The Struggle Against the Normal Life

 

Within the Christianity of our time, the great spiritual conflict, unknown to almost all, is between a naturalistic/secular world of modernity and the sacramental world of classical Christianity. The first presumes that a literal take on the world is the most accurate. It tends to assume a closed system of cause and effect, ultimately explainable through science and manageable through technology. Modern Christians, quite innocently, accept this account of the world with the proviso that there is also a God who, on occasion, intervenes within this closed order. The naturalist unbeliever says, “Prove it.”

The sacramental world of classical Christianity speaks a wholly different language. It presumes that the world as we see it is an expression of a greater reality that is unseen. It presumes that everything is a continuing gift and a means of communion with the good God who created it. The meaning and purpose of things is found in that which is not seen, apart from which we can only reach false conclusions. The essential message of Christ, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” is a proclamation of the primacy of this unseen world and its coming reign in the restoration of all things (apokatastasis, cf. Acts 3:21).

The assumptions of these two worldviews could hardly be more contradictory. The naturalistic/secular model has the advantage of sharing a worldview with contemporary culture. As such, it forms part of what most people would perceive as “common sense” and “normal.” Indeed, the larger portion of Christian believers within that model have no idea that any other Christian worldview exists.

The classical/sacramental worldview was the only Christian worldview for most of the centuries prior to the Reformation. Even then, that worldview was only displaced through revolution and state sponsorship. Nonetheless, the sacramental understanding continues within the life of the Orthodox Church, as well as many segments of Catholicism. Its abiding presence in the Scriptures guarantees that at least a suspicion of “something else” will haunt some modern Christian minds.

An assumption of the secular/naturalist worldview is that information itself is “objective” in character: it is equally accessible to everyone. The classical worldview assumes something quite different. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Christ says, “for they shall see God.” The Kingdom of God is not an inert object that yields itself to public examination. The knowledge of God and of all spiritual things requires a different mode of seeing and understanding. St. Paul says it this way:

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:14)

This understanding disturbs the sensibilities of many contemporary Christians. Some go so far as to suggest that it is “gnostic” (by this they mean that the very notion of spiritual knowledge that is less than democratic is suspect). Sola Scriptura is a modern concept that posits the Scriptures as subject to objective interpretation. The Scriptures thus belong to the world of public, democratic  debate, whose meaning belongs within the marketplace of opinion. The Scriptures are “my Bible.”

The classical model is, in fact, the teaching found in the Scriptures. It utterly rejects the notion of spiritual knowledge belonging to the same category as the naturalistic/secular world. It clearly understands that the truth of things is perceived only through the heart (nous) and that an inward change is required. It is impossible to encounter the truth and remain unchanged.

The classical model, particularly as found within Orthodoxy, demands repentance and asceticism as a normative part of the spiritual life. These actions do not earn a reward, but are an inherent part of the cleansing of the heart and the possibility of perceiving the truth.

The rationalization (secular/rationalist) of the gospel has also given rise to modern “evangelism.” If no particular change is required in a human being in order to perceive the truth of the gospel, then rational argument and demonstration becomes the order of the day. Indeed, modern evangelism is largely indistinguishable from modern marketing. They were born from the same American social movements.

The classical model tends to be slower in its communication, for what is being transmitted is the fullness of the tradition and the transformation of each human life. Evangelism, in this context, has little to no relationship with marketing. The primary form for the transmission of the gospel is the community of the Church. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is properly only seen in an embodied community of believers living in sacramental union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. In the early Church, the catechumenate generally lasted for as much as three years. The formation that took place was seen as an essential preparation for the Christian life. “Making a decision” was almost beside the point.

The struggle between classical/sacramental Christianity and modernity (including its various Christianities) is not a battle over information. The heart of the struggle is for sacramental Christianity to simply remain faithful to what it is. That struggle is significant, simply for the fact that it takes place within a dominant culture that is largely its antithesis.

A complicating factor in this struggle is the fact that the dominant culture (naturalistic/secular) has taken up traditional Christian vocabulary and changed its meaning. This creates a situation in which classical Christianity is in constant need of defining and understanding its own language in contradistinction to the prevailing cultural mind. The most simple terms, “faith, belief, Baptism, Communion, icon, forgiveness, sin, repentance,” are among those things that have to be consistently re-defined. Every conversation outside a certain circle requires this effort, and, even within that circle, things are not always easy.

Such an effort might seem exhausting. The only position of relaxation within the culture is the effortless agreement with what the prevailing permutations tell us on any given day. Human instinct tends towards the effortless life – and the secular mentality constantly reassures us that only the effortless life is normal. Indeed, “normal, ordinary, common,” and such terms, are all words invented by modernity as a self-description. Such concepts are utterly absent from the world of Scripture. Oddly, no one lived a “normal” life until relatively recently.

That which is “normal” is nothing of the sort. It is the purblind self-assurance that all is well when nothing is well.

God have mercy on us.

71 comments:

  1. The best description I have yet read. You have even excelled yourself in defining the problem AND the response. It is exhausting at times when seemingly simple, basic understandings of reality are so blindly rejected.

    No doubt I have my own blind spots but a counter to nihlist modernity and it’s lack of substance was one of the many factors that drew me to the Church. Strangely, in a way, the true scientist will also see more deeply than what modernity thinks proper.

  2. Excellent description of the difference between the world and the life we are called to. This is the most succinct explanation I have read. As I grow in the faith I find more and more places in my thought process that need purging of secularism. Thank you for this piece.

  3. “The classical model tends to be slower in its communication.” I appreciated this entire essay, but your point about the speed of communication stuck out to me since I was thinking about this very thing yesterday (during the Liturgy, sorry). I was remembering the intensity of preaching, study , and grasping for forward movement that was inherent to the evangelical approach, at least when I was active within that world many years ago. By contrast, Orthodoxy reveals God to be the patient farmer, able to wait as little by little the seed sprouts and grows. No fireworks. No shouting. Lots of silence and peace. Does the evangelical approach produce burn-out? Believers who burn too bright too soon?

  4. Father,
    Thankfully the Scriptures do guarantee a suspicion of something else, that being the mysteries or sacraments of the Church, as you write. A whole paradigm shift is needed to see this. I had just such a suspicion early on in my Christian life, but because of my hard heart it took God more than 20 years to finally soften it enough to see the truth of Orthodoxy, of worshipping God sacramentally. And yes, this truth is perceived noetically, through the heart along with a changed life. We do become new creatures in Christ through asceticism and repentance. I know I am only repeating salient parts of your essay. But it is these which resonated with me.
    As an evangelical I knew that I did not know how to pray. The ascetical life was unknown to me. At one point I begged God to teach me to pray. Again it took several years more of struggle before he answered that prayer. And even now I feel like a babe. But the Church provides all that we need in Her prayers of liturgy, the wealth of written prayers (many by saints), hymnography, and the Jesus prayer. And none of this is attained alone, but along with a local community of believers, again as you note, encouraging and strengthening one another, not completely unlike what we do here. I find this an oasis, but on the way to drink I do occasionally run into a prickly cactus! 😉

  5. At what point do we acknowledge that the divergence of Christian theology has become so great that, though we may speak the same language, we do not believe the same things?

  6. Ephrem, theologically that point is long past, however there are those in the Protestant world who show forth Christ. I have met them. I am not as familiar with Catholics but surely they must be there if the evidence from the contributions on this blog are any example. Even there, maybe especially there we must be patient. Really hard at times.

  7. Mary, Fr. Stephen does just that in what he writes. The meaning of words are formed by the context in which they are spoken and heard.

    At least I think I am right about that.

  8. I was not formally catechized before being chrismated. And it is only recently, going on 20 years into Orthodox life, that the “transformation” part is registering. Only God knows why it happened the way it did. But it has not been easy.

  9. Dear Fr. Stephen: I’ve read and reread your message over a number of times, each time absorbing more of the significance of the Orthodox view of God the Creator, Christ, the Holy Spirit and our
    way of perceiving the world as Orthodox Christians. It’s a 180% shift of life. I’ve just now beginning to feel as if something’s amiss on days when I don’t begin the morning by making the sign of the cross
    and saying “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One , have Mercy on me.”, followed by Morning Prayer. I live in a very conservative retirement community, many of its residents going to churches “Where God Is” as one woman said. I’ve chosen to quietly go about continuing to learn and practice the Orthodox way of perceiving and living out the way of life . I’m new to the faith and will be Chrismated soon; I trust that our priest will place an extra amount of oil on my mouth to remind me
    the easiest way for me to fall back to my former way of thinking and speaking. I pray that all who read
    what you’ve written, will better understand and live the patient, humble life, listening with our hearts,
    and being thankful for the gifts given us by our Loving God and how by becoming man, He taught us how to live. Now unto ages of ages Amen.

  10. Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for this elaboration. I needed it and grateful for this oasis too. (Dean I’m sincerely sorry if I’m one of the prickly cactuses–I always appreciate your comments).

    What stands out for me in this article also is the description of transformation–a kind of metamorphosis–it seems to me that was how it happened beginning in the initial circumstances of my conversion (happening while studying some data) and continuing through the baptism. Dying to the world as it is described, the experience of my conversion was difficult for all in my family. All have been changed (even while they remain in their own thinking unchanged regarding their faith) in this experience. We continue to love. With God’s grace we love more deeply.

    I feel kinda ‘busted’ about the ‘slow’ part, especially as I’ve been dashing in and out in my writing here. But there is hope, my parish is a place of healing and balm for my wayward soul.

  11. There are even sound scientific reasons to doubt our senses and our “common sense”. According to this, believing should really not be based on (natural) seeing.

    “Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine … has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. ”

    https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/04/the-illusion-of-reality/479559/?utm_source=aofb

  12. Ephram
    One thing I had to learn when discussing faith with my Protestant friends and with those who are “spiritual” but not religious is to ask them to define terms in their words. What I have learned is that we do not mean the same things and what we understand about faith is quite different. I chose to avoid using the word “believe” because even that term has a different meaning to different people. The sad fact is that none of the definitions I hear have anything to do with what the word once meant, especially in terms of faith.

  13. I ran across this in my bedtime reading:
    ‘Spirit is that which “hovers over the waters” [Gen 1: 2], and was given by God so that creation might be vivified, for the Spirit has the same relation to the water as the soul to the body, for God mixed together one subtle element with another (for both spirit and water are subtle). And this was done so that the Spirit may give life to the water, and that both together may thoroughly penetrate and give life to all creation.’

    It’s from Theophilus of Antioch (Bishop of Antioch in around 170 A.D.) Wonderfully sacramental.

  14. Dear Fr. Freeman,

    Longtime Roman Catholic reader (but very rare commenter) of your blog here.

    Every time I read one of your blog posts, it seems that I manage to rise out of my two-storey worldview and hold on to a sacramental Christian worldview for a few minutes… and then my old patterns of thinking and behaving reassert themselves, sometimes triggered by some external event (someone irritates me, some temptation comes my way, I seek the next distraction-induced dopamine fix, etc…) and I collapse back into my anxiety-ridden naturalistic worldview.

    Perhaps someday I shall cross the point where I shall have read a “critical mass” of your writings and attain a “self-sustaining” sacramental worldview. 🙂

    Please keep up the good work, Father!

    -NSP

  15. Wow, Fr. Stephen!
    The quote from Theophilus is exactly what we are praying during this mini-Lent before the Dormition Pascha:
    “By the Holy Spirit, the streams of Grace are flowing, watering all of creation, granting life…”
    Wonderfully comforting bedtime reading, that!

  16. Dee,
    Thank God for the transformation in your life, and for the hidden work God is doing in your family. I was thinking more of the “barbs”I sometimes get from Father’s words. This oasis is indeed refreshing, though. Because of an eye affliction, my reading is limited. That’s why this forum, Father’s writing and the community comments are so important. I love the desert. It’s flowers are among my favorites. Dee, you are a beautiful yellow cholla blossom. It is surrounded by vicious barbs yet the bloom is long-lived, silky and smooth. One can breathe in the atmosphere/spirit of a place. As people comment their tone/spirit is also picked up. But the differing fragrances and tones here make up a most pleasant, deep and refreshing “oasis.”

  17. I wonder, as we are confronted with a falling away of useable language–as our definitions of words diverge farther and farther from the definitions used by “the dominant culture,” could we be inspired to abandon our own nagging nominalisms? As words become increasingly beside the point, the language left to us will be who we are, and not what we say. I always thought that you can’t lie to your pet or your baby because they know your body with their bodies. It can be convicting! I wonder if our current cultural context might call us to greater repentance, to living more Truth in our bodies…and keeping more silence with our mouths.

  18. A few days ago there was a comment about “sacramental science.” My question today is, “what would sacramental business or entrepreneurship look like”? I see that there is a saint recommended for those in business: St. Joseph of Volotsk. . . It occurs to me that some of the environmental concerns of today are reflecting a desire for a more connected view of the universe, but, being disconnected from God (for the secular ones), many actually become more disconnected from God’s Creation(their own bodies and others’ and everything). So, “green business” becomes an artificial layer on top of a non-sacramental worldview. Thoughts, anyone? (Our son is studying business and marketing…hence the question).

  19. Gerri, sacramental business is difficult. It would require a whole new economics and understanding of human behavior. The “Third Way” theorists have taken a stab at it.
    Principles/ assumptions that would have to change to name just a few in modern economics: the principle of scarcity; a utilitarian view of what an economic good is; a return to more classical understanding of money; the rejection mass production with the collary view that human beings are just another resorce and a form of capital; the rejection that debt is capital and has a positive role; in accord with the Old Testament Jubilee ethic; a recognition and practice of stewardship in all things especially in what ownership entails. All is God’s. All is returned to God made better. Thine own of thing own we offer unto The on behalf of all and for all. A complete and through rejection of the false eschatology of Marxism, Communism and Fascism (which includes globalist “capitalism”). Eschewing all manipulative marketing(straight forward, true information about the product or service only). Redefining what profit is. The list goes on. Valuing people and things because they exist not because they are cheaper or because of some twisted form of cost-benefit analysis that, for instance, denies healthcare to older or seriousy impaired human beings because it would be less costly to offer/demand assisted suicide.

    But even those are quite secondary. What is really required is my own transformation to rely on God’s Providence to take care of my needs and engaging in ascetic struggle against my desires. Giving knowing that I will receive. Rejecting untruth wherever I find it, especially in my own heart.

    Business is simply human activity to exchange goods, services and ideas in a mutually beneficial manner. That is always disrupted by lust of power, greed and other forms of selfishness and iconoclasam.

  20. Father Stephan,
    Is part of the journey beginning to grasp how far from God’s reality I think and live , and experiencing that gap as being completely overwhelming? And then surrendering to His presence in the overwhelming? It seems as if the old way is me working harder and harder to understand and change my own mind, which I have found to be ludicrous, never mind impossible. I am grateful to be able to occaisionally tell the difference between this more ‘unified reality’ and my fantasy reality, but I seem less and less able to change anything about myself??? It is a most vulnerable place to be, it seems more and more of the time?

  21. Geri,
    I’ll give it a quick shot – it’s worthy of more than a few articles. Money is a sacrament – it is a gift from God. We do not earn anything. We work and God sustains us. Sometimes, people find themselves in circumstances in which they work and are given vast amounts of money. Some people “invest” money, do no work (other than their sense of ‘risk’), and get even more money.

    Business becomes sacramental the minute we begin to accept it as a gift from God. We are only stewards of our wealth – we own nothing. What does God want me to do with my wealth? Good things. Share it. Do justice.

    I read about an experiment that a foundation is doing in giving some African poor, who are living on less than $2 a day – they are giving them an extra $22 per month – for a period of something like 10 years. They let them do what they wish with the money. The stories coming out of it are very interesting. But it brought me up short. $22 a month makes a difference – a huge difference. I blow $22 on a decent meal without thinking. There are so many possibilities for wealth to be shared – justly.

    Money and business as sacrament changes its direction and purpose. We do good, because good is worth doing, not because we can make things happen. Making things happen is wealth viewed as power. Wealth as power is the anti-sacrament. We live in a culture where wealth is power and all of our dominant cultural myths are stories and proverbs we tell each other so that we don’t have to give up our power or feel bad about it.

    So. Business as sacrament is based on a different story. It is the story of the good God who sustains me. He gave me this work. What He gives me He asks me to give to others in turn. My first question of the day need not be “how do I maximize profit?” But “how can I share the goodness God has given to me?”

    I agreed to serve a well-to-do businessman as a “spiritual director” some years ago. The first thing I told him was that he needed to take care about his employees. “You cannot do wrong to your employees and expect God to do good to you. Your employees will pray against you and God will hear them. First, do justice.” Today, I would say that he should pay his workers a living wage. Anyone who says that this is wrong is deeply confused. If a person “lives,” then they are getting a “living wage” from somewhere. If not from work, then from additional employment or welfare, etc. To ask a person to do a full-week’s work and pay them less than a living wage is simply unjust. It’s not conservative or liberal. It’s simply unjust. Then we begin to hear all of the nonsense about “the market.” Somehow the “market” declares that bankers and investors and CEO’s are worth 10’s of millions a year, but the lowest workers aren’t worth a living wage. These are lies and I don’t care who is speaking them.

    This isn’t economics – it’s simply the commandments of God. If Christians have the ability to do this in a different manner, they are commanded to do so.

    One of my grandfathers was a farmer (the other was a sharecropper). The farmer grandfather used to take the produce of his black neighbors to market with his produce so that they would receive the same price that he received. The Klan tried to run him down for this. He was simply doing justice and obeying the commandments of God. That is part of sacramental farming. You cannot give thanks for your harvest while your neighbor is being oppressed for his – when you could do something about it. He didn’t solve the Jim Crow laws – but he did justice by his neighbors.

    Thanksgiving. Justice. This is the beginning of sacramental business. God give us grace!

  22. Debbie,
    I think it’s hard to get all of it at once. God gave us bread and wine, water, oil to start with. But we take the rest, a bit at a time, and give thanks for it. Giving thanks is the beginning of a sacramental relationship. As we give thanks for something/someone/some situation – it becomes a vehicle for communion with God.

  23. Yes, I will give thanks in my vulnerability instead of trying to fix it – thank you Father Stephan. Please keep teaching us how to live this sacramental life, I thank God for you!

  24. Please forgive me for another post, Fr Stephen. I see that God’s grace of love for one’s neighbors and brothers and sisters runs deep in your family and I thank God for that environment and history you grew up in because that is how I believe you have come to us and now feed us. Many thanks to your Grandfather and to God’s light in his heart.

  25. Dee,
    One grandfather was ridden down by the Klan, the other one was in the Klan. Of the two, I liked the one who was in the Klan the best. He was well out of it by the time of my birth. One thing I learned is the huge range of people – with their gifts as well as their weaknesses and their sins. The sins of the Klansman (my father’s dad) were much more tied up in the burden of my own inherited struggles. The legacy of generational sin. There is, of course, generational righteousness – and I should probably think more about it and be more consciously thankful.

    I am simply grateful that I have something to share that is of help – I receive more from readers than you know – certainly more than I give. God give us grace in this life and lots of time for shouting in the next!

  26. I agree with others hailing this post as your clearest, most concise stab at describing the problem of modernity and its antidote, so far. Very helpful! I really appreciate your response to Geri, too.

  27. Regarding the discussion on wealth, I recently read an interesting book on this subject. Perhaps it would be of interest for some here, though it largely deals with Western Christendom:

    Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
    https://www.amazon.com/Through-Eye-Needle-Christianity-350-550/dp/0691161771

    Here is an article about the author:
    http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2017/04/peter-brown-late-antiquity
    A quote from the article:
    “Brown cites the balance of his scholarship between eastern and western Christianity as his proudest accomplishment. Few scholars research both equally, as the task demands mastery of different languages and intuitions. His commitment has challenged him throughout his career to break into new territory, such as by examining the Desert Fathers, Syriac poetry, and languages like Greek and Coptic.”

  28. Fr Stephen,
    Indeed the amazing number of facets in each of our minds and hearts brings richness to our lives as well as sorrows. It sounds like the grandfather who had been a Klan member had a transformation of his own. Thank you so much for sharing this. It gives me much hope.

  29. I would echo was NSP said above. Like a light switch that keeps getting turned on (and I never notice when it went off again). Your writing always makes me realize how little I know, and so I look at words like “faith” and “sin” and “communion” and think, “wait, tell me what that means again?”

  30. I may not be understanding what you wrote…but it seems to me to be far from what scriptures say:

    Romans 1:19For what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse.…

    That seems to teach us that reason and our natural perceptions are part – not all – of how we “see” the Lord, understand Him. It seems as if you are saying the opposite…

    Psalm 19:1
    For the choir director. A Psalm of David. The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.”

    Is this not saying that our apprehension – and study – of the natural world is a way to see the work of His hands and hear of His glory?

    Isaiah 40:21
    Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

    Acts 14:17
    Yet He has not left Himself without testimony to His goodness: He gives you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness.”

    Acts 17:24
    The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made by human hands.

    Romans 2:14
    Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the Law, do by nature what the Law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the Law,

    THERE! Have I pounded you into the pavement with THE BIBLE!!! 🙂
    Sorry, if I’m just not getting what you are saying…I’m not as smart as I used to be….
    But it seems to me that whenever we pronounce some truth or “truth” of which we also say almost no one is aware… that we/humans tend to be off the track…
    The Lord has told us in many ways that He , true things about Him, can be seen in this world, and can be apprehended, perceived, with some trueness, by us.
    No?

  31. Thank you for this blog post, Fr. Stephen, and for these comments here! I am sharing your comment response to Geri’s question about business. Glory to God for All Things!

  32. Fr Stephen,
    Thankyou for another beautiful but profoundly challenging post. My heart wants to soak peacefully in the sacramental reality you describe; it truly does sing to me. I am actively trying to embrace life as a gift from God and to give thanks for all things. But my mind still kicks against the rejection of a rational/naturalistic worldview – I simply know no other way of reliably determining what is true and real (the vagaries of human perception aside). If I have already said too much on this matter in this forum I apologise, and please remove my comment if this is the case. I have been reading your blog and sitting on all of these questions for a while, so now that I’ve found the time, courage and presence of mind to comment, the floodgates have opened…

    How does one tell the difference between that which unseen, invisible yet realer than real, and that which is only imaginary or conceptual?
    My boyfriend (CL, an ex-Catholic turned Buddhist) had a realisation recently when he came with me to a Bible study on the prologue of St John’s Gospel. The thesis presented was that truth, as described there, is definitively embodied in Jesus; and this is seen only by those who believe. One could argue this is circular reasoning. In the classical Christian mind (as you describe) truth is divinely revealed to those who seek and strive for it, not objectively and democratically self-evident. CL asked: what then, of the divine revelation that Mohammed purportedly received through the archangel Gabriel, from the same God? To extrapolate: How can we lovingly look our Muslim neighbour in the eye and say nope, all you believe and would be willing to die for is false, because my revelation is the right one? My sacred experiences are true and yours aren’t? Sadly, the discussion only helped CL realise why the Christian worldview doesn’t make sense to him on a fundamental conceptual level. He rejects the idea that Christianity has any kind of monopoly on truth. I confess I’m a bit perturbed by that notion as well.

    So how can any purported revelation or spiritual knowing be validated or falsified (or is that the wrong question to even ask?) How can real truth be discerned from delusion or imagination if it’s not material?
    I know that Christian revelation (perhaps unlike that of most other religions) can be “validated”, in a sense, by the things that did really, historically happen in the material world. Jesus was born of a virgin, taught people, performed miracles, was crucified and resurrected, and people witnessed this, wrote bits of it down and stubbornly went to their deaths proclaiming it to be true (here’s where the literal/historical view does become crucial, as it were). For most of the people in my life, though (and myself, at times) that evidence is insufficient, or insufficiently reliable.

    Considering the stated consequences of not coming to know God and God’s truth specifically through Jesus Christ, it seems mightily unfair to me (especially that it would affect my whole family and most of my colleagues and friends, and my potential husband) that this truth is not more universally self-evident; and that perhaps God even intends it that way. It’s common sense that one can’t find what one isn’t looking for (or doesn’t want to see) but I must pray fervently that God will have mercy on those (like my boyfriend) who honestly seek the truth but for whatever reason do not (or cannot) see it in Christianity.

    I’m sorry, I know I’m probably missing the point by a country mile but these questions plague me and there is almost nowhere else I can talk about them productively. It is absolutely not my aim to dissuade or distract anyone here from their path, and I apologise if these questions are disturbing or distressing to anyone – please delete my comment if this is so.

  33. Tim,
    For what it’s worth, I think you’re being blinded by what you think the Scriptures say. Blinded, I think, in that you’re reading the Scriptures to say what people experience while ignoring what people actually experience. First, the Scriptures are not as clear as you would seem to think – thus we have 30,000 denominations of Protestants who disagree about the plain sense of Scripture. There has never, in all of Protestant history, been a single, agreed Protestant Church – Sola Scriptura gave multiple contradictory groups from the very beginning of its application.

    So, we have to look at the Scriptures and ask deeper questions. The very passage in Romans that you cite needs to be read further and thus not taken out of context as it almost always is:

    because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man– and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, (Rom. 1:21-24)

    And, please note, St. Paul is describing a historical situation – not a generalized principle to be applied everywhere and always. He is saying that the pagans, once upon a time, saw all of these things, but did not glorify God rightly [rebellion], and because of that they “became futile in their thoughts.” etc.

    We live long past the time of the seeing clearly that St. Paul describes. We live well on the other side of the “futile thoughts” and deception. They do not see clearly – and they do all the things St. Paul describes. Indeed, today black is called white and white black, evil good and good evil, etc.

    The use you make of this passage is a common trope of Protestants and is removed from the historical context St. Paul references and turned into some abstract principle. In short, you are misusing and misunderstanding the passage. This misuse has come about because Protestants, in their own modernist delusion, need the Scriptures to be “obvious” so that they can refuse the right authority of Holy Tradition (2Thess. 3:6), and claim instead the authority of “reason and natural perceptions,” that have been disastrous now for centuries.

    Not only has it distorted the Scriptures and torn the Church assunder repeatedly – but it created the very problem of modernity itself – teaching the world that it’s so-called reason and perceptions could be trusted.

    I suggest you go out and visit universities and high schools and try to have a reasonable conversation about a lot of reasonable things with today’s youth and come back and tell me how reasonable their perceptions are. The world is largely insane and I’m surprised you haven’t noticed.

    When reading the Scriptures, it’s good to read a whole passage and think about what’s actually there, and, occasionally, question what you’ve always heard and been told from the pulpit. One of the benefits I’ve found in Orthodoxy is hearing the Scriptures without them being run first through the tropes of Protestantism.

  34. Rae,

    No doubt Fr. Freeman and others here will probably give you replies that are much more useful than what I can say, but I just wanted to say that I have also pondered that same point you mention for a long time.

    If I understand the writings of Fr. Freeman right, he has said in the past that it is an illusion to think that there is some “objective neutral intellectual ground” where we can stand and dispassionately and impartially consider the truth-claims of various religions and philosophies. Rather, the “objective truth” is the person of Christ. But how do you convince someone of this point who does not already have the faith? I don’t know.

    One glimmer of light I have found is Puddleglum (in fact, my favourite character among all those created by C.S. Lewis) from “The Silver Chair:”

    “One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

    To put the point in the language of the modern world, I suppose, when one is offered the “alternatives” of the Christian and Mohammedan faiths, one could say, with Chestertonian flair, “I conclude that a God who enters enemy occupied territory in stealth and overthrows the reign of sin and the devil by the completely game-changing move of embracing humiliation and death, and through a continuing mystical liturgy, gives us the ability to unite ourselves with him in entering death and overcome it, and become his children – ontologically, and not merely in a manner of speaking – such a God is much more heroic, beautiful, and noble, spontaneously inspires love and fealty, than a God who dictates a revealed text and demands of us submission, as that of a slave to master.” (It could be possible that individual adherents of the Mohammedan faith have a mystical spirituality that rises above mere slavish submission, but that is beyond the scope of an “objective” discussion, I would think.)

    But then I suppose your interlocutor could ask, “But is there an objective measure of these things you mention, viz, ‘heroism,’ ‘nobility,’ ‘beauty,’ etc., and if there is, how do we come to an agreement about it before I accept your faith?”

    What does one do then? Does one begin with something like the concept of the “Great Conversation” a la Mortimer Adler? I’m not sure.

  35. Rae,
    We need to talk!! As soon as I have more time I would love to address your concerns because they are my concerns. First, I’ve never had a moment insight or inspiration in the Orthodox faith that wasn’t followed by the exclamation, “That just makes so much sense.” The sacramental view (and by “view” I don’t just mean “a way of seeing”) comes with time, patience, and prayer–commit yourself to prayer. Learn the Jesus Prayer and pray. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. To be frank, I have wanted to walk away from this religion more than once…but I can’t un-see what I’ve seen. Second, at the level of discourse at which you are evaluating competing religious claims of course you can’t discriminate between religions. How could you? The faculty for understanding the truth takes a rectification of the heart. Not an overhaul, but it is truly a matter of the heart. 3) Reason is not how we approach God. It is through love. Reason is good for building tools and taking things apart and putting things together. But reason is not a compass on your way to God. Apart from a heart that has be opened to something of the presence of God all religious claims seem equal and/or utterly absurd. Third, the Spirit is present in the world opening hearts, preparing the soil, making the soul ready to receive the word. The mercies of salvation are much greater than we can imagine.

  36. Tim Johnson,

    You’re thinking in one-dimensional terms in a four-dimensional universe. Everything that you said after your Roman’s quote could have been predicted.

  37. Father,
    Thank you for response to Tim.
    NSP, wonderful. David, good words. What a great group of commenters!

  38. Rae, it has helped me a lot in evaluating the competing truth claims of religions and faiths to look at the answers to these questions:
    1. What is the nature and character of God described in the teachings of the faith?
    2. What is the nature and character of human beings as described in the teachings?
    3. What is the nature and character of the interaction between God and man?
    4. What is the the core promise and goal of #3?
    5. How is that achieved?

    Unfortunately there will be quite different answers given by Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox but the honest and correct answers to these questions reveals the essential differences.
    The Christian faith is set apart from all others by one thing: God became man and remained fully God and fully man as an act of incomprehensible live.

    No other religion, faith or philosophy that I know of in the history of man has dared to make that statement.
    That is why Christians can and do proclaim “Only by Jesus Christ can we know the Father.”

    That is rejected by the egalitarian-nominalist mind of our culture. It is not “normal” or comfortable.
    A friend of mine told me once that he would never be a Christian because he would have to change and he did not want to.

    To paraphrase Blessed Seraphim Rose, the truth is not an idea with which we agree in our brain, the Truth is a person who we can love with our hearts because He loves us and gives Himself for us first.

    My own answers to those questions led me to the Orthodox Church as the only place to know that love in full, that fullness of the person of Jesus Christ.
    Ah, if we’re not for those “onlies” it would be so much easier. Nothing would be required of us.

  39. Thank you, Father. I am going to use your post to try to explain to some of my friends and kin that they misunderstand me when I refer to myself as a “Christian.” They assume I mean that I agree with Joe Osteen and folks like that. Of course, in this culture, what else would they think.

    I am also enjoying the commentary on this post. It reminds me of something I learned in Alcoholics Anonymous: Finding God is not an intellectual achievement. When I learned that, I started to get better.

  40. (took me a while to compose this, and since I began there has been many helpful further comments (such an oasis!)! I’m going to post anyway, even though we’re kind of saying the same thing)
    Rae,
    I am thankful for your participation here. It is a pleasure to hear from someone who kindly expresses their thoughts, their heart felt doubts, as you do. That is a great help for me, as I learn from people with such a disposition. I long to have such grace.
    NSP has stated well my experience with objectors. Recently it was suggested to me that atheists and Christians have much in common in their “morality”. What he was trying to do was take Christ out of the picture and unite humanity in moral terms, that being their “objective truth”. You could say the same for “Sola Scripture”…that scripture is the objective truth, not the person of Christ.
    Know it or not, Christ takes second place in the Solas. Hence, as Father said ” the authority of “reason and natural perceptions” ” I believe is the cause of many mixed messages, whether it come from the question (Rae) “So how can any purported revelation or spiritual knowing be validated or falsified” (how do we know Christianity is valid truth), or the statement that all truth is found *only* in Scripture. Both depend foremost on reason and natural perceptions.
    So Rae, what I am trying to say, as NSP said, I absolutely do not know how to convince someone that the person of Christ is the fulfillment of all truth. But I do have a clue as to how the truth is imparted, by the words of Christ when Peter proclaimed “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Jesus’ response…”..you did not learn this from man. My Father in heaven has shown you this.” Somehow in our search, during the ‘time line’ of our lives, in our willingness (however that may manifest) God shows us, or rather we recognize, God’s real presence…He is the first cause, not our ‘reasoning and natural perception’. Rae, you are on the right track. I understand your concern for your friends and loved ones. I would question if you *didn’t* have a loving concern for them. But this is how I look at it, this is just me….ok, the so called atheist asked me, ‘so how do I know, among all the religions, which god is the true God? “Who decides?”, he asked. My response was, with capped letters, YOU DECIDE! And the conversation went on. My point is, after wondering “what about all the other religions…all the other people”, in the end I do not know “what about them”! This has nothing to do with my love for them, but everything to do with deciding for myself, for obtaining answers. But deciding for myself is absolutely not apart from the working of God. Why do some come to the knowledge of truth, and some not…I do not know. I am amazed that anyone can have that knowledge, and on the other hand, not amazed when I see the power of God in the midst of it all. God has given you the gift of a scientific mind that will in no way impair, but for you will be the very way of coming to know Him.

  41. Fr Stephen,
    You write, “If no particular change is required in a human being in order to perceive the truth of the gospel, then rational argument and demonstration becomes the order of the day. ”

    If a person doesn’t perceive the truth of the gospel but wants to or is open to perceiving it, would you say the best thing they can do is to first ask God for help, and attend the Divine Liturgy and other Orthodox services, and talk to a priest? I’m thinking of this in contrast to the Reformed view that we are so totally depraved that we cannot seek God apart from Him first changing us, and that for His own secret, divine purposes.

    Rae, NSP, Gerri Priscilla, David, thank you for a great discussion. Everyone, thank you, and of course, Fr Stephen!

  42. Tim,

    You accept the assumptions of our culture that “seeing” is a faculty exclusively belonging to the physical eye and that “knowing” is a faculty exclusively belonging to reason and the mind. I posit that these ought to be added to Father Stephen’s list of words that have been constantly re-defined and need to be considered in the context of classical Christianity. I believe they must be understood in relation to the nous (Father, correct me if I’m wrong).

  43. SW,
    Yes. God is not willing that any should perish, we are told. He uses many and varied things to bring us to a knowledge of the truth. The “come and see” has long been a standard approach of Orthodox evangelism. We are not totally depraved, nor are we utterly deceived. Perception is possible, though dimly at first.

  44. I understand the the allegiance to reason. In a world littered with charlatans, crooks, and raving lunatics, how do you separate the garbage from the non-garbage? As it turns out, reason does a pretty good of filtering out the chaff. But, reason will not deliver the truth of God. The truth is not the conclusion that follows of necessity from the premises of a well-constructed argument and it isn’t the inevitable conclusion that follows from the weight of evidence. So, how does someone come to know the truth? At the level of reason alone, one cannot know the truth and if reason is someone’s sole meaning of knowing, then failure is inevitable. It is a grace of God that the Spirit is not restricted by our over-dependence on reason, but responds to the heart that is searching for God using the meager tools at its disposal.

  45. If reason is a cup, then God is the ocean. No matter how many cups of water you scoop will reveal the ocean to you. Cups of water will never reveal the breadth, the depth, and all the life that is in the ocean. To know that on any level…one must become the ocean.

  46. Everyone,
    I cannot thank you enough (or more accurately, thank God enough) for your graceful and insightful responses. I am deeply humbled by the welcome I’ve received here. Hopefully I will find time to respond at some point but for now there is much to ponder.
    May you all know God’s peace today.

  47. Quoting Father Stephen’s second paragraph:
    “The sacramental world of classical Christianity speaks a wholly different language. It presumes that the world as we see it is an expression of a greater reality that is unseen. It presumes that *everything is a continuing gift and a means of communion with the good God who created it*”
    http://www.abbamoses.com/anaphora.html
    After reading this I could not help but apply it to the topic of conversation. This prayer is truly the “expression of a greater reality” in our “struggle against the normal life.”
    Father, thank you for your guidance.
    Glory to God for all things!

  48. Fr. Stephen, thank you so much for this amazingly clear post. I’ve been Orthodox for many years, but the need for clarity and help in negotiating this profane word never ends. This post is truly a wonderful gift.

  49. Michael Bauman, I want to thankyou for your answer to Geri also. I appreciate your helpful list and again the reference to the transformation of our lives which is God’s work.

    Our work and struggle is to not rest complacently with ‘normal’. It isn’t a process that is like ‘swimming against’ the current but a realization that there is another river altogether. Swimming in that river is a process of turning to God (often with all your baggage still intact) but Christ is the Navigator of that river. Acknowledging one’s baggage to Christ and trusting in the process, are the beginning acts of faith. That that river takes us more deeply into God’s creation, which God loves well beyond our understanding.

  50. Michael, since you’re familiar with Native American life ways, I thought I’d mention a short story about a childhood experience with my Seminole grandmother.

    One day she went looking for me and found me lying on a fork in a large branch of a tree. I was lying on it facing up to the top of the tree in way that was like a hammock. Or like a babe in mother’s arms. As I was laying there, my grandmother found me because she heard me singing. I was about five years old. She came under me and spoke to me asking what I was doing. I told her I was singing to the tree. She asked, “is the tree singing to you too?” And I answered yes., and told/ sung the song of the tree to her. She listened intently. She gave me the impression that she took quite seriously the song I heard.

    That memory is one of the most salient I have of her and her place in Florida. I’m grateful for it.

  51. Dee,
    Thank you for your singing tree. I believe there is a quote somewhere from St John of the Cross: “Do you not hear the trees and leaves calling out to us: “‘The love of God! The love of God!'”
    Then perhaps one might consider a daisy that I encountered years ago.
    THE DAISY
    I asked God to speak to me of love, and He showed me a daisy, one single daisy, with the warm and glorious sun shining upon it. How can love be summed up in a daisy? How is the infinite, compassionate, all powerful love of God realized in a single fragile flower. It is beautiful standing there in my mind’s eye — the white of the petals shining so pure and bright, like the robes of Jesus at the Transfiguration, whiter than any bleacher on earth could make them. Shining, radiant, pure, holy if you will. For isn’t holiness somehow related to purity? Ah yes, Lord, your love for us is holy and pure, and that is the way you desire us to be. Would that we would allow your love to shine in us as the petals of the daisy.
    The heart of the daisy is yellow like gold. Gold, which is precious, which cannot be destroyed by fire but only purified by that testing. Precious. Yes, love is like that. It speaks of the peace that fills the heart, even in the midst of turmoil. Even when storms blow, that golden center of the soul if you will endures and cannot be moved. So the love of God cannot be moved from its purpose. He does not change; His love does not change. We may resist, deny, but never defeat. Gold is precious because its value is trusted by all. Likewise, and infinitely more, can we trust God’s love. Precious. Of infinite value. The most precious thing in all life is God’s love; for wasn’t God’s Word of creation spoken out of His love? And doesn’t His love maintain and support His creation, even the daisy which is not aware of it? Or is it? I wonder. Is it just possible that the daisy is closer to God’s love than I am, and that is why it is so full of joy and radiance, and that is why it speaks of Him to my heart? Would that I could lift my face to heaven with such radiance and such joy. Would that my heart were as pure as gold. Oh Lord, would that I were as close to you as is that small, fragile daisy.
    The green of the leaves and stem speaks to me of life, for without them there would be no flower. Is there life without love? Is there love without life? Does not love, God’s love, support us just as the stem supports the flower? The stem brings food from the soil through the roots to nourish the flower, and enables it to stand and grow through wind and storm. For the stem is also flexible. It will bend, that it will not break. If I would be flexible and willing to bend in the wind, would not God’s love also support me that I might not be destroyed? That I might not blow away in the wind, but remain firmly fastened to the roots in the soil?
    And is not the soil in which the roots are secure the very love of God itself? Oh Lord, if only my roots were so fastened in you and in your love — could I possibly be like a daisy? Lord, make me as strong as the fragile daisy; make me as pure in purpose as gold; make me shine with the joy and radiance of your love.

  52. Bless Father,

    May I ask, how is it possible to overcome all of the noise and the duties of modern daily life and still have time and energy for the quiet and sacramental?

    There was a time once when I took everything much slower, but this was a time just before and at the very beginning of adulthood. As the years passed, and the family grew in size and age, the daily struggle is exhausting. Between school, eating healthy, keeping up with household duties, extra curricular activities, work, finances, and then the weight of wanting to make sure the family is happy and their needs are met is pretty much all consuming.

    At the end of the day, one is tired, one falls asleep while trying to put the children to sleep, or one sleeps in after being kept up for late hours due to sick or energetic children and having to wake in the wee mornings for the past five days and there is always a time crunch. Everyone has to be everywhere right on time, fed healthy meals, and totally clean and well dressed for every occassion. Anything less and someone is waiting around the corner to pass judgement on the clothes your children wore to liturgy, or even worse to call child protective services for the smallest infraction. (I know people and have experiences having the police called because the children were playing outside, despite the fact that there was adult supervision.)

    I understand what you have said in the comments about depending on God. But when there are children, one cannot depend on God to get them in the bath or make sure they are on time for school or appointments, one can depend on God to be there with them through all of the struggles, and to give them rest even when there has been little to no sleep.

    So how do we fight? How do we discipline ourselves to put God first, and to savor the sacramental moments when the world demands so much from us and our minds and bodies are just so worn down? Thank you.

  53. Taina, thank you for sharing your frustrations and struggle. As I read your description of those struggles it left me thinking how normal in terms of usual even what is expected it is. At the same time it struck me that it also describes the insanity of modernity in which no thing has any meaning or importantance. Neither is their any hierarchy of meaning. You just have to do.

    I have often fallen into the same kind of trap. Now that I am older and the simple physical ability and the requirement to care for children are gone it is easier, but still the same expectation exisits in different forms. The compulsion to do.

    I am no master, in fact I am barely a novice but the fighting back is not more doing. Your to do list is already over full.

    Two things worth considering:. Acknowledging to God that any and all effort on your part to overcome the modern insanity have failed and will fail, you require His help. Then work on the discipline of thanks giving. Give thanks to Him for something every day even if is very small . Even if you can find only one thing. That may sound like doing but it is part of acknowledging one’s own failure to do and accepting the gift. Acknowledging the Providence of God as in Him actually providing for you and those you love.

    It changes the whole paradigm and context of doing. As you practice the realization of the giftedness of your life will expand and you will find more beautiful gifts even in places that you once thought were curses. Ultimately it becomes, I think, a sacramental way of living and doing. All in proper order.

    That is my experience. Not theory. Of course it took me being on the brink of being fired to acknowledge it and I still have many struggles — I am a stiff necked person.

    But I have to laugh because even that is a gift.

    May God bless you and keep you and give you rest in your soul. Psalm 23

  54. Tania, a few tools that helped me if you are able: read this blog; comment when moved.
    A little book by Merlin Carouthers, Prison to Praise;. the last section of William Faulkner’s, The Sound and the Fury.

    In reverse order in which I found them and of importance but each significant in it’s own way. This blog is by far the most important.

  55. Taina, though I have only two children and one mostly grown (the other with special needs that will likely render her dependant her whole life), I share many of your struggles. Ruth Graham (wife of Rev. Billy Graham) did a lot of solo parenting of five kids. I always remember her admission in the context of a discussion on nurturing her relationship with God that she learned to do most of her praying during those years “on the hoof!” Michael’s counsel sounds good to me. If you have any friends, fellow parishioners, or family members you can deputize to step in and assist you anywhere–that is the only counsel I might add (and which I am trying to folllow myself, but with only limited success). You are at an extremely demanding and challenging stage in your life, and the last thing you need is one more demand. Be gracious with yourself and know that the Lord is infinitely more so!

  56. Taina
    The world is sacramental, including all of the busy, busy tasks of the day and night. Nothing could be more sacramental than the care of children. Children are a gift of God. The primary thing, above all, is to give thanks in all things. As we give thanks to God in our tasks, and even our business, the world’s sacramentality will open itself to us. Don’t mean to make it sound so simple, but, to a large extent, it is.

  57. Taina,
    Your comment about the way people judge how your children are dressed sort of stuck in my craw. Do you have a monastery close? They could look like little rag muffins there and no one would pay any attention.

  58. Thank you all. Micheal, your description was insightful and helpful. Thank you for the suggested reading. Dean, the Monasteries close by me are Catholic. 🙂 In my prayers, I have gotten the word to just sit back even when the kids are having a popcorn fight, and give thanks to the Lord that they are all alive and healthy. This has helped. But I feel so upset with myself because I want to be structured, I want to wake up and say more than “God Morning Lord. Thank you.” And I want fo go to bed and say more than “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” But that is sometimes the best I can do. Thank you Fr Freeman for showing me how simple it can be. I will rest knowing that a Good morning, and Thank you are enough for right now. At least the desire is in my heart. I can leave the work up to Him.

  59. Taina,

    I think many of us here can totally relate. I know I feel I’m in the same boat. My kids are bit older (HS and Jr HS) but now instead of baths, it’s “Dad, I need to be taken here, and picked up from there, I don’t get this Algebra and I need your help, remember Dad that my violin concert / track meet / whatever, is this Thur night so don’t be late, etc, etc.” For me, I often feel that the modern world is to blame (gee, I wonder what blog I got that idea from? 🙂 ). But then I realize that a few hundred years ago, the husband and wife were working very hard just to put food on the table (literally) and to survive. I’m guessing (and I could well be wrong) that those folks too didn’t have lots of time for pausing and reflection.
    But Fr. Stephen a while back helped me to realize just what he wrote above. While I’m doing all of these activities each day and wishing for a perfect world in which (supposedly) I could pray for lengthy periods of time, God is always there. As Fr Stephen said, I can spend time in those busy moments being thankful for all things and even in the midst of activities, I can always say the Jesus prayer.

  60. Taina
    I too understand the challenges you face. We have to trust in the Lord and ask Him to help carry our burden. But we also have to do His work, and few tasks are more precious and important than raising a family. I was inspired by the words of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, who wrote that God expects us to work and everything we do is for Him (and not for the boss/organisation/etc.) so we should do it with humility, a generous heart and without complaint. When I forget this I pray for forgiveness and repent. It’s tough!

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