Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

The Importance of Being Ignorant

November 1, 2007

southwest-trip-317.jpg

I remember a talk given by Fr. Thomas Hopko last year in Dallas. In the course of some side remarks, he said that his son, Fr. John Hopko, had been asked what his dad was doing now that he was retired and no longer Dean of St. Vladimir’s. As reported by Fr. Tom, young Fr. Hopko said, “He’s going around the country talking to whomever will listen and telling them to remember that it’s really all about God.”

I liked the statement then and I like it now. It is all too easy to become occupied with one or another part of our life in the Church and without intention, discover that we’ve forgotten God. I think this happens all the time. Any other activity will do – even theology (or writing a blog). It is in light of such forgetfulness that I think it is important to remember that we are ignorant (of God) and that knowing God is really what everything is about. If we do not know God – then we know almost nothing.

Several years ago I had lunch with a friend and his son. His son was newly graduated from Law School – which has to be something like newly graduated from seminary. I was wearing my cassock, thus my identity as priest was obvious. My friend and his son were Roman Catholic. I can only assume that his son was a somewhat “progressive” Roman Catholic based on the conversation we had.

His first statement to me following introductions was: “Why doesn’t your Church ordain women to the priesthood?”

I was certainly caught off guard. It’s not that the question surprises me – it just surprises me when it’s the first thing someone asks me. I think my answer caught him off guard.

“You don’t know God,” I said. “Your question is actually a very deep question but I can’t begin to answer it if you don’t know God. If you want to know God, then we can talk about that.”

The conversation stopped shortly thereafter. He made no defense of himself (to his credit). I’m not sure why I said what I said (and I bore no animosity in saying it). But as I searched my heart for a proper answer, I realized that everything I wanted to say presumed a knowledge that I did not think the young man had (not book knowledge – but true knowledge of God). I still think this is required for a proper answer to that question.

Indeed, true knowledge of God, which we have in such little measure, is required before all things. Every other spiritual conversation must flow from that knowledge or it is a waste of breath. Orthodox theology utterly requires such experiential knowledge (this is pretty much the entire point of St. Gregory Palamas).

Not only does every conversation require this knowledge – our own salvation itself requires, even consists of this knowledge (John 17:3). Thus the importance of being ignorant. We cannot know what we need to know until we know and confess what we don’t know. And we will not know what we must know until we pursue it (Him) with all our heart.

God save us from all forms of false theology (which is every form of theology that is pursued apart from the knowledge of God, whether by Orthodox Christian, or his Pagan Counterpart).

The recognition of such ignorance should drive us to prayer – to every action the Church has given us with which to pursue such knowledge. It may even drive us to silence.

The Abolition of Man and Some Other Thoughts

October 23, 2007

lewis.jpg

I frequently find myself thinking about C.S. Lewis’ little masterpiece, The Abolition of Man, if only because it was correct when he wrote it and has been prophetic ever since. It’s odd, the copy I own is old, tattered, and rescued from a fire – much like his thesis. That thesis is almost too complex to put into this posting – at least in the time I’ve allowed myself to write today. But simply stated:

Much of our modern system of education [it was education Lewis was primarily examining – I would today broaden its scope] is broadly failing to understand what it is to be human. It is the substitution of the “measureable” for the “metaphorical,” in one sense, a modern practice that is utterly demolished in Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery. In both cases the triumph of the “scientific” over every other contender, renders man, or at least much that makes us human, of little value. Thus history only has value as we can study it “scientifically,” not in any sense that might link us to that history. Thus there can be no tradition, nothing within us that extends without us, except the ability to measure or perhaps to feel – but that feeling, as Lewis noted is described as only to feel, and thus not to feel at all.

And yet, as Lewis notes, even those who write within this modern attack on Tradition (or as he chose to call it “the Tao”), themselves stand within the Tradition. There is a simple fact and a reality: there is no other place to stand. We are part of a Tradition of human living that has always existed. Whether I analyze my breathing in some scientific metaphor and measurement or speak of the breath of life, I still breathe, and I want to breathe. There is much that binds us to one another even when it is not recognized.

The Orthodox faith is a form of Christianity that embraces the Tradition – indeed it celebrates it. Marvelously, it does not have to invent it, for the Tradition abides even when Modernity seeks to reinvent the human out of existence. There are customs (important parts of Tradition even when found in ethnic flavor) such as suggesting to a woman that she “lay in” (at least liturgically) for 40 days after giving birth. Today’s insurance policies might not allow so much (I do not know). But it is a Tradition that should not be read for saying, “Don’t go out, you’re unclean.” Instead it’s a Tradition that values the birth of a child enough to protect them and allow them to bond with a mother and – even a Tradition that doesn’t completely know why it asks what it asks. But it does remember something important about being human.

I would say the same thing about parts of the Tradition that teach us to mourn. To pray on the third day of death; the ninth day of death; the fortieth day; the anniversary – and the anniversary without end. To stand around holding candles in the depth of our mourning singing, “Memory eternal!” is not simply some time-worn custom – but an act far superior to the “grief therapy” of the modern psycho-babble industry that organizes grief camps and has children writing letters to deceased loved ones and sending them (the letters) aloft by balloons. Of this latter practice (I once worked as a Hospice Chaplain and I know it well) I can at least say that it, too, flows from the same Tradition – human beings must grieve the dead. The difference is that an Orthodox Memorial service is certain that God is with us and that we pray because of the Resurrection of Christ, whereas balloons are sent aloft because they make us feel better.

Louth takes on the pseudo-sciences that try to push the humanities into the sciences themselves. Thus we have the “science” of “historical critical” studies – which – whatever good they may do – cannot do what they claim or wish. And least of all do they do teach us how to read a text.

I think of the Abolition of Man, not because I despair, but because I realize that I am daily working not for his abolition, but for his recovery. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has noted: “God not only became man so that man could become god; He also became man so that man could become man.” Christ alone is the fully human and as we live within the Tradition that is the living presence of Christ in the Church – we slowly work to rescue man from the eddies of modernity and restore him to the Tradition that leads to Christ and to the fullness for which he was created. I do not seek to measure that effort, or judge it by its numerical success, but rather by the joy that I know every time I see that it is true and that I see that another knows it is true.

We were created for God – to give Him glory and thanksgiving. Anything less is indeed our abolition. But here we are a generation or more after Lewis wrote his little book, and we are doing (as Orthodox Christians) not what he loathed, but what he lauded. The Tradition will not go away for it is nothing less than God at work among us, saving us, and fulfilling us (not with modernity’s false fulfillment) with the fullness that is nothing less than the life of Christ. Glory to God.

Zizioulas and the Church that is Communion

October 15, 2007

cimabue2.jpg

One of the more profound writers and thinkers in the Orthodox Church today has to be Metropolitan John Zizioulas – who has taught for years in Scotland and England – and is known to be one of the closest theologians to His Holiness, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Zizioulas [as he is commonly referred to without meaning any disrespect] is also famously difficult to read – he can pack a paragraph with insights that require days to unravel for some.

My first serious encounter with his work was in a Doctoral Seminar at Duke. I was writing a term paper on him, and thus needing to read pretty much everything he had written. I was slowly making my way through Being as Communion (reading each page three and four times) when suddenly a “coin dropped” in my mind. To a large extent what happened is that I could suddenly see what the great Cappadocians Fathers, such as St. Basil the Great, were getting at in their writings on the Trinity, and why the East was typically so different from the West in this regard.

I was stunned and found that I needed about three days to digest the thought and far more time to “rethink” a lot of thoughts. The end result was probably crucially important to my later conversion to Orthodoxy – though I did not realize it at the time.

I will do two things in this post. One is to summarize, if ever so briefly, what it is Zizioulas is saying about the Eucharist and the Church. The second will be to bring in another consideration which I will offer as compatible to Zizioulas’ writings but which will deflect many of the criticisms he faces (cf. this article if you want to read one of those criticisms).

Zizioulas, following the teaching of St. Basil in particular, notes that in Orthodox Trinitarian teaching, it is common to begin by speaking of the three Persons of the Godhead and then moving to the One Essence, rather than by speaking of the One Essence and then proceeding to the three Persons. Without repeating the entirety of his magisterial work, he presses this work of St. Basil and concludes that God exists as an eternal act of communion of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. St. Basil had said that “person is prior to being” (not speaking temporally, but theologically). Thus it is that the very names of the Trinity reveal the truth of God. The Father is not a metaphor, but a name. He is Father and this implies “a begotten.” Christ as Son, again implies begotten. The Spirit (which means breath or wind) also implies another, a source. Thus there is no speaking of the Triune God that does not include this “relational” aspect.

Zizioulas also applies this understanding of existence to human beings. Thus our biological existence, which is destined to return to the dust, is replaced, in Holy Baptistm, by what he calls “the ecclesial hypostasis” (I just love the term though it won’t preach). I existence given to us in Baptism is no longer defined by our biology, our individuality, but by our relationship to Christ (and thus to His Church).

He also removes the Church from crude institutional images and instead says its true nature is revealed and constituted in the Eucharist, in which not only the Bread and Wine become the Body and Blood, but in which also are revealed to be Christ’s Body. And just as the Body and Blood are “eschatological” in character (manifestations in time of the very End of things), so too our true existence is revealed as eschatological.

Zizioulas gets accused of having established a “pneumatological” understanding of the Church (i.e. an understanding that depends on the operation of the Spirit [pneuma] rather than on Christ – though I think such criticisms are unfair.

I will take us to a slightly different approach. The Body and Blood made manifest to us on the holy altar, which are there certainly eschatologically, and also as a gift of the Spirit [why else would be pray for the Holy Spirit to “change” the Bread and Wine] – but what is made manifest to us is nothing other than the Crucified Christ. It is, as the Fathers said, “a bloodless sacrifice,” but the sacrifice made present on the altar is indeed the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, as well as the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth.” The Church is revealed not only as Christ’s Body, but revealed as well as Christ Crucified, with whom we were united in Baptism (Baptized into his death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection). Thus the Eucharistic Community of which Zizioulas speaks cannot be merely “pneumatological” because what the Spirit reveals and makes manifest is profoundly Christological and even Cruciform.

Indeed, the Trinitarian aspects of Zizioulas’ teaching, can best be understood by going to Christ on the Cross. Though Zizioulas approaches these matters in a quasi-philosophical model (starting with the Cappadocian Fathers and the great Trinitarian debate) it is nonetheless true that it is Christ on the Cross who most perfectly reveals the character of God, and even the Trinity to us.

It is the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross, described best in Philippians 2 that goes to the heart of my point:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:  Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (5-11).

The self-emptying of Christ on the Cross is not to be confined to that one occasion. The entirety of Christ’s ministry is a self-emptying, from the Annunciation forward. The icons and feasts of the Church make it clear that the whole of Christ’s love for us is manifest in a life that has the very “shape” of Pascha. Indeed to say the “Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth,” is to acknowledge that this revelation contained in Pascha transcends the single event of Pascha and is revelatory of Who Christ is.

Nor can we simply point to the self-emptying of Christ and say that it is a “Christological” revelation. For the Father gave His only-begotten Son, and the Spirit speaks nothing of Himself but only of the Son. There is a mutual self-emptying in the Trinity as revealed to us in Scripture. Thus the God of whom St. John says, “God is love,” is true of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Communion is nothing other than the common life of God. And it is into this Communion that we are placed in the Holy Eucharist (‘whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56).

But it is also possible, having said all this, to make the mistake of “over-emphasizing” the Divine Liturgy itself, as though other actions of the Church were not “Eucharistic” themselves (this is the kind of mistake that has been common in the “liturgical movement”). The Eucharist not only reveals the Church in its proper self-emptying character of communion, but also reveals the character of every action we take in the Church. How is the sacrament of Confession not “self-emptying.” How is it not an act of communion with the Triune God? How is Baptism not a “self-emptying” (we are “put to death” in that sacrament)? How is Marriage not an act of mutual self-emptying? Why do we crown them with the crowns of martyrs? I could go on and on.

The simple question placed at Baptism: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” Is itself an invitation to live the self-emptying Life of God. Everything we do in Church and as Christians is properly done when it is an act of self-emptying, an act of communion. There can be no communion of any sort without kenosis (emptying).

Thus although some have found fault with Zizioulas as too pneumatological (Spirit-centered) in his discussion of the Church, or too philosophical (having started with the Cappadocians rather than the Cross), I find him not guilty – if he is understood in the manner I have set forth here. Nothing in Chrisianity makes any sense apart from the Cross, for it is the Cross that shows forth the great mystery of Pascha which is indeed God’s revelation of Himself to the World. Pascha not only reveals God, but also answers the question, “What kind of God is He?” He is a good God who loves mankind.

Glory to God for all things!

Writing Plans – Zizioulas Made Plain

October 13, 2007

zizioulas1.jpg

I hope to spend some time next week “unpacking” (as they say) some of Met. John Zizioulas’ theology. It is very helpful in understanding the true nature of the Church. This weekend I am in Clarksville, TN, near Fort Campbell, to explore the possibilities of a new mission. I would much appreciate your prayers. It’s hard to be away from my home parish – even for two days, but especially on Sundays – and this will be the case for 2 Sundays to come.

For what it’s worth – Ancient Faith Radio – will be offering a weekly podcast from me, mostly based on this Blog, starting on October 20. Go to their website for more information. If you enjoy the blog, perhaps you’ll enjoy the podcasts. If you do not enjoy it then you can download it for a listen and consider it a podvig. 🙂 In seriousness, for whatever use it may be to Christ’s Holy Church, I pray God will bless this effort. It was someone else’s idea and invitation which gives me some courage.

Glory to God!

Why I Am Not Concerned about the Church as Failure

October 11, 2007

christoursaviormoscow.jpg

I suspected that having written about the “Church as Failure,” today’s post would be a required follow-up. I am not concerned about the Church as failure – because I believe the Church was meant to fail – if you’ll allow me explain. I have chosen the word “failure” to translate St. Paul’s description of Christ on the Cross as “weakness” and “foolishness.” I think those words were powerful when he was speaking to the Judeao-Hellenistic world of his time – but that those translations are not particularly powerful or scandalous to modern folk. American modern folk are far more scandalized by the notion of failure. We hate failure. Which is why I think it is such a good translation.

There are two ways for the Church to “fail.” The first is that the Church fails because it has embraced the cross and the Divine Failure of God (which saves us). It is the Church living utterly vulnerable to the Cross and knowing that it will only be as we fail and God succeeds that the Church will do what it is called to do.

A Christian standing in confession (as we do it in the Orthodox Church) and admitting that they have failed, is a Christian now ready for the Grace of God to work in them the righteousness of Christ.

The other way for the Church to fail (and this one does tend to dominate) is when it tries to succeed and be the thing it imagines God has called it to be, but by its own efforts. The result of such madness is failure of a catastrophic sort, with the Church being nothing of what Christ has called it to be.

The great good news in all of this is that even the second failure – if it is recognized as such – can become the first kind of failure, and thus the place where Grace begins the work of healing. The Good God has so established things that we cannot fail other than when we refuse to admit our failures.

I am not in the least saddened or dismayed by the failure I see across the Christian landscape – even the failures within the Orthodox Church. Or I should say that the only sadness I have is the sadness at human sin. But where sin did abound, Grace did more abound, as St. Paul tells us in Romans. Thus we stand at a landscape that could also be the place where an abundance of Grace begins to work.

For Orthodoxy in America, I pray that Grace will abound. We have our failures, which I choose not to ennumerate. It’s not my job. But for those whose job it is – I pray that they will call things by their right names and pray that Grace will abound (which it most assuredly will).

As an Orthodox Christian I cannot say what Grace abounding outside the bounds of Orthodoxy would look like. It is mysterious territory to me but it could only be a good thing because Grace does not work us harm.

In individual lives our failures can and should be moments that the Cross of Christ is triumphant. For what we cannot do (and we cannot do anything), Christ in us can do abundantly well. Thus to fail is to come to the Cross of Christ, if only we will.

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace, help me in all things to rely upon Thy holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Thy will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that Thy will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by Thee. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray. And pray Thou, Thyself, in me. Amen.

The morning Prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow

Being Saved This Day in the Church

October 9, 2007

candlesandicon.jpg

I thought I would bring the discussion down from the heady heights of theology and into the place where I spend my time and the bulk of my life. Being saved in the Church is a very day-to-day and moment-to-moment thing.

Getting started: Do I cross myself before I get out of bed. It sure helps. My sincerest hope is that my desire for God does not weaken between bed, kitchen and my prayer corner. Too many distractions.

Getting started part 2: Since I am not required by a canon to fast before my morning prayers, I usually have a cup of coffee which helps prayer immensely. Caffeine addiction. Discuss with confessor.

Praying. The great struggle is to have a single concentrated thought about God. To hold in my heart the Creator of the universe – or better stated to hold my heart there in His presence. The good morning is the one where His presence is accessible and not missing for some reason. Time to search my heart.

Fasting – What day is it? And even though the food may be “compliant,” do I remember to leave the table slightly hungry?

Reading the Blog – What has happened overnight. What has Europe and the American Insomniacs had to say. If there is a Romanian translation, what does it say? Was what I wrote clear and what will be next?

The Day – My day has appointments or tasks to be completed, or phonecalls, or services to be prepared, and all of these in between times for prayer. Prayer – the same questions as the morning.

The close of the day. What did I do? Did I remember God. Did I come close to constantly remembering God. Where did I refuse to remember Him?

Why does the cat annoy me?

Everyday would look something like this for me. The conversations could be good or bad, heartbreaking or producing anxiety, depending. But all of it is made up of small minutes, small decisions, and each is a decision to remember God or to forget the one who died for my salvation. Each phone call is a call from Christ (God have mercy on me).

Wonderously I am remembering that everything is filled with God – that He is everywhere present. And stopping and going slowly through the day the brightness of this unmitigated joy overwhelms anything that would seek to replace. Not just the natural things that grow – but everything. Glory to God!

And each day, is a struggle to say yes to the Grace that pours out upon us more than we can bear. Glory to God.

I will sleep in Grace, in the palm of His hand.

Scarcity and Abundance in a One-Storey Universe

September 30, 2007

wheat.jpg

We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but now of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps the most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

From the abundance of Paradise man falls into a world in which thorns and thistles dominate:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

But now, standing at this funeral, the priest proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

What fullness? Again it is the assault of God on the world man has made. The earth is not the kingdom of scarcity, but now the Kingdom of God. The grave is not the gate of Hades, but the gate of paradise. Fullness can again be proclaimed for the grave has been ruptured and cannot hold its prey.

This struggle is a daily struggle. Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestled to gain whatever I can and cling to it till death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.

However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows I have need of all these things.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation it needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of life.

In the one-storey world in which we truly live it is all too easy to assume its boundaries are those set by geographically defined notions, and that, by definition, things are finite, hence scarce. But this is a failure to recognize what has happened in the world in the coming among us of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. As He Himself said:

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

In Biblical language, this was Christ’s proclamation of a Jubilee year – the great Jubilee Year – in which all debts are cancelled and righteousness is restored. He has extended this confidence of abundance even to the blind and the lame. Even they receive the abundance of sight and the ability to walk. Lepers, once trapped in the scarcity of their disease and shame, are cleansed and returned to the company of men. The world has changed. Christ did not do these miracles in a world removed from the one we inhabit. It was blind and lame in the very midst of us and in this world who were healed. Thus it is with the same confidence that we proclaim the victory of His kingdom – in what we say and do.

What martyr disdained to live the abundance of this proclamation? What saint, in His poverty, declared God to be poor and this world to be bereft of its fullness? And yet our own confidence in the material machine of modernity (not in God) worry and are anxious about its limits. Modernity’s fullness has its limits for it is not the fullness of God but of man (and this as unredeemed). It offers a false promise. It’s fullness does not generally induce kindness and generosity but acquisition and envy.

True fullness will always beget generosity and kindness – it is a hallmark of the work of God. True fullness brought a cry of “the half of my goods I give to the poor” from the lips of the Publican Zachaeus. True fullness will always be marked by such cries – they are echoes of “Indeed, He is risen!”

How Do We Know God?

September 12, 2007

north-pole-moon2.jpg

How do we know God? The question is simple and straightforward – until we begin to answer it.

I have written lately much about icons, and particularly the Seventh Council’s contention that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This simple statement has such a richness of implication that it is hard to ask too much of it. It obviously means to say that there are ways we know God that are not confined to the words of Scripture. Not that icons are ever properly contradictory to Scripture – but present what they do in the manner that they do it is clear that we encounter God in ways that transcend the written word.

Icons, canonically, have something of a strict control about them. We can’t make icons just any way we want (though the pressures of the modern world have stretched this stricture to its limits). They have this strict control, I believe, not because of their weakness, but because of their power. Just as the written word has a tremendous power – and thus has its strictures as well – so images have their boundaries.

But the very revelatory character of images points to something beyond both Scripture and Icon – which is a ubiquity to God and His self-revelation. In simpler terms – God is everywhere and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It is important to note that the Church is not the sole dispenser of knowledge of God – and even as we dispense what we have, we do not have what is most key in the knowledge of God – we do not control the action of God. We cannot say to someone, “If you do this, then you will know God.” Were it so easy, so straightforward, seminary would likely be limited to one class, and all of our priests would seem wise. But such is not the case.

We we have been given is true and faithful and what we have we can share. But still each person must themselves encounter the true and living God in such a way that what has been made known to us in Tradition becomes true for them in an existential manner.

Of this none of us have control. To some great extent, even the person who is seeking to know God is not in control. We never truly know our own heart – and though convinced of one thing with regard to our heart – it is entirely possible for something else to be the case. The heart is mystery – even to ourselves – and outside of the clear light of God’s revelation we do not know even this most intimate thing about ourselves.

We add to this finally the fact that God Himself is free. He is not simply the Absolute and thus confined to His own attributes. In Orthodox understanding, we begin with God as person before we proceed to say anything else. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and His being (in a logical sense) rises from that act of communion. Thus God is “free” as philosophers would say, even of His own Substance. Thus I cannot predict God or tell someone else what they may do and how He will respond.

I can recall in my earliest Christian days making just such a promise. I knew very little and was simply a very zealous Jesus Freak. I recall in a personal encounter with someone making a specific promise about what God would do if they would do thus and such. The details of the story are not important at the moment. But I recall that as soon as I had uttered such a rash promise, I had a feeling that I had crossed a boundary that should have not been crossed. I had no theology to tell me so, only my inner sense of my relationship with God. Somehow, it seemed clear to me that I was not the senior partner in this relationship and my rashness had forgotten that fact.

I recall praying (under my breath) and asking forgiveness for my rashness and begging God not to hold it against the person with whom I was talking, or against me. The good God, apparently forgave me, and did what was asked, but I also knew it had been pure grace and an act of kindness – no necessity bound His action, least of all my promises in His name.

We know God as He makes Himself known to us. Within the life of the Church, having submitted our lives to Holy Tradition and the discipleship of Christ, it is possible to point to sacraments, to Scripture, to icons, to all the various things God has set forth that we may know Him. But outside of that life, there are no holds barred. God is not willing that any should perish and will make Himself known however He chooses – and no one can gainsay it. God is God.

But the Tradition would tell us quite the same thing.

What Do You See Outside Your Window – Evil in a One-Storey Universe

September 4, 2007

bethel.jpg

A question was put several days back about what would be said about “evil in a one-storey universe?” Of course, as I’ve thought about the question, my simplest conclusion is to wonder how one would give an account of evil in a two-storey universe. For it seems that those who have imagined the universe as a two-storey affair have largely confined evil here and proposed that the second-floor has been swept clean. Heaven above and earth below, and a basement yet to come where the evil will at least be confined in everlasting flames. Of course the multi-storey version of good and evil do nothing to solve the problem and do much to create a secular no-man’s land, increasingly populated with those who cannot believe in either a second-storey nor a basement and frequently see believers among the evil in this world (if only to complicate matters).

Of course, the two Biblical books that treat the imagery of spiritual warfare with the evil one in the most literal fashion, have Satan standing before God and holding converse about the long-suffering Job (in the book of the same name) and engaged in a “war in heaven” with St. Michael and the angels in the other (the Revelation of St. John). In neither account is the location of great significance, for the center of action in both books in not “heaven” but rather earth – with St. Job’s sufferings in the one, and the various plagues and misfortunes befalling the earth in the other. Indeed, if the drama of either book is examined, the “heavenly” scenes, are rather more like ante-rooms than an upper-storey.

But the question remains – what account do we give of evil if we speak of the universe in the language of a single storey? I am a believer and as such generally find the source of evil in the abuse of free will, whether of human beings or on the part of heavenly beings (the demonic). Nor do I see that account as different than the theological account to be found in the Fathers. What I bear witness to as a believer, however, is less an account of the origin of evil than to my faith that our universe, though caught in the throes of death and decay, has nevertheless been entered by its Creator, who having taken flesh of the Virgin, has entered into the very depths of death and decay – themselves the result of evil – and defeated them. And thus I see this one-storey world in which I live as the active stage upon which that same victory is being manifest. I cannot say in the least that I see that victory increasingly manifest – for the Christian account of the world is not an account of progress towards the Kingdom of God, but a witness to the fact that the Kingdom of God has entered our world and there is nothing we can do about it. We can, of course, repent, believe the Gospel, and by God’s grace come to know that Kingdom within our selves and within the world in which we live (all of which is the gift of God) but we will also know that Kingdom in the midst of this same storey, which continues to lie in darkness and to endure the presence and work of evil.

Of course, there is much conversation about the metaphysics of evil and the nature of hell and eternal punishment – and though I have recommended articles on the same that I find of value – I think that a large amount of Christian energy is wasted on such matters. For it is not the mastery of the metaphysics of the universe that makes any difference, but rather the embrace of the Gospel of Christ and obedience to His commandments. Those who point to the plenitude of evil around us will get little argument from me, other than to say that what appears to be a plenitude is a “kingdom” that cannot stand, and that it’s end will come. I received a post that got lost in the spam yesterday complaining of the evil within the world, and wondering how I could speak of “heaven on earth.” I cannot think of anywhere else to speak of it, since all I know of heaven its what came forth from the tomb at Pascha. That same resurrected Christ is now Head of His body, the Church, and I cannot know of how to speak of that Body if it is not heaven on earth (despite all that we sinners may drag within her) but all the sickness that enters the doors of a hospital do not make it less a place a healing – I cannot do other with the Body of Christ but bear witness to the very fact that it exists for nothing other than healing. The only weakness within the Church is when we “patients” forget why we came in its doors in the first place, and begin to imagine either that we are already healed, or worse, that someone has turned us into the medical staff.

But though the one-storey world as we know it is itself a cosmic war zone, I cannot lose hope when I know that the end of the battle has already been accomplished in the coming of Christ. I wait for its manifestation – but having known the risen Lord – I wait with hope and run the race with patience. What else are we supposed to do?

Christian Atheism

August 20, 2007

christ_comm_cup_kiev2.jpg

The title for this post sounds like an oxymoron, and, of course, it is. How can one be both an atheist and a Christian? Again, I am wanting to push the understanding of the one-versus-two-storey universe. In the history of religious thought, one of the closest versions to what I am describing as a “two-storey” world-view, is that espoused by classical Deism (the philosophy espoused by a number of the American founding fathers).

They had an almost pure, two-storey worldview. God, “the Deity,” had created the universe in the beginning, setting it in motion. He had done so in such a way that the world could be described as directed by His Providence, but not in any sense interfered with after its creation. Thomas Jefferson produced a New Testament, wholly in tune with this philosophy. He expunged all reference to miracle and kept only those things he considered to have a purpose in “moral teaching.” The creator had accomplished His work: it was up to us to conform ourselves to His purposes and morality – which were pretty indistinguishable from natural law. If you read the writings of the period it’s much more common to read Providence where a Christian might put God. Many modern evangelicals mistakenly read such statements as Christian.

Functionally, other than having some notion of an original Creator, Deists were practical atheists. The God Who created had completed His work. Ethics were as much a matter of scientific discovery as any other principle of physics. They believed in something they called “God” or “Providence” but only in a very divorced sense. It would be hard to distinguish their thought from that of an atheist except that they clung to an idea of God at least as the initiator of all things.

I have here introduced the notion of “practical atheism,” meaning by it, that although a person may espouse a belief in God, it is quite possible for that belief to be so removed from everyday life, that God’s non-existence would make little difference.

Surprisingly, I would place some forms of Christian fundamentalism within this category (as I have defined it). I recall a group affiliated with some particular Church of Christ, who regularly evangelized our apartment complex when I lived in Columbia, S.C. They were also a constant presence on the campus of the local university. They were absolute inerrantists on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. They were equally adamant that all miracles had ceased with the completion of the canon of the New Testament. Christians today only relate to God through the Bible.

Such a group can be called “Biblicists,” or something, but, in the terminology I am using here, I would describe them as “practical atheists.” Though they had great, even absolutist, faith in the Holy Scriptures, they had no relationship with a God who is living and active and directly involved in their world. Had their notion of a God died, and left somebody else in charge of His heaven, it would not have made much difference so long as the rules did not change.

I realize that this is strong criticism, but it is important for us to understand what is at stake. The more the secular world is exalted as secular, that is, having an existence somehow independent of God, the more we will live as practical atheists – perhaps practical atheists who pray (but for what do we pray?). I would also suggest that the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.

Christianity that has purged the Church of the sacraments, and of the sacramental, have only ideas which can be substituted – the result being the eradication of God from the world in all ways other than theoretical. Of course, since much of modern Christianity functions on this ideological level rather than the level of the God-Who-is among-us, much of Christianity functions in a mode of practical atheism. The more ideological the faith, the more likely its proponents are to expouse what amounts to a practical atheism.

Orthodox Christianity, with its wealth of dogma and Tradition, could easily be translated into this model – and I have encountered it in such a form. But it is a falsification of Orthodoxy. Sacraments must not be quasi-magical moments in which a carefully defined grace is transmitted to us – they must, instead, threaten to swallow up the whole world. The medieval limitation of sacraments to the number 7 comes far too close to removing sacraments from the world itself. Orthodoxy seems to have declared that there are 7 sacraments solely as a response to Western Reform and Catholic arguments. In some sense, everything is a sacrament – the whole world is a sacrament.

However, if we only say that the whole world is a sacrament, soon nothing will be a sacrament. Thus the sacraments recognized as such by the Church, should serve not just for pointing to themselves, but also pointing to God and to everything around us. Holy Baptism should change all water. The Cross should change all trees, etc. But Baptism gives the definition: water does not define Baptism. Neither do trees define the Cross. Nor does man define Christ. Christ defines what it is to be human, etc.

The more truly sacramental becomes the Christian life, the more thoroughly grounded it is in the God-Who-is-among-us. Such a God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Our options are between such a God – as proclaimed in the New Testament – or a God who need be no God at all for He is removed from us anyway.

At the Divine Liturgy, before approaching the Communion Cup, Orthodox Christians pray together:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ the Son of the living God who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. I believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood. Therefore, I pray Thee: have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, committed in knowledge or in ignorance. And make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, for the remission of my sins, and unto life everlasting. Amen.

There is not a single hint of a distance between us and God. At this point, having prepared for communion, having confessed our sins, we stand at the very center of the universe, before the God Who Is, before the God with Whom Moses conversed on Mt. Sinai, and we receive His true Body and Blood.

Such realism of a first-storey character makes bold claims about the nature of the God whom we worship and how it is that we relate to Him. It’s removal from the “end of miracles” deism of some Biblicists could not be more complete.

There is a dialog that may take place between Christians and atheists. But there is, prior to that, an even more important dialog to be had, and that is with the practical atheism of Christians who have exiled God from the world around us. Such practical atheism is a severe distortion of the Christian faith and an extremely poor substitute for the real thing.

Richard John Neuhaus has written frequently of returning the Church to the public square. I think the problem is far deeper. In many cases we have to speak about returning God to the Church. In cases where practical atheism is the faith of a goup of “believers,” their presence in the public square makes no difference. Who cares?

But within the Orthodox faith, God cannot be exiled from our world no matter how men try. He has come among us, and not at our invitation. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He is already in the Public Square as the Crucified God who is reconciling the world to Himself, whether we like it or not. The opposite of practical atheism is to do the only thing the Christianity of the first-storey can do: keep His commandments and fall down and worship – for God is with us.