We continue to present the last part of the interview that Father James Bernstein was willing to give exclusively to our magazine. This time also, Father James gives us uncomfortable answers to uncomfortable questions, answers meant to get us out of our self-sufficiency of “Orthodox by birth”.

As a Jew with roots in Orthodox Mosaicism and becoming an Orthodox Christian, Father James comes to tell us that following to the letter the Law of God, without assuming love and sacrifice, cannot guide us to the knowledge of God and the union with Him, in other words, that Phariseeism is not a phenomenon that ended two thousand years ago. (Tatiana Petrache)

Anti-Semitism, like any other form of racism and ethnophyletism, is of pagan origin, and cannot find any foundation in the Gospel of Christ. Is it possible for a Christian to be anti-Semitic or racist? How did Christians get accused of anti-Semitism, racism etc.?

It is not a simple or easy issue to resolve.  One of the main concerns that I have with regard to anti-Semites is that they do not speak in love or with an authentic desire to build bridges and understanding. Or speak in a loving way to bring their foes into the Orthodox Faith. They concern themselves with our differences and historic animosities, prejudices and neglect the essence of what Orthodoxy is – Love. This is not to say that our major differences and conflicts are not important as they are. But all differences and conflicts become demonically energized if they are not imbued with Love and the Divine Presence. So even if there be some degree of truth in what anti-Semites say, and I personally believe there is, – it is demonic if not tempered and mingled with sensitivity, compassion, humility and love.

As a model we have the apostles especially St Paul who was distressed by Old Israel’s blindness. But also makes very clear in Romans 9-11 his love for the Jews. This in spite of the fact that he was severely persecuted by them! As were the other apostles and disciples of Christ. He even says that if it were possible he would personally be anathamized/accursed/go to hell if it would help save them! (Romans 9:1-3). Now that is something truly amazing. They persecuted him yet he would be willing to be cut off from Christ if it would save them. How many of us would say that!

Honestly – and this may be painful to some. I never hold out much hope in changing attitudes and policies within the Orthodox Church with regard to Jews, Judaism and Israel. Even if one adopts replacement theology and holds that there is no future destiny for the Jewish People in God’s Divine Plan, Providence, it does not mean that we have to hate them or treat them badly or be prejudiced. As in all situations, we hate the sin but love the sinner. St. John of Kronstadt said: “Never confuse the person formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

The bridge between theory and practice”

The issue is not so much an issue of replacement theology or of a liturgical or doctrinal nature. The Scripture, services and canons are what they are. For me the essential problem regards that which we priests pray for at every Divine Liturgy – ‘the ignorance of the people.” That is, on a popular Orthodox Christian level a prevailing attitude of ignorance, intolerance, triumphalism, nominalism, superstition and pride. This I believe is truer in traditionally Orthodox Christian cultures than where converts have a strong presence in the Church. I doubt much progress will be made to overcome this condition as it is endemic.

The public policies and positions taken by some clergy reflect their lack of a deeper spiritual reality. If that reality is not there in force whatever the changes proposed, discussed or debated, they will not bring about lasting change unless they are rooted in a deeper spiritual life centered upon God, Who is Love.

As a Jew who is an Orthodox Christian I am least able to address this issue in a meaningful way because I am already viewed as being “prejudiced” by virtue of my heritage. IF ANY movement is made towards decreasing Anti-Semitism it will have to be led by enlightened Gentile Orthodox. Especially hierarchs who have ecclesiastical authority and monastics who have spiritual authority.

Do you see manifestations of Pharisaim in contemporary Christian Orthodoxy? How can we protect and cure ourselves of Pharisaism and hypocrisy in our Christian life?

Yes I do. It has existed from the beginning and is somewhat endemic to the Orthodox Church. In my opinion, the hierarchs and clergy set the pattern for the laity. I see the need for balance, synergy. Balance between strictness of rules/practices and economia or how they are applied. Synergy between worship and practice. The tools that the Orthodox Church provides us with in terms of worship, prayer, fasts, and rules are meant to be life giving. They are tools to help each of us gain union/communion with God. Who ultimately alone is life giving. When the tools or means to God become the end in and of themselves then they become detrimental, destructive and worse even demonic. So for example though huge funds are expended to build huge majestic church temples which are truly very inspiring, funds should also be used to help the needy and poor, to educate, to help those addicted to drugs, alcohol and pornography over come their addictions. To assist families to develop closeness, and love.

The idealistic teachings of the Church are holy but we clergy are responsible to bridge the gap and make them understandable to laity. A simple obvious example in my humble opinion is the language in which the services are done. If the language is archaic and not truly understandable to the laity then that language beautiful as it is become esoteric and a barrier. The vernacular language should be used. I understand that in Romania that is the case. Thank God. But there are still many who use Slavonic and an ancient form of Greek that people do not easily understand. This is in my opinion is very detrimental and tends to distance the faithful especially the youth. Youth that often have difficulty remaining in the church even when they do understand the language. St Paul says: “… in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” 1 Corinthians 14:19

I am very provincial and cannot speak of the experience of Orthodoxy in other countries. It is presumptuous of me to speak about the Orthodox experience in Romania or elsewhere. But I nevertheless have impressions that I have gain from life, knowing people and reading.

This effort takes love and sacrifice”

The grandiose magnificence of our worship and temples are awe inspiring, divine. But there needs to be an inclusion of warmth as well. The human element should be present as well as the divine. Clericalism in which the clergy is viewed as a special caste, category of humans – makes for a clergy laity divide that presents a false understanding of Christian humility, spirituality and love. We clergy can still maintain a dignity and professional distance while conveying God’s love and warmth.

Unfortunately with huge church temples in which there is a limited number of clergy the clergy often become what I call liturgical and sacramental machines. That is, there is very little time or effort spent in having meaningful relations with parishioners. In fact such churches often do not even have what are called ‘parishioners” local members who are committed to and have an accountability to the that church and clergy. Instead all of the clergy effort is spent on sacramental acts. This results in a form of Pharisaism as the priest is not viewed as a spiritual father. Though huge churches have their place and are a blessing, smaller, village type churches provide an environment in which the priest can actually know and minister to local parishioners in a personal and meaningful manner. We are warned that it is possible to be so heavenly as to be of no earthly good. There has to be a relevancy that is communicated and made clear. This effort takes love and sacrifice. A reaching out by clergy to laity. There is a lot more that could be said about this.

There is a belief among some Orthodox Christians especially hierarchs and academics that we are moving towards some form of union and intercommunion with other denominations, the Roman Catholics. And Protestants. As an Orthodox Christian convert priest in the United States where there is a significant Roman Catholic and Protestant presence what are your thoughts about this?

Indeed. Living in America I have had a great deal of exposure to Roman Catholics and Protestants. Including many that have left their denominations to become Orthodox that I have personally catechized. Many had been among the more devout and understood their theology and practices well. My book contains materials that have not only helped bring many Protestants to Orthodoxy but also many Roman Catholics. Many Roman Catholics have said to me – “I had no idea that Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism were so different!” Typically they are viewed as being “sister” churches. I have had occasion of speaking with Roman Catholic priests that would say to me, “the only difference between us is that we have the pope and you don’t.” To which I typically politely smile. While thinking to myself – this priest is certainly ignorant of our differences. Actually there are many very major differences that often those in dialogue with them in their desire to find “common ground.” underemphasize or ignore. To explain in the most simplistic way these differences I have made a chart of comparison that uses simple short terms. In this article I will present a written version of the chart. For the sake of simplicity and readability I have had to admittedly overstate/understate some points. But the points are nevertheless for the most part truthful and accurate. This presents my personal theological understanding of our differences and is NOT an “official” presentation of the Orthodox Church. I abbreviate Roman Catholic with RC and Orthodox with Orth. or O.

A SIMPLISTIC CONTRAST BETWEEN ROMAN CATHOLICISM AND ORTHODOXY:

TRINITARIAN UNITY: RC in the Divine Nature, Orth. in God the Father.

GOD EXISTS AS: RC Absolute Divine Simplicity, Orth. as Essence/Energies

GRACE: RC is created, Orth. is uncreated.

FILIOQUE: RC is true, Orth. is heretical

POPE: RC supremacy, infallible, universal jurisdiction, Orth. primacy, fallible, local jurisdiction

CONCILIAR: RC mostly no, Orth. yes, synodal

DOCTRINES: RC some changing, shifting, Orth. unchanging

THEOLOGY: RC rationalistic, scholastic, Orth. mystical, patristic

SALVATION/GOAL: RC forgiveness, heaven, vision of God, Orth. theosis, deification, union

INCARNATION’S PURPOSE: RC substitutionary atonement, Orth. deification

CENTRAL IMAGE: RC crucifix, Orth. resurrection

THE FALL: RC legal, juridical, Orth. ontological, organic

ORIGINAL SIN: RC guilt inherited, Orth. guilt not inherited

THE CHURCH: RC after Vatican 2 a form of branch theory, Orth. only One Church.

IMMACULATE CONCEPTION: RC dogma, Orth. heretical

MARY: RC assumption, Orth. dormition

WORSHIP: RC in flux, protestantization, O. divine, changes little

RITES OF WORSHIP: RC many, changing, Orth. few, little change

VESPERS, MATINS etc: RC exceptional, Orth. normative

CLERGY SERVE: RC facing the people, Orth. only faces the altar

ASCETICISM: RC de-emphasized, Orth. emphasized

MONASTICISM: RC dying, Orth. thriving

BAPTISMAL NORM: RC sprinkling, Orth. immersion

BAPTISM/CHRISMATION/COMMUNION: RC separated, Orth. united

COMMUNING INFANTS: RC no, Orth. yes

COMMUNION: RC often only wafer, Orth. consecrated bread and wine.

COMMUNION prior to Chrismation/Confirmation: RC yes, O. no

EUCHARIST: RC transubstantiation (philosophical), Orth. O great mystery

EUCHARIST ADORED: RC outside of mass, Orth. only at communion

PRIVATE EUCHARIST: RC yes for intentionals, Orth. no

EUCHARIST: RC unleavened bread, Orth. leavened bread

CONFESSION: RC optional in practice, Orth. mandatory

APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION: RC lineage alone, Orth. lineage plus truth

ORDINATION: RC indelible mark, Orth. not indelible

PURGATORY: RC yes, Orth. no

INDULGENCES: RC yes, Orth. no

TREASURY OF MERITS: RC yes, Orth. no

SACRED ART: RC sensual, naturalistic, statues, Orth. iconographic

SACRED MUSIC: RC changing, contemporary, Orth. traditional, changes little

PRIESTS: RC most celibate, Orth. most married

CLERGY: RC most beardless, Orth. most bearded

CLERGY ABUSE: RC rampant, Orth. rare

LIBERATION THEOLOGY: RC yes, Orth. no

CREMATION: RC yes, Orth. no

SIGN OF THE CROSS: RC changed in 12th cen., O. original form

HELL FIRE: RC physical, Orth. Spiritual.

Dialogue with the Protestants is even more of a challenge as their theology and practice is much further from us than is Roman Catholic. And they are actually accelerating in their movement away from us.

Do you really understand who God is?”

Elder Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia asserts that “in order to become someone Christian, he must have a poetical soul. You must be a poet. The poetical hearts embrace love, they put it inside themselves, they feel it in their depths.” Father James, you are also an artist, a painter. What does it mean for us to live the Christian life with a poetical, artistic soul?

For some Elder Porphyrios’ statement may seem to be an over statement to be dismissed or ignored. After all, are there not scientists, mathematicians, engineers and others who are devout Orthodox Christians? Certainly there are. But his point should be taken seriously. Why does he say this? It is actually true if one understands what I think he means. In our theology God is unknowable in His Divine Essence. He is only knowable as He reveals Himself to us in His uncreated Energies. This means that God ultimately is a mystery – as we present in our apophatic theology when we describe God in terms of what He is not, rather than what He is. So for the Orthodox Christian, to know or to experience God is an experience of the nous or the spiritual eye of the soul. It is the experiencing of God as mystery within that human faculty that makes us “god like” that transcends the intellect. It may include the intellect or mind but ultimately does not have to. An infant, mentally damaged or elderly senile person can experience God without the use of the intellect – in the spiritual heart.

The bane of much of Non-Orthodox Western Theology is the assumption that one must engage the intellect to experience God. That it is a rational experience that can be explained, formulized and presented systematically as “systematic theology” or as theological propositions. This developed into what is called scholastic theology or systematic theology that seeks to understand God as creator in and through the mind and His creation rather than having a direct transcendent experience of Him. Non-Orthodox theology above all seeks clarity. But because we Orthodox believe that often truth is a mystery and expressed in antinomies, we say: True confusion is better than false clarity. As such this is why in many non-Orthodox Churches study groups and very long sermons are so important, and communion is withheld from infants and children until they develop intellectually and “understand” that to which they are committing themselves. When asked why I commune infants when they don’t understand who God is? My response is, do you? Do you or I really understand who God is more than an innocent infant who has not yet sinned?

Lord, touch and change my heart!”

So yes, even a scientist or mathematician, or as I was – a chess player, needs to ultimately stand in awe of the transcendent God who in His Divine Essence is unknowable and approach Him in utter humility crying out – You are totally beyond my comprehension and intellect. Touch and change my heart, my inner being. You are totally beyond my scientific analysis my mathematical equations. It is only as the mysterious aspect of who we are has a direct experience of the Mysterious Transcendent God that we can begin to have authentic knowledge of God – beyond the mind. Indeed love itself is Divine. Who can possibly explain or understand love or explain He who – IS Love.

Furthermore, Elder Porphyrios says that the poetic heart embraces love, and puts it inside themselves, they feel it in their depths. By which he means that this experiencing of God is on going, and deepens as we embrace His Uncreated Love, Light, Energies in the Holy Spirit and make it organic, living within us. It is much more than a one time experience. It may begin as that but it continues, now and forever more. This is my humble understanding of what he means and being limited myself and not having had the blessing of knowing him cannot say that this is definitive.

Father James, you talked to us about pharisaism that could threaten especially those who are born Orthodox, those who incline to see themselves as saved for this simple fact that they call themselves Orthodox. What advice would you give the Romanian readers, in order to see their shortcomings and come to repentance?

I think that the main issue facing Orthodox Christians who are raised Orthodox is the danger of LOSING SIGHT of what the ultimate goal is in life. We get distracted, we get confused in our theological understanding or simply don’t have a burning desire – to pursue purification, illumination and ultimately Theosis / Divinization /Deification / Transfigurement / Union and Communion with God. It becomes something theoretical, distant and unrealistic. We forget the reason for which we live and don’t submit ALL of our efforts, thoughts, plans in the pursuit of the ultimate goal – a life in God. It becomes for us a non-essential part of our life. And we become nominal in our spirituality and at risk of falling away.

Father James in the sycamore of Zaccaeus

It is like preparing to take a long journey to a land to which we want to move and then as we prepare we forget why we are preparing. And stop preparing. Or if we do set out, we set out and head in the wrong direction. And never arrive!

IF we are excited about where we are going, planning for it, talking about it, studying on how to journey there, and pray about it – then as we set out we will be energized and not forget where the journey leads. As we journey embracing the deeper spiritual life we are transformed! And that itself is the goal of the journey! Inner transformation! So in a sense the process is an integral part of the ultimate goal!

Honestly – without a desperate desire to be saved, to experience salvation on a personal level – we cannot be saved. It is as simple as that.

The article can be found translated in Romanian in October 2019 edition of the Orthodox Family Magazine.