Thinking About Good and Evil

Recent conversations have brought up questions about good and evil, particularly in the natural world. When the world is locked down in response to a virus, it is easy to wonder about the nature of things. Can a virus be called “evil?” Is that the right word for it? In truth, we use words in a very loose manner in our common speech. We say “evil” about many things, without thinking carefully (or meaning to) about what we’re actually saying. This changes, however, when we attempt to do theology. For theology is always something that involves words, and often turns on the right use of the right word for the right thing. Classically, some of the largest controversies turned on a single iota.

We do not speak with precision in our daily life, and it is silly to expect that we should. But, it is also good to pause, now and again, to think carefully about our speech and what we mean. This article is a small attempt to speak carefully about the nature of good and evil and how Orthodox theology, at its most careful, speaks of them. I’ll also try to define my terms with some care. Here goes.

The Fathers, particularly the Cappadocians through Dionysius and St. Maximus the Confessor, belonged to a school of speech that took great care to hammer away at certain terms, reaching consensus on use and meaning. The seven Great Councils all belong to a single vocabulary project that, over time, developed a working consensus on terms and their application. Some of those words are key:

Being
Nature
Essence
Substance

Person
Hypostasis

Existence
Substistence

Will
Energy

Movement
Change

This list could be expanded even further, but I’ll stop with this. There are some fundamental ideas in all of this. First, and foremost, is the understanding of “being.”

Being, like goodness, and beauty, is foundational. Everything that exists, apart from God, is created out of nothing. And everything(!) that is created is good. God is not the author of evil. Thus, nothing can be said to be “evil” in its actual being. And here we have to think carefully about our language.

When reading classical theology, “essence” or “ousia” or “substance” all refer to the actual being of something – the simple reality that it is. Further, the word “nature,” or “physis,” is used to describe the “what-ness” of something. Thus, a tree has the nature of a tree; a rock has the nature of a rock; an angel has the nature of an angel, etc. If we ask what the “nature” of a tree is, we would answer “to be what a tree is.” A tree is not a rock nor an angel. Again, these are words that describe “being” or “what something is.”

The terms “person” and “hypostatic” are a bit more problematic. For nothing simply “is.” Everything that exists, exists in a particular manner. The tree outside my window is a unique tree and not just the essence of treeness. This expresses something of the uniqueness of what exists. It not only has being (essence), but a particular being (hypostasis).

When speaking of human beings, “hypostasis” or “person” have a quality that is more than mere particularity. There is a relational aspect of our unique existence. I am not fully “who” I am except as I am also in communion with others (more or less).

Related to this, with regard to all things, are the words “existence” and “subsistence.” Something not only has “being,” but the actual being it has is expressed in some manner that is describable. My “existence” encompasses everything that I am doing and every way that I function. Thus, if something is “existential,” it is a matter of the basic expression of my being in a way that can be described and experienced.

Two additional words are quite interesting: “will” and “energy.” Interestingly, the “will” in its most proper meaning, is a faculty and property of the nature (our essence or being). It is a nature’s drive to naturally be what it is created to be. Trees never want to be anything else. A virus wants what a virus wants (by nature). It does not do something else. You can count on it.

Human beings, however, have a different experience of the will, a consequence of our brokenness and lack of communion with God. We have a natural will (the will of our nature), that always tends towards our proper end, that is, what we were created to do and be. But there is what St. Maximus termed the “gnomic” will – a sort of experience of choosing. That will is not governed by our nature but has a kind of unguided freedom. Generally, when we speak of the “will,” we mean this “gnomic” will. The very fact that we have one is not natural. It is unnatural and is a cause of great suffering in our lives. Christian ascesis, to a large extent, concerns itself with the healing of this disruption in our makeup.

Indeed, according to the authoritative teaching of St. Maximus, Christ Himself did not have a “gnomic” will – a separated, fallen, choosing sort of confusion about His actions. He acted with complete integrity and union as a human being (united with His Divine nature). This can quickly become a very complicated discussion, so I will leave it at that. I will say that we often speak about the human will and human freedom in a manner that ignores this distinction and leads to some very false assumptions about what it means to be human.

For what it’s worth, we see a somewhat similar kind of integrity in the actions and life of the Theotokos. But that’s for another day.

“Energy” is a very interesting word. For years I imagined it in terms of physics, thinking it described some sort of force emanating from a being. However, it’s far more simple. “Energies” are our actions, our “doings.” With God, His actions and His being are one. God is what He is and He is what He does. We’re a bit more problematic.

Our doings are often in contradiction to our being. For example, anything we do that is a movement or action against true existence (our being) is a contradiction of who and what we are. Murder is an action that is inherently evil. Note, it’s not the “being” that is evil, but the misuse of the being in its evil actions.

The Fathers (particularly the Cappadocians, Dionysius, Maximus, etc.) view the creation as inherently good, which is also the same thing as saying that it exists and has being. But they do not see the creation as having the fullness of the Good. Everything that exists is created to move towards union and full participation in the Good (God Himself). Creation is dynamic and moves and changes. Sin and evil are a deviation from this dynamic. The path the Fathers describe is: being, well-being, eternal being. Being is a given. Our present life should be an increasing acquisition of well-being. Our final goal is full participation in eternal being, the very life of God.

I have found it very helpful to keep all of this in mind when thinking about sin and evil. Orthodoxy makes a strong link between sin and death. Sin is a movement, a misdirection, a drive and direction towards non-being. It displays as murder, lies, deceit, etc., everything that moves us away from the path to God. It is, however, a false path, and not the thing itself. We may say that a man is evil, but, if we are precise, we must say that his actions (energies) are evil. It was certain errors in the West that led some to speak of human beings as totally depraved and actually evil – or, in Luther’s phrase, “a mass of damnation.” That imprecise language did much harm.

What about the things in the world that are called “natural evil?” This would include events (earthquakes, floods, plagues, etc.). What is “evil” about such things? There is nothing inherently “evil” in the shifting of planetary plates (earthquakes). It’s what planets like ours do. It creates continents, mountains, etc. It is normal. We use the word “evil” in describing these things because of the suffering and death that comes in their wake. But earthquakes are not death and suffering itself, nor is a virus.

Sometimes people speak of the world as “fallen,” and go on to describe the world as therefore bad or evil in some manner. “Fallen” is not a term found in the Scriptures, and can sometimes be a bit problematic. St. Paul speaks far more carefully about creation’s problematic state. He says that it was made “subject to futility.” What he meant by that was that creation (like human beings) was made subject to death, decay, and destruction. It does not mean that creation itself is death, decay, and destruction. Those things are a sort of anti-creation, part of that drive towards non-existence. But they are not part of the natural order itself. They are its destruction.

The problem is death, not creation. Christ’s relationship with creation is interesting. He is asleep in a boat during a storm, unperturbed. The disciples are afraid (they fear death). They wake Him up. He speaks to the winds and the sea and says, “Peace. Be still.” I suppose He went back to sleep after that. There was nothing “evil” about the winds and the sea, though they could well have sunk the boat and drowned the disciples. Christ “rebukes” fevers. He tells demons what to do. He withers a fig tree. In Christ, we see a foretaste, or a small glimpse of humanity and creation in its right order. St. Paul describes creation as “groaning like a woman in child-birth” longing for the restoration of this relationship in its fullness. He calls it the “glorious liberty of the sons of God.”

St. Dionysius the Areopagite’s The Divine Names, has a very dense passage on all of this, in chapter 4. He uses a very interesting verb in describing evil, borrowing from an earlier usage of St. Gregory of Nyssa. The word is paryphistimi (παρυφιστημι – a sort of “standing beside”) which essentially equates with the noun, παρυποστασις. It is an attempt to describe the “parasitic” character of evil. It doesn’t exist in and of itself, but is spun out of the will of sentient creatures.

In dealing with the so-called “problem of evil,” it is important to place it squarely in the realm of God’s providential care for all creation. The death and decay to which we are subject certainly have the capacity to draw us towards non-being. Conversely, they also draw us toward repentance, turning towards God and the path of life. We are not dualists. The battle between good and evil is not a level playing field. The whole of the field is the arena of our salvation and the working out of the whole of creation’s union with God. Even death has a strange place in all of this. In Christ’s Pascha we hear echoes of this place. Christ tramples down death by death. The very thing that is our enemy is the same thing used to destroy our enemy. It is the ultimate statement of God’s good will triumphing in all things.

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered. Let those who hate Him flee before His face!

44 comments:

  1. Father
    This is quite classic question. How would we describe something like the death brought about by a carnivore, such as a spider or a T-Rex, using this language precision as regards evil.? Many pious explanations, like St Paisios’ one, included personal, farfetched yet confident speculations (not so much of a pre-fall deathlessness in beasts but) that they only scavenged the already dead.

  2. Dino,
    The relationship between paradise and the historical universe is not something that is clear – and the tradition has lots of ambiguities in it. That said, we have no knowledge or awareness of anything in the historical universe that has not been subject to death and futility. It is quite possibly the case that it has been so from its beginning as a consequence of the fall (which need not have been historically precedent). St. Basil speaks of us as falling “from paradise into this world.” We have no description in Scripture of a pre-fallen universe – just paradise. And the relationship is not clear. Where I think we get into trouble is trying to put everything on a single timeline as if reality were linear – I don’t think it is. But it’s common for people to think in that manner, and so you get well-meant pious explanations that assume that as being the case. Doesn’t make it so.

  3. Two tough ones. First, is it appropriate to say that hypostasis is a common property of created things? I hear this a lot (or think I hear it in subtext) recently, from contemporary authors, but I just can’t recall seeing it in the Fathers. I don’t have a list of quotes handy, but I remember my view changed when I studied it a few years ago from that idea to the idea that hypostasis is a property of *Divine* nature, one of the Divine Energies; if we have any hypostasis, it is part of our union with God, not from the human side (which is stuck in change and becoming, in either case). You are more well-read on the Cappadocians: do they say anything very clear on human hypostases outside of Jesus Christ?

    Second, to follow up on a discussion a month or two ago, would it be more precise to take St Paul’s statement that “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us…” (2 Cor 5.21 (OSB/NKJV)) to say that he was united to all the forms, the manners, the prequestites, and even outcomes of sin only? Or is there something deeper that changes/fills the non-nature of sin? If the latter, how do we reconcile that with the warning to avoid sin even now, as if there was still something unfilled about it (eg, Romans 6), and that he became like us except for sin? It seems very difficult not to veer to either the conclusion that sin is somehow also good (ie, it would be part of our redemption, even if not part of what was assumed) or that is impossible/doesn’t really exist [anymore] (in the light of Christ’s union with us, destroying its ability to break our union with Him). Thanks.

  4. Father
    Thank you very much for your response.
    The issue I am wondering (additionally) was how do we describe the natural ‘evil’ of natural (carvivorous) killing (eg. of a spider -[the example of the T-rex took it the pre- or post- fall framework etc but that’s a different question]).

  5. Father,
    I think that perhaps the ‘either/or’ definitions of modernity might make our understanding of the ancient concepts difficult to grasp. It seems we think things must be either wholly good or bad, either evil or not. Having a good nature but evil actions doesn’t seem to fit the paradigm we have created to model the ‘way things are’.

    Your explanation of the differentiations are helpful Father. But I’ll admit that I wish I had more immersion in the writings that you have had. Ironically I believe I have a sense how you are able to synthesize these concepts so well— it is because it has been your work and life of many years lived in the traditions and readings. There has been a similar sort of synthesis in my own life’s work. (I only wish it was in Orthodox theology if there is such a thing).

    I suspect after years in study and a life time of experience and prayer, the understanding of the relationships and meanings begins to ‘gel’.

    It also helps to have a good memory of the writings of the Fathers across the spectrum you’ve mentioned.

    I’m especially appreciative of your thoughts concerning the historical universe:

    “We have no description in Scripture of a pre-fallen universe – just paradise. And the relationship is not clear. Where I think we get into trouble is trying to put everything on a single timeline as if reality were linear – I don’t think it is. “

    I agree, I don’t think it is either.

    Thank you! This is yet another keeper for further study and reflection.

  6. Generally, when we speak of the “will,” we mean this “gnomic” will. The very fact that we have one is not natural. It is unnatural and is a cause of great suffering in our lives. Christian ascesis, to a large extent, concerns itself with the healing of this disruption in our makeup.

    Forgive me Father as I pull out some of your thoughts. These too are especially helpful as we are now in Great Lent and experiencing a desert of sorts in our current circumstances.

    Also I appreciate further that you have emphasized there was indeed an established vocabulary:

    “ The Fathers, particularly the Cappadocians through Dionysius and St. Maximus the Confessor, belonged to a school of speech that took great care to hammer away at certain terms, reaching consensus on use and meaning. The seven Great Councils all belong to a single vocabulary project that, over time, developed a working consensus on terms and their application.”

    I’ve heard some Orthodox say that the Orthodox don’t have theology. When such things are said , is this in reference to western-style scholastic theology? Or am I misunderstanding what was being said when the claim is made that the Orthodox don’t have theology?

    I appreciate further elaboration on this Father if it is appropriate. I’m sometimes lost in the weeds of my thinking.

  7. Modernity makes much of either/or linearity. Indeed a case could be made that modernity falls if linearity falls.

  8. A non-linear approach does not mean chaos. Clearly there are some aspects and processes that seem to behave in a linear manner and are best dealt with that way. History, theology, philosophy and time do not fall into that category except in very discreet instances.

    Dee, I was taught chemistry in college by a man with a doctorate in quantum mechanics. Even intro chem was taught with quantum over tones. Absolutely fascinating to me. Went the history route though. Some of the same real basic principals seem to apply there too

  9. Dee…I suspect you are correct about the either/or mode of thought so prevalent in our culture. It blends in well with legalistic morality – right and wrong – which closes off the shaded area which I think of as ‘the whole of the field’, i. e. per Father, ” The whole of the field is the arena of our salvation and the working out of the whole of creation’s union with God.”

    No doubt that the whole of the Faith takes a lifetime to, little by little, fall into place. It takes a dogged determination to keep the pursuit in front of you, despite the obstacles encountered. Matter of fact, the obstacles, once embraced, reveal, usually in hindsight, the very instances needed in working out our salvation. That is, God’s providential care.

    Regarding Orthodox theology, or the lack of, perhaps it is ‘systematic’ theology that will be hard to find for the one who looks for clear and concise explanations.
    Due to the nature of life itself, as an ‘organism’, stable, relative to a ‘one’ (a tree), and also in the ‘many’ (the trees), yet, using the reference in this post, there is (non-linear!) motion – being, well-being, eternal being – in creation ‘becoming’, sharing, in the fullness of our Creator, and that Orthodoxy is well described as ‘organic’, systematic explanations would fall short in describing the complexities of life.
    So we learn from the ‘many’, those who have gone before us, whom God has prepared.
    Which brings me to a quandary I find myself in. I am not sure how to come to terms with this, and it has a lot to do with an ‘either/or’ line of thought….
    What do I do when I find the Cappadocian school of speech helpful, but only up to a certain point? That certain point seems to be the point where they start ‘hammering away’ at all the subtleties. Does a person need to go this deep into a certain ‘language’ in order to reap the fullness of the goodness of Faith? Is Orthodoxy all about the Cappadocians? You see where I’m going…if Orthodoxy is meant to embrace every tribe nation and tongue, this particular ‘school of speech’, then, is limited in its usefulness. It is helpful in defining Christological issues, but even there ‘language’ has failed.
    There are other ‘Fathers’ that speak about Orthodoxy in a language that speaks to those particular people who surround them, as well as those like myself who learn from both the Cappadocians and the “Fathers” of other lands.

    Finally, thank you Father Stephen for your delineation of terms that can be challenging for us to grasp. Yes, it is another post to ‘keep’. Thank you.

  10. Paula, regarding theology:. It is important that someone dive deeply into 5hese mysteries because bad theology is deadly. For most it is enough to “do theology”. Live the life of the Church as fully as able and allowing God to give the increase.
    It is important to know the out lines of heresies and why they are heresies. One of the reasons for the deep dives is that the Arians and other heretical groups all had their proof texts from Scripture to support their erroneous beliefs and teaching.

    Seek the Truth always and do not settle for less. My dear wife likes the approach of “Yea God!”. But she also prays a lot to the saints and the angels asking for their intercession and protection. Nevertheless she has found a greater confidence and peace in God and Jesus Christ since being received 8nto the Church. She even manages to mostly stay awake when I start waxing theological. Not so when we were first married. I could cause a great slumber to come over her with theology talk. I don’t think she missed much.

    Theology without the encounter with God, even otherwise sound theology can be unhelpful.

    So,if something does not help, wait, pray and seek guidance. Tend your animals in Thanksgiving and you will learn much.

  11. Theological conversation I find stimulating. I do dive deep, as far as I am able. And I trust that when and if I encounter ‘bad theology’, by the grace of God, I will ‘wake up’ and see. That is a lot of trust. Who else do I trust? Certainly, not myself….
    Yet in some areas, there is much that goes over my head. Usually, over time, going elsewhere, I receive some enlightenment that satisfies. Yes, prayerfully. And thankfully. Which is usually ‘in time’. Far from perfect, here….

  12. You see where I’m going…if Orthodoxy is meant to embrace every tribe nation and tongue, this particular ‘school of speech’, then, is limited in its usefulness.

    My immediate thought, upon reading this, was to consider the fullness of the faith. There are many (most, perhaps) who possess the faith, but not the fullness of it. Orthodoxy often refers to the Cappadocians, I think, because out of their considerations Saints are made. The track record is good, so we can rely on them. But that does not mean there is no one else.

    There are many Saints in the world and true Saints always point beyond themselves. “Glory to God” is probably the most important thing for which to look, I expect!

  13. Well thank you Byron! Fullness of faith …. that was one of my questions, about fullness of faith. I hear what you are saying about the regard the Cappadocians hold. It is for good reason. But for myself, if I had stayed only with them, I’d be floundering in questions.
    I like your point about the Saints too…yes, there are many. And it is God who gives the increase. All glory to Him!

  14. When the subject comes up, I tell people that the Orthodox Church has theological writings, but they don’t exist as “sytematic theology” – you can’t find a row of many volumes on a shelf to which one can go and look up topics, or rules. What we DO have, though, is about three dozen books that guide our worship, and in those are all the final expressions of our theology. If a theological thought hasn’t made its way into our expression of worship as found in THOSE books, then it’s opinion and we are allowed to take it – holding onto it lightly – or leave it. This is a very different way of dealing with theology than in my experience as a “low-church” Protestant (church split-inducing argumentation), and with my (limited) exposure to most of academic theology of all stripes (boring point/counterpoint that goes around in circles or off on wild tangents).

    What the Fathers did was interpret Scripture (what we call “the Old Testament”) in terms of Pascha, help us understand the Gospels and the writings of the New Testament, and expound on what the Church says she believes in the words of her Liturgy and prayer services. Orthodox have theology; it is a seamless garment that weaves the same types of threads into the design in different ways – or a symphony that echoes themes throughout its movements – in a manner that I never encountered before. I’m a “big picture” kind of thinker, and having all the loose ends connected (including seeing the continuity between what we know of Judaism in Christ’s day and the Church and her theology and worship from very early on) is exciting for me! But it’s not just dry intellectualizing; it’s all about how to live as a human being with a telos, encountering Christ in his glory in Pascha, and responding in gratitude and worship.

    One could say that the range of theological topics in Orthodoxy is limited; but the depth of theological thought on those topics is nearly limitless in terms of how the Fathers and theologians examine their different facets, and how everything is connected to everything else seen through the lens of Pascha. I’ve been a thinker all my life, and I resonate with the thought of some Fathers and theologians more than others; those are the ones who satisfy my intellectualizing and then help me get out of my head and onto my knees – and when I listen to or read the ones that catch my imagination, I’m never, ever bored. I go back and listen and read again and again, and they help me to prayer again and again.

    From nearly the beginning of his blog, Fr Stephen has been one of those helping me to think and to pray, and I’m so grateful for that.

    Dana

  15. All,
    There are a limited number of theologians whose writings and labors formed the foundation of the doctrinal teaching of the 7 Great Councils. As such, their works are a touchstone of Orthodoxy, the sort of stuff that can be quoted and settle an argument. They are not exhaustive in what they wrote (there’s more to be said), but, taken together, they can be seen as definitive in our understanding.

    St. Athanasius, the Cappadocians, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Theodore the Studite, are among the leading names (there are certainly others). Their language and work at refining our understanding of certain terms simply cannot ever be overlooked. We cannot actually speak about the Trinity, in the Church’s understanding, for example, without reference to them. The same is true of Christology. St. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, was described as the “Father of Fathers” in the texts of the 7th Council.

    They are only a handful – and, I think, wide reading outside of them is good. But they remain essential in a manner that cannot be said of many others. I assume, for example, that it was not an accident that God chose the Jews. Hebrew and Jewish understandings are important for understanding the faith. In the same way, the Hellenism of these Fathers is no accident – it’s not just cultural baggage. They borrowed from Greek/Platonic understanding and vocabulary, married it to what had gone before, and eventually found a theological grammar sufficient for the expression of the fullness of the faith.

    That the West, for example, came to be somewhat alienated from Hellenism is a source of many eventual errors in its theological development.

    Having said all that, I’ll quickly note that their works are often not very readable. To our ears, they can be boring and laborious. I would much rather read, say, Florovsky, than any of the Cappadocians. But Florovsky would have said that I should still be careful to read them, and work with them, and press deeply into their phronema.

    Just some thoughts in the conversation.

  16. “They borrowed from Greek/Platonic understanding and vocabulary, married it to what had gone before, and eventually found a theological grammar sufficient for the expression of the fullness of the faith.”
    Father…I wish I could say this and mean it like you do.
    Sufficient for the fullness of the faith. Yes.
    Sufficient for all ‘ears’…apparently not.
    Are we to expect Platonic understanding and vocabulary to be understood and accepted by all?
    I don’t see how …
    How?!
    Why do you say it is not a cultural thing?

  17. I would add to what Father said that the books of the Church (which generally remain unchanged) , a handful of books read/chanted by the clergy and chanters, also contain very precise theological Roadmarks….

  18. Theology without experience is the Devil’s playground. Experience of am encounter with the living God in prayer, worship through some sort of Road to Damascus moment or embodied in a person: friend, teacher or stranger. Without proper theology experience alone can become a spiritual psych ward.

    My Dad was a theologian, though he never would have thought so. His life was lived in response to his own encounter with the Divine personal presence in all things that he had on the high plains of eastern New Mexico as a pioneer with his dad, mother and brothers 1905-1917. From him and my mother I learned that God is painfully real and fills all things especially other people. I needed to find Him.

    In 1968 I came to know that Jesus Christ is who He says He is: Incarnate Son of God(though that description came later). My journey from there to being received by the Church in 1987 was a theological buffet of mostly spoiled but appealing junk food or worse. Nevertheless I was continually led back to that person I met in 1968 and gradually began to realize who he is.

    The time since being received into the Church has been largely spent recovering and cleaning out the junk (old and new) in the rooms of my soul by the continuing mercy of the person I met in 1968.

    Four touch points have emerged: God is real and present personally in all things; Jesus Christ is both God and Man (human).

    There is an identifiable Spirit that is discreetly different that interpenetrates us brings us to knowledge of God, ourselves and each other in love.

    Only the Orthodox Church has the fullness of the revelation of God and therefore what it means to be fully human.

    Jesus calls me to remberance of Him daily and continues to reveal Himself to me in worship, prayer and other people. I forget all to easily but confession/repentance not only brings me back to rememberance but leads me deeper into Him who IS. He led me here.

    Being a contrarian I have learned a lot by experience of and study of heresy. First as the junk and poison from 1968-1987 but then as a therapy in the safety of the Church so I could identify wrong beliefs and clean them from my soul. My own brand of apophatic theology.

    On The Incarnation by St. Anthanasius is a touchstone for me as well as remberance of Holy Scripture.

    His mercy endures forever, alleluia!

  19. Paula,
    The reason I say it is not a cultural thing – is that I do not think their words to be “relative” in that sense. These days, to speak of something’s cultural context is also a way of minimizing it’s truth. I think they have done something different. The “expression” of that truth certainly has a cultural context – but what they sought to express is universal.

    That being said, not all ears will be able to hear their words easily. They will need translating. Thus, I write about a “One-Storey Universe” in order to give an easy analogy by which to process what they have said. CS Lewis did it in children’s stories. Old Professor Diggory mused, “It’s all there in Plato…” But not once did he need to invoke Platonic language to help them understand.

    What they have given us is a language, forged in the fire of centuries, that can be employed with a measure of accuracy for discussing these revealed matters. Not everyone will engage in that conversation, nor should they. Most of us will be better off with stories and metaphors. But the “boiler plate” of their language remains and serves as a corrective and touchstone for those of us who are telling the stories and creating the metaphors.

  20. Father Stephen,
    You should know how much I appreciate your explanation. These things can keep me up at night! So thank you for taking my concerns seriously in taking time to address my ‘quandary’.

    Thinking aloud…
    The Fathers’ expression was cultural, it came from a ‘place’; their message, universal, ‘for all who would…’.
    We can rest assured of its universal message in that they were led by the Holy Spirit. Thus, they are our ‘Holy’ Fathers, (I think we miss this point sometimes…)

    Yes Father, their words certainly need translating. So as we learn from our teachers/leaders/pastors/educators/authors (thank You God!) through their ‘translations’, this enables us, when we do read their works, to better absorb these truths.

    That said, I am one of those who do better with stories and metaphors.
    Volumes have been written. It is a joy to keep learning of the riches God has given us.

    Thank you Father Stephen! Now I can ‘breathe’ 🙂

  21. Ok now…
    Michael Bauman! We all have different experiences. And they are authentic because they are real. Just as I am convinced of the Faith, so are you. But I do not know all. God forbid if I think I do. I will not insist that others should know based on *my* personal experience. I *will* insist that God is real, revealed in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Each person has to come to know Him in the manner that He reveals Himself to them.

    As for heresy, there is no way I will make a final statement on such a controversial issue. When that subject come up, you can count on endless divisive banter. It may not start out that way, but it will end up as such.
    There are clear heresies, and there are some that are not so clear. And I know what the Church says about this. I have no argument with that. However, that does not keep me from the desire to understand some of these so-call ‘outliers’. They have a legitimate voice.
    God is very patient with me. I pray that I can understand these schisms the way that He does, and be at peace with them. I really want to know. So I pursue. There will be a time when I am satisfied, by God’s grace, having exhausted the ‘search’. That time has not yet come.
    One thing that I mull over is this: would those who are in schism have been able to maintain their cultural identity if they would’ve submitted to the ruling Christian empire of the day? God allowed these schisms to happen. We may never know why. We probably won’t. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering….

    And p.s. I am not in the devils playground. I trust that God and His holy angels ‘keep’ me.

  22. ” Orthodox have theology; it is a seamless garment that weaves the same types of threads into the design in different ways…”

    Dana, thank you for this beautiful sentence, it explains into one picture, what would otherwise need many words.

    The Orthodox call St John the Apostle ‘The Theologian’. So if you have a theologian, surely you must also have theology?

  23. Sinnika,
    I think that the statement “the Orthodox do not do theology” is an incorrect remembrance of what some say. It is said that “The Orthodox do not do systematic theology” (something popular among Protestants and Catholics). That is true in an academic sense. We don’t have to “do” systematic theology because Orthodoxy is a fully-formed and complete systematic theology – but on a profound level. You could read a biology text book that was the most complete treatment on the subject of trees. It would be a great book. It would not, however, be a tree. We do not have to “do” theology in that systematic sense, because Orthodoxy is what theology looks like – it is an organic presentation of theology.

    Orthodoxy is what systematic theology wishes itself to be, but will never be.

  24. “Orthodoxy is what systematic theology wishes itself to be…_
    Bravo! That also allows for each person’s experience and learning to be brought into it and transformed because of the living presence of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Theology is not a separate discipline, it is the life of the Church.

  25. I suspect that there is no “natural” evil (e.g., the necessity of carnivores), that is not ultimately traceable back to the corruption of the will of God’s rational creation (i.e., the demons and humans). I have seen presentation of evidence the current pandemic is the result of an up-reglulated lab-created virus–one that could not have occurred in nature. Whether released intentionally as bioweapon or by accident is another question, but the fact that official sources cannot offer any definitive explanation of how the virus came to have its present structure is telling if what I have heard from these other sources about its construction and its connection via research paper trail to certain biolabs both here in the US and in Wuhan is accurate. Though our genes are certainly affected by the fall into corruption, I suspect the diseases that afflict us are far more often the result of a failure to live in proper harmony with the rest of creation (i.e., epigenetic), such that our lifestyle turns on or off gene expression in ways detrimental to our collective health and that of our planet. As a Christian, I find suspect the secular inclination in modern medicine to blame the defectiveness of nature itself (e.g., blaming our genes) and, by implication, nature’s Creator, for disease and natural catastrophe.

  26. Karen,

    With love:

    I am so not inclined to conspiracy theories. I have, myself, read a refutation of this narrative, and have little use for such things, forgive me. That conspiracy theories are as popular among us Orthodox kind of troubles me. I have pretty much never seen anything good come out of conspiracy theories, but much evil. So, I prefer not to lend credence to such things.

    Plagues have been with us for a very long time – even before the advent of laboratories. I find no need to think differently about this.

    “The world’s a dangerous place. A man’s lucky to get out of it alive.” WC Fields

    Honestly, creation is subject to futility. That means germs, disease, genetics, the whole catastrophe. And it is this whole catastrope that God is saving. As far as I can see, I’m as much a catastrophe as is the rest of this. I appreciate the open-eyed reality of Ivan Karamazov. He didn’t come to the right conclusion, but Dostoevsky doesn’t fault him for his stating of the evidence.

  27. When I was studying history one of my professors debunked conspiracy theories by saying they were easy to assume almost impossible to prove. However the best comment I ever heard on the subject was by Chuck Colson, convicted Watergate conspirator commenting on the popular idea that the Ressurection of Jesus was a conspiracy of lies pulled off by His disciples. Mr Colson, who became Christian in jail, said this: “We were the 12 most powerful men in the world and we couldn’t keep a secret. How could the powerless disciples do it?”

    That the Ressurection of our Lord was considered a conspiracy should also give us pause.

    The more I read the real conspiracy seems to be keeping us in a state of fear. That is the way of the world. Even if real, there is nothing I can do anyway that is any different. I take precautions, try to stay healthy but I have also taken to singing songs such as “Rejoice in the Lord Always”, “The Ode to Joy”. If I really feel the need, I sing “Lord God of Hosts” Another just came to me: “‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple”. So many others available.
    “There is Balm in Gilead” etc, etc, etc.
    My wife routinely calls on the angels for help and protection and they seem to respond to her–not so much to me so I sing.

    Sing for joy’s sake and your spirit will be lifted up. Many martyrs sang songs of joy and Thanksgiving on the way to certain bodily death.

    Or if I am really in a mood: “What matter wounds to the body of a knight errant, for each time he falls he shall rise again crying Woe to the Wicked!”

    The life of Christ in this world has a certain Quixotic quality to it or there would not be Fools For Christ.

    Fear is easy. Joy is a gift. Reach out to Jesus and ask for it.

  28. I appreciate the gentle pushback on conspiracy “theory.” I’m actually agnostic about the case in question. The one refutation article I saw did not mention either of the individuals I saw interviewed (whose identities and professional credentials and academic associations were disclosed) offering conclusions based on their own exploration of the scientific data being presented by the CDC and/or published research from recent years from various bio research labs and those associated with these. Perhaps these were proxies for some kind of disinformation agents, but, if so, I wonder why not mention them by name and point out the flaws in their original research or reasoning in refuting? Time will tell.

    Regardless, I wouldn’t want my essential point of noticing the secular human tendency to want to blame God/nature for the existence of sickness and evil over our own collective (on some level willful) failure to live in harmony with God and creation to be overshadowed by questionable opinions.

    Plagues have indeed been with us since before labs. So have war, greed, oppression, idolatry, occultism, ignorance (among other things, of proper hygiene and sanitation) famine, and all the other ills of “advanced” human civilizations in rebellion against God, which have tended to leave the masses highly vulnerable to such things, and are also ways we have failed to live in harmony with God, each other and creation.

  29. Karen,
    I understand. The whole mess, our freedom, rebellion, creation, etc., are a very convoluted mess – no less susceptible to easy comprehension than that tree I mentioned earlier. It’s a big, mess, as large as the universe. But, at work in the big, messy universe is the providence of God. So, I don’t worry too much about all the terrible things that are happening. Whatever evil is intended for us, God intends us for our good. That, for me, is proven in the resurrection.

  30. Father…reading the end of your comment to Karen, something clicked. I remember a while back I asked why you respond “Christ is Risen” to our many adversities. I think the post (or comment) may have been in reference to the need to forgive all…we forgive because Christ is Risen. I didn’t understand why that response. You said to be patient, the coin would begin to drop. I think somewhere along the line it may have begun.

    Michael…today on my walk, with thoughts abound, a song came to me, and I began to sing. It moved me to tears of gladness. You are right about singing. Especially if it is about Jesus. The song was an old hymn we used to sing in my former church…
    “I see the Lord, I see the Lord, He is high and lifted up, and His train fills the temple, He is high and lifted up, and His train fills the temple.
    The angels cried Holy! The angels cried Holy! The angels cried Holy is the Lord!
    I see the Lord….and His eyes are like the fire, and His face is like the lightening, and His eyes are like the fire, and His face is like the lightening.
    The angels cried Holy!…..The angels cried Holy is the Lord!”

    It was one of those that you couldn’t help but stand in praise. Such holiness…such majesty…
    I long for that Day…

    Oh, and yes Father…
    Christ is Risen!

  31. Indeed, Father, and amen to the truth that God is far bigger than our mess! That truly is our hope and this is my Anchor in the midst of the storm. I so often sinfully succumb to anxiety and worry, especially when storms come to rage around me. I’m like St. Peter taking my eyes off Christ and sinking in the waves after walking on water for a split second! Nevertheless, the Lord has never let me drown.

    This present forced seclusion to our homes is a powerful incentive (as some of our hierarchs and Priests have suggested) to redouble our efforts of prayer in the home, apart from which our gathering together is likely to be without fruitfulness for us. The Matushka of our Associate Priest shared this beautiful reflection on today’s Scriptural texts, to which I will offer a link:
    https://yearningforparadise.wordpress.com/2020/03/27/where-is-your-heart/

  32. Saying, “I don’t know,” is often to shortest route to wisdom.

    I believe someone mentioned previously a group of nuns who would respond to any attempt to discuss “current events” with them with, “I don’t know about that.”

    It requires humility to not respond. It requires a great deal of humility to respond “I don’t know” and leave it alone! The times I’ve tried it, I’ve not been up to it.

  33. So, is it a “choice” if the will or going beyond choice by saying in humility “I do not know”; thy will be done?
    The truths of which I am most sure have largely been revealed to me almost in spite of myself. I have sought them but have been surprised by the answers. I would not have “chosen” them I don’t think.

  34. Maybe it is the shortest route to wisdom because it is the truth. We do not know. In a way, humility is synonymous with the truth. Could that be right?

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