Archive for September, 2009

That We Should Be Merciful

September 30, 2009

RussianSchemamonkA brother who had committed a serious sin decided to confess it to another monk. Instead of openly stating what he had done, the brother asked, “If a thought like this came into someone’s mind, would he be saved?” The monk told him, “There is no hope for you.” Hearing this, the brother thought, “If I am going to perish, I might as well do it in the world.”

As he was abandoning the solitary life, the brother thought of Abba Silvanus and turned aside to visit him. Again, without reporting the nature of his sin, he asked the same oblique question. Silvanus quoted Scripture and said, “That judgment falls on everyone, whether or not they have sinned.” This moved the brother to confess his sin. Like a skilled physician, Silvanus applied an ointment of Scripture texts to the wounded one, observing that repentance is available for everyone who turns to God.

Years later, Silvanus encountered the monk who had discouraged the brother. “That brother, who was crushed by your response and was returning to the world, is now a bright star among us.”

Ignorance and God

September 30, 2009

Picture 023Many readers will be familiar with the following post. It appears from time to time. It appears first – so that I may remember it. It appears second that others may not forget it. Some days it weighs more heavily on me than others. I should learn to wear it more easily since it is the suit of clothes I wear without fail (even when I think otherwise). May God have mercy on us all.

I am an ignorant man, despite posting writings on all kinds of things. But make no mistake – I am an ignorant man. Thus, I would always counsel any reader to remember, these are the writings of an ignorant man.

Why would I say this? Because it is true. How am I ignorant? I am as most of us are – I do not see the world clearly for what it is. I do not see other people clearly for what they are. I do not see myself clearly for what I am. And most importantly, I do not see God for Who He Is.

Ignorance cannot be an excuse. It should be an impetus to seek, to ask, to knock. If we do not know God we will perish – this is absolutely true. And ignorance in other matters brings its own perishing as well.

I don’t think I have always thought I was ignorant – indeed, I know I did not always think this. But as years have gone on, either I’ve become more ignorant, or I’ve become more aware of how ignorant I truly am. What do any of us actually know of another human being? The Scriptures tell us that our true life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians), thus the truth of any person is a mystery. And I know almost nothing of this mystery – not only towards myself but also and especially towards those around me. How do I know what another man needs? I do not know. God knows.

What do any of us actually know of God? I believe we only know of God what has been revealed to us in Christ. And just reading the revelation is a world away from actually knowing and “having” the revelation. That comes very slowly indeed.

The Elder Sophrony wrote that such revelations come in something like a “flash of lightning, when the heart is burning with love.” These relatively rare experiences accumulate over a lifetime:

The accumulation in the experience of the Church of such ‘moments’ of enlightenment has led organically to their reduction into one whole. This is how the first attempt at the systemization of a live theology came about, the work of St. John of Damascus, a man rich, too, in personal experience. The disruption of this wondrous ascent to God in the unfathomable wealth of higher intellection is brought about, where there is a decline of personal experience, by a tendency to submit the gifts of Revelation to the critical faculty of our reason – by a leaning towards ‘philosophy of religion.’ The consequences are scholastic accounts of theology in which, again, there is more philosophy than Spirit of life. (From his work On Prayer).

I ask those of you who read this blog to remember that I am an ignorant man and to pray for me, if you remember to. I pray for you all.

A Romanian version of this article can be found here.

A French translation can be found here.

Healing the Religious Tragedy of the Christian World

September 29, 2009

15This was written and posted in January of ’08. Comments within a recent post make it seem worth re-posting. The works of Fr. Georges Florovsky, referenced in the article, are themselves a quiet tragedy. They have languished out-of-print for most of a generation under the legal burden of copyright problems (a complicated story). I managed to collect and read his works when I was in graduate school at Duke. My dogmatics professor when I was in seminary had done his doctorate under Florovsky at Harvard. I had been influenced by him long before I read him. An argument could easily be made that he was the most important theological figure in 20th century Orthodox life. Some of his work can be found in “print” on the net. Anything he has written is worth the time to find and read.


Last October I ran the following quote from Fr. Georges Florovsky:

Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Georges FlorovskyWays of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

Florovsky is arguably the most important Orthodox voice of the 20th century. He argued and demonstrated time and again what he referred to as a “neo-patristic synthesis,” a clarion call for Orthodox theology to return to its roots in the Fathers and within the Orthodox Tradition. Many would today be surprised that Orthodox theology was ever otherwise – but in Florovsky’s youth, theological academies in Russia were heavily influenced by the West (from both Protestant and Catholic directions – classes in some cases were conducted in Latin), as well as those in Greece and elsewhere. There are few Orthodox theologians writing today, who have not drunk deep from the wells that Florovsky argued for. Vladimir Lossky was a protege; Met. John Zizioulas considered himself a student of Florovsky; Fr. Alexander Schmemann was a colleague both in France and in America. The landscape of Orthodox theology at the beginning of the 21st century would likely look much different had Florovsky not lived and wrote and taught.

His own view of the role of Orthodox theology, written in the mid-twentieth century, would likely have to be revised at this point in the early 21st century, even though the task he set for Orthodox theology has never been completed (and rarely attempted). The landscape of the Church has changed. The Orthodox Church that Florovsky addressed consisted almost entirely of those who had been born to the faith. Though revolution and other circumstances had created a “diaspora,” placing many Orthodox in the West – the Church was still an Eastern Church with converts being rare and frequently turned away.

Today, Orthodoxy in America is quickly becoming “native.” Both converts whose roots have always been in the West, as well as the descendants of original diaspora Orthodox becoming “Westernized,” the Orthodox Church in many places in the West today can speak of itself as “Eastern” only as an historical artifact. Its converts have not become “Eastern” in the process of becoming Orthodox – we have not become citizens of a foreign culture. Deeply influenced and immersed in Eastern experience – yes. But I would contend that converts have become to a great extent individual examples of Florovsky’s original proposal. They are now Orthodox Christians who have personally experienced the “western religious tragedy.” As a result of that tragedy they have come to Orthodoxy, but never as a tabula rasa. Every convert who enters the Church brings with them, in some fashion, the inheritance of centuries – problems not of their own creation but inherent to the West and to the modern Western world. To a large extent the problems of the “West” have now become universal problems for the simple reason that Western culture has become the dominant culture of the world. Others have our problems whether they want them or not. As converts within the West or even just Orthodox living in the West the inner encounter between Orthodoxy and Western experience is unavoidable.

Thus I see Florovsky as a “prophet” of sorts, but with the playing field drastically changed. He did not see the consequences of an Orthodoxy that could speak English (or French, or Spanish, or any number of other “Western” languages). Interestingly, my primary dogmatics professor, when I was an Anglican seminarian, had done his doctoral work under Florovsky at Harvard. His voice and vision echoed in that professor’s classes. How many Anglicans wrote papers on St. Gregory Palamas in earlier decades? I can recall reading Palamas (who was just beginning to be translated into English) and bringing his thought to bear on the problems raised in my theology classes. It was Florovsky’s vision – but in an entirely different setting. It is not surprising that I should have eventually become Orthodox – it is where the answers to my questions had always been.

Today, in ways and in places that many would not think of as “theological” in the formal sense, Florovsky’s vision is being fulfilled. We are the West – all of us who live here and many who do not. And within our own hearts is the crucible of Western tragedy meeting the patristic synthesis of the Orthodox East. At first the encounter can feel almost schizophrenic. It is all too easy to simply be anti-Western. But this is not an answer – just a reaction. God is not anti-Western, else He would have withheld Orthodoxy from us. But He has not withheld it. He has plunged it into the very midst of our culture with the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. And in the hearts of His people this great encounter of patristic theology – the living inheritance of the Christian Church – meets all the various forms that the “Western religious tragedy” has taken. I believe the meeting that takes place in the heart is not to condemn the tragedy (for Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world) but that through such an encounter the tragedy might be raised from its own brokenness into the fullness of the Church.

I write as an Orthodox Christian – but I cannot pretend that there is nothing “Western” in what I do. Who would I be kidding? By the same token, I daresay that no other Orthodox writer in the West, including those born within the faith, can claim to do otherwise. Florovsky’s vision is not an enterprise to be undertaken – it is a prophecy of an inevitability. It is an inevitability because God so loved the world. There are no tragedies that God does not take into Himself – no failures that he has disowned. He has become what we are that we might become what He is – and it is happening before our very eyes.

Prayer and Porridge

September 28, 2009

BOSNIA MONASTERY WINESome brothers visited Abba Anthony and asked him to tell them how they could find salvation. The old man said, “You are familiar with the Scriptures. That should teach you enough.”

“Yes, but we want a word from you also, Abba.”

Then the old man responded, “The Gospel instructs you to turn the other cheek.”

They said, “We can’t do that.”

“Then if you can’t offer the other cheek, at least permit one cheek to be struck.”

They replied, “We can’t do that either.”

“If these things are beyond you, then do not return evil for evil.”

“We can’t.”

Abba Antony turned to his disciple. “Prepare a little porridge for these people, because they are not capable of doing anything.” To his visitors he said, “If you can’t do this or that, there is nothing I can do for you.

“What you need is prayer.”

The Icon as Proof of God’s Existence

September 27, 2009

trinity-rublevGod “adorns himself in magnificence and clothes himself with beauty.” Man stands amazed and contemplates the glory whose light causes a hymn of praise to burst forth from the heart of every creature. The Testamentum Domini gives us the following prayer: “Let them be filled with the Holy Spirit…so they can sing a doxology and give you praise and glory forever.” An icon is the same kind of doxology but in a different form. It radiates joy and sings the glory of God in its own way. True beauty does not need proof. The icon does not prove anything; it simply lets true beauty shine forth. In itself, the icon is shining proof of God’s existence, according to a “kalokagathic” argument.

Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon

“Kalokagathic” – what a wonderful word! It’s is a Greek coinage, combining the word for beautiful(kalos) and the word for good (agathos). To see an icon is so very far removed from viewing an art object. First off, an icon is never an object. Faces in an icon are never in profile, but look at us face to face. To rightly see an icon is to see it in relationship, that is, to see it personally. And the person whom we see is not the wood and paint, but the one whom the image on the wood and paint represents. It is this encounter that makes it possible to speak of an iconographic proof of the existence of God. I know there is a God because I have seen His image.

In the most perfect sense of this understanding, Christ is the proof of the Father’s existence, because He is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Thus Christ is the visible of the invisible. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” (John 14:9).

It is also true that man is created in the image and likeness of God – though only in Christ, the perfect man (and perfect God), is the image and likeness truly realized. But Christ Himself extends the image – gathering into Himself, “the least of these my brethren” (Matthew 25:40). Thus every human being offers the opportunity of an encounter with God – if we have the eyes to see. Every human being is proof, poor though it may be, of the existence of God.

Pavel Florensky in his wonderful book Iconostasis, says that “Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity exists, therefore God exists.” The first time I read the statement I was brought up short. It took time to see what he meant and to see that it was true. A couple of years later one of my daughters was visiting Moscow. She sent a postcard say, “I have seen Rublev’s Trinity. It’s true.” What a marvelous witness!

Icons and Truth

September 26, 2009

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

In the last several posts I have written about the iconic character of reality – the world about us has the character of an icon. I have also noted the iconic character of language and of Scripture. There is much to say about what is meant by such descriptions as well as what it means to see things in an “iconic” manner.

610xI have made a contrast between what I have termed a literal view of reality and an iconic view of reality. In the literal view, things are things. What you see is what there is. In an iconic view, things point to something beyond themselves – they make present that to which they point.

However, there is much more to this than the mere act of seeing. To see an icon requires that we also be in relationship with that which it represents. Christ is present in His icon but is only made manifest to us because we are in relationship with Him. Thus I have said that to see an icon properly involves its veneration. Veneration is an expression of our relationship with that which is represented.

An important aspect of icons (in the teaching of the Church) is that an icon must be true. We cannot make icons of that which is not true.

I recall a conversation with an elderly iconographer. We were discussing a particular icon of the Russian New Martyrs.

“It is not an icon!” she declared. I remember at the time wondering what she meant. It clearly obeyed all the canons and conventions for an icon – those whom it portrayed were truly martyrs. She drew my attention to the portrayal of those who were pictured carrying out the martyrdoms.

“There is hate in this icon!” She exclaimed. A true icon can never contain hate.

She did not mean that an icon could not portray the martyrdom itself (often a gruesome event). Rather she meant that within the portrayal of the evil-doers, the hatred and anger of the iconographer could be seen. It was, perhaps, a subtle point. But it was a point that was quite vital to this very accomplished iconographer. For veneration and hatred cannot coexist. Hatred will create a distortion which is not healing to the soul but damaging.

The same is true whether we are speaking about seeing the world as icon or reading the Scripture as icon (or encountering another human being as the icon of God). A required element within the experience of iconicity is the purity of our own heart. To read the Scriptures rightly is to encounter the Truth and, in some measure, to be changed in the encounter. There is obviously a dynamic at work. I am not pure in heart (nor are any of us) and my vision is thus always distorted to some extent.

However, what we can bring to every event of seeing is a broken and contrite heart – a heart of repentance. It is also true that our repentance is not pure and our humility is always lacking. But God is merciful. We offer what we can of our heart – and He gives what is lacking. This is the daily struggle of our lives as Christians and the constant and abundant mercy of God.

Evil renders the world opaque. Evil is not made present in things that seek to represent it. Rather, evil is a fracturing of the world – its dissolution in self-love and the drive towards non-being. Thus “art” which seeks to objectify human beings into mere sexual content is not True. It distorts the truth of a person and portrays them in a manner that dissolves reality. When we enter into communion with such “art” we enter into a communion of death – for such “art” only has death as its content.

This, of course, is an extreme example of the distorted efforts at sinful, iconic representation. It could be multiplied across the whole of our experience – for much that surrounds us is marked by such distortion, whether intentional or not.

St. Paul states:

To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work (Titus 1:15-16).

We are all iconographers – or at least involved with icons – for we live in the world and see it. (Even the “icon-smashers” are involved with icons whether they will acknowledge it or not). We either see icons in the distortion of our impure hearts or we struggle to see the world through the heart of repentance and in the purity which is the gift of God. It is in such purity that we can see another human being and confess from the heart that “this is the image of God.” It is not incorrect to say this of someone even if it is only a theoretical acceptance of a theological given. But such theoretical acceptance is not the same thing as actually seeing God in His image. That requires the long and difficult work of repentance – the struggle towards purity of heart. By His mercies, may we all see God.

Icons and the Smashing of Images

September 24, 2009

My recent series on iconicity would seem to require a word or two about the smashing of images (iconoclasm).


I have a quote on the sidebar from an earlier posting. It is about the need we have for proper images and the danger inherent in “image smashing” or “iconoclasm.”

We have to renounce iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity. The truth is eschatological, that is, it lies in the future, but we also believe that this eschatological reality was incarnate in Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. We do not oppose the future in embracing the Tradition we have received. We embrace the future that is coming in Truth, rather than the false utopias of modern man’s imagination.

There is a strange spirit of iconoclasm (the Greek for “icon smashing”) and it breaks out now and again across human history. It is not just a short period in Byzantine history successfully resisted by the Orthodox but a strange manifestation of human sin that has as its driving force and hence allurement, the claim that it is defending the honor of God.

iconoclasmThe icon smashers are as varied as certain forms of Islam or certain forms of Puritanism (and some of its Protestant successors). Some icon smashers direct their attention to pictures or statues, per se, while others turn their attention to even ideological icons such as honoring certain days and holidays. Those Christians who rail against the date of Christmas belong to this latter group of iconoclasts.

What is striking to me is that iconoclasm has almost always accompanied revolutions. I suppose those who are destroying the old and replacing with the new have a certain drive to “cleanse” things. Thus during China’s Cultural Revolution, books, pictures, older faculty members, indeed a deeply terrifying array of unpredictable things and people became the objects of the movement’s iconoclasm. As in all of these revolutions – iconoclasm kills.

In Christian history the first recorded outbreak of iconoclasm was the period that gave the phenomenon the name – during the mid-Byzantine Empire. Like later incarnations of this spirit of destruction, the icons themselves were only one thing to be destroyed – those who sought to explain and defend them became objects of destruction as well. Thus we have the martyrs of the Iconoclast Heresy.

During the Protestant Reformation iconoclasm was a frequent traveler with the general theological reform itself. Thus statues, relics, furniture – all became objects of destruction (as well as people). Some of this was state sponsored (as was the original iconoclastic period). The logic of iconoclasm, however, cannot always be confined. Thus in the Reformation the logic of reform moved from destruction of images to destruction of the state (which was itself an icon of sorts). In Germany the result was the Peasants’ Revolt, which became so dangerous to the powers that be that even Martin Luther had to denounce it and bless the state’s bloody intervention.

In England the Reform that was first put in place by the state remained unsteady for over a hundred years. Eventually, the Puritan Reform (that only took the logic of Reform to its next step) began to smash images, behead kings, outlaw bishops, outlaw holidays, outlaw dancing (they were a fun lot). For ten years England was ruled by a bloody dictatorship that was as ruthless in its iconoclasm as any regime in history.

One of the difficulties of iconoclasm is its appeal to the idea of God. Images are smashed because they are considered an affront to God. And not just images, but certain ideas are smashed (burn the books and those who wrote them). There is a “righteousness” to the cause which refuses to accept anything other than complete obedience.

I do not write about iconoclasm entirely from the outside. I’ve been there – done that. The verse of Scripture that seemed most “iconoclastic” to me was in 2 Cor. (10:3-6):

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.

Of course, the verse is referring to sinful thoughts and uses (as is not unusual in St. Paul) martial imagery. That same imagery applied to the governing of a state (or a Church) can be quite dangerous. It is useful in the spiritual life, provided it is well-directed by a mature and generous guide.

The plain truth of the matter is that God is an icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The same God who gave the commandment to make no graven images, also commanded the making of the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the images of angels woven in the curtain of the Tabernacle. He commanded the making of the image of the serpent, lifted on a staff, that brought healing to all who looked on it (an Old Testament prefigurement of the crucified Christ).

In the better than 14 years I have known Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas (my bishop until his retirement this year), I have heard him warn incessantly that the greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear.

There is a restraint that is inherently involved in offering honor. Orthodox Christian living requires that we know how to worship God with what is due to Him alone, but at the same time to know how to honor those things that are honorable without giving them what belong to God alone. It is easy to say “give honor to God alone,” but this is contrary to the Scriptures in which we are told to “give honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7 and also see Romans 12:10). We cannot honor God by destroying the very images He has created (and here I include the saints who could not be what they are but by God’s grace).

There is within iconoclasm, a spirit of hate and anger. Without them destruction would not be so easy. But it is also the case that such spirits are not of God – though they are easily attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance. Iconoclasm is not the narrow way, but the wide path of destruction. It is easy to declare that all days are the same and that no days should be considered holier than others. It is easy to check out the historical pedigree of every feast of the Church and declare that some had pagan predecessors. Of course some had pagan predecessors – as did every last human being. If the Church has blessed a day and made it to be a day on which an action of Christ or an event in His life, or a saint of the Church is to be honored and remembered, then it is acting well within the Divine authority given it in Scripture (Matt. 18:18).

More importantly, we will grow more surely into the image of Christ by imitating his actions and learning to build up rather than to smash. Giving place to anger and the spirit of iconoclasm, in all its various guises, has never produced saints – but only destruction that has to eventually give way to something more sane. The legacy of our culture’s image smashing (a powerful part of the Puritan world) is secularization – though now replete with its own images. If we fail to give a proper account of the role that images play in Christianity – the result will not be no images – but simply the dominance of culture images and a subtle conformity to the world. The only image that needs to be discarded is the one we have of ourselves as God. We are not Him. Worship God. Give honor to whom honor is due.

Grief Observed

September 24, 2009

As regular readers of this blog will know, I buried my mother last week. Her passing was a very godly event. I have no particular thoughts on my grief (that I care to share) – only the abiding comfort of the prayers of the Church and gratitude for the prayers of friends. I wrote the following article on grief in February of 2007 and found it of interest. Surely, He has borne our sorrows.

129963405_301bb0765bI spent two years working as a Hospice Chaplain in the Mountains of East Tennessee. When you’re working with hospice, death and grief are ever-present. You have no choice over your patients. Mine ranged from mountain Pentecostals, to unbelieving scientists here in Oak Ridge (a science city). But grief was universal.

I learned many things about grief, both by watching and listening to others and by paying attention to myself. One of the most surprising things I learned about grief is that each grief is all grief, meaning, that an event that opens up grief in our hearts, taps in to all the previous events of grief. Thus we find ourselves grieving far greater for something than the loss itself would have indicated.

Those two years were years that for a variety of reasons brought much grief to my heart. I found myself at the bedsides of strangers, listening to their stories, and weeping. They must have thought I was very emotional, or incredibly empathetic. I didn’t know how to say, “Your grief is part of my grief which is quite substantial just now.”

The discipline of Soul Saturdays and the frequent prayers for the departed in the Church probably saved my sanity those two years. I never had a week with less than three deaths.

If anything, the experience taught me that it is possible for some one thing to be part of some larger thing. There was a communion within the experience of grief that I cannot articulate other than to say that it is so.

Thus the statement of St. Paul , “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10) became important for me. Worldly grief can be the door to despair (which we certainly do not want). To grieve in a “godly” manner, I believe, means to unite and offer my grief to God. Thus “we do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

I think in the same manner we can “weep with those who weep” learning that such things are not utterly private as our culture often teaches, but that the loss and suffering of one is the loss and suffering of us all. Even Christ wept over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

That passage in John 11, is very instructive:

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept (33-35).

It is not simply the news of Lazarus’ death, nor his sorrow over his death that moves Christ to tears. It was when He saw Lazarus’ sister Mary weeping and the others who came with her weeping, that he was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Their grief became His grief. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 52:4). We are not asked to do less.

May God comfort those who grieve and give them a share in His good hope.

Drawn Ever Deeper

September 22, 2009

IMG_1028On translation and the iconicity of language – this comment posted earlier today is worth more attention:

I’ve been enjoying thinking about your words on the subject of there being something revealing about the act and result of translation. It makes me think of weeping and other miraculous icons. The particular icon, written faithfully according to the canons, nevertheless is already a unique expression of the truth into which every occasion/expression of that icon is meant to draw us. It manifests something special about what or whom it is meant to reveal, drawing us ever deeper.

I do not mean to belabor the point – but it is very much worth asking – how does language carry its meaning if in translation we encounter the same content? If the “inspiration” of Scripture extends beyond the precise original manuscripts and words – then how do the words mean? And if the meaning is something that is manifest through the words and may be manifest through words in translation – then how should we hear and study Scripture?

It is precisely at this point of understanding that we may begin to see something of the role of the heart in the study of Scripture. I do not mean by heart the seat of emotions – but rather the deep seat of our very person – an understanding and knowing that is more intuitive than deductive – more perceptive than discursive – not busy or noisy but marked by stillness and quiet. Reason and emotion have their role to play in our lives – but they play their roles best when they have been integrated into the heart and there live in a more integrated manner.

Such a heart-reading of Scripture might well be aware of reason and emotion – but will listen to them and beyond them rather than be dominated by them.

I recall (profoundly) my first encounter with the Sermon on the Mount. I was probably 15 years old. There was a great deal of religious energy swirling about in my life at the time. My older brother was headed into the military (during the height of the Vietnam War). I had ceased going to Church but had begun to visit an Episcopal Church (my first introduction to liturgy, Church history and a strikingly different world of religious encounter). I picked up and read Matthew 5-7 having read a number of essays by Leo Tolstoy on the subject.

The nature of my encounter was something beyond the question of interpretation. I was not (at that point) reading in order to reach conclusions or decisions. I was simply reading (and listening). What I encountered was an icon of Christ (for I hardly know what else to call it). It was an encounter with an image of Christ that had a sense of completion – and a clear presentation of character. Far more apparent than the what of the text was the Who behind the text. It was not unlike the experience many have upon entering an Orthodox Church only to find Jesus (the Christos Pantokrator) looking down to them from the hovering image in the central dome. I saw Christ in that reading and knew Him in a manner I had not known before – and I loved Him.

The shape of my Christian life after that reading was not immediately clear – but that it would always be in relation to the One Whom I encountered was a settled thing.

Such a story has much within it that is idiosyncratic. It is part of my story. But it is also not unlike the stories of others – particularly if their encounter with Christ is an encounter with a person and not with an idea.

The same Christ whom I encountered as a teenager in the words of Matthew’s gospel, continues to make Himself known in the words of Scripture. I am often engaged in the serious study of Scripture – drawing comparisons – digging at words – but nothing serious is accomplished if that study is bereft of encounter.

The possibility of such an encounter is a revelation about the nature of language (and of the world as well) and of the possibilities that exist within a world which is iconic in character. God is not only everywhere present and filling all things but also everywhere and at all times making Himself known to us. It is revealing of the human heart and its dysfunctional state that we live in such a world and still fail to know Him.

Icons and Words

September 21, 2009

Mikhail_Nesterov-Holy_RusWith this post I want to make a link between my last article, on how we “see” icons, and an earlier article, “Doctrine and Opinion,” in which I quoted the late Fr. Georges Florovsky who said, “Doctrine is a verbal icon of Christ.” I noted then that this presented a very different approach to doctrine and the usual reasoned treatments that accompany it. Human reason has a very vital role to play in our lives – but not as an independent agent. Reason must live as the “mind in the heart,” if it is to rightly apprehend and speak of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

The very fact that Scripture can be translated says something about the iconicity of language. It is interesting that the Christian faith (particularly as witnessed in the Tradition of the East) has always translated Scripture. Christianity has a history, in the East, of worshipping in the indigenous languages of people. When St. John Chrysostom (that great master of the Greek language) was Archbishop of Constantinople, he ordered that a Church be set aside for the use of Goths who served in the imperial army (and whose families comprised a decent minority of the population of the city) and that the liturgy there be served in their language. He was simply ordering something that was already the common practice of Eastern Christianity. Thus an alphabet for the Slavic peoples was born when Sts. Cyril and Methodius began their evangelization of the Slavs. St. Innocent of Alaska and others contemporary to him, created alphabets and written languages for the native peoples of Alaska nearly a millennium later, continuing what had always been Orthodox practice.

This principle of translation differs strongly from the attitude that was historically manifest in Islam. To this day, though the Koran is translated, it is usually seen as only properly read in the language in which it was originally written. Language is not iconic for Islam.

Thus when Christians take an attitude to Scripture as “infallible in its original languages and manuscripts,” they take a position that is somewhat removed from the Tradition of the faith. I sometimes suspect that the medieval encounter and debate with Islamic scholars brought some of this thought into Christianity.

I offer a short aside about my use of the word “iconic.” I mean by this (in applying it to language) that language “represents” what it says in the manner that an icon “represents” what it pictures. There is a reality, a hypostatic reality, presented in the icon or spoken in the language. It is this “represented” that is the meaning of the word or the content of the icon. Thus a thing is not just a thing (or a painting just a painting) and a word or a sentence is not just a word or a sentence. In each case there is something more, something greater that is made present. Things, pictures, words are windows (to use the language of icons). They are means by which we encounter the Represented. In contrast, our modern world (and its precursors) see things as things, paintings as paintings, words as words. For some, words may be given special reverence, but only on a literal level. The words are “God-breathed” but opaque. In Orthodox Christianity, the words are God-breathed but translucent.

In whatever way it is that language and translation work – it is a way such that the Scriptures in Greek and the Scriptures in Slavonic (and in English and in Yupik, etc.) – manifest the same Truth. That they do so is a witness to their iconic character rather than to a mechanical, literalistic character.

A translation must be faithful – and some translations are more faithful than others – and yet translations are not a diminishing of the Truth in Scripture. Icons have this same character. They are not painted (or “written” as some iconographers say) on the whim of the iconographer. There is a pattern (traditionally another icon) of which each newly painted icon is a copy. There are numerous icons of the Mother of God – but each is still an icon of the Mother of God and not an icon of someone else. The same, of course, is true of icons of Christ.

By the same token, the opening verse of the gospel of John is still the opening verse of the gospel of John, whether it says, “In principio erat verbum,” or “Im Anfang war das Wort.” It is sometimes the case, I believe, that a translation will reveal some things that are true that could not have been seen in the original language. There are relations between words and ideas within a language that will exist only in that language. I personally believe that such relations and meanings created by them should not be ignored simply because the same relations and meanings do not exist in the original languages. Such meanings are not sufficient ground for the formal dogma of the Church, but they cannot be utterly excluded from the revelation made known to us in the Scriptures.

None of this is possible, of course, in a worldview in which things are merely things and words have a single and strict meaning, etc. Those who suggest that reason is a sufficient hermeneutic of Scripture simply ignore the traditional Christian witness to the character of language. Fr. Georges Florovsky made much of the Church’s condemnation of the Apollinarian heresy. That heresy had taught that the Divine Logos served as the soul of the God-Man, Christ Jesus (or in some accounts, the Logos served as the “mind” of the soul). This the Church condemned proclaiming that Christ would not have been truly and fully human if he had not had a fully human soul. “That which is not assumed is not saved,” are the famous words of St. Gregory Nazianzus in response to this heresy.

The subtle problem with Apollinarianism is its distrust of the human capacity to bear the divine (capax divinitatis). The same mistrust runs as a common tendency throughout iconoclasm. The material world, the created order, is simply judged incapable of bearing the Divine. The Tradition of the Church with regard to the Eucharist was too strong in early years to allow for historic Iconoclasm (7-8th century) to question the Eucharist as God’s body and blood. It was the “only” icon they would recognize (the Orthodox countered that the Eucharist was no icon at all, but Christ’s true Body and Blood). However, by the time of the Reformation, iconoclastic tendencies would begin to reject any Divine reality to even the Eucharist itself.

The general thrust of this iconoclastic Apollinarianism, is the gradual creation of our modern two-storey Christian world-view. The Divine is exiled from the created world and relegated to a theoretical existence. Sacraments are reduced to “mere symbols.” In such a thrust, it is little wonder that the Scriptures themselves have undergone repeated attacks. Reduced to a rationalized literalism, they eventually can carry no more weight than is granted to any other element of our de-sacralized creation. Modernism is the final triumph of iconoclasm. God cannot enter the world for the world has been rendered God-proof.

The choice between a “literal” world and an “iconic” world is a choice between worlds in which God either cannot be encountered or a world in which God is constantly encountered. The rationalization or emotionalization of Divine encounter are both elements of a world in which no encounter is possible. Both are encounters with God that exist strictly “within the mind of the beholder.” It is very, very thin ice upon which to skate the Christian faith.

The iconic character of creation is an inherent part of the fullness of Christian witness. The Word became flesh, and in so doing bore witness to the capacity of the flesh to bear the Divine. Language is capable of speaking God. According to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The word of God does not grow dim in the tongue of man.” Translation is of the very character of language. In whatever way language carries meaning – that same meaning can be carried by yet another language. Translation certainly has an effect on the meaning it carries – but that effect does not render translation useless. Every icon of Christ remains an icon of Christ.

God has made Himself known to us and has done so in a way that is truly born by creation. The world in which we live bears the Divine – He is everywhere present and filling all things. Iconoclasm, including in its many modern forms, should be rejected as simply one of many attempts to remove God from the world. God is with us. His windows are everywhere.