Making Sense of a Jumbled World

woman-holding-tangled-christmas-lights_webListening to the Nativity collection of readings for the Vespers of Christmas Eve (there were eight of them), my mind drifted to the “jumbled mess” that is the Old Testament. We speak of it as if it were a single thing, when, it is many things (over 40), and some of those things are jumbled concatenations of other jumbled things. I can only imagine what someone coming to the Old Testament for the first time with no preparation or guidance thinks. How do they not drop the book and run away? And this is only thinking about its jumbled, bric-a-brac quality. If you add to that some of the stories that seem frightening or outlandish, or the obscurity of some of the prophets, then it’s little wonder that many have simply never read it.

But that same “jumbled mess” is itself a good way to describe our lives. We fight a constant battle with chaos, struggling to give meaning and purpose to events as they unfold. Randomness seems completely unacceptable.

St. John describes Christ as the Logos, or Word of God:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (Joh 1:3)

“Word” is certainly one way to translate Logos – but only one of many – for we have no equivalent word in English. Logos is the inner meaning, the reason and order of something. And it is also word. We derive our word “logic” from it. But logos it is not logic.

A phrase that works very well for me (and a phrase is probably required rather than a single word) is: “the sense of a thing.” And The Logos is “that which makes sense make sense.” That anything “makes sense” would, in the language of St. John, have a “logicity” about it.

And it is this Sense of things to which John bears witness in his gospel.

In the beginning was the Sense. That Sense was with God, and it was God Himself. Everything was made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.

And, we might add, because all things were made through The Sense – they make sense. More than this, we can say that because The Sense is the reason why all things make sense – the sense they make bears the imprint of The Sense.

This is at the heart of St. John’s theological gospel. For the claim is more than that God has become man, but reveals as well the character of the God who has become man. This God is the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, and is also revealed as the Logos of God (The Sense of all things).

St. Paul knows this same gospel of the pre-existent Christ:

For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. (Col 1:16)

St. Paul saying that all things are made through Christ and for Christ is quite the same as St. John identifying Christ as the Logos.

And these statements are deeply significant. Historical critics of the Scriptures have a very difficult time accounting for the “high Christology” of the New Testament. They entertain a theory that Christ was just a man and a teacher, who was gradually overblown into a god. But such a theory requires something the New Testament does not offer: time. An evolution of thought from a low Christology (Christ as the anointed Messiah) to a high Christology (Christ as the pre-existent only-begotten Son of the Father) could perhaps take place over a hundred years or more. But the high Christology of St. Paul is undeniably evident within 20 years of the resurrection. And what we see in these treatments of the pre-existent Christ (John and Paul) has a sophistication that cannot be accounted for by any imaginable, short-term process. It is simply too rich and complex, too developed, too soon, and too widespread. The traditional account, that this high Christology is nothing other than the primitive tradition of the Church, is the only account that makes sense. So much for the musings of Bart Ehrman and the latest cadre of sophisticates.

The understanding of Christ within the pages of the New Testament is already cosmic in its dimensions. The primitive gospel proclaims a Christ who is pre-existent. And He is no mere angel. He is identified with the very act of creation itself. The language of Trinity was years from its expression, but its reality is already there – in its fullness.

But the New Testament does represent a leap in the revelation of God. For this God made known in Jesus Christ, is not merely the Creator of all things, but all things have a unique relationship with Him. He is their Logos – their Sense, their Reason, their Purpose, their Beginning and their End. The revelation of Jesus Christ is the revelation of the God whose Life and Will is written into the very core of all things.

In this, the story of Jesus is revealed as the story of all things. And the Christian journey, though “personal,” must also be seen as cosmic. For Christ is not only the One who reveals the Father, He is also the Sense of all things. Thus, He is already in me and in everything, at the very least in the way of patterning. In coming to know God through Christ, I am also coming to know my true self and the truth of all things.

The “mystical” instinct of the Church is already present within the pages of the New Testament. It is not a later Hellenistic or Platonist import to some primitive, Semitic, rabbinical devotion.

St. John offers a very homey description of the Logos-become-flesh:

He came to His own [εἰς τὰ ἴδια those things that were uniquely His own], and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (Joh 1:11-13)

Christ is the Sense of my life and of everything around me. By God’s grace, our Sense has come to us that we might come to our senses – unjumbling the jumbled mess.

54 comments:

  1. Father bless,
    I left my first response recently as “aj”, but since there is already an “A.J.” I will switch to ajt.

    Lord have mercy. Thank you for reminding me once again of the centrality of Christ in all things. Reminds me again of the Chinese translation of logos as Tao, which has a unique meaning in Chinese culture akin to “logos” in ancient Greece. I am no expert, just had that peice floating around in my brain somewhere.

  2. How wonderful! I saw a friend’s post on Facebook recently–one of those “I’m a mess burt that’s a good thing” type of posts. I’ll need to go back and link this to it. I’ve never bought in with the idea that we are supposed to be a mess; we have just made ourselves that way…. Thank you, Father!

  3. I also thought the same Father about the Old Testament during the Great Hours service. When I read “ἐκ χειμάρρου ἐν ὁδῷ πίεται” (Psalm 109/110-7) translated: “from out of the rushing stream in the way He shall drink;” (recognized as a veiled prophecy of the Incarnation – “from the mutability of the creation [rushing stream], He shall partake”), it hit me strongly wishing the unsuspecting listener would also get this.

    I also love your treatment of one of my favourite issues (about the translation of Logos as ‘meaning/sense’ here). It is the one Word answer to the ultimate existential question of “why do I exist”, and the loss of this is the quintessence of the deepest Hell. There are many people who know from experience that the encounter of hell is jam-packed with this desperate meaninglessness while the encounter of Heaven/Christ/the Logos is full of the opposite.

  4. Excellent article, as usual, and profoundly on point to a recent discussion I had with an old friend who has been captured by the Hebrew Roots movement. Thank you for this, Father Stephen.

  5. How incredible and truly wonderful that an apparently uneducated fisherman like St. John was somehow able see and to write things as profound as his gospel, not to mention his letters and Revelation.

    I am always amazed by it.

  6. and another thing…who has ever lived such a life as St. John?

    Writer of gospels, seer of visions, witness of the crucifixion, sprinter to the empty tomb, appointed to care for the Theotokos, “the one whom Jesus loved”…

    It’s mind boggling.

  7. Father Stephen,
    Thanks for clarifying that Christ is the ‘Logos’; whom through which all the old testament prophesy make sense. However, it is sometimes hard to figure out the details of how exactly the selected old testament readings fit into a particular feast day. Can you recommend a good resource?

  8. Chris,
    Christ the Divine Logos is not just the meaning of the OT prophecies but the meaning of all that exists, He is the Logos/meaning of all Created and Uncreated existence.
    Psalti,
    I deeply agree and marvel at St John’s greatness too…
    a small correction to my earlier comment:
    “…There are extremely few people who know from experience that the encounter …”

  9. Psalti, care must be taken when we use modern terms like “uneducated” to apply to a person and a culture that is different.

    The Apostles may not have had much “book larnin'” but they had a other ways to be educated: the Synagogue where they heard the Prophecies; they were in the tradition; they undoubtedly prayed; they worked in and with the very creation of which we are speaking. These are all powerful ways to begin to know God.

    Then they walked in the very presence and received the Holy Spirit.

    I dare say he was quite educated if not in the severely truncated manner we think of today–a truncated vision that has done much to propagated the modern project.

    I’d rather have had the education of St. John. I might find a less jumbled life.

  10. The “uneducated” fishermen is more or less a romantic modern concept, enshrined in Sunday School lessons and 19th century hymns, but not founded on careful reflection. James, John and Peter (probably Andrew) had a fishing business (with Zebedee, their father). This is not the same thing, quite, as just being a fisherman. They owned boats. Maybe a number of boats. They were able to leave and follow Christ and the business apparently continued. Like all Jewish men, they were able to read. They could read and write Greek as well. Thus, they knew at least 3 languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). Living in an occupied country, you necessarily pick up lots of things from the occupying powers. The author of St. John’s gospel (and there is no reason to think the Tradition is wrong about it being St. John himself) is not eloquent in vocabulary or style (St. Luke is), but his language is “elegant.” It has an almost child-like simplicity while expressing deeply profound things. In his community (and there is clearly a community surrounding the author – and it seems to be the community around Ephesus), there is a use of language and ideas, such as “Logos” to describe the pre-existent Christ. Some suggest, correctly I think, that the already existing idea of God’s Wisdom, through which He creates, is the basis for the meditation on Christ as pre-existing Logos. St. John’s gospel is very “earthy,” as well. He is careful, after all the high, mystical language, to reassure his readers that “we handled him.”

    One of the problems with historians is their tendency to generalize. And, nothing ever happens in general. Everything that happens is quite particular, by definition. Thus, though John would have been an unusual character, there is no reason to expect that there cannot have been such an unusual character within the circle of the 12. Their work suggests that they were indeed particularly blessed and empowered for their work.

    What does not exist, however, is a solid reason to doubt their testimony in the manner and argument of Ehrman and his little group of scholars. They push a chain of logic that has only the most generalized assumptions, with no room for personality or talent (much less revelation). Only if Christ and His disciples were as mediocre as the average New Testament college faculty would their theses have a chance of being true. Historical evidence overwhelmingly argues against such mediocrity having been the case.

  11. FR. Freeman and Mr. Bauman,

    Thank you for your clarifications concerning St. John’s education. I did not know or consider the points you mentioned, but each of your points make sense to me.

    What an amazing saint.

  12. Psalti,
    I concurred earlier with your avowal of St John’s astonishing holiness; I would, however, like to communicate that there are numerous cases of equally astonishing holiness in our Church’s tradition.
    Moreover, though St John the Theologian might have already been able to write before composing his tremendous Gospel, it is not odd for an illiterate Saint, one who hardly speaks his native tongue, to occasionally write or speak articulately –at times even in an unknown language…! Besides we have lots of very recent examples of practically unlettered Saints very close to our own lives. Take some of the Athonites like Elder Joseph the Hesychast (1897-1959) whose original Greek writings are specimens of the most extraordinarily mistaken spellings I have ever encountered, yet the Theology in them rivals, in parts, that of the greats; St Silouan, and Saint Porphyrios are similar. Admittedly their words normally retain differences from the corresponding words of erudites such as Elder Sophrony or Aimilianos.

  13. Dino,
    This is that unaccounted particularity that no modern history allows for. They search only form worldly causes and effects, and expect only mediocrity everywhere. While history and our daily lives are peppered with astonishing examples of how this is not true.

  14. Father, I just have to hand it to you. Nearly every single one of your posts hits the target of brilliance, right on the money. Yes, it is difficult to admit that the Old Testament is such a mix of things (some of them not safe for kids or work!) but it is necessarily honest.

  15. And yeah, you often wonder if these secular, critical scholars have read and processed what the New Testament says when they say a high Christology developed gradually, because these are the same scholars that affirm that Paul wrote even before the Synoptic Gospels. Johannine writings were still within the first century. The one caveat I have is that, with the exception of the famous opening of John 1, the New Testament in general is more conducive to a subordinationist view of Christ/Logos (He is not quite “God”, that is the Father) than the Orthodox teaching.

  16. St. Paul has a number of instances of “high Christology” that are not at all subordinationist (Phil 2:5-11). But, there are two forms of subordinationism – one heretical – the other quite Orthodox. The doubtful critic always presumes the former when he sees the latter. There is also, within the NT, the “Orthodox reluctance” (as I call it). The holier something is, the more profound, and thus the most true, is the most likely to be unspoken, hidden, or only given by allusion. It prevents giving the holy things to the dogs, as it were. Those who know do not need an explanation. Those who do not know will never get one. That sort of thing.

    The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was known and believed from the beginning (we Orthodox would say). It does not develop. What develops is the language to express it and the expressions that the Church would allow to be spoken openly. Nothing changed in the Church’s doctrine or beliefs – only in her willingness to say openly what was known in private.

    High Christology is just such a thing. St. John’s gospel is almost scandalous in its openness.

    The nature of the academic world is that it mostly talks to itself. In the NT field, for example, we are not talking about lots of believers, much less Orthodox believers. There are rarely any new ideas, much less a new direction. The movement of evangelicals into mainstream academia (NT) has altered this a little and work such as NT Wright has strengthened the hand of believers (barely). But it is an amazingly closed world in which very little light gets through.

  17. Fr Stephen, I have to agree with you about the problems with the academic approach. A spurious hit-and-run book like “Zealot” becomes a bestseller, and isn’t even credible scholarship, while Orthodox books remain in the underground always. God not only works in mysterious ways, but mystery is the primary way!

    Now, it is possible, I believe, to be both Trinitarian and Subordinationist. I have reason to believe that both the Gnostics, and the Holy Origen, were such (I know the former is considered worthless and the latter questionable for Orthodox, but still). I continue to shy away from calling the Son “God”, and perhaps the Holy Spirit is even a created being. Regarding Phi 2-5:11, the Gnostics were in fact the first to call the Logos “homoouison” (of one substance) with God the Father, and then it was borrowed for Nicea. Of the trinity, of God’s substance, but subordinate; divine, but not “God”, since that is the Father. Well, I am of the substance of my biological father, but only he gets to be called my father, or I am out of line to be mild about it! I have to say that Trinitarianism as Athanasius conceived of it is one of the major things keeping me away from orthodoxy at this time.

  18. I “exist” because it “makes sense” at least in this interpretation of the word Logos … a very well written and thought provoking article and I enjoyed encountering a new interpretation/perspective on what the root word “Logos” in the authentic Greek might possibly mean … Greek, the ancient kind, has never been a language that offers only one meaning per word – a blanket statement that captures the essence. Therefore, as a Hellenic lady brought up quite different to the online academic revolution, I want to say that this word “Logos” has also been interpreted and understood by Greek scholars to be more than just “sense” … Logos IS poetry, it is music it is also expression and not just “sensibility” 🙂 … when God created us, it certainly goes without saying that it all “had to make sense” (because we are the Wiki Gen and it all has to make sense for us for it to make sense) but the ancient Greeks where high achievers of expression, of creativity and this may be because they, being closer to God in a sense of time, perhaps inherited His Creativity too … We may just be Creations because God FELT the need to express and the entire Universe is a Symphony that plays spiritual music in a harmony that brings peace and joy to God.

    Perhaps .. 🙂

  19. So here is how I see the Trinity:

    Father: Unknowable and Infinite Source, God and All.
    Son: Logos, Christos, Reflection and Manifestation of the Father. Very often conflated with Him.
    Holy Spirit: Mother, Grace and Energy of God reaching into Creation.

    Heretical, but honestly it’s my understanding of it.

  20. Andrew,
    Athanasius represents to full heart of Orthodoxy. The other things are perhaps interesting, but I suspect they are like a dalliance of the heart, where one’s opinion ultimately replaces God. It is quaint and even charming to be something that is sort of Orthodox but at an arm’s length. But I think it is idiosyncratic and little else.

  21. Andrew-

    The Roman Catholics are most likely on the verge of schism, though the more liberally minded of them are unaware (either consciously or unconsciously). I think what you’ll find afterwards is a group that is nearly identical to the mainstream Protestant Churches, and the group that remains in communion with the bishop of Rome, which will be much less accepting of the improvisational theology that you’re acceptable in the pews of its churches. Expect a lot more Latin in that one, too.

    You are, of course, correct that there were many divergent interpretations of the Christian message. At one point in time, it was probably nearly accurate to say that Arianism was Christianity. I’m not sure what your point is with that observation, though. It’s not as though we can return to some pre-Constantine religion in any meaningful way, and certainly not without rejecting the entirety of the Christian witness after 312, which includes the vast majority of everything ever written. It is actually possible to reject the developments since, say, Zwingli ate the sausage, because the Orthodox and Catholic traditions still exist; but to go back to some sort of ancient and “authentic” Christianity is something which is impossible outside of the traditions that still exist since then. One of those is Eastern Orthodoxy, which Fr. Stephen so eloquently said is fully represented by Athanasius.

  22. Matth,
    I doubt very seriously that there is an impending schism within Rome. Some conservatives might like to think there will be such an event. They remind me of the conservative Anglicans back in the day.

  23. You may very well be right, Fr. Stephen, and I certainly will defer to your greater experience with similar situations. I’m not even going to offer a rebuttal, because my familiarity with the situation in the Roman Catholic communion, as well as the nature of ecclesiastical splits, pales in comparison to your own.

    I am curious, though, at your comment about conservative Anglicans. To my knowledge, no one has yet broken communion, but there certainly have been bitter divides that (to my eyes) have been possible only because of rather strange alignments (such as CANA).

    I certainly don’t meant to hijack this article, so please feel free not to respond (or even to delete this comment).

  24. Matth
    I think the conservative Anglicans are a case in point. They certainly would have had the sympathies of a very large percentage of Episcopalians, who nevertheless did not go into schism. I know plenty of good faithful men among Episcopal clergy who remain in place despite all that has and will take place within their communion’s walls. I have pondered this a great deal over the years (far more in my early Orthodox years). There is a kind of inertia on the one hand, and even a kind of angry tolerance that sets in. You become more parochial.

    It is said that people will generally stay in a bad marriage until they have somewhere to go. I would say that this is not infallible, but pretty common. I stayed in the Episcopal Church until I found a job (hospice chaplain). That job search took two years (very uncomfortable years at that). If you are clergy, it can be quite complicated – or it certainly feels complicated. Do you leave the people whom you care for? I can’t say how many times the enemy whispered in my ear, “You’re just a hireling.”

    A schism requires leadership and a certain amount of cohesion (one priest leaving does not a schism make). Such a thing is quite difficult. Property law is a huge obstacle to schism (ask the conservative Anglicans). Property law, interestingly, can even present problems for union (it’s an issue for making a single Orthodox jurisdiction in places like America).

    Roman Catholic polity also mitigates against schism. The whole Papal thing makes it almost impossible.

    That said, what I think we will see in the future is more of the present.

  25. Very good points. I appreciate your clear-headed response to my undoubtedly hot-headed comment about the Catholic Church.

  26. To bring this back to the article, can you explain the comments that Biblical historians work with mediocrity and generalizations, while everything happens in specifics? It’s been more than 10 years since I took a class on Biblical criticism, and I’m having trouble mapping your generalized statements (wordplay intended) to specific arguments made by the academics who deny, for instance, an early high Christology.

  27. Matth,
    Just to stay on the topic of Christology – the presumptions of an “evolution” create problems. It is presumed that Christology must have begun in a simple form (without a pre-existence, for example). Then the presumption becomes that we have to trace is development. But why the presumption in the first place? Many Biblical critics also discount the stories of the resurrection. I readily grant that the stories we have show evidence of a “theological shaping.” This should not undermine our sense of their historical character (but it does for almost all Biblical critics).

    There is a clear consensus in the gospels that the disciples do not understand Jesus until after the resurrection. Their reading of the OT does not take on its NT shape until Christ Himself makes it known to them. The one most absolutely consistent feature of the NT is its treatment of the OT. The community of the Church has a hermeneutical unity that is quite striking. It is more than fair to ask, “Where does this agreed treatment of the OT come from?” And there is no reasonable answer other than “it is Apostolic.” There is also clear evidence of Apostolic “Creeds” embedded in the NT (1 Cor. 15 begins with one). Something like the Apostles’ Creed is older than the NT.

    But an Apostolic hermeneutic? Where does that come from? I think the consensus it reveals can only point to one source: Christ Himself. The NT witness is that it is the resurrected Christ who reveals the NT hermeneutic. See John 20:9 and Luke 24:45).

    But the historical method presumes things like no historical role for the resurrection. And therefore looks for predictable, “natural” explanations for everything. It’s like asking, “How could we account for all of this stuff without having to give credit to God?”

    Of course, the other problem is treating the NT Scriptures as though they were merely historical documents. The gospels, for example, are very unique documents with a very unique theological, even liturgical function. They cannot be separated from the community in which they came into existence and be rightly understood. I think, ultimately, only Orthodoxy rightly reads the Scriptures.

  28. Matth,
    the notion of a development/evolution in theology sounds extremely inapt and secular and to Orthodox ears…
    I am sure you already know this quite well, but I might as well repeat that it is understood that all ‘refinements’ during the Councils and the later debates involved terminology and proper expression of the same spiritual state of [the early Church during] Pentecost. Fr. Romanides is good at making this point flagrant. The cornerstone of doctrinal formulations in patristic tradition is this Pentecostal experience of those to whom the Logos appears in His Spirit and in Himself reveals His Father.

    According to the Fathers of the Church, the discourse and prayer of Christ recorded in John 13,31-17,26, and the promise that when the Spirit of Truth comes “He…will guide you to the fullness of all Truth” (16, 13) were fulfilled in Pentecost – which became the continuous experience of those whο since have joined the communion of those ‘glorified’/’deified’.
    So the refined eloquence of an Irenaeus or a Gregory or a Sophrony does not mean a more profound experience than that of the earlier Saints.

  29. Fr Stephen, I like your reference to Bart Ehrman. He’s quite a successful scholar who has been even more successful in the “trade” publication arena. But it’s always struck me that he began his faith immersed in sola scriptura, he lost his faith the same way, and he’s made a very successful career with the same sola scriptura viewpoint. So much for the “happy agnostic” he claims to be.

  30. I don’t have any acquaintance with the biblical scholars or the writings to which you all refer. But the Orthodox Christian presentation of the Gospels, as well as her presentation of the NT referencing the OT, and especially the Liturgical expressions of all this through the beautiful troparia, kontakia, vigil canon, etc., and all the prayers and words of the Church’s services are the only way I have been able to “understand” Jesus Christ. Reading Scriptures about Him only made Him a character in several stories. The Church reveals His flesh and Spirit.
    Every Sat night we sing of the three youths in the flame, and are given hope that we too may endure and honor our God by His mercy.

  31. Fr. Stephen and Dino,

    Thank you for the responses. This made me think of is the supposed conflict between Pauline and Jamesian Christianity. I assume that the Orthodox Church sees no conflict here. It seems like this is a particular area where I’ve seen claims made of theological differences in the early church.

  32. Rebecca-

    You are not missing anything.

    I took an introductory course on Biblical scholarship as a freshman in college, while staunchly scientific and agnostic in my worldview. I simply didn’t care about any of the Johannine community theory, or the JEDP writers, since I saw the Bible as just a book, and I didn’t (and still don’t) care about the development of myths through textual analysis and criticism. Much more interesting just to read them as they are, I thought. (I’ll just note that this course did introduce me to the Apocrypha, something I’m quite thankful for now.)

    Later, as a Christian and a better scholar, I flirted with taking the course again. What stopped me was, again, the feeling that I would not care. My faith developed quickly through a series of experiences and insights which were intuitive in nature. It was not a logical decision, but rather a letting go of my own conceits and embracing the full mystery of existence (is one way of putting it). I do not see how picking apart phraseology, graphemes, etc. has any impact on that; Biblical scholarship can really only serve a secularized faith.

    And I think this ties in nicely with your comment about the Liturgy, and especially with Fr. Stephen’s post earlier this year on Tolkien, Lewis and myth. To quote from that piece (and forgive me for not formatting this):

    “[The Liturgy] is the ritual, sacramental and symbolic enactment of a Reality that might otherwise not be seen, understood, or experienced. That same reality, presented in a non-mythic manner, would be less accessible and probably misunderstood.”

  33. Matth, certain types of Biblical scholarship do not serve anything but a secular desire to demystify faith and make it solely academic.

    A deep kind of Biblical Scholarship which is what the Father’s practiced in light of the revealed Apostolic teachings is of a wholly different order. It is this second type of scholarship that unpacks the deepest truth’s in the Scripture, linking us more concretely to God and each other because it allows us to enter into the mystery and live it rather than just try to pick it apart from the outside.

    Academic scholarship does not deal well with paradox thinking that antinomies are opposed to each other while, in Christ, they often are united to reveal a more full reality.

    Thus the reality that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man is often dissolved into opposing statements that make Him more one than the other or solely one over the other.

    In the recent conversation on morals a similar situation occurred with folks thinking that one had to choose between a moral approach or a supra-moral approach when in fact neither functions for salvation without the other.

    The sacramental existence requires the uniting of the seen and the unseen, the created and the creator in ways that boggle our earthly, fallen mind but are joy to our soul. It also requires the ‘coming down from heaven’ that only Jesus Christ can provide.

    As the Divine Liturgy says: “Send down thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here spread forth…”

  34. Thank you, Michael, for keeping me honest! I should have been more careful with my words, which is ultimately what doomed my fledgling career as an academic. I was not making a blanket statement against all forms of Biblical scholarship because, as you point out, that would exclude the work done even by the Fathers of the Church.

    Rather, I was suggesting that the academic study of the Bible, its anthropological history, and the history of the text as a text offers little to no benefit to anyone other than a small cadre of academics. Personally, I didn’t even find it useful as a source of argument against faith, since I just found it all so inconsequential.

  35. Matth,

    Some random thoughts on the topic:
    I find good scholarship to be useful in all things. I was trained in historical critical methods in college and seminary. I often found the work to be limited by the personal/spiritual failures of the scholars involved, but I found the questions to be of use and the same for some of the answers.

    Critical scholarship (on some level) is required, I think, to understand most things. Far too many people, for example, quote a Church Father, with no critical understanding. Meaning, they know nothing of the historical period, the setting, or a lot of other things, they just quote them.

    Recently, in the responses concerning morality on this blog, a number of people were just pulling quotes with the word “moral” or “morality” in them and flinging them this way. They had no critical understanding of that quote, much less of my own writing (which would have been the very least thing they could do).

    If the writing one is quoting has not been made one’s own, including some genuine level of critical engagement, then it has no business being quoted.

    I have almost zero patience, for example, for those who dismiss the works of men like Met. Kallistos Ware, Fr. John Behr, or Fr. Andrew Louth (just to cite the English examples), who are treasures of critical scholarship. Particularly if those dismissals are couched in terms of them being mere academics. They pray as much as many monks (Ware is a monk) and live the true Orthodox life – and have a level of scholarship that many of the Fathers would have actually thought essential. The knowledge and training of the greatest among the Fathers was quite considerable.

    Greater humility would help so many of us. Many people dare to quote St. Maximus when they haven’t a clue about what he means. A weakness among a number of scholars – most indeed – is the fact that they are not Orthodox. I’m not talking about brand loyalty, but just essential experience. It is like commenting on the NT without being able to read Greek. No such commentary could be taken seriously. The Fathers (certainly the Eastern ones) are all written in “Orthodox,” and many scholars can’t read Orthodox. I contend that the NT is written in “Orthodox,” as well.

    My own “Orthodoxy” is like my “Greek.” They are second languages. My native tongue is “secular Protestantism.” When another American says, “There is no God,” I’m pretty sure I know what he means (though I do still ask clarifying questions). When St. Maximus says, “God,” we should not immediately assume we know what he’s talking about. This is equally true when he uses words like “moral” or “progress,” and the like.

    Had I written my article on the “unmoral Christian,” and said that we are not “moral” because that is a process of the “gnomic will,” whereas our salvation is not a process of the “gnomic will,” it would have been a good Maximian understanding. But I can’t say that with any benefit to my readers (including most of the priests).

    We live in an academic Dark Age. The Ven. Bede, writing in the 7th-8th century backwaters of England, probably had more accurate knowledge of the world he lived in than we do of ours. And he lived in “the” Dark Ages. 🙂

  36. Father,
    I think the point you just made is central to not misunderstand the more difficult issues you have tackled lately.
    I sometimes wonder if some simplified terms/descriptions for key notions (such as man’s [-fallen man’s obviously-] ‘gnomic will’ to use one example) could be arrived at, and used with any consensus…
    I often lament the difficulty with which one can stay in that ‘zone’ of correct understanding in these matters, in a world where everybody is steeped in erroneous yet ‘solidified’ notions (sometimes unconsciously adopted), that keep throwing them off balance, even once you’ve had (the …great luxury of) a long and clarifying introduction/catechesis to these difficult matters.

  37. For instance, in place of ‘gnomic willing’ one could employ the expression ‘the willing [of a creature] that cannot discern what it truly wants due to its imperfect knowledge’, while ‘natural willing’ is easier to describe as, that willing which is ‘in accordance with the “logos” of it’s nature’ perhaps replacing the (other difficult) term of ‘logos’ here, with ‘final eternal fulfillment’ or similar.

  38. Dino, if a whole phrase has to be used then we are better off with the less cumbersome words.

    The key to understanding lies in spiritual direction and proper praxis.

    With that once a particular word is used and explained there will be experiential cognates.

    The tendency of the world is to ignore the experiential while some ignore the importance of the scholarship so that the experience can be clarified and tethered to the truth.

    Again a case of both-and.

    If we English speaking folk cannot go deeply enough into the Church and our own language to translate the Greek elegantly no inelegant, lengthy substitutes will do the job either.

    Until then, we are faced with being told: no, that’s not right. That way we will know what to avoid at least. That is a good.

  39. Dino,
    The language really is a challenge. It was a conversation with my adult son (who is a both critical and supportive reader of my stuff) that drew the gnomic distinction out in the moral discussion. He thought that my “un-moral” could be misleading.

    St. Paul draws all of this out with great drama in Romans 7, without ever going to the Maximian distinctions (since they were so many centuries away). I have an experiential axe to grind in some of this. That is – that I do not see “progress” in the moral struggle, generally. There are small victories and small defeats, and pretty much around the same issues over the course of a lifetime. I could never have said this as a young priest, because I did not have the experience of 34 years as a confessor. I recall being staggered the first time I heard the confession of an old man – it sounded pretty much like my own youthful confessions and I knew him to be a faithful, struggling Christian.

    Over the years, it has made me pay attention to Maximus (whose gnomic distinctions I first learned back in the 70’s). I have pondered (reflecting on experience) for years the notion of natural willing versus gnomic willing. It is, of course, nothing like some switch inside us that we can do something about. As we quiet the passions, the “sound” of the natural will becomes more evident. But the natural will does not have to be healed or fixed. It is steady, always directing us towards the right goal, the logos and telos of our existence.

    But moral struggle is never quite the problem – we can never fix or repair the “gnomic” will – it’s very presence is evidence of our brokenness. It’s disappearance would be our healing.

    An example – someone “makes” us angry. A moral response would be to try and not get angry or to forgive them, etc. But this almost never works in that manner. The reason is that anger is a secondary emotion – and until we get beneath it we can’t even see what we’re doing. Often beneath it will be fear or shame (most commonly). We can begin to address the fear or shame and even begin to find some level of healing and relief, such that we are less prone to this anger producing event. But this is not really a moral struggle – except in a larger, metaphorical sense. The commandments are “diagnostic” but not the means of the cure.

    Doubtless I can write better about the topic (and I will).

    Mostly, though, when I think about the gnomic will, my mind wanders to gnomes, mushrooms, elves and the like… 🙂

  40. Michael,
    I certainly agree with what you said here…

    Father,
    the gnomes & elves [and many other strange connotations & allusions] is one more reason why I lament the current English solutions to rendering: gnomic, œconomic, noetic, neptic, logoi, and so many others..

  41. RE Anger (a lifetime companion):

    Fear and shame? Fear of not being in control of everything seems to be a trigger for me. Forgiveness and giving thanks to God for everything. (Resting in the truth that we are to fear not for He has overcome the world) the antidote.

    Forgiveness in the sense that I release my judgment of the people at whom I am angry. Repentance of, not the anger per se, but of the desire to control–for that desire is redolent of the temptation of Adam and Eve to be like God without God. The desire to destroy anyone or anything that threatens me or disputes my control and superiority. Here we begin to hit upon the demonic source.

    Repent of the damage my anger has done to others. This has ‘worked’ for me in that my anger response has lessened. But you are correct, anger is secondary to what is actually going on with me. Working on the anger itself is not productive, in fact, in can increase the anger.

    The shame part is new to me and will take some work to understand. Perhaps, Father, you could address this aspect again. It seems elusive to me.

  42. I am grateful for the work and prayerful writings of Orthodox who challenge the Biblical scholars bent on historical/fallen-man centered explanations of the Gospel. I was taken in by a sermon on the feeding of the five thousand, this miracle reduced to an incidence of travel food having been brought by the crowds and then shared, following the example of the disciples handing out what few things they could gather. But in our services we are reminded of the feeding of more than one such crowd, as well as the admonition of Jesus to seek the food of heaven, not just the food for the gut. This wouldn’t make sense if He had not actually multiplied food rather than coercing everyone to share what they had. Of course I was quite happy to hear such an “ordinary” explanation, as it fit nicely with my preference for a God we had made up.
    Those saints and holy ones who have, since the beginning of the Church, tied all things to our Lord have given us the meat that truly nourishes, in words of books, in words of the hymns, and in guidance for our practice. And this includes Fr. Stephen here.

    Thank you to all who pore over Greek to bring the good stuff into our English language.
    I would like to hear more about the gnomic will–in liturgical or home prayer, I do often not know what I want–the uncovering of the natural sometimes begins after an hour or so in Divine Liturgy, when finally my ears open a bit, my need to go do some other thing subsides, and perhaps my heart grows softer.

  43. I think that, (since we mentioned the great St Maximus I’ll use his imager)y, both the lion (anger) and the bear (desire) which –like David- we must overcome, are directly related to properly looking after the sheep (our thoughts) …
    The fear and shame (the deeper deterrents to overcoming the ‘lion’ and the ‘bear’) are what the young David was free of. He meticulously clung to this freedom because his heart was so firmly focused on the Lord alone. He wasn’t focused on this freedom but on God. He kept away from every external distraction and –far more significantly- free from internal distraction. He made time and space to stand in the presence of the Lord.
    My beloved Elder Aimilianos has always used strong words and been particularly clear on the supreme centrality of the threat called “distraction” in virtually every single aspect of spiritual warfare.

    Distraction is the severing of my very being. Even good activities, for instance the study of the Church Fathers or the Scriptures, have the potential to become a distraction because they can separate me from God. “Distractions” are, mainly, my thoughts/logismoi… thoughts concerning my sensorial perceptions, thoughts of refraining from my thoughts, thoughts of examining my thoughts for any purpose, etc… I do something for instance, and then think to myself: ‘did I just sin? or did I not sin?’ If I perceive that I sinned, ‘am I culpable now or not?’ If I discover that I am, ‘I must confess in order to be forthright towards God’… Yet this entire conversation with myself is nothing but a crafty distraction: The distraction of the sin of not standing in the presence of the Lord – I am concerned with my self again…
    The distraction that sin causes, according to the Philokalic Fathers, is even worse than the sin itself. Because one might be led to repentance due to sin, yet one spirals into a vortex of problems from the distraction of sin, a vortex of concerns, actions, words, thoughts, explanations, misunderstandings. This is a vortex that does not allow God’s Light to shine on you.
    May we all therefore arrange our daily schedules so that we can find the time and space to stand in the presence of the Lord. A thousand demons screeching all around us cannot harm us as much as our giving ear to a single thought, to a single distraction.
    I assure you, there is no other way to know God than “Be still and know that I am God”

  44. Dino, and in that presence, we know neither shame nor fear. But the forest is thick surrounding the golden city and a great deal of stuff must be hacked away to get there.

    My dear wife has known the Lord most of her life, from about the age of 5. Not is some vague ‘spiritual’ way but as a real person who loves her. She still approaches Him as that 5 year old. That is why, when I brought her to the Orthodox Church for the first time, she knew she was home because He was there. That is why I learn so much from her.

    So even acknowledging the existence of the forest can be a distraction?

  45. What an utterly invaluable blessing Michael – wow…!

    The Elder Aimilianos carries on in that same talk by answering the question of acknowledging the forest/distraction:

    Pay no heed to it whatsoever. “Little children, may no one deceive you”; my beloved do not mislead yourselves! Stand in the presence of God and He will bestow all else to you…
    How can we achieve such a thing? Only with our entrance in the stillness of our inner chamber, inside of us; that’s where our Life is! Our life depends on how much we are watchful, vigilant and quiet. It is in this stillness you encounter God, you sense His visitation tangibly.
    God does not deal with us the way He faced the turbulent sea or the fruitless fig-tree. He comes to us with the caress with which He touched Peter’s mother-in-law who was burning of fever. His sweet caress on our forehead, our hand, our heart is like that.
    But without this knowledge, without such an awareness, we do not sit to wait upon the Lord, to gaze upon Him; we are not feverish enough yet –if you like-, the fever of His love has not yet enraptured us; our eyes have not yet popped out from the fervour and intense hope and firmly fixed gazing… We are cold and without life, without experience of Him because we haven’t this awareness of His Life. He approaches when we await for Him alone, when we call upon Him only. But we are busy with a myriad distractions. How can God find us! And if we ever see Him we would say to God: ‘just a minute – I need to finish what I am doing…’

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