Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

The Creation and the Christian

November 11, 2008

ware_bishop_kallistos

This week I am in Pittsburgh for the All American Council of the Orthodox Church in America. We have many difficult things to deal with and I ask your prayers. I will try to work with the blog as I have time. Today I offer some thoughts of Met. Kallistos Ware, who led the pilgrimage I recently made to the Holy Land. His thoughts are on creation and our Christian relationship to the world around us. He offered a small book (The Beginning of the Day) to the pilgrims on our last night – which contained this small meditation, and quite a bit more. I share it with gratitude to God.

The  Cosmic Christ

Before I end my reflections upon the Orthodox vision of creation – upon the bonds that unite us with the animals in a single ‘earth community’ – I ask you to recall with me how every part of the created order played a part in the story of Christ’s life and death:

  • a star appeared at His birth (Matt. 2:9-10);
  • an ox and and ass stood beside His crib as He lay in swaddling clothes (cf. Isa. 1:30)\
  • during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness He was with the wild beasts ( Mark 1:13);
  • repeatedly He spoke of Himself as a shepherd, and of His disciples as sheep (Luke 15:3-7; Matt. 18:10-14; John 10-1-16);
  • He likened His love for Jerusalem to the maternal love of a hen for her chickens (Matt. 23:37);
  • He taught that every sparrow is precious in the sight of God the Father (Matt. 10:29);
  • He illustrated His parables with references to the lilies (Matt. 6:28-30), to the mustard bush full of nesting birds (Mark 4:32);, to a domestic animal that has fallen into a pit on the Sabbath day (Matt. 12:11);
  • He urged us to show reptilian subtlety and avian guilelessness: ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matt.l 10:16);
  • as Lord of creation, He stillled the storm (Mark 4:35-41) and walked upon water (Mark 6:45-51);

Most notably of all, the created order in its entirety participated in the Savior’s Passion: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the whole cosmos shuddered (Matt. 27:51). In the words of St. Ephrem the Syrian, ‘humans were silent, so the stones cried out’. As the old English poem The Dream of the Rood expresses it, ‘All creation wept.’ This all embracing participation in the death of God incarnate is memorably expressed in the Praises or Enkomia sung in the evening of Good Friday or early in the morning on Holy Saturday:

‘Come, and with the whole creation let us offer a funeral hymn to the Creator.’

‘The whole earth quaked with fear, O lord, and the Daystar hid its rays, when Thy great light was hidden in the earth.’

‘The sun and moon grew dark together, O Savior, like faithful servants clothed in black robes of mourning.’

‘O hills and valleys’, exclaims the Holy Virgin, ‘the multitude of mankind and all creation, weep and lament with me, the Mother of God.’

Most remarkably of all in what is truly an amazing statement, it is affirmed: ‘the whole creation was altered by Thy Passion: for all things suffered with Thee, knowing, O Lord, that Thou holdest all in unity.’

Do we reflect sufficiently, I wonder, upon the environmental impliations of our Lord’s Incarnation, upon the way in which Jesus is ecologically inclusive, embedded in the soil like us, containing within His humanity what has been termed ‘the whole evolving earth story’?

Do we allow properly for the fact that our Savior came to redeem, not only the human race, but the fullness of creation? Do we keep constantly in mind that we are not saved from but with the world?

Such, then, is our Orthodox vision of creation; such is our vocation as priests of the created order; such is our Christian reponse to the ecological crisis. Such is the deeper meaning implicit in the words that we say daily at the beginning of Vespers: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’.

The Meaning of Meaning

October 27, 2008

Yesterday I posted on the “meaning of Scripture.” I want to go a further step today and write on the “meaning of meaning.” For it is all too possible to understand “meaning” as less than it should be. In a culture in which the dominant form of Scriptural interpretation is based on some form or structure of “reason,” meaning quickly becomes nothing more than “intellectual understanding.” This itself is a distortion of the inherited Truth as found in Holy Orthodoxy.

In a post a few months back, I wrote about the Church as the “Orthodox hermeneutic,” meaning that the very existence and life of the Church is itself the interpretation of Scripture. The interpretation of Scripture cannot only be ideas or words about words, but must become flesh, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In that earlier post I wrote:

Is or can there be such a thing as an Orthodox hermeneutic (method of interpretation) of Scripture?  I asserted in a recent post that there was such a thing and that the Orthodox would do well to work towards its recovery rather than using the hermeneutics of others who do not hold the Orthodox faith. I will make a small suggestion for how this may be understood.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, asserts:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Thus it is that the Church itself is the proper hermeneutic of Scripture – having been written by Christ, ministered by the apostles, not with ink, “but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” Thus, to a certain extent, to say that the Scriptures are the Church’s book is a tautology. Either the Church is that epistle, written in the fleshy tables of the heart, or it is not the Church at all. It is partly for this reason that Orthodoxy sees the interpretation of Scripture as something that does not take place apart from the Church nor without the Church, but in the midst of the Church, which is herself the very interpretation, constantly echoing the Word of God in her services, sacraments, and all of her very life.

It is, of course, the case that there are things to be found within the Church that are not “of” the Church, but are things to be purged, to be removed, to be met with repentance. Indeed the life of the Orthodox Church is only rightly lived as a life of constant repentance. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50 (51):17.

But these are the sins of the old man, buried with Christ in Baptism, whose actions are to be put to death in this life (Romans 8:13).

If the Scriptures are themselves not interpreted in this manner, then every other interpretation is only words about God, and not the word of God. In many cases, Christians have left off living the word of God and have become experts at its discussion. Such exercises may be less than useless: they may prove to be harmful, for we will be judged by every idle word we speak. To take up Scripture and yet not embody it is to be a “hearer of the word and not a doer” as St. John warned in his small epistle.

I have cited the statement of the 7th ecumenical council that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” It must also be the case that the Church is an icon of Christ, or more than that, the very body of Christ. If the Church is not itself the proper interpretation of Scripture then no interpretation is to be found. If there is a modern “famine” in the hearing of the word of God it would be in the failure of Orthodox Christians to live as fully Orthodox and to keep the commandments of God.

There have been times that unbelievers could look at Christians and say, “See how they love one another.” Could there be a more eloquent interpretation of Scripture?

For this reason there can only be the one interpretation (though a passage may have many layers of meaning) just as there can only be the one Church. For the Scriptures are one even though they may consist of many books – for the meaning of every word, every book, is Christ. And the life of the Church can only be the Life of Christ for there is no other life to be found.

I give thanks to God that in my life I have had occasion to “read” this book in the fleshy tables of the heart. I have also seen many occasions in which those of the Church failed to fulfill the vocation we have been given. But even in the midst of our falling short, I have seen the bright light of Christ, the True Life, and tasted of the heavenly banquet. I have heard the voice of angels singing in choir the one song of the ages:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The Meaning of Scripture

October 26, 2008

What is the meaning of Scripture? Where do we look for it and how is it found?

It is interesting to listen to the disarray of voices on this subject. My early training, in college and later in a liberal protestant seminary, was to look, first, to “authorial intent” (to use a constitutional interpretive phrase), and to the “Sitz im Leben” (the “life situation” or “context”) and through a host of various critical matrixes to break a section down in various ways. Often unacknowledged was the range of meaning that was simply “not allowed.” Most miracles, etc., were simply out of bounds, as miracles.

Of great importance was the fact that the Scriptures consisted of a collection of books, written at different times in different places by different authors. And, of course, with a basic historical orientation to the “meaning” of Scripture, the “meaning” sort of falls apart.

I found a small statement in Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery that I liked:

This, perhaps, enables us to bring into sharper focus…the point, referred to earlier, that the spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the literal meaning…. The spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the history of the Incarnate One, a history which is ‘a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh’ (Heb. 10:20) – a way which we are all to enter upon and tread.

The difficulty with the modernist approach (and many of the historicized approaches of evangelical protestantism) is the failure to understand what the Canon of Scripture means. The Canon is not simply a collection of books authorized for use in the Church. The Canon is not simply those books which the Church considered “inspired of God” (though both statements are true). Instead, the Canon is a collection of books in which the Church finds the witness of Jesus Christ (both Old and New Testament), and its only purpose as Canon, is to reveal Christ.

Some, even conservative readers, have detached the proper meaning of the Canon from the Scriptures, and simply see them as a collection of “inspired” Scripture. The key (Christ) is forgotten and the “authoritative” writings are used for all sorts of things for which the Church never had any particular concern. The Bible is not the book with all the answers to any question – it is the book, which when read rightly – points both to the right questions to ask, as well as the right answer.

Genesis, properly read, is not a science text book. It is about Christ and reveals Him as the very meaning and purpose of creation – as well as explicating His Pascha. If you don’t see that when you read the first chapter of Genesis, then no one ever taught you how to read Scripture as the primitive Church read Scripture (which according to the New Testament was taught by the Risen Lord).

The quote from Louth was not to say that the “literal meaning is the spiritual meaning” but that the “spiritual meaning is the literal meaning.” Only when the Scriptures are read in their spiritual meaning – that which is witnessed to by the Church – are they read in their proper meaning and as Canon.

Those who misuse the Canon as simply a stamp of “authority,” turn the Bible into a Christianized Koran, which is as serious a distortion as is possible. The failure of many generations of Christian teachers to know and understand the spiritual meaning of Scripture has also resulted in a distorted Christianity – one which is moving further away from Christian Orthodoxy and gradually becoming something entirely new.

To say that the “spiritual meaning is the literal meaning” (a play on words) is to understand that Scripture functions as a verbal icon – and like an icon requires an understanding of its spiritual grammar to see it correctly. Probably the most important element of that grammar is the dynamic of Holy Week and Pascha, the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Of equal importance and informing the Paschal meaning is Christ as the revelation of God and the revelation of God as Trinity made known to us through Christ.

Even the structure of the stories in the New Testament have this character about them. There are “iconic” similarities between the New Testament account of Christ’s Nativity and his Decent into Hades, just as there are similarities between the icons of those two events. And this is not accidental – one informs and explicates the other.

The use of Scripture in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church frequently brings these elements together. It is in such moments (for me) that “mental epiphanies” occur – when I suddenly see a connection and a meaning that had never been clear before.

Those who “Canonized” the Scripture are also those who gave us the liturgies and preserved in the life of the Church a living liturgical dynamic that is the spiritual meaning of Scripture. Much of this is missed if the only liturgical experience of an Orthodox Christian is the Sunday liturgy. Ultimately the fullness is found in the liturgical experience of the monasteries where the most complete round of the services are prayed.

But by faithfully attending feast days and vigils, much of this “spiritual meaning” will become increasingly evident. Good teaching also helps. But nothing substitutes for those moments in which the risen Christ is made known to us in the Scriptures and in the breaking of the bread.

When Creation Speaks

October 24, 2008

An interesting theme within the holy Scriptures is the “voice of Creation.” The famous Old Testament Canticle, Song of the Three Young Men, in English traditionally known as the Benedicite, omnia opera Domini, and which in Orthodoxy forms the basis of the Seventh and Eighth odes of the Canon, very famously calls on creation to offer praise to God:

O let the earth bless the Lord;

O ye mountains and hills, bless ye the Lord’

O all ye green things upon the earth, bless ye the Lord;

praise him and magnify him for ever….

In the New Testament the same understanding is taken even deeper in St. Paul’s famous 8th chapter of Romans in which he speaks of “creation groaning and travailing unto now” as it “waits for the manifestation of the sons of God” (the general resurrection).

This “animation” of creation does not in the least seem to be an anthropomorphizing (attributing human abilities to non human things) of creation, but rather a revelation of creation’s true status. The Scripture does not see the creation as inert. In Leviticus there are many warnings as well as blessings. But the imagery used contains this same animation of creation:

Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves; and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled); lest the land vomit you out, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (18:24-28)

We do not live within a universe in which we are the animate and everything around us is inert – at least not in the Scriptural account. The winds and seas “obey” Christ. they are not described as having merely been stilled, but that they obeyed the voice of His command.

This same relationship is frequently described in the lives of the saints, whether it is the story of St. Gerasimos and the lion, or St. Seraphim and the wild bears. In the presence of the holy, trees and flowers behave differently – blooming out of season as well as other behaviors.

Orthodox Christianity does not attribute a “spirit” to the things of creation – but neither does it describe creation as mute or as a secularized, universal no-man’s land. The universe is decidedly on the side of God and resists those who do evil. This is not to say that creation behaves in a way in which we are always pleased. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. The righteous die of cancer as well as the wicked. There is a fallenness to the world in which we live, but it has not been stripped of its character or nature. The winds and the seas obeyed the voice of Christ, even as the universe itself came into being through His voice.

Neither does Orthodoxy see creation has having been brought into existence and simply left alone to its own laws and devices. Instead we confess that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” God is not a stranger to the universe at any point. He sustains us and everything around us.

All of this means that how we interact with creation is not properly that of the “masters of the universe” lording it over some inert lump of stuff. The passage in Leviticus points rather to a proper stewardship of everything around us. The earth does not belong to us: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).

In recent years the Patriarch of Constantinople added a new emphasis to the Orthodox feast of the New Year (marked on September 1). To the new year he added an emphasis on celebrating our relationship with the whole of the created order and our right treatment of all things. This was ratified by the other patriarchs of the Church within the past month.

The voice of creation is not always heard by all. But it is heard by some. St. Anthony of Egypt said (when asked why he had no books), “My book is the whole creation.” It apparently taught him into paradise.

Orthodox sacraments are not bringing into the the created order something which is foreign to it – but rather – according famously to Fr. Alexander Schmemann – revealing things “to be what they already are.” The Body and Blood of Christ that we consume in the Liturgy also reveals our right communion with all that we eat. The waters which we blessed are not blessed to become something other than water, but to be what water was created to be.

By the same token, those sacraments that are directed particularly at human beings are not making us other than what we were intended to be, but are bringing us back and re-establishing us in the communion where alone we may find ourselves becoming truly human. It is also entirely appropriate that such a restoration occurs within the context of other created things – water, oil, wax, etc. All things begin to take their proper place and the liturgy releases the voices of all – man, water, oil, etc. And all proclaim the wonders of God.

Reading Rightly

October 17, 2008

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.

Assimilating the Gospel

September 23, 2008

A pilgrimage is reduced to tourism if it does not become a part of the pilgrim himself.

I have been home for a little over 24 hours – most of it in the stupor of “jet-lag.” I have sat down to write several times, only to find that I was too tired to say much. This week may carry some aspect of that until my body is back on Eastern Daylight Time.

But there are far more important things to be done than to get my body adjusted – it is the daily assimilation of where I have been and what I have done. This, too, is not particularly different than the daily task of any Christian. We have heard the gospel of Christ – but hearing must become doing. We have some understanding of the gospel but, in truth, we must become the gospel itself or it remains little more than a book.

I have said before that Christ did not come into the world to make bad men good but to make dead men live. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit (to use a phrase of St. Seraphim) is a daily existential act. We either live our lives based on the reality of the Truth of God in Christ, or we live it based on some other reality. The secular world will offer us many realities, even religious realities, so long as we do not give ourselves to the Truth that God is the only source and sustainment of reality and there is no life that does not come from Him.

Thus in my return home from my pilgrimage finds me back where I started. In many ways, having seen what I have seen, I will have to struggle yet more to say, “God is good,” for the sin of mankind has erupted in dangerous and obvious ways within the Holy Land. Cain and Abel still dwell there.

But I met a man (a monk), whom I mentioned earlier, who said from his heart, “I have no enemies.” God is indeed good and I realize in hindsight that I was standing on holy ground in the presence of a true spiritual struggler. I return home yet more convinced of the Truth and reality of the Gospel. Christ rose from the dead. I have stood where Peter and John stood and seen that the tomb was empty. But the Truth of the gospel in any human life will not stand for long on mere historical evidence. It must stand on the firm rock of Christ within us – Who is “the hope of glory,” according to St. Paul.

I found that while standing in very holy places my heart was as much in need of “guarding” as ever. Evil thoughts, tempting thoughts, thoughts of judging and the like were no more a stranger to me there than at home. Thus prayer was essential to make the pilgrimage and remains at least as essential as I have returned.

The Elder Sophrony taught that every word spoken by Christ was a full of the creative energy of God as the first words, “Let there be light!” Thus to take a commandment into our bosom and there let it dwell is also an act of re-creation – our own transformation. And so the pilgrimage continues. Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church. Forgive your brother. Keep the commandments.

Risky Business – Revisited

September 9, 2008

I offer this reprint from last year – my pilgrimage time in Jerusalem is not leaving much time for writing. It is obvious in this city of Holy Places that how we keep such places – including those within the heart is deeply important. This reprint seemed to fit those thoughts. May God bless.

Amoun found Abba Poemen and told him, “When I visit a neighbor or he visits me, he hesitate to talk with each other. We are afraid that we might bring up a worldly topic.

The old man replied, “Yes, young people need to guard their mouths.”

Amoun asked, “But how do old men handle this problem?”

Abba Poemen said, “Those who have advanced in virtue no longer have any worldliness in them. Nothing will taint their speech.”

Amoun continued his questioning. “When I must speak with my neighbor, should I speak of the Scriptures or of the Fathers?”

The old man answered, “It is best to keep silence. If you can’t, talk about the sayings of the Fathers. Speaking about the Scriptures is risky.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

In our modern world the above conversation of two monks in the desert sounds rather quaint. We have very little concern about our subjects for conversations. As autonomous individuals, we talk about whatever we want to talk about and never give a second thought as to whether the topic was suitable or whether our words were helpful or harmful.

I was particularly struck by Abba Poemen’s statement that “speaking about the Scriptures is risky.” It brought a smile. Of course, all this has radically changed in our culture. The Bible is no longer a rare book (or copied laboriously by hand). Everyone has numerous copies (usually) and more opinions than copies.

I was making a presentation several years ago at a fundamentalist Christian school in Tennessee. Somewhere in the course of my comments I spoke about the 6th chapter of St. John’s gospel and Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist within it (though it occurs as a commentary on the feeding of the 5,000 – it is most decidedly a teaching on the Eucharist). It is in this chapter that Christ says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you,” and many similar things.

A young man (a freshman) in the audience approached me after the lecture and was absolutely beside himself. He began to argue and to explain how the passage could not be about the Eucharist and how Christ was speaking figuratively about something else. I pointed out to him that even Protestant scholars agree that the chapter concerns the Eucharist – but to no avail.

Discussing Scripture is risky business. Part of what is missing in our Christian culture is a proper reverence for the Word of God. Even those who claim to hold it as utterly infallible in every jot and tittle, do not hesitate to use it in an cavalier manner.

I can recall several years ago a conversation that occurred within a group of Orthodox priests. The subject was the ever-Virginity of the Mother of God. Someone mentioned some of the traditional physical details associated with this doctrine. The conversation quickly ceased. One of the priests said, “I cannot discuss such things about the Mother of God.” There was no disagreement among the priests, only a sense that somethings are better left unsaid and that respect dictates that silence is best in some matters.

It was very instructive for me. The Holy always involves “boundaries” (I have written about this before). In an Orthodox Church such boundaries are particularly emphasized in the “boundary” of the altar area, and even within the altar area, the boundary of the altar itself. Only some may enter the altar area, and then only with a blessing. And generally, only bishops, priests and deacons may touch the holy altar or the things that are on it. It is an action, or refraining from action, that helps interiorize the reality of the Holy and how we should handle such things.

The Scriptures are certainly Holy, and should be rightly handled, that is rightly interpreted. But there is rarely a Godly fear in approaching such a task. Were such respect present, we would argue less and listen more, and many times remain silent.

It is utterly essential in the Christian life that believers begin to pay attention to their inner life and the state of their souls and dwell less in the fantasy of ideas and argument. The Christian faith is a way of salvation that involves the transformation of our inmost being – it is not a set of ideas with which we are trying to conquer the world.

None of this is to suggest restricted access to the Scriptures. Neither do I mean to suggest restricting access to the Holy (indeed in an Orthodox service, the Body and Blood of Christ are brought forth from the altar and given to the faithful to eat). What I mean to suggest is that we think about what it means that something is Holy and treat it accordingly. For with such treatment our hearts will begin to recognize things in the “truth of their being” and realize as well that we are not autonomous individuals in charge of the universe, but are, at most, servants of the Most High God, to Whom be glory.

How Simple Should Christianity Be?

August 28, 2008

There is a tendency in our modern world to make things as simple as possible. We hide the complexities behind a keyboard (I don’t know how my computer works – or not very well) or we treat things that seem complex as unnecessary obfuscations. This same drive to simplify was very much alive in the 16th century as Christianity underwent reform in many places of the world.

Thomas Cranmer, the English Reformer, railed against the complexity of the service books required for a Roman Catholic Mass and managed to bring everything down to one small book. Every service required by a cleric could be found in the one Prayer Book, which also contained the book of Psalms.

Cranmer’s work was often outdone in other places – some eventually discarding the use of any book but the Bible. Following Martin Luther’s lead, the Scriptures themselves were limited to 66 books (discarding those Old Testament books which did not have a Hebrew original – the so-called “Apocrypha”).

This, of course, is not all of the story of the Reform. At the same time that services were being simplified, there were massive productions of new commentaries and works of theology. Thus there was both a simplification and a new layer of complexity.

As centuries have gone on, the drive to simplify has not disappeared. Frontier preaching in America had little place for complexity and the proclamation of the gospel became quite straight-forward indeed.  A common tool in use throughout various religious movements in post-Guttenburg Europe, was the religious tract. Produced by the thousands and millions, these small summaries of the faith or of a point of doctrine were spread throughout homes and the streets and occasionally played important religious roles in religious movements (I’m not sure how much they do today).

How simple should Christianity be? Should it be reduceable to four spiritual laws or summarized in a paragraph or two? Is John 3:16 the perfect summary of the perfect faith? If you were shipwrecked on an island and could only have one chapter of Scripture, what would you keep?

I would like to suggest several principles that might be of help in thinking about such things.

1. Christianity is not an idea.

2. Christianity is not part of the religious annex of planet earth.

3. Reality cannot be simplified.

On the first point – Christianity is not an idea. I could say that it is also not a philosophy. It is a faith about how things (all things) are and Who God is, and what God has to do with us (or us with Him). It is thus a full account of reality, even though much of that account may remain unspoken. Christianity is either everything or it is nothing.

This leads easily to my second point. Christianity is not part of the religious annex of planet earth – that is, it is not a subset or comparment of something else. Since it is the fullness of reality in its truth – there is not a larger fullness (other than God) in which it may be contained.

My third point – reality cannot be simplied – may sound obvious – but we frequently live in simplified, digitzed, simulacra of the world itself. Given the choice between life on earth as we know it, and life in a holo-deck as pictured in the Star Trek movies and series – many people would gladly choose the holo-deck, some already opting for its current low-tech version in various games and such.

The invitation to another human being to embrace Christ as Lord, God and Savior is thus an invitation not to a religious hobby, but to the truth of the world as it is and as it shall be. Christ reveals reality in its fullness. Thus Christianity can never properly be a diminishing of human life.

It is interesting to me, having spent the last 10 years of my life (and a little more) as an Orthodox Christian missionary in the American South (or one small corner of it) to note how much I have learned in those 10 years – far more than I knew when I started. For one, I am not in a hurry. An invitation to reality (which is the essence of Catechesis) is rarely something you can do in a single moment (with apologies to the good thief who was far more worthy than I to be saved). Catechesis is the invitation “to put your hand to the plow and not turn back.” It is an invitation to a fullness that cannot be contained and yet is placed in our mouths at communion. It is a fullness that has birthed cultures and sustained hermits. It is the fullness that brought the whole of the universe into existence and towards which the entire universe is being gathered.

Shame on us for ever having diminished the faith – for reducing it to something less than all that is (and more). Shame on those who would remove whole elements of reality (the saints, the angels, etc.) for a simplified world. Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works! There is no word to hymn Thy wonders!

Truth and Existence: Conclusions to be Drawn

August 26, 2008

Reflecting on the previous posting on Truth and Existence, there are a number of conclusions that can be drawn for our lives and our communion with God:

1. God is generous. He does not begrudge existence to anything that exists. Even the devil is not begrudged his existence.

2. This generosity of God is not an indication of laissez faire, but of love. God has given us existence as a gift, not as a punishment. And He loves even what we cannot bear to love and blesses all with existence.

3. There is a difference between “true existence” and “mere existence.” The first is to exist in communion with God, where our existence is rooted in grounded in the love of God and the love of neighbor. Such an existence is a continual becoming – becoming like God. Mere existence is just that – it is an existence that has severed its own communion with God and seeks to exist apart from God. It “exists” but without foundation and substance. The longer we “merely exist” the less like God we become and instead become more like nothing.

4. Similar to this is the distinction between “objective” existence and “personal” existence. We speak of “objective” and “objectivity” with a certain usefulness within the secular world-view. However, to exist as a mere object is to being moving towards “mere existence.” To regard something or someone as simply an “object,” and no more than an object, and not to regard everyone and everything as properly an event for communion with God, is to reduce others and the world to “mere existence.” Inherently such a reduction takes us with it. Among objects, we become but an object.

5. There is within “mere existence” a necessity which can seem oppressive. The gift of existence is given to us and thus our existence (mere existence) is not a choice. It does not have within it (or so we perceive) the element of freedom. Existence can become a burden and even hateful to some. On the other hand, existence which is embraced as the gift of God and responded to with love and thankfulness, moves from “mere existence” to true and authentic existence, which can only had through freedom and love. Thus the gift of life given to us in Holy Baptism is a gift which must be freely received and responded to in love. In freedom and love our existence moves towards likeness with God – who is truly free and is love.

In Scripture there is a very simple parable that does much to illustrate God’s generosity towards us:

Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, `Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ He said to them, `An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, `No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’

The patience of God endures the weeds. The weeds cannot endure the patience of God.

Facing the Consequences

August 25, 2008

Some thoughts on a comment by Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas:

Commenting on the stories of the Transfiguration in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas observed that each of the stories contains the phrase “coming down” in reference to the disciples’ descent from the mount of glory into the world of daily ministry. In each gospel, he noted, they come down to controversy and difficulties. In drawing a conclusion he stated:

We ourselves are filled with the same glory in the Divine Liturgy. But like the disciples, we have to ‘come down’ and face the consequences of our faith.

The icon of the Transfiguration, like the icon of Pascha and the icon of the Ascension, places Christ in a “parenthetical” position, portrayed in the midst of an artistic figure that is known as a “mandorla.” In the grammar of icons it frames Christ in a moment that is transcendent – a moment that somehow escapes our ability to see clearly or describe. They are moments of Christ revealed in His glory and moments that reveal the fullness of truth that is found in Him.

But the danger for us as believers is to make Christ Himself a “parenthetical” moment in our lives – occasions and encounters marked off from the rest of the day or week – sometimes from the rest of our lives – and kept somewhere under the heading of “religion” or “faith.” This is especially true when faith in Christ becomes a “private” matter – occasionally distorted with the name of “my personal faith.”

Encountering Christ in His glory – whether that of the Transfiguration when we know Him as God – or that of Pascha when we know His glory in the humility of the Cross – or that of the Ascension when we see Him return to the right hand of the Father – however we encounter Christ – there must and should be consequences to our faith.

To live as a faithful believer in this world is an assurance of difficulties. It is the promise of Christ to us:

 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mk. 10:29-30).

And St. Paul:

Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12).

There are many who have read the word “persecution” and have thought only of the literal persecution inflicted by a legal authority – which has not been uncommon in the history of Christianity but has not been nearly as universal as the promise. We have to understand persecution in a broader sense – that obedience to the gospel of Christ inherently brings us into conflict with the world, and even with much that is within our own lives. The gospel will have consequences.

I would argue that the gospel not only will have consequences, but that it must have consequences. The very action of its consequences in our lives is part of the saving grace of God working in us the treasure of our salvation.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us (Romans 8:15-18).

Returning to the image given us in the Transfiguration stories – we are shown the way through the “sufferings of this present time.” We must “come down”. That is, we follow Christ on the way of the Cross in which His self-emptying before the sufferings of this world were, in fact, the humility of God, indeed the power of God that is victorious over all things.

May God give us grace to “face the consequences” of the Gospel and to share in His victorious suffering. This same inevitability of suffering also makes it incumbent on the faithful to live in such a way that we can support one another in the sufferings each bears. This is part of the essential life of the Church and perhaps the part that is most often neglected or least developed. It is particularly difficult in the culture of individualism to understand that the sufferings of one are the sufferings of all, just as the joy of one is the joy of all. We are tempted to suffer alone rather that ask for help and we are hesitant to help when we are asked. But the consequences of the gospel would demand both of us – to humble ourselves to receive help and to help others in our humility.

Again – it is what the gospel terms: love.