Archive for May 3rd, 2009

Conversion to the True and Living God

May 3, 2009

nikolai_bruni-candle_bearer_in_a_convent_1891I grew up in a culture where religious conversion was frequent as well as often short-lived. Religiously, the only remedy to many of the ills of life was conversion. On the face of things I could hardly argue with that now. However, the deeper problem within that particular religious culture was a very truncated view of conversion. For many, conversion was accompanied by emotion (it should be truly “heart-felt”) as well as decision. But the only action that accompanied conversion was frequently a “rededication” of one’s life to Christ. The heart of Southern evangelicalism, at the time, was to “bring people to Christ,” though that phenomenon was defined in a very narrow manner. Thus I watched numerous individuals who needed much longer and deeper “conversions” fall short and frequently “fall away.”

Today’s religious culture is far more diverse though not necessarily for the better. The range of definition of “the spiritual life” can run anywhere from “successful living” to sainthood (and this is only a description within American Christianity). Conversion today can frequently mean a “change of membership” though conversion is not usually associated with changing churches within Protestant Christianity. Americans frequently “shop” for Church as much as they shop for everything else. Recent sociological studies have shown this to be an almost dominant component of our modern religious landscape. Market forces not only drive our economy but often our ecclesiology as well.

Thus the problem of true conversion becomes yet more complicated – even if only by the plurality of strange voices. I am an Orthodox Christian and I believe that the truth of the Christian faith has not altered since its inception. It has not and cannot alter because it is nothing other than the living communion of God and man in Christ. The difficulty of conversion is to find one’s way through the multitude of voices to hear the one true voice of God.

And this carries us to our own heart. I have had many conversations with those whom I would describe as “religious seekers.” Sometimes the largest question in their mind is one brought on by the many voices they hear. How to choose? How to decide? Having been formed and shaped as a consumer, only a consumer’s heart is left when it is God we seek to find – and God cannot be bought – He is not and never will be a commodity.

Thus, even conversion to the Orthodox faith is not an immediate answer to the question of true conversion – particularly if it is simply a choice among choices – a consumer’s decision based on comparision shopping. For true conversion is also a matter of our true heart and not the heart of a consumer – which is a creation of the delusions of this age.

In a strange, semi-prophetic passage in the Epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the author describes the dreams of Raskolnikov as he lay sick and in prison:

In his illness he dreamed that the whole word was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgements, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate….In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious…

It is a strange delirium, one we have seen fulfilled in various ways. “Everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why…” So here is the crux of the matter – reaching our own true heart. I believe this is a great gift of grace, particularly in a confused and confusing world. Apart from such grace knowledge of our heart would be likely impossible.

But, by God’s grace, having found that true heart, one must not take it lightly. Obedience to the heart in grace is important and a matter of daily struggle. We are commanded to take up the cross and follow Christ, and there may certainly be a moment at which we first obeyed that commandment – but that moment is only a beginning of conversion, the first step on a lifetime’s road of repentance. Golgotha ends in a tomb and then the resurrection. Taking up that Cross daily is also a matter of remaining faithful to one’s true heart, despite all the noise and confusion about us. It is steadfastness and courage as well as a simple tenacity. For the madness of the world is real though we are all called to be among the “few.” Being obedient to one’s true heart is a faithful obedience to Christ who is our own true heart.

I stated earlier that conversion to the Orthodox faith was not an immediate answer to question of true conversion. This is not the fault of the Orthodox faith but the fault of our heart as we approach this treasure God has preserved for us. Once having kissed the Gospel and the Cross, we then have to daily press forward, not trusting in the Church as though it were only another institution to which we have attached ourselves, but trusting in God who is our sure hope and the constant life of the Church in which we live.

The daily pressure of our world is to silence the truth of our heart and turn us again to our consumer mentality. Thus each day we say “no” that we may truly say “yes.”

Living a Personal Life

May 3, 2009

southwest-trip-345In the common use of the English language, it would seem strange or impossible to say that someone was living an “impersonal” life. And, even in our classical Christian vocabulary, we would say that God (Who is Person) has created us in His own image and that we are inherently “personal.” And yet, the Church also recognizes that it is our personhood that is most effected by the fall. 

In theological terms, to exist as a person is to exist in freedom, to exist in self-giving love, and to recognize that it is God who guarantees our existence as persons. Instead, what we often experience is bondage instead of freedom – even the freedom we do know is itself exploited as a bondage; we love but often in the most selfish of ways; we see ourselves as the origin of our daily existence, jealously guarding our rights as individuals. In such fallen terms we live in competition, seeing others as living at our expense or at the expense of our well-being. 

Of course, the opposite is true. The existence of others – a gift from God, like our own existence – never decreases us, but gives to us an increase whenever it is greated with love and the expansion of our self in loving, self-giving relationship.

To live a personal life is thus a synonym for living the Christian life. Christ is not an addition to our life – He is our life. 

It is for such reasons that words like “religion” are insufficient to properly describe the Christian life. Anything that describes our life as having a true existence apart from its relationship to God or describes our relationship with God as an aspect of our life, has diminished God and ourselves – dividing our lives and our world into “God” and “not-God” categories.

There is no true existence apart from God (“in Him we live and move and have our being”). This applies not only to human beings but to the whole of creation. Though it is not common to refer to non-human existence as “personal,” it is still closer to the true character of all existence than the word “impersonal.” 

My favorite illustration of this phenomenon is the relationship we have with our pets. It is easy to describe the “anthropomorphism” we practice with regard to animals – treating them as though they were human beings – but it is more accurate to say that we frequently treat our pets as “personal” rather than human. The account of creation in Genesis describes God as bringing the animals before Adam to “see what he would name them.” It is an interesting image – one in which man rather than God is the giver of names. That relationship with creation (particularly with our pets) continues as we name animals and observe within them aspects of personhood. This is not a product of a misdirected dotage – but rather a reflection of our God given drive to live as persons and to extend that personhood to creation itself.

We do not immediately see this same question of personhood when we think of “inanimate” creation – and yet the Scriptures frequently do: trees clap their hands; rocks sing; all creation is called on to give praise to God. Thus a proper Christian understanding of the world around us carries a sense of the personal to everything – even if those “things” cannot be spoken of in the strict terms of “personhood.” 

Thus our true existence is found in proper relation to God and to everything God has made. This relation is seen time and again in the lives of many of the saints. Animals behave in a different manner (St. Seraphim and the bear or St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio), trees and flowers behave in different manners, even rocks obey their command (the stories of some saints and their power over earthquakes). “What manner of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” Christ’s disciples ask one another.

Such an understanding of the personal character of God’ creation does not grant us permission to begin a theology of personhood or an ethic of personhood that has no relation to God the Holy Trinity. Apart from God, personhood has no meaning. It is not an ethic nor a theology but is descriptive only of true life as lived in union with God. This is the danger that exists when Orthodox theologians seek to bear witness to an ecological ethic that can be appropriated by non-believers. To the non-believer we have only been commanded to offer Christ. Creation and its relationship to personhood requires its grounding in the personal God – otherwise people become the servants of temporality – indeed of a temporality that will itself cease to exists except as it exists in God. This earth is headed for a collision with the Sun (if not with something lesser, earlier). To make of it definer of our actions is to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Already and increasingly, the political world will offer us the opportunity to make of creation a god. Like all false gods it will be cruel and the killer of mankind. There is nothing new in this.

As Christians, we offer the world the only truth that is both new and older than all temporal existence: personal life in relationship with God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All life comes from Him and all life belongs to Him. It is only in Him that we will find ourselves as persons and that we will be able to share in His movement of creation towards the final end of union with Him.