Posts Tagged ‘Personhood’

The Allegory of All Things

January 11, 2010

Andrew Louth, writing in his book, Discerning the Mystery, says:

If we look back to the Fathers, and the tradition, for inspiration as to the nature of theology, there is one thing we meet which must be paused over and discussed in some detail: and that is their use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures. We can see already that for them it was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic theology. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures. Of course the question of allegory in the Fathers is complex (and often rendered unduly complicated by our own embarrassment about allegory): but whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.

I have quoted Louth at some length to make a point. His characterization of a search for a “deeper meaning” is a hallmark of Patristic thought about Scripture. They do not all call it “allegory,” indeed, it was and is called by many names (theoria, etc.). But all shared a common sense that there was something behind or beyond the text that confronted them.

I have written about this topic primarily under the heading of iconicity – a word I use to connote the referential character of not just the text we read, but the world we inhabit. The world as pure object, as a collection of self-contained and self-explaining things (of which people are but examples) is a world that is foreign to the perception of traditional Christianity. Though this is true, it is, nevertheless, the world-view that is increasingly offered to us in a secularized world. Others may afford us the luxury of believing that something has reference beyond itself, but only do so as a courtesy, a social bargain. We allow others to infer meaning (where secularly none exists) simply out of respect for their will. If you want the world to be referential, I will respect that, remembering, however, that this is only “true for you.”

The classical Christian claim is not the same thing as relativist courtesy. The text has a deeper meaning not because I infer it but because I discern it. The meaning is real and true. Indeed the classical Christian claim is that the truth of things (and not just texts) is to be found precisely in their referential character and in that to which they refer.

To know the personal God is to know God in the manner in which persons are known. The content of a person always has an infinite quality (and this is especially so of God). And that content always has a referential quality as well. Thus, to know Christ is also to know Him as Son, and hence the Son of the Father. “No one knows the Father but by me,” Christ says. For the person of the Father (as is indicated by the name revealed to us) is always referential to the Son (as the Son is to the Father).

And this must be said even of human persons. We never know each other exhaustively nor in the crass manner of modern objectivism. For each of us, fearfully and wonderfully made, is also infinitely referential. Thus knowledge of another is perhaps better described as relation or participation. It cannot mean comprehension.

The same is true of the text of Scripture. To read the text of Scripture without the constant and abiding sense that there is more here than I can see or understand is not to have read Scripture at all, or at least to have read it badly.

St. Antony the Great was once asked by a philosopher where were his books. He replied, “My book, O philosopher, is the world.” St. Paul also sees this aspect of creation: “For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).

This capacity of creation, for much of the modern world, has become the opacity of creation. We can see no further than the thing itself. Modern man is in danger of losing his ability to read the references of everything about him. And with that loss comes the diminution of everything, including himself.

The world and all that is in it is given to us as icon – not because it has no value in itself – but because the value it has in itself is the gift of God – and this is seen in its iconicity.

At Theophany, the waters of the world are revealed to be both Hades and the gate of Paradise. In Christ’s journey within and through the Church, everything is revealed to be such a place. You are my entry into Paradise as clearly as you may also be my entry into Hades. Love alone reveals things for what they are, and transforms them into what they were always intended to be. It is the gift of God.

A Relationship With God?

November 10, 2009

IMG_0625What is the nature of a relationship with God? It is commonplace in our modern parlance to speak of a “personal relationship” which is either redundant, or a way of weakening the true meaning of “personal.” I suspect that the modern meaning of “relationship” is in fact not capable of bearing the true weight of theological meaning and is simply a shallow way of speaking about the Christian faith. What Scripture invites us into is communion with God. I have written on this topic previously, addressing the substitution of the word “fellowship” for communion. I have offered a new reflection here as well as appended two articles on the topic from my previous writings. They seem quite on topic. One could substitute “relationship” for “fellowship” and the articles would work in that way as well. God has offered so much to us – it is a pity if we allow language to lessen the magnificence of that gift.

To Be “Born Again”

This morning I received a small comment (deleted) that is not uncommon. Someone will have read an article on the blog and posted the question: “Yes, but have you been born again?” I know that the thought is well-meant, someone wondering if I am “saved” (according the understanding of some evangelical Christians). However well-meant such postings may be, they are ill-informed.

There is an assumption among a number of Protestant Christians that to be “born-again” is the equivalent of a particular decision (which the Orthodox would term “repentance”) at a particular time in which we repent of our sins and ask Jesus to be the Savior of our life. Repentance is indeed Biblical, as is the phrase “born-again.” However the conflation of the two, in which a particular response at a particular time (always and necessarily at the “age of accountability” or later) is equated with the “born again” in Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of St. John’s gospel. That conflation is of very recent vintage, a Biblical interpretation dating back to the origins of the Evangelical Movement a few hundred years back. That is to say – it is a novel idea – not an item of Christian revelation.

There is nothing within the actual text of Scripture that requires such an interpretation. Indeed, Christ’s use of the phrase in St. John’s gospel, makes specific connection with “water and the Spirit.” The traditional interpretation of the phrase “born-again” has in fact always been to equate it with Holy Baptism.  St. Peter’s reference to being “born again” (1 Peter 1:3-5) where it is written that God . . . “has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, . . .” is another reference to Baptism – for it is specifically in Baptism, St. Paul tells us (Romans 6:4-6), that we are united to Christ’s resurrection. This is the faith of the Orthodox.

However, such a belief carries within it an understanding that Holy Baptism is more than a “mere symbol” or an “empty ritual.” It is the means given to us by Christ through which we are united with Him. It is also the understanding of the Church that the gift given to us in Holy Baptism should be continually received by us in the life of faith. But being “born again” is not to be reduced to a “spiritual transaction.”

At the heart of the matter is the question of what it means to be in relation to God. How is it that we are saved? What is the goal and purpose of the Christian life? Some versions of modern Christian thought have offered radical departures from classical Christian teaching – making salvation external to our life (in various forensic models) – or grounded in various transactional accounts (with emphases on our ‘decision’ for Christ).

Salvation is union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is Trinitarian. It transcends the will though it includes the will. It transcends the will just as the will is not the ultimate seat of our personhood. It includes the will just as the will is an important aspect of our existence. Those who have exalted the role of ‘decision’ in our salvation have also unwittingly diminished the personhood of those in whom the will is diminished (the unborn, the mentally impaired, etc.). The exaltation of the will, it would seem, is a by-product of a culture in which the most important role of human beings is as consumers. Salvation in Christ is not a product for our consumption. It cannot be marketed or reduced to something grasped by the will.

Who can give a true account of the mystery of grace that brought him to Christ? I appreciate St. Paul’s brief summary of his conversion:

But when it pleased God who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace to reveal His son in me… (Galatians 1:15)

It is a wonderfully elegant version of all that transpired in his life – including his encounter on the road to Damascus. What was filled in Baptism in Damascus began “when God…separated me from my mother’s womb” (and surely while he was within the womb). We do well to give thanks to God for the mystery of our salvation. We also do well to avoid modern reductionist accounts of salvation – they are insufficient for the fullness of the faith.

Is “Fellowship” with God Possible?

Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The noun is one of the great abilities of ancient Greek – the ability to create abstract concepts from adjectives (this is not common in ancient languages). It is this linguistic ability that caused philosophy in Western Civilization to first be practiced by the Greeks. Without abstract nouns there is nothing to discuss.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two very discreet individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.

What Does It Mean to have Communion with God?

I am sure that the title of this section seems obvious and as though I had pulled a question out of a catechism. And yet, my experience tells me that things that seem as though they ought to be obvious often are not, particularly the more basic and fundamental they are in our life as Orthodox believers. I noted in the section above that the world fellowship is often found in English Bibles as a mistranslation of the Greek word koinonia, the result being that frequently when Scripture is giving us information about communion with God, our translations are giving us something completely different.

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What’s wrong with the human race anyway?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christians doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – Orthodoxy, it can be said, does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in ourontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church, is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, these vitally important parts of the Christian life usually become reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

If you have lived your Christian life and never heard the story of our relationship with God put in the sort of terms used above, then you have missed out on hearing most of the New Testament. You have missed the story as told by the Fathers of the Eastern Church (which means, most of the Church Fathers). It is possible that you have heard such a distortion of the Christian faith that you have wanted nothing to do with it.

But if what I have described above sounds like good news – then the news is very good – because this is the teaching of the New Testament and the Church founded by Jesus Christ and which continues to be proclaimed by the Orthodox Church.

The Poor in Spirit

October 18, 2009

Russian_PeasantFew passages of Scripture are more familiar in the Orthodox Church than the Beatitudes – Christ’s sayings from the Sermon on the Mount which begin, “Blessed are….” With familiarity comes the occasional lack of attention, in which we forget to ask, “What does that mean?” I think this is particularly the case with the saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

There is no particular help to be found by going back to its original language – for it is a pretty literal rendering (in English). “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is exactly the same statement in the Greek. Oddly, there is a more paraphrastic rendering in the New English Bible that I find helpful – “Blessed are they who know their need of God.” It is not literal – but, I believe, it captures the sense and meaning of the statement.

The poor in spirit are those who know their need of God. And this is a very profound thing.

Sometime in this past year I had a short exchange on one of the blog posts on the topic of “necessity” or “need.” The point was made (not by me) that to need anyone or anything was the utter destruction of freedom. A relationship that had “need” at its core was dysfunctional and “co-dependent.” I continue to maintain that Freud is not among the fathers – and thus do not give much concern for psychological treatments of theology. But there is a point that is valuable and worth noting in the sentiment expressed: need can be the destruction of freedom. I come back to this point.

But I want to think first about the question of need – our necessity. “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”

The truth is – we are born into necessity. We are contingent beings – creatures and not gods. We cannot live utterly independent lives. We are born helpless and totally dependent. Our species has among the weakness of all newborns. And though our dependency weakens and changes as we grow – it does not cease. Indeed, as we age, our necessity often comes back with a vengeance.

Necessity is a difficult thing. There is an aspect of our need that plays a part in what it means to love – but it can also be a part of what it means to be a slave. Those who have suffered the extremes of modern prison camps know what it is to be reduced to utter necessity. That reduction is an effort to destroy the humanity of a prisoner – to remove any sense of freedom whatsoever. That it sometimes fails is a remarkable testimony for the grace of God at work in us. Our necessity can be the weakest and most vulnerable aspect of our lives as creatures.

This “weakness” becomes an important theme in the writings of St. Paul.

Necessity is a difficult thing. It can be part of what it means to love – but it can also be part of what it means to be a slave. It is, perhaps, the “weakest” thing about being a creature. St. Paul, confronted with an affliction (unknown to us) described by him as a “messenger of Satan sent to buffet me in the flesh,” says that he “besought the Lord three times” that the affliction might be taken away. He was told in response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” The apostle adds: “Therefore I will most gladly prefer to boast of my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The revelation given to St. Paul is profound. Our weakness is precisely a point of necessity. We cannot handle our weaknesses by ourselves. Our weaknesses reveal the fact that we are not self-sufficient. They frequently leave us feeling vulnerable.

And this weakness, St. Paul says (quoting God), is the very place where God’s strength is made most perfect.

In truth, I need God because I cannot manage my life alone; I cannot solve my own problems; I am captive to sin and death – even my strengths often lead to alienation and estrangement; I cannot raise myself from the dead; I cannot see the world correctly (I am blind); I cannot rightly love even the most obvious things and people.

But, of course, the experience of necessity can also be the experience of slavery. It is not unusual for people to live in relationships of mutual slavery – with very little (if any) true freedom. Necessity, emotional or otherwise, drives them into such relationships and makes their existence into an image of hell.

How do we avoid this with God?

First off, God will not allow us to have a true relationship with Him that is destructive. People have imaginary relationships with God that become destructive. But the imaginary part of it is precisely the problem.

St. Paul writes in another place: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Our relationship with God is always a relationship of freedom. Without freedom the relationship would have no possibility of love. Thus we find that even if we curse God and deny His existence, we do not cease to exist. Though our very existence is dependent upon Him from moment to moment, He does not take it from us. Our “necessity” is not forced upon us within the context of our relationship with God. We may acknowledge it in freedom and take it up in an act of love, or ignore it precisely because God has given us such a frightful freedom.

Thus our necessity, our weakness, does not force us into relationship with God. I am free to deny Him, and to deny my weakness. But it remains true, that “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” For our sake, God himself, entered into the human world of necessity.

In becoming man, God freely became subject to necessity. His birth, His nurture, His education, His vulnerability within our world were freely taken on in His act of “self-emptying” (Philippians 2:5-11). The God Who lives beyond necessity hung lifeless on the cross without even a grave to call His own. He gave Himself to us in weakness – others had to remove the nails in order to free His most pure body from the cross.

The same way of the cross, freedom-in-necessity, is the invitation that is daily extended to us in our relationship with God – and one another. For those who love God, who will in return for His act of self-emptying, give themselves in weakness – he will not helpless. He will not use our weakness to crus us but will lovingly take us down from the cross on which we die daily, wrap us in fine linen, and place us in His own new tomb.

And there we will trample down death by death, and discover that in our weakness, God’s strength is made perfect.

-from a recent sermon

Dostoevsky on the Individual

August 22, 2009

The following passage from The Brothers Karamazov is taken from one of the “Talks and Homilies” of the Elder Zossima – one of the key characters in the novel. His thoughts echo earlier articles here that contrast man as “individual” (isolation) to man as Person (brotherhood and communion). I plan to offer a series of thoughts on the position of the Christian in a consumer culture.

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