Three Things and the One Thing

bogatov_nikolay_bee_keeper_1875In a comment, I recently described three dominant concepts in our modern culture. They are so dominant that questioning them can actually be disconcerting. I have questioned them before and been hammered more than once as a result. But I am sure of my ground and offer these thoughts for however they may be of use.

The ideas:

  1. We define ourselves and our world by the choices we make.
  2. We have the power to correct things that are wrong or broken.
  3. Progress is the purpose of our existence.

These ideas are not self-evident – nor are they old. They are hallmarks of what makes the modern world modern.  And though these ideas may seem fitting to many situations and people, they are by no means universal. They are largely an artifact of American middle-class prosperity and are at the very root of the American life-style. As the middle-class shrinks, an increasing number of people find themselves shut out of the modern world – their choices are limited, their power ineffective and they are likely to finish life less prosperous than the previous generation. The social and economic conditions that have contributed to this are of no interest in this article. What is of interest are the false assumptions of the world-view represented in the three ideas.

At their foundation is a myth about human power and control. There is a classical myth from the Greeks. It is the story of Prometheus who was said to have stolen fire from Mt. Olympus for the benefit of humanity (and paid a terrible and eternal price). The story has, in recent times, been something of a primary model for the modern human being. The gods (representing everything that is seemingly unchangeable and arrayed against us) are resisted in the name of humanity. No matter the price, man asserts himself against the gods and his fate.

Prometheus is a model of the modern hero. The gods, fate, the givenness of our existence, everything that seems to conspire against the human will is opposed. There are any number of Promethean heroes/heroines in the pantheon of our modern myth. Even Milton’s Lucifer who would “rather reign in hell and serve in heaven,” can sound brave and idealistic to the modern ear [it would all depend on who played him in the movie]. Of course, most of us will not have to fetch fire from Mt. Olympus, or steal happiness from the gods. But we imagine ourselves in such stories, and imagine such stories to be the stuff of the good life.

And so we make our choices. “You can be anything you want to be,” parents whisper to their children. “You can make the world a better place.” We teach progress as the measure of what is good. Our schools frequently labor under the need for progress with constant testing and increasing goals (with the fundamental causes of poor education being largely ignored). The future is the repository of all of our dreams as well as the postponed payments for our present luxuries.

These same central ideas (and they are not the only ones) are carried over into almost every area of our lives. The self-help section of a bookstore is a library built on these assumptions. Contemporary Christianity shares these same assumptions and has raised them to the place of theological prominence. A recent trip to a “Christian” bookstore revealed a self-help section that overwhelmed both history and theology. It is a testament to the better Christian for a better world.

But these assumptions are not true. They can be made to seem true, if the data are carefully sifted and arranged to create a pattern. Our lives, however, are just lives. They begin and end and have time in between. Our lives have value because they are the gift of God, not because they have cultural, economic or social benefit. We do not have to justify our existence to anyone. Existence is a gift.

Before we ever make even one choice in our lives, we already have infinite worth. As life goes along, we will make “good” choices and “bad” choices. No one but God is omniscient. We never have enough information to make a perfect choice. Those who pride themselves on their success ignore one of Aristotle’s most important categories: luck. It is not a Christian term (God is in charge of the outcome of all things). But even Aristotle was wise enough to recognize that true success in life (what he termed becoming a “great soul”) was not something we could simply choose and achieve. It remains true.

One of the first and major flaws of relying on the power of choice is our inability to know how and what to choose. We may obviously make plans, but things almost never turn out exactly as we plan. It is a rare life that has a straight trajectory. This does not mean that we make no plans, only that they will serve miserably as a purpose for our lives.

The same is true of our ability to fix what is broken or wrong. Life is not a machine. The more people are involved in any given phenomenon, the less is it susceptible to “fixing.” Imagine a machine where all the parts have free will.

The myths of modernity and the grammar of American culture make us very susceptible to every appeal to fix or remake. America can rightly be described as the culture of “can-do.” Almost every scenario of suffering draws the response, “Somebody needs to do something!” And while it is true that “doing something” is often quite appropriate (cf. Matt. 25), what we can do will not fix ourselves or the world around us.

This is where I believe it is important to consider “where we live.” We do not live in the fix, or the plan, or in the choice. We live in the present moment. It is a commandment of the Lord: “Take no thought for the morrow.” The immediate objections that arise in our minds when we hear this commandment are simply testimony to how deeply the grammar of progress and planning is engrained in our consciousness. There is an abyss of anxiety that confronts us at the thought of not planning.

At its very root, our drive towards progress is idolatry. St. James addresses this with wisdom:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (Jam 4:13-16)

Now the one who says, “If the Lord wills,” may still go to the city, buy and sell, but the center of his life has changed and shifted. What we find difficult is to live our lives, recognizing that they are only a “vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” But this is, in fact, what it means to live with Christ Himself as the purpose of our existence.

The “evil” of which St. James warns is manifested in the inherently violent nature of an existence grounded in progress. The desire to plan, to fix and progress, always requires control and management, both of which entail temptations to violence. It is little wonder that modernity has also been the locus of almost continual warfare, on a level never imagined in antiquity. And it has fixed nothing. Prometheus keeps fetching fire, but the fire keeps going out.

 

 

 

 

 

49 comments:

  1. Some years ago, Father–it was my first year in the US–, I was supposed to teach a composition course as a teaching assistant. And I remember a colleague of mine coming to the office and say, “when I asked my students what they feared most, the majority of them said ‘failure.'” I could not comprehend what she meant (and this was not because English was a second language).

    A few days after that, I played soccer with some colleagues (intramural program). We lost terribly, 7-0. At the end of the game, the other team congratulated us with “good game.” I was not certain whether they were ironic or not. But then, when we got together after the game, my colleagues said, “we had a good game today; let’s see what we can do next time.”

    It was my baptism in modernity.

    Of course, the opposite to this is not apathy or “resignation.” We need to “play well.” But this is rather understood in terms of presence, I think, in the non-modern world: I need to respond to whatever is given to me.

  2. Wonderfully stated, Father. Even though you have written on this so many times before, it always helps me, it clarifies a little more than last time, in the restating. Blessings and thanks!

  3. Having studied and struggled with these myths on both an existential and philosophical way for my entire adult life I can attest without qualification to the truth of what Father says.

    There is a great deal of American history and historical-philosophy from the late 19th century/early 20th that examines the propositions Father mentions.

    My favorite by far are the works of Henry Adams especially his essay “The Law of Phase as Applied to History.”

    Unfortunately what most fail to address is the statement that is key to Father’s presentation: Exisistence is a gift and we are intriscally valuable simply because of the giver of that gift.

    It is not really a complex problem. God provides. Glory to Him who gives so abundantly.

    Paradoxically it seems as if the best way to take advantage of His abundance is acetcism. Now that would be an article.

  4. Every Sunday at the church I attend I hear that it’s all about our choices. Not very encouraging. I thank God for your encouragement.

  5. Father, very well said. As I think about planning (I was an Operations Plans Officer in the USAF for nearly half my career) I can attest to how the plans of mice and men can go astray. I learned a valuable lesson about planning, the past and the future from my life’s experiences. First, the Past is really the product of my faulty memory and is not real. Second, the Future is mostly my anxieties running amok and most often when the day finally arrives that I have stressed over, it is nothing like I imagined. Only the Present is real and 99% of my Present experiences were and are good.

    I think this is one of the greatest reasons for the faulty thinking of making progress. Nothing we project on the future is real so it never becomes reality and our efforts always seem to have unforeseen consequences that are counter productive to our progress goals. At least, this has been my experience.

  6. Nicholas,
    Your story made me think of D-Day, that most incredible of all military logistics operations. The real story is filled with things that went wrong. Tanks that were supposed to float but became coffins, parachuting in the wrong place, and on and on it goes. From the German side, those geniuses of plan and preparation, they were caught with their pants down, etc. The Allies made it work through redundancy. Have lots and lots of stuff (and men) to waste – and even so – it still came close to failure at several points.

    I take it to be the hand of God that they succeeded. I suppose that is why Eisenhower launched the invasion with a prayer.

  7. Fr, I love this, because it’s like fresh water in an oasis of bad philosophy—but let me address a few potential internal inconsistencies. First, what you’ve written here is obviously a philosophical position, and when you type it out, preach it, live it, you are exerting power. Whether this path or its opposite (essentially what Nietzsche preaches), one must assent to a “worldview” (a cringe-worthy term, but useful.) In your case here, the “fight against modernism” *is* what it means to progress, so there is no way to totally escape from a teleological narrative (Buddhism runs into the same problem).

    Full disclosure: I don’t really think this problem is a problem (more of a semantic issue), just something to keep in mind when warring against modernism. We are still in a fight, but our fight isn’t against flesh and blood, but the rulers of darkness that seek to deceive us. I don’t think you disagree, it’s just that personally, I have the tendency to become spiritually passive after reading things like this (as if nothing I do really has any bearing on the outcome of things).

    The second and more difficult issue in my opinion is what to make of the commission (purpose) that our Lord gives us. “Go and make disciples of all nations” is an injunction that is explicitly oriented towards progress. We can “track” our progress and how well we have lived up to Christ’s words by surveying the communities around us: Are they disciples? This question has always been impossibly difficult for me to answer, mostly because I don’t have a full understanding of what being a “disciple” means.

    Anyway, those are just some thoughts—but the heart of this post is so important, thank you for writing.

  8. Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks for another encouraging essay.

    Love the painting! Are those bee hives? Very calm – makes me want to sit down outside with a book…

  9. I believe, even within the original plan, Eisenhower expected around 75% casualties in the paratroop formations which speaks to the level of violence inherent in our planning (this plan being a reaction, or follow-up, to other previous plans by various parties). It is the nature of the Beast.

  10. I totally agree Father, prayer, especially before big events, is a good thing for many reasons. The most important reason to me is that it focuses my attention on Him, Who is in charge and reminds me by whose standards I will be held accountable. Having sent people into harm’s way myself I cannot imagine how the allied leaders especially Eisenhower must have felt knowing that their plans and orders would mean the deaths of thousands if not tens of thousands on both sides. At such a time, prayer seems the only sane answer.

  11. I’m not Orthodox, and maybe that’s why I can’t understand why the word and concept of progress seems so bad to you.

    For example, I plan to retire sometime around the age of 70. I’m progressing towards that plan by specific actions. Now that the kids are gone, I can put more into my 401K. I have downsized to a smaller house. I have gotten rid of lots of things that are no longer needed. I am making progress towards being ready for retirement.

    And is this bad? How so? Should I just drift in life? ‘Tune In, Turn on and Drop Out’? Repeat the mantra ‘If the Lord so wills’—when I figure that if God wants to get my attention and change my plans he can readily do so. I see no real value in repeating a mantra like that, as I know how life can very quickly change. Yes, I do have control over much that happens in my life–not all of it, to be sure. But enough that I don’t want to just sit and watch life drift by without planning and goals.

    Or maybe I’m just misunderstanding what you mean…..

  12. Bill,

    Modernity says, “We define ourselves and our world by the choices we make.” Obviously people make choices, but they should not and cannot be the definition of our lives. We cannot, in fact, choose to be anything.

    Modernity says: “We have the power to correct things that are wrong or broken.” Obviously some things can be fixed. But not all things. Modernity has a drive to fix too many things. It often kills people in its drive to fix

    Modernity says: “Progress is the purpose of our existence.” Good for you if you retire, and as you note, something might go wrong. But if retiring is your purpose, then it’s sad. I plan to retire in a few years myself (meaning, I will live on pension and social security but keep serving as a priest). It’s not my purpose, nor should it be. Purpose is something that belongs to God.

  13. Father, what you said in your last comment confused me: “We cannot, in fact, choose to be anything.”

    I do not what what you mean by “to be” here. If it’s about the fact that we are born as the kind of things that we are, then we cannot choose to be anything. If it’s about choosing to be in God’s presence, then we cannot choose Him (since it is a gift, which of course, does not eliminate my work in synergy with God). But saying that we cannot choose to be anything somehow diminishes saying that we cannot choose God. There is a level in which one can say that one “chooses” to steal, for example. Perhaps I am missing the point, though…

  14. Aric…I’m not sure that the Lord’s words to his disciples to make disciples of all nations fits into the notion of progress…or that his words are equally directed to us all. When we look at the epistles we do see exhortations to serve and love others. But few, if any, with the same direct force of Jesus’ command in Matthew to his disciples. Very few of us have the gift of evangelist. But we can all like Philip say, “Come and see.” God spoke powerfully to my heart in the first liturgy I ever attended. All of us can invite others to “come.” That’s because most of our life is lived at the level of the mundane. We can do the simple thing at hand. No need to fret about “saving the world.” Do I love and help my neighbor when the need arises? Mowing her lawn or helping paint a bathroom can often be as eloquent as any sermon. Most are won over by our loving actions and not by our words. This quote of elder Epiphanios speaks to this: ” God appointed the salvation of the world to His Son, and not to us. We must first look at our soul, and if we can, let’s help five or six people around us.”

  15. When reading/teaching Paradise Lost, I often think, “Satan is just a good ol’ enterprising American.” He says that Reason has made him equal to God and only sheer force/thunder makes God “supreme.” He doesn’t throw tea in Boston Harbor, but he does throw himself in the Lake of Fire.

    Your remarks reminded me of this passage which he flings at the brave and faithful Abdiel, who, he says, defied

    A third part of the Gods, in synod met
    Their deities to assert; who, while they feel
    Vigour divine within them, can allow
    Omnipotence to none.

    Note the wording of choice and power: Satan says they formed a synod to “assert” their own deity and can “allow” omnipotence to no one. Godhood, for him, is something they can choose for themselves and also something he and his followers can vote away from others by democratic process. Hilarious!

    In the end, he can’t bring himself really to believe what he has said, but that doesn’t keep him from recommitting himself to the life (or lack thereof) which such specious presumptions entails.

    Obviously there are even clearer passages that suggest similar attitudes of “mind over [metaphysics].”

    Your point is well taken. Thank you!

  16. Thank you, Byron. I just read it. I think it reveals what I did not see in Fr. Stephen’s first comment: when he said that we cannot in fact choose to be anything, he perhaps meant that “the spiritual man” does not choose. Fully in agreement. But in the article about the democratic man we see that this one chooses. For the spiritual man, faith is not a choice, of course. But there still seems to be a realm (the one of the profane) in which “choice” is the term that we usually use for saying that we choose “us” instead of accepting the gift (I would even say in spite of still receiving the gift).

    To me, this sounds as if I have the ability to choose; whenever I do, I see myself as the agent of choice, so I go further away from God. So, to some extent, I can choose to be something: I can choose to be outside God’s love. This is why I was confused.

  17. @Dean “Mowing her lawn or helping paint a bathroom can often be as eloquent as any sermon” — beautifully put. Love manifests itself in a million different ways.

    I suppose in sum I would simply say that there are two kinds of progress: There is the narrative we weave in modernity, concerning empty ideas of “improvement,” and then there is the call of God on our lives to love. I think it’s clear there is a sense of purpose (see Paul’s exhortation about “running the race”) in the Christian life, but perhaps the distinction is that it not about mastery, but servitude.

  18. Dean and Aric,
    Actually, the commandment to “go and make disciples” has been steadily abused since the mid-19th century when Evangelical Christianity saw in it a mandate to Christianize the world. They began massive missionary projects that have not ceased. They were also projects deeply married to spreading Western culture.

    Today, the same mandate is used as an excuse to send missionaries into countries that are already Christian, but not the right kind of Christian, etc.

    There have been constant announcements through the decades that “by such and such a date” we will have carried the gospel into the all the world. And it is also wrongfully believed that this preaching will hasten the Lord’s return.

    The force of the verse in St. Matthew’s gospel, frankly, is “of all nations,” meaning “all the Gentiles.” That is the clear point. I would that everyone were Christian, but that is not the particular point of the commandment. I consider myself an evangelist and rejoice in the calling. But it would be sinful, I think, and arrogant, to say what I will and won’t do to save the lost. God saves. I write. I preach. I teach. God alone unites us to Himself.

  19. Number one on the list, kind of reminds me of the idea that you should follow your passion when looking for a job. It’s a fairly modern idea. I don’t think my parents or grandparents even thought about this before taking a job. I dont even think they saw their jobs as defining who they are as persons. A job was just a job. I used to think I had to follow my passion and it made me miserable. Having kids has helped free me from this delusion.

  20. Somehow I feel there must be some other word and not choice, in this topic. Choice is about free will, whether or not I will to follow Christ the Lord, the incarnate God.

  21. Father, I agree wholeheartedly that we cannot choose “to be” anything. The reason is the different between what and who. What is what actions we take. I can choose to mow the lawn or not but I cannot choose who I am. The who I am is my web of relationships that establishes my person-hood. I have no control over my parents and fore-bearers or siblings. I cannot even choose my Creator, the most important relationship.

    During my life I have had two full 20 year careers and am now in the middle of my third. What I did for a living did not establish who I am for the who that I am is utterly out of my control. It seems a fine point but for me to understand your statement I have to see it in an ontological way.

    The biggest fault I see in modernity is that we delude ourselves into thinking we can remake our who as well as the world around us. Our person is created by God as well as the world. I see it as attempt to play god to imagine we can recreate either our self or the world around us.

  22. I also find it noteworthy that in Matthew, when the Lord commissions His Disciples, the expression of going is actually a participle not a verb and certainly not an Imperative Mood verb. The Imperative Mood verb is to make disciples. I see a vast difference between making somebody a believer (especially in the modern Protestant sense) and making a disciple. A disciple is someone who seeks to learn what the Master teaches and to become like the Master in all that he or she does.

  23. Makedonka,
    Choice is not inherently bad – as you note – free will is important. However, in our modern world, the notion that it is our choices that define us and that freedom should have no limits, has turned “choice” into a slogan for something quite destructive. It is instructive that abortion is described as be “pro-choice.”

    Our faith ultimately rests in the choice to accept Christ, and to accept the gift of our existence. Our life is a gift, not a decision.

  24. It seems a fine point but for me to understand your statement I have to see it in an ontological way.

    After mulling it over somewhat, I think that the issues with “choice” are issues of depth and ego. To reduce something to only a choice is to make it yours and to cast it in as shallow a light as possible; we objectify it as nothing more than a conscious action.

    The truth of things is that what we do moves us towards Life (God) or Death (away from God). To use a different example, in a marriage one doesn’t “make choices” so much as one takes part in the relationship; the deeper we drown in it, the greater it becomes. One either enlivens and deepens the marital bond, or damages it, by our active investment in it. To reduce that investment to only a series of choices is to cheapen and belittle it into something that we seek to control and use. Life cannot be objectified in such a way if we expect it to transcend the material world.

  25. Dear Fr. Stephen
    I don’t wish to be contentious despite how this writing may seem. However I have two questions. Isn’t modernity, about which you write so clearly and passionately, not also one of the “all things” that God is working together for good?

    I’ve tried to consider what value physical poverty really has. Why does the Lord say that the poor are blessed? One of the only answers I can come up with is that physical poverty can serve to show us our true spiritual condition-whether it’s something we experience personally or vicariously. At least the physically poor are aware of one of their conditions. The rest of us, insulated by our “stuff”, are blind.

    Nothing creates an appreciation for water more than thirst and modernity is a desert for soul and spirit. As Luther said, “the devil is God’s devil”. If indeed modernity is leading us into darkness, will that not reveal more clearly the light? I’m not suggesting the we should “sin that more grace would come”. It would seem that we in America are much like the Jewish people of Jesus’ time who were unaware of their poverty, captivity, blindness and oppression.

    If we can make nothing better (and I admit I may be missing your point entirely), then why is it that you pour your heart out like a prophet of old to warn your fellow believers to avoid the false philosophies and speculations of the modern age? I think you must write and speak working together with the Holy Spirit to bring about repentance (thought and action). At least that is what your blog has done for me and I appreciate it very much. Thank-you!

  26. Byron, I believe that whether or not we attempt to objectify life, it does transcend the material world. And it does so whether we expect or look for that transcendence or not. Revelations can happen unexpectedly and in those precious moments we might have a brief window, a capacity to see, the transcendent reality of life. That’s how it happened to me, experiencially, and indeed unexpectedly.

  27. Dee, I have no argument. Forgive me if I painted too broadly with the proverbial brush. I was only trying to note a distinction in our outlook, not so much in God’s ability to reach us. Many thanks for bringing it back around!

  28. My spiritual father asked me to read St John of Damascus to help me understand sin as “accidents” and as not belonging to the nature of human beings. This helped me to see others with a less critical view and helped me to focus on my own “accidents”.

    Based on my interpretation of St John, “accidents” can be absolutely anything that drives a wedge in our relationship with God. It is not necessarily inherent in ourselves or our culture or in our family heritage but these systems of relationships can serve to inculcate us into a mode of thinking and behaving that perpetuates these accidents.

    Based on my thinking then, I would not presume Christ would be either against or for culture but helps us with grace to overcome our accidents which might impede our life path with God, or if we must live with them (such as addictions for example) that we might entrust our hope and salvation to Christ’s healing. Please let me know whether or not I’m on the right track here.

  29. Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for this article. I had praying for a sign about something and unexpectedly found it hidden in your article. A blessing.

    Although I only visit your blog occasionally now, the things I have learned here have had a great impact my life. Some of the assumptions of modern secularism sound so reasonable that we often don’t notice how much we have allowed them to infiltrate our attitudes. How easy it is to judge another once we have decided that it’s all about choices (sound like a certain Pharisee we meet in the Gospel?).

    If you do not object, I would like to invite any of your readers who are interested to join an online book reflection group on, “Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way” by Matthew the Poor. We will be reading/praying the book slowly, highlighting parts of the text for reflection and comment. It is a beautiful book on prayer, born out of Fr. Matta’s many years in the desert, including liberal quoting of the Eastern and Western Fathers. All are welcome. God willing, we will begin on 2/10/16 at heretopray.wordpress.com. (If you prefer not to post this, feel free to delete this entire paragraph. I understand.)

  30. Father Stephen,

    Looking forward to seeing and hearing you again at St. Elias on Saturday. We will be praying for you safe travels.

    JTB

  31. Good morning, Father! Will you be posting where you are speaking on the West coast?
    A thought keeps occurring to me regarding this post…”But, we love our delusions!” The “modern” world is the epitome of the promise the serpent made to Adam and Eve. So, while it is True that this is False–we tend to want to believe the serpent. We (meaning me) rather like to plan and worry–it gives us the illusion of control. To let go of those things and be present in the moment is a kind of “giving away of all our treasures/riches” as the young ruler was instructed to do in today’s reading. Do we believe that the fullness of God’s Presence in that “empty space” will truly bring Joy? I believe that and say that I want that–but keep falling out of the Kingdom and into the abyss of my delusions. Lord have mercy.

  32. Mark,
    All things do work together for good, but not by virtue of their own goodness. It is the goodness of God that accomplishes this. Even the work of the enemy is used for good, because of God’s goodness. But again, these things are not good in and of themselves.

    I can “make” nothing better. If my work is a voice crying in the wilderness, it’s only because I have been commanded to cry. What God does with it is beyond my control.

    When I was ordained, Archbishop Dmitri gave me the charge to “go where you are invited.” It is of interest to know that I was invited to blog. My beloved friend, Fr. Aidan Kimel (at the time an Anglican), invited me to post an occasional article on his blog from an Orthodox perspective. After a year or so, he told me that I should write a blog of my own, in that there seemed to be a “following” of my work on his blog. He showed me how (I was clueless). The rest has just happened.

    I generally stay away from self-promotion or stunts to boost readership, etc. I go where invited, when possible.

    It is a freedom from being concerned about “how the blog is doing” that saves me from my own worst instincts and the vanities of my ego. I am more aware of those temptations, and they are frightening. “I swim in a sea of vanity,” is the word of a contemporary elder.

    I also write only with the blessing of my hierarch. This helps me resist the temptations of my own opinions and sets boundaries for me. The “rules for this blog” also set boundaries. I do not criticize other priests or hierarchs, and generally delete all such comments. I do not engage in the various political squabbles of the Church, which has saved me several times already over the past decade.

    If the word has found some traction, it is only God’s work. I am frequently surprised. I also disappoint myself a lot.

  33. In the context of a Marxist culture. That explains this part, which slapped me in the face as a modern viewpoint:

    And what is history? It is the setting in motion of centuries of work at the gradual unriddling of death and its eventual overcoming.

    Death has already been overcome, and not by anything we have done or will do. Glory to God!

  34. Dee,
    Your spiritual father is wise! It is very important that we understand that sin is not natural, it is not part of our nature. Someone writing recently elsewhere on the question of hell, spoke of our natures being hardened into resisting God. Indeed, they quoted St. John of San Francisco in this regard. It was an unfortunate phrase of St. John, not spoken with theological accuracy, but more broadly as one would in a sermon. But a nature is “what we are.” Natures do not change. Even the devil is “good” by nature. God created nothing evil, and nothing is evil by nature, nor does anything have the power to change its nature.

    Sin is refusing to live in accordance with our nature. If our nature were not good, we could not become good. Christ does not come to save our nature, but to restore us to our nature and to unite our nature with the divine nature – not by mingling them – but in the manner consistent with the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon.

    We should even think of culture as the “natural” setting for human beings. It is inherently good. Only false ideas and practices obscure its goodness. One of the reasons I do not despair of our modern culture is because the nature of things simply abides. People can try to re-invent marriage, for example. But marriage, as given by God, is actually quite natural. All experiments and deviations are doomed by the fact that they are not natural. They collapse in the long run under the burden of their unnatural error. Of course, it’s very messy, and many people and lives get destroyed in the process (such is sin). But the nature of things abides.

    Learning to let the “accidents” of our lives be swept away is very important. Thank you for sharing this word with us.

  35. Thank-you Fr. Stephen
    I am under no illusion regarding the intrinsic “goodness” of many of the things God uses to work His purposes, I didn’t mean to suggest modernity was a good thing, only that God, in His mercy, isn’t somehow foiled by it. The delusion it perpetuates in us (and I am infected too) would be unbearably tragic without this hope.

    By the way, this is kind of a sticky point in my understanding (or lack of it). If God is able to reconcile all things, then what difference does it make what we believe? I am not a universalist, but clearly don’t grasp the breadth or depth of God’s mercy either. How verses like, “It is appointed for man to die once and after this comes judgement” fit into the overall scheme of things is presently beyond me (but this is an improvement – I used to think I knew).

    Thank-you too, for the window into your own life, it is very helpful.

  36. Mark,
    I’ve pondered the reconciliation of all things and the what difference question myself. Christ goes to the Cross “for the joy set before Him,” we are told. Avoiding bad consequences is actually a very poor spiritual strategy. It is, according to the Fathers, a “slave mentality.” Some will indeed be saved, though like a slave. Better to become a Son and be saved for the love and the joy. If you truly know God, then you will not want anything to separate you. Love is the more excellent way.

  37. Father,

    Your response to Mark is interesting in that there is a way to read it (and universalism in general) such that Christianity becomes a kind of gnosis (the bad kind). Yes, there are different “levels” of knowing and even being (slave vs. son) but the end point is the same, so “the journey” is secondary, and pushed far enough becomes itself meaningless.

  38. Mark, if you look at our faith as a belief system or some such thing, you tend to move in the direction of “what difference does it make since God is in control” type of thinking, or at lease I did.

    However, it is nor really so much about belief but about loving a person. I want to know all I can about my wife for instance because I love her and there is joy in knowing her.

    The more we know about Jesus rightly, the less apt we are to accept counterfeits. While heretics may end up being saved, it is only after being dragged across a bed of coals and ripped to shreds.

    Heretical belief is literally like an corrosive bath for the soul.

  39. Thanks, Michael
    Thanks for your response. I actually asked the question based on the former blog regarding the summation of all things and the question of, among other things, hell.

    Let me say first that I don’t hope for hell for anyone, but I’m not sure that means there isn’t one. I’ve heard it suggested that being eternally in the presence of the love of God would be “hell” for those who hate Him. It’s much like the image of the Roman victory procession St. Paul uses in 2 Cor 2.

    Since my conversion to Orthodoxy, many of the “beliefs” I had as an evangelical have been…well, challenged, I guess. There are depths I’d never considered, vistas I’d never seen. But there have also been other things that seem to have fallen into place or become connected. My “theology” has kind of melted and become fluid. This is a good thing.

    I’m not a theologian and am still a baby as far as Orthodoxy is concerned, but in the many years I spent as an evangelical we were always taught that Christianity was a relationship more than a religion. I appreciated your referring to your relationship to your wife in this regard, because I have recently become aware of what a profound thing it is to really know the heart of another person. I wrote to Fr. Stephen that it requires stepping out of yourself (and this without fear of losing anything). I am woefully bad at this. My wife and I have been married nearly 45 years and I still find her a mystery! How much more my Lord.

    Thanks again!

  40. Mark, Many years to you and your wife. Glory to God for your union.

    Eph 5:23 clearly links marriage and our interrelationship with Jesus Christ. There are a great many similarities.

    BTW, to me the word relationship denotes an essentially parallel type of engagement that has boundaries that are maintained, neighbors ala Robert Frost if you will. That is not what happens in either a marriage or with Jesus Christ. That is why I greatly prefer interrelationship.

    When we are Chrismated the Holy Spirit is quiet emphatically SEALED in us. If He ever was “out there” somewhere, He no longer is. Chrismation is a conjugal event. That is one reason we have to be Chrismated before we can partake of the Eucharist and the other sacraments.

    My goal in my marriage, unattained, is to give myself wholly to my wife with out thought for myself, just as Jesus does for us in His Church. No matter how often and how badly I fail at that, it is still what motivates me–striving for kenotic love. On a simple level that often means doing things with and for her that, to me, make no sense and that I would rather not do–even am uncomfortable doing.

    Jesus demonstrates that kenosis on a far greater scale than we can imagine, but a part of that kenosis is His welcoming us into communion with Him through the Incarnation and the sacraments. As the Bridegroom Hymn we sing during Lent reminds us that is an offer that is always open to anyone who repents, but even there it is He who gives the increase.

    “I behold the Bridal chamber, richly adorned for my Savior, but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter in. Make radiant the garment of my soul, O giver of light and save me.”

  41. Michael, thanks once again for your comments and your care. I agree with you though I can’t state it as well.

    In fact the “bottom line” answer for the question “does it matter what we believe” is that. as you said, the Holy Spirit is sealed in us and we have a new nature. In the inner temple, misleading beliefs would hang like corrupted icons.

    The “we” I originally meant was the “world”. Somehow, I think it must matter what every person believes, but I’m not sure where it goes from there and beyond this life. “The demons also believe…and tremble.”

    Thanks again.

  42. Father Stephen,

    I was reflecting this morning on your conversation with Dee, in which you argued that sin is not part of our nature. I think I understand what you are getting at, and I think it makes sense. But I’m trying to reconcile that with Ephesians 2:3: “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” I’ve always understood this as a description of my nature as a sinner–I’m a slave to passions (and thus a child of wrath) because that slavery is part of my nature. But is “nature” in this verse perhaps better understood not as a description of me as a human being but more of a reference to the cosmic law (cf. Athanasius, _On the Incarnation_) by which sin exposes us to the wrath of God against sin? In other words, is the final clause better amplified as “and were by [our sin-choices subject to the] nature [of reality, thus becoming] children of wrath” rather than as “and were by [our] nature [as depraved descendants of Adam] children of wrath”? What “nature” is Paul talking about?

  43. Tim,
    St. Paul is not using the term in its later, rather precise, conciliar definition. He is making a general statement about human beings and our inclination to sin. He is not making a statement about our ousia, our essence, which is also called our “nature” (physis).

    Ousia, physis, is our very being and essence. It is the answer to the question, “What are you?” Person is the answer to the question “what are you?” When God created all things, He declared that they were “good.” Nothing is bad, evil, sinful, etc., by nature (not even the devil). If a nature actually changed, then the thing that it is would not be the same thing, but a new thing. We do not have the power to change the nature of anything. That belongs to the Creator alone.

    The precision of this language had its development in the Councils concerning the Trinity, and the God/manhood of Christ. Eventually, the Church used terms such as “nature,” etc., with the same meaning across the board. That precision is not found in the NT (it was not necessary). It’s simply a function of how we use language.

    We say, “I am a sinner.” But this does not mean that “I am by nature a sinner.” If that were true, we would have no responsibility or freedom. What is broken about us, is found in the Person (Hypostasis) and how it operates the natural will (the will that is proper to our nature). St. Maximus (and all of Orthodoxy afterwards) speaks of a rupture in the “gnomic” will, the manner in which the natural will is put into play.

    Instead of doing what is actually natural and proper to ourselves as human beings, we experience a fundamental loss of integrity, and a confusion of the will. We do not act with integrity (with the natural will), but rather out of the “gnomic will,” subject to various passions, etc.

  44. Thanks, Father Stephen, for your response. Given that Paul is not using “nature” in the later, more-developed sense, how should we understand that verse? What does it mean to be “children of wrath” by nature? A related question would be: how would you place the Biblical notion of “sarx” (i.e. flesh; sinful nature) in relationship to this discussion? Is it the same thing as the gnomic will? I find it sometimes difficult to move smoothly between patristic discussions of an idea and the relevant Biblical text (as I’ve received it.)

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