Life in the Fog of the World

 

In December of 1990, fog rolled into a stretch of I-75 between Knoxville and Chattanooga. Visibility quickly became a problem. The result was a fiery 99 car pile-up with 12 deaths and 42 injuries. Such tragedies are repeated from time-to-time across the country, with fog, rain, snow, and ice as the primary culprits. If you have ever been involved in such road conditions, then you probably remember something of the panic that accompanies it. It is not merely your own abilities that are challenged, but the frightful thoughts of 80,000-pound semi’s careening along behind you that drive the fear. Earlier this week, while driving a few errands, a sudden and unexpected squall of sleet blew into town (in April!). It lasted no longer than five minutes, but was so sudden and fierce that the roads became questionable. Life in the fast lane is dangerous.

My retirement life has brought a metaphor from driving experiences into sharp focus. It’s noting the difference between life viewed “in the windshield” versus life viewed “in the rear-view mirror.” The first rushes towards you as you speed ahead, giving but a short vision of what’s to come. The second recedes slowly into the distance, accompanied by the memory of the long road that has gone before. Life in the windshield is, to my mind, particularly an experience of youth. The world and the future hurry towards them and seem to be, by far, the most important part of the road. The rear-view mirror is the world of the aging. What I remember (as I near 70) is far more important than what is yet to come – there’s so much more of it. In that light, the doctrine of divine providence often seems more obvious to the elderly than it does to the young. We stand at different points of observation.

There is, though, the problem of the “fog.” When driving into a heavy fog, both what is ahead and what is behind are obscurred. We drive at something approaching a state of blindness. I think there are moments in history (as well as our personal lives), when the fog encloses us and both the providence of the past as well as the way forward are hidden. The last several years, with the pandemic, the disruption of the supply chain, our present inflation and climate of war, easily conspire to make even local things seem uncertain and fogged in. I do not write on ecclesiastic politics, nor on worldly politics (to a great extent). Nevertheless, I will confess to having a number of concerns in those areas and to be “fogged in” when I try to consider how they might unfold.

Those concerns reveal the “modernity” in my own heart. Our deep habits, nurtured in so many ways, tend towards management. We imagine ourselves to be in charge of history’s outcomes. As such, we nurture within ourselves a “market” for information. News of the world, of events, and trends seem (to us) to be required reading and listening. We even think to ourselves, “How will I know how to pray if I don’t know what is going on?” The corrollary to that thought is, “How will God know what is going on if I don’t tell Him?”

The image that I have invoked in this article, that of driving in a fog, is itself quite revealing. It describes our lives as though we were the ones doing the driving. It is here that providence in particular comes as a rebuke. How do we tell the story of history? The thing we call “history” is not a record of past events. It is a narrative, a story, that seeks to make sense of the events that have occurred. It is the “story” that we use to shape (and choose) the events we relate that is the thing called “history.” Properly speaking, Christians do not believe in “history.”

The Christian faith professes belief in “providence,” that is, that the events that unfold through time are guided by God Himself towards His desired end. If there is a “Christian history,” then it is the telling of events in terms of the story God is speaking. The Christian “story,” is utterly and completely one of divine providence. The Christian story is that the single point of history, indeed, the single point of all things, is found in the death and resurrection of Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ are to the eternal history of all things what the “big bang” is to the visible universe (and even more than that). And though the death and resurrection of Christ occurs at a measurable, definable, moment in history (roughly 33 A.D.), it is also correct to describe it as both the beginning and ending of history.

…All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Col. 1:16-17)

Christ is the beginning (“all things are for Him”). Christ is the purpose of all things (“in Him all things consist”). Christ is the end of things. Christ Himself is the providence of all creation. We confess that we live in His story.

Thus it is the case that providence is not so much in the rear-view mirror (as though everything were leading to me). Providence is the fact that Christ has made me His own and that I am myself part of the unfolding of His death and resurrection in the world. The fog of the present moment (and there’s a lot of fog!) is clarified and lifted in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ.

St. Paul (who occasionally lists the details of God’s providence in his life, cf. 2Cor. 11:23-33) offers this simple summary: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live.” Our lives are nothing less than the death and resurrection of Christ displayed in history in the myriad ways that are His Body.

In the fog of the world (which includes even those times when we imagine ourselves to be seeing clearly), to understand the hand of God is not to become an interpreter of events, much less a sage with great insight into the machinations of the powers that be. There is only the vision of Christ, who, when seen in midst of anything and everything, gives the one interpretation that is true.

…we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus… (Hebrews 2:8-9)

32 comments:

  1. The thickest fog today seems to be Russia invading Ukraine, with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church. Have you addressed that? Do you intend to? It would be most helpful. Thank you.

    Duane Young

  2. Duane,
    I do not intend to address that. Doing so would violate the blog’s stated policy: I do not criticize Orthodox clerics. There is a canonical procedure for doing that – which I gladly leave to the bishops. This blog serves a clear purpose – expressing an opinion on every evil in the world is not part of its mission.

    The present situation of the war in Ukraine will end. It will come with lasting consequences in the Orthodox world. What those consequences will be are not known to me, nor do I seek to be part of their management. I am an Orthodox priest of the OCA. I live in obedience to my bishop (very gladly), to my Rector (since I’m retired), and to my wife (since I’m a happily married man). My heart grieves for the many lives being lost and the many souls that are being endangered (including from directions no one seems to discuss). In my grief, I weep and pray. That is my suggestion for my readers, one and all.

    I do not wish to have a discussion of the pro’s and con’s of the war on the blog. So, I’ll say no more. I ask readers to refrain from comments on that fog, please.

  3. Father, this is another one of your posts that I suspect I need to re-read every few weeks until it sinks in more deeply. How different my reactions to life could be if I perceived God’s providence more clearly! Sadly, I so often stand in the midst of the fog and convince myself that I see clearly, that my limited vision is the “truth” of the situation. Lord, have mercy.

  4. Thank you, Father Stephen. Today is an especially “foggy day” for me with respect to my living situation. Reading this has had the effect of lifting it a bit. I am grateful to God and I am grateful to you.

  5. My particular fog seems to frequently revolve around charity. Am I being charitable enough? Am I being discerning enough? Am I acting the fool? What does God want me to do? How can I help, and what supposed help is really inappropriate? The hindsight/rearview mirror you speak of seems to me that my urgency is misplaced. Waiting on God is the real answer. Boy is that tough!!

  6. It will probably take me a while to digest a lot of this. The part about modernity giving us the notion that we can “drive” particularly struck me as I have been carried along in that current for many years. In my own thinking, I am exploring the notion of viewing events not as something that I am in control of but as invitations that I accept or decline. In a way then I have some “control” because each invitation will change things. But I am not the one determining the invitations or where they will lead by either accepting or declining.

  7. Father bless,
    I am so profoundly blessed and encouraged by this post as it describes perfectly how I have lived since becoming Orthodox over 25 years ago. Since then, when someone asks me “what can we do about —-” my response is “God knows”. That being said in a positive affirmation of God being in charge. God bless you in your retirement and for the solid footing you share here.

  8. History tells us only the all politics tends toward evil so there is no salvation in them. One of the best commentaries on the nature of the world I have ever seen is the 1935 cartoon, The Sunshine Makers. Look it up and watch it. You will feel the fog part, just a bit.

  9. Fr Stephen

    I contrast to Roman Catholic dogma, we believe that God acts in the word through His uncreated divine energies (please correct me if I am wrong).

    It would be good if you could elucidate further divine providence, so that we can understand how it acts, alongside our freedom and is not wrongly identified with predestination.

  10. Nikolaos,
    It would be, no doubt, useful to write an article a greater length on divine providence. You are precisely correct that providence is a primary manifestation of the divine energies – this is especially made clear in the works of St. Dionysius the Areopagite who has much to say on the matter. Indeed, prior to St. Gregory Palamas, the primary treatment of the divine energies was almost always in terms of God’s providence.

    The most illustrative story regarding providence, to my understanding, is that of St. Joseph the Patriarch (he of the many-colored coat). After the whole of his ordeal is completed, and he is reunited with his brothers (who had wickedly sold him into slavery), he said, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” What his brothers did was wrong – but their evil choice and evil actions were not what governed the outcome of history. They were entirely free – God in no way directed or caused their evil actions. Nonetheless, in the mystery of His providence, He “meant” those actions for good.

    We see the same thing in the Crucifixion of Christ. It’s utterly wrong to crucify an innocent man out of envy (as the Scripture describes it). Neverthteless, what was meant by man for evil, God meant for good.

    Where we run into trouble in all of this is our tendency towards “billard ball” theories of causation. The mystery of the workings of providence is, indeed, a mystery. It is the mystery of goodness (God’s Goodness). Despite the evils that live as parasites in the world, the world is essentially good. Existence itself is an inherent good. And though evil seeks to have its way, it is constantly thwarted by the workings of God’s good providence. And even when we look at the death and resurrection of Christ – we have that mystery described in an utter paradox – that death was defeated by death.

    St. Maximus the Confessor said that “he who understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.” In that fashion, it is for us to abandon our billiard balls and plunge ourselves into the mystery of the Cross.

  11. Father Stephen,

    Thank you again for your edifying writing.

    How does one reconcile (and if not reconcile then hold both truths in mind at the same time) Divine Providence and free-will?

    God bless!

  12. Your thoughts on growing older and “the fog” brought to my mind one of Wendell Berry’s most affecting Sabbath poems:

    1.
    We follow the dead to their graves,
    and our long love follows on
    beyond, crying to them, not
    “Come back!” but merely “Wait!”
    In waking thoughts, in dreams
    we follow after, calling, “Wait!
    Listen! I am older now. I know
    now how it was with you
    when you were old and I
    was only young. I am ready
    now to accompany you
    in your lonely fear.” And they
    go on, one by one, as one
    by one we go as they have gone.

    2.
    And yet we all are gathered
    in this leftover love,
    this longing becomes the measure
    of a joy all mourners know.
    An old man’s mind is a graveyard
    where the dead arise.

  13. Dan,
    Like this: we have free will and can do whatever we want. We really are free. And yet, the mystery is that God’s good will continuously works to bring things out in such a manner that they work for our good. Divine Providence is a “mystery” (as in, it is hidden). We see day in and day out (though we mostly take it for granted).

    The quintessential example is that said by Joseph in Genesis. He said to his brothers who sold him into slavery: “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” That God brought good about doesn’t mean that what the brothers did (in their freedom) was good. It was not.

    But it is interesting to me that though I might mean one thing – God could mean another. I am free – but I’m not in charge of history. I am not the Lord of outcomes. If I had to endure the full consequences of all the wrong and stupid decisions I’ve made in my life – it would be miserable, indeed. Some of those dumbest decisions actually contributed to the best things that I now enjoy. How is that possible? I was entirely free – but God’s work is greater and His goodness endures forever.

  14. Father
    I consider this article utterly brilliant. The first matter has always been ever so close to my heart. And the same goes for your comments on Joseph.
    Reading Wednesdays vesperal prophecy on him in light of Lazarus story, how he cried twice before revealing himself as Christ also did etc.
    Had me connecting all this to the unsearchable providence behind the darkest sufferings, and your article was timed well for me in that sense too.

  15. Thankyou Father for an illuminating article.

    Young as I am I need to remember much of life is still to come! Also a lack of faith and the passion of fear keep me attached to an elusive desire for certainty and security apart from God.

    Reminds me of my favourite painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Sometimes I imagine myself to be on a mountain above the fog, but really most of the time I am in the valley struggling through the fog. Rare though it might be, a clear vision of God’s providence in the rearview mirror and a present hopeful path for the future is a great blessing!

  16. I am still in shock when you said that fog happened in 1990. I travel that stretch of interstate on a regular basis, and I remember that fog well and the many fogs I have experienced along that stretch of I75. After I get over how quickly the past 32 years have gone, I will re-read the rest of the article 🙂

  17. Fr. Freeman,

    As I have been contemplating that union in the Christian life is the goal of life, with Christ, with His Family, with His purposes, it hit me yesterday that union with His death and suffering – partaking in Christ’s sufferings – is also part of the deal so to speak. I Peter 4:12 12 Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you, which cometh upon you to prove you, as though a strange thing happened unto you: 13 but insomuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of his glory also ye may rejoice with exceeding joy.

    I think the martyrs actually believed these verses. “It’s not weird, it’s not abnormal, it’s not some space of life where God is not present… but in as much as you unite yourself to Christ’s sufferings you also unite yourselves to future joy in His revealing.” Something like that. The partaker in the suffering is the partaker in the glory by union.

    But then during your article I thought, even unknowing, in the specifics, is union with Christ in a sense. Matthew 24:36 But of that day and hour knoweth no one, not even the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only. I’m not throwing any doubt on the omniscience of Christ, just that Christ emphasizes God’s control/moving history towards a specific end without an exact date. 2000 years is not that long. If a generation was 40 years, it would be <50 great grandparents backwards. If it was 80 years, it would be <25. Christ does not seem to have full omniscience in His earthly ministry. I don't want to get in the weeds, but it seems since Christ is the ultimate example of leaning into and trusting Providence, that our union with Him entail the same. And it is revealed again where I or we do not believe in the full humanity of Christ, because instantly the thought pops up, "But Christ was God and God knows everything…"

    Talk of predestination and foreknowledge I feel are of little value anymore. There is a dedicated movement that God will not abandon towards a specific end, the unification of man to His Energies and the unification of the terrestrial with the heavenly in love, and whatever barriers man or demons put up, will ultimately serve His purposes without having meticulously arranged the plot. And I think, which God is greater, the God who must out of necessity be God by getting His way in every meticulous thing that happens, from your next splinter to the new WW, or the God who can turn evil into good by subversion? One God makes evil and good look practically identical; one leaves evil as real and subverts it even when it means He must suffer to undo it.

  18. Fr. Damick’s latest blog post on the Martyrs also touches upon God’s Providence.

    “the death of a martyr results from the combat between evil spiritual powers and the martyr himself, a confrontation in much of Christian history between paganism and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In every case, the fallen angels (demons) who animate paganism to kill the martyr think that they thereby defeat him and, by implication, the martyr’s God. It is a futile act on the demons’ part, however, because they are simply repeating what they did with Christ Himself, thinking that killing Him defeats Him, but it is they who are defeated by Christ’s entrance into death (1 Cor. 2:6-10).”

    That such things are meant for evil is irrelevant in the light of the Goodness of God. Death is defeated by Death; as Father noted above, “God’s work is greater”.

  19. Father & Matthew Lyon,
    I wonder how correct [or not] would it be to say that there is some kind of unavoidability regarding suffering. Mainly wondering about this for the reason that we never encounter glory without sacrifice (the Cross being the path and the throne of Glory), and we don’t even have creation without sacrifice (the Lamb is slain from the foundation), and even in the wider sense of these notions, we see this to be quite true. And even though we were never created to suffer, and suffering is not just some ‘response’ to the Fall, there is however, something more foundational about it if we consider how suffering is also always one possible aspect of sacrifice.

  20. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you so much for this comforting article. It reminded me of a couple moments in my life when I experienced the sun come out and chase away the fog…

    The first was in boot camp. It was 8 weeks long but it wasn’t until Week 6 that the revelation suddenly hit me that the company commander was not God and had no real control over my life. Such a moment of blessed relief and salvation!! I had never overtly said or thought he was, but obviously I had believed it.

    The second was a session in a university philosophy class. The professor picked that day to debunk God.
    “Can he create a rock he can’t lift?” “Can he make a square circle?” All the usual smug pats on the back that give philosophy majors the warm fuzzies about how clever they are. The room was also dimly lit, which didn’t help.

    But when the class ended I stepped out into a warm, sunny day and immediately realized that nothing spoken in a dark, putrid classroom – or anywhere else for that matter – could change reality. The truth of God’s providence, for example.

    Anyway, thanks for another great one. You always seem to have a way of clearing away some of the fog and speaking truths – after which I can see them again and wonder how I could ever have thought otherwise.

  21. Dino, I would say that when death came into the world and the resulting entropy, suffering followed. God uses that same entropy to overcome it “trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

  22. Dino,

    Suffering is quite the subjective experience for us. Think of an American missionary going to somewhere in SE Asia to live among the poorest of the poor. Their level of suffering is much higher perhaps than someone who has lived there all their life. Their level of self-giving is more perhaps than the native. My wife’s grandmother is 102 and until she was 98 had never had any health problems. She got acid reflux and you’d think she had a chronic disease, but she’d never experienced bodily pain like that (and acid reflux is not fun). I think suffering and self-giving are so interrelated that you can’t talk about one without the other, at least when it is voluntary. And it reminds me how often we emphasize the voluntary nature of the Cross, Incarnation, Creation, etc. But even when it is not voluntary, suffering is an act of self-giving for someone who trusts God in the situation. The disciples would be delivered up, as Christ was delivered up, and in that moment, they were not to be like Peter cutting off ears, but to suffer injustice for righteousness’ sake. I think though we have to emphasize that suffering caused by others, especially towards the vulnerable, while it may turn out to be redemptive, it is always met Biblically with severity; millstones, hell, etc. The woman who cannot get justice is the model of perseverance in prayer as she doesn’t quit. Dejection then is a real enemy, as the dejected has given up on God, Providence, the goodness of God, etc. Since self-giving is so related to suffering I don’t see how you could avoid it without also avoiding self-giving, and if you do this, you prove you have no or little faith. It would show you’re dejected or that you prefer being selfish.

    Sometimes the, what I think is stupid, accusation is made against the OT that sacrifice was a pagan thing worked into OT Judaism. “I do not desire the blood of bulls and goats,” comes to mind. But just like the perfume Judas thought to be a waste on Jesus, things of value – and especially things we are tempted to find security in (food, money, health, pleasure) – when they are self-given, trust is on display. The reason sacrifices around the world are usually similar is that these are common things that have value. The main difference is, God has no need of any of them nor are they of any value without repentance whereas the gods, are placated and fed and reciprocate benefits as a result of the offering regardless of any concern for the offer-er. Abrahma’s almost sacrifice of Isaac was likely to show Israel they would never have human sacrifice. Yet, Paul talks of our lives like oblations, only they are living ones (Paul concluding Romans 1-11 with 12:1 and forward).

    You can never really sacrifice something that is not yours. I could not steal money and truly sacrifice it. God owns everything, even we are bought with a price. In that sense all sacrifice is an offering. Romans 12:1 Therefore I exhort you, brothers, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your reasonable service. The living sacrifice we are to be, is “reasonable”, rational, normal by deduction, normal by logic. This is just a basic principle. The Greek work thusia for sacrifice is used in the LXX the first time for the Passover sacrifice. Christ is the Paschal/Passover lamb sacrificed/thuo (verb for sacrificed, 1 Cor 5:7) and we, united with Him, are also sacrifices. This overall “logic” sets up I would believe, with a lot of other instances, the idea of the ascetical life as normal/normative and anything less, as not normal.

  23. Michael
    Indeed. But there does also seem to be an additional, and even more foundational sacrificial aspect to creation itself. Predating death’s entry. [Revelations 13:8]

  24. Thank you Father that was a renewed reading !
    “The heart of this puzzle lies within the nature of love itself.”

  25. Fr. Freeman,

    I just read the post you linked.

    Have you read this book https://www.amazon.com/Suffering-Impassible-God-Dialectics-Patristic/dp/0199297118/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2IIKAOFMMCYG4&keywords=the+suffering+of+the+impassible+god&qid=1650026793&sprefix=the+suffering+of+hte+im%2Caps%2C109&sr=8-1

    It’s in my wish list but the title which includes dialectics (which has become a signal to me something is off) has kept me from it.

    I have had a real problem thinking that the Christ’s sacrifice communicates nothing to His Divinity. The other article you wrote is quite good. You might consider reposting articles like this as some people who benefit from your writing may not peruse the entire catalog. It seems to me, that inherent in a view where God has no participation in suffering – since Christ did suffer – a quasi-Nestorianism. The idea that Christ the man can know things God cannot experientially or theoretically gets me back to Athanasius’s, “Whatever is not assumed is not healed…” The real question to me is, must suffering mean change in God?

    There is something very practical about a view of Divine Impassibility where we do affirm that God suffered without it changing Him.

    What do you think of this Father?

    Thanks,
    Matthew Lyon

  26. Matthew,
    I have not read that book. The doctrine of the communio idiomatum would certainly suggest that what is true of the human nature of Christ (suffering, for example) is shared with, and participated in by the divine nature.

    My article suggests, meekly, I hope, that love itself (especially as revealed to us in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, carries with it some sense of suffering. I do not try to parse that out. I’m not much of a fan of the abstractions (impassibility, etc.) when I can avoid them. “Whatever is not assumed is not saved” is St. Gregory Nazianzus (the Theologian).

    One thing that guides my thought in this is that I do not believe the Incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ to just be a “side-operation” that takes place for our salvation – but that it is revelatory as well. Thus, if it is revelatory, it shows who He is from all eternity.

  27. Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for the correction on the quotation. I think of God’s revelation of Himself to be salvific as to know God is eternal life, but I see why you’d make the distinction. It is not salvific in one sense for the non-Orthodox. For now, I stick to the presupposition that a focus on soteriology will make these other issues much more plain. This is just my own conviction, but I think that often the order is reversed or out of order. For example, early in my studies on Calvinism I realized that you could not logically argue for Calvinism without OS/Total Depravity (which are the same thing as TD just means your will is useless in salvation). So, it was advised not to ever try and convince someone of the “Doctrines of Grace” without this in place (this from Lorraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination). I converted at least a few, and helped others solidify their false soteriology by focusing most my attention on TD. But, while this is all a lie, the methodology is correct. There is little reason to hope that someone become fully Christian/Orthodox in their mind without grounding in soteriology. My intuition that many articulations of Divine Impassibility were just flat wrong was due to already having had a high interest in understanding Orthodox soteriology. If Christ is to save man because man’s problem is that he fails to realize his end as union/divinization/Sainthood or becoming and staying “a holy one”, then the Incarnation takes on a whole new meaning, is revelatory/salvific, whereas for a Protestant or a Catholic, the meaning of the Incarnation may be reduced to a mode (just make the connection to modalism – heresy becomes very evident too when the soteriology is not in place well) of existence for God, in love, to undergo the wrath of God for the elect. God saves you from Himself, etc. Ah, altogether different meaning. But what brings it out? Soteriology. Just my little plug for a focus on soteriology by our priests. Thanks for all you do and contribute and stimulate.

    I think the article, for as brief as it was, was/would be very helpful, again my plug to repost archives…

    Matthew Lyon

  28. Father,

    I do not believe the Incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ to just be a “side-operation” that takes place for our salvation – but that it is revelatory as well.

    That is precisely what struck me regarding how the [loving] action of creation itself, and how it contains within it from the outset the notion of utter sacrifice. Even on an everyday level, we see that human creation involves some sacrifice, but regarding God’s creation of freely self-determining creatures, the sacrifice (and the ‘risk’ if you like) seems to be of the same order as what was revealed at Golgotha. Little wonder many interpret Christ’s “it is completed” on the Cross as the completion of the project ‘Human’.

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