Posts Tagged ‘Personhood’

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!

In A Strange Land

October 18, 2011

It seems to me that life carries us into strange places on occasion – places where I have not been before. Such experiences can be quite distracting. In very strong instances such experiences can threaten to take over our lives and redefine everything around us. Living as a Christian in a strange land is difficult.

Abraham leaves his own home, complete with its own struggles, and travels to a strange land. The context changes deeply, and yet the context of the God who called him there remains consistent, at least as Abraham knows God.

The goal of my life in Christ is to remain faithful to Christ. Despite changes that inevitably shake my world, the goal remains the same and Christ is without change. Thus there is a Rock which cannot be shaken and whose purpose remains the same.

I have a sense that many things are being shaken in our world just now – and far more than we can see at present. I encourage my readers and friends to remain faithful to the Rock upon whom our lives are present. We have no “abiding city,” no political philosophy, no marriage to the transient things of this world. Many things seem to be shaken at present – though the Kingdom we seek cannot be shaken.

Pray for one another and be hopeful. He who cannot be shaken, and who abides, governs all. It is to Him that our hearts and lives belong and for Him that we alone hunger.

May God keep us all and fill us with the hope that abides – always.

Crossing the Bar

September 24, 2011

I served a Church in the course of ministry in which a large group of my members were educated (in a way few are today), thoughtful and of an age similar to that of my parents or a few years older. They belonged to that “greatest generation,” veterans the Second World War or deeply enmeshed in the economic and military structures that swept an entire culture into a new way of being. It inevitably became my lot to listen to their stories during their last days – to hear that of their children – and finally to give voice to what I had seen and heard in a spoken word of faith that was part of the ritual of their passing.

It was not the passing of giants, though their accomplishments outstripped in many ways the generation that followed. But they were larger men and women – if only for the fact that many of them had known death far more intimately than their heirs do – and in knowing death – knew their own limits and in that humility knew God.

In the past three years, sped along by the past month, I have buried my parents with a spoken word of faith, buried my spiritual father in the figure of Archbishop Dmitri. All three of whom belonged to that larger generation. They had buried their parents and many of their loved ones. My mother and father had seen the death of war and the poverty of the Depression-Era South. There was no perfection, other than lives that were full – sometimes of joy – sometimes of hope – sometimes of the Sturm und Drang that threatened to sweep us all away.

And now I stand as witness to what I have seen and known, a challenged man who need no longer measure his existence by transient marks. Coming face to face with that transcience and the empty offerings it yields for existence, I long for a greater measure – not necessarily perceptible to anyone else – the wondrous fullness of Christ. There is nothing to be found in the past – I cannot go there and do anything other than give thanks for it all and forgive it.

The Greatness stands in this moment, in this new day. I will either join my voice with the eternal chorus of witnessing cloud, or disappear in the soundless mumble of a heart growing numb. I choose to light the candle and begin the day surrounded by icons who announce to new day, and with them lift my no longer orphaned voice. “Blessed is our God, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages.”

The Unnecessary God

July 11, 2011

Many years ago I knew a pastor who said he did not believe in angels. I was surprised by his statement and asked him why. His response was interesting:

“I do not believe in angels because I cannot think of anything that they do that the Holy Spirit could not do instead.”

I thought his reasoning was confused at the time and still do. Essentially, he did not believe in angels because he did not think them necessary. Of course, the fault in his logic is that nothing created exists by necessity. All creation exists by the will of God and nothing can lay claim to necessity. Creation does not need to exist.

It is also correct to say that God does not need to exist – there is no necessity in God – His existence is pure freedom.

To speak of things as unnecessary or of God’s lack of necessity is very troubling. We often have an interior sense that things which do not exist by necessity may therefore not really exist at all. It is only natural for a child to have a sense of fear and insecurity when they come to an age to realize that their own existence not only had a beginning, but that they need not ever to have existed. It’s similar to the fear of death.

The lack of necessity in God is quite similar. Most arguments for the existence of God are a search for such necessity. Arguments that win and become persuasive are generally grounded in some form of necessity. The argument for God’s existence is not only that He does exist, but that He must exist. Of course if there is no necessity in God, if we cannot say, “God must,” then believers can find themselves deeply unsettled, thinking that if we cannot say “God must,” then perhaps we can say, “God isn’t.”

Such things are logical problems and the fear of them is rooted deep in the fears that haunt humanity.

At the heart of these problems is the problem of freedom. St. Paul says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” 2 Corinthians 3:17. We are also taught in the Scriptures that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). These are not separate understandings – for there is no love except love exists in freedom. That which is by compulsion is not love. Believers are invited into an existence that is rooted in love and freedom not necessity. Such an existence is the very basis of what it means for us to exist as persons.

All of this sets us in a place that can feel very insecure. We frequently prefer necessity to freedom and compulsion to love.

Those who argue against the existence of God remind me of my friend who found the existence of angels unnecessary. Many people have the experience described by St. Paul in Romans 1, in which the existence of God is easily inferred from the very existence and order of creation. But St. Paul does not describe such an experience as “necessary.” In our modern world such “necessity” would not always seem obvious. Moreover, such necessity is not immune to doubt.

The movement from a necessary existence to an existence grounded in freedom and love is a difficult journey for most people. The lack of compulsion (which is also a lack of violence) seems untenable in the world. People fear that without compulsion the world becomes far too dangerous. Compulsion can restrain evil, but it cannot make evil be good.

To use the word “unnecessary” with regard to God is not to say that we can exist without Him. It is to say that to exist with Him, in the fullness of life to which we are called, is to live beyond necessity and to embrace God in freedom and love.

Forgive my clumsy expressions.

Freedom and the Self

March 18, 2011

This Sunday on the Orthodox Calendar commemorates St. Gregory Palamas – perhaps the most significant theologian and teacher of the late Byzantine period. He particularly is important when considering the nature of the Christian experience of God. Orthodoxy believes that it is truly possible to know God though He remains unknowable. The mystery of this true knowledge constitutes the heart of St. Gregory’s work. I offer this small reflection on the topic of freedom in his honor.

Part of the experience of being involved in religious activities in the late 60’s and early 70’s was the not infrequent encounters with members of cults (they seemed to be everywhere). I’m not certain how I would define a cult (not purely by doctrine but certainly by its destruction and control of its members as whole persons). I worked in a “coffee house” (which in that particular time period, oddly enough, was not associated with coffee) for a couple of years – playing music and being involved in the adhoc ministry that was part of that world. We encountered young people from across the country (there was hardly anywhere else to go on the weekends, unless you drank or did drugs – the coffee house had neither). But a common thread in my encounters with cult members was an absence – it was as though nobody was home.

Conversations could be attempted – but the answers came back as selected quotes. Doubt, questioning, many of the things that you would expect from most people in conversations regarding God, were part of the absence. It is little wonder that people involved in cults were often treated as though they had been “brain-washed.” Something like that seemed to be the case.

Since then I have occasionally (though not often) encountered the same phenomenon in people who were not members of what anyone would think of as a cult. However, the same sense of absence, of a rigidity replacing freedom, marked the encounter.

Several years back I came across a small book that offered interesting insight into all of this: In Search of the Person: “True and False Self” according to Donald Winnicott and St. Gregory Palamas (Alexander Press, 2002). With a title like that, how could I resist? I was not familiar with Winnicott, though from what I read his work is pretty standard psychological fare. The author is Fr. Vasileos Thermos, who is both a practicing Psychotherapist and an Orthodox priest, living and working in Greece.

I was struck by a quote in the book from Fr. Dimitri Staniloae:

“To the extent that man does not use his freedom, he is not himself. In order to emerge from that indeterminate state, he must utilize his freedom in order to know and be known as himself.”

To summarize (hopefully without doing injustice) – our freedom, an essential part of what it means to be a person, is frequently suppressed in the name of religion (or other ideologies). Fearing immorality (or something similar), or seeking conformity at any cost, it is easy to reduce a person’s freedom, substituting a false obedience, that results in the creation of a “false self.” This “false self” is the “absence” I encountered in some cult members and others.

Freedom is a paradox. It is an utterly inherent part of our existence – a critical part of our salvation – and yet threatening in its power. Freedom of the self can seem a threat to every kind of order (religious, political, social, etc.). Nevertheless we are told in Scripture that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (freedom)” (2 Corinthians 3:17). St. Paul will also warn in his letter to the Galatians (5:13) that our liberty should not be used as an excuse to sin. And thus the paradox is set. Without freedom, we will not become the whole person we were created to be and which is the proper end of our salvation. But freedom can also be directed incorrectly, leading to yet another bondage (to sin). But substituting a religious bondage for a sinful bondage is not the answer.

Of course, Scripture also speaks of our being the “slaves of Christ,” a true statement when rightly understood, but also capable of misunderstanding and misuse.

This is, for me, part of the paradox of Orthodoxy. When I converted, a number of acquaintances in my former Church, made explanations to themselves that my conversion was an effort to hide from and avoid the discomfort of freedom. There was an assumption on their part that because the Orthodox Church’s teachings are clear and “conservative” on certain points (certainly in comparison to liberal Protestantism), that the Church must therefore be rigid and controlling. This is simply not the case.

It is easy to assume that canon law, because it is canon “law,” suppresses our freedom and makes us slaves. And yet this is not at all the case. The canons and Tradition (like Scripture) point us in the proper direction and enlighten us in the path of salvation. But the Orthodox application of the canons is guided by something other than a rigid literalism. We fast, but not as though the fast were a law. Every Bishop and Priest who serves as a custodian of the canons, has to apply them with salvation in mind (this is the proper use of what is termed “economia”). Different persons, different situations, require different applications of the canons. One rule does not fit all.

This mystery extends throughout the Church. This is not a reduction of canons into mere “guidelines” but the requirement of wisdom in their application as we seek to direct souls towards a proper relationship with God. The freedom of the person has to be respected in a manner such that what is nurtured is the “true self” and not a humanly created automaton (the “false self”), or simply the ego quoting what it does not truly know.

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” The paradox of our relationship to God is that obedience in our relationship to Him does not enslave us – but sets us free. It is the same as the paradox of the Cross. Christ said of the Cross, “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own self” (John 10:18). Our own salvation can be no different. No one can take our life from us – we must lay it down of our own self.

We lose our life in order to find it. We lose a false self in order to find the true. The saint is the most free of all human beings. What a strange wonder.

Risking Everything

January 15, 2011

In the struggle to come to the wholeness of Personhood – to become the “true self” rather than to sink into the “false self” our very existence as spiritual beings is at stake. If you read across Orthodox books that center on the issue of Personhood – a common theme becomes visible. Our fall and our brokenness leave us vulnerable, even in our religious efforts, to the development of a “false self” something quite other than the wholeness of true Personhood.  Indeed, religion might be more than just a little vulnerable to this – it may be one of the best ways to pursue a false mode of existence. It should be quickly added that most of our activities contribute to this false self – for it is simply another way in which our sinfulness manifests itself. The movement from false to true self is another way of describing the work of salvation that is wrought in us through grace.

The distinctions being made between “false” and “true” are not about identities: not a matter of my being “Bill” or “George.” It instead a distinction being made between a distorted and improper relation with God and the world around me and a whole and proper relation with God and the world around me. Through any number of life experiences we find ourselves wounded and broken. Our love becomes distorted such that we do not love as we ought. Our feelings (in the very largest and all-encompassing sense of the word) become distorted. We do not love what and who we should love in they way they should be loved. The whole range of emotions from hate, anger, joy, love, etc., all become distorted. Thus it seems that often the longer we live the more damage we receive and inflict.

The healing of the self includes the healing of the whole self. Though purification, illumination and deification (or the various ways of describing the ascetical and spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian) our emotions are restored to their proper function. We are able to love, to be thankful, to have anger even hate (in their proper sense – meaning however whatever is actually in the image of God). We do what is right (not as measured by some abstract set of principles or objective set of rules) but as is measured by the will of God: “whoever does the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

The difficulty in all of this is that it describes something dynamic, that is happening in the life of a believer. It is not static, such that it is finished before it is finished. Instead it is something of a roadmap, and looks at what is going on in the life of salvation and is a way of describing the relative merits of differing things. It is a way of saying what is important and what is at stake.

It is quite possible for a local church (as in a local parish, though we could be describing the more accurate sense of “local” church and mean the Orthodox Church in America or the Russian Orthodox Church, etc.) to go about what looks like the work of the Church, and in fact not be doing the work of the Church. The sacraments may be present (these are utterly essential aspects of the life of the Church). Fr. Alexander Schmemann is quoted as having said: “The Church is not an institution that has mysteries; it is a Mystery that has institutions. But it is quite possible to put things the other way around, and instead of serving the salvation of each member, be serving the creation and the fostering of the false self.

Our American way of life has tended to mold the local church into the local religion store. It offers various programs and activities that keep everyone involved and even maximizing the “ministries” of its members. But it can also simply be a beehive of activity, none or little of which has much to do with the healing of the soul.

In every activity of the Church, whether it is liturgical, or educational, or building buildings, what have you, each activity should serve for the healing of the soul and the nurture of the true self. If not, then the Church has simply become one more secular activity that is destroying true life rather than fostering it.

So, what is at stake? Everything. These things are easy to get wrong, and we doubtless fail at many of them most of the time. What is to be done? First we pray and seek to live our lives as though we believed in God. And not only that we believe in God, but that the goal of our life is our mystical union with Him and one another. We can engage in any Godly activity, but it will be seen as a Godly activity, if and only if, its goal is true union with God and one another. This will be marked by love, freedom, indeed the fruit of the Spirit. It may not be the most efficient of organizations (efficiency is not a criteria of Godly judgment), but if it is moving forward in this work of healing in whatever it is doing, then it is doing the work of God and He will be glorified.

Another specific activity, deeply related to this false and true self, is the knowledge of God, and all that we speak of when we say, “doctrine.” Part of the argument of St. Gregory Palamas, against those who argued for a different manner of knowing God, was his insistence on the experiential character of the proper knowledge of God. Thus when we know God properly, we know Him as Person, not as object or topic. Someone may know all of the dogmatic formulas such that they can repeat them with no trouble, or even quickly analyze a statement as somehow being contrary to the doctrine of the Church, and yet know all of this in a way that is not proper. They simply become experts, like someone studying for a game show. This is an activity that fosters the false self, and may be more dangerous than many, because the person involved can suffer under the delusion that because they “know” all of the true facts, they actually know the truth, when they do not.

In the liturgy we sing: “We have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.” This in no way means, “We now have the true facts.” Anyone could have the true facts. This is almost nothing. The hymn in the liturgy refers to a living relationship that is healing us a whole persons. There is no triumphalism in this hymn whatsover (if there is then one is singing from the “false self”). Instead, there is simple gratitude. We give thanks because God has done this for us (who in no way deserved what has been done).

Thus the Orthodox life should always be marked by a knowledge of God (frequently beyond expression even though it agrees with the doctrine as it has been revealed). But it is not doctrine I wish to know, but Him Whom the doctrine reveals. Again, everything is at stake.

You Never Pray Alone

December 4, 2010

Forgive me if this offers any offense.

There is a conception of what it means to be human, rooted in Medieval thought and refined in the furnace of modernity. This conception views each person as a “free moral agent.” Each of us is a unique individual. Our choices are our own and set our path for good or ill. Moral decisions may be submitted to varying forms of ethical tests. The choices each individual makes may effect others around him, but does not impinge on the free moral agency of others. Salvation, in this conception, is an individual matter – between each of us and God. The Church, in this conception, is a free association of free moral agents, who gather together for worship and praise and other matters of mutual benefit.

This conception of humanity runs counter to the Tradition of the Church, substituting much later definitions and understandings for the thought of those who wrote Scripture, and those who, following them faithfully, propounded the Christian faith over the subsequent centuries. (A suggestion for reading – Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.)

When this matrix of a human as an individual moral agent is used as a lens through which Scripture is read – the result is often a distortion of Scripture (which was never meant to be a book for individuals). Such a lens all too easily ignores verses that clearly teach a different conception of what it means to be human and thus distorts the role of choice and free will as well as the account of salvation.

Were this distortion confined to an abstract debate then it would simply remain a matter of debate. But since it is actually based on flawed assumptions about the very nature of our existence – it goes far beyond mistaken thought and becomes positively harmful as a basis for human living, especially human life as a Christian.

We are created in God’s image – the image of the Triune God. This is not the same thing as saying each individual is created in the image of the Triune God (pace St. Augustine). All that God creates is pronounced “good.” The first thing described as “not good” is man alone. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). We are created in the image of God – persons of  one essence – our existence is inherently a common existence. It is this reality that ultimately provides the ground for understanding our life in Christ and the path of salvation.

St. Paul offers these admonitions:

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).

So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another (Romans 12:5)

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor. 12:26).

Within St. Paul’s statements is an understanding of what it means to be human – and particularly what it means to be persons who are members of the one body of Christ – in which individuality (as it stands alone) is the antithesis of the Christian understanding. Why should it be true that if one member of the body of Christ suffers, I should suffer as well? Does this not impinge on my freedom and reality as an individual moral agent? Of course it does – because I am not merely an individual moral agent. What each of us does effects all of us. Were it not so, Christ could not have taken upon Himself the sins of the world.

The forensic (legal) account of salvation, popular within many modern Christian circles, is easily misused, making our salvation extrinsic, a transaction offered on our behalf, but a transaction that only touches us as individual moral agents. We are forgiven as a man could be forgiven for a crime he has committed. He remains a criminal. This account of salvation is extremely well-suited to a world view in which man is seen primarily as an individual moral agent. He has been offered a forensic forgiveness. All that remains is for him to make a choice, accepting this boon with gratitude.

But such an account ignores the bulk of Christian Tradition (including large amounts of Scripture itself). Christ took the sins of the world upon Himself when He took upon Himself our human nature (at the Incarnation). He carried that burden to the Cross, into Hades, and raised it forgiven and healed in His Pascha. He remains united to us, having carried our humanity with Him in His glorious Ascension. Such an understanding of the Incarnation is consonant with the commonality of our existence.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together,” including the Head of the Body, Christ Jesus.

The truth of our existence is revealed in our life within the Church. The Church is the restoration of humanity to the truth of its existence. In the garden of Eden, human beings chose to act as individuals. Eve makes a choiceapart from Adam as Adam does apart from Eve. That rupture is perhaps more significant than the eating of the forbidden fruit itself.

The eating and drinking which are given in the life of the Church are a participation in a common life – the common life of God, given to us in Christ. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). We are also told, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). All of the sacraments of the Church (indeed the whole of everything of the Church) have this same character.

The disruption of our common humanity is the result of sin. Such a disruption can be seen in the first murder (Cain kills Abel) and is writ large in the story of the tower of Babel. Our common life has been shattered by sin – and it is not healed by becoming more fully what sin made of it. We do not find our salvation as individuals, but as members of the Body of Christ. “Christ is our life” (Col. 3:4). The Church reveals the truth of human existence, indeed, the Church is what salvation looks like (as troubling as that thought may be). The life of the Church is a true union, a common life in Christ.

Prayer (as well as the whole of our Christian praxis) is properly understood in the context of our common life – and not within the confines of existence imagined as single and individual. Thus Christ teaches us to pray, “Our Father….” That prayer which is understood to be the most perfect – is a common prayer – the cry of our common heart in Christ.

Nor do we pray apart from Christ. “…God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!'” (Gal. 4:6). Our prayer is the cry of Christ through the Spirit to the Father. In is in this way that we can pray, “Our Father.”

Prayer is the offering of our common life before God. Whether or not we ourselves enter into this common prayer, the prayer remains. In the Tradition we begin our prayers: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What follows is thus not our own individual existence but the voice of our common life given in Christ Jesus through the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

In the matrix of humanity conceived as individual – prayer – at best – is conversation. It obviously does not inform God of what He does not know – nor does it convince Him to do what He does not will to do. As such, prayer is reduced to the sound of our own ego.

There are times when such a sound is all that we can manage – indeed there are times when we cannot manage even a sound. Such times are all the more reason to become increasingly familiar with the ceaseless prayer of the Son to the Father through the Spirit. It is also reason to become familiar with the voice of the whole Church (in heaven and on earth) as it prays in union with Christ.

The anxieties of those who refuse to understand the communion of saints, and the prayer which ascends ceaselessly from the Church, is, I think, largely born of an individualism – the hallmark of most forms of modern Christianity. Christ alone saves us (apart from Him we can do nothing), and yet it pleases Him to share His life with us (it is our true existence). There is not a life of Christ that is not also a saving life. Salvation is part of our common life, even though it be solely the work of Christ.

Many are scandalized when they first visit and Orthodox Church and hear the prayer, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” What they think they are hearing is Mary put in the place of Christ. In the Tradition there is no such thought. The prayer is a recognition of the one salvation in Christ of which the Mother of God is intimately a part.

The shift from individualistic thought to the understanding of life as communion is perhaps among the most difficult undertakings in the modern world. It runs counter to modern culture and asks us to enter a world that can seem quite foreign. But this strange world is nothing other than the Kingdom of God – life in Christ – communion in the life of Christ and the life of one another. May God hurry the day of our transformation!

Reason’s God

June 20, 2010

In a comment to my recent post on the “problem of goodness,” I was challenged on the question of “proving God’s existence.” I understand the question but I do not think the question understands God. There is a definition of God that has floated around philosophical circles for centuries – a very reasonable definition – but not a definition that has anything to do with the Christian God. The modern rise of reason – from the Enlightenment forward (though with roots in Scholasticism and philosophies of the ancient world) has often been accepted as an obvious given of the natural world. It is certainly a powerful tool – not unrelated to the power of mathematics and certain other forms of science. This power leads many to the conclusion that reason is capable of giving an account of the world as it truly exists, and questions the existence of anything that does not conform to the rules of reason.

My first encounter with reason’s claims was in a freshman philosophy class (that I wound up taking in the last term of my senior year of college). Within a matter of two classes the professor had set forth the rules of reason and stated the problem of the existence of God (having offered us a definition of God while he was at it). I did not know then what I know now (needless to say). Like everyone in the class I took the bait and entered into the argument that had been decided before the argument began. I say that the argument had been decided because its premises required prior agreement to much that wasn’t true.

I did not learn until later that I was struggling in a class to prove the existence of a God in whom I do not believe. The God of the philosophers is not the same as the God revealed to us in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. As I often say to those who “do not believe in God” – “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in, I may not believe in Him either.”

There are things for which reason is useful and things for which it is not. Reason is not the universal human tool – it’s just a useful tool.

The existence of God (the Christian God) cannot be proven in the manner which reason requires. He is not an object such that He can be observed, nor is He a mathematical theorem or formula that can be derived from something else. He is not the consequence of anything – thus He does not exist at the end of a chain of logic.

The claim of the Orthodox faith (other Christians may say different things – I take no responsibility for them) – is that God is unknowable. It also puts forward the paradox that the God who is unknowable, has made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We know God because Christ has made Him known.

This claim of the Church is more than a statement about an event in our world’s history. The Orthodox claim is that the God who made Himself known in the Incarnation, continues to make Himself known through our participation in His life. I could state this formally as: “We know the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit.”

Such language is outside the bounds of reason. It describes something that is a truth claim that cannot be proved nor disproved by reason. That this is so does not seem in the least unusual to me. There are many things, it would seem to me, that are outside the bounds of reason. Human beings use reason, but we do not live reasonably. Reason describes an activity that we engage in, but it does not describe us.

I would suggest that my own existence cannot be proven nor any human’s existence. I am unique and unrepeatable (as are all persons). And though I may be described by various associations (male, American, etc.) none of these things actually proves me. I am a human being – not a provable fact. Considering oneself a provable fact is a diminishment of what it means to be a person. There is something utterly transcendent about every person that is an inherent part of their personhood. That transcendence is generally opaque. It can be known to a certain degree – but more likely apprehended by wonder than reason. It is a place where reason cannot go.

Of course the diminishment of what it means to be human has been a common by-product of reason’s project. There is a very sad history of the use of reason to justify various political and economic schemes that were nothing short of mass murder. I will quickly grant that religion has been abused as well – though it seems to also have a corrective within it (at least in some forms of Christianity) that brings such abuses to an end. The same corrective has also set occasional bounds to reason’s excesses.

But the case of abuse does not ultimately make either argument – it simply argues that human beings can abuse anything.

There are some groups of Christians who hold that reason is the proper tool for dealing with the faith. Generally, they accept a priori the authority of Scripture and then apply “reason” as a means of interpretation. I think this is a novel idea (no older than the late 18th century). And I think it results in a distortion of the Christian faith as received from Christ and preserved in His Church.

I believe in God. I believe in God because I have come to know Him in the person of Christ. The realm of that experience and the living Tradition to which it belongs stands outside of reason – as does much of human life and the universe around us. Reason’s God is too small. It is not surprising that those who give an inordinate place to reason find such a small God unbelievable.

The Mystery of Love

May 10, 2010

It is common to both the writings of Dostoevsky [particularly in the Brothers Karamazov] and in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan, that each man must see and understand himself to be responsible for the sins of all. This can be a statement that troubles some – as if doing this were a mere spiritual game – or a violation of others’ responsibility. It is, in fact, a profound understanding of what it means to be a human, created in God’s image. The following short passage from the Elder Sophrony’s St. Silouan the Athonite provides some excellent commentary on the subject:

On the Difference between Christian Love and the Justice of Man

People usually interpret justice in the juridical sense. We reject the idea of laying one man’s guilt on another – it is ‘not fair’. It does not accord with our idea about equity. But the spirit of Christian love speaks otherwise, seeing nothing strange but rather something natural in sharing the guilt of those we love – even in assuming full responsibility for their wrong-doing. Indeed, it is only in this bearing of another’s guilt that the authenticity of love is made manifest and develops into full awareness of self. What sense is there in enjoying only the pleasurable side of love? Indeed, it is only in willingly taking upon oneself the loved one’s guilt and burdens that love attains its multifold perfection.

Many of us cannot, or do not want to, accept and suffer of our own free will the consequences of Adam’s original sin. ‘Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit but what has that to do with me?’ we protest. ‘I am ready to answer for my own sins but certainly not for the sins of others.’ And we do not realize that in reacting thus we are repeating in ourselves the sin of our forefather Adam, making it our own personal sin, leading to our own personal fall. Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife; and by so doing he destroyed the unity of Man and his communion with God. So, each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin and likewise shattering the unity of Man. The Lord questioned Adam before Eve, and we must suppose that if Adam, instead of justifying himself, had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

We can all find ways of vindicating ourselves on all occasions but if we really examine our hearts we shall see that in justifying ourselves we are not guileless. Man justifies himself, firstly, because he does not want to acknowledge that he is even partially to blame for the evil in the world, and secondly, because he does not realize that he is endowed with godlike freedom. He sees himself as merely part of the world’s phenomena, a thing of this world, and, as such, dependent on the world. There is a considerable element of bondage in this, and self-justification, therefore, is a slavish business unworthy of a son of God. I saw no tendency towards self-justification in the Staretz. But it is strange how to many people this taking the blame for the wrong-doing of others, and asking for forgiveness, savors of subjection – so vast the distinction in outlook between the sons of the Spirit of Christ and non-spiritual people. The latter cannot believe it possible to feel all humanity as a single whole to be incorporated in the personal existence of every man, without exception. According to the second commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.

If each human person-hypostasis, created in the image of the absolute Divine Hypostases, is capable of containing in himself the fulness of all human being, in the same way as each of the Three Persons of the Godhead is the bearer of all the fullness of Divine being (the profound purport of the second commandment) then shall we all contend against evil, cosmic evil, each beginning with himself.

I cannot help but quote again, with emphasis,  the Elder Sophrony’s statement: the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

Just the Shell

February 19, 2010

An entertainment personality, fresh from various surgeries (augmentations, alterations, etc.), recently opined in an interview, “But in the end, this is just a shell.” It was a very revealing cultural moment. The body is “just a shell” but worthy of tens of thousands of dollars to alter its appearance. It has been observed that modern man lives his life as a hedonist and dies like a Platonist.

The hedonist believes that life is defined by pleasure (particularly physical pleasure). The Platonist believes that the body and the material world are but passing moments – only the non-physical is real and of value. Among modern Christians this same cultural attitude is too frequently common. We gage the value and desirability of many things (sometimes including worship) on the basis of the pleasure we receive. For some, “edifying” and “enjoyable,” are too often the same thing.

There has long been a bifurcation within some forms of Christianity between “spiritual” and “physical.” The use of physical actions, incense, etc. (any form of ritual), is immediately dubbed “empty ritual” by some. It’s as though the word “ritual” only comes with the modifier “empty.” Faith is considered something that has no physical content.

There have been other bifurcations in history – where the body was seen as the enemy of the spiritual life and in which extreme forms of asceticism were encouraged for reasons that bordered on Manicheeism (a heresy that taught that matter was evil).

The body is not “just the shell.” Properly understood, the human person is both body and soul – neither are the fullness of the person alone. It is in this sense that the Church teaches the necessity of the resurrection of the body. That at death the soul is departs from the body is the understanding of the Church. But it also understands that though the soul “is in the hands of God” it enjoys an anticipation of the life to come – rather than the fullness of the life to come. The fullness awaits our fullness – the resurrection of the body.

For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:22-23).

In the meantime – if our hope includes the redemption of our body – how can our daily life as Christians ignore the spiritual reality of the body? Fasting and other bodily acts of devotion to God are normal for a Christian living in the body. The body does not pray alone, but neither does the soul.

In the same manner, it matters what we do with the body. It is not a shell whose function is to become as attractive as possible to other shells. Body and soul are united: what is done with one effects the other. Thus the “beauty” of the soul, as it is adorned with virtue and kindness, has an effect on the body. It is difficult to describe the beauty of the soul that radiates from the body, but I have seen it numerous times.

In the same manner, the crass treatment of the body in which it is made to serve vices rather than virtues, works not beauty in the soul – but its opposite. I have seen this many times – and in my own mirror.

The body is not a shell. It is created to bear the fullness of the image of Christ. I have heard some (at funerals) look at a body and say, “That is not him.” It is “him” in the same manner that the soul is “him.” The person is body and soul. For this very reason the Orthodox faith is careful in its teaching regarding the honor that is due to the body even in death. Though it rests in hope – it rests awaiting a hope that we cannot begin to imagine. If God will so honor it – how can we not?

My body is not a shell.