sees in practice the wretched life that he has by not keeping the specifications, he repents and is saved; because Adam is now a saint. Eve too is a saint; she is in Paradise, because they repented. Here I shall stop. We have said much and can say much more, but I believe we have set the matter on a spiritual basis.

Fr. Peter: One thing you said, which is very important, is that the canons of the Church are spiritually applied immediately. Their administrative application is another story.

Prof. Tselingides: They might even be never applied administratively. That changes nothing. “Immediately” means “instantaneously”. Anyone can discover this. Look, this isn’t theory. I’ll tell you something simple that you can try experimentally. I used to tell this to my students. Let’s suppose that you are in a very good spiritual state. Put, permit, a blasphemous or evil thought to enter your heart. As soon as you have permitted it, consented to it, then again examine yourself, list yourself, and see what’s happening to you. You have nothing to do with God. The previous state has ceased to exist. In reverse, repent for whatever you are aware of doing. Deeply, existentially. Orient yourself toward Christ and say, “my Christ, I repent wholeheartedly for these things and do not wish to repeat them in any case to repeat them. I want to listen to you and live for you.” If you do not receive a downpayment of remission immediately in full consciousness — watch the words I am using. They aren’t mine; they are St. Symeon the New Theologian’s. — He says that if you do not feel this after repenting, before you even go to confession.

Fr. Peter: The next question is, “If spiritually this happens immediately, why do we have to go to confession?”

Prof. Tselingides: I shall respond to that afterwards. I am speaking of a downpayment. He says, “Then, if you do not see this thing in full consciousness,” that is, feel it in your soul and in your body, “then may I forfeit my salvation.” Look at that: he named the most precious thing he could! Nine hundred ninety eight years have passed since the repose of St. Symeon the New Theologian. That is, almost a thousand years. For a thousand years, the Church has been celebrating him as a saint and a great theologian. That means in practice that he was not proven wrong, that whoever does this will most certainly receive the downpayment. Because if he did not receive it, St. Symeon should have ceased being a saint. You will tell me, Is there no possibility of one not feeling this, of the Saint being proven wrong?” Yes, there is. It is when a man thinks that he has repented and then confessed, but he did not repent. He regretted. That is, he realized that he made a mistake. Like Judas.

Fr. Peter: Like Judas and not like Peter.

Prof. Tselingides: Not like Peter who cried bitterly. Now. You have brought up the question of the downpayment with reference to complete remission and asked why should one then go to confession. It is entirely necessary for one to go to confession, because Christ gave this power of binding and loosing entirely to the apostles and through the apostles to the bishops and priests. This means that, because we are baptised, we have become a royal priesthood. (The book of Revelation says this; St. Peter also says this.) We have a general kind of priesthood. What does this mean? We can participate in the mysteries, not celebrate the mysteries. A special gift is needed in order to bind and loose, and this is of the apostles, bishops and priests. But the ability of participation is giving by the power of this priesthood. And the basic thing is that we can defeat thoughts. We have the spiritual power within ourselves, by our baptism and holy chrism, to defeat thoughts and “every high thing which lifteth itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5). St. Paul says this in 2 Corinthians. Now I come to the mystery of repentance, which is different from the mystery of confession. Repentance is the existential turn towards God and our persistent concentration on Him alone, as much as possible. This is evident in prayer. That is, we are in repentance when during prayer our nous does not travel around, when it is focused on God on the whole, and whenever it does depart, we bring it back, repenting that it isn’t where it should be continually because the nous should be working. Christ told us so. He said, “My Father worketh until now, and I work” (John 5:17). He called us to be working. The work performed by the nous which is worthy of the supreme worth the nous has in man (since the nous is the governor, the peak), this work is prayer. And let no one say, “If I am praying, how will I take of the worldly cares?” When a man is praying, then is that he becomes brilliant because he sees things in a spiritual way, he puts them in the right priority, swiftly, and makes the right decision. We think that by making our nous independent of God and bringing it down into our mind, that is, by reckoning purely with our logic on the basis of the available data, we see experientially that we make mistake, sometimes very many mistakes, because there is one thing we didn’t consider. The spiritual man, however, does not make mistakes, not because he is infallible, but because the Spirit that possesses him and governs him is the Spirit of God Himself. So, even from the viewpoint of being spiritually smart, it is in our best interest to be in repentance. This regards repentance. This is what continual repentance means, not our occasional report of some sin.

Fr. Peter: You had said earlier that repentance is only a turn.

Prof. Tselingides: Not only a turn! It is the existential turn as a first movement and a permanent movement, if I may so say. I call it a turn because experientially our nous slips away and we have to bring it back. Beyond that the process of repentance contains what is called self-visitation, which is when we pray that the Holy Spirit enlighten us, that is, “enlighten our darkness”, so that we may see what happening to us. This is self-visitation. During self-visitation we realize what is happening within us, and then we come to self-diagnosis.

Fr. Peter: That’s what the Prodigal did: he came to himself.

Prof. Tselingides: Precisely, he came to himself, visited himself, saw his pitiful state, and thought what he had with his father.

Fr. Peter: So it was the beginning of repentance but not the end.

Prof. Tselingides: Precisely. It is the beginning of repentance, but it also has procedures. In other words, after we have critiqued ourselves and seen what state we are in, then repentance is more evidently born. He said, “I shall go to my father” (Luke 15:18). But from the moment he said it until actually coming to his father there is a whole trip, which St. Chrysostom analyzes very well. Let our audience read the pertinent passage. It says, “He went to his father”. Then it says, “He decided to go to his father.” Then it says, “He went to his father. But while he was on his way, his father was outside,” etc. As st. Chrysostom interprets, in his disposition he decided to go to his father. But it is not easy to go. The evil one had power over him, as we said earlier, because the prodigal son had been doing his will. So the evil one had him in bonds. When a man becomes a slave of sin, just because he made a good decision doesn’t mean that he’ll realize it. First of all, he has to battle with the demonic powers. Let’s remember this in our conversation because, after repentance, the first thing we need to seek is for these powers to be immobilized. If they be not immobilized, if the evil one, who’s occupying certain spaces within us by our passions, does not come out, we shall not be able to do anything. We shall be swinging back and forth. So, the first thing we must do immediately, which can only happen in the mysteries, is that we must go to confession. Because it is written, “When he went to his father, the father embraced him and kissed him.” What does that mean? He accepted the man that repented. So, we repent, we go there— For communion to be restored, we have to publicize these things (because publicity extinguishes the evil one and ridicules him), and then, in this sincere confession, which is a different mystery, that is, when we have not only considered and decided it internally but also confessed, then we receive this entirety of remission. I would like to comment on the downpayment a bit more, because they are of a so great importance. We cannot go to our confessor very often, but we can repent and receive the downpayment and so be free, relatively free, of the evil one in our decisions and actions. But to conclude, I would like to say that even this sincere confession does not absolutely safeguard the remission that we received as a gift unto our communion with God. Only Divine Communion secures this. “Only when you eat and drink me will you have life,” said Christ (cf. John 6:53). We have received remission. But what is remission? It’s healing. Simply being healthy is not the goal, from a Christian viewpoint, in the Church. You must also have secured that life, which is not static but always increasing, according to your disposition. So, this whole process reaches its culmination in your blameless participation in the mystery of life, which is participation in Divine Communion.

Fr. Peter: So, remission clears away obstacles but only that: it is not life. We need to have communion. Man must have communion.

Prof. Tselingides: Remission is the healing. Look, it is as if the sick man went, received some medicine or had a surgery, and his health was restored. This is, he isn’t sick. Let’s put it in the negative: he isn’t sick. But the healthy man is ever at risk of falling ill. The goal is not being healthy: he must have some sort of activity, some positive stance towards life, some development, some creativity. This is a kind of nourishment. Alright, the child is healthy, but if he is hungry…. The same with adults. I am healthy, but if I don’t receive fuel, so to speak, strength, I cannot have the creativity that gives worth to my existence as a man. In our homes it’s to enough for us to be healthy.

Fr. Peter: Because the Lord brought abundant life, not only biological existence.

Prof. Tselingides: So now we are speaking of the life that is of an uncreated character, since we are receiving the Divinity within us by grace. Now let me only mention one very important point about the downpayment.

Fr. Peter: Could we return a bit to our current situation, so as to connect this beautiful spiritual discourse with the handling of this current crisis?

Prof. Tselingides: Yes. Look: without the substructure that I spoke of, whatever else we would have said would have remained incoherent and suspended in the air. Here I shall conclude with this, saying that the importance of continual repentance gives us the ability of being freed from the powers of the evil one because we are continually in humility (since we acquire humility by repenting), and as St. Paisios would say, there is no exception in the spiritual law of humility. “God giveth grace to the humble” (James 4:6). When we receive this grace on the level of the downpayment, by repentance alone, we have a certain liberty of proper spiritual movement. This is not absolute. Then we say, “Glory to God! We live by these downpayments.” I am saying this in connection with the present situation. The churches are closed, we aren’t receiving life within us (since we aren’t communing; that is very serious), nor can we go to confession, but we can have remission of sins in the form of downpayments. By experience we realize that not everything is black within us. Of course, we know that this is only the beginning of healing, but still, we are not dying because we are repenting. Now, with this mindset as a prerequisite, we are coming to answer the question of how we the faithful should face the situation imposed by the world which initially presents itself as a health problem of the whole world, which then has consequences on our spiritual life, and this is what mainly concerns us. Our spiritual life is not abstract, it is not a matter of the intellect, it is a matter of eating and drinking Christ, as He said. “If you do not eat me and drink me, you do not have life in yourselves.” I believe that now we have before us a framework in which we can speak. On the one hand, it is a commandment of Christ, non-negotiable, irreplaceable. If we are not eating Him and drinking Him, there is a specific time-period for which one can survive. We notice this when for some reason we haven’t confessed for over forty days, even though we haven’t done any particular great sins, in practice we realize that the thorns, the dust, the garbage comes in and this is expressed in our social life in the context of our family, of our job, etc. What do I want to say? I want to say that of course there has been a stage of realignment, of things being arranged in many organisations, etc.; but in terms of time we are at the limits of our spiritual endurance. Communing in the mysteries is a matter of spiritual life or death. Yet with the approach that the state sets before us and to which the leadership of the Church consented for the most part, it raises the question of the next step, of the next day, if not of this day.

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