Posts Tagged ‘atonement’

The Heart of Darkness – the Dawn of Mercy

July 6, 2012

The Christian faith is not about ideas – it is about things that are. As such, we do not need to cultivate theological systems – we need to know how to live.

This also tells us something about darkness. The dangers we face are not found in mistaken ideas – they are found in the negation of what is. Scripture says that our adversary was a “murderer from the beginning.” It is existence that he hates, though he does not have the power to cause anything to cease to be. It is God alone who brings us into existence and God alone who sustains all things.

And yet, we encounter darkness. I have seen two kinds of darkness (surely there are more). One is the darkness that resembles despair. I have both seen this in others and walked there myself. It is a darkness that is easy to pity and towards which mercy comes swiftly. Despair can take you to the brink and beyond, but it is not poisonous.

The second kind of darkness bears almost no similarity to the first. C.S. Lewis captured a picture of this darkness in his novel, Perelandra. There the “Unman” (Satan using a dead man’s body) pursues an opportunity to cause a second planet to “fall.” There is a great dialog in which the Unman engages Perelandra’s Eve. But it is in less grand settings that the darkness reveals itself. As the hero, Ransom, follows the Unman’s trail, he finds small acts of cruelty, a frog needlessly tortured and left to die; then another and another…. These petty acts of meanness point to a deeper darkness that is simply marked by hatred.

…He told himself that a creature of that kind [the frog] probably had very little sensation. But it did not much mend matters. It was not pity for pain that had suddenly changed the rhythm of his heart-beats. The thing was an intolerable obscenity which afflicted him with shame. It would have been better, or so he thought at that moment, for the whole universe never to have existed than for this one thing to have happened….

The energy of hatred is black. The real thing (and I’ve seen it – if you’ve strayed to the wrong places on the internet – even the ‘Orthodox’ internet – then you’ve seen it, too) is a vapid darkness that steals the breath. It cannot be engaged without staining everything it contacts. It bathes in shame and spews it forth. To acknowledge its very existence is to risk a kind of damnation (from which Christ rescues us). It is hard to imagine this darkness as having a human face, but it often does.

I understand the tragedy and the pain of despair. There are those who imagine suicide as the worst of sins, but it is as nothing in the face of the mercy of God. I do not hesitate to pray with confidence for such souls, for though the pain of their darkness was dark to them, “the darkness and the light are both alike to [God]” (Psalm 139:12).

I do not understand the second kind of darkness and do not know how to enter such a place in order to bring someone out. I believe that Christ does so, and that He knows both the path of entry and creates the way of exit. The souls who have embraced such darkness are not beyond the mercy and kindness of God ( “for He is kind to the unthankful and evil” – Luke 6:35). I believe this to be so because I trust in the kindness of God. But I do not understand it.

I believe in the goodness of God. The darkness of evil is not anything. It is not a creation of God; it has no being. It is a direction and a movement away from goodness and being. In most cases it is a stumbling and a falling away. It is only in rare instances that it becomes a willing force that pushes away all goodness and despises existence itself (not its own so much as that of others). This malevolence (literally “evil willing”) is described as a “mystery” in 2Thess. 2:7. God will destroy it.

It is because the Christian faith is about things that are and not theories and ideas, that I often resist various theologies that are grounded in concepts of justice. Though justice makes an attempt to address the problem of evil, it only compounds matters, offering little more than a theoretical need for evil to suffer yet more. Justice is used as well in an attempt to describe Christ’s atonement. But in such models, evil presents a need for balance and payment, when the true existential crisis is the need for rescue and for evil’s destruction. Humanity has no need for such justice. God has no needs.

The sound of human need is more visceral: “Who will go there to bring them home? Who will come here to deliver me?”

I am reminded again of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. There, the hero Ransom (whose name and work mirror Christ), discovered that his mission was not to engage the Unman in conversation. Conversations with evil grant a nobility that does not exist. Our own talk about evil with theories of balance and atonement are equally fruitless. Ransom discovered that his mission was simply to destroy the Unman. The Orthodox approach to human sin and the darkness that afflicts us is equally to the point:

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

In the book of Acts, it is recorded that God gave St. Paul a ministry for us: ” to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (26:18).

God give us light and destroy the works of darkness.


Written with prayers for the servant of God, Aaron Kimel. May his memory be eternal!

Living the Life of the Publican

November 7, 2011

For many people in our culture, the idea of private confession is neither attractive nor comforting. We prefer “to put our best foot forward,” and make the best impression on others. Everyone is aware that everyone has faults. Those who have grown up Protestant may have been frequently reminded, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In the polite Southern Protestant culture in which I grew up, it was also made clear that gentlemen did not discuss those shortfalls despite the fact that their presence was universally true.

Everyone quickly acknowledged that “all have sinned” – it was the specifics that were avoided. And so it is that most can easily acknowledge that they have sinned generally – it is the particulars that we find embarrasing and hard to discuss.

Churches that practice private confession within our culture notice that confession is the sacrament most avoided. People rarely stand in line or rush to their priest. And upon reaching the priest, people frequently rush to describe their general sins and avoid the particulars. One of my closest and most beloved Archpastors once told me, “I still hate going to confession.”

The Church frequently contrasts the prayer of the Publican and the prayer of the Pharisee in the parable told by Christ (Luke 18). The Pharisee goes to the temple, offering his prayer to God. In the course of his prayer he thanks God that he is not like other men (sinners). He tithes, he fasts, he keeps the Law. The publican (a tax-collector and seen as a traitor to Israel) goes to the temple but avoids even lifting his face towards God. He smites himself on the chest and exclaims, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It is the Publican whom Christ says goes home justified before God: “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luk 18:14).

There is no discussion of the legal merits of either prayer or either man: everything depends upon the state of the heart of the one who prays. The same is true of confession and of the whole of the Orthodox life. There are no measures of achievement – no rules which once kept render us safe and secure. In this life the heart always rests on the line between paradise and hades and rests nowhere else.

In many Protestant models of the Christian faith, it is paramount to render the question of paradise and hades as moot. We perform certain actions, or accept certain ideas, and all is settled. We are forgiven, our place in heaven is secure. Orthodoxy can be unnerving in this regard – it recognizes the on-going and dynamic state of the line between paradise and hades and the movements of the human heart. The stability within Orthodoxy is found in the state of continual repentance. “A humble and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17).

Of course abiding in a state of continual repentance runs deeply counter to those habits formed within a legal or forensic context. We would like the matter to have been settled once and for all and never discussed again. We would like God to abide by the rules of polite Southern culture. A gentleman would never discuss such things more often than necessary.

But God is not presented to us as a gentleman, nor is the problem of our sin presented to us as a series of legal problems to be rectified by a pronouncement of “forgiven!” Rather, God is presented to us as the “Great Physician” and we are told that we suffer from a mortal wound or disease. The doctor, having diagnosed us, would be derelict in his duties were he never to mention our mortal wound ever again for fear of scandalizing the mores of a dissolute but polite culture.

For the wound we bear is nothing other than a hard and unrepenting heart. The sickness that infects us is pernicious – for its very character is that it hates and resists both its diagnosis and its cure.

And so the Publican and his prayer become the model for healthy Christian living. We do not repent one time – we repent all the time. Repentance is not a discussion with God over the legal status of our sins – it is a discussion with the Great Physician over the “medical” status of a heart that is hard and far from contrite. Repentance is another word for living with a broken and contrite heart.

I have sometimes counseled parishioners that they should “learn to pray like a Publican.” It is not unusual in the Christian life to fail. We fail at prayer. We fail in our sins. We fail in our well-intentioned and sworn obligations. The most common reaction to such failures is not making another effort, but giving up all together. Our pride overcomes us. If I cannot pray as I have sworn I would, then I will not pray at all. This, of course, is simply a delusion sent us by the enemy. We want to pray like a Pharisee – to pray with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. We have been taught to hate the feeling of contrition, and to despise a broken heart. The so-called “middle class” in our cultures embraces a middle class standard of virtue. No one is really good, but no one is really all that bad (or so we think). Mediocrity is the perfect standard – for its measure is those around me – and thus I easily engage in judging others and compare my life to theirs. We trust that there is safety in numbers.

Scripture tells us that our measure is the “stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). To make anything or anyone else our standard of measure is, at best, blasphemous. It is an agreement to be less than human, much less the divine union with Christ into which we have been called. It reduces Christianity to mere religion, and a mediocre religion at that.

The full measure of the stature of Christ’s fullness is found only in following the path which Christ Himself has set for us: the self-emptying way of the Cross. This too, is nothing other than the daily and continual path of repentance. Christ accepted His humiliation as though it were just – as though it belonged to Him. He neither sought to defend or justify Himself. “Like a sheep led to the slaughter or a blameless lamb before its shearers is mute so he opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Christ “emptied Himself” according to St. Paul. He went to the Cross with a “broken and contrite heart.”

This way of the Cross is the way of repentance and is normative for daily life in Christ. All theories which seek to set this “mind” aside and replace it with rationalized atonement theories, is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture and the fathers and the way of salvation as taught us in Christ.

We learn to “pray like a Publican,” for like him, we learn to be meek and lowly of heart. We learn to accept our brokenness, not as a problem to be solved or overlooked, but a state of heart to be embraced and from which to seek God.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”.

And thus it is that publicans and sinners will enter the kingdom of God before many who thought themselves righteous. Pray to be found among the publicans and sinners on that great day.

Face to Face

November 4, 2011

There are few joys of a blogosphere writer greater than to meet face-to-face with his readers. Such has been my experience at my time at the 16th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America. To embrace someone who can say that my articles on the death of my parents helped them to endure the death of their own parents is beyond anything I can express in words – for the love of the brethren which makes it possible to write is far extended by the tears and comfort of those who read. Glory to God for all things!

Such is also the case for all things that pertain to Christ’s holy Church. For the joy of the Church cannot be measured in words, nor can words give it true expression. My life as an Orthodox Christian has been an unending experience of the joy and strength of the brethren. Many times my heart has been broken in prayer and offered in tears and sorrow – but it has always been met in humility of love and the joyful candor of love and meekness. My sorrow has always been overcome in the love of the brethren.

The life of the Church always transcends the paucity of our own experience. The simple question, “How are you doing?” has been met by my inability to give expression to my heart.

I cannot express in words the fullness of my heart that is found in the sight and presence of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah. Any weakness which may find criticism in anothers’ words is overcome in his very sight and uncompromising love which are the fullness of my experience of his friendship. I am a weak and foolish man who easily welcomes the kindness and friendship of those whose love I do not deserve.

I have met again the many priests and laymen who, like me, are the spiritual children of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas. I realize how unworthily his kindness and unrelenting generosity have been met by the smallness of my own Orthodox life. But my life has again been stretched. May all be saved!

An assembly of Orthodox Christians is both joy and sorrow. It is joy because the brethren constantly remind of the possibility and presence of paradise. It is sorrow because my own sin separates me from the fullness of such joy. I pray the forgiveness of my sorrowful sins and the taste of Christ’s promise. I pray also for those whose experience of the assembly of saints is itself a sorrow – God alone knows. May no one be deprived of paradise on my account.

I cannot begin to say how my heart longs for paradise and the presence of all who are readers of my own unworthy writings. Through the mercies of God, may we know each other in that place where there is no sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting! Glory to God for all things! May all who read be forgiven their sins! And may all pray for my soul – unworthy and empty of repentance!

Salvation, Ontology, Existential, and Other Large Words

September 17, 2011

In recent posts I have contrasted morality with ontological, as well as existential, etc. I’ve had comments here and elsewhere in which people stumbled over the terms. The distinction offered is not a private matter. Orthodox theologians for better than a century have struggled to make these points as being utterly necessary to the life of the Orthodox faith. The following is a small article of mine that tries to do some of the same. In a nutshell: morality is “life according to rules or reasonable philosophies.” The Orthodox contention is that morality fails to describe the true nature of the Christian life. Rather the world ontological is more proper: it means have to do with the very being of someone – their essence. What we need is not a change in behavior (morality) but a change in who we are (ontology). Christ came to change us, not reform us. 

Morality does not use Orthodox means – it’s all in the “head.” It is rules. Ontological change requires that our very being or existence (thus the word existential) be united with Christ, His life becomes our life and thus we live a new life. Once this fundamental approach is understood, so we can begin to under the mysteries of the Church and the true character of our life in Christ. Thus this article – a meager thing meant to be of some help. 


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 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 not creatures 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 existence that 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 30 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 twelve 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.

From the Foundations

April 2, 2011

Among the more interesting statements in Holy Scripture is found in Rev. 13:8:

All who dwell on earth will worship it [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life, of the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world…

That Christ is here described as the Lamb is not at all unusual: the Scriptures use that title for Christ from the time of John the Baptist forward. Indeed, though Christ himself is nowhere quoted as describing Himself as the Lamb of God, it is clear that the Church understood this to be true from its very beginning. He is not only the Lamb, but the Lamb slain. The easiest identity is with that of the Passover Lamb, though there are other lambs of sacrifice. St. Paul makes the connection with Passover in his statement:

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast…

These appellations for Christ have become so commonplace within the Christian world (in hymns such as the Agnus Dei), that we frequently fail to stop and listen to what is being said, or to consider how astounding the title itself is. It is clearly a title that has considered and understood the larger meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross. His death is not a martyrdom, but a sacrifice. It is the Passover (Pascha) in a new and more cosmic dimension.

I can recall pondering St. Paul’s statement that “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” and marveling at the wealth of content conveyed in that simple statement. It forced me to ask myself, “From where did St. Paul get this?” The obvious answer is that it was already a settled part of the Church’s teaching and Tradition. Paul did not find it necessary to argue or prove the point. It is stated, indeed, in order to make a further point.

Revelations does not repeat the mere assertion that Christ is the “Lamb of God.” It goes further and adds that He is the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth.” This lifts the event of Christ’s crucifixion from a point within history with a beginning in time and an end in time to the level of an event which transcends time. The Lamb who was slain on Calvary, is also the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth.

In truth, He is not only the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth, but also, in so saying, He is also the Lamb Who is slain beyond all time. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Lamb whose slaying is both historical event and eschatological event. Thus there is no time either before the first century nor since, nor yet to come, in which He is not the Lamb Who was slain.

This is a very unique and powerful proclamation. Those who would reduce the sacrifice of Christ into a momentary “once and for all” (based in a mis-reading of Hebrews 9:12), reduce the suffering of Christ into a mere three hours, His sacrifice into something which seems less than its fullness and its greatness. The witness of Scripture is otherwise. The Lamb who is slain for us, has been slain from before creation, and remains the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. As long as we suffer, He suffers. He is the Lamb always and for all.

This does not diminish the efficacy of His sacrifice: it magnifies the measure of the love of God.

There are many difficulties when Christians begin doing theology and introduce historical time into the mix. The sacrifice of Christ does not follow the sacrifices of the Old Testament (as their mere fulfillment). It precedes them. They are but its type and shadow. The reality both precedes them and comes after them for it was always the greater.

There never was suffering or sin on the earth that Christ has not taken upon Himself, though it was not always known to those who were suffering or sinning. None of those who have been born on earth were ever reduced to a category (“those who have not known Christ”). A human being is not able to be confined to a category. The love of God makes such confinements impossible. Each suffering, each sin, is infinitely borne by the Crucified Lamb, for all time and before all time.

Modern Christianity is afflicted with historical consciousness – it is a by-product of our modern philosophy. All things are simply discreet moments within the timeline of history. It is useful for teaching history to the young – but it is foolishness for adults. We should know better.

Simplistic and literalistic approaches to history simplify things for those who would prefer not to think. For the fundamentalist Christian, things are true because they happened in a literal, historical manner; there is no mystery within his view of history. By the same token, modernists (believers and unbelievers) accept things only according to their supposes historical veracity. Thus their concern is determining what “actually” happened (as though such could ever be determined). For some, historical (archeological, etc.) evidence is convincing and productive of “faith.” For others, history excludes the claims of the gospel. Their lives have risen above the claims of Christ, having relegated Him to the dustbin of history.

The faith of the Church and of the Fathers, transcends history. The modern historical perspective is a diminution of human thought – a shrinking of human understanding to its least possible meaning or significance. Nothing stretches beyond itself – nothing carries the irony or allegory of multiple meaning. The world has become flat and two-dimensional. It is the reduction of secularism to the level of the utterly banal.

The richness of the Scripture sees and understands Christ in terms that explode human understanding. The “Lamb” is slain even before the foundations of the earth. How can we comprehend such a claim? How can we conceive of His suffering on behalf of all and for all?

This explosion is the invitation to the human heart to be “enlarged” in the words of St. Paul. Dare we allow ourselves to be ravished by such a fullness? It will rob us of words and even understanding. It invites us into an understanding that itself belongs not to a specific time, but to the ages.

It is the sacrifice of this Lamb that we approach in the feast of Pascha that draws near. It is both invitation to salvation – but a salvation that invites to step outside of every limitation which we have known.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.

The Grace of Just Showing Up

February 3, 2011

There has been a tendency in much teaching about the notion of salvation by grace to ground the image in a legal or forensic metaphor. Thus, we are saved by grace in the sense that someone else’s goodwill and kindness (God’s) has now freed us from the consequences of our actions. Thus we speak of grace as the “free gift” of God.

There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. Of course, there are varying shades within this debate and I have surely not done justice to the full understanding of either point.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life. Others have sometimes referred to these elements as belonging to “sanctification,” but there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition.

It is from within that understanding that my comments on grace are shaped. It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything. The political world thrives on repeated campaigns for “change,” though change is always a relatively slow thing (except in revolutions when it is usually not a change for the better).

There is a saying from the desert fathers: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a recognition thatstability is an inherent virtue in the spiritual life, and in the constancy and patience of our prayers and labors with God, grace has its perfect work.

In the modern parish setting, particularly with my catechumens, I have translated the desert saying into a more modern statement: “Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up.” We do not live in cells nor is our stability marked by sitting quiety through the day reciting the Jesus Prayer. There certainly should be times of the day set aside for prayer – but one of the primary locations of our life of grace – as Christians living in the world – is to be found within the life of the parish Church – particularly within its life of sacraments, prayers, and patience (there is equally as much patience to be practiced in the parish as in any monastery). One mark of our struggle for stability is “just showing up.”

The life of grace is central to our existence as Christians and must not become secularized. In a secular understanding, the Church has a role to play in a larger scheme of things (the secular world). Thus the Church becomes useful to me and at the same time takes on a diminished role in my life and in the culture of my life. Secularism is the dominant form of American culture. It is not hostile to Church attendance – but sees it as having a diminished importance. Church becomes just one of many programs in which we may be involved. In some families, choices are made between a child’s participation in a Sunday soccer league and a child’s participation in Church. Adults make similar choices for themselves. But the transformation that is occurring in such choices is the transformation of the Church and the gift of God’s life (grace) into a secular program which exists to meet my religious needs or interests. Such an approach is a contradiction of the life of grace.

Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace. In cultural terms, it means a renunciation of the secular life – a life defined by my needs as a consumer within the modern experience – and an acceptance of my life as defined by the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is to be taken up with integrity – it must be taken up daily and more often still than that.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)

Suffering in a One-Storey Universe

November 1, 2010

A comment on a previous post which mentioned the Biblical and patristic teaching that we should “give thanks to God for all things” has been an occasion for personal reflection – the substance of which forms this present post. For those who wrestle with the inherent difficulties of giving thanks for all things – I hope this reflection will be helpful.

The comment which occasioned these thoughts:

..I think the lines separating suffering FOR Christ/for His sake and the suffering in life as is common to ALL men have become blurred….if i suffer persecution or if i am treated unjustly for naming Christ or for righteousness sake then i partake/share in Christ’s sufferings and would have joyful reason to Thank God for it…Yet for the christian NOT ALL  suffering experienced is FOR Christ’s sake…the vast majority (if not all)of my sufferings and trials while living my life as an american christian has nothing at all to do with my being a christian but is the common ‘stuff’ of life….there is a difference.. is there not?

As I thought about this very excellent question – I began to see the familiar pattern of secular thought which marks the “default position” of our culture – for believers and un-believers alike. Secularism does not disbelieve in God, but it divides the world into separate spheres: we inhabit a natural “non-God” arena – but God may be “accessed” in prayer, etc. In earlier writings I have described this construct as a “two-storey universe.” God dwells in heaven (or somewhere) while we live here in a world which works according to its own laws, etc. Transcendent meaning and all things “religious” are thus exiled to certain moments, or certain spaces, or to events of a certain nature. Things that are not so exiled are just “the stuff of life.”

In such a scenario, suffering takes on a “two-storey” character. There are specifically difficult things to be borne for Christ’s sake – persecution and other heroic religious acts – but there is also suffering that is just the “stuff of life”: cancer, tsunamis, earthquakes, being lost in a bad economy, the death of a child or a spouse, etc. This division of the world in which some suffering is “for Christ’s sake” while other suffering carries no particular meaning at all, partakes of the same problems raised by the two-storey model in every other area it touches. One part of our life is capable of transcendence while most of our lives collapse into the banality of “stuff.” Thus most of life is meaningless and absurd. It also seems to me, that the islands of transcendence which we posit in such a massive sea of absurdity, run the risk of a constantly shrinking shoreline. Transcendent meaning has not only been diminished, but stands on the edge of extinction.

I will offer a few observations:

1. Either Christ’s Pascha (His death and resurrection) contained all of existence (including all suffering) or it contained nothing.

2. Either Christ’s Pascha has filled everything with transcendence or it has filled nothing.

3. Every event, every particle of existence is “for Christ’s sake,” or nothing is “for His sake.”

This “all or nothing” approach to Christ and His Pascha lies at the very heart of the gospel and alone represents the fullness of life in Christ.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

St. Paul’s description of Christ’s saving work is expressed in cosmic, all-encompassing terms. In Romans 8 he describes the “whole” creation as groaning in travail awaiting the freedom that comes in Christ. In the first chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul speaks in unmistakeable terms:

Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him…” (Ephesians 1:9-11).

One of the great theological aphorisms of the fathers is that of St. Gregory the Theologian, who, addressing the doctrine of Christ’s humanity, said: “That which is not assumed is not saved.” His point was that our salvation in Christ was made possible by the fact that He took upon Himself the whole of human nature.

In the same manner, all of creation would have no hope were it not for the fact that the Creator assumed creation.

The two-storey approach to the world also creates a two-storey approach to our salvation. Those acts which have significance and transcendence are ultimately connected with human choice. Thus Christ dies for our sins (our wrong choices and actions). Actions which are not “wrong” thus have no need of redemption. Cancer caused the our choice to smoke, might thus be seen as a redeemable suffering – but the mindless, meaningless suffering of a childhood cancer cannot partake of that redemption. It is simply absurd within a two-storey universe.

I would readily grant that the suffering and evil which we encounter within the created order has the character of absurdity – but this is also part of its very character. If “all things are being gathered together in Christ,” then even absurdity is being gathered into Him – and in that union ceases to be absurd.

The Orthodox approach to the saving action of Christ has always had a very all-encompassing approach. The redemption of the world is not isolated to Christ’s death on the Cross (as payment for sin), but begins with His incarnation, when the Creator unites Himself to creation. That same Creator is crucified on the cross, and within Him all creation is crucified. The same Christ takes all of creation with Him in Hades and raises it together with Him in the resurrection. “That which is not assumed is not saved.” All is assumed.

The role of the human will (in its acceptance of Christ) is not insignificant in our salvation – but the will chooses or rejects what Christ has already accomplished. The ultimate outcome of those choices are known to God alone. However, God’s will is clear: He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

The great mystery of the suffering of Christ cannot be confined to a forensic account in which His death is simply a payment for sin. The Scripture and the fathers’ understanding of Christ is far more cosmic. Evil is inherently absurd and meaningless (for God is the only source of good and meaning is always relative to Him). But Christ has taken that absurdity into Himself and ultimately transforms it. It is the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection of Christ that make thanksgiving possible – including thanksgiving for all things. Christ is the Eucharist (thanksgiving) of the world and every act of thanksgiving finds its fulfillment in Him.

The world is not broken into sacred and profane. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory,” the angels sing in Isaiah’s great vision. The glory they behold is nothing other than the life of Christ which offered “on behalf of all and for all.”

For which I give thanks.

Existence and Truth

September 22, 2010

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, as a young man who returned to the faith following a flirtation with Marxism, came to an understanding that the Christian faith is not to be understood as a moral structure, but as a matter of true existence. This distinction is deeply important in Orthodox understanding, and has been a hallmark of Orthodox teaching in the 20th and 21st century. Few matters of the faith draw out this distinction as clearly as considerations of the Atonement.  Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin and thus the essential nature of the Atonement, are certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith – though they do an extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of Scripture on the point. St. Gregory Nazianzus was not unfamiliar with the image, but dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme. He is not a minor, isolated father of the Church, but one of the primary architects of the Ancient Church’s statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. He cannot simply be dismissed as “odd” on this point. Scripture, both in St. Paul and St. John, make the strongest possible connection between sin and death. Our sin is not the result of an indebtedness, but rather the failure to live in communion with God. Humanity did not incur an unpayable debt at the Fall, but rather entered the realm of death (as God had warned). Theories of the Atonement which found their popularization in the Middle Ages in the West and more recently in the Protestant world, should not be allowed to set aside the ancient inheritance of the teachings of the fathers. We are a walking existential crisis – verging on non-existence itself. This is not a result of God’s wrath, but the result of our rebellion against the “good God who loves mankind” and our preference for death over life. I can think of nothing more central to the Orthodox faith, which is to say, the faith as delivered to the Church by Christ. May God give us grace to apprehend the wonder of His gift of salvation.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”

This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.

It presses the question upon us all: “What is the truth of my existence?” It presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God – not finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious half-measures – but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions – this is not its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the words of her liturgies. In God “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence – but its mere pretence.

Why Small Things Matter

May 2, 2010

A reader’s comment on an old posting of mine (from 2007) took me back to read the same. It seemed worth re-posting. Some things bear repeating – again and again, as they say.

Perhaps one of the greatest disservices done to Christians by the spate of “Left Behind” novels and the like, and the romanticism that is inherent in the drama depicted – is that it makes the true struggle undergone by Christians seem trivial by comparison. When the small actions, little choices for kindness, forgiveness, joy, comfort – the whole panoply of our daily struggle – are minimized, the heroism of our struggle and its importance can be reduced to insignificance.

When this is coupled with a reduced doctrine of the Atonement, in which a simple act of intellectual acceptance, a “choice for Jesus,” acquires a blood payment for sin in a once-for-all momentary encounter (I’m doing my best to describe the popular conception of the Substitutionary Atonement Theory), Christianity itself becomes minimized. One decision and you’re done. Little wonder that many have traded-in Christian ascesis for political action – at least the latter seems real to them.

I have described the Substitutionary Atonement as a “reduced” doctrine because it uses only one sacrificial image to describe Christ’s work on the Cross. This single image does not begin to do justice to the many images of sacrifice given in the Scriptures, all of which are fullfilled by Christ’s death on the Cross. Christ’s sacrifice is not one thing – but all things. If its fullness makes it difficult for somebody’s systematic theology – so be it.

The reduction of Christianity to a virtual land of fantasy has granted undue power to our present age in the guise of the secular. There is, in fact, no such thing as secular – it is a modern fiction – one which Christians should not empower by granting it recognition. God is excluded from nothing whatsoever, nor does He ask for our permission in order to be present. We may do unspeakable things in His presence – but that does not render Him absent. It renders to us hardened hearts but can make no change in the changeless God.

The sooner Christians awaken to the marketing scheme of secularizing dogma-merchants, the sooner they can begin their search for the God whom they have “left behind.” He is truly near us, even on our lips and in our mouths. We should renounce the false romanticism of modern dispensationalism and the hucksters of false messianic prophecies. All of these things are removing the truth of our faith from the smallest of things before us, and placing them on the false stage of “history.”

Small things matter for it is there that we will meet Christ – and there alone. Every moment of our life, even when it is later dramatized for narrative effect, is still quite a small thing. Either we will see and embrace Christ in these moments of our existence, or we will worship a false Christ manufactured by human imagination and fantasy. For the Christian, God is here or He is nowhere at all.

Metaphors of the Atonement

April 15, 2010

Metaphors are very important when thinking about any aspect of our salvation. People can sometimes state what they believe as doctrine very precisely without thinking about what their beliefs imply about God, the world, or themselves. Metaphors can work in a very hidden way – particularly those that are referred to as “root metaphors.” A root metaphor is the over-arching imagery that generally governs how a train of thought goes. It provides the logical or image-driven framework upon which later thought will be built.

Excellent illustrations of this are found if you look at the doctrines related to the Descent of Christ into Hades. The article by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ Descent into Hades, which was recently referenced here, notes contrasts in how the understanding of Christ’s Descent into Hades developed in both East and West. The development, starting in the 4th or 5th centuries eventually resulted in very different understandings. But the underlying issue was not the Descent into Hades but the metaphors which came to dominate the thought of Christian teachers, East or West.

Bishop Hilarion cited a passage from Cyril of Alexandria’s Paschal Homily (7th Paschal Homily, 2) and noted:

The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades occupies an essential place in the works of Cyril of Alexandria. In his ‘Paschal Homilies’, he repeatedly mentions that as a consequence of the descent of Christ into Hades, the devil was left all alone, while hell was devastated: ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely’.

This imagery is also found in St. John Chrysostom’s famous Catechetical Homily: “And not one dead is left in the grave.”

Bishop Hilarion contrasts this with the Descent into Hades’ development in Western Christianity:

The general conclusion can now be drawn from a comparative analysis of Eastern and Western understandings of the descent into Hades. In the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was considerable similarity between the interpretation of this doctrine by theologians in East and West. However, already by the 4th—5th centuries, substantial differences can be identified. In the West, a juridical understanding of the doctrine prevailed [emphasis added]. It gave increasingly more weight to notions of predestination (Christ delivered from hell those who were predestined for salvation from the beginning) and original sin (salvation given by Christ was deliverance from the general original sin, not from the ‘personal’ sins of individuals). The range of those to whom the saving action of the descent into hell is extended becomes ever more narrow. First, it excludes sinners doomed to eternal torment, then those in purgatory and finally unbaptized infants. This kind of legalism was alien to the Orthodox East, where the descent into Hades continued to be perceived in the spirit in which it is expressed in the liturgical texts of Great Friday and Easter, i.e. as an event significant not only for all people, but also for the entire cosmos, for all created life.

An excellent example of the sort of development in the West which Bishop Hilarion describes is found in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Bishop Hilarion offers this observation:

Thomas Aquinas was the 13th-century theologian who brought to completion the Latin teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades. In his ‘Summa Theologiae’, he divides hell into four parts: 1) purgatory (purgatorium), where sinners experience penal suffering; 2) the hell of the patriarchs (infernum patrum), the abode of the Old Testament righteous before the coming of Christ; 3) the hell of unbaptized children (infernum puerorum); and 4) the hell of the damned (infernum damnatorum). In response to the question, exactly which was the hell that Christ descended to, Thomas Aquinas admits two possibilities: Christ descended either into all parts of hell or only to that in which the righteous were imprisoned, whom He was to deliver. In the first case, ‘for going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely on account of original sin (pro solo peccato originali detinebantur in inferno), He shed the light of glory everlasting’. In the second case, the soul of Christ ‘descended only to the place where the righteous were detained’ (descendit solum ad locum inferni in quo justi detinebantur), but the action of His presence there was felt in some way in the other parts of hell as well.

What is of interest to me is looking at what is happening on the metaphorical level in these two treatments of Christ’s Descent into Hell. In St. Cyril’s preaching, as well as in other Fathers of the Eastern Church, the root metaphor of Christ’s Descent into Hell is literally that – Christ’s Descent into Hell. Gustav Aulen, the Swedish Lutheran theologian, would later dub this imagery the “Christus Victor” model of the atonement. It is placing Christ’s defeat of Satan and destruction of Hell as the dominant image that is pressed throughout its preaching and its use in doctrine. The East never broke the metaphor up (nor did it ever offer an analysis of Hell itself as in Aquinas’ four distinctions). A number of Eastern Fathers, indeed the majority, will labor somewhat to state that not everyone will be saved in a “happy” sense, but they have to labor to reach that conclusion because the overarching metaphor of Christ Descent into Hades can easily lead one to see Hell as empty – and if Hell is empty, then all are saved. (I personally love Cyril’s description of Satan being left “abandoned and lonely.”)

In the West, it is not the metaphor created by the Descent of Christ into Hades that controls the development of thought on the subject, but an alternative metaphor – that of the forensic, or legal world, as Bishop Hilarion noted. Thus Christ’s Descent into Hades is analyzed by reference to a metaphor outside the event and made to conform, ultimately, to that metaphor.

Thus it is today that we find the Roman Catholic Church re-examining the doctrine of limbo. My dear friend Fr. Al Kimel has posted an article on the current work of Catholic theologians on Pontifications. It is worth a read – but I would note to any reading it, that from an Orthodox perspective, what is going on is a reexamination of the legal metaphor and the possibility that some other approach might yield different results. It did in the Eastern Church – and will in the West if theologians there will let the event speak for itself.

I will add as an additional observation, that the controlling or root metaphor in the West was not simply drawn from the legal world itself. Rather, an analysis of the Adamic fall and the use of some of St. Paul’s imagery with that fall, come to be the dominant metaphor. Original sin therefore plays a role in the West that it never did in the East. It is worth noting that the thinking and doctrine concerning salvation which followed or were driven by that metaphor come to see the Descent into Hell as problematic. Rome treated the problem by subjecting it to scholastic analysis. For much of the Protestant tradition, the Descent becomes so problematic that it is virtually forgotten. Anglican Prayerbooks (even in 1928) offered optional versions of the Apostles’ Creed in which you could say, “He descended into Hell,” or “He went into the place of departed spirits.” At the most, the Descent into Hell was limited to a freeing of the “righteous.” The alternative metaphor of original sin and juridical salvation gave little or no room for a salvation from Hell from within Hell itself. For a large number of modern Evangelicals, it is no exaggeration to say that there is no awareness at all that Christ ever descended into Hell (Hades, etc.). The metaphor which dominates their thoughts on salvation gives no room nor necessity for such a descent. This absence is similar to the absence of sacramental understanding in which Baptism and Eucharist play a role in salvation. They are reduced to memorials or ordinances because the controlling metaphor in modern Protestant thought has no room nor necessity for either.

The ending of Chrysostom’s Catechetical Sermon is a fitting end to these thoughts:

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.