Archive for June, 2010

The Nature of Things and Our Salvation

June 29, 2010

Reflecting on yesterday’s post, I thought it worthwhile to share these thoughts again on the nature of our salvation. Few things are as critical for me as the distinctions given here. Perhaps it is timely. It offers a short summary of the difference between a moral and an existential understanding of the Christian faith and why the difference matters. Indeed, as I look through my writings I know this is a recurring theme. It recurs because it is so fundamental to the Christian faith and is at the same time largely unknown in our modern world.


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 state briefly 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 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 30 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 twelve 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.

To Tell the Truth

June 27, 2010

Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to say that which is in your heart.

Speaking the truth is as fundamental as the Ten Commandments. It also receives a great deal of attention within the pages of the New Testament.

Do not lie to one another since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Col. 3:9)

It is very easy to think of lying and telling the truth as simple “moral” issues. We do not lie because it is wrong, and we tell the truth because it is right. The weakness of such morality is its failure to understand either the nature of sin or the nature of the life to which we have been called as Christians.

Within a purely moral context, the question could be asked: “If you were able to tell a lie, and no one was hurt by it and no one but yourself knew it, where would be the wrong?” The answer would come back in a purely moral form that would involve the breaking of a commandment and the righteous judgment of God. Christianity as a moral system is Christianity misunderstood.

I have stated before that Christ did not die to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live. Christ’s teachings on the Kingdom of God, when measured by a moral yardstick, often seem to ask too much or to push Christians beyond the boundaries of morality. Thus the moralizers of Christianity have often described the Sermon on the Mount as an “interim ethic,” a teaching that only makes sense if the end of the world is but a short time away.

In various times and places the “Christian” moral teaching has been largely indistinguishable from the accepted morality of society at large – thus making the Church the underwriter of culture. A number of denominations are in serious difficulties today as the culture around them is undergoing serious moral changes. Those who have had the deepest investment in underwriting the dominant culture have largely been the first to find reasons to change their moral teaching to continue their cultural position.

The problem with morality (as we popularly understand the term) is that it misses the point of Christian teaching. Christian “moral” teaching frequently does an injustice to the faith by corrupting the nature of the Church’s life and the purpose of its teaching.

Truth is not a matter of morality – it is a matter of existence and non-existence.

This is the fundamental insight and teaching of St. Athanasius in his classical work, On the Incarnation.

For the transgression of the commandment was making them [humanity] turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good (De Incarnatione, 1.4).

As St. Paul would observe, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Right and wrong are not measured by abstract laws but by their relationship to existence. That which is wrong has about it – the nature of death.

This is the reason that Scripture gives such a priority to telling the truth. The nature of a lie is found precisely in its non-existence. Thus the devil is characterized in his rebellion against God as “a liar and the father of lies.” Evil has no existence, but in the malevolence of the wicked one, it seeks to draw everything that has existence into non-existence.

The Christian life is an acceptance of the true life in Christ – a life which is nothing other than communion with the true and living God. In this alone do we have true and authentic existence. In this alone do we have eternal life.

The various lies and distortions of the truth which we utter or in which we participate are enemies of our own existence. We give consent to corruption which is our non-existence when we give voice to a lie. The life of salvation is a constant movement towards the Truth, being conformed to the image of Truth.

We have the added difficulty that the truth is often opaque for us. We do not see it clearly. This is a manifestation of the state of our heart, our inner disposition. The admonition “to say what is in your heart” is an encouragement to move towards an authentic existence. It may be that “what is in your heart” is darkness. That darkness needs to be brought into the light. In Orthodox practice, this is normatively done in the mystery of confession. We reveal the darkness of our hearts and bring them before the Truth of Christ. In that healing light, we receive the forgiveness of our sins – we receive the life of Christ Himself.

Of course the Law, or rules, are not without benefit. They serve as a “tutor” in the language of St. Paul, to point us to Christ. They teach our heart that the process of healing might begin in us even at an early age.

But the clarity that comes with the light of Christ begins to remove the opacity of our vision and allows us to live without delusion and to see the Truth. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The admonition “to say what is in your heart” is not a call to say aloud every dark thought that infects us and to spew the darkness wherever we go. But there can be no integrity within us until our hearts and our lips are united. We cannot say one thing and mean another and remain in the light.

“The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” God give us grace to speak the truth. May He drive the darkness from our hearts.

Tradition and the Heart

June 25, 2010

He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (To the Ephesians, XV, 2)

The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, attributed by St. Ignatius to those who in truth possess His word, echoes the reiterated appeal of Christ to His hearers: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside. St. Basil moves in the same direction when he says, in his passage on the traditions: “There is also a form of silence namely the obscurity used by the Scripture, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding of the teachings, for the profit of readers.” This silence of the Scriptures could not be detached from them: it is transmitted by the Church with the words of the revelation, as the very condition of their reception. If it could be opposed to the words (always on the horizontal plane, where they express the revealed Truth), this silence which accompanies the words implies no kind of insufficiency or lack of fullness of the revelation, nor the necessity to add to it anything whatever. It signifies that the revealed mystery, to be truly received as fullness, demand a conversion towards the vertical plane, in order that one may be able to “comprehend with all the saints” not only what is the “breadth and length” of the revelation, but also its “depth” and its “height” (Eph. 3:18).

Vladimir Lossky, Tradition and Traditions


There is a modern anxiety about the meaning of Biblical texts. For historical-critical scholars, there is a never-ending debate over the meaning of texts. The past century has seen a succession of waves (not unlike the constancy of the ocean) when one “new” insight overwhelmed the last. To a certain degree, historical-critical studies have become largely superfluous for any study of the Scripture simply because they represent more the concerns of the present moment and almost never the concerns of the texts themselves.

Others still cling to various forms of Sola Scriptura, certain that the Scriptures can be read with no reference to Tradition – they are self-explanatory (or various such claims).

The Orthodox reading of Scripture is done in the context of Tradition – though this is largely misunderstood by those outside the Orthodox faith itself. The Tradition in which Scripture is read (or doctrine is received and accepted) is as much a state of heart as it is anything else. Some will speak of an “Orthodox phronema,” meaning an Orthodox mind, though I think this would be better translated as an Orthodox heart. That heart is related to the silence described by St. Ignatius in the late first century and expounded on in the quote from the modern Russian-exile theologian, Vladimir Lossky.

“The word of Jesus” also has its “silence,” according to St. Ignatius. That silence is the space into which it is spoken. Without this space, the “truth” of the word of Jesus will not and cannot be heard.

From Anthony McGulkin’s The Orthodox Church: An Introduction:

All elements of the Holy Tradition are coherently bonded together in Orthodoxy, and they function to provide the church’s sense of its inner identity as Christ’s people. The fragmentation of the different parts of tradition has always been regarded by the Orthodox as a sign of heterodox ‘loss’ of the sense of the true spirit of Christianity. None of the individual bulwarks of the tradition can be set up in isolation. For example, no single sentence or argument of an individual Father of the Church carries with it an infallible authority, just becuse it came from a Father of the Church. Even more so, no individual bishop is afforded such infallible authority at any time in the church. Just as Homer could nod, so could some of the saints. Even the best works of the greatest among them contain matters, and isolated propositions, which the Orthodox gloss over at times out of reverence for their ‘overall’ contribution to the majestic exposition of the faith.

It is the consensus of voice that matters: reading the Fathers within the Scripture; the Scripture within the horizon of the church; the liturgy within the context of prayer: all together forming a ‘seamless robe.’ The seamless harmony of the whole tradition shores up all the different parts, self-correcting and self-regulating in its wholeness.

The kind of heart that is able to receive such a Tradition, is not primarily governed by the ego or the skepticism of modernity. It is a heart that is birthed in faith in the knowledge of the true and living God. All of the material that make up Scripture and the artifacts of Tradition are completely useless in the hands of a heart that is not prepared to receive them. Many times such hearts take hold of these things and wield them as weapons or as the fodder for arguments.

All of these things, given to us in a “seamless” manner, are of no use to the heart that refuses to receive them. There are Orthodox who do not have this heart and their arguments and actions betray them. There are non-Orthodox, who, though not being instructed in such a heart, have it, nonetheless, and approach the “seamless” witness of Christ with a regard and respect that works to their salvation.

The silence speaks in great eloquence to the heart that can hear it. It is the silence into which the first words were spoke: “Let there be light.” The result is the same creative life that was birthed at that moment. “Behold, if any man is in Christ, there is a new creation.”

Reading Tradition

June 22, 2010

For those who are unused to the place of Tradition in the understanding and interpretation of the Christian faith, it is easy to assume that Tradition is simply an additional set of texts to be read alongside and in addition to Scripture. There are certainly texts which belong to Tradition (indeed the Church would consider the texts of Scripture itself to be part of Tradition). The teachings of the Apostles were “handed down” to us – which is the simple meaning of the word paradosis, Greek for “tradition.”

I recall Stanley Hauerwas at Duke using the example of brick-laying to illustrate the nature of tradition. It is a skill that can be taught up to a certain point – but finally can only be mastered by working with a master brick mason. It is a skill that is “handed down.” In point of fact, most human learning has something of this element.

You go to high school and college – perhaps even graduate school. However, once you find yourself in the world of work, having to apply things that have been learned, tradition becomes essential. Theory and practice are separate experiences. My father received training as an aircraft mechanic during the Second World War. He became an auto mechanic after the war. The training was somewhat transferrable. His father was also a mechanic – but one who had no training. He learned by experience and the tradition that is the practice of being a mechanic. Both were very intelligent men and quite skilled in their field. But they knew things that were never taught in school.

We learn to cook in the same manner – a recipe never being sufficient of itself. Such examples could be almost endlessly multiplied. It is essential to human life and always has been.

The Christian life is no different – for it is not a set of ideas to be memorized – but a life to be lived. For this reason, Christ had disciples. For this reason the Church had a catechumenate that often lasted for three years. We learn the Christian life by doing it. We learn to pray by praying and praying along with those who know how to pray. We read Scripture with those who have read it before us and from them we learn how it is that a Christian reads Scripture. Those who have not been trained in such a manner are like children building a house with bricks. They may have the proper ingredients – but the result is likely to be a house that falls down.

Modernity has an assumption that those who live in the present always know more than those who have gone before us. Thus we always expect our children to be able to program a digital clock when an adult cannot.

I have taught four children how to drive. It is a tradition. Over the years I hope to have taught them how to live the Christian life. It is a tradition. To learn from a tradition requires a humility and a recognition that not everything worth knowing can be expressed in words. It requires that we accept that a disciple is not greater than his master. The child is not greater than the adult.

As the bumper sticker says: “If you can read this – thank a teacher.”

Reason’s God

June 20, 2010

In a comment to my recent post on the “problem of goodness,” I was challenged on the question of “proving God’s existence.” I understand the question but I do not think the question understands God. There is a definition of God that has floated around philosophical circles for centuries – a very reasonable definition – but not a definition that has anything to do with the Christian God. The modern rise of reason – from the Enlightenment forward (though with roots in Scholasticism and philosophies of the ancient world) has often been accepted as an obvious given of the natural world. It is certainly a powerful tool – not unrelated to the power of mathematics and certain other forms of science. This power leads many to the conclusion that reason is capable of giving an account of the world as it truly exists, and questions the existence of anything that does not conform to the rules of reason.

My first encounter with reason’s claims was in a freshman philosophy class (that I wound up taking in the last term of my senior year of college). Within a matter of two classes the professor had set forth the rules of reason and stated the problem of the existence of God (having offered us a definition of God while he was at it). I did not know then what I know now (needless to say). Like everyone in the class I took the bait and entered into the argument that had been decided before the argument began. I say that the argument had been decided because its premises required prior agreement to much that wasn’t true.

I did not learn until later that I was struggling in a class to prove the existence of a God in whom I do not believe. The God of the philosophers is not the same as the God revealed to us in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. As I often say to those who “do not believe in God” – “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in, I may not believe in Him either.”

There are things for which reason is useful and things for which it is not. Reason is not the universal human tool – it’s just a useful tool.

The existence of God (the Christian God) cannot be proven in the manner which reason requires. He is not an object such that He can be observed, nor is He a mathematical theorem or formula that can be derived from something else. He is not the consequence of anything – thus He does not exist at the end of a chain of logic.

The claim of the Orthodox faith (other Christians may say different things – I take no responsibility for them) – is that God is unknowable. It also puts forward the paradox that the God who is unknowable, has made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We know God because Christ has made Him known.

This claim of the Church is more than a statement about an event in our world’s history. The Orthodox claim is that the God who made Himself known in the Incarnation, continues to make Himself known through our participation in His life. I could state this formally as: “We know the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit.”

Such language is outside the bounds of reason. It describes something that is a truth claim that cannot be proved nor disproved by reason. That this is so does not seem in the least unusual to me. There are many things, it would seem to me, that are outside the bounds of reason. Human beings use reason, but we do not live reasonably. Reason describes an activity that we engage in, but it does not describe us.

I would suggest that my own existence cannot be proven nor any human’s existence. I am unique and unrepeatable (as are all persons). And though I may be described by various associations (male, American, etc.) none of these things actually proves me. I am a human being – not a provable fact. Considering oneself a provable fact is a diminishment of what it means to be a person. There is something utterly transcendent about every person that is an inherent part of their personhood. That transcendence is generally opaque. It can be known to a certain degree – but more likely apprehended by wonder than reason. It is a place where reason cannot go.

Of course the diminishment of what it means to be human has been a common by-product of reason’s project. There is a very sad history of the use of reason to justify various political and economic schemes that were nothing short of mass murder. I will quickly grant that religion has been abused as well – though it seems to also have a corrective within it (at least in some forms of Christianity) that brings such abuses to an end. The same corrective has also set occasional bounds to reason’s excesses.

But the case of abuse does not ultimately make either argument – it simply argues that human beings can abuse anything.

There are some groups of Christians who hold that reason is the proper tool for dealing with the faith. Generally, they accept a priori the authority of Scripture and then apply “reason” as a means of interpretation. I think this is a novel idea (no older than the late 18th century). And I think it results in a distortion of the Christian faith as received from Christ and preserved in His Church.

I believe in God. I believe in God because I have come to know Him in the person of Christ. The realm of that experience and the living Tradition to which it belongs stands outside of reason – as does much of human life and the universe around us. Reason’s God is too small. It is not surprising that those who give an inordinate place to reason find such a small God unbelievable.

Pardon my absence

June 17, 2010

I ask readers to pardon my absence for most of this week. I am leading a youth retreat at a monastery. Your prayers for the youth are much appreciated. And remember this sinner. I’ll be back posting Sunday evening. And my thanks for the prayers.

Here and Now

June 14, 2010

Strangely enough, the one place that most of us avoid is here and now.

In the observations of Fr. Meletios Webber, we prefer either the past or the future. The past is marked by the thoughts of “if only,” the future with thoughts of “what if.” These thoughts are the voice of the logismoi, the constant barrage of thoughts and feelings that distract us from ourselves and from the world as it simply is. They also stand between us and knowledge of the heart.

This is part of the classical teaching of the Orthodox faith – particularly as found in the works of monastic fathers. It is drawn both from the teachings of Scripture and the long experience of faithful men and women who have found their way to the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God, much like our understanding of God Himself, has suffered at the hands of modern Christian treatments, being confused with life after death or with various utopian dreams of secular Christians. The Kingdom of God is not precisely synonymous with life after death, though it is the very character of that life. The difference is that Christ did not speak about the Kingdom as though it were a synonym for a pagan-style after-life. Instead He spoke of something that was already among us or “within” us (Luke 17:21), that could be sought by us (Matt. 6:33), that belonged to the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3), that is entered by “spiritual violence” (Matt. 11:12) that has come near us (Luke 10:9), and other such descriptions.

St. Macarius, one of the Desert Fathers, writes:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there (H.43.7).

We need look no further than our own heart to find the Kingdom of God – for it is there that Christ dwells (cf. Rev. 3:20). But this is the very problem. The Kingdom of God is not to be found by searching the past nor by anxiously searching the future. Instead we are told:

Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).

The difficulty comes in our inability and frequent refusal to be “here and now.” Our mind wanders, even during liturgy or prayer (or especially during liturgy and prayer). We are almost always somewhere other than where we are. At least, this is true of our minds.

Interestingly, our bodies are always here and now. I find it odd that many take issue with physical elements of worship, such as bowing, or making the sign of the cross, or using incense and icons, insisting on the superiority of our “mental” life. In fact our mental life is extremely weak when compared to the relative stability of our bodies.

The tradition of the fathers speaks of “uniting the mind with the heart.” It involves more than being “here and now,” but it does include that simple reality. Of course, though being here and now can be described as a “simple” reality – the difficulty that surrounds its occurrence reveals its depths.

Our avoidance of the present is rooted in our own sin. We regret the past, and carry its guilt, often dwelling there rather than seeking the forgiveness that could set us free. Anxiety drags us into the future and the fears of our own imagination. The great weakness of both the past and future lies precisely in their lack of reality.

Orthodox spiritual practice has always discouraged use of the imagination as a tool – it is far to vulnerable to delusion. The fact that our thoughts of the past and of the future lack reality also give them the quality of delusion. God is not to be found in what is not real. He is the very Ground of reality.

And thus the spiritual life calls us towards reality – towards here and now.

The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness…. Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (from Matthew 6).

The Problem of Goodness

June 13, 2010

From my first class in Philosophy 101 in college, the so-called “Problem of Evil” has been tossed up as the “clincher” in arguments against the existence of God. How can a good God allow innocent people to suffer? The most devastating case ever made on the subject was in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov, in the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” which is the chapter preceding the famous “Grand Inquisitor,” makes the details of his argument known. He is at an inn with his religious brother, Alyosha. A brief summary would be to say the suffering of innocent children is not worth anything good that God might do.

It’s a very strong argument – so strong, in fact – that Dostoevsky, a Christian believer, feared he had made the case too strong and did not succeed in refuting it in the novel. I disagree with his gloomy assessment.

My argument is somewhat the opposite. It is the problem of Good. Why with the world as dysfunctional as it is do we encounter transcendant goodness in the lives of some people? No one on the basis of nature and nurture can really answer it. Given the world and its headlines, why are not all people largely stockaded in their homes, armed to the teeth?

Why does a stranger volunteer to donate bone marrow to another perfect stranger? The procedure invovles pain.

Why does Mother Teresa gather up over 40,000 dying children from the streets of Calcutta in her lifetime and treat them with love and dignity – when everyone around her is just walking past the problem? Or why does one man lay down his life for others in the death camps of the Nazi’s like the Catholic priest, St. Maximillian Kolbe?

In July 1941, a man from Kolbe’s bunker had vanished, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the Lagerführer (i.e., the camp commander), to pick 10 men from the same bunker to be starved to death in Block 11 (notorious for torture), in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine). One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only four of the ten men were still alive, including Kolbe. During the time in the cell, he led the men in songs and prayer. The cells were needed, and Kolbe and the other three were executed with an injection of carbolic acid in the left arm.

St. Maria Skobtsove demonstrated similar kindness in the Nazi camps after being arrested for her help with Jews. She died in prison.

And the litany of such actions grows. I do not find it hard to explain Hitler’s evil. He and the men like him were products of their time, their environment, perhaps with demonic inspiration thrown in. Hitler ordered the Berlin Philharmonic to play pieces from the Goetterdamerueng [the Twilight of the Gods] while the Russian troops entered Berlin. He existed in the most educated and enlightened country in the Europe in its day.

The serial killers, even of children, are fairly explainable. I saw an interview with Jeffrey Dahlmer before his death in prison. He sounded quite normal except for his habit of killing and eating people.

But where does transcendant goodness come from? Are some people born with a goodness gene? I do not think so. Their unanimous declaration is that they are imitating Christ without whose Divine aid none of their good works would be possible. They want no credit for their work. Mother Teresa gave away the money from her Nobel Prize.

How is it that someone forgives their enemies?

Such goodness in the world is easily outnumbered by the acts of evil, petty and otherwise. And yet these manifestations of Goodness continue.

Outside the Christian tradition, the work of Gandhi comes to mind. Though most people do not know that his ideas of non-violence were formed during a correspondence early in his life with the Christian, Leo Tolstoy. I would not deny that Divine Grace was at work in many of  his actions.

And finally, why does there arise a teacher of goodness in the first century A.D., proclaiming that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? Why does he tell us to sell what we have and distribute it to the poor. Why does he say and do what he does while the very religious authorities of his own nation sought to kill him. Why does he forgive all while enduring the pain of crucifixion?

I am not a good man. I want to be a good man. I believe that such good men exist and that it is possible to become one. I believe this because the One who was crucified said that He was God and that because He was God those who love Him could do even greater works than He.

As for the problem of Goodness – I want to become part of the problem.


First I will state that the mystery of goodness is a mystery. I believe all goodness comes from God – for so I have learned the universe – but having said that is not the same thing as saying that I fully understand it in any form. The Scriptures are clear that “[God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Unbelievers are capable of good as well as believers. If this were not so we could sort one another out with ease. But it’s simply not the case.

So why do we believe in God? This is where the reasons begin to go all over the map – though there needs to be a common core. That core is to be found in Christ Himself. Belief in God cannot finally be belief in an idea or a principle or even the nature of the universe for He is none of those things. The heart of our encounter with God is that He has made Himself known to us as person- indeed as persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A modern Western should not assume that he knows the meaning of those words, for the Church certainly means by them something quite different than common English usage. For the moment I will let it suffice to say that to know God as person means we can only know Him in freedom (both on our part and on His) and we can only know Him in an act of love (both on our part and on His). It is these latter realities that makes arguments about the existence, non-existence of God only marginally useful. God who is not a principle or an idea cannot thus be proven as though He were. In preserving our freedom He is also not necessarily obvious. He is readily knowable but not knowable of necessity. It is quite possible to look at the universe and come to a conclusion that there is no God.

I have always marveled at this latter point – sometimes wondering why it is not other than it is. And yet I am convinced that it is in the very humility of God that things are as they are. It would have been quite possible to have walked by the cross of Christ and assumed there was just one more Jew dying on a cross. The Gospels are a witness of faith, not a newspaper.

And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (Jn. 20:30-31).

So what are we left with? We are left with God. Nothing will substitute for Him – not argument or reason – not miracle or magic. And we who know Him should want nothing more. Our lives should be and become a living witness to the Life of God. If they are not, then why should anyone listen to us? As for others, they will come to faith as mysteriously as we did. Whoever heard of a single means by which people came to Christ other than the single means of grace? The last time I checked the Spirit blows where it wills and you can’t tell where it comes from or where it goes.

Thus we believe and we pray and we lean more deeply into Christ and God adds to the Church daily such as should be saved. And we, following the lives of the saints, should pray for everyone as if they were already further in the Kingdom of God than we.

The Crisis of Religion

June 10, 2010

The term “sacramental” means here that the basic and primordial intuition which not only expresses itself in worship, but of which the entire worship is indeed the “phenomenon” – both effect and experience – is that the world, be it in its totality as cosmos, or in its life and becoming as time and history, is an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence, and power. In other words, it not only “posits” the idea of God as a rationally acceptable cause of its existence, but truly “speaks” of Him and is in itself an essential means both of knowledge of God and communion with Him, and to be so is its true nature and its ultimate destiny. But then worship is truly  an essential act, and man an essentially worshipping being, for it is only in worship that man has the source and the possibility of that knowledge which is communion, and of that communion which fulfills itself as true knowledge: knowledge of God and therefore knowledge of the world – communion with God and therefore communion with all that exists. Thus the very notion of worship is based on an intuition and experience of the world as an “epiphany” of God, thus the world – in worship – is revealed in its true nature and vocation as “sacrament.”

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World


Fr. Alexander’s argument may be somewhat difficult for my readers to follow – but his point is perhaps among the most central in our day and time. The quote comes from a lecture on “Worship in a Secular Age,” given in 1971, and published as part of his marvelous volume, For the Life of the World. The heart of his argument is the utter denial of secularism as a proper perception of the world. It is Schmemann who offers the insight that secularism is not the denial of God’s existence, but merely the separation of God’s existence from the world as we know and experience it. It is the division of the world into “real” and “spiritual.”

I have used the imagery of a one-storey versus a two-storey universe as a means of getting at the same point. When creation is removed from God and understood to exist and to have meaning as a thing in itself – then the world begins to lose meaning and to collapse upon itself as the product of chance and accident. Humanity collapses into the same randomness and absurdity.

Fr. Schmemann spoke about human beings as primarily understood and constituted as worshipping beings. In this, we are the priests of creation: we offer to God what has been given to us and within the life of worship know God and the truth of His creation as communion.

The “crisis of religion” in our modern period has been the utterly dominant success of the secular model. A wide variety of ideas and events contributed to this rise of secularism – but the divorce of God from our daily lives is the result. In our modern world, God is not seen in His Epiphany within and through creation – but primarily in and through the ideas and beliefs of those who accept His existence.

Thus believer and non-believer experience the world in much the same manner. It is the common arena of humanity whose differentiation is defined by choices and allegiances. A quiet peace can be created in such an arrangement. So long as there is freedom of “thought,” then the faith of the believer is considered safe. However, if thought and belief alone establish the religious character of things – then nothing is holy. At best, something can be “considered” holy by some. Whether such considerations are respected is solely part of our social compact.

The great scandal of Christianity is the Incarnation of Christ: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Those who rationalize Christ’s incarnation are those who interpret its significance along primarily ideological lines. His incarnation (including His death and resurrection) are seen has having brought about certain theological realities (our sins are forgiven, etc.) but the event of His incarnation is not seen as revealing anything in particular about creation itself. That the Uncreated has become the created is, in such rational schemes, unremarkable.

This is not the faith of the fathers, nor the faith which has given us Scripture, Creeds and Councils, nor the life of the Church. That God became man not only says volumes about the love of God, but also says something about the nature of humanity. We were created in the image of God – though that image is not realized until the coming of Christ. Christ’s incarnation is an epiphany – a revelation of the truth of humanity, as well as the truth of the love of God.

Christ’s relationship with the created order, throughout His ministry, is revelatory of the nature of creation and the truth of its being. That “winds and seas obey Him,” raised questions for the disciples about who Christ was, but for us it must also raise questions about what the winds and seas are.

The offering of bread and wine in which we receive in return the Body and Blood of Christ is not a moment which exists parenthetically within creation: it is also revelatory about the very character of our relationship with creation itself. What we do with bread and wine is also what we must do with everything around us: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!”

Secularism is the great religious crisis of our time (perhaps the definitive crisis of human sin). It’s critical temptation is the lure of religion – to carve out some small piece of our lives and our world in which we speak or think about God – leaving the rest of creation inert and unsanctified, bereft of the glory of God.

Within the Church this can occur by limiting the grace of God to certain defined moments or actions (sacraments) with those moments and actions serving not as revelations of the whole truth of our existence but serving only as a “sacralization” of unique moments. If the Eucharist is not a transformation of the world, then Christ’s death and resurrection are stripped of their power and significance.

We swim in the water of secularism – the modern world is utterly shaped and dominated by its perceptions. That Christians must become aware of this deception and proclaim the fullness of the gospel of Christ is essential in our modern struggle. Creation groans and travails for the reality made known to us in the fullness of Jesus Christ.

The Price of the Liturgy

June 8, 2010

Having written about the temptations of secularism within modernity – even within the liturgy – I offer this as a balance for our troubled hearts.


“We celebrate the Liturgy together. But we must pay what this costs: each one must be concerned for the salvation of all. Our life is an endless martyrdom.”

The Elder Sophrony


The Divine Liturgy (the Holy Eucharist) is not a ritual action of the Church which we attend, as though it were some sort of program. It is one of the greatest manifestations of the Divine Life that God has given us – dwelling in us, among us, with us, uniting us, and ascending from God to us and through us back to the Throne of Grace. Please forgive the exercise in prepositions in the last sentence – but the very nature of the Divine Liturgy demands such an exercise of language (cf. St. Basil).

The habits gained from our cultural life always threaten to invade our life as the Church – when our life as the Church should constantly be invading our life in the culture. Culturally we tend to gather for assemblies in which the deformed philosophy of secularism (dominant among most modern Christians) has offered us shape, form and understanding. The Divine Liturgy has no commonality with this philosophy.

We do not gather as a collection of individuals who share a common interest. The actions of the priest are not a program presented for our intellectual, emotional, psychological or religious improvement. We do not stand apart from the actions of the Liturgy and approve or disapprove them as if we were an audience.

We assemble for the Liturgy as the Church, the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the Fullness of Him Who Filleth all in all (Scripture synonyms for the Church). We are never an audience. We assemble as a single Body, who share in a single Life. No one can distract me from the Liturgy for the Liturgy is everything that takes place in the assembly of the Body. A child crying is a liturgical action (in the Liturgy). Equally a parent caring for a child and exercising discipline or offering solace are also liturgical actions. Our pains, our boredom, our interests, the very cry of our hearts are all among the lives that have assembled into the One Life.

There is one prayer – the Prayer of the Holy Spirit Who prays to the Father through the Son. This one prayer is given voice by priest, deacon and people. Nothing falls outside the concern of this one prayer for we offer to God everything. The sins of our lives are not excluded (else we would be barred from the Liturgy). Rather, we are told in Scripture that “God made him [Christ] to be sin, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the great exchange of worship – that we offer to God all that we are and have – even those things that seem unworthy – that we might receive in exchange that which transcends all worth.

To gather together in the Liturgy is to enter a new life. The habits of the old life are brought in only to be transformed – not to dictate to God the nature and character of the new life. The Life of the Liturgy is “on behalf of all and for all.” We must yield to the fact that the salvation of each and all is now the proper concern of each and all.

All of these things are simply what it means to love one another.