The Nature of Things and our Salvation

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The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to briefly state several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my late teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 25 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past ten years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

26 Responses to “The Nature of Things and our Salvation”

  1. AR Says:

    This is so helpful, thank you.

  2. The Scylding Says:

    Once again, thank you for your writing. This is as helpful, and as concise, as can be. One easily forgets that as you stated clearly, the issue is existential, not legal. Choices don’t change us as much as they reveal that which is already there.

  3. Adrian Says:

    Father, bless. I really loved this post because it summarizes the basics in a way that anyone, including my agnostic friends, can understand. However, how does the Orthodox tradition handle the many verses calling God the “Just Judge” and seemingly presents a judicial model? I think I know the answer, that this is pretty much analogical language, but I would like to hear your more learned thoughts.

    I’m going to become Orthodox this Saturday, so could you remember me in your prayers?

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  6. AR Says:

    Nor moral either, at base. That’s a helpful distinction as well.

    So I’m wondering: Salvation is beginning to appear so deep and manifold – is there a place at which you are either belong to Christ or do not? Is there an essential difference (by which I can identify myself) between those being saved and those perishing? What is it? How do we console ourselves that the journey has an end for ourselves, and not just for the reocgnized saints, as we begin to confront our deeply miserable condition?

  7. David Withun Says:

    Thank you for this, Father. You’ve helped me to work through some of the issues I’ve been facing as I’ve tried to get myself out of the Western “legal” point of view.

  8. David Says:

    I remember being told by my father that sin wasn’t a something to did, but a state you were in. Christ came to alter that state.

    My wife is coming with me to Divine Liturgy tomorrow for the first time. I’m really stressed about it as I’ve come to be orthodox in my mind, but becoming Orthodox in our lives is a much greater work. Please pray for us.

    Heck, I’ve worked myself up so tight that I’m even worrying she’ll be allergic to incense.

  9. Kay Says:

    Dear David – I sooo hear you! My husband went for the first time last Sunday, (I started going by myself at first) and we are also taking this step together. Have been working towards this point for almost two years! Finding this blogsite of Father Stephen’s has been such a blessing…..

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    AR,

    I think we take whatever our beginning with Christ has been (traditionally Baptism) and go from there. First, from Christ’s side salvation is a completed matter – He utterly wills our salvation and holds nothing but good for us – thus He is my anchor, my hope, my everything. And I trust in His mercy as I struggle each day and fall down and get up again. I do not lose heart, only because of Christ and His mercy. There is no action of mine in which I can take comfort, or need take comfort. What would anything I do measure in the face of His infinite mercy?

  11. Mary Lowell Says:

    Dear David,

    Not to worry; seems I remember that Fredricka Matthews-Green is allergic to incense.

    God Bless,

    Mary

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Adrian,

    You will indeed be in my prayers! May God grant you many years. I would say you are right on target. God as judge should not be seen as part of a larger legal metaphor, but rather as an analogy. In Israel, a judge was someone who set things right – put things in their proper place and restored relationships to their proper order. In that sense, we all need to be judged and that right soon indeed!

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  14. Anastasia Theodoridis Says:

    Beautiful post, again. Thank you so much. I’m going to put in a plug for it on my own blog.

    Anastasia

  15. Adrian Martin Says:

    Sorry to hijack your com-box again, but my baptismal name is John, after St. John Chrysostom. Please pray for me: I need all the help I can get! Glory to God for all things!

  16. Petra Says:

    What a wonderfully helpful post! Thank you. I have a 14 mo old daughter and real parenting is just beginning, so I’m starting to plan how I’ll try to teach her to think about what would be the right choice and what would be the wrong choice in every situation, etc. After reading your post I have realized that deep down I still have the tendency to think about salvation as a moral issue. You have reminded me that the most important parental tool to raising a good, God-loving girl will be to be an example myself of constant prayer and communion with God so that He can transform us both and renew our (decision-making) minds.
    Please pray for me, Petronia, a sinner completely unworthy to parent such a treasure. Lord have mercy!

  17. William Says:

    Father, this post is wonderful, and I think I’ll be using it as a document of reference for a long time in the future. Thank you.

    You know, in my mind, I really agree with your words about the difference between trying to influence people to be good rather than to seek life, but in my gut and in practice, I find myself playing the part of the moralist quite often, especially around the children in my life.

  18. Andreas Says:

    This post reminded me of father John Romanides’ text on original sin, according to Apostle Paul.

    http://romanity.org/htm/rom.10.en.original_sin_according_to_st._paul.01.htm

    It also reminded me something father Nikolaos Loudovikos said, about a conference he had attended. The Catholics and the Orthodox were arguing about what salvation is. The Catholics were saying that salvation is salvation from sin, while the Orthodox maintained that it is salvation from death.

    In my view things get more complicated because of science. We have evidence that death existed long before man was created, and this means that death is not the result of a fall, but it is part of the Universe from the beginning. In my opinion, the Orthodox theology can be transliterated as an opportunity, a call, God gives to man to overcome his createdness. Even though creation is “very good”, it is still a limit man can overcome because of God’s love. That way, man can become truly God by Grace.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Andreas,

    Nonetheless, the Scripture is quite clear that for man death is the consequence of the fall. The RC’s are arguing a two-storey universe where they hope to rescue their theology by putting in some second-storey where no sciientist can reach it. They’re still afraid of Galileo.

    We gegin doing theology from the cross, not from Adam (Christ is the true Second Adam). And we work backwards from there. I havn’t any clue of the time or even quite the nature of the Genesis account such that science would have anything to say. But as long as we hve had man, he has been subject to death. Is man’s choice something that all of creation was made subject to in light of a decision he would make (but which not present in the Garden) and we then were driven out into the Garden and the Fall (that would fit the texts of St. Basil’s Anaphora very well).

    That is ever so much better than a God who punished us with the promise of eternal hellfire for breaking His rules… I think Romanides gets this one right. But you have to get freed up from Western literalism time-line stuff. Read John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ. He’ll do a very good job on this.

  20. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! I do not know why, but through this posting I find God reaching out to me in a way that I really need right now.

    Here in this quote especially, “If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

    And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

    Again, thank you, Fr. Stephen for taking the time to write all of this! God bless you!

  21. Andreas Says:

    Dear father Stephen

    I would have emailed you, because I don’t want to effect a change in this discussion’s content, but I couldn’t find your email address.

    It is very true that Orthodox theology and scripture speak of death as a consequence of our fall. Paul already draws a connection between Adam and Christ (the New Adam), and the fathers expounded that analogy further. In this sense, Christ undoes what Adam did, our baptism effects an ontological change in us, and the Church becomes a communion of renewed men.

    Some of humanity’s greatest minds have dealt with the issue of evil. The Orthodox Saints could not accept that this violent world was the original creation of a good God. But they couldn’t accept that it was the creation of a bad god either. So, a solution was found: the world was created good, in accordance to God’s perfection and goodness, but evil was added to the world when man sinned. That way man becomes the cause for the suffering of the world, and not God.

    This is very understandable, particularly if we keep in mind the scarcity of evidence they had available. It is only in relatively modern times that we have physical evidence of a world exceeding all pious imagination, of a world where death and suffering consisted a foundational element from the beginning.

    The question is: Can the traditional Orthodox view be amended to fit the new data?

    You already gave an alternative. The world was created that way because God foreknew Adam’s Fall. There is no question about the legitimacy of this explanation. Saint Maximus the Confessor already put forth a similar explanation as an alternative to the traditional death after Adam’s Fall story.

    So, that view is legitimate. With the note that Eden was not an island of paradise within a suffering world. This was not accepted by the fathers. So, let’s take Maximus alternative. It is legitimate alright. Is it true though?

    I don’t know, dear father, how much you know about modern science. The ancients thought that God could create humans ex nihilo. But how accurate is that view, considering what biomedical sciences tell us about how man works? We are the result of natural selection; death is connected with who we are. What does it mean to say that God would have created Stephen or Andreas in a non-fallen world? Or Adam. Is it meaningful to say that God foreknew that Adam would have fallen from an unfallen world? Could such an Adam exist in the first place for God to foreknow his fall?

    Metropolitan John Zizioulas, in his creation as eucharist, proposes a different alternative. The world was created the way we see it, he said, but it fell upon Adam to redeem the world and save it. Adam failed, and the world’s drama continued. This alternative fails to explain why the world was created failed from the beginning and why God didn’t create an already “saved” world instead. It fails to explain why God is shown to be a failed God, putting the burden of salvation on the shoulders of such an immature creature as Adam.

    Hm, this is getting rather long. Anyway, your proposing an “island” of incorruptibility inside a violent world is problematic in itself.

    Thanks for engaging with me father!

  22. Fatherstephen Says:

    Margaret,

    Many thanks.

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    Andreas,

    The problem with your approach is that it assumes a linear historical time line which Maximus did not, nor do I. I think this is the world view of much modern science, and of much Protestantism, but I do not think it necessary.

    I speak of an “island” if you will only because that is the language of the Fathers, particularly the anaphora of St. Basil.

    I accept the Genesis account as an understanding, theologically, of the nature of things and our relationship with God, I have no way of knowing its relationship to historical matters (in the scientific sense of things). But I find both Maximus and St. Basil sufficient. My understanding of the world and my place in it, begin with the Crucified and Risen Christ and I move forward in any direction from there. This is the meaning of the universe and God’s answer and recreation. Indeed, Scripture says that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (which fits Maximus understanding) as well, it seems, as St. John in Scripture, or St. Paul, who said that God subjected the world to futility (death and decay) on account of man (Romans 8), and apparently, based on what evidence that we have, that subjection occurred long before we were created.

    My strong suggestion if you want to read more of this – better written – and from a serious Orthodox theologian – read Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ.

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  25. mike Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I just wanted to thank you for the blog. I am a new reader and have found your postings quite helpful. I am intrigued by Orthodoxy (I’m a protestant) so it is nice to have somewhere to go to read the writings of someone who is relational in their writing style. Blessings.

    mike

  26. Chad Says:

    Father, bless. Thank you for a very helpful post.

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