Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 10

Posted: June 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

30.  For him who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of dispassion there is no difference between his own or another’s, or between Christians and unbelievers, or between slave and free, or even between male and female. But because he has risen above the tyranny of the passions and has fixed his attention on the single nature of man, he looks on all in the same way and shows the same disposition to all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, bond nor free, but Christ who ‘is all, and in all’ (Col. 3:11; cf. Gal. 3:28).

We are all human, sharing in one nature, all created in the image of God. Sadly, so few of us have ever truly been able to love the way we are intended and commanded to love. And sometimes we collectively as Christians in significant ways. We all know the historical examples, so I won’t point them out here. But consider America today. The majority of us claim the name of Christ, but our public discourse is often hate-filled, self-interested, and actively involved in turning other groups into the “other.” Even more sadly, it seems that those Americans who are most “serious” about their faith by typical survey measures are the worst offenders.

And we do that to each other as we treat much of the rest of the world as enemies, as less than human, or as not even worthy of our attention and care. While I at least try not to partake of the venom in our dialogue with each other in this country, I am as guilty as anyone of doing less than I should for those in desperate need around our globe.

Love is hard. We tend to do it poorly.

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 2 – The Caricature

Posted: June 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 2 – The Caricature

I believe it’s important to describe the perspective on reality I intend to deconstruct in this series. While this perspective is expressed and nuanced in many different ways, all modern expressions of this perspective share certain certain features. Fr. Stephen, in his excellent series, uses the metaphor of a two-story house with a basement to describe the universe portrayed by this particular framework. I think it’s one of the better metaphors I’ve encountered. In his metaphor, the first floor is the earth where we live and the second floor is a separate place called “heaven” where God lives. We watch and listen for signs that the second floor really exists and that God inhabits it, but none of that has much to do with our first floor of ordinary life. We live our lives hoping to make it to the second floor and trying to stay out of the basement.

Far too many people today, Christians and non-Christians alike, believe that some variation of the above framework accurately describes what Christianity says about the nature of reality. As a result, sadly, we find that many who call themselves Christian now believe in some form of reincarnation. Others outright reject this gross caricature of Christian faith. I don’t blame them at all. It’s an awful way to understand reality. I’ve believed many things about reality in the past, and I would consider any of them far superior to that view. Even more sadly, many remain and struggle within expressions of this framework, trying to believe that the second floor exists and is inhabited and in fear of torture chambers hidden in the basement. In my own tradition, you find it expressed both in exhortations to “be certain” that you have “really” accepted Christ and by those who commit themselves again and again because it’s virtually impossible to ever “be certain” of anything regarding the second floor.

In truth, it is this perspective that actually enables a secular perspective of reality. Contrary to what some seem to believe, a secular view does not require or imply a rejection of God in at least some form. It is not, strictly speaking, atheistic at all. It simply requires that the religious and “ordinary” spheres be separated. A God who lives on the second floor and who, in practice if not in confession, doesn’t really have a great deal to do with the day to day life of the first floor works just fine from a secular point of view.

Most of us are more secular in our understanding of reality than we recognize. That’s one of the things I hope I manage to address in this series.


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 24

Posted: May 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 24

95. When the sun rises and casts its light on the world, it reveals both itself and the things it illumines. Similarly, when the Sun of righteousness rises in the pure intellect. He reveals both Himself and the inner principles of all that has been and will be brought into existence by Him.

The sun is often used (in Scripture and by the Fathers) as an image for Christ. No, Christians never confused the two. They weren’t sun worshipers. But the sun is a good image. As with the sun, the uncreated light of Jesus reveals himself and illuminates all it falls upon. Darkness is not the equal and opposite of light. Darkness is driven out and destroyed by light. It’s darkness that cannot bear the presence of light, not the other way around. We need to always remember that.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 17

Posted: May 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

61.  ‘But I say to you,’ says the Lord, ‘love your enemies … do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you’ (Matt. 5:44). Why did He command this? To free you from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor, and to make you worthy of the supreme gift of perfect love. And you cannot attain such love if you do not imitate God and love all men equally. For God loves all men equally and wishes them ‘to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2:4).

I’ve come to realize over the years that not all Christians really believe that God loves all men equally and is ‘not willing that any should perish.’ I don’t mean they would necessarily come out and say that God doesn’t love everyone equally (though possibly some of them would). But when, for example, something like two-thirds of evangelical Christians in America believe that torture is sometimes justified, that says as much about the particular God they proclaim as it does about them.

I’m not claiming that I manage to love my enemies or those who hurt me. Most days I’ve done well if I can avoid actively wishing them harm. I’m certainly not free from irritation, anger and rancor. But I’m deeply aware that’s because I’ve not yet attained the love that Jesus showed us. I do try to find a way to pray for those who might have hurt me at least a little each day. I strive not to respond in anger. I strive to love. And I pray for mercy.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 5

Posted: April 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 5

15. If we detect any trace of hatred in our hearts against any man whatsoever for committing any fault, we are utterly estranged from love for God, since love for God absolutely precludes us from hating any man.

16. He who loves Me, says the Lord, will keep My commandments (cf. John 14:15, 23); and ‘this is My commandment, that you love one another’ (John 15:12). Thus he who does not love his neighbor fails to keep the commandment, and so cannot love the Lord.

I wanted to take these two texts together. Christians who acted out of love toward me in ways that did not fit with what I thought about Christianity opened that door in my life which I had thought was closed and sealed. If they acted that way because of Jesus of Nazareth, I needed to know more about him. And the standard of love he lived and demands from those of us who follow him is … daunting. I suppose I can understand why so many people seem to want to discount, limit, or disregard that command.

The above texts come straight from Scripture, of course, and are found in many places. Some are referenced above. But 1 John should give every Christian pause.

He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. (1 John 2:9)

We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:14-15)

But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:17)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?  And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. (1 John 4:20-21)

I know I don’t love others very well. But I don’t pretend that I can love God any better or more fully than I’m able to love my enemy.

I have never heard Christians in the US today (including me) criticized because we have loved too much or too outrageously. Until we can recover something of the love of our Lord, I’m not sure that we have much of anything worth saying at all.

Love is hard. It does not mean that you simply give people what they think they want. They may be ruled by a passion that is destroying them and those around them. As Dallas Willard puts it, love means actively willing the good of the other. No matter what they do or say to you. And that often seems impossible. Much of the time I’m not sure what is truly “good” for me, much less able to discern the good for another. And even when the need is obvious, I often don’t desire that person’s good.

But we either learn to love or whatever else we might be, I don’t see how we can possibly call ourselves Christian. Yes the Lord is merciful and loving, but this isn’t about his judgment or love. This is about the sort of human being we choose to be. Do we choose to love God or not? Not according to our criteria, but according to his? Not according to our fantasy, but in reality? He won’t force us to love him. He never has.

I pray “Lord have mercy” because I’m increasingly aware just how much in need of mercy I stand.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 4

Posted: April 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 4

13. The person who loves God cannot help loving every man as himself, even though he is grieved by the passions of those who are not yet purified. But when they amend their lives, his delight is indescribable and knows no bounds.

Jesus did not modify the Sh’ma Yisrael simply by adding an extra little bit. No, when he altered the Sh’ma to incorporate love of neighbor, he was saying that you cannot love God without loving your fellow human beings. Traditionally, that has been the Christian understanding and we see it expressed again here.

I have a simple question. Are Christians in the United States today known for their outrageous love for other human beings? If we are not (and surveys certainly indicate that we are not so known), then how can we claim to love God?

In the context of patristic writings, a passion is not a strong emotion or love for some activity, the way we use the English word today. Rather a passion exists when we become so conditioned that when something happens or we encounter some trigger, it translates into a mental attitude and often action without a deliberate act of will on our part. That is what it means to be ruled by a passion or to be in bondage to a passion.

I used to be a pretty heavy smoker and that offers a good example. It was not uncommon at one point in my life to find myself smoking a cigarette with no conscious memory of lighting it. Or to turn to an ashtray to flick the ashes only to find I had another lit cigarette sitting in the ashtray. As part of the process of moving from a smoker to a nonsmoker, I began to establish boundaries for my smoking. When I had to get up and go to a specific place in order to smoke, I at least had to consciously invoke my will. I had to become aware of my desired and decide to act on it.

A passion could be many things. Perhaps there are some circumstances or events that, when you encounter them, trigger rage in you. Sometimes you can contain it. Other times it explodes from you in word or deed in ways you would never have intentionally acted. Your rage has become a passion that rules you.

I’ve heard people invoke silly examples as well to illustrate the point. For instance, an animal can be conditioned so that a trigger will cause them to automatically take a specific action. So if you were conditioned so that every time a light on your desk flashed you would eat a peanut without even being aware of your action until, perhaps you were swallowing the peanut, then that would be a passion.

A passion is basically anything that bypasses your will. Our human state in a broken and disordered creation is such that we are naturally ruled by our passions. I’ve discussed in many places what it means for us to be in bondage to death. Being ruled by our passions offers the best insight, I think, into what it means to be in bondage to sin.

Once you understand that, I think it’s easy to see what St. Maximos is saying. If we love our fellow human beings, we will not condemn them when they are ruled by passions. We will grieve for them and try to help them break free even as we strive to protect those who might be harmed. Christ has, after all, broken those chains for us all. In and through him, we can find freedom. And when people do break free from a passion, we’ll throw a party! I’m not sure we throw enough outrageous parties today.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 3

Posted: April 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 3

12. When the intellect is ravished through love by divine knowledge and stands outside the realm of created beings, it becomes aware of God’s infinity. It is then, according to Isaiah, that a sense of amazement makes it conscious of its own lowliness and in all sincerity it repeats the prophet’s words: ‘How abject I am, for I am pierced to the heart; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’ (Isa. 6:5)

The construction of this text is complicated, but I felt it worth selecting and discussing. I have come to understand that a lot of modern Christians hold to a belief that faith or “salvation” (whatever they might mean by that word) begins when a person recognizes their lowliness or wretchedness before God. As a result, they tend to orient the things they say to people about themselves and about God in a way designed to instill guilt and possibly fear of retribution. In other words, their proclamation of the good and victorious king (which is what an euvangelion was) begins by trying to make their target feel bad about themselves and afraid of God.

Read almost any modern “Gospel” tract. Some take a hard line approach while others soft sell it, but that is almost always the entry point. It’s also what people hear almost every time they encounter Christianity in the US today. In the past, I think the majority of our culture was perhaps preconditioned to respond in some sense to that message. And it appears to me that a steadily shrinking minority may still be. But that was not the case in the ancient world and it is increasingly not the case in the modern world. Moreover, I think that even in the contexts in which it has worked or even still “works” this approach produces a distorted understanding of God.

It is, rather, only as we are ravished by God’s love, as we turn to him and begin to know him, that we begin to see ourselves as we truly are. This is the normal order in the progression of Christian faith. I know it has been so far for me.


Original Sin 12 – God & the Nations

Posted: March 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 12 – God & the Nations

So God doesn’t eternally condemn or separate from his people, but he called a specific people because he does condemn the nations, right? After all, they don’t worship him, but other gods instead. They are mired in practices God condemns and it seems like God completely rejected them when he called his own people. And whether we call the people of God ‘Israel’ or we call his people the ‘Church’, they are still his people. He loves them and condemns the nations, right?

That is actually a valid question. And even if it’s not expressed exactly in those terms, how often do you hear things in Christian churches today that fall somewhere along those lines? I think you’ll find that the sentiment is broader than you might have imagined. Does it help if we call the nations the ‘world’?

In the Old Testament, I find one of the clearest answers to that question in Jonah. God loved the nations, even then, so much that he sent a prophet to them. That was a highly unusual act. After all, as far as everyone was concerned, he wasn’t the God of the Ninevites. They had their own gods. Moreover, they weren’t even a friendly nation. They were enemies of the people of God.

We usually reduce the story of Jonah to one about trying to avoid doing what God wants us to do. And while it’s true that we should not fail to do what God would have us do (even though we really don’t like much of what the NT has to say on that topic), that’s not really the point of Jonah. The focus is less on Jonah trying to avoid acting as God’s prophet and more on why he was trying to avoid that call. Jonah is running because he hates the Ninevites and wants them to be destroyed. And, as he says again and again, he knows that God is “compassionate and merciful, longsuffering and abundant in mercy, and willing to change your heart concerning evils.”

Jonah knew God better than many Christians seem to know God. He knew God had no problem with forgiveness. And he was thoroughly ticked at God for that precise reason.

The story in the Old Testament is never about inherited guilt. It’s about what people (or collectively nations) choose to do or not do. And God is first and foremost a God of patience, compassion, and mercy. That makes sense, of course, if Jesus really is God because that is one of the things that marks the Gospels so distinctively.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

Posted: February 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

The tenth and final chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Envoi, stresses that all Christians engaged in this discussion are, or should be allies, and not enemies. While some embrace modern Christian divisions and pluralism (unfortunately including my own SBC denomination as illustrated in a recent issue of the SBTC Texan), most Christians recognize the wrongness of the place in which we find ourselves. We know what the Holy Scriptures say about divisions, about love, and about communion, and we recognize that we’ve fallen so far that it’s hard to even tell how to begin to heal all that we have done. Howard suggests three things that must be accomplished if we are ever to return to something like what we should be as the Church.

First, Howard suggests we must return to the episcopate. “Pastors need pastors.” Having largely been a part of loosely association congregational churches, I sense a great deal of truth in that. As you study the history of the Church, you cannot help but be struck by the way the bishops held us together through their communion with each other. Oh, there were bad bishops. And there were times that the people (the laos) had to stand against and reject heretical bishops — even meeting in the fields rather than in the church. But those form the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time the bishops were the glue. St. Ignatius of Antioch’s vision of the fullness of the Church (it’s catholicity) centered on the bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people largely held true for many centuries. Until we all begin to return to that vision, catholicity will certainly remain out of reach.

Second, Howard insists the Eucharist must return as the focal point for Christian worship. Again, I think he’s right. That has always been the center of Christian liturgy. Always, that is until recently when some turned the liturgy of the Word into the focal point. That was an error of enormous proportions and impact. It turned our worship into something like the synagogue worship of rabbinic Judaism or the mosques of Islam while simultaneously making it less than either.

And third, Howard suggests that a return to the Christian year would be beneficial. It would put us back on the same ground, telling and living the same story, redeeming time and making it present. And we would all be doing it together.

Howard’s book has been a good, easily read introduction to the deep history and practice of the Christian church. I have a hard time judging how well he speaks to his target audience of evangelicals. Even though I’ve lived among the evangelical tribe for years, I’m still often surprised by them. I suppose I am one since I can’t really say that I’m anything else, but I’m still often bemused.