A Particular Scandal

pantokrator_elia.jpg.scaled1000A character in a Peanuts cartoon once declared, “I love mankind! It’s people I can’t stand!”

The statement accurately describes our problems with the particular. It is easy to love almost anything in general – it is the particular that brings problems.

Nowhere could this be more true than with God. Speaking about God in the abstract is extremely common – after all – He is “everywhere present, filling all things.” He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good-  all, all, all. The very nature of such speech is generalized and generic.

However, it is impossible to experience anything in general. For the great scandal or stumbling block of particularity is not so much God but us. We are inescapably particular – it is an inherent part of being human. We are circumscribable; we are limited; we are local. And we chafe at such limits. We prefer that the ego of modern man become the measure of the world itself. That which does not interest me does not exist.

The abstract, generalized God is the god of modernity. The generalized God cannot offend – there is nothing offensive about Him. But just as He cannot offend, neither can He be known because there is nothing there to be known. We only know particulars.

Everything by which we know God is particular. The ultimate particularity is Christ Himself – the God who can be circumscribed, drawn, pictured, nailed, spat upon and crucified. 

The same is true of our ongoing relationship with God. One aspect of classical Christianity is its interest in icons, shrines, oil, bread, holy places, bones, etc. For modern people all of these things are confusing and even offensive. 

At the very least, “holy objects” seem superstitious. But holy objects and holy places are deeply part of the particularity of human existence. For example, we do not love “food in general.” We have a favorite food. And our favorite is very likely far more specific. We have a favorite food cooked specifically by someone we know, perhaps even associated with a place and time we ate it. All of the memories we have in our lives are most often tied to specific people, places and things. We rarely remember simply that “I felt great then.” Our lives are extremely concrete.

The God whom we know – gives Himself to us in the particular. In classical Christianity that particularity is the very heart of the faith. For Christ is not merely God-become-man. He is God-who-became-aman

This particularity, according to the fathers, is the precise reason for making icons, because it is the property of a man that he may be depicted. An icon of Christ is proof and witness of His incarnation and particularity. We make icons in order to proclaim that God became a man.

But the Orthodox know that even an icon can become yet more particular. There are not just icons of the Mother of God, but the Vladimir Mother of God; the Iveron Mother of God; the Kazan Mother of God; the Tikhvin Mother of God, and so on. And each icon, though depicting the same Mother of God has its own unique story. And those unique stories continue as believers encounter that icon. It was the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God that protected Moscow from Tamerlane in 1395, etc.

And, of course, all of this seems like so much fuss over something that should be more general more generic

I have, from time to time, been invited to pray at certain public events. It has become common in America to be given “guidelines” for such prayers, often requesting the minister to be “generic” in his prayer (not proselytizing, or speaking of “the deity” in a manner that might give offense). Such guidelines were recently ruled unconstitutional though they’ve been around now for several decades.

It is, of course, the height of modernism – the desire for a God who gives no offense – the generic god. 

God is transcendently particular. He is the ultimate particular. For God alone is alone. He is not one of something of which there are two. He is the only God and thus the Transcendent Particular. 

And He leads us to Him (in His condescension) through particular places, things, words, people. But He does not condescend to become generic, for the generic cannot be the bearer of the Particular. An icon can be holy, but Art can never be. A man can be holy, but humanity can never be. 

And the Particular Who invades our lives through the particularities that we encounter is never generic. For the generic is no-thing – it is nothing. There is no generic, only the comfortable imaginations born of our desire to avoid the discomforts of the particular.

The more God is devoid of the particular, the more we reduce Him to a concept – even reducing Him to something like a natural resource: water, light, air, God. In such a position, God remains available (everywhere), inert and ready to be ignored or accessed, depending on our own requirements. The generic God is thus the ultimate consumer product. In a consumerist culture, there will always be pressure to move God towards the mode of “available resource,” a mere symbol for our own selfish desire for transcendence. Such a God underwrites and validates my “spirituality,” but makes no demands that might be occasioned by His own particularity.

The particularity of God will be seen as an increasingly offensive reality within a consumerist culture. Such a Particularity too easily assaults the universal claims of all consumers. So-called “non-denominationalism” is simply an ecclesiological expression of a generalized God in which nearly all particularities are seen as “man-made,” and merely reflect consumer desires. Any elevation of the Particular in religious terms is easily seen as an effort to control access to a generalized God (“You’re trying to put God in a box”). 

Conversion to classical Christianity requires the difficult acceptance of the Particular God (and thus a particular Church). That acceptance includes the rejection of the etiquette of the generic. You will offend your friends and family – for the acceptance of the Particular casts judgment on the general whether it is uttered or not. 

But this difficult acceptance is a necessary thing – for the generic God is – ultimately – no God at all. It is merely a god, a cipher for a cultural notion. The generic god cannot save for it can only offer something in general. 

Eternal life is an invitation into ultimate Particularity. Accept it, and you will become a Person, a true human being.

74 comments:

  1. Remind’s me of Hauerwas’ passage from Prayer Plainly Spoken:

    “The call came from the president’s office asking me to pray before the Distinguished Professor’s luncheon. … I at first turned down the opportunity to pray to a vague God who cannot be named as the Father of Jesus Christ. I knew such a ‘public’ occasion, involving people of many faiths, would have people expecting just such a civil religious address of God. But then I reconsidered and called back saying I would do it. It took me all morning to write the prayer.

    ‘God, you alone know how we are to pray to you on occasions like this. We do not fear you, since we prefer to fear one another. Accordingly, our prayers are not to you but to some “ultimate vagueness.” You have, of course, tried to scare the hell out of some of us through the creation of your people Israel and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we are a subtle, crafty and stiff-necked people who prefer to be damned into vagueness. So we thank you for giving us common gifts such as food, friendship and good works that remind us our lives are gifts made possible by sacrifice. We are particularly grateful for your servant Reynolds Price, who graces our lives with your grace. Through such gifts may our desire for status and the envy status breeds be transformed into service that glorifies you. AMEN.'”

  2. Father, what a reflection. It helps me realize that there have been four particular places in my life of which I have vivid, detailed memories. In all four places I encountered the living God as a person, i. e. Person from whom my own personhood is somehow derived and I become a partaker. In two, the Person of Jesus Christ made Himself known to me, not in general but quite unmistakably particular. In two of them, The Theotokos moved my heart to recognize her while also pointing me to her Son. Not a generic Christ but her Crucified and Risen Son.

    Three occured before I officially became Orthodox. The third came the first time I entered an Orthodox Holy Temple. Both Mary and Our Lord greeted me in quite particular ways. Welcoming me home.

    In each Divine Liturgy where I have really participated, they are present to me also. In repentance. I also will see Him in others from time to time whether I like them or not. Humbling sometimes.

    This year, by God’s Grace and Mercy, during our celebration of Pentecost, I recognized the Holy Spirit as a unique Person. I could empathize with the original disciples as described in Acts who ran around acting crazy with Joy and tears of repentance simultaneously.

    I am no saint–a deeply sinful man yet God grants me these incredible demonstrations of Who He is

    The first two I simply asked in prayer to know, first Jesus and then His Holy Mother, that they are real.

    The other times were a gift of just being in an Orthodox Temple at the appointed time.

    The spirit of the world still in me seeks to rob me of what has been so freely given in myriad ways. Yet, Jesus, His Mother and the Holy Spirit remind me to turn back to them and repent. Rejoicing in who they are and my unworthy communion with them. You, dear Father, are a great help in focusing my heart/mind on particulars. Thank you.

    If a selfish, self-absorbed, lazy sinner who talks too much such as I can be given such mercy (along with a beautiful, God filled wife) surely anyone else can. Shoot, there are times when even our dog reminds us to pray and waits with us until we are done. It is that particular. Even as we continue to struggle with the evil in our hearts and in the world.

    “This is the day the Lord has made! (this particular day). Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

  3. Father Stephen, I have two questions:

    1) What do you mean by “scandal”? In your post you interchange it with “stumbling block,” but I wondered at your emphasis of that word by placing it in the title. Is there something scandalous in how human beings can have a genuine experience of the particular but conceive of the general only in the abstract?

    2) Similarly, on page 60 in your book can you amplify what you mean by:

    “Another person can be my entry into Paradise, or just as clearly my entry into Hades (and both in a far deeper sense than the merely mortal).”

    I don’t intend either question to be argumentative or critical but to help me make sure I understand what you are saying. The quotation from your book on its own is a plain, declarative statement, but within the paragraph and chapter I am less certain what it means.

    Thank you.

  4. This is so wonderful, Father! I’ve come to despise the generic god of the modern world. But it is not always easy to communicate the particularity of God in a loving manner. I welcome more on this subject, should you care to write more.

  5. In the Greek Orthodox tradition Mary the Theotokos often appears in icons that are particular in the quality of Mary they invoke. There is the Theotokos “who hears and comes quickly.” There is the Theotokos who is the Liberator. And so on and so forth. And each one also has particularities in which the icon is said to be effective: the “Theotokos Liberator” is said to be helpful when women are bearing children, but also became the name of a newly-built Church after liberation from the Nazi Occupation of Greece. The interesting thing about them is that they somehow reflect a kind of organic and dynamic growth in which the faith expresses itself and extends itself — and of course specifically our experience of the Theotokos and praying with her!

    Now in terms of your article, one would expect (in our colloquial version of “logic”) that such particularities are limiting, but in fact they work in just the opposite way: they open up both understanding and imagination and future possibilities as well. They are effectively revelation in a sense, they teach us and form a dynamic relationship and experience.

  6. Mark,
    Good questions. “Skandalon” (scandal) is the Greek word that is translated, “stumbling block.” And, I am playing off the classical problem that is called the “scandal of particularlity” – regarding Christ. The problem that is called the “scandal of particularity” is the claim of Christians that salvation is only found in Christ (and in no other). Of course, it is true to say that salvation is only found in Christ because the very definition of salvation is to be in communion with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. The “problem” is that this rules out some sort of “generic” salvation as in: “going to heaven.”

    Say more about your questions viz. the book. I’ll try to clarify.

  7. Janine,
    I suspect it’s because we only ever know anything in particular – never in general. Even in the Old Testament, it’s not just “God,” that is encountered, but the various names (“God provides,” etc.).

  8. This is one of those essays that resonate at many levels and will continue to resonate. It is sometimes wonderful and sometimes a bit disturbing to have some inarticulate belief (not sure if belief is the best word) articulated so clearly.

  9. Thank you for this. It strikes me as ironic that as there is more and more effort about claiming/naming one’s own identity, it is accompanied by the drive/drivel to make God more generic, i.e., reduce His specific attributes that make His “identity”. As I write this, I realize this is precisely the dynamic intended and at play in modernity.

  10. Fr. Stephen, your blessing – and thank you for the article.
    I wonder if another reason for the scandal of particularity at this moment is the expanding global consciousness. The pandemic forced many people to work from home and spend more time connected to the internet (what we used to call the “world wide web”). This afforded an increased exposure to cultures and religious traditions other than Christian. Spiritual teachers from across the globe were making their appeals directly to people in their homes, in private, where people feel more comfortable “being themselves” and freer to consider ideas they may not otherwise have considered. These teachers are often articulate and seemingly loving souls. They seem rather more holy than many people we know. But even if they weren’t those things, the messages they offer represent major and ancient religious/philosophical traditions. They are reminding people of things the mystics have always said, like, God is not an object; therefore the particular becomes problematic. Such an influx of compelling ideas is causing folks, I think, to view religious particularity (along with its concomitant exclusivity) with scorn, as a parochial and outmoded approach, in the light of a new globally connected society. A less particular more general approach seems appealing right now – in a way that it never could have before this wide exposure to the general population of the planet. It seems we are no longer merely local.
    And yet, without the particular, one tends to float away.
    Many thanks,
    Owen

  11. Owen,
    This is something that’s gone on for a very long time – as someone noted – I wrote about it in my book which came out in 2010. Modernity (and its drive towards globalism) has been going on for a long time, too. For the younger generations, though, the present stuff (including the pandemic) have had their own strange effects, no doubt.

    I think that we avoid the particularity of God for two primary reasons: first, the various false claims made about God that drive us to find some sort of boundary to protect ourselves, and, second, our own avoidance of the truly particular God in that only God-in-particular can make any demands of me.

  12. It strikes me as ironic that as there is more and more effort about claiming/naming one’s own identity, it is accompanied by the drive/drivel to make God more generic, i.e., reduce His specific attributes that make His “identity”

    SMS, Identity politics and philosophies require that the individual be the primary identity. All others, including God, must be subservient. I recall a monk saying that the most difficult thing new monks must learn in a monastery is obedience. We are not an obedient people.

  13. Thank you so much for producing your blog Father Stephen. You are a blessings to the Orthodox nation. Your message today helps bring us back to the Particular. Thank you again

  14. Thank you, Father, I appreciate your words. As global awareness grows, may God grow our wisdom as well.

  15. Also Father, what you wrote struck me as profound:

    “false claims made about God […] drive us to find some sort of boundary to protect ourselves”

    This strikes me immediately as true!

  16. It just struck me that the Scandal also applies to the Eucharist does ot not. We Orthodox partake of His Body and His Blood in the Bread and the Wine.
    In the Sacrament of Penance I personally talk to a priest who is blessing and protecting me with his presence and his consecrated Stole, etc. Each Sacrament is only possible because of both who God is, personally and who I am. Yet each encounter fosters communion with others.

    It is not to be confused with me owning or possessing God in some way.

    Am I wrong?

  17. Father,
    Who, specifically, is the Particularity which makes God known to us in our personal, particular life? How does acceptance of the ultimate Particularity make someone a true human being?

  18. Was just reading an article from Every Thought Captive discussing the general vs the particular with regards to our mission in the world that seemed relevant:

    “Only when we shed ideology can we actively love others without bias. Parties and factions do not comprise society, persons do…We are also limited by scale: just as we cannot love mankind in general, only a man, we cannot provide for society in general, only the person standing in front of us. So each must carefully discern how to act in ways that help individuals and families. For some, it may be through seeking a more just system in ways that do not contradict an ecclesial ethos. For most, it will be through personal generosity and ministry to those in need.

  19. Owen,
    An interesting thing about boundaries:

    We know boundaries between people in that they trigger shame (a healthy shame, normally). Healthy shame is the normal emotional signal for a boundary (it wakes us up, makes us aware, we even have a bit of an instinct to hide, slow down, be careful). For example, you walk into a room full of strangers (new class, new party, etc.). Your senses go on alert because you are surrounded with boundaries. How do I act? Am I ok? Do they like me? etc.

    With God (let’s call it an encounter with the Divine), that boundary alerts us with healthy shame as well. It can be a shame which elicits awe and wonder (both of which are shame responses, interestingly). It can be a shame that makes me want to hide, or to take off my shoes, to fall on my face and repent, etc.

    Look at how people respond to Christ in the gospels when, in one way or another, they realize, to some extent, Who He is. St. Peter tells Him, “Depart from me! I’m a sinful man!” at one point.

    How this encounter comes for us is quite varied.

    I don’t deny that peoples around the world have various encounters. And there is a conversation that can be that includes those experiences. What we do not have, however, is a “generic” God encounter. There’s no such thing. In the OT, there’s a lot of concern with, “What is Your Name?” The Holy Name is a very important particular aspect of God.

  20. Aaron,
    I can only answer as a witness: The God made known to us in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, is He Who Is, the One Whom Jesus named as, “My Father.” Jesus makes that a very particular claim – nothing generic about it. It is either so, or not so.

    How does acceptance of the God Who Is, the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, make someone a true human being (or reveals us in the truth of our who we are), is that the truth of our existence is in His image. Personhood is not generic – it’s quite particular as well. Revelations speaks of us as being “given a new name,” while St. John describes it as “seeing Him as He is,” and St. Paul describes it in terms of our life “hid with Christ in God.”

    There are lots of “identities” that we assume through the course of our lives – none of which are the truth of who we are – they’re more like costumes and such.

  21. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Osler

    I read a quote from Dr. Osler: “A good physician treats the disease. A great physician treats the person who has the disease. ”

    Another instance where particularity has become a scandal I think.

    My Dad always talked about thinking from the general to the specific when approaching a decision or a problem. A key aspect of his thought that made him such a good community health doctor.

  22. Father, thank you for your reply. Oh yes, thanks for reminding me about the Old Testament names! “The God who sees!” I’ve been listening to the Ancient Faith podcasts called Lord of Spirits in which they discuss the Second Temple literature which began to discern more than one Person who was God through those different names. It just becomes more intriguing to think about, doesn’t it?
    This is such an interesting discussion in all the comments

    Byron, thank you kindly

  23. Father Stephen,

    I appreciate your explanation about “scandal.” As far as the passage from your book, it concludes the chapter (“The Shape of a One-Storey Universe”) that focuses primarily on modernity’s loss of the referential character of the world. The full paragraph reads as follows:

    “The world and all that is in it is given to us as icon, not because it has no value in itself, but because the value it has in itself is the gift of God–and this is seen in its iconicity. Another person can be my entry into Paradise, or just as clearly my entry into Hades (and both in a far deeper sense than the merely mortal). Love alone reveals things for what they are and transforms them into what they were always intended to be. Love alone reveals the true shape of the universe.”

    I would like to understand the sentence beginning “Another person…” because it seems a sublime thought, but I’m not sure I do–at least in the context of the larger subject being discussed there.

    Thanks again.

  24. Mark,
    If we love another – it (they) are a gate to paradise. If, however, we hate another, they become a gate to hell (Hades). I’m not thinking in this case of eternal hell-fire (that’s another matter, I think). But hatred (anger, bitterness, envy, etc.) distort how we see and relate to someone else. We turn them into our tormenters (whether they know it or not). So, Christ commands us to love and forgive even our enemies. Of course, the soul often needs lots of healing before it can actually do that – so we pray, “Lord, have mercy.”

    That’s the simplest way to think about this.

  25. What a remarkable discussion.

    Father, what I hear you saying here is that, by putting things in God’s hands(I am imagining what seems like an impossible love made possible through prayer), we actually have tremendous “agency” and what we might call power. Really through our choices to open to grace in this way. Hope that makes sense.

    For me, I guess, the way to learn love, or how to love, is in handing things to God.

  26. You will offend your friends and family – for the acceptance of the Particular casts judgment on the general whether it is uttered or not. 

    Father this is so true. The stumbling block for non Christians is to accept God as a “particular” person, with whom one can have a personal relationship. Furthermore to call Him Father, as children of God, despite our moral failures and sins.

    By the prayers of our spiritual fathers, may God give us grace and help us walk the path of His commandments, so we never get to hear the dreadful words, “ I know you not” (Matth 25).

  27. Father,
    Is acceptance of the Particular God about rational acceptance of a specific, Particular God (i.e., accepting particular beliefs ABOUT God within a particular Church) or more about knowledge OF God as the Particular yet Transcendent God, experienced by the Holy Spirit? Because one could argue that other Christian faith denominations also “accept” the Particular God-man, Christ. Likewise, many people outside the Orthodox Church would argue that they have genuine experiences of the Particular God. It’s an interesting question to ponder.

    Do you also see this connected to the essence/energies distinction in that the Transcendent One is experiential known in Particular by His energies?

    In terms of personhood, it’s still unclear how acceptance of the Particular God makes one a Person. I don’t see how one’s personhood ever changes. Rather, it seems that personhood is more of a process of revelation and transformation which comes about through the experiential participation in the energies of the Particular God.

  28. Aaron,
    I’m not specifically referring to rational acceptance of a Particular God, per se, but if rational acceptance (beliefs about) is all someone has, then it still requires wrestling with the demands of a Particular God (there is no generic “God”). But, I’m not assuming that rational acceptance is all one has.

    As to those who are not Orthodox – I do not see any of this as a matter that sets Orthodox belief apart from other Christians (necessarily). I have no doubt that, as St. Augustine said, “There are some whom God has whom the Church has not, and there are some whom the Church has whom God has not.”

    It’s mostly a matter of pondering what it means that God is transcendently particular. It’s certainly true that the essence/energies distinction could be pondered in all of this – but I’m not entirely sure what benefit it would bring.

    As to personhood. The fullness of what it means to be a person (in the theological sense) is something that unfolds. “It does not yet appear what we shall be…” St. John says.

  29. Aaron, thank you. I am not sure how but in pondering your question, which I still do not understand well, I was reinvigorated. This morning i was feeling separated a bit from our God. Then as I read and reread your question my heart awoke in joy at His presence.

    I have been pondering the words of an old Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead” lately. Your question reminder me of one particular verse: “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works in vain but them the Holy Spirit revives my soul again…. There is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”

    I have been singing that song since I first heard it in high school from listening to it on some old acetate 78 rpm records of my mother’s she bought in the 1920s.
    … and remember, the Holy Spirit is a particular Person too. I say that as much to remind myself as anything.

    May the joy of the Lord be with you.

  30. Father,
    Thank you for your sincere reply. I find the topic of essence/energies helpful in pondering all of this. The Transcendent God can easily become just a “generic” God until one comes to know the personal, Particular God by experiential participation in the divine energies. This is a true knowing which far surpasses all rational beliefs about God. Beliefs themselves will never bring us into a real relationship with the Particular God or to knowledge or our particular Person. Only experiential participation in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit can do that. Through this unfolding participation, we come to know the Particular God and ourself. The two are not separate, but rather interconnected aspects of the same spiritual path. This deeply-personal knowledge is a conscious agreeance to participate in and with the Particular yet Transcendent God, by which He reveals Himself to us, transforms us, and makes us whole, integrated Persons.

    Michael,
    Your words struck a chord in my soul and brought tears to my eyes, transporting me instantaneously to the days of my youth when my dad would take us in our “Sunday best” to the local Lutheran Church where we would sing that beautiful hymn. It brings to remembrance a conscious recollection that God is indeed not generic, but Particular in the utmost and ever near to us and in us. It seems much of our life is a process of waking up to this ultimate Reality and then agreeing to actively participate in and with Him to His glory. May God grant us the wisdom to be present to His Presence.

  31. Father,
    I’ve heard an Orthodox priest say that the ‘Protestant’ Jesus is not the same Jesus that the Orthodox worship. Because of my own experience, which I only will describe briefly here, I tend to agree with him.

    I was told as a child in a Sunday school that Jesus will come to take you to heaven when you die. When I was on death’s door as a teenager, the ‘white’ male, blue-eyed Jesus (how he was depicted in the pictures I was shown as a child) whom I was taught would come was nowhere in sight. Instead, Jesus was in the hands of an African American man, a truck driver who helped my family and me in our fatal car accident. I survived. In the darkest moments, as I was bleeding and losing consciousness, I faced my mortality calmly as I was ‘visited’ by a presence in the darkness. I knew the presence to be God, but due to what I had been taught, I was unable to recognize Jesus. This experience began my path to the real Jesus. Although at the time, I didn’t know it.

    Such stories told by an Orthodox to any non-Orthodox Christian (or non-Christian for that matter) would likely seem like some sort of tribalism, ungracious, or just plain crazy. But it is more than just ‘my story’ or my opinion. As far as I know, it is the objective all abiding truth. And sometimes, for me, it is a truth that brings tears to my eyes when I want I share this reality with a loved one.

    In my daily life, I am mostly silent about my life in Christ. To say aloud what I say here would fall on deaf ears. And most would take this to be ornery and contentious.

    Father, I know you have been a hospice chaplain and have seen many non-Orthodox in their last moments, and I trust your perceptions when you say you believe Christ received them. And I also believe that there are Orthodox who haven’t yet learned what it is to be a Christian. And I believe some are not Christians who will be received in the Kingdom of God (because they fed Him, visited Him in Prison, and tended His wounds…).

    Dear Father, I ask for your prayers.

  32. I believe that the comments of Dee of St. Herman’s echo those of Father Thomas Hopco (of blessed memory) I can remember him saying almost the same thing about those who minister to Christ in ‘the least of these’.

  33. Dee, may the Joy of the Lord be with you.

    Someone comes to everyone as they die. It may be their Guardian Angel as in my late wife’s case or Jesus Himself. It was evident to me that her angel was praying for her/with her much as we humans were.
    The angel looked much like their icons except more real somehow.

  34. Dee,
    In my experience, people are all over the map (including the Orthodox), with a wide variety of experiences. I am careful not to judge more than is necessary. Orthodoxy does not claim to be the only way to experience or know God. It is the Church which Christ founded, and holds the faith intact for all of us. It, of course, depends on us to be faithful to what is given to us. The heart is the most essential thing about us all. Christ talks about someone bring “good treasure” out of a “good heart.” It’s not the same depth, by any means, and heterodox groups can certainly bring heterodox thoughts and expectations to things. But, I’ve seen plenty of oddities in people who are Orthodox as well. Fortunately, God is good and His mercy is ever-lasting.

  35. Indeed, Father, putting it nicely in your words, I’ve seen some oddities among the Orthodox as well. Although I’ll admit my failing, that I might judge when I should not.

  36. Thanks, Father, for the interesting thoughts about boundaries and shame.
    From what you say, it sounds like boundaries are “meant to be broken.” That is, the goal is doing away with boundaries, inasmuch as the goal is overcoming shame. If boundaries trigger shame, then erasing the former heals the latter. Is that fair to say? If so, I suppose this begins by realizing an unbounded relation in God – with Christ as prototype. In other words, union with God, in love, tends to dissolve the bounded identity of the sheer individual: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ…”
    It’s that pesky “self” that impedes the flow of Love. God is Love! Thank God for the death of the Cross. +

  37. Owen,
    Decidedly not. Healthy shame is not bad – indeed- it is good, necessary and healthy. So, boundaries are good, as well. The shame that is destructive can be labeled as “toxic shame.”

    We never lose our identity in God. The self does not disappear. St. Paul is speaking of a paradox – that we lose ourselves in Christ that we might find ourselves in Christ. We lose the false self, and find the true self (which is the self conformed to the image of Christ).

    I hope I haven’t caused any confusion.

  38. Yet another particular: marriage. Today is Merry’s and my 13th wedding anniversary. It is 86 years since my parents were married (in the midst of The Depression). The Dust Bowl was still active here in Kansas and they got caught in a dust storm on their honeymoon.

    I observed our priest and his Khouria standing next to each other in Coffee Hour yesterday. Two things struck me–how remarkably comfortable they are with each other and how much they resemble each other. This year is their 44th year as husband and wife.
    “… and the two shall become one flesh.. ”

    Yet each marriage is so particular while the secular culture first homogenized it, devalued it and now tries to resurrect it as an idol. The ideology of egalitarianism.

    Yet, marriage continues and is an avenue for working out our salvation in repentance, joy, love and mutual sacrifice in ways that are particular to Merry and me. God is good.

  39. Thank you for clarifying Father. It is a clear difference in Orthodox Christianity compared to other forms of Christianity, Eastern mysticism and even secularism. We maintain our particularity in Christ but are transformed by His Grace and Mercy. That is also revealed in the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in whom there are distinct boundaries but still One God.

    I am not sure that such seeming paradox can be grasped without some sort of ontological encounter that is deeper than reason alone. Reductionism seems to be a great temptation.

    It has certainly had quite a stultifying effect on my life.

    Still, God is merciful.

  40. Michael,
    I hope you and Merry have a blessed wedding anniversary. May the good Lord continue to bless you both abundantly with His loving kindness and mercy.

  41. Amdrew. thank you. By the Grace of God, every day is an adventure especially as we age and get more and more creeky.

  42. Father, I am sensing a connection between the particular and the Fullness of the Christ in the Church and in each of our hearts. I cannot really articulate what that connection is but I know there is one. Maybe it can only be expressed in hymns and worship?

  43. Father, you wrote:
    We never lose our identity in God. The self does not disappear. St. Paul is speaking of a paradox – that we lose ourselves in Christ that we might find ourselves in Christ. We lose the false self, and find the true self (which is the self conformed to the image of Christ).
    Thank you for this; I have tried to explain it and my small experience of it to others, but it seems impossible. And then we have to wrap our heads around how that “true self” actually functions within a community also without losing particularity … well, I guess that is the stuff of God! Would you say that community is also particular? (Hmm I must be going down some sort of rabbit hole)

    Michael Bauman, congratulations on your wedding anniversary and may the next year be the most blessed ever. Thanks for your thoughts on marriage too.

    Thanks to all for helpful comments

  44. Janine,
    When we think of these things (not losing our identity) – the model is the Holy Trinity. Just as the three Persons of the Trinity are eternally, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so we are also eternal who we are in the fullness of our personhood. To lose ourselves (to disappear) would be the opposite of the Christian gospel.

  45. Thanks for your reply Father. It is awesome to consider.

    But I was thinking about how much this makes sense in terms of the saints. They serve God with whole heart, and yet each seems to become more dynamic in their own “particular” through holiness

  46. Father, what a saying: “To lose ourselves (to disappear) would be the opposite of the Christian Gospel.”

    Beautifully put.

  47. Father,
    As this conversation hovers on classical Christianity (the particulars of the “scandal”) and what that means and how that is manifested in our lives, I have some thoughts about Hauerwas. I really haven’t read his work extensively, only a few essays. But whenever I have read his essays, it seems he puts forward what seems to me to be an Orthodox view of modernism and current conditions. Although I know he’s not Orthodox. I wonder, has he ever reflected on Orthodoxy or Orthodox theology? Has he ever studied or spoken on this subject in his essays or lectures? I’ve done a very quick look on the web but not really finding much of an answer. In the process, however, I did find a website that claims its participant writers are adherents of mere “Orthodoxy.” The participants don’t seem to have an affiliation with the Orthodox Church (nor seem to be involved with Orthodox practices per se). But they do appear to consider themselves Christian. I’m admittedly perplexed. Sometimes things get pretty complicated. Nomenclature appears to be all over the place. What does the word Orthodoxy mean when it seems just about anyone can make a claim it describes them? Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word anymore.

    Father, is Orthodoxy as broad as this? Or is this some sort of appropriation? When I speak of ‘Orthodoxy’ among Christians across confessions, should I be adding some sort of reference that I’m speaking specifically of practices/theology of the Orthodox Church? Does it seem churlish of me to want to draw a clear line? Or is such a line only imaginary and meaningless?

    I hope these questions are relevant to your article. I suppose this comment shows I’m struggling with this. Someone I love lumps the Orthodox Church with all other churches. And I keep wanting to demonstrate that this isn’t the case. In the process, I wonder whether I go too far. I never say the Orthodox Church is “better”, just that it’s the real Church. But since this is the claim of other confessions, it makes my words seem pretty meaningless and pointless.

  48. And then I found “paleo-orthodoxy”– the Wikipedia blurb suggests this organization promotes the “essentials of Christian theology” of the “Great Church” before the 1054 schism. Implying that the Orthodox Church is but another derivative among others.

    I’m not trying to argue with or persuade a Protestant or denigrate a Protestant movement. I know that such arguments don’t go anywhere pretty fast. But in a conversation with an agnostic with no particular association with Christianity, I have held some hope that I might be able to present ‘facts’ rather than just another opinion about the Orthodox Church. Sometimes it seems any attempt I’ve made to lay out the distinction of the history, its relation to Christ, or the continuity of the Orthodox Church is completely fruitless. It seems all self-professed Christians make such claims and insist on the veracity of their claims.

    As far as I know, I’m left with only this witness, my silence, and the life I live.

    Father, as always, I welcome your words for correction.

  49. Michael and Mary, a belated Many Years to you both!

    When I speak of ‘Orthodoxy’ among Christians across confessions, should I be adding some sort of reference that I’m speaking specifically of practices/theology of the Orthodox Church?

    Dee, I think doing this in a non-triumphal manner is always a good practice.

    As far as I know, I’m left with only this witness, my silence, and the life I live.

    These things have more impact than we likely realize. Count them as good and provide explanation when asked. Sometimes it’s all we can do!

    Paleo-orthodoxy

    I hadn’t heard of this prior to now but it appears to be yet another Protestant movement. In this case, they may be moving in the proper direction (towards the Orthodox Church) although it also seems reductionist. Generally speaking, I would simply leave it alone. God will make of it what He will. The confusions of the world are sometimes best ignored, to a certain extent.

    Overall, simply allow for opportunity to explain the beauty of the faith to others, when they are open to it. Just my thoughts….

  50. Dee,

    Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I was listening this morning to this video in which Fr. Hopko discusses how the Orthodox Church differs from the Protestant in terms of worship:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bTFrB7atNM

    I come from a Protestant background and have been going to the Divine Liturgy only since February. What I would say based on my own experience is to quote one of Fr. Hopko’s maxims: “Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.” For me at least, I have wanted to be persuaded and have looked for understanding of those parts of Orthodoxy that differ from what I am used to and have believed.

    Fr. Stephen used the phrase “stumbling block” earlier, and that is a good visualization. Something in the path that I wish to take trips me up. To extend the image, if you were to try to drag a burro (me) past the stumbling block, I might dig my hooves in and resist, but pointing out the way around or otherwise offering reassurance and gentle guidance might help me overcome my reluctance.

    Ultimately, you can do only so much because the burro (my free will) is stronger than your ability to influence me–especially if you have no other means to do so but your words. I must (of my own or perhaps by praying for the Spirit to guide me) desire what lies down the way past the stumbling block sufficient to its overcoming.

    Continuing the personal example, icons are something that (unsurprisingly) my Protestantism has caused me difficulty. And so I read Fr. Stephen because I have wanted to be persuaded about them.

    In short, I second what Byron just wrote.

  51. Dee,
    Hauerwas is a Protestant – but a very odd bird as Protestants go. He has many things that he’s drawn from classical Roman Catholic thought, and has clear influences from certain elements of Anabaptist thought (Mennonite). He’s been a Methodist, though I think, at present, he attends an Episcopal Church. He doesn’t fit well within normal Church boundaries, though he teaches very strongly about the importance of Church.

    I studied under him in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I was in the doctoral program at Duke. I often argued with him, but found myself often helped by his clarity of thought. He is not Orthodox (in the Church sense), but I think his ideas would be much better and healthier were they taught within the boundaries of the Orthodox Church. At least that was my conclusion at the time.

    Obviously, I “gather honey” from whatever flowers seem sweet, and have found not a few of them to be helpful. I don’t recommend it for everyone – inasmuch as they might easily draw the conclusion that all flowers are equal (and they’re not).

    I think one of the problems with thinking about Orthodoxy in the context of other Christian groups – is to think of it as a unique and special set of ideas. Most Orthodox books on the topic (like Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s Orthodox and Heterodoxy) tend to focus on these things. It is, in many ways, an importing of a Protestant way of thinking into the problem of “what is Church.”

    Orthodoxy is not, strictly speaking, a set of ideas, though we clearly have ideas and speak of an “Orthodox mind.” The primary meaning of the word, “Orthodoxy,” is “right worship.” The ideas are part of that worship, but “right worship,” is also “worship in the one community founded by Christ, in communion with the Apostles and in continuity with that Church throughout the ages…” It’s a way that reminds us that the “ideas” of Orthodoxy, if removed from that worshipping community, will eventually come to mean something else, something other.

    Among Protestants (and others), there is a drive or movement to describe a kind of Christianity that is not particularly marked by their denominationalism, but still faithful to the general content of early Christian teaching. CS Lewis described it as “mere Christianity.” Others might use a term like “paleo-Orthodoxy.” They steer clear of actual, historical Orthodoxy, because, in point of fact, they are uncertain about icons, veneration of the saints, and such, and want to maintain a certain “minimal Protestantism” in that regard. They are obviously ignoring the fact that the doctrines and teachings of those years of “paleo-Orthodoxy” always included things like veneration of saints and icons, etc. But…that’s what it is.

    In many ways, we could simply describe these folks as “conservative Christians.” Another common term is “the Confessing Church movement.” They are Protestants who clearly understand that the so-called “liberals” of their denominations are wrong, and they are working to resist them.

    I’ve always thought of them as “allies” in some manner or other, under the heading of, “those who are not against us are for us.” I would have once numbered myself among them. But, of course, I came to find that it was insufficient. Orthodoxy ultimately requires the Church in order to be truly Orthodox. But, I continue to think it wise not to make enemies where I might make friends.

    Because Protestantism, more than anything, destroyed the doctrine of the Church (that is, “ecclesiology”), it is the last and most difficult thing to deal with (for them). If they can be “orthodox” without being “Orthodox” that would please them. But, that leaves their first heresy unattended. But, because it is their last great temptation, it is the most difficult. Obviously, with so many of us as converts from that background, God is overcoming even this last great temptation. I try to practice patience, generosity, and kindness, understanding how difficult it is for them.

    We are midwives in this process. God give us grace!

  52. “Orthodoxy as a set of ideas” has never appealed to me. Sets of ideas, no matter how noble, always deteriorate into ideology which is a kind of idolatry. “Mystical experience” alone because it can be demonic in origin.

    The theology, practice and experience of the Church are a trinity. They are distinct but cannot be separated. Each reveals and enlivens the others.

    The practices of the Church, by God’s grace and mercy, through the Holy Spirit, lead one into the presence of our Lord, God and Savior, i.e into a foretaste of the Kingdom. But, that experience is bounded and properly explained by our theology and our theology is understood through the experience and practice.

    The hierarchical structure of the Church is also critical–thus the importance of our confessor and an experienced and empowered spiritual guide (usually a priest or monastic). to whom we submit all the fears, joys, successes, failures and struggles and then listen.

    Here is, I think, the beginning of living in community learning the virtues of the embodied spiritual life. Contrition, Joy and healing begin to be evident

    The world, internal and external, always interferes.

    I have found going back to basics always helps. Attending the Divine Liturgy, offering up my sins in the Sacrament of Confession; forgiving my brothers and sisters, prayer, fasting and alms giving. Each is a way to reach for the Joy present in the Living image og God in each of our hearts.

    Forgive me, a sinner and may the Joy of our Lord be with each of you in the particular way that He has crafted for you.

  53. Mark, you have a wonderful journey ahead of you, although it may not seem so wonderful at times.

    The best approach to icons I have experienced is to not really look at the icon as an object so much but to open my heart to the person depicted. Reaching out to them, honoring them for their particular witness to the Truth.

    It is easy to look at an icon as a “thing in itself”. No icon is that Some of the people I do not connect with as easily as others. Some, warm my heart — especially Mary, the Theotokos and St. Raphael of Brooklyn. There are several others.

    My wife connects with people I do not. Still they are all worthy of veneration for their on going lives in Christ.

    The people are real, The angels are real. I have to remind myself sometimes but they are real.

    Thank you for your honesty in sharing — it reminded me how real they are. May the prayers of the Holy Theotokos and St. Raphael be with you and strengthen you.

  54. I’m grateful for your responses, Byron, Mark, and Father Stephen.

    My personal history is sufficiently different that I can say the most significant stumbling block into Orthodoxy for me was Christ Himself. When I encountered that turning point when I knew I had to face the reality of Christ, Protestantism was not on the radar. Walking into Orthodoxy wasn’t a walk from another church that I wanted to escape from or felt dissatisfaction in. With great trepidation and fear, it was simply a walk to Christ.

    Mark, it is with some irony that I will admit that the attraction to Orthodox Church rather than the Catholic Church was its theology of iconography. Of all things, that’s what I understood first. They were the bread crumbs that our Lord used to lure me in.

    I’ve been a chemist much longer than I’ve been a Christian. Chemists need their ‘icons’ to learn and lean into a world and even commune with that world that cannot be seen. Chemical icons point and provide a keen sense of the lived, deep reality. Do chemists kiss their icons? Well, I haven’t seen that, actually. But I have kissed a picture of my deceased daughter. Kissing Orthodox icons wasn’t that different or difficult for me. Although I’ll admit, I was a little self-conscious about it at first. (Generally, before I became an Orthodox Christian, I didn’t kiss anything or anyone in public).

    If I should offer any advice to a Protestant considering entering the Orthodox Church, I would suggest to not rush it.

    Father, Byron, I’m not in any discourse with Protestants when I raise the issues I’ve raised in my comments earlier. (Although I acknowledge Protestants read this blog). The loved one I refer to is not Protestant nor a former Protestant. He looks upon all of Christianity from the outside as I once did. (And perhaps this point I raise is relevant to any reader who might read this blog who is not Protestant) All he’s grasped is that I “got religion” (like some sort of virus but not completely crippling). But at least I’m still reasonably functional. In retrospect, I don’t know what might have happened if there had not been an Orthodox Church nearby. I might have remained the way I was, and just read Orthodox theology, of the Orthodox Church.

  55. Hi Michael,

    Thank you for your kind encouragement.

    Dee,

    The example of your daughter hits home with me and is virtually identical to what I have offered to beloved and devout Protestant family members concerned about the direction I’ve taken.

    What you brought from your experience in chemistry may be less personally relatable for me, but I think it shows that–even in our human commonality–God can still reach each of us in a particular, tailored way.

  56. Mark,
    I always “liked” icons – and had a few in my home. I didn’t know what to “do” with them other than to like them. I liked them because a certain quality they carried that I never saw in our Western art forms. I suppose it was their “mystical” quality – as if the artist knew something about the subjects in the icon that I didn’t. So, I liked them.

    Then, as things turned out, I wound up writing on the theology of icons when I did my thesis at Duke. It was a total immersion in the theology of the icon and expounding on it. Indeed, the notion of the veneration of icons was an absolute and key element in what I wrote.

    But, strangely, I was still an Anglican when I wrote that, and had did and did not participate in the veneration of icons. That did not come until a few years later. But, when I was defending my thesis, Hauerwas was on my examining committee. He asked me, “Do you believe the veneration of icons to be necessary to salvation?” I answered (after I recovered from the shock of the question itself), “I believe it to be necessary to its fullness.” It was an instinctive answer, one that I had never pondered nor spoken before. I think that it was in that “confession” of faith that I suddenly realized that I would actually have to become Orthodox – that I could no longer remain where I was. It took a few years – but it happened.

    It was as I was visiting Orthodox services that I first began to actually venerate icons – and I realized that their veneration was not just about kissing them and such – it was allowing them to be so profoundly present in the intimacy of the space in which we worship. It simply changes the space, and changes us in the space. How we actually treat the icon (kissing and such) is less important than how we regard their presence. As we welcome them, they welcome us, and usher us into the heavenly abodes.

  57. and I realized that their veneration was not just about kissing them and such – it was allowing them to be so profoundly present in the intimacy of the space in which we worship. It simply changes the space, and changes us in the space. How we actually treat the icon (kissing and such) is less important than how we regard their presence. As we welcome them, they welcome us, and usher us into the heavenly abodes.

    Amen

  58. Fr. Steven,

    Yes, your answer to that question instigated much of my pondering. Even after I began attending Divine Liturgy, I still held to Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” idea that going through one of the doors is more important than which door one chooses. Fundamentally, I still believe that, but an invitation to experience salvation to the fullest…why would anyone decline?

  59. Father,
    I am still struggling with the idea of God as (a) particular. I suppose the reason for this struggle is I’ve been taught that God is not an object. That is, God is not a particular being among other particular beings, like a superbeing at the top of the class of beings. I’m not saying you believe this; it just seems to be implied in the notion of a particular God. However, if God is deemed Being itself, or the Ground of all being, then it seems God is not a particular object of existence at all, but rather the very subjectivity of existence itself.

    I am not talking here about the incarnate Word; we could speak of God the Father. Isn’t it just a metaphorical way of speaking to say, Our Father, who art in heaven? Personally, I do not believe God is in a place called heaven, “up there,” or anywhere else (and I don’t think you do either). If God did occupy a space/time/place, then God would be finite. Yet to refer to God as particular seems to imply that we could be separate from God, as stand-alone particulars occupying another space/time/place.

    If God is the transcendent Source of our being, infinite and eternal Being itself, how could we ever select God from among other things, picking God out as a particular? Indeed, the term part-icular seems to imply God is merely part of the whole. Do you think it would be advantageous to describe God as *universal* instead? And therefore, *made* particular in the Incarnation?

    Thanks for your patience,
    Owen

  60. I was on vacation and decided to watch a cable TV station of a televangelist preacher. There were shows with his family members, and some other pastors. One was a call-in show. They took a call from an elderly man very concerned about his niece who recently passed. She had a history of drug abuse and apparently not a “good” life. She had appeared to him somehow, possibly in a dream, asking him (my impression was that she begging him) to please pray for her. He wanted to know if it was right to pray for the dead. The people on the show told him that dead people don’t need and cannot use our prayers. I was dumbstruck with grief for the man and his niece, and it still upsets me to think about it. Where’s the mercy? Where’s the “economia”?
    I was grateful to be Orthodox. Thank you for the brilliant discussion on icons and the presence of the saints with us.

  61. Owen,
    Brilliant question and thoughts! It really goes to the heart of what I am saying.

    Note – I did not say that God is “a” particular – and for all the reasons you have noted. He is not a particular among particulars for He is One in a manner unlike anything. It’s for this reason that I used the term “transcendently particular.”

    You and I are only “relatively” particular – as in, unique examples of something of which there are billions. That being the case, when we first meet someone (and long after that), we “fill in the blanks” of many things about them based on our general knowledge of other human beings. They are just an example of the general thing we call “humans.” It’s never completely accurate, but we do it anyway. With enough experience and nuance, it works most of the time.

    But with God, we have no experience of the “general” that may be “fitted” to Him. Not even when we speak of “being,” in that He is not Being in the sense that we have being. He is “hyper-ousios” (beyond-all-being) in the language of the Fathers.

    In that He is beyond and unlike – truly transcendent – I described Him as “particular” (but “transcendently particular”). He is not one of a number – but one whose “One” is not even like the number one. And so, when I approach Him – I must approach only Him – not in general but utterly and totally personally – and, even then, knowing Him is only as Gift.

    The problem, for me, with calling God “universal” would be in thinking, on that basis, that I know Him “in general.” The truth is that we do not know God “in general” and then meet Him in “particular” in the Incarnate Christ. We do not know God at all (no one has ever seen God – the Scripture says – and “no one knows the Father except for the Son”). What we have in Christ is a particular man (yes, as man, we can use such language of Him), but that particular man it turns out, is also the Only Begotten Son of the Eternal Father. Christ makes known to us the Only God – whom He calls, “Father.” Through Christ, we know Him. But, even then, we only know the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. There is no knowledge of the Father apart from the Son, etc.

    When we stand before God as “transcendently particular” – we stand in silence, confessing that we can know nothing except as it is given to us to know through the Son. It is this “scandal of particularity” that I’ve tried to describe – that there is nothing that we can say of God “in general,” but only what is made known to us through and in Christ.

  62. Ah yes, I think I’m tracking with you now, Father. If I’m reading you correctly, God is not known “generally,” in that God does not fall under any taxonomic category (in this case, genus) in which he shares common characteristics with others – as if the term “being” applied to God and creatures in precisely the same way.

    Concerning God and “being” – my own understanding is that creatures HAVE being, whereas God just IS Being. Our relation to God, in this understanding, is one of ontological participation. Creatures exist only insofar as they share in transcendent Existence, i.e., they have a gracious share in God’s life. In this view, God creatively “donates” existence to the creaturely universe as a gift (I believe you said this). God is the transcendent Ground of all existence.

    God conceived as “Being itself” accords well, I believe, with the notion that God is “beyond being.” The “beyond being” view is merely a philosophically imprecise way of saying that God is “beyond all beings.” It is possible in one sense to conceive the entire aggregate of beings in the universe as Being. If things are conceived in this way, then God must be conceived as beyond Being – i.e., as beyond the aggregate of all creaturely beings – i.e., as transcending any sense of the whole.

    It might even be rightly said, with a radical form of language, that God does not exist, or that God is no-thing. This is merely an apophatic way of separating God from all creaturely conceptions (evoking St. Dionysius the Areopagite). And it means the same thing as saying that God just is eternal, infinite, transcendent Being as such – the Ground of all contingent existence.

    Forgive me, all this is terribly philosophical and perhaps doesn’t accord well with the tenor of the blog. I appreciate your kind words and generous time, Father. These views are my own, and I hope I haven’t mischaracterized yours in any way. Would you tend to agree with this construal of things?

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