The Agent of Change

A continuation of the series on culture and the individual.

Southwest Trip 317As inhabitants of our modern culture, we find ourselves trapped in a world of “cause and effect.” It is a physical explanation of the universe that has, for all intents and purposes, become a universal metaphor, dominating religion and the most personal aspects of our lives.

We see ourselves as the agents of change – or responsible for the disasters that litter our lives. Those who “succeed” imagine that they are the masters of their fate, or, perhaps the ones who responsibly “chose” God.

For the weak, the addict, the genetically impaired, the myth of choice and the power of freedom are often experienced as a merciless taunt. We not only fail – it is judged that we fail because we have not willed to succeed. Our weakness becomes a curse, while the blessed enjoy their prosperity and their health. Choice is a myth believed best by the young. Old age almost invariably makes a mockery of its boasts. The “pro-choice” movement and the growing acquiesence to legalized euthanasia are but natural extensions of our “free will.” These last manifestations of our “freedom” are the freedom to kill and to commit suicide, which, of course are only illusions of freedom.

There is an important and occasionally subtle difference between these modern concepts of freedom and choice – man as the agent of change – and the traditional Orthodox understanding of the world and the place that free will plays within it. On the most fundamental level, the world of cause and effect (the realm of our willful choices) is an insufficient arena for the Truth as revealed in Christ. God cannot be described merely as an agent in a world of cause and effect. He cannot be described as First Cause – because He cannot be described by a term of which there is a Second. God is not the First of anything – God is the Only of which there is no other.

The God Who has made Himself known in Christ Jesus is rightly identified as the Creator of all that is. However, how God creates is not a proper subject for scientific study. Cause and effect are simply insufficient as a description of God as Creator. Instead, an interesting verse in the LXX translation of Exodus offers the suggestion of a better starting point for understanding the role that our choices do and do not play:

Now Moses built an altar and called its name The-Lord-My-Refuge; for with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16).

God’s secret hand well describes His involvement in our world – a metaphor which is a recurring theme in the images of Scripture (particularly as understood by Orthodox Christianity).

An excellent example of this theme can be found in the account of the Three Young Men, in the book of Daniel and its continuation in the Song of the Three Young Men (LXX). There, the faithful youths are confronted with the command to commit idolatry, to fall down and worship before an image of the wicked King Nebuchadnezzar. If you will, the threat is typical of those who view the world as simple “cause and effect.” Power is defined as the ability to cause your own will to be done. As such, the Three Young Men are powerless. They are able to do nothing against the power of the King. His threat, of course, is death in a furnace of fire. They refuse, adhering to the commandments of God and trusting in His goodness. Their reply to the king is classic:

So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the gold image which I have set up? “Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. “If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. “But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:13-17).

Thus power, as defined by the world, confronts the power of God, and His secret hand.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” “Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire (Dan. 3:24-26).

In the LXX Song of the Three Young Men we hear this added description:

And the flame streamed out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, and it broke through and burned those of the Chaldeans whom it caught about the furnace. But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah [Shadrach] and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, and made the midst of the furnace like a moist whistling wind, so that the fire did not touch them at all or hurt or trouble them (Song of the Three Young Men 24-27).

Thus, like the bush that Moses saw on the Holy Mount that burns but is not consumed , or the womb of the Virgin that gives birth to Christ and yet remains a virginal womb (and so the image may be multiplied), God acts in a manner that cannot be described. If we say that He causes these things – then the word “cause” has a meaning other than what we normally mean.

Azariah states it this way in his prayer:

Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in Thy forbearance and in Thine abundant mercy. Deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works, and give glory to Thy name, O Lord! Let all who do harm to Thy servants be put to shame; let them be disgraced and deprived of all power and dominion, and let their strength be broken. Let them know that Thou art the Lord, the only God, glorious over the whole world (Song of the Three Young Men 19-22).

I have added emphasis – “deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works.” This is a proper description of the work of God. The power of God is not a power to be compared to the king’s, only bigger. For however the king works, he does not do so in a “marvelous manner.” Such works belong to God alone.

This phrase, “Thy marvelous works,” is echoed in the service of the Great Blessing of the Waters (used at Theophany, Baptism, and all blessings of Holy Water).

“Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works. There is no word sufficient to hymn Thy praises.”

Calling such words over the waters of the Jordan [as I experienced on pilgrimage in September] only emphasizes the secret handof the Most High. For in the course of the Blessing of Waters, we specifically call down upon the waters “the blessing of Jordan.” It seems strange, at first, to ask God to make the Jordan to be the Jordan. It is an illustration of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s statement that in the sacraments, we do not ask God not to make things to be something they are not, but to be what they truly are. Thus a blessing is not added to the Jordan, but in the prayer, the Jordan is revealed to be what it is: an icon. It is the place where the people of Israel cross to enter the Promised Land. It is the place that reveals the Pascha of Christ – who descends into death to lead the dead to the Promised land of life. An icon does not symbolize, in the modern sense of the word, but makes present that to which it points. Thus, “as many as are Baptized into Christ are Baptized into His death.” The Jordan and all water so blessed are an entrance into Pascha.

Icons do not cause, but reveal. To cause would be a magical understanding (magic itself being something from the early modern world – see alchemy).

When we bring this understanding of God’s work to bear on the human predicament – the will is revealed to be other than what we imagine it to be. Rather than the agent of change, it is simply one part of the human creature which is itself in need of redemption and healing.

I can no more will my salvation than I can will my resurrection.

Like everything else in the human life – the will is in need of redemption, even though it plays its own small role in its cooperation with grace. We cannot be saved except by grace – even though grace requires our cooperation. That cooperation, however, can sometimes be as minimal as a cry for help. It is the voice of the thief on the cross crying, “Remember me!”

We are not the agents of change – but subjects in need of change. The world of cause and effect in which we can imagine ourselves (like Nebuchadnezzer) to be people of great power, is not, after all, the realm of true power. That realm, ruled by God’s secret hand, became flesh and dwelt among us – doing for us what we could not ourselves do. We could not ascend into heaven and become Divine. He descended among us and became Man – that we might ascend with Him and become partakers of the divine nature.

God cannot be chosen or consumed as though He were a product among products. Neither is He an idea or slogan to which we may give allegiance. He is the God to Whom we may cry for help and Who has manifested His love and assured us of the ready answer to our feeble call.

Among the truest insights within our culture (although itself the product of Christian theology rather than modern culture) is the understanding found within the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step recognizes that we are powerless over the addictions which bind us. Strangely, the alcoholic who wants to be sober, must begin by recognizing that he is powerless to become so alone. The second step recognizes that “only a power greater than ourselves could help us.” I would say that only a power that is utterly unlike anything we know as power can help us. The third step is to turn oneself over to that power. Strangely, millions of men and women have found sobriety, not because of the power of their will, but through the recognition of the weakness of our will. It is the most non-consumer community within the whole of our culture – aside from Christianity rightly lived.

We are not the agents of change, though without change our very existence will become moot. The change for which we, and the world, hunger is finally dependent upon the secret hand of the Most High, Who created us, sustains us, and redeems us through His marvelous works. In Him the weak become strong, the meek inherit the earth, and those who weep laugh, while the mighty fall from their thrones.

From the midst of the flames we hear the Song of the Three Young Men, who see the true freedom of creation – not as inert objects or brute beasts to be coerced by wordly power, but as a joyful chorus of grateful creatures, whose voices unite in the great song offered to the God Whose secret hand sustains us in His presence:

O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,
O ye heavens, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye waters that be above the heaven, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye powers of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye sun and moon, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye stars of heaven, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O every shower and dew, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye winds, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,
O ye fire and heat, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye winter and summer, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye dews and storms of snow, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye nights and days, bless ye the Lord: bless and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye light and darkness, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye ice and cold, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye frost and snow, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye lightnings and clouds, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O let the earth bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye mountains and little hills, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye things that grow in the earth, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye mountains, bless ye the Lord: Praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye seas and rivers, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye whales, and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye beasts and cattle, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye children of men, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O Israel, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye priests of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye spirits and souls of the righteous, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye holy and humble men of heart, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever: far he hath
delivered us from hell, and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us out of the midst of the
furnace and burning flame: even out of the midst of the fire hath he delivered us.
O give thanks unto the Lord, because he is gracious: for his mercy endureth for ever.
O all ye that worship the Lord, bless the God of gods, praise him, and give him thanks: for his mercy
endureth for ever.

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14 Responses to “The Agent of Change”

  1. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    “The mind commands the hand to be moved, and such readiness is there that the command is scarce to be distinguished from the obedience. Yet the mind is mind, and the hand is body. The mind commands the mind to will, and yet, though it be itself, it obeys not. Whence this monstrous thing?”
    St. Augustine Confessions (8:9:21)

    Father, I enjoyed reading your post. Even the human mind can’t be sufficiently described in terms of scientific causality, but what are we to think when scripture lays out the theological causality of creation? I agree that saying “God is the Creator of all things” may not be sufficient, but it is a necessary condition for the cause of creation. I didn’t understand the argument about first cause because a second cause doesn’t mean a duplication of the first cause… which is already understood as uncaused. So I don’t see how it disagrees with “God is the Only of which there is no other.”

  2. a sinner Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Irenaeus,

    I would not want to say God is not the cause of all things, except in the sense that He is the Only of which there is no other. I am not sure that “uncaused cause” is sufficient. I would want to go further and say that He “causelessly causes.” Meaning by this that when everything is said and done (scientifically) we will not be able to point and say, “Ah, there is the cause.” We will arrive at a mystery. If He is the One of which there is no other, then we cannot even find a common noun by which He may be named (since it must be shared with another).

    Even the Genesis story has creation as “Let there be,” which is very interesting construction in the verb. “With an unseen hand,” has been one of the most helpful phrases I’ve found in Scripture for these actions of God. He acts, and yet remains anonymous. He may be known, and yet He may be denied. He may be known, but only in a way that in itself is a healing for the soul. He cannot be known as anything else is known. And yet when we know Him, we learn in that knowing to know all else in a new and proper way.

    I do not mean to say anything unique or new in any of this. Rather, this is simply a restatement of Apophatic Theology, the traditional approach to God in many of the Eastern Fathers. The kind of creationism and language used by fundamentalist Christianity is almost wholly lacking in this sort of meaning, and leaves me almost in despair through its statements. It establishes a target so easily dismissed that it invites philosophical light weights such as these recent popular atheist scientists to shoot them down. Even the work of the Schoolmen, has a tendency in this same direction, though, Aquinas was certainly familiar with Dionysius the Areopagite – and at his best is Apophatic.

    I think our present world, more than at any time, desperately needs to hear the Gospel presented in its fullness and not in its frequently caricatured form. I do not mean by this that the Gospel must be presented in its fullness as an “intellectualized” gospel – but rather in the depths of its meaning and properly engaging the existential dilemma of humanity (even awakening humanity to its existential dilemma). The crises of our age (whether perceived or true) – such as global warming and the like – are petty in comparison to the true crises of man and the universe – though they can be moments of true awakening. I simply want to move the conversation to where it belongs.

  4. padawan of paisios Says:

    I must THANK YOU for this excellent post. I spent nearly a lifetime as an American evangelical vacillating between surreal passivity and short-lived behavior modification. You hit the nail on the head when you said that “…In our present world, more than at any time, desperately needs to hear the Gospel presented in its fullness and not in its frequently caricatured form.”
    You are so right! Thank you for being a faithful witness to the truth.

  5. coffeezombie Says:

    “He may be known, and yet He may be denied. He may be known, but only in a way that in itself is a healing for the soul. He cannot be known as anything else is known. And yet when we know Him, we learn in that knowing to know all else in a new and proper way.”

    I seem to recall hearing somewhere, I think in response to the question of why God doesn’t just reveal himself openly to all of us, so that there would be no doubt as to His existence, that He acts in this “hidden” way for our salvation, because if He were to reveal himself openly, it would be, basically, the day of judgment, and we would become like the fallen angels, no longer able to repent.

    More to the actual post at hand, it seems to me that I have a tendency to view our “cooperation” with God’s grace as being more active than it really is. I mean, yes, there is much that we “do,” fasting, praying, attending services, etc. But, I guess in reality, all of that “doing” is really just submitting, obeying.

    In other words, the spiritual life isn’t about activity, but it’s about stopping. It’s not about changing myself, making myself a better person, but rather, it’s about giving up my ability to change myself, and, instead, trusting God to change me. And our struggles, our struggle to pray, to fast, to abstain from spreading gossip, and so on, are, ultimately, a struggle against our tendency to “take charge” and go our own way, and a struggle to “be still and know that [He is] God.”

    I’m not sure if I expressed that well; this is more of just a “brain dump”, in hopes that, if I’m getting the wrong idea, someone will correct me.🙂

  6. To Be or Not To Be Says:

    Thank you for a thought provoking post. It brings to the forefront one of my current favorite muddles….what does God cause in our world? If I pray and my prayers are answered, I believe that is God’s Hand; if I pray and my prayers are not answered, I still believe the same BUT how do I respond to non or quasi-believers who ask why the bad things happen if God is so powerful? Or more complicated, how to I respond to myself when wondering why someone/anyone is not spared horrible experiences….just one example: Is the death of a child God’s will? I don’t want to believe that is God’s Hand at work, but I seriously need illumination.

  7. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you for the repeat of this excellent post.

    Coffeezombie. good “brain dump.” I struggle to assimilate the same things. It seems to me you are on the right track, though.

    To Be or Not, you might be helped by David Bentley Hart’s treatment of this subject in his short book, “The Doors of the Sea.” I found his work tremendously helpful in coming to better terms with the attitude of God in the face of the inequities, suffering, and catastrophe that are part of life in a fallen world–and especially in the face of caricatures of the biblical view in the various philosophical theodicies concocted by men (often even in the name of biblical faith). It seems to me there is mystery also in sin and evil–a mystery wholly unlike that of God–that by nature will always show itself to be nonsensical and destructive. Consequently, I have found attempts to find an intrinsic meaning in suffering and evil either futile or, worse, evil and perverse themselves (such as when we insist that all suffering is God’s “just” punishment for the sins of those who suffer). Only the mystery of God’s working in the end will be shown to have meaning in and of itself, a fully redemptive meaning wholly grounded in Love, one that comes into focus when we see Christ on the Cross. I am learning when confronted with “quasi belief” that asks “where is a good God in suffering?,” particularly when it comes from someone enduring much pain, just to be present in a compassionate way. There is no satisfying answer to such a person, except to affirm God’s love, His solidarity with us in our pain (again seen in the Incarnation), and to demonstrate this by our actions.

  8. Jesse Says:

    Two questions Father,

    1) Is the fire in the furnace identified as the same fire as that burning (but not consuming) the bush? Also I believe there is an icon of the three men in the furnace, taken to represent the Trinity (I may be wrong here), and there is also the “Son of God” in the furnace. Are ALL these things “God”?

    2) I’ve been wondering lately if some (not all) miracles weren’t as miraculous as they seemed, meaning that those who viewed them could easily have missed them because of how normal they appeared. I thought this when the priest at an orthodox service I went too mentioned how after a recent unexpectedly well-attended feast, the small potluck prepared provided enough food for all, similar to Jesus’ feeding of the 5000. I thought at the time (cynic that I am) that they probably just had more food than they realized, but upon further reflection realized it could have seemed the same to the 5000 listening to Jesus that day – many of them may not have realized that they had just been part of a miracle. Is this (if it is true) an example of God’s secret hand?

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    The traditional treatment of the fire: the fire of the burning bush is indeed understood as the Divine Presence. The fire of the furnace, however, is not to my recollection. The three young men are not seen as a representation of Trinity, again in my recollection. The one “like unto the Son of Man” in the furnace is taken to be Christ. Though, my recollection has many limits. The richness of Orthodox commentary and liturgical interpretation makes it very hard to say “never.”

    I think that the whole of life is a miracle (“in Him we live and move and have our being”). The definition of miracle in the modern world pretty much necessitates that you first believe in the secular account of the universe, which I do not insofar as I am able. Interestingly, St. John refers to “signs,” which is perhaps more significant than the word “miracle.” The seven signs in the Gospel of John have a revelatory function and point beyond themselves to the revelation of God in Christ. Thus St. John bothers to number them.

  10. Dana Ames Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    I do hope this makes it into the book.

    Coffeezombie,
    nicely written, thank you.

    Dana

  11. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    Thankyou for your response Father.

    There is always a danger of diminishing God by bounding the infinite and unknowable within a rational understanding. If the bar for belief is being able to fully understand God and all his teachings, then success leaves us with a very small and finite God. It is easy to fall into the trap of diminishing God’s mystery in this way… even Job did so when he tried to fit God into his formula of A+B=Experiencing Gods favor, and finally questioned God as to why this was not so.

    “Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? tell me if thou hast understanding.”
    Job 38:4

    In many cases, I think there is a subtlety to what initially appears as a definition of God, actually being a definition of experience. Definitions of “the experience of God” are sufficient in many cases, whereas attempts at defining God are always insufficient. For instance, St John says “God is Love”. Does he truly mean this in an exclusive sense? For God is also Justice, Judgment, etc, etc. When we taste the apple and say “The apple is sweet.” This is really not a property of apple, but a property of how we experience it. It says something about us. So when we look at causality and attribute it to God, I feel this is not really diminishing God through an insufficient definition… because I think it is a definition of how we experience God in the world we live. I look at the Incarnation as God humbling Himself and purposely making himself small so that we could listen to Him, talk to Him, talk about Him, and finally experience Him as never before. What I mean by this is that I feel it allowed us to know God well enough to say things such as “God is Love”, or the first cause of creation, etc.

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Irenaeus,

    Well-stated. I’ll confess to having an issue with causality – because I see it tied-up in the closed-circuit of modern, secular thought and want to find ways to speak about God’s action in our lives and in the world in a way that breaks out of that language trap. Aquinas, likely, meant something different by causation than a modern speaker intends. I suspect his language had more depth and subtlety than the language we’ve inherited from common-sense Scottish literalism. I think that neither of us is a common-sense Scottish literalist, but that we’ve inherited their tongue. I want to run our modern usage back through Apophatic understanding and try to say something about God that will not be heard as the same mistaken thing that we hear all the time. Or at least that’s my intention (see the new post).

  13. Mary Says:

    Coffeezombie said:

    In other words, the spiritual life isn’t about activity, but it’s about stopping. It’s not about changing myself, making myself a better person, but rather, it’s about giving up my ability to change myself, and, instead, trusting God to change me. And our struggles, our struggle to pray, to fast, to abstain from spreading gossip, and so on, are, ultimately, a struggle against our tendency to “take charge” and go our own way, and a struggle to “be still and know that [He is] God.”

    Thank you for writing this. This is exactly what I’ve come to understand very recently, and I was struggling with putting it into words. You put it so well!

    Mary

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Heard a reference tonight to the imagery of Christ in the furnace with the three young men. In the seventh or eighth ode of the canon for the vigil of the Nativity of the Theotokos (celebrated tonight), the presence of Christ in the fiery furnace is interpreted as a pre-figuring of His presence in the womb of His mother.

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