Archive for the ‘Union with Christ’ Category

Engaging Creation-Praise Him and Highly Exalt Him Forever

May 19, 2009

smPC310365Writing on beauty can seem an abstract approach to the created order – except that it draws our attention to see the world in a particular way. It is important, it seems to me, to at least see the world. So much of theology and what passes for religion can be mere intellectual exercise that religion and abstraction become synonymous. This is foreign to the true life of Orthodoxy and the true life of Christianity.

The sacraments of the Church are more than “seven” moments in the life of Christians that accidentally happen to use physical elements. They are “moments” but examples of the true character of the Christian life. The elements used in sacraments: bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands, sight, sound, action, etc. – are all simply things that make up life as we know it. They are not discussions of bread, wine, water, oil, etc. Thus the sacraments involve eating and drinking, anointing and movement. They are very much part of what is normative in human life.

As examples of the Christian life they point us towards the right understanding and use of creation itself. There are only “seven” sacraments if your are engaged in a contest with medieval Roman Catholics and need to say that your faith is not inferior to theirs. In point of fact “sacrament” or “mystery” (the preferred Orthodox term) is simply a way of rightly understanding our relationship with God as part of His created order. Everything is mystery when rightly understood.

So the question for me has to do with how do I engage creation. Do I live among created things as the bearer of the Divine image living within the mystery of God made manifest in everything around me? Or do I live as a thinking creature who considers religious ideas while going about my normal, everyday tasks.

In a proper Christian understanding, I posit, there are no “normal everyday tasks.” This is simply more of the creeping secularization of our world. Either God is relevant to every task, every motion and action – or He is not relevant at all. There can be no limited God.

This, I think, is a very difficult part of our Christian existence. And I think it is difficult for two different reasons. First, it is difficult because we are not used to God being anything other than a limited God, restricted to specifically “religious” activities. Second, it is difficult because when we attempt to relate to God in formerly “non-religious” activities, what we experience is often an artificial attempt to “sacralize” what we believe to be inherently non-sacred. So our choice becomes something between secularism and pseudo-sacramental. Neither are satisfactory.

A key to overcoming this false distinction lies in properly locating the problem. The problem does not lie in creation. I do not need to redefine creation in order to “make it sacred.” Either it is already inherently sacred or not. Christians are not traveling magicians, bringing a new state to the created world.

The problem does not lie within creation but within ourselves. Christ did not need to change the waters and winds of the Galilee in order to speak peace to their stormy condition. Nothing changed about the wind and the sea other than their presenting condition. Creation did not become other than creation. Christ was already such that wind and sea obeyed Him. 

By the same token, it is not creation that must change in our lives – but our lives in creation must change. As an example, I would cite the Scriptures (from the LXX text of Daniel appended to the article).

This “Song of the Three Young Men,” is as complete a model for our engagement of creation as I can imagine. It does not seek to make the beasts and the cattle to be other than they are – to “sacralize them” – but engages them as they are: creatures of God and thus able to “praise Him and highly exalt Him forever.” To live as a being within a creation that is engaged in the praise and exaltation of God is to live rightly within the world.

The creation is already “eucharistic” (marked by thanksgiving). It is me as a fallen human being who has chosen to be other than eucharistic. Rather than give thanks together with creation I would rather consume it, manage it, use it, abuse it, and consider it inferior to my intellect and dead. The answer to all of that is my repentance and my embrace of the eucharistic life that is proper to the whole of the created order. For we have our place within the Song:

Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 

Our proper engagement with creation – living the mystery – is to lift up our voice and sing and cease to be the only silence outside of Hell.

“Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and to be praised and highly exalted for ever; 
 …Blessed art thou in the firmament of heavenand to be sung and glorified for ever. 
“Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you heavens, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all waters above the heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all powers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, sun and moon, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, stars of heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all rain and dew, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all winds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, fire and heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, dews and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, nights and days, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, light and darkness, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, ice and cold, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, frosts and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, lightnings and clouds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Let the earth bless the Lord; let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, mountains and hills, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all things that grow on the earth, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you springs, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, seas and rivers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you whales and all creatures that move in the waters, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all birds of the air, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all beasts and cattle, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you sons of men, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, O Israel, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever….

The Nature of Things – And Our Salvation

May 15, 2009

Southwest Trip 344Reflecting on yesterday’s post, I thought it worthwhile to share these thoughts again on the nature of our salvation. It offers a short summary of the difference between a moral and an existential understanding of the Christian faith and why the difference matters. Indeed, as I look through my writings I know this is a recurring theme. It recurs because it is so fundamental to the Christian faith and is at the same time largely unknown in our modern world. 

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The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to state briefly several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my late teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are notcreatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existencethat has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 25 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past ten years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

The Price of the Liturgy

May 12, 2009

15We celebrate the Liturgy together. But we must pay what this costs: each one must be concerned for the salvation of all. Our life is an endless martyrdom.

The Elder Sophrony

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The Divine Liturgy (the Holy Eucharist) is not a ritual action of the Church which we attend, as though it were some sort of program. It is one of the greatest manifestations of the Divine Life that God has given us – dwelling in us, among us, with us, uniting us, and ascending from God to us and through us back to the Throne of Grace. Please forgive the exercise in prepositions in the last sentence – but the very nature of the Divine Liturgy demands such an exercise of language (cf. St. Basil).

The habits gained from our cultural life always threaten to invade our life as the Church – when our life as the Church should constantly be invading our life in the culture. Culturally we tend to gather for assemblies in which the deformed philosophy of secularism (dominant among most modern Christians) has offered us shape, form and understanding. The Divine Liturgy has no commonality with this philosophy.

We do not gather as a collection of individuals who share a common interest. The actions of the priest are not a program presented for our intellectual, emotional, psychological or religious improvement. We do not stand apart from the actions of the Liturgy and approve or disapprove them as if we were an audience.

We assemble for the Liturgy as the Church, the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the Fullness of Him Who Filleth all in all (Scripture synonyms for the Church). We are never an audience. We assemble as a single Body, who share in a single Life. No one can distract me from the Liturgy for the Liturgy is everything that takes place in the assembly of the Body. A child crying is a liturgical action (in the Liturgy). Equally a parent caring for a child and exercising discipline or offering solace are also liturgical actions. Our pains, our boredom, our interests, the very cry of our hearts are all among the lives that have assembled into the One Life. 

There is one prayer – the Prayer of the Holy Spirit Who prays to the Father through the Son. This one prayer is given voice by priest, deacon and people. Nothing falls outside the concern of this one prayer for we offer to God everything. The sins of our lives are not excluded (else we would be barred from the Liturgy). Rather, we are told in Scripture that “God made him [Christ] to be sin, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the great exchange of worship – that we offer to God all that we are and have – even those things that seem unworthy – that we might receive in exchange that which transcends all worth.

To gather together in the Liturgy is to enter a new life. The habits of the old life are brought in only to be transformed – not to dictate to God the nature and character of the new life. The Life of the Liturgy is “on behalf of all and for all.” We must yield to the fact that the salvation of each and all is now the proper concern of each and all. 

All of these things are simply what it means to love one another.

What Is My Life?

May 11, 2009

Mikhail_Nesterov-Holy_RusI have written often on the subject of “personhood,” drawing to a large extent on the writings of the Elder Sophrony, and to a lesser extent on the theology of Met. John Zizioulas. The heart of their thought is to direct us to the reality that to exist as “persons” is precisely the same thing (or similar) when we speak of the “persons” of the Holy Trinity. And further, that this is true existence for human beings.

In our popular speech, we use the word person in a manner that is interchangeable with individual. This is to equate personhood with a word that stand for its near opposite.

We are used to thinking of ourselves in individual terms – terms which emphasize our role as active, choosing agents. A collection of individuals is especially a collection of unique and competing wills. Thus it is always possible that the competing wills with whom I associate will be in direct competition with myself. Their good and my good may not be at all the same thing.

Thus we wind up with various versions of the social contract, in which we agree by various means, to give as much room to other competing wills as possible, while allowing sufficient attention to our own. It is like belonging to a merchant’s organization.

These social contracts exist primarily to keep us from killing each other and to help maximize one another’s profits, whether they be profits of the material kind or otherwise. It is so strong a force in our culture that even Christians, within the “mega church” movement, speak of their “target” congregation as a “market.” We are defined by the market to which we belong. We are the consumers of religious product. This has a way of working and even of prospering, in that a market approach tends to separate Christians from one another before they become “competing agents.” A congregation that is a statistical slice of our culture would argue over music, sermon, reason for existence, etc. 

Of course, regardless of the rhetoric used to support a marketing approach to human beings for religious ends is simply sinful. It is disrespectful of the purpose of Christ’s body and erects monuments to human sin (as manifest in our marketing choices). Such efforts, regardless of intention, are simply not the Church. They are anti-Church.

Among many things for which Christ gave us His body, our growth and fulfillment of our lives as true human persons is among the greatest. To exist as person is to exist as free, as loving, as sacrificing of self, as having an existence which can only be defined by its relational existence to others. So St. Paul uses the metaphor of body parts. We are like hands and feet, ears and eyes. We have a true existence, and yet that existence only makes sense because it is part of something else. An eye by itself does not “see.” An ear by itself does not hear. We are members of the Body of Christ and we only have true existence inasmuch as we are functioning members of that Body. It is in this manner that we are persons.

Personhood is not a moral goal – it is not a description of how we “ought to behave.” We do not live “as if” the existence of others were an inherent and necessary part of our proper existence. Personhood is a description of what it is to truly exist. To live in a manner that is not properly personal is not an “immoral” existence, it is a falling away from existence itself.

It seems to me that this distinction is important. I have written elsewhere that Christ did not die to make bad men good but to make dead men live. Our living in communion and participation with others is not a metaphorical act of moral behavior but a description of the manner in which we truly existence. Forgiveness of my enemy is more than an act of kindness – it is a recognition of the proper mode of my existence. 

I love my enemy for he, too, is my life. These are not choices we make – or rather they are not things that are true because I choose them to be true. They are simply true. My choice is whether to accept them or reject them. This is our salvation by grace. By grace we have been given an existence that is greater than we might ever have morally wanted (apart from this grace). It is the feast God has set before us. It is the richness of life in His image. It is what salvation looks like.

The Unplanned Life

April 27, 2009

bro-ephraim-mar-saba1The following article was first written and posted in March of 2007. I have added a few additional thoughts to the end.

One of the geniuses of modern life is the plan. It is certainly the case that if you have a company and a product, or whatever passes for those in these days, there is probably a plan to go with them. Occasionally you hear from Christians, “God has a plan for my life.”

Several years ago I was flying from Dallas back to Tennessee and was sitting in the middle of two very interesting young seatmates. On the aisle was a very frightened young coed who gripped the armrest ever tighter with the slightest bump.

It was a summer flight – meaning lots of thunderstorms between Dallas and Tennessee –  and therefore lots of bumps. On my right was a young college student from one of the Christian colleges in the Dallas area.

After a particularly difficult set of bumps, the young man, in an effort to be helpful, turned to the woman seated on my other side and said, “You don’t need to be worried. God has a plan for my life. This plane cannot go down.” Apparently God had also told him what the plan was.

I thought to myself, “I’ve served God for many years and as far as I know, he can take me at any minute.”

Is there a plan for our lives?

The closest thing that I can think of in Scripture for “the plan” is this statement in Ephesians:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. (1:9-12)

 It seems to me that there is a world of difference between the sort of plan St. Paul describes here and the sort of plan envisioned by my young evangelical seatmate. Clearly, God has a plan. St. Paul says so. But the most essential aspect of that plan is that we are destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory – which, of course – one can do as the plane plunges to the earth as well as anywhere.

Our culture is marked by planning. We are all “teleologically” wired in our society – that is we are always thinking that we’re headed somewhere. Some of this is Christian – we believe that Christ will come again and that this age will come to an end. But there has been a “trickle down” effect of such notions into the very fabric of our culture.

Of course, one of the problems with this cultural habit is that it makes it very hard for us to ever be where we are when we are there (we’re always going somewhere else). And so it is hard to waste time (which is an interesting expression in and of itself). It is hard to pray (a thousand things lying just ahead in the future beckon us to leave such quiet moments behind).

But if we actually read St. Paul and think of what we have been told – then we realize that we can be “at the end” in any given moment. To “live for the praise of God’s glory” is always immediately at hand. And it is probably the case that when we are not doing so we are in fact in sin.

There are many questions which I cannot answer about my life. I assume it will be lived where I am (I do not “plan” to be elsewhere). I do not know the future of my parish (I am frequently asked, “Do you have plans to build a larger Church?”). I certainly hope to, but we do not have plans as of yet [though today we are a little further down that road].

But the one plan that matters is the one St. Paul mentioned. I plan to live for the praise of God’s glory – this plan is sufficient. This is not to throw planning out the window. If you’re going to take a trip you’ll likely have to plan what sort of things to take. And many things in our lives require such “planning.” But if in the middle of everything else you have forgotten the only plan that matters, then all the other “plans” will have been for nothing.

“To the praise of His glory,” an excellent plan indeed.

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An additional reflection I would add to this original piece, is that the great “plan” for our life is found primarily in the Cross of Christ. Christians are specifically told that “anyone who would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). St. Paul also enjoins us to have “the mind which is yours in Christ Jesus,” and describes that as the mind of humility that empties itself and is crucified (Philippians 2:5-11).  

The path that our life takes is a mystery. Sometimes we see a pattern and sometimes we do not. There is no promise to us that we will know the shape our life will take – other than the promise that if we live in obedience to Christ our life will take a shape that is conformed to the image of Christ – most specifically Christ crucified. God will raise us up.

Everywhere Present

April 26, 2009

BOSNIA MONASTERY WINEEverything you do, all your work, can contribute towards your salvation. It depends on you, on the way you do it. History is replete with monks who became great saints while working in the kitchen or washing sheets. The way of salvation consists in working without passion, in prayer….

May God give you the strength to keep your spirit, your mind, and your heart in the spirit of Christ. Then everything that happens to you can very quickly be radically transformed. What was tiresome and discouraging will disappear, transfigured by your desire to be there where Christ your God is….

Elder Sophrony

 

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The wise elder’s words are not only good for our salvation (which is always at hand) but reminds us that we should not divide our lives into two worlds. Even monks have to wash dishes…

If we concede that some of our life is drudgery, mindless, but needful, while other parts of our life are interesting and of value to God, then we have ourselves created a two-storey universe of our inner world. This part of my life is of no value – while this part is of great value. This, of course, is nonsense. Even service in the Holy Altar frequently consists in washing dishes.

The words of the elder teach us that the problem of the two-storey universe is to be found primarily in our own heart – not in the culture around us nor in the tasks we find at hand. God is everywhere present and filling all things. He is even present and filling the various tasks of “drudgery” we undertake. No task is beneath us. The Mother of God changed the diapers of the God of heaven. Our love for those around us should be no less. We are moved when we read in John that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of Lazarus, His friend. The Theotokos had long before heard Him weap and wail as all children do. Nor should any mother (or father) give less value to the weeping of their own children. God has invested everything with His love, transforming the world into the stage of our salvation. Glory to God for all things.

Loving an Angry God

January 27, 2009

death-for-dostoevsky1I am both opposed to theological systems that have at their heart an angry, wrathful God whose justice much be satisfied – but I am also understanding of those who, having been raised or nurtured in pious settings, take theHoly Scriptures pretty much at face value and are thus discomfited by people like myself who seek to give an account of God that does not include God angrily and wrathfully punishing the deserving (even though He does this in a “loving manner”).

Some of the contradiction between the God of love and the God of wrath first struck me at age 13 – and occasioned my first rejection of Christianity. I know from personal experience that these wrathful/loving accounts of God have their theological casualities.

I am also aware of attempts to treat the wrathful image under the rubrics of  a “Semitic” approach to God. Some of which come from Orthodox sources. However, I find that Semitic witnesses such as St. Isaac of Syria were not nearly so dominated by a so-called “Semitic” understanding.

There are several quotes I wish to offer from the Fathers:

From St. Anthony in the Philokalia (ch. 150, first volume):

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

Many will say: “Does not Holy Scripture itself often speak about the anger of God? Is it not God Himself who says that He will punish us or that He will pardon us? Is it not written that ‘He is a rewarded of them that diligently seek Him’ (Heb. 11:6)?  Does He not say that vengeance is His and that He will requite the wickedness done to us? Is it not written that it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God?”

In his discourse entitled That God is not the Cause of Evil, Saint Basil the Great writes the following:

“But one may say, if God is not responsible for evil things, why is it said in the book of Esaias, ‘I am He that prepared light and Who formed darkness, Who makes peace and Who creates evils’ (45:7).” And again, “There came down evils from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem” (Mich. 1:12). And, “Shall there be evil in the city which the Lord hath not wrought?” (Amos 3:6). And in the great Ode of Moses, “Behold, I am and there is no god beside Me. I will slay, and I will make to live; I will smite, and I will heal” (Deut. 32:39). But none of these citations, to him who understands the deeper meaning of the Holy Scriptures, casts any blame on God, as if He were the cause of evils and their creator, for He Who said, “I am the One Who makes light and darkness,” shows Himself as the Creator of the universe, not that He is the creator of any evil…. “He creates evils,” that means, “He fashions them again and brings them to a betterment, so that they leave their evilness, to take on the nature of good.”

As Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense… those who have a mind understand this” (Homily 83, p. 317).

I understand the care many have to give proper weight to the words of Scripture, and in their experience have only found enemies of the Scriptures who ever suggest alternatives to a more-or-less literal reading. But the sources I quote are great among the Fathers of the Church.

My concern as a brother Christian turns towards my heart and the hearts of others. I understand the intellectual satisfaction found in justice – but I do not find its place within the goodness of the heart. I cannot rejoice in the anger of God nor of anyone else. I weep – or more accurately – when I find that I rejoice in the anger of anyone it should be a cause for weeping. For I am a sinful man and I rejoice at things that should cause my heart to weep – so great is the darkness within it.

The Orthodox understanding of the wrath of God is not an endorsement of universalism. God alone knows who is saved. But it is a call for universal love. For there is nowhere (certainly within the New Testament) that we are commanded to hate. We are to love our enemies. And if that is to be anything more than lip-service then it must first be modeled in the Good God and grafted within us by His grace.

Strangely, I find our century (and the ones preceding it) not overburdened with love, but rather riddled with those who believe their hatreds to be justified. God save me from the man who believes Himself just. I do not stand a chance before him. Rather, number me with the harlots and the publicans – number me with the worst of sinners. Within that refuse of humanity I may find mercy and a heart kind enough to pray for a man as wicked as myself.

The Kingdom of God is Within You

January 25, 2009

MIDEAST- JERUSALEM-RELIGION-CHRISTIAN ORTHODOX EASTERAgain, some thoughts from Kalomiros’ Nostalgia for Paradise. This particular selection is on the reality of the Kingdom of God within us – and the particular importance of Hesychasm, the practice of inner stillness and the knowledge of God dwelling within us. I have written myself about the utter centrality of communion with God. His work underlines and expands this in a marvelous way.

God is the place, the means, and the power of any communion. He is the communion itself, the love itself, because God is a Trinity, a loving communion of Persons. Only the communion with God is capable of providing the communion of creaturely persons. Any attempt at direct communion among humans is doomed to failure because it is powerless. There is no true power of communion but the divine energy. Only a communion with the divine energy enables true communion among ourselves. Any communion that overlooks or ignores God comes to self-delusion. Indeed, if a communion of persons exists in the Church, it exists to the extent that those persons have communion with God.

When there is no personal communion with Him, a simple gathering of persons in the house of God, even around the Table of Sacrifice and in the communion of His Body and Blood, can be blasphemy against God and unworthiness before the Church’s most sacred mystery. For communion with God is in persons, by the Holy Spirit.

Whether a Christian is in a church, in the street, at home, in a crowd of people, or alone, the matter of communion with God is a matter of turning inward. It is in our hearts that we will encounter God. And when we do, He will take us by the hand and put us in communion with others. And in our communion with others, the bond that joins us will always be God Himself.

So there is no other path to the Kingdom of God but the one which leads to our heart, the one which leads “within you.” It is the path of hesychasm or stillness. Hesychasm is the deepest characteristic of Orthodox life, the sign of Orthodox genuineness, the premise of right thinking and right belief and glory, the paradigm of faith and Orthodoxy. In all of the Church’s internal and external battes ever, we had the hesychasts on one side and the anti-hesychasts on the other.

The very fabric of heresy is anti-hesychastic.

Dostoevsky on the Individual

January 14, 2009

dostojewskijThe following passage from The Brothers Karamazov is taken from one of the “Talks and Homilies” of the Elder Zossima – one of the key characters in the novel. His thoughts echo earlier articles here that contrast man as “individual” (isolation) to man as Person (brotherhood and communion).

Look at the worldly and at the whole world that exalts itself above the people of God: are the image of God and his truth not distorted in it? They have science, and in science only that which is subject to the senses. But the spiritual world, the higher half of man’s being, is altogether rejected, banished with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” – this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have dinners, horse, carriages, rank, and slaves to serve them is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing in those who are not rich, thile the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink. But soon they will get drunk on blood instead of wine, they are being led to that. I ask you: is such a man free? I knew one “fighter for an idea” who told me himself that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his “idea,” just so that they would give him some tobacco. And such a man says: “I am going to fight for mankind.” Well, how far will such a man get, and what is he good for? Perhaps some quick action, but he will not endure for long. And no wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher used to tell me in my youth. And therefore the idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world, and indeed the idea now even meets with mockery, for how can one drop one’s habits, where will this slave go now that he is so accustomed to satisfying the innumberable needs he himself has invented? He is isolated, and what does he care about the whole? They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.

Salvation in a Cloud of Witnesses

January 12, 2009

florence-baptistry1Perhaps more than any culture in history – America has championed the individual. The context for this cultural development was the nation’s historic resistance to the class structures of 17th and 18th century Europe (and later) as well as a positive response to certain intellectual concepts that were popular at the time of the nation’s independence. The European settlement of America in its early modern history was largely accomplished by individuals or individual families. Later migrations would see the settlement of larger groups – who frequently became part of the greater “melting-pot” in which people saw themselves first as defined by their individual talents and efforts and only secondarily as belonging to an ethnic or religious group.

American religion – first as import from Europe and later with varieties of home-grown denominations – gradually assumed the character of the culture. Salvation (already given an individual cast in some versions of early Protestantism) became viewed as almost exclusively individual in nature. By the late 20th century, Americans had become “consumers” of religion, many denominations and groups having grasped the basics of marketing.

In the face of such developments (which are quickly being exported across the globe), the essential message of the gospel – that salvation is corporate (or collective) in character rather than individual, simply sounds like heresy. At the heart of this discrepancy are two radically different views of what it means to be human – and thus what it means to be whole as a human being. I will offer several observations that seem to be related to these radically different views.

First, salvation understood primarily as individual, is inherently non-Trinitarian. This is not to say that those who teach salvation as individual do not profess faith in a Trinitarian God, but that their doctrine of salvation is divorced from their understanding of God. Trinitarian theology and soteriology have no particular or necessary connection. In such settings, worship will largely be cast in non-Trinitarian language (either emphasizing Jesus or the Holy Spirit, depending on the tradition). In many modern, market-driven models, the language of “God” will trump everything else. The Trinity is too complex and confusing to market easily.

Second, salvation understood primarily as individual, will tend towards the democratization of religion. If an individual can be saved without reference to a corporate body or collective (I’ll come back to these terms), then hierarchy is either useless or worse. The individual has his or her copy of the Scriptures, and, as individual, is seen as  increasingly capable of reading the Word of God without reference outside themselves. “What it says to me,” is seen as the sufficient criteria for interpretation.

But what does this say about the understanding of what it means to be a whole human being? What is a whole individual? Politically, such wholeness has been defined in terms of power and freedom. If an individual is deprived of power, then he cannot fully realize his potential as a human being. If he is deprived of freedom, he is again deprived of his potential to choose and act in such a way as to be whole. These same concerns are easily translated into individual models of salvation. Being empowered to choose and act freely become ever more important. Thus if there is a hierarchy that refuses to ordain women – it is a stumbling block to freedom and power. The same can be said about homosexual unions, etc. Salvation, if understood in a manner that limits empowerment and freedom, will come to be seen as wrong, if only because it is a message that runs against the flow of empowerment and freedom as viewed within the culture.

An excellent example of this occured once in an inquirer’s class I was teaching before I was Orthodox (I was an Anglican priest). I was teaching a class on Christian morality and offered as authoritative the traditional teachings of the Christian faith in matters of sex and marriage, etc. One of the couples in the class seemed upset by my presentation and asked, “What right does the Church have to tell me how to live my life?” I admit that I was stunned by the question, if only because of its honesty. I gave them a short answer, “Because you are raising my children.” The complete answer has more depth, but I thought they might find it helpful to consider that the world included someone other than themselves.

What does it mean to be a human being – such that being a whole human being would be any different than what we now are? In a proper Orthodox understanding, the very conception of the human being as an “individual,” in the modern sense, is itself one of the symptoms of sin. We do not rightly exist as individuals – and fall into sin whenever we act in such a manner. The classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human, created in the image of God, is that we are persons, which is not to be confused with individuals. Personal existence is never to be understood in an isolated, self-referential manner. In Trinitarian theology, we cannot say “Father” in a self-referential manner. The very name “Father” implies another and implies some sort of relationship. The same is true of “Son,” as well as “Spirit.” This is why some Christian modernist attempts to find new expressions for the Persons of the Holy Trinity are so often heretical. “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” was a popular usage by liberal Anglicans when I was in seminary – but is heretical because all three Persons of the Trinity can be named by any one of these functions. Christ’s revelation of the Trinity was intensely personal – not only giving us names by which we could refer to the Persons of the Trinity – but ultimately revealing the very reality that God is Personal. The language of Personhood is distinctly Christian and developed only within the context of the Church’s efforts to find proper expressions for what had been revealed in Christ.

To be whole as a human person, is quite distinct from wholeness as an individual. Person carries within it the uniqueness and unrepeatablity that we usually associate with the word individual. However, it also carries within it – at its very root – the understanding that a person properly only exists in communion with another person. It is in this sense that we may say “God is love.” Love is not some abstract essence which may be equated with the being of God. Rather, God is love because the Father loves the Son and the Spirit and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Thus when Christ speaks of the new life given to His disciples He says:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another (John 15:9-17).

This passage would largely be nonsense in an individualistic understanding of the human. The love we are commanded is none other than the love of the Father for the Son. Christ is not offering a moral homily on the advantages of acting in a loving manner. We are commanded to love, indeed to “abide in my love.” These things are for the fullness of our being, “that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” We are transformed from servants into friends – friendship being defined as mutual sacrifice of life. This is the love of God manifest in the “emptying” (kenosis) of Christ on behalf of all creation described in Philippians 2.

It is this image and reality of personhood that is damaged in the fall. Eve eats the fruit in a manner that has no regard for God. Thus she inaugurates the first moment of non-eucharistic behavior. Food is eaten with regard only for oneself and not with regard to God. It is not a communion of life, but a meal of death. Ever after, fallen human beings turned ever inward, away from the love of other. The result is death and murder and every form of brutality. It is betrayal and coldness of heart, greed, envy and lust. These are not moral failings, but existential failings. We do not live as persons, but as mere individuals. As such we could never be saved.

The incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ are the invitation of God to humanity to an existence that is truly personal rather than individualistic. Thus it is that the first act to which a believer submits is Holy Baptism. There the individual ceases to exist as individual and is Baptized into true Personhood. It is the first act of communal existence given to the Christian and is the hallmark of every Christian action to follow. Met. John Zizioulas describes the new birth in Holy Baptistm as the birth of the “ecclesial hypostasis.” (I’ve never used his term in the context of a sermon-and don’t recommend it). But the “ecclesial hypostasis” means simply an existence that is “Churchly” and “Personal” (ecclesia=Church; hypostasis=Person). We are put to death in Baptism, united to Christ in His death, and made alive in His resurrection. The new existence we are given in Holy Baptism is no longer that of an individual (isolated and self-referential) but now of a Person – whose existence is confirmed and fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. These are not moral acts of a new moral code, but life-giving acts that fulfill a new existence.

Thus, to exist as a whole Person is the goal of salvation in Christ. It is for this reason that the place of communion and participation become of primary importance. Koinonia, the NT word for this reality, (often translated poorly as “fellowship”), is the truth of our existence the very mode of our being. The mysteries of Baptism and Eucharist are thus rightly seen as a participation, as is our part in the Body of Christ. Indeed all of life becomes transformed into communion and participation in the life of God. It is the life of the age to come.

Our salvation occurs in a manner that is in no way isolated, but rather in a “Cloud of Witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We are Baptized into a community of existence that is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:23). For this same reason the Church prays as community, the prayers of all generations united in one voice of praise to God. For His life is our life, our salvation and our hope.