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Interview with Dr. Peter Bouteneff

Meet Dr. Peter Bouteneff
Keynote Speaker, Orthodox Institute 2012
Interview by Brandon Talley

When did you discover or become a part of the Orthodox Church?

I was born into the Orthodox Church.  But as they say, everyone is a convert, or needs to be. You have to keep being reconverted.  There are periods in all of our lives where we grow on some level in our knowledge, in maturity, even physically, and sometimes our faith and our relationship with Church has to catch up and grow with us. So I hope to be continuing in that constant re-awakening!

What inspired you to write the book Sweeter Than Honey?

I was just saying that sometimes our faith and our relationship to the church lags behind our other development and growth. So I thought of this book as something that would help people fill in those blanks. A lot of us, for different reasons, whether we’re cradle or convert or whatever we are, we end up with an underdeveloped relationship with Jesus Christ and with the Church. So the goal of this book was to try to deepen those relationships.  It’s about trying to make the Christian life real for people, to invite them to go deeper. Because the church can so easily become a kind of an idol or an image for us, and we can forget what it’s all about.  So I suppose the book tries to awaken that relationship and it tries to bring us all closer to him, partly by getting people to engage in a fresh way with basic questions that we often ignore.

But I also wanted to write a book about theology that is challenging but accessible and inviting. Which means that I wanted to write the book as simply as possible, in an uncluttered style, without jargon. As if I were talking to an intelligent but non-churchy kind of friend. As it happens, I have lots of such friends. But writing in that style is actually very hard to do:  its hard to talk simply about theological things without sounding either simplistic, or patronizing, or stuffy.  But that’s what I was striving for, and I just hope that I succeeded to some tiny measure.

How do you feel ‘religious relativism’ is affecting our culture and the younger generations today?

The problem with relativism is that in some ways its a very attractive concept, or at least it begins on some very good impulses. It’s appropriate to recognize wisdom and truth in places outside of Orthodox Christianity, and it’s natural to want to respect other people and the wisdom that they have found, and the piety with which they practice their faith.  That’s all very good.  The problem is when that leads to the idea that because I see how wise you are, or how pious you are, or how good-hearted you are, I begin to reason that your faith is exactly as true as my faith. Or that because we can’t objectively know which faith is true, my faith is true for me and your faith is true for you. And that this is how we can show our respect and brotherly love for each other, by relativizing or bracketing our core beliefs.  That’s where it becomes relativism rather than respect.

Relativism is false on so many levels: it’s a logical fallacy, for one, and it’s also potentially quite arrogant. And, here’s the irony, in the hopes of affirming all faiths, it actually undermines them at their very core. For example, being a Christian means believing that Jesus Christ is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. And that no-one comes to the Father but through Jesus Christ.  That doesn’t mean that non-Christians can’t be saved, but it means that Christ is the one by whom anybody is saved.  And there are similar kinds of exclusivities in other faiths, like Islam for example, which holds unequivocally that there is no Trinity – the Trinity is a total heresy to the Muslim.  So if I tell a Muslim that my faith in the Trinity is negotiable, and that his faith in a uni-personal Allah should be too, I don’t think I’m fully respecting the Muslim, and I can pretty well guarantee he won’t respect me. I think genuine dialogue and coexistence doesn’t throw faith conviction out the window, in fact it can even be the opposite: if I’m truly convicted of my faith and its universal truth, I might be in a better position to dialogue respectfully with another who takes his or her own faith as seriously as I take mine.

Now if you’re talking with High School or College aged kids about it, especially if they’re in kind of pluralistic settings or diversely populated schools (like my kids are), you have to be genuinely receptive and affirmative to their inquisitiveness about other people, other faiths, what people believe and stand for.  You have to agree with them that we’re against religious violence and extremism.  But then you have to show them why and how tolerance doesn’t mean giving up your own truth claims.  You can actually believe that the other person’s faith gets it wrong in some key areas and still coexist in genuine mutual esteem.  If you can convey to people the difference between “tolerance” and “relativism,” as well as the difference between “faith conviction” and “violence,” that’s a huge step!

As Christian parents, how do we prepare our youth for the ever-growing subjectivity of truth that is so prevalent in our Western culture today?

Its going to vary from family to family.  We all know that some families think that it’s best to kind of shelter their kids from as much of the popular culture as possible, including the educational system, and they make that work.  My approach as been to get to know the culture and encourage that in my kids. And that’s partly because some of it is so beautiful and so enriching – and potentially so full of God’s Word.  So I try to share this attitude as much as possible with kids, but also (and this is difficult) to instill a compass, something to help negotiate popular culture. Because popular culture is such a huge grab bag, and there’s stuff in it that’s so good, whether its explicitly Christian or not. It can be so good and so wise and so beautiful, and there’s no reason not to celebrate that and pick up on it.  Whether it’s a Pixar movie, or a good piece of science fiction, or LOTR or whatever... to pick up on the beauty or wisdom, and learn from it, whether its Christian or not.  But of course, there’s also such awful garbage and horribly misleading material out there too.  And you have to — not necessarily steer them away from it, but show them why it’s absolutely false.  The sexual values so often being conveyed in popular culture that are meant to be taken as the norm: promiscuity and whatever... You have to show kids how to shrug it off, even laugh if off, show them why that’s such a lie.  But this is a pastoral issue, and as with all pastoral issues, you have to begin by listening to who it is you’re talking to. And pray fervently for God’s guidance, for his word.

We see a growing number of controversial topics in the news as well as tragedies such as the Colorado massacre.  It’s not uncommon to hear questions like “Where is God in this?”  As Christians, how can we appropriately respond when faced with those types of questions?

Here again, this is a deeply pastoral issue. Which means make sure you’re listening as closely as possible to the actual question being asked.  Because a lot of people ask the question about “Where was God in Colorado, or 911, or in the tsunamis?” and its not always the same question that’s being asked.  Sometimes its being asked from a position of defiance.  Sometimes its being asked from a place of hurt... “I used to love God and now I just don’t know where I am anymore.”  And sometimes its being asked from a cold philosophical perspective. And sometimes it’s being asked from a place of laziness, like the person is just looking for another excuse to ignore God and the revolution that faith brings to one’s life!  So, without over-psychologizing, you have to know at what level is the response being asked of you.  Because there’s different kinds of responses to every dimension of that question. I’m not saying you should be a chameleon and answer completely differently to different people, I’m saying you need to address the actual person. With some people, the only appropriate response is one of simply co-suffering.  If someone is asking that question and they just had a loved one die in the tragedy, they don’t need an answer about how God allows suffering because of human free will, they don’t need a philosophical answer either, about “the problem of divine action in the causal nexus”.  What they need from you is to weep with them, and wait until there is readiness for the response about Jesus Christ.

Because any answer coming from us as Christians has to eventually be focused on Jesus Christ, and him crucified. He is the one who, though being divine, co-suffers with us. He chooses to suffer with us, die for us.  Whatever the reason for human suffering, he’s doing it with us and he’s giving it a completely different meaning and a different function. He is showing us that God is with us, and that suffering is not the last word.  And death is not the last word.  That nothing is wasted.  I think that would find its way to the heart of any Christian answer, to any of these different kinds of questions about suffering.