Archive for August, 2010

Time and History

August 11, 2010

Christianity is sometimes referred to as a “historical” religion – its beliefs are specifically tied to events which have taken place in space and time. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are events which have taken place in space and time or Christianity is not true. No matter how noble or inspirational its teachings – the space-time reality of Christ’s death and resurrection are fundamental to the faith. Those who deny that reality have departed from the traditional confession of the Christian faith.

I offer this short confession of faith in order to allow myself to write with some care about time and history and the Christian faith – without – I trust – causing others to stumble.

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There was a Russian proverb during the Soviet period: “History is hard to predict.” The re-writing of history was a common political action – enough to provoke the proverb. Students of history are doubtless well-aware that re-writing is the constant task of the modern academic world. The account of American and World History which I learned (beginning school in the 1950’s) differs greatly from the histories my children have learned. Some of the re-writing was long overdue – while other projects have been more dubious.

Of course re-writing is not a recent phenomenon. Virgil’s Aeneid was an effort to re-write history, giving Rome a story to rival Greece’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Reformation became a debate not only about doctrine but also about the interpretation of history and the Church.

The rise of historical studies in the modern period, which questioned long-held beliefs about the historical veracity of the Scriptures, gave rise to an anxiety within modern Christianity. Many of the debates that permeate Christianity at the present time turn on questions of history and historical interpretation. As the debates rage, history becomes increasingly harder to predict.

I would suggest that it is a mistake to describe Christianity as a “historical” religion, despite the space-time reality of its central events. It is more correct to describe Christianity as an “eschatological” religion – a belief that the end of all things – the fulfillment of time and history – has entered space and time and inaugurated a different mode of existence. To put it in the simple terms of the Gospel: the Kingdom of God is at hand.

There has been a tendency in some forms of Christian doctrine to draw abstractions from the concrete events of the Gospel. Thus atonement theory often speaks in forensic terms that primarily describe God’s own acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, whether as payment or punishment fulfilled, etc. In a manner, the event verges on being reduced to modern symbol (something which stands for something else) the abstractions and theories carrying most of the weight of significance.

For this same reason (I suspect) most modern Christians overlook the Scriptural doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hades: it does not fit within the atonement theories put forward in many circles. Even the Resurrection is diminished by many atonement theories – serving as a mere proof of Christ’s divinity for some – or a dramatic reassurance of forgiveness for others.

Thus, though these historical events are considered to be important in their historical reality – few articulate precisely how this is so.

I would agree that history alone is insufficient for an understanding and interpretation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Christ is crucified on a particular day and hour in a particular place. But the Scriptures also teach us that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth,” making Christ’s sacrifice something that also exists outside of space and time. His Crucifixion is an intersection of time and eternity, of heaven and earth. It is a manifestation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. In like manner His Resurrection has elements both of history and of something that utterly transcends history. The Kingdom of God is made manifest.

This is the very heart of the Christian faith – not simply that events happened about which we now theologize. Rather, the events are the in-breaking of reality itself – earth fulfilled by heaven. We glorify Christ’s Resurrection – but we also know it, because though it is a historical event, it is also an event of the Kingdom. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection because these events, though historical, are accessible to us in the mysteries of the Church.

The Orthodox faith is not what it is because it is simply the oldest, etc. Such concepts become entangled in the typical give and take of historical argument. The faith is what it is because it lives within the Kingdom of God throughout history. If it is not a way of life that incorporates us into the Kingdom – then it would be of mere historical interest. As it is, the Church constantly invites us into a way of life that is life in the Kingdom, despite the historical nature of our existence.

When the Orthodox faith is described as “mystical,” it is this very real proclamation that is being referenced. In Christ, the Kingdom of God is come and nothing will ever be same. What came into the world in Christ, abides in the world with us, and in that reality we are changed – earth united to heaven – creation to the Uncreated – man to God.

Humility and Spiritual Warfare

August 10, 2010

From the Elder Sophrony’s Wisdom from Mount Athos:

Thus the whole of spiritual warfare wages round humility. The enemy fell from pride, and would draw us to perdition by the same means. The enemy praises us, and should the soul listen to his praise grace withdraws until she repents. Thus throughout her life the soul is occupied with the lesson of Christ-like humility. So long as she has not humility wrong thoughts and impulses will always torment her. But the humble soul finds the rest and the peace of which the Lord tells.

Fasting and abstinence, vigil and withdrawal into silence, and other exploits of spiritual discipline all help, but humility is the principal power.

Humility is not learned in a trice. That is why the Lord said: ‘Learn lowliness in heart and meekness of me.’ To learn takes time. And there are some who have grown old in the practice of spiritual endeavor, yet still have not learned humility, and they cannot understand why things are not well with them, why they do not feel peace and their souls are cast down.

Giving and Receiving

August 9, 2010

In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each man, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as the priest of his whole life – to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering and a hymn of glory.

Paul Evdokimov in Woman and the Salvation of the World

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Abba Zosimas used to say: “We have lost our sense of balance.”

Reflections, XI, e.

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There is a modern translation of the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” is rendered, “Blessed are they who know their need of God…”  It is an insightful rendering even though it is more paraphrase than translation. People often perceive themselves as “needy,” though not always in need of God. The “poverty of spirit” that is most often experienced is little more than an ache generated in the ego (our imaginary self) which always feels threatened in one way or another.

The very nature of the passions, in their distorted shape, is that we become passive – we are acted upon and feel helpless or addicted. I am often struck in conversations with others about various spiritual problems by our general passivity in life. The sin which so deeply infects us is less a matter of the will (with a considered choice being made) than it is a passive reaction. Most anger, for instance, is not a decision but a reaction, flowing from a distorted passion within us. Thus we say such things as, “You made me angry.”  In this manner we experience life as out of control and ourselves as victims.

It is only to be expected that such an experience awakens a desire within us to control the things around us – but it is also the case that most things around us cannot be controlled. And so we sin in yet another misguided attempt to save the ego.

Passivity is never healed passively – there have to positive actions within us to overcome the downward spiral of the passions. We were not created to be passive.

In the Biblical account, man and woman are set in a garden and given everything they need – with the single prohibition regarding one kind of fruit. Thus they were not merely passive recipients of everything in the world – they were also required to actively avoid one thing.

The heart of that Edenic life is summed up in the action of priesthood. Man receives from God and he actively returns to God all that he receives, with thanksgiving. In the Church, this is the action of the Eucharist. But it is also to be the action of everyone at all times. The activity of returning everything to God in thanksgiving is the essence of our communion with God.

The Elder Zacharias of Essex has described worship as a constant action of exchange. God gives to us and we give back to God. What we receive is obviously infinitely more than we can return. We receive the very life of God and in turn offer the life of man.

But this essential action is the opposite of passivity. All that we have is a gift from God – but a gift received without active thanksgiving quickly becomes distorted. Only those things which are given back with thanksgiving have a chance of taking their proper form and role in our lives.

St. Paul quotes Christ as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This is more than a statement of morally superior action – it is a description of life-creating action. To give is more blessed because it is for this that we were created.

What shall we render to the Lord?


The Transfigured Beauty of the Crucified God

August 5, 2010

On the Mountain Thou wast Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold Thee crucified,
They would understand that Thy suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That Thou art truly the Radiance of the Father!
Kontakion of the Feast of Transfiguration

It is inevitably the case that no matter how much a man may write and offer meditations on Theology – the feasts of the Church overtake you and say with an elegance transcending human ability what you have struggled to speak otherwise. In the feast of the Transfiguration, celebrated  August 6, following the revelation of Scripture, Christ the Beautiful and Christ the Crucified are presented in a single figure. The transfigured Christ is seen in His glory by His disciples “as far as they could see it” (there is only so much the human eye can bear). But this glory is revealed so that when they see Him crucified “they would understand that it was voluntary,” that is, they would understand that the crucifixion is nothing other than the love of God. The Crucified God is the Beautiful God Who has entered into suffering freely on our behalf. Our words may say this, but they cannot speak with the eloquence of the Word Who was both transfigured and crucified.

O Christ, Thou art truly the Radiance of the Father!

Knowing God

August 5, 2010

The knowledge of God, generally spoken of in a very experiential manner, is an absolute foundation in Orthodox theology. Nothing replaces it – no dogmatic formula – no Creed – not even Scripture – though Orthodoxy would see none of these things as separate from the knowledge of God. But the questions I have received are very apt. In a culture that is awash in “experience” what do we Orthodox mean when we speak of such things and what do we mean by such knowledge of God?

There are two Scriptural passages in particular that come to mind when I think of this subject. The first from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8); the second, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).

Obviously I equate “seeing” and “knowing,” as does the Tradition. In both of these verses the knowledge of God (“seeing God”) is tied to purity of heart. We do not see or know God because our hearts are darkened by sin and ignorance. Thus any knowledge of God that we have in this life begins as gift and remains as gift. However, it is a gift that is more fully received as our hearts are purified.

The importance of speaking of knowledge of God in this manner is to prevent two equally devastating errors. One would be to have a knowledge which is based only on the data of revelation, and only known as we know other data (like the multiplication table). As an Orthodox Christian I accept the teaching of the Church precisely because I am not pure of heart and I am not competent in and of myself to judge these things. I trust the saints and hierarchs of the ages, under the Holy Spirit, to have spoken truly of what they know and of what they have received.

The Orthodox “experience” if I can use such a phrase, is the confirmation in the heart of the truth we have received as we grow in grace and in purity of heart. But the truth of the faith must be confirmed in such a living manner or it simply becomes an historical item and the Church would be a collection of antiquarians and not the living temple of God. For my knowledge of God is also my life in God. Life, light, truth, knowledge – all of these have something of a synomymous character.

In accepting Christ as He has given Himself to us in His Church, we are also accepting knowledge of Him as it has been given to the Church. Private revelations (experiences) tend to be received with great skepticism either because of the spiritual dangers involved (delusion, etc.) or because of our own spiritual incompetency (sin).

None of this is an effort to disparage knowledge of God in a way that is “experiential,” that is, more than merely rational, but it is an effort that recognizes that such experience of God is itself part of our healing from darkness, death and sin. And just as that healing is a slow and steady progress (sometimes even a regression), so too our knowledge of God is slow (hopefully steady) as we grow in grace and purity of heart.

There is a passage in one of my favorite spiritual novels, A Pilgrimage to Dzhvari, (written by the mother of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev). In it, a mother and her son make pilgrimage to a monastery in Georgia (the one south of Russia). The woman is bright, intelligent and a fairly recent convert to the faith (having been previously a non-believer). In a conversation with the Abbot, she asks some questions about a passage in Maximus the Confessor. The Abbot reacts with alarm, “You’ve been reading the Fathers?” She replies in the affirmative. He is concerned that she may have done herself damage. “You should never read more hours in a day than you pray,” was his admonition.

His concern is that she not come to a place of imbalance – where the knowledge that fills her mind outstrips the knowledge that fills her heart. Such knowledge, acquired without ascesis (prayer, fasting, repentance, etc.) is the knowledge of which St. Paul warns when he says, “Knowledge puffs up” (makes us proud). It is by no means a celebration of ignorance, but rather a deeper diagnosis of precisely the kind of ignorance that poisons our souls.

I have known brilliant men and women, with degrees from very prestigious institutions, indeed with degrees in various forms of religious disciplines, whose knowledge of God was less than my average catechumen, but whose very “knowledge” reduced the possibility of discovering their ignorance and coming to a knowledge of the truth. Again, knowledge that is not accompanied by ascesis is dangerous – no matter whether the knowledge is of an academic character or of a mystical character. We cannot know God and at the same time not be like Him to some degree. Such conformity to His image is itself a result of such knowledge. It is for this reason that the Scriptures tell us that “by their fruit you shall know them.” If someone claims knowledge of God, but his life is not in conformity with the commandments of Christ, then we know that what we are hearing is largely delusional in character.

What should we do?

First, we should pray, fast, repent of our sins, seek to forgive our enemies and do good to all around us. These are clear commandments of Scripture. With such efforts, as God gives us grace and changes our heart, we begin to know. The writings of the Fathers are generally the writings of saints. We will not understand them without ourselves seeking to become saints. All of this, of course, is slow and difficult – but we are talking about reality and our salvation not simply the acquisition of information.

It is, of course, proper, even necessary to study the faith, but this is something we should do with a primary concern for the salvation of our own souls and not the correction of others. The Scriptures tell us: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

Neither should we avoid religious “experience,” though this has gotten something of a bad name on account of numerous abuses within the Christian world of today. But like knowledge acquired by study, knowledge of God gained by experience should be accompanied with ascesis as well. Much of modern Pentecostal and Charismatic teaching has offered false information on religious experience to an audience of Americans who wants everything. Too often we want the interior life of Mother Teresa and all of the shoes of Imelda Marcos. It just doesn’t work like that.

The story is told in the Lives of the Desert Fathers that one of the Fathers was in prayer when the devil sought to trick him. A demon appeared in the cell of the monk (who was in prayer) and said, “I am the angel Gabriel sent from God.” Without looking up the monk replied, “You must be in the wrong cell. I am not worthy for an angel to visit me.” The demon disappeared, defeated by the humility of the monk.

This is a description of the proper state of our heart. We desire to know God, but we want to know Him deeply enough, that we refuse to settle for anything less. Much of modern religious experience, as witnessed by its fruit, has little to do with the true God.

Study. Pray. Fast. Give alms. Forgive your enemies. Repent of your sins. Cry out to God for mercy. He is a “good God and loves mankind.” He will not leave us in the dark nor ignore the cry of our hearts. “This is eternal life,” Christ says, “To know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” Thus we pursue knowledge – true knowledge in the way and in the manner given to us as though our life depended on it. It does.

The Mystery of the Mother of God

August 3, 2010

The 15th of August is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (her death). Orthodox Christians fast for two weeks prior to this great feast and celebrate it with great solemnity. A question was recently placed by a reader about the “perpetual virginity” of Mary. I am offering this small post to address that question and to look at the place of the Most Holy Theotokos in Orthodox faith and life.

I am always hesitant to write about the mystery of the Mother of God. There are few things within the Orthodox Church that are held more dearly while at the same time being misunderstood and occasionally vilified by those outside the Church.  Originally these doctrines and devotions were not part of the most common kerygma (public preaching of the Church). Mark and John have no narratives of the birth of Christ (even though John contains some of  the most deeply significant material with regard to the Mother of God). St. Paul seems to have but a single reference to Mary (Galatians 4:4).

The early Church made a clear distinction between its kerygma (public preaching) and those things which were held as mysteries. The mysteries were largely unspoken – though accepted as true and embodied in the life, prayer and liturgy of the Church. The reason for the mysteries as mysteries were varied. In some cases, certain teachings were held quietly lest they cause too much of a scandal in the preaching of the gospel. In other cases, some teachings were unspoken because they were very hard to speak – they were beyond words. Among these latter teachings would be the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. While absolutely foundational to the Christian faith, this teaching was implied frequently throughout the writings of the New Testament, but never declared in a forthright and definitive manner until the 4th century. Orthodoxy holds that the doctrine was not the product of development nor of evolution, but was known from the beginning, even if the language in which it was expressed was as yet unknown. The Church could not have recognized Arianism as a heresy had it not already known the truth as found in Orthodoxy, nor could it have recognized the truth as spoken in the Nicene Creed and by saints such as Athanasius had the truth not already and always been known.

Having said this, I offer some cautious observations on the Orthodox dogmas and devotional understandings concerning the Mother of God. A question was posted earlier today on the Orthodox doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the problems raised by Matthew 1:25 “[and Joseph] did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn child.”

The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity (that she remained a virgin throughout her life), interestingly, was almost universal in its acceptance within the early Church, and was defended even by John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, and Martin Luther. The key word [heos] in Matthew 1:25 is generally translated as “until” in English – which many modern readers take to mean that “after she brought forth her firstborn child she had relations with Joseph.” However, the same Greek word is used in Matthew 22:44 “Sit Thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies Thy footstool.” There it clearly does not mean that Christ will cease to be at His father’s right hand after His enemies are defeated. The word has the clear sense that Mary had no relations with Joseph before the child was born (the issue in the passage is His virginal conception) and is consistent with the Church’s belief that she had no relations with Joseph at any time thereafter.

That Mary remained a virgin for her entire life, as noted above, was a generally accepted teaching of the Church, found in the writings of the fathers, and consistently proclaimed in the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church.

The liturgical life of the Church makes frequent use of Old Testament images as prefiguring Christ’s virginal conception and birth. The bush which is on fire and yet not burned is a frequent image of Mary. The passing through the Red Sea on dry foot is another such image; Aaron’s rod that budded; the fleece of Gideon, etc. Indeed, the space needed to list all of the Old Testament images used as such prefigurements exceed the space I generally use for a posting.

The sense of all these images is of God being born into the world without a human father. The barrenness of Mary’s virginity is the human counterpart of the fruitfulness of God. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. The manner of her  birthgiving is synonymous with the manner of our own salvation. It is the work of God from Whom life alone can come. Our role is like her role, “Be it unto me according to Thy word.”

That Mary remained a virgin both before, during and after the birth of Christ is the common understanding of the Orthodox fathers and of the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church. The Theotokos is always presented with three stars on her veil in her icons. They represent her virginity “before, during, and after the birth of Christ.”

There is also a “common sense” argument for Mary’s perpetual virginity (or so it has always seemed to me). Joseph understood what was to take place within Mary according to the witness of Scripture. It strains every Biblical understanding of piety to believe that Joseph having such knowledge would then take Mary into the common practices of marriage. The Orthodox tradition is that the “brothers and sisters” of Christ mentioned in Scripture are children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

But the Biblical witness is extremely important within Orthodoxy. However, it is a witness that is not readily apparent to the eye of literalism. As noted by the fathers in their use of Biblical imagery: Mary is the “Gate which no man shall open.”

And the LORD said unto me: ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, neither shall any man enter in by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it; therefore it shall be shut” (Ezekiel 44:2).

Such verses are not used as “proof-texts,” just as many of the verses traditionally cited by Christians for Christ’s messiahship are not proof-texts. The reality of who Christ is and His death and resurrection are known to the disciples before they understood the Scriptures (Luke 24:45). In the same manner, the Church knows of these matters within Holy Tradition and finds that Tradition upheld and revealed within the Scriptures.

Those who argue for various positions of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone) abandon the pattern of the New Testament itself. The mystical life of the Church is confirmed repeatedly – but in a manner which is known within the heart and not in the manner of hard science. God is not a passive object such that He can be studied like a lump of dirt. The truth of the faith is living and active and makes itself known (rather than being the object of our discovery).

The mystery of the Mother of God can be known and becomes the source of rich understanding in the life of grace. But it is not a subject for argument (certainly not for me). Were someone to erase the entirety of tradition and begin with the bare text of Scripture, it is quite likely that the result of their thought would be something other than the thought of early Christians and the Orthodox faith as it has been taught and received.  The multitude of interpretations that would result from such an experiment are readily apparent in the modern chaos of Sola Scriptura Christianity. Indeed, the role and function of Tradition are often rapidly replaced by various streams of modern culture.

The mystery of the Mother of God is at the very heart of Scripture – but only the heart would know that. And the mystery goes much deeper than the questions of virginal conception, birth and the like. Far too few Christians take the time to ponder the mystery of grace and our salvation.

Our salvation is not an afterthought: “The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8).

St. Maximus the Confessor writes of the Incarnation of Christ: “It is the cause of all things and caused by none of them” (Epistle to Thalassius, PG 90, 620-621). There is no incarnation of Christ apart from the womb of the virgin. It is from her that He took flesh. Thus, though Mary is a creature born into history, she is nevertheless present in the eternal counsels of God.

The Lord said to my Lord…I have begotten Thee from the womb before the morning (Psalm 110:1,3).

The statement, according to the Fathers, refers both to Christ’s eternal begetting from the Father, but also contains reference to His incarnation (“from the womb before the morning”). All of this refers to that which is prior to creation.

Just as Adam is understood as the “first man,” so Christ is understood as the “Second Adam” – the one who is the true “image of the invisible God.” In the same manner, the Fathers refer to Mary as the “Second Eve,” for the life which is made ours in the Incarnation of Christ is a life that is also “bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.”

In the Incarnation, the Uncreated is united to the created. Heaven is united to earth. And all of such statements begin with Christ took flesh of the Virgin.

There is a cosmic dimension to our salvation. Those who confine their thoughts only to the historical moment of Christ’s sacrifice, do neither justice to Scripture nor to reality. Regardless of the fact that literalists may quibble over misinterpretations of Scripture, the reality of our salvation and its greatness, cannot be considered without reference to the Mother of God.

Orthodoxy does not, and will not accept modern language such as co-redemptorix, put forward by some zealous Roman Catholics: Christ alone is our redemption. But neither can we tell the story of redemption without reference to her. She is indeed, our most holy, most pure, most glorious and ever-blessed, Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.  This is a great mystery. May God make it known to all His children!