From Mud to Light – the Saving Work of Christ

Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.
St. Gregory of Nyssa

+++

How do you create a God? How do you create a being that has true freedom, true love and thus, true existence?

This is obviously not an entirely rational question – but it is a serious question for Christian thought. For, as St. Gregory of Nyssa notes, the creation of man is more than the story in early Genesis. The creation stories of Genesis are only a prelude to the greater story fulfilled in Christ. In Christ, the mud has become light.

Freedom and love are necessary to true existence – at least true existence as made known in Jesus Christ. For things do not have existence in themselves – everything that exists does so because it is brought into being and sustained in its being by the good God who created it.  But to human beings a greater existence is gifted. In the Genesis account that gift is to exist “in the image and likeness of God.”

To exist as God exists – requires freedom. For if our existence is a requirement (if we must exist), then we are not free. We are simply here by someone else’s will and not our own. This is not the image and likeness of God. To exist in the image and likeness of God, we must be given the power to freely exist (or not exist).

Not only must we be able to exist freely – but true existence (such as God Himself has) – is not a purely self-referential matter. God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The God Who freely exists, does so in love. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and so on. Met. John Zizioulas, following the thought of St. Basil the Great, notes that God “constitutes” His existence in the free act of love that is the very meaning of personhood.

To exist in the image and likeness of God, is to exist as person. We do this in a free act of love in which we give ourselves to the other, even as we accept the existence of the other.

This is much more thought than we usually give to words such as “exist,” and it gives shape to the phrase “image and likeness of God,” in such a manner as to rescue it from the dustbin of banality.

The Christian faith is the story of this creation – in the fullness of its telling.

St. Irenaeus (2nd century) described Adam and Eve as “adolescents.” They were not “perfect” in the sense of “complete.” They represent a beginning and an intention – but something that not only remained unfulfilled – but even something that had deviated from its intended path. From “mud commanded to become Gods,” they became beings unable to be truly human. Death and corruption mark their existence. The stories in Genesis include fratricide among their children. The early chapters of Genesis are not the record of a promising start – they are the record of the start of promises.

That promise begins with Eve, who is told that her “seed” will someday “bruise the head of the serpent.” On the most primitive level, the statement can mean as little as, “your offspring will hate snakes.” But in the ears of Christians it is a promise of the One to come who will destroy the bondage of death and the distorted path.

The story of man’s salvation, on the lips of Orthodox Christians, is not a tale of abstract theology. There is no offended justice and original sin, no theories of predetermined schemes and imputed goodness. There is the story of a movement from a rejected possibility to a realized divinity. God’s own entrance into the story is that of God become man so that man could become God. Christ, according to St. Paul, is the “second Adam.” He, in both His humanity and divinity, is both the promise and the fulfillment of the promise. And so, St. Paul describes the path of salvation as being “conformed to the image of Christ,” who is the “image of the invisible God.” This is the fulfillment of man created in the image and likeness of God. In the words of St. John Chrysostom:

It was [God] Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away [He] raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until [He] had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with [His] kingdom which is to come.

This is the direct line of the work of God, the saving work of Christ. It is our “re-creation” in the image of God. But it is a story that requires our freedom and our love. For we cannot exist in His image, except we do so freely and with love. Our re-creation requires our cooperation.

Why didn’t God just create us the way He wanted without all of the suffering and death that continue to occur? Isn’t this a cruel creation?

Our suffering and death are the story of Adam lived in each of us. “In the day you eat of it you will surely die”…and we do. But our suffering and death are also the path of our freedom and love. The true Image of God takes up the same path of suffering and death and transforms what would otherwise be tragedy into the victory of Pascha. This is the true story of Adam. God became man so that man could become God.

The harshest judgment of this story comes from the lips of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s greatest novel.

And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price….  They have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.

Ivan’s poignant description of suffering children is perhaps the most effective argument ever offered against the love of God. Is the journey from mud to God worth the suffering of children? Can true existence in freedom and love be worth such a price?

I’m not certain that any rational answer is sufficient. I do understand that Christ has made the suffering of children (and of us all) His own. “In the day you eat of it you will surely die,” can also be stated, “In the day you eat of it innocent children will suffer.” And the most innocent of children takes His place on the Cross precisely in the midst of that suffering. “Let the little children come to me,” He says – for He has come for them.

Like Ivan, we can refuse the ticket. We can declare that the innocent suffering of even a single child is not worth all the journeys from mud to deification. But we are told in the larger Christian story that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth.” The suffering of that single child, and of every child (and us all), is clearly foreseen in God’s creation. Our path towards suffering and death comes as no surprise. Apparently there can be no freedom and love in creation that does not embrace that path. And yet God says, “Let there be light.” It is not only the proclamation of the beginning of creation, but a declaration of its end – for the mud becomes light.

But how can we weigh the price? God has weighed it and found it worth the price (a price He Himself has paid). The great Russian saint, Seraphim Sarovsky, once said:

Oh, if you only knew what joy, what sweetness awaits a righteous soul in Heaven! You would decide in this mortal life to bear any sorrows, persecutions and slander with gratitude. If this very cell of ours was filled with worms, and these worms were to eat our flesh for our entire life on earth, we should agree to it with total desire, in order not to lose, by any chance, that heavenly joy which God has prepared for those who love Him.

I accept his witness and hold it in wonder. What must it mean, to exist truly, in freedom and in love, as God Himself exists? For what possible joy would a good God create us, though the path to that joy be marked both by our own and His own great suffering? We are told that Christ went to the Cross “for the joy set before Him.”

I cannot imagine. But I accept the ticket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. fatherstephen says

    I will offer this comment as an addendum for John Shores (whom I was thinking about as I wrote this piece). Christ’s Pascha requires a radical re-reading of the OT. Christ is the definition of God – thus St. John says, “No one has seen God at any time…the Only Begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the father, he has made Him known [literally, "exegeted" Him].
    Thus, I have to take Christ to every story of the OT, and using Christ, I “exegete” the Father from the text. I cannot take the text, arrive at an opinion about God, and then go back and argue with Christ about who his father is. At least, that is not how it is properly done in Orthodoxy. Thus many Orthodox fathers, read many things in the OT in a more or less allegorical way, in which the God whom we see in any story, is the God made known to us in Christ and no other. This is a radical re-reading of the OT, taught to the Apostles and carried on in the fathers. The historicized reading carried on in the West, particularly in Protestantism, is a departure from this practice, and gives very bizarre results from a Christian point-of-view. I haven’t got a clue about God, other than as He has been made known to me in Christ. I am a Christian, not a Biblicist. Protestants often read the Bible like Muslims read the Koran (and sometimes have a similar conclusion about God). This is foreign to me and to the Orthodox faith. In Christ, and in Him alone, do I see that God is a good God. Because I see this, and have been taught how to read the OT by Christ, I see the good God there, too. If you insist on a literalist approach, it will yield something other than what Christ taught. I am willing to read the OT in the manner that Christ read it. It seems sufficient to me.

  2. mary benton says

    This is wonderful, Father Stephen. I will need to re-read it to fully absorb it.

    I relate deeply to your reflections on human suffering. In my own blogging on the subject, one of the most outstanding concepts to come to me is that God chooses to suffer – most clearly in the humanity of Jesus – but also joining each of us in our suffering. I agree that there is no sufficient “rational answer” to the suffering of a child: this kind of love is not rational by any human standard.

    I also very much appreciate your addendum because, out of the context of Christ, much of the OT seems to make little sense. I have often felt that it reflected the development of people’s understanding of God, from primitive (God kills my enemies for me) to the full understanding of Divine love in Christ (love your enemy). In Jesus, we can understand how God led his people, preparing them for this fullness. Without Jesus, we could easily see God as the barbarian, not the people he was leading.

  3. says

    I have really enjoyed what St Ephrem of Syria wrote in his theological approach to Biblical themes. He did it through hymns or poetry (or teaching hymns) that expanse into wonder and love whereas definitions and boundaries impose restrictions on these themes. Here is one example on the value of the body:

    If our Lord had despised the body
    as something unclean or hateful and foul,
    then the Bread and the cup of salvation
    should also be something hateful and unclean to these
    heretics;
    for how could Christ have despised the body
    yet clothed himself in the Bread,
    seeing that bread is related to that feeble body.
    And if he was pleased with dumb bread,
    how much more so with the body endowed with
    speech and reason?

  4. dinoship says

    This is a masterpiece of succinctness Father. I mean to say it is heart-warmingly to the point! We are grateful for what you offer us…

  5. breadeater77 says

    We at St. Timothy Orthodox Church in Toccoa, GA had a visit from Fr. John Behr who gave a lecture titled “Jesus Christ-The Fulfillment of Man” and I want to make it available here for any who would like to lend it an ear.

    http://sttimothy-toccoa.org/lectures.html

    This lecture very much parallels what you have written here as he makes the connection between the creation acount in Genesis and the Gospel of John. When Christ utters the words “It is finished” from the cross, He is referring to the creation of humanity.

  6. SteveL says

    I stopped reading Bros. K for several months after I read that section. It was so disturbing I could not take it.

  7. George Engelhard says

    Please forgive me if much of this sounds symplistic in its logic, but I do not believe God’s ways are complex. They are simple enough for a child to grasp.
    Since the fall, God has been trying to bring humankind back from evil. In the flood, He removed all but a remnent,saving the only righteous ones left. Then he decided to center in on one person and his posteritym to work with them to try and bring them to holiness. He had to deal harshly with the others and even the Israelites in order to preserve His plan. Eventually He realized that he could not bring the entire people out of sin, So He worked within His people to bring about one pure and righteous enough to be His mother and through her become incarnate.

  8. Karen says

    George E., I have a bit of trouble as an Orthodox Christian with your phrase “Eventually He realized . . . ” Is it not true that God has foreknowledge of all and that He does not need to “realize” anything? Or are you in the camp of the progressive “process theologians” who believe that God doesn’t know our “future” choices? As I see it, it would be more correct to understand that God is patient with our weaknesses as human beings and waits until the fullness of time (and human cooperation–and, yes, it may come down at times to only one such cooperative human being) to fully unfold His plan.

  9. George Engelhard says

    Karen,
    Thank you for your critique. I used “realized”, I guess, because I couldn’t think of another way of saying it. I too am Orthodox and do believe that He has forknowledge of everything and does not need to realize anything. I guess, I was thinking that from our position in space and time it might appear that God might change His mind, when from an eternal/infinite position, that would not be the case. Still, god is dealing with us in space and time and it does seem He has changed His tactics in order to bring about His purpose of saving us. Again this is from the limited position of one in space and time using a finite mind using language that has limits as far as giving true meaning to this.
    Sorry if this is rambling. Hard to talk about things infinite with finite tools.

  10. fatherstephen says

    breadeater,
    I would highly recommend that anyone take the time to listen to this lecture. Fr. John is far more articulate than I am and his words are clear. Thank you for the link!

  11. fatherstephen says

    SteveL
    One of the things I admire about Dostoevsky is the fact that he does not flinch. Instead of tip-toeing around the most obvious arguments against his faith, he embraced them. He himself worried later that he may have done “too well” the job of stating Ivan’s argument. But those very things (the examples he used actually came from real news articles of the day) troubled him deeply. Our embrace of Christ, I think, must come in the very face of these things – for I think sometimes that if we do not comprehend the depth of the question, we will not comprehend the depth of the answer.

  12. fatherstephen says

    George,
    We cannot say of God, “eventually He realized.” He knows all of this from the beginning – from the foundation of the earth. What He has done, has always been for a single purpose – fulfilled in Christ.

  13. dinoship says

    George Engelhard,
    I am not a fan of time-bound language, and time-bound concepts applied to God -unless they are used in a pedagogic context, in which case they can be very effective. Nevertheless, you reminded me of what a monk was once telling me about the All Holy Mother of God (which I had long forgotten until I read your comment in combination with this fantastic article by Father Stephen). I hope it is not irrelevant:

    He had a sort of vision, the authenticity of which I admittedly cannot ascertain. It was given to him to comprehend Genesis 1:1 “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” As actually meaning God incubating the “tiny nest of the Cosmos” called Earth for what seemed like an eternity, until it would freely produce an opening for Him. When this divine Door -ie: Mary- appeared, He instantly rushed in, full of “impatience” (to use an anthropomorphic word for His desire for our salvation) and became One of us, or rather became us as we had never managed to become. He finished the creation of ‘Man’ only when He spoke the word τετέλεσται (it is finished) on the Cross. (from mud all the way to Light)

  14. George Engelhard says

    Father,
    Thank you for your critique. I do understand and believe what you said. I just am unable to express it in any other way from my limited perspective with my finite mind. I commented more fully on this elswhere.

  15. PJ says

    “I have often felt that it reflected the development of people’s understanding of God, from primitive (God kills my enemies for me) to the full understanding of Divine love in Christ (love your enemy)”

    This may have some truth to it, but only some. Even in the earliest books of Scripture, there are great acts of mercy and fine exhortations to charity.

    Frankly, part of the reason the OT is so daunting and strange is that we don’t study it as deeply or regularly as we should. Fr. Patrick Reardon is always going on about this. Fr. Hopko, too, although from a somewhat different perspective.

  16. PJ says

    ” Thus many Orthodox fathers, read many things in the OT in a more or less allegorical way, in which the God whom we see in any story, is the God made known to us in Christ and no other. This is a radical re-reading of the OT, taught to the Apostles and carried on in the fathers.”

    Father,

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but I wonder if you’re not overstating your case at points. I don’t know of any father who would, for instance, read the plagues of Egypt as pure allegory: the mass killing of the first born sons obviously has many layers of meaning, but they don’t erase the reality of the event, which was seen by the fathers as a great act of God in history, and is seen as agnostics like John as wicked and monstrous.

    The things that trouble John — the slaughter of the Amelkites, to use another example he proffered — didn’t seem to bother many, even most, of the fathers. Consider John Chrysostom, who wrote: “Caleb then and Joshua, because they agreed not with those who did not believe, escaped the vengeance that was sent forth against them.”

    I am no expert. Maybe I misunderstand.

  17. Athanasios says

    I have struggled with and in some ways continue to struggle with this same argument, and if I had not read Dostoevsky, I doubt I ever could have come to terms with it. He does not feat to present life as-is, with all the grittiness and dirt (especially Stavrogin’s Confession, which was deemed to shocking for publication). Yet he points beyond to something more.

    In the face of this world, where children suffer and die (I think especially right now of the children in Israel-Palestine suffering for the sins of their fathers), the only recourse I have is found in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, referenced in connection with the slaughter of the Innocents, “they shall return from the land of their enemy” (31:16 in the Hebrew numbering). If one does not believe in the resurrection and the eventual abolishment of death and suffering, then I cannot see how one could believe in God.

  18. says

    GeorgeE:

    Please forgive me if much of this sounds symplistic in its logic, but I do not believe God’s ways are complex. They are simple enough for a child to grasp.

    Grasp–yes! Understand–no! God would not be God otherwise.

    God has been trying…Then he decided…to try…He had to deal harshly…in order to preserve His plan…Eventually He realized…that he could not…so He worked…

    I have trouble with more than just the phrase “eventually He realized…”. These things do not fit with the “Good God that lovest mankind” who is “everywhere present filling all things”. Taken as a whole, these statements in essence subordinate goodness to evil & the infinite to the finite.

    The only phrase I can begin to agree with, & even then only with reservation, is

    …He worked within His people to bring about one pure and righteous enough to be His mother and through her become incarnate.

    Notice that I began the quote with “He worked” & not “So He worked”. That little word “So” changes entire meaning of the sentence for me. Even with this omission though, the phrase “bring about one pure & righteous enough” gives me pause because the fall was neither a change of legal status from law-abiding citizen to convicted criminal nor of total righteousness to total depravity. Furthermore, the Crucifixion was neither God’s fall-back position (Plan B)nor was it the reversal of these. As Fr. Stephen wrote:

    The story of man’s salvation, on the lips of Orthodox Christians, is not a tale of abstract theology. There is no offended justice and original sin, no theories of predetermined schemes and imputed goodness.

    We (including us Orthodox) can think too hard about these things just as we can think to simplistically. When we do either we end up with an “abstract theology” of empty & useless metaphysical, philosophical constructs. The simple reality is that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8,16), the simple reality that is unfathomable.

  19. SteveL says

    It’s not a criticism of Dostoevsky that I had to put him down. He is a master, and because of that, I put it down after reading that section. Several months later I continued and had to stop at a later section. I haven’t picked up Bros. K since. I presume that I will at some later date when I have more emotional fortitude to absorb his blows.

  20. fatherstephen says

    Marc,
    Your question goes where we cannot go. The everlasting fire describes a state that their freedom has taken them – but the ultimate outcome of that experience (whatever it may mean) is unknown to us. Some, such as St. Isaac of Syria, believe that it is resolved in their salvation – but there is no doctrine in this matter.

  21. fatherstephen says

    PJ,
    Yes, you’re right about many of the fathers. I press our liberty in Christ found in some fathers for the purposes of the gospel. We have a much keener appreciation or sensitivity to innocent suffering at present – engendered by many, many things – and I think that we have to answer this question in a way that uses that liberty at its extreme edge. At least I find that I have to do so – and that doing so is well within the borders of the Orthodox tradition.

    Some of the fathers speak of these distinctions as being between those of “understanding” and others (using a variety of terms). Thus, the “spiritual” meaning of a passage was frequently considered the higher and better meaning, but recognized that many clung to and valued the literal. My 21st century take on this is that many will not be able to come to faith under a literal approach (to many passages) just as many would not be able to maintain faith without the liberty of allegory.

    Some of this is because the literal has been so abused by so many Christians over the centuries, justifying their wicked acts by an interpretation that yields an equally wicked God. It simply cannot be sustained.

    The literal/historical method of reading the Scriptures, though certainly having a witness and many advocates, is, I believe, inadequate to many things (theologically) and problematic as well (given the clear problems that historical critical studies have revealed).

    I confess that I find the approach championed by Fr. John Behr at St. Vlad’s to be the most useful approach – and consistent with a patristic reading. I don’t claim that this is the only way things are read within the fathers (there is no “only” way). However, I think it is increasingly becoming the only useful way.

    Under various influences, many are quite comfortable with God ordering the wholesale slaughter of children, etc. I’m not. I believe that God is free and can do whatever He wills, but I do not think Him cruel or wicked, capricious or so lacking in creativity that He needs to resort to wholesale slaughter to achieve our salvation.

    Thus, like many fathers, I do not read “smash their little one’s heads against the stones” in the Psalms as a license to do anything like this in a literal fashion – and that although the Psalm likely meant that to its writer – I think the writer was wrong. In Christ, I read the Psalm to refer to the demons and the troubling thoughts that arise – which should be smashed against the Rock, that is, Christ.

    It is a liberty that we have in Christ – a liberty that is sometimes a necessity if we are to follow Christ’s own lead. But I will not waste any of my time trying to defend a literalism that insists on wrath and punishment, brimstone and slaughter as literal instruments of God’s own causation. I don’t think it is necessary.

  22. Michael Bauman says

    There is, perhaps, a deeper way of looking at this. In the modern world, certainly in the West, we tend to look at things from an individual context: my sin is my sin only.

    Tribal people have a different outlook: the sin of one in the tribe is the sin of all. Even the animals are defiled. Thus even children are not innocent. They partake of the same sin and are subject to the same consequences. Thus the scapegoat or sacrificial lamb is effective in releiving the sin of the whole people.

    Without Christ Incarnate perhaps that is actually the way it is, but once He took on the sin of humanity (the agony of the Garden) and became the Lamb scarficed once for all, we became free of the burden of the tribal, anscestral or original sin and are able to address our own sins in communion with Him. His Incarnation made us persons in a way we were not before.

    The Resurrection is the victory over sin and death and allows us to participate in His Life and Glory.

    Apologizing for or minimizing God’s actions in the Old Testament has never seemed a particularly good thing to me. Perahps it is our individualized, democratic/leveling, humanist perspective that minimizes the gravity of sin and its effect that needs to be apologized for.

    I have studied history most of my adult life. I have come to the conclusion that the Old Testament cannot be interpreted from a linear, historical perspective because the Incarnation changed all of history: past, present and future (inadequate descriptors). It is all a moving shadow.

    We can never really know what actually ‘happened’ let alone why anything happened before Christ took on our body and our nature. All of it and us have been transformed by that kenotic act. Thus it is actually far easier to know God than to know what ‘really’ happened in the past. Thus to look upon the actions of un-transformed human beings (directed by God or not) from the perspective of an, at least partially, transformed human nature is impossible. History is always the creation of the past by the present anyway because history is not a collection of facts and occurences that speak for themselves. History is a narrative of man’s heart and mind in our quest to know ourselves and our God. As we change, so does history.

    When we think of history as immutable, especially when we attempt to use it as a defense against our living interrelationship with God, history becomes an idol.

  23. PJ says

    Father,

    Thank you for your thorough and honest response. But let me press you a little more. You say, “But I will not waste any of my time trying to defend a literalism that insists on wrath and punishment, brimstone and slaughter as literal instruments of God’s own causation. I don’t think it is necessary.” Does this mean, say, that you don’t believe in the death of the Egyptian firstborns? Or in the death of Ananias and Sapphira? Etc. Is every and any place in Scripture wherein God takes life … well … fictitious? What does this say about Scripture? What does it say about a Church which put such faith in the literal as well as the spiritual for some eighteen centuries?

    I guess I’m just trying to figure out the “scope” of your rejection of the “punishing God.”

  24. fatherstephen says

    I have a great deal of respect for historical accuracy in Scripture – though I probably fall short of the measure many would set. There’s a world of difference in “what happened” and how we understand its meaning for us as Christians. Your question, in a sense, still has a notion that it’s all about historical facts and that an allegorical interpretation of something means that you reject the “facts” of its history. It’s not this at all.

    It’s also not as simple as saying, “I like this passage, but not this one.” It’s pushing past the face of a story and into its depth and the perception of Pascha.

    Fact is, in my life I leave a number of things unanswered – I simply don’t always know how to fit everything together. So, sometimes I would have to say, “I don’t know about that.” But I would affirm that “God is good.” This I see in His Pascha.

    There is a perception, hard to describe, in which I accept some things – even very difficult things – and leave them unexplained to myself. I have no acceptable way to say to someone, “God killed your child and He is good.” Is it possible to embrace the truth of Christ’s Pascha, and stand perplexed about some things – and yet refuse to say of those things something you think is not true (God orders genocide…).

    What I find disturbing is how lightly so many Christians make efforts to justify a brutal God. I think it is unnecessary, even if it leaves me perplexed.

    At the resurrection of Christ, we say, “Christ is risen!” We don’t say, “Ah! That explains everything!” I’m sure that on some level, Christ explains everything. I’m just not living on that level.

  25. dinoship says

    PJ,
    as someone who knows both the Eastern (Byzantine) as well as the modern (Westernised) way of thinking, I have noticed something interesting concerning your point here. It starts to make sense to me more and more:
    I have met many true westerners, deeply influenced by post renaissance thinking, who are extremely disturbed by the idea of death as punishment (in the OT). However, they are also the people who can justify “crucifying the other” rather than “their own self” when a “tricky” situation arises (e.g. aborting rather than adopting a severely handicapped child).
    On the other hand I have met some very old-school (often very old too) traditional Orthodox in Greece, who have no problem with death as a punishment from God, however, they are the ones who would always rather “crucify themselves” rather than the other in “tricky” situations…
    Their understanding of death is distinctly Orthodox in that they see it NOT as the bad thing it is seen in Western thought. In fact, they clearly see it as “the second biggest beneficence” granted us by God as the fathers say…
    It is as if they are constantly disregarding all negativity associated to it and simply thinking (as one of the 40 great martyrs of Sebastia said to the other), that ‘we will all die one day, sooner or later, but a sacrificial or heroic or even a punishing death has far more potential of being salvific’.

  26. Michael Bauman says

    Ananias & Sapphira lied too the Holy Spirit so His life was withdrawn, IMO. Death is the wages of sin
    Weather such death is a natural consequence or due to God’s direct act or by the hands of a righteous man it is still death; it is always brutal. Sometimes it is necessary. When it is necessary, we can rarely know
    Only in Christ can we be free
    Before He came, death ruled.

  27. PJ says

    “I have a great deal of respect for historical accuracy in Scripture – though I probably fall short of the measure many would set. There’s a world of difference in “what happened” and how we understand its meaning for us as Christians. Your question, in a sense, still has a notion that it’s all about historical facts and that an allegorical interpretation of something means that you reject the “facts” of its history. It’s not this at all. ”

    I certainly don’t think it’s “all about” historical facts. I also don’t believe that allegory demands rejecting the letter of the text.

    But I’m wary of dismissing whole chunks of Scripture because they make us uncomfortable, because they don’t sit well with our modern, western sensibilities.

    To be perfectly honest, I’m mostly just trying to get my bearings, so to speak. I’ve been a Christian for two years and I still struggle to get a foothold. In our society, there is no consensus about what the Bible means or how it is interpreted rightly. Even within the traditional churches, yours included, there is great diversity — as you admit. What is true? What is historical? Are the truth and the historical one and the same? How do you distinguish one from the other? What can be rejected in good faith? Are we uncomfortable with the destruction of the Amelkites because we are sensitized to the value of human life — or desensitized to sin?

    I guess I’m just awfully confused…

  28. fatherstephen says

    Michael,
    Ananias and Sapphira clearly die. As you note, how we describe that is left open even in its telling. Their lie and their death are connected and that’s pretty much all the story says. I’ve heard many sermons that fill in the blanks. I’m suggesting they be left blank.

  29. fatherstephen says

    dinoship,
    I also think that death can have an ambiguous take. We pray for a good death in every Orthodox service. “Painless, shameless, etc.” I would rather have a painful death if such pain was for my salvation. And I do not think that God refrains from pain in the work of our salvation. But there remains a mystery.

    I do not want to profess the bland God of contemporary liberalism. Suffering is real, and has to be seen. In a culture so deeply marked by heretical forms of Calvinism, it’s hard to say these things in an acceptable way. Thus I affirm God’s goodness and the triumph of Christ’s Pascha as ascendant above all things.

  30. Greg says

    PJ wrote: “Father,

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but I wonder if you’re not overstating your case at points. I don’t know of any father who would, for instance, read the plagues of Egypt as pure allegory: the mass killing of the first born sons obviously has many layers of meaning, but they don’t erase the reality of the event, which was seen by the fathers as a great act of God in history, and is seen as agnostics like John as wicked and monstrous. ”

    St Gregory of Nyssa in the Life of Moses explicitly states that this account can only be understood in an allegorical sense as we may not attribute evil to God.

  31. George Engelhard says

    Thank you Father. I guess I was, with my earlier explanitory posts trying to get rid of the mystery and get rid of faith and have it all make sense. It doesn’t all make sense. Glory to God!!

  32. Michael Bauman says

    Father, you acknowledge that pain and suffering are not just existential realities, but in some unknown (to us) and probably impenatrable way, such pain and suffering may be connected to our salvaation.

    If we cannot know it for ourselves and our loved ones who we can see, touch, etc. How can we possible penetrate the mystery of the death and even destruction that is chronicled in much of the OT?

    It just seems a bit to easy to dismiss it by using the ‘radical re-interpretation’ approaoch. The violence in the OT is a common, knee-jerk defense use to reject the reality of Jesus Christ; His salvific work; His love and kneotic suffering.

    To me, if we are going to re-interpret it (as the Apostolic teaching demands) that a re-interpretation in the light of Christ’s own suffering.death and ressurection would make more sense than an allegorical approach. Many people think that if it is ‘allegorical’ it is not real but a fantasy made up by the person they are talking to in order to avoid the truth.

    Either way, the linear, reductionist, just the facts and nothing but the facts, approach is insufficient and distorting of the truth.

    Maybe you are saying much the same thing as I am but I’m misunderstanding what you.

  33. fatherstephen says

    I haven’t made a case for pure allegory.

    Also, I think you misunderstand my use of the term allegory. Allegory refers to how something is read and not the nature of the text. Many things that are quite historical can be read in an allegorical manner. To read something allegorically makes no judgment on the nature of the text’s historical character. It simply makes a case for how the text is read.

    Actually, viz. the fathers, there are some who read all kinds of things allegorically. It was often a favorite way of reading things. Oddly, even parables got read allegorically, which takes them well beyond the level of parable. When you start reading in the spiritual writings (rather than sermons and the like) many historical texts get treated allegorically, in order to extract their “deeper” meaning. Origen was famous for his use of allegorical interpretation – but he was famous for it because it was so popular and he was good at it. It has its limitations.

    I would also add, that the opinion of any particular father concerning the historical character of a particular Biblical event is neither here nor there, unless the historical character of the event is germane to the doctrine of the faith. In such a case (where it is not germane) the thought of a father on such a thing is simply “opinion,” not dogma.

    Some want to treat the fathers as a collective fundamentalist Bible…i.e. “the fathers say…” And of course most who make such quotes have barely dabbled in the fathers and know nothing of their larger context, etc. There is a strain, found among some Orthodox, that says that the fathers are “inspired” by the Spirit and treat them like infallible sources of revelation on anything they write about. This is simply an abuse of the fathers and another means of avoiding the difficult character of Orthodox life and thought. It simplifies everything – but it simply substitutes one fundamentalism for another – yields the fruit of judgmentalism and opinionism. It does not save souls.

    Strangely, in these discussions, I think I take history more seriously than those who have difficulty with my train of thought. To take the Scriptures as prima facie accurate about historical matters in all cases, is not the same thing as having a high regard for history. It is simply having an interesting view of Scripture. The same thought can yield a 6000 year-old earth. That’s not a regard for science, history or good reason.

    The Scriptures give us a highly “iconic” account of events. The story of Moses in Egypt is a case in point. It is highly structured for a variety of reasons, many of which may have little to do with the historical shape of the events described. They are a theologically-shaped account. To ask purely historical questions is problematic. So, if someone asks me about the firstborn of Egypt, I can only answer with what the text says. I cannot step outside the text and talk about an event in Egypt (we don’t even know which Pharoah it was) as though I have any information outside the text.

    The fathers and the Church commonly speak from inside the text, and as such, the language of the Church, like that of the text, is fairly straight-foward. But it still gives us nothing with which to stand outside the text and make historical judgments.

    There are noted exceptions to this. The resurrection would be a case in point – one where the very historical character of the event is itself a matter of primary importance (hence 1 Cor. 15). But the gospels do not share St. Paul’s concern from 1 Cor. 15. They give us very theologically-shaped accounts of the resurrection. Thus St. Paul’s chapter is extremely helpful and important.

    Just more thoughts in the conversation…

    Greg,
    Thanks for the citation!

  34. PJ says

    Greg,

    I’d be interested to read Gregory’s exact words. Do you have a quote? Of course, of all the fathers, he is certainly the most likely to say such a thing.

  35. dinoship says

    I haven’t the words but I also remember that he is particularly (singularly even) interested in pedagogically inspiring through mystical deeper meanings in that work.

  36. says

    We always approach Pascha from a blind corner:

    “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father…”

    It would not be inappropriate to say of Pascha that it shapes & colours theology — properly. Another way of saying this is that theology is resurrection shaped — “it is finished” John 19:30.

  37. Greg says

    I don’t have bandwidth to transcribe it right now, but I suspect the Life of Moses is almost certainly available online somewhere. I am not sure Gregory is any more likely to assert an allegorical reading of this text than many of the Fathers that wrote on mystical theology though.

  38. mary benton says

    Re: suffering…(sorry this is so long)

    As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am a psychologist and have, for many years, walked with people through some of the most horrific events one can imagine. As I have grown spiritually, I have discovered in this experience something almost too sacred for words.

    In some of the deepest of these times, I know it is not just the patient and me in the room. Regardless of the faith of my patient, I know the crucified and resurrected Christ is there. I experience Him and we are bound together in a love that heals. Without Him there, I am utterly helpless in the face of such great suffering. With Him, there is a Love that transcends the deepest of pain – as He embraces the pain. (I too have been a recipient of this Love in my times of suffering.)

    If we read Scripture wrongly, we may think that God causes suffering – that he slaughters one group of people to save another group of people. (And perhaps the chosen people at that time viewed their “passover” with that interpretation, being able to see that God was with them and seemingly not with their enemy.) When the Egyptians charioteers drowned, it was their obstinancy that killed them. (Scripture says that, but often it is read as though God killed them to save the Israelites.)

    The message from these OT stories thus is not that God will save me by killing my enemies, but that God is with me in my suffering to carry me from death to life. Following God through the desert, I will indeed suffer, but His Way will help me not be destroyed by my obstinancy. He is in the desert with me.

    In the crucified Christ, we find the God who meets us in our suffering. In the resurrected Christ, we discover the God who takes the suffering created by our sins and transforms it into a supreme act of healing Love. As we are healed, we are joined to Him, embracing suffering as He does, so that His healing Love may reach more and more of His beloved children who are still lost in the desert.

    Thanks to those who recommended reading “Christ the Eternal Tao”. I am still early in the book but was struck by these words:

    “The trees, the birds, the rivers and winds:
    These had no choice but to follow the Way.
    Man alone is given choice;
    Man alone csn follow or go his own way.
    If he follows the Way, he will suffer with the pain of the world,
    But He will find the Original Harmony.
    If he follows his own way, he will suffer only with himself,
    and within him will be chaos.”

  39. PJ says

    Mary,

    You make some good points, but we should be clear that Scripture plainly says that that the Lord, through the hand of Moses, draws the waters in upon the Egyptian army. Their hearts were hardened, but that’s only part of it. And, to be specific, it says the Lord hardened their hearts. Of coure, we can consider what that means exactly …

  40. says

    Mary,

    I recall Met Kallistos saying that we have a tendency to look at the crucified Christ and to see only man. At Pascha, we look at God and see man. This necessitates a radical rethinking of the NT also…

  41. dinoship says

    PJ,
    you are surely aware that there is not much point in bringing home the point that “to be specific, it says the Lord hardened their hearts”. Even adding “Of coure, we can consider what that means exactly …” almost reminds me of the Calvinist misunderstanding of Scripture, as if the Fathers had not explained time and again this type of anthropomorphic language, or the “three wills of God”, the perfect will of Whom is that ALL be saved (that includes the Pharaoh who’s heart God allowed to be heartened)

  42. PJ says

    Dino,

    I’m probably not as much of a libertarian as you are. I’m Catholic, and therefore submissive to councils like Orange and Trent, and I’m very influenced by Augustine.

  43. poseponder says

    Father, I wonder if you might elaborate a bit further on this:

    >> We have a much keener appreciation or sensitivity to innocent suffering at present – engendered by many, many things…

    Is it be possible to be over-sensitive? (Speaking myself as one who tends this way…)

    Would it be only innocent suffering, or suffering in general? (Could it ever be deserved?)

    Surely, on the flip side, there is no lack of cruelty.

  44. Karen says

    Wonderful conversation! Thank you, Father, Rhonda, Mary, Michael and Dinoship especially for some wonderful observations and insights.

    This seems like a good place to recommend for reading again David Bentley Hart’s wonderful little book on a Christian response to suffering in *The Doors of the Sea.* Using the thought of St. Isaac and Dostoyevsky in Bros. K, Hart paints a beautiful picture with words of the implications of Christ’s Pascha as God’s answer to suffering and evil. He never resolves the question in the simplistic way that some might want it to (in fact he addresses this very desire on the part of human beings as presenting a logical problem in itself, given the nature of the God revealed in Christ), but rather seeks to do so in a way that is truly faithful to the revelation of the gospel in the NT.

    It is perhaps no accident that Hart’s critique of various sub-Christian explanations of suffering and evil (usually an attempt to exonerate God in the face of atheistic attacks on faith, which was the context for his writing this book) is most pointed when it is directed at a certain species of rigorist Calvinism.

    PJ, I observe that two years as a Christian is a very short time to have had to begin to really absorb the import and implications of the gospel. I love the way you like to wrestle with all this stuff, but in my experience, there’s no substitute for the place of our real experience and personal struggle to grow in Christ with God for beginning to get a grasp on some of these things (or to begin to grasp how inadequate our explanations and understanding of the gospel really is!). It has taken me 40+ years of consciously trying to follow Christ to get where I am now and I still feel completely inadequate in the face of such questions. Most of the time, I feel silence is the best I have to offer.

  45. PJ says

    Karen,

    “I observe that two years as a Christian is a very short time to have had to begin to really absorb the import and implications of the gospel.”

    I won’t argue with this.

    I’m not trying to assert anything definitive. As you say, I am “wrestling.” There is so much to consider — fathers, councils, Scripture, personal experience. Often times, equally significant figures and sources are in tension, or even some degree of conflict. My discussions on this blog have helped me do a lot of sorting, but I am definitely still on the journey of understanding. Probably it will not end until kingdom come. For now, I am happy to pray and meditate, read and ponder — any talk with wonderful folks like yourselves, learning from those wiser than I am. : – )

    Andrew,

    Sometimes. ;-) That said, I do think that Orthodox could afford to spend more time on St. Augustine — as westerners could afford to spend more time on, say, St. Maximus. One reason I like Fr. Reardon so much is that he is very familiar with the western fathers, Augustine in particular, and is trying to integrate them into the theology of the east.

  46. says

    Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.
    – St. Gregory of Nyssa

    Sounds like theistic evolution. No wonder I’ve always liked St. Gregory of Nyssa.

  47. Ann K says

    Father Stephen,

    Less than 24 hours ago, I attended the funeral of a dear and devout Methodist friend. Several people who spoke alluded to the notion of time: how our lives intersected with that of Helen’s temporarily here on Earth; how we will all be together again in “the blink of an eye” in Heaven; and the verse in “Amazing Grace” about being there ten thousand years, and having “no less days”, etc.

    The notion of time as it relates to theology is of great interst to me, especially with what we are learning through quantum physics.

    After the service I asked the minister if he knew of any books or websites that dealt with this subject. He didn’t and that surprised me.

    Today, by sheer coincidence (or really the hand of God) I discovered your blog and Mary’s comment about the chapter of your book that deals with time.I download iyour book and just got through reading it in a single sitting.

    Thank you! While my Presbyterian heritage gives me pause on the idea of the role of icons, I enjoyed it immensely and will no doubt read it repeatedly. It has already had a profound impact on my consideration of, and relationship with, the Almighty.

  48. dinoship says

    Agnikan,

    Sounds like theistic evolution

    I guess we could (in St Gregory of Nyssa’s metaphorical words) “plunder the Egyptians”. :-) In other words “appropriate an essentially scientific term into a theological one”

  49. Karen says

    PJ, truly the journey is never ending, and I also enjoy learning from those wiser or more knowledgable than I am (which, depending on the subject, no doubt also includes you!). :-)

  50. dinoship says

    Father Stephen said:

    In Christ, and in Him alone, do I see that God is a good God.

    Considering how a truly spiritual life eventually makes a person more and more into ‘Christ’, I would paraphrase the late Father Epiphanios’s (Theodoropoulos) saying:

    Sin is that which prevents us from believing. Not logic. For this reason, if you tell an unbeliever to live for six months according to the Gospel, and he does it, he will become a believer without even realizing it

    As:
    Sin is that which prevents us from seeing the goodness of God in EVERYTHING. Not logic. For this reason, if an unbeliever (in God’s goodness) could live for six months as a true saint, he would automatically marvel at God’s goodness revealed to him in EVERYTHING.

    Admittedly, that is not easy. But in that state of purity one finds himself living “In that day”, when “you will not question Me about anything” -John (16:23)

  51. says

    Ann K:
    As one raised as a Presbyterian, I can wholeheartedly attest that icons are definitely not an issue :-) Feel free to enjoy & experience them for the window (glimpse) into heaven that they truly are. When you look at a picture of a friend or family member, do you think of the paper & ink you hold in your hands or of the person depicted that influence(s/d)your heart?

  52. mary benton says

    I know that some here have strong reactions to the term “evolution” but the term really is not limited to Darwin or even science. We can say this has evolved into a really wonderful discussion, i.e. it has grown and developed in a positive direction.

    This is part of what I was getting at in talking about the OT narratives about God’s seemingly violent and brutal acts. One reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelations might conclude that God got “nicer” over time. Yet God, of course, did not change. I do believe that God’s people “evolved” (and still do – note how we struggle and grow) so that the way God’s salvation is described is different in the NT than it was in the OT.

    If we were to tell a story about Jesus to 7 year olds and listen to them retell it, we would hear some pretty immature interpretations of the event. The event itself would be no less true but the telling would reflect the incomplete understanding of a child. In the OT, we have people telling the story of God saving His people with an immature understanding as well. How could it be otherwise, i.e. fully mature without knowledge of the Christ?

    This, I think, puts in some perspective the seeming violence of God as related by the OT writers. Although I could not have said it as well as Father Stephen has, reading backwards from Christ’s resurrection is the way to approach Scripture. I suspect that many other things that we do not now understand will be understood when we have more fully “evolved” in our ability to know Christ.

    PJ – I too am a Catholic, you know :-) I respect the depth of your knowledge but I could not tell you a thing about the councils of Trent or Orange much less feel compelled to submit to them!

  53. PJ says

    ” I too am a Catholic, you know I respect the depth of your knowledge but I could not tell you a thing about the councils of Trent or Orange much less feel compelled to submit to them!”

    That’s a little surprising. I can see perhaps disregarding Orange, since it was regional, but Trent was an ecumenical council, just like Vatican II. I suppose, though, that we all prefer certain pillars of the faith to others, for better or for worse …

  54. PJ says

    Interestingly, I just stumbled upon this quote from St. Ephrem, on Christ’s healing of the blind man in John 9: “A little saliva from your mouth, and again, a great wonder: Light from mud.” Light from mud …

  55. mary benton says

    PJ- I did not mean to come across as having disregard for the councils of the church. At this stage in my life, my faith is more heart-centered; my historical knowledge is rather scant.

    I meant the comment to be light-hearted. I apologize if it sounded like anything else.

  56. fatherstephen says

    Poseponder: You asked:

    >> We have a much keener appreciation or sensitivity to innocent suffering at present – engendered by many, many things…

    Is it be possible to be over-sensitive? (Speaking myself as one who tends this way…)

    Would it be only innocent suffering, or suffering in general? (Could it ever be deserved?)

    My thought was that we are culturally very sensitive to certain kinds of suffering (including that of animals). Not that we always do anything about the suffering that surrounds us. So, accurately, I would have to say that we are very “sentimental” about suffering. Most people in the modern world have never watched another human being die (or be born). Thus sentiment would be the correct word.

    I don’t think it’s possible to be “over-sensitive” if it were true empathy (as Christ or the saints would have). Some people’s over-sensitivity is just a neurosis. Not worth noting. But the modern mind struggles a great deal with the so-called “problem of evil.” Not enough, of course, to quit killing innocent people by the tens of thousands.

    I know nothing of deserved and undeserved. There is no justice in pain. Just a lot of hurt.

  57. Michael Bauman says

    mary benton, without going any further into the discussion I just need to say you do not seem to understand that the ‘evolution’ of scientism is not the same as the evolution of which you speak.

    In traditional Christian faith there is always adaptation and new applications of the faith delivered to the Apostles and understandings that are unique to a particular environment, but there is no change in the faith into something else drastically different.

    The hierarchy of life demanded by scientistic evolution is the opposite of the hierarchy of life revealed in the Scriptures and the life of the saints.

  58. fatherstephen says

    Marc,
    I have found that connective aspect (communion) to be important as well. Christ’s death is my death, and vice versa. Somehow, though it does not “explain” suffering, it makes it bearable. Whatever this existence is about, God is in it with us.

  59. mary benton says

    Michael B.

    Just a clarification, because I think you may have misunderstood me. I noted that I was using the word “evolution” apart from its meaning in modern science so as to avoid stirring up debate again about Darwinism.

    I was wanting to use the term in a different context: how God’s people grew over time in the depth of their understanding – and thus in the way they interpreted events, the attributions they made to God and therefore the manner in which they related the stories of God’s saving power in their lives. If we try to read their stories outside of the context of their pre-Christian awareness (as though they were a history book), we may come away with a distorted notion of God.

    I was affirming that the Truth itself does not evolve or change. And, in the coming of Christ, the core of Christian faith does not evolve/change over time.

    Yet I see in my own life that the way I understand and think about the faith DOES change, hopefully in a positive direction – “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.” (1 Cor:13:12)

  60. Michael Bauman says

    mary benton, thank you for the clarification. It is helpful. (I was also reacting to the jab at St.Gregory prior to you post) Sorry if I came across too strong.

    I do want to mention that evolution is also used in a theological context to denote the actual changing of doctrine over time into something more and better. It comes, I think, out of the 19th century’s ideas about progress, the perfectability of man and the increased mechanization of our life.

    I’ve only heard it from Catholics but I don’t know if is really part of the Catholic teaching or not. Perhaps you could shed light on that?

    Evolution is a tricky word that get obscured on prupose sometimes. It is important to know for sure how it is being used.

  61. Martin says

    Father,
    „The everlasting fire describes a state that their freedom has taken them – but the ultimate outcome of that experience (whatever it may mean) is unknown to us. Some, such as St. Isaac of Syria, believe that it is resolved in their salvation – but there is no doctrine in this matter.“
    I am one of those who is very much attracted by this position and I thought this was the general view in Orthodoxy. But then a visiting priest in our church in his sermon preached what I had considered the protestant view, i.e., that we have a chance to repent and be saved in this life only and not after death. When I asked him about this and told him that a bilieved people could repent even after death, he told me that this is the minority position within Orthodoxy but that it is OK if i hold this view.
    After some time the topic came out again with another brother in our parish whom I respect very much and again he was trying to expalin to me that those who will not repent in this life will have no chance to do so after death.
    I am fine with people with differing opinions, but what should I teach my own children and how should I respond to friends when they ask me about my faith?
    Is it irresponsible if I tell them the minority position?

  62. Grant Hudson says

    Thank you very much for your book “Everywhere Present” which arrived yesterday and which I completed today -clear, concise and revelatory.

    I ordered the book after following this blog for a little while and I appreciate as a Christian what you are doing here and in your other work. The blog items are normally very insightful and helpful. It’s just this one which disturbed me a little.

    My own thoughts on the subject are that it’s sloppy thinking to deny the existence of God because of suffering and pain in the world.

    The key question is ‘What is the alternative?’ If the world was totally without pain -if God stepped in to remove all suffering whenever and wherever it occurred- what sort of world would it be? An anaestheised world, in which bodies would operate without risk or growth; an anodyne world where all relationships would be moulded until they were bland and without romance of any kind; a robotic world where occupations would be controlled and packaged in cotton wool. A piece of music all at the same note and tone; a book consisting of one word; a painting of one colour.

    Growth, change, life, drama would all be impossible. Static growth, zero risk, no responsibility, no romance, maximum control, minimum sensation: this is the world that would result from the intervention of a god who wished to remove all pain and suffering from the world.

    A cold, solid and static state is by definition not alive. A creator who made such a world would have made a lifeless one. Even injecting into that static clay some kind of electric current would only cause a temporary spasmodic and robotic response; true life means true liberty to move, to act, to choose, to experience and to learn. Thus there has to be a scale, a spectrum, a range -and that has to include pain and loss and suffering.

    To create true life means creating the potential for suffering.

    But what about those who suffer? Is there any recompense? Is there any healing?

    Christ still had His wounds after He was resurrected; He outlived the pain, outcreated the suffering, but never negated it or removed it. In effect, He transcended it. That’s hardly imaginable to us, who are on the ‘wrong side’ of pain. Pain for us warns of a threat to life and happiness and is something to be avoided, loathed and rejected; pain transcended speaks of something beyond Life, beyond threat -not something to be welcomed exactly but almost a kind of badge, to be respected and honoured. When it is possible to perceive a threat to Life, physical and emotional pain is a measuring system; but where Life itself is transcended, it becomes raiment.

    I can see that it’s possible that those who suffer the most will be clothed in glory. Not to ‘make up for what they had to go through’ but simply because in a world where Life is eternal, pain has a different function. One’s humanity can be measured by one’s genuine suffering. If one didn’t suffer at all, an eternal life would simply be an extension of blandness. Suffering gives depth and meaning to eternity in a way that we can’t really grasp, and for which we have few better images than the wounds of Christ after the Resurrection.

    BUT -and it’s a big but- surely God doesn’t want us to reflect on suffering only to come to the conclusion that it must be accepted as part of a Divine Plan? Surely we are supposed to reject, oppose and fight to overcome all suffering, especially for the innocent? This has plagued me recently. I don’t want to live in a universe where we must just accept pain; surely our place here is to work to defeat it in whatever way we can?

    Theological arguments can get lost in abstractions. God surely wanted us to act rather than to cogitate.

    Thoughts?

  63. Barbara says

    My priest recently said something very helpful to me in relation to suffering. He said, “You seem to think that suffering is something to get through rather than be transformed by?”

    These words landed directly in my heart and I am very grateful for this correction.

  64. dinoship says

    Indeed, Barbara!
    In the Light of the Cross and the Resurrection, that which the world labels suffering, true Christianity would often call Glory!
    We have a fantastic example and testament of this “inverted logic” in the letters of St Ignatius of Antioch, sent to those who would pray for his ‘…salvation’ (when he was being transported to the Colosseum to be eaten alive by the beasts), which he obviously viewed as a ‘perdition’. He viewed his continuation in this life as death, his death and suffering as a Martyr as “Life” and Birth; he even considered himself not to have yet become human until he had undergone that suffering and death that would liken him onto the Divine Logos…
    To a lesser extent, any suffering can become transformative in a way that brings us closer to Christ and releases us from the bonds of the futility of this world; while pleasure has the opposite potential of enslaving us to this world and separating us from Christ….

  65. George Engelhard says

    I have been graced recently with deep sorrow, sometimes with tears and groaning, for the my own falleness and the falleness of the world in which I once so robustly participated.It may seem paridoxical but the deeper I am in this sorrow, the more human I feel and the closer to God I feel and the more in love I am with humanity, with every human being, with every person I encounter .

  66. fatherstephen says

    Martin,
    It is ok if you share your faith, I think, and it’s good to say that some Orthodox are unsure about this. It’s ok for children to understand that some things we do not know, always.

    The thought that we cannot repent after death is rather common among some in Orthodoxy, but those who say so quickly add that our prayers for the departed of therefore of even greater value. Thus, even those who hold that there is no repentance after death, do not properly hold that there is no change or salvation after death. But that this change now shifts to the mercy of God and the prayers of the Church. That seems quite fine to me. I will trust in Christ’s mercy and the compassionate prayers of the saints.

    “For there is no man that liveth and sinneth not.”

    God alone is my resurrection – not the rightness of my decisions.

  67. fatherstephen says

    Absolutely, Grant. The cogitating without action is the most extreme form of 2-storey living. Compassion, a “suffering together with,” should certainly draw us to action and not just pain. In this post I wanted to take as seriously as possible the objections to our faith which those who consider suffering often raise. I do not think that Orthodoxy shrinks from this. The answers are not always rationally satisfactory – by I personally find them more than satisfactory on an existential level. That God has entered into the deepest of suffering, in union with us, and does so in order to heal us and raise us above all suffering is sufficient for me. Suffering alone is perhaps the only unbearable thing in this life.

    It should move us to relieve suffering wherever we can, and to bear one another’s burdens everywhere.

    One of my professors used to say that the real problem of evil was not, “Why is there evil?” But “What kind of community should the Church be in order to be a place where we can bear the burden of suffering?” It is, I think, a better and more pertinent question.

  68. Martin says

    Thank you father for your kind and assuring words,
    the priest that I mentioned previously actually preached about our prayers for the departed ones when he mentioned they could not repent after death and that we, when praying for them, are actually praying for them because of our own salvation. That is why it was so disturbing for me. But I am so glad that there are other Orthodox christians who believe otherwise, because it gives me much hope.

  69. Grant says

    Thank you Father. Wise words. I draw much inspiration from this blog and the comments arising around it. I think it has helped to deepen my prayer life and to consider the world very differently. Your book has helped too. Please continue the good work and praise be to God.

  70. mary benton says

    Michael B.

    I am not particularly well-read regarding church history and doctrine so I don’t know the answer to your question. (I was hoping PJ would answer :-))

    However, my common sense reaction is that is that human beings, individually and societally, need to change/grow in a positive direction (I’ll avoid the word “evolve”, despite my fondness for it) but the Eternal Truth does not need to. If one is using the word “doctrine” to describe this truth, doctrine does not change. If the term is being used to describe our human understanding of the truth, than it does – for our understanding is always imperfect.

    However, this change would not come about automatically but can only occur if we allow God to guide us.

  71. mary benton says

    Martin,

    Of course I do not speak for Orthodoxy, but I wanted to share a thought on your question regarding repentance after death.

    I have had patients who died of suicide or who died clinging to atheism – people I truly cared about. I would never say that they lost their chance to find union with God. Only God can understand the experiences, illnesses and struggles that led to the “choices” I witnessed. I do not doubt that God offers a complete healing of all that distorts one’s ability to choose correctly in this life.

    We are not in a position to distinguish those refuse to see God’s truth (and repent) from those who cannot see because they have been blinded by illness or cruelty in this world. So I trust in God’s mercy for He knows all…

  72. dinoship says

    Grant,
    I agree. In fact we might go so far as saying that we only become human beings in the Image of God through suffering and ultimately death.
    (St Ignatius again is a fine example of this thinking…)
    However, concerning the suffering of ‘others’ we see around us, we in no way must coldly state anything of the like!
    We must be rather prepared to suffer ourselves, with, and for them…
    Transformative though it is for all, suffering and death must be adopted by me for and on behalf of all the others. Would not that make one a true follower of the Crucified and exalted Lord?

  73. dinoship says

    The ‘voluntarization’ (I knew spell checker wouldn’t like that word), of suffering and death is, in a sense, what makes one into a saint.
    Embracing suffering makes you look uncannily like Christ. And this is not just my own ‘individual’ suffering but all suffering. Numerous saintly ascetics would therefore spend their entire nights in thousands of tearful prostrations for the salvation of all of humankind, for the deceased, for the damned, for the yet unborn…
    And how Mary Benton seems to think, (I have heard) is correct on many levels. A most crucial level being that, trusting in God’s goodness and mercy concerning those who might, in some way, appear ‘lost’ is in, and of, itself a kind of powerful prayer for them.
    If I say “Lord have mercy on me” with such trust on his mercy for all, I am somehow also praying for all the deceased etc….

  74. fatherstephen says

    In God’s eternal purpose, “to gather all things together in one all things in Christ,” he wills a union in which we are not just “together,” but that we are together in a true union, of which our co-suffering prayer for one another through the ages is but one expression. In this way, those who ask “how do you know the saints pray for you?” do not understand that it is always the will of God expressed through them that they pray for us. The refusal to unite our prayers with those of the saints is simply one more block to our union that their prayers (and those of others) will hve to overcome. The kind of “individualism” expressed in some modern forms of Christianity is simply contrary to the revealed purpose of God.

  75. says

    DS,

    As Mary intimates, everything, including history is transformed by Pascha (= “divine love”). It is quite impossible to arrive at this conclusion using logic and the conditional “if”. The opposite of death (and therefore suffering) is Pascha — the datum set by God against which everything (the entire universe) is measured. Everything leads to it…

  76. Marie says

    Hi Father Stephen, thank you for your posts, I have been reading for a couple of years now. I am Catholic, and have stumbled across your site. This question is not directly related to today’s post. Mother Theresa according to her spiritual director, underwent years of “dark night of the soul” to use St. John of the Cross’s phrase. How could God allow this to happen? Would Orthodox spiritual direction have alleviated her suffering? I don’t see how it is right for a spiritual director to divulge this, in the interest of a greater truth? Thank you and God bless

  77. fatherstephen says

    Marie,
    Of course, it’s impossible to say in Mother Theresa’s personal case – without actually knowing her and the details. Orthodoxy has not tended to speak about a “dark night” but there are many cases that are quite similar. The Athonite monk, St. Silouan, endured 15 years in which he was “in hell,” tormented by demons, etc. His disciple, the Elder Sophrony, also wrote about the topic. He particularly stressed the voluntary sharing of suffering. In the cases like St. Silouan’s, the suffering seems to have been a means of drawing them into deeper union with God. Thus, alleviating it would have been contrary to the desires of their lives. The suffering I have known in my life is almost entirely self-inflicted, and yet I know that it has been miraculously to my benefit – to such an extent that I can only be grateful for it. It’s a mystery.

  78. Martin says

    Father, Marc, mary benton, dinoship, thank you for your reassuring words, they are very helpful because this hope that there still may exist the possibility for repentance after we leave this present world and this present body has been one of the main things that has led me to Orthodoxy. Thank you.

  79. dinoship says

    My brother sent me this link of a talk by Father John Behr on this very subject of transformative suffering and death today -I marvelled at the coincidence! Extremely pertinent, especially the second half with all the questions and answers and the references to the Martyrs…



  80. PJ says

    Michael,

    “I do want to mention that evolution is also used in a theological context to denote the actual changing of doctrine over time into something more and better. It comes, I think, out of the 19th century’s ideas about progress, the perfectability of man and the increased mechanization of our life.

    I’ve only heard it from Catholics but I don’t know if is really part of the Catholic teaching or not. Perhaps you could shed light on that?”

    Catholics believe in the “development of doctrine,” by which we mean that our understanding of the central truths and abiding mysteries of the Faith deepens over time, thus leading to a fuller picture of God and His economy of grace. For instance, what passed for orthodox theology in the second century would be heterodox by the fourth century. Take St. Justin Martyr: His trinitarianism was satisfactory for his era, but it would be insufficient and defective today.

    The analogy isn’t so much evolution as the growth of a great big tree, though that image has its problems, too.

  81. George Engelhard says

    When I ask for God’s mercy, unless I am in a bad spot (fallen into sin or greatly tempted to do so), I usually do not ask just mercy for myself, but for all. I prefer Holy God or the western prayer:
    Oh, Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us (2X)
    Oh,Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant us Thy peace
    If I am in a restaurant, I say grace for everyone there.

  82. George Engelhard says

    Father Stephen,
    I am reading “We Shall See Him As He Is” by Elder Saphrony.
    In it he says that as we come to know God, as God reveals Himself to us, we become more and more aware of our own retchedness and are led to great sorrow.
    Is the dark night of the soul the purging of our own understanding of God so that God may truly reveal Himself to us?

  83. says

    God is Good! All of the time!

    On several occasions throughout this blog we have reaffirmed either directly or indirectly this quote. As usual we have delved into many topics from the original blog posting. When it comes to understanding pain, suffering, death, God’s actions, God’s will, God’s judgement, God’s love & our actions, our will, our judgements & etc. I do not think that we can have all of the answers nor can we rationalize these things nor can we understand in the fullest sense of these words. But let us remember than any reading or interpretation or understanding or rationalizations or logic or philosophy that renders, or would render, us with any belief(s) other than “God is Love” is erroneous. When discussing the topics that we have thus far discussed I would like to amend our original to:

    God is ALL Good! ALL of the time!

  84. dinoship says

    George,
    according to Elder Sophrony, seeing one’s own wretchedness and the resulting compunction is NOT the same as pedagogical apparent “God-forsakeness” -the 2nd stage as he terms it of the three stages of spiritual advancement (which relates to the western dark night of the soul- though he really never like that term at all)

  85. Ray says

    Marie,

    Try to see the dark night St John of the Cross describes as a good thing. Here is one verse of his poem about it.

    O guiding night!
    O night more lovely than the dawn!
    O night that has united
    the Lover with his beloved,
    Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

    God allows it when one desires intimate communion with God. St John calls it transforming as someone in an earlier post mentioned concerning suffering. I would say, when Mother Teresa wrapped her arms around suffering she was in a face to face embrace with her saviour on the cross.

  86. George Engelhard says

    Dinoship,
    I should have put the question in a seperate post. I was not likening the Dark Night to cumpunction. It was a seperate inquiry. In complete stillness I loose all thought, all concepts including concepts of God. I was asking if this was the Dark night.

  87. dinoship says

    George,
    That is not it. The Dark Night equivalent (loosely) in the teaching of certain Orthodox Fathers (and especially the late Elder Sophrony), simply describes the longest and most fertile yet also “driest” period of spiritual evolvement in ones life.
    This middle period is simply what follows the Grace-filled, enthusiastic first period that attracts the soul to the path of Salvation and first fans the flames of (a yet not-“tested”) love. (The testing is mainly for the sake of the one being tested…) The suffering of this second period in which God might seem to have forsaken the soul, and the strong feeling of Grace has withdrawn, varies hugely with every person. This is the period we are talking about here. It can last most of one’s life. It is by far the most fertile period, when I have the unique opportunity of proving to God and myself that I love Him, rather than simply being enamoured with (addicted to, even) His gifts…
    The final period is when the Holy Spirit has permanently made its abode in Man, (the Grace filled 3rd period , rather than 1st period grace, as in the final reinstatement of Job).

  88. George Engelhard says

    Dinoship,
    But I loose all sense of God’s grace and love. I don’t like it. I am drawn to it. It seems to be what comes as I progress in my quest. It is attractive but very frighteneing at the same time. Help me. I have been coming up against this all my life it seems and running away from it.

  89. dinoship says

    It is certainly not unrelated to the 2nd period. We all have that feeling at times, it is extremely common…
    Our “sense” of God’s grace and love is not as important (profoundly exhilarating and transformative though it is) as our “belief” in His Grace and love!
    It is not so much what we “feel” that we must concentrate on but what we believe in (God’s omnipresence and total goodness) that cements the bond of union to Him.
    You must have a Spiritual Father who can guide you through this period (as all other)

  90. dinoship says

    Sorry I meant as through all other periods…

    It is also paramount that we pay no heed to our thoughts our feelings even but our trust in God’s providence no matter what.
    “I have been coming up against this all my life it seems” is a classsic 2nd period thought. One thinks it was and always will be raining while it rains, or that it was always and always will be sunny when while the sun shines…
    Even if I am hanging on a Cross, I must strive never to pay more attention to my ordeal than to my Joy for knowing that God is overseeing me lovingly.
    It might feel like he is deaf, but I concentrate NOT on what I feel but on what I believe…

  91. George Engelhard says

    Dinoship,
    Something happened and sent the reply before I finished. I know priests and monks here locally, but how do I choose?

  92. dinoship says

    George,
    You choose the way you choose your doctor. It could be more important to have one readily available to start off with than to have (an amazing) one that you have to travel far away for.
    All will be well on that path, even if there are difficulties…

  93. John Shores says

    Well, I must say that I am rather pleased that I haven’t had to say a word before the things to which I might raise an objection or question has been raised. :)

    Fr. Stephen:

    What I find disturbing is how lightly so many Christians make efforts to justify a brutal God. I think it is unnecessary, even if it leaves me perplexed.

    That you are perplexed says something important. It sounds to me a bit like the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” statuettes that one can find about. “I know my daddy is a good man so he must have had a really good reason for ordering his henchmen to kill that family” does not make a very sound argument.

    If the events didn’t actually happen, then even as allegory god looks somewhat horrible in many texts. I see no way around that.

    Dinoship:

    Their understanding of death is distinctly Orthodox in that they see it NOT as the bad thing it is seen in Western thought. In fact, they clearly see it as “the second biggest beneficence” granted us by God…

    I have a hard time reconciling this against the idea that life is sacred. The logical conclusion to your statement is that all Christians should want to die. But this is not the case. I know of no one who embraces their own death as a gift, let a lone the death of a loved one.

    Michael B:

    Ananias & Sapphira lied too the Holy Spirit so His life was withdrawn, IMO. Death is the wages of sin.

    How is it than any Christians have survived then? Even Peter was duplicitous and Paul thought himself to be the “chief among sinners.” I have a hard time believing that Christ would cry out for his father to forgive the people brutalizing him and then would strike down A&P for lying. That’s simply ridiculous to me. (Torquing someone for not handing over all the cash is the sort of thing that Paul Crouch might do, not Christ.)

    In our society, there is no consensus about what the Bible means or how it is interpreted rightly. Even within the traditional churches, yours included, there is great diversity — as you admit. What is true? What is historical? Are the truth and the historical one and the same? How do you distinguish one from the other? What can be rejected in good faith?

    This was pretty much where I got off the bus as well. I prefer hobbit sense. If even the fathers cannot seem to agree, what chance do I have to get anything right?

    Are we uncomfortable with the destruction of the Amelkites because we are sensitized to the value of human life — or desensitized to sin?

    I think we are uncomfortable with it for the same reason we are uncomfortable with any holocaust. To be comfortable with such things would be to wink at Stalin and say that Hitler was acting as god’s agent.

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but I wonder if you’re not overstating your case at points. I don’t know of any father who would, for instance, read the plagues of Egypt as pure allegory: the mass killing of the first born sons obviously has many layers of meaning, but they don’t erase the reality of the event, which was seen by the fathers as a great act of God in history, and is seen as agnostics like John as wicked and monstrous.

    St Gregory of Nyssa in the Life of Moses explicitly states that this account can only be understood in an allegorical sense as we may not attribute evil to God.

    To me, this is just plain silly. You can’t go about saying that god said that he was going to harden Pharaoh’s heart as some kind of allegory. There’s no point to that. Pharaoh not caving would be a natural reaction of a monarch; “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” Even as allegory it’s too far fetched. It’s as if the writer is going out of his way to show what kind of person this god is then we have to come back with “what he really meant was…”. Who wants that?

  94. PJ says

    John,

    I once knew a very pious woman whose younger sister (also very pious) was killed in an auto accident at the age of 20. She was sad, yes, but her sadness was overshadowed by joy and hope: joy that her sister was at rest in the arms of God, and hope that she would one day rise in a glorified body. Her reaction shocked me. It was perhaps the first time I really “saw” Christianity. It tore away the respectable bourgeois veneer and exposed the utter foolishness of the gospel. At the time, I was scandalized, even disgusted. Now … now I am beginning to understand. It’s no wonder the Romans called Christians “haters of mankind,” with their happy embrace of martyrdom.

  95. Brian Van Sickle says

    Something to reflect upon…

    When God’s patience with mankind delays His righting of the injustices we perceive, we often question His goodness, while when He acts to right injustice we are often quick to accuse Him of cruelty.

    Yet in the end, when those innocent souls who have borne the worst injustices and suffered virtually intolerable tortures at the hands of their fellow human beings for doing nothing more than loving God finally see the culmination of His mysterious plan, they cry out, “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power… Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing.”

    Simple man that I am, I take this to mean that…

    1.) The sufferings of this present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed.

    2.) Their use of the word “worthy” to describe the Lord God is a specifically human acknowledgement of His goodness, an acknowledgment that they themselves now see that He knew what He was doing all along even if they couldn’t see it at any given time, and an acknowledgment that He alone is qualified to rule in their own estimation – not only by virtue of who He is, but also by virtue of what He has done from the beginning to the end.

  96. mary benton says

    John S.

    Nice to see you back. I was getting a little worried that we hadn’t heard any objections from you on this post :-). Seriously, I’m glad you still want to be part of the conversation…

    Life IS sacred. This life is just the beginning. It gets more sacred as we move more fully into the love of God. I both want this life (for as long as I am meant to have it) and I want the fullness of life that is to come. In a spiritual sense, I look forward to death, though I have the same human fears as others.

    I know there is no rational argument that will help you feel that but I hope some day that you do. Blessings.

  97. dinoship says

    JohnS,
    I believe some of those questions of yours are (especially our view of death and suffering) are answered very well on that talk (the second half – questions and answers) I put the link up of earlier (by Father John Behr)

    here is the URL again:

  98. George Engelhard says

    In the Philikolia, one of the Fathers says that when one is in the ascetic stage of spiritual growth and the burden of the emencity of one sin is excruciatingly apparent, there is the desire to die and be with Jesus. I sometimes have such sorrow over my sins that I no longer want to live. I want to be God.
    In 1970, while laying face down on the floor, I said to Jesus,” I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to be with You.” Immediately, I was out of my body, up near the ceiling, looking down on my body face down on the floor. I became very frightened and went back into my body.

  99. dinoship says

    George Engelhard,
    we must always surrender totally and trust fully in God’s plan for us, no matter what unbearable darkness inside of us is revealed to us through grace. It sounds like an impossible combination, but it is feasible, remember that:

    “Man is more himself, man is more ‘manlike’, when Joy is the fundamental thing in him, and Grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive state of mind; Praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; Joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.”

    From St. John Cassian

    Our tears are right when there is Joy lurking underneath, and our Joy is right when there are tears accompanying it

  100. dinoship says

    George,

    our tears are right when they are accompanied by joy and our joy when accompanied by tears. No matter how unbearable the darkness of our soul -revealed to us through grace- the joy and trust in God and His providence must dominate.

    “Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when Joy is the fundamental thing in him, and Grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive state of mind; Praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; Joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.”

    From St. John Cassian

    I’ve been having some trouble commenting again, so excuse any double posts!

  101. John Shores says

    Marc:

    Until you are willing to humbly seek healing for your wounded ego, you will not be able to acknowledge that there is a greater reality beyond the material.

    I think a case could be made that much of what passes for Christianity (I’m thinking Protestants, Anglicans, etc) could conceivably be the sorts of belief systems that PT Barnum might have created. I would be an idiot to just accept what someone is telling me as being the truth. I have to ask questions and the answers have to make sense. If they don’t I have to abdicate my humanity to accept that which by nature is unacceptable.

    I am sorry that you understand me so poorly and that you use the Protestant tactic of “blame the victim” as a refutation.

    I have, in the last four years, become what sociologists term an “open individual” or having a high level of “openness to experience.” This trait is marked by a craving for novelty, variety, diversity, and contemplating new ideas. It is what makes it possible for me to converse with you whereas when I was a Protestant Christian I would not converse with you because I was a very closed individual, as most conservatives of any religion are, and thought I had the answers when in truth I never even asked the right questions.

    That being the case, I actually have no objection to the possibility of something beyond the material world. Indeed, I can conceive that “eternity” means more than just from the point of my conception forward as some tend to consider it.

    The question that arises if one accepts that there is something more is “Does it matter?”

    If you ask a Christian, the answer is yes because what we do here in this short lifetime determines the rest of your eternity.

    To others (some very dear to me), who simply see this as a place to have the kinds of experiences that cannot be had in the eternal realm, the answer is yes but they apply no eternal consequences to these experiences beyond having them as memories.

    To others still who see this reality as a sort of womb, the answer is no; you will still continue on after you die just as a fetus does after it is born.

    And to those who think that this is all there is, the question has no meaning.

    The point is, I have not yet adopted the Christian viewpoint. That does not mean that I have ruled it (or anything else) out. I simply am not convinced that the Christian viewpoint is accurate. And since it claims to be the only way, it makes sense that I should investigate.

    Another aspect if this is that I am free to ask questions without feeling like I need to defend a position.

    If, for example, one proposes “God is Good” and leaves it at that, the attributes that I might attribute to god include all the good things that I would attribute to another human being. Conversely, I would not attribute those things that are bad about people and apply them to this good deity. That’s pretty simple (and maybe simplistic).

    But when the person then hands me a Bible and says, “Read this and you’ll see that God is good” then we enter into debate about the meaning of the word “good.” If god had been all along doing those things that Jesus demonstrated, the OT would be a very different book. But rather than a selfless, merciful, benevolent god who is a friend to sinners, we find that god in the OT to be somewhat exacting, mean, and cruel with very little exception.

    We can only judge based on what we comprehend. I see a well-intentioned Mitt Romney and a well-intentioned Barak Obama, both with polar ideologies, and if I had to make a determination on the character of each, I would come to pretty similar conclusions. They’re both good guys. I happen to think that Romney’s fiscal ideas are better for the country and I’m disappointed that he lost. But at no point during the debates did I assign some moral superiority to one or the other man. This is very hard for most people to do.

    Similarly, I am trying to make heads and tails of Christianity without castigating those who hold to it or lauding those who openly oppose it. To me, this is the only rational way to behave. It troubles me that so few people in the world take the trouble to behave rationally. It is why I am drawn to this community. I have found a group of rational human beings who can have a civil discourse. To me, this is a delight and a rarity.

  102. Grant says

    Dear John Shores,

    A good starting point for you (or a point along the way of what sounds like a long journey) might be ‘What does matter -really matter- to you?’ I would be interested to hear from you.

  103. John Shores says

    PJ:

    I once knew a very pious woman…

    I too have seen similar things. Most recently, my daughter’s friend had an older brother in his teens who was a drug addict and OD’d. We attended the funeral and the mother, who was strong and loved her son fiercely, spoke openly about their struggle and all that she had done with her son to get him straight. He had made an effort but kept falling back. She spoke directly to his druggie friends who were there and there was such love in her. She had accepted this boy and his friends and did not berate them in the least. She was convinced that her son was with god. All of this contrary to the protestant belief system.

    Then the preacher got up and talked about the “elephant in the room” and started openly prodding wounded people with an “are you saved” message. Peddling the god-product. I was nauseated and outraged. I had to leave. I would have loved to have had an opportunity to punch that preacher in the face.

    Mary:

    Life IS sacred…

    I agree. This is why I have such a hard time with things like killing David’s baby as punishment for David’s sin. What’d the kid ever do?! And if Jesus would not even accuse the adulteress, let alone going to the trouble of forgiving her, where is that found in the heart of the OT god? I find it baffling.

    Dinoship:

    I’ll watch the 1.5 hour presentation later and comment as necessary.

  104. dinoship says

    JohnShores,
    I know not how to convince someone of God’s goodness through the use of words. His goodness, no matter what unbearable suffering has, is or will be ‘thrown’ at us (I use ‘thrown at us’ as this is how we mostly perceive it).
    What I do know, with a greater conviction than anything else in life (not simply believe but know), is that at the bottom of the deepest hell, a hell beyond all human conception, the Lord Jesus Christ extended His hand and took the lost sheep from the belly of that unutterable darkness. In that light of personal experience all arguments to the contrary whether from life or from someone’s understanding of scripture pale into complete insignificance.
    This might not be the paradisial encounter of the Lord you, and everyone, might yearn for, quite the contrary; however, it can convince you like nothing else in the world… (I would say from personal experience that this hell is even worth it, and there is no other way for the hardened prodigal son to learn of the love he was blind to, until he hits rock bottom like that)

  105. dinoship says

    John,
    concerning the OT difficulties you keep having, please ensure you keep an ‘open mind’ concerning what Paul says in 2 Corinthians, which I clearly think applies not just to Jews, but also to most Protestants, as well as agnostics and atheists of the Protestant and Catholic influenced world (most who have not been taught the Orthodox understanding of OT),.:

    for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom…

    When St Ignatius was asked to prove the Lord of the Gospel he claimed was assuredly hidden in the ancient Scriptures (this was during the end of the 1st century), his answer was that “for me the sacrosanct records are Jesus Christ’s cross and death and resurrection, and the faith that comes through Him”. (to the Philadelphians)

  106. PJ says

    John,

    “I too have seen similar things. Most recently, my daughter’s friend had an older brother in his teens who was a drug addict and OD’d. We attended the funeral and the mother, who was strong and loved her son fiercely, spoke openly about their struggle and all that she had done with her son to get him straight. He had made an effort but kept falling back. She spoke directly to his druggie friends who were there and there was such love in her. She had accepted this boy and his friends and did not berate them in the least. She was convinced that her son was with god. All of this contrary to the protestant belief system.”

    As a former user, this speaks directly to my heart. Several of my friends died — in more ways than one. I try to remember them always in my prayers, especially in this month, the month of all souls.

    I used to sell drugs to the son of the woman who is today my godmother. She is relentlessly forgiving. After I contributed significantly and materially to the near destruction of her son, she took me in with open arms, not even asking for an apology (though I’ve since offered many…).

    If Christ walked the earth today, He would surely eat with crack whores, junkies, hedge fund fraudsters, pimps, drug dealers, pornographers, gun smugglers, and AIDS-ridden gay men. The lowest of the low; the down and out; the dregs; the hard cases. That this crowd is largely unevangelized — or, if evangelized, crudely so, with little effort at sympathy — is frankly scandalous. (Not that there aren’t some humble apostles tilling these rocky fields with charity and mercy…)

  107. PJ says

    John,

    On an emotional level, I share your indignation, but when I think deeply about the matter, I fail to see why the death of David’s son is any more outrageous than the death of my godmother’s infant child. We have no life in us: it is given, and it is taken away, and God’s purpose and providence is beyond our wildest imagination. Through death and life, through scarcity and abundance, through war and peace, through earthquake and gentle rain, God works His plan for creation, the ultimate goal of which is the most wonderful thing possible: God “all in all.” Suffering is always with us — Christianity begins with the recognition that the Creator has partaken of the bitter cup with His creatures. Mystery of mysteries!

  108. George Engelhard says

    Death is not he end but the beginning. We had the funeral for a 50 year old man in our church who has two young children. He past on from cancer. But the cancer did not win the man did not loose the battle. He won. The cancer is dead and he is alive. He fought the good fight and is now with the Lord, more alive than he had ever been on earth. His funeral was a celebration of his victory with Christ over death and eventual resurrection.

  109. George Engelhard says

    At Sts. Cosmos and Damien House in Orlando, FL, two Orthodox monks tend to the needs of men terminally ill with AIDS.

  110. mary benton says

    John S

    I have shared your questions/doubts about the OT portrayal of God. I say “portrayal” because, as indicated in some of my comments above, I believe that the way the OT writers interpreted events led to attributing certain violent or punishing events to God’s personal acts. (Without the veil removed – good quote, Dinoship – they were understanding their salvation in a very primitive fashion.)

    Many of us still fall into the habit of doing this, e.g. thanking or blaming God for specific events that we like or don’t like. God’s movement in our lives is so much more than that.

    Again, I am not saying that that means that the OT is not true but rather that, read alone, it is not a good way to understand salvation history – and therefore to learn about God. Christ’s resurrection changes how we understand everything.

  111. dinoship says

    Well said PJ,
    our over-reliance on our own thinking (something to strive to become freed from) can make us doubt God to the extent that:

    You can be in the cave with the hungry lions respecting you like Daniel, and yet still carry on with thoughts of: how can it be Him protecting me here? He allowed the massacre of so and so etc etc…

  112. John Shores says

    Hi Mary – I reeeeally struggle with the idea that “God killed them (or commanded them to be killed) so it’s OK.” If we look at exactly how many people Christ killed or commanded to be killed or how many he condemned (I don’t think he even condemned the pharisees) and we use that as a lens to look at the OT, the actions of god don’t really improve. In fact, they reveal an entirely different personality.

    Dinoship: We have to rely on our thinking to some degree, wouldn’t you agree? If we are to rely on the Fathers etc. then we must also take into consideration mystics of other religions who have things to say. To do one without the other is to fall short.

    Marc: You stated, “If we can eliminate those concepts and teachings that are clearly not true, we will move closer to what is true.” I do not think you can know what is true until you don’t have an agenda or position to defend.

    If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against.

    The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.

    -Sent ts’an, c. 700 AD

    This I have tried to do, not holding an agenda but simply trying to see things clearly without judgment or presupposing a position.

  113. dinoship says

    John,
    I clearly see your point “I do not think you can know what is true until you don’t have an agenda or position to defend” and “thinking”
    But, as John Behr puts it, at some point you need a 1+1=2 axiom to stand on.

    To understand Scripture, it is crucially important that one has the correct hypothesis. While for some branches of knowledge finding the right hypothesis may be a tentative and pragmatic thing, we cannot philosophically demand demonstrations of first principles.

    This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with undemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth. For us that is Jesus crucified and exalted.

    It is these first principles that are the basis for subsequent demonstrations and function as a canon to evaluate other claims to truth. Knowledge is impossible without such a canon, for enquiry would simply degenerate into endless regression and it is for this reason that Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement appealed to a canon to counter the constantly mutating Gnostic claims.

  114. dinoship says

    Because God has acted in Christ in a definitive, and unexpected, manner, making everything new, Scripture itself must be read anew – in the light of what God has wrought in Christ.
    As Father John Behr often reminds his students, “it is important to note that it is Christ who is being explained through the medium of Scripture, not Scripture itself that is being exegeted; the object is not to understand the “original meaning” of an ancient text, as in modern historical-critical scholarship, but to understand Christ, who, by being explained “according to the Scriptures,” becomes the sole subject of Scripture throughout.”
    That the veil was removed by Christ means that it is only in Christ that the glory and love of God is revealed and that we can discern the true meaning of Scripture, and that these two aspects are inseparable.
    Otherwise (without the axiomatic canon of the crucified and exalted Christ to stand on), the OT is just a ‘jewish book’ read like the Koran. Your interpretation of it can indeed vary from black all the way to white…

  115. John Shores says

    We must decide whether to pick up our own crosses and follow in the way to truth and life, or to curse God and embrace the second death.

    This made me laugh (sorry). Those are not the only two choices left to us. Supposing so has the tendency to cause people to think of those “outside the faith” as being the kinds of people who are self-absorbed and who “curse god” just by virtue of being outside the faith, much as some think that atheists are amoral by default.

    This is simply not so.

    I would also add that one of the main objections of agnostics and atheists are based on the fact that the god being presented to them appears to be morally compromised. How can that be if we have no concept of what is morally correct? We know what the characteristics of a “good” personality are and we embrace those ideas. Morality is extremely important to the non-religious who are willing to have a discussion about god. Otherwise, no discussion would be possible.

    I object to any notion that would suggest that morality is in any way connected to “godliness” or that one’s morals improve with exposure to god or religion (see Gregory Peck’s “The Keys of the Kingdom” as a premium example of what I mean). I also object to the notion that rejecting Christianity is tantamount to cursing god. You must admit that most who reject Christianity do so because of Christians.

    “I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.”

    From: The Knights Templar & the Protestant Reformation in a dialogue between missionary Stanley Jones and Mahatma Gandhi.

    If god is good, I am certain that he would not condemn one who wants him to be better than he seems to be. (see the end of The Last Battle in which Aslan welcomes the servant of Tash who served Tash with his whole heart.)

  116. dinoship says

    John,
    I clearly see your point “I do not think you can know what is true until you don’t have an agenda or position to defend” and “thinking”
    But, as John Behr puts it, at some point you need a 1+1=2 axiom to stand on.

    To understand Scripture, it is crucially important that one has the correct hypothesis. While for some branches of knowledge finding the right hypothesis may be a tentative and pragmatic thing, we cannot philosophically demand demonstrations of first principles.

    This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with undemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth. For us that is Jesus crucified and exalted.

    It is these first principles that are the basis for subsequent demonstrations and function as a canon to evaluate other claims to truth. Knowledge is impossible without such a canon, for enquiry would simply degenerate into endless regression and it is for this reason that Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement appealed to a canon to counter the constantly mutating Gnostic claims.

  117. Grant says

    Dinoship,

    Brilliant comment, very insightful, totally supports Father Stephen’s point. Scripture is about Christ, Christ is new…

    Thank you.

  118. PJ says

    John,

    “I would also add that one of the main objections of agnostics and atheists are based on the fact that the god being presented to them appears to be morally compromised. ”

    What is their basis for judgment, beyond a subjective and arbitrary sense of right and wrong?

    “This I have tried to do, not holding an agenda but simply trying to see things clearly without judgment or presupposing a position.”

    This presupposes, rather groundlessly, that “standing outside” is possible — and not just possible, but good. Isn’t this an act of faith in and of itself?

    I don’t mean to get too sophistical here, but the notion that any viewpoint is free of presuppositions seems pretty unreasonable to me.

  119. fatherstephen says

    PJ,
    John Shores makes an entirely valid point, substantiated in the fathers. The God of the OT, when read literally would have to be seen as “morally” compromised. This point is clear even in the early Church. The heretic Marcion rejected the OT on that basis. His trouble was a literalism, but not the moral judgment. Christian and Jewish critics had long noted how utterly immoral the gods of Rome and Greece were – chasing women – raping – murder – lying – etc.

    It’s pointless, to my mind, to construct a theology (whether Calvinist or Dispensationalist) that seeks to justify genocide, etc. Such stories in the OT are used by some preachers, such as Chrysostom, for their moral content (“don’t do this or you’ll be punished”). But the East never develops an account of God that sought to incorporate these stories as revelatory of His character. It’s certainly the case that in the apophatic writings of the fathers – which are by far those to be most closely read when thinking on the nature and character of God – these stories are “radically reinterpreted” as I’ve said before – usually in an allegorical form that removes the “immoral” points within a literal reading.

    If the gospel you presented to me was confined to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, then I wouldn’t want to worship that God either. For some, that story is just as revelatory on its literal level as the entire Gospel account of Christ, and we are forced to create a reconciliation in which the S&D God is equal to and the same as the Father of Jesus Christ. If that is the case – everything you say about the Father – revealed through Christ – will be trumped by the S&D story.

    Many of the fathers get this – and treat the story’s doctrinal content as something other than its literal content. That a sermon might use its literal content for a “moral” point is not the same thing as a father holding the literal content as a “Gospel” point.

  120. John Shores says

    Hi PJ – Good questions! I deny, however, that “right and wrong” are “arbitrary.” Much of it is innate. Some is simply that which makes civilization possible. There are, however, absolutes. In all of human history you will not find a thriving community in which the most successful rapist is prized for his ability to rape (for example). There are many sources to indicate that morality is not arbitrary and (as I’ve mentioned before) the foundations of morality can be found in other species.

    “Standing outside” of Christianity is certainly possible. You stand outside Norse or Aztec mythology and are able to examine what they have to offer and then make an assessment based on those things.

    You would not have to submit yourself to the doctrines wherein ripping out the hearts of your enemies as a sacrifice to the gods would help you to understand the depth of that teaching. (This sort of surrender is what Christians say must be embraced before full comprehension is possible but, as you see, that is not really a valid argument. Anyone involved in any cult would claim the same things. You have to be outside in order to see through this.)

    One would consider you an “atheist” with regards to those gods. This would not, however, make you a horrible person or incapable of being discerning.

  121. John Shores says

    The heretic Marcion…

    LOL. I’m going to get business cards that say:

    John Shores
    Heretic

    Many of the fathers get this – and treat the story’s doctrinal content as something other than its literal content.

    This begs the question of why to include the OT as a sacred writing at all. More importantly, to my mind, is the question, “Why should we take anything in the Gospels as literal?” If we start down that path, we become Arians.

  122. dinoship says

    JohnShores,
    I think you have a rare charisma – exponentially increasing comment count!
    :-)

    Remember was said earlier regarding the “veil” on the OT.

  123. PJ says

    Father,

    I sympathize with John’s misgivings. I’ve said as much. I’ve wondered for years about certain Old Testament accounts, and I’ll surely keep wondering for years to come.

    However, I cannot in good conscience issue blanket statements constricting God’s providence to certain means and methods that I, as a postmodern westerner, find acceptable. God is infinitely great and vast, and His ways are infinitely complex and mysterious.

    Human beings have no life in them. It is given and taken in accord with God’s wonderful and beautiful plan, which I can only begin to fathom. The Lord takes millions of souls every day: I don’t feel compelled to deny this fact to preserve His goodness. Why then must I deny that He took the life of David’s son, or the firstborn sons of the Egyptians? What is the difference between the death which happens at His commission (Sodom) and the death which happens by His omission (the tsunami)? Does God not take all of our lives, one way or another?

    Note that I am not trying to propagate any hard and fast doctrine. I am musing, hopefully prayerfully. I am trying to take account of ALL the data — all the fathers, all the Scripture.

    You’re a man of principle and honesty. I hope you appreciate my frankness. I offer these thoughts with all possible humility.

  124. PJ says

    John,

    I don’t think you’re a horrible person, heh. I’m just doubting the possibility of a paradigm without presuppositions. We aren’t beholden to every presupposition — but neither are we free of every presupposition. Do you see what I mean?

  125. PJ says

    Father,

    I might also add that you speak of the “eastern” understanding of God — but is it so simple? I follow the writings of three Orthodox priests: Fr. Hopko, Fr. Reardon, and yourself. There is much agreement, but also significant disagreement — especially on the matter of God’s wrath and justice. Fr. Reardon in particular has no problem affirming, say, the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira at the “hands” of the Holy Spirit. You’ll forgive an outsider for struggling to wrap his head around it all …

    Nonetheless, I’ll keep reading and meditating on your words. They have been enormously helpful thus far! God bless you!

  126. John Shores says

    PJ – I see what you mean. What I presume, though, is that people are scoundrels and you have to be careful before trusting them.

    I saw an interesting lecture last week in which the speaker outlined the problem of lying. In it, he pointed out that until about 5,000 years ago, with the advent of writing, what people said really carried no long-term consequences. Then we came to an age where a record of what was said was possible. In the last 300 years, more people have become educated. In the current day and age there is a record of almost everything we say or do.

    The point was that people are now far more conscious of whether they are telling the truth or not. In fact, it has been demonstrated that people lie less vie email than they do face-to-face, for this very reason.

    The point is, and perhaps this relates to the whole “look at it as allegory” thing, no one tells the truth all the time. When it comes to big things (e.g. Capitalism vs. Socialism), people are more apt to be untruthful, just to see their side win.

    Imagine then, how important it is to get to the truth when matters are so weighty.

    Why god would rely on people to be his ambassadors rather than communicating with us individually makes me wonder.

  127. dinoship says

    PJ,
    whether the death “happens at His commission (Sodom)” or “by His omission (the tsunami)” as you say, we mustn’t forget (which I mentioned earlier) how the Fathers saw death, (from a spiritual and eschatological point of view), namely, as a beneficence…
    If the first and foremost desire of a person is the inextricable duo of Love/Life, the very core of being (not so much in the obvious love spawns life and vice-versa way, but in the Trinitarian relational/personal divine mode of Being manner).
    The second yearning of man is that of final immutability (within such a ‘paradise of limitless’ love just mentioned of course).
    The answer to the first yearning comes through the inseparable duo of Cross-Resurrection; while the answer to the second comes through Death. So, that’s why death is seen in such a way by the fathers, it is an extension/interpretation of the well known saying: “in order that evil might not become eternal” …
    Father John Behr’s talk (a few comments back) answers a profound question on the very matter towards its end.

  128. PJ says

    Dino,

    I agree that fear of death and pessimism about the afterlife contributes significantly to modern man’s disease with stories wherein God takes life. Clement of Alexandria said that when God takes a life, he is either bringing a person unto salvation, or saving a person from heaping further damnation upon his own head. That is, the merciful are rewarded, and the wicked are prevented from “digging themselves deeper,” so to speak. This makes sense to me. But, again, I hesitate to state anything too categorically, given my own ignorance.

  129. mary benton says

    John Shores –

    You seem to be very well read of CS Lewis. What was your take on “Out of the Silent Planet”?

    I ask because is seems to me that a world in which many or most inhabitants are “bent” are likely to write “bent” stories, even when trying to write about God.

    I think some of the OT stories are told in “bent” ways because of the writers’ poor understanding of the ways of God. This ties in some with Father Stephen’s more recent post on “The True Agent of Change”. The writers thought in cause-effect ways (These people died and therefore God struck them down for this reason.)

    However, I do agree with you that it can seem a slippery slope once one decides not to read the OT in literal fashion. Can I/we trust ourselves to read it otherwise? (Probably not, quite honestly. My sense is that the Orthodox say that this is where the writings of the Fathers and Tradition help to teach us.)

    I do not disagree with that but I probably also rely a lot on my personal search for and experience of God. Once in relationship, it becomes hard to deny the Other’s existence or think Him cruel – His love overwhelms my most undeserving self.

  130. George Engelhard says

    John,
    God does communicate with us individually, but we must be quiet and listen. It is a still small voice. If we are in Christ and Christ is in us, is the life in us, the light in us, the way in us then all of this thinking, arguing, discerning, discussing is superfluous, unnecessary. If we live and move and have our being in Him, then nothing else is needed.

  131. dinoship says

    “If we are in Christ and Christ is in us, is the life in us, the light in us, the way in us then all of this thinking, arguing, discerning, discussing is superfluous, unnecessary. If we live and move and have our being in Him, then nothing else is needed.”
    Well put George

  132. John Shores says

    Hi Mary – I loved Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra precisely because they demonstrate what life could be like without a Fall story. So many Christians say that things are the way they are because they had to be that way. There had to be “free will” and all that. But both of those books show love where “free will” does not result in evil. I would rather live in either of those two worlds than this one, given a choice.

  133. Laura says

    Father, I appreciate this discussion on the old testament as well, and wonder if there is a commentary that might be good to read as converts like myself begin to read Christ is scripture? Some passages are easy, because the church makes it so (like the Burning Bush), but others are more difficult. I imagine reading the fathers would be a good place to start, but I was wondering if you have any suggestions for something a little easier to pick up?

  134. mary benton says

    Hi John S.

    I’m glad you liked Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra too. I want to live there too!

    An interesting question emerging from these books is whether, given the choice between good and evil, we could have chosen good (i.e. no “fall story”). Obviously, if there really was a choice, we could have. So the question is – why didn’t we?

    I don’t have an answer to this. It makes sense to me that the first humans (whether conceived of as literal Adam and Eve or archetypal), making the wrong choice, allowed evil into the world. And since evil begets more evil, it is hard (on our own) to get it out of our world again. Hence, all people born into the world after these first humans come into a “bent” world where we witness evil and are hurt by it, thus skewing our ability to consistently make choices for the good.

    I believe that Christ has overcome evil. I know that sounds a bit nuts, given how much evil there still is in the world. For us to still have a choice though – and not be totally predetermined by our ancestors’ mistake – we need to choose Him. Even this choosing is not a simple thing though – as you well know.

    I think many of here have chosen Him. And sometimes we mess up (or understand Him wrongly) and need to reaffirm that choice – again and again. In my own life, I believe that I am being transformed into someone who chooses good more than I used to – though I still have quite a ways to go. But because I believe I am completely loved in my fallen state, I have the hope and courage to keep trying.

    I hope this makes a bit of sense. I may sound like I am confident of what I believe – but that is not always true. Fortunately, it doesn’t all ride on me… I am not my own savior and never will be.

  135. drewster2000 says

    Like Laura and Marc and others, I appreciate this ongoing discussion of the OT and the God within its pages. I instinctively understand that the problems with it are in me and my perspective. As the Green Lady would say, this discussion is making me older.

    Information is ever at our fingertips. Where the world would say reply us who are looking for answers, “google it – duh!”, some Orthodox might give the same reply but substitute google with the fathers.

    That answer is not sufficient. The problem is that we are drowning in data. The problem is not that there are no resources available but there are few guides for the mountain of resources. Most of us would drown in even one chapter of the fathers.

    I want to understand how to look at the OT. As Fr. Stephen says, there is no way to “reconcile” it with the NT per se, but the OT is still part of the Bible. I won’t hang my salvation on understanding it but it’s still very important to me.

    I will continue to glean what I can from this blog on the subject, but if there is a guide or a book on it (like Discerning the Mystery by Andrew Louth), I’m definitely interested. I believe that it is a sticking point for those of us coming out of a Protestant background. As such, in the name of removing roadblocks from their path of salvation (most of our friends, relations & coworkers), this is important to me.

  136. John Shores says

    The Christian Old Testament : “…a source of exciting stories to tell the kids…”

    With so much violence, sexual promiscuity, and R rated content, it seems to me that the OT really isn’t fit for anyone under the age of 17.

    I find it amusing when the same people who teach their kids from the OT also don’t allow their kids to watch movies like Braveheart.

  137. fatherstephen says

    We teach OT stories – love them in Sunday School. They are taught in a very iconic manner – kids get them. We do not use them to draw moral points or scare kids. The NT is the point of the Old.

    Most of what I hear as your objections to OT stories are just objections to the sad hermeneutic of Protestant theology (which has often enough been “read into” American foreign and national policy – as well as large swaths of our culture).

    But, you’re right, much of the OT is R rated. There is a Jewish tradition (in some places) that men are not allowed to study Ezekiel until they’re over 40.

  138. John Shores says

    dinoship: (re: Father John Behr)

    I have heard this sort of message many times over. When thinking about these things, it is not the concepts which he puts forth that strike me the most. Like a good detective, to me seeing what’s not at the scene is as telling as what is there.

    It is not the words of St. Ignatius that strike me but rather how singular he is. Of the billions of Christians throughout time, why is it that the Orthodox must constantly reach back and talk about singular individuals (the saints)?

    It is as if the saints are the All-Star team and everyone else is sort of relegated to being poor or mediocre ball players who gather at the local park, never expecting to achieve greatness.

    This is one of the reasons that I give credence to the possibility of “the fall” being nothing more than a result of our biology; if there is a Holy Spirit indwelling Christians, one would expect the idea of a “new creation” to hold true and there would be a world full of people like Ignatius.

    If this spirit could so inspire the very few who have been dubbed as “Saints” then what’s the deal with everyone else? Why are there not more “Saints” to quote? Why are there so few modern-day saints to highlight (one whose life and words will be highlighted by future generations of Christians)? Why is Mother Theresa so outstanding? If all Christians were like her, we would never know her name.

    This became a very personal question; why could this person not make me like Christ as well when this is what I wanted more than anything? The silence that I received in reply to that question defined much of who I am today.

    I think that the “Saints” are exceptional people who would have been exceptional regardless of what philosophy or religion they adopted. I have a very difficult time accepting that god had anything to do with that.

  139. dinoship says

    John,
    well… part of the reason there are not as many saints as we would hope for is our singular reliance on rational reasoning and logicality instead of our singular reliance on faith…
    You see how difficult you have been finding the dive into the deep waters of faith yourself…
    I must say: rational reasoning and logicality actually (pardoxically) leads to irrationality, an unreasonable and illogical Hell, we (“logically”) perceive God ( a god of love) as the exact opposite. Exactly as in the icon of the river of fire on the one side and the light of heaven on the other, (both being different interpretations of the same energy emanating from Christ!
    With faith however, with the heart instead of the mind, we are lead to love and to God. Only that way my friend…

  140. fatherstephen says

    John Shores,
    Yes. God could smash us to smithereens and dance trippingly on our bashed out rational selves. :) But, healing the soul which is “doing the best it can” with its rationality and other wounded modes of existence, is more important to Him than winning the battle. Apparently He is committed to losing these battles as He wins the war.

  141. PJ says

    John,

    I have met many saints in my time as a Christian. Many men and women who live quietly, humbly, charitably, dedicating much time to prayer and good works, and bringing the light of Christ into all realms of their lives. I have also met many who, despite their faults — some of these faults are serious — struggle strenuously for sanctity, engaging the passions and the devil on a daily basis. Go to Mass. Wait til the church empties out after the service. Then spot one of the old folks who remains, meditating in silence, lingering for twenty, thirty minutes, perhaps lighting a candle or tilling prayer beads. Talk to him or her. There is a good chance that it will be an enlightening experience: perhaps you will find that saints, while not abundant, are not so few and far between. (This is not to say that all saints are pious old church ladies, don’t get me wrong, but I have found not a few wondrous souls in such a fashion.)

  142. George Engelhard says

    John,
    You are very good at finding the inconsistencies, in the Christian message. Have you looked for the consistencies? Have you found anything in this world that does not have inconsistencies? If you have, you haven’t looked long enough at it or deep enough into it. We are all hypocrites, which is Greek for actor, even you. None of us is real all the time.
    If you want to know if God is real ask Him if He is. Say” God, if you’re real, show me.”

  143. George Engelhard says

    The reason that reason and Almighty God are in opposition is because reason has become the god of this age suplanting Him.
    Not “I think therefore I am” but “I love therefore I am.”

  144. George Engelhard says

    I am becoming a saint. I am not there yet. But if you could see the progress that God has made in me especially over the last 20 years since I became an Orthodox Christian, you might possible be amazed. Most people say that I am a good person.They have said that to me. But 30 and 40 years ago I was an evil person and I enjoyed being evil. But God had other plans for me.

  145. John Shores says

    Hi George – Thanks for your comments. Oddly, the same can be said in the other direction.

    My father was a protestant pastor who later was ordained an Orthodox Priest. When I was a Christian, he and I used to argue like Patty off the boat about just about everything. After I left the faith, all of that stopped.

    About a year ago, I was visiting my parents and we had a good time together. Dad said, sort of off-handedly, that he had never seen me happy before and that it was obvious that I had become content.

    In many ways, I have made “progress” since leaving the faith. One of the manifestations of this progress is that I have accepted that (as you say) everything in this world has inconsistencies. “People are not essentially good or bad, they are essentially people.” It’s a very freeing philosophy.

    That Christianity claims to have god working on its side and within its people is remarkable to me simply because the Church has exactly the same inconsistencies (read: hypocrisy) as any other group of people. The fact that that group is no different from any other tells me that, well, it’s no different from any other group. One would expect something different when god is added into the mix.

    I’d like to ask a question about forgiveness, if I may. In many books and movies that I have digested in the past four years, the theme that one ought to forgive someone who has offended them had surfaced repeatedly. But the reason behind it is not so that the offender will benefit but so that the offended can heal.

    Is it at all remotely possible that the forgiveness of god is not simply for the good of man but that somehow god is behaving in such a manner for his own mental health?

    Another theme that I have seen frequently is the casting the first stone impetus of forgiveness. You don’t judge others because you yourself are guilty of something. Is it possible that god feels guilty for making us as defective beings?

    I guess that what I’m trying to figure out is, what does god get out of forgiving us? If he needs nothing, then this whole experiment is pointless and makes god out to be a nihilist. So, what does he personally gain from any of it. There has to be a motive that benefits him in some way.

    I’d also like to ask if it would be wrong for a person to forgive god.

  146. dinoship says

    I must repeat John, all this “if this then that, and what about if that, or is it possible that this then, or why does he not do that then etc etc etc.” will lead nowhere. It is simply a bottomless pit of arguments demanding an answer against faith. You “chop one head off” and two pop up to replace it. (as in Hercules and the Lernean Hydra) I could sit there until the end of time answering them but it will never convince a person who does not want to recognise that he must be liberated from the tyranny of his mind and embrace the freedom of his heart…It is the “rationality” used by the enemy of our souls to be perfectly honest, and it can either seem ‘impossible’ to defeat him (when we essentially fight ourselves from his side of this reasoning) or it is actually very easy to defeat him if we ignore him through faith. That is why “the children inherit the Kingdom”.

  147. Grant says

    Well put, dinoship. I’d like to get to know you better. You keep getting it spot on for me (if not for others). Thank you.

  148. George Engelhard says

    The offender does benifit from being forgiven. The greatest example is Christ’s forgivenes of those who crucufied Him. they were changed. many if not all became Christians.
    Forgivinng the offender benifits the world because there is a little less hate and anger in the world.
    By definition, God needs nothing. He forgives because forgiveness is His nature. He can do nothing else.
    Forgiving others because you are guilty, too is only the beginning. As one becomes more and more the likeness of God, forgiveness becomes the natural thing to do.
    Again, God doesn’t get anything out of forgiving us. He doesn’t need anything. He is simply being what he is.
    If I gave you something, needing nothing in return, would I be nihilistic?
    Hve you forgiven God? Do so.

  149. George Engelhard says

    The church was from the beginning and still is a light of goodness in the world in spite of the hypocracy within it. one ofthe things that made Christians stand out in the early centurieswas their love for one another and those not of the faith. Humanitarian efforts, even those of secular governments, had/has itsroots in the Church. Before Christ and the Church, it did not exist in the world.

  150. George Engelhard says

    A Difference Between Philosophy and Theology
    November 23, 2012 By Fr. John A. Peck
    [Translate]
    ——————————————————————————–

    By St. Nikolai Velimirovich
    One of the differences between the eloquent philosophy of the Hellenes and the Christian Faith is that the entire Hellenistic philosophy can clearly be expressed with words and comprehended by reading, while the Christian Faith cannot be clearly expressed by words and even less comprehended by reading alone. When you are expounding the Christian Faith, for its understanding and acceptance, both reading and the practice of what is read are necessary.

    When Patriarch Photios read the words of Mark the Ascetic concerning the spiritual life, he noticed a certain unclarity with the author for which he wisely said:

    “That [unclarity] does not proceed from the obscurity of expression but from that truth which is expressed there; it is better understood by means of practice and that cannot be explained by words only.”

    And, the great Patriarch adds,

    “It is not only the case with these homilies nor only with these men, but rather with all of those who attempted to expound the ascetical rules, passions and instructions, which are better understood from practice alone.”

  151. mary benton says

    Hi John S.

    I agree with dinoship about the bottomless pit of questions. All of your questions about what God “feels” or “gets out of” this whole thing makes God sound like no more than another human being.

    I admit I do talk to people about forgiving God – because it is often hard for people to acknowledge anger toward God. This anger, if clung to, can be psychologically painful and damaging. God doesn’t need our forgiveness but we need to be free of our anger.

    Not that it’s any of my business, but I hope you allow yourself some quiet time for meditation. Something like a mindfulness meditation can be peaceful if you are not comfortable with a theistic theme. I too am a person full of questions but sometimes inner stillness gives “answers” at a deeper level. Blessings.

  152. says

    JS, if I may:

    If you are struggling with references to God commanding “people to be killed” and the like, in the OT; then you are doubtlessly equally at odds with much the same happening in the NT. At a stretch you might find some of the NT even more disturbing, possibly:

    I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. (Rev. 2:23)

    Fret not. The truth is that death pervades the NT in as much the same way that it pervaded the OT. There is not a line dividing the two, as such. That line is purely an invention of modernity. It is Christ’s Pascha that divides the old world from the new.

    Note: It follows, that the NT is as hard to read properly as the OT. That said. Your father is a wise man. Despite knowing you only from your online scribblings (my italics); clearly, his son’s never been happier. :-)

  153. George Engelhard says

    John,
    I will say I was never happier than when I was a hedonistic atheist, bedding women right and left, doing what I pleased when I wanted to. But now I am more complete than I have ever been. The journey to completeness is often sorrowful because I have to face up to and aknowledge my incompleteness and my sin. Not fun but worth it. I feel great joy but not happiness. JOY TRUMPS HAPPINESS. Take it from someone who knows.

  154. John Shores says

    D and others – I agree. I really shouldn’t pose these questions until the foundational question upon which the whole thing rests is resolved. Sorry for sidelining.

    George – I have gone nowhere near hedonism. Indeed, most non-religious people I know live under the same scruples as you or I would. I think that the contentment my father saw was a product of my realizing that it was OK for me to look at things rationally (I am a rational being after all – which is what Protestantism so crazy-making for me) and be the final authority on what I should or should not believe. It all came down to this; I am the way that I am and if god is around and wants me to believe in him then he knows how to reach me in ways that I understand. If he doesn’t, he isn’t worth following anyhow.

    I confess that I am somewhat obsessed with this subject much as a man I once knew who was a raised in communist Russia is obsessed with communism and politics. Indoctrination has a lifetime price tag. I often envy those who were raised in agnostic homes.

  155. Dana Ames says

    John S,

    I read Fr Stephen every day, but rarely comment. I do, though, want to let you know that I appreciate the honesty and openness you have revealed since you arrived here. I want to reiterate: do stick around! At a place like this, we can experience being here for each other’s salvation (Orthodox definition), and your presence is truly a blessing.

    Earlier, someone -perhaps Fr Stephen- mentioned that you’re now free from a tyrannical god. FWIW, I think the reason you’re so happy is that you’re out from under the thumb of that not-god. Can’t blame you one bit.

    I know how tempting it is to want to try to convince someone to “believe in god” the way I do. Sometimes it’s from good motives, insofar as I can determine them :-) I came to Orthodoxy in part because I was tired of the whole attitude and pressure of having to be right, to believe correctly, to convince others; like an addict, the Protestantism through which I sojourned hooked into my own codependencies around that stuff. I really had a sort of theological and existential crisis; I just had to disengage from that scene entirely, and it took a few years. I never wanted to be anything else but a Christian, but I certainly wandered in a wilderness for a time.

    I think a person who is being as honest as possible in any given moment is being as human as possible and is about as open to The Divine as possible. I think that following the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth in the setting of the sacramental life of Orthodoxy gives a person the best help there is to be able to come to that honesty, humanity and encounter with The Divine. That’s why I’m Orthodox – at least from “my side”… It’s not that there’s no help elsewhere; of course there is – cf Fr Stephen’s post on the hidden hand of God, and his remarks about his father-in-law, and definitely our own experiences of goodness with and through other people, whatever they believe about Ultimate Reality. Orthodoxy at its highest and deepest allows for God to be that “big” -and that good- because it portrays and teaches a God who is *that humble*.

    I think what we are really looking for is Life as we intuit and hope it should be. We all have notions, whether we can articulate them or not, whether they are “logical” or not, about the way life, the universe and everything is “supposed to work.” For a reasonably aware person, I think this involves some struggle. I think part of what Fr Stephen is about is engaging in that here. Thanks for helping us.

    Dana

  156. John Shores says

    Hi Dana. Thanks for your comments. And you’re welcome. I have never before come across a community of Christians that is willing to discuss such things without being defensive. Indeed, I have not had a relationship with my “Christian” sister for four years because she is incapable of reasonable dialogue. It really used to bother me at first but I actually don’t miss the arguing or self-righteousness at all. I wish her well but we don’t talk.

    …like an addict, the Protestantism through which I sojourned hooked into my own codependencies around that stuff

    Yeah. My four-month cold-turkey detox was pretty painful. I didn’t confide in anyone and I’m afraid I put my wife and kids through a great deal of negativity as I wended my way out of that addiction. Thankfully, when I came clean and explained it all to my wife, she was completely empathetic. She’s still very spiritual but not Christian. It’s a bit of a weirdness between us but we actually get along rather well.

    I think that following the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth in the setting of the sacramental life of Orthodoxy gives a person the best help there is to be able to come to that honesty, humanity and encounter with The Divine.

    Just out of curiosity, do you think that it’s possible that there are other paths outside of Christianity that will lead to the same place? Would a true Humanist be very different (in Practice) from a true Christian? Aside from the “divine” (which I cannot quantify), would there be any real difference in behavior and regard for other people do you think?

  157. dinoship says

    Your question: “do you think that it’s possible that there are other paths outside of Christianity that will lead to the same place? … Aside from the “divine” (which I cannot quantify), would there be any real difference in behavior and regard for other people do you think?”
    makes me wonder if you are too concentrated on the “popular or average” aspect of the middle of the road Christianity (a Protestant approach methinks) rather than the total and utter “Christization” of a person, as seen in the lives of true Orthodox ascetics and martyrs?
    Differences that may seem very small when looking at middle-of-the-road representations become immense if you were to experience the real depths. If for instance you compared, say Hinduism (or “Humanism”) to the real depths of Orthodox Hesychasm, I assure you the differences are beyond vast. I liken it to the difference between various strong experiences (Hinduism for instance -almost akin to various psychotropic drugs sometimes), and the ontological transformation of someone into the universal Truth that lies behind the Cosmos and is Christ (far more than just another experience).
    Elder Sophrony of Essex is an example of someone who was extremely well versed in eastern contemplation in his early life and talked about how that apparent “illumination” compared to the divine love bestowed on man ( a love unlike all of its ‘cheap replicas’ experienced outside the Uncreated Light) through the action of God’s “great” Grace.
    His comparisons from experience are to be found in the first part of the book “Saint Silouan the Athonite”. (earlier called “the undistorted image”). He was aware that he was addressing this very exclusively ‘eastern Orthodox spirituality’ book to a western multicultural audience when he was writing it.

  158. Karen says

    John S, in order to understand (at least a little) of what Dinoship is talking about I think you would have to enter into a relationship with such a person who is in a very advanced state of what Orthodox call “theosis” (which means transformation into the likeness of Christ–being exceedingly full of the Holy Spirit). There is no question that the virtues can develop in anyone (since all are created in the image of God) and Orthodox believe the “light of Christ enlightens every man coming into the world” (John 1:9), and so the Holy Spirit also empowers their development of the virtues according to their willingness whether they acknowledge Christ as such explicitly or not.

    Another way of looking at making such comparisons, though, is not just to try to quantify the apparent goodness of people based on external actions, but to try to qualify those based on the meaning of those acts in their own context. As an extreme example, is the “martyrdom” of a terrorist who straps a bomb to himself sacrificing his life in order to blow up those who are seen as enemies of Islam equivalent to the “martyrdom” of a Christian who accepts persecution, torture and even death rather than renounce his faith in Christ? Similarly, I think you understand that self-sacrificial service rendered out of gratitude and love does not have the same meaning or value as that rendered out of a servile fear of another’s power (which comes from the instinct for self-preservation). Rather, we understand the first as a virtue and the latter as a vice.

  159. Dana Ames says

    John,
    although “following Jesus” does imply some sort of path, I’m not sure that “Are there other paths leading to the same place” is the appropriate question. Virtuous behavior and kind regard for other people are just that, and “against such there is no law.”

    One of the many things I love about Orthodoxy is that it affirms all that is good in human beings as our true “natural state” that is being enlivened and enlightened by Christ, as Karen says. It’s very much like Emeth in “The Last Battle.” Aslan knows what is true about his service to Tash – the rest are not to judge, as what Marc said; only God knows the true meaning, as Karen said. There is a saying in Orthodoxy: We do not know where the church is not, but we do know where the church is. This is not a comment about the individual lives of people in the church, but about the deepest reality of existence.

    Philaret of New York (+1985) wrote regarding concerns about people who are not Orthodox:

    The Lord, “Who will have all men to be saved” (1Tim 2.4) and “Who enlightens every man born into the world” (Jn 1.43) undoubtedly is leading them also towards salvation in His own way… They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins…

    (again, with the Orthodox understanding of “salvation” in view)

    There is an advantage to being a Christian, and particularly if one is seeking to be transformed into a person of honesty, humility and love. Certainly, anyone who has an honest and good heart (Lk 8.15) will be helped by the Holy Spirit – Christians with such a heart even more so, for they have some inkling that they are turning toward the real God and seek union with God. So many people like this live “above” their stated/received theology, but for the most part their lives are hidden; they’re not the ones that get into the news, or cause the pain you and I and others have experienced in churches. They’re not into “instant” anything, but rather know about “bearing fruit in patience,” over the long haul. I think being that kind of Christian gives one a “leg up,” a “head start” in this life. As I said, I think we get the best help there is for that within the sacramental life of the Orthodox church; it’s not anything “magic”, but it brings us into and nurtures the reality of that union like nothing else. That is why Fr Stephen writes that Orthodoxy is the fullness of Christianity.

    If you read what Fr Stephen has written about St Isaac of Nineveh, well, that’s the corner of the table where I’m sitting. Orthodoxy allows that corner of the table. I can’t express with what blissful rest I found a little seat there. That was a huge deal in my inquiry into Orthodoxy.

    Here’s another quote I like, from St Seraphim of Sarov:

    We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.

    To me, this is the kind of life that bears the marks of entering into the humility of the Crucifixion and the blazing new-creation life of the Resurrection in the here-and-now. As Fr John Behr said, it’s not all that self-evident… but that is how we are able to “see” it. I think that’s at least part of what dinoship is trying to get at when he rhapsodizes on the saints and elders ;)

    Dana

  160. Dana Ames says

    Okay, I tried to follow the blasted blockquote instructions, and ended up with that mess. I expect you’ll be able to sort it out.

    D.

  161. John Shores says

    Dana – you have to be sure to put a / on the closing quote </blockquote>. I’ve miffed this a couple times as well.

    We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves.

    I’ve heard it said that “justice was invented by the innocent and mercy by the guilty.”

  162. dinoship says

    John,
    when we use words such as mercy or justice, it is not so much a matter of innocence or guilt. No. It is a matter of Ontology -we mustn’t forget that. The wrong concept of ‘sin’ proves we have the wrong basic perception of the God. The wrong perception of mercy and justice proves we have the wrong perception of the Church (Ecclesia) and the Person. Your quote “justice was invented by the innocent and mercy by the guilty” seems to demonstrate something of the sort.

    Sin -that tragic prerogative of the person alone- is understood in Orthodoxy as ‘actualising’ the inherent limitation of creaturehood. Its connection to “createdness” is highly significant. It therefore introduces nothing ‘new’. This limitation is only revealed when the creature chooses to be left to itself. So the fall is my positing myself, rather than God, as the ultimate point of reference. It means ontologically that I have refused to make being dependent on communion, even though “being as communion” is the personal mode of being of my very Creator. This rupture between being and communion results in “individuals” (a fragmented existence), rather than “persons” or “hypostases” (an all embracing exitence). However, it is death that is the most tragic consequence of the individualization of being in our falleness, for a “dying being” is almost a contradiction in terms. Death intervenes not as the result of punishment for an act of disobedience but as a result of this individualization of nature, it is the rupture from communion with the One Who bestows true life. In other words, there is an intrinsic connection between death and individualization.

    Met. J. Zizioulas in “Being as Communion” explains this fantastically, even though he can be difficult to comprehend rationally without the necessary first-hand experience.

    The salvation we see in the crucified and exalted Christ is accomplished because this individualization of nature becomes transformed into communion. Communion becomes identical to ‘being’ itself in the life bestowed on us through Christ. That ineffable Life of the One Who is Love becomes mine; whereas the minute I am separated from Him, I perceive the falleness of my existence. I then see that I am a tragic figure, or worse still, I become blind to my darkness…

    Salvation means that we become participators in the Divine Life, precisely because we come to participate in God’s personal, relational existence. This life imparts a ‘catholicity’ which permits a person to become a “hypostasis” without falling into individuality. This is experienced here and now, even though in their fullness, terms such as ‘ecclesial hypostasis’ or ‘eucharistic hypostasis’ are always fundamentally eschatological, with roots in the future, perpetually inspired, or rather maintained and nourished, by the future.

    Christology, in the definitive form which the Greek Fathers gave it, looks towards a single goal of purely existential significance, the goal of giving man the assurance that the quest for the person, not as an individualized “tragic figure,” but as the authentic person, is not mythical or nostalgic but is a historical reality. Jesus Christ does not justify the title Saviour because He brings the world a beautiful revelation, a sublime teaching about the person, but because He realizes in history the very reality of the person and makes it the basis and “hypostasis” of the person for every man.

    So, “knowing myself” rather than “condemning others” means becoming a relational being, an authentic person embracing the entire universe with my heart (through the mercy of God) rather than a fragmented individual, tyrannised by the endless judgements of my mind’s rationality.

  163. mary benton says

    Wow. I know you were writing all of this for John, but dinoship (and others) what you have written here is profound. Thank you for giving all of us much to think about.

  164. dinoship says

    Mary,

    Reading over it again, I am reminded St Ignatius’ words, which make me want to keep quiet:
    “…it is better to keep quiet and be, than to make fluent professions and not be. No doubt it is a fine thing to instruct others, but only if the speaker practices what he preaches. One such Teacher there is: He who ‘spake the word, and it was done'; [Ps 33,9] and what He achieved even by his silences was well worthy of the Father. A man who has truly mastered the utterances of Jesus will also be able to apprehend His silence, and thus reach full spiritual maturity, so that his own words have the force of actions and his silences the significance of speech.”

  165. says

    Father Bless;
    We are Orthodox.. I have a few comments and a topic that there are not many willing to discuss.. The topic of Genetic Disorders, and Mental Health Disorders.

    ” For things do not have existence in themselves – everything that exists does so because it is brought into being and sustained in its being by the good God who created it. ” Indeed.. (and we had NO freedom in our actual existence..)

    And on the suffering of Children.. who become suffering men and women.. with NO real freedom.. these are those with Genetic Disorders, and Mental Health Disorders. They suffer continuously and are ignored and relegated to horrid existences by our society and what is really sad.. by Christians.

    Let me explain. I (We) have struggled with these discussions my beloved and I as well as 2 of our sons. The third son (and youngest…now just 18), Luke, well.. you see.. he was born with a genetic disorder. Mosaic Trisomy 13.. He is rare, very very rare. We no longer ask or complain to God “why?” You will understand the horrors of this existence if you look up these types of things on the Internet. He is maybe 10 on the entire planet who is actually living with this disorder..

    I have counseled with Monks and others… they all say that Luke’s suffering, our suffering is to the benefit of our salvation in Christ.. We just do not understand why.. “We cannot go there…” one will loose their minds trying to do so.. I know.
    I struggle with my sanity each day.. (you will understand this if one reads the book by Dee Pinnock on the Path to Sanity).

    This just to say.. Luke, some mud that God has created WILL become god..he is like an angel.. This is the only conclusion I have… and even for ALL those who suffer in like manner with NO real freedom.. they exist by God’s doing and actual commandment..

    Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.
    – St. Gregory of Nyssa

    Thoughts?
    The struggling sinner
    Vitus

    PS. You will be happy to know Luke serves behind the iconostasis with our Priests! EVERY Sunday… We pick him up at his special school and take him .. This ensures that he receives the Mysteries every week.. Luke is 18..and all of 5 feet tall.. his robes are often trailing… :-) You can see (and pray!) for Luke at the link to the simple blog .. which I have not had the heart or strength to update…

    PSS.. The ONLY Orthodox people that I know have written on this topic are:
    Jean-Claude Larchet (his 3 books on illness, especially “Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing, Teachings fro the Early Christian East” a difficult read..
    and
    Father Alexis Trader.. His book on Cognitive Therapy..

    —–+++++++—–+++++++—–
    God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of all, of believers
    or unbelievers, of the just or the unjust, of the pious or the impious, of
    those freed from passions or those caught up in them, of monks or those living
    in the world, of the educated and the illitrate, of the healthy and the sick,
    of the young or the old. He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of
    the sun, or the changes of the weather which are the same for everyone without
    exception.

    St. John Climacus (of the Ladder)
    —–+++++++—–+++++++—–

  166. fatherstephen says

    Dinoship
    a “dying being” is almost a contradiction in terms – very well said. I will remember it – and undoubtedly use it.

    I have been searching for the past couple of months for a small article (or book intro) or something by S. Bulgakov in which he talked about his first perception of sin as ontological and how it radically changed everything for him. It’s common throughout Orthodox thought, but it was his own personal perception and the story of its impact that struck me. This same insight came for me when I was in Seminary in the 70’s. I was struggling with a class in “moral theology,” knowing there had to be a better way to approach these things. At the same time I was taking a class in Soteriology and working with Atonement theories. The two came together. I didn’t know it then, but my conversion to Orthodoxy had begun.

  167. dinoship says

    Vitus,
    I think you have the answers already… “Luke is some mud that God has created and that WILL become god..he is like an angel.”
    Indeed.
    The question is not Luke’s Cross but the Cross of those around him, all these crosses are for the purpose of salvation.
    I will post an edifying story from elder Paisios when I get some time (later on) concerning this Vitus.
    May God illuminate you all with His Grace…

  168. drewster2000 says

    John Shores,

    I didn’t see one of your questions answered. You ask many, but this one stood out – and in my browsing I didn’t see it answered:

    No it’s not wrong for a person to forgive God. In fact you will have to do that before you go much further. But don’t attach conditions. When you’re ready, simply share your heart on where you’ve been wronged, how it hurts, and all that you can think of in that regard. Then, be willing to let go of those things – and trust that He’s heard you.

  169. dinoship says

    Vitus,
    here is that story I promised earlier for you:

    There was a severely disabled person who somehow managed to visit a Monastery on Mount Athos. His disability meant he was in a wheelchair, in a similar situation to the famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. At the same time, a very rich, faithful man was also visiting the Monastery and they got chatting… He was heartbroken by the disabled person’s (let us call him John for now) predicament and promised him all the money he needs, explaining that there are new therapies for such nervous disorders performed in certain surgeries in the States. The disabled John was overcome by enthusiasm upon hearing this, but, sought the advise of the monks as well. Unfortunately, most of them seemed to be reluctant and shared little of his enthusiasm, something that eventually made him shout: “none of you understand what it feels like, living like I do!!” What he did agree to however, was to go and seek the advise of the famous Elder Paisios, someone whose clairvoyant discernment he fully trusted.
    The next day it was arranged for the Elder to come and see him in the middle of the night, as it wasn’t possible for the man to go to the Elder’s place of course.
    The Elder, upon seeing him, addressed him with his name and kneeled at his legs whispering something like “what salvific legs you have been granted…!” Then he said: “now get up and let’s walk!”. To which the man responded, “I have never stood up in my life Elder! What are you talking about?”
    Elder Paisios said: “hold on to me and let’s walk!”.
    John stood up and started walking! …tears were running down both of their eyes. He almost seemed to be “flying” more than walking, as he had never experienced such a thing in his life. The Elder was meanwhile uttering some incomprehensible whispers and prayers, sobbing and sighing in between.
    After having walked the room a couple of times back and forth, he sat him back down and said very sternly:
    “John! You will never walk. God does not want that. He has given you this for your salvation and the salvation of those around you. You, as well as them, cannot be saved another way! If you go to the doctors they will turn you into a failed experiment…”
    The man, having just witnessed the power of God first hand and the ease with which he was (temporarily) “cured”, took the Elder’s words to heart. He accepted them fully and a deep joy, a joy for his predicament and a trust in God’s ineffable providence flooded his being.

  170. Karen says

    John S., as a brief summary of a part of what Dinoship wrote in his last comment (and forgive me if this is repetition of something that has already been said), we have a tendency in the West to interpret Genesis 2:16-17 as God saying that if Adam and Eve disobey, He will kill them (to put it bluntly). In other words, God will cause them to become mortal as a punitive measure. (Hence “salvation” is understood in terms of pardon from guilt, rather than our restoration to a state of being in communion with God.) However, this is not an Orthodox interpretation at all. Rather, we understand God, being Himself Life, is the Source of life. The rupture of trust and communion with Him, reflected in Adam and Eve’s yielding to the temptation of disbelief in His pronouncement about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil leading to their disobedience, is a rupture from the only Source of all life. Death, an ontological state (spiritual and physical) is simply the natural consequence of Sin (which is manifest in this very individualistic self-referencing inclination under discussion). We do not have life in ourselves–it is the gift of God. It is freely offered to all, but we have to be “plugged” back into God–which God, the Son, did on our behalf in becoming human.

  171. PJ says

    Vitus,

    My brother-in-law has Downs Syndrome. He is a beautiful soul with the goodness and innocence of a child. Remember Christ’s words, “Unless you become like these little ones…” He has had numerous heart surgeries and suffers from physical pain due to his condition. Nonetheless, he remains kind and gentle, constantly smiling and laughing. He is a great model for me in many ways. I will pray for your son.

  172. says

    Dinoship, PJ..
    What a wonderful story! and your words are heartfelt. The story brought tears to my eyes.. “…He has given you this for your salvation and the salvation of those around you….” This is exactly what the monks are telling me over and over again.. But what an experience for “John” and an encouragement.. Luke does not have that level of understanding… he is very simply minded.. he thinks he is absolutely normal. His world is not our world. Most days they conflict.. which causes him much pain and anguish (and us too.. if you have ever had something occupy your mind endlessly you will know how this can feel…)

    thanks for your prayers.
    Vitus

  173. mary benton says

    Vitus,

    Your comment led me to look up Trisomy 13 – I had heard of it but never been touched by it personally. I viewed a beautiful video of music and photos of these special children.

    I do not claim to understand the “why” of any suffering – but I believe that God can bring salvation and blessings in ways incomprehensible to us. I will pray for your family.

  174. dinoship says

    Vitus,
    when seen correctly, sufferings (the Cross) have the power to transform our fragmented individualistic mode of egocentric being into a humble and all embracing person, a universal hypostasis in the image of the Crucified One Who takes upon Him the weight of the Cosmos.
    The day to day distraction of life does not allow us a constant enjoyment of such a realization, illumined by the Lord Himself, although, there can be certain times in the day that this assuredness can be contemplated and the ineffable Joy of the Martyrs’ flame tasted. This is always combined with prayer.
    In the light of the life-giving Cross we can comprehend the late Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, a true hesychast with great experience, who used to say at the end of his life, (in his 90’s) in his typically outspoken way:
    “I have tasted of the ‘fruits of Paradise’ that few know of in this world, and I have drank from the bitter waters of Hell to a degree that most cannot sustain, I thank the Lord more for the latter than the former; after all my years of living in the desert, I come to clearly see that they are a far greater blessing and honour”

  175. John Shores says

    Karen:

    We do not have life in ourselves–it is the gift of God. It is freely offered to all, but we have to be “plugged” back into God–which God, the Son, did on our behalf in becoming human.

    I have such a hard time with this. If there is a god who is the source of all life, it seems to me that to be separated from that source is to not exist at all.

    Drewster:

    No it’s not wrong for a person to forgive God. In fact you will have to do that before you go much further …simply share your heart on where you’ve been wronged…

    So, you think that god can wrong us then?

    But don’t attach conditions.

    Why not? Doesn’t the Christian god attach conditions to forgiveness? He most certainly does not simply forgive and leave it at that.

  176. drewster2000 says

    John Shores,

    I don’t believe God actually wrongs us, but I certainly believe it can look like it sometimes.

    True forgiveness is granted with no conditions. We’re called to go further after that. We have consequences of our actions to learn from and work through, but forgiveness is not part of or related to a legal system of claims and conditions. It’s given and then you move on toward next things – like healing and restoration.

  177. Michael Bauman says

    John Shores, when I go to confession and when I have experienced God’s forgiveness in my life other than in confession. I have seen no conditions from God. We repent, not because that is a condtion for God’s forgiveness but so that we may remove the blocks in our own heart to experiencing His forgiveness. Human beings often put all sorts of conditions on our forgiveness, but I’ve never known God to. Jesus said from the Cross in the darkness of the crucifixion and the depths of agony and pain: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

    That is the paradigm for Christian forgiveness of one another as well. That it often does not happen is not an indictment of God, but of our adament will to take His place.

  178. John Shores says

    True forgiveness is granted with no conditions.

    I think some others here would disagree with this statement.

    However, that is how I view forgiveness as well.

    This in turn causes the brow to furrow when considering the Cross, for which I see no point at all except as a Yang to the Yin of the “Fall” which, as far as I can tell, is an anthropomorphic representation of why we are the way we are. That being the case, I see no purpose for a literal god-man and a cross if there was not a literal fall.

  179. John Shores says

    Hi Michael – Well for starters, you have to go to confession. God’s not just gonna forgive you unless you confess, right?

  180. dinoship says

    John,
    I was surprised to see you still clinging to the idea of the Cross as a necessity for protestant-style “forgiveness” after all my explanation of the ontology (as opposed to “juridicallity”) of Sin. As I said above sin only ‘actualises’ the inherent limitation of creaturehood. You keep missing the point that it is all about “createdness” and its need to be connected to the source of Life (the Cross is the ultimate example of “nothing, not even the crucifixion itself, having the power to separate Christ in his capacity as man/creature from the source – His Father”) Sin is only when the creature chooses to be left to itself. The “fall” is my positing myself, rather than God, as the ultimate point of reference. It means that I have refused to make being dependent on communion.

    If there is a god who is the source of all life, it seems to me that to be separated from that source is to not exist at all.

    No. To be separated from that source is rupture between being and communion and results in fragmented “individuals”, rather than authentic all-embracing “persons” (in the image of the all-embracing and crucified Christ) . This rupture does however produce, a “dying being” – a tragic contradiction in terms.

  181. Karen says

    Actually, John, we are forgiven (in terms of God’s inclination toward us–see Michael’s statement about Jesus’ prayer for our forgiveness from the Cross) before we even ask or confess. Consider the disposition of the Father toward His sons in the Parable of the Prodigal Son–this is the picture we are to have of God. However, it’s not likely we will realize that forgiveness and be able to appreciate and appropriate its benefits personally except to the depth that we perceive accurately our own sin (and thus repent). Normally, for the Orthodox Christian this is expressed in regular intervals as needed formally in sacramental Confession, and thus Confession is an aid to our appropriation of God’s forgiveness. It’s a situation where we get “God with skin on” through His representative, the Priest, but it’s not as if the Priest’s pronouncement of God’s absolution will do me any good if my “confession” is insincere and only pretend. Similarly, if I have a bad Priest who decides capriciously and for wrong motives to ban me from Communion, yet he errs in his judgment of me, I am not, therefore, going to be really and truly cut off from communion with Christ, Who knows my heart. The authority of the Priest is as a representative of Christ’s Priesthood. It is real authority, but it is NOT magical or mechanical.

    Genuine repentance is the only “condition” for our appropriation of God’s forgiveness, but it is not something God arbitrarily requires of us any more than I arbitrarily require someone to hold out their hands to receive a material gift I am offering him. In Christ, you could say God has already taken the initiative to leave the gift of forgiveness on our doorstep (like the UPS man!). We can’t benefit from that, though, if we don’t pick it up and bring it inside to unwrap.

  182. mary benton says

    I have observed, in myself and others, that most of us tend to find it harder to forgive ourselves than anything. If we feel that God is punishing us or is putting conditions on His forgiveness, this is usually based on very distorted ideas of God.

    Karen – I like your image of the gift left on our doorstep. While we might assume that everyone would want to take that package and unwrap it as soon as possible, there can be many reasons why people may hesitate. Fear is often one of the big ones.

  183. dinoship says

    Vitus,
    that story is extremely didactic on many levels and speaks volumes, explaining a great deal of what we discuss here without doing this explicitly… It is indeed difficult to recount it without tears in one’s eyes.
    I sincerely hope it helps!

  184. Michael says

    Something interesting that I heard that I would like to share is that, women do not have seed. Only men have seed. Thus, this is a prophetic statement about the Most Holy Theotokos and the type of birth Christ will have.

    Michael