The Tangled Web

Sir Walter Scott (1808) famously wrote: “O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” A modern pundit has rephrased it: “Always tell the truth…it’s easier to remember.”

Lies inevitably create a web of false narratives. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for sin itself. Sin begets sin that begets sin and the web ensnares us into a world of un-truth. A single thread of a spider’s web is tiny and weak. However, the combination of hundreds of such threads works to effectively hold its prey.

The odd “nature” of evil is that it is nothing. Evil has no being. Only God can give anything the gift of being. All that God has created is, thus, inherently good in its nature. Evil, according to the Fathers, is a parasite, a distortion of the good, a mis-direction. Every lie shares this aspect of nothingness (it is even less than a strand of spider-silk). Nevertheless, lies, taken together, have a way of weaving a false reality.

If we pay attention to the web of lies through time, it becomes apparent that the “narrative reality” of our world is largely one of make-believe. Of course, if enough people believe the make-believe, it adds a greater heft to the “nothingness” around us (as paradoxical as that might be). As much as our lives are caught-up in the narrative reality of our culture, we struggle like flies caught in a spider’s web.

Fortunately, there’s a world of difference between a culture’s narrative-reality and the actual world itself. Trees do not lie. The ground does not lie. Spiders’ Webs do not lie. The rocks speak the truth. Of course, the narrative about these things can be as false as any lie. This distinction between the world-as-truth and the narrative-as-lie can be very helpful in thinking through the Christian life.

St. John wrote:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.(1 John 2:15–17)

When this statement is compared to John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that He gave His beloved Son…”) it is easy for some to become confused. “God so loves the world…” but “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him…” Which is it? The answer is found in the use of the word, “world,” for it’s doing double duty. In John 3:16, “world” refers to all the people of the earth. In 1 John 2, “world” is describing the “narrative-reality” and the somewhat demonic, unseen structures they create that govern our lives. Context is required.

The Epistle of St. James uses even stronger language than St. John in condemning the sinful “web-world”:

Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)

He is not addressing literal “adulterers and adulteresses.” Instead, he is declaring that our friendship with the dark powers and forces of the “world” and its false narratives draws us away from the singleness of our loyalty to God. We become spiritual adulterers. It is something that comes to mind when I hear voices that suggest that we should be in “dialog” with secularity – that the life and teaching of the Church should consider various accommodations to modernity (as a false narrative).

None of this suggests that we should live in fear, nor that we abandon the love of every human being. It is, instead, a reality check that calls us to understand the nature of what is around us, as well as the position of the gospel within it. Classically, we are taught to be “in the world” (in the best sense of the word), but not “of the world” (in the worst sense of the word).

The tangled web of lies that constitutes much of our culture has a way of drawing us from the love of Christ. For example, I have written repeatedly about the modern narrative of “making the world a better place.” It has been a slogan, in one form or another, of virtually every program of mass murder in modern history. I have written carefully about it because it is among the more pervasive and widely accepted lies in the web that binds us. It provides cover for vast amounts of human activity in which we imagine ourselves to be doing “good” – but do so by false measures and in the service of a false vision. We have never been commanded to “make the world better.” Only God knows what would constitute “better.” We are commanded to do “good,” as measured by the teachings of the gospel.

The flat truth of the matter is that the web of lies that surrounds us is not going to improve. Nowhere in the Scriptures is it suggested that this aspect of our lives and their context will change. Indeed, the Scriptures indicate that the trend is in the other direction:

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (2 Timothy 3:1–5)

These “perilous times,” it should be noted, are constituted by human behaviors. It is in the web of those behaviors, in the lies we tell ourselves and each other, that danger is present for our souls. Nothing about the world (the factual world of God’s creation) itself has changed. The trees, rocks, and everything around us remains good. It is a reason that I urge people to pay attention to what is close at hand, doing “the next good thing.” The things that are at a distance are, as often as not, relayed to us through false narratives, distorted. The “news,” for example, is almost never “news.” It is a story told to us with a purpose, and the purpose is always more than relaying information.

Christ did not, and has not abandoned us to the powers of this “world.” He gave us to one another in the fullness of the life of the Church. There, we are told to “speak the truth in love.” Few things could be more essential to the life of a Christian. We do not ask, “Where is my place in the narrative structures of this world?” There will come a day when everything that is not of the truth (born of God) will be swept away in its nothingness. Only that which has true being will remain. That will be the nature of judgment.

As we move towards the great feast of the Mother of God’s Falling Asleep (Dormition), this verse from her Akathist comes to mind:

Rejoice, O receiver of the Wisdom of God!
Rejoice, O treasury of His dispensation!
Rejoice, by whom philosophers are foiled!
Rejoice, by whom professors are taught!
Rejoice, though many minds are perplexed!
Rejoice, for many myths are destroyed!
Rejoice, by whom the Athenian webs are torn!
Rejoice, by who the fishermen’s nets are filled!
Rejoice, who draws us up from the gulf of ignorance!
Rejoice, who enlightens many by knowledge!
Rejoice, O ship of those seeking salvation!
Rejoice, O harbor of life’s travelers!
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride!

I close with these words of St. Paul – true then – true now:

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Eph 5:15-17)

101 comments:

  1. For my own sanity, I have begun to develope a practice, not very good at it yet, that when I hear, read or see behaviours or ideas that seem “wrong” somehow, I ask God for forgiveness.
    I have learned, a bit, that any wrongness or sin that attracts my attention or “interest” is likely because I have that sin in my heart.
    Mt 4:17 is my foundation: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
    It is often not pleasant — a bit like cleaning out the cess pit of an outhouse sometimes as my repentance some times reveals how much is hiding in my heart of darkness.

    But God is deeply merciful even in the midst of it all. Strangely, to me, Joy seems to be the fruit even as the world gets worse, that my sins help build, gets worse and worse.

    Yet there is also a response to the darkness that seems to be required from that Joy.

    I had a general physical yesterday to, mostly, chart the continuing degradation of my body. I was given a questionnaire, since I am over 65, that asked, among other things, if I wanted to die.
    Easy trap of fear to fall into.

    I told the doc that I understood the need for the question but that it did not apply to me because of my experience of God. But I did not fear death either.

    I have no idea if it penetrated or how far. But, I spoke the Truth — not “my truth” BTW but the Truth.

    God’s mercy endures forever.

  2. Oh my, Fr. Stephen, I needed these words today. If I listen to the world’s narratives, the media “news,” I feel as if I’m in a canoe in the middle of the Atlantic, tossed to and fro, driven by fierce winds and waves. Yet when I enter into our church , I am met with great calm. In fact, this calm comes when ever I simply close my eyes and am quiet. The heart knows stillness. Doing the next good thing, as you suggest, also brings peace and calm, centered as it is in reality. Going back to the canoe, our Church is also known as an ark. But, we also have the ship Queen Mary, as a refuge from the storm. As one of our prayers says, “After God, do we all run to you (the Theotokos) for help.”
    Again, Fr. Stephen, thank you for this ministry and for your words today, knowing that only One firmly and eternally holds the helm.

  3. I was in line for lunch at a restaurant yesterday and the young man in front of me had a t-shirt on that said in large letters, “Make the World a Better Place”. I winced but said nothing. The world of slogans is too shallow to do more than ignore.

  4. Hi Michael,

    Thank you for the suggestion you made about “distractions” and prayers the other day. I followed your advice the next time I prayed and, through prayer, gained a better way of responding to the person who was the source of my wandering thought. The situation was something I should have been praying for guidance about, instead of perceiving as interfering with my prayer. In retrospect, your advice makes perfect sense.

    As far as the “charting the continuing degradation of the body,” at least going for the physical helps guide you to not to accelerate wearing out the parts.

    A few years ago my 15-year-old dog died. When I took her in, the vet said she was “shutting down,” and all we could do for her was keep her hydrated. I remember looking into her face, she tried to wag her tail, and her eyes responded to mine. But raising her head was too much of an effort.

    So that seems like one way to think of our aging body: to remember all those years of service, realize that it can no longer do what we would like (but not from a lack of affection!), and treat it tenderly for all those past times we forgot to.

    Father Hopko advised, “Be merciful to yourself and others.” I was reminded of that when reading your description of your experience of repentance.

  5. Father if the media tells us we should be doing something, but an expert tells us differently. Who should we listen to in regards to our health? I have researched a lot concerning how the media ramped up a lot of fear over Covid. If you are as familiar with narcissists as I am you would understand that control for them makes no normal rational sense. They control because they like to control others. The problem for the Christian is that God and not narcissists needs to be in control of their lives. My prayer for the narcissists that I know, is that God will teach them that His position has already been filled. Our government is rife with narcissists. I have found no example of my situation in any of the information I have researched. I was exposed twice to Covid unmasked over a two year period, without being vaccinated. But I never tested positive, and I feel confident this was no miracle.

  6. Michael,
    In one of those physical/psych exams that our medicare dictates, the doctor asked, “Do you ever think you would be better off dead?” I answered, “I sure hope so.”

  7. Cliff,
    I have (and still do) avoided Covid conversations. The advice of our bishops has been useful to me, “Talk to your doctor.” I’ve built up a trusting relationship with my doctor and we had helpful conversations. I was exposed to Covid and got it. It was unpleasant, but not too bad. A cousin of mine died from it, as did a former subdeacon (and numerous friends around town and elsewhere). I don’t (and didn’t) think too much about it – particularly listening to the various narratives (both the government’s as well as private citizens’). Stay well, have a good relationship with your doctor. Something’s going to kill you, eventually, and it shouldn’t concern us too much, other than to provoke us to repentance.

  8. Father, all I know for sure is that my late wife IS better off dead by the Mercy of Christ. That is why I no longer fear death at all. Death itself does not even motivate me to repent—pain is sufficient. So I am, in a way, grateful for the chronic pain I experience–perhaps even blessed with. At its worse it is far less than what our Lord endured on the Cross and many martyrs that followed Him. There are even times when the pain is overpowered by Jesus’ mercy.

    As I have said many times before I have long been fond of Shakespeare’s words in Hamlet(forgive the repetition); “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it is not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”

    So many cares and worries seem to evaporate in the light of that wisdom. The question then becomes: How do I get ready?
    Mt 4:17 solved that problem for me. Now, I have to do it.
    May the Joy and Mercy of the Lord be with all covering all shame and fear.
    Father Bless!

  9. Too much time and energy have I wasted and fed the passions by being angry, frustrated and judgemental by the world wide web of lies and deceit. Then it dawned on me one day, well, what did you expect from the father of lies?

    Excellent article Fr. Stephen. Thank you.

  10. Andrew,
    When I was writing this article, there was an insistent tug that made me want to use the word “culture” where I was using “narrative reality.” It would have been a big mistake – and I probably should have said something about it. Much of our culture has been shaped by the narrative reality that is a pack of lies and will continue to be. But not all of our culture can be described in that way. Culture is not inherently evil. The “world” of culture is not synonymous with “world” as St. John or St. James use it in that negative manner.

    There is much that is wonderful, good, beautiful, true, etc. that are part of our cultural and our cultural inheritance. But it certainly has to be sifted these days. If I could point to a dominant problem it would be the power of money in the creating of the narrative reality.

    Interestingly, I publish my blog and post it on Facebook. It’s not the only place – and people can simply subscribe to the blog to get notice of new articles and comments, etc. I have nearly 5,000 “friends” on Facebook (near the limit) who are mostly people who “follow” me on account of the blog. But Facebook has its algorithms. As the blog grew in popularity, algorithms kicked in, and the posting of an article doesn’t necessarily end up in those 4,000 newsfeeds (in fact, it’s only a fraction of that). Facebook frequently tells me that if I would pay them “x” amount of money, they will see to it that it reaches “x” more people. But this is not a money-making venture and I could not afford that. It’s not advertising – it’s just a blog.

    But, money drives your Facebook feed. Your “news” isn’t news – it’s what money looks like when it’s flowing through your Facebook account. It’s the world seen through money. Look at Google results. Do a search and the first dozen or more hits are paid ads. On and on.

    We see politics as though it operated by votes, etc. But it operates through money – and those stories are buried. These are just tips of an iceberg that is almost everything going on. If you want to do research of a serious sort – you need grant money. Most likely, the grant money comes from someone who stands to make money. “Science” is, often enough, about generating profit, not generating knowledge. And so on it goes. The “lies” of our webbed culture are simply the stories we tell in order to generate money for someone. It’s an ancient story – but we’ve put the story on technological steroids.

  11. Fr. Stephen,
    you are right in saying that culture is not inherently evil; there is much that is beautiful and worthy of respect. The monetisation of almost everything is astounding, even babies have become commodities. Some strands of thought have, I think , convinced a lot of people that they are serving God and doing His will, when in fact they are serving mammon???

    It is good to keep in mind the world/world distinction of St. John and also the sarx/soma distinction of St. Paul, so as to avoid gnostic tendencies of seeing the creation/world/the body as being inherently evil.

  12. Father Stephen

    The verse “Rejoice, by whom philosophers are foiled! Rejoice, by whom professors are taught!” is profound and some translations from Greek are more literal:

    In GOARCH site (https://dcs.goarch.org/goa/dcs/dcs.html) it is translated as: Rejoice, who prove the philosophers wisdomless. Rejoice, who reprove the sophists as ridiculous.

    I have also seen a translation: Rejoice, thou who showest forth philosophers fools. Rejoice, thou who provest logicians illogical.

    I have always wondered who the 2nd part of the verse addresses, in Greek: Χαίρε τεχνολόγους αλόγους ελέγχουσα.

    “Τεχνολόγους” translates literally to the modern word “technologists”, which is not relevant. Etymologically it describes those who are involved in the art (techni) of the word (logos), I guess the grammar and composition of language. I am not sure if “logicians” or “sophists” captures this entirely.

    Could this mean that her mere presence in her silence, makes rational and eloquent thinkers incapable of rationalising the mystery of her virginity having given birth to the Godman Christ?

  13. Nikolaos,
    English cannot begin to capture the word-play in the Greek original, unfortunately. The most it can do, I suspect, is try to capture meanings. Again, the meaning is diminished in that it lacks the poetic force of the delightful contradictions in the Greek word-play.

    “Τεχνολόγους” is particularly difficult. The force of all of this is that her miraculous, virginal conception of the Logos, delightfully refutes all those who think of themselves as masters of “logoi” (words, thoughts, reason, etc.)

    But the original (St. Romanides the Melodist is the author) is just brilliant.

  14. Fr. Freeman,

    I just wanted to comment on the difference between “making the world a better place” and the idea of “expanding Eden”.

    “It provides cover for vast amounts of human activity in which we imagine ourselves to be doing “good” – but do so by false measures and in the service of a false vision. We have never been commanded to “make the world better.”

    I was thinking last night…. when we think of the fall rightly as a failure to become what we were meant to be versus the Western idea of maintaining perfection, it just sort of hit me, that Eden was to be expanded but after, once the job was done, it would return full circle to the Tree.

    The command to subdue the earth means for one, that the earth was not yet subdued. It was part of the vocation and is, for man. to expand Eden. To bring the world under the submission and loving rule/care of Yahweh was man’s duty but he failed. The Lord’s Prayer immediately comes to mind with “Thy Kingdom come.” (I don’t mean to say that we bring or that the Kingdom finds its origin in us but that we do expand it.) Babel is part what happens when human collectivity and desire to make utopia results not in Eden expanding, but a cult worship center God laughs at. The main failure of Israel for Paul was thinking that possessing the Law or being chosen was equivalent with keeping the Law, which would have included love for Gentiles, especially if Christ died for them – but in short, Israel failed to love, and Judaizers did as well, and this makes up the bulk of the NT – the response from Paul. They were to be a light to the Gentiles but largely were not, and every time Jesus brings this out it arouses the worst anger. And it is the failure in Acts not to leave Jerusalem. God gives us not a perfected/”fully reached its end world”, but one we steward, and if we do, we are invited to partake of the Tree of Life forever. But the refusal to move out and do what was expected in several key sins in Scripture (and key obedience points, where the opposite is done like with Abraham coming out of Ur, going into the Promised Land, leaving Jerusalem on the missionary endeavors) are the explanatory power for what becomes – not the expansion of Eden – but the stagnation of a people due to the refusal to “subdue the earth” under Yahweh (in large part, I know that wasn’t the only command). Capitalism (I’m not anti-capitalism just crapitalism) gets associated logically with the “creation mandate” in Protestantism due to their soteriology based on Original Sin but without their Original Perfection and reading the Bible a little better to realize Eden was a temple on a mountain, it would have been the expansion of the knowledge of God, not the justified/mandated exploitation of the gifts of God. Abraham’s faith is proven in that he actually left Ur, and when the promise is made to him to be crucial/necessary to what I believe can be called, a new expansion of Eden plan, he’s willing to kill his only son in faith that this expansion will proceed when there’s no logical way (other than Resurrection) for the plan to work. And he becomes the father of those of faith largely in these two activities; leaving Ur and having faith that the “illogical according to human standards” plan of God would proceed by the resurrection of his son. It’s often interesting how these things come out while I’m writing, and I apologize that I use the forum as a mental/spiritual exercise most of the time, but you start making connections. Its instantly obvious to me right now how the NT writers pick up on the faith of Abraham and why Western readers will miss it with their perfected Adam, perfected creation, and then Original Sin, and instead view Abraham in an Election/Predestination motif.

    So, the difference between say good missionary endeavors and social justice (based on rights but ignoring where rights come from and then failing to be persuasive) has the contrast of expansion of Eden versus man’s imaginations of what evolution or brute force will do and trying to get it done. I find it crazy to think that a person can claim to understand anything that is completely random (as the brain inevitably categorizes and arranges), luck on a scale mathematically we cannot fathom, choose where the luck of random evolution will lead, convince others they are right, and try for it now with a utopia. All of it being plans for immortality without God created by the fear of death and the demons’ desire to kill us. As you said, utopia makes for mass-murder, paraphrase. But then it makes me wonder, if the “narrative” I described is nothing more than occult activity guised as science and progress so that many will die in the inevitable failed attempt. You can’t herd people over a cliff without a good narrative.

    We aren’t commanded to make the world better as the world, in the sense of the Creation, yes it groans for the revealing of the sons of God, but in another sense there is nothing inherently bad about Creation. But we are commanded to expand the Edenic vision of God dwelling among His people, all peoples, in love, for their good, to reach their intended purpose of union/communion – to know God.

    One thing I try to convey to people when conversations get deeper is that there is no such thing as neutral knowledge. There is no “news”, there is commentary/opinion. Now, there really isn’t anything wrong with this except that it allows for deception. All knowledge acquisition, true or false, is a type of indoctrination. Indoctrination isn’t bad unless you’re being lied to, it’s the only way information works as all information is filtered through a bias no matter what. It’s more whether the presuppositions that are the filters are bad, and this is where most people are too lazy to go. If the presuppositions are bad, filters can be just as many selections, believing what you want to believe. Even here, this is not all bad, but is a liability because you might prefer a lie to the truth (just as random evolution might advantage you with lies (telling them, but also, not knowing when you’re lied to- to survive – what does random care about truth). And I believe the call to be, “wise as serpents”, means in a big way, to look for presuppositions because their compatibility with the world will usually be shown to be false quickly, and people won’t get duped for compatibility. The most obvious examples to me are the news and how people treat what has been redefined as religion. Instead of religion meaning worship it now means something akin to a “making the world a better place” fairy tale. “If it works for you….” But if you look for the presuppositions you understand quickly that Christian has no compatibility with other religions as you return to realizing we presuppose Christ to be Lord, love and faith go together with the content of that faith, etc.

    I was talking with my neighbor over these things and almost all the elements here have come up recently. She asked me, “Don’t you think every religion is just trying to understand the world and that we are here to make the world a little bit better?” I replied that on the practical level there are many similarities. “It doesn’t take a genius to know that fasting creates an altered state of consciousness. But on the level of why, for Whom, the similarities, since they come from conflicting imaginations of God or the world or the self, they fail.” This inability, and I’m sure in part it’s due to sin, as if information is not neutral but is filtered through bias, and that bias came about partly through sins, yours or others, then bias is often selection due to sin – as the Scripture says. Exposing presuppositions is actually convicting/potentially awakening because it can show that we choose lies over truth in service to our own “island in our mind utopias” (which usually are not nice places either) – or that we’ve been lied to.

    Thanks,
    Matthew Lyon

  15. The fundamental flaw in “making the world a better place” is its nihilism. Plus as a Jordon Petersen clup I saw yesterday pointed out: no body really wants to live in the ” utopian fantasy lands” created.

    Unfortunately Dr. Petersen seems to fall into a similar trap by thinking people can make themselves better.

    Lord have mercy on us all.

  16. Yes, I like his chances too. It does illustrate to me how easy it is to get caught up in the modern and how crucial, but difficult, it is to guard one’s own heart and actions.

  17. Father and Nikolaos,
    I appreciate your reflections on St. Romanides the Melodist’s verses. I looked up his life story after reading your comments, and from the source I found, I’m beginning to wonder whether he was referring to himself.
    From the literal translation of “Τεχνολόγους,” do you think perhaps the hymnist might be referring to his own words being inadequate, essentially failing to convey the wonder of the Theotokos, no matter how artful the words?

    It seems to me also that there might be a kind of addiction involved in being caught up in the narrative of lies, or perhaps a kind of compulsiveness. If this perception is correct, even if we should perceive the will of the Lord, the mental habit has made tracks that are hard to break. It seems the ‘spider’s web’ and the internet have a lot in common, and from what I hear, many find it hard not to compulsively scan their ‘feeds’.

  18. Father, please forgive me for one more comment. I wish to reflect on your response to Andrew:

    Your “news” isn’t news – it’s what money looks like when it’s flowing through your Facebook account. It’s the world seen through money. Look at Google results. Do a search and the first dozen or more hits are paid ads. On and on.

    The news we typically get (indeed, there is money in it for someone) is the news that best fits (the algorithm), the searches (and their inherent biases), and places where we’ve already spent the most time. It feeds us the narrative of what we typically look for (whether it is reality or not).

    If you want to do research of a serious sort – you need grant money. Most likely, the grant money comes from someone who stands to make money. “Science” is, often enough, about generating profit, not generating knowledge.

    Some years ago, I read a research report by a woman scientist who explored where grant money went in her area of science. Typically it went to projects that impact the wealthy the most. The scientists awarded the most money are themselves connected to a wealthy university with its established network of connections. On a positive note, there is a growing awareness of the need to support ‘lesser’ universities and scientists’ research. But that too may be driven for monetary ends. (More diverse minds may lead to more creative/diversity of products and processes to sell)

    And so on it goes. The “lies” of our webbed culture are simply the stories we tell in order to generate money for someone. It’s an ancient story – but we’ve put the story on technological steroids.

    Regarding where the money goes, we typically want to believe it goes for altruistic purposes. But here again, we have a tendency to not look too closely because we want to believe what we want to believe, which unfortunately is often not aligned with reality.

    The issue for me is to look carefully at my own heart. What are the fibs I’m telling myself? And why? Your article has prompted me to ask myself these questions. The answer to these last questions has helped me I’m not immune to the narratives floating around (particularly in the academic spheres). It’s important to keep to the narrow way. Not too cynical and not too gullible. Keep a loving heart. (Sometimes a tall order-but this is what our Lord asks of us)

    Dear Father, thank you so much for this article and engaging comments.

  19. The compulsive nature of the Internet (AKA the World Wide Web) is certain. Like many others, because of my work I cannot avoid it entirely, but I have added to my fasting observance many sites that I otherwise routinely click to without thinking much about it. In particular I avoid what is sometimes referred to as “doom scrolling”: following the links from worrisome news stories into a downward spiral of gloominess.

    Social Media provides some positives, but I think their net contribution mostly negative. Twitter is the worst in my opinion. I would have no compunction about wishing both it and Instagram to oblivion, but noxious genies once released are difficult to put back in their bottles.

    Matthew Lyon mentioned Babel above, and I have come to believe the Internet is our modern equivalent.

  20. Isiah 53:6-7
    … and the Chorus that Handel made of those verses in The Messiah.

    Sidenote: It was singing portions of The Messiah in high school that heart began to awaken to Jesus.

  21. Dee,
    Lies are so very pervasive – including the ones we tell ourselves. I suspect that we only see and know the tip of the iceberg. One of the things that I think of as comforting is that this “web” is part of the “tissue of hell.” Christ’s deliverance is a direct assault on this nothingness and a revelation of who we truly are. It is not the lies that will be revealed so much as it is the truth.

    The day-to-day growth (transfiguration) that takes place in us, by grace, is the gradual revelation of the truth. We slowly begin to see and know ourselves as we gaze at the face of Christ Himself (in the heart). Some of St. Paul’s most ecstatic language is reserved for describing that revelation (“eye has not seen, ear has not heard…etc.”).

  22. The news we typically get (indeed, there is money in it for someone) is the news that best fits (the algorithm), the searches (and their inherent biases), and places where we’ve already spent the most time. It feeds us the narrative of what we typically look for (whether it is reality or not).

    Lies are so very pervasive – including the ones we tell ourselves.

    I think “the narrative” is not so much what we look for as the manner in which we are instructed to view everything. So our searches return results with an in-built bias that we are expected to accept. It’s not that information is a terrible thing but that we are called (by the world) to process and view that information with the bias that supporting the narrative requires. The modern attack in the West largely revolves around the control of language, as much as information.

    I find it interesting that, last night during Vespers, Father Ambrose spoke to us about the importance of silence; of controlling the tongue. He mentioned that silence/stillness in our hearts requires silence from our mouth; there are times to simply not speak. All these things seem to be revolving around each other and the importance of silence in our hearts grows greater and greater. It is notable that our hearts cannot be still when our mouths are open (and the “mouth” of modern narratives never closes). Just thinking out loud.

  23. Father,
    How do we “begin to see and know ourselves as we gaze at the face of Christ Himself (in the heart)?” How is one to actually go about doing this?

    How do the teachings of the gospel not become simply another “narrative reality” among others in the “world”? Aren’t these competing narratives just yardsticks by which people measure whether doing “the next good thing” is in fact “good” or not? Does WHAT we do really matter? Or is there more to it than that?

  24. Aaron,
    We live amidst competing narratives. A post-modern approach would tend to diminish the narrative of the gospel as simply one-of-many-choose-the-one-you-like, etc. There has to be an anchor, it seems to me, otherwise it is, as you say, just a bunch of yardsticks – why is one better than another?

    For me, I anchor things in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. It either happened or it didn’t. If it didn’t happen, or if it’s only a metaphor, etc., then it’s just all a bunch of yardsticks – take your pick. If, however, it did happen, then it is foundational and everything else that exists is measured by that yardstick alone.

    I am very consciously an Orthodox Christian – committed to the historical verity of the resurrection and the Orthodox Church as the authentic communication of that reality and the tradition that gives it to us. It is the beginning point and all things follow from that. An anchor in this narrative – the earliest written version – is in 1 Cor. 15:

    “For I delivered [lit. “traditioned”] to you first of all that which I also received [“that which was traditioned to me”]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.”
    (1 Corinthians 15:3–8)

    If our faith is just a bandying about of ideas, then we’re lost in the post-modern mix. For me, I am staking my life and everything in it on the verity and historical reality of that witness of St. Paul (the one that had been given to him by the oldest Christian community).

    As we live out the life rooted in that claim, in union with the Apostolic Community, we do notice that our experience bears the truth of it out. But if we start with our experience alone, it quickly just falls apart in a sea of contested subjectivism. It is, of course, possible for someone to argue against the historical case of this earliest Christian testimony. I frankly have not found those arguments to be persuasive. I am persuaded.

    What we do matters – I think – in that we are moving towards what is true, real, and good. I believe that the witness of the Church is that Christ Himself is Reality embodied. To have true, authentic, existence is to be transformed towards that image – that He is the revelation of what it is to be truly human. But we do not do this alone, out of our own head. We live in union with the Apostolic Community – the Church.

    I hope that’s a beginning of an answer.

  25. Father, would you say that either the experience or the “history” (for lack of a better word) separated from each other (another effort of the modern mind) are each suspect? While the wedding of history, experience AND the theological leaven of The Church, work together as an image of the Holy Trinity?

  26. Thank you, Father. Your article and comments bring forward many thoughts.

    It’s interesting that Christianity really is a matter of believing in the verity of the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ (as if this really needs to be said). To be an Orthodox Christian is to accept additional beliefs beyond that even. So we really are hanging our hats on the belief in this specific yardstick. Mind you, I say this in all sincerity as an Orthodox Christian.

    It is perhaps even more interesting that, if this yardstick were somehow not accurate, we seem quick to jump to the conclusion that the world is simply a smorgasbord of choose-as-you-like yardsticks, as if there couldn’t possibly be objective truth otherwise. Would we have been so bold to think that previously if we were of another religious tradition? Of course, not! Otherwise we would never have become Orthodox. For me, this all-or-nothing approach feels prideful and lacks humility. It’s a jump I’m not comfortable making. Perhaps we don’t know as much as we think we do.

    Most importantly, what seems to get lost in this obsession in believing and defending specific yardsticks over others is FAITH. Faith can never be “just a bandying about of ideas,” but rather is a conscious agreement to participate in objective reality, whatever that may be (perhaps someday we’ll know). Are beliefs what teach us HOW to live our daily lives? Or is it faith? This is why experience (and those with it) matters and guides us. Truth is born from experience, not belief. Truth is lived, not simply believed. Truth transforms, beliefs do not. Beliefs are no-thing. People need to be taught how to live, not what to believe. As Orthodox Christians, I think we have to be extremely careful not to get lost in beliefs, but rather to live lives of faith. There is a huge difference and its consequences can’t be understated.

    Could the HOW of life in large part be as simple as the words of Moses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus and repeated by Jesus?
    “This is the most important: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”

    I think so.

  27. Byron, I’ve been meaning to comment for a while, on how much I appreciate and benefit from your comments on Fr. Stephen’s blogs. Thank you!
    Thank you as well for sharing the great comments from Fr. Ambrose.

  28. Alan,

    We all learn so much here! I was looking at Fr. Freeman’s comment at 1:26pm and thinking, “there’s a book in there! It needs to be written!”. So much help for one another here. I thank God for this place and people.

  29. Aaron,
    I think you’re making a false distinction between what people believe and what they live. What people live always reveals what they truly believe. It’s an ongoing struggle.

    When Christ quoted Moses, “Love God, love your neighbor,” he was immediately asked, “And who is my neighbor?” and, significantly, gave a bit more “yardstick” in the answer. What you’ve described is naive, I think, and reductionistic. It also has a way of simply dismissing other people.

    The Church does not simply say to us, “believe this, or believe that.” How many times is it said, “Orthodoxy is a way of life?”

    But – I’m not sure what it is that you’re singling out and attacking as “beliefs.” Do you mean to classify the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ as a “belief” (and perhaps just an optional yardstick, inasmuch as (you suggest) we don’t really know anything about it for sure)?

  30. Father,
    I agree. By no means does saying love God and love your neighbor encapsulate what it means to actually do that. There’s way more to it, but in large part, it’s the heart of it. The parable of the good samaritan provides an example with more detail, as you mention.

    I don’t see how our actions necessarily reveal what we believe? Could one discern from someone’s actions whether they’re Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox? Or Jewish? Or Muslim? Or agnostic? Two people can believe the same things and live very differently. Alternatively, people can believe very different things and live similarly. Sorry if it seems I’m trying to drive a false wedge between the two, but it seems there’s something more going on under the surface.

  31. Byron, Amen!
    Funny, I had close to your same thought about Father’s comments from 1:26 !

  32. I just looked up the word know, its etymology. In English is is juxtaposed to belief. Essentially to know is to perceive that someone or something is real as opposed to simply believing.

    Personally when, by God’s Grace I perceive the reality, belief become easy.
    The Scripture says we are to “know” God and our neighbors. Why? Personally, I cannot live someone I do not know..

    Even my mother who did not associate with any specific faith told me when I was 18: “God is real! You need to find Him!”

    Indo not need to believe what the Church teaches because here is where I literally found Him. It was not subtle.

    I am a stubborn man so He has to “smash me up the side of me head with a tire iron” every once in awhile. Then through in a gew tests to see if I got the message or not.

    But.. I am still a sinner. But I also know His Mercy endures forever and even in the midst of challenge and seeming chaos, as I repent He grants me Joy.

    That same Joy is at the heart and essence of every practice of the Church. Only the Church has the Fullness.

  33. I had a conversion the other week, a similar conversation that I’ve had many times with Western Christians and non Christians. There is a distinct false dichotomy in the views put across between dogma and personal so called spiritual experiences. Also there is an anti patriarchal bias; the Bible being written by men for example.

    If I mention truth, I get back the reply that it’s not the truth but just my opinion??? The hermeneutics of suspicion is applied to everything but their experience. There seems to be no real discernment; the possibility that there is delusion.

    I was amazed by a practicing Roman Catholic saying Christian is just a label and when I asked if their spiritual experience put them above dogma, etc, they answered with an emphatic yes.

    Jesus says much about belief and believing. The Creed begins with ‘I believe…’

    If Christ is not ‘the way, the truth and the life,’ nor the only way to the Father and is just another yardstick, what is left? Making up one’s own beliefs and living in delusion is a popular option.

  34. Aaron,
    You didn’t answer my question viz. the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ.

    There is a huge area of general agreement between many religious groups – and if you blur the lines enough – or squint from a distance – they’ll look quite similar. I would suggest that when you expand the boundaries to Judaism and Islam you have to blur things even more. If we want to throw the agnostic into the equation, then the blurring has become so pronounced that it’s not clear that you’re actually looking at anything at all apart from the imagination.

    On the other hand, the last 2,000 years of history has seen classical Christianity, in some way, shape, or form, profoundly influence and shape almost all the cultures of the world. Even Western agnostics are still “Western” agnostics – and by “Western” we’re actually referencing some form of Christian thought and culture.

    When I approach things as an Orthodox Christian – my touchstone is not that blurred-out world. It can all get so vague that (even underneath) you’re not really saying anything at all. I am quite specific and particular in my life and thought (I do not think generalities are of any particular worth – we only live in particular). If Christ is crucified, dead, and risen, then His claim to be the Only-Begotten Son of God is validated, as well as His teaching and revelation of who God is. If He is not crucified, dead, and risen, then His words are of no particular interest other than as an ancient religious artifact – and, frankly, all bets are off.

    Any claim to “know” God or “experience” God apart from the crucified, dead, and risen God/Man, Jesus Christ is – as far as I’m concerned – just worthless. The line of charlatans and delusionaries is just too long for it to impress me. I’m glad when the charlatans and delusionaries are nice – if they teach love rather than hate – but it’s nothing I’m going to trust. I’ve seen far too many nonsense and false claims in my life to give it any weight. If believing it makes someone behave more nicely – as I said – it’s better than hate – but it doesn’t persuade me to listen to them or take what they have with any seriousness.

    There is a great pressure in the modern world to dismiss or diminish all particular claims in favor of more generalized claims. Indeed, it is a huge part of the modern project and is inherently attractive for many. It holds no attraction for me, whatsoever.

    I did not become Orthodox (having been Baptist, Charismatic, or Anglican prior to that) because I thought Orthodox Christians were nicer people. I could, though, reference the Orthodox saints and martyrs of the 20th century as significant for me. I became Orthodox because of truth claims. Both, in that I genuinely believe Christ to have been crucified, died, and risen, and to have intentionally given us the Orthodox Christian Church. Sometimes I don’t even like the Orthodox Church – but that’s like talking about one’s spouse. The Orthodox Church is what it says it is – which makes it even sadder when we fail to live up to who and what we are.

    But, the claims of others (Anglicans, Baptists, Charismatics) were, in significant ways – false. Just plainly not the truth – and often – being part of that included an invitation to participate in telling falsehoods. That, I think is significant.

    Much of what you’d find similar between various groups in modern times is nothing more than bourgeoise morality – something that is distinctly not Orthodox Christianity. As for Islam – Orthodoxy might say that same-sex behavior is wrong – but we don’t stone them or behead them. We condemn that (and many other such things) and that, it seems to me is significant.

    But, I’ll admit, it is impossible to know everything. But, I believe it is possible to reasonably believe and accept the historical claims regarding Christ. That is, of course, only a beginning point – but it is a point from which it is possible to slowly move outwards with some measure of humble certainty.

    I think your examples and reasoning tend towards the blurring of things rather than carefully sifting and thinking them through. But, that’s just what I see. We don’t have to know everything. I’m not responsible for everything. I have heard the gospel and believed it – and it becomes then the occasion for faith – a “participatory adherence” to the Person of Christ. And, if we’re speaking of “God” apart from Christ – then I have no idea who one is talking about. I do not know any such God.

  35. Andrew, et al
    Thinking about thinking is pretty much the easiest way to make your hair hurt. And it becomes just words and parsing nonsense. I’m familiar with doubt. I often say to people, “I was trained in a liberal, Anglican seminary. I know how to doubt anything.” What was not taught to me was how to believe, or even what true belief was. I had to learn that from other places, over time. Reading, conversations, hours and hours and hours of confessions and counseling and listening to the hearts of other people – in every kind of situation and setting. And taking it to heart and listening there as well.

    I served as an Anglican priest for nearly 20 years and became Orthodox slowly, hesitantly, and at great cost – which is to say, it was the most significant decision of my life. It gathered years (everything that had come before) into an act of existential obedience to the truth – without regard to the consequences. The first 10 years after that decision were, in many ways, the most miserable and difficult in my life. In contrast, the last 10 years (the second half of my Orthodox life) have been the best years in my life. And there’s lots of story in that – not all of which do I care to share.

    Experience certainly matters – but much of it is simply secondary. Having spent 3 years among the charismatics, where “experience” was pretty much everything, I came to be extremely sceptical of all claims of extraordinary experience. Not that there is no such thing – but that most claims are largely delusional.

    An important element of the Orthodox life, for me, has been learning to live a sacramental life (versus a charismatic life). I eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ weekly, and it really doesn’t matter how I feel about it. I generally don’t even as the question. It’s like marriage. I do not ask, “Do I love me wife?” meaning, “How do I feel about her?” I ask, “Am I loving my wife,” meaning, “Am I acting on my daily commitement to love her, cherish her, honor and keep her, etc.?” To ask the first question is just to invite delusion and confusion. I am married.

    In the same way, Christ said, “Take, eat. This is my Body…” There’s nothing to be gained by staring at the Bread and then examining the insanity of my whirling thoughts. I eat and drink God. Sometimes there are wonderful thoughts and feelings that follow. I’m grateful for such but don’t take them seriously. What matters is that I continue to live in union with Christ through the Cross in the love of others.

    I treat Orthodox Christianity as if it were the only form of Christianity. I don’t do that to ignore other Christians, but only because other Christianities are a form of insanity – a creation of something that’s not supposed to be. The Church is One – Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. History and human perfidy have created the madness of multiplicity. I solved that madness in my life by simply returning to the One. I could not begin to solve the delusional puzzle of the others. It’s just not my question – not any more.

    Just more thoughts.

  36. Dee and Father Stephen

    I could not suppress a chuckle when I saw your reference to St Romanides. As a Greek I read Fr Romanides and mainly his disciple Metropolitan Ierotheos Vlachos and espoused their theology. However, as I follow and learn from Father Stephen, who cautioned us on their somewhat reductionist approach, I now tread more carefully. I do hope Fr John reached sainthood as I do for all of us, by God’s grace.

    The definite Saint however, is Saint Romanos, close but not the same.

  37. Nikolaos,

    Fr. Romanides is spot on when it comes to where the divergence in theology arises in Western theology. He nails the issues and has a keen awareness that too few people appreciate. I tend to try and emphasize the need for fidelity to Christ and union with Christ while paying attention to the fact that the possibility remains for us to experience Christ in this life and is desirable. Loyalty is the Biblical standard for faith/faithfulness – but that loyalty may be rewarded with vision. I think going much further than this, demanding a vision of Christ in this life, it may be right, it may be wrong, but I tend to be skeptical that only this will ensure that we do not experience Christ in a negative way.

    The thing that is most convincing about Fr. Romanides argument that vision exceeds all else, is that Biblically, a prophet was a prophet due to the empirical experience of seeing Christ. All the Apostles were eyewitnesses. Peter and Paul both base their authority on vision/experience, and I John says, “who we have seen, touched, etc.”. Though I John is likely refuting proto-Gnosticism, still, a real experience of Christ was the basis for authority/prophetic witness/Apostolic ministry/etc. So, when Paul says – and Fr. Romanides picks up on this in 1 and 2 Corinthians, when Paul says I wish that you’d all prophesy, what does he mean? Does he mean for them to have vision? It’s defendable Biblically and logically and in the Tradition. Or, does he mean that all have something beneficial to speak? This is less likely overall but possible.

  38. Father,
    I’m getting back online and seeing a lot of water went under the bridge since I last commented.
    First, thank you for your response to my comments. It is reassuring to me what you said in these sentences:

    Christ’s deliverance is a direct assault on this nothingness and a revelation of who we truly are. It is not the lies that will be revealed so much as it is the truth.

    The day-to-day growth (transfiguration) that takes place in us, by grace, is the gradual revelation of the truth. We slowly begin to see and know ourselves as we gaze at the face of Christ Himself (in the heart).

    Byron, I agree with your thought that ‘we are instructed’ (I would use the word inculcated) on how to receive information. I’m not advocating dismissing information, per see, in any sort of global sense. Still, I question our habits and biases (including our beliefs regarding the information we receive), particularly that which we receive in our feeds on our phone/ Facebook apps or our searches on the internet. I believe it is helpful to be aware of how that information comes to us and potentially who or what it actually serves.

    On truth and belief. Providentially for me, I’ve come to the Orthodox Church.

    Belief and action seem to go hand and hand. Once upon a time, I believed that a compound mysteriously fell apart in a test tube. My mentor was incredulous that I reported what I believed happened without supportive ‘evidence’. I gathered evidence and said, “here! it is what I believed it to be…it had indeed fallen apart mysteriously. We had to drop the project–no theory in place at the time to explain it. Had I not had sufficient experience working in the lab conducting the work developed by a community of practitioners, I suppose I wouldn’t have held the belief I had. A belief developed from a community of practitioners. What we believe matters.

    Following what Andrew said, the Crede does begin with “I believe…” and the communion prayer also begins with “I believe, O Lord, and confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. I also believe that this is Your immaculate Body, and this is Your precious Blood. Therefore I entreat You, have mercy on me and forgive my transgressions, both voluntary and involuntary, in word and in deed, in knowledge and in ignorance. And make me worthy without condemnation to partake of your immaculate Mysteries, for the remission of sins and life eternal. Amen.

    Please forgive me for adding to the discussion if it isn’t helpful.

  39. Dear Nikolaos! Thank you for catching that. And I had even looked it up and still didn’t catch it.

  40. Father, one word you used is absolutely vital: Sacrament. It is impossible to have genuine sacrament without the foundation being a God who is Incarnate, Crucified, Dies and is Risen. Trampling down death by death.. Anything else is bad theater or sentimental longing.
    Lord, forgive me, a simner.

  41. Matthew, et Al.
    I think that Matthew is incorrect viz. Romanides. I believe Romanides erred in attributing a kind of visionary ability to the saints and fathers – based on his assumptions viz. purification and illumination. He essentially posits a kind of “seer” class within the Church. Some have taken this to great lengths and made various statements of saints into dogmatic points (far more than the Fathers themselves would have done) and raising elders up to a kind of un-erring prophetic voice in the church. It is quite dangerous in addition to being wrong.

    Elders and such, as well as patristic authorities – do not possess some kind of unique charismatic authority based on their utterly clear visionary experience. We simply do not have such a class in the Church. Had it been so, we would never have needed the arguments and the councils and so much else in the life of the Church. It just doesn’t work that way.

    It is interesting to me that the full title of the Philokalia is the Philokalia of the Holy Neptic (Sober) Fathers. What we need is clear vision into our own sins. When St. John says, “we who have seen, touched, etc.” he is being quite literally – He is the Theologian who leaned on Christ’s breast. St. Pauls’ encounter with the risen Lord (referenced in 1 Cor. 15) is not necessarily a reference to the Damascus Road experience – that was a blinding light and a voice. He says that He saw the risen Lord and numbers it with experiences of the Cephas, James, the 12, and the 500. These are not visionary experiences, but literal encounters with the Resurrected Lord. Our faith is not in visions – but in something that was indeed “touched.” He ate fish, etc. And, St. Paul, despite his understanding checked out his gospel with the authorities in Jerusalem. The Church is hierarchical, historical, institutional and quite incarnate. There are, indeed, experiences that are wonderful and even numerous – but it is not the basis of our life.

  42. Father

    Picking up on your point regarding “seers” in the history of the Church and specifically the prophets before the birth of Christ.

    Would the prophets have perceived God as a Trinity, or would they have had a more monotheistic understanding of “the Lord God” ? If I am not mistaken, all encounters with God in the Old Testament are with the pre-incarnate Christ. Even Abraham’s encounter with the 3 Angels at the oak of Mamre, is according to our understanding, Christ in the middle accompanied by 2 Angels, so when he addressed them as Lord in the singular, is Abraham addressing just Christ ?

    I think there are some suggestions that Abraham perceived the Holy Trinity in seeing the 3 Angels, but I am not sure if this is correct and that the Father and the Holy Spirit would have taken the form of Angels. The interpretation of Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity is that Christ is in the middle with 2 Angels to His left and right. Is this correct ?

  43. The Gospel reading for today throws some light on the danger of spiritual experience. Mt 21: 12-14 and 27-20.

  44. Nikolaos,
    The account in Genesis 18 is quite unusual. I think it is correct to say that the Fathers saw in the text, an Old Testament foreshadowing or type of the Trinity. The text bounces between three and one, between three angels and the Lord speaking. It’s most peculiar. It is, I think, problematic to try to see in this a careful description of a historical literal appearance of the three person of the Holy Trinity (indeed, I do not think there could be such a thing). When the icon is painted, it is always as three angels – so it is a representation or type that we see – and not a depiction of the Holy Trinity. But, in the icon, depending on how the iconographer has treated the subject, there are suggestions, in various ways, that one figure points to this person of the Holy Trinity or that one.

    We should not try to draw too many (if any at all) conclusions about the nature of “seers” (prophets) in the Old Testament. The boldest example we have are in the visions of Ezekiel, and, of course, those of Moses.

    One of the difficulties of the sacramental life is the “veil” that remains (to a certain extent). The gospel and the fullness of the Divine Life is given to us to eat and drink (for example), and it is given to us as commandments, parables, pastoral and theological writings. We often long for something very direct – even infallible.

    Protestantism did with the Scriptures and a kind of literal (so-called) interpretation something of an “infallible oracle” treatment – and it led them into multiple errors. Catholicism, in the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, seeks (for some) to do the same thing.

    There are several problems in all this. Things, on the whole, are hidden from us for reasons of our own well-being. God is not trying to make all of this difficult. But we would be like a child with a fire hose if we had the kind of direct knowledge we imagine to be desirable. When people think they have it, they tend to blow others (and themselves) away.

    Humility (self-emptying, bearing of legitimate shame, etc.) is the fount of all the virtues. It allows, in time, a union with God that is truly healing, transformative, and salvific. We are not saved by information but by union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit.

  45. Thank you so much for this timely essay, Father Stephen. I apologize – I haven’t yet read the conversation below your words. But your words help make sense for me two separate parts of Christ’s last supper with his disciples so I will just add how those came together for me reading so far. First, that the disciples are confused about where Christ is going and say that they do not know the way. And second that He says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
    This is different from what He says to Peter after He has risen: “Feed my sheep.” But He says that then after Peter has said, “Lord, you know that I love You.” For in the (false) world, Peter has denied Christ three times; and then he has wept bitterly. He wept because he loved Christ . He rejoices because he knows now that He knows that. Which is why Jesus has asked three times “Do you love me?”
    That is how we must love the world, in its having been created lovingly. “…as I have loved you.”

  46. Fr. Freeman,

    “These are not visionary experiences, but literal encounters with the Resurrected Lord. Our faith is not in visions – but in something that was indeed “touched.” He ate fish, etc.”

    I appreciate your comments. I don’t see a qualitative difference between seeing Christ/being with Christ (OT or New, “Abraham saw His day” – John 8:56 – it’s literal seeing) and vision – maybe Romanides did – but I don’t. The difference is in the seer and in Christ’s choice to reveal Himself. Some saw Christ as a blasphemer. But in terms of being able to have authority, and this in order for the “building up of the Body” (Ephesians 4) and that we are “attain unto the unity of the faith” and the “knowledge of thine unapproachable glory”. the vision/being with Christ or being familiar and united by faith with someone who was, was part criteria for canon, and for Apostolicity. But their criteria followed the OT precedent for what a prophet was. Same exact logic. And it’s important that we had that criteria as it saved the Canon from Gnosticism. As the dogmatic assertion that Christ was the visible Yahweh in the OT, that He was Incarnate, coming from the Jewish belief in the “two powers in heaven”, already counted Gnostic dualism as bogus because it was a physical/visible/human-like empirical Yahweh they already believed in. Gnosticism was already incompatible with the Judaism of Jesus and His followers. And when you get to the proto-Jewish-Gnosticism of Hebrews 1 (if that’s what it was, with their wrong angelology) it’s existing Jewish belief that Paul (really think it was Paul) returns them to.

    It’s hard to believe Paul didn’t think the voice was Christ, and it would be problematic I think if it was not. If Adam was created by Christ, is there on the mountain with Moses, etc. – but not here – there is a discontinuity with the mind of Scripture. I can’t think of any commentator who would confidently challenge it being Christ. But Paul didn’t make the experience happen, God did. And I think this is problematic for Romandies and a methodology where you might be able to make it happen – but he is careful to say that it’s a gift and up to God. Even in the Burning Bush there are 2 Yahwehs present, as Christ is Yahweh, the Father is Yahweh, and the Spirit is Yahweh. Then there’s the 3rd heaven talk as well and it’s wrapped up in Paul’s defense of his ministry – “in the body or out of the body, I don’t know.” Paul has no problem with the vision being in this body or out of this body, and while I’m more thinking about the precedent in the OT for what a prophet was, here Paul makes no qualitative difference in the quality of the experience. Either way, it was real, in the body, or out of the body. But he doesn’t say, “in the body or – it could have all just been in/my head” – as Paul is surely referencing himself in the 3rd person. He doesn’t think it was a hallucination or a psychological trick of the mind. And he expects his reader to understand what he’s claiming. By the time you get to the Didache and the prohibition of supporting financially or otherwise a prophet if they stay too long (start mooching off their host) it’s clear that teaching and way of life had to go hand in hand with being prophetic as who’s to say who’s a prophet if anyone can claim this? The assumption was that you couldn’t stick with the content of the faith and be a liar without eventual exposure. Nothing is more empirically verifiable than defending/keeping the faith while living it. Peter references being at the Transfiguration in the same way. All it means is, they understood prophet in the OT sense, not in the Reformed sense that gets us Sola Scriptura. Prophet was not someone who was turned mechanically into a medium of revelation, an email or a typewriter or a puppet, they had had the revelation given to them, and then they communicated it often after the experience guided by the Holy Spirit but with their own vocabulary, experience, context, purpose, etc. Sola Scriptura wouldn’t exist if they started with the prophet’s experience as 2nd in order, the first being God. Then comes the communication. That’s why to be wrong as a prophet was a capital offense as you are lying in one of the worst ways possible. As for John, what more could you ask in terms of authority than that he leaned on Christ? Again, I don’t see this as really different than the Damascus Road except in terms of intensity and even there it could be argued they were equally, but differently, intense. We sing, “As much as they were able to bear it” in terms of the experience of the Transfiguration – but the same was true listening to parables and walking the seashore. I believe in the one-storey universe so I can’t see Isaiah’s lips-coal experience that must differently than sitting with Jesus by a fire believing Him to be Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36 – interesting and informative that they separate the two words Lord and Christ showing they believed Messiah to have also been God).

    Now, before the Resurrection, were the seers/Apostles cognizant and appreciative of who Christ was” It seems rarely and infrequently, but sometimes. Peter call Jesus the Christ. Thomas seems willing to go to Jerusalem to die with Christ in John 11. But they also saw Him post Resurrection. And He breathes on them the Holy Spirit (John 20).

    Last, how did Christ validate His ministry? By His own previous proximity to the Father in many respects (John 1:1 obviously for John, but John is loaded with references). And when He does miracles that validate – and they validate mainly by fulfilling prophetic expectations or Messianic profile – John 5:17, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” Jesus is coming from the Father, one with the Father, doing the will of the Father, calls Himself Son of the Father, calls God Father, on and on. He validates His ministry by His relationship to the Father. So, we understand Jesus to be the prophet and above all prophets. And he is uniquely prophet in that He see the Father while we do not (John 5:47, 6:46). Christ alone has seen the Father, but, to see Christ is to have seen the Father (too many references to list, but John 15:24). So, again, if we start with Christ as the proto-Prophet, take His statement to be true that no one saw the Father except Him, then what did the OT prophets see: Christ, the visible Yahweh who is also not Father who is also Yahweh. To me, as much as I have read you, I would think this is where you would be most comfortable to start (rightly so) in a discussion of what is a prophet, just like, if we were asking what is “man” we would start with Christ. To me, part of Christ’s deference to the Father is surely not to denigrate His own divinity or to play it down, but to show what they expected and knew to be the criteria for authority. And this explains as well why Jesus was not “in your face” with His divinity in the Gospels, but also why those who understood recognized Him to be also, God. Christ has the ultimate grounds for prophetic ministry as He comes from above eternally with the Father, He proves it doing the work the prophets (who saw Him) said He would, shows His authority over death/destruction/disease/demons/etc., suffers as expected, is vindicated in Resurrection, and so on (Glory to God!). Those who saw Christ (and the Father) and received Him, He gives the right to become children of God. Those children (now 1 John is running in my head, little children) who saw Him and loved His appearing (2 Tim 4:8), who were set apart, become the ecclesiological authorities, not all of them, but at the same time those authorities do not discount the experience or benefit provided by those who had also seen/touched/heard/ate with/walked with/etc. Christ but share with them the experience of Christ.

    I have no complaint with the other things you said. I’m no disciple of Romanides and I’m far from purification or illumination, so I think I’m just stating our Tradition and what is Biblical and hope that I do so well, and I will submit to correction. There is a massive amount – an overly underappreciated impact on our faith – if we do not affirm that Abraham and the prophets saw Christ because it is the basis for NT Apostolicity – and it would undermine the OT precedent/teaching for the Holy Trinity, for theosis, and much more. All would end up redefined looking and smelling like Protestant or Catholic theology. Union and theosis can only be the same thing through sight. We won’t be like Him fully until we see Him (I john 3:2-3). A good place to end: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever he is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as that one is pure.” The hope of seeing motivates purification.

    Fr. Freeman, I write generically as if it were to anyone, so please forgive when I state things that I know you already know, it’s not to inform you but to develop an argument as if this were for anyone. I expect that you know far more than I do, that’s my assumption anytime I post, and that you live it better than I have. I’m just keen to preserve the soteriology. This is the counter to the PSA, Reformed this and that, Catholic errors, etc. – as Christ did not come to suffer the wrath of God for the Elect/etc., but to divinize man with the Holy Spirit which leads eventually to, seeing Christ as He is, in this life or the next.

  47. Father,
    I brought up the question about people of different religious traditions not to compare what are clearly different beliefs. The point isn’t to view the world through a blurred religious lens, but to look at what’s most important in forming the life of the heart and making people whole. I don’t think specific beliefs are what really transforms people. God does. And he’s by no means restricted to any religious tradition.

    I’m not sure how we can say that “any claim to ‘know’ God or ‘experience’ God apart from the crucified, dead, and risen God/Man, Jesus Christ is…just worthless.” I don’t think Abraham or Moses would say that Jesus Christ had anything to do with their very real, tangible, concrete faith. There would also be no Orthodoxy without the faith and experiences of these people who went before us. We simply can’t put boundaries on God. God alone chooses when and how to reveal Himself to His creatures. And to say as Michael did that, “It is impossible to have genuine sacrament without the foundation being a God who is Incarnate, Crucified, Dies and is Risen,” is to discount the sacramental revelation of God throughout history, be it in the Old Testament or to people today, irrespective of religious tradition. The fact is, the world is sacramental. Was it not created for that very purpose?

    So, to answer your question about the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ, I’m not claiming that they didn’t happen, but as others have mentioned, we pronounce them in every liturgy as a matter of “I believe.” More importantly, I think it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves the hypothetical questions: What if Christ wasn’t crucified, killed, and resurrected? What if he isn’t the incarnate Son of God? Would that change our life of faith? Would we live and interact differently with others? This, I think is significant to contemplate.

    If, as you said, “He is not crucified, dead, and risen, then His words are of no particular interest other than as an ancient religious artifact – and, frankly, all bets are off,” then what’s really driving and forming our spiritual life? If we find that we would indeed act differently and live a significantly different spiritual life, simply tossed about in the “bourgeoise morality” of the world, then have our beliefs really transformed us? Or are we living a religious life according to just another moralistic yardstick, driven by fear of punishment or hope of a reward? If so, we’re merely acting out of egoistic, self-interest instead of actually living a transformed life, growing in likeness with God. This, I think is significant.

    I say all of these things, sincerely, not to make an attack on the Church but to bring to focus what seems most important. The fact is, the world has a big problem, and its cause is egoistic, self-interest. This is a human issue. It doesn’t care about what religious tradition we belong to. The ego is tricky and extremely cunning. I don’t care what religious tradition people belong to. If their faith doesn’t teach them how to confront and deal with the most important issue separating us from attaining likeness with God, then their religious life has failed them. Religions so easily divide us. Only God can unite us. But we must actively choose to participate in the process. We need to connect with our neighbor in the battle against our common obstacle – our self-interested egos. If we can’t transcend our egos and expand our “I” to see the other as ourself and love unconditionally, then no matter what religion we choose to belong to or not, we will never achieve the purpose for which we were created.

  48. Forgive a few typos… Papal Infallibility arose “serendipitously” at the same time as Biblical Criticism/Textual Criticism which sought to firm up Sola Scriptura.

  49. Aaron,
    I disagree profoundly. However, I simply do not wish to grind away on this today. You are essentially suggesting a spirituality that is ultimately subjective/psychological (imagine if Christ did not die, resurrect, etc.) and anchored in, “Wouldn’t the world be better if we would all be transformed and love one another?”

    I do not wish to discuss this further at the moment – but I do not agree and think this is deeply problematic. Sorry.

  50. Aaron,

    “I don’t think specific beliefs are what really transforms people. God does. And he’s by no means restricted to any religious tradition.”

    I get the gist of your post, and this is unsolicited so take it for what you will, but specific beliefs create a specific piety, and that piety with the content of the faith, is transformative. Without the specific beliefs you get a false methodology for healing selfishness. Can you stop being selfish/self-centered/living for survival – in denial of death – without Resurrection? Can you stop being selfish without a God who is totally free, has no needs, is complete in Himself, is Love? Do other religions profess a belief in this God? Can you stop being selfish while believing the world is random, accidental, chaotic and has no purpose? I think you get the point.

    My answer is, one, there would never be a reason to that is not also pragmatic and therefore selfish. Altruism that rubs the back of your back-rubber is not selfless, it is reciprocal. Two, could you? Yes, hypothetically, but it will contradict your beliefs. You couldn’t logically be self-sacrificing/selfless and logically consistent with subscribing to other faith systems. One, in every other system God is not free and to self-sacrifice/have selfless loves means, not being compelled/controlled in such a way that you could not choose otherwise. You cannot love if you are a programmed robot that is also determined. And you’ll have no reason to try to love if you think you are determined. It will be a sick game.

    “I don’t think Abraham or Moses would say that Jesus Christ had anything to do with their very real, tangible, concrete faith. ”

    He was the content/Person of their faith. I’m not being rude here, but this seems a very dangerous statement. If you have already divided Abraham from Christ, you would logically disconnect the entire OT from Christ, and need to see Christians as hijacking the OT instead of preserving the faith in the OT.

    To be short, Christians didn’t invent their interpretations, they are in line with OT Judaism (even if there were multiple strains). Not many know this due to lack of interest, uncareful assimilation of poor Biblical scholarship, or the fact that these things are damaging to Protestant and Catholic theology.

    It’s not an Orthodox resource, but the Naked Bible Podcast – minus the Baptist in Michael Heiser which is incompatible with the content explained – is a great place to start (skipping the first 20-30 episodes starting with Acts).

  51. Matthew,
    Thank you. I am hammering a caution about all of this re: visions, etc., in that we live in a time that is replete with visionary claims of all sorts – and they are largely delusional. The Orthodox tradition regards them (properly) with hesitancy and more than a little skepticism – and, even then, as a private matter to be dealt with soberly in the context of confession and with a wise spiritual father. So – I throw cautions out there because it’s a dangerous arena.

    Concerning St. Paul’s Damascus Road encounter and his Caught up to paradise. I do not want to dive into the whole topic of Merkabah mysticism and Christian mysticism – a hot topic for some these days – other than to say that some are writing about it with much less discernment than they should. I strongly recommend the articles on the Univ. of Marquette’s website (which was under the direction of Abp. Alexander Goltizin when he was there) as a mature, scholarly discussion of the material – by people who actually know the languages involved and are working with primary materials (which is not the case of most of the stuff being bandied about out there).

    It is of note that the first person to suggest St. Paul’s Road to Damascus experience as a Merkabah mystical experience was a Jewish Scholar. I say that it is of note because nothing would be more acceptable to Judaism and its rejection of Christianity than to assign all of the experiences of the resurrected Christ to a Merkabah sort of encounter. Indeed, the heretic, Bp. Jack Spong of the Anglicans thought that was a good thing – that the disciples, at most, just had some sort of charismatic experience. Our faith does not rest on such shaky claims and I think it is not just a mistake but a deep error to suggest otherwise.

    The visions of seers are interesting – but notoriously subject to many interpretations.

    But, back to St. Paul – scholars interestingly make a distinction between visionary experiences and auditory experiences. The Paradise experience is not described as a vision, but as “hearing.” The Damascus Road has both hearing and the vision of light. Neither of those events has any mention of seeing the Risen Lord, and it is a mistake to read that into them. But Paul says that Christ appeared to Him, and compares it to the other recorded resurrection appearances. Those would not be “whether in the body or out, I do not know.” Nope. I’ve had dreams of Jesus, but I do not thereby claim to have seen the risen Lord.

    There are, indeed, important “visions” of Christ to be had. That we see Him, in the deep heart, is not normally described in visionary terms. I could write at length about various mystical experiences I might have had – but if, on that basis, I claimed any authority, I would be a dangerous man and to be avoided.

    We are not textualists like the Sola Scriptura types – but the Church grounds its life in some very concrete things: Scripture as read in the Tradition, the Tradition itself (Canons, liturgies, etc.), the hierarchical authority of the Church, the sacramental order, and so on. And these things are grounded ultimately in the life, suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ – as historical events with eyewitnesses.

    It is on the basis of that singular event that we then read the OT (in the light of Christ). We do not read the OT and then come to the conclusion of Christ. It is just the opposite. We come to Christ and the resurrection and on that basis read the OT. Indeed, through Him we read the whole world.

    I’m including a link on the Marquett material. It’s of interest – but I am very leery of the current popularity in some of this stuff. Orthodoxy has not used this in its apologetics and exegesis over most of the Tradition. So, I’m cautious.

  52. Aaron,
    As far as I can understand what you are saying – it is Quakerism. It is not Orthodox Christianity. You have a “God” that is behind, above, beyond, Christianity and He transforms us. But, without reference to the Incarnate Jesus Christ, your use of the word “God” is meaningless to me. I have no idea who or what you are talking about.

    When you speak of transformation – it is – it seems to me – to be self-centered. You want to be transformed. When I speak of the crucified and risen Christ – I don’t think so much about being transformed (that’s God’s work, not mine). I think and long to know Him to participate Him to be crucified with Him. I don’t think about being transformed.

    It seems to me that you’re describing a sort of Quaker spirituality – but not Orthodox. “My life is Christ” would be more accurate for Orthodox spirituality.

  53. Fr. Freeman,

    I already agree with you on all of your points except for Paul. The experience is just like other OT prophets, Elisha comes to mind as the others heard but didn’t see. Regardless, it was direct experience and visionary even if he was blinded. I’m not using vision literally though I do believe we will literally see Christ. I don’t get off in mysticism speculations, so I have no awareness of such nut jobs if that’s what they prove to be. It is dangerous to re-read Paul’s Damascus Road experience, for apologetical reasons – to put down nuts jobs – as less than direct experience with Christ. His reasoning for his authority would make no sense and fail to be persuasive to the reader a la Spong or any other non-empirical take. I don’t see the difference anymore between Paul seeing Christ dramatically or if Christ had appeared to him like on the road to Emmaus. I don’t take it in the modern “mystical” sense. I’m a Christian, that used to mean something I know, and we have to qualify, but Paul experienced Christ empirically/sensibly/rationally/He was really there. I get all your cautions, and I’m glad that you’re aware to warn against such things. It’s just the overall desire for Paul that the Christians move on from milk/novice, to what? Surely to love, but there’s a sense in which we don’t know exactly what he meant because he mourns he can’t get much further with them than bottle-feedings. This is me, with the formula. But there is something persuasive about the statement, “I would that you would all prophesy.”

    I think there may be a case to be made, that apologetically some (St. Gregory Palamas) did use this material (or its logic as much was taken for granted/assumed – like the Angel of the Lord being Christ) and that it was necessary for them to do so. If they weren’t thinking this way, a big if, then theosis could be accused to have been a Greek concept imported 4th Century (according to skeptics and even DBH who is wrong and even contradicts his own commentary in the Bible he translated). Vision of Christ is the basis for our epistemology and really, to avoid a non-working epistemology. But before it was called vision of Christ it was vision/empirical experience of the visible Yahweh. Theosis is an OT concept. Yes, we start with Christ, but it is safe to start with Christ in the OT since He is the visible Yahweh. Either way, it should work out the same if the presuppositions are correct. Thanks!

  54. Hi Aaron,

    At the end of the Sermon on the Mount we are told that the people were astonished because Christ taught them as one having authority.

    Your questions are not addressed to me, but how I would answer is this: based on my personal experience, many do not come to Christ (or Orthodoxy) driven by fear of punishment or hope of reward solely in the sense you mean. The motivation is Truth. For us at least, a priest who says many beliefs are interchangeable and doing good to others is what counts, the answer does not satisfy. I want to live my life according to God’s true will.

    To turn your hypothetical around, suppose God does not desire you to live a life of altruism, defeating your own ego. Suppose God is a “be all you can be” God, that the “one who dies with the most toys wins,” would you still live in service to others? If you say your beliefs would remain the same no matter God’s will, then does it not seem you are worshiping your own ego, rather than God?

    Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church. If I went to a doctor who told me he was going to treat me a certain way, but it was not much better than the treatment I could receive from all sorts of others practitioners, including, say, homeopathy and essential oils, I would not be very reassured. I want a doctor who believes in the medicine he is providing. Whenever I read of priests, rabbis, etc. of various faith practices who espouse something vastly different than what seems to be the core of their faith, I understand why so many such faiths are withering and their numbers diminishing.

    To be sure, I fear God, and so part of my desire to live according to Truth is based in avoidance of punishment. And I am also grateful to God because of all the blessings I have received. But the example of Job (and Satan’s accusation against him that he was indeed motivated only by self-interest) evidences for me that–not only are we to love our neighbor–but we are to love God. We are to love God even when we does things that to us seem unjust. And to love God we must know something about Him.

    Finally, Fr. Stephen has described that he has spent his life trying various approaches and Orthodoxy is what he has found to be the true Way. An interchangeable theory of how life, God, and the universe ought to work is not likely to persuade him (or anyone) out of a lived experience.

  55. Father,
    Isn’t God Life and Light and Love? Isn’t the process of theosis a life-long, active participation in and with God which transforms us and makes us like Him? Doesn’t this transformation lead to a profound, unconditional love for God and neighbor? Wouldn’t this indeed make the world a better place if everyone consciously participated in this process? If this isn’t God, then I’m clearly mistaken. If this isn’t the purpose of our life, then I’m clearly mistaken.

  56. Aaron, some points
    1. Hebrews Ch 12 is eloquent in stating that Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith which includes the revelations of The Law and the Prophets

    2. Hebrews 12 also makes it clear it is God Who puts boundaries on us not the other way. Those boundaries ate meant to keep us from sin

    3 Belief leads to knowledge as 2 Peter makes clear (among others). Your idea of “belief” serms to me to be relativistic at best, down right nihilist at worst.

    4 Jesus is either the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen Lord who tramples down death by death or He is not. That is a binary reality. The wisdom, practice and witness of the Orthodox Church proclaims, even trumpets that He IS (The I Am). If He is not there is only the passions crumbling into nothingness. Our Sacraments allow us to partake of the I Am. Otherwise we would be as the fig tree which Jesus cursed recorded in Mt 21:18-20 part if today’s Gospel reading.

    5. The way to cure the ego is to acknowledge that He is the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen Lord and repent. As one repents, the Kingdom at hand is revealed within oneself and within others. A perfect example, a testable example of belief leading to knowledge and knowledge leading to the sure and certain hope that upon our repose we will be in “A place of brightness, a place of repose where all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away”

    Living the life of the Orthodox Church, even as poorly and fitfully as I have done has shown me the Truth By His Grace and enduring Mercy even the chaos of the modern becomes a clear and tranquil lake if Joy and Thanksgiving.

    6. Let us not be as the sheep described in Isaiah 53:6 gone astray every one to his own way.

    Forgive me, a sinner for I, too, have gone after the chaos, Aaron. It only leads to darkness.

    Yet, “He leads me beside the still water and restores my soul.”

  57. “Something’s going to kill you, eventually, and it shouldn’t concern us too much, other than to provoke us to repentance.”

    This is haunting me.

  58. Oh, I almost forgot: Orthodox means “right” belief. So, when we affirm our belief in reciting The Creed, we are actively entering into a specific belief, mode of prayer, worship and practice focused on the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen Lord….and that belief is imaged in our icons — it literally surrounds us and as we are blessed to receive the Sacrament, inter-penetrates each of us literally.

    As 1 Cor 11 reminds us that is a substantial reality. So substantial that if we eat or drink unworthily (perhaps not in right belief) we risk loosing our soul to darkness.

  59. Aaron,
    “God is Life and Light and Love,” is, in many ways, a meaningless statement in that the words “Life,” “Light,” and “Love,” are generalities. Everybody would agree to such a statement and mean so many different things that it simply dissipates into meaninglessness.

    God is Life. What Life? God is the Life made known to us in the resurrection of Christ. It has a very particular and specific context and content that the word “life” removed from that context cannot converyu.

    Light. What light? Sunlight? When Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World,” He defines light. You are trying to use Life and Light and Love to define God instead of the other way around. So, you could just be saying, “Niceness.” Without any particularity, it means nothing.

    The purpose of life is not to make the world a better place – that, too, is a meaningless statement in that it has no content. Every dictator of the last century used it as a justification for their evil.

    The encounter with Jesus Christ is not an encounter with Light, Life, and Love. In Jesus Christ – it will be that He reveals to us His Life, His Life, His Love. But He alone is the content and meaning of those words (when they are spoken in the fullness of their truth).

    Jesus Christ is the purpose and meaning of life, and it is in union with Him that we come to know the content of that meaning.

    Again, what you have described in this last comment is, forgive me, very similar to classical Quakerism. They spoke about the “Inner Light,” and their experience of this trumped even the gospel and Christianity. It is a path that doesn’t end well.

    I have written (including quite recently) about the emptiness of generalities and the necessity for particularity. The former is mostly just imaginary (or has no boundaries that would allow us to tell the difference between imagination and reality). The gospel makes specific, particular claims about Jesus Christ. It is where we begin – and ultimately – it is where we will end.

  60. Matthew,
    As to the Damascus Road – yes, I think it was “visionary” and mystical, etc., and certainly was existentially convincing to St. Paul. It’s just that I believe that when he says that he saw the risen Lord (in 1Cor. 15) he is describing a different experience not described in Acts or in the Third Level of heaven. We have no reason to conflate that testimony in 1Cor 15 with the other stories – so, that is my caution. I presume, based on what he says in 1Cor 15, that there is something that we haven’t been told about elsewhere.

    A mistake I see some making is the presumption that he is referencing something (either in Acts or elsewhere). There is nothing in the texts that should make us think that. And there is good reason to assume it is not the case.

  61. I meant haunted in a positive way. Perhaps I could’ve used a better word. I imagine everyone who reads these words knows people who have died too early or before their time as we like to say. Our individual contribution to the average life span statistic can’t be counted until we’ve reached our end. It’s foolish to speculate and good to be reminded that our every breath is God given.

  62. Robert,
    I think I caught your meaning. I will say, I turn 69 in a few months, and I can “see” 70 coming up. It’s a milestone. It’s also, if you will, our “alloted” lifespan in Scripture…so it’s a wake-up call to remember my mortality. Nearly 10 years ago I had a heart attack, so I have a certain awareness that was not with me before that…more or less that moment when you realize that the pain in your chest is actually a heart attack and not indigestion…

    I have a goal in life of dying well (not unlike the phrases we use in the litanies of the Church). It’s really the last “next good thing” that you get to do.

  63. Father, your article “A Particular Scandal” ought to be required reading for every catechumen. It certainly helped me see differently, particularly my rationalisations for holding on to my favorite besetting sins.

    Aaron, I am 74 1/2. I remember the phrase “Light, Life, and Love” from the 60’s “Jesus People”. No substance.

    I also remember floating around on several leaking life boats for decades until I washed up on the shore of the Orthodox Church. I know some of the places undefined ” belief” can take a person. It is not pretty. I have lost people dear to me in that siren song of chaos. Some have been restored by the Mercy of Jesus. I am still tempted myself. I pray for those still out there and I will pray for you as well.

    Lord, forgive me

  64. Aaron,
    I can think of a very painful example of what I am describing. My former denomination (the Episcopal Church), according to its official declarations would see the abortion of an unborn child as a matter of life, light, and love. Indeed, they now have begun to describe opposition to such a position as evil. They have not lost their moral compass – they have substituted a new one (as recently as 1928, the Anglican Communion condemned birth control, just to give an example of how far they have been “transformed”). But, in all of their morphing of doctrine, moral teachings, etc., they would unfailingly declare that they are committed to “life, light, and love.” The words have no content except the content that is attributed to them.

    It is better and right, I believe, that we commit ourselves to become followers of Jesus Christ – that we are not our own Lords, nor the definers of God. Orthodox Christianity is the original obedience to Christ. I have no reason to take up any other path.

    An equally sad example would be the Baptist Church of my childhood (in the Jim Crow South). I was taught in Church Camp that black people were biologically inferior to whites. And, then we went to chapel and sang about life, light, and love. Orthodoxy is a stranger to such doctrine and always has been. But the Baptist Church was following the culture of its time. The mainline denominations with their embracing of the Woke agenda and sexual teachings are simply continuing what they have always done – followed the culture and served as chaplains to the ruling class. And continue to sing about life, light, and love.

  65. Father, the 20th and 21st century are rife with such examples and unfortunately, we are not immune to the temptation.

    God forgive us and strengthen us.

  66. Father,
    Forgive me for sharing such meaningless generalities. I will refrain from commenting on any future posts.

  67. Fr. Freeman,

    Reading your articles are, as always, a blessing to me. I’ve heard a lot of noise from people around me recently, and regardless of the narratives that these people are possessed by, be they on the “left” or “right” of our society; the narratives they promote are all very bleak. Of course, you don’t have to spend more than thirty seconds on a news site to find distressing stories that seem to corroborate these narratives.

    In the midst of this hysteria, I remember your comment that “God is in control of history” and we already know of the outcome.

    T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” also comes to mind:
    “We wait, we wait,
    And the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints.
    Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen:
    I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.
    Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statesmen
    Who do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing,
    Having their aims which turn in their hands in the pattern of time.

    Only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think
    He can turn the wheel on which he turns.”

    Tomorrow, I think I’ll go for a nice walk and appreciate the truth of nature. Despite the problems we hear in our hyper-connected world, this does not stop the trees, the birds, and the rest of creation from worshiping God, and neither should it stop me.

    Please continue writing for as long as you are able to. Your words are a balm for the soul.

  68. Father, I second Jacob’s thanks.

    Jacob, Murder in the Cathedral–one of my favorite. Also nice to hear someone else who gets inspiration from plays.

  69. Thank you P.Stephen for all the edifying words in your comments, and all your efforts to continually clarify our true Faith. It is truly good and strengthening and a joy arises with the clarity of your thoughts that go deep into the heart and soul. Yes, may the Lord give you the grace, with the necessary strength, to continue this ministry that nourishes and strengthens so many people !

  70. Aaron,

    I hope you will continue to read and comment on the blog. All of us learn only by exchanging our views with one another.

    Recently I read the account of two parents who forgave the murderer of their 19-year-old son. In part the mother described her meeting with the murderer like this:

    “I’m sitting across this little table from him, and it’s all I can do to stay in my seat. I’m thinking: What’s wrong with me? Am I having a nervous breakdown? Everything in me wanted to leap over the table, grab hold of this kid, and rock him like a baby, just hold him. The urge was so overwhelming. The compulsion was so overwhelming, I was afraid that if I couldn’t keep control, I’d be in really big trouble with the guards and the warden. So I resisted that urge the whole time. On the way back home, I was thinking about it, and then I talked to Arlene and Father Oldershaw. I said, ‘I’ve got it! I know what was happening. I was getting a taste in my body of how much God loves us. He loves us so much that He wants to leap over the table, grab hold of us, and just rock us because we’re his children.’ That love, that forgiveness—I got a taste of what it must have been like for Jesus when he was here and walked the Earth among people that he loved so desperately, so wonderfully. I got a taste of it!”

    I believe a discipline of forgiveness might result from some other faith practice, like Buddhism, and that Orthodoxy was not necessary for the mother to forgive her child’s killer. (In fact, she was Catholic.) Moreover, as Fr. Stephens has said, such forgiveness would be an improvement over carrying passionate hatred in one’s heart. Even so, I do not believe that any interchangeable basis for her action would have caused the transformative experience in her heart. She felt a connection to Christ’s love for us, and that connection changed the moment from a rote practice or discipline into what she–in my opinion, rightly–describes as a miracle.

    That is what I mean by trying to persuade someone against his or her own life experience into a belief that Christ is optional. When Jesus gives the two great commandments, Christ says the second is “like unto the first”–which is the greater. I believe, therefore, loving your neighbor as this mother loved this murderer is possible only because we base it in loving God–because our love is in imitation of and grows out of the love Christ showed us.

    I don’t have a personal story as powerful as having to forgive the murderer of my child and hope I never do. But in small doses, I have experienced this feeling as well: knowing at moments that what I was doing was bringing me closer to God and His love. It’s very different from simply “doing the right thing” and getting a shot to the ego.

    For what it’s worth, I never entered an Orthodox church before February of this year. But I felt one such dose the first time I experienced the Divine Liturgy.

  71. Mark,
    I still remember my first experience at a Divine Liturgy and it happened 36 years ago.

  72. What enriching comments from Father and readers.
    Mark, hopefully you keep on with your visits to divine liturgy. Getting closer to 30 years ago, I first entered, with certain trepidation, an Orthodox church for liturgy. And I haven’t looked back since! It is still an unknown to me as to why some upon experiencing an Orthodox liturgy for the first time, experience only the noise of a clanging symbol. For me it was an overwhelming experience of joy. I did not really understand what was going on, but the Holy Spirit assured me that my heart had found its true home. I pray this happens to you, Mark. As I had told a man who later became my godson, “You never will regret becoming an Orthodox Christian.”
    And it has proven so.

  73. Oh yes, Michael. You and I, with millions of others worldwide, would never tire recounting all the riches we’ve found in the Church.
    An inexhaustible and fathomless supply.

  74. Dean,
    One of my favorite memories, oddly enough, came right after the funeral of a dear brother in Christ. Many of his non-Orthodox friends and co-workers attended. As we were all leaving one of them(an older gentleman) remarked: “I have never been to an Orthodox funeral before. Its different. They really DO something!”

  75. So true, Michael. With Orthodoxy it’s more of a “come and see.” Orthodox funerals can be powerful witnesses to its truthfulness and fidelity to the gospel. I still remember my first one in a Serbian church. If you can say a funeral was glorious, it was. About 6 weeks ago I attended a funeral in a monastery of a 98 year old lady. Seated next to me was a lady who has attended a Reformed church for years. At funeral’s end she turned to me and said, “This was wonderful! I’ve never been to a funeral like this before.”
    Yes indeed. Sure beats the slide show in most of today’s funerals.

  76. Fr. Freeman,

    The point I’m making is not that we try and replicate the experience of Paul, but that – here’s the real point – Paul uses the Jewish criteria for prophet (empirical experience) as his basis for authority. It was already understood to be the criteria, that’s why he, Jesus, Peter, etc. – appeal to it. And so, it’s both logical (within the Church’s mindset) that when Paul speaks of meat instead of milk, since he is already so theologically articulate and sometimes complicated – that he likely does not think meat to be more dogmatics but something experiential. Last, I don’t accuse you of this Father, but I know coming from a low-church background, and a devoutly Reformed Protestant one, that the Evangelical/Reformed – and how much this has infected other groups I’m not aware but that’s the bulk of US Christianity – their take on Paul is something like an advanced home-church leader workhorse. But the “mystical”, apocalyptic, weird by our standards Paul, is not part of the normal person’s imagination of Paul. Paul is familiar with Enoch, talks covering your head with an eye to Genesis 6, 3rd heavens, etc. At the same time, Paul is devoutly Jewish and within that framework now understood through Messiah/Lord. I think part of the reason both sides – the guru-ish side you are rightly cautious of, and the theosis ends up looking like justification by faith alone – why both are throwing too much baby out with the bathwater in Paul – is that there is no balancing out his Pharisee turned Christian with his mystical Christianity. There’s a biased preference it seems or there is an inflexible hermeneutic applied. Mystics want Paul to be mystic, non-mystics want Paul to be more like the Bible-study leader of house churches. But he is somewhere in between, and when the Corinthians get weird and obsessed, he prefers they prophesy. My question is then, since this would likely open a can of worms if he meant, I want all of you to teach “what this verse means to you” – or anything close to that – then what did he mean? Paul had a thing for order. Inviting everyone to be a teacher would have been borderline crazy. That’s why we don’t have spontaneous utterances in church. It could be said that Paul’s high hopes didn’t work out like other things that went on, but there was enough rivalry and ignorance already to have been careless.

  77. Matthew,
    For what it’s worth. I did not come from a low-Church, Protestant background, but a High Church, Anglican, and the scholarship was quite different. Indeed, my dogmatics professor did his doctorate under Fr. Georges Florovsky at Harvard.

    On the Jewish context of St. Paul – my critique of some of the work being put forward is not a critique of scholars such as Vladyka Alexander or Andrei Orlov and others in the project at Marquette, etc. It’s of a number of other popularizers who, I think, have not been trained sufficiently in critical scholarship. For one, they leap to conclusions and make pronouncements that are not certain – but make them as though they are.

    It is clear that St. Paul is familiar with a number of things as you note. He trained under Gamaliel together with St. Stephen. They knew each other (indeed, some versions of the tradition hold that they were cousins). However, St. Paul declares himself to be a Pharisee. Exactly how much the Pharisees practiced a Merkabah type mysticism is frankly anybody’s guess because we simply do not have clear evidence of how much they overlap. There’s a vast amount of speculation being offered as though it were settled fact – and that’s simply shoddy work.

    Having been nurtured and trained in a critical atmosphere – both in seminary and later at Duke – I was very used to seeing all kinds of theories and readings and speculations being put forward. It was offered, debated, revised, etc. That’s the sort of thing you see in the papers I referenced being written in the project on Christianity and Judaism at Marquette. It is not, however, the kind of scholarship that I’m seeing in the recent spate of popular writings on the topic. As such, I think that scholarship is misleading.

    So, I’m waving a flag on it. You’ll notice that I’ve not really put any of this forward on the blog. One reason is that it’s not my field. But, I know good scholarship when I see it – and someone needs to dig a lot deeper and more critically before I take it too seriously. I’ve been reading a number of the papers from the Marquette project. So far, I’ve seen good scholarship that questions a number of things being put forward.

    That said – I think you’re having a good time speculating. But you need to throw a healthy amount of critical thought, including the idea of being wrong, or not knowing on a good bit of this. We do not have anything like a clear, overall survey of what first Century Judaism actually looked like. It’s still guesses – some more educated than others.

    Whatever St Paul was – he was not the Bible study leader of a house church. About that, we agree. He does not, however, base his authority on purely prophetic criteria. At his most profound use of authority (1Cor. 15, for example), he appeals to Tradition – that which was delivered to him (and this would have been at the hands of the Apostolic Church – probably in Jerusalem or Antioch). He does the same on the institution of the Eucharist, citing word-for-word what we find in the gospel accounts – calling it tradition – because, when he received it – it would not yet have been written down. But, I think you overstate the case on St. Paul and prophetic criteria. He’s broader than that.

    Also, I prefer not to speculate much here on the blog. It makes for interesting (even 3 hour-long podcasts), but I don’t think speculation is of much value to what I am trying to do, day-in-and-day-out on the blog.

  78. Father

    Regarding your point “Our faith is not in visions – but in something that was indeed “touched.”

    Perhaps it is apt, given the impending feast of the Dormition of Theotokos, to remind ourselves of the moving account of St Dionysius Aeropagite, when he was transported by the Holy Spirit to honour her before her departure, per his epistle to St Paul (?) :

    I did not believe, I confess it before the Lord, oh! wonderful guide and our shepherd John, that apart from the most high God it was possible for there to be any person who is full of divine power and divine grace.

    But no man can imagine what I saw and understood not only with my mental eyes but also with my physical eyes. So, I saw with my eyes the divine and holiest of all heavenly spirits Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    It was a gift of the grace of God, the condescension of the leading apostle (John), as well as the infinite goodness, mercy and kindness of the Virgin herself.

    I confess again and again before almighty God, before the all-good Savior and before His glorious and holy Mother, how, when he led me to her, the divine and Virgin Mary, John, the head of the evangelists and prophets who, while living in flesh, shining like the sun in the sky, a divine radiance enveloped me, a radiance vivid and undiminished, illuminating me not only externally but also internally, as well as a transcendental, a wonderful fragrance with constant changes.

    Neither my spirit nor my weak body could endure so many and such signs, which constituted a foretaste of eternal bliss and glory. My heart failed and my spirit was almost extinguished by her divine glory and grace.

    I affirm before God that, if I had not kept in my heart and in my newly enlightened mind His divinely inspired teachings and pledges, I would have considered the Virgin as a god and would have worshiped her as we worship the only true God.

    Because no mind can imagine for a person glorified by God a glory higher than that glory which I, the unworthy, deserved to see, nor a greater bliss than the bliss which I deserved to taste.

    I thank my most high and all-good God, the Virgin Mary, the leading Apostle John, as well as you, the highest and most illustrious head of the Church, who tenderly showed me such a favor.

  79. Fr. Freeman,

    I’ve been into the work of the Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright for some time, and others like him. I’m not relying on certain 3-hour podcasts. When you combine scholarship on Paul with 2nd Temple scholarship and the ANE scholarship (which is usually not done, usually OT and NT scholarship and even theology and Biblical scholarship, are almost totally separate disciplines which is a problem in and of itself) there is a picture that develops that fits (not just pragmatically like equations) with and gives explanatory power (maybe insight into the mind) for why the Fathers thought the way they did. For example, Penal Substitution would have never crossed most of their minds as it would have been quickly noticeable that the idea was thoroughly Pagan. The idea of Sacred Space is lost on most of us as we don’t believe (well, we do) in something like cosmic geography. The fact that Paul lays out his missionary plans in the order of the nations that fallout due to Babel shows he has a different soteriology than modern Baptists for example, and that he believes in Christus Victor not as a theory but as a reality. Modern Christian lost the problems of the Bible as they got swapped for Augustinian soteriology. That’s just a fact and not an opinion.

    Last comment on Paul… Before he goes to Jerusalem, he qualifies that he did not go there for 3 years, and that he did not consult with anyone (Galatians 1:16) and only saw Peter and James. The way he writes about it shows there was nothing remotely dramatic – 2 sentences to describe it. Then it’s 14 years, and only after being motivated by a – revelation – does he go again. and here the conciliar principle is in place – because he doesn’t go to get their stamp of approval but to “check himself “and got their “hand of fellowship”. Then he goes into how he opposed Peter to his face. The whole argument is that Paul’s authority came via direct revelation and only secondarily was he concerned, but truly concerned, to check it against another standard. But it all starts in the introduction and in 1:12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. From 1:1 – 2:14 he lays out why they should listen to him, then begins to go after the false gospel he anathematizes. So, Paul bases his Apostolicity on having received, not from the Apostles, or from Tradition, but from Christ in that Christ revealed Himself to him. Then, after, in no rush, after another revelation, he makes sure everyone’s on the same page – that they all have the same Tradition – setting a precedent for the conciliar principle. And later goes so far as to say that if anyone preaches a different “gospel” than the one he preached, then let that person be accursed.

    The content of my writing is mostly my own. I don’t read others for apologetic reasons.

    Thanks for the interaction!
    Matthew Lyon

  80. It is still an unknown to me as to why some upon experiencing an Orthodox liturgy for the first time, experience only the noise of a clanging symbol.

    Dean, I think it is the state of our hearts that determines this. I’ve seen a Protestant sitting in an Orthodox Liturgy and violently shaking his head back and forth while we glorify the Theotokos. He was not paying attention to the worship of God that is a constant throughout the Liturgy. His heart was focused in other, more fearful directions. It took me 50+ years to enter the Orthodox Church, I try to be patient with others.

  81. Byron,
    Yes, the disposition of the heart is critical, isn’t it? Yet I am sure many other factors come into play also.

  82. This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it. For God is with us.

  83. Matthew,
    Last thought on St. Paul,
    We have a scant amount of material on the life of St. Paul (though that tiny amount dwarfs what we know about most of his contemporaries). So, I have long thought it problematic to construct to large an edifice as the “life of St. Paul,” which might include other witnesses, or broad information which he neglects to mention. Thus, I simply think we say too much in such construtions (as in “how he bases his Apostolicity, etc.”). He is also giving evidence, if you will, in a polemical situation which might easily overlook important details.

    Fortunately, for Orthodox Christians, nothing particularly important turns on these matters. I fully support a vigorous critique of the PSA (as you know), and see it as pretty much a late-comer in Christian thought and alien to the NT. But, I’d prefer to just leave it there.

  84. Dear brethren in Christ

    I hope Fr Stephen will not mind me posting this message from people who look after him, to ask for your prayers for His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia who is now moving into the final stage of this life. Thanks be to God that he is not in severe pain.
    He has received anointing and the Holy Mysteries. He is quite calm and repeatedly gives glory to God for all things. He is mostly asleep due to morphine but when he is awake he repeats “Christ is with us”.
    May God grant our dear father a peaceful end to his earthly life in the assurance of His mercy and the Kingdom of Heaven.

  85. Fr. Freeman,

    Check out “The Day the Revolution Began” by Wright. A main focus of the book is to show that PSA is Pagan.

  86. Nikolaos,
    I first met his Eminence, Met. Kallistos, when I was an Anglican seminarian. He was a priest-monk at the time, teaching at Oxford, and he came and gave some lectures at our small school. I later had the opportunity to meet him several times at other events. In 2008, my wife and I were privileged to spend 10 days with him in the Holy Land on a pilgrimage he was leading. We spent the whole day and much of the evening with him. His stories were wonderful and his company always a cheerful, kind, and holy blessing.

    He played a very significant role in making Orthodoxy available to the English-speaking world. His book, The Orthodox Church, was, effectively, the first book in English on the Orthodox Church and has been a standard introduction ever since. His own prominence as an Oxford scholar and teacher added a sense of seriousness in the English-speaking world – and served to silence many critics of Orthodoxy.

    Some find fault with this thing or that – but his role and impact in the Church as it stands today can hardly be overstated. I am blessed to have known him. He will be missed.

  87. Matthew,
    Thanks for the head’s up. You might find it of interest that back in my Anglican past, I knew NT. He was Dean of Litchfield Cathedral at the time. I did a book for the Episcopal Book Club to which he contributed a chapter. Very pleasant gentleman. We’re now both ever so much older.

  88. Dear Nikolaos,
    Thank you for the news concerning the beloved his Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia. Both his lovely demeanor and his work was also my first introduction to Orthodox theology and history. I would also listen to his lectures on YouTube. My language access is somewhat slow. But his cadence allowed me to follow easily and learn. Indeed, repeating your words, may God grant our dear father a peaceful end to his earthly life in the assurance of His mercy and the Kingdom of Heaven.

  89. Echoing Dee, as soon as I became interested in Orthodoxy, I read both “The Orthodox Way” and “The Orthodox Church.” I remember in the former a passage in which for the first time I thought of God (the Trinity) in a particular way because of how he had expressed it, and the thought felt so beautiful.

    In Protestantism as I had experienced it–not to say that was not my own fault from my own often indifferent approach to church–my sense had always been, “Don’t worry too much about the Trinity; it’s confusing, and no one really gets it.” In contrast to a difficult puzzle and mystery so that why anyone would ever split a church over something like the filioque, the book described how one person alone does not experience love, but love requires a multiplicity of persons. The Trinity exists in a perpetual movement of love from one Person of God to another. (I cannot do the prose justice from memory, but something in me connected with the profound words.)

    For my son’s birthday a couple of weeks ago I bought him a guitar amplifier (what he wanted) and a copy of “The Orthodox Way” (what I wanted to give him).

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