The Context of Faith


Shortly after moving to this side of the Smoky Mountains (the Tennesee side rather than the South Carolina side), I began to notice that the local dialect differed from my own. It was rounder, somehow, less nasal, but still with very strong “r’s.” Local phrases could also be puzzling. “I don’t care to,” for example, is used to mean, “I don’t mind.” It is deeply counter-intuitive, and sounds as though it means just the opposite. My wife had a somewhat embarrassing encounter when a local woman in a girl scout volunteer meeting kept responding to requests with, “I don’t care to.” My wife almost blurted out, “Then why not keep your mouth shut!” As it was, her polite nature prevailed and the faux pas was avoided. I’m not really sure you can have a faux pas in Appalachia. Here, we just say, “I messed up!”

That phrase, “I don’t care to,” if taken at face value, and in its literal meaning, surely cannot mean, “I don’t mind.” And yet it does. Indeed, locally, it’s considered quite polite. But context is everything. A phrase that would seem to have an obvious meaning everywhere else, might mean quite the opposite in the right setting.

It is possible to assume that things mean what seems most obvious. But such is simply not the case. I started my academic life as a Classicist (Latin and Greek). Studying documents that are two or three millennia old requires the assumption that you do not understand what you are reading. Homer’s heroes are nothing like Brad Pitt and the men of the movies. A good scholar sets aside his expectations and learns to listen. The consciousness of a Mycenaean Greek is not that of a modern Greek, much less that of an American suburbanite. When I read their word for “tree,” I think, “tree.” But my concept of tree is not at all theirs. Their trees can have an almost divine status. Our modern consciousness has little room for such a notion.

In my book, Everywhere Present, I describe the contrast between our modern spiritual concepts, particularly the “disenchanted” version of nature that we inhabit, and the spiritual understanding of the classical world. I dubbed our modern world as a “two-storey universe.” Modernity relegates spiritual things to a second-storey, the world of ideas. The world we live in is empty. There are still “single-storey” Christians where the distinction between material and spiritual is almost nonexistent. The first time you encounter one, their attitude towards the material world probably seems superstitious. But a modern person’s notion of “superstition” is simply a comment on the nature of his consciousness, not the nature of the world.

Human consciousness has changed in many striking ways since the time of the New Testament, to say nothing of the Old. To a certain extent, this means that we almost never read the Scriptures in a literal manner (certainly those who read them in translation do not). I highly recommend the works of Owen Barfield (one of the Inklings) on the nature of language and consciousness. Poetic Diction is perhaps the first, then, Saving the Appearances. Lighter reading is his History in English Words. But in all, he does a masterful job of demonstrating the nature of language and consciousness.

The study of Scripture is not exempt from this reality. The “mind of the Apostles” is not an idle notion. That mind belongs both to the first century, to the Hellenistic culture of antiquity, to a Galilean Judaism, and to a unique phronema made possible through the gift of Christ after His resurrection. All of those realities were manifest in the life of the primitive Church. Not only are those realities made manifest in the life of the primitive Church, but they also formed and shaped the liturgical ethos of the Church as well. Fr. Georges Florovsky described doctrine as a “verbal icon” of Christ. I would extend this thought to say that the liturgical life of the Church in its fullness is the most complete icon of Christ that we have. Doctrine should not be considered apart from worship. Doing so distorts it. Orthodoxy is right (ortho) glory or worship (doxa).

The most radical changes that have occurred in Christianity have always been associated with changes in the shape of worship. There is an ancient rule, lex orandi, lex credendi, the “law of praying is the law of believing.” The abstracting of doctrine allows Christians to imagine that the shape of worship is malleable without consequence. History has proven otherwise, time and again.

In reading Scripture, a consistent mistake is to imagine that the meaning is in the text. This is never the case when we read anything. In High School, I found reading Shakespeare to be somewhere beyond boring. I labored over the assigned texts, finding occasional familiar lines, but experiencing an opacity that stood as a barrier. “Why does anybody like this stuff?” I wondered. But in 1968, Zeffirelli produced the film version of Romeo and Juliet. It was an epiphany. Plays are not written to be read – they are written to be played!

The Scriptures are no different. When the Church considered the “canon,” the question was never an abstraction about the text. The authoritative question was centered around what was read in the Church. The gospels are liturgical texts. The epistles are expressly written to be read in the Church. The concern about Revelation was the fact that it was read in so few Churches (had it not been read in the Church of Rome, it would probably not be in the New Testament today).

Reading in the Church will seem unimportant to many, inasmuch as Church has become little more than an audience. Indeed, for those whose experience is a product of the repeated deformations of liturgical life, most of what I am saying will seem absurd. The Reformation restricted meaning to the text itself, separating it from the Church. One immediate result was the fragmentation of the Church (a process that has continued unabated). The text is everything; the Church, incidental.

The liturgical life of the Church, in its fullness, is drama, worship, instruction, character formation, sanctification and illumination. It is more kinesthetic than intellectual. It is of note that the Revelation of St. John describes a liturgy in heaven. Heaven is always depicted in a liturgical form. The liturgy of the Church is a living icon of heaven itself.

A great difficulty in explaining this is the tendency in our culture to reduce everything to text, or a set of ideas. Peyton Manning (a hero in Tennessee), is said to have watched football films for hours every day, analyzing them, studying them, raising the level of his game. I could imagine studying such a thing, and learning the “x’s and o’s,” but never like Peyton Manning or anyone who has actually played quarterback. He “reads” the game in a manner that cannot be expressed as an idea.

The fullness of the liturgical life is just such an experience. Indeed, the liturgy is not restricted to the Church service. The life of fasting, prayer, the giving of alms, are also an integral part of the liturgical life. I would recommend reading Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath to see a study in the destruction of the liturgical life in the context of a single English village over the course of the Reformation. The same Scriptures continued to be read, but the result could never be the same.

The life of the Church is, and always has been, the gift of God. Without it, the alien ethos of the world itself becomes the mind of faith.

Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:20-21)


  1. Father, a beautiful summation of the point I was trying to make in an earlier post. One literally has to be at the scene of what was written about with the mind of a person of the age to literally read any text. The meaning is in the mind of the author, not the text and certainly not the Modern notion that the meaning lies in the mind of the reader. I concur in all you say and I also must make the observation that the true meaning of Scripture lies not in the mind but in the nous and it can only be truly understood there.
    For instance, reading back into Scripture a forensic understanding is an utterly foreign adventure. Those who wrote the quotes that can be morphed into forensics never saw Judge Judy nor had court rooms and Jurisprudence like we do. Sin to them was not like getting a speeding ticket for going too fast (breaking the law) but a rejection of our Creator. I tend to see it as more of an attitude than an act for I see many things in human life that can be sinful or holy depending on the attitude of the person. With this idea I am now capable of seeing why the wages of sin are death and that sin is rejecting our Lord so anything we do that is tinged with that attitude is really the same thing and all sin is death. Not because we are forensically guilty but that we, by rejecting our Lord, have walked away from the Way, the Truth and the Life.
    Thank you for this nice grounding post after the last conversation in your blog muddied the water so.

  2. Nicholas,
    I’ve got a stronger thought on sin. It’s ontological – it’s like a thing, or works like a thing. In the language of St. Maximus the Confessor, sin is a movement away from God, i.e. away from Being. It moves us towards non-being. Non-being is, paradoxically, the stuff of sin. Sin is death. It is a collapsing towards nothingness (though we can never truly reach nothingness, because being is a gift from God that He does not take away). It is apatristic image that is useful to think through.

  3. Sin does seem to have many attributes of a thing and the prayer says: “I have the seed of corruption in me….” A seed is a thing. Perhaps the attitude is a secondary characteristic that results from the thing. What sin is not, is an infraction of a legal statute.

  4. It is not surprising that plays have to be played. What we call theater today began as worship in tribal societies or near tribal societies. They were designed to make the divine present and to allow the people to enter into the presence of the divine and creation.

    Even the morality and mystery plays of medieval Europe still retain that to some extent.

    The closest example of this that we have are the dances of native Americans – particularly those of the plains and southwest. They are prayers. At the center of the prayers is a he drum beaten with the rhythm of the human heart. As the dance goes on the beating of the hearts of the participants begins to synchonize. Spiritually the drums also represent the rhythm and presence of the divine.

    It was in studying them and being present at some that prepared my heart to accept Liturgy.

    BTW many modern plays read better than they play. Those of George Bernard Shaw come to mind and Brecht’s. Both were idealogs writing propaganda rather than trying to penetrate the mystery of the divine and human heart.

  5. Fr. Stephen,

    I am a recent follower of your blog and I wanted to express my deepest appreciation for what you’re doing here. I come from a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran (WELS) upbringing but was introduced to Orthodoxy when my parents converted five (six?) years ago. While I haven’t made a complete transition myself, your blog has done much to help me understand Orthodox beliefs either by explaining a concept I already had been introduced to or by bringing something new to my attention.

    To the topic at hand: I am hoping to get a copy of Everywhere Present soon. I spent 20+ years living in a “two-storey world” where angels, demons, spiritual warfare, and those who have fallen asleep were hardly, if ever, discussed except in the most abstract terms. My exposure to the concept of animism (the belief that everything – rocks, trees, animals, etc – has a spirit) was what really allowed me to start to grasp the “second-storey” (to be clear, I don’t believe animism but God allowed it to serve a useful purpose as a learning aid).

    If your book provides the same level of insight that your blog has (and I have little doubt that it will), than I look forward to having one more obstacle between me and a proper understanding of how things really are removed (read: putting things in their proper context).

  6. I’ve lamented that we are at risk to lose a lot of biblical understanding because the text is poetic, and there is little if any learning to read poetry going on in our schools.

  7. Fr. Marty,
    Keep serving the liturgy. St. Porphyrios said that whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet. Have you seen any “poetry slam” videos on Youtube. Some are not bad. There is actually a poetry movement out there.

  8. Yes, I love what this post combines and condenses from others.

    Wish I could keep track of all your great book recommendations. Maybe you could make a topical index of recommended reading for future reference. Thanks again!

  9. I have tended during much of my Christian life to be “un-orthodox”. By that I mean that “formula” was something I viewed with great suspicion. Formula equaled death, or at least a form of sleep. Repetition seemed essentially mindless.

    Unfortunately I was also equally suspicious of attempts to “modernize” worship services. Big screen multi-media presentations, self-service communions with gluten free, self service bread stations, feel good praise songs with congregational (read “audience”) participation in the form of clapping with the beat and the like left me feeling more empty than full.

    If I was going to continue to follow the Lord Jesus in some way, a choice had to be made. I had come to a fork in the road and the words of Yogi Berra were no help! By the grace of God, I was able to lay aside enough of my preconceptions to actually enter into Orthodoxy although there are still time I feel as though I got in by the “back door”.

    To my point though, not long ago, in one of favorite books of scripture, I came across these words, “Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary…”. Without stumbling over the word translated “regulations” (somewhat of a victory), it was clear that the point was that there were principles that governed the worship in the new covenant, principles that weren’t intended to be malleable. In other words I “discovered” for myself that there is a way that is orthodox, or if you will, right.

    I realize that for most of you who read this blog, my experience is a sort of “baby step”, but for me, it is a turning point for which I am grateful.

  10. Jeremias,

    I’m working on a project that encompasses the idea that you mentioned of an index of Fr. Stephen’s literary references.

    Beyond being just an index of literary references, I hope to include a brief explanation of the context for each of his recommendations.

    Additionally, I intend to include a lexicon of the theological vocabulary he uses, cross-referenced to the posts in which the terms are used.

    When this will be done is anybody’s guess. The two brief talks I’ve had with Father Stephen about this project have left me with the impression that he thinks I may have bitten off more than I can chew, to use an old Tennessee expression. We’ll see. 🙂

  11. As always Father…what a blessing it is to have your ministry. Thank you.

    Plays are not written to be read…they are written to be played!

    This…above all…is what the Orthodox faith has given to me. I no longer simply look at a sheet of music having never heard the notes…but I am in the middle of the orchestra…in the midst of and connected to a endless sea of living “epistles, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.”

    It reminds me of Khomaikov’s statement….”Scripture is nothing but written Tradition, and Tradition is nothing but living Scripture…”

  12. Mark, each one of us has blocks we put in our way. Any grace we are given to overcome them is not a small event. It is God acting.

    It always something to be thankful for.

  13. Onesimous,
    You are spot on with your description of being in the orchestra. I like the way you phrased that. I have played in orchestra in my youth and worship does seem much like that. As a Deacon I do feel as if I am playing one part supporting the entire melody line of the Grand Symphony of Worship.
    Our parish is hosting another Deacon this summer who is attending the Chaplaincy program in the US Army at Ft Jackson. He has brought several of his fellow candidates to worship (they have a requirement to attend other faith services) and everyone of them said after service that they had never experienced such immersion into the faith. They felt wrapped in Scripture and part of the living history of the faith in a way that they have never experienced in their contemporary services that their denominations do these days. They only attended Vespers and felt that way. Other visitors who have attended Divine Liturgy are even more struck by the feeling of been immersed into the faith. I guess that is just par for the course when we are standing at heavens portal. I feel it too and it is why I am Orthodox and I left my Protestantism behind.

  14. I sometimes think of St. John of Damascus, whose great summary of the Orthodox Faith continues to be such a touchstone for believers. I have sat in the cave that was his cell at Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean desert. It’s extremely rough and bare. He would have been a participant in the 12-16 hours of worship that marked the monastery in his time. He breathed the liturgy. He was bathed in Scripture in a manner that the non-Orthodox cannot imagine. And it was from within that abundance that he wrote. Like most of the great hymnographers (of whom he is one), he was a monastic theologian. Their hymns continue to guide the faithful in the very same tracks that he followed. Of course, when the Orthodox say, “Hymn,” the non-Orthodox imagine something completely unlike our hymns. They are poetic masterpieces of subtle theology. In some cases the very musical and poetic structure models the doctrine that they sing (this is largely only apparent in Greek). How does Orthodoxy maintain its unity despite the myriad of cultures and politics. We are strained at this very moment, as all the world can see. But that unity is maintained not through fiat or legal structures. The one mind of Orthodoxy is maintained in its common liturgical context.

    There was a time, even in the West, that some small portion of this was manifest. The common mind among Anglicans, rooted in Common Prayer, was shattered in the 60’s-70’s, with devastating effects. The arrogance of modernity thinks that it is the mind that governs things. The mind is as malleable as any Madison Avenue trend. It will keep nothing. When the liturgical life becomes unstable the whole mind of the Church becomes unstable.

    I in no way contend that there have been no changes in the liturgies of Orthodoxy over the centuries. However, there has been very little change, particularly since the time of the Great Councils. To read the Fathers describing anything in the Liturgy is generally not alien. We can see for ourselves what they describe.

    Again, this entire experience is unknown to those outside of Orthodox tradition. When I converted, I was aware that the liturgy was different from the West. But, frankly, I had no idea just how much, how many layers, what depths of theology permeate everything, every day.

  15. Indeed Father,
    That is a very good reminder of the paucity in the thinking of those outside of the Orthodox Liturgical framework – the full-blown version of which (including the full monastic hourly/daily/weekly/yearly cycles) is incredibly loaded with the Spirit-filled interpretation of Scripture… I often forget that in my optimism.

  16. Recently I attended a concert in which my Orthodox choir director played. At the reception afterwards he introduced me to a friend, an Episcopalian and explained that I used to be one. The fellow asked me what I liked about being Orthodox. I replied, “It is the difference between eating in the Green Room ( one of the best restaurants in town) and eating at a fast food restaurant. He gasped and ended the conversation.

  17. Father, bless. I too deeply appreciate this post and its comments.

    When formerly I served as a Lutheran pastor, those who were like-minded also intuitively grasped many of the things you spell out here, which of course have always been the water in which Orthodoxy swims. Unfortunately it proves to be not really possible to convince others of these things when “Scripture alone” is the sole authority and norm of doctrine/practice. Nevertheless, I thank God that He does give insight according to where folks are at, and I pray many more classically-minded Protestants would find their way to the Ark of the Church, since despite the best efforts and insights of some these other traditions prove to be sinking ships amidst the gales and breakers of modernity.

  18. Father,
    The process of bringing back the Celts back to Orthodoxy has already started, thank God….

    If I may, I’d like to thank all who helped with their donations to this wonderful new monastery. I will pray for you all while there in August on the pilgrimage with Fr. Serafim.

  19. Karen,
    Hopefully there will be many more opportunities in the future. I’m going on a “scouting” expedition, although I know several people from the US went already, I wish they would share about it here (if they read this blog)….

  20. Michael Patricks Ireland…
    Maybe the White on the Irish flag is for Orthodoxy… (vs Orange-Protestant & Green Roman Catholic) Lord willing someday.

  21. Well, Father I am not sure which planet we live on but all of that information I learned prior to even being Christian. My mother was a dancer who studied Native dance including working with Native elders on how the dances were done and why. The rest came from theater history classes and the book, “The Dancing Gods”. It was a significant part of my journey to the Church though.

    I must say that my contacts with Native American faith have led me to the conclusion that the faith is a clear pre-figurment of our faith. One reason the Alaskan missionaries found fertile soil.

    It has a rootedness in this land that would also benefit us if more would come to the Church. It is after all pre-modern.

  22. Fr. Stephen,

    When you and Nicholas were talking earlier about sin being a thing, a movement away from non-being, I was reminded once more of The NeverEnding Story where all the characters were in danger from the Nothing. Even the big black wolf, one of the main villains, was in danger of being gobbled up by it.

    Though the parallel isn’t perfect, I do find that the lack of practice of virtue by an increasing majority does in fact create this black hole that everything gets sucked into. Islands of light still exist and God is of course stronger than any vacuum of virtue, but it’s not difficult to feel the pull of sin aided by the fog of hopelessness.

    So thanks again for being a light in a dark time. And of course what’s so utterly amazing is that once someone (like yourself) comes along and sheds their light, our whole outlook changes and part of us wonders why we ever thought it was that dark. Perspective is utterly powerful and yet not totally under our control. If we then turn once more away from that light, we will be in darkness once more and immediately wonder how we ever thought there was any hope.

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