How Good Is Your Will? Part Two of The Ontological Model

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Suppose I give you a bicycle for the convenience of travel. Suppose, however, that the bicycle is broken: flat tires, missing spokes, a chain that slips frequently. Nevertheless, you figure out a way to make it go. The ride is bumpy and you often have to stop and fix the chain. You fear that one day the wheels will just come apart as the spokes yield to the weight. Nevertheless, in fits and starts, you bumble along the road. This, I suggest, is an apt model for the human will.

The will is not absent, but it’s broken. It’s more broken in some people than others.

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom 7:15-25)

St. Paul’s famous lament, “The good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice…” is a heartbreaking echo of every human heart. It is particularly frustrating in a culture that elevates the power of the will above all things in its strange perversion of liberty. We have a will, and it plays a role in our life. However, it is not the primary defining aspect of our humanity. Man as a moral agent is frequently little more than a fiction.

I have been writing about problems in the legal/forensic model of salvation. Juridical images have a place (primarily within preaching). They can easily become moralistic, describing the human condition as being largely about correct choices and the consequences for the bad ones. Indeed, in the legal/forensic model, moral agency is pretty much the only aspect of humanity that matters. Morality is about decisions. There are rules, warnings and consequences. We are then free to choose and suffer accordingly.

I will observe, parenthetically, that this same judicial model has come to govern almost every aspect of modern culture, particularly in liberal democracies of the capitalist world. For in those societies, there are winners and losers. It is quite comforting for those who have succeeded to assume that the failure of others is the result of their wrong choices. Indeed, the consequences of those choices, it is often thought, serve as a good lesson for all. America defines itself as a nation of moral agents, often presuming that it is the most moral of all nations.

However, the landscape of the nation points to one of the flaws of the juridical approach. There is, and always has been, an intractable portion of the population who fail to succeed. If you do historical studies you will find that the problem has existed in America since its earliest colonial days and has never disappeared.1 Successive political regimes have described the phenomenon in a variety of ways, but none have ever managed to make it disappear. Christ’s observation, “The poor you have with you always,” remains unchallenged. This intractable poverty is more than economic: it represents a failure of moral agency. Anyone who works with the poorest segment of society has to admit that there are some people who can never seem to manage their lives in a manner that avoids trouble and failure. Their own frustration is heart-breaking.

Moral agency generally divides people into winners and losers with the winners feeling somehow justified in their choices and decisions. But what if the will is like a broken bicycle? What if, in the lottery of life, the winners simply inherited a less-broken bicycle and only travel on well-paved, well-maintained roads? What if circumstances fail to reveal the brokenness of some while magnifying that of others? What if none of us is completely responsible for anything?

The ontological approach (I apologize again for the term) does not see human beings primarily as moral agents. First, we are beings. We have a will, but it is broken. The doctrine of the Church, as articulated in the 5th Council and its surrounding theology, describes our human nature as having a will (the natural will), but also notes that the natural will is impaired in its application through the mode of willing known as the gnomic will. The intricacies of this understanding do not have to be completely understood. If you want to try, then read St. Maximus the Confessor. He is the great Doctor of that Council.

The subtleties of this understanding go a long way towards describing the true frustration of the human predicament. St. Paul articulated it with his groaning, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The brokenness of the will is a problem of being, not a failure of moral agency.

Certain versions of Protestantism recognize the brokenness of the will, but remain committed to moral agency as the primary lens for understanding our relationship with God. For them, man is thoroughly corrupt, incapable of truly willing the good. That some seem to succeed while others fail is attributed to the sovereign will of God. Some are chosen, some are not. It has been a very compatible theology for the landscape of modern capitalist democracies. The Elect do well – “God shed His grace on thee.”

The ministry of Christ seems to have gone past the question of moral agency. Those who championed their choices (Pharisees) did not fare so well in their interactions with Christ. However, He seemed particularly drawn to those who occupied the broken layers of humanity marked by poverty, disease and bad choices. A woman taken in the act of adultery finds compassion. A woman living out-of-wedlock, having failed five times in marriage is engaged forthrightly and finds salvation. Christ seems to look past the moral brokenness and into the very heart of their existence. He answers with mercy even the failure of religious belief, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

We are not autonomous moral agents running around shaping our lives and world by our choices. Our choices, having been exalted by modern philosophical theories, have reached an apex of absurdity. Justice Kennedy gave voice to the delusional view of modern moral agency:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…

Human beings are first and foremost human beings. Our very existence is a gift from God. Existence itself is good and is intended to become even better moving towards true eternal being in union with God. We are human beings who have a will (broken and dysfunctional). But we ourselves are not a will. Modernity tends to think of human beings as a will that has a body. Of course, many human beings (infants for one) either have an impaired will or are not able to manifest the will as choice and decision. These odd creatures are a bother to moralists. They are flies in the ointment that are generally relegated to some less-than-fully-human status. It is not surprising that in the secular version of the juridical world, such people are easily put to death as non-persons.

 Our existence is always contingent – it is a gift from God and only continues because it participates in His existence. Sin moves us away from that participation and thus towards non-existence. The primary category of sin is death, or non-being. This death manifests itself in us in many ways, including those that are described as “moral.” It is of note that the Tradition describes us as being in “bondage to sin and death.” This is the primary image of Pascha (Passover), and thus of our salvation. God sends Moses into Egypt to lead His people out of bondage. He does not go there primarily to improve their role as moral agents. Christ enters our world in order to lead us out of bondage to sin and death. The healing of our will is, over time, part of the fulfillment of that Exodus.

How good is your will? It’s of use from time to time, but also seems to be pretty dysfunctional at other times. It is not the core of your being. God Himself is the core of our existence. The traditional focus of the Christian life is growth in union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Christianity is not a moral improvement society. There are many to be saved who will seem like the worst moral failures among us. In His compassion, Jesus loved them greatly. They have suffered much, often at their own hands.

The excellence of moral agents, like the wealth of the successful American, is not a matter for boasting. Everything is a gift. We have earned nothing. The gifts of God are given to us for the purpose of giving Him thanks and to share with those who have less. The excellence of a moral agent is measured in deeds of compassion and self-offering, not in the fastidious adherence to a code of conduct that is often little more than middle-class conformity.

God give us grace!

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Notes

Being Saved – The Ontological Approach

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I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished there were a simple, felicitous word for “ontological.” I dislike writing theology with words that have to be explained – that is, words whose meanings are not immediately obvious. But, alas, I have found no substitute and will, therefore, beg my reader’s indulgence for dragging such a word into our conversations.

From the earliest times in the Church, but especially beginning with St. Athanasius in the 4th century as the great Ecumenical Councils took shape, the doctrines of the Church have been expressed and debated within the terms related to being itself. For example, St. Athanasius says that in creating us, God gave us “being” (existence), with a view that we should move towards “well-being,” and with the end of “eternal being” (salvation). That three-fold scheme is a very common theme in patristic thought, championed and used again in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor with great precision, as he matured the thought of the Church as affirmed in the 5th Council.

At the same time, this language of being was used to speak about the nature and character of salvation, the same terms and imagery were being used to speak about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. That language continues up through the Seventh Council and is the language used to define the doctrine of the veneration of the Holy Icons. Conciliar thought, carried on within the terms of being (being, non-being, nature, person, existence, hypostatic representation, essence, energies, etc.) can be described as speaking in the language of “ontology.” Ontology is the technical name for things having to do with being (“onto” as a prefix in Greek means “being”). There is a “seamless garment” of theological exposition that can be discerned across the range of the Councils. It is ontological in character.

Tremendous work and discussion on the part of the fathers resulted in a common language for speaking about all of these questions. Thus, the term “person” (an aspect of “being”) is used both for speaking about the Trinity as well as speaking about human persons and the one person of Christ in two natures. It is the primary “grammar” of Orthodox conciliar thought. No other imagery or language receives the kind of imprimatur as the terms raised up into the formal declarations of the Church’s teaching. To a degree, everything else is commentary.

Many other images have been used alongside the ontological work of the Councils. The Church teaches and a good teacher draws on anything at hand to enlighten its students. Nevertheless, the dogmatic language of the Church has been that of “being.”

So what constitutes an “ontological” approach to salvation?

Here is an example. “Morality” is a word and concept that applies to behavior and an adherence to rules and laws. “Immorality” is the breaking of those laws. You can write about sin (and thus salvation) in the language of morality and never make reference to the language of being. But what is created becomes a sort of separate thing from the conciliar language of the Church. Over the centuries, this has often happened in theology, particularly Western theology (Protestant and Catholic). The result is various “departments” of thought, without a common connection. It can lead to confusion and contradiction.

There is within Orthodoxy, an argument that says we are on the strongest ground when we speak in the language of the Councils. The language of “being” comes closer to accurately expressing what is actually taking place. Though all language has a “metaphoric” character, the language of being is, I think, the least metaphorical. It is about “what is.”

Back to the imagery of morality. If you speak of right and wrong in terms of being, it is generally expressed as either moving towards the path of well-being-eternal-being, or moving away from it, that is, taking a path towards non-being. What does the path of non-being look like? It looks like disintegration, a progressive “falling apart” of existence. The New Testament uses the term phthora (“corruption”) to describe this. Phthora is what happens to a body when it dies. Death, in the New Testament, is often linked to sin (“sin and death”). It is the result of moving away from God, destroying our communion with Him.

For most modern people, death is seen as simply a fact of life, a morally neutral thing. It can’t be a moral question, we think, because you can’t help dying. But, in the New Testament and the Scriptures, death is quite synonymous with sin. When Adam and Eve sin, they are told that it will result in death (a very ontological problem). A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment. The ontological approach sees death itself as the issue and the term that defines the meaning of sin. Sin is death. Death is sin.

And so, the language of the Church emphasizes that Christ “trampled down death by death.” In the language of ontology, that simple statement says everything. “He trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This includes the destruction of sin, freedom from the devil, forgiveness of sins, etc. But all of those things are included in the words of “death” and “life.”

An advantage in speaking in this manner can again be seen in comparing it to a simple moral approach. Morality is about actions, obedience, and disobedience. It says nothing about the person actually doing those things (or it can certainly avoid that topic). It can mislead people into thinking that being and existence are neutral sorts of things and that what matters is how we behave. This can be coupled with the modern heresy of secularism in which it is asserted that things have an existence apart from God, that the universe is just a “neutral no-man’s land.” The ontological approach denies this and affirms that God upholds everything in existence, moment by moment. It affirms that existence itself is a good thing and an expression of God’s goodness. It says as well that it is the purpose of all things that exist to be in communion with God and move towards eternal being. It is the fullness of salvation expressed in Romans 8:21-22.

Moral imagery also tends to see the world as disconnected. We are simply a collection of independent moral agents, being judged on our behavior. What I do is what I do, and what you do is what you do, and there is nothing particularly connected about any of it. The language of being is quite different. Everything in creation that exists shares in the commonality of created being. What happens to any one thing effects everything else. There is true communion at the very root of existence.

And it is this communion of being that the fathers use when they speak of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. When the Creed says, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,” it is speaking about salvation. It does not say, “Who, in order to pay the penalty that was due…” Such language can be used and has been used, but it is not at the heart of the Conciliar words of the Church. It is not recited every Sunday.

So how does Christ save us in terms of being? In essence (no pun intended), He became what we were in order to make us what He is. He became man, entering and restoring the full communion which we had broken. The Lord and Giver of Life, the Author of our Being entered into dying humanity. He took our dying humanity on Himself and entered into the very depths of that death (“suffered death and was buried”). He then raised that same dying humanity into His own eternal life. This is our forgiveness of sins. If sin is death, then resurrection is forgiveness. Thus we sing at Pascha:

“Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” That sentence only makes sense in terms of the ontological language in which it is written.

We do bad things (immoral things) because we have broken communion with God. “Sins” are the symptoms and signs of death, decay, corruption, and disintegration at work in the soul. If left unattended, it will drag us into the very depths of near non-being in what can properly be described as hell. This is reflected in the Psalm verse, “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Psa 115:17)

In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This is the language of being and communion. St. Paul tells us that in Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. He then adds that we should “walk in newness of life.” That union with Christ and infusion of His Life creates a moral change that can be described in the language of being.

The unity of language, I believe, is very helpful and salutary. It is easy for modern believers, nurtured in the language of morality, to hear teachings about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc., and think, “What has any of that got to do with my life?” That is a natural conclusion when salvation is expressed in a language that is separated from the language of the doctrinal foundations of the Church.

There are some who have pushed the moral language into the language of the Trinity, such that what is important is the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath. Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems. It is not that such terms have no use nor that they have never been used by any of the Fathers at any time. But they have a long history of being misused and distorting and obscuring the foundational doctrines of the Church.

In my own life, I personally found the language of being, when applied to my salvation, to explain the meaning of Scripture more thoroughly and connect my daily life and actions to the most fundamental doctrines of the Church. It allowed me to read St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory, St. Maximus and a host of others without feeling that I had come to something foreign. It more than adequately addresses moral questions, whereas moral language cannot address anything else and creates problems and heresies when it is imported into the language of the Trinity. I should add that I have worked within this for nearly 30 years and have found nothing within Scripture than cannot be understood within the ontological understanding and that doing so frequently takes you deeper into understanding what is actually going on. It also forces you to ask the questions of “how does this relate to everything else?”

I hope this little introductory train of thought is helpful for those who are thinking about these things. It should explain why I see this as important and something that goes to the very heart of the Orthodox faith.

Transformation and Forgiveness

There are various applications in our culture directed towards “feeling good about ourselves.” In contrast to being shamed and condemned it is an improvement. But it also misses the truth of things. Pretending that everything is ok does not make it so. There is within this, a kinship to the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement, in which God agrees to see us as righteous (because of Christ’s sacrifice) even though we are not. The faith of the Orthodox speaks of a true transformation, a righteousness that is truth because it is.

God is the author of our being – He deals in reality, not in fiction. The great weakness of legal/forensic models of sin and salvation is their failure to think in terms of reality. If sin is a legal problem, then its problem is not within itself but within some legal understanding that exists elsewhere. In the state of Tennessee, possession of marijuana is a crime. In the state of Colorado, it is not. Both are fictions. Pot itself is not “legal” or “illegal,” it is just pot.

I have been working my way through an interesting book, Robert Meagher’s Killing from the Inside Out. He is a Catholic theologian examining Just War theory. However, his approach is not one of examining the ideas of Just War. He examines, instead, the actual effects of killing and war in the lives and psyche of soldiers. His work consistently reveals the emptiness of Just War Theory to account for the actual experiences of human beings. War is not a legal problem; it is a matter of life and death.

Meagher spent some years interviewing soldiers. He notes the sad phenomenon of the suicide epidemic among our war veterans. In one chapter, he quotes a sad note left by one soldier for his mother:

Mom, I am so sorry. My life has been hell since March 2003 when I was part of the Iraq invasion. . . . I am freeing myself from the desert once and for all. . . . I am not a good person. I have done bad things. I have taken lives. Now it’s time to take mine.

Meagher uses the term “moral injury” to describe the wound carried by such veterans. They have acted against their own moral compass and find it difficult to live with themselves. This analysis, unfortunately, subjectivizes something that is quite objective. More than a “moral injury,” sin is an ontological wound. It haunts us because it is real. It is the madness of Lady Macbeth’s, “Out! Out! Damn spot!” tortured by Duncan’s blood that she imagines to always be on her hands.

It has been commonplace in American military chaplaincies (at least as I’ve come to understand them) to use Just War Theory as a means of supporting soldiers in the spiritual problems that surround their actions. “If you had not killed him, he would have killed you.” “You’re protecting the lives of our citizens,” etc. Such legal justifications are revealed as ineffective against the “moral injury” that Meagher describes. The same could be said of the whole of the moral world when conceived in legal terms.

I will suggest a primary text for considering our true, ontological transformation:

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:18)

St. Paul does not equate beholding the glory of the Lord as a reward for a life well-lived, or as an imputed righteousness at the end of our journey. He is describing something that is taking place at this present moment. When we are properly directed towards God, we behold the face of Christ. We see two things: Christ’s face (the truth of Who He Is), and our own selves (the truth of who we are). That encounter often provokes something like shame within us. The emptiness, brokenness, and sinfulness of our lives, when seen for what they are, make us want to hide in His presence. But as we turn our eyes back to Him, there is a slow cleansing, healing, forgiveness, and filling that take place. This occurs because, standing before His face, we are in communion with Him. Who He is begins to heal who we are.

Two passages from St. John’s first epistle come to mind:

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn 4:7).

And

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 Jn. 3:2)

To “walk in the Light” I take to be synonymous with “beholding His face.”  “Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! They walk, O LORD, in the light of Your countenance.” (Ps. 89:15) To see Christ “as He is” I take to mean in the “fullness of who He is.” St. Paul notes that our present sight of Christ is “dim.” We do not see Him clearly because of our own brokenness and sin. This requires that we return again and again to the face of Christ. This is the slow, patient work of repentance. We cannot do it quickly – to see His face in that manner, all of a sudden, would be to die.

As noted earlier, to see Christ is also to see ourselves. Everything is revealed in the truth of its existence in the presence of Christ. St. Paul uses a very rich image of judgment:

For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:11-15)

That which lacks reality (sin, darkness, etc.) will disappear in the face of reality (described as “fire”). That which is real and true (the truth of who we are) will be refined. The false is lost, the true is saved.

This fire already burns among us:

“I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Lk. 12:49)

This “fire” is the presence of Christ in the fullness of its truth. The writer of Hebrews combines this image of fire with the image of shaking:

…whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:26-29)

In both, it is the impermanent (hay, wood, stubble, the unstable) that are removed. It is the less-than-real-and-true that are burned and removed. If this imagery is placed into an ontological context, we see it as a purification, the destruction of sin and everything that distorts our being and existence.

The “moral injury” of a soldier is merely one example among ever so many. He carries his injury and sometimes feels as if the injury is greater than himself, that his life has been overwhelmed. The damage done cannot be healed through the various legal fictions we extrapolate into our world. Something must be changed, removed, shaken, consumed in the fire of God’s love. I have long loved the imagery in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It paints sin in ontological terms. On the one hand, sin reduces our reality, leaving us ghost-like and thin as smoke. Sometimes sin is even seen as a ghostly lizard that whispers and controls every action. In his book, forgiveness is a matter of moving deeper into heaven, of becoming more real, more solid.

I imagine that many read his work as a metaphor for the legal/forensic forgiveness of sin. That, it seems to me, would be a very sad reversal. Lewis’ imagery is more expressive of the ontological truth than any amount of forensic reasoning. Sin is real and its effects are real, regardless of how we might reason about it. There is nothing for it other than to submit ourselves to Reality itself.

This theme resounds in the poetic words of St. Simeon the Translator that form part of the prayers in preparation for communion:

O Lord, now as I approach Holy Communion, may I not be burned by partaking unworthily. For you are fire and burn the unworthy, I pray cleanse me of all sin.

Of Your mystical supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Your mystery to Your enemies, neither like Judas will I give You a kiss; but like the thief will I confess You: remember me, O Lord, in Your kingdom.

Stand in fear, O soul, as you look upon the deifying Blood for it is fire and burns the unworthy. May the divine Body sanctify and nourish me. May it deify my soul and wondrously feed my mind.

You have sweetened my longing for You, O Christ and transfigured me with Your love. Let my sins be consumed in the immaterial fire and grant me to be filled with Your joy, that I may rejoice in both and glorify Your coming, O good One.

How can I, the unworthy one, enter the radiance of the saints? For should I dare to go into the room, my clothing betrays me for it is not a wedding garment and I will be bound and cast out by the angels. But, O Lord, purify the stains of my soul and save me, for You are the Lover of mankind.

Master, Lover of mankind, Lord Jesus Christ my God, may these holy things not be for my condemnation, for I am unworthy. May they be for me a cleansing, sanctification of both soul and body and for assurance of the life and kingdom to come: for it is good for me to cling to God and to place my hope of salvation in the Lord.

 

 

 

 

The Erotic Language of Prayer

The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness]. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation , almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role. For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

Humble and Meek and Middle-Class Morality

 

“He Will Exalt the Humble and Meek”

There is an interesting historical pattern that has been repeated any number of times across the centuries. A group of the dispossessed and the poor come together within a religious movement. What begins with great enthusiasm succeeds. As it succeeds, those who were once poor and dispossessed manage to gather themselves into some sort of order. They learn to work hard, to avoid disaster, to become better, more moral people. Often this change takes place as those within the community sacrifice to make the same transition possible for others. And then success takes over.

Those who once were poor are now prosperous. Association with the poor now feels risky, almost a step backwards. The rewards of morality create a new class of Christians who feel distinctly uncomfortable around the very sort of people who once constituted their membership. In economic terms, it is a movement from poverty towards some form of propertied stability. With the new stability comes a whole new worldview.

The shift in worldview is significant. Morality (good behavior) has a way of self-justification. The morally competent all-too-frequently see themselves as the products of their own self-discipline and inner character. They fail to see that they are doing little more than conforming to the social morality of their class.

I was born to the middle class (lower). Along with that came a deep sense of right and wrong, of work and responsibility. My parents came from poor circumstances – my father was the son of a sharecropper, my mother, the daughter of a farmer (100 acres). We had little to mark us out as “middle class.” What I actually received was a deeply internalized sense that the middle class was where we belonged.

My mother would occasionally inveigh a shameful imprecation on us. Words or actions would bring this ringing rebuke: “They will think you’re some of Uncle Pick’s people!” I never knew who “Uncle Pick” was, or what his people had done. However, it sounded like the worst possible thing.

As an adult, I eventually queried my mother, expecting to hear the tale of some terrible faux pas, an out-of-wedlock child or such. Instead, I heard something very different. “They never wanted to better themselves.” This was her dismissal of these ne’er-do-well scions of our family tree. It didn’t matter how poor you were so long as you didn’t act like it. Indeed, being middle class requires a consciousness of not being something else.

Christ’s most damning words were reserved for the Pharisees. He uses the term “hypocrites” 14 times in referring to them. He does not fault their “morality.”

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. (Mat 23:2-3)

He consistently makes a distinction between their outer actions and the inner disposition of their hearts:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Mat 23:27-28)

The Pharisees were religiously and morally successful. Their children were likely the same. And yet, inwardly, they were failing. I recently saw a description of my writing in which it was characterized as marked by “existential despair” and “moral futility.” This assessment (which makes me sound like Dostoevsky!) seemed to have been occasioned by my treatment of certain notions of “morality.”  Cf. My series on the “Unmoral Christian.”

I have never suggested that anyone should be immoral or amoral. Readers here will know that my commitment to the Church’s teaching is unequivocal. However, I share the concern found in Christ’s approach to the Pharisees. The nature of sin can be easily overlooked in a “merely” moral approach to the Christian life. The “dead men’s bones” that lie beneath the moral surface were obvious to Christ. “We do not have a legal problem,” I have written, “We have a death problem.” “Dead men’s bones” are the result of the ontological corruption that is the very heart of sin. And the deepest and most corrupt sinners among us can also appear to be the most moral. If the morality of your life does not reach beneath the surface and into the depths of the corruption that is at work there, then your life is indeed an expression of moral futility.

An equally great tragedy rises from this untended inner corruption. The assurance of moral rectitude is fortified by the unwillingness to rightly acknowledge and bear the inward shame of sin. This dries up the well of compassion that should mark the soul. A gulf grows between the “morally” competent and those who are clearly and visibly broken by sin. True compassion would require the recognition of a kinship of shame.

A particular point in the criticisms I’ve received is worth noting. Some have said that I teach that there is no moral progress in this life – that we cannot get better. That is close to something that I have indeed said. I should acknowledge that this a hyperbole on my part. Obviously, the saints are living examples of people who have gone from the worst to the greatest. It is possible to imagine that others can do something similar. I have observed (and said) that it is rare. What is common, I think, is an improvement of behavior, a greater conformity to rules (and this is not a bad thing). But it just as often leaves unattended the “dead men’s bones” of ontological corruption and shame.

If, for example, anger is a common element in your life, then it is pretty much the case that there are areas of unattended shame. It is also true that these same wounds will continue to provide the fuel for a host of sins across a lifetime. One thing that separates the traditional middle class in our culture from the lower classes is the adherence to a standard of public behavior. Those in the poorer classes are more likely to misbehave publicly in an embarrassing manner (yelling, cursing, etc.). But the nice banker walking down the street is no less angry. His anger remains unexpressed (except at home in more private places). We can say that the banker is more “moral” than the poor man, but he is just as sick and broken.

My writing has an intention of addressing this hidden brokenness. There are already plenty of people who write and pontificate about what constitutes morally correct behavior. I want to attend to what actually causes the corruption in our life. When you strip away the veneer of public morality, you reveal a world of moral futility. If anyone doubts this to be the case I beg them to pay attention to the world in which they live. The chaos and evil that we see belongs to hearts that are just like mine and yours. If everyone in the world were as good as me, then, I fear, we would see nothing that we do not already see.

This is the cry of a mature Apostle, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21)

It is only when the veneer is peeled back and we dare to peer into the depths of shame that the Light can begin to overcome the darkness. The darkness cannot be managed – what it hides must be transformed. This deep inner world is the furnace in which the holiness of saints is forged. It is the place of true repentance.

In the meantime – and here I must be emphatic – we must be kind and gentle and exceedingly patient with one another. The true spiritual battle in the depths of the soul cannot be forced or browbeat into existence. It requires a trusting confidence and divine empathy to enter such a place. My writing, in its efforts to reveal our moral futility, is undertaken to create for many, a faith that it is possible to find grace and forgiveness with God and support in the struggle towards salvation. God is not our enemy. He entered the depths of hell (moral futility writ large) to free us. He came so that no darkness would be immune to His light.

I suspect that anyone who has “stared into the abyss” (to use the Elder Sophrony’s words) would not lightly inveigh on the benefits of morality. My mother worried that we would be taken for “Uncle Pick’s People.” I suspect that it is only when we see that we are all “Uncle Pick’s People” that the light of Christ can work the transfiguration that is the life of grace.

We can grow and we can change. But the change is constituted by becoming light, not by becoming well-behaved darkness.

Note: I do not expect this article to change the assessment of my work.

The Loneliness of Shame

 

…shame thoughts are quintessentially alone thoughts. They are produced by the felt impossibility of communion, and they produce realities that have no primary communion in them.

Patricia DeYoung, Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame

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What does it mean to be lonely? We could pool our collective experience and quickly generate our own Wikipedia entry on the topic. There is probably no one who is a complete stranger to loneliness. The definitions that point to the failures of social structures, however, fail to treat the fact that we are often victims of loneliness even when we are with our closest and most intimate friends. In that manner, I suggest that loneliness is what you get when all the distractions have been removed. So what is it?

At its very heart, loneliness is the absence of communion. Human beings are not created to be alone. However, we are created for something far greater than merely keeping company or spending time with others. Communion is a way-of-being but is frequently disrupted in some lives and almost completely absent in others.

Sin is accurately described as the “rupture of communion”. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, who experience their nakedness as shame, is also the story of ruptured communion. The presence of God, prior to their sin, is unutterable joy-in-communion. Afterwards, it is perceived as a threat, something that exposes them, causing them to hide. God’s description of the relationship of the man and woman after their sin is filled with the conflict of broken communion:

To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)

We were not created to be alone. God had said of Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and creates woman. Ideally, the goodness of what it is to be human is found in communion.

The experience of shame, on the other hand, is the experience of being alone, of being disconnected. Some theorists posit that we first experience this brokenness in infancy, in the imperfect relations with a mother. No matter how much care and love is given to a child, the pain of separation will first be felt in its early months. In many cases, that pain will rise to the level of trauma, either then, or later. For a child, it is a pain that they are powerless to change.

Even for adults, the pain associated with shame creates a form of powerlessness. We feel confused, unable to think or to reach out. That feeling is the most unbearable of all human experiences. As a result, we substitute other feelings that are more bearable: anger, sadness.

Our alienation and loneliness are greater indicators of the brokenness of our lives than any moral measurement that might be applied. Our salvation begins with an act of restored communion: we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. His death becomes our death; His resurrection becomes our resurrection. Communion becomes the very ground and source of life.  The restoration of communion in Christ is the only thing that can heal all that has been lost.

What I have been describing is the psychological impact of sin/shame. It would be correct to think of this psychological experience as an “icon” of what has taken place on the spiritual/ontological level. The Scriptures equate sin with death. It is our mortality, on the most fundamental level, that is the primary consequence of sin. The things we do wrong (what we often refer to as “sins”) are merely the symptoms of that deeper reality.

One way to think about the death that is at work in us is in terms of disintegration – particularly as that word serves as an antonym of communion. Our first disintegration is on the level of the spirit. Alienated from God, our hearts (nous) become darkened and we lose our spiritual sight. On the level of the soul, we become alienated from our spiritual life and the soul is dominated by the body and the passions (desires, habits). Then the soul becomes alienated from the body in physical death. Lastly, the body itself becomes subject to disintegration as it lies in the grave.

Loneliness is simply the emotional echo of this disintegration, a pattern that dominates much of our existence.

For much of our lives we avoid loneliness not by its cure, but by distraction. We avoid that inner pain by pursuit of the passions. Certain encounters, however, plunge us back into the nether regions of our disintegration – particularly those that can be described as shame.

I do not think I have been aware of shame most of my life. As such (and it is not uncommon), the entire topic of shame would seem to be beside the point. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of shame itself. The core experience that is referenced in shame, is a very painful affect in which we become aware of ourselves as exposed and vulnerable, unsafe and disconnected. It is hard-wired in our bodies, like the affect of surprise (the startle response) or dissmell (you wrinkle your nose and instinctively turn away from certain smells). It is only in time that this basic experience of exposure becomes associated with various scenes and events and develops into the emotion we name as shame.

This same affect is not inherently bad. It is the basis for our awareness of boundaries, and of people as “others.” Indeed, without this affect we would not experience humility, awe or wonder. Thus, like all things, shame (in the negative sense) is simply a distortion of something good and useful. God has not created us for evil.

However, what should be nothing more than an appropriate signal of “otherness” becomes an overwhelming experience of alienation and exposure. In a very short time this painful experience comes to be attached to the thought that “it is because of me.” This becomes the essential voice of shame: “There is something wrong with me. I don’t belong here.” This is only one of the many dark thoughts that emanate from this place of disintegration. These ideas are not correctly described as “thoughts,” the result of reason within the frontal cortex: they are “noise” an artifact of something much deeper. As such trying to reason with such thoughts is often useless. We are broken on a deeper level.

The pain of shame is frequently transformed into other things such as anger and sadness, with the noise of its darkness adding color. So, though we might not be utterly aware of shame, we are easily aware of anger or sadness. We are aware when we are depressed, and experience loneliness on a regular basis. We are sometimes overwhelmed by feelings for which we have no name. We are sometimes isolated and disconnected. All of these are voices of shame, or of this fundamental disintegration within us.

It is worth thinking about the great movements of monasticism within the early Church. Although there were many communities of monks and nuns, the primary experience included “aloneness” (the actual meaning of the word “monastic”). When all of the distracting noise that masks our inner world is removed, we come face-to-face with a more frightening adversary. That inner alienation, as noted earlier, is also the place where we encounter humility, awe and wonder. It is thus understandable that lessons of humility are primary in the sayings of these great desert figures.

Of course, there are often toxic, chronic problems rooted in our shame, resulting from various forms of abuse. Some of these experiences are so painful that they are blocked from our awareness. The journey towards humility and into the presence of God is likely to reveal them. It is in this, and many other ways, that the path of salvation is synonymous with the path of healing. The connection of humility with the mechanism of shame also adds meaning to the saying of the Elder Sophrony, “The way up is the way down.”

Our healing begins on the ground of our spirit. “…he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” (1Co 6:17) In Holy Baptism, Chrismation and the continuing life of Communion, we nurture this foundational union with God. Its grace supports the healing of the whole of our life. This work is generally not within our daily awareness. The struggle that is most within our consciousness is the psychological struggle. That can be a long, slow process, depending on how deeply we are wounded.

The healing within our lives is rooted in communion. In our relationships with others that communion requires vulnerability – something that can only take place where there is safety, honesty and love. Those practices, by grace and with time, can heal our deep injuries. They also form the basis of a communion that is the antithesis of loneliness. God is with us.

An Atonement of Shame – Orthodoxy and the Cross

Some decades ago in my early (Anglican) priesthood, a parishioner brought a crucifix back from South America. The question for me as a priest was whether I would accept the crucifix as a gift and place it in the Church. I like crucifixes, my taste was always towards the Catholic direction. But, you have to bear in mind that Spanish/Latin crucifixes have a tendency to be, well, rather gory. My congregation was pretty straight-up WASP. But, I was young, a still largely unbruised banana, so I installed the crucifix over the rear door of the Church. Everyone could see it as they exited.

The first Sunday was the test. I got my clock cleaned pretty quickly. An irate woman said, “I want that thing removed! I do not want my children seeing it. I believe in a risen Lord!” We had a short theological discussion the outcome of which was that I left the crucifix where it was. I do not think she adjusted. I also do not think her children were scarred for life.

But I understood her sensibilities. The brutality of the crucifixion is easily overwhelming. It is particularly overwhelming if the brutality is depicted in Spanish splendor. My defense of the brutal crucifix, however, did not prepare me for my later encounter with Orthodox presentations of Christ on the Cross.

Like all Orthodox icons, the Crucifixion is somewhat stylized, conforming to the norms of Byzantine grammar. It is a theological rather than historical presentation. Typically, the icon presents a very calm Christ on the Cross. He is clearly “dead” (His eyes are closed). But there is no particular sense of agony. The suffering is more a note of sadness rather than pain. And, contrary to history, the plaque over the Cross reads: “The King of Glory.” As glory goes, it is indeed subdued. There is a profound stillness that comes with it.



The icon of the Crucifixion could also be placed with two other icons that are common to Orthodox Holy Week: the icon of “The Bridegroom,” and the icon of “Extreme Humility.” The portrayal of Christ in both icons is similar. He is seen with head bowed, arms folded in a dropped position in front of Him. It is a picture of submission and acceptance. The Extreme Humility makes a certain obvious sense: it is Christ in death. The wounds are obvious; He is seen in the tomb; the Cross is placed behind Him; the spear and the sponge are there as well. Indeed, the placement of the hands are reminiscent of the hands on the Shroud of Turin.

If Christ in death is extreme humility, then Christ as Bridegroom is extreme irony. For the term “bridegroom” is a title for Christ associated with His coming in glory (Matt. 25 ff.) The Orthodox focus on the Bridegroom, however, is a Holy Week devotion, a call to repentance. On the first three days of Holy Week we sing with great solemnity:

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight!
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching,
And unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul.
Do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given unto death,
And lest you be shut out of the kingdom.
But rouse yourself crying, Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God.
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!

This is the Great Irony: the Great becomes small; the Rich becomes poor; the Mighty becomes weak; the Author of Life enters death; the God of All becomes the servant of all. This same irony lies at the heart of the Christian way of life. It strikes down every pretense to power and exalts the emptiness of humility as the fullness of being.

Of great note, however, is the absence of pain and torture in this presentation. The theme of the Orthodox account of Christ’s suffering and death is that of bearing shame and mockery. You can search the texts of Holy Week for the word “pain,” and come up with almost nothing. The mocking and the shame, however, color everything.

The same is largely true of the New Testament as well. When St. Paul describes Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis) on the Cross, he says that Christ “became obedient to death,” and adds, “even death on a Cross.” The point of the “even” is not that the Cross is painful above all pain, but that the Cross is shameful above all shame. There are no gospel accounts of characters taking some sort of masochistic pleasure and delighting in Christ’s pain. However, there are repeated descriptions of His humiliation. The purple robe, the crown of thorns are not unique images of pain, but torturous bits of mockery.

All of this runs counter to the penal theories of the atonement. In those theories, Christ is punished on our behalf. It is His pain and suffering as sacrificial victim that come to the fore. What Western (cf. Spanish) art did to the Crucifixion, Western rhetoric did to the atonement. The Reformation did nothing to change this other than to avoid its artistic presentation in Churches (it looked too “Catholic”).

But what role does shame play within an understanding of the atonement? It is, I think, essential, though hard for us to understand. America has been described as a shame-based culture where shame itself is not acknowledged (it’s too painful). It helps if we understand the nature of shame itself.

Shame is the natural response to broken communion. [Kaufman, The Psychology of Shame, 1996, pp. 32-33] The relationship of communion with others is the very essence of safety and comfort. Its most primal expression is the bond between mother and nursing infant. Face-to-face, the child is held and nurtured. There the child is comforted and protected. [footnote] Every later experience of union draws on this primal experience. It is not accidental that the ultimate relationship, that of union with God in Christ, is described precisely in the language of face-to-face.

The first instinct of shame is to look down, to turn the face away and hide. Blood rushes to the face (it “burns with shame”). Shame is the very sacrament of broken communion, the most proper and natural expression of sin. When Christ enters our shame (and bears it), it is as though God Himself stands before us, takes our face in His hands, and turns our eyes back to Him. This is the action we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The Father’s actions demonstrate his running to meet his son in his shame. Had the father remained in the house, the son would have born his shame alone. The father not only shares the shame, but in sharing it, restores communion, illustrated by the robe and the ring. Even the shame of the elder son is met with the same meekness and shame-bearing.

The shame that we experience in the natural settings of our lives is an image of something truly and ontologically real: sin shatters our union with God. Christ’s incarnation is an entrance into this realm of ontological shame and brokenness through union with our human nature. That reality is made manifestly clear in the events of His passion and the description that has come down to us.

Pain and suffering are tragic parts of our lives. They are the burden of our mortality. But far deeper and more profound is the shame that represents our ruptured union with God. Pain and suffering are only symptoms.

The Orthodox portrayal of Christ in the events of Holy Week clearly reflect the themes found in Scripture. It is only in understanding Christ’s bearing of shame and mockery that we will fully understand what has been done for us in His death and resurrection. Our culture, as noted above, has an aversion to shame (it’s one of our greatest secrets). We have somehow come to prefer stories of violence. Our cultural treatment of the Cross majors in violence. But nothing sinful can be understood apart from the role played by shame.

In the Ladder of Divine Ascent we hear: “Shame can only be healed by shame.” As difficult as this is for us, it is the place of atonement and exchange that Christ has set. I have been learning recently, however, that to speak of “bearing a little shame” (in the words of the Elder Sophrony) is overwhelming to some. Popular shame researcher and author, Brene Brown, uses the term “vulnerability” when she speaks of confronting and healing shame. Vulnerability, at its core, is nothing other than “bearing a little shame.” It is the willingness to be real, to be authentic with the risk that it entails. This is on the psychological level. There is a deeper level, though we cannot really go there without enduring the psychological first.

God give us grace to be vulnerable in His presence, vulnerable enough to discover our true selves.

Church and State Are Not Separate – They Are at War

There are ideas that are so common, so oft-repeated, that they are critically examined only with great difficulty. Among the most powerful such ideas is the concept described as the “separation of Church and State.” The history of the phrase is its own study (it’s not actually in the Constitution, much less the Bible). It is repeated, however, as though it were not only obvious but morally obvious. Thus, it has come to be far more than a particular arrangement within American constitutional thought. Hidden within the sentiment, however, are assumptions about both the State and the Church that are not only not obvious, but from a classical Christian perspective, not even true.

The concept posits two entities, Church and State, as though they were givens about which everyone agrees. The modern construction called “the State,” is, just that, a modern construction. The nation-state is a fairly modern notion. It exists as an entity authorized to collect money, make laws, conduct war, and negotiate on behalf of all people living within a defined geographical area. It operates in this manner through mutual recognition and agreement with other similar states, behaving according to stated rules and norms. “Primitive” peoples who were late to the table of statehood, were treated as though they had none, needed one, and now they’re ours!

The Church, in the modern period, has been reduced to a minor institution that exists for agreed religious purposes. By definition, it is one of many similar such institutions, none having any particular claim towards people, culture or other public matters. Church has assumed an existence more or less parallel to a business, though sometimes enjoying certain taxation privileges (as do some other businesses).

For the purposes of our thought, I will suggest a different model. Suppose this thing called “the State,” decides to contract out all of its various services (this is indeed taking place increasingly). The military, the police, construction, social services, etc., would all be different private corporations. Prisons in some states are already managed in this way. The private contractors working for the military toeday even includes some who exercise a military function (i.e. they kill people and blow up things). In this contracted arrangement, what would remain would be a concept called “the State,” but, in reality, was only a collection of businesses doing various jobs. What would “State” mean? To what would people belong?

Such an exercise is useful in teasing out the notion of “belonging” to a State. “I am an American; I am a Canadian,” etc. In my thought experiment, you would be a person who lived in a territory serviced by some collection of companies.

Let’s turn to the Church. The classical Christian teaching is that the Church is the mystical Body of Christ. It is never described as a business or a corporation. It doesn’t have to have buildings. Properly, it is not simply a manifestation of the “religious” sphere of our lives, for there is nothing in a Christian life that is not rightly united to God. “Church” is not an affiliation – it is an organic communion and belonging.

What is interesting to me is how much the modern nation-state resembles the Church. We “belong” to it; we are “members” of it; we can even speak of the “Body Politic”; we identify with it (in a manner than supersedes free-will). You are a citizen of the nation-state by birth – no one asks you to join. You not only allow this arrangement, but accept that, like it or not, you have some sort of nation-state connectedness with everyone else born here (or otherwise “incorporated” as a citizen). The State has become the one natural entity whose demands supersede all others and can regulate all others. That’s quite something!

The rise of the concept of the nation-state gradually reduced the Church to its present existence as a free-will association, organized for religious purposes –similar to a hobby group.  Both the reduction of the Church and the rise of the nation-state are unintended consequences of the Reformation. Indeed, the most lasting and profound result of the Reformation has been the State’s usurpation of the Church’s role. The State is the de facto Church.

This brings me to the matter of the “separation” of Church and State. My suggestion is that they are never “separate.” Rather, they are locked in a fearful battle until the end of the age. They do not and cannot co-exist simply because they offer mutually contradictory claims. The Church might endure the State (as constituted in modernity), but it should never agree to the claims and assertions of the State.

The State (particularly in its modern manifestation) represents a rival claimant to the Kingdom of God. In its concept of secularism, it declares that there exists a space in which God has no claims. It boldly and clearly proclaims that it has no God but itself. The various civil proclamations concerning God (“In God we trust,” etc.) are but echoes of a time when the Church and the State were differently conceived. At present, it is language without content, a hollow mocking of an earlier time.

The battle is eschatological in nature and is clearly describe in St. John’s Apocalypse:

Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Rev 11:15)

This proclamation does not say that the kingdoms of this world disappear. That, perhaps, would be more in line with the secular claims of present modern theory. Rather, it declares that the battle is finished and what the kingdoms of this world wrongly claimed for themselves has been rightly restored to the only true and living King.

What does this mean for Christians in this world?

It does not make us into anarchists. Christians are the ultimate monarchists: we believe that Christ is King and God (cf. the service of Holy Baptism). It does not mean that we refuse to obey just laws and respect leaders. We do not, however, agree to their ontological demands. They do not own what they claim – particularly when it comes to the lives and loyalties of human beings. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” There are not two owners.

We tolerate the pretense of the nation-state in patient forbearance. However, the modern narrative of the nation-state as the locus and means of progress, justice, indeed the Kingdom itself, must never be accepted by the faithful. The State is, at best, a convenience.

In our daily lives, it means we refuse to embrace the anxieties of the modern project. The convenience of the state is not the arena of the Kingdom of God. Its justice and injustice are not the righteousness of God.

Historically, the Church has lived in a clear tension with the State. Though it has become common for many to tout the so-called “Constantinian Shift” as some major turning point in the life of the Church, the Church neither then, nor later, agreed to the anything beyond the State as convenience. The story of the Church and Emperor is one of constant battles. Emperors sought to work their will on the Church while the Church consistently and persistently resisted. That battle continued up until the Reformation, at which time a new peace was inaugurated in which the Church agreed (in practice) to cede to the State all its demands. The recurring conflicts between Church and State have largely disappeared – not because the Church found its freedom – but because the Church in the new arrangement ceased to matter.

There is a reason that various leaders and states have persecuted the Church from time to time. It was seen as a rival, both to their own claims to unbridled power and authority as well as to their interpretation of the world. For the Church does not make claims about religion. It proclaims the truth of God, the truth of being human, and the nature of the world itself and all life within it. Wherever the Church fulfills its true calling in Christ, the state will perceive its rivalry and the tensions that have often erupted in history will be renewed. Wherever the Church ignores its true calling in Christ, its existence is of no consequence, allowing it to abide in an irrelevant peace.

To See Him Face to Face

 

“The self resides in the face.” – Psychological Theorist, Sylvan Tompkins

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There is a thread running throughout the Scriptures that can be described as a “theology of the face.” In the Old Testament we hear a frequent refrain of “before Thy face,” and similar expressions. There are prayers beseeching God not to “hide His face.” Very clearly in Exodus, God tells Moses that “no one may see my face and live.” In the New Testament, there is a clear shift. The accounts of Christ’s transfiguration describe His face as shining. St. Paul speaks of seeing God “in the face of Jesus Christ.” He also speaks of us gazing steadily on Christ “with unveiled faces.” Orthodox Christianity has a very particular understanding of the face, modeled in the holy icons. It is worth some thought and reflection.

In both Latin and Greek, the word translated as “person,” actually refers to the face, or a mask (as a depiction of the face). The face is not only our primary presentation to the world, and our primary means of relationship, it is also, somehow, that which is most definitively identified with our existence as persons. Developmental psychologists say that the face-to-face gazing of mother and child in the act of nursing is an essential building block in the development of personality and the ability to relate to others.

It should be of note that the Holy Icons are always depicted facing us, with some few, turned ever so slightly. Those “turned” faces are found on icons whose placement would have originally been on an iconostasis and are slightly turned so as to be acknowledging the Christ icon. The only figures portrayed in profile are Judas Iscariot and the demons (or those who are fulfilling those roles). In the art of the Renaissance, and subsequent, this treatment of the face disappears. The human figure is simply studied for itself, as art, the relational function of the icon having been forgotten.

The Orthodox understanding of salvation is reflected in this treatment of icons. St. Paul’s description of being transformed as we behold the face of Christ is an expression of true personhood. Our “face” becomes more properly what it should be as we behold the face of Christ. This “looking” is, to a degree, what we today would call a “relationship,” though, I think, it has more insight and import. “Relationship” has become a word that is almost completely vacuous, lacking in substance. I cringe these days when I hear conversations about our “relationship” with God.

With the face, and its implications for personhood, much more can be said. I cannot see the face of another without looking at them. To see your face, I must reveal my face. That face-to-face encounter is pretty much the deepest and oldest experience we have as human beings (first experienced with our mother in nursing). For the whole of our lives, our faces are the primary points of experience and reaction. We cannot truly know the other without encountering them face-to-face.

It is probably significant that art turned away from the face and toward the figure. The language of salvation as “not going to hell” or “going to heaven,” is, strangely, impersonal. The same is true of justification and the like. It easily sounds like a medical procedure, a treatment of the body (or worse).

Similar to the face is the treatment of names. In Revelation, the image of salvation is the giving of a new name. In the Old Testament, this same thing happens to Abram (Abraham) and Jacob (Israel). In their cases, a new name signals a change in them and a change in their status before God. By the same token, it has always struck me as deeply personal and touching that Christ sometimes had nicknames for his disciples: “Peter” (“Rock”) and “Boanerges” for James and John (the “Sons of Thunder”). I suspect there were others. In the Orthodox tradition, a child is named on the eighth day after birth, or, if later, at Baptism. The giving of a name at Baptism is also a very ancient part of Baptism in the West.

In these things, we must understand that we are “known.” We are known uniquely and not by reputation or reference. We are not in a category, nor are we the “objects” of God’s love. That we are being changed by beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ suggests that we have to look at him – directly. This is very much part of the meaning of true communion.

Psychologists describe the bonding between mother and child in nursing (and face-to-face) as communion:

Identification begins as a visual process, but quickly becomes an internal imagery process, encompassing visual, auditory, and kinesthetic scenes. It is that universal scene of communion between mother and infant, accomplished through facial gazing in the midst of holding and rocking during breast or bottle feedings, that creates the infant’s sense of oceanic oneness or union. (Psychology of Shame, Kaufman, pg 31)

I was somewhat staggered to find such a theologically compatible statement in a work of technical psychology. Sometimes scientific observation is simply spot-on.

As we grow older, we never again gaze into the eyes of a person as we once did with our mothers. Lovers are often drawn to the eyes of the beloved, and find a measure of communion, but wounds and injuries eventually interrupt the initial innocence of such eyes. The same is at least as true with regard to God.

Regarding the face of God, there is this very telling passage in Revelation:

 And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! (Rev. 6:16)

It is of note that Revelation does not simply speak of the wrath of the Lamb, nor merely of His presence. It is specifically a fear of His face. Our experience of the face is an experience of nakedness and vulnerability. On the positive side, the result is identification, communion and oneness. On the negative side, it is the pain of shame and the felt need to hide. I can think of nothing else in nature that so closely parallels and reveals the fundamental character of our relationship with God. Salvation is communion. Sin is an enduring shame.

It is into this existential/ontological reality of sin/shame that Christ enters in His Incarnation, suffering and death. The depths of hell are everlasting shame and yet, He doesn’t hesitate to enter there in order to rescue us. Christ’s rescue of Adam and Eve in Hades are a final echo of the encounter in the Garden. They hid in shame, but He came looking for them. Then, He covered them with the skins of animals, but now He covers them in the righteousness of the Lamb who was slain. Then they were expelled from Paradise; now they are restored. Then, they fled from before His face; now they behold Him face to face – and rejoice.

When I pray before the icon of Christ, I notice that His gaze never changes. He does not hide Himself from my shame – but He bids me return my gaze to His. Unashamed, painless. You can find paradise in those eyes!

 

A Noetic Life

 

the-beauty-of-russian-winter

Eskimos really do have over 50 words for snow. In total, there are around 180 words for snow and ice. There is “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving a sled.” There is also “utuqaq,” which means, “ice that lasts year after year” and “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese. The reason, of course, is simple. If the information about snow and ice are a matter of survival, human beings develop a vocabulary sufficient to cover their need. They also develop a keen eye for snow and ice. They do not see better or different than anyone else, but they pay attention to certain things that others would ignore.

This simple reality can also be applied to the words of our spiritual life. Modern language can make a distinction between high-definition television and ultra-high definition, or even super ultra-high definition (this latter being so extreme in its resolution that an Eskimo could use it to classify snow). We even have words for sub-atomic particles. But modern language is extremely impoverished in its spiritual vocabulary. The culture has been overwhelmed by the ideas and concepts of psychology, pushing aside an entire vocabulary of human experience. Some of the words of classical Christian experience disappeared long before the modern period (and that is a different story).

Where words are absent, the ability to perceive is reduced. Language and perception work together. There are many things you cannot see until you are taught to see them. Having words for such things is part of the process of learning to see.

A key word from classical Christianity is the Greek term “nous,” and its adjectival form, “noetic.” Western translators early on translated the term as intellectus, which in its English forms is simply incorrect. Modern translators vary in translating it as either “mind” or “heart.” Neither of these is accurate, and both can be misleading in the extreme. Increasingly, some writers are simply choosing to use the word in its original form (my preference).

All of this is by way of introduction. The fact that our modern vocabulary doesn’t have an actual word for what the Fathers meant when they wrote about noetic perception, or when they said that the “nous should descend into the heart” (very important and common phrases), does not mean that what they are describing is closed to us, but does indicate that it is a reality which we largely ignore, like the incredible variety within snow and ice. It’s there, but we fail to see it.

Our culture champions the mind. We think of ourselves as far more brilliant than those who lived in the past and certainly more aware and understanding of the processes and realities of the world around us. In short, we think we’re the smartest people who have ever lived. In point of fact, we have narrowed the focus of our attention and are probably among the least aware human beings to have ever lived.

Our narrowed focus is largely confined to two aspects: the critical faculty and emotions. The critical faculty mostly studies for facts, compares, judges, measures, and so forth. Emotions run through the varieties of pleasure and pain, largely pairing with the critical faculty to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This way of experiencing the world is largely the result of living in a consumerist culture. We not only consume things – we are constantly under a barrage of information geared solely towards consumption. We consume everything. Information is more than information – it is information for the purpose of consumption. Even religious notions are governed by consumption. We “like” or “don’t like” Church. We find it useful, or of no interest. People are even known to “shop” for Churches.

The nous is not a faculty of consumption. It is a faculty of perception, particularly of spiritual perception. The modern struggle to experience God often fails because it is carried out by consumers. God, the true and living God, cannot be consumed, nor can He be known by the tools of consumption. Consumerist Christianity peddles experience and ideas about God. It has little or nothing to do with God Himself.

I occasionally use kinesthetic experiences to describe the nous. The knowledge we have of riding a bicycle is not critical knowledge. You cannot think your way into the knowledge of riding. Playing the piano is a similar experience. My reason for citing these forms of knowledge is to point to the fact that we already have some experience of non-consuming knowledge. Interestingly, kinesthetic knowledge is not solely in the head. My fingers “know” how to play the piano. My whole body rides a bicycle.

The Fathers often locate the nous in the heart – the physical heart. By this we should understand that the knowledge of noetic experience extends beyond the brain and rests more generally in the very center of our body, in every fiber of our being. Most importantly, it is not a part of the critical faculty. It is a means of perception and knowledge, but not the means of judging, weighing, measuring, comparing, etc. It is much closer to observation (though most modern people only engage in consumer observation).

Vladimir Lossky, the great 20th century Russian theologian, says:

Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship…

“Participatory adherence” is the key phrase in this description. It is a noetic awareness that does not stand outside what it observes. It is a sympathetic observation in which we ourselves are open and vulnerable to what we perceive.

An example.

You meet a stranger. The most common approach is to immediately engage the critical faculty. We make observations and judgments almost instantly. Emotional triggers may encourage us to make immediate decisions. We may react in such a way as to be guarded or skeptical, or attracted, or even disinterested. In many ways, we are “consuming” the stranger.

Imagine, instead, that you meet a stranger and completely suspend judgment. You do not compare them, categorize them, or measure them in any way. You refrain as much as possible from engaging emotional reactions. Rather, you are simply attentive, observing them with an awareness that does not judge. Imagine at the same time that you not only observe them in such a manner, but that you fully engage your own willingness to see them sympathetically while being willing to allow them into your own life. This is something of what Lossky means by a “participatory adherence.”

But how is this practiced with regard to God?

God is not a static object. He is personal and therefore acts in freedom. We can know or perceive Him because He makes Himself known. By and large, people in our culture are looking for a God who can be experienced by the critical faculty. In short, we want a God whom we can consume. Do I like Him? Do I want Him? Will I give Him my life? Do I choose Him? This is largely accomplished by substituting the idea of God for God Himself.

I knew a woman who was a self-professed non-believer, though she was willing to believe. Her husband began bringing her to my parish. She attended faithfully for a period of time. One day she asked to meet with me and told me her story. With tears she said she had been in the Church during a service. She was looking at the icon of Christ on the iconostasis. “Why do I not know you?” she asked quietly. “And then I did,” she said. There was no argument, no promise of experience. There was, however, a “participatory adherence.” She was there and she was there repeatedly. Her question was not a critical examination. If anything, it was a cry of love though she had little hope of an answer.

The tradition uses two other words that are important in this perception. One is hesychia, translated “silence” or “stillness.” The second is nepsis (adjective, neptic), often translated “sobriety,” or “attentiveness.” These are noetic expressions, describing the stillness and attention that are generally required for the nous to perceive what is around it. That stillness is not quite the same thing as peace and quiet. It also indicates refraining from our various agendas. Nepsis is an attentiveness that avoids the distractions of the various passions (anger, lust, greed, envy, etc.).

We can know God because He wills to make Himself known. But noetic living is not a technique, per se. It simply describes the proper grounding for the spiritual life. Thus, whether reading Scripture, praying, attending a service, or simply being still, we actively and quietly offer ourselves to God. We should not expect this to automatically produce some wonderful result (it’s not a technique). But as we engage in these activities with the right mind (noetically, neptically, hesychastically) we do indeed learn to perceive God. We learn to be aware of what our nous perceives.

This is, of course, much more successfully learned with good guidance (such as from a priest or monk, or someone who has knowledge of these things – and not all priests or monks do). Many people simple stumble into this and never have words to describe it. It is a perfectly natural thing.

If there were anything that a Christian could practice that would help nurture this aspect of their life, it would be refraining as much as possible from the consumerism of our culture. It teaches us habits that are very destructive to our souls. Instead, we should practice generosity and kindness, and give ourselves over to the care of God rather than the spirit of shopping. You cannot serve God and mammon.

In the Orthodox service, those attending frequently hear the priest or deacon intone: “Wisdom! Let us attend!”

Let us attend. Indeed.

I offer an afterthought. One means of practicing “participatory adherence” is to say “yes.” And, another word for “participatory adherence” might be “love.”

A Truly Rational Faith

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St. Paul notes that “faith works through love” (Gal. 5:6). This describes the very heart of the ascetic life. Only love extends itself in the self-emptying struggle against the passions without becoming lost in the solipsism of asceticism for its own sake. It is love that endures the contradictions of reality without turning away or reducing them. And it is love that finally comprehends the reality hidden within the contradictions that confront us.

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It would not be surprising, if you were speaking to a group of fish, for everything you said to be understood in terms of water. If something completely permeates our world, it’s hard to imagine anything in other terms. This is the difficulty in speaking about faith in the context of our modern world. Our culture thinks in terms of “thinking” (ratio). However, Christian faith is not a subset or a mode of discursive reason. It is, however, a mode of perception, just as is seeing, smelling, hearing, or touch. Faith is the mode of the heart’s perception, and since everyone, even a modern person, actually has a heart, everyone is capable of faith. It is, however, something that takes practice and patience.

Vladimir Lossky, the great Russian theologian of the mid-20th century, wrote:

Christian faith… is adherence to a presence which confers certitude, in such a way that certitude, here, is first….Thus faith allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence. Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man. “In Baptism,” said Irenaeus, “one receives the immutable canon of truth.” It is first the “rule of faith,” transmitted to the initiated. But this regula fidei (Tertullian, Irenaeus) implies the very faculty of receiving it. “The heretics who have perverted the rule of truth,” St. Irenaeus wrote, “preach themselves when they believe that they are preaching Christianity” (Adversus haereses, Book III). This faculty is the personal existence of man, it is his nature made to assimilate itself to divine life – both mortified in their state of separation and death and vivified by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Faith as ontological participation included in a personal meeting is therefore the first condition for theological knowledge.

From Introduction to Orthodox Theology, pp. 16-17.

That is a very meaty quote, worth looking at carefully. Lossky defines faith as “ontological participation included in a personal meeting.” This is absolutely not the “faith” of discursive reason – it is not something that involves a “leap.” It is not something we use to get around or over doubt. It is not about “thinking.”

In the disintegration of human understanding that marks the modern project, reason has been reduced to discursive reasoning, i.e. logic. Popularly, it refers to what can be proven by demonstration (and often less than that). At the same time, there has been a groundswell of sentimentality, in which how we “feel” about something has been elevated to a position above rational argument. It is in this context that faith is easily misunderstood. Faith is not a leap beyond the provable, nor is it a motion based on strong sentiment. Faith is a mode of perception, a means by which we may know. But it belongs to a much larger understanding of human cognition that is unknown to our culture.

Lossky’s weighty description of faith is: “a participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself.” Every word of his definition is primary. First, there is the notion of participation (koinonia). This is thoroughly Biblical where knowledge is seen as participatory, the result of communion and coinherence. This is problematic for modern understanding. Our culture is rooted in assumptions of radical individualism. It believes that we are not only distinct and separate from everything around us but also that what we think about something is, largely, the sum total of our experience. Thus, what I think and how I feel are considered sufficient to define “my reality.” There is no communion, only occasional alliances with other individuals for a common purpose.

In the Old Testament, it is said that a man “knew his wife,” when making reference to their conjugal union. Modern thought tends to smile knowingly and think that what is being said is but a quaint metaphor for sex. But “sex” is itself the crude metaphor of an individualistic culture that has reduced “union” to a set of feelings. The Biblical phrase expresses the understanding that what is taking place between husband and wife transcends its physical expression. It is a true union in which the two “become one flesh.” Again, such a statement is treated as “mere metaphor” in our modern culture, when it is quite the opposite. It is an effort, in words, to give voice to an experience of knowing that is virtually inexpressible. The modern assumption is that the phrase, “knew his wife,” is an effort to avoid what is actually happening, when it is, in fact, an effort to actually express what is happening beyond direct observation.

Every act of true communion is an act of faith.

The crude materialism of our culture has no way to give an account for the notion of communion. In truth, it does not give a very good account of materialism. Even on the purely material level, our experience of the world and of each other is far more participatory than we consider. We breathe our environment. We eat and drink our environment. The whole living world is a communion of DNA, an interplay, and interrelationship of organisms who have never been utterly distinct. Our own existence and health is itself a symbiotic relationship with colonies of bacteria living within us. Indeed, according to some studies, those same bacteria have an impact on how we think and perceive. And our being unaware of such relationships does not negate them. It only underlines how ignorant our modern perceptions often are.

Lossky adds to communion (participation) the word adherence. Faith is a knowledge that does not come by brief encounter. It is a perception that goes deeply beyond mere observation. It requires true attention. Attentiveness (nepsis), often rendered as “sobriety,” is a key element of the ascetic life of classical Christianity. It is more than mere mindfulness, much less holding a single thought. Rather, it is the fruit of love. It is the attentiveness that is reserved for the beloved – a communion of adherence.

And this is the last word of Lossky’s definition: presence. Faith is a perception and communion, which means that there is actually something (someone) to be perceived and with which to have communion. Faith is not an action reserved to some portion of our mind – it does not take place within us. It is a perception that is true communion.

This carries the conversation back to my previous article, reflecting of Florensky’s description of contradiction. Reality, especially the Presence of God who is the only truly existing One, confronts us as something of a contradiction. It cannot be reduced to discursive reasoning, as indeed is true of anything within the created order as well. Discursive reasoning is but a small sliver of human activity (sentimentality is smaller still). True reason or rationality (logikos) was never meant to be restricted to mere discursive patterns. True reason is the whole capacity that we have as human beings to perceive, know, consider, commune, etc. We are logikos because we are created in the image of the Logos, not because we think in terms of “A” and “not-A” being mutually contradictory.

Florensky centered the perception that carries us past contradiction and into Truth, in the ascetic life of love. This is in full agreement with Lossky’s “participatory adherence to the Presence.” In our cultural context, to use the word “love,” is to invite the entire world of sentimentality into a conversation where it does not belong. The contemporary world knows very little of love in its proper sense. For “love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1John 4:7). We are told that “faith works by love” (Gal. 5:6). We are able to perceive what is true by the ascetic life of participatory adherence to the things of God.

 

To Become My Enemy

church-2-03-600x414With the unending political cycle that is America’s public life, there is also an endless identification of enemies. And, of course, this year the enemies seem to come out of central casting – it would be hard to invent characters more susceptible to caricature. The Church has entered something of a political season as well. The upcoming Holy and Great Council has already revealed various fault lines that have long existed within Orthodoxy. And, I have already begun to see various forms of blame as the lines threaten to become fissures. Unity is a difficult thing, perhaps the most elusive of all Christian realities.

St. Paul identifies the very central purpose of God’s work in creation with a final union (truly greater than mere unity):

having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10)

It is easy in considering this to contemplate a gathering in which some are willing and some are unwilling. This differentiation belongs to the same phenomenon as friends and enemies. “Those people” are going to have a rough time being gathered together into one in Christ. This great gathering is the subject of much consideration in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor. At the end of all things, he says, we will see the reconciliation of opposites: heaven and earth, male and female, created and uncreated, etc. That reconciliation is a key to understanding even our daily reconciliation and the work of salvation.

Here is a key passage to consider:

…God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:19-21)

Our reconciliation with God through Christ is accomplished through Christ becoming “sin for us.” He does not come among us, separating Himself, but unites Himself. This is the character of our salvation at every moment. We are not saved by some external action, nor by anything extrinsic to us. Christ unites Himself to us, taking the whole of our humanity on Himself, and carries that with Him into His death and resurrection. We then, in Baptism, unite ourselves to Him and enter into His death and resurrection, thereby being forgiven of our sins and united to His righteousness. This action refers not only to Baptism but is the pattern of the whole Christian life. We are saved through communion – a true union with Christ. Furthermore, our salvation extends to others in the very mystery of existence as we live in communion with them.

…if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1Co 12:26).

We share one common life, the life of Christ. We dwell in Him and He dwells in us. This is true koinonia.

And here, if we continue to understand, things become rather difficult. Just as Christ saves us by becoming what we are, so, we save our brother by becoming what he is. If my brother is a thief, this doesn’t mean I must go out and steal. But neither can I say that my brother is a thief and now I have nothing to do with him. In love, if my brother is a thief, then I must become his thieving. I voluntarily share in the burden of his crime and his brokenness.

Of course, nothing can be more outrageous. Something within us immediately rushes to deny this as a possibility. We immediately begin the search for Scriptures to proclaim that each man must bear his own sin, and his sin has nothing to do with me. This is both naïve and a very facile philosophical construct. It fails to look directly into the depth of human sin.

Many people draw comfort from a legal construct of our relationship with God. Legal things are extrinsic. I can say that I am not legally responsible for my brother’s actions. But legality is simply a convenient fiction for the sake of the extremely limited justice that we can know in this world. But it is not ontologically true (really and actually). We are all profoundly connected in almost every possible way. We are biologically, linguistically, culturally, spiritually connected in a manner that makes human life a shared life. There are no simple analyses of cause and effect that are more than legal caricatures. Nothing in our lives happens in isolation from the world and everything in it. By the same token, our salvation does not happen in isolation. “No man is saved alone,” the Fathers say.

But when we begin thinking about what this truly means, we immediately draw back. There is nothing about another human being that does not have some root within me, both in general and in particular. No one’s sin is purely his own, nor is his repentance. St. John the Forerunner doesn’t understand when Christ asks him to baptize Him. “I have need to be baptized by you!” he protests. Indeed, what possible repentance can be required of One who has no sin? But Christ does not turn away from our sin nor our repentance. He first takes our sin and our repentance on Himself. He does not begin His ministry with the proclamation, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand,” except that He first Himself repents (as impossible as that may seem). His repentance, on our behalf, makes our own repentance possible. We cannot repent apart from Him.

We can never stand back as though we were bystanders and speak of others’ need for repentance. We can only cry, “Repent!” if we ourselves have repented first (and not for ourselves alone, but for the very ones whom we call to repentance). We only have permission to invite others into what we already know and live ourselves.

And now I will be more troublesome. The point of the unity of the Church is the union of all things with Christ, the “gathering together in one of all things….” This is not the establishing of a unity that does not exist, nor finding a way to get along. The union of Ephesians 1 is truly ontological and real. It is initiated by God in Christ (“reconciling the world to Himself”) and continues through the grace of God. The Church is the “center-point” of that union. This is the mystery of the Body of Christ.

The Church is the reconciliation that begins in Christ and through Christ. It is, at any given moment, a dynamic movement of union. And it is precisely there that we find difficulties.

How can enemies be reconciled? Or, yet, how can friends with difficulties be reconciled? On some level, we have to “become our enemies.” I make this statement in the manner that St. Paul says that Christ “became sin.” In becoming sin for our sake, Christ did not become a sinner. However, in His Divine self-emptying, He refused to differentiate Himself from sinners. He became what we are, and, within Himself, reconciled us to God.

There remains a dynamic in this process. Christ does not force or coerce us into this reconciliation. We are free to refuse that which has been given to us. In the same manner, our enemies can refuse reconciliation. But the reconciliation occurs first in us, and there it must truly occur. Almost anyone can reconcile with a humbled, repentant enemy. That is mere generosity. Self-emptying works out the reconciliation while they are yet enemies. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

In the life of the Church, this must be the constant dynamic within its members. For while we wait for and yearn for reconciliation, we must know and understand that it begins within our own heart, not by changing position, or negotiation or compromise, but through a true reconciliation in which we become what the other is, so that they might become what we are.

Our age is deeply marked by a political understanding of reality. The modern project has, since its inception, sought to achieve almost utopian goals through political means. This is so common to our minds that it is difficult not to conceive everything in the same terms. Our reconciliation with God through Christ has not even the slightest hint of political effort. It is completed even as it begins, and yet waits for a greater completion to come. In the life of the Church this reconciliation is primarily expressed in the eucharistic life. It is the only truly authentic mode of existence. Everything else defiles the Cup and brings condemnation. For if we do not partake of the Cup in true authenticity, how will we be saved?

Why We Forgive

silouan

There are many ways to think about forgiveness, not all of them true or helpful. It is easily the most emotionally and psychologically difficult aspect of the Christian life revealing both the power of trauma as well as the tenacity of lingering memories. The directness of Christ’s commandments (“forgive your enemies”) and the consequences of ignoring them (“if you do not forgive others neither will your heavenly Father forgive you”) can easily make forgiveness into a heavy, soul-crushing burden of spiritual failure. Understanding the true nature of forgiveness, however, carries us into the very mystery of our existence and reveals why such importance is given to its practice.

Much of our struggle with forgiveness lies in the trap of psychology and law. We hear the commandment as a legal requirement – “You must do this in order to have that.” But we experience the practice as a psychological failure. “I try to forgive them, but I still feel the same way.” Neither law nor psychology reveal the truth about forgiveness nor explain its essential role in the spiritual life. Our failure in these terms, however, should tell us more about the inadequacy of the terms themselves rather than the true nature of forgiveness. To tell someone what they ought to do (law) is sometimes effective. To tell someone how they ought to feel (law + psychology) almost never works. Our popular contemporary conception of forgiveness belongs to this latter category. We will never get it right.

Law and psychology both depend on an individualistic understanding of human life. And beyond that, they demand a worldview in which nominalism predominates. Nominalism is the essence of modern thought. Everything is presumed to have its own private existence, with the only connection being in our minds. Human beings (as well as everything in creation) have no particular connection with one another other than the connections they think about or imagine. We describe these psychological connections as “relationships” and lavish attention on them. Of course, that same attention mostly reveals that psychological experience is inconstant, unsteady, frequently unpredictable and always changing. Little wonder that self-help books (devoted generally to nothing other than psychology) are a booming industry of unending frustration.

The dynamic involved in true forgiveness, however, is neither psychological nor legal. It is concrete, even ontological in its character. For example, note this statement by the Elder Sophrony:

Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.

In a contemporary American context, such a statement is astonishing. How is my sin able to affect the rest of the universe? We are able to conceive how our sin (say, punching someone in the nose) can directly impact someone else (the guy with the nose). We are able to understand that others around the event can be affected (fear, anger, disgust, etc.). But the notion that a stranger on the other side of the world who has no knowledge whatsoever of the event can be affected seems absurd. And, of course, the elder did not say “the rest of humanity.” He asserted that our sin affects “the rest of the universe.” My punching Sergei in the nose has an effect on the entire Milky Way. What can such an assertion possibly mean, and how can it be true?

Well, first off, it cannot be true in a legal or psychological sense. Nominalism has no room for such a universal connectedness. But a universal connectedness is, in fact, part of the dogma of the Orthodox faith. You might wonder where such an assertion is found in the Creed.

And was made man…and suffered for us under Pontius Pilate…

The whole of the Christian faith, as presented in Scripture, the Creeds and the Conciliar teaching of the Holy Fathers requires that we accept the interconnectedness of life. This interconnectedness is expressed in a variety of ways: participation, communion, sharing, all of the language of “in Christ,” etc. The New Testament presupposes that Christ’s humanity is our humanity. He is not simply “one of us,” or “like us.” Christ becomes one with us. He becomes precisely what we are (yet without sin). The sin He takes upon Himself is not a legal burden, or a psychological phenomenon. He takes our actual and real sin upon Himself. Indeed, St. Paul uses even stronger language:

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21)

This is not the language of the law or of psychology. It is the language of being itself – the language of ontology.

The universe as an event of communion, a reality in which we literally participate, is quite foreign to the modern mind. The fiction of our radical individualism is an invention designed to promote the most irresponsible account of human freedom possible. It tells us that our lives “are our own,” and that we can act without consequences for anyone other than ourselves. “It is none of your business!” is the heart-cry of modernity. But this is simply not true.

We are born into everyone’s business and everyone’s business sets the stage and the very parameters of our existence. The language we speak, the thoughts we think, everything in our lives comes to us already burdened with the history and experience of the world around us. The saints treat this reality in the strongest possible sense. “My brother is my life,” St. Silouan says. By this, he does not mean simply that he cares strongly about his brother. He means it in its most literal sense. Not only is my own life not my own, but the life of the other is, in fact, my true life, or my true life certainly has no existence or reality apart from the life of the other.

We are told, “God is love.” Love requires an object and is meaningless without one. The Father loves the Son and is not and cannot be the Father apart from the Son. God Himself is love, but so are we. Love is the proper description of the reality that is our shared universal experience. It is in this very manner that we are told to love our enemies:

But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Mat 5:44-45)

And

…love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. (Luk 6:35)

We do more than follow the example of God. We are told to exist in the manner of God (which is love). That is – we become His sons.

And all of this brings us back to forgiveness. We forgive because the lack of forgiveness is not just a feeling or an infringement of the law. It is more of a disease and a dark place within our being that slowly drags us into ever greater darkness. It not only has this effect on us, but on others around us. Our children, whom we rightly seek to protect, are themselves completely vulnerable and unable to defend themselves from the danger our own lack of forgiveness creates. There is a collective reality to our sin that we cannot avoid. The darkness of the world is never just outside of us. It is also within us, like the air we breathe. We are either living in a manner that heals that darkness (and that of others) or adds to it. There is no neutral zone.

Ultimately, we can live without fear because Christ Himself has taken all of the darkness of the world into the light of His own life. Repentance, however, means that we unite ourselves to His sacrificial offering that forgives everyone and everything. The legal and psychological framework of the modern world’s notion of individualized existence has no room for such a thing. Only a life that learns to live in true communion can fathom such a thing, much less live it. This is the Orthodox way of life.

The other is my life. We need not consent to the darkness of sin nor consign others to that darkness.

Forgive everyone for everything.

Jesus Is Not Your Imaginary Friend

imaginary-friendAt some point in our history, we began to attribute a merely mental reality to anything that was not an object and reduced the importance of objects to what they could contribute to our mental reality. We live in a sea of psychology. Things, we believe, are only what we think they are. My “relationship” with you means nothing more than the set of inner experiences and dispositions I have towards you. In many ways, a very good version of “virtual reality” is just as good as “reality” itself.

The assumptions behind this are absurd. First, we posit something called “psychological” that is somehow distinct from our bodies. But, more importantly, we ignore the most obvious forms of relationship that are biological at their very core. How I “feel” about something or someone is considered the actual definition of what takes place between us.

I have written recently about the culture of sentiment. I want to turn our attention in this article to how our sentimental psychology distorts our concept of God and what it means to be in relationship with Him. When many Christians speak about “having a relationship with Jesus,” they have in mind something psychological. It means that they think about Jesus and talk to Jesus and trust that He thinks about them and will do what He has promised. But such relationships are simply a caricature of what God intends for us and distorts the nature of the Christian life.

For example, in the single most important moment of His ministry with His disciples, Christ takes bread, blesses and breaks it saying, “Take, eat. This is my body…” This event has been the occasion for endless thought and discussion ever since. But all of the thought and discussion mean nothing unless we take and eat. For it is important to know that the “relationship” we have with Jesus is rooted in something quite concrete: We eat His flesh and drink His blood. And though being quite concrete about this essential Christian act may seem somehow too literal for some, and not “spiritual” enough, the opposite is the case. The error lies with the “imaginary” communion that has come to be the feature of modern Christianity. We do well to remember that the language of eating and drinking belongs to Christ. It is how He described the action.

I will push the envelope a bit further. The Eucharist in many Christian communities is properly equated with the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. (Heb 13:15)

Of course, in the various anti-sacramental theologies of some Protestant groups, this concept is used to trump the idea of the Eucharist as sacrifice. What we offer to God are words, ideas, thoughts and commitments. It is these psychological aspects that have come to have value while physical notions have been relegated to the category of “superstition.”

The Scriptures do not view praise and thanksgiving as psychological events:

But You are holy, You who inhabit the praises of Israel. (Psa 22:3)

God inhabits the praises of Israel. This is not the language of psychology nor a description of mere verbal and mental communication. It is the language of ontology, the language of being. It describes what is real.

The praise that we offer to God is not simply an idea. It is a sound. And sound is a physical event. Just as bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, so, too, does God inhabit our praise. We do not communicate telepathically, no matter how many might think it superior and possible. The Second Person of the Trinity is called the “Word of the Father.” The Logos [Word] is not a mental concept within the mind of the Father. He is Word. In Hebrew, He is Davar. And interestingly, the word “Davar” can mean both “word” and “action.” This notion of word is common and important in the Scriptures:

“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, but water the earth, making it bring forth and bud, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but shall accomplish what I please, and prosper in the purpose for which I sent it. (Isa 55:10-11)

and

For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Heb 4:12)

Our modern habits of mind immediately read such passages and translate them into the terms of mental imagination and psychological function. This is deeply contrary to the understanding of Scripture and the traditional Christian treatment. In Ancient Israel (and generally in modern Jewish practice as well), the Divine Name (YHVH) is never spoken. It may be written (clearly the concept can be thought), but the physical expression of the Name with the voice is forbidden. Instead, the word for Lord (Adonai), is voiced. This is not superstition, but a recognition of the substantial, sacramental character of the Word.

In a similar manner, our voiced praise is itself a sacrament. It is united with God – “He inhabits the praises of Israel.”

The psychologizing of relational realities is a relatively modern phenomenon. At its worst, it has created the current notion that “my reality” is “whatever I feel.” But such notions are only the most recent development in a long process of substituting psychological abstractions for true ontological realities. Recovering the true nature of reality is essential to a healthy Christian spiritual life.

It is interesting that the Scriptures put as much emphasis on truth-telling as they do. The issue is not a moral abstraction (“don’t tell lies because it’s wrong”). Rather, speaking a lie is an attempt to create a false reality, to put forward a creation that competes with the true creation of the good God. The damage of a lie is greater than its mere psychological effects. It is an “anti-sacrament,” an attempt to instantiate hell in our midst.

The Divine Liturgy is easily the most profound example of the substance of praise. The service must be understood as offering and sacrifice (for so it is self-described throughout).

We also offer to You this reasonable worship: for the whole world, for the holy, catholic and apostolic Church;

For the precious gifts offered and sanctified…that our God, Who loves mankind, receiving them upon His holy, heavenly, and ideal altar as a sweet spiritual fragrance, will send down upon us in turn His divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit…

[You] alone are holy, You accept the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon You with their whole heart. Accept also the prayer of us sinners, and lead us to Your Holy Altar. Enable us to offer You gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. Account us worthy to find grace in Your sight, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to You, and that the good Spirit of Your grace may dwell upon us and upon these gifts here offered, and upon all Your people,

Not only are the holy gifts of bread and wine offered as a “bloodless sacrifice,” but so, too, the prayers and praises are described as offerings. The incense is described as an offering as well. And with all of these we pray that God will accept them “upon His heavenly altar and send down upon us in turn the grace of His all-holy Spirit.”

It is more than proper to understand all of this in a manner far more substantive than the merely mental and imaginary notions of modernity. Our praise is not mere words. Our words are themselves a true substance, inhabited by God. And so is the whole of our spiritual sacrifice. The sacrifice is not spiritual by virtue of being mental or somehow non-material. There is pretty much nothing about a human life that is immaterial. We are material beings, embodied souls. We offer to God the spiritual sacrifice of substantive praise, the spiritual sacrifice of burning incense, the spiritual sacrifice of bread and wine, the spiritual sacrifice of our souls and bodies. And in this primary exchange, we receive again from God the reality of His grace, the Divine Energies, the Life of His all-good and life-creating Spirit.

We live in a world of true wonder, not in a world of the imagination. We give to God what He has given to us: Thine Own of thine Own.

 

A Matter of Life and Death

The-Seventh-Seal-filmThere are very few categories more basic than life and death. For Classical Christian thinking, they are essential. There has also been a tendency in both theology and philosophy, however, to move away from these fundamental categories and become lost in the complexities of other language. Thinking about the moral life is a prime example. A word like “sin” becomes an obscure subset of legal wrangling and tortured logic. The legacy of moral complication has been the loss of moral reasoning. There is a fundamental failure within our culture because we no longer understand the matter of life and death.

In Orthodox theology, thinking in terms of life and death is described as an “ontological” approach. The categories of life and death are also spoken of as “being” and “non-being.” They are foundational for Orthodox thought and need to return to our contemporary vocabulary, for the world and all that is in it, is truly a matter of life and death.

It is interesting that moral categories such as “right” and “wrong” create confusion for many. To modern ears it injects a world of subjectivity into questions of great moment. “Who’s to say what’s right and wrong?” we hear. This is a profound weakness in much moral thought in the modern period. Right and wrong are the language of the law. Life and death is the language of the Church. It is also the language that speaks with the greatest clarity.

For one, life and death are fairly easily defined. When something is alive, there is general agreement on the fact. The same is true about death. In the same manner, the fundamental categories of being and non-being are easily ascertained: either something exists or it doesn’t.

In the teaching of the Church, God alone has true self-existent Being. He is the root and ground of existence – all things having come into existence only by His will (“in Him we live and move and have our being” – Acts 17:28). Additionally, the Church holds that being (existence, life), as a gift of God, is inherently good. It is also the teaching of the Church that all things that are created are beautiful, in that they reflect the will of the Creator. Thus these three fundamental categories, being, goodness, beauty, are all related and have their grounding in being itself.

In the same manner, the Church understands death as a movement towards non-being. It is a rejection of being and existence. In the same manner, death is not good nor beautiful. In the New Testament it is often termed “corruption” (literally, “rot”). Thus the devil is described as a “murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44). He is also the “father of lies,” lies being a form of non-being (Jn 8:44).

Bearing these simple things in mind, it is much easier to think clearly about many contemporary issues that press upon us. Killing is contrary to the commandment. Even in situations of self-defense or defense of the weak, killing remains dangerously intertwined with the vortex of death. It is not a good thing nor a beautiful thing. We may deem it unavoidable and even necessary, but it is only “necessary” because of the evil that has entered the world. In the Church, the taking of a human life must be followed by repentance. It is never merely justified and dismissed. Something terrible has happened and it is necessary for our souls to be cleansed and healed.

On issues such as abortion, this is a very clarifying understanding. When does life begin? It obviously begins at the beginning. When a human ovum and a human sperm unite (both of which are living), the result is alive. It is not only alive, it is a human life (what other kind of life could such a zygote be)? There are no fine distinctions to be made: it’s a matter of life or death. And the willful destruction of an embryo is death, the causing of a human death. It is neither good nor beautiful. It is inherently a sin.

There is a long history of moral reasoning that is called “Utilitarianism.” It simply means, “What is useful.” It is a way of asking questions about certain actions. It’s reasoning is best expressed as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” It sounds eminently practical and is often employed in political and social thought. However, it is also fatally flawed. First, it fails to define the meaning of “good.” The greatest “good” cannot be described in practical terms. Often Utilitarian arguments are used to justify whatever some power group wishes to do. Whoever gets to define the “good” gets to make the rules.

Thus, those who find justifiable reasons for abortion always turn towards some form of utility. Abortion is certainly “useful” for the person who is burdened by the presence of this new life. But it is already an existing life and cannot be destroyed without sin. No amount of “useful” side-effects, such as providing fetal tissue for medical research and the like, can make the reality of the death go away, nor can they make killing into a good thing.

This reasoning is also a proper way to think about other things in our daily lives. The Christian life is not static and unchanging. It is dynamic, a movement towards a goal. That movement is described by the Fathers as one from simple being, towards well-being, and finally eternal-being. Sin is a moving in a contrary direction. Repentance is a change of direction, a return to the proper trajectory of our life.

Stanley Hauerwas, the American theologian, has said that the desire to control the outcome of history is idolatry and that whoever undertakes such a thing has agreed to do violence. He is entirely correct, for the outcome of history belongs to God alone and it is inevitable that the self-appointed masters of history will always be forced to kill in order to see their results come about.

The lesser goals of our world, constructed out of the plans and schemes of mortals often have very noble ends in mind. They are especially keen on the elimination and alleviation of suffering and pain. When these goals are expressed in their Utilitarian justifications, they always sound compassionate and caring. But when it is seen that the goals will ultimately require violence and killing, then their alliance with death is revealed. Mercy killings are among the most obvious examples of this utility. “A good death” becomes the reasoning behind murder or assisted suicide. War, in all of its forms, is the most egregious example of such a drive for historical mastery.

In our private lives, we fall short of the sanctioned killing of the state (though we may gladly give assent). But the same drive to control the outcome of history creates the idolatry of anger and bitterness. This is contrasted with the common theme of Orthodox prayers in which the events of the day are accepted, blessed and left in the hands of God.

The Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina is a good example:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility.
Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.
At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things.
Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day,
teach me to accept it with a calm soul
and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.
Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions.
In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.
Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.
O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day
and all the events that take place during it.
Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope,
to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

This prayer (and many others like it) is intended to move the heart towards union with God’s will, who works in and through all things for our salvation – the movement from being to well-being to eternal being. The same is true of all the commandments of Christ:

The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. (Joh 6:63)

Glory to God for all things!

Through the Prayers of Our Holy Fathers

silouanIt is a phrase that is heard frequently in Orthodox services: “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us!” The meaning of that phrase is enlarged and enlightened in the writings of the Elder Sophrony. The following excerpt is from his book, St. Silouan the Athonite.

Prayer for the whole world, for all Adam, in many instances distracts the monk from putting himself at the service of individuals. One may question whether this withdrawing from individual service means refusal of the concrete for the sake of the abstract? Not at all, for the whole Adam is not an abstraction but the most concrete fullness of the human being.

The ontological unity of humanity is such that every separate individual overcoming evil in himself inflicts such a defeat on cosmic evil that its consequences have a beneficial effect on the destinies of the whole world. On the other hand, the nature of cosmic evil is such that, vanquished in certain human hypostases [persons] it suffers a defeat the significance and extent of which are quite disproportionate to the number of individuals concerned.

A single saint is an extraordinarily precious phenomenon for all mankind. By the mere fact of their existence – unknown, maybe, to the world but known to God – the saints draw down on the world, on all humanity, a great benediction from God. The Staretz [St. Silouan] writes:

‘Because of these people, I believe the Lord preserves the world, for they are precious in His sight, and God always listens to His humble servants and we are all of us all right because of their prayers.’

‘Prayer keeps the world alive and when prayer fails, the world will perish…”Nowadays,” perhaps you will say, “there are no more monks like that to pray for the whole world.” But I tell you that when there are no more men of prayer on earth, the world will come to an end and great disasters will befall. They have already started.’

The saints live by the love of Christ. This love is Divine strength, which created, and now upholds, the world, and this is why their prayer is so pregnant with meaning. St. Barsanuphius, for instance, records that in his time the prayers of three men preserved mankind from catastrophe. Thanks to these saints – whom the world does not know of – the course of historical, even of cosmic events, is changed. So then, every saint is a phenomenon of cosmic character, whose significance passes beyond the bounds of earthly history into the sphere of eternity. The saints are the salt of the earth, its raison d’etre.  They are the fruit that preserve the earth. But when the earth ceases to produce saints, the strength that safeguards it from catastrophe will fail.

Tonight, before you go to bed, pray: “O Lord, through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us!” And be grateful.

Truth, Lies and Icons

rublevpaintAs verbal beings, we live in a world of icons. We experience the world in an iconic fashion. A major difficulty for us is that we have lost the vocabulary of iconic reality. We have substituted the language of photography. The dissonance between reality and our photographic assumptions has led us to doubt both. Man is an iconographer and needs to re-learn what that means.

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Franz Kafka famously wrote: “The Lie has become the World Order.” It was a sobering estimate (by an unbeliever) of the nature of human reality. Lying, simply not telling the truth, can seem a minor thing. But Jesus and the New Testament seem to pay a great deal of attention to lying, and treat it quite seriously. There is more here than the mere abrogation of a moral tenet. It is a concern with something more “Kafkesque.”

The nature of truth and lies becomes clear if they are thought of in terms of being. The Church describes God as the “author of our being.” In the writings of the Fathers, being itself, simple existence, is seen as a good thing, the first of all created good things. God brings us into existence saying, “It is good.” More than that, the Fathers teach that it is God’s will that we grow towards “well-being,” with the ultimately goal of “eternal being.” This, in terms of existence, is the path of salvation.

And this understanding reveals the nature of a lie: it has no true existence. That which is not true not only has no existence, but its very purpose is to obscure or destroy that which indeed has true existence. Fantasy and imagination, even though they have no true existence, are by no means inherently false. Only those forms which seek to distort, deny or destroy that which truly exist can be called “lies” rather than “fantasy” or “imagination.”

But this makes speech about reality (that which truly exists) very significant. The most obvious thing we can say is that reality itself and speech about reality are not the same thing.

In classical philosophy, the school of thought that describes words as only “in our heads” is called Nominalism. The names (nomina) of things are described as nothing more than thoughts. Those who argued otherwise (there are various types of such arguments) are called Realists. Orthodoxy, in its classical form, has always espoused some form of Realism. There is a relationship between words and thoughts and that to which they refer that is greater than simply being something “in our heads.”

One of the places where this debate took shape was in the debate over the veneration of icons. It is clear that images had played a role in the life of the Church from very early times. But that role was not questioned or explored until the 7th and 8th centuries. The debate was about more than the mere making of images. A greater and more pressing question was the veneration (giving honor) to the images themselves. St. Basil the Great stated a clear connection between the image and the subject of its image: “Honor given to the image is referred to its prototype.” Thus the honor given to an icon of Christ was, in fact, honor given to Christ Himself.

St. Basil’s statement was something of a simple assertion, without elaboration. But in the 8th and 9th centuries, St. Theodore the Studite developed a much more careful treatment of the question. He described an icon as a “hypostatic representation,” that is a representation of the personal or particular characteristics of its subject (the personal is always considered particular rather than general or abstract). He further taught that what is represented is “hypostatically” present in the image. The image does not become what is represented – that would be a presentation of its essence. Instead, it makes present what is represented, i.e., the Person. St. Theodore’s treatment thus used the language that the Church had developed for speaking about the Holy Trinity, as well as the Person and Nature of Christ to speak about the Holy Icons. It is a treatment that is often forgotten or neglected.

St. Theodore’s teaching on this question manages to avoid Nominalist solutions. He does not say, “It’s just a picture.” He does not say, “It’s only connection to what is depicted is in the mind.” Like all of the Fathers, he is a Realist. There is a true, even ontological, relationship between the icon and its subject. But he avoids charges of “magic” by maintaining that what is represented is only hypostatically present.

His explanation makes it possible to say, “The man in the picture is Peter.”

Turning back to language, the same understanding says that words matter. They have an actual relationship with the reality of which they speak and it matters. Fr. Georges Florovsky once said that “doctrine is a verbal icon of Christ.” Or, as the Seventh Council said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

Of course, the palette of language is far richer than the palette of the artist. Words have “shades” of meaning and subtle hues that an artist should envy. But, in the teaching of the Orthodox faith, words have a grounding in reality beyond psychology.

Some have said that the modern world is inherently Nominalist. We believe that our words are only words, and only have meaning because we say or think they do. The “reality” they describe is, therefore, in our minds. There was a school of thought (Idealism) that held that there is no objective reality outside the mind, or certainly that it cannot be proved. That extreme position has never gained acceptance. However, the modern sociology of knowledge, in which perceptions, prejudice, etc. are given a dominant and controlling position, yields something of the same effect. Conversation begins to falter in the face of withering doubts about the reality or trust-worthiness of anything in our heads.

Words have something of a sacramental relationship with the reality they represent. Or, to be more precise, they have an iconic relationship with reality. Icons are not photographs, nor can words ever serve as photographic or holographic substitute. But icons also carry more information than photographs and are able to make associations and connections that reveal the truth of reality (its foundational reality) far more profoundly than is possible in a photograph. Words have that same ability. Take the poetic sentence:

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

No photograph (and perhaps no icon) could carry as much information as this combination of words from Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” The many associations of “beast” (including the Beast of Revelation) do not “approach” – they “slouch.” It carries overtones of “slither” (and the serpent of the Garden) as well as other emotional content. And so the analysis would continue. It is a phrase that lives in my mind, capturing a reality both present and yet to come.

And this brings us back to lying. The struggle to speak the truth transcends mere morality. At its most fundamental level, it is a struggle to rightly relate to and participate in reality itself. To “live a lie” borders on not living at all – and is a synonym for hell.

To claim that the reality of our words lives only in the mind is itself a “lie” (not an intentional one, but simply not true). And even the photographic presentation of reality (as in all literalisms) fails to rise to the status of truth.

The Fathers held that the world-to-come (the Eschaton) was the truth. The Old Testament, they said, was a shadow, while the New Testament was an icon.

As verbal beings, we live in a world of icons. We experience the world in an iconic fashion. A major difficulty for us is that we have lost the vocabulary of iconic reality. We have substituted the language of photography. The dissonance between reality and our photographic assumptions has led us to doubt both. Man is an iconographer and needs to re-learn what that means. The result can be a movement towards the truth and a renewed confidence in our speech.

Can You Forgive Someone Else’s Enemies?

washing-jesus-feet2I have written from time to time about the concept expressed in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, “Forgive everyone for everything.” It is a quote taken from the fictional Elder Zosima, but it is certainly a sentiment well within the bounds of Orthodox thought. I have recently been challenged in several places by people arguing that we cannot forgive those who have not sinned against us – that this right belongs only to the victims involved. I believe this is profoundly untrue. But to understand why, it is necessary to look deeply into the meaning and function of forgiveness.

What happens when we forgive? A very important example is found in St. Mark’s gospel:

Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,’Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say,’Arise, take up your bed and walk’? “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”– He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  (Mar 2:3-11)

What sin did Jesus have in mind when he forgave the paralytic? Had the man done something wrong to bring a punishment of paralysis upon himself? There is no such indication. Indeed when Christ healed the man born blind He was asked who had sinned, the man or his parents such that he was born that way. Christ says, “Neither.” But it would seem clear from the greater context of the gospels that Christ could have said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and he would have received his sight. There is a simple conclusion to be drawn from this: forgiveness is not, strictly speaking, the remission of a legal debt or wrong that has been done. It is far greater.

There are parallel passages in the gospels regarding the forgiveness of sins:

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (Joh 20:23 NKJ)

and

Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Mat 16:19 NKJ)

Forgiving is “loosing.” Refusing to forgive is “binding.” The imagery of loosing and binding helps move the imagination away from a legal construction. When we sin, or even when we are involved in sin, we become bound. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the cause of the sin. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the victim of a sin. There is a binding that occurs because we simply witness the sin. There is even a form of binding that occurs to the whole of humanity because of the diminishment of even one of its members. If everyone were somehow only responsible for their own actions the world would be quite different. As it is, the action of one involves the binding of all. Adam’s sin has left us bound ever since. We are not being held legally responsible for Adam’s action. We are existentially and ontologically bound by Adam’s sin. Through his sin, death enters the world, and all men die (Ro. 5:12).

And just as there is a binding that occurs in each of these things, so there is a loosing that is appropriate to each. Obviously, the injury that a victim suffers binds them far tighter to their enemy than someone who is at a remove. And such a loosing is greater and represents a greater spiritual effort. But that effort is itself impeded by the refusal of all around to share in the loosing. And just as the refusal of all around impedes the loosing, so the participation of others makes the loosing easier.

These things are difficult to understand if we insist that all of reality is, at best, psychological or legal. But the death of Adam is not shared in a merely psychological or legal manner: we all die. And the resurrection of the Second Adam is shared in a manner that encompasses the whole of creation. The Paschal Canon contains the verse: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection.” It is a perfectly strange thing to sing unless we understand the true nature of forgiveness – and how it is that the Resurrection of Christ makes it possible for us to forgive everyone for everything.

Of course it jars us to hear that someone dares to forgive the killer of a child. “Only the child could offer such forgiveness!” These words were spoken by Ivan Karamazov as he professed his refusal of God’s mercy. He demanded justice for an injured child. Forgiveness that works by justice is no forgiveness at all. Forgiveness is not the child saying, “What you did to me is ok.” It is loosing the bonds that are forged in sin.

We often think that not forgiving someone is only destructive for them. But the lack of forgiveness is often equally devastating for their victim as well. I had opportunity some years ago to be involved with a Victim-Offenders Reconciliation Program. In it, mediators helped work to bring restitution and reconciliation for various crimes. I eventually became involved with efforts of ministry with families that had suffered a murder (as had my family). The darkness of the crime extends mercilessly beyond the victim alone. Forgiveness is the only way forward.

It is striking how utterly central forgiveness was to the ministry of Christ. It dominates almost everything He did. Many observe that He kept company with “sinners.” But He first and foremost forgave them. Their loyalty and devotion to Him flowed from the spiritual loosing that they found in Him. A woman “who was a sinner,” bathes Christ’s feet with her tears and anoints them with fragrant spices. Those around Him are offended. But He says:

Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little. (Luk 7:47 NKJ)

I cannot make your enemy be reconciled to you, nor can I do for you what you alone must do. Your enemy is yours to forgive. But he is mine as well, and the bond of unforgiven sin that links my life to his is still mine to loose. It is for this reason that we are bidden in the wisdom of the Fathers to forgive everyone for everything. Anything less is a bondage of destruction. Forgive all by the resurrection.

Sex and the Moral Imagination

resurrectioniconAs the day draws near for the US Supreme Court to insist on nationwide approval for gay marriage, a watershed in modern thought has been reached. For although the Supreme Court is not the arbiter of morality, its decisions generally signal a deep level of cultural acceptance. Of course, in American practice, the court represents the apex of legal/forensic imagination. Its decision will signal the bankruptcy of the forensic model for continuing Christian thought. When questions of sexual behavior are placed before the legal model, Christians are simply unable to make a persuasive case for much of anything. It is at least true, that the culture has become completely deaf to the sounds of Christian thought spoken in legal grammar.

Of course, the consequences of this will likely be long-lasting. For it is Christianity, in a certain form, that taught the culture to think with a legal imagination. Therefore, it’s not likely that the culture will listen to gainsaying Christians on the topic, regardless of how they frame the conversation. And the consequences reach far beyond sexual matters.

The same legal imagination seems increasingly mute in the face of other pressing questions: euthanasia, abortion, gender management, genetic manipulation and conception, etc. We are quickly reaching a place where the will to act becomes the right to act.

For the Church, the most immediate question is not how to regain a culture that it has now lost, but how to speak to the Church whose members have been nurtured in a failed legal/forensic imagination. For what seems obvious to the Supreme Court will likely seem obvious to teenage Christians as well (and many others). Christians are hardly counter-cultural revolutionaries (despite all of our protests to the contrary). The culture in which we live is, whether we want to admit it or not, of our own making.

Sexual morality and other related social issues have been addressed in a moral framework that is essentially forensic, grounded either within a legal reading of Scripture or in natural law. Scripture no longer holds a place of central authority within Western culture and natural law arguments have been lost in a constant battle of science and counter-science. Everything seems to have been swallowed by a popular acceptance of radical Nominalism: anything can be whatever we want it to be. The wanting is the thing.

But sexual relationships (and all relationships) lose the possibility of well-being in a world where whatever we want is, in fact, the case. For relationship is inherently about the Other, and if the Other is simply what I want, then the Other serves only as an extension of the ego. 

When Christ speaks about marriage, He pointedly moves past the arrangements of the Mosaic Law and reverts to Genesis: “From the beginning it was not so…” (Matt. 19:8). He elevates the creation story to the controlling position. It is there that we most clearly see the role of the Other. They are male and female, specifically like and unlike one another. And the man without the woman is “not good.” Rather, he is “alone.”

But this also becomes the ground of union, that state of being that best describes salvation. “She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” The complementarity is not simply opposition, ego on ego, but a unique ontological relationship admitting of union without the loss of otherness. It is, in its complete expression, the model of personhood.

And this is the “union” that the Church blesses in the sacrament of marriage. It is not simply two people, but male and female, in a union that is possible on every level. Biology is not made inferior to psychology. The modern project has reduced sexual existence to mere identity, a vehicle for the ego. Ovum and sperm have been objectified, becoming simple biological materials to be manipulated in a lab.

According to Christian understanding, in human existence, the personal is also capable of bearing the tragic, ground that is foreign to Modernity, its eradication being the goal of every Modern project. Boundaries are tragic for the ego – they say “no” to its unfettered demands. The “tragic” is viewed as any undesirable event or result in Modernity. It is viewed as suffering and is to be avoided, controlled and minimized.

Classical Christianity understands that the Cross is the way of life and that its paradox turns the tragic inside-out. For the Cross is not an unfortunate requirement, something God is forced to do in order to rescue sinful man. The tragedy of the Cross is also the pattern of healing, wholeness, well-being and eternal life. It is the revelation of true personhood.

All of the arguments regarding new definitions of marriage, aggressive reproductive technologies, gender re-definitions, etc., are made within a model that views any and all suffering as both tragic, needless and unacceptable if at all possible of alleviation. Such a line of reasoning was inevitably on a collision course with an ethic originally rooted in the Cross. The Christian view of personhood is an invitation to voluntary suffering and self-sacrifice. Nothing could be less modern.

The Church’s sacramental life exists solely for the purpose of salvation. It does not exist to bless or facilitate the interests of the State (or of the ego). The sexual models that are finding approval within the culture (and by the State) are not in accordance with the path of personhood revealed in the Christian Tradition. There are and will be many varying models of Christianity that will agree to serve the self-defined interests of the State. But these represent “another gospel,” a radical rejection and re-imagining of the Christian Tradition.

In public conversations, the traditional account of Christianity is going to come up short: the Modern promise of no suffering will always get more votes than the tragedy of the Cross. But the Cross must first be re-preached to the Christian people – they have listened long and well to Modern promises and have, to a large extent, modified their own understanding of the gospel in its light.

The irony, of course, is that the Modern drive in the name of compassion and the alleviation of suffering, is something that was first taught by the Church. And now the Church will seem to be arguing against it. Of course, the supreme irony is the Cross itself, which has always seemed like foolishness and weakness, and will continue to be despised by the builders of our Brave New World.

The Moral Path of Being

IMG_0809_2If Christian morality is not a legal or forensic matter, how are we to think about moral behavior? Does the word have no use for Orthodox Christians? What do we think about when we confess our sins? If morality is ontological – a matter of being – what does that look like?

To say that morality is ontological, a matter of our being, is to confess that the commandments of God are for our sake, for our salvation, our direction towards union with Him, and not merely for a legal/forensic judgment. The consequences of our actions are primarily internal, not imposed on us from without (Rom. 1:27).

My last article used the imagery of boundaries to speak about our proper way of life. Nothing is more constitutive of our salvation than the fullness of our personhood in relationship with the Triune God. All that pertains to our salvation rests within that relationship – which is truly ontological and not forensic. For Christ truly became what we are that we might become what He is.

Our boundaries can be seen as measures of who we are. As such there are all kinds of boundaries: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, hypostatic. Our boundaries are both the points at which we violate the proper boundaries of others as well as the points  at which we may be saved. To understand this requires that you rethink with me the mechanics of morality. I am not suggesting here a metaphysics of boundaries, but rather using boundaries as a way to speak of metaphysics.

If we think of sinful actions – say adultery or theft. The violation of certain boundaries, exclusive faithfulness on the one hand, and property on another, are easily adapted for moral thought. But more than that, there are “boundaries within boundaries,” or other liminal aspects such as how someone thinks about their spouse, or someone other than their spouse. Those emotional boundaries are deeply important, and we describe their violation as lust, covetousness and the like.

But in these cases, rather than simply thinking of a specific rule-oriented explanation (the forensic model), we can explore the inner dynamic of what makes unfaithfulness a sin, not only against another, but against our own being as well. For there are proper boundaries of the self as person, and there are the improper boundaries (or none at all) of the self as ego.

The Orthodox Tradition understands the human person in the light of the Divine Persons, rather than the other way around. It is primarily by reflecting on Christ as God and Man that we understand what it actually means to be a human person. Indeed, the very word “person” as a name for the human subject, is a contribution of Christian thought to language.

To exist rightly as person, and not merely as self-centered ego, includes proper boundaries. To know where I “stop” and where I “end” is essential in having any meaning whatsoever. I am not you. Your concerns belong to you and are yours. You do not exist in order to fulfill my desires. When modern language speaks of “objectifying” another human being (as in making them a “sex object” or “economic object”) what we really mean is that we have destroyed proper boundaries and have subsumed them into our desires and thoughts. The moral content of such thought should be obvious, with reflection.

Even commandments such as truth telling have to do with correct boundaries. The truth always has actual content. That real content is describable. Only a faithful and correct description, etc., properly respects the boundaries of someone or something. To mis-represent is to distort boundaries for a false purpose.

This same exercise is easy to do across the whole range of moral concerns. But it is important to see that in using such imagery to carry out these thoughts, we are seeing ourselves, those around us, and our situations, not in legal terms, but in substantial, ontological terms. We can better understand that wrong actions are not merely “legally wrong,” but are actual violations of personhood and the reality of others – as clear and distinct as violence to someone’s physical body.

Important as well is its assistance in seeing ourselves as we truly are. Only boundaries reveal anything. For the shape and outline of things and situations, their delineations are all words for their boundaries. With no boundaries, we see nothing, or fail to know that we see anything. In making Himself known to us, God has always done so by boundaries. His name is the first great boundary revealed to Moses. It is set about with caveats and treated most carefully. Prominent within the 10 commandments is the prohibition against the misuse of His name. For if the name is used indiscriminately, it loses its meaning, and ceases to be the Divinely-revealed boundary by which we might know God.

Of course, the ultimate boundary is the Incarnation itself. The Word becomes flesh:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:1-3)

The commandment continues into the very heart of our New Testament faith:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.

All of this is rightly defended in the veneration of the Holy Icons, in which the Church recognizes the condescension of God to humankind. He has become such that He can be pictured! The veneration of icons is properly, a moral act (in an ontological understanding).

But in the recognition of the boundaries of others and the things outside of us, we also come to know and accept the boundaries of our own selves. And this constitutes an essential part of our salvation.

For though we describe one another as persons, in the theology of the Church, that is something that we have yet to fully become. Our salvation can be understood as a movement towards true personal existence. The character of personal existence is most especially marked by its relationship to the Other. Just as the persons of the Holy Trinity are revealed with names that are relational (Father, Son, Spirit), so the truth of our personhood is revealed as it is rightly shaped in its relationships – with God, with other human persons, and with all created things.

Conversely, it is characteristic of sin that it fails in those relationships – its boundaries are broken, obscured, or non-existent. We do not relate to the Other, but use the other. Human beings as consumers is almost synonymous with human beings as sinners.

For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another. (Gal 5:14-15)

And we are told of our adversary:

…your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.(1Pe 5:8)

That mental construct that we call the “ego,” our false self, is primarily characterized by its own distorted boundaries. In its anxieties it seeks to control, to manage, and to own. It exists as a story that is under constant revision, always searching and rearranging the past while warily scanning the future. The true self, as person, is content to exist in the present, at home within all of the boundaries that are appropriate. It is, in the last analysis, the heart of love.

This is the other dynamic of personhood. Content within proper boundaries, we learn to rightly extend ourselves towards the Other, without coercion or violence. In love, we lay down our own prerogatives and voluntarily accept the burdens of all. The ego obliterates all of the others in its own mania. The person accepts death, its own annihilation, for the sake of the Other, and in so doing finds itself and fulfills its personhood.

The distinct advantage in thinking in this manner (or something similar), is its integration with the language of the faith: personhood, being, etc. Doubtless there are other images that can be used (though they haven’t yet occurred to me). But the disadvantages of legal/moralistic language are manifold. It tends to make our moral life somehow separate from the rest of our lives. It becomes its own special subset of the faith. This compartmentalization is typical of one period in Christian history (scholasticism) and has left us with a problematic legacy – and a pressing danger that much be considered.

For quite some time traditional morality, rooted in legal/moralistic ideas, has been increasingly undermined by various forces in the culture. It is being replaced with a new set of legal/moralistic ideas, sometimes ruthlessly enforced through government action and bureaucratic policy. This “new morality” exploits the weakness of the legal/forensic model by challenging its cultural biases and attacking its apparent arbitrary character. Christian moralistic answers are proving to be unable to meet the challenge. Thinking “ontologically” requires us to say how something is wrong, and not simply that it is wrong.

There is an interesting example in St. Paul:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. (1Co 6:15-18)

St. Paul could have simply quoted the Law: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But he instead grounds the commandment in the ontological reality of union. There’s certainly more to be said when his argument is unpacked. But it is the kind of moral grounding that is required in the current challenge presented by our culture.

Legal imagery has, over time, led Christians down a very false and empty path. It has created an understanding of morality devoid of true content and left Christians intellectually unarmed and confused in the face of the New Morality. Worse still, it has substituted images of moral progress for the true path of the Cross that is marked by voluntary self-emptying. The imagery that I have offered here, a meditation on the boundaries of being, suggests a way to consider the teachings of the Fathers in which self-emptying is the very nature of moral action. To accept a boundary is to empty the false self. To extend that true personhood towards the Other is the very nature and character of the Cross. It is Christ’s way of the Cross. For He accepted the boundary of human existence, even to the point of death – the shameful death of the Cross. And through His shameful death He destroyed death, breaking its boundaries, and exalted human nature to the heavens. That is the true moral path.

To Be or Not To Be – A Moral Question?

2014-07-30 16.04.03As I continue this series on morality (or unmorality) the conversation continues to push me back to basics. There are deeply important reasons for unthinking the morality of the modern world and rethinking its place in our relationship with God. The most important reason is because it is incorrect to think of us as primarily moral beings. So what would constitute a moral being?

A Moral Being

A being understood primarily as a moral being would be one whose existence is more or less a given. The important question isn’t whether or not such beings exist, but how they behave. In terms of existence, all people would be seen as pretty much equal. It is what they do with that existence that is of concern, and particularly of concern from the perspective of religion. The crisis of humanity is its danger of being immoral.

Moral beings have been given Divine Commandments to direct them on the path of right behavior. Those commandments were fulfilled and completed in Christ, the only truly moral being. He gave us a greater Law, that of love, and taught us what it meant to live in accordance with that revelation.

In this understanding, His death and resurrection make it possible for us to live as moral beings, bringing us forgiveness and the power to change (repentance). Being saved by grace is primarily exhibited in greater and greater mastery of the passions (wrong inclinations and desires – moral disorder). It is crowned with perfection and eternal life with God in heaven.

An Ontological Being

There is another way to understand our existence, in which existence itself is not a given. St. Athanasius, in describing our human condition, begins with our creation out of nothing. He does not think of our existence in moral terms. Rather, he describes our sin as a break with God, the sole source of our being and continued existence. The consequences of this break are our falling back towards non-existence. The crisis of humanity is not moral in nature, but existential.

Over the course of several centuries, the language of the Church developed a common vocabulary for speaking about the doctrine of God (Trinity/Person/Being/Energies), the doctrine of Christ (Person/Being or Nature/Will/Energy) and the doctrine of man (Personhood/Nature/Freedom). The most refined versions of this conversation are found in St. Maximus and the 5th and 6th Councils, as well as in the later refinements of St. Gregory Palamas (14th century). That language looks at all of these things in terms that are primarily ontological – having to do with being.

Thus, when thinking about human beings and their Fall, this is seen in terms of a movement away from true being and the path towards eternal being, and thus towards non-existence. Salvation is seen as a restoration to our true mode of existence and direction in communion with God.

All of this works well with the Church’s language and proclamation of Christ’s victory over death and hell, as well as with St. Paul’s description of sin whose wages are death. It is the primary language and grammar of the Church in these matters.

A Clash of Grammars

The language of morality (behaviors/commandments/moral struggle/) has always been present in the Church. It has its place within the Scriptures and certainly plays a role in traditional teaching regarding the passions and spiritual warfare. However, it was not until the rise and prominence of legal/forensic imagery that moral thought came to be a primary way of thinking about the Christian life or human beings as such.

The teaching that man’s sin was primarily a breaking of the law, requiring payment or punishment, with righteousness being the fulfilling of the law, requiring reward, etc. represented an interjection of moral thought into the realm of the Divine/human relationship. Morality (not being and well-being) becomes the defining characteristic of human beings in the eyes of God. And God as Law Giver, Rewarder/Punisher, becomes the defining understanding of God in the eyes of sinful humanity.

When these ideas are interjected into the Godhead and dominate Christian thought, the Trinity, in its proper formulation, begins to recede. The relationship of the Father to the Son becomes primarily defined by the Son’s righteous transaction on behalf of sinful man. All conversation about being, substance, person, coinherence, etc., becomes superfluous, a distraction that obscures what is important (morality).

It overstates things simply to describe this as a problem between East and West, or Protestant/Catholic versus Orthodox. The reality on the ground and within history is much more complex and messy. But it is nevertheless the case that in cultural thought (which effects professional theologians as well) moral ideas and categories have pushed ontological ideas and categories aside – with the result that the culture today is speaking one language, the doctrine of the Church, another. This rejection of the traditional Christian language of ontology makes sense in a secular culture. Why would unbelievers want to speak a Trinitarian language? Morality can be understood by atheists as well. 

Many of the most critical discussions in our culture concern very basic things about our humanity. Such things as sexual behavior, the beginning and end of life, marriage, etc., are all very fundamental parts of what it means to be human. Our cultural language, however, is dominated by moral imagery, understood in a very legal/forensic manner. Moral language is simply inadequate to discuss matters of such fundamental import. Christians, restricted in their vocabulary, wind up saying little more to pressing questions than, “It’s just wrong!” Those voices are increasingly ignored.

The culture, in pressing a radical revision of its understanding of the human, is itself using the legal/forensic model with effects that are devastating to a Classical understanding. The language of rights (itself part of the legal/forensic model) are simply sweeping everything away in their path. Gainsayers are left speechless or looking like fools. Of course, the reductionism of the radical revisionists is absurd. Human behavior cannot be rightly understood within the mere assertion of individual rights. Fundamental boundaries involving gender and the like are swept away as though they were artifacts of some outmoded worldview.

The Recovery of Christian Language

Moral thought has been highjacked by Modern culture. It is deeply infected with legal/forensic models of what it means to be human. We have incorporated pop psychology and progressive imagery into some of the deepest concerns of the Christian faith. With this has come the loss of disciplined, careful Christian thinking about contemporary needs and concerns. The Tradition is weakened and made somewhat obsolescent. There is a need to recover proper Christian language as we think about the spiritual life.

This recovery includes a critique of moral thinking. We are not, rightly-defined, moral beings. Morality is not the essence of our relationship with God. This is easily revealed in the fact of hypocrisy. Mere adherence to an outward standard has never been acceptable in God’s eyes. God sees according to the heart – the inmost character and disposition of our being. An “objective” moral standard might easily judge someone as “righteous,” even though they are moving away from God Himself. The standard, its rules and norms, substituted for God Himself, become a false mode of existence, which is idolatry. Christ says that this is “Of your father the devil,” meaning a movement towards non-being (for the devil was “a murderer from the beginning”).

Learning a language is something of a slow process. What we are engaged in, as Orthodox Christians, is the recovery of our own proper language. The words of “morality” in the Fathers have been co-opted by a foreign language, their meaning corrupted and changed. It is this changed that I have striven to point out by using such striking words as an “unmoral” (not “immoral”) Christian life.

The language of the Church, as embodied in her Councils and hymnography is rich in its understanding of what it means to be human – far richer than the reductionist theories of the new moralists. My readers would do well to think about these larger questions and hear what is being said. It will allow us to escape an existence as a moral cipher and become human beings.

While We’re At It – An “Unmoral” Word from the Holy Mountain

karakalouIn an effort to help my critics understand my articles, friends have sent me excellent links here and there. A link to a Lenten article by Fr. Alexis Trader (of Karakalou on the Holy Mountain) gives more witness to what has been said:

The problem is that salvation and transfiguration are not a matter of morality. The publican and the prodigal were not moral people. They did all the wrong things, but yet they came to themselves, they discovered their hearts, and in so doing found the way, not just to moral goodness, but to holiness, to righteousness, and to feasting in the Father’s household.

And more to the point (and close to my Dostoevskyian heart):

Fyodor Dostoevsky takes up this theme in many of his novels and concludes that the humanism derived from a moral code on its own cannot serve as man’s ultimate salvation.  The world will not be saved by optimistic humanism that believes human progress and morality will eventually save the world.   For Dostoevsky and the church fathers, man’s deepest problems are not moral, nor even psychological, but ultimately existential and ontological. It’s not about following the rules or feeling balanced. It is a matter of choice and it is a matter of human nature being touched by the hand of God Himself.  Only by daring to leap towards God in spite of the good and evil that exist in the heart can the believer hope to get beyond the contradiction of the human condition. In order to avoid descending into nihilism, Dostoevsky offers his readers another path: the acceptance of suffering and affliction in the context of a relationship with God. It is only in this context that man is able to recognize a path out of his fallen condition.  It is only this Love that is able to transform suffering into salvific joy.

I commend the article and give thanks for the common witness to our single Tradition.

Going to Hell with the Terrorists and Torturers

mikhail-nesterov-harrowing-of-hell-undatedIn 988, Prince Vladimir of Kiev was Baptized and embraced the Christian faith. Among his first acts as a Christian ruler were to tithe his wealth to the Church and the poor, and to outlaw capital punishment and torture. It is said that the Bishops advising him counseled him that he might need to keep the torture in order to rule effectively.

This anecdote has always brought a wry smile to my face, it seems so quaint. Of course torture is not quaint, nor is it medieval. It is quite common in the so-called modern world and has recently moved to the front pages as the US has pulled the veil of secrecy back from its interrogation techniques in its war against terror. I have been interested to watch the reaction to all of this on social media. Many friends have reacted with moral outrage. Others, particularly those whose politics are conservative, have posted supportive pictures and thoughts. Christians find themselves on both sides of the question.

But there isn’t really a question. Prince Vladimir was right and the bishops advising him were scandalously practical. Their fear is apparently a modern fear: what if the lack of torture doesn’t work? Our enemies are dangerous and the lives of the innocent are at stake.

The conversation surrounding all of this (it will disappear as soon as the news cycle moves on) reminds me of several classical problems in ethics. All of them pose the question, “What would you be willing to do to save the life of your loved ones?” It is a tragic question, for in the scenarios of danger that are always suggested, there is no choice that does not yield human suffering – even unimaginable human suffering.

But those nightmare scenarios are not always make-believe. The regular posting of atrocity videos have made us all too aware of the nature of the game.

I do not offer a moral debate in this posting. Torture is wrong. Justify it if you will, but it remains wrong. St. Vladimir was right and the bishops, however practical their advice, did him a great disservice.

But there is something of far greater value that is too easily missed in our current round of hand-wringing. It is the dark places of the human heart that we see and quickly cover in the wrangle of debate. It is a place where our thoughts should linger.

For the place of torture and the smashing angry insanity that drives a plane into towers dwell in the same dark heart – and the heart belongs to us all. Some will protest immediately that I am drawing some kind of moral equivalency. One act is done to save lives, the other to destroy them. But it is not any kind of moral anything that I wish to draw. Rather it is our attention to the true character of the human heart.

There is a morality that is practiced in our day-to-day life. It may include the simple rules of etiquette and a host of other expectations. And for many people, the observance of these rules are what constitute their notion of good and bad. But there is often an abstraction that occurs within such moral musings. Polite society shields itself from many of its immoral actions. The violence of poverty is often covered with economic theory and political discourse. For the child who suffers – these are just words. The general wealth of a healthy standard of living grants the luxury of oblivion – the ability to ignore the true cost of the luxury. This is true whether the cost is the exploitation of slave labor in a foreign land or the torture of the enemy well out of sight. And these are only egregious examples.

More hidden still are the dark recesses of our own hearts. For the torturers and the terrorists are just human beings. They were not spawned on an alien planet. Whatever they know, they learned from other human beings. And though the dark recesses of our hearts may often yield nothing more than thoughts and feelings, we should remind ourselves that their true character is the stuff of which torture is made.

I am even more interested in the cold assessment of those 10th century bishops who cooled St. Vladimir’s jets and offered their advice on statecraft. For theirs is the calm, pragmatic mind within us all. There is a chilly moral calculus that governs their advice. “The kingdom must go on, even if it requires a little torture from time to time. The gospel is good and the Baptism of the Rus is even better, so long as the Prince of the Rus doesn’t forget that he’s a prince and do his job.” I fear the cool utility of such reason far more than I do the uncontrolled passions within us.

But it is right and salutary that we should allow ourselves to look in the dark places of the heart. Orthodoxy insists on proclaiming that the resurrected Christ first descended into hades. There is no easy transition from the cool tomb to the bright Sunday morning. There is the intervening and inconvenient reality of true darkness.

C.S. Lewis portrays a fanciful story of a bus ride from hell to heaven. Those in hell (“the gray town”) are invited to remain in the bright, solid reality of heaven. The conversations that take place in that delightful work (my favorite Lewis) are very telling. They are the confrontation between morality and reality, between the forensic model and the ontological. Heaven is so real that its solid objects hurt the feet of the hellish ghosts. Their moralities appear silly in the face of plain, solid being. The ghost of a wayward bishop protests that he cannot stay in this new place, since he has a prior engagement in a theological discussion group, where he is to read a paper – swallowed by hell and his life is unchanged.

Our own moralities are equally banal and empty, and we shudder and make excuses rather than examine the true darkness of our hearts. Dostoevsky repeatedly unmasked the emptiness of society’s morality. In the Brothers Karamazov, there are four brothers, all sons of a father who is a drunkard and a thoroughly disgusting human being. He is the definition of a “Karamazov.” None of the brothers appear, at first, to be like their father. One is a greatly tormented romantic, his life filled with pleasures and excess. Another is a cold, hard-bitten cynic who no longer believes in God. A third is a very dark character, ultimately a patricide. And the fourth is an innocent, a virtual saint. But even he admits, “I am a Karamazov.” And his brother says to him, “We are all insects.”

Dostoevsky (and Lewis) do not write in such a manner in order to simply tear down the pretense of public morality. But they know that our salvation cannot be found within the little efforts of our moral strivings. They (Dostoevsky in particular) dare to go into the darkness where Christ has entered and suggest to us that we all have a share in that place. We are all Karamazovs.

Entering into that darkness and acknowledging its depths is not an effort to consign ourselves to perdition or to embrace a doctrine of total depravity. It is an effort to unite ourselves to Christ. The traditional name for this journey is repentance. Moralism has all but destroyed the Christian understanding of repentance, replacing it with good intentions and apologies. Our sin is a brokenness and is best seen in the darkest corners of the heart.

St. Paul found Christ in the dark corner of murder and burning hatred. The heights of his holiness are only rivaled by the depths of his sin. Tradition holds that St. Stephen was a kinsman of St. Paul. The anguish of such sin is indeed a “goad,” as Christ described it.

St. Peter did not truly find Christ until his own encounter with cowardice. Always the first and the loudest of the Apostles, probably easily recognized as a leader by others, he was not given the care of Christ’s sheep until he found Christ in the depths of his personal hades on the shore of Galilee. And the resurrected Lord says to him, “Do you love me?”

We must not ignore the public sins of our culture (torture) or the sins of enemies (terrorists) who seek to destroy us. But if we are to stand honestly before God, then we need to see the place that such things have in our heart. Do we dare to speak and acknowledge the Karamazov within ourselves or do we pretend that we are offended and shocked by the hearts of others.

If we do not find Christ in hades, we will not likely find Him anywhere else.

Orthodoxy Versus Christian Materialism

bapOver the years I find myself coming back to a number of ideas within the modern world that differ markedly from Orthodox thought. These are ideas that are imbedded so deep within our culture that they seem self-evident to most people. Many Orthodox believers hold to one or more of them, distorting their understanding of the faith. This article is an effort to create a list and address each one. If it succeeds I will use it as a touchstone in future work. I have left off the specific issues of the Modern Project, which forms a subset of these ideas. Perhaps they will be added in a later version. 

The ideas:

1. Things are self-existent. They require nothing outside of themselves to exist.

2. Relationships are psychological.

3. Meaning is only a thought.

4. Time is a chain of cause-and-effect. The Cause cannot come after its effect.

5. Good and bad only describe behavior.

1. A Self Existent Collection of Things

This idea is similar to the understanding of the universe held by strict Materialists. A strict Materialist thinks that there is nothing other than material (or material as energy). He assumes that there is no God and that the only relationship things have to each other are those relationships described within the confines of physics. Any description of a non-material relationship is either “mumbo-jumbo” or merely and idea (see numbers 2 and 3).

For Christians (should I call them Christian Materialists) who hold to this understanding of the world, there is no denying that God exists. But God exists outside of and removed from the material order. He may intervene in the material order, but only by interrupting its Laws and Principles (cf. “miracle”).

The Sacraments are deeply problematic in this world view. If water is water, how can it be something else (in Baptism)? If wine is wine and bread is bread, how can it be something else (in the Eucharist)? Any language of “real presence” is inherently troubling. For an “extra-material” reality is either psychological (see number 2) or merely imputed (see number 3).

In very common extensions of this materialist Christianity, the sacraments are bracketed as miraculous exceptions. Things are just things, unless the Church and Scripture (or some accepted authority) says they are something else. But these instances of miraculous exceptions are not seen as in any way pointing to a different understanding of the world. The Eucharist therefore says nothing about bread and wine – only about this bread and this wine. Baptism says nothing about water, only about this water. But the sacramental teaching of the Church is strictly confined to the liturgical walls of the Church and have nothing to say about the nature of things.

(The Orthodox Response) Everywhere Present, Filling All Things

In the classical Christian worldview, everything that exists does so because it was ultimately brought into being “out of nothing” (ex nihilo). It does not have self-existence, but is maintained in existence purely by the gift of God who alone has true, self-existent being. Existence is a gift, sustained by the goodness of God. Even those things that are described as “evil” (such as Satan) are sustained in their existence by the goodness of God. Not only is everything created and sustained by God, but everything has within it a logos, its reason, meaning and purpose. And this logos is directly related to the Logos, the eternal Son of the Father, through whom all things were created. Thus there is an inner relationship between everything that exists and God.

More than this, the world as it exists is more than material (including the logoi of things). The world is an “icon” (in the words of St. Maximus and St. Ambrose). Everything reflects greater, more eternal realities. Those realities (certainly through the logoi of things) play a role in how things are.

Because the logoi of all things have their ground and origin in the Logos, we can say that the universe has a Christ-shape. We can even say that it has the shape of the Crucified Christ. And so New Testament writers can say that the “Lamb was slain before the Foundation of the World.”

The sacraments are more than accidental intrusions in an otherwise stable, self-existent reality. The universe was created to be sacramental. “The whole creation is a sacrament,” in the words of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. That bread and wine become the Body of Christ does not violate the nature and character of bread and wine. They were created for this purpose. And so we can see bread tending towards the Eucharist even before the Eucharist (in the Manna for example, and the Show Bread in the Temple, etc.). The many “types” of the Cross in the Old Testament demonstrate that creation was always tending towards the Cross. The Cross is written in the logoi of things.The fathers not only affirm this, but speak of “natural contemplation” by which is meant the godly consideration and meditation on the logoi of all creation.

This same reality is behind the Orthodox understanding of Icons and symbols. Orthodoxy is not interested in “invented” symbols, as in “let’s let this stand for that.” It discerns symbols – relationships that are true and real in which one thing indwells or coinheres in another.

2. Relationships Are Psychological

A tree and a rock can have no relationship because they have no psyche. If a tree and a rock have a relationship, it’s only because an individual psyche feels that they do. Equally, the connection between people (or between a person and God) refers only to how they feel about each other, or perhaps about a genetic similarity they might share, or common membership in an organization. But a relationship is therefore fragile (as fragile as a feeling) and temporary (out of mind, out of existence – “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know”).

Similar to the psychological relationship is the contractual relationship. This describes modern “marriages” – people who have agreed to certain responsibilities and mutual arrangements. But the contract is essentially psychological – it lasts as long as we feel it does – then we can tear up the contract.

This strongly colors the content of the modern phrase “a relationship with Jesus Christ.” This phrase refers only to a psychological event. A person “accepts” (chooses, feels, etc.) Jesus Christ “as Lord and Savior.” They may indeed “feel” something. What is established is now a psychological bond (or even a religious contract) that is described as “being saved” or “born again.” But its reality is essentially psychological.

(The Orthodox Response) Relationships are Ontological

Classical Christianity views relationships as rooted in actual being and existence, i.e. ontology. Relationship with God (not psychology) is the ground and cause of our being. It is more accurate to say that something is a relationship than to say that it has a relationship. This goes back to the fact that we are not self-existing.

In Trinitarian theology an example can be found within the Trinity itself. God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three Persons reveal in their very names that their relationship is at the ground of their existence. The Father cannot be “Father” except as the “Father of.” “Son” is a relational name – it does not stand alone. The same is true of Spirit (though this is not so clear in English). Spirit, however, is “breath.” It must be breathed. The Father begets, the Son is begotten and the Spirit Proceeds. In the very core of our understanding of the revealed God we find relationship. There is no “God” behind the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know no other God.

By the same token, everything that exists is created, i.e. it exists as the work of the Creator. And it exists as it is sustained in its existence by the very root and ground of our being. Relationship is a matter of being – it is ontological.

3. Meaning Is Only A Thought

When we ask, “What does it mean?” We intend to say, “What do you think it means?” For meaning only refers to what someone thinks. As such, meaning is extremely fluid, never fixed. Beauty is “in the eye of the beholder.” This is an obvious corollary of the first point – things are just things. The medieval philosophy of Nominalism held that there were no ideas or forms external (or internal) to material reality other than those that are posited within the human mind. To a large extent, this philosophy gradually replaced earlier models and helped create the modern mind. Every person born into the modern world, barring highly unusual circumstances, is a Nominalist.

(The Orthodox Response) Meaning is not a thought

The classical Christian model sees meaning as real and generally permanent. It is discerned rather than assigned. Meaning is referential (it has a reference outside itself) and is grounded in eternal relationships and meanings. Christ is the Logos (John 1:1). One translation of Logos is meaning. He is the ultimate meaning of all things (For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things” Rom 11:36).

Even our thoughts have substance beyond our own heads. This is never clearly defined within Orthodox writings, but is commonly discussed. In general, everything is understood to have participation and coinherence within its existence. The perception of the truth also has an element of participation in the truth. By the same token, delusion has something of a participation in non-being (sin). There are many layers and levels within this reality. However, within the New Testament, particularly within the gospel of John, knowledge is far more than a mere idea within the mind. To know is to participate. Thus eternal life can be described as “knowing God” (Jn. 17:3).

4. Time As Cause And Effect

Deeply connected to materialist Christianity is a “materialist” understanding of time. In the modern understanding, time is simply a description of the chain of cause and effect – the past being a collection of causes, the present being the result of those causes, and the future being the results that have not yet happened (and therefore do not yet exist). With a materialist notion of cause and effect, history (with a solid/fixed existence) becomes of supreme importance. Christianity as a “historical” religion, becomes a description of Divine causes and effects. The linear character of time takes on a controlling character. Thus historical (solid/fixed) events such as the Creation of Man, the Fall, Noah’s Ark, the Red Sea, etc., have their historical character as their prime importance. The story of the universe is a story that takes place entirely within a materialist system of cause and effect. Sin is a historical problem requiring a historical solution. And because of the fixed nature of time/cause/effect, each historical event presupposes and requires the same character of its causes. Thus if the historical character of Adam and Eve are questioned, then the historical character of all subsequent events are challenged as well. The Fall becomes the cause of the Cross.

(The Orthodox Response) Time is not Time-Bound

Among the least appreciated aspects of classical Christian thought is its treatment of time. It is an understanding that is necessitated by the treatment of time within the Scriptures themselves and not by some alien metaphysic. It is Christ Himself who most reveals time in its proper perspective. He is both Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8). This is not at all the same thing as saying that He will be both at the beginning and at the end. He is the Beginning and the End. This makes Him both Cause and Goal.

It is not at all uncommon in the fathers for the end of something to be seen as its cause.  Things are frequently viewed as teleological in their existence, that is, their truth and reason (logos) are revealed in what they will be. To a certain extent we see this in plants and animals. The “end” is already fully present within their DNA. But this can easily be seen as a cause (past tense) within history effecting an outcome (future). But within classical Christian thought, that which shall be is directly effecting that which was and is. A cause can easily be seen as subsequent to an event.

In Ephesians St. Paul says:

[God has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10)

This end is already the purpose of all things and describes the movement and direction of all creation. For this is an equally important understanding of creation – all things are in motion – not just physical motion – but ontological motion – movement in their being. God calls all things into existence (being), and properly they move towards well-being. Their goal is eternal being. This is the proper nature of all things. Sin is the movement away from this path, a missing-the-mark (hamartia).

There are a number of events within history that have a character that transcends history. The Lord’s Pascha (His Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection) is rightly said to be before all things and at the end of all things, as well as specifically present at a moment in history. The Eucharist is the Lord’s Pascha (“His death ‘til He comes”) made present. The universe is most properly seen and understood through a theological rather than a historical lens.

5. Good and Bad Only Describe Behavior

The materialist version of Christianity is highly moralistic. It is greatly concerned with behavior, with right and wrong, but defines those only as behaviors. Nothing is good or bad in itself – only choices and behaviors. This requires that God be conceived as the enforcer of morality, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. Behavior at the most can form and shape habits, but it has no other effect (other than direct action on other objects). Morality is the behavior of individual, self-existing beings, upholding or breaking contracts (with other human beings or God). This thinking about good and bad behavior is shared by both so-called liberal and conservative believers. They differ about what is moral, but not the nature of morality itself. Both have a list of those who should be rewarded and a list of those who should be punished. Their arguments are simply discussions between lawyers.

(The Orthodox Response) Good and Bad are Ontological

Good and bad are not categories that are external to us – but are very much a part of our being and existence. We are created for union with God, Who is the ultimate and true Good. Movement away from that union is the meaning of the word “bad.” This is sin and it is death. God is the ground of our being – to move away from God is to move towards non-existence. It is this movement that is described as bad.

The actions in our lives that are the fruit of such a movement are the actions that are categorized as “sins.” But they are not sins because they are legal violations of an extrinsic norm. They are sins because they are manifestations of Sin itself – the movement away from God.

We are never able to make ourselves not exist. Existence is the gift of God and is not within our power to end. Our rejection of God and of our proper end is not an acceptance of non-existence. It is a movement away from the goodness of being, a distortion of its truth and the substitution for delusional forms of existence.

The Orthodox View of the World

As noted earlier, there are certainly Orthodox whose ideas differ little from this “materialist” Christianity. Their sacramental view is just as external as other materialists, their understanding of relationships just as psychological. They defend the Orthodox “meaning” but see this as simply correct thought. They can be highly moralistic and deeply committed to God as the cosmic enforcer. Many are as defensive of the historically fixed version of reality as any materialist. Strengthening all of this is the historical security of the One true historical Church with the addition of infallible councils, and infallible fathers in addition to an infallible Scripture. In a world of historical cause and effect as the bedrock of reality, infallibility is an essential element. One misstep, and all bets are off.

But these are all assumptions of what I am here naming “Materialist Christianity.” For though, unlike pure Materialism, it accepts the existence of God, He is only present as the One who intervenes in the fixed cause and effect of the material universe. He is the God who acts in history. They are not the assumptions of classical Orthodoxy. And though every document of classical Orthodoxy does not take time to differentiate itself from this worldview (an impossibility since this worldview is a modern invention), it nevertheless undergirds the patristic treatment of the Christian faith. This is particularly true of the Scriptures themselves where very non-historical forces are frequently evident. The major theological fathers, Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Theodore the Studite, as well as the Hesychastic fathers such as St. Gregory Palamas, hold to assumptions about the world and its relation to God that are radically different from modern materialist Christianity.

Today the classical Christian view of the world is a distinct minority understanding living within the dominant modern culture. It’s language and grammar live on within the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity, as well as its larger devotional and theological life. Classical Christianity lives beside a dominant culture where the majority of Christians subscribe to the worldview that I’ve here described as “materialist” Christianity. I see no intention on the part of materialist Christians to be particularly materialist. Most would probably be offended to hear themselves described as such. However, I cannot find a more accurate word.

Orthodoxy has lived both as a dominant culture and for many centuries as an oppressed minority under the Islamic yoke in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It has continued to struggle from underneath that yoke as well as from the modern scourge of Communism. Today it faces its largest challenge in the distortions of materialist thought (both Christian and atheist).

Coming to understand the true and proper shape of Orthodox thought is an essential part of accepting and maintaining the faith. There will doubtless be some struggles within Orthodoxy itself as some mistakenly defend materialist ideas as “traditional.” I have seen this on a number of occasions. In time, a reading of the fathers as well as a proper hearing of the liturgical experience begin to make the Classical view more understandable, even spiritually self-evident. That process is a part of the acquisition of an Orthodox mind. May God grant it to us all!

 

 

The Erotic Language of Prayer

00-vladimir-yeshtokin-a-joyful-place-07-12-12The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness’. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation , almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role. For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

Legal Problems

raskolnikov_stickers-r9952a0e2fda64e8bb295048b080026b8_v9waf_8byvr_324I find almost nothing as useless when thinking about God or the human condition as legal imagery. Indeed, it is worse than useless – it leads only to wrong conclusions and even produces the wrong questions. That some language within the Scriptures lends itself to legal imagery is undeniable – although modern legal thought bears almost no resemblance to the thoughts surrounding the Law (Torah) in the Old Testament. Legal language is a modern fiction that generally describes only the social contract that governs our societies. It is arbitrary, filled with qualifications, sometimes rendered moot by its own entanglements and bycenturies of relentless legislation by lawyers. There is little content remaining in modern law other than the violence guaranteed by the courts and prison system. That America houses the largest prison population in the world is not a comment on a lawless society – it is an illustration of a society where law has gone insane. To apply the modern sense of “legal” to God, His commandments or our salvation is, again, useless.

The modern concept of law is entirely external. It is an arbitrary rule, established by a legitimate authority (which is considered “legitimate” only according to another set of arbitrary rules), and enforced with various measures, up to and including a lifetime of confinement or even execution. The rules have no independent existence. Guilt and innocence before “the law” imply only the outcomes of a legal proceeding. Americans proudly declare, “He is innocent until proven guilty,” in affirmation of a purely rules-based understanding of the law.

Now this establishment of the law has various things to recommend it. If it is not too encumbered with exceptions and complications and is impartially enforced, it creates a certain order and predictability within a culture. I am utterly opposed to anarchy. But the Law of God has never been an arbitrary set of rules, created by God in a manner similar to an earthly legislature. Nothing in the Old Testament even remotely thinks of the Law in such a manner:

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (Psa 19:7-10)

This is a love poem about something far more profound than a set of rules.

There is a deep distinction which I make at almost every opportunity between things that can be described as ontological, and things that are merely forensic. Ontological means having to do with being. It refers to things that really, truly have existence. A bird is an ontological creature. The office of the President is a legal fiction, a forensic construction.

In modern legal imagery, if a rule is said to be “broken,” nothing is actually “broken.” The rule is the same before and after the break. What has changed is that the person “breaking” the rule is now in danger of being prosecuted, fined, imprisoned or executed. In the Old Testament, to sin against the Law of God was viewed as quite different. Something happened. An individual became unclean, was stained, had become an abomination, etc. In some cases an entire community was somehow stained. Atonement in such a world involved removing an ontological problem, not satisfying a legal concept. Forgiveness was thus the same thing as healing and cleansing.

Imagine standing in a modern court while the Judge says, “You have been charged with driving 60 mph in a 20 mph zone. How do you plead?”

“Your honor! Have mercy on me. I cannot bear the stain of this sin! I am unclean! Have mercy on me and cleanse me from this abomination!”

The result of such an exchange would doubtless be unpleasant. Of course, it is ridiculous, as is the use of modern legal imagery with regard to God.

Theories of atonement that use modern legal imagery remove any ontological content from our situation. We are guilty because God says we are guilty and we deserve punishment much like we deserve punishment within our human legal system. But the Law of God is not a legal instrument; it is more of a diagnostic tool. The Commandments describe the character and details of those things that plunge us into ontological chaos. The most justified executioner in a modern legal system is nevertheless plunged into the morass of human trauma by his act of execution. It does not matter how deserving a prisoner was of death, nor how kind and painless the form of execution. To take the life of another human being severs the communion for which we were all created. We experience that severance (which is ontological in the extreme) in various forms of trauma.

As a child the man who lived next door to my family was a WWII vet (like all of the men of my childhood). He was in the infantry during the Italian campaign. In a village one day, he turned a corner and came face to face with a young German soldier. Both men froze. But my neighbor acted first and killed his adversary. It was a war. Had he not killed he would have been killed. Over a decade later he still awoke in the night tormented with the memory, reliving it every night in his dreams.

Today we would say he was suffering from PTSD. But trauma is more than just an extreme experience, it is the universal experience of soldiers. Some are crippled by it, others find ways to move on. But it is real. It is more than psychological. It is the trauma of broken communion, as substantial and real as any Biblical stain or abomination.

And [the Lord said to Cain], “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you.” (Gen 4:10-12)

In one of the most moving passages in modern literature (Crime and Punishment), Dostoevsky describes the confession of the murderer, Raskolnikov, to his love, Sonya:

“Well, what to do now, tell me!” he said, suddenly raising his head and looking at her, his face hideously distorted by despair.

“What to do!” she exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from her place, and her eyes, still full of tears, suddenly flashed. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder; he rose, looking at her almost in amazement.) “Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world , on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you go?” she kept asking him, all trembling as if in a fit, seizing both his hands, squeezing them tightly in her own, and looking at him with fiery eyes. He was amazed and even struck by her sudden ecstasy.

“So it’s hard labor, is it, Sonya? I must go and denounce myself?” he asked gloomily.

“Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.”

Sonya’s instinct is utterly Biblical and Orthodox. The nature of his crime deeply transcends the legal problems of the police and courts. Raskolnikov has “defiled the earth,” and must begin to heal his trauma with the liturgy of confession. Only with the profound liturgical act of repentance can God begin to heal him. His soul would be impervious without it.

Some years back I had the privilege of being part of a Victim Offenders Reconciliation Program. There the victims of crimes (non-violent in most cases) met face-to-face with those who had injured them. The conversation that took place was aided by a mediator. The exact nature of the injury and the trauma that ensued were shared. The trauma of the criminal that led to the action was sometimes shared as well. Terms for restitution and reparation were agreed. The agreement was monitored by the organization. The result was fewer young people in prison and a healing that was utterly beyond the scope of the judicial system.

Our lives, on the very level of our true being and existence, are entwined with those of all others. We cannot be well and live well when those relationships are damaged and traumatized. Our lives may have suffered no legal damage, and yet be malignant in the extreme.

A man injured a young girl in an automobile accident. He was not to blame. And yet, he began losing sleep, was irritable and lost his appetite. He went to see his doctor.

The doctor said, “Have you gone to the young girl and asked her to forgive you?”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong! The police said it wasn’t my fault! My lawyer said that I wasn’t to blame!”

The doctor smiled, “Then legally you should be able to sleep at night.”

The Divine Liturgy is the great enactment of reconciliation. In it, Christ takes into Himself the trauma of our injuries as well as the trauma of our crimes. In the Divine Liturgy, the action of the Cross of Christ and His Descent into Hades, His Resurrection and Ascension, even His glorious Second Coming are all made fully present. The liturgy that is His life becomes the liturgy that is our life. The self-emptying of Christ on our behalf becomes our self-emptying as we offer “our selves, our souls and bodies,” in the sweet words of Thomas Cranmer.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:17-21)

 

More Thoughts on Hell

hell_joyceIn my recent article on hell, I offered what I called a “lesson in ontology” (the study of being). It was a way of understanding what it means to say something is real and true, and the nature of existence as a gift.

But in describing hell as not “real,” many readers immediately concluded that I was saying that there is no such thing as hell. This occasioned legitimate questions about those verses in Scripture that speak of hell and judgment. Is there truly a judgment? Does it matter what we do with our lives?

The one figure in Scripture who says the most about hell and judgment is Christ Himself. Though many like to think of St. Paul as the “bad guy” of the New Testament (because of things he says about women, sexual activity, etc.), it is actually Jesus who speaks of “hell fire,” the “worm that does not die,” “outer darkness,” and such things. I have been asked to write specifically to these references.

But again, some basics.

Sin is not a legal problem. If we understand sin as the breaking of a rule, even a Divine commandment, then we will fail to understand the whole of our life with God, including salvation, heaven – everything.

Legal problems, however real we might perceive them, are not real. If I break a rule (say in civil society) then there is no problem unless and until someone enforces the rule and extracts a penalty. If I break the speed limit and no one sees me, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer gives me a warning, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer accepts a bribe, there is no legal problem.

And even if the legal problem is enforced, my problem, at its worst, is not legal. I might have a money problem (a fine), or a jail problem (incarceration), etc., but “legal” is simply a word that describes the nature of my relationship with those in charge of extracting money from me at the point of a gun (or other forms of violence). We permit such forms of violence through a social contract (the state).

But none of this has anything to do with God. To use legal understandings to speak of the Kingdom of God produces a caricature and only promotes deep misunderstanding (even heresies).

The Law of God is not a legal fiction. Instead, it describes the actual nature of things. The commandments of God describe how things are, such that consequences are quite “natural.”

The Law of Gravity is not a legal problem:

“I didn’t mean to walk off the cliff.”

“Then legally you shouldn’t have died.”

The same is true of sin. Sin is not a legal problem. In the Garden, when God warns Adam and Eve concerning the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He says, “In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” This is not a legal statement. Were that the case, God would have said, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” But the consequence is not legal but natural – it is inherent – intrinsic to the very nature of things.

Adam and Eve die, not as punishment, but because they have broken communion with God who alone is the Lord and Giver of Life, the source of our very being. Death is not punishment, but the natural state of a human being who moves in a direction away from God.

Much of the imagery (and thought) that surround judgment and hell are rife with legal imagery. Some of this is completely natural (doing no damage to the text) but much of it is from a centuries’ long habit of reading legal imagery into almost everything (such is our cultural heritage).

But sin, and its punishment, are not legal in nature. Were our punishment of a legal nature, then there would be no disagreement about hell as a temporary matter. For if our sins are finite in nature, then surely our punishment would be finite as well.

I have listened to hours and hours of explanations of how humanity’s sin is infinite and how the offense against God’s honor (or justice or righteousness) is infinite – but this is all “after the fact,” a poor human effort to justify an image of an eternal, infinite, punishing hell-fire.

Again, our problem is not legal in nature.

Sin is ontological – it goes to the very heart of our being and existence. St. Paul uses the word “corruption” (phthora) in a number of places to describe the work of sin:

For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. (Gal 6:8 NKJ)

Corruption is the word for what the body does when it dies – it rots. It is also a description of what happens in our lives when we live out of communion with God – things rot – they fall apart – they dissolve ever more completely – morally, spiritually, physically. It is like a disease process. It can only be arrested (and healed) by grace.

Every attempt to describe sin and hell with legal/penal imagery fails to do justice to the inward, ontological nature of our fall. It reduces the consequences of sin to externally imposed penalties and runs the risk of ignoring the entire body of Scripture (and human experience) that bear witness to a deeply organic character of sin and consequence.

Justice models tend to major in external imagery. Thus the fires of hell (as external punishing flames) and hell as a place become very important. The teaching of the Orthodox Church, as expressed famously by St. Mark of Ephesus, holds that the fires of hell are immaterial. The fathers of the Church often pierce the flames of hell with discernment and wisdom revealing their inner meaning rather than dwelling on crude images of torture and punishment. Thus St. Ambrose:

That gnashing is not of bodily teeth, nor is that perpetual fire made up of physical flames, nor is the worm a bodily one. These things are spoken of, however, because, just as worms are born of massive overeating and fevers, so too, if anyone does not boil away his sins…he will be burned up in his own worms. Whence also Isaias says: “Walk in the light of your fire, and the flame which you have ignited” (Isaiah 50:11). It is a fire which gloominess of sins generates. It is a worm insofar as irrational sins of the soul stab at mind and heart and eat the guts out of your conscience.(Commentary on Luke, 7, 205)

St. Isaac of Syria says that the fires of hell are nothing other than the love of God:

As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.

St. Isaac’s words are very helpful. The “punishment” is nothing other than love. But the tormenting character of God’s love is produced by the state of the soul, not by the external character of the love itself. It is a consequence of our own making.

When understood in such an intrinsic manner, hell does not cease to be a “threat” (as some fear), but the threat becomes more immediate and does not rest on the external action of a punishing God. It is a reflection of something already begun within us:

For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1Pe 4:17 NKJ)

However, the nature of our inner corruption often makes us blind to the very judgment at work within us. I often think of the character in Lewis’ gray town (The Great Divorce), who though in hell, has a small theological discussion group and needs to leave his excursion in heaven in order to return to present a paper. Its irony is too true to be humorous.

The caricatured wrathful, punishing God is the product of poor theological reflection (or none at all). His hell, no matter how justified, does not serve the intended purpose of its defenders (provoking sinners to repentance). It instead provokes skeptics to unbelief.

The subtleties of the inner torment and corruption of the soul may fail to satisfy those who prefer the punishing God. But they would do well to tend to the subtleties of their own souls and the corruption worked by envy and the joy at the punishment of others.

Judgment has indeed begun in the house of God.

 

Double-Minded

picture_kafka_drawingA double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. James 1:8

The debate between an ontological atonement and a forensic atonement will doubtless continue – they represent two very different world-views and understandings of our relationship with God. The details of that debate will likely be tedious for most people and seem like much ado about nothing. But since they are world-views, even people who have no position in the debate will have an inner sympathy with one or the other. They are part of the cultural air we breathe.

Is salvation a matter of choices, attitudes, relationships and debts? Is God extrinsic to us? Is our salvation about being considered righteous by God?

Or is our salvation a matter of our very being? Are we verging on non-existence? Is sin the result of a process of death and decay at work in us? Is righteousness an actual state of  being?

I could press this distinction further – but I hope posing the questions in this manner frames things sufficiently.

I think that regardless of where you come down in this discussion, your default position will likely be forensic. Modern culture itself is forensic in nature. We think of ourselves and other people as utterly distinct individuals. Their actions may involve me if I react (psychological) or if they physically attack me, but we are essentially distinct. I might care about someone else, even love them, but my caring is an emotional state, able to motivate me to loving action, but is not itself an action. Relationships are social contracts. There are obligations to family, Church, state, etc., but these obligations are always a matter for negotiation. Traditions are simply old social contracts. These contracts are serious – we put a great deal of emotion and value on the contracts that “bind” us to other people. But the bond is legal.

The evolution of marriage in our present culture is only possible in a forensic culture (it may indeed have been inevitable). If relationships are essentially contractual (and not ontological), then relationships are only definitions. There is nothing inherent to a relationship that cannot be negotiated (if everyone involved agrees). Forensic Christians have been at a deep loss to explain why marriage cannot be extended beyond traditional gender bounds. The appeal to Divine Law (the trump card of forensic thought) simply holds no sway in an increasingly secular culture. Why should other people’s relationships have to conform to my religious beliefs, since my religious beliefs only represent a contract between myself and God?

That many people have a deep instinct that there is something wrong in all this carries no weight in the argument. “Feeling something is wrong” can be accounted for by appeals to prejudice and bias. As the culture’s forensic understanding evolves, it will easily (and soon) judge those who refuse to accept the new norm as evil people – much as we currently feel about racists. Forensically-based Christians will soon discover that the culture they helped create has changed and that they themselves will soon be accounted as evil. That many Protestant Christians have already made the evolutionary leap and accepted new contractual arrangements as acceptable is not surprising. Their numbers will be growing very quickly.

This cultural weakness of the forensic world-view is an illustration of but one of its many failures. Relationships are not contracts. That which unites human beings one to another is not choice, but being. We are ontologically related. What someone else does, and what I do, effects others whether I want it to or not – and on a level deeper than the events my actions set in motion.

St. Paul invokes something other than a forensic world-view when he cautions the Corinthians against sexual immorality:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him (1Co 6:15-17 NKJ).

A forensic approach would simply have made an appeal to the Law and said that fornication is contrary to the commandments. But Paul’s understanding is not forensic – he views human relationships as ontological – rooted in our being. Thus sex is not simply an action which it right or wrong, measured against an objective standard. Sex is physical union. There is a mystical and physical aspect to sexual relations that utterly transcends any notion of a contract. To engage sexually with a “harlot,” is to become “one flesh.” It violates marriage, not just because an agreement has been broken, but because the man is already united to his wife. More than this, since we have been united to Christ (and are thus one flesh with Christ), even an unmarried man is uniting himself to a harlot – and any Christian man is uniting Christ to the harlot.

This mechanism of union belongs to an ontological world-view. The forensic approach, which grounds human (and human/divine) relationships in psychology, law and contract, has something of a disembodied view of human beings. Bodies are things that we use – but we are essentially minds. It is therefore not surprising that the Christian sacraments are somewhat problematic for the forensic world-view. Strangely, Christ instituted these very material means by which Christians are called to relate to Him. Thus, even in systems that have a “high” view of the sacraments, their materiality is an “outward expression” of an “inner, spiritual” reality. The material cannot be seen as spiritual – not without great trouble.

But Christ does not shy away from the very materiality of the world (having Himself become material!). “Take! Eat! This is my Body! Take! Eat! This is my Blood!” And yet more graphically, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.” Material imagery applied to grace, holiness, righteousness, mercy, etc., are far closer representations of the true meaning of these spiritual terms than the relational images generated by the forensic model.

Thus, in Baptism we are clothed: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27 NKJ). St. Paul frequently tells his readers to “put on” something (breastplate of righteousness, the whole armor, love, etc.). The word literally means to “get dressed.” St. Paul can find no better language to describe the resurrection itself than “being clothed” (1Cor. 15). The Eastern Fathers saw in Adam and Eve’s being clothed in “tunics of skins” (Gen. 3:21) a provisional allowance of God for a humanity that had lost its true garment: light.

Material language for spiritual things has often been viewed as “primitive” or “magical” by those who hold to a forensic view. The non-materiality of forensic relations somehow seems more mature and insightful. But for all of its “sophistication,” it fails to accurately portray the truth of our existence. We are not utterly discrete individuals only relating through words and ideas. We are material beings. The Word of God did not become an idea – He became flesh. As flesh, He did not give us ideas – He gave us His flesh.

The Scripture abounds with very physical, material descriptions of divine things. The glory of God fills Solomon’s Temple so that the priests are pressed to the ground (1 Kings 8:11); the face of Moses shines with the light of God; the light of God is seen by the Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration; the priests of God “clothe themselves in righteousness” (Psalm 132:9); the Holy Spirit appears as flame above the heads of the disciples in the upper room (Acts 2:3), etc. Such imagery can be dismissed as efforts to speak the ineffable (and this has some truth to it). But we too easily accept forensic language without question.

I recall some years ago meeting a Bulgarian scientist who had recently immigrated to America. He was Orthodox, but his former materialism still flavored his thought. He was convinced that icons emitted rays. His wife believed in the power of crystals. I was rather confounded by them. In time I have realized that they came from a very non-forensic world. The Church had been displaced by Communism and a material philosophy. But their materialism was, perhaps, closer to the language of Scripture than the forensic imagination. Their thoughts needed correction, but perhaps much less than those of the Western Christian who thinks of the world in terms of contracts and relationships.

In the meantime, most of us live in a state of double-mindedness. We struggle to think one thing but are still mired in another. For some, this discussion of imagery, comparing models of the atonement, will seem to be just a discussion about words. But that is itself a forensic thought. It’s only words…what does it matter? But it matters. It matters.

 

 

 

Therapeutic Substitutionary Atonement

ats20379_Christ1For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: 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… (1 Cor. 15:3-4)

No statement is more central to the Christian faith than St. Paul’s rehearsal of the Apostolic Tradition – for his words “delivered…received…” are specifically the words that describe the handing over of Tradition. His words represent what is already the received teaching of the faith – the Apostolic deposit. The Christian faith is not just that Christ died and was raised from the dead, but that He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” The death of Christ is somehow “for our sins.” This is the very heart of the Gospel – the most primitive preaching of the Church.

But it is at this most primitive point that essential questions must be asked: how is it that Christ’s death is “for our sins?” How is it that His death and resurrection is “according to the Scriptures?” For though Christ clearly taught the disciples that He would be crucified and would rise on the third day, this was not understood by them. It was not understood because it was not a part of the received Jewish expectation of the Messiah. That Christ died for our sins and according to the Scriptures is an article of the faith that was made known only after the resurrection: it is not a derived Tradition, but a teaching of the risen Lord Himself.

This is a place where disagreement has begun to manifest itself in recent years. For some, Christ’s death on the Cross represents the payment for a debt owed to God, the debt of Adam’s sin. In another account, Christ’s death on the Cross is a blood sacrifice to appease the wrath of God, incurred through Adam’s sin. For still others, Christ’s death is the destruction of Hades and death itself, the healing of the corruption of sin. There are yet other views, but the disagreement has largely been between advocates of one version or another of these accounts.

The first two accounts generally fall into a category of “forensic” models. In these, there is a debt or a divine consequence (wrath) that must be paid or turned aside. In various ways it is noted that only a perfect Man could pay the debt (or appease the wrath). Since all men sin, only God could meet the requirements. Thus God became man, so that God, as man, could accomplish what man alone could not.

In the second model, sin and death are more or less synonymous. Rather than being forensic (legal) in character, they are ontological (a matter of being and existence). Sin is the disease of corruption, the movement from true existence toward non-being. The destructive chaos that it leaves in its wake is more like “symptoms” than legal problems. God in His mercy becomes man, and as the God/Man enters the depths of death and Hades, the depths of ontological corruption and destroys them. In His resurrection (which is a necessary aspect of this model – unlike the others), our ontological corruption is destroyed or rather “put to death” and we receive new life – the eternal life of the resurrection (which is a quality and not merely longevity). In this model, there is a participation and communion. Christ becomes sin, that we might become righteous. He dies that we might live. He takes on our death, that we might take on His life.

In both models, there is a reality of substitution – Christ assumes the place of man. But the nature of that substitution, and therefore the nature of salvation itself, is quite different. In the forensic models, Christ accepts the punishment that was incurred by man: Christ is punished instead of man. It is certainly a demonstration of the love of God, though the debt owed or the wrath appeased belong to God as well. Christ’s acceptance of man’s due consequences instead of man, goes to the very heart of the forensic model – at least to the heart of what makes it most distinctive from the ontological accounts.

Christ’s substitution in the forensic models removes man from redeeming action. Man is not punished but forgiven. The wrath of God is appeased and man is not condemned to hell. Christ accepts these things on man’s behalf. Justification is extrinsic – it happens outside of man and apart from man. By faith, man acknowledges Christ’s gift on his behalf and accepts the gift of forgiveness that could not have been his in any other way.

The substitution in the second (ontological) model is different in character. Christ steps into the life and situation of man (the human race), but does not remove man from the equation. The Cross is not foreign to man – it is the fullness of the consequence of human sin. The substitution of Christ in the ontological models is not a replacement, but a union. Christ unites Himself with man (the Incarnation) and in so doing takes upon Himself, and into Himself the fullness of our humanity (excepting sin – which is foreign to our nature). Importantly, however, just as Christ takes upon Himself our humanity, so He also unites Himself to us, we take on His divinity. As God and man Christ enters death, Hades, the full consequence of our separation from God. As God and as man, Christ destroys death and unites man victoriously to His resurrection. He is the true mediator, having restored us to the union with God for which we were created.

It would be possible to argue that this second model is not a true substitution. I agree, if the term, substitution, is meant as “replacement.” But the problems within the notion of substitution are found in the idea of Christ as “replacement.” Christ as replacement creates a “theology of absence.” If Christ simply “takes our place,” then salvation is merely forensic (legal) and something which happens outside of us. If God simply declares us to be “just,” “forgiven,” or “made whole,” then the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection become something of an abstraction. Their “necessity,” would only exist within God Himself, who might otherwise have “declared” us to be righteous without all the bother. Indeed, there can be no necessity within God, whether it is predicated of His justice, or anything else. God is free and has no necessity.

However, there is a necessity which exists within us. We are indeed broken, unrighteous, sinful, in need of healing and subject to death and corruption. If our healing required only a word, then why not speak the word long before?

The necessity within salvation lies within us. Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection are acts of freedom. It is with complete freedom and cooperation that He is Incarnate of the Virgin. His death is a “voluntary” death: “No one takes my life from me….” (John 10:18). Nor does our salvation violate our freedom. We must freely accept the gift of God given to us in Christ. The synergy of salvation is God’s respect for the freedom which allows us to exist as persons. It is this same freedom that lies at the heart of the mystery of the “fullness of time.” Christ entered history at the critical moment of man’s freedom.

Christ’s “substitution” is not a replacement. Christ does not “replace” our humanity, but “assumes” it. In Christ, every man is on the Cross. The Second Adam “recapitulates” the First Adam and the whole of humanity. There is in the Cross (and whole economy of salvation) an exchange, a coinherence, a perichoresis (περιχώρησις). The term “perichoresis” was used by St. Gregory the Theologian to describe the relationship between the Divine and Human natures in Christ. It is this same relationship (or one that can be similarly described) that is manifest in our salvation. Christ dies on the Cross. We die on the Cross.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

St. Paul is not describing an “ethical” or “moral” transaction, but a mystical and true exchange in which the life of Christ and our lives coinhere. His life, death and resurrection become our life, death and resurrection.

Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God (Romans 6:3-10).

A substitution which represents our absence on the Cross does violence to passages such as this. We would need to go back and edit St. Paul, inserting the words “would be as if” repeatedly into the text:

Do you not know that our Baptism makes it such that it would be as if we had been crucified with Christ? etc.

Such violence disrupts the realism of our salvation and turns the Christian life into a moral abstraction. The sacraments become empty mental exercises.

There are additional weaknesses within the forensic models, but I leave them for now. The Lenten journey is not an annual community remembrance of a legal event. Rather it is the mystical embrace of the true life which coinheres in every believer. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we journey to the common ground of our Golgotha. There we suffer and die with Christ, having shared in His fast and preparation. Dying with Him, we rejoice in His/our victory over death and Hades and join in the festal shout as death is trampled down by what is now our common death.

This is the great mystery of our faith. Those who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Crucified and Risen Christ, abide in Him as He abides in them and become partakers (those who have a true share) in all that is His. This is the great exchange, that God became what we are that we might become what He is.

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures..

 

 

 

“Hail, Mary, Full of Grace,” – the Cause of All Things

vasnetsovvirginI treasure the small volume of George Gabriel,  Mary the Untrodden Portal of God. Gabriel occasionally strikes hard at the West and the book would perhaps be strengthened with a less combative approach to the differences of East and West in the faith (my own opinion), but I liked the book and found Gabriel addressing many things, well foot-noted, that are not found in many other places. I share an excerpt.

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From eternity, God provided for a communion with His creation that would remain forever. In that communion mankind would attain to the eternal theosis for which it was made. The communion, of course, is the Incarnation through the Ever-Virgin. Mankind’s existence and, therefore, that of all creation is inexorably tied to Mary because she was always to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word. The fathers say that neither the course of human events nor necessity of any kind forced the Uncreated One to join to Himself a creaturely mode of existence. God did not become flesh because some actions of the devil or of man made it necessary, but because it was the divine plan and mystery from before the ages. Despite the works of Satan and the coming of sin into the world, the eternal will of God was undeterred, and it moved forward.

History and the course of human events were the occasion and not the cause of the Incarnation. The Incarnation did not take place for the Crucifixion; the Crucifixion took place so the Incarnation and the eternal communion of God and man could be fulfilled despite Satan, sin, and death. Explaining that there was no necessity in God the Father that required the death of His Son, St. Gregory the Theologian says the Father “neither asked for Him nor demanded Him, but accepts [His death] on account of the economy [of the Incarnation] and because mankind must be sanctified by the humanity of God.” St. Gregory is telling us that, from before the ages, it was the divine will for mankind to be sanctified and made immortal by communion with the humanity of the Incarnate God, but corruptibility and death came and stood in the way.  By His Passion and Resurrection, Jesus Christ destroyed these obstacles and saved, that is, preserved, mankind for the Incarnation’s eternal communion of the God-Man and immortal men. St. John of Damascus repreats the same idea that the Incarnation is a prior and indeed ontological purpose in itself, and that redemption is the means to that end. Thus, he says the Holy Virgin “came to serve in the salvation of the world so that the ancient will of God for the Incarnation of the Word and our own theosis may be fulfilled through her.”

It seems worthwhile to me, for us to meditate on the fullness of our salvation which is to be accomplished in God’s great Pascha. Indeed, it seems to me that everything always was about Pascha – the “Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) We are approaching the end of all things – and, I should add, their beginning as well.

 

Saving Communion

Preist-hands(2)_RZFew things are as fundamental to the New Testament as the reality of communion (koinonia). It means a commonality, a sharing and participation in the same thing. It is this commonality or sharing that lies at the very heart of our salvation. This communion is described in Christ’s “high priestly prayer”:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23).

The unity for which Christ prays is no mere “quality” of our life in Christ – but is our life in Christ. That this unity (communion) is the very life of salvation is made clear in St. John’s first epistle:

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have communion [koinonia] with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion [koinonia] with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7).

Here our communion with God is described as a communion of light – though the nature of that light is made clear: God is light. St. John uses light to say that our communion is a true participation in God, in His very life.

This same saving participation in the life of God is presented in Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me (John 6:53-57).

I have written before about the problem of many modern English translations in which koinonia is rendered “fellowship,” a very weak translation indeed. Our very life in Christ is trivialized by unwitting (I hope) translators into a noun used to describe church socials. It is a witness to how far removed many modern treatments of our saving relationship with Christ have become from the classic treatments of Orthodox tradition.

The compartmentalization of theology (ethics, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology – and the list goes on) frequently results in a fragmented, disjointed account of the Christian life. When you view the massive tomes that comprise the average systematic theology it is a marvel that the New Testament manages to be so short.

A telling weakness of many “theologies” is their failure to give account for the most common aspects of our Christian life. Prayer is a very straightforward example. Many systematic presentations of theology have no treatment of prayer whatsoever, despite the fact that we are bidden to “pray without ceasing.” How is it that something so pervasive finds no place in a theological description?

It is just this kind of spiritual myopia that marks theology that has departed from the Tradition of the faith and set off on its own trail of creativity. Thus, much has been written on “predestination” (a word which occurs but a few times in all the New Testament) while prayer is relegated to lesser treatments in what amounts to a category of recreational reading.

The Tradition does not treat prayer in this manner. Prayer is so much at the heart of the teaching of the faith that it is stated: Lex orandi, lex credendi – “the law of praying is the law of believing.” This is far more than saying that liturgy preserves the most primitive and pure proclamations of the gospel (though this is true). It is also saying that prayer itself is a pure expression of the gospel.

This becomes particularly clear when prayer is understood to be communion [koinonia] with God. And it is not prayer alone of which this can be said: the whole of the Christian life – every sacrament of the Church – has as its foundation our saving participation in the life of God.

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What is wrong with the human race?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christian doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

St. Athanasius describes this in his On the Incarnation of the Word:

For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature ; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom : “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” (Wisdom 6. 18)

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – the Orthodox Christian faith does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in ourontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, many vitally important parts of the Christian life are reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

We were created for communion with God – it is our very life. Thinking about communion with God is not a substitute for communion with God. Theology as abstraction has no life within it. Theology is a life lived in Christ. Thus there is the common saying within Orthodoxy: “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

This is our salvation.

The Beauty of Truth and the Existence of God

konstantin-vasiliev-the-starry-sky-19702-e1274051995557What is the criterion of the rightness of this life? Beauty.  – Fr. Pavel Florensky

It is our habit of thought to think of Truth as, more or less, a correct description or a correct statement. As such, Beauty belongs to some other realm of thought. Beauty cannot be “correct” or “incorrect.”

In Orthodox thought, Truth is understood as a matter of being (it is ontological). If something is true, then it has true being, true existence. Thus, imaginary things can be described in many ways, but never as “true.” Having true or real existence is only part of the story. For it is God alone who possesses true being (“the only truly existing God” in the words of St. Basil the Great). The true existence of created things is relative to the being of God. It is God who creates and establishes all things and sustains all things in their existence (no created thing has existence in itself). True being (or Truth) is an existence that is according to the will of God – according to right relationship with the Only Truly Existing.

In this understanding, sin is a distortion of that relationship. We distort ourselves when we move away from right relationship with God. Instead of life, we have death. Instead of well-being, we have being that verges on non-existence.

When we understand that Truth is a matter of being and existence, then Beauty easily becomes an aspect of Truth that we can consider. For all that God has created is “good,” according to Genesis. The word “good” (καλόν, ט֑וֹב ) in both Hebrew and Greek carries the additional meaning of “beautiful.” Creation is not only given true existence, but that true existence is well-ordered and beautiful.

For a believer, knowing and understanding the world is far more than mustering “facts.” We do not know things as they truly exist when we fail to perceive their beauty.

In the Fathers, this perception of beauty is among the things we engage in when we practice theoria (often translated as “contemplation”). It is in the practice of theoria that the Psalmist says:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels, And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen– Even the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, And the fish of the sea That pass through the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:3-9 NKJ)

The Psalmist is considering the beauty of man and perceives the truth of his existence. We are “crowned with glory and honor.” We are, indeed, created in the image and likeness of God. This perception, the root even of the modern understanding of human rights, is endangered when man (or any part of creation) is reduced to a merely factual expression.

This approach to truth and beauty are also helpful when thinking about the existence of God. Discussions of God’s existence often turn around various arrangements of facts. Medieval scholasticism argued for the existence of God in the chain of causation: God as First Cause or Prime Mover. This is quite problematic since God does not belong to the category of facts. He is not a fact among facts and cannot be considered in such a manner. We may follow a chain of causation and arrive at what we cannot know. For some, this constitutes proof. For others it begs the question.

It is also true (in Christian understanding) that God is “beyond being,” (hyperousia). However, we are told that:

…since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead… (Romans 1:20)

It is more useful, both for believer and non-believer, to consider existence itself and the character of existence as a means of practicing theoria. I would suggest that there are many things in our world that we perceive in our “peripheral” vision, that cannot be seen by direct sight. In my experience, many of the things concerning God are seen in just such a manner.

In considering existence we see not only that it is – but that it is beautiful. In science this beauty is described as “elegance.” Our
modern world now takes for granted Einstein’s equation, e=mc2. The wonder of the equation is not only in what it says about matter and energy (that they are interchangeable), but in its pure, simple elegance. Who would have thought that the interchange of matter and energy could be accurately expressed in such an elegant manner?

This is but a minor example. The universe is replete with such expressions – not only because it exists – but because it is beautiful. The unbeliever can, of course, dismiss this as a mere artifact of physics – but that, too, begs the question. When the Christian learns to argue less and wonder more then we can suggest that as we stand before all that exists and see its beauty – its elegance – we wonder – together.

The Christian claim is that the Beauty and Wonder of existence became incarnate in the Person of Christ. Though there is much that we say as a matter of Orthodox dogma, all of our words are simply a shield of protection that we might rightly regard the wonder. But the simple act of wonder borders on worship (rightly so). It is this common ground of wonder on which the conversation between believer and unbeliever can best take place. And when voices are raised, the same wonder can offer a hush that allows the heart to return to theoria and say something useful…or nothing at all.

The Narrow Road

There is a small collection of Christ’s sayings that center on the topic of the “narrow road.” The heart of the topic is that the way into the kingdom of God is difficult and very few will find it. The sayings are troubling.

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14)

So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen (Matthew 2o:16).

Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to will, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).

“And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”  When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:24-26).

The sayings are troubling because we think about the Kingdom of God in a passive manner. Heaven has become forensic – a legal reward for a life that meets the religious/moral requirements. These verses seem to indicate that the standard requirement might be quite strict and that very few will qualify.

In such a forensic model – the problem lies within the standard. God is looking for a “few, good men.” Deeper than the standard – the problem lies within God. In this model, we have been created by a very strict God, exacting in His demands, unwilling to yield to the weaknesses of human nature. Not just the universe, but the God behind the universe is stacked against us. Who then can be saved?

The difficulties presented by these sayings reveal difficulties with the Kingdom of God when it is misunderstood in a forensic or legal manner. If the Kingdom of God is just one more thing that we get into – in which simply being-there-as-a-reward is the point – the gospel becomes rather pathetic and the God behind it, alarming.

The way into the Kingdom is difficult, the path narrow, because the way itself is actually difficult and the path is actually narrow. These things are not true because God wants it to be hard for us to enter the Kingdom – they are hard on account of the nature of the spiritual disease that afflicts us.

No one is surprised to be told that the path to the remission of their cancer will be difficult (generally we are simply glad to hear that there is any path at all!). Nor do we blame the doctor for the difficulty of our treatment.

The spiritual disease (sin) that afflicts us stikes at the very fiber of our humanity, the very mode of our being. St. Paul describes sin as corruption (φθορὰ), a word that essentially means “rot.” It is what happens when the process of death works in us unchecked. Death corrupts us, body, soul and spirit.

The teaching of the New Testament is not about how to be admitted to paradise – it is about how to become the kind of human who can actually live in paradise. Paradise is not a moral achievement – it is an ontological change.

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption. (1Co 15:50)

The life of change and healing (being transformed from glory to glory into the image of Christ) is the narrow way. The borders of the road are marked with radical honesty and a willingness to endure and engage whatever is required for the transformation. We move from the fragmentation of our individual life towards the integration and wholeness of life in Christ, characterized by the fullness of self-emptying love. This is the life of grace – but grace can be painful and will take us down the difficult path. St. Paul was knocked off a horse and blinded by grace. Works would be easier!

Christ is quite clear about the narrow path – there are very few who find it. The conversion of Christianity from the narrow path to world-wide religion is the elevation of the wide-road of destruction to the place of a false salvation. The Christianity of ideas and arguments, entertainment as worship, morality as asceticism, is the path found by the many. It is an adaptation and misuse of certain ideas associated with Christ. It was not created by saints nor built on the blood of martyrs. It will run continue until its cultural usefulness has run its course. It will serve as an inoculation for many – making them immune to the grace of the narrow way. They will want nothing to do with Christianity.

If this is true, will only a few be saved?

In this lifetime, only a few will be saved. Only a few will live a life of self-emptying love. Only a few will endure the humiliation of honesty. Only a few will face the despair of hell and give thanks. Only a few will forgive everyone for everything.

Christ said that with men this is impossible. The very few who walk this path are living proof of the existence of God – for with God this path is possible. In Orthodoxy, we call these few, “saints.” They are signposts and an assurance that our own struggles are never wasted. The narrow path is not a delusion – it is an awakening.

If only a few are saved in this lifetime – will many be saved beyond? The gospel contains a paradox on this very matter. As clearly as Christ teaches that the way is narrow and that very few find it, He also clearly teaches a universal proclamation of the good will of God.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:16-17).

In the words of St. Peter: “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to eternal life” (2 Peter 3:9).

The paradox rests between the few and the all. The temptation for many has been to reinvent Christianity as a religious shortcut for the all. In the shortcut, the narrow way is lost, and with it, the saints. One of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is struggle ’til a man’s dying breath.” This is the truth about true prayer (and true salvation) – but now we are told not only how easy prayer is, but even how easy it is to hear God (cf. When God Talks Back). On the narrow path most of the time is marked by silence.

Nevertheless, the paradox remains. I am confident of the good will of God and that His desire for all will be fulfilled in the mystery of His love. But to create a false paradise – a Christianity of the all in which no one is saved – is the path of destruction.

Strive to enter at the narrow door.

 

 

The Death of the Moral Man

There is no man who lives and does not sin. – from the Burial Office

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There are many reactions to the pain of our existence. I try to remember from hour to hour that I live among the “walking wounded.” As the Jewish philosopher Philo said, “Everyone you see is fighting a difficult battle.” One of the great pains for active believers is the struggle to be moral. This struggle becomes all the more painful as we become aware of our inner life. We profess belief in the commandments of Christ only to discover that within us lives a judgmental Pharisee. We constantly compare ourselves to others, and compare ourselves to an inner standard, and in these comparisons, everyone comes up short. We come repeatedly to confession, bearing the same sins, carrying the shame (often unrecognized) of another period of failure. We want to change but we don’t.

This scenario could take another thousand forms. At its core is our expectation that the mind (thoughts and emotions) can and should be brought into some measure of Christian performance. There are things at which our thoughts often excel. We can master a system of thought or belief and defend it against those things which present a challenge. We can do the same with people – maintaining a version of “canon law” in our head against which behavior may be judged. It is this comparison and judging, systemization and defense that the mind truly loves. If we occupy the mind with “religious things,” even “Orthodox things,” then we easily begin to think that we are being faithful. We start to think of ourselves as trying and judge our failures (anger, hatred, envy, etc.) as mere stumbles than can be corrected and adjusted. This is certainly better than doing nothing, but is often more harmful than good. The local parish is often a community of neurotic minds, psychically rushing about trying to do good, but hurting one another in the name of God as the ego works desperately to meet its needs and feed its narrative. The parish is not always a safe place.

For the purposes of this post, I am choosing to refer to the ego’s struggle to behave as the “moral” man. I often use the word “moral” and “morality” to describe the life lived as an effort to conform to external rules and norms. It is a struggle that even unbelievers may (and do) undertake. There is nothing particularly Christian about it. I have said elsewhere, “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good, but in order to make dead men live.”

St. Paul takes this approach when speaking of what I’m calling the moral man. He does not counsel us to try and do better. There is no scheme of moral improvement in all of Paul’s writings. His language is quite clear:

Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Col. 3:5, 8-10).

St. Paul’s language of “putting off” and “putting on” is the language of Baptism. We “put off” the old man and “put on” Christ. We are “clothed in righteousness,” etc. The Baptismal liturgy continues to display this language in its actions.

It is language that differs greatly from that of “moral” striving. To put to death “covetousness,” is quite different than trying not to desire someone else’s property. The language of “putting to death,” is rooted in our being (it is ontological) rather than our decision-making (legal, forensic). St. Paul’s language implies that something within us has profoundly changed.

The ego’s efforts to behave itself have little to nothing to do with such an inward, profound change. Non-believers can adopt a set of rules and endeavor to keep them. There is nothing particularly or uniquely Christian about moral efforts. This is one of the great weaknesses of those versions of Christianity that are largely extrinsic in nature. Theories of salvation in which an extrensic atonement is “accepted,” followed by a life of moral effort do not rise to the level of St. Paul’s “putting to death.”

The ego loves narrative – all of its greatest skills can be employed in destruction, construction and revision. Stories of conversion are extremely well-suited to such an existence. Those of us who are adult converts are easily enthralled with the story of our own conversion and just as easily enthralled by the ongoing narratives of others. Something is missing.

Our lives are like a Jane Austen novel. The narrative moves along with great drama. Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet and the whole cast, holding our attention, now up, now down. Whom will she marry? Will she be bereft of love forever? What will we wear to the dance? Is Mr. Darcy Orthodox? And so the drama unwinds.

When the drama of the Christian life comes to a happy ending (its conversion), there stretches before it the “ever-after” years (decades) of our life. Without the drama, the thought of settling down in the heart, praying, and restoring the mind and emotions to their proper state can seem quite boring.

Of course, there will always be ecclesiastical scandals, debates and small parish dramas to feed our disorder and stave away the fear of boredom. But all of this is to move away from salvation. It is a form of “Orthodox” damnation.

Here the Macarian saying is helpful:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

Life lived in the heart is a progression into the treasuries of grace. A moment of paradise outweighs all the pleasantries of the ego’s drama. Getting past the darker fears and wounds of shame and its kin, bringing thoughts and emotions to occasional calm, allows the work of the heart to begin. The dragons and lions, poisonous beasts and treasures of evil to be met there are greater than those we face in the early battles of the ego. But at the same time, we stand in the place of the angels, the kingdom and the light when we engage those struggles.

That battle is not at all the same as moral improvement. The moral man (and the immoral man) is put to death. The life that is hid with Christ in God is the new man. He is more than moral – he is good. He is no longer dead – he is alive. And it is for this man fully alive that Christ died.

Salvation, Ontology, Existential, and Other Large Words

In recent posts I have contrasted morality with ontological, as well as existential, etc. I’ve had comments here and elsewhere in which people stumbled over the terms. The distinction offered is not a private matter. Orthodox theologians for better than a century have struggled to make these points as being utterly necessary to the life of the Orthodox faith. The following is a small article of mine that tries to do some of the same. In a nutshell: morality is “life according to rules or reasonable philosophies.” The Orthodox contention is that morality fails to describe the true nature of the Christian life. Rather the world ontological is more proper: it means have to do with the very being of someone – their essence. What we need is not a change in behavior (morality) but a change in who we are (ontology). Christ came to change us, not reform us. 

Morality does not use Orthodox means – it’s all in the “head.” It is rules. Ontological change requires that our very being or existence (thus the word existential) be united with Christ, His life becomes our life and thus we live a new life. Once this fundamental approach is understood, so we can begin to under the mysteries of the Church and the true character of our life in Christ. Thus this article – a meager thing meant to be of some help. 

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The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to state briefly several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 30 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past twelve years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

The State of Things

I’m going to break a few personal rules in this post. Normally I try to write within the known bounds of the Eastern Orthodox faith. I also try to write about things I know – both rules limit the range of my writing. But for this post, I want to “think aloud” about some things that seem worth puzzling about.

I’ve long found it useful to look at things that are taken for granted, and question them – not question whether they are true (though sometimes I will go that far) – but mostly to ask what do they mean and to ask if there is a different or better way to say them.

I am not a “political scientist,” whatever that may mean. However, recent conversations on the blog have reminded me about some thoughts that I’ve not entertained for a while. These are questions about the nature of the thing we refer to as “the state.” What is a state and why does it have authority (even over life and death)? Where did the state come from – is it legitimate from a Christian perspective?

First answer. It seems obvious that there is something that people call a “state” and that it is not going away any time soon. The planet has arranged itself into “states” for a number of centuries (not that many actually) and states have amassed for themselves enormous powers, enormous wealth, and dreadful armaments. Whatever states are – they are big, rich, and dangerous.

Most states today embrace some theory of democracy (at least in an official sense). Very few, though some, still make some claim to divine right. Modern democracies do not make a claim to divine right (though some of them are given such a right by many of their Christian subjects – cf. America).

Imagine for a moment, a world that was organized not into states, but into commercial providers and commercial consumers. I’m not sure what we would call such an organization – maybe a business-state or some much more enlightened term. In such a world, providing for consumers would be the primary activity. Failure to provide would create the danger of being replaced by a more attractive provider – sort of like Microsoft being replaced by Apple. Can’t happen? Almost has.

In such a world, would you as a consumer feel any particular loyalty to the product providers? Would you go to war and kill for them? I have used this illustration precisely because killing for a corporation, for Kelloggs, or General Electric, just sounds absurd.

What is it about the nation-state that provokes such loyalty in people? America was the first nation that was founded as an “idea.” Whatever one may think of the Constitution – it is not a divinely inspired document and the founding of our nation  was not a great divine intervention into the course of human history (except in the mind of a few heretical sectarians and cultists). My ancestors, if you need to ask, lived here then, and fought on the side of the American Revolution. However, having been to Great Britain, I cannot think the shedding of blood to have been reasonably justified in that revolutionary cause. Slavery lasted at least a generation longer in American than Britain – so much for freedom as a founding ideal.

I am not opposed to being rich – though I think to be rich is to have an ontologically precarious position (cf. camels and eyes of needles). I do not think that keeping somebody rich is a justifiable cause for killing someone. In the same manner I do not think killing someone to take their money is justified.

I will offer several conclusions – just thoughts from the day.

The State is an illusion (a very dangerous illusion). It is an illusion in that it has no particular standing within the Divine scheme. States are secular entities, the inventions of man for his own reasons, and are therefore illusory (in an ontological sense). The Kingdoms of this World will become the Kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ – Scripture tells us (but not until the end of all things). I am more afraid of being ruled by some Christians than I am of the current corporate class.

Having said that the State is an illusion doesn’t mean that I think you or I should try and make it disappear. I simply think the State should be extremely relativized in the thought of Christians pursuing the Kingdom of God. The State will not usher in the Kingdom, nor make it move further away or come closer.

I have mentioned several times lately that I studied under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke when I was in the Doctoral Program there. I have carried a quote of his with me for the past 20 years or so that seems to go to the heart of question of the State:

As soon as we agree that we are responsible for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do murder.

I am not responsible for the outcome of history – God is. The current world drama is an act upon a stage written by those who believe they are responsible for history’s outcome. Of course, it is presently an absurdist drama. None in the American State Department have any idea what the “Arab Spring” is about. Even those who are making it happen seem to be less than sure. But we are certain enough to kill. That seems to me to be a serious bet that you either know the outcome, or think you can manage it.

One of the great tragic dramas of human world-management followed the Cease-fire that ended the First World War. The winners (led in large part by the British and by American President Woodrow Wilson) re-drew the map of the world. They created countries where none had existed. Some of the countries included dangerous imbalances of ancient enemies (Shiites versus Sunnis, for instance). The decisions were often arbitrary beyond belief. The result has been a century of turmoil and war – much of which is rooted in absurdities born in the space of six months of 1919.

I apologize for such political asides – but the fact that we do not control the outcome of history is made be exceedingly obvious by this small six month lesson.

So what is a Christian to do? “Do your best – and try not to sin so much.” A quote I rather like. But we should understand for our soul’s sake, that God has not placed human beings in the position of world-management. We should obey the authorities under which we live – so long as they do not ask us to break God’s commandments – but we should not become enamored of their power. They are chimeras – endowed with all the power of Pontius Pilate. He imagined himself to be a world manager – one who controlled life and death. The absurdity and emptiness of his self-conceit is revealed in the Person of Christ who stands before him, tolerating his judgment, because, “You could do nothing if it were not given you from above.” It is the Father’s will that Christ obeys – not the wicked fears and threats of a Roman Procurator.

When we think about the State (ours or any other), we would do well to bring the image of Pontius Pilate to mind, and remember the eternal figure of Christ before him. We need have no fear – nor need we listen to snake-oil salesmen who tell us that we rule the world.

God rules.

Hauerwas, said once in class, “Because we are not in charge of history, we have nothing better to do than to have children and tell them the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Please forgive me. I am an ignorant man. But these are things I’ve thought about today.

Why Morality is Not Christian

I recall my first classes in Moral Theology some 35 or so years ago. The subject is an essential part of Western thought (particularly in the Catholic and Anglican traditions). In many ways the topic was like a journey into Law School. We learned various methods and principles on whose basis moral questions – questions of right and wrong – could be discussed and decided. These classes were also the introduction of certain strains of doubt for me.

The great problem with most moral thinking – is found in its fundamental questions:

  •  What does it mean to act morally?
  • Why is moral better than immoral?
  • Why is right better than wrong?

Such questions have classically had some form of law to undergird them:

  • To act morally is to act in obedience to the law or to God’s commandments.
  • Moral is better than immoral because moral is a description of obedience to the good God. Or, moral is the description of doing the good, or even the greatest good for the greatest number (depending on your school of thought).
  • Right is better than wrong for the same reasons as moral being better than immoral.

Of course, all of these questions (right and wrong, moral and immoral) require not only a standard of conduct, but someone to enforce the conduct. Right is thus better than wrong, because God will punish the wrong and reward the right – otherwise (in this understanding) everything would be merely academic.

I will grant at the outset that many Christians are completely comfortable with the understanding that God rewards and punishes. I will grant as well that there is ample Scriptural evidence to which persons can point to support such a contention. However, this approach is far from a unanimous interpretation within the Tradition of the faith – and has little support within historic Eastern Orthodoxy.

That Scripture says such things (God is the punisher and rewarder) is undeniable – but there is also another strain of witness:

When James and John approached Christ after He had been turned away by a village of Samaritans, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village. (Luk 9:54-56)

If James and John were working out of a “reward and punishment” model (which they clearly were) Christ’s rebuke must have caught them by surprise. The same is true of many other encounters in Christ’s ministry. The interpretation brought by the fathers in all of this, is that God’s role as “punisher” is only an aspect of His role as “healer.” What we endure is not for our destruction and punishment but for our salvation and healing.

This takes everything into a different direction. It is, doubtless, an interpretation brought to the Old Testament from the revelation of Christ in the New. In Christ we see clearly what was only made known in “shadow” under the Old Covenant. Through Him, we now see more clearly.

God as Christ brings an entirely different set of questions to the moral equation:

  • What does the Incarnation of God mean for human morality?
  • What is at stake in our decisions about right and wrong?
  • What does it mean to be moral?

St. Athanasius (ca. 296 – d. 2 May 373), the great father of the Nicene Council and defender of the faith against the assaults of Arianism offered profound insights into the nature of the human predicament (sin and redemption). His approach, as given in De Incarnatione, begins with the creation of the world from nothing (ex nihilo). Our very existence is a good thing, given to us and sustained by the mercy and grace of the good God. The rupture in communion that occurs at the Fall (and in every sin), is a rejection of the true existence given to us by God. Thus the problem of sin is not a legal issue, but an ontological issue (a matter of being and true existence). The goal of the Christian life is union with God, to be partakers of His Divine Life. Sin rejects that true existence and moves us away from God and towards a spiral of non-being.

Thus, our issues are not moral in nature (obeying things because they are right, etc.) but ontological in nature. The great choice of humanity is between union with God and His Life, or a movement towards non-being and emptiness. Our salvation is not a juridical matter – it is utterly ontological. The great promises in Christ point consistently in that direction.

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:1-2)

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18-1)

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed–always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. (2Co 4:6-12)

Such verses, which could be multiplied many times, point towards our salvation as a change that occurs within us, rather than a shift in our juridical status – having settled all our justice issues, etc. Rather, we are told that “God is working in us to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Our salvation is nothing less than conformity with the image of God, a true communion of life and participation in the Divine Nature.

Juridical approaches obscure all of this. Concerns for justice quickly denigrate the faith into a cosmic law court (or penal system). Most problematically, the issues tend to be objectified and stand outside the life of believers. To be free of all legal issues that stand between ourselves and God is still far short of paradise. Our goal is to be transformed into union with Christ – to be healed of sin and to be made new. This requires a change within our inmost being – the establishment of the “true self” which is “hid with Christ in God.”

As for justice – it remains a mystery. Christ speaks of God rewarding one group of workers who labored only at the end of the day in a manner that was equal to those who had labored the entire day. The principle at work seems to be something other than a concern for justice (this is an example used by St. Isaac the Syrian).

Morality, as a systematic form of study, is a degeneration of true Christian teaching. Like secularism (and the two-storey universe) it can presume to discuss questions as though there were no God. Morality (and its ethical cousins) becomes a “science,” an abstract exercise of reason based (often) on principles that are merely assumed.  The Scriptures tell us that there is “none good but God,” neither can there be anything good that does not proceed from God. The “good” actions that we make are actions that lead us deeper into union with Christ. Such actions begin in God, are empowered by God, and lead to God. “Morality” is fiction, at least as it has come to be treated in modern thought.

The sin that infects our lives and produces evil actions is a mortal illness (death). Only union with the true life in Christ can heal this, transform us and birth us into the true life which is ours in Christ.

As I have stated on numerous occasions: Christ did not die in order to make bad men good – he died in order to make dead men live.

If my treatment of the word morality is disturbing – I ask your forgiveness. I hope this small piece is of use in considering the true nature of our life in Christ. One of my favorite stories from the Desert Fathers illustrates (obliquely) the difference between mere morality and a true ontological change.

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Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Communion as Salvation

Recent conversations have brought me back to the essential importance of this topic.

Few things are as fundamental to the New Testament as the reality of communion (koinonia). It means a commonality, a sharing andparticipation in the same thing. It is this commonality or sharing that lies at the very heart of our salvation. This communion is described in Christ’s “high priestly prayer”:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23).

The unity for which Christ prays is no mere “quality” of our life in Christ – but is our life in Christ. That this unity (communion) is the very life of salvation is made clear in St. John’s first epistle:

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have communion [koinonia] with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion [koinonia] with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7).

Here our communion with God is described as a communion of light – though the nature of that light is made clear: God is light. St. John uses light to say that our communion is a true participation in God, in His very life.

This same saving participation in the life of God is presented in Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me (John 6:53-57).

Some time ago I wrote about the problem of many modern English translations in which koinonia is rendered “fellowship,” a very weak translation indeed. Our very life in Christ is trivialized by unwitting (I hope) translators into a noun used to describe church socials. It is a witness to how far removed many modern treatments of our saving relationship with Christ have become from the classic treatments of Orthodox tradition.

The compartmentalization of theology (ethics, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology – and the list goes on) frequently results in a fragmented, disjointed account of the Christian life. When you view the massive tomes that comprise the average systematic theology it is a marvel that the New Testament manages to be so short.

A telling weakness of many “theologies” is their failure to give account for the most common aspects of our Christian life. Prayer is a very straightforward example. Many systematic presentations of theology have no treatment of prayer whatsoever, despite the fact that we are bidden to “pray without ceasing.” How is it that something so pervasive finds no place in a theological description?

It is just this kind of spiritual myopia that marks theology that has departed from the Tradition of the faith and set off on its own trail of creativity. Thus, much has been written on “predestination” (a word which occurs but a few times in all the New Testament) while prayer is relegated to lesser treatments in what amounts to a category of recreational reading.

The Tradition does not treat prayer in this manner. Prayer is so much at the heart of the teaching of the faith that it is stated: Lex orandi, lex credendi – “the law of praying is the law of believing.” This is far more than saying that liturgy preserves the most primitive and pure proclamations of the gospel (though this is true). It is also saying that prayer itself is a pure expression of the gospel.

This becomes particularly clear when prayer is understood to be communion [koinonia] with God. And it is not prayer alone of which this can be said: the whole of the Christian life – every sacrament of the Church – has as its foundation our saving participation in the life of God.

I offer here some thoughts from a post in 2007 on communion with God:

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What is wrong with the human race?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christian doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

St. Athanasius describes this in his On the Incarnation of the Word:

For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature ; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom : “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” (Wisdom 6. 18)

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – the Orthodox Christian faith does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in ourontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, many vitally important parts of the Christian life are reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

We were created for communion with God – it is our very life. Thinking about communion with God is not a substitute for communion with God. Theology as abstraction has no life within it. Theology is a life lived in Christ. Thus there is the common saying within Orthodoxy: “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

This is our salvation.

The Grace of Just Showing Up

There has been a tendency in much teaching about the notion of salvation by grace to ground the image in a legal or forensic metaphor. Thus, we are saved by grace in the sense that someone else’s goodwill and kindness (God’s) has now freed us from the consequences of our actions. Thus we speak of grace as the “free gift” of God.

There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. Of course, there are varying shades within this debate and I have surely not done justice to the full understanding of either point.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life. Others have sometimes referred to these elements as belonging to “sanctification,” but there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition.

It is from within that understanding that my comments on grace are shaped. It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything. The political world thrives on repeated campaigns for “change,” though change is always a relatively slow thing (except in revolutions when it is usually not a change for the better).

There is a saying from the desert fathers: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a recognition thatstability is an inherent virtue in the spiritual life, and in the constancy and patience of our prayers and labors with God, grace has its perfect work.

In the modern parish setting, particularly with my catechumens, I have translated the desert saying into a more modern statement: “Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up.” We do not live in cells nor is our stability marked by sitting quiety through the day reciting the Jesus Prayer. There certainly should be times of the day set aside for prayer – but one of the primary locations of our life of grace – as Christians living in the world – is to be found within the life of the parish Church – particularly within its life of sacraments, prayers, and patience (there is equally as much patience to be practiced in the parish as in any monastery). One mark of our struggle for stability is “just showing up.”

The life of grace is central to our existence as Christians and must not become secularized. In a secular understanding, the Church has a role to play in a larger scheme of things (the secular world). Thus the Church becomes useful to me and at the same time takes on a diminished role in my life and in the culture of my life. Secularism is the dominant form of American culture. It is not hostile to Church attendance – but sees it as having a diminished importance. Church becomes just one of many programs in which we may be involved. In some families, choices are made between a child’s participation in a Sunday soccer league and a child’s participation in Church. Adults make similar choices for themselves. But the transformation that is occurring in such choices is the transformation of the Church and the gift of God’s life (grace) into a secular program which exists to meet my religious needs or interests. Such an approach is a contradiction of the life of grace.

Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace. In cultural terms, it means a renunciation of the secular life – a life defined by my needs as a consumer within the modern experience – and an acceptance of my life as defined by the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is to be taken up with integrity – it must be taken up daily and more often still than that.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)

Prayer and Communion

Having posted on the topic of prayer – I thought that reposting this earlier piece on the mystery of prayer as communion would be helpful. In particular it should be helpful for understanding the larger life of prayer – which includes our communion with the saints.

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Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).

Have you ever wondered what Jesus did when He prayed all night? Have you ever tried to pray all night? If your conception of prayer is a monologue of needs, information and requests, then your experience of prayer is either that it is very short or very repetitive.

Years ago, in my years between high school and college, I lived in a religious commune (yes, it was the early ’70’s). From time to time in our efforts to live a life based in Scripture, we “kept watch,” though we had no guidance from tradition to explain the meaning of the phrase. Our practice was first to stay awake all night. Second, we tried to pray. The monologue model made no dent in the hours of the night. We quickly learned that in order to pray all night something else had to serve as prayer. We learned to pray the Psalms. Accidentally, we had begun to practice one of the ancient forms of “keeping watch.”

Fittingly, it was one of the simplest forms of keeping watch – but the experience was instructive. We began to learn the value of simply being present to God (who is Himself everywhere present) and attentive to the words of prayer itself.

It seems to me that Christ would have had no need to hold conversation through the night with the Father. There was no information to be conveyed – no requests not already known. The need to pray in such an intense manner is simply the expression of true communion – such as exists eternally in the Godhead. For human beings, that communion is most frequently expressed as prayer. It is a need greater than food:

In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”
But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.

And:

When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

More valuable than food – such communion is greater than sleep as well. Thus Christ prayed through the night on occasion. The practice has continued in the ascetic life of the Church through the centuries.

It is prayer as communion with God that concerns me in this post. Such an understanding is not simply a description of so-called “contemplative” prayer, but is properly the understanding for all prayer. Prayer is communion, expressed in words, in songs, in a presence that sometimes transcends words. Prayer is stepping consciously into the life that has been given us in Christ – and remaining there for a period of time (unceasingly is the Scriptural goal).

Participation in the life of God (communion) is the heart of intercessory prayer.

But [Christ], because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:24-25).

Christ’s “intercession for us” should not be understood as an eternal torrent of words; intercession is Christ’s union with us who have now been united to Him and thus united to His eternal communion with the Father.

This same understanding of prayer is at the heart of the intercession of the saints. Much confusion about the intercession of the saints has been wrought by poor images of prayer. We have reduced prayer to talk and intercession to talk to God about someone else. It is in this imagery that the Protestant question comes forward: “Why do we need someone else to speak to God for us? Isn’t Christ’s prayer enough?”

Of course, if prayer is just talk, then surely Christ’s words would be sufficient. But this oversimplification of prayer fails to do justice to Christ’s own prayer (as well as that of the saints). The intercession of the saints is their communion and participation in the life of Christ. By His life they live and the very character of that life is a communion with God. Rightly understood – that communion is prayer itself. When we express our own communion with the saints through asking their prayers we are giving verbal expression to what is already an ontological reality. As we are in communion with Christ so we are in communion with the saints. The Church cannot be other than the Church.

There may be those who reject the “intercession of the saints” (particularly as caricatured by inadequate understandings of prayer), but if they are truly in the communion of the Church then the intercession of the saints is inherently part of that communion. There is no Church that is not also the communion of the saints.

Our salvation is participation in the life of Christ. It is our healing, our forgiveness, our resurrection and our peace. Prayer is the sound of salvation – even in a wordless state.

Our reluctance to pray (let us be honest) is a manifestation of the primordial sin. It is not the time or effort we avoid – but communion with God that causes us to recoil. It is the hardness of our heart that avoids participation in the heart of God. But it is also His mercy that continues to call us to the life of prayer despite our selfish rebuff.

Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. When He came to the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Luke 22:39-46).

 

Knowing the Personal God

The word personal has a commonplace meaning in English. If I have personal knowledge of an event, it means that I was actually there and saw what took place. Personal knowledge of another person, means that we have actually met, spent time together and shared information. Difficulty arises when this commonplace use of the phrase is mistaken for its theological meaning.

The word person, is pretty much a Christian invention, or certainly comes to a place of importance through its use in Christian theology. In Greek, it is the word prosopon, which originally meant the face, while in Latin the word was persona, which originally meant a mask. In both cases the words were taken up to do service in the efforts of early theologians’ to give expression to the Christian understanding of the Triune God. Person, in its various forms, came to be used for the more technical Greek term hypostasis, and referred to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in their unique aspects. Thus we had three persons in one being.

The word was also used as the Church sought to give expression to what it knew of Christ. Thus we learned to speak of the person of Christ who was both human and Divine: one person, two natures.

In all of these early uses, the term carried far more weight than its commonplace meaning today. Today we mean little more than individual when we say person. To apply that meaning to the persons of the Trinity would be to fall into serious heresy.

And to a degree, to apply that same commonplace meaning to human beings is at the very least a disservice, if not outright error. For there is something about our existence as persons that is precisely linked to our creation in the image of God and the truth of our existence of which the commonplace meaning knows nothing.

Fr. Sophrony Sakharov says that to be created as person is to be created potentially and not actually. That is to say, there is something very “open-ended” in our existence as persons. It is not a limiting term but a term which describes something of infinite capacity. We are created potentially, because we are not yet what we shall be. We are commanded to be conformed to the likeness of God – and this is our goal in Christ. This is far more than moral perfection, but has an ontological meaning as well. Indeed, when Scripture speaks of this aspect of our destiny it generally does not speak in moral terms, but in terms of knowledge and relationship.

“Then I shall know even as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

“We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

That capacity of knowledge – which is another way of speaking about the fullness of our communion with God – is also a way of speaking of our capacity for love. It is the gift of personhood that we are (by grace) capable of loving everyone and everything. We would not be commanded to love even our enemies were it an impossible thing. Apart from Christ we cannot become what we were created to be – but we were created to love in just such a manner – for to love less is to be less than the image and likeness of Christ.

Our commonplace language, even in our faith, speaks of a personal relationship with Christ. It is correct to do so, and even to mean by it that you have “first-hand” knowledge of Christ. It also speaks of mutual obligation which is again correct in the covenantal relationship that God has given us. But it is also true in a less commonplace sense that we have a personal relationship with Christ – in that the nature of our relationship is that between persons. As such it has an infinite capacity and is open-ended. It will grow and become far more later than it is now. It will also mean a participation and a communion, a knowledge that is inherent to personal existence, even though we frequently are not aware of this capacity that is ours.

It is only in knowing the Triune God that we become what we are meant to be – that what it means to exist personally is fully revealed in us. A short quote from Fr. Sophrony:

The Person is He Who alone and genuinely lives. Aside from this vital principle nothing can exist: ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men’ [John 1:4]. The fundamental content of this life is love: ‘God is love’ [1 John 4:8]. the personal being realizes himself through loving contact with another person or persons.

From We Shall See Him As He Is

The Nature of Things and Our Salvation

Reflecting on yesterday’s post, I thought it worthwhile to share these thoughts again on the nature of our salvation. Few things are as critical for me as the distinctions given here. Perhaps it is timely. It offers a short summary of the difference between a moral and an existential understanding of the Christian faith and why the difference matters. Indeed, as I look through my writings I know this is a recurring theme. It recurs because it is so fundamental to the Christian faith and is at the same time largely unknown in our modern world.

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The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to state briefly several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 30 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past twelve years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

Saving Faith

In a recent post I quoted Vladimir Lossky on the nature of faith. Several have asked me to expand on the Orthodox understanding of faith. I begin with Lossky’s quote:

What one quests is already present, precedes us, makes possible our question itself. ‘Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced’ (Heb. 11:3). Thus faith allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence. Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man. (From Lossky’s Orthodox Theology).

As I noted previously, Lossky is notoriously thick to read. I will offer a small amount of exposition.

Lossky begins by noting faith as a gift. It is what we seek (quest) and is already present and precedes us and even makes our questions possible. Quoting Hebrews he notes that we “comprehend” or “think” by faith – it allows true thought, true understanding. Thus faith is a mode of perception, not simply a side-action of our intellect. When we say, “I believe,” in ordinary conversation, we are not using the word belief in a manner that means the same thing as belief or faith (pistos) in the Scripture (it’s all one word in Greek).

Lossky defines faith as “our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself.” It is a very interesting phrase he uses, “participatory adherence.” And, I think, it goes to the heart of what he is saying about faith as well as the Orthodox understanding of saving faith.

I have written numerous times about the importance of communion or participation (koinonia) in both New Testament usage and in subsequent Orthodox thought. Salvation is not mental or volitional, though our mind and will are also a part of our salvation. Salvation is not metal or volitional because this is not the nature of our problem. We are not fallen because we fail to think correctly (that would be the heretical contention of Christian Science – of the Mary Baker Eddy type). Nor are we fallen simply because we choose incorrectly. According to the fathers, there is something “fractured” about the human will as a result of our sin. Making correct choices is insufficient for salvation.

St. Gregory of Nyssa said that “man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.” The proper end of our salvation is union with God – true participation in the life of God.

Faith became a diminished term of understanding as the nature of our salvation was diminished – particularly in the developments of medieval Western theology – most particularly in the debates that surrounded and followed the Reformation. Some will point out that there is a distinction made between salvation and sanctification in Protestant thought – but such a distinction is neither necessary nor Biblical.

Saving faith is more than mental or even volitional assent because our problems are not addressed by such an understanding. Only if salvation is an external reward would such an understanding of faith make sense. Salvation as external reward fails to rise above a child’s Sunday School class in its comprehension of the gospel.

Lossky turns our gaze to a deeper place and a deeper understanding of our salvation. A “participatory adherence” speaks both of an action of our will (adherence) as well as a true participation in the Reality which is our salvation. It is difficult to find simple words to describe such an existential reality – but that reality must be expressed. It is inferred occasionally in New Testament phrases. One of the first that comes to mind is St. Paul’s statement: “…I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Phil. 3:12).

St. Paul is reaching out for something that has already grasped him. Faith is not an objective acceptance of certain facts, but a “participatory adherence” in that which has laid hold on us. Even faith is the gift of God. It is true that we must respond – without a response it would not be our own selves that adhered to Him who has offered Himself to us.

In a fairly scandalous statement, Dostoevsky, following his deep conversion in prison, said that it was Christ Jesus who was everything. His scandalous statement was to say that even if someone should prove to him that the “truth” was elsewhere, he would choose Christ. Of course, Christ is the Truth, so such a choice is not put before us. But it speaks of the nature of the great author’s heart and to the heart of any Christian. Christ is not secondary to the truth. Faith is not an intellectual exercise. Christ is He who has “laid hold” on us. And apart from every mental perception, every hesitancy, the heart finally says ‘yes’ to Him, or there is nothing more to be said.

Saving faith is a “participatory adherence” – both a surrender of our heart – but also a living reality which has grasped us and made us His own.

Mustard Seed

Christ said: “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you (Matthew 17:20).

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Skeptics and Naturalists through the years have always had a field-day with this verse. I recall a passage in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, where a boy with a club foot, goes to sleep believing as perfectly and completely as possible, only to awake to the same foot he has always had – and with his “faith” in God dashed to pieces. I have seen any number of cases – some simple – some more complex – where the same sense of the world and the place that faith plays within it – essentially the same as the boy in Maugham’s classic story.

On it’s face, Christ’s statement is absurd. For if even such a tiny measure of faith would move mountains – then I have to confess to having seen less than a tiny measure of faith, and possessing even less still. But such absurd statements are not given to us simply for effect or as exaggeration. Strangely, people read this quote from Christ and immediately assume that they know what faith is.

And this, I believe, is the heart of the matter. The faith spoken of by Christ is a mode of seeing, a mode of existence, that is foreign to our experience. Certainly the intellectual certainty or confidence that is asserted in the modern world is not the faith that moves mountains. Such certainty is simply a variety of opinion and differs in no way from the many varieties of opinions which we hold about many things. Such faith (intellectual certainty, etc.) requires no particular transformation of the person who exercises it. At most, it is a shift in what we may think about something – perhaps no more significant than changing the brand of soap we use.

The Scriptures speak of being saved by grace through faith, but in the debates of the Reformation, when the entire relationship with God was largely reduced to a matter of legal status, intellectual assent was sufficient for the sake of that argument. But it is not sufficient as a proper understanding of saving faith.

Vladimir Lossky offers this observation on faith:

What one quests is already present, precedes us, makes possible our question itself. ‘Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced’ (Heb. 11:3). Thus faith allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence. Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man. (From Lossky’s Orthodox Theology).

Saving faith, as noted above, is a means of perception rooted in a living union with God. By it, we are enabled to see in a manner that belongs to God. We have faith in God because we perceive the truth of who He is. It is an “ontological relationship between man and God.” It is immediately a transformation of our inmost being – though the transformation be ever so small.

Thus the example of Christ – that the least amount of such an existence is capable of moving mountains.

All of this presses us back to our life of prayer and seeking constant union with God through dwelling in His name. We do not need to try harder – but to try something different. Our mode of seeing, thinking, believing, choosing, etc. are all distorted and do not give us the truth of ourselves. Faith, as given by God, is a restoration of that true self.

(Luke 18:8)

The Annunciation – The Cause of All Things

I treasure the small volume of George Gabriel,  Mary the Untrodden Portal of God. Gabriel occasionally strikes hard at the West and the book would perhaps be strengthened with a less combative approach to the differences of East and West in the faith (my own opinion), but I liked the book and found Gabriel addressing many things, well foot-noted, that are not found in many other places. I share an excerpt.

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From eternity, God provided for a communion with His creation that would remain forever. In that communion mankind would attain to the eternal theosis for which it was made. The communion, of course, is the Incarnation through the Ever-Virgin. Mankind’s existence and, therefore, that of all creation is inexorably tied to Mary because she was always to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word. The fathers say that neither the course of human events nor necessity of any kind forced the Uncreated One to join to Himself a creaturely mode of existence. God did not become flesh because some actions of the devil or of man made it necessary, but because it was the divine plan and mystery from before the ages. Despite the works of Satan and the coming of sin into the world, the eternal will of God was undeterred, and it moved forward.

History and the course of human events were the occasion and not the cause of the Incarnation. The Incarnation did not take place for the Crucifixion; the Crucifixion took place so the Incarnation and the eternal communion of God and man could be fulfilled despite Satan, sin, and death. Explaining that there was no necessity in God the Father that required the death of His Son, St. Gregory the Theologian says of the Father “neither asked for Him nor demanded Him, but accepts [His death] on account of the economy [of the Incarnation] and because mankind must be sanctified by the humanity of God.” St. Gregory is telling us that, from before the ages, it was the divine will for mankind to be sanctified and made immortal by communion with the humanity of the Incarnate God, but corruptibility and death came and stood in the way.  By His Passion and Resurrection, Jesus Christ destroyed these obstacles and saved, that is, preserved, mankind for the Incarnation’s eternal communion of the God-Man and immortal men. St. John of Damascus repreats the same idea that the Incarnation is a prior and indeed ontological purpose in itself, and that redemption is the means to that end. Thus, he says the Holy Virgin “came to serve in the salvation of the world so that the ancient will of God for the Incarnation of the Word and our own theosis may be fulfilled through her.”

It seems worthwhile to me, for us to meditate on the fullness of our salvation which is to be accomplished in God’s great Pascha. Indeed, it seems to me that everything always was about Pascha – the “Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) We are approaching the end of all things – and, I should add, their beginning as well.

Reposted from a year ago.

The Nature of Things and Our Salvation

Reflecting on yesterday’s post, I thought it worthwhile to share these thoughts again on the nature of our salvation. It offers a short summary of the difference between a moral and an existential understanding of the Christian faith and why the difference matters. Indeed, as I look through my writings I know this is a recurring theme. It recurs because it is so fundamental to the Christian faith and is at the same time largely unknown in our modern world.

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The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to state briefly several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my late teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are notcreatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existencethat has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 25 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past ten years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

Just Showing Up and the Work of Grace

There has been a tendency in much teaching about the notion of salvation by grace to ground the image in a legal or forensic metaphor. Thus, we are saved by grace in the sense that someone else’s goodwill and kindness (God’s) has now freed us from the consequences of our actions. Thus we speak of grace as the “free gift” of God.

There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. Of course, there are varying shades within this debate and I have surely not done justice to the full understanding of either point.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life. Others have sometimes referred to these elements as belonging to “sanctification,” but there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition.

It is from within that understanding that my comments on grace are shaped. It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything. The political world thrives on repeated campaigns for “change,” though change is always a relatively slow thing (except in revolutions when it is usually not a change for the better).

There is a saying from the desert fathers: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a recognition thatstability is an inherent virtue in the spiritual life, and in the constancy and patience of our prayers and labors with God, grace has its perfect work.

In the modern parish setting, particularly with my catechumens, I have translated the desert saying into a more modern statement: “Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up.” We do not live in cells nor is our stability marked by sitting quiety through the day reciting the Jesus Prayer. There certainly should be times of the day set aside for prayer – but one of the primary locations of our life of grace – as Christians living in the world – is to be found within the life of the parish Church – particularly within its life of sacraments, prayers, and patience (there is equally as much patience to be practiced in the parish as in any monastery). One mark of our struggle for stability is “just showing up.” Fr. Thomas Hopko quotes his mother’s advice to him as a young man: “Go to Church. Say your prayers. Remember God.”

The life of grace is central to our existence as Christians and must not become secularized. In a secular understanding, the Church has a role to play in a larger scheme of things (the secular world). Thus the Church becomes useful to me and at the same time takes on a diminished role in my life and in the culture of my life. Secularism is the dominant form of American culture. It is not hostile to Church attendance – but sees it as having a diminished importance. Church becomes just one of many programs in which we may be involved. In some families, choices are made between a child’s participation in a Sunday soccer league and a child’s participation in Church. Adults make similar choices for themselves. But the transformation that is occurring in such choices is the transformation of the Church and the gift of God’s life (grace) into a secular program which exists to meet my religious needs or interests. Such an approach is a contradiction of the life of grace.

Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace. In cultural terms, it means a renunciation of the secular life – a life defined by my needs as a consumer within the American experience – and an acceptance of my life as defined by the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is to be taken up with integrity – it must be taken up daily and more often still than that.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)

A Relationship With God?

IMG_0625What is the nature of a relationship with God? It is commonplace in our modern parlance to speak of a “personal relationship” which is either redundant, or a way of weakening the true meaning of “personal.” I suspect that the modern meaning of “relationship” is in fact not capable of bearing the true weight of theological meaning and is simply a shallow way of speaking about the Christian faith. What Scripture invites us into is communion with God. I have written on this topic previously, addressing the substitution of the word “fellowship” for communion. I have offered a new reflection here as well as appended two articles on the topic from my previous writings. They seem quite on topic. One could substitute “relationship” for “fellowship” and the articles would work in that way as well. God has offered so much to us – it is a pity if we allow language to lessen the magnificence of that gift.

To Be “Born Again”

This morning I received a small comment (deleted) that is not uncommon. Someone will have read an article on the blog and posted the question: “Yes, but have you been born again?” I know that the thought is well-meant, someone wondering if I am “saved” (according the understanding of some evangelical Christians). However well-meant such postings may be, they are ill-informed.

There is an assumption among a number of Protestant Christians that to be “born-again” is the equivalent of a particular decision (which the Orthodox would term “repentance”) at a particular time in which we repent of our sins and ask Jesus to be the Savior of our life. Repentance is indeed Biblical, as is the phrase “born-again.” However the conflation of the two, in which a particular response at a particular time (always and necessarily at the “age of accountability” or later) is equated with the “born again” in Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of St. John’s gospel. That conflation is of very recent vintage, a Biblical interpretation dating back to the origins of the Evangelical Movement a few hundred years back. That is to say – it is a novel idea – not an item of Christian revelation.

There is nothing within the actual text of Scripture that requires such an interpretation. Indeed, Christ’s use of the phrase in St. John’s gospel, makes specific connection with “water and the Spirit.” The traditional interpretation of the phrase “born-again” has in fact always been to equate it with Holy Baptism.  St. Peter’s reference to being “born again” (1 Peter 1:3-5) where it is written that God . . . “has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, . . .” is another reference to Baptism – for it is specifically in Baptism, St. Paul tells us (Romans 6:4-6), that we are united to Christ’s resurrection. This is the faith of the Orthodox.

However, such a belief carries within it an understanding that Holy Baptism is more than a “mere symbol” or an “empty ritual.” It is the means given to us by Christ through which we are united with Him. It is also the understanding of the Church that the gift given to us in Holy Baptism should be continually received by us in the life of faith. But being “born again” is not to be reduced to a “spiritual transaction.”

At the heart of the matter is the question of what it means to be in relation to God. How is it that we are saved? What is the goal and purpose of the Christian life? Some versions of modern Christian thought have offered radical departures from classical Christian teaching – making salvation external to our life (in various forensic models) – or grounded in various transactional accounts (with emphases on our ‘decision’ for Christ).

Salvation is union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is Trinitarian. It transcends the will though it includes the will. It transcends the will just as the will is not the ultimate seat of our personhood. It includes the will just as the will is an important aspect of our existence. Those who have exalted the role of ‘decision’ in our salvation have also unwittingly diminished the personhood of those in whom the will is diminished (the unborn, the mentally impaired, etc.). The exaltation of the will, it would seem, is a by-product of a culture in which the most important role of human beings is as consumers. Salvation in Christ is not a product for our consumption. It cannot be marketed or reduced to something grasped by the will.

Who can give a true account of the mystery of grace that brought him to Christ? I appreciate St. Paul’s brief summary of his conversion:

But when it pleased God who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace to reveal His son in me… (Galatians 1:15)

It is a wonderfully elegant version of all that transpired in his life – including his encounter on the road to Damascus. What was filled in Baptism in Damascus began “when God…separated me from my mother’s womb” (and surely while he was within the womb). We do well to give thanks to God for the mystery of our salvation. We also do well to avoid modern reductionist accounts of salvation – they are insufficient for the fullness of the faith.

Is “Fellowship” with God Possible?

Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The noun is one of the great abilities of ancient Greek – the ability to create abstract concepts from adjectives (this is not common in ancient languages). It is this linguistic ability that caused philosophy in Western Civilization to first be practiced by the Greeks. Without abstract nouns there is nothing to discuss.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two very discreet individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.

What Does It Mean to have Communion with God?

I am sure that the title of this section seems obvious and as though I had pulled a question out of a catechism. And yet, my experience tells me that things that seem as though they ought to be obvious often are not, particularly the more basic and fundamental they are in our life as Orthodox believers. I noted in the section above that the world fellowship is often found in English Bibles as a mistranslation of the Greek word koinonia, the result being that frequently when Scripture is giving us information about communion with God, our translations are giving us something completely different.

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What’s wrong with the human race anyway?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christians doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – Orthodoxy, it can be said, does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in ourontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church, is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, these vitally important parts of the Christian life usually become reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

If you have lived your Christian life and never heard the story of our relationship with God put in the sort of terms used above, then you have missed out on hearing most of the New Testament. You have missed the story as told by the Fathers of the Eastern Church (which means, most of the Church Fathers). It is possible that you have heard such a distortion of the Christian faith that you have wanted nothing to do with it.

But if what I have described above sounds like good news – then the news is very good – because this is the teaching of the New Testament and the Church founded by Jesus Christ and which continues to be proclaimed by the Orthodox Church.

The Protection of the Mother of God

1001BProtection

Many blessings on the Feast of the Protection of our Lady, the  Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary! I am off for my preparations for the Liturgy at Church this morning. May God bless all as we offer thanks for the prayers of all the saints – and most especially for those of his Blessed Mother.

Today the faithful celebrate the feast with joy
illumined by your coming, O Mother of God.
Beholding your pure image we fervently cry to you:
“Encompass us beneath the precious veil of your protection;
deliver us from every form of evil by entreating Christ,
your Son and our God that He may save our souls.”

Tropar of the Feast

 

Having returned home after the feast…

I reflected this morning on the “Veil of Protection” which we enjoy many times in the course of our life. Protection is more than the active warding off of enemies – it is sometimes a gracious hiding. My short trek to Church this morning was through one of the fogs that blanket the Tennessee Valley this time of year. Many things are hidden.

Much of my life remains hidden even from myself. Who is there that knows all of his own sins or all of the goodness of God? I think that these things remain hidden from us by the mercies of God. Who could bear the full knowledge of his own sins or even the full knowledge of the goodness of God?” The depths of such things are hidden and revealed to us by a merciful God as and when they are good for our salvation.

The prayers of the saints, including those of the Mother of God, is a great mystery – they are part of the greater reality of life as communion with God. Earlier this year I offered this thought on the prayers of the saints:

Christ’s “intercession for us” should not be understood as an eternal torrent of words; intercession is Christ’s union with us who have now been united to Him and thus united to His eternal communion with the Father.

This same understanding of prayer is at the heart of the intercession of the saints. Much confusion about the intercession of the saints has been wrought by poor images of prayer. We have reduced prayer to talk and intercession to talk to God about someone else. It is in this imagery that the Protestant question comes forward: “Why do we need someone else to speak to God for us? Isn’t Christ’s prayer enough?”

Of course, if prayer is just talk, then surely Christ’s words would be sufficient. But this oversimplification of prayer fails to do justice to Christ’s own prayer (as well as that of the saints). The intercession of the saints is their communion and participation in the life of Christ. By His life they live and the very character of that life is a communion with God. Rightly understood – that communion is prayer itself. When we express our own communion with the saints through asking their prayers we are giving verbal expression to what is already an ontological reality. As we are in communion with Christ so we are in communion with the saints. The Church cannot be other than the Church.

There may be those who reject the “intercession of the saints” (particularly as caricatured by inadequate understandings of prayer), but if they are truly in the communion of the Church then the intercession of the saints is inherently part of that communion. There is no Church that is not also the communion of the saints.

Today I give thanks for the protecting veil of the Mother of God – for the things I do know and those that I do not.