No revelation is more central to the Christian faith than God as Father. Some might immediately respond that the Trinity should be seen as the central revelation. But, in Orthodox understanding, the Trinity has its source (πηγή) in the Father. We should understand this not only as a matter of Trinitarian thought, but as the proper grounding of the spiritual life as well. To be a Christian in the proper sense, to worship God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is to acknowledge that our life does not have its source in ourselves, but in God. Living by this, moment by moment, is what it means to have a true and authentic existence – to be truly human.
Christ, particularly in St. John’s gospel, makes frequent reference to the Father as the origin and source of all that He has and does:
Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will…. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself…(Joh 5:19-21 and 26)
The dynamic of the relationship between the Father and the Son described by Christ is also a dynamic that lies at the very heart of authentic existence. It is a dynamic that seems quite foreign in our cultural context. The modern world is a culture of “fatherless children” (sometimes quite literally). The past (and thus the place and source of our origins) is always seen as something to be overcome. The notion of “progress” includes a forgetting of the past and the reduction of its power in our lives. We seek to self-create and self-define our lives as though we had no source outside of ourselves.
Orthodoxy makes frequent mention of the “Church Fathers.” For many, the phrase is simply seen as another set of authoritative ideas. As such, in true modern form, we seek to appropriate for ourselves (and on our own terms), what we choose and prefer within their writings, and then imagine that they have authority in our lives. But this misses the dynamic that “Church Fathers” is meant to convey. For like Christ’s reference to God the Father (“the Son can do nothing of Himself”), so the Church makes reference to those who have gone before. The Christian faith is always “that which is received,” and not “that which is chosen.” And this receiving is dynamic and living, a present action within the life of the Church and no mere acknowledgement of history’s importance.
It is a dynamic that all too easily feels like tyranny to the modern mind. Modernity equates liberty with the freedom to decide and choose, to define ourselves and the world around us. In the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, 1992):
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
We relish this concept of unfettered freedom. But, of course, it is absurd, even for a secularist. For whether we choose to admit it or not, we “brought nothing into this world” (1 Tim. 6:7). Everything in our lives is derived and gifted. We are not the inventors of the world nor of our lives. And though we struggle to understand and even master our own DNA, it remains a primary component of our destiny, a genetic memory of the history of our coming into being across the ages. To be told that we have some portion of DNA contributed by Neanderthals reminds us that even such obscure ancestors are “selves we have received” through our genetically traditioned existence.
Of course, our genetic makeup is only one aspect of our traditioned existence. Our culture and our language are equally derived. For though most people are not aware of the history that shaped the words of their speech, the history remains. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 lives in a host of French-based words that the Norman Conquest brought into English. Indeed, the vast vocabulary of the English language is a testimony to the successive waves of invasion and immigration that shaped those island people – just as the world today labors (or thrives) under an Anglo-American hegemony that has marked speech, customs and culture across the world.
I could, of course, use other nations and languages as examples of this traditioned part of our lives. Justice Kennedy’s nonsensical musings on the nature of liberty are not an invention out of whole cloth. They (like all of modernity) are an aberration, a genetic defect, in the cultural fabric of our world.
Orthodox Christian teaching holds that the truth of our existence is only made manifest in the realization and fulfillment of our nature. Modernity, on the other hand, seeks to re-define and overcome nature. The Church’s teaching is a proper and true humanism – modernity represents anti-humanism.
“The Fathers” are indeed an “authority,” but more rightly understood by considering the meaning of authority. The root of the word has to do with authorship – with sources and beginnings. The Christian faith is never our own creation, but is gifted to us. We must receive it.
St. Paul said to the Corinthians:
For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. (1Co 4:15)
To live a life that is “fathered” or “received” is an essential part of a eucharistic (eucharist=thanksgiving) existence. We say of Christ in the Divine Liturgy:
You are the offerer and the offered, the receiver and the received.
We cannot give thanks for that which has not been received. The modern refusal to acknowledge the giftedness of all life is an anti-eucharistic form of existence. It bears a striking resemblance to the times in the apostolic warning:
But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2Ti 3:1-5)
I used to marvel at this passage, wondering why “disobedient to parents” was included. At what time in the past have children not been disobedient? But this disobedience must be seen in the larger context of an anti-eucharistic existence. Indeed, the entire apostolic list in 2Timothy should be seen as an exposition of anti-eucharistic life. Every vice mentioned has its root in the failure to live in constant giving of thanks, the life of a received and “fathered” existence.
Our salvation is a return to sanity, a recognition of the truth of our lives. It is to live in the awareness and presence of giftedness:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. (Jam 1:17)
Giving thanks always and for all things, we acknowledge our Father in heaven. We accept and receive the “fathered” character of the whole of our life and faith. This fulfills the life that Christ has promised:
For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me….Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are…. the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. (Joh 17:8, 11, 22-23)