Love and Freedom

The most difficult aspect of love is the freedom it inherently requires. Love, in its ultimate and proper form, only exists between equals. There can be a sort of benevolence and nobility towards another who is not equal, but never love. This makes it difficult to understand the God-who-is-love.

It will quickly be said by most that God is not our equal, and that we can never be His equal. What we suggest by that is that He can never love us and we can never love Him. He can be kind and caring towards us, and we can be affectionate and respectful towards Him, but we can never love Him as our equal.

Against this denial is the blatant Christian teaching (constantly affirmed in the Orthodox Church) that God’s intention towards us is to raise us up as equals. We say that “God became man so that man could become God.” Often that statement is “fudged.” We quickly add that we do not mean that human beings will become “God” in the same manner that He is God. But what the Fathers say is that we will become, by grace, everything that God is by nature. This is to say that we will become what He is because it is His gift to us.

And in this gift, we can say that He loves us. He intends to raise us up as equals.

Christ says, “I no longer call you servants… but friends (Jn. 15:15). He has held nothing back from us.

The image that speaks of this most deeply for me is that of seeing God “face to face.” This is much more than an expression of closeness or visibility. It is also an expression of an encounter with an equal.

All of this, of course, is predicated on the fact that God wills Himself to be our equal. It is His condescension that makes it possible. He became “small” and “weak,” not only to enter into our world, but, in entering it, to come as our equal. He came as a man among men, not as a ruler or a lord. He washed feet with the suggestion that we should do the same.

And this is love. Love is only possible between equals. This is perhaps not obvious to us at first. We think of parent and child and do not consider them equal. But, properly, they are. Something which establishes our equality with one another is the nature of our “boundaries.” There is something inviolable and intrinsically deserving of regard and respect between equals. With my dog, such a boundary does not quite exist. He conforms to my will and, generally, gets no vote in matters that arise. A child is not a dog. Though a child requires more guidance and help from an adult, they have boundaries that remain. Those boundaries say to an adult, “You cannot trespass here, without doing harm.” The child’s boundaries become equal to the parent in that moment.

For that matter, even a dog has a certain form of equality: that of a fellow creature. We cannot do with them just anything. Cruelty is real and constitutes an unwarranted violation of an animal.

It is said by some that God has no boundaries regarding us, that He is God and may do with us (and to us) whatever He wills. This, of course, is true in an abstract sense. However, it is not true of God as He has made Himself known in Christ. Christ is a God who “asks.” He is the God who allows a freedom so great that it can kill Him.

The mystery of our freedom is found in the condescending love of God. The exercise of our freedom, particularly when used for evil ends, inevitably makes God appear weak or non-existent. We rarely consider the fact that it makes Him look like an equal, and an equal who loves us. Obviously, this allows for the tragedy of our evil actions. But, even there, God does not exempt Himself from that tragedy but embraces its consequences in His death on the Cross. It is fully within our freedom that He addresses us and rescues us from the consequences of our own evil (and the evil of others).

Of course, such a voluntarily weak God is deeply frustrating. He could do so much more. What we want Him to do is not love some in order to love others. If He ignores the freedom of the evil-doer in order to preserve the life of the innocent, we ask Him to violate His love (or negate it). This reality creates the paradox of love and freedom. That paradox is only solved in the mystery of Pascha itself. In His voluntary suffering and death, God takes upon Himself the suffering that love allowed to our freedom. Without violating that freedom, He nullifies the effects of its abuse in the resurrection of the dead (not just His own, but that of all).

All of this turns the usual arguments (and thoughts) about the so-called “problem of evil” on its head. Those arguments require a God whose power selectively loves and nowhere limits itself. When I have written that Pascha is at the heart of everything (and I believe this faithfully represents the teaching of the Church) this weakness born of love is its consequence. It is the love of God that surrounds us and calls us to be His friends. It seeks us, face to face, even searching for us when we hide. But it is a love that stands weakly at the border of our freedom, and waits for our invitation.

 

 

107 comments:

  1. Interesting. I’ve never really thought of God as an equal in this way before.

    How would you say vulnerability and courage rooted in humility plays into this idea? I’ve been trying to figure out what boundaries are at their core by looking at how the trinity operates, but it seems that it’s a mystery in that relationships at their core are a mystery.

    Thanks for this,
    Hope your day is well,

    Adam

  2. Adam,
    I’ll quickly say that “equal” has not been a word that I’ve generally used in speaking of God. It has been a recent acquisition as I’ve come to see some things in yet a new manner.

    Boundaries, at their core, include the understanding that I am not you and that there are things that belong to who you are that I may only enter by permission – and, even then, must handle with care. That is saying it on the psychological level. In the Trinity, we are speaking ontologically and personally, so things become, perhaps, yet more difficult to speak.

  3. Ah, I see. That makes sense. Compassion came to mind when you spoke about “equal” as well. But, thanks for clarifying.

    That makes sense about boundaries! Any books that you would recommend on boundaries if you have read any on the topic?

  4. Adam,
    There are a number of good books on psychological boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No is quite popular. If you get more technical, I would suggest that boundaries are part of what some call “healthy shame.” That is the reflex we have that warns of vulnerability and the like, but it is a necessary part of our life in order to experience awe and wonder. It is also necessary in order to love someone. If there are no boundaries, then we are only loving ourselves (more or less, narcissism). Shame (in its positive sense) is the foundation of humility – the ability to bear shame – or to bear my own weakness and failures, etc. That, too, is necessary for love (on the part of a human being). And, although Christ had no sin, even He voluntarily humbled Himself as though He did: in His Baptism.

  5. A striking expression I once heard from Elder Aimilianos regarding God’s respect of man (in all His dealings with us) is that the infinitely indefinable God sees, and wants to see, tiny little man, as “His god”.

  6. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this beautiful elaboration on our life in Christ. I’m seeing a theme in your recent writings and comments, for which I too have grappled. I’m very grateful for your thoughts.

    In my reflections, I’m remembering some difficulties I experienced during the last Lent. And regarding these reflections, I’ll comment with this: I sincerely appreciate the hierarchy of the Church and have never ‘quibbled’ with the tradition of her structure. Still, in America, I have seen a priest (in the OC) who actively crosses appropriate boundaries. In his presentations, he seems to wish to compel the diminution of one against another and he is deeply entrenched in supporting a form of subjugation, of an unequal relationship. I’ll admit I’m grateful that he’s far from my parish. But still, because of him, at one point in time, I felt shaken by my affiliation with the Church in my brokenness, at the same time clung to Christ for dear life.

    Your writings greatly supports us, Father. You remind us of the real Christ, waiting patiently and lovingly for our invitation into our hearts. Glory be to God for your openness to Christ and for His gift to us through your writings.

  7. Father Stephen,
    Nothing so scandalized me as an evangelical looking at Orthodoxy as the phrase you quoted….I think from St. Athanasius, “God became man so that man could become god.” Of course, in a very different way, Mormons teach that we can become a God. In the back of my mind was the evangelical film on the Mormons, “The God Makers.” It took me a while to get over that hurdle in Orthodoxy.
    That the Fathers say that we will become by grace what God is by nature is mind boggling to me. I believe it yet it is hard to percolate down into my heart. That God in Christ loves us that much, that He is not ashamed to call us brothers. What dignity graced upon us by grace! Thinking about it makes me want to say with the prophet Isaiah, “Woe to me,” after having seen the Lord of Hosts, or Peter being stripped for work, quickly clothing and throwing himself into the water when he realized he was in the presence of the Risen Lord.

  8. Your blessing, Father.

    I want to understand what you are saying Father, when you use the word equal. In what way, as created beings, can we become equal to God?
    Are you speaking of the voluntary lowering of our own selves, that is, to bear the humility/shame as did Christ, for the sake of the other? In trying to form my question here, I am reminded of your piece titled “Unfallen Suffering”. There you say:
    “Our human experience would judge such self-emptying actions to be a form of suffering. If we can say that the preference of the other over the self is a form of suffering, then we must also say that it is “unfallen” suffering, for it is a reflection of the very love of God.”

    You also say that this unfallen suffering is a picture of the love within the Trinity:
    “We understand within the teaching of the Church that there is indeed a “laying down of life” within the very Godhead. This is the mutual self-emptying of the Persons of the Trinity.”
    So Father…is it in this manner, of the giving of one’s self, that you say we can be equal to God?

    [The link: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2017/03/27/icon-unfallen-suffering/ ]

  9. Thank you, Father, this is a deeply theological topic. I would be grateful if you could either point me to a previous blog post or elaborate further on the “problem of evil” and how God’s condescending love turns it on its head.

    I know many of us here may have had enough of this being thrown at us, but it would personally benefit me to know the Patristic teaching on this matter. I’ve often heard from Priests that “evil happens so there can be saints in the world”. Frankly, this is very poetic and sounds out of this world (it probably is). It doesn’t explain the pain of evil not does it give comfort.
    Thank you.

  10. Thank you Fr Stephen for your time and dedication.

    I don’t quite get the use of ‘freedom’ in this context, as if freedom contradicts love – perhaps ‘consent’ would be more fitting? The misuse of freedom, yes this it seems to me can indeed be destructive, but such misuse is hardly a required necessity for love, nor can such be properly identified as freedom in a Christian sense.

  11. Robert,
    Freedom does not contradict love. However, freedom is necessary to love – love cannot be compelled and be love. It is gift – freely given. “Consent” could be used, but for the life of me, I cannot conceive of a meaning of consent that is not an aspect of freedom. I’m at a loss for where you see the misuse of freedom as a requirement for love anywhere in the article. Perhaps you could be more specific. Perhaps I written poorly. It makes sense when I re-read it.

  12. Thomas B,
    I would never suggest evil happens so there can be saints in the world. I find that sort of statement to be abhorrent. Saints exist, despite evil, not because of it. I dig a little more for you on the topic.

  13. Paula AZ,
    The thought that we could be equal to God is, on the face of it, completely absurd. He is Creator, we are creatures. But, for our sake, the Creator becomes a creature (the God/Man). Certainly, the humanity of Jesus is creaturely. So, we are first set in the place of equal by His condescension – He empties Himself to become what we are. We can behold Him face to face because He assumes a human face.

    But, He has become what we are that He might (by grace) raise us to what He is. And that mystery, taught by the fathers, is simply so astounding that we really cannot conceive of it. It is pure gift of pure love.

  14. I am not understanding why freedom is the most difficult aspect of love. Is it difficult because it requires consent of the other, love can’t just march on and over whoever is in its path? Surely. But such compulsion and masquerading brute force wouldn’t be love. Without freedom there is no love. So I fail to see why freedom is difficult for love, the two go hand in hand: to be free is to love and to be loved. To withhold and refuse to love is to be imprisoned. I am straying from the main thrust of the post, which is excellent.

  15. Robert,
    I think I see where your question is. What I meant by “the most difficult aspect of love is the freedom that it requires,” is closer to “restraint”. It is love that stops at the boundary and cannot do more within the “free and equal” response of the beloved.

    My thoughts were primarily around the so-called problem of evil and the role of love/freedom within that. God could “love” us in a way that protected us, but in doing so, He would not “love” us in the true sense. The love of God practices a self-limitation – it is kenotic. We could “love” everybody if we didn’t have to deal with and respect their freedom – their ability to resist, to say no, etc.

    The “problem” created by a kenotic love is, I think, resolved only in Pascha. Christ becomes the “Victim” (“the Offerer and the Offered”) – or, in the language of the West, “Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest.” All of the suffering entailed by our being granted a freedom that can say no – so that it can also say yes in love – is borne by Him in His death and in His death He gives life to all. He “reconciles the world to Himself.”

    But, my opening sentence might have been better conceived…hmmm.

  16. I am not understanding why freedom is the most difficult aspect of love.

    In the post Fr. Stephen says: “Of course, such a voluntarily weak God is deeply frustrating. He could do so much more. What we want Him to do is not love some in order to love others. If He ignores the freedom of the evil-doer in order to preserve the life of the innocent, we ask Him to violate His love (or negate it). This reality creates the paradox of love and freedom.”

    The reason freedom is the most difficult aspect of love is because God cannot interfere with the freedom of say a pedophile without negating his love for the pedophile. Because he does not negate his love for the pedophile, then the freedom that is the corollary of that love becomes the means by which the pedophile abuses his victims. The paradox is that the very love that guarantees us the freedom to approach God as equals is the same freedom that is the source of all the world’s woes and evils.

    But God is no toad on a stool. Through Pascha, He takes upon himself the pain and consequence of every evil ever committed and he brings to it a new life, resurrection. The end result being that the very thing that was intended to destroy us becomes the very means of our salvation/deification.

  17. We live in a culture that idolizes the idea of “choice” and insists that each person’s life is merely an accumulation of his own choices. Yet, no one wills his own birth or any of the circumstances surrounding it. No one wills whether his car will start today or how his neighbor will treat him. A person can exceed performance expectations at work and, through no fault of his own, be fired on a boss’s whim. Etcetera. The details and particulars of each day are mostly out of our control. We do not have choices; we have just one choice, the only choice there has ever been:
    “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you,” The way I see it, that is the whole of our freedom and the only choice of our every moment. We did not choose to be born, but we must choose to live.

  18. Father,
    I’m mulling in awe over the last part of your response to Robert. The love of Christ, His amazing Grace…I could hear it a million times and be as awestruck as if it were the first.

    But just to clarify about “equality”…I take it that “…He might (by grace) raise us to what He is.” is what is meant by being partakers of the divine nature, and what the Fathers call deification. Surely as you say, a gift of pure love. Inconceivable….

  19. HaHa.

    I think the other component that is difficult to overcome is marble vision. We think of humanity like marbles in a box: Things that are only loosely associated by virtue of the fact that they boxed in and can’t escape one another. When we discretize humanity this way we end up in a world polarized between “good” marbles and “bad” marbles. And what we want is a god of thunder that swings a hammer and divides the marbles into good guys and bad guys…and tosses the bad guys. But, IF we are not so easily distinguished, IF there is some sense in which we are more like an ontological fabric or an organic whole–an “Adam” if you will–then perhaps the kenotic love isn’t extended specifically towards individual persons and their freedom, but towards the organic whole. And that freedom that must be permitted for the organic whole becomes the vehicle of saintliness and not-so-saintliness.

    The the understanding of God that has been emerging in my life is a God of kenosis: God is in the “nots”.

  20. Your last comment, Simon, is really insightful. Your words have reminded me of the parable of the wheat and the tares.

  21. Borrowing from Genesis, imagine that q Wind is moving across the surface of a vast ocean. And from the action of the Wind across the surface waves emerge. Now due to the coarse grained nature of their perception each wave conveniently sees itself and other waves as a discrete time process. In reality things are much more continuous and the sense in which the waves are connected is greater than the sense in which they are not. And the depths…the depths of the ocean from which the wave emerges is more than any wave can fathom. To know the depths of the ocean the wave itself must become an ocean.

  22. Great analogies Simon.
    Your comments on kenotic love as extended toward the organic whole, and the waves of the ocean being more connected than not reminds me of The Word, the Logos and the created acts of His will, the logos/logoi. Yes, we are more connected than not, as all creation (the organic whole) emanates from Him (in kenotic love). As for the depths, He is ever drawing all things unto Himself…that “when we see Him we will be like Him”.
    O Amazing Love! Full of Grace and Truth!
    Great analogies Simon…

  23. Father, this is one of the most powerful, complete and yet concise things I have read which describe the difference between the Orthodox understanding of Salvation and Life Eternal and the concepts developed in the West. I must say the Orthodoxy understanding is truly Good News.

  24. I’m not so sure how far I would go with this, but it might be worth thinking about…or not.

    When you slam your hand in a door or step step on a Lego at night with your bare feet, there is a very real sense in which that sensation is in your hand or in your foot. But, that is not the case. Although there is no way in the world to convince yourself otherwise that pain is not in your hand or your foot. (Ask people with phantom limb syndrome about where their pain is at. ) There are axonal projections that connect the hand to higher order regions in the brain. The signal originates from the hand, but the actual perception of the pain is in the brain. The brain localizes the pain, at least in part, through the use of higher order “maps” in the somatosensory and somatomotor cortices.

    Dabbling in more allegory, imagine that we can think of our hands as having consciousness and it’s own sense of self. Such that when a hand experiences pain or trauma it may feel as if it is alone in that experience. The hand may think: ‘I am in pain. I alone am having this experience.’ However, it is an illusion that the hand feels pain on its own apart from anything else. The hand and all of its sensations are mediated principally through its connection to a higher order of consciousness. This allegorical hand feels isolated by its pain. But, this illusion only emerges from the coarse grained awareness of itself as a separately existing “thing.”

  25. “Wow” to Father’s post and the comments!

    Three times in divine liturgy we pray “for our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity,” Deliverance from necessity is absurd for creatures who’s existence depends on providence. Yet we pray.

    Christos Yannaras talks about our mode of existence vs God’s mode, adding that God invites us to share his mode – free from all necessity – no compulsion – only love. We can enjoy this if we will enter into trinitarian love, to voluntarily share in his “otherness” freely given to us. To see him eye-to-eye we have to lift our eyes level, not above, because he has condescended. Ironically, we too can be free from ALL necessity. What that means is hard to imagine. It is like the kingdom present and yet to come. I can’t easily see or believe what it really means but my heart longs for it anyway.

    The kind of vision that Fr. Stephen so eloquently describes in this post acts for me like a solvent that someday may resolve years of habituated hardening in my heart that’s kept me from entering God’s presence. He is so sweet and present that my pride won’t easily have it. Lord have mercy.

  26. Your analogies are excellent, Simon! So true–what you wrote about pain reminds me of Dostoevsky’s story, “The Dream of A Ridiculous Man”. It is the story of a man on the brink of suicide who falls asleep with his revolver in front of him on the table and discovers the meaning of life in a dream:

    “All are tending to one and the same goal, at least all aspire to the same goal, from the wise man to the lowest murderer, but only by different ways. It is an old truth, but there is this new in it: I cannot go far astray. I saw the truth. I saw and know that men could be beautiful and happy, without losing the capacity to live upon the earth. I will not, I cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of men… I saw the truth, I did not invent it with my mind. I saw, saw, and her living image filled my soul for ever. I saw her in such consummate perfection that I cannot possibly believe that she was not among men. How can I then go astray? … The living image of what I saw will be with me always, and will correct and guide me always. Oh, I am strong and fresh, I can go on, go on, even for a thousand years.
    […]
    And it is so simple… The one thing is — love thy neighbor as thyself — that is the one thing. That is all, nothing else is needed. You will instantly find how to live.”

    On another note, I have observed that some Orthodox have the habit of explaining the Good News of their faith by contrasting it to “the West”. As a “western” inquirer into Orthodoxy, this is off-putting and unhelpful, especially when “western” appears to encompass all other Christian groups. In trying to understand Orthodox beliefs, it is troubling to find false statements about the Catholic Church being used to highlight “differences” between “east” and “west”; I have found such statements on a few Orthodox websites, including the OCA. I want to know about the Orthodox faith, not what you think you know about mine! To be honest, every time an Orthodox believer contrasts his faith to “the west” I am put in mind of the Pharisee and the Publican.

  27. I agree, Sue. The comparison isn’t helpful and as you say it runs the risk of being off-putting. My wife has only been with me to liturgy 3 or 4 times and every time there’s been some comment during the sermon about the Protestants or the West that I had to pay for later with a pound of flesh. Should I go to my priest and get that back from him? Anyway, I sympathize with you, but I’m slowly learning to subtract it out.

  28. Sue,
    You are correct. We live in the West. I will never be Greek or Russian. Orthodoxy must grow in this context, in this culture, milieu, accepting the good, discarding the bad. We must become American Orthodox. I am not saying we cannot learn from our brothers/sisters from other Orthodox lands. We surely can. Yet our Orthodoxy, to be genuine, will always look a little different than that in other lands. I have seen Orthodox, in video, worshipping in Kenya. Sure looks different than our Greek monastery, yet reflects naturally their culture.
    I am familiar with an Orthodox teacher from Greece who lives here in the States. He will sometimes say that such and such is what evangelicals or Pentecostals believe. He doesn’t even come close in describing them…I have been both. It is always dangerous, misleading, etc., to state what another believes. If you truly want to know ask the person. Most will oblige. 🙂

  29. Simon–Have been enjoying your “wave” and ocean analogies. It occurs to me that much of modern culture is an attempt to escape the ocean–becoming a droplet of water above all that “connectedness” of the sea. But, no matter how hard one tries to escape through extreme individualism, that droplet either falls back into the ocean directly, or, having vaporized, eventually returns through precipitation: we are connected to that great ocean of Being, whether we want to be or not. Thank you for that image.

  30. Simon,
    In defense of your poor priest – many times the distinction made with the West or (more often “Protestantism”) takes place because we are living in a culture formed and shaped in that narrative – and it frequently differs in a manner that if the distinction is not made – then it will not be seen and people come to wrong conclusions.

    There is little “bashing” that takes place in that context. But the distinctions are real and frequently significant. I suspect you’d have to pay for something else if it wasn’t that.

  31. I dont know that the compare and contrast has ever been that helpful.

    As far as the “pound of flesh” goes, I was speaking facetiously. It was a poor attempt at humor. I wasn’t trying to put anyone negative or awkward light.

  32. Sue,
    You are offended when an Orthodox Christian contrasts the faith to the West? How can one speak about the distinction of *anything* without comparing and contrasting? As a majority in Orthodox are converts, that type of conversation is a given. Also this type of conversation is frowned upon, one, because we are a highly sensitive society and get offended easily when someone “goes against the grain”. Orthodoxy, as a faith that emanates from and continues to identify with the Middle East, goes against the grain.
    There is a stark difference between the east and west Christian faith. And yes, there is some overlap as well. There are also many out there, Father Stephen for one, who speak about these differences for our benefit, that is, that we may better understand the faith and, like he said, not fall into error. I hope you will continue to listen with an open mind and forgive the offense of harsh words and poor attitudes you will encounter.

  33. For me, coming to Orthodoxy as a convert was more about coming towards the light, more and more. In my conversion experience, I had to leave behind many words describing the darkness of the West….because I had found light in the Western Churches, and when the dialogue insisted on some type of darkness, ironically, I could find it in the East, possibly in unexpected places. I had to be true to myself in my journey towards Christ, the Truth, the Way, and the Life, and in Truth, found Orthodoxy as fulfilling all Truth. However, my heart steadfastly holds to Light given from the Western Church, and is simply thankful to be receiving now from Orthodoxy in fullness. I was one of those converts who had to ultimately know I was running towards the Light in fullness and truth and not away from darkness….because as I said, I noetically knew of Light in the Western Church, and nobody could argue that away from my inward knowledge.

  34. Paula, please, read Sue’s post. She isn’t complaining about a simple compare and contrast for the sake of mutual understanding. That would be great. I would invite that all day, every day. But, that isn’t how it is done. She is referring to websites and other media that compare and contrast with a hint of disdain or are even vitriolic. I agree with Sue that there are Orthodox people who definitely remind me of the Pharisee’s disdain for the Publican.

  35. Simon… I have read Sue’s post… a few times. Really, my wish was to address Sue and not so much her “offenders”.
    So yes, I realize their are some who come across with an air of triumphancy, though of coarse the Orthodox do not have the corner on such an attitude.
    I hope these encounters Sue had, and most likely will have again, will not be a stumbling block. There are good sources of info out there, and many good people willing to be of help.
    Hope that helps.

  36. Frankly, I am grateful when someone speaks openly and honestly about the western culture, and specifically of the rise of modernity through the western culture and the Western Church which operated as its vehicle.

    I’m grateful when someone speaks about this history for a number of reasons. One pertains to the Western Church’s historical relation to other cultures and its imperialistic mindset and actions, which was featured and continues to be featured strongly in the American style of evangelicalism. And an example of this form of “evangelicalism” is the Native American boarding schools which have been the bane of Native American families and the continued psychological and social fallout from these ‘works’.

    Catholic and Protestant denominations were heavily involved in this “concept” and “work”. But I haven’t heard of similar histories among the Orthodox in this country. Perhaps, I’m just ignorant of them, but to the best of my knowledge this isn’t the case. For some readers this history might be seem irrelevant as it only pertains to the impact of the western culture and churches to a ‘minority’ people and culture. But it is this mindset of modernity itself that is far-sweeping in the Western Church and in the western culture that the Western Church helped to forge.

    Many of readers and commentators in this blog have come from Protestant backgrounds. And some from Catholic backgrounds, and some from other religious backgrounds. It is not my intention to bash the beliefs of a particular church or of a particular individual. But I think it is a mistake to not speak openly and honestly, of how and when as organizations, they have heavily skewed the message and meaning of the Gospel and Tradition, if not obliterated it.

    In my own case, and my circumstances are not that unusual, the message and the ‘approach’ of the Western Church was precisely what made it seem far from being a life giving, healing entity.

    The Orthodox Church is not perfect in the lives of her people, but her message is true. Last, I belong to a parish in which most are converts from other churches. And because of this surprising reality, being in communion with them in my parish is itself a healing grace.

  37. I could be wrong but I think that, whether originated in the ‘West’ or the ‘East’, there is a continuous strand of “diluted Christianity” that has been with us all along. Those who –in actual practice– do not deny the Cross, when the going gets tough, have always been a very small percentage. They are the non-diluted ones… An “institutionalized” dilution however, (one including a long history of ‘theory and practice’ e.g. of papacy, protest, reformation, counter-reformation…) is something that will always be called out quite formally, sometimes dexterously (like Dostoyevsky), and other times gawkily and insolently by someone else, who might crudely leap at a minor thing, often highly critically and almost pharisaically too . These critical ‘crudes’ can, however, act as a filter that “filters out those who came to Church not for Christ but for something else”, as Bishop Pitirim (Dushanbe and Tadjikistan) has said. True seekers can put up with quite a few of these obstacles without breaking a sweat.
    For me, the ‘term’ West is quite different though. I would understand it more as ‘modern, globalist, consumerist, “anti-cross” way of living (even though this might be thought of as a “comfortable” yet “Christian” living by some, …while others clearly recognise themselves as secularists sanctimoniously denigrating all of Christian tradition’.)
    It can certainly be a real pity when some Orthodox make too much of the East – West issue when uncalled for though, especially when they lack a ‘lived life’ of genuine “crucificiality” and almost replace it with this. But then again, especially in our times, it is a little bit easier for a zealous one who is in slight error to be humbled by God, and renew their spiritual path, than for a lax one who would abandon their faith at the tiniest challenge to be genuinely fortified in their faith.

  38. There can certainly be an Orthodox praxis of the living out of the faith that occurs in the Western Churches that I often feel that typical dialogues of East/West ignore. What I speak of here are the actual nuts and bolts of how people live their lives in God even while still in Western Churches. My great aunt, a Catholic, was one of the best women I have known. She raised 13 children, worked as a nurse, went to Church all the time, and was always there for anyone, always sacrificing herself for Christ. My sister’s Godmother, also a Catholic, was the same way. She was one of the best mothers I have met. I have witnessed great faith in those currently attending Protestant Churches even in modern times–one Protestant family adopted and rescued 12 special needs children from a Eastern European country and I followed their faith journey online. Simply doing such a task, let alone their daily living is to simply live by God’s grace and faith everyday. And living out a very deep cross. I have many many examples, and this living faith comes from light still present in Western Christianity. I will not deny that institutionally the light is diluted, that important aspects of the faith have been altered, and that to follow Christ is to follow the path that has been handed down by Christ himself, but I appreciate the light I have received inside Western Churches, in my faith, in my upbringing, in loving God through His Word. Now I journey towards the Light, unfiltered in the Eastern Church, grateful for Light I have previously received and thankful for unfiltered Light I approach because people have guarded it so zealously through the centuries (the True faith).

  39. Fr. Freeman,

    What is different about what you’re saying than the Mormon view? And, what of the creator/creature distinction? I’m curious

  40. Fr. Freeman,

    I want to throw this in here. If you look at Deut 32 and Psalm 82 – the becoming a god language of the Fathers becomes clear. In Deut 32 the nations are divided among the “sons of God” as a punishment for Babel. In Psalm 82 we read of their “fall”. It is easily established that Paul adopted this view because in Acts he recounts the plans for missionary work working east to west the same nations (in the table of nations) that were disinherited following Babel. There is a Divine Council taught in the Bible that humans were to participate in as human imagers with a non-human counterpart as one family. But God’s intention was always that man take a seat in this council through theosis – and the fall of man including the corruption and deception brought on by Satan would not overthrow this plan. In fact, the Divine Council worldview of the Old and New Testament gives the basis for saints, Mary, etc. – they are all Council participants.

  41. To all,
    I almost edited out Sue’s comments viz. West-bashing, etc. when she first posted it in that it had nothing to do with the article or the conversation. I chose not to and so we now have a conversation on a topic other than the article.

    She has a valid point – there is, no doubt, offensive things to be heard from the Orthodox concerning the West (I have written my share as well). And she importantly notes that sometimes what is said misrepresents (as in repeating inaccuracies about RC’s, etc).

    Since the point has been raised – I will make a few observations. First, given that Orthodoxy in America is virtually unknown by most, and surrounded by a culture that is often alien to its teachings, it necessarily speaks about itself in ways that draw distinctions. For example: Why would anyone bother to be Orthodox unless they were born into it? Is it just a matter of style and taste? A number of converts (particularly among the clergy) have made radical sacrifices in order to embrace Orthodoxy and to establish Churches. Why would they do that if its differences had never been noted to them?

    As a matter of historical truth: The Eastern Church has been persecuted and oppressed by the West in a variety of ways for nearly 1,000 years. Some of that has been overt, much of it has been of another sort. The fact that most Western Christians have no knowledge of the Eastern Church, even though it represents the second largest group of Christians in the world, and its history is the repository of almost everything we call “the early Church,” you continually meet people who ask if we’re “Christian.”

    Evangelicals flood missionaries into Orthodox countries and speak about many of them as though they had never “heard the gospel.” Much of this is simply uneducated stupidity. However, much of it is also empowered by an American culture whose secularism is a creature of Protestant history and is often the companion of all American Christian missionary efforts. Converts to Orthodoxy in the US often discover that they are now estranged from family and friends as though they had abandoned Christianity. Many times that alienation comes as a result of Orthodoxy’s non-secular demands. If it would settle down and just agree to be a denomination among denominations, open its communion, etc., then we could be more acceptable to the modern project.

    There is a much more complex matter to be found in the intellectual history of East and West. The Orthodox were under the boot heel of the Ottoman empire for nearly 500 years. Education was suppressed. A result was a weakening of Orthodoxy’s own self-understanding, precisely at a time that the West was gaining in its modern ascendancy. Many Orthodox studied in the West (the only place they could go) and there was, for several hundred years, a “Westernizing” tendency within the intellectual/theological circles of Orthodoxy. The 20th century saw the beginnings of a recognition of this fact and a long-needed correction. In some writings the period is called the “Western Captivity.”

    The great good that came out of that recognition was the recovery of Orthodox tradition and understanding – much of which has also become a great source of renewed learning in Western Christian traditions. The popularity, for example, of the work of Fr. Alexander Schmemann goes way beyond Orthodox boundaries, to the benefit of all. But this same movement has nurtured something of a Western critique. When it is done with understanding and discernment, it is very helpful. When it is done in a crude manner, it just becomes crude.

    We’re in a largely convert climate in the American Church (certainly in its internet voice). If that is borne in mind, it helps to forgive a lot (I think). My Russian and East European members in my parish are frequently puzzled by what they see and hear in American Christianity. They can’t criticize the “West” because they don’t even know how to describe it.

    Dee’s comment (she is Native American) concerning Orthodox work among native peoples is an important thing to ponder. Alaska’s natives are the first Orthodox in America and Orthodoxy is quite indigenous among them. American government policy for a long time sought to undermine that and do for Alaska all the things it has done for Native Americans in the lower 48. The Bishop of Alaska is a friend. He constantly has to serve as a defender of native rights against a dominant culture that would destroy them. Recent efforts of the gender radicals have been opposed by him (along with the RC leadership and the Mormons – now there’s a coalition!). America and most of its culture believes itself uniquely anointed to fix the world.

    Like a number of others, my first inquiries into Orthodoxy, in the early 80’s, were met with a polite suggestion that I go away. Things have changed. But it’s messy and will continue so for a long time. We have to wipe the mud from our feet a lot.

    I pray that you, Sue, will not be overly offended at what you encounter. My suggestion is to ask questions and consider why you hear what you do. It’s not always rudeness. There’s a background story that is worth pondering.

  42. Stephanie,

    Thank you for that reminder. My family just laid to rest this summer my mother’s two younger twin sisters, who left a legacy of love,service and faith (and lifelong faithful marriages) the grace of which cannot be denied even from within mainline Protestant Christian denominations. Though the faith is in many ways truncated and deformed outside (and even sometimes inside?) Orthodoxy, still istm Christ knows who are His own and makes His Presence known. If something of the Light of Orthodoxy were not within traditions where Christ is still preached, it is unlikely any of us from within those traditions would have found our way to the Orthodox Church. He has been leading us all the way.

  43. Matthew, my understanding is that in Mormonism to become a god means to become a deity like Zeus or Jupiter. Their notions principally derive from a misunderstanding of how the word elohim was used in the OT. In Orthodoxy human being become what God is. I don’t see anything offensive in saying that God makes by us grace what he is by nature. This is the fulfillment of liturgical communion. In Colossians and Ephesians the Scripture makes it clear that we are to become the fullness of God. Now we receive of ‘the fullness of God’ in order that we may become ‘the fullness of God.’ So in short there is an ontological distinction that is lost in Orthodoxy that always separates the created from the creator in Mormonism.

  44. Simon,
    Orthodoxy should never be thought of as perfect. It simply is what it claims to be – the continuing Church of 2000 years founded by Christ – with all of its baggage and its glory. St. Paul, as I recall, had complaints about various things in the Churches… nothing has changed.

  45. Matthew,
    The only similarity with Mormon thought is that a few of the words are the same. The content of those words, however, is radically different. Mormons are polytheists – their doctrine of God is one of the weirdest things to have ever come out of America. It is American individualism read into the Godhead. As the Joseph Smith narrative has been imploding (the continuing evidence of fraud, adultery and worse), Mormon scholars have been racing to find cover. One place has been to try and wrap their nonsense in the language of patristic theosis. It’s just more fraud. They would do better to simply come clean, denounce the entire fraud of their religion, and do something different. Very sad.

  46. There are priests in Orthodoxy who’s understanding is that if a person dies unbaptized that they are going to hell. And THAT is the reason we baptize infants. We baptize infants so that in case they die they won’t just go straight to hell. Did you know that? Did you know that is what many if not most priests teach? I think to say that is the understanding in ROCOR and probably Catholicism, too. I have had conversations via messenger in which I have asked priests about whether or not that is true. I have spoken to more than one priest outside the OCA that have expressed ‘frustration’ regarding priests who are ‘liberalizing’ and are ‘Westernizing’ the faith by teaching that after death there could be the possibility of repentance and that a person’s fate could change. I’m not pointing fingers. I am not making directed comments. What I think is interesting is that the Orthodox want to talk about how Protestantism is responsible for the rise of atheism in the West as if there isn’t anything in the Orthodox theology that would offend the conscience of an honest person. In Orthodoxy outside the OCA there are only a few degrees difference between the ideas of ancestral sin and hell and those in the West. I have seen that argument made in Orthodox sites on more than a few occasions. Watch this comment get deleted.

  47. I didn’t finish my thought above: “In Orthodoxy outside the OCA there are only a few degrees difference between the ideas of ancestral sin and hell and those in the West. I have seen that argument made in Orthodox sites on more than a few occasions. And that for me would be reason enough to be an atheist or at least not Orthodox.”

  48. Simon,
    I’m certain Father will have to answer your concerns over unbaptized infants. Positively, infants are baptized by the Orthodox to receive God’s saving grace and to then receive the Eucharist as full participants in communion with Christ.
    Casting innocent children into fire was a practice of the Canaanites, as they sacrificed them to the god Moloch. God called this practice abominable, because of its abhorrent nature and/or because they (some Israelites) were thus sacrificing to this pagan diety. Anyway, sending an innocent infant to hell-fire simply cannot be maintained if it is viewed through the Pascha of Christ or though the heart of the father awaiting the return of his prodigal son. I’m sure there are priests teaching what you say, Simon. But they are interpreting the faith much differently than you or I.

  49. Dean, one priest quoted John 3 to me “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” A person cannot enter the KOG apart from baptism. That raises the question, “What about our children? What happens to them if they die unbaptized?” The answer they came up with was to baptize the infants.

    If there is something about hell that represents timeless truth, I cant see it. I dont have the noetic vision to see the eternal truths of hell. It all seems like utter nonsense.

  50. Simon,
    You keep bringing up the poor babies… God will take care of them, don’t worry… they are His to start with and if it happens that they die without a baptism (it’s the adults fault, not theirs, the adults should worry about their contribution to it), I am sure His Love will take care of them.

    But just to put in proper context what Christianity did for the children and all other ‘underprivileged members of society’ (and for morals, especially sexual), you may want to listen to Fr. John Peck’s presentation from this bioethics Orthodox conference (I only listened Lecture 3 by Fr. John). Very sobering…

    http://frjohnpeck.com/2017-orthodox-bioethics-conference/

  51. Agata, I think that it’s interesting the extent to which individual Orthodox Christians feel free to wave their hands and say “Aaagh, don’t worry about the poor babies. God will take care of the babies.” You’re missing the point. There is an explicit understanding in your faith tradition that the fate of unbaptized children is uncertain and that to tilt the certainty in their favor we baptize them. Why doesn’t that bother you? Why don’t you see that as a problem?

  52. There is an explicit understanding in your faith tradition that the fate of unbaptized children is uncertain and that to tilt the certainty in their favor we baptize them.

    My infant daughter died without baptism. No-one in my parish (and many know about this including my parish priest) has cast some sort of scrutiny of concern regarding her ‘fate’. Our mortality is the ‘point of’ baptism. I pray for my daughter daily. And I sincerely believe she prays for me daily.

    I ask for greater care about constructing arguments and ascribing the hellfire and brimstone approach to the Orthodox Tradition. I don’t doubt that there are priests who expound and hang their proverbial ‘hat’ on that approach (for whatever their reasons). They do not represent the central current of Church teachings to the best of my knowledge.

  53. Dee Im sorry for your tragic loss. I truly am.

    I know that there are prayers and services for when this tragedy occurs. And I dont think that anyone would push the envelope on this to say, for example, that all unbaptized children are in hell. Because I pushed that argument with several priests and no one agreed to that. But they all agreed that infant baptism is for receiving saving grace so that if the worst happens we can be assured that the child is not in hell as if to say there would greater uncertainty otherwise.

  54. Simon,
    Like Dee, I have lost one baby, except to a miscarriage. “My faith tradition” (as you called it) tells me that that baby was fully a human being (because our Lord Jesus Christ was fully human at the moment of His conception in the womb of His Holy Mother). I have to have faith that this baby is in God’s hands, since there was nothing I could do anyways.

    You ask why I don’t see it as a problem? Some problems cannot be solved, we put our trust in God and pray, hoping on His mercy. That’s all we can do.

    I would go crazy if I worried about everything the way you seem to. The Church has the fullness of Faith and I am in the Church. I don’t have to know every detail, I just have to trust that if I try to do my part (keep the Commandments, cling to God, avoid sin where I can), all will be well – not because of my effort, but because of God’s great mercy – when I finally stand before Him (with all my children, the one with Him already, and the ones who are rebelling against Him now).

  55. Simon,
    There are ignorant priests out there (some even in the OCA). And some of them have websites and publish their nonsense. And some argue that good priests who are teaching the faith as they have received it are “liberalizing” etc. They are just wrong. Of course, if you go looking for such witnesses, you’ll find them.

    On the other hand: what is officially taught? The Russian Orthodox Church is about as straight-up on things as you can ask, and is known for being among the least interested in modernizing anything. There has recently been a service published and encouraged by the Moscow Patriarchate specifically for unbaptized children, miscarriages, etc. and prays for their eternal life. The Church does not teach that unbaptized babies go to hell and anyone who says otherwise is wrong, uninformed, etc. Here is a link to an article on that service:

    https://russian-faith.com/infants-who-die-without-baptism-official-russian-prayer-service-n1682

    Again, you can find those who would gainsay this, but they cannot cite the canonical authority of the Church (a synod of bishops) to support their teaching. Not every priest is a theologian nor do they all have good understanding of these things. Real canonical authority and teaching belongs to the Bishops – not to websites or to randomly discovered priests. I can say without hesitation that what I write and teach is by and under the authority of my bishop. I regularly travel and speak in all the jurisdictions. I am being translated and published in Moscow by one of the leading theological universities in the country. There are critics out there – but I am not the outlier (nor is the OCA). There are jurisdictions that I would avoid when asking such questions – one or two have a reputation for harboring renegade priests and extremists. What you see here is solid – not the last word, by any means – but solid and reliable.

    It is possible that in your conversation that you described – the priests were misunderstanding you as having a concern about an unbaptized child going to hell and were trying to reassure you that Baptize guarantees that is not so. But I wasn’t in the conversation. Are you concerned that, somehow, what you see here, or in your OCA parish, is not representative of Orthodoxy? That, really, after all, there’s some sort of mean version of Orthodoxy that is the real deal? Better to read books by reputable theologians from reputable publishers rather than websites by who knows who. There’s so much nonsense that claims authority for itself out there that I shudder. It was that very nonsense that caused me to create this blog.

    I feel a little like St. Paul (who had plenty of detractors). I don’t want to magnify what I do, but find it almost necessary to do so to stress that what you find here is normative, canonical, blessed by the authority of the Church, written with a good theological background, and judiciously moderated (notice I did not delete your comment). Having a website or being a website is not the same thing as canonical authority. Being able to cite a canon does not equal canonical authority. The canons are interpreted and applied by the bishops, meeting in concert, not by self-appointed guardians of Orthodoxy with a computer.

    I don’t know how to say this more clearly.

  56. Here is an excerpt from an article on the topic:

    WILL UNBAPTIZED CHILDREN GO TO HELL IF THEY DIE?

    No. The Orthodox Church does not believe that children are born guilty of Adam’s sin and that unless freed of that guilt through baptism and communion they will die without God’s mercy. Such a notion is pernicious both for its barbarism and for its distortion of God. Do we really think that God is so small that He is bound by our rites, the rites He has given us? God is sovereign, and He will have mercy on whom He has mercy and judgment on whom He has judgment (Romans 9:15).

    We can talk about sin and guilt in three ways. First there is primordial sin, the sin of Adam. We understand this not in terms of inherited guilt, but in terms of a fallen world. Primordial sin introduced sickness, suffering, evil, and death into God’s perfect creation (1 John 5:19; Romans 5:12). We are born into Adam’s sin in that we are born into a fallen world. But without our participation, there is no guilt. Second, there is generational sin, which we see in terms of specific propensities to sin. A child of alcoholics, for example, will inherit not the guilt of his parents but the tendency to sin as they did, or other sins associated with this generational heritage. Again, we do not have to submit to this sinful heritage, we do not have to carry it on ourselves. Finally, there is personal sin, the stuff we do ourselves, whether as perpetuation of the general fallenness of this world, the generational fallenness of our parents or surroundings, or as the invention of sins of our own. A person becomes guilty when they personally sin. A child is not guilty until they make sin a personal decision, either consciously or unconsciously.

    It is true that baptism is the washing away of sin, and one could say that it seems senseless to baptize a child if they have no inherited guilt to wash away. However, Christ’s sacrifice, in to which we are baptized, was a sacrifice of His whole life as a submission to God— “not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42)—and His death on the Cross not only washed away our sins, but also destroyed death itself. When we are baptized we are baptized into His life and death (Romans 6:4), and we become co-beneficiaries of a life which finally brought God and man into a union of love and a harmony of will. The infant is initiated into that union. This initiation will include the forgiveness of their sins, but is not limited to that forgiveness. The life and death of Christ, which reverses the primordial, generational, and personal falleness of this world, is what the child enters through baptism.

    This is by Fr. John Hainsworth, an Antiochian Priest in Canada.

    http://www.pravmir.com/infant-baptism-orthodox-church/

    It’s just another example of normative Orthodoxy on a reliable site.

  57. Agata,
    It’s a cultural commentary that for years there was no service for a miscarried child. There is now (as I cited above) and there’s another one used in the OCA. I have full confidence that our innocent children are with God in heaven.

  58. Thank you Father.
    This issue always reminds me of the fine, terrible line between miscarriage and abortion…
    The article Dino referenced by Bishop Pitirim (Dushanbe and Tadjikistan) also touches upon this aspect of the continued degradation of the depraved ‘western’ society (and how it is spreading everywhere)… May God have mercy on us and our children.

  59. Agata,
    I think most cultures tended to quietly ignore the tragedy of miscarriage, leaving it out of sight and out of mind. The growth of abortion as a common, legalized activity raised the Church’s consciousness, I think, about the life of the unborn. That awareness has had the beneficial effect of galvanizing and understanding and support for women and their loss (including children lost in abortion). I’ve done services over the years for miscarried children, and for children who were aborted. I treat them no different than baptized children. We name them and remember them in our prayers.

    We lost a child 25 years ago this October. His name is Michael Seraphim. We pray for him every day and look forward to the day we meet him face to face again. Indeed, I have a small list of grandchildren who were miscarried that I pray for regularly (they outnumber the ones who survived).

    This is normal and common within the Orthodox circles I know. Priests who think otherwise do not make good company and I have actually yet to meet one.

  60. I am very sorry for your loss Father. And for the losses in your children’s families. The miscarriage was one of the most painful (physically and emotionally) experiences of my life. I did not know the sex of the baby, but I always thought it was a little girl (I named her Lucy). And I too look forward to meeting her in heaven, and should remember to pray for her more often. I think of her more as an intercessor, especially before the Theotokos, who I hope keeps her.
    Thank you for you kind and comforting comments on this difficult subject – I know this problem affects young women these day very often.

  61. I can’t help saying how much I enjoyed looking at the picture of the baby being baptized in the link you provided us, Fr Stephen. Such joy!!

  62. The topic of unbaptized babies and heaven/hell could be quite painful for some. I feel it necessary to say that the suggestion that unbaptized babies go to hell being an Orthodox teaching is not just incorrect but potentially troubling for some. This is particularly so when the suggestion comes with the claim that some Orthodox priests or websites say this. I cannot state more clearly that this is not the teaching of the Church and that any priest or website that suggests otherwise is in error.

    The internet is a terribly messy place. It takes nothing to set up a site and pose as an authority. I know priests who cannot successfully serve in a parish who nevertheless feel competent to set themselves up as some sort of authority. It is quite sad.

    I have stressed not private credentials (education, etc.) but public and official endorsement and promotion. Ancient Faith is not a holy synod, but, on the whole, its sites are better than most and represent what I would think is an excellent slice of American Orthodoxy – across the jurisdictions.

    Articles from Glory to God for All Things have been translated into over 12 languages across the world (including the official sites of Moscow, and even the Holy Mountain). Orthodoxy authority is not centralized as some other places – so it can feel like one voice is equal to another. This is not the case. It is important to me to reassure readers and inquirers of the reliability of what they find here and its trustworthiness. I’ll not belabor this point any further – but I will not be continuing to publish suggestions that question the matter.

  63. Thank you Fr Stephen.
    I originally came to read your essays because my parish priest recommended your blog, and I know, without further elaboration here, that he is one of many OC priests who recommended your blog as part of our Catechism and for our edification.

    This blog is an essential support for the education of the laity. Sometimes I’m rather galled by visitors who, uninformed, might trivialize your presentation of the faith. I’m grateful for your clarification here. I wish it wasn’t necessary but the internet is awash with self-appointed authorities as you described. In this context, it is important and necessary that we, this blog readership, understand that your work has received the endorsement of not only of your Bishop, but Bishops across the Orthodox jurisdictions.

    Thank you, and I thank God once again for your words.

  64. Thank you, Father. For Simon, I also think it is worthwhile to note that the funeral service for an unbaptized catechumen is identical to that for a fully baptized member of the Church. That should tell us something. The rule of prayer is the rule of faith.

  65. Thank you Karen, I didn’t know that. But I did know that my parish priest said that I would be buried in an Orthodox cemetery if I should die before I was baptized. And this was important to me.

    I’ll add one more thing, which I only intend to be helpful. Ever since I had the experience that I mentioned happened last Lent, my parish priest encouraged me not to view or read material for my education in the faith, without inviting his input on the matter. His endorsement of Fr Stephen’s blog was unequivocal. But this isn’t the case with other sites.

    Generally, I’m not a blog reader. And I’m laughing at myself as I write this. I simply don’t have the time for it. But this blog, regardless of my workload, is the one place and the only place I read with any regularity to speak of. I’m grateful for the recommendations of other sites that occasionally are mentioned here. And in the moment when they are presented here, I take a look. But it is here that I look and read and reflect, when I thirst and need a long draught from the cup of the faith.

  66. I dont ever feel the need to defend myself…ever. But in this instance I want to make it clear that the views I was asserting about infants and baptism was a view I derived from my interactions with priests I met online. I get the impression that what I said must have come from some fringe Orthodox nut case–and it didnt. It came from priests who work under bishops and serve parishes here in the States. I would have assumed that whatever their view was that even if it isnt middle of the road even if it was extreme it was still a legitimate Orthodox voice. Right? It must still fall under the umbrella of what is Orthodox. Right? Theyre priests for crying out loud. But evidently not. So, I apologize if I offended anyone. That wasnt my intention.

  67. Simon,
    I’m not taking offence with your comment. I engage with you with much love in my heart, although we really don’t know each other.

    I’m not sure I would have called their view you described as ‘legitimate’. I’m not suggesting the person, himself, is not seen as Orthodox, but such a viewpoint they present is something else.

    I’ve seen (read) pretty cruddy things too, and in reference to that, Fr Stephen talks about ‘wiping our shoes’. Indeed. The worst case (thanks be to God, unique to himself) I have seen in a priest was himself a convert who seems to have imported his prior theology into his current context. Carefully and prayerfully brought this up with my parish priest and his instruction on the matter was very helpful.

  68. Simon, certainly it’s no criticism of you that Fr. Stephen wanted to be sure we all understood his teaching re: unbaptized infants is mainstream Orthodox teaching. My comment was just an encouragement that the prayer life of the Church would seem to support that perspective, and the way we pray is what most ought to form our theology. Just as Scripture can be abused, so can the teaching of the Church. St. Augustine is an Orthodox Saint, but the Church has never uncritically embraced every theological opinion he expressed—certainly not that about unbaptized infants. Same goes for other Saints. Not all opinions or applications of the tradition—even those of Priests or Bishops—are equally sound. For the record, my Rector (now retired) said Fr. Stephen’s blog was a good one to read. He is otherwise pretty cautionary about Internet Orthodoxy.

  69. Agata, Over forty years ago my wife had a stillborn baby, Justin. Then a Roman Catholic she went to the church to pray, derp in grief, to Mary. As my wife prayed, the Mother came to her with Justin in her arms. No question that Mary looks after these children. To me, anyone who suggests that unbaptized infants go to hell is near to blasphemy not just in error. I would not trust such a person on any matters of the faith. I cannot abide it.

    BTW, to this day she remembers her son on his birthday in sadness.

  70. Father – This is one of the most exceptional posts you have written on this blog, and I have been reading this blog for over ten years. Thank you. You have provided some exceptional insights into God’s relationship to us. I will be studying this post for a long time.

  71. Simon,
    In fairness – I well understand that engaging with an Ordained priest under a bishop in the US, you just assume that it is “Orthodox” in some legitimate manner. Yes, and no.

    There are bishops who do a lousy job of policing their clergy – and there are some nutjobs out there. This is sad, but true. In defense of Orthodoxy (or at least in explanation) it must be noted that Orthodoxy in America (and the world) endured deep suffering during the 20th century, and the corollary damaged was our present jurisdictional mess – that has resulted in some sloppiness in places. Cleaning it up isn’t something Orthodoxy is good at, though some major problems were solved in 2006 when ROCOR was finally reconciled to Moscow (it was rogue for a number of decades). I’ll not describe everything that I could. It’s among our worst dirty American laundry.

    Remember, Orthodoxy isn’t as tight a ship as we organized Americans might imagine.

    I will say that most priests are great and solid and reliable. I will also say that most of us “vet” places and personalities for people when they travel, or if they’re moving – to help them avoid certain problems. It shouldn’t be like that but it is. If all bishops did their jobs properly, this would not be happening – but it is what it is.

    Another point – and this is quite germane to the specific issue you inquired about:

    Unlike Rome and the Protestants, Orthodoxy does not have a carefully described detailed description of what happens after we die, how the judgment works, etc. This was never debated at a Council and never received anything like a definitive treatment. What we have are the liturgical services and how they handle things, as well as the ongoing tradition of priests and bishops living and working in good faith to practice the tradition as it has been received.

    It should be well noted that virtually every heresy the Church has dealt with, began with an “Orthodox” cleric. We make no claim to perfection of the ordained. We police them. But if you go looking for oddballs, you can find them. If they became well enough known, they might actually come under some kind of discipline – would that it were so.

    But, in the meantime, we should always live in the “main” stream of the Church’s life. I can say that any priest who teaches or advocates things outside the mainstream has some explaining to do – as to why he makes the claim to be teaching Orthodoxy. Just because he’s ordained means very little. If he doesn’t live and teach in a proper manner, then he is in serious error.

    I’ve noted more than once, including in our conversations, that Orthodoxy is “messy.” You went looking for the mess and found it. Wipe the mud off and let it go. Turn them over to God and avoid them.

  72. Fr. Stephen, thank you for your firm correction. I accept it 110%. It’s much appreciated.

    I want to confess something. Ive been in fights. I mean actual street fights. Ive been hurt and Ive beat guys until they dont get up. I have had to fight more than one guy at a time. Im not saying fearless because I have my fears. Im saying Im not unfamiliar with violence and that among other things has made me callous. But Orthodoxy scares me. And I do mean fear with all the accompanying behaviors: Increased vigilance, paranoid suspicions, and overreacting to perceived threat. On top of that, in light of recent disclosures about my mother…I feel like my capacity for faith hangs by a thread. I just dont know what to do with myself.

    Im sorry for derailing the conversation into some dumb thing about babies and baptism.

  73. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Fr. Stephen, for speaking plainly and insisting that unborn babies and children who are not baptized are not going to hell. God bless you for taking time and making effort to state this clearly. Glory to God for All Things!

  74. Than You Father Freeman
    I needed to read the article several times to digest your clarifications about Christ-Love-Freedom, why “Pascha is at the heart of everything “

  75. I dont understand what happened to Karen’s comment. It was legitimate. And my comment was humor in support of her comment. We were clearly speaking obliquely in support of the blog.

  76. Simon,
    Matthew’s was removed as well. I did not want to go off in a direction dealing with another very questionable writer, mentioned by Karen as well. When I removed his, the others could not stand alone. There’s always a reason. It’s rarely about whether something supports the blog.

  77. Simon earlier gave the excellent example of the pedophile in explaining the difficulty with freedom as an aspect of God’s love.

    A further example of the freedom/love synthesis can be found at the Last Supper, where Christ has given his new commandment to love one another ‘as I have loved you’ and also said that he now addresses his disciples as friends. Thereafter, Peter fulfills Christ’s words by denying him three times, and yet still at the end of John’s Gospel, the question Christ poses to him three times is “Do you love me?” And between the two (and also for John who is writing this) the answer given is “You know that I do,” encompassing the breach, the bitter weeping, the solid foundation of ongoing love.

    It really couldn’t be better portrayed than this as described by the disciple Jesus loved, who thereafter is simply following behind.

  78. I recently read a lovely statement by Father John of Kronstadt:

    “Faith embraces, and sees suddenly.”

  79. In the post, Father says, “It is said by some that God has no boundaries regarding us, that He is God and may do with us (and to us) whatever He wills. This, of course, is true in an abstract sense. However, it is not true of God as He has made Himself known in Christ. “. This had a powerful impact on me, because it made me realize that many, if not most, of my problems with God were only problems with abstract notions about God. Sometimes they were my abstract notions, sometimes they were the notions of others (Descartes, Voltaire, David Hume, and Sartre immediately come to mind.) But God as He has made Himself known in Jesus Christ is something altogether different, radically different. In the light of the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of the God-man Christ, all of those problems with the abstract Diety vanish like the morning fog when it is warmed by the rising sun. Thank you, Father.

  80. David,
    Indeed, it’s always important when thinking about God to stop and consider Whom we are really thinking about. The philosopher’s God is not the God professed and taught by the Church.

    The philosopher’s God is the one that atheists don’t believe in. I don’t believe in Him either.

  81. Father- I have been studying and trying to understand the philosopher’s God for over half a century. I now have a lot of intellectual trash to take to the dumpster. Thank God for you, Orthodoxy and, sincerely, Ancient Faith Radio. But I am especially and eternally grateful to the burning coal of The Eucharist (to quote a prayer book). Thanks be to God.

  82. Somewhat related to David’s comment about the philosopher’s God, there was a time when I delved through a lot of Christian apologetic material, convincing myself that I did this so I would have an answer for the doubters. I finally realized it was not the doubts of others but my own that I was trying to reconcile! As I look back I realize I would not have needed the “apologetics” had I been confident in what I was taught. But as it was I had many questions that were left unanswered…until I became Orthodox.
    I must add that only second to Church itself. has this blog been such a significant part of my journey.
    And Father, not only because of your brilliant essays do I learn, but also I take note on how you treat people with kindness and respect. Like the title of this post, you freely show Love and allow freedom for all who come here. I learn as much from that as I do your writings.
    What I failed to tell Sue in my comment to her (above, that diverted the conversation) is that I was more than miffed when I first came here and read the “West bashing”…and I didn’t “complain” as nicely as Sue did. That, and other retorts I had, were taken kindly by you. That was very humbling Father. It took a while for my thick head (heart!) to realize this.
    What can I say, but Glory to God…thank you!

  83. Fr. Freeman,

    Can you point me to some reference to judge Fr. Romanides by? I don’t see why he is so controversial except that he is very critical of Western theology.

  84. Matthew,
    Just a thought here…
    It seems to me that there is a difference in how a reader receives information that is “very critical” as one like Fr. Romanidies and “critical” as one like Fr. Schmemann (in reference to Father’s comment @August 31, 2018 at 8:18 am). Father mentions how a legitimate criticism can come across as crude. This is exactly why I stopped reading at a website dedicated to Fr. Romanidies. It was not the content but the tone. When I encounter writers who come across as such I simply go to another source to gather the same information (ex. on ancestral sin) that is free from such distraction. There I am able to decipher the information, including even a critical assessment, without the intrusion of my own negative thoughts.
    By what Father Stephen has said in the past, he believes Fr. Romanidies in time veered off track in some way. I do not expect Father to expound on this, as I rarely see him discussing these matters in detail… about any person. What I mean to say is I could not even read past the “very critical-ness” of his writings to come to any conclusions about his theology. I find it interesting that it seems like I am none the worse for it (based on Fr. Stephen’s opinion which I highly value).

  85. Matthew Lyon,
    I cannot think of a particular reference. Much of what I think of is both conversations with other Orthodox (theologians) as well as my own observations.

    There are several obvious things:

    First, reality, including intellectual reality, is complex. Historical analysis of divergencies of thought, and such, when they are over simplified, tend to give a very wrong impression of history, as well as the greater layers of truth. Romanides tends to be reductionist in his analysis. The example of ancestral versus original sin is just such a reduction. It does a lousy job of actually analyzing the history of the concept of original sin in the West as well as actually paying attention to various versions (however dissimilar) in the East. Roman Catholic thought spans a lot of centuries and a lot of thinkers and is frequently wrongly described by Romanides (and I’m not normally a defender of Rome). The sort of original sin he caricatures is more common in some circles of so-called “Reform” thought (modern Calvinists), who occasionally boarder on a cult-like version of Christianity – i.e. they actually become a caricature.

    Very few non-Reform Evangelicals and other Protestants think very much at all about the topic of original sin – and are far more complex when discussing the topic of sin.

    I absolutely agree that the notion of death entering the world as the true nature of sin is the most common and deeply rooted account in the East. It can be generally described as non-forensic in its thought. Romanides’ later stuff, goes in a direction that is very troubling. There is a thread that describes those who have reached theosis in a manner that I think can be dangerous. He makes them into infallible seers of all possible truth. This has trickled down into some popular Orthodox thought that will simply quote a saint’s opinion on something (like science questions) as possessing some higher, unchallengeable truth. I don’t think we have any examples of saints who can be seen that way – and in the hands of some, this itself can turn into an almost cult-like version of Orthodoxy.

    It is always good to never take a single writer (ancient or modern) as a dominant part of your thought. An idea that seems important, should then be researched and weighed and considered more deeply. If it’s actually important – then it’s worth the time and effort.

    Romanides quickly becomes an ideological tool useful for argument – for “fixing” others’ wrong ideas. This is much, much more easy than actually embodying the truth that matters. Theological argument is about as useless an exercise as anyone ever engaged. The only true argument that matters, is the truth embodied. That is long, slow, patient.

    When I was younger (and I’ve been young so many times!) I would get excited when I would learn a key idea. It was like discovering the Holy Grail of truth – the problem that would have changed all of history had it been treated otherwise. I’ve subsequently reduced history many, many times, only to be disappointed and embarrassed later when I realized I was being overly simplistic.

    I got into a discussion the other day with a young priest, well-trained, on the topic of the canons and a particular issue surrounding them. I thought I knew something about the subject, but learned more in about 20 minutes than I had ever known before – and learned yet again how dangerous it is for people to just read a canon law, or its interpretation, and think they actually know what they’re talking about. It has an amazing amount of complexity. (Frustratingly so!)

    I’ll keep my eyes open for some good resources and keep you in mind.

  86. Father, thanks so much for your extended comments about Romanides, particularly those about your youthful experiences with ‘key’ ideas, cannons, dogmas and their historical turns. It is comforting to know that I can perhaps, by God’s grace, learn some of this wisdom even as my years increase.

  87. Father,
    This is a little difficult to reconcile: “Against this denial is the blatant Christian teaching (constantly affirmed in the Orthodox Church) that God’s intention towards us is to raise us up as equals. We say that “God became man so that man could become God.” Often that statement is “fudged.” We quickly add that we do not mean that human beings will become “God” in the same manner that He is God. But what the Fathers say is that we will become, by grace, everything that God is by nature. This is to say that we will become what He is because it is His gift to us.”
    If I understand Palamas we can only know and experience God’s energies never His essence. Could you please clarify and elaborate. Thank You

  88. “Theological argument is about as useless an exercise as anyone ever engaged. The only true argument that matters, is the truth embodied”

    There it is again. Finding God is not an intellectual achievement. I still read theology, of course, For example, I am in a book club that is currently reading Elizabeth A. Johnson’s “Creation and the Cross.” ( I am also reading Athanasius’s Life of Anthony, listening to all of Deacon Michael Hyatt’s podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio and following Fr. Lawrence Farley’s “Coffee Cup Commentaries” on Isaiah .) But my purpose now is to understand my experience of the Risen Christ. I do not agree with everything I read and hear, but much of it helps me understand what I am reading in the Bible or experiencing in the Liturgy. I must also study so I may separate my learned errors form the newly discovered Truth, without losing the Truth that I was taught in other faith traditions.

    That brings up one of the things I love about Orthodoxy. I was raised in a Protestant tradition that taught me that everything Catholic is wrong. After I became a Catholic, I was taught that almost everything I was taught as a Protestant was wrong. In Orthodoxy, I am being taught that it is not a matter of right or wrong. The Catholics have added too much and the Protestants have taken away too much from the Ancient Faith, but that does not mean there has been a wholesale abandonment of the Faith by any of them. There is merely a lack of the fullness of the Faith, a fullness that may be found in Orthodoxy.

    That is not to say that any one Orthodox individual or school possesses the fullness of the faith. I don’t think so. The Theotokos came as close as anyone can, but, for the rest of us, it is a matter of endless exploration, using not only our minds but our spirits, bodies and souls.

    It’s a wonderful life,

    Theses are the babblings of a fool, of course, for which I beg your forgiveness and correction.

  89. Chris Stacy,
    Yes. I think I’ve worded this in a manner that could be confusing. I carefully stated that we become “by grace” everything that God is by nature – “grace” and the Divine Energies are synonymous. What I was getting at, is that we so quickly qualify the statement “God became man so that man could become God” that we often fail to really consider what an astounding statement that it is. That is all. Sorry for any confusion.

  90. Ya’all sound like Orthocostals, but I like it! 🙂 At least your praise has very real substance backing it.

  91. “Romanides’ later stuff, goes in a direction that is very troubling. There is a thread that describes those who have reached theosis in a manner that I think can be dangerous. He makes them into infallible seers of all possible truth. This has trickled down into some popular Orthodox thought that will simply quote a saint’s opinion on something (like science questions) as possessing some higher, unchallengeable truth. I don’t think we have any examples of saints who can be seen that way – and in the hands of some, this itself can turn into an almost cult-like version of Orthodoxy.”

    I decided to read up a little on Romanides as a result of this thread because my own Rector had made derisive noises when I mentioned reading something by him once–likely for the reasons you state. From what little I’ve seen, I would agree Romanides can be understood this way, but I’ve also seen critiques that suggest it is a misunderstanding of his language to believe he taught Saints could be “infallible seers of all possible truth.” The critique suggested what he really believed was that the God-bearing Fathers are the only fully reliable (collective?) hermeneutic of the faith, since they are filled with the Spirit of the Tradition. It is the Holy Spirit that is the only infallible Guide to the truth of the Tradition, not individual God-bearing Saints. Whatever the reality is of what he taught (versus what some have taken him to be teaching), I think his emphasis on purified noetic perception as the proper vehicle of inspired understanding is very valuable, entirely Orthodox, and an emphasis I have appreciated in your work here as well. But it is important to understand the polemical context in which Romanides was attempting to articulate Orthodox faith in response to Protestant and Orthodox attacks on what they perceived to be errors in Orthodox tradition in the early part of the 20th century. Polemical works and descriptive works are two different things. I would be very leery of those cult-like responses to Romanides’ work you describe. I think I’ve seen that, too, and that sort of thing is indeed very troublesome.

  92. Karen…after reading your comment about Romanides I realized that it was the polemical nature of his work that I had reacted to. So, “very critical” and “polemics” sort of go hand in hand. But there is a varying degree of abrasiveness that make some easier to read than others.
    Anyway, thanks for bringing that out.

  93. Paula,
    It’s very true polemical works can be hard to take. They can come across as harsh and abrasive. I think the “The River of Fire” address Fr. Stephen has in his pages here is another example of a polemical work. In fact, it seems to me Kalomiros draws quite heavily from Romanides’ perspective in this essay. When I read “The River of Fire”, I realized much of the beginning part was quite a caricature of anything I would recognize as the theolological tradition of “the West”. At the same time, there was a kernel of truth within that caricature—especially as this pertained to certain Reformed and Evangelical presentations of “the gospel”—which validated very real difficulties I had come to have understanding the gospel in fullness as an Evangelical Protestant. So, I took the first part of TROF with a large grain of salt, looking at the kernel of truth it contained, and was able to really appreciate and recognize the Orthodox understanding of the nature of Final Judgment and Hell it presented in its second part as the spiritual medicine I had been needing for the healing of my soul.

  94. Karen… Now that you mention it, I do recall in a recent post you relating a story about reading on the Last Judgement, where you had an epiphany! Didn’t remember it was TROF. though. A very significant moment for you.
    I will consider this and think twice the next time I come across a difficult piece. It may be well worth it (as it was for you) to continue to the end, especially if there is something worthwhile being said. Thanks again!

  95. I should add, Paula, that for every bit of polemical argument I read, there are probably dozens I have passed over for less provocative food for my soul. There was a reason the Holy Spirit wanted me to read TROF. Equally, I think He has convicted me to avoid other sources that would have simply stirred up my passions and been unhelpful. We don’t all profit from identical spiritual prescriptions.

  96. Karen…yes. Well said, and I agree. In retrospect I can look back and recognize God’s ‘hand’ in leading me away from [books, readings, places online] the very things that contribute to inflaming my already inflamed passions. And then to find just the right material. or place, or person that will bless!

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