Conversations with a Flatlander

surrealI have been engaged in what appears to be a useless conversation. I’m having a private email chat with an atheist/materialist who insists that there are no miracles – everything can be explained by “natural” means and that the world will be better off when everyone finally agrees this is true. He is a crusader. I have no explanations or apologies for the conversation and know that it will end soon with a poor outcome. But, what can you do? I am, however, interested in “Flatlanders.” This is the term that comes to mind when I think about people whose world is grounded in a peculiar, modern concept of “nature.” Strangely, my encounters with historical/literalist arguments within Christianity seem to belong to the same category. Some readers will understand what I mean in this, while others might be puzzled. And, it will be yet more puzzling when I suggest that what I have been saying about allegory goes to the heart of the Flatland conversation.

My email Flatlander argues for a view of the universe in which objects and energy operate in a single plane and a closed system. There is and can be no event that occurs from outside that system because there is nothing else. There is only nature for him – no supernature. More than that, my Flatlander is a Nominalist. The objects and actions within nature are all there is – everything else is just our thoughts about the objects and actions. For the Nominalist, there are only particular, concrete entities. Speech is only speech, with no direct connection to anything other than our own brains.

I need to say here that I believe that with very few exceptions, everyone born into our modern culture is a Flatlander. Even if he believes in God, he will have doubts that come from the direction of the Flatland. An ancient former pagan, when he apostasized from Christianity, became a fierce pagan. The trees and roots, springs and wells, the elemental spirits beckoned him back to his fetish. The modern believer, when he apostasizes, falls into the Flatland and believes in nothing. He can, of course, retain a sense of purpose by hounding those who have not yet apostasized, imagining he is doing the world a favor.

At least as problematic, as far as I can see, is the Flatlander Christian. Words are only words and the text means what it says or it is useless. History becomes an extended flatland, a vast continuity of things and events either accurately (even infallibly) presented in a text or not at all. Poetry, allegory, typology, and every non-flatlander form of speech belongs only to the world of the mind. The world consists of things and minds. It is easy to explain and teach, and also easy to reject.

Flatlander Christianity is problematic because the very texts that are authoritative for Christians assume something quite different about the world. The New Testament clearly asserts that the writings in the Old Testament have a meaning that lies beneath the surface – the level of the literal even obscures what is truly there. When writers of the New Testament use statements and stories from the Old in such a manner (as a figure, allegory, symbol, etc.), they do not preface their statements by saying, “It is as if….” There is nothing in their usage that suggests that they, like modern Flatlanders, believe such figures and symbols to be “only in the mind’s eye.”

Perhaps the most illustrative case in the New Testament is in Galatians 4. Paul specifically calls his OT example an allegory:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are an allegory. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar–for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children–but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband.” Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless, what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free. (Gal 4:22-31)

Think carefully about what St. Paul does. He takes the case of Hagar and first says that she is Mount Sinai, and then says Mt. Sinai is Jerusalem “which now is.” This is an allegory within an allegory! Sara, however, he says is the Jerusalem “that is above.” It is an amazing passage, for which St. Paul in no way apologizes. For him, he is on unassailable ground. How is this possible?

One reason is so straightforward that no Flatlander would ever consider it: St. Paul speaks this way because the allegory, symbol, figure, etc., is actually there. This is the very heart of the Biblical and Patristic use of types and figures. We do not live in a Flatlander’s world. Rather, we live in a world in which an even greater reality lies buried.

CS Lewis plays with this in some of his fiction where (following his friend, Charles Williams) he invokes a Logres that lies beneath and alongside Britain. The Kingdom of God has this very quality about it as well. Among its primary characteristics is its hiddenness. The message concerning the Kingdom is twofold:

  • First, since the Kingdom is everywhere present and filling all things, to live with an eye to that unseen reality is to live in true harmony with that which is. True peace can only be found in such a manner.
  • Second, the Kingdom which is hidden will someday be revealed. That inner reality will become the manifest reality of all things. This is the clear sense of St. Paul’s great eschatological passage:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that isseen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. (Rom 8:18-25)

The theme of the passage is waiting-for-what-is-hidden-to-be-made-manifest. And this itself is properly the theme of the Christian life, when rightly understood. But the nature of the Flatland, where everything simply is what it is, can only be affected by external forces. It is an inherently violent view of life. The Christian life becomes essentially a life of behavior (morality). Rules, however they may be stated, powered by psychology, are the common tools of its so-called spiritual life.

But the truth of the spiritual life is hidden. It has a sacramental character and waits to be revealed. It is internal, transformative, characterized by humility and self-emptying. The world is layered with height and depth. Christ urges those who hear Him to ask, to seek and to knock. Nothing is obvious. The rich become poor; the weak are the strong; those who mourn are those who laugh. And all of this is a commentary on the world itself: it is everything but flat. And the Scriptures that God has given us share the same character. There, too, we ask, seek and knock and reach beneath the obvious. The treasure is buried beneath the letter.

76 comments:

  1. I think to some degree the confusion may stem simply from a lack of agreement about what “real” and “exists” means. Maybe this is the Wittgenstein talking, but even using words in this context is problematic. You can keep asking what words mean all the way down, but the reply to “what does this mean?” is always more words, which themselves can be put to clarification, which will be answered with more words. There was a zen buddhist abbot who- for legitimate reasons- has fallen into disrepute, but even so he said something that I’ve never been able to get out of my head:

    “Words are lies”-Sasaki Roshi.

    But even older are the words of Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu):

    “The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?”

  2. Corey,
    Yes, there are games to be played with words. Nominalism is one of the ways of ignoring all of that…”it’s just words.” But there is a true connection between word, thing, meaning, etc. Barfield described it as “original participation.” In more classical Christian language, I would describe it as communion. The word is not nothing, or even something that disappears as your quotes suggest. The Christian witness says that words are there from the beginning, even older than creation itself. Just because something is potentially surrounded with confusion is not a reason to abandon it or to make it of less consequence.

    The confusion comes, I think, because we have acquired false habits of thought and perception.

  3. I remember watching the Queen of England’s address to Parliament last year. I was already aware of how “Black Rod” takes his black rod and beats on the closed doors of Parliament so that the Queen may be granted an audience. I wasn’t aware, however, that the crown actually kidnaps a member of Parliament and locks him/her in Buckingham Palace, thereby ensuring that Parliament promptly returns the nations monarch. All of these actions are symbolic of course, but watching them I realized that in a very real way they define what the government in England is all about. Watching hundreds of years of how a government came to define itself in a single day of symbolic actions was for me a powerful reality.

  4. I absolutely love the “Flatland” references. I used to make my 8th grade Honors Geometry classes read that novel… not just for the mathematical richness, but for the profound insight into humanity it offers.

    Thanks for yet another wonderful post, Father!

  5. Father Stephen Bless 🙂

    Thank you for this series of articles. Corey – I am no philosopher, but I’m not sure this is all that difficult (?)

    Perhaps we need to ask ourselves and the Lord – when we judge a person, which I do all the time, Lord forgive me – what we have seen and what we have not seen – what might be revealed to us (?)

    This morning my husband told me about a woman, a patient of his, who had everything physically possible going wrong in her body – she was being transferred to an ICU – she had also recently experienced the death of her only son. She is unemployed – poor – and remarkably accepting and cheerful about her life. She is dying. Together my husband and I marveled at her capacity for joy. I suppose that when who she is, is revealed – perhaps we may see that she is the Queen of Joy.

    Contrast her to a popular rock star who just passed away – millions of people mourning this King of Rock. Hmmmm.

    Who will be revealed to be true royalty? Not for me to say, and at the same time – I think we may have been given some clues.

  6. Words ‘logoi’ can have meaning only when they participate in the Divine Logos. Words disconnected from the Word are lies in that they do not relate to the Truth of things. Only the God-man can give meaning to man. Without that real foundation for all that is, we drift into meaninglessness.

    Your flatlander may always doubt, for when a three-dimensional being enters a two-dimensional world, it appears two-dimensional to the flatlanders. Their inability to see does not negate the reality.

    Epistemology, then, becomes the question. How may the flatlander come to know the third dimension?

    Christ gives the key to this: “Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but His that sent me. If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”

    As Elder Epiphanios of Greece put it, let such a person who does not believe seek to live by the Gospel commands for six months. The elder asserts that if he does, he will come to believe. But to sit in in one’s armchair and play with syllogisms and arguments without doing will likely get one nowhere.

  7. All three of my children have read, at some point in their mathematics studies, a wonderful book entitled, “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.” It is a wonderful “take” on the fallacy of a world of limited dimensions.

    One of the things I love about Orthodoxy is the use of the term “Mysteries” to refer to what, in the West are commonly called “Sacraments”; and the refusal to say their are “only seven.” The wonderful fact is ALL is sacramental. Admittedly, some are more normative than others (but I wonder about that since Christ Jesus is the one and only norm). We live in a world of infinite dimensions… A world of wonder. A world that is Mystery by nature and grace.

    My children and I have had some “wonder-full” conversations about our Christian faith around the dinner table based on that little book.

  8. “The modern believer, when he apostasizes, falls into the Flatland and believes in nothing. He can, of course, retain a sense of purpose by hounding those who have not yet apostasized, imagining he is doing the world a favor.”

    Father,

    This observation, and the beginning of your post where you describe the “futility” of the conversation with the Flatlander reminds me of what Fr. Zacharias says about our (Orthodox) interactions with others… It’s also very tempting on our end to try to prove them wrong, and show (share with them) the “pearls” we possess. But Fr. Zacharias warns about that, that we should only share our “holy things” with people in whom we discern some level of interest, humility and reverence. Otherwise we keep silent, we witness another way. Even the Lord told us “not to throw pearls to the pigs, and holy things to the dogs”.

    This has been very helpful for me, as I am usually an “open book” with everybody and want to share my treasures indiscriminately…

  9. Your choice of pen name for your atheist, “Flatlander” strikes a chord. My highschool geometry teacher loved to talk about: “Flatland” by Edwin Abbott to the point that it inspired my imagination to consider a simple augmentation of the premise to interpose the possibility of God as similarly beyond our dimensions and entering into ours from outside. Not a real stretch of imagination by the way… but managed to turn the mind’s view of this play between dimensions into an award winning painting. With time and “the usual ‘convertsky’ spiritual journey”, guess I still look back on that as an inspiration not too different from that of our icons. Good luck!

  10. Hello Fr. Freeman,

    My name is Greg and I have been following your post for several months. While I am catching a glimmer of what you are talking about do you know of any resources which can speak more fully about it?

    I have the notion that you are correct but I seem to lack the ability to pursue it farther without some type of guidance. Thank you.

    Greg

  11. oh, no, I’m sad to see this is the last of this series. I often feel as though you are giving us a glimpse outside of flatland, but then the article ends leaving me wanting more explanation. Perhaps I should be able to draw my own conclusions – but I would like to know: what are the implications of the hidden/allegorical nature of the world and scripture? I believe hearing scripture in the context of the liturgical calendar goes a long way to understanding it in this way, but how can I approach it in my own studies this way? And how is the hidden spiritual life different, practically, than the flatland version in our daily activities?

  12. A wise man once said, “First nothing. Then God. Then Everything.”

    First everything loses its means – words, dreams, loves, others – everything. Then we submit ourselves to God and His reality. Then, as with the gradual evolution of the sunrise, everything once again gains meaning for us and takes its rightful place in our lives.

  13. The email Flatlander of this posting reminds me of the dwarves in The Last Battle. It doesn’t matter what you give them and how you present it; all to them seems like hay and stable water. I’m not saying that they’re hopeless or that we should stop trying. Rather I think love expressed in living side-by-side with them is more fruitful than many words.

  14. But to sit in in one’s armchair and play with syllogisms and arguments without doing will likely get one nowhere.

    I am trying to find ways to embrace the “doing” (without, as Agata points out, “showing the pearls we possess” when they are not desired). It is quite difficult, especially when so much of our society is focused on self-aggrandizing argument and chatter….

  15. Corey, your quotes express the vast difference between traditional Asian faiths/philosophies and Traditional Christianity: the Incarnation.

    God has endued His entire creation with Himself. We humans most of all.

    That means that there is a deep hidden reality that can only be experienced so words can become icons or idols.

    Idols are what the Flatlander knows. Icons allow us into what is hidden but only if we have eyes to see.

    If we pray, fast, repent and forgive while practicing the discipline of thanksgiving, our sight begins to open. Nevertheless we still see through a glass, darkly.

    But remember: “All things will pass away, but my word will not pass away.”

    I am not sure it is possible to leave the flatland unless one believes and enters into the Incarnational reality of the person of Jesus Christ.

    When one denies the Incarnation, there is nothing.

  16. Byron,
    Let so much of our society go. They’re a distraction. My own conversation with the Flatlander was a bit of an accident, and is probably already completed. That kind of conversation, over a long period, is either a labor of intensive love, or insanity. The “doing” is essential. And Fr. Justin well cites the simple doing of the commandments. Father Matta El Meskeen said that if we kept a single commandment with all our heart, it would become the door to the Kingdom of God.

  17. Saint Isacc The Syrian said, “the language of God is silence, all else is simply a bad translation.” It would seem that our first order of business is not to verbally “spar” with the flatlanders but to simply be humble enough to say, “I have no argument, just come and see.” I guess I am just a simple old man.

  18. Let so much of our society go. They’re a distraction. My own conversation with the Flatlander was a bit of an accident, and is probably already completed. That kind of conversation, over a long period, is either a labor of intensive love, or insanity. The “doing” is essential. And Fr. Justin well cites the simple doing of the commandments.

    Father, I wonder if the simple “doing” of keeping the commandments can be “done” within the context of the conversation(s) you mention. I have had conversations with various atheists/humanists/agnostics/etc. online and they can be fruitful if carefully and respectfully entered into and pursued by both parties.

    I suppose that, if the opportunity for discussion does arise, then our greatest method of communication may be silence, as Subdeacon John so wonderfully noted. The ability to listen is paramount in real communication; it can communicate both love and respect to the speaker and help to open the heart.

  19. Father, your conversation with the “Flatlander” reminds of my encounter with a Microbiologist when he encounter us outside the local Banned Parenthood building. He lectured us for awhile on how a baby wasn’t a person because a baby wasn’t a complete program. Its the same slippery use of language to justify a person’s own opinion. Thank you for this series.

  20. Byron,

    I find the greatest opportunity for communication of these important things come when the people involved realize they are in peril. The realization that they need help beyond themselves is a great motivator for the essential discussions – whether words are used or not.

    Note: Everyone is in peril. This life is about learning to turn to the Source for help, wherever He may be found.

  21. Father Stephen, thank you for sharing the experience of your conversation with a Flatlander. I haven’t read the Flatlander book, but offer my experience as a person who has been emersed in science for many years (much much longer than I have been a catecumen) . As Michael B. mentions above to Corey, “God has endued His entire creation with Himself.”

    Before I became a catecumen, I was a scientist first and held science to be the only way to understand our world and our existence. I wasn’t an atheist, mainly because I considered myself ‘beliefless’ and I even thought the atheist was simply a disappointed believer. The subject of God, and whatever was written in the Bible seemed to be simply irrevelent to the activities of science.

    But a key difference in my understanding and my work that made me different from some of my colleagues in science was that I didn’t treat theories in science as though they were ‘canon’. The key criteria for holding a theory was simply its pragmatic usefulness to understand phenomena. When a substantial amount of data didn’t seem to fit theory, we needed to go “back to the drawingboard” and re-think our understanding, and review and change the theory. ie a “good” scientest must have an open mind in order to be able to discover anything new, otherwise their work would only be derivative-which might be useful in applied science but not useful for discovery.

    An open and humble mind was a grace of God that enabled me to discover Christ in the data that I was working with in an area of physics and chemistry. It wasn’t someone’s beautiful homily, or someone’s cogent argument, it wasn’t coming to an Orthodox Church either that made me choose orthodoxy. Rather, once I realized Christ in the data, my humble quest went something like this, which Christian Church’s theology best fits this data? (I kid you not!!!). The quest was on to read a fair bit of theology before I found the theologians who best described what I had seen and experienced. This is how I am becoming a Christian and a catecumen to Orthodoxy, though science and what the natural world has to say about her creator at the atomic and sub-atomic levels of our existence.

    The ‘modern mindset’ that you describe here Father Stephen also inhibits students’ understanding in chemistry and physics as well. For example, students’ understanding are limited by their ‘literalist’ view of the 2-D models that they see in their textbook. It would take a lot of work on my part as their teacher to help them to ‘see’ the animate world of molecules. For the same reasons you have described above, computer animations of molecules did not remedy the problem either. It is unequivocal to me that western culture (the Flatlander perspective) creates this diffificulty. The fields of chemistry and physics are not inherently difficult, but reaching an understanding of the world (even less to be able to discover) through sciences using the Flatlander mind is impossible.

  22. Drewster, I agree. I think one of the greatest sins of our society is to make everyone think they are safe. I often tell such people that they live in an artificial bubble that pops any time reality intrudes. In too many cases, our world rules via complacency and convenience.

  23. Dee,
    I had a physics professor in college who said, “The further you go in physics, the more theological the questions become.” One of the more bothersome aspects of “flatlander” believers, who include a number of Orthodox, I might add, is their ability to have answers without understanding the questions. I sometimes encounter folks (including some bloggers) who hand out answers in a manner that would make it seem they never had any questions…or that the answers they offer are not actually a result of having asked questions themselves, but only of having read what they think are the right books.

    Such theology is neither theology nor useful.

  24. Thank you so much Fr Stephen. After your last post, I felt a slight bit of “rankling” when the word allegory was used in a comment — for, I think, the same reasons you state here. It’s not “just” allegory; it is truth. It is real. And the deal about Scripture is, it seems to me, that it is ALL possible all at the same time. All of the above. Even a “nominal” truth — like, for instance, Christ was born as a babe in Bethlehem. Scripture in that mysterious way, holds all the dimensions of reality within it, including the past and future. Anyway, thank you again. I always feel that where the West asks “either/or” that Orthodoxy (and perhaps the ancient mind of our faith) says, “both.” Or better yet, “all of the above.”

  25. To Dee of St. Herman’s:

    My spouse is a mathematical economist: he proves economics theorems using mathematics. What I often try to explain to others (especially certain “theologians” who have the most set-in-stone views of science of all!) all the time is that every proof has a set of assumptions. It is nearly impossible to get people to understand what faith goes into proofs. Except maybe some good scientists. About theoretical physics — how often do the theories have to be revised because of new discoveries that mean all the past stuff has to be scrapped? The “God-particle” was such a breakthrough because it means the old theories didn’t have to be changed again, I believe! Anyway every new discovery seems to me to affirm the possibility of miracles: matter in two places at once, matter disappearing without a trace, etc.

  26. PS I once heard a theoretical physicist say there are probably about twelve dimensions to the universe, but — and I quote! — they are all “within you.” Well, I thought to myself, our mystics could certainly understand that!

  27. O.K., I’m on slippery ground again. Here we are communicating with words of the English language. There are other languages with different roots that apply different words to the same things we’re talking about. It seems the the meaning or reality of what a word is put to exists apart from what word is applied to it. It isn’t the symbols used that give a thing its reality. Is it?

    Also, its seems to me that while words give us useful handles for things, the very reason for such “handles” is so that we can hand them off, i.e. communicate and be communicated with. St. John refers to Jesus as the Word, but the writer of Hebrews says that He is “the radiance of His glory, the exact representation of His nature”. This Word was with God before all things and through this Word all things that are came into being. This is the seminal Word from which all other words come.

    Early on (or earlier anyway) I was bothered by the fact that most icons lack linear perspective. At the time, I had no idea that they weren’t intended to be photo-realistic. Nevertheless, the discovery of linear perspective does give, say a painting, a more “real” look. Interestingly, linear perspective depends on a vanishing point, and the rays that come through the vanishing point are what set the scene in proper relationship, one thing to another. What if we could see Jesus as a “vanishing point”? St. Paul and his group were once accused of “turning the world upside down”, but it was right side up through a vanishing point.

  28. Mark,
    The “iconicity” of language is a very important clue in how to think about all of this and understand it. There are many, many different icons of the Theotokos, and all of them ARE the Theotokos. What do they have in common? Essentially, they have in common what they represent. The Fathers said that “Icons make present what they represent” (St. Basil, in fact). Language does this, too. Logos, word, davar, slovo, etc. are all “word.” They make present what they represent. And each, like a particular icon, offers yet another insight into what it represents. But what matters, ultimately is what (who) is represented. Like an icon, the words are a means of communion with what they represent.

    An icon “cannot be seen” unless it is venerated. For those who do not rightly honor an icon, it’s just a painting (art), or worse, just color on a board. But for the one who venerates, the Person is present. St. Theodore the Studite said that an icon is a “hypostatic representation” (a “making present of the Person”). We can have communion with other persons, and this is what our veneration is about.

    By the same token, if we rightly understood words, we would hold them in veneration as well. As I wrote in one of the earlier articles, we should be “servants of the word.” St. Porphyrios taught that to be a Christian we should first become a poet. Just some thoughts…

  29. I greatly appreciated the quote of St Isaac the Syrian above. Thank you for that.

    Just a few days ago, a friend turned me to the website of the PBS series, “Closer to Truth,” which includes interviews with prominent scientists and thinkers about “the big questions.” (Forgive me, I’m rather unplugged; most people probably know about this already…)

    The interviews about the limits of science, with the likes of Martin Rees, David Deutsch, and John Polkinham, might be of interest to others in this conversation:

    http://www.closertotruth.com/topics/cosmos/science-and-religion/limits-science

    I think the gist of the show is something similar to what Dee above talks about: the data call into question many widely held modern (flatlander) conclusions/world views.

    These two streams (based on what little I’ve seen on their huge website, forgive me) actually might actually compliment each other quite well.

    I would love to hear more, Dee, how you found Christ in the data in physics and chemistry. Thank you for sharing your beautiful witness above.

    An aside…conversations don’t just take place at one time but can continue forward, long after the exchange is ended…And maybe cyberspace tends to turn us all into flatlanders of a sort…forgetting we are not flat, as we appear here, but are actual persons.

  30. To Maria,
    Father Stephen’s discussion of the Apostle’s use of alegory and his previous article on the hidden Gospel inspired me to comment. In his response to Mark, Fr Stephen mentions the “iconicity” in language. I believe this explanation is an apt way to describe the “how” I saw Christ in the data and being open to experience communion with what (who) icons present to us. I’m still learning how to express this. Reading these articles have been helpful in this regard. Thank you for asking and your kind words.

  31. Father Stephen –

    How would a non-nominalist/realist interpret the words found in Matthew 17:20 “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove ; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” ??

    I have always heard of faith as something akin to thinking very hard about something – believing something will all your might etc. Faith as something that happens inside our heads – perhaps our hearts but only apprehended by our individual minds. How does a non-nominalist define faith?

    What might be revealed about those elements of the spiritual life (such as the fruit of the Spirit) that are abstract by definition? love, hope, patience, long suffering, meekness, kindness etc.

  32. Fr. Stephen,

    “St. Theodore the Studite said that an icon is a “hypostatic representation” (a “making present of the Person”).”

    I recently discovered the definition of “hypostatic” when doing some research trying to discuss the person of Jesus of Christ being simultaneously fully God and fully man. It’s a rather complex definition but basically translates to “a person”. In Jesus’ case it’s talking about how humanity and divinity came together “in one person”.

    To break it down a bit further, “hypo” roughly means life and “status” approximates to structure. You could say that “one person” is made up of life (blood) and structure (body) – or that those two things come together to make a person.

    I go off on this rabbit trail because I think it’s pertinent to the iconicity discussion. Going back to Tim’s example, Christ’s body is not complete when only viewed as the Church or only as the Eucharist; it has to be seen in its fullness. By the same token words are not really appreciated or used rightly until they are seen in their fullness.

    And in their fullness these things have a life of their own. That’s why they can be used one way by the author and yet take on a life of their own that is different from the original intent. Though it’s not quite the same I remember when the book Silent Spring came out discussing the indiscriminate use of pesticides in the 1950s, one review said that the author aimed for people’s hearts but hit their stomachs, due to horrible facts she revealed related to food products.

    Just some thoughts…

  33. Dee,

    “I wasn’t an atheist, mainly because I considered myself ‘beliefless’ and I even thought the atheist was simply a disappointed believer.”

    I really appreciate this insight into atheists and the worldview of the present generation: atheists have issues with God but they’re still wrestling with Him. The present postmodern generation believes in less and less – and accordingly is losing its ability to believe in anything.

    Like Maria I also appreciate your testimony. Ravi Zacharias said one of the upsides of the present age is that people question everything. Likewise you mentioned that you didn’t hold onto theories like security blankets but were willing to go back to the drawing board if they didn’t bear out. That’s a wonderful thing.

    I’m reminded of the young Calorman in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. He faithfully served the truth as best he knew it – and that led him to the Truth.

  34. Thank-you Father I think I am beginning to grasp what you are saying ( a little anyway). Trouble is that “veneration” is not a mental exercise is it? It’s an opening of the heart. I confess that I have trouble with this – not that it’s wrong, you understand. I get it, but somehow I still have trouble “letting down my guard”. The woman who washed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair had nothing (left?) to lose. “He who loses his life for my sake shall find it”. Lord, have mercy on me.

  35. Mark,
    I have learned a lot from my Russian friends when it comes to veneration. They approach an icon, cross themselves and venerate but then stand very still, looking at it. I was fascinated by this and asked about it. One said to me, “When you Americans look at an icon, you see an icon. When I look at an icon I see God.”

    I think we Americans want to “do” something, and then don’t know what to do. Of course, if you’re an Anglo like me, the instinctive “doing” is to feel awkward and apologize. 🙂

    But the Russian instinct is simply to be present. To look. There is a kind of looking that is very much an activity of the heart. It’s not passive, but neither is it active. It’s observant (but without the distance of thinking about what we’re seeing). So soon as we begin to think about something, we are thinking about thinking and not what we are seeing.

    The experience of profound beauty is perhaps the closest thing I can think of.

  36. They approach an icon, cross themselves and venerate but then stand very still, looking at it. I was fascinated by this and asked about it. One said to me, “When you Americans look at an icon, you see an icon. When I look at an icon I see God.”

    I have paid attention to your statements on how Russians venerate, Father. I’ve noticed in my parish, especially among younger children, that they cross themselves very quickly, kiss the icon, and move on to the next. I tend to go slowly and pray as I cross myself. It would be hard to simply stop and look as there tends to be a line at the icons!

  37. Byron,

    We are definitely influenced by the sheep around us. The people behind you may be irritated….but they would also be wrong.

    But rather than make scene like the Pharisee, perhaps you could find a time and place to venerate when there is no waiting. There is always a way. One does not learn about matters of the heart in an assembly line fashion.

  38. Drewster says “I’m reminded of the young Calorman in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. He faithfully served the truth as best he knew it – and that led him to the Truth.”

    …and that is the crux of the matter. What are you looking for. If you seek the truth, you will find the truth. If you seek to verify your own prejudices and assumptions, that is what you will find.

    Most direct dialog only succeeds in verifying what each thought before the dialog.

    It is almost impossible to convince someone that their premise is wrong, almost as hard to get most people to examine and articulate what their premise is.

    Dee appears to be a rather unique person in that regard.

  39. Byron,

    “It would be hard to simply stop and look as there tends to be a line at the icons!”

    Just come 15 min early (or to Vespers the night before) and you will have all the time in the world…. 🙂

    (sorry, could not resist, I know you will forgive me… :-))

  40. We have a lot of young Russians who live about an hour-and-a-half away. They show up sporadically since most work in the restaurants surrounding the entertainments in Gatlinburg, TN. Sometimes, they even arrive in between services. They have come to pray, light candles, and leave names for me to remember in prayers. They have plenty of time to stand and venerate. Someone complained once about their seeming disregard for when the services begin and end. I asked, “When was the last time you drove for three hours just to light a candle?” I like their piety. They come to services as possible – but they travel and pray and light a candle and stare because it’s necessary.

  41. Father,
    Your comment above reminds me of Samuel’s words to Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice,” after Saul had not heeded the voice of the Lord. These Russian Christians are obeying the best they can under difficult circumstances due to their distance from your church. And they are also, by the way, offering a sacrifice… that of lips which acknowledge His name.

  42. Father,

    I have noticed this with the Russians as well. After they cross themselves in front the icons, they stare, they gaze fixedly as if receiving something, coming face-to-face they have an encounter. They exhibit a (holy) desire, an expectation that receives some fulfillment.

    There is something to this. When we converts enter the church we approach the icons in a very perfunctory manner, as if we are merely ‘going about our business’ and little more. I am currently focusing on taking the time to just slow down in front of the icons. It is better this way.

    Thank you for your points on presence, passive/active, an actual activity of the heart and observance. They made me take pause.

  43. Dear Father,

    Can you please explain to me why these literalists (those who take the words of the Bible literally) do not take Jesus’ words literally when He describes holy communion as His body and blood?

    thank you and God bless you

  44. Another, very traditional movement of authentic piety, gratitude, respect and love is when we venerate/kiss the icon and then immediately bow our head to actually touch the icon with the forehead and stay like that for a second (or more depending on queues behind etc). [More frequently done with holy relics]
    It is clearly a manifestation of a desire to take in (as if “inhaling it”) the Grace of God – whether it is an icon of Christ or of a saint, in which case we are aware of the hypostatic presence of one of God’s servants who we trust to intercede on our behalf.
    The Greek culture tends to want to [considerately] conceal these manifestations in the presence of others a great deal more (although in private there’s no such thought) than the Russian tradition.

  45. Dino, I had not heard of this manner of veneration.

    Thanks all, for the feedback. It is much appreciated! God bless!

  46. I loved and love the freedom with which Russians come and go in the services and move around…seemed to me to correspond with a greater focus of the congregation in general on God, on Christ, and not on judging others and what they are doing or not doing. Who knows that is going on for the person arriving late, for the person who only comes in to light a candle…Maybe that is just my idealization, but it was the impression I had when I lived there, and it felt like a revelation, since it was so different from experiences I had had the few times I went to various churches as a child in the US.

    Some of the most moving services I’ve ever experienced, there were only one or two people there, and I never sensed any anxiety over the number of people attending or not attending–the important thing was to offer worship to God. Another difference I loved.

    Also, in the few parishes where I have attended there (in Moscow and southern Russia), most children were not in the nave, standing silently and attentively for the entirety of the service, but rather they were in the narthex or outside, and it was standard practice for many families to arrive in time for the readings and the homily. In one, several mothers would play games with the kids outside in between the important moments of the Liturgy, when they were ushered back inside. The kids felt loved by all and were embraced by all, and they genuinely seemed to love to go to church. They loved to go to the front en masse for communion–they were always first, of course. It was a very joyful thing to witness, and the memory of it is a treasure to me. There were also many other activities for the kids after church and on Saturdays, like art, bell ringing, and choir (all church related)–they were raised and nurtured in Orthodox culture.

    I remember reading an historical report of a foreigner astounded by how long Russian children stood calmly through services (3, 4 hours)….so perhaps what I’ve witnessed is rather something new in the Church reemerging after so much was destroyed.

  47. Hi Father Stephen,

    I realize this may derail the entire thread, so feel free to moderate out as necessary. But I’ve been thinking about how to apply this and several of your recent posts to the recurring arguments about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Of course, it could be changed to “and Mormons” or “and Christadelphians” or whatever, but Islam is particularly on my mind due to the recent kerfuffle at Wheaton College.

    It seems to me that the difference between nominalism and realism is wrapped up in this debate, but I can’t quite figure out where that leaves me. Does a Muslim speaking of “Allah” unwittingly refer to a distorted perception of the Holy Trinity? Is “Allah” a badly painted icon of the truth? Or does it depend on the person using the word–their particular mental concept of “Allah”? But it would seem that your post on authorial intent would gainsay such a perspective.

    How can we think rightly about this question?

  48. Our host wrote: “One of the more bothersome aspects of “flatlander” believers, who include a number of Orthodox, I might add, is their ability to have answers without understanding the questions.”

    Which made me think of this line by e.e. cummings: “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”

  49. Dino,

    Re: the Russian tradition of “non-considerate” manifestations of piety….

    Earlier this year, I had a great blessing to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of Russians (and Serbs, and Bulgarians). As soon as we started visiting holy places, with many icons and relics to venerate, it became very obvious that every place we were going to visit, it will take a VERY LONG time for all of us to get our turn.
    At first, it made me mad seeing that every person (with a line of 30 [or more!] behind them) insisted on making three full prostrations in front of an icon, then spending several seconds with their forehead on the icon, and then adding another full prostration at the end, for completion. But then, out of necessity to preserve my sanity, I decided to participate in their process… That process has transformed my own participation and allowed me to spend even more time focused on noticing and appreciating where I was and what I was experiencing….

    With God, there is enough time for everything. I think it’s an ancient Celtic saying (I saw it recently on a tea bag 🙂 ):

    “When God made time, He made enough of it.”

  50. Maria,

    When we enter the Church, we enter the kingdom of heaven; it is paradise. We are also in God’s house; Our Father’s.

    We develop a sense of this. We are in our Father’s house. We are comfortable and we experience this as freedom. This is what you saw. We are children in God’s house. The saints are often referred to as possessing a “childlike” quality. This is what they have come to know; they are the Father’s child. There is absolute freedom here.

    We are born for this. Become devout, become a saint. This should be our orientation, because our hypostatic life is comprised of living out our telos Now (Now faith is the substance…..) We live in a new way. We start to experience something of this life.

    Do this and our lives are lived in his proper or authentic “setting” as a jewel has its proper setting. This life is referred to as the blessed life. It is found in the beatitudes. We were born for this; to be taken care of, as a child is taken of.

    Our “movements” in the Church will then take its proper place. The Church’s ethos and ours are one. The word ethos has the sense of “dwelling place.”

    You will enter the church with a sense of the sacred and of intimacy. Heaven and earth are united. You will stand before the icons with longing.

  51. I just wanted to mention that I really appreciate the experiential discussion of Russians and icons (Maria, Agata, Pete). It is like drinking from a well I barely knew existed – foreign and exotic – and at the same time it is like recalling a distant memory of how to be what I was made to be: a child. This kind of influence on my life is rare and valuable. So little of what I experience in my world is sweet and nourishing like this.

    Thank you for talking about these things.

  52. Drew,

    For me also these are the most favorite posts/comments… How to do all these things practically…. Pete said this so beautifully, that it’s all available to us in the Church, and how rarely we “come to drink from this well”… That is the “doing” we should be doing in life, not all this other “activism” that we seem to feel obligated to [I am so thankful to Fr. Stephen for freeing me from all these feelings of obligation to “fix and help the world” with the recent posts, especially on how “little difference I make”].

    I always remember the words of Fr. Meletios Webber (I don’t know if it is in his books, or maybe he just once said it in a retreat talk, or answering a question) that “the experience of God is not for select few, it’s for everybody….”. It really stuck with me and is making it’s way deeper and deeper as I learn about what is possible when we truly open ourselves to God and His activity in our life… That’s why stories of Saints (Dino is such a wonderful source of those, having close connections with the contemporary Athonite elders and fathers) are so inspirational and helpful. Someone said that these stories scare them, but I find them helpful remembering that all these Saints were humans just like us.

    The Saints and the Church truly are “sweetness and nourishment” for our life, if we only “come and see”, “taste and see…”

  53. Fr. Stephen,

    Are you familiar with Lev Shestov, espically his book Athens and Jerusalem? He raises many of the same criticisms as you do against modernity and even uses similar terms as you do, e.g., two dimensionality, hiddenness.

  54. Dino, my parish is fairly large and probably one of the most diverse in our jurisdiction. I have had the privilege of witnessing this veneration with the forehead. It has always moved me and filled me with a sense of longing. Someday …

  55. Karen,
    Wouldn’t you say that most who witness this ‘practice’ would think that it usually confirms that the person who does it either desperately longs for some divine assistance or genuinely shows their gratitude? I can’t help thinking so.

  56. Such an interesting discussion about veneration! Oddly, I had never observed the veneration by forehead discussed here, but I started doing that a few months ago. It just seemed right to receive Christ’s blessing on my forehead. I don’t do it with other icons. It is where He touches me. Glory to God!

  57. Dino, yes, and in addition to that what it communicates to me is holy and intimate love and deep reverence. Touching foreheads is also the sort of thing a husband might do with his wife in a very tender moment or a parent with a child. It occurs to me kissing is more commonplace just as a simple greeting in many cultures and can be performed in a very perfunctory manner–the same with the sign of the Cross as we frequently use it in Church (though, of course, we ought not use it this way). A perfunctory performance does not seem as likely with the gesture with the forehead. Similarly, I find a full prostration cannot be done in a perfunctory manner.

  58. Hi Agata,

    I appreciate your comments as they really get to the heart of things.

    The question you had stated to Drew, I think rhetorically, was very good, and, well, as it is, practical.

    How do we do these things in any practical sense? I think you’re onto it.
    As you said, The Saints and the Church truly are “sweetness and nourishment” for our life.

    These are great aids, always expanding our awareness of Christ, his Church, his kingdom, the communion of saints which are all limitless. We are not alone and one gets the sense of this. (They are more than aids having The infinite ontological root, which is Christ)

    Sometimes, though, instead of simply breathing this in, we go about trying to create something, fix something; find a way, a method (think Mary & Martha). These fixations become ideas. (We start thinking about thinking as Father stated in a message above) Once we ‘reduce’ an experience to an idea or concept we lose what is ontological.

    The irony is that if we seek that, the things that are less; i.e., a result, an effect, an outcome, a feeling; essentially a reward “for doing things right”, we lose what is true (ultimate truth, the ground of all being), substituting that for an “effect.” These things are subtle, but matter greatly.

    Focusing on the ‘outcome’ we will have our reward. Seeking rather the immutable, we experience a sense of the immutable. We develop by use of the organ of faith (nous) an entirely different way. We become acquainted with this way. We become accustomed to it; this mode, this movement, which we sense as our ascension. This starts to become ‘normal.’

    We will do anything not to lose this sense of divine life commingling with ours. The saints love God. That is the difference. They have experience because they love God and because of that, love becomes easier and easier. They experience God as fullness; a fullness of being; everything expands, enlarges. They live ecclesiologically and eschatologically in a boundless manner as the second Adam restored.

    They are kings because they rule over themselves – not anyone else. They are Priests because they are Adam restored. They are Prophets because they make known the presence of God. They are seers of secrets. They see beyond the three dimensions. They bring this sense to us.

    Become familiar with the Church and his saints.

    For quietness of soul, take in this beautiful prayer of repentance. Breathe in the words and the vision. You won’t seek sainthood. You won’t do that, his presence; this encounter will be what changes you.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z26VCmKgzWw

    Be a saint. It is the most impractical you will ever do.

  59. Thank you Pete for this beautiful post and your words for me.

    I often worry that this is not the best forum for some of my questions. Fr. Stephen even once said that his intended audience is not those who are already Orthodox. If I knew where else to go, I would… I am so thankful to all who share and to Fr. Stephen for addressing these profound issues of trying to be an authentic follower of Christ in our times.

    What is most comforting for me is that for us it may just be enough to keep the True Faith, the Lord promised to come back to those who hold on to Him till the end… That we have His Name (the Jesus Prayer), His Word (the Holy Scriptures) and His Body and Blood (the Eucharist) in the Orthodox Church is something the rest of the world does not know…. We need to treasure it, be thankful for it and participate in it much more than we do…

    To the rest of the world, it looks foolish and impractical, for us, it’s a way to be a saint.

    Thank you for the beautiful “Have Mercy” Psalm, here is my favorite English language version (hopefully people are still buying the CD and supporting the monastery that way)

  60. Dear Fr. Stephen,
    I did not mean to post the whole YouTube like this, just the link, as Pete did. Please delete this part if you feel it’s too much… Please delete this post also, but do tell me when you will be visiting Manton, I hear you have accepted their invitation. I would love so much adjust my stay to overlap with you for even a few hours….

  61. Hi Agata,

    Thank you for your link from the brotherhood!

    I think you are right about God comforting us. The truth is always simple; simple but not always easy.

    Christ did promise us, blessed are those that mourn….. for they shall be….comforted. This is spiritual mourning. We have no ability to live this, we break our own hearts (there is suffering here that is real) but in living hypostatically (in living in both sides of these very ‘real’ realities) we are comforted. This is our hypostatic life. It has many ‘applications’ so there are many beatitudes.

    Our hearts are likened unto a garden. It is our job to simply do our part; keep our soil (our heart/nous) fertile. It is God who gives the increase. Don’t be concerned with the increase. You are in God’s hands. He will make you fit for every good work – hypostatically – in the midst of our brokenness and poverty.

    The depths of Gods increase will be incalculable because they stretch to infinity. These are true riches. Didn’t St Paul tell us that this spiritual life consists of the comprehension of the breadth, length, heights and depths? – notice there is a fourth dimension. This is Eph 3:18. The context is that being rooted and grounded in Love we would be able to have this comprehension!

    This is the only path – and it stretches to infinity; consequently, forgive everyone everything, repentance always and an openness to all is our life. Read verses 17 & 19 too, that “to know the love of Christ which Passes knowledge that ye may be filled with All the fullness of God.”

    Everything we do, living hypostatically has eternal significance. Lay up your treasures there.

    God’s peace be with you. I pray you have a good church home Agata.

  62. Matt,
    Maybe try to search YouTube for the title of this CD. I was surprised all of it is so easily available, I wish there was more copyright protection for this material, as the monastery could use the sales to help with their finances….

    I will be visiting there soon, so if you would like a copy of the CD, I’m happy to pick one up and send you. I have gifted this CD to many people all over the world (Orthodox and not) and it always is received very warmly. I don’t know how Fr. Stephen feels about us sharing our emails (mine is at gmail) but I have shared mine here before (for the Killer Prayer books, I have 20 more coming for those who missed it earlier), so just email me at agatamcc.

  63. Pete,
    Thank you again. I have to ponder and process your wonderful words…

    I do have the most wonderful church home, as well as the best spiritual friends and fathers anybody can wish for. I am totally unworthy of these great blessings. It’s a difficult learning process, how to let go of wanting to control everything, and submitting ourselves to God’s care and providence. It goes against everything this world tells us.. But when we seek the Kingdom of Heaven first, the Lord truly “adds everything we need”…

  64. Hi Agata,

    Actually, I believe Father’s primary intended readership *are* the Orthodox. I discovered his blog about a year after my Chrismation, during a time of terrible struggle. Were it not for the validation of the reasons I fled to the Church in the first place that I found in his writing and in the Saints to whom he introduced me, I don’t know that I could have come out of my first year and a half as a member of the Orthodox Church with my soul and sanity even partly intact. This blog is an ongoing online catechumenate (where inquirers are also quite welcome, of course). So, ask away! We are all learning here and benefit from your questions.

  65. Karen, Agata,
    Yes, I think this says it well. I know that the bulk of my readers are already Orthodox (some of them cradle). I’ve had articles translated into 9 different languages including Romanian, Greek, Russian and Serbian. I suspect that those readers are Orthodox. I want the blog to be a “safe” place for those asking questions about Orthodoxy – or just theological exploration. So, I try to keep that in mind. If I characterized it as primarily for the non-Orthodox, I misspoke.

    A great deal of what I try to do is geared towards the acquisition of an Orthodox mind and an Orthodox understanding viz. theology. There are some who set themselves against “the theologians” assuming that critical thought is somehow non-Orthodox. It’s just not true. If you would plow your way through the volumes of Fr. Dumitru Staniloae’s work, you would encounter a man who suffered under the Communists, was among the greatest theologians of the 20th century, admired and read by monks and Holy Elders, and thoroughly conversant with modern Protestant and Catholic thought. He is what an Orthodox theologian should look like.

    So, I like this to be a place that is “safe” to engage in serious theological discussion.

    I also like to “push” the boundaries a bit. Not the boundaries of the Church’s teaching, but the boundaries of our understanding. For converts, we need to have our categories shaken up a little. I do some of that.

    And for us all, there is an ongoing culture-critique, because that is the world to which we must struggle not to be conformed.

    And for most of it, I write for myself, because I think I would burst if I didn’t. It is something that has been given to me. Apparently, what I like to write about works for some others. And so I write.

  66. Dearest Fr. Stephen,

    Just to assure myself that I am not “loosing my marbles”, here is what you said in May:

    Fr. Stephen Freeman says
    May 25, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    Agata,
    I do not at all assume that most readers are Orthodox. If they were, I would probably quit writing.

    🙂 🙂 🙂
    Forgive me!

  67. Agata,

    That I was what I was driving at. If you have a good church home you are set on the path of salvation, keeping in mind everything you said! Oh, you’re in good company when it comes to wanting to control things. We all try playing god, sometimes we try and try again! Oh, dear are we slow on the uptick sometimes!

    Father,

    I love your comments on Fr. Dumitru Staniloae…”This Is What An Orthodox Theologian Should Look Like.” You said a lot more than that though – thanks. In our prayers books we are referred to as “reason endowed sheep”, not just sheep. It’s that way for a reason. (pardon the pun) Have we confused rationalism with reason, really? Early on, the Church became conversant in the culture she found herself in, i.e., Hellenism. This required some work.

    The Church clearly holds within her tradition an intellectual component. Anyone read St. Maximos? Then tell us how much you understood….yikes! In the last century we had Pavel Flovensky, clearly an intellectual with a sensitive heart. Whether we’re brilliant or not, we’re called to be transfigured. That is the point.
    We could add Fr. John Romanides to this list as well. Many of you would add more.

    By any standard, Dostoevsky was an intellectual. There does seem to be a strand in Orthodoxy that wants to set as the standard, a type of village pietism, assuming that this was somehow, what St. Silouan was really all about.

    Well, that is probably an assumption we are making. Villages in Orthodox lands are not mass producing Silouan’s. Was not St. Paul an intellectual? The gifts should not be thrown out, but offered up and transformed Rom 12:2. The gifts are not about us, but to aid those around us. Reducing the life of Christ to a set of rules, which are the outgrowth of rigorism, reinforcing any fundamentalist-individualistic streak that may have already been present is not the ethos of the Church.

    All one has to see is how we fast. We are a fasting community. It doesn’t even make sense to fast alone, anymore than it does to participate in the liturgy alone, huh??

    A great primer for this is Christos Yannaras’ work – Pietism as an Eccelesiogical heresy. Google the title and you’ll be led right to it. It’s a chapter in Freedom of Morality – a seminal work. Frankly, there are other chapters that spoke to me more, so if you like this one…. Anyway, it’s on point.

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