Good Friday and Unbelief

 

Christmas and Easter are often difficult days for those who do not believe in God. Christians are more public about their faith than at other times of the year and this brings with it an annoyance. Christmas bespeaks the birth of God as a human being. Easter bespeaks a resurrection from the dead. For those who do not believe, such miracles, spoken of so glowingly and with such assurance by Christians, only increases the rub of the whole thing. Thoughts of “how can people be so gullible?” or any number of failings of Christians easily come to mind. The more the celebration, the more prominently the fact of unbelief grows in the inner thoughts.

I do not think of unbelief as a result of reason or philosophical principle. I have spent too many years observing my own heart and listening to the thoughts of others to accept such a simplistic notion of how we behave as human beings. One person professes faith on the ground of “reasonable” arguments, while another, on similar grounds, professes unbelief. The fault is not in the reasoning. Reasoning is, in fact, something we largely do “after the fact.” Indeed, this psychological reality has itself been the subject of study and has been shown to be largely true. Reason is one of the sounds we make after the fact of the heart. It is a symptom of something else and we do one another a deep injustice when we reduce faith and unbelief to something they are not.

I believe that the death and resurrection of Christ are utterly universal in their reality. They are not isolated events, significant only within the Christian belief system. I believe they are the singular moments within space and time (and outside space and time) that reveal the truth of all things, of all people, and of the heart and nature of the God who created all things and sustains them. I believe this is true whether I or anyone else believes it. The death and resurrection of Christ are the most fundamental and foundational facts of reality.

I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a mistake because it presumes we know something about God that is somehow “prior” to those events. We do not, or, if we think we do, we are mistaken. The death and resurrection of Christ are the alpha and the omega of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nothing in all of creation is extraneous or irrelevant to those events.

This is to say that unbelief and faith are equally a part of the death and resurrection of Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ contain the utter and complete emptiness of hell, the threat of non-being and meaninglessness, the absurdity of suffering and of injured innocence. They also contain the fullness of paradise, the complete joy of existence and the ecstasy of transcendent love. Everything is there.

When we stand before the Cross of Christ, or kneel before it and honor it, we honor as well everything that is contained within it. We honor the unbelief of atheists, the anger and bitterness of the wounded, the shame of those who dare not look at themselves. For Christ has not distanced Himself from such things. The Cross is God’s single point of ingathering, where “all things are gathered together into one in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:10). Unbelief is a wound of the human heart, a disease of perception, a noetic blindness. The Cross is not a stranger to cruelty or every form of mockery and perverted delight. All such things were and are present in that single moment.

As we live in this life, we are constantly tempted towards the divisions that threaten us. We see the world as “them and us.” These believe; these don’t. These care; these don’t. These behave; these don’t, and so on. The divisions are frequently quite insignificant. These divisions are primarily the symptoms of our failure to love. The people surrounding Christ were consistently scandalized by His persistent comfort and ease with those identified as “sinners.” No doubt, many of them were “unbelievers.” Somehow, Christ embraced all and announced this as central to His life and purpose.

The appearance of the Cross is also the first appearance among us of the Judgement Seat of Christ. As such, those around it indeed begin to separate themselves. Of the two thieves, one clings to Christ and the other reviles Him. But Christ offers no condemnation from the Tree. The Centurion, responsible for His crucifixion and the lance thrusting into His side, later becomes a saint (Longinus). Our task, however, is not to assume the position of Christ. The judgment that occurs as those around Him react, is also the revelation of their own wounds and brokenness of soul.

Christ said:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (Jn. 3:19-21)

It is for us to stand in the light, where our own deeds, of whatever character, can be revealed. I think that if we actually do “what is true,” it will not be in our heart to condemn, but to weep and to long for the healing of all.

Unbelief is a soul-wound whose location likely lies much deeper than the fiction of choice. It is often hidden deep within the hell that has formed in the pit of a soul’s shame. That wound will require Christ-in-Hades probing and questing, and perhaps fierce battles that are hidden from our knowledge. When the Church proclaims, “Christ is risen, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,” it is deeply important to remember that we have the souls of those so wounded in mind.

It is ours to celebrate, to sing and to dance, even if some, for now, refuse to join together with us. The true Christ revealed by the Cross, is a saving God, a seeking God, a knocking God, a trampling God, a healing God, a raising-from-the-dead God who refuses to be ignored.

This is the good God who loves mankind.

56 comments:

  1. I thank God for your writing. I really think that if it weren’t for these types of revelations on the amazing love of God I would have walked away (as though I actually could escape God) from the Church. Please keep preaching the truly good news.

  2. Thank you Father! Your blessing on this peculiar Holy Week.
    Some time ago I had asked you for a ‘good response’ to the challenge that unbelievers often pose, questioning “how can God allow such atrocities to take place, such pain to exist”. I had been brought up with the preaching of: “so that Saints can be created out of this pain”. Neither of us thought this was a particularly useful answer.

    I think I found an answer in this sentence:
    “The death and resurrection of Christ contain the utter and complete emptiness of hell, the threat of non-being and meaninglessness, the absurdity of suffering and of injured innocence”.

  3. I know two things: Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man; He is Risen bestowing life on those in the tombs.

    I know these things because He graciously revealed them to me. The first on a hill in northern Illinois in 1969 as I felt my world falling apart. The second on Pascha, 2005 three weeks after my wife died. I “saw”, felt, experienced Him rising and taking my wife with Him. Weeping now as I recall it and rejoicing at the same time in an odd combination. Just as I did then.

    It is the primary reason that I cannot panic during these interesting times. He is Incarnate and He is Risen.

  4. My gratitude toward Our Lord and Savior and Lover of Mankind, Jesus Christ, seems inadequate, but I must indeed express this here in words because I thank Him that you have written this blog post, Fr. Stephen, and I thank you. Glory to God for All Things!

  5. I have been in churches all my life, mostly of the Baptist type, more recently Anglican. Thank you for this post. It is (words fail me) one of the most excellent proclamations of the Gospel that I have ever heard. Other words might include deep, moving, powerful . . . encouraging. I don’t comment often, but I have been following your blog and appreciate the insight God has given to you in matters of faith and the gracious manner in which you explain them.

  6. Josh,
    Our culture is awash in the notion of free-choice, and assumes that the “choices” we make are the product of an absolutely free-will, and that through such choices we constitute who we are, our destiny, etc. It is, in my opinion, largely a fiction, and is useful in promoting the culture of consumption.

    I think it is a fiction in that “choosing” is actually quite complex, and rarely a matter of “options plus freedom.” I described (in that passage) our souls as wounded. St. Paul alludes to that wound in Romans 7 where he does not do what he wants, etc. How many times have we done something, only to later curse ourselves saying, “Why did I do that?”

    In the developed thought of the Fathers, there is a recognition that the “will” with which we choose is itself a fragmentation, and not truly the “will” in the proper sense. It is, in St. Maximus’ language, the “gnomic will,” which is a lesser thing, the product of our alienation from our nature. Sometimes it chooses well, but often not. It’s easily subject to confusion.

    But, our culture has this fictional view of what it is to be human. It makes for bad theology, or, at least, for very inadequate and “thin” theological accounts of our lives. We are a very shallow culture, using very shallow terms and understandings to explain something vastly more rich and complex.

  7. “I believe that the death and resurrection of Christ are utterly universal in their reality. They are not isolated events, significant only within the Christian belief system. I believe they are the singular moments within space and time (and outside space and time) that reveal the truth of all things, of all people, and of the heart and nature of the God who created all things and sustains them. I believe this is true whether I or anyone else believes it. The death and resurrection of Christ are the most fundamental and foundational facts of reality.”

    The death and resurrection do not reveal anything to anyone unless one is aware of the belief in these things. In that sense, they only have significance within the Christian belief system. Within this system, the Resurrection reveals God desires all men to be saved; however, since we can’t know who those are, this revelation isn’t remarkably revealing.

    “Unbelief is a soul-wound whose location likely lies much deeper than the fiction of choice.”

    If we do not have free choice (something regularly defended by Orthodox theologians from St. John Chrysostom to Philaret of Moscow), then we go to Hell on the merits of choices made by someone or something outside of us. Who or what might that be?

    “This is the good God who loves mankind.”

    This sounds nice but raises far more questions than it answers: why should we believe God loves mankind? Because the Bible tells us so? Why should we believe the Bible? Because the Church gave it to us? What is “the Church” and why should we believe what it has to say about anything? Ultimately, people are going to believe that God loves them if they want to, as you astutely point out. Believing something because you feel lonely and unloved without that belief hardly seems compelling. In fact, it seems pathetic.

  8. Thank you for the elaboration, Fr. I admittedly come from a protestant background, and while I’ve been Orthodox now for five years, my Determinism/Monergism Radar is still dialed to 10. So I inferred from that phrase more than you intended. Thanks again!

  9. David,
    Yes, you would be correct if your assumptions were true. However, I think they are not. Your summary of Orthodox theology is cursory, at best, which suits the purpose of dismissing what I’ve said. But, I think you’ve not bothered to dig deeper. Maybe you read the wrong websites.

    If the resurrection only reveals things to those who believe, then it, too, would be quite shallow. It is more than a revelation – it is an event that changes everything. I do not have space or time in this comment train to do a full apologetic of why I believe what I do. I can assure you it’s not about whether I feel lonely or unloved, etc.

    Sorry that none of the article was of use to you.

  10. Josh,
    I think there have been lots of bad habits acquired (theologically speaking) surrounding the topic of choice and the will. Though, I admit, the last place I’d look for answers in that matter would be Protestantism (much less Reform).

  11. David:
    There’s an assumption of a subject-object relationship in the idea that God (subject) reveals Himself to us (object), and when we (subject) choose to believe in Him (object). Grounded in the Enlightenment (beginning especially with Descartes), this way of thinking will never lead to belief in anything and is increasingly viewed as the root of much modern mischief (earliest example I know of is Horkheimer and Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, published in the 1940s but common in most humanistic and social science disciplines to this day).

    Far more compelling for me is the idea of synergy whereby God is constantly working in us and we are struggling to come to consciousness of Him. Unlike subject-object thinking, this is a holistic process in which all our experiences unfold in dialogue with the exemplary and salvific life of the God-man. This sounds all very abstract but it becomes very concrete in key moments such as personal tragedy when Christ and the Church are there for us, anticipating our betrayals, our frivolousness, our lusts and our neglects, connecting them to corollaries in Scripture and Tradition, providing the gentle and encouraging matrix of life well lived as a child of God in Christ.
    Ken

  12. I see my remarks were overly harsh, I apologize for having given offense, and appreciate your helpful response. I should clarify that the “you” in “Believing something because you feel lonely [etc.]” was not directed at you, or anyone else specifically. If anything, it was directed at myself, though I don’t claim to be a believer.

    Much of the frustration with which my comment was laced is directed not so much at you as it is at Shmemann, Meyendorf, Tarazi, Lossky, and Ware, among other Orthodox. It was wrong of me to lay that frustration on you.

    I appreciate now that this is the wrong forum for apologetics and my effort to push for them was misplaced. If you think of some good Orthodox book on the Resurrection specifically, I’d be interested to know what it is. In any case, I hope this comment can make some amends for any offense I caused by my initial comment.

  13. Ken:

    Thanks for your thoughtful (and well-informed) response. I think you’ve described the heart of the reason Orthodox believe in the Resurrection, for better or worse. At the risk of going too “deep” (if that’s what this is) I’ll briefly say that the “gentle and encouraging matrix” you mention is fundamentally subjective to the the individual. One may or may not find anything compelling about such a matrix. I’m not mocking the idea, simply pointing out what I see as it’s limitations.

    I think there is some risk in abandoning the subject-object dialectic in our conception of the relations between God and man (if that’s what you are suggesting) because we run into the difficulties inherent to Panentheism, such as how to explain the existence of evil acts occurring inside the ontological boundaries of an infinitely good being. We could say “evil” things happen to us out of God’s love for us such that they aren’t ultimately evil (only perceived as such now), but that slides us towards a Sabbatean system wherein everything is permitted because “good” and “evil” are indistinguishable until the Eschaton.

    That said, I agree that the subject-object dialectic isn’t workable either.

  14. David,
    Here is an article that is an excerpt from a book titled The Resurrection and Modern Man. The author is His Beatitude Ignatius IV (1920-2012), Patriarch of Antioch and All the East:
    http://ww1.antiochian.org/content/mystery-resurrection
    It looks like SVS bookstore no longer carries the book.
    While other book sellers do have it in stock, it can also be read for free at Internet Archive:
    https://archive.org/details/resurrectionmode0000igna/mode/2up

    It is a short book (100 pages).
    After reading your comment to Ken, I am now not too sure this is what you are looking for. But I will take a chance.

  15. David,
    Thanks for the kind remark. On the resurrection – there is the “fact-like” question of it as an event in history. And that, it seems to me, is a very legitimate question. It is interesting to me that it is the single thing in all of Scripture that actually gets treated in fact-like historical eye-witness manner. I’m not referring to the gospel accounts – I think they have a much larger theological concern and are not written with precise history as a primary concern. Rather, I think of St. Paul in 1Cor. 15. This chapter begins with a recitation of “fixed-piece” oral tradition (“that which I received I hand down”). It pushes that account back to the most primitive times of the Church. And Paul then not only recites that official tradition of the witnesses, but adds himself “as one born out of time” – and also cites the “500” brethren at once, most of whom are still alive.

    What strikes me about it is that it is an example that demonstrates the ability to give eye-witness proof if it really comes down to it – and it affirms the general structure of the gospel accounts – but solely with a concern to affirm it as historical event. It predates all of the gospels (as written texts), though some version of the gospels surely existed in a fixed oral form long before they were written. 1Cor also has another such bit of recited oral tradition (using the specific Greek word for “tradition” – the same word as 1Cor 15). That bit the tradition regarding the institution of the Eucharist. Paul clearly knows the stories of Christ’s passion. “In the night in which he was betrayed, He took bread…etc.” Pretty much word-for-word the account found in Matt., Mark, and Luke.

    So, when my mind turns to the historical “nut” behind and beneath all of this – I think about 1Cor. 15. I was trained in historical-critical method. I think 1 Cor. 15 is pretty much impossible to be dismissed in its reliability. Certainly it is sufficiently reliable.

    But, that’s simply a beginning point for me. As things spread out from there, the Orthodox tradition, as well as the gospel tradition, cogently rest on those claims and present a reasonably persuasive account for the claims concerning Christ in the preaching of the Apostolic Church – particularly as continued on in Ignatius of Antioch, etc. (the Orthodox tradition).

    But, that’s the merest sort of apologetic. It happens to be where I start, rather than, “is there a God?” I don’t know what the word “God” would mean without some sort of definition. That definition, for me, is the God made known in the life and teaching of Jesus – so, I’m back to that primary story.

    But, if that God made known in Christ is true, then the universe itself makes sense as the unfolding of His providence and good will. Not because I can point to anything specific and try to work backwards. Instead, I take the crucifixion of Christ as evidence of God’s utter union with suffering in His universe and the resurrection of Christ as the promise that it is not for nothing, not wasted, but, ultimately for good.

    I have lots of things that I live with that are not explainable – at least not in a way that can be expressed satisfactorily for others. But, having lived this life for a most of a life-time (I’m 66), I am more satisfied and convinced now than I ever was as a young man. Most of the issues I’ve had along the way – and it’s been a long way! – were issues that did not come with being a Christian but which come with being me. I am more understanding of what that means and what that means for me as a believer than when I was younger.

    I have ministered in somewhere on the order of 500 deaths, including my parents, a son, grandchildren, etc. I’ve lost family to murders and disease and I’ve had my own close scrapes. All of those things have pushed me deeper rather than driven me away.

    One of the points buried in my article is that whether someone is a believer or not, the story (and reality) of Christ’s death and resurrection is also about all of us. If He is the incarnate Word of God, then His death in my death and yours as well – regardless of whether we believe it.

    When I think about the “will” and its complexity – I simply know that it is nothing like the caricature described and imagined in our culture. I thought, when I was young, that I was “choosing” any number of things (my wife, my career, etc.). I can now see that my choices played a part in those things, but not nearly the role that I imagined at the time. I can think of a number of bad choices I made that haunted me for years. I can now also see that even those choices, as “choices,” are not such a big deal. There is something deeper and greater going on than the little choices we make. That something certainly involves us, but in a manner that is closer to identity – closer to soul than to volition.

    The more I have come to know God, the more I have come to know myself, and vice versa. They are inseparable. How can someone who doesn’t even know himself make an “eternal” decision? That would be silly.

    I live with Christ and I live through Christ – not because I want to but because I have discovered that this is who I am. I am saying that the story of Christ is also the cosmic story of us all. It’s interesting, perhaps useful, when we know that, but it’s true whether we know it or not. There are days that I don’t even want to get out of bed (like a clinical depression). But, as bad as it might feel, the world remains the same. Christ seems like that to me – that which is solid – that which remains regardless of how I might feel on a given day. It’s not an argument, it’s a life.

    The Protestant NT scholar, Gary Habermas, has a video on NT evidence for the resurrection that, I think, is extremely solid. If that sort of thing interests you, it’s worth the time.

    I’m glad to engage with questions and thoughts here – but I’m not really all that great at apologetics. I don’t think that arguments ever quite get us there. But I’m not troubled by people’s doubts or unbelief. I don’t need to “fix” anyone.

    Peace!

  16. Father, your last few posts—all wonderful!—have brought to mind this ancient Holy Saturday homily:

    Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

    He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him, Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying:

    “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

    “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise.

    “I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth.

    “For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

    “See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

    “I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

    “Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God.

    “The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”

  17. Thank you Father from the bottom of my soul what a beautiful exposition of Christ and his love for us. It is for all of us Sinner and Saint believer and non-believer. I’m still glowing though I guess that’s a very bad choice of words, following the amazing and difficult 12 gospels of Christ service. We still have to walk with Christ tomorrow in his heartbreaking burial and journey to hell. Then Saturday Saturday we will begin to hear the faint murmurings of the glorious Resurrection of our savior. Thank you so much Father for so many things, but especially for reminding us that Christ died and Resurrected for all of us. Every single soul. Indeed glory to God for all things

  18. David

    I have quite a bit of sympathy for your position as stated here:

    “The death and resurrection do not reveal anything to anyone unless one is aware of the belief in these things. In that sense, they only have significance within the Christian belief system. Within this system, the Resurrection reveals God desires all men to be saved; however, since we can’t know who those are, this revelation isn’t remarkably revealing.”

    That is almost by definition true, surely. But the way my faith has worked has been a gradual movement in which the ideas and stories and experiences and whatever have gradually grown into an abiding confidence (and abiding is the key word, maybe). As I posted a while ago, perhaps the turning point in the gospels at least in relation to disciples is when Jesus asks his big question of them “And you, who do you say that I am?” Importantly, this question only gets put to the inner circle of people who have been his disciples for some time, and already have some familiarity with Jesus, and I think that is the dynamic that still works – we can only hear some of these questions properly once we have been on the path for a while. When Peter answers “You are the Messiah”, that answer suffers from all of the issues you raised. Really, it only names Jesus as playing a role. Even if the answer is right, it is not really possible to decode it straight away even if you understand the Jewish theological system in which it is embedded, which remains to this day debated perhaps because people are more in love with the system than Christ (the question is NOT the third person question of Christology “Who is Christ and what does he signify?”, it is who do YOU say that I AM?”. Anyway, in that story Peter showed pretty much straight afterwards that he did not. It took many, many more experiences – including his own betrayal of Christ, and deep forgiveness – for him to truly start to understand the reality. In answer to your raft of questions in your last paragraph, I think my response would be to say that you need to go on a journey with Christ, and prepare to come back and revisit the same stories and situations and experiences over and over again, a bit like the water going around a whirlpool. It is only after a while that you start to really sense experientially what is really going on and water all the circling around is pointing towards. All of which is perhaps a key to understanding what Father is, I think, getting at in the article. The Passion story itself poses that same question to us “Who do you say that I (on the Cross) am”? But it is one that only those with ears to hear and eyes to see – and hearts open enough to feel – will start to get.

    So, while all your questions do have validity, can I suggest they are all a bit third person. For today at least you might want to try entering into the story and instead let the question of the Cross be posed to your soul (as it is being posed to mine). If the answer comes out as more words, I doubt either of us is there …

  19. Father, I am interested as to why you chose this particular image for this article. Googling it, I see that it is a cut down version perhaps intended to get us to focus us even more on that arresting image of the Theotokos? Not sure the description here http://www.williambouguereau.org/pieta/ does it justice (although it is complimentary). If it were English I’d say it feels a bit pre-Raphaelite? I am genuinely intrigued both by it, and by your choice for today.

  20. Ziton,
    It does have a pre-Raphaelite feel. I have to say that it has always been a painting that moved me. The intensity in the face of the Theotokos is transcendent. But, to answer your question – it was simply a very subjective thing.

  21. Yes, her face is what is first draws you in and almost stops you dead in your tracks. But then it is the fact that she is holding his body, almost up (Theotokos indeed). And her arms are wrapped around his body in such an intimate embrace. And then everyone else’s arms seem to be doing something. It is indeed a moving, and interesting painting worth much more than a casual glance, and one I had not seen before. Thank you, again.

  22. Fr. Stephen. Forgive me if you’ve addressed this ad nauseam: How is one to celebrate and rejoice in the universal Paschal message knowing that some are being raised to their condemnation? I fear my own judgement, as well as the judgement of others. It seems like Hades is the better alternative to Gehenna.

  23. Father – thank you. You and Fr. John Behr have been helpful to me in seeing that Christ must be the starting point when talking about God. However, do you see it as problematic for a Christian apologetic as demonstration to refer back to the ancient philosophers such as Lao Tzu or the Greeks, who had “partial” (If you will) knowledge of God – or rather reasonable proof that God exists – And compare that to an unbeliever today who does not “accept” the resurrection yet, acting as if it hasn’t happened? In so doing, it could help lay out the Christian belief of shadow, icon, truth, showing how all things point to the truth of Christ (though even more darkly than they do to us within the Christian view)? Having said this I guess I’m simply describing natural theology. What is your/Orthodox view on the use of natural theology?

  24. Chris, really celebrating Pascha brings tremendous freedom, at least it does for me. Knowing that the way is open for any and all. What people do with that, including me is the Crux of the matter. That includes letting others know that He is Risen!

  25. Brandon, if I may reply to you as well, I’d say that your question ultimately depends upon perspective. For example, consider the “seeker” or nonbeliever whose window into Christianity may be in reading Christian philosophy. That is, they’re not convinced of the resurrection or heaven or hell or whatever else, but they’re interested in proofs for God’s existence. As a result, this interest may manifest itself in them reading Aquinas, who is perhaps the most well-known (and popular?) Christian philosopher. Now, if you were to ask this person about their learning of/talking about God during this process, they wouldn’t tell you that they began with Christ or are talking about him, but rather with/about God. However, I would say that to seek the Christian God is to seek Christ (knowingly or not!), and if one “over time” encounters Christ in seeking the God of the philosophers at first, then in fact Christ has been at work in that person from the very beginning. In other words, from our perspective as human beings, we think we’re seeking something like “God”, and so we embark on various religious adventures toward encountering this God. But from God’s perspective, we were only ever seeking him in Christ, as he was the one who planted that seed of interest (love, really) to start with.

    To “begin” being Christian, I think one does have to start with Christ. Again, one can assent to Aquinas’ proofs for God’s existence, for example, but still not be a Christian. Put another way, we all have our different ways of arriving at this question of “Jesus the Christ”, but its however/whenever we get there that we finally address what being Christian ultimately means (it’s in the name, after all…) I don’t think what Fr. Behr is saying is that everyone’s window into broaching the reality of Christ is the same; i.e., he’s probably not saying that to seek Christ can only be begun in trying to figure out whether he was this one nondescript Jewish guy named Jesus who got crucified and died, after which a Jewish cult emerged in his name in the first century ACE. However, to be Christian, one does have to decide what they believe about Christianity’s claims about Jesus. Does everyone start from the same place in deciding that, however? No, I don’t think so.

    Coming from a Protestant background, I remember when I was like 9 or 10, and I heard the language of, “accepting Jesus into your heart.” I thought to my self, heck, I better do that because I keep hearing about how important it is, so one night when I was in bed, I looked into the ceiling and said, “Jesus, I accept you into my heart.” Nothing happened, of course, and I felt foolish and stupid. One of the reasons why I lost my “faith” later in middle school was because my life and my family’s life completely fell apart about the time I expected Jesus to pop through the ceiling and float into my heart as I lay in my bed as a 9 year old. At that time I couldn’t parse the problem of evil for beans, and so it made perfect sense to throw out the Protestant gruel that I had believed Christianity (and God) to be. But, in college, after declaring as a history major, I stumbled across Meister Eckhart and more generally medieval scholastic mysticism. Several years on, and here I am writing incoherent, rambling posts on some random Tennessean Orthodox priest’s blog. Again, from my perspective my journey toward encountering Christ is a bizarre one. But it’s also a unique one. It doesn’t make perfect sense to me. It only makes perfect sense to God. But I don’t think I’m supposed to know exactly why I’m writing this this afternoon, or why I found this blog several weeks ago, or why I found Eckhart in college and found him intriguing, or even why I felt compelled to test out the Protestant buzz-phrase when I was in 4th grade. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that if Christ is indeed THE reality, then he was and is at work in all the things that have made up my journey toward reaching him, and so despite my eyes looking elsewhere, on different words, and people, and books, and websites, ultimately I have been and am seeking Christ “in all things.” If my seeking ever crosses the boundary from investigation to belief, then I imagine I will, in fact, be born again, as the evangelicals like to say. Perhaps, also, that’s what Fr. Behr really means, as being born again does suggest a new beginning, a new “starting point” in talking about God. Because again, for those on the “outside”, they hate it when religious people tell them “what they’re really doing”. In this case, telling the one seeker who is reading Aquinas that they’re *actually* seeking Christ. They’ll say no! Almost every time. But then check back in with them 10 years down the pike, and maybe they’re a devout Christian and will then agree with you that, “yes, I always was seeking Christ, I just couldn’t see Christ as he sees me – totally and completely.”

  26. Chris,

    One of the things I’ve sent to my priest, sadly a bit late, is to set up the Vigil (praying the Psalms) in our homes in which to take part as a parish. This is as simple as setting aside an hour of praying the Psalms and making certain each hour of the night is filled by fellow parishioners. It is a way to change our focus to repentance and love for God.

    Also, it is worth noting that the Cross, the judgement seat of God, is the Mercy Seat. We fear what we have done, not what God will “do” to us. The Father ran to meet the Prodigal Son and embrace him.

  27. Brandon,
    There is a profound place for “natural theology,” particularly under the heading of “natural contemplation.” Traditionally, that contemplation has been concentrated on the work of God’s providence in nature, something I find very comforting and helpful. It cannot, however, likely lead one to the resurrection itself. From the point of view of Pascha – everything will appear as Pascha. But, I suspect that everything will not be seen as Pascha when viewed as itself, alone.

    But then – my experience is that God relentlessly uses everything in order to bring us to the knowledge of His Son and His Pascha.

  28. I have never heard of “natural theology” until this term was brought into this comment stream. Thank you Brandon for bringing it up.

    To whatever small extent that I’ve just now become acquainted with the term and it’s meaning, I suppose I might have a little experience with this form of theology. However, for now I want to stick with what Fr Stephen has mentioned here, rather than add more to what he has said.

    Thank you Fr Stephen for your comment!

    Today is Good Friday, and we await Christ’s glorious Pascha.

    Glory to thy long-suffering, O Lord.

  29. Dee,
    Classically, natural theology reasons from nature back to God. Western Catholic Scholasticism (like Aquinas) was strong on this. Later Protestantism tended to reject it – probably from the philosophical influences of Nominalism that would have argued that you cannot make any philosophical connection from nature to God.

    Orthodox Fathers never went as far as Medieval Scholasticism, on the whole, but strongly preserved the practice of the contemplation of nature (observing God’s providential working). In writings about the deeper parts of noetic perception, there are discussions of seeing and understanding the “logoi” of all created things. This is much, much more than Western Scholasticism ever considered. There, we simply see rationalism, not noetic perception. Orthodoxy’s take on nature isn’t a purely rational approach, but noetic.

  30. Just a thought…
    St Ephrem the Syrian has as a main focus of his work, God seen through the contemplation of nature and through the words of scripture (very much including the OT).

  31. Thank you, Father, Ian, Dee, and Paula. Everyone on this blog has been a blessing. Every post and comment (even the provocative, the nasty, and the removed comments). They all sharpen my faith one way or another.

  32. To David. To all of you. To myself. If we believe there is such thing as the truth, then obviously, the truth is what it is, regardless of what we believe or know about it. The truth is discovered, not created by us. There is however a misunderstanding or perhaps disagreement regarding the path to discover that truth. The overintelectualised west seems to think it is exclusively a function of the mind. That is why Orthodoxy is so difficult there and indeed the fact that all of you western Orthodox are out there is a miracle and a cause for great hope (father, Modernity has not managed complete victory) . As I was reading one of Saint Isaac the Syrian’s books three years ago, one sentence caught my attention. “and then, he said, your heart will gain clarity.” Your heart? I thought. Are you sure? Not your mind? Apparently, for them, the truth is recognised with the heart, not the mind. The heart however is not to be confused with the soul or the psychological self or whatever it is that you call it in English. That self is even less reliable than our reason. The heart or the spirit are beyond (or rather bellow) all the agitation of random thoughts and feelings. And that is where truth is found. As for how to get there, the path is presented to us. I would recommend to David the Philokalias (Isaac the Syran, John Climacus, Symeon the New Theologian, Maximus, Palamas and the rest of the hesichasts, etc). Not apalogetics at all. The fathers do not try to convince you of anything. They just describe a different way to live and a completely different way to understand the human being and the reality in general. It seems common sense, but people seem unaware that we as human beings need to live, think, search for the truth not with just one part of our being, but with our entire being. They propose a reunification of that which has been fragmented.
    I may be wrong. Currently reading and trying to understand. So don’t take my word for anything. I’m wrong a lot.

  33. One more thing. The father said the other day that the work of the fathers of the church during the first few centuries consisted of coming up with a glossary to explain the words, the concepts they were operating with. We seem to take everything for granted. Take the verb “to think”. We seem to assume we all mean the same thing by it. What if we don’t? Same goes for mind, heart, faith, see, listen etc. We must first clarify that. And only after that, a dialogue is possible and useful. I think most of those engaged in the process of understanding all this, ran out of time at the end of their lives and thus never got to the point where they could actually convince the others of anything.

  34. But how can we rejoice when we hear, “let all sinners perish before the face of God,” during the Paschal service? Forgive me, but how can we take solace knowing that some are being raised to their condemnation, as the Scriptures clearly attest? Pascha does not seem to be joyful for the unrighteous, nay, it seems to be dreadful.

    I am a believer and I will be celebrating Pascha, but this is something that’s held me back from full, joyful, celebration, for years.

  35. Chris, I’m not sure if we’re supposed to take solace in the fact that some would rather remain dead than to live in Christ. Solace is in Christ, that’s it. But, I have to to imagine that the Absolute ultimately gets its way, regardless of how hard one’s heart may be in this life. Besides, the Good News still demands the difficult work of compassion. It is Thérèse of Lisieux who said that heaven is doing good on earth. And if the flip side is true, that hell is doing ill on earth, then the Good News of Christ-risen is how we celebrate in this life as we suffer with those who need the Good News most. In other words, we go to Church, praise God, then what? We keep it going. We take it out into the world. If we were intended to take solace in the fact that our brothers and sisters in this world are suffering and need God’s love, then I think we’ve completely missed the mark.

  36. Chris…I think a clue to knowing this must be a misunderstanding is to ask yourself this: how often do you hear someone in Church, clergy or laity, say that they rejoice in the damnation of others? Forgive my assumption, but, it is rare, if ever, right?
    There is a word that describes the kind strong language we hear in the hymns. Hymnography, maybe…the manner in which the hymns are composed.
    Similarly as in the deprecatory prayers and the violence in the OT…again, this the genre, or form of writing that is not meant to be read literally.
    Maybe someone else can add to what I am trying to say.
    Bottom line, Chris…God would that none perish…He is a good God…All things work toward our salvation and toward the culmination that Christ “delivers” all creation to the Father where He is all and in all.

    Be well Chris….blessed Pascha…it is coming!!!

  37. Another thought came to mind, Chris….the restoration of order (from chaos) in the universe. It is to be noted that God does this through the ‘chaos’ … just as Christ conquered death by His death.
    God is setting things aright….and He presents Himself to us just as we are. He comes to us that we may ascend to Him. We are in the midst of transformation…deification, if you will. He does this in and through the chaos.
    Re damnation, we hope and pray for the salvation of all. That’s what we do. You see this in the prayers during the Liturgy. Yet we don’t know how (in what manner) others are being saved. We can only speak for ourselves, knowing that we too, to use the expression, are the greatest of sinners.
    And that God is merciful…utterly merciful…and does wonders in our heart, if we are willing. I believe such a will is present in each soul, given from the Hands of our Creator. But only He knows the depth of our soul.
    It is impossible to know the depth of another person’s heart…the glimmer of light which desires a good ending in life.
    Sometimes I want to see that glimmer in another so badly that I imagine and take for granted that it is there. I strain to see it. I try not to let myself become disappointed, as much of this is truly hidden, yet to be revealed. I reflect on my own condition, which is in its 65th year. All I can say is God is not done with me yet…and neither is He with the ‘other’ who I strain at!

  38. Chris,
    I take such statements to refer to the unrighteous demonic forces. Never our rejoicing over the destruction of another human being.

    Alternately, I also internalize the interpretation – such that the “unrighteous” are those impulses towards wickedness within my own heart. Both of these approaches are well within the Tradition.

  39. Thank you Paula, Ian, and everyone. I’m going through a bit of depression right now, and I think it’s coloring my perception of God. Please pray for me. Blessed Pascha to everyone!

  40. Thank you everyone! How amazing that mere words can serve to gather us together as a family united through tears, ever renewed hope, courage to love and be loved…the trust in Christ our God to daily live.
    Christa

  41. Father thank you for your explanation of ‘natural theology’. I see, now, that my experience was more akin to the Orthodox way. I wasn’t making any formal arguments from nature to God, but simply perceived Him. A different interaction with nature and with God.

    I have wished to express this experience within the context of Orthodox theology. I’m still learning how to do this. I need to learn more Orthodox theology to express it in the Orthodox way. It’s quite easy to fall into conceptualizations and expressions indicative of modernity.

  42. I understand the depression, Chris. You will be surprised how our good God works through such moments.
    Consider yourself embraced … by God in Christ, His Mother, Saints, and the Bodiless Powers…and us!
    In His blessedness, it takes two to embrace…it goes both ways. It is ‘meet and right’ that it does so!

  43. Chris during the vigil reading of Psalms I read several passages to suggest praise in vanquishing enemies. But I kept reminding myself there is only one ‘real’ enemy. And that isn’t political mankind although that’s what we hear often enough in the media.

    Our enemies are the unrighteous demons that Father Stephen mentions.

    God bless you and bring you peace.

  44. Dee – you may already be aware of this (and if so I apologize), but the wonderful “Christ the Eternal Tao” by Hieromonk Damascene (who came to Christ partly through Fr Seraphim Rose) is a nice worked example of the way ‘natural philosophy’ approaches can sometimes be helpful to our understanding, and be useful in helping bring others to our (Risen!!!) Lord. (It is also really interesting about the experience and sufferings of Chinese martyrs, of which most westerners are unaware.)

    This https://youtu.be/0yf0Z_9QLpc is a lecture given by Hieromon Damascene that explains what he was trying to do with that book, and how he sees some of these natural philosophy things working. There is also many readings from the book itself on YouTube.

    Certainly, I found it useful and important. It might also be of use in the kind of considerations that Ian usefully – and to my mind correctly – mentioned as seekers seek, and making us (or at least me) less imperialistic in thinking about what other religions and philosophy have to say or offer. Much discernment needed, of course.

    Christos Anesti! Alithos anesti!!

  45. Christ is Risen!
    Thank you Ziton! I appreciate your suggestions. I believe I’ve heard of it but didn’t really pay attention, or forgotten about it.

    I really appreciate the link and will listen to it!

    Christ is Risen!

  46. I needed to hear these words! You have spoken to my soul Father Stephen. A sprout of joy has emerged this morning.

    My heart is heavy and has been or a while. Having three children (in their twenties) who act as if Christ isn’t relevant to their lives is hard to deal with. They have no joy for what He has done, is doing, and or what He will do. When they are around I feel sadness. I can hardly look at their eyes and really don’t want to be around them. It is hard to talk to them because nothing in their lives interests me when there is no appearance that their lives are rooted in Christ. They are justice seeking, “politically correct”, law abiding, Christ-less beings. And they are all smarter than me.

    I don’t know why I seem to loose sight of the truths you have mentioned above. I should know better than to despair. This seems to be a weekly cycle. I despair for a few days and then I remember. I despair for a few days and then I remember. And again and again and again.

    I will rejoice today. Christ is risen! Nothing will rob me of the joy Christ brings. And I’m counting on Him continuing to be “a saving God, a seeking God, a knocking God, a trampling God, a healing God, a raising-from-the-dead God who refuses to be ignored.”

    And not just for my kids. For me too. For I’m the chief sinner.

  47. David I think most of us parents have experienced this with their children and your experience is similar to mine.

    A good friend, also a parent, pointed out to me that God will not question us on whether we taught our children the faith, rather, whether we can show Him the callouses on our knees. I stopped talking altogether and just pray and I am sure He will do what is necessary at the right time for each person.

  48. Dee, it is a good read. I read it some years ago. It would be interesting to hear your reaction as a scientist.

  49. Father Stephen, John 3:19 through 21 in your blog, has different wording than my New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The wording of your version is much more clear to me. Could you please tell me which version you use?

    Thank you, God bless.

    Steve

  50. Steve,
    That particular citation is from the RSV (not the NRSV). I’m terribly inconsistent in Scriptural translations. I have a Bible program on my laptop (Accordance) and it depends on what translation I’ve got it set to. Also, I’m always reading the Greek alongside whatever English I’m using, and sometimes I’ll “tweak” a translation because I think there’s a better way to render something.

  51. Thank you Father,
    Would you be willing to “tweak” the New Testament for me? ……….Just kidding.
    I did understand your version better than the NRSV. Thank you.

  52. Steve,
    I long ago gave up on English translations. Essentially, they’re useful for me in looking up a verse or passage, but I find that I need to read it in Greek if I’m really working at understanding it. Generally, translations are “ok.” But the truth is that there really can never be a satisfactory translation of any language. Words in one language are only equivalents of a single meaning and nuance of a word in another language. Important words always have a range of meaning. When you translate – you have to pick a meaning and go with it – and then you lose all the rest of it. Of all the things I studied over the years, I am most grateful for the languages.

  53. Father,
    My wife is “cradle” Greek Orthodox. I was Evangelical Covenant. I attended Grace Bible Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan and she the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox of Ann Arbor, when we met and fell in love. We have been married 43 years. I converted 2 years ago and we are very happy active members at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox in Minneapolis.

    When we met, she was using “The Living Bible Paraphrased” by Tyndale House. I was way more sophisticated than that and used KJV and later NIV. We are both in more than one study group now and she has dragged out this old paperback Bible from 1972 all wrinkled and written in. I looked at it yesterday and read the preface. I was amazed. You should read it. I then started looking up a bunch of chapters and verses in it! I could not believe how it made sense to me, quite like your translation of the original Greek. Would you be willing to tell me what you think of it? I could not figure out who did the paraphrasing and what they were paraphrasing.

    God Bless You Father,
    Steve

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