The Systematic Theology of the Cross

The following excerpt was sent by a dear friend and a frequent reader of the blog. It is taken from Richard Wurmbrand’s With God in Solitary Confinement. Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned under the communists in Romania, always spoke well of the Orthodox whom he encountered in those places of confinement, and brings the insight that suffering for Christ often brings. I was deeply moved by this quote.

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“I once tried to explain ‘systematic theology’ to a Russian pastor of the Underground Church, who had never seen a whole New Testament. Systematically, I began to explain to him the teaching about the Godhead, about its unity in three Persons, the teaching about original sin, about the Fall, about salvation, about the Church, about the sacraments, about the Bible as infallible revelation.

“He listened attentively. When I had finished, he asked me a most surprising question: ‘Have those who thought out these theological systems and wrote them down in such perfect order ever carried a cross?’ He went on. ‘A man cannot think systematically even when he has a bad toothache. How can a man who is carrying a cross think systematically? But a Christian has to be more than the bearer of a heavy cross; he shares Christ’s crucifixion. The pains of Christ are his, and the pains of all creation. There is no grief and no suffering in the whole world which should not grieve him also. If a man is crucified with Christ, how can he think systematically? Can there be that kind of thought on a cross?

“’Jesus Himself thought unsystematically on the cross. He began with forgiveness; He spoke of a paradise in which even a robber had a place; then he despaired that perhaps there might be no place in paradise even for Him, the Son of God. He felt Himself forsaken. His thirst was so unbearable that He asked for water. Then He surrendered His spirit into His Father’s hand. But there followed no serenity, only a loud cry. Thank you for what you have been trying to teach me. I have the impression that you were only repeating, without much conviction, what others have taught you.’

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This story illustrates the vast distance between theology as an intellectual construct, or even the s0-called ‘rational’ interpretation of Scripture and what the Elder Sophrony once dubbed ‘dogmatic consciousness.’ The Fathers of the Church did not offer us theology as their ‘best guess’ or as the fruit of superior reason. What we know in the Church as dogma, we know because it is know truly and experientially. It is known as the Scripture knows God and as the Church knows the Scripture.

Our struggle in Lent is the daily union of body and soul in the Spirit of Christ. Within such a union and the ascesis that is natural to it, it slowly becomes possible to know God and the things that pertain to God. ‘Take up your cross,’ is the commandment of Christ. Without this ‘taking up,’ we will know nothing.

Hopko on the Cross of Christ

An excerpt from a commencement address at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2007, given by Fr. Thomas Hopko. It is deeply worthy of conversation. I first posted this back in June, 2007, when it was “new.” That which is true is always new and timeless. 

…I can tell you that being loved by God, and loving Him in return, is the greatest joy given to creatures, and that without it there is no real and lasting happiness for humanity.

And I can also tell you, alas, that such loving is always a violent, brutal and bloody affair.

The God who is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, who gives us his divine life and peace and joy forever, is first of all the Divine Lover who wounds His beloved, and then hides from her, hoping to be sought and found. He is the Father who chastens and disciplines His children. He is the Vinekeeper who cuts and prunes His vines so that they bear much fruit. He is the Jeweler who burns His gold in His divine fire so that it would be purged of all impurities. And He is the Potter who continually smashes and refashions and re-bakes His muddy clay so that it can be the earthen vessel that He wants it to be, capable of bearing His own transcendent grace and power and glory and peace.

…I learned that all of these terrible teachings of the Holy Scriptures and the saints are real and true. And so I became convinced that God’s Gospel in His Son Jesus is really and truly God’s final act on earth. It is the act in which God’s Word is now not simply inscribed in letters on pages of parchment, but is personally incarnate as a human being in his own human body and blood. And so I became convinced of the truth of all truths: that the ultimate revelation of God as Love and the ultimate revelation of humanity’s love for God, are to be found in the bloody corpse of a dead Jew, hanging on a cross between two criminals, outside the walls of Jerusalem, executed at the hands of Gentiles, by the instigation of his own people’s leaders, in the most painful, cursed, shameful and wretched death that a human being — and especially a Jew – can possibly die.

So to the measure that we are honest and faithful, and try to keep God’s commandments, and repent for our failures and sins, we come to know, and to know ever more clearly and deeply as time goes by, what we have learned here at St. Vladimir’s. We come to know by experience that the Word of God (ho logos tou theou) is always and necessarily the word of the Cross (ho logos tou stavrou). And — in language befitting a commencement ceremony at an Orthodox graduate school of theology — we come to see that true theologia is always stavrologia. And real orthodoxia is always paradoxia. And that there is no theosis without kenosis.

Theology is stavrology and Orthodoxy is paradoxy: the almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification without degradation; and no life without death. We learn, in a word, the truth of the early Christian hymn recorded in Holy Scripture:

If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure with him, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself. (2Tim 2.11-13)

According to the Gospel, therefore, those who wish to be wise are constrained to be fools. Those who would be great become small. Those who would be first put themselves last. Those who rule, serve as slaves. Those who would be rich make themselves poor. Those who want to be strong become weak. And those who long to find and fulfill themselves as persons deny and empty themselves for the sake of the Gospel. And, finally, and most important of all, those who want really to live have really to die. They voluntarily die, in truth and in love, to everyone and everything that is not God and of God.

And so, once again, if we have learned anything at all in our theological education, spiritual formation and pastoral service, we have learned to beware, and to be wary, of all contentment, consolation and comfort before our co-crucifixion in love with Christ. We have learned that though we can know about God through formal theological education, we can only come to know God by taking up our daily crosses with patient endurance in love with Jesus. And we can only do this by faith and grace through the Holy Spirit’s abiding power.

The Church and the Cross

The following article is a series I wrote during the early months of the blog. I think it worth reprinting (surely people aren’t going back to read everything I’ve written). It is also available in the “Pages” section of the blog. As the Sunday of the Cross is this weekend, I offer this as a meditation for that event. 

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scripturapoor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

The Death of Christ on the Cross – the Life of Man

twelve_gospelsSeveral years ago, someone wrote and asked, “Why did Christ have to die on the Cross?” It is the question that prompted this article. On September 14th (New Calendar), the Church marks the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. It is a fitting time to ask, “Why did Christ have to die?” His death and resurrection are the utter foundation of the Christian faith. Either we can answer this question, or we have nothing to say.

Preliminary Thoughts

Part of the information accompanying the question was the experience (of Mary K) with teaching on the atonement that centered largely on the wrath and anger of God. (I paraphrase and summarize) We sinned  (both ourselves and Adam and Eve) – God punished us. God sent Christ whom He punished in our place. Now through faith in Christ we can escape the punishment we deserve. Along with this were a number of questions about the blood of Christ. How does it cleanse us from sin?

Of course such a question could be the occasion for a book. As is, it is the occasion for an answer of readable length (barely). Readers who feel that more should have been said about one thing or another are asked for patience. The heart of things, it seems to me, has to do with the primary images used to understand both what is wrong with humanity and creation (sin) and what it is about Christ that saves us and heals us (His death and resurrection). If there were only one way of speaking about this or thinking about this, then the question would not have been asked.

The truth is that Scripture, including within the work of a single writer, uses many images to describe the reality of what Christ has done. Some of those images are simply useful analogies or metaphors, others seem to have a more “literal” character about them – though nowhere do we find a definitive account that sets all others aside.

I want to also add a preliminary word (for our questioning reader) about the language of Scripture. Though many Christians would agree that the words of Scripture are “God-breathed” (inspired), this does not mean that every statement in Scripture is to be read literally. There are many things that are read figuratively, metaphorically, and otherwise. That is to say, the Scriptures cannot be read without help and a guide. This has always been true. For this reason the Scriptures, when read in a traditional Christian manner, must be read with Christians who themselves have been taught to read them in a traditional manner.

In this matter, you will find great diversity among Christians, for the interpretation of Scripture has been a major point of division between Christians for almost 500 years. Much of what was described in the background to the question that was posed are examples of modern, fundamentalist Christian interpretations (of which there are a variety). What I offer here is the general understanding of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The Problem

What is wrong with humanity, and creation, such that we are in need of anything from God? What is sin?

At its most fundamental level – sin is death. For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The fact that we die is not a punishment sent to us from God but the result of our having broken fellowship (communion) with God. God is Life and the only source of life. Created things (humanity included) do not have life in themselves, it is not something we have as our possession and power. Rather, life is the gift of God. It is not just our life that is the gift of God – but our very existence and the existence of all that is. God is our Creator. The Scriptures say, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Genesis offers us the story of Adam and Eve in which we hear described their disobedience from God. He had warned them: “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Many early commentators on Scripture were careful to note that God did not say, “In the day you eat of it I will kill you,” but “in the day you eat of it you shall die.” Rather we are told: “God did not create death, nor does he delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).

St. Athanasius explains that when humanity chose to break its relationship with God (through disobedience) we cut ourselves off from the source of life. However God did not take life from us (He does not take back the gifts He gives) but we removed ourselves from it. And so we die. We not only die physically, but we have a process of death at work in us. St. Paul speaks of this process as “corruption.” This movement away from and towards death and destruction reveals itself in the many broken things in our lives. We hurt and kill each other. We hurt and destroy creation. We are weak and easily enslaved to powerful things such as drugs and alcohol. We are dominated by greed, envy, lust, anger, etc. We cannot help ourselves in this matter because we do not have life within ourselves. Only God can give us the true life that alone can make us well.

The Answer

Above all else we should remember that “God is a good God and He loves mankind” (from the Orthodox dismissal). This we hear clearly in Scripture: “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We hear this echoed in the words of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

You [God] brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come.

This good God who loves mankind is not an angry God. He is not a vengeful God. He does not will us harm or punish us for our destruction. Though the Scriptures use these images, the Fathers of the Church have been consistent in understanding that this language is figurative and should not be understood literally. For instance, St. Anthony says:

God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

There are many Christians who would handle Scriptures in a different manner – but I think they do not listen to the fathers of the Church and interpret Scripture according to their own opinions. In this, I think they are in error and should not be listened to.

This good God, the only Lord and giver of Life, had compassion on us when we fell away and became subject to death and corruption. In His compassion He sent His only Son who became one of us – taking our human nature upon Himself. Uniting us to Himself, He lived a life without sin (for He is Life), and taught us by word and deed the goodness and kindness of God and to become like God by loving even our enemies.

His love was so great, that He extended that love beyond the grave. He accepted death on the Cross, suffering the hatred and evil doings of those around Him.

And here, as we approach Christ’s death on the Cross, it is appropriate to ask, “Why death?”

There are many meditations on the death of Christ. Meditations that see Him as the Paschal Lamb sacrificed for us, as the “Serpent lifted in the wilderness,” and others. Here, temptation sets in and Christians seek to explain Christ’s death by comparing it to their own faulty understandings of lesser things. For it is not the shadow of things to come (Old Testament) that interprets the things to come – but rather the reality (New Testament) that interprets the shadow. It is Christ’s death that gives meaning to every type and foreshadowing and image of that death to be found in the Old Testament.

Thus it is more accurate to say that the Paschal Lamb in the time of Moses is like Christ’s sacrifice, rather than to say His sacrifice is like that which came before. As Christ said of Moses and the Prophets, “These are they which testify of me” (John 5:30).

One of the most common and helpful images in Scripture and the fathers of the Church is the image of Christ’s union with humanity. Christ became incarnate, taking to Himself our human nature. He became what we were, yet without sin. This union should be understood in more than a metaphorical manner. For Christ literally and truly became man. His humanity was not a new creation, but he took flesh “of the Virgin Mary.” He became a partaker of our humanity.

In becoming a partaker of our humanity, Christ opened the way for us to become partakers in His divinity. “For as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). St. Paul uses this language as well in his explanation of Baptism:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be raised together in the likeness of His resurrection. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that we should no longer be the slaves of sin (Romans 6:3-6).

This imagery is common in St. Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

If you are risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then you shall also appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

These things only make sense because Christ has united Himself to us, and us to Him. We are united to His death and resurrection in our faith and in our Baptism. We become one flesh with Christ. We truly become a part of the Body of Christ.

And this goes to the heart of the answer to the question posed: why did Christ die? Christ died because we were dead. We were trapped in the lifeless death of sin (which yields corruption and physical death as well). Christ is God who has come to rescue us from our prison of sin and death. He became what we are that we might have a share in what He is. We were created in the image and likeness of God – but our sin had marred us.

We did not inherit guilt and a legal penalty from Adam and Eve. We inherited a world dominated by death. In such a world we behaved as the slaves of sin and sought to live our lives apart from God Who alone is Life. God alone could rescue us from the place where we had confined ourselves. Christ enters death. Christ enters Hades and makes a way for us to follow Him into true life.

In our present life, this true life is made present within us in many ways. First, it is made present in our knowledge of God. “This is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We know God and have a true relationship and communion with Him. We also have within us the power to overcome sin. This is sometimes manifest as obedience to Christ’s commandments, and, as God pleases, it is sometimes manifest as physical healing in our bodies (and miracles in creation – Romans 8:21).

If the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead dwell in you, He will make alive your mortal bodies (Romans 8:11).

The true life of humanity is a common life. It is common in the modern world to think of ourselves only in terms of discreet individuals. But the Scriptures and teaching of the Church bear witness to a common life in which we all partake. Thus, what happens to one of us effects all of us. This commonality is also an important part of our spiritual life and our salvation. The Church in particular is the place where Christians live their common life.

This common life is also the place where we come to understand the references to “Christ’s blood” (since this was part of the question posed). His blood carries a number of meanings. It is His death, His “life poured out for us.” It is also His life given to us in the sacrament of His Body and Blood. His blood cleanses us – just as Baptism cleanses us – for His death destroys death and makes the whole creation new. There are many links between the image of blood in the Old Testament and Christ’s blood in the New. However, it is easy to become overly detailed about his connection and miss the larger point of Christ’s death – by which He destroyed death and gave us eternal life.

There are many voices across the Christian world. Taken together – they are a madhouse of confusion. Confusion and contradiction is the only result of those who listen first to one teacher and then to another. No one will arrive at the truth by such a route.

Instead, I counsel anyone to take up the life of the Church. Be Baptized (or otherwise received into the Church) and stay put. Listen to a godly pastor who lives the Scriptures and respects the fathers of the Church. Those who have built private empires and practice ministries that are in submission to “no one except God” are frauds and live in delusion. They are scandals waiting to happen.

No Church, including the Orthodox Church, ever exists without scandal. But that scandal can be disciplined. True teaching can be found and life in union with the resurrected Lord can be lived.

A Short Word About Wrath and Anger

These are words, I believe, that are so charged and dangerous, that they must be used seldom and only with caution and careful nuance. Hate and anger and wrath are generally only experienced in a sinful manner by human beings and most people are deeply wounded already by such abuse. Those who preach such terms are often engaging in spiritual abuse and should stop. If someone who teaches or preaches the Christian gospel but cannot do so without reference to these words, then I think they need to stop and pray and see if there is not something fundamentally wrong with their understanding. I’m not trying to edit these things out of Scripture – simply to say that they are abused by most who read them. Imagine you are explaining the gospel to a 4 year old. Will the child misunderstand the concept of God’s wrath? I am rather sure of it. I have not found adults to be that much more emotionally mature. My challenge of these images (on the blog and in my writings) is, I hope, an occasion for other Christians, particularly Orthodox, to think carefully about these very powerful words. If we do that – then I’ll have done a little good.

[Of course, Scripture and the Fathers use the image of anger and wrath, generally with the understanding that such anger or wrath is an expression of an aspect of God’s love and not an effect created in God by our actions. A common example is the double aspect of fire – in which it is both heat and light, purification and illumination. Of course, the words “wrath” and “anger” are seldom used with such subtlety by many who preach or teach them and in so doing may be saying something that the Gospels do not teach.]

It is quite possible to give a very good account of the Christian gospel without the use of “wrath” and “anger.” St. John only uses the word wrath once in His entire Gospel. It is not an integral and necessary part of the theology of the Cross. To say that it is – is to make of an illustration and metaphor a matter of dogma. If you disagree, argue with St. John.

Conclusion

I pray that this answer is of help to the reader who posed the question. I also ask pardon of those readers who have been patient with me for the posting of this answer. It comes at the end of a busy week. May God give us all grace to hear the Holy Gospel.

The Church and the Cross

The following article is a series I wrote during the early months of the blog. I think it worth reprinting (surely people aren’t going back to read everything I’ve written). It is also available in the “Pages” section of the blog. If you’ve read it before I hope you enjoy rereading it – if not, I hope you find it useful or worth some thought.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scripturapoor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

The Church and the Cross of Christ

This series is a reflection of the life of the Cross in the life of the Church. Orthodoxy in the modern world (as well as its past) frequently engages in struggle – not only with the world – but within itself. This is not the failure of an ideal – for the Church is not an ideal – but instead is the life of salvation lived out in this world and in the age to come. These thoughts stay with me and are a comfort when the struggles of salvation seek to overcome. I reprint this in such a time.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

The Church at a Crossroads

This week, canonical Orthodox bishops across North America are meeting in New York to begin conversations towards greater Orthodox unity. Many Orthodox hope for an eventual, single autocephalous Orthodox jurisdiction on the American continent. This may yet be years away. For myself, I rejoice that the conversation has moved to this next level. In light of the meeting, I offer these few thoughts on “ecclesiology” – the doctrine of the Church. It is not the way the ecclesiology of the Church is formally stated – but it seems a worthwhile way to think about the subject.

+++

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually reunited. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, although this week Patriarch Bartholomew is meeting in Moscow with Patriarch Kyrill. We live in interesting times.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding in the truth in love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

The Cross and the Church

dsc_3274This weekend I have been in Memphis, Tennessee, at St. John Orthodox Church leading a retreat for their Church women. The topic of the retreat was “The Emptiness of God.” The following series of articles captures much of the thought that was offered this weekend (and thus a summary of my thoughts as I have made my way back home – it’s about a 400 mile trip each way). For me, these are thoughts central to the reality and life of Orthodox Christianity. Where this is lived in practice – Christ is abundantly present. Where this is neglected, the faith becomes increasingly hollow. There is other language used for what I have offered here – but the reality is Christ Himself. [This article is also available in the “Pages” section of the blog under the title, “The Ecclesiology of the Cross.”]

For those who began the Nativity Fast today – may God give you strength!

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia have been reconciled. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, next in Ukraine, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

Talking Theology

SuperStock_990-2182I learned during years of theological study that it is possible to give a “theological account” of almost anything and even make it sound cogent. Of course everything that sounds cogent is not necessarily true. In my morning paper I read the following account from a local Church. It was under the heading, “Cafe Worship”:

Cafe Worship is an interactive church service designed to engage all five senses. Instead of pews, congregants sit at round tables and interrelate through various exercises created to encourage deeper spiritual awareness. “Sometimes we forget that prayer can be more than just words”….”Prayer can be song, or it can be moving our bodies in an attitude of prayer. If you feel like you’re lacking in the ‘ability to move’ department, you can sing. If you feel like you’re lacking in the singing department, you can move. If you feel like you’re lacking in all of those departments, you can listen. Listening is also prayer”….At Cafe Worship, you’re still having a real worship service”…”but…you’re going to feel bread, and drink coffee, and look across the table into other people’s faces as people of God. It’s funny how intimate that is, to actually look someone in the eyes.”

The idea of Cafe Worship came as a response…to be inclusive toward all people.

If you’re going to have an open and inclusive theology or version of Christianity, you want your worship service to be open and inclusive as well…”

Of course, it is easy from an Orthodox perspective to view such theological accounts and worship arrangements from a self-satisfied distance. I believe myself to be fortunate that there are no ‘worship decisions’ to be made on a Sunday morning. The liturgy is the liturgy. But distractions abound – particularly within our own minds. We are all frequent customers of the “Cafe of the Mind,” in which we can judge others and generally distract ourselves either with our dissatisfaction with the past or our anxieties for the future. I could probably find a way to theologically describe such anger and worry as “worship” but it would not make it so.

Worship is communion with God in which we offer to Him all that we are and have. It is the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

On the other hand, we live in a very broken world. For most of the modern world, inherited traditions have disintegrated and those who seek God are left with no marked trails for the journey. The journey is made all the more difficult by the fact that one finds so few authentic Christians along the way. I cannot judge the lost – only myself for being less than authentic.

The Church and the Cross

IMG_0625This article is also found in my pages section as The Ecclesiology of the Cross. It seems that as the Orthodox world begins another level of internal discussions on ecclesiology – that these thoughts are worth re-posting. I was pleased to see the article quoted recently in an Orthodox discussion on another site. Of course, sense the subject is the true nature of the Church, it is a matter of concern for all Christians – for the Church is not a matter of taste or personal preference – it is Divine and properly deserving an article of the Creed. I ask my readers’ indulgence for the length – it is actually a series of articles published as one. But I think the subject worth time and effort. I will add that recent conversation here about evangelism is proper to this topic as well. Our salvation – like the Church itself – is properly brought about by the Cross of Christ. The character of the Cross, as discussed in the following article, is also, I would think, the correct way to think about evangelism. The mystery of the Cross lies at the heart of every point of the faith.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scripturapoor or no ecclesiology, and theentrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weaknessand is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points: 

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

 The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

The Ecclesiology of the Cross

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The following article is a series I wrote during the early months of the blog. I think it worth reprinting (surely people aren’t going back to read everything I’ve written). It is also available in the “Pages” section of the blog. If you’ve read it before I hope you enjoy rereading it – if not, I hope you find it useful or worth some thought.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points: 

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

 The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

What Theology Looks Like – Revisited

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This was first posted back in May. It’s subject seemed to me quite germane to the topic of the relationship between theology “lived” and theology as “academic” which has arisen in the comments of the recent post on Fr. John Behr’s work. It recounts a story and reflection in my life that the topic always brings me back to. Theology is, finally, always lived, for all of our books will eventually perish, but the imperishable (our life in Christ) will be raised to reign with Him in glory. For those who have read this before, I hope it will bear the re-reading.

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Some seventeen years ago (I cannot believe it has been that long) I became a “dropout” of sorts, withdrawing formally from the PhD program at Duke University and converting my studies into material for an M.A. in theology. The story is more convoluted and personal than I would care to share in this public forum. But I recall a conversation I had with Stanley Hauerwas, who was one of the Professors on my Committee (as they say).

My greatest concentrated work had been under Geoffrey Wainwright, as gentle and gentlemanly a scholar as I have ever had the pleasure to know, and a great guide in all of my studies. It was he that directed me towards the theology of icons – the subject which eventually became the topic of my thesis.

But Hauerwas is one of those figures whom you cannot brush aside or place in the background. Time Magazine dubbed him “America’s Greatest Theologian” (which I’m sure would meet with some argument in some quarters) but it certainly underlines the power of his voice when he speaks (which incidentally includes some of the twang of his Texas roots and a wit that is exceedingly sharp, occasionally crossing the point of propriety). I’ll just be blunt – Stanley has had a tendency to cuss.

I came to appreciate his theology far more when I was no longer in his classroom, surrounded by Hauerwasian devotees who could leave my mind behind in the dust of their quick jaunts through the world of “Post-Wittgensteinian, sectarian Tribalism” (as Hauerwas’ theology was characterized at one point). In my post-Duke musings, I found I needed to confront and digest much that I heard from him and realized that there were points where I would have to agree.

But the conversation which I have in mind concerned my leaving the “program.” I was returning to parish work. In discussing this with Hauerwas I said to him, “I’m leaving the academy (Duke) so that I can do theology” (the parish).  There was no argument from him, but a quick understanding that a parish is what theology looks like (at least in very important points).

Theology that is limited to words in a book (or on a blog) is certainly words – but not really the substance that constitutes theology. We may speak of God, or speak of the Church, but God is not speech nor speech the Church.

Hauerwas, in jargon that became a familiar part of classroom debates, would challenge a student’s argument with the question: “How is that displayed?” I grew weary of the jargon, but the question remained. When you say something about God or about the Church, what does it actually look like? It was a question that had a way of clearing the abstractions and forcing us to reality.

The same, of course, has to be a question placed to our own lives. What does my life look like? What is the character of my existence? Is there anything in my life that could be used as evidence for the truth of the Christian gospel?

I cannot credit myself with pursuing a line of thought faithfully in the years after Duke. Instead, I would have to say that I was myself pursued. “If you believe this is the truth – how is it displayed?” Despite my dislike of the jargon, the question would still come back. “What does the truth look like?”

Eventually (and this is making something quite complex sound too simple) the question took the shape of the Orthodox faith. I should not only say “eventually” but also “inevitably” for that conclusion was already at work to some measure before I ever left my studies. I was writing on the theology of icons, after all.

But the answer still had the same general shape. I left academic theology for the theology that is the parish church – and eventually for the theology that is an Orthodox parish church. The life of a parish is not an abstraction, a theology removed from that about which it speaks – it is, whether well done or not, an embodiment of the life of Christ – His Body, in the language of Scripture. And in that context the whole of the gospel comes to bear. The life of love, of forgiveness, of mercy, of patience, of union with Christ in everything, is finally lived out in a community of people or it remains but an abstraction of speech.

The challenges of that community are simply the challenge of a broken world as it meets the fullness of Christ (in the best of times) and still the broken world meeting the fullness of Christ (in the worst of times).

The worst of temptations in parish life is to live as something less than the Body of Christ. To institutionalize in the worst sense of the word is to bury Christ beneath the sociology of American organizational life. Coming out of that rubble is one of the most serious tasks facing Orthodox Christian communities (I cannot speak for any other community and only speak of the Orthodox community as a member – not as its official spokesman). “How is the forgiving, unrelenting love of Christ to be displayed in the community of which I am a part?” This may be the only serious theological question of our lives. It certainly is a question that cannot be ignored. It is what theology looks like.

I would add this further thought to my reflection. Every seminary graduate, though trained in theology, will eventually return to parish life in some setting. Sometimes as a sudden shock, sometimes as a breath of fresh air, each will learn that the task of “doing theology” has really only just begun. When the phone rings in the middle of the night the grace of lived theology will be the only grace that matters. Thank God, such grace is given abundantly.

Hopko on the Cross of Christ

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An excerpt from Fr. Thomas Hopko’s commencement address at St. Vladimir’s. The whole is the address is exquisitely true and I would encourage you to read all of it. The link to the whole commencement address is given at the bottom of this post.

…I can tell you that being loved by God, and loving Him in return, is the greatest joy given to creatures, and that without it there is no real and lasting happiness for humanity.

And I can also tell you, alas, that such loving is always a violent, brutal and bloody affair.

The God who is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, who gives us his divine life and peace and joy forever, is first of all the Divine Lover who wounds His beloved, and then hides from her, hoping to be sought and found. He is the Father who chastens and disciplines His children. He is the Vinekeeper who cuts and prunes His vines so that they bear much fruit. He is the Jeweler who burns His gold in His divine fire so that it would be purged of all impurities. And He is the Potter who continually smashes and refashions and re-bakes His muddy clay so that it can be the earthen vessel that He wants it to be, capable of bearing His own transcendent grace and power and glory and peace.

…I learned that all of these terrible teachings of the Holy Scriptures and the saints are real and true. And so I became convinced that God’s Gospel in His Son Jesus is really and truly God’s final act on earth. It is the act in which God’s Word is now not simply inscribed in letters on pages of parchment, but is personally incarnate as a human being in his own human body and blood. And so I became convinced of the truth of all truths: that the ultimate revelation of God as Love and the ultimate revelation of humanity’s love for God, are to be found in the bloody corpse of a dead Jew, hanging on a cross between two criminals, outside the walls of Jerusalem, executed at the hands of Gentiles, by the instigation of his own people’s leaders, in the most painful, cursed, shameful and wretched death that a human being — and especially a Jew – can possibly die.

So to the measure that we are honest and faithful, and try to keep God’s commandments, and repent for our failures and sins, we come to know, and to know ever more clearly and deeply as time goes by, what we have learned here at St. Vladimir’s. We come to know by experience that the Word of God (ho logos tou theou) is always and necessarily the word of the Cross (ho logos tou stavrou). And — in language befitting a commencement ceremony at an Orthodox graduate school of theology — we come to see that true theologia is always stavrologia. And real orthodoxia is always paradoxia. And that there is no theosis without kenosis.

Theology is stavrology and Orthodoxy is paradoxy: the almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification without degradation; and no life without death. We learn, in a word, the truth of the early Christian hymn recorded in Holy Scripture:

If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure with him, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself. (2Tim 2.11-13)

According to the Gospel, therefore, those who wish to be wise are constrained to be fools. Those who would be great become small. Those who would be first put themselves last. Those who rule, serve as slaves. Those who would be rich make themselves poor. Those who want to be strong become weak. And those who long to find and fulfill themselves as persons deny and empty themselves for the sake of the Gospel. And, finally, and most important of all, those who want really to live have really to die. They voluntarily die, in truth and in love, to everyone and everything that is not God and of God.

And so, once again, if we have learned anything at all in our theological education, spiritual formation and pastoral service, we have learned to beware, and to be wary, of all contentment, consolation and comfort before our co-crucifixion in love with Christ. We have learned that though we can know about God through formal theological education, we can only come to know God by taking up our daily crosses with patient endurance in love with Jesus. And we can only do this by faith and grace through the Holy Spirit’s abiding power.

A reminder you can read the rest here.

What Theology Looks Like

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Some seventeen years ago (I cannot believe it has been that long) I became a “dropout” of sorts, withdrawing formally from the PhD program at Duke University and converting my studies into material for an M.A. in theology. The story is more convoluted and personal than I would care to share in this public forum. But I recall a conversation I had with Stanley Hauerwas, who was one of the Professors on my Committee (as they say).

My greatest concentrated work had been under Geoffrey Wainwright, as gentle and gentlemanly a scholar as I have ever had pleasure to know, and a great guide in all of my studies. It was he that directed me towards the theology of icons – the subject which eventually became the topic of my thesis.

But Hauerwas is one of those figures whom you cannot brush aside or place in the background. Time Magazine dubbed him “America’s Greatest Theologian” (which I’m sure would meet with some argument in some quarters) but it certainly underlines the power of his voice when he speaks (which incidentally includes some of the twang of his Texas roots and a wit that is exceedingly sharp, occasionally crossing the point of propriety). I’ll just be blunt – Stanley has had a tendency to cuss.

I came to appreciate his theology far more when I was no longer in his classroom, surrounded by Hauerwasian devotees who could leave my mind behind in the dust of their quick jaunts through the world of “Post-Wittgensteinian, sectarian Tribalism” (as Hauerwas’ theology was characterized at one point). In my post-Duke musings, I found I needed to confront and digest much that I heard from him and realized that there were points where I would have to agree.

But the conversation which I have in mind concerned my leaving the “program.” I was returning to parish work. In discussing this with Hauerwas I said to him, “I’m leaving the academy (Duke) so that I can do theology” (the parish).  There was no argument from him, but a quick understanding that a parish is what theology looks like (at least in very important points).

Theology that is limited to words in a book (or on a blog) is certainly words – but not really the substance that constitutes theology. We may speak of God, or speak of the Church, but God is not speech nor speech the Church.

Hauerwas, in jargon that became a familiar part of classroom debates, would challenge a student’s argument with the question: “How is that displayed?” I grew weary of the jargon, but the question remained. When you say something about God or about the Church, what does it actually look like? It was a question that had a way of clearing the abstractions and forcing us to reality.

The same, of course, has to be a question placed to our own lives. What does my life look like? What is the character of my existence? Is there anything in my life that could be used as evidence for the truth of the Christian gospel?

I cannot credit myself with pursuing a line of thought faithfully in the years after Duke. Instead, I would have to say that I was myself pursued. “If you believe this is the truth – how is it displayed?” Despite my dislike of the jargon, the question would still come back. “What does the truth look like?”

Eventually (and this is making something quite complex sound too simple) the question took the shape of the Orthodox faith. I should not only say “eventually” but also “inevitably” for that conclusion was already at work to some measure before I ever left my studies. I was writing on the theology of icons, after all.

But the answer still had the same general shape. I left academic theology for the theology that is the parish church – and eventually for the theology that is an Orthodox parish church. The life of a parish is not an abstraction, a theology removed from that about which it speaks – it is, whether well done or not, an embodiment of the life of Christ – His Body, in the language of Scripture. And in that context the whole of the gospel comes to bear. The life of love, of forgiveness, of mercy, of patience, of union with Christ in everything, is finally lived out in a community of people or it remains but an abstraction of speech.

The challenges of that community are simply the challenge of a broken world as it meets the fullness of Christ (in the best of times) and still the broken world meeting the fullness of Christ (in the worst of times).

The worst of temptations in parish life is to live as something less than the Body of Christ. To institutionalize in the worst sense of the word is to bury Christ beneath the sociology of American organizational life. Coming out of that rubble is one of the most serious tasks facing Orthodox Christian communities (I cannot speak for any other community and only speak of the Orthodox community as a member – not as its official spokesman). “How is the forgiving, unrelenting love of Christ to be displayed in the community of which I am a part?” This may be the only serious theological question of our lives. It certainly is a question that cannot be ignored. It is what theology looks like.

Ecclesiology of the Cross

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

The Ecclesiology of the Cross – The Pillar and Ground of Truth – Part 4

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We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

 The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

Ecclesiology of the Cross – The Pillar and Ground of Truth – Part 2

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I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Singing the Lord’s Song

In my first parish as an Anglican priest, I approached my first Midnight Mass with eager anticipation. I was trained “High Church,” with a very traditional liturgical emphasis – but I was serving in a “Low Church” parish. I was the first priest in their history to wear Eucharistic vestments as a normal practice. But it was common, even in Low Church areas, for the Midnight Mass to be “High.” Thus, I worked with the choir and we had our first “sung” mass – one in which the priest chants many of its parts. It was well-received, without controversy. But one teenager’s comment was enlightening and spoke volumes.

“It was spooky!” She said. I quickly ascertained that she meant “frightening” rather than some new meaning of the word rendered in youth-speak. I was puzzled until, after more conversation, I realized that she associated chanting with magic and witches and spells. It was not a response driven by any ideology or doctrine – it was a true cultural artifact. How did chanting come to have such a perception in the modern world?

At a certain point in Western Civilization, words came to triumph over all other forms of cultural and intellectual expression. Some of this is the natural place of words. The Western Catholic tradition developed a “low mass” tradition fairly early on – a Divine Liturgy that was spoken rather than sung, though the “high mass” continued to be normative. The Protestant Reformation did little to change music (other than to discontinue any use of chanting) but did much to elevate the spoken word even over the sacraments and the Cross. The practice of chanting made its continued decline towards dark associations and ridicule.

Music has traditionally had a somewhat suspect place within Christianity (even in the East). A number of the fathers, following the Desert tradition, were wary of the power of music and its ability to arouse the passions in a negative manner. They by no means championed the spoken word over chanted prayer (chanted prayers were considered normative), but were concerned about melody and harmony and the use of musical instruments. Christianity was non-instrumental for many centuries, and remains so in Orthodox tradition (with very rare exceptions). But despite some reservations, music came to have a dogmatic and canonical place within Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is sung.

Hymns were part of the faith from the very beginning. There are hymns embedded within the New Testament itself (Philippians 2:5-11 is among the most famous). St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:

…speak within yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (Eph 5:19-20)

Our modern assumptions immediately leap to the text of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. For it is the words we value and not the music. We fail to see the value in singing.

Music is more than a vehicle for words. There are things that can be done with music that cannot be done with speech. The Church teaches that the purpose of our life with God is union. Our experience of speech is always isolating – only one can speak at a time. But in music, a song frequently contains many voices. And many voices can become one voice without ceasing to be many. The experience of harmony and its relationship to communion is probably more apt as a descriptor than anything else we know. The very common use of a drone note within Orthodox hymnody acts as a musical expression and experience of communion that spoken words simply cannot attain.

Music offers far more possible ways for considering the nature of being than most other images. The soul is the song of the self (my phrase). The universe, existing as vibration and energy-in-motion is itself best described as a song. It’s musical nature even goes far to explain the mathematical character of reality (music is what numbers sound like).

Ancient Greek philosophy gave careful thought to music. Pythagoras was famous as mathematician, as musician and as mystic, all of which were combined as a “philosophy.” Plato imagined in his Republic an educational system that required musical training “for the sake of the soul.” It is in such a culture that the Fathers lived and taught. We should presuppose such thought whenever we read their writings.

St. Augustine, in a work largely ignored today, wrote a treatise on music, De Musica, in the early years of his conversion. It is as much a classical treatment of pure music theory as any ancient example. Such an interest would have seemed perfectly natural to him within the context of his theology. Music was an indispensable part of all philosophical consideration.

If the “soul is a song,” then how we sing and what we sing is deeply important. The reticence of the early fathers regarding the music of their own culture is probably far more apropos today. Music can be violent (sit next to a sub-woofer at a stoplight). Music can and does rouse any and all of the passions. Consumer culture is driven by advertising, which makes use of its ability to manipulate us according to our passions. Music, some as inane as a mind-numbing jingle, is deeply part of that process. It is interesting to note that the heretic Arius drove the popularity of his false doctrine through the writing of “catchy” little songs. Much of contemporary Christian music is driven by the same passionate understanding that reigns in consumer culture. The sentiments created by music are made to substitute for the true sound of the soul. Such music becomes a distortion of our very humanity.

But music is also a primary path to union with God. The spiritual life can rightly be described as a search for the “Lord’s song,” that music which is uniquely the song of our life intended to be offered in union with God’s song of creation. It is interesting to me that one of the properties of sound is that is causes objects to vibrate that belong to its frequency. Such “sympathetic vibrations” are a metaphor for aspects of the spiritual life that have no other natural example.

“Deep calls unto deep,” the Psalmist says (42:7). The sound of God echoes within us, because we are made in His image. The frequency of the voice of God calls forth a sympathetic sound within us. The Church teaches that bells are “icons of the voice of God.” In our prayers, it is possible to become lost in the words. It is import to remember to sing – and to do so often.

This blog is posted as part of the ministry of Ancient Faith Ministries. This umbrella of ministries includes other blogs, podcasts and recorded lectures, the book publishing work of Ancient Faith Publishing, and, most especially, Ancient Faith Radio. There can be no true exploration of Orthodoxy or presentation of the faith that ignores music. It is good to read, but it may be even better to listen. And it may be better still to sing. That, of course, happens most wonderfully and primarily in the assembly of the Church. There the deep voice of God calls us to lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving and to join with the sound of all creation.

Glory to God.

Beauty and Iconoclasm – Where We Find God

Every human being is an icon of God…so iconoclasm is a much larger matter than smashing statues and such. It also includes the hatred of others and the injustice that grinds them into the dust. The quiet iconoclasm of poverty and the like are insidious in that they’re so quiet they look like an act of nature. Iconoclasm can only be overcome through love, the love of the beauty of the image of God wherever it is found.”  – from a comment I posted on social media this morning.

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Scenes of statues toppling and pictures of defaced public spaces can be disturbing. Sometimes, they can be exhilarating. I recall watching statues of Lenin and Stalin fall during the collapse of the various Communist states. It felt like freedom. I also recall my dismay during my first trip to Greece where nearly every public wall and monument (Church and otherwise) is covered in graffiti. There is an instinct at work surrounding images (both their making and their destruction) – one that is profoundly religious in nature. As such, it has the capacity to save us or to destroy us. But make no mistake – it is filled with power.

Not all Christians care for icons. Some positively despise them. But none of them can deny the power of the image (icon) itself. “Image” is the word used to describe the very act of human creation. We are created according to the “image and likeness” of God. No other statement enshrines the dignity and true worth of human beings in such an inarguable manner. It puts a stamp of ultimacy on our very existence. Not only are we described as having been created in the image of God, but our salvation itself is portrayed as a return to the fullness of that image as we behold the face of Christ.

But we are also “smashers” (iconoclasts). When Rome defeated Carthage in 146 BC, it leveled the city. Some say that they even plowed the ground and sowed it with salt, consigning the space to oblivion. In 70 A.D. Rome destroyed Jerusalem, along with its temple. Today, in order to reach the streets of Jerusalem upon which Jesus walked, you have to dig deep underground – what stands on top represents much later construction. Such actions seem to have a role of “catharsis” or “cleansing,” in which an enemy is not only defeated but erased. Who hasn’t wanted to do such a thing to the memory of a hurt that haunts? We hear it echoed in St. Paul’s prayer that “God will speedily crush down Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). We not only want Satan to be defeated – we want him erased.

We have to recognize both impulses within us (the love of icons and their smashing) to come to grips with the whole of who we are meant to be. At its deepest level, we do not understand icons until we understand beauty and its crucial role in our existence. The love of beauty and our desire for it are the most fundamental parts of our being. This is particularly true if we use the word “beauty” in the fullest sense of its meaning. Beauty encompasses being and truth as well. It is God’s word for His creation (usually translated as “good,” the word in Scriptures also means “beautiful”). That which is beautiful and good is reflective (iconic) of the God who created it. All of creation longs for union with this Beauty and groans for it to be made manifest.

In the life of the Church, the making of icons begins early, possibly in its very beginning. Israel already made a careful use of images (some are prescribed for use in the Temple itself). St. Paul, and others following him, elevated a “theology of the image” into a central place in Christology and the doctrine of salvation. There were already hints of this theology in some of the writings of the Second Temple period. The fulfillment of the image of God in Christ allowed the veil to be torn away from that mystery and its clear form to be discerned.

Nevertheless, the drive towards iconoclasm has remained rooted in our hearts. Every sin against another human being is a form of iconoclasm. Violence is probably its most dangerous form, although every sin against another carries an element of violence within it (Matt. 5:21-22). We are experiencing an unprecedented display of public anger and iconoclasm in our cities and news cycles. Of course, the quiet iconoclasm of injustice has far deeper and long-lasting effects. The one does not justify the other. Injustice added to injustice only adds up to injustice. That we might understand it does not change its nature.

The Church’s witness to icons and their veneration is, ultimately, a witness to beauty. It is also a witness to the only path of salvation, both for individuals and the world as a whole. St. Augustine described the work of salvation as the “City of God.” And though we idealize the natural setting of a home in the wilderness, it is the image of a city that the Scriptures use to describe salvation. St. Paul writes:

“But our citizenship [“politeuma” πολίτευμα] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”(Philippians 3:20–21)

The word “politeuma,” translated as “citizenship,” is formed from the word, “polis,” or “city.” Citizenship is the “place where we have our “city-ness”).

It is the New Jerusalem that we await (Rev. 22:2), a “city whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Cities require human relationships and exist well when the beauty and health of those relationships is foremost in its planning and execution. Cities whose inner being exists only for economic profit serve as images of a god, Mammon, and its people begin to resemble slaves.

The building of cities, in this highest sense of the word, is a construction of “city-ness,” an icon of the city that is to come. This is not a call for utopianism, but a recognition that there are holy patterns given to us that make for a greater wholeness in our lives. This is hard work. Iconoclasm and destruction are the work of a moment, driven by passion and the darkest places in our hearts. Anybody can smash. To make something beautiful takes care, love, and attention to detail. It is a work of holy living.

In the great wash of news stories of the past weeks, an image of beauty came across my desk that was encouraging. In Atlanta, scene of many racial tensions through the years, also the site of an egregious racial killing in recent days, there was a march on Juneteenth (a date marking the end of slavery). It was sponsored by One Race, an organization founded by black and white pastors in the Atlanta area back in 2017. They have been doing a slow work of common prayer, common discussions, and common understanding towards the healing of racial sins and the union of the faithful. They profess that only in Christ can such sins be overcome. On that day, some 15,000 faithful gathered for a peaceful march to lift up Christ and to profess their common faith and love for one another. It was encouraging because it was not simply a passion of the moment, but the fruit of three years of patient work, something that will likely continue for some time to come. When the news cycle easily leads toward despair, it is good to see so many knees that bow to Christ walking together and professing faith in the city whose builder and maker is God.

The opposite of iconoclasm is “iconodulia” (the honoring of icons). At its heart, iconodulia is the love of true beauty. This love is quite the opposite of the drive towards iconoclasm. Iconoclasm need love nothing: the will to destruction is entirely sufficient to provide motivation and energy. In the end, it might yield nothing more than nothing-at-all, an emptiness of fruitless effort that collapses back on itself. It is not life-giving. Iconodulia requires inward attention as well as outward responsibility. It is slow and requires patience. Some efforts of beauty can be so great that they survive for millennia and more. The beauty of Hagia Sophia (for example) continues not only in that single, striking building, but in the thousands of echoes that have shaped so many Orthodox temples since. It’s power lies in the fact that its beauty reaches beyond itself towards a greater Beauty that only God can build. As such, it is echoed in every element of beauty that we find in nature as well.

Such beauty requires people who live beautiful lives. They need neither wealth nor power, only the living icon of the Logos to be manifest in their being. It is the secret to Christian “civilization” – not an empire maintained by force of arms or economic power. Rather Christian civilization is the politeuma of the heavenly city that is continually reborn in the heart of every Baptism. That city is built in the heart. It is there that we repent and there that we forgive. It is there that we find within us the image of the city that God has already prepared for us.

Everybody is an Expert

 

The spirit of democracy runs deep in the modern world. I describe this as a “spirit” in that it is clearly a passion, a delusional state of mind in which we imagine something to be true when it is not. One simple example of this delusion is the level of expertise imagined across the culture on pretty much every topic. The vast majority of such expertise is nothing more than opinion, often based in faulty assumptions with little to no experience behind them. The delusion rises to something of a dangerous level when we consider how certain people are of the rightness of their opinions.

St. Dionysius the Areopagite is said to have invented the word “hierarchy.” For him, the word described the “holy order” (the actual meaning of “hierarchy”) of the universe. The universe, he observed, does not only exist – it exists with an order and a structure. That order and structure serve to reveal God and His good will at work in all things. St. Dionysius famously described the structure, or hierarchy of the angels, with a detailed exposition of the nine ranks. Equally, he saw in the Divine Liturgy a structured revelation of our relationship with God, exemplified in the roles of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon, as well as the patterns within the Liturgy itself. His vision of creation could not be less democratic.

Certain aspects of St. Dionysius’ writings have deeply disturbed modern readers. He is sometimes accused of being a “Gnostic,” in that he intimates a knowledge being handed down through ranks of hierarchy until reaching the faithful. It appears to suggest that we can only approach God through these mediating levels. This is, in fact, not true. He nowhere suggests that the knowledge of God is restricted to such mediation. Indeed, true union with God, in a classical Orthodox manner, is the single goal of his writing.

What is true, however, is St. Dionysius’ recognition of the hierarchical structure of reality itself, and his peace with it. Our democratic worldview encourages suspicion of every mediating structure in our lives. We have to hear things “from the horse’s mouth,” even though most of the information that lays claim to such authority is bogus.

Orthodox Christianity is replete with hierarchical structures, the very ones described by St. Dionysius. At the same time, our hearts have been shaped in a decidedly anti-hierarchical culture. Just as the printing press gave universal access to the Scriptures (and to an explosion in new interpretative schemes) so the internet has given universal access to Patristic and theological writings providing cut-and-paste wisdom for the masses. Orthodoxy often widens the scope of authority for its converts, but, by and large, the same modernist spirit of omni-competency remains unattended.

Strangely, this gives rise to a paradox. In order to become wise, we must first become fools. The most valuable knowledge of all is the knowledge of what we don’t know. The Fathers followed a path of apophatic theology (theology that cannot be spoken). It is a path towards knowing the Unknowable. However, we cannot know the Unknowable without first acknowledging that we do not know what we do not know.

A simple place to begin is to recognize the passions that accompany our opinions. We not only imagine ourselves to know things, but we feel deeply and strongly about these imaginations. Often, such “opinionism” is a mask for shame. In a world where everyone is an expert, we experience shame at our own ignorance. We mask our ignorance with authority (such as the Scriptures or the Fathers). Just because you read it doesn’t mean you know it. Failing to understand this inevitably means that we have not yet learned how to read. The greatest benefit to be found in reading is not in finding answers; the benefit is in finding questions.

Christ describes the fundamental attitude of the righteous heart when He says:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7–8)

Such words fall on deaf ears. We live in a culture that demands rather than asks, that has already “found” it, and that is self-appointed as the keeper of all doors.

There is, of course, a form of “weaponized” ignorance, where “not knowing” is used as a means of denying all answers and refusing to knock at any door. It is often the case that such weaponized ignorance is quickly followed by an assertion of an alternative knowledge. Those who claim that our ignorance of God justifies every attempt to “re-imagine” Him are simply disingenuous.

There is a shame in not-knowing. The willingness to bear that shame is the root of humility. The path of true humility is a means of grace, without which it is impossible to know anything.

God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. James 4:6

The Liturgies of America

I will be far from the first to observe that football in America has a sort of religious cast. If “liturgy” means a “work of the people,” then football is its clearest manifestation in our culture. When a team wins, there is a deep, abiding sense within its fans that “we won.” The constant use of “we” through public discussions indicates that we experience this sport as something in which we “participate” – it is an act of communion. To some degree, it is the most profound act of communion within our culture.

Though it is true that far more people attend Church than attend football games, it is nonetheless true that football draws a wider, more “ecumenical” audience. Basketball lost a hero a week or so ago with the sudden death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter accident. A nation needs public liturgies in which to honor the dead and to mourn. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Superbowl, though dedicated to a different sport, saw fit to make just such a remembrance.

The ancient meaning of “liturgy” referred to a public work. For example, in ancient Athens, during times of war, it was not unusual for the rich to donate the cost of building a warship. Such a donation was known as a “liturgy,” a “public work,” or, “a work for the people.” There were other such donations. The expenses for a large public event such as the feasting and the sacrifices that accompanied a major celebration would be a “liturgy.” It is rather interesting that this word came to be the one used by the Church to designate its public worship services.

The role played by public ceremonies is among the oldest aspects of human civilization. It has varied from culture to culture and from culture-god to culture-god. Maintaining the assurance of divine blessing was but one concern. The other, more to my point, was the public participation in the mystery of communal existence. Individualism is a very modern thing. Most societies have been marked far more by their sense of participation in the whole. I think that modern individualism is a bit of a thin veneer that masks a much deeper, darker participation in society as a whole. For, in truth, we cannot survive as mere individuals: we are sustained by our place within a larger scheme.

What do people gain from their place within a larger scheme? We derive purpose, meaning (for a time), sometimes forgiveness and atonement. Note that I am discussing all of these things in terms of anthropology. Any religion, any public liturgy, can do these things. If they do not, we find new ones. If I make a distinction regarding the liturgies of the Christian Church (such as those of the Orthodox) it is that they represent a public work that is rooted and grounded in the work of Christ as received in Holy Tradition. As such, they are not examples of our modern cultural liturgies.

Many people will be unaware that the American Congress used to call for national days of fasting during times of crisis. In March of 1863, the Congress and the President called on the nation to pray and do acts of “humiliation” (fasting), in repentance for our sins, with a view that the civil war taking place was, perhaps, a just punishment for the nation’s sins. Times have changed.

I had a recent conversation with a friend about the impossibility of national repentance in America, for the simple reason that there is no way to publicly liturgize such a thing. In truth, our liturgies have become strange agglomerations of prayer/patriotism/sports. This year’s Superbowl had a moment (ever so brief) of silence for Kobe Bryant and the other victims of his helicopter crash. It had an intense period of patriotism where both America the Beautiful and the National Anthem were sung, complete with presentation of the flag and a military flyover.

I have served military funerals now and again, always with a sense of awkwardness. There is nothing lacking in the funeral rites of the Orthodox Church (nor were there any particular lacunae in the Anglican funerals I served for 20 years before my conversion). The addition of military ritual, which is exceedingly stiff, and modeled, quite likely, on those of the Masons, always seemed rather jarring. It’s just awkward. America is a country, not a belief.

Public liturgy is particularly difficult for a nation that has slowly changed the notion of “secular” into the absence of religion, or anything readily identified as such. The emotional needs of the nation have not changed – only its way of expressing them.

The Superbowl generally represents the largest television audience for a single event in the year. Many games have some of the same liturgical elements: patriotism with a dash of remembrance. Oddly church services in some circles have added the same elements. When the 4th of July falls on a Sunday, many churches have services in which strictly patriotic hymns are sung. A Baptist Church in a nearby town has 2nd Amendment rallies (bring your guns).

I have twice lived in towns where the local college team won a national championship. It is difficult to describe the euphoria that settles in following such an achievement. Locally, Tennessee last won a national championship in 1998 and has fallen on hard times. The magic of the autumn Saturday liturgies has begun to wane with attendance in decline as well. America (and her liturgies) wants winners.

In truth, patriotic narratives are simply too thin to sustain human existence.

The gradual rise in what would become modernity occurred at the same time as the rise of the nation state. Over time, the nation state has been the focus of modernity’s hopes. If we harness our collective will (we imagine), we can build a better world. As such, patriotism has become the religious expression of modernity (complete with the occasional refrain of “God shed His grace on Thee”). Prayers for the state (as well as strongly-held political opinions) seem to expect that the state will be the focus and engine of worldly well-being. Providence has been delegated to the democratic process. We only want the future we choose.

Of course, all of this is inadequate. Vote as we will, the future will not be controlled. We cannot vote to make ourselves good (much less better). Without a virtuous community, the future will stand little chance of being virtuous. With great frustration we will greet a future that bears a remarkable resemblance to ourselves (the truth of ourselves). Without such a future, there would be little basis for self-knowledge and repentance.

America does not have a liturgy of repentance. The days of fasting once enjoined upon us are a thing of the past. Even then, for all the prayers and fasting of Lincoln’s republic, no particular liturgy ever marked the end of slavery, much less sought to repent for its evils. To this day, many seek to justify its history.

When the Soviet Union fell, within a few short years, Russians began to create memorials and liturgies for the atrocities of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, at the killing fields of Butovo, a Church now stands as a memorial to its victims. Public liturgies are held there on a regular basis. It is one of many such memorials across the country.

Our public narrative is very thin. The Church historian, Martin Marty, once said that American Christianity was “2,000 miles wide and 2 inches deep.” When our Christian theology mimics the triumphant patriotism of our culture, nothing deeper ever begins. Depth comes with suffering. Suffering creates sorrow, and sorrow, of a godly sort, produces repentance.

We are bad at enough stuff and have a history sufficiently marked with sorrow to create fertile ground for repentance. It lacks the humility to greet it.

It is ever so much more than a game.

Venerating Icons – It’s So Much Other Than You Think

In 1991, I sat in a room at Duke University with Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanely Hauerwas, and Susan O’Keefe. The purpose was the defense of my thesis, “The Icon as Theology.” I was an Episcopal priest, who was turning his doctoral work in Systematic Theology into an M.A. and heading back to parish life (a long story, that). The defense was friendly, thorough, with few surprises. The one major surprise, of course, came from Hauerwas. His question caught me off-guard in that it left behind academic questions and became intensely personal (that’s typical Hauerwas – there are no hiding places). His question was straight-forward:

“Do you believe the veneration of icons to be necessary for salvation?”

The loaded part of the question was quite intentional on his part. Anglican priests take an oath at their ordination that “I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain all things necessary to salvation.” It had been drilled into me at a certain point in my life and my answer should have been a knee-jerk repetition of my vow. Instead, I was mute. What he had done was to bring me to see something my soul had pushed into the background. What was interesting and academic was suddenly revealed to be a matter of existential authenticity. What did I believe?

After a time of quiet, I stammered out my answer:

“I know that my oath of ordination says that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation. However, I believe that the veneration of icons is necessary to its fullness.”

It was the first time the thought had occurred to me. In truth, it would be some years before I fully understood what I had just said. My response was more a matter of instinct than understanding. I knew it was true. I was not entirely sure how. The upshot of that day came the next morning. I woke up with a clarity of soul. I knelt by my bed and prayed, “Oh God, make me Orthodox.” I meant two things by that: first, I wanted to become Orthodox; second, God was going to have to make me. That second point was simply my awareness of my own cowardice and the duplicity of my soul. It was not an act of bravery or noble conversion. It was an acquiescence in the face of what I now saw to be true. At least half of me wished it weren’t so. The rest of me was willing to be dragged into the Kingdom of God. It took seven years for that prayer to be fulfilled. There were heel marks on the entire length of the path.

Here are some mature reflections on the act of veneration:

No spiritual activity permeates Orthodoxy as much as veneration. For the non-Orthodox, veneration is often mistaken for worship. We kiss icons; sing hymns to saints; cry out “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” And all of this scandalizes the non-Orthodox who think we have fallen into some backwater of paganized Christianity. It is not unusual to hear Orthodox who more or less apologize for this activity and seek to minimize it. “We are only trying to give honor to the saints, etc.” What is lacking, all too often, is a vigorous explanation for the work of veneration and its central place in the Christian life.

The normal mode of “seeing” in our daily world can be called “objective.” We see things as objects, and nothing more. Indeed, we see most people as objects unless we have reason to do otherwise. Sometimes we see people as objects in order not to see them as otherwise. But this objective viewing is an extremely limited and limiting way of seeing anything. Veneration brings us to a different form of seeing.

It is carefully noted in the accounts of Christ’s resurrection that he is unrecognized at first, and on more than one occasion. Mary Magdalen mistakes Him for the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus talk with Him while they are walking but do not recognize Him until the moment at which He disappears. The disciples who are fishing do not recognize Him until after they have a miraculous catch of fish.

The silliest explanations of these failures to recognize are the ones that try to attribute it to grief. The stories clearly have something else in mind. This “something else” is particularly revealed in Christ’s encounter with Mary Magdalen. She thinks He is the gardener and wants to know to where the body of Jesus has been moved. But suddenly this “gardener” calls her by name, “Mary.” And she recognizes Him.

What has taken place is the change from an objective seeing to a personal seeing. It is only in the realm of personhood that we experience communion. We do not and cannot commune with “mere” objects. The Resurrection, among many things, represents the triumph of the personal over the objective. The Resurrected Christ cannot be seen in an objective manner, or, at least, He cannot be seen for who He is in such a manner. It would be more accurate, or helpful, to say that He is discerned, or perceived, rather than merely seen. Both “discerned” and “perceived” imply something more from the observer than simple seeing. (In truth, “seeing” should be more than “mere seeing.” In Greek, the verb, “to know,” is derived from a root meaning “to see.”)

Veneration is far more than the acts of bowing, kissing, crossing oneself, offering incense or lighting candles. Those things become veneration when they are offered towards the person who is made present in an icon. An icon that becomes an object ceases to be a true icon and becomes mere art, or worse, the object of a fetish. The Fathers taught that an “icon makes present that which it represents.” The veneration of an icon is an encounter with a person.

It is worth noting that in one of the better treatments of the theology of icons – saints are generally painted “face-to-face” rather than in profile. Judas and demons are frequently seen depicted in profile, on the other hand. There are exceptions to this rule, some by the hands of very competent iconographers. Nonetheless, the general observation remains important. We encounter persons, as person, face-to-face. The impersonal, objective treatment of another person is an act of shaming and inherently hides our own face from them.

At some point, the Church’s use of iconography became distorted and became the Church’s use of art. Art is interesting and serves the end of beauty (when done well). But this development in the Church (primarily in the West, and occasionally in the East as well, as certain styles were copied) represents a turning away from the icon as encounter and the objectification of human beings and nature. It is among the many serious steps that created the notion of a secularized world.

Jesus, as an artistic subject, is equally accessible to all. His use in art renders Him as object. Indeed, Jesus is frequently used to “make a statement.” But this is the anti-icon, the betrayal of the personal as made known to us in the Resurrection. Christ becomes historicized, just one object among many to be dissected and discussed.

Of course, Christians are free. We may decorate our lives with art as we choose so long as we don’t confuse art with iconography, nor religious sentiment with spiritual encounter. But our engagement with art can easily overtake our experience of icons. Our culture knows how to “see” art, but icons remain opaque. Only the true act of veneration reveals what is made present in an icon.

I can recall my first experience with an icon. I had bought a print from St. Vladimir’s and mounted it. I would have it in front of me during my prayer time. I would look and think, and look harder. I think I expected to “see” something or for there to be a trail of thoughts inspired by my looking. But it was simply empty. I was a young college-age Anglican at the time and had no idea how to find my way into the world of an icon.

Some decades later, I became Orthodox, having written a Master’s thesis on the theology of icons and come to understand them. The summer following my conversion, I visited St. Vladimir’s Seminary for my first time. I was surprised when I walked into the chapel to see that the icon of the Virgin on the iconostasis was the original of the small print I had begun my journey with. And then I could see her. All of the journey seemed intensely personal, without accident or caprice. She had brought me home!

This is something that veneration begins to reveal to us. We do not think about the saints or imagine them. In their icons and our veneration, we come to know them. We see them face-to-face and even learn to recognize them and their work and prayers in our daily lives. The world is not accident and caprice. It is deeply intentional and personal, and conspiring towards our salvation.

The “objects” in our lives are nothing of the sort. It is only the dark and callous objectivity of the modern heart that has so disenchanted reality. We imagine ourselves the only sentient beings marooned on a small, blue planet in space. We wonder if there is “life” out there, as if there were anything else anywhere.

The world is icon and sacrament. But it cannot be known until we see it face-to-face. And you will not see anything face-to-face unless and until you venerate it. Veneration is a word that describes the proper attitude to the whole of creation. Listen to these sweet words from St. John of Damascus (7th century):

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.

 

 

The Despised God

 

In his On the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus declares: “The Son is the image of the Father, and the Spirit the image of the Son.” Such statements are easily read and passed over as among the more obvious Trinitarian statements. I add to this statement another from St. Irenaeus: “That which is invisible of the Son is the Father, and that which is visible of the Father is the Son.” Of course, St. Irenaeus’ statement represents a very early expression, since he was writing over 120 years before Nicaea. Both statements, however, are essential to understanding the heart of the Christian gospel.

That Christ is the precise image of the Father is put forth in the book of Hebrews (1:3). This is refined in Nicaea’s language of “homoousios” (“same substance”). But while that language speaks of “being” or “substance,” we easily lose sight of what is being put forward. Christ not only reveals the answer to the question, “Who is God?” but also the question, “What is God like?” It is this latter understanding that plays such an important role in St. Paul’s treatment of Christ Crucified.

St. Paul identifies Christ as the “Wisdom of God,” and the “Power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). And in doing so, specifically links this with “Christ Crucified.” The crucifixion of Christ for Paul is more than an event that accomplishes salvation – it is an event that reveals Him in His fullness. The Christ of the Cross is the humble and self-emptying Christ (Phil. 2:5-11). He is the God whose “strength is made perfect in weakness.” And it is this very image that St. Paul points to as the character of his own imitation of Christ.

It is also an image that is properly used for our understanding of God. St. Paul again offers this:

…God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1Co 1:27-29)

It is quite possible (and not uncommon) to read such a passage as God being primarily concerned for His glory. But that very thought belies its own failed assumptions. The “glory” of God is not the glory of wondrous success, shining fame and an incomparable reputation. Instead, we are told that we behold the glory of God “in the face of Jesus Christ.”

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. (2Co 4:6-7)

There are not infrequent attempts to create an antinomy of the theology of the Cross and a theology of glory. It is a false distinction when we understand that the Christ Crucified is the revelation of the glory of God.

It is not just seen in the Cross. There is an unrelenting theme throughout Scripture in which God accomplishes His work through that which is least and broken. Whether it is choosing the second son rather than the first, Joseph as slave and prisoner to be first in Egypt, Moses who stutters when he speaks, young David rather than his brothers, Israel itself as an insignificant nation, Abraham and Sarah who are too old to have children, and so on, the pattern is clear. Mary the Mother of God says it well in her hymn of praise:

He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. (Luk 1:51-53)

It is easy to recognize this as the way in which God deals with His creation, but it is yet something else to recognize that this is so because it is who God is. We are told that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. We do well to understand, however, that this is so because God Himself is humble.

Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Mat 11:29)

We are invited not only to be meek and lowly, but to learn such meekness from the heart of God.

For many, such meekness in Christ is treated as something of a disguise, or a temporary work for the purpose of salvation. They all too quickly turn away from this understanding to assert that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!” But there is nothing to indicate that the definition of glory is somehow being altered for the sake of the Second Coming. As for the imagery of the Revelation of St. John, it should be read through the Cross rather than used as a corrective for the Cross.

The unfailing and living witness of the Orthodox faith is that the friends of God are foolish, weak, base and despised. That is the narrow way. Interestingly, it is a way that is the most open for all to walk. We need not be wise, strong, and well-thought-of. It turns the world upside-down and our lives along with it.

Right now the world is desperate for a few fools.

 

The Good That Lies Within

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

Solzhenitsyn’s statement that “even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained,” is, I think, the single most hopeful statement regarding humanity that I have ever encountered. It is, first, an axiom of Orthodox Christian belief. A notion of total depravity, of human evil so thorough that nothing good remains, is alien to Orthodoxy. Whether it is Dostoevsky’s story of the old woman saved by a rotten onion (or “potentially saved” by that single miserable act of generosity), or the last-minute salvation of the thief on the Cross, the faith celebrates the extreme mercy found in such stories.

C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, offers an interesting take on the presence of this tiny bridgehead of goodness. People from what might become hell take a bus-ride to the edge of heaven, and may stay. It is an offer that reveals the innermost heart – the in’s and out’s of how someone might walk away from heaven itself. There is a woman in the story who seems to have nothing wrong with her other than the habit of grumbling about everything. Lewis wonders what is so wrong with her. He is told:

The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’

‘But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?’

‘The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing.

I wrestle with questions of “anthropology” when I think of such matters. By that, I mean the question of exactly what it means to exist as a human being. I have written numerous times about the “ontological” versus a “juridical” approach in theology. We are not legal objects, nor is our relationship with God rightly to be understood in juridical terms. We are beings and what we have with God and from God must be understood in terms of being. Being alone is real. There are no other categories of real. If it doesn’t have being – it doesn’t exist. This is the ground on which all of the doctrines of the Church were founded. The language of the Trinity, of Christology, of sacrament and icon were (and are) propounded in terms of being.

If Solzhenitsyn is right, and, there remains, even in hearts overwhelmed by evil, a bridgehead of good, then there are realities that follow. I believe that Solzhenitsyn is correct. Accepting this means thinking carefully about what we mean when we say “good” and “evil” in the human context. The Fathers of the East generally conflated goodness, truth, and beauty as aspects of authentic and true being. Evil, on the other hand, is only ever a perversion of what is good, true and beautiful – it has no existence (being) in itself.

Lewis’ suggestion of Hell as being “so nearly Nothing” conforms to this understanding. However, when “non-being” is described  in the Fathers’ writings, it is always “relative” non-being, using the negative particle μή (me) rather than οὐ (ou). “Me” indicates a direction and movement rather than an accomplished fact. This same distinction, however, clearly leaves room (and tacitly acknowledges) the “bridgehead of good.” Nothing that we describe as evil is ever utterly and completely evil (as troubling as that thought might be). They exist. We cannot say, even of a demon, that there is nothing “good” that is present. As mysterious as it remains, they exist, because it is the gift of a good God, and their existence itself remains a good thing.

St. Paul uses the image of a race to describe the Christian life. It has much to recommend it, particularly because it describes something in motion. We are not a set of categories or static entities. We are alive and moving. Our proper direction is to move towards union with God. This is the very definition of “good.” To use the examples of the demons again, we can say that their “motion” is towards non-being, and is thus “evil.” Christ says that Satan is the “father of lies,” and a “murderer from the beginning,” both rooted in aspects of non-being (lies, murder).

So, when I consider that there is possibly some movement towards God (a bridgehead) in even the most “evil” of persons, then I maintain a hope for that small “coal” (to use Lewis’ image) to be fanned into a flame. I am very doubtful about many of the things predicated of the human will, primarily because it seems to be as much in motion as the cells in our bodies. Is the will to be measured at some moment – say, the last moment? Is it taken as an average of all moments? Or do we often die as a collection of conflicted moments, tossed about by everything around us?

The Russian theologian, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, who was known for holding opinions that sometimes conflicted with the faith of the Church, had a very interesting take on the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. He treated those images as two things within each person rather than a distinction between different kinds of people. As such, the judgment described would be a winnowing and a purification, a saving of the Sheep, however feeble and muted its movement towards God.

That manner of reading the parable is not unlike many treatments of parables in the Fathers (internal and mystical rather than external and historical/moral). My “take-away” from these thoughts has to do with the nature of the struggle that surrounds us and is within us at all times. In the darkest of moments, even when our will is in its greatest rebellion, there remains a “bridgehead” to the good, some portion that represents a foundation for repentance. The “noise” of our sin is the fury of nothingness, raging against the reality that dwells at the bridgehead.

I’ve counseled with parents across the years who are baffled by the behavior of a teen or a young adult who is lost in the noise of sin. It is a common thing for them to speak about the essential goodness of their child and their own inability to understand what has happened. “Nothing” has no explanation. I’ve always heard in those thoughts an echo of the heart of the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son. He sees his son from far off, indicating that he had always been watching and waiting. His son returns “alive” and not “dead.” The “dead son” remained behind with the swine. “This my son was dead and now he is alive.”

The repentance of sins is never anything less than resurrection from the dead. There is not a “reform” of that which is dead. It is a “new creation” in the words of St. Paul. It is the brushing away of the ashes that are so nearly Nothing.

I have found these ideas helpful in dealing with other people (and myself). That bridgehead of goodness is often held captive, trapped in the web of near-nothingness that we call sin. When we pray for others, we pray for the truth of their being, and its triumph (in Christ) over all opposition. Most importantly, it is vital that we recognize, even in the darkest of souls, that something remains of the good. In the work of salvation, it is the discovery and nurture of that very thing that is essential. We must fan the coal and pray for the flame of God to consume us.

 

 

Being Saved – The Ontological Approach

angry-god

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.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement

The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the author of the ancient work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is a classic work describing “steps” within the life of the struggling ascetic. There is an icon associated with this work, picturing monastics climbing the rungs of a ladder to heaven, battling demons who are trying to pull them off. However, ladders are dangerous things to put in the hands of a modern Christian.

Modernity likes ladders. We like the idea of upward mobility, of continuing improvement, of moral progress. We speak of “career ladders” and the “ladder of success.”  It is the myth of personal power. Modernity is a cultural phenomenon created by the theology of the Reformation and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Freed from the constraints of inherited tradition (such as the Catholic Church) and the royal state (hurrah for democracy), modernity is a story told to individuals that they can now become whatever they want. Freedom and personal industry are the twin rails supporting the rungs of progress. As a philosophy, this idea and its associated notions are the bedrock of free-market capitalism.  As theology, it is the foundation for self-help Christianity and the positive, motivational preaching of contemporary religion. “Be all that you can be, and Jesus can help!”

Nurtured in this culture, contemporary Orthodox believers are not immune to its allure, particularly if the images appear in the guise of desert monasticism and Byzantine/Russian-style striving. More than once I have heard the sad confession, “I don’t feel like I’m a very good Orthodox Christian.” Implied in this statement is that Orthodox Christians should, somehow, be better than other Christians. Some foolish people even call us the “marines” of the spiritual life.

Of course, all of this, particularly when applied to writings such as St. John’s Ladder, is pure distortion and delusion. Its most subtle and seductive version is that of moral progress. I wrote a series of articles last year denouncing the concept of moral progress, identifying it as largely a modern notion and not consistent with the mind of the fathers. Here, I reaffirm that without equivocation.

We simply are not saved by getting better. It is a false image and a false goal. Of course, critics will charge that I’m being defeatist and suggesting a path devoid of moral effort. I am doing nothing of the sort. Everyone should, at all times, struggle against sin. But measuring, even watching for improvement can be not only self-defeating but sinful in itself. The Ladder points to a very different path:

“You cannot escape shame except by shame,” St. John says (4.62).

We do not gradually improve and thereby leave our shame behind us. The way down is the way up. The ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent. The path to union with God is only found in making the descent with Him. “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8). St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If He descends into hell, go with Him” (Oration 45).

The path of modernity carries no humility. It breeds pride, and frequently contempt. Failure is its nemesis. We blame ourselves for laziness and sloth, certain that a little more effort will make the difference. Like a child given a bad grade, we plead that we’ll try harder. Confession is seen as the Second Chance, the opportunity to pull up our grades. “Loser!” is the taunt of the modern world (a word spawned in the pit of hell).

But St. John points us towards our shame. He does not describe a path of moral improvement. His path follows the Cross, which is the descent into Hades. My failure, not sought for its own sake (we do not sin in order to gain grace), is always and immediately the gate of Hades and the gate of Paradise. When I acknowledge my failure and refuse to hide from its shame, we can call out for Christ to comfort us. “I did not turn my face from the shame and the spitting” (Is. 50:6). He will meet us in our shame, and takes it upon Himself. My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is at the very heart of our salvation. God became what we are, that we might become what He is. God does not meet us in the middle. He meets us at the bottom and asks us to meet Him there as well.

It is within that place that true humility is born. Judgment ceases. If I accept my shame in union with Christ, how can I judge another? Indeed, it is largely my efforts to avoid my shame that makes me judge my brother. We can only avoid judging if we “see our own transgressions” (as we are taught in the Prayer of St. Ephrem).

Modernity loves excellence. The moral improvement pitches of the motivational preachers love the drive for excellence. Our bosses and the owners demand that we strive for excellence. God is not our boss, nor does He place us in His debt (“freely you have received”). The constant nagging voice demanding improvement and excellence is not the voice of God. It is often nothing more than the neurotic echo of modernity sounding in our brains. It drives us with the threat of shame. However, Christ has trampled down shame by shame and invites us to do the same thing. “You cannot escape shame except by shame.”

Become a Christian who follows Christ. We do not seek to please Him with our excellence. We seek to imitate Him by going where He has gone.

 

 

When Icons Became Windows

Some thirty years ago I was doing doctoral work at Duke University under Geoffrey Wainwright. I was drawn to Wainwright on account of his commitment to liturgical tradition and practice as the ground of theology. A course that became a turning point in my studies was on the nature of language in theology. Like all work in the program, it was not a course filled with answers, but a careful discipline of asking questions. So much depends on the questions we ask – apparently you don’t get answers to questions you are not asking. I immersed myself in our assigned readings but found myself without a rudder. There is so much to say and think about language that the topic easily becomes overwhelming. Reading in some unrelated material, however, I stumbled across a quote from the acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” It created a question for me: “What do icons do with color?” I wound up writing a paper on the “iconicity of language.” Wainwright wrote a comment in the margin that likely changed my life: “I think you have your dissertation topic.”

That comment took me down a road that has yet to end. The dissertation became a thesis as my doctoral work got side-tracked. I returned to parish life but with a knowledge that I could no longer speak about the icons from outside the Tradition. It was seven years before I was received into Orthodoxy with my family. But that day also seemed to be the day I was united at last with the family of icons that had become so many windows into heaven.

The work I did in my thesis was not just about language. It was an immersion into the doctrine of the holy icons in the Councils and the Fathers that became a window into the whole of Orthodoxy. I have since said that if you take one rightly-painted icon, you could use it as the basis for teaching the whole of the Orthodox faith. Some twenty years into my Orthodox priesthood, I am more convinced of this than ever. Most importantly, this is not a statement about an idea – it is a realization based on the depth of experience and understanding that comes within the Orthodox life itself.

A story is told from the Soviet period of an old grandmother who had a very precious and valuable icon. The state wanted to place it in a museum. She refused. Those who had come to take the icon reasoned with her, “It is a great work of art. In the museum, thousands of people will be able to see and appreciate its beauty.” She responded, “Icons are not for being pretty. Icons are for kissing and praying to.”

That story found its way into my thesis. It captures a simple understanding. If you do not venerate an icon, you cannot see it. You can see a work of art, but nothing more. The appreciation of art is often nothing more than sentimentality, an abstraction and entertainment. Icons are not art (at least in that sense). “Art” is a modern invention, or, perhaps, a perversion from the Renaissance. Like the cave paintings of early humans, the true instinct of art (properly understood) is religious. What is pictured on the wall of the cave is also what is seen and hunted in the world. What we know from the study of primitive peoples is that those actions are religious/spiritual in nature. We no longer know what the cave painters would have said of their work, but we can be certain that it was about what was portrayed and not the portrayal itself. The art made something present.

The collapse of what is portrayed into the mere portrayal is a move that extends far beyond art. It represents the destruction of spiritual perception, replacing it with “thoughts.” It oddly creates an alienation between human beings and the world in which they live, in the name of the world in which they live. When a human being becomes an object among objects, life is reduced to our thoughts about objects, then to our thoughts about thoughts, opening into an abyss of solipsistic meaninglessness.

Isaiah says, “All flesh is as grass…but the Word of God abides forever” (Is. 40:6;8). The “grass” of our existence always collapses when it is divorced from the Logos. The created order was brought into existence out of nothing. When we seek to reduce it to that same existence, there is nothing to sustain it. I’ve often marveled at the science of the sub-atomic world. The further we peer into its mysteries, the closer we come to seeing that there is “nothing” there. Our lives are lived, as it were, in the foam that rides on the waves of the sea. We are fools when we only see the ever-disappearing foam and ignore the sea beneath it. All that we see rides upon and within the providence of God. To know that is to know God.

It was this larger reality (the true reality) that my immersion in the theology of icons made known to me. My first experience with icons was in college. I bought a print, mounted it, and tried to make it part of my prayer life. I didn’t know what to do. Looking at the icon, I kept waiting for something to happen, for some thought to occur. It just sat there and so did I. It was art, and nothing more. In my later study, exemplified in the words of the Russian grandmother, I learned that you cannot “see” an icon unless it is venerated. The window to heaven only opens to love.

This is a key to all noetic experience. Created in the image of the God who is love, we are never who we truly are apart from love. Our culture has reduced love to a category of emotion when, in fact, it is ontological. There is a passage in The Way of a Pilgrim that has stayed with me for years. It gives something of the sense of the world that begins to be visible through the window of icons. It is a revelation of the iconic nature of the whole created order.

When I began to pray with the heart, everything around me became transformed and I saw it in a new and delightful way. The trees, the grass, the earth, the air, the light, and everything seemed to be saying to me that it exists to witness to God’s love for man and that it prays and sings of God’s glory. Now I understood what I had read in the Philokalia about the “creature’s knowledge of speech,” and I saw how it was possible to communicate with God’s creation.

It is not uncommon for people to experience a certain glimpse of this. When we view the world, or even an individual with love and compassion, we begin to see what had previously been hidden. But we soon become distracted and attend to other things and become caught up in the anger and frustration of modern life. We then dismiss the earlier experience as nothing more than an emotional moment, a mood that has now passed. For the Pilgrim, the icon that became a window into the truth of existence was the Name of Jesus invoked in the Prayer. I hear the same thing described by the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus who walked with the risen Christ:

“Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Lk. 24:32)

Icons, divorced from veneration and the love of God, fall into art and the emptiness of a crumbling ontology. The same is true of us as well. We die for lack of love. “Faith,” St. Paul says, “works by love” (Gal. 5:6). Vladimir Lossky described faith as a “participatory adherence.” I can only understand such an expression in terms of love – an extension of the self towards the other in faith and loyalty (adherence). This is not a single action but a mode of existence (“the just shall live by faith”).

What we see in Christ is the abiding loyalty of God towards us and our reconciliation in the Kingdom of God. That reconciliation is not an abstraction or a notion, but a noetic reality whose perception is received in the gift of love. What we see is the coming of the Kingdom of God. Though we now see through a glass darkly, we are promised that the veil will eventually be removed. What we now see as icon, we will then see as the end of all things, in which God will be “all in all.” Come, Lord Jesus.

Don’t Panic – It’s Just the Mother of God

The first time I offered prayers to Mary I had a panic attack – literally. I was in college and my best friend had become Roman Catholic. We argued a bit, and he won (mostly). It resulted in my return to Anglicanism, to the “high” side. So, like a good high churchman, I got a rosary and a book, and started my prayers. Then came the panic attack.

Many Protestants are viscerally opposed to Catholicism. It’s in their heart and bones. I had no idea at the time that my bones (and heart) were as firmly orange as they seemed to be (let the Irish explain). My experience showed me otherwise. But, theology wins. I spent the next nine months reading about Marian devotion and early Christian practice. After that long “cooling-off” period, I picked up my rosary and gave it another try. No panic. I’ve never looked back.

Western devotions to Mary have forms that differ from Orthodox practices, and I’m not at all sure that the Western, Catholic understanding is the same (I’ll admit that I don’t know). My Anglican use of the rosary and devotion to Mary, which largely followed Catholic practice, certainly made my conversion to Orthodoxy ever so much easier. Indeed, her presence in the text of an Orthodox service far exceeds anything you’ll ever see in Rome.

The Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God is grounded in its understanding of salvation. As such, the veneration of Mary is an expression of the most foundational doctrine of the faith. This is generally misunderstood by the non-Orthodox for the simple reason that they do not understand salvation itself. Salvation is about a union or communion with God. It is a participation in the very life of God. We were created for this communion, breathed into us in the act of our creation. Through sin, we have broken that communion and become subject to death and disintegration.

Christ, in becoming a human being, united Himself to our human nature. He suffered death and was buried. But in His death, because He is also God, He tramples down death and rises from the tomb. Our human nature is raised with Him. When we are Baptized, the Scriptures say we are Baptized “into His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” In Holy Communion, we eat His very Body and drink His Blood, a true communion and participation in His life.

When this fundamental doctrine is understood, Mary’s role in history and her place in the Church become clear. Christ does not enter her womb as though it were a borrowed space. The Creed says, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary.” Christ’s humanity is not a separate creation, but “bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh.” She is truly His mother.

The Scriptures recognize this in various ways. In particular, when Mary brings the Christ Child to the Temple on the 40th day, the Prophet Simeon prophesies the coming sufferings of Christ and adds, “…and a sword will pierce your soul as well.” This is far more than saying, “It will make you unhappy.” In Christ’s suffering on the Cross, Mary suffers as well. This is because of the peculiar union that was their relationship from the beginning.

Christians describe the life of salvation as “beholding Christ face to face.” Mary would have done this quite literally numerous times a day for nearly three years as she nursed Him. In St. John’s gospel, at the Wedding in Cana, there is a level of communication between mother and Son that transcends words.

At the wedding feast, she comes to her Son and says, “They have no wine.” She does not ask Him anything. His response is frequently misinterpreted. He says, in the Greek: “Tί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί,” (Jn. 2:4). (“What is this to me and you?”) It is a very strange phrase in the Greek, but is a direct quote from the widow of Zarephath when she is speaking to Elijah about the death of her son (1 Kings 17:18). Christ is warning His mother that “it is not my time.” But, if He acts in helping with this wedding and its wine, it will set in motion something that cannot be stopped – His kairos – His time. And when His time comes, she will be like the widow of Zarephath, a widow whose son is dead. All of this is contained in this tiny conversation of but a few words.

Her response is equally terse, “Do whatever He tells you.” This is similar to her first words to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word.” She is ready for what will take place, including its most fearful consequences.

But all of this can only be rightly understood if we remember the nature of the union between mother and Son. It is also a union that will be our own salvation. Christ has become what we are by nature, that we might become what he is by grace. This is the great “exchange.”

Orthodox prayer gives expression to this communion. St. Paul says that the Holy Spirit prays within us saying, “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6). Those words are the words of the Son (the one says, “Abba”). We do not pray as strangers, but as members of the household, now emboldened to speak with the very voice of the Son of God. It is this same voice that speaks of Mary as “Mother,” and gives her honor. That honor, or veneration, is the expression of love. Just as she loves Him, so she loves us.

In my experience, devotion to the Mother of God comes very slowly for converts to the faith. Five hundred years of Protestant thought have created a Christianity in which Mary has little place other than on Christmas cards and in badly produced movies. English translations of the Scriptures often butcher Marian passages conveying false images.

The Wedding at Cana passage cited above is frequently rendered: “What do I have to do with you, woman?” which is simply inaccurate. It gives the impression of disrespect, as though Mary were being a bother to her Son. What is deeply lacking is the spiritual consciousness rooted in salvation through union with Christ. None of the doctrines expressed in the Great Seven Ecumenical Councils make any sense apart from that awareness. Put simply, it is how both the Scriptures and the early Fathers understand our salvation. Union (communion, participation) is the fundamental grammar of Christian teaching.

When this grammar is properly grasped, it becomes clear that we cannot speak of Christ apart from Mary (nor Mary apart from Christ). By the same token, we cannot speak of Christ apart from the Church, nor the Church apart from Christ. We are told in 1 Cor. 12:21 that the “head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you,” and this in the very passage in which we are told that Christ is the “head of the body (the Church).” We cannot speak of one member of the Body apart from all the others, for the life of each is the life of all and the life of all is the life of each.

In our devotional life, this is expressed in the communion of saints, our prayers that gather all together in union with Christ:

Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed lady, Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary, and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”

On the personal level, the experience of the Church has taught us private devotions as well. Within those, we begin to discover the mystical bonds that only such devotions reveal. Years ago, in a reference I have long since forgotten, I read a quote in which St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “There are things about Jesus you cannot know until His mother tells them to you.”

This part of the Orthodox life is difficult to describe. It is a perception of Christ, though with a greater fullness, one that extends into the persons of the saints. In Mary, that person encompasses an intimacy with Christ that is without equal. In my own experience, this intimacy includes the depths of her maternal love, for her Son, and for all creation.

The absence of Marian devotion and awareness has created a Christianity with an absence of the feminine. I do not suggest that Mary is a cipher for an abstract universal, or of a “divine femininity,” but it is simply bizarre to have a Christology that speaks of the “humanity” of Christ that is somehow devoid of a human mother (for all intents and purposes). Orthodox Christology begins its formal expression in the 3rd Ecumenical Council in which the largest and most central question was Mary’s title of “Theotokos” (Birth-Giver of God). Classical Christology began with consideration of Mary.

The most egregious example I have ever encountered of anti-Marian sentiment is a treatment in which she is seen as a mere “container” for Christ. It is an insult to every woman who has ever borne a child.

I offer no speculation as to the damage done to Western culture by a distorted Christology. Secularists would argue that Christology has nothing to do with our cultural constructs: such is the ignorance of our own foundations. Secular modernity is built on the foundation of a distorted version of Christianity. We are children who deny our parents, imagining that we have created ourselves.

Now that is a cause for panic. Holy Mother of God, pray for us.

 

The Power in Thought – It’s Not What You Think

Among the dark little corners of the Orthodox world, particularly in its ethnic homelands, is a left-over trace of witchcraft (I don’t know what else to call it). It consists of a collection of superstitions, often mixed with semi-Orthodox notions. There are concerns about the “evil-eye,” “curses,” “spells,” and such. These things are “left-overs” in that they likely predate Christianity, having never disappeared from Europe’s earlier pagan past. These are not practices associated with dark powers, but simply folk practices rooted in bad theology.

It’s not just the Orthodox. My ancestors, Scots-Irish (certainly with a Protestant pedigree) were no stranger to such things. My mother’s mother was said to be able to “talk fire out of a burn,” and to “stop blood.” I was told that these little practices were based in the Scriptures, but they had a slightly occult feel about them. My great-grandfather could “remove warts” in the same manner. The hills here in Appalachia are home to many such things.

There are, however, more popular, modern versions of all this, cleaned up and mainstreamed. Much of it goes under the heading of “positive thought” and “successful living.” All of it is about exercising power over the world around us. It is contrary to the Christian faith. This is not a modern problem: it’s as old as it gets. But it is also wonderfully American.

The mid-19th century (that most formative of all American eras) saw writers such as Horatio Alger (author of numerous “rags to riches” tales), and Samuel Smiles (author of Self-Help), begin to popularize the American power of the mind. The opening line in Smiles’ work, “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” borrowed from Ben Franklin, sounds a key sentiment in the American mythology of the time. Modernity was about progress, both as a society and as an individual. The formula was to be positive, work hard, be honest and patient. Of course, the great mass of self-help men rushed off to the gold fields of the Wild West and lived lives that were everything but honest. We self-helped ourselves to Native American lands and any exploitable wealth that could be found.

The desire to succeed, to move up the ladder, became a major theme in the American psyche. We became the “land of opportunity.” Those who failed had only themselves to blame. Of course, all of this was marketed (particularly in books). The 20th century saw the “positive thinkers”: Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People, 1936), James Allen (As a Man Thinketh, 1902), Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich, 1937), and Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking, 1952). Peale’s book has been a perennial best-seller. These “pioneers” held that our thoughts make us who we are, and have the power to shape the world around us, attract money, love, success, etc. They are the foundations of today’s “prosperity gospel,” the Evangelical world’s version of popular witchcraft.

Some, like Peale, were “Christian” teachers, others holding to something like a Divine Universal Mind that could be drawn on for benefit. Most of these same ideas are gathered today under the banner of “New-Age Teaching,” and carry a cache of “spirituality.” But it’s the same spiritualization of the American Dream and mythologization of magical power.

The heart of magic (and witchcraft) is the desire to control the outcome of the world around us. In that sense, the entire modern project is magic by brute force. We bend the world to our will.

Many people are unable to distinguish between this and Christianity. For them, God exists in order be persuaded to meet our needs (and our desires). Heaven itself becomes but one more desire (the thought that my enjoyment might never end). Social media abounds with prayer requests, often under the heading of “sending out thoughts and prayers.” Good luck charms of every sort are as common here as in any place at any time. Just examine what hangs from rear-view mirrors in cars.

There are several things worth noting:

  1. Your mind does not influence or control events. You are not a Jedi Master.
  2. Thinking positively feels better than thinking negatively.
  3. Thinking negatively often leads to “self-fulfilling” prophecies (not by making something happen but by nurturing a tendency within ourselves to cooperate with our fears)
  4. Jesus did not come to remove suffering. He has entered suffering and united it to His Cross.

The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Rom. 8:16-17)

The various versions of mind power are all antithetical to the Cross. They are not only not Christian they are anti-Christian. At the heart of sin is our desire to consume, to turn the world into an object of desire and master it. It breeds death in us and in those around us. At the heart of righteousness is the Cross, the willingness, for the sake of love, to unite ourselves with Christ and give ourselves to the Providence of God.

The simple fact is that we do not know how to manage the world. We do not know what constitutes a good outcome. We do not have the knowledge to see the future, to understand and comprehend the collateral damage of our management. The only guarantee of the outcome of history (and our lives) is the goodwill of God.

The thoughts that lead to life are those of thanksgiving, always and for all things. This nurtures within us both faith and love and slowly carries us into the mystery of the Cross. In the words of St. Maximus the Confessor:

He who understands the mystery of the Cross and the Tomb knows the meaning of all things.

Among the more popular contemporary Orthodox books is Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, built on the life and teachings of the Elder Thaddeus (Serbian). Read wrongly, it would seem to be an articulation of an Orthodox New Age doctrine. It is nothing of the sort. It is, instead, a lively account of the practice of Hesychasm (“silence”) in which we renounce our passions and acquire the Spirit of Peace. There is nothing within his teaching that suggests that our thoughts control the world around us. His practice can be seen in this short story:

As he related many years later to one of his spiritual children, at the time of this inner battle he suffered two nervous breakdowns as a result of the warfare against the temptations of fear, anxiety, and worry. His whole body trembled and he was, overall, in a very bad state. He took this as a warning from God and resolved to change his way of life and drop all earthly cares and worries. “I realized that we all worry about ourselves too much and that only he who leaves everything to the will of God can feel truly joyous, light, and peaceful.” Thus, having learned to leave all of his cares and those of his neighbors in the hands of the Lord, he patiently bore the cross of serving as abbot at the Patriarchate of Pech for the next six years.

If someone came to me and stated that they had found a method for controlling the world around them through disciplined thought, my first reaction would be, “Why would you want to do that?” This is the path to becoming like a demon – they seek to control us by whispering their thoughts in our minds.

This is the Christian path:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)

This alone is true life.

Bookends and the Resurrection

A series of recent conversations with a parishioner turned up the problem of “bookends,” that is, questions of the beginning and the end. It is only natural in our day and age to attack problems in this manner. “How did it start?” is  a way of saying, “What is it?” The end, of course, is not so obvious, other than its connection with our insatiable desire to know how things will turn out. These questions, thrust into the mix of Christian thought, have come to dominate a certain way of thinking about God. They are also very misleading. For though the Christian faith has something to say about the beginning and the end, it does not do so in the manner that we imagine.

Genesis is and is not about the beginning of the universe. However, what Genesis does not do is set forth a problem that must be solved. We read it in that manner, but only after the fact. That the primal stories in Genesis receive almost no attention whatsoever in the remainder of the Old Testament is itself an indicator that Jewish tradition did not see Genesis in this manner. Our modern habits of thought are quite linear, reducing the world to cause and effect in a long chain of historical events. With that in mind, we go to Genesis to see if we can find the cause of all later events. And there it is! We see mankind’s sin in the Garden and the punishment of death. There, we believe, is the cause of the Jesus story.

This reading creates terrible problems for many Christians when various scientific accounts of early humanity make the story in the Garden somewhat problematic. For example, I have been told that if Adam and Eve are not literal characters, then the entire account of Christian salvation falls apart. This is only true if you’re stuck in the problem of “bookends.” This same anxiety often drives an anti-science bias among believers. They feel threatened.

The Orthodox writer, George Gabriel, makes this observation:

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.

This echoes St. Maximus:

He who apprehends the mystery of the cross and the burial apprehends the inward essences of created things: while he who is initiated into the inexpressible power of the resurrection apprehends the purpose for which God first established everything.

The “bookends” approach to Christian theology creates false problems – precisely because it assumes that the cause of things is found within history itself, and therefore “in the beginning.” However, the cause of all things is the Incarnation of Christ, encompassing both His death and resurrection. This alone is the “starting point” of the faith and of creation. The Incarnation of Christ is the beginning.

It is difficult for our reasoning habits to grasp this. Most people read such statements as nothing more than an exaggerated way of saying that the Incarnation is important. But the Scriptures witness that Christ is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Difficult as well to understand is that the Crucified Christ (“Lamb slain”) somehow exists before the creation of the world.

Our thinking about time and creation, about what we call “history,” is secular for the most part. We think of history as something that unfolds outside of God and into which He must choose to enter. In point of fact, we think that what takes place at any moment of time depends solely on what took place at the moment just preceding. The historical reasoning that searches for causation in a linear fashion is modern secularism, and the larger portion of Christians reasons in just such a manner.

Another way to describe this is to say that true eschatology (the study of “final things”) has been lost to modern Christians. The only ending that is presently considered [and it’s a major industry] is some final product of history itself. We falsely imagine ourselves capable of “making the world a better place” because we think of ourselves as the actors and creators of history. The proper way to understand things is to see that the beginning and the end are to be found in the same place and are utterly similar in character. The Incarnate Christ Himself is the “Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega.”

Of course, it is just as difficult to imagine the end of things being “in the midst” of history as it is to understand the beginning to be there as well. Such understanding only comes with the “renewing of our minds” (Ro 12:2). It is the gradual perception of Christ as central to all things, that “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In the Divine Liturgy, we speak of the end of things in the past tense, so strong is the patristic grasp of eschatology. The meal we eat in Holy Communion is the actual, real and true Marriage Supper of the Lamb, that we share with Him in the Kingdom. We say to God,

“…and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.”

Such a strange mix of tenses! He did not cease…until He had brought us up…and endowed…which is to come! In our salvation, we are given now, that which shall be. This destroys the linear thought of the secular mind and initiates us into the mind of the Kingdom of God.

We struggle with the commandments of Christ because our minds are mired in the secular, historicized view of the world. We fear the future, nurse our anxieties, and worry about what might happen if we actually practiced what Christ teaches. What happens if I forgive my enemies? What happens if I give without expecting in return? What happens if I turn the other cheek? Christ speaks as He does because, in Him, the Kingdom of God has come. Those who are in Christ are already “seated in the heavens.”

…even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (Eph. 2:5-6 NKJ)

The secular historicization of the faith has distorted Christian believing. We treat the death and resurrection of Christ as past events and imagine that our accepting them as historically true is the nature of faith. But they are not merely historical in the secular sense. They are present and real now. As the beginning and the end, they are also always present. By historicizing them, we dismiss them and relegate them to the collection of historical “facts” (things done). They are rather present tense “facientes” (“things being done”). Our present tense actions, done in union with that present tense reality, alone constitute faith. We do not live in the past or because of the past. We live only in and by the death and resurrection of Christ. Because of these things, the commandments of Christ not only make sense, they alone constitute a sane course of behavior.

Christ says:

…If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (Jn. 8:31-32 )

The truth of Christ’s word, His commandments, is only revealed as we abide in them (keep them). When that truth is known, then we will then (and only then) see the freedom that is ours in Him. We are not the creatures of history, but of Christ.

Christ is risen!

When Chaos Ruled the World – Part I

In the ancient civilizations of the Near East there were strange stories about the place of chaos in the beginning of all things – and the chaos is specifically located in water. It seems odd to me that people who largely lived in arid countries should imagine the world beginning as a watery chaos – but that is certainly what they did.

The Egyptians imagined the world’s beginning as a watery chaos (the god, Nun). It is from this watery thing that the god, Atum, generates himself and then creates the other gods. The Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, said that before there were any other gods, and before the heaven and earth were set in place, there were only Apsu (the freshwater ocean) and Tiamat (the saltwater ocean). The god Marduk slayed Tiamat (who was also a chaos creature) and from her created the heavens and the earth.

All of this, of course, seems quite foreign to the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is a sample, however, of the cultures in the midst of which their faith was revealed. It also provides a backdrop that shows how unique and striking the creation story in Genesis truly is.

There are echoes of these cosmic battles embedded in various places in the Scriptures:

 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Hidden from our modern eyes but visible in the Hebrew is the “Tiamat” monster. It is within the word for “without form” (tohu) and “deep” (tehom). But in our Hebrew account, there is no slaying of a monster, no polytheistic struggle. Rather, there is God (Elohim) who simply speaks, and accomplishes the creation. There is a watery chaos, now raised up into a theological account of extreme sophistication. It is a repudiation of the surrounding culture-myths – but it is still rendered in a language that knows that culture.

In St. John’s gospel, there is something similar. He opens with reference to the Logos, a concept completely familiar to earlier Greek philosophy. But where philosophy sees an abstraction, St. John proclaims the particular: this Logos “became flesh and dwelt among us.” He takes the language and ideas of a surrounding culture and transforms them into the stuff of true revelation. In many ways, this is very much a part of the Incarnation.

Every year around Christmas time, we begin to hear noises about Christmas trees having “pagan origins.” And there are many who rush to the defense of the poor trees. I yawn. My ancestors worshipped trees, and I daresay their later Christian descendants were glad to see the Church baptizing the trees as well as people. There simply is no “pristine” matter from which the faith starts fresh. God always speaks and reveals Himself in terms that can be assimilated. He does not destroy culture, but fulfills it. The Christmas tree is a stark reminder that the Child born on that day has a rendezvous with a Tree, and that there is no getting around it. There is a Tree at the heart of our faith, even as there was at the heart of the Garden.

CS Lewis once opined that pagan mythology consisted of “good dreams sent by God to prepare for the coming of Christ.” Such myths can also carry deep darkness and confusion – but such is the nature of a world that is broken. God does not offer us redemption by destroying a broken world. He does not erase or eradicate the cultures of mankind. It is only a darkened theology that imagines every production of the human imagination to be worthy only of the dung heap. That sort of destructive view belongs to the scions of Calvin and the iconoclasm of Wahabis: it is not the work of God.

The Egyptian and Mesopotamian images that found their way into the Scriptures reflect an instinct about a primal struggle. Order and well-being are not givens: they are the result of an intervention. Both the Psalms and Isaiah take some of these images up into poetic praise:

O LORD God of hosts, Who is mighty like You, O LORD?
Your faithfulness also surrounds You.
You rule the raging of the sea;
When its waves rise, You still them.
You have broken Rahab in pieces, as one who is slain;
You have scattered Your enemies with Your mighty arm.
The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours;
The world and all its fullness, You have founded them. (Ps. 89:8-11)

And

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD! Awake as in the ancient days, In the generations of old.
Are You not the arm that cut Rahab apart, And wounded the serpent?
Are You not the One who dried up the sea, The waters of the great deep;
That made the depths of the sea a road For the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
And come to Zion with singing,
With everlasting joy on their heads.
They shall obtain joy and gladness;
Sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 51:9-11)

Reading along without a commentary, it would be easy to assume that Rahab is a country or a ruler. However, it is the name of an ancient chaos sea-monster. But in the Psalms and Isaiah, this pagan sea-monster is vanquished and subdued by the God of Israel. It is not meant as a literal account. The imagery has been taken up to express God’s dominion over all things and His victory over chaos. Israel, brought into the Promised Land, is God’s ordering of the world, a restoration of “Eden,” in a manner of speaking (Ez. 36:35).

All of this imagery is taken up in the Christian faith in the Church’s meditations on the Baptism of Christ. The Western tradition (Catholic and Protestant) has long neglected this feast, only giving it attention in the past 50 years or so. In the East, the Baptism of Christ (Theophany) follows Christmas by 12 days, the same day that the West honors the visit of the Magi. A major reason for the West’s neglect of this feast, I suspect, is its strangeness to the later atonement theories that became popular. Jesus has no sin to be washed away; He is guilty of nothing. His Baptism thus stands as a contradiction to later Western accounts of the sacrament.

But in the Eastern Church, the Baptism of Christ takes up these Old Testament references of struggle with the watery chaos. Christ’s entry into the waters is understood as a foreshadowing of His entrance into Hades. It is a defeat of the hostile powers. The same theme runs throughout the sacrament of Baptism itself. The destruction of the demons is easily the strongest theme within that service:

Because of the tender compassion of Your mercy, O Master, You could not endure to behold mankind oppressed by the Devil; but You came and saved us. We confess Your grace. We proclaim Your mercy. We do not conceal Your gracious acts. You have delivered the generation of our mortal nature. By Your birth You sanctified a Virgin’s womb. All creation magnifies You, for You have revealed Yourself. For You, O our God, have revealed Yourself upon the earth, and have dwelled among men. You hallowed the streams of Jordan, sending down upon them from heaven Your Holy Spirit, and crushed the heads of the demons [“dragons” in some translations] who lurked there.

The poetry of Psalm 74 becomes part of the Baptismal service, and thus a Paschal hymn:

For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.
You divided the sea by Your strength:
You crushed the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You broke the heads of leviathan [another sea monster] in pieces,
and gave him to be food to the people inhabiting the wilderness.
You cleaved the fountain and the flood:
You dried up mighty rivers.
The day is Yours, the night also is Yours:
You have prepared the light and the sun. (Ps. 74:12-16)

For those who are unfamiliar with Pascha and Baptism in an “Eastern key,” this language can seem quite odd. It is the dominant image of salvation within the Eastern Church. The great hymn of Pascha, repeated seemingly hundreds of times in that season, is, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” It is not a hymn of payment, or punishment, but of going into the strongman’s kingdom, binding him and setting free those who are held captive. The heads of the dragons are crushed, the heads of leviathan are broken in pieces, Rahab has been cut apart.

I have seen false comparisons between East and West, where the West is credited with an emphasis on the Cross and the East with an ephasis on the Resurrection. It is a comparison that only a Westerner would make. Within the East, the Cross and the Resurrection are not separated – they are a single action devastating the adversary, leading captivity captive and setting all of the captives free. This is the Lord’s Passover.

Dragons and chaos beware.

The Soul Is a Mirror

There are meditations and insights that simply change your life. I recall walking across the campus at Duke some 30 or so years ago. I had been plowing through a book of Orthodox theology (very thick reading). I would read a page and think, and read it again. But I recall very plainly a moment of insight – it regarded some paragraphs surrounding a statement of St. Basil’s. The “coin dropped” as they say. When I got back to my apartment I was silent. My wife asked me what was going on – I tried to explain – but told her that if what I was understanding was true – I would have to rethink everything I ever believed. That’s an insight.

The articles I have offered over the past few years that touch on the topic of shame belong to another such insight. It has been a matter that, when once seen, cannot be unseen, leaving nothing the same. Shame (both healthy and toxic) lies at the very core of our soul and is written even into the fabric of our bodies. In the Scriptures, it is the oldest recorded human experience.

It winds its way throughout the writings of the fathers often unnoticed since it lies within the meaning of other words: humility, envy, jealousy, guilt, awe, wonder, worship (and many others). It also presents itself to me throughout the day as I interact with other people. I hear it in confessions, even casual conversations. It drives our passions far more than any desire. It is called the “master emotion” by some, so it has an almost ubiquitous presence.

However, we live in a culture that has something of a taboo surrounding the subject. Our shame is far too painful most of the time to be revealed and discussed. Every article I write on the topic becomes the occasion for any number of private emails and phone calls. And this is right and appropriate. Safety is essential in the healing of shame.

It does not surprise me, upon reflection, to note that Scripture and the liturgical tradition describe Christ’s suffering primarily in terms of shame. Many would rather discuss them in terms of violence, transaction and punishment – such topics are ever so much safer. We may never have hit another person, but who has not engaged in mocking, or been its victim? And the story of such a thing is deeply painful, regardless of whether we did it or had it done to us.

Shame is alienation, the rupture of communion and relationship. It is abandonment of a peculiar sort – suggesting that we are alone because we deserve to be. The loneliness, particularly within our modern age, is driven largely from the alienation of ruptured communion. On some level, everyone experiences not just loneliness, but a slight sense of danger in public settings. It may be described rather benignly as “social anxiety,” but it could just as well be described as public shame. We are anxious because we feel vulnerable and that feeling of vulnerability is a symptom of shame.

The exposure suffered in the state of shame is unbearable and demands a covering. Human beings as social creatures seek to clothe themselves. We look in the mirror and measure our appearance as though seeing ourselves through another’s eyes. Only that which feels safe and comfortable will do in public. Of course, some outfits can be provocative, even outrageous. Strangely, these are born of a deeper shame – “shamelessness” is itself an offensive version of a defensive strategy. In such a guise the guise itself so predominates that the shame it hides is almost completely obscured. Of course, I now seem to no longer see an outfit, only the public proclamation of the shame within. And, I have found that my entire personhood can be hidden beneath the folds of a cassock. Many do not see “me,” only “priest.” It is a danger.

For the young (and increasingly for the old), tattooing has become a popular form of clothing. We write our secret identities on our arms and legs, backs and torsos, sometimes on the face. Our identities become indelible so that we cannot deny them if we wanted. Of course, such branding may be as innocent as the latest fashion, but the inner drive remains the same.

There are other clothes that serve the same purpose. We dress ourselves in our opinions, or in the ideologies that mark our lives (both secular and religious). The labels and slogans, shibboleths and mantras of our mental tribes serve not only to hide our shame from others, but also from ourselves. The religion and politics of identity are the politics of shame, though it never speaks its true name.

Shame is particularly problematic in the modern world where many natural “identities” have been disappearing. The extended family has often been reduced to mere biology, maintained only by strained vacation visits. Immediate families are often unstable, yielding “blended” families. Sexual thoughts and desires have rather recently been pressed into a category of “identity,” leaving many adolescents feeling confused and tortured with uncertainty, and unsafe, regardless of what they do. We do not know where we belong (and feel shamed). We have to invent new identities for ourselves.

Our shame binds us into groups (where others “like us” can feel protected). Identity is frequently “tribal” in character and it seems that almost any tribe will do. Those who analyze social media note that one of the strongest tendencies is to associate with those with whom we agree. The tribal behaviors in these new settings often rival scenes from The Lord of the Flies. Social media are at least equally Anti-Social media.

All of this is the world we live in, and the world into which Christ was born. There is nothing we see that was not seen then. We have invented nothing new in our shame. Our creativity is largely confined to how we hide from our own shame and how we harness the shame of others to control and manage them.

But my thoughts say to me that we can only find Christ within our shame (both the toxic and the good). We find Him within the toxic because Christ has descended into hell and purposed to meet us there. That purposeful meeting is for our healing, our liberation and re-creation whenever we dare to go there. But He is also within the good shame as we behold His wonder and His glory and accept our own emptiness in their presence. And in that moment and place, what is empty is filled – what is naked is clothed upon. The soul becomes a mirror for His glory.

 

 

The Icon of Unfallen Suffering

The so-called “problem of evil” garners enduring attention in our culture. I recall in my freshman philosophy class the conundrum was used as the “coup de grace” in the logical assault on God’s existence. “Not only does God not exist, He’s not even good.” Poor God. All of this is made even more poignant in our comfortable world of modern prosperity where minor setbacks are seen to unravel the universe. The fathers of the Church were no strangers to suffering. More than a few were the victims of torture and persecution. They lived in a world of high infant mortality where 50 years of age was “old,” and where even minor illness (by today’s standards) could prove fatal. Life was indeed “brutish and short.”

Evil has always been a serious business, and was carefully discussed within the course of the Church’s teaching. It is often poorly understood in modern conversations, as are some of the most important aspects of classical Christian foundations. One of those foundations that remains utterly essential is the Christian affirmation of the goodness of creation. I offer here a short summary of the classical teaching, as well as a suggestion for thinking about those things we call “evil” in the world. Perhaps most striking in my suggestions is what I call “unfallen suffering.”

God created all that exists – out of nothing. Thus, everything that has being is utterly dependent upon God for its initial existence and continued existence. He not only brings into existence, He also sustains. All that God created was/is good. Nothing, simply by virtue of its existence, is evil.

Evil is not a “thing,” an “existence.” Evil is a direction, in fact, a misdirection. Everything created has, as part of its being, its purpose and direction. This is its telos, it’s end-point. Evil is nothing other than the deviation from the telos or end-point of our being.

In looking at this, the Fathers say that evil has no existence. It is not anything. Neither is it “nothing.” “Being” is not a category that applies to evil. Evil is only a direction, a movement. It is the movement of good things in the wrong direction.

Bearing this in mind, it is possible to look at anything within our world, and consider its proper direction and the goodness of its existence. This is sometimes a painful exercise, given the wounds we bear from our own suffering and that of others.

For example, there is nothing “evil” about a bacterium. Indeed, there are more bacteria in the human gut than there are cells in the human body. Digestion and any number of other processes necessary to human existence would be impossible without the continued, healthy existence of certain bacteria in our digestive tract. We have a symbiotic relationship with such bacteria. Their “goodness” is easy to contemplate.

On the other hand, there are bacteria that are deadly for us. Bacterial pneumonia is a killer. But the life and nature of bacterial pneumonia is no different from that of the beneficial bacteria in our gut. All that differs is the distorted direction or movement in pneumonia. The bacteria in that disease do the same things the bacteria do in your gut, but they do it in the wrong way, at the wrong time, in the wrong direction. And they kill you.

There is nothing inherently wrong with human freedom. It is a gift from God. And yet, we use that freedom in actions of violence and murder and any number of evil things. The freedom is not evil (though many would restrict freedom in order to have less violence). What is evil is not the freedom, but the direction in which it moves.

I will reach for something even greater.  I suggest that we may think of such a thing as “unfallen suffering.” Because the suffering we endure in this world is often the result of evil actions and distorted directions, it is possible to simply conclude that suffering is inherently evil. Understood in a certain manner, this is true. If, by “suffering,” we mean only to describe a movement that is a deviation from the proper telos of a thing, then it is synonymous with that movement we call “evil.” However, suffering seems to have a meaning other than this. St. Paul, for example, prays:

…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phi 3:10-11)

St. Paul is not asking to experience evil, even though he specifically asks for the communion of Christ’s suffering.

The suffering and death of Christ is something that we may call a “two-sided” icon. On the one hand, seen from the perspective of the Roman soldiers and the leaders who called for His torture and execution, His death appears to be the very image of evil, the wicked torture and murder of the innocent. But this icon always was a misreading of His suffering and death. That fact reveals something about the true nature of suffering, and the reality that I am describing as “unfallen suffering.”

However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1Co 2:6-8)

The “rulers of this age” (the demonic powers) see only the wrong side of the icon. They perceive Christ’s suffering and death as His defeat. They see it as the triumph of evil. But it is the “hidden” wisdom of God. The suffering of Christ is not defeat, nor can it be seen as the work of evil. St. John Chrysostom is careful to say: “On the night in which He was given up, or rather when He gave Himself up to death…” St. Basil joins in the same emphasis:

For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, ever-memorable and life-creating death, 

This is a “life-creating” death, a description that can in no way be attributed to evil. The suffering of Christ is not a misdirection nor a deviation from its telos. And that, of course, is quite puzzling.

The heart of this puzzle, I think, lies within the nature of love itself. Christ says, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). We are told by St. John that “God is love.” We understand within the teaching of the Church that there is indeed a “laying down of life” within the very Godhead. This is the mutual self-emptying of the Persons of the Trinity. We hear bits and pieces of this in various statements of Christ. He speaks of the hiddenness of the Father who can only be known through the Son. The Father delights in Him and has given all things into His hands. Christ Himself does not do His own will but only the will of the Father. The Spirit does not speak of the things concerning Himself, but only of Christ, and so on. One contemporary theologian has said, “The Father only knows Himself as He sees Himself in His Son.” I think this is profoundly true.

Our human experience would judge such self-emptying actions to be a form of suffering. If we can say that the preference of the other over the self is a form of suffering, then we must also say that it is “unfallen” suffering, for it is a reflection of the very love of God. Consider this saying:

Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father. (John 10:17-18)

Christ is not “killed” on the Cross: He lays down His life on the Cross. This is a very different thing.

This image of Christ’s self-offering is also the perfect icon of love, the most sublime example of the very heart of His commandments. We are commanded to take up our Cross as well. We are not commanded to do evil.

Modern thought has largely come to equate evil with pain. The relief of pain seems to be its definition for “doing good.” Of course, in great irony, this understanding has given rise to various reasonings to justify killing: of the unborn, of the sick, etc. Suffering in this model has lost its significance and meaning. Only pleasure and self-fulfillment have value. This is the ultimate outcome of a consumer ethic.

Christ’s teaching is wholly opposed to Mammon as God. It does not teach acquisitiveness, but generosity. It is self-giving in every instance.

There was an ancient heresy called “Theopaschism,” one that said “God suffered on the Cross.” Chalcedonian Orthodoxy would say more precisely, God, according to His human nature, suffered on the Cross. This can be misunderstood in a manner that utterly isolates God from His creation. However, we must say that Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the subject of the Cross, and not a mere observer of His human nature. Much of this conundrum can be better understood if we see that Christ’s death and resurrection are themselves a revelation of God rather than simply an event that happens to God. God is not changed in the death and resurrection of Christ. Rather, He is made known and the mystery of His love is revealed.

This reality is hinted at when we are told that Christ is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Equally, St. John makes it clear in His gospel that the “glory” of God and the crucifixion of Christ are synonymous. The crucifixion is not a mere remedy of sin, but a revelation of the glory of God.

Consider this statement (from The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography, Kindle, 1369)

The contours marked out by the “form of the slave” encompass fully the person and work of Christ, for his whole life was an ongoing sacrifice, a ceaseless self-offering. “All his life, while he was with us, had been nothing but unceasing suffering. Golgotha is only the concluding act, in which everything came together in a climactic point.”1 Christ’s death on the cross was neither an isolated event nor a tragic derailment of his mission, but rather the revelation of the very form of his being. In this way, the self-emptying described by St. Paul is the realization in time of Christ’s eternal, self-sacrificing love, for he is the “Lamb of God” (John 1: 29, 36), who was “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13: 8), and who “will continue to suffer, until the end of time.” 2 The mystery through all time and space, of God’s presence and participation in the suffering of all living things, makes the sign of the cross an affirmation of all that is, ever was, or shall ever be. In this way, the divine self-emptying becomes a foundational, indeed universal, principle, so that “whoever has understood the mystery of the cross has understood the essential content of all things.” 3

This is the image revealed to us in Christ’s death and resurrection. I have termed it “unfallen suffering,” for it does not destroy nor divert nor damage, but renews, makes whole, indeed, it makes us divine.

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Footnotes for this article

The Despised God

 

In On the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus declares: ‘The Son is the image of the Father, and the Spirit the image of the Son’. Such statements are easily read and passed over as among the more obvious Trinitarian statements. I add to this statement another from St. Irenaeus: “That which is invisible of the Son is the Father, and that which is visible of the Father is the Son.” Of course, St. Irenaeus’ statement represents a very early expression, since he was writing over 120 years before Nicaea. Both statements, however, are essential to understanding the heart of the Christian gospel.

That Christ is the precise image of the Father is put forth in the book of Hebrews (1:3). This is refined in Nicaea’s language of “homoousios” (“same substance”). But while that language speaks of “being” or “substance,” we easily lose sight of what is being put forward. Christ not only reveals the answer to the question, “Who is God?” but also the question, “What is God like?” It is this latter understanding that plays such an important role in St. Paul’s treatment of Christ Crucified.

St. Paul identifies Christ as the “Wisdom of God,” and the “Power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). And in doing so, specifically links this with “Christ Crucified.” The crucifixion of Christ for Paul is more than an event that accomplishes salvation – it is an event that reveals Him in His fullness. The Christ of the Cross is the humble and self-emptying Christ (Phil. 2:5-11). He is the God whose “strength is made perfect in weakness.” And it is this very image that St. Paul points to as the character of his own imitation of Christ.

It is also an image that is properly used for our understanding of God. St. Paul again offers this:

…God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1Co 1:27-29)

It is quite possible (and not uncommon) to read such a passage as God being primarily concerned for His glory. But that very thought belies its own failed assumptions. The “glory” of God is not the glory of wondrous success, shining fame and an incomparable reputation. Instead, we are told that we behold the glory of God “in the face of Jesus Christ.”

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. (2Co 4:6-7)

There are not infrequent attempts to create an antinomy of the theology of the Cross and a theology of glory. It is a false distinction when we understand that the Christ Crucified is the revelation of the glory of God.

It is not just seen in the Cross. There is an unrelenting theme throughout Scripture in which God accomplishes His work through that which is least and broken. Whether it is choosing the second son rather than the first, Joseph as slave and prisoner to be first in Egypt, Moses who stutters when he speaks, young David rather than his brothers, Israel itself as an insignificant nation, Abraham and Sarah who are too old to have children, and so on, the pattern is clear. Mary the Mother of God says it well in her hymn of praise:

He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. (Luk 1:51-53)

It is easy to recognize this as the way in which God deals with His creation, but it is yet something else to recognize that this is so because it is who God is. We are told that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. We do well to understand, however, that this is so because God Himself is humble.

Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Mat 11:29)

We are invited not only to be meek and lowly, but to learn such meekness from the heart of God.

For many, such meekness in Christ is treated as something of a disguise, or a temporary work for the purpose of salvation. They all too quickly turn away from this understanding to assert that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!” But there is nothing to indicate that the definition of glory is somehow being altered for the sake of the Second Coming. As for the imagery of the Revelation of St. John, it should be read through the Cross rather than used as a corrective for the Cross.

The unfailing and living witness of the Orthodox faith is that the friends of God are foolish, weak, base and despised. That is the narrow way. Interestingly, it is a way that is the most open for all to walk. We need not be wise, strong, and well-thought-of. It turns the world upside-down and our lives along with it.

Right now the world is desperate for a few fools.

 

An Audience of None

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In the 1980’s sci-fi comedy, Short Circuit, a charming military robot character, “Number 5,” is awakened into consciousness by a lightning strike. He fears going back to his military keepers where he will be re-programmed. And so, with help from human friends, he begins his touching effort to stay free. His famous line, repeated often, echoes his drive to understand, “Need input!” He is an example of our modern imagination. We understand ourselves to be like Number 5. We need information and on the basis of that information we make choices. It is not uncommon these days for us to use the language of computer systems to describe our own inner workings. Many liken our brains to sophisticated computers.

Research scientist, Robert Epstein, notes:

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

Likening a human being to a computer works for many people. It does so because we have a distorted sense of how human beings live and function. This distortion, strangely, has its roots in theology.

The Reformation rejected many of the ideas of Medieval Christianity and set in place new models that would become the foundation of the modern world. One of those was to redefine how human beings were to be understood. Essentially, their simplified model was to see us as intellect and will. There were various shades of agreement and disagreement about whether intellect or will was the more important, but no one doubted that human beings were to be approached on the ground of information and decision-making. Church architecture in short measure began to reflect this new understanding. Altars were de-emphasized, often replaced by a simple table. The pulpit became a primary focus, sometimes being moved to the center of attention. Though sacraments remained important (at first), they were deeply suppressed in favor of “the word.” The Scriptures were emphasized but in a new manner. They were the treasure-trove of all information. Believers were to be instructed constantly and urged towards right choices. Christianity quickly morphed into a society of religious morality. This arrangement and understanding are so commonplace today that many readers will wonder that it has ever been anything else.

However, liturgy itself was never meant to convey information in such a manner. It has a very different understanding of what it is to be human, what it means to worship, and what it means to liturgize in the Church. Human beings learn in a variety of ways. Young human beings do almost nothing but learn every waking moment of the day. But they primarily learn by doing (kinesthetic memory) and mimicry (play). It is possible to acquire some information in a lecture format but this remains perhaps the least effective human activity when it comes to learning. It has almost nothing to do with liturgy.

Christianity, prior to the Reformation, was largely acquired as a set of practices. Things that seem rather innocuous (or even superstitious) to the intellectualized/choosing practices of modernity are actually the stuff that constituted, formed and shaped the Christian life. The pattern of feasts and fasts, the rituals of prayer, the preparation for and receiving of communion, all of these, far too complex and layered to be described in a short article, formed a web of nurture that linked the whole of culture into a way of life that produced Christian discipleship. Those who argue that it did not do a good enough job, have nothing to which they can point as an improvement.[1] Instruction and choice have not made better Christians – indeed, they have been a primary element in the progressive secularization of Western civilization.

These two cultures, the classical and the modern, often clash in the context of an Orthodox Church. Having been formed in popular Protestant culture, people frequently conceive of themselves as audience. They arrive. They want to be seated (and there are not always pews in an Orthodox Church). They want a direct line of sight to “what’s going on,” and they would like the service to not exceed their attention span. The same culture forces will urge that children be either removed from the service as soon as possible or carefully controlled so as not to disturb or distract. I have seen more than a few such “Westernized” Churches (or simply “modernized”). The same forces that produced the modernist liturgical reforms among Protestants and Catholics offer the same arguments. It is difficult to resist the demands of highly insistent consumers.

But all of this is a false mindset, a misunderstanding of what we are as human beings and the nature of our life with God. Living as a consumer is a covenant with death. God is not information to be judged and purchased. The complaint about “cafeteria Catholics” raised a few years back by one of the Popes, is simply an accurate description of Church members who have been nurtured in the modern mindset. They “shop” for their religious beliefs, because they were taught to. It has become their mode of spirituality.

Worship, at its heart, is communion with God, a participation in the life of God through offering, thanksgiving, and grateful reception. The Elder Zacharias describes this as “exchange.” It is utterly natural to human existence, and is as available to a child as it is to an adult. It is, at its root, a mode of existence. The Divine Liturgy at its heart, is an exercise in this mode of being. It is not a performance to be watched, but an action in which to be present.

It is worth noting that in the Orthodox Church children receive communion from the very day of their Baptism – thus, their full participation in the life of the Church is taken for granted. This is expressed in different ways depending on the culture, but it is not unusual to see a child, sitting on the floor, quietly playing with a toy during the service. It is a childlike manner of “being present.”

We are not an audience in the Liturgy. We are not gathering information in order to make a decision. We are in the Liturgy to live, breathe, and give thanks, in the presence of God. There is often a quiet movement within an Orthodox congregation. Candles are lit and tended. Icons are venerated. Members cross themselves at certain words, but are just as likely to be seen doing so for some reason known only to them and God. It is a place of prayer, and not just the prayers sung by the priest and choir.

The struggle for a Christian in the modern world is to renounce the life of the audience. Within the audience we experience a deep estrangement from God. We are always “watching” from somewhere else, always engaging the false self with its criteria of judging, weighing, deciding. The world becomes a beauty contest but never a wedding. Modernity creates false distinctions. We are anxious that if we are not “part of the show,” then we are somehow being excluded. “Where are the women?” a visitor asked, commenting on the group within the altar. Ironically, they were spread throughout the Church, participants in the marriage of heaven and earth that is the Divine Liturgy. “Watching” one of their gender “perform” would make none of them more present, only somehow satisfied in the judgment of the audience that some abstract sense of inclusion had been satisfied.

The false consciousness of the modern world can never be happy nor satisfied, for the heart longs for participation and communion, not for the perfect performance. The voice of the choir swells early in the service, not with the sound of “watch this!” but with the voice of the Church, “Come let us worship and fall down before Christ!”

_____________________

[1] Worth noting is this quote from Eamon Duffy’s article, “The End of Christendom“: … medieval Christianity had been fundamentally concerned with the creation and maintenance of peace in a violent world. “Christianity” in medieval Europe denoted neither an ideology nor an institution, but a community of believers whose religious ideal—constantly aspired to if seldom attained—was peace and mutual love. The sacraments and sacramentals of the medieval Church were not half-pagan magic, but instruments of the “social miracle,” rituals designed to defuse hostility and create extended networks of fraternity, spiritual “kith and kin,” by reconciling enemies and consolidating the community in charity.

 

Psychology as the New Sacrament

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The creation of the “two-storey universe” was an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation. I have recently been enjoying Brad Gregory‘s The Unintended Reformation, in which he traces the various historical currents and ideas that gave rise to the modern secular notion of the world. It is a magisterial treatment, and I recommend it to serious students of history, as well as anyone wanting to better understand our modern culture. I have written many times about the notion of a two-storey universe, one in which the so-called “real world” is neutral territory, inherently devoid of religious content. It has as well a “second-storey” in which spiritual things are relegated to “upstairs” and somehow cordoned off from daily existence.

Gregory traces this through philosophy, theology, politics, a whole host of concerns, and gives a spot-on account of the multiple narratives, world-views and explanations that run through the modern mind. Very similar to Alasdair MacIntyre’s analysis of modernity, he notes that our culture is a mass of contradictions, the aftermath of the assault on the much more homogenous world-view of the late Middle Ages. One particular victim of this unintended revolution has been the sacramental world-view that was the dominant mind of Catholicism at the time (and still is officially), just as it is today within Orthodox theology.

What is lost with the sacramental world-view isn’t simply the belief that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, but the belief that such a thing is either possible or desirable. For many contemporary Christians, the absence of Christ’s body and blood in their lives in any manner they consider “real,” is simply unnoticed. There is, however, a deep absence that is worth pondering.

The sacramental world is utterly permeated with meaning and spiritual communion. It is not isolated to the Eucharist. Indeed, the Eucharist is something of a pattern for all of life. Everything within daily life carries the possibility of the Divine. Time moves through a calendar in which the days of the week and the whole of the year are a collection of occasions in which people encounter the reality of Christ’s saving work. None of this disappeared entirely with the advent of modernity. Orthodox and Catholic Christians still attend a Church in which all of this is true, but they increasingly do so in a culture where it is not. One result of this is the consumerizing of the sacramental life. We get the sacramental stuff we like, attend some of the feasts, but mostly leave the calendar on the wall. We worship in a sacramental world but often live elsewhere.

With the disappearing of the sacramental world, the presence of God has not been utterly rejected. Such a rejection, I suspect, would have been an absence too difficult for believers to bear. But, as sacramental reality receded, substitutes were found. The non-sacramental world of the post-Reformation is largely peopled with a distinct collection of individuals, largely conceived as centers of consciousness. Sacramental reality gives way to a psychologized notion of reality. We share ideas, thoughts and feelings, but do not consider ourselves to have sacramental communion with other people or other things. God becomes a Personality among personalities. In a world whose governing philosophy is Nominalism, little else is possible.

This is the basis for the modern notion of a “personal relationship with God.” The phrase is utterly dominant in large parts of modern Christianity. For many, it is considered the absolute minimum requirement for anyone claiming to be a Christian. And yet, the phrase does not appear until sometime in the 20th century. It is not simply a new phrase; it describes a new idea.

One dominant strain of modernity pictures the world as a network of “relationships,” that is, a web of affiliations, formal and informal, that comprise the collection of people whom we value and who value us. God has simply been added to this network.

In classical terms, however, the “personhood” of God bears little resemblance to the psychological construct referenced in modern usage. This fact brings into question the modern experience of “personal relationship,” and suggests that it is fraught with psychological projection and wish-fulfillment. The late 18th century, as well as the whole of the 19th century, were times in which extreme forms of religious experience became quite common. The various “Great Awakening” movements were marked by crowds swooning and falling down as well as other emotional manifestations. The Holiness and Pentecostal movements had their beginnings in these emotion-laden revivals, often multiplying experiences into new extremes. Today, various irruptions of Pentecostal fervor are greeted as yet one more “new move of the Holy Spirit.”

Doubtless, extreme emotional expressions have been present in Christianity throughout its history. However, only in the modern period have these expressions (and their milder form referenced as a “personal relationship”) replaced sacramental reality as the theological test of God’s truth. Baptism is thus despised by many, unless it follows an emotional experience now dubbed “being born again,” something that classically always named Baptism itself.

In contemporary practice, however, a newly-imagined world of psychological experiences has pushed aside everything else as it constitutes a new reality. It is not surprising that the “experience” of one’s gender is now seen as more important than the actual biology of one’s gender. Marriage is seen as a contractual affirmation of a psychological relationship, and not the actual union of a man and a woman.

Psychology has, in a sense, become a new form of sacramentality, much more preferable to modern tastes in that it is infinitely malleable. Psychological experience can be anything I want it to be – a consumer’s utopia!

By the same token, the sacramental world-view seems less “real” to modern sensibilities. The bread and wine continue to look like bread and wine, and we are not even asked to “experience” them as something else. We ask, “Did you get anything out of that service?” The sacramental answer would be quite clear. The psychologized answer invites various efforts to create feelings and experiences. It is an invitation to delusion as seen from the classical sacramental world.

A transition from the popular world of psychologized relationships to the sacramental world of classical Christianity is difficult. Our culture is dominated by a psychologized notion of reality. What it declares to be “real” is easily seen as real by those who have not begun to question their world. However, it is a very weak basis for spiritual stability (even as it is for a marriage).

Teaching a sacramental understanding to those in contemporary culture is difficult. While classical Christianity acknowledges the variety of psychological experience, it does not give it much attention, or spiritual significance. The sacramental worldview is rooted primarily in doctrine and teaching, and confirmed by experience, though an experience that is rightly understood as noetic rather than psychological. The great strength of a sacramental understanding is its grounding in reality – not as I think it – but as it is. The psychological approach to God seeks to be moved; the sacramental seeks to be still.

In Christ, God became what we are, but without sin. Much of what we imagine in our psychologized world is little more than the dizzying swirl of the passions caught in a cloud of imagination. Who Christ is, as the incarnate God/Man, is not known by assuming Him as a Personality among personalities. What it means to be Person is something we ourselves have yet to become. The way of life described in the older, classical form of Christianity, is the steady path towards that self-emptying personhood.

The Cross of Christ utterly altered reality, regardless of how we might feel about it. The world is sacrament and symbol, sign and signification. The presence of God is as palpable and real (and yet more real) than the ground on which we walk. The one-storey universe abides among us.

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.

Secularized Sin

EYXHI have had numerous responses across social media about yesterday’s article on sin. It’s title, “Sin Is Not a Legal Problem,” drew some strong reactions. A particular concern is worth thinking about carefully. There is, as many have pointed out, plenty of juridical language in both the Scriptures and in the liturgical tradition of the Church. Quite specifically, someone noted that 1John 3:4 has this: “Sin is lawlessness.” One translation that I was confronted with had it: “Sin is illegality.” What can be said of this? Have I made a point that denies both the Scriptures and the Tradition?

There is no argument about the use of juridical language. However, such language in our modern usage tends to be read in a highly modern manner. It takes us into the realm of our secularized world, where ideas and psychology are the only realities between people. The language of Scripture and Tradition has a world-view in which law, legality, justice, and the like, have a concrete content, and are not simply relational abstractions. And this changes everything.

When the Fathers used the word “symbol,” they understood that something was actually, really and truly made present. A symbol makes present that which it represents. This is fundamental in the doctrine of the Holy Icons. In our modern world, a symbol represents something that is not there, it is a sign of absence. Indeed, because our modern world-view is essentially one of nominalism, we believe that the ancient notion of symbol is simply impossible. It feels like superstition to the modern consciousness.

However, as moderns, we have a very strong sense of psychological realities. In the same manner, we have a very strong sense of legal and social obligations. These seem to be abstractions to us, a network of responsibilities with requirements and consequences. But we do not think of these obligations as having an actual substance. They are how we think and feel, or how we should think and feel. But none of this disturbs our fundamental world-view that we are utterly distinct individuals in a material world in which only abstract associations connect us.

Modern marriage is a good example. Contemporary culture believes that the relationship of marriage is essentially a psychological agreement, the result of a choice and a willingness to cooperate. However, the language of the Church is that of union. We say that the “two become one flesh.” For the modern consciousness, such language can only be understood as a metaphor, a beautiful way of expressing a psychological or legal “relationship.” For the Church, such language is quite real and concrete. They truly become one flesh. This difference between the ancient Church and contemporary consciousness explains the present development of same-sex “unions.” Contemporary Christianity very weakly responded to the demands for same-sex marriage with legal imagery: “it is against God’s law.” And this only meant, “God does not like this.” Nothing stronger could be said. The argument based on marriage as a union has no standing in a culture whose worldview is grounded in nominalism.

And so we come to the use of legal and forensic imagery in theology and doctrine. The Biblical and Traditional use of this language has everything in common with the Church’s understanding of marriage. The commandments are not an abstraction, a statement of preferred obligations, regulated by reward and punishment. They have substance. Indeed, if we understand them correctly, they are nothing less than the divine energies.

Someone shared a wonderful passage from St. Justin Popovich on 1John 3:4. It illustrates my point quite well:

Sin defiles man and his being, which is in the divine image of God and God-given. It is the fundamental impurity, proto-impurity, and the origin of all impurities. Purity is, in reality, purity from sin and its impurities. That is holiness. For only through the help of the holy energies, which are received through the Holy Mysteries and holy virtues, is man able keep himself from sin. For such purity, such holy purity, is the divine law of man’s being. This purity is achieved and maintained by living in goodness, in love, in prayer, in righteousness, in meekness, in fasting, in self-restraint, and in the rest of virtues of the Gospel–simply put, in holiness, conceived of as the synthesis and unity of all the holy virtues and grace-filled energies. In opposition to purity, to holiness as law, to the divine law of man’s being, stands sin as the first and fundamental lawlessness…. In sinning, man breaks all of God’s laws and brings about lawlessness, and through lawlessness comes anarchy, disorder, and chaos. Sin is the transgression of the law, it is transgression of the law of God. The law is from God, while lawlessness is from the devil.

If, in a modern context, we say that sin defiles someone, a person who hears us only hears a psychological reality. It means nothing more than that someone thinks that person is defiled. It is one of the reasons that traditional Christian language is being labeled as “hate speech.” If I say that something is an abomination, all that is heard is that I think it is an abomination. Many have taken this same mode of understanding and imported it into their Christian consciousness. They believe that something defiles someone, because God thinks it defiles someone. The defilement only exists in the mind of God. God is just one more psychological actor in a universe of relationships.

But this brings us to my description of sin as not being a “legal problem.” St. Justin says that “sin defiles a man and his being.” This is not contemporary language. He means exactly what he is saying. It is of a piece with St. Athanasius’ description of sin as death, corruption and non-being. Sin is something, not just a thought in the mind of God. It kills us, and not because God is doing the killing. Sin is death itself. The “lawlessness” of 1John 3:4 is the anarchy, chaos, and disorder of death and corruption. Sin is utterly contrary to the life that is the gift of God.

This is why St. Justin (and the Church) can say that the remedy of sin is holiness, the “synthesis and unity of all the holy virtues and grace-filled energies.” When we partake of the holy mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, they “cleanse us from all sin.” This is not a simple change of our status in the mind of God. His Body and Blood are life. They are the antidote to death, decay, corruption and non-being. They destroy the lawlessness that is the anarchy, chaos and disorder of death and corruption.

In point of fact, I have no problem with juridical language, nor should any of us, so long as it is understood in a manner free from the nominalism of modernity. I have used the word “legal” to describe this hollow notion of psychologized abstractions. That is all the word “legal” means in our modern vocabulary. If we speak with one voice, the same voice of the sacraments, the holy icons, and the dogma of our faith, then our use of juridical language will be rescued from the ash heap of modernity. However, contemporary thought forms are very deeply engrained. We do well to take care with them.

A Festival of Celtic Orthodoxy

brendanwhaleMy parish is having its first festival this Saturday (May 14). It was decided that since it fell on St. Brendan’s Day, we would make the festival a celebration of Celtic Christianity. It has given the parish an opportunity to study and think about the wonderful Orthodox history of the British Isles and to think about Orthodoxy in a context beyond Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. One of the great champions of the Orthodox saints in Britain, Ireland and Western Europe, was the great saint, John of Shanghai and San Francisco (Maximovitch). I offer some thoughts on the Celts. If you’re in the area, join us on Saturday anytime from 11 am-7 pm.

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My “inside minor” when I was doing doctoral studies in theology at Duke, was the history of the Church in the British Isles, particularly during what is now termed “Late Antiquity.” That period was formerly known as the “Dark Ages,” but this was a title invented by moderns in order to create a narrative of history in which all things were wondrously evolving towards modernity. Most of the narrative surrounding the Dark Ages is false. It shows up in movies in strange ways as well. Film makers seem to think that everything should be dirty, poorly lit, and foggy. A few choice scenes in Monty Python films do a wonderful send up of such nonsense.

When you begin reading primary materials from the period, they seem strangely familiar, particularly if you happen to be an Orthodox Christian. The Venerable Bede’s History of the English People is, doubtless, the best place to start. Although his work is not primarily concerned with the Celts, they do play an important part.

What is seen is not some alternative version of Christianity (as many moderns would like to pretend), but a thoroughly Orthodox incarnation of the Church with proper attention to its native culture. This is a hallmark of the Orthodox – we love cultures! Many people today like to point to the Orthodox and our ethnic groups (Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, etc.), and mock such divisions as being an ethnic captivity of the Church. It is nothing of the sort. From the beginning, the early Church carried the gospel into various lands and immediately began the task of translation and enculturation. One and the same faith was planted everywhere, but was everywhere unique and appropriate to its people.

It was only later that Latin became a “Church language” in the West, suppressing other cultures. The mission to the English (Angles) had a decidedly Latin flavor (it was initiated by St. Gregory the Great of Rome). But even this early work had a very Orthodox take. The missionary Bishop, Augustine of Canterbury, wrote letters to St. Gregory asking for guidance. He noticed that there were different customs and practices in place among the Celtic Christians (as well as in the Church in Gaul). St. Gregory’s answer reveals the Orthodox approach:

Augustine’s Second Question. ­ Whereas the faith is one and the same, why are there different customs in different churches? and why is one custom of masses observed in the holy Roman church, and another in the Gailican church?

Pope Gregory answers. ­ You know, my brother, the custom of the Roman church in which you remember you were bred up. But it pleases me, that if you have found anything, either in the Roman, or the Gallican, or any other church, which may be more acceptable to Almighty God, you carefully make choice of the same, and sedulously teach the church of the English, which as yet is new ln the faith, whatsoever you can gather from the several churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Choose, therefore, from every church those things that are pious, religious, and upright, and when you have, as it were, made them up into one body, let the minds of the English be accustomed thereto.

The regularization of all things was a much later development in the West (as well as in the East to a certain degree). But, to this day, there remain many different practices among various Orthodox Churches.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Celtic Christianity was the role of monasticism. The missions to the Celts occurred mostly after the rise of desert monasticism, indeed, they were pretty much coincident. For whatever reason, monastic Christianity and all that accompanies it took deep root among the Celts and the English as well. Some historians seem to exaggerate monastic authority among the Celts and suggest that even bishops were subject to them. Lately that claim has been largely refuted.

But the monastics in the British Isles, like the monastics across the Christian world of Late Antiquity, became a primary force within the whole of Church life. They were missionaries. They were librarians. They were copyists. They were authors. They were hymnographers. They were a hedge against the power of the state. They were protectors of Orthodox teaching.

The notion popularized in the eponymous book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, does not exaggerate the importance and the role played by monastics. Today’s conversations surrounding the “Benedict Option,” are referring to an essential part of this monastic role. Frankly, I do not think anything less than a radical renewal and growth of monasticism within Orthodoxy will meet the crisis of the coming deluge.

It is exciting to me that people want to study and understand this part of Orthodoxy, whether among the Celts, the Brits, the Russians, Greeks or whomever. The suburbanized consumer Church of contemporary Christianity is a vanguard of failure and apostasy. Civilization needs saving yet again.

 

The Pilgrimage of Holy Week

tom-hanks.-who-knewThe apex of the year for Orthodox Christians is easily Holy Week and Pascha. I had the opportunity in 2008 to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. To receive communion in the tomb of Christ, or to stand at Golgotha is no little thing. And yet, the services of Holy Week within one’s own parish are a greater thing. I say this not only from my own experience but on the testimony of the saints as well.

St. Gregory of Nyssa had some very perceptive words for would-be pilgrims:

When the Lord invites the blessed to their inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, He does not include a pilgrimage to Jerusalem among their good deeds; when He announces the Beatitudes, He does not name among them that sort of devotion. But as to that which neither makes us blessed nor sets us in the path to the kingdom, for what reason it should be run after, let him that is wise consider….

Change of place does not effect any drawing nearer unto God, but wherever you may be, God will come to you, if the chambers of your soul be found of such a sort that He can dwell in you and walk in you. But if you keep your inner man full of wicked thoughts, even if you were on Golgotha, even if you were on the Mount of Olives, even if you stood on the memorial-rock of the Resurrection, you will be as far away from receiving Christ into yourself, as one who has not even begun to confess Him. Therefore, my beloved friend, counsel the brethren to be absent from the body to go to our Lord, rather than to be absent from Cappadocia to go to Palestine; and if any one should adduce the command spoken by our Lord to His disciples that they should not leave Jerusalem, let him be made to understand its true meaning.

There is, indeed, a journey made in the services of Holy Week. The events of that week, carefully shared in the fullness of their significance, form the framework for a pilgrimage of the heart. Orthodoxy should never be reduced to mere mental exercise. A liturgical pilgrimage is physical, even sensual. Set in the context of the worshipping Church, it carries us into the mystery that is set before us. Just as the Holy Eucharist is that most perfect presentation of the death and resurrection of Christ, in which we not only remember, but actually partake, so, too, the liturgical drama of Holy Week forms an extended Divine Liturgy. It is, if you will, the whole of our salvation remembered, and mystically made present, over the course of days rather than mere hours.

The friend of St. Gregory of Nyssa, that other Gregory, called “the Theologian,” gave instructions to his congregation for Great and Holy Pascha. His words are as apt some 1600 years later as they were the night they were spoken:

If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow. If you are crucified with Him as a robber, acknowledge God as a penitent robber. If even He was numbered among the transgressors for you and your sin, become law-abiding for His sake. Worship Him Who was hanged for you, even if you yourself are hanging; make some gain even from your wickedness; purchase salvation by your death; enter with Jesus into Paradise, so that you may learn from what you have fallen. Contemplate the glories that are there; let the murderer die outside with his blasphemies; and if you be a Joseph of Arimathæa, beg the Body from him that crucified Him, make your own that which cleanses the world. If you be a Nicodemus, the worshipper of God by night, bury Him with spices. If you be a Mary, or another Mary, or a Salome, or a Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be first to see the stone taken away, and perhaps you will see the Angels and Jesus Himself. Say something; hear His Voice. If He says to you, “Touch Me not,” stand afar off; reverence the Word, but do not grieve; for He knows those to whom He appears first. Keep the feast of the Resurrection; come to the aid of Eve who was first to fall, of Her who first embraced the Christ, and made Him known to the disciples. Be a Peter or a John; hasten to the Sepulchre, running together, running against one another, vying in the noble race. And even if you be beaten in speed, win the victory of zeal; not looking into the tomb, but going in. And if, like a Thomas, you were left out when the disciples were assembled to whom Christ shows Himself, when you do see Him do not be faithless; and if you do not believe, then believe those who tell you; and if you cannot believe them either, then have confidence in the print of the nails. If He descend into Hell, descend with Him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also…. And if He ascend up into Heaven, ascend with Him. Be one of those angels who escort Him, or one of those who receive Him. Bid the gates be lifted up, or be made higher, that they may receive Him, exalted after His Passion….

It was just this sort of understanding that yielded the depths of theology within the soul of St. Gregory.

Mohammed commanded his followers to journey to Mecca. The notion, like so much that he taught, was a distorted version of the Christianity he observed from afar. Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem was thriving at the very time he was writing. It is obvious, however, that he only saw the outward throngs, perhaps even the business of hosting pilgrims. But he never saw the mystery of what Christ did in Jerusalem nor the reality shared with believers who made that inward pilgrimage wherever they lived.

St. Paul used the imagery of the journey in his own life. He placed himself in Christ in fullest way possible: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” By faith, he became an eyewitness of everything he preached.

This is the same invitation that is given to us in Christ. In Holy Week, it is writ large so that we can read it with care, pausing over each letter and each word. Holy Week dwells among us and always calls to us. But how can we refuse to be there when such care and effort has been made by so many through the centuries to make this inner journey possible?

No one can go there in our place. Christ did not die in order to keep us from dying. He died so that we might die with Him, bearing the Cross He commanded us to take up. But dying with Him, we live and become partakers of the Kingdom.

This year in Jerusalem! It’s in your parish Church, a heart’s reach away.

The Death of Christ and the Life of Man

0915-olsorrowSeveral years ago, someone wrote and asked, “Why did Christ have to die on the Cross?” It is the question that prompted this article. Recently, we have been having a discussion regarding the atonement within the comments section of the blog. I have pointed out that the notion of Christ being punished by the wrath of God for our sakes is not, in fact, found in the Scriptures. Sin is not a breaking of the rules. This article, a reprint, covers some very basic ground about classical Orthodox teaching on the death of Christ, the nature of sin, and the meaning of salvation. I hope it is of help to readers.

Preliminary Thoughts

Part of the information accompanying the question was the experience (of Mary K) with teaching on the atonement that centered largely on the wrath and anger of God. (I paraphrase and summarize) We sinned  (both ourselves and Adam and Eve) – God punished us. God sent Christ whom He punished in our place. Now through faith in Christ we can escape the punishment we deserve. Along with this were a number of questions about the blood of Christ. How does it cleanse us from sin?

Of course such a question could be the occasion for a book. As is, it is the occasion for an answer of readable length (barely). Readers who feel that more should have been said about one thing or another are asked for patience. The heart of things, it seems to me, has to do with the primary images used to understand both what is wrong with humanity and creation (sin) and what it is about Christ that saves us and heals us (His death and resurrection). If there were only one way of speaking about this or thinking about this, then the question would not have been asked.

The truth is that Scripture, including within the work of a single writer, uses many images to describe the reality of what Christ has done. Some of those images are simply useful analogies or metaphors, others seem to have a more “literal” character about them – though nowhere do we find a definitive account that sets all others aside.

I want to also add a preliminary word (for our questioning reader) about the language of Scripture. Though many Christians would agree that the words of Scripture are “God-breathed” (inspired), this does not mean that every statement in Scripture is to be read literally. There are many things that are read figuratively, metaphorically, and otherwise. That is to say, the Scriptures cannot be read without help and a guide. This has always been true. For this reason the Scriptures, when read in a traditional Christian manner, must be read with Christians who themselves have been taught to read them in a traditional manner.

In this matter, you will find great diversity among Christians, for the interpretation of Scripture has been a major point of division between Christians for almost 500 years. Much of what was described in the background to the question that was posed are examples of modern, fundamentalist Christian interpretations (of which there are a variety). What I offer here is the general understanding of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The Problem

What is wrong with humanity, and creation, such that we are in need of anything from God? What is sin?

At its most fundamental level – sin is death. For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The fact that we die is not a punishment sent to us from God but the result of our having broken fellowship (communion) with God. God is Life and the only source of life. Created things (humanity included) do not have life in themselves, it is not something we have as our possession and power. Rather, life is the gift of God. It is not just our life that is the gift of God – but our very existence and the existence of all that is. God is our Creator. The Scriptures say, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Genesis offers us the story of Adam and Eve in which we hear described their disobedience from God. He had warned them: “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Many early commentators on Scripture were careful to note that God did not say, “In the day you eat of it I will kill you,” but “in the day you eat of it you shall die.” Rather we are told: “God did not create death, nor does he delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).

St. Athanasius explains that when humanity chose to break its relationship with God (through disobedience) we cut ourselves off from the source of life. However God did not take life from us (He does not take back the gifts He gives) but we removed ourselves from it. And so we die. We not only die physically, but we have a process of death at work in us. St. Paul speaks of this process as “corruption.” This movement away from life and towards death and destruction reveals itself in the many broken things in our lives. We hurt and kill each other. We hurt and destroy creation. We are weak and easily enslaved to powerful things such as drugs and alcohol. We are dominated by greed, envy, lust, anger, etc. We cannot help ourselves in this matter because we do not have life within ourselves. Only God can give us the true life that alone can make us well.

The Answer

Above all else we should remember that “God is a good God and He loves mankind” (from the Orthodox dismissal). This we hear clearly in Scripture: “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We hear this echoed in the words of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

You [God] brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come.

This good God who loves mankind is not an angry God. He is not a vengeful God. He does not will us harm or punish us for our destruction. Though the Scriptures use these images, the Fathers of the Church have been consistent in understanding that this language is figurative and should not be understood literally. For instance, St. Anthony says:

God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

There are many Christians who would handle Scriptures in a different manner – but I think they do not listen to the fathers of the Church and interpret Scripture according to their own opinions. In this, I think they are in error and should not be listened to.

This good God, the only Lord and giver of Life, had compassion on us when we fell away and became subject to death and corruption. In His compassion He sent His only Son who became one of us – taking our human nature upon Himself. Uniting us to Himself, He lived a life without sin (for He is Life), and taught us by word and deed the goodness and kindness of God and to become like God by loving even our enemies.

His love was so great, that He extended that love beyond the grave. He accepted death on the Cross, suffering the hatred and evil doings of those around Him.

And here, as we approach Christ’s death on the Cross, it is appropriate to ask, “Why death?”

There are many meditations on the death of Christ. Meditations that see Him as the Paschal Lamb sacrificed for us, as the “Serpent lifted in the wilderness,” and others. Here, temptation sets in and Christians seek to explain Christ’s death by comparing it to their own faulty understandings of lesser things. For it is not the shadow of things to come (Old Testament) that interprets the things to come – but rather the reality (New Testament) that interprets the shadow. It is Christ’s death that gives meaning to every type and foreshadowing and image of that death to be found in the Old Testament.

Thus it is more accurate to say that the Paschal Lamb in the time of Moses is like Christ’s sacrifice, rather than to say His sacrifice is like that which came before. As Christ said of Moses and the Prophets, “These are they which testify of me” (John 5:30).

One of the most common and helpful images in Scripture and the fathers of the Church is the image of Christ’s union with humanity. Christ became incarnate, taking to Himself our human nature. He became what we were, yet without sin. This union should be understood in more than a metaphorical manner. For Christ literally and truly became man. His humanity was not a new creation, but he took flesh “of the Virgin Mary.” He became a partaker of our humanity.

In becoming a partaker of our humanity, Christ opened the way for us to become partakers in His divinity. “For as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). St. Paul uses this language as well in his explanation of Baptism:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be raised together in the likeness of His resurrection. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that we should no longer be the slaves of sin (Romans 6:3-6).

This imagery is common in St. Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

If you are risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then you shall also appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

These things only make sense because Christ has united Himself to us, and us to Him. We are united to His death and resurrection in our faith and in our Baptism. We become one flesh with Christ. We truly become a part of the Body of Christ.

And this goes to the heart of the answer to the question posed: why did Christ die? Christ died because we were dead. We were trapped in the lifeless death that is sin (which yields corruption and physical death as well). Christ is God who has come to rescue us from our prison of sin and death. He became what we are that we might have a share in what He is. We were created in the image and likeness of God – but our sin had marred us.

We did not inherit guilt and a legal penalty from Adam and Eve. We inherited a world dominated by death. In such a world we behaved as the slaves of sin and sought to live our lives apart from God Who alone is Life. God alone could rescue us from the place where we had confined ourselves. Christ enters death. Christ enters Hades and makes a way for us to follow Him into true life.

In our present life, this true life is made present within us in many ways. First, it is made present in our knowledge of God. “This is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We know God and have a true relationship and communion with Him. We also have within us the power to overcome sin. This is sometimes manifest as obedience to Christ’s commandments, and, as God pleases, it is sometimes manifest as physical healing in our bodies (and miracles in creation – Romans 8:21).

If the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead dwell in you, He will make alive your mortal bodies (Romans 8:11).

The true life of humanity is a common life. It is common in the modern world to think of ourselves only in terms of discreet individuals. But the Scriptures and teaching of the Church bear witness to a common life in which we all partake. Thus, what happens to one of us effects all of us. This commonality is also an important part of our spiritual life and our salvation. The Church in particular is the place where Christians live their common life.

This common life is also the place where we come to understand the references to “Christ’s blood” (since this was part of the question posed). His blood carries a number of meanings. It is His death, His “life poured out for us.” It is also His life given to us in the sacrament of His Body and Blood. His blood cleanses us – just as Baptism cleanses us – for His death destroys death and makes the whole creation new. There are many links between the image of blood in the Old Testament and Christ’s blood in the New. However, it is easy to become overly detailed about his connection and miss the larger point of Christ’s death – by which He destroyed death and gave us eternal life.

There are many voices across the Christian world. Taken together – they are a madhouse of confusion. Confusion and contradiction is the only result of those who listen first to one teacher and then to another. No one will arrive at the truth by such a route.

Instead, I counsel anyone to take up the life of the Church. Be Baptized (or otherwise received into the Church) and stay put. Listen to a godly pastor who lives the Scriptures and respects the fathers of the Church. Those who have built private empires and practice ministries that are in submission to “no one except God” are frauds and live in delusion. They are scandals waiting to happen.

No Church, including the Orthodox Church, ever exists without scandal. But that scandal can be disciplined. True teaching can be found and life in union with the resurrected Lord can be lived.

A Short Word About Wrath and Anger

These are words, I believe, that are so charged and dangerous, that they must be used seldom and only with caution and careful nuance. Hate and anger and wrath are generally only experienced in a sinful manner by human beings and most people are deeply wounded already by such abuse. Those who preach such terms are often engaging in spiritual abuse and should stop. If someone who teaches or preaches the Christian gospel but cannot do so without reference to these words, then I think they need to stop and pray and see if there is not something fundamentally wrong with their understanding. I’m not trying to edit these things out of Scripture – simply to say that they are abused by most who read them. Imagine you are explaining the gospel to a 4 year old. Will the child misunderstand the concept of God’s wrath? I am rather sure of it. I have not found adults to be that much more emotionally mature. My challenge of these images (on the blog and in my writings) is, I hope, an occasion for other Christians, particularly Orthodox, to think carefully about these very powerful words. If we do that – then I’ll have done a little good.

[Of course, Scripture and the Fathers use the image of anger and wrath, generally with the understanding that such anger or wrath is an expression of an aspect of God’s love and not an effect created in God by our actions. A common example is the double aspect of fire – in which it is both heat and light, purification and illumination. Of course, the words “wrath” and “anger” are seldom used with such subtlety by many who preach or teach them and in so doing may be saying something that the Gospels do not teach.]

It is quite possible to give a very good account of the Christian gospel without the use of “wrath” and “anger.” St. John only uses the word wrath once in His entire Gospel. It is not an integral and necessary part of the theology of the Cross. To say that it is – is to make of an illustration and metaphor a matter of dogma. If you disagree, argue with St. John.

Conclusion

I pray that this answer is of help to the reader who posed the question. I also ask pardon of those readers who have been patient with me for the posting of this answer. It comes at the end of a busy week. May God give us all grace to hear the Holy Gospel.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement

ladder-devils

The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the author of the ancient work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is a classic work describing “steps” within the life of the struggling ascetic. There is an icon associated with this work, picturing monastics climbing the rungs of a ladder to heaven, battling demons who are trying to pull them off. However, ladders are dangerous things to put in the hands of a modern Christian.

Modernity likes ladders. We like the idea of upward mobility, of continuing improvement, of moral progress. We speak of “career ladders” and the “ladder of success.”  It is the myth of personal power. Modernity is a cultural phenomenon created by the theology of the Reformation and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Freed from the constraints of inherited tradition (such as the Catholic Church) and the royal state (hurrah for democracy), modernity is a story told to individuals that they can now become whatever they want. Freedom and personal industry are the twin rails supporting the rungs of progress. As a philosophy, this idea and its associated notions are the bedrock of free-market capitalism.  As theology, it is the foundation for self-help Christianity and the positive, motivational preaching of contemporary religion. “Be all that you can be, and Jesus can help!”

Nurtured in this culture, contemporary Orthodox believers are not immune to its allure, particularly if the images appear in the guise of desert monasticism and Byzantine/Russian-style striving. More than once I have heard the sad confession, “I don’t feel like I’m a very good Orthodox Christian.” Implied in this statement is that Orthodox Christians should, somehow, be better than other Christians. Some foolish people even call us the “marines” of the spiritual life.

Of course, all of this, particularly when applied to writings such as St. John’s Ladder, is pure distortion and delusion. Its most subtle and seductive version is that of moral progress. I wrote a series of articles last year denouncing the concept of moral progress, identifying it as largely a modern notion and not consistent with the mind of the fathers. Here, I reaffirm that without equivocation.

We simply are not saved by getting better. It is a false image and a false goal. Of course, critics will charge that I’m being defeatist and suggesting a path devoid of moral effort. I am doing nothing of the sort. Everyone should, at all times, struggle against sin. But measuring, even watching for improvement can be not only self-defeating but sinful in itself. The Ladder points to a very different path:

“You cannot escape shame except by shame,” St. John says (4.62).

We do not gradually improve and thereby leave our shame behind us. The way down is the way up. The ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent. The path to union with God is only found in making the descent with Him. “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8). St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If He descends into hell, go with Him” (Oration 45).

The path of modernity carries no humility. It breeds pride, and frequently contempt. Failure is its nemesis. We blame ourselves for laziness and sloth, certain that a little more effort will make the difference. Like a child given a bad grade, we plead that we’ll try harder. Confession is seen as the Second Chance, the opportunity to pull up our grades. “Loser!” is the taunt of the modern world (a word spawned in the pit of hell).

But St. John points us towards our shame. He does not describe a path of moral improvement. His path follows the Cross, which is the descent into Hades. My failure, not sought for its own sake (we do not sin in order to gain grace), is always and immediately the gate of Hades and the gate of Paradise. When I acknowledge my failure and refuse to hide from its shame, we can call out for Christ to comfort us. “I did not turn my face from the shame and the spitting” (Is. 50:6). He will meet us in our shame, and takes it upon Himself. My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is at the very heart of our salvation. God became what we are, that we might become what He is. God does not meet us in the middle. He meets us at the bottom and asks us to meet Him there as well.

It is within that place that true humility is born. Judgment ceases. If I accept my shame in union with Christ, how can I judge another? Indeed, it is largely my efforts to avoid my shame that makes me judge my brother. We can only avoid judging if we “see our own transgressions” (as we are taught in the Prayer of St. Ephrem).

Modernity loves excellence. The moral improvement pitches of the motivational preachers love the drive for excellence. Our bosses and the owners demand that we strive for excellence. God is not our boss, nor does He place us in His debt (“freely you have received”). The constant nagging voice demanding improvement and excellence is not the voice of God. It is often nothing more than the neurotic echo of modernity sounding in our brains. It drives us with the threat of shame. However, Christ has trampled down shame by shame and invites us to do the same thing. “You cannot escape shame except by shame.”

Become a Christian who follows Christ. We do not seek to please Him with our excellence. We seek to imitate Him by going where He has gone.

 

 

The Act of Veneration

svsiconNo spiritual activity permeates Orthodoxy as much as veneration. For the non-Orthodox, veneration is often mistaken for worship. We kiss icons; sing hymns to saints; cry out “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” And all of this scandalizes the non-Orthodox who think we have fallen into some backwater of paganized Christianity. It is not unusual to hear Orthodox who more or less apologize for this activity and seek to minimize it. “We are only trying to give honor to the saints, etc.” What is lacking, all too often, is a vigorous explanation for the work of veneration and its central place in the Christian life.

The normal mode of “seeing” in our daily world can be called “objective.” We see things as objects, and nothing more. Indeed, we see most people as objects unless we have reason to do otherwise. Sometimes we see people as objects in order not to see them as otherwise. But this objective viewing is an extremely limited and limiting way of seeing anything. Veneration brings us to a different form of seeing.

It is carefully noted in the accounts of Christ’s resurrection that he is unrecognized at first, and on more than one occasion. Mary Magdalen mistakes Him for the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus talk with Him while they are walking but do not recognize Him until the moment at which He disappears. The disciples who are fishing do not recognize Him until after they have a miraculous catch of fish.

The silliest explanations of these failures to recognize are the ones that try to attribute it to grief. The stories clearly have something else in mind. That something else is particularly revealed in Christ’s encounter with Mary Magdalen. She thinks He is the gardener and wants to know where the body of Jesus has been moved to. But suddenly this “gardener” calls her by name, “Mary.” And she recognizes Him.

What has taken place is the change from an objective seeing to a personal seeing. It is only in the realm of personhood that we experience communion. We do not commune with “mere” objects. The Resurrection, among many things, represents the triumph of the personal over the objective/material. The Resurrected Christ cannot be seen in an objective manner, or, at least, He cannot be seen for who He is in such a manner. It would be more accurate, or helpful, to say that He is discerned, or perceived, rather than merely seen. Both “discerned” and “perceived” imply something more from the observer than simple seeing.

Veneration is far more than the acts of bowing, kissing, crossing oneself, offering incense or lighting candles. Those things become veneration when they are offered towards the person who is made present in an icon. An icon that becomes an object ceases to be a true icon and becomes mere art, or worse, the object of a fetish. The Fathers taught that an “icon makes present that which it represents.” The veneration of an icon is an encounter with a person.

It is worth noting that in the canonical painting of an icon, persons are not portrayed in profile (other than the devil and Judas). We always encounter them face-to-face. The impersonal, objective treatment of another person is an act of shaming and inherently hides our own face from them.

At some point, the Church’s use of iconography became distorted and became the Church’s use of art. Art is interesting and serves the end of beauty (when done well). But this development in the Church (primarily in the West, but then occasionally in the East as well, as certain styles were copied) represents a turning away from the icon as encounter and the objectification of human beings and nature. It is among the many serious steps that created the notion of a secularized world.

Jesus, as an artistic subject, is equally accessible to all. His use in art renders Him as object. Indeed, Jesus is frequently used to “make a statement.” But this is the anti-icon, the betrayal of the personal as made known to us in the Resurrection. Christ becomes historicized, just one object among many to be dissected and discussed.

Of course, Christians are free. We may decorate our lives with art as we choose so long as we don’t confuse art with iconography, nor religious sentiment with spiritual encounter. But our engagement with art can easily overtake our experience of icons. Our culture knows how to “see” art, but icons remain opaque. Only the true act of veneration reveals what is made present in an icon.

I can recall my first experience with an icon. I had bought a print from St. Vladimir’s and mounted it. I would have it in front of me during my prayer time. I would look and think, and look harder. I think I expected to “see” something or for there to be a trail of thoughts inspired by my looking. But it was simply empty. I was a young college-age Anglican at the time and had no idea how to find my way into the world of an icon.

Some decades later, I became Orthodox, having written a Master’s thesis on the theology of icons and come to understand them. The summer following my conversion, I visited St. Vladimir’s Seminary for my first time. I was surprised when I walked into the chapel to see that the icon of the Virgin on the iconostasis was the original of the small print I had begun my journey with. And then I could see her. All of the journey seemed intensely personal, without accident or caprice. She had brought me home!

This is something that veneration begins to reveal to us. We do not think about the saints or imagine them. In their icons and our veneration, we come to know them. We see them face to face and even learn to recognize them and their work and prayers in our daily lives. The world is not accident and caprice. It is deeply intentional and personal, and conspiring towards our salvation.

The “objects” in our lives are nothing of the sort. It is only the dark and callous objectivity of the modern heart that has so disenchanted reality. We imagine ourselves the only sentient beings marooned on a small, blue planet in space. We wonder if there is “life” out there, as if there were anything else anywhere.

The world is icon and sacrament. But it cannot be known until we see it face to face. Listen to these sweet words from St. John of Damascus (7th century):

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.

 

 

Modern Illusions

mirageA “better world” and “making a difference” are deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness. They seem to be obvious goals for the human life. My recent articles questioning this consciousness have touched a deep chord for many, some wondering that if such things are wrong, “why bother?” There are two thoughts I want to offer in this article. The first addresses the illusion of the better world and making a difference, while the second addresses what it is that we can do.

The Illusion

Change is a constant in human history. No doubt, telephones, television, medicines, water purification, computers, and many other technological inventions change the way people go about doing a wide range of activities. However, modernity is not about change – it is a story about change. It is a narrative about the role change plays in the world and our part in it. What is illusory about modernity is that the narrative is false.

Generally speaking, individuals labor over the course of their days with a vague hope, or almost religious faith, that they are “making a difference.” We cannot really know what difference we make, or whether, in the long term, the difference we might make will be beneficial or not. The scope and scale of the world are simply too large for anyone to know such a thing. The so-called “butterfly effect” is true – even the smallest action creates change. A collision of atoms on the other side of the universe changes the whole universe. The scope and scale of the world and the long stretch of history make it impossible for us to know whether the change of which we are a part of beneficial or not.

It interests me that my critique of modernity is often met with the suggestion that I want to abandon technology, or that I’m ignoring its place in our lives. Technology and various innovations are not inherently modern. The only thing modern about such things is the place they hold in the narrative of modernity.

Once upon a time, human beings labored using stone upon stone to grind wheat into usable flour. At some point, that method was replaced with larger grinding stones that worked on the basis of a wheel. Later still, larger constructions were powered by animals. And several centuries before Christ (to the best of our knowledge), the use of water-powered mills was invented, creating a method that remained largely unchanged until the invention of a practical steam engine in the late 1700’s. This is a pattern of invention and innovation, all of which took place outside of modernity. Invention and technology is not a modern activity – it is a human activity. The structures of free-market capitalism have encouraged and rewarded this human activity – but change and technology are not some marvelous gift bestowed on us by modernity.

To understand modernity, you have to first untangle the cords of its narrative and its false claims. “Making a difference” and “building a better world” are typical slogans of our age. However, they belong to the realm of political rhetoric (and not only in recent times). A “better world” has been the rhetoric behind colonial efforts, the Communist revolutions, and any number of genocides. Political debate is invariably about competing versions of a better world with little effect other than the faces that stare out from various parliaments. Versions of the better world are not slogans drawn from Christian tradition.

Is technology actually taking us somewhere “better?”

We are, in fact, all headed in the same direction human life has always gone: death. No technology can change this fact. At most, it can create new scenery as a diversion along the way. In general, the term “better” refers to “less suffering.” By a “better world” we simply mean a world with less suffering. But, like death itself, suffering is a fact of life. We suffer in different ways, some of them begotten by technology itself, but no amount of technology will ever change the landscape of human existence into a journey devoid of suffering. In the modern narrative, what is abolished is a reason to suffer. Suffering is understood as evil. But if it is unavoidable, then the modern project will always fail, and by refusing to rightly understand suffering, it renders suffering itself to be unbearable.

What We Can Do

Only an understanding of the Good can provide a proper measure for “better.” But the various philosophies that undergird modernity reject the notion of the Good. Christians in the modern world have all too readily translated the Christian gospel into the terms of the modern narrative. The Kingdom of God cannot (and must not) be equated with an improved world. Though the relief of suffering is often a very good thing, it is not necessarily an inherently good thing. Christ did not die in order to make a better world – He died in order to raise us from the dead.

That Paschal reality unites us to Christ’s death and resurrection and this becomes the measure and true vehicle of our existence. An alternate way to think about suffering is to ask, “How can I help you bear legitimate suffering?” There is no such thing as a non-suffering human existence. In the end, those who imagine the relief of suffering to be the overriding goal of life, will also accept death as a means to achieve it. Abortion and euthanasia are modern efforts whose use is defended as a relief of suffering. Putting someone to death certainly relieves suffering, after a fashion. A massive nuclear strike could end all suffering – for ever. It is, strangely, a logical conclusion that has so far been overlooked.

Overlooked by those who choose to use the language of modernity to describe the Christian life (“better world”) is the fact that such a description or self-understanding makes the Church just one more partner in the common secular effort to make the world marginally better. Christ founded the Church as His body, not as the Rotary Club. The fact that many members of the Church cannot give a description of a substantial difference between the purpose of Rotary and the Church is a testament to the power of the modern narrative. (Incidentally, Rotary has much more stringent attendance rules).

There is a “spirituality” that naturally flows from the modern drive for improvement and progress. Spiritual growth is cast in terms of improvement, getting better. And though Protestant and Evangelical theology classically champion the work of grace, modernity has high-jacked their movements and replaced them with self-improvement. Grace has been reduced to God agreeing to grade us on a curve.

The Classical Christian life, as described in the New Testament, is grounded in weakness and true grace (the Divine Energies). Our modern instincts urge us to try harder and get better. The New Testament tells us that we are saved in our weakness: the way down is the way up. Modernity has turned Christianity on its head and converted us into a society of the above average.

And this is very much my point. The critique of modernity is not the complaint of a curmudgeonly priest. It is a cry for us to return to the faith as it was once and for all delivered to the saints. The modern mind instinctively rejects the Cross as a way of life while the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11) instinctively rejects modernity.

For while we are commanded to do good, to share, to serve, to love, to forgive, we do these things knowing that all of our efforts do not change the world. The slogans of “making a difference” and “making the world a better place” are illusions, figments of our imagination. They entice us to plot and plan, argue and harangue. They do not nurture the spirit nor point us towards the way of Christ.

Empty yourself.

Unecumenism – The Saving Union

ruinsMy recent articles on the Church drew attention to the topic of union and its importance within the life of the Church – indeed, it is the life of the Church. Orthodox theology, when rightly considered, has a “seamless” quality: everything fits and one thing enlightens another. Perhaps the single most important thread in this seamless quality can be summed up in the term union.

The word for union (ἕνωσις) does not actually occur in the New Testament, though it is common in the Eastern Fathers. It literally means “the process or product of being one.” There are other words related to the concept: communion or participation (κοινωνία), frequently and incorrectly rendered as “fellowship” in English translations. And by far the most frequent expression of this foundational understanding can be found in the phrases “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” “in Him,” etc. These expressions occur 216 times in St. Paul’s letters and another 26 in St. John’s works.

But what is union in Orthodox thought?

It does not mean being blended into God, losing our identity. We do not become “one” in the sense often described in Far Eastern religions. Rather, we become one in the sharing of a common life. It is classically stated by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century): “God became man so that man could become God.” This thought is repeated in a variety of forms by a large number of early Fathers, becoming perhaps the single most succinct statement of Orthodox theology.

To a degree, this expression of union (God with us and us with God) is a description of how we are saved, and even an expression of why we need to be saved. It is an expression as well of the meaning of worship and the whole of the sacramental life. In a word, it is the Orthodox faith.

Sin, at its root, is the lack of union with God. God, who is the Lord and Giver of life, is also the source of human existence and our well-being. In our brokenness, we have fallen from true communion with God, and so we die. “The wages of sin is death.” Instead of moving towards greater and greater communion with God, we move further from God and all things around us. We experience alienation, death, corruption and Hades.

It is for this reason that God became man. He united Himself with us, taking our very own human nature into Himself (the Hypostatic Union). His union is so complete that, “emptying Himself” of Divine privilege, He enters into our death and the very depths of Hades, filling all things with His divine life. He makes possible our saving union with Him.

The sacraments are best understood within this account. In Baptism, we are united with Him. 

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, (Rom 6:4-5)

In Holy Baptism, we become what He became. His death becomes our death, and His life becomes our life. This new birth is the restoration of communion and the way of eternal life.

That same union is found in the Holy Eucharist:

 “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.” (Joh 6:56-57)

This is the whole of our life. It is the foundational reality and understanding of the Christian faith. It should also be the foundation and understanding of the life we call the Church. For the Church is expressed in the same terms of union. It is His Body. It is not an institution doing things in His name, nor an organization with a God-given mission. It is the communion of life in Him and in one another.

Such an understanding of our Christian life provokes problems for us. The boundaries of the communion cup are, in Orthodox understanding, the boundaries of the Church, for the very reasons described above. These boundaries are reflected in St. Paul’s admonition:

Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be liable of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and then let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. (1Co 11:27-30)

This practice (the Cup as the boundary of the Church) was once a universal practice of all Christian groups. As recently as the 1960’s, “closed communion” (so-called) was the normative practice across all denominations with only minor exceptions. And it had been the single practice of Christians since the beginning.

It is not a denial of union – it is the profession of belief in union. If there is no true union, then there is no danger in the Cup. Indeed, the modern practice of “open-communion” is a denial of union and of any possible danger in the Cup. It becomes the anti-communion.

This same understanding of union is also inherent in Christian marriage. A man and a woman “become one flesh.” That union is sacramentally consummated in their sexual union, and seen as fruitful and particularly blessed in the conception of children.

And the marriage union has boundaries. The communion of a man and a woman in marriage is not open to “hospitality” or “sharing.” Their union is guarded by chastity, by faithfulness and by steadfast love. In the practice of “open communion,” no chastity is required (any doctrine may be held by the one who approaches the Cup); no faithfulness is required (people may come and go at will and accept no mutual responsibility or discipline); no steadfast love is expected. Communion becomes ecclesial politeness.

Of course, much of this recent change has been driven by the triumph of individualism within contemporary Christian life. The modern believer sees all statements of Christ and every promise directed to himself as an individual. The Church is, at most, a convenient place for learning, for sharing, and for fellowship. It is little wonder that this same period of time has seen the collapse of Christian marriage and the exploding phenomenon of casual sex. We now have “committed relationships” instead of unions. And the so-called “personal relationship with Christ” largely takes its meaning from this contemporary distortion.

The union of the Church has, of course, become historically problematic. Rampant schisms and ecclesial entrepreneurship have created a landscape of choices and decisions that believers find completely bewildering. This is made all the more problematic by the dominance of “churches” that have no sense or commitment to a “churchly existence.” The sacraments themselves, once the most intense expression of union, are reduced to religious tokens with vague psychologized meanings. It is a path of increasing “dis-union.”

But there is a path towards union. It is not a map of ecumenical diplomacy. It is the map of ecclesial faithfulness. Those who stand outside of Orthodoxy and point to the schisms between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, or the schism with the Roman Catholics, fail to understand what they see. Those schisms are real and they are indeed problems. But in each case, those involved have not renounced the reality of the One Church, nor the sacramental life of the One Cup. The schisms are something to be healed and are treated with great seriousness. But there can only be a true restoration of communion and union in the One Church. It is the very nature of that one life is being preserved and proclaimed, even in the face of schism.

If you will, the language and grammar of the One Church is spoken fluently in those ancient groups. Conversations are therefore possible. If, for example, a path of union were found between the Oriental and Orthodox Christians, it would not involve re-teaching the entire nature of what it means to be a Christian and what the character of that life looks like. Both speak the language of union.

It becomes virtually impossible, however, to have such conversations with those who reject the very notion of a visible Church that is One, or with those who have reduced the sacraments to statements of private devotion.

The path towards union requires the reacquisition of the common language and grammar of the Christian faith as given and spoken by the Apostles and the Fathers. It is, first and foremost, the language of union itself. The reacquisition of “language and grammar” means more than words. It is the grammar of our existence. Modern Christians need to renounce modernity and learn to live a Churched existence. Learn the discipline of the Cup and the life of God-given boundaries. Return to the life of asceticism and the way of the Cross.

God is in charge of history, not us. But we can live faithful to what He has given us and let Him make the path of union clear. We must be committed to the life of union with Christ. His life is our life, and our only life.

If It Makes You Happy

dmitouts
Storefront Orthodoxy in Oak Ridge

In 1998, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church. I had served as an Episcopal clergyman for 18 years prior to that. I left a large parish with a wonderful staff and tremendous programs. I took up the work of starting an Orthodox mission. Of course, such a life-change creates awkward moments for your friends, colleagues, and former parishioners. What do you say to someone who just chucked a career to start a mission in a warehouse? Perhaps the common expression, typically American, was, “I’m glad you’re doing what makes you happy.” It would have also been beyond awkward had I responded by telling the truth: “Actually, it makes me miserable.” And the difference between their thoughts and mine, their actions and mine, is all the difference in the world. It was a difference that was at the heart of my conversion and it separates Orthodoxy from the modern world.

The Scottish philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, dates the collapse of modern moral thought to the rise of choice and the decline of character as the basis of virtue. Without becoming too academic in that analysis, we can simply say that modern people tend to honor choice above everything else, and have almost no understanding of character. And, not strangely, they consistently use their freedom to choose people of bad character to govern them. They look for leaders whose rhetoric most closely resembles their own choices, not understanding that the world is formed within the depths of our being, in the molding and shaping of a virtuous soul. They do not understand that their ill-driven choices may actually be bad for them. Stated boldly, it is possible to say that modern people have become the kind of persons upon whom freedom is wasted.

And thus, the banal responses to my conversion. “Happy” is one of the acceptable choices in our society. “Successful” is another one. “Following your passion” has become the new catch-phrase for “happy.” To say to someone that you willingly and freely chose a path that you thought would be hard, possibly disastrous, and that made you miserable sounds like insanity to the modern mind. Why would anyone do such a thing?

My answer is that you do such a thing if you believe it is the truth and that choosing such a path sets your feet on the road to salvation. You do such a thing if you believe that other paths are the way of destruction and that, no matter how much pleasure they might bring, they are to be abandoned sooner rather than later.

Character is the word that answers the question, “What kind of person are you?” It is a good predictor of the things you might choose, indeed, it is almost the only reliable predictor of human behavior. The word “character” comes from the Greek (surprise) and means the image left behind in wax after the seal has been pressed on it. It is something that is formed and shaped. Virtue is a name given in classical thought to the habits of character that have been well-formed in a great soul. Bad character describes someone whose character has been shaped by passions and the vices.

You can trust a person with bad character – to act in his own self-interest. And if his character is truly bad, then you can trust that what he perceives as “self-interest” is relatively short-term and pleasure-centered. But you should not trust him with your money or your wife, much less your children.

Modern culture, as MacIntyre and others have observed, has abandoned the notion of virtue and replaced it with a false anthropology of freedom and choice. Such an anthropology of freedom and choice is false, because it fails to ask the simple question, “What kind of person is doing the choosing?”

This is the failure of modern democracies. Freedom and democracy alone guarantee nothing. The prior question must be, “What kind of people are doing the voting?” To be a Jew in a room full of Nazis who are free to choose is not good news. America’s founding fathers were closer to classical Christian civilization than we are. A number of them knew that democracy was never any safer than the character of the people it served. If the people become vicious (governed by vice), then the Republic will become a vicious state. However, their experiment in creating a new civilization failed to institutionalize the making of virtue. In time, the laissez faire approach to character has proven itself to be a failure.

The same approach has come to be adopted within modern Christianity. Faith is now seen as a choice to believe, made by free persons. The assumption is that, given sufficient and accurate information, people will choose well and rightly. A primary sacrament of this flawed theology is adult-only baptism. Infants are not able to choose and are therefore disqualified from Baptism. The presumption is that somehow, a person will become an adult and freely choose to follow the right way. No other civilization in history has made such a foolish gamble with their children.

Character and virtue are formed over years through various “practices.” Practices are a set of actions and behaviors and relationships engaged in for a common good. They are by nature not simply ideas to be studied, but things that must be done. The goods of a practice “can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners” (AV191). This is a philosophical way of saying that character and virtue are acquired through apprenticeship. We learn them and acquire them in the same manner we would learn a trade.

Of course, a practice requires some knowledge of the good it wishes to acquire. And this is the role of tradition. Tradition is the living memory of the good that is to be desired. It is the memory of what it means to be a virtuous person.

All of this sounds like something out of a fantasy novel. Who in your life has taken you on as an apprentice in order to teach you virtue? And what kind of “practices” do you engage in within your life?

There are many practices. If you are in a profession, then you acquired it as a practice. But it may be in deep disarray in that its “good” is either not known, ill-defined, or rarely mentioned. Teaching is such a thing. But many teachers and the systems in which they work today no longer understand the nature of the good. What constitutes a well-taught high school graduate? Etc.

Sports and the military are two of the practices within our culture that still work. The military still knows how to train an effective killer (among other things). And sports know a great deal about what kind of character is required to win. Of course, both of the goods envisioned by those practices may not necessarily embody virtue.

The Christian life, as lived in the Church, is a practice or a collection of practices. The Church is, properly, a school of virtue. The practices that its people engage in should be productive of virtue. The Church should ask us not “what do you want to be when you grow up?” but “what kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?” And then set about forming and shaping that person (the character of Christ) within us.

Practices require a narrative, a story that makes sense of their actions. The gospel of Christ is written in the practices of the Church.

“…you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2Co 3:3)

When the gospel becomes an expression of personal desire and happiness, it has been hijacked by a foreign narrative. What do the pleasures of this world have to do with the Cross of Christ? Christ did not die for our self-fulfillment. 

The gospel of Jesus Christ “is to die for.” Speaking to a group of Anglicans not long before my conversion, I was asked questions about the decision I had made and announced. Some were concerned for my “well-being.” The conversation turned around the question of “being happy.” Finally, I said to them, “You should live your life in such a way, that if the gospel of Jesus Christ were not true, then your life would make no sense.” I told them I felt deeply blessed that such an occasion and path had presented itself to me.

What epistle is being written in your heart? What does the world read there?

No One Is Saved Alone


“If anyone falls, he falls alone. But no one is saved alone.” – Alexei Khomiakov

Roughly 25 years ago I quit smoking. I never think about it now – it has become a thing of the distant past. But I can remember a period of about 10 years in which I struggled to quit. I would make up my mind, throw things away, make a clean sweep, and be back puffing away before the day was over. I Foods-That-Help-You-Quit-Smokingfelt completely frustrated with the efforts and disappointed with myself. It was not a secret addiction, everyone who saw me could see the young tobacco addict helplessly killing himself. I made jokes about it (as I usually do about almost everything). But year after year the habit continued and every attempt at quitting failed. On a couple of occasions I managed to stay quit for as much as two weeks. Collapsing after such a herculean effort is deeply shaming.

Something changed when I was approached by a faithful Christian couple after a weekend retreat. They were grateful, they said, for the ministry I had offered that weekend and wanted to do something for me. I was flattered and assured them that they didn’t need to. But they had something serious in mind. They told me that they thought my smoking hurt my ministry. I felt the blood rushing to my face as my embarrassment mounted. I felt a lecture coming on. But none came.

They said to me that they didn’t mean to cause me any embarrassment or concern, but that they wanted to offer a fast for me. One day each week they were going to fast and pray for God to give me the grace to quit. And, they added, they absolutely did not mean to put pressure on me.

I thanked them and told them how many times I had quit and failed and said, “If God can take them away, then so be it!”

And that was the end of it, or so I thought. I heard nothing more from them (they lived in a different city). I puffed away day after day with no particular concern or care for what they were doing. But about six months later, Great Lent rolled around. And, per usual, it seemed right to “give up smoking for Lent.” Most years that meant a miserable Ash Wednesday and a guilty collapse by the end of the day. But that year I quit. One day, two days, three days. It was hard. I was miserable. I was frequently angry. Day after day for the first few weeks my will would collapse. But I didn’t smoke.

As the season went forward it was like watching someone else quitting. I was doing something and had no sense of how I was doing it. That didn’t mean it was easy. I was doing something that had always been impossible and I didn’t know how.

At some point, I remembered the couple. I couldn’t remember their names. They were just two more faces from a retreat who made an audacious promise. I never saw them again. I couldn’t remember whom to write in order to thank them. So I gave thanks to God and continue to do so.

That experience was probably my first initiation into the mystery of salvation. We are not saved alone. God delights in communion. He delights in sharing His life.

Almost every version of grace and salvation I had heard up until that time, seemed quite private and was incorrectly called “personal.” Anything that is truly personal is not at all private. Personal existence means to exist in the image of the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Father does not exist apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit (the name “Father” would have no meaning in such an existence). The same is true of the other Persons within the Trinity. And if this is true of the Divine Persons, how much more must it be true for us?

And if our existence is not apart from others, then how could our salvation be any different? My experience was not without effort. But neither was it the result of my effort. Some couple, whose names I had forgotten, offered up one day a week as a sacrifice and offering for my sake. Strangers quit smoking for me.

I have read descriptions from the lives of Holy Elders in which some monk labored long in fastings and prayers, in vigils and tears, praying for the salvation of the whole human race. In a few extraordinary descriptions, those prayers were offered, not with a generic sense of “everybody,” but with an overwhelming awareness of the whole human race, person by person. It is a mystical participation in the Cross of Christ.

We tell the stories of our lives centered primarily in ourselves. This happened. I read this book. I met this man. I…I…I…I. All the while some stranger prays from the depths of Hades in union with Christ for us and for our salvation. I do not know how I became Orthodox. I thought about it for twenty years. I loved it from a distance and was repelled by it up close. It was just the same when I dealt with God. Theology is wonderful from a distance.

We are not saved alone. Salvation is the will of God for everyone and everything (2 Peter 3:9). And many have united themselves already to the will of God. And like the will of God, they become part of our salvation.

“It is not good for man to be alone.” “Good” is not something that can be had “alone.” Thank God we are saved from it.

No More Debt

debtdrownIt is a situation that has become all too familiar: overwhelming debt that cannot be repaid. It is an image that the Scriptures know full well. But it is a situation that is easily seen from two sides – and only one of them belongs to God. The two sides are simple: the one who owes the debt and the one to whom the debt must be paid. And the Scriptures have a clear bias in this matter – God intervenes on behalf of the debtor.

The Old Testament Law instituted the system of the Sabbath. One day in seven was set aside as belonging to God. This is well-known. But the same Law also declared every seventh year to be a Sabbath year.

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove. (Exo 23:10-11)

Beyond that, there was a cycle of seven Sabbath years (49 years total) which were to be followed by the fiftieth – the Jubilee.

And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession. (Lev 25:8-13)

The Jubilee year was “liberty”: it represented the cancellation of debts. Ideally, the economy of ancient Israel was structured to preclude the accumulation of unpayable debt. The Jubilee represented a Biblical notion of justice – the return of things to their proper state – something that does not include debt.

Debt, particularly an accumulating debt, was considered an oppression. The people of Israel were forbidden to charge interest of one another (usury). Today, our laws describe usury as “unusually high interest.” And though Israel was permitted to charge interest of gentiles, they were specifically enjoined, in the very passage that describes the Sabbath year, from oppressing the “stranger in the land.”

…you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exo 23:9)

My point in this article is not economic – but theological. It has to do with the atonement. It has become popular (as I’ve written many times) to see Christ’s death on the Cross as a punishment – Christ suffers on the Cross in our place in order to satisfy the just demands of the Father. This is frequently described as well in terms of debt. Our sins are seen as creating a debt that must be paid. Indeed, they are seen as an “infinite” debt that could be paid by no human being – other than a perfect human being. Therefore God becomes a human being and pays our debt through His death on the Cross.

But this account badly misunderstands the place of debt in the Scriptures. Debt is a bad thing and an egregious enemy of the people of God. The good God who loves mankind gave extraordinary instructions to protect His people from the bondage of debt. To make of us debtors to God and to make of God the Keeper of Debts is a serious distortion of fundamental Biblical images.

Rather, Christ is the Destroyer of debts – specifically the debt of sin, death, disease and corruption (phthora), and the like. To whom is such a debt owed? Not to God, according to the Fathers. Indeed, the Scriptures and the Fathers are quite vague on the debt actually being owed to anyone. No doubt, the devil would like to say the debt is owed to him, but St. Gregory the Theologian says that such a thought is abhorrent. We experience all of these things as a debt that must be paid. Be we are nowhere told that God holds a debt over us. 

Instead, we hear a cosmic Jubilee proclaimed by Christ in His hometown:

So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the good news to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luk 4:16-21)

The “Year of the Lord” undergirds the whole of Christ’s earthly ministry. The good news to the poor is the cancellation of their soul-crushing debts. The brokenhearted are healed and those held captive by all the false debt of the wicked one gain their liberty. Everywhere Christ goes these things take place – not as gimmicks to prove He is Divine – but because these are the very things that are the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God. Where the Kingdom of God is, there can be no debt. It is the Lord’s Jubilee, His Acceptable Year.

It is rather tragic that some have made God the keeper of debts, the One-Who-Must-Be-Paid. Were our debt to God, it would have been cancelled from the beginning. It is equally tragic that we have magnified debt in our culture, making the owners of debt into heroes: frugal, savvy, wise-investors. Those who are burdened by debt are thought of as lazy and foolish with only themselves to blame – and all of this as we live in a world whose debts are simply astronomical and ever increasing. Every hiccup in the economy is felt most by the poorest debtors – while the owners of debt are declared: “Too big to fail.”

It is worth noting that Christ has much to say on the topic of money, and He only speaks well of generosity and sharing, never of amassing fortunes (most of which represent someone else’s debt). Debt is something to be forgiven, though in the hands of the wicked it is used for power.

A recent article in The Guardian drew attention to this Orthodox view of debt and contrasted it with the Western view of God as the One who must be paid. It aptly applied it to the current relationship between Greece and Germany. It’s a rare thing to find such theology in the popular press.

Food for thought… 

A Lesser Atonement

3676650187_4aae798e18_oIt has long been known that people tend to see what they think they are seeing. This is particularly the case where what we think is familiar and expected. The case of “mistaken identity” flows from our assumptions and expectations. This is no where more true than when we are reading Scripture. If a passage has years of associations, it is almost impossible to see anything else. I have noticed this to particularly be the case when Christians are reading and thinking about the death of Christ.

For a large number of contemporary Christians, the suffering and death of Christ are clearly seen as punishment, and as punishment for our sake. All that He endures, He endures for us and in our place. The suffering Christ is a substitute for my suffering. He takes upon Himself punishment that rightly belonged to me.

When it is asserted (as I often do) that the Scriptures say nothing of the sort, the response can be one of incredulity. “How can you say that? It’s obvious!” However, it is not obvious. Indeed, it is not there. Christ is not our substitute.

Recently, a priest shared a question with me regarding the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53. He had been pressed to explain how such a passage is not about the substitutionary atoning work of Christ:

Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed
for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being 
fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.

All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But
the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him. (Isaiah 53.4-6 NASB)

 Also offered was the passage in Galatians that reads:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on A tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3.13-14)

The heart of the question is about the controlling metaphor, the root story of the atonement. For the verses cited do not spell out a substitutionary atonement. They me be read that way, if the reader assumes that the back-story is the punishment of the substituted Christ. But the back-story, the “controlling metaphor” must be understood before the passages are interpreted.

The controlling metaphor of the substitutionary atonement is that of the justice of God that must be satisfied. Our sin has engendered a debt of injustice that must be paid. Christ is seen as accepting the punishment that was our just desert. The payment having once been made need only be accepted. It’s acceptance is our salvation, our deliverance from a punishment that was due.

If we think about this story, its driving force is the justice of God. It is God who must be satisfied. As a controlling metaphor it is very inadequate (it is also less than 1000 years old in the history of Christian interpretation – a “johnny-come-lately” in Biblical terms). It only addresses the notion of a blood atonement. It says nothing about the nature of the Holy Life, prayer, the sacraments, etc. It is a back-story that requires yet other stories to support the Christian life, and, as such, is inadequate.

One inevitable effect of its inadequacy is the shrinking of the gospel in order to make it fit. Historically, this story was a well-intentioned attempt to make sense of the gospel in the cultural demands of the Western Middle Ages (thank you, Anselm). Today it is used to meet the demands of contemporary culture. But its diminished version of the gospel has produced a diminished version of Christianity. That same Christianity finds its own cultural expression in the secular consumerism of the modern world. The gospel should not be diminished.

The older, more complete account of the atoning work of Christ is grounded in our union/communion with God. God is the Lord and Giver of Life, in Whom we live and move and have our being. When our sin broke communion with Him, death was unleashed and we were bound. In the Incarnation, Christ became what we are, entering into union with our humanity. He “empties Himself,” in the words of St. Paul, and enters into death and Hades. But as God, He could not be held by death. He rose again, thus trampling down death by death, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.

Our salvation, His atonement, is a work of union. He unites Himself to us that we might unite ourselves to Him. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is.

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 NKJ)

By the same token, we are Baptized “into His death,” (Romans 6:3), and raised in His resurrection. The Holy Eucharist is also a fulfillment of our union with Him, a communion (koinonia) in His blood.

Then Jesus said to them, “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. (Joh 6:52-57)

This language of union supports the whole of the Christian gospel. It is the proper foundational imagery of the Christian faith. It also makes better sense of passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, as well as the Pauline Corpus.

Christ does not die “for us,” in the sense of “substitute.” For we still die. Our suffering has not been removed by His suffering, nor was our suffering ever properly understood as a punishment from God. Christ dies “for us,” in that He takes our death (all death) into Himself and makes it His death. He  becomes our dying that our dying might become His life.

The same is true of the “curse.” We in no way avoid the shame of the Cross. Everything Christ says in His teaching to us points us towards union with His Cross. His Cross does not substitute for ours, but changes ours from defeat and the curse of death into victory and triumph of life.

The integrating nature of this imagery easily illustrates why it dominated early Christian thought. The Christian faith is not a divine drama within a legal court. It is life and death and life again lived out in union with Christ. Everything from the doctrine of the Church (the Body of Christ), the imagery of marriage and the Kingdom (our union with God), as well as the whole sacramental order are all spoken for within the divine/human union.

The same language also moves comfortably within the liturgical and ascetical life, as well as the language and thought of the central dogmas of the Trinity and Christology. It is certainly possible to use the language of substitution, and with sufficient nuance, even the language of punishment. But they will yield an insufficient gospel, disconnected from the full scope of the Christian life.  

In my experience, bad theology eventually produces bad results. We are already reaping the fruit of the penal substitutionary model. It constitutes a spiritual famine.