Stumbling Toward Salvation

On occasion I have written on topics that seem to scandalize readers, or certainly cause difficulty for many. Some of those topics have been articles on the wrath of God; the radical forgiveness of everyone for everything; the commonality of our life and our salvation; and various posts on giving thanks always for all things (there are others as well). I am not intentionally contrarian – I do not write in order to create any sensation (sort of). But I have a heart-felt instinct about the path of salvation and the part played by skandalon (a cause of stumbling).

Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame (Romans 9:33).

There is something about the Kingdom of God that causes us to stumble. The Kingdom is marked by scandal. Such a stumbling is inherent in the contradiction of the Kingdom. Christ’s Kingdom is “not of this world.” As such, this world stumbles as it comes in contact with the Kingdom.

I believe that the first and great skandalon is Pascha itself: Christ’s death on the Cross, His descent into Hades, and His resurrection. Indeed St. Paul describes Christ crucified as a skandalon (1 Cor. 1:23). What haunts my thoughts, however, is the rather tame shape taken by the Cross and resurrection in the mind of most Christians. Why are these things not a stumbling block for so many? Why do we so easily track our way through Christian doctrine, finding our own moral failings to be the only “stumbling” within our life? The taming of the Christian faith makes it harmless and without offense. I suspect that this phenomenon marks the conversion of Christianity into a religion – a pious activity that saves none.

Pascha runs utterly contrary to this world: from death comes Life. But this “principle” of Pascha is manifest in many other ways: we lose so that we might gain; we forgive that we might be forgiven; we love those who hate us; we give thanks where no thanks would be expected, etc. All of these actions make sense only in the light of Pascha. They are no less radical, no less scandalous.

It is this “contrarian” nature of Pascha that forms its skandalon. The “Jews” would not have found Christ’s crucifixion to be a stumbling-block (St. Paul’s description), nor the Greeks found his crucifixion to be “foolishness,” were they not contrary to all that these great cultural stalwarts expected. Pascha is not the work of man, but of God. It is the work that undoes death, hell, hatred and greed. “Let us forgive all by the resurrection” (Pascha hymn).

By the same token, the way of the Cross is the way of Pascha, the way of “contradiction” so far as the wisdom and rationality of this world are concerned. The Cross is the rationality of the Kingdom of God.

Without this contrary element, this skandalon, Christianity may be noble or kind, but it falls short of the kingdom. Our faith must not only be about doctrines concerning Christ and what He has done for us (which can easily be reduced to mere religion): our faith must be a way of living that is itself a manifestation of the Cross and resurrection of Christ – a contradiction to the world and an affirmation of the Kingdom of God.

Thus it is that I find myself drawn to those practical instances in which the Kingdom transports us into this “way of contradiction.” The radical demand that we “forgive everyone for everything” is a manifestation of Pascha, a contradiction of the way of retaliation, a proclamation that something has occurred that destroys all such debts. The same is true in the commandment to love those who hate us – nothing could be more contradictory to that which seems reasonable – but it bears witness to the “reason” of Pascha. To give thanks for all things, will take us to a place of contradiction, a place where the goodness of God is utterly triumphant, despite the deep tragedies that confront our lives.

All such gospel actions bring the skandalon of the Kingdom into true focus within our lives. They are invariably the signs that accompany the saints and the invitation to every believer to embrace the Cross and become a witness of the Kingdom.

No idea, no doctrine, no words can replace such actions – united as they are with the actions of Christ and God’s holy Pascha.

There is another rationality of our faith – but it is largely expressed in ideas and words. It’s struggle is to believe one thing and not another. But as such, it reduces our faith to simply one belief system among a world of competing belief systems. The Pascha of Christ is the end of all belief systems. With His crucifixion all human efforts to explain or understand are brought to an end. Indeed, Christ’s Pascha is the end of all things. To walk into Christ’s Pascha, is to walk into the great skandalon, the contradiction of religion and the negation of the reason of this world.

I cannot do more than to suggest such points within the gospel and then struggle to walk in them. The contradiction which we find within such points, I believe, is the very call of the gospel – that which caused Apostles to hesitate. But these very points are the points of salvation. They are the gospel birthed yet again into the world.

Comments

  1. George Engelhard says

    Christ has not only covered my debts toward others, but, also, their debts toward me. No one owes me anything.

  2. says

    Why do we find little scandal in the cross and resurrection? Because, by way of Western theology, particularly the soteriology of Anselm, we have turned the execution of God-in-the-flesh into its opposite. Instead of seeing in it – together with His Glorious resurrection – the triumph of the God who is radical Love over the enemies of humanity – sin, death, Satan, and yes, over those structures of the old order put in place as damage control in order to keep humanity from destroying itself, structures such as patriarchy and ethnic and economic differentiation and oppression, as well as Torah itself, we view it as, in fact, the reinforcement of those very structures as being, not a provisional Divine response to human sinfulness, but as part and parcel of creation itself. This is the cross as “propitiation” not as “expiation”.

  3. Anna says

    Father, bless!

    I greatly appreciate your post and apologize for not commenting on it. I’m writing out of curiosity (the good sort, I hope): from where is this image? I have the same question about the one in the previous post.

    It’s an interesting thing, the scandalon. Everything about our faith is one, more or less. I wonder if we may think of even the outer expression of Orthodoxy and Church life through art and architecture as such, considering of course that the shock produced is milder and of a different nature. But I remember several different testimonies of how people were made aware of Orthodoxy by entering a church (Hagia Sophia or just a modest church or chapel) and/or attending liturgy or vespers.

  4. says

    Anna,
    Thank you. They are images that I’ve found out on the net. The image with this article is of a chapel at a hermitage on Mt. Athos (the chapel is in a cave). The previous image is from a monastery that I cannot now remember. I love “traveling” through the myriad of photos that are available today. It’s not the same as being there, but simply to look at some of these things is such a witness. It is as you say, a visual version of the skandalon – the shock of heaven on earth – even in a cave…

  5. paula hughes says

    Thank you so much for this! When I was converting to Christianity and to Orthodoxy ,it was that very powerful scandal of the cross which was the llems through which I saw all matters of faith. And it was the essential honesty of the portrayal of that scandal and the great painful challenge of it that convinced me of the truth of Orthodoxy.
    I remember reading a piece by a Catholic writer( was it Neufield?) who was at an ecumenical conference and his subject was the centrality of the cross to Christianity. He said he followed a Protestant who more or less said that they had disposed of the depressing symbol of the cross in their church! Our speaker was rather at a loss as how to follow that particular speaker with his own dark message of not by- passing the cross on the way to Pascha.
    Please keep up the thought and faith provoking writing. I think it is only in discomfort that we learn anything important.

  6. Rhonda says

    Fr. Stephen, thank you once again for a thought provoking article. FWIW keep up with the skandalon! I learn much from them.

    “…the way of the Cross is the way of Pascha, the way of “contradiction” so far as the wisdom and rationality of this world are concerned.” Quite true & very well-said.

    My priest reminded me of this once when I commented that while I never have quite “fit in” with the rest of othe world, I begain to “fit in” even less so since becoming Orthodox. I was very surprised by his comment, “Good! You’re not supposed to!”

    He too reminded me that Orthodoxy is not just “one belief system among a world of competing belief systems” as you wrote; it is Truth & Truth is definitely scandal & contradiction to the rest of the world. Most of my theological discussions with the heterodox entail refuting this very common & staunchly held belief.

  7. says

    FrGregACCA, please have compassion for us Roman Catholics. It isn’t easy to have to apologize constantly for Anselm. My prayer is that 1000 years from now people aren’t still having to apologize for me!

  8. says

    Probably i shouldn’t be commenting on Anselm because probably like most people I have never read him and am only going on what other people have told me. I will make a point of actually studying him

  9. Philip Jude says

    Leonard,

    Your second comment is spot on. As the Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart has noted, people often confuse Anselm with his interpreters (many of whom are Protestant and thus working within a radically different conceptual framework).

    Hart offers a solid defense of Cur Deus Homo in his latest book, The Beauty of the Infinite. You should check it out.

    He identifies God’s loving self-donation as the root and anchor of Anselm’s thesis.

    A couple of my favorite excerpts from Cur Deus Homo:

    “We do no injustice or dishonor to God, but give him thanks with all the heart, praising and proclaiming the ineffable height of his compassion. For the more astonishing a thing it is and beyond expectation, that he has restored us from so great and deserved ills in which we were, to so great and unmerited blessings which we had forfeited; by so much the more has he shown his more exceeding love and tenderness towards us. For did they but carefully consider bow fitly in this way human redemption is secured, they would not ridicule our simplicity, but would rather join with us in praising the wise beneficence of God. For, as death came upon the human race by the disobedience of man, it was fitting that by man’s obedience life should be restored. And, as sin, the cause of our condemnation, had its origin from a woman, so ought the author of our righteousness and salvation to be born of a woman. And so also was it proper that the devil, who, being man’s tempter, had conquered him in eating of the tree, should be vanquished by man in the suffering of the tree which man bore. Many other things also, if we carefully examine them, give a certain indescribable beauty to our redemption as thus procured” (Book I, Chapter III).

    ***

    “Much more, therefore, do we owe all thanks to God for completing his intended favor to man; though, indeed, it would not be proper for him to fail in his good design, because wanting nothing in himself he begun it for our sake and not his own. For what man was about to do was not hidden from God at his creation; and yet by freely creating man, God as it were bound himself to complete the good which he had begun. In fine, God does nothing by necessity, since he is not compelled or restrained in anything. And when we say that God does anything to avoid dishonor, which he certainly does not fear, we must mean that God does this from the necessity of maintaining his honor; which necessity is after all no more than this, viz., the immutability of his honor, which belongs to him in himself, and is not derived from another; and therefore it is not properly called necessity. Yet we may say, although the whole work which God does for man is of grace, that it is necessary for God, on account of his unchangeable goodness, to complete the work which he has begun” (Book II, Chapter V).

    ***

    “How great and how just is God’s compassion?

    Now we have found the compassion of God which appeared lost to you when we were considering God’s holiness and man’s sin; we have found it, I say, so great and so consistent with his holiness, as to be incomparably above anything that can be conceived. For what compassion can excel these words of the Father, addressed to the sinner doomed to eternal torments and having noway of escape: “Take my only begotten Son and make him an offering for yourself;” or these words of the Son: “Take me, and ransom your souls.” For these are the voices they utter, when inviting and leading us to faith in the Gospel. Or can anything be more just than for him to remit all debt since he has earned a reward greater than all debt, if given with the love which he deserves” (Book II, Chapter XX).

  10. Karen says

    Leonard, it seems to me Anselm is no different from any of us other Christians who try to find a frame of reference we understand from our own culture and experience to try to make sense of the Scriptures. So it happens he didn’t have a perfect frame of reference (i.e., Medieval Feudalism). Happens to the best of us! I’m sure he is also considered a Saint within the Roman Catholic Church for good reason. (I, too, only know about him from secondary sources, and not directly from his work.)

    Certainly those of us who for many years thought even our rudimentary understanding of Anselm’s theory of how the Atonement works was quite reasonable (even though we have a different cultural context now) are just as much, if not more, to blame for perpetrating the distortions in his theory. Not the least of these, of course, are the Reformers (themselves with virtues as well as vices) who incorporated elements of it into their even more problematic “Penal Satisfaction” theory.

    For many years PS satisfied my curiosity about the reason for the Cross. It was only later as I matured in my faith and in love for others and began to consider its presuppositions and implications much more deeply in light of what I had always been taught to appreciate in the nature of God revealed in the face of Christ in the Gospels (i.e., His completely humble, kenotic, self-sacrificing love) that it began to trouble me.

  11. Philip Jude says

    Karen,

    Probably it is also worth remembering that Cur Deus Homo is only part of Anselm’s corpus, not to mention but a sliver of his whole person.

    Also, Cur Deus Homo was likely written for non-Christians as well as for Christians. It attempts to answer many of the standard criticisms that Muslims and Jews level against the incarnation and the crucifixion.

    By the way, Father, very insightful post, though perhaps you underestimate the scandalous nature of Christ’s pascha even today. As the only Christian in my family (besides my wife), I certainly recognize its capacity to baffle and offend, as well as its susceptibility to ridicule.

  12. Karen says

    Philip Jude, thanks for posting the quotes. I actually posted my comment before I saw yours (they flew past one another in cyberspace!). :-)

  13. Anna says

    Thank you, Father!

    I haven’t considered that even the photographs are a skandalon in a way. But you are right. I remember having my eyes drawn to a wall where there was a photo of the vaults of a monastery church, with Christ Pantocrator in the dome. The picture was part of a poster announcing a lecture, but of all the other pictures, which were all secular, this one was standing out through its otherworldly beauty. A witness, as you say.

  14. says

    Philip Jude,
    I’ve read Anselm, and disagree with Hart’s read on him (BTW, Beauty of the Infinite is an earlier work rather than his latest). Hart is an interesting writer and scholar and I have great respect for him – but differ with him on several points. Vigen Guroian, who is Armenian Orthodox, but far more mainstream as an Orthodox writer, has a new work out, Theology in an Orthodox Key. He has quite the usual take on Anselm as is found in most Orthodox work. Hart’s take on Anselm does not seem to have been taken up within the Orthodox world of theology (and by this I do not mean the blogosphere – we are not great scholars in the blogosphere – I’m just an educated parish priest who likes to write with a slight gift for interpreting Orthodox thought for a larger public). Hart is a true scholar – but also a very good writer. He also has a very good ear for debate (I would be seriously outmatched by him in any discussion). Nonetheless, I respectfully disagree with his read on Anselm.

    Anselm is a very imaginative theologian (not a developer of the tradition). He works with the metaphor of “honor” (far more than the later idea of “justice”). God’s honor has been offended, similar to that of an offended medieval Lord. It is this metaphor, pretty much absent entirely from Scripture, that he develops for his penal theory. He is thus an innovator. He is not Augustinian. He’s just interesting. His thought will later be developed into the justice metaphor – but his metaphor is about honor, not justice.

    Anselm is more of a symbolic target, a name to hang on an idea, rather than the true origin of an idea. PS atonement theory fails in many ways – particularly it’s lack of comprehensiveness. As a metaphor, it does not integrate with sacramental theology, or ascetical, etc. It has the weakness, too often found in the West, of standing on its own, but as a separate thing. Orthodox theology tends to be a seamless garment in comparison. As such, it is far more satisfactory and communicates the faith more plausibly.

  15. simmmo says

    Father, can you tell us something about the picture in the blog? Where is it? And when does it date from? Just curious tis all.

  16. Philip Jude says

    Father,

    This is very off-topic, but I’ve been wondering: In Orthodoxy, is the Divine Liturgy considered sacrificial, as is the Catholic Mass?

  17. Darlene says

    “To give thanks for all things, will take us to a place of contradiction, a place where the goodness of God is utterly triumphant, despite the deep tragedies that confront our lives.”

    Father,

    You cannot know how deeply this penetrated to the depths of my heart. It is a scrap of hope to which might cling in a time of bleak sorrow. Somehow the goodness of God shines through all the anguish, loneliness, foolishness, failures, regrets, and stuff of life that is innate to human existence,

  18. says

    PhilipJude,
    St. Paul says, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed,” thus the liturgy has a sacrificial side – though this is not a primary Orthodox theme. Essentially, we do not believe that Christ is re-sacrificed, but that the Christ whose holy Body is given to us in the Eucharist, is the sacrificed Christ. The one sacrifice is made present.