Though I wish I believed otherwise, in the depths of my being, I do not believe any part of us survives death. I am, at the center of my consciousness, a materialist, and a reluctant atheist still. I fight this disposition daily, and it is becoming an enormous burden that I wish I could throw off. There are days where my doubt and despair far eclipse my hope that someday, God will really let me know it’s “not all in my head”, or that He will somehow bless me with a profound Athonite experience to solidify and settle my gnawing pessimism, and to extinguish the flames of absurdity and unbelief that engulf my existence. I am really trying to believe. I desperately want to truly believe. I want it more than anything. I desire an authentic faith. I do not however, want to believe something just so I can sleep at night. This struggle is not unique to myself, I realize that, and I take comfort in knowing many a person, way more intelligent than I, has also struggled profoundly with nihilism, and come out from under the weight of it to become a saint.
This is a quote from a Facebook friend, and I deeply admire the honesty and anguish in his statement. It was occasioned by some questioning that I posted myself. And so I take it upon myself to offer some reflections. I hope they are of help to him and others.
The first observation I want to make is on the assurance with which we experience the materialist option. I never seem to encounter anyone who doubts the materiality of their existence. Some will doubt that there is anything other than a material existence – but they always seem certain of that much. I would add that we seem to think we know what a material existence is, and that its existence is rather obvious and its persistence guaranteed.
In point of fact, although materiality is easily observed, it is not easily explained, nor is its persistence guaranteed. Everything about the universe we inhabit is strikingly precise in the most delicate balance imaginable – far beyond random chance. Any variation in the most primitive forces (those that came about in the first moments of the “big bang”) would have resulted in no universe rather than some other universe. There are compelling reasons to say that we are “meant” to be here.
The continued existence of our world (its persistence) is equally astounding. The world to which we awaken everyday is not a testimony to its inherent stability, but to an inherent providence that sustains us in existence. We should wonder not only that the universe exists, but that it continues to exist.
It is possible (of course) to view the material universe as a sort of given, something that can be taken for granted, but doing so is neither philosophically nor scientifically sound. “It is only wonder that understands anything,” in the words of St. Gregory.
“I do not believe any part of us survives death.”
Though death is a great test and visits destruction on our material form, yet it is no greater test of faith than our present existence in a material form. For our very nature is nothingness, and that nothingness should speak and think and long and pray at any given moment is truly a wonder. And it is no greater wonder or test of faith to believe that existence might be given us beyond the nothingness of death itself.
I will press this a bit further. Much that we take to be our “selves” in our material experience shows itself to be quite ephemeral and illusory when it’s examined more closely. And, on the other hand, there is something that has a dogged persistence regardless of how closely it is scrutinized. Observing this yields something of a glimpse of the “soul,” and directs our attention to its proper place.
What do we mean when we speak of the personality? Do we mean a certain set of memories? A collection of experiences and preferences? Is it our set of skills and techniques? How many of these would we have to lose for the personality and personhood to disappear? As a man in his early 60’s, I have already forgotten more than I can remember. Names escape me. I notice that my memory of things is quite selective, and that some of my stories have become suspect (even to myself). My skills are diminished. My hands struggle to find their place on a keyboard and my fingers move ever more slowly. And though I once gloried in my children, they are now adults. I love them, of course, but the children whom I knew are now disappearing within the mists of my mind. The social relations that so often define us are constantly changing. People who once mattered in my life are now dead, while others live at a distance and probably never give me a thought. Our tastes and proclivities shift constantly. Cigarettes, once a constant presence in my life, have been missing for nearly 30 years.
But there is something that remains and seems to have changed in no way whatsoever. That something is not the object of my consideration, but the subject who considers. The old man who now thinks and writes and groans in the morning, is identical with the child who ran with ease and played his games. That subject is the one who remembers, who experiences, who thinks, who decides. But that subject is not itself the memory, the experience, the thought or the decision. Indeed, it would be possible to imagine that subject with a completely different set of memories, etc., yet still being the same subject!
When we do indeed turn our attention directly to that subject, and away from experiences, memories, etc., we come to a very different place. It is quite possible to simply be aware, to be present with no regard to memory, etc. Indeed, such present awareness is often described as a “higher” state of consciousness. Prayer, in its most mature forms, has this form of awareness as an almost inherent characteristic.
What is the relationship between this subject, this awareness, and our material existence? Again, its persistence argues for some separation from a purely material account. For, as noted, the subject of a five-year-old is the same subject when it is sixty years old, while the material reality will have completely changed many times over. This doesn’t suggest that our material existence is merely a vehicle, but it certainly suggests that the subject that we call the ‘self’ transcends our materiality in some manner.
There is a link. On the whole, the awareness we have as subject is centered in our materiality. We may even think of ourselves, miraculously, as matter that has become aware. When the Church speaks of the soul, we must remember that it does not mean something that is utterly separate from the body:
Spirit and matter are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are interdependent; they interpenetrate and interact. When speaking, therefore, of the human person, we are not to think of the soul and the body as two separable «parts» which together comprise a greater whole. The soul, so far from being a «part» of the person, is an expression and manifestation of the totality of our human personhood, when viewed from a particular point of view. The body is likewise an expression of our total personhood, viewed from another point of view – from a point of view that, although different from the first, is complementary to it and in no respect contrary. «Body» and «soul» are thus two ways of describing the energies of a single and undivided whole. A truly Christian view of human nature needs always to be unitary and holistic. (from a 2002 publication by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece)
So, when we think of many things that make up our experience, and certainly things that color and shape our experiences, we must consider many known aspects of the body, particularly the brain. Our present science makes us increasingly aware of various conditions that are rooted in the brain and its neurochemistry. Anyone with knowledge of these things who is also a pastor/confessor cannot help but ponder their relationship to the soul. A very helpful image is found in a conversation with the Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos:
The image which we can use to describe the relationship of soul and brain is the violin with the violinist. Just as even the best musician cannot make good music if the violin is broken or unstrung, in the same manner a man’s behavior will not be whole (see 2 Tim 3:17) if his brain presents a certain disturbance, in which case the soul cannot be expressed correctly. It is precisely this disturbance of the brain that certain medicines help correct and so aid the soul in expressing itself correctly.
My own take in this is to reflect on the hidden struggle of the soul, often masked by the brain and its disorders. For a person who is biologically prone to depression or any number of problems (for which the Elder strongly recommended medication) there can be a daily, even a moment-by-moment struggle, unseen by the surrounding world-even largely hidden from the individual himself. St. Paul reminds us:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, (2Co 4:16-17)
I can only add to this that—for some—the affliction is far from light and can last a life time. But the weight of glory remains eternal.
The soul (when viewed rightly), represents “an expression of the totality of our human personhood” (as is the body). But the soul frequently remains hidden. Prayer, repentance, silence, stillness and many other spiritual disciplines can help reveal the soul to the subject (the true self) of our life.
So, the end of the matter is a certain attentiveness. We should pay attention to the true nature of the material world in which we live-it is a shimmering moment on the razor’s edge of existence, an enduring testimony to its Creator. At the same time we should pay attention to the true character of our own existence and aspects that clearly reach beyond pure materiality. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and, if we can be still and listen, we will hear the sound of an eternal weight of glory singing deeply in the heart of all things. It says, “Glory to God for all things.”
This essay seems to speak of the soul as consciousness, is that accurate?
I strongly recommend David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God. Speaking as someone who was fairly rigorous in his atheism for a few decades, I concluded ultimately that I could not rationally defend reductive materialism. Hart’s book does a pretty nice job of summarizing some of the reasons why.
Wonderful. This may be my favorite of all your posts.
The article does not speak of the soul as consciousness – it is the whole person – is stated. But consciousness (in a certain aspect) is a way to consider the soul – in fact – it’s almost the only way we can “consider” anything.
I read Hart’s book carefully from cover to cover. I think it may be his best.
Sometime in my early fifties I realized that while my spirit was willing to do certain things, my body was screaming, “You want me to do what? Are you kidding?” This seeming separation has continued into my seventies. I keep forgetting that I am now, what I considered at one time, an elderly lady. Some days I feel like one, others no.
In one sense it is a strange predicament. My spirit feels as if it will live forever, while my body keeps reminding me that I won’t. It is strange to look at my great nieces and nephews and realize I won’t be around to see them grow up. On the other hand, I often look at what young people are doing, and think, “Been there, done that!” And I wonder what I am supposed to be doing now. Ahhh, Life!
I totally agree with you, as we age we
Are more aware of time, eternity and we wonder! What is’t that we believe that we know with our heart.
This is a wonderful post! I’m often reading things that are “over my head” and this includes a number of philosophical essays that make a big deal about “subject” and “object.” After reading this, I believe I am closer to understanding what the other authors are getting at.
Also, I have been thinking about something that I have called “the persistence of the Self” for several years and have presented the concept to some of the clients in my psychotherapy practice. This post really expresses what I was getting at much more clearly than my own words. It will be a great help should I introduce the topic in a future session.
Wonderful, especially that last paragraph.
I identify with this struggle. My own encounter with nihilism is the irrational fear that I do not exist, that I am a “mechanical” illusion of consciousness determined by natural forces, that I am totally and in every way self-deceived. And I think, if I were ever crushed by the paradoxes of Christianity and could be ripped away from rational structures of theism completely, this is what I’d be left with.
I guess what has helped me most is to simply relax into this fear, so to speak. Very well; I do not exist. That is true in a sense whatever I believe. I stop thinking of myself as so significant that it really matters, in the cosmic sense, how well I understand; my death is imminent, and I will be nothing. If nothing is indeed the ultimate state, then I will vanish and the world will go on–“all will be well.” But if there is ultimate Light, it is the only thing worth seeking here, and it dwells in bliss and beauty that is absolutely untouched by what I think or feel about it. By redirecting my awareness from myself, the immediate anxious effect of my fears is blunted. And so I am left to push on through the darkness, hoping for an illumination I am well aware I may never receive, but is worth dedicating my worthless life to.
And at that point past resignation, one does think one begins to see all things as a gift…. Then, one seems to catch a glimpse of real joy in gratitude, even if one does not actually possess it.
I doubt this would make any sense to anyone who has not brushed with this, the sense of total nothingness, which is something more than atheism as commonly practiced and yet the very emptiness of atheism.
Thank you once more, Fr Stephen.
As a physicist I’ve often pondered the no thingness of our material existence. As we’ve delved into the nature of that which presents itself, there is nothing which we can call solid – however much we experience it as so.
One wonders whether it is in the Incarnation that solidity is given to our existence? For God Is, we are not, not in the same sense – rather our being is an act of grace, which is known in Christ.
By the way I very very much enjoyed the paragraph on being a subject. Just this weekend for the first time I ‘enjoyed’ the company of one of our children and was for the first time taken aback that I was speaking to an adult. The child had gone, but . . . our history, our relationship, our knowledge of one another required that childhood . . . So there is perhaps here something about intersubjectivity?
Blessings on your day!!
Glory to God
There is more to the “remembrance of death” that is spoken of by the Fathers than a mere understanding of our impermanence. I am slowly starting to see this as a priceless gift, as opposed to a loathsome burden. Thank you for the perspective Fr Stephen.
The peculiar, charged awareness that is the remembrance of death, embraces at least all of the following: perpetual vigilance, eschatological orientation, God-centeredness replacing self-centeredness, cognizance of the futility of what is futile, as well as attentiveness to what is truly eternal. I remember how St Isaac the Syrian speaks so highly of it that he exclaims that it is so sweet that if God allowed it the human race would remain without descendants and that our adversary is prepared to offer the entire world to a person rather than having them discover that sweetness, since it makes that person invincible.
Disorders of the body other than the brain may also block the soul. My late wife suffered from both, memory eternal. The distortions in are body and brain coupled with the abuses and pain in her early life fundamentally crippled her. She was a person capable of producing soaring beauty and acts of incredible kindness and deep insight. Yet, that was often blunted because of the anguish in which she lived most of the time–physical, emotional and neurological. Medicines helped a little with some things only to exacerbate other things. One of the most remarkable experiences for me on her death was that the body lying in the casket, looked really unfamiliar. Her spirit had done much to transform it while she was with her body but could never fully overcome it.
excelent article, as usual, and a topic clearly not understood, even by believers. I immedately thought of Ivan in Brothers Karamazov, who was convinced there was no God and no afterlife, believing then that everything was permitted because all was relative. Iow, crime is permissible without consequences. Ivan’s servant brother, Smernakov, murders their father, believing he is doing the will of Ivan. Ivan ends up mental breakdown and Smernakov kills himself. A must read for all atheists.
Just this week, I was speaking with a man who had trouble with passages that emphasized the Holy Spirit in life. He felt they give too much weight to the Spirit, as opposed to the Father, from which the Spirit comes. I tried to get him to see the fullness of God in each of the Father, the Incarnate Son, and the Spirit instead of compartmentalizing them in an artificial separation. He had a lot of trouble understanding “fullness” in the relationship of God to humanity.
I have been thinking for some time that the compartmentalization that our society (I’m in the U.S.) emphasizes in every aspect of our lives is one of the great evils that is being used against the Church. There is an idea that our relationship with God (usually belittled as our “religion”) can and should be separated from our social lives, our business working, etc…. For anyone understanding the wholeness of our material and spiritual being, this can never happen. Just my thoughts.
Thank you, especially for the last paragraph!
I recently read Spong’s Eternal Life: A New Vision. It has pretty much destroyed me. Modern life is hell. I have tried to fight the modern world view, but I am losing.
Spong isn’t even a 3rd-rate scholar. His books are full of nonsense. I have great respect, even for liberals if they are honest scholars. Spong is neither. Spong is to Christianity what Al Sharpton is to race relations. Please, if you are going to lose your faith over something, find something better than Jack Spong. I’ve met him, conversed with him, crossed swords with him long ago. He is intellectual cotton candy. If he weren’t an Episcopal bishop, no one would pay him any mind.
If you haven’t read David Hart’s “The Experience of God” (available here: http://amzn.com/0300209355 ) it is a MUST read for anyone struggling with this and related issues.
I very much hear you and believe I understand. I count myself a Christian very much out of obedience rather than illumination most days. That is, this God I don’t understand – and unfortunately don’t even know very well – asked me to believe in Him and give my life to Him at one point.
I did. There are still many days that if I’m wrong, then I am and I can’t prove otherwise. But on the other hand I haven’t seen any other idea that holds a candle to the concept of God as expressed in His best sense. And…..I gave Him my life. I can’t take it back. Even if I did I couldn’t do any better than He has.
But about your nothingness….. You know in some important ways you are in much better shape than a lot of others who profess to follow God. The path to God goes through nothingness, a place where we understand in a very deep and foundational way that the universe does not revolve around us. Anything could happen to us and life would simply go on. At some very basic level we are nothing.
This is the place we must come to before there is room in our lives for ANY deity. It is the emptiness we must experience before our heart grows quiet enough to hear His voice, before the dust around us settles enough to see the reality that exists all around whether or not we are there to perceive it.
Hold to the maxim that “where there is life, there is hope” and keep treating your existence as a gift. Peace and all good things, drewster
Responding to Michael Bauman’s eloquent note above…
I had a similar experience with my father when he slowly succumbed to early Alzheimer’s disease. As I knew him most of my life, he struggled with the emotional consequences of a difficult childhood and a sense of being a square peg in this world (which I also have). As a result we were not as close as I wish we had been. As the disease progressed, it was devastating to see his “self” as I knew it diminish … but towards the end, a transformation took place which I now see as a sort of gift. He was no longer aware of all those old hurts and defenses … and a new, bright, almost childlike “self” emerged. He delighted in all sorts of small details that he would never have noticed before. It was still painful for me, but I now believe that for him, that last year was a grace-filled relief.
I like to imagine that this was his true soul, light-filled and wondrous, emerging from beneath the weight of the world.
Would that we could live closer to this truth the whole way through life, but that’s another topic. 🙂
Boyd, as one who has tried and failed I can attest to the fact that I cannot fight the world view. Further, it is slowly beginning to dawn on me that I don’t even have to. The modern world view has almost nothing in it that is human. Sounds depressing and it certainly can be. However, when we turn to the source of our humanity–God, and trust Him even a little (mustard seed or nano-particle), good abounds.
He really has overcome the world. That is why we don’t have to fight it. That is why our freedom comes from obedience to Him.
That is not to say that all of the evil, darkness, pain and tears will not have an impact, they certainly do. They are an existential part of all of our lives, but we do not have to allow that to enter our heart, or if we have, it can be cleaned out (although it can be a bit like living between a quarry and an active farm on a dirt road.)
The more I fought, the more I lost, the more despair seemed real to me.
Fr. Stephen’s description of Spong is polite and quite restrained and polite. Spong is simply a liar. Whether he any longer knows he is lying or not or ever did, I don’t know but what he writes is a lie.
Not to increase my unkindness towards Spong. But, believe me, there is nothing about him that would make anyone want to be like him or to want anything of his life. There is the proof of it. By contrast, the least of the Holy Elders, even the least learned, knows more about everything and has joy. They are letters written to us by God Himself. Read them and let the other stuff go.
Is it as simple as ignoring modernity and turning to a pre-modern faith? The critic says that we are not the believers of old, but rather we are believing in belief and denying reality. Is the liturgy a participation in the divine or the hypnosis of a ghetto? Forgive me.
I understand your point. In fact, there is no such thing as “Modernity” other than as an intellectual construct that is held by some (easily the majority) who use it to make up reality as they go along, and define other things as “out of date.” What a convenient way for them to win arguments. They only have to label something as “pre-modern” and think they’ve actually said something.
The same idiots were in the medical profession in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and told women that breast-feeding was “pre-modern” and that science now knew that formula was better for babies. They were wrong, but convinced an entire generation of “modern” women not to breast feed (I was one of the many baby-boomer kids who were not nursed). Of course, they turned out to be wrong. But consider the audacity of telling mammals not to use their mammary glands! The same audacity and stupidity marks so much of what wraps itself in the mantle of “Modernity.” Being human isn’t something that is constantly invented. Being human is something that is traditioned from one generation to the next. The world that the Spongs (whether as doctors or bishops, etc.) have built in the name of Modernity is pretty much the most dysfunctional period in all of human history and at the moment seems only to have a greater and greater dysfunction in its future. For every dysfunction it creates, it launches another one in the name of a “fix.” When they are through fixing us, there will be almost nothing of our humanity left.
Spong has no faith, no actual vision, and nothing he can point to as living proof of his nonsense. He has a legacy of failure: failed diocese, failed marriage, failed scholarship, etc. Ironically, for a man who plays the “modern” card, his own arguments are incredibly “out-of-date” – quite 1950’s. I’m not sure he has read or considered anything in Postmodern Scholarship – meaning, he’s not read anything from about 1970 forward.
This article addresses the notion of the need to be modern: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2014/12/01/end-modern-world/
The most important thing to believe in is the truth. I agree that discernment of what the truth is can be difficult, especially in this loud and busy world, but God has promised to answer when someone asks, to open when His door is knocked on, to give when a request is made.
Sometimes we think too much. Believe in the partaking of the Divine. If it’s really the hypnosis of the ghetto, God will reveal this to you in time.
As a former Episcopal priest, I have to observe that there is no more “ghetto-ized” Church than the Episcopalians. They are mostly white, anglo, wealthy, educated, privileged, and marked by classism. To be lectured by some to-the-manor-born white guy about “modernity” etc. is just sad. They have a legacy of colonialism everywhere they’ve been and they continue it today – a cultural colonialism that they call “modernity.”
I lived on the inside of it. You have no idea how great their contempt is for the rest of us. Give me a peasant from anywhere, any day. You have no idea…
Even if one were to grant the existence of modernity (which is a stretch), one must call into question its monopolistic claims on ultimate truth. What is so special about modernity that warrants its claims on truth? Certainly not science, as scientific discipline cannot venture beyond the realm of the observable and is thus limited to the visible order. Ultimate truth claims – such as those about the (non) existence of God, (non) permanence of the human soul, etc. – these fall outside the purvey of science.
So, it is not a matter of “ignoring modernity” but critically examining its claims and see if they hold up to scrutiny. When it comes to matters of ultimate truth – it is modernity no more modern than the atheists of 3000 years ago.
Boyd, may the Lord bless you and keep you and may He make His countenance shine upon you.
Please forgive a reaction from a poor and ignorant soul.
The answer to your fears does not lie in the way of thought. It seems you fear being called a devotee of “the Sky God” or the like. Perhaps you even fear hearing such a voice of condemnation from your own lips or mind.
In my life, I have learned the most from fasting. And it is not from “success” but from repeated failure. God does not need my stomach. But I learn to repent, and have occasion to do so over and over again.
God is not an idea and cannot be held in our minds. He comes to us, not the other way around. We devote all our mind and heart and strength — and then we hear Him call us “His “friends” because we “are not worth much as servants.”
Some years ago I was professionally connected to the Anglican wars, which tried my soul. A couple of older priests were talking between themselves about Jack Spong. Turns out they both were present at his ordination and could talk of him as a fresh-faced seminarian, surrounded by others like him, eager and fresh and faithful. They spoke without anger or rancor but with deep sadness. Their forgiveness stunned me. Glory to God.
Spong occupies a dark place in my heart (would to God such places no longer existed). It is not just the great harm he did to the faith of so many, but the constant ridicule he heaped on a past he never had. To hear him tell it, he had been raised in some fundamentalist backwater. He was raised an upper-class Episcopalian. I knew his Sunday School teacher. I know quite well, and even intimately, many of his acquaintances, his parishes, etc. There are so many honest ways (if you will) to arrive at a lack of faith. He does not provide one of them.
In CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce, there is the character of the “Episcopal Ghost,” by which he means the soul of an Anglican bishop. He is modeled on a character like John Robinson, Jim Pike, or Jack Spong (though more British than the last two). These same men and their ilk are accurately portrayed – they are the sort of men who deprived Lewis of the chance to hold a Chair at Oxford. The dark work done by them, and the dark lies of the bureaucracy that they inhabited were an evil that I shudder to consider.
I do not think that Orthodoxy is immune to such evil. The ecclesiastical world has always had is nefarious characters – some can seem quite pious and correct in their theology. Of course, the darkness of my own heart could yet betray me. The temptation to perjure your soul in the midst of all of that is more alluring than many might think. I stood on the edge of that abyss myself for longer than I care to remember. I did not come to Orthodoxy as a fleeing, righteous conservative who had no perjury in his soul. I came as a penitent. I’m still a penitent. This conversation should reveal how deeply penance is still needed for me.
Frankly, Boyd caught me off-guard. I had no idea anybody even read Spong anymore, much less took anything he said as worthy of a moment’s thought.
May God have mercy on his soul. He’ll doubtless enter the kingdom before me.
Michael Bauman wrote: “One of the most remarkable experiences for me on her death was that the body lying in the casket, looked really unfamiliar. Her spirit had done much to transform it while she was with her body but could never fully overcome it.”
This I KNOW! Sure, the particulars are different, but as she (my wife) had spent every once of energy in her denouement to the Glory of God In All Things, the loss of that Spirit, which enlivens all of us, unrecognised or not, made that body indecipherable. And the import of my existence questionable.
I am not familiar with Jack Spong…but from the sounds of it…he is quite similar to Keith Ward – whom I had the displeasure of having to read recently. Ward was my first real exposure to ideas from an Anglican clergymember. I was quite distressed.
Lord have mercy.
I recognize the pain you speak of. Kind of like some of your dust-ups with certain Calvinists or dispensationalists — we readers can feel a special edge to your teaching then.
For myself, I remember the despair I felt as a college freshman in facing Thomas saltier and his Gospel of Christian Atheism. It seemed so smart and modern and who could argue with someone who could say “kenosis”? Now the whole project is outdated and forgotten and the work itself is merely silly.
As to Spong himself, a priest you would know by name and likely by face told about visiting a dying woman’s bedside. She was beset by doubts and fears, clinging to her faith but seemingly unable to believe. He spied a copy of some Spong tract on her table. He left there weeping bitter tears.
In the academy, philosophers consider his stuff pablum– weak and insubstantial and unserious. There is no humility in his work. (I realize you know all this, but I was like Boyd once and was impressed by glamour shot — still am). And it remains a danger to souls.
The effectual fervent prayers of a righteous man availeth much. Mine, not so much. Nevertheless, you shall have them.
In my daily walk I often come into contact with those similar to your FB respondent which have no conception of the spiritual. It has clearly been proscribed against by contemporary media for the past several decades, so this disconnect is not too surprising. This being the case, however, apologetics have no meaning to them, declaring God from a God-infused perspective ignores their predicament of the unknowable (especially in a materialistic sense) God.
This predicament is not exclusive to the agnostic, but to the nominal Christian, as well, who has been fed a line of ‘beliefs’ which, when accepted, provide (hell-)fire insurance, instead of the redemption from ignorance which is provided by the Cross.
Admittedly, I am new the ‘Orthodox’ paradigm of Faith, which I have found is most expressive of the Gospel that I have of God. In this Gospel I have been called to bring freedom to the captives. But, at this point I am finding captives that do not comprehend Freedom since they cannot conceive they are bound.
Any Light on this matter is sorely appreciated. Humbly, I …
Wonderful post. Somehow speculation and fear about what “nothingness” might look and feel like reminds me of the essay “On Blindness” by Jorge Luis Borges, the National Librarian of Argentina who was paradoxically unable to read books. He wrote about the common misperceptions that blindness is darkness, when his own blindness was actually a kind of constant white mist, so white that he had trouble going to sleep when he lost his vision.
Also love where he remarks that if he’d never gone blind, he never would have learned Old English.
Re: Spong and the like and those who might be swayed by such “clouds without water”, Jude 1:23 popped into my mind. So I looked up the whole chapter. How appropriate! I’m also reminded of the story of the Apostle John (the Apostle of love, author of 1 John) running out of the bath house without bathing when he discovered the Gnostic heretic, Cerinthius, was also inside, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”
We can’t always be joy and light when we find it necessary to speak of such things for the good of those who have become ensnared. May God grant Jack Spong mercy . . . and no credibility or following (which would certainly also be a mercy)!
K_lutz. Amen to your last comment. I too know countless people who haven’t a clue that there is so much more. Most of them in the church. They have arrived, they think.
I have a recurring fear that my grandchildren will never be open to Christ’s teaching, to His meaning and presence, because tradition-based Christians, myself included, may not speak their idiom or understand how they see the world. My adult children reject ”organized religion” as unthinking, hypocritical, and power centered. My teenage granddaughter won’t even listen when I try telling her about my experience at Orthodox liturgies.
Your comments, Fr Stephen, about brain chemistry, mental illness, and the soul help me understand how open Orthodox teaching is to the best of “modernity” in spite of how strongly we oppose its intellectual fads and its focus on the self to the exclusion of larger ideas, to the loss of contact with history, and to the detriment to relationships, especially that with the One Other.
I believe that God will meet my children somewhere, reveal Himself in some way, and invite them in a welcoming manner–but only in His, and their, an time. Meanwhile I look for more ways that Eastern Christianity incorporates rather than rejects outright what is good in modern thought.
The Traditional faith is entering a very difficult season, I think. But our hope is in God, as you’ve stated. It saddens me when I think about it, and shames me when I’m provoked to anger (or when I behave so badly and uncharitably), but God is not our enemy, ever. My hope for my grandchildren is their salvation, but I don’t know what that will look like (and cannot know).
The outcome of history is beyond our control at every moment, and certainly in the long run. I wrote last year about The Long Defeat. When viewed on the level of the personal, it is perhaps bearable. On the level of history, I think we too easily despair.
We must pray. That’s the largest thing we can do. And by God’s grace, we will continue to pray for our children’s children, long after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.
Thanks to all for the encouragement and support.
Our beloved ones often won’t even listen when we try telling them about our Faith and their indifference towards ‘the one thing needful’ will hurt our heart. But when we pay attention to God’s omnipotent providence rather than our immediate surroundings, the trust and Grace that follows overcomes and transforms this visceral pain. The martyrs had great pain for their beloved ones (who were often the ones persecuting them), but, as Christ Himself taught through His own example [“Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)], we must stay focused not on them but on Him, even when our pain for them is like a cross… I commented to Shayne earlier about the peculiar, charged awareness that is the remembrance of death, and how it embraces eschatological orientation and God-centeredness to the point that St Isaac the Syrian exclaims that our adversary is prepared to offer the entire world to a person rather than having them discover that sweetness, since it makes that person invincible. Well, it is no different to this unshakeable trust in our Father. It is a complete and unceasing reorientation of our focus.
The often talked off in the spiritual life, blessed and saving ‘despair’ from our wretched selves, -synonymous with complete and utter trust in God, (God alone)- is also the best “training” for this trust in God’s saving providence for the salvation of others in the face of their indifference.
I believe that our joy, our nobility, our magnanimity, our respect of other’s freedom in trust of God’s providence for them is the strongest and most attractive advertisement for our Faith towards them. And this is only maintained through such a reorientation.
Our Prayer for them must contain this trust too -as far as we can.
It was the Holy Spirit Himself that instilled in Saint Silouan the prayer: “I pray Thee oh Merciful One, that all the peoples of the Earth might come to know Thee in thy holy Spirit”.
The topic of reaching the younger generation has been on my mind for many years. I am convinced that one of the most essential and important ways of reaching them is:
We all need love and belonging. As different as the other generation seems sometimes, this basic human need is something we will always have in common and it will never change.
Please don’t take this the wrong way, but do you know your granddaughter? What are her hopes and fears? What does she love? You are trying to share a good thing with her, but she may need other, more essential things (at least in her eyes) first. Things like knowing someone cares about her despite her outward actions and affiliations.
Believe me I know how touchy-feely this advice sounds, but if there’s truth in it please take it to heart. The world shall know we are Christians by the love we have for one another, first and foremost. And you can’t really love someone you don’t know. In fact the more you know them, the more fully and truly you can actually love them.
It is so good to be part of a such a supportive, inspiring community (online–a benefit of modernity!, though even this can be mis-used and dangerous, as you pointed out earlier, Fr, Stephen, in your warnings about free wheeling, un grounded theological posts on other sites).
I have a very supportive experience at my little local church, but we come together so seldom–mostly only once a week–and even then the opportunities for this kind of mutual reflection and encouragement are limited. I am grateful, Fr. Stephen, for your work. If you wouldn’t mind the exaggeration, I might think of you as a kind of mini-Paul, what with your tireless and very personal reaching out and following up and reminding and clarifying. Dino is right there with you (thank you, Dino, for your helful comment) as are so many others. The early Church is with us in many ways, and we with them.
I give in to discouragement too often because, as Dino pointed out in another place (”The Work That Saves”), we tend t looki at things as if we were the center. Your emphasis in that same post on gratitude ( ”The grounding of the Christian life is thanksgiving.”) brings me back to the place we all are–God-centered, God-blessed–but often don’t know it, or forget, as I do almost daily.
although I fully agree with what you are saying, it must be said that we can only be as involved as we are invited to be. The discernment required when dealing with these things is considerable.
Apparently, Saint Silouan had the remarkable ability to demonstrate no criticism whatsoever when talking to people that would bring an infectious ‘worldliness’ and sinfulness to him, while at the same time not being affected by it in the least. He was the one who rather affected them. That can only emanate from a profound reserve of prayer. The “activism” of trying to approach someone externally, even when done discreetly, -in the long run- is quite feeble compared to the “hesychasm” of bearing their weight on our shoulders -in undividedness- while standing in the presence of God and focusing on Him. It’s also more childlike to call upon God to help them (in a good way).
Obviously all this is not depends on a great deal of personal circumstances too.
albert, continue to pray for them and as drewster says, build a relationship on non-theological grounds. I have found in my limited experience that any pedagogic approach simply is rejected. I have also found that the young tend to be very rigid and dogmatic in their acceptance of the modern ideology. But that is the nature of ideology and the fact that they are bombarded daily with the consumer/hedonist mentality.
Model Christ as well as you can rather than telling. No guarantees except in Christ’s mercy.
You are right on, Drewster. Thank you. I’m having trouble finding that balance–especially since she has no father in her life. And many in her age group, seem to have no one who provides a connection with the past, with tradition as well as with Tradition. But love and example are possibly more effetive in such cases than the way I was taught- through structure and clear expectations and strong guidance. I’m counting on prayers now. And hope.
Jack Spong – wow, memory lane. I think in a way his way of thinking is simply a reflection of the wider “modern” culture, though not any of the more serious parts of it. In that sense, he is an “icon” of a certain shallow “materialism” and “progressiveness” and a thorough narcissism, though one really can hardly overstate just how shallow it is. Still, many many modern people are right there with him – so I don’t like it but he speaks for so many who “Like a patient etherized upon a table” wonder blindly through the deserted streets of the Modern Myth.
“I have also found that the young tend to be very rigid and dogmatic in their acceptance of the modern ideology. But that is the nature of ideology and the fact that they are bombarded daily with the consumer/hedonist mentality.”
I would add that they are so easily seduced by the myth of modernity that rely’s so heavily on a reaction to “the past”, where all evils such as ignorance, “discrimination”, irrational hatred, and rejection of the “authentic self” (such as the “gay” self, etc.). This is part of the modern myth, and the built in defense mechanism of modernity (i.e. the self belief that it is the pinnacle of all human thought and achievement) means that they don’t have any tools to be (self) critical. It’s a bit of a nut to crack fer sur…
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this article and for these comments here!
The Path to Sanity by Dee Pennock comes to mind as a good book to read for comfort and instruction. It contains many references and quotes from Orthodox Christian church fathers and is easy to read, beginning with the first chapter titled “The Soul You Have to Work With”
Lord have mercy on Your Servants!
Dear Fr. Stephen and Brother and Sisters in Christ,
I am a faithful reader of the blog and all your wonderful comments. Not having much of value to add, usually I just read, with amazement, delight and gratitude.
But today I have something to share, a prayer for the children that I found in an old prayer book. Since I started saying it every day, I have seen a slow but amazing transformation of my relationship with my three teenage sons (after turbulent 5 years of changes that included divorce, losses of jobs, illnesses, moving, and a death of my father and their grandfather). Prayer (like this one) transforms relationships, for sure…
THE PRAYER OF PARENTS FOR THEIR CHILDREN:
O Holy Father, eternal God, from
Whom all goodness and blessings
flow, I humbly pray to Thee for the
children Thy clemency hath granted
me. Thou hast given them substance,
Thou hast through an immortal soul
given them life, and regenerated them
through holy baptism, by virtue of
which they are able to obey Thy com-
mandments and attain the kingdom of
heaven. Preserve them in Thy grace
to the end of their lives, and sanctify
them, that Thy Name be hallowed in
them. Co-operate with me by Thy
grace that I bring them up for the
glory of Thy Holy Name and for the
benefit of our neighbors. Grant me
the necessary means for this, patience
and fortitude. O Lord, enlighten them
by the light of Thy wisdom that they
love Thee with all their soul and
thought. Plant into their hearts the
fear and repulsion of all wickedness,
that they wend their way without cor-
ruption. Beautify their soul by Thy
chastity, kindness, humility, industry,
patience, and all virtues. Guard their
lips by truth that all slander, false-
hood and wile be repugnant to them.
Sprinkle them with the dew of Thy
grace, that they prosper in virtue and
holiness, and that they grow up in
Thy favor and in love of upright
men. May their Guardian Angel ever
be with them and protect their youth
from vain thoughts, from the attrac-
tion and seduction of this world, and
from all snares of the evil spirit. And
if at any time they were to sin before
Thee, turn not thy face away from
them, but be merciful to them,
awaken in their heart contrition, and,
according to the multitude of Thy
mercies, cleanse them of their sin. Do
not withdraw from them the bounties
of the earth, but grant them every-
thing necessary for their temporal
needs and for the gaining of eternal
salvation. Protect them from afflic-
tion, anger and misfortune, harm and
pain through all the days of their
life. O good Lord, I pray to Thee,
grant that I have joy and gladness in
my children; vouchsafe that I appear
with them before Thy terrible tri-
bunal, and without fear say: “here I
am, O Lord, with the childeren Thou
hast deigned to give me;” that to-
gether with them, praising Thy inef-
able goodness and eternal love, I may
glorify Thy Most Holy Name, Father,
Son and Holy Spirit, unto ages of
thank you very much for this!
Do you know the source by any chance?
The comments on this post have been hard for me to read. Albert, when I read your fear about your grandchildren, I teared up. My wife and I are still in the stage where our children are at home with us. As of now, they proclaim the faith, yet I know that they haven’t fully encountered the world and the full force of modernity and haven’t yet had to count the cost of following Christ. So in short Albert, my fear is the same as your fear.
May God have mercy on us all.
It comes from “The Orthodox Prayer Book” published by St. Tikhon’s Press, South Canaan, PA in 1975, third addition printed with Wilkes-Barre Deanery of the Diocese of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, OCA. This prayer is in the section for “Various Occasions”…
I also love the one of “Children for their parents” and “Prayer for a blessed death”. I have once heard Fr. Zacharias from Essex say that we should pray for the moment of our death all our life, ahead of time, because at the moment of death even prayer will be difficult….. May we be granted the strenght to utter even “Into Your hands I commit my spirit”…. (Fr. Stephen said something very beautiful about that recently – or maybe it was at the Lenten retreat in San Francisco, which I was very lucky to attend).
With two young children, I also often wonder about this. I recently read an essay by Archimadrite Vassilios Papavassiliou over on Pravmir (the “family” section might be of interest to you: http://www.pravmir.com/category/family/ ) that said something interesting:
“It is unfortunate, that instead of teaching children the virtues at a young age, and religious beliefs at a later age, we do things the other way around, and try to introduce the Christian virtues to our children when they are in their teens, too obstinate and rebellious to be instructed in the virtues of self-denial, patience, and humility, and too grown up to still be learning Sunday school theology. As our children become young adults, their knowledge in every area of learning increases: science, maths, language, literature, history. But when it comes to religion, we never get past primary school. No wonder many of our young adults reject Christianity as childish. We do not prepare our children for the world as they reach their teens; we do not prepare them for the anti-Christian propaganda they will hear, or the many atheist pupils and students they will befriend.”
I had not thought of this angle before.
Having 4 of our own, oldest at 21 and youngest at 14, I have some first-hand experience. (not that I can say we have arrived, I don’t feel as a parent I can ever come to that point – how is success defined as a parent? it seems there are many levels of success in that regard)
The element of free-will strikes me as very important in the equation of it all. Also the aspect of time as everyone is different and some things just take time and cannot be forced.
In our environment I don’t think we face open “anti-Christian propaganda” so much as just propaganda in general. But then again, any faith that cannot hold it’s own in the midst of challenges, it is not worth keeping or nurturing, IMO.
Hello Fr. Stephen (and others),
First, thank you for creating this blog and sharing your thoughts. I’m sure it’s helpful to Christians, and for those of us searching.
I’m attempting to understand Christianity after decades of ignorance (long story, of course), so please bear with me. If anything I ask now or later sounds off-the-wall, just know that I’m being earnest.
Some of the terms used in the post prompted me to wonder about something. Could it make sense to think about the totality of human personhood as being triune (true self, body, soul)? I’ve seen a few interpretations of ‘image and likeness of God’ but nothing to that effect. Although the idea greatly appeals to me, I don’t want to create something false just because it sounds nice. If this is a heresy or if there are other resources I should use, please let me know.
Christopher, thank you very much for the link and for the information. Neither had I thought of that angle before.
I found the words of Archimadrite Vassilios Papavassiliou to be very encouraging. I was familiar with the Pravmir site, but for some silly reason I had never before clicked on the “family” category. Thank you very much for making me aware of that!
Agatha, I am going to print your comment with the beautiful prayer, and keep it with me so that, if I say (reading) it often enough, maybe I can learn it by heart.
I meant to write Agata. Tricked again by technology.
Do try to memorize this prayer. And as you continue praying it, different parts of it will come forward with their meaning. For me, for some time, the part of prayer asking for “necessary means” to raise my children was most pressing. Then, when in time (as with all prayer) God answered that, the “patience and fortitude” became something needed with higher urgency …
As we struggle seeing our loved ones make mistakes or wrong choices (the younger generation, but often also with others) we need to remember something that I was reminded of in a spiritual conversation with my spiritual father several years ago. When I told him how I fear for my children and their lives in this crazy world, he said to remember that God has placed them in this time and place, now and here, because He knows this is the best time for their salvation. If we remember that (also for ourselves), we can maybe start to loose some of this anxiety and trust God more. Our work is to pray and provide a loving place for them. And model what we preach….
Easier said than done, as my 16 year old is asking me to pay for fixing the car which he totaled on a day I asked him not to drive….
Glory to God for all Things!
…and also, the Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children: http://store.ancientfaith.com/cd-akathist-to-mother-of-god-nurturer-of-children/
I usually just pray one Ikos and Kontakion at a time; God brings tremendous comfort and help to me as a mother of six and grandmother to five, through this Akathist.