Archive for July, 2011

Apocalypse Now

July 30, 2011

Few teachings of the Christian faith are as easily misunderstood and equally misapplied as the things pertaining to the “End of the World.” Christian history, both East and West, offers numerous examples of popular misunderstandings – some of which led to bloodbaths and the worst moments in Church history. By the same token, apocalypticism, the belief in an end of history, has had a powerful impact on the cultures in which Christianity has dwelt. Various Utopias (Marxism, Nazism, Sectarian Millenarianism, etc.) are all products of a misunderstood Christian idea. They are not the inventions of Christianity – but they could hardly have originated in any other culture. The same can be said for various Dystopias (the belief in very difficult and hard times). The imagery of the end of the world can be read both ways. In either case, the worst outcomes generally are found in groups who not only believe in one form of apocalypticism or another, but believe that their own actions can have a direct effect on the advent of the end.

Any number of apocalyptic sects have sprung up from within various Christian heresies over the centuries, many of them on American soil, a land whose first European settlers had a decidedly apocalyptic view of the world. Even Islam, sometimes described by the Orthodox fathers as a “heresy” rather than a “new religion,” has its apocalyptic element, particularly within its extreme groups.

So what is the nature of false apocalypticism and the Orthodox understanding of the End? To a large extent the primary element of false apocalypticism is rooted in a linear view of history in which everything is read in a literal manner. Linear time allows for only a succession of moments, whose cause is to be found in the moment before. God may intervene in this linear procession but the linear nature of things is not changed. We can say that in this model history can be changed, but not the nature and experience of time.

Such linearity and literalism can often reduce its devotees to caricatures of Jerry Fletcher, the near psychotic lead role in the film Conspiracy Theory (1997). He carefully read an armload of daily newspapers, looking for patterns,finding connections where none existed (but also accidentally finding some for the sake of the movie’s plot). The End, as understood in Orthodox theology, is not a cosmic conspiracy theory being wrought within the linear time-line of human history. Our newspapers do not contain hints and hidden clues to its appearance. Indeed, the entire linear conception of life and time are a failure to understand the Lord’s Pascha and what has come to pass in the Resurrection of Christ.

The language of Scripture, both in the course of Christ’s ministry and particularly in the descriptions of the disciples’ encounters with him after the resurrection, is quite peculiar, especially its treatment of time. Most Christians are familiar with Christ’s statement:

Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”  Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:56-58).

Obviously the text makes reference to the pre-existing Son of God – but the statements of Christ utterly destroy the normal sense of time. His statements are more than a mere mind-game being played by Christ – they are a revelation of the “distortion” (perhaps reconfiguration) and fulfillment of time. Christ, in St. John’s Revelation, says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last” (Rev. 22:13). This statement, a clear proclamation of Christ’s divinity, is made purely in temporal terms – but in each of the three cases, temporal terms that are normally contradictory. The temporality of Christ cannot be stated in purely linear terms.

St. John again leaves temporality behind in the proclamation: “All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Christ is most surely slain on the Cross within history, and yet St. John identifies that Christ with the Lamb “slain from the foundation of the world.” Christ’s Pascha is both “historical” and yet cosmic, transcending time.

This same transcendence of history and time is an inherent part of the Orthodox understanding of worship (and ultimately of all our life). We begin the Divine Liturgy with the words, “Blessed is the Kingdom…” The priest doesn’t say, “Blessed is Thy Kingdom which is to come…” He blesses the Kingdom which is, for when we give thanks to God, we stand within His Kingdom. In the course of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest prays and gives thanks in the past tense for the glorious second coming of Christ. What can such language mean?

It means that having been Baptized with Christ into His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection, time has shifted from the time of this age, and now participates in the time of the age to come. We stand with the Alpha and the Omega: the Beginning and the End dwells in our hearts.

Many have rejected the Beginning and the End in favor of a “linear Christ,” either lost in their search for the “historical Jesus,” or furiously scouring their Bibles and newspapers for signs of the linear approach of a time-bound Christ. Such a Christ reduces Christianity to theories and moralisms. The linear Christ does not and cannot save. That which is bound within time is bound within death. He who has trampled down death by death, has also trampled down time by time and “brought us up to His kingdom which is to come.”

With such a transformation in our lives, we can cease to live as prisoners in our own age awaiting the return of an exiled Lord. God is with us and makes us to be with Him.

Communion as Salvation

July 25, 2011

Recent conversations have brought me back to the essential importance of this topic.

Few things are as fundamental to the New Testament as the reality of communion (koinonia). It means a commonality, a sharing andparticipation in the same thing. It is this commonality or sharing that lies at the very heart of our salvation. This communion is described in Christ’s “high priestly prayer”:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23).

The unity for which Christ prays is no mere “quality” of our life in Christ – but is our life in Christ. That this unity (communion) is the very life of salvation is made clear in St. John’s first epistle:

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have communion [koinonia] with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion [koinonia] with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7).

Here our communion with God is described as a communion of light – though the nature of that light is made clear: God is light. St. John uses light to say that our communion is a true participation in God, in His very life.

This same saving participation in the life of God is presented in Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me (John 6:53-57).

Some time ago I wrote about the problem of many modern English translations in which koinonia is rendered “fellowship,” a very weak translation indeed. Our very life in Christ is trivialized by unwitting (I hope) translators into a noun used to describe church socials. It is a witness to how far removed many modern treatments of our saving relationship with Christ have become from the classic treatments of Orthodox tradition.

The compartmentalization of theology (ethics, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology – and the list goes on) frequently results in a fragmented, disjointed account of the Christian life. When you view the massive tomes that comprise the average systematic theology it is a marvel that the New Testament manages to be so short.

A telling weakness of many “theologies” is their failure to give account for the most common aspects of our Christian life. Prayer is a very straightforward example. Many systematic presentations of theology have no treatment of prayer whatsoever, despite the fact that we are bidden to “pray without ceasing.” How is it that something so pervasive finds no place in a theological description?

It is just this kind of spiritual myopia that marks theology that has departed from the Tradition of the faith and set off on its own trail of creativity. Thus, much has been written on “predestination” (a word which occurs but a few times in all the New Testament) while prayer is relegated to lesser treatments in what amounts to a category of recreational reading.

The Tradition does not treat prayer in this manner. Prayer is so much at the heart of the teaching of the faith that it is stated: Lex orandi, lex credendi – “the law of praying is the law of believing.” This is far more than saying that liturgy preserves the most primitive and pure proclamations of the gospel (though this is true). It is also saying that prayer itself is a pure expression of the gospel.

This becomes particularly clear when prayer is understood to be communion [koinonia] with God. And it is not prayer alone of which this can be said: the whole of the Christian life – every sacrament of the Church – has as its foundation our saving participation in the life of God.

I offer here some thoughts from a post in 2007 on communion with God:

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What is wrong with the human race?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christian doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

St. Athanasius describes this in his On the Incarnation of the Word:

For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them 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. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom : “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” (Wisdom 6. 18)

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – the Orthodox Christian faith does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in ourontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, many vitally important parts of the Christian life are reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

We were created for communion with God – it is our very life. Thinking about communion with God is not a substitute for communion with God. Theology as abstraction has no life within it. Theology is a life lived in Christ. Thus there is the common saying within Orthodoxy: “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

This is our salvation.

The God Who Sings

July 21, 2011

My parish is in the process of installing and blessing bells. It is a joyous milestone in our parish’s life and an important addition to the proclamation of the gospel. According to Orthodox thought, the sound of a Church bell is an icon of the voice of God. It’s blessing reaches as far as the bell is heard. Thinking about this coming event has given thought to an article from the past – “Why Does God Sing?” I look forward to His voice sounding across our small city.


Why would God sing? The question may sound strange and yet it is said in Zephaniah (3:17), “He will rejoice over thee with singing.” I first noticed this verse when I was a very young Christian and have puzzled about it for nearly forty years. Equally puzzling to our modern way of thought is the question, “Why does anybody sing?” I have been to plenty of operas and have to admit that even the ones in English need subtitles – singing does not necessarily make something more easily understood. And yet we sing.

God sings. Angels sing. Man sings.

Other than some adaptations that have been made in a few places in the modern period, any Orthodox service of worship is sung (or chanted) from beginning to end (with the exception of the sermon). Like opera, this musical approach to the liturgy does not mean that it will be better understood. And yet, the Christian Tradition, until the Reformation, was largely universal in its use of singing as the mode of worship. In the Western Church there was a development of the “Low Mass” in which little chanting was used – though this never found a place in the East.

This is not solely a Christian phenomenon. As a teenager I had a close friend who was Jewish. As a young teenager he began training to become a Cantor (the main singer in a congregation – second only in importance to the Rabbi himself). I was curious about Hebrew so he began to instruct me privately. Hebrew is a great language – particularly as published in Hebrew Scriptures.

I mastered the alphabet and began to understand that most vowels were not letters at all, just dots and lines, strategically placed to indicate their sound. I felt somewhat proud the first time I read a line aloud without prompting. I recall that when I finished I pointed at yet another set of markings that my friend had yet to mention.

“What are these?” I asked.

“They’re for the Cantor,” he explained. He also had to explain what a Cantor was and, fortunately, was able to demonstrate when I asked him how the musical markings worked. The sound would have compared easily to Byzantine chant – perhaps with lines of kinship. Several years ago I became acutely aware of another singing religion: Islam. My wife and I made pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September [2008]. The first morning (it was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) a canon went off at sunrise (that will wake you up in Jerusalem!) and suddenly a plaintive chant blared across the city as the Muezzin chanted the morning call to prayer.

Indeed, if you made a study of world religions, you’d be hard pressed to find any people who prayed or worshipped without singing (almost exclusively) other than forms of Christianity that have been influenced by the Protestant Reformation. In light of that fact it might be more appropriate to ask, “If God sings, and the angels sing, the Jews sing, the Muslims sing: why don’t Protestants chant their services?” What is it about modern man that changed his religious tune?

I’ll come back to that question in just a few moments. However, I would first like to take a tour through some experiences I’ve had with music and pastoral care. Wherever in our brain that the ability to sing and understand music resides – it is not the same place as pure speech. I have been making pastoral visits with patients for nearly thirty years. During that time I have frequently noticed stroke patients, who had lost one particular brain function (governed by the area effected by the stroke) be perfectly normal in another area not affected by the stroke. It’s as simple as being paralyzed on one side of your body but not on the other (a common result of strokes).

In the same way, I have seen any number of patients who could not speak or respond to speech, who, nevertheless, could sing and respond to music. The most extreme case I ever saw was in a patient suffering from multiple infarct dementia (thousands of tiny strokes). He was a paraplegic and virtually unresponsive. However, his devout Christian wife had discovered that he responded to both music and to prayer. He would say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer and tried to join in when you sang a familiar hymn.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. And so the mystery grows.

A surprising musical experience for me came in visiting St. Thekla’s Summer Camp (in South Carolina). We have youth in our Church, including some who attend the summer camp. My experience in Church is that, like most teens surrounded by adults, youth in Church remain quiet. However, at the summer camp, surrounded by their peers, they sang with all the gusto of their youth. It was completely natural. Kids sing.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. Kids sing.

So what happened in the Protestant West that made them change their tune? To their credit they did not completely stop singing. Some of the finest hymns in Christian history were written during the Reformation. Hymns that sang doctrine and offered praise to God – all these were part of the hymnody of Protestant worship. And yet something different did take place. What was different was a shift in understanding how or if we know God and the place that worship plays in all that.

For many in the Reformation God could be known only as He made Himself known in Scripture. Knowing God as He had made Himself known in Christ was a description of knowing what Christ said and did in the New Testament. God was distanced from the sacraments in most cases. He was distanced from worship. We could offer worship to God in our assemblies, but not necessarily because He was present.

The distance that arose between man and God at the time of the Reformation had many causes. Among the most important were the politics of severing God, the individual and the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). Such a severing created the secular sphere as we know it today and at last established the state as superior to the Church with, for the most part, the happy cooperation of the newly minted Churches. For most centuries the Reformation has been studied on the basis of its religious issues – indeed “religion” has unfairly borne the blame for years of hatred and wars. The role of politics has  been downplayed – indeed even seen as the force which intervened and spared Europe from further religious madness. The state, as secular state, was seen as the hero of the Reformation. However it is quite possible to understand the history of that period as the history of the rise of the secular state and the state’s manipulation of religion for the interests of the state (Eamon Duffy’s work on this topic is quite revealing).

The Reformation itself brought something of an ideological revolution, a redefinition of man as a religious being. The new thought saw man as an understanding, rational, choosing individual. Thus religious services began to have a growing center of the spoken word. God was reasoning with man through the medium of the spoken word. In most places of the new reforms, efforts were made to establish a radical break with the sacramental past. However God might be present with His people – it was not to be in the drama of the Liturgy. Vestments were exchanged for academic gowns, or no vestments at all. The minister was an expounder of the word, not a priest. The altar that had once clearly been an altar, a place where the bloodless sacrifice took place – a holy place where Christ Body and Blood were present – became a simple table – usually with the minister standing in a position that was meant to indicate that he was performing no priestly action.

The words surrounding the Liturgy were spoken and not sung. Singing at such moments were associated with acts of magic. Thus the “hoc est enim corpus meum” of the Roman Rite, was ridiculed as “hocus pocus,” ever to be associated with magic. Chanting was for witches, not for Christians.

Music did not disappear at the Reformation. As noted earlier, many great hymns were written as part of that movement – and have marked every major “revival” within Protestantism. People sing. But what do people sing?

There is no doubt that vast changes in much of Protestant Church music have taken place in the latter half of the 20th century. The same was true in parts of the 19th century. In efforts to remain “contemporary” much music has taken contemporary form. The influence of Pentecostal worship forms have also shaped contemporary “praise” music.

In many ways a revolution as profound as the Reformation itself has taken place within Protestant Christianity. Whereas the founders of the Reformation saw reason as the primary mode of communicating the gospel – contemporary Protestantism has become far more comfortable with emotion. An interesting player in this modern revolution has been the “science” of marketing which has made careful study of how it is that people actually make decisions and on what basis do they “choose” as consumers. From an Orthodox perspective, it is the science of the passions.

In this light it is important to say that people sing for many different reasons and that not all music in worship is the same. Orthodoxy has long held the maxim that music should be “neptic,” that is, should be guided by sobriety and not by the passions. Thus, there have been criticisms from time to time within the Russian Church that the great works of some modern Church composers are too “operatic” or too “emotional.” That conversation continues.

But why do we sing?

Here we finally come to the question that has no easy answer – just a suggestion based on human experience. We sing because God sings. We sing because the angels sing. We sing because all of creation sings. We are not always able to hear the song – usually because we do not sing enough. I will put forward that singing is the natural mode of worship (particularly if we follow the model of the angels) and that there is much that can enter the heart as we sing that is stopped dead in its tracks by the spoken word.

It is not for nothing that the one book of Old Testament Scripture that finds more usage in the Church (at least among the Orthodox) than the New Testament, is the book of Psalms, all of which are meant to be sung (and are sung within Orthodox worship). Years ago when I was a young Anglican priest – I introduced the sung mass at a mission Church where I was assigned. A teenager confided to me after the service that the chanting had made her feel “spooky.” She was clearly stuck in a Reformation “only witches chant” mode. She also had not learned to worship. In time, it grew on her and she grew with it.

The heart of worship is an exchange. It is an exchange where we offer to God all we are and all we have and receive in return Who He is and what He has. The exchange takes place as we sing to Him and He sings to us.

I have heard the singing of angels. I am not certain that I have heard God singing – though it is something of an open question to me. But without fail, I hear His voice singing in the person of the priest: “Take, eat. This is my Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.” And I have heard the choir sing, in the voice of the people: “I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

God sings and so should everything else.


July 12, 2011

In the Gospel record of Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate, we are told that Christ said He had come to bear witness to the Truth. Pilate, in what he must have thought was a clever response, says, “And what is Truth?” We know from elsewhere in the Gospel that Christ explained, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” It is a statement that is easily tossed about – to settle an argument by saying that Christ is the Truth – but Pilate’s question still remains: “What is Truth?”

Christ’s statement that He Himself is the Truth is a description of the nature of Truth, as well as its content. In saying this, we must accept that Christ’s claim is that Truth is not at all the sort of thing we generally consider when we ask for “the truth.” It is not a syllogism, nor a philosophical formula, or even a precisely stated account of history. It is not truth as yielded by carefully sifted evidence. If Christ is the Truth, then Truth must be understood as Person and not as concept. To acknowledge Christ as the Truth is both to acknowledge that we have been mistaken about the nature of truth itself, as well as to accept that Christ Himself is both content and character of the Truth.

In saying that Christ is the Truth, and that the Truth is thus understood as Person, is not to say that Truth is a category – or merely an event within history. For the Christ who reveals Himself as Truth, also reveals Himself as the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8). He is both the “Lamb slain from the Foundation of the Earth” (Rev. 12:8) and “He Who is, and was, and is to come” (Rev. 1:8).

In speaking of the Truth with regard to others, St. Paul offers this same eschatological understanding:

Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts (1 Cor. 4:5).

Both St. Ambrose (in the West) and St. Maximos (in the East) maintained that the Old Testament was shadow; the New Testament, icon; and the age to come, the Truth. This is to say that the meaning of all things is found in the End of all things. The Old Testament (in Christian terms) receives its meaning from what it points towards and which lies hidden within it as though it were a shadow. The New Testament makes the Truth known, but in the form of Icon, an Image in which we see more clearly. But we do not yet see as we shall see.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).

This understanding does not negate the knowledge we have of the world in which we live. But it sets parameters on that knowledge and reveals its temporary and relative character. When we describe the world with the knowledge of science, we describe as best we can what we see and understand according to a certain model. This is not the same thing as saying we know the Truth of things. There is, even in the created order, an opacity that does not immediately yield to us the full mystery of the things we see and know. In the words of St. Paul:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (1 Cor. 13:12).

There is no conflict between what we know and what we shall know. Conflict only arises when we claim to know what we do not know. We cannot assume certain fixed principles from which we may deduce the Truth of things – for such principles and deduction cannot pierce the veil that lies over all we see nor the cloud that darkens our heart. We do not therefore reject knowledge that has not reached its fullness – but we do not call the knowledge we have the “fullness of the Truth.” That fullness awaits us.

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:9-10).

On the level of our daily lives, this understanding asks us not to look to the past for our meaning: we are not defined by our history but by our end. To know what we are, it is necessary to know what we shall be. Christ is, for us, both the icon of the Truth and the Truth of which He is the icon. To answer the question of what we shall be, the truth will only be found in Christ – who is both the revelation of God – but also the revelation of what it is to be human: fully God and fully man, He is our definition.

Indeed, He is the Truth of all things.

The Unnecessary God

July 11, 2011

Many years ago I knew a pastor who said he did not believe in angels. I was surprised by his statement and asked him why. His response was interesting:

“I do not believe in angels because I cannot think of anything that they do that the Holy Spirit could not do instead.”

I thought his reasoning was confused at the time and still do. Essentially, he did not believe in angels because he did not think them necessary. Of course, the fault in his logic is that nothing created exists by necessity. All creation exists by the will of God and nothing can lay claim to necessity. Creation does not need to exist.

It is also correct to say that God does not need to exist – there is no necessity in God – His existence is pure freedom.

To speak of things as unnecessary or of God’s lack of necessity is very troubling. We often have an interior sense that things which do not exist by necessity may therefore not really exist at all. It is only natural for a child to have a sense of fear and insecurity when they come to an age to realize that their own existence not only had a beginning, but that they need not ever to have existed. It’s similar to the fear of death.

The lack of necessity in God is quite similar. Most arguments for the existence of God are a search for such necessity. Arguments that win and become persuasive are generally grounded in some form of necessity. The argument for God’s existence is not only that He does exist, but that He must exist. Of course if there is no necessity in God, if we cannot say, “God must,” then believers can find themselves deeply unsettled, thinking that if we cannot say “God must,” then perhaps we can say, “God isn’t.”

Such things are logical problems and the fear of them is rooted deep in the fears that haunt humanity.

At the heart of these problems is the problem of freedom. St. Paul says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” 2 Corinthians 3:17. We are also taught in the Scriptures that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). These are not separate understandings – for there is no love except love exists in freedom. That which is by compulsion is not love. Believers are invited into an existence that is rooted in love and freedom not necessity. Such an existence is the very basis of what it means for us to exist as persons.

All of this sets us in a place that can feel very insecure. We frequently prefer necessity to freedom and compulsion to love.

Those who argue against the existence of God remind me of my friend who found the existence of angels unnecessary. Many people have the experience described by St. Paul in Romans 1, in which the existence of God is easily inferred from the very existence and order of creation. But St. Paul does not describe such an experience as “necessary.” In our modern world such “necessity” would not always seem obvious. Moreover, such necessity is not immune to doubt.

The movement from a necessary existence to an existence grounded in freedom and love is a difficult journey for most people. The lack of compulsion (which is also a lack of violence) seems untenable in the world. People fear that without compulsion the world becomes far too dangerous. Compulsion can restrain evil, but it cannot make evil be good.

To use the word “unnecessary” with regard to God is not to say that we can exist without Him. It is to say that to exist with Him, in the fullness of life to which we are called, is to live beyond necessity and to embrace God in freedom and love.

Forgive my clumsy expressions.

The Unknowable God

July 8, 2011

You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that. – Fr. Thomas Hopko


Fr. Hopko’s small aphorism is among my favorites in contemporary Orthodoxy. Besides the fact that it sounds humorous – it states one of the most profound paradoxes within the Orthodox faith. This fundamental truth is stated in a variety of ways: we say that God cannot be known in His Divine Essence while affirming that we may know Him in His Divine Energies. We cannot know Him, yet we must know Him.

The deepest proclamation of the Church is that the God who cannot be known has made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the God/Man. What could not be known has now been given to us.

There are a number of existential realities that flow from these simple statements – and they are worth considering:

  • What do I know of God rather than about God?
  • Is the God I know more than my own personal projections?
  • Is anything required of me in order to know God?
  • Is there anything beyond myself and my own efforts required to know God?
  • What relationship does this have with the story of Jesus Christ?

The difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God should be obvious. The child of a famous man may not know much “about” his father – but unlike people who know “all about” his father – he is one of the few who actually know him. The difference is far more than a matter of degree. One kind of knowledge is utterly derivative – it can be obtained without any contact with the person involved. I noticed the strangeness of this when some 15 or 20 years back, Bugs Bunny, the cartoon character, celebrated his fiftieth “birthday,” accompanied with major magazine articles and analysis. Of course, all of the learned discourse was about someone who does not exist (at least in the usual meaning of the word). Thus there is a form of theology and religious thought that does not require belief in God (of course, both are false forms theology). Theology that begins with an assumed point of revealed knowledge and then proceeds to build upon that purely through the efforts of human reason is little better than theology without belief in God. God is not an axiom to be assumed as though He were a mathematical formula.

Of course when I say, “I know God,” the question remains, “Am I in delusion?” How do I know whether my experience is anything other than my own inner projections? St. Peter wrote, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” 2 Peter 1:20. The same applies generally to our experience of God. Does what I know of God agree with the experience of the Church throughout the ages? Though such knowledge of God cannot be described as “objective,” it is, nonetheless, an intuitive perception that is communal. It is not simply that I know God, but that we know God – and we bear witness that we know the same God.

The Hebrew verb yada (forgive my lack of a Hebrew font) means “to know,” but is frequently used in passages such as “Adam knew his wife and she conceived….” It is a deeply intimate word that implies union as well as knowledge. It is not a passive form of knowledge. English does not have a verb to allow us to distinguish between passive and active knowledge. We have a verb, to ignore, that implies an active form of ignorance. Knowledge of God, however, assumes activity on our part – it is not a passive revelation, but a cooperative knowing. Thus Christ, in making Himself known to the rebellious Saul (soon-to-be the Apostle Paul), says to him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” He indicates that Saul has been repeatedly confronting Christ, but also repeatedly ignoring these efforts on God’s part. Paul’s response to the light that he sees and the voice that he hears is straightforward, “Who are you Lord?” There is a ready recognition of the power of the revelation, and by naming it “Lord,” a recognition that he is ready to surrender. Our own participation in the knowledge of God presumes that we are actively giving our hearts to Him.

The kind of knowledge we seek of God, is not only active on our own side of things, but is active on God’s side as well. The perfection of such knowledge is described by St. Paul with the words, “Then we shall know even as we are known” (1 Cor. 13). God is active, living and free. He is not an inert object forced by His own existence to be available to our will. God makes Himself known to us as gift. Thus an open heart, a willingness to be patient, and a respect for the Gift and the Giver are required of us.

There is another important action that is inherent in knowing such a God. It is the essential part of an apophatic life. The Church refers to its theology primarily as apophatic, meaning “that which cannot be spoken.” We know, but we cannot always put into words what we know. In the same manner, there are many things we think we know (including things about God) that simply are not true. We believe them because we’ve heard them and assume them to be true. There is a vast amount of Christian teaching that is based on hearsay (and heresy) than on true and living knowledge of God. Thus there is sometimes the necessity of a form of Christian agnosticism (admitting what we do not know) trusting the good God to make known to us what we need to know. I have seen a great deal of inner healing when people admit that false images that have haunted their life in Christ are indeed just that – false images. What you learned in Sunday School or Freshman Philosophy (or Seminary for that matter) may not always be correct (or may have been misunderstood).

God is a good God, who desires to make Himself known to us. He offers us Himself in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. The heart of the Christian gospel is that the God who cannot be known has made Himself known in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thus we do not know a God before Christ, or beside Christ. St. John says, “The only Son who is in the bosom of the Father – He has made Him known (in the Greek – “He has exegeted the Father”). Thus we begin with Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen. The claim of the Apostolic witness is that Christ is the only exegesis of the Father.

We cannot know God – but we have to know Him in order to know that. Glory to God for His infinite mercy!

Glory to God for All Things – The Song

July 4, 2011

Freedom and Slavery – A Word to Neurotic Christians

July 3, 2011

Be both a servant, and free: a servant in that you are subject to God, but free in that you are not enslaved to anything – either to empty praise or to any of the passions.

Release your soul from the bonds of sin; abide in liberty, for Christ has liberated you; acquire the freedom of the New World during this temporal life of yours. Do not be enslaved to love of money or to the praise resulting from pleasing people.

Do not lay down a law for yourself, otherwise you may become enslaved to these laws of yours. Be a free person, one who is in a position to do what he likes. Do not become like those who have their own law, and are unable to turn aside from it, either out of fear in their own minds, or because of the wish to please others; in this way they have enslaved themselves to the coercion of their law, with their necks yoked to their own law, seeing that they have decreed for themselves their own special law – just when Christ had released them from the yoke of the Law!

Do not make hard and fast decisions over anything in the future, for you are a created being and your will is subject to changes. Decide in whatever matters you have to reach a decision, but without fixing in your mind that you will not be moved to other things. For it is not by small changes in what you eat that your faithfulness is altered: your service to the Lord of all is performed in the mind, in your inner person; that is where the ministry to Christ takes place.

St. John the Solitary, Letter to Hesychias, 25-28.

I have entitled this post, in part, “A word to neurotic Christians.” We all suffer from our personalities, that cluster of fears and fearlessness, of anxiety and over-confidence, of false images and hopeful dreams, guilt and cares – and our “religion” is often lived out precisely in that arena. My meager understanding of modern psychology uses the term “neurotic” to describe those who tend to take more responsibility upon themselves than is appropriate. Those who take too little responsibility are far more difficult personalities – falling generally somewhere in the category of “narcissists.” Neither is the path of true freedom as a Christian.

The “neurotic” path can seem extremely religious, precisely because of its deep sense of responsibility. Those of us who are “neurotic” always feel responsible. The troubles of the world are not something we ignore – and the closer the troubles come to our doorstep the more responsible we feel. Many clergy are neurotic – if we didn’t care so much we would never have yielded ourselves to this level of responsibility. Sometimes – even often – those reponsibilities crush us.

The words of St. John the Solitary seem particularly appropriate to many in our modern age. Not satisfied with striving to keep Christ’s commandments, we create laws for ourselves, our internal rules, which hound us and persecute us and grind us into dust (greatly driven by the enemy of our faith as well as our own proclivities). Frequently, we give more weight to these self-made laws than to the true law of Christ (love).

We establish a rule of prayer (sometimes without so much as the blessing of a spiritual father). Our failure for even a few days (sometimes just one) can send us into such a spiritual depression that rather than repent, we simply quit.

Most of us would never be so hard on someone else. We find ourselves able to extend mercy to all but ourselves – or we extend mercy to ourselves where we should be strict and strict with ourselves where we should be merciful.

St. John the Solitary’s words (from the early 5th century) demonstrate how unchanged the inner life of human beings has remained despite the passage of time. The outward concerns of our culture are perhaps little more than phantasmagoria, while our inner lives remain the same. And thus his sane advice to our modern neurotics continues to read true.

There is indeed a marvelous freedom vouchsafed us in the mercy of Christ our God. His liberty is often more than we are willing to grant to ourselves. And thus we remain slaves – indeed worse than that – we become both Pharaoh and slave. The liberty that is ours in Christ is not a liberty to sin – but a true liberty to be free in the Spirit of God.

The freedom that is ours in Christ abides forever. It is not an idea nor an ideal, but the truth as it is made known in Christ. Thus, if we err, and submit ourselves again to a yoke of bondage, our true liberator remains by our side, speaking a word of liberty and calling us to the life of the Spirit which is manifest in the life of love.

Many of us are tormented by the continuing process of life that confuses us and returns us to various yokes of bondage. But the good God, who loves mankind, is persistent and steadfast. He will not yield until every yoke of bondage is destroyed and we are established in His true freedom.

Glory to Christ who has made us free!