Judgment with a Mixed Bag

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If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Solzhenitsyn puts his finger on the problem: the human heart is a “mixed bag.” This thought hovered in my mind this past Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, on the Orthodox pre-Lenten calendar. The gospel reading was the familiar passage in St. Matthew on the parable of the sheep and the goats. There everyone is judged according to what they did “to the least of these my brethren.” But the Solzhenitsyn-inspired thought asked, “But what about those who sometimes act like sheep and sometimes act like goats?”

Such an analysis is actually quite accurate. We are none of us always kind to the least of these our brethren, but neither do we always ignore them. So questions arise? Does the judgment involve adding them up and seeing which one holds the preponderance of our actions? In a novel I read back in the 80’s, a science fiction writer imagined a world in which those whose good and bad actions were too closely matched for an easy judgment were sent to a purgatory in which they had to do the calculations on their whole life, with forms that had been designed by the IRS. It sent shivers down my spine!

Of course, the very suggestion of the problem will immediately raise howls of protest from those who want to remind us that we are saved by grace and not by works. That facile distinction cannot obliterate the parable, however. For what seems to linger most about the parable is its conclusion: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Mat 25:46) For, regardless of how you reckon that some get there, the parable suggests an eternal punishment. My question, regarding the mixed-bag of souls, is, doubtless impertinent. Anyone can rightly say that the judgments of God are inscrutable. But if they are so inscrutable that we cannot know anything about them, why the parable?

St. Gregory of Nyssa takes a noteworthy approach to this question.

Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations; He is only claiming and drawing to Himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence. But while He for a noble end is attracting the soul to Himself, the Fountain of all Blessedness, it is the occasion necessarily to the being so attracted of a state of torture. Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious material alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire….

…In any and every case evil must be removed out of existence, so that, as we said above, the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all. Since it is not in its nature that evil should exist outside the will, does it not follow that when it shall be that every will rests in God, evil will be reduced to complete annihilation, owing to no receptacle being left for it?

St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection

In this treatment, the saint (called the “Father of Fathers” by the Seventh Council) treats the import of the story of judgment as a story within each soul rather than a story of one soul versus another. The judgment, a separation, is a separation of the good and evil that resides in the heart of every human being. It is, in effect, God’s rescue of His enslaved creation.

I am not here arguing for or against the Father of Fathers. Rather, I am allowing him to help me think about the perplexing reality of sheep and goats. For in our experience, the sheep and goats seem to have interbred in such a manner than cannot be distinguished from the outside.

Perhaps it is truly that some are really goats at heart, while others are sheep. And that when they stand face-to-face before Christ, they will somehow reveal their true nature. But this contradicts St. Gregory’s point. We are, he notes, by nature desirous of God. The judgment, he says, is the destruction of that which is not truly our nature. We are freed to become what we truly are.

I am aware of the many arguments and objections this raises for many, and of its place within the Tradition. But I cite it here for a different use. For many can mount objections as to its final application, but cannot, I think, object to its use in the present moment. We are indeed a mixed bag, a confusion of good and evil. Indeed, we are not good one moment and evil the next. Rather, our good never seems to be entirely pure, lacking in mixed motives, and our evil never seems to be devoid of some good desire, regardless of how perverted and distorted that desire might be.

Judgment is a very messy business, something that must remain in the hands of a good God (and Him alone).

My experience of Christ on a daily basis is far more like that of St. Gregory’s image. Every moment of my life is for my salvation. Even the tragedies and disasters that befall me (including those of my own making) seem, in hindsight, to have been something that in the hand of God is doing me good. The fire is continually burning, devouring action and thought and purifying intention. Many times the fire is too bright and far too hot to think anything about it other than to flee and shield my self. But even the briefest encounter with those flames is not without benefit.

The final disposition of souls is in the hand of God. But so is the daily disposition of our lives. I know that when the roll is called for goats, I bleat in excited response, even while some muted sheepish sound murmurs in protest. For today, I know the roll call for goats is one calling us to a blessed slaughter that is nothing less than our day-to-day salvation.

O blessed, holy judgment and sweet flame!

48 comments:

  1. Fr. Stephen,
    Archbishop Alexander Golitzen was in Atwater, Ca., this last Sunday. He was there to celebrate a mission, he had helped to start 34 years ago, on the blessing of a new building it had finally purchased. His preaching in most points echoed what you have just written on the last judgment.
    His emphasis was on the image of the river of fire we see in the icon of the last judgment. You have mentioned the same before. The righteous embrace the fire of God’s love while the unrighteous are burned by the very same fire which they spurn. He did state that the very criterion of the judgment will be based on how we have treated the poor and marginalized among us…I sure hope I am recalling correctly his words.

  2. Thank you Fr. Stephen! I am especially grateful for your final paragraph and closing words (I realize that they would make little sense without the rest of your article and your reference to St. Gregory of Nyssa. ) Glorty to God for All Things!

    “The final disposition of souls is in the hand of God. But so is the daily disposition of our lives. I know that when the roll is called for goats, I bleat in excited response, even while some muted sheepish sound murmurs in protest. For today, I know the roll call for goats is one calling us to a blessed slaughter that is nothing less than our day-to-day salvation.

    O blessed, holy judgment and sweet flame!”

    I am encouraged to remember and repeat the Psalm: Bless the Lord O my soul and all that is within me Bless His Holy Name!

  3. Good afternoon! In my experiences, I have come to learn that we are all working out our own salvation, but at the same time each other’s. This is done in the way we interact, give a direction or a mere suggestion – we are all affecting one another. Sometimes we give and some times we must take, but all is part of the puzzle fitting together for salvation. Did we help others; did we pray for them; did we love them in spite of their weakness or disappointing us. Then, was that returned to us as well? I see that in Heaven this will be the true oneness ( in God) we will become and in getting there, Jesus will come and separate the goats from the sheep. There has to be the purity of oneness – just as “knowing” in Heaven will be our communication and understanding, all in love and purity and from the purifying fire that polishes our souls – “tested as gold in fire” – will we withstand the test? *Nice article; thankyou!

  4. “…In any and every case evil must be removed out of existence, so that, as we said above, the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all…”

    As someone who enjoys the intricacies of the dialectic trying – racing – to catch up to the *truth* of Revelation, I can appreciate what St. Gregory is trying to do here. I think he fails utterly. His anti-metaphysic of evil (i.e. evil, not existing yet-at-the-same time needing to be “removed out of existence” – non-existence “ceasing to exist”) is a clever paradox that rests on…what, exactly? Push it just a little bit and it has a “turtles all the way down” character. I am unconvinced that it expands/explains the paradox of good and evil (found in this past Sunday’s parable or any other). Sometimes, a contradiction is just a contradiction. Give me the reasoning of a St. Augustine over this – at least with St. Augustine the *terms* of his dialectic have a proper solidity – the *gravity* of metaphysical thought that is actually physical, something with ‘soul’ as it were.

    The question that is asked (and must be I think) of all process theology – evil as something that is left behind in a process (of creation, of time, to a telos of the Eschaton) is “Why not skip to the end”? Why does God or his Creation need “purification” at all – God is God – why did He not “start” at the end, with pure will already existing and resting in God?

    Thanks Father for your reply on the other thread!

  5. After reading this, I think I need to draw back a bit and have a cup of tea. There is a lot to absorb here.

  6. For Christopher: I think God did start at the end – in the beginning when He created the world in paradise – it was the “fall” that brought us to this place of living with both evil and good – within ourselves and in others around us. God bless…..

  7. To echo Maria’s comment above, I have come to realize just how important others are to my own salvation. For it is only in confronting the brokenness of others that I am able to discover the brokenness in myself, and then to work towards healing through repentance and confession. May God continue to reveal my “goatiness” to me.

  8. For Esmee: Thankyou for your comment – very inspirational. Yes, I agree we all help one another to see each other and ourselves too! God bless…..

  9. Whether ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’ is interbred within each person, and like gold and alloy must be polished through fire, or whether the ‘core inclination’ of discrete individuals is what the parable is all about, a curious fact about it is that sheep are primarily communal animals –easy to unite– while goats are considered independent animals, less inclined to follow. I find this noteworthy, knowing that God is love, and Man’s calling to eternal communion in love can only be thwarted by our separatist tendencies.

  10. Dear Father Stephen ,
    thank you for the revealing words.
    You made a great point when you said: Every moment of my life is for my salvation.
    This is the exact moment in which people differ, that moment of having trust in God’s Mercy and loving him is in fact crucial of accepting the Cure-Christ himself, no matter the pain or the burning of the sinful part in us. We are humans and good and bad are in us, but that particular thing makes us different, no matter what the price, to make the resolution that we accept That Fire as Life, and not as something that goes against us, against our well-being. I think somewhere it was mentioned that The Light of God, as a Burning Fire, is the same for the all the people, but some feel it as the Life itself and the Food of Life and the others as a punishment. I mention this because I think it can be connected to my little experience of the life in faith when a part of me, that years later have proved to be against God, was a part which refused to die and accept God’s Will and felt the cure of the Church through the Eucharist and Confessions as something going against myself. That was the revealing moment when I realized that on your spiritual journey you can not trust yourself, put your faith in God’s hands and be sure that the cure given to you through Confession, Prayer and the Eucharist is the right one, because once you made your honest resolution,to follow Christ no matter the cost.
    I am not sure, but maybe exactly in this sense these words were spoken and still are :
    And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
    I hope you will forgive if I misunderstood something and misled with the words above, but I really strongly believe that only the decision to learn loving God makes us different.

  11. Paula AZ, Christopher,
    Following Christopher’s suggestion, I deleted that brief exchange. However, I want to suggest that it is inappropriate, or less than helpful, when responding to a comment, to move from the content of the comment and into the person who made it.

    Christopher, I don’t think there really is a metaphysic that is satisfying – at least not intellectually. I tend to see all treatments as an effort to “get at” something, and that the “something” is what always escapes us.

    I do think it’s important to remember that the image according to which we were/are created, is the image of the crucified Christ. The Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world. I do not think that the crucified Christ is caused by the Fall. He is revealed by the Fall. St. Maximus makes the fall all but simultaneous with the creation of man. I suspect that he (and Gregory) have thoughts on that topic that they both left unspoken. I do not imagine a world in which we did not fall. I do not imagine the world as somewhere in which we “had” to fall, at least not in the way we would normally think such a thing.

    Sometimes (I think out loud here) I think of the whole of history, from the creation to the eschaton, as “the creation.” It is the bringing forth of human beings in the image and likeness of God. But it’s a very long story.

    I also leave a lot of things unanswered in my mind on purpose. A little ignorance is good for the soul.

  12. Father bless,

    How do we come to understand this parable in light of Orthodox soteriology that is therapeutic (healing of the soul, theosis, becoming God-like, beholding the Uncreated Light) when this parable suggest God is legalistic i.e., He is a Judge and “pays each man according to his deeds” (Mt 16:27) ? Is it to be understood metaphorically? Are there any patristic sources that see it this way?

  13. Savvas,
    I’ll have to comb through Patristic sources. I suspect that our own culture imports a lot of the “legal character” that we see in the parable. “paying each according to his deeds,” is not necessarily legal. A question would be, “What’s the manner of the payment?” Obviously, “payment” is metaphorical. But, we can say, “Each will face the consequences of their actions.” What will that look like?

  14. “I do not imagine a world in which we did not fall. I do not imagine the world as somewhere in which we “had” to fall, at least not in the way we would normally think such a thing.

    Sometimes (I think out loud here) I think of the whole of history, from the creation to the eschaton, as “the creation.” It is the bringing forth of human beings in the image and likeness of God. But it’s a very long story. ”

    Dear Father Stephen,
    This is the direction in which I’ve been thinking for a long time, and it is really wonderful to see it stated so crisply. And without taking one iota away from the utter Mystery.
    I’m with Laura – time for a cup of tea and a good meditation…

  15. Fr Stephen,
    Christopher’s comment is stimulating and I appreciate your response. I hope these additional reflections might be helpful.

    On contradictions and metaphysics: I can appreciate an attempt to reach for logic and the frustration we might experience when that logic doesn’t work. This happens to me all the time actually. This is, I think, part of our nature. And yet as we mull over something that defies our logic, and attempt to state our understanding of what we observe, we will present contradictory statements. An example of this is: we say light is a ‘particle’ (photon), and we can say light is a wave. We often say light is both (generally we say it exhibits both contrary characteristics).

    This seeming defiance of logic could, I suppose, frustrate the observer to the point of relinquishing the quest to understand. Alternatively we could hold our gaze upon the seeming contrariness without working to resolve the contradictions (and at the same time not deny they exist). In practice, for example, we use equations that characterize light as photons and/or waves, depending on what is applicable in different contexts.

    In my understanding of St Gregory’s words, his observation appears to explore and describe what seems to ‘be’ (or ‘not be’, in the movement to non-existence) without attempting to put it into a logic (or perhaps it shows ‘my’ inability to fit it into ‘my’ logic). And yet I found his words edifying and provide some hope for this goat, though I’m not sure I understand this fully.

    Your words: “I do not think that the crucified Christ is caused by the Fall. He is revealed by the Fall.” are also very helpful for me.

    On the life of a goat: It seems the fires of refinement are upon me daily. Such as it is, I’m more aware of my inner goat than I’m aware of my inner sheep. I pray the dross burns off quickly but for reasons beyond my understanding, I hang on to the dross. I believe the way out of such cycling through the fires is prayer and fasting. And yet at the same time wanting out of the fire is itself part of ‘my problem’. On account of that, I think it is wisdom that you speak: “O blessed, holy judgment, oh sweet fire”.

    Fr Stephen, thank you for this article and explanation. This is not the message one typically hears in Protestant and Roman Catholic homilies. And it evokes my deepest gratitude.

    Dino, I think the corollary to the ‘independence’ of goats and the ‘herding’ instincts of sheep are useful as well. Thank you for your comment.

  16. I do think it’s important to remember that the image according to which we were/are created, is the image of the crucified Christ. The Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world. I do not think that the crucified Christ is caused by the Fall. He is revealed by the Fall.

    Thank you for this, Father. I will not send the discussion off on a tangent but this is very helpful for me.

  17. Some years ago it occurred to me that the images of cleaning and purifying in Scripture generally involve treating two different things the same way and allowing them to separate themselves by their responses.

    To do laundry, you throw clothes and dirt into soapy water together. They separate because they respond differently to the soap.

    To refine gold, you heat gold and dross together. They separate because they respond differently to the heat.

    King Solomon once proposed to treat two women identically, giving each of them half of the baby they claimed. The mother’s love prompted her to respond differently than the impostor.

    Two thieves once hung on crosses beside the Savior.

    The same tool that cuts off the fruitless branch prunes the fruitful one to increase its fruit.

  18. “Sometimes (I think out loud here) I think of the whole of history, from the creation to the eschaton, as “the creation.” It is the bringing forth of human beings in the image and likeness of God. But it’s a very long story.”

    Fr. John Behr is a good resource on this. His book “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death”, or the small coffee-table version of the same work, called “Becoming Human.” Or you can watch him on youtube; he always speaks about the same thing.

  19. Reid,
    I too really love your examples. They make me think that this “terrain” or “medium” in which the processing happens is our own mind/heart/brain/thoughts… The way we process things in life internally determines the type of the perception of that very same reality…

    Your comment combined with a recent reminder in another one (Father’s or Dino’s, I think) to live “small, simple and quiet” is such a beautiful “mental” setup for upcoming Great Lent. One friend recently phrased it “Lent is such a great opportunity, lets not miss it [again]”….

    I can’t resist sharing that I read your comment in my phone at the end of a long meeting at work. People were talking around me, but for that moment, I was lost in thought, processing your words. Once I “came out of it” and joined the conversation again, one of my friends said: “Where were you just now? It looked like you were transported into a different world”. Isn’t it a great example of how what we think transforms our life instantly? 🙂

  20. Thank you, Father, for this post. I am curious as to what the Sci-Fi story is which you mentioned.

  21. Max,
    It’s been many years since I read it. But the book was Piers Anthony’s, On a Pale Horse. I have to confess that I do not read much sci-fi these days. Just browsing through social media is pretty much a tour through as much fantasy as I’m able to bear. 🙂

  22. The way we process things in life internally determines the type of the perception of that very same reality….

    …Isn’t it a great example of how what we think transforms our life instantly?

    Agata, I would say how we think is what transforms our life. If our perception does not match actual reality, what we perceive is false. Drawing close to God is, in some measure, akin to learning to perceive Truth and not be deceived by falsehood. Just thinking out loud.

  23. Byron,

    Your distinction is a little too deep for my plebeian soul… 🙂

    But I think you are saying the same thing I meant, that if we manage to lift our thoughts to God in the middle of the reality we are experiencing, so much of our perception of that reality changes, as we “draw close to God” this way.

    I am often surprised and disappointed in myself that I forget to do that in more intense situations. For example when I meet with wonderful friends, and am immersed in the conversation, I rarely remember to have a thought “in the moment” to thank God for allowing me such a meeting. It’s only later, on my way home I realize: “Oh my Lord, again I forgot to thank You for that beautiful moment when I was in it. Please forgive me and accept my gratitude for it now”. But how much more wonderful that meeting would have been if I actually remembered to invite the Lord to be with us?!
    (actually, I think my friends do this for me, because these meetings are wonderful despite my failings :-))

  24. Dee, your comment on logic and seeming contradiction got me thinking again about the dialectic nature of most modern logic. Either/or propositions with an attempt to resolve these seeming contradictions. The Patristic approach is what Vladimir Lossky called antinomical. As light (both particle and wave but convenient to be treated at times as one or the other) so is our life in Christ. We are both sheep and goat. There can be no synthesis of these two it seems and it is only possible to resolve the dilemma because of the reality that Jesus Christ is Incarnate: Fully God and fully man.

  25. Michael, Dee…the word antinomy came to mind after reading Dee’s comment as well. Couldn’t remember where I read it though. Good analogy you make, Michael. ‘Tis true.

  26. Thank you Michael and Paula! I’m always grateful to learn new vocabulary and meanings. This was very helpful. And I appreciate, Michael, the return to an important understanding in the Orthodox faith that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man. If we attempt to make sense out of such a sentence to make it logical, I suspect it will likely take us down a rather deep rabbit hole. St Maximus I believe was martyred for it wasn’t he?

    I had to look up antinomy and accidently searched antimony (what a dufus!). Anyway, Kant apparently used the term to describe statements in his discourse, which he resolved. I think we can convince ourselves to construct a resolvable meaning, and achieve consistency but in the process, not achieve validity. If I understand correctly, I think there is such a thing as validity in phenomena that are also antinomical.

    Fr Stephen, forgive me I think this is still relevant to your article and to what Christopher wrote. But I don’t want to derail the conversation toward western philosophy. The subject of your article is too important. I appreciate the antinomical Patristic approach that St Gregory uses and can relate to it. (thank you Paula and Michael!!!)

  27. Dee…I did the same thing, switching the m’s and n’s, when looking up the word antinomy! Easy to do!
    I found an article by Lossky that you might be interested in:
    http://jbburnett.com/resources/lossky/lossky_myst1-trinity.pdf
    Here is an excerpt:
    ” When I think of any One of the Three, I think of Him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or
    measure out the undivided light. Our thought must be in continuous motion, pursuing now the one, now the three, and returning again to the unity; it must swing ceaselessly between the two poles of the antinomy, in order to attain to the contemplation of the sovereign repose of this threefold monad. How can the antinomy of unity and trinity be contained in an image? How can this mystery be grasped save by the aid of an idea— be it that of movement or of development— which is inadmissible? Nazianzen’s conscious adoption of the language of
    Plotinus can delude only those unimaginative and pedestrian souls who are incapable of rising above rational concepts: those who ransack the thought of the Fathers for traces of ‘Platonism’ or ‘Aristotelianism’. St. Gregory speaks to the philosophers as a philosopher, that he may win the philosopher to the contemplation of the Trinity.”
    And this:
    “According to a modern Russian theologian, Father Florensky, there is no other way in which human thought may find perfect stability save that of accepting the trinitarian antinomy. If we reject the Trinity as the sole ground of all reality and of all thought, we are committed to a road that leads nowhere; we end in an aporia, in folly, in the disintegration of our being, in spiritual death. Between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice. This question is, indeed, crucial— in the literal sense of that word. The dogma of the Trinity is a cross for human ways of thought. The
    apophatic ascent is a mounting of calvary. This is the reason why no philosophical speculation has ever succeeded in rising to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. This is the reason why the human spirit was able to receive the full revelation of the Godhead only after Christ on the cross had triumphed over death and over the abyss of hell. This, finally, is the reason why the revelation of the Trinity shines out in the Church as a purely religious gift, as the catholic truth above all other.”

    Granted I am in no position to critique these heady theologians. But I do know they are well read and so I read their works. I want to learn. I like what Lossky has to say and how he “rests” in this thing called antinomy. I think it indeed does speak to the validity, the ability to speak unabashedly, about the wonder of our God.

  28. Antimony rings a bell when I see it. Going to Bryce Canyon there is a small road sign that points towards it…a tiny town in Utah of 122 souls! Antinomy…well, Paula, good to increase our vocabulary at any age!
    The Lamb of God who became the “scapegoat” for us, as in the OT. He not only had the sins of the people laid upon Him but became sin, in some unfathomable way, for us. Yes, Father. We all are an admixture of sheep and goat. I see it daily in my own heart. I still lapse into “goatishness”, as I believe Esmee described it. I did a quick search of differences between sheep and goats. Even goats have some admirable qualities! Thank you again Father for your articles. They are always a source of spiritual reflection and direction for me.

  29. Amen Dean….even the “antinomy” of being a mix of sheep and goat can be infuriating. The older I get the more I see the Queen Goat in me, with that sheep crying in the background ‘but…but…I want to be!’ Reminds me of Romans 7. St Paul hit the nail on that one.
    I had to laugh…you are very generous, Dean! Goats have some admirable qualities? Well, yes, I do not doubt they do. Many people raise goats, for food and for pets. They even walk them on a leash! Now this is the goat in me, as I say this….I’ve owned goats in the past. Never again! Two goats (me and them) can not live in peace on the same land. They were just not a fit for me. Bad habits are near impossible to break. Again…I know this through the goat in my own self!

  30. Antinomy, and the contemplation of paradox – the holding together of two or more ‘things’ in the mind that on their own deny the other (such as ‘Trinity’ & ‘Unity’ attributed to the same ‘thing’) is something we as Christians must do, on some level, to even ‘be’ Christian – to recognise God as God and not misperceive him as another ‘thing’ in the world. Sometimes we use a different kind of reasoning, reasoning by analogy, to help us grasp a paradox. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”. That is what Dee has done with the analogy of the particle/wave nature of light to St. Gregory’s words. Here is something subtle but important: Dee’s analogy depends upon *physics* and not *meta-physics*. Dee, as a scientist, is an anti-metaphysician (now there is a word! 😉 ) Methodological materialism is always provisional. In Dee’s words “…I think we can convince ourselves to construct a resolvable meaning, and achieve consistency but in the process, not achieve validity…” The scientific framing of light as wave/particle, is consistent empirically but is not a metaphysical statement of validity (philosophers would rightly take apart this sentence, but it works in this context of our discussion here I think) .

    Here is the hard part: reasoning by analogy has a *relative* character, unlike dialectical and logical reasoning, which is either/or/synthetic in character. Analogical reasoning is more like a painting, and you judge the painting in several ways, perhaps the most important of which (to this conversation) is “is this painting fidelous to the subject – does it look like what it is a painting of”? We don’t ask of a painting “is it logical – does it add up?” – not directly at least. So we have this past Sunday’s parable, which is an example of analogy. Then, we have St. Gregory’s commentary, which is metaphysics – he is not saying something is *like* something else, he is saying something *is*. Then we have Father’s and Dee’s analogical interpretation of St. Gregory’s metaphysics. If your head is not spinning it should be 😉

    None of this is “wrong”, there is no wrong path to God. I remain unconvinced of St. Gregory’s particular metaphysics, but if it serves some by being the grist of an analogy that serves as an icon, then praise be to God!

    On that Lossky quote, he says that “….How can this mystery be grasped save by the aid of an idea— be it that of movement or of development— which is inadmissible?” What I find “inadmissible” (and Lossky rightly says that such things are “inadmissible”) in St. Gregory’s thought is this meta-physics of “development” of good and evil, our empirical experience and living of it, vis-a-vis the will and thus of man(anthropos) . This is not the crude correlation of language which is something modern, particularly protestant/secular thinkers have done (i.e. the “delusion” Lossky complains about) . Indeed if you grant St. Gregory two meanings of “existence”, such that evil as an *attribute* of the will has the character of non-existence and yet existence (i.e. “…it is not in its nature that evil should exist outside the will…”) his synthesis (which depends on a “development” of the soul, via the purgatorial will of God, in and through creation/time) is quite sophisticated and “works” on its own terms. However, at this point we have moved quite a distance from the icon of the parable and Scripture in general. The philosophical mind is quite an organ – it is a creative organ capable of the most intricate and complex paintings. What are we to make of the overall picture that such metaphysics gives us? Is this painting beautiful, and does it glorify God?

  31. I received a copy of Sergei Fudel’s “Light in the Darkness” in the mail last night. This is a collection of writings by a man who was born in 1901 in Russia, the son of an Orthodox priest. He died in 1977 having lived his whole life in Russia, some 25 years or so of them in various prison camps. I have only just started it but this jumped out at me in the context of this conversation so I wanted to share it:

    “Quite often we come to realize very unexpectedly that the Church is an all-human reality. One day, riding on the subway, I saw a woman sitting with a little girl of about two on her lap. Over the mother’s shoulder the child stretched her blue-mittened hand to the brake handle, almost, but not quite, reaching it. Suddenly I noticed a well-dressed young man watching her too. Our eyes met and we both smiled. We both sensed that the little mitten was a pure treasure of our common humanity. The brake handle was a symbol of some outside power, a key to the cold knowledge of good and evil. but the blue mitten stood for warmth, for the mysterious, unselfconscious innocence of childhood. We smiled to each other as if we were not strangers; for a moment, we were of one warm, innocent heart. This is what the Church is.”

  32. Christopher…great quote! “…this is what the Church is.” Yes, amen. Thank you.

    The book sounds really good. I enjoy reading personal stories about our brothers and sisters who lived under such oppression and the impact the Church had on their lives. We in America can learn a lot from them.
    Well, enjoy the book Christopher, and may it be a blessing.

  33. Christopher,
    Thank you for your comment. Very stimulating indeed! I’ll need to digest this a bit. But one thing that stands out at the moment, is that I take all of language as analogous. Both language and equations for that matter. Or in other words, I believe we use language and equations to help us model reality in words and/or equations.

    I appreciate the distinction between equivalency and definition, and but I didn’t catch immediately what St Gregory’s does in his words regarding what ‘is’ versus what something ‘is like’. Regardless I think it is always good to re-read such words in order for the meaning to be understood though life ‘lived’ so to speak.

    Last, fidelity to reality is what I call validity. We can say things precisely and consistently and yet not say valid things.

    Please forgive me, I’m not accustomed to speaking this way, and I may sound like an idiot. I’m at the edge of my reach, and I hope for correction as needed.

    Father I apologize, please delete if this isn’t helpful.

  34. Also, as a youth in the faith, I’m still attempting to understand St John’s words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    I take these words literally. And yet can’t claim to understand them fully. Furthermore, I suspect one might argue that if I do take these verses literally, then I have contradicted myself when I say language presents a model analogous to reality in it’s construction.

    Please forgive me. And I hope Fr Stephen will correct or delete as needed.

  35. “The roll call for goats is one calling us to a blessed slaughter that is nothing less than our day-to-day salvation.” Thank you, Father. I pray for daily, blessed slaughter. Is that what it means to be crucified with Christ?

  36. Yes Dee, you have (one almost wants to say, naturally) assumed that language is *nominal*, and only points (as it were) to reality and the real – it “models” it. This is what you were born into, and “everybody” assumes it is so even if they do so in idiosyncratic ways particular to your particular city, church, profession, and lifestyle. Now imagine a town, perhaps lost in the hills somewhere, where everybody (one almost wants to say, naturally) assumes (which is to say it’s just “common sense”) that what you can see, perceive, measure, and validate scientifically/statistically is only particular, imperfect, dead and dying examples of the *real* and reality. What language actually is a *symbol* of is not these poor reflections of the real that you can touch, see, and measure and scientifically/statistically validate – rather the Real behind this is language’s true object and source.

    If you can imagine this eve if only for a second, then you can understand how almost every Christian saw the world for 1500 years, and many more after that here and there. You can also see how they are, quite naturally, theologians themselves or at least capable of *hearing* myth and theology such as that from St. John, and how they would (quite naturally) accept the need for an asceticism to even get at the Real…

  37. Christopher,
    Thank you for your patience. I sincerely welcome critique, and at the same time I’m not sure my usage of the word ‘modeling’ is an example of nominalism (if this is what you’re saying?). I’m not sure on account of the fact I operate with the understanding that there is a reality in which we commune and communicate in the language. So the modeling is corrected by that reality so to speak as we might attempt to correct ourselves (and our models). I wouldn’t have used the words “point to”. But I’m not sure yet why. I think of words and equations like icons. But I don’t pretend to have a full understanding of the theology of icons, either.

    God is in all, manifested through His energies, His grace. The use of language to describe Christ ‘as’ the Word of God is not complete. But ‘is’, always has been, and always will be the Word of God, is better. Our words (at least I can certainly say my words) fail to ‘capture’ God. Nevertheless, we attempt to describe, write, and paint His incarnated image. And the merit of such work is whether it conforms in some manner to God’s incarnated image, or to the Gospel.

    I admit, I do not understand how there is power in the spoken word of the Jesus prayer, and yet I witness it. But if I should attempt to describe such phenomena in the context of the structure of the language itself, I would be lost.

  38. Dee,
    For what it’s worth. It’s very difficult to translate Greek verbs into English. The verb rendered “was,” for example is in the “imperfect” tense, carrying a sense of continuous action (being). The sense of the verse is simply that, in the past, when this is happening (creation), the Logos is already continually being. I would also be cautious about translating Logos too easily as “word.” For example, the Greek Archdiocese, in its new liturgical translations, has chosen to render “Logos” simply as “Logos” rather than try to find an English word equivalent (there is none).

    The topic of language and reality is wonderful, with great depth. I wrote, years ago, in my Masters thesis at Duke on the “iconicity of language.” I would recommend to anyone interested in the topic reading Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. I did not use it in my thesis, but it certainly is a very useful and demanding read.

  39. I realize now better what Christopher critiques in my usage of light. But light in all of its meaning means more than just photons and waves (I should say I mean more). I should have known better than to be terse, but I also don’t want to be verbose. I simultaneously behold photons and waves when I say light, but I also behold Christ. Before I became Christian, I would have privately said I behold God in the equations or in the movement of photons and waves that I cannot see, without having much understanding how this happens. (Quite frankly I still don’t, but what I behold is beautiful just the same.) I suspect these circumstances came about from living years in the work and practice. Being humble and open before the work of God, helps one to see I believe.

    Fr Stephen, thank you so much for your insight on the Greek verb tense and the translation problems. Referring back to Logos, I had suspected, was a better approach. And I admit, I’m still very early in the process of learning the meaning of the word Logos and iconography.

    Dear Paula! Always so helpful. Thank you!! I’m going to read it.

  40. The inaugural verse of the Theological Gospel (St John’s) is astounding – even considered as a “whisperer of Grace” to the reader, all of itself…
    However, the English use of “word” (or the Latin use of “verbum”) is a dreadfully reductive rendering of the Greek ‘Logos’ (λόγος).
    For example, the additional understanding of ‘logos’-as-‘meaning’ (in the sense of ‘raison d’être’), is utterly missing in ‘word’, and we know that the Divine Logos is, was, and forever will be, the ‘raison d’être’ of all that exists.

  41. Dino, That makes me see Logos in a way I’ve never seen before. Thanks for the added clarity. Yes, God whispers grace to us in scripture and in the heart.

  42. Thank you for this reflection, Father Stephen. I was struck by the quotation from Saint Gregory of Nyssa that says “…In any and every case evil must be removed out of existence…” following on to “…the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all…” and had been mulling over why it was, along with the rest of the quotation, such a powerful passage. So returning here for your latest comment, now I see that it is because Saint Gregory uses what you have called “the iconicity of words.”

  43. Further, a little bit: I didn’t mean to neglect the beginning of the quotation you have given us, as it is equally powerful. I think, pardon me, Saint Gregory is correct in fusing the two aspects of our humanity as you have interpreted that. The earlier phrase that struck me is “…it is the occasion necessarily to the being so attracted of a state of torture…” That immediately reminded me of what the priest says at the beginning of every liturgy: “…In hell with the soul as God…” The liturgist doesn’t say ‘with wicked souls’ ; he says just ‘the soul’. Thank you for helping us understand – no, approach – this mystery.

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