Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

Posted: June 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

I participate in (or sometimes just read) a number of different blogs as well as being active on twitter. It seems to me that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the Christian perspective on reality. I’ve decided to go ahead and record my present thoughts in a series. I doubt I will say anything better than others have already said elsewhere, but I will probably express it a little differently. Or perhaps somebody will read what I write who wouldn’t otherwise read or hear anything that has shaped my understanding of what Christianity teaches.

I don’t intend to include anything that is a novel idea in this series. If anything I write appears to be a new idea to anyone reading, there will thus be two general possibilities. It may be that I have misunderstood or failed to properly express something in my particular synthesis of traditional Christian interpretation. Or it may be that what I write expresses a traditional Christian perspective that some of those raised within modern Christianity have never heard before. Or it could be some combination of both.

I could claim that I am writing to express the “scriptural” perspective, but that would be disingenuous of me. It’s a given that anyone who calls themselves a Christian believes and expresses an interpretation that they believe to be consistent with the Scriptures of Christian faith. So I am writing in order to try to express the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures on matters of ultimate reality. The sources that feed my understanding are many and varied, ranging from ancient Christians like St. Athanasius the Great, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isaac the Syrian to modern voices such as C.S. Lewis, Bishop N.T. Wright, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dallas Willard, and Fr. Stephen Freeman. It’s not that they all say exactly the same thing. They don’t. But on key elements all those voices and many more through the ages are more similar to each other than not. And those elements are often different than those found in many popular modern interpretations of Scripture.

I originally thought I would simply do a series on “Hell,” but as I considered it, I realized I couldn’t do that without writing about “Heaven”. And then I realized I couldn’t possibly speak about Heaven and Hell without discussing “Earth”. The specific format I chose for the series title has a meaning that should become apparent as we progress through the series.

Obviously, it’s not possible for me to cover every facet of this topic. As such, I will have to pick and choose the topics I cover and what I choose to write about each one. If you’re reading this series and have a particular question or issue I don’t address, or a particular text from scripture that troubles you, let me know and I’ll address it to the best of my poor ability.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 7

Posted: June 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

13. The demons either tempt us themselves or arm against us those who have no fear of the Lord. They tempt us themselves when we withdraw from human society, as they, tempted our Lord in the desert. They tempt us through other people when we spend our time in the company of others, as they tempted our Lord through the Pharisees. But whichever line of attack they choose, let us repel them by keeping our gaze fixed on the Lord’s example.

I had never really considered the matter of how we are called to live in exactly this light. Whether we are called to withdraw in our life or go out among others, both are equally valid modes of living. Our Lord lived both ways. Moreover, as he was tempted in both situations, we can also expect to be tempted. But we know he went before us and we are experiencing nothing that he did not experience. I still draw great comfort from that fact.


Holy. What’s in a word?

Posted: June 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

This will be just a short post. It’s primary purpose is to urge anyone reading to go listen to Fr. Thomas Hopko’s podcast, Jesus – The Holy One of God. It’s the most recent one of his Names of Jesus podcast series, all of which are well worth the time it takes to listen to them. Fr. Thomas does a really good job of explaining the way that holy doesn’t describe an ethical or moral system, but rather the way God is wholly (pun intended) separate or apart. He is the uncreated and all else is creature or created.

I’m still really digesting this podcast and will probably listen to it several times, but even on an initial read, I picked up something I had never really heard before. Unlike most languages, including Hebrew and Greek, English has two words that translate the same word. Holy and saint both translate exactly the same word. Obviously there has to be some rhyme and reason surrounding the way interpreters have chosen to use those two English words. I have no particular insight right now into that thought process, but I know it exists and my interest is piqued.

There are a host of other reflections on ‘holy’ in the podcast. That’s just one little tidbit that leaped out at me. I definitely recommend listening to the entire thing at least once.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 6

Posted: June 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 6

10.  If there are some men you hate and some you neither love nor hate, and others you love strongly and others again you love but moderately, recognize from this inequality that you are far from perfect love. For perfect love presupposes that you love all men equally.

Of course, this is exactly how I know that I’m still far from the sort of love Jesus commands. It’s hard for me to even imagine what it would be like to love all men equally. So I try to love as best I can and pray for mercy for all the times I don’t love well or at all.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 5

Posted: June 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 5

9.  Men love one another, commendably or reprehensibly, for the following five reasons; either for the sake of God, as the virtuous man loves everyone and as the man not yet virtuous loves the virtuous; or by nature, as parents love their children and children their parents; or because of self-esteem, as he who is praised loves the man who praises him; or because of avarice, as with one who loves a rich man for what he can get out of him; or because of self-indulgence, as with the man who serves his belly and his genitals. The first of these is commendable, the second is of an intermediate kind, the rest are dominated by passion.

I wanted to include this text, not because I feel I have anything to say that adds or expands on it in any way, but because I think it’s something important to reflect upon. I know I’m not what St. Maximos calls a virtuous man because I know I don’t love everyone. I do have a growing love for those we recognize as saints who, at least in some measure, did achieve those goals. And I love those I directly encounter who love better than I love.

St. Maximos points out that what we often call love is actually dominated by passion. And I think the reason of self-esteem is the one of this sort we most often find among Christian gatherings. I could easily be wrong, of course. I don’t claim any special or unusual insight. But it seems to be more insidious and, given how well I understand my own capacity for self-deception, it seems like the sort of passion-dominate love more likely to take root in that environment.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 4

Posted: June 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 4

8.  He who drives out self-love, the mother of the passions, will with God’s help easily rid himself of the rest, such as anger, irritation, rancor and so on. But he who is dominated by self-love is overpowered by the other passions, even against his will. Self-love is the passion of attachment to the body.

When I consider it, it does seem obvious that anger, irritation, jealousy, greed, and a host of other things are fueled by “self-love.” And it can be very subtle indeed. We can do good things driven by our desire for others to recognize the self we love above all. And we lie to ourselves very easily in such situations. It is often as difficult to truly know ourselves as it is to know another human being.


Saturday Evening Blog Post

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post

For the May edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I chose my post, Fallen. It was an easy decision this month. That was by far the most personally meaningful post I wrote in May.

Enjoy, peruse the other posts on EE’s site, and consider adding a link to one of your own.


What is the source of our oneness?

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Once again, I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is one of the ways I process thoughts, and the thoughts in this post are certainly less than complete. I’ll start with the paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 that lies at the center of my thoughts.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

The above is from the NKJV, which is generally the English translation I prefer. Before I continue with the threads of my thoughts on the above, though, I think I need to discuss the Greek word, koinonia, especially as Christians have traditionally used it (including the tradition of its usage in the Holy Scriptures). The NKJV usually translates koinonia as communion, the best English word for the sort of intimate fellowship or rapport that the text seems to be trying to convey.

Other English translations most often translate koinonia using other words like fellowship (without qualifying it with intimate or another similar adjective), participation, or sharing. I can only speculate on the reason. In some cases, it could be as simple as a belief on the part of the translator that our level of literacy as a people has declined so much that those reading won’t have any understanding of the text unless a simpler word is used. If that’s the case, I would say it is better for a text not to be understood at all than to have its depth and richness stripped from it.

While it might be possible to translate Shakespeare into “simpler” language, you could not do it and preserve the integrity of his writing. Nuance, richness, depth, and poetry — the very things that make Shakespeare’s works great — would all be lost. If I would not treat a great literary work in that manner, why would I do that to a text that, as a Christian, I consider holy and sacred?

It’s also possible that the modern, Western emphasis on individualism has increasingly led translators to shy away from the scriptural language of oneness and union — both with God and with our fellow human beings. If we use weaker language, we get to control the boundaries of that union. We can wade in the shallows and call it swimming.

I also note that much of the modern, English speaking Christian world consists of sects most heavily influenced by Zwingli. They have almost completely conceded to the modern secular perspective. With them the matter of this world is ordinary and while it might represent something sacred or spiritual the idea that the physical might actually participate in the divine is almost verboten. It’s possible that translators approaching the text from that perspective might, consciously or otherwise, wish to weaken the scriptural language of communion. (And to be honest, Calvin was also more on the side of Zwingli than he was on the Cranmer and Luther side of the Protestant Reformation divide. He refused to take things quite as far as Zwingli did, but he’s certainly closer to Zwingli than anyone else.)

It could be any of those reasons, a combination of them, or something else that has not occurred to me at all. I don’t know. But I do know that most of the translations use words that lack the particular oomph of the English word communion. I’ll provide an illustration of that point by providing the NIV translation of the same passage I quoted above.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

It’s not that the translation is wrong, per se. It’s just weaker than the NKJV. It does not convey the same sense of intimate union.

How then are we to understand this intimate union, this communion, this koinonia? I think one image is that of John 15. We are all branches of one vine — the vine of Jesus. It’s a union that allows no independent or separate life — either from Jesus or from each other. We are all part of a single plant in that image. Does a branch participate in the life of the vine? I suppose it does, but is that really the language we would use to describe that relationship? I don’t think so.

Of course, the ultimate image, I think, comes from John 17 when Jesus prays that we be one with each other as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. And he prays we have that degree of communion so that we might then be one with God. In other words, the image of koinonia given to us is the koinonia of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That image is beyond my ability to grasp, but the edges of it tantalize and fascinate me. It’s been pulling me ever deeper into Christian faith for more than fifteen years now. And I have a feeling it goes well beyond the sort of thing we use the word fellowship to describe. I have fellowship to some degree with my guildmates in World of Warcraft. Fellowship describes the relationship in fraternal orders and bowling leagues. It’s the language of voluntary association.

The scriptural image of koinonia runs much deeper and is enormously more intimate. It’s the language of one plant, one body, and the oneness of marriage. It transcends our images of unity, yet is very different from other transcendent paths of oneness. In some forms of Hinduism, for example, the ultimate goal is to lose our personal identity in union with Brahman. In Buddhism, the goal of Nirvana also involves relinquishing personal identity. But the Christian God exists as complete union without any loss of personal identity. God is revealed in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. Everything that can be said about the Father other than the ways he is uniquely Father can be said about the Son and the Spirit as well. And yet in that complete unity, they never lose their own unique personhood. Similarly, as we seek communion with each other and with God, it’s a union that preserves our own unique identity. Christianity is an intimately personal faith, but it is not at all an individual faith. I think many today have confused the two.

When I think of this passage from 1 Corinthians 10 in light of John 6, I find I simply don’t understand why so many Christians today accept the framework of Zwingli’s secular division of reality. Yes the bread and wine is and remains bread and wine. But when it is the cup of blessing and the bread we break, it is also the body and blood of our Lord. How else can we understand the language of communion without distancing God from our world and from ourselves?

And it is ultimately the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that is the only source of our own oneness with each other. There is a seriousness surrounding it. As Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians, some are sick or have even died because they were participating at the table in an unworthy manner.

Thus, those who seek to find ecumenical common ground by reducing the faith to its lowest common denominator and glossing over the differences in the ways we use what are sometimes even the same words will ultimately fail. Any oneness we have lies in the bread and wine, in the body and blood. But when we approach the table, we need to be approaching the same God. I find that’s what most modern Christians don’t want to admit — that they actually describe different Gods. Some are more similar than others, but they are all different. And some are so radically different from each other that there’s no way to reconcile them.

Maybe it takes a true pluralist to look at modern Christian pluralism and call it what it is. To the extent I have any role or function, maybe that’s my role. I don’t understand why other Christians don’t seem to see that truth when it’s so blindingly obvious to me. I honestly don’t get it.

If nothing else, maybe someone reading this post can explain that to me.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 3

Posted: June 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 3

7.  Whatever a man loves he inevitably clings to, and in order not to lose it he rejects everything that keeps him from it. So he who loves God cultivates pure prayer, driving out every passion that keeps him from it.

This text again brings to mind Jesus telling us that where our heart is, there our treasure is also. Do I truly love God? That’s a question that is not as easy to answer as it is to ask. I know I am entranced by this God we see in Jesus called the Christ. I know I desire to love him.

I don’t live in a neatly categorized and partitioned reality. Sometimes it seems to me that there are people who manage life by putting everything in its place. But to me, life is more an experience of where you’ve been leading to where you are with many different paths leading to where you desire to go. The person I am at any moment is a combination and intermingling of all those experiences and forces. People can’t be forced into discrete categories without caricaturing their reality.

I do understand the struggle inherent in the above. If we love God, we will work to cultivate prayer. We will work to know the one we love. But there will be other desires pulling us in different directions. And those other paths sometimes seem easier or more attractive. Jesus’ warnings seem particularly applicable when I consider that truth.

Still, as poor as it is and as badly as I keep it, I need to keep following my prayer rule as best I can. We fall and get back up. We fall and get back up. This is life.


Brick Wall, Trampoline, or Something Else?

Posted: June 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

A small paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 has been bouncing around my head these past weeks. I have several threads of thought so this post might be a little more disjointed than the ones I usually write. Nevertheless, I think I need to take a few moments to capture some of my thoughts and express them. It’s one of the ways I think. I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is another of the ways I process thoughts.

As I write this, it occurs to me that I should put a general caveat somewhere on my blog that anything I write on a given day expresses my reaction and understanding on that particular day. I may or may not have the same understanding or reaction on another day, whether that day comes years, months, weeks, or days later. Heck, I might not have precisely the same reaction later in the same day. As things I have written accumulate on this blog, it’s perfectly possible that something new I write might express a differing or even opposing view from something I’ve written in the past.

That doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the process and story of my life. A friend of mine was once taken by the opposing descriptions of the structure of belief as a brick wall or a trampoline. In the former case people spend a lot of effort shoring up the wall and if the wrong brick falls out, the whole thing collapses. Whereas, the latter has a strong framework, but a lot of freedom within that framework. He saw himself as moving or having moved from the brick wall to the trampoline and found the analogy very fitting.

Me? I would say the trampoline has too much structure, is too rigid, and is too unyielding to describe my process and internal experience. One analogy I’ve used is that of a river. Sometimes it is calmer. Sometimes it’s raging through a flood stage. But it’s always moving, with currents and eddies you may not be able to see until you’re caught in them. In that river, I may have a few fixed constructs or formations — a rock around which the waters part and swirl or a bridge that rises above them. But never anything as fixed or stable as the image of a trampoline.

Another image I use is that of a large pot of homemade soup. It’s bubbling and swirling as you add ingredients. The ingredients cook and intermingle in ways that are not always obvious. You taste and add things as you cook, moving toward a goal that may not be clearly defined but which you will recognize if you achieve it. The soup never stays in any one state nor is it ever exactly the same every time you cook it. Hmmm. The bubbling cauldron of soup is not merely an image for my internal process, but also captures  much about the manner in which I perceive reality.

Well, I’ve rambled about my inner state and have written nothing that I originally intended to write. But I think I’ll just change the title and let this post stand as written. I’ll try to write the post I originally intended to write for Friday.