Archive for the ‘knowledge of God’ Category

Looking Like Christmas

December 5, 2011

One of the most striking features of the Gospels is the frequent response of the Disciples after the resurrection of Christ: doubt. I have always been sympathetic to the doubts and hesitations that accompanied their ministry during the ministry of Christ. They are almost endearing in their inability to grasp what Christ is all about. However, the same inability to grasp things after the resurrection seems to carry with it all kinds of difficulties. What was it about the resurrection that they could not or did not believe? A man dies and is buried. Then he is not buried and is not simply a resusitated man, but manifests and entirely new form of existence. Call it resurrection or what have you – but apparently Christ had mentioned this coming reality more than once before it happened. What was the problem for the disciples?

The problem seems to go to the very heart of things both then and now. Had the resurrection belonged to the classification of events that everyone can see, measure, study, reach “scientific” agreement about, there would surely have been no trouble. But the resurrection does not belong to some general classification. It is sui generis, its own classification.  There are many who want to speak about the resurrection as if it were a car wreck down at the corner drugstore. Whatever it was (is) it is very much more, even, indeed, something completely different – not like anything else.

And it is here, that the continuing problem of vision is made manifest. Orthodox Christian writers are wont to utter things like, “God will save the world through beauty” (Dostoevsky), or “Icons will save the world” (recently in First Things) all of which makes some people want to run away. But at their heart, such statements are trying to say something about the nature of the resurrection and its action in our world.

The resurrection of Christ is something completely new. It is a manifestation of God unlike anything we have ever known. It is Truth made manifest in the flesh – not the truth to be found in an average living man. I am 58 and I look very unlike what I did at 10. I look decidedly unlike what I will in another 100 years (you probably wouldn’t like to see that). Thus we never normally see anything in an eternal state. But the resurrection is just that. It does not belong exactly to the classification of “things created,” for it is the “uncreated” before our eyes.

And thus the Church paints the things that pertain to the resurrection in an iconic fashion – not like portraiture or the “truth” that lies before our eyes. Icons paint the Truth in a manner that intends to point to the resurrection. By the same token, the Church does not write about the resurrection in the way we write about other things, for the resurrection is not one of the other things but a thing that is unlike anything else. Thus the Fathers of the Church said that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

And both have something to do with vision. The Gospel tells us: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I am not pure in heart but I think I may have encountered such a person. At the least I have read stories about such a person and I know that such persons see what I cannot and they see in a manner that as yet I do not.

But this goes to the point of salvation. Salvation is not how to get people like me (or like you) into some place safe from the fires of hell. That is a transportation problem at best, or a legal problem, at worst. The point of salvation is how to change people like me (and you). It is about changing us such that seeing the resurrection becomes possible.

In this sense, God will indeed save the world through Beauty. The problem is that so few if any of us have ever seen Beauty. If you had seen Beauty, then you would not disagree with the statement. It’s obvious character would be, well, obvious. That people want to argue with it (or with icons) only means that they do not or cannot see. And neither do I, most of the time.

If I could see as I am meant to see then my eyes would not see enemies nor the like. Not that others might not intend to be my enemies or want evil for me – but there are eyes that see beyond all of that and see the Truth of a person. Had I the eyes to see, love would not be an insurmountable problem but as tangible as the Resurrection itself.

And so we draw ever nearer to the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity. Every heart should prepare Him room. More than that, every heart should beg to see the Beauty, to read the Icon of the Gospel of the Nativity, to see what daily escapes our vision and leaves us blind – leading the blind.

The Benefits of Ignorance

August 15, 2011

I have had conversations in recent comments sections on the role of reason in the Orthodox life. I readily acknowledge that no one lives without some use of reason – but I contend that most of what forms the content of our life in Christ is not reason. The faith does have to contend with attacks and challenges from many arenas – and yet its success will not be established by the superiority of its arguments, but by faith in Christ. Arguments are often unfruitful in “reasonable” exchanges, for the form of Orthodox reason often differs from the form reason takes in many places. Alisdair MacIntyre has, to my mind, firmly established the growing incommensurable character of the many “rationalities” of our culture. Orthodoxy speaks itself most properly when it speaks “as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). This difficult apologetic requires that deep speak to deep. It is a very difficult discipline, but it saves both the speaker and the hearer, whereas argument may destroy them both. This article is a reprint, with small changes, on a theme I have addressed a number of times.


Of course, I have to begin this post with the acknowledgement that I am an ignorant man.

Having gotten that out of the way, I want to spend just a few moments on the benefits of ignorance. Several years ago I was blessed to have a conversation with Fr. Thomas Hopko while we waited in line to greet the new Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. Fr. Thomas is the retired Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.  He has taught a generation of priests.

Our conversation turned to writing. My comment came from my reflection on the experience of writing this blog. I noted that the more I write, the less I seem to know. Part of this realization flows from the fact that I try to restrict my writing to those topics of which I have some knowledge (experience). His smiling response came immediately: “Someday you won’t know anything and then you’ll be holy!”

It was not entirely spoken in jest. There are many forms of knowledge – or many kinds of knowing which our limited language describes as “knowledge.” For Christians the most dangerous form of knowledge is that which we simply acquire through reading and study. It is largely just information. Of course, if you have enough information you can manage the illusion of actual knowledge.

I know a lot of numbers, but I am not a mathematician. I have met mathematicians. Most of what they know is not about numbers – strangely.

There is no great sin in ignorance – or at least there is far less sin in ignorance than in knowledge. The simple truth is that we will not know anything of value until we first know that we do not know. In the competitive world of American Christianity, this is hard. It is not hard for ignorant people to argue – but it is very hard to argue while at the same time admitting that you are ignorant.

This ignorant man has spent a lot of years acquiring “knowledge” (falsely so-called). Knowledge of the sort that is readily available is not at all the same thing as knowing God – the only knowledge that has worth (though every true form of knowledge flows from that single knowledge). Somewhere in the course of my life I came to the place of spiritual exhaustion – I wanted to know God badly enough that I didn’t want to know something else in His place. So I became an ignorant man.

Today I know very few things. And though I write almost every day – if you go back and read what I have written you will see that I know very little. I say many of the same things to different questions, for they are the answers I know.

Thus when I wrote a while back that I had never seen a case of righteous anger – I did not mean to say there was no such thing, only that I’ve not seen it in 57  years of life. I have seen anger that would seem well justified (the anger a husband has over the senseless murder of his wife). But I have seen the same anger kill the man who bore it.

I was born into an angry world. “Jim Crow” South was full of anger. Whites were angry at Blacks and Blacks were angry at Whites. We were angry at Communism. We were angry about the Civil War. We were angry at poverty (especially our own). Others were angry at those who were angry and the injustice of the entire system.

I remember an Abbot, a friend now deceased, who said that after the Vietnam War many young people came to the monastery – “They were so angry about peace,” he observed.

I served as an Anglican priest while the Episcopal Church inexorably jettisoned its traditional doctrine. I was consumed with anger. My anger did not save that Church and did me (and likely many others) great harm.

It is not just anger that works in such a fashion. Any of the passions could be chosen. An ignorant man is frequently on the losing end of battles with the passions. It is therefore important for an ignorant man to be aware of his ignorance. Can such an ignorant man argue theology? Not to any benefit.

The great good news is that Christ came to save ignorant men. We are easier to save if we admit our ignorance up front. Our opinions are so much dead weight. I know very little of God. I know that He is good – beyond any grasp of my knowing. I know that He loves in the unfathomable measure of the good God entering Hell in order to bring us out.

I have been in several versions of hell and rescued numerous times. Ignorant men are always getting themselves into stupid, dark places.

That God is good, that He loves us without measure, that He will go to any lengths to rescue us – I know a little about these things, though even of these things I am mostly ignorant. But I will not tire of speaking this good news. Ignorant men everywhere may be glad to hear it.

Escape from Reason

August 8, 2011

Francis Schaeffer, the Evangelical Protestant theologian, authored a book by the title Escape from Reason. He argued that modernity could only find a solid ground within a world grounded in the inerrancy of Scripture. This article does not engage Schaeffer’s work. Instead, it suggests that “Reason,” as popularly understood is a distortion of the proper Christian use of the word.

Reason has played an off-again, on-again role in Christian theology. St. John’s use of the word Logos [which can be translated, “reason”] as a term for the the Second Person of the Trinity (John 1:1), gave rise to easy connections between the reasonableness, or logicity, of the universe. This connection between the Logos and Reason, was used both to speak of the reasonableness of the universe as evidence of the truth of God’s existence, as well as basis for so-called “natural theology”: if all things are created through Christ the Logos, then it would seem possible to work from “all that is created” towards a full theological account of the world.

In the hands of the masters of the Enlightenment and their “enlightened successors,” Reason became the arbiter of all truth. For some, this Reason maintained a connection to Christ the Logos. For others, Christ the Logos seemed too irrational, and Reason became the only and independent basis for understanding all things.

My suggestions in this post will be that Christians have long been misled by the terminology of Logos/logos and have turned the equation upside-down, coming to precisely the wrong conclusions. I am venturing to the edge of Orthodox thought in saying this, but hope I do not cross boundaries and speak contrary to the Tradition.

St. John teaches us that “in the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, the Logos was God. All things were created through Him (the Logos) and nothing was created apart from Him.”

It is important to note that the Logos of whom St. John speaks, is not an abstract principle. He is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – God who becomes incarnate – the God/Man, Jesus Christ. It is a matter of the Christian faith to understand that everything which exists has a unique logicity – but this is not the same thing as saying that everything which exists has a reason-based existence. It would be more accurate and revealing to say that everything that exists has a Christic basis. Everything that exists echoes the existence of Christ and longs to join the song of His praise.

Such language sounds like “mere poetry” to the modern ear, but the witness of the fathers hears far more. The witness is to a knowledge of the reality of creation – or of the “true reality” of creation known within the experience of the Church. Not all who see are able to see all that is. But those who do, bear witness to the logoi of created things – which reflect, not their “rational” structure, but their structure within the light of Christ.

By such knowledge, the miracle of the calming of the sea of Galillee seems not so strange, nor the multiplication of loaves. Many of the wonders of the sanctified life which  confound both scholar and layman, offer wonder and joy to the blessed, but no hint of confusion nor misunderstanding. The mystery of such miracles is consistent with the logoi and the Logos, but without any inherent relationship to an abstract which we term reason.

To say that all things have a “Christic” or “logistic” character explains how it is that Christ will “gather together into one all things” (Ephesians 1:10). This gives us a basis in Christ for the understanding of all things, but it does not establish a “reason” (or logos) independent of Christ. Those who speak of the use of “reason” in the interpretation of Scripture, as though the study of Scripture were a science, do not understand the nature of the Logos (and thus of true reason).

It may be true that there is a shadow of the true Logos to be found within modernity’s notion of Reason – but such a shadow cannot be interpreted without reference to the Logos Himself, nor can Reason be understood as some natural reality that stands on its own.

All things have their reason and their being in Christ. Apart from Him, we know nothing. When Christianity speaks of human beings as rational creatures, we are not making an assertion regarding their use of intelligence or logic. A human being who is mentally handicapped, even in the most extreme degree, is still “rational” in the sense the word is used by Christian Tradition. Such a human being is created in the image of the Logos, in a manner that is unique to humanity.

The rationality of the universe, in Christian usage, should be a reference to the universe’s relationship to the Logos, and not an elevation of an independent concept of rationality. The universe is indeed rational, but you have to know the Logos in order to know that.

The Mount of Transfiguration and the Bridal Chamber of Christ

August 3, 2011

There is a propensity in our modern world to break things down – to analyze. We have gained a certain mastery over many things by analyzing the various components of their structure and manipulating what we find. It has become the default position for modern thought. This power of analysis, however, is weakened by its very success. Frequently the truth of something lies not in the summary of its parts but in the wonder of the whole.

This is certainly the case with the Christian faith. It is not uncommon for theology to be addressed under various headings: Christology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, etc. It makes for an impresive array of titles on a seminary faculty listing. The problem, however, is that theology ultimately seeks to describe or state one thing (or it should). That one thing, however, is so large that it cannot be spoken with ease. The fullness of the faith is not revealed in the analysis of various constituent elements, but in the slow (and sometimes sudden) apprehension of the whole.

If I had to use a single word to describe the one thing that is “everything” it would be Pascha (in its fullness). I cannot think of any part of the Christian life or revelation that is not gathered into the fullness of Pascha. It is one of the reasons that the liturgical celebration of Pascha is as utterly overwhelming in its Orthodox expression.

Liturgy has a grammar, a way of speaking and revealing truth. This grammar does things that cannot be done as easily in discursive theological writing. I have written about this previously.

For one, Orthodox liturgical practice has a habit of bringing elements of the Christian story together that are frequently kept apart – particularly in our modern compartmentalized approach to the faith. There are “theological rhythms” within the Orthodox cycle of services. Each of the seven days of the week has a particular assigned theme (Mondays for the Angels, Tuesdays for St. John the Baptist, etc.). Every day on the calendar has one or more (usually many more) saints whose memory is kept on that day. There is also the cycle of feasts that depend on the date of Pascha, and others that are determined according to a fixed date.

These cycles are always meeting each other and bringing their own elements and insights into the service. Thus those who come to worship are never “just doing one thing” but are always presented with “several things.” And, greater than that, everything is brought together as a “whole” and not just a collection of parts. The “one thing” is seen at every service, even if one facet shines brighter than others.

August 6 marks the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ (this Saturday on the New Calendar). The Church remembers His transfigured appearance before the disciples on Mt. Tabor, with Moses and Elijah appearing with Him. The material used in the liturgical celebration of the feast looks at this event from almost every conceivable angle. One of those angles caught me by surprise the first time I encountered it. – it was occasioned by the normal confluence of liturgical structure – but gave me an image that left me speechless in wonder.

It came at Matins on the day before Transfiguration (known as the Forefeast). During Matins each day, there is the reading of “the canon.” This is a hymn that follows a particular poetic structure. It consists of nine odes, each of which takes its inner meditation from one of the nine traditional Biblical canticles of the Old Testament (such as the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15:1 and following). The sixth ode is always a reflection on the hymn within the book of Jonah (whose three days in the whale is always seen as a “type” of Christ’s three days in the belly of the earth).

This is the verse that struck me:

Making ready for His friends a Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come, Christ ascendeth the mountain, leading them up from life below to the life of heaven.

I have generally viewed the Transfiguration in its own “compartment.” I have extended that consideration to include reflection on the Palamite doctrine of the Divine Energies, since St. Gregory Palamas used the image of the Light of the  Transfiguration for much of his theological understanding. But I had never made the leap to Pascha (to which belongs the image of the Bridal Chamber).

I found myself speechless. The idea was too full. The image of the bridal chamber and its affinity with Pascha is rich, in and of itself. The Church looks forward to the “marriage feast of the Lamb,” an image used for the close of the age and the fulfilling of all things. Pascha is that close and that fulfilling even though it also occurs at a particular moment in history in 33 A.D. The death and resurrection of Christ is the marriage of heaven and earth, the union of God and man, the fulfillment of all things. Having revealed to His disciples the “Bridal Chamber” (as far as they could bear to see it), He then begins to speak to them of His coming resurrection and His sufferings in Jerusalem

The Transfiguration is also the Bridal Chamber (and is described in many other ways as well). It is a glimpse, (out of sequence in a place where sequence has no place), of the fullness of Divinity. Christ appears with Elijah and Moses, the living and the dead, the prophets and the law, and speaks with them concerning His Pascha. And this happens in the context of the Divine Light – a brightness that was beyond the disciples’ ability to bear.

Our faith itself should have this quality of fullness about it – something that is greater than our ability to bear. Our compartmentalization of the world and our faith reduce both to bearable levels – but then we fail to live or to believe. Understanding begins with wonder – and wonder requires something beyond our normal limits. The Transfiguration is an invitation to the Bridal Chamber – the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in the depths of Pascha. Shame on us if we compartmentalize the event in a meditation on the Divine Light. The Light shines in the darkness for a reason, and for a reason the darkness does not comprehend it.

May Christ carry each of us into the Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come – and bring us up from the life below to the life of heaven in the wonder of His Pascha!


I beg pardon of my readers. I will be in Dallas for a few days and cannot predict my access to my computer for managing and answering comments. May God give you all the joy of the feast!

In the Grasp of Wonder

July 16, 2009

Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.

St. Gregory of Nyssa

St_gregSt. Gregory of Nyssa’s marvelous dictum is among a handful of things that describe what is required for the Christian life. So much of Christian history has been marked with a bifurcation – a split between those who study the faith and those who live it. It is not a necessary split – only a common one. Of course there is the larger number of Christians who do neither.

But wonder is an essential attitude of heart – without it – we will see nothing as it truly is.

The Scriptures tell us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” – which also means that other human beings should be approached with awe and wonder. We will not see them nor love them as we ought if our heart is dwelling in some other mode.

I posted recently a passage from the writings of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos on humility – around which, he taught, wages the whole of the spiritual battle. I suspect that wonder is a necessary part of humility. For humility is found not so much in thinking little of myself as in thinking more of everything and everyone else. Humility will flourish in a heart of wonder.

I tend to see wonder in two particular places – in children and in those of older years. My own children have always been a revelation of the world about me – a chance to see the world as though for the first time. To watch the wonder of a child beset with the jaded cynicism of our culture is surely to see one of the most crucial battles of our age. Cynicism is generally always correct for it lacks the wonder the alone would reveal its error.

The wonder of older years has been something of a new revelation for me – if only because I barely qualify for “older years.” I will turn 56 later this year. But I have been around long enough to see my last child through high school and now preparing to enter college. I have been blessed with nearly 34 years of marriage. With those years comes an increasing sense of wonder at how things have worked together to be what they are. I am less impressed with my choices and the power to choose. Rather I am overwhelmed at the good that has come to me that I did not know to choose (and it came unbidden).

The are many delusions in life – many of them are about ourselves, other people and the nature of things. Wonder sets a guard about the heart that – along with other things – provides a hedge against delusion. Wonder may recognize what we do know, but always brackets such knowledge with the realization of what we do not know.

I am occasionally upbraided by some of my non-Orthodox friends for becoming a part of a Church “that thinks it has all the answers.” This is a mistaken view of Orthodoxy. The certainty established by the dogmas of the faith and the discipline of the canons are not meant to create in the Orthodox mind the hardness of flint. They describe the boundaries given us by Christ and set before us the markers of a pilgrim’s journey.

But the life of the Orthodox faith is one that is rightly lived in wonder. To confess God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not to say that I have now “comprehended,” but to confess Him who is beyond our comprehension and who, wonder of wonders, condescended to make Himself known in the incarnation of the Son of God.

One of my favorite sayings a statement I’ve heard often from Fr. Thomas Hopko, the Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary: “You can’t know God. But you have to know Him to know that.”

It is a wonderful thing to say and expresses so much of the Orthodox way of life.

In a conversation with him last autumn, I told him that the more I write, the less I know. His response was to the point: “Keep writing. Someday you’ll know nothing. Then you’ll be holy.” Wouldn’t that be a wonder!

Rightly Reading

July 1, 2009

isaac1This is a reprint from last October.

The course of your reading should be parallel to the aim of your way of life…. Most books that contain instructions in doctrine are not useful for purification. The reading of many diverse books brings distraction of mind down on you. Know, then, that not every book that teaches about religion is useful for the purification of the consciousness and the concentration of the thoughts.

St. Isaac of Syria quoted in The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrianby Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev

I believe that it was Stanley Hauerwas who once commented in a class I was taking that among some Jewish groups, a man was not allowed to read the book of Ezekiel until he was over 40. The idea behind that prohibition is similar to that offered above by St. Isaac.

In our democratic culture, we find it offensive that anyone should be forbidden to read anything. I would only point to the spiritual abuse found on any number of “Orthodox” websites in which serious matters, originally written for monastics or for the guidance of clergy are tossed about for even the non-Orthodox to read. As if the canons of the Church were meant for mass consumption!

Parents who care about the health of their children usually follow some regimen in the course of their young lives when it comes to feeding them. “Milk and not stong meat” is the Scriptural admonition for those who are young in the faith.

St. James offers this warning:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness(3:1).

And St. Peter’s Second Epistle offers this:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (15-16).

It’s not that Scripture or Canons or books of doctrine are to be avoided or forbidden to those beneath a certain age, but rather that we should learn to read with wisdom in an effort to grow spiritually and not in an effort simply to gain knowledge of a questionable sort.

St. Isaac’s observation is that we give attention first to “purification of the consciousness and concentration of thoughts.” By such phrases he refers primarily to the daily regimen of what we read and how we pray (as well as fasting and repentance) towards the goal of overcoming the passions. Only someone who is not himself ruled by the passions is ready to safely guide someone else beyond those same rocks. Anger and condemnation, pride and superiority are marks of the passions and cannot read the Scriptures and the Traditions rightly, nor offer them to others without doing harm. The same can be said about most argumentation.

Again, this is not to say that we should not be regular in our reading of Scripture. But we do well to consider how we read it. To read or sing the psalms is an effort which is a sweet sacrifice of praise to God. If we have difficulty with what we read, then ask questions. The reading of the Gospels, even on a daily basis, is a common devotional activity, properly, in an effort to draw closer to Christ. Reading the daily readings appointed for the Church (most Orthodox calendars have these) is also salutary, even if there are things that we don’t always understand.

Other things should be read with some guidance. There’s nothing wrong with asking your priest the question, “Is this good for me to read at this point?” I’ve seen many people take up the Philokalia with glee (usually after reading The Way of a Pilgrim) only to be disappointed when they find that it is boring and frequently incomprehensible. The same can be said of many of the writings of the Fathers. Taking these things up at the wrong time can leave us with a false impression and lack of proper respect for what we have just put down in frustration.

I generally suggest to people that they read devotionally, with some other things (possibly in the context of a group study) as well. And we should read sparingly – only taking in what we can digest. Many books that I read – I take in only a few pages a day.

Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment (God save us from the pundits!). Dilettantism plagues us. If we want to be Christians, we must start with the small things and the practices that make for proper discipleship and “let not many of us become teachers.” Let many of us become those who pray, who fast, who repent, who forgive even their enemies and through the grace of God come to know the stillness within which God may be known.

I readily confess again in my writing that I am an ignorant man. I know very little. But this is the heart of my writing – to urge others to come to know very little. It is so much better than knowing nothing.

You Are Not A Bible Character

June 28, 2009

KingDavidTripleHarpEvents which receive more than their share of news coverage are not my favorite topics for blog posts. However, this past week’s revelations of yet another politician’s infidelity offered one aspect worthy of comment (or so it seems to me). That is the use of the Bible as a means for reflecting on one’s personal situation in life.

There is a long history of just such usage. The pilgrim fathers who came to America read their situation into the Bible (or the Bible into their situation) with the result that white pilgrims were seen as fulfilling the role of the Israelites in this, the Promised Land, while native Americans were cast in the role of Canaanites. Thus generations of Joshuas arose feeling Biblically justified in the genocide of America’s native population. Some of that Biblical reading continues to echo in the popular imagination to this day. It was Bad theology in the 17th century and it is bad theology today. Stated in a fundamental way: you are not a Bible character.

This past week saw a sitting governor confessing his infidelity, choosing to stay in office, and reflecting out loud to his cabinet members about the story of King David. King David was, of course, guilty of adultery (and in the Biblical account it cost him the life of his child). It is a story of great repentance and internal suffering as well as the mercy of God.

But it is not a pattern story to which individuals are invited for their own comparisons.

The Old Testament is authoritative Scripture for Christians and has a history of interpretation by the Church. Largely, that interpretation is typological in character – its stories are seen as types and foreshadowings of the truth to be revealed in Christ Jesus. Thus Christ is the “second Adam,” and the opening chapters of Genesis are best read with that interpretive fact in mind. Had the pilgrims read the Old Testament correctly (in the light of the new) they might very well have applied the story of the Promised Land, but only as the Kingdom of God to which they might have gently offered as servants of those to whom they preached. The story does not bless a Christian to violate the commandment: thou shalt not kill. Holy war is foreign to Christianity and is heresy plain and simple where it is preached.

Some years ago I recall the story of an Episcopal priest who abandoned his vocation with a great flourish during the course of a Sunday service. The confusing detail for many was his explanation: he saw himself as Jonah – his Church as the sinking ship. The only way to save the sinking ship was to throw Jonah overboard. It seems not unlikely that whatever was the case, he needed to resign his position. But the story of Jonah is not about throwing priests overboard to save “sinking” congregations. It has a different meaning. It is better for a priest with a problem to seek help and repentance and not Biblical drama. The drama is delusion.

The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it simply has no controlling story. Nothing tells us which story to use other than our own imagination (which is generally a deluded part of our mind). A governor gets to play King David, and, surprise, he should be forgiven and not resign his office. A group of white settlers get to play conquering Israelites and feel no compunction about murdering men, women and children. A priest, likely in need of therapy, plays the role of Jonah before a crowd who has no idea they are in a play. The gospel is not preached – souls are not saved – the Bible is simply brought into ridicule.

For all of us – Scripture is relevant. However, its relevance should not come as a personal revelation that tells us which character we are within its pages. Such games seem frightfully like the games on Facebook: “Which ancient civilization are you?” or some such nonsense.

You are not a Bible character – other than the one indicated in the New Testament – those who have put their faith in Christ and trusted him for their salvation. Our conversion experiences are whatever they may have been – but the Damascus Road conversion of St. Paul is not required of any but St. Paul.

The behavior of pilgrims, priests and governors should be guided by the same moral teaching that applies to all Christians. There are no special circumstances that, as Bible characters, exempt us from the repentance and responsibility required of all. The words of Christ addressed to each and everyone are the same: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” If such repentance should cost us a political office or even a continent – so be it. This is the character we were meant to be.

St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice

June 16, 2009

IsaacTheSyrian-headerThere is a strain within some forms of Western theology that is deeply concerned with the “justice” of God. Some even go so far as to say that God is constrained by His justice – that He cannot deny its demands (to do so, they argue, would make Him “less than just”). It is common for Orthodox theology to find this problematic. Here St. Isaac of Syria states the case quite clearly:

Mercy and justice in the same soul is like the man who worships God and idols in the same temple. Mercy is in contradiction with justice. Justice is the return of the equal. Because it returns to man that which he deserves and it does not bend to one side neither is it partial in the retaliation. But mercy is sorrow that is moved by grace and bends to all with sympathy and it does not return the harm to him who deserves it although it overfills him who deserves good. … And as it is not possible for hay and fire to be able to exist in the same house, the same way it is not possible for justice and mercy to be in the same soul. As the grain of sand cannot be compared with a great amount of gold – the same way God’s need for justice cannot be compared with his mercy. Because man’s sin, in comparison to the providence and the mercy of God, are like a handful of sand that falls in the sea and the Creator’s mercy cannot be defeated by the wickedness of the creatures.

I understand that many have a passion for the justice of God – believing that in the end everyone will be requited in the proper manner and this “balancing” will somehow make right all of the evil that may have been tolerated for a while. There is no doubt that many times our evil actions bring evil consequences on us (not as punishment from God but as our own self-willed estrangement from His Divine Life). But the vision of the Fathers and the vision of Christ’s revelation of the Father as received in the Church is of the infinite mercy of God. 

Abba Ammonas states:

Love is not in enmity with anybody, it does not abuse anybody, it does not detest anybody neither believer nor unbeliever or foreigner or fornicator, or unclean. On the contrary it loves more the sinners and the weak and the negligent and for their sake it toils and mourns and weeps. It empathizes with the wicked and the sinners more than it does with the good, imitating and drinking with them. Therefore when He wanted to show us which is the true love he taught saying ‘be then compassionate as your Father is compassionate'(Luke 6:36) and as he sends his rain on the good and the wicked and makes His sun rise on the honest and the dishonest, the same way he who truly loves, loves everybody and has compassion for all and prays for all.

This sort of discourse can provoke anger in some readers – particularly those who demand that justice must, in the end, be done. I cannot help but feel that those who demand justice of God are like those who stood about the woman taken in adultery and demanded her stoning. Christ rebuked them, seeking to show them the sin in their own heart (“he who is without sin let him cast the first stone). By a strange quirk of Christian theology, there are those who feel “righteous” in their own heart, arguing that, having accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, they now have the righteousness of Christ (“imputed righteousness”) and thus feel safe in calling for justice to be done to others (thinking, I suppose, that this threat will provoke repentance). But justice is a very dangerous thing indeed. Though it may be called for in the interest of provoking someone to repentance, it can quickly become a thing in itself, and gather us up into the company of those who are outwardly righteous but inwardly “full of dead men’s bones.”

Spiritually, it is of far greater benefit and safety to simply beg the mercy of God for those who are trapped in sin, and see and treat them with the mercy of God. We are commanded to love even our enemies. I can think of no commandment that says we are to judge the unrighteous. 

By the same token, I think it becomes theologically dangerous for us to project this judgment onto God who has shown us His mercy in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” This unbounded love of God is limited only by theologians who seek to set requirements on the reception of the love of God. Let them return to His mercy and first determine where it ends before they suggest the beginning of something else.

We Have Seen

June 11, 2009

DSCF0321St. John, in the prologue of his gospel, says the following:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1:14).

In his first Epistle he says the following:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship [koinonia: communion] with us; and our fellowship [koinonia: communion] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

In a very similar vein, one of the hymns for Pentecost Sunday proclaims:

We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.

This same hymn is sung every Sunday as part of the Divine Liturgy.

All of these share in common a similar theme – our witness of Christ is not a testimony to an idea or to a theory about an idea or story. The witness of the Church is rooted in our experiential knowledge of God. St. John does confine himself in his prologue to the mere “literal” witness of “the tomb was empty.” This, of course, is part of the witness. But the greater witness is to the communion with God found in knowing the risen Christ. “The word of life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us…” The risen Christ is known not only as the one raised from the dead, but is understood as the “word of life…the eternal life which was with the Father.”

This understanding transcends the “bare facts” of a newspaper account – indeed the witness of Scripture is that the one who was raised from the dead is none other than the Word of Life, Eternal Life with the Father. This realization is contained in the confession of faith of every Christian: “Jesus is Lord.”

All theology finds its proper root in this true knowledge of God. It should never be mere speculation based on a rational system of thought – but rather the unfolding of the mystery made known to us in the risen Christ. The hunger for this true knowledge of God is the very core of the Christian life: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

The safeguarding of saving knowledge (true participation in the life of God) is the purpose of all doctrine. Every dogmatic statement of the Church has as its sole purpose the safeguarding of true participation in the life of God. Dogma is not an argument over ideas, but a statement that guards the Apostolic witness (which is living and true).

I ran across the following story from the Desert Fathers (in the parish newsletter, The Light, of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Wesbster, MA, edited by Fr. Luke Veronis – my thanks):

There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who asked one of the holy men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city.

The old monk responded:

“Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit but the chase went on into the night.

After a little while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt.”

“Do you understand,” the old man siad, “what I have told you?”

“No,” replied the young monk, “please tell me, father.”

“It is simple,” said the desert father, “my dog saw the rabbit!”



Living on the First Floor

June 10, 2009

DSC_0270I am currently working on a small book that gathers many of my thoughts on the metaphor of the “one-storey universe.” Readers of this blog should be well familiar with the image. I cannot claim to be its originator – I can think of several sources that first suggested this way of explaining things. It is a verbal effort to share a visual and kinesthetic experience. I think that much of my public ministry (in speaking or writing) is an effort to find ways to say things to contemporary Americans (and others) that can make the life of faith possible. It seems clear to me that a wholesale adoption of the vision of the world as offered by our culture is little more than an agreement with death. The gospel necessarily involves the giving of sight to the blind.

I have been fascinated by artists for most of my life. I can think of any number of such gifted persons who have been important in my life. Their importance for me was this strange ability (I call it “strange” because it is not native to me) to see things that others cannot see or to see things in ways that others do not. The thought that two people can look out at the same scene and see something different fascinates me. I can understand that we all see different emphases – different parts of the puzzle. But I mean something much stronger than that. Often the artist relates to what he/she sees in a different manner. Colors manifest themselves in different ways. Relations between objects appear that others do not see.

I see something of the same thing in the stories of saints (particularly those of the Orthodox with whose stories I am most familiar). They walk in the same world in which I walk, and yet it is clear that they do not see the world as I do (most of the time). Saints are not people inhabiting the same space that I inhabit and yet looking away to a world about which they have been told. They are not “heavenly minded” in this sense of heavenly absence, a world that belongs somewhere else. They clearly perceive heaven among us, within us.

A reading of the gospels quickly reveals a Christ who sees and knows something about the world that others around Him either do not see, will not see, or do not understand. He is a walking Jubilee Year (when all debts are cancelled under the law of the Torah). He is the age to come, already walking among men. Around Him, the lame walk, the blind see, prisoners are set free. In the cities of “Roman-controlled” Galilee and Judaea He is not controlled. His Kingdom pours into the lives of those around Him. A crooked tax-collector suddenly proclaims that he will restore four-fold what He has taken from others – a simple response to Christ’s entrance into his home. He surely saw the world in a manner radically different before and after such a rash statement. There is no other explanation.

For me, a key to the vision of the Kingdom of God begins with refusing to allow the Kingdom to be removed from our midst, to be shuttled off the planet and placed somewhere yet to be or open only to those who have died. If Christ has come and accomplished what we are taught in the Gospels, then the world is already different than it commonly appears. To see what has come among us requires that the proper light shine on everything before us.

My experience as an Orthodox priest has been to be frequently plunged into a different light. Words and stories, music and actions are all set beside one another in a way I have never seen before. It is a liturgical combination whose purpose is to reveal the Kingdom of God. It reveals the Kingdom that we might learn to sing the song that belongs to that presence. In other words – it reveals the Kingdom of God that we might learn to worship. I have come to believe that we exist to worship God.

Along with other Orthodox Christians across the world, I have just completed the Paschal cycle – beginning with the pre-Lenten Sundays, through the 40 days of Lent, Holy Week, through Pascha itself, and on to the completion found in the feast of Pentecost. How can I describe an experience that stretches over 100 days, all of which reveal the truth of Christ’s Pascha? It cannot be described – else the Church would have a description instead of 100+ days of liturgically ordered activities.

But I can say something about what I have experienced. The language I have found for this revelation is that Christianity belongs in a one-storey universe. God is here. In the words of the Pentecost liturgy: “He is everywhere present and filling all things.”

I am not an artist – I cannot quite do with words what others do with colors. A single icon speaks with an eloquence that remains beyond my reach. But God is the great Artist. He has so colored our world that, in the Light of Christ, we can see and know heaven among us. As heaven appears – then we begin to see others as persons to be loved rather than objects to be used. We see trees and all of creation as belonging to the same choir as we ourselves. We begin to hear a song that will never end. God give us grace to see and to sing.

A blessed Pentecost to all.